The Human Rights Commission called for the Government to strengthen its commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and human rights in its COVID-19 response before the Finance and Expenditure Committee today.
The Commission issued this call in an oral submission on the Committee’s Inquiry into the operation of the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act.
Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt, and Disability Rights Commissioner, Paula Tesoriero told the Committee that they strongly commend the Government’s “courageous, prompt and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
However, they expressed disapproval that the Commission was not included in the consultation process to draft the Bill that led to the Act. The Commission received the Bill at 6.00pm on Monday with a deadline to comment by 10.00am the next day. “I deeply regret that we were denied the opportunity to properly discharge our statutory constitutional responsibility that we owe you, Parliament and the public we serve,” said Hunt.
The Commissioners encouraged the Committee to consider ways in which human rights and Te Tiriti could have been, and can be, better integrated into the government COVID-19 response.
“I cannot overstate that human rights are not obstacles to good policy making. Just the reverse. Human rights can help to ensure that the necessary public health measures are reasonable, fair, non-discriminatory, proportionate and retain the public’s trust and confidence,” said Hunt.
In April, the Human Rights Commission published the report Human Rights and Te Tiriti o Waitangi: COVID-19 and Alert Level 4 in Aotearoa New Zealand. The report recommended higher visibility of human rights and Te Tiriti in response to the pandemic.
The Disability Rights Commissioner spoke about the human right impacts at level 4, COVID-19, and how the response to it had distinctive impacts on disabled people, including access to food, transport and critical supports. She noted that during level 4, the response to concerns within the home and community workforce, and those it supports, was slow. “In the absence of adequate PPE, some disabled people and support workers halted support work arrangements to reduce their risk of exposure,” said Tesoriero.
Tesoriero called attention to the lack of consultation with disabled people’s organisations in the drafting of the Act: “It was deeply disappointing that the Act passed without providing disabled people, disabled people’s organisation or the disability rights community with any opportunity to have input into it.”
The Act does not contain any provision that would enable decision-makers to be informed of the likely impact their decisions may have on disabled people, whether by way of consultation or through data collection. The Disability Rights Commissioner recommended that the Committee address this issue in its Inquiry.
“Without data on these impacts, government cannot ensure individualised and holistic support to disabled people affected by COVID-19. Also, without this data, government cannot monitor any disproportionate burden that may fall on disabled people,” said Tesoriero.
The Chief Commissioner concluded, “We urge the government never to shut out the Human Rights Commission from playing the constitutional role placed upon it by Parliament.”
The Human Rights Commission Commission earlier recommended that the purpose clause of the COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill (Section 4 of the current Act) be amended to state that a purpose of the legislation is to ensure that the public health response to COVID-19 is one that is “…consistent with New Zealand’s domestic and international human rights obligations and commitments and consistent with the Crown’s duties under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.” This suggestion was earlier rejected by the government. This type of purposive clause is used in other legislation that involves the balancing and limiting of rights.
Further, in its urgent comments made on the Bill, the Commission recommended that the repeal clause in the Bill be altered to limit it duration to the minimum necessary to achieve the implementation of its public health objectives and that it be subject to regular, periodic review by select committee. The Commission was pleased that, during its urgent passage through Parliament, the repeal clause in the Act was amended in line with that recommendation.