The ‘No Surprises Convention’ is set out in the Cabinet Manual and requires departments to inform Ministers promptly of matters of significance within their portfolio responsibilities, particularly where these matters may be controversial or may become the subject of public debate.
I am advised that the convention exists because of Ministerial accountability to Parliament. Ministers are accountable to the Parliament for the conduct of the department they have portfolio responsibility for.
It is essential that Ministers are aware of significant issues within their portfolios so they can answer to the Parliament. However, they must not become involved in operational matters within Departments.
The Chief Executive of MSD discussed this issue with me.
Mr Boyle and I sought advice from the Solicitor-General on the appropriate way to ensure decisions were made independently and the requirement to ensure Ministers were not surprised was met.
My advice to Mr Boyle was that MSD should deal with Mr Peters’ case in line with the agency’s standard policies and procedures, in exactly the same way as would happen for any other New Zealander. I am assured that is what happened.
Briefings were provided to the Minister of Social Development by MSD, and to the Minister of State Services by SSC.
No briefings were given to Ministers until after all decisions were made. That ensured there could not have been inappropriate involvement in operational decisions, while allowing Ministers to be aware of significant matters in their portfolio.
There was an expectation that these matters would be held in confidence by Ministers.
When these briefings were given they contained very limited details.
It is entirely unacceptable for Public Servants to leak information. Leaking official information would undermine the trust New Zealanders have in the Public Service. Leaking is a political act which would compromise the political neutrality of the Public Service.
There will be zero tolerance for any behaviour of this nature in the Public Service and both MSD and Inland Revenue have launched investigations to assess whether a leak took place.