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MP would back transparency over legal bill funding

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
John Key
John Key

By Maggie Tait of NZPA

Wellington, April 7 NZPA - Prime Minister John Key says the use of taxpayer funds to pay National MP Nick Smith's legal bills is fine, but he would be open to such information being made public.

The New Zealand Herald reported today that tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money went on MPs' legal cases. The newspaper said when MPs were sued, defence costs were paid using taxpayer money and it did not have to be made public because the funding did not come under the Official Information Act.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard says that should change and there is no need for the secrecy.

Dr Smith is fighting a defamation case against him by timber preservative company Osmose. He said his legal costs totalled about $270,000, but would not confirm how much was taxpayer funded.

The newspaper said it had leaked papers showing National MP Gerry Brownlee had asked for up to $48,000 for a civil assault case taken against him by environment activist Neil Abel in 1999.

Yesterday he said the request was refused and acknowledged his case was "not appropriate" for using taxpayers' money.

Until a 2001 rule change, MPs paid their legal bills but now can be reimbursed in some cases.

Mr Key today said the only case he knew of involved another of his ministers, David Carter, but he did not know details of the case.

The use of taxpayer funds in Dr Smith's case was "totally legitimate," he said.

"I think it meets the criteria set down by the Speaker and that is that the expense was incurred on the basis of their work as a member of Parliament."

Dr Smith was acting in what he thought was in the interest of New Zealanders and had met over half the costs himself. Mr Key said MPs had to be able to advocate for the people they represented and because of their profile, cases were more likely to be taken against them.

The Prime Minister said he did not know about Mr Brownlee's case and it happened before he entered Parliament.

"It's important to understand an arbitrary decision is made by the Speaker of the House, about whether expenses will or will not be met."

Former Labour Speaker Margaret Wilson had approved Dr Smith's case.

Mr Key said it was well known the rules allowed for the spending to be covered.

"It's a question about whether ultimately those disclosures are bought into the public domain by greater levels of transparency, but that's never been the rules in the past. I wouldn't argue its a case of secrecy... I don't think it would be of concern to me if it was opened up to a greater degree. There's nothing to hide here."

He felt taxpayers were entitled to know but it was Speaker Lockwood Smith's decision in the end.

"Ultimately it's not my call."

The funding came out of the leaders' budget through Parliamentary Service funding, which was not covered by the Official Information Act. However for ministers, the spending would be made public because Ministerial Services funds came under the Act.

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