Thursday, 7 December 2017

Be careful what you wish for: Havelock Nth edition

At first I thought the Inquiry into Havelock North Water had missed the mark in its second report. Media reports indicate the report is highly critical of the Ministry of Health. I would have been more critical of the performance of the local DHB but, of course, DHB's are the Ministry of Health. It is specious to pretend otherwise when the majority of their boards are government appointed.

What really caught my attention was RNZ's interview with Dr Stewart Jessamine, currently New Zealand's top public health official. During the interview Dr Jessamine blamed a "distributed" system where responsibilities for drinking water safety are spread between the Ministry itself, DHB's, and territorial authorities (technically water suppliers as there are many suppliers who are not councils). Jessamine could have also included regional councils.

Why do we have a "distributed" system? Because the Ministry of Health asked for it and Minister of Health, Pete Hodgson, saw the change through Parliament in 2007. I would call it more than disingenuous for Dr Jessamine to blame a system that was created by his own division of the Ministry of Health.

Prior to this time responsibility rested solely with the water suppliers. These water suppliers could voluntarily sign up for a grading system overseen by the MoH but it was not compulsory. Prior to 2008, the MoH had issued drinking water standards for many years. What was been good about the standards was that they were primarily performance based. Councils could be deemed to comply if the quality of tested water continuously met certain specific measures. Councils were free to set their own direction as to how they met these standards as long as contaminants stayed within specified limits.

The changes to the Health Act made in 2007 inserted the MoH (via DHB's) into a role of approving the plans by which councils delivered safe water. An examination of Cabinet papers from the time should show a recommendation from the Ministry of Health for it to be granted greater regulatory powers. And these powers did show up in the amended Health Act. Bearing in mind that the MoH has no capability at all in environmental engineering, the chances of the new regulatory system going off the rails increased quite markedly once the responsibilities for drinking water safety got spread out.

Just to be clear: DHB's (foot soldiers for the Ministry of Health) have the absolute power to control whether a council is a registered water supplier or not. Part of that power includes approval of how a council delivers safe drinking water even though neither the MoH nor DHB's have environmental engineering capability. But, if it fails to gain registration and continues to supply water, a council can be liable for fines of up to $10,000 and a further $1,000 per day that the offence continues. Councils have no choice but to do what the DHB (MoH) asks them to do.

In this context the Inquiry is fully justified in criticising the Ministry of Health for not taking the new responsibilities - responsibilities that it had sought for itself - seriously enough.

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