Media release: Disappointment at Select Committee’s refusal to fix the Data and Statistics Bill
The deeply flawed Data and Statistics Bill has passed through the Governance and Administration Select Committee largely unchanged. The Committee has fallen in line with the advice of Stats NZ and ignored the significant concerns raised by, amongst others, the Ombudsman, a former Government Statistician, the NZ Statistical Association, and the NZ Council for Civil Liberties.
The Select Committee is made up of Labour and National MPs with no representation from the Greens, ACT, or Te Pāti Māori.
No ethics oversight
Stats NZ and the Committee have rejected the establishment of an independent ethics committee proposed by the NZ Statistical Association and Len Cook, the former Government Statistician, saying that the Government Statistician will involve others if they think it necessary.
This compares poorly to the establishment of both a National Data Commissioner and National Data Advisory Panel in the equivalent Australian Data Availability and Transparency Act 2022, and is a weaker oversight regime than in NZ’s 1976 Wanganui Computer Centre Act, which mandated a governance committee with not just officials from other departments, but also a member of the NZ Law Society and the NZ Computer Society.
The fact that Stats’ own Data Ethics Advisory Group has not met in more than a year (reported by Newsroom on 6th May 2022) shows how little weight the public and MPs should attach to Stats’ claims of taking data ethics seriously.
Collection and centralisation of administrative data
The reported back Bill continues to push a reliance on collecting as much data as possible from public agencies and other organisations, even when it was not originally collected for statistical purposes. This “administrative data first” approach has negative implications for both the accuracy of statistical data and the willingness of people to accurately provide data about themselves to other government agencies knowing that it might be shared.
Stats themselves, in rejecting a test of only collecting ‘necessary data’ suggested by the Privacy Commissioner, have admitted that they may not know what the data will be used for when requesting it, so its requests may well be for entirely speculative purposes. The attitude seems to be that they want to collect everything which is an improper reason to override the Privacy Act protections of people’s personal data.
Punishing people for failing to find and complete the census
The reported back Bill maintains – and even worsens – the strict liability offence everyone in New Zealand will be subject to in relation to the census. Currently Stats NZ has to provide people with a census form or information about how to fill it out online. The Bill will enable Stats to claim it has informed you of your duty to complete a census return simply by mentioning it on its website (refer to clause 34(4) and 34(5A)). Non-compliance will incur a fine (the amount to be set by subsequent regulation).
The Council notes the Deputy Clerk of the House queried this offence in his submission saying “It is rare to see an absolute liability offence that imposes a positive obligation (i.e. that you must do something) and one that is imposed so broadly on people who have not actively chosen to be involved in a particular activity”. We think that this is an unfair provision counter to the requirements for justice in the NZ Bill of Rights Act.
The Council supports the goal of statistics legislation to enable informed public policy development and service design, along with the allocation of resources and services where they are most needed.
But we also recognise that a major concern since at least the 1970s has been the increase in collection, storage and analysis of data about us by both governments and other organisations. The ‘surveillance society’ interferes with our privacy and our freedoms, changing the balance of power between government and people.
The Data and Statistics Bill is a significant piece of legislation that will have a long lifespan. Data is an area of increasing importance where our understanding of what we can do with it, both good and bad, is still changing rapidly.
“The government has failed to take the opportunity to put our statistics law on a solid foundation, seemingly captured by the desire of Stats NZ to have more collection powers and less oversight,” says NZCCL Chairperson Thomas Beagle. “We’re particularly concerned with the weak oversight and an over-reliance on the judgement of the Government Statistician and the Government’s Chief Data Steward, who are conveniently the same person.”
He continues, “We believe that there is still time to change course and send this Bill back for a substantial rewrite with proper protections baked in.”