After Ashburton

For Canterbury public servants it was the week from hell.

A year on, what has changed?

Illustration by Jem Yoshioka

Illustration by Jem Yoshioka

Story by Noel O’Hare

On Monday morning, 1 September last year, a man carrying a shotgun entered the Work and Income (W&I) office in Ashburton. He shot dead two W&I workers and badly wounded another. Another staffer, a PSA member, was shot at as she ran out the back door.

The alleged gunman, a homeless beneficiary called Russell John Tully, was arrested soon afterwards and charged with murder and attempted murder. He is currently awaiting trial, likely to be next year.

The murders of public servants in their workplaces sent shockwaves through the public sector, especially in the South Island.

The following Thursday, September 4, would be the fourth anniversary of Christchurch’s first big earthquake.

“It was a really horrible time, absolutely horrible,” says Kathy Higgins, PSA national organiser for the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), of which Work and Income is a part.

“There was a great sense of loss and fear and then anger, after the shootings. Then we had the earthquake anniversary.”

“After the tragedy a lot of people didn’t want their family members working at MSD because they were concerned for their safety. But we’re through that now.”

Swift support

“MSD have been really supportive,” says Kathy. “The Ministry have people working with the W&I staff to support them and they’ve had special victim counselling.”

The first step was to ensure those returning to work at Ashburton W&I felt safe. This required a move to temporary premises. Along with W&I, staff from Child, Youth and Family who had been located in the same office were also moved.

The PSA was also quick to respond, says Kathy. “Organisers and local and national delegates visited Ashburton to lend their support, members were sent regular updates and we called all worksites to do security checks because we realised we needed to do that quite quickly.”

Nationwide, news of the shootings shocked our members – none more so than the 6500 PSA members also working for MSD in other parts of the country. PSA members responded quickly, with more than 800 leaving messages of condolences on the PSA website. These were later compiled into a book and presented to the Ashburton W&I staff. “It was very well received,” says Kathy.

The need for improvement

The day after the shootings, social development minister Paula Bennett and MSD chief executive Brendan Boyle arrived in Ashburton. Bennett ordered an urgent independent review of security for frontline offices.

“MSD set up an external group to review security and the PSA was part of that,” says Kathy. “They needed our support and we were only too happy to give it.”

The independent review made a number of recommendations to improve security across MSD offices, many of which have already been implemented.

W&I offices nationwide now have additional security guards, controlled access, more trespass notices for potentially dangerous clients, conflict and de-escalation training for service delivery staff and enhanced processes to identify and manage high risk behaviour clients.

A mobile duress alarm, a phone app that operates like a panic button, is being developed for staff who are required to work away from Ministry offices. “They’re still testing that,” says Kathy. ”The problem with those things is that we don’t have cell phone coverage in many places, especially in rural areas.” Ministry vehicles will also be fitted with GPS.

Having a strong delegate structure and a history of positive engagement with MSD has made it easier to make sure the views and needs of our members are at the forefront.

The PSA has been a constant presence in these discussions. Kathy says “we had quite a solid health and safety participation agreement about how we worked together and we also trained our worksite health and safety delegates.”

That’s not to say there aren’t any issues. The new security guards around the country are all contractors, paid barely above the minimum wage and with inadequate training. “We’ve been really clear that they should be employed by MSD,” says Kathy. That way the PSA would be able to cover them and work with them to win appropriate terms and conditions.”

Fixing building design

One of the key findings from the independent security review was the importance of building layout. The presence of entrances and exits, the availability of secure areas, the impact of open-plan seating and other factors.

The open-plan layout of Work and Income offices creates safety risks for staff, as well as privacy issues for clients. “You have a small reception desk, not even a counter and the rest is open plan,” says Kathy.

Last month Fairfax reported that a secret security report had warned that Ministry of Social Development staff were vulnerable to public attacks two years before the Ashburton shootings. “The report, commissioned after an attack on an employee in 2012, warned that the ministry’s open-plan offices presented a risk to staff if someone entered with a gun or other weapon.”

No action was apparently taken on that report and now Worksafe NZ is prosecuting the Ministry under section 6 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act, alleging that it failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees at work.

Work is now well underway to design frontline offices that will give staff more protection. Prototype offices being trialled in Wellington and Levin have three distinct zones. Zone 1 is the public area with reception and security guard, where people can go online to access services. Zone 2 is the staff and client interaction areas, or interview area, which can only be accessed via locked doors. Desks in this area are arranged to reduce risk to staff and block access. Zone 3 is the secure staff-only area with emergency exits.

Building design shouldn’t only be looked at following tragedy, however. Particularly when agencies are moving buildings, or redeveloping existing locations, security and safety must be top priority for consideration and planning.

The Government’s current plan to lower the total square footage taken up by public services, combined with the reintroduction of public services into the Christchurch CBD as a result of the rebuild, means that a number of departments are on the move. Our delegates and organisers are working hard to make sure that the voices of PSA members are heard loud and clear in these discussions.

The Canterbury Representative Team (CRT) is one example of this work. The CRT is a group of PSA delegates from across the Canterbury region who meet regularly to share news, raise issues and develop best practice for PSA members in the post-quake environment. A large focus of the group is the building of 4 new buildings in the CBD for public servants, and ensuring that these are fit-for-purpose.

The impact on clients

condolence bookUnfortunately, improvements in security can sometimes have negative impacts on clients.

After the shootings, MSD closed its satellite sites, essentially sub-offices with two staff, that made it easier for people like superannuitants to access services in their local communities. “A lot of those haven’t reopened,” says Kathy. “They were considered to be quite vulnerable. MSD has now made a lot of the grants easier to access by phone. Before you had to go into an office.” However, says Kathy, “not all clients have access to, or the ability to work with, technology. A lot of older people don’t like technology.”

Professor in societal psychology at Waikato University Dr Darrin Hodgetts has said that tragedies such as Ashburton need to be seen in the context of growing inequality in New Zealand, a failing welfare system and a society that doesn’t properly take care of the mentally ill. A common issue has been that accessing benefits without an advocate is not easy for some people. “The W&I staff aren’t to blame – they’re just caught in the middle,” he told NZ Newswire.

Kathy agrees. “I think our case managers in the Ministry do a really good job, the issue is around the legislation. They do go out of their way to explain that to people but some people are at a level where they do need support.”

What comes next?

The Security Response Programme that resulted from the review undertaken after the Ashburton shootings is ongoing.

“Part of the issue is that MSD is now really big. Not only do they administer benefits, they’re also responsible for getting people into work,” says Kathy. “There’s also the Child Youth and Family component and they’ve picked up a lot of Housing NZ work as well. That means MSD staff have to make a lot of difficult decisions that affect people’s lives.”

For public servants doing a tough job on the frontline, health and safety must be paramount. As PSA National Secretary Richard Wagstaff put it, “Everybody has the right to go to work knowing they’ll be home safe at the end of the day.”

One year on, the family, friends and colleagues of the Ashburton W&I staff will still be grieving in their own ways. We owe it to them to make sure that health and safety of all workers remains at the top of our agenda.

NB: The original version of this article said there had been an increase in assaults on Work and Income staff since the Ashburton shootings. This was based on information given to Radio New Zealand by the Ministry of Social Development that was incorrect, but has since been corrected. The relevant paragraph has been removed.