House Speaker Trevor Mallard has apologised "unreservedly" for falsely accusing a former parliamentary staffer of rape, which led to a $333,000 taxpayer-funded legal settlement.
Mallard appeared before the Governance and Administration Select Committee in Wellington on Wednesday where he was grilled by National MPs who have been calling for him to apologise to Parliament.
During the meeting a cartoon pig Taxpayers' Union mascot holding a sign saying 'Taxpayer Invoice' was told to leave after Labour MP Duncan Webb pointed out that contributions made from the audience can only be made with permission.
National and ACT both lost confidence in the Speaker last week after it was revealed that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent settling Mallard's dispute, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern continued to express confidence in him.
"I'm here today because I believe deeply in parliamentary accountability and transparency," Mallard told the committee.
Addressing the committee chair, National MP Barbara Kuriger, Mallard said: "I rang you to offer to appear before the committee because I felt it was important to put on record an apology and offer some context and clarifications around recent events."
Mallard made the accusation after the Debbie Francis report into bullying and harassment at Parliament was made public in May last year. He was commenting on a sexual assault accusation in the report.
The report did not identify the accused offender, which Mallard said was integral to the review, but he did acknowledge at the time that he knew who the offender was and that the staffer had been stood down.
The Francis Review found 14 reports of sexual assault and Mallard announced that Parliamentary Services removed a "threat to the safety of women". He said what the staff member was claimed to have done to a colleague was tantamount to rape.
The Speaker didn't directly attribute rape to the man who was stood down, but the accused's lawyers last year began defamation proceedings against him over the accusation.
The Speaker had not spoken about the case until last Tuesday. His office released a statement in which Mallard apologised to the man he accused of rape and for any distress he had caused him.
"I apologise for saying that the allegations associated with the individual in the context of the Francis Review amounted to rape and that my understanding of the definition of rape at the time was incorrect and the alleged conduct did not amount to rape," Mallard told the committee.
"I'm acutely aware of the need for the Speaker to be above reproach. I made a mistake and for that I unreservedly apologise to the House and to New Zealanders."
Last week Mallard came under fire from Opposition MPs who suggested it was cynical of the Speaker to release his statement to the media on the same day that the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attack report was released.
"I'd also like to explain the timing of my media statement. I had agreed during the course of the process that in order to ensure public transparency I would release it on a sitting day," he said, referring to days when Parliament meets.
"The agreement was signed at around 5pm on Thursday 3 December and I then received confirmation but becoming effective around 11pm that night. I determined that putting it out on the last day of Parliament would not have been acceptable and my preference was to issue the statement on the first sitting day after the agreement was reached.
"Because that first sitting day coincided with the release of the Royal Commission into the mosque attacks, out of respect for the victims and their families I waited until journalists were released from the lockup and the debate in the House had concluded.
"I believe that this was the most respectful and appropriate thing to do."
Mallard also came under fire from Opposition MPs over rules expanded in August meaning MPs can claim legal costs so that damages and settlements can come from the public purse.
"I also welcome the opportunity to clarify the changes made to the rules which have been incorrectly reported as me changing the rules to assist with this case. Those changes were made on the advice of the Parliamentary Service Commission," Mallard said.
"The commission is cross-party and in my experience no changes have been made to rules without the unanimous support of the commission," he said, adding that National MP Gerry Brownlee chaired the meeting for that decision.
"In this case, decisions were made by Deputy Speaker Anne Tolley who on the advice of the Solicitor-General followed a similar process as that which applies to ministers. I am the Minister for Parliamentary Services," Mallard said.
"I want to reiterate there has always been the ability for the Speaker to be covered in the same way as ministers and now members in the new Parliament are covered for support in legal cases where they are carrying out their duties."
Mallard concluded by reflecting on the legal dispute.
"I made a mistake."
The Opposition asked Mallard why he refused to make an apology in Parliament last week.
"If I'd been given some notice as is generally the case when a matter like that has been brought up in the House, it's always been the case in the past that either the Speaker or the Clerk has been given some notice," he said.
"I would have been better prepared."