Ministry of Health accused of trying to gag Mental Health Foundation for criticising Government

Health Minister Andrew Little has raked officials over the coals, demanding an explanation over allegations the Ministry of Health tried to gag the Mental Health Foundation for criticising the Government. 

The Mental Health Foundation's boss Shaun Robinson told Newshub they are not alone and that many other providers are just too scared to speak up for fear of losing their funding. 

"I was told that we were going down a very dangerous road, and the only implication of that can be that there was some threat to our funding," Robinson said on Monday. 

Robinson tried to speak up about the urgent need for the Government to implement the recommendations of the massive review it did into New Zealand's mental health system, and he was told to zip it.

"Because we receive funding from the Ministry of Health that came with some limitations, and one of those limitations was that we were not allowed to criticise the Government," Robinson said. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says her Government is open to being criticised. 

"I have absolutely no issue with critique and criticism," she said on Monday. 

The contract between the Ministry of Health and the Mental Health Foundation states that neither of them may directly or indirectly criticise the other publicly, without first fully discussing the matters of concern with the other.

Robinson says that clause has always existed but it has never been acted on until now.

"The Ministry of Health picked the wrong organisation to try and bully because we certainly are not going to put up with that," he said. 

And the Mental Health Foundation isn't alone.

"What's concerning is I've heard from a range of other organisations in a range of other sectors that similar tactics have been applied to them," Robinson said. 

Organisations he says are scared to speak up and risk losing funding.

Little says he "would be very concerned" if it went any wider. 

"That is never acceptable," he said at the suggestion of quid pro quo unless organisations toe the party line. 

"We've criticised that in the past in previous Governments and I'm not prepared to tolerate that in this Government. It is not the way NGOs [non-government organisations] work with Government."

The Health Minister wants to know about it. 

"If there is any other organisation who thinks that they have been prevailed upon not to speak up publicly, even when it's being critical of Government, they should let me know and I will take that up with the ministry."

Newshub requested an interview with the Ministry of Health and they declined, instead providing a statement. 

"We are committed to working on our relationship with the Mental Health Foundation," it says. "We need to do that directly with them."