Jacinda Ardern says Labour MP Dr Gaurav Sharma 'inaccurately' described meeting where MPs taught how to handle information

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says Dr Gaurav Sharma has "inaccurately" characterised a meeting MPs attended earlier this month, where he claimed they were coached on keeping information out of the public's hands.

Speaking to AM on Monday, Ardern said "professional development sessions" are held to "better support our new Members of Parliament", including on how to appropriately engage with ministerial offices. 

It follows allegations by Dr Sharma, the Labour MP who earlier this month claimed there is widespread bullying within the party, that MPs were coached on how to ensure information couldn't be found through the Official Information Act.

"How not to get an OIA'd issue, so how to talk to somebody without having a track record of it so nobody could track it down the road," Dr Sharma said MPs were taught.

"They said the staffing arrangements are done in a way that some staff work part-time for Labour Leader's Office and part-time for Prime Minister's Office and when they want to prevent OIA, they just sort of make it that this is Labour Leader's problem, this is not the Prime Minister's office problem and then they can get away with it."

Following Dr Sharma's claims in an exclusive Newshub interview last week, the Chief Ombudsman wrote to the Prime Minister's Office seeking assurances that she, ministers and staff "understand their obligations under the OIA and apply the right processes when handling official information and responding to requests."

On Monday morning, Ardern said an agenda of the meeting obtained by AM "demonstrates what we've been saying all along". 

"This was the class of 2020. They run professional development sessions which is fantastic and is actually one of the things we have been trying to do to better support our new members of Parliament," Ardern said.

"I had a session at the beginning of the evening. There were two other sessions and a dinner in between. One of those sessions was around how do you engage with ministerial offices because, of course, there are staff in there who are public servants, they are not political appointees. 

"You have to be really careful they are not put into compromising positions by being asked questions by our backbench in good faith and not realising the very clear lines that they have."

Ardern said MPs discussed when it was appropriate to go to the Labour Leader's Office for a matter or whether to go directly to a minister.

It's also important MPs know how to handle information provided to them by constituents, who may want to ensure it remains private, she said. 

Ardern wasn't present for all sessions, but has had their contents described to her, she said.

She told AM she understood why Peter Boshier, the Chief Ombudsman, had got in touch with her office following Dr Sharma's claims. 

"I think if I was the Ombudsman and I heard a meeting characterised in the way it was, inaccurately, by Gaurav, I probably would have written that letter too," Ardern said.

"We have given a response, not only with an assurance but we're also making sure that we are sharing just all the work that we've done to make sure that we not just fulfil our obligations but we go further than that."

Ardern said the Government proactively releases ministers' diaries and Cabinet papers.

In his sit-down with Newshub last Thursday and in multiple interviews since, Dr Sharma has accused the Prime Minister and her office of trying to cover up a culture of bullying within Labour. He is yet to provide any evidence to substantiate his claims against MPs.

The Prime Minister and the Labour Whips have rejected all of Dr Sharma's allegations. They say Dr Sharma has taken issue with interventions put in place by the Whips and the Parliamentary Service after staff in his office complained about his management style. Dr Sharma has rejected these allegations and called for an independent inquiry into the matter. 

After airing his concerns publicly, Dr Sharma was last Tuesday suspended from the Labour caucus. This decision was to be reviewed in December, with an opportunity for the MP to return to the fold if he stopped breaching colleagues' trust, as the Prime Minister described it.

However, following his interview with Newshub, Labour confirmed its caucus will vote this coming Tuesday on whether to expel him. 

Ardern on Monday said Dr Sharma's allegations shouldn't "be the focus right now" while Nelson deals with flooding and people have been evacuated her homes. She said Dr Sharma's issues should instead be dealt with in mediation.