Opposition accuses Government of political interference over 'outrageous' official information delay

The Opposition is accusing the Government of political interference in the Official Information process as Newshub's obtained documents showing ministers apparently delaying the release of information.

It comes as the Chief Ombudsman launches a fresh investigation into Official Information Act processing times.

The Government gets a lot of requests for official information, some of them for information that doesn't exist.

"Sometimes, they are frankly conspiracy theories that we get quite a few requests over," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday. 

Anyone can ask for any government information under the Official Information Act, or the OIA.

The man who polices that law, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier, has found the Government's timeliness severely lacking.

"By the time they finally got the information from agencies, it was more a matter for the history books than the headlines," Boshier said. 

He's now launching a fresh investigation.

"We are going to lift a rock or two to see what is sitting underneath so that we can see what's going on, why the delay, who's being consulted." 

As he digs in to determine what the Government is hiding, Newshub has obtained an email chain showing a delay contingent on ministerial signoff - that's not supposed to happen. 

Asked if she's confident her ministers aren't engaging in political interference with the OIA, Ardern said her expectation is "we manage the OIA as we are expected to" and "we fulfil our legal obligations".

A former police officer knew there was analysis done on the demand on police resources in the Fenton St area of Rotorua where much of the city's emergency housing is located.

He submitted a request for the information, a six-page document, on June 28. 

On August 4, the request was sent to the Police Minister for review. A note was added to the file to consult with Housing Minister Megan Woods saying, "can we please ensure this is not released until we have provided feedback".

A response was due on August 16. That day, police emailed the ministers office and said, "It is due today but am not wanting you to drop tools to progress it!"

"It shows ministers are inappropriately interfering in the Official Information Act responses from departments. It's totally outrageous," said National's Chris Bishop. 

It was not until August 24 that the requester is brought into the loop, with police informing him, "the request is presently sitting with Minister Woods Office".

Boshier says even flagging information with ministers should be rare.

"Giving it to the minister, one should never do it unless it is absolutely essential," he said.

A clear direction to clean up their Official Information Act.

Jenna Lynch Analysis

For a Government that promised to be open and transparent, this looks terrible. 

The Government argues the number of requests has doubled over the last six years into the tens of thousands and say 97 percent are responded to in time. 

Those statistics sound impressive, but in practice, we are seeing far too much ministerial involvement, something the Chief Ombudsman wants to stop.

He says some agencies routinely send OIAs to ministers a working week before releasing it. That not only takes time but can also lead to suspicion of political interference.

This matters as a lack of transparency can undermine confidence in authorities - the exact opposite of what society needs in the age of misinformation.