Alert level 2 police powers to enforce restrictions used only once – Commissioner

Warrantless search powers – given to police under controversial laws passed under urgency last month – were only used once to enforce alert level 2 restrictions, police say.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo: Pool / NZME

Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure committee is holding an inquiry into the operation of the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act – basically a retrospective select committee process – following pressure from Opposition MPs and civil rights groups.

While New Zealand has now moved out of of level 2, the powers for law enforcement authorities to enforce restrictions if the country returns to higher alert levels remain on the statute books.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told MPs those powers had – for the most part – not been used.

“We’ve only used them once and that was for a private dwelling in Canterbury which was a group of young people having a party,” he said.

Coster said there were also safeguards in place when an entry did occur, including reporting requirements.

Much of the concern about those powers has been around police’s ability to search private and commercial dwellings, including marae, without a warrant.

Coster said police met with iwi leaders to address their concerns.

“We worked to put in place guidelines that required our people to consult with the district command centre or our national command centre before exercising that power, before it was absolutely necessary, and where possible that there should be engagement with iwi liaison officers in connection with marae leadership,” he said.

The National Party voted against the bill – citing overreaching powers, a rushed process and a lack of proper scrutiny, a criticism that was echoed by the Human Rights Commission.

Chief Commissioner Paul Hunt told the committee the time given to respond to the legislation was effectively just two working hours.

“We worked overnight to provide those comments. We did our best, we made some slips – I apologise for those – but two working hours to marshal comments on complex legislation replete with major human rights issues is deeply unacceptable.

Hunt said the commission should have been consulted while the legislation was being prepared.

“Parliament established the commission with a function to be consulted on bills and other initiatives with human rights implications, and I deeply regret that we were denied the opportunity to properly discharge our constitutional responsibility that we owe you, we owe parliament, and we owe the public we serve,” he said.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero said the impact on disabled people during the Covid-19 response could not be understated.

Tesoriero told the committee that included people having their services disrupted due to a lack of PPE.

“It was deeply disappointing that the Act passed without providing disabled people any opportunity to have input into it, let’s not forget disabled people make up 24 percent of New Zealand’s population,” she said.

She said there needed to be data collected on the impacts to disabled people.

“Without this data, government can’t monitor any disproportionate impact on disabled people,” Tesoriero said.

She said it was an old truism that “if you aren’t counted then you don’t count.”

The Finance and Expenditure Committee must report back to Parliament by 27 July.

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