The Royal Commission on Abuse in Care has just delivered its much-delayed final report. But an earlier report, filed in December 2021, said abuse survivors needed an independent payment scheme urgently. So why hasn’t it happened? Steve Kilgallon reports.

Photo: David Unwin / The Post

Mike Ledingham turned 74 last week, and survived an aneurysm last year. He hopes to live long enough to finally receive compensation for the abuse he suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest as an 8-year-old – but he’s not confident.

“We’re not very happy. Although I’m not planning on dying [soon], I might not see anything. If I don’t see any money, so be it. But I think we deserve it, all those who spoke up especially. And I think they [the Government] know that.”

It’s 30 months since the Royal Commission on Abuse in Care said an independent redress scheme for survivors of abuse in state and religious care should be immediately stood up. The Labour government agreed, and said one would be operating by mid-2023. Survivors hoped that would mean proper compensation payments and counselling services.

But now both major parties say survivors must wait until the commission’s final report – being handed over next month – is considered before anything happens.

Survivors fear it will be at least 2027 before the redress body is operational – and many will die before deals are struck.

Stuff understands disability rights campaigner Sir Robert Martin, who died last month, is one who passed away with his claim unresolved.

The Labour government set up two advisory panels to design the independent body, with the then responsible minister, Chris Hipkins, saying “the Government is moving on this now, before the Royal Commission finishes its other investigations, because we want to minimise delays for survivors who are waiting for their claims to be resolved”. Hipkins said Cabinet would likely sign off plans “around mid-2023 with the new system to be introduced soon after that”.

Keith Wiffin, a survivor of abuse at the Epuni Boys’ Home, was on the design panel; under the Inquiries Act, he’s unable to discuss the details of what has been given to the Government, but says the proposal is finished and “waiting to be implemented”.

“Something should well and truly have been done by now,’’ Wiffin says. “The Government committed to doing something in a reasonable time frame, and it hasn’t been done. Many survivors are passing on without any sort of justice.

“While the previous government did some good things for survivors, it has dragged its feet; it was too slow to do things in terms of redress. This should be a priority for any government, given how long survivors have waited and continue to suffer.”

Lawyer Sonja Cooper, considered by many the most experienced legal expert on survivor abuse, fears that government departments are hurrying to sign survivors up to small but final settlements to reduce the Government’s exposure when the independent body is finally set up.

“Our very cynical view, and something we have been saying for a while … is the intention has been to essentially clear the vast majority of the claims and almost annihilate the Crowns’ risk of having people sign meaningful settlements,” she said. “Then they can go hand on heart to government and say we actually don’t need an independent redress scheme any more.”

Cooper says the ‘full and final’ clause in these settlements goes against both what Cabinet approved, and the commission recommended, and is mounting a legal challenge to it in the High Court.

The government minister responsible, Erica Stanford, says she’s been told recent settlements “continue to include a clause allowing a person to access the new redress system if the scheme is open to survivors”. Labour too said that had been its intention.

Up to the end of 2023, the Ministry of Social Development’s rapid payment process has paid out $14.668 million to 646 survivors – an average of $22,700 per claim.

In a statement, Linda Hrstich-Meyer, General Manager – Historic Claims, didn’t directly address the ‘full and final’ clause but said: “We encourage all the claimants we work with to seek independent legal advice before accepting any offer to settle their claim. If they are not already legally represented, financial assistance to meet these costs is offered as part of the settlement.

“Cabinet has not yet decided whether, if established, a new scheme will be open to survivors who have already resolved their claims … claimants can put their claim on hold, or decline our offer, if they aren’t comfortable with any part of it.”

Overseas, survivors of sexual abuse have reached multi-million-dollar settlements. Complex legal issues in New Zealand have always prevented survivors here from getting big payouts, but the hope has been the new body would significantly increase payments.

Cooper says, for example, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) offers just $10,000 to people who were in state care for under five years, $20,000 for five to 15 years and $25,000 for longer, regardless of what abuse they suffered, with a scale of $1500 to $5000 for any ‘inappropriate detention’.

“We have had clients locked in secure units for over a year and they get the same as someone who has been in a secure unit for 29 days.”

The Ministry of Education’s (MoE) Sean Teddy, Hautū (Leader) Operations and Integration, said the department had just launched rapid payment schemes for people who attended three residential schools – Waimokoia, McKenzie and Campbell Park – offering payments from $5,000 to $20,000 and “prioritised settlements” of $10,000 for the terminally ill.

They have made one prioritised payment so far. They have also launched a “Wellbeing Support Service” for claimants. Teddy confirmed their settlements were ‘full and final’, but all “now include a clause that notes a person may access the new redress system if the scheme is open to survivors”.

They’ve closed 127 claims since 2010, paying out $877,555 (an average of $6,914 per claim) plus $260,643 in reimbursed legal costs.

Cooper says Ministry of Health payouts range from $2,500 to $9,000 – although a separate fund for survivors of the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital offers up to $140,000.

Some religious orders are telling their abuse survivors – whose payments are broadly similar – that they will offer revised terms once the independent body is functioning.

Cooper believes that’s a long way off, noting that the MSD and MoE payment schemes are already funded for the next two financial years and the Crown Response Unit – which is working on the government response to the commission – for another 18 months.

“It’s not an encouraging sign for any independent redress scheme.”

She has one client, aged in his thirties, who committed suicide before his claim was resolved and says survivors are an ageing and vulnerable group, often in poor health.

When the royal commission first convened, back in 2016, a group called the Network of Survivors of Faith-Based Abuse and their Supporters visited the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Salvation Army churches to try get their backing for an independent redress body. They also presented the idea to the commission’s opening session, arguing it needed to be implemented as its first priority.

They believe almost $500m has been spent on the commission thus far (the Commission disputes this, saying it is way lower and the Network may have bundled in non-Commission costs), and that money would have been better invested in compensating survivors.

Now, they say, compensation must come before the Government issues an official apology for the abuse – which they believe is intended to come before the year is out.

“It would be more cost for more meaningless rhetoric if it does not come with appropriate redress,” said Network spokespeople Liz Tonks and Steve Goodlass.

“Survivors need an announcement of an appropriately substantive and immediate financial compensation and redress package that reflects the seriousness of the harm they suffered and is inclusive of all. This is needed when the Final Report of the Inquiry is made public … and not further delayed as the minister suggests to align with plans for an apology later in the year… Survivors have made it clear that an apology without action is meaningless.”

They say the Government could act immediately.

“They have everything they need to start work now,” adds Goodlass. “It’s clear the Government still doesn’t accept abuse happened at scale and will do anything they can to minimise fiscal risk. Every year it’s drawn out, it decreases that risk.”

A recent Cabinet paper noted the cost of redress was still uncertain because there isn’t a clear idea of the number of survivors – the commission’s own estimates ranges from 36,000 to 256,000 survivors of abuse between 1950 and 2019. The Crown Response Unit is analysing the costs and the “fiscal risks” for Cabinet to consider.

Now in opposition, Labour appears to have changed its approach to the redress scheme, and is on the same page as the Government. Asked about breaking their own deadline for its establishment, Labour’s Jan Tinetti provided a statement saying the process couldn’t be rushed, and in an apparent U-turn, said “only after the final report can the final recommendations be implemented, which would inform the establishment of the redress unit”.

She said Labour supported the Government in “continuing to progress this work as a top priority and with extreme care” and was confident they were moving as quickly as possible to achieving that.

Erica Stanford, the minister responsible for the Crown response to the commission, has read the redress report and told TVNZ’s Q+A programme last week it was “innovative”. In a statement, she said she would be tabling a series of papers to Cabinet, which would decide if a redress body was established, but said redress options “need to be developed for further consideration before final decisions are made on the detailed work required to improve redress to survivors of abuse in care”.

Stanford said Cabinet needed to consider the commission’s final report and recommendations and ensure the Crown response is “well-considered, coherent, and comprehensive”. She understood this would be frustrating but noted the commission’s report itself had been “delayed multiple times”.

She said designing the system was “complex”. A national apology was “an important aspect of redress” and would demonstrate the Government’s commitment.

For Mike Ledingham, urgent action is well overdue. And if not: “If nothing is done, we will go and march on Wellington.”

* This story has been edited to make the following clarifications: the Royal Commission delivered final recommendations last month, but delivers a final report next month. The Commission disputes the Network’s estimate of their costs. It is 30 months since the Commission’s interim report.

By Steve Kilgallon
Published in Stuff