Legal opinion given on merger

The Chief Archivist's independence should be upheld and any "improper influence" avoided in a planned merger of Archives New Zealand and the Department of Internal Affairs, a Crown Law Office opinion says.

The legal opinion, prepared at the request of the State Services Commission, in March, was released under the Official Information Act and obtained by the Otago Daily Times.

Some of the Chief Archivist's powers could be considered "a check on the abuse of public power with constitutional significance", the opinion noted.

This role could involve not only the final disposal of records held by government departments, as required by law.

Some other functions, including "standard-setting, monitoring and auditing" of records, could equally require "protection from improper influence", the opinion said.

Critics of the merger say it undermines the Chief Archivist's independence and reduces protection of government records.

Crown Law had been asked about the merger's effect on the independence of the Chief Archivist, who heads Archives New Zealand.

This government department - responsible for all government record-keeping and community archives - would be merged into the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) by the end of this year, the Government recently announced.

Crown Law said the Chief Archivist was required to act "independently" in some matters and that independence could be maintained even if the Chief Archivist no longer headed a separate department.

A policy paper had suggested that the Chief Archivist be "accountable to the DIA's chief executive" but this provision might need to be "carefully worded" to avoid conflicting with the required independence, the advice said.

Dr Donald Gilling, a Wellington economic consultant and former professor of accounting and finance at Waikato University, warned in a recent paper that the merger could undermine the required independence.

The Secretary of Internal Affairs was the Chief Archivist's "controlling officer" but was also "legally accountable" to the Chief Archivist for stewardship of public records.

When all costs were included, savings could be as low as $166,000 a year, and digitisation - a key justification for the merger - would produce "spiralling costs" rather than savings, he said in an interview.

John Timmins, chairman of the Archives and Records Association's Otago-Southland branch, said the merger would undermine the Chief Archivist and prove unworkable.

Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy said the commission's estimate of $3 million to $9 million in merger-related savings through four years was "good news for the taxpayer", and increased digitisation would be a "major benefit".

"By sharing resources and expertise while cutting costs, they will be able to provide even greater frontline services for the public."

Archives New Zealand was a "high-performing institution" and Mr Guy expected that to continue.

 

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