Labour and NZ First send mixed messages on crime funds

Depending on which coalition party you ask, the Government is either introducing a new way to fund community wellbeing or using the same funds to take organised crime to task.

Cabinet has changed the way it allocates money from the Proceeds of Crime Fund, which sponsors the researching and testing of new anti-drug and anti-drug methods. The fund is made up of criminal proceeds forfeited to the Crown and has been growing larger annually. The money in the fund is allocated separately from the main Budget process, allowing for more flexible spending.

Under National, $10 million was allocated annually towards the Methamphetamine Action Plan 2020, but the coalition Government covertly cut that from the fund’s budget. Now, more changes have been announced, including greater leeway for eligible funding projects and the ring-fencing of a third of the fund to fight organised, drug-related crime.

On Wednesday, the offices of Andrew Little, Minister of Justice, and Darroch Ball, New Zealand First’s Law and Order spokesperson, sent out simultaneous press releases on the changes to the fund. Little’s release stressed that the fund would now have a “wellbeing focus”.

“The fund provides an opportunity for agencies to test new and innovative ideas. By broadening the scope of the fund, agencies can trial pioneering solutions to complex issues connected to crime-related harm and build an evidence-based case of what works," Little said. 

The cabinet paper elaborates on these changes. While the fund had previously evaluated applications only from health, justice, corrections, police and customs that addressed at least one of two criteria, it will now look over applications from any department or agency that tackles at least one of four criteria.

The new criteria are “initiatives to address mental health within the criminal justice system” and “initiatives that test innovative approaches to address crime-related harm to communities and improve community wellbeing”. One of the old criteria, targeting alcohol- and drug-treatment services, will be expanded.

Oranga Tamariki or the Ministry of Māori Development would be eligible to bid for the funds “to address organised crime, drug-related harm and crime-related harm” which would also have “flow-on effects ... likely to be positive for Māori”.

While Little emphasised a wellbeing and generalist focus, Ball said: “New Zealand First has negotiated for the ring-fencing of at least one third of the allocation from the Proceeds of Crime Fund for initiatives that concentrate on fighting organised crime and drugs.”

“Dedicating such a significant portion of the fund towards this is just one way we are delivering on our coalition agreement commitment to a serious focus on combatting organised crime and drugs."

A footnote, however, illuminates what this really means. The one third measure will only come into effect if the fund is oversubscribed and if an organised crime bid is competing with bids relating to other criteria.

Canterbury University professor and crime expert Greg Newbold said the changes to the allocation rules were a positive step, but believed the Government was still missing the mark on what crimes to focus on. He said it’s “probably not necessary” to ring-fence a full third of the fund for organised crime.

“Organised crime is a lesser problem in this country than white collar crime,” Newbold told Newsroom. He sees white collar crime, which takes a toll on the economy, and domestic and child abuse as “the greatest crime issues in this country, which generate more misery and more damage to New Zealand’s society and economy than all other areas of crime combined”.

“Most of the people in prison were subjected to domestic and child abuse when they were young,” he added.

Under the new rules, funding can be redirected towards combatting that abuse under the mental health or community wellbeing criteria, but Newbold wants to see “a heavy emphasis on these issues”.

As to the split messaging between Labour and NZ First? “That’s a general problem with this Government,” Newbold said. “New Zealand First and Labour come from two completely different directions on crime.”

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