Immigration Minister, Erica Stanford

As the public sector redundancies rolled on, with the Department of Conservation saying yesterday it was cutting 130 positions, a Select Committee got an insight into the complexities and challenges of cutting the Government’s workforce.

Immigration New Zealand chiefs along with their Minister, Erica Stanford, appeared before Parliament’s Education and Workforce Committee to provide a briefing on their performance and strategic intentions.

The Committee heard the story of a Department that did not have enough staff or resources to deal with the massive increase in Immigration and refugee visa applications it had received even though it had increased its staff by over 80 per cent in recent years.

At the same time the Minister talked up the role immigration could play in rebuilding the economy, boosting productivity and helping provide better public services.

Nevertheless it must cut its staff.

Immigration is housed within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and its Chief Executive, Carolyn Tremain, said Immigration had increased its productivity, which took some pressure off staff numbers.

But it was receiving significantly more visa applications per month than it could make decisions on, “and that’s a conversation that we’re actively in discussions with ministers about,” she said. Tremain said ImmigrationNZ currently had 2,900 staff, up from 1560 in 2016, an increase of 1340 or almost 86 per cent.

That, on paper, ought to make them a prime target for the Government’s cost-cutting exercise, which is designed to trim the numbers that both National and ACT claim were recklessly added to the public service by the Labour Government.

Immigration’s workforce is similar to DOC’s, which has 2554 staff, so it might be expected that it would be looking for at least 100 redundancies.

However, so far, only 11 of its staff have applied for redundancy.

Advertisment

However, Immigration has to confront an immigration boom along with a backlog of applications as a consequence of Covid.

Immigration Minister Erica Stanford said she expected that when the final numbers were available, 145,000 people would be seen to have arrived last year.

“It is significant and I know that last year we had 17,000 children who showed up in our schools, and I’m seeing the effects of that with my education hat on,” she said.

“Huge, huge effects. Not sustainable. So we need a proper rebalance.”

However there will be legacy issues for the Immigration Department because of the Covid backlog and last year’s influx.

After two years of being on a temporary work visa, a migrant can apply for permanent residence.

That means the 20,000 or so people who were caught up in the 2021 COVID backlog will soon be able to apply.

Alison McDonald, the MBIE Deputy Secretary of Immigration, told the Committee that, as a consequence, Immigration still needed more staff.

There are other pressures.

ACT MP Parmjeet Parmar questioned Stanford on progress on a commitment in the ACT coalition agreement to introduce a five-year, renewable parent category visa, conditional on covering healthcare costs, with consideration of a public healthcare levy.

This, too, was putting pressure on Immigration resources.

Stanford said there were technical issues around health insurance, ” and that’s not easy, and it’s also not cheap.”

“We haven’t worked through the details yet. I’ve been focused on migrant exploitation and net migration and other things that have come across my list that we didn’t necessarily expect,” Stanford said.

“But we find ourselves in a situation where we’ve got to respond to those in a responsible way.

“So it is on the work program.

“I just have a limited resource, of excellent people, who are sitting behind me, by the way.

“But I just need to make sure that I’m not overloading them with a lot of changes at once because we just don’t have the capacity.”

There are other pressures, particularly from refugees.

At the end of last year, over 4000 people were waiting for refugee status. The annual refugee quota was increased to 1500 in 2020, but 2022-23 was the first year that ImmigrationNZ was able to process that many.

However, Labour MP Phil Twyford said refugees waited between four and ten years to get refugee status.

Associate Immigration Minister Casey Costello said Immigration was on track to process 1500 refugees this year.

“Again, it’s balancing the capacity and recognizing that, yes, there’s more to do,” she said.

“Of course, from a compassion and concern point of view, yes,  we’d like to resolve this issue, but there is also a balance that needs to be achieved with the resources we have.”

Carolyn Tremain said that across MBIE, there was now a freeze on hiring while staff were being consulted about redundancies.

“That won’t be a permanent thing,” she said.

“We will get through the consultation processes, and then we can make a different decision if it’s merited.

“Over the last few months, up to the last year, we’ve seen an improvement in the productivity, our turnover rates and the organization have gone down generally, although they were always lower  in the immigration, they are still lower again.”

Part of the reason for the pickup in productivity was that after the opening of the borders, there was a higher percentage of less experienced immigration officers, which negatively impacted some of the performance statistics.

However, what was also clear was that the minister wanted to reduce the overall immigration numbers dramatically.

“We know that we’ve got more and more unemployed people and on JobSeeker benefit and Louise Upson has got a concerted effort to bring that number down by 50,000,” said Stanford.

“We know last year 20,000 people went on a jobseeker benefit while we brought in 52,000  low and unskilled migrants.

“Those numbers don’t add up.

“And we’ve got to make sure that we are requiring, employers to properly test the local market and check with MSD.”

But Stanford wants to go further with better planning.

“There’s a long-term view there that we actually need something like a national policy statement or some kind of strategic view of how we do this better,” she said.

And therein lies the challenge facing the Cabinet now.

How can each Minister reduce their staff while contributing more to raising New Zealand’s productivity?

Stanford certainly understands that goal.

“Obviously, immigration plays a very important role in rebuilding our economy and our productivity and delivering better public services,” she said.

“So the part that we play is, is integral to those things and so my priorities for, the term will revolve around rebuilding the economy and better public services.”

That suggests she may not welcome any staff cuts that stretch what is obviously an already-stretched department any further.