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'Reckless and disturbing': New public service cuts risk allowing more violent extremism, scams, sex abuse online- union

Raphael Franks,
Publish Date
Wed, 19 Jun 2024, 4:04pm

'Reckless and disturbing': New public service cuts risk allowing more violent extremism, scams, sex abuse online- union

Raphael Franks,
Publish Date
Wed, 19 Jun 2024, 4:04pm

Kiwis using the internet will be exposed to more sexual abuse material, scammers, and violent extremist content due to job cuts in Internal Affairs’ digital safety teams, the union for civil servants claims.

The Public Service Association (PSA) has criticised the Government and Brooke van Velden, the Minister in charge of the Internal Affairs Department, for the job losses which are part of wider public sector job cuts.

More than 6000 jobs have been cut since Finance Minister Nicola Willis asked the civil service to find 7.5 per cent of cost savings.

The PSA called the cuts at the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) “reckless and disturbing” and questioned why digital safety teams would be slimmed down given the DIA had advised its minister last November of the concerning rise in objectionable content online.

The DIA announced today its final decisions on cuts in its regulation and policy branch. Seventy-six roles have gone.

A further 22 jobs across the digital safety and anti-money laundering groups have been cut.

“This is reckless and disturbing,” PSA assistant secretary Fleur Fitzsimons said.

“More Kiwis will be scammed, exposed to violent extremism and sexual exploitation at a time of rising harm online. It makes no sense,” she said.

“These are workers at the very frontline of protecting New Zealanders from online harm and international crime syndicates. This is yet another clear example of frontline workers being sacrificed for an ideological obsession with small government.”

Fitzsimons questioned whether the cuts were part of an “evidence-based policy”, pointing out the increase in scams, sexual exploitation material and violent extremist content - “the Minister of Internal Affairs knows this - DIA advised her so in November”.

The Herald reported research from Consumer NZ last week which revealed more than a million New Zealand households were being targeted by scammers each year and some 185,000 Kiwis had had money stolen, half of all households nationwide. About $200 million was stolen from scam victims in 2023 alone.

The Herald also reported data from the DIA in February showing there had been a 283 per cent increase in child sexual exploitation reports since 2020. The DIA blocked over a million websites known to show child sexual abuse material in 2023.

PSA assistant secretary Fleur Fitzsimons. Photo / Mark Mitchell
PSA assistant secretary Fleur Fitzsimons. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Fitzsimons said: “We all want a digital world which is safer for our children, but clearly the Minister is okay with decimating our defences. These [job cuts] were first proposed in late April, she’s had nearly two months to stop this, but has chosen not to. And she’s ignored the alarm expressed by experts including the Online Safety Coalition that these cuts are dangerous.

“The Government has said all Ministers went through spending cuts ‘line by line’ so the Minister of Internal Affairs must know what is happening here. This is a price she seems willing to pay to fund tax cuts.

“The Minister told media recently she expected the digital safety team to maintain the same level of service with the available resourcing. Who is she fooling?

“Workers left behind will shoulder increasing responsibilities and risks will rise that those wanting to exploit New Zealanders will get through our weakened protections.”

Fitzsimons also referred to the Anti-Money Laundering Directorate, which works with its international counterparts and supervises more than 5000 financial institutions and other businesses to make sure they comply with anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism measures.

“It’s part of our international obligations to take money laundering seriously,” she said.

“It’s not just New Zealand’s criminal underworld, but international drug rings, gangs, and terrorists who rely on money laundering to finance their activities.

“The rest of the world is investing more in protecting their physical and online borders from rising threats, including more sophisticated cyber terrorism and online scams, yet this Government is blindly going in the wrong direction and exposing New Zealanders to more risk. It’s just wrong.

“All this again shows how poorly thought through the Government’s spending cuts have been and New Zealanders will pay a high price for the mistakes it is making.”

Raphael Franks is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He joined the Herald as a Te Rito cadet in 2022.

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