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COMMUNITY AFFAIRS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
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COMMUNITY AFFAIRS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
Senator CHRIS EVANS
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Tchen)
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COMMUNITY AFFAIRS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
(SENATE-Wednesday, 24 May 2000)
- Start of Business
- FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES PORTFOLIO
Senator CHRIS EVANS
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Tchen)
- Outcome 1—Stronger families
Output Group 1.2—Youth and student support
Senator CHRIS EVANS
- Output group 1.4—Childcare support
- Ms Flanagan
Outcome 2--Stronger communities
- Output group 2.1—Housing support, Output group 2.2—Community support
- Output group 1.4—Childcare support
- Outcome 3—Economic and social participation
- Output Group 3.3—Support for carers
- Outcome 3—Economic and social participation
- Ms Williams
Content WindowCOMMUNITY AFFAIRS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE - 24/05/2000 - CENTRELINK
Senator GIBBS —I would like to talk first about privacy breaches. Apparently FACS has in place a system whereby serious privacy breaches are referred immediately to the Privacy Commissioner. Can you tell us about any privacy breaches since the last round of estimates where you were actually here.
Ms Vardon —Since the last estimates there were six breaches reported—six new privacy matters since the last estimates. Most of them were individual matters, and I am going to ask Luke Woolmer to talk about that.
—There were six breaches since the last estimates in total. Four of them are formal issues with the Privacy Commissioner. Every one of them only involved a single customer or one or two customers. All were completely contained and finalised. There were another two internal ones and we just sought advice from the Privacy Commissioner relating to those issues.
Senator GIBBS —So there were six breaches and four obviously have been referred to the Privacy Commissioner. Is that right?
Mr Woolmer —Yes, Senator.
Senator GIBBS —And they are all resolved?
Mr Woolmer —I will just go through the list. We have one outstanding letter where we require a letter back to the Privacy Commissioner. Another matter was closed last week and there was a response we are awaiting from the Privacy Commissioner on one which occurred only about eight or nine days ago.
Senator GIBBS —But they are all on track and they all will be dealt with accordingly?
Mr Woolmer —Yes, Senator.
Senator GIBBS —Last week, people receiving the Austudy supplement loan were told that their payments were to be delayed for 24 hours due to an error. Can you confirm that all students receiving the Austudy supplement loans had their payments delayed for one day last week?
Ms Vardon —We certainly can give you the facts on that. There was a problem with the transmitting from our computers through to the bank, which we worked on to make sure that they did get paid.
Ms Fitzgibbon —Yes, we did have a day's delay, Senator. You are correct, there were problems last week, but everyone has been paid. It was a problem with the transference of the information from our computer that connects with the Commonwealth Bank. The problem has been fixed and all payments were made.
Senator WEST —But not on time.
Ms Fitzgibbon —No, not the day that they were meant to get them.
Senator GIBBS —So how long was it before people actually got their payment?
Ms Fitzgibbon —My understanding was it was 24 hours. It was the next afternoon of the day that they were due to get their payments.
Senator GIBBS —Okay, so they got it a day late.
Senator WEST —Can I ask what numbers of students we are talking about?
Senator GIBBS —I was getting to that.
Senator WEST —Sorry.
Ms Fitzgibbon —I probably need to get back to you on that in relation to the Austudy numbers. It was certainly not the bulk of the financial loan students.
Senator GIBBS —Are you saying that it wasn't all of the Austudy recipients, only certain ones?
Ms Fitzgibbon —Sorry, all the Austudy students, but I would need to get you the absolute numbers of that.
Ms Vardon —Senator, we can have that answered for you today. We will go and get it now.
—That would be great, if you could. Obviously because of the error the delay of 24 hours would have been a bit of a boon to the government, I suppose. How much money would you have made on that?
Ms Vardon —I am not sure that we think in those terms. We make millions of payments all the time and every now and then there is a small computer problem. This would represent quite a small number of the payments we make.
Senator GIBBS —Absolutely. I know it has not been done deliberately but, even so, the government would have made a bit of money there. How much would you estimate the government made on that delay—interest rates, all that sort of thing? We are talking about huge amounts of money here, aren't we? How much would we have made? What would the saving have been?
Mr Bashford —You would have to ask the department of finance that, Senator.
Senator Newman —Are you suggesting Mr Fahey put us up to it?
Senator GIBBS —No, I am just saying fortuitous things happen at times and you do make money when these things happen.
Senator Newman —I recommend to you Neal Blewett's book on the cabinet diary and you will see the problems that happen in these areas for any administration.
Senator GIBBS —Have there been mechanisms put in place so that this doesn't happen again?
Ms Fitzgibbon —It is fair to say that the actual payment of the supplement loan is quite complex because of the relationship between the Commonwealth Bank as another intermediary and ourselves. It has caused some problems from time to time but we have put in a number of steps to ensure that this does not happen again. It is one of our more complex payments and we do keep a very close eye on it.
Senator GIBBS —The payment is computerised. It simply goes into their bank accounts, doesn't it?
Ms Fitzgibbon —Yes. As I said, what you need to understand is that the supplement loan actually hangs off the youth allowance payment. Unlike other payments, we have to have an interface with the Commonwealth Bank. There are a number of steps involved in the payment of the supplement loan which are more complex than some other payments. It just has a couple of elements where problems can occur. Between the computer, our I&T systems and the youth and students we have some very close monitoring systems because there can be more complexity in the process and things can go a bit wrong.
Senator GIBBS —I understand that. Has this happened very often in the past? Is this something that can be easily rectified? If it is computerisation, surely it simply could be rectified. When people are living on such small amounts of money a delay of one day in getting their payment can make a big difference.
Ms Fitzgibbon —It can indeed. As I said, we are very aware of it and we do have mechanisms in place. The turnaround to get those payments in the next 24 hours was made with great haste and attention from all the staff concerned because we are very aware of those consequences.
Senator GIBBS —Have you had many of these occasions in the past?
—No, we have not but, as you would appreciate, the youth allowance is a very new payment. In the two years there would have been some occasions but, as youth allowance is bedding down, so is the supplement loan. We are really at the stage now in Centrelink where we are able to give the complexities of problems like the supplement loan a great deal of attention. That has been one of our priorities this year and it has been a much smoother process. We really feel that we are getting on top of it.
Senator GIBBS —Thank you very much. Lately have there been errors in mail-outs to clients at all?
Senator Newman —Can you be more specific?
Senator GIBBS —I had a constituent who came to me and they had a letter from Centrelink telling them to come along for an interview—they had to be rebooked. It is the usual thing. The letter stated:
If you do not attend the interview your Newstart allowance may be cancelled for a period or reduced for a period—
When these letters are sent out are they normally signed by somebody?
Ms Vardon —Senator, we send out millions of letters. They are often in the name of the manager if they are a local letter. This could refer to the bulk mail-outs that came from the setting up of Job Network 2. I need to get more understanding about that. Mostly the bulk letters are sent out with just a general name on them. However, if it is a local letter, the manager's name would be there.
Senator GIBBS —This was a local letter. This obviously came from Ipswich because it tells the client, my constituent, that the interview will be conducted by a certain officer but there was no signature. There was nothing at the bottom. It just says at the bottom:
Please bring any certificates, resumes, et cetera. Yours sincerely, Centrelink Customer Service Manager—
It was typed. There was no signature, nothing.
Ms Vardon —Senator, we are sending out millions of letters and they are computer generated. It is not possible for us to sign computer generated letters.
Senator GIBBS —Why not? We do! Everybody has their signature on the computer.
Mr Wadeson —The letter you are talking about is one that would have been generated in the local office. It is not generated by the computer system; it would not be signed that way. The fact is that it should have been signed. Officers do set up their own letters for various reasons. In fact, we send a lot of letters that are not computer generated from the office. It should have been signed by the officer. It should not have gone out without a signature on it like that.
Senator GIBBS —This person was a bit upset. He went back and said, `Look, is this a genuine thing? There is no signature.' So they then signed it for him—
Mr Wadeson —If there is a signature block there clearly should be a signature on it. You would not design a letter that did not have a signature block.
Senator GIBBS —No. It is a bit rude, isn't it? There was a questionnaire sent out recently to a number of people and apparently it was incorrect. Do you know anything about a questionnaire that was sent out that was totally incorrect and had to be remailed?
Ms Vardon —Senator, I need to have more information. I cannot even focus on where that might be coming from.
—It was a questionnaire sent, obviously, to clients of Centrelink. It was a family assistance questionnaire with a series of questions such as, `Who are you? How old are you?' One of the questions was, `Level of income? Yes or no?' which was obviously ludicrous and obviously a mistake. Does anybody know about this questionnaire?
Ms Vardon —Yes, we can now answer that, Senator. It related to the data capture for the Family Assistance Office.
Mr Silkstone —I am not aware of any problem like that. We did send out a questionnaire to people to help prepare for the change to the new family assistance payments but I am not aware of any problem relating to that. There was a simple question at the top of that which says, `What is your taxable income?' but I am not aware of any problems.
Senator GIBBS —No, it said, `What is your level of income? Yes or no.' It was a questionnaire with a certain number of yes/no answers to it.
Mr Silkstone —We have not had any problems relating to that questionnaire brought to our notice.
Mr Bashford —Senator, is it possible to give us a copy of that questionnaire?
Senator GIBBS —Yes, I could get you one.
Mr Bashford —If you give us a copy then we will certainly follow it up, but it is nothing that has come to our attention to date.
Senator GIBBS —You are not aware that this questionnaire had to be remailed?
Mr Bashford —Not to our knowledge.
Mr Silkstone —No, I do not know the incident you are talking about.
Ms Vardon —This may not have anything to do with the FAO, because the forms and things that have gone out from that have been very efficient. It may be something else that we cannot identify. It would help us if we could get a bit more content.
Senator GIBBS —I certainly will. You know nothing about this family assistance questionnaire at all, and the remailing of it?
Mr Bashford —We certainly know that there has been a lot of communication with our families' customers but we are not aware of any distinct problems like that.
Mr Silkstone —The questionnaire that we sent and the data collection asked people for their estimated taxable income for salary and wages and then there are several other questions, but it did not have a yes/no answer on it, so it sounds like it is not that questionnaire.
Senator GIBBS —All right. I will see if I can track down one of these.
Senator Newman —It could be a different questionnaire. That is why they are just trying to get from you some assistance in identifying it.
Senator GIBBS —Yes. It was very strange, because they have some questions which are yes and no answers, like, `Are you married?' and that sort of thing, but this had, `Level of income. Yes or no.'
Senator Newman —We will do our best to help you, but I think we need some information to identify it.
Senator GIBBS —All right, I will try to get that for you. Are all the arrangements in place for the new Family Assistance Office?
Mr Silkstone —Yes, they are all on track to be in place by 1 July.
Senator GIBBS —They will be in place by 1 July?
Mr Silkstone —Yes—in fact, by 20 June when we change the customer records.
—The Family Assistance Office is actually larger than just Centrelink. Centrelink is a very large component of it, but it also comprises the Australian Tax Office and the Health Insurance Commission, so FACS in effect is coordinating the implementation of the Family Assistance Office across all those three agencies and, as Mr Silkstone said in relation to Centrelink, everything is on track, and that is also true in relation to the Australian Tax Office side of things and also the Health Insurance Commission side.
Senator GIBBS —And that is all coming together quite well?
Mr Tune —Yes, it is at the moment.
Senator GIBBS —Good. What training has been provided to the call centre staff?
Mr Silkstone —The training for all our customer service officers, call centre staff and for our customer service centre staff is that those people who are experienced in families work already, who are just converting over, get the equivalent of three full days training.
Senator GIBBS —Sorry, four days training?
Mr Silkstone —The people who are already doing the family assistance work in the current environment, to change them over to the new environment, get the equivalent of three full days training on the new payments. The call centres are bringing on around 80 new people and a large number of temporaries. Those people are receiving the full call centre training as well as the family assistance training, so they receive additional training. But people who have been experienced in the work already are getting three full days training to work with the new payments.
Senator GIBBS —Does the Family Assistance Office utilise a different call centre infrastructure to other areas of Centrelink?
Mr Tune —Yes, it does. The FAO call centre is actually being undertaken by Centrelink on behalf of all the various players in the Family Assistance Office. Perhaps Mr Silkstone can provide more detail on the operations of that, because it is separate from the normal call centre.
Mr Silkstone —The existing families queue becomes the Family Assistance Office call centre and takes on some new staff and has linkages through to particularly Tax, and for a small number of inquiries through to the Health Insurance Commission, so the old system becomes a bit larger to handle the links to the tax system and becomes the FAO call centre, with a new number.
Senator GIBBS —To what extent have the Family Assistance Office arrangements been separated from other Centrelink functions? I know they are working with the ATO and it is sort of a mixture, but are there any other areas where you can separate it?
Mr Tune —Mr Silkstone can provide more detail but, in general, they are integrated with the Centrelink operations, particularly where, say, a sole parent comes in and is seeking a parenting payment and also seeking family assistance. We are trying to get a seamless service across there. Even though the FAO is not formally providing the parenting payment—that is a Centrelink function—for the customer it needs to be a seamless service. The FAO, which is part of a Centrelink office, sometimes will have a separate door, a separate area, within the Centrelink office, and also a separate area inside a Health Insurance Commission office. We try and integrate the services that are being provided by the mainstream agency to families, as well as those specialised services that are being provided by the FAO, so that it is seamless for the customer. But the layout and so forth of every office is slightly different, even though it has a common signage and things like that about it. FAO is an identifiable entity within an office of either the tax office, the Health Insurance Commission or Centrelink.
—Just to add to that, within the back office we have people who will come in with partners, one of the couple is an FAO customer and the other one perhaps is on Newstart, so we have a lot of integration in the back office. As Mr Tune said, the front office is identifiable as an FAO but we are training our Newstart people to be able to handle FAO issues as well, for the times when someone comes in with a partner, their main inquiry is Newstart but their partner needs to change their FAO payment.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —I understand you have split the functions inside Centrelink in a number of offices so that you have aged, disability and family services in one office and youth, student and employment services in another. Is that right?
Ms Vardon —In some areas where there are two Centrelink offices close together there has been a focusing so that there is a more obvious separation.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —How does that fit with the one-stop shop, though?
Ms Vardon —You can still have everything done at the shop. It is often about accommodation when we are trying to create a families front end or an employment front end. It is much better to get the specialist services around those two fronts, but you can still come into any of those offices and get looked after.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —We have reports of people being referred to the other office. Is that not right?
Ms Vardon —It may well be, if it is for an appointment to see somebody who is very skilled or trained in employment or some things like that, but you can still come in and register and make changes and things in the first office.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —And have the number of offices that have been split increased?
Ms Vardon —There is a bit of rationalising going on around Australia about that, but it is not very common that that happens.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —But it is increasing, is it?
Ms Vardon —The answer probably is yes, but we are still talking only of a very small number of offices, because in most places there is only one office of Centrelink. It is where they are close by that that has happened.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —You are telling me the only driver of that is the question of office space?
Ms Vardon —Mostly office space, yes, and sometimes it is convenience. Some families people do not necessarily like to stand in the same queue as people who are looking for employment and some retired people prefer to have their own identified space, so we are trying to accommodate their needs as much as everything else.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —That is a slightly different answer then. You are saying to me there are drivers other than office space. There are actually client based reasons, you say, driving it. I am not trying to be difficult. I am just trying to understand.
Ms Vardon —No, I know.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —We are getting reports that increasingly the functions are being split. I am just trying to understand what is driving that.
—There are a number of drivers. Our client departments want us to have a strong focus and a strong front for a particular service. The people who want us to have a high profile in employment want to make sure there is an employment area with all of the facilities around it for self-help, and the self-help facilities are taking a lot of space. It is good, because they are very well used but, to accommodate that, if it is a small office it is a bit difficult to get every front end, as we say, out in the public arena. We try and adjust to what the client departments are expecting, what we know the customers prefer and what the property layout allows us to do.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So there is no intention to divide those functions inside the organisation in any major administrative way?
Ms Vardon —No. We are very strong that it is a Centrelink customer service officer who provides service across a number of areas.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —That is what I thought. The development seemed to me to be moving against everything else you talked about: one-stop shop, life events. It seemed to be a contrary development.
Ms Vardon —Yes, but there is a harmony. The harmony is that the customer service officer has the capacity to be in any of those queues and it is Centrelink providing the services. You must not laugh, Senator, but we call it the boutique front ends and it is the Centrelink backing—
Senator CHRIS EVANS —After life events and—
Ms Vardon —No. We have to shape the front but anybody who comes to us—and we have just heard a demonstration of it—whatever their circumstances, the customer service officer needs to look after the whole of the problem. If a person comes to employment and Newstart is a part of the issue, the Newstart officer or the customer service officer in employment is actually able to understand what FAO is. We are training our employment people in the FAO so that you do not have to keep moving around but you can capture the whole of the family's circumstances together.
Senator GIBBS —Ms Vardon, last year in estimates we were told that the FAO were to employ about 700 staff during 1999-2000. Has that figure held up? Have you actually employed 700 new staff?
Ms Vardon —It is not necessarily about new staff, Senator. It is about re-badging the family staff that we already had in our office. To give you an exact answer I will have to ask Mr Silkstone.
Mr Silkstone —Everybody who is doing the work in the current office is moving to the new scheme—the same number of people. Additionally, if you look at the appropriations that were given for the new scheme, there is additional money to increase the staffing to handle things like the links to the tax system which is a new aspect of it. So, yes, we have new people, new appropriations, new money to do that.
Senator GIBBS —Have you actually put on new staff at the moment?
Mr Silkstone —There are new staff. For instance, in the call centres we are putting on something like the equivalent of 137 new staff to handle the extra calls. There are new staff in the network as well; I am not sure on the numbers there but it is in line with the appropriations that we would have received.
Senator GIBBS —That 700 were just people who were being moved around a bit.
Mr Silkstone —I have never heard the figure 700 before.
Mr Tune —Perhaps I can clarify that. The 700 figure is comprising Centrelink, Health Insurance Commission and the ATO. It is a combined figure for the Family Assistance Office. Forty-two are tax office; about 53 are Health Insurance Commission; and the remainder are Centrelink. I think 600 is the Centrelink number approximately.
—Some of that 600 would be for the implementation. Some of it would be temporary and some of it would be permanent extra staff for the network and the call centre part of the network.
Senator GIBBS —I see. Thank you.
Senator WEST —On the issue of mail-outs can you provide me, since we last discussed this in February, with details of any problems at all with any of your mail-outs. I am taking a very wide definition here so I do not want anyone sliding out from underneath saying I was not precise enough in my question, please.
Ms Vardon —Senator, we did anticipate your question. I am assured that we have not had problems to the extent that we reported last time but we will answer your question as you intended it.
Senator WEST —Thank you. Can you give me—
Ms Vardon —No, I have not got it today because I think the answer is none. We are going to go away and make sure that, given the breadth of your question, that is the correct answer.
Senator DENMAN — Except this questionnaire, when I get my hands on it.
Senator WEST —The other thing is that you said `any significant ones'. That is a subjective phrase as well, `significant', so I certainly would urge some caution with the use of the word `significant' too, please.
Ms Vardon —That is why I was cautious in my reply, Senator.
Senator WEST —Thank you.
Senator GIBBS —On page 216 there is `Compliance Strategy: Measures to Improve Control of Incorrect Payment and Fraud—Deterrence'. How much will this compliance strategy publicity campaign cost to implement?
Ms Vardon —I will refer that to our colleagues in FACS.
Mr Whalan —Are you happy that we pick that up under that area when we get to FACS?
Senator GIBBS —Not a problem. We will.
Senator WEST —Under `Measure' for Centrelink on page 216 it says:
Increased data matching reviews, and also allow matching of income details and the exchange of information from the public between the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink tip off recording systems.
I am a bit puzzled as to how that can come into FACS.
Ms Vardon —Senator, this is a budget measure that at this stage FACS is responsible for developing. We will implement it when they are ready. At this stage it is a budget measure.
Senator WEST —Okay. At this stage it has no relationship to Centrelink.
Ms Vardon —We have done some work on it but I think, in general terms, it should be replied to by FACS.
Mr Whalan —The prime responsibility until next financial year remains with FACS. As we then move into this next financial year and the budget implementation, the prime responsibility will shift to Centrelink.
Senator WEST —That is fine. Senator Gibbs can take her questions there. As Ms Vardon has already said, you have done some work on it. I would like to know how much that has cost you, please.
—We have helped FACS design what it might be and put some costings on it but in a sense they make the final decision about how much they bid for and what shape it finally gets as a policy initiative.
Senator WEST —How much they bid for?
Ms Vardon —How much they choose to assess it as worth in the budget.
Senator WEST —If you are doing some work it must be costing you something.
Ms Vardon —Our people would have been giving them advice, to some extent, on what it might look like, what it might cost. We are often asked to provide costings for FACS for new initiatives.
Senator DENMAN —In February I asked about waiting times for half an hour and you were working on strategies to improve that. What has happened since February?
Ms Vardon —Waiting time is something we pay a lot of attention to and we report on it. We notice if any office anywhere in Australia goes past what we consider to be an acceptable standard. The average is about two days. If we notice any office that is exceeding that we ask why that is so. We have introduced a whole lot of new initiatives in relation to queue management around Australia. I have been watching the queues and they are moving very fast. We have customer service liaison officers who are out the front who go up and down the queues to make sure that they are reduced. We put more people on reception. We have built reception teams throughout Australia to make sure the queues go down and we have improved our booking system significantly. It is something that in a large organisation you can never take your eye off but it is something that we consider high priority in practice.
Senator DENMAN —What about phone waiting times?
Ms Vardon —Phone waiting times are very good, Senator. I can get you the details on that if you would like.
Senator DENMAN —Please.
Ms Vardon —I will ask the national manager for call centres, Christine Hagan, to report to you, Senator.
Ms Hagan —The call wait time over the last 12 months has reduced by 57 per cent. It is currently around about 66 seconds wait time compared to 152 last year. It has been quite a major improvement.
Senator DENMAN —How have you achieved that? What have you done to achieve that?
Ms Hagan —There has been, within the call centres themselves, a 50 per cent productivity improvement. We have resourced it better. We have recruited, I think, staff that are very much focused on customer service and who have taken adherence to schedule very seriously.
Senator CHRIS EVANS — We have not had any major government changes for a couple of months—
Ms Hagan —The Family Assistance Office is taking a lot of people off the phone for training at the moment, so there is always an ongoing training issue.
Senator WEST —How did you achieve the 50 per cent productivity increase?
—By focusing on it heavily. I think we gained the commitment of the call centre managers around the country to drive a cultural shift in the way customer service officers approach their work. It was a question of making sure that we were monitoring their schedules and their adherence to their schedule, making sure that we were regularly coaching in call centres. Our team leader spent a lot of time sitting down with the customer service officers and giving them feedback about their performance over the previous month. So through the coaching and through the general message that it was really required of them to be on the phone, it generated a culture where they felt better. We were answering the phone a lot more quickly. People were feeling a lot happier. The people on the phone were finding it better. It reinforced adherence to their schedule.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —But does that mean they are spending less time per call on the phone?
Ms Hagan —No, not at all. In fact, we are trying to shift the focus very much away from true calls per hour to first contact resolution. We are trying to encourage our CSOs to really finalise a call as much as possible so that we do not get rework, and that is another strategy that seems to be working in our favour.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —What was the old true calls an hour?
Ms Hagan —True calls per hour was a measure. We still measure the average calls they are taking per hour but by focusing too heavily on that you might run the risk of customers not getting the best service, so we are taking it the other way.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —You were setting a minimum standard, too, were you?
Ms Hagan —Yes. At the same time as looking at performance measures, throughput, we are also measuring quality, so we have quality listening and double headsetting with the team leaders to make sure that we are providing quality service, and that again comes into the coaching of our customer service officers.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —But you are very much a peaks and troughs organisation, aren't you? I suppose you have a peak coming up. Is that right: an anticipation of what will happen with the July changes?
Ms Hagan —We plan well ahead and we are getting better at that, too. I think that is an area in which we have really improved. We make a lot of use of temporary staff with ons and offs so our forecasts have been quite accurate. I work quite closely with the customer segment leaders on forecasts and we schedule to the forecasts so that we have to know reasonably well in advance what the forecast call load will be. We put staff on to meet that call load, take them off as soon as the pressure is going to be off.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Can you tell me what your forecasts are for July-August? I do not mean the exact forecast but a feel for what you think.
Ms Hagan —It is the heaviest we have ever had. I will have 4,000 staff in the call centres for June, July, August, so it is the biggest. We have staffed it up—
Senator CHRIS EVANS —What is your base staffing?
Ms Hagan —At the moment I actually cannot tell you. It is the difference between full-time equivalents and actual people. We have about 3[half ] thousand people but I think the FTE is under 3,000.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So when you say you will have 4,000, is that FTEs or people?
Ms Hagan —People. We have a lot of part-time workers in the call centres.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So what are you saying? You are putting on an extra 500 to cover?
Ms Hagan —Yes, at least. With the tax reform we have got a lot of extra staff coming on.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —And are they new staff?
—The temporaries are. In fact they are trained for anywhere between four and six weeks before they are allowed on the phone.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Because that is quite an investment for a short peak.
Ms Hagan —It is. For the implementation of the tax reform initiative we have 180 permanent staff and 675 temporary staff this year.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —For that particular initiative.
Ms Hagan —Yes.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —I was going to ask later about Centrelink staffing. I see you got some extra staff in the budget. I presume that makes up part of it, does it?
Ms Hagan —The call centres?
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Yes.
Ms Hagan —I think we get about 80 extra FTE for the call centres.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —For the entire year; that is in addition to your peak—
Ms Hagan —Yes, but we do not put 80 people on. It means that we have got to have a few hundred people for a short period of time.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Yes.
Senator WEST —When you are taking the full-time numbers over the year, say you had 160 on for half a year, that would be 80 year equivalents.
Ms Hagan —Yes, that is right. That is why it is really hard to give you actual figures of staffing.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —I understand. So what do you anticipate to be the peak months—July-August?
Ms Hagan —Yes, July-August will be pretty heavy for us.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —And then you expect it to tail off from there.
Ms Hagan —Hopefully, yes.
Senator WEST —What is the staff turnover like of permanents? What length of time do they stay?
Ms Hagan —It is well under 10 per cent, from memory. I do not have the actual figure with me. It is quite good. The call centre industry has in general a high turnover but Centrelink has not had such a bad problem with that. It is good.
Ms Vardon —Just as a matter of interest, Senator, one of our problems is that people that are well trained, particularly the supervisors and others, have been offered very big jobs at more income, more salary, than our national manager gets, and we are losing some. We are trailing behind. But it is not that they are leaving us because they do not like it. Many are leaving us because they are in demand.
Senator WEST —I was not actually concerned about the reason they were leaving. I was wanting an indication of the numbers that were leaving. That is a familiar story with a number of areas within the Defence Force. The defence minister would be aware, particularly, of the situation with pilots in those specialty areas where we do train them up and then they get pinched. So what are you doing to address this?
Ms Vardon —We will do anything we can but we cannot outbid. We work on what is euphemistically called the psychic capital, Senator.
Ms Vardon —Psychic capital. I use the estimates to introduce new words.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Where do you get these from? You are reading those awful American management books, aren't you?
Ms Vardon —We want people to stay with us because they like working with us, so we work hard at making them feel very special. We have introduced new management training for our team leaders and others in call centres. It is the first time it has happened and they are really enjoying it, and we make sure that all the senior officers come and talk with them and that they have an opinion, and we listen to their opinions and so on. So they are respected as strong contributors to Centrelink and its culture and the way we are trying to do business. A lot of people have joined us because they actually want to make a difference and so we encourage them to be able to do that. These are things which keep our people. We also have good accommodation for them. We have very good training. We have proper breaks and so on and the call centres work very hard at recognition, celebration and all of those other things. That is what we call psychic capital; that is, making sure people feel very important inside our organisation.
Senator WEST —I didn't learn that one at management—
Ms Vardon —I will not say any more of them.
Senator GIBBS —This follows on with your temporary staff. You seem to train them up extremely well and you have them for a certain period of time and then they go.
Ms Vardon —Mostly they fill our permanent jobs. They hang out until there is a permanent job available, Senator.
Senator GIBBS —So the people who are trained for certain jobs at certain times of the year, you try to get those people back, if possible?
Ms Hagan —Yes, because quite often we have peaks and troughs in different subjects so that while you might have families assistance stuff happening now, we might be able to get those same people back to do other special jobs. They might get jobs full time in the customer service centres or they might win full-time positions in the call centre.
Senator GIBBS —Because if they go elsewhere you have lost them, haven't you?
Ms Hagan —Yes, that is right. But it is a lot cheaper than putting people on full time and not managing the peaks and troughs.
Senator GIBBS —You are talking to the wrong person here. I believe in full-time employment for people.
Ms Hagan —Yes.
Senator DENMAN —My question was similar. When you train those people for four to six weeks for a temporary position, when you have permanent positions what percentage of them do you employ back?
Ms Hagan —Senator, I do not have the figures with me. I can find out and get back to you.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Could someone take me to the global staffing stuff. I cannot read these documents. They have done a great job. I cannot find my way through them. Whoever designed them has met their objective. As I understood it, you got an increase in staff numbers in the budget.
Ms Vardon —Eight hundred and thirty-one.
Senator CHRIS EVANS
—That is right; 831 full-time equivalents. I presume, Ms Vardon, from what you told me previously, you would only have got those if they gave you extra jobs as well.
Ms Vardon —Yes.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Can I ask what the distribution of staffing numbers is for?
Ms Vardon —We actually do have that. In fact, David Farrell could probably give me the list. Most of them are going to the customer service offices, so each customer service office could expect two or three extra people, depending on the size of the office.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Why are you putting those extra positions in?
Ms Vardon —Because some of them are complex assessment officers. There will be 54 complex assessment officers going out. They are the people who look after trusts and companies.
Mr Bashford —So it is additional work through the budget, Senator, that we have got, which is to deal with our customers and therefore they will be distributed to the customer service centres.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —What sort of problems will they be dealing with?
Ms Vardon —The trusts and companies. We are getting extra staff for—
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Yes, but in the budget context what is the extra work in the trusts and companies area that is driving that?
Ms Vardon —Perhaps we could get FACS to answer that question.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Go on and finish and I will come back to that.
Ms Vardon —All right.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —I was trying to understand what they were going to do.
Ms Vardon —We are getting some 400 preparing for work reforms on 1 July and some family assistance review work; 280 of those are going to go into data matching and some other compliance initiatives which we will talk about later. We have got 100 or so extra for call centres. We have six extra social workers; extra JET officers and extra financial assistance officers. So the bulk of the new staff will be going out to the customer service centres.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Perhaps we will go through the major groups as to what is driving that, Mr Whalan. You are going to tell us about the financial officers, are you?
Mr Whalan —If I may speak broadly about the complex assessment officers, and then shortly we will go through each of the budget measures and we can pick it up in more detail. The changes in relation to trusts and companies mean that the financial records of a number of Centrelink customers will have to be gone through, and they involve quite detailed calculations and assessments in relation to their financial affairs. To do that, Centrelink employs a number of specialised officers who have a high level of training ability in relation to complex financial matters. The trusts and companies changes will impact on a large number of customers and that is what drives the need to employ these additional highly skilled officers.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —What numbers of customers are affected by those changes, roughly? Do you know?
Mr Whalan —I can get them for you now, Senator.
—There are over 100,000 customers who we know have some link with trusts and companies but the actual number of people who are expected to be affected in terms of their rate by this initiative is much lower, about 35,000, but nevertheless we do have to collect the information from a much larger number of people.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So 100,000 will actually have to have contact.
Ms McIver —It would be more than 100,000, more like 130,000.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So 130,000 will have to have some contact about their arrangements and how it impacts on their payments, et cetera.
Ms McIver —Yes.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Thanks for that. Ms Vardon, the compliance officers were the next big section; or would you rather do this under the budget measures?
Ms Vardon —There are some data matching and other compliance activities. There are 280 jobs for that.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —What are the new measures that drive that?
Ms Vardon —Can I refer to my colleagues in FACS?
Mr Bashford —There are 11 separate initiatives data matching in various different ways but FACS can answer that in more detail if you want them to. They are listed, I believe, in the—
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Sorry, I never get this right. Because they are Centrelink jobs, I presume I ask Centrelink.
Senator Newman —It is the whys and wherefores.
Mr Whalan —I think it is just the point in the cycle we are at at the moment where towards the end of the financial year all these new initiatives have just been announced. FACS has been the prime mover behind designing the initiatives and the way they will work. We work with Centrelink to ensure that they make sense. But we are at the moment the best point to provide that information.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —What are these 280 people going to do then?
Mr Leeper —The question actually relates to the funding model between the department and Centrelink. These additional jobs that are being identified here flow from funds which have been provided by government as additions to the workload of Centrelink in the next financial year and the financial years that follow. So they are showing up as additions to Centrelink's resource base because in effect this department has taken policy proposals through to government. Government has accepted those.
There are departmental cost items associated with those, most of which flow through to Centrelink to make sure they are delivered. So they appear both in the department's part of the portfolio budget statements in terms of initiatives, and in Centrelink's financial part of the statements as well because the flow of funds goes from FACS to Centrelink. So they show as additional jobs but it is additional jobs for additional work.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —I appreciate that. What is the additional work?
Mr Leeper —The additional work relates to a range of measures. I can take you through it now or we can go through it under budget items later.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —No, I just want to get a general feel for what is the major driver of the additional work.
—Some pilot activities around additional areas of data matching, additional resources to action a number of rent assistance reviews that are not currently able to be followed up because of the resource levels that are currently around; in general, moving into new areas of compliance activity to test the effectiveness of new strategies and new forms of data matching.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So it is basically extra resources for compliance activity.
Mr Leeper —Yes.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Could someone take me through this global financial outlook for Centrelink? I notice that revenues look to be dropping in the out years. Is this purely driven by the efficiency dividend factors? I see there are some very impressive figures for the efficiency dividend.
Mr Bashford —The special efficiency dividend finishes this year, Senator, but we are still subject to the normal one per cent that every other organisation is subject to, and of course the eight-year figures do not include any revenue for any budget initiatives that may come through.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So the special efficiency dividend imposed on Centrelink finishes—
Mr Bashford —This year.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —This financial year. So it does not apply next financial year.
Ms Vardon —No, it is not added to next financial year.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Yes, but it has a continuing effect.
Mr Bashford —Of course it is ongoing. It is reduced from the base so the base remains at that level.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So the increasing efficiency dividend is the IT one.
Ms Vardon —Yes, it is constant.
Mr Bashford —That stays at the same level.
Senator WEST —On page 229, in the out years there was a special ED of about $139.4 million plus the standard, plus the IT giving you a bit over 200 for out years. Is the efficiency dividend different from those?
Mr Bashford —You can see on page 229, Senator, that there are a number of forms of the efficiency dividend.
Senator WEST —Yes.
Mr Bashford —The standard efficiency dividend is the normal one per cent which goes on every year.
Senator WEST —Yes.
Mr Bashford —The special efficiency dividend is a total of 10 per cent over three years and you can see it peaks at $139.4 million and stays at that level for the out years.
Senator WEST —Yes.
Mr Bashford —There is the IT dividend which again peaks at $24.8 million and stays at that level for the out years. Then the next figure is the total of all those and the last figure is just the cumulative total since 1997-98.
Senator WEST —I must have misunderstood you because I thought you said it had ended.
—It has ended.
Mr Bashford —It does not increase any more, Senator. There are no further increases in the special efficiency dividend off our base.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —But you will go on being efficient until the day you die, won't you?
Senator Newman —Of course. You would expect it, wouldn't you?
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Yes.
Senator WEST —Maybe it is better phrased by saying that it does not end but it ceases to rise.
Mr Bashford —Yes, Senator, I agree with you.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —So it looks like your revenue is expected to drop quite considerably in the out years from a peak next year. Is that right?
Ms Vardon —It has not included, of course, budget initiatives which we would expect in every subsequent year.
Mr Bashford —They have dropped marginally at the moment but, as the chief executive officer said, there are no budget initiatives included in the out years and there is no new business included in the out years because we do not know whether we will get any.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —That is right. That is probably why it is not included.
Senator WEST —What is your future?
Senator CHRIS EVANS —I am just trying to get a feel for what the global outlook is. The increase in revenue next financial year is different by what?
Mr Bashford —Generally driven by the budget initiatives, Senator—$87 million, I think it was.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —And that is revenue from whom?
Mr Bashford —Family and Community Services entirely this year.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —For implementation of the new package?
Mr Bashford —The range of events, 51 separate measures one way and another, the biggest one of course being the trusts and companies initiative which we have already spoken about.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —Yes. So that is a renegotiation of the payment from FACS to Centrelink for the cost of implementing those measures.
Mr Bashford —Correct. Each year we renegotiate, with every client that we have, a business partnership agreement.
Senator WEST —Yes, because in your summary of future revenue on page 222 you indicate you think your future revenue is going to be $1.746 billion and I am presuming that out of that you have to take $210.8 million which takes you down to $1.5 billion.
Mr Bashford —It is already taken off that figure, Senator.
Senator WEST —It is already taken off that?
Mr Bashford —Yes.
Senator WEST —But that is a revenue projection.
Mr Bashford —Correct.
—So it is a net revenue projection, not the gross revenue projection?
Mr Bashford —Correct.
Senator WEST —Okay, because on these future revenue projections you certainly are going backwards, aren't you?
Mr Bashford —Yes, we will have certainly taken off the one per cent, we will have assumed the one per cent comes off every year, so they will be net figures as well.
Senator WEST —But the one per cent is only the $61 million.
Mr Bashford —One per cent is about $15 million.
Senator WEST —Yes. I am asking about all of the efficiency dividends. I am looking at your summary of future revenue and I am looking at your efficiency dividends.
Mr Bashford —Yes.
Senator WEST —With respect to all of these efficiency dividends, the annual total, have you taken that off the future revenue before you put it down there, or have you only taken off—
Mr Bashford —It is all taken off, Senator.
Senator WEST —All taken off?
Mr Bashford —Yes.
Senator GIBBS —If we go to the summary of future revenue on page 222, it says:
Revenue from Family and Community Services does not include funding to deliver the Family Assistance Office (FAO) Review Mechanism at this stage.
Why isn't that included in future revenues?
Mr Bashford —I think that note was for this year, and it was the difference between the FACS figures and our figures because of a difference in timing, so we did not have the figures available to put into these particular figures, and it is an amount of $10 million.
Senator GIBBS —It is $10 million, is it?
Mr Bashford —Yes.
Senator GIBBS —When will you put that?
Mr Bashford —We will have to add that $10 million on to our revenue.
Senator GIBBS —When will that show up—next year?
Mr Bashford —Yes, Senator.
Senator WEST —Going back to page 217, the Extension of Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme, what can you tell us about that? Can you tell me how many recipients you currently have of that assistance scheme. Whereabouts in FACS will I ask it?
Mr Whalan —When we start on FACS, the first thing we will do is go through the budget measures in order, so we will hit each one.
Ms Williams —Senator, since 2 July 1998 there have been 1,375 customers, including their partners, who have accessed the age pension or a higher rate of age pension under the RAF Scheme.
Senator WEST —That includes partners?
Ms Williams —Partners, yes.
Senator WEST —How many farms? That is probably what I am wanting to know.
—I actually do not have that data here, Senator, but I can take that one on notice and look at it.
Senator WEST —Yes. With customers, you could have six in a family all getting some sort of payment, couldn't you?
Ms Williams —You can have some with partners and some without partners. I would actually have to get some detailed figures on that to be able to spread it out for you.
Senator WEST —Yes. That is what I am trying to ascertain, because I thought the initial projection was something like 10,000. Am I right?
Ms Williams —That is stretching the memory.
Mr Whalan —We can confirm that for you, Senator.
Senator WEST —I know you are the department and agency that is left to administer it. You did not make the projections in the first place. We had something like 12 take-ups in the first 12 months.
Mr Whalan —We will come back to you later today with that figure. We do not have it but we can get it quite quickly.
Senator WEST —Yes, because I am wanting to refresh my memory, and my filing system is not good enough to go back to 1997 when it was first initiated to tell me what the original projection was. The uptake has been a lot slower than was initially estimated. So if you are paying out to 1,375 customers, what is the amount you are paying out in total, please.
Ms Williams —I actually do not have that figure with me, either, Senator, I am sorry.
Ms Vardon —But we could find it out.
Senator WEST —Yes, that is fine. What is happening with aggression levels in Centrelink?
Mr Farrell —Senator, we have been monitoring reported aggression levels closely over the last three years and while last year there was an increase, we think because of a program of encouraging the reporting of incidents, this year so far the numbers of reported incidents seems to have fallen. The incidence of customer aggression prior to the establishment of Centrelink reported incidents—and obviously that is all we can draw conclusions on—was, in 1996-97, 175 reports per 1,000 employees. In 1997-98 that dropped to 85.1 per thousand employees, but we had a concern that that also reflected a failure to report incidents rather than, necessarily, the number of incidents. We mounted a fairly strong internal campaign during the following year, 1998-99, to encourage our staff to report all instances of aggression through a formal reporting system, including verbal aggression and physical. In 1998-99 the rate increased to about 160 per 1,000 employees. The rate for the December 1999 quarter, which is the latest compiled data we have, had dropped by 27.5 per cent on the figure for the previous year. That has been in the face of continued encouragement of staff to report instances of aggression.
Senator DENMAN —Have you got a breakdown between verbal and physical aggression?
Mr Farrell —Not a statistical breakdown but by far the majority of reported instances are verbal aggression.
—It is just that I am beginning to get more reports and complaints about higher levels of aggression and we are getting more of your clients coming through our doors upset, annoyed and frustrated than we did two years ago. Talking to staff unofficially—and I know they will get into trouble if they thought they were talking to me—they are reporting it. They think the level of aggression is rising. I actually had one of your clients and a constituent come in and express concerns and say that he thought there should be security within the office complex. The office involved did not think there was any need for that—because we certainly passed that request on to them. It has been coming to my attention and it is not a statistically valid or measurable survey, but it is a trend that I can notice coming through my office. The level of complaints against Centrelink and Telstra are the two that are increasing in our office workload.
Ms Vardon —Senator, there are a couple of things I want to say about that. Firstly, aggression often relates to the peaks of the policy initiatives and other things. We had a significant reduction in aggression when we took a harder line on emergency payments inside our organisation because there was a very clear understanding, towards the end of last financial year, of a strong correlation between drug addiction and our emergency payments. We had instances of drug pushers standing outside our Centrelink offices, standing over people to go in and get emergency payments. This was of concern to us around Australia because the money, we believed, was being used inappropriately.
We took a harder line on that, not an insensitive line. We still make emergency payments but we took a harder line. That made a very significant difference to aggression because there wasn't this sort of standover factor that was happening. From time to time when we are taking, for example, a firmer position in relation to breaching or something else like that, people get cross for a period of time until they understand the new way things are happening. Aggression is not a point of time capacity. We put a lot of energy into making sure that we get better emergency response reactions, but that our staff are better trained as well to handle people who can get upset.
I am surprised and interested to hear that you say you are getting more complaints because we check all the indicators we can from members of parliaments' letters, to ombudsmen, to everybody else all the time and we do not see a big rise in complaints, but I would be very happy to respond to anything you want to say to it.
Senator WEST —You will not see a rise in complaints coming from letters from me as ministerials because I do not do it that way. What we do is go directly to the office and sort it out that way. Whatever it is, sort it out at the local level. It is fixed instantly. Probably it is not even aggression but it is more people coming through the doors or ringing up. It is not just for one particular office. It is across the board, because I deal state-wide with concerns, frustrations and wanting issues resolved.
Ms Vardon —Can I ask if you can differentiate between the ways we deliver the service, or is it that they are responding to the particular eligibility or ineligibility of the issue?
Senator WEST —Some have been those and with our intervention we have been able to get the review undertaken more speedily and have a better outcome than what they would have been led to anticipate they were going to get. It is just my feeling, from talking to my staff and them reporting what is coming through our front door and on our telephones, and then I happened to be in a conversation with a friend who works in Centrelink a couple of weeks ago and they reported also that they felt the aggression levels were on the rise again; the frustration, the annoyance. Not to the physical stage but just people frustrated at what is happening and what is not happening. Some of it may be that they are frustrated at the guidelines that you are required to work under and that you have no flexibility. On occasion, some of those cases—
Senator GIBBS —It is fairly widespread.
—We are anticipating, with the Family Assistance Office, that a lot of people who have been upset with the families payments and the debts that have been raised and so on—and I know there have been a number of complaints to members of parliament about that—that those issues will reduce because the circumstances of how the payment is made will be quite different, and then the notion of the debts being raised like they were before should be a thing of the past—not totally but significantly. That is one area where we know people get quite upset. We are all looking forward to 1 July for that policy change. I respect what you are saying.
Senator WEST —I cannot do any more than say what is coming through our door. Maybe that is an alert to you that something is going on out there. I do not know if it is happening in other areas.
Ms Vardon —I visit four offices a week to make sure that I keep in touch with what is happening. I talk to the people who are there. You are listening to the customers and I hear that.
Senator WEST —Can I follow up my questions that I asked about absenteeism in February. What is happening?
Ms Vardon —The figures for this year are looking better. We are anticipating 14.9 days. It is still far too high. We are targeting downwards and that is our plan.
Senator WEST —What have you done to bring it down to 14.9 from 17.5?
Mr Farrell —Senator, at the highest management level in the organisation we have developed a draft plan. Even the discussion of the issue of unplanned leave seems to have had an impact around the place, not just because of heavier compliance with our staff or anything like that, but an awareness among staff of the impact of not making alternate arrangements, bearing in mind that quite often the leave that people take is within their entitlement, but just the same the disruptive impact of that on their work colleagues can be substantial. There are a range of options that people can take to avoid having to leave the workplace. For example, we encourage them—I suppose informally, at our customer service centre level—if people need to leave for child care there can actually be arrangements where the children can be accommodated in the customer service centre in the amenities area for short periods of time.
We are looking at an awareness campaign with our own staff so that they clearly understand their obligations to the organisation as well as the organisation's obligations to them and the consequences of taking unplanned leave. We are asking people to be accountable for the leave that they take and to inform people. It is a heightened awareness from both management and staff's point of view that we think has had this impact. We think, because these have been relatively informal actions, we have recently developed a draft plan to address the issue of unplanned leave which will see a much stronger focus on informing managers, leaders and staff about their mutual obligations in how they deal with these instances of unplanned leave.
Senator WEST —You have recently negotiated an enterprise agreement, have you?
Ms Vardon —It has been in place for some time.
Mr Farrell —It is a bit old now but, yes.
Senator WEST —The old enterprise agreement for leave, as I understood it, was two weeks full time full pay; two weeks half pay.
Mr Farrell —Sick leave.
Senator WEST —Sick leave. In the current one I understand it is four weeks leave full pay.
—I do not have a copy of the current agreement with me but that type of leave has been rolled into a form of leave called personal leave which incorporates a whole range of things: leave for caring for children, what we used to call special leave in the old Public Service regulations, but they have all been rolled into a type of leave called personal leave which is essentially leave for any circumstances where a person needs to absent themself from work for personal reasons.
Ms Vardon —Senator, the last agreement was a comprehensive agreement, unlike the one before. We had to roll up every single entitlement a person had into something. We called it personal leave because the emphasis was on not having lots of little subcategories of leave but to try and look at it more wholistically. They are not additional benefits but a roll-up of all the entitlements that were there before.
Senator WEST —But previously with sick leave you required certificates if you were absent for more than two days or three days. Under this current one there is no real requirement for certificates?
Mr Farrell —It is at the team leader's or manager's discretion. If there was doubt about someone's bona fides in claiming such leave, they may well ask for certificates or other evidence, whether it is some sort of indication of the caring that might be required from a third party—but as a general rule my understanding is that managers generally trust their staff and will not require that sort of documentary evidence unless the leave is of a more significant nature.
Senator WEST —So there is less policing going on?
Ms Vardon —There was.
Mr Farrell —There was. Part of the plan that we are putting in place now suggests that there should be a bit more focus on accountability on both parts.
Senator WEST —So you have not seen, with this reduction in absenteeism and more policing—albeit unofficial—of the leave, increases in applications for stress leave?
Mr Farrell —No. The data I have is on claims for stress related compensation that have been accepted, and that show significant—
Senator WEST —What about those that have been lodged? That is a bit different.
Mr Farrell —I do not have details here of claims that have been lodged. I can certainly try and get those for you.
Senator WEST —Thank you. I would like both sets of statistics. I do not think you can have one without the other because compensation is an interesting issue and you can have a lot of fights before you actually get to the final conclusion. Okay, I will leave it there.
Senator McLUCAS —Going back to that issue of aggression, do you keep statistics on the number of banned clients from offices?
Mr Farrell —No. Bans do not get recorded in any form of national database. We have a reporting system for incidents of customer aggression, but not necessarily the consequences of that aggression, which might be a ban. So there would not be an easy way to link that.
Senator McLUCAS —So you do not know the number of bans?
Mr Farrell —Not at any one time.
Senator McLUCAS —Is it very common?
Mr Farrell —From my Network experience, no, it is not very common. There are a couple of reasons for that. The enforcement of such bans is extremely difficult, it—
Senator WEST —It is not if there are AVOs taken out.
—No, but these are not AVOs that I am talking about. These are notices that are sent to the customer basically by the manager of the office or, if it is all offices, by the area manager, banning them from personal attendance at a Centrelink office for a specified period of time, asking them to do all of their business by telephone or by other arrangements that the particular site will put into place for dealing with their particular needs.
Senator WEST —So you do not know how many bans there are?
Mr Farrell —At any time, no.
Senator McLUCAS —Do you think it would be useful to keep that sort of information?
Ms Vardon —Not particularly.
Mr Wadeson —We do have a number of AVOs as well. At any one time I guess there would be three or four AVOs in force where people are asked to deal with us over the phone, and it is a formal arrangement. The banning arrangement, as it is applied, is a stop from coming into one office. What happens is that they are given one main contact in another office, so although they might be stopped from coming into one office, they are given another office and told to go there and try and make a fresh start.
Senator WEST —Yes, but where Senator McLucas and I live that is a bit useless when the office might be 200 or 300 kilometres away.
Mr Wadeson —Yes. I know in some remote areas where there is not that sort of access we have in fact had arrangements where, if people do not have phone access, the manager meets the person in an outside forum to deal with any business. But usually the phone option is used for most of this sort of work. The reason we do not count them is that at any one time there would not be 10 right across the network. They are very small numbers. These people have caused considerable aggression in the office and this is not something that is undertaken lightly. It usually relates to acts of physical violence.
Senator McLUCAS —I have two of yours.
Mr Wadeson —You have two?
Senator WEST —I have one or two as well.
Senator McLUCAS —We must hang out in the wrong area. You do not know also the number of bans that are on in your agency type offices where you have people working as—
Mr Wadeson —I have never heard of an instance in an agency type office.
Ms Vardon —The agency office would not be able to put a ban on a Centrelink customer. It would have to be done by the manager that was supporting that agency.
Senator WEST —I do not think the manager knew about it in the regional office.
Ms Vardon —Sorry, you obviously have an example of an agency office banning somebody?
Senator WEST —I do not want to go into it. It is a small town and it would have repercussions, but certainly bans were used.
Ms Vardon —By the agent?
Senator WEST —I never quite got to the bottom of whether it was by the agent or by somebody else, but it involved someone who did not have a phone on.
Senator Newman —Would you like to talk to the officers from Centrelink privately after?
—I think we have fixed the problem, but I am concerned about this issue of banning if there is not a reporting mechanism of the number of bans on so that you get some idea about it. The AVO ones I understand you probably do know about, but—
Mr Wadeson —Yes. You have to understand that usually the way these things work is that a systems record is made that this person has a history of aggression, and if that person moves it is often not until they are in the next office that the staff there, bringing up the record, will see that this record is attached to it. Usually, although we talk about a ban, what that means is that the staff will have another staff member with them, usually the manager, who will just stand there, or other staff will be alerted, just in case there is any trouble, if these sorts of records exist.
Senator McLUCAS —I acknowledge it is a very difficult situation, and the safety of staff has to be paramount—
Ms Vardon —Yes.
Senator McLUCAS —but the net effect of banning a client is that someone else has to assist that person, because usually that person has extraordinary levels of disability.
Mr Wadeson —Yes.
Senator McLUCAS —And that pushes that onto another person, and often that person is a member of parliament.
Mr Wadeson —I was going to add that a lot of work has gone on in some offices in inner Melbourne about actually taking the service out to community service providers, and we have found that a very effective way of dealing with, once again, a very small number of people outside the office. So that to the extent that these people are getting some sort of assistance, we can be more proactive these days in trying to take the service there, rather than having them come into offices, because they are very badly disturbed in some cases.
Senator McLUCAS —Okay. Thank you.
Senator WEST —Do you want to ask anything more on Centrelink?
Senator GIBBS —My office is trying to track down one of those questionnaires. Whether we get it here on time is another thing, but if we do not get it today we can bring it up next time.
Ms Vardon —I would like to give you a better answer before next time, Senator. I would like to give you an answer immediately.
Senator DENMAN —With aggression, you deal with verbal aggression, but what if somebody is very physically aggressive? Do you have to call the police in?
Mr Farrell —Yes.
Senator GIBBS —Regarding the media campaign—control and fraud deterrence. Where can I ask that one?
Mr Whalan —We are just about to go through, at the beginning of FACS, each of the new budget initiatives, and that will be one of them.
Senator GIBBS —Sure.
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Tchen) —I thank the officers of Centrelink. The committee will adjourn for a brief private meeting.
Proceedings suspended from 10.36 a.m. to 10.45 a.m.
—I call the meeting to order. I think that most people would now be aware that the committee has expressed a view that it would in fact like to cover the budget and non-budget measures that were going to be called on separately under each outcome. I understand from the minister and Mr Whalan that that, in the main, can be accommodated even though there are some crossovers, but hopefully they too will be able to be accommodated. We are grateful for your support on that matter and we will now proceed with outcome 1, output 1.1, Family assistance.