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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 1941

(Question No. 1551)

Senator Kilgariff asked the Minister for Education, upon notice, on 27 November 1986:

(1) Is the Minister for Education aware of complaints from tutors employed under contract under the Aboriginal Education Scheme, that they are owed wages in arrears for over 3 months.

(2) Is the Minister aware that these tutors, who live in the Alice Springs area, have been in financial hardship as a result of the delays in payments of wages by the Commonwealth Department of Education.

(3) On what basis, i.e., weekly, fortnightly, monthly, should tutors employed on a contract basis be paid.

(4) Does the Minister believe that these payments are being made on time, or is she aware of a problem in the payment system.

(5) Is the Minister aware that a problem with late payment of wages has existed for 2 years, and the tutors involved have approached the Northern Territory Ombudsman to attempt to resolve their difficulties.

(6) Is the Minister aware that at least one of the tutors who approached the Department of Education received an acknowledgment that there are difficulties with the pay system, which also included a comment that the employment of the tutor could be terminated without notice, leaving the recipient of the advice with the impression that if he/she queried pay difficulties he/she could end up fired.

(7) Does the Minister agree that this response was quite improper; if so, will she see that further legitimate inquiries concerning late payment for work performed are not met with a similar response.

(8) What efforts are being made by the Department of Education to rectify the problems in the payment system.

(9) When is it expected that these problems will be overcome.

(10) Is the Minister aware of an investigation being conducted into the behaviour of a public servant, in the Department of Education in Alice Springs, in relation to information he or she may have provided a Northern Territory MLA.

(11) Would the public servant under investigation be in breach of any confidentiality provisions if he/she provided basic information, on dates of payments, amounts of payments, etc., which was sought with the knowledge and authority of the person who was entitled to receive payments.

(12) Will the Minister take action to ensure that public servants who may have provided such information are not victimised.

Senator Ryan —The answer to the honourable senator's question is as follows:

Under the Aboriginal Secondary Assistance Scheme (Absec) and the Aboriginal Study Assistance Scheme (Abstudy), assistance is available for students to receive additional tutorials to help overcome specific weaknesses or difficulties encountered in their course. This assistance is supplementary to and separate from tuition provided within the student's course. The tutors involved in the supplementary assistance are not employees of the Commonwealth Department of Education, but are engaged on a contract basis to undertake a specific task over a specific period of time. The program of students receiving tutorials is monitored and the need for tutorials is subject to regular review. Consequently the contracts of tutors are also subject to regular review. As tutors are not employed on a permanent basis, it is regular practice for officers of the Department to inform tutors that they should not regard income from tutoring as a permanent or major source of income.

(1) and (2) I am aware that there were delays in payments during 1986, due to problems associated with the transfer from a manual to a computer based system for processing tutor's claims and because of staffing difficulties in the Darwin and Alice Springs Offices. However, I understand payments are now up to date for claims which have been submitted correctly. As noted above, tutors are advised that they should not regard income from tutoring as a permanent or major source or income.

(3) Payments are made in the fortnight following receipt of claims from tutors. (While there remain some problems associated with the introduction of the new computer system, it has enabled payments to be made fortnightly rather than monthly and in general throughout Australia this has led to a significant reduction in turnaround time for claims). The Department encourages tutors to submit claims each fortnight to ensure there is not a long gap between when the services are provided and when payments are made, but it is not unusual for tutors to submit claims covering six weeks or more.

(4) See response (1) and (2).

(5) In 1985 and 1986, a total of 589 tutors were engaged by the NT Office of the Department of Education. The following complaints were received from the Northern Territory Ombudsman's Office concerning late payments:

10.10.85 from two tutors working at the Community College of Central Australia

26.9.86 from two tutors working at the Darwin Institute of Technology.

(6) and (7) I am aware that a circular letter was sent to a number of tutors in order to clarify the objectives of tutorials and the basis on which they are approved (as I have outlined above). The reference to termination of contracts was a direct extract from the contract signed by tutors and was designed to emphasise the essentially temporary nature of income from this source. There was no suggestion that termination could occur for querying pay difficulties.

(8) A number of steps are being taken to rectify problems:

A senior ADP programmer has been engaged full-time to redesign aspects of the system (software) which have created difficulties.

A review of procedures associated with the system has been undertaken by the NT Office. New procedures have been developed and are currently being trialled.

A staff member in the NT Office has been engaged to co-ordinate and monitor arrangements including provision of advice to both tutors and departmental officers of correct procedures to be followed.

(9) The revision of the software is almost completed and it is expected that the difficulties will be overcome early in 1987.

(10), (11), (12) I am aware that the Department is enquiring into the alleged actions of an officer who at the time was temporarily located in Alice Springs. It would therefore be inappropriate to comment at this stage, but I understand that the allegations do not relate to tutor payments or to information provided to a Northern Territory MLA.