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Tuesday, 25 March 1997
Page: 2457

Senator WOODLEY(11.41 p.m.) —As the name suggests, the bill before us tonight will establish the Commonwealth Services Delivery Agency. Initially, the new agency will deal with a number of payments which are made separately at the present time. It will deal with income support payments made by the Department of Social Security; various functions of the Commonwealth Employment Service; student assistance payments made by the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs; and the provision of child-care rebates.

It is envisaged that the agency will take on further Commonwealth department functions at a later stage. Overall, the notion of providing a one-stop shop for Commonwealth services has been fairly well received and the Democrats will be supporting this bill as a whole.

We are optimistic that the establishment of the new agency may go some of the way to reducing the maze of complexity that faces many social security recipients when they deal with the department. It will, for example, eliminate the need for an unemployed person to go to the CES to register as unemployed and then go to the DSS—often in a different building and sometimes in a different town—to claim their unemployment payments.

It also has the potential to eliminate some of the communication breakdowns between DSS and the CES that unemployed people occasionally find themselves caught between. Hopefully, another thing it might do is break down some of the empire argy-bargy that went on previously between Social Security and the CES. I thought it was unfortunate when some of that power struggle was happening.

The setting up of the new agency is not without its risks, however, and I indicate now that the Democrats will be supporting a number of ALP amendments which address issues identified at the community affairs committee inquiry on this bill. I say to the Minister for Social Security (Senator Newman) that we did not have a chance to have that briefing, so I have to indicate to you that is where we are. If we do not get to the committee stage this evening, I do not know whether we can still have it. But I certainly want to indicate that is our current situation.

We do believe that the amendments will more clearly define the agency's role. They will make ministerial directions given to the agency more open and they will ensure that the working conditions of the agency's staff are protected. That is a concern for us because we have had a number of calls over the past week from both DSS and DEETYA staff who are feeling very unsure about their futures under the new agency, and I think that is particularly so for CES staff. I hope the minister might address those concerns in her reply because at the moment they seem to be very real. I understand that DEETYA staff are much more secure than CES staff are under this new arrangement—at least that is the feeling they have. If the minister can address that, that would be very helpful to them, I am sure. I wonder whether the minister could provide some reassurance and protection for those people when we come to the amendments in the committee stage.

One of the other issues that I also raised with some of the minister's staff when I had a briefing with them was one that the Democrats have run with for a long time. I know various groups such as the Welfare Rights Centre have made this suggestion on a number of occasions, and it is one that the minister may be prepared to take up. Now that there is going to be a one-stop shop, something simple which would be of further assistance to people who attend one-stop shops would be a single application form. I wonder whether the minister might take that on board. Obviously there will need to be some sorting out, but the idea is that there would be a single form which would supply fundamental details, such as a person's name and address and some of the financial details et cetera, and then staff of the one-stop shop would be able to direct people in relation to what further information is required for the appropriate pension or benefit.

The Democrats were also concerned about some of the privacy issues involved in the establishment of the new agency and in particular the risks associated with holding a large amount of personal information in the one office—information which has been collected from a number of different departments. This issue was raised in the submission made by the Privacy Commissioner to the community affairs committee inquiry. I understand, however, that the department has been consulting with the Privacy Commissioner and the minister will be providing the Senate with an undertaking which addresses those privacy concerns. I simply put on record that this is one aspect of the new agency's performance that the Democrats will be monitoring as closely as we can. The Democrats hope the establishment of the new agency will lead to improved service to the public, not just in metropolitan areas but also in rural and regional centres.

Again, there is a concern. At the moment the child-care rebate, for example, is paid in some areas through Medicare agencies. I wonder whether the minister would be able to tell us the government's contingency plans for the areas which do not have a one-stop shop close by that people can access.

Finally, we were pleased to see that the Department of Social Security has indicated a commitment to retaining all its current specialist services, including services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, to people with a disability, to young people, to sole parents and to people in remote areas. The Democrats will be supporting this bill.