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Wednesday, 27 May 1987
Page: 3388

Mr HOWE (Minister for Social Security)(11.43) —in reply-Ignoring the final speaker, can I say, in relation to the assurance sought by the honourable member for Barker (Mr Porter), that I understand the concerns raised. There is no reason at all why the Opposition could not be briefed in relation to the precise meaning of those clauses before the matter goes to the Senate. Certainly, I am more than happy to provide assurances with respect to the limitation that the honourable member suggests in relation to the use of those powers.

New sub-section 17 (4) enables the release of information where it is in the public interest in classes of cases, as referred to by, I believe, the honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Hand). This development is desirable to enable classes of cases to be specified as in the public interest, for example, where the Department of Social Security releases information concerning the whereabouts of a kidnapped child in custody proceedings to enable the return of the child to the person judged most suitable by a court. This is a convenient way to handle such situations rather than having a senior officer determine each such case.

The delegation for the use of such power is very restrictive; only very senior officers in central office can hold that power. I believe there is concern about the release of information to other Commonwealth departments. This development is intended to assist in the crackdown on fraud, as well as other fraud against the Commonwealth. It is also intended to assist in the recovery of social security debts. The controls on this power are the same as those referred to in relation to access to information and the power to obtain.

There is also concern about the release of information about a person to another person where that person has given implied authority for its release. I am told that that is the current position. Information can be released to a person such as a client's solicitor, accountant, next of kin, member of parliament or minister of religion as a person who can be reasonably seen to have the client's implied authority for release.

I note the concerns of the member for Melbourne and the shadow spokesman, and I will seek to ensure that those fears are allayed. I might say that I have received a submission along these lines from, I believe, the Australian Council of Social Service, certainly from Julian Disney. I will give the Australian Council of Social Service the assurance that we will ask the National Council for Social Welfare to look at the operation of these provisions and a number of other provisions, which, I might say, are unrelated to the secrecy question, to see how they work in practice. If there is a need to make any change to restrict any powers, that matter could be considered in the Budget session.

I recognise the concerns expressed by the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt); I acknowledge that this is a very sensitive area, but at the same time I believe that the public is looking for an assurance that we are running the social security system with integrity. There are some tensions, and I believe that they have to be handled in a balanced way. The honourable member for Melbourne sought the assurance that I would consult very widely. Political circumstances permitting, it was certainly my intention over the winter recess to visit each of the States.

Mr Porter —Maybe in a little less relaxed way.

Mr HOWE —It will be a little broader than the welfare sector; a number of people are interested in aspects of unemployment that are not essential to social security. I had intended, and I still intend, to go ahead with a program of broad consultation. I am quite happy to give assurances to both honourable members.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a third time.