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Thursday, 14 June 1984
Page: 3021

Senator COATES —I ask the Minister for Social Security about the criticism of the Government by a welfare rights group concerning amendments to the Social Security Act which it said take away privacy rights from clients of the Department of Social Security. Can the Minister tell us to what extent those assertions are true?

Senator GRIMES —I read reports and had inquiries made about a resolution passed at a welfare rights meeting in the Australian Capital Territory at the weekend which claimed that, among other things, the Government had rushed through the Parliament new powers for officers of the Department of Social Security to investigate cases and that an Australian Capital Territory welfare rights representative said that in 20 cases in the Australian Capital Territory pensioners had been threatened that if they did not give information about other pensioners they would lose their pensions.

First of all, I have ascertained since that the matter referred to was section 135TF of the Social Security Legislation Amendment Act, which was not rushed through this Parliament but which was passed by the Parliament unanimously last December. It was introduced in the normal way. There was no rush about it at all . In fact, this is the first time I have heard complaints about this legislation . The first thing to say is that the section is a standard information gathering provision used throughout Commonwealth Government legislation. Section 135TF is, in fact, a rationalisation and consolidation of former sections 16 and 141 of the Social Security Act which have been repealed and which had been in the Act since 1947.

Senator Chaney —This explanation should ease their minds.

Senator GRIMES —That will help them a lot. This legislation cannot be used to suspend the pension of a pensioner where he refuses to give information about another pensioner. I am amazed that if the welfare rights person who made this claim about the Australian Capital Territory had actually come up against cases like that he had not contacted either the Department or my office to make such a claim. In fact, inquiries with the Australian Capital Territory administration of my Department indicate no justification for such a claim.

The difference between section 135TF of the new legislation and sections 16 and 141 of the previous legislation is that information provided in writing under section 135TF is no longer automatically confidential as it was under the previous section 141. This enables clients of the Department to obtain a copy of written information about themselves under the freedom of information legislation. The penalty for non-compliance with section 135TF is $1,000 or imprisonment for six months, which is consistent with similar penalties in other Commonwealth legislation. That level of penalty was set upon the advice of none other than the Attorney-General. Section 135TF extends to seeking information from the pensioner himself, whereas section 141 did not; section 16 did. Section 135TF finds the Crown in right of the Commonwealth and the States-

Senator Chaney —Mr President, I take a point of order. I completely understand the wish of the Government senator to have this matter clarified but I suggest that the long, obviously prepared, technical explanation which has been given by the Minister will not help welfare recipients and will not answer the matter. It simply prevents people asking questions which might be of some use to the Australian people. I ask you to ask the Minister to shorten his reply.

Senator Grimes —I am surprised that Senator Chaney did not take a point of order when Senator Baume asked a previous long question and a supplementary question.

The PRESIDENT —Is the Minister speaking on the point of order?

Senator Grimes —I am speaking on the point of order. This matter was raised at a legal conference at the weekend as though we had made technical changes to the legislation, which we had not. The minor technical changes I am now listing. I have only one more sentence. It is important that we make that explanation.

The PRESIDENT —It is not for the Chair to rule as to how a Minister should or should not answer a question. He is entitled under custom and practice to answer a question in any way he so chooses. However, I ask Ministers to take on board the necessity to keep their answers brief.

Senator GRIMES —I say finally that the persons who can exercise the powers in section 135TF are delegates of the Director-General of Social Security. In practice this was the situation under sections 16 and 141 where registrars could exercise powers under those provisions. In fact it was a consolidation and a technical change to improve the legislation. There were no new draconian powers. I suggest that if people, such as the gentleman concerned, make wild claims about what is happening in the Australian Capital Territory, they should be able to substantiate them; especially, they should make inquiries of the Department or the Minister to make sure that, if any such incidents are occurring, they are corrected.