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Thursday, 18 October 1984
Page: 1928


Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General) —Mr President, I table the Government response to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs on 'Freedom of Information Act 1982-Annual Report by the Attorney-General on the operation of the Act for the period 1 December 1982 to 30 June 1983'. I seek leave, Mr President, to have the text of that statement incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

On 6 June 1984 Senator Missen presented a report by the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs on the Annual Report by the Attorney-General on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 for the period 1 December 1982 to 30 June 1983. The Committee's report made four recommendations. The Committee's recommendations and the Government's responses are as follows:

PUBLICITY

Recommendation

1. The Government should proceed with the recommendations of the Attorney- General to ensure that there is a better knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act, so that the public and public-interest bodies may make full use of the valuable amount of information which is now available for their use.

Response

Accepted. A survey has been conducted on behalf of the Government by the Roy Morgan Research Centre to assess present levels of public awareness and understanding of the general public's rights under the Freedom of Information Act. The results of the survey confirmed that public knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act is very low. The survey showed that less than 40 per cent of the population had heard of the Act and less than 10 per cent knew how to request access to documents under the Act. The Government has therefore embarked on a major publicity program to promote people's awareness of their rights of access under the Freedom of Information Act to documents of Commonwealth Departments and authorities. The publicity program commenced in June 1984 with the release by the Australian Tax Office of 6.5 million 1984 Tax Guides containing a printed message about FOI. In the months of July and August 1984 the Department of Social Security issued an insert, containing an FOI message, with every pension or benefit cheque posted to its clients. The Department of Veterans' Affairs is considering a similar exercise for its clients. An FOI message will be printed by the Department of Education and Youth Affairs on most 1985 study assistance scheme information booklets and on 1985 notices of conditions of award to successful applicants for study benefits.

Consideration is being given to the inclusion of an FOI general information page in every 'white pages' telephone directory by December 1985. It is intended that this page be adjacent to and cross-referenced with the Commonwealth Government section in each directory and that the FOI page become a permanent feature of telephone directory information.

The Attorney-General's Department has produced a new FOI information brochure which includes a 'tear-off' FOI request form. Five hundred thousand copies of this brochure have been distributed to all post offices in Australia. Thirty five thousand copies have been distributed by the Australian Tax Office to all tax agents. Thirty thousand copies have been supplied to Government Departments and agencies for distribution by counter staff. Ethnic language versions of the brochure will also be produced. Additional brochures dealing with appeal rights and correction of personal records are also being produced.

Arrangements have been made for community awareness seminars on FOI to be held throughout Australia. Seminars have already been conducted by the Attorney- General's Department in Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville and Darwin. Seminars have also been conducted in Melbourne, Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong. The Victorian seminars were conducted jointly by officers of the Victorian Government and the Attorney-General's Department and dealt with both the State and Commonwealth legislation. The Department of Social Security has conducted a series of FOI seminars in Hobart, Launceston, Burnie and Devonport. Further seminars will be held later this year in Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales. The thrust of all these seminars is at community groups and business organisations: people who can in turn pass the information on to their clients and members.

I believe that these initiatives should ensure that the vast majority of Australians will be aware of the existence of freedom of information legislation . A second public awareness survey will be conducted early in 1985 in order to assess the effectiveness of the Government's FOI publicity program.

FOI HANDBOOK

Recommendation

2. The Government should facilitate the provision of information about Departments required to be supplied under the Act and ensure that the Freedom of Information Handbook is produced and widely distributed at an early date.

Response

Accepted. The FOI Handbook is a long-term project which is being developed as resources allow. The memoranda included in the publication 'Guidelines to Freedom of Information Act' are being revised by the Attorney-General's Department to take into account changes made by the Freedom of Information Amendment Act 1983 and significant decisions by the Federal Court and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. These revised memoranda will form the core of the proposed handbook. The Australian Government Publishing Service is conducting a study to determine the appropriate format for the handbook. This study will look at overseas experience in producing publications to assist members of the public to understand and make use of FOI legislation.

USE OF EXCEPTIONS, EXEMPTIONS AND TIME DELAYS

Recommendations

3. The Attorney-General's Department should carefully monitor the differences appearing in the usage made by agencies of exceptions and exemptions and the varying times taken to meet requests.

4. The Attorney-General's Department should be vigilant in monitoring exceptions and exemptions to ensure that technical defects in applications are not used to frustrate access to information.

Response

Accepted. The 1983 FOI Annual Report (paragraphs 3.4.1. to 3.4.4.) outlined measures taken by the Attorney-General's Department to ensure consistency of administration by all agencies which are subject to the Act. An inter- Departmental working party has recently completed a review of the statistical monitoring system which was set up to provide information on how the FOI Act is administered in over 400 agencies which are subject to the legislation. The review was conducted against a background of shortfalls in the existing system identified in the Annual Report (paragraphs 3.8.17. and 6.1.) and concerns expressed by agencies about the workload imposed in providing statistics. As a result a new statistical reporting system will commence operation in 1985. It is hoped that this new system will provide more accurate information on the use by agencies of different exceptions and exemptions. Recent improvements to the Attorney-General's Department computer system will permit the Department to make better use of these statistics in monitoring the operation of the Act.

The average time taken by all agencies to respond to requests continues to remain well within the 60 day time limit set by the Act. The number of requests in which response time is substantial also remains relatively low. The Annual Report (paragraph 6.4.2.) noted that some agencies experience difficulties in dealing with particular requests because of the complexity of issues raised by requests, because of the large number of documents to which some applicants seek access or because of the need for consultation with State Governments, suppliers of business information or other agencies. These factors continue to cause problems but increasing familiarity with FOI legislation by State government agencies and business organisations should result in a decrease in the time spent by agencies in dealing with some requests. The Act provides applicants with extensive rights to seek review, by the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, of agencies' decisions and actions in dealing with requests. It is not, of course, possible for the Attorney-General's Department to monitor the handling of individual requests. Where delays occur applicants have direct remedies under the legislation. There is no general evidence of agencies adopting an overly technical approach to the legislation. In monitoring arguments put by agencies in Administrative Appeals Tribunal proceedings under the Act, the Attorney-General's Department seeks to ensure that agencies comply with both the spirit and the letter of the Freedom of Information Act.