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Thursday, 18 October 1984
Page: 2002


Senator Dame MARGARET GUILFOYLE(5.32) —by leave-Report 225 of the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts is presented in two volumes-the first, an appraisal of Stratplan, the automatic data processing re-equipment program of the Department of Social Security, and the second, appendices to the report dealing with occupational health and safety aspects of the use of visual display equipment. When the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes) announced his Department's complete computer re-equipment program, Stratplan, in June 1983, he recognised that this was a very expensive and complex program and announced that the Government had decided to refer it to the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts for monitoring and report. Stratplan will bring about the replacement of outmoded and inadequate equipment in each State, the establishment of a National Computer Centre in Canberra, the installation of mini-computers in regional offices and approximately 7,000 visual display units throughout the Department. The Minister in June 1983 announced that the cost of the re-equipment would be $100m but information available to the Committee during this inquiry has suggested that that cost may now be as high as $234m.

During 1984 the Committee conducted six hearings in which the Department of Social Security presented progress reports and made submissions on specific areas of concern to the Committee. The Committee also visited the Department of Social Security's National Computer Centre in Deakin, in the Australian Capital Territory, and met representatives of the Public Service Board, the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association and the Capital Territory Health Commission. The report addresses the important issues arising out of these hearings, particularly occupational health and safety, industrial relations, offset arrangements, the tendering and purchasing processes and project and financial management. The Committee concludes from its investigations that the Department of Social Security has been successful in the implementation of many aspects of Stratplan, such as its purchasing procedures, the installation of equipment in the National Computer Centre and in New South Wales, the recruiting and training of staff, the design of ergonomically sound furniture and terminals and in the initiation of project management methodologies.

However, the Committee notes that industrial relations are difficult due mainly to the inability of the Department to provide eyesight and radiation emission tests for equipment that the staff associations demand. This controversy has resulted in considerable delays in the implementation of Stratplan. In this matter the Department is constrained by the Public Service Board which is responsible for setting standards for conditions of service of government employees. The Committee recommends that the Public Service Board consult with other appropriate departments and agencies to establish and promulgate common occupational health and safety standards as a matter of urgency. Common standards may prevent the recurrence of the problems faced by the Department of Social Security which has been required to negotiate at length health and safety standards with staff associations.

The Committee has also noted that two of the suppliers of equipment for the Stratplan project have not at this stage met their offset agreements. The Committee regards compliance with offset arrangements as vital to advance the capability and capacity of Australian industry and is concerned that the benefits of the Stratplan offsets may be less than predicted. The Committee has recommended that all offsets agreements be signed prior to contracts being let and may pursue the issue of Australian industry participation and the offsets program as a follow up two recent Auditor-General's efficiency audit reports.

The Committee has also expressed its concern over the Department's uncertainty as to the true cost of the project, which I indicated earlier could now be as high as $234m, and has recommended that the Departments of Social Security and Finance together review the total project cost and make a submission to the Committee on this subject. Following this review it is proposed that the Department of Finance oversee the overall costs of the project and regularly report to the Committee. As part of the Committee's monitoring role of the Stratplan project, report No. 225 recommends that the Department of Social Security continue to report progress and problems on a monthly basis to the Committee and the Australian Audit Office.

The issue of the health and safety of keyboard operators is an important one, particularly in the light of the current high incidence of repetitive strain injury in private and government employees. With this in mind the Committee has included as appendices to the report a number of documents which were made available to it on the subject of repetitive strain injury. Volume 2 contains a selection of employer and staff associations policies, views on the legal aspects of the issue, selected departmental directives to keyboard staff and selected research. The Committee hopes that this volume will improve the availability of information on this subject.

The Committee was heartened by the announcement last week by the Honourable John Dawkins, Minister for Finance and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Public Service Matters, of the establishment of a Task Force on Repetitive Strain Injury. This Task Force will be chaired by the Public Service Board and will include representatives of the Office of the Status of Women, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission and the Departments of Health, Employment and Industrial Relations and Housing and Construction. The Australian Council of Trade Unions will be invited to nominate a member to the Task Force. It is hoped that this Task Force will recommend action that the Government as an employer can take to eliminate this serious injury.

The Committee wishes to express its appreciation to the staff of its secretariat and others who contributed to the compilation of this report. I thank particularly Mr Vincent Cleary who was seconded to the Committee as an automatic data processing expert. While I commend this report to honourable senators, I regret that copies are temporarily in short supply but they will be available by 29 October.