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Tuesday, 31 May 1994
Page: 963

Senator SHORT (6.22 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

The Auditor-General's Report No. 35 1993-94 deals with an efficiency audit into the compliance function of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and is very interesting. The compliance function is an essential part of the maintenance of the integrity of Australia's immigration system. We are very fortunate in Australia to have a country which is surrounded by water. We have no adjoining land borders with other countries. That makes the surveillance and monitoring of our immigration program, or the intake of migrants into Australia, that much easier.

  On the other hand, as we have seen from long experience, our very long coastline makes the detection of unauthorised border arrivals more difficult than it would otherwise be. But the compliance function relates essentially to requiring people who arrive in Australia legally and then become illegal to comply with the law and therefore leave when they are detected. The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants in Australia have come in legally and overstayed. Essentially, that is the case with people who come in on a tourist or visitor visa, a short-term visa, and overstay their entry, therefore becoming illegal.

  At the moment there are about 80,000 illegal immigrants in Australia. That is a very large figure although it has to be kept in perspective when we consider that, nowadays, there are 5.2 million arrivals in Australia each year of people who come in as visitors, permanent immigrants or for other reasons, and of those 5.2 million arrivals, approximately 20,000 overstay each year. That is a large number, but it is less than half of one per cent of the total annual arrivals, and needs to be kept in context in that sense.

  Nevertheless, each year we are getting 20,000 illegal entrants in the form of overstayers and the compliance function, which essentially is to detect those illegal entrants and to ensure that they leave Australia, is very important because if it is not carried out the integrity of the whole of our migration program is undermined.

  The cost of compliance in Australia is estimated by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs today to be of the order of $30 million. That is a not insignificant drain on taxpayers' funds. It is encouraging to see that the number of illegal entrants is declining marginally year by year. In the last year or so the total has fallen by about 2,000. In 1992-93, 15,000 illegal overstayers were located and most of those, of course, were required to leave.

  As I said, there were 20,000 new illegal entrants. The reason the total number is falling is that some of those who do overstay subsequently leave of their own volition, without having to be required by the department to comply. The efficiency audit by the audit office does, I am pleased to say, reach the conclusion that the department is addressing the challenges associated with the proper management of this compliance function.

  The audit office adds that improvements can come with better coordination of activities and greater attention to ensuring that data used to support operations is timely and accurate. There are some useful recommendations by the audit office, most of which the department appears to agree with. I hope that as a result of the efficiency audit and the department's consideration of it, we will see further improvements in the compliance function.

  There is one point in particular that I wish to draw to the attention of the Senate; that is, the question of illegal entrants working whilst in Australia. The rule is that people who are illegally in Australia are not permitted to work. One of the interesting and significant findings, and a finding of concern by the audit office, was that the procedures followed by the Commonwealth Employment Service do not require its staff to screen applicants to establish that they have the right to work in Australia. On page 41 the audit report states:

Where the checks are not performed and an individual who is not entitled to work is referred by CES to an employer, employers could be placed in the position where they employ, train and become reliant upon staff provided by the CES and then see the staff taken into custody by DIEA, another arm of the Commonwealth.

The audit report makes the following very proper point:

The determination of an individual's right to work is not only a task for the employers. At an individual office level, staff of the CES are also encouraged by some DIEA offices to examine the right to work of individuals prior to referring them to potential employers. CES procedures do not involve such checks unless staff have reason to suspect that jobseekers may be overseas visitors, in which case staff can ask to see a valid passport or a valid visa before referring them to vacancies. Therefore, in some cases, it was referring to employers jobseekers who could not legally work.

It is a matter of concern. It is ridiculous to have a situation where one Commonwealth agency, in this case the CES, is referring potential employees to employers, despite the fact that those employees are not legally entitled to work in Australia. I strongly believe, as does the audit report and indeed the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, that the CES should have greater responsibility in establishing that its clients have authority to work in Australia. Here we are spending $30 million on the compliance function through the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, yet in contravention of that compliance function illegal entrants are being referred for work by the CES.

  The ANAO's recommendation 14 is that the CES and DIEA:

should strengthen their stance on entitlement to work, with complementary action by the CES to ensure that its services are provided only to those entitled to them.

The Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs agrees with the thrust of that recommendation and says in its response:

While there is currently no national arrangement between the DIEA and the CES in this regard, most DIEA compliance offices have an arrangement at local level whereby CES officers may contact DIEA for guidance on how to establish a person's immigration status with respect to work.

On the other hand the response of the Department of Employment, Education and Training is less than enthusiastic and is as follows:

Noted. In DEET's view that the use of CES job brokerage services by illegal entrants is minor and the problem may be overstated by the DIEA. In particular, the vast majority of CES registrants are Department of Social Security beneficiaries and are subject to a rigorous identity and residency check by that Department.

The DEET response adds, I am pleased to note, that it is: . . . currently giving priority to the development of procedures for verifying applicants' identity and residency status as a prerequisite for access to labour market programs.

I think that should be a priority on the part of the CES. Obviously there are cost factors involved for the CES in undertaking a more rigorous checking of the eligibility for employment by its clients. Nevertheless, if we are really serious about having an immigration program which respects the integrity that we all want that program to have, the cost obviously will not be excessive in ensuring that all agencies of government work with that common aim in mind—namely, the integrity of the program. That is an important point of principle as well as of policy.

  There are many other recommendations in the report that I will not go into now. I commend the Australian National Audit Office on the report which is very helpful. I am pleased that the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs gets a pretty clean bill of health in terms of compliance functions. I hope that it will get an even cleaner bill of health as a result of its positive response to the Auditor-General's recommendations.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.