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Tuesday, 21 August 1984
Page: 7

Senator ELSTOB —My question is directed to the Minister for Social Security. It refers to the recent episode of the 60 Minutes program which dealt with overpayment and fraud within the Department of Social Security. Is the Minister satisfied with the coverage given by the program to this matter? Were the facts and figures used by the 60 Minutes team correct? What steps have been taken to tighten further the Department's payment system to avoid fraud and overpayment?

Senator GRIMES —I do not know that it is up to me to be satisfied or dissatisfied with a program of the type of that episode of 60 Minutes. However I, like all members of Parliament I suppose, at times wish that programs of this type were less selective in the information they use. I wish particularly that they would not be misleading, as they are, and as was particularly so in this case about the extent of overpayment and fraud in the Department of Social Security. In fact, the program ignored information given to it by the Department and by me in response to the accusations that were made. The inference attached to the two individual cases mentioned in the program were simply not in accordance with the facts, but I am not willing to disclose the facts of individual cases in or outside this Parliament even in response to such a program.

I must say that I was disturbed to note that the program apparently had files containing names and addresses and individual cases of clients of the Department of Social Security. The simple fact is that steps have been taken by the Department with respect to the issue of replacement cheques. This has been ignored by the program. In 1983-84 nearly 1,000 fewer replacement cheques were issued than in earlier years. The estimate of 2.3 per cent overpayment used in the program referred only to unemployment benefit payments. In fact, the total amount of overpayments debited in 1983-84 was 0.48 per cent of the total amount paid out in that year in all payments by the Department of Social Security. In a budget of some $13 billion, with 66 million-odd cheques, I do not think that is a bad record. The simple fact of the matter is that most overpayments are recovered. Fewer overpayments would occur, particularly as a result of fraud, if in fact we moved to a more direct system of payment. But that is a matter for the future.

The simple fact of the matter is that in this case, and in all these cases, the Department has, over the years, under successive governments, been improving its record in this area. However, there will always be a few people who will try to rip off the system, particularly a system as large as this. Those few people, I believe, are best prevented by the greater certainty of their being detected and , when they are detected, by action being taken either through the courts or without resort to the courts. I hope that in the future programs such as this have more respect for people's rights and more respect for the facts and the truth of the matter. I suppose the aim of the exercise is good television rather than fact, and that is something we all have to live with.