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Wednesday, 21 November 1973
Page: 3598

Mr WENTWORTH (MacKellar) - I agree that the statement that the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) has put before us is in most respects moderate and restrained. To that extent I think that it is a withdrawal from the somewhat extravagant statements which he put out earlier. I can only hope that the damage which, perhaps unconsciously, he has done by those previous extravagant statements will to some extent be undone by this one. There are one or two points I should remark upon besides those made by the honourable member for Hotham (Mr Chipp) who preceded me. I refer particularly to the aside of the Minister, which was not contained in his roneoed speech, when he referred to the 'evil practices' of the past Government. This was not only unfair but also out of line with what the Minister had said. Nothing has been done in the past that is not in conformity with the practices inherited from a previous Labor government and from previous governments before that.

As the Minister has pointed out, it is true that there have been changes in services. I think that he was fair in that regard. It is perhaps extraordinary how little complaint has been made in the past - certainly very little justified complaint. In the whole of my 4i years as Minister for Social Services I cannot remember any complaint being voiced in this House on this matter. It is important to remember that by far the greater part of the giving of information by the Department is either for the benefit of the pensioner or with the pensioner's explicit or implied consent. I deal now with that second point of which honourable members will all be aware. Probably hundreds of times in a year every one of us gets a request to look at the circumstances of some pensioner in our electorate. There is an implied consent from that pensioner that his affairs should be known to the honourable member who is trying to help him. Although the files of pensioners are not usually made available there have been occasions when a complaint has been made that a Minister - I, and I think other Ministers, have done this - has discussed the file with the member of Parliament who has brought this matter before his attention and who is acting on 'behalf of the pensioner. I know that I have treated honourable members on both sides of the House in exactly the same way in this regard. I do not recall an instance where, after discussion with the honourable member concerned and the adjustment of what had to be adjusted, there has ever been a matter which has had to be raised subsequently in the House while I was Minister.

The other point is that most of the disclosures are for the benefit of the pensioner. This is necessary when he is a claimant for some kind of concession available to pensioners from a State authority, a local government authority, a charitable authority or, indeed, from one of the Commonwealth departments. In these cases a file is not made available in total or anything like that. The impression given by the Minister's previous statements was quite false in this regard. Only information which is necessary for the settlement of the pensioner's claims is given. They may be just claims and it is important for the pensioner that they should be settled with the least possible delay. I know that some of these practices grew up in the days before there was what is known as a pensioner medical service card used as a method of identification. In those days a pensioner's form was 'available only to those pensioners who had their pensions paid through post offices and not through banks. They, of course, are by no means the whole body of pensioners. But in some cases there was not a ready means of identification. Even today many pensioners are not entitled to PMS cards.

For all these reasons I think it was unfortunate that the Minister should refer, as he did, to debt collecting agencies using the Department's files because the bodies to which he referred, such as the housing commissions, were bodies whose main reason, not sole reason, for getting information was to do something for the benefit of the pensioner. It was necessary for them to verify not details about the pensioner in almost all cases, but the fact that he was a pensioner. I shall not go into the details of this. I promised the Minister that I would speak for only a few minutes and I will keep ito that promise. But I regretted what the Minister said about Professor Pollard. If my memory is correct I think that, in principle, the disclosure to Professor Pollard was authorised while I was Minister for Social Services. The actual disclosure was done while the present Minister was in office, so I suppose that it is reasonable for both of us to bear the responsibility.

Mr Hayden - It was without my knowledge at any stage.

Mr WENTWORTH - That may well be, but I would say that in this case nothing wrong was done. Old files were involved on which there was nothing that could have been of significance. The extracts were for statistical purposes only. I do not blame the Minister for what he did. Although I cannot recall it, I believe that permission in principle was given during the time I was Minister and I have nothing to retract from that at all. I do not blame the Minister for what was done. It may be necessary for academic reasons - 'for such things as, for example, Professor Henderson's inquiry on poverty, which was instituted by the previous Government when I was Minister, or the inquiry on repatriation by Mr Justice Toose, or something like that - for some academic or judicial authority to get statistical information, not personal information, from files. But in general the files are not let out of the possession of the Department. In this case, as I have said, although I do not blame the Minister for what was done I think it was perhaps a little irregular for Professor 'Pollard to have access to the files, although no harm was done. It is purely whipping up hysteria - that is the Minister's phrase - to consider that any harm was done.

I come now to the 2 main points I want to emphasise. 'Firstly, it is possible that there can be human error in such cases. No department is invulnerable to misbehaviour by its officers. The Minister cited a case - I think it was before my time as Minister - of a police officer who got information from the Department and used it for personal purposes to trace the address of his erring wife. That was a misuse of departmental information. It happened not through an officer of the Department of Social Services but through an officer of a police department. It was misconduct. It was misconduct, but there is no system in which misconduct of that character is impossible. This has become much more important because of the use of computers and the greater availability of accessibility of information. It is true that a computer can go wrong, but a computer can also be subjected to misuse by misconduct or by human error. Because of the greater volume of information now being collated it is important that we should have some control over the new facilities. Therefore I think the Minister is right in doing the same thing as the New South Wales Government has recently announced that it will do, that is, to have an inquiry into the better protection of privacy. The Minister's guidelines as set out on page 16 of the reneoed statement may prove impractical. The information will be restricted to cases.

(a)   where there is explicit authorisation or verifiable authorisation by the client concerned, or

(b)   in extreme cases where there exist grave reasons of public interest.

How are we to deal with inquiries by members about pensioners in their constituencies? Many of these inquiries are made by telephone and it is important for the pensioner concerned that they be resolved with the least possible delay. Second, how are we to deal with the position of voluntary organisations which need information about whether an applicant for relief from them is in point of fact a pensioner? How are we to deal with those inquiries that must be made by State welfare organisations if they are to give relief? Those organisations want to know the facts quickly. An inquiry may come in on Wednesday night and it is desired to extend relief to the person concerned on Wednesday night or Thursday morning. There is not sufficient time to go through all the departmental procedure.

Though the Minister's guidelines are well meant, and I can understand the motive behind them, I am afraid that in practice they will act to the prejudice of a great number of pensioners and will make conditions worse for the pensioners. They will impede the operations of State welfare departments. They may well make very difficult the position of those excellent organisations like the Red Cross or St Vincent de Paul or other relief organisations that exist and require quick knowledge - not details - of whether or not a person is a pensioner before they are able to give assistance or assess the relief that should be given.

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