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Wednesday, 25 March 1987
Page: 1510

Mr HOWE (Minister for Social Security)(5.33) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill contains measures to streamline the Social Security Act and its administration. These include:

Renumbering the provisions of the Act so that it reads sequentially;

including current reciprocal agreements on social security with the United Kingdom and with New Zealand in Schedules to the Act;

ensuring that the basis for prosecution of offences under the Act and the level of penalities are comparable to other Commonwealth offences in legislation;

requiring that all administrative decisions are to be in writing unless the decisions are recorded on a computer;

extending the secrecy provision to bind officials who have access to confidential information but who do not have duties or functions under the Act; and

extending the review and appeal provisions to all decisions made under the provisions of the Act.

Improving the style and format of the legislation

The Social Security Act is amended regularly to put Budget decisions into effect. As a result numbering of sections goes awry. Provisions are difficult to cite. As a step towards improving the legislation, this Bill provides for the renumbering of the principal Act. Part, division, section and paragraph numbers will now follow sequentially. For those accustomed to the previous numbering system, a conversion chart is provided in the explanatory memorandum accompanying the Bill to illustrate the changes. Changes have also been made to some sections to achieve greater clarity of expression.

In addition, Australia has recently concluded an amendment to the reciprocal agreement on social security with the United Kingdom and has entered into a new reciprocal agreement on social security with New Zealand. Rather than being left in Schedules to Regulations, these agreements will be placed in Schedules to the Act for greater ease of access. The Bill contains minor amendments made necessary by the changes to education allowances.

Offences under the Act

As honourable members will be aware, the Government has taken initiatives to ensure that social security expenditure is limited to those who are eligible under the Act. Measures have also been taken to reduce the level of overpayments. This includes initiatives to limit fraud and to detect and prosecute those who abuse the system. Section 138 of the principal Act creates a number of offences where pensions, benefits or allowances are sought by those who are ineligible. This section does not punish innocent mistakes. It lists the basis on which a fraud charge may be brought. As knowledge or recklessness is a necessary component of this type of criminal offence, these words are to be added to the section to reflect the interpretation of the section by the High Court of Australia in 1980 in Cameron v. Holt. These changes do not affect current practices relating to prosecutions.

The Bill also establishes the basis on which a corporation may be made culpable of an offence under the Act. This takes up provisions in other Commonwealth legislation. The limits on the time for bringing a prosecution will be removed on the Act. The Director of Public Prosecutions, who is primarily responsible for the conduct of social security prosecutions under Commonwealth law, should decide on a case by case basis whether the offence is too stale to prosecute successfully. This section in the principal Act, in any event, can be circumvented by resort to the Crimes Act 1914. This provision, therefore, is a rationalisation of existing practice.

While determined to limit fraud, the Government is concerned to protect the rights and privacy of people who receive social security payments. The Department necessarily collects considerable personal information about the financial and domestic circumstances of claimants in order to assess continuing eligibility. The privacy of these individuals should not be abused. Section 17 of the principal Act places an obligation on officers not to divulge personal information obtained in the course of their duties. This section will be extended in line with the secrecy provisions in other Commonwealth legislation such as the Income Tax Assessment Act. Reference to `officers' will include former officers as well as others performing work for the Commonwealth who as a result acquire information concerning a person.

An offence under section 17 is treated as a grave matter. The current penalties in the Act are a $5,000 fine or two years imprisonment where the offence proceeds on indictment. In the case of summary proceedings, the penalty is $1,000 or imprisonment for six months. The Bill would permit both a fine and a period of imprisonment to be imposed. This reflects the seriousness with which such breaches of personal privacy are regarded by this Government. Penalties are to be increased for other offences under the Act. For failure to comply with the requirements to report circumstances or events which affect entitlement to a social security payment, the penalty will be increased from a $500 fine to a $1,000 fine or six months imprisonment, or both, and a $5,000 fine in the case of corporations. For failure to comply with a requirement to provide information about entitlement, the fine will be increased from $1,000 and six months imprisonment to $2,000 or 12 months imprisonment, or both, and $10,000 in the case of corporations. Where financial institutions do not comply with a requirement under the direct deposit provisions, the fine has been increased from $1,000 to $10,000. Serious breaches of these offences may now be dealt with by suitable sanctions.

Miscellaneous Amendments

Finally, the Bill contains amendments to remove anomalies, close gaps, correct minor drafting errors and bring the legislation into line with sound administrative practice. For example, the definition of a `decision' under the Act which is significant from an administrative law point of view as the basis for review or appeal will be amended to confer the same meaning as in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975. It is good administrative practice that decisions of officers affecting entitlement be in writing. This Bill makes it a uniform requirement that all such decisions be in writing. The Department of Social Security is moving to on-line benefits processing-using the latest computer technology to record information and make decisions. This will substantially improve delivery of benefits to those needing assistance. To keep pace with these changes, decisions of officers which are required to be in writing will be deemed to be in writing if originally entered into a computer or recorded with the use of a computer. This processing also enables a printed copy of the decision to be made available to applicants.

By means of these measures which rationalise and simplify the principal Act this Bill also prepares the ground for substantive reforms to the system of income security when the Government takes decisions on the social security system following the Social Security Review. I commend the Bill to the House. I present the explanatory memorandum to this Bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Blunt) adjourned.