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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3099

Senator WEST (11.04 a.m.) —I present the report of the Standing Committee on Community Affairs on the alleged misuse of printing facilities at the Department of Social Security.

  Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator WEST —I seek leave to move a motion relating to the report.

  Leave granted.

Senator WEST —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

I wish to make some very brief comments. In accordance with the agreement that the committee members have made amongst themselves, the majority of our tabling speeches will be incorporated in Hansard. This referral would not need to have been made to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs if at the time of consideration of the estimates more details could have been provided by the department. It is very easy to say that in hindsight.

  It also brings up one of the issues that will always be confronted by the Senate, which is how to handle the difficult problem of police investigations and other charges that might be laid under Public Service disciplinary acts and things like that. There was uncertainty, and that was the reason given for the delay or the non-provision of full details at the time of the estimates. It is a problem and an issue that the Senate has to grapple with at some stage.

  I have been on another estimates committee where we have had cases that are also under investigation that are totally different from this and involve totally different departments. It is a difficult issue for everybody involved to have to deal with. We should also look at whether provision can be made for estimates committees to deal with these sorts of sensitive issues so that they do not require to be referred on to standing committees. That is one of the requests coming out of the report, and it was unanimously agreed to. There is a dissenting report. All the way through there has been a difference of opinion amongst members on some of the other details, as to how much departments should have been able to give and whether they were trying to avoid giving information. It is certainly the view of the majority that that was not the case.

  We need to have very clear guidelines and clear recommendations and suggestions as to how we handle the subject of in camera evidence, of which quite a deal was taken in this committee. At the time of taking evidence there were matters still under investigation by the Australian Federal Police and also the end of some disciplinary hearings and charges. How committees respond to that in camera evidence and how committees deal with it when they are writing reports is also an issue where I think all honourable senators would find some further material and clearer guidelines of assistance in handling this difficult issue. I seek leave to incorporate my tabling statement.

  Leave granted.

  The document read as follows—


1.I am pleased to table the report of the Committee on the Alleged Misuse of Printing Facilities at the Department of Social Security.

2.This inquiry was referred to the Committee on 10 November 1992, following a report from Estimates Committee D. It was originally to be reported on by 10 December 1992. However, hearings had not been completed by that time and an extension was granted until early in the Autumn sittings of this Parliament. A heavy workload for the Committee and other factors—such as a court case relating to the inquiry—have meant that further extensions have been necessary.

3.There is still some difference of opinion among Committee members about the issues considered. As far as the majority report is concerned, Committee members have taken on board some of the comments made by past and current Departmental officers on a draft of the report and believe that the report as it now stands has assessed all the evidence thoroughly and fairly.

4.The Committee's report states that:

there are no serious problems with the Department's management; and

the Department acted efficiently and appropriately in its response to unauthorised use of Commonwealth goods and facilities.

5.The Committee does consider, however, that Departmental officers, including the former Secretary of the Department, were unnecessarily abrupt and somewhat evasive at the Senate Estimates D Committee hearing of 17 September 1992.

6.The Committee is aware that Departmental officers have some reasons for not providing some information at the time on aspects of alleged misuse. They were uncertain of the legal situation; some of the events had occurred some considerable period of time before; some aspects of the disciplinary process had not been completed; and the Australian Federal Police were also investigating some matters.

7.However, after careful consideration of each of these reasons, the Committee was inclined to the view that the Department was over-cautious in some of its responses. On a number of occasions, information could have been provided which would not jeopardise other inquiries or appeal processes. It is important for senior officers in major departments to be aware of the extent to which they are able to provide general information on issues, and those areas on which they might wish to seek further time to provide a more considered response.

8.The Committee is of the opinion that more information could have been given about the fact that there were two separate inquiries. More importantly, it believes that more information could have been made available at Estimates on the matters which the Department itself had investigated. Most of the Departmental charges had been dealt with, and penalties imposed, before the Estimates hearing. General information could have been provided without affecting appeal processes.

9.The Committee was especially concerned about the use of bureaucratic terminology insofar as it was used to restrict answers and to limit the area of questioning. Some of the questions at the Estimates hearings were broad enough to require general answers; it was not appropriate for officers to provide a limited amount of information, and to provide it rather reluctantly.

10.The Committee considers that departmental officers should take some questions on notice when it is possible for a more considered answer to be provided at a later stage, rather than providing limited information—which may be inaccurate—at a hearing. While clearly this process should neither be used to avoid providing rapidly information, nor to seek to obtain substantial amounts of unnecessary data, it is one way in which departments are able to meet their responsibilities to Parliament.

11.The Committee considers that the Department's approach and abruptness suggested that matters were being hidden from public scrutiny. While the Committee does not consider that there was a cover up of events at the Department, it does believe that the general impression of unhelpfulness and evasion was the major reason for this inquiry being referred. In this manner, the Department was responsible for an expensive and protracted inquiry which could have been avoided.

12.The Committee is of the belief that in some cases it would be useful for Estimates Committees to be able to take evidence in camera. This would obviate the need for detailed written information, and would help ensure that sensitive issues could be clarified at the time of the Estimates hearings.