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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
05/03/2007
Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome. Before inviting my colleagues to ask questions, I invite you to make an opening statement.

Mr Riches —Legacy is an organisation that was founded in 1923 and it is dedicated to caring for the families of deceased veterans, including approximately 112,000 elderly widows and 15,000 younger widows and dependants, including disabled dependants. In brief, Legacy is not against the concept of the access card but has some concern as to its practicalities. Whilst the issue of the access card has been considered by Legacy at the senior level nationally, at the grassroots level the issue has not been forced, for practical reasons. Whilst individual clubs have been made aware of the issue, it has not evoked any grassroots response to date. Nevertheless, at the senior level Legacy supports the concept of the access card as a measure to combat fraud against government welfare programs.

Legacy is primarily concerned about two aspects. The first is the practical aspect of the initial registration process—including who pays for any cost involved—given the advanced aged of most of our widows, with their related difficulties of infirmity such as poor eyesight and hearing—I suffer from that too—and comprehension due to dementia—I hope I do not suffer from that just yet. The second aspect is possible abuses of the system, including identity theft and unauthorised access to the information involving breaches of privacy.

Given that many war widows already have the gold card for health services, Legacy believes that any replacement card should be similarly identified as a gold access card. Legacy also believes that there needs to be free and prompt procedures for individuals to challenge any information held relating to the access card, perhaps with some form of information ombudsman. I repeat that Legacy is not against the concept of an access card, provided that issues such as those previously mentioned are resolved.

CHAIR —Thank you. What do you mean by an ‘information ombudsman’? What is your idea there?

Mr Riches —A person who has, like ombudsmen have at present, a general overriding power to investigate problems raised by individuals concerning the actions of government departments and public servants.

CHAIR —For example, if, under the legislation, a secretary of a department said to a Legacy widow, ‘These documents are not sufficient proof of identity,’ your answer to that would be for the person to go to an ombudsman.

Mr Riches —Yes.

CHAIR —I understand.

Mr Riches —The ombudsman would obviously have certain definitional powers, as currently applies to ombudsmen throughout the Commonwealth.

CHAIR —At the moment the committee is having some difficulty in grasping what will happen if a secretary were to say that proof of identity was not sufficient. This problem will probably be ventilated in the future, with the second tranche of legislation. We will await that eagerly.

Senator NETTLE —Thank you very much for your submission. I appreciate your raising this issue, which I think is legitimate. It seems that people, particularly older Australians, will have difficulty going through the registration process. Have you had any opportunity to date to liaise with the government about this issue? Has the government consulted you about it? Clearly, you have had the opportunity to raise it in your submission to this committee. I do not know whether you have been involved in any other submissions to the government or whether the government has said to you, ‘How can we talk to you about the difficulty that war widows will have in this process?’ Have you had any interaction with the government on that?

Mr Riches —No, we have not.

Senator NETTLE —Is it something that you are seeking to do? It is a genuine concern that you have raised, and we have not heard it from others. I would certainly hope that the government would enter into some dialogue with you, because it may help to alleviate that. Have you sought to have interaction with government about this issue at this stage?

Mr Riches —At this stage we see the avenue as being basically through this committee.

Senator NETTLE —Okay.

Mr Riches —I think that is the answer, rather than our going direct to government at this stage and repeating what we would be saying here.

Senator NETTLE —Sure. I ask that because a number of the other witnesses—for example, organisations representing the vision-impaired—who have appeared before this committee have had the opportunity to have consultations and meetings with the department in the lead-up to the draft legislation for the access card. So I was wondering whether the government had also taken that approach with your organisations and had heard the concerns that you have raised here.

Mr Riches —If we had wanted to, I am sure that both the department and the government would have been quite willing to listen to our views in regard to this matter.

Senator NETTLE —Yes, I think so too.

Mr Riches —That has never been a problem.

Senator CAROL BROWN —You indicated that you had not had the opportunity to discuss the access card at the grassroots level. Will you be doing so before you enter into discussions with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and any other relevant departments?

Mr Riches —One of our problems is the nature of Legacy; we are a very democratic and disparate organisation. We consist of 6,000 or 7,000 members, who belong to 49 clubs in Australia and one club in London. They meet irregularly, once each month or once every second month. Getting the issues out to them and getting responses back from them can take a long time. That is why sometimes we bite the bullet ourselves as their leadership and, in consultation at a senior level, develop a response accordingly rather than go out to all our members. Also, we have a national conference only every two years, and that too is a time-consuming process. We have not gone out to the members on this issue because of the practicalities. The clubs have been made aware of this issue, and if there were a desire amongst the members to consider it we certainly would.

Senator CAROL BROWN —In your evidence you have said that it could be a confusing and distressing experience for many of the older widows. Has the coordinating council discussed ways to alleviate that?

Mr Riches —No. We have not discussed it in detail, and that is part of the problem. I do not think it is necessarily our job to come up with those sorts of answers; although having said that I am conscious of the fact that it is not very helpful in trying to resolve the problem. The short answer is that we have not considered that, but certainly it is something we certainly could.

Senator CAROL BROWN —Something that you hope the government will?

Mr Riches —If it were a problem for a widow, that would be something that would come back to her legatee contactor. Her legatee contactor would assist her in filling out the forms, contacting the family if necessary, or if needed taking her to the place from where the information is required. That is standard practice for legatee contactors anyway when they are helping out a widow on any problem. So I would expect it would be no different from that. On the specific question you asked, no we have not specifically gone out on that issue.

Senator CAROL BROWN —Your other concern is obviously the cost of obtaining documents to verify identity. Have you discussed that at the council level, and do you wish to make any suggestion?

Mr Riches —Because we do not know what the cost will be it is a bit hard to say. We have had experiences such as this when dealing with government on other issues, which we are talking to them about now. For people making application for a pension, the government has developed a whole-of-government approach based on information, I understand, from the Attorney-General’s Department. That can require some quite often time-consuming and expensive exercises, relatively speaking—for example, getting marriage certificates. Marriage certificates provided by a church are not good enough because of the possibility of fraud. Birth certificates need originals, and sometimes they are not freely available. If you have to get them in a hurry it can cost $70, but if you want to wait six weeks it is $30. Who is going to pay for this? I suspect these sorts of issues will come up in relation to the access card too.

Senator WATSON —Congratulations on leading such a fine organisation, and thank you for your submission. In the second paragraph of your submission of 25 July, you say:

… Legacy is concerned that the registration process, requiring the production of original documents and the taking of photographs, could be a confusing and distressing experience for many of our older widows.

The majority of your people would have a gold card or something like that. Wouldn’t it be taken for granted that that would be transferred to the new database, rather than having to go back and get, say, birth certificates, marriage certificates and all that sort of thing?

Mr Riches —One would certainly hope so.

Senator WATSON —You raised the question, I thought, from a practical point of view. For these elderly people, if the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has got all this information, surely that would be good enough.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Do you have evidence to the contrary?

Mr Riches —Insofar as Veterans’ Affairs is concerned, they would have all the information. I suppose the question then arises—

Senator WATSON —So that would automatically get transferred.

Mr Riches —where does it go from there?

Senator WATSON —I just think you might be raising concerns that might be ill founded. I think the practicalities in these sorts of cases would be that Veterans’ Affairs, in your case, would have practically all the information necessary to obviate all the distress that you are worried about.

Mr Riches —Legacy’s widows are not all war widows as such. Nor do all the widows necessarily have a gold card.

Senator WATSON —No, but the sort of information in, say, the department, related to those people. I just used the gold card as an example. It would be replicated in other sorts of information that they would have.

Mr Riches —Certainly. I would agree with that. Where the information is already there, then that would be fine. The issue then becomes: how much of that information that is held relative to the gold card, within that department, should then go into a card that has uses outside of just that purpose. That is something I cannot say at this stage—

Senator WATSON —You mentioned the distress associated with the registration. I am saying that most of that information, for 98 per cent of your people, really should be on file somewhere. I just wanted to allay some of the fears that you might have had, as implied in your second paragraph, that they would have to undergo this tortuous thing of producing identification.

Senator FORSHAW —You mention in your submission, at page 2: ‘There are some potentially positive benefits to combining various Commonwealth health and social security entitlement cards.’ The normal cards that members of your organisation would have would, I assume, be a Medicare card—

Mr Riches —I would expect so, yes.

Senator FORSHAW —What other cards? Maybe a seniors card?

Mr Riches —I would expect the bulk of them would have. I am surmising, but I think it is reasonable to assume they would have a Medicare card and—

Senator FORSHAW —And potentially some form of veterans card—

Mr Riches —Be it the gold card or the white card, yes.

Senator FORSHAW —Are there any others that you can think of?

Mr Riches —Not off hand. A lot of them do not drive.

Senator FORSHAW —I appreciate that. They might well have driven at some point in time.

Mr Riches —Certainly.

Senator FORSHAW —Do your members draw to your attention problems they have because they find it inconvenient or confusing to have, say, two or three separate cards for the different entitlements they receive? I note that in your submission you mention the issue that if you change your address you might have to do it two or three times. I appreciate that concern, but in general is there concern about having a multiplicity of cards, say these three cards?

Mr Riches —I do not believe that that is an issue. It certainly is not one that has arisen as far as I am aware. The real problem is the ‘paper warfare’, for want of a better term: the continual filling out of forms, the alterations to forms and the proof of identity requirements. All these types of things are the ones that I think—

Senator FORSHAW —That is where you are required to do it a number of times?

Mr Riches —That is the registration bit, and then of course if you are dealing with an elderly widow invariably a member of the family is there. Sometimes they can be helpful and sometimes they are not. Then there is obtaining the necessary documentation. For example, I am waiting on a widow to obtain an original birth certificate. That will take some weeks and some money at the present time before her application can go forward. All this takes time and money. It is that background—the registration problems—that we have in mind in terms of this.

Senator FORSHAW —I understand. The reason I asked the question I did is that one of the arguments put forward by the government in support of this proposal is that currently up to 17 cards—and it is acknowledged that there may only be one or two for the bulk of the population—could be replaced by a single access card. The argument goes that it is more convenient if you only need one card whether you are accessing Centrelink, Veterans’ Affairs, Medicare, PPS et cetera. But we have also heard the argument that that may have some problems to it because you are taking a lot of information that is integral to the operation of those different entitlements and services and combining it. It may in one sense streamline it but in another sense create a lot more complications, such as putting all that information together in one spot.

Senator LUNDY —What if you lost it?

Senator FORSHAW —As my colleague just said, what if you lost that one card?

Mr Riches —Then you are in trouble. Straightaway I can think of several cards that, for example, my mother has. These would be a Medicare card, a pensioner card, a hearing card, and so on.

Senator FORSHAW —She may also have a library card or a card for the local RSL or bowling club.

Mr Riches —When I open her wallet I find a whole string of cards. She is 99. Fortunately she has all her marbles—or she did half an hour ago—and I must say I find it confusing looking at all those cards. So to that extent, yes, it would help, but your point is the other one: what happens if that card goes missing?

Senator FORSHAW —My point is twofold.

Mr Riches —Yes, it cuts both ways.

Senator FORSHAW —I am not trying to get you to agree with an assertion you do not agree with, but the other side of the argument is that having a minimal number of different cards has certain advantages. Each card is specific to the entitlement rather than being one combined card with a photograph on it as well, which then becomes an identity issue.

Mr Riches —Yes.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Mr Riches, I am conscious of Senator Watson’s question to you about alternative forms of ID or how to make the process go quickly, but the reality is that the government says that in order to get an access card you have got to have your photograph taken, produce your signature and attend an interview. My understanding is that the government has allowed 10 to 12 minutes per person per interview. I am not sure how that works. I think your concerns are valid. I am just trying to work out ways of alleviating some of these hurdles or issues. Would removal of the photograph be one option that your members might support, for example? I am happy for you to take that on notice if you want to consult with your members.

Mr Riches —Again, I think photographs cut both ways. In one sense, they are handy for quick identification, but on the other hand quite often they are just given a cursory glance and there is opportunity to mislead in that regard. I think it is a case of, on balance, whether we should have them or not—and my belief is that it is probably preferable to have them, on balance.

CHAIR —Because it is a convenient form of identification?

Mr Riches —Correct. It is not perfect. What are therefore needed are safeguards against error in that regard and punishment for misuse.

CHAIR —Thank you. As there are no further questions, on behalf of the committee I thank you very much for your assistance.

Proceedings suspended from 12.56 pm to 2.00 pm