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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
06/03/2007
Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007

CHAIR (Senator Mason) —This hearing is for the committee’s inquiry into Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007, which the Senate referred to the committee on 8 February 2007 for report by 15 March 2007. If enacted the bill will establish the legal framework for the government’s proposed access card. The committee has received 59 submissions for this inquiry and published all of them, except for those where the authors have specifically requested confidentiality. Is it the wish of the committee that the remaining submissions, except where confidentiality is requested, be published?

Senator LUNDY —Yes.

CHAIR —There being no objections, it is ordered. These are public proceedings, although the committee may agree to a request to have evidence heard in camera, or may determine that certain evidence should be heard in camera. To ensure proceedings are not unnecessarily delayed, I will not read through the procedural orders for committee hearings and the protection of witnesses. Suffice it to say that copies of these can be obtained from the secretariat officers in the room today if people are interested.

I welcome officers from the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination and I apologise to both of you for our late start today. Would either of you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Yates —Good morning. No, we do not have an opening statement.

CHAIR —Just questions?

Mr Yates —That is correct.

Senator LUNDY —I also apologise for the late start and for being unavoidably delayed. What involvement have you had, if any, in the design of the access card, its purpose and use, in particular from the perspective of proof of identity procedures?

Mr Yates —I have oversight responsibility for the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination, or OIPC. OIPC is now an integral part of FaCSIA and as such the secretary and deputy secretary, in this case my colleague Robyn McKay, are both represented on the relevant secretary and deputy secretary committees that are supporting the development and progress of the card. As such, they ensure coordination across the organisation and input into thinking and feedback on its development, which will include Indigenous issues.

Senator LUNDY —From the oversight committee what sort of input has the office been able to provide? I am looking for the policy related issues specific to the Indigenous experience. How have you expressed that to the committee and had input into the access card?

Mr Yates —You are aware that there was a whole-of-government submission presented on behalf of all departments, which included our department. It does not have extensive treatment at this stage of Indigenous issues, in part because it is an issue of the stage whereby those matters come to the fore. The submission did touch on the issue of voluntary registration. It also touched on vulnerable groups and the registration process, and the importance of using good practice in terms of reaching relevant groups when it comes to the registration process. It is fair to say that OIPC’s involvement, and indeed some aspects of the department’s broader role, in guiding the future development of the card and its implementation is where our role will be most significant, particularly around the registration process. There are a lot of issues there, particularly in remote Australia, where Indigenous clients will be affected.

Senator LUNDY —My understanding is that there have been a lot of problems with the use of Medicare cards within Indigenous communities—not so much in urban areas but in remote and isolated areas. What strategies do you have in mind or have you identified to ensure that there are not the same kinds of problems that there are with the Medicare card? This is a question that goes to the heart of that registration process. How will you facilitate registration by Indigenous communities, particularly those who have not traditionally had a strong use of the Medicare card service in the past?

Mr Yates —Obviously we want to build on the practice that has been developed by agencies such as Centrelink and Medicare, who have been progressively improving their ways and means of ensuring good connection with Indigenous people, particularly in remote areas. Their networks will be an important input into getting good connections with Indigenous people. Obviously our network of Indigenous coordination centres could potentially play a support role as well. Over time in remote areas we have had a range of specialist Indigenous officers and visiting services aiming to ensure good connections with Indigenous people, including Indigenous service officers, community agents, which Centrelink uses quite extensively, remote area service centres and remote visiting teams. We will be using those sorts of strategies to the full and, if we identify any gaps, there may need to be some further initiatives. That is part of the scoping exercise of how we ensure as robust a registration process as we possibly can. This is a very critical issue but it is not a new issue for agencies looking to ensure that the footprint of service and connection with Indigenous people is as comprehensive as possible.

Senator LUNDY —Do you envisage that you will be able to use ICCs as registration centres for the access card?

Mr Yates —That has not been considered as yet. We would be happy to work with the Department of Human Services in developing an effective connection. Those offices at the moment are not shopfronts in the sense of delivering specific services in the way that Centrelink does. Nonetheless, they are important offices in remoter parts of the country that could play a useful support role and a guiding role to visiting agents or remote services to assist them in making effective contact.

Senator LUNDY —How well developed are those strategies to implement the access card? You mentioned that the ICCs may be considered. At what point will you determine how the OIPC interacts with human services for the purposes of the roll-out? At what point do you decide on that?

Mr Yates —You would be aware that the Fels task force is developing a paper on the registration process, and we also have an internal task force with representatives from different agencies that are looking at the registration process. We have some lead time and we will be looking to input actively into that process so that, in shaping the strategy for the roll-out of registration, we look at all of the options that are available to maximise effective registration, particularly in remote Australia or for support to vulnerable groups. As I mentioned, there are already techniques for establishing proof of identity that recognise that vulnerable groups do not always have appropriate documentation to hand. We want to work through and, if you like, quality assure those processes that are already available and are utilised by agencies to ensure that we bring the best of that to bear. I am not able to talk about the specific timetable for those pieces of work by both the Fels task force and the internal task force, but they will be an active process over coming months. We know that there is now a real build-up of contacts with various Indigenous groups, such as Aboriginal medical services and the like, and that will need to be occurring over the coming months to ensure that we have the best advice and guidance from them, to ensure that we have a sound strategy for registration.

Senator LUNDY —I was going to ask you about the proof of identity. Before I ask that, do you have a budget or an indicative budget for the role that OIPC will be taking in the implementation of the access card, including a budget for marketing and promotion within Indigenous communities about the role and purpose of the access card?

Mr Yates —That is primarily the responsibility of the Department of Human Services in terms of communication strategy and the effective resourcing of that. OIPC’s involvement is similar to that. It is drawn into a range of whole-of-government processes where its particular advice and input is sought, and we factor that into our work program. We do not have a stand-alone dedicated budget around that. We obviously identify people who are our key liaison points for the Office of Access Card and, as necessary, we will ensure that we have appropriate resources to support the next steps in the process.

Senator LUNDY —Are you confident that OIPC or indeed Indigenous people will have due attention paid to their needs as part of that rollout. How can you be confident of that if you do not have your own budget or you are not the office doing that work?

Mr Yates —Part of the new arrangements that have been introduced for a couple of years now is that Indigenous business is every mainstream department’s business, and that includes the Department of Human Services. We do not have a dedicated agency that, as it were, shoulders the full responsibility for what happens with Indigenous people. We have a particular lead role in the whole-of-government arrangements that we now have in place, but our challenge is to ensure that our work with other agencies, such as the Department of Human Services, ensures a good robust approach. We will lend our support to that, including through our networks, working in tandem with organisations such as Centrelink and Medicare so that we have a strong approach to the whole registration arrangements.

Senator LUNDY —I will ask one more question along this line. To play devil’s advocate, I am concerned that, because the government is advocating this as a voluntary card, they will focus all of their marketing and attention on the areas where it is most efficient to do so in order to optimise participation. Remote Indigenous communities are not likely to factor highly in such an analysis. What are you able to offer as the OIPC to ensure that Indigenous communities will have proportionally more resources devoted to them—not least because of the problems in the past with the Medicare card?

Mr Yates —Firstly, around three-quarters of Indigenous Australians are in urban and regional centres.

Senator LUNDY —That is right.

Mr Yates —A little more than a quarter are in remote and very remote locations. We will be as concerned as any to ensure that the footprint of the access card is extended as comprehensively as possible, consistent with the objectives for the use of the card, before it is comprehensively rolled out. Obviously we have a particular responsibility to ensure that DHS is well guided in the contacts that it is making with relevant Indigenous organisations to inform its rollout strategy, and we will do that to the best of our ability.

Mrs McKay —It is important to recognise that, while the card is a voluntary card, it will be necessary to have one in order to access the services of the participating agencies and to access concessions. Given that it is an access card, people who are already accessing those services will be a very high priority to have registered. It is not intended that anyone would be denied access to services as a result of the access card unless they were proven to be fraudulently claiming.

Senator LUNDY —I appreciate that point and I thank you for making it, but I am asking the question in the context of my understanding that there have been issues with people in Indigenous communities not using their Medicare card and that has contributed to the costs of service delivery. I do not have details about that, but my point was that, if there is no evidence that the services are currently being used, this is potentially an opportunity to push the services out there. If there is a reasonable amount of investment to do so, you could try to help solve a problem. I am just testing with you to what degree you have your mind focussed on that agenda.

Mr Yates —That is a good point. A major thrust of the reforms in Indigenous affairs that are being pursued is to ensure that mainstream departments are extending the reach of their services and their connections to Indigenous Australians.

Senator LUNDY —Even if it is expensive, new and different?

Mr Yates —That is correct. Whether that is lifting remote area exemptions and providing participation opportunities into remote areas, then that is what the government is about. It is very much an environment in which the government is looking very hard at not just drawing an easy boundary around the application of mainstream programs but also pushing that right out. Often we need to be quite innovative in how we do that, but increasingly departments are finding creative ways to provide flexible services into remote Australia so that Indigenous people living there do not miss out.

Senator LUNDY —And I guess I am trying to extract evidence of that agenda from you. I cannot see too much.

Mr Yates —It will very much be the driver behind our participation in the interdepartmental dialogues with DHS, Medicare, Centrelink and the like to build on their very good work. They have quite extensive networks of activity and they have more exposure in a lot of ways than our ICCs may have had because they reach into other areas as well. That will very much be the approach that we will be pursuing in those discussions.

Senator LUNDY —Just going on to the proof of identity documentation, we had some discussions with FECCA yesterday about the need for some flexibility because many Indigenous people do not have that formal documentation proving their identity. Can you give us an insight as to how that will be handled sensitivity, effectively, efficiently and with due respect to Indigenous cultures of which pieces of paper are not traditionally a part?

Mr Yates —Again, that is not a new issue. Agencies have been developing sensible ways of ensuring proof can be established without recourse to what you might describe as the mainstream mechanisms for establishing identity. That includes recourse to significant people in the community who can be relied upon to recognise, establish and confirm the status of the individual. We expect those sorts of approaches will be part and parcel of rolling out the POI process. There will be flexibility in the approach. There will not be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It will recognise that vulnerable groups often do not hold those sorts of records and that, even where they might have had some of those records, they may have been lost. There will be flexible approaches. The aim will be to maximise rollout consistent with ensuring due proof of identity and minimising any fraudulent use. The registration process will look to build on those flexible approaches that we are already using in remote Australia.

Senator LUNDY —What will your role be in advising on those types of flexible approaches?

Mr Yates —Our particular involvement will be to ensure cultural sensitivity and awareness of the operating environment and the constraints that people will be facing in working with the access card and the registration process in remoter areas. We are not the sole experts in this, but we will ensure that good standards are brought to bear in how those rollout strategies are designed, building on some quite sensible good practice which organisations like Centrelink and Medicare have already been applying. We will be part of the brainstorming, if you like, of how to continue to improve those processes for proof of identity.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Good morning; I apologise for a flight delay. Mr Yates, in relation to Medicare, I was talking to a number of medical groups about Indigenous Medicare cards and the fact that sometimes, when there are rolling or mobile medical units, doctors or medical staff will maintain a register of Medicare cards for Indigenous Australians. I apologise if this has been covered, but are you familiar with that practice and can you say whether or not you see that that may have implications in terms of an access card, particularly for Indigenous Australians perhaps in rural remote or regional parts of Australia?

Mr Yates —That question is probably best placed to Medicare because they will be able to give an authoritative reply about, one, if it happens and, if so, in what circumstances, and a considered judgment about whether that has relevance for the way the access card works. I do not think we could speak reliably around that.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I am not necessarily sure that they will know in all circumstances, either. I guess I was just curious from the Indigenous policy perspective. That is fine, thank you.

Senator FORSHAW —Some amendments were made to the Electoral Act in the last 12 months or so. I am sure the chair will be familiar with this, being a former member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Some of those changes went to requiring enhanced proof of identity, particularly with respect to an application to enrol, changing enrolment or seeking to cast a vote on election day where there is some issue about whether or not the person is on the roll. Has there been any consideration as to those new aspects of the electoral act and the introduction of the access card—I do not know, and I will make inquiries later from other government departments—about whether or not an access card will be required to be produced for enrolment purposes as a proof of identity? We are all aware that there are particular issues relating to the enrolment of Indigenous Australians.

Mr Yates —I am not aware that there is any intention to use it for that purpose or, indeed, outside of the designated purposes that are outlined in the bill.

Senator FORSHAW —I am not sure if it is prohibited, that is all. I find this area a bit unclear as to what would be deemed to be a legitimate purpose, if you like, because the explanatory memorandum of the bill refers to the card being required when people seek to access benefits or services, and that may extend to something like enrolling to vote or seeking to cast a vote.

Mrs McKay —It is a question that properly should be directed to the Department of Human Services. It is my understanding that it will in fact be a breach of the legislation to require that a card be tendered for any other purpose than those specified in the legislation—that is, accessing the services of the participating agencies and accessing state concessions.

Senator FORSHAW —I appreciate that you are not in a position to answer. I am not trying to be smart or anything here, but it would seem to me that it might well become an issue because of the other concerns about the card’s being used widespread as a form of identity. Thank you.

Senator NETTLE —I want to ask about the issue of the low confidence proof of identity flag that is proposed for the access card, whereby people who did not have the correct documentation to prove their identity would have a flag on their record in the register to say that their status or identity was not full but was interim until they were able to prove. This is something I imagine a number of vulnerable people in the community, including Indigenous people, for a whole variety of different reasons, might have. Have you been involved in any discussions or consultations with Indigenous Australians about how this flagging on their government records that we cannot quite prove who this person is would impact on their ability to access services?

Mr Yates —I think the assurance is there that, where they are currently receiving benefits or services, the fact that there may be some incomplete information reflected in that flag will not impact on their continued receipt of services. I do not have a close knowledge of this, but it is an administrative flag that, where one can build that complete picture over time, that is where we want to get to. It is essentially for that purpose. But it will not impact on a person’s continued access to the benefits and services that they have received, and I guess that is the critical thing.

Senator NETTLE —Sure, thank you. Have you been involved in consultations with Indigenous Australians about the access card?

Mr Yates —Not to this point, although the Office of Access Card is talking with us about relevant organisations that they should be looking to connect with as part of their consultations over the period ahead.

Senator NETTLE —I wanted to go on and say, okay, apart from the getting access to services issue, have any concerns been raised by the Indigenous communities about this idea of having a low confidence about their identity? Perhaps if you have not had any consultations with Indigenous Australians you are not able to answer that one.

Mr Yates —No, I think it is early days on that one.

Senator NETTLE —In relation to the participating agencies in the access card and those people who have access, I have not found where it is, but are you expecting to be one such agency? You are not included in the list of agencies participating in the bill, so do you anticipate that you will be, or am I wrong about that?

Mrs McKay —No, FaCSIA is not a participating agency. We are a policy department. A number of our payments are administered by Centrelink. We have a strong interest in it, but Centrelink is the main participating agency from our point of view. The other participating agencies are those in the Human Services portfolio and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Senator NETTLE —I did have a question I wanted to ask each department, but it may not be relevant to you. We had some evidence yesterday about the fact that the government has been promoting the idea that if you change your address you only need to tell one agency, and then everybody is told. One witness yesterday raised the following issue. What if the one agency you tell mis-enters the data and what does it do if that is spread amongst all the government departments? I do not know if that question relates to you in terms of the kind of data you are holding; I suspect not. But if it is relevant, what is the frequency of errors that you have experienced from data mis-entry?

Mrs McKay —It is not our department that experiences it. It is the participating agencies who would experience that. It is a question that you really need to address to the Human Services portfolio when you are discussing it with them.

Senator NETTLE —I do not want to just ask the Human Services portfolio, because this proposal links the information provided by a whole lot of different departments. So, in order for me to get a comprehensive sense of the potential for data entry mismanagement, I need to ask each department so I can understand the interactions. But if it is not relevant for you, that is fine. Thank you.

CHAIR —There being no further questions, Mrs McKay and Mr Yates, thank you very much. Again, sorry for our late commencement.

[9.15 am]