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FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
27/05/2010
FINANCE AND DEREGULATION PORTFOLIO
Centrelink

CHAIR —As there are no further questions on, we will move on to Centrelink. Welcome Ms Hogg, chief executive officer and other officers.

Senator RYAN —Ms Hogg, we had discussions with the Parliamentary Librarian in this room on Monday about provision of data from Centrelink to the Parliament Library. Do you have anything, before I ask specific questions, to enlighten us about that? Are you aware of the discussion that took place?

Ms Hogg —I am aware of the discussions.

Senator RYAN —Do you have anything to add to that discussion? I will give you the opportunity to clear the air before I start to ask questions.

Senator HOGG —Centrelink received a request from the Parliamentary Library for information concerning family tax benefit. We work under a protocol with the policy departments—FaHCSIA, DEEWR et cetera—as a custodian of the data that they collect or that we collect on their behalf. That protocol says that Centrelink needs to seek permission for the release of data, any of that data.

Senator RYAN —From whom?

Ms Hogg —From the policy department, so if it is FTB data Centrelink needs to seek agreement of the policy department to release that data.

Senator RYAN —Who is the policy department in that instance?

Ms Hogg —FaHCSIA—Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. When we received the request, under the protocol from 2006, we then approached FaHCSIA to seek permission to release the data, but the FaHCSIA decision maker denied that request. But I do understand now that a senior FaHCSIA officer has reviewed that decision and the data was, I understand, being released to the Parliamentary Library this morning.

Senator RYAN —Who was the FaHCSIA decision maker in that instance?

Ms Hogg —Do you need the exact name of the person?

Mr Pratt —You are talking about the original—

Senator RYAN —The original denial of your feeding through of the request from the Parliamentary Library, because this will probably be pursued. We have got FaHCSIA at estimates next week, so I do not want to have a situation where they do not know who to ask.

Mr Pratt —I understand—and Ms Hogg may correct me if I am wrong in this—that it would have been director level or SES band 1 level staff.

Ms Hogg —Yes, that is correct. It is more like a director level.

Senator RYAN —Director level is SES band?

Mr Pratt —It is an Executive Level 2 officer.

Senator RYAN —What part of the department would they be in? This will help potentially when it heads up to FaHCSIA so they can have some answers for us next week. There are a few EL2s, I would imagine, in FaHCSIA.

Mr Pratt —Indeed, I suspect FaHCSIA will actually be fairly conscious of your interest in this, Senator.

Ms Hogg —They have a special data management area, so it would be a decision maker in that group.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Was a reason attached to that?

Ms Hogg —Yes, our understanding was that—and certainly under the protocol—we are required to provide FaHCSIA with information about who is requesting the information and for what purpose the information is to be used. Our understanding is that, because we could not provide that information, the FaHCSIA decision was to decline the request.

Senator RYAN —Ms Hogg, is this the only time that you have received a request from the Parliamentary Library for information from Centrelink?

Ms Hogg —In recent times, yes. We have checked back over the last couple of years, and we have not had any requests.

Senator RYAN —Over the last couple of years?

Ms Hogg —Yes. I should say we had two at the same time as this one; one of them was withdrawn.

Senator RYAN —One of them was withdrawn?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator RYAN —Was that request also from the Parliamentary Library?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —The request was withdrawn?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator RYAN —With the examples a couple of years ago, are you aware of the details of those?

Ms Hogg —I do not have those with me. We looked back on our records to see if we had anything in recent times from the Library and, no, we could not remember or find anything in the last couple of years.

Senator RYAN —You report through to Minister Bowen, don’t you, the Minister for Human Services?

Ms Hogg —Yes, Senator.

Senator RYAN —How would Minister Bowen’s office have become aware of this issue if the request from the Parliamentary Library came from them to you and you to FaHCSIA? Was he made aware of this request by anyone in Centrelink?

Ms Hogg —The Centrelink officer replied to the Parliamentary Library to say that there was a charge involved in retrieving the information. From my understanding, the Parliamentary Library contacted Mr Bowen’s office to complain about that. That is how Mr Bowen’s office became involved in the whole issue. The Centrelink departmental liaison officer in Mr Bowen’s office then checked with Centrelink about the appropriateness of making that charge—which was actually incorrect—and relayed that information back to the library. That is how the contact was made with the minister’s office.

Senator RYAN —I appreciate that—that is very helpful. So the minister’s office contacted the person in Centrelink and mentioned that the charge is not relevant for this particular—

Ms Hogg —They asked us to look at it because the library had queried why they were being charged for the information. In fact, the decision to request payment from the library was incorrect and that information was relayed back—

Senator RYAN —I am assuming that was just a mistake and it was corrected.

Ms Hogg —Yes, it was a mistake.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Does it relate to the new budget arrangements about the library undertaking policy work?

Ms Hogg —No.

Senator RYAN —Could you take it on notice to get the dates of those contacts—the original request from the Parliamentary Library; the request from Centrelink to FaCHSIA; and the answer from FaCHSIA, which was a conditional yes, which you could not assist with because the Parliamentary Library would not provide you with it. Did you or Centrelink at any time have contact from the minister’s office? I appreciate that you did not initiate that. Sorry, I would like the date of the contact from the minister’s office about the charging issue.

Ms Hogg —We can take that on notice.

Senator RYAN —Can you provide me with the dates of those contacts?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator CAMERON —Ms Hogg, when was the protocol introduced?

Ms Hogg —In 2006.

Senator CAMERON —Was that a departmental protocol, or was it brought about by political discussions with the government as well?

Ms Hogg —I was not involved in developing it but my understanding is that it is a clear protocol between agencies about access to information.

Senator CAMERON —So it is an agency protocol. Do you have a copy of the protocol?

Ms Hogg —Yes, I do.

Senator CAMERON —Could you please table that.

CHAIR —Is it the wish of the committee that the document be tabled? There being no objection it is so ordered.

Senator CAMERON —I want to come back to the protocol. There have been lots of discussions about the protocol but I do not think anyone has actually read it—certainly no-one on our side. Did the minister’s office at any time direct Centrelink or FaCHSIA not to release the data requested by the library?

Ms Hogg —No.

Senator CAMERON —You said that the original judgment that the data request did not comply with protocol was made by that level 2 director and that, since then, that direction has been countermanded.

Ms Hogg —I was informed by FaCHSIA that a senior officer had reviewed the decision to release the information to the library and the library has this morning agreed to release it.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Who sought that review?

—I did. I had a letter from the Parliamentary Librarian—because obviously we had sought information—asking me who had sought the information and for what purpose it was to be used. Basically Ms Missingham told me in the letter that such disclosure would be contrary to the legislative requirements set down in the Parliamentary Service Act and therefore she would not be able to comply with that request. Subsequently I have passed the content of that information to FaHCSIA when asking, on her behalf, after she wrote to me, whether they understood what the Parliamentary Library could and could not do and therefore whether they would reconsider their decision.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —This aspect of the protocol has not been tested since 2006?

Ms Hogg —Not that I am aware of, no.

Mr Pratt —Certainty not with the Parliamentary Library.

Senator RYAN —As well as that, could you table the letters? We have some correspondence from the Parliamentary Librarian.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I think we already had that on Monday.

Senator RYAN —Ms Hogg indicated that there were written exchanges between Centrelink and FaHCSIA.

Ms Hogg —I certainly have not written to FaHCSIA.

Senator RYAN —It could have just been casual language. I am not trying to impute anything, but I got the impression that discussions between Centrelink and FaHCSIA when you were seeking permission for this could have been done in writing.

Ms Hogg —Yes, they were done by email.

Senator RYAN —Can we get copies of that correspondence, please?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator CAMERON —Ms Hogg, have there been any changes to the protocol since 2006?

Ms Hogg —No.

Senator CAMERON —So it is the original protocol.

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator CAMERON —While we are waiting for it—I do not want to hold things up too long—is it realistic for you to walk us through how the protocol works?

Ms Hogg —By walking through, do you mean talking to you about certain parts of it which led to this?

Senator CAMERON —How it works, yes. How does it work?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Why don’t we wait until we have it in front of us? In the meantime, what is the broader context of the protocol? As you are probably aware, my background is in opposition, seeking information across a broad range of areas in Human Services and FaHCSIA. The protocol, I presume, relates to more than library requests—to shadow ministers, backbench members, separately to requests coming through the library.

Ms Hogg —Yes, all requests for information.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Can you give us a sense of how many of those requests have been managed and in what fashion over time?

Ms Bennett —I do not have the numbers, but the protocol also covers the exchange of information, so there might be requests from the local government, council or, as you mentioned, the Parliamentary Library. It could be another organisation such as a research organisation or non-government association. The types of organisations are set out in section 1.53 of the protocol. The intention of the protocol, which is part of the answer, is to ensure that this social security information, which is information about individuals, is distributed appropriately, in the right format and in the right manner. How many requests from the library—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I must admit most of my requests were through estimates, and I found the department extraordinarily cooperative.

Ms Bennett —As Ms Hogg said, we have received from the Parliamentary Library only two in what we estimate is the last 18 months—we did not go back any further than that—and one of them was withdrawn.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Do you know why that one was withdrawn?

Ms Bennett —We assume that they no longer required the information. That is the only assumption we can make.

Senator CAMERON —Would the Parliamentary Library have been aware of the detail of the protocol?

Ms Bennett —When they seek the information they complete a template, a proforma, and that is emailed. To operationalise the protocol there is a proforma that requesters for the data complete and that explains in a more functional way their obligations in requesting that information.

Ms Hogg —Senator, you asked me about how to navigate that document.

Senator CAMERON —I have nearly changed my mind!

Ms Hogg —I have been through it myself, obviously, as a result of this issue, and I can give you certain paragraphs that are really relevant to this.

Senator CAMERON —Yes, the key drivers and so on.

Ms Hogg —Yes. Paragraph 1.5.2—

Senator CAMERON —What page is that on?

Ms Hogg —Page 9. It says:

All custodians are responsible for providing mutual assurance for that appropriate governance, management and use of social security information ...

We are a custodian. We are a physical custodian and the policy departments are what are referred to in there as ‘business custodians’. We have a mutual responsibility, if you like, for the use of that social security information. And the legal requirement for the use of that information is that it must add to the outcomes for clients who are affected by that legislation. I think you will find that wording in there.

Section 1.5.4 says:

... each party to this Protocol has separately documented processes for addressing requests from these requesters. Such processes must be used in conjunction with this Protocol.

By that we mean the pro forma that requesters are asked to fill out on behalf of the policy departments.

Senator CAMERON —Just on that, when the pro forma is sent out to, say, the Parliamentary Library, do they have a copy of this or do they just have the pro forma?

Ms Hogg —Just the pro forma.

Senator CAMERON —The Parliamentary Library may not understand why they are filling that—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —The email suggests that.

Ms Hogg —It is just that they get the pro forma asking them who wants the information and for what purpose, which is on that pro forma.

Senator CAMERON —So the officer in the library may not have even known if a protocol was in place.

Ms Hogg —I presume he would not.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Aside from that, the protocol obviously does not accommodate requests from the library on behalf of members of parliament if it is saying that on the pro forma.

Senator CAMERON —Yes. Thanks.

Ms Hogg —The part of the protocol which is particularly relevant is part 2, Operational procedures, on page 14, at 2.1.1. You can see the categories of information are broken down, and specifically in category 2 it says:

Requests that require authorisation for release from relevant business custodians, including Parliamentary Library.

It is specified in there that we must ask the business custodian for permission to release this data to the Parliamentary Library, so it is certainly not in a category where Centrelink can of itself make a decision about releasing this information because of the requester. It is quite specific.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —By that you are saying that it is not Centrelink dealing with the request but the policy department?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Whereabouts is the pro forma?

Ms Hogg —I can table a copy of the pro forma, if you would like.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I would just like to see what it says about who is seeking the information and for what purpose. It is not necessarily problematic if the library were aware, for instance, that the answer should be ‘Parliamentary Library, for the purpose of providing information to members of parliament’. That would presumably meet the pro forma but not in the way that the librarian perhaps understood.

Ms Hogg —I am not really able to form a judgment about what would be appropriate for the department, as opposed to the right answers to those questions. It is not Centrelink’s responsibility to make a decision about that. It is up to the department in terms of whether they think they have got enough information on that request.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —It seems as if it is more than just the department. It is broader than just a singular department issue. It is about how workable these protocols are to account for the needs of members of parliament seeking information through the Parliamentary Library. That is more than just one single custodian, if it is liable to misinterpretation.

Senator FIFIELD —I was just going to make the same point. The library could hold a pro forma right—the person requesting it is, or the organisation requesting it, Betty Boo in the Parliamentary Library.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Could we have the pro forma too, please.

Senator CAMERON —Does this protocol cover a request, say, from a shadow minister’s office or an opposition MP’s office? If that is done directly through Centrelink and not through the Parliamentary Library, how is that handled?

Ms Hogg —If the request comes directly to Centrelink—again, because we are only the custodians of the data—we would go to the policy department and request from them permission to release the data. That is actually a category 3 in the protocol.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —But in most cases the shadow minister would go directly to the policy department.

Ms Hogg —Yes. That is the other way of doing it.

Senator CAMERON —It says category 3 covers requests and information from ministers and their offices. Are shadow ministers defined as ministers here?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator CAMERON —Thanks for that.

Senator FIFIELD —I will quickly rattle off some of the questions I have been asking as to other components of the portfolio. How many staff does Centrelink have at the moment?

Ms Hogg —Is that current staff for this year?

Senator FIFIELD —Yes.

Mr Dunn —The total headcount of Centrelink staff up until 31 March this year was 27,012.

Senator FIFIELD —And how many SES band staff?

Mr Dunn —In the SES for that same period there were 85 substantive SES positions.

Senator FIFIELD —Are you able to provide a comparison for 2007?

Mr Dunn —I do not have those figures with me, but we can do that.

Senator FIFIELD —Yes, if you could, thank you. Are you able to advise how many Centrelink staff have left the organisation since the last estimates?

Mr Dunn —We do not have the exact figures. But, as mentioned earlier, our actual staff turnover rate for this financial year is around the 10 per cent mark.

Senator FIFIELD —And they have pretty much all been replaced?

Mr Dunn —Pretty much, I would say. It does balance out across the course of this particular year.

Senator FIFIELD —What about expenditure on staff travel in 2008-09?

Mr Pratt —I believe Mr Jacomb gave that information before when he provided the DHS data.

Senator FIFIELD —So that covered Centrelink as well, did it?

Mr Pratt —He listed the different agencies. There is that caveat that I made before about air travel.

Senator FIFIELD —Yes. Sorry, you are quite right. It is 14.4.

Mr Pratt —That is right.

Senator FIFIELD —Sorry, my apologies. In terms of advertising, is it the same answer for Centrelink as for DHS? Is the figure zero for 2008-09?

Mr Burgess —For 2009-10 it is zero.

Senator FIFIELD —And, I think, for 2008-09 as well.

Ms Barbour —For this financial year it is zero.

Mr Burgess —In the previous financial year I think we had the same-sex campaign.

Senator FIFIELD —And what was the cost of that campaign?

Ms Barbour —For the same-sex discrimination campaign the cost of advertising was $1,399,163.

Senator FIFIELD —And that was the only advertising expenditure?

Mr Pratt —The only campaign related advertising. There would be advertising associated with recruitment and things like that.

Senator FIFIELD —Does Centrelink have any money that it has spent on hospitality in 2008-09?

Mr Burgess —Yes. For 2008-09 we spent approximately $1.08 million on sustenance.

Senator FIFIELD —Is that tea and biscuits?

Mr Burgess —That would be tea and biscuits. That would be sustenance provided in the main in emergency responses that we have had over the years—for example, our bushfire recovery response and flood responses with providing sustenance to staff as part of the recovery.

Senator FIFIELD —Are you able to provide a breakdown of the elements of that?

Mr Burgess —I would have to take that on notice.

Senator FIFIELD —Yes, if you could. As a comparison, if you could also do the same for 2006-07.

Mr Burgess —Yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Where does the term ‘sustenance’ come from?

Mr Burgess —It would be a combination of hospitality, which we provide. For example, we provide hospitality, as mentioned earlier, at stakeholder meetings throughout the year. We also have it at our areas across Australia—for example, 15 or so areas where there are meetings with stakeholders at the area level. That would be the provision of sandwiches, tea and coffee and, for example, where we are participating in an emergency response in a recovery centre. It could actually be part of providing a barbecue for customers and for affected people.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —So you can break up those various aspects of it?

Mr Burgess —Yes.

Senator FIFIELD —‘Sustenance’ sounds like it is for wellbeing rather than enjoyment.

Ms Hogg —Can I say that in some of those recovery centres it is about wellbeing.

Senator FIFIELD —Yes. I am not being entirely facetious. I do note the distinction in Mr Burgess’s phraseology from that of other agencies who do not have that sort of direct interface with people in time of hardship. Let us move to the solar panel pensioners clawback issue. What was it specifically that triggered the credits—for pensioners who were returning electricity to the grid—to be treated as income?

Mr Cowan —There has been a recent change in the policy and in the treatment of that. Prior to 14 May for pensioners who may have been given either a credit or a cash return both were treated as income for the purposes of the means test.

Senator FIFIELD —Or if you received a reduction.

Mr Cowan —Or a reduction, yes. There was a change of policy on 14 May which now means that the treatment is different. Those credits or reductions are not regarded as income but any cash that may come from an electricity generating provider that goes to a pensioner is regarded as income.

Senator FIFIELD —You said that is a new policy dated from 14 May. How is a new policy actually given effect to? Is it by determination or regulation? What is the mechanism?

Mr Cowan —It was a ministerial decision by Minister Macklin, as announced on 14 May.

Senator FIFIELD —So what is the actual mechanism that gives effect to the change? Is it deemed a ministerial determination?

Mr Cowan —I might have to refer you to FaHCSIA for a determination on that. Clearly, it did not require a legislative change. They may be able to give you more detail.

Senator FIFIELD —So they would have been responsible for the mechanism required?

Mr Cowan —For the decision to be taken and the advice to us, yes.

Senator FIFIELD —How does the advice come to you? It must come in a particular form where you are satisfied that this is not just a thought that someone has had, not just a policy—this is something which has some form of legal effect. What is that device that comes to Centrelink that causes you to act differently?

Mr Cowan —That will vary. Sometimes a change to legislation is required. We would wait until legislation is amended to enact it. This one came by way of advice from FaHCSIA and an announcement by the minister. We then promulgate it throughout the organisation.

Senator FIFIELD —I am still unclear as to—

Mr Pratt —Are you asking if it is a letter from FaHCSIA to Centrelink or an email?

Senator FIFIELD —Is it a letter? Is it, ‘Here is a copy of the minister’s press release—go forth with it’?

Mr Cowan —There would have been discussions between ourselves and FaHCSIA prior to the decision being taken as to how it would be conveyed to us, and the status of the decision.

Senator FIFIELD —I am none the clearer.

Mr Tidswell —If we were to tell you how we got the instruction on the specific occasion, would that help?

Senator FIFIELD —That would help.

Mr Cowan —As is often the case, we were advised by FaHCSIA that there was some consideration being given to a change of policy. We were then notified that the minister had made a decision and then there was a public announcement by the minister. In this case that was sufficient to act upon.

Senator FIFIELD —Help me here. Ministers can decide and wish for all sorts of things in life, but departments do not automatically say: ‘The minister wishes it; therefore, it shall happen.’ They are often full of very good reasons why they cannot or should not or there is not the right bit of paper or the right form. I am just wanting to understand what the actual mechanism is.

Senator Ludwig —It just demonstrates the responsiveness of Centrelink.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —What—you will do anything?

Mr Cowan —No, we won’t—

Senator FIFIELD —I want to know what the actual mechanism is.

Mr Cowan —As I said, it will depend on the decision. As I said before, some things require legislative change.

Senator FIFIELD —Yes, but if the minister decided, putting discrimination law aside, that a certain payment should only go to people with blue eyes, not brown eyes, would Centrelink say: ‘We have received something from FaHCSIA; therefore, we will’?

Mr Cowan —I think we basically require legal cover to do what we do.

Senator FIFIELD —What is that legal cover?

Mr Cowan —In this particular case, I am afraid I cannot give you that specific answer. I would have to take that on notice.

Senator FIFIELD —I am perplexed.

Mr Pratt —In my experience it can be a range of things. It can be simply that there is a letter from one minister to another minister which is passed on from the minister’s office. Sometimes it can be that there have been multiple discussions between officers of the two departments and then that is followed up with an exchange of emails or letters which say, ‘Here, attached, is the minister’s announcement,’ or sometimes it could in fact be a cabinet decision or something like that.

Senator FIFIELD —Sure. But, again, cabinet can decide whatever they want but there has to be some law, some regulation, some power that someone is acting under. Is it section whatever of the such-and-such act which gives the minister the power to determine XYZ? What is it?

Mr Pratt —It will be either a direct legislative requirement for the agency or it will be a direction from the minister.

Senator FIFIELD —Sure, but in this particular case this is something which had not been being done which then, from 14 May, was being done. What is the mechanism?

Mr Pratt —I expect it was a policy decision by government which was enacted following a ministerial direction—I think that is the case. I might ask one of our lawyers to tell us the actual power that exists for such a decision to be taken.

Senator FIFIELD —You would want to know. Centrelink would want to be satisfied that it was not acting contrary to the law in some way.

Mr Pratt —Absolutely.

Mr Cowan —We most definitely do.

Senator FIFIELD —If you do not know then who does?

Mr Cowan —We did assure ourselves there was cover for this. This just required an update of the policy guide, which is FaHCSIA’s document. They updated that guide and therefore we enacted the change policy.

CHAIR —It might be an appropriate time to take a break. We were due to have a five-minute break at 9.15 pm.

Senator RYAN —I would like an answer to the issue we raised before—it could be a quick yes or no answer.

Mr Pratt —We in the room do not know what the authority was on this occasion. We will take it on notice and come back to you. If we can answer you after the break, we will do so.

Senator FIFIELD —It would be helpful to know that Centrelink know the basis upon which they are doing something. I am sure someone knows, but—

Mr Pratt —I am certain someone knows.

Proceedings suspended from 9.20 pm to 9.28 pm

CHAIR —The committee will resume. Mr Pratt?

Mr Pratt —Madam Chair, we are hopeful that we have an answer for the senator.

Mr Jacomb —As you know, Senator, Centrelink provides service delivery for and on behalf of FaHCSIA which is done through a framework, such as the Business Partnership Agreement. Through that framework we are given direction as to how we are to apply the law; how we are to interpret the legislation. Through that process we have been given a direction, through FaHCSIA and the minister, reflecting the government’s decision that that is not to be treated as income. That is the basis.

Senator FIFIELD —So FaHCSIA has to be satisfied and, if FaHCSIA is satisfied, FaHCSIA then directs Centrelink what to do.

Mr Jacomb —Yes. It is a matter you could also take up with FaHCSIA.

Senator FIFIELD —So the answer partly is that it is really a question to direct to FaHCSIA because Centrelink do what FaHCSIA says it is appropriate and legal to do.

Mr Jacomb —Correct.

Senator FIFIELD —The new policy came into effect on 14 May this year, so before 14 May in no circumstances was Centrelink treating that return of electricity to the grid or credits gained from that as income. That has only just started.

Mr Cowan —Yes.

Senator FIFIELD —Has Centrelink received any complaints about that change?

Mr Cowan —Not that I am aware of. It has only been two weeks.

Senator FIFIELD —But it was flagged before 14 May, wasn’t it?

Mr Cowan —I am not aware of any complaints about the new policy.

Senator FIFIELD —But it was flagged before 14 May? I recall reading in the newspapers some discussion about it.

Mr Cowan —That is really a matter for FaHCSIA. That issue may have been raised previously, but that is their consideration.

Senator FIFIELD —So Centrelink has been providing consistent advice across Australia on this issue before 14 May, advising people that it should not be counted as income, and consistent advice after 14 May that it should and would be counted as income?

Mr Cowan —Yes.

Senator FIFIELD —There was no confusion in any Centrelink offices on this issue?

Mr Cowan —What happens when there is any policy change is that we circulate it through the organisation by the various methods we use—our reference material, our website material, any public facing material that is relevant—and we do that as soon as we possibly can after the change of policy. We also have immediate updates we can put out through our face-to-face network and the call centres. So we promulgate that information as soon as we can and, as best we can, we ensure that it is being acknowledged and adhered to through the organisation.

Senator FIFIELD —What about the solar panel rebate that the government had—was that deemed to be income?

Mr Cowan —For installation—the rebate for installing hardware?

Senator FIFIELD —Yes.

Mr Cowan —No, that is not regarded as income.

Senator FIFIELD —Because? You have not received a ministerial determination that it should be?

Mr Cowan —No, that has remained the same; that is the policy that has been in place

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —It is a rebate against the cost of installing.

Senator FIFIELD —But, from what I have heard today, if the government made a policy determination that it should be considered as income, then Centrelink would. I will talk to FaHCSIA about that.

Mr Pratt, you would obviously be aware of Minister Bowen and Senator Arbib’s press release of today headed ‘Government strengthening job seeker engagement’.

Mr Pratt —Yes.

Senator FIFIELD —That proudly proclaims that the Minister for Human Services, Chris Bowen, and Minister Arbib ‘today announced the government is strengthening arrangements for job seekers to give them the best chance of securing employment’, and they go on to say:

“Centrelink will conduct regular intensive participation interviews with these vulnerable job seekers in order to promote greater engagement with job search activities, better compliance and more reliable reporting …

When I read that release it struck me as like ‘everything old is new again’. Didn’t there used to be more of an ntensive face-to-face interview with clients of this sort?

Mr Pratt —No. The two things which Centrelink is going to do from July are quite different from past activity.

Senator FIFIELD —Could you explain?

Mr Pratt —Certainly. Let me start at the beginning. In the jobseeker reporting world there are two requirements of job seekers. One is that they are to report frequently about anything which affects their income or their circumstances which might then result in changes to the payments they get under Newstart allowance et cetera. The second thing is that they have to report on how they are going in looking for work.

The arrangements which Centrelink will implement from 1 July strengthen these two areas. As was announced late last year by the government, the first part of those responsibilities—the reporting on income and changes of circumstances—no longer needs to be done by people coming in and providing a form to Centrelink. People are able to report that information by ringing a call centre and providing the information to rather sophisticated voice recognition software or they can do it on the internet. So there is a real efficiency there both for the customers and for Centrelink.

The second part of that is that Centrelink will, for selected customers—jobseekers who are most vulnerable, potentially, to longer term unemployment, or ‘dropping through the cracks’—have intensive participation contact interviews on a regular basis. These interviews will focus very much on the individual’s job search efforts. People will be asked to detail what they have been doing in looking for work. They will be asked to give evidence of that. Centrelink will drill into that information. They will have sufficient time to do things like call employers to validate that job search. These interviews are far more intensive than any that Centrelink have been able to do in the past; these two areas are quite new.

Senator FIFIELD —They are more intensive than interviews that Centrelink has been able to do in the past?

Mr Pratt —That is correct.

Senator FIFIELD —Centrelink did do these sorts of interviews in the past?

Mr Pratt —No. For many decades Centrelink and its predecessors have undertaken very quick discussions with jobseekers when they come in to lodge their fortnightly form. I have done thousands of these interviews myself.

Senator FIFIELD —They bring in their job diary?

Mr Pratt —That is right; it is that sort of thing. The interviews take a relatively short period of time. Typically there is a queue of people waiting to hand over their form. The officer will have a look at the form and ask some questions, such as, ‘Has your income changed?’ and ‘Have you looked for work?’ It might take a minute in total, on average.

These interviews are going to be far more extensive. They will focus on the labour market participation side of things, because most of the reporting on changes in income and circumstances can be done through the interactive voice recognition software and through a website.

Senator FIFIELD —Those interviews which you referred to—the-one-minute interviews, of which you have done many—have consistently been done? They have not been discontinued at any point?

Mr Pratt —Certainly over the past three decades that I am aware of they have been done. They have not changed much at all during that time.

Senator FIFIELD —But over a number of years there has been the situation that, if you fail to attend those interviews, your payments will be withheld?

Mr Pratt —You have to trigger a future payment by putting a form in.

Senator FIFIELD —You do that by fronting up, by having a chat of the sort that you used to have?

Mr Pratt —That is right—except that when it is busy the form is often just handed over.

Senator FIFIELD —So what is different about these interviews? You say they are more intensive. Does that mean it is a five-minute chat rather than a one-minute chat?

Mr Pratt —That is correct, Senator. It is about five times the period, on average.

Senator SIEWERT —What time do you allocate for each interview?

Mr Pratt —On average, five minutes.

Senator SIEWERT —Five minutes per interview to drill down to those issues?

Mr Pratt —That is right.

Ms Hogg —I might add that given that we have moved the declaration part, which is now a large part of the contact, away from that five minutes, the declaration part is taking place separately. So each fortnight—and there will be many more people having to do this than currently do—a customer will be required to say what efforts they have made, whether they had any earnings and whether anything has changed before they talk to Centrelink in that five minutes. So there will be two parts to the process. It is five minutes plus. When we see the customer, we can talk about employment issues.

Senator SIEWERT —How many people are we talking about? How many are going to be classed as vulnerable?

Ms Beath —Different people, according to their risk, will have different times in which they will come in. For example, job ready people who are in their first 13 weeks of    unemployment will have to come in and have one of those interviews every fortnight. Some other groups, such as young people at risk, might have to come in every four weeks to have that interview, usually because they are doing some other form of training at the same time. Then we will have other groups at six and 12 weeks. So we are going to look at those people who need that little bit extra. They will get the two or four weeks. Some people will have a six- or 12-week contact.

Senator SIEWERT —How many in each of those categories?

Ms Beath —I have some very general figures. We are still working on some of those figures. For example, there are close to 70,000 people who might have that two-weekly contact. And this is for the personal contact interview—

Senator SIEWERT —They are the job ready ones?

Ms Beath —in the job ready group. And there are around 163,000 who will have four-weekly contact.

Senator SIEWERT —As you know, a lot of those people who are vulnerable already have much more support—specific support—through the job service network. How is this going to be different from the job service network? And how does the employment pathway planning fit into this scheme?

Ms Beath —Our staff can see the employment pathway plan that the job service provider might have already put on the system for that customer. So they can have a look at some of the activities and make sure that they are reinforcing what might be going on for the job service provider. We may also have some other programs that we may be able to refer people to. We refer a lot of people to language and literacy programs. It will be a way of spending a bit more time to help reinforce these issues.

Senator SIEWERT —If the service providers were doing their jobs properly, wouldn’t they have already identified and referred those people to the programs you just listed? If not, why are you doubling up that program? It seems to me the Commonwealth is investing a lot of money into that program and now you are doubling up on that.

Ms Beath —I think the sort of contact we are having will be an additional assistance to the job seeker.

Senator SIEWERT —You did not answer my question.

Mr Pratt —Senator, let me have a go. The Centrelink interviews are complementary to what Job Services Australia employment service providers will do or disability employment service providers might do. The focus is on monitoring their job search efforts, talking with them about how they are going with Job Search, discovering on a regular basis whether there are changes in their circumstances personally which might affect things like their JSCI rating and, potentially, providing additional support. The employment service providers of course are focused on overcoming the job seeker’s barriers to employment and actually providing direct training and so forth.

Senator SIEWERT —With all due respect, that was what I was just told: that will be done during the interviews is exactly what the job network providers should be doing.

Mr Pratt —Perhaps I have not been very clear. What I am trying to indicate is that Centrelink will focus very much on examining efforts and gathering intelligence. Certainly those sorts of things would be provided by the employment service provider, but the employment service provider has a much greater focus on trying to overcome barriers and provide training and that sort of direct assistance with job help. Centrelink does not do that.

Senator SIEWERT —Sorry, I do not understand the last part. You said that you are looking at overcoming barriers and so does some of the media. But I thought that that was what the employment providers were supposed to be doing.

Mr Pratt —That is what I just said. I was trying to draw the distinction. The employment service provider is responsible for overcoming barriers and for providing intensive assistance. Centrelink is responsible for monitoring job search effort and gathering intelligence.

Senator SIEWERT —That is part of the employment plan and it is part of their participation requirements.

Mr Pratt —They are complementary.

Senator SIEWERT —So the employment service provider does not monitor—

Mr Pratt —I certainly hope they are.

Senator SIEWERT —I understood they were being paid to do that as part of the process.

Mr Pratt —That is right.

Senator SIEWERT —So Centrelink is now going to be doing that as well?

Ms Hogg —Senator, there are certain categories of people. For instance, one category is long-term unemployed. That is five years unemployed, therefore we need to put more help in there, with those people.

Senator SIEWERT —But the people that you are actually going to be doing the intensive stuff with are the job-ready people.

Ms Hogg —No, no—and the long-term unemployed, the five years plus.

Senator SIEWERT —What I was just told is that it is the job-ready people who would be having the fortnightly interviews.

Ms Hogg —They are fortnightly, yes.

Senator SIEWERT —So what about the long-term unemployed?

Mr Pratt —Senator, I understand where we are getting slightly at cross-purposes. In terms of the fortnightly interviews, those are focused on people in their first 13 weeks of unemployment. These are people who do not receive very substantial services or assistance from the employment service provider. If an employment service provider is actively assisting a very disadvantaged job seeker—for example, under stream 4 of the Job Services program—the Centrelink interviews will be far less frequent. They will be 12 weekly. So there is no overlap of that sort, if that is what you are worried about.

Senator SIEWERT —Have you got a table that articulates this?

Mr Pratt —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —Can you table that, please—not take it on notice but table it so I have got it now and I do not have to wait.

Mr Pratt —We will try and get it to you as quickly as we can. I do not know that we have a table that is in suitable form for tabling.

Senator SIEWERT —I am not trying to smart, but it is just that we are not going to get the answers to these questions back for a long period of time, probably not until after the election. I would like to know this now.

CHAIR —10 July is the date for when questions on notice have to be back—

Senator SIEWERT —And I have had enough experience around this place now to know that we will not get it by 10 July. I stand corrected: it is 9 July. With all due respect—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —But it is not uncommon for them to undertake to provide—

Senator RYAN —You are a bit quicker than the department of climate change, Senator Siewert!

Mr Pratt —We will take this up with the minister and see if we can provide it to you far quicker than that.

Senator SIEWERT —That would be appreciated.

Senator FIFIELD —To be fair to the department and Centrelink, the departments and agencies usually meet the deadline; it is that they have not been signed off in the ministers’ offices.

Senator SIEWERT —Yes. I am not having a shot at the department. I am talking about the overall process.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Just before either of you move on from this point, can I clarify a point raised earlier, Mr Pratt. Does the phone or internet provision of information deal solely with reports in relation to income or changed circumstances, or does it also deal with the activity requirements?

Ms Hogg —We do ask questions about what efforts have been made for that fortnight, yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —So if you are a person who is not at risk then that may be the extent of your need to continue to meet the agency’s requirements; is that right?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —So in one sense you are refocusing resources on people who need more assistance.

Ms Hogg —That is right.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Siewert, have you finished?

Senator SIEWERT —No. Is that okay, Senator Fifield?

Senator FIFIELD —I was just going to finish that particular line of questioning, but if you—

Senator SIEWERT —I was going to go off into how much time it is going to take and all those sorts of things in terms of staffing.

Senator FIFIELD —Yes, I think Senator Kroger also wants to follow up on something.

CHAIR —Can we finish off on this?

Senator SIEWERT —On who is actually going to be involved line of questioning, you mean? I still want to talk about this new process but I want to explore a few other areas.

CHAIR —Senator Siewert, if you can you continue.

Senator SIEWERT —Could we go through the additional resources this is going to take, including the number of extra staff this process is going to require and the training those people are going to have.

Mr Pratt —Let me start at a general level. It is estimated this will cost Centrelink around $11 million per year. I am not sure I have a figure on how many staff will be involved in providing this. I will have to take that on notice.

Ms Beath —We do not have the figure for the number of staff involved here, but we can provide it on notice.

Senator SIEWERT —How do we know it is going to cost $11 million if we do not know how many staff are going to be involved?

Mr Pratt —We have done estimates around that, but we do not have the data here, that is all.

Senator KROGER —Can you take that on notice?

Mr Pratt —Certainly.

Senator SIEWERT —What is the process? Let us go with the every two weeks. How long is the waiting time going to be? Have you factored those processes in?

Ms Hogg —We are going to change the front of office process considerably. Because we are moving the vast majority of people onto electronic means of reporting, they can either do that in the office with new self-service capability or they can do it from home. We can now move to an appointment process for these interviews so that the queuing process that we have managed for a long time now should by and large be a lot less than it has been. We will not have people in an ad hoc manner walking into a Centrelink office at any point in the day and forming a queue waiting to be seen to lodge their form. They can do that completely in their own time now and they will come to an appointment to have this interview.

Senator SIEWERT —Every five minutes?

Ms Hogg —We will schedule them obviously.

Senator SIEWERT —Twelve an hour.

Ms Hogg —The issue is that it will not be all day. There is enough, and that is not too many, in these cohorts to have that sort congestion in the office.

Senator SIEWERT —The totals are: 70,000 in two weeks and 162,000 every four weeks. How many after that? The six weekly ones?

Ms Beath —Around 179,000 for six weeks.

Senator SIEWERT —Is that the total, then—two, four and six weeks?

Ms Beath —Then there is around another 370,000 at the 12-weekly stage.

Senator SIEWERT —In terms of the extra staff resources that are going to be required, what is the level of training you are going to be requiring those additional staff to have? Are they going to be trained?

Ms Hogg —We are going to use staff that are currently performing interviews with customers in the offices. Obviously we will need to make sure that they have a standard way of addressing these interviews, per se. But, by and large, apart from telling them what the outcome of the interview is and what they need to do, they will have the skills already.

Senator SIEWERT —We know that a lot of the most vulnerable people are stream 4. They are vulnerable and they have additional very significant barriers. I suggest those people need quite a significant amount of training. To achieve the proposed outcomes of this project you would need specific training in supporting and working with people, particularly in those vulnerable streams.

Ms Hogg —We do, as you probably know, a lot of familiarisation with our staff about particular issues. We have particular learning and development exercises on people with mental health problems, et cetera. I take your point, Senator, that we do need to make sure that every body who is going to be involved in this process has up-to-date skills. But by and large my view would be that that process is in place.

Senator SIEWERT —Do you have an evaluation process in place for this new approach?

Ms Hogg —Not yet, but we certainly will.

Senator SIEWERT —Will it be in place by the time you start the process?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —Who will be developing that evaluation process?

Ms Hogg —The program line together with the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. It is their outcomes that we are obviously doing this for.

Senator SIEWERT —Will the evaluation process have external peer review?

Mr Pratt —That is something which I suggest you direct to DEEWR when you talk to them. They will be ultimately responsible for finalising the evaluatory approach used.

Senator SIEWERT —DEEWR will be responsible for that process?

Mr Pratt —Yes, that is right.

Senator SIEWERT —Okay, thank you. In terms of the interaction between this process and income quarantining, do you have a process in place for that?

Ms Hogg —Do you mean income management?

Senator SIEWERT —Income management. I call it income quarantining, but I mean income management. How is it foreseen that this will be rolled out in the NT in association with the existing income management process?

Ms Hogg —I could start with that, if you like. Basically, customers in the Northern Territory would be managed in the same way that they are now in terms of access to our offices and access to other means of communicating with us. That will not change. If they are not physically able to attend interviews and those sorts of things we will do mobile visiting to their communities in the same way.

Senator SIEWERT —Every two weeks?

Ms Hogg —Probably not for remote locations, no, so that will be an issue. The vulnerability of the remoteness will be an issue, so we will accommodate that in terms of the frequency that we need to see people.

Senator SIEWERT —How? What will happen if they cannot come in to an interview every two weeks, for example?

Ms Beath —We would set the reporting frequency for those people according to their conditions and according to their situation. As you know, we know the location of our customers, so we would know that they are on a remote community that perhaps has a visiting service once every four weeks. We would have to take that into account when we set the reporting frequency for the customers in those communities.

Senator SIEWERT —So the circumstances of each individual will be examined to determine whether it is two, four, six or 12 weeks?

Ms Beath —Yes.

Ms Hogg —Yes, in fact I should mention that that is a whole feature of the transition: we will look at every customer in terms of whether we think this decision about where they should sit in this process is correct.

Senator SIEWERT —This starts on 1 July?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —So between now and 1 July you are going to do that assessment?

Ms Hogg —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —How is it done—by computer? Is it done by individually examining each person’s case?

Ms Beath —We will be looking at ones which can be done automatically, but there will also be some where we will have to do an individual assessment, as you pointed out. It probably starts from 1 July because obviously we would need to contact particularly some of the people in remote areas and it might take us a little bit longer to make sure that we have their reporting frequency set at the right one.

Senator SIEWERT —Sorry, I may have misunderstood what you were saying then. In terms of it starting, do you mean starting the review process or the actual interview process? I was assuming, when you said 1 July, that the interview process starts as of 1 July. I may have misunderstood what you just said.

Mr Pratt —That is correct, but, for people who might be in areas where they are more difficult to contact, we might start earlier to make appointments for them, which might be after 1 July.

Senator SIEWERT —Okay. So you will start contacting people beforehand. That leads me to my next question: how do people get told about this process?

Ms Beath —There might be a variety of ways, including by letter. It could be by letter as part of that, or it may also be personal contact, because it really will depend on the circumstances of the individual.

Senator SIEWERT —Is there a process envisaged whereby you will be getting back to the employment service provider so that there is a two-way flow of information?

Ms Beath —Our systems do talk, so information put on our system can be seen by the employment service provider. If something came up that would require us to give some more advice—sometimes, for example, we might discover a vulnerability that had not been recognised by a provider—we would put that onto our system so they would get that information.

Senator SIEWERT —Can you remind me? The employment service providers spend more than five minutes with their—

Ms Beath —They do, Senator.

Senator SIEWERT —On a regular basis?

Ms Beath —For most of their customers, except perhaps for people in the first 13 weeks of their payment.

Senator SIEWERT —The first 13 weeks, yes, but for the others? I am not trying to be smart here, but if these people are doing their jobs properly I would have thought that they would be able to identify barriers and the other issues we have just been talking about. It takes a lot more than five minutes to discover them. I will go back to my original question, which is: if there is a problem, why aren’t you working with the employment service providers to do that? This is $11 million, and I am really interested in the costs on this. It is $11 million that is provided, that this is costing—and I must admit that, given what you are talking about, it seems pretty cheap. That cost seems on the low side. Why are you not tightening up with the employment service providers if you find there is a hole?

Mr Pratt —Senator, you are venturing into the territory of policy as opposed to service delivery, but—

Senator SIEWERT —I am sure the chair will ping me any minute.

Mr Pratt —But I would like to point out that, when you look at what is being provided here from 1 July in comparison to what is being provided now, we are complementing and supplementing the work of the employment service providers in Centrelink. We are not trying to duplicate what they do. They do things far more intensively in terms of overcoming barriers and preparing people for employment. Centrelink’s role is about monitoring Jobsearch efforts and the like. That is done superficially currently. For these at-risk and vulnerable job seekers, we are proposing to increase the level of service which is provided. Government has taken a decision to strengthen the system.

Senator SIEWERT —Five minutes for each person. How much are you then putting aside for each of the staff members to follow up on the work that is done with each of the people that they see? If these people are trying to help and complement what the service providers are providing, how are they going to do it after they have done the five minutes worth of interview? Is that factored into your decision making?

Mr Pratt —Of course, it will vary depending on each individual’s circumstances. We are costing it on an average of five minutes. Clearly if a job seeker has some special requirements or something new turns up, the officer will be able to spend more time with them. They will be able to refer them on to more expert staff within Centrelink or, potentially, as Ms Beath pointed out earlier, they can refer them to other specialists in other organisations, including potentially alerting their employment service provider.

Senator SIEWERT —The job ready group of 70,000 are the ones who have been unemployed for less than 13 weeks?

Ms Beath —Yes, Senator.

Senator SIEWERT —What is the average time now that a newly unemployed person remains on Newstart? How soon is it until the newly unemployed are getting a job?

Mr Pratt —That is a question you should ask of DEEWR.

Senator SIEWERT —So you do not have any figures about how quickly people are coming in and going off Centrelink—

Mr Pratt —Not to hand, but I am sure we have plenty of data on how long people receive income support for and that sort of stuff. We would have to take that on notice. The question you asked is something which DEEWR focuses on.

Senator SIEWERT —I will talk to DEEWR about it next week. Thank you.

Senator KROGER —I will leave that matter, because Senator Siewert has covered it fairly extensively. What would be your estimate of wrongful claims?

Ms Hogg —Could you explain what you mean by ‘wrongful’?

Senator KROGER —Wrongful in terms of claims that are made fraudulently, in whichever area.

Ms Hogg —Centrelink?

Senator KROGER —Yes.

Ms Hogg —We can probably tell you the amount of fraud that we detect, which is probably slightly different to your question, rather than trying to estimate how much fraud there is in the system.

Senator KROGER —Yes, I understand.

Mr Withnell —So far this year we have completed 16,320 investigations for potentially fraudulent activity.

Senator KROGER —What initiated those investigations?

Mr Withnell —There can be a range of factors. It can be a tip-off from the public. It can be as part of a data-matching activity we do with other agencies. They are probably the two principal ones. There are also some particular data streams we get from some of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Senator KROGER —And, of those investigations, is there a particular group of people amongst whom that is happening—for instance, in the disability support area, or claims for Newstart or Youth Allowance? Is there a commonality there?

Mr Withnell —It is actually quite diverse. It can be across all the payment types, and it can be for a range of things from non-declaration of income to employment, living arrangements, relationships, assets—it is quite a diverse group.

Senator KROGER —In how many of those investigations did you conclude that there were wrongful claims being made and were able to seek restitution of monies that had already been paid?

Mr Withnell —Of those that are completed—it is a bit hard to be precise—some of them may end up as administrative resolutions; some may end up as criminal resolutions, in terms of prosecution; and a very small amount within that may end up as a rate to continue because the investigation is not proved. I do not have a percentage—

Senator KROGER —Rather than take your time and the committee’s time now, could I put on notice a request for some advice as to how many of those that were concluded and were considered to be wrongful claims—administrative, and in how many restitution was sought and if any of that has been forthcoming. One further thing: I noted—and I am happy to table this, Madam Chair, if those at the table so wish—an article. It was an article that was forwarded to me. I just need to refer to it because I do not have a copy, I am sorry.

CHAIR —Perhaps if the committee could have a look at it—

Senator KROGER —Absolutely.

CHAIR —and consider it, we could get a copy and then you could continue on.

Senator KROGER —It is in relation to concern expressed in relation to Muslim men in particular who are maintaining or alleged to be maintaining a number of wives and are therefore improperly claiming through multiple claims. I was seeking your advice on that as to (1) whether it is a problem; and (2) if it is a problem, what the extent is; and (3) what you have been able to do about that.

CHAIR —Can I just intervene to say that the committee has accepted and ordered the tabling of that document; they are just getting it copied for you.

Senator KROGER —Thanks, Chair. Mr Withnell, please go on.

Mr Withnell —We have not found many cases. There is very small incidence of that that we have come across. I am talking probably less than 20, or less than 10 perhaps—I do not have the exact figures with me. But in the investigations we have done it is a very, very small number.

Senator KROGER —I guess what I am looking for is an assurance that we actually are ensuring that multiple claims cannot be falsely made and multiple claims are actually being pursued.

Senator CAMERON —Is this only for Muslims, or is this for everybody? It is only Muslims who have made these false claims—is that right?

Senator KROGER —No, I have actually been—

Senator CAMERON —Oh, give us a break!

CHAIR —Senators, can I just remind you—

Senator CAMERON —You people are pathetic!

CHAIR —Senator Cameron! Senators, can I just remind you—it is getting late in the evening and I do appreciate that everyone is tired—that we have limited time left.

Senator KROGER —Senator Cameron, if you had actually been listening over the last 10 minutes you would have heard I have been asking about fraud.

Senator CAMERON —I didn’t ask to wake up halfway through your question!

Senator KROGER —Well it’s good that you’re awake now!

CHAIR —Senator Kroger, would you like to continue with your question?

Senator KROGER —Mr Withnell, if you can get back to us on that as well that would be great.

Senator RYAN —There has been some media coverage about potential discussions between Centrelink and Australia Post. Have there been any discussions between Centrelink and Australia Post about Australia Post being utilised for delivery of Centrelink services?

Ms Hogg —No.

Senator RYAN —No discussions underway at all?

Ms Hogg —No discussion.

Senator RYAN —Tender No. RFTS10/0050—you might be familiar with it—

Senator FIFIELD —It’s one of the favourites.

Senator RYAN —It may well be when I read it out. It is a $600,000 to $900,000 contract for a national media analysis solution. What is the scope of that media analysis that is being paid for?

Ms Barbour —I do not have that information with me. I wonder if we could take it on notice?

Senator RYAN —Okay. Could you take on notice the scope of the analysis and, if possible, the brief you provided the media service for that—I am not sure if it is just a clippings service or an analysis service as well—and whether or not the analysis is made available to the minister’s office.

Ms Barbour —Yes, we will take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT —I want to go to income management and the amount of money that has been set aside in the budget. Could we clarify what some of that funding is for. Could you tell me how much money has been allocated in the budget for income management for the new process—if the legislation goes through? I am trying not to go into the specific issues around the NTER, because we will deal with that on Friday.

Mr Tidswell —We will get that from our CFO colleague to make sure we get the exact figure for you.

Mr Burgess —I will get one of my colleagues to get the actual amount but it is approximately $88 million per year.

Senator SIEWERT —And you have been allocated funding for three years?

Mr Burgess —Three years I think.

Senator SIEWERT —Could you tell me what you intend funding under that $88 million.

Mr Tidswell —The money there is to fund the build of an IT system, it is to fund the training of staff and it is to fund the extra visiting services and interviews we will have to conduct across the Northern Territory.

Senator SIEWERT —How many additional staff do you anticipate putting on for that?

Mr Tidswell —I will have to consult my colleague Roxanne Ramsey.

Ms Ramsey —I am sorry, Senator. Up the back I could not hear your question.

Senator SIEWERT —How many additional staff are you going to be putting on for running this extension of the program?

Ms Ramsey —There are no additional staff, as such, being put on, because currently there is income management being delivered within the Northern Territory. The effort will change because, depending on the legislation going through, it is no longer just in the remote or designated communities but is generally for designated groups of people across the Northern Territory.

So what we are currently doing is looking at how we need to shift the effort to extend income management into other parts of the Territory, for example across Darwin. So the community service centres that currently are there in terms of normal Centrelink services are being trained and staff there are being developed to be able to deliver income management, although currently they are familiar with it anyway because of it being there.

Senator SIEWERT —So of the $88 million how much is for IT, how much for training staff? Can we break down the budget?

Ms Ramsey —I can break it down, but I do not have had with me. I am happy to take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT —That would be appreciated. In terms of the three-year process, the announcement has been made that it is going to run for an extra two years and then trialled for the Northern Territory. That is correct, isn’t it? The new process is supposed to be run for two years in the Northern Territory and then there will be an evaluation process.

Ms Ramsey —The legislation is still before the House; it has not been passed. But, yes, there is a plan that has been announced by the minister, as I understand it, that, depending on the evaluation, there is potential for it to be extended.

Senator SIEWERT —This may be my fault in terms of asking for the $88 million per year. Could we just clarify how many years the $88 million per year has been allocated for?

Mr Tidswell —My understanding is that it is over three years, but we will check.

Mr Burgess —I have to stand corrected. The actual cost for 2010-11 is $82.8 million. For 2011-12 the cost is $76 million, for 2012-13 $69.7 million. It does go out to a fourth year, 2013-14, $70.2 million.

Senator SIEWERT —And that is specifically for income management for the Northern Territory.

Mr Burgess —For the Northern Territory.

Senator SIEWERT —If you could provide on notice the breakdown of the actual costs, IT, training; what else is on the list? I am not looking for the figures now, because I appreciate what you have just told me.

Ms Ramsey —It is remote visiting teams, it covers some additional money into agent fees. There is a range of things that it covers: travel, accommodation.

Senator SIEWERT —My last question. Is there money factored in for evaluation?

Mr Tidswell —That is a matter for FaHCSIA.

Senator SIEWERT —I will be following up with FaHCSIA on that one.

Senator ABETZ —In relation to vetting claims or looking into potential fraud et cetera, there seems to be a huge impost put onto small business. One example that I have been provided is that this business has received not less than 10 requests for three months of information on employees who have Centrelink dealings. It was 10 requests for 73 people. This is especially the case in small country towns where a lot of the workers are part-time and also partial Centrelink recipients. Why can’t Centrelink ask the Centrelink recipient or Centrelink client for their pay slips and then the bank statements and then verify to see that the pay slips match with the bank statement of the Centrelink client, as opposed to requiring the small-business person—usually it is of a night, after hours, that they have to do this—to go through the books and trawl through three months of work, photocopy it or whatever, and send it in. Especially in small country towns where there is a lot of mixing and matching of Centrelink recipients and part-time workers, this would help.

Mr Withnell —It is hard to be specific about the forms or requests that went out.

Senator ABETZ —This is a general request from Centrelink. If I could be cheeky, given the shortness of time, I put it to you for your consideration that you ought to get some of this impost off small business and get your own verification in a way that does not put that impost on them.

Mr Pratt —We will have a look at that. I think some of that does actually happen, but we are certainly interested in reducing the load on people where we can.

Senator ABETZ —If small businesses were advised that they are only being asked as result of Centrelink having tried to confirm it all with the Centrelink client then I think they might be more responsive and willing. They might be the first port of call because they are most convenient and the easiest target. I will move on to the Freight Equalisation Scheme. Are the mechanisms now in place for electronic lodgement?

Mr Tidswell —I know you are well briefed on this matter. You received some answers to questions last evening.

Senator ABETZ —You were watching the rural and regional committee hearing.

Mr Tidswell —So we assume that you are pretty well versed in this topic. As we told you last estimates, we do accept the online claim. We are looking to get the documentation that supports that claim sent to us electronically as well. So we are in the process of putting in place a trial to test that.

Senator ABETZ —Good. That is what I meant: having the supporting documentation accepted electronically.

Mr Tidswell —Like you, we are keen to make this as efficient and productive as possible. Claims continue to increase, so we are keen to continue our good work. We are on top of the backlog and we want to maintain that improvement.

Senator ABETZ —Are there mechanisms in place to ensure that we do not get another backlog?

Mr Tidswell —We are in conversations with the department. We continually have these conversations about our funding envelope for the next financial year and our work processes so that we can put in place the best solution, the most streamlined solution, to deal with what is an extraordinary increase in the workload.

Senator ABETZ —All I seek to do is to impress upon you that these payments are very important for the cash flow of a lot of small businesses. I will leave that with you. I wish you well in your endeavours in that regard.

Senator CAMERON —Mr Pratt, who is your polygamy expert?

Mr Pratt —I will just look around and see!

Senator CAMERON —First of all, Chair, with regard to this document that has been tabled, I notice it has been addressed to Ms Anna Burke MP and not Senator Kroger. I also note that there is no reference to where this article came from. I am not sure what newspaper it is from. Is there any clarification on that?

CHAIR —I did make the comment when it was handed to me that it did not have any identification of the paper. I also commented that the print is very small.

Senator KROGER —I can give clarification. It was in the Herald Sun.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Senator CAMERON —That says a lot. Ms Beath, is it only Muslims who are in polygamous relationships, that you are aware of?

Ms Beath —The policy that we have on dealing with polygamous relationships does not mention a religion; it just talks about multiple relationships.

Senator CAMERON —But is it only Muslims, as is indicated here, or are there Anglo-Saxon couples in polygamous relationships?

Senator FIFIELD —You watch Big Love, do you, Senator?

Senator CAMERON —I was around in the sixties.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I would not be boasting about that.

Senator CAMERON —I have read about what happened.

CHAIR —Senators, can I just remind you that people are very precious about the limited time that we have left. Interjections are not helpful to the proceedings.

Senator CAMERON —I should not trivialise this. I am sorry. It is a serious issue.

CHAIR —It is a serious matter. Senator Cameron, do you have a further question?

Senator CAMERON —Yes, I have. This Herald Sun report is headlined ‘You pay for extra wives’. Is that accurate in terms of Centrelink? Does Centrelink pay for extra wives?

Ms Beath —There is a FaHCSIA policy which tells us how to treat people in multiple relationships. It depends on the circumstances of the relationship, but in effect, if that were the case, the partners would all get, if you like, half married rate, so the lower rate.

Senator CAMERON —So basically people can make a choice to live in whatever arrangement they want to live in but you would treat them as being at the lower rate. So they would be paid less, as if they single. Is that correct?

Ms Beath —Correct.

Senator CAMERON —So maybe the Commonwealth is saving money in that arrangement.

Ms Beath —I think the policy is from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. I think it is probably good to direct those questions to them.

Senator CAMERON —Is it? Okay. This report says:

A 2008 report by the women’s group found Centrelink payments had encouraged polygamy in a small section of the Islamic community.

Are you aware of that report?

Ms Beath —No, I am not.

Senator CAMERON —Thanks.

CHAIR —Senator Fifield.

Senator CAMERON —I am just glad they were not trade unionists as well! We would be in real trouble with this mob!

CHAIR —Senator Cameron, interjection is not helpful.

Senator FIFIELD —I am not going to continue with the Big Love theme here. I just have a very quick question on the future of the rural service officers. Are they under threat?

Mr Tidswell —As a result of some budget decisions that have been made, we are in the process of reviewing for next financial year the role and function of our rural service officers across Australia. We have not resolved how we are going to work through that. We are in the process of considering next year’s allocations, workload and activity.

Senator FIFIELD —How many positions are there at the moment?

Mr Tidswell —I do not quite have that.

Ms Beath —There are around 60 rural service officers.

Senator FIFIELD —So they and their role are under review and the future is not guaranteed for them. That would be fair to say.

Mr Tidswell —That is correct.

Senator FIFIELD —Thank you. Can you provide a list of the rural service officer positions by location—the number?

Mr Tidswell —We will take that on notice.

Senator FIFIELD —Thank you. So there have not been any that have been removed?

Mr Tidswell —Not at this stage as far as I know.

Senator FIFIELD —When you say ‘looking at it for the coming financial year’, you are talking about the 2010-11 financial year?

Mr Tidswell —That is correct.

Senator FIFIELD —Were you saying that there are some that will definitely be scrapped or that you were just reviewing?

Mr Tidswell —I did not use those words, but we are reviewing the allocation across the country in regard to that.

Senator FIFIELD —So there is a question mark over them. Thank you.

CHAIR —As I understand it, that concludes Centrelink.

[10.28 pm]