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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Department of Veterans' Affairs

Department of Veterans' Affairs


CHAIR: Now we will address ourselves to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I will not read out the lengthy statement with regard to officials. I think we understand them, and I think you and your colleagues understand them also. So I take it as understood.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I would just like to follow up the line of questioning on the Sir John Monash Centre, if you could give the committee an update on whether some kind of work has started on that and give us a timetable and a budget.

Mr Lewis : We have run a tender process in relation to the construction of the Sir John Monash Centre, and bids have closed. We are assessing those bids at the present time.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That will be at the Villers-Bretonneux memorial site?

Mr Lewis : Behind the memorial itself—correct. There are some design features. You are probably aware of this. It went to the Public Works Committee some little while ago, so the designs and all of that were shared with the PWC at that time.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Have there been any more advances on the budget? Have you actually started to work up some numbers?

Mr Lewis : We will be able to update on that once we have our tenders in; obviously, we have tender quality information that we are assessing now. The intent would be to proceed once we have a locked-in tenderer. There is nothing to announce right now, but, when we are in a position to, we will.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: In relation to what you envisage it is going to be: I have been to Villers-Bretonneux—I have a relative buried there—and I noticed there was a museum in Albert, not too far from there, which included some Australian history. What exactly are you planning to do?

Mr Lewis : I might look over to Mr Fletcher to provide a bit more detail about the purpose of it, but I suppose one thing to make an observation about is that the intent of this is not focused just on Villers-Bretonneux; it is designed to tell the story of the whole Western Front. Mr Fletcher?

Mr Fletcher : The centre is to tell the Australian story. We have the Australian Remembrance Trail on the Western Front which tells the story of individual geographic areas and the battles that occurred there, but this centre will tell the specific story about Australia—before the war, leading into the war, during the war, and post war. The government commissioned a legacy building. It cannot be iconic against the Australian National Memorial, so it is a half-sunken building. So a lot of work has gone into meeting the legacy requirement but also making it subsistent to the actual memorial itself.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The centre is a physical space, but have you considered the possibility of using technology, for Australians going there in the next three or four years especially? Having been there myself and having hired a historian, for US$500 for a day, to tell us stories and walk us around, I imagine you could do that on iPhones now with a pair of headphones. Are you planning to look at technology—which I am guessing would be a fraction of the cost—to tell the story?

Mr Fletcher : The centre uses the whole site, and we see it as the hub of the Australian experience—so the hub of the trail. The site will have wi-fi, so you will be able to connect up to and download an app. You will be able to walk through the site and experience and understand what the cemetery is about, what the memorial itself is about and what the centre is about, and then you will be able to have a takeaway to experience the other sites along the Western Front of significance to Australians. So it is very much a technology site, and it is very much about supporting the whole story of Australia.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are you going to develop a tour guide app that people could download onto their phones?

Mr Lewis : I certainly like the idea. I had the same experience as you did when I went to Villers-Bretonneux with my daughter several years ago; there is nothing which really helps you tell the story. So we are looking at as much ICT enablement as we can, at the site, and there is a tender that we are running.

Mr Fletcher : We have done a lot already as well. We have the Western Front site, which we revamped as part of the ART project, that now allows people to download different sections to talk about different parts along the front. We have apps that we have developed in partnership with our French and Belgian partners, and, as part of the centre, there will be an app that will cover the whole of the Western Front, plus specifically around the centre itself.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You mentioned that you have not done any specific costing around it yet, but—

Mr Lewis : The costings were done for the purpose of the PWC. I thought you were asking about the tender.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sorry—the actual project. Can you remind us again what has been budgeted for the centre?

Mr Fletcher : The total capital cost of the centre, excluding the money that was put up to develop the detailed business case, is $88.5 million.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Was that based on anything in particular?

Mr Fletcher : That was based on the detailed business case. Because of the tight time frames to deliver this, we had engaged the designers, the architects, the interpretive designers and the cost planners, as part of developing the DBC. So we had a very detailed costing leading into that, and we are confident that we will remain within those costings.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Providing the Australian dollar does not depreciate too much! I am sorry; I was just being facetious. Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Gallacher, 15 minutes and then—

Senator GALLACHER: Chair, I have a brief which goes a lot longer than 15 minutes.

CHAIR: I will just explain. I will go to you for 15 minutes and then to Senator Lambie for 15 minutes, and then I will come back to you.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. My apologies to the department. It is no fault of yours that we are running vastly over time. I have quite a long list of questions and I would appreciate it if you would take on notice immediately what you do not know and be succinct in your answers—

Mr Lewis : Understood.

Senator GALLACHER: And I will try and work my way very quickly through this. The 2015-16 DVA portfolio budget statement indicated that the department would be undertaking a review of departmental and allied health arrangements. Has the review commenced yet?

Ms Campion : Yes, Senator, the review has commenced.

Senator GALLACHER: When did it start?

Ms Campion : We have been working on preparing for the review since it was announced in the budget, doing a range of activities, including obviously looking at previous issues that have been raised by providers.

Senator GALLACHER: Sorry, Ms Campion. I have got a brief, which you can't see. So the question is: when did the review start? Is there a date?

Ms Campion : As I said, Senator, no particular date.

Senator GALLACHER: There is no date?

Ms Campion : No particular date. We have been working on the preparation for the review and how we will undertake it since the budget.

Senator GALLACHER: The answer is no. When does the department expect to begin this review?

Ms Campion : We have already commenced. I cannot give you a particular date. As I said, we have been planning on how we will undertake the review—its scope and time frames—since it was announced at the budget.

Senator GALLACHER: Will the scope include an examination of the impact of the extended pause on dental and allied health provider fees?

Ms Campion : The review will cover a range of issues. It will look at current utilisation of items on the schedule, the trends in utilisation, the changing demographics of our population, the current levels of fees.

Senator GALLACHER: Will it include an examination of the impact of the extended pause on dental and allied health provider fees?

Ms Campion : In so much as that relates to fees then, yes, Senator, it will. But that will not be the only scope of the review.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you. An examination of the impact on the existing disparity between the provider fees currently paid by DVA and the customary fees?

Ms Campion : Sorry, I did not catch the end of that question.

Senator GALLACHER: An examination of the impact of the existing disparity between the provider fees currently paid by the DVA and the customary fees—like the market fees.

Ms Campion : We will be looking at the fees. That is probably all I can tell you at this stage. We have not gone into any details as yet.

Senator GALLACHER: A consideration of the projected need for dental and allied services to veterans in the future?

Ms Campion : Yes, as I said, we will be looking at changing demographics and their changing health needs.

Senator GALLACHER: An examination of services currently provided to veterans?

Ms Campion : In relation to the items on the schedule?

Senator GALLACHER: Yes.

Ms Campion : Yes. As I said, we will be looking at utilisation trends.

Senator GALLACHER: Will the geographical distribution of the services be considered in this review—any issues around access to services for veterans in rural areas?

Ms Campion : Yes. I suspect that a key component of it will be looking at where our providers are located, as well as our clients.

Senator GALLACHER: Can the department provide an outline of the anticipated steps involved in conducting this review? Can you give us a broad-brush view of what you are trying to do here?

Mr Lewis : We might take it on notice, having regard to your preamble comments, Senator. But Sue is happy to take you through them now. So it is your choice.

Senator GALLACHER: For completeness, perhaps on notice, an outline of the anticipated steps would probably be a better way to do it.

Ms Campion : Sure.

Senator GALLACHER: Have you got an anticipated time line for the review? You are examining it. You will have a start date and an end date. Is it three months, six months?

Ms Campion : It will take longer than that. We are anticipating having it completed towards the end of next year. It is important to note—

Senator GALLACHER: Is that December 2016?

Ms Campion : Yes. There is a review of the Medicare benefit schedule occurring at the same time through the Department of Health, and we are attempting to align our review with that one, which will be working around the same time frame.

Senator GALLACHER: Will you be making the findings of the review public?

Mr Lewis : That will be a matter for the minister.

Senator GALLACHER: Minister, will you be making that—

Senator Payne: It will be a matter for the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. If you wish me to seek an answer from the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I will.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you. How many DVA staff are engaged in the undertaking of this review?

Ms Campion : I would need to take that on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: Will the review be undertaken entirely by DVA staff or will some aspects of the review be contracted out to external parties?

Ms Campion : That is something we are still working through. I suspect some of it may well be contracted out.

Mr Lewis : As Ms Campion just mentioned, we will be doing the review in consultation with the Department of Health, so they will be involved.

Senator GALLACHER: Perhaps on notice, if external parties are involved, what aspects of the review would they undertake? How would you select them? What would be the cost of their services? Why can't the roles be filled by departmental staff?

Mr Lewis : Instinctively, we would prefer to do it in-house if we could.

Senator GALLACHER: I understand the review is to be undertaken in consultation with provider groups. How are you going to facilitate those consultations?

Ms Campion : We already have arrangements to work and consult with provider groups. We have created from a range of former smaller committees a larger consultative forum that has around 25 or so organisations represented on it. That will be a key means of consultation and engagement with those groups. We are also anticipating forming smaller groups from those providers and inviting others as appropriate to look at particular areas of our schedules.

Senator GALLACHER: Would that be characterised as an industry reference group?

Ms Campion : Not so much industry but providers.

Senator GALLACHER: There would be roundtables? You would invite providers to make submissions on that too?

Ms Campion : There would definitely be a submission process, yes. Importantly, we would also be consulting with the veteran community and groups that represent that community.

Senator GALLACHER: Will this involve consultation primarily with industry bodies, or will it also involve input from individual providers?

Ms Campion : It will most likely include both.

Senator GALLACHER: Will the ex-service community have the opportunity to provide input into this review?

Ms Campion : Yes, it will.

Senator GALLACHER: What sort of arrangements would you put into place to facilitate those consultations with the ex-service community?

Ms Campion : We already have arrangements in place in DVA to engage regularly with the ex-service community. So we will be looking at utilising those mechanisms, and also looking to invite those groups to nominate representatives to be on some of our working groups.

Senator GALLACHER: Finally, is it anticipated there will be consultation with the veterans community if a rebalance of dental and allied health arrangements is deemed appropriate?

Ms Campion : Sorry, I did not understand the question.

Senator GALLACHER: Is it anticipated that there will be consultation with the veterans community if there is a rebalance of dental and allied health arrangements.

Ms Campion : Yes. That is the whole purpose of the review. So, yes, they will be consulted along the way.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you. I want to move to the memorandum of understanding between Defence and DVA and the relationship between DVA and Defence.

Mr Lewis : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: Can the department provide an update on performance under the MoU?

Mr Lewis : I will ask the Chief Operating Officer, Shane Carmody, to respond.

Mr Carmody : The MoU basically underpins the Support for Wounded, Injured or Ill Program in the relationship between Defence and DVA. And the MoU is functioning effectively.

Senator GALLACHER: What processes are in place to monitor performance under the MOU?

Mr Carmody : We have an extensive relationship management framework with Defence—the Defence and DVA executive committee with the two secretaries and CDF, underpinned then by the Defence Links Steering Committee and a number of other relationship management committees, that allows us to monitor the MOU and the aspects that fall in under the MOU—for example, the ICT with the technology schedule under the MOU. We manage those things through that arrangement.

Senator GALLACHER: So there are performance indicators. Who sets the criteria for those performance indicators?

Mr Carmody : It depends on the elements of the things that are covered in the MOU. Most of the performance indicators are managed through Defence Links Steering Committee. They are performance indicators that have been set for things like Defence response times. Most of them have been agreed for a long period of time but they were agreed jointly between the departments.

Senator GALLACHER: So the steering committee is responsible for evaluating performance?

Mr Carmody : The Defence Links Steering Committee evaluates performance of the relationship almost at every meeting. It looks at, for example, the single access mechanism between Defence and DVA, how many requests have been sent to Defence, how quickly they have been turned around, is the KPI being met, is it not being met and they are monitored in that committee on a regular basis. The KPI is monitored by the relationship committee itself.

Senator GALLACHER: Are any aspects of the MOU not performing in line with expectations?

Mr Carmody : There are sometimes requirements to tune, like the single access mechanism. Sometimes we have had discussions about putting additional resources on either at one end of the chain or at the other. So performance does vary at times if there have been staff losses or if there have been moves in both organisations but, as I said, we monitor those very closely.

Mr Lewis : The heart of it, as we have discussed at previous hearings, is all about trying to build a much stronger link to Defence because it needs to be seen as part of a continuum. So much of the work we do relies on getting early access, early identification of current serving members, so in some cases we can provide support to them before they leave, while they are still serving and certainly to assist their transition out. We need to know about all of them by the time they have left the ADF. In the past we have not done that. Part of this MOU is actually about Defence agreeing to work with us so that over time we will build a database of all the former serving ADF members who will be our clients.

Senator GALLACHER: Mr Lewis, do not take any of these questions as criticism.

Mr Lewis : No. I am just trying to help you.

Senator GALLACHER: They are purely exploratory.

Mr Lewis : A lot of the MOU is on the record.

Senator GALLACHER: We are on the right track, I think. That is where I am coming from anyway. Is there a process by which serving and ex-personnel can provide feedback on the performance? Does that go through the steering committee? Where does that go to?

Mr Carmody : The Defence representatives on the Defence Links Steering Committee are officers in Defence, both uniformed and civilian. So at that level there is—

Senator GALLACHER: So there is a process. They can contact those people to give their feedback.

Mr Carmody : Yes, and it is actually managing the overall performance of the system. For example, Defence Community Organisation is represented. There are a range of elements in Defence that are all represented there and can monitor and manage the health of the system.

Senator GALLACHER: How is that feedback fed back in? Does it come back down through the steering committee?

Mr Carmody : To?

Senator GALLACHER: If there is feedback from a serving or from ex-service personnel, someone on the steering committee—

Mr Carmody : It is a bit too high level in some ways for that because the Defence Links Steering Committee is looking at the close relationship between the two organisations and it is looking at the flow of information between the two. It rarely gets down to individual cases, individual issues or individual complaints. They would be managed within DCO or within our channels or within service channels. This really looks at the health of what is a very large and complex relationship.

Senator GALLACHER: Can the department provide an update on the performance of the support continuum?

Mr Carmody : Certainly. I do not know whether I have enough detail on it now. I have to take it on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: And how that performance is evaluated?

CHAIR: Can I just ask you to pause for a couple of minutes, Senator Gallacher? Senator Lambie, would you like to get underway?

Senator LAMBIE: In the last estimates, I asked for something about maladministration. I got back that, apparently, within five years from July 2010 to 2015, DVA paid its clients just over $35 billion in pensions. In the same period, debts were raised for nearly 105,000 clients. How many clients did you have on your books at that time?

Mr Lewis : At which time?

Senator LAMBIE: During that five year period. Is it about the 330,000 mark?

Mr Lewis : Obviously the number of clients will have changed over that period of time.

Senator LAMBIE: So, give or take, about 300,000 or 330,000.

Mr Carmody : About five years ago we had around 400,000 clients, and we probably have about 316,000 now.

Mr Lewis : If you want precise numbers, Senator, we would be happy to take that on notice and come back to you.

Senator LAMBIE: No, that is okay. I am just trying to bring things up. Nearly 25 per cent of those had maladministration or overpayments—that is what I am bringing up.

Mr Lewis : Overpayments do not mean maladministration—I just need to pause you right there.

Senator LAMBIE: I do not know that because I asked you if you could give me the exact number of maladministration through clients, but I never got that exact number. Can I please put that on notice, and I would like from the department—

Mr Lewis : Can I help you?

Senator LAMBIE: Sure, do you have the number?

Mr Lewis : There is a scheme for claims for defective administration—CDDA. We process a number of those every year, and, I am sorry, we should have given you answers as linked to CDDA because we have those numbers. I authorise those payments where we have had defective administration in the department and we can give you that detail.

Senator LAMBIE: Give me that detail, but I would also like to know how many claims there are of maladministration where you will not admit that it is maladministration. Can I have that number as well? Right now I am going to spend my time, if that is what it takes for ten minutes, reading you something, and then I would like to give you an option at the end of it:

'My name is Danielle Khan and my solicitor is Jim Patterson. I've been dealing with DVA and their maladministration for the last 16 years since injuring my back while serving. I and Mr Patterson put in for a review of my disability, which normally takes six to eight weeks. We are now going on two years and going to a third AAT meeting due to DVA's incompetence and, in legal speak, denial of autonomy of delegate's decisions. Put simply, they admitted making a mistake so are now trying to change decisions made by their delegates ten years ago.

As you can imagine, the stress this has caused to both myself and my family. My husband is still serving and is my full-time carer—also full-time carer to our two special needs children—to the point my brother has been living with us full time for the last year to help out. Not only the stress of the above matter, this time last year DVA sent me a letter citing that I owed in the range of $182,000. This I did not owe, and after me and Mr Patterson,'—her lawyer—'looked into this, DVA admitted the letter should never have been sent due to their maladministration.

I have spent time in hospital dealing with this as I also lost my daughter's father to suicide in 2002 after Army incompetence after his return from East Timor. After their blatant disregard for me and mistakes to the extreme, I almost left my daughter a double orphan in 2005 after a suicide attempt, leaving me in a coma. After receiving this letter—cleverly ignoring the fact that all correspondence had to go through my legal team—I thought my only option was to take my own life, as I could not go on after 16 years of their blatant disregard and poor administration.

After yet another hospitalisation, and a year to finally sort the mess out on their end, they withdrew their request for owed funds admitting maladministration. I was then left with an $11,000 legal bill to fight this horrendous mistake of theirs. I was then told by a DVA staff member that they were not allowed to tell me how to go about claiming this from them, and also admitted that I should not have to pay this bill. At this I have spent weeks trying to track down how to have DVA pay this bill, as I don't have the money, also contacting the Minister for Veterans Affairs' office, who will not return my calls. I have no idea where to turn but to the media to expose DVA's incompetence. I know many others have received similar letters trying to claw back funds, mostly for amounts up to $30,000, and are shocked to hear of the $182,000 they requested from me.' She is asking me to please take this story about this horrendous life of hers and her dealings with DVA and make it public so that she can show the government what DVA are doing to people like her and hear the bottom line of what is going on. Are you aware of this case, Mr Lewis?

Mr Lewis : I believe I am.

Senator LAMBIE: I guess you have one or two options here. Is Veterans' Affairs going to pay the $11,000 to the lawyer or is this going all the way to the media pack in the next 24 hours?

Mr Lewis : I thought it already had gone to the media. I will ask Ms Foreman to make a comment. Before I do, I would be the first to acknowledge that the department does not get everything right. We do make mistakes but we also do an awful lot of business. We try and fix mistakes quickly and we try and counsel people when they make errors. But often they are not errors. Where they are errors, we will fix them. We will apologise and we will move on.

Ms Foreman : We cannot comment on a particular client's case, but what I would like to do is make a couple of observations. As the secretary, Mr Lewis, has just mentioned to you, sometimes officers do not follow the procedure. I can tell you that, in cases like this, we have a process that should have been followed, and the process was: before an overpayment is raised, where there is any notion that it might be an overpayment, a screening is supposed to happen. If the amount is less than $200 the debt is waived. If it is considered that it might be an overpayment, an initial advice letter is sent to the customer to explain to them that they may have been overpaid and some further work is going to be undertaken. The client is then further contacted, if indeed it is an overpayment, and they are advised of the amount of the overpayment and the different options that they have for recovery of that overpayment; it could be a lump sum, a fortnightly payment et cetera. The repayment plan is implemented and then we advise them when the overpayment has been cleared.

Sometimes our officers do not follow procedure. Where that happens, as Mr Lewis has mentioned, we have a scheme called the Claim for Compensaation for Defective Administration, which people are advised of and are encouraged to apply for if the procedure has gone wrong and they are affected by it through having to have legal fees or medical treatment. They are able to put in a claim under the CDDA scheme, which will be considered by the secretary.

Senator LAMBIE: I am very aware of how it goes, Ms Foreman, because I am one of the many thousands that you overpaid. I am very aware of how that goes. How long are you giving yourself? Do you have a time limit on when it is shut off, instead of approaching people two or three years later and letting them know you may have overpaid them? Do you have a time limit where you just say, 'Well, if we overpaid them we will just have to accept that and we will have to take the responsibility for that'?

Mr Lewis : Just to clarify, is this in relation to this CDDA scheme? You are asking about whether there is a time limit in relation to the operation of the CDDA scheme?

Senator LAMBIE: Yes.

Ms Spiers : There is no time limit for someone to put in a claim for defective administration, and in fact we have got details on our website about how to make a claim and there is frequently asked questions there. It may assist if we provide a link to that site so that the Senate committee can become aware of that. We will receive claims for people where they might have only recently found out about something that happened some time ago and they wish to seek recovery of compensation for detriment. I also have the figures when you asked the question about maladministration, and Mr Lewis clarified that was in respect of CDDA. I have the figures year-to-date if you wish to know the claims received, those accepted and rejected and a comparison for the last two years. If you wish, I can read that into Hansard.

Senator LAMBIE: No. If you can just pass that over to me that would be good, because it takes up too much time. My next question is: when your officers make mistakes, are they disciplined? What happens to them?

Ms Spiers : It really depends. I can say that from firsthand knowledge because I do sign off on the reports that go to the secretary on CDDA claims. If we see that there is clearly a training and awareness issue—that the policy and procedures were in place and the staff member was not aware of them—then our recommendation that follows that is that the staff member involved should have some further training and acknowledgement. It would be a very extreme case where the staff member might have had the same error a number of times, and we might be looking at a conduct issue.

Senator LAMBIE: I would appreciate it if you could provide me with how many of your people in the last five years have been disciplined and what discipline they have received.

Ms Spiers : Can I just clarify that that is in relation to issues that have arisen around the CDDA?

Senator LAMBIE: It is in relation to any mistakes that they have made of maladministration. I would like to know how many people have been disciplined in your department in the last five years and the reasons why they have been disciplined.

Ms Spiers : The majority of the action we would recommend would be further training and awareness, as a rule.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Ms Foreman, you were explaining about potential breaches of those procedures you had in place. Isn't the issue that some people have been overpaid and they did not know it, and they have obviously spent the money—we are not talking about huge amounts of money in instalments—and then suddenly they are hit with a massive bill and they get a kick in the guts because they have to pay back the money and they did not know they were being overpaid in the first place? Isn't it a bit unfair to hit an individual with, in this case, $180,000? Even if you did go through those procedures, it is still a really unfair situation for a person to be facing. They are not complicit or—it is not their fault.

Ms Foreman : Where the debt has arisen because of a delegate error and the payment has been received in good faith by the customer and the customer would suffer hardship if we were to try to retract that money, then we will consider a waiver, because it has been received in good faith and the delegate has made an error.

Senator LAMBIE: What is your time line on that consideration when you are asked to consider?

Ms Foreman : It is each case on its merits. We do that case by case.

Senator LAMBIE: So in the meantime they stay in anguish. You have no time limit—just like your claims, you have no time limit on this stuff. You are putting these people under duress.

Mr Lewis : We seek to deal with CDDA as soon as we—

Senator LAMBIE: You know why there are suicides going on under Veterans' Affairs, do you, Mr Lewis? It is because it is dysfunctional.

Mr Lewis : I beg your pardon, Senator.

Senator LAMBIE: You heard me, Mr Lewis. It is dysfunctional. There is no other way to put it. All I want to know is whether Veterans' Affairs intend to pay the $11,000 of this lawyer's bill—yes or no.

Mr Lewis : You heard from Ms Foreman that we will not discuss individual cases at these hearings. I just repeat that now. Any issue of that kind—

Senator LAMBIE: In other words you have no intention of paying that.

CHAIR: Would you allow the officer to finish.

Senator LAMBIE: I think it is a fair question. This girl is under duress.

CHAIR: Senator Lambie, the secretary has heard the question. Please allow him to finish his answer.

Senator LAMBIE: I will rephrase the question. How much time will it take for you to give this young lady an answer?

CHAIR: Senator, the officers have said that they will not discuss individual cases, but perhaps—

Senator LAMBIE: What will you do if she takes her own life, Mr Lewis, because you have been sitting on this?

Mr Lewis : I am not aware that we have been sitting on this. But any cases that we have in front of us we seek to deal with as soon as we can. CDDA cases for me are relatively rare. When they come through, I do not sit on them at all.

Senator LAMBIE: It is a pretty easy question. There was maladministration. It will cost her $11,000 for a lawyer. Just pay the money. God—please! How many veterans have been harmed because of your department's negligence?

Mr Lewis : I am not sure there is a question there that I can answer.

Senator LAMBIE: You do not have any statistics on that, just like you do not keep statistics on suicides?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you tell us how many of these debts you have waived on compassionate grounds?

Mr Lewis : We certainly can.

Ms Foreman : About 5.5 per cent of our overpayments have been written off or waived.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Out of a total value of—

Ms Foreman : The total value of overpayments was $35 million. Those figures are relevant to the last financial year.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Have they had any particular dimensions to them, or have they been random in terms of their distribution across dollar amounts and—

Ms Foreman : Yes, there is a variety in that.

Mr Lewis : And it would be quite usual for an overpayment that has occurred to be allowed to be paid back over a significant period of time from future payments, to minimise the impact on the individual.

Senator LAMBIE: Do you think it may be about time that legislation be put in place so that if the mistake is made by Veterans' Affairs, they wear it and the onus is back on you people?

Mr Lewis : As you would understand, our job is to give effect to legislation passed by the parliament. That is what we do. So when we are dealing with debts and the recovery of overpayments, we are doing that in accordance with legislation.

Senator LAMBIE: Well, to save all that hay, maybe it is about time some legislation was drawn up and put through the Senate.

Senator GALLACHER: Chair, can I just seek some advice. Are we able to go past the allotted hour, or are we looking for a spillover day, or are we looking for lots of things on notice?

Senator Payne: I think we are finishing at 11, aren't we?

CHAIR: I think we will be finishing at 11.

Senator LAMBIE: If we cannot finish at 11, does that mean we are coming back?

Senator GALLACHER: But that is not the standing order, with respect.

Senator LAMBIE: Can we bring them back, because an hour is not enough.

CHAIR: We can have that discussion, but we will finish at 11, and then we can discuss whether or not questions go on notice or whether there is an opportunity at some time during the year to bring the department back.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. I would just like to indicate that, through no fault of the department's, they have been brought on late in the agenda and I am probably unable to complete the brief that I have. So I will put the rest of the questions on the MOU on notice, but I want to go to the issue of privacy breaches. What processes are in place to protect client information? I think you know what I am talking about, where people's files have been sent to the wrong people.

Mr Lewis : That is a very general question. Obviously we seek to protect the privacy of individual information. We do have problems with our ICT that we have described to you in the past, which are that we have a very large number of antiquated systems that we use which house confidential client data. That is a problem for us. It means that it is not as easy as we would like to protect the confidential information of veterans, but we are doing the best we can. It is possible you are talking about a case where wrong information has been conveyed to—

Senator GALLACHER: I will be very specific. I understand there have been 31 identified breaches in 2014-15. Can you clarify what you mean by 'identified', and does it refer to only those breaches—

Mr Lewis : I will ask the principal legal adviser.

Senator GALLACHER: Hang on. I will complete the question, if you like. Does it refer to only those breaches that were the subject of a formal privacy complaint, instances where documents have been returned to the department because they were sent to the wrong person, or all instances where the department has been notified or become aware that information has been disclosed outside of the permitted purposes? There are 31 instances. That is the question.

Ms Spiers : I will start off with the first part of your question, which is how many privacy incidents have been reported versus how many have been found. We have had 54 incidents investigated in the 2014-15 financial year, of which 39 privacy breaches have been found, and 31—which I think is the reference you have—are related to mail. I will explain a couple of things. Your next question was about incidents where mail went to the wrong person and was returned. If the mail goes to the wrong person or to the wrong address—so if I send it to Mr Carmody at Mr Lewis's address—and Mr Lewis returns the envelope without opening, it is actually not a privacy breach, because Mr Carmody's information has not been shared; it is just incorrectly directed mail. However, if the individual opens the mail then they have read the material of the other individual. So I cannot give you a figure on any mail that has been returned incorrectly addressed, because it is not a breach if it has not been opened. As I said, of those cases we have 31 which are mail related. That could be that it was sent to the incorrect address and was opened, or it could be that it was a combination of the first page of Mr Carmody's letter—if I keep with the same example—and the second page of Mr Lewis's details and it went to Mr Carmody, for instance.

Senator GALLACHER: If we could take a layman's view of all this, my electricity bill very rarely gets sent to anybody else.

Ms Spiers : Well, not that you know. It might be, and they return it, and you never—

Senator GALLACHER: No, it comes every three months. How is it possible that we are sending people's files to the wrong address?

Ms Spiers : The reference I was making was not to files. They were mail related. As a rule, we do not send files to the incorrect address. There are rare instances where that happens, and that would clearly be a privacy breach—the file going to the wrong person. But we do not send people's files through the mail as a rule. We send files to our repository, so it would have to have been a misdirected file going to our repository that somehow went wrong.

Mr Lewis : I do not want to harp on it, but your electricity bill would be an automated process. It would be coming from modern ICT, probably with non-intervention of the human hand. We do not operate that way.

Senator LAMBIE: Yes, but your electricity bill does not have psychiatry reports in it either, which have also been sent to other people, haven't they, Mr Lewis?

Mr Lewis : On occasion, unfortunately they have.

Senator LAMBIE: Yes, they have. My word they have.

Mr Carmody : One point I would like to make on the 31 that you are talking about in the 2014-15 financial year is that we sent out over 780,000 mail envelopes in that year. So the breaches are regrettable and clearly a mistake, but there are not very many of them.

Senator GALLACHER: Has there been an increase or a decrease in the number of identified breaches?

Ms Spiers : I can find the page. It will be deep in my folder here. The number, as I recall, was 35 last year. It is a really modest number and it has consistently been a modest number.

Mr Lewis : It is pretty consistent.

Senator GALLACHER: If this is a normal feature of—how many mail items?

Mr Carmody : More than 780,000 in the 2014-15 year.

Senator GALLACHER: Why is it attracting so much angst, if you like, if it is a normal occurrence?

Mr Lewis : I think it legitimately creates angst. Anyone would be horrified if their private information has gone to the wrong location. One is too many. We are not saying that we are comfortable with the fact that there are 31; there should be none. We are doing our best, but we have to put our hand up sometimes and say that we get it wrong.

Senator GALLACHER: These are administrative errors—is that what you categorise them as?

Ms Spiers : It can be a couple of things. It can be simply human error: the letter addressed to one person is put in the envelope of another person. That, as Mr Lewis has said, is because that system is not necessarily automated; it is the manual enveloping of a letter and it is human error, unfortunately. It can be an email going to the wrong address—we have a correct email address but we send the material to another client's email address. They happen; they are very minor. The other one is that sometimes the contracted provider, our mail house provider, which sends out our twice-yearly letters, occasionally has a mismatch with its letters. As I said, if it is the first page of one client's letter going out with the second page of the other client's, as soon as that letter is opened by the first client, the first page is not a breach because it is their information, but the second page is a breach. There is not a systemic cause of these issues, partly because they are relatively small in number. But, as my colleagues have said, all privacy breaches are regrettable and we aim not to have any, but I think it is an aim only.

Senator GALLACHER: Are the majority of client files, applications and claims hard copy or electronic?

Mr Carmody : Mostly hard copy.

Mr Lewis : Obviously we are seeking to start to go digital, but we are basically entirely paper based.

Senator GALLACHER: Is this the source of the issue?

Mr Lewis : We live in the digital age, do we not? So we have a challenge, because we need to deal progressively with clients who would like to interact with the department online. They would like to do online self-service, and we need to progressively transform the department, just like the Public Service needs to transform to meet the needs of our clients.

Ms Spiers : I think, even if we were fully digital and sending emails out, emails can still be a source of error. I have been known to get the title wrong in an email, and you end up sending it to possibly a totally incorrect email address. So I do not think electronic eras alone would actually solve the problem. I think when you have a human aspect to any distribution of information you have the potential that you will get a breach, and I think that is characteristic of what we have—a very minor number of breaches.

Senator GALLACHER: I think we have taken evidence that you are physically sending files to different DVA office locations.

Mr Carmody : That is correct. We discussed that in one of the other hearings. We move a lot of files between locations and we are endeavouring to digitise our processes. As Mr Lewis said, that is going to take us some time because we have to digitise our systems and we have to digitise our file records, and that will take quite some time.

CHAIR: On that note I will draw the evening's program to a conclusion. Thank you all: Minister, officers, Hansard, colleagues and Broadcasting. A reminder: answers to questions on notice are due by close of business on 30 October. We resume at 9 am tomorrow.

Committee adjourned at 23:00