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Wednesday, 21 November 1973
Page: 3589

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Scholes (CORIO, VICTORIA) - Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted.




Mr HAYDEN - I am aware from several personal comments from reputable or responsible officers in the Department at various offices of the Department in different parts of the country that, no doubt due to some slackness which may have crept in over time, these procedures have not been followed as strictly as is required by instructions. I will refer to this later. I should state from the start that no doubt when arrangements were made to. allow this access the arrangements were entered into with the best intentions and generally, I expect, they were entered into when contemporary attitudes towards personal privacy were not as keenly developed as they are today. The original 1908 Invalid and Old Age Pensions Act made no provision for the protection of privacy, so I am advised.

The first occasion on which specific provisions regulating disclosure of information about clients was included specifically in legislation occurred in the Child Endowment Act 1941. This was repeated in subsequent legislation. The Social Services Consolidation Act 1947 included provisions for regulating disclosure of information. This was included in section 17 of that Act which, with amendment, is the same section providing regulation in this matter in the Social Services Act 1947- 1973. I will refer to this section again shortly. I understand from verbal advice I received from an officer of my Department that access to personal files held in the Department by non-departmental sources can be traced back to 1934 and probably extends to even earlier dates.

In 1948 the then Minister for Social Services, Senator McKenna, seems to have felt some concern about the way in which access to personal files was available. He sought to regularise the procedures. I dare say that at that time, a quarter of a century ago, Senator McKenna's efforts were in harmony with contemporary attitudes; but that is too far back in the dim distant past for me to have clear recollections of what contemporary values were then on such things. What is clear is that our society today has a much more sensitive regard for personal rights with respect of privacy and confidentiality of personal information provided on trust and in confidence to official bodies. A quarter of a century ago there were no computers with the aweinspiring capacity to store and rapidly retrieve comprehensive records from central storage units.

I think it a sobering thought for all of us to reflect on the enormous amount of detail which is stored in the computer records of the Department of Social Security. For instance, our computer bank has detailed information on over 1,870,000 families in Australia including their addresses. These are families where there is at least one child under 16 years and where child endowment is paid. It is possible to establish which children do and which do not go onto higher educa-tion because of the transition to student endowment; and again personal details on these young people can be retrieved. Similary we have extremely comprehensive data on over 1,100,000 age and invalid pensioners, on over 126,000 widow pensioners and women receiving supporting mother's benefit and on some 396,000 cases in which unemployment, sickness benefits and special benefits were granted last year. This personal information in most cases includes full details of thenfinancial position, their assets, legacies, personal business/ financial transactions, as well as their whereabouts. We can pinpoint every birth, we know whether the mother was single or married, who was the father of the child and so on because of our payment of maternity allowances. As honourable members can see there is considerable potential in such records, if they were to get into the wrong hands or through abuse of privilege, for embarrassing or even damaging misuse.

It is as well that I now move on to an explanation of the legislation controlling the access to informtaion held in personal files held by the Department. Section 17 of the Social Services Act is the relevant section and it says:

(1)   An officer shall, if the Minister or the DirectorGeneral so directs, before entering upon his duties, or exercising any powers or functions, under this Act, make before a Justice of the Peace or a Commissioner for Declarations a declaration in accordance with the prescribed form.

(2)   A person shall not, directly or indirectly, except in the performance of his duties, or in the exercise of his powers or functions, under this Act, and while he is or after he ceases to be, an officer, make a record of, or divulge or communicate to any person, any information with respect to the affairs of another person acquired by him in the performance of his duties, or in the exercise of his powers or functions, under this Act or under any Act repealed by this Act.

Penalty: Five hundred dollars

(3)   A person who is, or has been, an officer shall not, except for the purposes of this Act, be required:

(a)   to produce in court any document that has come into his possession or under his control in the performance of his duties or functions under this Act or any Act repealed by this Act; or

(b)   to divulge or communicate to a court any matter or thing that has come under his notice in the performance of any such duties or functions.

(4)   Notwithstanding anything contained in the preceding provisions of this section, an officer may:

(a)   if the 'Minister or the Director-General certifies that it is necessary in the public interest that any information acquired by the officer in the performance of his duties, or in the exercise of his powers or functions, under this Act or under any Act repealed by this Act, should be divulged, divulge that information to such person as the Minister or the Director-General directs;

(b)   to divulge or communicate to a court any authority or person; or

(c)   divulge any such information to a person who, in the opinion of the Director-General, is expressly or impliedly authorised by the person to whom the information relates to obtain it.

(5)   An authority or person to whom information is divulged under the last preceding subsection, and any person or employee under the control of that authority or person, shall, in respect of that information, be subject to the same rights, privileges, obligation and liabilities under subsections (2) and (3) of this section as if he were a person performing duties under this Act and had acquired the information in the performance of those duties.

(6)   In this section, 'officer' includes a person who has performed duties, or exercised powers or functions, under, or in relation to any Act repealed by this Act.

As honourable members will note section 17 is very loose and this is particularly so of subsection 4 of section 17.

First I should indicate the general approach the Department has followed until now in the release of information. The Department has 3 lists of authorities to whom it divulges information under section 17 (4). They are: A. Commonwealth and State departments and other bodies expending public moneys, social security benefits or workers compensation or the like; B. Commonwealth and State departments and other bodies where expenditure of public moneys or social security benefits is not directly involved; C. Commonwealth or State departments where the protection of incoming revenues, the grant of concessions to pensioners or their liability in respect of advances and arrears of rent is involved. There is a free exchange of information with authorities in Group A. Information to the authorities in Groups B and C is, however, only furnished upon request. Again these are very generalised conditions and have allowed practices to develop which I regard, and the Government regards, as quite unsatisfactory.

Although in principle police officers are not supposed to handle personal files I have been advised by 2 senior officers of my Department and this confirms information I had received from other officers of the Department with whom I have personal contact that in practice police officers have had access to personal index cards and to personal files in a number of cases. I mentioned last week how one police officer had quite improperly used this privilege to trace his estranged wife. I understand that there have been instances in the past - 2 years ago; I have not been able to confirm whether this has occurred in more recent times - of police officers, in at least 2 States where a special fee was paid to them for serving civil summonses, using personal records in the Department to trace people on whom these summonses were to be served.

I regard it as quite improper that debt collecting agencies, such as State housing authorities, local government bodies and power distribution authorities, should be able to trace people indebted to them through personal records in the Department. I understand that most often a telephone call was the only form of request received and that this was sufficient to obtain the information sought for tracing the person concerned. Obviously this sort of loose arrangement is open to the gravest forms of abuse. I will not add colour to what I am saying by giving illustrations. I am sure honourable members will quickly apprehend the defectiveness of this sort of arrangement and the abuses that could creep in.

I am further informed that voluntary agencies have been informed of clients' incomes on the basis of requests to the Department in cases where they proposed to provide aid to such a client. My inquiries indicate that the administration of arrangements related to the accessibility of these records has been left very much to State offices and it seems that a wide variety of practices has developed. Strangely enough practices vary between States. Obviously the whole procedure has grown unsteadily and with a want of consistency which comes of looseness.

It is as well to bear in mind that if departmental instructions had been vigorously pursued at all times much of what I regard as misuse of information by non-departmental sources would have been avoided. Even allowing that instructions had been followed, the very nature of my Department's personal records on its clients, the absence of security measures to protect privacy and the easy and rapid retrieval of computer stored information make it proper that all procedures should be reviewed. It is intriguing to learn that guidelines laid down in 1948 by the then Minister for Social Services, Senator McKenna, on the disclosure of information by the Department have remained undisturbed for a quarter of a century. This is really nowhere near good enough. What Senator McKenna did in 1948 was probably appropriate and adequate for contemporary standards. But 1948 standards in this sensitive area are not good enough in 1973 or in future years. I propose certain actions to change these procedures, but before I discuss that I want to raise a further point.

There is an additional situation in which information has been provided from personal files. This concerns academic research. A recent instance, for which I did not give approval and about which I knew nothing, concerns access to personal files related to child endowment recipients. Professor A. H. Pollard, Professor of Economic Statistics, Macquarie University, New South Wales, in March this year was allowed this access. So that there will be no confusion on the nature of that access, I quote from a note I received from my Department on this matter:

Professor Pollard, on 22 March, 1973, during consultations with officers of this Department, outlined the objects of a survey his University was conducting into the fertility patterns of mothers residing within the Shire of Cumberland, N.S.W. The information sought was the mother's age at the time of the birth of the first child, the time interval between subsequent births, age at the time of births of the last or most recent child and the mother's nationality.

It was not possible to obtain the required information other than by examination of actual child endowment files. Approval was subsequently given to allow the university staff to extract the required data from child endowment files held in the Sydney office on which payment had been terminated 12 months earlier. Professor Pollard was advised on 30 March 1973, of the approval in the following terms:

As child endowment files held in our Sydney office and on which payment terminated 12 months earlier are culled for destruction each 4 weeks, they will be made available to you for examination and extraction of data regarding the ex-endowee's child-bearing history; where the earlier portion of a file is held in archives, arrangements will be made for it to be obtained and made available to you. Experience may show that it will not be necessary to obtain the older parts of files from archives on a continuing basis, 'but they will be made available for as long as you consider necessary.

As the material to be extracted from the files is of statistical nature, it will not be possible to identify any of the individuals involved from the published results of the survey. However, while I have complete confidence in the integrity and discretion of your staff who will be handling the files, it is perhaps necessary that I draw your attention to the provisions of section 17 - the so-called 'secrecy provisions - of the Social Services Act. A copy of this section is attached and I would be grateful if it could be brought to the notice of your colleagues and staff who will be associated with the survey.

I understand that, in the light of the results obtained from the survey now contemplated, you may wish in the future to consider looking at the fertility characteristics of a sample of out current endowees. This may present some problems but we will be happy to examine the practicability of assisting you in this direction at the appropriate time.

It is interesting to note that Professor Pollard is both a member of the Board of the Medical Benefits Fund of Australia and of the Economic Advisory Council of the Australian Medical Association. He suggests there is as much relevance in this, in terms of the subject now before the House, as there is in his membership of the Longueville Presbyterian Church. There is a difference however. The Longueville Presbyterian Church has not, publicly at least, been contriving to make a major political issue out of the subject of confidentiality of personal records held by Government agencies such as a health insurance commission. Both the AMA and the MBF have. I wonder what position Professor Pollard has taken on this subject in the councils of these 2 bodies. Perhaps he justifies academic access to such files, but if he does he is at odds with the AMA and the MBF it would seem. Again, I do not want to labour this point; merely to draw attention to its gentle irony.

I am certain the Liberal Party and the Country Party would be distressed at any suggestion that the degree of access which they permitted to Department of Social Security files should extend to health insurance commission records. It will not of course, and it will cease in so far as records in the Department of Social Security are concerned.

I have instructed my Director-General that all access to personal information recorded within the Department of Social Security will be restricted to cases (a) where there is explicit written authorisation or verifiable authorisation by the client concerned (b) in extreme cases where there exist grave reasons of public interest; and in such cases approval will be decided by either the Director-General or me on each individual case. The Director-General is to report to me on all cases he approves. This is an interim measure because the issues involved are quite complex. It is clear that the matter of recording this sort of personal information and of access to it requires very careful consideration. I have accordingly contacted Senator Murphy, the Attorney-General, suggesting that the matter should be a subject for thorough consideration by the Committee of Inquiry into the Protection of Privacy. Senator Murphy agrees with the proposals and the matter is in the process of being referred to that Committee.

Mr Chipp - Did he give you a guarantee that he will not raid this Department?

Mr HAYDEN - I will give a guarantee that the unacceptable practices tolerated by your Government in the past will not be tolerated in the future. As soon as the Committee reports back guidelines will be set for future practices in this area of great public importance. Mr Speaker, I have consciously discussed this matter with moderation. It would be simple to achieve considerable instant political mileage by dwelling on various aspects of procedures and on weaknesses in those procedures; questioning at length the principles behind the development and the perserverance with some of these procedures; colourfully highlighting instances of misuse of this accessability and of situations where it could be abused. This would be scarcely helpful to an intelligent under standing of the important issues involved, especially in public debate. It could impair the development of carefully safeguarded arrange ments which clients might prefer and benefit from and it may irresoluably prejudice academic research, conducted under proper safeguards which are acceptable to the public, and which would lead to a strengthening and a betterment of the system of social security benefits and services to the great advantage of the public. I am not recommending such things but I do not rule out their possibility either in recommendations by the Committee of Inquiry into the Protection of Privacy. Before any action was taken on any such recommendations the recommendations of the Committee would be published and any proposed procedures would be exposed to public scrutiny and public comment before they were finalised.

Furthermore I should point out I have not sought to apportion blame in any way in this matter. What has happened is the product of a very old system which ceased being relevant and appropriate to a contemporary society some considerable time ago. The system just did not evolve the way it should have but people - Ministers and public servants - were too busy with so many other immediate and very pressing issues to call the procedures into question.

To be perfectly frank, if I had not received some letters from different employees of the Department pointing out the weaknesses of this system - and they did this in response to the current hysteria being whipped up on health insurance recording procedures - I doubt that I would ever have called the procedures into question. Indeed to be even franker, until I received those letters I had not known that access to personal information on clients held by the Department was available to non-departmental sources. Until I received the lists I tabled earlier I had not known the extent of this access.

I believe I have put this matter before the House with a great deal of restraint and without any effort to introduce emotive overtones. This has not been easy because I do feel greatly distressed at the extent to which access has been available to personal records held within the Department. On the other hand, the practice can be traced back over a very great number of years as I mentioned earlier. It spans many governments and it seems to have flourished in recent years. Perhaps the practice was more tolerable two or three decades ago. It certainly is not now, and merely because this bad practice has been of such long standing, and has become so firmly embedded in the procedures of the Department, is no reason for it to continue. As I indicated, it will not, and I have taken proper steps to end it. I present the following paper:

Department of Social Security - Disclosure of Information from Department files - Ministerial statement, 21 November 1973.

Motion (by Mr Daly) proposed:

That the House take note of the paper.

Suggest corrections