24 May 2017
2nd Reading Speech
The Hon. ADAM SEARLE ( 11:26 ): I move:
That under section 41 of the Interpretation Act 1987 this House disallows the Service NSW (One-stop Access to Government Services) Amendment (Approved Persons) Regulation 2017 published on the NSW Legislation website on 19 May 2017.
Last Friday the Government enacted this regulation without fanfare. No attention was drawn to it and the Government did not tell anybody—it was just quietly, silently, buried deep in the Government Gazette. This is an example of a practice we have seen increase in the last several years where legislation is passed with important details missing, to be filled in afterwards by the government of the day. In the past those were incidental ancillary machinery provisions but now the substance of a lot of legislation that governs our daily life is the subject of these regulations. Without these regulations, the framework legislation would have no meaning or no work to do. This is approaching what are colloquially known as Henry VIII clauses, where the real business of government happens at the stroke of a pen, in Government House, with a handful of Ministers and the Governor, without telling the people of the State what is happening. Even a casual observation of this regulation should reveal that it is not satisfactory.
The PRESIDENT: Order! I call the Hon. Walt Secord to order for the first time.
The Hon. ADAM SEARLE: The regulation which I have moved to disallow has implications for the delivery of core government services and for the privacy and confidentiality of the personal details of citizens of this State presently held by the Government. We think that, at its heart, this regulation reveals an intention by the Government to privatise Service NSW. This is no small step—it is a significant step.
The Government has extolled the virtues of Service NSW as one of its flagship policies, despite an Auditor-General’s report that dismantled the business case and assumptions and despite its obvious failings. Those failings include the savage cut of 25 per cent of the operating hours of Service NSW late last year and recent reports that some 1,600 drivers licences had become lost—possibly stolen—in the mail because they are no longer printed on site. The Government has continued to ignore those failings and continued to talk about what a great success Service NSW has been. In establishing Service NSW the Government shut down or merged something like 40 different Government agencies. The model is based on the idea that all personal records, registration and licensing should be recorded through a single government source.
Examples of the services offered by Service NSW include the registration of births, deaths and marriages; licensing, including drivers, fishing, building, and firearms for security and private investigators; business registrations; the registration of vehicles; capacity assessment for drivers and riders and the disabled; quality assessment of vehicles that are used on our roads and waterways; and dealing with interstate registrations and licensing for increasingly transient communities.
It does not take a great deal of imagination to understand the sheer breadth of private and personal information for every service provided by Service NSW. Service NSW will know more about individuals than the people with whom they are living. Protection of private information is at the core of this disallowance motion. The regulation lists seven new private companies that in the future—unless the regulation is disallowed—will have access to people’s private and personal information and have the authority to operate under Service NSW.
There is a requirement for the holder of any driver licence to register with Service NSW a range of medical conditions including mental health, seizures, dizzy turns, prosthetic conditions and eyesight. Some of this private medical information is secured tightly by individuals and sometimes it is withheld from other family members. There is a requirement for driver licence holders to supply current up-to-date addresses. In domestic violence and broken family scenarios a person’s address can be a tightly held secret. That information is trusted to the New South Wales Government because it needs to run information databases and it is used for regulatory purposes.
It is one thing to trust governments with the information and it is another thing to trust for-profit private operations. Those are just a couple of examples. Labor is concerned with for-profit private organisations having access to this information without the oversight of government agencies. Things such as the Government Information (Public Access) Act and oversight mechanisms do not apply to these companies even when they are undertaking government work—an important omission. The people of this State did not sign up for that. The Government did not come in through the front door and propose legislation to effect this change; it simply made a new regulation.
I will deal with three arguments that the Government might raise. First, there are already allowances for authorised persons and external operators to access information in Service NSW. The Government might say it is about increasing contestability in the market and that there is no intention to privatise the Service NSW operation. It is true that there is already an approved category of persons with access to the database—that is, Datacom Connect Pty Limited, which was listed as an authorised person by regulation about two years ago. That was to allow the upgrading of the online interface between customers and Service NSW. At the time Datacom Connect was allowed to access Service NSW as an authorised person.
It was important that an external agency with specialised skills be brought on board to build the information technology interface. That was something new and different that this company was able to offer the people of New South Wales and the Government. It could be argued, therefore, that the skills offered were new, separate and different. If we look at the other seven companies that are now on the list it cannot be argued that the skill sets they offer are unique or rare. What are they? They are call centre workers, marketing operations and the delivery of government services. There is no way that this Government could dress up those three functions as not presently being available through the activities of public servants.
For hundreds of years public servants have kept and maintained public records and delivered services. The people who work for Service NSW do that. No new specialised set of skills will be provided by the seven new companies. Therefore logic suggests that this step is to further hollow out and privatise the operation of Service NSW without having the courage to call it that and to legislate directly. The Government has a private offshore call centre, which it snuck through without telling anybody. In 2014 and 2015 it was the subject of interplay at budget estimates. The relevant Minister at the time did not do himself or the Government any favours by fencing and weaving around the question.
The point is that outsourcing already exists, so why the regulation? It can only be because the Government wants to do something fundamentally new and different. That leads to why Labor thinks the regulation should be disallowed. If the Government wishes to change course it should come in through the front door, put the legislation on the table, persuade people it is a good thing and not do it by regulation. Turning to the issue of market testing, naming a limited number of private operators is the antithesis of market testing and an open market. Anyone wanting to test the market for the provision of services would call for tenders and expressions of interest. The Government has not done that. It has proceeded to name individual companies, which I will come to in a moment.
None of the arguments that have been whispered around these corridors for the past few days really cuts the mustard. It is clear that the Government is hell-bent on a further privatisation agenda. It has sold the electricity distribution companies and the Land and Property Information operation. It has privatised the Newcastle transit system and it now proposes to privatise bus routes in the inner west. Not sated with this drunken privatisation spree it wants to privatise Service NSW. Which are the seven companies with which the Government wants to do business?
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: You wanted to do it. Remember you are right-wing Labor now.
The PRESIDENT: Order! I call the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps to order for the first time.
The Hon. ADAM SEARLE: I invite members to reflect on what these companies represent. If they do not support the disallowance motion they will be voting for the Government doing business with every one of these companies. Which are the seven companies? Concentrix Services Pty Limited incorrectly withdrew tax credits in the United Kingdom and is now having its government contract pulled from hundreds of centres. Employees in the United Kingdom will be transferred to a government department because of the misconduct of that company. Peakbound Holdings Pty Limited specialises in contact centres for the financial services sector. It is one of a number of companies known to use aggressive call centre techniques including calling members of the public a number of times a day and at night, and sending text messages.
The Probe Group specialises in outsourcing business services, including debt collection. It is part of the aggressive $2.9 million Centrelink repayment debacle that involves many individuals who are having collection action taken against them even though they were not aware they owed Centrelink a debt. As I said, it uses aggressive call centre techniques such as calling members of the public many times a day and at night, and sending text messages. Salmat Marketing Solutions was referred to by the Sydney Morning Herald as a junk mail company. Last year it was responsible for the leak of Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank results. It assists Australian companies offshore and reduces wage costs. Serco Citizen Services is not unknown in Australian political discourse. It is a British outsourcing company. The chief financial officer wrote a guide to outsourcing and states:
Looking after your employees is the most difficult emotional hurdle to overcome. However, ensuring that employees are looked after will have implications to the cost for the outsourcer as they will often have to employ those staff on the same terms.
It is almost as though it thinks that is a bad thing. He further states:
There is a possibility that the employee’s length of tenure with their current employer may have to be recognised. But, if you plan ahead these issues can be avoided.
Is this a company with whom we want our State Government to be doing business? Research produced by the Community and Public Sector Union concerning Stellar Asia Pacific found that in the 2014-15 financial year it reported an income in this country of $122 million but paid only $2 million in tax. It obviously has very good accountants. Telco Services Australia provides outsource services, including inbound and outbound call centre support, telemarketing and a number of other like activities. In 2011 the Fair Work Ombudsman commenced litigation in the Federal Court against that company and another for incorrectly classifying 10,000 sales staff as independent contractors, instead of employees, costing workers entitlements such as annual leave and a proper rate of pay. That was corrected, but 10,000 employees is more than a small oversight. That is another company that is said to be using aggressive marketing call centre techniques such as calling members of the public many times a day and at night, and sending text messages. This is just the tip of the iceberg. These are some of the features of the companies with which the Government wants to do business through Service NSW.
I ask members to reflect on the nature of those companies. If the Government wants to persuade the Parliament to do business with those companies it should do so through an open tender process or through an open and proper debate in the Chamber. Let me park that issue to one side. Why list those seven companies if it does not want to transfer more operations conducted by Service NSW from the hands of government employees to the hands of private corporations? It is clear that it wants to transition to a private operation, otherwise it would not have produced this legislation. We think the case is unarguable. We urge members to disallow the regulation. If the Government wants honestly and openly to pursue this policy agenda it should do so in the proper way, which would be through legislation in the House or through an open tender process.