Privacy Andie Fox Data Human Services

The Department of Human Services is avoiding releasing the legal advice that allowed it to release a welfare recipient’s private details, claiming it is against the public interest to do so.

In late February, blogger and welfare recipient Andie Fox published a comment piece on The Canberra Times detailing some of her experiences with with Centrelink’s debt debacle. In response to claims made in the article, Human Services Minister Alan Tudge’s office gave Canberra Times journalist Paul Malone Fox’s own personal information, which formed the basis of an article denying Fox’s original claims.

Since then, there have been attempts to figure out what legal basis Tudge had to be able to breach Fox’s privacy, including attempts to obtain Tudge’s legal advice under Freedom of Information law, and through the Senate’s inquiry processes.

The department is now stonewalling the Senate’s attempts to find out more about it, because Labor referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police for investigation. In response to a question on notice from the last estimates hearing in March, the department said it couldn’t answer questions on how it had helped Tudge’s office form its statement to The Canberra Times on Fox’s private information.

“The AFP has advised that it would be inappropriate to comment on the matter while it is under evaluation,” the department said.

It also refused to release 2005 guidelines on disclosing personal information under social security law, claiming that releasing the Australian Government Solicitor advice on when it is OK to release personal information in the public interest is against the public interest:

“The legal advice provided to the Department is subject to legal professional privilege. Disclosure of the requested legal advice would be contrary to the public interest, on the ground that the confidentiality of legal advice obtained by the Government (including the legal advice which has been requested) is critical to the effective administration of Commonwealth laws.”

This is just one of several instances of the Department of Human Services seeking to delay or attempt to block the release of information about its automated debit notice scheme controversy. Last month, for example, the department told one FOI applicant it would release a briefing it had given to Tudge ahead of an interview on Triple J’s Hack program, but it decided to hold on to the relatively uncontroversial document for an extra week after making the decision to release it.

Following the budget next week, Tudge will be giving a talk at the Hilton in Sydney for the Committee for Economic Development Australia on investment in welfare, and “competition and contestability” in social services. Tickets for the event cost up to $295 per person.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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