Debate resumed from 3 March.
(Port Macquarie - Minister for Consumer Affairs, Minister Assisting the Minister for Roads, and Minister Assisting the Minister for Transport) [10.33]: It will come as no surprise to the Opposition that the Government opposes the measures in the bill presented to the House by the honourable member for Heffron. I intend to take some time to go through the issues in detail because those aspects have not been properly debated for some time, certainly not outside this Chamber, and the bill warrants an examination of them. The HomeFund Legislation (Amendment) Bill is merely another attempt by the honourable member for Heffron to delay resolution of HomeFund difficulties. The evidence shows clearly that the bill is an attempt to keep HomeFund on the political agenda, and the honourable member for Heffron has made that quite clear. She is part of the problem, not the solution. As time goes by it is becoming clearer not only to me but also to HomeFund borrowers that she does not have the interests of the borrowers at heart and that they are being used for political purposes. That is becoming more evident - and the borrowers have even said so - as the next election approaches.
The bill is a mischievous attempt by the honourable member for Heffron to resuscitate debate on a matter that the Parliament rightly concluded last December, albeit in a somewhat backdoor way. I am sure this attempt will not be the last. Last December this Parliament reconvened to settle once and for all the way forward for those who remain in the HomeFund program. Members will recall the hours that were spent in negotiations. Most members were held up in their offices while a small group of us attempted to come to some agreement. That piece of legislation was truly resolved by the Parliament, not by the Government. The Government brought to the Parliament a restructuring package that was very carefully and expertly developed over many months. That reflects the complexity of the issue.
The package was endorsed by the then HomeFund Commissioner, a person who has an intimate understanding of all aspects of the lending program, and who has spent considerable time getting to know and understand it. The package was subjected to wide and intense scrutiny. There were many hours of negotiations between the Government, the Opposition and the Independents. Finally, as I have said, the Parliament approved a restructure of HomeFund. An important outcome of the negotiations was a firm commitment on the Government's part to provide impartial financial and legal advice for borrowers covered by the restructure. That commitment, which is the primary subject of this debate, was reflected in section 14 of the HomeFund Restructuring Act, which provides:
It is the duty of the Minister to ensure that HomeFund borrowers who are eligible to participate in the restructuring scheme, but who are not yet participating in that scheme, are given access to impartial financial counselling and legal assistance services.
It is a duty under the Act, and the Government is carrying out that duty. Throughout the negotiations it was made abundantly clear that the Minister for Consumer Affairs would be the responsible Minister. I assure all honourable members that the Minister for Consumer Affairs is, indeed, the responsible Minister and that I am complying with the wish of the Parliament. The duty is clear. I do not think any member who was involved in those negotiations could be under any misunderstanding about who was to be responsible for the service, and there was quite strong support, particularly from the Independent members, for that arrangement.
No one is denying the complexity of the legislation approved by the Parliament, and that is largely due to the great challenges of interpretation set by the Parliament. The restructuring of HomeFund presented enormous challenges, which were reflected in the time taken to finalise an agreement. I am sure the honourable member for Heffron was convinced those challenges could not be met. She must be very disappointed that the scheme is progressing, that borrowers are being dealt with and that the restructuring is having an effect. After all, helping the borrowers is not on her agenda.
In December last year the Chief Executive Officer of the Home Purchase Assistance Authority wrote to the remaining 23,173 borrowers in the HomeFund scheme. In his letter he outlined the nature of Parliament's restructure of HomeFund and advised borrowers that over the Christmas-New Year period his staff would be working to finalise the implementation of the restructure and how it would affect borrowers. The Government was working on the basis that it was the will of the Parliament to provide assistance to the borrowers as quickly as possible, yet when the Government moves quickly the honourable member for Heffron inevitably criticises it for one reason or another. The chief executive officer said also that by mid-February 1994, he would be writing to borrowers again with details of the assistance which may be available and their options.
During February, the Home Purchase Assistance Authority mailed to those HomeFund borrowers affected by the restructure packages of material which included a booklet entitled "HomeFund Borrower's Guide to Loan Restructuring". Accompanying material made it clear to HomeFund borrowers that they could call a toll-free number for general information about the restructuring of HomeFund; interpreting services; help with replacement forms; and, importantly, access to impartial financial or legal advice free of charge from the advisory service managed by the New South Wales Department of Consumer Affairs. The HPAA letter went on to advise borrowers what they should then do, stressing that borrowers should call the HomeFund Restructure Information Centre if they required further information. I know that the honourable member for Heffron was kept posted with all this information.
The purpose of mailing out this material was to ensure that every borrower received proper details of the restructure and to let them know impartial advice was there for the asking. I inform the House that in its first eight weeks of operations there have been a total of 6,019 contacts with the HomeFund Advisory Service - the one under my management - for financial and legal advice, with 5,791 telephone contacts and 228 interviews to date. That letter to borrowers originally indicated the preliminary category the borrowers were considered to be in, based on financial information available to the Home Purchase Assistance Authority as at 31 January 1994.
Borrowers were encouraged to complete assessment forms, allowing them to bring their financial positions up to date, so that the Authority could accurately determine their categories. The borrowers were also informed of their right to have the authority's categorisations independently reviewed by the HomeFund Advisory Panel. The HomeFund Restructure Information Centre is staffed by trained operators who answer inquiries on strict procedures. They have absolutely no discretion in referring to legal or financial inquiries. The honourable member for Heffron would not understand the difference because she will not go near the place, but there are two sides of the coin and it is important that honourable members understand the difference. The information service is about the scheme itself and the advisory service gives borrowers advice on what decisions they should make, because those decisions are obviously very important. I have already mentioned that section 14 of the HomeFund Restructuring Act requires the Minister for Consumer Affairs to ensure that HomeFund borrowers who are eligible to participate in the restructuring scheme, but have not yet done so, are given access to impartial financial counselling and legal assistance services.
The Government was conscious of the need to provide a cost-effective service while ensuring the impartiality, quality and consistency of the advice provided. It was decided that this could best be achieved through the immediate establishment of a centralised service in the Sydney central business district under the management of the Department of Consumer Affairs. Further consideration would then be required to identify the best means of providing opportunities for personal interviews in country and suburban locations. So it has always been the case that personal interviews will be provided where needed and when needed by the borrowers.
In this latter regard, the department has commenced the delivery of these services in Parramatta and Penrith, as well as in the city of Sydney, and will shortly extend them to Campbelltown and a number of major regional centres. I am sure the honourable member for Heffron is disappointed to hear that. I refer honourable members to my letter that I sent to them on 5 April in relation to face-to-face interviews in suburban and country locations, because, unlike a number of members of the Opposition, other members of the House are genuinely interested. I have received several replies from members - including members of the Australian Labor Party - thanking me for the advice and telling me that they will refer borrowers to that advisory service.
I cannot produce them.
Why not produce them?
I will. I will send them to you - which is not your practice; you do not forward any complaints to me.
I write to you all the time.
You will not give me any information. The member for Heffron will not give me any complaints she has got. I do not believe she has any genuine complaints. She cannot rally a crowd whenever she likes, because the fervour is simply not there, and she will not go and see the service in operation. How much more mischievous could anyone be? How much more insincere and transparent could a member be? The borrowers are waking up because they are starting to tell us. During the Christmas-New Year period all stops were out to prepare a management plan for the HomeFund Advisory Service, and to get it up and running as quickly as possible for the sake of the borrowers fund
using it at a great rate of knots. That plan outlined the nature of the service, the steps necessary to establish it within the necessary time frame and the administrative and operational processes involved. The role of this service was carefully considered. Throughout our negotiations last December it was clearly understood and accepted that borrowers must have access to impartial financial and legal advice to assist them make informed decisions.
They thought they were going to.
What is getting your goat? You are always so sour. Impartial is the key word. The Government is concerned to ensure that and as I continue, I will demonstrate clearly that the advice is impartial. The advice is not prejudiced or unfair. The service is not biased towards one particular outcome or another. It has no reason to be. The service provides complete and accurate personalised information about the options available and, on the basis of current data, the consequences of those options for borrowers trying to make informed decisions.
I challenge you on that.
If the honourable member for Heffron wants to challenge me or the Minister for Housing, why will not she not go and have a look at the service?
I am too busy answering the telephone calls from HomeFund borrowers who cannot get advice.
The honourable member could use Mr Isaacs' answering machine to help her out like she did last time - a so-called borrower who is in real distress! She is about as sincere as rocking horse proverbial.
I am more sincere than you.
At least I put up. The honourable member will not forward any complaints. She will not even visit the service she wants to abolish. She does not know what she is talking about. It is ludicrous to suggest that the financial and legal services should be or would be what the honourable member for Heffron now claims they should be. It was clear in the negotiations last year that it was never intended that legal services would extend to casework. It was not envisaged that financial advice would embrace the full range of financial counselling services - that is, the casework, education and advocacy that advice sometimes entails.
Although there are HomeFund borrowers who are in financial distress or are overcommitted, not all borrowers who seek to use or have sought to use the advisory service will be or are in such difficulties. Obviously the nature of the service differs somewhat from that of a conventional financial counselling service. The service has a role to play in this exercise. The experience of the inquiry service in the office of the HomeFund Commissioner is instructive in one regard. That inquiry service restricts itself to matters relating to HomeFund. If a borrower refers to other financial difficulties which require the longer term remedies of casework or advocacy, the borrower is referred to a body with the appropriate expertise. That is quite logical.
Borrowers can expect the HomeFund Advisory Service to demonstrate the costs and benefits of the restructure package compared with the existing scheme for their particular circumstances. So, essentially financial advisers from the HomeFund Advisory Service show how the proposed restructure, and staying in the existing scheme, will affect individual borrowers, especially those in Category B, given their income and other financial circumstances. With the borrower's consent - and I stress consent -
Yes - this is done by accessing data supplied by FANMAC and the HPAA and with the use of sophisticated computer modelling. The honourable member for Heffron only has to go down there and she can have a look. The service advises borrowers in category A of the prospects of refinancing with other commercial institutions, normal eligibility requirements and possible stamp duty savings in accordance with the legislation the Parliament enacted last year. It explains to borrowers in category C the likely implications of a sale of their homes. It advises borrowers in category D about arrangements they can make to pay arrears and the implications if they do not. It explains to borrowers the criteria used by the HPAA to determine categories and the opportunity of having a determination independently reviewed. What more could the service be doing? It is working strictly from the legislation passed by the Parliament last year.
I know the honourable member for Heffron was very cheesed off about legislation because it was not what she wanted. It was the Parliament's decision. I do not think the legislation was particularly just in many ways either, but my reasons are probably different from those of the honourable member for Heffron. Nevertheless the Parliament made a decision and she does not like it. She is a member of that Parliament, and she has to live with Parliament's decision. She is cheesed off no end because she did not get her own way. The work of the financial advisers is commenced after the borrower's identity has been confirmed and with the borrower's consent to use the loan information. Once again, at the risk of becoming tedious, I repeat that if the honourable member for Heffron only went down there she could see the system for herself, but I know she does not want to see it. As the honourable member for Heffron says, the legal effect of the HomeFund Restructuring Act is to alter the borrower's entitlement to a legal remedy, depending on the decision made about participating in the restructure.
As I have said, the effects of the restructuring scheme may involve category A borrowers in refinancing and category C and D borrowers in the sale of their homes. In all of these instances
borrowers will obviously have queries about their legal rights and obligations. Legal advisers therefore explain borrowers' rights and obligations at common law and under relevant legislation. They explain borrowers' rights and obligations under the restructuring program and the existing scheme. They explain the appeal process to the HomeFund Advisory Panel. They advise borrowers whether they could have an entitlement to a legal remedy which could be pursued through the HomeFund Commissioner's office or the courts.
The legal advisers advise borrowers whether they may have grounds for the establishment of a legal wrong in order to complain to the HomeFund Commissioner in accordance with the administrative issues listed in schedule 2 to the Act. They advise borrowers about the procedures that need to be followed in complaining to the HomeFund Commissioner, or instituting private court actions, and they explain the procedures involved in refinancing a mortgage and indicate circumstances where the borrower might be wise to engage a solicitor to represent him or her in the process. It is simply not true to say that legal advice is not being given against a consideration of all potentially relevant law. I have listed a whole raft of options, and they are being given very clear options and advice on what they may consider doing.
It was decided that the advisory service should be staffed by persons experienced in financial planning or advising and counselling, as well as lawyers with relevant expertise. The completely ignorant comments made by the honourable member for Heffron are a slur on the people working in the advisory service. They are working very long hours, at times under great stress. That was particularly so at the beginning. I do not believe that they would appreciate for one moment the ignorant bleatings of the honourable member for Heffron, who refuses to look at fact or to look at the service that is offered, because that does not suit her political agenda. I am sure the staff of the service will not forget those comments, and I know that many other people who are involved in helping the borrowers will not forget the particularly nasty words of the honourable member for Heffron during the last year or so.
A unit of 10 financial advisers, five lawyers and support staff was established to commence the service. Because of the plan to conduct interviews in suburban and country locations, the service has been supplemented by an additional six similarly qualified advisers. As one of the original advisers is no longer with the service, the present number of advisers totals 20 - 14 financial advisers and six lawyers. In the letter I sent them on 5 April, honourable members were advised that on 11 April face-to-face interviews with advisers from the advisory service would commence in Parramatta and Penrith, and that is happening. These facilities are expected to be available in Campbelltown within the next few weeks.
Legal and financial advisers will soon conduct personal interviews in centres such as Newcastle, Gosford, Tamworth, Lismore, Port Macquarie, Dubbo, Wollongong and Wagga Wagga. A draft schedule of dates has been prepared and advertisements advising HomeFund borrowers of these arrangements, which are already under way, appeared in the metropolitan press on Saturday, 9 April. Similar advertisements will appear in country newspapers during the weeks leading up to visits to regional centres by officers of the HomeFund Advisory Service.
In some respects the department probably would have preferred to locate the HomeFund Advisory Service separately from the HomeFund Restructure Information Centre, but there were some compelling reasons to co-locate the service with the centre. The primary reason was so that the service's advisers could have immediate access to FANMAC and HPAA data and, importantly, so that a single toll-free telephone number could allow a central point of contact for borrowers - to overcome the concerns of the honourable member for Heffron about the revolving door syndrome. However, she is now critical because there is only a single contact point and no other telephone number. You cannot win. If there is one contact point she says that is not good enough; if there is no single contact point she says borrowers are being sent on a circuitous route. That demonstrates again the shallowness of her arguments and her insincerity on the whole issue.
The fact is that co-location provides additional benefits through the day-to-day contact between staff of the centre and the advisory service regarding borrowers' inquiries. This has resulted in some policy revision by the HPAA. All literature and personal communication stresses the absolute independence of the advisory service. I personally take offence at the inferences that this service is not independent. I have not even met the people who work there. Much as I would like to, I do not intend to because I do not want to give the honourable member for Heffron the opportunity to sledge them any more than she has already done. When this is all over I will make my feelings clear to them. I will inform them of the Government's appreciation of the service they are providing. The borrowers have told the Government that they also appreciate the service.
The initial recruitment of those independent staff took place in January this year. The response to newspaper advertisements was overwhelming, with over 120 applications being received. Contact was made with the Financial Counsellors Association of New South Wales Inc., the Legal Aid Commission and the Law Society of New South Wales for assistance with possible secondments and other measures to facilitate speedy recruitment so the restructure could be put into place quickly, which the Government understood was the Parliament's will. Collectively the 20 people recruited have almost 300 years' experience in banking, financial counselling and legal fields. Needless to say, whatever staffing is necessary to meet the demand will be provided. I have already stated that the numbers have already been increased. All advisory service staff underwent intensive and comprehensive training.
It is instructive to look at the demand. The service commenced on 14 February this year. As at 8 April there had been 5,791 telephone contacts between the advisory service and borrowers. That is equivalent to about 30 per cent of all calls made to the HomeFund Restructure Information Centre. In addition, 228 personal interviews were conducted in the city location by that date. That brings me to the bill before the House, which is more than the honourable member for Heffron discussed in her second reading speech. Leaving to one side for the moment the unsubstantiated claims of the honourable member for Heffron in her second reading speech, the bill has three main features. It requires the Legal Aid Commission to provide financial counselling and legal assistance to HomeFund borrowers who are eligible to participate in the HomeFund restructuring scheme but are not yet participating in that scheme. It extends the date by which complaints must be made to the HomeFund Commissioner from 31 March this year to 30 September this year, and it extends the earliest date for cutting off offers of assistance under the HomeFund restructuring scheme from 30 June 1994 to 30 September 1994.
The honourable member for Heffron claims that these uncosted changes are necessary because of what she describes as the Government's "blatant attempt to circumvent the specific requirements of section 14 of the HomeFund Restructuring Act". I am still waiting for that claim to be substantiated, and will happily continue to do so. In her second reading speech the honourable member for Heffron repeated what she had already said in correspondence with the honourable member for South Coast. She itemised a litany of so-called conspiracy theories to support her claim. I propose to go through that speech in reasonable detail to show that it is blatant politicking - that will not be particularly hard - and also to demonstrate to the House that what the Government is already delivering satisfies the requirements of section 14 of the HomeFund Restructuring Act.
The honourable member for Heffron opened her second reading speech with the claim that the Government is intent on repeating the same mistakes in the HomeFund Restructure Information Centre. That is fairly predictable. She says that borrowers call the centre's 008 number and can be referred to an employee of the Department of Consumer Affairs for financial counselling and legal assistance if - and it is to be inferred as only if, I suppose, from what she said - the employee of the authority considers it appropriate to do so. That is another slur on the integrity of the people working in that service. She is almost saying that the attitude of the people working for the service is: if they do not know it is there, do not tell them. That is a disgraceful implication, and it is absolutely wrong. The letter of 11 February from the HPAA to all borrowers spells out the availability of the HomeFund Advisory Service through the 008 number. That booklet itself repeats the message three times. Perhaps the honourable member for Heffron has not read it. If she would like to read it, I can make it available to her. She would find it particularly clear. I do not know how much clearer one can be. It states:
The Information Centre can provide you with: impartial financial or legal advice free of charge from the advisory service managed by the NSW Department of Consumer Affairs.
Borrowers who telephone and ask for the department's advisory service are put through straightaway. But it does not stop there. The staff of the HomeFund Restructure Information Centre refer to the advisory service any issue that is not covered in the manuals. Honourable members should be aware that the Home Purchase Assistance Authority has written to borrowers affected by the restructure with an indication of their preliminary category. Most people interested in this issue would be aware of that. Except for category D borrowers, no final decision will be made until a borrower returns an assessment form or the time for returning of that form expires, that is 30 June this year. Category D borrowers have until 31 April this year.
Many of the inquiries to the HomeFund Advisory Service have been about the printed material, clarifying procedures and the like. I anticipate that the demand for financial and legal advice will increase after more and more decisions are taken about borrowers' categories and firm offers are made by the HPAA. That is starting to occur now. This appears to be the trend, judging by those borrowers who have recently had their categories formally determined by the HPAA. To date that had only been a fairly small proportion. As I mentioned earlier, just on 30 per cent of the calls made to the HomeFund Restructure Information Centre, that is the centre that is responsible for giving out the details of the restructure, have been referred to the advisory service, for which my department is responsible. There are two separate services, and it is important that they be recognised as such.
The honourable member for Heffron keeps repeating the figures 26,000 borrowers and 15 people. She has been bleating about there being not enough people, the advice being terrible, and so on. As I said at the outset, 23,173 borrowers have been supplied with the restructure kit, so she is out by nearly 3,000 to start with. There have not been inquiries from each of those 23,173 borrowers eligible to participate in the restructuring scheme. There was never going to be an inquiry from each and every one of those borrowers. In fact, since the restructure kits were posted on 11 February, the number of eligible borrowers has dropped to 21,818 as a result of about 1,355 HomeFund mortgages being discharged. To date the staff - which, as one would expect, was stretched in the early days following the bulk postage of information to HomeFund borrowers - has coped with the demand. For a couple of weeks they worked every day, 10 hours a day, including weekends, but obviously they have received no credit for that. The recruitment of additional advisers to assist with personal interviews, which I mentioned earlier, indicates quite clearly that the service is being
managed to ensure that any increase in demand for assistance is met. This is the way we will continue to manage the service.
The honourable member for Heffron, who is notably absent from the Chamber and who has been for some time now, questions how 15 people could give proper counsel and legal advice to 10,000 borrowers. The answer is that they did not have to. If she bothered to read her mail or she went down to the service she would find out how it works. But, as has been demonstrated for a year, she does not want to know. Facts are the last thing on her political agenda. The figures quoted by the honourable member for Heffron related to the total number of inquiries made to the information centre at that time, not the number of borrowers who contacted the Advisory Service.
Obviously, not all borrowers go straight through to the advisory service, first up at least. They simply want to get the information and then they have the option, as they are aware, to go to the advisory service. So the only absurdity in all this is whether the honourable member for Heffron is seriously suggesting that the Government will make available only 15 staff to meet the demands of 26,000 borrowers. The fact that there has been an increase in staff is testimony to this Government's commitment to providing appropriate resources. As I have said, we will maintain that commitment and adjust it as the demand ebbs and flows. I emphasise that the focus is on quality rather than quantity.
To give some perspective to this issue, figures for the last six weeks of operation of the service have been prepared. That period was chosen because it was a period during which advisers worked normal hours and the volume of contacts was more consistent, as opposed to the earlier few weeks in which the service operated. In this period there were on average 14.5 advisers and 126 contacts each day. Each financial adviser dealt with an average of 9.15 contacts each day, while legal advisers dealt with an average of 7.8 contacts each day. Of the total number of contacts, 69 per cent were with financial advisers while 31 per cent involved legal advisers.
The honourable member for Heffron attacked the recruitment process. Again, we cannot win. She said last year that the Government was tardy and it was dragging its feet. We went through a quick recruitment process which the honourable member for Heffron also slated in the House. She said that training is limited to the new HomeFund restructuring provisions. She selectively quoted from an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald
on 15 January to support her claim that training would be limited to the restructuring provisions. But she is wrong again. Why did she not seek to clarify what training was to be provided? Again, it did not suit the script or her political agenda, so she did not inquire. I suspect she probably knew anyway. The management plan clearly sets out the training requirements. I would like to quote from that plan, which states:
It will be essential that Advisory Service staff have a complete understanding of the restructuring scheme, existing rights and obligations of borrowers, the role of the HomeFund Commissioner -
The office of HomeFund Commissioner has now been in place for almost a year:
- and to be able to identify prospective legal entitlements.
An intensive training program will need to be implemented in conjunction with the development of procedural, reference and guidance material. This must be completed by the time the Advisory Service becomes operational.
It was spelt out quite clearly in the advertisement that a wide range of training was to be undertaken. That training was successfully undertaken by the advisory service staff who were recruited. The training was intensive and comprehensive and, in many training sessions since then, advisers have built up a practical body of knowledge and experience of this service. The Financial Counsellors Association of New South Wales and the HomeFund Commissioner's office participated in the training program. New advisory service recruits who were put on in recent weeks have also undergone intensive training and have had the added benefit of being able to gain from the knowledge and experience of staff engaged from the commencement of the service, who have been participating in the service since that time.
I will again draw from the speech made by the honourable member for Heffron. The only "spiel" that HomeFund borrowers are getting is from her. If there is any secret agenda for HomeFund it is certainly known only to the honourable member for Heffron and her advisers. We cannot get any information about any of the issues or complaints that she says are so pressing. Borrowers have admitted this to us, which has been most enlightening, but it is not surprising. The honourable member for Heffron, in her speech in the second reading debate, quoted from a letter which she received from an unsuccessful applicant for a position with the advisory service. The writer agrees that the honourable member for Heffron is correct when she says that the advice is very different from counselling and assistance, but it is too bad that the writer did not go on to tell the honourable member for Heffron the difference. She clearly does not see any difference. One has only to look at her bill to establish that she does not make the difference herself.
The writer went on to say that the recruitment process was out of the ordinary. In public sector terms I am sure it was, but the Government had good reasons for doing what it did. The service had to be pulled together rapidly in January so we could commence the restructure as quickly as possible. I pay tribute to the people who worked so hard over those holiday months when the Leader of the Opposition was sipping a cappuccino in Venice and other honourable members were overseas. They worked their proverbials off and got that service together very quickly. As I said earlier, I think that surprised the honourable member for Heffron because she did not believe it could be done. All she does
now is go out of her way to criticise the way in which staff members are delivering that service. The writer who was complaining about the advertisement also said to the honourable member for Heffron:
Their methodology, in my opinion, suggests the "Commission" has no inclination to provide impartial financial advice or counselling. Rather they seem more concerned with ensuring continuity of employment for staff at the ongoing expense of both the Government and the borrowers.
What is his agenda and where is he coming from? Advisory staff are temporary employees. I would have thought that even blind Freddy could see that. Not one member of the advisory staff came from within the Government. The members of that staff have a job to do. When it is done they will be able to move on to new employment. I am sure that working on such a complex issue will be good for their future employment prospects. I certainly hope so. In fact, I know that one adviser has already picked up a very good job as a result of the work he has been doing.
I do not intend to delve into the work experience of the person who wrote to the honourable member for Heffron, but it is interesting to note that he was not interviewed because he did not strictly qualify in terms of the requirements of the position. Many others did qualify. As I have said, we received 120 applications. People were appointed on merit and there was no conspiracy, but I expect that that is a little hard for members of the Australian Labor Party to understand, especially when we consider their shenanigans on the frontbench over the past few weeks. The writer also referred to the so-called unique response from the Department of Consumer Affairs, but unfortunately he did not give the honourable member for Heffron the full text of the department's response, or she chose not to read it. I will. It states:
I refer to your application for a temporary position with the HomeFund Advisory Service.
Because of the need to establish a service almost immediately, interviews for the position were conducted on 20 and 21 January 1993.
At this stage all available positions have been filled. Your details have been retained, however, and you may be contacted in the future should further vacancies arise.
Thank you for your interest.
The letter was signed by the responsible deputy director. So what is unique about that response? It states simply that the positions have been filled. I have received letters like that in the past and I am sure other honourable members have also. They have probably received a lot of letters like that. The honourable member for Heffron, in pursuing her claim that the Government has blatantly attempted to circumvent the specific requirements of section 14 of the HomeFund Restructuring Act, then headed off in the direction of financial counselling. She said that the Opposition believed that financial counselling had been inherently agreed to in legislation passed in December. She had plenty of opportunity to have an input. If she wanted clarification as to whether it was inherently agreed to, all she had to do was open her mouth, which she is not too shy about doing. But that was not the case. I do not think it could ever be said that that was understood to be the case.
It was agreed that the Government would provide borrowers with impartial advice about the financial significance of the restructuring. This year the Government has provided a record high allocation of $763,672 for financial counselling services. This year my department provided $392,500 under a triennial credit counselling program and $371,000 to support, for another year, the operation of the 008 telephone service that was established as part of a recession buster package two years ago. I emphasise that that was intended to be a one-off package, but because the recession went on for so long we extended it for a second year. I was able to persuade the Treasurer that it was worth while extending it for yet a third year. So a package which was meant to be a one-off package has continued.
This State is making quite a contribution towards financial counselling. That is not bad when compared with the contribution of the Federal Government, which created the financial hardship that many HomeFund borrowers have been suffering. This State contributes nearly $800,000, but the Federal Government contributes $1.1 billion for the whole of Australia. Big deal! The honourable member for Heffron said that I had not allocated funds that were approved before Christmas. That is so, but she does not say why it has taken so long. That is something we might discuss in more detail at another time. Suffice it to say that I referred this issue immediately to the major organisations involved in financial counselling for their advice on how best to distribute funding that we have been given by the Treasurer. I asked those organisations for a combined submission. It has taken them some months to get agreement on a combined submission and to agree on funding arrangements. That assistance will be going out shortly to a number of services around the State that otherwise would have to close their doors. The fault does not lie with this Government for delaying the release of this funding. It is quite the contrary.
In support of her claim that the Government is circumventing section 14 of the Act, the honourable member for Heffron turned her attention to the competence of the staff employed in the HomeFund Advisory Service. The honourable member said she could quote for hours from the piles of correspondence that she has received, and keeps reminding me of that in this House. And I keep reminding her that I would like to get from her evidence of any complaints.
I have been telling you what is the matter.
I look forward to that. I have been waiting for a while.
I do. I give you letters every week.
The honourable member for Heffron has not put up one complaint that has legs. In fact, she will not give me any information. So I do not know how these poor old borrowers are supposed to access any information if their complaints have been kept in a file which appears to be only waved around as a fist full of papers in this Chamber when it suits the honourable member's political agenda. The HomeFund Advisory Service has had some 6,000 contacts. It is interesting that the honourable member for Heffron complains that there have been numerous criticisms of the service. The Government has received six complaints - I repeat, six complaints - from the 6,000-odd people who have contacted the HomeFund Advisory Service. All of those complaints have been satisfactorily resolved. I understand the last complaint was received on 2 March, about six weeks ago.
That is a complaint record of 0.001 per cent of the contacts. Because the honourable member for Heffron was distracted - I would say deliberately distracted - I repeat: from the more than 6,000 contacts there have been six formal complaints. So there is a big difference in our stories. All I can say is that if the honourable member has more complaints she should put them forward and we will work through them. It would be remarkable if, in the light of that experience, so many people would make the honourable member for Heffron their first port of call. A few weeks ago I met with the HomeFund borrowers who assembled behind Parliament House.
On 11 February I wrote to the honourable member for Heffron informing her of the advisory service before it commenced. I told her of the number of proposed staff and their range of experience. I also outlined the details of how the service would operate and invited her to contact the project manager if she had any inquiries regarding operational aspects of the service. I also said:
Finally, you previously indicated that you have received complaints about services provided by my portfolio for HomeFund borrowers. In order to be able to promptly respond to any complaints about the partiality, timeliness or quality of services provided by the HomeFund Advisory Service I would like to establish a process by which details of such complaints can be quickly brought to my notice. I thus invite your suggestions as to how this can be achieved.
The response by the honourable member for Heffron to this invitation appears to have been along the following lines: first, to take over the Plumpton meeting on 27 February of the HomeFund action group and convert it into something of a political rally, on which I will elaborate later, and, second, to use the event to launch an attack against the impartiality of the HomeFund Advisory Service. I point out that the service had been operating for 13 days at that time the rally was held. Despite that it seems the honourable member for Heffron knew all about it, knew all about the deficiencies and so on - without ever going there, and without responding to my letter seeking her constructive advice on how to deal with complaints and any problems in the system.
Minister, you have the department now.
The honourable member says I have a department and that I am supposed to deal with all these complaints. But the honourable member will not give me the complaints and will not give me her views on how to deal with these matters, yet when the Government does something the honourable member is quite prepared to criticise the Government. This shows the paucity of her arguments and the cheapness of the tactics she is using, which are becoming increasingly clear to the HomeFund borrowers. The third of her responses to my genuine requests for her positive advice was an attempt to organise a rally behind Parliament House on 10 March to coincide with what she hoped would be the introduction of this legislation, which did not occur on that day.
As for this particular rally that took place at the rear of Parliament House, the honourable member for Heffron was a conspicuous absentee from that rally, despite her beating the drum and promising a large demonstration in Macquarie Street and forecasting that the place would be absolutely jam-packed with unhappy HomeFund borrowers and that this would bring about the end of the Government. The staff of my office counted the people as they arrived at the rally. My staff counted 54 people; the press reported a few more. We watched to see whether he honourable member for Heffron would turn up, but she did not.
Did you give them a drink too?
Yes, we did give them a drink, because the honourable member left them standing out there in the heat. A number of young children were present. A number of delegates were invited into my office where they were given cool drinks - a lot more than they received from the honourable member for Heffron. I can only assume the honourable member was embarrassed about the small roll-up. Far be it from me to suggest that had the attendance been significantly greater the honourable member for Heffron might have been seized with the need to go out and talk to those people. Perhaps only 50-odd people was not enough for the honourable member to go and speak to. My colleague the Minister for Planning and Minister for Housing and I spoke to them. The honourable member for Heffron was particularly unaccessible that day, very noticeably absent, given that she had organised and promoted that particular demonstration.
It was not until 11 March - a month after the sending of my letter seeking that initial advice and input from the honourable member for Heffron - that she had the courtesy to reply. This reply is again based entirely on supposition rather than fact. I was interested to see her letter of 5 April, I think, to the Minister for Housing because in it - despite our offers to the honourable member to go down to the HomeFund Advisory Service, because of her so-called interest in and criticism of it - the honourable member really said, "I won't go".
I have not got the time.
You have not got the time?
That is right.
You are really genuine, aren't you! You want to dismantle this service because, according to you, everything in the world is wrong with it. The people are wrong and do not know what they are talking about, the numbers are wrong, the methodology is wrong, so you want to disband the service, but you do not have the time to go down and see it! How sincere are you? How fair dinkum are you in terms of dealing with this issue?
More than you.
I am happy to have my track record stacked up against yours any day. In the reply of the honourable member for Heffron it is alleged that rather than by an assessment of the myriad complaints by individual borrowers - and I mentioned that we have received only six complaints from 6,000 contacts - she stated she was not going to bother attending. That is about all we could conclude from that response. I believe I should address with some importance and some urgency the beliefs of the honourable member for Heffron that legal assistance from the advisory service does not involve consideration of the HomeFund Restructuring Act, the HomeFund Commissioner Act, the Contracts Review Act, the Fair Trading Act, the Trade Practices Act and common law principles of unconscionability. Earlier I went through the training they received - I think the honourable member for Heffron was out of the Chamber at that point of the debate - and quite clearly indicated that those issues were raised. The people at the service do have legal experience and one would assume they already had some understanding of the issues before they went through their training.
I do not know the basis on which the honourable member for Heffron has formed her belief. She will not say, and she continues not to say. I understand that the HomeFund Advisory Service informed borrowers in general terms about the restructuring Act and how it affects their legal rights. That is an important issue. The borrowers are informed about the variety of remedies available and how they can be pursued at law in accordance with the training that they received. Legal advisers with the HomeFund Advisory Service are familiar with the particular legal references quoted by the honourable member for Heffron in her letter and they provide advice accordingly, having regard to the particular circumstances of each borrower. Prior to the 31 March deadline for complaints to be lodged with the HomeFund Commissioner, all borrowers, whether seeking legal assistance or not, were provided with assistance about the opportunity to lodge a complaints guide with the HomeFund Commissioner.
Not all of them, I can assure you.
If some have missed out, the honourable member can tell my office and they will be sent the information. Since 31 March borrowers who have not lodged complaints have been advised about the commissioner's discretion to receive complaints after 31 March. Last night I checked and some inquiries have indeed been received and complaints guides have been sent. People have been told that they still have the opportunity to send that in and the commissioner is treating those late applications very sympathetically. I can only wonder why the reply from the honourable member for Heffron is so presumptuous.
These issues relate to quality of assistance from the HomeFund Advisory Service and they are within the scope of my original invitation to be put forward suggestions about how we deal with issues in terms of quality control and problems within the HomeFund Advisory Service. I suppose it will be after the next election and beyond before I receive any advice like that. It would probably be cynical of me to suggest that the motive underlying the approach taken by the member for Heffron is a desire to undermine the credibility of the service. I do not know how I could come to that conclusion but somehow I seem to have done so. I argue that until the honourable member comes up with evidence of substandard assistance from the service, it is her allegation that lacks credibility.
There is plenty of evidence, and it is mounting.
The honourable member for Heffron says the evidence is mounting. We have had six formal complaints out of 6,000 cases. The honourable member keeps saying she has plenty of evidence and it is mounting. I am beginning to get letters from borrowers thanking me for arranging interviews and appointments.
Have you had any calls from the Office of the Ombudsman lately?
No, I have not. I have said before that we are not clairvoyants, whatever else we might be or profess to be. If the honourable member has complaints, how does she expect the service or any of the resources of government to deal with them if she does not tell us what they are? She just will not put up. Frankly, I think she is lying, because she does not have any information and if she does, she will not give it to me. That is the only conclusion I can come to.
On a point of order: I ask that the Minister be directed to withdraw the imputation that I was lying in the course of the debate.
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr Tink):
Order! I ask the Minister to withdraw the remark. I suggest also that the honourable member for Heffron might interject a little less.
I withdraw it. I cannot understand how I could have come to that conclusion or made that statement. All I can do is to continue to repeat the invitation in my letter: if the honourable member has suggestions on how to improve the service and has concrete examples of why it is not working, she should show the complaints to me so that they can be considered and the problem rectified.
We are not clairvoyants and cannot do anything unless we know what the complaints are. If the honourable member stacks them in a folder in her office, that will be only to the detriment of those borrowers. They know that. The honourable member referred to an offer made by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, acting on behalf of the HomeFund Support Coalition, consumer legal centres and financial counsellors, to produce a comprehensive manual for both financial counsellors and legal officers. The centre suggested a figure, which I think was $30,000 or $50,000, but the proposal did not reach the stage of the cost being considered.
They said it was too much.
It did not reach that stage, because the centre was satisfied that the comprehensive training undertaken by staff and the resource materials already developed obviated the need to take up the proposal. As I said before, there has been input from a wide variety of organisations which have experience in this area. Before we all get too carried away with the significance of this manual, I would like to consider its merits. To my knowledge its preparation was canvassed during a meeting between officers of the Department of Consumer Affairs and representatives of the HomeFund Support Coalition. I understand that no formal written specification for the manual was ever presented to the Government. I would have been happy to have received one. Honourable members will understand our lack of enthusiasm for the manual given that we never received any details about it, other than a proposal to develop something.
There has been no evidence of substandard assistance being provided by the HomeFund Advisory Service, despite some generalised claims by the honourable member for Heffron. We have yet to see anything that would stand up to scrutiny. Coupled with this, what is now proposed? On the basis of what appears to be little more than an idea canvassed during a meeting, and in the light of the failure of the armchair critics to come up with any evidence of substandard assistance, is the Government expected to conclude that what has been done to date is incorrect? Are we supposed to cease the provision of further assistance under the current format? Are we supposed to advise the borrowers who have already been assisted under the current arrangements to disregard the advice received and to wait until the manual is produced? Are the staff to be retrained before we can correct the situation? That is the implication in the remarks of the honourable member for Heffron: all bets are off?
The system is in its ninth week now and there have been six complaints out of 6,000 cases. The honourable member for Heffron seems to suggest that we should disband the service now because of some whim or idea floated by her; that we should rejig and restart the whole service. If the answer to the questions I posed is yes - and that would be a silly answer - it would be irresponsible of me not to warn that there would be a hiatus of about a month or six weeks while everything was wound down and restarted. I cannot understand where there would be any benefit to borrowers. I do not know whether the honourable member could genuinely and sincerely say that there would be any benefit to the borrowers. It would simply visit on them unnecessary anguish and delay, all for nothing apart from satisfying some of the honourable member's political motives. I am sure that if we were to restart, the honourable member for Heffron would say there was something wrong, she would have another idea and would want to change the system again.
The bottom line is that this is about delaying, and you guys opposite have said that in the House before: "Surprise, surprise, it is political!" The honourable member for Kogarah interjected in question time on one occasion and said that this was only political. The bulk of ALP members do not care about HomeFund borrowers. They never participate in the debates, they never write to me or take up any issues. It is simply a political matter. Honourable members should carefully consider the questions I have posed in regard to abolishing the service and relocating it before they unreservedly embrace the concept of the manual or the other proposals that are the substance of the bill.
The honourable member for Heffron then went on to consider the role of the Legal Aid Commission, the body she would have operate the advisory service. Officers of the department met with commission representatives a number of times. I have spoken with different organisations about getting the service up and running, getting properly qualified people into the service and getting a good spread across the State. The Legal Aid Commission put forward a proposal to assist the delivery of legal services. The Commissioner for Consumer Affairs wrote to the Legal Aid Commission advising that its offer would be kept in mind for future needs once we got going.
Earlier this week officers of my department again met with representatives from the Legal Aid Commission, including Mr Ben Slade, who I know is known to the honourable member for Heffron, to discuss how the commission could assist the HomeFund Advisory Service in providing face-to-face interviews, particularly in country locations. The result was that the Legal Aid Commission representatives believed it would be impractical for them to offer assistance at this time because of the general unavailability of their legal staff due to heavy workloads - we all understand that - and the length of time necessary to train such staff to the level of expertise required to advise HomeFund borrowers on the HomeFund restructuring scheme.
It was agreed, however, that the Department of Consumer Affairs would continue to monitor resource needs against demand for services and assess any future opportunity for the Legal Aid Commission to provide legal assistance should it be considered appropriate and practical. Yet again, it is simply not true to say that the involvement of the Legal Aid Commission was not considered by the Minister for
Consumer Affairs as an acceptable proposition. It was considered at the outset. In the past two days we have gone back to the Legal Aid Commission and it has said that it is too hard, it is not something the commission has the time or expertise to do.
It makes interesting reading, I will tell the Minister that.
If the honourable member is disputing what those people are saying and calling them liars, they can read that in Hansard
. I am simply reporting the outcome of the meeting, and I am sure the honourable member for Heffron is not particularly pleased about that. She continues to labour under the misapprehension that it is inappropriate for the Department of Consumer Affairs to provide an advisory service, despite the will of the Parliament, which involved more than just the honourable member for Heffron. The majority of members of this House were happy with the proposal and it was explicitly discussed in the negotiations on the legislation last year. Is the honourable member seriously suggesting that the people involved would compromise their professional values, their professional integrity, to somehow minimise Government liability? Why would they? What does it have to do with them? Why would they care where the Government might end up at the end of the day?
I challenge the honourable member for Heffron again to produce evidence of her claim - not innuendo, not wild and unsubstantiated accusations, but hard evidence. That is not coming through. I would also like the opportunity to report to the House the results of an attempt by one of my staff to gather some evidence of substandard assistance being provided by the HomeFund Advisory Service. HomeFund borrowers do ring my office, and we talk to them. That might surprise the honourable member. As members are probably aware, a number of community groups have sprung up to provide support for HomeFund borrowers in different parts of the State. During a telephone conversation with a member of one of these groups it was repeatedly alleged that the HomeFund Advisory Service was partial or biased. When that person was requested to elaborate upon how this bias occurred the telephone was passed to a person who, it was initially understood, was the victim of biased assistance from the service. I was concerned to hear this.
During the ensuing discussion, the person who was allegedly the victim of bias stated that she had not spoken to the HomeFund Advisory Service and had in fact declined the offer of the HomeFund Restructuring Information Centre to be transferred to the HomeFund Advisory Service. When the telephone was passed back to the original representative of the support group, with whom the honourable member for Heffron has had some contact, details were again sought about the alleged partial assistance, how it was considered to be partial, and what it was. A request was made to tell us the problems so that we could fix them. The answer on this occasion was that, for a number of understandable reasons, non-English speaking borrowers have difficulty comprehending advice when speaking to an adviser through an interpreter. I have said already that we have arrangements in place to address that problem by way of face-to-face interviews whenever a borrower wants one.
The support group was then invited to present to me a proposal to overcome the difficulties - generally with the service and also with regard to people from non-English speaking backgrounds. I might add that no advice has been received to date, and that all took place more than a month ago. I mention this to demonstrate my genuine attempts to elicit information from people who have complaints, to enable me to take remedial action and to illustrate the types of events that some are interpreting as partial. This is the type of thing that has been relayed to the honourable member for Heffron. She then beats it up and makes out that the service is not working. In fact, in this case the borrower did not even speak to the service.
Two further aspects of the honourable member's bill demonstrate her state of confusion. If she is so concerned about the requirement for impartial advice why has she omitted it from the scheme in existing section 14? I can find no reference in her bill to the word "impartial". If that is so important, why has the honourable member for Heffron not made that clear in her bill? The other issue is why the Legal Aid Commission does not suffer the same criticism as the Department of Consumer Affairs in relation to its capacity to provide impartial assistance to borrowers. I suspect that if it was moved there, they would suddenly become partial. There would be something wrong, you can bet your bottom dollar. As with my department, the commission is relying on the Government for funding.
The honourable member for Ashfield implied that there were problems on the part of the Government, and the honourable member for Heffron then looked to the HomeFund Borrowers' Guide to Loan Restructuring to further support her argument. She said that the wording is inconsistent with the legislation. The honourable member claims that, as described in the booklet, financial advice is not financial counselling and that legal advice is not legal assistance. She was emphatic on this point when she wrote to the honourable member for South Coast and, I imagine, to other Independent members. What is the honourable member for Heffron saying? On the one hand she is telling the world at large - and the honourable member for South Coast in particular - that legal advice is not legal assistance, yet her bill says otherwise. Let us look at the definition, which is her definition, of "legal assistance services" on page 4 of the bill. It says:
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr Tink):
Legal assistance services means the giving of legal advice as to the rights of HomeFund borrowers . . .
Order! It being after 11.30 a.m., pursuant to sessional orders the debate is interrupted.