ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE - 09/02/2010 - ENVIRONMENT, WATER, HERITAGE AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Senator «MILNE» -At the last estimates you said that you expected 20,000 loans to be taken up in this financial year. Clearly, 1,000 have been taken up. It is a slow uptake for all the reasons that you have cited. What was the financial allocation that you made to cover the interest on 20,000 loans in this financial year? Given that only 1,000 have been taken up, I just heard you say, Ms Kruk, that you had been able to transfer resources to an additional number of assessments. Does that mean you are now providing for more than 360,000 over the life of the program?
Ms Kruk-No. Mr Thompson could assist in terms of the numbers. The recognition was that the demand was very much in relation to home assessments. When the program was refigured in the context of the last budget, that was the emphasis that was put very much in terms of changing the initial program and recognising that is where the demand was at the householder level. Because at that point in time-and I am sorry, my memory of dates is not great-when the program was refigured there was a shift in emphasis to allow assessments.
Senator BIRMINGHAM-That was the time when the election commitment of 200,000 loans was downgraded to up to 75,000 loans, and the annual targets were set this financial year at 20,000, next financial year 20,000, and the following, and 15,000 in the last. Is that a correct approximation of the evidence given previously in what the department was budgeting for?
Mr Thompson -That is on the basis-
Senator BIRMINGHAM -Of loans?
Mr Thompson-subject to being corrected by colleagues here-that that was the profile we were looking at at that point. One of the things I think the secretary is referring to is that, because of the significant increase in demand for household assessments, we have had to reprofile.
Senator BIRMINGHAM -Has there been a subsequent reprofiling to the reprofiling that we talked about previously?
Mr Thompson-Within that budget, yes, within the profile that we had for this year, because of the significant increase in demand for household assessments-up to 360,000.
Senator BIRMINGHAM -So, you are no longer working towards 20,000 loans?
Mr Thompson -On the current numbers-we might talk about how much we budgeted for first. Do you have those numbers here?
Ms Mackie-We can provide the total program funding-$174 million over five years. The breakdown of the total program funds for 2009-10 was almost $40 million; 2010-11, $48 million; 2011-12, $48 million; and 2012-13, $29.674 million.
Senator BIRMINGHAM -Is that the total funding for the program?
Ms Mackie -That is correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM-In terms of the targets the program is working towards-and we will come to assessments, but I just want to focus on loans to start with-you were working towards up to 20,000 loans this financial year. What is the target or the expected outcome now in terms of the number of loans?
Mr Thompson-There has been no change to the budget for this program and for the budget in this financial year in terms of what was announced in the budget papers. There has been no change in the government's decision around what target we would be seeking for loans.
Ms Kruk-We are obviously looking at the funding for the program on the basis of the take-up rate. Obviously the final decision is for government in terms of the allocation of those moneys.
Senator BIRMINGHAM-Obviously the take-up rate is below expectation-you have acknowledged that, Ms Kruk-and that is clearly understood by everybody?
Ms Kruk -Yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM-In the process of the MYEFO review or any of those budgetary processes the department did not think, ‘We're clearly running way below the 20,000 expected. This program needs further reconfiguring'?
Ms Mackie-As I understand it, there was not a requirement to do that, because there is a notional allocation, which I do not have in front of me, between funding for assessments and funding for loans. As you are aware, the assessment is 360,000 whereas the loans was an up to 75,000 figure, and so it is a matter of the level of take-up for the loans, which has proven quite low to date for the reasons that the secretary has referred to.
Senator BIRMINGHAM -We have the base data on loans. Let us get the base data on assessments.
Senator «MILNE»-Could you take on notice what you expect the savings will be? You would have allocated a certain amount for interest payments on the 20,000 loans this year. Obviously you are not going to achieve that. Could you come back maybe after dinner and tell us how much surplus you have now in that program in terms of what you set aside for interest payments to financial institutions?
Senator BIRMINGHAM -You just indicated there was a notional allocation. Do you have that notional allocation between-
Ms Mackie -No, as I indicated, I do not have that with me.
Senator BIRMINGHAM -If you could take Senator «Milne»'s request on notice there for this year and the-
Mr Thompson -Just to be clear in response to a remark that Senator «Milne» made, there has been no change to the government's commitments in relation to the program or to the budget at this stage, and so we are not conceding the 20,000. We are trying to work and manage the demand of the program as it arises. We are not conceding that 20,000 will not or cannot be met at this point.
Senator «MILNE» -I understand that, but at this point 1,008 loans have been granted at seven months into the program.
Mr Thompson -I understand the point you are making.
Senator «MILNE»-I am just trying to understand how much is in reserve to meet the 20,000 if in effect that occurred by the end of the financial years, which may turn out to be surplus if that 20,000 is not allocated.
Senator Wong-As I understood the evidence earlier, the evidence was that the budget allocation is profiled as $170 million over five years; is that correct?
Ms Mackie -Correct; $174 million.
Senator Wong -And $40 million for 2009-10; is that the evidence?
Ms Delahunt -Yes.
Senator Wong -Obviously, if there is a decision by government that alters that, that will be done through the normal processes.
Senator «MILNE»-I understand that, but my understanding was that $40 million covered both the assessments and the interest. I am trying to establish: of the $40 million what was set aside for the interest?
Ms Kruk -We understand. We will take it on notice.
Senator «MILNE» -Just on that issue of the 143,000 completed assessments, I have received many emails saying that there are outstanding payments from the department and that several small businesses are actually in danger of having to get bridging finance and whatever because the department is not paying within the 30 days. I raised this last time in the estimates in October and I was assured that all of the glitches in the payment system had been ironed out and it was all fixed. If 143,000 have been completed, what is the success rate of the department paying within 30 days and how many of those 143,000 completed assessment invoices are still waiting to be paid?
Ms Kruk-If I could assist in this regard-and I do not necessarily have the detailed data that you are seeking-I would put on the record that a payment rate is not acceptable. We have the dual challenges of ensuring that payment is made in a timely manner as we have the challenge of ensuring that payment is done in a manner that reflects a good use of public moneys. There have been problems in relation to some of the invoices that have been received by the department-in fact, a large number of the invoices, which have required the department to go back and ensure that that necessary information is provided. Irrespective of that caveat-because I am just explaining some of the challenges-the payment rate is too low. It is too slow. The minister has indicated that that is unacceptable. That is an area that we are continuing to address.
Again I put on the record that this is a program that has been incredibly popular. I also again state that the challenges have been to meet some of those demand spikes. Last week alone, there were 23,000 bookings made under the program. Some of the spikes in demand have been massive and our systems have not been able to cope with some of those.
Senator «MILNE» -I will just tell you now I will be coming back to you in terms of how many of those bookings last week went to Fieldforce. I am not talking about the bookings made but the actual completed assessments.
Ms Kruk -I understand that, yes.
Senator «MILNE»-I take on board what you are saying. Mea culpa; the minister says it is not acceptable, and you say it is not acceptable. I raised this at the last estimates and said, ‘Can you assure me that people who are owed money have been reimbursed? Are you satisfied that we are up to the 30-day period for most people?' The response was, ‘Yes, yes, yes', that it was all fixed, and the software was fixed. It is not fixed. Whilst I recognise the government is sorry, the fact is that people have not been paid. Could you please get me the information that I am asking for? Of the 143,000 assessments that have been completed, how many invoices remain outstanding and how many of them are beyond the 30 days? Was it not an undertaking that people would be paid in 30 days?
Senator Wong-We will take the first two on notice. In relation to the third, I think that is a characterisation of the evidence that you are asking us to make.
Senator «MILNE» -I am asking: did the department undertake to pay people in 30 days?
Senator Wong -Is that part of the arrangement; is that the question?
Senator «MILNE» -Yes.
Ms Kruk-The 30-day payment regime is part of good government process in terms of attempting to get payments met within that time frame. As I indicated, our success rate in that regard, as I understand it-and I do not have the most recent figures on me-indicate that we are not doing that. Again I put on the record that I am very conscious of some of the frustrations that have been raised directly with you and they are some of the issues that we are looking at the moment and have been looking at for some time.
We were also very honest in our testimony before you last time in relation to some of the IT issues that arose. They have been addressed. Some of the issues that are arising now are totally linked to the demand for this program. As I said simply and I say apologetically, the systems have not been able to cope in that regard with those demand spikes.
Senator «MILNE» -I will get that information about those invoices, because this is leading people to go broke in the community and it is just not good enough.
Senator ABETZ -Hear, hear! That is quite right.
Senator «MILNE» -Just before the dinner break I was asking some questions about the 143,000 completed assessments and the number of invoices outstanding. I acknowledge the department has said they will come back to me. If you cannot come back to me with the numbers now, I would like to know what arrangements are in place to have those invoices that are outside the 30-day period paid as a matter of urgency.
Mr Thompson -We can provide that advice to you on notice.
Senator «MILNE»-No, I am asking you: what are you doing to make sure that the invoices that are beyond 30 days are paid as a matter of urgency and what undertakings can you give us about the timeframe in which they will be paid?
Mr Thompson-We are attaching additional resources to the payment of those invoices which are correct and which are outstanding beyond the 30 days. I cannot give you an undertaking at this time about what time we intend to complete that process and catch up on that backlog. I would make the point again, though, that some of that delay in the payment of invoices is due to the fact that a large proportion of the invoices that we receive are incorrect and we are having to go back to the assessors themselves to correct that information.
Senator «MILNE»-That was what you told me in September-that that was all fixed and that people had identified the issues that were the problems.
Mr Thompson -That issue is continuing.
Senator «MILNE»-I do not want to waste anymore time going into the reasons, I want a solution for people who are now living on credit cards, et cetera. I do not have an indication of whether we are talking weeks, a month or how long it will be before those outstanding invoices are paid.
Mr Thompson-As I said, I cannot give you specific advice on that. What we have done is develop a template for assessors to help them compile their invoices more accurately, and we are attaching more resources to the processing of those invoices.
Ms Kruk-I restate that, but I also do indicate that, in this very chamber, I also have to defend the expenditure of public moneys and provide assurances that we are actually paying for quality assessments. There does need to be time built in in relation to some of those quality assurance processes. You have my assurance that we will make every endeavour to do it in the shortest possible time. I cannot provide a timeline that would be meaningful; you have my assurance that every effort will be put to reducing that timeline.
Senator «MILNE»-I would like to move on to the relationship that the department has with Fieldforce. Fieldforce has confirmed that it has a direct IT link between its call centre and DEWHA's booking database, meaning that it does not have to engage the DEWHA call centre at all. When did this arrangement with Fieldforce begin? Did they approach the government or did the government approach Fieldforce? Who came up with this idea of giving them a direct IT link and are they the only company with a direct IT link to DEWHA's booking database?
Mr Thompson-I would like to answer that as comprehensively as I can. Let me just say at the outset that assessors employed by Fieldforce are bound by the same terms and conditions as every other assessor working under the program, including in relation to the promotion or canvassing of other products or services. There is no special treatment or exception for Fieldforce assessors in this regard. Our understanding is different from the one that you just expressed. Fieldforce, as we understand it, does not have direct access to the department's IT system.
On 14 December the department entered into an arrangement with Fieldforce which enabled them to make bulk bookings, which are processed by the department once a week. They provide their bookings on a spreadsheet via an email to the department. As far as we know, that is the only link they have to the department's IT system. This arrangement came into place under an MOU as a measure to relieve the pressure on the call centre, and I think that is an important point.
Because Fieldforce employs a large number of assessors and there was significant pressure on the call centre at the time, the decision was taken to try and free up the call centre from Fieldforce assessor bookings by entering into this separate arrangement with them. These bookings are subject to a weekly limit, as of late January, in order to ensure there is adequate work for all assessors. As I said, these arrangements were put in place to minimise the impact on the department's booking process that would occur if Fieldforce were to book their jobs every day via the call centre. It was an interim arrangement as the department was planning at that stage to roll out the online booking system from January 2010. But the use of that system is now under review because of some difficulties that we have had with that.
Senator «MILNE» -I asked you who approached whom in relation to establishing a separate and different arrangement for Fieldforce. Did the department approach them or did they approach the department and who signed off on this?
Mr Thompson-I would have to take that on notice, in terms of who approached whom. It was the department's decision to enter into that arrangement, as I said, in order to free up the call centre and the booking system that we were using.
Senator «MILNE» -Who in the department signed off on it? Did the minister know about it?
Mr Thompson -Again, I would have to take that on notice.
Ms Kruk-I understand that you have expressed some concern about this previously. There are two major issues. This is obviously one of the things I think the external inquiry has the remit to look at. Secondly, I think the concern has been expressed that Fieldforce is taking an unfair-and I do not want to in any way quote you wrongly-proportion of the workload. From my most recent understandings, they get approximately 30 per cent. We will take on notice the detailed question you have asked in terms of the decision-making process, but again I state that this is one of the things that the external inquiry has the remit to consider.
Senator «MILNE» -Yes, I appreciate that, that they will, but I would like some answers now in relation to this.
Ms Kruk -I understand that.
Senator «MILNE»-Can you tell me when the call centre closed to taking bookings before Christmas and when it reopened? How many days was it closed and what were the dates?
Mr Thompson-We will get the dates in a second. Can I just clarify, though, that as I understand it the call centre was not closed over Christmas but it was reduced in capacity, and that advice was given to assessors via the regular communication that we have with them.
Senator «MILNE» -What do you mean by ‘reduced in capacity'?
Mr Thompson-The department notified assessors before Christmas that the call centre would be available in a limited capacity between 25 December and 10 January, and the limited capacity-
Ms Kruk -Assessors could cancel bookings or reschedule bookings but they could not make new bookings.
Senator «MILNE»-So, for the purposes of new bookings the call centre was closed and there was no other mechanism for assessors, other than those at Fieldforce, to make bookings during that period?
Mr Thompson -I would have to clarify whether that is the case. I understand what you are asking but I do not know whether that is the case.
Senator «MILNE»-If they can only cancel them or reschedule them and not make new bookings, is there any other mechanism for a self-employed or small business or somebody who is not employed by Fieldforce to make a booking over that period?
Mr Thompson-The assumption that you are making in that comment, though, is that the arrangements with Fieldforce continued to operate during that period, and I would have to clarify that.
Senator «MILNE»-That is what I am coming to. I am wanting to clarify first that, if you were not employed by Fieldforce, there was no capacity for you during that four-week period to make a booking; at least in that four weeks and then a limited period in the following two? Is that correct?
Mr Thompson -The call centre was only on limited operations for the period 25 December to 10 January, so it is not four weeks.
Senator Wong-Christmas Day to 10 January-so some 16 days-which obviously includes a number of public holidays. So, in that period the evidence here is that the call centre was only operating in a limited capacity to reschedule or cancel bookings. Your question is that for that period whether or not Fieldforce was able to make bookings?
Senator «MILNE»-Yes, and to clarify further, my understanding is that the call centre remained closed for new bookings for a further two weeks after 10 January. Is that not correct? What was the arrangement after 10 January? Was it business as usual?
Mr Thompson -That is not the advice I have. The advice I have is that it resumed on 11 January.
Senator «MILNE» -So, it was business as usual from 11 January?
Mr Thompson -Yes.
Senator «MILNE» -So, between those dates, as the minister just said, 25 December to 10 January, did Fieldforce make any bookings?
Mr Thompson -I do not have the information so I am going to have to take that on notice.
Senator Wong-That is what he is taking on notice. Mr Thompson is not able to give you the information about whether Fieldforce, in that period, had a different capacity. We will take that on notice.
Senator «MILNE»-I am very surprised you cannot answer that since you have known this is coming all week. In terms of last week-that is, the week beginning 1 February-can you tell me how many bookings Fieldforce made in that week out of the total number of bookings? I believe that you cited the figure, Ms Kruk, at 23,000 bookings in the last week, did you say?
Ms Kruk -That was the previous week.
Mr Thompson -The week before last. It was the week, I think, finishing 29 January.
Senator «MILNE»-The week finishing 29 January. So, in that week and then last week can I have the actual total number of bookings and the total number that Fieldforce booked in that time?
Senator BIRMINGHAM -What is the weekly limit that was imposed late January?
Mr Thompson-That is what I am going to answer. You might recall that in my original remarks in response to your question I referred to a weekly limit imposed from late January on Fieldforce's bookings. That limit was set at 6,000.
Senator «MILNE» -So 6,000 a week for Fieldforce as of what date in January?
Mr Thompson -As of 21 January.
Senator «MILNE»-Going to the call centre itself, was there a condition imposed that you could only get five bookings per phone call to the call centre?
Mr Thompson -That is my understanding.
Senator «MILNE»-Are you aware of the waiting times on that call centre? I have had a complaint from a particular Melbourne company that said it made 15 attempts to get into an automated queue and once in the automated queue it waited two hours and then could make only five bookings and start the process again? Given that companies or individuals could make five bookings and it took them in excess of two hours to do that, hanging on the phone, how did Fieldforce get a 6,000 allowance? You can see the inequity here and why people are very angry?
Mr Thompson-Your question and comment have a number of parts to them. At the outset I would say that the department is very conscious of the level of anxiety that it is causing for individual assessors and company assessors who are having trouble accessing our call centre and making bookings through that mechanism. Our call centre itself is constantly feeding back to us the anxiety that it is causing assessors, and our own staff are taking a number of those calls as well. We understand that. We appreciate it. It is not a situation that we are happy about.
We have significantly increased the number of resources to the call centre. In terms of the Fieldforce arrangement, as I said before, we entered into that arrangement in order to reduce the pressure on the call centre to free up that resource for other assessors within the sector. I understand that that appears inequitable, but that is why we entered into that arrangement.
Senator «MILNE» -Whatever the motivation, it just does not appear inequitable, it is inequitable, especially if they could make bookings in the period when other people could not. That is to be established. That is clearly the understanding in the community. The sooner we can get an answer on that the better. Apart from Fieldforce, are there any other companies with which the department has a special arrangement to bypass the call centre and be able to go with a different arrangement for bookings?
Mr Thompson -There are no other companies that have an arrangement to use any other booking mechanism.
Senator «MILNE»-Where we are up to now with Fieldforce is that currently it can book 6,000 bookings a week and there is no suggestion that that is going to stop in the future or did I hear you say there was some review of this arrangement?
Mr Thompson-Of course, as part of looking at how we can make the system work better-and the call centre is one aspect of the program that we are wanting to improve-the arrangement with Fieldforce and other arrangements to manage demand both equitably and effectively under the program are under review.
Senator «MILNE» -What does ‘under review' mean?
Mr Thompson-No, it is operational. We are trying to look at it operationally to see how we can make things work better. It is not something which is put off. We are doing that by a consistent-
Senator «MILNE»-Why do we still have a call centre doing this when an online booking facility was promised and meant to be up and running at the launch of this scheme in July last year?
Ms Mackie-The online booking system was put on hold because of the spike in demand. We appreciate it is difficult for assessors to get through to the call centre but had there been the online centre it would potentially have escalated the spike in demand. It is not an ideal situation, but that is the decision that was taken, to put the online booking on hold. But the technical glitches that had been affecting that system earlier I understand have been fixed.
Senator «MILNE» -When was the decision made to put the online booking centre on hold?
Ms Mackie -I do not have the date of that decision.
Mr Thompson-I think the concern there was that, if there were going to be problems with the online booking system or if there were going to be some sort of backlog in the department's processing of those bookings through that online mechanism, in fact that would throw pressure back on to the call centre with assessors calling it again to find out where their bookings were up to, et cetera. The judgment was made to try to use the call centre as the main mechanism at this point in time.
Senator BIRMINGHAM-You have an online booking system that would function operationally for an assessor to actually use from their end. Is the concern that the department would not be able to keep up with processing the bookings that came through that system at the department's end?
Mr Thompson-That is part of it, but the other part, as I understand it, is that the online booking system itself was not ready to go. It was not operating correctly.
Senator «MILNE»-We just heard you say that you had ironed out the problems with it. Is it ready to go now and the only reason it is not switched on is the spike in demand?
Mr Thompson -That is a significant factor, yes.
Senator «MILNE» -How many bookings do we have to date? How many assessments have been booked up until today?
Mr Thompson -In total it is 205,000. That includes the assessments that have already occurred-the 142 that we referred to before.
Senator «MILNE» -We have 205,000 out of 360,000. At the rate at which they are being booked when do you expect to reach 360,000?
Mr Thompson-I would prefer not to speculate about that, because the numbers in bookings, as you would appreciate, are continuing to move around. We have experienced a bit of a spike really from before Christmas and then a significant spike in the last two weeks in particular. What we are not sure of at this stage is whether that spike will continue or whether it will quieten down or in fact whether there is a further increase.
Senator «MILNE»-We know that 6,000 a week are going to Fieldforce and we know how ineffective or effective the call centre is will determine how many other people can get through the booking system to make bookings. But at the rate that things have gone in the last few months it certainly looks to me like this project could well be fully committed by March or April this year, leaving many assessors out of work. Would you not say that that is the case on current projections?
Senator Wong-I think you are aware of this, but the figures that Mr Thompson has given indicate that you have a lot of assessments coming in-I think 23,000 for one week was the evidence. Obviously 6,000 is a significant proportion of that, but that still is quite a significant number of assessments over and above the 6,000, which by the evidence is the limit for Fieldforce.
Senator «MILNE»-I understand that, but I have in front of me an email saying there is a view that Fieldforce booked 14,000 of the total 21,000 bookings made last week. That email is dated 8 February. If that is the case, the 6,000 limit obviously is not applying and that is why I asked the question on notice: how many bookings have they done in the last week and the week before that out of the total number?
Senator Wong -The assertion you want us to check is that Fieldforce-I am sorry, can you repeat that?
Senator «MILNE»-Yes. Is it true that they booked 14,000 of the total 21,000 bookings made last week? That was an email received by me on 8 February, so I am assuming it is the week beginning 1 February to 8 February. I would like that checked, because that goes to the question about whether the 6,000 has kicked in.
Mr Thompson -It is not consistent with our understanding, but we will check that.
CHAIR -I am mindful that we have other senators wanting to ask questions, so perhaps you could wind up your questions.
Senator «MILNE»-I have a lot of detailed questions. I would like to go to the number of assessors, because this again is a major grievance. On 8 May 2009 Minister Garrett issued a press release in which he stated, ‘The Green Loans Program will involve a team of 1,000 assessors providing advice to 360,000 home owners.' I have had several emails saying that people were advised by Mr Berry from the department that the assessors would be limited to 1,000 to 2,000 assessors for the program and that is why people paid up to $3,000 each for training, because they assumed they would have four years work based on those kinds of figures. At what point was the department notified that many more than 2,000 assessors were in training or had been accredited?
Ms Kruk-Mr Thompson might wish to clarify what the minister's statement was vis-a-vis the 1,000 assessors. From my recall-and I do need some assistance here-there were initial concerns about whether there would be adequate assessors trained to actually provide a reasonable level of coverage around Australia. I do not have the wording of Minister Garrett's statement, but it seems to be inconsistent with my recall of what you are saying. Mr Thompson, do you have anything there to correct or clarify that?
Mr Thompson-Minister Garrett's statement of 8 May 2009 was that: Australian home owners will be able to make their homes more energy and water efficient, with 1,000 homes sustainability assessors ready to begin work. That was not a reference to the number of assessors that would be accredited under the program.
Senator IAN MACDONALD-Yes, but were any representations made? I think every senator has been inundated with this information. Why is it out there in the community that there was this expectation that there would be a limited number of assessors?
Mr Thompson-I think in the last estimates hearings there was evidence that a minimum of 2,000-at that stage that was our projection of the number of assessors that would be required to deliver the program-assessors would be needed to deliver the assessments across the program. Of course, we have been working with ABSA, the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors, who have the role of accrediting assessors to deliver this program. Then there is a second stage where the department contracts assessors under the program to deliver it. There is a two-step thing there.
On 26 August last year ABSA raised concerns about issues with some of the aspects of the program, the sustainability calculator, IT systems and the large volume of calls they were receiving about the program. At that stage, which I think is in the public domain now, they suggested a moratorium on new assessors until the systems were improved. The department met shortly after that, on 2 September, with ABSA to discuss a number of the issues, including the moratorium, and to seek to work through some of the issues that they had raised with other areas of the Green Loans system.
Senator IAN MACDONALD -If I may bring you back to the specific question. Is there any explanation that the department might be able to offer why there was this community expectation all around Australia that there would be a limited number of assessors? Was that just misinformation or was it from Mr Garrett's media release or was it also from representations made other than the media release?
Ms Mackie-The figure of 2,000 was thought to be what would be required, as Mr Thompson had said, with an interest in servicing all of Australia, including rural Australia. In the initial rollout of this program there was concern that the numbers were very low. The number of people wanting to participate as assessors was very low. The numbers of households wanting to do the assessments was very low. So, like some environmental programs, it was difficult to get it going. Now we are in a different situation where we have excess demand. The figure of 2,000 was what might have been needed for the program to work. I think the fundamental point on this issue is that the department did not take the position and does not take the position of limiting the number of assessors who could participate in the program.
Senator IAN MACDONALD -Just remind me again: how many assessors do we have?
Ms Mackie -There are 3,648, from memory.
Mr Thompson -Contracted to the department to provide that.
Senator ABETZ -You were of the view that you would need 2,000.
Mr Thompson -At that stage we were.
Senator ABETZ -Did that figure ever find its way into the public domain?
Mr Thompson -The 2,000?
Senator ABETZ -Yes.
Mr Thompson -As I said, that number was mentioned in the Hansard evidence given last time by an officer of this department. Again, I could take this on notice, but I am not aware of any other formal communication to the assessor sector about what target the department might have been aiming for.
Senator «MILNE»-I can return to that. I have several people who have said that they were informed by Mr Berry in the department that the assessors would be limited to 1,000 to 2,000 and it was on that basis that they worked out their business plan and spent the money for the training.
I would like to come back to the number of trained and accredited assessors and the number of people who have completed the training. I have been told that there are 5,000 trained and accredited assessors and another 5,000 people who have done the training. Can you repeat those figures on how many you think you have got trained and accredited currently and how many are trained?
Senator Wong -The evidence that Mr Thompson gave was contracted to the department.
Senator «MILNE» -I am asking how many are trained and accredited and how many have paid for the training and are not yet accredited?
Mr Thompson -The advice that I can be clear about is how many we have currently contracted to the department. That is in the order of 3,600 assessors. We understand from ABSA that there are another 1,400 who have already been trained and accredited, and that there are in the order of another 5,000 who are in the process of seeking accreditation. On that last number, as I understand it the great bulk of those people seeking accreditation came into play after ABSA announced its moratorium on accreditation.
Senator «MILNE»-I want to come back to this. I asked you when the department was informed that there were problems with the number of assessors who were being trained. Did you say it was 25 August?
Mr Thompson-No. That was not the intent of that evidence. I said on 26 August ABSA raised concerns about the program and off the back of that were concerned about whether there should be more assessors coming on to the program at that stage. From their point of view, as I understand it in looking at their advice to us, it was about whether they should pause accreditation pending the resolution of these issues and the programs; it was not about total numbers or total demand.
Senator «MILNE»-Nevertheless, you were informed in August that there were a lot of people who were now being trained and accredited, which was an issue for the organisation. What action did the department take? At any stage did you move in to give any instructions about this or to put a cap on it, or did you just leave it to ABSA to deal with?
Mr Thompson-I would like to answer that in two parts. The initial advice from ABSA was on 26 August. Again I would say that advice, if you look at it in context, was really about their concern, not that there were too many assessors, but concerns that the program itself was facing some issues and they wanted those resolved before accrediting any more. I think that is a different issue.
Senator «MILNE» -They never raised this as an issue?
Mr Thompson-I will get to that. I am working through a bit of a chronology here. Following that, as I said, not myself but departmental officials met with ABSA on 2 September. As I understand it, the department requested at that time that ABSA undertake a survey of registered training organisations to determine how many more assessors were likely to join the program. As I understand it, ABSA then came back with some advice to the department in mid-October detailing the results of that survey, which at that stage indicated that over 1,000 people were proposing to undertake training. That is an additional 1,000. It was later on in November that ABSA raised concerns about the total number of people seeking accreditation.
Senator «MILNE» -When was that exactly?
Mr Thompson-In November. I do not have that precise date here. It was at that point that ABSA was proposing that they would put a moratorium in place. It was later on, on 6 November, that ABSA decided of their own volition to announce the moratorium.
Senator «MILNE»-What was the department's response? Why did you not act on this? It was a government program that was clearly going very badly, to the point where you had to go and make special arrangements with Fieldforce. Why did you not act at this point? People were incurring $3,000 debts for training ongoing and now we have 5,000 of them having paid that money with no accreditation and if they get accredited there is now no work for them.
Mr Thompson-In terms of the chronology, the program, as you put it, was not going seriously right at that point. We were still in an area where we were trying to meet the demand for assessments. There had not been a spike in demand at that point. If you take the dates that I have just used, the spike in demand occurred later in December and then into January. The advice from ABSA and their concerns about total numbers of assessors was received at that point in early November. The department took the decision with an approach on principle, I suppose, of not wanting to limit operators within a market. From the outset of the program the decision to undertake training and seek accreditation has been a commercial decision made by individuals. What we have done in that context is inform people at every step of the way about how many bookings were being made and where the program was up to in terms of the total number of assessments, that is the commitment to reach 360,000 assessments. The e-newsletter to assessors and the Green Loans website states the number of home assessments booked and completed so that assessors and people who might be thinking about entering this sector can make an informed decision about the amount of business available. The department also made a very strong point of keeping ABSA informed on the take-up of assessments and on assessor numbers.
To come back to your original point, once ABSA put the moratorium in place I do not think they or anyone else predicted the impact that would have. What it led to was a significant increase in the number of people wanting to be trained as assessors, and that is the situation that we face now.
Senator «MILNE» -On the training of the assessors, have they undergone a nationally accredited training course?
Mr Thompson -There was no nationally accredited course available at the time the Green Loans Program was set up. The department has work in train at the moment in order to develop national accredited training modules.
Senator «MILNE»-Mr Berry has put in writing that DEEWR would cover the cost of assessors being upgraded to a certificate IV qualification and people are expecting that that will happen. Now, I understand, the department is saying that it does not have any knowledge of that. First of all I would like to know how is it that you embarked on allowing training that is not nationally accredited? You have a framework that you operate within. There was a Victorian training course, at least, that was an accredited course that could have been used as a stepping stone. I would really like to know why you embarked on a training program without national accreditation and, secondly, whether DEEWR is going to cover the cost of being upgraded to a certificate IV qualification?
Senator Wong-In relation to the first question, I will ask Mr Thompson to respond. In relation to the second question, I am reluctant to deal with particular individuals in the department in an estimates process. You asserted in your question that you had written information about that. If you would provide that to the secretary, but I would ask that we be able to deal with that on notice, given that it deals with a named individual inside the department.
Senator «MILNE»-To the more general issue, is there a policy at the moment that the department will pay for the upgrading or not? Is that policy or not?
Mr Thompson -There is no policy which has been approved by the government to that effect.
Senator «MILNE» -I will have a question on notice about whether the money is paid directly into their account or to a third party, as I think was originally envisaged, but I will come back to that. The issue that I want to come back to is the training. You said before there is no nationally accredited training course, so can you give the consumers of Australia a guarantee that every assessor is trained to the same standard or better? Is there a minimum training standard that you can guarantee?
Mr Thompson -Do you mean currently?
Senator «MILNE»-Currently. When an assessor turns up at somebody's house can I know that that person has had a minimum level of training, which is a standardised minimum level, or have we got a hundred people in a room watching An Inconvenient Truth and other people doing four days of training? What is the evenness of the training quality you can guarantee me?
Mr Thompson -I can only talk about what the department requires on two fronts, both in relation to the protocol that we have with ABSA and their accreditation processes-as we indicated before, PwC is assisting the department in auditing ABSA's accreditation processes-and that we require individual assessors who are contracted by the department to the program to certify that they have received training in the relevant module that was developed for the Green Loans program.
Senator «MILNE»-But for all those assessors that are employed by middle companies like Fieldforce and a whole range of others who are subcontracting, what guarantee is there that they have had any training?
Mr Thompson-I can only repeat my answer: I am not aware of the practice that you are talking about in terms of a situation where people are subcontracted beyond a training competency.
Senator «MILNE»-What is the training competency you have in your protocol with ABSA? What are you asking to guarantee that those people are trained; what is the minimum of that?
Mr Thompson-Just to deal with the comment you made in relation to Fieldforce, I would go back to the comment I made in relation to earlier questions about Fieldforce, that each of the assessors contracted by the department is contracted under the same terms and conditions, so we do not treat Fieldforce any differently in that sense. Their assessors are contracted in the same way.
Senator «MILNE» -So, their assessors are contracted to you or contracted to them?
Mr Thompson-We have a group contract as I understand it with Fieldforce, but each of their assessors is required to meet the same terms and conditions as every other assessor contracted.
Senator «MILNE»-So, what is the minimum level of training that I could have some guarantee that there is an evenness of quality of training across the country when someone turns up at my door to do an assessment?
Mr Thompson-Again, I can only talk about the module or the training standards or the training program that the department had put in place with ABSA's assistance. If you are asking me to give guarantees that training organisations did the right thing and did everything as they were meant to, I cannot give that guarantee.
Senator «MILNE» -How many of the training organisations offering the training to assessors are registered training organisations?
Ms Kruk-I did indicate earlier that this is one of the things that the PwC audit is actually looking at in terms of the quality of those training modules, because these are issues that have been aired, I think in the public arena as well, and that is one of the specific focuses of that audit. Sorry, I did not want to cut across your line of questioning, but I just had to clarify that.
Mr Thompson-From September all the training which is required had to be provided by registered training organisations and that is a requirement which is, as I understand it, checked by ABSA as part of the accreditation processes.
Senator «MILNE» -So, you are saying as of last September only registered training organisations were providing training courses?
Mr Thompson-No, I said that part of the requirement that ABSA places on those seeking accreditation as assessors is that training received by people as of September of last year is provided by registered training organisations.
Senator «MILNE» -What about between July and September last year?
Mr Thompson -Between July and September last year that requirement did not exist.
Senator «MILNE»-So, some of those trainers could have been trained by someone who had no idea, no experience in the building industry, no nothing; just turned up to do the train the trainer course?
Ms Mackie-My understanding is that ABSA developed a training course and that was provided to organisations in the train the trainer sense to provide the training, but it was not accredited.
Senator «MILNE»-I just have to say that I am appalled because I have tonnes of emails here from people who have genuine skills in this area regarding people who have gone straight out of any job into train the trainer and become a trainer for assessors-it is not an accredited program-and there is such a diversity of quality in what is being offered to the consumers that it is putting people off taking up some of these initiatives. Often the consumer knows a lot more than the assessor who turns up at their door. I want to know why was the department not overseeing this. You must have had the complaints; if we are getting them, you must have had them. Why did you not act on this training issue of uniformity of training and quality assurance? Where was the audit? Is there an audit process in the department on this program?
Mr Thompson-We have referred to the range of audits and inquiries that are happening at the moment, which have already been in train. I cannot add anything else to that.
Senator BIRMINGHAM -Are there any restrictions on assessors or requirements around assessors and cold canvassing?
Ms Mackie-My understanding is that assessors have to abide by the privacy laws and the Do Not Call Register but, apart from that, my understanding is that there is no restriction on canvassing.
Senator BIRMINGHAM-So, beyond that there is nothing to prohibit assessors from going door-to-door or whatever other means they wish to use to promote themselves?
Ms Mackie -Yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM-Will the audits that are being undertaken look at whether there are any linkages or, in particular, financial arrangements put in place between any assessors or groups of assessors and home insulation installers?
Mr Thompson-That has not been contemplated at this stage. If you have information about that, we would be interested in hearing it. The addition I was going to make to Ms Mackie's comment was that we also have a complaints mechanism in place for people who indicate that there is a problem with assessors doing cold calls and those sorts of things or other complaints, and we have a compliance arrangement in place to follow up on those.
Senator «MILNE»-Can I just follow up on that because I am confused now? Did I just hear you say that the only restriction is the cold call register? Apart from that you can cold call; is that what you are saying?
Mr Thompson -The Do Not Call Register.
Senator «MILNE» -But apart from the Do Not Call Register, cold calling and canvassing is okay?
Mr Thompson -That is our understanding.
Senator «MILNE»-In the newsletter from DEWHA to assessors in September 2009 it was reiterated that home assessors are forbidden from cold calling and canvassing for households to sign up for an assessment, so how do you explain that?
Ms Mackie -I stand corrected on that.
Senator «MILNE»-I would like that clarified because Fieldforce has advertised call centres for cold calling and other assessors are being told they cannot do it. On this exact same issue of what is allowed and what is not allowed, the assessors are told that they cannot promote anybody else's products, et cetera, and yet Fieldforce gives bonuses for promoting their product. Now is that prohibited or not for an assessor?
Mr Thompson -Clearly we stand corrected on that previous advice, so we are going to have to get some clarification on that.
Senator «MILNE»-So, you do not know whether it is legal or not for an assessor to promote a product while they are doing the assessment? The home assessors believe they are not allowed to do that and yet Fieldforce is doing it; and I am not saying they are the only ones doing it, there are probably others doing it as well.
Senator Wong-Excuse me for a second. I understand the issues you are raising and I think the department does. We will certainly endeavour to find out more detail on those. The question I asked Mr Thompson was, ‘What would be the mechanism by which the department could regulate that?' Obviously, it may be through the contractual arrangements between the department and the assessors. But we do not have advice here as to the detail of that on that issue.
Senator «MILNE»-Perhaps you can take on notice three issues. The first is cold calling and canvassing. The second is promoting a brand, product or company. The third is branding. My understanding is that the assessors are bound by rules in terms of identifying the program as Green Loans and having to use government artwork and branding and that several people are advertising the program in their own branding. I want to know whether those three things are contractual obligations, whether they apply to everybody and, if so, who is auditing, following up and enforcing compliance.
Senator Wong-In relation to the third question, that may be an issue that is picked up in the audit that has been announced. In relation to the first two, unless Mr Thompson is able to assist further, we will take that on notice in terms of the detail that you have asked.
Mr Thompson-I do have a bit more information here, but what we will do is get back to you with a comprehensive answer. Part of it goes to, as you pointed out rightly, the advice that we have given to assessors under the program through our regular newsletter. Part of it also goes to what we require of assessors under the contract that we have with them. I can come back with that.
Senator «MILNE» -I would appreciate some clarity.
Senator BIRMINGHAM-And that clarity needs to be made very publicly available as soon as possible, both for assessors and for MPs. I suspect most MPs' offices around the country will have fielded phone calls over the last six months from householders irate, confused or upset at not just Green Loans assessors or home sustainability assessors, but people trying to sell home insulation and the range of programs that are out there that all up may be providing a net environmental good; there are a lot of people very concerned about the door-to-door aspect of sales that has emerged from a number of these programs.