Services Australia exposed in robodebt deal controversy; UK education department scolded for data protection law breach: policy & delivery news in brief

By on 10/11/2022 | Updated on 10/11/2022
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Services Australia gave US$3.6m in additional work to prosecuted robodebt collector

It has been revealed that Services Australia awarded two big contract renewals to a debt-collection firm that had previously been prosecuted and made to pay penalties for misconduct in other markets.

ARL Collect, a wholly owned subsidiary of privately held debt-recovery firm Panthera Finance Group, was prosecuted for and later admitted to harassing consumers and undermining their credit files.

The firm was subsequently given deals – related to the since scrapped ‘robodebt’ programme – totalling AUS$3.96m (US$2.6m) from Services Australia in August 2021. Official contract notifications showed that this amounted to more than double the company’s previous contract of AUS$1.65m (US$1.08m) for the 12 months to 30 June 2021.

Read more: Australian PM calls inquiry into ‘robodebt’ scandal

The contracts for debt-recovery services were in addition to the AUS$3.3mn (US$2.1m) awarded to ARL Collect in July 2019, four months before the government acknowledged illegal practices had taken place in relation to the debt-recovery programme dubbed ‘robodebt’.

The system was used by Centrelink – the Services Australia agency responsible for making social security payments – to identify people who had been overpaid benefits. It calculated people’s income over short periods and assumed that their earnings remained steady throughout the year, leading government to unlawfully demand that more than 400,000 claimants pay back non-existent debts or more than was owed.

UK Department for Education slammed for giving children’s data to betting companies

The UK’s Department for Education (DfE) has been scolded by the data protection regulator for allowing access to identifying information of around 28 million children, in a breach of data protection law.

Between 2018 and 2020, an employment screening company called Trustopia was granted access by the department to a government database known as the Learning Records Service. This enabled Trustopia to view information on children aged 14 and over to conduct age verification checks for gambling companies.

In a report by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the access given amounted to a breach of data protection law.

“No one needs persuading that a database of pupils’ learning records being used to help gambling companies is unacceptable”, said John Edwards, UK information commissioner.

Read more: UK education department faces sanction over data protection breaches

Such a breach of law would normally have resulted in a £10m (US$11.6m) fine, but the ICO did not want to put additional pressure on public sector bodies’ financial resources.

In a 2020 ICO audit, the DfE was found to have failed to comply with data protection rules. The report said the department had “no formal proactive oversight” of information governance, data protection and risk management. Some 139 recommendations were subsequently made to the department.

UK and Japan join forces on digital government

The UK has inked a deal with Japan to cooperate on and strengthen mutual digital government transformation.

The memorandum of cooperation (MoC) aims to link the Government Digital Service (GDS) and Japan’s Digital Agency, facilitating a dialogue covering knowledge and strategy across all aspects of digital government initiatives within the public sector.

Part of the agreement involves having the two countries’ digital teams exchange best practices, train civil servants and build technical capabilities across government. The UK and Japan will also work together on developing ways to make government procurement and spending more efficient.

“By sharing expertise in areas like digital government transformation, we look to support each other in delivering better services and unlocking greater opportunities for our citizens and businesses,” said Jeremy Quin, UK minister for the Cabinet Office and paymaster general.

Quin attended the signing ceremony remotely. He described the UK and Japan as “two of the largest, most advanced economies in the world, with thriving tech sectors and clear ambitions to become world leaders in digital”.

In person at the signing in Tokyo was the UK government delegation from GDS, including CEO Tom Read.

Kono Taro, Japan’s digital transformation minister, said: “We are happy to welcome the GDS delegation as we have learned from the UK’s experience in delivering our own digital government initiatives, like the establishment of the Digital Agency.”

Read more: UK government outlines skills challenges in digital transformation plan

Japan’s defence ministry to take greater role in tech research

Japan is planning to increase its defence ministry’s involvement in advanced technology research to strengthen the country’s defence capabilities.

The policy could be included in the country’s three key defence and national security documents, which are due to updated later this year.

The industry ministry currently takes charge of public-private partnerships in advanced technology research, but according to Yasukazu Hamada, Japan’s defence minister, the government “want[s] to create a system that is truly useful for the defence (of Japan)”.

Read more: Japan launches new vaccine research hub to quicken future pandemic response

At a meeting of government experts last month, Hamada said this could be achieved by “deepening cooperation with other government agencies and ministries, including through a system to allow defence ministry researchers to join each research project”.

Japanese government officials have meanwhile put forward proposals to merge research teams from the private sector and the country’s acquisition, technology and logistics agency.

These teams would be established outside of universities so as to protect defence secrets and information management. Their aim would be to bolster cooperation between industry, government and academia on areas of defence technology, research and development.

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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