Immigration delays attacked
Yuko Narushima, smh
June 25, 2008
THE Commonwealth Ombudsman has released a damning report on the Department of Immigration and Citizenship's handling of freedom-of-information requests over the past three years.
The report, triggered by a surge in complaints in 2005, found the department breached the 30-day statutory deadline in responding to requests in four of 10 cases last year, and stymied requests for personal information by unnecessarily using the FoI Act.
This contributed to a "significant" backlog of cases, the oldest open for two years, the Department Of Immigration And Citizenship: Timeliness Of Decision Making Under The Freedom Of Information Act 1982 report said.
"FoI delays can disadvantage members of the public who need official documents in order to access other legal rights," said John McMillan, the Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman behind the report. "Delay also undermines the open government objective of the FoI Act."
The department received 14,917 FoI applications in 2006-07, the most of any government agency. It used FoI legislation to respond to clients who could have had access to personal information without having to resort to the often time-consuming FoI.
Professor McMillan said the effect of delays was real. He gave the example of a 15-year-old child who needed copies of his/her immigration status to transfer to a new school. The claim was lodged with five months to spare but it took a complaint to the ombudsman to have it processed in time to enrol for the new school year.
Additionally, inadequate explanations of visa rejections were leading people to use FoI to gain information they could be offered voluntarily in a letter from the department at the time of rejection, the report says.
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship agreed to and had began acting on each of the report's 10 recommendations, including more staff, the establishment of an "FoI taskforce" and improved communications over the progress of cases.
Yesterday, the department's secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, said the taskforce had made headway in clearing the backlog. It had 847 cases on hand, compared with 3030 last November.