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Activity 3 Responding to Complaints

ABOUT COMPLAINTS

For practical purposes communications received by the office expressing a grievance are categorised either as "contacts" or "complaints". Contacts are communications raising grievances that fall outside the jurisdiction of the office, or which otherwise cannot be progressed for various reasons including that it is apparent on the face of the communication that the grievance is not credible or not intelligible.

A matter is categorised as a "complaint" if it raises an initially credible allegation of illegal or improper conduct or an abuse of human rights in relation to an action of an intelligence agency within the jurisdiction of the office. Complaints can be made orally or in writing. They may also be made anonymously.

Each communication is assessed to determine the most appropriate course of action and whether it falls within the Public Interest Disclosure (PID) scheme. Complaints are usually handled administratively in the first instance. In many cases, complaints and other matters can be resolved quickly and efficiently by our staff speaking to the relevant agency or reviewing their records. Among other things, this approach can determine whether a particular matter is within jurisdiction and reduce the procedural burden of an inquiry. Administrative resolution usually gives the complainant a timely response and information sought from agencies in this way can help the Inspector-General determine whether to conduct an inquiry for more serious or complex matters.

All persons contacting the office are given advice about actions taken in response to their concerns and the outcomes, to the extent possible within the security obligations of this office.

PERFORMANCE SUMMARY

Providing effective and timely response to complaints or referrals received from members of the public, Ministers or members of Parliament.

Performance criteria: Timeliness of complaint resolution.

Targets: 90% of complaints acknowledged within five business days and 85% of visa-related complaints resolved within two weeks.

Source: Portfolio Budget Statements, p.257; IGIS Corporate Plan 2017-21, p. 5.

QUANTITATIVE PERFORMANCE MEASURES

Figure 2.5: Timeliness of response to complaints.

Complaint type
Total number of complaints
Complaints acknowledged within five business days (TARGET: 90%)
Visa/citizenship-related complaints resolved within two weeks
(TARGET: 85%)
Visa/citizenship-related
279
100%
82%
PID
7
100%
N/A
Other
34
92%
N/A
TOTAL
320
99%
82%

Figure 2.6: Complaint trends 2015-16 to 2017-18

diagram of omplaint trends 2015-16 to 2017-18

COMPLAINTS ABOUT VISA AND CITIZENSHIP APPLICATIONS

The Department of Home Affairs processes visa and citizenship applications. There are occasions when applications will be referred to other government agencies to conduct necessary background checks. When asked to do so by the Department of Home Affairs, ASIO may make a security assessment or provide advice in support of the visa process. The office has the role of reviewing these actions to ensure they are legal and meet the required propriety standard.

In the reporting period, the office received 279 visa or citizenship-related complaints, an increase of 10% on the last reporting period. The average number of visa or citizenship-related complaints received per month was 23 in this reporting period, compared to an average of 21 complaints per month in 2016-17 and 10 complaints per month in 2015-16.

In previous years, the largest number of complaints made to the office has come from individuals seeking skilled business or work visas (21%). However, this was not the case for this reporting period. This year the largest number of complaints received related to citizenship applications (37% in 2017-18 compared to 5% in 2016-17). The reason behind the sharp increase in citizenship complaints will be explored in 2018-19.

In this reporting period, there has been a reduction in the complaints relating to family reunion visas (from 8% in 2016-17 to 5% in 2017-18) and protection and refugee visas (from 9% to 6%). The most frequent complaint about visa or citizenship applications was the length of time taken to finalise an application beyond that listed on the Department of Home Affairs website. Ordinarily the office will only take action on a complaint about a permanent visa, including citizenship, where 12 months have passed since the visa application was lodged with the Department of Home Affairs. In the case of temporary visa applications, the office will review a complaint where three months have passed since the temporary visa application was lodged.

During the reporting period, 100% of visa and citizenship-related complaints received by the office were acknowledged within five working days, well above the office's performance indicator of 90%. Of the visa and citizenship complaints received in 2017-18, 82% were resolved within 14 days of receipt, slightly lower than the office's target of 85%. During the reporting period there was an increased number of complex cases that took longer than 14 days to resolve. The office considers a complaint about a delay in visa or citizenship security assessments to be resolved once IGIS staff have completed our administrative inquiries and responded to the complainant.

Undue delay in finalising visa applicationS

The Department of Home Affairs may request ASIO to make a security assessment or provide advice in support of the visa process. It is not possible to predict how long it will take to complete a security assessment for a complex case however, in a number of cases, this office found that ad hoc processes for following up requests for information contributed to delays in finalising assessments. This office has drawn these instances to ASIO's attention and emphasised that standard procedures or, at a minimum, guidance on following up information requests would reduce the risk of such delays.

OTHER COMPLAINTS

The office received 34 non-visa or citizenship-related complaints in this reporting period (excluding PID matters), a decrease of 6% on the previous reporting period. Unsurprisingly, since it has direct dealings with members of the public, the majority of the complaints (24) were about ASIO. Three complaints were about ASD; there were two each about ASIS, ONA and AGO and one for DIO.

The average time taken to acknowledge non-visa or citizenship-related complaints was two business days. IGIS staff responded to 92% of such complaints within five business days, which exceeded our performance target of 90%.

Of the 34 complaints received, 27 were finalised at the end of the reporting period, with an average of 30 days from the initial complaint to the date of the final response. In addition, two complaints were carried over from the previous reporting period.

The complaints covered a wide range of matters, including allegations about:

  • the way in which ASIO conducted interviews with members of the public
  • the return of goods seized under warrant
  • the release of information
  • security assessments for employment
  • surveillance

On finalisation all complainants were given advice about the action the office had taken in response to their complaints, our consideration of agency briefings or access to records, and how any concerns were resolved. Where appropriate, complainants were also invited to contact the office again if their concerns persisted.

Five complainants received direct remedies:

  • three complainants were granted their employment-related security clearances following periods of delay. It should be noted, however, that some delays were due to processing errors in agencies outside the AIC
  • in two cases, ASIO returned seized items to the complainant following their complaint to this office

For security reasons it is usually not possible to give complainants a complete picture of how their matters have been handled by the agency concerned and by this office. Understandably this may leave complainants dissatisfied with the complaint process even where everything possible has been done. It should be noted, however, that few complainants contact the office to report either satisfaction or disappointment with the outcome of their complaints. Where IGIS staff are aware that an issue remains unresolved when a complaint is closed, IGIS staff may monitor agencies' actions through the office's inspection program. In all cases, the office provides advice about our role, and the role and functions of relevant Australian intelligence agencies. Where the concerns raised are outside the office's jurisdiction, IGIS staff provide details of suitable alternative avenues to pursue, if this is appropriate.

Return of seized property

This complaint was about the time taken by ASIO to return property seized under an authorised warrant operation. The office noted ASIO had offered to return items separately once they had been examined and had also offered to provide the complainant with the temporary use of similar items until the property was returned. As the complainant had declined these offers, the Inspector-General considered ASIO's offer to return all items as soon as examination was completed was not unreasonable.

Employment-related security clearances

Six complaints were made about the time taken by ASIO to finalise an assessment for an employment-related security clearance. The office considered ASIO's management of personnel security assessments for clearances and the steps in place to ensure all applications were receiving appropriate consideration. No issues of legality or propriety were identified. The Inspector-General recognises that lengthy waits can be frustrating and may affect employment opportunities, however ASIO prioritises cases based on advice from the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency (AGSVA), and the office is pleased with the initiatives ASIO has implemented to improve efficiency and finalise cases.

In another case, an unsuccessful applicant for employment with ASD alleged that their failure to pass the psychological assessment part of the security vetting process was the result of unauthorised interference with the result. The applicant also complained that the security vetting process was unethical as the extensive testing and the duration of the process did not result in employment. The office found that the complainant had participated in a voluntary process, the psychological assessment was conducted in accordance with routine procedures with appropriate accountability measures in place and there was no interference in the process.

OTHER CONTACTS

The office also received contacts from approximately 155 individuals seeking advice or expressing concern about matters affecting them that were assessed to be outside the jurisdiction of the office, or did not require action. This represents a decrease of 26% from the 210 individuals who made contact with the office in 2016-17 and reflects a steady decline since 2015-16's high of 325. While this decrease is encouraging, many of the individuals contacting the office do so on multiple occasions raising the same, or similar, issues. IGIS staff apply a consistent, fair approach to managing such matters.

When the office is contacted about matters we cannot pursue, IGIS staff provide written or oral advice about the office's jurisdiction and alternative action that can be taken to resolve concerns, including other complaint-handling bodies, such as the police and the National Security Hotline. In cases where there has been previous contact about matters that have already been assessed, the office takes no further action unless substantially new and credible information is provided.

REFERRALS FROM THE AUSTRALIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is required by section 11(3) of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 to refer to the Inspector-General human rights and discrimination matters relating to an act or practice of the intelligence and security agencies.

In this reporting period no cases were referred to the Inspector-General.

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