ATO staff checks “excessive”

THE AUSTRALIAN Tax Office’s recent plans to extend more rigorous security checks to general staff have been labeled “excessive”, with staff members railing against the move

THE AUSTRALIAN Tax Office’s recent plans to extend more rigorous security checks to general staff have been labeled “excessive”, with staff members railing against the move.

Under the plans, ATO workers would be grilled about their foreign friendships, political leanings and financial leanings. They would also be required to provide the name and aim of every club they belong to, and the names of every single person they have shared accommodation with for the past five years.

“Our members are pretty outraged at the level of invasiveness these security clearances involve, and it goes well beyond their duties,” said Shane O’Connell, secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) Tax and Revenue division.

It’s very extensive and time-consuming process for a start. From what we know there seems to be a pretty big mismatch between what the ATO is seeking and the type of work that people are doing.”

While he acknowledged that there may be a case for a more rigorous security clearances when staff were dealing with taxpayers who had a higher profile or chequered history, he said the proposed changes appeared to be unnecessarily invasive.

Staff would also be required to supply five referees, who are asked about the worker’s gambling habits, debt liabilities or substance abuse problems.

The ATO has required staff working in areas such as fraud and audit to undergo more detailed security checks since 2001, after the federal government tightened public service security measures on the heels of the 11 September US terrorist attacks.

A spokesperson for the ATO said that questions may vary dependent upon personal circumstances, but are designed to determine whether employees are “honest, mature, trustworthy and loyal, that is, suitable to access sensitive information”.

They acknowledged that some staff were concerned about the broader checks, and said that they can choose not to undergo security clearance processes. In such cases duties requiring the security clearance would be reallocated or the employee would be moved to a another role which required less responsibility in terms of security.

“The Privacy Commissioner was consulted in the development of Commonwealth Protective Security policy and procedures and has no concerns with current arrangements,” the spokesperson said.

“Information gathered on vettees is stored under strict security conditions to prevent access by other than staff engaged in the security clearance process.”

They said that the information would be filed separately to other personnel files, and the personal security file of an individual would only be transferred to another agency with the written consent of the employee.

However the CPSU remained unconvinced, saying they would pursue the issue with the ATO to check how it impacted upon industrial agreements and privacy.

“Current employees have already been through the necessary basic security check, and there’s no evidence to suggest that anything else it warranted other than in select high profile areas,” O’Connell said.

“These checks seem to go well and beyond what is required, and this is entering fridge magnet territory.”

The ATO also said the extended security checks were to ensure consistency in the process and would minimise the need for additional security clearance processes when people transfer between Commonwealth agencies.

Commonwealth security vetting procedures apply to all Commonwealth agencies, and the Commonwealth Protective Security Manual was reviewed in 2000 to include mandatory obligations for security clearances

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