Monday, 21 July 2008

Department criticised over F-111 worker payments

An inquiry has heard claims of poor record-keeping, inconsistent decision-making, and an absence of an official policy by the Department of Veterans Affairs in determining payments for those affected by the RAAF's F-111 deseal/reseal program.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has told the Inquiry into RAAF F-111 deseal/reseal workers and their families there was no official policy in determining which claimants would be successful, with the Department instead relying on a tiered system of criteria definitions, which the ombudsman also described as ambiguous.

Acting ombudsman Vivienne Thom also told the inquiry that more complex cases were delayed because those which could be handled quickly were dealt with first and similar evidence was sometimes treated inconsistently.

The ombudsman's office has received 102 complaints from claimants about the Department's handling of their applications, 95 of which have been resolved.

Ms Thom said the Department has responded to its comments and is seeking to make improvements.

"Unfortunately in terms of record keeping you can't recreate records that haven't been kept properly in the first place," she said.

The deseal/reseal program, which ran at the Amberley air base, in south-east Queensland, from the late 1970s until 2000, involved the use of toxic chemicals to strip and replace a sealant inside the fuel tanks of F-111 planes.

Workers have since reported a range of serious health problems such as cancer and some have since died or committed suicide.

In 2006 the Government allocated funds towards an ex-gratia payment, which was criticised for its eligibility criteria.

However, the Department has defended its handling of the claims for ex-gratia payments and compensation.

The Department's Ed Killesteyn told the inquiry the inflexibility within the tiered eligibility criteria and a lack of evidence due to minimal Air Force record keeping of what each worker had done made the process difficult.

He says there was also a widely held perception that every worker would receive an ex-gratia payment but he is satisfied that all of those eligible did receive one.

"We went to extraordinary lengths to uncover [further information] with an emphasis on inclusion rather than exclusion," he said.

Fair outcome 'not easy'

Earlier today, the inquiry heard that 460 workers are directly affected by the four reseal/deseal programs that were run, but up to 2,000 people, such as other workers and relatives, may be also affected indirectly.

Deputy Chief of the Defence [Military] Force, Air Vice Marshal Geoff Brown, admitted that the scope of people affected and a lack of Defence records poses significant problems in ensuring everyone affected is treated fairly.

"In other words achieving a fair outcome for everyone will not be easy," he said.

Air Vice Marshal Brown also admitted the measures taken to date are not a substitution for compensation or long-term health care.

"We also believe that there are people who genuinely need care as a result of involvement in F-111 fuel tank maintenance and who have not been able to get access to appropriate compensation and health care," he said.

"We believe that there is more that can be done under the existing legal framework to make it easier for people with genuine claims."

The inquiry also heard evidence that confusion existed over what was the purpose of the ex-gratia payment, which the Defence Force says was in recognition of the conditions workers were subjected to, rather than health problems they may have.

The committee was also asked to consider ways of resolving claims and court actions in a more timely manner.

The Defence [Military] Department's Michael Lysewycz confirmed there are 31 actions before the Queensland Supreme Court.

"This one really cries out for resolution around a table, not in the court," he said.

"We would think that if we could not resolve these matters by negotiation we'd have failed."

The inquiry is due to hand down its report on October 23.


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