Linda Reynolds apologises after NDIS sends woman’s private details to abusive ex-­partner

The national disability insurance scheme minister, Linda Reynolds, has apologised after the agency that runs the scheme accidentally gave a woman’s private details to her abusive ex-­partner.

The privacy breach occurred when her son’s NDIS plan – including the family’s location, school and names of some professionals working with the son – was sent to his father, who was released from jail last year, the Herald Sun reported.

Reynolds told a Senate estimates hearing on Friday she had requested a report on the case from the agency.

“The first thing I’d say is to unreservedly apologise … it should not have happened,” the minister said.

Martin Hoffman, the National Disability Insurance Agency chief executive, said the agency was investigating and had provided support to the woman.

He added the family’s exact street address was not shared but the suburb had been.

The privacy breach is the latest controversy to embroil the agency, and came on the same day Reynolds defended a leaked communications and engagement plan that Labor claimed revealed a “cynical” and “expensive multi-media spin campaign”.

The 21-page plan, revealed by Nine newspapers on Friday, talked of the need for the government to be “seen” to have listened to concerns of disability groups over a controversial plan to introduce independent assessments. It also states an aim to announce a legislation date in late August.

Labor’s NDIS spokesman, Bill Shorten, and disability groups claimed it showed Reynolds’ ongoing consultation process was insincere.

But Reynolds told Senate estimates there was nothing sinister about the “internal draft” document, which she had not seen until the media reports.

“This is a pretty standard communications plan,” she said.

The Labor senator Kimberley Kitching pointed to a section of the document that states: “There are ongoing risks if the agency is not seen to have made changes in response to concerns raised in the consultation.”

“What I would put to you is there is a cynicism there,” Kitching said. The senator said there was a difference between communications and “actually listening”.

It is not the first time the agency has been accused of trying to “spin” what are otherwise unpopular reforms among the disability community.

Guardian Australia revealed in April the agency had hired an “external research company” to help create a “new narrative” aimed at selling controversial changes to its staff and the public. The research cost $84,000.

Reynolds further hardened her stance in favour of independent assessments on Friday, saying the evidence they were needed to address “unfairness” in the scheme was “unequivocal”.

Disability advocates have consistently said the assessments are aimed at cost-cutting, a claim backed by leaked documents obtained by the Guardian.

Reynolds also apologised over the case of Sydney man David Harris whose decomposed body was found two months after he lost his NDIS funding. “I am deeply sorry and I absolutely offer my condolences to the family,” she said.

Harris, who lived with a psychiatric condition and diabetes, had his funding stopped after he missed an annual review with the National Disability Insurance Agency. An inquest into Harris’s death was announced in December 2020.

Estimates also heard a government department has launched a crackdown against job agencies within the troubled Disability Employment Services program.

Guardian Australia last week revealed the contents of a damning consultant’s report, conducted for the Department of Social Services, which singled out Disability Employment Services providers for funnelling people into education instead of work.

Catherine Rule, a deputy secretary of the Department of Social Services, told the Senate hearing on Friday the department had tightened the rules for providers and stepped up compliance.

Rule said the crackdown had reduced spending on some suspect claims. The Boston Consulting Group report found reforms to the scheme in 2018 provided a windfall for providers but failed to lift outcomes.

Rick Kane, the Disability Employment Australia chief executive, said the report was conducted too quickly and its results were skewed due to the impact of Covid.

“With the pandemic under control in Australia, lockdowns over and jobs returning, the Des program enjoyed its highest-ever placement rates in February, March and April 2021,” he said.

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