State Trustees failed some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people: Ombudsman

Thursday 27 June 2019
 
 
A woman whose life possessions were sent to the tip, an elderly man who had over $2,000 taken from his account to pay for someone else’s fines, and a person whose file was handled by up to 48 different staff in 14 months.
 
These are among the cases reviewed as part of Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass’s Investigation into State Trustees, tabled in the Victorian Parliament this morning. 
 
Ms Glass found State Trustees had failed some of the most vulnerable people in Victoria. The agency manages the finances of around 10,000 Victorians who are unable to look after their own affairs due to disability, illness or injury.
 
She said the investigation heard about multiple cases where State Trustees had:
  • failed to ensure client’s bills, expenses and aged care bonds were paid on time 
  • reduced clients’ quality of life by placing them on restricted budgets, when they had entitlements that could have been claimed
  • neglected to consult clients regarding their wishes for their finances.
“At the heart of these issues is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness,” Ms Glass said. “The indignity of having to request money for a haircut to supplement a meagre allowance. The humiliation of going to the bank to collect your pension, only to find the money is no longer there."
 
“I acknowledge that many State Trustees staff are trying to do the right thing in what can be very challenging circumstances, and that the Ombudsman rarely sees the instances when clients are satisfied. 
 
But the evidence of dissatisfaction, directly impacting on State Trustee clients’ quality of life, is too substantial to be treated as other than systemic.”
 
Ms Glass said State Trustees, as a state-owned company whose sole shareholder is the Treasurer, operates in a commercial environment where there is pressure to reduce costs.
 
“While we found no evidence of individual decisions being made for commercial reasons, there is evidence of commercial pressures limiting its service as a whole,” she said.
 
She has made 14 recommendations to State Trustees and various state government departments, calling for:
  • a review of State Trustees’ governance and status as a state-owned company
  • a review of state government funding for State Trustees
  • measures to increase State Trustees’ engagement with people with a disability and mental illness, carers and advocacy organisations
  • measures to increase fee relief for clients in financial hardship
  • a review of freedom of information laws to make it easier for State Trustees clients to access their own information.
State Trustees and most government departments have accepted the recommendations in full or in principle.
 
Ms Glass initiated her investigation due to an increase in complaints to her office. In 30 cases reviewed in detail by the investigation, as a result, State Trustees has:
  • paid or reimbursed around $65,000 to 13 clients
  • apologised to 11 clients
  • agreed to meet or consult with five clients.
Ms Glass added: “Since we have been raising issues with State Trustees throughout our investigation, we have already begun to see progress, and I welcome the commitment of State Trustees’ new CEO to making real improvements. 
 
“I thank the State Trustees staff we spoke to for their candid assessment of the problems they faced; the dedication of many staff was apparent, as was their frustration at not being listened to in the past. I hope State Trustees’ new operating model addresses at least some of the serious issues this report identifies.” 
 
She thanked the following organisations, who work with State Trustee clients, for information which assisted the investigation:
  • Seniors Rights Victoria
  • Victoria Legal Aid
  • Office of the Public Advocate
  • Financial and Consumer Rights Council
  • Mental Health Legal Centre
  • Villamanta Disability Rights Legal Centre
  • Inner Melbourne Community Legal, Launch Housing
  • Darebin Community Legal Centre and Mind Australia.
 
Read the full report here: Investigation into State Trustees
 
Media contact: Ainslie Gowan | Mob 0409 936 235 |  ainslie.gowan@ombudsman.vic.gov.au