The Hamilton Spectator
Tuesday, February 18, 1997
page A4

Province hands confidential records to debt collector

by Wade Hemsworth

The "Notice of Government Debt" has a curious look to it. For starters, it's not from the government.

The demand note comes on the letterhead of a private collections agency, Equifax/CBC in North York.

There is no provincial seal, nothing to verify the claim is legitimate, except a number a person can call "to discuss payment".

The letter demands repayment of debts owed to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, by credit card, debit card, cheque, or wire, to be made out to the company, not the government, within five days.

But it threatens legal action by the government, which could end in wage garnishments and property seizure.

What we're talking about here is unpaid welfare debts, or money owed back to the government by people who have been overpaid, because of errors either they made or errors that were made by government staff. These are not fraud cases, which are handled in court.

Here's what a friendly staffer, working on behalf of our government to collect our money from our neighbours, had to say by way of explanation: "It's not anyone's business but the person receiving the letter."

"Really, you don't pertain to my business at all. I'm busy. I have work to do and this doesn't pertain to you."

-- `Nothing to say' --

He put me on hold for several minutes when I asked if his boss could explain the collection campaign.

"He has nothing to say to you", said the man, who did not give his name before hanging up.

This is Ontario, "open for business", as the government's official Internet home page declares.

The open business seems to include the confidential files of this group of former welfare recipients.

Their names have been handed over to a private business under contract to collect.

The government says freedom of information legislation allows it to do this by naming the company an agent of the government.

Nobody but clients and the government should know who has been on welfare, says Hamilton East MPP Dominic Agostino, the Liberal community and social services critic.

"It's an absolutely shocking breach of confidentiality", he said in an interview yesterday after being informed of the letters. "I'm extremely concerned that the names of welfare recipients are being given out."

He said he had no idea the government was contracting its debt collection to an outside company.

"I have never heard of that before", he said. "The government has become desperate."

Agostino said he would take the case to the province's integrity commissioner and that he would raise the issue in the provincial legislature.

If the ministry can be shown to have breached confidentiality, even on one letter, he said, the minister, Janet Ecker, could be forced to resign her office.

"I'm just astonished at this blatant breach of confidentiality", he said. "I'll definitely pursue this."

Furthermore, Agostino is dismayed the government would get aggressive with people who have recently been on social assistance.

"It's totally cold and callous", he said. "Many of these individuals are very vulnerable already."

No one is saying how many letters have gone out already, or how many are still to come.

Neither are they saying how much Equifax stands to make from collecting the government's debts.

Though the Hamilton welfare office has yet to receive any queries about the letters, they're getting ready.

Offices in other Ontario regions targeted by the first batch of mailings have been receiving concerned calls from puzzled debtors.

The minister of community and social services was not available for an interview yesterday. If her ministry is this desperate for money, maybe we should take up a collection.

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.