House debates

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007

Second Reading

11:25 am

Photo of Annette EllisAnnette Ellis (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise this morning to speak on the Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007. This bill brings in legislation to support several measures, including those in the government’s budget of 2007-08. Amongst other things, it provides for: enhancements to the provision of mobility allowance; a tightening of the transition to employment assistance for former full-time students on youth allowance; enhancement of access to supplementary payments for parenting payment—partnered recipients with a partial capacity for work; changes to the payment rate rules for some allowance income support payments—this will allow the care provided for a child to be recognised by the higher with-dependant child rate for persons providing a significant level of care; and changes to the participation rules regarding the acknowledgment of self-employment for mature age unemployed job seekers.

I would also like to refer, as the previous speaker has, to the part of these changes that is effective in relation to the Welfare to Work and participation issues generally. I refer quite happily to a paragraph in the Bills Digest, supplied by the Parliamentary Library, which says:

As a result of that government’s Welfare to Work changes, the numbers of jobseekers required to look for, and accept work, with different characteristics from those of the past and who also have differing needs is likely to increase.

In other words, as a result of these changes there will be more people out there in the Job Network system and not within the disability support system. Job seekers with a partial capacity for work—that is, those who would have previously qualified for the DSP, the disability support payment—are the persons assessed as being able to work for more than 15 hours a week and therefore now do not qualify for the disability support payment, but they may not be capable of full-time work. These job seekers would have only part-time employment participation requirements.

I want to make a point about that. The Welfare to Work changes that the government has brought in have a very dramatic effect on members of our community who, for one reason or another, have an incapacity or a disability and who, under these new rules, face the 15-hour-a-week capacity-to-work test—some of whom we know will never be able to work full-time anyway and, in fact, will be in need of support in one way or another. The issues that that sort of change bring have always been of concern to me. This is not the first time—and, sadly, it will probably not be the last time—that I have stood up in this place to speak on behalf of the people in our community who are affected in this way.

There are certain things that we must be absolutely certain of when we are playing with the lives of people with disabilities or incapacities, with the lives of their carers, their families and the people around them generally. We must ensure—as the previous speaker and others have said—that, if they want to work and, particularly, have the capacity to work, we encourage them in every way we possibly can to do so. We must make sure that they have adequate training and support around them so that they can actually fulfil that wish, and we should not be at all surprised when we hear how many of these people are capable of working and wish to work. There are rewards for society in general—there are economic benefits and all sorts of reasons—and we should allow these things to happen in a right way. I am not a stick-approach person. I think there are other ways to do it. Sure, we should have limitations around criteria and so on to ensure that people are doing the right thing and trying their hardest, but I do not know that hitting them with a stick is the way to do it.

I think it was last week that I had the privilege of attending the Prime Minister’s annual employer awards dinner in the Great Hall in Parliament House. This is the 17th year of this dinner and awards system—a process started, in fact, under our government, and I am pleased to see it has continued under the current government. It is a worthwhile thing to be doing. The reason this is an important set of awards is that they reward employers of people with disability. When you listen to the comments being made not only at the table at which you sit but around the room, the commentary is about the wonderful contribution that these people make to our society, economically and socially, to the workplace in which they are engaged, and the benefits that their families, friends and carers get as a result.

All of those businesspeople stood up and testified very strongly that the most notable thing was what people with disability brought to the workplace and how determined they were to be loyal, honest workers. These are all things that we would wish to see epitomised when you put a group of people with disability into a workplace and offer them the right support and training. We should not be at all surprised to know that this actually works, and you do not need to hit people with sticks to get them to do it. What you have to do is to put processes in place so that participation in the workforce becomes a lot simpler, easier and welcoming.

As far as I am concerned the Welfare to Work changes have achieved one major thing which alarms me—that is, they have moved a great number of people onto lower payments. It actually costs hard money to live with disability and incapacity. It is not a cheaper form of living; it is expensive. It costs more if you happen to have a disability, chronic illness or incapacity and you are attempting to live a full and proper life in our society. How on earth can we rationalise moving people onto a lower level of income by moving them off the DSP and putting them onto Job Network payments and so on? I do not understand the logic behind that and it worries me incredibly.

It puts a lot of people with disability under enormous financial pressure. These folk must be assured that they can obtain the full training and support they need to obtain the elusive job which many of them want. Then, of course, we hope that they can retain as much of that income as possible and not have it taken away by the government through taxation or other disincentives, which will probably occur. We now have what I think can only be interpreted as a far more complex welfare system than we have ever had.

I want to take advantage of the debate on this particular bill to talk a bit more generally about disability issues. In particular, I want to refer to the level of unmet need that is still out there in our community. It is all very well for government to talk about getting people out, participating, making them get jobs and all the rest of it, but we have a very broad range of incapacity and disability out there in the community. We have an incredibly serious problem—that is, the level of unmet need in servicing the needs of an enormous number of these people. I want to refer to a media release put out very recently by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It said:

A new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare ... quantifies the level of demand for disability support services now and in the future, and shows that the number of people aged under 65 with a profound or severe limitation in basic daily activities is projected to increase to over 750,000 people by 2010.

That is three years away. The media release further states:

The report, Current and future demand for specialist disability services, reports on how much unmet demand there is for accommodation and respite services, community access services and employment services, what factors affect demand, and how levels of demand are expected to change over coming years.

It goes on to say:

‘Conservative estimates indicate that in 2005, there were 23,800 people aged 0-64 with unmet or under-met demand for accommodation and respite services,’

…         …         …

Based on projected ageing trends, the segments of the population likely to require disability services are projected to grow substantially in the next few years.

In addition to the obvious factors—the ageing of the population in general and of people with disabilities in particular—other factors that may contribute to an increase in future demand include:

  • increases in the prevalence of some disabling long-term health conditions
  • increases in need for assistance due to ageing service-users and the ageing of their carers—

I will come back to that point in a moment—

  • trends towards community-based living arrangements for people with disabilities
  • decreases in access to some mainstream housing options, and
  • a projected fall in the number of informal carers relative to the number of people with a disability.

And I will come back to that. The second point:

  • increases in need for assistance due to ageing service-users and the ageing of their carers

and that last point:

  • a projected fall in the number of informal carers relative to the number of people with a disability—

come in part to a question that I put to the minister in the chamber in an adjournment debate on 20 June this year. I was talking about the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement and all of the issues surrounding that. The question I put to the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs—and I asked him if he could possibly come back to the House at some stage with this information—was: how many people, how many family units, how many older parents are there across this country, who are currently caring for an adult child with a disability in their own home, be they widowed, single or a couple, and what are the government’s plans for addressing that growing number?

Mr Deputy Speaker Quick, I know you have a personal concern about this. So do I and so do a lot of us in this House. We are concerned about the enormous number of instances where we have ageing parents caring for a child, who is an adult with an intellectual or other type of disability in their own home, hidden away out there with nothing being planned for their future accommodation or service needs en masse. I am unaware of a plan. If we are talking about accommodation and respite services for people with disability, this is what we should be talking about. If we are talking about the ageing of the population in this country and what we need to do about it generally, why are we not talking about this issue with equal import? At some point those parents are going to leave this earth and, when they do, what is going to happen to those adult children? What is happening to them now?

I know, from personal experience and from my own work in the community, that a lot of parents have difficulty letting go. I understand that. Part of the reason for that might be because they do not see any alternative. I feel very strongly about this, and I still have not had an answer or any information come from the minister as to what he is going to be doing about that. But, when I look at the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement status right now and at the whole issue of servicing the disability sector in general, I despair. I despair about where we are going. Words are cheap, and ministers can come in here and say, ‘We have spent X billion trillion dollars in the last whatever.’ None of it is really attaching itself to the core needs of the families and the people in my community and around the country when we talk about the need for disability services to be addressed in a far more serious fashion.

There is the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement and there is the wonderful Senate inquiry report of February 2007. It is only a few months old, and talks in detail about the current government’s approach to funding through the CSTDA. According to this report, the government made an offer to the states and territories on indexation for the CSTDA of 1.8 per cent. I am not a mathematician, but I can tell you that that is a very low figure. And the government is critical of the states and territories for not doing enough and is saying, ‘Come on, unless you up the ante a bit, we are not going to do much.’ The ACT’s indexation in the same period was 3.7 per cent. The Northern Territory’s was 4.15 per cent. Tasmania’s was 3.8 per cent. They are all above the Commonwealth level of 1.8 per cent, so I do not quite know how the minister can be confident about the 1.8 per cent when it is lower than all of the others and also too low to actually have any meaning in terms of funding for disability services around the country.

On 28 June, I think it was, we had the big announcement from the government. On the one hand, we had the minister saying to the states and territories: ‘No more money. Go away. That is the end of the negotiations on this.’ Then, on 28 June, the Prime Minister and the minister made a very big announcement on the government’s disability assistance package, which is going to be in the order of $1.8 billion. That is a lot of money. An enormous proportion of it is going out in forms of cheques to families around this country who may have a child aged under 16 who may qualify for, I think, a disability carer payment. I stand to be corrected on that, but the qualification is there. So, if you are in that category, I think you might be receiving a cheque for $1,000 in October—very nice timing, when you look at elections. A great proportion of that money is being expended in that way. The minister, as I understand it, said to his territory counterparts, ‘I will give you the detail by 31 July on how this money for supported accommodation and so on will be used.’ As far as I know—and again, if he can refute this, I would be happy to know—none of that detail has yet been made available.

The remainder of the $1.8 billion was supposed to be helping, for example, with supported accommodation for the adult children of parent carers aged 65 or more—the very people I was just talking about. It is outside the CSTDA. It is altogether separate, so we have another system, we have another process and we have another minor bureaucracy attached to it. We do not know yet how it is going work. We do not know—although the minister may have advised that and, if I look carefully, I could possibly find out—how much of the $1.8 billion is going to be left for this purpose. So, does this really mean that we have an alternative to reaching an agreement on the funding for the fourth Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement? What does it actually mean? I understood that Minister Brough had said, prior to this, that he would match the states and territories fifty-fifty for unmet need for services. That was probably a reasonable offer. I do not know if it is entirely reasonable if we still stick to those indexation figures, but it could have been reasonable. Then, on 4 July, that offer was completely withdrawn. It is no longer available in light of the disability package that the government announced on 28 June.

I had the privilege yesterday of meeting with a group of people in my office who represent the National Council on Intellectual Disability. They came to see me to talk about their children. I think they may have seen other members of the House at the same time that they were here. I met three family members—two parents from two families and a sister—of people with intellectual disability. Their story was that they were under supported employment through Disability Employment Network providers—and that is a whole other debate that we do not have time for today. But the reason I bring it up is that it was just such a privilege to sit and listen to these people explain to me the success that was being achieved by good, proper support for people with disabilities to get active and participate in the workforce—be it short-term, part-time or for a longer term—and what that meant to their family member with a disability and to their families. I want to reiterate that it is no surprise. You do not have to be a Rhodes scholar to understand that people in this country with a disability would really like to walk in our shoes and not their own. They would really like to be able to participate in the workforce and in our community in the best way that they possibly can.

Please do not hit them with sticks. Please do not put ridiculous requirements on them and penalise them financially. Get real: sit down and talk to these people and understand that, if you resource it properly, if you put support and proper processes and programs around them, then you will be amazed at the outcomes. We see the stories all the time. The minister has just come into the chamber. She hosted the dinner last week that I referred to earlier. It was a wonderful dinner. But, again, there is story after story. Give them a chance, look at what they can do and look at what they can bring to their own lives, to their work colleagues and to the workplace where they are engaged. I can but hope that, at the end of all of this, we do see some sense—that we do not see politics but sense at the Commonwealth level: dealing honestly and appropriately with the states and the territories and not holding them to ransom but sitting around a table and saying, ‘We all have one thing in common, and that is that we all know of people with a disability who want to participate.’ If we are going to have a bill about work participation, this has to be a very big part of the debate. I live in hope that we will one day see that outcome emerge. If it does not, when we are in government it will.


No comments