Senate debates

Monday, 21 November 2011


Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011; Second Reading

Debate resumed on the motion:

That the bill be now read a second time.

12:25 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. This bill will make a number of amendments to the Social Security Act 1991 and also includes amendments to the Disability Services Act 1986 and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986.

Schedule 1 of the bill makes changes to allow for parenting payment recipients to access the bereavement allowance following the death of a partner. The original purpose of the legislation was that, following the death of a partner, the surviving partner would continue to receive parenting payment single. This was in lieu of transferring temporarily to the equivalent of the bereavement allowance and then back to parenting payment single. There has traditionally been no financial advantage in transferring between these payment types. Allowing parenting payment recipients to temporarily transfer to bereavement allowance will provide for additional assistance following a family tragedy. This measure is expected to cost less than $1 million over the forward estimates. The amendments in this schedule will commence on 1 January 2012.

Schedule 2 removes the family member exemption from the two-year newly arrived resident's waiting period before special benefit is paid. Special benefit is an income support payment for people in severe financial need due to circumstances beyond their control who are not eligible for other Centrelink pensions or benefits. At present, special benefit is payable to temporary visa holders on arrival in Australia if they are suffering hardship. Other migrants are subject to the newly arrived resident's waiting period and therefore must wait two years before special benefit is payable. However, exemptions do apply to individuals who can demonstrate financial hardship and a substantial change in circumstances beyond their control after arrival in Australia. An exemption from the newly arrived resident's waiting period is provided to a family member, which is defined as either a partner or dependent child, under paragraph 3(1)(e) or (g) of the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Newly Arrived Resident's Waiting Periods and Other Measures) Act. The effect of this schedule is to add a new paragraph, 739A(8), to the Social Security Act. The effect of this amendment is to remove the exemption from the need to demonstrate a substantial change in situation beyond their control that exists for provisional partner visa holders who are applying for special benefit. In other words, provisional partner visa holders will need to demonstrate they have had substantial changes of circumstances beyond their control after having arrived in Australia. This test is in addition to financial hardships tests they will need to satisfy in order to access the special benefit. This measure is expected to save $38.1 million over the forward estimates.

Schedule 3 is a matter of some public interest and has been subject to a Senate inquiry. This schedule removes the current impairment tables from 1 January next year and enables the minister to introduce new impairment tables via a legislative instrument. Placing the tables in the legislative instrument and removing them from the Social Security Act should provide greater ease in updating the tables regularly in response to developments in medical or rehabilitation practice.

The impairment tables are currently in schedule 1B of the Social Security Act and have been there since 1991. They are used in assessing a person's work related impairments to determine eligibility for the disability support pension. In the 2009-10 budget the government announced its intention to review and update the impairment tables and commissioned an advisory committee to oversee the review and to recommend changes. It is the view of the opposition that it is appropriate that the impairment tables are reviewed from time to time.

There has been substantial growth in the number of disability support pensioners. In 1990 there were around 320,000 people on the DSP. As at June this year, there were 818,850. That is growth of over half a million people on the DSP in a period of just over 21 years. Over the last four years, from June 2007 to June 2011, the number of DSP recipients grew by over 100,000 or 14.6 per cent. As at June 2011, there were about 290,000 more people on the DSP than on the Newstart allowance, and little more than one per cent of disability support pensioners move back into the workforce each year.

The current impairment tables consist of 22 tables that are mainly based on body systems. These tables have effectively remained unchanged since the reforms of 1997. The advisory committee that was charged with looking at the tables confirmed that they were, indeed, outdated, inappropriate for use and in need of significant reform. The committee made 12 recommendations, including the replacement of the current impairment tables with draft tables which were outlined in detail in the report.

The committee also found that there is a need to move from a medical diagnosis to an assessment based on the capacity of an individual to work or to undertake training. The opposition is of the view that that is a very positive move—away from a medical approach to one that is based more on the capacity of an individual to work. Hopefully, that change will see more Australians in the workforce.

The schedule will also provide an easier avenue than exists at the moment for future governments to revise and update the impairment tables, as I mentioned. This will accommodate advances in our knowledge of medicines and therapies. It should be noted that there will be a review of these tables in 18 months after they are implemented on 1 January and that the report recommended that the tables be reviewed regularly thereafter. We think that is a good idea. This is an appropriate reform. However, I note in passing, as I am duty-bound to do, that the current government does not have what you would call a terrific track record when it comes to implementing significant reform. But it is my earnest hope, Mr Acting Deputy President Fawcett, as I know it is yours, that this is one area where the government will surprise us all. But we shall wait and see.

The committee's inquiry into schedule 3 made several recommendations that addressed some concerns that stakeholders had. A number of stakeholders queried the consultation process for the impairment tables, and the committee recommended that the government find ways to expand consultation and evaluation of the revised impairment tables. This expanded consultation should include information for current DSP recipients about the impact of the tables when a medical review is conducted.

The second recommendation addresses concerns raised by stakeholders about interassessor reliability. The advisory committee reported a difference in 35 per cent of assessments conducted by different assessors. The committee found that this has the potential to create a degree of uncertainty for DSP applicants. It recommended that FaHCSIA regularly check the interassessor reliability as part of the department's quality assurance mechanism.

The committee also heard from several stakeholders about issues relating to specific tables. The committee heard from the National Council on Intellectual Disability, which raised issues with the impairment table for intellectual function. I understand that FaHCSIA asked NCID to prepare a proposal to establish a technical group to look at alternatives for that table as it applies to people with an assessed IQ between 70 and 79. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of those discussions in the revised impairment table for intellectual function.

The committee also heard from the Australian Pain Management Association and Painaustralia regarding the treatment of persistent pain under the tables. I understand that FaHCSIA has had discussions with these groups regarding the issues they raised. The Mental Health Council of Australia also raised concerns regarding the application of the impairment tables to co-occurring and episodic mental health conditions. These concerns have been addressed, to an extent, in the introduction to draft revised impairment table 5, which incorporates recurring psychiatric episodes.

The committee also heard that there were a number of concerns in the disability employment sector about the impact of the government's reforms combined with other reforms that came into effect on 3 September this year. The changes to the impairment tables will place additional pressure on disability employment providers from next year. During Senate estimates we found out that the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations believe that an additional 13,000 people will be using employment services provided by the government. The department estimated that around 80 per cent of these would be using Disability Employment Services and the remaining 20 per cent would be using Job Services Australia. The government must ensure that disability employment providers are adequately equipped to accommodate the increased demand for their services.

Schedule 4 provides for the introduction of a third-party-certification quality assurance system for disability advocacy providers. In 2010-11 FaHCSIA provided nearly $16 million in funding to the National Disability Advocacy Program, to 62 advocacy providers. Under the proposed QA system, the compliance of these advocacy providers with the disability advocacy standards legislative instrument will be assessed by an independent, third-party certification process. This process will be based on the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand that provides accreditation to certification bodies to undertake certification assessments of disability advocacy services.

The introduction of this schedule follows a consultation process which was initiated by the former government following a review of the National Disability Advocacy Program in 2005-06. In response to the conclusions of the report, the government provided an additional $12.2 million to NDAP. The previous government's budget measure included funding for the establishment of a national quality assurance regime for better disability advocacy services. It provided funding for the quality improvement strategy, a successful trial and an independent evaluation in consultation with the disability advocacy services sector. The evaluation recommended formal implementation, and this schedule effectively delivers on work that was undertaken by the previous government.

A key feature of the proposed new quality assurance system is the inclusion of 11 draft disability advocacy standards, 24 key performance indicators and certification of compliance against these standards by independent accredited certification bodies. I would like to add briefly that the third-party certification process for disability advocacy services, outlined in schedule 4, has been in place successfully with the other disability employment providers since 2002.

Schedule 5 makes some amendments aimed at improving the integrity of treatment of certain asset-test-exempt income streams. Lifetime and life expectancy income streams receive concessional treatment for the assets test under social security law provided they meet the relevant sections under the Social Security Act. This means that the asset value of the income stream is not taken into account when determining whether a social security payment is payable to a person. The Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 provides a similar concessional treatment under its assets test when the equivalent requirements are met.

Over time, an inequity has arisen between social security recipients and veterans affairs pensioners. Inconsistencies in the treatment of self-managed superannuation funds and small APRA funds has led to some social security recipients and veterans affairs pensioners receiving concessions and a higher rate of entitlement payments without meeting their obligations under the act. The amendments in schedule 5 seek to improve on the existing rules by clarifying that self-managed super funds and small APRA funds may provide only one actuarial certificate for each financial year. They will also clarify that the certificate must be provided within 26 weeks of the beginning of the financial year. If a person does not provide the appropriate actuarial certificate in relation to the income stream by the end of the 26-week period the income stream will lose its asset test exemption. These changes are intended to improve the integrity of the current arrangement.

Schedule 6 makes a clarification that payments made by an employer to an employee in lieu of notice of termination are regarded as redundancy payments under social security law. When a person makes a claim for an income support payment, Newstart, the DSP or sickness allowance, for example, an income maintenance period may apply. During this period redundancy or leave payments are treated as income under the Social Security Act. People who have received a redundancy payment, for example, are expected to use that payment to support themselves before turning to the social security system for assistance. This schedule amends the definition of redundancy payment to include payments in lieu of notice. This will ensure that payments that are made in lieu of notice for the termination of employment are included for the purposes of receiving an income support payment.

In summary, this bill makes a number of sensible amendments to the Social Security Act, some of which will result in savings. The coalition will not be opposing this bill.

12:43 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

While the Greens support some schedules in the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, we do not support schedule 3. Schedule 3 allows for the implementation of the new disability impairment tables, which we believe are inadequate. We are deeply concerned that they will have unjust outcomes for people living with disability, particularly when it is added to the process around access to the disability support pension, which the government has already put through this place.

While we support the move to a functional model of disability, as opposed to a purely medical one, we believe that the process by which the tables were drafted and tested should have been much better. We are deeply concerned that the more stringent nature of the assessment will have unacceptable impacts on some people living with a disability. We believe that the process by which the tables were drafted showed a lack of adequate consultation. We do not believe that the tables were adequately tested. They do not properly address the needs of some people living with disability, particularly those in regional and remote Australia, and they show considerable gaps in coverage of certain conditions. We believe they will cause increasingly large numbers of people living with a disability to go onto Newstart in a deeply inhospitable labour market where there are still not good outcomes for people living with a disability trying to find sustained employment. That came out not only in the inquiry into this particular bill, but also in the previous inquiry into the process for accessing the disability support pension. It is also coming out in the inquiry into disability and employment services.

If you look at the consultation and testing process, we are deeply concerned that there were a limited number of consultations with people living with a disability and with the disability sector, both before and after the drafting. We are concerned that there has also been inadequate testing of the new impairment tables. There was a small sample size of 215 people who were tested through the process. We do not believe this is statistically sound, despite the government's claim that it is. Moreover, when those people are divided over the 15 tables, there are 10 tables where the number of people tested is six individuals or less. This is far too small a sample size. The trial was conducted entirely in Victoria. Not that I am being state-centric, but there is a vast difference between Victoria and my home state of Western Australia, for example. We do not believe that has provided adequate coverage of the rest of Australia, particularly of regional and remote communities. It is also unclear whether people with a disability from non-English speaking backgrounds or those who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were consulted or included in that process.

Furthermore, the trials revealed that in some cases where an inter-rater comparison was completed there was a 35 per cent conflict between primary and secondary assessors. This brings into question the validity of the assessments, which cannot be applied consistently. It is extremely troubling that these tables, which have the potential to impact on thousands of vulnerable Australians, have not been subject to more rigorous examination. I have no confidence that the tables will adequately assess a person's disability or functionality. It is unfortunate that, yet again, the people who are going to be the most affected by this—those with a disability—are going to be subject, in essence, to what will become just one big trial of these new impairment tables.

During the committee inquiry into this bill, the impact on people living with disabilities in regional and remote areas was discussed quite a bit. I am particularly concerned that the adverse consequences of the new tables will be felt very strongly in regional and remote areas. The new tables rely heavily on applied health practitioners such as occupational therapists to provide information for diagnosis. In many regional and remote areas these specialists may not be available or may be recent graduates with not sufficient experience. That is not having a go at recent graduates, but the point is we often have the most inexperienced graduates in some of these areas who are not used to this type of assessment. We are quite concerned about these particular issues.

Furthermore, the tables clearly prohibit the consideration of environmental concerns when determining DSP eligibility, creating serious questions of equity for people living with a disability in remote and regional Australia. For example, this group is subject to the same requirement to look for work within 60 minutes commuting time of their residence. In some areas with minimum public transport this is a deeply unreasonable expectation, even with the mobility allowance. The tables are unable to consider issues such as access to public transport and taxis, distance required to travel to work, attitudes of employers and availability of jobs. Sue Egan of Physical Disability Australia says:

We believe that, for people with a physical disability, an accessible worksite and being able to get to and from work are crucial, particularly for people who work in rural areas where there is no accessible public transport. I live in a rural area myself and I work from home, but if I did not work from home there would be no accessible transport for me to get to work, as I have a disability as well. So I think that those factors need to be taken into account when considering whether a person should qualify for a DSP.

Almost 50 per cent of people living with a disability on DSP in Australia live in regional and remote areas. It is extremely concerning that the needs of this large group have not been adequately taken into account. I am very concerned that many conditions are not properly captured by the impairment tables—in particular, co-morbidity, chronic or persistent pain, and intellectual disability. Senator Fifield has touched on the issues around chronic and persistent pain and around intellectual disabilities.

There are concerns that individuals who have co-morbid conditions, scoring 15 points across the tables, are likely to face major difficulties in the employment services system but will no longer be eligible for DSP. The tables compound difficulties already experienced by people with co-morbid conditions and, as I was saying earlier, when you look at the changes that were brought in under the 3 September changes to the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2011, the interaction of these two pieces of legislation will have significant impacts on people living with a disability. Under this new legislation, only those who are assessed to have a severe impairment will be exempt from completing a program of support. However, the method for determining severe impairment does not adequately take account of co-morbidity, as there is a requirement for 20 points in a single table. People with co-morbid conditions who are not judged to have a severe impairment will not be put straight on to DSP. They will most likely be placed on Newstart and yet be unable to, in some cases, meet the requirements of participation in a program of support. I know I have traversed these issues previously in this chamber, but it remains a very serious concern.

Chronic pain is another condition, coverage of which by these tables has also been significantly questioned, and it was raised during the committee inquiry. The tables consider paying a symptom only and not a condition. It appears that chronic pain will not be assessable as an impairment even though it may have major function impacts on daily activities and preclude the sufferers from maintaining 15 or more hours work per week in the labour market without the need for ongoing support. I understand some of these issues are being addressed, but it yet again highlights the way the changes to these tables have had inadequate consultation and were brought forward before these issues had been adequately dealt with.

The other issue that was raised, which Senator Fifield also touched on, is intellectual disability, particularly for people with an IQ score of 70 to 79, who would fail to qualify under the revised tables. Some 24,000 people fall into this group, which is already over-represented in homelessness statistics, in hostels and, unfortunately, in our prison incarceration statistics. Again, while I understand that there has been some ongoing dialogue about this issue, it is symptomatic of the fact that these impairment tables have been rushed through without adequate consultation or thought about what they mean for these people with significant disabilities.

I must question the motivation for some of these changes. While ideally the move to functionality is supported, as I have already articulated, I am very deeply concerned about what the underlying motivation is for some of these changes, when you also take into account the changes that have already been made in the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment Bill. I believe these changes are focused on trying to save money by keeping people off disability support and on Newstart, not on improving their ability to find long-term, sustainable employment.

When you look at some of the issues around the labour market, one of the most critical issues I want to raise is the endemic and widespread inability of people with disabilities to secure sustainable employment. This is not just about cycling people in and out of short-term employment. It is extremely concerning that about 38 per cent of new DSP applicants in the trials at the moment have been rejected under the new tables. It is clear many people will be placed on Newstart who are unlikely to find long-term, sustainable employment, which is what this measure is said to try to achieve.

According to the National Council on Intellectual Disability, the current outcomes for disability employment service programs reveal a 26-week employment outcome rate of 16 per cent. This means 84 per cent of people with disabilities entering the disability employment service will not get a sustainable job. Anglicare and ACOSS believe this is largely due to the job market, which is currently not able to meet the employment needs of job seekers with a disability. The concern here is that, if we are cycling people in and out of short-term jobs, this is not achieving what we are trying to achieve, which is sustainable employment. It can also act as a disincentive to people who are continually cycling in and out of jobs and, through no fault of their own, are not able to maintain these positions. We will just be adding more people to this group, of which there are already 13,000. I am not convinced (a) that the employment services are prepared to handle this number of people and (b) that we can guarantee we will be able to find sustainable employment for these people.

I know the minister will address the issue by saying that there was money allocated in the budget for work placements. Again, there are not enough resources allocated to adequately support the number of people on the disability support pension who are seeking employment or the number on Newstart who are seeking employment. I will quote from ACOSS's submission to the inquiry:

… the DSP assessment process as a whole does not take account of the labour market response to disability, for example whether work of the kind a person is capable of performing is available where they live and whether employers discriminate against people with a particular disability … it is important to acknowledge that the labour market is still hostile to disability. The overall employment rate of people with significant functional impairments in 2009 was 42% compared with 70% for the wider community.

We are deeply concerned that the government is pursuing measures that will reject more people from DSP, given the inability of the present job market to absorb people living with a disability.

We are also concerned that people who are unable to get sustained employment and unable to qualify for the DSP will be living on Newstart, on $34 a day. Newstart is $128 a week less than the pension—and that has changed—and has a much harsher income test and taper withdrawal rate. It is inferior to the DSP in many ways. For example, there is no eligibility for the pensioner education supplement and a liquid assets waiting period applies. People living with a disability accrue extra costs on top of ordinary living expenses—for medication, equipment, transport and even electricity. We are not saying that people who do not qualify through the impairment tables are not living with a disability, so we are talking about people on Newstart trying to find sustained employment while living with a disability. We believe many, many people will find it difficult to meet the activity requirements and will be confronted by a complex and punitive compliance regime.

I am very concerned at what will happen to people currently on DSP when they are subject to review with the new tables. According to FaHCSIA, under the old tables 2.2 per cent, or 18,100 people, were required to undertake a medical review in 2010-11, and 1.6 per cent of those, or 298 individuals, lost eligibility. It is not possible to tell with certainty how many people would lose eligibility when assessed using the new tables, but if the results of the trial are any indication around 38 per cent of those 18,000, or 4,500 people, may no longer qualify for DSP and be placed on Newstart. This is exceptionally problematic, considering many of these people will have been on DSP for years, if not decades, and have little prospect of securing sustainable employment. This impact has to be examined in light of other changes to DSP taking place. As I have already said, we are extremely concerned that we are going to have a growing cohort of people living with a disability on Newstart who will be permanently stuck on Newstart. I do not think this is a way of helping people—entrenching poverty, particularly when they have a disability.

We are very concerned about monitoring these changes, given all these concerns, and about how soon this massive trial, which is essentially what this amounts to, will be adequately reviewed. Although we know an 18-month review is planned, we do not believe this is soon enough. We believe it should occur within 12 months, because, as I said, this is essentially a giant trial. The longer it goes on before it is assessed, the greater the impact of its negative effects on those living with a disability. We cannot support the changes proposed in schedule 3 at this time, because we do not believe the new impairment tables will lead to better outcomes for those living with a disability. So we will be opposing schedule 3 of this bill, and I have circulated amendments to that effect.

Finally, I would like to touch on schedule 4. While I support the introduction of an independent certification system for disability advocacy services, and the creation of the new standards, it is imperative that we get these standards right. I have received concerned calls from disability advocacy organisations stressing the importance of including independence from disability employment services in these standards and the provision of other support. I have circulated a second reading amendment going to a specific issue to do with independence. While we appreciate that, particularly in regional areas, it is very hard to ensure complete independence of organisations from the provision of other support services and employment services from advocacy services, we do believe that there must be as much care as possible and services should as much as possible be free from conflicts of interest or the perception of conflicts of interest.

So, although I understand that these issues are intended to be addressed in the standards, we believe that there should be a second reading amendment to the legislation to actually state that fact very clearly upfront. I have to say that the evidence I have heard so far through the hearing into employment services reinforces for me the need to make sure that advocacy services are, as much as possible, independent from the other services that organisations may provide. I do understand the argument, particularly for regional and remote services, that it is very difficult to have completely separate services in these small centres, so I have amended my position on this. But I still believe there is a need for a recognition by this chamber with respect to this legislation that in fact, for the purpose of certification of advocacy services under amendments made by schedule 4 of the bill, advocacy services must be as free as possible from conflicts of interest or the perception of conflicts of interest with disability service providers. I believe that is essential. I understand that is the government's intention. We believe it needs to be permanently on record that this is what the parliament of Australia expects: that these services are as independent as possible. I therefore move the Australian Greens amendment on sheet 7152:

At the end of the motion, add:

  but that for the purposes of certification of advocacy services under amendments made by Schedule 4 of the bill, advocacy services must be as free as possible from conflicts of interest, or the perception of conflicts of interest, with disability service providers.

1:02 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I will make a short contribution on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. Similarly to Senator Siewert, I do have concerns, particularly in relation to schedule 3. As a workers compensation lawyer in South Australia, I was aghast at the changes that came about a number of years ago in relation to relying so heavily on the American Medical Association impairment tables, where there was a much narrower focus and approach—which seems to be the case with this particular legislation. I note from the government's advisers that the impairment tables are based on WHO guidelines, in a sense, but I think we need to be careful of the unintended consequences of such moves. Of course I support moves that would ensure that people who have disabilities are encouraged to participate in the workplace and are given opportunities to be part of the workforce, where discrimination is removed and where they have a real opportunity to participate fully in the workforce. But the concern I have with the approach of this piece of legislation, particularly in relation to schedule 3, is that there may be many unintended consequences.

I think it is quite pertinent to refer to Frank Quinlan, the CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, who provided evidence on this issue to the inquiry. He made the point:

Several Australian and international studies have shown that people with disabilities such as mental disorders and substance abuse disorders will usually have co-occurring disorders, and a person with co-occurring disorders is likely to have greatly exacerbated negative impacts. A person with two or more moderate level disorders occurring across the tables when combined could result in a total equivalent of a severe impairment, when you combine substance, mental and physical disorders. The current amendment does not allow for cumulative totals across the tables and therefore does not take account of co-occurring disorders.

That is a concern. What happens in those circumstances? What safety valve will there be in the system in those situations?

  There is also a very fixed approach of reaching the 20 points. Is there any discretion where it is clear that people will fall between the cracks of these impairment tables? I understand the reason behind impairment tables, and that you try to have a much more efficient and effective system to deal with these issues. I understand that you do not want to take an almost common-law type approach when looking at levels of disability and functionality, and have a mini-trial of a person's disabilities, but what do you do in cases where people will clearly fall between the cracks, where people have difficulties and are not, on any reasonably objective standard, able to participate in the workplace because of cumulative disabilities but will not get to the 20 points? What safety valve is there? I understand there is no discretion: if you do not get to the 20 points, you are out.

To what extent will the government be having an ongoing review of this? I suspect what may well happen is that Senator Siewert, me and others in this chamber could well be approached by constituents saying their family member has been knocked out of a disability support pension, notwithstanding that the cumulative nature of their disabilities make it, in practical terms, impossible to participate in the workforce. How do you deal with unintended consequences? How do you deal with cases where people with an intellectual disability—there are some 20,000 people who could fall within this group—do not make the 20-points threshold?

These are the concerns that I have. These are concerns that must be addressed, because I fear that what is being proposed here is quite inflexible, quite prescriptive and does not allow for exceptional circumstances. I think it is always important in legislation such as this to allow for those genuine cases, those genuine exceptional situations, where, given an individual's personal circumstances, the rules need to be reconsidered.

1:07 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senators Fifield, Siewert and Xenophon for their contributions to the debate on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011.

The government is working hard to support people with disability to fulfil their potential; it is working hard on a number of fronts. In August this year, the Prime Minister released the Productivity Commission's final report into long-term care and support of people with disability. Shortly after that, the state and territory premiers and chief ministers agreed with our government that major reform of disability care and support was needed through the implementation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. We have already started work to transform the way that care and support is provided to people with disabilities. We are working to deliver results for people with disability right now, including by improving support for Australians with disability to help them into work wherever possible. The disability support pension is an essential element of Australia's safety net and it is vital that it supports the people who need it—those Australians who, through disability, are unable to work to fully support themselves.

I go now to the elements of this amendment bill. In the 2009-10 budget, the government committed to updating the impairment tables used to assess eligibility for the disability support pension to bring them into line with modern medical and rehabilitation practice. The current impairment tables have not been comprehensively rewritten since they were introduced in 1991, and they contain anomalies and inconsistencies. For example, the assistance that can be provided by hearing aids is not included in the assessment for hearing impairment; however, visual assessment is assessed with glasses.

An advisory committee of medical, allied health and rehabilitation experts, representatives of disability peak bodies, mental health advocates and relevant government agencies was established in 2010 to provide advice on updating the impairment tables. The advisory committee found that the current impairment tables were out of date. They developed new impairment tables in close consultation with the medical profession and disability stakeholders. They recommended that the new tables be used to assess eligibility for the DSP from 1 January next year.

The new impairment tables reflect modern expectations about functional ability and focus on what people are able to do rather than what they cannot do. For example, under the current tables, ratings for some conditions such as back conditions are based on loss of movement. Under the new tables, ratings are based on what the back condition prevents a person from doing—for example, sitting for a long period of time, reaching objects over head height or bending to pick up objects. In this way, the new tables are being brought into line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and, in answer to Senator Xenophon's question, the World Health Organisation's internal classification of functioning disability and health.

The introduction to the tables is also updated so that for the first time there will be explicit guidelines about the impact of episodic conditions such as some mental illnesses. This will help ensure that assessments of eligibility for DSP for people with episodic conditions are fairer and more consistent than under the current tables.

The bill removes the current outdated tables and enables new tables to be introduced through a disallowable legislative instrument. This change, if the bill is passed, will occur on 1 January 2012. Putting the impairment tables in a disallowable instrument allows them to be updated regularly in response to developments in medical and rehabilitation practice and will also retain the parliament's role in scrutinising any changes. The government is committed to ensuring that the recommended new tables are implemented fairly and effectively.

In addition to the extensive consultation process which has already occurred, the government is continuing to consult with disability stakeholders and medical experts, including pain management organisations and the National Council on Intellectual Disability. The government also accepts the advisory committee's recommendations to monitor the initial implementation of the revised impairment tables and to conduct a review 18 months after implementation. In line with the advisory committee's recommendation, this will include considering how to further strengthen a functional approach to assessing eligibility for the disability support pension.

The bill also introduces a stronger quality assurance system for disability advocacy services to ensure that people with disability receive the best possible advocacy support. The current quality assurance system has not changed since 1997, and the need for improved quality assurance for disability advocacy services has been highlighted in a number of reviews. Development of a robust quality assured disability advocacy sector will help meet the objectives of the National Disability Strategy and will also help meet Australia's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This bill requires disability advocacy services that receive financial assistance under the Disability Services Act to be reviewed and assessed by independent accredited certification bodies against disability advocacy standards. The new system has been successfully trialled and independently evaluated. The evaluation was overseen by a reference group, including disability advocates and technical experts. It recommended formal implementation. The government has provided $7,000 to each funded advocacy service to help them prepare for the stronger quality assurance arrangements. We are also working closely with the sector to provide them with practical support as the new arrangements are introduced.

To that extent, we will not be supporting the second reading amendment which has been moved by Senator Siewert. We understand the principle of the amendment. We are not convinced, though, that a second reading amendment is the right way to pursue this agenda. The government is working with the disability advocacy sector to ensure disability advocacy standards and key performance indicators include appropriate arrangements to manage conflicts of interest.

The government is also working through the recommendations of the Productivity Commission in its report on long-term care and support for people with disability. This includes the Productivity Commission's recommendations relating to disability advocacy groups and disability support organisations. I can assure senators that, as the new system is implemented, a priority for our government will be to ensure that the interests of people with disability are put first and foremost. This of course includes robust processes to manage potential conflicts of interest in the advocacy sector.

The bill also gives effect to a budget 2011-12 measure by enabling parenting payment recipients to access bereavement allowance on the death of a partner. Allowing a parenting payment recipient to transfer to bereavement allowance on the death of their partner will provide additional financial assistance during a difficult time.

The bill also gives effect to another budget 2011-12 measure: to more closely align the rules for accessing special benefit for provisional partner visa holders with the rules for other newly arrived migrants. Under the current policy, provisional partner visa holders are able to access special benefit from when they are granted the visa and they are in Australia, if they can demonstrate they are suffering from financial hardship. This is not consistent with the situation for other newly arrived migrants, subject to the newly arrived residents waiting period, who need to demonstrate both financial hardship and change in circumstance outside of their control in order to access special benefit. From 1 January 2012 the rules for provisional partner visa holders will be consistent with those for other newly arrived migrants. The new arrangements will continue to ensure adequate protection for vulnerable migrants—for example, when there is domestic violence, death of a partner or an injury or accident after their arrival in Australia.

The bill also makes changes to the social security law and veterans' entitlements legislation to enhance the integrity of treatment of certain asset-test-exempt income streams. These changes strengthen the existing rules that require lifetime and life expectancy income streams to provide an annual actuarial certificate in order to benefit from concessional treatment and address inconsistencies that have arisen over time in the treatment of these income streams.

Finally, the bill makes amendments to the social security law to clarify that payments made by an employer to an employee in lieu of notice of the termination of his or her employment are redundancy payments for the purposes of social security law. This ensures that, in calculating income maintenance periods under the act, people who receive these payments are treated the same as people who receive other types of redundancy payments.

I commend the bill to the chamber.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.