Wednesday, 15 August 2018
Questions without Notice
My question is to Senator Fierravanti-Wells, the Minister representing the Minister for Human Services. It has been reported today that the government had recently decided to bypass its own safeguards and send letters relating to debt recovery to people with a vulnerability indicator who are receiving income support. These people include homeless people, people with serious mental health issues, those with a cognitive impairment and other people with disability. Can the government confirm that its policy relating to debt recovery has recently changed and that you are now targeting individuals receiving income support who have vulnerability indicators? If so, why has your policy now changed to abandon the approach to safeguards?
I thank Senator Siewert for her question. Social security law in this country dictates that where a person is overpaid welfare payments the Australian government must recover this amount. This has been the same approach taken by successive governments and by members opposite when they were in government. Recovering taxpayer funds from those who receive more than they are entitled to is essential to ensuring that we maintain integrity, viability and generosity in our social safety net. It is not unreasonable to expect that all people pay back their debts to the Australian taxpayer, and that people are not excluded just because they have just been released from prison or have a drug or alcohol problem. We are currently reviewing the outcomes of the initial cases. This trial is on hold while a review is conducted to determine whether the additional safeguards and supports implemented have been effective.
Can I just take the opportunity to correct some commonly held misconceptions about these measures. Firstly, there is not online compliance. There has been very careful consideration about how to best work with people identified as vulnerable, or who live in a remote location, to help them confirm or update their income details, and we understand the need to deal sensitively with these people. These people do not have to go online to update their details. Debts are generally not raised unless a person has been contacted and has discussed their individual circumstances with the Department of Human Services. In cases where debt does result, DHS staff and social workers will work closely with the person to organise repayment options that suit the person's individual circumstances. (Time expired)
I take that rather lengthy wording to mean, yes, the government's process has changed. Could the minister outline why it has changed—she failed to answer that first question—and, also, how many letters in this so-called trial have been sent to people and how much money the government estimates it's going to get back?
Can I just for the record state that our policy has not changed. When the minister became aware of debt notices issued, including to farmers and mentally ill and unstable people, he immediately spoke to the Secretary of the Department of Human Services and asked for the collection of debts from these groups to be paused, pending a full investigation by the secretary of human services. He asked the secretary to report to him within the next fortnight; in the meantime the program is on hold.
I would also add that a full contingent of 700 social workers has been made available to support each one of these individuals should they require support. We are offering for people to call at any time that suits them to update or confirm their details, with comprehensive support.
Senator Siewert, I will take that part of the question on notice and get back to you in relation to it and, if I can, I will provide that information at the end of question time.