Wednesday, 31 July 2019
Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.
The speech read as follows—
SOCIAL SECURITY (ADMINISTRATION) AMENDMENT (CASHLESS WELFARE) BILL 2019
Today I rise to speak on a Bill that continues the Government's work on one of the most positive developments in welfare for decades and demonstrates our commitment to make a real difference to the lives of all Australians.
The Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019 makes a number of important changes to the trial of the Cashless Debit Card that operates in the Ceduna, East Kimberley, Goldfields and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay regions.
The Cashless Debit Card program is delivering significant benefits for these communities. The program has the objective of reducing immediate hardship and deprivation, reducing violence and harm, encouraging socially responsible behaviour, and reducing the likelihood that welfare recipients will remain on welfare and out of the workforce for extended periods.
The program is showing positive results. The independent evaluation of the Cashless Debit Card trial conducted by ORIMA Research found that it had "a considerable positive impact" in the communities where it had operated.
The statistics back this up:
The Bill continues the operation of the Cashless Debit Card program but improves the processes introduced through recent non-government amendments for participants to exit the program.
The amendments were put forward by the Opposition to the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management and Cashless Welfare) Act2019 in April this year.
The Government agreed to include these Opposition amendments, however we recognised that more work and consultation was required to improve what the Opposition had put forward. The Opposition amendments allow Cashless Debit Card participants to apply for an exit from the program on or after 1 July 2019, if they can demonstrate reasonable and responsible management of their financial affairs as a primary consideration, taking into account a number of secondary factors.
The amendments also outlined that the local community body is the decision maker for those who live in a trial area where there is a community body. For other trial areas, the Secretary of the Department of Social Services is the decision maker.
Since this amendment was introduced, consultation in all four of the current Cashless Debit Card trial areas have identified concerns on the exit process.
The Government is introducing this legislation, following these consultations with communities, to ensure there is an effective, consistent and fair process for participants to exit the Cashless Debit Card program, whilst also continuing our commitment to provide the best support to people, families and communities in places where high levels of welfare dependence co-exist with high levels of social harm.
To improve the operation of processes for participants to exit the Cashless Debit Card program, the Bill proposes a number of reforms to the application process and decision making framework.
Firstly, the Bill provides that the Secretary of the Department of Social Services is the decision maker for all Cashless Debit Card exit applications. Community body representatives have stated that they do not support the exit process as it is currently designed, particularly the role of community bodies as the decision-maker.
While ongoing consultation and engagement on the impact of the new exit process will continue with communities including community bodies, providing that the Secretary of the Department of Social Services is the decision maker for all exit applications will ensure consistency and fairness for all participants of the program.
The Bill also broadens the criteria for the Cashless Debit Card exit provisions to allow the Secretary to take into account a person's ability to manage their affairs generally. For example, the Bill will enable the Secretary to require the person seeking to exit to not only meet the criteria based on financial grounds but can also take into account matters such as contact with authorities for non-financial reasons such as child protection or family violence issues.
The Bill also enables the Secretary to require the person seeking to exit the Cashless Debit Card program to be able to demonstrate that they are acting in the best interest of children, family and the community such as positive school attendance outcomes.
The development of this change followed consultations where stakeholders stated that any process to exit the Cashless Debit Card program should be based on a participant meeting social norms, consistent with the objectives of the program, as well as the current criteria that relates to the management of their financial affairs.
It is critical that we listen to this feedback and ensure that the Cashless Debit Card maintains its focus on reducing social harm and supporting vulnerable people, families and communities.
Finally, the Bill also clarifies that exit applications need to in a form that is approved by the Secretary, and makes a number of minor amendments to move the exit and wellbeing exemption arrangements for the Cashless Debit Card program under one subdivision in the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, without any alteration to the existing wellbeing process.
The Bill will not change the effectiveness or day-to-day operation of the program. It simply proposes administrative amendments to the exit application process and streamlines legislative provisions around Cashless Debit Card exit and exemption pathways in the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999.
The Government remains committed to the continuation of the Cashless Debit Card, to provide a strong social welfare safety net, through reducing social harm in areas with high levels of welfare dependency and supporting vulnerable people, families and communities.
We are committed to supporting communities that stand up and promote positive change and better outcomes for children and families and we will continue to work in partnership to ensure the Cashless Debit Card program provides the best support for vulnerable individuals within those communities.
This Bill is another step in this Government's efforts to sustain the positive impacts of welfare management and support communities to tackle the negative effects of welfare dependency.
I commend the Bill.
I rise to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019. Labor has serious concerns about the cashless welfare card, and we have always opposed its rollout nationally. Labor supported the initial trial of the Cashless Debit Card in Ceduna and East Kimberley because the community leaders indicated their support at the time. Of course, the initial support offered by communities came against a backdrop of inadequate local services and inadequate local job creation and economic development programs—the investments that government should have been making in local social and economic wellbeing.
Labor did not support the further expansion of the trial to Bundaberg-Hervey Bay or the Goldfields, because of the lack of evidence and a lack of any clear community support. Let me be clear: Labor will not support the expansion of the cashless debit card to new communities unless the community wants the card and there is informed community consent. At the election, the rollout of the cashless debit card in Bundaberg-Hervey Bay was only partially complete. Labor committed to stopping the rollout of the cashless debit card in Bundaberg-Hervey Bay and to taking a case management approach to putting in place alternative support for people already on the card, as well as investing in support services and programs that work. Labor has not been able to satisfy ourselves through our own consultations that the community desire present in the other trial sites was present in Goldfields and Bundaberg-Hervey Bay.
Labor successfully amended a bill in the Senate in April this year to allow people participating in the cashless debit card trial sites to get off the cashless debit card if they are effectively managing their affairs. Labor's amendment required community panels, which are established in some cashless debit card trial sites, to be the decision-maker. This was consistent with existing arrangements for reducing the portion of a person's income quarantined on the cashless debit card. The government's subsequent consultation with the community panels found that they did not want to be this decision-maker, out of concern for the pressure that could be placed on panel members by members of the community who apply to get off the cashless debit card. On this basis, Labor will not oppose this bill—it is consistent with the amendment we successfully made earlier in the year and it will give people a pathway off the card.
This bill will amend the exit criteria under current legislation to allow for a broader consideration of opt-out criteria for persons participating in the cashless welfare card. The bill will create a single administrative process for the Department of Social Services, DSS, to make decisions about people getting off the cashless debit card. The bill also combines the pre-existing welfare exemption which allows DSS to exempt a person from the cashless debit card if it is a threat to their physical, mental or emotional health, with the exit pathway established by Labor's amendment.
Further, the bill clarifies that exit applications need to be made in a form that is approved by the secretary of DSS and expands the wellbeing exemption provisions so they apply more broadly across all regions. This bill will ultimately assist participants who are managing their affairs well and who want to get off the card. We understand hundreds of people are seeking an exemption from the trial and have already approached DSS about the opt-out process. This shows there is strong community support for people being able to get off the cashless debit card.
Labor has some concerns about the operation of certain provisions in this bill, and we will move amendments to address some of these. The cashless debit card has been running too long. It is no longer a trial, and it is time the government produced some real evidence about the effectiveness of the card and reassessed community support in each trial area. That is why Labor moved a second reading amendment in the House calling on the government to: firstly, table a report in parliament by the end of the year, making clear whether or not there is continuing community support in any of the trial sites for the cashless debit card; secondly, table a wraparound service plan in the parliament by the end of the year, explaining how the government has boosted community services in the trial sites and what increased investment will be made in the future; and, thirdly, make the cashless debit card voluntary from 30 January 2020, unless there is clear local community support and consent for the card. This is an incredibly important point—the government simply cannot continue to impose this card on communities where there is not clear support and they cannot continue to impose it in the absence of evidence about the card's effectiveness.
In this context, Labor's future position on the cashless debit card is clear. We will not support the extension of the cashless debit card trial sites or the further rollout of the cashless debit card, unless the government can demonstrate there is clear and genuine local community support. The cashless debit card is over-simplified. Labor will move similar amendments in the committee stages in the debate in this bill, setting out a process for people to come off the card.
Since the introduction of the cashless debit card trials, the government has continually failed to be up-front about the full cost of implementing the cashless debit card. Hopefully, this is something the minister can shed some light on in the course of this debate. The government have already spent $34 million on the cashless debit card, and the budget papers show they're planning to spend $128.8 million over the forward estimates, including on new sites and the rollout of the cashless debit card across the Northern Territory. That's over $160 million that instead could have been allocated to employment and economic development, early intervention services, and to drug and alcohol treatment.
It was reported in mid-2017 that the cost per participant of the cashless debit card exceeded $10,000 per participant. The same year the Auditor-General found that the annual running costs of the cashless debit card would be over $3,700 per participant. The problem is that we have never had a proper evaluation into what better outcomes would be possible if this money was invested differently. This is incredibly concerning, particularly when you consider that the Auditor-General found there was no evidence that the cashless debit card was effective. In addition, Labor has become increasingly concerned about the government's reliance on the deeply flawed ORIMA evaluation to justify the cashless debit card. The Auditor-General's examination of the cashless debit card found that there was no evidence that the card was effective and found deep inconsistencies in the ORIMA evaluation.
At a Senate inquiry into the cashless debit card earlier this year, the Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs heard evidence that in some trial sites the cashless debit card has now been in operation for so long that the opportunity for a proper piece of evaluation to be conducted has passed. There is clear evidence the card is not maintaining community support, even in areas where some people might have initially been in favour of the card. Indigenous leader and foundation chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, Professor Marcia Langton, has said the cashless debit card is a failure. Professor Langton said, 'Because the local community is not involved in implementing the policy, the policy failed.' One of the community leaders who initially supported the introduction of the trial, Mr Desmond Hill, has since withdrawn his support. Mr Hill told the recent inquiry one of the conditions community leaders had when agreeing to the East Kimberley becoming a trial site was that people would be able to apply to leave the trial. Another Indigenous elder in the East Kimberley, Ian Trust, who remains a supporter, told the committee he was not opposed to people being able to come off the card in some circumstances. That is why it is important that people can get off the cashless debit card, even in areas where the trial may be supported by the community. This bill will allow people to come off the cashless debit card, and the fact is many of those people should not have been on the card in the first place.
In conclusion, why Labor will not oppose this bill because it implements an amendment we made some months ago and provides a pathway off the card. We will not support the extension of the cashless debit card trial sites or the further rollout of the cashless debit card, unless the government can demonstrate there is clear and genuine local community support. Labor will take an evidence based approach to this policy and to income management. We will not go down the US path of supporting essentially a food stamp system, where people are identified and shamed in public by the card as being on social security, where children are teased and ostracised at school, where people can't buy a second hand fridge on Gumtree, shop at a roadside farm stall or buy food at a market, all because this conservative government would rather hand out tens of millions of dollars to a private company to run the cashless debit card and to set up a privatised, parallel welfare system to be imposed by this government on people regardless of their circumstances or how they are managing their affairs. Australians have a right to adequate social security. It should be considered by all sides a basic characteristic of a fair and civil society. We will not demonise social security recipients, like this government does.
I rise to speak on the Social Services (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019. This bill makes changes to the exit and wellbeing exemption arrangements for people to exit the cashless debit card trials. These are necessary because the current processes aren't workable. These changes relate to the so-called exit or opt-out provisions, which were rushed through the Senate by the government and the ALP together in return for the ALP's supporting the government's extension of the cashless debit card trial sites. That happened in April. There was no time to debate the bill itself or the amendments. It was obvious from the start, by reading the amendments that were rushed through, that the exit provisions wouldn't work. But that really didn't matter to the government or the opposition, because they just wanted to see the extension of the cashless debit card rushed through without adequate scrutiny so that they could extend the trials for another 12 months.
That was rushed through before the election. Unfortunately there was no way to debate those changes, as I said, because the gag was applied to a number of bills that were rushed through in April, before the election. The Senate did not have time to adequately scrutinise the amendments. I would hope that, if we had been given time, the fact that they weren't workable would have been realised. What has happened now is that we have a whole lot of people that are in limbo. I will come back to that in a minute.
We have here a bill that makes a number of changes, including removing the role of the unelected, hand picked community bodies in assessing a person's exit applications. It makes the secretary of the Department of Social Services the decision-maker for the exit applications. It also amends some of the exit criteria and clarifies that exit applications that are to be made through a form approved by the secretary of the department.
I will come to the discussion of the amendments shortly, but let me first be very clear: the Greens continue their opposition to income management and the cashless debit card trials and the cashless debit card. This is a punitive approach that unfairly discriminates against First Nations communities, particularly, and does not work, despite the government's rhetoric. Last night in adjournment I articulated and spoke about a number of accounts from people that are subject to the cashless debit card and how it's making their lives worse, not better. The cashless debit card is not supported by lots of people in the broader community and people in the trial sites.
I move a second reading amendment to the legislation:
", but the Senate calls on the Government to abandon compulsory income management and the Cashless Debit Card."
People on the card have articulated how they feel demonised, stigmatised. People have been spat on, called druggies and had their children bullied at school because their parents are on the card. The card restricts human rights and unfairly targets people on income support. We do not support the cashless debit card. We don't support income management.
The government falsely claim the success of the card and of income management. Their own evaluations, if read clearly and properly, don't support those claims, even if you ignore the fact that the methodology is flawed. I have, many times in this place, gone through the flaws in the evaluation process and the way the government falsely claim that those evaluations show the success of income management. They ignore the voices of the community such as those that I quoted last night in my adjournment speech. Those people, as I said, talk about being shamed, being demonised and the fact that they have a lot of problems with the card.
The Northern Territory, through the Northern Territory intervention, has had income management for 12 long years. Does anybody seriously claim that the situation in the Northern Territory has been stabilised, that it has improved, when we see an escalating number of children going into out-of-home care still and we still have outrageous youth justice interaction problems and problems with the youth justice system? No, of course they don't. In 2007 the then-Howard government made what turned out to be false claims about the situation in the Northern Territory, to justify the dog whistling of the Northern Territory intervention. Those claims have not been proved to be correct. None of the things that they claimed would happen through the intervention and income management have in fact happened, which the evaluation of the Northern Territory intervention clearly showed. The hearing into the rollout of the cashless debit card in Hinkler clearly showed something similar. The authors of that report highlighted the findings from the Northern Territory intervention evaluation, which does not support the government's claims of success.
The Greens remain strongly opposed to the cashless debit card and income management. However, there are now hundreds of people in limbo because the application process that was rushed through this place doesn't work, and there is actually no process in place to assess their applications. The wellbeing exemption process is a mess. My office has tried to help many people who have applied for the wellbeing exemption and been extremely frustrated by the process. The wellbeing exemption process has been in place for a long time. For opt-out and exit there are no processes in place, but we've helped a number of people through the wellbeing exemption process. One person was told, 'You need to be on the card first, so then you can prove that it's adversely impacted your mental health.' In other words, the department at the time was saying, 'You need to be sicker before we can take you off it.' It's ridiculous.
We are supporting this legislation, although I have some strong concerns about it which I will articulate. We will be supporting this process around exemption. I'm being really clear: we do not support the cashless debit card, but we support improving the exemption process, because we want to help what we've been told, through our community contacts, is about 400 people who have applied for the opt-out process and are in limbo. We want to make sure there is a process in place, so we are supporting this particular bit of the legislation. However, I have some amendments to the process, because we think it can still be improved.
I thank the minister for the way that she has undertaken the consultation to get this process fixed. I think that she's been very open to what we had to say. She didn't take everything on board, I must say, but it was a welcome process because it enabled us to look at the legislation and point at some of the issues that we had. Once the legislation was released, we listened very strongly to stakeholders, who have had things to say even in the short time since this legislation was tabled last Thursday. There are a lot of people who are keenly interested in the cashless debit card trials and income management, and they have responded very quickly to our reaching out for their comments.
Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of issues that have been raised with the criteria, and I will go through some of those issues that we have now with the process. Having said that, I will reiterate that I was pleased that we could talk to the government about some of these issues. I just wish they'd gone a lot further. I will say now, too, that I have a series of questions. Although these changes are in place to help the process roll more smoothly, I think there are a lot of questions about how the process will work, so I'd like to get the answers on record in order for people to understand how the process will work when they use this legislation to opt out and also for the wellbeing exemptions.
Some of the issues that I still think are problematic are under section 124PHB(3). It says that a person wishing to exit the trial will be assessed according to the following:
(a) the person can demonstrate reasonable and responsible management of the person's affairs (including financial affairs), taking into account all of the following:
(i) the interest of any children for whom the person is responsible;
(ii) whether the person was convicted of an offence against a law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory, or was serving a sentence of imprisonment for such an offence, at any time in the last 12 months …
I acknowledge that this is a change from what originally went through this place, which was about whether the person 'has a likelihood of engaging in any unlawful activity'. That was totally subjective. It wasn't measurable. It was dependent on whether somebody in the community, because at this stage it was about the community panels and the community bodies, thought someone was going to carry out any unlawful activity. So I do acknowledge that that's an improvement on what was there. We do, however, have concerns that it's 'convicted of an offence' rather than 'convicted of a serious offence', so I do have an amendment to make to emphasise that it's about a serious offence.
The criteria also includes:
(iii) risks of homelessness;
(iv) the health and safety of the person and the community;
(v) the responsibilities and circumstances of the person;
(vi) the person's engagement in the community, including the person's employment or efforts to obtain work …
Anybody reading those will see that a lot of those are also very subjective, so that's why I wish to clarify these issues during the debate of the whole—so people are clear about how this criteria will be assessed. We actually want to take out the whole lot of the criteria and just leave the 'managing financial affairs' part there. That's another amendment that I'll be putting in during the committee of the whole process.
Now, let's look at these criteria. For a start, some of these criteria would well contradict the wellbeing exemption. If having poor mental health, for example, qualifies you for a wellbeing exemption, will it then qualify you for a wellbeing exemption, or does it mean that you are caught up under the criteria that talks about the health and safety of a person in the community? The problem here is that we are at risk of the criteria for the opt-out exemption contradicting the process through the wellbeing exemption, so we need to make sure that that is clarified.
Many, many people responded over the weekend to the criteria, telling us they thought the exit criteria were incredibly patronising and onerous and that they believe they're based on ideological grounds rather than on being workable. These exit provisions require trial participants to provide evidence that goes above and beyond the objectives of the trial. It is unfair that trial participants are being forced to jump through these hoops that no other income support recipients are subject to all because they are unlucky enough to live in the so-called cashless debit card trial sites. Let me say that people who are living on incredibly low payments, such as $277.86 per week on Newstart, are some of the best money managers around. It is objectionable that the government thinks that just because you're on income support, you can't manage your finances.
Many people on income support payments, especially on low payments, find it difficult to provide evidence that satisfies these criteria. Let's take the criteria for risk of homelessness. The chronic lack of housing, especially in remote communities, means that First Nation families often experience housing overcrowding. This will work against First Nation people wanting to exit the card. A person's risk of homelessness could also be exacerbated by being on the cashless debit card. I've heard repeated accounts of people's rent payments bouncing back into their accounts, because of the Indue card, and not being paid on time. How is it fair to assess a person on their risk of homelessness when the card itself makes it difficult to maintain a good rental history?
To exit the card, a person also needs to demonstrate they have not been convicted of any offences in the last 12 months. This could see someone charged with minor offences like jaywalking, petty theft or graffiti excluded from exiting the card. First Nation people will again be disadvantaged because of the institutionalised and systemic racism they experience through our justice system, and virtually every day of their lives. We know that First Nation people are 13 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous people.
A trial participant's exit application will also be assessed against the health and safety of the person and the community. This is incredibly unfair. How can a person prove the health and safety of their community, and how can they be held responsible for it? Individuals cannot, and should not, be held responsible for the health and safety of their community in return for getting off the card. It also directly contradicts the wellbeing exemptions that allow a person to exit the card based on their physical and mental health issues. It begs the question as to whether, as I articulated earlier, a person's health will determine whether they stay on the card or exit the card.
I also have strong concerns about the criteria around a person's employment or efforts to obtain work. The cashless debit card operates in many regional areas that are suffering from thin or non-existent labour markets. The focus on proving employment also reflects the government's devaluing of unpaid care work. Unpaid care often takes place in private and is not able to be verified by documentary evidence.
Overall, the exit criteria are not measurable or objective and I will move an amendment to have these removed. If that fails, I've got a lot of questions to ask about how they will operate. The objectives remain open to interpretation and allow the secretary of the Department of Social Services to exercise extensive discretion over a person's exit application, and that remains a strong concern for many people.
Despite being fully aware of these flaws, the government has not moved to make significant improvements to the exit criteria. When we are discussing these during the committee of the whole, I will urge the minister to clarify how these criteria will be interpreted, what evidence will be acceptable and how will it be verified? There are also significant problems with the role of the health and community worker in the reconsideration of the exit applications. Section 124PHB(8) stipulates:
If a health or community worker considers that it is necessary for the person who is the subject of a determination under subsection (3) to be a trial participant for medical or safety reasons, the worker may request the Secretary to reconsider the determination.
While I think the way that is worded shows some improvement, I am concerned that it doesn't stipulate that the health or community worker has to have a professional relationship with the person that they're talking about. Otherwise, any member of the community who happens to be a health or community worker may register an issue with the department to say, 'We want that person reconsidered,' having no justification for that at all, other than it may be their opinion. I'm deeply concerned about the way this could be interpreted and seek clarification from the government that the worker will be expected to have a professional connection with the person they're working with.
Unlike some people, we are in fact pleased that the community bodies have been taken out of this process. Community bodies are unelected. The government has chosen the people there. Nobody knows who they are. I've said this repeatedly in this place and called for those names to be released so that people in the community can know who's judging them. It is totally unfair that the participants of this trial do not know who the people are that are making the decisions in either the community panel or the community reference group, where they exist, in both Hinkler and Kalgoorlie. We don't know if there are participants, for example, on the reference groups. We understand there are businesses. So businesses get a say over the control of people's lives? This is outrageous!
People in the government will continue to get up and say how fantastic the card is. They obviously haven't spoken to the people that are suffering under this card—being demonised, stigmatised, spat on and called druggies who can't manage their financial affairs, when they have proven that they can manage their financial affairs. Income management stigmatises people. It is discriminatory. It should be abandoned now. We will not support any continuation of the CDC.
I rise to make a contribution on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019. I note with some trepidation that my new colleague from Western Australia Matt O'Sullivan, who gave an absolutely wonderful first speech last night and who is full bottle on this topic, is speaking after me. Hopefully, I don't mess up too badly, Senator O'Sullivan.
This is something I have taken an interest in, as a senator from Western Australia, since my time began in this place. I was fortunate enough as an incoming senator to be on the community affairs committee, and one of my first committee responsibilities was to travel to Kalgoorlie with the community affairs committee and talk to the local community about this very issue. One of the things that was very clear from that time in Kalgoorlie was the sheer desperation that parts of rural and regional areas in particular face in relation to issues of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, other addiction problems and social dysfunction in general. That desperation was voiced by so many people—people from non-Indigenous backgrounds, people from Indigenous backgrounds and, literally, the taxi driver who took me from the airport in Kalgoorlie to the hearing. The desperation and the desire to give people some hope was palpable. In working with the member for O'Connor, Rick Wilson, a good friend of mine, on the cashless debit card trial in Kalgoorlie—and I know that Senator O'Sullivan, in his previous role, also played a part in the development of the cashless debit card—we've seen that granting of hope. We've see people grasp the opportunity to improve their lives that is presented by the cashless debit card.
We understand those opposite have some ideological objections to the underlying idea of the cashless debit card. However, that granting of hope to people in those communities is something that shouldn't be diminished and shouldn't be put aside on the basis of an ideological view of the world. The cashless debit card is about giving people the chance to get control of their own lives again—of their own spending. Of the stories that have come to me from the Kalgoorlie trial, there is one of a young woman who has been able to get control of her financial situation and has been able to buy a car, for the first time in her life, and maintain the operating costs on that car. There are stories of shopkeepers in the town of Coolgardie who have seen families coming in and buying food for their children's lunch for the first time ever. This is an opportunity for people to take control of their financial situation in the face of the absolutely debilitating impacts of drug and alcohol abuse in particular.
This is a community led program. I think that is something that should not be ignored. I know the genesis, particularly in Kalgoorlie, in the Goldfields region, of the cashless debit card. This was not government in Canberra picking a spot; this was community groups in Kalgoorlie and the surrounding areas coming to their local member, Rick Wilson, advocating to be part of this trial. There was extensive consultation within the area involved. There was a postal survey that went out to 18,000 Goldfields households and came back with 85 per cent support for the trial. There was advocacy from local community groups. I spoke to the local mayor, I spoke to the CEO of the local shire, and to the Shire of Laverton and the Shire of Leonora—and I should point out that there is significant Indigenous representation in those local government authorities. These local communities wanted a circuit-breaker, they wanted something to change the dynamic in their community, and that is what the cashless debit card has provided.
Another point—and I have made it in this place before, but it is very important—is that we are looking here at amendments to the regime, and that is because these are trials. This is a process of constant improvement. We know that this is something we need to look at. We need to see what works, and we need to change what doesn't and try again. This is not something that we as a government, as a society, can afford to get wrong. There is too much at stake.
The government believe in a fair go for all and we believe in putting vulnerable people first, but we also have to spend taxpayers' money in a responsible way. We have high expectations of people who are on welfare and we know that those people, who are often in desperate circumstances, do want to regain control of their lives in the face of addiction and want to make a better life for themselves and their families.
The cashless debit card does look and operate like a regular EFTPOS card; however, it can't be used to withdraw cash, gamble or purchase alcohol. Recipients receive 80 per cent of their payments on the card, with the remaining 20 per cent placed in a bank account. The card can be used to pay for everyday expenses such as rent, mortgages and bills; to buy groceries; and to pay for medical appointments, car registration and similar things. The cashless debit card is a fee-free account. People can check their balances and transaction histories for free, and replace lost or stolen cards at no cost. The cashless debit cards provide effective usability for participants, with the ability to transfer funds between cashless debit card accounts and to access online shopping. It's accepted at something like just under a million EFTPOS terminals nationally. It is a user-friendly and innovative way for people to receive income support payments, and we continue to improve it all the time.
There are currently four trial areas: the Ceduna region in South Australia; the East Kimberley region in Western Australia; the Goldfields region, which I have spoken a little about, in Western Australia; and most recently the Bundaberg and Harvey Bay region in Queensland. All of these areas face very different challenges, which is why—again, this was community driven—the government chose them. In the Goldfields region, the card is often thought of as directly impacting more on the Indigenous community there. However, it is always important to note that, of the welfare recipients who are on the cashless debit card program, 50 per cent are actually non-Indigenous.
We have a situation where Kalgoorlie is different to the East Kimberley in terms of its demographic profiles. Bundaberg and Hervey Bay are different again. It's a much younger demographic and targeted as such. This is a government that is committed to seeing what works on the ground and making sure that the rollout is effective—that we monitor the rollout and that we act on the information that we are gaining back.
In the first of the three sites the program applied to all working age welfare participants, but in Hervey Bay and Bundaberg it targeted those under 35. So, again, we are seeking to gain the information on where this is most effective and how we can use this as a tool to help people take control of their own lives.
There are around 11,200 people on the cashless card trial across those four sites. Again, this has been developed in close partnership with community leaders and looks to address those devastating impacts of drug and alcohol that I've talked about.
The government has talked about and committed to expanding the cashless debit card to the Northern Territory and Cape York regions of Queensland in 2020. Again, that will offer another snapshot into another set of issues at the local level.
Why do we need this bill? This bill allows the Secretary of the Department of Social Services to be the decision-maker for all cashless debit card exit applications and broadens the criteria for the exit provisions to allow the secretary to take into account a person's ability to manage their affairs generally, including their financial affairs. The bill clarifies that exit applications need to be made in a form that is approved by the secretary and expands the wellbeing exemption provisions, so they apply more broadly across the regions.
Changes are needed to fix the exit process that was introduced by the opposition earlier this year as an amendment to legislation that extended the cashless debit card program beyond 30 June 2019. Following the passage of these amendments feedback from community representatives indicated a lack of support for the new exit process and particularly the role of community bodies as decision-makers. Community stakeholders also indicated that any process to exit the program should be based on a participant meeting social norms, as well as the current criteria relating to financial management. Without the critical support of the community bodies and agreement to make decisions on these applications it is not possible to implement the exit process as provided for under the current provisions.
The exit application process is accessible to all participants. The criteria to be considered by the decision-maker is outlined in the legislation. This criteria is applied to each participant's own circumstances, however, it may vary. Therefore, a phone interview will ensure that participants have an opportunity for a fair and equitable assessment by taking into account these differences at a time that suits them.
This bill will amend the exit criteria to allow broader consideration of a person's affairs, including their financial affairs. This allows full consideration of all factors, such as the impact on children and family safety. This change to the criteria is in line with the feedback from consultation with community stakeholders and is consistent with the broader social objectives of the cashless debit card program.
This bill will amend the exit process to reflect the feedback from consultation and to require applications to be made in a form approved by the secretary. The amendments also enable the secretary to make a determination in relation to applications, which will be a reviewable decision.
These amendments will also move the exit and wellbeing exemption arrangements under one subdivision of the Social Security (Administration) Act. This removes differences in decision-making processes, increasing consistency and fairness for participants across trial areas, regardless of whether a person is a participant in a trial area where there is a community body in place.
CDC participants can be also be exited from the trial if they were incorrectly placed on the trial or if they no longer meet the participation criteria. This is different to the wellbeing exemption process where a CDC participant could be exempted from the trial if being on the trial could pose a serious risk to their mental, physical or emotional wellbeing.
Just briefly in winding up, I think it is important to note that the government did commit, as part of this process, to ongoing reviews of the cashless debit card in place. The first of those, from the Adelaide University, was published in February this year. It looked in particular at the Goldfields region. It has a section, which I want to go through briefly, on the early impacts of the cashless debit card. I'll read out some of the observations. It says:
... a majority of respondents were of the opinion that early impacts were starting to be observed. These impacts primarily centred on alcohol and drug use and misuse, child welfare and well-being, spending and financial management, financial abuse, crime and domestic violence, and support services.
Levels of substance misuse (and especially alcohol misuse) were reported by many respondents to have reduced in the Goldfields since the introduction of the CDC. Likewise, alcohol-related anti-social behaviour and crime had also decreased.
It goes on to say:
Early positive impacts relating to improvements in child welfare and well-being were commonly reported by respondents with beneficial outcomes of the CDC perceived to be flowing down from participants to their families.
I'll contrast that again—the positives that are coming out of the analysis of the cashless debit card trials—with some of the comments I got on that first trip to Kalgoorlie. The mayor of Kalgoorlie, John Bowler, said:
Locals who live here complain to me about what's happening. They want a solution. I've been almost pulling my hair out—the little bit of hair I've got—asking: what is a solution?
He went on to talk about how the community has been contacting him about the problems they have. He then said:
I then drove to Ceduna to experience it firsthand and make my own observations. I spoke to people ... I spoke to the deputy mayor, I spoke to retailers in the town and townspeople and got the same picture: they were glad that it had been introduced. They said there were some complaints, but even some who initially had been opposed to the card had really come around to say that life generally was better, particularly for those living on the streets.
Patrick Hill, President of the Shire of Laverton, said:
Everyone in town—the police, the hospital, the school, the Laverton Crisis Centre, the ambulance, the fire brigade, the resident group, the shire—has done everything possible to try and stem this abuse and the effects that alcohol, drugs and gambling have on our towns and the availability of cash. Council has formally adopted and supports the cashless welfare card because we see this as an opportunity to try and do something. We have had up to 50 agencies come into Laverton to try and address these social issues, and we do have our Laverton inter-agency group meetings to come up with solutions to try and stem this violence.
Mr Hill went on to say:
This will at least give us breathing space to do something and sit back and analyse where things can be done better and what we can do better as a community. We see it every single day. We have done everything we can as a community to try and solve some of these issues that we've got.
I could go on. There are many more. We heard from Mr Jim Epis, chief executive of the Shire of Leonora. We heard from business owners in Kalgoorlie. We heard from community groups in the Goldfields region. People wanted the chance to try and change the social dynamic, the dysfunction that was occurring in their community. It is a desperately sad situation. I've heard ministers on this side repeatedly say that the cashless debit card is not a silver bullet, and we on this side all understand that. It is not of itself the solution. However, it can be a part of a broader solution. It can be the circuit-breaker that helps people take back control of their lives. I support the bill.
I rise in support of the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019 . Last night, it was my great privilege to be able to speak for the first the time here in the Senate. In that speech, I spoke about my involvement with the cashless debit card in its early formations. I thought I'd take the time now to talk a little bit about the journey and the genesis—how the whole idea of the cashless debit card actually came about—because I was part of the very early discussions with some of the communities where it's now being trialled.
Senator Brockman said that I am a full bottle on this. Well, I think that's very kind and generous, but I think it's a little overstated. The reality is the full bottles on this are the communities. They are the ones that understand the depth and breadth of the importance of this card and the support that's provided with it—the extra supports of services that come with the card. The government is not delivering just that form of administered welfare payments, the social services payments that people receive. There are other supports that are there.
The Cashless Debit Card came about after a review by Mr Andrew Forrest from Fortescue Metals Group and the Minderoo Foundation, where I was working at the time. He was asked by the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to undertake a review of the Indigenous jobs and training system. In doing the review, having gone around the country and speaking with many people—there were town hall meetings, lots of consultations around the country and about 400 different submissions as well—what became very apparent was that the focus on training and employment was important and we needed to bring some reforms into that space. I spoke about that last night in my speech. What became really apparent was, if people for six out of seven nights are drunk and affected by drugs, then there's no chance of training those people for jobs, even for jobs that are there or where there's a demand for jobs. And so there was a real cry from communities to try something that was different, to try something that could help people get that circuit-breaker.
Senator Brockman said that no-one in this place, in the government or anywhere, even in the communities, is saying that the Cashless Debit Card would be a silver bullet, but it is a circuit-breaker and it does provide an opportunity. We had a look at what was available. Is there a technology solution that could help? Years ago, you wouldn't have been able to do this, but technology has advanced.
We saw that the basics card was in operation in the Northern Territory. It's a similar model. It works similarly, but there are a few important differences between the basics card and the Cashless Debit Card. One of the problems with the basics card, which all welfare recipients across the Northern Territory and other parts in disparate locations across the country experience, is that the merchant has to install a separate terminal at their point of sale. In the Northern Territory in particular, you'd go into the grocery store, into the supermarket, and there would only be one line that had the basics card terminal installed, and it was the basics card terminal. Of course, you'd see all of the welfare recipients lined up at one terminal and everyone else lined up at the other aisles. It created a stigma for people. It was obvious who was on welfare and who was not, so it wasn't empowering. It wasn't helping people. It was actually driving down the despair further. If you're on welfare, it's a challenging circumstance, and no-one debates that, but what we don't need to do is add further stigma or a further issue to their lives, and the basics card was, in many ways, doing that. We took it to the technology providers, EFTPOS, Visa and Mastercard, and had a discussion with them. We got the banks together and said, 'Is there a way we could use one of the mainstream schemes, Visa, Mastercard or EFTPOS, to provide a more ubiquitous program so that the card could work anywhere in Australia, not just at those locations the merchant had installed a terminal to interface with their point of sale?'
We wanted to find a system that would enable people to go freely about their lives, conduct their business, buy the things that they needed—their groceries—and pay their electricity bill and pay for whatever they needed in a pretty unrestricted way, just with the merchants that sell alcohol and gambling products blocked and of course ensuring that there's no purchase of drugs and perhaps prohibiting taking cash out at the ATM.
This was a real breakthrough. It couldn't have been done 10 years ago. This is something that was new, and we thought it was worth trialling. So, we took it to a number of the communities that are now trial communities, and a few others. There were a few that rejected it; they didn't want it. At the time Geraldton, for example, weren't prepared to bring about the trial. But in the communities of the East Kimberley and Ceduna, the leadership group within those communities, said: 'Look, we think this is worth a go. We think this is worth trialling.' So, at Generation One, in Minderoo, where I was working at the time, we took it to the government. The government worked with us and said, 'Well, if you can actually demonstrate that the support is real, that there are actually people who want to see this happen, where we could break the cycle of welfare-fuelled alcohol, drug and gambling purchases, then this might be worth having a look at.' So we did. We got the support of those communities. They were a part of bringing delegations here into this place, speaking with crossbench members, government and opposition about the kind of support that was there within these communities. The government moved to implement this program, and it's been running now for several years across the East Kimberley and Ceduna, and now into the Goldfields and Hinkler.
It's a circuit-breaker. It by no means deals with all the challenges. I talked to the senior sergeant of police up in Kununurra, who said to me, 'Instead of having five continuous nights and days, after welfare payments hit, of drinking issues and all sorts of social problems that come with excessive drinking, we might now have only one or two nights.' So, it becomes a circuit-breaker. I had the opportunity to go to many of these communities over a number of years, long before the cashless debit card and now since the implementation of the card, and these places really are different. They're very, very different. They're not perfect; you still see issues, you still hear from the nursing staff and police and others, and we know there are still some problems that have to be addressed within these communities.
To me, employment is clearly the way to deal with this, because when someone has to take the responsibility of getting up for work and the responsibility of providing for their family, they make better choices, because they can't be staying out late every night, using all their money to purchase copious amounts of alcohol and drugs and not putting that into their family. People take responsibility. So, this is a real opportunity, and people seize that opportunity when they've got a job. That really is the focus that we need to have.
So, this legislation and the amendment here deals with an important thing that the community is looking for. As Senator Brockman said, this is a trial. This is about moving and adapting to the program and how it's working and how it can be improved. Here we have a situation where community members are saying, 'We think there are circumstances where people can demonstrate that they don't need to be on the cashless debit card and they can transition off that.' The government's listened to what the community is saying. There was a part of the legislation that established a reference group that people would have to go to and make their case, and then that would be able to take them off the cashless debit card. But the community responded, saying: 'Actually, we don't want to be set up against our communities. We don't want to have that sort of involvement. We just want to be participants within our community and not have that sort of role.' So I think this amendment is a very important amendment. It takes pressure away from community members within the group. This is an important change that we would make here today.
In order to make the card even better—it's never going to be perfect—we can invest in the technology that the card operates on. At the moment, it works by blocking an entire merchant. If you use that card at a grocery store, a supermarket, it will work. If you use it at a petrol station, it will work. If you use it to put new tyres on your car, it will work. This is not just in communities where the trial is in operation, but anywhere across Australia and, in fact, the world. However, if you use that card at a liquor store, it won't work. If you try to use it at a casino, to purchase some gambling products, it won't work. This is anywhere across Australia, not just within those trial communities.
The problem is, if you want to see it go into other regions where you don't have these discrete communities, there are mixed merchants that sell both alcohol and groceries through the same point-of-sale system. What we really need, to enable it to expand and go further and to take away any of that stigma that is attached to it, is the ability to limit the sale of particular items. So we need to ratchet up the scale of the technology to limit items rather than an entire merchant. One of the problems is, you can go to a mixed merchant, or even an existing merchant that's allowed—for example, at the service station—and buy a gift card and take that gift card that you purchased in the service station, or the post office or wherever you can buy gift cards, straight down to a liquor store to purchase a trolley full of booze. It's defeating the purpose of the program.
I'll be working with the minister and the government to look at ways of developing the technology to improve its efficiency, to improve how it works, so we can restrict the sale of particular items rather than entire merchants. You certainly wouldn't want to restrict the ability to shop at a supermarket. It has basic provisions that people are going to need. And we can't stop people purchasing fuel from a service station just because they also sell gift cards.
In the trial communities they've got around it with a manual override process, by limiting the sale of particular items. But if we're going to take it broadly we need to invest in the technology. This will further support the communities and the intent of the program, which is not to limit people's lives, not to impose upon them any unnecessary, undue, process. They will be able to go about their lives freely, without any encumbrance, and provide for their families. We've seen some great results in the trial communities. The key finding from the initial evaluation was that 41 per cent of those who reported drinking before the trial were now drinking less, while 37 per cent reported binge drinking less frequently. It doesn't mean they've stopped; it just means there's been a reduction.
I spent many years as a youth worker, and I have never seen a program have such a dramatic social impact. There's no amount of counselling or support that you could provide—I've worked with many young people who have had issues with this. I've never seen such a dramatic change in a community brought about, as we've seen in this community, with that sort of result. Of participants who reported that they were gambling, 48 per cent said that they were gambling less. Of those who said that they were taking illegal drugs before the program commenced, 48 per cent said that they reported using illegal drugs less often.
The evaluation also found widespread spillover benefits from the card. Forty per cent of participants surveyed that they were better able to look after their children. Forty-five per cent of participants were better able to save money. There was a decrease in requests for emergency food relief and financial assistance in the Ceduna region, and merchants reported increased purchases of baby items and food, clothing, shoes, toys and other goods for children. In the Wyndham store that I went into, for some reason, there's been a big run on fish fingers. There were copious amounts of fish fingers being sold. It's often the food of choice for my children, I've got to say, when you're just trying to put a quick meal together on a Sunday night! The point is people are using more money for important support for their families.
Of course, we're also hearing from teachers and schools that they're having to provide less food at the breakfast programs in Wyndham primary schools. Instead of kids coming and filling up because they haven't had any food at home, there are fewer kids now coming to school needing that service and assistance—that wonderful program that's run in the schools.
In closing, this is an small amendment to this program, but it is very important. This is something that is in response to what the community is asking for. None of us here in this place are necessarily experts on this. The people we need to listen to are those who are on the ground. When the people in the community are saying that this is something that we need to further improve the program and to ensure that it has the best opportunity for success, then that's something that we should respond to. I commend the bill.
I have supported the cashless debit card as an effective means of reducing the impact of alcohol and drug use since its inception, because it works. I took part in the committee inquiry hearing in Kalgoorlie in 2017 and heard from people about the level of dysfunction which drug and alcohol abuse bring to a community. I have spoken to community representatives since about the positive impact that the card has brought. I have heard about children being sent to school regularly. I've heard about families shopping together and filling their supermarket trolleys with food—a new experience as a result of the card. I've heard that the level of social disruption has fallen. Domestic violence has lessened. The evidence on the ground shows that the cashless debit card makes a difference in improving lives and improving communities.
This is borne out by a number of research projects. The baseline report into the Goldfields trails supports these earlier findings. There continues to be a decrease in drug and alcohol issues; decreases in violent crime and antisocial behaviour; improvements in child health and wellbeing; and ongoing and even strengthening community support for the income management measures. The independent evaluation of the card trial in Ceduna and East Kimberley regions also show the effectiveness of the trial to reduce alcohol abuse and gambling, which also eats up income, in many welfare-dependent communities. The overall conclusion of the research was that the card has had a considerably positive impact, including 41 per cent of those surveyed reported drinking less frequently, 48 per cent used drugs less frequently and 48 per cent of gamblers gambled less often. Given the positive outcomes that the cashless debit card has shown to have, I cannot see how anyone would not support the continuation of the trials and a broader rollout in other areas where drug and alcohol abuse and social dysfunction are rife.
There is strong support for the introduction of the cashless debit card from community leaders, local government and key community based organisations—for example, the Far West Community Leaders Group, which recently released this statement:
We are now into the third year of the implementation of the cashless debit card rollout in the far west region of South Australia, which covers Oak Valley, Yalata, Scotdesco, Koonibba and Ceduna. We acknowledge and recognise the work done by all our communities and other areas of Australia that have implemented the cashless debit card. It has not been an easy feat but we have united together, influenced the design of the trial and made a real lasting effect in numerous communities, all with unique experiences and individualised benefits. We recognise the government officials and ministers, both current and former, who have stayed true to their word in co-designing the trial with us rather than for us. Our region remains in direct contact with ministers and departmental staff and, furthermore, we encourage the Prime Minister and other ministers to visit our communities and see firsthand the results of the policy.
As I said, I went to Kalgoorlie for the Senate inquiry. I listened to community leaders, councillors, mayors and community elders, and basically the majority wanted the card. The only real issue was communication. They felt that there was a need for the card, especially in Kalgoorlie. You know that it comes down to tough love. I listen to the Greens speaking on this issue in this chamber and they talk about someone's human rights being taken away from them. I think we need to look at the real issues. The government has introduced the cashless debit card because of certain communities—and let's be honest about it and not back away from it, these communities are basically Aboriginal. That's what they are. That's where the real problem is. Everyone skirts around the whole issue. The big issue is with alcohol and drugs. In 1998 I had a community meeting with Aboriginal women. They brought their children and they told me, 'We are facing sexual abuse and our kids are sniffing glue.' There was no assistance. Everyone turns their back. They don't really want to deal with the issue, because they would be called a racist.
These are real problems and issues in these communities. There is escalating crime. The attitude is: 'Don't lock up Aboriginals, because the incarceration rate is getting too high.' Why is it getting that high? I have been speaking to a lot of Aboriginal communities and it is because there is a lack of employment. Then you look at the reason that is happening. Is it because they are on alcohol and drugs and it makes them unemployable? That's another issue to look at. How are we really going to address the problem? Don't turn your back on it because you think it is too hard.
The cashless debit card is a start, and it is working. I have spoken to police and they have said that, once it has been introduced, reduction in crime has started and families are buying decent food for the kids. Health issues, like diabetes and kidney dysfunction, are another big problem. This is all happening because of their diet. Isn't it best to apply, as I said, tough love? It means they can't go out and use their money to buy drugs and alcohol and end up in a dysfunctional life and a dysfunctional family. Those kids coming through become used to that life because of their parents. We need to break the cycle.
Sexual abuse is another thing. We heard earlier this year that a kid as young as two was raped—and just recently we heard of a seven-year-old boy. No-one wants to discuss this. Why is it happening? Again, it is because of dysfunctional communities. I'm not having a go at the Aboriginal communities. I respect their culture, but it's not working, and we have to be honest with ourselves in this place if we are to find the right answers. I don't think anyone here would have a go at any cultural at all, but we have to be honest with ourselves and find the answers to try to prove it. Billions of dollars a year are thrown at it but nothing seems to change.
Families are asking for help. Let's look at the cashless debit card. The moneys are put into an account. Eighty per cent has to be spent on the card, and it stipulates that you can't go and buy alcohol with it and you can't gamble with it. Twenty per cent is still cash. They can still spend that cash where they want to. And there's another thing with the Aboriginal community, if you understand the culture, which is that if they have cash in their pockets and a family member or a friend comes to them and asks them for money they rarely will say no to that, unless they're very strong. They hand over that money. So there also could be intimidation happening in these communities. If you're going to allow these people to actually have cash in their pockets all the time, other family members will be the ones who will take the money from them. But if they're restricted and they know they haven't got the cash, they can't hand it over, so they can provide what needs to be done for their own families.
The Greens talk about their amendments today. I can't believe their amendments. The Greens will complain and whinge all the time about different things and about people's rights. But I never hear about how they're going to deal with this. It's all right to sit back and whinge and complain about it, but unless you've actually got the answers, how are you going to deal with this issue? Everyone wants their rights, but with rights come responsibilities. If you're going to pull back this card, where are our responsibilities? Because their parents aren't good parents and because of the drinking, the alcohol and the sexual abuse that's going on, where is our duty of care, as the managers of this country on behalf of the people, to give those young children coming through the same opportunity? We have a responsibility to ensure that the kids have at least half a chance to be looked after, educated and not sexually abused.
The Greens have been moving their amendments today. One is to abandon it completely. The other one is that they want to take away the income management of the card so you'll only be on the card if you have had a serious offence of three years or more.
All right. It is that if you have a serious offence of three years or more you're on income management. So being drunk and disorderly is no reason for it at all. When you have people who are saying that it is working in these communities, that families are now able to provide for and look after their children, that communities are better for it, that there is less violence, less drinking, less alcohol and fewer drugs, why on earth would you want to say no to it? If this is all about the politics in this place, then I say, 'Get over it.' It shouldn't be about politics. When you look at these bills you have to look at what is in the best interests of the country and the people and start working together. If you're not happy with the bill, then come up with some answers; don't just say that it should be abandoned and talk about people's rights. As I said before, responsibilities and rights go hand in hand.
I do support this bill. It is working. I say to anyone out there who may be listening to this: if you don't like the cashless debit card and having a responsibility to the taxpayer who is giving you this money so you that can live, put a roof over your head and survive, then my suggestion is that you get a job.
I thank all senators for their contributions to this debate on the Social Services (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019. The cashless debit card is an important part of our plan to improve the lives of Australians by supporting people, their families and communities in places where high levels of welfare dependency co-exist with high levels of social harm. By reducing the amount of cash available in a community, the cashless debit card is reducing the overall harm caused by welfare-fuelled alcohol, gambling, and drug misuse—and it's working.
The evidence on the ground shows that the cashless debit card is making a real difference, improving people's lives and improving communities. Over a dozen research projects attest to the trial's success, most recently the baseline report into the Goldfields, which reaffirmed previous findings. My colleagues in this place have talked about the first impact evaluation and the findings that the cashless debit card is having a considerable positive impact in the first two trial sites. These findings included a number of significant statistical improvements in things like the reporting of less frequent drinking, the reporting of less frequent drug use, and the reporting of less frequent gambling and gambling-addicted behaviour. We have also seen decreases in drug and alcohol issues; decreases in crime, violence, and antisocial behaviour; improvements in child health and wellbeing; improvement in financial management; and the ongoing and even strengthening of community support for the card on the ground.
Results from the Australian Early Development Census show improved outcomes for children living in a cashless debit card site since the introduction of the card. From 2015 to 2018 the number of children living in Kununurra and considered really vulnerable has decreased significantly. Significant improvements were seen in social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognition, communication skills, and general knowledge. Children living in Wyndham saw a substantial improvement in emotional maturity over the same period. Our review of emergency relief food vouchers and parcels in Ceduna found that, within 18 months of being placed on the card, 16.5 per cent of cashless debit card recipients no longer needed, or needed less, assistance in this area.
The cashless debit card is not a panacea. But the evidence clearly shows that it works, and acts as a stabilising force to help people pay for essential items while preventing the excess purchase of alcohol and gambling products. Between April 2016 and July 2019, the total value of all transactions made across all sites by cashless debit card recipients using their cards was approximately $175 million. That is $175 million in taxpayer-funded welfare dollars being used on essential items and not being used on non-essential purchases, which include alcohol, drugs and gambling. Thirty-four per cent of all transactions made on the cards were to buy food. There has also been $400,000 worth of attempted but unsuccessful purchases of alcohol and gambling products, that we're aware of. The Morrison government's priority will always be to put the rights of the child first—to have a roof over their head, and food in their tummy—ahead of a welfare recipient's choice to spend taxpayer-funded welfare on drugs, alcohol or gambling.
Unemployment is also down in all sites since the introduction of the cashless debit card. Most recently, in Hinkler, in Queensland, the unemployment rate has dropped to 7.3 per cent, the lowest in almost seven years. Most importantly, youth unemployment has dropped from 28 per cent in May 2018 to 18.1 per cent in May 2019, a drop of almost 10 per cent in a 12-month period.
The Social Services (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019 continues the operation of the cashless debit card program but improves the processes introduced through recent non-government amendments for participants to exit the program. It provides a more effective and consistent application process, and ensures that the welfare of children, families, and the whole community is considered when assessing applications for participants to exit the program. The passage of the bill will clarify the administrative requirements of the cashless debit card exit process and ensure that the exit process is consistent with the cashless debit card regions. There is no change to the continuation of the cashless debit card program in the current trial sites. There is no change to the government's commitment to reduce the devastating effects of alcohol and drug use and gambling in these communities. The government is introducing this legislation following consultation with community leaders to ensure there is a clear and fair process for participants to exit the cashless debit card program where appropriate.
The government thanks the community leaders it has worked with and will continue to work with throughout the implementation and operation of the cashless debit card program. We acknowledge their courage and their leadership to assist members of their community to break the cycle of welfare dependency, to improve social outcomes and to support people to get off welfare and the card and into employment. Taxpayers expect nothing less. The government strongly believes that providing employment is the most important thing that we can do.
We have heard from both Labor and the Greens on this bill, and I thank them for their contributions. The Greens have moved amendments to the extension process that the government unfortunately cannot support. These changes would mean that a participant charged with disorderly conduct for drunken behaviour could remain eligible for an exemption despite demonstrating the exact behaviours that the cashless debit card is aimed to address.
Where Senator Siewert or other people have cases of individuals having difficulty using the card to pay their bills, I invite them to provide me with those details separately, and my office will investigate. Senator Siewert has also asked a number of questions relating to operational matters of the exit process—and I also thank Senator Siewert for the collegiate way in which she has worked with me and my office in drafting this bill. These changes are best suited to an operational guide or information sheet that will be accompanying the application form. I'll instruct my department to ensure appropriate information is contained in this documentation and provide it to the senator and anybody else. I commend this bill to the chamber.