Senate debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

7:41 pm

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

This Bill modernises and streamlines social security law to support a new employment services model, which will change the way that employment services are delivered from 1 July 2022. The new model offers job seekers who are more job-ready the opportunity to self-manage their pathway to work using a digital platform, while providing more intensive, tailored face-to-face support for those who need or want it.

The new model builds on evidence from the New Employment Services Trial and Online Employment Services Trial. The new model will make better use of digital technology to support job seekers to find work and aligns with recommendations made by the Employment Services Expert Advisory Panel's report, I Want to Work: Employment Services 2020.

A key feature of the new model will be job-ready job seekers being able to self-manage their requirements through Digital Services and having more choice in how they meet their requirements through the Points Based Activation System. While job search remains a core element, job seekers will have greater agency to determine and access the activities they undertake on their pathway to employment and will be rewarded for their active effort and engagement.

This Bill will enable job seekers to self-manage their requirements through Digital Services and access more flexibility and have greater control over how they meet their requirements.

The amendments to modernise social security law will better support online servicing and Points-Based Activation. This includes consolidating and streamlining Job Plan and exemption provisions, which are currently duplicated across four payment types, and clarifying that mutual obligations for unemployment payments can be met by complying with a Job Plan.

This Bill also makes a range of other improvements to the social security law which are consistent with current Government policy and practice.

The Bill removes the use of 'must' in provisions relating to the Targeted Compliance Framework and instead refers to circumstances in which a person 'may' be subject to compliance action, to better reflect operational policy.

The Bill also places in the social security law the legislative authority for employment programs to help job seekers find and keep paid work, making the authority more transparent and accessible. The Bill will enable more agile responses to pandemics and other emergencies, ensure that employment services assistance is not counted as income under social security law and clarify arrangements for job seekers who study as part of their requirements.

Schedule 1 of this Bill will facilitate the use of technology to enable job seekers to manage their own mutual obligations and pathway back to employment using online services.

The Government began trialling online employment services in July 2018 and significantly expanded these services in response to COVID-19. Departmental evidence shows that online servicing is effective, with over 400,000 referrals to online employment services between 20 March 2020 and 31 January 2021 exiting and not returning to employment services.

Current social security law does not, however, adequately enable the best use of technology, as most of it was drafted decades ago.

This Bill will allow job seekers to choose their own Job Plan requirements, within departmental guidelines, and to manage their Job Plans online.

The amendments in this Bill do not mean that computers will be delivering employment services to job seekers or approving Job Plans.

Human oversight and assistance will remain an integral part of all employment services. At any time, a job seeker can contact a person in the Digital Services Contact Centre for assistance or opt out of online employment services and agree their Job Plan with a human delegate at an employment services provider of their choice.

And all the existing protections will be retained. The Bill ensures that a delegate must always take a job seeker's circumstances into account and that a delegate cannot require a job seeker to enter into a Job Plan that contains unsuitable requirements.

The Bill also streamlines and modernises social security law. This is because much of the social security law relating to mutual obligation requirements was written several decades ago and has not kept pace with changes to payments, employment services or mutual obligation requirements. For example, the Bill will remove the unnecessary phrasing of the 'activity test', which was introduced 30 years ago in 1991, at a time when unemployment payments and employment services were very different. In practice, job seekers meet their mutual obligation requirements by complying with the terms of their Job Plan and this will be more clearly reflected in the legislation.

This Bill will remove approximately 130 pages of superfluous social security legislation. The changes streamline and reduce the complexity of social security law to better support understanding and administration of existing mutual obligation policy.

Current policy and protections for job seekers will be maintained, while duplicated and redundant provisions are reduced to ensure the legislation is fit for purpose now and in the future.

Schedule 2 of the Bill places legislative authority for Commonwealth expenditure on employment programs within the responsibility of the Employment Minister and department. This is more appropriate than current arrangements involving regulations administered by the Finance Minister, and will enhance the transparency and accessibility of the legislative authority while maintaining usual processes, including that funding for the programs will still need to come from annual appropriations.

Schedule 3 more clearly supports the intent of the Targeted Compliance Framework to encourage job seekers to comply with their mutual obligation requirements and re-engage when they have failed to meet a requirement. The Bill ensures that sanctions need not be imposed when recipients of participation payments have a valid reason for failing to meet their requirements, or immediately re-engage, consistent with current practice and with the objectives of the Targeted Compliance Framework.

Schedule 4 of the Bill ensures that payments from government employment programs to assist job seekers with finding work - for example, Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job - do not need to be declared as income to Centrelink and do not reduce a job seeker's payment. This means payments from employment programs can be used as intended by the job seeker and therefore improve the effectiveness of the programs, consistent with current practice.

Schedule 5 of the Bill clarifies an administrative process for declarations of approved programs of work. The Bill provides Parliamentary oversight by stating that such a declaration is a legislative instrument, meaning that each declaration will be registered and tabled. The amendments do not affect current declared programs or the supplements associated with these programs.

Schedule 6 of the Bill consolidates four provisions and makes a minor amendment to better clarify the existing policy that certain Commonwealth workplace laws do not apply in relation to a person's participation in Commonwealth employment programs, including where a person may be doing so as part of points requirements.

Schedule 7 of the Bill makes clear in legislation the long-standing policy and practice that young people who are participating in full-time study as part of a Job Plan are considered job seekers and not students for the purposes of the Youth Allowance income free area. Young people participating in approved full-time study can still choose whether they study as a full-time student or under a Job Plan, as they have always been able to.

Schedule 8 of the Bill includes amendments supporting the 2021-22 Budget measure to align payment commencement for job seekers referred to online employment services with those who are referred to a provider.

This Bill will remove an inequity whereby job seekers who are referred to a provider are paid from a later date than those who are self-managing their requirements in online employment services.

From 1 July 2022, job seekers will be paid income support starting either from the date they attend an appointment with a provider or the date they agree to their online Job Plan. The amendments in this Bill will also encourage job seekers who are referred to online employment services to connect quickly and maximise their likelihood of finding work.

All existing protections for job seekers will be maintained, which means that when job seekers who self-manage their job search are unable to agree to their Job Plan within a reasonable timeframe, for reasons outside their control, they will not have their payment delayed.

This could be the case, for example, when a job seeker experiences illness, accident, or inability to access IT services.

Some job seekers may also be exempt from the measure, consistent with existing arrangements. This means they will receive their payment immediately after their claim has been processed, backpaid to their date of claim.

These exemptions cover, for example, job seekers who are transferring from another payment; are exempt from mutual obligations; or have been referred to Disability Employment Services or further assessment at time of claim.

Job seekers who are using online employment services can contact the Digital Services Contact Centre if they need assistance with agreeing to their Job Plan or meeting their requirements.

Schedule 9 of the Bill repeals spent provisions relating to ceased programs, with no impact on job seekers or current policy.

Schedule 10 makes minor contingent amendments.

This Bill will support the new employment services model by streamlining and modernising social security law. This will improve the way job seekers manage and meet their mutual obligation requirements and support job seeker agency in determining their own pathway to employment.

I commend this Bill to the chamber.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021 certainly did need revising, but Labor is now in a position to support it. It seeks to streamline social security law in relation to JobSeeker payments under the new employment services model, taking effect from the beginning of the new financial year. Labor was very concerned that the savings attributed to this bill over the forward estimates were really going to come off the back of jobseekers and their access to social security payments. However, that has now been fixed in the House of Representatives along with a number of other key issues. We were at that time very concerned that the government was wanting to rush this through parliament without proper consultation and scrutiny. I can now report that there has been a great deal of pressure on the government, and as a result the bill has now been amended. According to ACOSS and those who have sought to influence the government, we're now better off passing this bill rather than objecting to it.

We note that last year the Education and Employment Legislation Committee had a very limited opportunity to inquire, and at that time it was rightly identified that shifting the start date for when payments were made to 10 days later on average, in conjunction with the shift to online services, would see a massive cost to the hip pocket of jobseekers, hitting Australians when they are most vulnerable. That schedule—schedule 8—has now been removed, and, by virtue of a number of other amendments—which have involved the Australian Council of Social Service, who I thank very much for standing up for the interests of Australians who, at various times in their life, rely on government social services payments—the bill has now been successfully changed in the House of Representatives.

It's clear that, from the outset, the government very much mishandled this bill. There was no rush for the legislation last year and, as Labor highlighted earlier, the introduction of the new employment services model, which this bill supports, now takes place in July this year. The government previously attempted to rush it, but it could not get its legislative agenda together. Now, at the death knell, right before an election, we're finally in a position to pursue this bill. The important changes in this legislation deserved better consideration. The government did come to the conclusion that significant changes needed to happen to this legislation, and the government finally acted in the lower house.

We in the Labor Party support an employment services system that is fair and that also makes the most of technology to support jobseekers, employers and employment service providers, but we need to do more to get Australians into work, especially those who find themselves in long-term unemployment. Despite what you might say about unemployment figures, long-term unemployment—that is, the number of Australians who have been looking for work for more than 12 months—has actually increased under this government. This is a key challenge that this government is failing to address. More than four out of five of those who receive unemployment benefits are now classified as long-term unemployed. These Australians need more support. Of those Australians who are on unemployment benefits, 82 per cent have been on income support for more than a year.

Labor is pleased that this bill has changed as supported by ACOSS, and we support the bill as amended. The Labor Party can be trusted to ensure that no jobseeker is left behind.

7:45 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Josh Park-Fing was 18 years old in April 2016. He was 18 years old when he accessed income support and he was 18 years old when his employment services provider sent him to a worksite to collect rubbish. He was 18 years old when he died after falling off the back of a truck. For Josh's family and friends, I know that the passage of time cannot dull their grief or diminish their pain. The aching gap of a missing life stays with us. It was four years later, in 2020, that the government finally released the report inquiring into his death. Josh would've been 22 if he hadn't died that day on the site that was providing a Work for the Dole program.

As we debate this legislation today, it is important to remember that this matters for people's lives across the country. It's easy for some of us to forget, here in our air-conditioned building after a day of speeches and an evening of plenty to eat and drink, that we have a moral obligation to those we represent. We particularly have a moral obligation to the people across Australia who have faced and continue to face a cruel and punitive system who have not received the support they need or they deserve, and to people who have been forced to live below the poverty line by ministers who just do not know what it's like, who don't care about the impact on people's lives and who refuse to act.

The very title of this bill, 'streamlined participation', doesn't speak to people's experience of having to live with this system. It speaks to a bureaucracy who are getting that machine working in a very streamlined way and of people just being cogs in the machine, being corralled through a heartless system.

The Greens have got a different vision. We believe that no-one should be living in poverty in a wealthy country where billionaires and big corporations are being subsidised by the government. In last night's budget, we saw the horrific figure of $38 billion being given in subsidies to coal, oil and gas companies, but they cut funding for climate by 35 per cent. In a country that can afford to subsidise coal, gas and oil companies by $38 billion, we think we should be ensuring that no-one lives in poverty, not looking after billionaires and big corporations.

Interestingly, during the pandemic we had a little experiment where governments worked to lift payments above the poverty line and ensured a strong safety net where it was needed. And they suspended mutual obligations. That's what the Greens think we should be doing permanently. We want to see a livable income guarantee that would lift people out of poverty and the abolition of the punitive system of mutual obligations. We want to abolish these punitive measures from our social security system so it is genuinely and easily available to those who need it.

Our vision is for a radically different income support system, one with a guaranteed livable income where people are treated humanely, not treated as just cogs in the machine. Let me be clear: the pandemic showed that this is possible. Poverty is a political choice, and it's a choice being made every day by ministers in the Liberal government who are earning six-figure salaries. The Greens have consistently raised significant concerns about the current bill. As outlined by my predecessor, Senator Rachel Siewert, in the dissenting report on the inquiry into the bill:

The Australian Greens are extremely disappointed by the rushed nature of the inquiry into the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021. This bill encompasses significant changes to employment services, mutual obligations and compliance for income support recipients… Unfortunately, stakeholders were only provided with a few business days to consider the bill and make submissions to the inquiry. This is wholly inadequate for a suite of such significant changes. While there are some positive changes, such as more flexibility and agency in creating a job plan, a number of the proposed changes do raise deep concerns and need more careful consideration.

I acknowledge that in the time since Senator Siewert wrote that dissenting report there have been changes to this bill and there have been changes made in the House of Representatives. I do want to note the work, particularly of the Australian Council of Social Service, in working to improve this bill. We recognise that these amendments will improve this bill and so we support these amendments. I want to note, however, that even this process of these amendments has been rushed. While I thank people, and thank those involved in their work to consult and the work that ACOSS have put in, the amendments weren't introduced in the House of Representatives in their final form until today. We are pleased to see that the key measure which was in schedule 8 that would have taken more money from those who were really doing it in the most difficult way is gone. We're pleased to see greater protections for those who are principal carers and who have a partial capacity to work. We welcome the guidelines—recognising that they reflect an amendment introduced by the Australian Greens. We do think these are genuine improvements on the original bill and we support them.

I will note that we still have incredibly significant concerns about fundamental aspects of the employment services framework. Based on our understanding, including of the draft delegated legislation, the framework is going to involve more people being forced into Work for the Dole, as participants are required to undertake it at the six month mark rather than the one year mark, and fewer people having the opportunity to actually engage with a human being.

We recognise the improvements made by the amendments, but we have still got really fundamental concerns about some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who are forced to live below the poverty line, having their requirements dictated to them by an impersonal system. The loss of people that jobseekers are going to have to interact with is profound.

I received an email today from a person who works for what they describe as a high-performing employment agency who wanted to highlight to me what these changes will mean. On the issue of how many fewer people are going to be employed, real people to engage with people looking for work, to give them the support that they need to create the human system this person writing to me said, 'It is estimated that from April this year 15,000 frontline case manager employees, predominantly female, will also be looking for work.' So there will be 15,000 fewer people being employed supporting jobseekers. This person then continued, 'As an individual, my work every day is about changing people's lives through employment, helping jobseekers to move off welfare payments and become active contributors to the local and national economy. The recent Australian government announcement of changes to established service providers will result in far-reaching disruption across the industry. It is highly likely that many of my colleagues will be made redundant. I worked for a high-performing provider that has failed to have their contracts for the rebranded jobactive service renewed in my area. My colleagues and I would like to know why the government removed high-performing providers from the market at a time when employers are crying out for staff and many of the most vulnerable jobseekers have an opportunity to take up work with our support and guidance. This unnecessary disruption to the market will impact employees like me, vulnerable job seekers already struggling to navigate the system as well as local employers struggling to find workers. The changes are likely to result in poor performance for a long period and will cost the taxpayer millions.'

Fundamentally, we're going to have a system that is now going to employ fewer people, providing less support yet with punitive measures of mutual obligations still being maintained. Fundamentally, the whole model is wrong. Fundamentally, we should be supporting people to find work without punitive mutual obligations. We should scrap that system entirely and provide genuine support for people without making them jump through useless hoops that actually don't help them to find work. Again, when mutual obligations were paused during the pandemic, it in fact enabled and encouraged more people to seek work. They weren't having to jump through useless hoops to try and find work.

While we recognise the improvements that have been made to this bill, we still have fundamental concerns, and I would like to move my second reading amendment in relation to this bill to address some of those concerns. Basically, we fundamentally do not think that the changes being proposed are enough to guarantee the protections that are needed for hundreds of thousands of Australians who are forced to interact with a system that is cruel, that is punitive and that does not provide the support that people need or deserve. I move:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) notes that punitive mutual obligations have unfairly restricted people's access to income support; and

(b) calls on the Government to abolish the Work for the Dole program and provide income support to everyone who needs it".

I want to finish by reflecting upon another woman that I met two weeks ago when we were launching our liveable income guarantee policy, which would lift people above the poverty line, give them $88 a day and abolish mutual obligations. We launched it outside the South Melbourne Centrelink. This woman told us that she was homeless, she was living on the streets and she had zero income but she had decided that she was not going to continue to even try and engage with our social security system, because she found it just too damaging to her mental health. She had poor mental health. She had anxiety. She said she should have been on the disability support pension but that was impossible. For her, the system was just too hard, too harsh and too punitive. It was making her more unwell to even engage with the system, so she decided that she would prefer to have zero income and be living on the streets, homeless, rather than make herself more unwell by forcing herself to engage with the system.

I find it absolutely heart-wrenching that, in a rich country like ours, we have put people in this system. This bill is not going to change that system to make it a system that would work for women like that, and that is why the Australian Greens will be opposing this bill.

7:57 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Government Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all senators for their contributions on this bill this evening. This bill modernises and streamlines social security law by reducing duplication and enabling jobseekers who are job ready the opportunity to self-manage their pathways to work using a digital platform, giving them more flexibility and choice. The bill enables a key element of the new employment services model known as Workforce Australia. Workforce Australia aligns with recommendations made by the Employment Services Expert Advisory Panel report, I want to work: employment services 2020, which was the result of extensive stakeholder consultation.

Current social security law is constraining the government's ability to provide the best possible service to jobseekers. For example, jobseekers who want to enter study or training into their job plan need to call the Digital Services Contact Centre to talk to a human delegate. This is an unnecessary burden on the hundreds of thousands of jobseekers who are job ready and who can and should be allowed to manage their own requirements online.

It is also worth clarifying that the amendments do not mean that employment services or approving job plans will in fact be automated or that jobseekers are forced into a digital-only pathway. Human oversight and assistance will remain an integral part of all employment services. At any time, a jobseeker can contact a person in the Digital Services Contact Centre for assistance or opt out of online services and agree their job plan with a human delegate at an employment service provider. However, responding to stakeholder concerns, the government has agreed to make amendments to require that a digital protection framework be contained in the legislative instrument, providing greater assurance to stakeholders that employment services are administered ethically.

It's important to note that protections within schedule 8 would ensure that jobseekers do not face delays in payment for reasons beyond their control. However, the government does not wish the passage of other important improvements to the social security law to be delayed, including changes to support the new model. Accordingly, the government had agreed to move amendments to remove schedule 8 from the bill.

This bill will significantly modernise and streamline social security law while maintaining existing protections and providing crucial support for the new employment services model. For all these reasons, I commend this bill to the chamber.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Rice on sheet 1579 be agreed to.