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Community Affairs Legislation Committee - 25/02/98 - DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SECURITY - Program 2—Income security for people with a disability and for carers - Subprogram 2.5—Mobility allowance

Senator FORSHAW —On mobility allowance, can you confirm that the 3,000 people who currently receive mobility allowance, and who are in training that is not of a vocational nature, will not lose their entitlement to the payment, following the government's announcement that attendance at independent living school centres does actually qualify for the payment?

Senator Newman —That confirmed what was the previously understood situation, Senator. There had been a discrepancy in some offices in the way that it was administered around Australia and, to make it clear, that statement was released.

Senator FORSHAW —I assume that there were some people who either had their payments cancelled or reduced.

Senator Newman —Some had their payments cancelled and we invited them, or the organisations that looked after them, to have them come back to Centrelink to have the matter reassessed.

Senator FORSHAW —Can you confirm that they have all been reinstated?

Senator Newman —No, I cannot. I do not know whether the officers can.

Ms McGregor —Senator, as the minister has said, we made contact with the individuals. We asked all of our officers to do so. We have done an informal ring around and that seems to bear out. However, if we wanted to tick off everybody categorically, I would have to go back and get further detail. But certainly, our informal evidence is that everybody has been contacted and the service providers have played an active role in helping identify anyone who may have slipped through.

Senator FORSHAW —Yes, but what I am interested in is those people who incorrectly had their payment cancelled or reduced. Can you state that they have all been adequately reinstated?


Ms McGregor —That is what I am saying. They certainly have been contacted. I would have to—

Senator FORSHAW —You are saying that they have been contacted; I am interested to know beyond that.

Ms McGregor —The informal advice is that they all have been reinstated. I would actually have to get a specific program system run to establish all the individuals.

Senator FORSHAW —If you would not mind, and can you tell me how many were in that position?

Ms McGregor —About five to 10 per cent of—

Mr Herscovitch —The original estimate was that there were something like 2,000 to 3,000 people who were at risk of losing their mobility allowance, but that does not mean they had all been cancelled because they were not losing it, except on review. We were not doing what I call a blitz. There was not that sort of review. When we last were here, we had identified 402 people who had been in a category which included this group, but we were not able to disaggregate that group into those cancelled on account of their training being non[hyphen]vocational and a whole lot of other reasons. We cannot do that. We just do not have the information on the system to do that, but they are relatively small numbers who had been cancelled to that point.

The numbers we are talking about are relatively low. You cannot guarantee that there is not some individual who has been missed. I would acknowledge that. But I would be very confident that the vast majority have been reinstated by Centrelink.

Senator FORSHAW —Why is it the case that, when it comes to light that they have been incorrectly taken off the allowance or had the allowance cancelled, the onus is then on them, as it were, to seek to get it back. I know that you have contacted them and you go through those steps. I take it the mechanism is not just that you can then reinstate it.

Mr Herscovitch —You cannot always identify those who have been cancelled for that particular reason. I should say Centrelink has been actively seeking them out, rather than just waiting for them to come to Centrelink. So, in that sense, we have not put the onus on them; we have put the onus on ourselves.

Senator Newman —I also wrote back to all the people who had written to me—the organisations or individuals—informing them that we had clarified the situation and that they should now ask people to reapply. Going in two directions at once, I think you could not have covered people much more thoroughly. I hope we got everybody.

Mr Herscovitch —I would like to clarify one other point, too: these people were not incorrectly cancelled. As the law stood, that was, if you like, the preferred interpretation. But, because there was considerable doubt about it and the government has clearly made a decision to change that, we are introducing legislation to confirm the government's view of what the eligibility criteria should be. Nonetheless, the people are now being paid as if that legislation existed already.

Senator FORSHAW —This next question is not specifically on that allowance but it arises from what you have said. In general, is it the case with DSS—or now with respect to all the payments handled through Centrelink—that, where there is an overpayment, once that comes to light a letter goes out saying, `Please pay us back,' but where there is an incorrect non[hyphen]payment or cessation of payments and that comes to light the process is that it is not
automatically reinstated, that there is a necessity to contact the individual? I appreciate it is a fairly broad question, Chair. I will tell you why I ask this—

Senator Newman —Can I suggest you ask it in program 7? I would have thought that that would be the appropriate place because you will get a whole portfolio view and answer.

Senator FORSHAW —I have not had much progress, so I thought I would throw it at you. But I am prompted to—

Senator Newman —When I put in compliance reports—I think that is when we do it—we have a column for overpayments and underpayments. It is then identified in certain reviews as to whether people have been underpaid. But that is across all programs; it is not specific to the—

Senator FORSHAW —I know.

Senator Newman —These officials would not really be in a position to tell you a thing.

Senator FORSHAW —That is why I prefaced that question with that remark. I was made aware only yesterday of a situation with respect to another allowance where people were overpaid and, in the meantime, they had gone and cashed the cheques, and the cheques were not on it. That is something I can come to in respect of another program.

Senator Newman —Okay. Perhaps you had better wait for program 7.

Senator FORSHAW —Yes, but it has prompted me to raise the issue more generally. I do not have any further questions, but you are going to advise me if there are any further details in that regard with respect to mobility?

Mr Herscovitch —Yes.

Senator EGGLESTON —Minister, I would like to ask a question about the mobility allowance and the eligibility of people doing things like life skills training as well as seeking employment. Are they still eligible for mobility allowances?

Senator Newman —Yes. I will ask Mr Herscovitch to answer the detail of it for you.

Mr Herscovitch —In fact, that has been the whole point of the argument over the last few months. The government made a decision in mid[hyphen]December that those people would, in fact, be admitted to the mobility allowance in future.

Senator Newman —The complication was that some of officers were paying it for that, but a lot were not. So we had to determine which interpretation we felt was desirable. That is when I made the announcement about it, Senator.

Senator EGGLESTON —So there is a fairly liberal approach to—

Senator Newman —Yes, it is a more liberal approach. I suggest that Mr Herscovitch explain exactly what those living skills programs can do for people in their preparation for work.

Mr Herscovitch —They can, that is right. A lot of the argument was about whether the sort of skills training that was being offered could lead to a vocational outcome. The argument of many disability groups was that in fact much further down the track that could be the case. The legal position was that unless there was something quite concrete in prospect, we could not interpret it in that way. There was some case law which confirmed that position. But in a nutshell the government has decided that they would prefer an extended version of that and announced in mid-December that they would proceed down that path. We have been acting on that basis ever since.


Senator Newman —I must say, the service providers are very happy about that because they see the virtue of, if you like, that earlier stage of preparing for the work force. If you are not able to be self-sufficient in a whole lot of personal skills you are not going to get to first base to then go on to vocational training. So it is a precondition, really, of getting job-ready.

[9.40 a.m.]