Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 28

Ms HALL (11:04 AM) —There are aspects of the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2006 Budget Measures) Bill 2006 that I am highly supportive of, and there is another aspect of this bill that I must say I have a few concerns about. It is an omnibus bill which proposes the following changes to social security legislation: changes to the aged pensions and veterans’ entitlement assets tests announced in the budget, which relate to people living in rural areas, and significant new search and seizure powers for authorised officers under the family assistance, social security and students’ assistance law. I highlight or flag at this stage that that is the area that I have some concerns about. The third area is new provisions for crisis payments for victims of domestic and family violence. I think that is something that all members of this House would embrace. And there are changes to information exchange arrangements between social security agencies to improve compliance.

The assets test change in this legislation is the area that will lead to an increase in cost. That is the most costly measure in this bill. It attracts a cost of $173 million, but the government believes that the increased compliance that will accompany this change will, to some extent, nullify that increase. I have a word of caution for the government: I would not count on that too much. You really have to look at what the bottom line is. The bottom line is $173 million; therefore, I think that that is the predicted cost.

The changes to the aged pension entitlement asset test will allow people who are of a pension age and who live on certain kinds of farms and rural residential properties to exempt the value of land on the same title as their primary residences from the pensions asset test. Currently only the primary residence and an area of up to two hectares around it are exempt. This will give approximately 10,000 people on aged pensions more access to aged pension payments. I think that that is something that all people in this parliament would embrace.

I have had constituents come to see me who have been affected by the current legislation, which has created great hardship for a number of people who are elderly, who are frail, who have their homes on the land—the homes they have lived in for many years—and who identify who they are with their place of residence. This change will allow them to continue to live where they have lived all their lives and receive the pension and other entitlements that they are entitled to. One case in particular comes to mind. The children of aged parents came to see me. Their mother had become a resident of a high-care residential facility. Because the family owned the property, they were required to pay the daily rate of a nonpensioner. This change would definitely help them, because the property would be looked at in the totally different light of exempting it from the assets test.

The second point that I would like to refer to, the second part of this legislation, is the one that I have real concerns about. This part of the legislation allows for changes to the family assistance, social security administration and student assistance legislation to provide search and seizure powers for authorised officers to investigate and prosecute offences in relation to programs administered under these acts. You might ask: what does this mean? The way I read it, it is giving employees of departments the right to enter people’s residences to search and seize their property without the types of requirements that law officers have to meet.

I find it most interesting that the previous speakers on the government side—the member for Greenway and the member for Herbert—were claiming that this legislation before the parliament is a win for the backbenchers in the government. If I were a backbencher in the Howard government, I would be extremely concerned. I notice the minister at the table looking in my direction. I would love to be a backbencher in a Beazley government because we would be very careful of introducing this sort of clause into any piece of legislation. A Beazley government would be very mindful of the impact that legislation could have on people.

The member for Greenway and the member for Herbert—members of the government’s backbench—are claiming support for this piece of legislation. I hope that when constituents from the member for Greenway’s electorate and the member for Herbert’s electorate contact them about abuses of this legislation—people entering the residences of their constituents, looking in the cupboards, taking away things that they feel may incriminate the constituents and walking around taking photographs—the members will stand up and say, ‘I supported this legislation and this legislation has come to fruition because of my actions.’ I would have thought that the member for Greenway would be more inclined to get out there and fight for an MRI scanner at Blacktown hospital—something that the people of Blacktown are crying out for and would really benefit them on a daily basis—rather than taking responsibility for a piece of legislation that will allow officers of departments to search their constituents’ residences. Maybe the member for Greenway and the member for Herbert should be arguing against the government’s extreme industrial relations changes, which are impacting on a daily basis on the lives of workers in their electorates. They will be working longer hours under poorer conditions for less money.

To give the House an idea of how these new enter, search and seize laws could have an impact, I will refer to a constituent who I have already had dealings with. In doing so, I add that the department already has very wide powers. Nobody in this parliament supports fraud, be it welfare fraud or fraud by big business. A constituent who came to see me nearly 12 months ago was being investigated by the Centrelink fraud unit. This woman had been in a relationship with a man for some two years. They felt that they had a strong relationship, so they bought a house together, and the house was in both their names. Unfortunately, they started to have some problems with their relationship and that led to them separating. The male partner moved to Sydney, but the woman remained in the house on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

Centrelink did not believe that they were living apart, despite the fact that the male partner was living and working in Sydney and had a flat which he was paying rent for. He had the receipts to prove that he was paying rent, but still Centrelink felt that the couple had a relationship. One of the Centrelink officers visited the woman on the Central Coast. I might add that they were still trying to work it out and see if there was a possibility that they could get back together. They had been separated for six to 12 months. The Centrelink officer who visited the woman said in an intimidating manner: ‘You’ve either got to get rid of him, marry him or move on.’ That is the kind of advice that Centrelink gives constituents in my electorate.

The employer of the male partner received a letter from Centrelink telling him that they wished to update the man’s Centrelink file. The real surprise in this matter is that the man had never in his entire life received a Centrelink payment, yet Centrelink were writing to his employer, asking for personal information about him. I think that that is an absolute disgrace. He was horrified by this fact. I might add that he was also very angry. He told his employer that it had nothing whatsoever to do with him. He felt that it was an invasion of his privacy that Centrelink had contacted his employer when he had had no involvement with Centrelink.

Centrelink decided to move a step further. They contacted the school that the woman’s children attended. They asked the school to name the people on the enrolment form who were contacts for her children. I think quite a number of issues revolve around that. Apart from the fact that in this day and age information of that nature is very sensitive, it is a real invasion of privacy. I might add that the ex-partner’s name was not on the children’s enrolment forms. The simple fact that Centrelink can contact a school and ask for details of the names of people on forms I see as a great abuse of power.

Centrelink contacted the local post office to see whether any mail was being addressed to the ex-partner. Once again, they were seeking details of a sensitive nature about the male partner, who did not live there, all because they had an idea that there was some fraud taking place. Centrelink contacted the RTA and ran a check on every single car the ex-partner had owned, obviously seeking to find out what the address was and whether or not both names were on any registration forms. Nothing became apparent to Centrelink. The man’s Sydney address and his name only were on the registration forms.

You can understand why I am really concerned about this aspect of the legislation. Centrelink did not recontact either member of the couple. I might add that they do not even speak to each other now. The outcome of this was so bad that two people who were in a situation of trying to solve their difficulties and maybe getting back together are now almost sworn enemies.

At the time that this was taking place, I met with the fraud investigation unit of social security. I was quite disturbed when I heard about the powers that the unit has. The unit can investigate now—before the legislation that we are currently debating comes into force. They can contact the tax office, the post office and the school, as I have already mentioned. They also have the right to video people. I understand that there are even videos of people within their residence. They hire private investigators to stalk those people who they feel may be abusing or defrauding Centrelink. In some cases they may find that there are grounds for this, but in other cases what they are doing is a real abuse of power. If the change in this legislation comes in, where Centrelink officers can be given wider powers of search and seizure, I am really concerned about where it will end.

The changes to the existing provisions relating to crisis payments are welcomed. I think that any person who is a victim of domestic violence deserves every bit of assistance that they can be given. The one-off payment of $230, which can be paid up to four times in a month, is recognition of the extreme circumstances that surround issues of domestic violence. I have no problem with the other miscellaneous changes. It is interesting to note that currently a person in receipt of a carers payment can have that payment cut off and Centrelink is not required to tell them about that. That is something that Centrelink needs to work on. People need to be informed about changes, not just to find out when they go the bank that they have not been paid. There is a better exchange of information between the Department of Health and Ageing and Centrelink, and that is welcome.

In closing, I would like to spend the last minute I have on the pension assets test. That change, as I mentioned, is very welcome. It will exempt all properties on the same title as the primary residence where there has been a 20-year attachment, where it would unreasonable for that to be treated differently and where the land is used for domestic purposes. I note that Senator Evans in the other House moved that the sale of pensioners’ homes be exempt from the assets test for two years. Due to the exemption pensioners building new homes, particularly in boom states like Western Australia, would not be disadvantaged in the sale of their homes by the delays caused in construction. Given that we have a chronic skills shortage in this country, a skills shortage that has been created by the Howard government, that is something that is well and truly worth while and is worth the government considering. (Time expired)