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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 312


Ms MACKLIN (Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) (9:28 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill delivers on the government’s $4 billion election commitment to help older Australians, carers and people with disability make ends meet.

It will give much needed financial support to around three million eligible Australians who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, including pensioners and self-funded retirees.

This government understands the cost of living pressures faced by many in our community.

Increases in the cost of living and staple items like food and housing mean those on fixed incomes and those caring for the most vulnerable in our society need our support.

That is why the government is acting to help with these pressures.

Since being elected, we have already announced an inquiry into grocery prices, and we are delivering on our commitment for a full-time petrol commissioner.

Today we are delivering on another commitment, to increase utilities and telephone allowances for eligible seniors, carers and people with disability.

This bill will amend the social security law, the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 to give increased, and more timely, financial support to older Australians, people with a disability, carers and veterans.

Through these measures, these Australians on fixed incomes will be able to plan more easily to meet their regular financial commitments.

First, the bill will help older Australians receiving income support payments such as age pension and veterans service pension by significantly increasing the utilities allowance. This measure will benefit over 1.7 million aged income support recipients, 250,000 Commonwealth seniors health card holders, 700,000 disability support pensioners and 120,000 carer payment recipients. The annual rate of utilities allowance will increase from $107.20 to $500 and will be paid in quarterly instalments of $125 for singles and eligible couples combined. This equals a total annual payment of $500 for singles and $250 for each member of a couple. We understand that these bills come in four times a year so that is why the allowance will be paid quarterly. Paying the allowance regularly gives older Australians peace of mind and certainty that they will have the funds on hand to pay their bills.

Secondly, the bill expands the qualification criteria for utilities allowance to cover people under pension or qualifying age and receiving a carer payment, a disability support pension, an invalidity service pension, a partner service pension, an income support supplement, a bereavement allowance, a widow B pension or a wife pension. This equals a total annual payment of $500 for singles and $250 for each member of a couple in one of these new groups.

Under these first two elements, more Australians will receive more support to help with their utilities costs.

Thirdly, the bill significantly increases the rate of seniors concession allowance, which is paid to self-funded retirees, from $218 to a total annual payment of $500 for each eligible individual. In another change to make life easier for seniors, this higher rate will also be paid on a quarterly basis on the same days as utilities allowance.

Lastly, the bill provides a higher rate of telephone allowance for older Australians, carers and people with a disability if they receive income support and have an internet connection at home. The new rate of $132 a year for singles will be available to those who have a home internet connection, an increase from the standard rate of telephone allowance of $88 a year.

The higher rate of telephone allowance will also be available for eligible veterans and their dependants who have an internet connection at home.

The government understands that, in today’s Australia, the internet is a critical means for families to stay in touch with their loved ones. Some Australians on income support pensions and payments can be at risk of becoming isolated from the community, and that is why we are helping them stay in touch with friends, children and grandchildren around the country and the world via the internet. Affordable home access to the internet has the potential to connect them with a new world of communication, information and entertainment.

The government is proud to be delivering on these important election commitments.

Debate (on motion by Mr John Cobb) adjourned.