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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2408


Senator CROWLEY (Minister for Family Services) (11.20 a.m.) —We are so busy here getting the answers that we cannot be absolutely sure of the question. I thought Senator Chamarette asked: are the penalties under the Social Security Act the same as under the Crimes Act? The answer is no. People would be charged under the Social Security Act or the Crimes Act; they cannot be hit by both. There are some points that need to be made.

  First of all, section 17A of the Crimes Act 1914 states that imprisonment is a sentence of last resort, and that the court must be satisfied that no other sentence is appropriate. Section 48 of the Crimes Act allows the court to impose an appropriate fine instead of a term of imprisonment. The imprisonment penalties for failing to comply with a notice from the secretary are standard throughout the Social Security Act 1991. The potential penalty of six months imprisonment is the maximum penalty for repeat offenders and persons who deliberately set out to defraud the social security system. The courts have a wide discretion to impose a lesser penalty and would be expected to impose a lesser penalty in most cases.

  I think it is important to realise that the notification provisions provide a defence on the grounds that the client had a reasonable excuse for failing to comply with a notice; the court has a wide discretion to impose a monetary penalty; and, under the Crimes Act, imprisonment is a sentence of last resort. We have also to be clear that the intention of Social Security is to actually assist people with payments to allow them to survive. It is not about trying to minimise the amount they are paid or make it difficult for people. But the Department of Social Security is aware, as I am sure Senator Chamarette is, that there are some people in our community who have actually made it their business to defraud the taxpayers of this country in very large ways.

  We are not talking about a sentence of gaol for a person who, by mistake or without intending to, got into some kind of difficulty or overpayment. I must say that Social Security, over the years, has been fairly generous in its amnesties.

  Senator Chamarette interjecting


Senator CROWLEY —Senator Chamarette may well be able to think of more generous amnesties. I am aware that we have to find a balance here, because I also know of people who have put great effort into ripping off the taxpayers of this country. I can refer Senator Chamarette to subsections of the bottom-of-the-harbour inquiry. A large amount of social security fraud is going on in bottom-of-the-harbour schemes—very clever people putting their minds to ripping off the taxpayers of this country.

  There are individuals who have deliberately declared themselves to be all sorts of things so as to defraud Social Security. I suppose we could measure grades of crimes and so on, but we do not put people in gaol as the first thing for something going wrong. When there is evidence of an intention to defraud and the court, after looking at the no reasonable excuse provision, judges that monetary penalties would not be suitable, as a last resort we may see imprisonment used. I suspect that cases in Western Australia may focus Senator Chamarette's mind in a way that cases in other parts of Australia may not, but I do not believe that they are actually sufficient justification for accepting her amendments.