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Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20069


Senator CHRIS EVANS (9:33 AM) —by leave—I move:

(1) Schedule 1, item 12, page 9 (lines 1 to 24), omit subsections (1) to (3), substitute:

(1) If a debt by a person to the Commonwealth under the social security law has not been wholly paid, the Secretary must give the person a notice specifying:

(a) the date on which it was issued (the date of the notice); and

(b) the reason the debt was incurred, including a brief explanation of the circumstances that led to the debt being incurred; and

(c) the period to which the debt relates; and

(d) the outstanding amount of the debt at the date of the notice; and

(e) the day on which the outstanding amount is due and payable; and

(f) that a range of options is available for repayment of the debt; and

(g) the contact details for inquiries concerning the debt.

(2) The outstanding amount of the debt is due and payable on the 28th day after the date of the notice.

(3) If the debt has not been wholly paid and:

(a) the person has failed to enter into an arrangement under section 1234 to pay the outstanding amount of the debt; or

(b) the person has entered into an arrangement under that section but has failed to make a payment in accordance with the arrangement or, if the arrangement has been amended, in accordance with the arrangement as amended;

the Secretary may give to the person a further notice specifying:

(c) the date on which it was issued (the date of the further notice); and

(d) the matters mentioned in paragraphs (1)(b) to (g); and

(e) the effect of sections 1229A and 1229AB; and

(f) how the interest under section 1229A is to be calculated.

(14) Schedule 3, item 3, page 21 (line 17) to page 22 (line 7), omit subsections (1) to (3), substitute:

(1) If a debt by a person to the Commonwealth under a provision of this Part has not been wholly paid, the Secretary must give the person a notice specifying:

(a) the date on which it was issued (the date of the notice); and

(b) the reason the debt was incurred, including a brief explanation of the circumstances that led to the debt being incurred; and

(c) the period to which the debt relates; and

(d) the outstanding amount of the debt at the date of the notice; and

(e) the day on which the outstanding amount is due and payable; and

(f) that a range of options is available for repayment of the debt; and

(g) the contact details for inquiries concerning the debt.

(2) The outstanding amount of the debt is due and payable on the 28th day after the date of the notice.

(3) If the debt has not been wholly paid and:

(a) the person has failed to enter into an arrangement under section 91 to pay the outstanding amount of the debt; or

(b) the person has entered into an arrangement under that section but has failed to make a payment in accordance with the arrangement or, if the arrangement has been amended, in accordance with the arrangement as amended;

the Secretary may give to the person a further notice specifying:

(c) the date on which it was issued (the date of the further notice); and

(d) the matters mentioned in paragraphs (1)(b) to (g); and

(e) the effect of sections 78 and 78B; and

(f) how the interest under section 78 is to be calculated.

(24) Schedule 4, item 7, page 32 (lines 2 to 25), omit subsections (1) to (3), substitute:

(1) If:

(a) a recoverable amount has not been wholly paid to the Commonwealth; and

(b) the right of the Commonwealth to recover the outstanding amount has not been waived under paragraph 206(1)(b);

the Commission must give the person to whom, or on whose account, the recoverable amount was paid a notice specifying:

(c) the date on which it was issued (the date of the notice); and

(d) the reason the outstanding amount was incurred, including a brief explanation of the circumstances that led to the outstanding amount being incurred; and

(e) the period to which the outstanding amount relates; and

(f) the outstanding amount at the date of the notice; and

(g) the day on which the outstanding amount is due and payable; and

(h) that a range of options is available for repayment of the outstanding amount; and

(i) the contact details for inquiries concerning the outstanding amount.

(2) The outstanding amount is due and payable on the 28th day after the date of the notice.

(3) If the recoverable amount has not been wholly paid and:

(a) the person has failed to enter into an arrangement with the Commission to pay the outstanding amount; or

(b) the person has entered into such an arrangement with the Commission but has failed to make a payment in accordance with the arrangement or, if the arrangement has been amended, in accordance with the arrangement as amended;

the Commission may give to the person a further notice specifying:

(c) the date on which it was issued (the date of the further notice); and

(d) the matters mentioned in paragraphs (1)(d) to (i); and

(e) the effect of section 205AAB and 205AAD; and

(f) how the interest under section 205AAB is to be calculated.

These amendments will broaden the information that is required to be set out in debt notices and increase the time frame for recipients to respond to debt notices. The government, as well as other senators, would be aware of the problems inherent in existing Centrelink correspondence. For many who are in receipt of benefits, forms and letters from Centrelink, they are confusing and often devoid of what would be regarded otherwise as essential information. While some efforts have been made to improve their content and design over time—and I accept that that work has been going on—I think there is still some way to go.

Notices in respect of debts can simply advise a person that they owe thousands of dollars and must pay the money to Centrelink within 21 days of receiving the notice. Currently, these notices appear like some form of utility bill. More often than not, they provide no proper details of the basis of the alleged debt. The result for the recipients of such notices is generally panic and disbelief. As such, we have moved these amendments to ensure that information about a debt is presented in a way that allows a person to act in an informed manner and provides sufficient time to respond.

Labor's amendments as a package would ensure that the notice provides (a) the date on which it was issued—that is, the date of the notice; (b) the reason the debt was incurred, including a brief description of the circumstances that led to the debt; (c) the period of time to which the debt relates; (d) the amount of the debt outstanding; (e) the day on which the outstanding amount is due and payable; (f) the availability of repayment options; (g) contact details for inquiries concerning the debt and (h) the person's appeal rights. We think all that information is necessary to improve the system and provide better information and an opportunity for people to respond.

Labor's amendments will also increase the deadline for response and repayment from 21 days to 28 days. That brings it more into line with most other notices to pay bills, fines and debts in other arenas and allows a bit more time for people to be able to respond to, as I say, what are quite often large debt notices. Often these debt notices, obviously, go to people who are not in the best of economics circumstances anyway. Many of them have not necessarily had a lot of education or have problems with literacy et cetera. So we think more time and more information will improve the process and empower those receiving the debts to be aware of their options. We think this improves the bill. I commend it to the Senate.