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Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20071

Senator BARTLETT (9:37 AM) —I speak on behalf of the Democrats to Senator Evans's amendment and to amendments circulated in my name a few weeks ago, which are very similar in nature to the opposition's amendments and go to the issue of debt notices. Whilst I note the minister's explanation and welcome her statement about this being already part of Centrelink practice, I think it is appropriate to note that this is a significant issue. It may seem very administrative to prescribe the detail of debt notices but, as Senator Evans has said, these notices often arrive in a circumstance which causes a lot of concern to people. To get a letter out of nowhere saying that you have a debt of thousands of dollars and that you have to pay it within 21 days or else—it is worded better than that, I accept—is how many people perceive the arrival of these notices. That obviously can cause a lot of angst for people who oftentimes, almost by definition, are low income earners. So it is important that it be a requirement that these sorts of details are here. The fact that people react like this now to the way debt notices are currently set out suggests to me that perhaps they are not as clear and specific as they should be and as has been prescribed by these amendments.

A not uncommon piece of feedback I receive from people from financial counselling services and welfare centres—they deal with people who are on the receiving end of debt notices all the time and with welfare recipients, particularly people who have been subject to a debt notice and are trying to wrestle with overpayments—is that it is a common story that the notices cause difficulty in terms of their detail and the way they are constructed.

It is worth re-emphasising that almost by definition many Centrelink customers are people who do not necessarily have a lot of dough. In many cases, they may have limited literacy or poor English comprehension and may need to seek assistance in dealing with debt notices from agencies and from organisations such as those I have just mentioned, which are not necessarily overly well resourced either. It is something which can take a bit of time to seek assistance with. People can have poor health, limited mobility or lack of transportation. With regard to those issues, I think it is important to allow enough time as well. The main difference between the Democrat amendments and the ALP one, as I read it, is that the ALP amendment extends it to 28 days after the date of the notice and ours extended that further to six weeks. Given that the minister has indicated her support or willingness to accept Senator Evans's amendment, we are certainly willing to accept his amendment as a constructive one—it is obviously a constructive one as it is so similar to the one the Democrats had foreshadowed. I think it would have been preferable to have a little longer time. The difficulty of the department having to wait six weeks or so, I think, is fairly minuscule compared to the benefit to the public and the individual person in waiting six weeks. I think that would have been a better outcome but, nonetheless, we welcome the extension of time that is contained in the ALP amendment.