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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 7673

Senator McLUCAS (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing) (1:42 PM) —The Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Further 2008 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2008 will address certain further budget and other measures within the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Veterans’ Affairs portfolios. The first schedule to the bill is about maternity immunisation allowance. This is a lump sum payment of $243.30 from 20 September that encourages families to protect their young children by having them immunised. Under current legislation the allowance is paid for children aged between 18 months and two years who are immunised to the recommended level or have a formal exemption. The bill will now provide for a restructuring of the allowance to align it more closely with the National Immunisation Program. The amendments will give parents an incentive to have their four-year-olds given their recommended boosters before they begin school. To achieve this the allowance will be paid in two payments for children who meet the requirements for immunisation at 18 months and four years old.

The first payment will be paid when the child is aged between 18 months and two years and the second will be paid when the child is aged between four and five years. The change will apply from January 2009 to eligible families who have not already been paid the full allowance. The new half-payment rate, which will initially be $121.65, will increase as the full rate of the allowance continues to be indexed twice a year. This means that the second payment may be higher than the first because of the flow-through effects of any intervening indexation. The National Immunisation Program currently recommends several important immunisations for four-year-olds, including diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps, german measles and polio. The changes in the bill emphasise the benefit of those immunisations and should lead to many Australians having a better overall level of immunisation.

The second maternity immunisation allowance measure in the bill will extend eligibility for the allowance to children adopted from outside Australia who enter Australia before turning 16. Older adopted children will need to be immunised between 18 months and two years after arrival. To get the allowance at present, families have to claim it within two years of the child’s birth and meet the recommended immunisation levels before the child turns two. Clearly, this requirement does not work well for older children adopted from overseas. In extending the allowance for those older children, the bill reinforces the message provided by this payment in support of immunisation for children in the Australian community. The measure also provides the government’s response to recommendation 10 of the 2005 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services inquiry into overseas adoption in Australia. That inquiry recommended, on an equity basis, that the Minister for Family and Community Services amend the eligibility criteria for the maternity immunisation allowance in the case of children adopted from overseas so the eligibility period is two years after the child’s entry to Australia. The government agrees with that approach.

The bill includes amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act in relation to partner service pension. The veterans entitlements amendments will set the eligible age for partner service pension at 50 years for certain partners. This will apply to the partner of a veteran who is receiving the equivalent of or less than special rate but above general rate disability pension, or who has at least 80 impairment points under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Partners of veterans affected by this measure under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act are those where the veteran is in receipt of general rate disability pension that is increased by an amount specified in any of items 1 to 6 of the table in subsection 27(1); extreme disablement adjustment disability pension; intermediate rate disability pension; and temporary special rate disability pension.

In relation to the measure affecting eligibility for partner service pension for separated partners, the government has heard the concerns of the community and of the members of both houses of parliament. In saying this, I again thank the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs for its inquiry into and report on the legislation. As Senator Moore said earlier, the work of this committee on this particular piece of legislation is a reminder to us all of the value of the Senate committee system to explore legislation and to make recommendations on amendments. In response to these concerns, the government will shortly be moving amendments to the bill to modify the measure. The amendments will change the commencement date for the measure from 1 January 2009 to 1 July 2009, to give affected partners more time to make alternative financial arrangements.

The previous measure proposed that partner service pension would cease immediately if the person was under age pension age and the veteran entered into a new marriage-like relationship. The amendments will now enable a person who is under age pension age to retain partner service pension if the veteran enters into a new marriage-like relationship within 12 months of the date of separation. This will ensure that, following separation, the partner will have the benefit of a full 12-month period to make alternative financial arrangements. Finally, the amendments will enable a person who is under age pension age to retain partner service pension after the 12-month separation period if, at the date of separation, the person is the partner of a veteran who has an accepted psychological or mental health condition, the person is not living with the veteran and there is supporting information of an unsafe domestic environment. This modified measure creates a balance between providing appropriately targeted assistance and rationalising income support so that it reflects community standards and is suited to an individual’s current circumstances. A spouse who is a member of an illness separated couple will not be affected because he or she remains the partner of a veteran and therefore does not lose eligibility for partner service pension. A couple who are illness separated must be unable to live together in the matrimonial home because of the illness or infirmity of either or both of them. Certain assessment criteria must be met.

The last schedule to the bill introduces some minor amendments to the child support legislation, particularly to address some minor anomalies regarding the child support formula reforms that commenced on 1 July 2008. One such anomaly relates to Child Support Agency decisions about care. The amendments will make sure, in all situations where parents agree on the level of care for a child, that level of care will be reflected accurately in the assessment. One further child support amendment will ensure that the CSA can make departure prohibition orders in certain cases. DPOs prevent parents with a child support debt from leaving the country without paying, or making arrangements to pay, those outstanding amounts. Recent amendments moved certain overseas related provisions from regulations into primary legislation, but unintentionally removed the ability for the CSA to issue a DPO for certain registrable overseas maintenance liabilities. The amendment in this bill would allow the CSA to issue a DPO for international parents on a similar basis as for domestic parents. I thank the senators who made a contribution to the second reading debate. I imagine we will now go into committee, where we will have the opportunity to further explore the bill, in particular schedule 2.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.