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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2324

Mr JENKINS(5.33) —The Social Security Amendment Bill 1987 helps to streamline the Social Security Act and its administration. It has also allowed the opportunity for quite a wide-ranging discussion of welfare and social security matters. Indeed, I was interested to hear some of the comments that have been made by honourable members on both sides of the House. I wish to dwell on a couple of matters that were raised by the honourable member for Dobell (Mr Lee) and the honourable member for Moncrieff (Mrs Sullivan). They mentioned two areas in which apparently measures could be taken which allowed people to abuse the unemployment benefit. I think it is of interest because these two items appeared in a cover story of the Business Review Weekly of 10 April, which I found quite an incredible article, entitled `60 Tax Shelters'.

The honourable member for Moncrieff talked about-and I agree with her that it is something that should be looked into-the way in which those in seasonal work can receive the unemployment benefit during the periods in which they are unemployed and therefore getting no income. It is interesting that this article in the Business Review Weekly referred to this as the second of the 60 items. It called it, `Taking a holiday'. The article states:

If you can take a holiday on social security you are indeed, making the system work for you. Social security rules, however are concerned only with an immediate work test and current weekly income. Benefits will then be paid irrespective of the income in the earlier part of the year.

I can only agree that that is something that needs to be looked into. The honourable member for Dobell brought to the House's attention cases in which lump sum benefits from superannuation payments are made to those leaving employment who are under the age of 65. In the schemes that he raised, the sums were invested, the investment falls due in a certain week, and it is only in that week that the person, because of that income, is no longer eligible for the unemployment benefit. Item 7 of the 60 schemes outlined in the article in the Business Review Weekly is entitled, `hoarding your payment'. The article states:

Provisions to keep lump sum benefits intact are rec- ognised by the tax office. If you leave employment and are under 65, lump sum benefits can be preserved in approved deposit funds and deferred annuities until you are 65. The funds help maximise the advantages of a tax shelter. That is why these funds are the fastest growing avenues of investment in Australia today.

* * * *

An added bonus is that earnings in some approved deposit funds are not caught by the unemployment benefits income test or by the service pension income test. Preserved superannuation benefits, equivalent to approved deposit fund deposits, also are not caught by the tests.

That is a slight variation on the scheme which the honourable member for Dobell raised.

I was also interested to hear the contributions by the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) and the honourable member for Fisher (Mr Slipper). Whilst this legislation has tripartisan support-tripartisan is perhaps a new word that we will have to use in our parliamentary lexicon-I was a bit shocked by the differences between the contributions by the two honour- able members I have mentioned and others. Until yesterday the honourable member for Richmond was the coalition spokesman on welfare matters. I now understand that he is the National Party's spokesman. In some way I think that the honourable member for Fisher was the `shadow of the shadow' under the previous arrangements. They displayed their continuing dramatic attitude to welfare matters. The honourable member for Fisher again resurrected his call for an `Operation Noah' style campaign to dob in welfare cheats. I think that is an unfortunate and perhaps insensitive approach to a problem. It only heightens the anguish and hysteria that surrounds those issues to do with the proper targeting of welfare benefits.

The honourable member for Richmond is probably most famous for one of his suggestions earlier this year. He suggested that those in receipt of the unemployment benefit who had failed to attend job interviews-he specified six jobs interviews-should be accompanied to future interviews by a Department of Social Security officer. So DSS minders would attend interviews with unemployed people. I think the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) was quite correct in describing this as an absurd approach. He raised the question of how many employers would be likely to engage someone who had to be accompanied to an interview by an officer of the Department. It is sufficient to say that there are enough traumas facing unemployed people and those traumas are even greater for those who have been unemployed for a prolonged period. I think that this sort of measure would only heighten their anguish and concern about ever getting employment.

That is not to say that the Government need not be concerned that there are people who are having great difficulty in finding employment, and who have been unemployed for long terms, and that they should not be helped in regard to ways of approaching job interviews. A number of measures are undertaken by both the Commonwealth Employment Service and the Department of Social Security to try to help people in gaining adequate job interviewing skills and in other preparations for job applications. There are places such as CES youth access centres where people can gain information and get counselling on job interviewing skills and CES work information centres where counsellors and vocational psychologists can help people prepare for jobs. So there is a need to approach these problems with a great deal of sensitivity. While I outline the measures that the Government has already taken, I acknowledge that there is a need perhaps to have more counselling services than we have at the moment.

The honourable member for Richmond was not too charitable in the way he continued to fail to recognise any of the efforts and measures by this Government to ensure that those people who are most eligible for and entitled to benefits are those receiving them. For instance, he scoffed at the efforts of the amnesty which was held earlier last year. He failed to mention that the eligibility for the amnesty was strictly limited to clients that had a genuine entitlement to the benefit and that amnesty was to be given only for overpayments that had resulted from failure to inform the Department of information on changes in circumstances. The amnesty was not available to people who, as a result of deliberate misrepresentation, were receiving payments that they had no entitlement whatsoever to receive. The amnesty and its results should be recognised. A total of over 14,000 clients applied for amnesty. Of these, 13,591 were accepted. In 10,527 cases there was either cancellation or a reduction of payment. These cancellations or reductions resulted in a savings equivalent to $19.7m in a full year.

As the Department of Social Security 1985-86 annual report indicated, not only was the amnesty carried out but one other measure worthy of some praise is that the Department embarked upon a campaign of personalising its advices and making them more understandable, using plain English. As the Department indicated in its annual report, clients are now volunteering more information about changes in their circumstances, which of course substantially decreases the number of overpayments. There was also an effort by the Department to reduce the cut-off dates for pensions from 13 days to 6 days before the payment. I have had some experience in the pension payments area of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and to me this is a crucial measure to enable the payments to more adequately reflect the circumstances of beneficiaries. It is to the Department's credit that it has gained greater efficiency in being able to decrease the time between the cut-off and the payment.

Emphasis has been placed on policy training for officers of the Department-which is important. The other thing that I will get back to concerning the review teams is that the Department embarked upon risk analysis in trying to identify those beneficiaries who matched criteria indicating that there was a risk that the people might be overpaid.

Measures announced in the Budget that are not recognised by honourable members opposite include compulsory continuous registration at the CES, personal lodgment of unemployment benefit forms, entitlement checks, the unemployment benefit selective review teams, interviewing of supporting parents and interviews for the long term jobless.

Mr Reith —That's a joke, isn't it?

Mr JENKINS —The honourable member might think it is a joke but let us wait for the results and look at the type of information that will be asked of the beneficiaries and the type of information to be offered to them. Let us remember that these questions are to be asked of the long term unemployed, a group that perhaps requires a degree of special compassion and a bit of sensitivity about their circumstances. Perhaps it would be better for those who sit opposite, instead of ranting and raving, to have considered viewpoints on those matters being raised in the social security review and to identify more appropriate ways of handling those people who make up the long term unemployed, instead of worrying about the actions of a union. It seems to me that any time a union takes any sort of action there are knee jerk reactions and a jumping up and down in an intemperate way by members of the Liberal Party and the National Party.

Mr Reith —Why shouldn't they do what they are told to do?

Mr JENKINS —I was going to be less than charitable and suggest that the material between the ears of the honourable member for Flinders is the same as that from which the dispatch box he has now reached is made. But I know that that would probably be out of line and if any offence was taken I will withdraw.

Mr Reith —Then withdraw.

Mr JENKINS —I will and it will be lovely to hear from the honourable member if he follows me in the debate. I come back to the selective review teams. The parties opposite have been less than charitable in the way they have used the information coming from the review teams. It is to be remembered that these review teams have been tackling, in targeted areas, very selected clients of the Department. In the unemployment benefits area 7,354 people have been interviewed. Of these, 1,821 have had their benefit cancelled, 179 have had their entitlement reduced and 363 have had their entitlement increased.

But what we need to recognise when we look at those figures-and we notice that some 25 per cent of those interviewed have had their unemployment benefit cancelled-is that this is a selected, targeted group. It is of great shock and nuisance value when certain commentators, for their own benefit-and honourable members opposite for their political benefit-use this information, as did Brent Davis, the Chief Economist for the Australian Chamber of Commerce, to make suggestions. According to an article in the Sun on Wednesday, 4 March, he said:

`Around one-in-four recipients of unemployment payments are little better than dole cheats'.

This is selective use of the information coming out of these review teams, and it is of no credit to the people who claim to be proper commentators on these types of affairs if they selectively use such information-because this is just arrant nonsense. Up to the end of March, some 25,700 sole parent beneficiaries had been interviewed. Of these, 1,968 have had their benefit cancelled-that is about 7.6 per cent-2,525 had their entitlement reduced and 2,270 had it increased. It is important that these matters have been handled with as much sensitivity as can be mustered. There is another aspect that perhaps people such as the honourable member for Richmond should be reminded of-that in all cases where there are overpayments attempts will be made to recover them. This is something that he has tended to ignore and not acknowledge.

Another aspect of this Bill is the inclusion in the Schedules to the principal Act of the current reciprocal agreements with the United Kingdom and New Zealand governments. We have a similar agreement with the Italian Government. While I understand that this matter is now out of the Government's hands, the ratification of the agreement by the Italian Government will now be further delayed because of the difficulties of forming a government in Italy and the impending election. It is to be hoped that in the not too distant future the Italian Government will take action so that the many Italian-Australian beneficiaries can start to see the fruits of that agreement. As a result of the Italian agreement there has been much discussion and questioning in the various ethnic communities in my electorate, especially among the Maltese, Greek and Yugoslav communities. They wonder whether action will be taken to come to similar agreements with their respective governments. I acknowledge that various discussions have taken place with those three communities and I also understand that to the best of the ability of the Department and those holding discussions, these ethnic communities and their representative bodies in Australia are being consulted. We are trying to keep them informed of what is going on. These agreements are potentially of great benefit to the many migrants who have made significant contributions to Australia's development.

The Department of Social Security's charter is `to deliver social security entitlements and related services in accordance with the policies of the Government in a timely, fair and sensitive manner with efficient and effective use of resources.' Through the Department the Government has attempted to do this. It is to the Department's credit that at a time when we are tightening the administrative measures surrounding the payment of beneficiaries there have been very few complaints about its actions. In fact, in the last 12 months I have had only one complaint which I received recently and which I referred to the Minister late last week. It was a complaint about the action of an investigating officer who visited a beneficiary's home. I have asked for further information about that. I raise the matter as an illustration of the fact that everyone concerned must understand the need to be sensitive in this area. I know that anyone who has worked on the counter of a regional Department of Social Security office knows the tension in these circumstances and the need to be very careful in the way one operates. Briefly, this is a very exciting time for social security with the review being undertaken-

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Cowan) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.