Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2330

Mr HOWE (Minister for Social Security)(6.12) —in reply-Very briefly, I want to take up a couple of matters that were raised in the course of the debate. The honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) devoted almost his entire speech to the issue of interviews undertaken of the long-term unemployed. The honourable member seemed to fail to understand a couple of things. Those reviews had more than one purpose. They were not simply concerned with overpayments and with ensuring that a beneficiary receive only that to which that person is entitled. The interviews were also designed to enable the Government to learn more of the circumstances of the long-term unemployed and to provide some more information on that matter.

I regret that I used the word `counselling', which was then made the straw man basis of much of what was said by the honourable member for Richmond. I certainly did not intend to use that term in a technical sense. Obviously, social workers in the Department are not involved in the reviewing of 100,000 people in this more than two years unemployed group. Any interviews undertaken certainly are not comparable to interviews and the counselling undertaken by social workers in the Department.

The scale of what the Government has undertaken in the current financial year in relation to restricting fraud and seeking to reduce overpayment is probably greater than anything else previously attempted. In looking at just what is involved in terms of interviewing that number of people, I think that the concern of the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association is a legitimate one, bearing in mind particularly that this year we also introduced a two week reporting requirement, which has put enormous pressure on regional offices, along with the new requirements in respect of the reporting of supporting parents. This, particularly in New South Wales, has caused a lot of concern to the staff and I must say it has concerned some members of parliament. The changes that were made in the pattern of interviews were designed to reduce some of that pressure. We believe that the interviews will not diminish the effectiveness of what we are about in trying to improve the integrity of the social security system in terms of verifying people's entitlement. We did not require all that information; nor does it mean that in particular cases quite extensive investigations will not be carried out.

I think that the whole approach to the restriction of overpayments and fraud is based on the concept of risk entitlement. In interviewing a whole population in a particular category, one does not really expect to find massive variations in terms of the number of people not receiving their entitlements, because people have not been selected on any particular basis. This is quite different from the regional task forces that have been working in selected regional areas, with selected clients, who have been very carefully chosen. So, there has been a great deal of misinformation in the media about one in four people defrauding the system, and so on. That is not true. Those people in the group selected for review in terms of that task force activity have been very carefully selected-and that is why there is a quite high rate of people there found to be receiving payments to which they were not entitled.

I understand that the Opposition intends to move one amendment to this Bill, which pertains to sub-section 6 (1) of the schedule on page 15, relating to the definition of `de facto spouse'. Of course, one would not be accusing anyone of anything too much if one were to say that in dealing with matters such as that covered by the amendment it is not very difficult to generate a great deal of emotion-and of course, that is what has occurred. The kind of emotion and the kind of statements that have been made this afternoon by the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman) and the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) reflect an emotional response to the issue, which really relates to what is, essentially, designed to be a technical amendment. I assure the House that that is all that is involved. The Government has no intention of doing more than simply correcting a problem that has arisen in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and to ensure that we have a law that can operate, so that not every case with which we will deal will finish up in the AAT.

In the event that there is concern about the way that the amendment has been framed, I do not think we want to compound whatever problems people might see with the current amendment with another set of problems. I do not intend to accept the amendment as proposed, because I think that it may well create another set of problems. However, let me say that I do not want to be at all dogmatic; I simply want to explain quite clearly to the House what the Government's intention is in respect of the amendment to the Act as proposed in Schedule 1 of the Bill. Essentially, the problem that has arisen concerns the provision in the Bill which would treat under aged de facto spouses as married persons. There are no moral judgments involved in the issue that is before us; we simply have to accept the reality that, on occasions, a partner of a couple living together in a de facto relationship may be under aged. In terms of the applicable definitions, the problem is that, in terms of the relevant definitions, there is some variation, and they are not entirely consistent from State to State. The law concerned, in terms of those definitions, is essentially State law.

With this amendment we are not in any sense seeking to change the approach of Commonwealth law in the relevant area of family law. We are simply trying to find a legislative way to ensure that the practice of our officers in the Department is within the law. Indeed, what is involved in this particular amendment is no different from the practice that has been followed by successive governments, certainly since 1970. Honourable members opposite, when in government, followed this very practice. Readily accessible departmental records indicate, as I suggest, that the practice was in place prior to 1970. It was changed in 1983 when its legal basis was questioned.

The beneficiary in question was seen as benefiting from an illegal act because he was being paid additional benefit for a de facto spouse under the age of consent. The practice was changed so that the single rate of unemployment benefit was paid to both parties if they qualified. If the spouse did not qualify-for example, if there were children-supporting parent benefit was paid for the spouse. Under current rates, this means that a de facto couple with a dependent child would be paid more than a married couple. The amendment is meant to remedy this anomaly. It in no way judges the circumstances involved in the situation, but it accepts that there is a need for income support at the rate held to be appropriate for a married couple. There is also concern that Commonwealth payments be made equitably throughout Australia. In South Australia the age of consent is 17 whereas it is commonly 16 elsewhere. Different treatment of a 16-year-old in South Australia compared with that of a 16-year-old in the same circumstances in Victoria is seen as undesirable. We are talking about simply treatment from the point of view of the Social Security Act.

The Opposition has argued that there is a clash with the Commonwealth Marriage Act. However, the Marriage Act deals only with legal marriages; it does not purport to lay down rules or principles applicable to all relationships, which an income support system may wish to recognise as equivalent.

Mrs Sullivan —Think about what you are saying.

Mr HOWE —We are talking about how we determine the appropriate rate. That is all we are talking about. In a situation which we may well regret, we are simply trying to create the circumstance whereby we can make the appropriate payment-in this case we are talking about effectively a lesser payment because a married rate would apply--

Mr Porter —You are certainly not, in all circumstances.

Mr HOWE —Just hold your fire. As I was saying, we are trying to create the circumstances whereby we are able to make a payment-which we believe is the appropriate payment-in such a way that that payment is consistent with legislation and not simply based on administrative practice which may well be questioned within the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in line with the Kennison case. I believe that this amendment is simply a technical amendment designed to deal very specially with the situation which exists in SA, where there is some variation in the age of consent compared with other States. It seeks to treat people equitably as between States and it is in line with the practice of successive governments.

I am interested in the Opposition's amendment and we will certainly listen to the argument in relation to it. But at this point I am not prepared to accept it. I am prepared to listen to the debate and give the amendment further consideration following that. What we have put forward is designed simply to deal with that situation-which does exist-where people live together and where welfare staff believe that the relationship is a marriage type relationship which they certainly would not want to destroy and for which they would want to see income support paid in a way which is appropriate to those circumstances.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.