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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 17115

Ms JACKSON (11:47 AM) —I wish to raise the ongoing problem of family tax benefit debts within my electorate of Hasluck. This system, over the past two years of its operation, has driven families in my electorate into a cycle of debt which many of them are struggling to come to terms with. After the first year of operation, 5,052 families in Hasluck received notification of a family tax benefit debt and 971 families received notification of a childcare benefit debt. After the second year of operation, another 2,550 families received notification of a family tax benefit debt and 559 families received notification of a childcare benefit debt. Based on the national average of these debts provided by the minister himself, the government is taking, conservatively, $6,743,869 out of the pockets of families who live in my electorate of Hasluck.

I have surveyed nearly 10 per cent of families within Hasluck who received debts from the family tax benefits system, and I believe their feedback is indicative of the difficulties many of them are now facing. Results from the survey of 200 local families clearly demonstrate the fact that a system that is supposed to assist families with the costs of raising their children has resulted in blowing apart their family budgets. I have spoken to many of the families who have received debts and they have repeatedly told me about the obvious flaws in the system, but I was deeply shocked to realise the longer term impact these debts were having on families.

I will just cover some of the results from the survey with the minister. By far the most disturbing figure that emerged from my survey was the fact that 70 per cent of families who received a debt notice for the 2000-01 financial year also received a debt notice for the 2001-02 financial year, and I suspect many of those families are likely to receive a further debt notice this year. But the real issue in that regard, as the government well knows, is that the issuing of debt notices for the 2000-01 financial year was cynically delayed until early 2002, a few short months after the November 2001 election. For many of these families, the fact that they found out some seven months into the next financial year that they had incurred a debt the financial year before was outrageous. Many of them said to me: `By the time I knew there was a problem, Centrelink told me that I had already been accruing a second debt for the past seven months. I am still paying off these debts and hardly receiving any family assistance at all.'

I have put this to the minister on previous occasions, and I ask again: will he give consideration to waiving the debt—the second debt for the financial year 2001-02 or part thereof—as the government did after the first year of operation of the scheme, on the same logic as they applied when they waived the first $1,000? It seems to me only fair and proper, given that many families were six or seven months into the second financial year, that similar consideration be given to waiving part or all of the debt incurred in that second year. If you did not know that you were incurring a debt until over half the financial year had gone by, it seems only fair and proper that the minister give some consideration to waiving that debt.

The second issue I raise with regard to the family tax benefit is one I raised in a question on notice some time ago regarding the debt that was being incurred in Centrelink benefits generally. It was my advice—and, indeed, my understanding—that, prior to the introduction of the family tax benefit system, the greatest debts in Centrelink benefits were incurred in the Newstart allowance and unemployment payments area. My understanding is that that proportion of the debt ratio has now shifted to the family tax benefit area. When I sought the figures from the minister to compare various financial years for Centrelink benefit payments, the response I received from him was that the information I required was detailed and that answering my question would involve the expenditure of resources and effort. He did not think it was appropriate for that effort to be made. So I ask him again to make a bit of effort and confirm my understanding that the family tax benefit is now the single greatest cause of debt incurred by Centrelink beneficiaries.