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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 5849


Mr ANDREWS (Menzies) (17:51): Labor's public housing tenants' support bill claims that it will reduce the risk of homelessness in Australia by introducing compulsory rent deductions for public housing tenants at risk of eviction due to unpaid rent up to a cap of 35 per cent of an individual's income support payments. The coalition does not support the bill. We believe that this bill may actually increase the housing stress and financial hardship of some of the most vulnerable people in our society while doing nothing to prevent homelessness. It is an administrative cost to the Commonwealth and the government is also as yet unable to say what the cost to the states and territories will be.

The bill stems from a recommendation of Labor's 2008 white paper on homelessness, The road home, by introducing compulsory rent deductions for public housing tenants at risk of eviction and homelessness due to unpaid rent. To this end, the bill implements the housing payment deduction scheme into the social security law and family assistance law. The scheme will have effect in relation to specified social security payments, payments under the Abstudy scheme and payments of family tax benefit. The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs estimates that around 600 people are evicted from public housing due to arrears each year, including families with children. Others abandon their properties, leaving arrears. Many end up in specialist homelessness services, staying with family and friends or sleeping rough.

The bill would also allow public housing costs required to be paid under a public housing lease to be deducted from the lessee's income support payment providing they are in arrears. Public housing tenants deemed under the legislation to be in arrears can be nominated by their public housing authority for compulsory deductions from their income support or family payment up to a cap of 35 per cent of that income. The bill would see the minister setting out in the legislative instrument the minimum levels of arrears required before a public housing lessor is able to request deductions. It is intended that this minimum level will be the equivalent of four weeks rent.

Housing costs which could be included in the calculation of arrears are limited to rent, rent arrears and household utilities where included under the lease. To avoid the possibility of deductions for a person starting and stopping repeatedly each time they repay their arrears, the bill allows for a public housing lessor to take a subsequent request to apply for a period of 12 months further deductions after a person's arrears have been repaid. This provision is intended to give public housing tenants in arrears more time to re-establish a pattern of regular payments once compulsory deductions have been discontinued. The minister will specify in a legislative instrument those public housing lessors approved to participate in the scheme and must be satisfied before granting approval that a public housing lessor has appropriate review processes in place to address disputes arising under leases or under state or territory tenancy legislation.

The scheme is estimated to cost $4.5 million in 2013-14, and around $1.4 million in subsequent years, in addition to a transaction fee to be charged to states and territories for using the scheme at the same time as is currently charged for the use of the voluntary rent deduction scheme.

The scheme introduced in this bill is a typical Labor initiative: it costs a lot, it will add to an already overly blown bureaucracy, it will involve hugely complicated regulatory and legislative changes and in the end it is likely to achieve nothing at all. In fact, the most likely outcome of this bill is that we will only make worse the very problem it purports to solve, so placing the most vulnerable people in our society under even greater financial strain and increasing their risk of homelessness. The coalition is committed to taking real action to prevent homelessness, not penalising those most at risk of falling into homelessness.

Labor claims this bill aims to reduce the risk of homelessness for public housing tenants in arrears in their rental payments, but the housing payments deduction scheme introduced in the bill is so badly designed it will instead only increase the financial difficulties for anyone in public housing with more than four weeks arrears in rent. This is a group potentially far larger than the one intended in the objectives of the bill—that is, only those people at risk of homelessness due to eviction from arrears. Worse still, by setting the cap of compulsory income payment deductions at 35 per cent, the scheme automatically places anyone subject to it under housing stress by definition when the cost of housing is 30 per cent or more of household income.

By setting the cap on income payment deductions under the scheme at 35 per cent, the Labor government has also contradicted its own commitments under the National Affordable Housing Agreement. In 2008, the Commonwealth and the states and territories signed the National Affordable Housing Agreement under which the Commonwealth agreed to provide $6.2 billion over five years to increase the supply of affordable housing in Australia. As part of the agreement, the Commonwealth, states and territories all committed to reduce housing stress in Australia. Contrary to the aims of the National Affordable Housing Agreement, by implementing the measures in this bill the Commonwealth will only increase housing stress. Although the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs claims that around 600 people are evicted from public housing due to arrears each year, the department has presented little other data to justify the scheme.

In fact, in developing the legislation, the department appears to have undertaken no detailed collection or analysis of data on the extent to which eviction due to arrears is a problem nationally or whether the type of intervention proposed in the bill will have any positive impact on an individual's risk of homelessness. Last week, in estimates, officials from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs updated the 600 person number to 756, but the basis for this calculation remains unclear. Indeed, the bill is a perfect example of poorly researched, ill conceived, badly made policy from an incompetent government. The bill is also administratively burdensome and will require significant changes to the way in which social security payments are made.

The Rudd-Gillard government has mismanaged homelessness policy right from the start, and has made it difficult for states and territories on the frontline to do their job and to deliver services to some of our most vulnerable citizens. In 2008, Mr Rudd said that homelessness was 'a national obscenity' and promised to halve the rate of homelessness in Australia by 2020. Sadly, Labor's record has not matched its rhetoric. In fact, under Labor's watch homelessness has only increased. Between 2006 and 2011, ABS census figures show a 17 per cent increase in the number of homeless people in Australia, or over 15,000 people, from 89,728 in 2006 to 105,237 in 2011.

Compounding this failure, on 2 May 2013, the Australian National Audit Office released a report which revealed major failings in the government's key homelessness funding deal with the states and the territories, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. According to the ANAO report, the government is unlikely to achieve its own target of a seven per cent reduction in homelessness by 1 July 2013. Under Labor, the future for homelessness funding in Australia will therefore remain uncertain beyond mid-2014. This government has allocated nothing in the forward estimates to fund vital homelessness services across the country.

The coalition is committed to combatting the many and complex causes of homelessness, supporting homeless Australians with real practical assistance, and preventing even more Australians from falling into homelessness. We will not support policies or legislation that serve only to increase the risk of homelessness in Australia and that add further layers of bureaucracy and cost to the process of government, and it is for these reasons that we will not support this bill.