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Wednesday, 29 May 2013
Page: 4236

Mr BUTLER (Port AdelaideMinister for Mental Health and Ageing, Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Minister for Social Inclusion and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Mental Health Reform) (10:25): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill will implement a Housing Payment Deduction Scheme to help reduce homelessness for public housing tenants (including state or territory owned or managed Indigenous housing) who are in serious rental arrears that could lead to eviction or housing abandonment.

The new scheme, to be implemented in 2014, responds to concerns from the community and all levels of government about property abandonments, evictions and homelessness due to rental arrears.

Each year, hundreds of public housing tenants, including families with children, are evicted or abandon their homes because of arrears. As public housing is generally the most affordable housing option available, these people may end up in specialist homelessness services, staying with family or friends, or sleeping rough.

Clearly, this is stressful for the individuals and families involved. It is also disruptive and costly for governments and welfare groups, and can lead to long-term homelessness.

When vulnerable families are involved, it can also place pressure on child protection services. Welfare organisations sometimes end up paying rent for public housing tenants so they do not face eviction—money that could be freed up for other welfare purposes.

People with complex problems such as gambling, substance abuse or mental health issues may require support services to help them address personal problems which can lead to nonpayment of rent.

This scheme is designed to work alongside government funded financial counselling and other available support services, to ensure that tenants continue to be housed safely and affordably while they get the help they need to sustain their tenancy.

For people who have problem levels of public housing arrears, the new scheme will allow rent and utilities legally required to be paid under their public housing leases to be deducted from their welfare payments and paid directly to their public housing landlords.

Existing systems do not always address the problem of eviction due to nonpayment of public housing rent. The voluntary Rent Deduction Scheme, which is already in place for some payments made by the Department of Human Services, gives public housing tenants the choice of having their rent and other costs automatically deducted from their payments.

This service is used by most public housing tenants. However, as it is a voluntary arrangement, tenants may cancel their deductions—and those tenants often go on to accumulate arrears which risk their tenancies.

The Housing Payment Deduction Scheme made possible by this bill will help prevent high levels of arrears from being accumulated. It will reduce evictions and property abandonments from public housing.

This carefully considered initiative flows from commitments made by the Australian government and state and territory governments in the National Affordable Housing Agreement, as well as the Australian government's white paper on homelessness, The road home: a national approach to homelessness.

The legislation introduced today has also benefited from valuable comments made on the bill during a recent exposure draft process, and the government places on record its gratitude to the many state and territory agencies, community organisations and individuals who contributed their views and expertise in this important area.

The new scheme will be implemented through amendments to the social security law and the family assistance law, supplemented by legislative instruments on some matters of detail. This will make the scheme more flexible and responsive, while allowing for scrutiny by parliament, as legislative instruments can be disallowed by either house of parliament.

The scheme is a preventative measure to stop the build-up of arrears, leading to eviction, and has been designed so it will not be used to undermine sound tenancy management processes that exist in states and territories.

Importantly, the bill will allow the minister to have oversight of how the scheme is administered by states and territories. Before a public housing lessor is listed in a legislative instrument as being able to participate in the scheme, the minister will need to be satisfied that there are appropriate processes in place in those jurisdictions for reviewing decisions and in dealing with matters relating to leases.

The factors which the minister must take into account are listed in the bill, and go to ensuring that decisions are transparent, that reasonable action has been taken to recover arrears, that tenants' individual circumstances are taken into account, and that they are informed of their rights and available advice and support services. The minister will also have the power to revoke approval of a public housing lessor under the scheme if the conditions are no longer being met.

Not all tenants of public housing will be put onto the scheme. Before a person who is a leaseholder in public housing can be put onto the scheme, there will have to be more than a specified amount owing. The specified amount owing, to be set out in a legislative instrument, will be four weeks rent.

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 make a subsequent request to apply for a limited period of 12 months after a person's arrears have been repaid. This will give the person more time to get the help that they need to re-establish a pattern of regular rent payments once compulsory deductions have been discontinued.

The recent exposure draft of this bill contained a provision which allowed for people who had a history of rental arrears to be included in the scheme as a preventative measure. In response to stakeholder concern that this provision could be unfairly used to include tenants whose personal circumstances had changed, this basis for requesting deductions under the scheme has been removed from the bill as introduced.

Housing costs which can be deducted are limited to rent, rent arrears and household utilities where included under the lease. Maintenance debt incurred as a result of property damage will not be included in response to stakeholder concerns that these debts can be contentious and may cause hardship, particularly for victims of domestic violence.

Requests will only be able to be made after reasonable action has been taken by state and territory lessors to recover rental arrears. This will require, as a minimum, that the tenant has been given appropriate notice as well as advice on their rights of review and available support services.

Deductions under the scheme can only be made from payments (as set out in a legislative instrument) that include a rate component for recipients' housing costs. Lump sum special purpose payments such as the clean energy and pension supplements will not be available for deductions, to ensure tenants receive the full benefit of these payments.

The bill contains important safeguards to protect the interests of tenants. These include a fixed cap on the proportion of a person's welfare payment that can be deducted. This cap includes the component for rent plus an amount for arrears up to a maximum of 35 per cent of the welfare payment.

The purpose of the cap is to provide an upper limit on the amount that can be deducted to ensure the majority of the person's payment is available to meet their other needs. The cap will operate alongside other provisions in the bill, ensuring that public housing lessors have in place processes that take into account tenants' individual circumstances and give them an opportunity to be heard before a request is made.

Deductions under the scheme will stop as soon as the person has paid their arrears (plus an additional 12 months) or when they no longer lease public housing.

We have sought to introduce efficiencies by assigning responsibility for aspects of the scheme to the government agency which is best placed to undertake it.

Centrelink will administer the 35 per cent cap on how much of a person's welfare payment can be deducted and accept requests from public housing lessors that are in the proper form.

It will be up to state and territory housing authorities to ensure that the legal requirements in relation to the making of a request have been met and to review any decisions about leases. This will build on the existing systems of state and territory housing authorities—who, because of their tenancy management responsibilities, are best placed to understand the individual circumstances of the tenant—with the added oversight by the Commonwealth of tenancy management and review processes at the state or territory level.

To ensure the consistent operation of the Housing Payment Deduction Scheme with the income management regime, if a request is made under the scheme in relation to a person who is subject to income management, the secretary will be able to take action under the income management provisions to meet the request.

This bill takes a significant step towards addressing the problem of evictions and homelessness among Australia's public housing tenants, by providing a means by which arrears can be managed.

The scheme strikes the right balance between achieving that objective, and ensuring that appropriate tenancy management practices are upheld and tenants being given the right supports to help maintain their tenancies.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.