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Tuesday, 12 June 1984
Page: 2834


Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(5.25) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

This Bill is an omnibus Bill which amends seven Acts. The Acts are: The Social Security Act 1947; the Social Security Legislation Amendment Act 1983; the Repatriation Act 1920; the Aged or Disabled Persons Homes Act 1954; the Compensation (Commonwealth Government Employees) Act 1971; the Handicapped Persons Assistance Act 1974; and the Seamen's Compensation Act 1911.

The main amendments to these Acts introduce important initiatives and correct significant anomalies in the legislation. A number of other amendments are of a law revision kind, up-dating and simplifying the legislation and removing minor anomalies and deficiencies. I will address the more important measures directly. Honourable senators have been provided with an explanatory memorandum dealing with those measures and the amendments of relatively less importance.

SOCIAL SECURITY ACT 1947

The Bill overcomes several important anomalies in the Social Security Act which currently affect unemployment and sickness beneficiaries and others. First, the Bill removes the bar whereby supplementary-rent-allowance may not be paid to a sickness beneficiary without dependants who is hospitalised. Sickness beneficiaries renting privately are usually required to pay rent while in hospital to secure continued tenancy. The Government considers that ceasing to pay supplementary allowance to such sickness beneficiaries can cause hardship and may contribute to homelessness. The change will ensure equity with hospitalised pensioners in similar circumstances who currently receive rental assistance. Secondly, under current income test arrangements serious anomalies exist where both spouses of a married couple qualify for unemployment or sickness benefit in their own right, or one spouse is a beneficiary, and the other is a pensioner.

In the first case, if their combined income is over the benefits income test ' free area', the combined income is taken into account twice. Where one spouse receives the combined married rate of benefit, however, the combined income is taken into account only once. The total benefit received where both qualify can consequently be significantly less than where only one spouse receives the combined rate of benefit. Similarly, in the second case, the rate paid to the person receiving unemployment or sickness benefit is calculated in such a way that the assistance that should be given to the couple by the less strict pension income test, is effectively cancelled.

To remove these anomalies, the Bill provides that, in the case of a married beneficiary whose spouse is in receipt of a pension or benefit, only half of the combined income which would otherwise reduce the amount of benefit payable, will be taken into account. Half of the combined income will, of course, also be taken into account in determining the spouse's pension or benefit entitlement. This ensures that the income test operates fairly for all married beneficiaries, regardless of whether the spouse qualifies for benefit or pension in his or her own right.

Thirdly, where a person is entitled to a lump sum payment upon termination of employment and the employer pays the person by instalments, rather than in a lump sum, each instalment is currently taken into account under the benefits income test. This significantly disadvantages the person compared with other former employees who receive a lump sum upon termination of their job. The entitlement of the latter people to unemployment or sickness benefit generally is not affected as the lump sum payment is usually made before or during the waiting period for benefit. Under the Bill, instalments of a lump sum due to a person upon termination of employment will be regarded as received by the person on the date the employment ceased. Those instalments will usually not be included as income for benefit purposes.

Fourthly, payment of unemployment benefit may be postponed at present for a period of between six and 12 weeks if the applicant's own actions caused his unemployment and he did not have a good and sufficient reason for his actions; if his unemployment is due to his misconduct as a worker; or if he fails without good and sufficient reason to accept a suitable offer of employment.

Situations have arisen where application of the compulsory six weeks postponement period has resulted in persons suffering undue hardship. For example, a man with a wife and three children who is dismissed by his employer for what might have been some minor misdemeanour, can suffer the double penalty of losing his job and losing his benefit for six weeks which, in effect, amounts to a fine of more than $1,000. The Bill will eliminate this compulsory minimum period. It will enable the Director-General of Social Security to apply an appropriate period of postponement, having regard to all relevant matters in an individual case. The 12 weeks maximum period will remain.

Fifthly, the Bill will extend eligibility for widow's pension to any woman who is the innocent party to a bigamous marriage and is deserted by the other party. This change follows an unsuccessful appeal by a woman who was not entitled to a widow's pension in these circumstances. The Government responded to the particular case by approving an act of grace payment, and the woman is to receive payment equivalent to a class B widow's pension until she acquires a legal entitlement to a pension under the Bill.

Sixthly, another anomaly concerns remote area allowance. This allowance, which came into effect on 1 May 1984, can be paid to residents of income tax zone A who are in receipt of a pension, benefit, sheltered employment or rehabilitation allowance. At present, where a married pensioner or beneficiary is temporarily absent from the remote area for more than eight weeks, remote area allowance ceases, but the allowance, together with additional allowance for any dependent children, continues to be payable to the person's spouse where the spouse is also a pensioner or beneficiary and remains in the remote area. However, in the case of a married unemployment or other beneficiary who receives additional benefit in respect of a spouse, no allowance is payable where the beneficiary is temporarily absent from the remote area for more than 8 weeks, although the spouse remains in the remote area. This is because the spouse in this situation is not paid the additional benefit in his or her own right.

This anomaly is overcome under the Bill by entitling the married beneficiary to remote area allowance in respect of his or her spouse in those circumstances, thereby ensuring fairness with pensioners in this situation. The allowance will be paid at the single rate of $7 a week for a dependent spouse, together with additional allowance of $3.50 a week for each dependent child.

The Bill makes similar provision for a married person receiving a sheltered employment or rehabilitation allowance, where the rate of that allowance includes an amount for a spouse, and the person is temporarily absent from the remote area for more than eight weeks but the spouse remains in the remote area.

The Bill also removes the requirement that children be physically present and have their usual place of residence in the remote area, in order to attract payment of additional allowance. This change is made because parents in remote areas can still incur extra costs in respect of their children although the children are away from home. However, the children must still be in Australia before additional allowance can be paid. The Bill also clarifies that remote area allowance is payable during the first eight weeks of any temporary absence from the remote area, provided that it is the person's usual place of residence.

Seventhly, the Bill will provide for the payment of supplementary-rent- assistance or allowance to pensioners and sickness beneficiaries who live in their own caravan or house-boat and pay for the right to use a site. This will be achieved by including the payment of such on-site costs in the definition of 'rent'. Eighthly, a number of changes are to be made to conform with the spirit of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. For example, references to 'dependent female ' in the context of age, invalid, wives' and spouse carers' pensions, and unemployment, sickness and special benefits, are to be replaced by the neutral, non-discriminatory phrase 'de facto spouse'. Other changes are to be made in part because the existing provisions are discriminatory. One provision, section 22, preventing the grant of an age pension in circumstances reflecting concepts of matrimonial fault which have been of less significance since the Family Law Act, is to be removed.

The Bill also will remove the provision whereby additional benefit may be paid to an unmarried male unemployment or sickness beneficiary in respect of a woman substantially dependent on him and keeping house for him and his children. The provision, which was introduced in 1947, became largely redundant when provisions enabling a de facto wife to be treated as the spouse of a beneficiary were introduced in 1974. The current provision is also discriminatory against beneficiaries who are women and have a male housekeeper. The existing entitlement of any beneficiaries who might be receiving additional benefit in these circumstances, will be preserved.

Finally, the opportunity has been taken by means of this Bill to make a number of machinery amendments which will enhance the readability of the Social Security Act and will help to improve administration. One such measure I will mention deals with current provisions which assist people to qualify for pensions or family allowance on residency grounds. Those provisions rely on the definition of 'resident of Australia' in the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936. This in turn requires the Commissioner of Taxation to be satisfied about certain matters. It is administratively inefficient to seek the decision of the Commissioner in these cases, especially if much of the relevant information is held by the Department of Social Security. The Bill will incorporate relevant parts of the taxation definition in the Social Security Act, with the Director- General of Social Security having the power to make decisions. Some of the proposals in the Bill involve small costs, while others involve small savings. The net result is likely to be negligible additional costs.

SOCIAL SECURITY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT ACT 1983

The Bill will make two minor changes:

The Aged or Disabled Persons Homes Act was changed last year to provide hostel care and personal care subsidies, with effect from 1 January 1984. The amendment enables administrative arrangements made before that date to have legal effect.

The effect of an amendment last year was to allow payment of family income supplement to the wife rather than to the husband, where both were eligible in respect of a child. However, the amendment was deficient in that payment could not be made to the wife until the commencement of a new six-monthly allowance period on or after 1 May 1984. The Bill will rectify this situation so that payment can be made to the wife from 1 May 1984.

REPATRIATION ACT 1920

The Bill will amend the Repatriation Act to bring Provisions in that Act dealing with remote area allowance, Government rent, rent and supplementary assistance, into line with the changes made to the Social Security Act in the Bill. In relation to remote area allowance, the Bill also provides that:

A married service pensioner and spouse will be treated as single people, with each of them able to receive the higher single rate of allowance, where they are unable to live together for an indefinite period as a result of an illness or infirmity and their living expenses are greater than they would otherwise be; and

payment of the allowance in respect of the same child to more than one person, will be prevented.

This brings those provisions into line with the existing provisions of the Social Security Act. The Bill will also change the definition of 'Benevolent home' in the Repatriation Act consequential upon the substitution of a new definition in the Social Security Act. The overall costs of these measures are estimated to be negligible.

AGED OR DISABLED PERSONS HOMES ACT 1954

As part of the Government's proposals to improve the current imbalance between institutional and community care for the frail aged and disabled, our election policy included introducing incentives for the provision of suitable short-term respite accommodation for people being cared for in the community, so that their carers may have a break from the rigours of caring for them.

The 1981 Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey of Handicapped Persons in Australia showed that more than three times as many severe to moderately handicapped people aged 65 or over lived at home as live institutions. Yet current community services for respite care are minimal. When care support is temporarily reduced or removed, the only alternative may be premature admission to institutional facilities or acute hospitalisation, often to costly private hospitals. The Government has decided to encourage the provision of respite care services in subsidised hostels, and the occupancy of such beds, by making a new subsidy available.

Under the existing arrangements, a subsidy is provided to an organisation providing hostel care services or hostel care and personal care services to eligible persons at a relevant facility. The calculation of the subsidy is based upon the number of eligible persons receiving approved services at a facility on a prescribed date, which was 17 January 1984 and each twenty-eighth day thereafter.

This Bill provides for the new subsidy as follows:

$10 per week for each respite care bed occupied by an eligible person or persons for at least 1 day, but not more than 14 days, in any 4 week period ending on a prescribed date;

$50 per week for each respite care bed occupied by an eligible person or persons for more than 14 days in any 4 week period ending on a prescribed date.

The amendments will operate from a date specified by notice in the Gazette. This day will be a prescribed date.

The Government considers this initiative will increase the options of frail aged and disabled people who wish to live in the community rather than go into hospitals and other institutions permanently, and assist in relieving the burden of community care which falls on relatives and friends.

It is not possible to estimate accurately the likely number of respite care beds progressively becoming available, or the pattern of occupancy. The number of beds that will become available is expected to rise progressively over the next three years to an estimated 1,350 beds. The cost of this provision under present arrangements will also rise progressively, and by year 3, assuming a take-up at the present personal care subsidy rate, could cost some $3.5m in that year. However, the proposed measures are not expected to lead to the revision of anticipated Budget outlays in the current financial year.

COMPENSATION (COMMONWEALTH GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES) ACT 1971

The Bill will make a number of minor changes:

Certain provisions are to be amended to bring them more into line with the spirit of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. Dependants of a deceased employee and persons dependent upon an employee who is totally incapacitated for work, are to include fathers-in-law and certain de facto spouses of female employees. Under the present provisions, mothers-in-law and certain de facto spouses of male employees are included. The estimated cost of these changes is not expected to exceed $100,000 in a full year.

Secrecy provisions are to be inserted designed to protect the confidentiality of the affairs of person to whom the Act relates. These provisions are based upon section 17 of the Social Security Act 1947. Penalties are provided for offences against these provisions.

In relation to the provisions preventing double payments where there is an entitlement to compensation under the Act, and an employee recovers common law damages, a component of damages awarded which does not relate to the injury for which compensation is payable, is to be disregarded. Common examples of such components of damages awarded are damages for pain and suffering and for loss of amenities of life. The present provisions of the Act have a broader operation than this. It is not possible to estimate accurately the costs of this proposal, in part because of differing administrative treatment of the current provisions. The Commonwealth, in effect, will forgo some windfall receipts.

The present bar on the payment of compensation under the Act is to be retained where there has been a payment of compensation under worker's compensation legislation of a State, Territory or another country. However, the bar is to be removed with other forms of compensation. That compensation will be treated in a similar manner to common law damages. Under the change, it will be possible for an employee to receive compensation under the Act as well as, for example, no fault motor accident compensation or criminal injuries compensation. Double payments are prevented where that other compensation relates to an injury to the employee for which compensation is payable under the Act. In practice, there are no costs as it ratifies current arrangements.

HANDICAPPED PERSONS ASSISTANCE ACT 1974

Under current provisions, a subsidy is payable for maintenance of premises which are not rented, where they are used by an eligible organisation to provide a prescribed service, such as sheltered employment. The Act requires an approval of a maintenance project to be given in advance.

The amendment enables a maintenance project to be approved after the project is undertaken. This brings maintenance subsidies into line with other forms of subsidy under the Act, such as capital and equipment grants. It means that maintenance required in an emergency can be undertaken and subsequently approved . In practice, there are no costs as the change validates current arrangements.

SEAMEN'S COMPENSATION ACT 1911

The Bill makes a number of minor changes. Of these, I will refer only to amendments to certain provisions to bring them more into line with the spirit of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. For example, the scope of the definition of a ' member of the family' is to be extended to include a father-in-law as well as a de facto spouse of a female seafarer. The costs of the amendments are estimated to be negligible.

Mr President, this Bill provides for several important new developments, and for the correction of important anomalies which can cause hardship to certain groups in the community. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Reid) adjourned.