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Friday, 29 May 1998
Page: 3451

Senator NEAL (9:37 AM) —I rise to speak in the second reading debate on the Social Security and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 1997. This bill is much like the raft of this government's bills as they relate to the social security portfolio in that, on the one hand, they give a small amount and, on the other hand, they take away again. I always try to be as positive as I can about the positive aspects of a bill that assists people often in very difficult and dire circumstances, but I always feel a little restrained in my congratulations because it is always balanced with something being taken away.

I would be very pleased to occasionally get up here and debate a bill, particularly in relation to social security, where I could say completely positive things about the piece of legislation. But this will not be the occasion today because it is a bill much in the way of mixed fortunes, particularly for those who have disabled children under the age of 16 years. Senators might recall that the matter of disabled children has been one of some concern already expressed in this chamber, as already this year—in fact, it may have been late last year—there was a major restriction on the access of disabled children to the disabled children's allowance. In fact, the criteria was changed, and we were assured very early on in the negotiations in the debate that it was a change to the criteria to make assessment easier and more certain. But what we found in the end was that the table being proposed by the government meant that a large number of children who had previously accessed that disability payment were no longer able to access it.

This is pretty much a representative lesson that I have learnt from this government. Whenever change is proposed, in the vast number of occasions what change to the criteria for eligibility means is that fewer people end up being eligible. This government saves money on the backs of the unemployed, the aged, the sick and the disabled. I am constantly reminded every time I see the smiling face of Mr Peter Costello, the Treasurer, talking about the $2.7 billion surplus that the people who paid for that surplus are not people like Mr Costello. They are not like most of the people in this chamber who are on pretty good salaries. It was paid for by the aged, pensioners, the disabled, the ill, those going into nursing homes, those people who were having a pretty hard time of it, those people and those families who are on very limited income. They are the people who paid the pain for the $2.7 billion.

It is worthwhile remembering when we deal with what appears to be just a few changes in the paragraphs in the legislation—a flick of a pen—that there are real consequences for people out there in the community. We have to always remember that they are real people; they are not people who are disassociated from us. When we are making decisions about social security payments, there will be real human beings whose lives are made a little bit harder if their eligibility is reduced.

I suppose I should return to the bill that is before us, because there are some positive measures contained in the bill.

Senator Newman —Thank you. I thought you had missed them.

Senator NEAL —No, I do have some notes here in relation to the bill, but I wanted to take the opportunity to comment on the budget and I feel very strongly about that issue.

There are some positive measures contained in this bill, and that is those that relate to carers. I know that the minister has been at some pains to point out this measure, and now it is coming through our chamber today. To some extent it allows carers to access the carers pension in slightly broader circumstances. What one of the measures has done is that, where carers their caring activities, they still qualify for the carer payment when they have ceased in their caring activities for 63 days—a slight increase on the previous 52 days.

It gives the opportunity for a carer who I think is often under great stress, both emotionally and physically, to take a break. That break can now be up to 63 days—two months—rather than the previous 52 days. It is now in line with the existing provisions for the child disability allowance, the domiciliary nursing care benefit and the Commonwealth respite programs. Not only do we have a slight increase in the carers entitlement—it is reasonably slight, it is only a further 11 days—but also we have achieved the object of all bureaucrats in that we also have a very neat arrangement.

Senator Newman —Good administration is not to be derided.

Senator NEAL —At a meeting yesterday with a group of community people in relation to not social security but child care we were talking about the advantages of certainty, the tyranny of neatness within the bureaucracy and how certainty is important but at the same time it cannot become so overriding that the rules and regulations that apply to real world circumstances become overwhelmingly difficult just because there was a need to make the arrangements neat. For one who has a bit of a tendency to neatness, I think it was a warning that I took on board.

Senator Newman —How is your linen cupboard?

Senator NEAL —I rearranged that just a fortnight ago. We do have to be careful in making everything conform that we do not adversely affect people's circumstances. Some of the positive provisions contained in this bill are set out in schedule 2—and we do support schedule 2.

As I have said, this is a positive part of the bill. It provides for the consistent treatment of lump sum payments under the income test as it relates to carers, and this is regardless of whether the recipient of the lump sum is a pensioner or an allowee. At present, certain lump sums in the nature of income will be averaged over a 52-week period for pensioners, while they may be treated as income for the fortnight of receipt for allowees. It also allows a situation where lump sums which are not exempted will be apportioned over a 52-week period, regardless of the social security payment type.

The secretary also has a discretion where he or she may exempt certain lump sums which are not periodic payments, leave payments or income from remunerative work. Exempt lump sums are not subject to the ordinary income test, but the assets test and the deem ing rules will apply. The kind of lump sums a secretary may exempt include lottery wins, gifts and that sort of thing.

I suppose the most positive aspect of schedule 2, if I am correct, is that carers for disabled children under the age of 16 years are now covered by this particular payment. This is very much a positive thing, and we are very supportive of that move. I suppose the sad thing about it is that it goes hand in hand with the recent restriction of eligibility for the child disability allowance, which occurred earlier in another piece of legislation. I suppose that means also, because of that restriction, the number of people who now will become eligible for the carers allowance under these new provisions will be fewer than before the changes were made in relation to the child disability allowance.

Schedule 3 is a reasonably positive provision also. It simplifies the treatment of income streams under the income and assets test. It provides for a consistent treatment of income streams based on characteristics, such as the term of the income stream and access to residual capital rather than their source. Basically, that means if you have access to an income stream, even if it is from things that are normally treated differently, they will now be treated consistently. In fact, certain long-term income streams where access to capital is lacking will not be subject to the assets test. Shorter term income streams will be subject to an assets testing.

There is a negative to all this, despite this government's stated objective of preventing rorting of the system—and I have to accept their statement in good faith. In fact, looking through the media at some of the investment advertising, you yourself might even see pretty easily that this does occur. People have been able to invest large sums of money in short-term income stream investments and, therefore, have large sums invested but still be able to maintain their social security entitlements. I think most people in the community would accept that that is not particularly desirable.

On some occasions I have also seen people who carry out these procedures even, in fact, when having invested their money in perhaps more profitable type investments that would have reduced their access to social security payments; in fact, they themselves might have been better off financially even taking into account their social security payments that through their manoeuvring, I suppose you might say, they were able to access. So I suppose it is a good move to prevent this from happening.

But perhaps the downside is that there will be about 2,100 people who will lose their pensions because of the fact that they have invested sizeable moneys in certain fixed term superannuation and other schemes. It seems that, when changes are made to catch rorters, there also is always the tendency to catch some genuine people. I suppose I am fearful and concerned, particularly in light of government policy on superannuation taking so long to encourage investment superannuation, that this move could catch some people who are quite genuine.

Perhaps the minister, when she is on her feet, might want to discuss this matter in some detail. It is of concern to the opposition, and I am certain it is of concern to a lot of people who have invested in those sorts of superannuation schemes already.

The government now intends, I understand, to move further amendments which will tighten up its proposal. I understand that these amendments are aimed at those who might structure their income stream and investments in such a way that their income varies during the period of investment, with this allowing them to obtain access to social security payments that they might not have accessed if they had invested in a different way. I think most of the community would support preventing people from doing this—basically consuming revenue contributed by most taxpayers when in fact such people do have some access to means of support but have managed to structure it in such a way as to take advantage of the rules.

There is a serious problem with the bill. As I have said before, a positive part of the bill is that carer payments have been extended to those caring for disabled children under the age of 16. But there is a downside to it, and I will try to run through some of the elements briefly in the time that I have allowed to me. It is difficult to see from the available material who will benefit from this proposal. Most who might qualify for the payment under the proposal are already in receipt of the parenting allowance or the special benefit. Possibly the minister could point out who is and what numbers of people are going to be entitled to this payment who were not already entitled to some sort of payment.

Furthermore, the criteria in respect of under 16 year olds are much more restrictive than the existing criteria for older people—that is, the person who is actually being cared for. The minister might want to explain why anticipated outlays for the measure are just over $1 million a year up to the year 2001, because obviously a million dollars does not represent a great number of people. I suppose that ties in with the questions I raised earlier. Who does get a payment who previously did not receive one? What benefit is there if it is much the same people?

We understand that there will be only about 100 people eligible for this payment who were not previously eligible for it. Certainly, if this is not the case, I would like to get information about who it is in quite some detail. It seems to me that, if that really is the case, introducing such legislation and publicising it as broadly as obviously it has been publicised really is a two-handed card trick.

As for those who, under this bill, receive carers payments for people over the age of 16, the disabled people must be severely handicapped for their carers to qualify. The particular person's disability must be such that they require frequent care in connection with bodily functions or require constant supervision to prevent injury to himself, herself or another person. A child under 16 must be profoundly disabled for his or her carer to qualify. I am sure we will have endless debates about this and we will probably have several court cases too. I think most people would accept that `profoundly' is a harder or a more difficult requirement to comply with than `severely', although I suppose the quantum of the difference is probably pretty hard for me—and maybe for the minister as well—to put.

I would like to know, and I am sure the rest of the community would like to know, why there is this distinction—`severely' or `profoundly'—between those people who are under 16 and those people who are over 16. Why make the criteria for carers harder to comply with? Why make it a harsher requirement for those who are under 16 than for those who are over that age? It would seem to me that the effort in caring for a disabled person who is under 16 would, if anything, would be harder—(Time expired)