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Wednesday, 28 August 2002
Page: 3926


Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (4:52 PM) —I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 and move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

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

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

VETERANS'AFFAIRS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (2002 BUDGET MEASURES) BILL 2002

I am pleased today to introduce legislation to implement a Coalition Government commitment to the veteran community at the November 2001 federal election - to remove the freeze on the ceiling rate of income support supplement and service pension payable to Australian war widows and war widowers.

This Bill will enable the twice a year indexation of the ceiling rate of income support supplement and service pension to reflect movements in the cost of living and wages. Other amendments will address minor anomalies in:

· the payment of the income support supplement to new war widows and war widowers who previously received social security benefits; and

· the family situation rules applicable to income support supplement recipients.

The key measure in this Bill - the indexation of the income support supplement - was announced in the 2002-03 Federal Budget at a cost of $84.7 million over four years.

The income support supplement is a means-tested fortnightly payment intended to provide financial assistance to war widows and war widowers with limited means. The supplement was introduced through the Department of Veterans' Affairs in 1995 for war widows and war widowers who previously received income support payments through the social security system, enabling them to receive their pension and their income support through a single agency.

In 1986, the ceiling rate of income support payable to war widows was frozen. Since then the ceiling rate has risen only once, in July 2000, when it was increased by four per cent as part of this Government's package for pensioners under the introduction of the New Tax System.

The veteran community - and in particular the War Widows' Guild of Australia - has lobbied strongly for the frozen ceiling rate to be abolished. This legislation will carry through our commitment to end this long-standing anomaly in the repatriation system.

The initiative will take effect from the next round of indexation adjustments on 20 September 2002 and will result in the income support supplement being increased twice a year by the same percentage as the service pension, reflecting movements in the Consumer Price Index and Male Total Average Weekly Earnings.

Approximately 97 per cent of income support supplement recipients now receive the ceiling rate and some 81,000 war widows and widowers will benefit from this initiative. A small number of war widows, who are also veterans, receive income support as a frozen ceiling rate of service pension. Under this initiative their ceiling rate service pension will be subject to the same indexation arrangements.

There is another small group of war widows who have chosen to continue receiving income support through Centrelink. Their payments are not covered by this initiative. These war widows will be able to transfer to my Department to receive the income support supplement and benefit from the indexation of the ceiling rate.

Other amendments in this bill are designed to end unintended anomalies in the treatment of income support supplement recipients.

The first relates to new claimants who start to receive the war widows' or war widowers' pension, after previously receiving the age pension or other income support pensions or benefits through Centrelink. Under the existing legislation, these widows or widowers may be disadvantaged, because a number of social security pensions and benefits are not payable to a person who is receiving a war widow's or war widower's pension. Instead, they may be eligible for the income support supplement.

The income support supplement is payable only from the date of lodgement of a claim, while the war widow's or war widower's pension may be payable for up to three months before the date of the claim.

As a result, a war widow or war widower who is eligible for the income support supplement cannot receive this payment for the period in which their pension has been backdated. At the same time, their previous income support payments through Centrelink are cancelled from the date that the war widows' or war widowers' pension becomes payable.

To resolve this situation, the Bill will enable the payment of the income support supplement to be backdated for eligible recipients who previously were receiving a social security pension or benefit. This will ensure that these war widows or war widowers are not disadvantaged by their transition into the repatriation system.

Finally, the amendments will correct a legislative anomaly affecting the family situation assessment rules applicable to an income support supplement recipient whose partner is not receiving a pension or other income support benefit through Veterans' Affairs or Centrelink.

Since coming to office, this Government has made it a priority to address anomalies in the repatriation system. Passage of this legislation will be another step forward in meeting the needs of the veteran community and particularly those Australians whose partners have died as a result of their service to our nation.

—————

VETERANS' AFFAIRS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL (No. 1) 2002

This bill is a package of minor, technical and consequential amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and related Acts. Some of the amendments implement minor policy changes for the Veterans' Affairs portfolio relating to the income support and disability compensation systems. The bill also includes consequential amendments to the Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999.

The proposed Social Security amendments result from the introduction of the payment of the income support supplement to war widows and widowers under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 in 1994.

The income support supplement is an income and assets tested payment made to war widows or widowers who do not receive the age or service pension. In 1994, the responsibility for income support payments previously paid to war widows and widowers through the social security system was transferred to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The introduction of the income support supplement under the VEA, enabled war widows and widowers to receive both the war widow's or widower's pension and income support supplement from the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

To implement this payment, amendments were made to the VEA, with consequential amendments made to the Social Security Act 1991. Subsequent Acts have made further consequential amendments to both of those Acts.

This bill completes the consequential amendments, removing some minor anomalies which may have had an adverse effect on some widows and their partners. Some of these anomalies have resulted in a small number of instances where it has been necessary to make an Act of Grace payment to the surviving partner of a widow or widower, because they have been ineligible for a bereavement payment.

Most of the remaining amendments made to the VEA and related Acts are consequential, minor or technical in nature. Some of them involve minor changes in policy to eliminate some unintended anomalies that have become evident in the original legislation.

Other changes involve a clarification of the legislation to reflect the original purpose of provisions, or changes to further improve the management of the Veterans' Affairs portfolio.

This bill demonstrates the Government's ongoing commitment to improving the repatriation system to benefit those in the veteran community who most need our help.

—————

TRADE PRACTICES AMENDMENT (LIABILITY FOR RECREATIONAL SERVICES) BILL 2002

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Trade Practices Act 1974 so that individuals are able to waive their contractual right to sue when undertaking risky recreational activities.

The reform contained within this bill will assist operators of businesses such as adventure tourism and sports, who are currently prevented from relying on waivers.

In allowing people to voluntarily waive their right to sue, it is important to achieve a balance between protecting consumers and allowing them to take responsibility for themselves. This bill seeks to achieve that balance in a way that will benefit consumers and the many small businesses which are involved in recreational activities.

Consumers can choose to waive their rights in relation to a broad range of activities. In particular, those involved in activities such as horse-riding, bungee jumping and other similar activities will be able to decide whether or not to accept the risks involved.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the Trade Practices Act continues to deliver appropriate protection to consumers. But it also needs to promote an environment in which consumers have information, choice and appropriate redress.

The Commonwealth will further consider whether any measures need to be adopted to ensure appropriate consumer protection.

This bill implements a commitment of the Commonwealth Government announced after a meeting of State and Territory Ministers and chaired by the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer on 30 May 2002.

The Review of the Law of Negligence which Ministers agreed to at that meeting will examine the interaction between the Trade Practices Act and the common law in respect of waivers and the voluntary assumption of risk, with a view to ensuring consistency.

Debate (on motion by Senator Buckland) adjourned.

Ordered that the Trade Practices Amendment (Liability for Recreational Services) Bill 2002 be listed on the Notice Paper as a separate order of the day.