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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5481


Senator CHERRY (2:50 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Family and Community Services. Does the minister recall announcing in March:

... we will make it easier for job seekers by reducing the penalties for failing to attend an interview without a reasonable excuse. This will now become an administrative breach ...

This was an announcement welcomed by the Ombudsman as:

... more in keeping with the distinction made within the Act between administrative and activity test breaches.

How then does the minister respond to the recent report on breaching by the Ombudsman stating that, despite the minister's announcement, FACS officers had told him that:

... failure to attend an interview will still be treated as an activity test breach in many circumstances.

Has the minister's department retreated from her ministerial statement in March?


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I have a few remarks to make about the breaching report and, to the extent that they do not address what you specifically asked, I will come back to you. We do, of course, welcome the Commonwealth Ombudsman's insights into the administration of breach penalties. We have already taken steps to implement, or have already implemented, the vast majority of those recommendations. We are grateful that the Ombudsman acknowledges that the considerable work recently done by Centrelink and FACS has in fact helped to resolve many of the problems that his investigation was in the process of identifying. Because of the work we have already done, breach numbers have been trending downwards since June 2001. My advice is that there were 30 per cent fewer breaches in 2001-02 than in 2000-01. Breach numbers should fall further when the effect of the 1 July changes are felt.

I am grateful to you, Senator, for recognising the changes that were made on 1 July. A number of people have, for whatever reason, attempted to bypass the government's genuine efforts to make sure that breaching applies to people who have no genuine excuse and who are just trying to get out of looking for work and to be sensitive to the needs of those who are particularly vulnerable—for example, people with a mental disability, an alcohol problem or a drug problem. The changes we made in July were specifically targeted at helping those people and avoiding the need for them to go through a breach process and therefore an appeal to get the payment reinstated. The government rejects only one recommendation, and that is No. 4, which suggests that the requirement to attend interviews with Centrelink or Job Network providers should not be included in activity agreements. Activity agreements will not include a requirement to attend Centrelink interviews, but the requirement for the job seeker to attend the office of their Job Network provider may be included. That is an important part of their participation requirements which of course ensure that job seekers obtain the help they need in obtaining employment assistance. Senator, I did hear the part of your question that has not been answered, and I will have a look at it and come back to you.


Senator CHERRY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In light of last week's report by the Welfare Rights Network on the high incidence of breaching and its effect on young people, can the minister assure the Senate that, where an unemployed person fails to attend an interview with a Centrelink officer or fails to attend one with a Job Network member or community work coordinator, Centrelink will impose an administrative breach penalty rather than the current activity test penalty and that, after a person has entered into a preparation for work agreement, all subsequent requests for attendance at interviews with the Job Network member or community work coordinator will come under the administrative test provisions rather than activity test provisions?


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —By way of rephrasing, Senator, you have simply asked the same question again. I thank you for restating the question and giving me the option of answering it either way, but my answer remains the same.