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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5721


Senator FORSHAW (2:33 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Vanstone, the Minister for Family and Community Services. Can the minister confirm that the social security breaching activity that saw 269,000 unemployed Australians lose some or all of their income support payments in the last financial year is factored into average income support payment rates and benefit outlays? Can the minister confirm that a change in the rate or the duration of breach penalties to reduce the number of unemployed people who are unfairly hurt by the current system would affect benefit outlays and, as a result, the budget bottom line?


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank the senator for the question, which relates to the treatment of the consequences of increases or decreases in breaching for the budget bottom line. In a range of areas in the welfare sector—and I believe this includes breaching, in my portfolio at least, but I will go back and check that for you—it is largely done on broad movements, not on weekly or monthly changes. But, since you have raised the issue and I am interested in it myself, if you want an understanding from Finance and Treasury as to when the fortnightly and monthly figures match in with the overall annual estimates and changes, I will be happy to ask for detail on that, look at it myself and share it with you.


Senator FORSHAW —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for the answer. I note that she has not directly confirmed whether it does or it does not. I note that she will pursue that further. I then ask the minister: if it does not have an impact on the budget bottom line, will the government consider the merits of reforming the current rules to give effect to Professor Pearce's inquiry's suggestions about reform of the rate of breaches and the duration for which people are breached?


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —When I first took this job I indicated to this chamber that we would look very carefully at breaching—the last thing we wanted to do was unfairly breach people who had an intellectual disability, an alcohol problem, a drug problem or a range of other problems—but the people who did not show up for what they were meant to show up for and had no reasonable excuse could expect to be dealt with firmly. What you have seen since then, which you may or may not care to acknowledge, is a decline in the breaching numbers, an increase in programs designed to assist people in real need and a shift from the one, two, three breach—in one area, at least, significantly—to suspension with automatic reinstatement when someone provides a reasonable excuse. On the last survey that was done of 666 people, to whom this survey applied since the new system started in July, I understand that 25 per cent had their benefit absolutely cancelled because they did not show up. That tells you something about how the previous breaching system did not catch cheats—it just penalised them. (Time expired)