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Monday, 15 March 2010
Page: 1817

Senator STEPHENS (Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and Parliamentary Secretary for the Voluntary Sector) (6:16 PM) —I thank Senator Moore for her contribution. I also thank Senator Siewert for her consideration of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009. I know that your work in and understanding of this area actually helps us to clarify many of these decisions. We had an indication from Senator Fifield that the opposition is supporting this bill. But I want to put on the record what the various minor amendments to the act that are incorporated in this bill are and deal with the schedules in the bill.

These are minor amendments to the act. Some of the amendments are to schedule three further parcels of land in the Northern Territory so that they can be granted as Aboriginal land. These three parcels of land are Alice Valley Extension (East), Loves Creek and Patta, near Tennant Creek. The Loves Creek land is subject to a partially heard land claim, and there was agreement between the Central Land Council and the Northern Territory government to schedule this land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. The scheduling will resolve the claim and allow the land to be granted to the appropriate Aboriginal land trust. Scheduling Patta, near Tennant Creek, was also agreed between the Central Land Council and the Northern Territory government as part of an agreement for settling broader native title claims. The Alice Valley Extension (East) parcel of land will be leased by the land trust to the Northern Territory as an extension of the West MacDonnell National Park.

Some minor amendments are made by this bill to the income management provisions in the social security law to improve their operation. Firstly, the bill will allow people in the Cape York welfare reform areas who are receiving aged pension or carer payment to have their payments income managed. As with other payments that are income managed for people in Cape York, the new provisions will be relying on the local Family Responsibilities Commission issuing a notice and relevant conditions being met. It is actually at the request of the commission that these amendments are being brought forward.

Further income management amendments relate to the use of the residual funds in an income management account when a person returns to income management. These amendments are to make sure that any residual amounts being disbursed are retained in the person’s income management account at the time they return to income management.

Lastly, changes are being made to how residual amounts left in an income management account are handled when a customer dies. Currently, and depending on how much is left in the account, these residual amounts may be paid to the deceased customer’s legal personal representative or to a person carrying out certain activities on the estate or affairs of the deceased person. However, if the customer has no legal personal representative, or if there is more than one person carrying out the relevant activities, it can be quite hard to work out who should be paid those residual amounts. These amendments will give further options to disburse the residual amounts in these cases.

Senator Siewert focused most of her comments on the amendments in the bill to improve the operation of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal in the handling of social security, family assistance and child support matters. As an example, changes are being made to the titles of tribunal members, such as renaming the ‘executive director’ to the ‘principal member’, consistent with titles in other Commonwealth tribunals. The bill removes the requirement for the principal member to chair the panels on which he or she sits, by enabling the principal member to determine who will be the presiding member. The SSAT will also become able to convene a pre-hearing conference for social security and family assistance law appeals. If parties reach agreement at the pre-hearing conference the SSAT is empowered to make a decision in accordance with the agreement. Senator Siewert raised several concerns on that matter, and I want to address those concerns.

First of all, as Senator Moore so rightly said, the SSAT process can be quite daunting. The pre-hearing conference is certainly not intended to intimidate participants any further in this process—in fact, it is there to do the opposite. It gives the SSAT the opportunity to explore possible areas for common ground for agreement between the parties. But the pre-conference hearing is also aimed at facilitating a settlement on some of the issues to be considered in the review, or even all of the issues. It enables early resolution of many cases that otherwise could be part of a much more formal and daunting process.

The pre-hearing conference, as with pre-hearing conferences in so many other processes, is often a very sensible way of ensuring that everybody understands exactly what is happening; of ensuring that cases can be settled; of limiting the issues in dispute, which is often a really important part of the process; and of explaining the whole process of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal in a very simple way that increases the possibility of settlement before the case goes to a full SSAT hearing. This goes to the issue that Senator Siewert raised. Her concern is that the SSAT will be involved in more hearings in the future. This bill may well mean that proceedings are brought to a close before they would have to go through to a stressful full hearing of the SSAT. It may also actually improve some of the time management issues that are on the SSAT. As Senator Moore said, this is a process that is used very, very successfully in child support cases and it is one that I know the Department of Human Services is now using to manage all areas of family services and family support in Centrelink and the Child Support Agency. It is trying to get some consistency, trying to ensure that there is best practice in these areas and trying to ensure that for those who are least experienced in these kinds of what can be fairly intimidating processes do not have to be put through the mill in this kind of way. We can actually get to informal processes through a pre-hearing conference that will enable outcomes to be much more clearly defined and reached much more easily.

Senator Siewert was also very concerned about the extent to which panels would be reduced to one member. It is quite clear in the legislation that a one-person panel will be used only in very straightforward cases. It is the intention to continue the practice of having at least two-person panels in most cases unless there is a straightforward issue to be resolved.

There are two other amendments on the means test for income support. The first amendment will clarify that a gift that has been returned does not have to be assessed as a deprived asset under the social security disposal of asset provisions. This is to avoid any possibility under the current provisions that a person who disposes of an asset in certain circumstances may have it double-counted as both a disposed asset and the returned asset. In the second means test amendment, it has been clarified that where a customer is the beneficiary of a discretionary trust and the trustee has a duty to maintain the customer then the trust should be assessed as being a controlled private trust in respect of that beneficiary. It is also made clear that when controllers of a trust are being determined it should not be relevant that there are other future beneficiaries of the trust when those parties are not currently receiving any benefits from the trust. These amendments secure longstanding policy in light of a recent full Federal Court case.

The other minor amendments in the bill provide a requirement for the claimant to notify if a child who attracted baby bonus leaves the claimant’s care within 26 weeks of birth or coming into their care and make further minor and technical amendments. On that basis, I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.