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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 8975


Senator McLUCAS (QueenslandParliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers) (13:07): I thank Senators Fifield, Siewert and Xenophon for their contributions to the debate on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011.

The government is working hard to support people with disability to fulfil their potential; it is working hard on a number of fronts. In August this year, the Prime Minister released the Productivity Commission's final report into long-term care and support of people with disability. Shortly after that, the state and territory premiers and chief ministers agreed with our government that major reform of disability care and support was needed through the implementation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. We have already started work to transform the way that care and support is provided to people with disabilities. We are working to deliver results for people with disability right now, including by improving support for Australians with disability to help them into work wherever possible. The disability support pension is an essential element of Australia's safety net and it is vital that it supports the people who need it—those Australians who, through disability, are unable to work to fully support themselves.

I go now to the elements of this amendment bill. In the 2009-10 budget, the government committed to updating the impairment tables used to assess eligibility for the disability support pension to bring them into line with modern medical and rehabilitation practice. The current impairment tables have not been comprehensively rewritten since they were introduced in 1991, and they contain anomalies and inconsistencies. For example, the assistance that can be provided by hearing aids is not included in the assessment for hearing impairment; however, visual assessment is assessed with glasses.

An advisory committee of medical, allied health and rehabilitation experts, representatives of disability peak bodies, mental health advocates and relevant government agencies was established in 2010 to provide advice on updating the impairment tables. The advisory committee found that the current impairment tables were out of date. They developed new impairment tables in close consultation with the medical profession and disability stakeholders. They recommended that the new tables be used to assess eligibility for the DSP from 1 January next year.

The new impairment tables reflect modern expectations about functional ability and focus on what people are able to do rather than what they cannot do. For example, under the current tables, ratings for some conditions such as back conditions are based on loss of movement. Under the new tables, ratings are based on what the back condition prevents a person from doing—for example, sitting for a long period of time, reaching objects over head height or bending to pick up objects. In this way, the new tables are being brought into line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and, in answer to Senator Xenophon's question, the World Health Organisation's internal classification of functioning disability and health.

The introduction to the tables is also updated so that for the first time there will be explicit guidelines about the impact of episodic conditions such as some mental illnesses. This will help ensure that assessments of eligibility for DSP for people with episodic conditions are fairer and more consistent than under the current tables.

The bill removes the current outdated tables and enables new tables to be introduced through a disallowable legislative instrument. This change, if the bill is passed, will occur on 1 January 2012. Putting the impairment tables in a disallowable instrument allows them to be updated regularly in response to developments in medical and rehabilitation practice and will also retain the parliament's role in scrutinising any changes. The government is committed to ensuring that the recommended new tables are implemented fairly and effectively.

In addition to the extensive consultation process which has already occurred, the government is continuing to consult with disability stakeholders and medical experts, including pain management organisations and the National Council on Intellectual Disability. The government also accepts the advisory committee's recommendations to monitor the initial implementation of the revised impairment tables and to conduct a review 18 months after implementation. In line with the advisory committee's recom­mendation, this will include considering how to further strengthen a functional approach to assessing eligibility for the disability support pension.

The bill also introduces a stronger quality assurance system for disability advocacy services to ensure that people with disability receive the best possible advocacy support. The current quality assurance system has not changed since 1997, and the need for improved quality assurance for disability advocacy services has been highlighted in a number of reviews. Development of a robust quality assured disability advocacy sector will help meet the objectives of the National Disability Strategy and will also help meet Australia's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This bill requires disability advocacy services that receive financial assistance under the Disability Services Act to be reviewed and assessed by independent accredited certification bodies against disability advocacy standards. The new system has been successfully trialled and independently evaluated. The evaluation was overseen by a reference group, including disability advocates and technical experts. It recommended formal implementation. The government has provided $7,000 to each funded advocacy service to help them prepare for the stronger quality assurance arrangements. We are also working closely with the sector to provide them with practical support as the new arrangements are introduced.

To that extent, we will not be supporting the second reading amendment which has been moved by Senator Siewert. We understand the principle of the amendment. We are not convinced, though, that a second reading amendment is the right way to pursue this agenda. The government is working with the disability advocacy sector to ensure disability advocacy standards and key performance indicators include appropriate arrangements to manage conflicts of interest.

The government is also working through the recommendations of the Productivity Commission in its report on long-term care and support for people with disability. This includes the Productivity Commission's recommendations relating to disability advocacy groups and disability support organisations. I can assure senators that, as the new system is implemented, a priority for our government will be to ensure that the interests of people with disability are put first and foremost. This of course includes robust processes to manage potential conflicts of interest in the advocacy sector.

The bill also gives effect to a budget 2011-12 measure by enabling parenting payment recipients to access bereavement allowance on the death of a partner. Allowing a parenting payment recipient to transfer to bereavement allowance on the death of their partner will provide additional financial assistance during a difficult time.

The bill also gives effect to another budget 2011-12 measure: to more closely align the rules for accessing special benefit for provisional partner visa holders with the rules for other newly arrived migrants. Under the current policy, provisional partner visa holders are able to access special benefit from when they are granted the visa and they are in Australia, if they can demonstrate they are suffering from financial hardship. This is not consistent with the situation for other newly arrived migrants, subject to the newly arrived residents waiting period, who need to demonstrate both financial hardship and change in circumstance outside of their control in order to access special benefit. From 1 January 2012 the rules for provisional partner visa holders will be consistent with those for other newly arrived migrants. The new arrangements will continue to ensure adequate protection for vulnerable migrants—for example, when there is domestic violence, death of a partner or an injury or accident after their arrival in Australia.

The bill also makes changes to the social security law and veterans' entitlements legislation to enhance the integrity of treat­ment of certain asset-test-exempt income streams. These changes strengthen the existing rules that require lifetime and life expectancy income streams to provide an annual actuarial certificate in order to benefit from concessional treatment and address inconsistencies that have arisen over time in the treatment of these income streams.

Finally, the bill makes amendments to the social security law to clarify that payments made by an employer to an employee in lieu of notice of the termination of his or her employment are redundancy payments for the purposes of social security law. This ensures that, in calculating income main­tenance periods under the act, people who receive these payments are treated the same as people who receive other types of redundancy payments.

I commend the bill to the chamber.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.