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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 2871

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (09:39): While the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Disability Support Pension Participation Reforms) Bill 2012 contains schedules the Greens support, we are greatly concerned about schedule 2, the participation requirements for disability support pension. As I said, there are some positive measures contained in the bill, such as partially rectifying the limitations on the portability of DSP and allowing people on DSP to work up to 30 hours before having their payments suspended or cancelled. However, the bill is still a product of the Welfare to Work reforms. This participate or perish mentality is evident in the new requirement for those with partial capacity to work to complete a participation interview and develop a participation plan.

The impact of this bill must also be measured in light of other changes that have been implemented to the disability support pension, particularly over the last two budget cycles. We have to remember that the government has changed the process for applying for DSP, and you have to now have 18 months worth of failure to find employment with a disability before you are allowed to apply for the disability support pension. I have articulated in this place on many occasions the deep concern we have about the impact this is having on people with a disability and the fact that they have to struggle on Newstart for 18 months while they try to find work with either a very substantial disability or a partial capacity to work. Then of course we have the changes to the impairment tables around eligibility for DSP. So we are actually already seeing significant impact on people living with a disability trying to find work and struggling to survive. We have to look at those changes in that light.

The present legislation and reforms further squeeze people living with a disability without properly addressing the barriers to their employment. We believe this continues the punitive mentality that was admittedly begun by the coalition but has been adopted with gusto by this government. Subsequent bills that we will be talking about today further implement the welfare to work mentality. I would like to focus my comments particularly on schedule 2, which is the participation requirements for people with DSP. As I have said, we support the other elements of this bill, particularly increasing the ability to work to 30 hours before people start losing their disability support pension. Under this bill, to continue to qualify for DSP a person who has a capacity to work and is under the age of 35 will have to fulfil additional participation requirements. These requirements will include attending a participation interview at Centrelink and developing a participation plan for people that Centrelink decides need one—but then what is the point of the government thinking they need a participation plan if it is not going to compel them to meet the requirements of the plan?

I have very deep concerns about this approach because I think it is a demonising approach. The assumption that people under the age of 35 with a disability do not want to work is an erroneous assumption. I have spent a lot of time talking to people with a disability and to people living on income support, and this fallacy that seems to be promoted by both of the major parties in this place that people on income support do not want to work and choose to live on the paltry income support that they receive is a flawed approach and is a very deliberate strategy by both the coalition and the government to demonise people on income support. This legislation applies the same belief because they believe that people with a disability do not want to work. I certainly have not met such people with a disability; in fact, I have been lobbied very heavily by people with a disability who ask whether we can please do more to help them find work and put policies in place to support them in the workplace. First and foremost, these measures do not address barriers to employment for those living with a disability. People with a disability or a partial disability have many barriers to work. The cost of this measure is $92.8 million, and we believe that should be better dedicated to measures that actually assist people on DSP gain employment or training, with a better focus for DES providers and case managers, improved transport and better support on the job. Instead, the money is being spent on this expensive administration exercise.

I have been to several disability conferences over the last week and a half, and some figures have been quoted at those conferences. Australia is ranked 21 out of 29 OECD countries in employment rates for people with a disability and is ranked 27 out of 29 OECD countries for risk of poverty for people living with a disability. Furthermore, if this particular provision is not implemented with the utmost sensitivity, this measure could lead to serious negative outcomes for many people living with a disability. Of particular concern are those with poor or limited communication skills, those with mild intellectual disabilities or episodic or mental health issues and those whose capacity is rated just in excess of eight hours per week—remembering that this applies to people with a capacity to work eight hours a week, which is essentially one day a week. These people mostly have not been subject to participation requirements and may experience difficulty explaining, particularly to Centrelink, the circumstances and barriers they face to employment.

I spent a lot of time in this last break talking to people living on income support—those living on DSP and particularly those living on Newstart. The constant refrain I heard was that there are problems interacting with Centrelink. I will be talking more about that later in the day. We believe care and a level of flexibility is necessary when considering imposing requirements on people living with a disability even if they are attending a Centrelink office, because this group of people is already vulnerable. Special care is especially necessary for people with a disability under the care of a guardianship or related tribunal or a nominee or carer. While exemptions can be granted under certain circumstances, this will not be effective if people are unable to explain why they have a right to a benefit because of poor communication or lack of understanding. As we know, Australia's social security system is extremely complex. I take the trouble to read many documents produced by Centrelink, and sometimes I have trouble understanding what they mean and I misinterpret what they mean. Other people who have poorer literacy or numeracy skills, or have not had excessive interaction with the bureaucracy, will find this even more difficult to understand.

We are also deeply concerned about areas in the assessment process. As was articulated during the Senate inquiry into both the impairment tables and the government's changes to the process for applying for DSP, there is a significant variation in assessment processes and I do not believe those pro­cesses have been adequately reformed. This continues to foster complex participation requirements on vulnerable people. This is not new, I acknowledge, but it is continuing the process started by the Howard govern­ment and adopted with gusto by the present government. In the past 18 months, as I said, we have seen changes to the participation requirements for the majority of the DSP applicants and they are going through a process now where they have to keep applying for jobs and keep bailing, and then perhaps they will be considered for DSP. While we very strongly support approaches to help people with a disability into employment, fostering a process which leads to a sense of hopelessness does not help people when they are trying to gain employment. One of the key things which comes out of long-term engagement with Newstart is a sense of helplessness. So the longer people are living in poverty is yet another barrier to employment. We already know there are significant barriers to employment for people with a disability. Even where people with a disability find employment, keeping that employment in the face of significant barriers created by their disability is extremely concerning as well.

During the Senate inquiry we heard of simple things which people who do not have a disability do not even question—for example, access to transport. If you are living in a regional area or in the outskirts of a metropolitan area, transport issues are even more magnified. We also know that for people living on a limited income finding accommodation in cities is very hard. They are driven to the outskirts or to regional areas because that is where they find affordable accommodation. As I said, there are multiple barriers to people with disabilities gaining employment in the first place. We should be addressing those barriers rather than saying to people under 35, 'We actually don't think you want a job, so this is going to force you into looking for work.' We do not believe that is an appropriate approach. We should be coming from an incentive basis rather than a punitive basis.

We believe this approach further disempowers people and fuels negative stereotypes. This is the reason that so-called 'tough love' rhetoric is counterproductive. It reinforces stereotypes and builds up myths about the unemployed—which invariably could strengthen the negative attitudes employers could take to people with a disability. A survey of employers undertaken by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in 2008 found widespread reluctance to consider employing long-term unemployed people, people with disability and mature age people. Subsequent work has also reinforced those findings. We believe this is a significant barrier, which the government should use more measures to address rather than making it worse. I would like to quote from a submission to the disability employ­ment services inquiry:

The task of finding meaningful work for people with disability requires creative, flexible and innovative approaches. Increasingly it is being recognised that best practice in disability service provision requires a person-centred flexible approach that enables service providers to respond to the diversity of individuals and their needs.

Yet an international review of employment programs said of Australia, 'Despite a change in the employment service system in Australia, the compliance centred regime persists and this works against the development of a personalised approach to assisting jobseekers.' We need information and support, on-the-job training and mentoring for both the employee and the employer. Such measures will have a much more positive impact on outcomes than forcing people to go for interviews and making a plan. We acknowledge that the government has injected some resources into addressing issues around employment for people with disabilities. No further money for employment was announced in the budget yesterday. This is not enough. The money being spent here on essentially administrative processes would be better spent overcoming the barriers people living with a disability face when gaining employment. Forcing people to participate in this manner assumes that people do not want to find work and is a more demeaning approach, rather than the encouragement of an incentive based approach.

We do not support schedule 2 of this bill. We do support the other schedules of this bill. We urge the government to reconsider the approach they take to people living with disability because we do not believe they are supporting people enough to find employment. Our position in the OECD countries is an embarrassment and we need to do more. The government seems to recognise that we need to do more but they are not taking the right approach which is an incentive based and supportive approach rather than a demonising approach. I know the government are going to say that that is not what this is about, but they obviously have not had the same phone calls and emails I have received from people expressing extreme concern, feeling they are being picked on, feeling they are being demeaned and that the government are implying that people are not trying to find work when in fact the reverse is true. Certainly communications I have received in my office and face-to-face communications with people with a disability reveal that they want to find work but need more support to find work. The current provisions are not sufficient to help people find work and stay in work. We do not believe this is an appropriate use of money. We do not support schedule 2. However, as I said, we support the other schedules.