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Wednesday, 27 May 1942

Senator KEANE (Victoria) (Minister for Trade and Customs) .- I move -

That the bill be now read a second time.

In its first interim report the Joint Committee on Social Security suggested payment of pensions to widows with dependent children, widows in ill health, widows over 50 years, widows in destitute circumstances immediately following the death of the husband, deserted wives, a wife whose husband is an inmate of a hospital for the insane, and to children under the age of sixteen years. I presided at meetings of the committee during the hearing of most of the evidence, which convinced the committee of the necessity for a plan of this nature, and whilst naturally the Government's decision to adopt this proposal gave me considerable pleasure, the fact that I am privileged to submit the bill to the Senate also affords me considerable gratification. The Premier of New South Wales readily assented to the Government's request for the temporary services of experienced officers who have a full knowledge of the widows' pensions scheme operating in that State. Without their help and advice it would not have been possible to prepare this legislation so promptly and efficiently. The Prime Minister (Mr. Curtin) intends to communicate the Government's appreciation to the Premier of New South Wales, but in the meantime I wish to make this public expression of our appreciation.

Few will be prepared to quarrel with the principle of granting financial assistance to those provided for in this bill. There is practically universal recognition of the fact that premature death of the breadwinner almost invariably involves his dependants in hardship, and it is undeniable that the vast majority of widows find the responsibility of providing food, shelter, clothing and education for a young family beyond their slender resources. Frequently the unhappy result is the separation of the family, dependence upon relatives or friends, admission of children to institutions or their transfer to the care of foster parents. Even though these children may be well cared for, in most instances they reach maturity without the advantages of home life associated with the family group; they are condemned to a lonely existence, and prevented from giving expression to motherly instincts. Is seems beyond doubt that the absence of maternal training in many cases results in delinquency demanding corrective treatment in institutions established for this purpose.

Since its formation the party I rep reBent has advocated allowances of the nature contemplated in this measure, and [ doubt if any one feels- a greater satisfaction that this Government has submitted these proposals to the legislature, than does the present Prime Minister, who represented the Labour party on the Royal Commission on Family Allowances which carried out investigations in 1927. I feel sure that all honorable senators agree that legislation designed to keep the home intact, that is prepared in the hope that a widow may rear her family in some degree of comfort and security, and that will to some extent at least remove the fear of dire want, is worthy of all the support that we can give it. The youth of this generation may face a hazardous future; from their ranks will emerge the leaders of this nation, and upon them will rest the responsibility of guiding the destinies of this country. That they will need courage, both moral and physical, good health, tenacity and all those qualities which combine to make worthy citizens no one will deny. The proper preparation for this supreme task is of national significance. If through lack of material considerations it cannot be supplied by a widow then the State has a direct responsibility which it should not seek to avoid.

There should be no need to help all who become widowed; many widows remain in comparatively affluent circumstances, others have remunerative occupations, and consequently in such cases aid from the State is unnecessary.

Most civilized communities have accepted some degree of responsibility towards widows with children, or in ill health, and for the information of honorable senators I shall make brief reference to schemes operative elsewhere. In nearly every case benefits accrue through the deceased husband's insurance under invalid and old-age proposals. Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark pay allowances to widows. In Great Britain in 1939, of 3,900,000 persons in receipt of pensions, including 650,000 widows, and 275,000 dependent children, there were 550,000 non-contributory pensions. In Denmark, there is a noncontributory scheme under which indigent widows receive a contribution towards the support of their children under fourteen years of age. At first, the social insurance schemes in Great Britain provided for the workmen, but eventually the necessity for making provision for the family when death removed the breadwinner claimed increasing attention, with the result that in 1925 the Widows, Orphans and Old-age Contributory Pensions Bill was passed, covering persons insured under the National Health Insurance Scheme; but an Assistance Board, reconstituted in 1940, ensures that uninsured persons are given monetary assistance where it is justified.

I do not propose to speak at length concerning other European countries, but most of them do support widows with children, and in most instances the schemes are of a contributory nature. Nevertheless, provision is also made for those not covered by some form of insurance. The United States of America has a scheme which is full of complications, but in essence it closely resembles that in force in Great Britain. The main exception is that contributions are graduated, and benefits depend on the amount contributed. The Dominion of Canada has not a full widows' pensions scheme, but allowances are given in respect of dependent children of mothers or to foster-mothers. Generally, before the money is made available the recipient must be without adequate means to maintain the children properly. In South Africa, under the Children's Protection Act, maintenance grants may be secured for children committed to private institutions or to the care of child welfare societies, whilst those ordered to remain in the care and custody of their mothers who are widows or wives of husbands who, owing to circumstances beyond their control, are unable to maintain their children properly, are also provided for.

Coming a little nearer home, I can inform honorable senators that, prior to the passing of the Social Security Act in New Zealand, there was a noncontributory widows' pensions scheme in that dominion, and whilst widows there now benefit under the Social Security Act, there is an important departure from the recognized principles of insurance in that a means test is imposed. Every person who is resident continuously in New Zealand is liable to pay the social security contribution, which consists of a registration fee and a charge on all salaries, wages and other income amounting to Is. in the £1. By reason of this contribution many benefits are available, and among them widows' and orphans' allowances occupy a prominent position. Usually, the rate of widows' benefit is £91 per annum for a widow with one child under sixteen years, plus an amount of £26 a year for each additional child under that age. with a maximum benefit of £234 a year. A widow may have an income of £7S per annum from other sources without reducing the benefit, and when her youngest child attains the age of sixteen years her benefit may continue at £52 a year throughout widowhood. Childless widows are also provided for, the maximum amount payable to them being £52 per annum, with an additional allowed income of £52 a year, subject to certain restrictions.

In the Commonwealth, both New South Wales and Victoria pay pensions to widows, the former on a far more generous scale than the latter, the maximum allowance, subject to a means test, being £1 a week for the widow and 10s. a week for each child; in Victoria the respective amounts range between 6s. and 15s. and 6s. and 12s. weekly. According to recent statistics, about 7,000 widows are benefiting in New South Wales to the amount of £600,000 per annum, and 1,000 widows in Victoria to an amount of £20,000 per annum.

As the Commonwealth scheme has been modelled on the one operative in New South Wales, a little more detailed description will prove of interest to honorable senators. Widows' pensions were first paid in New South Wales early in 1926, the maximum being £1 a week for the widow and 10s. for each eligible child under fourteen years of age. Benefits were also granted where a child under sixteen years was suffering from mental or physical disability preventing work, or was possessed of special scholastic ability and dependent wholly or mainly upon the widow for support. If a widow is not under 50 years of age and is in destitute circumstances, or where on the death of her husband she is left temporarily unprovided for, a pension is payable for a maximum period of six months. All claimants are subject to a residence test, as well as means and character tests, and the pension is reduced by £1 per annum for each £1 per annum exceeding £39 a year, and portion of the earnings of her children are deducted from her net income. A bill recently introduced into the New South Wales Parliament raises the maximum rate to £1 5s. a week, and the provisions are slightly liberalized in other directions, notably concerning income from children and extension to twelve months in cases of destitution.

In the other States most inadequate provision exists for the welfare of widows and children. The Commonwealth Government believes that residents of all States should enjoy social benefits on a reasonably liberal and uniform basis, and in pursuance of that belief it submits this measure which provides a notable advance in Commonwealth social legislation. Thi3 beginning makes no pretence at perfection ; no doubt the legislation will be amended from time to time, and it will assuredly be followed by further federal social services in an endeavour to provide social security for those sections of the community which require it.

The object of the bill now before honorable senators is to provide pensions and allowances to widows and unendowed children, subject to compliance with prescribed conditions regarding age and means. Those eligible widows in class A mentioned hereunder will not benefit greatly if they reside in New South Wales, but all other widows in that State will do so, whilst those in other States will benefit to a considerable degree by the introduction of this legislation. It has been decided to include as widows a de facto widow who lived on a bona fide, permanent domestic basis for the three years immediately preceding the death of the man with whom she lived; a deserted wifewho has taken legal action against her husband for desertion; a woman who has not remarried, and whose marriage has been dissolved; and a woman whose husband, or de facto husband, is an inmate of a hospital for the insane. So far as divorcees are concerned, it is important to note that the decree absolute must have been pronounced. There are three groups -

A.   Widows of any age who are maintaining at least one child under the age of sixteen years.

For this class the maximum allowance is £78 per annum, and the means test closely resembles that in force in New South Wales. Owing to the fact that children are involved, the Government has made this a reasonably liberal test, and in addition to excluding personal property, including the house in which she resides, and furniture, it has permitted the ownership of £1,000 without seriously affecting the maximum rate of pension.

B.   Widows over 50 years of age without dependent children.

In this class the maximum rate is £65 per annum, the means test being the same as that which now exists for invalid and old-age pensions purposes, and with which all honorable senators are familiar.

C.   Widows under 50 years of age without dependent children, who find themselves in indigent circumstances upon the death of the husband.

For this class an allowance at the maximum rate of 25s. a week will be provided for a period not exceeding six months immediately following the husband's death. The Commissioner will take into account the circumstances regarding income, property and earning capacity. Generally, it is intended that if, after payment of reasonable expenses, such as hospital, medical, funeral or other debts of the deceased husband, the amount remaining for the widow does not exceed £50, a temporary allowance will be granted.

Whilst the conditions vary somewhat according to each category, the following primary qualifications apply in all instances : -

(1)   A claimant must be resident in Australia at the date of her claim and must have so resided for a period of five years immediately preceding that date, but absences not exceeding one-tenth of the total residence will not operate to the detriment of the widow.

(2)   Direct or indirect deprivation of property or income in order to obtain a pension or an increase of a pension will disqualify a claimant, as will the ownership of property exceeding £1,000 in class A and £400 in class B.

(3)   Aliens, aboriginal natives of Africa, the Pacific Islands or New Zealand and aboriginal natives of Australia except those who are regarded as eligible for invalid or old-age pension or child endowment purposes will not be eligible for widows' pensions or allowances.

(4)   Income has practically the same meaning as given in the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act and in this connexion complete disregard of allowances from sons or daughters of the widow makes the Commonwealth scheme a little more generous than the New South Wales scheme. The

Senator Keane.permissible income of £32 10s. per annum as provided in the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act is disregarded when granting widows' pensions.

(5)   So far as property is concerned this is taken to include all real and personal property owned by the widow, comprising land, houses, moneys in the bank, money due to her, shares in companies, investments and cash on hand, .but of course disregards the house in which the widow and her dependent child resides and the value of furniture and other personal effects. In exceptional circumstances a certain amount of discretionary power will be given to the Commissioner to disregard property.

It is intended to pay pensions monthly in arrear as from the 30th day of June next, the first payment falling due on the 27th July. In Victoria such allowances are now paid monthly in arrear and in New South Wales fortnightly. For the convenience of recipients it is intended to merge the payment of child endowment and widows' pensions where possible, so that the total amount due will be drawn on the one visit to a post office.

Claim forms will shortly be obtainable from all post offices or at the office of the Deputy Commissioner for Pensions in each State, and on completion they should be forwarded to the Deputy Commissioner for Pensions at the capital city of the State in which the claimant resides. Those from the Australian Capital Territory should send their claims to the Deputy Commissioner in New South Wales, and those in the Northern Territory to the Deputy Commissioner in Adelaide. Pensions and allowances will be subject to review from time to time, but generally speaking it is hoped that, except in cases of re-marriage, once an allowance is granted it will be continued for lengthy periods. I feel confident that no honorable senator will place any obstacle in the path of this legislation, which is calculated to help about 30,000 widows and 21,000 children, and is estimated to cost in the neighbourhood of £1,600,000 per annum.

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