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Tuesday, 21 March 1972
Page: 762


Senator BROWN (Victoria) - On Thursday, 9th March - the last day we met - I raised a matter of importance. As I stated at the time, it related to the nonpayment of the unemployment benefit to people in a certain category in the State of Victoria. These were people whose applications during the protracted industrial dispute in the power generating industry were stood over until such times as a ruling had been given through the appropriate channels for the officers in the district employment bureaus to process their applications for unemployment benefit and accordingly to make the payment. That is the only explanation I can see. I was rebuked on that occasion by Senator Greenwood, as Minister representing the Minister for Social Services, on 2 counts: Firstly, because of the lateness of the hour and, secondly, because I had not previously informed him of the details of the matter I wished to raise in the adjournment debate.

I want to remind the Minister representing the Minister for Social Services that this matter had been raised, or at least had been adverted to quite specifically, on 3 occasions. I remind him that the first was on the day the power strike in Victoria ceased. I believe that was 15th February. On that day an extensive Press statement was issued by the Minister for Social Services, Mr Wentworth. I said in my remarks in the adjournment debate on 9th March that any reasonable person would have interpreted that statement as an instruction or at least a guide to the appropriate officers to set about the task of processing these applications which fell within the category of applications made during the duration of the industrial dispute. Subsequently I found that on 24th February - 9 days later - a colleague of mine in another place, Mr Scholes, the honourable member for Corio, who was concerned about the state of affairs in his electorate, discussed the matter with the Minister for Social Services and officers of the Department of Social Services. He was informed on that day - 24th February - that an instruction was being sent to the appropriate officers in Melbourne so that the claims could begin to be processed. Seven days later Mr Scholes had occasion to raise the matter in the adjournment debate in the House of Representatives. Seven days later again - on 9th March - I raised the matter in this place.

The Minister representing the Minister for Social Services, in his reply to my submissions, said, among other things, as reported at page 685 of Hansard:

With all that, I shall convey what the honourable senator has said to the Minister. I am sure the Minister will give the honourable senator the information which, as I said earlier, if he had approached the Minister directly would have been given to him immediately.

Now, 11 days later, I have not received from the Minister for Social Services any reply or indication of precisely - what the reply to my remarks on 9th March is. But in the intervening period I have taken the liberty and the opportunity to do some sample tests in the State of Victoria to ascertain precisely what is happening in the Department of Social Services in respect of the processing of the claims of those persons who lodged applications for unemployment benefit during the course of the industrial dispute. I find that letters have been sent out. They seem to me to be uniform replies to the persons who lodged applications sent out 2 days after the matter was raised by me in the Senate on 9th March. Ail the letters I have seen, all the information I have received from people who are awaiting determination of their applications for unemployment benefit and the various conversations I have had with officers in district employment bureaus would indicate that on 11th March - incidentally, an unusual day for officers of the Department of Social Services to be working, because it was a Saturday - notices were sent to the people to whom I have referred. The following is a sample - dated 11th March 1972:

Dear Sir,

To determine your eligibility for Unemployment Benefit under the Social Services Act in respect of the claim you lodged during the recent Victorian power dispute, it will be necessary to know the name of the Trade Union or Association (if any) to which you belong.

Would you therefore, please answer the questions listed below and return this form as soon, as possible. An addressed envelope which does not require a postage stamp is enclosed for this purpose.

Yours faithfully, A. R. KOPP Director

Then there is a little questionnaire. Question 1 reads:

Were you a member of a Trade Union or Association on 2nd February 1972?

There is provision for an answer alongside that question. Question 2 reads:

If so, state which.

That must mean the name of the trade union or association, if the person belonged to one. There is provision for an answer, and then there is provision for the signature and the date. The person concerned is to provide that information. That would indicate to me that the criticisms that have been made by the honourable member for Corio and myself are justified. It would appear that there was not simply a blockage in the pipeline after the issuing of the instructions or guidance to the officers in the various district employment bureaus or that no instructions at all had been issued. It would appear that now, 3 weeks and 4 days after the actual end of the dispute and after the making of the Press statement by the Minister for Social Services, this information is being sought. It will take some time for it to be returned to the Department of Social Services. This will further delay the processing of these applications and the determination of whether these people are eligible for unemployment benefit.

Let me say to Senator Greenwood in passing that I did not argue about the terms of the statement that was issued by the Minister for Social Services. I am not saying that they are not arguable; but I was not arguing about them or about the instuctions, as one might have taken them to be. I was simply saying that obviously this information had not been conveyed to or had not been acted upon by the appropriate officers of the Department. In addition to the references I have made, I have received a communication from a Mr W. R. Reay of 12 Elaine Court, Springvale, Victoria. He is another person who was stood down on 1st February. He applied to the Springvale district employment bureau for employment. On 9th February he lodged an application for unemployment benefit with that bureau. I am informaed that that application was forwarded to the Dandenong registrar of social services. Evidently it was subsequently referred from the Dandenong registrar of social services to the central office on the corner of La Trobe and Spring Streets, Melbourne - the building known as the Commonwealth Centre.

I remind the Senate that Mr Reay regis tered on 2nd February, the day after he was stood down. He filled in the appropriate forms and lodged them on 9th February. Then he received a letter dated 11th March - a Saturday - which incidentally is the date of the letter to which I have just referred as a sample of the letters seeking information. The letter read as follows:

Dear Sir,

Your application for Unemployment Benefit has been carefully examined but approval cannot be given for the following reasons:

I ask honourable senators to listen to the reason:

The circumstances of your unemployment do not comply with the conditions under which unemployment benefit may be paid.

Yours faithfully, A. R. KOPP Director

Mr Reaywas not satisfied with the content of the correspondence which he received from the Department of Social Services. He telephoned the Department and he was told over the phone that the reason for his not being paid was:

The Social Service Department had decided that as I had employment to return to when the electricity strike had ended, then this did not qualify me as unemployed.

In other words, the matter had nothing to do with whether or not he was a member of the union which was involved in the industrial dispute. The Department simply anticipated that Mr Reay would have the opportunity to return to employment after the cessation of the electricity strike. To me this seems to raise a number of questions. I know from first hand knowledge that during the course of any year without the advent of any industrial disputation there are many industries which have to stand people off because the amount of work is not available to sustain the complete work force as it is normally throughout the year. Does this mean that people who are placed in that category and dispossessed of their income through no fault of their own - for whatever purpose they may be stood down - are going to be denied the right to make application for unemployment benefit and have that application accepted by the Department of Social Services? This is one of the questions to be raised.

I have just been informed that a Minister is instructing the Minister representing the Minister. That is good because we might get some answers this evening. I hope that we do. The real criticism which I have - I set aside the Press statement by the Minister for Social Services which I say is quite arguable - is that the Minister issued a statement on 15th February. It was not until 11th March - 3 weeks and 4 days later - that information was sought from people who happened to fall into a particular category of employment and who might or might not have been entitled to the benefits payable under the Social Services Act. Paragraph 3, as I number it of the Minister's statement reads as follows:

Those who registered between 1st and 8th February will of course be eligible for unemployment benefit as from 15th February if they are still unemployed, but whether they are paid benefit for the period between 8th and 15th February will depend upon whether they lost their employment because of the strike and belonged to one of the unions sponsoring it.

This means that a person could have applied and, in fact, registered on 1st February. On 8th February he would have been eligible for unemployment benefits and would have received payment of unemployment benefits if still unemployed up to 15th February. But a stay was put on all payments, evidently, in accordance with this statement made by the Minister, until such time as it could be ascertained whether a person's continued unemployment was a consequence of his belonging to a union which happened to be involved in the strike. That means that it is not a period of 3 weeks and 4 days which is involved - the period since the statement was issued by the Minister. Taking entitlement as being retrospective to the 1st February, it means that these people have not received a payment for 4 weeks and 4 days up to 11th March when this information was sought by the Department of Social Services. I think this is a scandalous state of affairs.

I remind the Senate, as I did on Thursday, 9th March, of the position in Geelong on 2nd March. It was confirmed by an officer at that district office. The position had not changed between 2nd and 9th March because we checked in the late evening of the 9th with the employment office in Geelong. Five thousand people were registered for employment and between 2,000 and 3,000 had lodged applications for unemployment benefits but the Geelong office was unable to process those applications because it had no clear instructions on how precisely to process them. If this situation were reproduced in the metropolitan area I suppose there would be at least 25 to 30 times the number of people who could be involved. We are speaking about 60,000-odd people who may well have been denied unemployment benefits for anything up to 4 weeks and 4 days. They could still be waiting. At least another week to 2 weeks could go by and we could be looking at something like 6 weeks and 4 days to 7 weeks before it is determined whether everybody who was the recipient of the letter sent from the Department of Social Services on 11th March is entitled to the unemployment benefits. I think hon.ourable senators will agree that this is a serious matter.

In addition to this matter I raise the question as to what advice these people are given - obviously they are not encouraged to appeal - in the event of their believing that they have been wronged as I am sure Mr Reay has. I remind the Minister that Mr Reay is the foreman of a tool shop at Reom Industries Pty Ltd at Moorabbin. He used to be a member of a union of employees but because of his position he is now no longer eligible to be a member of that organisation. He has not been a member of a union for 2 years. This raises the question of whether a person is going to be denied his rights whether that person belongs to a union or not and whether his union is involved in a strike or not. Secondly, if a person is stood down - and this is a critical question because it will not apply only in the case of an industrial dispute as I pointed out earlier - will he be entitled to lodge an application to receive unemployment benefits?

I think that these questions need to be answered. Quite frankly, I think that the Minister should take an added interest in the affairs of the Department in Victoria. He should follow through and see precisely what is happening in the Department because from first hand information which I have received from various district officers it would appear to me that the Department is in a complete state of chaos. That is bad enough but the people who are being deprived of the miserable income from unemployment benefit are suffering extreme hardship. I sincerely trust that the Attorney-General who is representing the Minister for Social Services will impress on the Minister that he should take a direct and personal interest in this matter and actively follow it right through.







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