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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 5946

Mrs MOYLAN (6:58 PM) —Being able to address matters in relation to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Improved Support for Carers) (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2009 is a great opportunity to speak on behalf of all those people who undertake the important role of caring within our community. These changes to legislation will certainly impact on a great number of people who care for others and, in particular, for children who have special care needs.

The bill proposes to move from focusing on a child’s actual medical condition to focusing on care requirements, and this is consistent with the application of care requirements for qualification for carer allowance. The new Disability Care Load Assessment (Child) Determination, to be introduced by this bill, is intended to provide an objective tool for assessing the care requirements of care recipients. Assessing care requirements in relation to children is complicated by the fact that all children need a certain level of care appropriate to their age and level of maturity. However, children with severe illness or those recovering from an accident may need considerable extra care.

Despite the broadening in 2006 of eligibility for carer payments to carers of children with severe intellectual, psychiatric or behavioural disabilities requiring constant care or supervision, it became apparent that, in fact, few families qualified for the carer payment. Although there were 113,549 carers receiving carer allowance to assist them with costs involved in caring for a child with a disability in June 2008, the narrow criteria meant that in practice only 7,000 children were being cared for by people receiving the carer payment, so there has been an obvious disconnect due to the tight eligibility criteria.

A recent report following an inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth, of which I am deputy chair, highlighted the great hardship encountered by many carers, who felt that they were not being adequately supported in the caring role. The Who cares …? report made it clear that there were common concerns amongst carers regardless of what kind of caring role they undertook. They were united by the challenge they faced, and it became abundantly clear that insufficient attention was being paid to caring for the needs of carers. One of those needs is to simplify the maze of bureaucratic red tape and the hoops that carers must jump through to access support. No group could be more worthy of clearing a more certain path than those caring for children with a serious illness or disability.

The care requirements for carer allowance are far less rigorous than the care requirement for carer payment, and the care requirements for carer payment for a person caring for an adult are also less rigorous than the care requirements for caring for a child. The differential was explained away by an assumption that all parents of young children engage in the caring role. However, the assumption did not take into account the additional care responsibilities of those parents who care for children who have a disability or severe medical condition.

In an endeavour to rectify this, in 2007 the Howard government introduced a carer adjustment payment of up to $10,000. The carer adjustment payment was available where a family had a child aged up to six years who was diagnosed with a major disability due to an accidental injury or a severe illness. Carer adjustment payment was an interim payment available while the review of carer payment for carers of children with a medical condition was being conducted. It was to terminate on 30 June 2008, but funding was provided in the 2008 budget for carer adjustment payment to continue to be available past that date.

A review task force headed by Anthony Blunn was established in March 2007 to examine the effectiveness of carer payment as a safety net for carers of children with profound disabilities or severe medical conditions. The terms of reference recognised that a carer payment is an income support payment for carers who, because of the demands of their caring role, are unable to support themselves through substantial participation in the workforce. The report of the review, released in early 2008, concluded that carer payment did not provide the intended safety net and recommended changes that are now the subject of this bill.

Some of the 32 recommendations in the Blunn review were changes to eligibility requirements and a new assessment process to recognise the level of care required by the care receiver and provided by the carer; better support for carers through improved service delivery, including case coordination and more accessible information about payments; increased support for carers to participate in the workforce through improved access to the Job Network, help with childcare arrangements and assistance for employers; and increased recognition for carers through carer recognition legislation and a national action plan for carers. It is interesting to note that there have been many inquiries into and reviews of this issue over the years, and in every case they have come up with very similar conclusions.

More recently, the bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs. A submission was made to that committee by the Disability Services Commission of Western Australia, which was very positive about the benefits of the changes that we are discussing tonight and the way in which they would make for better support for carers. The Director-General of the Disability Services Commission of Western Australia, Dr Ron Chalmers, commented specifically on the bill’s ability to ease the financial hardship for carers.

As I said earlier, few people are eligible for the carer payment in its current form. The changes outlined in this bill will ensure that a further 19,000 carers of children will now qualify for a carer payment. This is a very welcome change indeed. The bill changes the way eligibility is assessed for carer payment for those caring for a child. Currently eligibility is based, as I said, on a child’s disability or medical condition. The new methodology for assessing eligibility will be through the disallowable legislative instrument referred to previously, called the Disability Care Load Assessment (Child) Determination. Instead of focusing solely on a child’s medical condition, this takes into account the care needs and is consistent with the way in which applications are assessed for carer allowance. It is also pleasing to see for the first time access to carer payment for a carer caring for a child up to the age of 16 who has a short-term or episodic illness. This may include mental illness conditions or medical conditions such as cancer and the many other illnesses that often beset children. This new instrument for determining eligibility will provide a test for assessing the functional ability, behaviour and special care needs of a child. That includes a section to be completed by a treating health professional, a method of rating the child’s care needs and a method of providing a qualifying rating for the carer that takes account of the care provided by the carer and the assessment, again, of the health professional.

Item 10 of this bill inserts new sections along with changes to existing sections. It sets out the criteria for qualification for a carer payment, and it includes some new items. Some of these are: a child with a severe disability or medical condition; two or more children, each with a disability or medical condition; a disabled adult and one or more children, each with a disability or medical condition; a child who has a terminal condition; exchange care of children; short-term, episodic care of children; extension of short-term or episodic care of children; disabled adult or disabled adult and dependent child; hospitalisation; and some short-term circumstances. In order to qualify for these payments, the carer must provide constant care to a care receiver who has high care needs, provide that care in the home of the care receiver and be an Australian resident. This section has not changed. However, there are new sections that take into account the impact of caring on a person’s ability to undertake training, education, unpaid voluntary work or paid employment.

Limitations are currently in place on the number of hours a carer can work before they cease to provide constant care for the purpose of receiving carer payment. I think one of the toughest hurdles for carers is the need to make a choice between continuing to work in the paid workforce and the need to give full-time care. So often, the care needs are such that continuing to work in the paid workforce, even on a part-time basis, is simply not a choice at all. And the limited options for carers to participate in the paid workforce are further exacerbated by the severe shortage of places in day-care facilities or carers who can come into the home to relieve the principal carer. These are issues that I think need further airing and further community discussion. Financial hardship is a major ongoing concern for many carers and the Who cares …? report actually recommends a significant increase in the base rate of carer payment.

We have also asked that the Treasurer consider easing the tax burden on carers. The financial support received by carers can be quickly consumed by specialist medical services, medication and/or equipment required by those they care for—for example, buying a wheelchair, adapting a house and the myriad other additional costs that carers must fund. They soon add up, and it is easy to understand how rapidly financial stress can build up in families who find themselves in these circumstances.

Financial isolation of carers is further exacerbated by employment limitations. Currently, there are significant disincentives for carers to earn supplementary income because any additional income reduces quite sharply the amount of income support they receive. Carers should be able to look to the future with at least some degree of certainty and maintain a reasonable standard of living, and this bill does go one step closer to providing greater certainty and better support.

In conclusion, the changes outlined in this bill will be very welcome to those caring for children with a disability or severe illness. However, the whole issue of how we support, value and treat our carers will need much more attention in the future. Many of the issues raised in the 2007 task force report commissioned by the Howard government are again canvassed in the latest report, Who cares …? As I said in my speech to the House during the tabling of that report, if we are to answer, ‘We care’—that is, those of us in this place responsible for the legislation—then we need to confront the issues facing carers head on and match the rhetoric with reality. It will need all the political will we can muster to ensure a better future for carers and those they care for, just as this legislation will assist many in the community who provide extra care to children. I welcome the measures that are outlined in this bill. The changes recommended in the task force report will make a difference to the lives of carers now and into the future; in the meantime, these incremental changes are very welcome.