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Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Page: 6262

Mr ABBOTT (10:06 AM) —This legislation, the Family Assistance Amendment (Further 2008 Budget Measures) Bill 2009, implements some significant and, nevertheless, not especially contentious housekeeping measures that should make our social security system work better. The first aspect of this legislation is provision to reduce the frequency of family tax benefit overpayments and consequently social security debt. Family tax benefit is based on annual income. Claimants provide an estimate of their annual income to Centrelink and on the basis of that estimate family tax benefit is paid. Of course family tax benefit is paid in the vast majority of cases fortnightly on the base of annual income.

This is not a problem for the vast majority of people who are in steady full-time employment, but it can produce some difficulties for people with variable incomes, such as people who are working part time or who are self-employed. It has long been the case that claimants are required to provide further estimates of their income and update their income estimates if their circumstances materially change. On the basis of these updated estimates, the claimant’s family tax benefit payments would be adjusted by Centrelink. As things stand, it is also the case that claimants could be paid at a rate that would leave them with a significant social security debt at the end of the financial year.

This legislation provides that, once new estimates of annual income are submitted, Centrelink will adjust family tax benefit payments to ensure that claimants will have no social security debt at the end of the financial year. It seems to be a sensible enough measure. It will mean that some claimants will be paid less than would currently be the case, but as things currently stand those higher payments will produce a debt that has to be repaid. As I said, it seems to be a sensible enough measure, although the opposition will be keen to monitor how it works in practice.

The second aspect of this bill is also designed to try to ensure that, as far as is reasonably possible, we do not have extensive social security debts. I stress that entitlement to family tax benefit is determined on the basis of annual income, and annual income can be finally determined only after the lodgement of a tax return. As we know, many people are somewhat dilatory when it comes to lodging these returns. At present, if a family tax benefit claimant does not submit a tax return within 18 months of the end of the financial year, a letter is dispatched to the claimant indicating that a debt is about to be raised against them. This is designed to ensure that tax returns are lodged where they are necessary. This legislation provides that after 18 months the claimants will not be entitled to be paid family benefit on a fortnightly basis if they have not lodged a tax return. It seems a sensible enough measure, but the opposition will want to monitor how this works out in practice to ensure that no unreasonable hardship is imposed on people. With those two minor caveats, I indicate that the opposition will support this legislation and I look forward to subsequent debate.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. AR Bevis)—It might help the process of the House if I just confirm that, in accordance with the resolution adopted, the orders of the day were altered. The bill that we are now discussing is, as the member for Warringah correctly spoke to, the Family Assistance Amendment (Further 2008 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. The member for Warringah was in order. There was just an error in the way the bill was originally presented.