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Thursday, 25 July 2019
Page: 990

Mr FLETCHER (BradfieldMinister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts) (10:23): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today I rise to speak on a bill that continues the government's work on one of the most positive developments in welfare for decades and demonstrates our commitment to make a real difference to the lives of all Australians.

The Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019 makes a number of important changes to the trial of the cashless debit card that operates in the Ceduna, East Kimberley, Goldfields and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay regions.

The cashless debit card program is delivering significant benefits for these communities. The program has the objective of reducing immediate hardship and deprivation, reducing violence and harm, encouraging socially responsible behaviour, and reducing the likelihood that welfare recipients will remain on welfare and out of the workforce for extended periods.

The program is showing positive results. There have been over a dozen pieces of research done on both the cashless debit card and income management programs. Most recently, the baseline report into the Goldfields trial site has confirmed previous findings, with its key findings including decreases in drug and alcohol issues, decreases in crime and antisocial behaviour, improvements in child health and wellbeing, improved financial management, and ongoing—and even strengthened—community support.

These findings are not new. The independent evaluation released in late 2017 states that the card has shown 'considerable positive impact' in the initial trial sites, including:

41 per cent of participants surveyed who drank alcohol reported drinking less frequently;

48 per cent of participants surveyed who used drugs reported using drugs less frequently; and

48 per cent of those who gambled before the trial reported gambling less often.

The most consistent themes across all of this research mirror those of the two pieces of research I have just quoted.

The bill continues the operation of the cashless debit card program but improves the processes introduced through recent non-government amendments for participants to exit the program.

The amendments were put forward by the opposition to the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management and Cashless Welfare) Act 2019 in April this year.

The government agreed to include these opposition amendments to allow cashless debit card participants to apply for an exit from the program on or after 1 July 2019 if they could demonstrate reasonable and responsible management of their financial affairs as a primary consideration, taking into account a number of secondary factors.

The amendments also outlined that the local community body is the decision-maker for those who live in a trial area where there is a community body. For other trial areas, the Secretary of the Department of Social Services is the decision-maker.

Since this amendment was introduced, consultation in all four of the current cashless debit card trial areas have identified concerns regarding the exit process.

The government is introducing this legislation, following these consultations with communities, to ensure that there is an effective, consistent and fair process for participants to exit the cashless debit card program, while also continuing our commitment to provide the best support to people, families and communities in places where high levels of welfare dependence co-exist with high levels of social harm.

To improve the operation of processes for participants to exit the cashless debit card program, the bill proposes a number of reforms to the application process and decision-making framework.

Firstly, the bill provides that the Secretary of the Department of Social Services is the decision-maker for all cashless debit card exit applications. Community body representatives have stated that they do not support the exit process as it is currently designed, particularly the role of community bodies as the decision-maker.

While ongoing consultation and engagement on the impact of the new exit process will continue with communities, including community bodies, providing that the Secretary of the Department of Social Services is the decision-maker for all exit applications will ensure consistency and fairness for all participants in the program.

The bill also broadens the criteria for the exit provisions to allow the secretary to take into account a person's ability to manage their affairs generally. For example, the bill will enable the secretary to require the person seeking to exit to not only meet the criteria based on financial grounds but also take into account matters such as contact with authorities for non-financial reasons, such as child protection or family violence issues.

The bill also enables the secretary to require the person seeking to exit to be able to demonstrate that they are acting in the best interest of children, family and the community, such as positive school attendance outcomes.

The development of this change followed consultations where stakeholders stated that any process to exit the cashless debit card program should be based on a participant meeting social norms, consistent with the objectives of the program, as well as the current criteria relating to the management of their financial affairs.

It is critical that we listen to this feedback and ensure that the cashless debit card maintains its focus on reducing social harm.

Finally, the bill also clarifies that exit applications need to be in a form that is approved by the secretary and makes a number of minor amendments to move the exit and wellbeing exemption arrangements for the cashless debit card program under one subdivision in the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, without any alteration to the existing wellbeing process.

The bill will not change the effectiveness or day-to-day operation of the program. It simply proposes administrative amendments to the exit application process and streamlines legislative provisions around cashless debit card exit and exemption pathways in the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999.

The government remains committed to the continuation of the cashless debit card to provide a strong social welfare safety net through reducing social harm in areas with high levels of welfare dependency and supporting vulnerable people, families and communities.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.