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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4888

Senator MOORE (4:54 PM) —The proposed changes to the participation requirements and penalties in the social security system have been introduced by the government as part of its Australians Working Together package, which is designed to assist Australians looking for work. A most disturbing aspect of our committee's activities is the clear division among the very Australians who are supposed to be working together. During the public hearings and submissions to the inquiry there was significant evidence provided by key welfare groups and people who are actually receiving some form of welfare assistance which highlights the problems in the system and cries out for further involvement in any process to improve the system.

There is no doubt about the need for the system to change. There is no doubt that there is a need to develop methods to reduce the high proportion of working age population reliant on income support. There is no doubt that there need to be more participation requirements and indeed in some cases some form of penalty. However, the doubts relate to the methods and the processes used by the government to implement policies. Unfortunately, during our committee process there seemed to be some conflict and some competition about who was actually right and the motives behind statements being made about the system were questioned. Any question seemed to be seen as criticism and was not welcome.

Instead of a genuine atmosphere of cooperation stimulated by the real agreement about the need to effectively support Australians into appropriate work and training, a system which was promoted by the government with its appointment of a reference group on welfare reform in September 1999, too often in the submissions from key welfare agencies there was evidence that they were unsure of the ability of officers of the government and particular departments to involve the community in consultation and in particular to understand or respond to any criticism of the system.

The committee recommended that the Department of Family and Community Services implement in full the recommendations of the Independent Review of Breaches and Penalties in the Social Security System. The independent review was chaired by Professor Pearce and was established in August 2001 by leading charities and community organisations including ACOSS, Welfare Rights, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and indeed the Community and Public Sector Union. The purpose of this independent review was to look specifically at penalties, their effects, how they were enforced and to recommend any improvements needed. It was set up because people and organisations directly involved in service delivery and in the confronting and often heart-rending work with people in need were concerned about the way the system was working. Rather than just making simplistic media grabbing statements or allegations, this review explored the available data on the process, interviewed welfare dependent people and produced a report with 36 recommendations relating to the nature and the specific processes used by the department to work with their clients.

This report was presented in good faith to the Department of Family and Community Services which then stated that it `provided a valuable perspective on very detailed aspects of breaching policy and practice'. The department, coincidentally, had conducted an internal review at exactly the same time and many of the issues had been identified and addressed. In discussion with our committee, Professor Pearce expressed some disappointment about the response from the department and indeed the respect with which the recommendations were received and understood. He said:

All I say is that when looking at those responses, one needs to be very clear that they tend to put a gloss on or generalise the position without really getting to the nitty-gritty of what we have recommended. There have been some occasions when we think that the way in which the response represents the intention of the recommendation is not entirely accurate.

Professor Disney, another member of the independent review, highlighted a particular concern with the lack of accurate information. He said:

... it is very hard to find out with accuracy what is really happening and to find out whether changes that are promised have actually been introduced, whether if introduced they have been kept because quite often they are pilots which are then discontinued, and if introduced to find out the detail.

Indeed, this exchange of information issue, a critical aspect of any real relationship, was highlighted by the inability of ACOSS, Welfare Rights or this house to obtain current accurate data on breaching numbers. Unnecessary argument as well as some direct questioning of motivation were caused because of confusion over the way stats were kept and how they were exchanged. One real result of our whole review must be that in some way accurate data can be exchanged so that if any differences are identified we are able to work on the same figures, so that we do not waste time in unnecessary argument. Part of Australians Working Together must be the people who actually supply the service in the departments. One of the crucial factors, as acknowledged by the department during the review, was the role of the people working in Centrelink:

In large part, the successful administration of the provisions and the participation support framework they underpin will come down to the capacity of Centrelink to administer the flexibility and individualisation of service delivery expected. Two factors, in particular, will be critical:

—the capacity for policy guidelines and administrative procedures to be interpreted appropriately and equitably while maintaining the flexibility to allow an individually tailored approach ...

This is a critical aspect of the whole process: to have individuals who are particularly in danger identified clearly and to have systems to work with them, not against them. The second point put by the department is:

—the training and management of those staff charged with providing the participation planning, support and monitoring at the heart of those measures—the new Personal Adviser role.

The role of the staff must be understood in any discussion about any change of government policy. Welfare Rights, in their submission, particularly said:

It is a complex system. There are many provisions to look at. Centrelink at their best cannot make sure that everything is going to happen correctly all the time. Indeed, we have seen, with the penalties regime applying to unemployed people, how it breaks down in hundreds of thousands of cases on hundreds of thousands of occasions.

Whilst allowing for some exaggeration to make a point, the real issue here is that any system relies on the availability of and the competence of people to work. We must ensure that any system must be effectively resourced, training provided and once again trust engendered between those people who need the system and those people who implement the system so that genuinely in Australians Working Together people will have a hope of working together.

The review by our committee has recommended that we take up the recommendations of the Pearce report and a range of other issues. Whilst there are concerns about the way the penalty system works, the real issue must be that people understand the system and are not isolated or further disadvantaged by the same system which has been set up to help them. While we believe that the recommendations should be taken up, we also believe that this system must be continually reviewed. In fact, the department have agreed that any system must be reviewed on an ongoing basis—and in fact they do it.

We state that the reviews must continue but that the reviews must genuinely include all those Australians who wish to work together and all those who have something to offer to go into the review. People should not be excluded; they should not be pushed away. Most clearly, they must be respected for their right to continue to exist in our society and for their right to be helped and not punished. The concept of the penalty regime must be to encourage people to be involved, rather than to punish. As long as there is a system focused on punishment, there will not be people willing to take part in this system. I commend the recommendations of our committee. I believe that there has been goodwill in our process and I believe that there is real activity that can be gained by an ongoing, actively involved Australians Working Together process. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.