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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 8010

Senator MARK BISHOP (10:18 PM) —by leave—I move together opposition amendments (1) and (R2) on sheet 2775 revised:

(1) Schedule 1, item 22, page 10 (line 20), after “vocational”, insert “or language”.

(R2) Schedule 1, item 22, page 22 (after line 5), insert:

(1A) The Secretary is not to require a person to undertake any activity referred to in subsection (1) other than a vocational training course that is an approved program unless the Secretary is satisfied that the person could be reasonably expected to undertake such an activity.

(1B) For the purposes of subsection (1), “an approved program” means a literacy, language or numeracy program approved by the Secretary.

Labor's amendments have arisen from a genuine concern for the ability of special benefit recipients affected by this bill to fulfil the requirements which may be placed upon them. The amendments go to the heart of concerns about the application of mutual obligation to people with little or no English language skills. The amendments will direct the secretary to require that the only activity a person may be subject to as part of an activity agreement is participation in an approved English language program until the secretary is satisfied that the person could be reasonably expected to undertake other activities.

This is not an unreasonable expectation and should occur as a matter of course. Indeed, I am sure the government will argue that the current structure of the provisions dealing with the formulation of activity agreements in the bill will achieve this. For instance, formulation of the activity agreement requires the secretary to take into account a person's education status. That may be the case, but these amendments will make it clear that further activities should not be contemplated until such time as the person has language skills that would enable them to negotiate the additional requirements. The amendments will also ensure that such an approved language course will enable the person to satisfy the activity test.

Labor has thought carefully about these amendments and what they seek to achieve. It should be obvious to anyone that a person with little or no English language skills would flounder under some of the requirements that may be forced upon them under this bill. For example, how would someone apply for suitable work if they could not put together a resume or put an application for work in writing? Similarly, how could they complete a job seeker diary adequately if they could not clearly document their efforts?

The issue of language difficulties will also present challenges for Centrelink. Although there are translation services, it would be in everyone's interest that communication could occur effectively in English. Apart from these issues of fairness, there ought to be consideration of the benefits that flow from better equipping a person to find work. It is in everyone's interests that a person is made more capable of searching for and obtaining work. There can be little doubt of the role a basic grasp of English would play in this. I commend the amendments to the Senate and acknowledge the comments from the minister that the government will be supporting the amendments.