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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 37

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (12:30 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2004 Election Commitments) Bill 2004

This Bill will amend the social security law, the family assistance law and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to give effect to certain commitments made by the Government during the 2004 election campaign. The amendments relate to self-funded retirees, older Australians and carers on income support, grandparents caring for children and certain disability pensioners.

The Bill contains five major measures.

Firstly, the Bill establishes a new payment, to be known as the seniors concession allowance, which will provide all holders of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card with a payment of $200 per year.

This payment recognises that most self-funded retirees do not receive concessions for energy, rates, water and sewerage, and motor vehicle registration from state and territory governments. It also recognises the contribution that this group has made in providing for their own retirement.

The payment will be made in two instalments, in December and June each year, to people who are eligible cardholders on 1 December and 1 June respectively. It will be indexed twice yearly, exempt from taxation and payable if the cardholder is temporarily absent from Australia for up to 13 weeks.

Transitional arrangements will be in place for the first payment of seniors concession allowance. Anyone who is eligible for a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card in December 2004 will qualify for the December 2004 payment.

Secondly, the Bill establishes a further new payment, to be known as the utilities allowance, which is payable to senior Australians of age pension age (or veteran pension age) who are in receipt of income support. The payment will help this group to pay regular household bills such as gas and electricity.

In general, the payment is $100 per year for singles and $50 per year for each member of a couple. It will be paid twice each year, following the pension indexation adjustments on 20 March and 20 September. After the first payment, it will be indexed twice yearly. It will be exempt from taxation and will be payable if the recipient is temporarily absent from Australia for up to 13 weeks.

The taxation status and temporary absence rules for both payments are consistent with the treatment of a number of income support ancillary payments, and the standard compliance and debt recovery provisions will apply to the new payments.

The utilities allowance and seniors concession allowance will benefit over two million older Australians who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to Australia.

Thirdly, this Bill will provide additional support for people providing care to an adult or a child with a disability—a group of people who perform a vital role in our community. This will be done by increasing the number of hours that carers can spend in work, training or study, from 20 to 25 hours per week, without losing qualification for carer payment. This will provide greater flexibility and more opportunities for carers to participate in the workforce, and for them to have more of a break from caring, without affecting their carer payment eligibility.

In recognition of the special needs of grandparents with the primary care of their grandchildren, this Government waived, from 1 November 2004, the work, training and study test for access to child care benefit. This gives eligible grandparents access to child care benefit for up to 50 hours of approved child care a week.

This Bill will now make child care more affordable for grandparent carers who are receiving income support, such as age pension or carer payment, by enabling them to have access to a special rate of child care benefit. The special rate, provided for in this Bill, will cover the full cost of child care fees charged to eligible grandparents by approved child care services.

Finally, the bill will provide for increased bereavement payments under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986, in respect of disability pensioners who were receiving above general rate disability pension. Previously, the bereavement payment had been limited to 100 per cent of the general rate.