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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12340

Mr PASIN (Barker) (20:37): I rise to talk on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Job Seeker Compliance Framework) Bill 2014. The coalition of course believes that hardworking Australians who through no fault of their own fall on hard times are entitled to be supported through those hard times until they can get back on their feet. All fair-minded Australians will accept that if you are the recipient of such help then there is an obligation upon you—a mutual obligation, if you like—to do all you can to help get back on your feet as soon as possible. It is effectively a social compact.

This bill will ensure that more job seekers in receipt of income support meet their mutual obligation requirements to attend scheduled appointments with their employment provider. I acknowledge that many people who receive unemployment benefits receive them despite their best intentions, and their preference would be gainful employment where their talent, abilities and hard work are rewarded. Most people on government benefits do not want to be in the situation that necessitates them being on benefits. Sadly there is also a large number that do not respect this social compact and seek to take advantage of the social safety net.

And I also make the point that the sector most impacted by these actions is not the government, but the members of the public who pay their taxes and willingly accept their obligation to pay for that social safety net. The proportion who abuse their benefits cause a lack of confidence in the system and undermine the social compact between the community and the disadvantaged.

One of the activities that job seekers are asked to do is attend scheduled appointments with their employment provider to discuss job options and to review progress in finding work. These appointments could hardly be regarded as onerous and are designed to maximise the chances of a person moving from welfare to work. Most job seekers are required to attend an appointment with their employment provider only once a month.

Appointments are generally of short duration and take into account the job seeker's capacity to attend at certain times. This is done both formally—in person or in writing, including time, date and place—and informally via SMS, phone or email. Job seekers are also informed in advance that a failure to attend an appointment without giving sufficient prior notice may result in suspension of their payment or the imposition of a penalty. If a job seeker contacts their provider ahead of the scheduled appointment to let them know they are unable to attend due to a good reason, then no suspension of payment or penalty is applied. And if it is subsequently found that a job seeker has a reasonable excuse for the failure to attend and the failure to notify ahead of time, then no suspension of payment or penalty is applied either.

I was appalled to learn that in the 2013-14 financial year 12,750,000 compulsory appointments with employment providers were scheduled; and, of these, 4.47 million were not attended by job seekers. That is a non-attendance rate of 35 per cent. So, instead of helping people with their job search, front-line staff are forced to spend their limited time chasing job seekers, rescheduling appointments and submitting reports to the Department of Human Services. This is clearly a waste of their time and the nation's resources. All of this extra effort on the part of employment providers could be avoided if more job seekers did the right thing in the first place—by either attending the scheduled appointment or picking up the phone to reschedule ahead of time. Neither of which, as I have said, are overly onerous obligations.

In 2012-13, over 238,000 job seekers had at least one participation failure applied by the Department of Human Services for missing a regular appointment or a reconnection appointment with their employment provider. In 2013-14, this figure—staggering as it was—had grown to almost 280,000 job seekers. That is more than one in five of all job seekers who received an activity tested payment at some time during the year.

The Department of Human Services only applies these participation failures after a series of checks and balances—such as whether the person should have been required to attend the appointment, whether they had a reasonable excuse or if the notification of the appointment had been sent to the wrong address. So it is clear that there are 280,000 cases each year where both the person's employment provider and the Department of Human Services agree that there were no extenuating circumstances that explain the job seeker's failure to attend. Keeping the current rules in place which allow this number of people to fail to attend is simply unfair on those taxpayers who get up every day to go to work and pay their taxes—taxes which help to fund income support payments and our employment services system. It is also particularly unfair to those on income support who meet their mutual obligations, who attend the appointments and comply with their other reporting obligations. Workers are expected to keep commitments—like appointments—in return for their wages, and the same sort of standards should be expected of job seekers in receipt of taxpayer funded income support.

It is time to make further changes to drive improved attendance rates and reduce the red-tape burden and financial strain on employment providers and our social security system. This bill will achieve this by introducing stronger incentives so that more job seekers do the right thing first time around. Currently, a job seeker who has their income support payment suspended because they failed to attend an appointment can get that suspension lifted simply by indicating that they will attend another appointment. Given the sheer number of regular and reconnection appointments that are missed each year, it is clear that the current arrangements are not providing a sufficient incentive for job seekers to do the right thing. Under this bill, from 1 January 2015 job seekers who have had their payment suspended for missing an appointment with their provider without giving the requisite prior notice of a valid reason will typically only have their suspension lifted when they actually attend another appointment.—an eminently sensible position. This will provide a stronger incentive for job seekers to attend their appointments and remain engaged with their employment provider.

From 1 July 2015 the bill will further strengthen compliance arrangements by providing that if a job seeker has had their income support payment suspended for failing to attend a regular appointment with their in employment provider and it is subsequently determined that they did not have a reasonable excuse for that failure to attend then they will not be back paid for the period of noncompliance. That is what is suspected of people in the workplace if they cannot make it to work; so it is only fair and reasonable that a similar standard is applied to those people in receipt of taxpayer funded benefits.

Of course, this bill will not change the rules with regard to reasonable excuses. The bill will not impact on those whose failure to attend is beyond their control, for instance: where they were taken ill or had an unexpected caring commitment and gave prior notice. And it will not impact on the majority of job seekers, who attend their appointments, or those who let their provider know in advance that they genuinely cannot attend.

As is the case now, job seekers with a reasonable excuse will not have the suspension or penalty applied if they have given the requisite prior notice. In addition, employment providers will remain able to exercise discretion as to when they report a failure to the Department of Human Services. The bill will not remove any of the current safeguards in the system that are designed to ensure that the vulnerable job seekers do not incur penalties inappropriately. The bill will also make changes to the provisions that allow job seekers who are 55 years or older and who have full-time mutual obligation requirements to meet that requirement by undertaking part-time, voluntary or paid work.

The bill builds on the changes made in 2011 by introducing new incentives to drive more widespread changes in job seeker behaviour. The government is determined to reduce the number of missed appointments each year so as to reduce the red-tape burden and costs on employment providers. The coalition does not consider it acceptable that job seekers miss so many appointments every year, and I welcome these changes. They are ultimately part of a suite of changes which will see more and more Australians enjoying the dignity that comes with transitioning from welfare to work. I commend the bill to the House.