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Friday, 15 June 1984
Page: 3114

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Social Security)(11.21) —I thank the Opposition for not opposing the Social Security and Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill 1984 which, as Senator Messner has said, makes small but important amendments to the Social Security Act. I will deal with the various matters that he brought up. As far as the proposed amendment is concerned, this matter has been raised in this place many times by Senator Messner and Senator Sir John Carrick. I also have said many times that, of course, we are aware of the Medicare effect on the consumer price index as it will affect pensioners, particularly as most of those pensioners are already covered through the pensioner health card for the equivalent of the Medicare card as far as medical costs are concerned. The Government is well aware of that matter; I am well aware of it. Of course it will be considered in the Budget. I cannot pre-empt the Budget discussions. I cannot announce here and now, as Senator Messner well knows, what moves we will be taking to counteract that effect. I certainly would not bother to divide on the amendment although it is quite incorrect in stating that pensioners incomes will be reduced as a consequence of the reduction in the consumer price index caused by the introduction of Medicare. Up until now pension increases have been made-as they were by the previous Government-on the basis of CPI increases which occurred before the Medicare levy was introduced and before the Medicare effect occurred. If the aim of the exercise is to draw the Senate's attention to that aspect of the calculation of future pension increases, I have no objection to it. Senator Messner may be surprised to know that we will not oppose the amendment in a division even though we think it is unnecessary.

I think I should explain and clear up two other aspects that Senator Messner raised. The first is his foreshadowed opposition to clause 41 of the legislation which removes the six weeks minimum period before the payment of unemployment benefit for those who, for various reasons, are deemed to be either deliberately out of work or who have lost their jobs through misconduct. Senator Messner's main argument seemed to be that what we are doing is giving a discretion to the Director-General of the Department of Social Security which was unwise and unnecessary.

I point out that this aspect of the legislation-the minimum of six weeks and maximum of 12 weeks-was introduced by the previous Government. Prior to that there was no limit on the duration of time for which the unemployment benefit could have been withheld from a beneficiary; the discretion then was without limit. At that time it did not seem to worry the previous Government. But suddenly, now that members of the previous Government are in opposition, they have become concerned about discretions given to the Director-General, and many discretions are given to the Director-General. The reason for the removal of the six weeks penalty is, I think, perfectly explicable. To remove the unemployment benefit from a single person is to impose a fine on that person of $480. To remove it from a married couple is to impose a fine of over $1,000. That is the minimum fine under the legislation that exists now. That is a very heavy fine. I ask honourable senators to think of the sorts of offences heard in the courts that draw a fine of that type.

The second and very practical matter, if one wants to look at it this way, is that with such a minimal withdrawal rate officers of the Department are very reluctant to apply such a fine at all. I understand that the Opposition from its previous activities considers this is a worthwhile part of the Social Services Act but officers of the Department, realising the enormity of what they are doing, will not apply penalties like this and therefore they become pretty ineffective. For that reason we believe that the removal of that six weeks minimum is a reasonable step to take. To argue that by removing it we give too much discretion to the Director-General when, under the previous legislation, he had very much more discretion is a bit rich.

I now refer to the problem with the new respite care bed subsidy. I can understand people's difficulties with the very great difference between the short term subsidy and the long term subsidy. The 15-day minimum occupancy service requirement was introduced first of all to ensure that a minimum level service standard is provided to each resident in these circumstances and that the subsidy is received for services given. The rule which was introduced deterred hostels from accepting potential respite care residents for a period of less than 15 days and negated the spirit behind the legislation which was to enable respite care to be provided for periods ranging from a few days to a few weeks.

In recognition of this and other anomalies which have arisen with respect to respite bed care residents in the implementation of the previous decision to provide a subsidy for respite care beds we decided, as Senator Messner has said, to provide for the payment of a hostel care subsidy for approved respite care beds where the beds are occupied for 14 days or less during a period and to provide a hostel care subsidy and a personal care subsidy where the beds are occupied for at least 15 days during a 28-day period. This decision was taken by the Government on the basis of advice from industry representatives which indicated that most longer stay respite residents of two weeks or more occupancy tend to require a higher level of care than do those with shorter periods of occupancy.

Data we obtained from surveys which were conducted from the subsidies information system on respite bed usage in hostels over a four or five month period from 1 January this year confirmed that advice. In beds occupied for 14 days or less, 63.5 per cent of residents were in receipt of hostel care subsidy compared with 36.5 per cent who were in receipt of personal care subsidy. The ratio of personal care subsidy patients to hostel care residents is markedly greater in beds occupied from 21 to 50 days. These percentages were based on a careful survey because we wanted to ensure, in introducing respite care beds, that hostels were able to provide care for these two groups of clients, the short term and the long term patients, so as not to cause economic difficulties for those hostels.

Of course, we will continue to look at the situation. If we find that a greater percentage of short term residents need more than basic care-that is a relatively low level and less expensive form of care-and if a high percentage of people in the longer term need less care than the personal care subsidy on top of the hostel care subsidy we may have to change the situation. At the moment it seems that the system will work pretty well. It seems that it will encourage the development of respite care beds in hostels. I think we need that aspect of care , otherwise we will end up with more long term hostel patients and more long term nursing care patients. All in all I think the industry accepts that the situation will work pretty well. I think that the personal care subsidy should be part of a general age care package which will assist us to keep people out of the more expensive forms of care, in particular nursing home care and also long term hostel care.

I think the rest of the legislation has been well accepted. I have no qualms about not dividing on the second reading amendment moved by the Opposition. We certainly cannot accept, for the reasons I have stated, the foreshadowed amendment by Senator Messner at the Committee stage. I thank honourable senators for their co-operation. I am sure that this, together with other social security amendment legislation in future years, will get us into the situation where we end up with a more equitable and reasonable piece of legislation than we have had in the past. I commend the legislation to the Senate.

Amendment agreed to.

Original question, as amended, resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.