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Thursday, 24 October 1974
Page: 1968

Senator WHEELDON (Western AustraliaMinister for Repatriation and Compensation) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

In his Budget Speech the Treasurer (Mr Crean) announced the Government's intention of increasing additional payments for children of pensioners and beneficiaries by 50c a week to $5.50 a week, raising supplementary assistance and supplementary allowance, for pensioners and sickness beneficiaries, by $1 a week to $5 a week, and increasing double orphan's pension by $ 1 a week to $ 1 1 a week. The Treasurer also announced the proposed introduction of a new allowance called handicapped child's allowance. This allowance will be payable at the rate of $ 10 a week to parents or guardians of physically or mentally handicapped children who are cared for in a family environment. This initiative will, I am sure, meet with wide acclaim. I will be providing further details of the benefit later in my speech.

The purpose of the Bill, which is the third amending Social Services Bill introduced this year, is to give effect to these measures and to some important amendments which were foreshadowed earlier this year. The latter concern changes in the residence qualification for invalid pensions, widows' pensions and supporting mothers' benefits, payment of additional amounts for children in the care of Class B widow pensioners, the payment of additional benefit for de facto wives of unemployment and sickness beneficiaries and the repeal of the 'not deserving' and 'character' provisions of the Act. The provisions of this Bill follow the record increases in the basic rates of pensions, benefits and allowances which were outlined to the Senate on 30 July in my second reading speech on the Social Services Bill (No. 2) 1974.

Honourable senators will recall that the standard rate of pension was increased by $5 a week to $3 1 a week and the individual married rate by $3 a week to $25.75 a week. The new rates were paid on 8 August in the case of age and invalid pensions and on 13 August in the case of widows' pensions and supporting mothers' benefits. The increases in unemployment and sickness benefits operated in respect of the benefit week ending on 31 July 1974 and each benefit week thereafter. Had we waited until the Budget sittings of Parliament to make these increases, pensioners and beneficiaries would have had to wait longer than usual for payment at the higher rates. This is because the Budget timetable was put back following the May elections which were forced upon us by the Opposition.

With the increases now proposed single age and invalid pensioners eligible for the standard rate of pension plus supplementary assistance will receive a maximum of $36 a week. Couples eligible for the married rate plus supplementary assistance will receive a maximum of $28.25 a week, individually, or $56.50 a week combined. Single or widowed pensioners, including supporting mothers, who are eligible for supplementary assistance and have, say, 2 children, will receive a maximum of $5 1 a week. This takes into account guardian's or mother's allowance at the lower rate of $4 a week. The total amount payable is increased to $53 a week if the pensioner or supporting mother has the custody, care and control of a child under six or an invalid child. I should explain that, in future, supplementary assistance will be paid subject to the principle that the total rent allowance will not exceed the actual rent paid. This principle will extend also to supplementary allowance which is paid to sickness beneficiaries who pay rent and who have received sickness benefit for more than 6 weeks. The Government has decided, however, that no existing payments will be reduced as a result of the operation of this principle.

When delivering the second reading speech on the Social Services Bill (No. 4) 1973, which introduced double orphan's pension, the Minister for the Media (Senator Douglas McClelland) said that this pension would remove an area of human neglect that should not have been allowed to continue. Double orphan's pension is paid in respect of a child both of whose parents, or adoptive parents, are dead or where one is dead and the whereabouts of the other are unknown to the claimant. The pension has proved of considerable assistance to people caring for children who, in the circumstances outlined, have permanently lost all contact with their parents. As already indicated it has been decided that it should be increased by $ 1 a week to $ 1 1 a week. There is one matter concerning this pension on which I feel I should comment. State welfare departments make financial assistance available to people caring for children who are under State control. It is my understanding that following the introduction of double orphan's pension adjustments were made to some of these payments. Double orphan's pension is akin to child endowment and it was never envisaged by the Australian Government that it should relieve the States of expenditure in this field. I accordingly hope that the States will see fit to reexamine their practices in this regard.

I would now like to give the Senate some details of the Government's proposals relating to the handicapped child's allowance. The rate of the allowance will be $10 a week and it will be paid where, because of the nature and severity of the handicap, the child requires constant care and attention in the family home. It will not be subject to any means test and it will not be treated as income in assessing other social service benefits. The allowance is designed specifically to assist parents and guardians who have a handicapped child under 16 years of age requiring constant attention and who, for reasons that all such persons will understand, prefer to provide this attention at home rather than place the child in an institution.

It is recognised that most persons who have a severely handicapped child in the home incur additional expenditure. The allowance will help them to meet the extra costs involved. It may be also used towards the cost of obtaining services that will afford some relief from the stresses that are experienced, especially by the mother, in these situations. This new allowance should be seen in the context of the broad program of education, training and general welfare for handicapped children being developed by the Government. The $10 a week allowance is intended to be supplementary to what is being done under that program.

Parents or guardians who care for a handicapped child at home will be encouraged to take full advantage of the facilities that are being made available under the general welfare program and the child 's attendance at a day school or training centre will not affect eligibility for payment of the allowance. The allowance will be paid as an addition to child endowment and will therefore will be available either by cheque at four-weekly intervals, or paid into a bank or similar account each 12 weeks. It is estimated that some 20,000 children will qualify for the allowance and that the annual cost will be approximately $10m. I sincerely hope that the States do not take the same attitude in respect of this benefit as they have in respect of double orphan's pensions, that is, to reduce or terminate any payments that they may now be making to people who will qualify for the allowance.

As a further measure to assist the handicapped, the Bill also introduces an incentive allowance for disabled people employed in sheltered workshops. This allowance will be paid to all workshop employees who are receiving sheltered employment allowance as an alternative to invalid pension. For some time the Government has been acutely aware of the disincentives and anomalies that occur when a person who is receiving an invalid pension and supplementary assistance enters a sheltered workshop. As soon as he earns more than $1 a week at the workshop, his supplementary assistance must be reduced by the excess amount until it is cancelled when his earnings reach $5 a week. The implications of this are obvious. A significant number of sheltered workshop employees are paid no more than $ 1 a week because voluntary organisations conducting sheltered workshops are disinclined to pay more until the person is able to earn in excess of $5 a week and thus derive some monetary advantage from his earnings.

As well as providing handicapped people with the opportunity to augment their social security benefits, sheltered workshops perform what are perhaps the even more important functions of providing a social environment away from their homes or hostels and preparing handicapped people for employment in outside industry. To encourage more people to enter sheltered employment and to eliminate the disincentive effect that supplementary assistance has on earnings, the incentive allowance of $5 a week will be means test free and will be paid in lieu of supplementary assistance to all those who are receiving sheltered employment allowance. This will mean that eligible sheltered workshop employees will continue to receive an incentive allowance, without reduction, for so long as they retain some entitlement to the sheltered employment allowance.

I now turn to the amendments which were foreshadowed earlier this year. At present, to qualify for an invalid pension a person who becomes permanently incapacitated or blind in Australia must have resided in Australia for a continuous period of 5 years at any time. On the other hand the residence qualification for widow's pension is immediately satisfied if a woman and her husband were residing permanently in Australia when she became a widow. Permanent incapacity or blindness can be just as unforeseen as widowhood.

Accordingly, it is proposed to abolish the residence requirement for invalid pension where permanent incapacity or blindness occurred in Australia. The only persons who will need to satisfy a period of residence will be those who become permanently incapacitated or blind outside Australia, except during a period of temporary absence. For such persons a period of 10 years continuous residence at any time will continue to be required, as for age pension. As honourable senators may know this period is reduced where a person has lived in Australia for periods aggregating more than 10 years and has had a period of continuous residence of not less than 5 years.

It is also proposed to amend the residence qualifications for widow's pension and supporting mother's benefit. Under existing conditions women whose husbands die overseas may qualify for a widow's pension immediately on their return to Australia if they have resided here for a continuous period of not less than 10 years at any time. However, cases have arisen where Australian women have been widowed on account of desertion or divorce while residing overseas and, upon their return to Australia, have had to wait a period of 5 years before becoming eligible for widow's pension, notwithstanding that they may have lived in Australia for most of their lives. Similarly, unmarried Australian girls who give birth to a child while residing overseas are required to serve a period of 5 years' residence in

Australia on their return before qualifying for supporting mother's benefit. This applies to married women who separate from their husbands while residing overseas.

To be consistent with the residence requirement for de jure widows it is proposed to enable any woman who becomes a widow or a supporting mother as defined in the Social Services Act while residing overseas to be residentially qualified for widow's pension or supporting mother's benefit, as appropriate, immediately on her return to Australia providing she has been continuously resident in Australia for not less than 10 years at any time. On passage of this Bill the residence qualification for widow's pension will be satisfied if a woman and her husband were residing permanently in Australia when she became a 'widow'. In other cases, 5 years' continuous residence immediately preceding lodgment of the claim will be required, but this will be waived where the woman became a 'widow' overseas if she has lived in Australia for a continuous period of 10 years at any time. Claimants for supporting mother's benefit will be required to satisfy similar conditions.

We also propose to correct an anomaly concerning the position of class B widow pensioners. Perhaps I should first explain the basic difference between the classes of widows. A woman with a child of her own or a child who entered her care before she became a widow is a class A widow and attracts payment of a mother's allowance and additional pension for the children. A class B widow is one who has no child of her own or has no child who entered her care before she became a widow and who is not less than 50 years of age. A woman who ceases to be a class A widow because her qualifying child turns sixteen or ceases to be a full time student, may become a class B widow if she is at least 45 years of age at that time.

Class B widows at present receive the same basic pension as class A widows but they do not receive the mother's allowance nor the additional pension for children. On the other hand an unmarried woman may be granted an age pension at age 60 or an invalid pension and, in addition, receive additional pension for each child in her care, and guardian's allowance irrespective of whether she is the mother of the children and irrespective of the date the children entered her care. lt is therefore proposed to enable a mother's allowance and additional pension for children to be payable to class B widows who have the custody, care and control of any child.

Mr Acting Deputy President,one of the more objectionable forms of discrimination in the Social Services Act is the treatment accorded de facto wives of unemployment and sickness beneficiaries. While de facto wives of pensioners are treated for pension purposes in the same way as legal wives if the relationship has existed for not less than 3 years, de facto wives of beneficiaries only attract additional payments if they are accepted as unpaid housekeepers, that is, if they are keeping house for the beneficiary and one or more of his children, provided they are substantially dependent on the beneficiary and not employed by him. In such cases additional benefit equivalent to the amount for a spouse may be paid. It is proposed henceforth that additional benefit be paid in respect of de facto wives of unemployment and sickness beneficiaries on a basis similar to that for de facto wives of pensioners, thus removing an unfair discrimination which now exists. Additional benefit will accordingly be paid if the parties have been living together on a normal domestic basis for not less than 3 years. Where a stable relationship exists, but is of less than 3 years standing, consideration will be given to the payment of special benefit to the de facto wife.

One thing which has inhibited the best kind of administration of the Social Services Act has been the remnants of the infamous 'poor law' mentality which remain in the Act. The Act still contains provisions which require that a pension shall not be granted to a person unless he or she is of good character or if he or she is classed as not deserving a pension. These provisions are anachronisms reflecting undesirable moralising attitudes and are contrary to the philosophy of the Government. This Bill repeals them. The Department of Social Security will continue to review the Social Services Act to see whether there are any other provisions of a similar nature which should be eliminated.

The Bill also varies the provisions relating to training and living away from home allowances which are payable to handicapped persons undergoing vocational training as part of their rehabilitation program. This is necessary in order to bring these allowances into line with those payable to trainees under the national employment and training system which was recently introduced by my colleague the Minister for Labor and Immigration (Mr Clyde Cameron). Under the NEAT system trainees will receive an amount based on the average adult male weekly award wage, and adjusted quarterly. For an adult trainee this is currently $93.44 a week. Proportionate amounts are payable for part-time trainees and persons under 21 years of age. At present rehabilitees- I mention in passing that this Government is coining not only new legislation but also a new vocabulary- receive a rehabilitation allowance equivalent to the invalid pension rate plus an additional allowance of $8 a week for full-time trainees and $4 a week for part-time trainees. Thus single adult trainees have been receiving a maximum of $39 a week, excluding supplementary assistance. In the case of a married person with 2 children the allowances would amount to $69.50 a week. Continuation of these rates is obviously inequitable.

The May 1 974 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Training- the Cochrane Committee- on which the NEAT system is largely based, recognises this anomaly and contains a recommendation that the levels of allowances payable under a labour market training scheme should be applicable to trainees under the Australian Government Rehabilitation Service. The Bill therefore provides for the abolition of rehabilitation and training allowances in their present form and gives authority for the determination of training allowances which can be adjusted quarterly in keeping with those that will be payable under the NEAT scheme. In the few cases where a rehabilitee would be better ofT by remaining on his pension or benefit during training, that is, a married man with a large family, or for other reasons would prefer to do so, provision has been made for him to elect to have his pension or benefit continued during the training period.

Senator Guilfoyle - What reasons would they be?

Senator WHEELDON - We will come to that later. Living away from home allowance is currently payable to rehabilitees required to live away from their usual place of residence. The present rates are $ 16 a week for persons with dependants and $10 in other cases. The rate under the NEAT system is 25 per cent of the adult training allowance, to the nearest half dollar, payable to a full-time trainee. The Bill gives authority for a similar rate to be paid to rehabilitees who qualify. The annual cost of these increases will be in the vicinity of $350,000 in a full year and $260,000 in 1974-75.

I should say finally that there are some minor consequential amendments to be made to the Social Services Act as a result of the Government's decision to abolish broadcast listeners' and television viewers' licences. These licences have been available at concessional rates to pensioners who were qualified for Australian

Government 'fringe' benefits such as the pensioner medical service providing they were living alone, or with another eligible person or persons, or with another person whose income did not exceed a specified limit. In future no pensioner, or indeed any other member of the community, will be required to pay for the privilege of using his own radio or television set. It is estimated that the cost of the social service proposals in this Bill will be $20m in 1974-75 and $33m in a full year. In accordance with the usual practice the increases provided for pensioners under this Bill will operate from and including the pay-days following royal assent. Increases for unemployment and sickness beneficiaries will, as usual, operate in respect of the benefit week ending on the date of the royal assent and each benefit week thereafter. The provisions relating to the new handicapped child's allowance will come into operation on 30 December 1 974. This will allow time for the completion of administrative arrangements, including the printing of necessary forms. Mr Acting Deputy President, I commend the Bill to the Senate.

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