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Thursday, 23 August 2001
Page: 30182

Ms ELLIS (5:50 PM) —I want to speak tonight about the practices of Centrelink, and in particular the practice of breaching, which we all know is the penalty placed on those less fortunate clients of Centrelink who fall foul of the rules set by the government. The effect of these practices and policies on the people they impact on is just enormous, yet the people who are attempting to deal with a multitude of issues are at the same time faced with this ghastly practice by Centrelink at this government's direction. My electorate office is approached frequently by people who have fallen foul of the rules for a range of reasons and who, in most cases when they get to me, are facing a period with no income whatsoever.

The Australian Council of Social Service has recently been talking about this practice. They had an inquiry and a report was released which lifted the lid a little on the outcome of these practices. A week or two back, ACOSS said that in the year 2000-01 there will have been approximately 35,500 third breach penalties of an eight-week period of no payment at all. That is a 159 per cent increase on the 13,600 penalties imposed in the previous 12 months.

We have to ask: why is this happening and what does it mean? The people who are typically affected by the breaches fall into some general categories. They usually cover people with low literacy or numeracy skills, people with a mental illness and/or with an acquired brain injury, people from our indigenous community, people who may be homeless, and a lot of young people. There are also those who, with a multitude of issues confronting them, can fall into the problem of ill health and other family stresses, and find it extremely difficult to meet the unbelievable demands being put upon them by Centrelink. There is no way that I or anyone else in this House, I imagine, would be happy to condone any purposeful fraudulent activity by anyone against the system. That is not what we are talking about. There should be, have been and still are appropriate penalties and structures in place to attempt to deal with those people, but the ones who are suffering are those in the categories to which I am referring. They are facing a range of difficulties and stresses and are trying to deal with the overbearing compliance requirements set down by Centrelink—apparently, a Centrelink with no possible flexibility in facing some of those personal stories. I often wonder how the workers of Centrelink feel having gone through a lot of the evidence gathering from those people and having a real understanding of the stresses and the position they find themselves in and then having to have to impose a no-income period on them.

I refer briefly to a case that came to my attention only in the past 48 hours. It involves a gentleman in my electorate who works with a non-government agency and who was dealing with a young girl who required assistance. She had no family support, was living in government accommodation, and had been in receipt of youth allowance. She has a very serious medical condition for which she is being treated by local specialists. She sought help from that agency because her allowance had been cancelled and she needed some food. She was under a notice of eviction at the time. She produced a letter from Centrelink, which had been sent a few days earlier, advising her that the cancellation followed unsatisfactory completion of the compliance form. She thought, I believe, that the breaching was for not attending interviews, although she could produce medical evidence to show that attendance at two interviews had been impossible.

The point of the story is that that was a young girl who was living in circumstances that none of us would wish to be in. When inquiries were made, it was found that the breaches had been lifted, but nobody had told her—the letter was still sitting on her table at home and it was still reflecting that she had a no-income period facing her. Thank heavens, with some assistance from a non-government agency, that case has been solved. I am pleased to know that ACOSS has instigated its own inquiry into breaches and the practices of Centrelink. Centrelink, through the minister, were going to do an inquiry of their own. They should not be looking into themselves—they should not be inquiring into their own practices—someone from outside should be, and I endorse that inquiry totally. (Time expired)