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Wednesday, 28 March 2007
Page: 7

Mr BILLSON (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (9:24 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to present legislation that will enhance and streamline Veterans’ Affairs administrative practices and further align the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 with the Social Security Act 1991. The legislation also makes some minor changes to certain income support regimes and contains a number of minor and technical amendments to remove potential ambiguities and anomalies.

The bill includes consequential amendments to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 to include the income support supplement among the payments which can be exempt from providing a tax file number.

Amendments to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 are included to clarify and give effect to the taxable status of Defence Force income support allowance payments.

Technical amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 will correct some anomalies in the act. The amendments relate to injuries or diseases that are sustained or aggravated as a result of treatment for a service injury or disease. Previously some injuries or diseases sustained as a result of treatment for a service related injury or disease were not considered to be a service injury or disease if they were an expected consequence of the treatment. Under the changes, such conditions will be considered a service injury or disease.

A further amendment to the MRCA will clarify issues concerning the onus of proof for liability claims. The MRCA will be amended to show that there is no onus of proof for acceptance of liability claims. This is in line with the policy intention and was an oversight in the original legislation.

Amendments to the VEA income and assets test will be enhanced by allowing the disposal of assets provisions to be disregarded in circumstances where the asset is subsequently returned or adequate consideration is subsequently received. This will address some potentially unfair outcomes, including the possibility of double-counting of assets in some situations.

Amendments will also be made to include supplementary payments, such as telephone allowance, advance pharmaceutical allowance and education entry payments, in the definition of ‘compensation-affected pension’. This will allow for the recovery of such payments from the compensation payment where the reduction in the income support pension is retrospective. Previously, the supplementary payments have had to be recovered directly from the recipient under the general overpayment provisions of the VEA. This amendment will simplify the recovery of overpayments under the compensation recovery provisions and will align VEA arrangements with those in place under the Social Security Act.

In addition, the bill amends the definition of ‘compensation-affected pension’ to reflect that income support supplement will cease to be a compensation-affected pension from qualifying age, rather than pension age. Qualifying age for DVA pensions is five years earlier than the pension age under the Social Security Act. This amendment reflects the policy intention and will ensure that all income support supplement recipients are treated equally, regardless of whether or not the person is a veteran.

Currently, the VEA does not include detailed requirements for the Repatriation Commission on providing written advice to claimants for certain determinations. The amendments in this bill rectify that situation and include amendments that explicitly identify the determinations for which the Repatriation Commission must provide a claimant with written notification.

The bill also seeks to clarify arrangements for the payment of pensions and the provision of treatment for a person in jail. Under the current arrangements, if a person is in prison on a pension payday, the entire pension instalment may be forfeited. The amendments in this bill will align the VEA with the Social Security Act under which pension is not payable only in respect to the days the person is in jail, not necessarily the full pension period. Further amendments will clarify that treatment under the VEA is not provided to persons in prison as this is the responsibility of the relevant state. The definition of jail is also being expanded and will include being lawfully detained in a prison or elsewhere pending trial or sentencing, and will take account of those in psychiatric confinement after having been charged with an offence.

The amendments will also rectify a misalignment between certain criteria of the income/assets reduction limits rates which has occurred as a result of rounding. The rates affected are income/assets reduction limit with regard to treatment eligibility and dependent children. These will be addressed by varying the calculation methods.

Amendments are also being made to the Defence Force income support allowance, which include changes to recovery of overpayment provisions, and providing for an increase to the bereavement payment provisions of the Social Security Act to take account of the DFISA amount payable to a carer payment recipient in certain circumstances. Further amendments rectify an oversight in the legislation which has meant that the DFISA pension bonus would not be paid after the eligible person died if their claim had not been determined at the time of death.

The bill includes amendment to the rent assistance provisions which will clarify criteria for accessing rent assistance and extends rent assistance eligibility to special rate disability pension recipients.

Finally, the bill also includes numerous technical amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. These include clarifying that family assistance payments are exempt from the veterans’ entitlements income test. This will align the VEA with the Social Security Act and is in keeping with the intention of the family assistance payments. The bill also includes an amendment to extend the time period for lodging claims for travel reimbursement from three months to 12 months. This will assist ageing veterans who have difficulty lodging claims within the current time frame.

This bill continues the government’s ongoing commitment to supporting Australia’s current and former service personnel and ensuring their future wellbeing. I commend the bill to the House and to the veterans community.

Debate (on motion by Dr Emerson) adjourned.