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Wednesday, 4 December 1985
Page: 2898

Senator BLACK —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Social Security. In view of the practice of the Queensland Housing Commission of raising the rents of tenants eligible for family income supplement, can the Minister advise the Senate whether this Federal supplement is intended to be assessed as income? If the supplement is not intended for assessment as income, can the Minister advise what steps the Federal Government intends to take to protect the living standards of low income families in Queensland who are also tenants of the Queensland Housing Commission?

Senator GRIMES —Senator Black brings to our attention yet again an action of the Queensland Government, in particular acting through its various welfare departments, which is making life difficult for low income people and particularly unemployed people. What has happened in Queensland in this case is similar to what happens with its scheme of assistance to help those who have a disability, where the Queensland Government applies a much more stringent means test than does the Federal Government. The Queensland Government Housing Commission routinely sends all tenants who appear to be eligible for family income supplement a notice advising them to apply for this payment from the Department of Social Security.

Senator Chaney —That is a good thing, isn't it?

Senator GRIMES —That is a good thing, as Senator Chaney says. As he was the Minister responsible for introducing the family income supplement, I think he should think it is a good thing. At the same time, the Queensland Housing Commission calculates what it considers the tenant's family income supplement entitlement should be and immediately takes that into account as income. I am not sure that Senator Chaney will agree that that is a good thing. The tenant then has some three to five weeks to produce to the Queensland Housing Commission written advice from the Department of Social Security as to his or her family income supplement entitlement, or lack of it. If this advice varies from the QHC's calculations retrospective adjustments are made. If the tenant does not produce a response the Queensland Housing Commission imposes a $20 a week fine until the tenant produces such a document. What is more, this penalty in fact can be increased each quarter. Therefore, the QHC, acting as judge and jury-without a trial in fact; if one can do that-imposes this fine.

I think this raises many questions about the Queensland Housing Commission's powers and rights over its tenants. No other State housing commission adopts such an attitude towards its tenants as to fine them for not applying for the family income supplement. In Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia family income supplement is not taken into account as income, nor is it taken into account as income by the Department of Social Security or the Australian Taxation Office. In the Northern Territory the Housing Commission advises tenants to apply for family income supplement. As Senator Chaney says, that is a good thing. If those people receive the family income supplement that is taken into account as income. If they do not receive that supplement, it is not taken any further. In Tasmania and Western Australia family income supplement is taken into account unless the tenant proves otherwise. People certainly are not in any of those States fined an amount above the maximum rate of family income supplement for one child, which is now $16 a week, if they do not apply. The supplement was not intended to be assessed as income. The fact that some housing commissions do assess it as income I suppose is a moot point. To what extent such housing commissions should encourage tenants who appear eligible to apply for family income supplement is a moot point. I happen to agree that the more we encourage people-they are all poor people-to apply for such supplements, the better off they will be and the better off we will all be.

Senator Chaney —They often do not know.

Senator GRIMES —That is right. We suspect it has a low take-up rate. Certainly that encouragement is worth while. However, for the Queensland Housing Commission to fine people an amount more than the family income supplement maximum payment, and to continue to fine them more and more if they do not reply to the dictates of the Queensland Housing Commission I think is overstepping any reasonable boundary that any government of any political persuasion in this country would apply. I am advised that my colleague Mr Howe, the Minister for Social Security, has brought this matter to the attention of the Minister for Housing and Construction to see whether he can raise with the States the question of achieving a consistent policy towards counting family income supplement in determining rents for housing commission tenants. I believe that quite apart from this the Queensland Government should ask the Queensland Housing Commission to desist from this practice, although I suppose the Housing Commission in Queensland is carrying out this practice only at the instruction of the Queensland Government, which I am afraid is par for the course for the Government in that benighted State.