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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7878

Senator MARK BISHOP (1:21 PM) —The Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Special Benefit Activity Test) Bill 2002 seeks to dust off some measures that were announced three budgets ago, in May 2000. It was part of a package of measures to address the issue of unauthorised arrivals in Australia. One has to question the government's commitment to introduce the changes contained in this bill, given the time lapse since it was first flagged. It would not be unreasonable to say that the government has been keeping this in the bottom drawer, ready to dust it off at a time of political convenience. However, putting aside the government's motives, let us turn to precisely what the changes are, as contained in the bill.

The bill seeks to introduce a legislative framework of mutual obligation and activity testing for unauthorised arrivals of work force age, who have been issued temporary visas and are granted special benefit after 1 January 2003. It is worth pointing out that this principle is not new. The current guidelines in relation to special benefit set out circumstances where a special benefit recipient should be subject to an activity test. Labor has no issue with the concept of a work force age income support payment recipient being subject to certain requirements as a condition of payment. But where we have disagreed stridently with the government has been in relation to its failure to reciprocate the effort of job seekers by providing adequate assistance and support to enable them to make a successful transition to work. For this reason, Labor has had significant concerns about the fact that the group of special benefit recipients that would be subject to these changes are denied access to English language tuition as well as the full range of Job Network services. In light of this, Labor was concerned about the ability of special benefit recipients with little or no language skills to satisfy the obligations placed upon them.

For this reason, the bill was referred to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee to examine concerns relating to access to English language tuition and Job Network services, Centrelink's ability to effectively communicate with TPV holders subject to activity testing requirements and the ability of TPV holders with poor language skills to fulfil their obligations under the activity test requirements and thus place themselves at risk of incurring an activity test breach. There was a high level of input into the consideration of the bill with over 50 submissions lodged. The committee process was useful in teasing out the detail of the proposed measures in the bill and clarifying precisely what obligations would be placed on special benefit recipients and the services the government will offer to them.

One point of concern related to the nature of the mutual obligation that special benefit recipients would be subject to and how it compares to the existing arrangements. The Senate committee heard that TPV holders receiving special benefit are currently subject to a range of activity test requirements. The proposal put forward for the most part codifies activity testing arrangements that are currently in place. Currently, TPV holders may be required to search for work and document their efforts fortnightly. Those who fail to undertake specified activities may have their payment completely withdrawn. Under the changes proposed, additional activities may be required, such as Work for the Dole and a requirement to maintain a job seeker diary and employer contact certificates. Also, rather than the complete withdrawal of payments, the graduated breaching regime that applies to other job seekers will be utilised. These changes do not represent a significant change from the current arrangements, although Labor does have concerns about the ability of some to comply with requirements that assume language and literacy skills.

I will turn now to access to English language tuition. Labor's initial concern with the measures in this bill related to the fact that TPV holders are denied access to DIMIA AMEP language tuition. Without language skills, TPV holders on special benefit could flounder with activity testing requirements such as job seeker diaries. This concern is not trivial, and it really ought to make the government reconsider the range of assistance that it is proposing to provide to this group. The government has a responsibility not only to the special benefit recipient but also to the taxpayer to provide appropriate assistance. It is not in anyone's interest that special benefit recipients flounder, unable to communicate effectively with potential employers. If the government wants these people to be self-sufficient, it must provide them with the tools to be so, and that includes access to English language tuition. It was therefore positive that the Senate committee heard TPV holders subject to the requirements in this bill would have access to language training.

Rather than the DIMIA program, tuition will be offered through the Department of Education, Science and Training Language, Literacy and Numeracy Program, the LLNP. The LLNP provides basic English language, literacy and numeracy training for eligible job seekers whose skills are below the level considered necessary to secure sustainable employment or pursue further education or training. The LLNP also provides advanced English language training, designed to help remove a major barrier to employment or the pursuit of further education or training. The basic English language training caters for clients who have no or very low English language skills up to those whose skills are not quite at the level needed for sustainable employment. Clients with any skills below National Reporting System level 3 are eligible for assistance. The LLNP provides up to 400 hours of training. The training is undertaken at between six and 20 hours a week over a period of 20 to 52 weeks.

Under the current program guidelines, clients who have completed their first round of training and still meet the eligibility requirements for the LLNP are able to undertake a second round of training of up to 400 hours, provided they still have at least one element of their language, literacy or numeracy skills below NRS level 3. Assistance available under the LLNP program is comparable to the AMEP program through DIMIA, of 500 hours. It is also positive that, during the Senate committee, FACS expressed the view that the LLNP program would be a central part of most TPV holders' activity agreements. With this additional information, Labor's view is that the arrangements for the provision of English language classes appear to be satisfactory.

Notwithstanding this somewhat positive outcome, Labor still has concerns as to how those with marginal language skills will negotiate their activity requirements. It is this issue that will be at the centre of Labor's amendments to the bill. I will discuss in detail these amendments in the committee stage of the bill, but in summary they seek to limit mutual obligation activities to the English language course itself until such time as the special benefit recipient could be reasonably expected to fulfil additional activities. Labor takes this issue seriously, which is why we will be insisting on these amendments to the bill for it to pass.

Also worthy of consideration is the fact that these measures will apply only to TPV holders granted special benefit after 1 January 2003. Accordingly, the 4,262 TPV holders currently receiving special benefit will be unaffected by the changes in this bill. Notwithstanding this, a TPV holder who loses access to special benefit—for example, due to earnings from work—and then reapplies for special benefit after 1 January 2003 may be affected.

Another area of concern with this bill is the fact that TPV holders will have access to job matching only from the Job Network. Labor again calls on the government to provide full access, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister for Family and Community Services as to why these people should not have access to it. I make the point again that the government has a responsibility not only to the special benefit recipient but also to the taxpayer to provide appropriate assistance. It is not in anyone's interests that special benefit recipients have little or no skills that would help make them employable. If the government wants these people to be self-sufficient, it must provide them with the tools to do so, and that includes access to the full range of Job Network services.

Putting to one side the assistance offered to TPV holders, a central issue is Centrelink's ability to communicate effectively with TPVs about the terms of activity agreements and their ability to comply. In the Senate committee FACS was adamant that Centrelink's translation services would be adequate and there would be a high level of sensitivity to each individual's circumstances and capacity to comply. While these are only assurances, it is positive to see that in the bill the formulation of the terms of the agreement by Centrelink must include explicit consideration of a person's ability to comply with those terms. Notwithstanding these measures, it again reinforces the need to pursue amendments that safeguard TPVs on special benefit from being subject to inappropriate requirements under the new activity agreements.

To sum up, it should be obvious to all why the government has resurrected this proposal. As it stands, it is not balanced. It does not match obligations with supports. The government says that the group affected by this bill should be treated as any other job seeker. Labor does not disagree with this view but, if it is the case, why doesn't this group also gain access to the full range of Job Network services? It should be in the government's interest to assist all people on benefits to enter the labour market as soon as possible.

All the problems in the bill are the same for us as those that permeate the broader social security system. Mutual obligation must be a two-way street. If it is not, many people will remain trapped on welfare benefits. Labor will be moving amendments to this bill to ensure special benefit recipients are treated fairly. Labor's support for the bill will be contingent upon the success of these amendments.

Debate interrupted.