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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7889

Senator GREIG (1:34 PM) —I rise this afternoon to speak to the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Special Benefit Activity Test) Bill 2002. The Australian Democrats are gravely concerned about the extension of mandatory activity testing and the harsh current penalty regime to an already disadvantaged and vulnerable group of people. This group has been specifically denied much of the assistance made available to other unemployed people in Australia. TPV holders have limited access to services and programs that, if undertaken, may otherwise meet the activity requirements. They have no access to free Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs funded English language classes, the personal support program or intensive assistance through the Job Network.

What is wrong with this bill is that TPV holders will now be subject to complicated administrative demands without even the most basic assistance necessary to comprehend what it is they are expected to sign. It is too late to offer them English classes after they have entered into a complex contract in the form of an activity agreement barely after they have left the detention centre and before they have had the chance to gain basic English literacy. They are being set up for failure and for breaches that carry extreme penalties. Successive reports by the Pearce independent review into breaching, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Hanover Foundation, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Salvation Army have all found that the duration and severity of breach penalties are damaging to disadvantaged Australians and do nothing to help them gain work. It will be even more so for TPV holders on special benefit who may already be on a reduced rate due to the dollar-for-dollar income test or the two-thirds rate payable if they are receiving free board and lodging.

Tomorrow, in this place, the Australian Democrats were to be doing what the government has failed to do—that was the plan—and that was to introduce the Pearce amendments into the Social Security Act. Clearly, that is something we can still look at doing, but in the meantime this bill introduces penalties, the duration and extent of which are excessive in relation to already disadvantaged Australians. TPV holders are only temporarily protected in Australia. They are not eligible for public housing unless they are granted permanent residency or permanent protection and, under the current harsh provisions, they would never gain that permanent protection. They can only, however, apply for emergency housing that is of a temporary nature but are not eligible to apply for public housing unless granted a permanent visa. They will continue to experience housing distress and unstable accommodation. Other job seekers are eligible for public housing. Those in public housing enjoy a benefit that TPV holders do not have. They are advantaged in their job search activities because they have secure and affordable accommodation. If the work activity test is to be extended to those on TPVs, then all those subject to the work activity test should at the very least receive the same benefits, including public housing eligibility.

The Australian Democrats are significantly concerned at the inability of the work activity test to deliver reasonable employment outcomes for the most disadvantaged. Breaching does not help a disadvantaged, illiterate, innumerate or homeless person to get work. It does nothing to assist a person who is suffering post-traumatic outcomes of torture and persecution or one who suffers from an undiagnosed mental illness and is episodically unable to comprehend, let alone act upon, written instructions.

The wide, scattergun approach of breaching, with the aim of somehow catching the few who are generally not seeking work, is mistargeted and causes most damage to those who should not be subject to it. The minister would have the Australian community believe that TPV holders do not have any existing obligation to look for work. This is simply not correct. In order to receive special benefit, a recipient of work force age must register as a job seeker with Centrelink, enrol with at least one Job Network member, actively seem to be, and be, available for employment and apply for at least four jobs per fortnight.

It can be fairly argued that these existing obligations, without the requirement to negotiate agreements and without complex mutual penalties, do take account of the inequity and disadvantage that TPV holders already have. It is already the most appropriate level of activity testing, given that TPV holders are presently unable to access Family and Community Services programs, intensive assistance through the Job Network, and DIMIA funded settlement programs. People on TPVs already experience many barriers in accessing mainstream services. We know, for example, that TPV holders will find it extremely difficult to comprehend the hoops and hurdles of the administrative system. There is significant evidence that people with poor language skills, temporary accommodation and few personal resources or family support are more likely to be breached. They are very active in pursuing seasonal rural and regional work such as fruit or vegetable picking, which will mean that they miss Centrelink letters, which, in any case, they would be unlikely to be able to read, miss appointments or, in the ultimate irony, be breached for moving to another area. Either way, in the end they will unwittingly fail and lose their entitlements. Indeed, it seems that this is the outcome sought by the government.

The Democrats believe that if there is to be any change it must address the present inequities of language, communication, accommodation, community support, income testing and intensive assistance. These factors must be given legislative force. This bill fails to do so and thus we reject it. Special benefit is an emergency payment for people in hardship who cannot receive other Centrelink payments. It was never intended to be a long-term income support payment. This bill attaches mutual obligation requirements to the receipt of this benefit and thereby changes the nature of the payment and imposes unnecessarily harsh conditions on disadvantaged recipients.

If the government wishes to impose these conditions on TPV holders, it should instead allow those holders access to Newstart and Youth Allowance on an equal footing. If the government wishes to assist TPV holders to find work it can allow them access to DIMIA funded English language courses, allow them to enrol in vocational courses full time and provide access to intensive assistance and the personal support scheme without the requirement to enter into an activity agreement. To encourage TPV holders to take up casual work, the withdrawal rate of special benefit should, at the very least, be the same as for Newstart. Currently, special benefit is withdrawn at a rate of 100 per cent—that is, for every dollar earned a dollar is taken away.

TPV holders are also likely to have problems with fair access to the review and appeals process. Language and other barriers will make it more difficult for them to understand the legalistic and bureaucratic administrative system. Legal aid guidelines prevent TPV holders from getting legal aid in most social security cases. Research reports that those in the community who are the most vulnerable and marginalised are not only the most likely to incur a breach but also the least likely to be able to withstand the penalty and the least likely to be able to negotiate the appeals process. TPV holders will be vulnerable to be drawn into this marginalised group, if the legislation was passed, simply due to their limited English skills and knowledge surrounding law and justice issues in Australia.

Successive Australian governments have not fulfilled their obligations to asylum seekers, particularly since the introduction of the temporary protection visas. For the government to now argue mutual obligation in relation to TPV holder access to special benefit is a travesty. The measures contained in the bill aim to encourage social and economic participation by treating TPV holders in a similar way to Australian nationals, thus emphasising the requirement to be self-reliant and to fulfil a mutual obligation to the Australian community.

Mutual obligation is also a requirement on government, as it has an obligation to protect refugees and assist in their settlement. The government's obligations are currently not being fulfilled. Without major changes to the range of government policies affecting TPV holders, so that they are given access to a whole range of programs and services offered to permanent protection visa—PPV— holders, the activity testing of TPV holders will only compound this group's marginalisation and experience of poverty. TPV holders in the community are already denied access to essential settlement and assistance services. They are experiencing notable poverty brought on by difficulties in obtaining employment due to language skills, lack of recognition of qualifications, lack of local experience and the short-term nature of their visa.

If the aim of the government is to move TPV holders from special benefit to work, then the infrastructure for this to happen must be established—especially free English classes for TPV holders—without the need for them to enter into the trap of activity agreements which their very lack of English prevents them from fully comprehending in the first place. Limited access to English classes means that those who get work are potentially endangering themselves and others, as even labouring jobs or process work requires some English in order to meet workplace safety requirements. Those who are unable to get work become further marginalised and are excluded from the very settlement services that may counteract their situation.

TPV holders are already vulnerable to exploitation in the labour market and commonly accept jobs that pay under award wages and have poor working conditions. TPV holders may not be aware of their rights under Australian industrial law nor understand that they will be breached for failing to accept work paying under award wages. The 26-week non-payment period, where a person reduces their employment prospects by moving, and the seasonal workers preclusion period will further disadvantage TPV holders on special benefit. TPV holders usually relocate once they are released from detention to locations with more support services and a greater number of community members from their cultural background.

TPV holders are simply not equipped to meet the demands of mutual obligation and will be severely disadvantaged if this bill is passed in its present form. For this reason, the Australian Democrats cannot support it. In its present form, the bill provides that breaches and penalties will follow almost automatically for many TPV holders. In light of this, the Australian Democrats propose that the penalties attached to noncompliance with obligations should not be imposed for a period of at least 26 weeks after the person has been granted their TPV or released from detention. Additionally, if this bill is implemented, given the language difficulties and other settlement problems arising for refugees, TPV holders must have full access to full-time DIMIA English classes. This should be the only mandated requirement of any activity agreement. We look forward to the opportunity to present these amendments in the committee stage of the bill.