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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7891

Senator MOORE (1:46 PM) —In Minister Anthony's second reading speech introducing the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Special Benefit Activity Test) Bill 2002 into the House, he said that the aim of the bill was to:

... encourage social and economic participation by treating work force age holders of visas issued for temporary protection, humanitarian or safe haven purposes in a similar way to Australian nationals of work force age; that is, they will be required to be self-reliant and to fulfil a mutual obligation to the Australian community.

When the bill was referred to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, over 50 submissions were received from a number of people—welfare groups, churches and individual members of the community. What they said was that the people we are talking about, people who are currently on temporary protection visas, are not being treated the same as work force age people who are Australian nationals. Currently, people who are on temporary protection visas are, by nature of receiving TPVs, genuine refugees. But by nature of being temporary protection visa holders they have no rights to residency, no rights to family reunion, currently no rights to English training and, most particularly, no rights to feel part of the Australian community. We heard from the department that the system currently works quite well for people who are on temporary protection visas. They receive special benefit. Special benefit is not a new payment. It is a tough payment. It was described by ACOSS as one that has:

... different, tighter eligibility and payment criteria and much stricter income testing policies than any other income support payment.

And this was accepted. In return for getting the special benefit, currently people on temporary protection visas are part of the system. They are required to communicate regularly with the department to fulfil quite strong administrative arrangements—they have to prove that they are looking for work; they have to communicate and they work within the system. Under the proposed change that this bill seeks to bring in to prove mutual obligation, the full participation provisions, which we have already debated in this house, and the full process of an implementation of a punishment regime to enforce compliance will be introduced to people who are on temporary protection visas.

We have heard the arguments about this and we will not run through them all again. However, we acknowledge that there have been a number of reviews of this system and, in particular, as we have heard, the independent Pearce review specifically addressed the concept of participation and penalties. We have heard from the department, and we acknowledge that the department has made significant efforts to implement changes to make the system work better. However, despite the range of communication and despite the protestations, what we hear from the welfare agencies and people who work within the system is that they still do not trust it. The system does not fulfil their concept of mutual obligation, which must be that they feel part of the system and that they feel protected by the system. We know why the implementation of penalties has been suggested by the department. We have heard the arguments that the only way to ensure compliance is to make sure that people sense that there could be some penalty for noncompliance. We know that; we have heard it—but we do not believe it. We believe there has got to be much more evidence of people feeling part of and trustful of the system. When you have immediate distrust and fear, you cannot and will not have compliance.

Currently, over 4,000 people on temporary protection visas are in the system—they are receiving special benefit. It was acknowledged through the committee process that Centrelink staff have made significant efforts to provide sensitivity and support to the people on special benefit. Many people spoke about the special efforts that the department makes. The department restressed the fact that social work services, interpreter services and understanding of special needs would be put in place to help people who are on temporary protection visas. We acknowledge that. We think that that is strong and good. However, we believe that there must be more—there must be more acknowledgment and there must be acceptance that these people have special needs.

There are parts of the proposed legislation that we welcome. The most common statement from people who provided evidence to our committee was of the concern that, under the current system, people who are on temporary protection visas do not have access to the English classes and support that are available to people on permanent protection visas. That has been mentioned in previous statements in this place. Under the new provisions, a key element is that there will be access to English classes for people who are receiving special benefit who are on temporary protection visas, and this is welcomed. However, there are different English classes.

In the supplementary questions, to which we received answers from the department, we particularly asked what the difference is between the English classes currently provided for people who are permanent residents and those proposed—not currently offered—for people on temporary protection visas. We received the answer, not in the original documents but in the supplementary responses, which said that there is a different focus to the English classes being provided under this particular bill. There is less available in terms of numbers of hours. There is a different process in the training and, in particular, there is a particular focus for the people in this group on eligibility and effectiveness for work.

We accept this. We think it is valuable, and there has been no question that there has been any attempt by the people within this group to not seek work. However, in terms of the offer of English classes, there must be some question as to why there is a difference. If there is currently a working arrangement for English classes for people on permanent protection visas, which were acknowledged by the people who presented to our committee as being helpful and supportive, why then should the reciprocal component from the government be different for people who are now, under this provision, going to be expected to provide more accountability for their access to Australian services? If you are acknowledged to need English support to get your language skills up and to get your ability to be effective in the work force—if it is acknowledged that you need that support—then why should it be provided to you in a different way? Why not just provide the existing services and ensure that people feel part of the whole process? Given that, however, we welcome the introduction of English classes and we acknowledge that this does respond to a major demand and need of the people about whom we are speaking.

The other really positive aspect of this proposal is that, should this proposal be accepted, people who are on temporary protection visas who are receiving special benefit will for the first time be able to retain their payment whilst studying full time. This is a major development for people who are already wanting to improve their circumstances and be able to exist effectively in the community and who are seeking work. For the first time, under this provision, they would be able to maintain their income stream whilst proving that they are undertaking full-time study.

There is, of course, a downside to this offer. While acknowledging that people would be able to study full time and keep their payment, there is still no availability for people who are on special benefit who are temporary protection visa holders to have access to HECS or Austudy. So, sure, under this proposed change people will be able to take up study. They will be able to retain their payment, but how they are going to pay for whatever course of study they take has not been acknowledged in the process. That is still the great unknown. As we have already identified, these people are severely disadvantaged and have great difficulty in finding employment and acceptance in the community. And it is then said that if they are going to seek study now they will be able to do it without losing their income stream but they will not be able to have any form of support to pay for whatever form of training they are receiving. We think that is something that should be genuinely looked at to make this whole provision much more equitable.

People on special benefit who are temporary protection visa holders are already required to communicate with the department. They are part of the system. They need to acknowledge that they are seeking work. They need to access the Job Network services to an extent and they need to ensure that they are part of the whole Australian community. In the changes proposed in this bill, there is an acceptance that they will need to fulfil the whole range of expectations currently applied to `Australian nationals of work force age'.

There is one major oversight, though, in what these people will be able to access. This is at the heart of what the government's mutual obligation proposal is all about. There is an acceptance that people seeking work will have special needs. There are provisions by various parts of the government in support networks for people who are seeking work. One of the key planks of that provision of support is the intensive assistance program. It is a part of the ongoing relationship between those seeking work and the Australian government which is helping people to find work. A key component of that is the intensive assistance program, which is added support for people who have gone through the hoops and are now at the stage of not being able to find work. That is available for Australian nationals of work force age but, when and if this legislation comes in, that particular component of assistance will not be made available to people who are currently on temporary protection visas and receiving special benefit—that is, to people in the community who are fulfilling all the other expectations of the system.

It is almost without understanding. If you have a bill that is proposing to treat people the same, it would seem to me to be quite obvious that they would be treated the same. If people on temporary protection visas actually identify who they are and identify to the department that they are seeking work and if, under this proposed generous change, they are receiving English assistance and also the ability to study—if they have done all those steps and are still unable to find work and there is a component of assistance available to Australian nationals of work force age, why then should they not be able to access that component? I question whether that is direct equity of access.

What we need to establish in this process is that there are people who are living in our community who have severe disadvantage. The government has provided assistance to the rest of the community who are seeking work. Already we have acknowledged that the department has put in place a range of support networks for all of us who would be in that situation. At the same time as we are supporting a program of mutual obligation, we are keen to impose the obligation but we do not seem to be quite so keen on the mutual nature of it. If the mutual nature is going to be imposed, we should be quite clear that everybody seeking work in our community is treated the same.

Debate interrupted.