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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6060


Senator MOORE (Queensland) (13:36): I note the minister's passionate speech in favour of a bill that we were agreeing to; I am a bit worried about how passionate it would be if we were disagreeing with the bill!

On the particular bill that we have in front of us, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (No. 2) Bill 2015: we will be moving amendments to this bill. The bill contains information around two major areas: it looks at the issue of streamlining income management, and it also looks at making changes to the aged-care measures—in particular, the cessation of a residential care subsidy for pre-entry leave and the abolition of committees.

I am going to concentrate on the issue of income management. We certainly have spent a lot of time talking about the issues around income management in this place. My friend Senator Polley, with her work in the aged-care portfolio, will concentrate on the aged-care element.

There is a particular focus in this bill on the measures of income management for vulnerable people. That issue is particularly important to people who have worked on it now for a very long time. The aspect that is critical for all of us is to ensure that income management, in whatever way it is introduced, actually provides support for vulnerable people—that it identifies their vulnerability and gives them support so that they will have the confidence to be able to organise their own finances and will be able to work effectively without coming into hardship in the process.

We are very concerned about some of the changes that are in the bill around this particular process. We know that vulnerable people and families need more assistance than just the quarantining of income support payments and the tightening of participation requirements. From the very start of the discussions about income management, we saw it as part of a wide range of elements that are put in place to support—not to punish, but to support. It is very important that people who are working through the relationship between themselves and the department, through the Centrelink process, feel as though they will have genuine support and that the relationship is not one based on punishment.

As to income management, when in government we strengthened the relationship between money management services and Centrelink to ensure that people on income management were receiving help to build their financial literacy, including budgeting, banking, savings and the awareness of the risks of payday loans. It was an intrinsic element that we worked with people to ensure that they understood how to make themselves financially independent.

There was a lot of discussion around the introduction of income management, and we had long sessions in Senate committee hearings with people who were very much in favour of forms of income management and those who were opposed. One of the elements of opposition was that they felt that introducing compulsory income management would actually mean that people would have less ownership of their own financial futures and would lose the ability to make financial decisions which would benefit them. Controlling of the welfare payment that persons received would mean they would lose any incentive or ability to understand their own finances—indeed, their financial literacy.

In government, when we talked about income management as part of the tools to be used, we wanted to embed that with interaction with the department, particularly through the social work network but also through referrals to organisations in the community that could provide extra information so that people were not just left alone in the system, because there was a lot of discussion about the need for people to engage in the system, and this was one of the tools that was going to be used. We ensured that people on income management met regularly with a Centrelink social worker, on the provision that this professional service in the department, the social work network within the department, which has such a long history of professionalism and engagement with the social welfare system, is also the element in the department which links with the wider community, so that people in society, in a community, would know that they had support. So it was an intrinsic element of the income support process that there would be this link with the social work network.

We know that this is a resources issue—that providing the numbers of trained professional social workers in the network who can have this personal interaction with clients does put an impost on the resources in the department. But we believe that this is an absolutely essential element of the system and that it is indeed that personal link that maintains people's sense that they are not alone and that there will be support for the various impacts that happen when you are receiving a social security payment. You do not get a social security payment in the income stream if you are actually having a good time; there is a sense of emergency and a sense of need. And this is why we believe that this link with the social security social welfare network is so important. We will keep stressing that, because we see that this is the issue in this bill that provides the real risk that people will feel that they are just a number in the system and that they will not have the support that they deserve to work their way through this part of their life.

As to the social security social worker system, we felt that the professional service could help them budget, ensure that their priority needs were met and address other issues in their lives impacting on their wellbeing. I think this is the most important element: that the person who is part of the system is seen through their whole lives. The circumstances which have led them to be receiving a social welfare payment can have impacts on every other element of their existence: their family, schooling, travel, and interaction with family no matter where they live—all these elements make up the person and their needs. Having this essential link—an element in the welfare process which means that people on income management actually work through the social security system, through the social work system—means that people who are trained are able to ensure that, when someone might need a little bit of extra help, if something is worrying them or if something is causing them concern which may impact on their ability to cope and their ability to seek work, that is the kind of trigger that we believe that the social worker network provides. To cut that—to make it not compulsory but optional—we think is a backward step. Certainly, our support of income management has always included the fact that it was wider than just a quarantining of payment.

Centrelink meets regularly with people on income management to help them budget effectively and allocate their income-managed funds to priority needs. The absolutely core aspect of the system was the fact that people could have their expenses covered, so that things like rent, utilities, food or household items would be secure, and also that elements which had been identified as being damaging, such as alcohol and gambling and those issues identified earlier, would not be able to be used through the income quarantining part.

That is one element of the system. I will keep repeating that. That is one element, one tool, of the system. It needs to be embedded in this wider interaction and wider support network. We believe that the government want to take away that link with the social work service and, in fact, take away some of the intrinsic support for people. We do not support that.

Labor believe income management should be targeted. We do not believe that everyone on income support will benefit from income management. Also, clearly—and this is a message that we have spent years trying to entrench in the system—income management is not a punishment. It was a really important change in the process when we made the point that, rather than being a punishment, income management was a response from the department and government to the people who were using social welfare. People in the department have worked so hard to get this message out—that income management is not a punishment.

That is why the vulnerable measure of income management is so important. The vulnerable measure of income management aims to identify and help vulnerable and at-risk individuals and their families when the Centrelink social worker has determined that income management can help them or their families and they have been assessed by the Centrelink social worker to be in financial hardship or experiencing financial exploitation. The person may also be homeless or at risk of homelessness.

This comes back to, as I said, this regional professional knowledge that the social worker network has. It is part of their job to know what is happening in the wider community and also to be linked in to the various support networks that are around. With this specialist training and knowledge they are able to work with a person and sense if there are dangers and targets that need a response and to link people in with the help they deserve.

Another major element that came out consistently through the discussions in the Northern Territory and also in the trials that we extended was around parenting and making sure that parents and families are secure and strong if there are other issues. One of the issues that came out was illness of a child. Another was custody of children. Also there was extended family arrangements. It came out consistently that some of these things can impact so strongly on the security of people. They can be much more vulnerable if they have any of these other factors touching on their circumstances.

The Centrelink social worker aspect of the vulnerable measure is an important way in which those who most need help are identified and supported. We will not support the abolition of this measure and we will not support the removal of the vital role of Centrelink social workers.

We asked a number of questions in this area at our last round of Senate estimates. Some of the answers indicated that the department had been considering the way it would operate and how social workers would be able to be brought in to the equation if there were particular needs. But, on balance, rather than making this an optional process, Labor want to retain the compulsory element of the social worker engagement. We think that going on to a welfare payment—and the welfare payment may have income management links to it—is such a stressful situation for people. It can mean significant changes to the way they are living, the way they are able to spend money and the way they are able to interact. Having this immediate link to the social worker network makes the situation more acceptable and also makes sure that people know, as I said before, that they are not alone in the process.

In government, Labor were firm in our commitment to protecting and providing for children and vulnerable people. This commitment continues. Labor will not support the government's attempts to rip away support for very vulnerable people. We will oppose parts in this bill that will see social worker interaction and assistance stripped from those who need it most.

Labor will not support changes to income management that take away help for budgeting and prioritising money to ensure it is directed to rent, food and support for children. We will continue to support income management as a tool that is very clearly targeted towards vulnerable people to help resolve their vulnerability and as a tool that is carefully targeted towards vulnerable Australians to help manage their lives better.

Managing income support is tough. When you are on an income payment through the social security system you need to budget. We have talked about that in this place before. Some of the people on income management I have met are the most exceptional budgeters. They are on a limited income and they know exactly what their needs are to keep them and their family clothed, fed and housed. They know their budget well. We think that should be acknowledged. We think that should also be supported when necessary. Labor are focused on supporting those who need it most.

We are also aware of the budget situation. We are fiscally responsible. We oppose cuts that rip much needed support away from vulnerable families and we will also oppose changes that take away the ability to identify those people who need our support the most. We believe that this is the appropriate response to the bill in front of us.

The issues around aged care, which I know Senator Polley will touch upon in her contribution, include the cessation of the residential care subsidy for pre-entry leave when people are identified as needing support through the aged-care system. There is a time lapse when people are identified as needing to claim a bed. In that case, there were payments to the providers to allow them to receive payments for that period. We are concerned that this is yet another change at a time when we all know that there are a wide range of changes impacting on the aged-care system. Providers are under stress. They are working through a range of different issues about their staffing, infrastructure and the immense changes in rules. Those are supported by all sides of this parliament, but they are all causing change at this particular point in time.

When a person receives an offer of admission into an aged-care facility, it can often be at short notice and people can be in crisis when this happens. Up to seven days of social leave could be used as pre-entry leave immediately before a resident entered an aged care service. Pre-entry leave gave a prospective resident time to make arrangements to enter an aged care service or to transfer from one service to another. We know that happens a lot. The area of aged care is dynamic and sometimes there are not a large number of beds available, and people do desperately seek support when they need it. It was appropriate to pay some subsidy to providers for some indirect costs during this period, including for maintenance, cleaning and administration. However, the provider was not bearing the full costs of caring for the new resident. The government axed the subsidy that provided that support to providers in the 2014-15 MYEFO, which was making a relatively small saving of, I believe, around $11.6 million. It was a relatively small saving, but the providers expressed real concern that this was yet another impost on them, when they are working towards so many changes in the aged care system.

Amidst all the other things that are happening, we are concerned that this will have some impact on people who are in a business trying to provide care for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I know that Senator Polley will talk more fulsomely on this area, which is her responsibility as shadow parliamentary secretary. Our position on this bill is that we believe the most vulnerable could be poorly impacted by the changes. I feel particularly strongly about the issue of a social work service, because that was my background over many years when I worked in the then Department of Social Security. I did see the value of having trained professionals working with vulnerable people. They provide a very specialised service and have the skills and training to give people options and make them feel as though they have choices in planning for their futures. The income management process was always, in our opinion, linked to having those wraparound services—services like the social work network and appropriate referrals to whatever else was available in the community for financial support and financial literacy.

During the debate about income management, which went on for a long time in this place, we held to the principles of ensuring that people had support and that income management was not a punishment, but rather a tool for people to reclaim their independence and use the time to develop skills to make them stronger for the workplace and for making choices about their lives. We believe that this particular budget measure will make that more difficult and we do not support that element. We will be moving an amendment to ensure that this particular change does not occur.