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Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment (Child Support Reform Consolidation and Other Measures) Bill 2007

CHAIR —I declare open the public hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs into the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment (Child Support Reform Consolidation and Other Measures) Bill 2007. I welcome participants to this afternoon’s proceedings. Information on parliament privilege and protection of witnesses has been made available to you I understand. We have a submission from the ABS; we appreciate that. We are happy to ask you questions about that but would you like to begin with a short opening statement.

Mr Corr —The Australian Bureau of Statistics uses information on the number of births registered with state and territory registrars of births, deaths and marriages to compile statistics on births, fertility rates and population estimates. The population estimates in particular are used in a wide range of important decisions such as the distribution of GST, revenue to the jurisdictions and apportioning the number of seats in the House of Representatives to the states and territories.

The ABS has long been aware that there is an interval between the occurrence of a birth and its registration with the relevant registrar. The information can be assessed based on comparing the date of birth with the date of registration for each birth in the data provided to the ABS by the registrars. Whilst most births are registered promptly, a small proportion can take many months or even years to be registered. The ABS makes adjustments for lags in birth registrations when compiling population estimates. Estimating the number of births which are never registered is more challenging as we would need to compare the birth registration data with another data source.

The ABS makes no adjustments for births which are not registered in compiling post-census population estimates. However all children including those whose birth was not registered should be counted in the five-yearly census of population and housing and so there is a catch up every five years of those that are not yet in the estimates. The ABS would like to undertake a national comparison of different data sources to evaluate the extent of under registration of births. Specifically, the ABS would like to evaluate the differences between aggregate statistics on birth registrations and perinatal statistical returns completed by state and territory health authorities on the birth of babies in hospitals or at home. A 2005 article by Professor McDonald of the Australian National University refers to this collection. Some limited analysis shows that some births may be registered very late or never registered at all. These tend to be for babies of younger mothers, specific geographical areas and Indigenous parents. A similar comparison might be undertaken between birth registrations and applications for the maternity payment or the baby bonus.

I would like to draw your attention to some specific tables in our submission. If you have a look at table 5.4 of the article attached to our submission, at the bottom of page 39 it illustrates the differences in the length of delay in birth registrations by state and territory for three years—1995, 2004 and 2005. As you can see, there are differences across jurisdictions and over time. If you turn over the page to table 5.5, it shows that in 2005 the average length of the delay in birth registrations was 3.3 months for Queensland compared to 1.1 months for the Northern Territory. In the years shown in that table, New South Wales had the longest average delay of 3.9 months in 2004. Procedural changes in New South Wales have turned this around to 1.8 months in 2005.

On the next page, table 5.6 provides selected characteristics of birth registrations in 2005 and the proportions of those births which occurred in 2004 or earlier years, so their date of birth was prior to the year of registration. Across all births registered in 2005, 11 per cent were born in 2004 or earlier years. However, for Indigenous births, 22.2 per cent were born in 2004 or earlier. For exnuptial births where paternity was not acknowledged—that is, where a mother is not married and where the father’s details are not on the birth certificate—23.1 per cent of births registered in 2005 were for babies born in 2004 or earlier.

Births to mothers in their 30s are more likely to be registered promptly whereas births to younger mothers aged under 24 years were likely to be registered later. It is expected that the proposed requirement to have all births registered before applying for the baby bonus may result in a change in parents’ behaviour. As a result, improvements in the registration of births that would normally not be registered, or registered later than required by state and territory legislation, can be expected. There may be some workload implications for registrars if the improvement is significant. However, if the expected changes occur, the ABS anticipates that improvement in the quality of birth and fertility statistics and the population estimates for Australia and the states and territories will be achieved. Thank you.

CHAIR —Do you have anything to add, Mr Bode?

Mr Bode —No.

CHAIR —I want to clarify one of the last things you said, Mr Corr. You said that a requirement for the payment of the baby bonus is that the birth has to be registered and you expect an improvement in registrations. My understanding of the bill is that the requirement for the payment of the baby bonus only applies for mothers under the age of 18. Have I understood that correctly?

Mr Corr —My reading of the bill was that it was all births.

CHAIR —It is all births, is it?

Mr Corr —Yes, all live births. So it excludes adoptions and stillbirths.

CHAIR —It is obviously hard to draw completely accurate conclusions about how mothers will behave in circumstances where that incentive is provided, and you might not be the right people to direct this question to, but do we have any information about how important the baby bonus is to mothers as an incentive to register a child?

Mr Bode —We do not have any information on that.

Senator MOORE —I was surprised by your submission because I did not realise that this was occurring. I thank you for the submission you gave us and its attachment. It was my understanding that you needed a birth certificate to claim any payment under the current system. I will check FaCSIA about that. I thought to claim a Centrelink payment you needed to have proof that you were the parent of the child and so on, but your figures seem to indicate that there are particular issues for some groups of parents in pursuing this process.

My only question is about delays. One of the points you make is that in some cases it was streamlining within the registries—in terms of the speed with which something is actually processed. If someone is reliant on having the documentation to claim a payment—and I know this is not your call; your call is counting as opposed to how it is done. The sub-benefit of this legislation seems to be that it is going to benefit the work you do. I am trying to ensure that the clients themselves will not be disadvantaged in the whole process.

Mr Corr —My understanding is that FaCSIA have allowed for that in the drafting of the legislation. In their submission they talk about the requirement being only for a declaration, not for the production of a birth certificate and application.

Senator MOORE —I read that and I have to find out for my own sense what the difference is. I know what the piece of paper looks like; I have to work it out in terms of the transactions. I take it that the last figures in this particular publication are 2005, is that right?

Mr Corr —Yes.

Senator MOORE —In the work that you have done, at what stage in the year do you do the snapshot? I am from Queensland and at the moment we have the wooden spoon because of a late burst from New South Wales in 2004, but in terms of process when will we know what has happened in 2006?

Mr Corr —We release a report on births towards the end of the year following the reference period. However, we do publish counts every quarter in compiling the population estimates.

Senator MOORE —I have a look at those from time to time but I have never checked out this particular figure to see what has happened. You have made a number of statements in your submission about what you anticipate will happen as people clean up their acts and so on. Should this legislation be passed, the first snapshot we will get of whether it has had the kind of impact you would know about would be in about 2008, is that right?

Mr Corr —It would be the 2007 births, because this is coming in on 1 July. We will get a half-year effect at the end of 2008, in about November.

Senator MOORE —So that is when we would be having a look to see whether the anticipated results that your organisation is seeking have come through? We would be able to know in 2008?

Mr Corr —Yes, and I anticipate that that is going to be a thematic bit of commentary in the publication.

Senator MOORE —It will be highlighted. Thank you for the submission.

Senator ADAMS —My question relates to the explanatory memorandum. It says that they:

... require registration of the birth with the relevant state/territory authority as a condition of eligibility for the baby bonus ...

I am wondering how these people get it if they have not actually registered.

Mr Corr —That is under the proposed legislation?

Senator ADAMS —Yes, that is the rule.

Mr Corr —What happens now is that parents are given two forms in hospital: one, which has been countersigned by the doctor or the hospital administrator, is from the registrar, and the other, which is also countersigned, is for the baby bonus. They also get a document which is like a birth card—a certificate from the hospital which is not an official birth certificate; it is just a statement that the birth occurred and it is signed by a doctor or a nurse or an administrator at the hospital. Often the child’s birth can be added onto Medicare, or for various purposes they can claim things or register the child, without having a formal birth certificate from the registrar of births, deaths and marriages.

I understand there is some concern that requiring the parent to lodge the form of information with the registrar and get a certificate back could potentially delay access to the baby bonus, but they are turning them around very quickly these days. I think the major issue of delay is with the parents actually lodging the form. There are some particular issues. It is the responsibility of both parents to sign the form. If you have a single mother and the father is not around, getting a signature from the father can sometimes be a problem. If she names him on the form but does not get a signature there can be a delay in the registration being sorted out. So more often it is in the complex situations that there can be delays in the process. There are cyclical processing delays with registrars; for example, there tends to be a slowdown in December-January in some states and then a big catch-up in the next quarter.

Senator SIEWERT —What happens if they cannot get the signature of the father?

Mr Corr —I think after exploring various issues the birth can be registered but without the father’s name. There are situations, like when there is proof that the father has died, the birth can be registered with the father’s name but without his signature.

Senator SIEWERT —Within what period of time do parents have to register the birth in order to qualify for the baby bonus?

Mr Corr —You might need to ask FaCSIA that. I know that under state and territory legislation it is 60 days to register the birth, and I think it is up to 26 weeks—

Senator SIEWERT —It does say 26 weeks here.

Mr Corr —to claim the baby bonus. The birth should have been registered or they should have lodged the paperwork with the registrar by that time.

Senator SIEWERT —So it sounds like there is plenty of time to get the paperwork done.

Mr Corr —Stacks of time, but if you have a newborn baby you might have other priorities at the time.

CHAIR —There is a different time frame again for adoption, isn’t there?

Mr Corr —Yes, but I am not sure about that. If it is a birth that has occurred in Australia it should have been registered before the adoption occurred anyway. If it is an overseas adoption, the birth should have been registered in another country and we count that baby in the population through its passenger card coming into the country.

CHAIR —I think what you have presented to us is very straightforward and acceptable and easy to agree with, so I think we have asked all the questions we need to ask of you. Thank you very much for your submission.

[1.35 pm]