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Senate Select Committee on COVID-19
30/07/2020
Australian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

BENNETT, Mr Shane, Acting Deputy Secretary, Social Security, Department of Social Services

CAMPBELL, Ms Kathryn, AO, CSC, Secretary, Department of Social Services

CATTERMOLE, Ms Amanda, Chief Operating Officer, Services Australia

CREECH, Mr Paul, Acting Deputy CEO, Payments and Integrity Group, Services Australia

EGAN, Mr Russell, Acting Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Customer Service Design Group, Services Australia

HARVEY, Mr Andrew, Chief Finance Officer, Department of Social Services

HEFREN-WEBB, Ms Liz, Deputy Secretary, Department of Social Services

HUDSON, Mr Adrian, Acting Chief Operating Officer, Department of Social Services

LEES, Ms Michelle, Deputy CEO, Customer Service Delivery Group, Services Australia

McLARTY, Ms Mary, Acting Group Manager, Participation Payments, Department of Social Services

McNAMARA, Mr Jason, General Manager, Debt and Appeals Division, Services Australia

MITCHELL, Ms Debbie, General Manager, COVID-19 Closure Taskforce, Services Australia

MUSOLINO, Ms Annette, Deputy CEO, Income Compliance Taskforce, Services Australia

RULE, Ms Catherine, Deputy Secretary, Disability and Carers, Department of Social Services

SKINNER, Ms Rebecca, Chief Executive Officer, Services Australia

WILLIAMSON, Mr Nathan, Deputy Secretary, COVID-19 Taskforce, Department of Social Services

Evidence from Ms Cattermole, Mr Creech, Mr Egan, Mr Harvey, Ms Hefren-Webb, Mr Hudson, Ms Lees, Ms McLarty, Mr McNamara, Ms Mitchell, Ms Musolino and Ms Rule was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: The committee will now resume its hearing into the Australian government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I welcome Ms Campbell and officers of the Department of Social Services. I also welcome Ms Skinner and officers of Services Australia. Many are here in person, but we also have witnesses on videoconference as well. Ms Campbell and Ms Skinner, do either of you have an opening statement you'd like to make to the committee?

Ms Campbell : I think we have some material we have to officially table.

CHAIR: Yes, that's right.

Ms Campbell : Whilst we've given them to you, we have to officially table them.

Mr Bennett : Further to my letter to you of yesterday, we provided three data documents to the committee prior to the commencement of this session of the hearing, which we are seeking to table.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Bennett, and I thank the Department of Social Services for doing this and for agreeing to regularly provide these reports to the committee. We were going to keep pestering you with questions on notice anyway, but we appreciate this important data and the acknowledgement that it is important. Senator Siewert has been seeking it too, as have a number of witnesses who argued that this data is information to the work that they do in assessing how the economy is travelling. Colleagues, can we accept both the letter and the report that have been provided today by DSS and circulated via email? Thank you very much. There are no further opening statements—we've done those. We've done the questions on notice that we needed to do. Senator Watt?

Senator WATT: Thanks, everyone, and thanks for tabling all those questions on notice. Obviously we're just working our way through that data at the moment, so forgive me if I end up asking anything that's covered off in those questions on notice. Here is one example of that. I think you may have given these figures, but if I could just get you to let us know again, in terms of the recent announcements made about changes to jobseeker and the coronavirus supplement, can you let us know how many people are expected to be receiving unemployment payments—whether that be jobseeker, youth allowance or other forms—at the end of September when the new $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement rate comes in?

Mr Williamson : We are forecasting 1.6 million jobseekers at the end of September.

Senator WATT: So there will be 1.6 million at the end of September receiving some form of unemployment payment.

Mr Williamson : Receiving jobseeker payment or youth allowance other.

Senator WATT: What about when we get to December when the current extension of the coronavirus supplement is scheduled to end? What's the expectation there?

Mr Williamson : At the moment we are forecasting 1.5 million.

Senator WATT: So at the end of December, when we go back to the old rate of $40 a day of jobseeker, it's still expected that there'll be 1.5 million people unemployed and receiving jobseeker payments at that point in time.

Mr Williamson : At the end of December we're forecasting 1.5 million recipients of jobseeker payment and youth allowance other.

Senator WATT: Can you explain the policy rationale then for why, at a point in time when we've got 1.5 million people receiving jobseeker or other forms of unemployment payments, we would reduce the rate of jobseeker back to $40 a day? What's the policy rationale for that?

Mr Williamson : I would say to that that the government has announced these measures as temporary measures, and that has been very clear from the start. They've also announced that these measures are constantly under review, and the Prime Minister and government ministers have made references to that. In terms of the coronavirus supplement, we will continue to look at the economy over the coming months and see how things are travelling and then it will be a decision for government what happens post 31 December.

Senator WATT: You say that the government has made clear that it's a temporary measure, but the extremely high rates of unemployment that we're likely to see are hardly temporary, are they? Numbers of 1.6 million in September and 1.5 million in December—it's likely to be very high beyond that. So I still don't understand why we would see an increase in jobseeker as needing to be temporary when we're looking at a sustained period of high unemployment. What is the explanation for that?

Mr Williamson : I think the best I can say for you is that the government has made decisions through to 31 December. They've been clear about those decisions, but they've also been clear that they will continue to monitor the situation and any decisions post 31 December will be considered by government over the coming months.

Senator WATT: Has the department done any modelling for government as to a permanent extension of the higher JobKeeper rate?

Mr Williamson : The department has been working closely with other agencies and government in recent months. We've modelled a lot of different situations. The nature of that modelling would go to the advice that's provided to government in cabinet deliberations.

Senator WATT: The mere fact that the government has decided, finally, after years of resisting an increase to jobseeker, agreed to increase it, you say on a temporary basis. That is some recognition that it simply wasn't possible for people to survive on the old rate of $40 a day, isn't it?

Mr Williamson : The introduction of the coronavirus supplement was in direct response to the health and economic circumstances the country was facing and continues to face. They were announced as temporary measures. The rates reflected that at the time, particularly when these decisions were first taken, essentially jobs were not available, and so the government was conscious of making decisions about the rate of the coronavirus supplement that reflected assistance to the economy and assistance to individuals and families.

Senator WATT: So you say that the government was conscious that at the time it made the decision to increase jobseeker it understood that there were not jobs available. But even on your own figures you're saying that it's expected there will be 1.5 million unemployed people in Australia at the end of December. So surely it would be the logical thing to extend that jobseeker rate given there still won't be the jobs there for people?

Mr Williamson : Just to clarify, the 1.5 million refers to people who will be on jobseeker payment and youth allowance other. It doesn't necessarily correlate to the number of people unemployed, as you just referred to; that's a different measure. I don't think I can add to my answer any more that the decision is for the coronavirus supplement to step down to $250 through to 31 December. Any decisions beyond that will be decisions for government.

Senator WATT: So on 31 December, when people are getting ready for their New Year's Eve parties, people receiving jobseeker will be getting a higher rate than they used to receive but they will wake up on New Year's Day and go back to the old $40 a day rate. Does the department seriously think it's going to be easier for people to live on $40 a day on 1 January than it was on 31 December?

Mr Williamson : I think part of that question is seeking a personal view about what we think. What I will say is that the government has made a decision through to 31 December. I think it's fair to say that in terms of the original decision that went through to 25 September, the government has announced well before that date the intentions for going forward; hence the step down from $550 to $250. It will be open to government to make a decision and an announcement prior to 31 December.

Senator WATT: Has the department done any modelling for government of the likely increase in poverty levels if the jobseeker rate does revert to its previous original level?

Mr Williamson : I refer to my earlier answer. We've done a lot of modelling in recent times in response to the ever-changing situation. The nature of that modelling goes to advice to government in terms of cabinet deliberations.

CHAIR: Can I just stop you there. This is becoming a frequent thing that I have to do but there is no area of government expenditure which is exempt from inquiry by this committee. There is a process that needs to be outlined if people are refusing to provide information about needing to claim public interest immunity or explain to the committee, if you're an officer, what you believe the public harm is by providing that information. Advice to government does not form one of those claims of public harm, and advice to government isn't a claim that can be made to withhold information from the committee. So I'm happy to talk you through what the process so you can explain to us what the harm from providing that information is and we can then decide whether to accept or reject that. It can then get referred on another pathway, but a simple 'this is cabinet in confidence and can't be provided to the committee' is not acceptable to the Senate.

Ms Campbell : I think Mr Williamson has outlined we have provided to government a variety of modelling scenarios over the last period. We're seeking to answer Senator Watt's question but we have provided a range of modelling options.

CHAIR: Senator Watt, do you want—

Senator WATT: Do the options that you provided to the government include modelling the increase in poverty levels that would arise from reverting to the original jobseeker rate?

Ms Campbell : We were just checking on the different modelling. I don't have all the modelling with me. We can take on notice which scenarios in detail we've modelled. But we have modelled many scenarios, so we'll take that specific question on notice.

CHAIR: I think we're happy to have those many scenarios. It's information that would be useful to the committee, so if you would like to take that on notice that would be appreciated—if you're not in a position to answer it today.

Senator WATT: Ms Campbell, could I put the question to you. You must concede that there's no logic whatsoever in saying that people can afford to live on $40 a day on 1 January but they weren't able to the previous day, on 31 December? That just makes no sense at all, does it?

Ms Campbell : I think Mr Williamson has outlined what the government have indicated—that they've made a decision to 31 December and they'll continue to monitor the arrangements and circumstances leading up to that.

Senator WATT: Without asking you what recommendations exactly you've made, has the department made recommendations to government already about the future of jobseeker post 31 December?

Ms Campbell : We've provided extensive advice to government about a number of scenarios around working-age payments.

Senator WATT: I understand that. That's been said several times. I'm not trying to get you to tell us what the recommendation is; I know we won't get an answer of that kind. All I'm trying to establish is whether you've provided advice to government about the future of jobseeker beyond the cut-off date of 31 December.

Ms Campbell : I'd have to take on notice what the time frames were, unless there's someone else at the table that can answer. Actually, we have provided so many scenarios we'll take that one on notice.

Senator WATT: I would have thought that would be a pretty notable thing someone in the room might know, if they provided any advice post 31 December.

Ms Campbell : I think that when we do forward estimates we will have been providing advice post 31 December. Because we do four years of estimates, we will have always been providing advice past December.

Senator WATT: So you have provided advice about what happens to jobseeker post 31 December?

Ms Campbell : The Economic and Fiscal Update would have included all of 2021.

Senator WATT: Yes, but we've already been told by Treasury that that assumes the $40-a-day rate continues.

Ms Campbell : It does, Senator, so we've provided—

Senator WATT: That's a different question.

CHAIR: It's a different question, yes.

Senator WATT: That tells me what assumption is made around jobseeker for the purposes of the forward estimates, and that wasn't my question. My question was whether any policy advice to government had been provided about what happens to jobseeker after 31 December.

Ms Campbell : And again, Senator, I'll take it on notice. We have modelled a number of scenarios and we'll take on notice which ones we've provided. I don't think we can add any more at the moment.

Senator WATT: Okay. Just moving on, when the changes to JobKeeper come into effect in September, how many people are expected to move from JobKeeper to unemployment payments of some kind?

Mr Williamson : I think the Treasury outlined this morning, when asked this question, that there are a range of complexities in the labour force about movements. Some people will move from JobKeeper to jobseeker. Some people may move from JobKeeper into employment. Some people may move from jobseeker into employment as well. There'll be a number of flows that we expect to occur both at that period in September but over the coming quarter and the subsequent quarters as well.

Senator WATT: But, again, for the purposes of putting together that budget outlook document there must have been some assumptions made as to the number of people who would move from JobKeeper to some form of unemployment payment.

Mr Williamson : This morning the Treasury informed the committee that it was in the vicinity of 250,000, but I qualify that by saying that the Treasury also clearly spelt out that there were a number of moves. So, people could move into jobseeker but people could be moving off jobseeker. There'll be different rates et cetera. So, it's not just one factor, but it was in the vicinity of 250,000, was Treasury's advice this morning.

Senator WATT: Did your department provide advice to government, then, about alternatives that could have been adopted by the government and the impact it would have on unemployment? I suppose what I'm getting at is that someone in government has made a decision to cut JobKeeper at a certain point in time to a certain dollar figure, knowing that the result would be that 250,000 people would go from JobKeeper to unemployment payments. Was that something that was the subject of advice from your department, with alternatives proposed?

Mr Williamson : The JobKeeper numbers are the responsibility of the Treasury, so we wouldn't offer policy advice on people moving from JobKeeper into jobseeker. We would rely on the Treasury to give us that advice about how many people would flow through. And, as we've said, we've provided advice around a number of scenarios.

Senator WATT: Do you have any figures as to the number of people who've been paid jobseeker because they are sick with coronavirus?

Mr Williamson : I don't believe we would have that figure. Obviously somebody may be on jobseeker and then contract coronavirus. There could be someone who contracts it and then goes on jobseeker. It's not a question that we ask jobseeker applicants.

Senator WATT: Similarly, you don't have any figures on the number of people who are being paid jobseeker because they've been required to self-isolate or quarantine or they can't travel to go to work?

Mr Williamson : The government expanded the eligibility criteria to accommodate people in those circumstances. But I don't believe we would have a number—and I'm looking at my colleagues from Services Australia and they're shaking their heads. We don't have that number, I'm sorry.

Senator WATT: Okay. But I'm right that people would be eligible for jobseeker if they've been required to self-isolate or quarantine or can't travel to go to work?

Ms Campbell : If they meet the other entitlement criteria, yes.

Senator WATT: If they become unable to work, for those reasons—they've got to self-isolate, they can't travel to work, they've got to quarantine—and they meet the other requirements then they would be eligible.

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Mr Williamson : Yes.

Senator WATT: One of the other things the government has announced is the reintroduction of the assets test for unemployment payments as well as the liquid assets waiting period, and I think that's to occur from 25 September.

Mr Williamson : Yes.

Senator WATT: Do you have some figures on how many people will lose access to unemployment payments because of the reintroduction of the assets test?

Mr Williamson : I might pass to my colleague Mr Bennett. I would open by saying that we have some figures, but I guess they are very rough estimates, because the government's decision to waive the assets test back in March meant that people applying for the jobseeker payment did not necessarily have to provide their assets, because it was no longer part of the eligibility criteria. That's meant that we have a number of people who've come onto payment where we don't have asset information. Services Australia will be going through a process to collect that, and I'm sure they'd be happy to talk you through that. But that means we don't have a complete picture, if I can put it that way. But I'll hand over to Mr Bennett, who'll be able to give you some numbers around it.

Mr Bennett : Within that context, at this stage—taking into account the arrangements for contacting people to be re-tested—based on the information we have, we're estimating it to be approximately 35,000 people for the assets test.

Senator WATT: So, 35,000 will lose access to unemployment because of the reintroduction of that test?

Mr Bennett : There will be a process that they will go through to have that retested. You're reaching a conclusion as opposed to me giving you an indication that this is preliminary and that further work needs to occur.

Ms Campbell : And those were their assets at the time at which they advised us of assets. It could be that they have used some of those assets or that there are assets not at the same levels. They will be reassessed in time, before the change date.

Senator WATT: Similarly, with the reintroduction of the liquid assets waiting period, do you have some figures on the number of people who will be required to serve that waiting period before the end of the year?

Ms Campbell : It doesn't apply to those people who are already on the payment; it would just be those who are coming onto the payment, who are applying for the jobseeker payment.

Senator WATT: Do you have any forecasts about that number?

Mr Williamson : No, we haven't estimated that.

Senator WATT: So, therefore, you don't have a sense of what the average waiting time would be for those people who now have to serve that waiting time?

Mr Williamson : No.

Senator WATT: Have you done any calculations as to the number of people who will be forced to draw down on their superannuation to get by after the liquid assets waiting period is reintroduced?

Ms Campbell : Superannuation balances don't contribute. They're not counted in the liquid assets waiting period; is that correct?

Mr Bennett : Yes.

Ms Campbell : They're not counted.

Senator WATT: I'm saying that once that liquid assets waiting period is reintroduced, the effect being that people have to essentially draw down on their existing assets until they qualify for jobseeker or another form of payment, there is the potential for people to turn to drawing down their superannuation funds as a means of surviving while they're serving out that waiting period.

Ms Campbell : By definition, if they are over the liquid assets threshold they will have liquid assets that they can draw down on during that period.

Senator WATT: That would include their superannuation?

Ms Campbell : No, it doesn't include their superannuation. For working-age payments, it doesn't include superannuation.

Senator WATT: Can I go back to one of the things I asked earlier. Do you have any figures about the increase in the number of people expected to go onto unemployment benefits when the JobKeeper changes start in late September or October? Would that similarly give us the 250,000 figure we were talking about earlier?

Mr Williamson : That figure is over the quarter. That's how the estimates are constructed. The 250,000 is for the December quarter.

Senator WATT: On the point I was asking about before, about calculations of people who might have coronavirus or might go onto jobseeker because they're required to self-isolate et cetera: I'm conscious that jobseeker replaced the sickness benefit, and that you may have some calculations around that that could be applied in this situation. Or is limiting it to things like coronavirus and self-isolation a bit too precise for the figures you have?

Ms Campbell : I think the sickness benefit comparisons would be irrelevant compared to the scenarios we're dealing with now. Because we've rolled it in, we aren't capturing that information as to why someone is claiming.

Senator WATT: On the point about superannuation: I understand you wouldn't count what someone has in their superannuation fund for the purposes of calculating their liquid assets. But if someone has cashed out their superannuation funds, then the money they have cashed out, if it is sitting in their bank account, would be counted in the liquid assets for—

Mr Williamson : Yes.

Ms Campbell : If it was sitting in their bank account, if it had been used to retire debt or pay down a mortgage—those types of mechanisms which we understand some people are using the drawdown of super for—then it wouldn't be counted.

Senator WATT: Say I lost my job, and I cashed out my superannuation to get by. If I've still got $3,000 or $5,000—whatever the figure is—sitting in my bank account at the point the liquid assets test comes back in, that would potentially prevent me from receiving jobseeker payments for a period of time.

Ms Campbell : Mr Bennett can go through the exact numbers for the point at which the liquid asset waiting period applies.

Mr Bennett : At the moment, the maximum liquid asset waiting period will be 13 weeks. For someone who is single with no dependent children, the limit that it involves is $11,500; and, if you're a couple, or people with children, it is $23,000. But I come back to the maximum LAW period being 13 weeks.

Ms Campbell : But you don't have to wait 13 weeks if you've only got $11½ thousand in the bank, do you?

Mr Bennett : That's what I'm saying—if you've got over $11½ thousand.

Senator WATT: Yes. It's on 25 September, isn't it, that the waiting period comes back in?

Mr Bennett : Yes.

Mr Williamson : Yes.

Senator WATT: So, if I lose my job on 26 September, or some date after that; I'm single; and I already cashed out some of my superannuation before that and have over $11,500 in the bank, and that's partly because of the money that I've cashed out from my super, then I need to draw down those funds until I get to $11½ thousand before I qualify for jobseeker. Is that the practical effect?

Mr Williamson : I think probably the easiest way to explain it is that, yes, if someone has drawn down on their super and that money is now sitting as a liquid asset in their savings account, that will count towards the total of their liquid assets which will be assessed for the liquid asset waiting period.

Ms Campbell : But, if they had used that money to retire debt, whether it be a credit card or down-paying the mortgage, that would not count towards the liquid asset waiting period.

CHAIR: Senator Watt, I'll come back to you, if you'd like to pursue that.

Senator WATT: Yes, thanks.

CHAIR: Senator Siewert, I understand Senator Lambie and Senator Patrick are no longer in attendance, so, if you want to take us up to four o'clock, do so.

Senator SIEWERT: I've certainly got enough questions for that.

CHAIR: I'm sure you do!

Senator SIEWERT: I want to go back to the issue of the end date of 31 December for jobseeker, as opposed to the March end date, at this stage, for JobKeeper. When you were asked to provide advice to government, were you asked to provide advice just for that next quarter? Was that a decision made by government, or did you recommend that to government?

Ms Campbell : It was a decision made by government. We provided a range of scenarios, and this was a decision by government.

Senator SIEWERT: When you provided that advice to government, did you know that that decision had already been made, or was that decision made subsequent to your providing that advice?

Ms Campbell : It's been evolutionary.

Mr Williamson : We've been providing advice, for a number of months now, around a range of issues in this space. That's been ongoing and evolving advice, as the secretary was just saying. And then government makes its decisions.

Ms Campbell : Of course, the legislation allows the minister to change the supplement.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, I understand. That's up until the end of December, though?

Ms Campbell : That's right.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. In terms of the advice that you provided, did you provide advice to government on a permanent increase to the jobseeker payment?

Ms Campbell : We took on notice earlier, for Senator Watt, the different scenarios we had provided advice on.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay.

Ms Campbell : I think, in the past, we have talked about there often having been calls about the then Newstart rates, and we provided advice to government when those matters arose.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. I'm asking for more detail around those scenarios that you provided advice on. When you answered, what I took away from that is what you've just repeated. That could be advice for a further temporary increase or a permanent increase, so I'm particularly asking: in those scenarios, have you provided advice on a permanent increase to jobseeker?

Ms Campbell : Senator, I think Senator Watt asked the same question and we took that on notice.

CHAIR: Ms Campbell, again referring back to the Senate order, I find it hard to believe that as secretary you're not aware of whether or not you've provided advice on a permanent change to Newstart or jobseeker, so I would suggest that at this point, if you're refusing to provide that advice to the committee, you should explain to the committee why you think it's not in the public interest to answer that relatively straightforward question today.

Ms Campbell : Senator, I just answered Senator Siewert by saying that I think it's fair to say that there are calls for a permanent increase to jobseeker or Newstart on a regular basis, and in the past we've provided advice to government in response to those calls. I actually don't have with me a list of all the scenarios in recent times, but I think it's fair to say that, at least over the three years that I've been the secretary, we have had calls for permanent increases to what was then Newstart, and we have provided advice to government.

CHAIR: Okay. So, Senator Siewert, Mr Campbell is confirming that they have provided advice to government on a permanent increase.

Ms Campbell : In the past we have done that.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. I'm asking specifically in the context of the current situation. Have you provided, in the context of this current situation, further advice on a permanent increase?

Ms Campbell : We have provided advice on the coronavirus supplement. I am sure of that. We have provided advice on a range of scenarios with the coronavirus supplement. I am not sure if in recent times we have provided advice on an increase to the jobseeker payment, and that's what I've taken on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay, thank you.

Ms Campbell : The two are different. I know that they add up.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, one is whether the government goes for another temporary increase or a permanent increase. That's why I'm asking.

Ms Campbell : We've been providing advice particularly in the context of the legislative frame in which we're working, where the Minister for Families and Social Services has the capacity under the current legislation to make changes to the coronavirus supplement. That is where we have been focused recently. I'm now just going to take on notice your other question.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. Thank you. Were you asked to provide advice, in that context, on the decision that the minister or the government may make without a change to legislation, which brings it up to December? Is that the basis on which you provided that advice?

Ms Campbell : We provided a range of scenarios, generally around a temporary increase to the coronavirus supplement, and those scenarios worked across a range of time profiles. I think some of the advice was if you did this for a month. We provided advice on those things and on a range of different amounts.

Senator SIEWERT: Did you provide advice about an increase through to March, which is the same time as the JobKeeper process was extended? Admittedly JobKeeper was changed, but the JobKeeper payment was extended to March. Did you provide advice about jobseeker being extended to the same deadline?

Ms Campbell : I don't think we've got that here, but we did provide advice on how much per month and that type of activity. Again, the government have indicated that they want to be able to look at the changing environment as they look at these scenarios. So the government have indicated that they want to look at the economic circumstances with respect to this temporary coronavirus supplement.

Senator SIEWERT: Why would that be different to the JobKeeper context?

Ms Campbell : JobKeeper is not ours, but my understanding is that JobKeeper is on a business's quarterly income take and, therefore, eligibility revolves around quarters. Jobseeker coronavirus supplement is not dependent on a quarterly period.

Senator SIEWERT: While I understand what you're saying in terms of quarters, the quarter also ends for JobKeeper at the end of December. To me, that argument doesn't justify why one is December and one's March. That's a comment, probably, rather than a question.

Can I then go to what information you used to provide advice to government in answer to one of my questions about the various data, or assumptions that were made, in terms of the provision of advice for the original decision on jobseeker. I realise that you probably don't know all of it off the top of your head, but are you able to provide, on notice, that advice—that is, the advice you used for those predictions in order to provide the advice for this decision on the supplement?

Ms Campbell : Is that the expected number of people—

Senator SIEWERT: Yes.

Ms Campbell : The recipient numbers?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes. It was in answer to question 223. Sorry, I lost the question number that you responded to. It's question 223. Could you provide that same advice or data for this round?

Ms Campbell : We don't have question 223 at the table, but we might be able to answer that now. Can we?

Mr Bennett : I don't think so.

Mr Williamson : We will take that on notice, Senator, and provide an updated 223 for the 250 step down.

Ms Campbell : On different months.

Senator SIEWERT: Fantastic, thank you. Are you able to tell me the number of children of parents who are now receiving the coronavirus supplement, or who you expect to be receiving it at the end of September?

Ms Campbell : Just the supplement—I don't know that we've got the number of children per jobseeker recipient. We might have family tax benefit numbers, which are a bit of a proxy. Do we have family tax benefit numbers for jobseeker recipients?

Mr Bennett : Not with me, sorry.

Ms Campbell : We can take it on notice and see what we can do.

Senator SIEWERT: Take it on notice. I want the overall number, and I would also like it broken down by payment, if possible.

Ms Campbell : We'll take it on notice and see what we can do. If we don't have the information about the number of children per recipient, we'll see what we can do in the family tax benefit space because, generally, if someone is on jobseeker and they have children, they'll be a family tax benefit recipient.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, but the reverse doesn't work, does it? The number of people on benefits aren't necessarily all on jobseeker.

Ms Campbell : I think we might be able to work out who are on both.

Mr Williamson : If we don't have the data in exactly the way you're after, what we're saying is we'll see if we can find a proxy to try to help you.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you; that's much appreciated. Can I go back to the issue of the liquid assets test and the asset test—I did hear what you said to Senator Watt, but I must admit I was a bit distracted by a text that I needed to answer urgently. You said there were 35,000 people, as I understand it, who will potentially lose the jobseeker payment once they [inaudible]. Is that understanding correct?

Ms Campbell : That's the estimate, and that's the best estimate we have, because we weren't collecting asset information for new applicants. Even for those we have collected, it could be that their assets may have changed since that time. So that's why it will be necessary to reassess their assets, and Services Australia can take you through how that will occur.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. It would be good if you could quickly take us through the process of how that will occur. I'm aware that a lot of people didn't fill in that section of the application. How do you then get 35,000 from that? Is that 35,000 people that didn't fill it in, which I find fairly unlikely—

Ms Campbell : They're the ones that did fill it in, and told us, and had assets above that level. Is that correct?

Ms Skinner : Senator, I'll ask one of my officers to take you through the process. Broadly, about 180,000 people made a claim through the streamlined process that didn't require any assets information. That group would be excluded from our understanding of how you might get to approximately 35,000 people. It is not the main group of people, but it is a group of people about whom we don't know very much yet. Mr Egan will be able to take you through our process for collecting that asset information.

Mr Egan : The assets test, as you know, will be reimposed not only for jobseeker but also for a number of other payments at that time. We are anticipating that around 2.3 million customers, based on the current volumes that we have, would need to ensure that their asset details with the agency are up-to-date by the cutting of that assets test. The agency has essentially started reminding customers, as of now, that they need to update their assets details with the agency. The way to do that is through the 'manage income and assets' service, which is in their online account. There will be many reminders sent to customers between now and 25 September to prompt them to take that action. Customers who have not provided any asset details to us in the past will need to complete an online activity. They'll be prompted to do that when they go in each fortnight to report their earnings.

Senator SIEWERT: There are 35,000 people who are above the threshold. So the point is that, if nothing is changed, they will come off jobseeker or whatever payment they're on. Is that correct?

Ms Campbell : That's correct. For a single, their assets will be above $263,000, not including the home. So they can have their family home plus assets in excess of $263,000. That's for a single, and it is higher for couples.

Senator SIEWERT: And they will potentially be a percentage of the 180,000 who haven't filled in that section of the form who may also have income?

Ms Campbell : That's correct. And they will disclose their assets, and then we'll manage it once we see their assets.

Senator SIEWERT: If somebody on JobKeeper loses their job, they will then have to complete the liquid assets test and potentially wait until they get their savings under the threshold?

Ms Campbell : It will depend on how much their liquid assets are—as per before COVID. It will be the same as it was before the government suspended the liquid assets waiting period; it will go back into play. Mr Bennett can take us through how it works. But I think you probably know how it works.

Mr Bennett : I can go through that if you want, Senator, or we can move on. It's your choice.

Senator SIEWERT: It's okay. Is the government still going to pursue the changes proposed to the waiting periods for the liquid assets tests?

Ms Campbell : I haven't asked in recent times but I can take it on notice and ask the minister.

Senator SIEWERT: Could you take that on notice?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: Because that's going to make it even more harder for people in the current scenario.

Ms Campbell : I'll take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: If you could, that would be appreciated. How was new the income threshold of $300 arrived at and how many people do you expect will benefit from that?

Mr Bennett : As you are aware, part of the architecture for jobseeker payment is that it has always been an income-free area. The best analogy I can give you associated with the $300 is that it's roughly one-fifth of the minimum wage. So it's consistent with the past arrangements, where the payment architecture seeks to have incentives in place to support people as they take steps to seek further work. It is along those lines and therefore it has been increased in the current circumstances.

Ms Campbell : The minister's position was to encourage people to take casual work that was available—noting that sometimes there's not to be permanent work at the moment—to take those opportunities where they could and to encourage people to take work.

Senator SIEWERT: How many people do you expect will benefit from that?

Mr Bennett : In terms of the income-free area for jobseeker payment and youth allowance increasing to $300 a fortnight, based on earnings data as at 24 July, we estimate at the moment approximately 190,000 recipients have earnings that would result in a higher part rate of payment. There is a further 20,000 recipients who would have earnings that would be entitled to a part rate of payment where they would otherwise not have received any payment.

Ms Campbell : I'd say with our estimates, we're using profiles of previous people who responded to those parameters. We know this is quite a different scenario, so these are just estimates, and we will update those as we are able to.

Senator SIEWERT: Chair, I have plenty of other questions.

CHAIR: Yes, we might come back to you.

Senator DAVEY: I've just got a very few questions, mainly about the jobseeker process and about the recent changes that have been made. Firstly, when the jobseeker coronavirus supplement was first announced, there were also changes to the application waiting times, mutual obligations and things like that. What impact do you think that had on people? And how many more people do you believe were able to access jobseeker through those changes?

Ms Campbell : Some of the numbers we've just talked about with respect to the assets test would give you that the people who are likely come off if they have assets over it is the same number of people who have had the benefit of the payment over the last six months. Mr Egan, have you got some numbers?

Mr Egan : I don't know if it will help but I have the total number of jobseeker applications that we've received. Between 16 March and 30 June, the agency received approximately 1.4 million applications for jobseeker.

Senator DAVEY: Specifically with regard to the removal of mutual obligations, I know that it's allowing a lot of people to access and take jobseeker without having to fear because there were no jobs out there, but I have had feedback coming in to my office, particularly in regional areas, that it has actually led to job advertisements which would normally get several applicants now getting zero. Have you got any modelling or data that would actually put some facts behind those sorts of claims?

Ms Campbell : I think the Department of Education, Skills and Employment would be better placed to answer that. The mutual obligation policy rests with that department. Services Australia work with DESE in order to implement that policy and also with the jobactive providers and the disability employment service providers to do that sort of thing.

Senator DAVEY: Okay. I'll follow up with them when we get them before us. I think they're going to be on the program in the future.

CHAIR: They are.

Senator DAVEY: Has Services Australia made any changes to allow Australians who know their circumstances will change in the future to pre-emptively apply for jobseeker, and is that going to continue on?

Mr Egan : We have made some changes recently, I think it was as of 20 July, where people have been able to commence their application for jobseeker up to 13 weeks in advance of the date they believe they'll be eligible. They are able to do that through the usual online claiming process.

Ms Campbell : We have also allowed people who have gone on nil rate to stay on what's nil rate. So, for example, if they were in employment, they've stayed on nil rate for longer in case their circumstances changed—particularly if they had accessed JobKeeper and then the business didn't continue—so that it would be much more streamlined for them to reapply or regain jobseeker payment. So we've worked quite flexibly in that mechanism.

Senator DAVEY: Part of the response to COVID was also announcing a pause on debt raising and debt recovery activity, unless it was obviously an instance of serious fraud. Is that pause still in place, and how long will it remain?

Ms Skinner : The pause is still in place, and we can talk through that. Of course, if people wish to, people have been able to continue with the payment arrangements that they had. If they didn't wish to continue, they could contact us. Equally, if they wish to start to pay off their debt, they can contact us and we can put that in place for them. So, again, it's remaining in place to be flexible to try to support people's circumstances.

Senator DAVEY: Am I correct that debts are still incurred; it's just the recovery of those debts that is not being pursued at the moment?

Ms Skinner : That's right.

Ms Campbell : But Services Australia work really hard with people so they don't incur debts. They have a number of prompts and behavioural things to try and avoid recipients getting into debt, and I think that work has continued throughout this period, to ensure we could minimise debts. I wonder whether we could talk about some of the mechanisms that have been put in place to try to minimise people getting into debt.

Ms Skinner : One of the best examples is prompting people, where they might have been in receipt of a jobseeker payment, if they've become eligible for a JobKeeper payment, or reminding people that they must report that as income, so we don't overpay the jobseeker. So that's one of the mechanisms. Mr Creech might be able to take you through some of the others.

Mr Creech : That's exactly right, Senator. One of the things we've been working hard on with the ATO over the past couple of months is what is known as a data exchange. We've worked through with them to find out the data we're going to need to assess who's potentially registered for JobKeeper and who's potentially registered for jobseeker. We've published a protocol in relation to that data exchange and are very keen to make sure that we're as transparent as possible with this. That was published on 16 July. It steps through what data we're going to get and how we're going to use that data. We're receiving data, as the CEO has mentioned, and have done a match in our system in relation to those who are registered for JobKeeper.

I'm very keen to explain that the one caveat is that whilst we get told that an employer has registered their staff member for JobKeeper we don't necessarily get told if they've received a payment. So, we do matches through our system to find out who's registered for both. And during the debt pause, as has been explained, we're sending nudges via SMS, gentle messaging—we want to support them and make sure they're aware of their obligations, in much the same way that Mr Egan talked about earlier, when it comes to restarting mutual obligations.

Senator DAVEY: And customers will be advised well in advance when the old debt recovery processes will be reintroduced?

Mr Creech : That is correct. They will be advised in advance. There'll be announcements about when things are restarting and how they're restarting.

Senator DAVEY: But as you say, you're working well enough with people and hopefully there won't be too many people facing changes to their circumstances at that point.

Mr Creech : Correct. And these days we'll be able to do it in a number of ways, including more frequent use of SMS.

Senator DAVEY: Great. Thank you. I have nothing further.

Senator WATT: I have just a few more questions for DSS and then I'll throw some questions to Services Australia as well. The only other issue I want to focus on with DSS is the point about people moving between JobKeeper and jobseeker. As I understand it, when the new JobKeeper rates start in September a new income-free area and income test for jobseeker and youth allowance, other, will also be in place. So, it is the case that there will be a group of people who will qualify for JobKeeper payments as well as some form of jobseeker payments and the various allowances that go with it. That's correct, isn't it?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Senator WATT: Can you tell me, then: under the new arrangements from the end of September, at what fortnightly income will access to jobseeker payment cut out for a single person? My understanding is that it's in the vicinity of $1,250 a fortnight.

Mr Bennett : Are you talking about from 25 September?

Senator WATT: Yes.

Mr Bennett : The cut-out would be $1,257 for a jobseeker single, age 22 and over, no children.

Senator WATT: That means, then, that people whose income is made up solely from either part- or full-time JobKeeper payments would still be eligible for jobseeker. That's correct, isn't it?

Ms Campbell : If they were not receiving any other income. So, if they were receiving JobKeeper and they were getting an additional amount of money in earnings, they may be ineligible, because they'd be above the $1,257. But if they were getting the $1,200 and nothing else, they would be eligible for some jobseeker payment.

Senator WATT: And perhaps you could enlighten me: has that been the case since JobKeeper was introduced, that people could also qualify for some form of jobseeker?

Ms Campbell : There's a very small cohort of recipients of jobseeker who are—

Mr Bennett : Senator, because the cut-outs vary depending on the different cohorts we have within different payments, the principle was that the JobKeeper payment, consistent with any other form of income would be considered for the purposes of the income test for jobseeker, and there were limited circumstances where the cut-out was above the amount that would have allowed someone to be on $1,500, and they would have also continued with a social security payment.

Senator WATT: Okay. Have you calculated the rough number of people who will be receiving both JobKeeper and jobseeker after September?

Mr Bennett : No.

Ms Campbell : It will depend on their income, so I don't think it would be possible, because I don't think we'd know whether they were just going to get JobKeeper or they were going to get some other form of earnings. So it would be very difficult to do.

Senator WATT: Okay, but am I right in saying that come September, when the figures change, everyone receiving JobKeeper, whether that be the full-time rate or the part-time rate, will also qualify for jobseeker as long as they don't have other income or fail the asset test or the various other tests?

Ms Campbell : The asset test, the liquid asset waiting period—

Senator WATT: Partner income.

Ms Campbell : Partner income.

Mr Bennett : Mutual obligations.

Ms Campbell : Mutual obligations—all those other criteria that go with it.

Senator WATT: Yes, but that is correct? Provided they don't have any other income and they satisfy all the other tests, anyone who is on JobKeeper, whether it be full time or part time, will also qualify for jobseeker—that's right?

Ms Campbell : If they apply and meet those other tests as we've just discussed.

Senator WATT: Yes, but again you don't have any estimate about the number of people in that situation?

Ms Campbell : No, we don't, because we're not able, I think, to identify people who are going to have earnings as well as JobKeeper. So they may have the $750 rate of JobKeeper plus earnings, which would preclude them from being eligible for jobseeker.

Mr Williamson : Certainly the Treasury, Senator, could give you information, based on their JobKeeper review, about the earnings of those people who are on JobKeeper and showing those people who had earnings above the JobKeeper rate. That's probably the best proxy at the moment.

Senator WATT: Okay. Am I right, though, that under the new arrangements in September, with the new rates, a person who qualifies for the full-time JobKeeper rate and, in addition, qualifies for rent assistance will actually end up receiving more than they would have received under the old JobKeeper rate?

Mr Williamson : Not necessarily. It will depend on their circumstances.

Senator WATT: Just to take a step back, I suppose the reason I'm asking these questions is that I think I'm right in saying that one of the effects that people may not necessarily have thought through—people in the general public rather than you; I'm sure you've looked at this—is that, because the JobKeeper rate is falling in September, that takes people below the income threshold for receiving some form of jobseeker. Up until September, because the JobKeeper payment is higher, that puts people over the threshold for receiving jobseeker, but, when the JobKeeper rate is reduced in September, that takes people below the threshold and they therefore qualify for jobseeker and a range of other entitlements. That's the fundamental point, isn't it?

Mr Williamson : I think the easiest way to describe it is that, under the arrangements as they exist at the moment up until September, there are circumstances where somebody can be in receipt of both JobKeeper and jobseeker, because, as Mr Bennett mentioned before, within payments like jobseeker there are different categories. Single principal carers have a more generous taper rate and a higher income-free area. So there were people who could receive both. Following the changes that will occur in September, it's more likely that there will be more people who are able to be in that situation, but it's certainly not the case that everybody who will be receiving JobKeeper at the end of September will be receiving jobseeker.

Senator WATT: Because some of them won't meet the other tests, like the asset tests?

Mr Williamson : Yes.

Senator WATT: Understood. But again, if we're talking about someone who doesn't have the other income and meets the various other tests, they drop down to $1,200 a fortnight on JobKeeper, which by my calculations means that they also then qualify for $25.70 a fortnight in jobseeker, $8.80 a fortnight in energy supplement, $250 a fortnight in corona supplement and $139.60 for rent assistance, which comes to a total of $1,624.10, which is more than the $1,500 a fortnight they were receiving in JobKeeper.

Mr Williamson : In terms of the calculation you just gave there, yes, there will be there a small amount of job seeker. I can't recall the figure you gave, but, for the purposes of this I'll say that was right. The coronavirus supplement, yes, and the energy supplement, but rent assistance can vary depending on an individual's circumstances. It's not one flat rate of rent assistance for everybody who is on rent assistance.

Ms Campbell : I think the example you gave was the maximum, and it would depend on whether someone was renting.

Senator WATT: Again, the point that I'm trying to make is that there is a cohort of people who, once the JobKeeper rate drops, will qualify for a range of additional support—job seeker, energy supplement, corona supplement, rent assistance—that actually takes them to a higher amount than what they would have been receiving under the old JobKeeper rate.

Ms Campbell : If they are not receiving any other income.

Senator WATT: Yes, that's right.

Ms Campbell : If they aren't getting any other income.

Senator WATT: That's right. I'm not saying that everyone's in that situation, but that cohort will exist?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Senator WATT: What's the rationale, then, for designing a system where people who receive JobKeeper also need to apply for these various other forms of assistance? There are all the administrative costs that come with processing those applications and doing the checks. It seems like a very messy sort of outcome that's arisen from cutting the JobKeeper rate.

Ms Campbell : I think the JobKeeper questions are best directed to the Treasury. They're the people best placed to do it. But people who come into the job seeker system are then provided assistance in job search as well.

Mr Williamson : I would add: in terms of the job seeker payment, when Services Australia is assessing someone's eligibility for payment, they need to know all of the income that that person earns. The JobKeeper payment is one form of income. So, in that sense, they're different. Services Australia needs to understand if someone's on JobKeeper, just like if somebody has more than one job or if they've got other earnings. So, in terms of the actual service delivery process, I'm sure Services Australia can take you through some great gains that have been realised in recent months, but it's a fundamental of the social security system that the job seeker payment is looking at somebody's income. JobKeeper is one form of income, and that's why the assessment is done that way.

Senator WATT: Just to close this off, when advising the government on changes to the job seeker payment, and when decisions were being made about the changes to JobKeeper and job seeker, was your department aware that there would be an increased number of people receiving JobKeeper who would also become eligible for job seeker payments?

Ms Campbell : As we mentioned earlier, we worked through a number of scenarios. With those scenarios, where there was an interaction with job seeker and JobKeeper, we provided advice on those interactions.

Senator WATT: Which means that, yes, you were aware, depending on the options that government chose, that that would make some people entitled to—

Ms Campbell : That's right.

Senator WATT: more job seeker payments and other benefits, and in other situations they wouldn't be?

Ms Campbell : That's correct.

Senator WATT: Thank you. In my remaining time, I might direct some questions to Services Australia. You'd obviously be aware that on 3 April Minister Robert announced that debt raising and recovery efforts by Services Australia would be paused for an initial period of six months. Is Services Australia preparing to recommence debt raising after that period?

Ms Skinner : That pause is in place and that date has been put there. Yes, we are looking at what our practices and processes will be, as we've intimated in a previous answer, as that pause comes off—if that's how it goes forward. I can talk about processes, as can Mr Creech and Ms Musolino, if you have further questions on that.

Senator WATT: No decision has been announced on the recommencement of debt raising and recovery efforts. To your knowledge, has any decision been made on the recommencing of debt recovery?

Ms Skinner : My role is to do prudent planning based on the dates I've got in front of me, and the dates I've got in front of me go to that six-month mark. We are preparing to do that work unless any other decision is taken. At this point I don't have any further information on that.

Senator WATT: So, from Services Australia's point of view, debt recovery will recommence in October, subject to any decision from the government, and you're getting things underway so that you're ready to go.

Ms Skinner : Yes. My role here is to plan to do that work, should that date remain in place.

Senator WATT: What changes are you making to the debt recovery process, following the issues around robodebt?

Ms Skinner : I can have Mr Creech and Ms Musolino talk to that. There are two things. One is to work more closely with the whole system to try to get ourselves in a position where there is less prospect of debt being incurred—so we are trying to reduce the situations where an overpayment is made. That's the first thing to do: to make sure, where we can, that we limit debt being incurred at all. The second thing is creating a more streamlined process that engages the citizen in the debt as it's raised and the process to collect it. I've got some colleagues who can talk in a bit more detail about that.

Senator WATT: Just briefly, in the interests of time, if that's okay.

Ms Musolino : Yes. Following the announcement of the refinement to the program, in terms of going forward with compliance activity we'd be looking for additional proof points when we're considering compliance activity and debt raising.

Senator WATT: What does 'additional proof points' mean?

Ms Musolino : We'd be looking at a range of circumstances to consider whether a debt can be raised. That is primarily information we get from the customer as well as information from other sources—the tax office, employers, bank statements—and other information that's relevant to whether an overpayment has occurred.

Senator WATT: Is that a change in process to what we saw through the robodebt era?

Ms Musolino : What was announced was—I'll check the date.

Ms Campbell : These are debts more broadly, rather than income debts, that we're talking about. These are debts which might be family tax benefit debts or childcare debts where a recipient notifies Services Australia that they've had a change of circumstances, whether it's a change of partnering or a change of income. So this is the broad range of debts that we're talking about here, not just the income matching type debts.

Ms Skinner : One of the things we're looking at is creating more of an online opportunity for a citizen to update their information in a more timely way, and, where they have been unable to do that and must do it through a more manual process or through calling us, improving our practices and putting some more resources to actioning those things in a more timely way so that the gap between when they tell us and when we update our system is reduced. Therefore, any quanta of overpayment is likely to be less or non-existent if we can do it in a real-time way. Some of the challenges with some of the older processes and systems we've got haven't allowed us to be as real-time in the updating of people's details, which then results in a bit of a lag and can result in an overpayment or an underpayment—which we also correct.

Ms Campbell : Services Australia have been very focused during this period on people who are in receipt of JobKeeper payments—so, when they notify us that they're on the JobKeeper payment, making sure that they are receiving the correct amount of other payments and taking that into consideration. I think we've probably got some statistics about how quickly those adjustments are now being made so people are very promptly able to be on the most accurate payment. Also, from 7 December, we will introduce Single Touch Payroll comparison, working with the tax office about when people earn money so that that's captured, they can be informed of those earnings and adjustments are made to the payment. So this is all about debts not being accumulated. All these measures that Services Australia are implementing, with DSS on this one, are about debts not being accumulated.

Senator WATT: Just on that point, do Services Australia have any data as to the number of recipients of jobseeker who are also recipients of JobKeeper?

Ms Skinner : As Mr Creech just mentioned, we've got a data exchange protocol, which was published in mid-July, that allows us the practice of exchanging information with the ATO, and we've really just commenced that process. Just to be clear, the tax office may be aware of a person whose employer has said they're in receipt of JobKeeper. We might be aware. We can match to say, 'Okay, they might have been in receipt of jobseeker.' We can then assist them if we think that's the case. Of course, we don't have data about whether the JobKeeper payment was actually made; we just have the data around the jobseeker payment.

We're just into the beginnings of that process, but we have built our system such that people who are registering their income are prompted, before they do anything else, to say whether they're in receipt of JobKeeper. That's one of our key approaches to ensure that people don't accidentally forget to tell us about the JobKeeper and therefore keep up their jobseeker payment.

Ms Campbell : What we were concerned by was that people would think we were taking it into consideration because we should know about it, so we've had to prompt them to say: 'Hey, you've got to tell us if you're getting JobKeeper, because we won't necessarily know. Your employer will have registered with the tax office, but we won't know whether you, Mr Smith, have received the payment.'

Mr Creech : As I spoke briefly about with Senator Davey a little while ago, we tabled a QON recently based on the outcome of our initial data exchange with the ATO looking at around 134,000 people who've registered for JobKeeper and registered for jobseeker. I will take the opportunity to point out again that just because we know they're registered for JobKeeper doesn't mean we know that they're receiving an income.

This goes to the point that the secretary and the CEO both tried to make before. As a part of the debt pause at the moment we're looking at the opportunity that is improving our preventative measures. We've started just recently, in the context of this work, sending SMSs and nudging customers of ours whom we know are registered for both to remind them to report their mutual obligations. This is, I suppose, the kind of open, transparent communication we're looking to build on as we work towards lifting the debt pause.

Senator WATT: Obviously, you're in the process at the moment—or I think you already have done it—of making refunds to a lot of people who went through the robodebt process. Is Services Australia doing any work to review those refunds to, potentially, claw back refunds that are being made if it turns out that someone wasn't actually entitled to a refund? Is there going to be any follow-up of refunds that are made to people?

Ms Campbell : This is a matter before the courts. I think Services Australia ministers have been clear that the payments are being made and the debt is being zeroed. That's probably what I can say safely.

Senator WATT: The reason I'm asking, I suppose, is that you're moving to a new system and I wondered whether that new system was going to be applied to refunds that have already been made.

Ms Campbell : The officers at the table have talked about new practices—about prompting, nudging and the like. The new system I talked about, which will come into effect in December, will be, from that point onwards, the capacity to do real-time earnings. Maybe somebody here can take about that.

Senator WATT: I think I'm about to run out of time.

Ms Campbell : So it's not applicable—

Senator WATT: All I really need to know is whether it's going to apply.

Ms Campbell : It will be live from December onwards, when we'll be able to see if someone says, 'Hey, I earned $10,' and yet the tax office says they earned a thousand dollars. That would prompt a nudge to them to say, 'Hello, we've noticed that there are two different income profiles here.' Is that correct?

Ms Musolino : Yes, that's correct.

Senator WATT: Okay. There are obviously people who are incurring debts at the moment—people who know they've got a debt to the Commonwealth, perhaps because they received the jobseeker allowance for the first month that they were unemployed before they were then notified by their employer that they would receive JobKeeper. Are those people able to have their debts raised now so that they can start paying them off?

Ms Skinner : If anyone is interested in whether they've got a debt or if they want to make a payment, they can contact us and we can put in place with them any arrangement that is suitable.

Senator WATT: Okay, because we have actually been contacted by a number of people who say they have been unable to obtain debt notices from Services Australia. Has some sort of directive or message been provided to Services Australia staff that payment of those debts can actually begin?

Ms Skinner : We're in a situation now where we can help those people. We were in a situation where we had some limitations, up until just recently, and we were just continuing with those people who already had payment plans and we could allow them to pause them if they wanted to. We're now in a situation where we can assist those people who'd like us to raise that debt so they can enter into some sort of arrangement to repay it.

Ms Campbell : On a voluntary basis.

Ms Skinner : On a voluntary basis, yes.

Senator WATT: In my remaining time, I want to ask about the contractors you've engaged. Services Australia has, obviously, brought in about 5,000 labour hire staff, in addition to your existing staff, to cope with the increased workload. What plans are there to keep all or part of that temporary workforce?

Ms Skinner : At the moment, I'm maintaining most of that workforce. When we spoke to you last time, I was privileged to also have about 2,000 of our colleagues from across the broader Australian Public Service with us. We've maintained most of that workforce, both through some service delivery partners and through some additional employees hired into Services Australia. So I'm maintaining that at the moment for a range of reasons, including ensuring business continuity for Services Australia. Of course, we're a national system and we do have staff who are in locations where they could get into some difficulty about being able to work and things like that.

Senator WATT: Does that mean that there is a portion of that temporary workforce that will be engaged on a longer term basis?

Ms Skinner : At the moment I have an ability to continue to maintain a higher level of workforce than is in the normal budget statement. As the Prime Minister announced very early on, I have about 5,000 additional staff, and I'm maintaining those around 5,000 additional staff.

Senator WATT: At this point in time, for how long do you expect to retain that number?

Ms Skinner : At this time, I'm expecting to continue to retain around that number through this financial year.

Senator WATT: For the remainder of this financial year?

Ms Skinner : Yes.

Ms Campbell : Senator, the resourcing for Services Australia depends on recipient numbers, customer numbers, so we will work through that with Finance and the Treasury.

Senator WATT: What proportion of those 5,000 contract staff has been or will be offered permanent employment with Services Australia?

Ms Skinner : I haven't gone through that sort of process. We have a mixed workforce model. And, as Ms Campbell said, we are subject, rightly, to some of our funding being based on the workload that we have. So, for our purposes, a workforce that includes a range of staff, from permanent staff to staff who can work in a part-time or more casual capacity that also suits their own arrangements, is a good workforce blend for Services Australia. But we have a permanent Public Service workforce of around 27,000 ASL.

Senator WATT: Is that a long way of saying that none of the 5,000 contract staff will be given permanent employment?

Ms Skinner : No, that's not, because I will make permanent appointments during the year. And it is the case, and it has been the case for many years, that a number of those part-time and casual staff often apply and are very successful in gaining those permanent appointments—also because of the experience they've already got from working with us.

Senator WATT: Okay. This is the last question from me on the myGov website: has the myGov website suffered any additional crashes or capacity issues since Services Australia last appeared before us on 6 May?

Ms Skinner : No. In fact, it's managed its load quite well, including right at the change of financial year, where we did expect there to be a quite deal of pressure. There was, and the system maintained its capability to perform.

Senator WATT: So no mystery hacks that Minister Robert knows about or wants to tell us about?

Ms Skinner : No, I have not had any security issues with the myGov system in the last four months.

Senator WATT: Thanks.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Watt. I think you've had enough. Senator Patrick.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you, Chair. Ms Campbell, can you just advise the committee as to whether or not the changes to jobseeker require changes to the primary legislation or whether, alternatively, it can be done by way of the tabling of legislative instruments?

Ms Campbell : I'll ask Mr Bennett and Mr Williamson to come to the table to provide exact detail on that.

Senator PATRICK: Fantastic.

Mr Bennett : Senator, when you say 'changes to jobseeker', is there a specific question that you have there?

Senator PATRICK: It is on the changes just recently announced by the government to rates and so forth.

Mr Bennett : As you are probably aware, there was legislation that previously went through the parliament: the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Act 2020. As part of those arrangements, there was provision for the Minister for Families and Social Services to be able to make a number of adjustments through subordinate legislation.

Senator PATRICK: That's correct. So, in effect, we granted a power to the minister in response to COVID such that she could change things as necessary and set up the details of the scheme. Do the recently announced changes require a sitting of the parliament in order to amend the primary legislation, or are those changes possible simply through that subordinate legislation that you referred to?

Mr Bennett : Taking into account that the instruments are disallowable instruments, those changes could occur through subordinate instruments.

Senator PATRICK: So there is no need for the parliament to be involved? I don't want anyone to misconstrue me in saying this, because I think the parliament ought to be sitting, not cancelled, but in essence you're saying these changes can be made and there's no urgent requirement for the parliament to sit in respect of the announced changes?

Ms Campbell : The jobseeker changes can stay until 31 December with the subordinate legislation.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you. I might just move slightly to the sidelines. I asked these questions on robodebt, just in relation to getting money back into the community in these circumstances. I received an answer to a question on notice—asked in the Senate, not through this committee—that basically said that in terms of the number of debts recovered in part or in full, and therefore where there's an estimated eligibility for refund, there were 394,370 persons who would be entitled to a refund. Can you tell me the status of the payment of those refunds at this point in time?

Ms Campbell : We'll see whether we've got someone here with that data. We were updating the data for the hearing tomorrow.

Senator PATRICK: Sure.

Ms Campbell : I'll just see what they have today.

Senator PATRICK: I don't actually need the numbers per se but, in some sense, the general principles. Are you proceeding with payments? I understand there would be some people who are still opted into the class action.

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: I presume you wouldn't be seeking to make a payment in respect of those people. But, if someone has opted out of the class action, how quickly are you getting to making the repayments?

Ms Campbell : My understanding is that we're making all the payments—

Ms Skinner : Yes.

Ms Campbell : or making payments to all people who had made repayments for debts in that category that the government's outlined.

Senator PATRICK: Okay, but does that include if they are still engaged in a class action?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: So if indeed the court finds some other compensation is required, something else is required, then they would simply be getting the balance of anything between what the book debt is and what the court might order?

Ms Campbell : We can't speculate on what the court may do.

Senator PATRICK: No, I'm not suggesting you predict what the court may do, but, if they are making payments that effectively zero the debt or get them back to the position they would've been in, I presume people in the class action must be seeking something more, otherwise there's no point to the class action.

Ms Campbell : Because this matter is before the courts and I think where we're going leads us into different scenarios there, it would be my preference to take these on notice and not answer them.

Senator PATRICK: Sure. I'd just point out there is advice to the Senate that sub judice only applies in circumstances where your answers would substantially prejudice the outcome of the court case, and indeed nothing said in this forum can be adduced in evidence in the courts. So I appreciate some caution there, but I'm pushing back a little bit, just saying, for general answers, general principles—I'm not saying you're conceding that the court may do something, but, in the circumstances where they do, I'm just trying to understand how someone who has opted in to the court case is affected at this point, in terms of repayment. You're saying there's no effect?

Ms Campbell : They are separate processes. We are going to, tomorrow, try and answer as many questions as we can about this matter. We are very keen to be transparent. But we are also very conscious of the fact that there is legal action underway. So if we say in answer that they are separate matters, is that enough?

Senator PATRICK: Just to be clear, you are saying that they are treated separately—

Ms Campbell : They're treated separately.

Senator PATRICK: if they are opt in or opt out?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: Okay. Just in relation to that, when my office—and I thank you for the service you provide parliamentarians in being able to get access to people, to deal with constituent issues—staff ring Services Australia, they find they can't get even basic details for the people who we are working for and have authority to work for; if someone is involved in the class action, they can't even get very basic facts, such as the amount of the debt that is owing on the books. So I just wonder whether that's something we're encountering that we shouldn't be encountering or if there's some reason for that. I'm not necessarily asking for outcomes but just very fundamental questions of fact that shouldn't be in dispute before a court.

Ms Campbell : I think the officers will take that on notice. Thank you for raising that matter. We'll look into it.

Senator PATRICK: So your suggestion is that we deal with this tomorrow?

Ms Campbell : Tomorrow is the income compliance hearing—tomorrow afternoon, I understand.

Senator SIEWERT: You're welcome to come along, Rex!

Senator PATRICK: Maybe I'll have to.

CHAIR: If it doesn't clash with Sky!

Senator PATRICK: That's harsh, Chair! Alright; I might actually do that. But perhaps just be aware of the advice. Perhaps we might be able to get it to you. I think it's called the Heffernan advice on sub judice.

Ms Campbell : We are aware of that, and we're aware of public interest immunity as well.

Senator PATRICK: Sure. Fantastic.

Ms Campbell : So I'm sure we'll find some line there. We will very much want to answer as many questions as we possibly can, noting that the court action is underway.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you very much. Thank you, Chair. That's all I have.

CHAIR: Thank you. Senator Siewert, I'll go to you for five minutes.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I want to go back to the issue that you were discussing with Senator Watt, about JobKeeper and jobseeker and people receiving both. When I was asking the tax office about it, they said they were sharing data with Services Australia.

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: We were discussing where, as you've articulated, someone doesn't declare that they're on JobKeeper, because they think the government would already know. But the flip side for that is where an employer is claiming for somebody that is also on jobseeker when in fact the jobseeker is not getting paid that money.

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: In other words, there's a fraud going on here, where the jobseeker isn't getting paid. The tax office said that that data hasn't really started coming through yet, because you're only just starting that data-matching process. Have you found anybody yet who is in that situation where the data's showing that they're supposed to be getting JobKeeper but they're actually not?

Ms Skinner : The tax office is right: we've just settled that protocol, we published it and the process is in place for starting that sharing. I think we're probably safe to say we've only been into it for a handful of days and there's probably just a handful of data matches that might indicate someone in receipt of jobseeker who the tax office thought might be getting JobKeeper. Where that happens, we'll provide that information to the tax office, and that would be their issue to manage through their processes.

Senator SIEWERT: What my concern would be there is also that the jobseeker then may not get a payment given that their employer has said that they're getting JobKeeper.

Ms Skinner : We won't turn the payment off, but we would prompt the person to check and to make sure if they have forgotten to provide us their JobKeeper information. So we'll do that piece, and we'll give the tax office the information that allows them to do their piece of work as well.

Ms Campbell : So, whilst we're providing the jobseeker payment, we're very worried about them getting a debt, so we're prompting them, but they're still getting the payment until they tell us that they're getting different money.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. How quickly do you anticipate that the ATO will get back to you to clarify that they've followed up with the employer on whether that person is or isn't getting the payment?

Ms Skinner : I'll just let my colleagues talk to that end of the process, but it might not be completely a loop.

Mr Creech : The reality is that the obligation is on the recipient to let us, Services Australia, know what their income is. In ordinary times, it would be income. In this context, it's JobKeeper. We are sharing data, as we've discussed, with the ATO, which is a process that's started over the last couple of weeks, and in Services Australia we're using that data to remind people of their mutual obligations. ATO will have to work through the processes that they have at their end on how that communication happens with employers and the information they get out of that. How they share that with us and what we do with it will evolve. I can't speak to it now; it's the ATO's to speak to at the moment. But it will evolve much as ours is doing when it comes to reconciling for the recipient.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. It seems to me that we have the potential here that a jobseeker gets caught in the middle when an employer may be committing fraud by claiming JobKeeper for that person when they're not actually getting it.

Mr Bennett : But the CEO and the secretary both made the point, I think, that we're not going to cut the payment off. The reality is that hypothetically in that context we might get to a point where income that we didn't know about is reported to us and, if we get back to a point where we're living in a BAU debt world, there might be a debt there, but we're not going to cut them off. They're won't find themselves without a payment.

Senator SIEWERT: I just heard you say the onus is on the jobseeker. You didn't use the word 'onus', but the jobseeker declares. They are being very honest and saying, 'No, we haven't got it.' I'm desperately concerned you are going to get into the situation that we've had before, with the reverse onus of proof yet again.

Ms Campbell : The government has been very clear that we will look for points of proof in raising debts. I would envisage that in this case we would be looking for the employer to tell us what they'd paid. If the employer then says, 'Actually, here's the proof that I did pay the JobKeeper payment', then we've got a problem.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, I accept that—if they are paying.

Ms Campbell : And if we ask the recipient, 'Can you give us your payslips?' and they've got payslips, then we've got a problem.

Senator SIEWERT: I hear what you're saying; I'm just coming at it from the other perspective as well. You answered question on notice No. 221, about the number of claims Services Australia had on hand at the end of June. Are you able to take me through how they have been resolved and how many are on hand now?

Ms Skinner : I've got staff who can talk in detail about that, depending on the particular category. What I can say is that all of our claims on hand at the moment are lower than for the same time last year. We're currently able to keep those claims on hand down at low levels. In total, we're only holding around 65,000 claims on hand across all of the different categories. I'll let Ms Lees talk to the detail around the different types of claims on hand and what we've got with them.

Senator SIEWERT: At this stage, let's just do the jobseeker and youth allowance data.

Ms Lees : I've got the data for—

Ms Skinner : At 30 June, we had 32,116 combined jobseeker claims on hand. We're into July, and it keeps bubbling up and down around that 30,000 mark. We're holding about 30,000 claims on hand in that space.

Senator SIEWERT: What is the time for resolution of the claims?

Ms Skinner : The average processing time?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes.

Ms Lees : The average processing times in terms of the—I've got the data for the financial year as at 30 June. I don't have—

Ms Skinner : We can take that on notice. By the time we got to 30 June, we were processing most of the claims within 10 days. We were able to manage a range of the claims we'd had on hand for a bit, and we got ourselves into a position of a good couple of weeks and we had most claims through.

Ms Campbell : Noting that July is always a really busy period for Services Australia in a normal cycle.

Senator SIEWERT: I take the point. Can I go to the additional data that you provided today. You gave us a lot of data today; thank you. I'm interested in the DSP payments. In terms of the DSP payments and earnings, there has been a significant drop in earnings declared for people on the disability support pension. I'm wondering whether you've had a look at that, done any analysis and provided any advice to government, and whether there's any consideration of a further stimulus payment given that people on the DSP didn't receive the supplement.

Mr Williamson : On the last part of your question: any consideration of a further economic support payment is a question for government. They have announced two—

Senator SIEWERT: You've provided them the advice?

Mr Williamson : and that's their current position. In terms of the earnings for the DSP, let us go to the question.

Senator SIEWERT: It's 226, I think.

Mr Bennett : Sorry, Senator. You're talking about a question on notice?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, sorry, it is. It is question on notice 226, which talks about the earnings for people on DSP and comparing it to last year.

Mr Williamson : Sorry, Senator. We just don't have that question on notice in front of us, and I'm struggling to get it.

Ms Campbell : Can we take that one on notice.

Mr Williamson : Yes, can we take that on notice and get back to you.

Ms Campbell : We hear your point. I get that your question is about what consideration has been given. We'll take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, okay. I understand you can't tell me the nature of the advice, but have you provided any advice to government on this?

CHAIR: Well, they might be able to. Advice to government isn't a public harm reason that's allowable under the Senate order. Anyway, go on.

Senator SIEWERT: Have you been asked by government to provide advice, or have you done any analysis of this and provided advice to government on this issue?

Mr Williamson : Sorry, Senator. Just to be clear, analysis of what issue?

Senator SIEWERT: The fact that the amount of earnings for people on DSP has dropped significantly over the last 12 months, particularly for June this year compared to June last year. I put to you that that's a significant impact of COVID. They didn't receive the supplement, and they've only received the two stimulus payments. I won't rehash the arguments we've already had on this, but the fact is that they have been significantly affected by COVID, which I'd suggest this evidence indicates. Has there been any analysis of this data or any policy advice provided to government on this matter?

Mr Williamson : I'm not aware of any analysis of that data.

Ms Campbell : I can't recall any, but we'll take it on notice to provide you with complete information.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Siewert. You have managed to take all your time and all mine as well.

Senator SIEWERT: Sorry.

CHAIR: That's okay. We are just over five o'clock, so we will leave it there. Thank you, Ms Campbell and Ms Skinner and your teams, for attending today. We do appreciate it. We remind you that we'd like answers to questions taken on notice returned within 10 working days. We appreciate your engagement with us. We look forward to having you back—probably sooner rather than later in light of the parliament not sitting. Thank you very much.

Committee adjourned at 17:02