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Wednesday, 1 June 1960

Mr GRIFFITHS (Shortland) .- The measure before the House relates to supply, and honorable members are able to speak on a very wide range of subjects. I propose to devote my time to social services, and I am pleased to see that the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Roberton) is in the House to hear what I have to say. First and foremost, I contend that the spirit and the intention of the social service legislation is not being put into effect by those who initiated it, despite what the Minister may say to the contrary. 1 do not think that even the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) is aware of the narrow and parochial interpretation that is being placed on the various sections of the social service legislation, such as the means test that is applied to income and property by the Minister for Social Services or some of the regulation-conscious public servants who administer it.

In recent years, honorable members on this side of the House have become accustomed to the brush-off they have received whenever they have asked the Minister questions about social services and associated anomalies. I raise the question to-night, some three months before the Budget is brought down, in the hope that 1 can put before the House a practical illustration of what is going on in relation to social service entitlement, and in the hope that I shall be able to move the Government, through the Minister, to adopt a somewhat more humane approach to a really human problem. I want to ensure, if I can, that numbers of people who now suffer impoverishment as a result of the current inflation may receive some addition in their pensions and allowances. For years now, when deputations representing pensioners have waited on the Minister for Social Services at Budget time to urge upon him the needs for increased pensions and the removal of anomalies that are contained iri the relevant legislation, invariably they have been informed that their representations were made too late for any alterato be made in the Budget that year because the Budget had already been prepared. I hope that this year the Minister and the Government will heed the plea of pensioners to do something of a tangible character in the Budget to ease the poverty that these people now experience, especially as a result of the increased prices following the recent marginal increases. There can be no doubt that, as a result of increased prices for food, clothing and other commodities, the base pension should be substantially increased. The Government has used social services legislation to deny sufficient sustenance to many of the sick and unemployed. I propose to show that, in many cases, applicants for invalid pensions have had their claims rejected by medical officers without a proper medical examination having been carried out to ascertain whether the applicant was permanently incapacitated for work or not.

For a great many years, the income and property means test prevented thousands of people from qualifying for either a part pension or a full pension. Apparently, in 1954, the Government found out that some workers, by thrift, had been able to acquire either a second home or a week-end cottage and that, because of the property means test, those people were being denied pensions. It appears that the Minister for Social Services who, at that time, was the honorable member for Lowe (Mr. McMahon), had been able to convince the Government of the need to remove many of the anomalies which were operating in the social services legislation against thrift. I emphasize " thrift " because the word is important to my argument. To the credit of the Government of that time, action was taken by the Minister to ease the means test so that the thrifty person, upon reaching the age of retirement, would come within the range of the means test and receive either a part pension or a full one according to his or her means.

Let me say this with all the emphasis that I can employ: I do not accept the view that the Government, in easing the property means test in 1954, ever intended that the conditions associated with pension entitlement should become any worse as the result of the amendment to the act at that time. That is exactly what has happened since the present Minister has had the portfolio of Social Services. I suggest that the action of the Minister in his interpretation of the income and property provisions of the act reveals him to be a Scotsman in the worst sense of the word. He possesses all the attributes of a dour Scot in that he is mean, provocative, parochial and paltry in his administration of the act, to say the least. There is positive proof that the Minister, in applying, himself to his portfolio, has deliberately set out to reduce the standard of the base pension. Any one would think that the Minister had to pay pensions out of his own pocket. In order to show how the Minister has used and twisted the legislation to deny to pensioners increased benefits which the 1954 amendment was designed to provide, I shall make several references. Part III., section 30 of the Social Services Act provides -

X.   In the computation of the value of property . . (a) there shall be disregarded (i) the value of any property which is owned by a claimant or pensioner or by his spouse and is the permanent home of the claimant or pensioner;

I ask honorable members to note that the section says - any property which is owned by a . . . pensioner . . . and is the permanent home of the . . pensioner.

The legislation does not prohibit the division of the home into two or more parts as the Minister has done. I believe it is impossible to have a home sub-divided into flats under local government requirements unless one part is completely shut off from the other all the way up to the roof. The Minister himself admits that he has put a stop to the practice which existed some years ago of renting rooms for substantial amounts by having internal access to the other part of the house. However, as 1 see it, the intention of the Minister in 1954 was to help the pensioner who had no other form of income to qualify for a better existence than he had at that time. If the Government wishes to restrict the letting of rooms I suggest that it should amend section 30 of the act to define the Government's intention clearly. As the act now stands, I contend that the Minister is literally robbing many pensioners of their rights while, at the same time, he is keeping closed hundreds of homes which could well be used by old people and others who are badly in need of accommodation.

Following a question which I had asked the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) recently with regard to pensioners structurally altering their homes to accommodate members of their families, the Minister gave me a reply which, to use his own words, showed how he had closed up the loophole which existed in the act prior to his being elevated to the Social Services portfolio. The Minister's letter, to my mind, proves the point that I am making. In it he said: -

As you know, the value of any property which is the permanent home of the pensioner is disregarded for means test purposes. Up till a few :years ago the major factor taken into account in determining whether the whole of the building in which the pensioner resided constituted his home was whether or not there was internal access between all the rooms in the building. Experience- showed, however, that greater weight :should be given to' other factors. This Has been particularly so since 1954 when "income" was re-defined in the Social Services Act to exclude income derived from property. The purpose of this amendment was to assist pensioners by correcting the position whereunder both the capital value of their property and the income received therefrom had been taken into account in the assessment of pensions.

This is where he puts himself in -

But the new provision highlighted anomalies which had already been caused by the rather loose definition of a " home " employed up till that time. If the Department looked only at the question of whether there was internal access, it is evident that the anomalies would have been intensified.

Then the Minister mentioned the possibility of landlords with big apartment houses drawing a pension while receiving rents. He went on -

On receipt of legal advice in the matter it was decided to determine cases against the practical test - " Is the house, or part of the house, in fact the permanent residence of the claimant or pensioner? " Where a claimant or pensioner makes structural alterations to his home to keep the tenanted portion separate from his own portion, two homes are created, one of which is the home of the pensioner and the other the home of the tenant.

But he does not create two properties. The act says that -

.   . any property which is owned by a claimant or pensioner or by his spouse and is the permanent home of the claimant or pensioner shall be disregarded for pension purposes. It will be seen from what I have quoted that the Minister is having a bob both ways so he is sure to be on a winner. He claims to have had legal opinion on what constitutes a home. I wish that I had sufficient cash to test the interpretation, because I feel sure that the Minister is only bluffing. In 1954, the honorable member for Lowe, in introducing the amendment, used words which should leave no doubt in the minds of honorable members as to what he meant. He said -

This is a bill relating primarily to the modification of what is called the income and property means test. The effect of the application of this test is that a person may be disqualified from receiving a full pension, or, alternatively, the maximum pension payable is reduced, because of the amount of his other income or the net value of his property. Modification is desirable because in some cases the test creates anomalies, and is a penalty on thrift-

That is the point I raised earlier. He went on - particularly in the lower income groups: It is an essential element of Liberal policy that people should be given incentive to work and save, and by this means to increase the amount of property owned by them. Both work and savings are necessary if we are to ensure full employment and progress, with a reasonable level of stability for the purchasing power of money.

He further said -

The modifications of the means test in this bill provide incentives to work and savings. The amendments will make law the Prime Minister's policy pledge of " continuing vigorously the work of modifying the means test" to provide these incentives.

Later he went on -

To-day, the pensioner is relieved of the fear that rising prices will destroy the purchasing power of his pension and deny to him the goods and services that he needs. The pension to-day has a greater purchasing power than it did when Labour left office.

We will see about that. He went on -

In the bill before the House the permissible income for pensioners - that is, the income that may be received without reduction of pension - is being increased by 75 per cent., that is, from £2 to £3 10s. a week.

He added -

A married couple, both eligible for pensions, will be able to receive by way of income and pensions a total of £14 a week, instead of £11 as at present.

I have here details of a case where the couple cannot get the maximum base pension. The Minister went on -

The value of a pensioner's home, furniture and personal effects is disregarded entirely.

Later he said -

A fundamental change relating to the means test made by the bill is the exclusion from the income test of income derived by a claimant or pensioner from any property owned by him or by his spouse. Hitherto, the income from property has been taken into account in applying the income test, and the capital value of the property, except where it is the pensioner's home, has also been taken into account in applying the property test.

On 29th March, 1944, when the present Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) was speaking on the Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Bill, he said -

The moment we establish, or perpetuate, the principle that the citizen, in order to get something he needs, or wants, and to which he has looked forward, must prove his poverty, we convert him into a suppliant to the State for benevolence. That position is inconsistent with the proper dignity of the citizen in a democratic country.

It will be seen that in this case my constituents, who are both pensioners, had a son who had resided with them all his life. He married a second time but the parents could not get on with his second wife. Without asking the son and his wife to leave home because they could not agree, and in order to maintain domestic happiness - which is the most important factor of home life - the owner partitioned off part of his home. He and his wife lived in one part and the son and his wife in another. When the inspector of the Department of Social Services saw what had happened he promptly reduced the parents' pension by about £4 a fortnight.

Representations to the Director of Social Services were of no avail. I pointed out that the house had never been let to anybody besides the son and that the son had occupied it and had lived with his parents all his life. I pointed out also that any monetary consideration the son had given his parents for occupying the rooms could be disregarded as coming within the meaning of the act, because if it were held that the rooms he occupied should be regarded as property for means test purposes, it would mean that the parents would be virtually penalized for allowing their son to live at home.

I further stated that even if the son were paying his father £3 a week, the parents would be more than £1 a week worse off than a base pensioner. I regret to say that the Director of Social Services, in his usual unsympathetic way, rejected my representations out of hand. I then appealed to the Minister, and I shall quote from his reply to me. He wrote -

In computing the value of property for age pension purposes, the Social Services Act provides for the exemption of any property which is owned by the claimant or his spouse, and is the permanent home of the claimant.

But the Minister does not carry that out. He went on -

In this instance, the dwelling is divided into two living units, each of which is completely selfcontained. The parents occupy one unit as their home, and the other is let to a son and daughterinlaw.

The portion of the property which is occupied by the son and the daughter-in-law cannot be regarded as the home of the parents, as it is, in effect, a separate residence which is the home of the occupants. This being the case, it has been necessary to take the value of the portion let into, account in the assessment of pension.

This home was valued at about £5,000. That was a grossly inflated figure because the property is 50 or 60 years old. If that house were halved, it would mean that the owner, if a married man, would have his and his wife's pension reduced by £4 a week. This man was not getting £3 a week from his son, but if he were he would be £1 a week worse off than a 'base pensioner.

We have told the Minister about this sort of thing time and time again, but he simply takes no notice. If he continues to interpret the income and property means test as he is now doing, he is virtually compelling old people to keep their homes closed up, because they are afraid of losing their pensions. There is an unprecedented demand for homes by young married people and many others who would welcome the opportunity to share the homes of aged people. This in turn would help to relieve the distress of pensioners who have to rely on the base pension.

I now turn to a case in which not even a member of the Liberal Party would be prepared to concede that the Minister had done the correct thing. It is one in which the Minister ruthlessly applied the means test.

Mr Turnbull - You cannot call the present Minister for Social Services ruthless.

Mr GRIFFITHS - If the honorable member will listen he might change his opinion. As a result of applying the means test the Minister denied this person a sickness benefit and also any part of the invalid pension. For many months he got nothing at all, and for the next year he received only 18s. a fortnight.

This person was a resident of Lismore. He owned his home, and worked for the Department of Main Roads. He contracted a mysterious complaint which paralysed him. It baffled the local doctors, and after some weeks he was ordered to Sydney and in March, 1958, was taken to the Sydney hospital. His complaint developed so seriously that he could not fend for himself. Neither could he say where he wanted to go when the hospital authorities determined that his condition was a permanent one and he would have to leave hospital and be placed in a home. Arrangements were made for him to be admitted to the Rossmayne Convalescent Home at Burwood about August that year. At about the same time the Department of Social Services discovered that the patient was permanently incapacitated and promptly suspended his sickness benefit in September, 1958, because he was no longer entitled to receive it. The department wrote and informed him that he could test his eligibility for an invalid pension. All the time that this was going on the man's only daughter, who herself had a young child and husband to care for, was being compelled to pay £5 12s. a week to the convalescent home for the care and upkeep of her father besides buying him clothes and other items such as medicine, spectacles and so on.

The Department of Social Services then determined that because the father owned his home at Lismore, even though it was not tenanted, he was not entitled to an invalid pension because its value exceeded £1,750 at the time. Between September and 20th November, 1958, nothing was paid to the father of my constituent. On 20th November, 1958, the Department of Social Services excelled itself and became big-hearted following an easing of the means test. It paid the man the handsome sum of 18s. 6d. a week. This rate of pension was based on the inflated value of the home at Lismore - £1,960 - although it was situated in the flood area. I made representations to both the Director of Social Services and the Minister, but neither of them could be moved sympathetically in any way. The Minister took umbrage at the tone of the letter that I had written to him, and he ticked me off. Any honorable member may look at that letter and see whether he can find anything in it to which exception could be taken. A little later the Minister again wrote to me and said that he was pleased to think that my later letter was much better than the previous one. Although the house was valued at £1,960 it could be sold for only £1,200 at the end of 1959. The money was immediately given to the daughter who purchased a home to which she could take her father and look after him. The department became generous and increased the pension to the maximum rate, and because the sale was negotiated in August, 1959, it decided to increase the pension from that date.

Many features of this case rile me. In the first place, my constituent should never have had to pay all the money she has had to expend for her father's upkeep. If he was not entitled to sickness benefit or an invalid pension he should have received at least some benefit under section 124 of the Social Services Act, under which a special benefit is payable to those who are not otherwise qualified. The section reads -

The Director-General may, in his discretion, grant a special benefit under this Division to a person -

(a)   who is not in receipt of a pension or allowance under Part III. or IV. of this Act or a service pension under the Repatriation Act 1920-1954;

(b)   who is not qualified to receive an unemployment benefit or a sickness benefit; and

(c)   with respect to whom the Director-General is satisfied that, by reason of age, physical or mental disability or domestic circumstances, or for any other reason, that person is unable to earn a sufficient livelihood for himself and his dependents (if any).

The statement of the Minister that when the man applied for an invalid pension in November, 1958, he did not intend to return to his home at Lismore - as he wrote in his letter to me - is little short of an insult. In the first place, the man was incapable of making out an application form for a pension because he was paralysed. Secondly, he could neither speak nor write and he had to do what others wanted him to do. Virtually, he had no choice in the matter at all. It is open to my honorable friend from Mallee (Mr. Turnbull) to go through the file to see for himself whether there is anything wrong or any reason why a person with no income at all should be denied any form of assistance-

Mr Turnbull - Blame the Government or the department, but do not make personal attacks on the Minister.

Mr GRIFFITHS - The Minister is in control, and he has to bear the responsibility for what the department does. It is clear from the speeches of the honorable member for Lowe (Mr. McMahon) and the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies), compared with the letter of the Minister for Social Services, together with the illustrations that I have given, that the Minister, by his application of the income and property provisions of the Social Services Act, is out of step with his colleagues. There is a great divergence in the views of the Prime Minister, the honorable member for Lowe and the Minister for Social Services on the same subject. Of that there can be no doubt as far as I am concerned. If the Minister is not willing to rectify the anomalies in the act as they apply to many pensioners who wish to share their accommodation with others, he stands condemned in the eyes of all decent people.

There are many other cases of applications for invalid pensions having been refused, and I want to cite one or two. The first concerns an application that was rejected by the government medical officer in Newcastle. On 7th January last, Dr. F. A. Morrison, a coal board doctor, wrote to Mr. G. R. Cressy, of Boolaroo -

I agree with Dr. Gluckstern that you are suffering from coronary ischaemia, a condition which means that your heart does not receive a sufficient blood supply when it has to perform extra work as it has to do when you exert yourself. The blood supply, however, is quite sufficient when you are not exerting yourself. Accordingly you should try to avoid any exertion which brings on tightness and pain in the chest, and should these come on at any time you should take your tablet and rest until they have gone. It is however quite safe for you to do anything which does not bring on the pain or tightness. Above all, do not sit down all day and do nothing because this would hinder you rather than help. The rest of the examination was quite satisfactory. The x-ray of your chest was normal, your blood pressure was within the usual limits and your kidneys are quite healthy.

He enclosed this certificate which he signed on the same day -

This is to certify that Mr. George Richard Cressy of Fourth Street, Boolaroo, is suffering from coronary ischaemia and is permanently incapacitated to an extent of at least 85 per cent.

Yet the government medical officer rejected this man's claim for an invalid pension. The next case concerns a woman 56 years of age whose husband had worked until he was 67 years old and was retired through ill health - he had a heart condition. The woman was born a cripple with both feet turned inwards. Her application for a pension had been rejected because her husband's application for an invalid pension was rejected by the department which gave him an age pension instead. For eight months this couple lived on one pension only because the woman's application had been rejected. When I squealed to the department in Newcastle the woman was granted a pension within a few weeks. I offered to pay half her wages if the registrar in Newcastle could find any local employer who would give her work for even a month or two.

The third case I want to mention is that of a young girl who was born without control of her lower bowels. At the outset the doctor in Newcastle told this child that she could work at home if she could not go out to work, and her application for a pension was rejected on the grounds that she was not permanently incapacitated. I come now to the case of my own sister, whose application for an invalid pension was rejected. Her husband is over 70 years of age. She was operated upon by Dr. Newman at the Mater Hospital, North Sydney, and the doctor subsequently said that hers was one of the worst cases of its type that he had ever seen. I hope the Minister will look into these matters. I shall return again and give him more examples of people being denied the right to live because of the interpretation placed upon the act.

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