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Thursday, 13 April 1972
Page: 1593


Mr COPE (Sydney) - I intend to mention some matters relating to the Department of Social Services in regard to age and invalid pensions and the benefits which are provided. However, I feel compelled to remark on some of the debate that has evolved from the differences between the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly) and the Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth). I think the Minister for Social Services is wrong when he stales that the policy of the Government now is the same as that followed by the Labor Government when Senator McKenna was Minister for Social Services. I spoke to Senator McKenna on an occasion in regard to this matter and it is true that those men on strike in a particular plant would not have received unemployment benefits. If benefits were paid, it would mean of course that the government of the time would be subsidising the strike. The decision was not meant to operate in this way: For example, if 2,000 employees who were engaged at a plant were intent on a strike, it would be simple for the unions to pull out 10 or 12 key men to go on strike from that plant and they would be denied unemployment benefits making it possible for the rest of the plant to receive unemployment benefits. That was Labor's idea to endeavour to defeat this possibility, when the scheme was implemented, of the government having to pay unemployment benefits to all men on strike.

The scheme applied only to a particular plant. It did not apply in the case of the recent strike of State Electricity Commission workers in Victoria. For example, there were only 6 members of the Vehicle Builders Union employed at Yallourn on the maintenance of trucks and motor cars, etc., owned by the State Electricity Commission and naturally they were on strike with the other workers. They had no option but to go out with their colleagues. However, that does not mean to say that the men in the Vehicle Builders Employees Federation - in other industry - who are put out of work because of a strike at Yallourn should be penalised. That is a different thing altogether to the interpretation put on this decision by the previous Labor government. As I have already said - I impress this upon the Minister for Social Services - the interpretation was that only those working in one particular plant should be denied unemployment benefits. That was the idea of Labor policy at that particular time and it is altogether different from what the Minister is doing at the present time.

I rose to speak on the grievance debate in regard to matters pertaining to social service benefits and, particularly, to the supplementary allowances which are provided. I point out to the Minister for Social Services that I believe what I have to say is of a constructive nature. As the Minister would be aware, the means test applied to the payment of a supplementary allowance has not been altered for several years. The means test, as it applies at present, is $2 a week supplementary allowance to a single pensioner paying rent, board or lodging. The means lest means that if they have other income exceeding $1 a week but which is less than S3 a week, their supplementary allowance would be reduced accordingly. For example, if a person who had qualified for a supplementary pension had an income of $2.50 a week, he would receive only 50c a week in supplementary pension.

As I have mentioned before, and as I will keep on mentioning until something is done about it, there is one section of invalid pensioners which should be exempted from this means test. 1 refer to those people working in sheltered workshops. The Minister would be aware that any retarded person working in a sheltered workshop would have no money in the bank and no assets to his name and, naturally, he would qualify for the full supplementary pension of $2 a week, except in the case of employees at Escarp Industries, about which I know a little. The Minister for Social Services was honoured to open this workshop a few years ago. The employees at Escarp receive $2.50 a week for their work. Escarp does a very good job in trying to do something for these people to keep them occupied but, because of the fact that they are earning $2.50 a week, their supplementary pension is reduced from $2 a week to 50c. So, in other words, they work all week for 50c. If they did not work at all they would receive the full supplementary pension of $2, so one can readily see that this is a blot upon the Government. As honourable members would be aware these people are not responsible for their actions and the Escarp companies are doing a magnificent job in keeping them occupied. I believe that this section of recipients of the invalid pension should be exempted from the means test.

I now refer to the application form which has to be completed by people applying for age and invalid pensions. As the Minister is aware, part of the form relates to supplementary assistance. In the last 12 months 2 people who have come to see me did not know that they were entitled to receive supplementary assistance simply because they did not understand the form which they completed when they applied for a pension. There is very little information given about supplementary assistance. As a matter of fact, one man who came to see me only last week would have been entitled to receive supplementary assistance for the past 3 years if he had understood the form that has to be completed. He receives supplementary asistance now. He applied for the back money which he should have received, but naturally his application was refused. But the point is that when people are being examined by the magistrate on behalf of the Department of Social Services they should be fully acquainted as their entitlements and what the means test is. If that had been done in the case to which I have referred the man would have received supplementary assistance for 3 years prior to the time when he actually received it.

I also refer to another case involving another constituent of mine. I have been authorised to use the name of the person concerned. Her name is Ellen Sweeney, but everyone knows her as Nellie Sweeney. She is a blind pensioner. She has been receiving supplementary assistance since 1967. She plays an organ at a church in a nearby electorate. It is a common sight to see her playing the organ in this church with her seeing eye dog beside her. She receives $15 a month from the church for playing the organ. That averages approximately $170 a year. She is entitled to receive $156 a year, being $2 a week supplementary assistance and an extra $1 a week she is allowed to earn, before the means test is applied. This woman has to repay $410 to the Department simply because she did not know that she was not entitled to receive the supplementary allowance. Being a blind pensioner she assumed that blind pensioners were exempted from all means tests.

This woman is a well known and popular identity in my electorate. She plays the piano at functions organised by old age pensioners associations and she does not receive any money for doing it. She has written a letter to me and I have sent a copy of it to the Minister. He has acknowledged receipt of it and has said that he will look into the matter. In this case I am making a special plea to have the repayment of the money to the Department waived because she was not aware of the operation of the means test. She thought that blind pensioners were exempted from the means test. In her letter to me she said that she has been notified by the Department that it intends to deduct $7 a fortnight from her pension and that she just does not know where she will get the money to feed herself and her seeing eye dog. This is the position. The people associated with church at which she plays the organ asked me to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister. I appeal to the

Minister to waive the payment of the money which this woman owes to the Department of Social Services.







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