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Wednesday, 4 December 1974
Page: 3107

Senator WHEELDON (Western AustraliaMinister for Repatriation and Compensation) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to incorporate my second reading speech in Hansard.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT-Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted. (The speech read as follows)-

Honourable senators will be well aware of the emphasis placed by the present Australian Government on all aspects of social welfare, especially those involving the more socially disadvantaged people in our society. Accordingly, on 26 February 1973, the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) established a working party to examine and report on the problems of homeless men and women in Australia. At their first meeting he reminded members of the working party that the problems of homelessness permeated many age groups and areas of the Australian community. Millions of dollars are spent on the enforcement of archaic laws against these casualties of society but very little government money has been spent on providing facilities for rest, nutrition, treatment, counselling and rehabilitation which would ease the burden on the law enforcement agencies and provide a reasonable standard of support for the homeless. When the Minister for Social Security released the report of the working party on 17 July 1973, he sought public comment on the recommendations which had been made. There has been an enthusiastic response to this report.

The Government's decision to adopt the major recommendations of the working party was first announced by the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) in his election policy speech on 29 April 1974. On the occasion he said that the Government had decided to introduce a program to help meet the material needs and raise the dignity of homeless men and women. He went on to indicate that capital grants would be made available over a 3 year period to organisations for projects such as night shelters, hostels, flats, day centres and specialised clinics and centres for homeless people. The Prime Minister said:

This is a program devised in response to a much neglected need: It will be of benefit to the young as well as the old. It will be of benefit to any person in immediate need: To the permanently homeless, to the deserted or disturbed woman and her children, to the Aboriginal or teenager in want or distress, to the battered woman or the battered child, to the single parent- in short, to anyone without support or an income.

In delivering the Government's welfare policy speech on 1 May 1974, the Minister for Social Security gave further details of the policy the Government had endorsed. He said then that this was an area of need to which the social conscience of the Government was being directed, the basic aim of the program is to assist, by the provision of funds, counselling and resource expertise, organisations undertaking special programs on behalf of homeless people. The homeless men and women to be assisted are in poverty in the sense that they have few independent resources and lack a conventional home with most of the social or economic supports a home normally provides.

The purpose of this Bill is to assist eligible organisations engaged in providing temporary accommodation and personal services for homeless men and women and, in one-parent family situations, their children. It proposes a program of assistance for people who find themselves without what is accepted in Australia as a normal home, through social factors such as alcoholism, inadequacy, domestic conflict or similar reasons. It is not proposed to provide emergency housing for people experiencing financial or similar problems in finding suitable housing. Nor is it proposed by this Bill to intrude into the fields of child care which traditionally are the responsibility of the States.

The Bill offers eligible organisations an opportunity to receive financial assistance to improve and upgrade existing hostels, day attendance centres and detoxification clinics; or to replace them or to establish new facilities. This particular form of assistance will be available for 3 years. These grants may be made to meet the cost of purchasing a building for use as a homeless persons assistance centre or purchasing land and having a centre built. Alternatively, the grant may be made to cover the cost of rent of premises used as a centre. Grants will also be available to improve premises, whether owned or rented, to upgrade the services offered to homeless persons. The purchase of fixtures, furniture, furnishings and equipment used in the operation of a homeless persons assistance centre may also qualify for a grant under these provisions of the Bill. Grants may be up to 100 per cent of the cost of the project. Provision has been made for expenditure of up to $ 1.45m for the remainder of the year 1974-75. These provisions should result in a significant improvement in the standard of accommodation in homeless persons centres.

To protect the Government funds which may be granted for these projects, participating organisations may be required to enter into agreements. These agreements would provide that, in the event of the closing of the centre, the Australian Government's contribution, based on the proportion of the subsidy paid to the cost of the project, would be recovered. This is similar to provisions in other legislation administered by the Department of Social Security and corresponds with an equivalent provision in the Handicapped Persons Assistance Bill 1974. There will also be subsidies towards other expenses, generally those of a recurrent nature. The 3 year time period mentioned previously in relation to subsidies of a capital nature will not apply to these subsidies for operating expenses.

The Bill offers a subsidy of up to 50 per cent of the salary of a suitably qualified or experienced social welfare worker employed at a homeless persons centre. The term 'social welfare worker' includes a social worker, welfare officer, psychologist, occupational therapist or other person providing a service or treatment for homeless people. In special circumstances this subsidy may be paid for more than one staff member at a centre. Provision has been made for expenditure of up to $250,000 for these purposes for the remainder of the year 1974-75. Funds were allocated in Appropriation Act No. 2 for making capital grants and paying salary subsidies. Further amounts will be sought by appropriation as required.

The Bill provides for further subsidies for organisations providing food or accommodation or food only for homeless people, the amounts payable to be fixed by regulation. In accordance with the recommendations of the working party's report, it is proposed that eligible organisations offering food and accommodation may qualify for a subsidy of up to 75c a day per person accommodated. Similarly, it is proposed that centres providing food only may quality for a subsidy of up to 20c per meal served or meal ticket issued. The rates of these subsidies will be reviewed from time to time in the light of experience and as part of the on-going evaluation of the program. The funds for these subsidies will be provided from the National Welfare Fund and provision has been made for expenditure of up to $550,000 for the remainder of the year 1974-75. As I have just indicated the whole program of assistance will be subject to a thorough and continuous review. The scope, value and standards of the services provided will be monitored and an assessment of the total program will be made prior to the expiration of the first 3 years of its operation.

Earlier announcements regarding the Government's intention to introduce this worthwhile program, an initiative in a completely new field as far as the Australian Government is concerned, mentioned that statutory authorities would be able to participate. We are mindful of the fact that the main burden in this area has hitherto been carried by voluntary organisations, and their experience and dedication has been long and well established. In view of the interest which the voluntary sector has displayed since the Government's intentions were made known, and the constraints imposed upon us by the finance available, it seems desirable that in the first instance priority in relation to eligibility for assistance be extended to the voluntary sector. Assistance for voluntary bodies will enable them not only to continue their existing work in this area but also to extend and further develop their activities, including innovative projects. Many of the agencies have been anxious to initiate new approaches but have been hamstrung because of financial limitations.

Accordingly, resources available under the program will, in the first instance, be concentrated on voluntary organisations and local governing bodies. As the scheme develops, and as its operations are assessed and evaluated, its scope may be widened in the light of experience to extend eligibility also to State departments and authorities. Many of the men and women who will benefit from the improved services for the homeless are now receiving income security benefits at rates and under conditions which, in accordance with the Government's enlightened and progressive policy, have been liberalised dramatically since the end of 1972. They could, therefore, be expected to contribute towards the cost of these services. Eligible organisations receiving grants and subsidies will be able to make an appropriate charge for services provided to the homeless.

Through this program, the Government hopes to achieve a steady improvement in the services available to homeless people. We hope that the improved facilities for temporary accommodation and for rest, nutrition, counselling and treatment, will allow may of the homeless to be given the choice and opportunity of returning to what might be regarded as a normal life. The Government's belief in social justice, which has been demonstrated by massive inputs to our social welfare program, opens up the possibility of programs such as this leading to a diminution of the problem through the rehabilitation of this group of the socially disadvantaged. This Bill is designed to provide both a reasonable standard of support and increased opportunities for homeless people, enabling them to obtain a place of dignity in the fabric of Australian society.

The Bill provides for the establishment of advisory committees to help develop a coordinated program of assistance. It is hoped to establish these committees as quickly as possible, ensuring that all involved in the welfare of the homeless participate in the work of the committees. The Bill is an expression of this Government's social conscience and its commitment to assist in a tangible and practical way, people who have become casualties within our competitive society. The measures proposed within the Bill are based on a compassionate understanding of the needs and very real problems and homeless men and women and of their alienation, their loneliness and their despair. Our Government is determined to end such areas of neglect. This Bill is one expression of that determination. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Rae) adjourned.

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