Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 – Second Reading Speech

This Bill contains a range of measures relating to income support and veterans’ affairs payments, and disability advocacy services. It includes two Budget 2011-12 measures, and one Budget 2009-10 measure.

Disability Support Pension-Impairment Tables

The Disability Support Pension is an essential element of Australia’s safety net but it is vital that it supports the people who need it-those Australians who, through disability, are unable to work to fully support themselves.

It is essential that the level of someone’s impairment is assessed using the most up-to-date medical information.

The current Impairment Tables used in Disability Support Pension assessments were last comprehensively reviewed in 1993 and are no longer consistent with contemporary medical and rehabilitation practices.

Over the years this has led to anomalies and inconsistencies which have distorted the assessment process.

For example, when hearing impairment is assessed, a person with a hearing aid is not required to wear it but someone who is having their sight impairment assessed must wear their glasses.

In the 2009-10 Budget the Government committed to updating the impairment tables. This is an important element of the Government’s reforms to the Disability Support Pension to make it simpler, fairer and sustainable for those who need it.

An Advisory Committee of medical, allied health and rehabilitation experts, disability advocates, mental health advocates and relevant Government agencies was established in 2010 to provide advice on updating the Impairment Tables. Following a rigorous process, the Advisory Committee has provided a final report and draft revised tables to the Government.

The Bill removes the current outdated Impairment Tables from 1 January 2012, and enables new Impairment Tables to be introduced through a legislative instrument.

The draft legislative instrument that contains the revised tables, based on the advisory committee’s report, will be released shortly for public comment.

Putting the Impairment Tables in a legislative instrument allows them to be updated regularly in response to developments in medical or rehabilitation practice.

These revised tables have been developed following extensive consultation, and ongoing consultation will occur as they are implemented.

Disability advocacy services

The Bill also introduces a stronger quality assurance system for disability advocacy services to make sure that people with disabilities receive the best possible advocacy support.

The current quality assurance system has not changed since 1997, and the need for improved quality assurance for disability advocacy services has been highlighted in a number of reviews.

The Bill introduces mechanisms independent from government to assess the compliance of disability advocacy services against Disability Advocacy Standards.

Development of a robust, quality assured disability advocacy sector will help meet the objectives of the National Disability Strategy, and will also help meet Australia’s obligations under that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The third-party certification quality assurance system this Bill introduces has been successfully in place for disability employment services since 2002. It involves people with disability at all levels in the system, including as members of audit teams.

The new quality assurance system has been successfully trialled and independently evaluated in consultation with the disability advocacy services sector. The evaluation recommended formal implementation.

Changes to income support payments

This Bill also makes a number of changes to the social security law, and veterans’ affairs legislation, in relation to Bereavement Allowance and Special Benefit, and the income and assets tests.

The Bill gives effect to a Budget 2011-12 measure to enable Parenting Payment recipients to access Bereavement Allowance following the death of a partner. Historically, there was no financial advantage in transferring between these payment types. However, the introduction of the Government’s Secure and Sustainable Pension Reform package in September 2009 saw a substantial increase to the rate of some pensions, including Bereavement Allowance. Allowing a Parenting Payment recipient to transfer to Bereavement Allowance for a 14-week period, on the death of their partner, will provide additional financial assistance during a difficult time.

The Bill also gives effect to another Budget 2011-12 measure, to more closely align the rules for accessing Special Benefit for Provisional Partner Visa holders with the rules for other newly arrived migrants.

From 1 January 2012, a class of visa holders determined by legislative instrument will be required to wait two years to be eligible for Special Benefit. This rule will not apply if the visa holder is able to demonstrate that there has been a substantial change in their circumstances after their arrival in Australia and they are in hardship.

Under current policy, Provisional Partner Visa holders are able to access Special Benefit from when they are granted the visa and are in Australia if they can demonstrate they are suffering from ‘financial hardship’.

This is not consistent with other newly arrived migrants subject to the Newly Arrived Residence Waiting Period, who need to demonstrate both ‘financial hardship’ and ‘change in circumstance outside of their control’ in order to access Special Benefit.

Under these changes from 1 January 2012, Provisional Partner Visa holders will need to demonstrate they have experienced a ‘substantial change of circumstances beyond their control’ in addition to financial hardship in order to access Special Benefit.

These changes reflect the community’s expectation that new migrants to Australia should be able to support themselves, or be supported by their families and partners unless they are impacted by circumstances outside of their control.

The new arrangements continue, however, to ensure adequate protection for vulnerable migrants on Provisional Partner Visas, for example where there is domestic violence, death of a partner or an injury or accident after their arrival in Australia.

The Bill also makes changes to the social security law and veterans’ entitlements legislation to enhance the integrity of certain asset-test exempt income streams. These amendments strengthen the existing rules that require lifetime and life expectancy income streams to provide an annual actuarial certificate, in order to gain the benefit of concessional treatment under the social security law.

Currently, in order for holders of lifetime and life expectancy income streams to benefit from concessional treatment under the social security assets test and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, it is required that an actuary certifies that there is a high probability that the provider of the income stream will be able to pay the income stream for its full term.

Currently, some social security customers, after submitting an actuarial certificate that fails to meet the high probability test, later seek to replace this initial certificate with a more favourable certificate that meets the high probability test, a number of times within a financial year.

This Bill clarifies that customers can only give the Secretary (or the Repatriation Commission) one actuarial certificate for each financial year to show that the fund has sufficient resources to pay an income stream for its term.

In the event that a person submits more than one certificate for a particular financial year, only the first certificate given will have effect, not any of the subsequent certificates.

The amendments in this Bill also address inconsistencies in the treatment of these income streams that have arisen over time.

Finally, the Bill also makes amendments to the social security law to clarify that payments made by an employer to an employee in lieu of notice of the termination of his or her employment are ‘redundancy payments’ for the purposes of social security law. This ensures that, in calculating income maintenance periods under the Act, people who receive these payments are treated the same as people who receive other types of redundancy payments.