Breaching rules change to protect the vulnerable
I am pleased to announce a number of significant changes to the Government’s breaching rules that will help our most vulnerable job seekers, while keeping the breaching regime tough for those who deliberately try to cheat the system.
These new initiatives build on the substantial work already being done. The Government has been constantly looking for better ways to help our most disadvantaged job seekers and has been working on a range of measures over the last year to ensure that breaches are not imposed without good reason. (See Attachment)
Under the old system, job seekers who miss an interview and, after several attempts, cannot be contacted by Centrelink, are subject to breaching. That would mean an automatic reduction in their payment for a set period of time. Once the breach was imposed, payments could only be reinstated after a successful appeal.
The problem with this old system was that it could be too harsh on vulnerable people. For example, people with mental illnesses, the homeless or customers with drug or alcohol problems, might have a reasonable excuse for missing an interview but sometimes would accept a reduction in payments rather than come in to Centrelink and discuss their situation.
Another difficulty was that people who were cheating the system by keeping a job secret from Centrelink would also quite often be prepared to cop a breach and the associated reduction in payments rather than come into Centrelink for a face to face interview.
Today’s announcement will mean that from 1 July 2002, Centrelink will be able to temporarily suspend payments when a job seeker has failed to meet their obligations and cannot be contacted rather than breaching them.
We have a vast range of resources to help vulnerable people. By suspending payments, customers will be encouraged to come into Centrelink and their issues will be able to be worked through. If customers provide a reasonable excuse for failing to attend an interview then payments will be fully restored from the date of suspension.
For those job seekers who are in fact cheating by holding down a secret job, having to come into Centrelink will be a real problem. A face to face interview every time they miss an interview will be the last thing a cheater wants.
A second change will help the needy by broadening the breach waiver provisions. People on Newstart can already have an activity test breach penalty waived if they start Work for the Dole or an activity under the Community Support Program, soon to be the Personal Support Program. Under the new system, people who start a rehabilitation program through the
Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service or formal vocational training as part of a specified labour market program will also be able to have their activity test breach waived.
Thirdly, we will make it easier for job seekers by reducing the penalties for failing to attend an interview without a reasonable excuse. This will now become an administrative breach rather than an activity test breach, thereby attracting the lesser penalty of a 16 per cent reduction of payments for 13 weeks instead of an 18 per cent reduction for 26 weeks.
The fourth change is a significant investment in job seekers through a closer monitoring of the ‘Preparing for Work Agreements’. Currently, when a person agrees to undertake a particular activity under a Preparing for Work Agreement there is not always a formal mechanism for following up on the success or otherwise of the activity. Centrelink will now have more time with individual job seekers to review what they have done, look at their personal circumstances and any obstacles to participation, and to plan follow-up activities to give job seekers the best chance of finding a job or further improving their employment prospects.
This is good for job seekers and good for taxpayers – genuine job seekers will get the help they need to return to work, while non-genuine job seekers will face additional scrutiny.
Today’s announcement builds upon the suite of initiatives already implemented that help vulnerable job seekers and ensures that all 26 of the recommendations from Centrelink’s Review of Breaching Practices and Guidelines have been considered.
I am confident that these changes will assist the most vulnerable people in our community while ensuring that a robust mutual obligation system still exists.
ATTACHMENT – Government Initiatives on Breaching
Third Breach Alert – commenced June 2001
The Centrelink ‘Third Breach Alert’ commenced on a national basis in June 2001 and is activated when a third breach for a customer is being considered. At this time, consultation with a specialist officer (eg. Social Worker or Occupational Psychologist) takes place to consider whether the customer has any special needs or may lack the capacity to comply with their mutual obligation requirements. It is part of Centrelink’s move to improve staffs’ ability to identify those who are most at risk of being breached and allows more opportunity to help customers understand and comply with their obligations. Updated training materials have been developed and distributed to Centrelink staff.
2nd Breach Intervention – pilot from August 2001
This strategy, currently in place as a pilot from August 2001, occurs after the imposition of a second breach. At this time, the customer is called in for an interview aimed at identifying any factors that may be contributing to the likelihood of a subsequent breach. The obligations of the customer are reinforced at this interview and measures may be taken to prevent them incurring further breach penalties. Specialist officers will also assist if required. The Pilot is currently being evaluated with a final report due to be released in June 2002. This report will include recommendations about which elements of the pilot should be rolled out across the network at a time to be decided.
Verification of Earnings Project – pilot from February 2001
Commencing in February 2001, this pilot project provides customers with a form to assist them to accurately declare their earnings from employment and by requiring them to provide third party verification of their earnings. The pilot is currently being evaluated. The preliminary results, which focuses on the pilot’s effect on reducing customer debt, show an increased accuracy for payments affected by earnings as well as high levels of satisfaction from customers and employers.
“At Risk” Profiling – will be implemented from 1 July 2002
This initiative will be implemented from 1 July 2002 and will involve the use of an online tool that will identify customers with characteristics that indicate that they are potentially vulnerable customers (eg. those at risk of social and economic marginalisation). This information will be immediately available at the time that breach considerations are made and will allow Centrelink to target its interventions to customers most at risk. The initiative was announced by Minister Vanstone in October 2001.
Under 18 Youth at Risk Strategy – implemented in November 2000
Centrelink has established procedures for developing Preparing For Work Agreements for youth under 18 at risk of disconnecting from mainstream society. Guidelines have been developed which will ensure that PFWAs for young people develop appropriate activities to maintain income support, accommodate their personal circumstances and minimise their chances of being breached eg finding suitable accommodation, drug and alcohol education. This was implemented in November 2000.
Homebound Program – commenced November 2001
Centrelink is hosting 50 Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) workers for two and half days within Centrelink offices focussing on the development of a good working relationship between Centrelink and SAAP services. This will ensure a better integrated service approach to the needs of homeless customers and will lead to a greater understanding of the service providers’ various perspectives. Centrelink staff members will also spend a day in a SAAP service.
Government response to recommendations of Centrelink internal breach review
Recommendation 1: Consolidate known and emerging data about the characteristics of customer groups who are at-risk and vulnerable.
- Centrelink will commence this consolidation from March 2002.
Recommendation 2: Increase staff awareness about the characteristics of at-risk and vulnerable customer groups and enhance the interviewing skills of staff so that they are better able to encourage customers to provide information about themselves that is relevant to their at-risk or vulnerable status.
- New and revised breach training packages were released in February 2002.
Recommendation 3: Examine the feasibility of developing a dynamic, interactive IT business support tool to extract and consolidate systems-held information on individual customers’ characteristics that indicate a customer might be in an at-risk or vulnerable group.
- This will be introduced as part of Customer Profiling from 1 July 2002.
Recommendation 4: Pending longer-term system development issues, develop a script or further enhance the “SPRITE” product to collect and display at-risk factor information and to “flag” the records of customers who may be at significant risk of incurring a breach penalty.
- Under development by Centrelink currently.
New Breach Procedures
Recommendation 5: Evaluate the Third Breach Alert procedures to determine ways that those procedures could be enhanced and applied to decision-making at the First and Second Breach stages.
- Currently evaluating. Completion April 2002. Centrelink is applying 3rd Breach alert procedures at other breach contacts eg: at all breaches, at second breaches and at all breaches for youth, depending on their capacity.
Recommendation 6: Second and subsequent Breach determinations be made only by staff specifically trained for the task.
- Centrelink Area Managers instructed to implement in November 2001.
Recommendation 7: Third Breach Alert procedures be extended to the application of earnings related breaches.
- These have been extended from November 2001.
Recommendation 8: Develop a decision review checklist for use by staff conducting all breach investigations.
- Checklist has been developed and will be sent out to Areas in March 2002.
Seminars and New Claim Interviews
Recommendation 9: Promote pre-grant seminars as the preferred information seminar model.
- Promoted from 1 November 2001.
Recommendation 10: Review seminar content (including the seminar video and related material) to ensure that information contained on breaching is clear and easily understood by customers.
- Content has been reviewed and new seminar packages will be available from July 2002, in line with AWT.
Recommendation 11: Ensure seminars are presented by knowledgeable staff who have high level presentation skills and the ability to engage and interact with the wide range of seminar participants.
- Area managers instructed to ensure on 1 November 2001.
Recommendation 12: Customer Service Centres to conduct tailored seminars for the at-risk or vulnerable customer groups they service, wherever possible.
- Area managers instructed to ensure on 1 November 2001.
Recommendation 13: Review letters and forms relating to breaching giving consideration to suggestions made by staff and community organisations.
- Continual improvement – letters being reviewed in light of breach rule changes.
Recommendation 14: Explore alternative ways to communicate with and deliver messages to vulnerable or at-risk groups of job seekers, such as youth and Indigenous groups.
- Centrelink Breach Flyer research completed December 2001- evaluated alternate ways to communicate messages to job seekers. Report being evaluated. Implementation of the Breach Flyer by April 2002
Recommendation 15: Review quality assurance mechanisms to ensure mailing houses post letters within agreed timeframes.
- Continual improvement process – ongoing.
Recommendation 16: Review all publicity products to ensure information on breaching is prominent and provided in an easily-understood style.
Recommendation 17: Investigate non-conventional distribution venues and the provision of customised information to specific intermediaries for at-risk and vulnerable customers.
Recommendation 18: Produce specific information products on breaching which contain practical advice in simple language and include examples of penalties for the First, Second and Third breach, and information on how to have breach decisions reviewed.
- The three recommendations above were all elements explored in the Centrelink Breach Flyer research completed December 2001. Report recently being evaluated. Implementation of the Breach Flyer by April 2002.
Recommendation 19: Review and, where necessary, amend advices and information products to include information to alert customers with non-English speaking backgrounds to the Multicultural Call Centre for further help and advice on breach penalties.
- Centrelink’s Multi Cultural Services team are currently looking at this recommendation.
Recommendation 20: An officer be nominated for a Customer Service Centre or a number of such Centres to act as a central point of contact with local Job Network Members and Community Work Co-ordinators.
- In place in most sites prior to November 2001 – Areas to ensure all sites have contact.
Recommendation 21: Improve local and peak level liaison with community organisations so that, with a customer’s consent, information that Centrelink should take into account in assessing whether customers are at-risk or vulnerable is provided to Centrelink by such agencies.
- Already in place prior to November 2001 – Area Managers asked to increase profile.
Recommendation 22: Ensure effective quality assurance of the full range of training programs in relation to breaching.
- Currently being examined by Centrelink’s Virtual College.
Recommendation 23: Review and develop the training regime required for staff to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to apply natural justice and to give due weight to evidence in administering the breaching system.
- New breach training package in place from February 2002.
Recommendation 24: Put local arrangements in place to ensure that Social Workers and those involved in assessing and determining breach cases for vulnerable customers pass on their knowledge and skills to those staff who are dealing with breach cases at earlier stages.
- In place from November 2001.
Recommendation 25: Centrelink and FaCS set up a standing inter-agency group of their officers to jointly consider and formulate changes to the Guide taking account of the experience of officers using the Guide at the Centrelink Customer Service Centre level. The group should consult with other agencies as required.
- Inter-agency group will be set up by March 2002.
Recommendation 26: The Department of Family and Community Services new policy initiative associated with making available to Centrelink Customer Service Officers an option other than imposing a breach penalty when customers do not respond to a request to attend an appointment with or otherwise contact Centrelink, the Job Network ,or Community Work Co-ordinator.
- New breach rules announced by Minister Vanstone 28 February, 2002.