The Australian Greens also will be opposing this bill. In speaking to the legislative changes proposed by the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Vocational Rehabilitation Services) Bill 2006, I intend to address three main issues. Firstly, the bill proposes to change the way vocational rehabilitation services are delivered under the Disability Services Act by outsourcing rehabilitation services to private providers. However, it does so without ensuring that clients of the new private providers have access to the same provisions for oversight and appeal that currently exist for clients of the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service, or CRS. I also wish to speak to the manner in which the government has jumped the gun by putting these rehabilitation services out to tender before the legislation governing their operation has passed through this parliament, therefore effectively signalling that the democratic role of both houses of parliament in assessing and amending legislation is now totally irrelevant.
The second issue I intend to address is the proposed changes to the manner in which the pensioner education supplement, or PES, is carried over for income support recipients moved onto lower payments under the Social Security Act. Thirdly, I wish to discuss the proposed changes to the Social Security Act enshrined in the legislation provisions that allow debts to be raised for the recovery of what are deemed to be overpayments of the discretionary payments made under financial case management to people on an eight-week suspension. It proposes to enshrine the raising of these debts in legislation despite the fact that these discretionary payments are not themselves defined in the statutes.
Finally, after dealing with those issues, I wish to use the opportunity provided by this bill that is implementing some of the Welfare to Work provisions to address another huge inconsistency in legislation, which is the inconsistency that has now arisen between the Social Security Act and the changes to the Family Law Act introduced last year relating to equal shared parenting and principal carers.
Turning first to vocational rehabilitation services, this legislation proposes to open the provision of rehabilitation services currently provided by the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service to the private sector. While I am not opposed to the provision of rehabilitation services by private practitioners in principle, I am deeply concerned by the manner in which it is being done. The main concerns of the Australian Greens are that private sector service providers will not be bound by the same set of regulatory and safe practice mechanisms as the government sector or the CRS; the departmental secretary does not have to approve private sector rehabilitation programs, potentially allowing providers to prescribe hundreds of hours of unnecessary rehab from which they will profit; and there is no appeal mechanism for private sector rehabilitation programs, despite the fact that participation will be compulsory under Welfare to Work.
To begin with, the bill will allow the new private sector providers a 12-month grace period to attain certification of compliance with the rehabilitation standards which the CRS currently complies with. These are standards which have long been regarded as important to quality service provision for people who are accessing assistance at a time of significant personal and emotional need.
With a potential 12-month delay in the certification of providers, clients could have been exposed to a year of unsatisfactory or inappropriate rehabilitation before an agency is asked to account for itself.
I am also concerned about the level of oversight, particularly of the process by which a rehabilitation program is determined. In the case of the rehabilitation services provided by the CRS, the departmental secretary was required to sign off on the appropriateness of each rehabilitation program. Under the new arrangements for private sector providers there is no clear oversight mechanism. Where we have private sector providers delivering taxpayer funded rehabilitation programs, I would think that there would need to be a greater level of scrutiny; otherwise what is to stop private providers from prescribing hundreds of hours of expensive, inappropriate or unnecessary rehabilitation services from which they obtain a direct material benefit? In the absence of a legislative mechanism of oversight and no statutory right of appeal, what is there to stop rorting of the system? We need to have processes in place to protect the best interests of the people requiring rehabilitation, as well as taxpayers, from the potential for exploitation by unscrupulous operators. This is particularly important where under Welfare to Work participation in vocational rehabilitation programs will be compulsory, yet the legislation does not provide an appeal mechanism to those people compelled to attend; in other words, they are being compelled to attend a program of rehabilitation that they have no say in and no appeal rights over.
I am also concerned about the future of the CRS and its employees in that they could be placed at risk if it is made to compete in a market where the standards of service delivery applying to a government agency are not the same as those applying to a private agency because this might put them at a market disadvantage. We need to ensure that a level playing field is provided.
This is another example of the government's naive approach to privatisation of service delivery. It highlights an ideological belief that simply opening up taxpayer funded services to competition will result in more efficient and effective service delivery. It is essential to get the legislation and the regulations covering the performance of the market right in the first place; otherwise it faces the risk of over-servicing on the one hand where providers prescribe unnecessary services as a way of gouging the public purse, or under-servicing on the other where providers scrimp on the quality of services and facilities as a way to compete on price.
Before this legislation was introduced to the parliament, the government had already opened up the rehabilitation market for tender, with no ability to take into account any of the outcomes, discussions or recommendations from either the committee inquiry or the parliamentary process. This demonstrates the government's intention to ignore the input of colleagues on both sides of the chamber and in both houses as well as the input of the sector and the public obtained through the committee process and simply use their numbers to ram this hasty piece of legislation through this place.
Item 17 of the bill provides a limited override of the right of both houses to amend the Disability Services (Rehabilitation Services) Guidelines 2006. The government claimed that it needed to do this because section 5 of the Disability Services Act allows both houses 15 days in which to amend guidelines, and this could delay their approval to beyond the implementation date of 1 July 2007. The government are putting this arbitrarily decided implementation date before the democratic institutions of this nation, which I believe is extreme hubris on the part of the government.
Let me turn to the pensioner education supplement. Yet again we are seeing quite draconian amendments being foisted on to some of the most disadvantaged in our community-those people living with disabilities. Recently the government changed their approach to those in the transition group or the grandfathered group whereby if people apply to do voluntary training or work they are being assessed and moved on to the Newstart allowance or NSA from their disability support pension or DSP. And here we have yet another change impacting on people with disabilities. The amendment removing the entitlement to the pensioner education supplement is perhaps the most insidious aspect of this bill.
Currently, sole parents and people with disabilities who move from the parenting payment or the disability support pension to the Newstart allowance as a result of the Welfare to Work changes are still entitled to keep their pensioner education supplement. This supplement allows them to continue an ongoing course of study, which they are undertaking to improve their education prospects. This bill changes this arrangement so that DSP recipients who are moved to Newstart or youth allowance after a review will only retain their pensioner education supplement if this is their first review since 1 July 2006. This appears to mean that, as soon as they have a second review, they will automatically lose their PES entitlement. This is a very significant change which will see people with disabilities who are part of the way through a course of study financially disadvantaged to such an extent that they may not be able to complete it. There has been a lot of criticism of this move by the community sector, which is of course not unexpected.
In their submission to the inquiry, ACOSS gave the example of a person on a disability support pension who has just commenced a three-year, full-time course and their payment is first reviewed in, say, 2007. If they lose the pension on this first review, they would ordinarily continue to receive their PES until the course is completed three years later. This would be worth $31.20 per week or around $4,900 over three years. However, if they retain the pension in this review but lose it in a subsequent review 12 months later, their PES would then be cancelled. They would miss out on $31.20 per week for the remaining two years of the course-a total of $3,200.
These changes are even more ridiculous in light of the information DEWR revealed to the inquiry by the Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education into the provisions of the bill.
The department stated that it expects no financial savings to be made from these changes and that they would apparently affect about 100 people. I see no credible reason for imposing greater hardship on some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society. The proposed changes are plainly unfair and are of no benefit to anyone. They will substantially disadvantage the people still benefiting from PES who are working hard to improve their credentials and their ability to gain meaningful employment and do nothing for the nation, which is already facing a skills crisis and needs a more educated and better qualified workforce to improve productivity and build our future economy. These changes make no sense.
Let us move onto the financial case management system. The bill also proposes other changes to the Social Security Act, including changes to allow for the recovery of what are deemed to be overpayments under financial case management. Changes introduced as part of the Welfare to Work legislation last year allowed for people subject to an eight-week, non-payment order-that is, they are breached-to receive financial case management. The amendments to this bill will change the legislation to make it possible for debts to be raised from overpayments under financial case management and payments of these debts to be made from income support benefits. In the case of overpayments made by Centrelink of ordinary income support payments such as PPS, DSP, NSA or youth allowance, where the payments are statutory and are clearly defined, such a regime makes sense. Under these changes, the recipients of the allowance know exactly what to expect by way of payment and have access to clear review and appeal mechanisms on these decisions. However, because the financial case management payments are discretionary, recipients do not have this certainty, and the process lacks the transparency and the opportunities and mechanisms for appeal and review.
As it stands, the amendments this bill makes to the act are inconsistent. The proposed changes would see the right to recover overpayments outlined in legislation under circumstances where the making of these payments under financial case management are not outlined in the legislation. If the government is intent on the proper, transparent implementation of financial case management then it should take the time to properly develop the legal framework for the practice and to put that legislation before this parliament. To address this problem, I am proposing an amendment to this legislation to allow for an overpayment only to be collected in the following circumstances: where the primary income support payment is restored part of the way through the eight-week, non-payment period and where the client has undeclared income at least to the level of their normal income support entitlement. I think this amendment addresses some of the inconsistency and I ask the Senate to support it. This amendment was also recommended by ACOSS in their submission.
I would now like to move to an area of inconsistency under the act. This inconsistency is the result of various pieces of legislation introduced in this place. Whether the consequences were intended or not, it is having an unfair impact on members of our community. I would like to focus on the inconsistency between the newly implemented equal shared parenting provisions of the Family Law Act and the Social Security Act. Under the Social Security Act, in the case of divorced or separated parents with equal shared care, only one parent will be determined to be the principal carer. Being the principal carer, a recipient of income support will not be subject to some of the Welfare to Work provisions such as work participation requirements. They will be entitled to a range of exemptions and benefits that only apply to principal carers, such as the continuation of pharmaceutical benefits, a concession card, a telephone allowance, an education entry payment, a limited activity test and protections from taking a job with less than $25 net earnings per week, not having access to suitable child care or not requiring travel more than 60 minutes to work.
As far as I can determine, the other parent with the responsibility for the care of the child or children will have no access to the parenting protections offered within the income support system and no recognition of or support for their parental responsibilities. This one-sided set of arrangements is now situated within the context of major changes to family law, which represent a significant shift in societal expectations of how parenting roles and responsibilities will be shared when relationships between parents break down and families divide.
As this chamber knows, from 1 July the Family Law Act requires mediators and judicial officers to consider equal time for each parent or, failing that, substantial or significant time-shared equal parenting. The implication of this is that there will be a steady increase in equal time arrangements and the current principal carer rules will increasingly create structured inequalities for parents and children in the income support system.
This will predictably create conflict between parents, placing additional stress on the parent not selected as the principal carer and increased risks on the child of either loss of care and/or a reduced standard of living as a consequence of loss of parental income.
This is clearly inconsistent with legislative reforms to both family law and child support. Both these promote an ideal of shared parenting, yet social security law only recognises one parent. If we are to commit to and apply the concept of equal shared parenting in family law then we must also commit to and apply it to social security laws. Otherwise we are creating a two-tiered system that actively discriminates against children of broken families who have one or both parents on income support.
The NCSMC has already documented reports from mothers of infants who have been ordered by the courts to share care 50-50 and who have not been determined to be the principal carer, and who therefore face the same job search requirements as a single job seeker with no children to support and, of course, none of the other supplementary income support mechanisms.
I am very concerned that this policy has the potential to be very harmful for children during their half-time life in the household where their parent faces an eight-week loss of income if they cannot balance their work and childcare commitments and are forced to look after their children instead of taking an unsuitable job.
Research by the Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support found that childcare costs for zero to 5-year-olds was something like $11,000 to 12,000 per annum. How is a parent meant to afford child care when they are forced to work full-time when their children are below school age? This policy is another example of policy-disconnect and where the Welfare to Work system inappropriately and unfairly impacts on sections of our community.
I propose an amendment to the Social Security Act to address the plight of principle carers by changing the definition of principle carer in the act. This will bring some consistency between the government's new policy direction on shared parenting and the Social Security Act. This is a very important issue and one I hope the government will fully consider. The implications of shared parenting are very serious and, now that it is law, the system that supports parents raising children should be consistent.
I will move a series of amendments to this bill that will address the issues around the 12-month allowance for certification of private practitioners, the time limit on pensioner education supplement eligibility and place in the legislation an appeals mechanism for the clients of private practitioners, similar to the one already available to clients of CRS. I believe that these amendments are essential if this legislation is to be fair to the people affected by this legislation. As it stands, without these amendments the Greens will not support this legislation because we think it is unfair. It is another attack by the government on the most unfortunate and vulnerable people in our society who, in many cases, are not able to defend themselves. They will not have appeal rights to the decisions that are made about their rehabilitation. Surely any fair system would provide the recipients of care with the right to appeal and have a say in their rehabilitation management program. For the life of me, I cannot work out why the government has failed to include this important mechanism in this legislation.