Community Affairs - 25 February 2011
CHAIR—Senator Siewert, we will now move on to the areas around income management.
Senator SIEWERT—Thank you. I realise that we have traversed some of this ground earlier, so I will try not to do that but to go on from where I have been asking questions before, bearing in mind that I know that we are in an Indigenous cross-portfolio. However, because of the nature now of income management, I apologise if I transgress. I say that upfront.
Thank you very much for the figures that you have already provided. I think I have missed asking for one particular figure, which is the breakdown in the number of recipients in the Northern Territory. Now that income management has been rolled out across the whole of the NT, what is the breakdown and the number of people on compulsory income management for both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people?
Ms Hefren-Webb—There are 15,794 on compulsory income management. These figures are as at 31 December 2010. The breakdown is 97.8 per cent Indigenous and 2.2 per cent non-Indigenous.
Senator SIEWERT—So that I can compare that, could you give me a breakdown—
Ms Hefren-Webb—Sorry, can I correct that figure; that was wrong. The figure is 94.2 Indigenous and 5.8 non-Indigenous.
Senator SIEWERT—So I can compare it, can you tell me the percentage of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who are on income support in the Northern Territory.
Ms Hefren-Webb—I do not have those figures in front of me.
Senator SIEWERT—Can you take that on notice, please?
CHAIR—Is that for income support generally, or only for the income support that is subject to income management?
Senator SIEWERT—No, I want it generally, please. I know last night we talked about the number of people who are on child protection orders in the Northern Territory—on income management, due to child protection measures. I am wondering if you could tell me how many children that covers? Can you break it down that way?
Ms Hefren-Webb—I do not have the number of children. I will just clarify: some of those orders relate to young people transitioning from the care and protection system, so it might be a 16- or 17-year-old young person. They may not have any dependent young children themselves. Some of them are parents around whom there are concerns of neglect and abuse. We can get you that figure, but—
Senator SIEWERT—If you could get it for me, that would be appreciated, thank you. I want to go to the issue of ‘vulnerable’, now; I want to ask some questions about how ‘vulnerable’ is determined. You gave me this list last night in terms of the number of people who are on it as ‘vulnerable’. I would like to know how that is determined. Is the decision made by a Centrelink staff person or is it made by a social worker?
Ms Hefren-Webb—It is made by a social worker. The principles for underpinning the decision are set out in a disallowable instrument.
Senator SIEWERT—In terms of how that classification is made, does somebody have to actually come in—and I appreciate there are visits to communities and then there are people coming in. We have been through that discussion. Does it have to be face to face?
Mr Heferen—I think we might need Centrelink to answer specific questions about how, precisely, it is done, because obviously they do it and not us.
Mr Tidswell—Senator, can you repeat your question, because we were just getting to the table.
Senator SIEWERT—When the decision is being made about people being classified as vulnerable, does that decision have to be made following a face-to-face meeting, whether it is through the travelling process or whether it is people coming in to a Centrelink office?
Mr Tidswell—Generally that is our preferred approach, but there might be times when we will do it over the phone. Ms Cartwright will provide further detail.
Ms Cartwright—Our social workers use the instrument, as Ms Hefren-Webb described. There is no specific referral to a social worker for an assessment for income management. Income management is just a tool, to use a better word, available for our Centrelink social workers to assist customers facing circumstances that would put them in a vulnerable situation. So, as Mr Tidswell said, we usually prefer to do that face to face, but there will be some circumstances where our social workers would have specific knowledge about a customer where they may do it over the phone or make a referral to our customer service advisers to perhaps look at vulnerable income management to assist that customer.
Senator SIEWERT—How is that process initiated? I know we have been through the discussion of people moving over. How is the process triggered? Is there already a flag on someone’s file? Does the social worker have some concerns? How is that triggered? Why do you start thinking that somebody may have to be classified as vulnerable?
Ms Cartwright—The social workers would have some knowledge of that customer or there are some indicators that we would look at that may make a customer vulnerable. They are things like young people who are unable to live at home because of family breakdown, customers who are fearful of taking maintenance action, customers who are experiencing difficulty with a caring role. There are other triggers around homelessness et cetera. These probably would be customers who have had social work intervention over a longer time.
Senator SIEWERT—Looking at the figures that you gave me last night, those on disability support pensions seem to be the very highest proportion of people who are classified as vulnerable—74 females and 89 males. It seems to me that those on disability support pensions seem to be the highest number.
Ms Hefren-Webb—That is not really an unexpected outcome in that the two large payment groups who were eligible to come off income management were age pensioners and disability pensioners and you might expect higher levels of mental illness, homelessness, issues managing money or financial exploitation amongst the disability population.
Senator SIEWERT—So obviously that group are the group that are flagged for looking at specifically.
Ms Hefren-Webb—There is no flag per se. It is a social worker professional judgement.
Mr Tidswell—We do this as part of normal business around Australia—looking at the customer base and people coming into our offices. Our staff will identify somebody who would be vulnerable right across the board. So our social work staff are skilled and experienced at working through what would need to occur here. In general, with the visiting teams and as people attend offices, we get a bit of a sense of who is at risk and vulnerable in that sense. So it is a well-established practice.
Senator SIEWERT—What do you do for those people who are not on income management who are classed as vulnerable?
Mr Tidswell—I think that is what we do generally. We provide, with a good level of service—
Senator SIEWERT—But you do not income-manage them.
Mr Tidswell—No, correct.
Senator SIEWERT—You find other ways of helping them.
Mr Tidswell—Yes, that could be true. That is right.
Senator SIEWERT—What else do you do for these people in the Northern Territory who have been classed as vulnerable, besides income-manage them?
Mr Tidswell—You might look at housing. You might look at support services and a range of things. So in a general sense our service offer is always broader than income management.
Senator SIEWERT—What is the number of people who have been classified as vulnerable who were transitioning from the old income management system to the new one?
Ms Cartwright—The number of vulnerable welfare payment and child protection customers in the Northern Territory who transitioned from the old income management is 189.
Senator SIEWERT—So there are 199. So there is only 10—
Senator SIEWERT—No, no, sorry. Overall there are 199, according to the list you gave me last night. So there are only, in fact, 10 new people classified as vulnerable who were not already on income management. Is that a fair assumption to make?
Mr Tidswell—As we said last night, there is a lot of data here and we might need just to cross-reference with what you have and what we have here to make sure that we are on the same page.
Senator SIEWERT—Okay. I am not trying to trick you; I am trying to work out—
Mr Tidswell—We understand what you are trying to do.
Senator SIEWERT—So 189 were transferred.
Mr Tidswell—It might take us a few minutes just to double-check that figure.
CHAIR—Senator, I do not want to take any of your time, but just on that basis to Mr Tidswell, in terms of the datasets that both Centrelink and FaHCSIA maintain, can we get the basic data that you keep on these things? I know that Senator Siewert goes through in great detail about the various figures, but there must be a standard dataset that the departments have, like on the pieces of paper that you are reading from to us. It would be useful if we could have some kind of agreement as to the basic datasets that you keep to see whether that meets the needs of the ongoing issues in this committee. Then if there is a gap in that we can identify it. That is something we could do after the estimates—to actually have a discussion about what they are—but it seems to me that we are asking the same questions and it would be useful if we just had that basic set. Would that serve your needs, Senator Siewert?
Senator SIEWERT—Yes, it would. Having said that, because this is a new set of data, because this is the first time—
CHAIR—Absolutely. This is where we need to have it. So if we can put that on notice, Dr Harmer, and through Centrelink as well, we will have a discussion afterwards about how we do that. Is that okay?
Dr Harmer—Very good suggestion.
Senator SIEWERT—Thank you. In terms of the number of Indigenous people who are vulnerable and non-Indigenous people who are vulnerable, have you got that breakdown?
Ms Cartwright—That one I would have to take on notice.
Senator SIEWERT—Okay. That would be appreciated. If you have been classified as vulnerable, is that appealable?
Senator SIEWERT—I know I asked last night about how many people had appealed exemptions. How many have appealed the vulnerable classification?
Ms Hefren-Webb—I do not have those figures here.
Senator SIEWERT—Could you take it on notice?
Ms Hefren-Webb—Yes, absolutely.
Senator SIEWERT—Thank you. That would be appreciated. I mentioned the exemptions—and I am not going to go through all the figures again, other than to ask how many of those that have been internally appealed were Indigenous applicants and how many were non-Indigenous applicants.
Ms Hefren-Webb—I do not have the appeals data broken down by Indigenous or non-Indigenous. I am not sure if Centrelink does.
Ms Cartwright—No, we do not either.
Ms Hefren-Webb—We can ask for that.
Senator SIEWERT—If you could. The reason I am asking is that we have had some discussions previously about Indigenous people being able to access the appeals system and not using it as much. So I want to know if they are under the new system accessing it more—if it is more accessible.
Senator SIEWERT—In light of that, perhaps you could also let me know what other steps you have taken to increase the accessibility of the appeals system to Aboriginal people. We had a long discussion last night with Centrelink, and we have had it previously, about making information more accessible. Is that part of that communications package?
Senator SIEWERT—Okay. So you are working on looking at how you can make information more accessible?
Mr Tidswell—That is right. It is always part of the process and, as last night you were informed, Ms Cartwright has commissioned some work to look at all of our product and information to make sure it is more accessible.
Senator SIEWERT—Thank you. If you could just take that figure on notice, that would be appreciated.
Senator SIEWERT—I think that is all the information I have on the breakdown of specific figures, thank you. Can I go to the BasicsCard very quickly. I have only a few questions because I know that we have asked about that quite a bit in the past. In terms of the expansion of the BasicsCard—and I know there is a huge list now where there is access to what I call opportunity shops; that is, the charity shops or second-hand goods stores—how many opportunity shops or second-hand shops now have access to the BasicsCard, if that information is easily accessible?
Ms Hefren-Webb—I do not have that information. I do not know if Centrelink does.
Ms Cartwright—The way the BasicsCard merchants approval framework works is that the merchant or BasicsCard provider would provide us with what their main business purpose is. One of the shops that you describe may well be clothing, for instance, so we would categorise that store as a clothing store. I will certainly take it on notice to see if we do have the data that you have specifically asked for, but it may be that they are categorised under their main source of business, and I imagine most of those would be clothing.
Senator SIEWERT—Has that issue been raised with you? It has been raised with me on many occasions— that is, people not being able to access their BasicsCard in opportunity shops.
Ms Cartwright—I know that we do have some opportunity shops in the Northern Territory; I have actually visited some myself. There are some but, as I mentioned, we will need to get that data for you or have the names of those shops located. I have activated a store myself in the Northern Territory—a Red Cross store in Katherine—so they are there.
Senator SIEWERT—That would be appreciated, thank you.