Question Without Notice: Newstart Allowance
Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia-Australian Greens Whip) (14:48): My question is to the Minister for Human Services, Minister Carr. The minister is aware of the distress caused by the incorrect letter telling single parents that their pensioner concession cards had been cancelled. Is the minister aware of the concerns that some pay arrangements have not been transitioned, direct payments are being dishonoured, utility bills not paid, people are having to wait for Centrelink appointments and demands are growing from people seeking help from not-for-profit organisations because of financial hardship? Is the government monitoring the situation and what have they found? How many people have had to in effect default on their Centrelink arrangements, and what steps is your department taking to resolve these issues in a timely fashion?
Senator KIM CARR (Victoria-Minister for Human Services) (14:49): I thank Senator Siewert for her question. I indicate that she is correct that a letter containing incorrect information was sent to 74,000 people moving from parenting payments to the Newstart allowance. This was a result of human error compounded by a computer-generated letter system. This error in the letter occurred because the advice provided to these people was inserted into an existing template letter which contained the advice to destroy their concession cards. I have also indicated publicly that the department has apologised to those parents for whom this confusion occurred. I have also indicated that this information was completely in contrast to the information that was actually provided directly to the parents concerned in the interviews that were conducted prior to this letter being sent out and that there has been subsequently a further letter sent to all parents indicating the correct information. Parents were personally contacted to help in their move to the Newstart allowance and about 93 per cent of parents moving to the Newstart allowance by 1 January maintained their entitlements and their concessions.
I am advised that about 190 parents contacted the department about concession cards and that parents who remain concerned about their eligibility for a concession card or have destroyed or misplaced their existing card have been advised to contact the department directly or go to their nearest Centrelink office. I understand that that is the process that has been followed. I have also undertaken to ensure that a proper, thorough review occurs and to take immediate action to prevent this error occurring again. The department is taking increased efforts to scrutinise- (Time expired)
Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia-Australian Greens Whip) (14:51): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Perhaps when the minister is answering this question he can answer the actual question I asked last time, which is what they are doing about all those other issues that I raised. The minister has referred on numerous occasions to the government's supplements as a way of offsetting the cost for families who are transferred onto the lower payment of Newstart. Is the minister aware that families are being advised to use their Schoolkids Bonus to cover their immediate bills and housing costs, which in effect means they are not spending them on school?
Senator KIM CARR (Victoria-Minister for Human Services) (14:51): I am not aware that the department is providing that advice but what I can be clear about is that this is a bonus which the opposition wishes to remove. This is a bonus which will assist parents at this time of increasing costs, as we know, at the beginning of the school year. This is a payment which will assist parents of families with school-age children. It is why we make the payment-to assist parents meet the additional costs that come about at this time of the year.
Senator Siewert: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I did not ask about what the school bonus was for. I asked the minister to answer my first question, but is he also aware that that advice is being provided to single parents?
The PRESIDENT: I believe the minister is answering the question at this stage. There is no point of order.
Senator KIM CARR: I thank Senator Siewert for her question. I have indicated I was not aware of that advice being provided. I will take steps to establish the accuracy of that matter. I can indicate that not all people who were affected by this policy change were transferred to Newstart allowance. Some people were transferred to carer's payments. Some people have been transferred to disability support pensions. Nine people were in fact transferred to the aged pension. (Time expired)
Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia-Australian Greens Whip) (14:53): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. In a previous answer to a question that I asked, the minister said that he was not aware that the department was referring people to not-for-profit organisations for help. In fact, that claim was reiterated again this morning at a rally outside parliament. I ask the minister: is this policy of transferring single parents onto Newstart and dropping them into poverty in fact a complete policy failure?
Senator KIM CARR (Victoria-Minister for Human Services) (14:53): The government has made it very clear that we wish to encourage closer links with community services organisations, which of course we know regularly help people who are vulnerable in terms of their access to services. The department contacts parenting payment single recipients to explain their rights to ensure that people are prepared for the changes ahead of those changes being made and to ensure that they have access to streamlined applications for other payments. If people are in financial difficulty, depending on their circumstances, they will also be referred to financial information services officers, information about Centrepay and other financial literacy services that are available through the Department of Human Services. This will also include the provision of support through social workers and are assessed for their eligibility for the hardship advance crisis payments. The policy intent- (Time expired)
Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia-Australian Greens Whip) (15:34): I move:
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Human Services (Senator Kim Carr) to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today relating to single parent income assistance.
At the start I note that the minister did not answer the fundamental question that I was asking, which was: is the minister aware of the impacts that this policy change is having on single parents and their families? I would suggest by his lack of an answer that he is not aware of or is ignoring those impacts.
My office has been receiving a steady stream of visits, phone calls and emails from single parents-mainly single mothers, because as we know, over 85 per cent of the single parents who are affected by these changes are in fact single mothers-talking to us initially about the fact that they were told they were not going to get the pensioner concession card. If you read the letters, they were pretty devastating letters-and I can tell you that I had a lot of pretty devastated mothers ringing and talking to my office about the fact that they were not going to have the pensioner concession card. Some of them, as the Minister for Human Services said, had been told that it would continue but then they got a letter saying that it is in fact not going to continue.
Although the minister did tell the chamber what happened and about the mistake that was made, the issue still remains that those who have actually been taken off any form of income support do not have access to the pensioner concession card, when Centrelink's own website says that when people transition from payments they get to keep the pensioner concession card for a transition period. That is apparently not occurring. We are still chasing that up.
The other really significant issues are, for example, that the Centrepay arrangements did not get changed when people were moved onto Newstart. So there are defaults happening on payments-not to mention the fact that people of course do not have the same amount of money and cannot in fact pay those bills. Utility payments are not being made. People are being forced to wait a significant period of time while they get an appointment with Centrelink and, in the meantime, their payments have been cut or have been changed because of their moving onto Newstart and they do not know what is going on. There is a growing demand for not-for-profit organisations and emergency relief organisations, because single parents just do not know where to turn when they cannot afford to pay their bills or cannot afford to feed their families.
I asked the minister about whether families are being told to use their school bonus to pay their rent and their utility bills instead of in fact paying the bills that we all know that we get in January when the children go back to school. These children are not going to be able to go back to school with books, uniforms and those sorts of things, because their parent needs to use that money to pay for their most immediate food bills, rent bills and power bills. I have had people tell me that they are having to move out of their homes-their current house-because they cannot afford the rent anymore. Of course, the government says, 'The reason we're doing this is to encourage people into work.' We know that that group of single parents, out of all those receiving income support, is the cohort of people that are seeking work the most.
This morning there was a rally outside this place of single parents who are bringing their message and are currently meeting with members of parliament around this place. The message is there-they were bringing their messages to this place. There are rallies all around Australia today with single parents saying, 'Enough is enough.' At that rally I heard people's accounts of conscientiously looking for work. I had one mother who went for an interview: she was applying for an interview to assist at a hair salon, which involved cleaning mirrors, cleaning up, sweeping the floor and making tea and coffee. She was told that they had got someone with more experience. They knew she was a single parent. I have heard other accounts where people have tried over and over again to get work, but we all know that it is very hard to maintain, in particular, permanent or full-time work when you are also caring for your family.
This is our future generation we are talking about. We already have one in six children in Australia living in poverty. This move by the government has condemned another generation of children to be living in poverty, because you cannot survive on Newstart. It is not a life, to be bringing people up on Newstart, and this government should be ashamed that they have dropped 87,000 single parents and their families into poverty.