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Social Security Legislation Amendment (Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2011

 

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (17:55):  The Greens do not support the punitive approaches and policies of the previous government that this government seeks to continue. We believe that such policies attempt to penalise job seekers rather than offering them the vital support needed to overcome the many and complex barriers they face in finding employment. The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2011 that we are debating today does not supply or provide support to these people but rather undermines positive changes made to the system three years ago and drags us back to the ineffective and damaging system that existed in the Howard years.

It hardly seems appropriate to increase punitive compliance measures when the minister has admitted that most job seekers are genuine in their attempts to find work. Furthermore, information submitted as part of the House of Representatives inquiry confirmed that there is little evidence of deliberate non-attendance of appointments. It is likely to be the most disadvantaged people—those facing chronic homelessness or complex and chronic illness, particularly mental illness, or those with poor literacy and education—who will be most affected by this bill while those who simply choose to rort the system will follow the new requirements or find other ways to circumvent those requirements. This bill does nothing more than expend considerable time and resources in actions that will not solve the problem but will hurt the very people that the government claims it is trying to help.

It says a lot that many of those working at the coalface assisting the unemployed strongly oppose this bill. I quote here from the evidence given at the House of Representatives inquiry by a representative of the not-for-profit job service providers. They said:
… we are keenly aware of the impact of financial penalties on people living on Newstart the single rate of which is $239 a week. We look with great trepidation at the prospect of further penalties being applied to these people in terms of what might happen to those citizens. First and foremost, they are citizens. They tend to be referred to in the system as job seekers, but they are citizens and many of them are living in poverty.

I would actually say there that, if you are living on Newstart, you are living in poverty. Even the chair of the independent review of social security measures, on whose report the government is relying, came before the House of Representatives inquiry and opposed this bill. With both independent experts and those working most closely on this issue standing in opposition to this bill, we think it is bizarre that this bill should proceed.

What is even more bizarre and absurd is that the government offers little evidence for the effectiveness of this approach. Yes, it is well known that there are high rates of non-attendance for appointments and this is a great impediment to getting people into the workforce, but the government offers no research or explanation as to why people are missing these appointments. Equally, there is little evidence to suggest that such punitive compliance measures will actually work. The department has not been able to produce data on why people miss appointments in circumstances which under this bill would attract sanctions. The Greens find it shocking that no such data exists, given the consequences for vulnerable Australians if this bill goes ahead, and again it is the most vulnerable who are going to be hit by the sanctions.

It is essential that we understand why people are missing their appointments and design solutions that address these reasons. This is what we call evidence based policy. We believe that we need to understand why people miss appointments. We believe that it is not just, as the government and opposition would have us believe, sheer wilfulness. That is not the case. We believe that the government is putting the cart before the horse, rushing to this punitive approach rather than understanding what we need to do to help the most vulnerable Australians. Young people and Indigenous people together make up almost 70 per cent of the appointments missed. It is these groups who will be affected most negatively if this bill proceeds, yet no-one from the government has explained why this is the case and why this approach is justified when this approach will impact most on these two most vulnerable groups.
We know from previous noncompliance measures that the most severely affected were, in fact, Aboriginal Australians. I know that because I was the one in estimates asking for the data on noncompliance when the welfare to work measures were first brought in. And guess what: exactly what we thought would happen happened—that is, Aboriginal Australians, particularly in my home state of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, were those who were subject to noncompliance measures and to the eight-week rolling breaches and who then fell out of the system. My concern is that we are about to repeat these mistakes.

Evidence given at the most recent inquiry offers many reasons for job seekers missing appointments or disengaging with the system. These include the complexity of the system, lack of easy-to-understand information about their requirements, a need to build trust between job seekers and their providers and the fact that the system is not meeting their needs. If a House of Representatives inquiry can find this out, surely there can be a more comprehensive approach to finding this data.

Many job seekers find the system to be confusing and bewildering. How will punishing job seekers address any of these underlying problems and increase attendance at appointments? Evidence in fact suggests that such measures could lead to further distrust and disengagement, which is exactly what happened last time a government—the Howard government—tried these measures: further disengagement and further alienation. I fail to see how that helps people to get a job. It is clear to us that what the detrimental effects of this bill will be on the unemployed and particularly on the most vulnerable job seekers—those who face the most barriers to employment. We believe that these negative impacts outweigh any potential positive benefits.

I would like to quote from the ACOSS—the Australian Council of Social Services—evidence to the inquiry:
People living on $237 a week do have difficulty with the bill payments, including rent payments, and often have to leave them until the last moment and so, as a consequence of suspension of payments, they could be behind with their account and they could be penalised financially for that, or potentially lose their accommodation if they have been late in the past. We are certainly concerned there will be an increased reliance, an increased call on emergency relief services as a result of that.
ACOSS also points out in its testimony that this bill will potentially lead to an increase in eight-week non-payment penalties, and this is, understandably, a grave problem for us. We have consistently opposed the use of these punitive non-payment penalties.

It is all very well to say that you will get back pay, but people cannot afford the expenses on a day-to-day basis, let alone, 'You will get it back later, maybe—if you re-engage.' But by then they may have already lost their accommodation and they may have already had their power turned off, because people—as ACOSS pointed out—juggle their payments just to survive. They cannot afford to lose any of their income.

We believe that the government does need to look at how it can help. This is an issue: we agree with that. But just putting in place further penalties for noncompliance is not going to solve it. Dealing with those barriers that we mentioned earlier is the way to address it. We believe that statistics collected on the number of missed appointments have not changed dramatically in a number of years. Figures were no different under the harsher regime of the Howard government. Past experience indicates that suspension and non-payment penalties do not seem to increase meaningful engagement with the system.

What we need is much more systematic reform of the social security system, including the compliance regime. We need a system that truly addresses the needs of the most vulnerable job seekers and treats them with more dignity and compassion. We believe that the government should listen to the organisations and people providing services to the unemployed, rather than continuing to demonise and sanction people in very difficult circumstances.

 

We believe that, in fact, the government could do a lot better than this particular piece of legislation. I remind the government about a report that they commissioned into the compliance system in 2008, partly as a result of the pushing that the Greens did at the time. This review was undertaken by a panel of experts led by Professor Julian Disney, who is no stranger to many people in this place—we are aware of the work he has done over the years. This report made many important recommendations, and yet we do not believe that there has been a serious attempt to implement or to respond to many of these significant recommendations.

 

The recommendations point to serious flaws in the compliance system, and here are some of the important recommendations—I know my colleague in the House of Representatives reminded that House. The report calls for the simplification of documentation relating to compliance, with the aim of substantially reducing the number, length and complexity of documents. The report called for increased training to providers' staff, especially related to the submission of participation reports, responding to the outcome of those reports and engaging with highly vulnerable job seekers. It also recommended improved processes for interaction with providers and those who work on policy and implementation issues. Finally, it also recommended that a special case conference be held if someone has had five participation reports, whether they are upheld or not. The purpose of the case conference is to assess whether the individual needs further assistance to achieve compliance or should be subject to different participation requirements.

We believe these recommendations are vital to ensure that the system is accessible, particularly to those most vulnerable, and that staff fully understand both the punitive measures—before they use them—and the distinctions made between those people who are choosing to rort the system and those who are simply overwhelmed by its complexity and unable to engage properly due to those multiple barriers that I have already outlined. We believe the government must deal with these problems in the system before stronger and more punitive compliance measures should or can be put in place or are in fact justified.

We do not support this bill. My colleague in the lower House, Mr Bandt, clearly outlined our opposition to and our concerns with this bill, particularly in his dissenting report to the committee. We call on the government to respond to the independent review of the job seeker compliance system as a matter of urgency. In fact, I think it is outrageous that they have brought this bill on before responding to those very sensible recommendations, and we call on them to implement those recommendations as a matter of urgency. In particular, we need plain-language redrafting of all measures associated with job seeker compliance. As I said in the chamber not long ago, the complexity of this system and the booklet outlining various systems and payments must be a signal to people about how complex this particular system is.

We have talked many times about the barriers to employment in this place. If we are genuinely about helping, not demonising, people on income support, we need to be addressing those barriers rather than just keeping reinventing the wheel. The compliance system did not work under the previous government. There is
no reason at all to believe that it is going to work under this government when those barriers to compliance and to gaining employment, are still in place. Fix those; do not just go for cranking up the compliance system, demonising and penalising people even more. When you apply those penalties, people face further barriers and are further entrenched in poverty. Please see sense. Get rid of this bill and implement those recommendations. Then we may see some genuine effort and genuine change in the way people can engage with this system.

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