Social Services during the COVID Recovery - Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020

Social Services during the COVID Recovery - Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020 Main Image

28 October 2020

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill and the amendment moved by the member for Barton. The bill, as others have said, will introduce budget measures, including two further one-off economic support payments of $250 each. These payments will be made to recipients of the age pension, disability support pension, carer payment, carer allowance and others, with the first payment being received from 30 November and the second from 1 March 2021. These payments are to those who received the first two one-off economic support payments of $750 each. While these payments are welcome, the budget doesn't do enough, especially for the most vulnerable. It doesn't go far enough for carers, for example, who will only receive an extra $500 over six months. That's less than $20 a week, which is not enough to meet the extra cost they have faced as a result of the pandemic.

It's no surprise, then, that many carers are feeling overlooked and left behind by this government. This is why Labor will seek to create an obligation on the minister to take actions that will have the effect of extending the supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper. The minister has the power under the Social Security Act to continue extending to supplement in three-month periods for as long as the economic impacts of the pandemic remain. People are relying on the coronavirus supplement, and they need certainty. They don't need a cut, certainly not now.

In May Carers Australia, in conjunction with Deloitte, released the report Thevalueofinformalcarein2020. The report findings estimate there are almost 2.8 million informal carers in Australia. This year these carers are estimated to provide 2.2 billion hours of care to family and friends. This represents an increase of over five per cent since 2018. Of this figure, 906,000 are primary carers and many of them—70 per cent, in fact—are women. Most hours of informal care are provided by primary carers. These individuals are estimated to spend an average of 35 hours per week providing care, and a quarter of them spend more than 60 hours a week caring for somebody else.

While carers are doing it because they love their friend or family member, it takes its toll and it's a significant burden on carers, forcing many to either reduce their hours of work or withdraw from work altogether. It is estimated that the employment rate for primary carers is less than 25 per cent in comparison to the wider population, and, according to the recent report, the total cost to replace all informal care in 2020 would be $78 billion. The estimated earnings lost by primary and non-primary carers combined was $15 billion, and there's a significant gap, about 18 per cent, in the employment rates between primary carers and other Australians.

Carers sacrifice a lot to look after their loved ones, and the onset of the pandemic has added significantly to the responsibilities that carers face every day, as formal support has fallen away and costs have risen. The Caring Fairly Coalition's 'Caring during coronavirus' survey highlighted the impact of the virus on the carer community. It will be no surprise to hear that 60 per cent of carers reported losing 'some or all of the support services for the person they care for', and four in five said that, as a result of this, their mental health had deteriorated since COVID-19. Nine out of 10 carers have experienced increased stress in their role as a carer, and close to half reported losing some or all of their regular income. The most vulnerable people—and those caring for them, who are often living with conditions or disability and need support themselves—have been overlooked by this government.

A recent survey by Mental Health Carers Australia on the impacts of COVID-19 on families and carers of NDIS participants living with psychosocial disability found that the provision of NDIS supports for participants, carers and families had 'dropped significantly' during COVID-19. Many, about six out of 10, said that the lockdown had impacted NDIS supports that they received, and a similar number said that they had not been in contact with their NDIS provider regarding their plan during this time. The survey found that families and carers had 'stepped into the breach left by providers', and it was, as I mentioned earlier, having a detrimental impact on their mental health and their wellbeing. Carers were concerned about their family's mental health, and they were particularly concerned about their own emotional and mental health and wellbeing. Half of carers said that their caring roles had increased significantly, to beyond what they could cope with, despite their resilience. Unsurprisingly, most carers were aged over 50, and nearly all respondents to the survey were women. For many, the day-to-day expenses had increased by over a half, and most of the carers, as we know, are retired or working part time because of their caring responsibilities.

The last finding of the survey was particularly concerning. We know carers are an at-risk group. As I said, they're caring for people who have a disability or are frail aged or have a complex and chronic health problem. But also, many people might not realise, the carer themselves often is experiencing those same hardships or difficulties. Whilst being so at risk and more vulnerable to COVID, they are also more likely to be struggling financially than other Australians.

The 2020 National Carers Survey report confirmed the strain that our carers are being put under. Most of the carers who responded were experiencing 'high or very high psychological distress', and many felt 'highly socially isolated'. Caring in itself is isolating; a lot of support and friends fall away, but this has been heightened during the pandemic. Many of the carers said that they 'never get time out from their caring responsibilities'—never, not at all. Less than half have enough time to keep on top of their other responsibilities, the day-to-day responsibilities that we all have to deal with. Many of them have found it really difficult to get information and to organise services to support the person that they care for.

This is why we're moving an amendment to extend these supplements for the most vulnerable people, people like carers who have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic and who are facing the very real human, social and economic impacts of the virus. The other thing that they've had to deal with and that they're getting really disillusioned by and overcome by is having to deal with government agencies—whether it's aged care, the NDIA or Services Australia, agencies that should be on their side and should be supporting them—and having to deal with multiple agencies, particularly when they have very little time because of their caring responsibilities. It's not just the participant—the aged person or the person with disability—that's impacted; it's their carer and it's their families and friends as well.

I want to talk today about Christine. Christine is someone I know well. She's a carer for her 40-year-old son, Matt, who has quadriplegia. Matt applied for supported disability accommodation in September 2019, and it was approved in January, much to the family's relief. His mum had peace of mind with the SDA, the supported disability accommodation, because of what might happen to Matt without it, should she, in her words, 'fall off the perch'? Christine was forced to follow up repeatedly until Matt's supported living package was approved last September, and they were told it would arrive within 48 hours. The funding never came through. They never got it. So Christine was really worried about the supported living package. There was just silence from the NDIA. When, finally, the NDIA contacted Christine, she was told her son would be moved to a concierge model. I'm not sure if people are familiar with this model. It's more like the former group-home type of model, with a much lower ratio of support worker to participant. So Matt was told, just when he was about to move in, that he'd share one support worker with nine other residents. The support worker would be downstairs and would divide their care time between all of the residents over the course of the day. That just isn't safe, and, for Matt, it's just not suitable for his higher and complex needs. He was absolutely devastated. After hearing the news, he thought about throwing his bus pass into the lake and, as he said, 'Catching a one-way ride into the city,' because he was sick of being a burden to his own family. Carers like Matt's mum, Christine, have gone above and beyond for the people they care for, and it's no surprise that they're feeling that the government hasn't provided enough support for them during the pandemic.

The budget also missed an opportunity to permanently increase JobSeeker. With 160,000 more Australians expected to lose their jobs by Christmas and 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker, the government missed a significant opportunity in the middle of a crisis to deliver certainty for some of the most vulnerable and at-risk people in our community, people doing it really tough—people in regional communities like mine, outside the big cities. The government could permanently increase JobSeeker. In communities like mine, at the peak of the pandemic there were 36 jobseekers for every vacancy. It's down to 17 now, but it's still higher than the national average. There are not enough jobs, particularly in regional areas or for someone who's trying to make a start. Australians who are recipients of these benefits really need much better support. That would then provide direct stimulus into local economies, really kick-starting them. What's going to happen when JobSeeker is cut? We've tried to find more information from the government, but either they don't know or they just don't want other people to know.

The other people who have really been left behind are older Australians. In my community, one in five people are aged over 65. It's a really popular place for older people to live, but the budget's left Australians on JobSeeker aged over 35—almost 1 million Australians—out and ineligible for its higher wage subsidy. Older Australians represent the largest group of people on JobSeeker, and they also experience some of the most difficulty finding work, because of structural barriers or age discrimination or other problems that they face when trying to re-enter the workforce or continue in their career.

There are working people who are older, but there are also those who are receiving the pension. The government was caught out on the pension freeze, and that impacted 2.5 million older people. That's the only reason they acted—because they were caught out. It's cruel, at this time in the middle of a global pandemic, to have older people feeling more vulnerable financially. There is a known link between financial insecurity and mental health problems, and we know the consequences of that, the very real human consequences of financial insecurity. The reality is that pensioners plan for the twice-yearly indexation on 20 March and 20 September. It's something that they take that into account when they're planning their year ahead. The government was caught out in August and the freeze took effect in September, and pensioners had to wait until this month before knowing there would be any kind of relief. It's just part of this long track record. How can you rack up over a trillion dollars in debt and leave the most vulnerable people out, whether it's carers or people living with disability or older people—people who deserve dignity, people who deserve to be treated with respect and people who need certainty now more than ever?

The government still hasn't adjusted the deeming rates, which remain significantly higher than interest rates.

I now want to turn to paid parental leave. As I mentioned before, my community is a popular place for older people to live but it's also a really popular place for young families. It's more affordable, it's outside the big city and it has room for families to grow. But at the moment there's a lot of uncertainty over rising costs, and people need much more certainty. We know that to be eligible for paid parental leave a person must satisfy the work test. The existing work test requires a person to have worked 10 of the 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child and at least 330 hours in that 10-month period. We were really concerned that, during the pandemic, families would miss out on PPL because of job losses or cuts to their hours making them ineligible. That could leave them up to $15,000 worse off, and it is money families can ill afford to lose, particularly right now when there is so much uncertainty—when we don't know what's going to happen next week, let alone by Christmas. We moved amendments in the Senate for the work test to be suspended, but the government voted them down. Families need certainty and security, and they need to know that they can access their PPL, particularly during these really challenging and difficult times. It's disappointing that the government has taken so long to make this adjustment. It's been a really long wait for many people.

The other group the government has either overlooked or doesn't care about is young people. In May, Labor called on the government to provide case-by-case exemptions to the youth allowance parental income test. I know many members have had calls from parents—and I have as well—who've been impacted by this. People are really concerned that higher education students will miss out on youth allowance or be unable to continue studying. Study is always important, but especially right now, in regional communities with a really tough job market, young people need the chance to get the skills to start a career and have some certainty. These are not ordinary times. We don't want to see students forced to drop out because they can't afford to stick it out.

In my community currently there are over 2,800 people accessing youth allowance, and they need proper support from this government. They need to know that the government cares, that they matter, and that the government is going to do something about it. It's disappointing that the government has taken so long to act on this and other issues and provide proper support to vulnerable Australians in the middle of a crisis.