House of Representatives

Veterans' Entitlements (Clarke Review) Bill 2004

Second Reading Speech

Mrs VALE (Hughes-Minister for Veterans' Affairs)

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to present legislation giving effect to the government's response to the findings of the review of veterans' entitlements-the Clarke report.

The Veterans' Entitlements (Clarke Review) Bill 2004 is the culmination of the government's commitment to review anomalies in veterans' entitlements and concerns about the level of benefits and support provided to disabled veterans.

This bill is the culmination of an important and comprehensive process by which we asked for input from the Australian veteran community during the review. We received over 3,000 submissions, then again asked for the veterans' feedback on the report's recommendations before we gave our government response. I am proud that the government's response to the Clarke review delivers even more for veterans and war widows across Australia.

The Clarke committee made 109 recommendations, more than half of which called for no change to current arrangements, and the government has accepted these.

This bill implements the changes announced on 2 March 2004, including addressing benefits for disability pension recipients; making an ex gratia payment to former prisoners of the Korean War; increasing assistance for war widows and widowers; and extending operational service to minesweeping personnel.

Importantly, the bill implements two significant measures to address key issues for veterans in receipt of the disability pension.

First, new indexation arrangements will mean that our most disabled veterans will have that portion of their disability pension paid above 100 per cent of the general rate indexed by the same proportion as the service pension and the war widows and widowers pension-that is, with reference to movements in the consumer price index and male total average weekly earnings.

Swift passage of these amendments will allow an early back payment of the increased indexation to 20 March 2004, benefiting more than 45,000 disability pensioners.

Second, from September 2004 the government will introduce the Defence Force Income Support Allowance (DFISA). This measure addresses a key issue of concern regarding the inclusion of the disability pension as income for pensions and benefits paid to recipients and their partners under social security law.

The amount of DFISA will be equal to the difference between the amount of income support a person receives under social security law, and the amount the person would receive if the disability pension was not counted as income in the assessment of their social security payment, and a disability pension income test for rent assistance was applicable.

The new allowance will be paid to eligible persons receiving a range of Centrelink payments including the age pension, disability support pension, carer payment, Newstart allowance and parenting payment.

As recommended by the Clarke committee, the government will make an ex gratia payment of $25,000 to former Australian prisoners of war held during the Korean War, or their surviving widows, who were alive on 1 July 2003.

The payment will be made in the same way as the payment to former prisoners of war held by Japan during World War II, in recognition of the extremely inhumane conditions endured by Australian POWs during the Korean War.

This is a beneficial measure which is aimed to ensure that the largest possible number of former prisoners of the Korean War, or their surviving spouse, will be able to receive the payment.

In relation to war widows and widowers, the government will pay rent assistance, in addition to the ceiling rate of the income support supplement, to some 11,000 war widows and widowers who are renting private accommodation. Currently rent assistance is paid within the ceiling rate of the income support supplement.

A small number of war widows who are also veterans in their own right, receiving the ceiling rate of service pension and renting privately, will also benefit from increased rent assistance under this measure.

This initiative reflects the finding of the Clarke report that war widows and widowers renting in the private market are in need of additional assistance. Rent assistance is not available to those renting government owned properties, as their rent is already subsidised.

War widows and widowers receiving their income support payment from Centrelink will continue to have their rent assistance counted towards the income support ceiling rate. However, they will be able to transfer to DVA for payment of their income support, thereby benefiting from this initiative, and I would encourage them to do so.

The increase in war widow and widower's rent assistance will require significant administrative changes by my department. However, I have directed that the changes be accelerated and the increases will take effect from 1 January 2005, several months earlier than originally thought possible, at an additional cost of $5 million.

In line with another recommendation of the Clarke report, the maximum funeral benefit will be increased from $572 to $1000.

The funeral benefit is intended to reduce the funeral expenses for eligible veterans and certain dependants, including former prisoners of war and recipients of the totally and permanently incapacitated pension and the extreme disablement adjustment rate. The increase in the maximum funeral benefit will take effect from 1 July 2004.

Finally, this bill will extend operational service to personnel involved in minesweeping and bomb clearance operations after World War II who have qualifying service. This addresses an anomaly where a small number of personnel received the medal necessary to be eligible for qualifying service, but are not veterans because their service fell outside the operational service periods specified in the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

The government's response to the Clarke committee delivers a generous and responsible package of measures to enhance the benefits and support available to veterans and war widows.

Again, I thank the members of the veteran community who participated in this important review process. I would also like to acknowledge our defence and veterans affairs committee, chaired ably by the member for Gilmore, and members of that committee, notably the members for Blair, McPherson, McEwen, Cowper, Deakin, Riverina, Hinkler and Herbert, who are all passionate advocates for veterans in their electorates.

The government's response to the Clarke report will deliver significant and enduring benefits to veterans and war widows across Australia. It is this government that has increased spending on veterans' issues by a massive $4 billion since 1996. This financial year we allocated over a massive $10 billion to the needs of war widows and veterans. This government has a strong track record and our response to Clarke and the new Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill 2003 continues that strong commitment to our veterans and war widows. I present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr McClelland) adjourned.