House of Representatives

Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2017

Second Reading Speech

Mr PORTER (Pearce-Minister for Social Services)

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Turnbull government is committed to supporting families and protecting the health and wellbeing of all children. The Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2017 acts on this commitment by improving the child support scheme to ensure it operates in the best interests of Australian children, and by strengthening incentives for families to immunise their children.

Schedule 1 -c hild support amendments

Schedule 1 of the bill regards child support amendments, and it introduces a range of improvements to the child support scheme, which supports more than 1.3 million separated parents and 1.1 million children, to ensure it is operating in the best interests of Australian children. This will help separated parents to understand and meet their responsibilities for the costs of raising their children, in line with their individual capacity to do so.

The changes address three priority recommendations of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs report-From conflict to cooperation: Inquiry into the Child Support Program. These are areas where the current policy was identified as leading to outcomes that are inconsistent with the objectives of the child support program, or which required parents to undertake onerous court or administrative processes. The government committed $12.4 million in the 2017-18 budget towards implementing its response to these three priority areas.

Part 1 of schedule 1 of the bill amends the child support and family assistance legislation to provide better outcomes for parents in dispute about their children's care arrangements, addressing recommendation 8 of the inquiry report.

From 1 January 2018, the 14-week interim period that applies before child support and family tax benefit (FTB) are recalculated to reflect a change in actual care will be extended to up to 52 weeks if the disputed care change occurs within the first year of a court order. For older court orders, the interim period will be extended to up to 26 weeks if the person with increased care does not take reasonable action to participate in family dispute resolution.

This extension of the interim period strengthens the incentive for parents to comply with court orders and appropriately discourages parents from withholding care of a child from another parent or carer where that particular care arrangement has been ordered by a court to be in the best interests of the child.

For care arrangements in a non-enforceable written agreement or parenting plan, the interim period will remain at 14 weeks where the disputed care change occurs in the first year after the agreement or plan is made. For older agreements or plans, where the person who has increased care participates in family dispute resolution, a shortened four-week interim period will apply.

These amendments to the interim period provisions are designed to strengthen incentives to comply with court orders or participate in dispute resolution processes about care, which is in the best interests of the children.

Part 2 of schedule 1 of this bill will amend child support legislation to allow amended tax assessments to be taken into account for child support purposes in a broader range of circumstances being in line with recommendation 12 of the child support inquiry report.

From 1 January 2018, an amended tax return will always be able to be taken into account in a child support assessment if it results in a higher taxable income. This means parents will not be disadvantaged if another parent has understated their income, no matter how long it takes for them to correct their original tax return.

An amended tax return that results in a lower taxable income will be used where a change in child support is sought within 28 days of receiving their original tax return, within 28 days of becoming aware of an error or if special circumstances apply.

These amendments will allow a parent's true taxable income to be more easily reflected in their child support assessment, without having to estimate their income or apply through the change of assessment process, and will also help to ensure that separated parents are taking responsibility for the costs of raising their child in line with their capacity to do so.

Part 3 of schedule 1 of this bill amends child support legislation to make it simpler to set aside child support arrangements in certain circumstances, also in response to recommendation 12 of the committee's report.

From 1 July 2018, to provide greater fairness to parents who entered into agreements prior to 1 July 2008 (known as the transitional binding agreements), the government is introducing a separate and less restrictive test for a court to set aside the agreement where one of the parents did not obtain legal advice.

In addition, for all child support agreements, this bill introduces provisions that will terminate or suspend the effect of the agreement from 1 July 2018 if the person who is entitled to child support for a child under the agreement ceases to be an eligible carer of the child-that is, where the person's percentage of care for a child falls below 35 per cent.

The two policy changes in respect to recommendation 12 will enable changes in circumstances to be more easily reflected in child support assessments without parents having to go to court or through onerous administrative processes, both improving and simplifying the Child Support Scheme to better support families.

Part 4 of schedule 1 of this bill amends child support legislation to create greater equity in the collection of child support debts and overpayments. These amendments, to apply from 1 July 2018, are being made in response to recommendation 22 of the committee's report.

The government is expanding the methods available to recover a child support overpayment from a payee to align with the current methods available for recovering child support debts from payers. The government is also expanding the basis upon which an overpayment is recoverable to ensure that all backdated reductions to a child support assessment, which had previously been collected by DHS on behalf of the payee, will be recoverable by DHS. However, new backdating provisions will provide a fairer basis for retrospectively creating a child support overpayment or arrears.

Overall, the policy changes in schedule 1 will help to ensure correct outcomes and improve the administration in around 90,000 to 100,000 child support cases each year.

Schedule 2: f amily tax benefit amendments

The Turnbull government is very committed to helping more Australian children become immunised. Since the government introduced the No Jab, No Pay policy on 1 January 2016, national immunisation rates have increased across all three target groups of one-, two- and five-year-olds, and more than 210,000 families have taken action to ensure that their children now meet the immunisation requirements.

Immunisation coverage rates for one- and five-year-olds have reached more than 93 per cent, which is nearing the critical level of 95 per cent to provide what is known as herd immunity-when large numbers of individuals are immune to disease and chains of infection are disrupted, stopping or slowing the disease. This is vital to protecting children and the wider community, particularly young babies who are not fully immunised and other people who cannot be vaccinated from preventable diseases, such as whooping cough.

As part of the 2017-18 budget, the government provided $14.1 million over four years for ongoing catch-up vaccinations for almost 370,000 Australians aged between 10 to 19 years, and more than 8,000 adult refugees and humanitarian entrants.

The government has also provided $5.5 million over three years to encourage Australian parents and carers to vaccinate their children. The campaign will specifically target areas of low vaccination rates by addressing myths and misconceptions and explaining the benefits of childhood vaccinations for both the individual and the community.

Schedule 2 of the bill will strengthen current immunisation incentive measures to ensure that from 1 July 2018, children must meet immunisation and health check requirements as a prerequisite for families to be eligible for the full amount of fortnightly entitlement to family tax benefit part A.

At present the No Jab, No Pay and Healthy Start for School policies link the family tax benefit part A end of year supplement for each child to meeting immunisation and health check requirements. The new measure will replace this incentive structure and serve as a more immediate and constant reminder for parents to immunise children and access a health check for their four-year-old child on time. The new measure will also ensure that all family tax benefit families, irrespective of income, continue to have a clear financial incentive to immunise their children.

Under the new rules, if a child does not meet the immunisation or health check requirements, their fortnightly family tax benefit will be reduced by around $28 per fortnight. Over the course of a year, this is the same value as the present end of year supplement.

Should a child not meet their immunisation requirements, families will have 63 days to meet the requirements. This grace period gives parents enough time to comply with the immunisation requirements even if they experience a delay in vaccinating their child, for example, due to illness. It also aligns with the 63-day grace period provision to meet immunisation requirements to receive childcare payments.

This bill also makes a technical amendment to the medical exemption provisions in relation to the approved form and manner in which an application for a medical exemption from immunisation requirements may be made. This change will further enhance the integrity of the measures and help ensure that only legitimate cases qualify for an exemption.

The government considers there is no excuse for parents who, for no valid medical reason, choose to not immunise their children. These parents are not only putting their own children's health at risk, but they risk the health of every other child and place that at risk as well.

Parents will still have the right to not vaccinate their child. But a family's choice not to immunise a child should not be supported by this government or through the taxpayer. Nor should such action ever be supported by taxpayers in the form of undiminished family payments.

If that's the choice an individual family makes and parent makes, they are putting their child and the community at risk of infectious disease, and they will no longer be eligible to receive their full fortnightly family tax benefit part A payment.


For those reasons, the bill prioritises the protection of Australian children and it is commended to the House.

Debate adjourned.