House of Representatives

Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020

Second Reading Speech

Mr ROBERT (Fadden - Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Minister for Government Services)

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill delivers on a number of 2020-21 budget measures which will provide additional support to individuals and households impacted by the economic consequences of COVID-19. These measures build on the significant support already provided to the community through the social security system, such as the first two economic support payments and the coronavirus supplement.

As part of the economic response to COVID-19, the Morrison government will provide two further economic support payments of $250 each at a cost of $2.6 billion. Around five million payment recipients and cardholders will benefit from these payments. The first payment will be made in the lead-up to Christmas, and the second in the new year.

Pensioners, certain concession card holders, recipients of family tax benefits and carer allowance who are not in receipt of a primary income support payment, and recipients of certain DVA payments will be eligible if they are residing in Australia. Each member of a couple will receive the payments if both are eligible.

Amendments are also made to social security law to recognise that because of the economic impacts of COVID-19, many young people will have lost a job or been unable to attain employment, which would otherwise have contributed to them meeting the independence requirement to qualify for payments. Schedule 2 of the bill supports young people whose path towards demonstrating independence through work has been disrupted by the economic impacts of COVID-19.

From 1 January 2021, the six-month period between 25 March 2020 and 24 September 2020 will automatically be recognised as contributing to existing workforce independence criteria for youth allowance. For example, under the amended definition of independence, a person applying for youth allowance will be considered to have worked 30 hours per week for the six-month period, regardless of actual hours worked. Regional students will be considered to have worked either 15 hours a week or earned 75 per cent of the national training wage schedule in the six-month period regardless of actual hours worked.

Without this change, many young people may not be able to meet the independence criteria and may be unable to access income support if they plan to go on to tertiary study. This could cause young people to delay their study in order to work to meet the independence criteria. The same concession will be available to ABSTUDY recipients, through changes to the ABSTUDY Policy Manual. It's estimated this measure will assist around 4,000 young Australians by providing them with the financial support they need whilst they build skills and knowledge.

Schedule 3 of the bill will make amendments to create temporary incentives in the income support system to encourage young Australians to undertake seasonal agricultural work. The Australian government is spending $16.3 million to help address concerns across the agriculture sector about immediate workforce availability for the upcoming harvest season. Young Australians claiming youth allowance (student) payment who demonstrate participation in agricultural work throughout the forthcoming harvest season would have access to the new independence criteria.

The amendments mean that a person who earns at least $15,000 through employment in the agricultural industry between 30 November 2020 and 31 December 2021 will be considered as independent for the purpose of youth allowance (student) from 1 July 2021, subject of course to the parental income threshold. This change will shorten the period of time a young person engaging in agricultural work will need to work to demonstrate financial independence for the purposes of youth allowance. The same concession will be available to ABSTUDY recipients, through changes to the ABSTUDY Policy Manual.

Schedule 4 of the bill introduces a revised paid parental leave work test period for a limited time. The Australian government will provide $130.4 million for the paid parental leave program to introduce a temporary change that will enable people to access parental leave pay and dad and partner pay who do not meet the current work test provisions because their employment has been affected by COVID-19. This would enable most individuals with a genuine work history pre COVID-19 to qualify for payments under the Paid Parental Leave scheme. It will ensure over 9,000 individuals would regain eligibility for parental leave pay, and is expected to increase claimants of dad and partner pay by over 3½ thousand.

In order to qualify for payment, people claiming paid parental leave must meet the current work test requirements, in which individuals must have worked for at least 10 months in their work test period, and for just over one day a week, with no more than a 12-week gap between any two consecutive working days.

Currently to meet the paid parental leave work test, individuals must meet the work test requirements in the 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of their child for parental leave pay, or prior to their period for dad and partner pay.

The bill will temporarily extend the paid parental leave work test period from 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child, to 20 months for parents who have had their employment impacted by COVID-19. The change will apply to births and adoptions that occur between 22 March 2020 and 31 March 2021.

Schedule 5 of the bill implements a 2020-21 budget measure that addresses inconsistencies in payments that are available to families affected by stillbirth and infant death. The bill will increase and align the amount that eligible families are able to access after a stillbirth, or a child's death shortly after birth up to the child's first birthday. The bill also removes discrepancies within the payments system in respect of multiple instances of stillbirth or infant death within the same family.

Currently, when a person has a stillborn child they may receive stillborn baby payment as a lump sum, subject to meeting an income test. Under existing arrangements, stillborn baby payment is paid at a high rate for the first stillbirth and a lower rate for a second or subsequent stillbirth.

From 1 January 2021, this measure will increase and align family assistance payments to families who lose their child through stillbirth or because their child dies before their first birthday. There will be one rate of stillborn baby payment equal to the current higher rate and an amount equivalent to the maximum family tax benefit part A bereavement payment for a child aged under 13 years. The bill will also make amendments so that a top-up amount (equivalent to the difference between the high and low rate of newborn supplement) is paid to families for children who received the low rate of newborn supplement and whose child dies before their first birthday. It is estimated that around 900 families are tragically impacted by stillbirth and infant death that will be assisted through this measure.

Schedule 6 of the bill makes technical amendments to child support law to allow alternative figures to be used in place of the male total average weekly earnings and average weekly earnings trend figures, which are usually published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for the purposes of child support assessment calculations. From May this year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has temporarily suspended publication of trend estimates for all average weekly earnings series, due to the impact of COVID-19 on the labour market. Child support law does not currently permit alternative trend figures to be used.

This bill introduces several beneficial measures that continue to provide enhanced support to the Australian community in response to the economic impacts of COVID-19. I commend the bill to the House

Debate adjourned.