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Clock ticking on Centrelink payment changes


Centrelink income streams including Newstart, Sickness Allowance, Wife Pension and Bereavement Allowance will be axed next week, with the majority of welfare recipients set to be transferred onto JobSeeker payments – prompting criticism that the change will confuse people who  aren’t required to look for work.

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From March 20, welfare recipients will be moved to alternative income streams including JobSeeker, Age Pension, Carers Allowance and the Disability Support Pension (DSP).

A spokesperson for the department – formerly known as the Department of Human Services and now known as Services Australia – said the changes were “part of the Government’s commitment to making Australia’s welfare system simpler and fairer”.

The changes were initially announced during the 2017-18 budget.

As of September 2019, roughly 680,000 Newstart recipients were expected to transition onto the JobSeeker payment, at the same rate.

The payment, which has not increased in real terms in 25 years, is $555.70 a fortnight for a single person without children.

About 7,834 Wife Pension recipients were expected to be affected by the changes, half of whom would transfer to JobSeeker Payments while the remainder would move to other payments, including the Age Pension and Carers Allowance.

“Wife Pensioners who transfer to JobSeeker Payment will not have mutual obligations until after they attend a transition interview with Services Australia, where it will be determined whether an exemption is appropriate,” the spokesperson said.

Welfare recipients are eligible for the Age Pension at 66 years.

The age of eligibility for the pension increases by six months every two years, with the next increase due to take effect on July 1.

Screen-grab from Supplementary Budget Estimates hansard.

Sickness and Bereavement Allowance recipients will not be able to make new claims from March 20.

Those currently on the payments will continue receiving funding until their exemption or bereavement period expires, the spokesperson said.

“Where a person’s partner dies on or after 20 March 2020, they will be able to claim bereavement support through the new JobSeeker Payment or Youth Allowance, depending on their age,” she said.

“Bereaved partners will be exempt from waiting periods and mutual obligation requirements for the period of bereavement. Bereaved partners will receive an upfront lump sum payment in addition to their first fortnight’s entitlement based on their circumstances.

“Services Australia has written directly to all affected recipients advising of the upcoming changes and has information available on its website and telephone lines.”

Last week, a Welfare Reform Act fact sheet with data and information about the changes on the Department of Social Services website cited outdated information.

The spokesperson told InDaily the fact sheet was a “historical document” and “the fact sheet will be updated to reflect latest data in due course.”

Australian Council of Social Services CEO Cassandra Goldie said she wanted to ensure those who needed income support understood they could still access payments.

“A key concern is that people won’t know that there is an allowance for bereavement or an allowance for illness once the payment becomes known as the ‘JobSeeker payment’,” Goldie said.

“We urge the government to ensure that there is clear, easy to access information out there for people who need these payments.

“We also urge the government to review take-up of these payments over time to detect if there has been a decline in claims, and quickly address any decline.”

Kym Mercer, from the Anti-Poverty Network SA, said she was concerned forcing unwell or recently bereaved people to apply for a JobSeeker payment rather than a Sickness and Bereavement Allowance would prevent people from seeking support.

“By calling it a JobSeeker Payment I’m worried sick and bereaved people are going to be put off making a claim – because they’re not j job seekers,” Mercer said.

“People who are sick and have a job to return to … don’t need to apply for another job.

“I’m also worried the change of name will be stigmatising, just like with the cashless welfare card.”

InDaily asked a spokesperson for Families and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston what had been done to prepare people for the changes.

The spokesperson said: “This change passed Parliament almost two years ago after being announced as part of the 2017-18 Budget and has been widely publicised since that time.”

The latest welfare reforms follow legislation passed in the Senate in February which changed the way welfare recipients report income.

Under the new reporting system, from July, welfare recipients’ will be able to enter details on their payslips. It will also enable employment and income data to be pre-filled online.

The raft of amendments come after the government’s robodebt program was declared illegal by the Federal Court. The controversial robodebt scheme saw people served with notices for money that they didn’t owe.

The scheme is subject of a separate class action lawsuit, which will determine whether more than 570,000 debts issued by Centrelink after July 1, 2015, were lawful. The class action will also determine whether the Centrelink levied fees should be refunded.

A separate piece of legislation, known as the Payment Integrity Bill 2019, is due to be debated later this year.

This Bill would cut income support payments to pensioners and extend residency requirements to access the Age Pension and DSP.

It would also cut the GST supplement paid to pensioners who leave Australia for six weeks or more and double the liquid assets waiting period from 13 weeks to 26.

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