Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2015
July 27, 2015
I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2015. I am pleased to participate in this debate. In essence, the proposed measures will cease social security payments to people who have been charged with a serious offence, are confined to a psychiatric institution due to mental impairment and have not yet been convicted or have been deemed not fit to stand trial. For these members of the community to receive payment from the government is not a valuable use of taxpayers' money.
The amendments define a serious offence as murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, rape or attempted rape and other violent offences that are punishable by imprisonment for life or for a period of at least seven years. I can find no reason or justification to explain why these people should receive social service payments. I am not uncaring, but this is welfare. Such taxpayer funded payments are intended to cover the costs of living. These particular individuals are already being cared for by the government in psychiatric institutions while they await trial or because they are unfit for trial. I say unequivocally that I do not believe these payments are right and should be continued.
I think there is value in reflecting on the background of this issue. Between 1986 and 2002, people who were charged with a serious offence were determined to be ineligible for social service payments while they were in psychiatric confinement. This was as a consequence of their criminal charges. However, in 2002, a Federal Court decision determined that most people confined to a psychiatric institution would be undertaking some form of rehabilitation. It is because of the fact that they were enrolled in a rehabilitation course that they then became eligible for social security payments. In general terms that will continue to stand.
I wish to be clear about the measures we are talking about here today. They will only impact a small number of people in such circumstances and only those who have been charged with the most serious offences such as rape, murder and various other violent crimes. It is noteworthy that, at the same time, it is expected that the bill will produce a savings of over $30 million over the forward estimates. This is money that I believe can be better spent on those Australians who need it rather than on those charged—and I do underline the word 'charged'—with serious and violent crimes and who are also already being cared for by the government. It is my view that the funding has been unwisely given in the past, albeit as a consequence of a court decision, to these allegedly violent criminals and that we should cease social security payments to this group as soon as possible. As a society and as a government, we should not be providing social security payments to people charged with violent and serious offences and confined to a psychiatric institution at the grace of the government.
The amendments contained in this bill simply represent a return to the original or pre-2002 policy intent for people who have been charged with a serious offence. The intent was and is straightforward that a person cannot access social security payments while in psychiatric confinement as a result of criminal charges. It is worth bearing in mind that people who are imprisoned and in psychiatric confinement are provided with accommodation, food and all their other essentials by the state or territory. After being charged with an offence, a person becomes the responsibility of the state or territory government. It is then the responsible entity for taking care of the individual's needs, including funding their treatment and rehabilitation. I understand that some state and territory governments are currently using people's income support to help fund their confinement. For example, the Queensland government takes up to 85 per cent of a person's pension while they are in psychiatric confinement. The Victorian forensic confinement centres can charge up to 85 per cent of a person's income support payment. However, people confined in prison who have been convicted of a criminal offence or who are on remand are not eligible for social security payments. The measures in this bill will even out the playing field, as they rightly should. But let's keep in mind this legislation is not intended to punish people or negatively impact their rehabilitation, especially as the people we are referring to have only been charged—and, once again, I underline that word—with an offence; they have not been convicted. It is estimated that these measures will affect approximately 350 people on implementation and 50 people per year thereafter—a small number, which, as I said, will save the government $30 million over the forward estimates.
However, people do need social security payments to help them transition back into the community, which, of course, is only fair and reasonable and which is why there are provisions in the bill for social security payments to be payable to a person who is not taken to be undergoing psychiatric confinement. This means that a social security payment will be payable during a period of integration back into the community. There is no argument with me on that point.
Before closing, I think it is important to repeat that this measure takes effect as a consequence of serious crime only. A social security payment will continue to be payable where a person is undergoing psychiatric confinement because they have been charged with a non-serious offence, as long as they are undertaking a course of rehabilitation; or where a person is undergoing psychiatric confinement for reasons unrelated to an offence. This measure will only apply to people who have been charged with a serious offence that is punishable by imprisonment for life or for a period of at least seven years and who are held in psychiatric confinement due to their inability to plead or who have been found not guilty by reason of mental impairment. It is worth noting that there are provisions for social security payments to be made if these individuals are undertaking a course of rehabilitation. I commend this bill to the House.