BY JIM MCILROY
The country's peak welfare group, the Australian Council of Social Services, has called for an immediate suspension of Centrelink's harshest penalties on recipients of unemployment benefits, pending an independent inquiry into the government agency's breaching practices.
ACOSS announced on August 13 that it and other community welfare groups would undertake an inquiry into the system, after releasing a report which revealed a 160% jump in the number of third-breach penalties over the past year. The penalty strips unemployed workers of their entire dole payment for eight weeks — a total of $1431 for adult job-seekers.
The report, prepared by ACOSS in conjunction with the Welfare Rights Centre in Sydney, found that the severe penalties imposed by Centrelink under federal government legislation had forced many unemployed people to rely on charities to survive.
Queensland Council of Social Services director Shirley Watters said Centrelink's system of fines should be overhauled. As a result of the agency's harsh approach, welfare agencies were under greater pressure than ever before to provide services, she said.
The ACOSS report found that Centrelink often imposed penalties without seeking an explanation from recipients and contributed to people losing their benefits through its own mistakes.
"Our research has found that penalties are often imposed without even seeking a reasonable excuse from the unemployed person", the report said. "If the person is then successful in their appeal, the restoration of payments may not be enough to return that person to the same situation — financial, housing and otherwise — they were in before."
A separate report by the Salvation Army has also revealed that 11% of people using the Salvos' emergency services said they had turned to crime after Centrelink cut off their welfare payments.
Community services minister Larry Anthony has been forced to order an internal review of breach processes as a result of the ACOSS report, but has defended the overall tough regime of penalties as part of the government's "mutual obligation" social security policy.
The Community and Public Sector Union, which covers Centrelink staff, has branded Anthony's plan for an internal Centrelink review a "red herring", saying the agency was only implementing government policy in imposing harsh breach penalties.
Many Centrelink employees, who are forced to implement the brutal breach regime, have welcomed the announcement of an independent inquiry into the agency's penalty policy.
The additional workload and stress, not to mention moral revulsion, involved in being obliged to carry out the government's breach policy has been a source of frustration for many staff.
[Jim McIlroy is a CPSU delegate at a Centrelink call centre in Brisbane.]