$170 million rip-off: ferocious attack on poor
by Andrew Jackson John Howard and Jocelyn Newman have "saved" over $170,000,000 by fining unemployed workers and students for minor breaches to social security rules. This ferocious attack on the poor is detailed in a report prepared by ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Services) and the National Welfare Rights Network ACOSS President Michael Raper said, "These high fines are out of all proportion to the seriousness of the `offence' — a penalty of between $280 and $340 is imposed for failing to reply to a letter, while failing to attend an interview costs a person between $650 and $1300." "The most common penalty imposed on unemployed Australians for a rule infringements was $763 — this is higher than the average fine imposed by NSW courts for a `break and enter' offence ($706)." The report, titled Doling Out Punishment: the rise and rise of social security penalties, details how over 302,000 "breaches" were imposed in the last financial year, a staggering 250 per cent increase since 1997. In the last two years almost 25,000 fines were imposed on children under 18, with a further 11,000 breaches were imposed on those over 50. Many penalties are being imposed improperly or indiscriminately, as evidenced by the fact that an extraordinary additional 172,000 penalties were applied by Centrelink but later revoked. The report slams the fines as "clearly excessive and unjustifiably harsh" and lays the blame firmly at the feet of the Howard administration's one- sided "mutual obligation" policy. It should be noted that breaches are not about social security fraud — they relate to alleged infringements of often complex rules and increasingly tight Activity Test requirements. The report details how it is the most disadvantaged groups that are copping the brunt of this policy. "Homeless people are particularly affected by these penalties because Centrelink or Job Network letters go to an old address or are received too late", said Mr Raper. "Other vulnerable Australians likely to be breached are young people ... people with psychiatric conditions, people with alcohol or drug problems; people with low literacy skills; and indigenous Australians", Mr Raper pointed out. ACOSS reports that many welfare agencies and charities have specifically reported that the increasing number of social security breaches has added to the demand of low income people for emergency financial relief and material aid. The "Newstart" unemployment benefit paid to adults is currently $163 a week, already way below the poverty line. Any first or second "breach" is then deducted from this amount over six months. The 13,647 people who were penalised for a third breach had their benefits withheld completely, leaving them without a means to survive for eight weeks. Also contained in the report are a number of alarming case studies telling how people have been breached when they have not received adequate notification time for interviews, had disabling medical conditions which prevented them from meeting their Activity test requirements, or where the Centrelink office was clearly at fault in the circumstances. In one example, a woman correctly informed Centrelink that she had casual work and was regularly declaring her income. However, as a result of an error made by her employer, she did not declare the correct amount of income. Centrelink determined that over a four-month period it had overpaid Fiona by $625. As well as having to repay that amount, an $800 fine was imposed - - a penalty that an independent review tribunal eventually overturned. In another case an 18-year-old man with schizophrenia and hepatitis C who was living on the streets was breached for turning up half an hour late for an interview. The Federal Government's "mutual obligation" policy is a farce. We must remember that this $170 million snatched from the poor comes at the same time the Federal Government has cut $1 billion from programs to help disadvantaged jobseekers. The Government also plans to spend record amounts on private schools and the military in the next budget, and give away billions of dollars in tax credits to some of the world's largest corporations. ACOSS head Mr Raper calls on the Government "to immediately reduce these unjustifiably heavy penalties which are causing so much unnecessary hardship, and on Centrelink to stop imposing penalties so indiscriminately."