Welfare to Be Docked up to 15 Per Cent to Pay Unpaid Court Fines
1 June 2018 at 5:16 pm
The federal government plans to deduct up to 15 per cent of welfare payments for recipients with unpaid courts fines, in order to help people “stay out of jail”.
The government announced in the federal budget that from March 2019, people receiving welfare with outstanding court-imposed fines could have their fines repaid through compulsory deductions from their government payments.
During Senate Estimates on Thursday, the Department of Social Services (DSS) said the government would be taking up to 15 per cent from fortnightly payments.
DSS secretary Kathryn Campbell said this measure was about helping people stay out of jail.
“This is about helping people stay out of jail and stay in employment,” Campbell said.
“[It is] also so people don’t lose their licenses when they’re fundamental to their employment.”
Under the scheme, welfare recipients with outstanding court-imposed fines will be encouraged to make repayment arrangements via government bill-paying service Centrepay.
If welfare recipients do not not voluntarily enter a repayment arrangement, Centrelink will encourage them to enter a repayment arrangement with the relevant state and territory government.
Social Services Minister Dan Tehan has written to all states and territories asking them to opt-in to the scheme, which would allow for the sharing of data for individuals with outstanding fines.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert labelled the measure as “bureaucracy at its worst”.
She told Pro Bono News that it was a “lazy way” to address the issue of fines and incarceration.
“The federal government planning to garnish up to 15 per cent to pay for fines from struggling Australians on a maximum rate of income support shows that policy makers do not understand just how hard it is to survive on low income support payments,” Siewert said.
“It has already been well established that the maximum single rate of Newstart leaves struggling jobseekers with just $39 a day. To then deduct 15 per cent to pay for a fine will push people already living well below the poverty line into further poverty.”
Jenny Smith, the CEO of the Council to Homeless Persons, told Pro Bono News that she was concerned about the proposal.
“We are waiting to read the devil in the detail, but based on the high level description, this is a heavy-handed proposal that will only punish the poor and lead to more homelessness, because people will be forced to sacrifice the rent money to pay outstanding traffic fines,” Smith said.
“It’s absurd to think that trimming people’s already below-poverty level incomes will encourage them to be better citizens.
“What people need is the opportunity to get back on their feet, with support to both put individualised payment plans in place and to tackle the issues that may have led to the fines being imposed in the first place.”
During the Estimates hearing on Thursday, Campbell also admitted the government had not sought advice from DSS on the ability for job seekers to live off $40 a day whilst on the single rate of Newstart.
“The department has not done a review of the adequacy of Newstart,” she said.
DSS did however provide advice to show more than 90 per cent of people on Newstart received other welfare benefits.
Siewert said the government was ignoring “the breadth of expert advice” that the single rate of Newstart was not nearly enough to get by on.
“It has stagnated for years because of a lack of political will to increase the payment and people are suffering,” she said.
“This shows that the government couldn’t care less about what the stagnating payment means for Australians trying to get by and whether it is enough to survive off or not.
“There is a weight of evidence that shows the payment is definitely not enough and to increase it would help pull people out of poverty whilst stimulating the economy.”
The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has led a concerted campaign to raise the rate of Newstart by $75 a week, but the rate was controversially kept the same in May’s federal budget.
Siewert will be introducing a bill to raise the Newstart rate in line with ACOSS recommendations.
“I urge the government to support my bill in August that seeks to increase the woefully low payment by $75 a week,” Siewert said.