‘A leaking watering can’: UN says social protection systems are failing

Leanne HoSocial security rights review

Emilia Feneziani, former Economic Justice Australia secondee from Wotton + Kearney

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights recently released a report addressing the non-take-up of rights in the context of social protection. Economic Justice Australia (EJA) was pleased to contribute to this report, which draws on a variety of research and the results of a worldwide survey conducted in 2021.

What is Non-Take-Up?

The report defines ‘non-take-up’ as a “…situation where individuals otherwise eligible for social protection do not end up benefiting from it, whatever the reason – lack of information, costly or complex procedures, low digital literacy, shame or fear of interacting with social services and administrative barriers or errors.”

There is limited government-based data outlining the number of eligible beneficiaries for specific social security benefits. However, non-take-up has been deemed a “pervasive phenomenon”, creating a challenge for many countries and the effectiveness and suitability of their respective public service institutions. Marginalised groups such as those who are experiencing social isolation, are digitally illiterate, and who have been subjected to institutional abuse are just a few examples of people who are likely to be most affected by the non-take-up of social security benefits.

Non-Take-Up in Practice

The non-take-up of rights in practice effectively reduces the right to social security. Individuals are unable to benefit from the social protection provided by social security, which is ultimately required to reduce the poverty and inequality in society.

The report addresses several reasons why non-take-up of rights might occur, pre-and-post application for social benefits. On a broader scale, there is arguably an overarching trend in Australia and worldwide of poor policymaking by governments with respect to social protection, stifling the fundamental role that social security is intended to provide. EJA has found that time and (time) again, social security is inadequately addressed in the Federal Budget,[1] resulting in limited resources and opportunities to invest in vulnerable members of society. It is clear that governments are unable to responsibly guarantee the “effective coverage of their populations”, where the very systems in place intended to protect these rights, fail to do so.

Application and Appeals Processes

At the individual level, there are often numerous barriers when applying for social security benefits, including a lack of information on how to apply, confusing eligibility criteria and complex application processes requiring an array of documentation.

In Australia, applicants for social security are often required to navigate convoluted and complex requirements when seeking to apply for certain benefits. The Disability Support Pension (DSP) is one such benefit which has certain eligibility criteria, as well as evidentiary requirements for making an application. As discussed in a recent EJA report in partnership with the University of Notre Dame Australia, a lack of information and understanding surrounding the evidentiary requirements for the DSP can mean that applicants, and particularly those with severe psychiatric impairments, are forced to undergo equally arduous appeals procedures or ultimately struggle on JobSeeker Payment.[2] The lack of information and inherent trauma associated with these appeals procedures can also act as a barrier to access and can result in secondary non-take-up. 


The report cites the experience of stigmatisation as a key barrier to social security access and as a result, the non-take-up of rights. Shame and stigma can arise at all points of the social security system, whether it be the inadequacy of rates of payment compared to the cost of living, the relentless pursuit of debts by Services Australia or the demeaning questioning of staff about various facets of one’s relationship with their partner, as discussed by Daniel Turner, Senior Lawyer at Welfare Rights Centre, in this video. The report finds that these experiences can discourage people from applying for social security benefits.

In the context of family and domestic violence, stigma is arguably a double-edged sword. On the one hand, victim/survivors face the social stigma of their decision to either to stay or leave, a choice that is often influenced by their ability to access income support.[3] However, where victim/survivors do try to access social security benefits, they often experience revictimization, shame and embarrassment from having to disclose family and domestic violence to Centrelink staff, often in highly impersonal and unsafe spaces.[4]


The report makes a number of recommendations to reduce the experience of non-take-up, and perhaps most importantly, considers the need for recasting social protection “not as a favour provided by benevolent governments, but as a human right”. This seeks to address the feelings of shame and stigmatisation previously noted, to ensure that those who require social security benefits, receive it.

In Australia, there is a clear knowledge gap between social security applicants and the social security system. Having completed an internship at Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV) and a secondment at EJA through Wotton + Kearney, I have seen firsthand the inaccessibility of the social security system and the costs of non-take-up in practice. Welfare rights organisations such as SSRV and EJA are often at the forefront of bridging this knowledge gap through advocacy and the provision of accessible resources designed to support social security applicants, such as DSP Help.[5] However, without better policymaking and proactive government-led initiatives to negate the likelihood of non-take-up, the right to social security can and will be reduced to a “dead letter”.



[1] As per EJA’s Pre-Budget Submission 2022-2023: https://www.ejaustralia.org.au/pre-budget-submission-2022-2023/

[2] Dr Louise St Guillaume and Jasmine Robertson, Barriers to disability support pension access for people with psychiatric impairments and their experiences on JobSeeker Payment (Report, 2021) https://www.ejaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/vf_FINAL.pdf

[3] Sally Cameron and Linda Forbes, Debt, Duress and Dob-Ins: Centrelink compliance processes and domestic violence (Report, 2021) 13 https://www.ejaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/EJA_Full-Report2021_DebtsDuressDobins-FINAL.pdf

[4] Sally Cameron, How well does Australia’s social security system support victims of family and domestic violence? (Report, 2018) 44 https://www.ejaustralia.org.au/how-well-does-australias-social-security-system-support-victims-of-family-and-domestic-violence/

[5] DSP Help is a free resource that helps DSP applicants and their support workers understand the requirements of applying for the DSP and providing resources that they can use when approaching their doctors and specialists for medical evidence. DSP Help supports people in making better DSP applications and appeals.