Budget bills incompatible with human rights obligations

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A bipartisan Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (the committee) was established by the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011. It is tasked with examining bills that come before parliament to ensure compatibility with the rights and freedoms contained in the seven core human rights treaties to which Australia is a party.

The Budget Bills contain some of the most significant changes to the Australian system of income support since it was first introduced in a consolidated Social Security Act in 1947 including:

  • Introduction of a six month non-payment period for job seekers under 30;
  • Increases to the minimum age of newstart allowance to 25, and extension of youth allowance for younger job seekers up to age 24;
  • Raising the pension age progressively to 70;
  • A range of measures towards freezing indexation of income and assets tests
  • Removal of benchmarking, aimed at ensuring adequacy, of parenting payment single and pensions;
  • Proposals for disability support pensioners under 35 to be reviewed against the newer impairment tables and have new “program of support” requirements;
  • Reductions in conditions for receiving payments overseas (portability) for student payments and disability support pensioners;
  • Abolition of the pensioner education supplement and education entry payment;
  • Reduction to the family tax benefit end of year supplements and ceasing of indexation; and
  • Limiting family tax benefit part B to families with children under 6, with a new allowance for single parents receiving the maximum fate of family tax benefit part A with children age 6 to 12.

On 24 September 2014 the Committee found that two of the measures in the Budget Bill (No 2) were incompatible with our human rights obligations.  Measures in Budget Bill (No 1) were also found to be of concern.

The proposal to impose a six month waiting period for unemployment benefits on some young people under 30 was found to be incompatible with the right to social security, and the right to an adequate standard of living.  The Committee found that there was inadequate justification for the measure in the absence of information about how young people would sustain themselves during the six month period.

This finding was welcomed by welfare groups, including the NWRN.  We had repeatedly drawn attention to the lack of alternative sources of support and the fact that this measure proposed a fundamental attack on the basic right to social security and the principle of adequate income support based on need (see our submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs here).

The proposals to increase the Newstart Allowance eligibility age to 24 and to restrict access to Newstart Allowance for some under 30s were found to be incompatible with the right to equality and non-discrimination on the basis of age. The Minister was not able to explain how the apparent discrimination is not arbitrary and did not include an assessment of how the proposed changes to age cut offs were necessary, reasonable and proportionate.

In relation to the Budget Bill (No 1), the committee observed that, while the measures appeared neutral there were concerns that they may have a greater impact on women than men, as women are more likely to be recipients of social security, particularly payments for children. The committee is therefore seeking further advice from the Minister as to whether the measures are compatible with the rights to equality and non-discrimination on the basis of gender and family responsibilities.

The numerous other measures in the Bill, including the measure which would increase Age Pension age above the average life expectancy of Aboriginal men, were found to be compatible with human rights obligations.

These measures were split into four new Bills and are once again before the parliament. A summary of which measures ended up in each of the four Bills can be found in the Welfare Right Centre (NSW) blog here.