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Child Support Amendment Bill - Sue Bradford Speech

Child Support Amendment Bill
Third Reading - Thursday 1 November 2001
Sue Bradford, Green Party
Delivered at 4.45pm

Mr Speaker,

During the Second Reading and Committee stages of this Bill in the House I have heard a lot of nonsense talked by certain members to my Right about how this is a law which proposes to cut benefits. Now first of all, if there had been a serious intention by Government to chop benefits, I can assure members that the Green Party would have been quick off the mark to oppose the Bill at every stage, as we did when we voted against the Residence of Spouses Amendment Bill which cut income support for a group of people who had previously been entitled to it. And secondly, I find it somewhat outlandish to hear National and ACT members so concerned about the possible loss of $2.75 a week by liable parents on low incomes, when in fact the Jenny Shipley, Ruth Richardson and Jim Bolger Government of 1991 had no scruples at all in cutting benefits across the board by up to 25 per cent - and 100 per cent in the case of 16 and 17 year olds.

And of course, in the years since, this has not been made up for by Governments of any stripe, so beneficiaries have a lot more to worry about than any impact from this Bill. But this is not to deny that there is a very real issue about the potential effect of this legislation on low income liable parents. This Child Support Amendment Bill raises the minimum rate of child support from $10 a week to $12.75 a week, and in future the minimum rate will be adjusted annually in line with the CPI. As some submitters to the Select Committee rightly noted, even the loss of $2.75 a week can make a big difference for people who are struggling to survive. However this needs to be weighed up against a number of other factors.

The first of these is that the Department of Work and Income is able to provide additional financial assistance to any liable parent who is a beneficiary and who is facing genuine hardship. Thus, for people in receipt of income support who are really suffering as a result of the loss of $2.75 per week, there are ways in which this can be made up. This of course begs the argument that the Bill will mean quite a large transfer of Government resources from one fund to another, but in all honesty I can't see this as a benefit cut in practical terms, given that those within the income support system who are affected most adversely can be helped where needed. The only question there remains the old one of whether Work and Income staff will come up to scratch in terms of what I believe are very much their legal obligations to provide people who come to them for help with ALL their possible entitlements, rather than the bare minimum or none at all.

I hope the recent restructuring into the Ministry of Social Development and the appointment of a forward thinking new CEO to that Department will mean a big shift in departmental culture to the advantage of those who are forced by circumstance to use its services.

Secondly, I have to say that the Green Party does support the underlying intent of this Bill. A minimum of $10 a week as a payment from a liable parent is 'impracticably low' as the National Council of Women points out in their submission.

I find another irony in the fact that parties on the right talk so much about the need for fathers and mothers to take responsibility for their children, while at the same time they oppose legislation which increases this responsibility for liable parents ever so slightly. I do believe that as a society we should continue to encourage the idea that those of us who choose to have children should take responsibility for our offspring, including financial responsibility as much as we are able.

I know this may not be a spectacularly politically correct point of view, but like many of us in this House I've been part of a generation of which far too many fathers particularly have evaded most or all responsibility for the children they've created.

I think we do have a right to ask them for even a small contribution towards their offspring's welfare, even if the parent is unemployed or sick or otherwise out of the workforce.

As well as the increase to $12.75 a week in the minimum rate of child support, the Bill also legislates for an annual increase in accordance with the Consumer Price Index. The existing minimum of $10.00 has not been raised since it was first set in 1990. At the same time though we have a system where benefits themselves are adjusted annually in line with the CPI, and where we have a regular review of the minimum wage, so I think it is only fair that the child support regime is realigned each year as well.

At the other end of the scale, this Bill raises the maximum level for assessment of child support from the current level of twice the average ordinary time weekly wage to 2.5 times the average ordinary time weekly wage. This means that there will be an increase in the maximum income level for assessment from the current amount of over $67,000 to $84,461.

Now I do not have a problem with the concept that liable parents who are on high incomes should contribute their fair share, and I don't think this adjustment is excessive. It brings us into line with the equivalent Australian child support regime, while at the same time not placing the upper limit so high that it becomes a disincentive for liable parents to pay.

During the Select Committee hearings we did hear from a number of submitters, mainly male liable parents, who made heartfelt pleas critical of the proposed changes. Two of the issues they raised in particular I felt had considerable validity.

The first of these is to do with the effect of student loans on child support payments. In the period when the current child support regime first came into being, the Government student loan scheme was only just being set up, and it's clear that the effect of student debt would not have been given much, if any, political consideration at that time.

But as we know all too well, especially in the light of the education select committee inquiry whose rather dismal results were announced yesterday, the impact of loans on the quality of life of students post-tertiary study has been immeasurable.

We have reached the point as legislators when I believe we have to think about the impact of the student loan burden in relation to the development of any new and relevant legislation, of which this is one example. Given that we are a society which is supposed to be encouraging people to develop skills and education for the 'knowledge wave' of the future, it seems a pity that we should not take into account student loan repayments when assessing the level of child support for liable parents. For this reason, I support any Government moves to further consider the options for positive change in this area.

The second issue of concern as raised by the liable parents who made submissions to us is to do with the vexed issue of shared care. As a number of them justifiably pointed out, a lot of shared parenting happens these days under the 40 per cent threshold - that is where the non custodial parent spends a substantial amount of time caring for their child or children, but where that is less than 40 per cent of the nights in a child support year, to use the official jargon.

I believe that we should be doing everything we can, where possible, to support both parents in playing an active role in their children's lives. I think this would be encouraged if we had a more flexible system for measuring percentages of care time, which took into account the real and unavoidable costs of substantial child care and child support by a custodial parent.

I hope more work will be done on this issue in the near future, and that some useful proposals from Government might be forthcoming soon about how we can solve this problem.

A separate problem raised by some submitters dealt with the delays which often happen when someone transfers from a benefit to receiving support payments outside the welfare system. It is clear from anecdotal evidence in the community that some custodial parents experience unnecessary delays in receiving payments when they transfer out of the income support system.

I admit that this is a separate and administrative issue, but I would hope that the introduction of this legislation and the accompanying renewed focus on child support issues will mean the relevant officials will be more careful and more assiduous in future in ensuring that people aren't penalised when shifting from welfare to employment or other new life situations.

While this Bill is not perfect and there are a number of issues left unresolved, the Green Party will be voting in its favour, as we see it as a reasonably equitable step towards reforming a child support framework which had become somewhat antiquated.

At the same time, however, I would like to see this Government give more priority to a plethora of other difficulties relating to children, such as the impacts of widespread child poverty, the lack of access by so many children to adequate mental health services, and to adequate educational outcomes.

We should stop this focus on tinkering around the edges, and in all portfolio areas begin to put children first, rather than last.


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