This legislation, if passed, will enact a range of provisions impacting on income support recipients – including the Federal budget announcement of random drug testing of unemployed people at three trial sites.
In our submission to the Senate inquiry into this Bill cohealth strongly argues against the drug testing trial. These provisions have no basis in best practice evidence, will do little to support people dealing with alcohol and drug use, and will only subject income support recipients to greater poverty, stigma and marginalisation. Drug and alcohol use is best responded to through public health measures, not welfare compliance.
cohealth welcomes the opportunity to provide comment to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017.
With a long history of delivering alcohol and drug services, cohealth is committed to drawing on the best available evidence and working directly with communities to design and deliver evidence-based and effective responses to reduce the potential harms from alcohol and drug use. Applying this lens, cohealth is deeply troubled that provisions in this Bill, particularly Schedule 12 – Establishment of a drug testing trial; Schedule 13 – Removal of exemptions for drug and alcohol dependence; and Schedule 14 – Changes to reasonable excuses have no basis in best practice evidence, will do little to support people dealing with alcohol and drug use, and will only subject income support recipients to greater poverty, stigma and marginalisation. Drug and alcohol use is best responded to through public health measures, not welfare compliance.
A number of other measures, particularly Schedule 15 – Targeted compliance framework, will exacerbate economic inequality. This directly contributes to health inequality, negatively affecting the health outcomes of individuals and families in economic hardship and ultimately resulting in greater costs to society as a whole.
To this end, whilst the following submission sets out our concerns in relation to three specific schedules, we strongly encourage the Committee to consider the potential impact of every measure contained in the Bill to negatively impact on the health and potential of disadvantaged Australians.
That the Committee recommends Parliament reject any measure contained in the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 that will further impoverish or marginalise the most disadvantaged people in Australia. In particular, the Parliament should:
From 1 January 2018, 5,000 new recipients of Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance (Other) in three trial locations will be required to undertake random drug tests for illegal drugs. The trial is expected to run for 2 years. Recipients who test positive to an initial test will be placed on compulsory income management for 24 months, and those who test positive to more than one test in a 24 month period will be required to undertake assessment and, if recommended, one or more treatment activities.
This trial has been presented by the Government as one that will support the capacity of income support recipients to find employment through assisting them to address drug use. However, cohealth cannot see any redeeming feature in the trial, and shares the concerns of the many experts condemning the scheme, including academics, medical and public health professionals, AOD and mental health experts, lawyers and human rights advocates. The most significant factor in people being unable to find employment is the serious lack of jobs, but these measures will do nothing to address this.
While we support the principle of assisting people who use drugs to reduce or cease their usage, and to improve the prospects for employment for those who receive income support, there is no basis in evidence that the random testing of income support recipients will achieve this end. Of note, the recently released National Drug Strategy 2017-2026 emphasises the importance of using evidence informed approaches. Nowhere does it propose the coercive approaches presented in this Bill. Implementing legislation and policy with no basis in evidence, relying instead on perceived “plain commons sense”, as justified by Prime Minister Turnbull, or stereotyping, would be an extraordinary abrogation of the role of sound government.
cohealth has many serious concerns about this proposal, from human rights impacts to practical considerations, including:
Under the provisions of these schedules alcohol and drug use will no longer be either a valid exemption from mutual obligation, or a reasonable excuse for a participation failure, for people on payments that have activity test or participation requirements, including Newstart Allowance, Youth Allowance (other), Special Benefit and Parenting Payment Single.
Removing these mutual obligation exemptions without other assistance will see greater numbers of people subject to breaches and loss of payments. These provisions, again, fail to account for best practice in AOD treatment, which emphasises a health-based harm-minimisation approach. While referring to the ability of the Department of Human Services or job providers to refer someone to assessment and treatment, the Bill fails to recognise that the AOD system across the country is already seriously under-resourced and will struggle to be able to provide the treatment responses to those targeted by these measures.
cohealth is not convinced that adequate safeguards are in place to ensure that people are not cut off from income support benefits, and further impoverished, by these measures.
For further information about this submission please contact:
Director: Public Affairs
 http://www.acoss.org.au/budget-2017/social-security/ accessed 22 July 2017
 Bray, J. R., Gray, M., Hand, K., & Katz, I. (2014). Evaluating New Income Management in the Northern Territory: Final
Evaluation Report (SPRC Report 25/2014). Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Australia.