Over 55,000 homeless or at-risk Australian job-seekers had their welfare payments temporarily frozen during the last six months of 2018, new Senate estimate figures have revealed.
The Department of Jobs and Small Business announced the suspensions came after the government introduced new compliance measures for the recruitment system, Jobactive, in July 2018. The updated figures also showed 50,000 job-seekers living with a mental illness received payment suspensions in the six months, as did 48,000 single-parents.
The new compliance system sees payments suspended if job-seekers fail to attend appointments with their provider. While payments are reinstated once the individual recommits, welfare groups say the break in payments are often imposed unnecessarily and have drastic consequences for the most vulnerable Australians.
CEO of Australian Council of Social Service Cassandra Goldie said the new measures can leave vulnerable Australians without money for basic necessities.
"Social security experts repeatedly warned the federal government that the new compliance regime would lead to huge numbers of people being cut off from income support, including people in very vulnerable circumstances,” she told the Guardian. “This has tragically proven to be the case. The huge numbers of suspensions tell us that the current no-discretion system is not working.”
A spokesman for Minister for Jobs Kelly O’Dwyer told the Guardian the government’s new system has notably reduced the number of people expelled from the welfare system. He further stated that while the government was devoted to assisting those who need help to find work, the relationship must be “a two-way street.”
"The majority of payment suspensions are lifted within three days,” he stated. “Overwhelmingly, those who have their payments suspended have them reversed before their regular payment date.”
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Jenny Smith, CEO of the Council to Homeless Persons, told Global Citizen the fact that most payments were reinstated in three days shows that the suspension should never have happened in the first place.
"Our view is that every stone should be turned to look into the individual's circumstances before doing the damage of suspending a vulnerable person’s payment — only to then reinstate it having traumatized them, having them spend days in fear of not being able to pay rent, or not being able to put food on the table,” she stated.
Figures on the number of welfare payments suspended in the first six months of 2018 were never made public. However, Smith and Australia’s homeless service sector are confident they continue to see “more and more people treated harshly by the system.”
"To think that 55,000 homeless or at-risk people had their payment suspended beggars belief,” she stated. “It is an appalling circumstance to find ourselves in.”
A government-commissioned review into Jobactive began in 2018. A report, handed down in October, gave 11 recommendations and called for major reforms to the system. A decision on the future of Jobactive can be expected following the federal election in May.