Wed, 13 Feb 2019 - 11:42
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Introductory Speech: Social Services Legislation Amendment (Overseas Welfare Recipients Integrity Program) Bill 2019

This bill implements a measure announced in the 2018-2019 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook to confirm that Australian pensions are only being paid to pensioners living overseas who are still alive.

Australia is a multicultural country, with around one-third of Australians born overseas and over half of Australians with at least one parent born overseas. The government recognises that many people wish to return to their country of birth or to be with family and friends at a later stage in life. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect a large number of Australian pensioners to retire overseas. In fact, Australia pays a pension to approximately 96,000 Australian pensioners who live overseas.

It is a longstanding policy of successive Australian governments to recognise that Australian pension recipients have contributed to Australia and are not required to remain in Australia to be eligible to receive a pension.

Australia has international social security agreements with 31 countries that allow people who have lived part of their working life in Australia to claim an Australian pension while living overseas.

The effect of this bill is that, from 1 July 2019, pensioners aged 80 years and over and residing permanently overseas will need to complete and return a proof-of-life certificate to continue receiving their pension overseas. This will confirm that Australian pensions are only being paid to pensioners who are still alive.

The government estimates that approximately 24,900 pensioners who are aged 80 and over and live overseas will be required to provide proof of life. Limiting this process to pensioners aged 80 and over will minimise the administrative burden on pensioners, while helping to ensure that Australian pensions are only being paid to pensioners who are still alive.

This measure is expected to modify the behaviour of Australian pensioners and their families living overseas over time by reminding them of their reporting responsibilities. It is possible that there may be some misunderstanding by pensioners and their families overseas that Australian pensions may be bequeathed to or inherited by partners or family. Many overseas pension or national insurance schemes contain survivor or revisionary provisions that may be payable to partners or family. This is not, however, the case in respect of Australian pensions.

This misunderstanding can be compounded when a person is concurrently receiving pensions from Australia and from another country, and the other pension remains payable to a widow or widower under the laws of that other country. As overseas pensioners rarely contact the Australian government after leaving the country, the proof-of-life process will help to establish more regular contact with this group, and may lead to an increase in voluntary reporting.

The introduction of the proof-of-life process brings Australia in line with current international practice. Many other countries have regular assurance processes for people living overseas and receiving a pension from that country. For example, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Italy all have processes to verify that a pensioner living overseas is still alive, including a requirement to complete a proof-of-life certificate.

The measure proposed in this bill would require age pension, disability support pension, widow B pension and carer payment recipients who are aged 80 and over and permanently living overseas to complete a proof-of-life certificate every two years to continue receiving their payment. If a pensioner does not return his or her completed proof-of-life certificate after 13 weeks, their payment will be suspended. If the pensioner does not provide the certificate after a further 13 weeks, making 26 weeks in total, their payment will be cancelled.

The measure includes safeguards to reinstate a living pensioner's payment if that pensioner's pension has been suspended or cancelled. If the pensioner makes contact with the Department of Human Services and provides a completed proof-of-life certificate, the Secretary of the Department of Social Services or an appropriate delegate will have the discretion to reinstate the payment. A pensioner who has his or her payment reinstated will be paid any arrears to which he or she is entitled. This process will make sure that only people entitled to an Australian pension continue to receive it, while at the same time minimising the impact on pensioners who do the right thing.

To help protect against fraud, there is a requirement that the certificates are verified. Pensioners will have a range of options available to have their certificate verified. These may include, but are not limited to, a judge or magistrate of a law court, a medical doctor who is registered or licensed to practice in that country, or an Australian official at an embassy, consulate or high commission. This will provide overseas pensioners with multiple options for verifying their proof-of-life certificates, with a view to making this process as easy and practical as possible.

This government is committed to maintaining a welfare system that is fair and sustainable. The measure introduced in this bill strengthens the integrity of the welfare system by making sure that Australian pensions are only being paid to pensioners who are still alive.

Debate adjourned.



Video of speech available here: