Centrelink rule change jeopardises disability pension for thousands of inmates | Australia news


The federal government plans to cancel the disability support pension for thousands of prisoners, regardless of whether they’ve been found guilty or are still on remand.

A significant change to the disability support pension was announced in last week’s budget, the latest in a long-running effort to tighten access to the payment.

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Currently, prisoners are not able to receive the disability support pension while behind bars. But they can suspend their payment for up to two years without it being cancelled, an arrangement that allows them resume the pension upon release, lessening the risk of them immediately falling into homelessness, destitution and recidivism.

But the government plans to drastically shorten the amount of time a prisoner can suspend their disability support pension while behind bars. The maximum suspension time will be cut from two years to 13 weeks – a change expected to affect 2,200 people.

The government believes about 10% of those people will not meet new, more stringent requirements for the DSP, saving it about $5.2m.

The changes will also affect prisoners who have pleaded not guilty and are still awaiting trial in Australia’s backlogged court systems.

Accused persons typically spend 3.3 months on remand in Australia, and 4.2 months in New South Wales, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. Such people would not typically have faced the cancellation of their DSP under the previous two-year suspension window, if they were tried and acquitted.

But the new 13-week cut-off means those on remand now face the cancellation of their disability support pension, even if they are found not guilty.

The new arrangements are expected to be in place from the start of next year, and will not need legislation.

The social services minister, Dan Tehan, said the changes simply aligned the suspension period for the disability support pension with other welfare payments, like Newstart and Youth Allowance.

“The Department of Human Services assists people in prison to claim appropriate income support on their release,” he said.

But lawyers have expressed concern about the measure, which they say is the latest in a long line of changes designed to curb access to the DSP.

Victoria’s Legal Aid economic and social rights program manager, Joel Townsend, said access to the DSP had been “dramatically constrained in recent years”.

“This is certainly not likely to alleviate it and might further narrow eligibility for DSP to a point where yet fewer people qualify,” he said.

Estimates suggest the tightening of the DSP, including a tightening of eligibility criteria, has led to a 63% drop in successful claims between 2010 and 2016.

Townsend said the latest measure was likely to create uncertainty for prisoners upon release, regardless of their guilt. That would jeopardise their ability to lead stable and law-abiding lives, he said.

People with a disability are vastly over-represented in Australia’s prisons. Recent statistics show they make up 50% of the prison population, but just 18% of the general population.

Earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch report found prisoners with a disability often faced mistreatment or abuse behind bars.

An investigation of 14 prisons found prisoners with disabilities were locked in solitary confinement for prolonged periods and suffered physical and sexual abuse, including at the hands of carers.



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