A peak Australian welfare group has called on the government to boost unemployment benefits after sweeping reforms were announced to tighten the eligibility for disability support pensions (DSPs).
About 40 per cent of people receiving DSPs would no longer qualify under changes to the impairment table on which people are assessed for work.
Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) chief Cassandra Goldie welcomed the emphasis on giving more people with disabilities work opportunities. But she said unemployment allowances for those on Newstart and allowances for single parents must be increased.
“Unless there is a dramatic improvement in the job prospects of people with disabilities, all the tightening of access to DSPs will achieve is to leave people with disabilities $128 per week poorer,” Ms Goldie said.
About 100,000 people with disabilities are currently languishing on the Newstart allowance, she said.
“People on Newstart receive $128 per week less than those on DSP or aged pension, that’s just $34 a day for all their living expenses like rent, food, transport and bills, which simply is not enough to live on.”
Labor hopes that the changes will see many struggling with obesity, chronic pain and hearing impairment return to the workforce.
Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin said the reform will see people assessed on what they can do, not what they can’t.
The new tables published on Saturday will not affect existing recipients, but take affect from January 1, 2012.
Ms Macklin described the changes as long overdue, with the last reform to the pension in 1993.
“The disability pension should be there for people when they need it, but if people are able to work and, with support, can work, we certainly want to see them working.” she told reporters in Melbourne.
The changes mean chronic pain and obesity will no longer be considered grounds in themselves for eligibility, with sufferers assessed on their capacity to perform certain tasks.
People suffering from hearing impairment will also be tested with their hearing aid turned on.
“The objective of the impairment table … is to assess people’s ability to work and to demonstrate what they can do, not what they can’t do,” Ms Macklin said.
“We’ve done (this) with very significant input from medical and rehabilitation experts, (and) disability advocates.”
Ms Macklin estimates the government will save $35 million annually from the changes.
About 800,000 Australians receive the Disability Support Pension, more than the number receiving the dole.
Centrelink estimates 38 per cent of recipients would not qualify for the pension under the reform.
Opposition human services spokesman Kevin Andrews cautiously welcomed the policy change.
“If they are what the minister says, then they are appropriate housekeeping changes,” he told ABC Television on Saturday.
Mr Andrews has called for a review of the new regime within 18 months of its introduction to ensure proper administration.