Labor Senators on the committee remain concerned about the ongoing implementation of the Cashless Debit Card Trials.
Evidence received from witnesses and submitters to this inquiry has not resolved issues of cost, the Government's failure to substantiate their claims about the trials' benefits with evidence and the reported negative impacts of the trial on participants and communities.
Labor Senators note that a level of anecdotal evidence was received by the committee which indicates that the Cashless Debit Card has been of assistance in some communities, but has seen no empirical evidence which confirms these claims.
The committee also received evidence from academic experts that, in some trial areas, hope of ever gaining useful information about the effects of the trials are now lost, and that the measure can no longer be considered a genuine trial.
Labor Senators also note the evidence received which indicates clear differences between the Cashless Debit Card trials and the Cape York Welfare Reform model, both of which were addressed in this bill.
Lack of evidence
Labor Senators continue to raise concerns about the lack of evidence produced by this trial.
Professor Matthew Gray, Director of the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods told the committee that '…the quality of the evaluation is…so poor that it should not be used'.
Additionally, Dr Janet Hunt told the committee:
That the Government continues, against all the evidence…to make grossly misleading and inaccurate claims about the overwhelming 'success' of the trials in Ceduna and East Kimberley is particularly perplexing.
Further, the report of the Australian National Audit Office found inaccuracies in reporting on the success of the trials.
The Australian Council of Social Services explained:
The ANAO found that the Department of Social Services failed to correctly monitor and report on various outcomes of the trials in Ceduna and Kununurra. For example, DSS reported a decline in St John's Ambulance call outs, but the ANAO found, accounting for seasonality, there was an increase after the card was introduced. DSS also reported that anecdotally, there had been an increase in school attendance, however, the ANAO analysed school attendance data and found that it was stable for non-Indigenous students, and had declined for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Additionally, the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods wrote:
The Auditor General in addition to identifying faults in the evaluation approach also provided the results of their own analysis drawing upon independent administrative data from a number of sources. This indicated that a number of the claims from this evaluation and in departmental advice were not robust: falls in alcohol related pickups were part of a longer term trend and not a program specific outcome, ambulance pick-ups had actually increased rather than decreasing and school attendance by Indigenous children had fallen rather than increasing.
Further, the committee heard that the poor quality of the evaluations to date has now negated the opportunity for meaningful study of the effects of the Cashless Debit Card to be done at all.
Dr Eve Vincent told the committee that:
The opportunity has long passed to really form a good picture of what the situation was in a place like Ceduna prior to the card's introduction and what exactly the effects were that the card had.
The Australian Council of Social Services wrote:
It is difficult not to conclude that there is an unwillingness to conduct proper, robust evaluations of the cashless debit card trials. While the government is funding evaluations, there are serious questions over their value in measuring the impact of cashless debit. Thus far, evaluations have been without a reliable baseline, based on anecdote or perceptions, or fail to correctly report key data relevant to the trial's objectives.
Labor Senators on the committee continue to be seriously concerned by the lack of quality evidence or evaluation of the trials to date.
Approaches to income management
The committee heard evidence from a broad variety of witnesses and submitters that compulsory income management is usually not effective, and that it is more likely to be of benefit where it is highly targeted or voluntary.
The Australian Council of Social Services told the committee that the Australian Government put forward this view to the United Nations in late 2018:
…the Australian Government has also acknowledged that voluntary income management has been more effective and has delivered more positive results. It did so in its evidence presented to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights late last year.
The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods wrote in their submission that the evaluation of income management in the Northern Territory showed:
…strongly positive perceptions were reported by those on Voluntary Income Management, where there is some, but not wholly consistent, evidence of improvement in some aspects of household outcomes for this group. This is not the case for those on compulsory measures where the balance of evidence clearly points to no improvement.
In evidence, Professor Gray from the Centre compared the difference between income management in Cape York, which Labor Senators understand is either voluntary, or set in specific circumstances for time limited periods with the Cashless Debit Card.
…the Cape York trial can be considered using income management as a surgeon's scalpel and the application of policy in Ceduna, the East Kimberley and the Goldfields as wielding a blunt axe.
Dr Janet Hunt further told the committee that:
Any income management scheme be only undertaken with those individuals who are demonstrating socially harmful behaviours and serious child neglect, as part of a wider case management strategy with holistic support to address the complex issues they face, and for a limited time while they do so; and for those who wish to remain on income management voluntarily.
In addition to a general discussion about the benefits of voluntary as opposed to compulsory income management, the committee received evidence about the important of existing trial participants being able to leave the Cashless Debit Card trials.
Mr Desmond Hill, an Indigenous Elder from the East Kimberley, who was involved in negotiations with the Government regarding the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card told the committee that there was meant to be a mechanism for people to be able to come off the cashless debit card, but that the Government has not delivered on this.
We said that we'd support the card on certain conditions. Those conditions were…and (3) the local community panel would have the authority to take people off…because there are those in the community that don't necessarily have to be on the card and they feel like they're being punished for it.
Another Indigenous leader in the East Kimberley, Ian Trust, told the committee that he was not opposed to people being able to come off the cashless debit card in certain circumstances.
The committee heard that not all people in the trial areas need to be on the Cashless Debit Card.
Dr Matt Fisher from the Public Health Association of Australia said:
St Vincent de Paul has noted that most people who receive income support do not have a problem with illicit drug use or alcohol dependency…the government's own ORIMA evaluation notes that a majority of card users reported no change in alcohol consumption, gambling or illegal drug use.
The Australian Council of Social Services wrote that the Cashless Debit Card:
…brands people receiving income support as unable to manage their meagre incomes because of harmful consumption of drugs, alcohol and gambling. It is evident that the vast majority of people in the trial sites do not engage in harmful behaviour.
The Anti-Poverty Network SA told the committee that of the 895 income support recipients participating in the trial in Ceduna, only eighty three engaged in the behaviours that the cashless debit card was targeting.
The Network gave the committee an example of how someone who had not engaged in the targeted behaviour had been negatively impacted by the card. They explained:
…a blanket across everyone, is what is so undignified about this. I had a lady who volunteered in a craft shop who would donate her stuff. She can't buy things online anymore. She's never drunk. She's never had drugs or anything like that. It is just such an inhibitive way of life for her now.
Additionally, the Network told the committee that the program would benefit from becoming more voluntary:
Clearly the people who would be volunteering for a program like that, when it as only a voluntary program, would be getting the help that would be required for them, and it would probably be more targeted rather than being wasted on people who don't need it and on whose lives it's just having a further effect.
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union told the committee that:
If the card is deemed to be a beneficial tool for communities and social services, the card should only be offered on a voluntary basis or through a court ordered program.
The voluntary card could be useful for certain people who may actually find it quite useful to have their spending diverted into ways in which they can concentrate on getting the basic necessities through the card, but for the majority of people who are unemployed or underemployed there's no reason for them to have their income managed that way. They're just normal people who have fallen into a period of unemployment. They shouldn't be punished for that.
Labor Senators on the committee call on the Government to amend the legislation so that participants in the Cashless Debit Card Trial are able to get off the card in certain circumstances.
The committee continues to hear evidence of the Cashless Debit Card causing difficulties in the communities where it has been implemented, and income support recipients in other areas being fearful of a broader implementation of the scheme.
Ms Nijole Naujokas explained to the committee:
I live in terror of being put on a cashless welfare card. The way that I manage my funds is being able to pick and choose what I spend and where I spend it. For instance, if I need tyres for my car or if I need some dental work then I might be able to get an extension on my electricity bill and then have to do that…The thought of being put on a card makes me feel completely hopeless, infantilised. As someone who has experienced violence, I am very aware of being controlled. Being on the card would make me feel controlled and hopeless.
Additionally, the Anti-Poverty Network SA told the committee that they had received anecdotal evidence of:
…people returning to domestic violence situations because they've got no alternative financially.
Labor Senators note the ongoing concern among sections of the community about a broader roll out of the Cashless Debit Card.
Labor Senators on the committee state their opposition to the implementation of blanket income management for all income support recipients, and reaffirm Labor's opposition to the national roll out of the Cashless Debit Card, or the expansion of the card unless a community request it, and there is informed community consent.
Labor Senators on this committee recommend that:
The Senate amend the bill to introduce a way for Cashless Debit Card participants to get off the card, where it is unlikely there will be any benefit to them.
Senator the Hon Lisa Singh