Parliament: Parliamentary Initiatives

Motion – Disability SA Client Trust Account

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: I move:

That this council calls on the Minister for Disability and the Treasurer to rescind the decision to abolish the Disability SA Client Trust Account.

I move this motion in response to the anger, frustration and despondency that is keenly felt by those people who have been contacting my office regarding the government’s decision to effectively abolish the Disability SA Client Trust Account by transferring disability client trust management from Disability SA to the Public Trustee. Frankly, it seems to me that this decision is thoughtless, gutless and, most of all, heartless.

As I see it, this decision is a blatant cost-cutting measure. The Sustainable Budget Commission estimated that the transfer of funds would see a windfall to the government of about $740,000 per year, but let us face it: this saving will come at the expense of people in our community who are least able to afford it, that is, people with disabilities who are unable to manage their own funds. As one father wrote in a letter to me, ‘People with disability have enough to cope with without the Public Trustee reducing their income.’ Frankly, this decision is going to hurt people.

For those who have estates worth more than $4,400 this will result in capital commission fees of 4.4 per cent and income commission at 5.5 per cent. That $4,400 is not a particularly large amount, so I imagine that many people will be affected by these fees. On top of this, people who are transferred to the Public Trustee will be required to pay annual fees of $134 and may be subject to a tax fee of $45.

It sounds confusing and vague and, to put it plainly, it is confusing. From what we have been told by many concerned mums and dads, the true extent of the costs has not been made available to them. I wrote to the minister outlining these concerns at having to pay increased fees and her response was that fees would only apply to people with assets greater than $4,400. Quite frankly, this response is not good enough.

The Hon. S.G. Wade: $4,000, dear me!

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: Hear! Hear! From my calculations, as an example, a disability pensioner who has assets worth $8,000 and receives a pension of $400 per week, which is paid to the Public Trustee, will then be up for more than $1,630 in charges per year, which is huge when your annual income is a mere $20,800.

To paint a picture, let us say, for instance, that I am a person on a Disability Support Pension who currently receives that average amount of $400 per week, amounting to roughly $20,800 per year. I live in a supported residential facility meaning that I pay 85 per cent of that (or $17,680) to that facility to pay for my bed and the meals provided to me for one year. This leaves me with $3,120, which must last me an entire year.

But wait: it gets worse. If the Public Trustee is managing my funds, I need to pay the $1,630 in charges for commission fees, income fees, etc. That leaves me with $1,490 per year or $28 per week to spend on other essential items such as clothing, personal interests, entertainment, outings and transport.

It is clear that the government’s plan to shift many Disability SA clients’ funds to the Public Trustee will leave some people with a minuscule amount of money, thereby eating away at their choice and independence, as well. While taking from people who have already extremely limited finances and leaving them with this scrap of annual disposable income is deplorable in itself, this is, of course, not just about the money for those who will be affected. There are also concerns raised by loved ones as to the quality of service to be provided by the Public Trustee.

There seem be few complaints about the service already being provided by Disability SA in managing these funds. In fact, I am hearing many compliments as to the prompt service that is currently being provided. The friends and family members of clients who have contacted my office are worried that the Public Trustee will not provide the same level of service as Disability SA and that, as a result, their loved ones will suffer. These funds are needed for day-to-day expenses, and the people who have contacted my office are also worried that the Public Trustee will not have the same level of understanding as the staff at Disability SA who are accustomed to facilitating the needs of people with a disability.

There is then the issue of change. My office has received phone calls and letters from distraught relatives of people with disabilities who are deeply concerned about how their loved one will cope with this change. While it may not seem like a great change to most of us, for many of these people, the switch to the Public Trustee would mean adjusting to what is for them a huge change and may adversely affect their mental health.

Consultation is another bone of contention for people who have contacted my office. This was another decision made behind closed doors, with no consultation with those who will be directly affected. I am told that many families received vague letters from the department telling them of the changes, and at no stage were people consulted or asked how the changes would impact on them or their loved ones. These are people who have a right to be involved. As the Public Advocate John Brayley so rightly stated on the front page of The Advertiser, it is ‘unbelievable’ that the system could be changed without careful review and consultation with advocacy groups.

Now the minister has said that some of the fees may be waived, but that is of little consolation to those families who are worried now, who know that the decision has already been made. There are too many ‘mights and maybes’ from the minister, but no real informed consultation. The minister has told me that a steering committee will be set up with representatives from the department and the Public Trustee to resolve issues surrounding the decision, as well as the legal issues associated with it.

However, this is too little too late—too little because families and advocates are seemingly not involved in this committee, and too late because the decision has already been made. These changes are set to come into effect from 1 July this year, and the government is still ironing out legal issues and other concerns. Why the rush? Surely, if this government wants to do the right thing by people with disabilities, and their families, it will hold off and rescind its decision at least until it has consulted and until it knows what the consequences truly are.

The minister has told me that she will ensure that information that soundly guides clients and their families will be provided, but when, minister? Surely the information should have been provided initially to allay concerns, but, no, it seems that the government was in such a rush for a cash grab that it could not wait. The minister says that this is not about money. In a letter to a constituent she said that she had received numerous complaints about the inappropriateness of Disability SA as a service provider also managing funds.

I note that the Auditor-General raised concerns about the current arrangement; however, as I see it, he was suggesting that improved processes were required, not a complete overhaul. The minister has also said that the decision was made because she believes that the management of Disability SA client funds is not a core function of the DFC. Funny; I thought that a core function of the DFC was to uphold the interests of the people that it served, whereas this decision clearly does not uphold their interests.

One would hope that our government would make a decision with this many negative ramifications only as a last resort. However, it has made this decision with the sole aim of saving a mere $2.2 million, or about $740,000 per year over three years. Of course, I acknowledge that the government must run an effective budget, however, to snatch this money from vulnerable people who are already living on a pittance is neither effective nor responsible. A government’s role is to protect and to provide justly for its people, and to eat away at people’s opportunity to have financial access to the most basic needs in life does neither of these things.

I am also aware that the government may argue that it is not actually forcing anyone to move their funds to the Public Trustee. It is simply saying that Disability SA will no longer manage the funds for them and they must find an alternative. However, as I have already touched on, many of these clients do not have the capacity intellectually, emotionally, or both, to make a decision about their financial management for themselves, so the government is in fact forcing these people into the hands of the Public Trustee, albeit indirectly.

Put simply, this decision is tactless and heartless. It is another shameless cash grab from a government that continually seems to put people second. It does not seem to me at all that this government has truly considered the amount of people who will be affected by it and the severity to which they will be affected. People whose disability means that they are dependent on social security and such services deserve a government which treats them with respect and in a trustworthy manner and does not treat them as pawns in a reckless money grabbing game.

For this reason and all the others mentioned above, I encourage honourable members to support my motion and to do all in their power to ensure that this thoughtless decision will quickly be reversed.