Is being on the Disability Support Pension less stable than ever? 

ACTION: Adapting CANSAS to Individuals’ Own Needs                                          Recovery Conversation Theme #22: Income and Entitlements

By Grant J Everett 

On the surface, the Disability Support Pension seems pretty straightforward: if an Australian citizen proves their eligibility, they will receive the correct amount of social security from the government. But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes of social security. Here are a few factors that could really change the way the DSP operates for some of our readers. 

Pensions take a Pounding 

Last year, a huge crackdown on Disability Support Pension recipients by the Department of Social Services was cancelled after very poor results. This was planned to take the form of conducting medical reviews of 90,000 people on the DSP over the space of three years to test for their ongoing eligibility. It was projected that this would lead to the cancelation of 2,300 Pensions and also move a further 1,800 people onto the much lower Newstart allowance, saving the government more than $61.2 million over five years. However, after just one year and more than 30,000 reviews, only 2% of people reviewed did not meet the new criteria. This lead to concerns that running the scheme was costing more than it saved, but the Department of Social Services didn’t reveal if they’d ended up with a net loss. The fact that this crackdown has been cancelled speaks volumes. 

“In May, I indicated that the department was monitoring that process…and the government has decided not to continue with that measure,” said Kathryn Campbell, the secretary of the Department of Human Services. 

Rachel Siewert, Family and Community Services spokeswoman of the Greens, was pleased the crackdown had been scrapped, but she accused Labor and the Coalition of trying to save money by taking it from people in need. 

“People whose conditions have not ‘stabilised’ or who don’t meet the stricter eligibility criteria will most likely be condemned to the lower Newstart payment. So here we have people with disability, needing medical treatments and support living on payments as low as $38 a day,” Ms Siewert said. 

Pensions in Prisons 

According to Christopher Knaus from The Guardian, if somebody on the Disability Support Pension became an inmate in an Australian prison, they used to be able to suspend their pensions for up to two years while they were behind bars and resume it once released. However, under new rules these benefits will be entirely cut off in 13 weeks. This cancelation will be put into effect even if someone is still on remand or eventually found not guilty. This new arrangement went into place at the start of 2019. 

Social services minister Dan Tehan said these changes have brought the DSP in line with other welfare payments, like Newstart and Youth Allowance, that are suspended and cancelled while a recipient is incarcerated. 

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

This issue gets tricky when you consider that there are new, more stringent requirements to getting on the DSP now, and it is estimated that about 10% of the people who are cut off the DSP in prison will no longer be eligible to receive it again once they are released. Around 220 people are expected to be cut off, allowing the government to save around $5.2 million in NSW each year. The key fear is that taking away this support will only increase the odds of newly released people falling into homelessness, destitution and recidivism. 

People with disability are massively over-represented in Australian prisons. While people with disability make up 50% of the prison population, they only make up 18% of the general community. Earlier in 2018, a Human Rights Watch report found prisoners with a disability are often faced mistreatment or abuse behind bars, including being locked in solitary confinement for prolonged periods and physical abuse. 

Pensioners Plunging? 

Since 2014 there has been an unprecedented drop in the number of Australians who receive the Disability Support Pension. Despite population growth, in the space of 4 years a total of 71,500 people have been kicked off the pension Australia wide. As the number of pensioners was around 775,000 people, this is a reduction of 9 percent. 

“This reduction would be good news if the people who would have been on DSP are now in jobs, but we don’t know that,” said National Disability Services Chief Executive Ken Baker. “The employment rate of people with disability in Australia has been low and static for a long time.” 

Policy changes have seen thousands of disability pensioners moved to the much-lower Newstart allowance, and forcing new claimants under the age of 35 to be assessed by government-appointed doctors has pushed 33,000 people off the DSP. Mr Baker added that the Government must focus on strengthening the support and pathways in pursuit of welfare reform, enabling many more people with disability to work. 

The number of new Disability Support Pension recipients has fallen dramatically in recent years after the eligibility requirements were tightened in 2012, with the successful claim rate falling from 69% in 2011-12 to 40.6% in 2014- 15. Estimates suggest the tightening of DSP eligibility criteria has now led to a record 63% drop in successful claims between 2010 and 2016. Over 100,000 DSP claims were made in the 2017-18 financial year, with the success rate up at 29.8% from 28.3% the previous year. 


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