Sector News — 13 October 2014

THE welfare system must be dramatically reformed to get more people with mental health issues into work, the head of Tony Abbott’s welfare reform group says.

Patrick McClure says mental health is intimately linked to being “connected”, and that ­includes being connected to the ­labour market.

Writing exclusively for The Australian today, he says the new income support payments system needs clear rewards for those with the capacity to work. The system also needs to be flexible, “responsive and able to smooth the pathway to employment”.

“We also heard that some ­people with mental illness will never have the capacity to work to financially sustain themselves and they should be appropriately supported,’’ Mr McClure says.

“There is no doubt we could be doing better at supporting those with mental ill-health, and reform of our income support system should be mindful of the opportunities for those affected by the wide spectrum of ­conditions such as depression, anxiety, agoraphobia (and) schizophrenia,’’ he says.

Mr McClure says the principles underpinning effective programs include obtaining employment; a focus on rapid job-search and job opportunities; integration of employment services with mental health support; meeting tailored preferences; and providing accurate and timely counselling.

“For those with more severe, longer-term challenges, supportive tailored programs will require longer timelines,’’ he says.

There is also a significant issue of stigma that can impact on employment participation.

“Fluctuation in symptoms and side-effects of medications can have impacts on a person in the workplace,’’ he said. “With some reasonable workplace adjustments, flexibility and appropriate supports, most people can increase their work capacity.

“This is why we need a renewed social support system that recognises people with mental illness are not a homogenous group and that mental illness impacts on people differently.

“This is why the reference group has proposed four pillars of reform in the interim report: a simpler and sustainable income support system; strengthening individual and family capability; ­engaging with employers; and building community capacity.”

Mr McClure’s welfare reform group sought the expertise of ­professors Pat McGorry and Ian Hickie, and visited the ­Oxygen Youth Health research centre and Headspace programs in Melbourne. “It is currently ­developing the final report and has carefully listened to what stakeholders and customers have told us about people with mental health conditions,’’ he says.

Last week, The Australian revealed a “no-disadvantage’’ grace period for welfare recipients — during which they would not lose money when new streamlined payments were introduced — is expected to be among the recommendations of the review.

The Australian understands the McClure review panel is of the strong view that welfare recipients, such as disability support pensioners, should keep the same amount of money they receive from the government but be reclassified and given new job-search obligations.

The draft report called for a simplification of the welfare payment system, reducing it to four new payments: a tiered working-age payment, a disability support pension (only for profound disabilities), an age pension and a child payment.

The McClure panel is keen to recommend in its final report that “no one is financially disadvantaged” by the radical welfare changes in the short term. If the government does adopt the McClure recommen­dations, it will do so without immediate budget savings. Under the final recommen­dations, people on the DSP with a work capacity would be put on the new “working-age payment” and required to do job-search activities and training, but would not be financially penalised in the short term.

This article first appeared on ‘The Australian’ on 13 October 2014.

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