Transcript: ABC 720 Perth, Interview with Geoff Hutchison

16 May 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Cashless Debit Card

The Federal Budget included funding to expand the trial of the Cashless Welfare Card to two more sites. Interest in WA to expand it beyond Kununurra.

The card quarantines 80 per cent of welfare payments, but cannot be used to pay for alcohol or gambling, or be used to withdraw cash.

And a preliminary report found anecdotal evidence that the scheme had contributed to reductions in drinking and gambling and kids were eating better. In fact this was the last time that I spoke to Human Services Minister Alan Tudge.

But we have also learnt that the pilot program's costing about $20 million. $7.9 million goes to the debit card provider, Indue.

Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge, is in WA to meet with local communities, including the Mayor of Kalgoorlie, who wants the scheme to be rolled out more broadly. I think the Minister's only just landed here. I thank him for joining me on the program.

Alan Tudge, good morning to you.

Good morning, Geoff.

Now what is the criteria for Western Australia to have another trial site? How will you be making your determination?

In essence, there are two criteria which we have used to select the initial trial locations and the same criteria will be used for the next location.

That is, where there is strong community leadership support and where there is a demonstrable case that it is needed, i.e. where there is significant welfare-fuelled alcohol, drug or gambling abuse.

Okay, so in what direction will your plane be heading?

Today I am just in Perth and I am with Ben Morton, the Member for Tangney, and visiting some community leaders here; not in relation to the Cashless Welfare Card.

Tomorrow, I head out with local member Rick Wilson to Kalgoorlie and up to Laverton and Leonora. We will be having lots of different meetings, but inevitably the Cashless Debit Card will come up in those discussions.

They have certainly been one of the groups that has reached out and said that they would like to explore the introduction of the card in their region, but we certainly have not made any decisions and we will be having some discussions in relation to it tomorrow.

I know the question very much depends upon to whom you talk. But when I ask you what the benefit is that has been brought by the cashless welfare card - and I think the last time we spoke we had some research which was then criticised as being nothing much more than anecdotal about its effectiveness - but why do you think it is effective?

On the basis of two or three data points here. First of all, you do have the first evaluation report, which surveyed local people and it said that alcohol consumption was down, gambling was down and drug use was down.

It found that a third of people were better able to look after their children and save for the future. All terrific results from an independent evaluation. We have also been tracking other bits of data along the way.

And where we see places, like up in Wyndham; you have got the Wyndham Sobering Up Shelter, has had 45 per cent fewer admissions to it in the first six months of the trial up there. That is the most recent data we have.

And then thirdly I will look at what the community leaders say. The community leaders almost universally are saying that this is having an impact on the ground.

It is not the panacea, it does not solve every single problem, and there are significant problems in these places, but it is making a difference.

I am interested too - I think it was a Freedom of Information search that revealed at the start of May, that program's cost about $19 million so far. And at this stage it looks to be about a cost of $10,000 per participant. Now on those numbers, it is an expensive scheme.

It is a very misleading way to talk about the cost of the trials here. You have got to bear in mind that this is a world first in how we are delivering welfare. Inevitably there has been considerable upfront expenses associated with the technology development, the product design, a deep consultation phase and co-design with community leaders on the ground.

That went for a year before we even kicked off the trial. Now the actual run costs are a fraction of that and they will continue to get lower and lower, particularly as we get economies of scale in this.

I do not think it is fair to say that this cost $10,000 per card - that is not right. Rather, I think it is better to say, inevitably there are upfront costs, but the run costs are considerably lower.

I think it was also quoted something like 1,800 people were using this Cashless Welfare Card. Do you have an expectation, do you have a number that you can take this to?

We have just made the further decision to incrementally roll this out. We have just got funding and authorisation for two additional regions of up to an additional 8,000 people. We are just taking it one step at a time here.

We had the trials, they proved to be successful. We have continued it on in those trial site locations. Now we will seek two additional locations. We have many other regions who have approached me that are seeking the card to be rolled out in their region and let's just see what happens in the future.

I don't want to say no to those people, but at this stage, we just have two additional regions.

Yeah and it is interesting, because of course people are saying is this to be a forerunner of a national scheme to roll this out right across the country. Do you have an end aspiration here?

That has never been the intent - to roll it out nationally. It has always been developed for the purposes of focusing it on particular regions which need it.

In Western Australia, there are many troubled regions where welfare-fuelled alcohol abuse particularly causes all sorts of harm and consequently in Western Australia I have had community leaders from right across the state who have approached me in relation to it.

As I said Geoff, we just want to take this one step at a time, because when it is introduced into a region, it does have an impact. People have to get used to it.

It is a change in terms of how they deal with money. But we think that overall it is a net positive for those communities and particularly for the children and for women who are often at the other end of welfare-fuelled alcohol abuse.

Appreciate you talking to us. I'm sure we will talk again on it.

Alan Tudge is the Human Services Minister.