Assurance of Support




Introduction

An Assurance of Support (AoS) is given for migrants who enter Australia under certain visa types, specified by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA). Some visa applicants are required to obtain an AoS before their visa application can be approved. An AoS is a legally binding and unconditional commitment by an Australian resident (the assurer) to repay certain Australian social security payments that have been paid to migrants (the assurees) during their respective AoS period. An AoS period can be two years or ten years, depending on the type of visa sub-class.

The AoS scheme allows migrants with a higher likelihood of needing income support payments, such as parents and potential spouses of Australian residents, entry into Australia, while protecting Australian Government social security funding. Implicitly it is also a commitment by an assurer, who meets certain requirements, to assume financial responsibility for supporting the assuree/s during their AoS period.

During 2004-2005, the Australian migration program had 120,064 places available for migrants. Approximately 26,000 migrants entered Australia in that year under an AoS. It is expected that the numbers for 2005-2006 will be about the same. The figures for both years include 3,500 people migrating under the Contributory Parent Visa category which was introduced in July 2003.

The AoS scheme allows for multiple Assurers, that is, each migrant may have up to a maximum of three assurers. This means that the actual number of assurers in 2004-2005 and in 2005-2006 is approximately 34,000.

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Assurance of Support: A History

In Australia, a concept similar to the current AoS scheme dates from the early 1900s. In 1912, a system was introduced whereby guarantees were given by sponsors that provision would be made for the maintenance of sponsored migrants to avoid their becoming a charge on the state.

In the 1920s maintenance guarantees were introduced. These guarantees provided for the recovery of any public monies and, as they were in Australia on a temporary basis, the payment of the migrant's return passage should they return to their country of origin. The guarantee period was for five years from date of arrival in Australia.

In 1955, the recoverable costs under a maintenance guarantee became more specific and included medical (surgical or dental) costs; age, invalid or widow's pensions; unemployment, sickness or rehabilitation benefits; or any other allowances paid by the Commonwealth, State, public or charitable institutions. The guarantee period was reduced to three years.

Under the Migration Act 1958, recoverable costs under the maintenance guarantee included accommodation, surgical, dental and special benefits. This remained in force until migration reforms in 1989.

In 1982, the maintenance guarantee was renamed 'Assurance of Support' (AoS). In 1985 assurances were made effective for ten years or until Australian citizenship was obtained by the migrant.

From 1989, all parents who applied under the immigration family reunion program were required to be covered by an AoS. The AoS period was reduced to five years regardless of whether the migrant became an Australian citizen.

In August 1991, a new AoS scheme was introduced. It saw the introduction of a monetary bond and the Migration Health Services Charge and a broadening of recoverable payments. The AoS period was reduced to two years.

In July 2003, DIMIA introduced the Contributory Parent Visa, allowing a further 4,000 parents to migrate to Australia, in addition to the existing 500 parent visa places. This visa requires assurers to provide a guarantee to meet the assurees' welfare costs during a 10-year AoS period.

In 2004 – 2005, DIMIA granted 3,500 Contributory Parent visas and 1,000 Parent visas.

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The Assurance of Support Scheme to 30 June 2004

Before 30 June 2004 the AoS scheme was operated by DIMIA under the Migration Regulations 1994 and the Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS), through Centrelink.

DIMIA decided when a migrant required an AoS, and whether a monetary bond needed to be lodged. DIMIA also assessed the financial situation of the potential assurer through minimum income test requirements, and approved the AoS. DIMIA held details of the assurer.

Centrelink was responsible for assessing the assuree's claim for social security payments, should such a claim have been made during the AoS period. It was also responsible for raising a debt against the assurer to recover the amount of any social security payments paid to the assuree during the AoS period.

Under these arrangements, the AoS scheme split responsibilities between DIMIA and FaCS. There were also a number of administrative difficulties arising out of the scheme. The DIMIA and Centrelink systems were not fully compatible, resulting in difficulties in identifying assurers and assurees. Furthermore, due to the lack of comprehensive information on the AoS scheme, many assurers claimed that they did not fully understand their obligations when signing AoS documents, and did not feel obligated to repay their debts to the Australian Government.

There were also issues surrounding the quality of the data transferred from DIMIA to Centrelink regarding assurer and assuree details.

In order to address these concerns, a budget measure was announced in the May 2003 Federal Budget that involved a transfer of DIMIA's responsibility for the AoS scheme to FaCS, through Centrelink. On 5 December 2003, the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2003 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2003 received Royal Assent. Schedule 3 of the Bill brought into effect a new social security AoS scheme that strengthens and simplifies AoS administration. The new scheme came into effect on 1 July 2004.

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The New Assurance of Support Scheme

From 1 July 2004, DIMIA continues to decide whether a potential migrant requires an AoS; however, the assessment of potential assurers is now conducted by Centrelink. Centrelink approves the AoS and notifies DIMIA that approval has been given. Centrelink also assumes responsibility for the lodgement of a monetary bond, if one is required by DIMIA. Centrelink continues to administer the AoS debt recovery and waiver processes, while the rights of review of a decision pertaining to the assurer remain under the Social Security Act 1991.

The transfer of AoS responsibilities results in a simpler AoS scheme. There are considerable benefits to both assurers and assurees:

  • both assurers and asssurees are able to utilise Centrelink's extensive interpreter service and Multicultural Services network - which can be accessed from any Centrelink Call Centre or Centrelink Customer Service Centre - to acquire comprehensive information about the AoS scheme in their preferred language;
  • assurers only have to contact one government agency – Centrelink; and
  • as the transfer of data from DIMIA to Centrelink about assurers has ceased, all data about assurers will be held by Centrelink, thus protecting the accuracy of this data. This is expected to ensure that debt recovery is more accurately targetted.

There are two types of AoSs, mandatory and discretionary. These are described below.

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Mandatory Assurances of Support

If the visa carries a mandatory AoS provision, an acceptable AoS must be provided, including the lodgement of a monetary bond. This bond is a source of available funds for AoS debt recovery purposes if recoverable social security payments are made to the assuree during the AoS period. The bond is lodged and held by the Commonwealth Bank for the entire AoS period. It is released to the assurer at the end of the AoS period, with the deduction of any amount needed to repay recoverable social security payments to Centrelink.

The amount of the bond is determined by the visa class for which the migrant is applying. A bond of $3,500 for the primary applicant and $1,500 for any additional adults on the same application is required for most visas. For visas under the contributory parent category, the bond is $10,000 for the primary applicant and $4,000 for any additional adult applicants. This increased bond amount reflects the increased level of welfare costs for usually elderly parent migrants.

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Discretionary Assurances of Support

If the visa applied for carries a discretionary AoS provision, DIMIA will assess whether an applicant is at risk of becoming a charge on Australia's welfare system. A monetary bond is not required for a discretionary AoS.

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The Assurance of Support Period

For both mandatory and discretionary AoSs, the AoS period is deemed to start from the date the assuree arrives in Australia, or the date the relevant visa is granted, whichever occurs later. The AoS period is two years in the case of most visas. However, the Contributory Parent AoS period is ten years in duration, once again reflecting the need to protect Australia's social security outlays against the increased costs which elderly parent migrants may bring.

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Requirements for Qualification as an Assurer

There are a number of qualification requirements that a potential assurer must meet in order to provide an AoS to a migrant. They must:

  • be over the age of 18 years
  • be either Australian citizens or Australian permanent residents living in Australia, including New Zealand citizens who are protected Special Category Visa (SCV) holders, and
  • they must also meet income test requirements to prove that they are financially capable of supporting the assurees and also repaying any social security debts which the assurees may claim during the AoS period.

The income test requirements for providing an AoS depend on the family circumstances of the assurer and the number of people to be supported. If the potential assurer is a member of a couple or has any dependent children, they must demonstrate a sustained minimum taxable income level which is equivalent to the maximum rate of Family Tax Benefit Part A ($33,361 as at March 2006) to assure one migrant. The potential assurer must have sustained this income over the two financial years prior to applying to become an assurer, as evidenced by their Income Tax Assessment Notice, issued by the Australian Commissioner of Taxation. They must also be able to prove a continued taxable income at, or above, the minimum income level.

This income level is adjusted upwards for each additional assured adult and each additional dependent or assured child, with the exception of the first dependent child, who is included in the threshold amount.

If the potential assurer is single and does not have any dependent children, they must have an income level above the annual amount of income required for eligibility for the Australian Government's 'low-income' Health Care Card rate ($18,252 as at September 2005).

There is more flexibility in the assessment process for discretionary assurances than for mandatory assurances. The assessment of the potential assurer's financial ability to provide an AoS can be made in consideration of assets and liabilities.

If individuals cannot meet the income test, the possibility of becoming a joint assurer is open to them. The combined income must satisfy the modified income test which takes account of both assurers' family circumstances.

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Social Security Payments covered by the AoS

If the assuree receives one or more of the following payments from Centrelink during the AoS period, Centrelink has the legal right and responsibility to recover the amount paid from the assurer through its normal debt recovery procedures:

  • Newstart Allowance
  • Youth Allowance
  • Austudy Payment
  • Widow Allowance
  • Mature Age Allowance
  • Partner Allowance
  • Crisis Payment
  • Parenting Payment (Partnered)
  • Special Benefit.

If the assuree lodges a claim for any of these payments, Centrelink will contact the assurer in order to establish that they are neither willing nor able to support the assuree before the payment is granted. Centrelink must also be satisfied that it is unreasonable for the assuree to accept support from the assurer before payment is granted.

If Centrelink is satisfied that the assurer is not willing or able to support the assuree, or that it is unreasonable for the assuree to accept this help, payment may be granted. However, the amount of payment that the assuree receives will be raised as a debt against the assurer. This places the onus of providing financial support onto the assurer while ensuring the assuree has financial assistance should this be necessary.

At the end of the AoS period, Centrelink advises the assurer about any debt that they may have. If there is a monetary bond, Centrelink will recover the debt from this. If no bond exists, or the bond is less than the debt amount, Centrelink will recover the balance owed using its normal debt recovery processes.

At all stages during the AoS process, the applicant has the right of appeal to a Centrelink Authorised Review Officer, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT) and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

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