ParentsNext welfare program draws condemnation from senators, support services as ‘unethical’, ‘distressing’

Updated April 04, 2019 15:32:33

A dozen social support services have co-authored a letter calling for the dismantling of a national welfare program that they say is doing more harm than good.

Key points:

  • Parents on ParentsNext find it is mandatory to complete activities or risk having their welfare benefits cut if they miss appointments
  • The Senate inquiry’s final report recommended ParentsNext undergo a complete overhaul
  • Jobs Minister Kelly O’Dwyer said the Government had already made changes to the program and will consider the report

The ParentsNext program was introduced by the Federal Government in July 2018 to encourage parents to return to work, but the program has drawn the ire of social advocates.

Parents who apply for welfare benefits now find it is mandatory under ParentsNext to complete activities or risk having their Centrelink payments cut if they miss appointments.

Each parent on ParentsNext is provided a participation plan and, as well as required work hours and meetings with ParentsNext providers, they can also face compulsory activities their children must attend.

The Australian Government is now facing pressure to overhaul the program after a Senate inquiry last week found it had significant flaws.

In response, the Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, Kelly O’Dwyer, said the Government would consider the recommendations in the Senate inquiry report.

“The Government doesn’t want people and their families consigned to a life of welfare,” Ms O’Dwyer said.

“The Government has already made a number of changes to the program settings to improve flexibility and provide clarity on the existing program.”

‘Distressing’ fear of being cut off

Shepparton in northern Victoria was one of the first places to trial the program in 2016, where an estimated 1,000 people were signed on.

An initial evaluation of the program showed that 1,500 people of the 16,792 sampled had their payments cut off, including an estimated 100 in Shepparton — or approximately 10 per cent.

The Senate report highlighted that “one of the most distressing aspects of ParentsNext for many parents is the threat of their payment being suspended or cut off”, referring to a contribution to the inquiry by the chief operating officer of Jobs Australia, Nicole Steers.

“It is estimated that one in five participants in ParentsNext have been subject to a payment suspension since the introduction of the TCF [targeted compliance framework],” the report said.

The Senate committee, which had a majority of Labor and Greens senators, recommended ParentsNext undergo a complete overhaul to address the structural barriers to employment faced by participants, and fine tune issues around culture and family violence.

In a response to the final report, Coalition senators on the committee cited “feedback presented in the [ParentsNext Evaluation Report, 2018] suggesting that participants found value in the support provided by the program once they had engaged”.

Single mothers under pressure

Young Mooroopna mother-of-three Stephanie Clarke was put on the program two years ago — only six months after giving birth.

Ms Clarke has since been denied welfare payments almost half-a-dozen times, which has placed her rent and other bills in arrears.

At times she has been forced to forgo food to make sure her children are fed, and said she regularly struggles to pay for the necessities.

She said the stress the program had caused her had taken away valuable time spent with her children.

“I miss out, all the time, to make sure the kids have what they need,” she said.

“I don’t have access to transport. The bus here comes four times a day, and other times I’ll have to walk to Shepparton for appointments and wait in Centrelink offices with my kids.

“People don’t realise how hard it is to be a single mum. It’s not something you plan to happen.”

Another single mother who was on ParentsNext, Deb Hay, said she believed the structure of the system was a result of a wider, toxic attitude towards people on welfare.

She said she had struggled to pay for school fees and shoes, and also felt extreme pressure when it came to paying bills.

She said she felt incredibly lucky to have friends and family step-in when times got desperate.

“Single mothers are seen as taking advantage of the system when in reality this is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done,” she said.

“Having to jump through hoops, repeatedly fill in forms and prove I’m single is very humiliating.

“The past few years have been sobering where I realised that my education, support system, and my parent’s ability to support me financially was the only thing standing between me being able to take care of my children or sliding down a very slippery ladder to homelessness, poverty and losing custody.”

‘Children in harm’s way’ when benefits cut

Around 14 social service organisations, professors and human rights advocates signed a letter last week calling for the abolition of the program, saying it was “unethical” and “distressing” for families, and unfairly targeted single mothers and Indigenous people.

The chief executive of the Shepparton’s FamilyCare, David Tennant, said the organisation was among a number of social support services that had called to scrap the program.

Mr Tennant said the number of parents having their welfare cut off — a figure of 10 per cent in the Shepparton trial — demonstrated that the program placed unnecessary financial pressure on families.

“The primary penalty involved is suspending a person’s access to parenting payments and that’s the main way parents put a roof over their head, or put food on the table,” he said.

“If you suspend that [parenting payments], it’s evident that you will put children in harm’s way.”

In the two decades since Mr Tennant entered the sector, he said he had witnessed the structure and attitude towards welfare changing for the worst.

“We are less likely today to listen to the people who are the subject of these policy changes than we were then. I think that’s a tragedy,” he said.

“I think there’s been a toxic conversation in a public and political sense about why is it that people find themselves in a position of disadvantage, and what motivates people who receive benefit incomes.

“There seems to be a broad assumption that those people are responsible for the disadvantage in their lives.

“Instead of judging those people, we ought to see that most of this stuff is structural, and if we want to improve people’s life chances then we need to give them encouragement so that it’ll be sustained.”

Thousands sign online petition

Ella Buckland is leading a petition that has garnered 40,000 signatures in opposition to ParentsNext.

The former NSW Greens policy advisor has pushed for the program to become voluntary and only to be used when a parent is ready to engage with the workforce.

Ms Buckland, a single mother herself, said she had heard from thousands of women that had been unfairly targeted.

“Women are confused, angry, terrified and humiliated,” she said.

“The unpaid work these mothers already do is being undervalued.

“I just don’t see how the Government can endorse a program that literally takes money out of the households of children, and takes away their access to food and security.”

Topics: welfare, federal-government, parenting, family-and-children, government-and-politics, community-and-society, shepparton-3630, mooroopna-3629

First posted April 04, 2019 06:12:53

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