Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012; Second Reading

12:47 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Schedule 1 of the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012 will drive already vulnerable single parents, the majority of whom are single mothers, further into poverty. What this bill does is drop single parents who are currently on parenting payment single down to a payment which is nearly $140 less than what they are on at the moment. We know that Newstart is now around $132 to $140 below the poverty line. In other words, we are dropping single parents onto the poverty line. Aren't single parents still parents? It is not only the mothers and fathers that we are dropping there, but their children as well. That is what you are about to pass in this place. The Greens will be opposing schedule 1 which is the schedule that drops those vulnerable parents onto Newstart. We will be opposing that particular piece of this bill, make no mistake.

The government is bringing this bill to this chamber despite the recommendations of two of the committee that it controls. The Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee recommended that this bill not proceed until the inquiry into Newstart concluded. Then the newly established Joint Committee on Human Rights, in their first major recommendation, recommended that this bill does not proceed until the Newstart inquiry has finished. Further, on the very last day of the last sitting—around six o'clock, if I recall, when they tabled their report—they said in essence:

If Newstart combined with other benefits is not sufficient to provide an adequate standard of living for affected individuals, the measures risk being a violation of human rights under article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee was not yet convinced that the affected single parents would be able to maintain access to appropriate levels of social security support if placed onto Newstart. As a result, it would be premature for the government to introduce these measures prior to the completion of the Newstart Inquiry.

But the government is proceeding with this anyway. One of the few things that I agree with that Senator Sinodinos just said is that this is purely a savings measure on the back of some of the most vulnerable people in our community and on the backs of future generations. So if we are talking about entrenching poverty, that is exactly what this measure does: it helps entrench poverty. It helps condemn those children that we as a caring society are supposed to be nurturing and supporting. It helps condemn them to the poverty cycle.

How can we claim that we have a surplus if we have just thrust over 100,000 single-parent families and their children into poverty? How can we then claim that there is a surplus when it is on the backs of the most vulnerable in our community? Make no mistake, this measure reduces the income of single parents and their families, and as I said, over 85 per cent of those are women.

This schedule, if passed, takes away the grandfathered protections that were put in place when the Welfare to Work measures were first moved in this place in 2006. Recipients' parenting payments will cease when their children turn six if they are partnered parents and eight if they are single parents. That means they will end up on Newstart and that will mean a difference of around $140 because, if you remember from our discussion here last sitting, the indexation rates for Newstart and the parenting payment are different.

This measure will affect over 100,000 single parents. This group is the most vulnerable in Australia. Recent data from the OECD shows that around two-thirds of the children of single parents who rely on income support are living below the poverty line and 90 per cent of that particular group are women. Sole parent families on income support already struggle to meet essential living costs and 85 per cent of parenting payment recipients experience multiple deprivation. Multiple deprivation is when you lack three items that are vital for an adequate standard of living—for example, medical treatment, warm clothes, a decent and secure home, schoolbooks for children. Those are things that we consider essential items. I reiterate: over half of the parenting payment recipients are already living in what we would term serious poverty. Now we are talking about cutting their payments further.

The Salvation Army recently released a survey of people accessing its emergency relief centres. Of the 1,731 individuals surveyed, 81 per cent were on income support and 36 per cent of those were single parents with dependent children. The Foodbank report that was launched in this house recently reported that the three main groups being provided with food assistance were low-income families, unemployed people and single parent families. Are you getting the picture? These are families that are already under stress and already living in poverty or close to poverty. Of particular concern is the impact of this measure and of hardship on children. Over half of the respondents to the Salvation Army survey reported they were unable to afford to pay for out-of-school activities for their children and over one-third could not afford for their children to participate in school activities and outings. How is affecting the education of our next generation a sensible measure? And what does this mean for their mental health and their ability to interact and connect with their peers?

It is not surprising that a recent report from the National Association of Community Legal Centres found that the majority of the local government areas with high rates of sole parent households were also some of the most disadvantaged in the country. The people who will be most affected by this bill live in the areas that have poorer infrastructure, supports and services. This measure will make it even harder for them to find work. Get the picture about the multiple deprivation and the multiple barriers to finding work and supporting your family?

Sole parents are more likely than any other group of people to experience financial stress. According to the ABS, 70 per cent of sole parents are in the poorest 20 per cent of the population. How do we expect single parents to be able to survive when we take away more of their income? It is very clear that this group of Australians is very vulnerable and likely to be more marginalised by this measure. I have been quite amazed that the government thinks that, by stripping away further assistance and support for these people, it is actually helping them: 'Let's take more money and pretend we're helping people and pretend this isn't a savings measure.' What this is about is a savings measure dressed up as trying to be helpful. Well, please stop helping, because it is not.

I would like to articulate a few quotes from submissions received by the Senate inquiry. One woman said:

I have gained casual employment with the Salvos' retail, maybe two days per week, which is usually Saturday or Sunday, and occasionally one day during the week. It has taken me two years to find this job as employers don't seem to offer parent friendly hours for people who have limited child care. My elderly parents are two hours away and come when they can to look after her. We are just managing but won't on Newstart. I won't be able to keep what I have earned.

Another woman said:

Ever since the announcement I have been looking for a second job so that we can afford to live for next year. Who even knows how I'll juggle the child care. I can't get there, I'm just terrified. I've had one interview since May—

this was in July because the hearing was in July—

so where are these jobs they're talking about? I'm educated and already employed yet I am still finding it difficult. I can only imagine how desperate someone suffering after a difficult divorce with a very few children, no recent work history and little education must be feeling. It is hopeless, and hopelessness does not help people work and raise their children.

These two women, unfortunately, are not alone. Tens of thousands of women are going through similar crises. I have a very long list of similar emails and submissions from people. We do not support the government and the opposition pushing these women and their children further into poverty. There are countless examples of people who will be plunged into financial hardship with this measure.

I would like to tackle the view that this is about encouraging single parents into work. Nearly 50 per cent of single parents are, in fact, already working. They are juggling looking after their family, trying to find child care, finding work that has family friendly hours and supporting the children who are our future generation. Pushing families onto Newstart decreases their payments by about $60 to $100, depending on how many children they have and what their circumstances are. It subjects working parents to a much harsher income-free area, of $31 per week, than if they are on parenting payment single. There is also the removal of the additional child income-free area of $12.30 a week and the ending of eligibility for the pension education supplement of up to $31.20 per week. In other words, this is having multiple impacts on single parents. Sole parent who drop from parenting payment single to Newstart and have no current income will lose around $55 per week. The government tried to pretend it was softening this by saying. 'It's okay, we'll give you $210 a year supplementary allowance.' Great: four bucks a week! That is not even the price of a cup of coffee these days—not that you can afford a cup of coffee when you are on Newstart.

Are you getting the picture? People are going to be living on less money. These are people who are already struggling, who are in work part time or struggling to find work.

If you are living in a rural area, for example, child care only works generally in normal working hours, not shiftworking hours. So for a start that blocks you out of any type of shiftwork because you simply cannot get child care. For those that are already working, the income-free area means they get to take home less, so it is having a double effect. Parents out there are not only going to be dropped on Newstart, they are also going to have less money to take in their pockets when they are working. How does it work that we are encouraging people into work and then we are going to drop them onto a payment that has a lower income-free area? How is that encouraging, how is that an incentive? Again, this is not about incentives; this is about the government saving money on the backs of the most vulnerable.

If this payment passes in addition to the payment cuts outlined, parenting payment recipients who move onto Newstart will not be eligible for the $32.64 per week pensioner education supplement. The National Welfare Rights Network estimates that there are over 25,000 parenting payment single recipients who are receiving that supplement. They will be able to continue to receive it but new people will not be able to. This is discouraging and counterproductive for people trying to improve their qualifications and skills.

We cannot believe that this legislation will in fact help parents into work or encourage parents into work; it will make it harder. Once you are in poverty, that is yet another barrier to finding work. Senator Evans when he was the shadow minister for social security agreed with that. He said:

Simply cutting payments for people on welfare does nothing to help them get paid work, which is the best way out of poverty. By cutting payments to vulnerable Australians who are already financially disadvantaged, the Howard Government's budget will increase income inequality rather than reduce it.

Well said, Senator Evans, and we agree. There is no difference here between the Welfare to Work measures implemented under the Howard government and this. What they are doing is going after another group of vulnerable Australians.

It is also important to note that parenting payment single recipients are already subject to activity requirements. In other words, they are already supposed to be looking for work and undertaking these activities. This is supposedly to ensure that parents engage in the workforce. The majority of people are already on these sorts of requirements, so these measures will not lead to further activity requirements. The Greens, as I have said on many occasions, are already cautious about activity requirements and question their effectiveness when compared to more positive, less punitive measures. But it is still curious to see that these reforms, which are apparently about activating parents, provide no change in their requirements for this engagement. It makes you wonder whether the government admit that their measures are not being effective in encouraging people to find work.

People that are on parenting payments and trying to find work face multiple barriers. These multiple barriers are the issues that we need to be addressing. It is not easy when you are raising children to be also juggling work in quite child-unfriendly environments. You are more often than not in temporary employment, in casual employment, where you do not know what your regular hours are. I was at the gathering outside Parliament House this morning talking to a group of single parents about this legislation. They were urging this place not to support this particular part of the legislation. In particular I was talking to a single mother who has repeatedly been trying to find work and has been in and out of work—and then, when she is in and out of work due to no fault of her own, she is having problems with Centrelink because it is casual and temporary work. So the system does not help people either. The government would be better off investing in how to address those barriers rather than putting in place more and more punitive approaches to people who are trying to raise their families.

The other issue that has also been raised, and I will be moving an amendment on this if I fail to convince the chamber to oppose this legislation, is the timing of this. This is coming in on 1 January, when every family in this country has trouble paying their bills; they are in debt because of Christmas. 'Here is your great Christmas present. Now you are going to be dropped onto Newstart and get $130 a week less. Then you have got to prepare your kids for school and buy their school uniforms. Sorry about that, sorry that you have got less money. We do actually want your kids to get a better education but we will just make it harder for you to send your kids to school.' We will be moving an amendment to at least move the start of this revolting piece of legislation to 1 July.

I want in the last couple of minutes to address the liquid assets waiting period. The Greens welcome finally seeing this particular piece of legislation, which is schedule 2 of the bill, which reduces the length of the liquid assets waiting period by doubling the maximum reserve threshold for liquid assets. This is a positive measure and one that should have been continued after the GFC package ran out. As people will recall, this was actually part of the GFC package and the Greens strongly advocated that it be retained. In fact, it was our lobbying that got it into the package in the first place. We think it is a positive measure that will help the recently unemployed being faced with very stressful prospects of emptying their bank accounts before they can access income support. So it is a measure that we will be supporting, which is why we are not opposing the bill outright but will be voting separately on both of the schedules of this bill. However, I will be moving a second reading amendment because, as per usual, the government has not dealt with the issue of appropriate indexation. So I will be moving a second reading amendment that the Senate calls on the government to bring forward additional legislation to provide appropriate indexation of the liquid assets maximum reserve threshold.

As I said earlier, the Greens will be opposing schedule 1. If we go down on that and on the arguments of all those single parents who are going to be negatively impacted by this legislation and not manage to sway senators—even those senators who, with their hands on their hearts, have said that they are concerned about those single parents but are still going to vote with the government—I will be moving an amendment, as I indicated, that this legislation commences on 1 July 2013 rather than the Christmas-New Year present that the government proposes for single parents on 1 January. We will not be supporting this legislation, and we urge all senators in this chamber to reconsider their vote and to consider the impact that this legislation will have on single parents and their children.


No comments