Senate debates

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Committees

Community Affairs References Committee; Government Response to Report

4:01 pm

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

I thank the government for its response, in a timely manner, I've got to say. Sometimes we've waited quite a long time for responses, so I thank the minister. I'd like to make a number of points about the response from the government to our recommendations. I note that the government's not supporting a number of them. The first one is that the committee recommends that the ParentsNext program should not continue in its current form, which is hugely disappointing because I continue to receive complaints about the ParentsNext process.

I will say thank you to the government for taking on board some small changes that have been made, particularly about the reporting process which was extremely onerous and attracted during the inquiry some significant comment. However, we are still receiving complaints about the process in terms of privacy. I note the government noted our comments on privacy and sanctions where our recommendation was that the committee recommends that the department consider sanctions against ParentsNext providers who have been found to have pressured or coerced participants into signing privacy notifications. The government notes that and says that they have been exploring changes to the privacy notification and consent scheme and that they've told providers that they are not obliged to sign the privacy notification consent form. I will be following this up further with the government to outline what those changes are to the privacy notice and also the changes to the deed that are under consideration, as I understand it.

We have been receiving feedback that parents—and I'll remind the chamber: the bulk of the people on this program are women, and 68 per cent of the participants are single parents—that they are still being coerced into signing privacy waivers. That is deeply concerning for the women who are being forced or coerced into signing these privacy waivers. I note that the department says that they have reviewed the instances of 'misconduct' and found no evidence of providers coercing participants. I'm giving notice to the government that I'll be following that up, because I'd like to know how they were verifying that or investigating that when, as I said, I'm still receiving advice that parents are being coerced into signing those documents.

There were also a large number of people that were very concerned about getting suspensions under the TCF, and I will continue to pursue that particular issue. I note that the government has noted the comments around the committee's recommendations that ParentsNext providers ensure that their employees are trained in the areas, such as disability awareness, cultural sensitivity and domestic and family violence. That is a comment that I'm pleased to see the government has articulated in their response, in that the department is embarking upon a range of training for provider staff and will consider including specialist domestic and family violence training. I'll be pursuing whether this has been embarked on, what the nature of that training is and whether people are participating.

One of the issues that is of particular concern to participants is the exemption process. I note that the government has responded to that. One of the concerns by participants was that providers, who have a vested interest in getting clients and receiving payment for them, are still—the point that was put to the committee inquiry was that people were not being granted exemptions by providers. They had to explain to providers and then, because there's a conflict of interest, providers are not granting the exemptions. Although there have been changes—I acknowledge there have been changes—the fact is that providers are still the people who can grant exemptions—or one of the organisations that can grant exemptions. The comment is around, 'Well, we feel like we're explaining to providers, who are going to be making fees off us, so it's not in their interests to not have us on the program.' That situation is still maintained, despite the fact that the government have made some changes there. We will, again, be pursuing that particular issue, in terms of what the safeguards are to not have that conflict of interest for the people who are participating.

I also don't think that the responses adequately address this issue about whether the program is an employment program, a pre-employment program or an early intervention and prevention program. Parents are still confused about that, because some of the providers are very focused on saying, 'The only way you get off this is by getting employment.' It's not supposed to be an employment program. That issue is still there for people. I've said in this place many times that the money that has been allocated to this type of program is very useful, but we just disagree with the way it's being applied, because parents are confused. Are they supposed to be getting employment? Are we devaluing the role that particularly single mothers are providing in caring for their children?

Yes, we are very supportive of that support and early intervention. We just question whether providers of the nature of these providers—without having a go at them—are the right providers for that early intervention program. What has been put to me is that it should go back to the states, who are providing some very good early intervention and prevention programs. If it's pre-employment, let's focus on pre-employment. But at the moment there is a lot of confusion still around that particular program.

We still do not think that the targeted compliance framework should apply to this process. I understand that the government is very committed to the targeted compliance framework, but the evaluation that was done of this program was done on the program where the targeted compliance framework did not apply. A lot of the concerns that we heard from the participants were about the way the targeted compliance framework works. Again, the idea is that the provider develops a good, strong working relationship with the participants. In this instance, it's working with parents to try to get them ready, as the government articulates, for employment and going back into the workforce. It's particularly important that you have a good relationship between the provider and the participant. The targeted compliance framework, because it's applied by the provider, undermines that relationship. I will acknowledge that I have the same concerns about the way it's applied during the jobactive process. Leaving that aside for the time being, it is particularly important that there is a good relationship between providers and the participants.

I am deeply concerned about the targeted compliance framework. Again, I'll be following up how many people, through ParentsNext, have received suspensions, particularly since the changes the government made. We've got to remember that these are parents with kids, and any suspension of payments impacts on the kids. I know that you get back pay when you're put back on. But from the accounts we heard during the inquiry, that doesn't help the parents if they can't get hold of their provider on a Friday when they're due to report. Basically, their payment is suspended automatically and they don't know over the weekend whether they've got funds. We have had accounts of parents not being able to do anything on the weekend because they don't know if their funds are going to go into their accounts on Monday. Those concerns still exist with this program. We will be strongly pursuing that.

The other problem for us with the ParentsNext program is that it is compulsory and that the sweep of parents who are targeted is broad. We support a well-targeted, well-funded, voluntary program that assists parents to engage in pre-employment programs in the way they want to engage and prepares them for employment. We will continue to pursue this. I'm glad the government has noted a lot of our recommendations. I'd rather they were taking more positive action and I'm disappointed that they're not supporting some of them, but we will continue to pursue changes to this program to ensure that it's supporting parents in a way that delivers the best outcome and ensures that the money is spent in the best way. We don't disagree with the use of the money.

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