Senate debates

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Regulations and Determinations

Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements - classes of persons) Instrument 2018 (No.1); Disallowance

3:44 pm

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

As I was saying in speaking to this before we went into non-controversial legislation, this is about disallowing the instrument that puts into effect the eligibility and the parameters around the ParentsNext program. It's a program that hasn't received the level of scrutiny by this place and by others outside this place that I think it deserves.

What I had been talking about before we were went to non-controversial business was the impact of some of the compliance frameworks. As of 31 August this year, 84 participants had a demerit point. One participant had triggered a capability interview, having reached three demerit points in two months. This is the new process that came into effect in July. But their demerits were reset to zero, as the requirements were not suitable to their circumstances. Additionally 2,683 participants had received a payment suspension. This equates to 9.8 per cent of all participants at the time. While I acknowledge that if you're suspended then you will get back pay eventually, at the time that suspension can have a significant impact, depending on when that suspension occurs.

As the trial occurred prior to 1 July this year, trial participants were not subject to the targeted compliance framework. However, the evaluation of the trial provided to us by the government—and I will say here that I thank the minister for providing that evaluation—was not prior to the decision to extend this and this instrument being tabled being made publicly available. That was prior to the minister taking on this particular role; I will also acknowledge that. I do thank the minister for providing that evaluation sooner than they would have publicly released it otherwise. I'll speak about that in a bit more detail very shortly.

That evaluation also indicates that 9.1 per cent of participants experienced a suspension of their payment during the first 15 months of the trial and that three commenced participants had their payment cancelled after failing to engage in the program for 13 continuous weeks. Suspending or cancelling the payments of income support recipients with already low incomes would cause the parents enormous stress. To cancel the parenting payment of a parent with young children is an extremely harsh measure. While a small number were affected, this is nevertheless very concerning as young children would have been impacted as a consequence and would have been placed at increased risk. As this instrument also repeals the Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements—classes of persons) Specification 2016 (No. 1), the instrument that specified the class of persons for the trial, if this instrument is disallowed then the trial instrument will be revived.

The Australian Greens cannot support the national expansion of this program. Assisting women into meaningful, productive employment, with a clear pathway, is welcome in principle. Our main concerns with the program are that it is discriminatory towards women, devalues the role of parenting, is top-down and provides people with no choice. The program fails to address the multiple barriers to employment that women face and does not assist in breaking down cycles of disadvantage for women. It is compulsory in nature and incorporates punitive measures. It also does not take account of significant unpaid work that women undertake while caring for their children. We think it undervalues the importance of parents having the choice to provide full-time parental care for the early development of their children, bearing in mind that for some this program comes in when their children are six months old.

The program should not be compulsory—the role of choice is very important when people are making life choices—and neither should it be punitive. While some parents may benefit from the activities, the program should be voluntary and should be focused on addressing the barriers to work that women face. It should also commence later. Parents have other focuses when their children are six months old. It should allow for more consideration to be given to children and family. Focusing on having mothers of young children re-enter the workforce at the earliest possible time fails to take into consideration the impact on the children and issues like, for example, the cost of child care for the parents.

The evaluation of the trial was provided to us by the government, as I just articulated. The evaluation covers the operational period from 4 April 2016 to 30 June 2017, but it doesn't cover the period of the final year of the trial. The evaluation itself acknowledges the program was difficult to evaluate. The evaluation used a mixed-method approach, using qualitative and quantitative analysis. In regard to the qualitative analysis, the Social Research Centre conducted qualitative research on the experiences of child participants and providers in eight of the 10 locations. They held 11 focus groups with participants, 13 in-depth interviews with providers and five interviews with DHS operational staff. We don't know how many participants were included in each focus group and therefore how representative the sample was in the context of the full number of participants at that time, bearing in mind that there were over 24,000. We also do not know what questions were asked or the statements that were put to them and how they selected the participants in the groups. We do not know how the 13 providers were chosen or what the questions and statements were. Lastly, we do not know what, if any, data was excluded from the analysis and the report. I make the specific point that we know from the ANAO report on the cashless welfare card that significant data was left out of the evaluation.

With regard to the quantitative analysis, administrative and survey data was used. We do not know what the survey questions were, whether they were in fact leading questions, or how they were framed or conducted. The main methodology for the measurement of program efficiency was cost per participant and the number of education or employment activities undertaken. The evaluation also explicitly states, 'quantifying the program effect of ParentsNext was difficult', and it acknowledges that this was more or less estimated. The evaluation indicates that only 53 per cent of surveyed participants thought the program had improved their chances of getting a job, and just over 25 per cent of participants did not indicate any specific assistance as being helpful. The evaluation says that many participants felt they did not have sufficient information about the program or what was required of them. This could cause some apprehension about the program when they were required to attend their first provider appointment, the report says.

Some participants were concerned about the compulsory participation requirements of the program, in principle, and for various reasons, including a lack of transport, some found it difficult to attend. The evaluation mentions that some providers and participants were of the view that parents should not be required to commence the program when their youngest child is six months of age, as this is too young. The evaluation says that some participants indicated that they were not actively considering or planning for future work at this stage of their child's life. A participant was quoted in the evaluation as saying, 'I think that 12 months would at least be the minimum, because it can take you that time to just get normal sleep patterns again. Depending on who your provider is, you can feel overwhelmed by what they're expecting you to do.'

The evaluation highlights that the willingness to engage in the program was affected by the compulsory nature of it and the threat of payment suspensions and penalties, particularly given that the lowest commencement rates were attributable to voluntary participants, at 74.3 per cent. The evaluation acknowledges that in some areas fewer jobs were available and that people in these areas may have to travel farther in order to find work. The evaluation makes a number of points that do not give me confidence in the way this program is being further rolled out and the nature of it—and I articulated when people were eligible.

We've reached out to a number of organisations to get their opinions on this particular program. We have also looked at other comments on this program. I'd just like to quote to you some of the feedback that some of the organisations paying attention to this have had from their members. One participant said, 'I told the ParentsNext provider I wanted to study nursing. She was pushing me to study a certificate in business.' Another said, 'I have gone to two appointments. A huge waste of time, after also studying at university full time. However, I am now exempt, after asking her if this was possible. But I didn't get exempt because of uni. I was exempted as I have four kids under 18 and at least one under six.' In other words, she was being asked to participate when she was actually doing something: she was studying. This is the problem with this. We've had other examples where people are working and/or studying, yet they still have to go through this program. People feel that they're compelled to do it and that they are being picked on because the government wants to control their lives. One said: 'I find the whole ParentsNext concept kind of insulting. Do they seriously feel that we can't manage our own lives, futures and careers without their mismanagement?' Another said, 'Not to mention the courses are EXPENSIVE.' That was in capitals. 'I am paying, not Centrelink, and I sure as hell'—excuse me; I'm quoting—'would like to do well and not have to repeat any classes.'

I'd like to table a letter that I've received from the minister, because we have been talking to the minister's office about this disallowance. Again, I acknowledge that I have received a letter from the Minister for Jobs, Industrial Relations and Women, the Hon. Kelly O'Dwyer, and I've told her I will be tabling the letter, and I have checked with the whips. I seek leave to table that, because it explains some of the issues.

Leave granted.

The minister has given some acknowledgment of some of the issues that we have raised. I table the letter. I will go into more detail when I'm summing up, but I thank the minister for engaging in a very good discussion around the program. There are some clarifications that the minister has made of the operation of the program. (Time expired)

3:56 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor opposes this motion to disallow the Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements—classes of persons) Instrument 2018 (No. 1). This instrument underpins the expansion of the ParentsNext program, a pre-employment initiative which aims to help parents with children under the age of six to plan and prepare for future study or employment as their children approach school age.

From the outset, it's important to state that Labor understands and acknowledges the Greens' concerns and their motivation for bringing forward this disallowance motion. We also hold concerns about the expansion, but these concerns are outweighed by what we see as the potential benefits of the program for parents, predominantly young women, seeking to enter or re-enter the work force. If the regulation is disallowed and the preceding regulation is re-enlivened, many of the potential benefits of this program for participating families will be lost. These benefits include targeted and practical assistance to complete or add qualifications to become employment ready. Importantly, the program also includes early intervention assistance, such as identifying education and employment goals, developing pathways to achieve those goals and linking participants to activities and services in their local communities. For those parents in the intensive stream being delivered in 30 locations, including areas with a high proportion of Indigenous parents, there are additional supports through a participation fund, wage subsidies for potential employers and relocation assistance. The program is expected to cover around 68,000 people, of whom around 10,000 are Indigenous. More than 95 per cent of those helped are expected to be women.

The ParentsNext program has only been running in an expanded form since the beginning of July, and the rollout is happening over time. Labor are of the view that, while we cannot yet fully appraise the benefits that this program may be delivering, we are wary of taking away the support of pre-employment programs that seek to invest $263 million in parents, including Indigenous parents. The positive aspects of this program would be lost to the majority of those people if the expansion were to be shut down, with only the 10 original trial sites remaining. It would also be frustrating for those parents who have taken the step of getting involved to find that their time has been wasted and to have this program's supports taken away from them.

We oppose this motion today because it cannot, as a matter of practicality, completely resolve the concerns that are held in relation to compliance obligations. If the motion passes, there will still be many people, predominantly women, subject to the compliance obligations, and disallowing the regulation is likely to cause significant disruption, waste and job losses. The rollout has commenced on this $263 million program expansion. Fifty-eight providers have already been contracted, with contracts running from 2018 to 2021. Forty-seven of those providers are not-for-profits and five are Indigenous organisations. If the contracts are now torn up, it will likely involve payment of notice periods, payment of other costs and redundancies for providers' staff. Of course, the government should not have awarded contracts and started the rollout before this regulation had passed the disallowance period, but this failure of basic governance on behalf of the coalition should not be visited upon providers, their staff and, most importantly, the vulnerable people who are looking to enter or return to the workforce which this program is seeking to help.

As I have previously stated, we have some concerns about the expansion as designed by the Liberal government. Labor have taken this opportunity to negotiate with the government to improve some of the early difficulties observed in relation to the program. Through our advocacy and discussions with crossbenchers and the government, we have identified key concerns and secured commitments for modifications. We acknowledge the government's willingness to negotiate on these matters.

Some of the improvements that have been obtained through our negotiations include the government giving Labor an undertaking that they will update the ParentsNext program guidelines to ensure that parents who are engaging in study or appropriate training will be considered compliant with activity requirements. This improvement, secured by Labor, will make it clear that parents who engage in these activities will only need to participate in a quarterly catch-up with their provider to confirm their educational status and discuss whether they require any additional support. This assessment will also have added flexibility, including that it may be conducted by phone to minimise the impact on the participant. Likewise, the government have committed to investigate what can be done to assist parents who are at risk of having their payments suspended, including making sure that appointments aren't scheduled in close proximity to payment dates. The government have also given assurances that they will investigate the steps that the providers are taking to enter into cooperative partnerships with Indigenous organisations and to improve written communication in letters, emails and text messages. Communications will now reinforce to participants that they are able to bring their children to the appointments and that these environments are family-friendly.

We believe these immediate improvements will make the program more focused on supporting parents and defray some of the problems which some parents have faced in relation to compliance. We are not saying that these changes will make the program or its expansion perfect or without difficulty. Labor acknowledge the concern of stakeholders in relation to the compliance aspects of this expansion. Generally, stakeholders support the existence of a pre-employment program for parents seeking to enter or return to the workforce, but they hold concerns about the compliance aspects of this program as presently designed. We hear those concerns and we will continue to consult stakeholders, such as the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, ACOSS and others, about this program. We look forward to receiving further feedback as to how this program might be improved, with a view to considering what further action we could take if we form government.

4:04 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, I'd like to thank those members and senators who've contributed to the constructive discussion on this instrument. ParentsNext is a pre-employment program that assists parents of young children to plan and prepare for employment by the time their children start school. The program supports parents of children aged under six who are in receipt of parenting payment, particularly those at risk of long-term welfare dependency. By expanding ParentsNext, the government is seeking to support more eligible parents with young children to plan and prepare for employment, to break the cycle of intergenerational welfare dependency, to increase female labour force participation and to help close the gap in Indigenous employment. As one of the participants said about the program: 'It's having someone in your corner. If you have 10 friends who are all stay-at-home mums who don't want to work, then it won't create a culture of desire for change.'

If we do not provide strong outcomes for disadvantaged parents, the cycle of welfare dependency will continue. Eighty per cent of young mothers on parenting payment had a parent or a guardian who was also on welfare during their upbringing. Providing tailored and flexible support to help parents increase confidence and wellbeing and achieve educational employment goals is a vital step in breaking that cycle. It's disappointing that the Greens would seek to disallow such an important instrument.

4:06 pm

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

I thank people for participating in the discussion. I've got a little bit more information as final encouragement and to put on the record. The National Foundation for Australian Women report Gender lens on the budget2018-19 says:

It is unhelpful to view mothers of young children as 'unemployed workers' when they are in fact working longer hours than men in full-time positions, though largely without remuneration.

While the evaluation report that I was talking about earlier acknowledges that early intervention with parents of young children through the provision of outreach services could be an important strategy in engaging individuals in workplace participation—and it identifies ParentsNext as an example of this—we would argue that a more useful intervention would be one that was voluntary, was not punitive and had a broader scope of support to be offered to adequately address the multiple barriers to employment that jobseekers more broadly face, including safe and stable accommodation and access to transport.

Many of the people who will be on the much-expanded ParentsNext program face many levels of disadvantage. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that people who are forced to undertake activities don't have as good outcomes as those who are provided with choice. There's also a lot of evidence to show that early intervention and prevention and continued support for young families produces extremely good outcomes. Across the forward estimates, this program is going to cost $351 million. That is a lot of money that we think could be better invested. We have no argument with the government, or with Labor, that we need to be supporting young families, young mothers—people who have multiple layers of disadvantage. But we think we need to be investing it in a different way, a way that is not compliance focused. When you look at who's now eligible under this program, basically where we end up is that, under the targeted program and through the intensive program, anybody who supposedly has not worked in the last six months, who has a child over the age of five and who is on parenting payment is now subjected to ParentsNext. That's what it effectively means.

I have a number of examples where people have been caught up in this. It is just so frustrating that the government isn't acknowledging that those who are undertaking full-time study or significant study can be exempt from this program. I got rather a long email from a mother who is caught up in this process. We received correspondence from this constituent, who was sent a letter by the Department of Human Services stating she must participate in the program in August. She has a three-year-old child. She's a full-time university student and a single parent. She said:

I was assessed by the Department of Social Services last week and attended the first appointment. This took some three hours out of my day.

She then explained that she has been assessed to receive very little child support from her son's father. She said:

Often I do not receive any child support, and what I do receive does not even cover the cost of nappies. Any cut to parenting payment will have a catastrophic impact on my ability to support our family.

She went on to say:

During the assessment process I have already missed a number of phone calls from the Department of Human Services due to study and parenting responsibilities. If this was the ParentsNext contractor calling then I would likely have had my parenting payment cut. It is often difficult with small children to answer the phone or be places at a particular time. The compliance requirements of this program are unrealistic for parents of small children. Further, the reference to parents of small children as 'jobseekers' by the Department of Jobs and Small Business and the ParentsNext contractors is insulting. I note that I am not a jobseeker. I am a full-time mother and student.

Further, she said:

After the Department of Human Services assessed my eligibility for the program, they gave me two business days to attend a meeting with a ParentsNext contractor.

She had two options. She was very concerned about one particular provider, so she chose one that was farther away, but she said:

All up, I spent three hours attending the mandatory interview, or I was threatened by the department with my payment being cut. This is time I could have been devoting to my university studies and was also time I was paying for child care so I could study.

She raised issues around privacy and she argued that the program is discriminatory, saying:

The fact that I am a woman and have certain family responsibilities is being used to discriminate against me.

I've already articulated that the vast majority of participants are women. She concluded by saying:

The implementation of this program feels like a further blow, as I have less time to devote to my studies, which I ultimately hope will result in a stable, well-paid job to facilitate my son's future education.

I have other examples:

It used to be okay before when I started. I think baby before one year old.

This is obviously from an email that was done very quickly. It goes on:

You only go there every six months face to face and phone calls every two months or three. Now for a single mum on low income it's an activity that you need to attend, otherwise provide valid reason if you can't or pay is suspended. If you use all of your demerit points by not abiding with the plan then there's a pay cut and it will take three weeks to have it back.

Another person wrote:

Agreed, I am working and still have to attend simply because I am not doing 15 hours consistently per week, even though I'm not required to work yet. Multiple texts saying 'payment's been cut for not attending', even though I'm in—


work and have told them so.

This is the issue for people who are working. They are clearly engaged; they are clearly trying to find work. The department claims they're not stable, so they're caught up in this. You have to ask why. Why do people who are studying have to participate in this program that, it's been clearly demonstrated, people feel is not appropriate?

I note that Labor claim it is all their work, although it's the Greens who were paying attention to this program, but I do thank both sides of the parliament for engaging very meaningfully in this debate. As Senator Cameron articulated, there's been a commitment that there will be more attempts to enable people who are studying to be contacted by phone to provide further guidance to the providers—or it will be in the guidelines to the provider. But a lot of these decisions are provider dependent. It's not just the fact that people have to report; it's also the fact that they feel demeaned by being on this program because they are actually already actively engaged and participating. I'd say anybody who's undertaking full-time university is actually making a very big effort to make sure that they are able to find work and engage. So I think the program is misguided. As I said, we very strongly support this level of investment. We disagree with the way the government is doing it.

I am also very concerned about the impact this will have on First Nations peoples, particularly young women who have to engage when their child turns six months old. Many people have multiple areas of disadvantage. I'm deeply concerned that this funding should be invested much more up-front in different ways to enable people to address barriers not just to employment but to other areas of their lives.

We support this investment. We disagree that this is the way to go. We think some of the issues about the way that this money is being invested and the approach that the program is taking are more about controlling, in a compulsory manner, people who are accessing parenting payment. That, combined with the new compliance framework, could very well have a significantly detrimental impact on women—this is largely focused on women, particularly single parents. It will have a detrimental impact on them as this program rolls out. This new program started in July, just as the new compliance framework started, so we haven't yet seen the significant impact this program could have in terms of people ending up not just having their payments suspended but with demerit points and significant penalties.

We do acknowledge the commitments the government has made in providing clarification, in education and training, around approved activities, the pensioner education supplement and childcare provider choice. I am deeply concerned about the lack of significant numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander providers. I appreciate the commitment the government has made to pursue that. The minister says she's asked the department to provide her with further details regarding partner arrangements with ParentsNext providers who have entered into arrangements with Indigenous organisations and will forward this information separately as it becomes available. I appreciate the commitment to follow that up. We appreciate the commitment to expand the communication with participants. I think that is all significant progress, and I am glad that this process of disallowance has enabled those discussions. But we are still deeply concerned that this program is misdirected and that we could spend this $350 million in a way that better supports families and women, because this is really about women. We need to make sure that we're investing that money in the most meaningful way. We don't think this is the way to go. We will continue to review and monitor this program. I'm heartened to hear the opposition say that they are going to engage with the program more and continue to review it too, because I think it needs very close scrutiny.

And just to address the issue around the providers that have already been contracted, my concern is about the way the contracts were put in place before the disallowance period on this expired, which undermines our ability to disallow it. My response would be that these contractors could be providing very valuable services to community members and to the people who are identified as needing that level of support—doing outreach support programs. So it's not so much that I'm worried about that. I think we could still spend the money the government's allocated in a very meaningful way. But I think there's a problem with going into contracting on matters that are subject to disallowance—they're using that as an excuse to not change a program—particularly if the will of the Senate was to in fact disallow this or change a particular program. I commend the disallowance to the chamber.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Siewert be agreed to.

Question negatived.

4:21 pm

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

Could I just have it noted that a division wasn't called.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much, Senator Siewert, for clarifying that.