Thursday, 1 August 2019
Community Affairs References Committee; Government Response to Report
I present the government response to the report of the Community Affairs References Committee on its inquiry into ParentsNext and seek leave to have the document incorporated into Hansard.
The documents read as follows—
Australian Government response to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report:
ParentsNext, including its trial and subsequent broader rollout
The Australian Government welcomes the Senate Community Affairs References Committee (the committee) report of March 2019 on ParentsNext, including the program's trial and subsequent broader rollout.
The Government thanks the committee for its report and the many people who took the time to provide submissions and appear as witnesses.
The ParentsNext program aims to:
It supports these aims by helping parents plan and prepare for employment before their youngest child starts school.
ParentsNext was designed and implemented with a focus on meeting the needs of parents. It is flexible, recognises parents' caring responsibilities, does not require them to look for work, and incorporates family friendly sites and activities. Parents negotiate and agree to their activities and plans. Program eligibility is targeted, providing early intervention to parents on Parenting Payment who are at risk of long-term welfare dependency. While participation is compulsory for most participants, exemptions and valid reasons for non-attendance are available for those who are unable to participate.
The Government remains committed to the ParentsNext program. The national expansion has helped more than 93,300 parents to plan and prepare for employment by the time their children turn six. Since the national expansion (1 July 2018 – 30 June 2019):
The ParentsNext 2016-2018 evaluation report shows participating in the ParentsNext trial generally increased parents' attitude to work, wellbeing and their chances of being in study or finding work. In addition to these findings, the department is undertaking a further evaluation to assess the effectiveness of the expanded program.
The Government is taking positive steps to improve the program including:
These changes are being progressively implemented with some elements having already commenced. The Government will continue to work with stakeholders and the community to identify opportunities to enhance the program. As required, it will also take steps including adjusting program guidelines, improving communications or correcting provider behaviour.
The Government notes the committee's recommendations, and continues to review processes and settings to ensure the program meets stated objectives.
Recommendations made by the committee
Government response—Not Supported.
The Government remains committed to the program. Evidence from the ParentsNext evaluation shows that the ParentsNext trial was effective in increasing parents' wellbeing and resulted in higher rates of work and study.
The Government has recently made a number of changes to improve the program including:
The Government will continue to identify further opportunities to make program improvements.
During the rollout of ParentsNext, the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business (the department) undertook a substantial consultation process with stakeholders, including providers, parents, peak bodies and community and Indigenous organisations.
As part of implementing the Government's changes described above, the department has consulted with key stakeholders who have been broadly supportive of the changes.
The department is committed to ongoing engagement with parents and key stakeholders to identify opportunities for program improvement. This collaborative approach reflects the Government's desire create a ParentsNext program that genuinely supports parents to prepare for employment.
The department regularly reviews government communication products for participants. The department is updating existing ParentsNext information and creating new information for participants, including web content, FAQs and an updated fact sheet. The department is considering procuring a specialist communications consultancy to refine these materials to the target audience.
Several key documents are already translated into the ten languages in highest use by participants in the program and the department is arranging for the Participation Plan and supporting material to be developed into an audio translation for Indigenous languages.
The department has written to all provider CEOs highlighting that parents are not obliged to sign the Privacy Notification and Consent form and that failure to do so does not result in suspended payments. The department is also exploring changes to the Privacy Notification and Consent form, and the associated guideline, to clarify its purpose.
If a provider is found to have pressured a participant into signing the form, the department will take appropriate action under the ParentsNext 2018-2021 Deed (the deed).
The department has reviewed all instances where ‘Misconduct' has been recorded and found no evidence of a provider coercing a participant into signing the Privacy Notification and Consent form at the initial appointment.
To be awarded ParentsNext business, providers had to satisfy the department that they would deliver services to vulnerable parents in their local community appropriately. This included the ability to support parents in a culturally competent way and supporting those who are experiencing violence and trauma or living with disabilities.
The department is embarking upon a range of training for provider staff and will consider including specialised domestic and family violence targeted training which will build upon their existing skills levels. The department is also considering avenues for enhanced Indigenous cultural competency training.
The department has engaged a consultant to develop a toolkit for providers to better support the delivery of culturally appropriate services for Indigenous participants.
Providers link participants to services in the community delivered by other local service providers where specialised services are required.
Parents in the program can transfer to a new provider, either by mutual agreement or through the department's National Customer Service Line. Reasons for transfer include for better servicing.
Recommendations made by the Labor Senators:
This is a continuation of the status quo.
Government response—Not supported.
This recommendation is inconsistent with the Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF). Under the TCF, attendance at ParentsNext initial appointments has increased from 65 per cent during the ParentsNext trial (ParentsNext 2016) to around 78 per cent in the current program.
Under existing arrangements, participants generally have several days to re-engage after missing their initial appointment before a suspension affects their Parenting Payment which is administered by Centrelink. This is because Centrelink generally avoids scheduling a participant's initial ParentsNext appointment close to the reporting day for their Parenting Payment.
Parents can and should contact their provider prior to the appointment if they are unable to attend and the provider will reschedule to a more appropriate time.
The changes the Government has made in response to Recommendation 1 should significantly reduce the frequency of payment suspensions.
Government response—Not supported.
As discussed in the department's submission, both the ParentsNext trial evaluation and evidence from earlier similar pilots showed significantly better results when the activity requirements were compulsory. As such, the Government does not support this recommendation as it will undermine the program's effectiveness.
To be awarded ParentsNext business, providers had to satisfy the department that they would deliver services to vulnerable parents, including supporting parents dealing with violence and trauma. The department has given, and continues to give providers access to training resources.
The department will review the domestic and family violence response training undertaken by ParentsNext provider staff. Using this information, the department will consider making domestic violence training mandatory for all ParentsNext provider staff or delivering specialised domestic violence targeted training.
Recommendations made by the Australian Greens:
Government response—Not supported.
Ceasing the operation of the TCF would undermine the effectiveness of the ParentsNext program. ParentsNext attendance at appointments has increased from 66 per cent during the ParentsNext trial (before the TCF) to around 80 per cent in the current program (under the TCF).
Government response—Not supported.
The Government does not agree with this recommendation, as the evidence shows that having compulsory activities improves the program's effectiveness and that the most disadvantaged participants would not participate if the program was voluntary.
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.