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Thursday, 13 May 2010
Page: 3615

Mr CLARE (Parliamentary Secretary for Employment) (10:33 AM) —The Social Security Amendment (Flexible Participation Requirements for Principal Carers) Bill 2010 represents a vital part of the government’s ‘more flexible participation requirements for parents’ 2009-10 budget measure. This measure delivers on the government’s commitment to support the economic and social inclusion of parents by ensuring that all parents on income support have the opportunity to develop their skills, to participate in the workforce and to be treated with the respect inherent in their roles as parents.

Before detailing the purpose of the bill, I will take the opportunity to dispute some of the claims that have been made in this debate by the opposition. We should not forget that it was the Hawke Labor government that introduced mutual obligation and penalties as a condition of getting the dole in Australia. From July 2009 to March 2010, this government has imposed 21,189 penalties resulting in a stop to income support. The overriding objective of our policy is to get people into work. The new Job Services Australia is performing very well compared to the former Job Network. On a like-for-like basis about 13 per cent more unemployed people are getting into jobs, and that is not taking into account the more hostile environment created by the global recession. More than 304,000 job placements have been recorded by Job Services Australia since 1 July last year.

Work for the Dole is very important but it is only one of the ways to build skills and get people back to work. Building skills is the key to tackling skill shortages. It is also the key to reducing unemployment in areas where it is highest and where it is most difficult to budge. That is why the government is investing in skills and training: $300 million to build the skills we need for the future through the Critical Skills Investment Fund and the extension of the highly successful Apprentice Kickstart initiative, which were both mentioned in the budget on Tuesday night; $242 million to deliver a better training system, matching the needs of industry and guaranteeing young people a training place; as well as almost $120 million to build literacy and numeracy skills for people in the workforce and looking to get back into the workforce. This investment is about preparing people for work and making sure that they are job ready.

Training is now a much more meaningful part of the compulsory participation system for unemployed people. We have already increased the number of unemployed people required to undertake training. From April 2005 to April 2010, the number of unemployed people in training has gone up from 46,000 to 76,000. We have made the employment service system more flexible. A key change has been to allow the professional employment services to decide how best to get people into jobs. They know the labour market, deal directly with unemployed people and are able to tailor support to suit individuals’ needs. They decide if it is Work for the Dole training or another program that will be best to meet the compulsory participation requirements. This principle of flexibility and tailoring employment services to the needs of individual job seekers with the aim of getting them into a job is reflected in this bill.

The government recognises that many parents with participation requirements already meet their obligations through paid work and that these families benefit from the parents’ participation in the workforce. However, many Australian families face additional challenges and the government understands that these activities need to support parents’ individual circumstances, replacing a one-size-fits-all approach. For this reason, in May 2008 the government established the Participation Review Taskforce to consider the barriers to participation encountered by parents in the workforce. The task force undertook extensive consultation with the Australian community and reported its findings and recommendations to government in August 2008. The government has responded to the recommendations of the task force through a range of initiatives designed to support the economic inclusion of parents in the labour force while considering their individual circumstances. The government’s response is contained in this bill as well as in changes to the Guide to Social Security Law and amended subordinate legislation.

The government’s changes to participation requirements will help parents to better balance their family and caring responsibilities with their participation obligations by improving their ability to undertake education, training and relevant volunteering opportunities. This will provide greater opportunities for parents to obtain relevant skills, qualifications and work experience and to participate socially and economically in their community. Parents will also be able to report their participation efforts more flexibly by utilising Centrelink’s online and telephone reporting services.

This bill and the wider measure respond to the concerns of parents that the current system is too rigid and the current participation rules are often counterproductive to their efforts to develop skills, gain relevant experience and find work. The greater flexibility introduced by this measure, together with individually tailored assistance provided through Job Services Australia and the Disability Employment Services network, will ensure that parents are fully supported in their efforts to gain skills and qualifications and participate in the workforce. Parents will still be required to undertake 30 hours of suitable activities each fortnight. However, we recognise that parents can gain skills and employment through many different pathways. Parents with participation requirements will be able to undertake part-time study and combine suitable activities, such as part-time study, part-time paid work and vocationally appropriate voluntary work, to fully meet their participation requirements.

The bill will directly improve access to exemptions from participation requirements. This recognises that at times some parents face unique challenges that make it difficult for them to be available for part-time work or study. The existing domestic violence exemption will be extended to provide greater support for victims of domestic violence, regardless of their relationship status, to ensure that the exemption is available when needed. The bill also extends existing exemptions for parents with large families, those who provide home schooling and those parents whose children undertake distance education. These exemptions will now extend to parents who have older children who are still in school, therefore recognising the important role that these parents play in the education of their children. New participation exemptions will be introduced in recognition of the important caring role that kinship and foster carers play in our community, including emergency and respite foster carers. These exemptions will be available where a care plan is in place and which has been prepared or accepted by the relevant state or territory government.

This bill provides a sound balance between the role of parents on income support as carers, their participation in paid work, their skill development and their involvement in their local communities. The bill responds to the concerns of Australian parents and provides for greater flexibility for parents on income support in recognition of their most important role, that of being a parent. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.