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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13592

Ms LEY (Farrer) (13:09): I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Family Participation Measures) Bill 2011. This bill, as we have heard from the minister—and from others in the Senate two days ago—announces pilot programs in the area of social security and welfare which were mentioned in the 2011-12 budget. There are two measures: a teenage parent participation pilot and a jobless families participation pilot. The cost of these measures is $43.7 million over four years. I note—as the minister also noted—that the government announced additional expenditure of $80 million over four years to provide extra training places for single and teenage parents who are in receipt of income support, so these pilot programs, as well as costing $43.7 million over four years, do link into those additional programs which provide support, places to go and extra help for the vulnerable people who are covered by the two pilots.

I now turn to a consideration of the basic elements of the teenage parents participation pilot, which are as follows. These pilots are to be conducted in 10 targeted local government areas. Parents on income support will be required to attend six-monthly interviews with Centrelink once their child turns six months of age. Once the child is 12 months old, the purpose of the interview with Centrelink will be to develop a participation plan. The participation plan will be compulsory and is to be aimed at improving education outcomes for the parent by focusing on school completion, foundation skills or certificate-level qualifications as well as focusing on the health and education of the participation plan child. Support for the participation plan is to continue until the parent achieves year 12 completion or the child turns six years of age. Clearly, the pilot seeks to address a growing issue of concern: the number of teenage parents who have failed to complete year 12 or an equivalent qualification. Alarmingly, more than 50 per cent of teenage parents were on welfare support before becoming a parent, and a massive 80 per cent of them have not completed their year 12 studies.

We on this side of the House do not suppose that every parent who is a teenager is vulnerable, has problems or needs to be specifically investigated by departments. But we do recognise, as does the government, that there is an issue of teenage parents falling out of school and therefore falling out of the workforce and finding it that much more difficult later in life to get back on the treadmill of a job and a pathway to an opportunity which has unfortunately gone missing. We recognise that young people who have failed to complete their schooling are generally highly disadvantaged in the job market and that they have limited future career possibilities. In addition, when they do find employment, they are more likely to earn lower incomes than are those students who achieved a year 12 qualification. However, the evidence clearly shows that those between 20 and 24 years of age are more likely to be unemployed if they have not completed their year 12 studies. This very well-intentioned pilot is clearly about making sure that mothers—and it nearly always is mothers—who are leaving school to bring up children who they have had while they are teenagers need to be assisted to get back into the workforce and to have the maximum help that we can offer them as government and non-government organisations so that they are properly catered for into the future. As I said, it is a well-intentioned pilot program.

The additional pressures of raising a young child further decrease the likelihood of a teenage parent's securing employment. Many teenage mothers raise their child on their own with little or no support from the baby's father. In 2008 it was estimated that around 60 per cent of teenage mothers had no male partner by the time they gave birth. Without this support, and in some instances without support from their own families, teenage parents are in a difficult position. By having the mechanisms in place to introduce vulnerable young mothers to organisations and to parenting groups, they can develop a support network and access the advice and assistance that they need to care for the child. The next step, of course, is to get them back into school—whether it be their school, a TAFE facility, a community college or a registered training organisation—so that they will be better placed to provide for their family into the future. This, for them, is about overcoming those initial barriers that tell them that they do not have a chance, that they are not worth it, that school and TAFE are places that are no longer for them and also that they perhaps do not need to take the level of responsibility for their own lives and the welfare of their children that we would expect them to.

So that is the teenage parents participation pilot, and what I would say about it is that a lot of the efforts that it talks about should be and are going on in the community already. Perhaps more can be done to bring the linkages together, but in announcing a pilot over 10 separate locations what are we doing about the teenage parents in the other locations? What will happen from this pilot that will lead to future government policy? And isn't it a bit of a cop-out anyway for the government to couch its messages about mutual obligations—which it talks up, because it gets a good response in the community, which recognises the necessity for them—in pilots that are not necessarily going to transfer well into public policy?

I know that research will be done. I am not sure how effective it will be. But I do come back to the point that all of these support mechanisms that we are talking about to surround teenage parents are actually already there in the community. How much of the $47 million that we are allocating to this is going to go to additional staff in our government departments, including Centrelink and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations? Those staff do good work and we recognise that, but I am always wary when I see dollars allocated to administration and to coordination. When a program is surrounded by all of these good words, you still need to drill down and ask: what is happening? What is happening at the teenager's school? What is happening in the teenager's family? What is happening in their town?

The federal government dollars that have been allocated are going towards coordination efforts, meetings at Centrelink and bringing together the various providers—perhaps around a table to talk about it on a case management basis. All of these are very well intentioned, I know, but it is a significant allocation of taxpayers' dollars for services that I know, as a local member, and that other local members will also know, happen already. They are not always connected very well. The dots are not always joined up very well. But we have youth connections, we have facilities for NGOs and we have organisations that look after teen parents. We have the state government departments and we have the state schools.

If I look at my daughter's school, which is in a town that unhappily has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Australia, and consider the friends that she had at school who fell pregnant during years 11 and 12, one of the things I can say is how well that school looked after those kids and how well it linked them into the services in the community. By announcing this pilot, the government is saying: 'We've got 10 areas we are going to focus on, and we are going to do something that hasn't been done before. We're also going to spend a lot of money doing it.' The coalition does not disagree with this legislation about teenage participation pilots at all, but we really do want to make those points.

We also know in this area that, the longer the time that someone spends out of the workforce, the more they struggle to re-engage down the track. That is one thing that I am totally aware of from my meetings with employment participation agencies—if I can scoop them up under that one umbrella—around the country and with bodies that look for jobs for vulnerable people, that work with youth and that try to connect youth as they leave school. We need to make it clear, not just to teenage parents but to young people, that education is an absolutely valid choice, that there is nothing scary about setting foot on the grounds of a TAFE, a community college or any other educational institution, and that when the time comes in your life to get into education, to learn something and to get a certificate and you find the one that means something to you and that can get you a job then that should be an absolutely logical step that you take.

Intergenerational unemployment is a real risk and the reality is that many of our teenage parents come from families who themselves have been supported predominantly by the welfare system. Currently, there are more than 530,000 children younger than 15 who are living with parents who do not work, and there is a strong likelihood of the cycle of dependency being repeated. It is a statistic that has been around as long as I have been in politics—that is, our very poor standing in OECD terms relating to our intergenerational unemployment. It is so bad, in fact, that I have met families who do not talk about collecting a benefit from Centrelink, who do not recognise that with a welfare cheque comes an responsibility to look for work or to participate in training, but who actually talk about going to Centrelink to pick up their pay—so strong and so entrenched is the message of no work and joblessness. I do not blame those individuals at all, because in many cases their life circumstances have not led them to any other choice. That is where the tough love of government policy really needs to take effect.

As I said, the decision has been made for this pilot to be undertaken in areas identified as having higher than average levels of disadvantage. Currently there are around 11,000 teenage parents in Australia, so this really will only scratch the surface. Teenage parents will be required to attend Centrelink once their child turns six months so they can formulate a plan to return to schooling once their child is a year old. Fully-subsidised child care will be provided to enable them to return to school at this 12-month mark. I do have real concerns about the fully-subsidised child care. This is not because it is not a good thing—it is—but because of the shortages of nought to two-year-old places and that that shortage is becoming exacerbated with every passing day because of the government's new rules around child-to-staff ratios that are forcing childcare centres to reduce the number of places. This government really will have a task ahead of it to ensure that those places are available in convenient and suitable locations for these parents.

At the heart of this measure—if it becomes policy, and there is no reason why it should not—there is the need for the teenage parent to have really good child care so that they can educate themselves. You cannot do that with a newborn baby in the room, so we have to have child care that is affordable and available for teenage parents. Because of the new rules that I have just mentioned, which reduce the number of nought to two places, I visit childcare centres all the time that say, 'We've decided that it is not going to pay to have babies, so our youngest room will have toddlers,' and they will just start at two-year-olds, saying, 'We won't do nought to twos anymore'. I also meet a lot of childcare providers who say that they are having to cut down on the number of nought to two places they have, and everywhere I go I say, 'Where is your waiting list?' It is in the nought to twos—sometimes as many as 50. I do not know how the Centrelink case managers and the people who fill in numerous pages about compliance in relation to this measure are going to answer the question: 'Where is my child going to go for child care that I can really feel comfortable with as a nervous new mother? Where is my child going to go so that I can go to TAFE or back to school or back to community college?' I would simply say to the government that, with $47 million attached to this and the other significant dollars with all the training places et cetera, it is all going to fall in a heap if the child care is not available.

I also remain concerned as to how Centrelink plans to monitor school attendance and compliance with the rest of the employment pathway plan. In particular, teenage parents will be required at these interviews they attend to outline how they will maximise the health and education of their children. Part of making this work is ensuring that they do adhere to those commitments. But it is not really the role of Centrelink to look at the health and education of a child. It is slightly outside their role. Their job in this respect is to complete an employment pathway plan and to interview the teenage parent. It is not an unfriendly exercise, because there is really nothing to do when the baby is six months. That is about saying: 'Okay, let's get something happening here. Let's make a plan so that when your child turns one you do start doing something that is in your own interest and also, because of the vulnerability of the children of teenage parents, we'll keep an eye on that as well.' How this actually happens in the real world is not clear to me at all. Again, we have the Labor government announcing rather grand plans and initiatives. People should not make the mistake of thinking that they will translate well in a real world situation.

I want to talk about the other pilot, the jobless families pilot, which is the subject of this legislation. It will commence on 1 July 2012. As with the teenage parents pilot, it will be run in 10 local government areas. It introduces new participation requirements and support services for parents who have been on income support for over two years or who are aged under 23 and are in a targeted local government area. They will be required to attend compulsory workshops and interviews and set personal and family goals. They will receive assistance to target prevocational barriers to engage in the community and to improve the health and education outcomes for children. They will have access to 52 weeks of jobs, education and training child care fee assistance, which pays any childcare fee gap, effectively making child care cost free. This also links to $71.1 million which is provided in other government programs, $19.4 million of which is to be spent on children for community services, which the minister recently mentioned was going to be enhanced in these targeted areas.

I know that all these things happen with clients of Centrelink, our job services agencies and our disability employment service providers. They conduct workshops, they talk to people about setting family goals. It might be that the people in this jobless families participation pilot do not have those activity test requirements, but if we give them those requirements, which essentially is what we seem to be doing here, the services and the provision of those services does already exist. Again I question where the $47 million is going to significantly add value?

One of the most frustrating things for me is going to a town and seeing something provided by one service, something provided by another service around the corner, and other related activities somewhere else—no-one entirely talking to each other because, let us face it, there is a bit of competition between them in attracting the government funding to run the services. If we simply said, 'Everybody sit around the same table, talk about this particular family, talk about this particular teenage parent and work out what you are going to do,' it would be a common sense local initiative that would not require so much money.

Remember: where you create a program like this you create significant compliance as well. You have a computer system, you have forms to fill in. At interviews an amazing number of boxes have to be ticked and questions have to be asked, but you have to remember the experience of the individual. These are vulnerable members of our community and they are sitting in a chair across from somebody who is staring at a computer screen with a program that has been provided by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Those people who sit at the computer screen tell me they sometimes spend 50 per cent to 60 per cent of their time filling in forms in order to serve the great IT system within the department. I have seen this in many situations. The person sitting there wonders: 'Is this person interested in me? Do they want to know about my problems? Are they, in fact, someone who is trained to understand my problems or are they someone who is really, really good at compliance, who can sit in front of his computer screen and give all the answers to make the department happy?'

I know I am being a little unfair and I am probably exaggerating to get my point across, but it is a valid point. When I talk to the people who run these case management exercises that is the single thing they say: 'We would like to speak to people. We would like to empathise with our clients. We would like to say, "We see you, we hear you, we understand what your life is like," but instead we are sitting in front of a computer screen moving the mouse and just glancing occasionally at them.' It is not a good way to do business.

Despite the investment we are making in our jobless families participation pilot, there is no requirement for the families to commit to taking work. Compliance with the employment pathway plan should be a given. I understand with the teenage parents it is about getting them back to school, so we do not want to be withdrawing dollars or support. But in this case, compliance with the employment pathway plan is about being a young person without a job. So once again we have a prime example of how the Labor Party has watered down the compliance regime: talking tough about mutual obligation, making the public think that that is what they are doing, but not really doing it. We absolutely have to ensure that jobseekers follow through on their commitments and accept responsibility for their financial futures.

Indigenous families are chronically overrepresented in the cohort of welfare dependent families, with around 40 per cent of Indigenous children living in jobless families. Here the challenge to break this cycle is absolutely paramount. I see this tragedy firsthand in a number of places in my electorate, with families camping outside local pubs waiting for opening time: grandma, mum, dad and a handful of toddlers running around—it is absolutely heartbreaking to witness. It is a battle that we do have to win, and it often does require a firm hand.

The coalition has a proud track record of welfare reform. We stand firm in our commitment to mutual obligation. Welfare payments need to be viewed as a temporary safety net—there to support people when they are down but intrinsically linked to the support mechanisms that will help raise them up. That is why a program such as Work for the Dole has such an important role to play. It reiterates that in order to receive income support one has subsequent obligations to look for work, and in the absence of paid employment to give back to the society that supports you. More than 600,000 people have benefited from time in Work for the Dole, with programs across the country helping get job seekers job ready. It has taught real-life skills that are needed in every workplace: punctuality, teamwork, appearance and work ethic. I would like to reiterate that the coalition sees Work for the Dole as a labour market program.

We certainly witnessed great success during our time in government but, unfortunately, since the Rudd-Gillard governments came in unemployment has risen. The government chose to water down mutual obligation when it came to power by changing the requirement for job seekers to undertake a Work for the Dole activity after six months, which was the case when we were in government, to 12 months. This government is actually helping to allow people to languish on welfare. The departmental secretary reinforced Labor's position by writing to employment services providers and urging them to be more lenient on job seekers' noncompliance. But compliance has a critical role to play in getting job seekers off welfare and into work. The coalition has never lost sight of this, opposing Labor's frequent attempts to water it down. We face an increasingly complex demographic challenge in the Australian workforce; we have an ageing population and we will face significant skills challenges into the future. But we still have an extraordinarily high number of long-term unemployed job seekers. We need to ensure that those who can work do work.

The coalition moved amendments in the Senate yesterday, one of which the Greens supported, I am happy to say. Our amendments sought to maintain the ability of the secretary to intervene in extenuating circumstances. I actually remain quite bewildered at Labor's decision to introduce this clause—that is, that the secretary cannot intervene. There must always be scope for the secretary to intervene when we are talking about vulnerable people. In addition to the amendment moved to this bill in the Senate, where the bill was introduced, we will move further amendments here to address the need for real penalties to apply in the case of jobless family participants so that we can follow through on requiring an employment participation plan. If there are no teeth then there may not be any agreement by the participant to go ahead.

I foreshadow that we will move those amendments in the consideration in detail stage and repeat that, despite the concerns that I have indicated, the coalition will be supporting this bill. It takes some positive albeit rather baby steps towards reinforcing the responsibilities that come with the right to welfare, and it provides a basis for supporting teenage parents and jobless families to help them realise a brighter future.