Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Friday, 15 November 2002
Page: 6487

Senator CROSSIN (9:54 AM) —The Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 gives effect to the Australians Working Together measures that were announced in the 2001-02 budget. This bill also gives effect to the 2002-03 budget measure to delay the implementation of the working credit, which was announced as part of the Australians Working Together package.

The schedule in this bill sets out the proposed new arrangements for people receiving parenting payment. The measures apply to recipients of both the parenting payment partnered and the parenting payment single. Recipients with a youngest child between the ages of 13 and 15 may be required to participate in one or more activity, such as job search, education, training or community work of up to 150 hours duration over a six-month period—in other words, up to six hours per week. A participation agreement will set out those activities that the person agrees to participate in during the life of that agreement. This requirement will not apply to a person with a severely disabled child.

The penalty regime proposed for the recipients subject to the new arrangements differs significantly from the breaching regime for Newstart and youth allowance recipients. The regime has more checks and balances in place before a breach is applied and has the ability to reinstate and fully backdate payments on compliance. Before a breach may be applied to a person, Centrelink must first examine whether the person had taken reasonable steps to comply with the agreement, then examine whether the terms of the agreement were appropriate and then establish whether the person had a reasonable excuse for the failure. If at this point it is decided that a breach will be imposed, the person's compliance will then be monitored at shorter intervals until the person starts to comply. Compliance with the terms of an agreement will trigger waiver of a breach penalty. Their payments will be reinstated and, if compliance occurs within 13 weeks, payments will be fully backdated. There will be no administrative breach penalties applicable to parenting payment customers, as is the case now. It is worth noting that parenting payment recipients whose youngest child is aged six or over will be required to participate in an annual planning interview. This will be enforced under existing rules rather than by legislative changes.

It is important for people to have the background to this bill so that they can understand why so many people find the measures in this bill to be harsh and unfair. Essentially, this bill places emphasis on the obligations of the recipients and on their failings. It does not place any emphasis on expanding opportunities for these people. It is counterintuitive to believe that bullying and punishing people will make them confident and independent job seekers. It just does not work that way. There is a need to assist those parents, both sole parents and those that are partnered, who are out of the work force, especially those who have lost skills and lack confidence. This bill does not achieve any of those aims. While Labor welcomes the additional money that will be made available to families most in need, I do not believe that, with the mutual obligations, it will be utilised to its maximum potential. In its current form, the bill will not adequately support families in Australia.

There are a number of measures in the bill that perhaps are worth noting. One of those is the establishment, albeit belatedly, of the working credit from April 2003. This will allow income support recipients to bank the unused income-free area of their payment so that irregular or casual work will not automatically reduce their fortnightly income support payments. While the $1,000 working credit will be of benefit, and it is acknowledged that it will provide some benefits to these people, when I talk to single mothers in particular who will fall under this regime their comment to me is that, although they recognise that $1,000 a year will be of assistance to them, it is really no use at all if the jobs they are seeking in order to comply with this measure require them to work after 5.30 at night when there is no child care available or require them to undertake significant training, which $20.80 per fortnight will go nowhere near to meeting the cost of. Most single parents that I come across say to me that they would much prefer this government to put that $1,000 into providing child-care assistance for them, particularly making child care available after 5.30 at night or on weekends, because that is when most of these people will find part-time work, either in the hospitality or cleaning industries or in other areas that will no doubt require some sort of shift work. Very few of these people will get regular or part-time work between the hours of nine and five in order to comply with this measure.

So most people I speak to say to me that the $1,000 is welcomed but that this government really does not have a handle on where things are at for single people trying to comply with this measure. These people would rather see this money go into providing additional child care that is available to them after 5.30 or six o'clock at night and especially on the weekends, particularly in areas such as Darwin and probably much of Northern Australia where extended families are not a run-of-the-mill thing and a lot of single people are without the support of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or grandparents. Finding and accessing child care after hours, when most part-time and casual work demands it, is extremely difficult. There must be greater flexibility for parents so that any obligations do not conflict with their parenting responsibilities. There must be a scaling back of requirements that relate to social rather than economic participation.

The weaknesses in the operation of mutual obligation systems and breaching have been exposed in the recent Pearce report. That report showed that this system is arbitrary, unfair and excessively harsh and may actually diminish people's capacity to seek work. Breaches are not investigated sufficiently and little consideration is given to individual circumstances. Some people breach because of homelessness, uncertain accommodation, literacy and language difficulties, physical or intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Some are simply unable to understand or comply for unforeseen reasons. I know that the response from the government will be, `But we will now be offering the new personal support program, which is aimed at people who are severely disadvantaged in the labour market.' That is all very well if those people present those circumstances when they arrive at a Centrelink office—that is, if those people willingly advise Centrelink that they are homeless or are experiencing some sort of mental illness. Centrelink do not have the skills to be able to pick this up; so, while the establishment of the personal support program is a welcome part of this legislation and will provide the one-on-one assistance that has been needed at Centrelink for so many years, it will not be the be-all and end-all and pick up each and every person who presents themselves to Centrelink needing that support.

There are also high levels of breaching by Indigenous people—who are of course the most disadvantaged people in our society. In effect, this bill provides no real solution to this problem and imposes penalties which further prevent people from providing adequate care and economic security for their children. Job seekers incur substantial financial hardship from breaches which are minor, inadvertent and/or do not demonstrate deliberate intent. This leads to their seeking emergency aid from relatives or having to turn to charities or other sources for assistance. It will even push some into illegal or unsafe earning practices. The penalties make it even more difficult to seek work. A letter I received from the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia had this to say about the bill:

Our view is that the legislation should NOT, under any circumstances, be passed without addressing the minimization of breaching of the unemployed and disadvantaged groups. For many the immediate effect of the breaching system is that it provides the most direct path to abject poverty.

The penalty regime in this legislation is excessively harsh and unfair. Durations and rates of reduction in benefits are harsher than penalties imposed for some criminal offences which threaten bodily harm. The concept of mutual obligation implies that there will be consequences for the government as well if it does not deliver its side of the bargain. However, there are no penalties at all in the case of failure by the government. Often there is no public disclosure of this and there is certainly no public outrage when it is the government rather than the recipient that is at fault.

The concept of mutual obligation has been applied in a highly selective manner. It is interesting, for example, that married couples who receive parenting payments or those who are eligible for the government's baby bonus are not also bound by any mutual obligation criteria. There are important considerations that need to be looked at. Sole parents have different caring responsibilities and circumstances from others in receipt of benefits. Contrary to the government's rhetoric on supporting choice for working families, it is pushing in the other direction with the baby bonus and family tax benefit part B. This bill is disproportionate in that it provides for those on supporting parents benefits with children between 13 and 15 to take part in approved activities for 150 hours every six months, but as an approved program of work which forms part of a participation agreement with the employment secretary that may be varied at any time. Failure to enter into an agreement will result in the loss of benefit for 13 weeks. Failure to comply with an agreement will result in an eight-week breach.

There is extreme concern about the extension of the breaching provisions to single parents. This would affect children adversely, and the breaching levels are indeed excessive. The first breach incurs an 18 per cent reduction for 26 weeks. That is a loss of $987. The second breach incurs a 24 per cent reduction for 26 weeks, which is a loss of $1,316. With the third breach, there is no payment at all for eight weeks, which is a loss of $1,687. Community surveys undoubtedly show that most people think the penalties should be much lower. In return, recipients are able to be paid an additional $20.80 a fortnight to assist with employment and training needs. I do not know of too many courses you would be able to buy into or contribute to for the measly sum of $20.80.

As with the existing regime, it is the most marginal who will fail to comply. There is too great an emphasis on compelling sole parents to take up further social and economic participation regardless of the interests of the child. Measures appear to be based on the assumption that parenting needs tail off when children reach adolescence. In fact, the reverse may be true. The hardest period of parenting is during adolescence—a time of great need for children. There are tensions within that child's life. Independence and peer pressure play a greater role. There is evidence in the United Kingdom that requiring sole parents of teenagers to work has had adverse effects. With no alternative care services for children of that age, teenagers face big issues which need parental support: bullying, truancy, leaving school, minor crime, being confronted with drug and alcohol issues, sexuality issues, mental health problems and, in some cases, even suicide. Some may argue that this is probably the time of heaviest demand in a child's life. It is a time when a lot of teenagers may well need their parents more than they would at a younger age.

The legislation misunderstands the dynamics of people becoming sole parents, and the timing of the loss. The nominated age when people become sole parents may be at a time when most people experience peak stress levels and may be when children have the greatest need. Parents also have high needs at this time. There are unresolved tensions and changes, sometimes dramatic, in people's lives. It is difficult to arrange work times to suit children's needs and it is difficult to find work that fits with parenting, particularly if you are a sole parent. Parents are a significant protective force in children's lives. Many have only one parent. Many have been through the trauma of divorce or separation, death, violence or even abuse. Will restricting parent's choices about how they care for their children really improve the outcomes for these young people?

This legislation is based on a number of assumptions that are inconsistent and fail to take into consideration the variety of circumstances in which people live. The approach in this legislation assumes that people on various pensions do not want to work and will not make the transition to work without a threat or an imposition of penalties by the government. Incentives and encouragement to work are replaced by sanctions against remaining out of the workplace. This legislation assumes that sole parents' responsibilities for caring for their children are less important than their labour market participation. Previously, the view was that parents needed freedom from obligations to work so as to concentrate on the key role of raising children. This in turn erodes the premise that sole mothers are primary carers. It makes assumptions that so-called welfare dependency is a more significant problem than child poverty. It is not.

The legislation makes assumptions that higher labour market participation will improve people's material wellbeing and raise them from poverty. That, of course, is not the case. Sole parents' participation in the work force is too low, and this legislation assumes that they are less likely to work than married women—and married women are used as a benchmark to measure failure to participate. Participation in the work force should be seen as a personal decision. In policy terms, this legislation would assume that single parents are not making the right choice. It also assumes that the breaching regimes will not result in greater poverty for more sole parents.

Many of these assumptions are flawed. Let us have a look at some snapshot data: a rise in sole parent numbers from 8.7 per cent in 1975 to 21.5 per cent in 1998. At any one time, the majority rely on social security as their principal source of income. Few sole mothers work part time—24 to 34 per cent. The majority of sole mothers were previously married mothers. But the data and analyses have consistently failed to consider the impact of marital breakdown, especially as it affects women's ability to participate in the labour market. Often, women withdraw from the work force after separation, especially if young children are involved. In 2000, 18.6 per cent of families in Australia with children under 15 had single women as parents. This is a significant proportion of families. By enacting this legislation in its current form, the government would be putting even more pressure on these women and, consequently, on their young children.

This is a continuation of this government's policy to abandon Australian women. This government has failed to recognise the situation women endure in their efforts to provide adequate care and financial security to their families. Single parents are already struggling to combine raising children and work or job seeking with trying to stay above the poverty line. Enforcing strict penalties and obligations upon them, as this legislation does, is not going to help anyone. Poverty and unemployment cannot be solved by forcing sole parents, with a penalty of loss of income, to do voluntary work or attend meaningless interviews with Centrelink staff or training for jobs that do not exist in their area. The research has in fact shown that women are trying to change their welfare status by embarking on part-time work or education but only have short-term success. Therefore, it is premature to assume that it is a lack of motivation that stops women entering the work force. Rather, as research suggests, skill support and appropriate employment should be found for these women.