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Government urged to change course on welfare -

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Government urged to change course on welfare

The World Today - Tuesday, 18 November , 2008 12:34:00

Reporter: Alexandra Kirk

ELEANOR HALL: The welfare sector is urging the Federal Government to change its new social security
penalty regime.

The Government had promised to take a more humane approach to penalising job seekers who fail to
meet their obligations.

But welfare groups say the Government's approach is too complex and too harsh.

In Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The welfare sector is today putting its case to a short senate inquiry as the
Government prepares to enshrine a new system next July.

Earlier this year, the Government instructed Centrelink and the Job Network, run by the Department
of Employment, to take a more compassionate approach after welfare groups roundly criticised the
three strikes penalty that saw a thousand job seekers a week docked two months of benefits and
rendered one-third of them homeless.

Welfare groups say the Government's new regime will embed the more lenient line, but still needs
tweaking.

The National Welfare Rights Network singles out the so-called "no show, no pay" category, saying
it's worse and more harsh than the current regime.

Job seekers currently facing an eight-week loss of welfare payments may have their bills and
essential services paid for via case management.

But that safety net option won't apply under the new compliance regime.

President Kate Beaumont.

KATE BEAUMONT: Disadvantaged people will be further marginalised and isolated and excluded because
of they'll have dramatic reductions in their payment.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: By how much?

KATE BEAUMONT: With "no show, no pay", it will be at least $45 a day that they will miss out on,
and there's no safeguards and we already know that Newstart allowance and those sorts of payments
are much lower than pensions, so people can ill-afford it and it does take money to actually
participate.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Kate Beaumont says it will work against the Government's aim of encouraging people
to find jobs, placing them at greater risk, pointing to a submission by the Department of
Education, Employment and Workplace Participation on the eight-week suspension system.

KATE BEAUMONT: It basically said, it's been a failure because it hasn't increased in engagement
with the Job Network. So they've actually come out quite categorically and said that it is a failed
system.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Kate Beaumont says her organisation's put the concerns to the Government.

KATE BEAUMONT: However, they've continued along the line to say that there are still eight-week not
payment penalties involved in this new system, and that it's almost in response to public
perception as opposed to what an evidence-based approach of what works to get people engaged. So
it's almost like it's because it's popular to have people on no payment period that they're
continuing that, so that then they don't appear to be too soft on the unemployed.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: ACOSS the Council of Social Service, too, is urging greater safeguards. Deputy
president David Thompson says the Government's made some welcome changes but needs to go further to
ensure vulnerable job seekers aren't penalised.

DAVID THOMPSON: They need to allow the people that are working with the people in this system to
exercise discretion about what's the best thing to do at the time for the person that they're
working with. Rather than simply saying, these are the rules and they apply to all people in all
circumstances regardless of what's going on in their life.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Considering that unemployment is about to rise and these changes were designed
before it became clear that there was a global financial crisis and the effect it was going to have
in Australia, does that need to be taken into account your view?

DAVID THOMPSON: Given that the people who are most vulnerable in the system, they tend to be very
long-term unemployed, are likely to stay very long-term unemployed and in the system therefore for
longer.

It just adds weight to the argument that we need to make sure that those discretions are there. The
last thing that we want is a system that works to harm some of our most vulnerable and
disadvantaged citizens in the name of the assuming they're all capable of meeting quite complicated
requirements.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Minister for Workforce Participation Brendan O'Connor is standing firm.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, the new compliance arrangements I think strike now a better balance between
participation and penalty and we consulted widely with welfare agencies and that's their
overwhelming view. But we'll always look to fine-tune anything that needs fine-tuning, but the
no-show, no-pay approach, in our view, will provide greater participation because people will lose
a day's income if they're not participating. But at the same time it will ensure that people are
more likely to find work.

ELEANOR HALL: And that's the Minister for Workforce Participation Brendan O'Connor, ending that
report by Alexandra Kirk in Canberra.