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Thursday, 17 September 1987
Page: 227

Mr BLANCHARD —Is the Minister for Social Security aware of the concerns in the community about the decision in the May statement to remove eligibility for a class A widow's pension and supporting parent's benefit for recipients whose youngest child is 16 years or over? What is the Minister doing to allay those concerns?

Mr HOWE —These changes were introduced because, as the social security review had already pointed out, the only way in which sole parents can be sure of getting acceptable levels of income is through employment, especially if they do not have the care of young children. Women of work force age should be encouraged to plan for proper training and education to make a place for themselves in the work force. Secondly, the new limit was placed at 16 years in recognition of the substantially increased assistance for 16- and 17-year-old students from low income families. Austudy payments for 16- and 17-year-old students in secondary schools have increased from $22 a week in 1983 to $40 per week and the amount will be increased in January 1988 to $50 a week.

The Government took action at the time of the May statement to protect women on benefit and in full time Austudy approved courses before 1 September 1986. That measure retained their entitlement to both Austudy and social security income support. On 28 August my colleague the Minister for Employment, Education and Training and I announced two additional measures to give those sole parents immediately affected by the May statement more time to adjust their plans for the future. Sole parents who lose their pension between 1 September 1987 and 31 December 1987 because of the May statement changes will retain eligibility for fringe benefits until the end of 1988. Sole parents in full time study and receiving a pension before September 1987 will be able to stay on the pension until they complete their current course.

I am sure that it is understood-certainly by the honourable member for Moore-that the decision taken by the Government will cause some concern in the community, particularly to sole parents during the transitional period. That is why the Government has brought about these two additional measures particularly to assist in a time at which a new approach is being introduced. The approach is a somewhat sensitive one compared with that proposed by the Opposition in the course of the election campaign when it was suggested that a coalition government would reduce to 10 years the qualifying age of the youngest child for the sole parent to be eligible for benefit. The Government understands that if we are to achieve a situation in which sole parents are much less in poverty in the future than they have been in the past in this country we need to increase and improve access for sole parents to the work force. That is the policy direction in which this Government has set its face.

We have done more in terms of child care-crucial for sole parents-than any previous Government. We have eased income tests, particularly with respect to poverty traps, again of major benefit to sole parents. We have introduced a family package which will result in very significant improvements in income support for sole parents with young children. We are giving sole parents a priority in a way they have never had before in terms of education and training programs. We are introducing a child support scheme, which I referred to earlier in Question Time, which will mean that non-custodial parents will be required to pay effectively maintenance at an adequate level for the first time.

The Government is very concerned about sole parents. It is concerned about the transition to these new arrangements. I have indicated we will monitor them very carefully, but we are also tough-minded enough to believe that without policy changes perhaps the vast majority of sole parents in future will be living in poverty. That is unacceptable. We believe that sole parents deserve access to a decent standard of living and that is what the Government is about.