The chair of a parliamentary inquiry into the controversial ParentsNext program has described the suggestion that in some cases single parents may be required to check in with the agency daily or risk having their welfare payments suspended as “bonkers”.
The Labor MP Julian Hill was questioning representatives of the National Employment Services Association (Nesa) and Jobs Australia, the peak bodies for commercial and not-for-profit companies that facilitate Australia’s billion-dollar outsourced welfare-to-work system, Workforce Australia.
As part of the parliament’s House select committee inquiry into Workforce Australia, Wednesday’s hearing examined the $110m-a-year ParentsNext program, a compulsory course for around 80,000 parenting payment recipients who are forced to attend appointments and complete activities, including storytime and playgroup sessions, that are supposed to help them with parenting and to return to work.
Companies and charities are given federal funding to provide guidance and support to those parents.
The program has come under sustained criticism from participants and advocates, including that they have been required by job agencies to attend appointments while working full-time or immediately after major surgery or participate in training programs despite being well-qualified in their industry, or risk having their payments suspended.
A key matter under scrutiny on Wednesday was the suspension of welfare payments for ParentsNext participants who did not report their employment income or participation in designated activities as required.
Hill questioned Nesa’s use of the phrase “light touch” to describe requirements on participants undertaking a multi-week training program to their report attendance once per fortnight.
“It’s a contested view whether fortnightly reporting, if you’re a parent of a young child or not planning to work for some years, is a ‘light touch’,” said Hill. “Like what’s the alternative, reporting daily?”
“For other programs that might be the case,” said Annette Gill, Nesa’s principal policy adviser. “Every time there’s an activity you have to report.”
“Isn’t that bonkers?” Hill asked.
Hill and the inquiry’s deputy chair, Russell Broadbent, questioned the industry representatives on the impact of the “targeted compliance framework” – that is, actual and threatened payment suspensions – noting the inquiry had received an overwhelming number of submissions from participants describing acute anxiety and what Broadbent said was “major chaos within … the family structure” after receiving text message notifications that their payments would be suspended in 48 hours if they did not check in.
Bryan McCormick, a senior adviser for Jobs Australia, said that job agencies “do see the targeted compliance framework as a useful tool, particularly where parents are reluctant to engage”.
“I understand that in a small number of cases, it has that punitive aspect and [the industry members] recommended consideration more of an incentive-style tool to get people engaged,” McCormick said.
“I’m not sure I’d characterise it as a small number,” said Hill, noting the figure provided by the Department of Social Services was that there had been 50,000 payment suspensions over a number of years, with 97.4% of them being reversed within a fortnight.
Nesa and Jobs Australia concurred that the 48-hour notification of pending payment suspension may create unnecessary anxiety in welfare recipients.
The committee also heard from Jill Roche, the chief executive of Brave Foundation, which supports and mentors pregnant and parenting teenagers and some young people up to the age of 25. Brave’s written submission described ParentsNext as “punitive and prescriptive in its approach”.
In the hearing, Roche advocated for a voluntary program that was “individualised, supportive, sustainable, consistent and informed by lived experience”.
“In all but very few cases, young parents face various forms of hardship, inequity and stigmatisation,” Roche said, urging the committee to take into consideration the implications that mutual obligation expectations had on young parents and their families.
“The suspension of payments compromise the capacity of young parents to adequately provide for the basic needs of their children, given they are much less likely to have cash reserves to draw upon.”
“It is the anxiety that goes with the threat of not having access to funds that we hear a lot about,” said Roche.
“When you are down to your last dollar and you are needing to feed your child dinner and you’ve got to make that last, the idea of not being able to receive your payment because you haven’t … connected on a phone call, or you haven’t completed an activity that was not necessarily well explained to you or understood, adds a significant amount of weight to a young parent … the threat of that hanging over your head is significantly detrimental.”
In August, the federal Labor government announced the inquiry into Workforce Australia, which was created by the former Coalition government and replaced the previous Jobactive scheme, flagging that it may overhaul it.
The inquiry continues.