Political parties under pressure to dismantle ParentsNext
Tuesday, 2nd April 2019 at 4:42 pm
Community groups are demanding the government scraps its controversial pre-employment program ParentsNext, after a Senate committee found it was causing anxiety and distress for single mothers on welfare.
The Labor-Greens majority committee report said the program should not continue in its current form, recommending it be reshaped to better meet the needs of parents while acknowledging the structural barriers to employment people faced.
But the community sector believes the program is flawed beyond repair and is urging political parties to take action.
A coalition of groups including St Vincent de Paul, Australian Council of Social Service, and Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand released a joint statement calling for the program to be dismantled entirely.
The groups noted that one in five parents have had their payments suspended through the program, which rises to 27 per cent for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
“Compliance is onerous and the penalties are severe, often leaving families with babies and young children unable to make ends meet,” the statement said.
“Parents subject to the program are mostly mums providing care for a young family, with many experiencing financial insecurity in the wake of escaping family violence.
“The harsh reality of this program is completely out of step with the needs of struggling families and community expectations.”
ParentsNext came under fire in November last year, when The Guardian reported single mothers were being forced by their providers to attend activities such as “story time”, swimming lessons or playgroup in order to keep their payments.
One Senate submission revealed between July and December 2018, parents had their payments suspended over 16,000 times – in a program containing 75,000 participants of whom 95 per cent are female.
Adrianne Walters, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, who gave evidence at the inquiry, said ParentsNext must be repealed immediately.
“After these damning findings, particularly of the impact of withholding money from single mothers, how could the government and opposition not commit to scrapping this cruel and disastrous program?” Walters said.
“Gender equality should not depend on your postcode, the colour of your skin or the type of paid or unpaid work you do.”
Coalition senators said in the committee report there was no need for significant changes to ParentsNext, believing participants benefited from the program.
They said the program needed a compliance framework to successfully function.
Labor has pledged to overhaul the program if it wins government, but stopped short of calling for an end to the scheme.
In a joint statement, Labor MPs Terri Butler and Brendan O’Connor said the opposition would take an evidence-based case-management approach to making sure the program met the needs of individual families.
“Parents will still be required to participate in the program when they first become eligible for it,” they said.
“[But] under Labor, the government won’t be forcing parents of toddlers to go to story-time or swimming lessons. Nor will kids be missing kindy or pre-school in favour of ParentsNext meetings.”
The Greens meanwhile are calling for the program to be made voluntary. Senator Rachel Siewert said ParentsNext’s “punitive, coercive” demerit point system must be abolished.
“Studies show that people who have been subjected to harsh compliance policies experience very high levels of psychological distress, which interferes with their capacity [for] employment and we heard that loud and clear through the submissions to the inquiry,” Siewert said.
“So long as the [Targeted Compliance Framework] is in place providers, whether in ParentsNext or Jobactive, it will play a punitive rather than a supportive role.”