Social service, human rights and domestic violence groups have warned against government plans to expand a welfare program aimed at single mothers, arguing the ParentsNext scheme is “punitive and flawed”.
Since 2018 about 150,000 people have been required to attend meetings with a ParentsNext provider and education programs or other activities in order to receive their parenting payment.
About 95% of participants are women and while the government argues 34,000 parents on the pre-employment program have started employment, recent figures reveal only 4,500 people or 3% have left the scheme after “finding stable work”.
Submissions to a Senate inquiry argue that planned changes to eligibility mean more people will now have to engage with the scheme.
The Human Rights Law Centre said estimates showed the changes would mean an “expected expansion” to the “punitive and flawed program” of about 9,000 people.
The scheme came under fire in 2019 after a Senate inquiry and a series of Guardian Australia stories highlighted problems with the scheme and campaigning from women’s groups prompted the government to attempt to blunt some of its harsher aspects.
Before the program, those on parenting payment – who have children younger than eight – were not required to meet such activity obligations, meaning there was little threat their payments could be suspended or stopped.
The program introduced a requirement that participants must undertake a specific activity, and the threat that failing to complete them, or to attend catch-up meetings with a ParentsNext provider, could result in a payment suspension.
While the activities are supposed to include education or training courses, Guardian Australia has reported on instances of women having their payments suspended because they did not attend playgroup or “story time” at the local library.
Economic Justice Australia (EJA), which represents community legal centres that specialise in social security, gave the example of one woman whose payments were suspended because she missed an appointment while with her son in hospital.
EJA said Jane’s ParentsNext provider refused to exempt the women from the program, despite her son having severe disabilities.
It was only after she sought help from a community legal centre that the woman was able to get a 13-week exemption and have her payments reinstated.
“She was left without any means of support for herself and her child, unable to buy food, medicine or other essentials,” EJA’s submission said.
In another case, a woman who only spoke Mandarin and was experiencing family violence was not exempted from the program until a support worker intervened.
Guardian Australia reported on a similar case in 2019, while one whistleblower alleged that staff at the provider they worked at were encouraged not to grant exemptions as it resulted in fewer payments from the government.
Domestic Violence Victoria told the inquiry the targeted compliance framework, which imposes payment suspensions and “demerit points” on participants, should not apply to ParentsNext.
It said experiences of family violence should also be grounds for a permanent exemption from the program.
The National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children said women were also retraumatised by having to telling their stories in order to be granted a reprieve from the scheme.
“NCSMC still hear from women who have been referred to a provider, despite Services Australia knowing that they are affected by family and domestic violence,” its submission said.
“More often the onus is on victim/survivor of violence to try and navigate the system without support or knowing the rules.”
The Australian Council of Social Service (Acoss) was among the groups that warned that Indigenous participants were disproportionately affected by the program.
Its analysis found that while First Nations people made up 18% of participants, they made up 61% of people who had received four demerits points, and therefore at least four payment suspensions.
Acoss said the use of the targeted compliance framework caused “undue stress and harm”.
“It operates inflexibly by imposing rigid requirements on parents without regard for the burden of caring for very young children,” it said.
The Department of Employment said in its submission that the changes would “better support those parents most in need, ensuring all participants have access to financial assistance to help them achieve their education and employment goals”.
It said the government had made a number of changes that reduced the number of payment suspensions applied, and that more than 12,000 parents had a temporary exemption, showing that the program was “flexible”.
“The ParentsNext trial evaluation showed participants had significantly higher rates of wellbeing, more positive views about work, and higher rates of work, study and childcare usage (compared with similar parents who did not participate),” it said.
However, the 2018 evaluation found “quantifying the program effect of ParentsNext was difficult”.