Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has extended the controversial ParentsNext scheme for another three years, on the same day that mutual obligations for the program resumes.
The ParentsNext scheme aims to assist 75,000 low-income or unemployed parents, who are mostly single mothers, who have children below six years old.
However, the program has been found to have wrongly denied payments to participants and has been described by the Human Rights Commission to be “punitive” and “manifestly inconsistent” with Australia’s human rights obligations.
In some instances, parents had payments docked for failing to attend “story time sessions” and survivors of domestic violence were forced to retell their stories – sometimes in front of children – to continue receiving payments, The Conversation reported.
Even the provider of ParentsNext, Jobs Australia, has also asked the government to remove compliance requirements from the scheme.
While parents are not required to seek a job under the program, they are typically required to participate in local activities and support services, which can be counselling, financial advice, parenting courses, further education, training or volunteering. These mutual obligations were paused during Covid-19.
If a participant fails to meet the agreements, their Parenting Payment – currently $1,043.10 for single parents – can be suspended.
About a fifth of participants in the scheme are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; another fifth that are culturally and linguistically diverse, and 12 per cent have a disability, The Conversation has revealed.
“The aim of ParentsNext is to help break the cycle of intergenerational welfare dependency, increase female labour force participation and help Close the Gap in Indigenous employment,” states the Department of Education, Skills and Employment.
Mutual obligation requirements reinstated
While mutual obligation requirements were scrapped during the pandemic, the obligations return as of Monday 28 September 2020. Requirements for Victorian parents remain “voluntary”, however.
It means parents have to attend ParentsNext appointments every three months, which are either face to face, over the phone or online.
A ‘Participation Plan’ has to also be negotiated and agreed upon, and the activities that are agreed on need to be performed and reported on.
But last year, figures released by Greens senator Rachel Siewert found that more than 80 per cent of participants on ParentsNext had payments suspended unfairly, The Guardian reported.
And Australia’s own Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has “expressed serious concerns” about the “punitive” program.
“It considers that certain aspects of ParentsNext are manifestly inconsistent with Australia’s human rights obligations,” it said in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry.
“These concerns relate to the right to social security, the right to equality and non-discrimination and children’s rights. The punitive compliance approach also risks entrenching and exacerbating poverty and inequality in Australia.”
Women and indigenous Australians are also disproportionately impacted by ParentsNext, the Commission said.
The AHRC has called for the program to be opt-in instead, rather than mandatory, and for the compliance framework to be removed so participants aren’t at risk of losing payments.
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