The Albanese government’s failure to wind up the controversial ParentsNext program is not consistent with its commitment to gender equity, women’s advocates argue.
In submissions to a parliamentary inquiry investigating the employment services system, several key women’s and domestic violence groups called for the $110m-a-year pre-employment program to be made voluntary or scrapped entirely.
ParentsNext requires some people on parenting payments with children as young as nine months to attend an outsourced job agency for careers guidance and support. They can have their payments suspended if they do not attend compulsory activities, which range from vocational education to playgroups or storytime. The majority of participants are single mothers.
While supporters of the scheme argue it has put participants on a path towards employment and breaks the cycle of disadvantage, critics say it has caused stress, anxiety and financial harm and, in extreme cases, re-traumatised victim-survivors of domestic violence. They also argue the premise of the scheme does not acknowledge that parenting is work.
The executive of the National Council for Single Mothers and Their Children, Terese Edwards, said it should be an “absolute scandal” the program was still going.
“This program is a contradiction to Labor’s commitment to gender equity,” Edwards said.
“I get regular messages, emails and phone calls on ParentsNext,” Edwards said. “By the time a participant has located me, they are already in absolute trauma over the program.”
Edwards said one recent case included a woman who was eligible for an exemption instead being made to attend appointments while she was about to become homeless.
Another woman, who was eligible for an exemption, had her payments suspended because she missed a phone call from her provider while in a university lecture, Edwards said.
“Her payment was put on hold on a Friday. All weekend she was completely stressed and worried,” she said.
The chief executive of domestic violence support and advocacy service Full Stop Australia, Hayley Foster, backed Edwards’ call in a submission to the inquiry. Foster said the program was not consistent with the government’s commitments to end gender-based violence.
“Ultimately we want to see a complete recalibration of the program to move it from a very punitive system to something that is trauma-informed and strength-based,” Foster said.
Other women’s groups that are lobbying the government to make the program voluntary include Australian Women Against Violence Alliance and the Equality Rights Alliance.
The issue of providers failing to exempt participants – potentially due to financial incentives – has long been raised by critics and been covered extensively by Guardian Australia, along with myriad other issues.
The peak body for community legal centres focused on social security law, Economic Justice Australia, said its members dealt with a recent case where a woman’s payments were suspended because she did not attend an activity while her son was in hospital.
It said the woman was eventually granted an exemption after a legal centre intervened, but earlier she was “left without any means of support for herself and her child, unable to buy food, medicine or other essentials”.
While some complaints relate to the failure of providers to apply the guidelines of the program, the rules themselves – in particular the use of payment suspensions to compel people to complete activities – have come in for sustained criticism.
The number of payment suspensions in the ParentsNext scheme are low compared to mainstream employment services system. Payment suspensions are supposed to be lifted once a person “re-engages” with their provider, which can mean attending a catch-up meeting.
But in some cases welfare payments are delayed by several days before this occurs, which critics say causes immediate financial stress to those on low incomes.
Some ParentsNext providers argued in submissions to a Senate inquiry last year that use of payment suspension in the program were necessary and used with “discretion” but others said they were of “no value”.
Edwards said the program was “premised on a belief that if you live in financial hardship or live in an area with financial hardship that you will not have aspirations and dreams unless you’re compelled and frightened and forced”.
She said a voluntary careers hub would be a better, with the money saved put into a funding pool to help single mothers to achieve their career goals.
Last year, Labor moved to make the scheme voluntary last year while in opposition. The Greens also support the program’s abolition.
The chair of the current Workforce Australia inquiry and Labor backbencher, Julian Hill, acknowledged ParentsNext had become “highly controversial”.
“We are interested in hearing what aspects work, how it can help someone to get a secure job, and what action may be needed given concerns expressed by participants and stakeholders,” he said.
The employment minister, Tony Burke, ordered the inquiry to investigate ParentsNext.
Burke and the National Employment Services Association were approached for comment.