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Sue Bradford DPB Bill Speech

Greens Give Tentative Support For DPB Bill But Hold Concern - Sue Bradford Speech

20 December 2001

Social Security (Working Towards Employment) Amendment Bill First Reading Speech

Mr Speaker

This is a curious and rather unfortunate Bill which mixes a few much needed reforms to the benefit system with several other features which are quite adverse in their impact. Because of our mixed feelings about this Social Security (Working Towards Employment) Amendment Bill, the Green Party is committed to supporting it to the Select Committee stage only. Whether we vote for the Bill after that point will depend very much on whether some quite significant changes can be made to it during the committee process.

Our first big problem is with the name of the Bill. 'Working Towards Employment' makes it sound as though the whole Government focus will be on getting sole parents on the DPB back into the paid workforce. This raises some really fundamental questions about the Government's true intentions, and its attitude towards people whose primary occupation is caring for children at home.

I applaud the fact that this Bill ends work testing for DPB beneficiaries, something that was introduced under the 1990s National Government as part of its overall drive towards what I'll loosely call the Wisconsin model, in which the thrust of welfare policy is in favour of time limited benefits and towards getting as many people back into paid jobs as possible, no matter their personal situation or how undesirable the work.

In the Wisconsin model, caring for children at home is seen as a simply unacceptable occupation if one happens to be in need of welfare assistance. Those lucky enough to have a husband or wife who can support them while they take on fulltime mothering or fathering retain the choice of fulltime parenthood or not - the rest are condemned to a life of struggling to survive on the axis between childcare, housework and paid employment.

I question the ideology of our current Government who claim in so much of their policy development and legislation to value women and their work, but at the same time appear to put such a priority on getting solo parents, mainly mothers, out of the home and into external employment. We're not in World War Two now - we don't have a manpower shortage with all the men away fighting - so I fail to see the necessity to conscript into the paid workforce people who are mainly mothers with children at home.

This Bill does do away with work testing of people on the DPB, but it introduces instead a new sanctions regime under which up to half the benefit can be lost if people don't sufficiently comply with their personal Working Towards Employment plan.

In other words, the focal point of the first part of the Bill is the notion that from the day a person first becomes a single parent, whether through the birth of a child or children, or through separation, divorce or death, and applies for the DPB, they will be expected to work with their Work and Income appointed case manager on their personal Working Towards Employment plan.

Even if it is not absolutely the Government's intention, what comes through to many solo parents with this Bill is the notion that paid work is something they have to be gearing themselves up to do from the first day of single parenthood. Well, I challenge this.

Firstly, as a society should we not be doing more to value the work of mothers and homemakers, rather than less? Bringing up secure, happy, healthy, well educated children from the day of their birth is surely a goal all of us would aim for, no matter what side of the political or economic fence we sit on.

We talk a lot of platitudes about how much we love our children while we abandon, neglect, abuse and kill in them in dreadful quantities. We talk too of the Knowledge Wave and how we want all our young people to leave school with a good head start on life.

Well all this begins at home, and I think there's all the proof in the world for that.

A brief look at the history of the last hundred years shows clearly the gay abandon with which male dominated societies have chosen when to push women into and out of the home - isn't it about time mothers actually had a choice about whether we stay at home when our children need us most, or whether we go out into the workforce?

Is it right that that choice should rest solely on whether we're single or in a relationship with a partner who can afford to keep us?

The Government says that Working Towards Employment doesn't necessarily mean that all such plans will include paid work as an immediate option. That's fine, but I say that if you are genuinely going to look at each situation, and give people real choices, then the name of the Bill itself must be changed to reflect the fact that it's not just about paid work, along with corollary references to the name throughout the body of the legislation.

One of the fiscal impacts of this Bill is that evidently it will cost the Government millions of dollars extra to hire a whole raft of new case managers to ensure that all these solo parents are attending interviews and complying with their Working Towards Employment plans.

If the Government is so keen in this time of budgetary difficulty to put more money into case managers, and into getting beneficiaries back into paid work, how about putting the resource where I believe it's needed most - into helping people who are registered unemployed?

At the moment only a small proportion of people who are officially out of work get consistent and substantial vocational guidance and careers advisory support from the Dept of Work and Income.

If there is extra money about for these kind of purposes, as a priority it should go towards a system whereby everyone who is registered with the Department of Work and Income as unemployed gets quality vocational support from the day their name first goes onto the books, right up until the time they find a job.

Often the period when people can most easily get a new job is when they first become unemployed or re-enter the workforce, but at present the focus is very much on assisting those who have been out of work six months or more. Both groups of unemployed people could do with extra help now, not just one or the other, and not just partially.

It seems both silly and tragic that a Labour / Alliance Government should prioritise pushing people on the DPB towards an overarching goal of paid employment, when there are literally hundreds of thousands of unemployed people desperate to work.

The second part of the Bill which I'm particularly concerned about is in the area around payments that are debts due to the Crown. While this is undoubtedly a very complex area of the law, it was immediately apparent on first reading the Bill that there is something very fishy going on here. It appears that it is the Government's intention to once again use the blunt instrument of legislation to ride roughshod over recent court decisions, in this particular instance over the High Court cases of Moody and Worrall.

The effect of the Moody decision was that an error which was made by a departmental staff member did not have to be a culpable error for the consequent overpayment to fall within the ambit of section 86(9A) of the Social Security Act - that is, when a beneficiary is overpaid as a result of a departmental error, they should not be automatically expected to repay it.

The new section in this bill around clause 21, by redefining error, proposes to restore the pre Moody situation, leading to manifest inequity for beneficiaries trapped in circumstances beyond their control, and which are in fact due to mistakes made through no fault on the beneficiary's part.

This clause also creates serious difficulties in terms of the Bill of Rights Act. Without going into further complexity of detail right now, suffice to say that a further impact of this section, if passed, would be that beneficiaries would be placed in a less favourable position legally than anyone else in our country in terms of requirements to repay debt.

I am unsure as to whether the Government clearly understood the ramifications of these proposed changes to the debt recovery regime when the Bill was drafted, and I have received assurances from them that they will seriously consider major improvements to this section during the Select Committee process. I hope this is indeed the case, otherwise chances of Green Party support for the eventual passage of this Bill will be much diminished.

On a more positive note, there are aspects of this Bill which the Green Party welcomes, including:

* The introduction of a single abatement regime for DPB and Widows' beneficiaries who are in full time and part time paid work; * Increased assistance for single parents on the DPB with planning for training, education, and childcare needs; * The introduction of a regulation-making power which will enable debt write off to support during periods like the transition from the benefit to paid employment, and; * The allowance of discretion to extend entitlement of superannuation and veterans' pensions to help prevent debts arising after the death of recipients.

As can be seen, this Bill is very much a mixed blessing. I hope that the Select Committee will receive a wide range of public submissions to help all parties clarify the complex issues raised. I also hope that this Bill will assist in reopening the debate in our society about the expectations we place on parents caring for young children on their own. Should we automatically treat single parents as lepers, as bludgers, because they have no partner?

If we're so keen on allocating extra resources into job readiness, wouldn't it be just as valid to put money into some kind of mass 'Table for Six' programme, in which solo parents would be regularly encouraged to mix with members of the opposite sex in the hope that they'd be paired off in the shortest possible time?

In conclusion, I'd just like to say that I hope the Select Committee allows a decent period of time for submissions and doesn't try to cut the process short as has happened all too frequently on other bills. There are issues of considerable consequence raised by this legislation - I look forward to the submissions and the debates, and hope that we will come up with a reformed Bill which will work better in the long run for everyone concerned.


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