Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Legistlation Amendment (Schooling Requirements) Bill 2008

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

Second Reading Speech

Ms MACKLIN (Jagajaga – Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs)

I thank the House for the opportunity to sum up the second reading debate on the Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (Schooling Requirements) Bill 2008 following its introduction by the Minister for Education. For the benefit of the member for Fadden, who has just spoken, I reassure him that most of what he said is wrong and I will go through all the details of that in my summing up remarks so that he can correct the record when he is speaking to his constituents. The same applies to the member for Dunkley. I thought it was unfortunate that he finished his remarks on a very personal case which related to some people in his electorate who very much deserve our support. I can respond here – and, of course, I will respond in writing as well – by saying that he would be aware, because the rules for grandparents have been in place all the time that he has been in the parliament, that people who are on an income support pension can receive the grandparent childcare benefit which pays the gap in childcare costs. Grandparents also receive all the family tax benefits for the child if they are assuming the care of the child. These are very difficult issues faced by grandparents who have the task of taking on the care of their children. I think it is appropriate that these matters be dealt with in a much more sensitive manner than the member for Dunkley chose to do.

The bill represents a very significant step in the government’s broader agenda to reform the welfare system to make sure that we provide the support that families need and to protect vulnerable children. This bill is all about giving effect to measures that were actually announced in the 2008-09 budget under a $17.6 million package of welfare reform initiatives, with this bill enabling implementation of the improving school enrolment and attendance through welfare reform measure. Under the initiative, parents in the trial sites who receive income support will need to give Centrelink evidence that their children are enrolled in school. This will be a condition of receiving the welfare payment. If a school reports that a student is not regularly attending school, that student’s parents may have their income support payments temporarily suspended if they do not take reasonable steps to engage with the school and the school continues to be dissatisfied with the child’s attendance.

The bill gives legislative authority for the trials of these measures. In both June and July I announced the locations of the trial sites in the Northern Territory and in the suburbs around Cannington. Another trial site in another metropolitan area is also under consideration. We expect that these trial sites across Australia will cover around 3,300 children. Without this legislation, these trials would not be able to proceed. If the trials are successful in getting children to school and keeping them in the classroom, the legislation will allow, after a proper evaluation, for the rollout of the policy to other areas.

It has been estimated that around 20,000 Australian children of compulsory school age may not be enrolled or regularly attending school. Many more are not attending school regularly enough to meet any reasonable benchmark. The government’s view is that we have to explore every single avenue available to us to fix this problem. I think it is important that we remember that each and every one of these 20,000 children will have their life opportunities constrained or diminished as a result of not going to school. Part of the way to fix that is to find ways of encouraging greater parental responsibility so that parents are making clear their expectation that their children will go to school.

This is a very important part of our child-centred approach to family policy. We are taking a number of other initiatives in our efforts to make sure that we support disadvantaged families, including the development for the first time of a national child protection framework, our early childhood development agenda, a national plan to reduce violence against women and children, and our homelessness strategy. We have a number of very significant initiatives aimed at making sure that disadvantaged children in particular grow up in happier and healthier families. These strategies are all about making sure we improve support for families.

Consistent with this, we as a government have a responsibility to make sure that the money that is made available from the Commonwealth to families – in this case, welfare payments – is put to the use for which it was intended: that is, to help families provide a safe and supportive environment to raise children. That is why in the 2008-09 budget we had a package of welfare payment reforms designed to assess a range of different approaches to improve the quality of care provided by disadvantaged families to children. I just touch on a few of them. Firstly, there is the approach to income management in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory. That will cost more than $63 million in this year alone. Secondly, we have an agreement with the Western Australian government to implement the income management for child protection measure, under which the Western Australian government for child protection can refer parents who neglect their children to Centrelink for income management of a portion of their payments. That will cost $16.9 million this financial year. Thirdly, we are supporting the introduction of the Cape York welfare reform trials, where welfare payments can be linked to meeting parental and community responsibilities. That will cost $12.6 million this financial year.

The legislation before the House asks that parents meet a basic responsibility that each and every one of us as parents has – to take reasonable steps to make sure that their children are enrolled in and attending school on a regular basis. It does not of course require that children never miss a day of school. Of course we understand that children get sick. We also understand that some children have unsatisfactory school attendance despite the best efforts of their parents. But we do think it is reasonable to require that parents work with the school and education authorities for the benefit of their children.

There is another correction I need to make to comments made by those opposite: the bill does not change the balance of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. Like the child protection measures that we have put in place in trials in Western Australia and in Cape York in Queensland, this bill involves the Commonwealth working in partnership with our state colleagues, each of us using the tools and powers that we have as governments to try and achieve positive outcomes for our children. This government will be introducing this initiative -I gather with the support of the opposition, even though they made a lot of noise along the way. We will be evaluating the initiative along with other welfare reform initiatives, and we will use this evidence to shape our further policy development and implementation. This is a trial.

We know that there are at least 20,000 children either not enrolled at or not attending school, and it is important that we try new approaches and use all of the tools available to us to get those kids to school. We know that issues such as poor school attendance and child neglect do not generally occur in isolation either. There are very strong links between disengagement from school, childhood neglect and other social exclusion factors that come from homelessness, drug and alcohol issues and joblessness. All of these issues together can be helped by this measure. Some critics have argued that the welfare payment reform approach is paternalistic or punitive. I actually see it quite differently. Given the adverse and lifelong consequences of non-attendance at school, I think that we, all of us in this parliament, have a responsibility to use and evaluate the full range of tools that we have at our disposal to improve the life chances of Australian children.

There are a number of misapprehensions about this initiative that have appeared in the debate in the parliament and also in the media. I just want to go through some of them to clarify these issues. First of all, parents will not lose payments where they cannot, after all their best efforts, control their child’s behaviour. This legislation is quite clear that parents should take reasonable steps to ensure their child is enrolled at and attending school. If, despite these steps, a child persists in truanting, this will not affect a parent’s payment. We certainly recognise that, especially as children get older, no matter how hard some parents try, they just cannot get all of their children to school. So if parents are trying their best and if they are doing everything they possibly can that is reasonable to get their kids to school, this measure will not apply to them.

The measure does allow schools who are having difficulty engaging with parents to ask Centrelink to remind parents that they have an obligation to make sure that their children go to school. If parents continue to ignore both the school and Centrelink then normal Centrelink procedures, including payment suspension, will apply. I think this is the other thing that many commentators, including members opposite, do not seem to recognise. It is normal, current Centrelink practice – which existed all through the time of the Howard government as well – that if an income support customer repeatedly fails to engage with Centrelink then their payments can be temporarily suspended for up to 13 weeks. They are the rules now and they were the rules under the previous government; they are rules that are necessary to make sure that people engage in a proper way with Centrelink. It occurs, for example, when there is no response to requests from Centrelink for information about a person’s income or their current address details. Suspension is not the first step; it is the last step. If a family is in this situation, they will be offered case management for support from schools and from Centrelink social workers before any consideration is given to suspension.

Another important correction to make is that suspensions are not designed to last for 13 weeks. In most cases, we actually expect that the suspension will only last for a few days until the parents re-engage with Centrelink and their school. This is the way in which the suspension mechanism currently works with Centrelink in the areas that I have already mentioned. Once the re-engagement with Centrelink and the school occurs, then full back pay for the days that the parent had refused to engage will be provided. In these cases, parents are plainly not going to lose their benefits. The approach is fundamentally different – and this is also an important correction that needs to be made to comments made by those opposite – to the eight-week non-payment period penalty faced by job seekers not meeting their obligations. I think it is critical that those opposite get that right. The privacy of parents on income support will also be respected. Schools will not be given a list of families on income support. The details of how the data exchange will operate are being negotiated with the states, but there certainly will not be a wholesale release of data by Centrelink.

There were some specific questions asked by the member for Warringah. I want to respond to those. He asked whether or not we are going to be able to implement these measures in the trial sites as we have announced. I can inform the House that preparation for these measures is well underway with both the Northern Territory government and the Western Australian government, and the measures are expected to apply from the beginning of the next school year. Once again to respond to the member for Warringah: there are no savings to the budget. No savings have been factored in because, as I have just indicated, where re-engagement by the parent occurs, full back pay is going to be provided. We do expect that parents will respond and make sure that their children go to school. The member for Warringah wonders whether we have agreement with the respective governments. To respond to his third concern: we have got agreement from the Northern Territory and Western Australian governments. We are in the process of developing protocols in the areas where the trials will take place and developing the protocols for the necessary exchange of information. Any suggestion that that has not taken place is just wrong.

It is also critical to make plain that this is not a measure that is targeted at Indigenous children. We recognise that Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in many parts of Australia are not attending school. The trial sites that we have identified in the Cannington district in Perth is in an ordinary suburb in Perth. Even in the communities and towns in the Northern Territory, there is a mixture – Hermannsburg, Wallace Rockhole, Tiwi Islands, the town of Kathryn, Kathryn Town Camps and Wadeye. And, as I mentioned earlier, the final site will also be in a metropolitan area.

Some critics have also argued that we should be working on improving schools and providing more support for children who are struggling rather than focusing on increased parental responsibility – as though the approaches in some way are mutually inconsistent. As far as we are concerned we cannot see any reason why we should not be doing both things at once, and we are. Just last week we say saw the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister setting out our next chapter for the education revolution, improving quality teaching in school, measuring school performance, helping our disadvantaged school communities. All of these areas are critical to improve the quality of education across the country. All those things are necessary, but children are not going to get a world-class education if they do not turn up to school. The measures in this bill will ensure that the education revolution actually works for those children who at the moment are either not enrolled to go to school or not attending on a regular basis. Each and every one of them needs to go to school to make sure they get the advantage of the improvement to education that we are putting in place.

Welfare conditionality linked to school attendance does work best when combined with other support services – that is absolutely true. That is especially the case with direct case management. The school enrolment and attendance trial will in fact be delivered in this way, with Centrelink and schools working very closely with communities. The trials will operate to trigger specific case management where children are not being supported to attend school. Results in the selected locations will be carefully monitored and evaluated to provide an evidence base for us to go ahead in this area. I do think that the trials will also help us to improve child protection systems. We are all very well aware, each and every one of us, of the very distressing cases of neglect or abuse where children involved were not enrolled to go to school. So linking welfare to enrolling children will actually help make sure that those children do not fall through the cracks. If children are at school they are much more likely to come into contact on a daily basis with their teachers and principals, and with Centrelink. And if those children are being subject to abuse they will have a much greater chance for early intervention or rapid response if the teachers know about it.

The government very firmly believes that meeting basic parental responsibilities is a reasonable expectation to place on families receiving welfare payments. We obviously are aware that measures of this kind are controversial but we think they are necessary for a very simple reason: the consequences of not exploring every possible avenue are far too serious to ignore. Financial levers actually work. We have seen that most significantly with the measure the previous government put in place, which I support, where we saw a huge increase in immunisation rates following the introduction of the maternity immunisation allowance and the requirement that parents have their children immunised in order to receive the childcare benefit. So this is what it is all about – linking personal responsibility to financial reward. It can change behaviour. That is what these measures are designed to do. Suspension is a last resort but a necessary element of these reforms.