Quarantining of welfare payments in the best interests of children
Quarantining a proportion of welfare payments to ensure children at risk are fed, housed, clothed and schooled will be discussed with each State and Territory Government at the instigation of the Australian Government.
Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, today made the announcement in an address to the 50th Annual Conference of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS).
"While most of the welfare money provided by the Federal Government to families is used wisely, in some cases we know the benefit does not get to the children," Mr Brough said.
"The reality is that in homes where drugs, alcohol or gambling are a problem, children are often missing out on basic nutrition, secure housing, clothing and education that we all consider a child’s basic right.
"The Australian Government is proposing to allow a proportion of welfare payments, potentially around 40 per cent, to be quarantined to pay for children’s needs in cases where children have been identified at risk of neglect. This proposal will provide another tool to child protection authorities."
Mr Brough proposed three steps that he wishes to enter into discussions about with State Governments:
- Providing for mandatory use of the current Centrepay allotment tool in cases already identified by State Child Protection systems where there is a risk to the child but the child remains with their family. The current tool, allows welfare to be allocated to housing and utilities on a voluntary basis.
- Further development, in conjunction with state authorities and service deliverers, for quarantined payments to be further differentiated for food, clothing, education and other specific needs and allocated to families using more refined debit systems.
- Application of the quarantining provisions in cases of serial truancy, given the synergy between truancy and welfare cycles and between truancy and neglect. This proposal builds on the recent COAG commitment by State and National leaders to reinforce compulsory school education.
Mr Brough said that his proposal did not take one cent of welfare from families, but simply limited the discretion over a portion of welfare where there is an identified risk to a child, to ensure that the child actually gets the benefit of the payments.
"Technology already exists that allows for payments to be directed to basic needs and the first step is simply allowing for better use of this tool in a mandatory fashion," Mr Brough said.
"We also know already that a number of community sector bodies already use debit cards in lieu of cash for their own emergency relief payments so there is not really any deep seated principle that suggests debit systems are inappropriate and those at the coal-face often share my concern about the danger of putting cash in the hands of those with dysfunctions like substance abuse and problem gambling.
"We have also had discussions with some major retailers to assess that there are current technologies that may be appropriate for this need."
Mr Brough said that over the five years between 1999-00 and 2004-05, child protection notifications across Australia more than doubled from around 107,000 to 253,000. The number of substantiated cases had also nearly doubled from around 25,000 to 46,000 with a number of State agencies having admitted that they had increasing outstanding investigations.
"Without doubt the protection of children in Australia is a difficult area of public policy and one with which both sides of politics at some time or another have struggled," Mr Brough said.
"The Australian Government is offering just one more tool to those at the coalface facing a growing challenge.
"Decent clothing, housing, nutrition and full school attendance is something all children should consider their right.
"This is not a silver bullet, it is not a fix-all, rather another weapon in the armoury to protect our children," Mr Brough said. "And I felt it was important to bring State and Territory Governments and the welfare sector to the table as we progressed this proposal designed to help children at risk."