The Australian Human Rights Commission has expressed serious concerns about the ParentsNext program, in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry.
ParentsNext is a compulsory, punitive pre-employment program that applies to targeted recipients of the Parenting Payment.
It affects some of the most disadvantaged parents and children in Australia, with potentially severe financial and human rights impacts. This includes parents who are single mothers already living close to or below the poverty line, who rely on the Parenting Payment to afford basic necessities.
ParentsNext participants must comply with a plan containing parenting and pre-vocational goals. This includes regularly meeting with a program provider and undertaking compulsory activities.
A failure to comply can result in the suspension, reduction or cancellation of Parenting Payments. As a result, parents and young children may be unable to afford essential goods and services.
In its submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, the Commission has considered the aims, safeguards and impacts of ParentsNext, from a human rights perspective.
The Commission acknowledges the intended and important objectives of ParentsNext, to reduce welfare dependency and long-term unemployment, decrease intergenerational joblessness, increase female participation in the labour force and meet Closing the Gap targets.
However, it considers that certain aspects of ParentsNext are manifestly inconsistent with Australia’s human rights obligations. 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.
The disproportionate impact of ParentsNext on women and Indigenous Australians raises serious concerns about the right to equality and non-discrimination. Women, children and Indigenous Australians are disproportionately affected by the program, with women comprising around 96% of the 68,000 participants, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising around 19% or 14,000 participants.
Among its eight recommendations, the Commission has called for the program be voluntary and opt-in rather than mandatory, and for the removal of the Targeted Compliance Framework so that participants cannot be subject to suspension, reduction or cancellation of their Parenting Payment.
The Commission has recommended the Government ensure appropriate engagement with and the inclusion of Indigenous communities and Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations in the design, oversight and operation of ParentsNext, to allow for self-determination and participation in decision making.
It has also called for the Government to provide information about its plan to address the structural barriers for participants of ParentsNext, including the resources it has committed to keeping families above the poverty line, ensuring access to education, affordable childcare and healthcare, recognising the value of unpaid care, and meaningful consultation with affected groups including Indigenous Australians.