Although ParentsNext is asserted to be a supportive program that helps parents of young children work towards their education and employment goals, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee (the committee) has received extensive evidence that the program is causing anxiety, distress and harm for many of its participants. In fact, many have argued that ParentsNext is causing more harm than good.
At the heart of the issue are several key aspects, including the compulsory nature of ParentsNext, its use of the Targeted Compliance Framework to monitor and record participation, the sense of control it places over participants' lives, its gender bias, and the confusion around its purpose and aims.
The committee considers that these flaws indicate fundamental changes need to be made to ParentsNext and its approach.
The recommendations made in this chapter seek to address these concerns.
The committee recommends that the ParentsNext program should not continue in its current form.
Members of the committee have addressed their recommendations in relation to the Targeted Compliance Framework in the Additional Comments to the majority report.
Designing a pre-employment program for the future
The committee recognises that there is significant confusion about the purpose of the ParentsNext program and about what pre-employment support should be.
ParentsNext is not an employment program, nor is it a parenting program, but the committee acknowledges that elements of both may be appropriate and necessary in supporting parents to achieve their education and employment goals.
For many parents receiving Parenting Payment, undertaking or working towards paid employment while their children are young is complicated by factors such as single parenthood, relationship breakdowns, language barriers, access to child care, and the lack of suitable, flexible and ongoing employment for people with caring responsibilities.
The committee believes, based on evidence received in this inquiry, that ParentsNext has not been designed in a way which acknowledges or addresses these structural barriers to workforce participation.
Additionally, the committee is concerned about the significant evidence it received that the ParentsNext national expansion was not informed by the evaluation of the program's trial or by any meaningful consultation with expert stakeholders or the parents who the program would affect.
For this reason, the committee agrees with the recommendation from many experts and advocates that the design of ParentsNext needs to be reviewed and repositioned as part of broader Australian Government strategies to increase workforce participation of women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The committee considers that pre-employment support for parents needs to be tailored to the needs of the participant and their family, should include activities appropriate for their circumstances and their goals, and be backed up with adequate financial support.
The committee recommends that ParentsNext be reshaped, through a process of co-design with parents and experts, into a more supportive pre-employment program which meets the needs of parents and acknowledges and addresses the structural barriers to employment which they face.
The committee suggests that some of the aspects to consider in designing a future pre-employment program include:
what is required to support parents of young children, particularly women, in achieving their education and employment goals and how those supports might differ depending on factors such as personal circumstances, cultural background and stage of life;
what the criteria for identifying parents for referral to pre-employment services should be, including what the appropriate age for their youngest child should be at the time of the referral;
whether pre-employment support is a social service rather than an employment service, and therefore better suited to delivery by social services organisations with greater expertise in working with parents, children and vulnerable populations, rather than employment service providers;
how linkages to specialised services—such as parenting courses, programs for survivors of domestic violence, disability services, or English language courses—can be better leveraged by service providers to support participants' needs;
what appropriate levels of financial support for participants should be, including for course fees, transport and childcare costs, and whether these should be based on the individual participants' needs rather than location;
how pre-employment programs can ensure the privacy and safety of their participants; and
whether a program like ParentsNext should be expanded to address structural barriers to employment and support pre-employment goals for other groups of disadvantaged and vulnerable recipients of social security payments, such as carers, people with disability, and older workers.
Making immediate improvements to ParentsNext
The committee believes that it is vital that ParentsNext continues in a manner which is safe, appropriate and centred on the needs of the individual participant.
The committee is of the view that there are a small number of immediate changes which can be made to ParentsNext to improve the program both for those parents who are participating now and for those who participate in the future.
The committee believes that the practical implementation of ParentsNext by government agencies and contracted providers since the national rollout has only compounded some of the fears and concerns held by parents who have been referred to the program.
The committee is concerned about ongoing reports of the failure of government agencies and providers to clearly communicate to participants, what ParentsNext is, what their responsibilities are to participate in the program, and what their rights are in relation to exemptions, privacy, goal-setting and activity selection, particularly at the time of referral. The committee is also concerned that the information given to participants does not appear to be consistent between sources, leading to confusion and frustration in understanding how ParentsNext works.
The committee believes that is important to ensure that communication with participants is conducted in easy-to-understand language that clearly explains what the program is and what is required of participants. This may include, but is not limited to, information for participants which:
identifies ParentsNext as a pre-employment program and explains what this means and how it is different to an employment service;
sets out what activities may be included in participation plans and emphasises the role of the participant in selecting those activities;
includes information about participants' rights to privacy, including their right to withhold consent to the collection of their personal information; and
gives guidance on how personal information may be used in the program.
The committee recommends that Centrelink, the Department of Jobs and Small Business and all ParentsNext providers review their strategies for communication with ParentsNext participants to ensure that messaging is consistent and clearly sets out what the program is, what is required of participants and participants' rights under the program.
The committee recognises that the Department of Jobs and Small Business has taken steps to remind providers that parents are not required to sign a Privacy Notification and Consent form (privacy waiver) in order to participate in the ParentsNext.
However, the committee holds serious concerns about the number of reports received during the inquiry that providers have continued to pressure parents into signing a privacy waiver despite this advice, particularly through threats of payment suspensions.
The committee recommends that the Department of Jobs and Small Business consider sanctions against ParentsNext providers who are found to have pressured or coerced participants into signing the Privacy Notification and Consent form, or have suspended a participant's payment by recording 'Misconduct' for an appointment when they refused to sign the form.
The committee also acknowledges that ParentsNext is likely to have a high number of participants from vulnerable backgrounds or who have specific needs. These participants may include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, parents who are experiencing or have experienced domestic and family violence, parents with disability or who care for someone who does, and parents who have language or other cultural barriers to participation.
The committee strongly believes that providers, now and into the future, have a responsibility to ensure that the services they provide to these participants are safe, supportive and appropriate to their needs. However, the committee recognises that not all ParentsNext providers may have the specialised knowledge required to help these participants.
The committee recommends that ParentsNext providers ensure that their employees are trained in areas such as disability awareness, cultural sensitivity and domestic and family violence to ensure that the services they deliver and the activities to which they refer participants are appropriate, sensitive and suitable to the needs of the individual.
The committee further recommends that where a ParentsNext provider does not have the specialised knowledge to provide appropriate pre-employment services to a participant with specific needs, participants should be referred to another ParentsNext provider, or an alternative pre-employment or social service program, which does.