CANBERRA, July 14 AAP
Parents who neglect their children or allow them to play truant will have income support payments quarantined under welfare reforms that have the government and Labor in partial agreement.
The changes involve Centrelink seizing portions of parents' payments for spending on essentials such as food, clothing and shelter if welfare agencies deem their children to be at risk.
Centrelink will monitor school attendance and take control of families' welfare payments if children repeatedly fail to attend class.
The new rules, announced by Prime Minister John Howard today, build on welfare restrictions applied to indigenous communities in the Northern Territory under the government's election-year crackdown on abuse.
Welfare agencies today expressed doubt about the effectiveness of the changes in tackling the causes of child neglect.
The first Centrelink monitoring of primary school attendance will begin next July and will be extended to high-school attendance by 2010.
Prime Minsiter Howard saidWelfare payments were not intended to let people evade their responsibilities, particularly towards their children. This is about reinforcing an appropriate balance between entitlements and responsibilities in our society.
It is not punitive. It is not taking benefits away. Parents subject to income management will not lose any money and the proportion of government payments that will be managed on their behalf to pay for essential expenses will be tailored on a family basis to ensure that the needs of children are being met.
The federal government plans to hold talks with the states about how to manage payments for parents whose children are assessed by child protection authorities to be at risk.
Mr Howard saidFrom the start of the 2009 school year, parents on income support who have children of primary-school age who are not regularly attending school will be referred for assistance to manage their government payments.
Income management will only be imposed after parents have been warned about unexplained absences and given an opportunity to address these within the family environment.
St Vincent de Paul Society chief executive officer John Falzon was not convinced quarantining welfare payments would help protect children.
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd saidWe have a similar plan for welfare reform. Labor would give child-protection authorities the power to compel neglectful parents to spend part of their welfare cheques on food, rent, electricity and gas bills, school uniforms and books. The vast majority of Australian parents do the right thing by their children, however there is a small section of the community who are unable or unwilling to look after their children.
John Falzon from St Vincent de Paul Society saidWe fear that by demonising parents, in some cases you're not helping children, you're pushing people further to the margins. A policy which focuses on quarantining as the main plank of solving the issues of children who are missing out is, as far as we're concerned, short sighted.
Australian Council of Social Service spokesman Andrew Johnson spoke to Sky News and saidThe government should focus on services such as counselling and rehabilitation, which help protect children from abuse.
What we actually need is targeted programs, greater investment in these programs, to ensure that we are actually giving the children a proper start in life
Brotherhood of St Laurence executive director Tony Nicholson saidDecisions about quarantining welfare payments should rest with child protection agencies, not Centrelink.