Australian charities slam new welfare rules

Monday, June 5, 2006

Australia's biggest charity organisations are refusing to cooperate with the Howard government's welfare reform rules. The federal government expects about 18,000 people a year will lose their payments for eight weeks when the new welfare-to-work regime comes into force on July 1.

Only 23 organisations have signed up to a government registry to "financially case manage" the most vulnerable unemployed, who will be left without income under tougher rules. The Brotherhood of St Laurence has told Fairfax newspapers it will not participate because it believes the welfare shake-up is unjust.

About 18,000 people a year, according to the Government, are expected to lose their benefit for infringements of job search rules. Those with dependants, and those deemed "exceptionally vulnerable," will be eligible for case management by a charity on the government register.

But the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the St Vincent de Paul Society have refused to register. The moral dilemma of whether to become an agent for a policy some believe is "unjust" may be contemplated by the Salvation Army, and others.

Charities will be paid $650 to manage each eligible unemployed person it assigns them, the Government has said. It wants charities to assess a person's "essential" expenses and notify Centrelink, which would then decide whether or not to pay the bills.

Director of UnitingCare Australia Lin Hatfield Dodds said she did not expect many of the 400 agencies in her network to sign up to be case managers. Mission Australia has also not registered. Sue Leppert, executive director of Anglicare Australia, said many of her member agencies would definitely not register and others were grappling with the issue.

Many Australian charities strongly oppose the policy of stripping all income from unemployed people for infringements. There is much concern that sole parents and many disabled people will be diverted from specific pensions to the Newstart Allowance. They will then be subject to stringent job search rules, potential infringements and harsh penalties.

Charities also have been alarmed that under the new policy, people can immediately lose their payment for eight weeks if they refuse a job offer, are dismissed for misconduct, or are voluntarily unemployed.

The executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence Tony Nicholson said the policy was unjust. "First they suffer an eight-week suspension of payment, and to add insult to injury they have to justify to some case manager their expenditure on their meagre income."

Sole parents whose youngest child has turned six, and disabled people who are assessed as capable of working 15 hours per week, will no longer be granted a pension under the Welfare to Work plan.

At the launch of a nation-wide advertising campaign for the government reform, Minister for Human Services Joe Hockey said: "the advertising campaign is part of an education process designed to encourage more people on income support to move into work." "The Howard Government is investing $3.7 billion to deliver greater employment services and other assistance, including rehabilitation, to those people required to look for work," said Minister Hockey.

A spokesman for the Minister said the Government was trying to ensure "rents will be paid and kids won't get tossed out of home" if parents failed to meet their job search obligations.