Groups applaud Queensland Government’s move to pull out of punitive and wasteful truants scheme

The Queensland Government should be applauded for its decision to withdraw from a Commonwealth scheme that punishes families by suspending the welfare payments of parents of truant children, say peak welfare groups.

The Australian Council of Social Service along with its state counterpart the Queensland Council of Social Service, and the National Welfare Rights Network today praised the decision and suggested that Queensland should go further and pull out of the Income Management trials due to start on July 1, 2012 in Logan and Rockhampton.

“There is widespread opposition to extending SEAM – the School Enrolment Attendance Measure – which allows for cuts to the welfare payments of parents whose kids do not attend school. Queensland has done the right thing in pulling out of the scheme,” said ACOSS CEO, Dr Cassandra Goldie. “There is also little support for extending income management to six communities outside the Northern Territory.

“A recent evaluation of SEAM commissioned by the Federal Government found that cutting income support payments had a temporary effect at best on school attendance, and that interviews with social workers and truant officers where individual plans to improve attendance were drawn up and supports were offered with problems like bullying at school, had a more lasting impact.

“We’ve been urging the Commonwealth to engage with state and Territory Governments, peak bodies, and communities on measures that work best to improve school attendance, employment and social conditions in particular areas,” Dr Goldie said.

QCOSS Director Mark Henley said, “We support the positive steps to improve engagement between schools and local communities that are being pursued in Queensland, such as programs to provide breakfast before school and school buses, and funding guidance officers, attendance officers, chaplains and community liaison officers.

“This is the way forward, working constructively with families to change attitudes towards school attendance, not simply punishing them. We also urge the State Government to push for the removal of Logan and Rockhampton from the income management scheme due to commence in July.

“State Governments already have the capacity to fine parents whose children don’t attend school. Withdrawing social security payments when children don’t attend school is likely to impoverish families further and it has not proven to be effective,” Mr Henley said.

Maree O’Halloran, President, National Welfare Rights Network said, “punishing parents when their children don’t attend school has not proven to be effective, nor has income quarantining. And we know that it’s extremely expensive costing an average of $200,000 per school. Imagine what you could do with that.

“SEAM is a very expensive program. The 2010-11 Budget provided an extra $3.4 million to extend SEAM for one year, bringing the total allocation to $28.2 million. That kind of money could be better spent on more constructive, workable alternatives that will have positive longer term impacts. Programs such as better case management and support programs that will help parents overcome barriers to school attendance, as well as help people overcome financial management problems and addictions,” Ms O’Halloran said.

“Now this costly and wasteful Income Management scheme is being extended to five regions around the country from 1 July despite a critical Commonwealth Ombudsman report last week finding that people were being ‘income managed’ simply because they had applied for urgent payments from Centrelink due to financial hardship.

“It is inevitable that many people on social security payments – as little as $36 a day for Newstart Allowance – experience financial hardship. Many of Centrelink’s decisions to place people on income management because they were ‘vulnerable’ were found to be ‘unreasonable’ or made without sufficient documentation,” Ms O’Halloran said.

“Such a record does little to instil confidence in a scheme that will cost around $6,000 per person assisted, and state governments would do well to rethink their involvement in the roll out of income management in their jurisdictions,” Dr Goldie said.

“We know that opposition to income management is growing, not only in the new locations to be impacted after 1 July 2012 and in communities already under the regime operating in the Northern Territory (NT). For instance, Central Australian Aboriginal communities have joined their counterparts in Arnhem Land in opposing the Federal Government’s continuation of the NT intervention,” Dr Goldie said.

“The Government has also failed to refer the ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation – which extends these schemes in the NT to the human rights committee – a key demand of many organisations, including Australia’s First People’s Congress, the peak representative Aboriginal body that is funded to provide feedback and advice to the Federal Government.

“The Queensland Government’s move today vindicates criticism of the SEAM program. Unless the Commonwealth starts listening to groups and communities on the ground on what really works, state Governments should not simply be expected to go along with measures that have no sound policy basis,” Dr Goldie concluded.

Media Contacts:
Fernando de Freitas, ACOSS – 0419 626 155
Ian Wynne, QCOSS – 0414 643 122
Maree O’Halloran, NWRN – 0417 672 104