‘Demeaning’ crackdown on single mothers scrapped, budget papers reveal

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

The government has scrapped a “demeaning” crackdown that forced thousands of welfare recipients – the majority of whom were single mothers – to get a witness to verify their relationship status, after few people were found flouting the rules.

Guardian Australia revealed last year that only 950 people, or 1.3% of a total 75,000 welfare recipients subjected to review, had been found to be breaking the rules between January 2018 and November 2019.

That paled in comparison to government estimates that the crackdown would reap $93.7m over five years by finding 7,400 single parents were in a relationship and therefore receiving a higher rate of payments than they were entitled.

On Tuesday night the budget papers revealed that the government would “cease third party verification of parents claiming parenting payment and jobseeker payment”.

Related: Budget 2021: fewer jobseekers to have face-to-face meetings as $860m cut from employment services

The budget papers noted that the measure had not been in operation since November 2019 due to the 2019-20 bushfires and ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the move to abandon the policy also comes as the government faces pressure from women’s groups.

Under social security law, a single parent is someone not in a de facto relationship, a marriage, or a registered relationship, such as a civil union. A person on single parenting payment receives about $280 extra a fortnight, while a single jobseeker gets about $50 more.

“Third-party verification” forced welfare recipients to ask a “referee” to sign a statutory declaration confirming that the person was not in relationship. Welfare groups described the policy as “intrusive, offensive and demeaning”.

In campaigning against the policy, the National Council for Single Mothers and Their Children argued that there was a double standard applied to low-income women compared with federal politicians, who are able to “self-determine” the classification of their relationships in making expenses claims.

Its chief executive, Terese Edwards, said in a 2018 letter to the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, that the requirements allowed Centrelink to “police women’s relationship status”.

“We remain concerned for women who have left a violent partner and/or women who require greater privacy as well as women who do not have a ‘trusted third party’, noting that the third party cannot be a family member,” she wrote at the time.

On Wednesday the Greens senator Rachel Siewert said the “insidious measure was overbearing” and “invaded the privacy of women”.

“I am extremely relieved that the government has given up their invasive attack on single parents that required them to find a third party to ‘verify’ their relationship status in order to receive a single parenting income support payment,” she said.

“The way this government treats single parents, the majority of whom are women, is appalling.

“The government thinks that because women are sole parents, they need to be subjected to compliance-based programs, heavily monitored and punished.”

Kristen O’Connell, a spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, said she was “relieved” the “absolutely horrendous” policy had been scrapped.

But she noted that the government was still spending extra money on compliance, which was “PR exercise” aimed at using those on welfare as a “political football”.

The budget papers show that the government will provide an extra $27.6m over five years from 2020-21 to extend the Taskforce Integrity welfare compliance program.

The budget papers say the taskforce will undertake “prevention, detection, investigation and recoveries of debts relating to complex fraud and serious non-compliance against the social security payments system, as well as enablers of fraud such as identity crime”.

Past responses to questions on notice show the taskforce was provided $10.7m in the 2019-20 financial year, and recovered $9.22m in welfare payments over the same period.

The response noted that other recipients were on repayment plans, meaning the money more money would be recovered over time.

In 2019 the government scrapped a similar policy to conduct 90,000 disability support pension reviews because far fewer people had been found ineligible than originally expected.