Job seeker: Single mum Emma Faulkner with sons Heath, 6, and Hayden, 2. Photo: James AlcockThe childcare sector is concerned that up to 100,000 Australian families may have to pull their children out of childcare because of tough new requirements about the number of hours their parents will need to work to get childcare subsidies.
The Abbott government is considering a Productivity Commission proposal that would require both parents working or studying for 24 hours a fortnight to qualify for childcare subsidies.
While those in the childcare sector are comfortable with government plans to streamline childcare payments in an upcoming families package, the idea of increasing work hours for parents is a sticking point.
Bodies such as Early Childhood Australia and major childcare providers are concerned that parents, including new mums trying to break back into the job market, will not be able to afford to keep their children in childcare. There are also concerns some childcare centres will close.
Parents are currently able to access 24 hours of the means-tested Child Care Benefit per child each week without having to meet a work or study test. The non-means-tested Child Care Rebate requires both partners to work or train “at some time” during the week, but there is no minimum number of hours required.
For Emma Faulkner, a single mother of Heath (six) and Hayden (nearly three) from Mt Druitt, childcare support enabled her to graduate from a nursing degree on Friday. Now she hopes it will allow her to look for and hold down a job.
Ms Faulkner says any activity test changes could make it harder for her to get work and keep her childcare spot for Hayden, while she gets her “foot in the door” through casual shifts.
While she may be eligible for extra protections as a single parent, the uncertainty about the new system is a worry.
“If I lose the childcare and I’m out of the childcare system, it’s very hard to get back in there.”
The childcare sector is worried that forcing parents to work more hours would hurt casual and seasonal workers and parents in areas with poor job opportunities, along with mums returning from maternity leave. According to an analysis of the Productivity Commission’s childcare report by advocacy group The Parenthood, about 16 per cent of mothers with young children work less than 24 hours a fortnight.
The Early Learning and Care Council, representing the country’s biggest childcare providers, said the idea that parents must work 24 hours a fortnight so their children could be in childcare was “fundamentally flawed”.
“If the benchmark is too high it was will actually discourage workforce participation,” its co-chairman Tom Hardwick said.
Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page said the government needed to provide two days of care to children a week, regardless of their parents’ situation.
“Removing access to quality services for children, particularly those who are vulnerable, would significantly impact on children’s development,” she said.
Social Services Minister Scott Morrison cautioned that “speculation” families will be forced out of childcare is “not based on any actual government proposals” and is “needlessly causing anxiety”.
He said it was important to remember that the Productivity Commissions’s recommendation “does not represent government policy” and that his new families package would include a specific safety net for disadvantaged groups.
But Mr Morrison also stressed that he wanted to see more parents working.
“Where families are able to engage in work or study or seek to be in work then it is only reasonable to expect them to do so, if they wish to access taxpayer-funded childcare subsidies.
“A something for nothing approach will not help turn around our current situation where we have far too many children growing up in jobless families.”
Mr Morrison is due to release the families package before the budget on May 12.
Any move that would cut benefits to stay at home mothers and rural and regional families is likely to earn criticism from some Coalition MPs. ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja said it was a “legitimate concern if we don’t get the policy settings right”.
What we know so far about Morrison’s families package
In: multiple childcare payments rolled into one, payments based on a benchmark price with support weighted towards middle and low income families, parents will not be able to conscientiously object to immunisation and receive childcare payments.
Out: tax deductibility for childcare, a levy on big business to pay for the scheme, a benchmark price based on median childcare prices.
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