October 1, 2012
I have been asked to advise on possible legal ramifications of the above named Bill as regards the educational choices of parents receiving benefits under the Social Security Act 1964. I read the articles linked onto the Home Education Foundation (HEF) website to get a feel for the main concerns with the Bill, before reading the parliamentary documents themselves.
Welfare Reform Paper E: Social Obligations for Parents
This paper from the Ministry of Social Development was released to the press and provides essential information on the purposes and reasoning behind the Bill.
The Bills Digest
The Bill Digest is, according to the New Zealand parliamentary website, “a guide written to assist members of Parliament when they consider a bill.” It includes summaries of the main changes the bill will make to existing law.
The First Reading Speech and Debate
This speech was given by the bill’s sponsor, the Hon Paula Bennett. A First Reading Speech usually outlines the purpose and effect of the Bill and as a result is often important in legislative interpretation if the meaning of a statute is debated in court.
This is the proposed text of the amendments to the Social Security Act 1964. As a Bill, it’s subject to change and will not necessarily be passed without alteration.
There are a number of concerns with the Bill in its current form.
- 1. The Jobseeker Benefit
One of the key changes made by the Bill to existing law is “a new system of main benefits, to embed a work focus throughout the benefit system.” One of these new main benefits will be a jobseeker support benefit. The Digest explains: “The jobseeker support benefit replaces the unemployment benefit, the sickness benefit, the domestic purposes benefit for solo parents whose youngest child is 14 years old or older, the widows benefit for persons whose youngest child is 14 years old or older or who have no children, and the domestic purposes benefit for women alone. A person granted jobseeker support (other than on the grounds of sickness, injury or disability) must comply with the work test. […] Spouses or partners may also be subject to the work test.”
This is a concern for parents on a benefit, with children past the age of 14, who wish to pursue domestic purposes. All such beneficiaries are recategorised as jobseekers (see, for example, clause 2(8) and (9) of New Schedule 32 of the Bill, which redefines widows as “jobseekers”), and according to the Explanatory Note at the beginning of the Bill, “All people on jobseeker support have work obligations based on their ability to work.” Jobseekers are required to aim towards full-time work.
The home educating mother on a benefit who wishes to stay home with her younger children throughout their teens will have to choose between receiving the money and being with her children. There is now no such thing as a domestic purposes benefit for women with children over 14.
The Sole Parent Support Benefit
Another of the new main benefits is the sole parent support benefit, which “is payable to sole parents and widows with a child younger than 14 years old. The Bill places an obligation on such persons to comply with obligations including a general obligation to take all reasonably practicable steps to prepare for employment,” according to the Digest. The First Reading Speech explains, “Those with children over 5 will be expected to be available for part-time work, and to be preparing for work before then.” The Explanatory Note also explains, “They will have part-time work expectations if their youngest child is 5 years of age or older.” “Available for part-time work,” according to Ms Bennett, means “Simply put, if there is a good job and they are suitable, they should take it.” Parents who turn down a suitable job “without good and sufficient reason” (see section 116B(1)(i) of the Bill) will be penalised with “a 13-week stand-down.”
Again, this leaves no room for sole parents whose ambition is to parent. The jobseeker benefit applies to parents with children over 14, but the sole parent benefit applies to parents with children under 14. They are still expected to be undertaking part-time work as a path into full-time work and once the youngest child turns 14 the beneficiary parent will move onto the jobseeker benefit (section 20H of the Bill). Existing legislation required sole parents on the domestic purposes benefit to plan towards undertaking at least 15 hours’ work per week if they had dependent children aged 6 to under 18. However the Bill will require sole parents to start work earlier, when their youngest child turns 5, and transition to the Jobseeker Benefit and full-time work when that child turns 14.
In a press release dated 12th September 2012, Ms Bennett stated, “The valuation tells us those on Unemployment Benefits make up a very small proportion of lifetime costs on welfare (5%) when compared to sole parents (23%) and those on Sickness (9%) and Invalid’s Benefits (24%).
“So Unemployment Beneficiaries represent just 5% of the lifetime costs of welfare, but receive the lion’s share of support to get off welfare into work.”
“We can do much better than this, by providing more support to sole parents and others who’ve historically received very little help to get off welfare.”
This makes it clear that National’s plan to cut welfare spending relies on getting “sole parents”—ie single mothers—away from their children and into the workforce.
The single mum or widow who wants to spend her time raising her children to be well-adjusted, polite, and valuable members of society will be more eagerly chivvied away from them into the workplace by this new legislation.
- 2. Educational Obligations
Additionally, the provision of benefits (including emergency benefits) is linked to parents fulfilling certain “social obligations” regarding their children. According to the Digest, “Beneficiary parents must take all reasonable steps to ensure that their dependent child:
- aged 3 years or over, is enrolled in and attending early childhood education until they start school;
- enrolled in and attending school from age of 5 (or 6) years depending on when the child first starts school.”
This received no more than a mention in the First Reading Speech. However, according to Paula Bennett’s official letter to Barbara Smith of the HEF, home education does not constitute “early childhood education”. Additionally, part of the purpose of the educational obligations is to free the parents up to pursue work outside the home. According to Paper E, “Social obligations and employment obligations are mutually reinforcing. It is hard to maintain work if children are constantly sick or truant from school.” Paper E goes on to claim, “A requirement for children age three and over to participate in ECE will facilitate beneficiary parents’ ability to prepare for and move into work by ensuring quality care arrangements are in place.” This means that home education is not preferable as an alternative to school for the children of beneficiaries as it does not enable mothers to undertake work outside the home. Nevertheless, section 60RA(3)(b) provides for the exemption of children aged 6 and over from the requirements of sections 20 and 25 of the Education Act 1989.
Paper E provides important information on Ms. Bennett’s reasoning. Statistics cited in the press release show that 90% of all three year olds and 95% of all four year olds attend some early childhood education. Of the 31,500 three and four year old beneficiary children, the number of children not already participating in early childhood education is unknown but believed to be low. With so many children already attending early childhood education, it is hard to understand what major societal benefit Ms. Bennett expects to result from making this compulsory for all children up to 6 years.
- 3. Health Obligations
Beneficiary parents will also have “social obligations” regarding health services: parents must “take all reasonable steps to ensure that their dependent child is:
- enrolled with a primary health care provider; and
- up-to-date with the core Well Child checks.”
This also received little more than a mention in the First Reading Speech. The purpose for this, however, is clear: to coerce beneficiary parents into government-approved healthcare. This will also be a concern for parents wanting to retain control of decisions about their children’s health.
Paper E, for example, expresses concern that 0.2% of children did not receive any Well Child checks in the first nine months of life. The goal appears to be 100 percent compliance with the government’s health care program, including immunisation. According to Paper E, Ms. Bennett “considered whether to establish an obligation in relation to child immunisation,” but decided against it because “immunisation is a medical treatment” and “the decision should remain with parents”. Nevertheless, “immunisation is actively promoted through primary Health Care providers and the Well Child programme”. Clearly, Ms. Bennett relies on the Well Child program to pressure 100% of parents into compliance.
- 4. Sanctions
Financial penalties will apply to continued noncompliance with social obligations under section 116B(1)(b) of the Bill. This is described as an “effective last resort” in Paper E, since it will come only after “3 stages of support contact have failed to encourage compliance” (per the Explanatory Note), but parents, for example, who decide not to register their children with a GP, are committing themselves to financial penalties. According to Paper E, “Another way to encourage and support compliance is through the use of individual and ongoing case management support.” Parents making principal decisions will thus lay themselves open not only to financial penalty, but also to interference from social workers: “There are operational processes in place for clients to be referred to CYF or fraud investigation if they continue on a fifty percent sanction,” (see section 60RC(5) of the Bill). The only “good and sufficient reason” that will exempt parents from complying with these social obligations is, under section 116C(3), “if the activity involves participation during hours when it would be unreasonable to expect any dependent child of the person to be without that person’s supervision.”
I note that under section 60RA of the Bill, the social obligations apply not just to the parent receiving a benefit, but also to his or her spouse or partner.
The dad who loses his job and desperately feels the need to provide for his young family will have to choose between watching his children go cold and hungry, or signing them over to ECE and compulsory Well Child checks, including heavy pressure to accept all the medical treatments advised by the government, at pain of fraud investigation or CYFS involvement.
- 5. Information Sharing
It is also of concern that Ms. Bennett’s vision includes information sharing between the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Education to “enhance monitoring of ECE attendance by the dependent children of beneficiaries,” according to Paper E. This however does not appear to be contained in the Bill itself.
There are few additional points to make. Obviously, everyone is concerned that this will prove a slippery slope leading to compulsory ECE for all preschool children. In addition, government sponsored daycare and ECE imposes a heavier tax burden upon single income families who do not need such services because the mother cares for the children – in favor of two income families. So this should be a concern for even the people who don’t have children.
As previously mentioned, ECE attendance rates are already high. Many families have made a principled decision not to send their children to approved ECE providers. It is these families that will be penalized under the proposed compulsory obligations, not the irresponsible families. Likewise, the 0.2% non-attendance rate at Well Child checks can also be attributed to families who simply prefer to opt out. The enforcement mechanisms will target families who make principled decisions against immunisation or ECE with the toughest and most draconian penalties: interference from fraud investigators and CYFS.
According to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Standards (E/C.12/1999/10, Article 13.29), parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children will receive. Compelling them to participate in ECE breaches not only this right, but also the right of children to be raised within their parents’ culture, ethnicity, and religion.
Dr. Jane Silloway Smith is also concerned that ECE is not the best option for early childhood learning. Rather, she argues that it is preferable for a child to spend time in a nurturing home environment. There are volumes of research to back this up: According to Harold McCurdy, a psychologist and student of genius, genius is derived from the experience of children being most of the time with adults and very little with their peers.
This Bill is outrageously coercive of the most marginalised segments of New Zealand society. It targets homemakers, homeschooling mums, and parents who make principled decisions about health and education, and must be utterly rejected.