Eligible for what? ParentsNext exemptions and the troubling tale of outsourced social security decision-making

Continuing her series of original posts on Australia's employment services system, Dr Simone Casey (@SimoneCasey) explores the implications of outsourced decision-making in social security through the lens of the ParentsNext program. Dr Casey is an affiliate of the RMIT Future Social Services Institute (@FutureSocialAU).

One of the concerns highlighted in the Background Briefing about ParentsNext was with the unprecedented powers of providers to grant exemptions to Parents. The unintended consequence of this has been to impose appointment conditionality on Parents who should be exempt and who have experienced payment suspensions and cancellations as a result.

The power to grant exemptions has been delegated to ParentsNext providers through complex administrative arrangements drawing on provisions in the Social Security Act, Administration Act, related Instruments and provider guidelines.  This is the usual complicated administrative maze common to outsourced employment services and which requires a great deal of familiarity to navigate.

This blog aims to simplify this maze for the convenience of others struggling to understand how ParentsNext providers have been granted these powers, and what the actual legislation says in relation to these matters. This information is also provided to help others helping Parents understand on what grounds they might challenge provider decisions. It reflects on the incentives for ParentsNext providers not to grant exemptions due to the payment model, as well as slippage in the guidelines that allows for unfavourable interpretation of exemption rules. 

From my observation of a number of forums where Parents have wondered why they have become eligible for ParentsNext, the first administrative tool was the Special Classes of Person Instrument.  This instrument appears to form the basis of Centrelink’s selection of ‘eligible participants’ based on the information they hold about Parents. Centrelink officers from the ParentsNext team then contact the Parent, and check against the criteria specified in the Instrument. 

While you might expect that this eligibility screening might consider exemption criteria, it does not form part of this process. This is because of the discretionary administrative powers exercised by the Secretary decree that eligible participants must be connected to a ParentsNext provider for an initial appointment where the exemption criteria must be reviewed.  A ParentsNext worker is supposed to review the criteria with the Parent to determine whether they meet any of the criteria after which they can exempt them.  Here the ParentsNext Guidelines do not bind the provider into providing the exemption, rather they can still ask the Parent if they want to Volunteer.

There are two factors to consider in relation to the quality of provider decisions on exemptions, the first being ambiguity in the guidelines and training resources; the second being an unreasonable imposte on providers to be conversant with social security law.

Ambiguity in the guidelines is evident in the example regarding the automatic category of exemptions.  For example the ‘Large family with four or more children exemption criteria’ says

Providers must grant this Exemption if a Participant is caring for a large family (that is, is the principal carer of at least one child and is the principal carer or main supporter of four or more children).

This Exemption exists in Social Security Law as an automatic exemption as the Guide to Social Security helpfully explains. But the guideline uses the term ‘automatic upon request’ which apparently places the onus on the Parent to request it even though they may not have knowledge of the exemption categories.

The unreasonable imposte of Exemption decisions stems from the fact they are delegated social security decisions and can thus be appealed firstly through the agency making the decision, and then to the Department of Employment and eventually to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.  The appeal process for these decisions draws attention to the extent to which ParentsNext providers are expected to have strong knowledge of Social Security Law.  For example, the ‘Exemption – Provider Reconsideration’ guideline repeatedly refers to a requirement that reconsideration of decisions be undertaken by staff who are ’sufficiently senior and understand Exemptions requirements as set out in Social Security Law, the Exemptions and Suspensions Guideline and the ParentsNext Deed 2018–2021. Furthermore staff are required to document the reasons and reference ‘the relevant sections of Social Security Law, Exemptions and Suspensions Guideline and ParentsNext Deed 2018–2021.

While there are many well-qualified and competent staff in ParentsNext providers, their primary purpose is not, and arguably should not be, to interpret social security law. Here the long-standing concerns about the competence and impartiality of outsourced actors in the administration of Social Security decisions are apparent. These concerns are amplified in the context where it is easiest for the provider to keep the Parent on their books to secure cash-flow as exemptions interrupt payments for the duration of the exemption (most of which are for 4-months of the 6-monthly payment cycle). Since the provider has already expended considerable resources to set up the first appointment, if they provide the exemption at this stage they will not receive the $600 six-monthly payment.  The Dept could easily fix this perverse incentive by providing an initial appointment payment of $150. But this would not address providers fear of reduction in caseload and therefore overall income from the program.

While there are a host of other pressing concerns about the harm caused by ParentsNext, the issue of decision-making regarding exemptions should not be overlooked particularly since as the Background Briefing indicated, the framework is being abused. This is more than a problem that can be wished away by tweaking guidelines and training materials, it is an issue generated by the delegation of decision making to Providers whose role is not and should not be to administer Social Security decisions. Advocacy efforts for reform of ParentsNext might well be effectively focused on these failings because the Secretary for Employment is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the provisions of the Social Security Act are delegated and administered lawfully.

Finally, those helping Parents who have been incorrectly determined as eligible should seek an eligibility Review by Centrelink based on the definitions in the Special Classes of Person Instrument.  If the Parent is already working, they should be exited by the provider as per the Guidelines here.