Catholic agencies hit back at Govt over welfare-to-work

Two major Catholic welfare agencies have hit back at Federal Government criticism over the agencies' refusal to participate in its welfare breaching program as the Hillsong Church makes known its own reservations about the new system.

The two organisations - Catholic Social Services (CSSA) and the St Vincent de Paul - were responding to comments made by Federal Minister for Human Services, Joe Hockey, that they and other church agencies are turning their backs on the poor to "score political points."

Defending CSSA's stance, CEO Frank Quinlan said that the group's decision to boycott the program followed months of deliberation with Government and other church groups.

He reiterated CSSA's support for the principle of mutual obligation, emphasising that "we remain partners with Government in many of the successful programs it has implemented to achieve this objective."

However, under the new legislation, "people on unemployment benefits risk having their payments cut for eight weeks if they fail to comply with the participation requirements," he said.

The Government faces near universal criticism from welfare and church groups over the new rules affecting people applying for disability and sole parent payments since 1 July.

People with disabilities deemed capable of working 15 hours a week and parents with school-age children get lower payments unless they find jobs. Those who refuse work considered suitable by Centrelink have their payments cut off for eight weeks.

"These are unduly harsh measures and we don't want to be confused as administrators and policemen of poor Government policy," Mr Quinlan said.

"The harshness of the new arrangements is evident in Centrelink's own guidelines," he added, pointing to the narrow scope in which "breached" welfare recipients can qualify for financial case management.

"Up to 14,000 people could be affected by the new measures," Mr Quinlan said.

Elswehere, the new CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society, John Falzon, told the ABC Religion Report yesterday that "we're all missing the point if we see this simply in terms of a battle between the churches and the government."

"What's at stake here is the daily struggle of those who are already pushed to the margins ... it is they who are suffering and are going to suffer even more keenly, the effects of the punitive welfare laws that have come into play," he said.

Mr Falzon said he is amazed at the comment by Mr Hockey at the weekend.

"All I can say is this: we could never turn our backs on the poor, but what we are doing and what seems to upset and afflict some people, is that we're turning our backs on the government's punitive welfare laws and we're doing it because of the duty we owe precisely to the people we are assisting," he said.

Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that Hillsong Emerge - the welfare arm of the Hillsong church in Sydney and the only church charity in NSW to participate in a controversial welfare-to-work program - has also signalled its reservations about the Federal Government initiative.

Leigh Coleman, the chief executive of Hillsong Emerge, said it would monitor the financial case management program closely over the coming months. It would "assess its involvement" after reviewing the experiences of people referred to the agency.

Catholic Social Services refuses to police "harsh" Govt policy (Eureka Street, 23/8/06)
John Falzon: Christian charity organisations and the Federal Government's new case management scheme (ABC Religion Report 24/8/06)
Hillsong thinks again on welfare (Sydney Morning Herald, 24/8/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Catholic Social Services Australia
Hillsong Emerge

Catholic Social Services challenges Labor on commitment to poor (CathNews, 22/8/06)
Triple whammy for low income households: CSSA (CathNews 3/8/06)
Low unemployment should pave way for training places: CSSA (CathNews 14/7/06)
New welfare-to-work rules spell disaster: Catholic Social Services (CathNews, 3/7/06)
Catholic Social Services baulks at cooperation with harsh policy (CathNews 7/6/06)
Catholic Social Services welcomes falling unemployment (CathNews 26/5/06)
Vinnies says "no" to Govt money (CathNews 6/4/06)
Church groups pessimistic about welfare overhaul (CathNews 21/11/05)

24 Aug 2006