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Australian Families To Lose Welfare If Kids Skip School

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Families in Australia face losing their welfare benefits for three months if their children continually skip school, under legislation to be introduced to Federal Parliament this week.

Under the Australian Federal Government's proposed scheme, regular school attendance will become a condition for receiving all welfare except the Family Tax Benefit.

If the legislation is passed a pilot scheme at eight schools will begin next year.

This morning Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Radio National's Fran Kelly that the Government made no apologies for the hardline approach.

Mr Rudd says his Government's priority is making sure that all children go to school.

"We think this conditionality - that if individual families are in receipt of income support payments the regular attendance at school by their kids is a necessary precondition - is the right way to go," he said.

"We need, in order to compete with the rest of the world, to boost our current school retention rate from 75 per cent to 90 per cent by 2020, [but] we have real problems of school non-attendance in Indigenous communities and also school non-attendance on the part of certain other kids as well.

"You've got to take a hardline approach."

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard says the bill is aimed at sending a message to parents about their responsibility to ensure children go to school.

"We need to deal with this problem," she said.

"I mean it has a dreadful effect on children if they are only intermittently in school.

"All the research from around the world would tell us that if kids don't get a decent education then that is setting them up for a lifetime of failure. We want to break that cycle."

Federal Opposition frontbencher Tony Abbott has accused the Government of double standards.

Mr Abbott supports the idea but says it is ludicrous not to also stop payments to people on unemployment benefits who do not actively seek work.

"Why punish the kids for their parents' mistakes when you don't punish job seekers, or so-called job seekers, who don't have a work ethic," he said.

"Now I really think Kevin Rudd's got to be consistent on this, and at the moment what we're seeing I think are just populist gestures from a Prime Minister who's all spin and no substance."

Welfare authorities have criticised the plan.

Australian Council of Social Service president Lin Hatfield Dodds says there are various reasons why students do not go to school.

She says withholding welfare payments is unlikely to fix the causes of family dysfunction.

"[One issue] is chaos in families' lives," she said.

"Is there anybody around in the morning to help the child get to school?

"If there isn't, and if the family for whatever reason is in a high degree of chaos, then it's unlikely that turning off the income tap to a degree for 12 weeks is going to make any difference in that regard."

Ms Hatfield Dodds says there is no evidence that such a plan would help reduce truancy rates.

"As far as we're aware in the community sector there isn't really any evidence either in Australia or from overseas that involuntary income management actually works on any dimension," she said.

"It's difficult to see how it is going to address the causes of the crisis and chaos in family lives that result in this kind of experience for children."

She says the Government should instead make support programs available to more families.

"So if there's an issue with the parenting, let's wrap some parenting support programs around. If there's alcohol, other drugs, violence - if those things are an issue in the family's life in the adult's life - then let's try and go to the core of those issues.

"With all of these programs there is a strong evidence base for and we know they actually work we know they get results.

"The problem is out there in the community, particularly in areas that are locationally disadvantaged, is that those programs are simply not available to people."

Reported by ABC Australia, Copyright 2008

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