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Hillsong thinks again on welfare

HILLSONG Emerge, the only church charity in NSW to participate in a controversial welfare-to-work program, yesterday signalled its reservations about the Federal Government initiative reports Adele Horin in the August 24, 2006 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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.

Last week, the Catholic agency Centacare withdrew from the program, and it has been boycotted by all the main church and non-government welfare agencies.

Mr Coleman said in a statement: "Like a number of other faith-based community services, we have some reservations about aspects of the welfare-to-work changes." While it believed the program's impact would be best assessed through implementation, Hillsong would assess its involvement if it became apparent improvements were needed.

The refusal of other agencies to sign up to the program has left Hillsong Emerge, the welfare arm of the evangelical Hillsong Church, as the biggest non-government provider of financial case management services to unemployed people in NSW.

The program involves financial counselling of sole parents and disabled people who are stripped of their unemployment benefit for eight weeks for breaching certain job search rules. About 4000 of the estimated 18,000 people a year who will suffer the eight-week non-payment period are expected to eligible for the program. Many would be likely to regain some or all of their benefits in order to pay rent and food bills.

However, the main church and non-government charities have argued it is immoral for the Government to impose such a tough penalty, especially as it is now applicable the first time certain rules are broken - such as dismissal from a job for misconduct - rather than for a third breach. It will now also apply to parents of young children, and people with disabilities and medical problems.

The charities have argued Centrelink should take responsibility for financial case management.

Apparently stung by criticism of its participation, Hillsong Emerge said in making its decision it had spoken at length to Centrelink and others to ensure stringent safeguards were in place to protect the vulnerable under the new arrangements. "We believe it is essential that those who are affected be properly supported," Mr Coleman said.

The agency had not yet received a referral from Centrelink to the program.