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Reforming Social Services Regulation

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Legislative Assembly 8 September 2021

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (16:53): I am pleased to have the opportunity to make some remarks about this bill, the Social Services Regulation Bill 2021, which is being debated this afternoon. It is a rare thing that we in this house debate a new principal act. Of course that is what we are doing this afternoon; we are not amending something that has been around for a while, we are actually debating a new principal act.

This is a bill that will establish a social services regulator—according to the long title—and a worker and carer exclusion scheme and ‘for other purposes’. Of course there are a lot of those other purposes. It is a large bill, and it covers not only the establishment of the Social Services Regulator, it covers the registration of social service providers and the opportunity to cancel that registration. It sets standards and notifications. It sets requirements for compliance with those standards.

It sets up, as others have mentioned, the worker and carer exclusion scheme, and that in itself is a significant part of the proposed act. It sets up the investigation provisions, panels, panel determinations, the database itself, information gathering and so on. Part 6, again a significant slice of the bill, is around investigations and monitoring; part 7 is around enforcement; and part 8 is around information collection, use and disclosure.

So it is a significant bill. I will have some comments about the efficacy of it in a few minutes, but I think it is worth covering some of the issues that are raised in the charter, and the fact that the charter statement is a whopping 18 pages says it all, I think.

Not that this is a bad thing. I am not suggesting that for a moment, but it gives an indication of how complex this area potentially is.

So obviously the bill engages human rights issues. The register engages the right to privacy; the notification obligations, again the right to privacy; identity cards, issues around privacy, particularly with the independent investigators and authorised officers. The scheme itself operates as a negative licensing scheme. The assessments process, the investigations process, the database, the capacity or potential for injury to reputation, information sharing with Victoria Police—it goes on. It goes on, as I mentioned, for 18 pages.

I do not regard any of those things as working in any way against the necessity to legislate. It does underline, I think, the importance of having a legislative scheme that is fit for purpose.

That is really where we start in terms of this bill—that we do not have a regulation system that is fit for purpose. In fact, the minister makes the point in the second-reading speech that the current system is fragmented, that it is based on separate schemes that were developed in isolation from each other, and they are more than a decade old.

Again, the minister made the point that some services, including family violence and homelessness, are not covered at all by a legislated framework. They are relying on funding arrangements, they are relying on contractual arrangements, to set up quality standards, to set up benchmarks. So whether they can be enforced or not is a significant issue. At this stage we do not have a scheme that resolves those problems.

So we are not as a state currently in good shape when it comes to these services. I am sure all members have the experience of talking with providers, talking with police—particularly police engaged in the child services area, working with kids—to know just how many holes we have in the system and not only the potential for damage but the number of kids that are falling through the cracks because the arrangements are inadequate.

Not only do we know that the legislation is inadequate; the sector itself has identified a plethora of gaps in the delivery of services. We know that there is confusion about regulatory requirements, partly because of the framework. We know that has caused delays. We know that has caused inefficiencies. Now, inefficiency is irritating. It means services cost more. But when you have delays, it means people are being deprived of access to those services, and that is simply not good enough. The Victorian Council of Social Service has made the point repeatedly that funding to charities was cut in the last budget—and that is adding strain to an already stretched social services sector.

As if the pandemic was not enough, budget cuts on top of that make life very difficult. My colleague the member for Lowan has identified in the house on a number of occasions the failure of the department to uphold the child safe standards. Vulnerable children are being affected by the department’s own failure to live up to the requirements.

There have also been data breaches—one very significant data breach resulted in a horrible crime. I will not go into details, but it was a systemic failure that had a tremendous impact on a young person. Whether that young person can ever recover and get on with their life must be in doubt because of the failure of the system.

So with regard to this bill and the minister in his second-reading speech, and in the briefing—and I was there for part of the briefing; I did not attend the whole briefing—I understand that the argument was repeated that this is in part, apart from putting a structure in place, also about reducing red tape and probably doing it by regulation.

The trouble is from the perspective of this house we need to take that on trust. We do not know what the regulation is going to look like. Not just the parliamentarians, but the providers need to take that on trust as well, and they need to hope that the regulation when it emerges is okay. That has been a trend we have seen with this government. It was certainly in the Local Government Act 2020. We are seeing it with this bill and we are seeing it with others, and taking it on trust is not really satisfactory.

The second point I want to make is around support for organisations. The minister again has indicated that support will be available. The trouble is we just do not know what it will look like. Will it be sufficient to enable them to conform to the requirements of this bill, particularly given the budget cuts that I referred to a few minutes ago?

The third point is about delays in checks. We know that organisations have had to stand down employees—long-term employees with unblemished employment records—because there is a delay in getting through checks. The checks that will be required under this legislation will increase in complexity.

Stronger compliance is a good thing, but we need to make sure that the checking process is eased significantly. Make it work and do it in a timely manner.

There are also concerns around the number of investigations that a carer may be able to undergo. There is the process for allegations under the client incident management system; there are investigations under the reportable conduct scheme and there are investigations under the young people suitability panel by the department, so we do not know whether those issues have been resolved as well.

I think overall I would say it is a start. It is a reasonable start, but there are way too many unanswered questions for the bill to have got to this stage.