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Community Affairs References Committee - 23/04/98 - Child care funding

MANDY KERR —My name is Mandy Kerr. I am Children's Services Adviser with Gosford Council. Firstly, I would like to say that the representation here is not an indication of the lack of concern people in Gosford have for the changes in funding, but the lack of knowledge we had that the Senate inquiry was happening here. It is of concern to me that most of the community groups did not know that it was actually on, unless they were directly invited to speak, or unless they happened to see it in the paper yesterday or heard it on the radio this morning.

Can we remember the Year of the Child? What has happened to our most precious resource? Let me tell you. They are playing in the streets. In some of our suburbs of Gosford they are literally in the streets. Many will not attend preschool or any educational service before they attend school. They are being minded by grandparents, who feel they are too old to be patient and do not see it as their job to discipline. Babies are being minded by unemployed young teenagers. Children are being minded in homes with no checks or training of minders or safety of the environment. Children are going home alone to empty houses and children will be home alone next school vacation. What does this mean for the community? It means increased stress, community problems and increased incidence of abuse and neglect.

Even those who are struggling to remain in child care are paying higher and higher fees for less and less service. There are higher fees; fewer numbers; staff stress; reduced planning, programming and preparation time; fewer materials; fewer resources; minimal ratio numbers; increased young, inexperienced staff; and reduced training, including in-service. What does this mean? It means less education and more child minding. I know the government is paying more, but why are our families getting less?

DIANE DALES —My name is Diane Dales and my address is 4 Priestley Parade, Point Clare, New South Wales 2250. I am a district community representative and serve on a number of community bodies, but I am not here representing them directly. My main concern is the financial impact on the family and its ongoing effect throughout the community as a whole. One organisation I belong to is a sporting organisation, and over the years our affiliated bodies have been able to allow children to play at no cost where the families are in financial crisis. Since the change in government policy, we have found through our affiliates that the commitment that has been asked of families in financial crisis has increased dramatically. They are now coming to the governing bodies—and they will be forwarding onto state bodies—for requests for assistance.

Up until the change in government policy, we were handling throughout the Central Coast community, which takes in Wyong Shire, something like 150 to 200 children a year. That is in a six-month period. Over the last season we have just completed, there has been a dramatic increase of 75 per cent, and next season we are expecting to have an increase of between 150 per cent and 200 per cent on those figures. Small clubs cannot afford to cover that. The local governing bodies are only on a community based volunteer basis, and they cannot find the funds to help keep the children playing a healthy sport. That is another impact on the community.


The other thing I would like to speak about is the notification of this hearing. I feel very disappointed for the community as a whole—especially for the child care workers—that they did not know this hearing was on today so that they could come along and voice their opinions on this and speak of the effect on them, and in particular with the timing of it being between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the majority—you might as well say 99 per cent—of the staff are at work. Thank you.

CHAIR —Does anyone else wish to make a contribution? Does anyone else, as a parent, wish to give their point of view on how the changes have affected their family, or are there any workers who wish to talk about how it has affected them? Are there any representatives from other organisations who wish to speak?

SANDRA MILES —My name is Sandra Miles and I am Community Services Manager at Wyong Council. I would like to initially support what has already been said. We were not aware of this meeting until late Tuesday afternoon and, in that short time, it was not possible to get other service providers or community members here to this meeting.

Wyong Shire is in a very rapid development mode and a lot of young families are moving to the Central Coast, where they can afford homes, but it is based on the parents both working. The increase in fees is significantly affecting their ability to maintain their work. We have just been doing budgets for vacation care and, because the services that we provide in Wyong Shire are state funded, those services are not entitled to Childcare Assistance. That means almost 4,000 children who currently attend may not be able to attend because the fees are going up 80 to 90 per cent in July.

Generally, it is affecting the community's ability to continue working and paying for their mortgages. In long day care centres, where we have in the order of 800 children enrolled, parents are now having to drop days and change their manner of attendance at centres, and this impacts on the children and the staff significantly. We are certainly making every effort to keep our fees to a minimum, but it has not been possible not to increase the fees substantially.

Given the limited attendance today, I believe there should be another opportunity provided for the community to address this Senate inquiry, because it certainly is not representative of the concerns of the community in the Wyong and Gosford shires.

CHAIR —Thank you for that contribution. All of the major Senate inquiries run essentially on a dual basis. The terms of reference are advertised and the Senate receives written submissions. We received something in excess of 900 submissions to this inquiry, from nearly all peak organisations and state organisations right across Australia. So, at an institutional level, there was significant understanding of the terms of reference and interest in the committee. Certainly at that level there was detailed knowledge of the programming and planning.

We also received a significant number of submissions from individual parents and a range of child care provider institutions, and all of those have been advised of the planning of the committee over six days right around Australia. This is a regional area, and I do not regard the attendance this morning, in the first half hour, as particularly poor, and you do not

need to apologise for that. There are 25 or 30 people in the room already, and that is quite good for this type of forum.

In terms of advertising and advising, the secretariat has advised and been in regular contact with all of the organisations which are coming along today to give evidence.

This community forum will be for one hour and it is a very important hour for us to hear feedback from individual parents. In response to a couple of comments made earlier, all of the other parties have been advised of today's program—all of the local members of parliament, both state and federal, were advised of the planning a considerable time ago; and the media were advised by press release and formal contact as well. There is a limit, naturally, on the ability of the secretariat to contact individuals to advise them of planning; but there has been no departure from standard practice in advising—in writing—all of those who have been invited to attend to give evidence. We have also spread the word as much as we can through a range of community institutions, organisations, members of parliaments, trade unions, child care centres and child care organisations. We should not be distracted by a view that, perhaps, attendance is not what it could be.

We are simply here to listen to your views on this issue of child care. That is what we are here for—Senator Payne, Senator Neal and myself. It is an interesting, quite topical issue and a lot of concerns have been expressed. We know this from the large amount of submissions received by the inquiry. We are interested in your views, so if anyone else has a different view or an alternate view—perhaps praising what the government has done, or criticising what the government has done—we are more than interested in having that view on the public record to assist us in our deliberations when we settle down later to come up with a set of recommendations. So if anyone else has got a comment to make—

Senator NEAL —Can I make a comment at this stage?

CHAIR —Yes.

Senator NEAL —I am lucky enough to be a resident on the Central Coast, as many of you might know. I conducted a child care forum in Kariong a couple of months ago—in the evening, which is probably more suitable for a lot of parents. Any parents who were not able to make it here today and who are concerned to have their views known can, at this stage, still put in a brief note in writing and their views will be incorporated in that way.

Secondly, I will be organising another child care forum in the evening, probably in the northern end, in Ourimbah-Lisarow. So those people wanting to express their views, but not necessarily to the Senate committee, can express them to me personally. I am obviously very interested, being the shadow minister and a member of this committee. People will have that opportunity as well, if they would like to that. I will make sure that everyone here today is informed of that.

CHAIR —Thank you, Senator Neal.

MYRIAM BAHARI —I am the community development worker with Wyong Council. I work with young people and out of school hours services. I want to remind the inquiry that,

even though child care in pre-schools and long day care centres is important, after school hours and vacation care services are also in need. Children from five to 12 years old also need care and parents need to feel comfortable that their children are being looked after in a safe and enjoyable environment.

CHAIR —The terms of reference specifically include after school care and the issues you addressed, as part of the inquiry. It is not just long day care, it is all forms of child care—private and community, long day care, family day care and the issues that arise from those—that we are interested in. It is not limited in any way.

PAULINE O'KANE —The Network of Community Activities, which I represent, is the peak organisation for outside school hours services. We will be doing a presentation later. It is good to hear that out of school hours services have been incorporated into the inquiry. However, the changes do not actually happen for outside of school hours services until the 27th, so I just wanted to raise that. We will be talking about what we predict and know is going to happen to this sector. The budget reforms that happened in May are going to have a devastating effect on this sector, which, if you like, has been the poor relation of children's services and has always been run on a shoe-string budget.

I am really concerned that there have been no standards for outside school hours services. With the changes to the budget reforms there is no licensing for outside of school hours services. Quality is going to be jeopardised, and I would like to raise the profile of quality.

The only chunk of the budget that you can cut from out of school hours services is staffing, and that really has a huge impact on the service quality to children. If you reduce the staff, you are really saying, `We don't care about children.' You are restricting their activities, you are really tying them to a centre, particularly in vacation care. When a lot of children do not have an opportunity to go away on holiday, the vacation care program has taken them away on excursions. This will be reduced. Equipment is already slashed to absolutely core cost. So I would really like to raise the issue of quality. I know the report is going to parliament in June. However, we may not know the impact on outside of school hours services until that time; we can only predict some of the things that we know are going to happen. We already know that in New South Wales 32 services have closed. This is before the impact of the changes. The particularly vulnerable services in the sector are the ones with low utilisation and small school populations. I know that on the Central Coast that is going to be a particular issue.

CHAIR —Thank you for that. Further contributions?

SANDY BLIM —I am a parent with three children, two of whom utilise out of school hours services and one using both long day care and family day care. I would just like to comment on some of the changes that are occurring for parents. Last year I had two children utilising long day care and family day care and I find that this year my cost of having one child in care is the same as it cost me last year when I had two children in care. However, I have saved some costs in that I now have two children at school, and so while school is on my child care costs are quite low. When vacation care comes around, at the moment I know what the costs are and I can budget for that. Like many parents, we do not have the opportunity to take extended holidays equivalent to school holidays. What is of concern to

me is the changes that are happening in vacation care. I know that one of the Wyong Council centres is federally funded and the rest are state funded. It is not clear at this stage how much the increase will be in vacation care costs between this holiday and the subsequent July school holidays. It seems that if I go to one centre I would be entitled to fee relief but if I go to the centres closer to my workplace and my home I would not be entitled to fee relief because they are state funded. So there is that cost and that change that is happening of the moment in terms of out of school hours.

As a parent of a child in school age care, I now have to fill in forms to apply for fee relief. What I found as somebody who actually utilises before and after school care and vacation care that is three forms, and I actually use another centre occasionally if I am working in that area and there is another form. So, instead of being able as a parent to fill in all the information on the one form, I have actually had to fill in four forms with the same information sent off to the same body.

Also, as a parent, if I did not work within local government there is no way in the world I would have known that this meeting is on today, even though, as I said, I actually use long day care, family day care, after school care and vacation care, and if I have to work on a Friday, which is my non-working day, I use occasional care. So I actually utilise five different types of child care services, and I did not know that this meeting was on. I think that is about it from my perspective as a parent.

JOAN HOLMES —I am here under two hats—as a centre owner and as the secretary of the Quality Child Care Association of New South Wales. I will be giving a presentation on that later.

I would like to add to what the parent family said. The fragmentation of the child care industry is absolutely deplorable. We have federal bodies, state bodies, governments, regulations, child care fees and Childcare Assistance, and it is astronomical. The paperwork involved with this new 20-hour cap is phenomenal. As far as I am concerned, as a centre owner, it serves very little purpose when a parent does not even have to tell you where they work. What is the point?

There are inequities, as the parent was saying. She can go to one centre and get X number of dollars fee relief and she can go to another centre and not get any at all. That also needs to be addressed. That is part of my presentation. The fragmentation of the industry really should take paramount importance as far as getting it together is concerned because that is a major part of the problem.

BEV BLINMAN —I run a very small out of school hours care centre at Gwandalan, which is way up north. Our community is quite a low income one during school terms but during vacations we seem to get a few more people from outer areas because the parents can drive their kids to vacation care. Some of those parents will not qualify for any fee relief. Most of our families using after school care will qualify for some degree of fee relief, which is okay. At the moment our fees are $5 for the first child and $4 for the second child. That is our full fee. With the new Childcare Assistance, it will go up to $6 for each child for the afternoon. It is not a great jump for the parents who will have to pay the full fee.


CHAIR —So it is $5 to $6 for a part day?

BEV BLINMAN —It is $5 for a three-hour session for the first child and $4 for any other children in that family for the three-hour session. With the new funding, it will be $6 per child for that three-hour session, which is not a big jump for the parents who have to pay the full fee. Most of those parents will get fee relief, so that is okay.

With this new funding, our vacation care fee, which at the moment is $8 for a 10-hour session and $7 for the second child or any more in that family, is okay because we usually have one major excursion a week. Our excursion this week was horse riding, which the kids love, which cost $14 on top of the centre fee. With the new funding our vacation care fee will go up to $20 a day. The parents who cannot get fee relief will not be able to afford $34 per child for a horse riding day, which basically means that we will not be able to have as many good excursions, and we will suffer that way. How do we get around it?

JOAN JONES —I am the manager of the Wyoming Community Centre. We run after school care and vacation care. A grave concern that I have at the moment that has recently come out is that a lot of people are now minding children in their own homes. Apparently, once children reach five, they lose some kind of importance because there are no regulations for children over five when they are minded in a private home. There are no regulations through the Department of Community Services, local councils or anywhere.

So people can have 15 or 20 people in their homes without any police checks on who they are. They can be inadequate premises or non-safe premises, with no educational child development or anything like that. I think that is something that no-one has taken into consideration. People can do this for a caring reason, they can do it for a financial reason or they can do it for some really bad reasons. I think that needs to be looked at very carefully because the safety of the children does not seem to have been considered all that much in this change.

CHAIR —Thank you for that. There being no further contributions, thank you very much for all those contributions. They have been somewhat different from those we received yesterday and in Melbourne earlier this week, so they were very worth while indeed.

Proceedings suspended from 9.45 a.m. to 10.03 a.m.