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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2116

Senator TROETH (5.51 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

I believe that there are several important provisions and recommendations in report No. 42 of the Auditor-General which should be brought to the attention of the Senate. The four aspects in particular that I would like to comment on are inequity in provision, the role of the private sector, the planning as detailed in this report and also some matters of fraud which have been brought to the attention of the Senate by this Auditor-General's report.

  There has been an extremely rapid growth in recent years in fee relief and child-care assistance expenditure accompanied by very strong community support for the provision of child care. I would note that the Auditor-General recognises that the present provision of places for non-work care is inequitable. The child-care places for non-work related purposes are available only in areas where there is insufficient demand to fill places for work related care.

  The audit office recommended that the department develop options for care for children and families and support for families at home that are more affordable to parents and do not require large government subsidies, such as limits on the amount of care in long day care and family day care, rostered play groups and subsidised play leaders to manage play groups that provide respite care on a rostered basis. There is a department need to ensure that services follow guidelines on priority of access to allocate available places to children of families with greatest economic or social need. I remain unconvinced by the department's statements that this is actually being provided.

  There is a need to develop a policy on child-care assistance for part-time care in both long day care and family day care programs that recognise additional costs. Parents, particularly women at home, often put a low monetary value on a break for themselves in comparison with meeting other household needs, and the government is reasonably guilty of putting a low value on women who choose to stay at home with their children, as exemplified by the inequitable payments to different groups of women. I refer to the $61.20 maximum child-care rebate for a family with two children which chooses to place those children in child care as compared with the $30 per week provided to stay at home parents through the cashing out of the dependent spouse rebate. That is something that the coalition would like to see addressed.

  It is very important for any government to give more equitable treatment in the provision of money in assistance to families as far as looking after very young children is concerned. Even though provided in the recent budget, the parenting allowance provides for a small band of low income earners and it could hardly be called a comprehensive response to this problem by the government.

  With regard to the role of the private sector, I note the auditor's concerns about the planning of the program and I particularly endorse the recommendation that the department develop a strategy for private child-care services to influence growth away from areas already well supplied with work related care. The department says that it recognises this recommendation and supports the development of strategies to encourage the private sector to maximise its contribution. I certainly hope that it is going to move down this path. I would like to see the government continue along this line.

  I would also like to see greater cooperation between private and community-based services, such as the mutual sharing of their expertise. In the mushrooming of services in this area there has been a proliferation in both private provision and community-based provision and there should be a greater sharing of resources between the two groups.

  The coalition would also like to support the concept of self-help play groups in modelling good play and parenting skills and assisting parents with social problems that become apparent. The provision of help for play groups is a relatively low cost option which, at the same time, encourages parental cooperation and self-help.

  There is a much greater need for more accurate planning, which is essential to assess priorities. Day care centres and child-care centres have now been provided—slowly to start with and more quickly in recent years—in very many areas of most metropolitan and provincial cities. Over a 20-year period there is probably a need to assess the placement of existing centres, as to whether they have fulfilled their purpose, and the provision of future centres, as to where they are going to be located. The department should look carefully at planning priorities for this.

  In particular groups of the community, such as Aboriginal children and non-English speaking background children, the program services have the potential to provide an important focus for women and children in areas that are often dominated by men's issues and they need to provide a wide range of programs. But the lack of integrated planning in both the Aboriginal and non-English speaking background areas has probably restricted the programs that have been delivered in many locations. Joint planning with other complementary service providers is a matter of importance and services funded by the program, if they are to achieve their potential, should be cost effective and avoid any harmful side effects.

  The last matter I would like to deal with in the brief time allotted to me is that of fraud. The audit office recommended that the department strengthen the monitoring and enforcing of rules for child-care assistance. The department needs to enhance its compliance program of service assessment to guard against fraud and error in the payment of child-care assistance. Recently the Senate was told of a major concern that, although child care is paid for on the basis of hours booked, the compliance program estimated that up to 30 per cent of paid care in average private long day care centres is not actually provided. So centre operators are claiming and being paid for that care but in actual fact the hours are not provided. It is then available for the centre operators to top up those vacant hours with other fee paying clients and their children. That level of fraud is to be guarded against. The department needs also to keep under review its involvement in the building of community based centres to ensure the most cost effective use of public funds.

  Examples of savings in the area of child care are, first, to encourage private investment in areas identified as having high need for long day care centres; and, secondly, to continue to tighten the current child-care assistance rules and to improve and regularise the accountability and compliance auditing of child-care assistance. The government has claimed that it is starting to do so and I would hope that this is being effective. The overriding need and requirement in this area is to ensure that all services remain affordable to parents and to government.