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Thursday, 21 March 2002
Page: 1947

Ms ELLIS (6:39 PM) —I am pleased to speak in the debate today on the Disability Services Amendment (Improved Quality Assurance) Bill 2002. This bill was first introduced in the last parliament and was subsequently sent to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. That committee considered a number of submissions and called five witnesses. Because of the timing of the election, no formal report was made. However, as a result of the submissions to this inquiry, the new bill has some small but significant changes which augur well for its acceptance within the disabilities sector.

This bill will impact on the employment of people with disabilities. If the government is serious in pursuing the bill's apparent intent to treat people with disabilities as genuine, rather than pseudo, workers, then they could have a very positive, even revolutionary, impact. This will, however, require considerable financial support and resources, possibly for longer than the three years the bill suggests it will take for all agencies to gain certification.

The agencies concerned are primarily those known as business services—sometimes in the past they were referred to as sheltered workshops. These agencies were set up when families, community organisations and other interested groups responded to the need to provide some form of occupation for people with disabilities. In those days, it is fair to say, the primary aim was humanitarian and not profit making. This history is important in gaining an understanding of how these services began and the possible apprehension in the minds of some about the changes now facing this sector.

Today there are over 500 business services throughout Australia, providing employment for around 15,000 people, the majority of whom would have intellectual disabilities. Increasingly, as these enterprises began to receive government funds, they were required to become more accountable and were obliged to operate more like businesses—hence the name change, and, with that, a change in emphasis. Today, business services can be found in every region of Australia—in large cities, country towns, rural and even remote areas. Some employ a mere handful of people; others are multi-site operations employing well over a thousand individuals.

The Disability Services Act 1986 heralded a new era for people with disabilities. It covers the whole gamut of issues affecting people with disabilities, including the management of business services. Under this act, business services had five years to meet certain standards of service to employees. Yet in 1992 the sunset clause had to be removed because in those five years only one agency had managed to meet the required standard. In an effort to move the process along a bit, the government made two changes: in 1993 the disability services standards were accepted; and resources were made available to help the funded agencies work through a three-tiered process of service improvement.

However, the process was still to be voluntary and assessment was to be done internally, with a government audit only after five years. By 2001, 39 per cent of agencies—that is, approximately 341 of the services—met the standards at the minimum level. Since this is the only statistic available, I think we can presume that the other 51 per cent failed to reach even that level.

The Disability Services Amendment (Improved Quality Assurance) Bill 2002, when coupled with the foreshadowed disallowable instrument, proposes a new and potentially more sophisticated system of quality assurance, overseen by an external body—the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand, commonly referred to as JAS-ANZ. Importantly, the process will include a person with a disability on the audit team to ensure that the consumers' experiences and views are carefully considered by that team.

It is very clear that the changes evident in the 2002 bill result from the long consultative process over recent years. The standards and the key performance indicators are the key to the success of this bill. They are to be presented as a disallowable instrument. It is equally clear that the detail contained in the disallowable instrument must go through a similar process— that of full and honest consultation. For the government to do otherwise could jeopardise the outcome. I understand this disallowable instrument will only be tabled after this present bill has received royal assent. We seek the minister's guarantee that there will be no delay in the presentation of that disallowable instrument.

The standards were designed to give people with disabilities the rights that most of us take for granted: services close to where we live; the right to privacy and respect; opportunities to grow and develop as individuals; good working conditions and on-the-job training; a complaints mechanism and workplace participation; confidence that the managers are competent as managers, understand their duty of care and their duty to ensure that workers fully understand how the organisation functions, where to take problems and how to contribute; and, above all, a fair wage. There are 12 standards in all, virtually unchanged since 1993. However, now the import of each standard is made clearer by the addition of 26 key performance indicators, or KPIs. There is reasonable consensus within the industry about all but two standards, and there are ongoing discussions about those differences between the Department of Family and Community Services and the business services and employee representatives.

A major area of contention involves KPI 9.1, regarding the appropriate wage assessment tool. While some in the sector believe the supported wage system, the SWS, should be the assessment tool, the contrary view argues there are a number of significant limitations when applying the SWS to business services. The SWS is currently used in open employment for people with disabilities, and in a few business services. I understand the government has begun a consultation process to develop an assessment tool for use in the business services sector. The contract is to be let by the end of this month, with a reporting time of November this year. The outcome would lead to a reintroduced disallowable instrument covering, obviously, the inclusion of the new wage assessment tool, and in the meantime the standards in KPI 9.1 would apply. We share the concerns of the sector at large: that an acceptable outcome be reached which will ensure fair and proper consideration of the salary paid to the employees in these business services and that they enjoy the service and workplace standards expected by all of us.

I made reference earlier to the fear or uncertainty some may have when considering the full implications of this bill. Clearly there are employees, families and organisations who are very anxious about the potential changes. Frankly, I understand that reaction. Many of the business services run at a very low profit level; many run at a loss. It is also true that a number of business services run far from satisfactory operations in which employees do not experience ideal workplace conditions. Some business services will not reach the level of certification, be it by choice or outcome. How many of those will face closure? How can that be avoided or at least limited? Will the employees facing closure of their business service be supported? What guarantees will the Commonwealth offer these people? These are serious questions requiring serious consideration.

We are fully supportive of the intentions of this bill and want to see the outcome we believe it offers. However, the government must give serious thought to these areas of concern. The minister must give assurances that, firstly, the government is fully aware of the possible outcomes and, secondly, the government will provide whatever support is required to the services and employees affected. My major concern centres on those high-dependency employees whose productivity may be low but whose right to work must be preserved. What we do not want to see is those people facing loss of employment and being left to find alternative services through the programs of the states and territories.

This would represent cost-shifting and would be an abrogation of Commonwealth responsibility. I am mindful of the current negotiations under way between the Commonwealth and the states and territories for the new Commonwealth-State Disability Agreement. It is more important now than ever before that the Commonwealth not walk away from its moral responsibilities. The community is looking for national leadership in the disability sector, and I believe this bill offers a wonderful opportunity for Minister Vanstone and the federal government to demonstrate that leadership. In the cases of both the quality assurance process and the Commonwealth-State Disability Agreement, leadership will inevitably entail an additional financial commitment from the federal government. Realistically, we have to face the fact that some employees, hopefully a small number, may find themselves moving into alternative programs. The government has an enormous responsibility to ensure that they are looked after.

As I have said, we support this bill and want to see it work. We seek the following assurances from the government: that business services receive the level and kind of support which will maximise the number of business services receiving certification; that where closures or amalgamations are inescapable the employees and/or their families affected are consulted and offered the appropriate level of support and service; and that, in consultation with the states and territories concerning the CSDA, fair and equitable additional funding arrangements are put in place to cater for the possible increase in services required following any adverse implications from this bill. We cannot afford to see the level of unmet need in the disability sector increase. Adequate funds simply must be available. This year's budget will demonstrate the degree to which the government is serious about this bill. Its intent is applauded by all, and we will support it through this place. The disallowable instrument must guarantee that this bill's intent is delivered. In finishing, I want to quote from the Senate Hansard of yesterday when Minister Vanstone said she wished:

... to point out that I firmly believe this is a very firm statement of the government's commitment to ensuring quality services for people with disabilities.

I feel very strongly that the ball is now in the government's court.