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Thursday, 21 March 2002
Page: 1950

Ms GRIERSON (6:50 PM) —I also rise to speak in support of the Disability Services Amendment (Improved Quality Assurance) Bill 2002. As the member for Canberra has clearly outlined, this legislation is important under the Family and Community Services area of responsibility. It has a specific target group—that is, the providers of employment services and rehabilitation support services for people with disabilities. But, more importantly, the indirect target of this legislation is the people who receive those employment and rehabilitation services. They are the people with disabilities who look to these services to play an important part in improving the quality of their lives and assuring satisfaction is gained from their daily activities. Those people, people with disabilities of diverse kinds, reside in every electorate in Australia.

This legislation attempts to ensure that all of these people gain access to a high-quality and high-performing service. If this bill succeeds, it will ensure consistent standards across the country and across all service providers. After considerable scrutiny and advice, this legislation now separates more clearly the different types of disability service providers. This will mean that in future those providing such services as accommodation, advocacy, independent living training, information, print, recreation and respite are distinguished from those providing the important services of employment and rehabilitation. The former category of disability support services and providers will receive government funding without falling under the control of this bill. The latter two categories, employment and rehabilitation services, will have to attain new accreditation standards in order to gain government funding.

Because of the individual and specific nature of many disabilities, those affected seek the support of specialised employment and rehabilitation services. They need to know that these services are efficient and effective in assisting them to gain and keep suitable employment. If this legislation is effective, it should improve the confidence in these services of those that need them.

Prior to this legislation, performance against the standards that were mentioned—the current 12 standards that have been there since Labor introduced them in 1993—was left to self-assessment annually by such organisations and then audited by the Department of Family and Community Services. Fortunately, this bill will now make it much more predictable and, hopefully, the standards now will be such that a quality service results. The proper accreditation and certification system that will be introduced should assist to ensure that quality.

Although $17.2 million will be allocated to support the accreditation process, the real work will be done by the people who actually work for the disability employment and rehabilitation service providers. It is hoped that the implementation of this legislation will be manageable and will not have some of the negative impacts that accompanied the introduction of quality assurance into the aged care sector. Given this prior experience, it is important that the Department of Family and Community Services does not underestimate the impact this legislation will have on the disability employment services sector. Therefore, hopefully it will provide sufficient support and adequate funds to ensure a smooth process that does not compromise client service.

Hopefully we have learned some lessons from the introduction of that accreditation program into the aged care industry. Having been directly involved with an aged care hostel at that time, I observed the demands on staff increase dramatically. I also saw a shift in the emphasis in the initial period from client service to meeting the extensive administration demands of the accreditation process. It also seemed that a lot of accreditation support funds were spent on facilitators and consultants instead of being spent on directly improving service delivery.

The real test of the effectiveness of this legislation, though, will be an analysis of the jobs gained and kept by people with disabilities. Easy access to appropriate work would satisfy the test. Unfortunately, actually assisting people with disabilities to find and keep paid employment will not be guaranteed by this legislation—if jobs are not there, this legislation will have little effect. With unemployment remaining unacceptably high in regional and rural Australia, there is still a major need for government intervention in regions such as Newcastle and the North Coast of New South Wales.

The member for Richmond would be aware that his electorate has the highest rate of unemployment in the state of New South Wales. Many people in rural and regional Australia, with or without disability, are competing for an ever-shrinking job pool. Government needs to do much more than pass this legislation to provide better employment access for people with disabilities. Restoring Commonwealth public services to regional and rural Australia would assist.

Another issue of importance to smaller communities may be the need to recruit new personnel to assist them with the accreditation process, but in smaller rural areas this may not be easy. Therefore, transitional support and some flexibility will be important if we are to ensure the survival of these smaller services, not just the survival of the large and more competitive organisations. If we lose choice, diversity and locally based services, we will not have improved services for people with disabilities through this legislation.

This legislation will improve a service that is essential for people with disabilities, but the other area that the government must address is the need for people with disabilities to have the skills to put themselves up for employment. That, of course, depends on adequate funding for education and training.

To illustrate the challenge, I draw the House's attention to the example Kotara High School in my electorate, a school which provides special education programs for students with hearing impairment. This year that high school will receive only a third of what the professional staff consider is needed to provide effective programs for these students. Instead of being able to prepare their students adequately for the vocational challenges they will face when leaving school, they will have to reduce programs and limit that focus to foundation learning. Government failure to support our students with disabilities too often results in more people with disabilities facing immense difficulty in gaining appropriate employment.

In concluding, I do urge support for this bill. It is an important measure in assisting people with disabilities into the work force and, if successfully implemented, should result in a consistent, high-standard service throughout Australia—one that is better able to achieve the best employment outcomes for people with disabilities. I also wish the Department of Family and Community Services great success in supporting our disability employment service providers as they move through the difficult accreditation process that this bill will give effect to.