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Wednesday, 14 February 2007
Page: 121

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (5:57 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007. In doing so I feel compelled to digress for a moment, if I may, in following the member for Moreton. There is absolutely no doubt that we have in the aged-care sector some of the most dedicating, hardworking and committed people at that coalface he talked about, giving wonderful service to our aged members of the community who need to be in aged-care facilities for one reason or another. The little caveat I would put over that when he talks about the extracurricular activity that they undertake—the overtime without pay and the extra things they do—is that, whilst not wishing to rain on his parade too much, one of the biggest questions in aged care now and for some years has been how we actually attract those people into the sector, how we maintain them in the sector and how we actually pay them appropriately within the sector. Maintaining and paying are two of the big questions. I am virtually agreeing with the member for Moreton but putting a bit of a warning around his words. Whilst some of those hardworking staff do in fact go that extra mile, they really should not be required to. There should be sufficient numbers of them in there and they should be getting paid sufficiently so that, when they get in there, we actually hang onto them. That is a very big thing that government, no matter what their colour, needs to attend to.

Another thing that both the member for Moreton and the member for Blaxland mentioned—again a bit of a digression—was the comment about elderly people who, in their later years and with a little bit of dementia, can sometimes resort to a native language other than English. I want to mention briefly a program that I came across in my electorate late last year. Communities@Work, a community service organisation in the southern end of my electorate, decided to try a program giving access and guidance on computer skills to some of those very people. They got a number of laptops and they went along and engaged with some elderly folk, some of whom had a little bit of dementia, in aged services. Not only did those people graduate—I had the pleasure of presenting graduation certificates to these folk—but those who had retained or regained their mother language suddenly had access, through the internet, to the newspapers of their country of origin. Many had not seen newspapers from their home country in their local language for 30, 40 or 50 years. A side benefit that the people who were running the program were delighted to see was that all of a sudden this dear elderly soul with dementia or with a bit of nostalgia suddenly found that he or she could read, via the internet, the newspapers in their mother tongue from their home country. They were delighted. It was a very good program and I hope we will see more of those programs. But, as I said, I digress.

The Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007 will introduce new compulsory reporting arrangements, with requirements for aged-care providers to report suspected or alleged sexual abuse and serious physical assaults of residents. It will also require providers to ensure there are internal processes in place for the reporting by staff of all incidents of suspected or alleged sexual or serious physical assault and that the identity of staff who make those reports is protected and that staff who report are not unfairly treated as a result of making a report.

The bill also gives the Department of Health and Ageing greater capacity to investigate complaints and to require aged-care providers to correct failures to meet their responsibilities. A new Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance within the department will be responsible for this. The bill replaces the current Commissioner for Complaints with a new Aged Care Commissioner to provide an independent mechanism to hear complaints about how the department has responded to complaints and about the conduct of the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency and its assessors. The Aged Care Commissioner will also have the capacity to initiate their own reviews.

This bill provides solutions for the protection of residents in aged-care facilities from sexual and physical abuse. It is a sad reality that this legislation is needed. It is a fact that abuse has occurred. I must at this point recognise the absolute courage displayed by family members of victims of abuse in these sorts of circumstances. I clearly recall the ABC Lateline program of 20 February 2006. The story revealed by the family—from memory, I think it was the granddaughters—of an aged-care resident, talking about the abuse suffered by their grandmother in an aged-care facility, was both extremely confronting and most disturbing. I understand, from my knowledge of my community, that in the past incidents of abuse have occurred within my community of Canberra—few and far between but they have occurred. There have also been allegations of less serious, but nonetheless equally disturbing, abuse and behaviour affecting some residents in aged care. This legislation is part of the government’s response to these types of events

In my experience, the majority of aged-care providers give care and security to their residents in a highly professional and highly competent manner. I recognise this and I commend them for the contribution they make to our society and to the lives of those in their care. I understand the aged-care sector has been involved in consultation processes leading to this legislation and is reasonably comfortable with the bill’s intent. The sector, however, is also supportive of a detailed inquiry, which may result in some technical amendment.

As I said earlier, the major elements of the bill are the requirement for compulsory reporting, the protection of those who report, the establishment of ‘investigative principles’ by regulation and significant changes to the aged-care complaints process. I welcome the elements of protection of those who report. The legislation requires that staff members who make disclosures must have their identities protected and must not be criticised. It further protects disclosers from civil and criminal liability. I also note the inclusion of investigation principles. The bill proposes changes to the departmental section of aged care quality and compliance which will be established as the Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance.

The Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance will have the power to investigate all complaints. In the case of a breach, the office will have the power to require the approved provider to remedy the situation and apply sanctions if necessary. I note the significance of the change to the way complaints about aged care generally will be dealt with under these new provisions. I am very aware of the frustration of people who make complaints under the current system, which has called merely for mediated resolution. This has plainly not worked, and I am only sorry to see how long it has taken to come up with an alternative approach.

A further change is the insertion of a new part into the act to establish the Aged Care Commissioner. The Aged Care Commissioner will replace the existing Commissioner for Complaints. They will have the powers to investigate complaints arising from action taken by the new Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance with regard to investigations and conduct of that office. I understand the commission will also be able to examine certain decisions and complaints that may be made by the office, and make recommendations accordingly. Further provisions in the bill on the role of the commissioner include the commissioner having the capacity to undertake ‘own motion’ reviews. The commissioner will advise the minister, at the minister’s request, about any matters that may arise from examinations undertaken.

In general terms, I welcome the provisions of the bill. I must point out, however, that the process has been far from satisfactory. The bill has come into the parliament without the shadow minister being able to see it before the government recommended that it proceed to a Senate legislation committee inquiry. The investigation principles that support this bill are still in draft form and have not been sighted. They are being implemented two years after the Senate inquiry report Quality and equity in aged care found deficiencies in the operation of the current complaints resolution scheme and made recommendations to improve the system, including a recommendation for whistleblower protection. I understand the bill is now with a Senate legislation committee inquiry, through which we will be able to examine the workability of the proposals. It is quite possible that amendments may be required after that inquiry.

The calls for reformed legislation in this area are nothing new. I believe it is fair to say that the horrific stories that appeared early last year, in particular, prompted the government to finally act. But why has it taken them so long to hear, believe and understand the calls for action over a much longer period of time? I am sure I am not the only member in this place who has talked about these issues in debates in this House in the past.

The minister announced that the government would introduce this legislation in July last year, with a start-up date of 1 April 2007. I think it is pretty poor to see the government then rush a bill of this kind into the parliament while virtually admitting amendments will be needed by sending it straight off to a Senate committee. I understand that the committee must report by 1 March. That is a very tight timetable indeed.

Yes, these changes are needed and, yes, they have been slow in coming. Our older citizens and their families should feel secure in the accommodation choices they face and make. However, we must note that most abuse of older people actually occurs in the community. Elder abuse is a topic we should all be pursuing and paying greater attention to. Some of our states are conducting programs to support older people and provide community education about combating elder abuse. I believe this government could learn from those projects. This bill does nothing to address the sad reality of elder abuse broadly within our community.

I will conclude by again saying that, yes, we need these changes. I am really sorry it has taken a while for them to come. The deplorable situations that became headlines just on a year ago, I believe, were the catalyst for action suddenly occurring. I applaud the fact that action has been forthcoming, and it should not have taken those shocking abuse cases hitting the headlines. They should not have happened but they did. The community deserves to have seen this sort of action long before these cases occurred. I know from my involvement in the aged-care community over a large number of years that there has been discussion about ways to change the complaints mechanisms and the reporting mechanisms, and about ways to handle any situations that occur within facilities. What we have not talked about here, and maybe we should, is what sorts of mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that elderly people within their own homes are equally safely protected. With the greatest of good intent by all the wonderful people out there giving services, if we believe this sort of behaviour and action is required within facilities I would ask whether we need to look carefully at what we are doing outside facilities, where there has been a growth in the uptake of people choosing to receive aged-care services within their homes.

On that note, I would like to add that I also strongly support the option for the provision of aged-care services in people’s own homes, but only in cases where it suits them, where they need it and where the support structure around them can encourage and endorse it. Families are not to be made to feel bad about the fact that facility care is occasionally needed, and when it is needed we should equally support those people as well. I have been happy to speak to this bill, and I look forward to seeing the outcome of the Senate inquiry.