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Wednesday, 14 February 2007
Page: 124

Mrs HULL (6:12 PM) —It is a great pleasure to rise to talk on the Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007 and to finally see addressed a very vexed and difficult issue that we have been looking at for some time in order to see the very best way that we can put in place productive and protective measures that give security for residents, security for families and security for aged-care workers and professionals.

I was interested to hear the previous speaker, the member for Canberra, talk about how the federal government should have addressed in this bill elder abuse and the abuse of older people living within the community. It is quite vexing because I cannot understand how the she would suggest that the federal government can do this. It is a law and order issue for the police. How can the government know about the types of abuse that the member was alluding to if it is happening in the home, where there are absolutely no controls by the federal government? These are primarily law and order issues for the policing of communities under the state governments. Perhaps the member was only considering possible or potential abuse by home and community care package service deliverers. I could not quite get the relativity of the criticism that she was making of this bill.

This bill will provide greater confidence to the people of Australia about the already high-quality aged care provided in our nursing homes today and every day of the year. It is true that most older Australians would want to remain as long as possible within their homes, close to family and friends and the shops, clubs, churches and community activities that they are familiar with. It can be a difficult time for people to have to relocate to an aged-care facility.

This is often the case in my electorate of Riverina. Many older rural people have to not only enter into aged care but travel to another town and community to find suitable residential aged-care beds, thus leaving their family and friends behind. In many cases, because of that tyranny of distance, they will very rarely have contact with those people in the future. For this reason, many of the people I represent in the Riverina choose not to enter a residential facility until they require very intensive support services. That, I guess, is the key statement: they do not enter until they require very intensive support services. These people need support and they become extremely vulnerable. This amendment bill will give new protection and added protection to aged-care residents. The protection will include compulsory reporting of abuse, protections for those who report those abuses and improved arrangements for investigating the complaints.

I cannot imagine how distressing it would be to experience any sort of abuse or unsatisfactory care in an aged-care facility. My strong support is behind this bill. One could use the analogy of a baby who has been put in a childcare centre and who is being abused, who has no voice, who is vulnerable but who has to rely on the carer who is giving them the support. They need to rely on that person in order to have their day-to-day needs fulfilled. A baby has to have nappies changed and meals provided. A baby has to be fed and needs general nurturing, hugging and comfort when they are hurt or sad. Those are exactly the same types of requirements that you have as an aged person. An aged person becomes vulnerable and frail and in desperation sometimes has to rely on the support of the very person who may abuse them. What a sad situation to be in.

In some conversations I have had about needs in aged-care facilities it has been raised with me that if you are simply a frail and aged person, you are able to illustrate or voice your concerns or speak about the inappropriate behaviour that might be happening to you. That would be just fine if that were the real case. But frail and aged people are people needing supportive care seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 12 months of the year and they have to rely on their carers. So they are sometimes afraid to speak out about different abuses that they may encounter simply because they are so reliant on the abuser. It leaves me cold with despair and anguish to think that you may be in a situation such that by needing the services of somebody, because your immediate family is not near or you do not have immediate family, you would have to accept physical, emotional or verbal abuse. This is extremely distressing for all of us to think about but some people are in this position.

That is why I genuinely welcome the amendments that we have before us in the House that begin the process of addressing, treating and overcoming any of the things that may be happening. Offering protection for those people who complain enhances the workplace of the aged-care worker and professional. It provides them with protection, and the will and the desire to continue working in this very worthwhile industry. It is a very low-paid industry. I think every worker in the aged-care industry deserves a much higher level of remuneration than they currently receive. But it is a lifestyle choice; it is a choice of career. It is a choice of how you want to spend your working life because you are absolutely committed to the care and wellbeing of our older Australians who, for the majority, have committed to and done so much for this nation and for its people. When you talk to those in the aged-care sector, it is staggering how absolutely committed to and involved they are with their charges in those facilities.

There were reported cases in April and July 2006 of physical or sexual abuse within aged-care facilities. This package of measures addresses those very real concerns and allegations of last year. In his consultation about and determination of what should be in this bill and how it should be delivered, the Minister for Ageing has met with as many people involved in the aged-care sector as possible. He has met with nurses in and managers of aged-care facilities, caseworkers and care workers. He has met with the residents and the very important family members as well. Most importantly, this minister has heard firsthand from those people who have been victims of abuse. That is the key area, having it hit fair between the eyes. This cannot be acceptable; under no circumstances can it ever be acceptable that anybody is in this position. So the minister will implement these conditions and guidelines in order to offer protection to our aged-care residents. The minister has also received and responded to emails from the public and has continued, as I said, to hold face-to-face meetings with a wide range of people.

I really do support the continuing and ongoing requirement for police background checks for aged-care workers and certain volunteers in the Australian government subsidised aged-care services. There have to be sensible and reasonable views on these police background checks in order that somebody who is absolutely committed to their work and who would never inflict abuse is not inappropriately dealt with. Those requirements came into effect on 21 December 2006 and will be implemented progressively from 1 March 2007. We have to have this important inclusion because it will continue to build on the already high level of care we see in and around our electorates—certainly in my electorate of Riverina.

I am very, very blessed—I know that I have raised this before and that I continually comment on this in the House—to visit my aged-care facilities on very frequent occasions. In doing so, I have become very familiar with staff and the absolute commitment that they have. Even the accreditation process that was implemented by this government has been an absolutely awesome experience. Yes, it is hard on the staff, but it is security for the residents and their families. I have listened to some discouraging remarks and discussion from the opposite side of the House during this debate, but there was no protection for aged-care residents prior to this government coming in in 1996.

There was no accreditation required to ensure the quality and standard of service provided to residents. There were no provisions for fire safety and a whole host of other areas. There was no reason to fill in paperwork and forms because they simply were not in existence until such time as this government put in those very strong accreditation schemes, and made them quite rigorous and transparent. It has been a learning process for the facilities, but I can guarantee you that, whilst it is an arduous task, each and every facility absolutely supports it. They absolutely recognise that this has to happen. They have grown and learnt enormously about themselves—about their delivery of service, about the care, comfort and quality they offer the residents and about the very requirements and needs of an elderly person that may have previously been taken for granted and not overly considered in the delivery of these services. So I am very happy to see those frequent, unannounced inspections of aged-care homes by the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency to ensure that everyone is complying with care and safety standards for residents. I welcome the increase in spot checks; that simply has to happen. That will ensure a resident’s wellbeing, day-to-day care and hygiene are looked after. Unless you are doing this you are at risk of being caught out by these spot checks.

We have a more robust aged-care complaints-handling process, with investigative powers, and the establishment, thankfully, of a new Aged Care Commissioner. I congratulate the minister on this. The Aged Care Commissioner will provide an independent mechanism for the examination of decisions made by the Department of Health and Ageing in relation to complaints investigations.

I will use my last few minutes to sum up on the compulsory reporting of incidents of sexual and certain physical assaults in residential aged care. I reiterate my support of the protection for those who report. Without that protection—without the ability to speak freely without fearing recrimination and reprisal, of being treated in that whistleblower way—we will not be able to overcome many of the issues that confront our frail and elderly people. The bill establishes the requirement for approved providers to report to the police and to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing incidents involving alleged or suspected reportable assaults. I am very supportive of this. In addition, the approved providers of residential aged-care homes must also take reasonable measures to ensure that staff members report any suspicion or allegation of reportable assaults to the approved provider and to protect the identity of any person who makes a report of a reportable assault within 24 hours of the event. Failure to have the necessary systems and protocols in place and failure to report such incidents will indicate regulatory noncompliance, leading to the possible imposition of quite severe sanctions.

I believe that the vast majority of aged-care providers, as most of the speakers in this House have indicated, give excellent care. I believe that the vast majority of aged-care workers regard their duties of care to vulnerable, frail and older Australians as absolutely sacrosanct. But when something does happen that has compromised the health and safety of one of our beloved elderly then we need to have the provisions to ensure that that situation can never happen again, and that it is remedied immediately.

I imagine that many families and aged people in aged-care homes who may have been listening to this debate or reading the newspapers to get information on the impending legislation, guidelines and rules will at last feel that aged people will truly and genuinely be protected if they are in the position of being abused. The majority of Australian people would be absolutely filled with repulsion to even contemplate that somebody could molest or abuse any older person. That kind of person and that kind of activity fill us with abhorrence. I say to anybody who may be a perpetrator of this type of behaviour in an aged-care facility or in the community: we are out to get you. You will no longer be able to inflict your insecurities or your viciousness on another person. In the long run, we are going to find those people and they are going to be dealt with. They should never stop recognising that they are under the watch of many Australian people and that their actions will not be tolerated now or in the future. If we can strengthen these bills in the future then we should. I commend the bill and I congratulate the minister.