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Monday, 15 March 2010
Page: 2457

Mr HAYES (6:12 PM) —I rise today to lend my support to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010, a bill which proposes six administrative amendments. These go to improving the administrative arrangements of childcare services and the overall administration of childcare benefits and to a practical change which will enable the government to respond effectively to childcare closures when they regrettably occur. It is important to recall that the Rudd government was elected on a strong commitment to child care. It is fortunate that the Minister for Housing, Ms Plibersek, is at the table because in the lead-up to the last election she visited my electorate of Werriwa. Young families want a range of different things, including affordable housing, but certainly the provision of child care always ranked very high on the agenda in the south-west of Sydney. That is because the south-west of Sydney is very much a growing area. It is an area with young families and, regrettably, current housing prices do require couples to work pretty hard to afford places. To do that, a number of concessions have to be made and one of them is both parents having to work. That is one of the reasons why the Rudd government has brought in flexible work arrangements. These are things that very much go to our commitment to support young families.

As I said, this bill is about child care. I know how important child care is, and certainly anybody who lives in an outer metropolitan area—particularly in Sydney, but no doubt it is the same in everyone else’s electorate—knows the importance of it. I also know the importance of child care from my own family’s perspective. My daughter and son-in-law, who have three kids, are both working. My daughter is a full-time teacher. I know how, having three kids, they have to arrange child care so that she can maintain her career. I know there is a significant cost impost with that. Some of that cost is no doubt borne by grandmothers, with what they do, which is obviously highly appreciated. But in my daughter’s case, for her to have a career she must be able to go out and access affordable child care in a very competitive environment where most other mums are going through and doing the same thing.

My younger son has a daughter and he, as a builder, is out there building as much as he can under Building the Education Revolution. He is working pretty hard at that, and young Kiarni is fortunately now in our childcare centre in Campbelltown. These are things that are essential for working mums and dads. When our kids were growing up, it was less of a formal arrangement. In our case, my mum was the one who probably took on a lot of the childcare services when Bernadette and I had full-time activities, as we were trying to support mortgages but nevertheless raise a family. The patterns are changing, and as a consequence we as a government know that child care is very important to families. It enables parents to participate confidently in the workforce and it provides their kids with positive learning experiences.

We know from research that it is pretty clear that what children experience in the first five years of their lives sets them on a course for the rest of their lives. It shapes their futures: their health, their learning, their social development and their degree of social interaction. We want to make sure that their future is bright, and that is one of the other reasons why having properly structured child care not only makes sense but is essential. It is no longer just child minding, and that is why the focus on qualified childcare providers and qualified childcare personnel is just so critical in today’s modern environment. It is vital for our kids and it is important to recognise that because of economic constraints, the need to maintain ongoing employment and a number of things we do need to have the opportunity of having appropriately run and resourced childcare centres.

I know that my own electorate provides a number of first-class childcare options that suit many of the needs of growing families across south-western Sydney. It is important for those organisations to know that we appreciate their hard work and we appreciate their work for the industry. That industry is not only looking after our kids here and now but actually paving the way, putting down the foundations, for our kids’ development into the future. I have to say, having a number of grandchildren currently in child care, that that is pretty important to me.

We are also aware that the Commonwealth government provides childcare benefits to users of childcare services, in the form of fee reductions in most cases. To ensure that the delivery of this benefit is properly regulated childcare services have, since 2009, been required to operate using the Child Care Management System. The Child Care Management System is a national childcare system that brings all approved childcare services online to communicate information about the enrolment and attendance of children in their care at that particular service. This data is then provided to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, which in turn calculates the entitlement of the childcare benefit and pays that specific childcare benefit to the services, who pass it on as reduced fees to the parents and/or carers of children using those services.

The bill, on which I will now talk about in a little bit more detail, relates to the payments to childcare services, the obligation of childcare services and the transition from childcare management systems under the previous arrangements. Firstly, I would like to mention the issue of the business continuity payments. Under the new Child Care Management System the childcare services must submit an online report to receive childcare benefit payments on behalf of families. We understand that services may experience disruption. These can be local emergencies or some form of localised disaster but can be something as minor as—and this tends to happen in those areas which are frustrated about their internet connections at the moment—a disruption to internet usage.

The current legislation does not allow, in the case of those disruptions that prevent the online communication of a report, for the Commonwealth to pay for those services to the provider. This amendment introduces a business continuity payment so that services can continue to be paid childcare benefits when their normal online report cannot be submitted due to circumstances—and this is important to understand—which are beyond their control. They can then continue to have cash flow in their times of need. We must understand that the people running these childcare services are running a business, they do need their cash flow, and it cannot be interrupted simply because of the impossibility from time to time of communicating the online report as required. This goes a large way to remedying that issue.

Prior to the transition to the new Child Care Management System, childcare services used to be paid their childcare benefits every three months in advance. At the end of that quarter they would then go about acquitting the amount that they received against the actual childcare usage. Last year services transitioned to the new Child Care Management System, under which they are now paid weekly or fortnightly in arrears. However, the legislation that introduced the new system omitted to include any specific mechanism for recovery of the overadvanced amount acquitted before the services transitioned to the new Child Care Management System

The childcare services that had their advances acquitted on the following transition to the child Care Management System are required to repay their overadvance. It should be noted that this is an error that occurred in the legislation passed under the Howard government. Nevertheless, this amendment is trying to rectify that issue and it is effectively giving confirmation of the original intent of the previous government’s legislation and provides for acquittal of offences and the recovery of overadvanced amounts. Therefore, the amendments are retrospective to 29 June 2007. That is the date when the original provisions came into effect.

There are also changes to make it clear that the services who received less than their correct entitlements from the last quarterly payments under the old system can be paid the amount they are owed by the Commonwealth. Currently operators of approved childcare services are required to provide at least 30 days notice of an intention to close or transfer their operations. The basis of that is pretty clear. It is to give parents the opportunity to make some alternative arrangements for their children. I know this is probably not seen as a big change, but it is one for parents who are faced with a very competitive environment in seeking childcare services for their children, particularly if that service has been unfortunately terminated or has been transferred. Parents do need time. As opposed to the 30 days under the current provision, this bill requires operators to provide at least 42 days notice that they are intending to cease operations or have made a decision to do so. Not to provide that degree of notice will be a criminal offence involving civil penalty provisions.

Essentially, the reason so much emphasis has been put on this point—as I say, it is an adjustment of another 12 days—is that it is absolutely critical for young families to have alternative childcare services available to them, because otherwise it can mean people lose their jobs. They may not be forcibly sacked but be unable to pursue their paid employment and that could affect their career as a consequence. That is why the issue of closure or transition of business is so important from a family’s perspective and needs to be clarified. Emphasis needs to be made that it is of such importance that there are civil penalties that will apply for failure to comply.

As the minister said in her second reading speech, this amendment will take further steps to protect families from the disruption of the unfortunate incidents where childcare centres cease to operate. Of course, we know the difficulties this may cause for many families and we understand its importance. The necessary amendments will provide greater time for families to make alternative arrangements that best suit their needs.

The current legislation requires an automatic suspension of a childcare service if the service has received 10 infringement notices in a 12-month period. This suspension is mandatory, so it is a trigger for a range of different reasons. If 10 infringement notices have been issued to the one childcare service, that service is automatically suspended. This bill makes that action discretionary; it allows the secretary of the department discretion to take into consideration the nature of the infringement and the impact that the suspension will have on families that use that service, and allows discretion as to the penalty that will be provided. It may not be in the best interests of the continuity of that service—for a range of different reasons—for it to be automatically suspended. It may certainly not be to the benefit of parents using those services. Therefore, this is very appropriate in that it allows the department discretion in terms of suspension as opposed to a mandatory provision.

Finally, approved childcare services are currently required to provide statements to families setting out their Child Care Benefit entitlements and fees on a four-weekly cycle. But the catch in all this, unfortunately, is that the start dates of these statements may differ from child to child and may be the date that a child enters the service. So running a large childcare service could see a significant degree of administrative actions in setting out many, many reports over the period of a four-weekly cycle. We understand that this imposes very significant requirements that cause undue administrative complexity for various services whose primary responsibility is to provide child care. Therefore, these changes will be made to provide greater flexibility and less complexity for services to meet the obligation to provide statements.

Under this amendment, services will be able to nominate the frequency of statements, provided they are issued no less than on a three-monthly basis. All children within that particular service will be included on the same statement. So we are talking about one statement as opposed to a multiplicity of statements based on when a child started at the particular service. I know that these amendments will be improvements and welcomed by the sector, including many of those first-class childcare centres that operate in my electorate who have been unhappy and vocal about their concerns about the four-weekly statement cycle when they have discussed it with me.

In conclusion, the Rudd government was elected, as I stated earlier, with a very strong commitment to child care, and we are backing our commitment with an investment of over $16 billion over four years. We have made this very strong commitment to child care for one very important reason: it is essential for the economic future of this nation. It is also essential in order that all those parents out there can fully participate in their careers. In addition, providing quality child care is most beneficial, as I said earlier, for the future development of the kids of those parents. It provides a very, very solid foundation.

That $16 billion over four years is quite a significant commitment. To underline how significant it is, it is twice the amount provided over the four years of the last Howard government. We have doubled that commitment. Through this bill we are continuing to make practical and welcome steps to support both childcare services and Australian families. There can be no doubt as to what we give priority to in this government, and that is to working families. I therefore commend this bill to the House.