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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12585

Ms LEY (Farrer) (17:36): I rise to speak in response to the minister's statement on the tender outcomes of the Disability Employment Services—Employment Support Service, and I thank the minister for her statement and the information she has provided to me and my office about this process today. Like the government, the coalition believes that everyone who can work should work. Employment provides people with a sense of self-worth and, for many, grants them an independence they may not have previously experienced. Disability Employment Services have a crucial role to play in fostering the social inclusion of many Australians who have a disability. By assisting people into employment, we are helping them to engage more fully with the society around them.

The former coalition government made some important changes to disability employment. The open employment services program transferred from the portfolio of the Department of Families and Community Services, or FaCS, as it was then, to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, DEWR, in November 2004. In 2005, we replaced case based funding with a fee-for-service model. We also saw the introduction of an uncapped stream for some Disability Employment Network, otherwise known as DEN, participants, and major changes to the delivery of vocational rehabilitation services. These have all been important measures in developing Disability Employment Services and boosting employment for people with disabilities.

But under this Labor government we seem to be on a backward trajectory. Indeed, I share the minister's concern that the OECD currently ranks Australia 21 out of 29 countries for employment participation for people with a disability. However, I think the minister needs to accept that this is a responsibility for the government, well and truly, and it rests on their shoulders. They have had the running on this for almost five years now.

So, yes, improvements are needed, but a large portion of the blame should also be directed at the mass overload of administration and compliance required of providers. Remember: for every minute that you are complying with departmental contractual liabilities and associated requirements, you are not doing the job that you want to do, that you are trained for, and that, ironically, the government has contracted you to do, which is to work, face to face, nearly always, with people with a disability.

Serious measures to reduce red tape is a prime example of where we believe this government has fallen down. Across the board in employment services, providers are spending the majority of their time satisfying DEEWR compliance activities instead of focusing on the job seeker. This is time that could be far better spent with that job seeker, helping address their barriers to employment and helping them get the skills they need to do the job they want, or in business development. If we really want to engender an employment services model that provides flexibility and enables providers to take innovative approaches towards assisting people with disabilities into the workforce, then we need to do away with some of this red tape. Providers should not be weighed down with administration that does nothing to benefit the quality of the service provided to job seekers or, even worse, detracts from the time they can spend directly assisting someone into work—and that is not just in the office with the job seeker in front of the case worker. It is out in the workplace environment. It is driving to wherever the activity is taking place. It is calling them in the morning to make sure they are going to get up and go to work. It is dealing with the discussions that they have with their bosses. It is encouraging their employers not to let them go but to give them another chance. There is so much practical, physical, real work associated with this. I really get depressed and upset when I hear from services that tell me that their compliance burden is sometimes almost a third of their total workload.

We also need a sensible and fair performance management framework, and a tendering process that is equitable and transparent. Under this Labor government, the tendering arrangements for employment services were thrown into disarray with the initial tender for Job Services Australia. We saw concerns regarding breaches of probity from the then minister's office, with email communications between a provider and the minister's chief of staff, and an entire sector thrown into disarray with the decision to tender 100 per cent of the business. By tendering approximately 80 per cent of the business for Disability Employment Services, we do run a very real risk of additional chaos within the sector.

History shows us that every new employment services contract takes months to revert to previous levels of employment placements and outcomes. Disruption in the disability employment sector can cause significant disruption to the servicing of a job seeker who has to transfer providers as a result of a negative tender outcome. I welcome the minister's commitment to the management of this transition process, both with the services and with the job seeker. I think that is very important. And I appreciate that that will be done.

This is one of the reasons why, in the Senate committee inquiry into the administration and purchasing of disability employment services in Australia, we recommended that future contracts be extended from three years to five years. Not only is this a practical measure to ensure greater consistency for the job seekers but also it gives greater business certainty. Businesses are in a position to enter into five-year rental contracts. They can maintain relationships with local employers, and their staff have greater job security. There is also a further benefit to the Commonwealth by reducing pressure on existing resources every time a contract is put out to tender.

I do believe that the probity processes have improved, but I think that the government still persists in failing to hear the concerns of industry adequately. Many DES providers queried the decision to tender all business where providers were three star and below. I understand that, prior to this, three stars were considered the performance level to which providers should aspire, as a minimum satisfactory performance.

I think there is also room for government to do more to promote the employment of people into purposeful jobs. There is a tendency to place people with disabilities into jobs doing night-fill at supermarkets or trolley collection, yet many of these people have capacity for more hours or alternative jobs that offer career progression, and we need an employment services model that assists this process. Too often, we hear of providers feeling forced to move people into jobs that they otherwise would not, to keep them in jobs for a period of time that they otherwise would not, and to have their eye continually on the star ratings. I know that there has to be some measure of quality, but wherever the departmental contractual requirements make you, as a provider, do something that you otherwise would not do in the interests of your job seekers, then somewhere, somehow, the system has failed.

Finally, I will pay tribute to the sector, to its businesses and its workforce, for the heart and the soul and the strength that they put into the satisfying but often exhausting work that they do. Following the results of this tender process—and the opposition has just heard about it today, so we make no comment on who has been successful and who has been unsuccessful; that will come—there will be enormous disappointments. There will be frustrations. There will be a feeling of not being valued. And there will be that huge transition process not just for the workforce but for the job seekers.

I do hope that the government has got this right. I do hope that this costly, lengthy and, in many cases, very difficult and challenging process that providers have got to go through in order to tender, to prove that they are the best, is actually going to be worth it in the end. And I do, as I said, want very much to thank the people who work with job seekers every day.

There comes to mind one job seeker I met recently whose job was to clean a childcare centre. The centre called the employee in the morning and she said she was not going to make it in, so the entire staff of the Disability Employment Service rushed to the childcare service, cleaned the dirty nappies, emptied the bins and got it spotless for the day's work to begin—over and above, obviously, what they would be required to do, but such was their commitment. We, in this parliament, all appreciate and understand what they do, and we in the opposition reserve our judgement on the outcome of this tender process.