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Tuesday, 7 May 1985
Page: 1437


Senator HAINES(4.14) —As has been indicated already by previous speakers, the Supported Accommodation Assistance Bill is relatively non-controversial and has in principle support at least from all political parties. It aims essentially to put into effect agreements and arrangements between the Federal, State and Northern Territory governments for the provision of supported accommodation and related support services. As Senator Crowley has just pointed out, it consists of three major sub-programs-a general supported accommodation sub-program, a women's emergency services sub-program, and a youth supported accommodation sub-program. Through these programs, non-government organisations or local governments will be assisted to provide a range of supported accommodation and related services for people who are either permanently or temporarily, because of some form of crisis, deprived of accommodation, rendered homeless, often with dependent children.

The idea of bringing some sense to the confusion of different funding programs was indeed a good one and was long overdue. I understand that the concept behind the SAA Bill has been in the Department's pipeline for a number of years. It is certainly welcomed, at least in principle, by most people who are involved in this area. What existed previously was a mishmash of programs for accommodation and accommodation-related problems. Different funding criteria, different guidelines, different allocation levels, different administrative procedures, and some quite restrictive client eligibility criteria applied to those matters. The original proposal for change that was contained in the joint ministerial statement put out by Senator Grimes, Senator Ryan and Mr Hurford in December 1983 acknowledged that the then existing system was confusing and that wage and staffing levels were inconsistent across the different programs. Women's shelters were best funded-I say that in a relative sense; I do not think they were particularly well funded but of the groups that were funded they were probably best funded-and youth groups, youth shelters, were badly funded. I suspect the worst funded of all were the homeless persons services because funding was provided mostly on a submission-based process. The number and spread of services did not necessarily relate to the level and areas of need that existed. Indeed, all the evidence points to a critical and rapidly increasing demand compared with the number of available services. The situation varied, of course, from State to State, with some States being more committed to the appropriate use of Federal funding and some States more prepared to add their own funding in these areas.

Among other things, the new program aims to improve wage levels to a minimum $18,000 per annum per full time worker, with 17 per cent on-costs, and it aims to do this across the services. The program aims also to improve staffing levels, to ensure, through the program, that funds needed for upgrading existing services are available, and also that funds for establishing new services are available. Administratively, the program is to be accountable to joint government and non-government policy and priority-setting bodies. Apparently the approach is to be one of needs identification, co-ordination, development and evaluation.

As I think I have indicated in my opening remarks, I applaud the Government's concern for people who are homeless, whether permanently homeless or temporarily homeless. As Senator Crowley has already indicated, women and children in crisis are the group which makes up the majority of people who are temporarily homeless, while it seems to be men who form a majority of those who are permanently homeless. We also support the Government's commitment to relieve that problem. I understand the Government's belief that needs in these areas must be met in a cost effective way. We all believe in cost effectiveness in these and in other areas, but I am concerned that cost efficiency in crisis care areas can lead to governments at State and Federal levels placing too much emphasis on cost efficiency and too little on care efficiency. In areas where people need to be emotionally cared for, where they need psychological and emotional assistance as well as accommodation assistance, I think it is very important that we do not place undue emphasis on cost efficiency and, in doing so, allow care efficiency to take second place.

Senator Crowley has already pointed out the vulnerable nature of the women and children who seek accommodation in shelters, and there is no question that there are not sufficient staff to meet the needs of these women already. To make that situation any worse would be counterproductive to what is at least the stated aim of the Government in this SAA program. It is concern about this which caused representatives of women's shelters in a number of States last year to react particularly angrily to their inclusion in the program. To them the provision of counselling and support to women and their children in crisis as a result of domestic violence was the primary objective of their existence. The provision of shelter and a bed for the night, the next week, the next month or whatever the time period, while it was certainly an integral part of providing assistance to these women and their children, was not to workers in women's shelters the main element of the assistance that they were providing. They believed, with some reason, that being funded under the SAA program would reverse their priorities, or would indicate that the Government was reversing their priorities. Worse, they believed that they would be kept so busy being cost effective that they would be prevented from being care effective.

The unfortunate reality is that governments rarely supply sufficient funding to community groups so that they can take on enough staff to do the book work as well as the counselling and the caring in providing the emotional support that is so necessary, as Senator Crowley pointed out, to make these people aware of their own integrity and worth as people. For some reason it seems that only workers in shelters or crisis care accommodation areas and other recipients of government welfare funds are expected to be multi-skilled. They are expected to be skilled at counselling and accountancy, form filling-in, bookkeeping or whatever. They are expected, on miserable salaries, either to spend vast amounts of extra time-their own involuntary time-on paperwork, over and above their caring responsibilities, or to cut back the time spent on caring for people in order to take care of the paperwork. Anybody who has laid eyes on the client record form and the SAA program new service record will know that I am not throwing up some kind of red herring. The client record form is five pages long and contains 19 questions. The supported accommodation assistance program new service form consists of four pages with six questions. Although it has only six questions, many of them are multi-part. The extra time taken to fill in those forms on a regular basis will inevitably detract from the time that the carers can spend on the women and children in shelters and on the homeless youth and the men in some of the other shelters.

No one will argue that changes needed to be made to a system which contained, as I have already indicated, different funding criteria, different guidelines, different allocation levels and some rather restrictive client eligibility criteria. One could, however, argue with the Government's lavish claim that full consultation with non-government organisations has taken place. Despite the rhetoric of consultation and active non-government input, the operation resembled to many representatives in the organisations concerned nothing more than a lecture tour by departmental people and some members of government. Rightly or wrongly, many of the organisations that will come under the provisions of this legislation believe that State and Federal politicians and bureaucrats decided with very little consultation what would happen, who was in and who was out of the scheme and what the timetable would be. These people spent more time wrangling with each other than consulting the non-government organisations that were to be participants in the scheme.

It was drawn to my attention that on at least one occasion in Victoria a group received discussion papers at 11 o'clock in the morning with a consultative committee meeting scheduled for 12.30 p.m. That did not exactly give the group a great deal of time to be consulted or to participate in any meaningful way. As a result many of the organisations are far from happy with the process which the Government has undertaken. They feel that they have not been consulted adequately, that they have been treated like idiots and as irrelevant and incidental elements of the scheme. They are, and have been, irritated and inconvenienced by the delayed start of the program. They believe that the delay was due almost entirely to inter-governmental arguing.

I am informed that the administrative and joint committee processes have nearly all started working, but I have also been told that as at the middle of last month-I have not updated this information, so the situation may now have improved- the South Australian non-government workers had still not received pay increases to $18,000, nor had they received their allocation for upgrading existing services. My strong impression is that the same delays apply in other States. The delays are intolerable for the services which are inconvenienced. They are intolerable, in particular, for their clients who are suffering as a result of inadequate funding and staffing levels.

Let me repeat, despite what I have just said, that I believe the program is a positive move forward. Just about anything would have been, given the rather chaotic state of play that has existed to date. Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that housing problems in general and crisis housing problems in particular are enormous in this country. For example, about 30,000 families in New South Wales alone are residing involuntarily in caravans. Vast numbers of young people are homeless, and the numbers are increasing, as Senator Crowley pointed out. Large numbers of women and their children are rendered, often temporarily, but sometimes permanently, homeless because of domestic violence. Very few of these women are in a position to acquire very readily permanent housing of their own, whether through the public or private rental market or through ownership. It would be tragic indeed if budgetary considerations or interstate wranglings meant that questions of need, appropriate planning, co-ordination and so on became secondary to getting bodies into beds, come what may, where statistics took precedence over humane considerations. Any government's razor gang exercises do not bode too well for increases in funding commensurate with the extent of need for supported accommodation, or for what I believe are the generally worthy objectives of the program.

I would like to raise a number of issues now rather than in the Committee stage of the debate because I think it will save time if those matters are raised now. I am not the only senator who is puzzled at the funding divisions listed on page 8 of the Bill in Part V of the Schedule. For example, in column 1 New South Wales is listed as receiving $4,191,000. Victoria is listed as receiving $1,857,000. At the bottom of the list is the Northern Territory, which is to receive $384,000. I would be interested to know, as would some of the groups involved, the cause for the huge funding differential. Obviously New South Wales should receive more than the Northern Territory, but there does seem to be a rather disproportionate allocation to New South Wales. There may well be a very good reason for this and I would like to know what it is. I would like to know whether the allocation is made on a population basis or whether it is because New South Wales has more shelters or needs more shelters and other forms of supported accommodation than does any other State. A matter raised with me by the Youth Accommodation Coalition in Victoria relates to its concern that the scope and eligibility of funding should include information provision and co-ordination services. These are particularly well developed in Victoria. Victorians and people in some other States consider that these are essential for the efficient use of resources. That concern appears to me to be covered by the phrase 'related supported services' in clauses 7 (a), 7 (b) and 7 (c) of Part IV of the Schedule to the Bill. Nevertheless, there is a concern that the Government will in practice be inclined to give preference to projects improving the statistics regarding the number of beds available and that it would therefore give second priority to co-ordination. I make the point, as indeed the Coalition has made the point, that this would be false economy and presumably against the spirit of the legislation.

Women's shelters are concerned about access which is to be provided to Commonwealth, State and Territory officers under one of the conditions of grant. They are worried that this may be enforced regardless of the need for secrecy. Certainly there is a comment in the guidelines that requests would not include confidential information which may identify clients or residents Nevertheless, it states that access is to be provided to these officers. People running the shelters have raised this question because secrecy is an integral part in protecting the women and children in the shelters.

Concern has been raised by a number of groups about the part that the NGOs play in the decision-making process or funding. While they have certainly been upset about what they see as a lack of consultation to date, by the same token they do not want to play the sort of part in round table discussions concerning how funding is allocated that would get them into the sort of wrangling that would set one disadvantaged group against another disadvantaged group. Understandably they would quite prefer to leave that to the bureaucrats so that blame can be allocated in an area in which the groups themselves do not feel particularly vulnerable.

In conclusion I simply say, as appears to be the case with other parties which have already addressed the issue, that the Australian Democrats support in principle what the Government is trying to do. We hope that this will improve the efficiency of the provision of supported accommodation and related matters. We hope that at some time in the future funding restraints will not get us back into the currently unsatisfactory situation of too few accommodation areas and too few staff to assist the people who need either permanent or temporary accommodation. However, in the main I wish the perpetrators of this legislation well and hope that in the long run the sorts of services provided will suit the needs of the community better than in the past.