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Thursday, 18 March 2010
Page: 2212

Senator PAYNE (12:44 PM) —The coalition does not oppose the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010, which makes sensible, technical amendments to the childcare payment process. This bill will streamline the payment process and provide greater equity in certain important cases. It also allows the payment in arrears of childcare benefit, or CCB, when a childcare service cannot report daily attendance numbers because of circumstances beyond their control—that is, it is intended to deal with matters of natural disasters like a bushfire in Victoria or a flood in northern New South Wales or Queensland which may affect service lines and a childcare centre cannot send its electronic data reports.

This bill also simplifies requirements for four-weekly statements of payments to parents. It changes the suspension of childcare benefit automatically after 10 infringement notices in a 12-month period. In fact, soon this will be a discretionary process rather than an automatic suspension, depending on the circumstances of the case. The bill also extends the 30-day notification requirement of a childcare service ceasing to operate to 42 days when a centre is to cease functioning. It also clarifies the authority of the government to recover over advanced payments paid under the previous quarterly reporting system. It is the opposition’s view that these are all sensible amendments.

All childcare benefit approved childcare service providers are now required by law to operate under the Child Care Management System—the CCMS. This will bring all childcare services online and, using CCMS registered software, child enrolment and attendance information can be recorded daily. The data is given to the department electronically to allow calculation and payment of the childcare benefit fee reductions on behalf of those children using the childcare service. This bill ensures reporting can be done where circumstances beyond one’s control, making it hard or even impossible to do the report.

The other amendments in this bill deal with compliance issues. Approved childcare services are required to provide statements to individual families receiving the childcare benefit fee reductions every four weeks. However, varying start dates for the statement period can vary for the children in the care of a centre. At times this has made it difficult and caused unintended complexities for the services and increased administrative costs. These will be ameliorated by more flexibility in when parents have their payments reported.

There is currently within the legislation an automatic outcome where if there are 10 infringement notices in 12 months for a contravention of civil penalty provisions relating to record keeping, access to records, requests from the secretary for further information and payback of remittances—those sorts of things—there is automatic suspension of the childcare benefit approval. Other suspension cancellation provisions applying to the CCB approval are discretionary. This amendment will extend suspension discretion to the secretary for the 10 infringement notices in 12 months. They can then consider the impact of an automatic ceasing of remittances on the families who are actually using the service.

Further, if a childcare operator intends to close a service, currently it is required to notify the secretary at least 30 days before it ceases operations. This does have an enormous impact on families, as it is very difficult to find alternative child care quickly in any location really, and we have seen what has happened with the collapse of certain childcare centres recently and what would happen to most families in those circumstances. Under this bill, the notification date is extended to 42 days, which will give greater time to families to find alternative care. I would also note for the record that the existing penalty regime will continue to apply in relation to failure to comply with this new 42-day requirement.

Prior to the CCMS, childcare benefit was paid quarterly in advance. If there was an overpayment, it was recovered during the next quarter. Services are now paid CCB weekly, or fortnightly in arrears. The amendments are retrospective to 29 June 2007, and will clarify that the authority to recover over-advanced amounts does in fact exist in law.

While the coalition does not oppose these sensible, technical changes, we continue to have serious concerns about the state of child care and early childhood education in this country. We note that there are differences, discrepancies even, between the operation of child care between the states and territories and differences in the interpretation of standards as a result. We also note that recent reviews are inevitably, in our view—and we have put these questions to officers through estimates process and in the other chamber—going to lead to increased costs in childcare centres in relation to some of the requirements which will be introduced by the minister. The government is not talking about those issues. The opposition believes they need more attention, but in relation to this particular bill we support these changes.