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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 4308


Senator LUDWIG (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) (11:58 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Rudd Labor Government is committed to providing English language tuition to newly arrived migrants through a targeted, well designed program that supports clients in their transition to life in Australia.

Consistent with this commitment, this Bill amends the Immigration (Education) Act 1971 (‘the Act’), which provides the legislative basis to the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP). The purpose of the amendments is to implement the new AMEP Business Model, which forms part of the Government’s broader settlement framework.

The settlement framework provides a continuum from offshore to onshore to deliver long term sustainable settlement outcomes, developing an integrated service delivery network that will support new arrivals to rebuild their lives in Australia. The government’s intention is that improvements to settlement programs will be client centred and achieve real and practical outcomes in line with the Government’s social inclusion agenda.

Research has demonstrated that English language proficiency is the single most important determinant of successful settlement. The AMEP plays a significant role in this regard by providing clients with settlement focussed English language tuition and settlement support.

A significant feature of the new AMEP Business Model is to provide greater support for clients whilst improving client retention and the English language proficiency of clients. A key initiative, announced in the 2009-10 Budget, is an increase in the number of AMEP counsellors to provide clients with guidance to help them meet their goals. This includes guidance on pathways to further English language tuition, education, employment or vocational training.

This support, combined with the reinforcement of client obligations and responsibilities in participating in the program, will play an important role in retaining clients and helping them gain the most from their involvement in the program. Improving AMEP client outcomes through targeted and agreed learning pathways is consistent with the goals articulated in the settlement framework.

The new AMEP Business Model will also improve program delivery and administrative arrangements.

The amendments in this Bill will provide greater settlement support for clients, greater consistency and transparency in decision making and greater clarity in relation to the eligibility requirements for the program.

Greater support for clients

Firstly, the Bill proposes to extend the three month timeframe for program registration to six months, to provide clients with increased flexibility early in their settlement period. Clients currently find the three month timeframe difficult to meet because they are fully occupied with establishing themselves and their families when they arrive in Australia. This has resulted in a number of requests for waivers of the registration timeframe, increasing administrative costs.

Secondly, the Bill proposes to amend the Act to introduce a five year timeframe for program completion. A number of clients cease English language tuition soon after arriving in Australia without using the full number of hours of English language tuition to which they are entitled and without obtaining a functional level of English.

Clients cease tuition in this way in the knowledge that they can return to complete the remaining hours at any time in the future. In reality, very few clients return to complete their tuition. A consequence of this can be migrants with limited English skills in the community and an ongoing liability for the Commonwealth.

The introduction of the five year timeframe for completion of the English language tuition, combined with the support of AMEP counsellors and targeted tuition, will provide an incentive for clients to make better use of the program early in their settlement period. Early engagement with the program will allow clients to move on more rapidly to further education or employment, and to more fully participate in Australian society. This amendment will also eliminate the ongoing liability to the Commonwealth.

Greater consistency and transparency in decision making

It is also proposed that the Act be amended to allow the Secretary to extend the registration, commencement and completion timeframes for the AMEP retrospectively. Under the current Act, clients must apply for a waiver of the registration and commencement timeframes before those timeframes have ended. This has proven to be impractical, as most clients seek to defer registration or commencement after the timeframes have lapsed.

To provide greater consistency and transparency in decision making, the timeframe and process for applying for an extension of the timeframes will be prescribed in the regulations. As in the current Act, the matters that must be taken into account when granting an extension of the timeframes will also be prescribed in the regulations.

One of the current matters that must be taken into account when granting a waiver of the registration and commencement timeframes will be removed through these amendments. The matter in question concerns the prevention of a person from undertaking the whole or part of an approved English course by the action or inaction of an AMEP provider. The reason for removing this is that it has been exploited by clients who claim they were not informed of their eligibility for the program. All clients are provided information on the program and advised of their potential eligibility when they are granted their visas. This is reinforced for refugee and humanitarian clients through their participation in the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy. AMEP providers are also required to actively promote their programs to potential clients.

The five year timeframe for program completion will only be extended for compassionate and compelling reasons. The extension may be applied before or after the five year timeframe has expired. This will provide the Department with the discretion to extend the timeframe when vulnerable clients present with difficult circumstances that have prevented them from starting or completing the AMEP within five years.

Should decisions be made not to extend a timeframe, clients will have access to an internal review process undertaken by senior departmental officers.

Clarify program eligibility

The provisions relating to eligibility for the AMEP in the current Act are repetitive and complex to administer due to ambiguous phrasing. This is addressed by amending definitions and clarifying eligibility provisions in the Bill.

The eligibility provisions in the current Act also create a situation of inequity between client groups. Clients may currently access the AMEP through one of two provisions, but only one of the two groups is subject to restrictions on their eligibility. In practice this means that approximately 60% of all clients are subject to the registration and commencement timeframes, while the remaining 40% are not. To date this inequity has been addressed by applying the registration and commencement timeframes to the second client group under policy.

The proposed amendments will provide a legislative basis for this approach. This means that all clients—with the exception of those under 18 years of age—will be subject to the same restrictions on their eligibility. They will be required to register in the AMEP within 6 months, commence class within 12 months, and complete the program within five years of arrival in Australia. As noted earlier, clients will be able to apply for extensions to these timeframes.

Access to the AMEP for 15 to 17 year olds who are not participating in school within the first year of arrival in Australia was announced in the 2009-10 Budget. This measure was undertaken to encourage these vulnerable youth to remain engaged in education and develop a pathway to further education and employment and continue social participation—otherwise these youth are put at risk. To implement this measure, the proposed amendments will ensure that clients under 18 years will not be subject to the six month registration timeframe, but rather will be required to register and commence the program within 12 months. The five year completion timeframe will apply to these clients.

The proposed amendments will also remove eligibility to the AMEP from New Zealand citizens who hold special category visas.

Following the 2008 review of the Australian citizenship test, the Australian Government gave a commitment to the development of a citizenship course as an alternative pathway to citizenship for vulnerable or disadvantaged refugees and migrants.

The course will cater for the different learning needs of clients who are likely to face significant difficulty with the citizenship test, in particular those with low or no literacy skills and limited prior education. The Government is committed to ensuring that all people who have a commitment to Australia and have a strong desire to become Australian citizens, have the opportunity to do so.

The course is expected to be introduced in the first half of 2010 and will be delivered through the AMEP network in locations where sufficient demand exists. AMEP providers are well equipped to deliver the course given their expertise and experience in teaching and assessing this client group.

The proposed amendments are designed to continue access to the course for those clients referred by the Department to the course as an alternative to undertaking a computer-based citizenship test. The amendments will separate the provision of the citizenship course from English courses to ensure that citizenship course participants are not subject to the registration, commencement and completion timeframes. The client group who may have access to citizenship courses will be prescribed in the Regulations. It is intended that only citizenship applicants will have access to citizenship courses.

Conclusion

English language tuition has been delivered through the AMEP to newly arrived migrants for over 60 years. It is Australia’s largest and longest running settlement program. As learning English is the most important contributor to successful settlement, the AMEP plays a vital role in helping newly arrived migrants transition to life in Australia and start on the path to further education and employment.

This Bill ensures that the AMEP continues to play this role whilst providing greater support and certainty for clients, enabling them to be more fully participative in Australian society at an early stage of their settlement.