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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14908


Ms ELLIS (5:19 PM) —I move:

That this House:

(1) recognises the valuable role of the supported employment sector in providing paid work to people with disabilities;

(2) notes that employment gives people with disabilities not only an income, but also important social and developmental experiences;

(3) asserts the need to ensure that pay and working conditions for people with disabilities are fair and meet minimum standards;

(4) notes Government reforms in this area including Quality Assurance reforms and the introduction of case-based funding to business services;

(5) acknowledges that unless these reforms are introduced in a coordinated manner and with adequate support to the supported employment sector, the viability of many business services in this sector may be threatened and that, according to the Department's Case Based Funding Trial Final Evaluation Report: Main Findings (October 2002, page 14), “based on maintenance funding levels, 67% of Business Services would operate at a deficit, 5% at close to break even and 28% at a surplus”; and

(6) calls upon the Government to:

(a) consult with the supported employment sector to ensure that the original December 2004 deadline for certification allows optimal outcomes to be achieved;

(b) provide adequate assistance to the supported employment sector, so that nil, or a minimum number of businesses become unviable leading to loss of employment by some people with disabilities;

(c) liaise with people working in business services and their families to ensure that they are prepared for the transition or closure of the business service; and

(d) liaise closely with the State/Territory governments to ensure that they are prepared and able to manage the increased demand on services as a result of business service closures.

People with disabilities who are employed in business services gain a great deal from their employment experience. I am not talking about the gain of income, because it is well accepted that the wages of business service employees are low. I am talking about the opportunity to interact socially with their counterparts and to participate in our society through employment. These opportunities lead to increased self-confidence and feelings of self-worth. This is the service aspect of business services. I am convinced that most of the business service operators I have met are committed to providing these opportunities to their employees. I am convinced that most have their employees' interests at heart.

The reason I have moved this motion is that the disability employment sector is in crisis. This is what I am hearing from business services, people with disabilities and their families. This crisis makes me feel angry. This crisis is a result of the government's mismanagement of the major reforms in this sector. These reforms include quality assurance reforms and the introduction of case based funding to business services. When the quality assurance bill was originally debated in parliament in March 2002 and then again in November 2002, I supported these reforms in principle but made a very important qualifying statement about my support. Again, in my speech on 13 November last, I said:

We have endorsed and supported the quality assurance work the government have done so far in this sector, but we have made it very clear that the parameters we set are that it will work only if the intent is honest and true ... I do not want to see one person more than necessary—in fact, I do not want to see one—who is currently employed in a business service in this country lose their spot because of some legislative outfall from this procedure.

The reason there is now a crisis is that the additional support measures required to ensure a successful outcome have not been provided. To make matters worse, the reforms have been forced upon the sector within a very short and unrealistic timeframe.

I would like to know why the Howard government has mismanaged these reforms. At best, the government has no vision for the disability employment sector. The government has not clearly expressed what it wants from business services and clearly does not know how to meet the real needs of people with disabilities. Policy development in this area has been like a puzzle. Policy makers have been placing the pieces into the puzzle one by one. The problem is that these policy makers do not know what the picture actually is and the government has not told them. So the puzzle is a complete mess.

At worst, the government does have a vision, but it is not being honest about this vision. Some believe the government's real agenda is to reduce its responsibility for and expenditure on disability employment services. According to Maree Ireland, who wrote an article in the August/September 2002 issue of the Access journal:

It has ... been suggested by some disability groups that the Commonwealth government is comfortable with the idea of closure of sheltered workshops that are unprofitable as this will push people with high support needs into the state system and shift costs currently met by the Commonwealth under the Commonwealth State and Territory Disability Agreement (CSTDA).

Let us now examine how these reforms threaten the viability of business services. One of the biggest issues is that business services are being asked to pay their employees pro rata award wages. Whilst I strongly agree that people with disabilities are entitled to the same employment rights as other workers, the issue of wages for people with disabilities is complex. This is especially true in relation to people with high-level needs. The capacity of business services to remain viable if they pay pro rata award wages is at question.

Business services were originally set up as sheltered workshops to meet the needs of people who required high support and were considered then to be unable to participate in open employment. The issue of profit for those sheltered workshops was not of major concern. Initially the rights of employees, especially in relation to wages, were not a primary concern to people with disabilities and their families. They did not see sheltered workshops strictly as employers; they saw them more as service providers. Business services now have a different mission. They are not there primarily to provide a service; they are now expected to be profitable. I cannot help but strongly agree that a company which makes a profit through the work of its employees should pay them appropriate wages. However, is this the role of, and the reality for, business services? Are they now primarily a business rather than a service?

The viability of business services is being threatened because they have to meet certification standards by the end of 2004 or they will lose eligibility for government funding. Many say they will not be able meet this deadline. Just to add further chaos to the sector, the government introduced a quality assurance system without including the wage assessment tool being developed by the government at the time. So we now have this odd situation where the government is developing a wage assessment tool which is part of a quality assurance system that has already been introduced. When will this new wage assessment tool be released? The sector has been waiting for months.

Another piece the government has added to this complicated puzzle is the plan to introduce a system of case based funding. According to the department's Case based funding trial final evaluation report: main findings (October 2002):

Limited analysis of business service providers suggests that most providers are unlikely to be viable under current CBFT—

that is, case based funding trial—

arrangements.

No wonder Minister Vanstone has asked her department to go away and do some more work on the funding model.

Thankfully, the government included some measures in this year's federal budget to assist the disability employment sector, but I doubt they will prevent the looming crisis. I was pleased to note that the federal budget provided an additional $25.4 million over four years to assist disability business service viability—that was until I read the details of this measure in the ACROD news fax of 13 May 2003. I am not convinced that it will solve the crisis facing business services and I have grave doubts about how effective this particular initiative will be in protecting the employment of people with high-level disabilities and low productivity levels.

According to ACROD, this funding will be spent on `a panel of business analysts' and might involve `advice on marketing, business planning or organisational change' or `payment of the costs of mentors'. I am not convinced that this is the best use of $25.4 million or that it will help business services or employees in the long run. There may, of course, still be more details to be announced. I note the federal budget initiative of $135.3 million over four years to assist the implementation of case based funding. I look forward to obtaining more information about this budget measure in the near future. Unfortunately the budget papers do not include that detail.

The crisis facing the disability employment sector and people with disabilities is purely a result of Minister Vanstone's mismanagement of the reforms in this sector. Had the reforms been introduced in a coordinated manner and with appropriate support measures, the sector would not be facing this chaos and the federal budget would not have needed to include these initiatives as a last-minute rescue mission.

I call upon the government to act upon this motion today. Do not allow business services to close down because they are unable to meet the unrealistic deadlines that have been set. Work closely with those business services and provide real assistance to ensure that they will not close down. Do not allow people with disabilities who are currently employed in business services to fall through the cracks. Work closely with current employees and their families to ensure that they are prepared for any transition period and any closure of any business service.

The government must not ignore its responsibilities to people with disabilities currently employed in business services and who may lose their job. Work closely with the state and territory governments to ensure that they will be able to manage any increased demand in their services from people with disabilities who may lose their job. Stop using the Commonwealth-state-territory disability agreement as a political football and work with the states and the territories to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.

The current reforms are clearly failing. Minister Vanstone must guarantee that business services and their employees will not suffer as a result of the Howard government reforms; otherwise, the minister should place a moratorium on those quality assurance deadlines. The Labor Party would not allow this crisis to happen. As much as I support the intentions of the quality assurance reforms, I am not willing to allow people with disabilities who are currently employed in business services to lose their jobs and then be left with no other options.

A Labor government would place an immediate moratorium on the quality assurance deadlines. We would ensure that the immense pressure currently placed on business services to meet these deadlines was released and that people with disabilities were able to continue their employment opportunities in business services. We are also committed to a higher standard of working conditions for these employees, but we will prevent the fallout which seems bound to occur under the current government if the status quo remains.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Is the motion seconded?


Mr Brendan O'Connor —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.