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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 17106

Ms ROXON (11:08 AM) —I am assuming that, because the relevant minister, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, is not at the table, that it is the wish of the committee that we go through the list of concerns that a number of us on this side have. I am sure the Minister for Ageing, who is at the table, will let me know if he wants to answer any questions along the way. I am very disappointed that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is not here. I hope that he does make it, because we have a large number of questions in the area of child care that should be answered.

Minister Larry Anthony is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. He is not here to answer our questions. We hope he will be here before the end of this debate. Although there is a large amount of expenditure proposed for the Department of Family and Community Services, we do not have expenditure allocated to a range of very important areas. The member for Sturt might care to listen to this, because a number of the programs that are in his own electorate have not been dealt with in this budget.

The first issue that I want to raise and am seeking clarification on is the shortage of places in both family day care and outside school hours care—two areas of child care where the federal government controls the number of places allocated to a community. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that there are thousands and thousands of children who cannot get into these services. The government has persisted with the idea that we are somehow scaremongering on the shortage of places. These are not our figures; these are figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics—the government's own statistical body. So you would think it would be rather difficult for the government to believe that they are somehow scaremongering on these issues.

We have particular concerns, and the issue we are seeking some clarification of is that we have now had three budgets, this being the third, where there have been no places allocated for outside school hours care. We would like to have that confirmed and we would like to know if there is any process in place for further allocation of outside school hours care places. The Prime Minister last week, since the budget, said that he is aware that this is an issue and thought that a good answer was to extend school hours. That would be a convenient response because the states obviously would deal with that and the Commonwealth could wash its hands of any responsibility for running programs which are in fact its own—that is, after school and vacation care programs.

The Bureau of Statistics estimates that there are the nearly 50,000 children across Australia who cannot get sufficient hours or places in outside school hours care. All of us in this House, I am sure on both sides, are concerned about any potential for growing numbers of latchkey children, and this is a reality if services cannot be provided. We also now have growing numbers of examples of parents having to turn down work opportunities, which would help meet their family income needs, because they cannot find care places. I am also concerned that there is nothing in the budget papers that deals with anything of the relocation process which we believe has been a sham so far in this area. There are particular problems in Victoria and specifically in my electorate that I would like to raise.

I ask the minister what is happening for services like Recwest Vacation Care, Leon and Jeff's Playtime Spotswood, Footscray YWCA, Yarraville West Before and After School Program, Annunciation Primary School in Brooklyn, Sunshine Primary School and five local schools in the Spotswood area which have asked for extra places. What will happen to those requests when this budget allocates no further places and does not give any indication of when further places will be available?

I know that there are examples in the government's own areas. In Lane Cove West Primary School in Minister Hockey's electorate they have been lobbying hard and are also disappointed that this budget contains nothing in this area. I have been contacted by a number of people in the Victorian electorate of Minister Andrews. We have figures for there. This government does nothing on those issues. It goes across all states. Maitland Primary School are about to close their vacation care program because the budget allocated no places. They were waiting for the budget in the hope that places would be allocated and they would be able to maintain their service, which has been running without Commonwealth support at this stage. The first issue I want the minister to deal with is the lack of allocation of any new places in outside school hours care. I know many of my colleagues are anxious to have answers in that area.

The second issue is family day care, both places and operational subsidies. Again I was very anxious for the minister to be here and answer this, because he has not acknowledged that in the budget papers there is clearly no extra allocation for any family day care places. There is also a hidden problem, which is that this budget allocates $180 million—

Mr Andrews —Mr Deputy Speaker, through you, can I indicate to the member for Gellibrand that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was unexpectedly called to a meeting just prior to being scheduled here. As I understand it, he will get here as soon as he can.

Ms ROXON —Being unexpectedly called to a meeting when this is the one opportunity for the opposition to directly interrogate the minister seems to us very convenient for him, but I appreciate Minister Andrew's indication that the minister will be here to answer these questions before we complete the debate. It is a very important issue. Family day care services many thousands of families across the country, and not only were there no new places allocated, and many of us in this House know that there are shortages in their areas, but also the hidden risk in the budget papers is that the allocation of spending which is made for the child-care broadband of $180 million this year, and obviously slightly more in the out years, is currently under review. Family day care operational subsidy is the largest single component in that expenditure item and the review that is under way at the moment has made clear that, no matter what demands there are in other areas, there will be no extra expenditure put into this area. Family day care services across the country are quite rightly concerned that they will lose their operational subsidy so the government can pay for some other programs in this area.

It is a vital question about how the budget operates, because basically no extra money is provided here. The minister tried to answer a dorothy dixer on this in parliament this week, because there has been some media coverage of this issue, and still failed to provide the guarantee which every family day care service, every family day carer and every parent that uses family day care is wanting from the minister—a commitment that operational subsidies will continue for family day care. That question has not yet been answered. It is not adequate for the minister to stand up and say, `No decisions have yet been made.' That is precisely the concern that family day care operators have—a decision has not been made, their funding is under threat and thousands of families across the country will be affected by a decision to take away money for family day care services.

People should also be aware that there are some private long day care operators in the community who have been lobbying for this operational subsidy to be removed. They see it as an issue of an equal playing field, as they no longer receive operational subsidies. But we would like to place on the record Labor's view that the operational subsidy for family day care is entirely different in nature to the operational subsidies that were provided to long day care centres, because of the nature of the work—family day carers are in their own home and the only contact, training, support and information that they receive is through a family day care scheme, which cannot be provided if there is no operational subsidy provided to actually deliver that service. It is one of the few ways of ensuring that quality outcomes are delivered for children that are in family day care and, with the increased emphasis on accreditation and standards, this is very important. But there is no guarantee the existing money will stay and there is no extra money for any of these other issues like—and this is the third issue that I wanted to ask a question about—the quality assurance process.

The accreditation process is now being expanded to cover a much broader range of child-care facilities, which we support. However, there is no extra allocation of money. We do not understand how the National Childcare Accreditation Council can possibly do its job on the small amount of money that it is given. It is also in this same expenditure item—child-care broadband funding, which is under review—and we do not see how you will be able to meet the needs of a range of these different programs without allocating some extra money, and that is something which this budget fails to do. So we have questions on a guarantee from the government that the family day care operational subsidy will continue and on whether any additional funds will be provided to the National Childcare Accreditation Council. There is nothing to indicate that there is any funding available for that, and we are greatly concerned about what that would mean. It has been revealed in Senate estimates that the government has received over 4,000 letters from family day care associations and parents and carers themselves concerned about this funding. This is an issue that is already in the community, there is a great deal of fear about it and we believe that the government needs to provide us with information about whether or not it can guarantee that funding.

The fourth issue that I would like to raise for some consideration in detail at this point is the Special Needs Subsidy Scheme. I am glad to see that the minister has arrived. I am sure that the other minister at the table will advise him of the issues that we are seeking urgent answers on. I have covered three of them. If it suits the minister and the Main Committee, I will continue to raise the other issues. (Extension of time granted). The fourth issue that we seek clarification on is the Special Needs Subsidy Scheme. This is one of the areas in which a special budget commitment has been made. It is the only area of child care in which the budget has identified some need and allocated some extra funding. This has been an issue which has been boiling for a long time. Before last year's budget, the government actually put a freeze on the Special Needs Subsidy Scheme. We have been campaigning heavily, as have a very large number of parents affected by the freeze, to have that freeze removed. It has not been removed, but we were pleased to see that, in this budget, there was a new allocation of money to cover, as we understand it, 1,200 children.

We seek clarification from the minister on the Special Needs Subsidy Scheme. A statement was made that it would cover 1,200 children. Although some comments have been made by both the minister and the department, we cannot ascertain from the budget papers how this will work. We would like clarification in this process of how people on the waiting list will be processed to get on to the scheme. Will it happen immediately? We understand some changes have been made to the scheme; what will that mean? Will the 1,200 children be phased in over the next four years? That would mean that some of the children on the waiting list will be of primary school age and perhaps not qualify for the funding they need before being too old to get it. We really want there to be transparency and accountability in how this allocation of new places takes place. I am also concerned about what happens to anyone not on the waiting list. If the budget initiative is aimed at clearing the current waiting list, what will happen with children who—as occurs every day, every week, every month—make an application for this sort of assistance? How does the budget deal with any ongoing need in this area?

I now raise an issue which I know the minister is across in some detail and for which he might be able to provide some proper information. I give the example of the Carousel child-care service, which is I think just across the border from the minister's electorate. I know that he has been talking and meeting with that service regularly. This service is one where every child who uses the after school and vacation care service has a disability or special need, most of them to quite a high degree. The government has been supporting this program, as it should, through its child-care funding and special needs subsidy. However, the government has been paying a bulk payment rather than the usual individual payment for these 85 children and it has done so at a much lower rate than would be paid if it were actually for 85 children.

The government has been trying to say, `Look, this is actually an issue for the state government because it is a disability service,'—even though it makes commitments everywhere else about support for children getting into mainstream services. The government and the minister in particular have now tried to say, `This is a specific program for a large number of children with special needs and so we don't have to fund it at all because, unless they are in a mainstream program, we do not think it is our job but the state government's job.' That is quite ridiculous. This is a program that is operating extremely well, with 85 children and their families dependent on it. It is a child-care program which is directly within the Commonwealth's responsibilities. But they would say, `We're not going to fund it any more. We'll force it to close down. But, if your children get a spot in a mainstream child-care service or after school and vacation care program, we will then fund the applications, and it will be at a higher rate if those 85 children can be placed elsewhere in the community.'

The minister knows that there is nowhere else in the community for those children to be placed. He knows that, if this service closes, these children will not have any support. Therefore, he regards this as a win-win situation. The government does not have to continue funding the specialist service and it will not have to pay any money in the general community because there are no places for these children to go into. I would like answers from the government on this because it really is a serious problem. It is a particular problem at that site, but there are other examples. I do not believe that the budget item—which allocates some extra funding, which is welcome—deals with this sort of problem. So I would like some answers from the minister in that area.

I would also like clarification on the basic issue of the special needs subsidy. I took over this portfolio well before the government had put in place a freeze on the special needs subsidy. At that time the subsidy rate was not adequate to enable services to take in children with special needs and deliver some quality outcome for them. I would like clarification that this new expenditure item does not in any way deal with that. (Extension of time granted) I do not believe anything in the budget indicates any intention to put extra money into this scheme to deal with those issues. That is the fourth or fifth—I have lost count now—issue that we would like dealt with.

The final issue I would raise, before my colleagues raise their issues, goes to the question of child abuse prevention programs. This budget allocates around $4 million to be spent on child abuse prevention programs. Obviously we have expressed concerns about there being plenty of evidence that the federal government is not really prepared to take a leadership role on this issue. We all know—and I am aware that the minister agrees—that this is an issue of national importance; it is a tragedy. But we need to ensure that sufficient funding and support in appropriate ways is provided by the federal government.

The issue that I would like to raise at this stage of the debate is the $10 million announced after the budget. On the Friday of budget week, the Prime Minister announced in Perth that an extra $10 million had somehow been found to go into child abuse prevention programs. Since then, my understanding has been that the $10 million is not new—and we seek clarification from the minister on this—but comes from the Stronger Families and Communities program already allocated in the budget and itemised to potentially cover issues such as this. I would like some information from the minister about whether that means other programs or areas of priority, which would have received funding under this, will now not been given priority and will not receive funding. It seems to follow that there is no way that an existing $10 million can be transferred to a different purpose without some other organisations missing out.

We have not had any clarification from the minister, or from the Prime Minister in his announcement, about the process for the allocation of this money. We do not know when a decision was made. It obviously was not made prior to the budget, because it was not included in any way in those papers. We believe that this has become quite a cynical exercise for the government. This is a very sensitive issue, and the government knows that it has not done enough in this area. The allocation of extra money would be welcome, except that it is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I am extremely concerned about the $10 million. The government has made a great song and dance about the money that it has put into Stronger Families and Community programs but the reality is the majority of programs have been pilot programs—and the minister can give us any extra information on this if he likes. There is no funding that we can see in the budget papers that requires any sort of ongoing funding. If, as both the minister and the Prime Minister say, early intervention is the answer, why would they take $10 million out to put into an area which, at other times, the government says is a responsibility for the states?

We are a little confused about what the government intends to do in this area. Where did that money really come from? What area is going to miss out as a result of it? What process has been put in place for the expenditure of that money? How were the decisions made in terms of supporting, for example, the excellent program run by the Australians Against Child Abuse and making it go national? That is a great idea, but their application had been in for a very long time before the budget. I think the minister even met with them prior to the budget, and I suspect even told them that the government did not have any money—which was then magically found by that Friday. We are pleased that it was found. We would like to know, however, what process was gone through to do that.

I also think that the minister might be able to talk to us about other initiatives, if there are any. We failed to find any other initiatives in the entire budget that would have any impact in this area. We have obviously been campaigning hard on this. We believe that Labor has a good option which could further this debate. Clearly, there is nothing in the budget that shows that the government is interested in adopting, for example, our national commissioner for children and young people—although we believe there is an opportunity to work on this, and the government can put forward any ideas that it has. However, such ideas are not going to go anywhere if the government is only going to put in small amounts of money.

I am also interested in the minister's comments on the fact that another department is putting some work into a register for sex offenders. We are not aware, through any of the budget papers, that FACS have any role or was allocated any money to ensure that it could work in this area as well. We believe that this is one preventative step that a national government can take, and we would be encouraging them to do so.