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Monday, 30 August 2021
Page: 8877


Ms HAMMOND (Curtin) (15:35): I'm pleased to speak to the original bill, the Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021, which is putting in place amendments to improve the Royal Commissions Act, particularly as it applies to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse and Exploitation of People with Disability. This royal commission was established in April 2019 in response to community concern about widespread reports of violence against and the neglect, abuse and exploitation of people with disability. The disability royal commission is: investigating, preventing and better protecting people with disability from experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation; achieving best practice in reporting, investigating and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability; and promoting a more inclusive society that supports people with disability to be independent and live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. The disability royal commission is investigating and reporting on experiences and conditions in all settings and contexts, including schools, workplaces, jails and detention centres, secure disability and mental health facilities, group homes, family homes, hospitals and day programs, and the incidents might have occurred recently or a long time ago. The government has committed $527 million for this royal commission, which includes funding to support people with a disability to participate in the commission. The disability royal commission is gathering information through research, public hearings and hearing about the personal experiences of people through their submissions, private sessions and other forums. As at August this year the royal commission has already undertaken significant work: 2,857 submissions have been received; over 10,000 phone inquiries have been received; 13 issues papers have been released; 605 responses to issues papers have been received; and 482 private sessions have been held.

The royal commission is due to give its final report to the Australian government by 29 September 2023. However, in a commitment to full transparency, the commission is releasing six-monthly reports and has filed an interim report as at 30 October 2020. In this interim report the royal commission has identified a number of themes which have emerged as particularly pertinent to the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. The themes thus far identified include choice and control, attitudes towards disability, segregation and exclusion, restrictive practices, access to services and supports, advocacy and representation, oversight and complaints, and funding. The royal commission has already highlighted that, while we have reliable data on the number of people with disability, which is roughly 4.4 million people in Australia, we do not have reliable, thorough or consistent data on neglect, violence, abuse or exploitation experienced by people with disability. This, in all likelihood, will be the subject of a royal commission recommendation.

While this royal commission has already undertaken significant work and many people have already shared their stories and experiences with the royal commission, it is vital that all people feel confident and safe in coming forward to share their stories and experiences. Indeed, the letters patent for this royal commission stipulate that people with disability are central to processes that inform best-practice decision-making on what all Australian governments and others can do to prevent and respond to violence against and abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability. Ensuring that such people are heard in this inquiry is key. Any shortfall in community confidence in the royal commission will impact upon the royal commission's ability to fulfil its obligations and, ultimately, to produce a final report which will assist all of us in the vital work needed to improve laws, policies, structures and practices to ensure a more inclusive and just society.

To that end the chair of the royal commission, the Hon. Robert Sackville AO QC, has advised the government that people with disability, their families and supporters and people who identify as whistleblowers do not feel confident that the information they provide to the royal commission can remain confidential after the royal commission ends. Alongside people with disability and a range of disability advocates, including a Greens senator from my state of Western Australia, he has requested that changes to the bill be introduced to provide greater protections to all those who are participating in the royal commission.

This bill implements the changes that have been requested. They have been developed following extensive consultation by the Attorney-General with the office of the disability royal commission to ensure that they align with the processes of the royal commission and that they will encourage people to come forward. In essence, this bill will extend confidentiality measures by ensuring the confidentiality of certain information given by or on behalf of individuals to the royal commission by applying limitations on the use and disclosure of that information about their or others' experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation—where that information was given for purposes other than a private session and the information was treated as confidential by the commission at all times.

Private sessions are an important mechanism that enables individuals to share highly sensitive and personal information in confidence. But there are other ways in which people engage with the royal commission and share sensitive and highly personal information, and they do so in the expectation that it will be kept confidential. For example, they do this by providing confidential written submissions and accounts, or through interview processes, where the royal commission needs to be satisfied that the matters fall within the terms of the inquiry or they need to discuss the potential of the giving of evidence. This information should properly receive protections similar to private session information, and that is why this bill is extending those protections to individuals engaging with the disability royal commission providing accounts of violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation on a confidential basis.

The proposed new clause in this bill will provide that confidential information is:

not admissible in evidence against a natural person in any civil or criminal proceedings in any court of the Commonwealth, of a State or of a Territory .

Further, a provision of the law of the Commonwealth, a state or a territory will have no effect to the extent that it would otherwise require or authorise a person to make a record of, use or disclose the information. The records will be held securely by the custodian, the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, when the inquiry ends. A court will not be able to compel the department to disclose this information and third parties will not be able to seek this information under the freedom-of-information regime. Confidential information will only be able to be used in a report if it is de-identified or if the information is also given in evidence. These confidentiality protections apply to both individual accounts and accounts identifying systemic forms of violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation experienced by a natural person or another person.

In order for the royal commission to fully realise the scope of its inquiry, it is important that the Australian community feels comfortable and supported in fully engaging with a royal commission. It is absolutely critical that people who share their lived experience with the royal commission feel respected and that they don't have any fears or concerns about what might be done with the confidential or sensitive information that they provide. Anybody who has ever appeared before a royal commission or any other form of inquiry—indeed, in front of a court process—can appreciate the fear, anxiety and concern that goes with those processes. This is particularly so if you are sharing private, personal and, in many cases, deeply distressing information, and you're doing so in the hope that it will lead to overall improvements for everybody else. You need encouragement and certainty that your confidences will not be broken. In engaging with this process and in seeking to ensure we are making a system which is better, more just and more inclusive in the future, you want to make sure that you are protected.

These amendments which we are putting forward will strengthen the existing protections in the act, and remove any doubt about the safeguarding of confidential information beyond the life of the inquiry. As noted earlier, the Attorney-General has worked with the royal commission chair and office to ensure that these amendments address the issues and concerns which have been raised by the chair with respect to the comprehensive protection of sensitive information. With that, I commend this bill to the House.