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Tuesday, 28 September 1993
Page: 1325

Senator PATTERSON (10.18 p.m.) —Tonight the Senate is debating the Health and Community Services Legislation Amendment Bill 1993. I will be discussing the parts of the bill that Senator Newman did not address. Parts 2 and 6 of this bill make relatively minor changes to legislation governing the aged care program. According to the explanatory memorandum, these changes—which will commence on the date of royal assent—will have no financial impact. Part 2 would make it an offence to make a false or misleading statement, knowingly or recklessly, in support of various applications or submissions made under the Aged or Disabled Persons Care Act. This particular part of the principal act relates to the Commonwealth's subsidies for hostels and community aged care packages. Applications that are included in the proposed section include applications for financial assistance, an approval for a service, an approval to transfer a service or an approval as an approved operator.

  The offence would also apply to documents given to the minister, unless it is indicated that the document contains false or misleading information and reasonable steps are taken to provide the correct information to the minister. The maximum penalty laid down in the legislation is five years imprisonment. A similar offence with a similar penalty would also be introduced for making a false or misleading statement in relation to submissions seeking to contest a ministerial decision to revoke an approval.

  The coalition supports the proposed sections which would introduce an important safeguard into the parent act. Until now there has been a need to rely on the general offences under the crimes act. The government has indicated that the application of these general offences in this particular circumstance has been called into question.

  Part 6 of the bill provides that nursing home records which are required for the verification of claims for Commonwealth benefits under the national health act shall be retained for seven financial years. This seven-year retention requirement would also apply to any other records that the secretary requires a proprietor to keep as a result of serving a notice in writing. The seven-year financial period will commence on 1 July, after the financial year to which the records relate.

  The proposed section will apply to records held at the date of royal assent. It would be appreciated if the minister could inform me as to when exactly the seven-year period starts and finishes for records that are held at the date of royal assent.

  The penalty for not keeping such records for seven financial years is 200 penalty units. For those who are used to having their fines defined in hard currency, the government is changing the way that it expresses penalties under various acts. Amendments made last year to sections 4AA and 4BB of the crimes act introduced a penalty unit with a monetary value of one hundred dollars.

  Relating penalties to a central reference point in the crimes act means that the government does not continually have to update the value of penalties with inflation in a large number of relevant Commonwealth acts. However, this is not of much consolation to a nursing home proprietor who has no idea of the definition or monetary value of a penalty unit.

  When I was a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, I was acutely aware of how difficult it is, with the amount of delegated legislation that there is, for members of the public to access information. The more difficult it is to access information about laws pertaining to citizens, the more likely it is that they will have to seek legal assistance to actually get that information. I think we should do everything in our power to make the law as accessible to people as possible.

  As I said, if the proprietor does not know the definition or the monetary value of a penalty unit, then he or she needs to know where to go to find that information. In the committee stage I will request that the government insert a footnote in the relevant sections outlining the fact that the penalty unit system stems from section 4AA of the crimes act.

  As it ponders over whether it will agree to this very reasonable request, the government may like to explain why the seven-year retention provision carries a maximum penalty of 200 units, which is double the maximum penalty for a breach of the general retention provisions for nursing homes under section 61 of the national health act. It would also be useful if the government could explain to me and to other honourable senators why it has seen fit to increase the maximum penalties in relation to the retention of records from $1,000 in 1991 to the equivalent of $20,000 in 1993. In anyone's estimates this would seem like a fairly severe price hike.

  While the coalition will not oppose the introduction of the seven-year retention provision, it is important to point out that this amendment has been made necessary as a direct result of the department's totally unacceptable tardiness in validating expenditure by nursing homes under the post-1987 funding system.

  As honourable senators no doubt will be aware, I originally intended to move a motion at the second reading stage to set up a Senate inquiry into the validation of nursing home expenditure. I think that motion was circulated in the chamber, but I am indicating that I will not be moving that motion in the committee stage of the bill. However, as indicated by a notice of motion earlier today, I now intend to pursue this matter in the business of the Senate. The coalition will not oppose those parts of the bill relating to the aged care portfolio.