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Thursday, 4 July 2019
Page: 195


Senator DUNIAM (TasmaniaAssistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries and Assistant Minister for Regional Tourism) (11:56): I present the explanatory memoranda relating to the bills and move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

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

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

NATIONAL DISABILITY INSURANCE SCHEME AMENDMENT (WORKER SCREENING DATABASE) BILL 2019

This Bill establishes the National Disability Insurance Scheme Worker Screening Database to support a nationally consistent approach to screening people who work with people with disability in the NDIS.

This Bill aims to protect and prevent people with disability from experiencing harm from the people who work closely with them.

The NDIS is one of the largest social and economic policy reforms in Australian history. It is transforming the lives of people with disability across the country.

March 2019 marked a major milestone in the NDIS: nearly 280,000 Australians are now receiving support through the scheme. This number will continue to grow as we progress the national roll out - to almost half a million Australians with disability over the next five years.

This Government is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all NDIS participants. In December 2016, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework. The Framework is the result of over three years of consultation with people with disability, carers and providers. It sets out a new approach to regulation for the NDIS to protect NDIS participants.

A key part of the Framework is the implementation of nationally consistent NDIS worker screening. Worker screening is a way to check that people who are working, or seek to work, in the NDIS do not pose an unacceptable risk of harm to people with disability.

Current worker screening arrangements for disability workers are state-based and of variable quality. Clearances are not recognised across jurisdictions. A national NDIS Worker Screening Check is a major step forward from the variable arrangements operating in each state and territory.

Nationally consistent NDIS worker screening will help create a safe and trusted workforce in the NDIS, and minimise the risk of harm to people with disability. This Bill is integral for the implementation of the NDIS Screening Check.

Nationally consistent NDIS worker screening is a joint effort from all Australian governments. We have agreed to the Intergovernmental Agreement on Nationally Consistent Worker Screening for the NDIS. The Intergovernmental Agreement sets out the responsibilities of states and territories and the Commonwealth.

States and territories (except Western Australia) will commence transitioning to nationally consistent NDIS Worker Screening on 1 July 2019. The new NDIS Worker Screening Check—simply referred to as the 'Check'—will be introduced in each state and territory over the next year, with all states and territories having the Check in place by July 2020.

Until the Check becomes available in a jurisdiction, transitional arrangements provide recognition of current state-based checks, such as Working with Children or Vulnerable Persons Checks. From 1 July 2019, existing workers with a current state-based check will be able to continue to work and new workers will need to apply for a recognised screening check in their state or territory. Once the NDIS Check is operational, state-based checks for existing workers will continue to be recognised until they expire; at which time a worker will need to apply for the new Check. New workers would also need to apply for the NDIS Check once it is available. The outcomes of the NDIS Check will be stored on the national database to be established by this Bill. This approach will provide for a gradual transition to the new system.

Through this Bill, the Morrison Government is delivering on our responsibilities under the Intergovernmental Agreement. We are getting on with the job of ensuring that participants, their families and carers can be satisfied with the quality of services they receive and feel comfortable that necessary protections are in place to ensure their safety.

To support the quality agenda, the Government has taken strong, decisive action by establishing an independent, national body—the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission—to protect and prevent people with disability from experiencing harm. The Government has committed $209 million over four years to support the work of the NDIS Commission.

The Bill will enable the NDIS Commission to establish and maintain a national database for information about NDIS worker screening. This will provide timely and accurate information for employers and self-managed participants about NDIS workers' clearance status.

The NDIS Commission commenced operations in New South Wales and South Australia on 1 July 2018. By July 2020, the NDIS Commission will be operational in all states and territories. As an independent statutory body with integrated functions and a range of investigative, compliance and enforcement powers, the NDIS Commission is a responsive regulator that takes a proportionate approach to regulation—reserving the strongest enforcement actions for the most serious issues and breaches.

The NDIS Commission is responsible for registering NDIS providers, responding to complaints, managing reportable incidents notifications, and providing leadership to reduce and eliminate the use of restrictive practices in the NDIS.

The NDIS Commission will also lead the overall design for nationally consistent NDIS worker screening. This aligns with its responsibility to work with all governments and oversee the broad policy settings for nationally consistent NDIS worker screening, and recognises that the NDIS Commission is the national point of contact for NDIS providers.

This national leadership and consistency provides many benefits, but the NDIS Commission does not act alone—worker screening is a joint effort. All states and territories have been consulted on the content of the Bill and are supportive.

The NDIS Act currently provides for the screening of workers through the registration requirements for registered NDIS providers and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (Practice Standards - Worker Screening) Rules 2018. When the new NDIS Check is fully implemented, these screening arrangements will be implemented by State and Territory worker screening units within a nationally consistent framework.

We know from our consultations that stakeholders have consistently supported this approach. They want to see a robust, risk-based worker screening check in the disability sector that is portable across jurisdictions.

Worker screening checks will be mandatory for some NDIS workers. Those who have more than incidental contact with a person with disability, and work with a registered NDIS provider, must have a clearance. Worker screening will not be mandatory for workers with only incidental contact with participants.

As part of the NDIS Worker Screening Check, worker screening units based in each state and territory will consider applicants' criminal history information, any relevant disciplinary and misconduct information, and information taken from the NDIS Commission's complaints and reportable incidents system.

Under this Bill, the database will store information about NDIS workers who have applied for an NDIS Worker Screening Check, the status of their application, and decisions by the NDIS worker screening unit about their Check, including whether the worker was issued a clearance or an exclusion.

This means that NDIS worker clearances will be portable across jurisdictions and employers, including self-managed participants—reducing duplication and complexity for workers and providers moving between, or operating across, jurisdictions. Similarly, a worker who has been excluded by one state or territory will be excluded nationally. This represents a major step forward from the existing fragmented arrangements operating in each state and territory.

The database will also include information about a person's employer, including if this is a self-managed participant. This will ensure that employers are appropriately informed if a worker they have engaged has had their clearance suspended or revoked, or if their clearance expires.

The Bill provides for the Minister to determine additional information to be included in the database through a legislative instrument. This provides flexibility to be responsive to future circumstances and is appropriate to accommodate the introduction of a new policy. For example, if there is a new application status required in future that is not currently envisaged by the Bill, the Minister may provide for this to be captured in the database.

The protection of people with disability from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation is a key priority for all Australian governments. A national approach, as enabled by the database to be established under this Bill, eliminates the opportunity for people to make multiple attempts at gaining a worker screening clearance. It prevents people with adverse records in one state or territory from attempting to gain a clearance to work in the NDIS in another.

The database will provide employers with an important tool for their recruitment, selection and screening processes and help with their responsibility to ensure people chosen to work in the NDIS are safe to work with people with disability. It also provides self-managed NDIS participants and their families with important information to help them make informed choices about workers providing their supports. Employers and self-managed participants will be able to use the database established under this Bill to verify that workers hold a clearance.

Importantly, nationally consistent worker screening will deter predatory individuals from seeking work in this sector. Participants and their families can be assured that workers with clearances have been assessed as not posing an unacceptable risk of harm to people with disability.

The database provides for the ongoing monitoring of clearance holders' criminal history information. Ongoing monitoring provides certainty that unsuitable individuals will not remain in the sector if they do the wrong thing.

Information in the database will be protected NDIS Commission information and will only be shared and used for the NDIS Commission's legislated functions and other purposes of the NDIS Act. Penalties apply for misuse or unauthorised disclosure.

The Australian Government is committed to a high-quality, sustainable NDIS. Ensuring people with disability, their families and carers, and NDIS providers know that workers have a clearance is an important part of having a trusted workforce. The database will provide timely, accurate access to this information for employers and self-managed NDIS participants, ensuring they can make an informed judgment about who should work with people with disability.

Our paramount consideration is the right of people with disability to live free from abuse, violence, neglect and exploitation. The Morrison Government is committed to meeting this objective and ensuring people with disability are not exposed to harm from those who are there to support them. This Bill is a major step forward in implementing nationally consistent NDIS worker screening.

NATIONAL RENTAL AFFORDABILITY SCHEME AMENDMENT BILL 2019

Introduction

The National Rental Affordability Scheme Amendment Bill 2019 (the Bill) contributes to the Australian Government's Comprehensive Plan to Address Housing Affordability, announced in the 2017-18 Budget. The Bill makes amendments to the National Rental Affordability Scheme Act 2008 (NRAS Act), to streamline and simplify the administration of the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS) until it ceases operation in 2026-27.

On 19 October 2017, the Senate referred the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017, which included the amendments to the NRAS ACT contained in this Bill, to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee (the Committee) for inquiry and report. The Committee recommended that the Housing Affordability Bill be passed.

National Rental Affordability Scheme

Amendments to the NRAS Act

The Government's amendments clarify and expand the power to make regulations under the NRAS Act, by removing any doubt that the NRAS Regulations can provide for protections and rights for investors in NRAS, and for the tenants of NRAS rental properties. The amendments will allow the making of regulations that will require approved participants to pass on annual state and territory contributions to investors within a reasonable time.

The amendments also clarify and expand the power to make regulations about the transfer of allocations from one rental property to another rental property, the imposition of additional conditions and changing conditions on existing allocations, and the transfer of allocations to another approved participant.

The NRAS Act requires the NRAS Regulations to prescribe that the rent charged for an approved rental dwelling must be at least 20 per cent less than the market rent 'at all times during the year'. The expression 'at all times during the year' has been subject to different interpretations over the years, including a view that the requirement is satisfied if the rent charged over the course of a year is at least 20 per cent less than the market rent. This amendment confirms the intended interpretation, which is that each time rent is charged, it must be least 20 per cent less than the market rent. There may be circumstances where a specific charge for rent is higher than permitted because of a mistake.

The amendments to the NRAS Act will permit the NRAS Regulations to provide for the Secretary of the Department of Social Services to have a power of dispensation for a breach of the requirement in a specific instance, where it is established that the excessive charge for rent occurred because of inadvertence and the tenant has been fully compensated for the error.

The NRAS Act requires the NRAS Regulations to prescribe maximum vacancy periods for approved rental dwellings. The prescriptive nature of the current vacancy provisions has been amended to allow greater flexibility for the NRAS Regulations to prescribe permitted vacancy periods. This flexibility will assist in the future administration of NRAS should changes be required on how the maximum vacancy periods are to operate.

The Commonwealth relies on a number of heads of legislative power under the Constitution to support the NRAS Act. The amendments set out these Constitutional powers and give the NRAS Act operation within the scope of these powers.

While most of the approved participants in NRAS behave appropriately in relation to investors, a small number of approved participants do not treat investors fairly. Examples of poor behaviour include delays in passing on incentives to investors, and the provision of misleading communications to investors. The amendments will allow the Secretary of the Department of Social Services to accept and then, if necessary, enforce a voluntary enforceable undertaking from an approved participant. This compliance tool will assist the Department of Social Services to modify the behaviour of some approved participants. In some cases, accepting an enforceable undertaking may be a more appropriate compliance response than transferring or revoking an allocation.

There will be no further new allocations in NRAS. The amendments to the NRAS Act will allow the NRAS Regulations to be simplified by the removal of provisions relating to the issue of new allocations.

Conclusion

The Government is committed to reducing rental costs for low and moderate income households. This Bill lays the foundation for improving the NRAS legislative framework to support the efficient administration of NRAS.

Ordered that further consideration of the second reading of these bills be adjourned to the first sitting day of the next period of sittings, in accordance with standing order 111.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.