COMMISSION FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE BILL (No 2)
CHILD PROTECTION (PROHIBITED EMPLOYMENT) BILL (No 3)
OMBUDSMAN AMENDMENT (CHILD PROTECTION AND COMMUNITY SERVICES) BILL (No 3)
Debate resumed from an earlier hour.
Reverend the Hon. F. J. NILE [5.06 p.m.]: I was concluding my remarks on the bills, and in
relation to the Commission for Children and Young People Bill I referred to the lack of emphasis on protecting vulnerable children. I commend the Hon. Deirdre Grusovin, the honourable member for Heffron in the other place, who made the following point in her contribution to the second reading debate:
That was precisely my point. Even though the proposed legislation was a result of the Wood royal commission, it does not seem to give these issues the same priority or emphasis as the royal commissioner did. Clause 11(j) makes the first specific reference to the objects or responsibilities of the children’s commission. The New South Wales Teachers Federation, in correspondence on 3 November, emphasised my earlier point regarding regulations. It stated:
It is important to note that those who have made, and continue to make, a valuable contribution in representing the interests of children have raised significant concerns that they believe need to be addressed to improve the proposed legislation. Those concerns relate to the broad functions and powers of the commission and several more detailed drafting issues. They raise three specific issues relating to the commission’s functions: a lack of reference to focus on child protection and child abuse prevention, in particular the need to specifically mention children at risk of abuse and neglect within "other vulnerable children", and to include monitoring the child protection system within the commission’s function; the location of the employment screening function within the commission without any walls to prevent this function from taking over from other important functions; and the exclusion of advocacy both within and outside the commission.
The Law Society specifically stated its point regarding the Commission for Children and Young People Bill. It said:
Some fundamental aspects of the implementation of the legislation will not be made clear until the regulations are drafted. These regulations could potentially have a huge impact on the working lives of teachers and others who work with children. The Federation regards it as essential that there be clear involvement of unions and other stakeholders in this process.
that is, proposed section 38(3)(b) -
It is submitted that this provision -
should be deleted from the Bill and the following inserted in substitution:
In its letter of 28 October the organisation said that that provision represents a significant denial of natural justice: once such matters are brought to their attention, most employers will decline to employ people who have been associated with child-related charges, even if those charges cannot be sustained and are withdrawn before any hearing or they are ultimately dismissed. A submission from the Disability Safeguards Coalition concentrated on the ability of the Minister to stop inquiries. The commission will have no power to initiate inquiries without ministerial approval. It is hard to imagine, but the Government may not want time or money spent on a particular inquiry that the commission believes it should initiate. The commission may have trouble convincing the Minister.
That provision will create a hurdle and a dilemma for the Minister, but I understand the Government’s concern that the commission, under pressure from community groups, could move away from intended priorities. The requirement of the Minister to make a statement of principle in giving reasons for stopping a particular inquiry would remove suggestions of political interference in the role of the commission. If that matter is taken up by the Government in its response to the second reading debate, that would satisfy the Christian Democratic Party. We support the object of preventing abuse of children. Those who abuse children should be brought before the courts and made to bear the full weight of the law. Children in our society must be protected. Therefore, we support the bills in principle.
The Hon. Dr B. P. V. PEZZUTTI [5.11 p.m.]: I had intended to speak at length on these bills, but the Hon. Patricia Forsythe has already encompassed most of my sentiments on this topic in her speech. The bills, although somewhat unsatisfactory, are a start. I will support them, with amendments. By her nature the Hon. Patricia Forsythe prefers not to burden the House with extraneous concerns, but I was surprised she did not challenge some of Dr Yu’s comments. Dr Yu, a person for whom I have the highest respect, wrote me a letter - which the Reverend the Hon. F. J. Nile and the Hon. Franca Arena read in this debate - asking this House to pass the legislation warts and all, and not to amend it.
Reverend the Hon. F. J. Nile: So that it will not be withdrawn by the Government.
The Hon. Dr B. P. V. PEZZUTTI: Is it not awful that the Government can threaten the Australian of the Year, a man committed to the care of children, that it will pull the bill if this House does not agree with it lock, stock and barrel? Dr Yu knows, and accepts in his letter, that the legislation is not perfect and can be improved, but he is
terrified of losing the whole deal. The Hon. Patricia Forsythe made those points much more eloquently than I but she also came up with the answers, and one of the suggestions by the Hon. A. G. Corbett offers a method of improving the proposed legislation.
Enormous resources have been applied by the Health Department to ensure that people working in the close relationship with children that is so often necessary in facilities administered by that department have been screened to ensure compliance with the commission’s recommendations. The royal commissioner was extraordinarily concerned about the procedures of the Police Service, the Department of Community Services, the Department of Education and Training and the Health Department.
I remember the embarrassment of John Wynn-Owen, the secretary of the Health Department, when he was quizzed by the royal commissioner about the procedures of his department. He went back to the department and within a short time procedures were written, put in place and implemented. I have not seen the same happen in the Police Service or the Department of Education and Training. The Department of Education and Training has not even reached first base.
More than a year after the royal commission made its recommendations, honourable members are reading the principal bill for the first time, having already seen the two cognate bills. The long delay in bringing these bills forward was not caused by wide consultation by the Government but by its lack of ability to commit the necessary money to the departments to get them to comply. A large amount of money and personnel resources will be needed to run compliance checks and to establish a fair and accountable system that does what the people of New South Wales commonly expect.
Reverend the Hon. F. J. Nile raised the issue of non-government organisations. Such organisations will find that compliance with this measure will increase the burden of running their school education, health and community service operations. They do not have a police service, but they have just about everything else. Those organisations did not quibble about the extra burden of compliance. They will be comfortable about ensuring that their operations meet and exceed the standards of practice set by the New South Wales Government. Implemention of the bill’s provisions, particularly those that overcome confidentiality and privacy, will take much longer and cost much more than a simple determination followed by sacking.
I am gravely concerned also that the Government has not yet spoken about its commitment of money and resources to establish this operation for the Department of Community Services or for the Department of Education and Training, let alone for the Police Service. It is not unknown for police to be involved in the offences that the bill seeks to prevent. Overwhelmingly, more girls than boys are affected by sexual abuse. Most perpetrators are relatives or very close friends. The bill also addresses the secondary concern about official carers, people in departments -
The Hon. D. F. Moppett: Secondary in a numerical sense, not in importance.
The Hon. Dr B. P. V. PEZZUTTI: There is no secondary importance in any of these crimes. The honourable member is quite right. In numerical terms, those who volunteer to work with a government or non-government organisation on the off-chance that they may pick up or make friends with a person whom they could then sexually abuse commit more offences against boys than against girls.
This amendment cleans up the Act. We are trying to ensure that when a person, a young person in particular, has a problem or when a child is taken to a service there is security and safety from further abuse. It is proposed that a joint standing committee oversight the operation of the commission and the commissioner. The committee is to report to the Houses of Parliament with such comments as it sees fit on any matter pertaining to the commission or in connection with the exercise of the commission’s functions which, in the opinion of the joint committee, should be drawn to the attention of the Parliament. I am a member of the Joint Committee on the Health Care Complaints Commission and have been a member of a couple of joint committees, one being the Joint Standing Committee upon Road Safety.
For the most part, joint standing committees are brought together by members of the Legislative Assembly when it is convenient to them and when they are in town. Members of the Legislative Assembly regularly attempt to hold meetings when this House is sitting. Whilst normally there cannot be a quorum at such meetings without the presence of members of the Legislative Council - and, frankly, without members of the Legislative Council a great deal of the work would not be done - it is extremely annoying to be a member of such a committee, a committee that has a serious charge, if the committee meets only when this House is sitting.
For members of the Legislative Assembly it may perhaps be an advantage for committees to sit while the Parliament is in session. However, attendance in this Chamber would appear to be more important to members, and members of the Legislative Council have more to do than present private members’ statements and the like. Members of the Legislative Council are busy when this House is sitting. I implore the Government to ensure that when the standing orders are drawn up for the committee it considers the operation of joint standing committees and the requirement that they meet other than when the Parliament is in session for both the taking of evidence and the holding of usual and deliberative meetings. Perhaps that is a matter that could be considered by the Standing Orders Committee.
If it is possible for members of the Legislative Assembly to attend these buildings for committee meetings than surely that is also possible for members of the Legislative Assembly who wish to serve on such committees. When they are here to attend committee meetings they should take the time and trouble to do nothing other than deal with such matters. The proposed committee will be important. However, if it is to be a joint standing committee of the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly then I predict that it will spend a great deal of its time meeting briefly when this House is sitting. That would be a tragedy.
It would be preferable if this charge were given to a committee of the Legislative Council. Perhaps it could be a charge made of the Standing Committee on Social Issues or the Standing Committee on Law and Justice. Either committee would be perfectly capable of supervising the charge, with members being available to do that work and that work only and do it at a time convenient to all members in a predictable manner. There is no need for a new committee. I am not enamoured of the requirement of oversight by a joint standing committee; there are better ways of handling this issue. It is my hope that the Government will rethink that provision.
The Hon. J. W. SHAW (Attorney General, Minister for Industrial Relations, and Minister for Fair Trading) [5.24 p.m.], in reply: I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate. The three bills respond to key recommendations of the Wood royal commission paedophile inquiry. This will be genuinely groundbreaking legislation. Its development has involved the Government working in close co-operation with a variety of different groups. Since the tabling of the exposure bills earlier this year the welfare sector, unions and other key stakeholders have brought important matters to the Government’s attention. The Government has acted on many of those matters.
There is broad community support for legislation that will support children and protect them from harm. As honourable members would be aware, the bills support the legislative framework for the introduction of a screening procedure for employees who work with children. Much effort has been put into the Child Protection (Prohibited Employment) Bill (No 3) and the Commission for Children and Young People Bill (No 2) to achieve a balance between protecting employees and protecting children from abuse. It is important that we protect reasonable civil liberties.
Clearly, if a person has been previously convicted of an offence that is no longer against the law, that should not be considered relevant to this legislation. That means that convictions for consensual homosexual relations prior to the legislative changes of the 1980s will not be included. The intention of the Child Protection (Prohibited Employment) Bill (No 3) is to exclude acts committed in a public place that if committed in private would not be an offence. Of course, any act of indecency against a child, committed in public or in private, is an offence and remains an offence. There is further work to be done to develop the operational details of the screening system through regulations and guidelines.
Of course, the Government cannot undertake this work in isolation; it must fully involve all relevant stakeholders, including young people, employers, unions and the welfare sector. It is only through the involvement of those groups that we will succeed in establishing a clear, fair and workable system. The Government looks forward to commencing these discussions as soon as the bills are passed. The Government will propose a small number of amendments to each bill. The amendments result from further discussions since the introduction of the bills in another place with crossbench members, the welfare sector, unions and the Catholic Education Commission.
The amendments will clarify the intent of certain provisions, thereby increasing protection for employees without detracting from the protection of children. I shall briefly outline the effect of each amendment. First, the Commission for Children and Young People Bill (No 2) will be amended so that members of religious orders who work with children but are not strictly paid employees are covered by the bill’s mandatory screening provisions. A similar
amendment will be made to the Child Protection (Prohibited Employment) Bill (No 3). This clarifies the original intent of the bill and ensures that there will be equitable treatment of religious and lay employees who work side by side.
Secondly, the definition of relevant disciplinary proceedings in relation to acts of violence will be amended to acts of violence committed in the course of employment. The amendment clarifies the types of completed disciplinary proceedings that can be used in employment screening. Provisions relating to the ministerial guidelines will also be strengthened. This gives greater certainty to employees, by ensuring that the guidelines are in place and published before the system commences; by ensuring that the guidelines deal with employees’ access to information held about them; and by ensuring that the guidelines will be reviewed after they have been in operation for two years.
Another amendment will clarify that screening can be conducted by an employer-related body if approved by the Minister. These additional safeguards are important, given that the system is new and needs to be monitored carefully for any unintended consequences. I also put on record, as Minister Lo Po’ did in her reply in the Legislative Assembly, that the Commission for Children and Young People and the Ombudsman will be adequately funded to carry out their important functions. Some amendments that have been foreshadowed will not be accepted. I refer first to special inquiry powers.
Several groups have raised special inquiries of the commission. It is easy to portray the Government’s proposal as a means by which it can restrict the independent powers of the commission. It is the Government’s belief that for special inquiries to be truly effective they must first receive the full support of the Minister. That ensures that the Government cannot ignore the recommendations of such an inquiry. Let us not forget that these powers can also be used against individuals and non-government organisations. Ministerial approval is a means to check the misuse of this power. The Government will not accept any amendments that remove ministerial responsibilities for special inquiries.
It has always been the Government’s intention that it and the commission will have a co-operative relationship, just as the commission and key non-government groups should work closely and co-operatively. During consultations on the bill many groups called for the establishment of a network of children’s advocates to provide help to individual children. It was proposed that the network be attached to the commission. Research shows that when children and young people face difficulties and need help they are most likely to turn to an adult they know and trust. They are much less likely to seek such help from a stranger. However, some children and young people have no-one else to turn to and may have no option but to approach a stranger for help.
The Minister for Community Services has announced that the Government will ask the commission, as soon as it is established, to inquire into the best means of improving assistance to children who have no-one else to turn to for help. Of course, the Standing Committee on Social Issues report into children’s advocacy, which was completed in 1996, will be a key source for this work. It is essential as part of this process that the views of children and young people who have been in such situations are sought.
One of the commission’s key functions will be to encourage children and young people to participate in decision-making processes. As such the commission will be ideally placed to consult with children and young people in conducting this reference. Its recommendations will help inform the Government in future decisions on this subject. I thank honourable members for their valuable contributions to this important debate, and I commend the bills to the House.
Motion agreed to.
Bills read a second time.
38(3)(b) "information relating to criminal charges where an offence has been proven but the Court did not proceed to conviction, whether or not the charge was dismissed or the offender was conditionally discharged.