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Working with Vulnerable People (Background Checking) Amendment Bill 2020

The Canberra Liberals will be supporting this bill today, just as we supported last year’s amendments to the Working with Vulnerable People (Background Checking) Act. Most of those amendments were designed to align ACT law with principles found in the ‘Intergovernmental Agreement on Nationally Consistent Worker Screening for the National Disability Insurance Scheme’. Passage of the 2019 bill essentially created two different approaches to registration, one for NDIS workers and one for everyone else. This bill will fix that disparity by providing a consistent and unified approach to registration regardless of which class of vulnerable people a person may work with.

I note, Madam Speaker, that changes to the act that were approved by this Assembly last year have not yet gone into effect. Earlier this year, commencement of the previous amendment bill was pushed back by further amendment to 1 November 2020 because of COVID-19, and I have been told by way of briefing that it may now be March 2021 before either bill is implemented. In practice, this may eliminate any of the disparity that would have resulted from introducing NDIS-specific changes first.

The changes in this bill are based on the new National Standards for Working with Children Checks, which were endorsed by all states and territories on 12 November last year. The Canberra Liberals of course fully support efforts to protect children, and this includes reducing the potential for service providers to employ or engage individuals who pose an unacceptable risk of harm to children or other vulnerable people because of past criminal behaviour. We on this side of the chamber will therefore be supporting this bill as drafted. At the same time, I wish to raise a small number of issues relating to this bill.

First, this bill significantly increases the number of disqualifying offences. As the minister noted in her tabling speech, this means that some workers who are compliant with the current legislation will be deregistered under the new requirements. In short, Madam Speaker, this means that some Canberrans will be losing their jobs. I understand and accept the reasoning behind this, of course, but this is not a great time for anyone to lose employment.

When I asked for an estimate of how many workers might be affected, I was told a, quote, ‘very small’ number. What’s clear, Madam Speaker, is that no one actually knows. I was informed earlier this week that ‘Access Canberra is undertaking a manual process of assessing people affected by this change … so data is not available at this time’. What I do know is that this matter needs to be handled very carefully. The minister stated that this manual review will be completed prior to commencement and that those affected will be contacted. I call upon the current ACT Government to make this process as compassionate and fair as possible – and to complete it as quickly as possible in order give any affected workers the best chance of moving forward. I would also be interested in hearing from the minister what specific kinds of support or assistance the government will be providing to workers who lose their livelihoods as a consequence of this process.

Second, this bill introduces the automatic cancellation of registration for anyone who is charged with or convicted of a Class A offence – the most serious type. This happens, according to the proposed change, ‘as soon as the commissioner becomes aware of the person’s ineligibility’. When I asked how exactly the commissioner will stay on top of such things, I was reminded that applicants must provide this information when applying for a renewal.

But of course registration now lasts for five years between renewals. That means that a good bit of time could pass before a registration holder might need to legally disclose that information as part of a renewal process. I was further assured that, and I quote, ‘Access Canberra is developing automated processes to monitor registrations’. This is something, Madam Speaker, that we will need to know more about as it progresses.

Third, I note that, contrary to what is stated in the National Standards, this bill maintains the category of conditional registration. The explanation for this is that the territory’s Working with Vulnerable People scheme has a broader remit than just working with children. Maintaining conditional registration will allow people who are disqualified from working with children to work or volunteer in other very specific contexts where it is deemed appropriate.

This determination will be made by the commissioner after a risk assessment and could include, for example, a recovering addict volunteering to assist others in the recovery process.

Madam Speaker, I personally support this decision. It acknowledges the human dignity of those with lived experience whilst also protecting children from potential risk. At the same time, I am a bit confused and would be grateful if the minister could provide some clarity.

When I pointed out that Tasmania is listed as the sole jurisdiction that had declined to endorse Standard 28’s rejection of conditional registration,[1] I was told that the previous minister, Mr Steel, had written to the national body that the ACT is committed to moving away from conditional registration. I would like to know if that remains the position of this government or not. I have asked that question in writing but have yet to receive a response from the minister. I would be happy to hear her response as part of today’s debate.

Fourth, several amendments in this bill allow for the reasons behind a decision to be shared with a person’s listed employer with the applicant’s consent, but no mechanism for consent is mentioned. In a briefing, I was informed that the option of giving consent will be included on the application form. I then asked why this option exists. The answer I was given was that providing the reasons for a denied registration to one’s employer could allow for access to a different kind of job. This may be true, but I worry that the government may be asking applicants to consent to share very private information with their employers before an assessment has even been made. I would expect, Madam Speaker, that the potential impacts of this would need to be explained to applicants very carefully before asking them to consent as part of filling in an application form. I will be monitoring the implementation of this change carefully.

Finally, Madam Speaker, I commend this bill to the Assembly. Thank you.

[1] ‘National Standards for Working with Child Checks’, p. 7, fn to Standard 28.

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