Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on strengthening the NDIS

7 October, 2020


I would also like to start today by acknowledging that it is Carers Week next week and, along with many other members of this House, express my thanks to the carers for the really diligent work they do for those more vulnerable in our society.

The NDIS is now a foundational pillar of Australian society and a symbol of our fair go for all. The NDIS provides over 360,000 Australians with the support they need to maximise their opportunities, their happiness and their prosperity. It's therefore essential that we are constantly striving to improve and reach these ideals and ensure that the system is working to the best of its ability. This bill, the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Strengthening Banning Orders) Bill 2020, will make technical amendments to ensure that the scheme's participants are safe and looked after. In many cases, we've dropped the ball on this. While the system helps many, there are still many who become victims of callous indifference. This bill amends the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 to broaden the circumstances in which the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner may make a banning order against a National Disability Insurance Scheme provider or other persons, and it clarifies the commissioner's related powers.

This is an important amendment. Firstly, of course, it is about thanking the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission for working under the exceptional circumstances we've had over the last few months. It hasn't been easy to adapt and provide the same level of care, with the added anxiety, safety conditions and regulations, so I commend the commission for that. The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner may already make banning orders. A banning order can be made against providers or persons employed by providers, and it restricts specific activities. It is usually a remedy that's a serious response to very serious and dangerous conduct. According to the commission, it is intended to apply to an NDIS provider or person employed or otherwise engaged by an NDIS provider in circumstances where it's the most appropriate regulatory option available to prevent people with disability from experiencing harm arising from poor quality or unsafe services provided under the NDIS.

A banning order may only be made in accordance with natural justice principles, of course, where the person has been given an opportunity to make submissions to the commissioner on the matter, except in the following circumstances: where there is immediate danger to the health, safety or wellbeing of a person with disability and where the commissioner has revoked the registration of the NDIS provider. The evidence brought before the disability royal commission and the various media investigations indicate that this kind of power is necessary.

We've heard in this place of horrendous events—the death of Ann-Marie Smith, who suffered from severe pressure sores and malnutrition after being left in a cane chair every day for more than a year. It's hard to imagine or contemplate that as a society we failed so badly. This is such a serious example of the kind of misconduct that must be addressed and now will be addressed with this amendment. Two weeks ago the commissioner used these powers and banned disability care agency Integrity Care for the appalling circumstances leading to her death. We must do all we can to stop negligent behaviour that can leave lasting, and potentially fatal, impacts on individuals and their families.

The problem with the current provisions is that, once an individual leaves their place of employment, the commissioner is not able to issue a banning order preventing their return to the scheme. Leaving or being terminated from a place of employment is common in individuals who are prone to these kinds of behaviours, and it's a loophole that must be closed. The bill amends provisions to ensure that the commissioner can make a banning order and stop an individual from re-entering the disability workforce. Importantly, the bill allows data from outside the NDIS to form the evidence for banning orders, so preventing unsuitable persons from entering the NDIS in the first place.

NDIS providers in Warringah have been doing a phenomenal job in the circumstances. I am sensitive to any arrangements adding further complications to their day-to-day operations. After reaching out to them, they wish to raise some operational considerations for this bill's provisions: the need for a confidential process to be in place to enable providers to confirm the identity of a person named on a register due to insufficient data on the summary provided by the NDIS register; the need for flexibility in arrangements for banning orders to apply to individuals who have changed name or gender; and consideration of the interaction with employee record exemptions under the Privacy Act 1988 and how providers will have to update their privacy policies, which could take some time. I urge the government to be generous in their extension of time to providers to update their system and work with them to ensure the best care possible is available.

In the past two years certain providers have also noticed a significant push from NDIS planners for NDIS recipients to utilise their packages under self-managed funding, with planners identifying this option as having more choice and control. Participants utilising self-managed funding are more vulnerable to providers or persons who don't meet NDIS standards or have been banned under the requirements of the proposed bill. The commission has been talking about implementing its national approach to worker screening arrangements, including the development of a worker screening database, which is currently in transition. This means all the various state based arrangements remain in place. I urge the commission to accelerate the implementation of the database so that individuals who opt for self-managed funding will still have the quality of care they are entitled to and are safe from negligent and predatory individuals.

This has been a hard period for the disabled and their families. The lockdown has stretched their capacity to cope. Some have come close to breaking point. In May and June this year, Every Australian Counts surveyed over 740 people with disabilities, about their experiences of the first wave of the pandemic, and their experiences are significant and need to be heard. In the report Left out and locked down some said they felt forgotten and ignored by the government and community during the pandemic. Thirty-two per cent said their costs had increased and many were under water, financially. They cited a complicated NDIS process and lengthy delays that were exhausting and threatening to their health and wellbeing.

The survey participants have six clear requests for the government. The first is recognition of the additional costs incurred as a result of their disability and the provision of additional financial support. This includes additional PPE, additional technology and data to attend telehealth and phone planning services, and the added expenses of online shopping. The second is clear, simple communication, which was a strong request. They want to know what is happening, when it is happening and what any change means for them. This includes information in all accessible formats, like Auslan and Easy Read, and translation into other languages. The third is that participants want extra support from the NDIS. This includes additional funding but also assistance to help reorganise supports or find additional services and being able to use the funding in the way that works best for them, to not have to ask for reviews every time they want to move funds from one item to the next. The fifth is simpler, easier and quicker processes. Participants found that in the middle of a pandemic they could not maintain the number of phone calls, emails or follow-ups to get an outcome. They found it frustrating and, in some cases, life-threatening. The sixth is that they need simpler resources for actions and better training for LACS and NDIS staff.

The report states:

Good intentions are no substitute for the experience and knowledge necessary to work effectively and respectfully with people with disability and their families.

This goes to similar feedback I've heard from disability advocacy groups in Warringah. They've found that in general there has been a steady improvement to the quality of plans and there is a greater consistency and quality. But some families and participants are often desperate to get a planner who has expertise and understanding. They are calling for a system where there can be confidence in all planners to deliver consistent high-quality plans. I agree. No participant should be negatively impacted by a plan that is produced by a planner who does not have the skills to provide this essential service at an appropriate level. This means having relevant qualifications, communication skills and continued comprehensive training and support across the country. I hope that the extra $800 million over four years, provided for the last night's budget for the NDIS, will go some way to addressing some of these concerns. It would assist stakeholders and decision-makers if there were a more detailed breakdown of what this extra funding will go towards.

I welcome the measures announced in last night's budget. The $125 million, over three years, for the new disability support for older Australians will allow disabled elderly Australians to access the same services as covered under the NDIS, if they're not eligible for that scheme. The $27.9 million, over two years, for extra community support for these individuals will assist with this. This is a compassionate response. I have certainly received a lot of feedback from constituents in these situations. This will give them confidence that they can still enjoy a quality of life in their later years.

However, industry associations, like People with Disability, have provided feedback on some of the more substantial measures in the bill, including the wage subsidy. They stated that they would like to see more incentives for young people with disabilities. These young people already face large barriers to enter the workforce. They also have concerns that the two $250 payments for people on allowances like the disability pension are insufficient to compensate for the increasing costs they face during COVID-19. These people have already missed out on both the JobKeeper and JobSeeker supplements. This bill is an important amendment that will protect families and participants from negligent behaviour, and I certainly welcome it.

I commend this bill, but I urge the government to consider the implementation of obstacles and constructive feedback on budget measures, and to listen to those stakeholders and people in our community that have feedback on how we can do better. I urge the government to consider adopting the recommendations fromEvery Australian Counts in their recent report as it will go to supporting participants and ensuring they maximise their prosperity opportunities and happiness. In a country like Australia, which we often say is all about the fair go, we should make sure that it is in fact a fair go for all.