Monday, 23 August 2021
National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. This government rarely pulls the right rein on disability. When there is a disability emergency they are painfully slow to react, and then when there are reforms that require close consultation with disability groups they are suddenly in a mad rush. We see these erratic competing tendencies in this current bill. It has its origins in the tragic demise of an Adelaide woman, the late Ann-Marie Smith. Ms Smith, Annie to her friends, died of neglect on 6 April last year.
Following her death Labor called for an investigation into system failures which contributed to her losing her life. The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission appointed former Federal Court judge Alan Robertson to that review. The Robertson review was completed on 31 August this year. It made 10 recommendations, of which the government now seeks to legislate five. Today is 23 August 2021. Those paying attention will realise that that means that more than a year has passed since Annie Smith's death; it was 31 August last year. Over 51 weeks have passed since the government received the recommendations of the Robertson review, and the Morrison government has had all that time to grapple with the necessary changes. Yet now we are rushing on this bill without having performed any formal consultation with disability stakeholders in the sector at all. The government has had time to go through two NDIS ministers but not to consult with people with disability about this bill. We remember that the member for Fadden—he of the home internet bills, of Rolex watches, of robodebt, of the COVIDSafe app and of the imaginary hackers that brought down MyGov—failed up and got promoted by his good friend the Prime Minister. Senator Linda Reynolds was in some hot water of her own and moved into the NDIS from Defence. It's a shame that neither of them take the Australian disability community seriously enough to ask them properly for their views on this bill.
Labor is supporting this bill in the House on the basis that we will move detailed amendments in the Senate in order to address the consultation and privacy issues raised in the Senate inquiry. But this is a recurring theme in the Morrison government's treatment of disability—unfortunately, even during Senator Reynold's time at the helm. We saw it in this government's steamroller-style approach when trying to railroad cuts and unpopular mandatory independent assessments through. No matter how much Australians with disability told this government that they did not want mandatory independent assessments, that was no good; the government remained committed to steamrolling them in, dropping the plan only when the premiers refused to go along with it. We saw during this sorry chapter how, instead of engaging in genuine consultation, the government simply faked consultation and patronised the disability community. How patronising was it that, instead of genuine and open-minded consultation, this government had a communications plan, which leaked, to simply tell the disability community: 'We listened, we heard. We were never actually listening and never actually hearing.' They refused to turn off the motor on plans to make savage cuts that will hurt Australians with disability.
As I said, it has now been more than a year since Adelaide woman the late Ann-Marie Smith died a sad and lonely death. Ann-Marie Smith had cerebral palsy and she lived alone. She relied on a carer for all her needs. She was an NDIS participant and her package entitled her to six hours of support a day. She was 54 when she died on 6 April. Some details of her death and her last days and weeks remain unclear. But this is what we do know: she had been confined to a cane chair for 24 hours a day for more than a year. Her chair had become her toilet. On 5 April, her carer attended Ann-Marie's home and, finding her unresponsive, called an ambulance.
She had major surgery at Royal Adelaide Hospital to remove rotting flesh from severe pressure sores on her body. She went into palliative care and died the next day. She died of severe septic shock, multiorgan failure, severe pressure sores, malnutrition and issues connected with her cerebral palsy. The police referred to her death as occurring in disgusting and degrading circumstances. Only upon admission to the hospital, when a complaint was made by attending doctors to the health authorities, were any alarms triggered about the NDIS participant's care—or lack of it. Unfortunately, for Ann-Marie, it was too late. This should never happen in this country. This is an indictment on NDIS and the care that Ann-Marie was offered.
There was a characteristic lack of transparency about the authority's actions, in this case from the former NDIS minister, the member for Fadden. But we should be able to safely assume that on the day of Ann-Marie's death, when the Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner was notified, the former NDIS minister, the member for Fadden, was also notified. Despite this, the case was not made public by the police until the police probe triggered media reports more than a month later in mid-May—shocking circumstances. It took a week after that for the NDIS watchdog, the quality and safeguards commission, to sanction the company, the NDIS provider being paid for Ann-Marie's care. The penalty was a measly $12,600 fine—insulting, disrespectful, pathetic.
The South Australian government launched a state inquiry, but the minister refused to launch a national equivalent despite another death by neglect of an NDIS participant at a house in Sydney. I tend to think the quality and safeguards commission, the so-called watchdog, would have been happy to leave it at that. Under pressure to do something, the member for Fadden said the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission would look into Ann-Marie's case. This amounted to the member for Fadden suggesting the watchdog should look into a case where the watchdog's own neglect and inaction would play a starring role. If the watchdog had done its job, this provider and carer would not have been able to neglect Ann-Marie's death.
On 25 May, Labor publicly pointed out the unworkable conflict in Mr Robert's sick solution and demanded an independent inquiry. The next day the watchdog announced an independent former judge would be reviewing what happened, not the watchdog. This was some progress. It is not the national inquiry we need, though, and it is no comfort to the loved ones of NDIS participant David Harris, who, after being unilaterally kicked out of the NDIS, was found in his Parramatta apartment after he passed away. Mr D Harris died in his home after his NDIS supports were cut off because he missed a review meeting. He was not found for months after his death.
In the immediate aftermath of Ann-Marie's death, the provider was happy for all the blame to be hung on the carer who worked for them. Initially the Morrison government's disability watchdog, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, was also happy for the provider to take a small fine and leave it at that. Sadly the real disability watchdog's work in this case had been left to the South Australian Police, and they only get called in after a tragedy has already occurred. But following public scandal, strong work of the police and disability watchdog and a longer think about it, it eventually deregistered the provider. Better late than never, I suppose. What a terrible insult to how, after eight years of Liberal rule, these things are still operating. The sad truth, though, is that we have a disability watchdog that is not performing its role and an eight-year-old government turning a blind eye.
When the circumstance of Ms Smith's demise came to light, the then NDIS minister, the member for Fadden, should have come down on the quality and safeguards commission like a thunderbolt. In short, the former minister should have made the commission do its job, and the new minister should do the same. Instead, too often this government provides cover to the watchdog, which has been found sleeping. All institutions tend towards entropy. The fault lies at the Morrison government's feet for, firstly, allowing this to happen and, secondly, after the alarm had been sounded by these deaths, for failing to demand that things be done differently. The government funds the executive watchdog to jet around but does not ask them what they do in unannounced spot checks on the industry to keep everybody safe. The overall majority of carers and providers do the right thing. They do a great job in trying circumstances. All we ask of the watchdog is that it keeps an eye on the sector and weeds out the bad ones who do not do the right thing and that it does that before they do a great amount of harm.
In conclusion, Ann-Marie's death requires that there be proper reform. It requires that there be proper reform based on proper consultation. We have before us this bill, which a year later and without any proper consultation with Australians with disability, proposes changes which would implement five of Mr Robertson's review team recommendations. We had the AFDO, the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, blowing the whistle on the fact that this government has left them in the dark in relation to this bill. And it wasn't just the AFDO. Almost every submitter to the Senate inquiry talked about the failure to consult. People with Disability Australia were left in the dark. Queensland Advocacy Incorporated were left in the dark. Even the Victorian government was left in the dark.
The sector's concerns about the consultation process and privacy were noted by Labor. I say to the current NDIS minister, Minister Robert: I know you inherited a mess from your predecessor, but, if you continue to treat the disability sector like mushrooms by keeping them in the dark, you will be bundled in with your predecessor; if you continue with savage, illogical cuts to the NDIS, you will be bundled in with your predecessor. Listen to what I am saying. There is much more that this government can do that is positive for Australians with disability. It can have an inquiry into preventable NDIS deaths that is not limited to one case, an inquiry that considers the deaths of Liam Danher in Queensland, David Harris in New South Wales, Tim Rubenach in Tasmania and Jeff Barker in Western Australia—NDIS participants whose deaths could have been avoided.
These were real Australians whose lives were betrayed by negligent officialdom. They should not be regarded by this government as problems to be managed. They should be regarded as symptoms of a system that is not working. They should be looked at with a clear eye by this government, and the proper steps should be taken to prevent further tragedies. The first step, an important step, is putting away the razor and scythe and dealing with the disability community with open ears.
I'm pleased to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021 as we, in government, on this side of the chamber, continue to improve social services for Australians near and far.
The measure of a functioning and fair democracy and its people is how we support those who need extra help. In Australia, we have social security, a safety net for all our eligible citizens, that you don't see in very many other countries around the world. Services Australia administer our safety net to millions of Australians every year. In fact, Australians will be interested to know that there are 25.9 million Medicare customers alone, 9.3 million unique Centrelink customers and 1.2 million children supported by child support across our great country. Centrelink, Medicare and child support payments benefit families, students, trainees and apprentices, carers, pensioners, migrants, refugees, humanitarian entrants and new arrivals. These important supports assist in one form or another to make sure that Australians have a unique safety net that is adequate for those who receive it and fair to those Australian taxpayers who fund it. During the pandemic, the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement supported, and now the COVID disaster payment continues to support, Australians through these most trying times.
In addition to the safety net of social services, we have the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or the NDIS, a scheme designed to support those in our communities who have a permanent and enduring disability. Across Australia there are 466,000 participants, and in my electorate of Moncrieff there are 2,245 individuals who we as Australians support. The bill before the House will further improve supports for NDIS participants at risk from harm, and all amendments in this bill seek to improve or clarify NDIS quality and safeguard arrangements to better protect participants from harm. Surely that's what those from the other side want to see: better protections to protect participants from harm. This bill makes technical amendments to better support the operations of the NDIS commission based on early implementation experience.
This bill responds to the Robertson review, conducted in May 2020 by the Hon. Alan Robertson SC at the request of the NDIS QSC commissioner, Mr Graeme Head. On release of the report in September 2020, the commissioner said:
In the course of his review, Mr Robertson has considered wider issues of safeguarding of people with disability who are particularly vulnerable. While Mr Robertson did not identify any fundamental flaws, he has made observations and recommendations regarding things that he believes would assist the NDIS Commission in taking earlier action. These observations and recommendations concern the NDIS Commission's processes and systems and its legal framework and will be valuable in considering ways in which protections for NDIS participants most at risk of harm could be further enhanced.
The Robertson review made several recommendations for improvements in key areas to safeguard at-risk NDIS participants. Let me outline some of those from that report. It's quite a long report—it took a while to read it yesterday in my office—but I'd like to match the recommendations with the actions that the Morrison government has actually taken to safeguard those who are under the NDIS scheme. Recommendation 1 is:
The Commission should act to identify earlier those people with disability who are vulnerable to harm or neglect. Every stage of decision-making, including corrective regulation, should be alive to factors indicating that a participant may be vulnerable to harm or neglect …The Commission and the NDIA should have a freer and two-way flow of information for this purpose.
So, in this bill, to better protect those with a disability, we see the incorporation of the improved information sharing between the NDIA and the NDIS necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to an individual's life, health or safety. Recommendation equals action.
Recommendation 2 is:
No vulnerable NDIS participant should have a sole carer providing services in a participant's own home. The relevant statutory instruments and guidelines should be amended to provide expressly for this.
This bill provides that the NDIS can disclose information to worker screening units and other agencies as required, and the NDIS commission can publish and maintain information about historical compliance and enforcement action.
Recommendation 8 states:
There should continue to be improvements to the exchange of information and more formal lines of communication between those running the State and Territory emergency services (including police) and schemes for people with disability and the Commonwealth agencies, being the Commission and the NDIA, and vice versa.
Well, this bill before us today will strengthen the support and protections for people with disability by ensuring a clear and effective legislative basis for the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner's powers and for compliance and enforcement arrangements, provider registration provisions, and efficient information-sharing across governments and government agencies—exactly what the recommendation outlined.
I move to recommendation 10 from the Robertson review:
The Commissioner should have statutory power to ban a person from working in the disability sector even where that person is no longer so employed or engaged.
This aspect of the review is the subject of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Strengthening Banning Orders) Bill 2020, currently before the Commonwealth parliament. The commissioner should have the same power in relation to the NDIS service providers—that is, the power to ban should include entities no longer providing those services. While the NDIS Act gives the commissioner the power to ban an NDIS provider or worker on the grounds that they are not suitable to deliver NDIS services and supports, it does not presently set out how suitability is determined for banning orders.
The NDIS Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill provides the power for the commissioner to make rules in relation to suitability for that very purpose, aligning with existing provisions in relation to provider registration. The bill also clarifies elements of the process that providers must follow when registering to deliver NDIS services and supports. This process includes applicants being able to withdraw applications, and applications for renewal or registration being deemed to have been withdrawn if the registered provider becomes the subject of a revocation or banning order during the renewal process. These are just some of the technical safeguards in this bill to strengthen the wellbeing of NDIS participants and to keep them safe—and that's what we on this side of the House want: to make sure that those over 400,000 NDIS participants are kept safe and safeguarded. The Morrison government is committed to consider ways to further support people with a disability, to live their lives free from abuse, free from violence, free from neglect and free from exploitation.
I turn to the impact this bill may have on some NDIS providers. It's true that there will be a broadening of reportable incidents under the prescribed rules. But these are minor adjustments, and they will ensure that the treatment of NDIS participants is in line with community expectations. The NDIS commission will work closely with providers around any adjustments necessary to fall in line with the prescribed rules. These technical amendments will improve the safety and wellbeing of Australia's 466,000 NDIS participants, through clarification of the rules, without significantly changing the powers of the NDIS commissioner. I'm certain that all Australians will agree when I say that we must continue to support those in our community who need extra help and we must continue to improve our social services and our safety net for all eligible Australians.
I rise to speak on the NDIS Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. I particularly want to acknowledge how we got here. Mr Deputy Speaker, I think you've heard from the member for Barton and you'll hear from other speakers that this is the result of some absolutely appalling and tragic circumstances that never should have happened. The fact that we are here in this House having to put in place such strong measures to protect people, I think, is an indictment on us as a society that these circumstances happened in the first place. But the bill does seek to make a range of changes to the NDIS Act in response to recommendations 1, 6, 7, 8 and 9 of the Independent review of the adequacy of the regulation of the supports and services provided to Ms Ann-Marie Smith, an NDIS participant, who died on 6 April 2020. The report was conducted by the Hon. Alan Robertson SC. These recommendations include facilitating better exchange of information between the National Disability Insurance Agency and the commission and the disclosure of information to relevant state and territory bodies.
Labor welcomes the Morrison government's decision to act on the recommendations of the Robertson review, even though it has been 12 months since the former judge, Alan Robertson, handed down this report and some 16 months since Ms Ann-Marie Smith passed away. Labor also acknowledges the lack of consultation and the continuing failure of the government to consult people with a disability on changes that directly impact on their lives. I think the member for Barton eloquently warned the government that you cannot continue to treat the disability sector and those with disability like mushrooms and not actually inform them of, and engage them in, the changes that you are seeking to make to a program that has such a direct and powerful and important impact on their lives. Labor does believe that everything possible should be done to protect people with disability from neglect and abuse. While the bill does not address some gaping holes in the NDIS safeguarding, such as the lack of proactive checking on service providers and an ineffective and understaffed NDIS commission, we do support this bill.
Ms Smith's death was tragic, and tragically it is not the only death which has arisen through NDIS mismanagement and through those who prey on those with a disability. Tim Rubenach, David Harris, Liam Danher: these are names we should remember, Australians who deserved better. The Morrison-Joyce government needs to take responsibility for these deaths by neglect, and it needs to ensure that there are no more. The Morrison-Joyce government also needs to commit to genuine consultation with people with a disability, disability rights organisations and disability representatives on all major changes to the NDIS Act. People with a disability deserve no less.
On behalf of the member for Barton and the member for Maribyrnong, I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House calls on the Government to:
(1) take responsibility for all 'deaths by neglect' within the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which is a Federal Government program; and
(2) commit to genuine consultation with people with disability, disability rights organisations and disability representatives on all major changes to the NDIS Act".
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Ballarat has moved as an amendment all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the amendment be disagreed to.
On 6 April 2020, Ms Ann-Marie Smith died of severe septic shock, organ failure, severe pressure sores, malnutrition and other issues connected with the poor care of her disability, cerebral palsy. It was a case that shocked a nation, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme commission moved to ban the disability care agency, Integrity Care (SA), from operating after its client, Anne-Marie Smith, so tragically died. In this day and age no-one expects that level of shocking care. Recently her sole carer, Rosa Maione, pled guilty to her manslaughter. Every Australian deserves to be safe and cared for, and disability is not a compromise to this. The National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021 will strengthen the support and protections for people with disability by ensuring a clear and effective legislative basis for the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission's powers; compliance and enforcement arrangements; provider registration provisions; and efficient information sharing across governments and government agencies.
All the amendments within the bill are important to the integrity of a scheme that so many Australians with disability and their carers rely on. There are over four million Australians who have a disability. Data shows that, as of 31 March 2021, over 122,000 people in my home state of Victoria are benefiting from the NDIS. In Victoria around 51,000 people are now receiving support for the first time. These aren't just numbers; they are mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers, sons. They are Australians living with disability, and they are the reason we must work together as a government to continually find and address changes to improve the scheme, just as we are doing today. We're fighting to ensure that one of the core and most essential pillars of the scheme is strengthened—the safety of those within care.
Following the shocking death of Ann-Marie Smith, the commissioner requested a review, which was undertaken by the Hon. Alan Robertson, named the Robertson review. The bill before us responds to a number of recommendations following the conclusion of the review. All amendments within this bill seek to improve or clarify NDIS quality and safeguard arrangements to better protect participants from harm. This bill is not saying that all care providers are falling short. The majority of Australian providers show a great deal of care and indeed love for their participants. But, very unfortunately, there are a small number of providers that we as a government need to step in and ensure are meeting the care needs that all Australians expect and deserve.
I would like to give a shout-out to the NDIS sector, because I know how tough this has been, through COVID, where they've had to pivot the way they're caring for those under their care. It has been very difficult, but they are doing such a stellar job to help the most vulnerable in our community. That's why we're strengthening reporting and safeguards, to protect participants from providers who fail to meet those standards. A few bad eggs can do a lot to undermine the integrity as well as the reputation of a sector that is working so hard for our most vulnerable.
The bill addresses important recommendations around information sharing and reportable incidents. It provides for improved information sharing between the NDIS commission and the National Disability Insurance Agency, the NDIA, to better protect people with disability. Present clauses in the NDIS Act establish a relatively high threshold for sharing information. They establish that the disclosure must be necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to an individual's life, health or safety. This bill here today enacts a less restrictive threshold in recognition of recommendations of the Robertson review. This bill removes qualifiers like 'serious' or 'necessary' to ensure that any threat to life, health or safety is sufficient grounds for the recording, use or disclosure of protected NDIS commission information. It also amends provisions for disclosing information in a number of other specific situations, including that the NDIS commission is able to disclose information to worker screening units and other agencies as required and that the NDIS commission can publish and maintain information about historical compliance and enforcement action. This is about making sure that the system is self-aware.
The bill also provides for greater clarity around reportable incidents, including broadening the scope and reporting to the NDIS commission in the commission's rules. Currently quality assurance of registered NDIS providers is undertaken by approved quality auditors who are engaged by providers directly. The market for quality auditors includes a wide range of experience levels and sector knowledge. As such, this bill will allow the commission to place conditions on the approval of quality auditors and makes explicit the commission's power to vary or revoke approval of quality auditors. These decisions will be reviewable, but they really do enable the commission's powers to have more teeth so that it can do what it needs to do.
The bill before us makes a number of amendments to ensure consistency and procedural fairness in the application of the NDIS commission's regulatory responses, including compliance notices which can be varied or revoked, decisions in relation to those requests being reviewable decisions, and banning orders that can have conditions attached. The NDIS Act currently gives the commissioner the power to ban an NDIS provider or worker on the grounds that they are not suitable to deliver NDIS services and supports. Currently the legislation does not set out how suitability is determined for banning orders. The bill before us provides the power for the commissioner to make rules in relation to suitability for that purpose, aligning with existing provisions in relation to provider registration. This bill also clarifies elements of the process that providers must follow when registering to deliver NDIS services and supports, including that applicants are able to withdraw applications and that applications for renewal of registration are deemed to have been withdrawn if the registered provider in question becomes the subject of a revocation or banning order during the renewal process. These amendments and other minor technical amendments will strengthen the supports and protections for NDIS participants and help ensure their wellbeing. The remaining recommendations from the Robertson review relate to policy options which are being progressed through the joint work with states and territories in strengthening supports and protections for people with disability who are at risk of harm.
The NDIS is a world first that, quite frankly, both sides of the chamber can be proud of and that all Australians should be justifiably proud of. That's why we, as a government, have committed an additional $13.2 billion up until 2023-24 for disability supports under the NDIS. This is in addition to the extra $3.9 billion included in the 2020-21 budget, bringing total extra federal government NDIS funding to $17.1 billion. This is a large and significant social support scheme for those who are vulnerable in our community, with 450,000 participants now receiving NDIS supports and with a projection of 530,000 Australians having access to this scheme. We continue to consult on ensuring that the NDIS will remain sustainable through this growth projection.
Every Australian expects that every Australian, no matter what their individual circumstances, will be cared for with dignity and respect. The Morrison government is committed and continues to consider ways to support people with disability to live lives free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. This bill is another step towards that outcome.
I commend the bill to the House.
[by video link] The NDIS is such an important part of our country, and it should provide people with disability and the wider community with the certainty that they will have access to the support they need. But, under this government, the NDIS is not operating as it should to improve the lives of people with disability, their families and their carers. Under this government, it has become a bureaucratic labyrinth that leaves too many people and families despairing about decisions they don't understand. It has left participants exposed and at risk.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021 is being introduced after multiple cases of neglect and abuse of participants, including the disturbing failures that led to the death of Ann-Marie Smith 16 months ago. It's welcome that it will partially implement recommendations of the Robertson review, but I worry that, given this government's track record, it just won't be enough. I talked about people with disability being exposed to risk because of the neglect of this government, and, at the moment, they remain far too exposed because of this government's failures to get the COVID vaccine rollout right.
We know that people with disability are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. In the UK, we've seen that it's estimated that up to two-thirds of all deaths from COVID are people with disability. With that knowledge, you would think that vaccinating people with disability and the people around them would be an absolute priority for this government. Yet figures that we saw on the weekend show that just 26.9 per cent of NDIS participants aged over 16 who were in phase 1a or phase 1b of the vaccine rollout are fully vaccinated. In comparison, 29.6 per cent of the general Australian adult population is now fully vaccinated. So the general population is more fully vaccinated than this vulnerable at-risk group that the federal government is responsible for.
Overall, 67.3 per cent of NDIS participants in group homes—that's about 22,000 people—have had one dose of their vaccine and 51.9 per cent have had two doses. These are people who are in phase 1a of the rollout. They are people living in group homes. The government know where they are living. They have access to that data. Why is it that they are not vaccinated yet? And, of course, this extends across to the workforce. Of the approximately 164,660 people in our country's disability workforce, 55.6 per cent have had their first vaccination and 36.7 per cent have had two doses. This is leaving people with disability dangerously exposed, both on a personal level where they are not vaccinated but also where the workers who come into their houses, who have to visit multiple houses, are also not vaccinated. At a time in our community here in Melbourne when once again we are seeing case numbers rise and we are worried about the spread of this virus, it is just not good enough. It is neglect.
We also see the Morrison government leaving disability providers to struggle through this pandemic. I have recently been in touch with providers in my electorate who are unsure if they will make it through to the other side of the COVID pandemic—particularly some of those who provide day services and so cannot operate during lockdowns. We have no national plan from the government to support these sorts of providers. These providers want to do the right thing by the people with disability and the families that they support, but they can't operate during lockdown. There's no plan from this government and no sense of how they will be supported to get to the other side. Of course, again, that leaves my community exposed not just at the moment but also in the future. Once again, once we get through lockdowns, we want these services to be there for people with disability to access and to use. These are services that are trying to do the right thing, but they are being left exposed, they are being left vulnerable, by this Morrison government. Because of a botched vaccine rollout, people with disability are not vaccinated and carers are not vaccinated, and people are at risk when they just should not be.
Of course, it didn't take a pandemic for this government to neglect people with disability. This bill seeks to implement changes to better support vulnerable or at-risk NDIS participants, after multiple incidents of abuse, neglect and death within the system. These deaths should have been preventable.
People like Ann-Marie Smith were victims of bureaucratic red tape and a bad culture within the NDIS. The case of Ann-Marie Smith is harrowing. Her story just should not have happened. Ann-Marie Smith, a 54-year-old Adelaide NDIS participant, died on 6 April 2020 from severe septic shock, multi-organ failure, severe pressure sores and malnutrition. Her NDIS package included six hours of support per day. It's since been reported that she received only two hours of care and was confined to a cane chair 24 hours a day for more than a year. These circumstances should not have occurred under this government's watch—under any government's watch. Her carer has now pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Since her death, the South Australian government has created a safeguarding task force to re-examine current gaps in oversight and safeguards for people with disability. And at a federal level we've had the Robertson review report, which has looked at the regulation of providers. It was handed down 12 months ago and made a number of recommendations. Disappointingly, that review did not have statutory powers, the submissions were not made public and there was no formal consultation or wider sector engagement.
This is again where we see a pattern from this government when it comes to its treatment of people with disability and the people who advocate for them. It does not consult with them. It does not ask them about what they want in their life and how they want to be safe and how best to achieve that. So, while obviously the measures in this bill are welcome, I share the concerns of disability advocates around how they will be implemented. I urge the government to consult with people with disability, disability advocates and the sector more broadly on how best to implement these changes and how to make sure people with disability are safe under the NDIS.
I talked about lack of consultation. The biggest example we've seen of that recently has been the government blindsiding Australians with disability with its plan for independent assessments. That plan has now, rightly, been scrapped. What a failure of this government! It goes to the heart of how they see people with disability and the NDIS, that they would consider implementing this sort of system without consulting with the people it is going to affect the most. I can tell you how much worry and severe concern it caused in my electorate, from people with disability to the families of young children with disability, who have fought so hard for their children to have the support they need and who were very worried about what this system would mean for what that would look like in the future. They raised their concerns and voices over a number of months, and for months and months this government just did not listen.
People with disability should not have to prove they have a disability. That's not the point of the NDIS. They should not have to go to a stranger and undergo a tick-a-box exercise to prove their disability. That is not the point of the NDIS. The Morrison government does not support the aims of the NDIS if that's what it thinks the NDIS is all about. It's not about that; it's about making sure people have the support they need to live the life they should.
It's positive that these assessments won't go ahead. But it is a failure of the government that they caused so much stress and heartache and that they took up so many hours on the part of people with disability and their advocates before they finally saw the light. Of course, we don't know where the government will go next on any of this, as they keep telling us, without providing the evidence, that the scheme is, as it is, unsustainable. I urge the government, if they're thinking of making further changes to the NDIS, to consult genuinely with people with disability and with their advocates across the country.
Another example of the government not meeting the needs of people with disability in my electorate has come to me recently, and that is the severe lack of affordable, accessible housing for people with disability and their families. Grace Dlabik lives in my electorate, and her son Elijah has a disability. Yet a lack of appropriate, affordable, accessible housing that meets her family's needs means she is currently bathing Elijah outdoors or in their kitchen. That should not be the case in this country. Grace is passionate about fixing this situation for her son and her family, and for other families, but this should not rely on Grace's passion and determination. I'm very proud that Labor has committed to a $10 billion fund to build more affordable housing—housing that will be accessible. But it is a massive failure of the Morrison government that they have not done more to provide affordable, accessible housing for people with disability and their families. In this country, in my electorate, that should not be an option for you—that you have to bathe your son in the kitchen or outside because you can't find an accessible affordable option to live in. It just should not be. I urge the Morrison government to do more to provide accessible, affordable housing for people with disability and their families.
The theme that runs through all this is of a tired government that does not care about genuine policy reform, a tired government that does not seem to care about delivering services for people—services that are safe, that safeguard vulnerable people, that are built on what people with disability and their families tell the government they need in their lives. This is a government that spent eight years cutting funding to vital services. They are trying to scare us around a black hole in the NDIS without providing the evidence for what they're talking about. It's another scare campaign on top of a scare campaign that they're running for people with disability and their families.
This government doesn't seem to care about the lives of people with disability. It doesn't seem to care about the lives of their families and their carers. In a pandemic, at a time when we are all on edge, feeling more stressed and more strung out and having to dig deeper than ever before, this government is not protecting people with disability. It has not ensured that Australians with disability are fully vaccinated. At a time when we're seeing outbreaks all over the country, people with disability are still vulnerable, people who work with people with disability are still vulnerable, and not vaccinated. It is a failure of the Morrison government that these people have been left in this dangerous, precarious situation at this time.
This bill is welcome. It does some of the things this government should do, but it by no mean does all of the things this government should do. I urge them to act. I urge the Morrison government to listen to people with disability, listen to their advocates, to make sure that people with disability are safeguarded both now during the pandemic with vaccines and more broadly through the NDIS. So that we know the safeguards are in place, so that we never ever see another tragic case like Ann-Marie Smith and more broadly: listen to people with disability, listen to their advocates about how you shape the NDIS going forward because they know what is best in their lives and it is not the cost-cutting, mean-spirited options put forward by this government.
[by video link] It's a pleasure to join you virtually to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021, to strengthen support and protections for people living with a disability. The NDIS amendment bill 2021 will provide an effective basis for the NDIS commissioner's powers to enforce provider registration provisions and efficient information sharing across government and its agencies.
The bill responds to a number of recommendations of the independent review—otherwise known as the Robertson review—about the adequacy and regulation of support and services provided to Ms Ann-Marie Smith, who was an NDIS participant, who tragically died on 6 April 2020. It also makes a number of technical amendments to better support the operations of the NDIS commission based on early experiences. It provides for improved information sharing between the NDIS commission and the National Disability Insurance Agency to better protect people with a disability.
Clauses in the NDIS Act establish a relatively high threshold for sharing information. This would mean that a disclosure must be necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to an individual's life, health and safety. This bill removes qualifiers like 'serious' or 'necessary' to ensure that any threat to life, health and safety is sufficient grounds for the recording, use or disclosure of protected NDIS commission information. It also amends provisions for disclosing information in a number of other specific situations, such as requiring the NDIS commission to disclose information to worker screening units and other agencies as required and requiring the NDIS commission to publish and maintain information about historical compliance and enforcement action. Furthermore, the bill also provides for greater clarity around reportable incidents, including broadening the scope of the reporting to the NDIS commission. Amendments within the bill ensure consistency and procedural fairness in the application of the NDIS commission's regulatory responses.
The NDIS market is diverse, including non-profit organisations, large private companies and individuals running their own businesses. The NDIS Act recognises this by placing obligations on providers, workers and anyone who is engaged by an NDIS provider. However, there is some concern that this definition is not broad enough to cover the range of potential governance arrangements. For clarity, this bill ensures that obligations and regulatory responses also fall on the key personnel of a provider, which can include the CEO, the board of directors and any other relevant personnel.
While the NDIS Act gives the commissioner the power to ban an NDIS provider or worker on the grounds that they are not suitable to deliver NDIS services and supports, it does not presently set out how suitability is determined for banning orders. This bill provides the power for the commissioner to make rules in relation to suitability for that purpose, aligning with existing provisions in relation to provider registration. This bill also clarifies elements of the process that providers must follow when registering to deliver NDIS services and supports. This includes that applicants are able to withdraw applications and applications for renewal of registration are deemed to have been withdrawn if the registered provider in question becomes the subject of a revocation or banning order during the renewal process.
The NDIS is a world-first scheme. Recent data has shown that the program is growing at a record rate. It is an extraordinary achievement for the NDIS to now be supporting 466,000 Australians. Almost a quarter of a million people are receiving support for the very first time, while 35 per cent of participants who received plans are children aged between zero and six years. There has been a 14 per cent increase in the number of young adults reporting that the NDIS has helped with their daily living activities and a 12 per cent increase in the number of participants reporting that the NDIS has helped improve their health and wellbeing. These statistics reflect why it is so important that our government continues to support the NDIS through positive changes, such as those contained in this bill.
These positive changes will support organisations in my electorate of Mallee, including Sunraysia Residential Services. SRS have been in operation for 43 years and provide residential and wrap-around support for people who live with a disability. SRS focus on person-centred support and are embedded with creative ideas that assist people with disabilities to reach their desired goals. SRS have built several independent living units for their clients and have leverage to build more in the future. They also have commercial enterprises such as the Benetook chook farm, which produces eggs to sell to local businesses around the district. At the end of last year, I had the pleasure of attending the grand opening of their new general store at the farm, and they have recently installed a jumping pillow. The farm and general store have provided a place for SRS participants to learn new skills and socialise with friends. It's also a place to connect those who have need of support with the wider community. Next on the list of new attractions to open on the farm is the Mildura historical cafe and a pottery shed.
Locals speak to me about the need for more specialised disability accommodation, or SDAs, in the Sunraysia region. SRS is one of the only providers of SDA in the region, meaning demand on their services is through the roof. Recent reforms to SDA are aimed at improving and strengthening the market—the latest being the release of improved SDA data. This supports participants and providers to understand the current SDA supply, where the demand for SDA is greatest and where there are opportunities to increase accommodation support. To ensure the SDA marketplace is competitive within the housing market, the NDIS adopts a market stewardship role, which includes monitoring, evaluation, oversight and, where necessary, intervention. In regional Australia, workforce remains a key challenge to so many of our key sectors, including health, agriculture and manufacturing. Unfortunately, the story is much the same for the care and support sector in Mallee.
We know that, across the country, an additional 83,000 workers will be required to support around 530,000 NDIS participants in the next four years, bringing the total workforce to 353,000. The care and support sector is one of Australia's largest and fastest growing sectors, driven primarily by the rollout of the NDIS. That's why it's so important that our government has launched a national plan to build a more responsive and capable NDIS workforce. This plan will enable workforce growth in the NDIS and support complementary workforce measures in aged care and support services for veterans. It will support the sector to attract a wide range of workers, while improving existing workers' access to training and development opportunities. Under this plan, Commonwealth, state and territory governments will work in partnership with workers, NDIS participants, industry, education and employment providers to retain and grow the required skilled workforce. It builds on the $64.3 million NDIS Jobs and Market Fund, which already has projects in the field which are growing the provider market and workforce.
I have been speaking with participants and providers across my electorate, gaining an appreciation for the operation of the scheme and how it is benefitting regional Australians. I understand that the NDIS has been transformative for many people living with a disability in my electorate and I'm thankful that these people will now be able to purchase additional disability related health supports. The NDIS is working for many thousands of people across the country and these reforms will deliver outstanding benefits for many people. There are still challenges in the scheme that we have a duty to resolve, and I'm committed to working with the people of my electorate of Mallee to hear their stories, suggestions and feedback and help in any way I can.
[by video link] This National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021 is a result of the death of Ann-Marie Smith, who passed away over 16 months ago in tragic circumstances—tragic circumstances that have been put under the spotlight by the flaws within the NDIS. These are flaws which have been left to fester under the Morrison government. This bill also follows the inquiry by Judge Alan Robertson into Ann-Marie Smith's tragic death. A number of recommendations were made consequently and, while there are some positives in this bill as a result, it falls well short of the sweeping changes that are required to ensure quality systems, transparency, accountability and, importantly, quality care and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens. These concerns go to some of the broader issues affecting the NDIS.
I am one of two federal MPs in this House from the Geelong region, the home of the NDIA. I remember when the NDIA was first established under a Labor government. It was a proud moment for Geelong and for our nation—a time to celebrate a scheme that would make life easier and better for all people with disabilities, their families and their carers. But, unfortunately, under the Liberal government, the scheme has been riddled with problems. This is despite the hard work and best endeavours of so many. At the core of the problem is a Liberal government that is not truly invested in the scheme. Instead, we see increasing casualisation of the NDIS workforce; convoluted systems that create frustration; barriers to supports and services; and proposals like mandatory independent assessments, which have been perceived widely as a cost-cutting measure. Fortunately, the many loud voices of those with disability and their advocates have resulted in the much-celebrated demise of independent assessments.
The Morrison government has got things wrong in a number of crucial areas of the NDIS, and many of these problems are the reasons the tragedy of Ann-Marie Smith happened. As I see it, these are the main issues: this government is not concerned primarily about NDIS service quality; its primary focus is about cutting costs. This government fails time and time again to consult properly when it makes changes to the NDIS. You can't make good reforms without hearing from the participants themselves; genuine consultation is required. This government has also failed to put in place adequate minimum training and qualification requirements because it's more interested in laissez-faire labour markets than in quality outcomes for people with disabilities. This government has not put in place any proactive checking and regulation of providers. This government has failed to establish an adequate schedule of regulatory infringements against a quality standards code because it thought that letting the market rip was all that needed to happen. And this government has failed to establish adequate labour market standards for providers, and the result is a more insecure workforce—the women and men who provide the vital NDIS support services.
It is a sad fact that this Morrison government has not provided the necessary safeguards to ensure that all those who access the NDIS are treated with care, compassion and respect. The sad reality is that the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission has contacted NDIS participants only once, in a joint letter to participants received in early September—one piece of correspondence from the commission to NDIS participants during a worldwide pandemic! That says it all. It should be noted that in his review Judge Robertson did take the opportunity to consider wider issues, including the safeguarding of people with disability who are particularly vulnerable. His report spoke of the buck-passing between the NDIA and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission. What a tragic regulatory culture.
I would like to now turn to the detail of this bill and the proposed changes included under recommendations 1, 6, 7, 8 and 9 of the Robertson review. While Labor will support these changes, there is much more that needs to be done to ensure that people with disability receive quality care in a system that is user friendly, supportive, professional and, most importantly, centred around the needs of the person with the disability.
Leaving this aside, there are two important issues addressed in this bill—issues that are outlined in the Robertson review. Firstly, following recommendations 1, 5, 7 and 9, this bill facilitates a better exchange of information between the agency and the commission, and the disclosure of information to relevant state and territory bodies is facilitated by following recommendation 8. Secondly, clarification around the scope of reportable incidents is provided by following recommendation 6, and the strengthening of banning orders is facilitated by recommendation 10, which was outlined in a legislative change in November 2020. These two changes do offer some improvements; however, they do not properly address gaping holes in the NDIS safeguarding, such as the lack of proactive checking on service providers, and an ineffective and understaffed NDIS.
The amendments could have been so much better if the government had consulted and listened. For example, the key DRO, the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, suggested a solution to the privacy concerns. They explained what could be achieved by establishing a clearly identified process which articulates why the participant's right to privacy should be overridden by the need to protect and be clearly documented; how a person's privacy will be protected in the context of investigations regarding abuse, including an option for an independent advocate to be appointed; and documentation of what information is then shared and with whom. To override participant privacy, the threat of abuse or disaster, such as a pandemic, has to be proven to be current, which will need to be defined. But this government just went on its merry way, didn't listen and didn't consult.
Labor believes everything possible should be done to protect people with disability from neglect and abuse. I want to say very clearly that the concerns of stakeholders and people with disability in relation to privacy and information sharing have not gone unheard. Labor recognises the right to privacy is just as important as the need to protect. This is why Labor is moving amendments to ensure there is a proper process for the disclosure of participant information. Labor will also move amendments to ensure all of these concerns are able to be looked at in detail as part of the review of NDIS safeguarding expected later this year. We will do this in close consultation with stakeholders and people with disabilities.
While the lack of consultation with people who have disabilities is a serious flaw of this government, it is not the worst of it. Very recently we saw documents leaked which showed the government's sham consultation process to try to address the community backlash requiring so-called independent assessments to evaluate NDIS participants' continuing eligibility for support. The leaked documents exposed a plan to dupe people with disabilities and the public and then to steamroll through the highly controversial changes while faking consultation. This was a disgraceful act by the minister and this government.
Before finishing, I want to put on public record my concern about the future of the NDIS in our city, in Geelong. I have been concerned regarding comments about the future of the NDIS made by the Liberal Party's new candidate. Stephanie Asher has always been lukewarm about the NDIS and in fact, early on, questioned the reason for its existence in Geelong. In relation to the NDIS, on 13 April 2013, Stephanie Asher said:
It also seems odd that there is scant work in the corporate sector, yet we are striving to head up the base for yet another government agency.
While the call is on to attract the best and brightest to our "univer-city", we simultaneously appeal to people with disabilities and their carers by positioning Geelong as the expert administrator of issues of disadvantage.
There is no question it will bring a lot of government money to the region, which means another CEO, another not for profit board and no doubt a bunch of new committees. Is that what we need?
Apart from the appalling condescension, this reeks of an arrogant and discriminating approach: 'So-called smart people attending Deakin University are okay, but do we really want people with disabilities?' It makes my skin crawl to hear such comments. I want to publicly ask Ms Asher: are you still questioning the NDIS's place in Geelong, and, if elected, will you support the continuation of the NDIS in Geelong?
I love the fact that the NDIS headquarters is based in the Geelong region. It is a strong part of our region's character. It provides local jobs and much-needed services for so many. It has the potential to be a truly great organisation, but it has a long way to go and it is not getting a fair go under this government. This bill could have been so much better. It is an example of the government's mean attitude to the NDIS. What we need is a government that truly cares—a government that puts people with disability first.
I rise to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. This bill responds to a number of recommendations of the Independent Review of the Adequacy of the Regulation of the Supports and Services Provided to Ms Ann-Marie Smith, an NDIS Participant, Who Died on 6 April 2020, known as the Robertson review. The remaining recommendations relate to policy options, which are still being progressed through joint work with states and territories, on strengthening supports and protections for people with disability who are at risk of harm. They include outreach and the future approach to community visitor schemes. The Morrison government is committed to continuing to consider ways to improve the NDIS to make it the best it can be.
This bill makes important technical amendments to better support the operations of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, based on the early implementation experience of the commission. These amendments build on the operational changes already made by the NDIS commission and the National Disability Insurance Agency to better support at-risk people with disability—changes which include better outreach and working with providers to ensure a participant is not cared for unsupervised by a single worker.
The NDIS commission and the NDIA have already taken available action to improve information sharing, including agreeing to a memorandum of understanding and a set of operational protocols to govern information exchange. This bill supports improved information-sharing arrangements between these two agencies to better protect people with disability. Significantly, it enacts a threshold for information sharing that is less restrictive than the current one. The current threshold establishes that disclosure must be necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to an individual's life, health or safety. The relevant amendment removes qualifiers like 'serious' or 'necessary' to ensure that any threat to life, health or safety is significant grounds for the recording, use or disclosure of protected NDIS commission information. The bill also amends provisions for disclosing information in a number of specific situations and provides for greater clarity around reportable incidents. Importantly, these changes to information sharing do not undermine or reduce the significant protections for personal information under the NDIS Act. Personal information held by the NDIA or the NDIS commission will continue to be considered protected information.
Further important changes provided for in this bill relate to the need to ensure consistency and procedural fairness in the application of the NDIS commission's regulatory responses. The NDIS market is diverse. It includes non-profit organisations, large private companies and individuals running their own businesses. Accordingly, the NDIS Act places obligations on providers, workers and anyone who is otherwise engaged by the provider. For the avoidance of doubt that the act covers the range of potential governance arrangements, this bill ensures that obligations and regulatory responses also fall on the key personnel of the provider. They can include the CEO, the board of directors and any other relevant personnel. These and a range of other technical amendments provided for in this bill will strengthen the existing supports and protections for NDIS participants and ensure their wellbeing. They are designed to ensure the safety of participants at risk of harm and will strengthen the operational effectiveness of the NDIS commission.
The government will continue to remember the tragic circumstances of each NDIS participant who has suffered abuse, neglect and exploitation. We cannot state more clearly and sincerely our commitment to taking the required action to better protect participants and to make this scheme and this system as good as they can be.
I also would like to make a contribution to this debate on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. To make it clear from the outset, Labor welcomes the measures in this bill to the extent that they are aimed at improving support and protection for NDIS participants, including the involvement and functions of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.
While we do welcome those measures in the bill, we certainly have grave concerns about the lack of consultation with the people who rely on the NDIS, and their families. As you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker, that's fundamentally what is contained in the second reading amendment. It draws attention to those ultimate deficiencies. The displacement of people with disability from the decision-making process, a process that directly involves their lives, contradicts the very core of what the NDIS was all about. At the core of the NDIS was a people centred principle. To make changes without consulting those directly involved certainly has—with respect, Mr Deputy Speaker—hairs on it. We should not be taking these people for granted.
What we know about the bill is that it is a direct response to the Robertson review of the death of an Adelaide NDIS participant, Ann-Marie Smith. The review was the result of pressure from Labor's shadow minister and also from Labor's state shadow minister in South Australia to establish the independent inquiry into the death of Ms Smith.
While we congratulate the government for finally taking much-needed action on this issue, it should be noted that they took that action 11 months after former judge Alan Robertson handed down his report and some 16 months after Ann-Marie Smith passed away. Only now are they finally doing something about it. That's just simply not good enough, and it's not the appropriate care that you would expect would be made available to the most vulnerable in our community.
The bill doesn't even come close to fixing what we see as the mess that the Morrison government has made of the NDIS and the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework—particularly what is in that framework to prevent abuse. This is a government—you've only got to remember back to a couple of budgets ago—that robbed $4.6 billion from the NDIS. That was not because the NDIS didn't need it; they actually did that to prop up the budget's bottom line. So, if you can make flagrant changes like that concerning the most vulnerable in our community, what else can you do?
But I've got to say that there is a bit of a common theme in that. Just look at how they approached the issue of robodebt. That found its way into the courts where it was found to be an illegal process, but they were quite happy to move on some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community on robodebt. Juxtapose with that how they responded to large corporations that inappropriately pocketed JobKeeper money. They didn't actually try to go and get any of that back. As a matter of fact, they said: 'It's gone to other things.' Well, yes—it went to propping up share prices and to paying executive bonuses and other things like that. Their treatment of public funds is just reprehensible. But they were prepared to take a different approach to robodebt; they tried to justify that. Then they tried to justify not restoring moneys that were paid out to companies that didn't need them, when, quite frankly, those moneys could have been used for other things, given the circumstances of this pandemic.
Let's also remember that 12,000 Australians with a disability tragically died while waiting to be funded under the NDIS on this government's watch. This is just not acceptable, particularly in a country like Australia. We are not talking about a third-world administration or a third-world country. In a country like Australia, we expect the most vulnerable in our community to be looked after. I would have thought that that should have been a common thought across this chamber.
I remind Australians that this is the same government that, through tricks and dishonesty, tried to ram through, not all that long ago, the independent assessment scheme, which was also designed to cut costs out of the NDIS. They only pulled back on that when there was a hue and cry—a national backlash—and not just from our side but from their side as well, when people started working out what this meant for families living with disabilities. I've got to say: the Liberals just can't be trusted when it comes to schemes that underpin the most vulnerable in our community.
In essence, this bill amends the provisions of the NDIS Act to support the implementation of changes in response to recommendations 1, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 of the Robertson review, all of which were aimed at improving the support and protections provided by the NDIS to NDIS participants. Recommendations 1, 5, 7, 8 and 9 are responsible for facilitating better exchange of information between the agency and the commission and also for the disclosure of information to the relevant state and territory authorities. Recommendation 6 deals with the clarification around the scope of reporting incidents. While those are certainly welcome recommendations from the Robertson review, which have been implemented in this bill, we are disappointed that report does not identify any failings in how the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission carried out its function around Ms Smith's death.
Now, remember that Ms Smith was a 54-year-old Adelaide woman. She was an NDIS participant, and she died on 6 April 2020. It was found that she died with severe septic shock, multiple organ failure, severe pressure sores, malnutrition and other issues connected with her cerebral palsy after being confined to a cane chair for 24 hours a day for more than a year. Ms Smith's NDIS package included six hours of support per day. Reports are that she only received two hours per day and had not been seen outside her house for over 12 months. This tragic death is nothing short of unbelievable neglect. If there was one positive to come out of this dreadful situation it's that it has prompted the government to come to terms with the failures of the system to identify the gaps that this bill now seeks to address.
There is certainly clearly something not working that goes to the heart of the issue—that is, the failure of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission to ensure that its monitoring and its exercising of punitive functions are being appropriately administered. The Robertson review found that there was no legal wrongdoing when the commission, which was set up to protect NDIS participants, issued a $12½ thousand fine for failing to notify the commission of Ms Smith's death—but that was a month and a half after she had died—and placed a banning order on the provider, Integrity Care, for four months, following her death. We know that this was the only infringement that the commission had issued up to that point over two years. I guess now I know that, a year on, there have been a handful of other infringements issued.
In 2018 the inaugural NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner, Graeme Head, gave a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, and I just want to quote his words. He said:
We have comprehensive regulatory powers and functions, and real regulatory teeth.
Incidents that must be reported … include the death of a participant, serious injury, abuse or neglect and importantly also the unauthorised use of a restrictive practice in relation to a participant.
Where was any of that in relation to Ms Smith? It just was not there. So I imagine Mr Head must look back on his words in 2018 and think they haven't aged well. If those opposite think that the commission has any real regulatory power, as well as function, why aren't they ensuring that the commission is overseeing the care of participants, overseeing the care of Ann-Marie Smith? Simply, the government must address these issues and ensure the commission's power is being properly administered, to prevent the abuse and neglect in the first place, not after the event. It should be overseeing and regulating the conduct of care being given to ensure that we don't see a repeat of the issues that occurred in Adelaide with respect to Ann-Marie Smith. It's certainly not a satisfactory situation. Quite frankly, it's highly offensive and disrespectful to the many families out there who have had to endure the similar fate of being, effectively, ignored when it comes to what is actually needed and necessary for families that are living with disability.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme is a vital service, but after eight years of Liberal rule it has been slashed and mismanaged to the extent that people are now dying of neglect in their homes. Our approach must be to focus on the issues and to ensure that we never see again instances like that of Ann-Marie Smith occurring on the watch of this parliament. This is the kind of systemic failure, one that results in death by neglect, that needs to be approached head-on, with honesty and with vigour for reform—ensuring that we make a change that delivers the results that were always intended with the initial formation of the NDIS itself. The government must work beyond the measures in this bill. It owes it to all Australians living with a disability and their families to ensure that it is overseen appropriately and properly, and with the best possible system of care for some of our country's most vulnerable Australians.
I rise today to join my colleagues in speaking in great support of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. The Morrison government continues to consider ways to support people with disability to live lives free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. As part of our continued commitment, this bill makes essential and life-changing amendments to the NDIS Act. It seeks to improve the support provided and to better protect NDIS participants from harm, and it seeks to ensure that the quality and safeguarding framework for NDIS participants is as robust, comprehensive and responsive as it can be.
We take no chances with the safety of people with disability. This bill responds to a number of recommendations of the Independent Review of the Adequacy of the Regulation of the Supports and Services Provided to Ms Ann-Marie Smith, an NDIS Participant, Who Died on 6 April 2020, otherwise known as the Robertson review. The tragic death of Ann-Marie Smith is a shocking and appalling case of neglect, one which Australians nationwide continue to be deeply saddened by. Ann-Marie Smith's story reinforces the absolute urgency in our government to protect NDIS participants and to make sure that such distressing events do not occur again.
People with a disability have the right to independence, both in their communities and in the safety of their own homes, and yet too often they feel segregated, isolated and neglected. Alongside the Robertson review, our government has considered a number of inquiries into the effectiveness of NDIS safeguards. This bill represents our wholehearted commitment to take action to protect participants from neglect at the hands of those who have been paid to care for them. To better protect people with disability, a less-restrictive threshold for sharing of information between the NDIS commission and the National Disability Insurance Agency has been established. This has been enacted in recognition of the Robertson review recommendations. This bill removes qualifiers like 'serious' or 'necessary' to ensure that any threat to life, health or safety is sufficient ground for the recording, use or disclosure of protected NDIS commission information. It amends the sharing powers between these two agencies by granting them clear legal authority to release protected information to one another for the purposes of carrying out their core legislated functions under the NDIS Act to ensure the protection of participants. The bill also provides for greater clarity around reportable incidents and for disclosing information more broadly to the NDIS commission.
Another key amendment is the registration of NDIS providers. Currently, quality assurance of registered NDIS providers is undertaken by approved quality auditors who are engaged by providers directly. The market for quality auditors includes a wide range of experience levels and sector knowledge. This bill will allow the commissioners to place conditions on the approval of quality auditors, and it makes explicit the commissioners' power to vary or revoke approval of quality auditors. In line with best administrative practice, these decisions will be reviewable decisions.
This bill makes a range of technical changes by ensuring obligations and regulatory responses also fall on the key personnel of a provider, including the CEO and board of directors. It makes provision for the NDIS commission to establish rules in relation to suitability for the purposes of delivering NDIS services, and it clarifies the registration process that providers must follow, including the definitions around withdrawal of applications. These amendments will strengthen the support and protection for NDIS participants, and these amendments will facilitate greater independence, community involvement, employment and improved wellbeing for NDIS participants.
Last month marked eight years of NDIS. Eight years on, there are now 2,300 participants in my electorate of Bonner. Over the years, I have heard many of their stories, their desires to achieve their goals and their longing to live an ordinary life. Our government has not underestimated the critical support the NDIS provides for people with their disabilities, for their families and for their carers. That is why we take further action to ensure the safety of participants at risk of harm. We will continue to remember the participants who suffered unimaginable abuse, neglect and exploitation.
The measures in this bill are an essential part of this commitment. They will give participants choice and control over their lives. They will make sure participants are treated fairly and receive quality services from the providers and the workers that they choose to support them. And, most importantly, they will protect participants' rights to be free from harm.
Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I may just take a moment to pull up some of my notes that I was intending to use to speak on this a little bit further down the track on the speakers list. But this is a really important issue. The NDIS was meant to transform people's lives. I spoke with people before the scheme was in place about their expectations for it. Greta was a fantastic advocate for it. She has cerebral palsy, she's in a wheelchair and she was one of those who could see that, as a young woman, it could provide a pathway to independence for her. And indeed it has. I was just messaging her today, actually, having seen that she has had her COVID vaccination. I was speaking to her about what she's finding. And of course what we do know is that only around about 26 per cent of participants on the NDIS are vaccinated. And this is a group of people among the most vulnerable who were in the first two phases—in 1b—of the rollout; they may have even been in 1a. But they are right at the start of the rollout. Yet we have an appallingly low COVID vaccination rate for them. Not only that, but many of them are finding that their carers have not been able to access vaccines. One said to me, 'All the carers registered on the government's website months ago but haven't received any information about how they actually get a vaccine.' What all that says to me is that we see this legislation that's meant to improve people's lives; however, the reality is that so many of them are left behind.
I think that the biggest concern for people who rely on the NDIS is that promises are made but promises are not necessarily kept. I want to take people back to the months of anxiety that were created around independent assessments, when people were told that things would be totally changed and that all the medical stuff that had happened would actually be thrown out the window when the independent assessments would come in. It was advocacy from the sector, advocacy from people like me and advocacy from the participants themselves that has meant that we are not currently having a discussion about that—because that was going to completely turn around what people's expectations and hopes were for the scheme.
It wasn't done in a consultative way. It was done without any consultation with the sector. It progressed without any consultation with the sector. For goodness sake, the very people who have had to fight for absolutely everything, for every improvement that they have had in their lives and for every bit of support that they get, were then made to fight yet again by this government—to fight against something that should never ever have been put forward in the first place. I saw people broken by that. These people had been resilient and had advocated and were happy to work through the challenges of a scheme, but that really broke them and pushed them to the edge.
That is what we see when we look at the way this government has treated people with disabilities and the people who care for them—and when I say 'the people who care for them', I mean their families as well. I know a mum who is partway through a couple of weeks of lockdown with a daughter who has autism because of being a close contact for COVID. The mum has been in tears, and there have been lots of tantrums from her daughter. That's the sort of thing that people are having to go through. I don't think any of us have any understanding of what that must be like. And there's very little additional support for people. We were very clear that we needed to see changes made. What is coming through my office right now is that the decision-making processes for the NDIS have slowed right down—that they have slowed yet again to a crawl—and people who are waiting for a decision, waiting for an appeal or waiting just to get information about where something is at, are finding that it has got really, really slow.
Lockdown has taken away all our choices. That is even more profound for people whose lives had some richness in them because they could go out to programs, but all that has been taken away. So their choices have been taken away. There are going to be people who possibly find it hard to get back to what they had. It's hard when you lose that social contact and the things that were built up over a period of time and then the doors are just slammed shut. Obviously, having high levels of vaccination would really make a difference.
I also want to talk about what I'm seeing with a constituent in New South Wales who's facing the challenge of rapid antigen testing when you're not in a local government area of concern. The Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury is not a local government area of concern. We're in lockdown, but not the tightest lockdown—not with curfews at night; not with security guards roaming around; and not with intense vaccination hubs happening either, for that matter. Heaven forbid we should try and get ahead of the curve! So we are in a limbo. We're seeing cases rising, and one of the reasons they're rising is that workers from local government areas of concern do come into our electorate to work. This is where disability care fits in—employees from local government areas of concern who have not been able to be vaccinated are required to have rapid antigen testing. That's just been announced, and it all comes into effect really fast. The providers are saying to me: 'We can't even work out how to do this. It's not legal to do it without a healthcare professional there, so how do we get a healthcare professional to every one of our group homes to try and do this?' So the practicalities and logistics of these announcements are going to create even more problems and challenges for disability care.
One of the things that this legislation looks at is those for whom their whole care is entrusted to the NDIA. The NDIA is the one that oversees and has overseen the quality of the care they get. We have seen catastrophic failures because of the structure that was put in place, so we absolutely need to see these improvements come forward. We need to make sure that what happened in South Australia isn't repeated. What we also need to see more broadly is not just that quality of care is regulated but that we are training people up appropriately to provide the quality of care that is needed.
Every time I look at this government's policies to fix things, the bit that's always missing is the workers. The bit that's missing is the skilling up of the workers and the support of their ongoing education so that they are building and expanding their skills and we are constantly improving the quality of care that people receive and that people deserve to receive. The quality of care becomes a challenge when you haven't got enough carers. So building up the volume of carers is really key, but so is continuing to allow them to progress so they actually have a career path. I really thank the Australian Services Union for the work they have been doing over many years to look at how we do this.
I want to come back to vaccination rates and the vaccination process for people with disabilities but also for their carers. The Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury is an area of 4,000 square kilometres—not as big as many electorates, but for a city electorate it's pretty big. Yet there have been decisions made to date that require people in my electorate of the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury to access their vaccination either at their GP, or, now, if they're able to have AstraZeneca, at the pharmacy, although we're still seeing slow supplies. My GPs tell me that sometimes the Pfizer supplies they've been promised and have taken bookings for simply don't turn up. A whole week's supply just doesn't turn up.
This is the moment where I really want to give a shout-out—yes, to the GPs for the work they're doing and to the practice managers for the work they're doing, but also to the receptionists, who are the people taking the phone calls in GPs' offices and clinics. They must be the heroes. I know we get desperate emails and desperate phone calls, but they would be absolutely smashed with phone calls from people saying, 'This is my situation. I have a disability,' or 'I have a daughter with a disability,' or 'I have a carer coming in'—all those sorts of circumstances. We all know those people ought to have been vaccinated by now under the rollout plan. I love plans, but I like them much better when they're actually delivered and not just some future promises. These promises and commitments to people that not only would they be able to be vaccinated but the process wouldn't be as onerous as it is have been unfulfilled.
I don't know if anyone in this place has tried to book a vaccine. If you're in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, there isn't a hub to do it at. You have to phone every single GP that you can, along with lots of other people, just to see if you can go on a waiting list—these are my circumstances; can I do it?—or jump online, and the online process takes you back in circular motion because there's nothing available to book yet. These are the challenges people are facing. For people with a disability for whom life has certain challenges already, we should be making it easier. For the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, we should be taking the services into those areas. We should be travelling to the furthest places within the communities. People say, 'You've got quite good vaccination rates.' Yes, we do. But the people who are hardest to vaccinate are those who haven't done it yet, and they are in the more remote or transport-challenged areas. There is no public transport in most of the Hawkesbury, if you're not on the train line. I think we've got five stops in my electorate. It takes you to Blacktown. It doesn't even take you to Penrith, which will ultimately be our nearest hub. It takes you into the hotspots, if you want to do it by public transport, or you can go to a hotspot if you want to drive there. We have to go into the hotspots in order to find a mass vaccination hub, which is where people are being steered to. They're being told, 'If you can't get into a GP, go for the hub.' But there just isn't one near enough.
What is missing is this idea: you could take mobile teams and reach into these communities. In fact, you could probably get quite a wide penetration of that community with the vaccine if you went there, because it would be easy: your neighbours would be doing it; you could take anyone along with you. It would really make a difference. It's time for this government to think about creative approaches. We haven't had the vaccine supply. That has been our No. 1 problem. Yes, if we hadn't had leakages from quarantine, it wouldn't have been such a race, but we didn't have quarantine that held. We all know that. We still don't have it. We've just got plans for it. We still have leaky quarantine. We still don't have enough supply, but, even when we do have enough supply, we do not have the plans to take it into the community, particularly to places where you would be able to do large numbers of people with disability. We need to do for them what we did with aged care. The difference is we need to do the carers as well. That's the only way that people with disability will be looked after.
I rise to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. There's absolutely no doubt that the National Disability Insurance Scheme has helped and assisted many thousands of Australians, including many of those living in Cairns and in Far North Queensland in my region. It has profoundly improved the lives of people with disability and their families. The NDIS, of course, provides all Australians under the age of 65 with a permanent and significant disability with the reasonable and necessary supports they need to live a better life.
Previously, as I'm sure you'd be well aware, Deputy Speaker Freelander, the way of delivering services to people with disability in Australia was one where, generally, they had to fit in with whatever the system had to offer. In fact, in many cases, we saw round pegs trying to be driven into square holes. It just didn't work, and the services that were delivered were, in many cases, far from adequate. Of course this resulted in limited choice and control for people with disability in how and when their supports and services were to be delivered. The NDIS replaced that system with one that maximises people's independence and capacity to participate in and contribute to their community.
But it's important to remember that the NDIS is about more than just individual plans. The NDIS is about community inclusion, making sure people with disability have the skills, confidence and information they need to get involved in the community, and about building the capacity of the community to include people with disability. In my electorate, like all others, there are many service providers who do an amazing job in this space. But it's the individuals who work inside these services that are the true heroes, in my eyes. No doubt that everyone here will attest, too, that the NDIS has certainly been worth it and is changing lives. It is something that, collectively as a nation, we can all be extremely proud of. The Morrison government considers any abuse, neglect or exploitation of any National Disability Insurance Scheme participant to be abhorrent. We are absolutely committed to improving the quality and safeguards in place and to protecting NDIS participants from harm.
This bill strengthens the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner's powers to improve support for NDIS participants. It also builds on actions already taken by the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission in response to the review by the Hon. Alan Robertson SC. The Robertson review was commissioned by the NDIS commissioner to examine the adequacy of the regulation of the NDIS services provided to Ms Ann-Marie Smith, a NDIS participant who died tragically and absolutely needlessly in April 2020. The Robertson review made a number of recommendations to improve the NDIS quality and safeguards arrangements for at-risk participants.
This bill addresses important recommendations on information sharing and reportable incidents. It also provides for improved information sharing between the NDIS commission and the National Disability Insurance Agency to better protect people with disability. Currently, present clauses in the NDIS establish a relatively high threshold for sharing information. This can at times be quite problematic. This bill enacts less restrictive thresholds, in recognition of the Robertson review recommendations.
The NDIS market, as we know, is diverse, including not-for-profit organisations, very large private companies and individuals running their own businesses. In my case I've had some of the not-for-profit organisations provide so much amazing service in the area of people with disability. It's great to see them continuing in the area. With the adaption of the NDIS we saw a lot of big national companies attracted to my area, but I think it's very important we continue to support those small not-for-profits that have provided such an outstanding service in our communities for such extended periods of time. Of the clients they service, they've got the credibility and the understanding of the communities they work in. I think it's absolutely important that we make sure that we don't lose those small not-for-profits, because, at the end of the day, they're the ones that will continue to persevere and remain in our communities long after the big national companies have packed up and gone off looking for greener fields. The NDIS Act recognises this by placing obligations on providers and workers and anyone else otherwise engaged by the provider. However, there is a concern that this definition is not broad enough to cover the range of potential governance arrangements. For the avoidance of doubt, the bill ensures obligations and regulatory responses also for the key personnel of a provider, which can include the CEO, the board of directors and any other relevant personnel.
While the NDIS Act gives the commissioner the power to ban an NDIS provider or worker on the grounds that they are not suitable to deliver NDIS services or support, it does not presently set out how suitability is determined for the banning orders. It's very important that we look at this very closely because we see a lot of backyard providers coming in and they don't have the qualifications or the accreditation. It really is an area of concern. We need to make sure that the participants are not exploited and that the individuals who are going to provide the services, irrespective of their circumstances, are appropriately qualified. While the NDIS Act gives permission to ban an NDIS provider on the grounds that they are not suitable to deliver NDIS services or support, it does not, as I said, presently set out suitability and the determination for banning orders. The bill provides the power for commissioners to make rules in relation to suitability for that purpose, which is very important, aligning with existing provisions in relation to provider registrations.
The onus is on this House to strengthen legislation that actually protects our most vulnerable. The government is absolutely committed and continues to consider ways to support people with disability to live life free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. This bill will certainly improve protections for NDIS participants, including those who have a greater risk of harm. Also, it will strengthen the operational effectiveness of the NDIS commission. I commend the bill to the House.
[by video link] Labor is relieved about the Morrison government's decision to take action on some of the recommendations of the Robertson review into the tragic death of NDIS participant Ms Ann-Marie Smith, who sadly died in April 2020. However, we've come to learn from this government that, as with most of their decisions, their actions are far too little and far too late. The lived experience of disabled Australians and NDIS participants in our country, when dealing with this government, is nothing short of a disgrace, and the inaction of this government on this issue is absolutely shameful. It's time for the Morrison government to start taking responsibility, commit to a substantial and thorough inquiry on this issue and put in place the resources and facilities to safeguard the interests and the wellbeing of our most vulnerable Australians.
The Robertson review and its recommendations, which are the subject of this bill, was an inquiry into one tragic death that occurred as a result of the failures of the NDIS system. Labor pushed for an independent inquiry into NDIS safeguarding more broadly, but the NDIS commission instructed the inquiry, led by former Judge Robertson, to specifically and exclusively review the adequacy of regulation of the supports and services provided to Ms Smith. As such, the terms of reference for the review were specifically confined to the circumstances of Ms Smith's case. Not only was this inquiry far too limited in its scope but the review didn't even have statutory powers, and meetings were held in Adelaide over two days with those who provided a submission or an outline of what they wished to say. Submissions were not made public and there was no wider sector or parliamentary engagement communicated by the government in relation to the Robertson review's evidence-gathering process and the development of this bill. The inquiry was neither broad nor transparent enough to offer an adequate set of recommendations addressing all of the areas within the NDIS and the NDIS commission which are in urgent need of reform. But even despite its limited scope, some of the recommendations, such as greater communication between the NDIA and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, do have merit.
The report highlights the buck-passing between the NDIA and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission. The problem is that the NDIS commission only regulates providers and the NDIA is set up to administer the scheme to participants. Robertson says that there are two agencies not sharing information and people could easily fall through the cracks of patchy oversight. Despite these few clear recommendations, which did come as a result of the Robertson review, it has still taken a year for the government to start to take action on it. So you have to ask the question: when designing this commission did none of the Liberals stop to ask is it actually set up properly? Is it fit for the task of protecting people on the ground? Is it the right body to set up to protect people? Should it sit back and wait for the phone to ring? The government should provide answers to these questions and outline what it intends to do to ensure that the commission's powers are being properly used to prevent abuse and neglect, not just an issue of a slap on the wrist after the fact. It has now been nearly two years since the death of Ms Smith and a year since recommendations were made addressing the cause of her death. Only now is the Morrison government attempting to make even the most minor reforms based on the recommendation of the Robertson review, but they're not enough. The Robertson review did not even seek to review all the crucial issues relevant to the NDIS's failure.
Labor argued that it should have been broadened to also look at what went wrong in the case of David Harris, an NDIS participant who was found dead in his house more than two months after his supports had been cut off. This sad death was another preventable tragedy that occurred as a result of the Morrison government's failure to effectively regulate and reform the NDIS. David was dead in his Parramatta unit for two months before his body was discovered by police—after he was found by authorities and after his grieving sister based interstate learned that David's NDIS funding had been cut off because he missed an annual review meeting. This meant cleaners and other NDIS funded supports stopped visiting a 55-year-old man who had substantial mental and physical care needs. After her brother David's lonely death, Leanne asked one thing, that case managers be introduced to the NDIS. This government, the Morrison government, wrote back saying there were no plans to introduce such a measure.
How many Australians with disability have to die in their homes before this government admits there is a problem? David and Ann-Marie's tragic deaths are just two such stories of a growing number of tragedies which have come as a result of the failure of the Morrison government to ensure that the NDIS meets its most basic aim: to ensure the safety of disabled Australians. This is what Labor committed to when we introduced the NDIS. Sadly, like other things that we've introduced, this government has done nothing but tear it down.
The failures of this government with regard to the NDIS are symptomatic of their attitude towards Australians with disabilities and other vulnerable groups that are within our communities. The coalition have continued to disregard the needs of vulnerable Australians, once again placing profits and political punchlines over the urgent and drastic need for change. The Morrison government's failure of vulnerable Australians has only become more obvious through the course of the pandemic. The botched vaccine rollout for NDIS participants, disabled Australians and Australians in aged-care residences are evidence of this government's extreme apathy and lack of care for those of us most in need of support and security.
I think back to 27 May when I asked the Prime Minister in question time: 'How many Australians in residential disability care have been vaccinated?' I did receive a response from him in June. It was shocking but far from surprising. The Prime Minister informed me that nationally less than 25 per cent of NDIS participants in residential care facilities had received at least one dose of the vaccine. In my home state of Victoria the situation was even worse: only six per cent of NDIS participants in disability accommodation had received two doses of the vaccine. These are appalling figures. But they're not just figures. They are people's lives and people's families who have suffered—because, while there's been some progress since that time, the statistics demonstrate the immense and appalling apathy of the Morrison government towards the safety of people with disabilities.
This government has failed to fulfil its duty to Australians. It has shown an ongoing apathy towards Australians with disabilities and their right to be safe and secure—it is endemic. What we can be sure of is that the tragic death of Ms Ann-Marie Smith was not a one-off. It is symptomatic of a system in which the government has constantly left people with disabilities behind. The government has treated disability rights advocate groups with so much contempt it is appalling. All Australians deserve to feel safe, and they deserve access to the basic resources necessary for ensuring their physical and mental health. The maltreatment and death of disabled Australians has been overlooked and de-prioritised again and again by this government. Our communities and those who are most vulnerable in them deserve a lot better. They deserve a government that is on their side, one that looks out for their interests, especially for those Australians not in a position to look after themselves.
The Morrison government have ripped $4.6 billion out of the NDIS. It failed to act, despite 1,200 Australians with disabilities dying while waiting to be funded for the scheme. While we welcome the government's decision to take action—belatedly—on the recommendations of the Robertson review, their action is too little, too late. It's been over 10 months since the Hon. Mr Robertson handed down his review and 14 months since Ann-Marie Smith passed away, and only now are the Morrison government deciding: 'We'd better take action.' I ask: how many Australians have died or been subject to maltreatment in these 10 months? How many disabled Australians and their families suffered while the Morrison government resisted the implementation of the recommendations? The cost of the government's inaction is far too high. They will prioritise punchlines and the scoring of political points over their responsibility to actually serve the Australian people. People living with disabilities are being ignored and left behind.
There is no longer any excuse for the government's failure to step up and do its job. This is a government that refuses to take responsibility and refuses to take action on these issues that matter to Australians. The failure of this government to ensure the safety of NDIS participants—and the countless deaths which have occurred because of the Morrison government's inaction—should be an embarrassment to our country and an embarrassment to the Prime Minister. You would think that any minister responsible for this—or for robodebt, or for the countless other scandals—would have been dumped. A normal government, with a leader who has values and ethics, would have dumped ministers who have failed this badly. But what we find with the Morrison government is that, with scandal after scandal, it promotes those involved. It's wrong. It's time that people living with disability and their families and advocates were properly consulted and given the proper treatment and the proper respect that they deserve. Only an Albanese Labor government will do that for people and families living with disability.
I rise in support of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. Mr Deputy Speaker, before I get to the bill, I think it would be remiss of me if we didn't change the tone for a moment and recognise what we are about to celebrate tomorrow.
Tomorrow in Tokyo, the 16th Summer Paralympic Games gets underway. These games will deliver a true spectacle of sport and, hopefully, a big haul of medals for Australia. However, far more than that, these games are absolutely proof positive, that, with the right supports in place, people living with a disability can achieve incredible things and make a wonderful contribution to our society in the most difficult of circumstances. Over the next two weeks, Australia's 179 Paralympians are going to inspire us and bring us together, at a time of unfortunate division and hardship across our nation—and, hey, we might even get inspired by these Olympians to unite. For many of our Paralympians, like hundreds of thousands of other Australians with disability, it is the NDIS which is delivering the supports they need to make their unique contribution, and today we're here to ensure that that scheme is helping to deliver the highest possible quality of care.
Earlier in August I met with an NDIS provider called AEIOU, which delivers early intervention services to children aged two to six living with severe autism. The provider's representatives Lorna Bishop and Nicola Morgan wanted to express to me the enormous improvement that the NDIS has brought to the lives of people living with this condition. As many as 3,000 children living with severe autism across the country have been receiving substantial support from the NDIS to engage with early intervention services like those provided by AEIOU. They have calculated that, for every child supported by their organisation through the NDIS, $2 million worth of benefits are delivered to the economy through reduced ongoing costs in supporting that individual and in their capacity to make their own wonderful contribution to our society. That is not to mention the enormous difference it makes to their wellbeing and the wellbeing of thousands of young people with autism and their families.
In this place and in our communities, when we talk about disability, we often talk about the individual who lives with the disability, but we often don't talk about the family that supports that person. Lorna and Nicola came to me to express their concerns about the ongoing funding of the NDIS for people with severe autism, and I've passed those concerns on to the minister. However, critically, they did so fundamentally because they know what a massive and quantifiable difference the NDIS is already making to so many thousands of lives and out of their passionate desire to see it continue to do so.
One of the privileges I have in this place is serving on the NDIS oversight committee under the fantastic leadership of the member for Menzies. He has done an absolutely sterling job in that role, and this parliament will be the poorer for his no longer being here in the next term. I think in every inquiry I have been to, sat in on, listened to or appeared at, almost every person that appears before that committee will say: 'We support the NDIS. The NDIS has given our members, our community, our groups and the people in those groups a quality of life that they never had under the old state based system.' Is it perfect? Of course it's not perfect.
Those on the other side absolutely dripping in sanctimony—a position which I take great offence at, as the father of a child who lives with disabilities—come in here and continue to run down this government and everybody in it, as though we don't give a damn about people who live with disabilities. Shame on you. I have sat and listened to these speeches. They are not speeches about a bill; they are absolutely partisan political speeches, that the other side, the Labor Party, continue to weaponise. It's another subject that they continue to weaponise: our Australians that live with disability. Is the NDIS perfect? No, it is not. Was it designed perfectly? No, it was not. Is it being implemented perfectly? No, it is not.
Over the weekend I was watching SBS. I watched a program on an institution for people who lived with disabilities at the turn of the 1900s in Philadelphia. They were showing photographs and some video of the conditions in which these unfortunate people lived. This is not something which just happened in America; every country in the world shunned our disabled. We stuck them in institutions; we stuck them where we couldn't see them. It was too painful for the nondisabled to look at and see the lives of these people across the world. So whilst the other side can mock what is happening with the NDIS, the NDIS—as demonstrated and said to me by every person who appears before the committee on which I have the privilege to serve—is amazing. It has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians. Could it be better? Yes, it could. But I am not going to stand here and listen to the rubbish that those members opposite continue to perpetrate in this place in talking about cuts.
Under the old scheme, under the old state system, around $8 billion a year was spent on disability services. Now it's around $28 billion under the NDIS. I'm not quite sure how those opposite can talk about a cut when we look at the simple mathematics of it. So before any members opposite want to come after me and talk about how badly this government is doing and how the members of the government are heartless I want them to think about what I'm saying now, because every time they say that they are driving a knife through the heart of good members of the government who want to see the protection of our disabled—of our people living with disabilities. People in Australia who live with disabilities are not a political tool.
On average, participants in the NDIS under the old scheme are now receiving more than 50 per cent more funding under the NDIS than they were previously. Those formerly in residential aged care are being supported to move into alternative accommodation, and admissions to aged care for those under 65 are down by 68 per cent in just the last three years. No young person who lives with a disability should be living in aged care. The number of participants from remote areas, who have experienced significant challenges in getting support historically, are rising all the time. In the past two years participants from remote areas have quadrupled as a proportion of the total recipients, while there has been an increase by a third of participants from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds—and I acknowledge the minister who is in the chamber here today. The NDIS is truly changing lives.
However, as well as simply providing funding to people living with disability, the NDIS must play a role in ensuring the safety and quality of the service it supports. This government laid the foundation of delivering on that need with the national rollout of the NDIS Quality and Safety Commissioner, completed in December last year and funded with more than $92 million in the 2021 budget. In every state and territory, the NDIS Code of Conduct now applies to workers, providers are held to account in meeting the minimum practice standards required and a consistent complaints process exists to ensure that participants have the ability to raise concerns wherever they live. The government has also introduced the NDIS Worker Screening Check, with more than $16 million in funding, to ensure that potential NDIS workers employed through a registered provider are checked and that those who present an unacceptable risk to people with disability are not permitted contact with participants.
This system is already delivering strong and consistent protection for people with disability in the NDIS, but, as with the terribly sad story of Ann-Marie Smith, such a system can always be improved. The bill before the House today is the latest measure by this government to make that system as strong as it possibly can be. The independent review into the supports provided to Ms Smith, the Robertson review, recommended a number of improvements to the communication of information, which are tackled by this bill. In particular, the bill reduces the threshold test applied when deciding whether to share information between the NDIS commission and the NDIA when working to protect people with disability. At present, the test is whether disclosure is 'necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to an individual's life, health or safety'. This bill removes the qualifiers from that test. Any threat to the life, health or safety of a vulnerable Australian with disability is a serious threat. This bill amends the legislation to reflect that reality and ensures there is no ambiguity as to when we can act to protect them. Further, the bill acts to strengthen the worker screening regime I mentioned earlier by ensuring that the NDIS commission is able to disclose information to worker screening units where necessary to prevent the wrong individuals being cleared to work with the NDIS providers.
These and many other changes in the bill, and the other clarifying and technical amendments made in the bill, are modest, but they are extremely important. In the days to come, we're going to see 179 Australians living with disability compete and inspire us on the world stage. They're going to show us the amazing things that people with disability are capable of. We must not allow these inspiring men and women to blind us to the truth, though, that many Australians with a disability are vulnerable. They rely on their dedicated and hardworking support workers, and they rely on us to ensure that every single one of those workers is doing the right thing each and every day. This bill will make the protections we have in place stronger, more responsive and more flexible, and I commend it to the House.
[by video link] I begin by saying that, in speaking to this bill, the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021, I think it's important to set some context. It's important to observe that when we talk about the NDIS we are speaking about, in my opinion, the single most important social policy reform in Australia in the last several decades. It is groundbreaking in so many ways.
If we look at some of the key elements of the NDIS, first and foremost, it is a major extension of the application of the concept of social insurance—trying to help individuals who are vulnerable to deal with risk and uncertainty in their lives. Second, importantly, it is trying to look at individuals and the lifelong struggle that they face, rather than deliver piecemeal, fractured services in a way that doesn't provide them the kind of support they need. Third, extremely importantly—and, I believe, quite revolutionary for the way that government services are provided—it is person centred. It is centred around the agency of the individual in making choices around how services are delivered and how the resources that they are allocated are prioritised. For these three reasons, I believe, the NDIS is extremely important.
The NDIS has also, of course, raised the profile of the vulnerability and the needs of people with a disability and, indeed, I think, raised the profile of the number and range of needs that people with a disability in our community have, and it has led to great strides forward. What we see with this bill is a response to a particular incident that I would argue is a step forward but that has severe limitations. It is important that, when we debate this bill, we address those limitations because it is only then that we can take as a parliament the necessary steps that must be taken at some point to improve the governance of the NDIS to protect those who are most vulnerable.
Let me start with the circumstances of Ann-Marie Smith, because it was her death, of course, that motivated the inquiry that this bill is responding to. Ann-Marie Smith was a 54-year-old Adelaide NDIS participant who died on 6 April 2020 of a range causes which included severe septic shock, multiple organ failure, severe pressure sores, malnutrition and issues connected with her cerebral palsy. Importantly, if one looks at the circumstances that surrounded her in the months and years leading up to her untimely death, we see that she was confined to one woven chair for 24 hours a day for over a year. We also see that her support that was provided in practice was significantly less than what she had been allocated. Reports indicate that she was only allocated two hours of care per day and that she had not been seen outside her house for years.
Nobody is saying that a system that deals with as many people as the NDIS and with as many varied needs and circumstances as the NDIS deals with should be perfect. But the point is that when we see incidents like that surrounding the death of Ann-Marie Smith, we must ask whether governance arrangements need to be strengthened. And it isn't just her death. Her death was something raised by the shadow minister and other members of the opposition on a number of occasions and by many disability sector advocates, but it was the fact there were a number of other instances in recent years which had similarities. There was the death of Tim Rubenach in Tasmania, who had severe epilepsy and died while waiting for a wheelchair, there was the situation of David Harris, which involved a series of circumstances—raised by a number of speakers earlier in this debate—and there was the situation of Liam Danher in Queensland. The point to raise here is that the shared circumstances of a number of these unfortunate, tragic situations lead to questions as to whether different aspects of the governance of the NDIS need to be strengthened and need to be reformed.
The Robertson review was formed in response to the death, as I indicated earlier, of Ann-Marie Smith. But, as speakers on this side have pointed out, it was an inquiry that, while useful, was limited from the start. It is important that when we debate this bill we identify that this review right from the start was limited to looking at the circumstances of Ms Smith's situation and Ms Smith's death alone. This was not appropriate as a way of dealing with these circumstances, given that, as I have indicated, there were a number of other people who had untimely deaths and who had situations where their vulnerabilities were, arguably, not dealt with in an appropriate way. There were a number of other circumstances that suggested that there were more systemic governance issues. So it was highly inappropriate that this review, in the view of many in the opposition, was limited to just the circumstances of her death. That limited right from the start the capacity of that review to deal with these important systemic issues.
It's also telling that when the government received this report, which contained a number of recommendations—as speakers on both sides of the House have in indicated—and when the minister put out a press release on receiving the report, that he referred Mr Robertson's review as having contained observations rather than recommendations. That really reflects the fact that, right from the start, the government in responding to the unfortunate circumstances of Ms Smith's death never really wanted to undertake a systemic review, but wanted to do something far more limited. We argue that while some of the measures contained in this bill are worthwhile, there are circumstances arising in relation to Ms Smith's death—and also to other deaths—which warrant a more wholesale systemic analysis of the government's arrangements of the NDIS.
Again, as others in this debate have pointed out, there's the issue of consultation. While we welcome a number of the recommendations contained in the Robertson review, we do think it's important to note—as has been pointed out by a number of members in the opposition and, even more importantly, also by a number of disability sector advocates and a number of people with a disability in the community—that the consultation the government has undertaken has been wholly inadequate in moving from the Robertson review report through to the design of this bill. The Robertson review was too limited. We support some of the recommendations which arose from it but we think that, right from the start, it was limited in terms of its capacity to look at a number of the elements of the system that currently don't protect sufficiently those who are particularly vulnerable. Moreover, there was wholly inadequate consultation with people with a disability and with the sector in the design of the bill.
Let me look at some of the recommendations arising from the Robertson review that are not dealt with within this bill. Again, it's important that we raise these issues because the deaths that I've alluded to—the unfortunate circumstances that I alluded to earlier—suggest that we should be looking at some of the more systemic governance issues as alluded to in the Robertson review. One of the recommendations, recommendation 2, relates to there being a sole carer:
The critical circumstance in the case of Ms Smith was that she became invisible to everybody but her sole carer.
The point he was making was that there's a substantial risk of harm which could be avoided if there were more than a single pair of eyes. He was at pains to say that the odds of any individual sole carer for any vulnerable person turning out to be negligent or cruel is extremely low. We know that the NDIS has people who are dedicated, who are caring and who are loving—we know that is the vast majority of people working within the NDIS. But we also know that it is absolutely critical to build in safety. Again:
The regular presence of at least one other human, another carer, would reduce the risk.
The sole carer recommendation is not addressed at all in this bill.
Another important recommendation was recommendation 3, which related to responsible persons. In particular, there was the observation that Ms Smith died because she was neglected by her carer and that no-one else was personally specifically responsible for her safety and wellbeing. Again, Judge Robertson said:
… as Ms Smith's terrible circumstances showed, there is a missing element which is, however described, a person with overall responsibility for the individual vulnerable NDIS participant's safety and wellbeing.
That led to recommendation 3, which was:
For each vulnerable NDIS participant, there should be a specific person with overall resp onsibility for that participant' s safety and wellbeing.
Importantly, that is a recommendation which could be related directly to the circumstances that surrounded the death of Mr David Harris, who died alone in his unit in Parramatta. Ms Leanne Longfellow had long requested that there be case managers introduced to the NDIS in such a way as to deal with that issue.
I think it's very important, again, to go back to the fact that while there are some worthwhile recommendations in the report which have been dealt with in this bill, the two recommendations that I've dealt with are important systemically, and the government should indicate to this chamber how it plans to deal with those recommendations. That's because they lie at the heart of how the NDIS will deal with people who are particularly vulnerable.
A related recommendation is recommendation 4, which is related to community visitors. There, the Robertson review recommended that the NDIS contain the:
… equivalent to State and Territory based Community Visitor Schemes …
This is a similar recommendation, related to the fact that the commission should conduct occasional visits to assess the safety and wellbeing of selected individual NDIS participants. So, again, it's about reducing the risk of having a single point of contact, it's about putting in place systemic changes to ensure that there are extra sets of eyes, and it's about putting in place systemic changes that minimise the likelihood that the abuse by one particular carer might lead an individual person into a precarious position.
What we see in this bill are some worthwhile measures. But what we also see when we look back at the tragic passing of Ms Smith—and also a number of other people in circumstances that, while not exactly the same, share some similarities—is that there are a range of governance issues that need to be looked at. Many people who have made observations about the Robertson inquiry and, indeed, about this bill, have pointed to deficiencies in the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner role and the extent to which that regulator has sufficient resourcing and sufficient regulatory teeth to be able to do its job. Why, if that commission is functioning as well as it ought to be, was there only a fine of $12,600 for the particular very, very serious circumstances surrounding the death of Ms Smith? Why did it take so long for there to be action? And there are a whole host of other questions.
The failure to act on some of those systemic issues lies at the heart of the concerns that many on this side are raising. Going back to some of the process issues, if there had been more consultation in the design of this bill, in response to the Robertson report, which made recommendations, not observations, one can only imagine what other elements of this bill there might have been. So the inquiry was too narrow. It came up with some recommendations, but they have not been dealt with adequately.
In response to the way in which the NDIS is being managed overall—and in response to some on the other side, some in the government, who have said the situation today is better than it was some years ago in some respects for some people, there's no doubt that's true. But governments should be putting themselves to a higher standard than that. It's entirely appropriate to be asking questions about the NDIS—not just as to whether, in some areas, services have improved but as to whether it is the best system that it could be. When you ask those kinds of questions, I believe that the answer is no and that the NDIS could be doing so much more. We just need to look at the fact that NDIS funding is not where it needs to be and that there have been budget decisions which have led to underfunding of key parts of the NDIS. There have been a number of Australians who have waited too long for key funding or waited too long for equipment, which raises questions about the effectiveness of the system. Importantly, in recent times there's been the threat of independent assessments. That has receded for the moment, but who knows when that will come back.
So there are some elements of this bill which are worthwhile, but there is so much more to do, and it's just unfortunate that it's not in this bill but in the never-never for the moment.
I rise today to support the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. How we treat vulnerable people in our community is a moral test that surpasses politics. One of our highest responsibilities in this place must be to ensure that vulnerable people have access to quality care and services that are respectful, responsive and that protect them from harm.
All Australians were rightfully distressed when we heard about the death of Ms Ann-Marie Smith last year. I was left profoundly disturbed by the level of criminal neglect and suffering that she went through. And I continue to reflect on how she was failed. Individuals with disabilities and NDIS participants and their families would have been particularly concerned as the extent of the treatment of Ann-Marie became known to them. Equally, carers in the disability sector, those individuals who care and work tirelessly for their clients, would have been left disgusted and dismayed by what happened to her.
We know that, sadly, while what happened to Ann-Marie was a tragedy, it was not an isolated case. Cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation of NDIS participants, while rare, do happen. The Morrison government considers any abuse, neglect or exploitation suffered by any NDIS participant to be abhorrent and is committed to improving the quality and safeguards in place to protect participants in the NDIS. This bill recognises the tragic circumstances of Ann-Marie's death and provides further assurance to NDIS participants and their families that the government is taking action to better protect them and to reduce the risks of such distressing events occurring again.
Building upon actions already taken by the quality and safeguards commission in response to the independent review undertaken by the Hon. Alan Robertson SC, this bill further addresses elements of the recommendations of the Robertson review. The bill also makes further technical amendments to better support the operations of the NDIS commission, based on early implementation experience. This bill will strengthen the support and protections for people with disability by ensuring a clear and effective legislative basis for the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission's powers, compliance and enforcement arrangements, provider registration provisions, and efficient information sharing across governments and government agencies.
At present, clauses in the NDIS Act establish a relatively high threshold for information sharing. They establish that the disclosure must be 'necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to an individual's life, health or safety'. This bill enacts a less restrictive threshold in recognition of the Robertson review recommendations. It removes qualifiers like 'serious' or 'necessary' to ensure any threat to life, health or safety is sufficient grounds for the recording, use or disclosure of protected NDIA or NDIS commission information. Importantly, these changes to information sharing do not undermine or reduce the significant protections for personal information under the NDIS Act. One of the key considerations in drafting this bill has been to ensure that it is in accordance with the provisions of article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and that any disclosure of information is proportionate to the outcome of protecting people with disability from harm. Personal information held by the NDIA or the NDIS commission will continue to be considered protected information.
The bill also amends provisions for disclosing information in a number of other specific situations, including that the NDIS commission is able to disclose information to worker-screening units and other agencies as required and that the NDIS commission can publish and maintain information about historical compliance and enforcement action. This sharing of information about a worker or provider with relevant bodies is necessary to ensure that the agencies have relevant information about whether workers or providers pose an unacceptable risk of harm to a person with disability, including whether they should receive or retain an NDIS worker-screening clearance. The bill also provides for greater clarity around reportable incidents, including broadening their scope and their reporting to the NDIS commission, in commission rules. By enabling definition via the rules, the commission will have the flexibility to respond quickly to arising circumstances and continue to protect participants.
As I mentioned, this bill also makes a number of technical amendments. Currently, quality assurance of registered NDIS providers is undertaken by approved quality auditors who are engaged by providers directly. As it stands, the market for quality auditors includes a wide range of experience levels and sector knowledge. As such, this bill will allow the commission to place conditions on the approval of quality auditors and makes explicit the commission's power to vary or revoke approval of quality auditors.
This bill also makes a number of amendments to ensure consistency and procedural fairness in the application of the NDIS commission's regulatory responses, including that compliance notices can be varied or revoked, that decisions in relation to these requests are reviewable decisions and that banning orders can have conditions attached. Further, while the NDIS Act gives the commissioner the power to ban a NDIS provider or worker on the grounds they are not suitable to deliver NDIS services and supports it does not presently set out how suitability is determined for banning orders. This bill provides the power for the commissioner to make rules in relation to suitability for that purpose, aligning with existing provisions in relation to provider registration.
This bill also clarifies elements of the process providers must follow when registering to deliver NDIS services and supports. This includes that applicants are able to withdraw applications and that applications for renewal of registration are deemed to have been withdrawn if the registered provider in question becomes the subject of a banning order during the renewal process.
In summary, this bill strengthens protections for NDIS participants and will strengthen the operational effectiveness of the NDIS commission. The NDIS has been transformative for individuals around Australia. I've seen it as a psychologist working in the disability space—that people were worse off prior to the NDIS. They're much better off now with the NDIS. But we know it has not been perfect. We know that a scheme of this size will for some time require continued improvement. This bill is another important step in ensuring the NDIS, this world-class system that we have here in Australia, continues to deliver to NDIS participants. It will ensure the most vulnerable in our community are better protected from harm as well as support them in accessing quality and safe services under the NDIS.
I want to acknowledge that the Paralympics are on tomorrow, and I have a number of constituents in Reid who will be representing Australia. I'm going to give them a quick shout-out: Madison de Rozario, Richard Voris, Ben Weekes, Ameera Lee, Imalia Oktrininda and Thomas Birtwhistle. We are cheering you on here from Australia. Your performance will lift our spirits in this very difficult time. We wish you all the best for tomorrow. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!
I rise to speak in support of the amendment moved by Labor to the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. The tragic death of Ann-Marie Smith on 6 April 2020 should never have happened. It exposed a disgraceful lack of oversight and indifference from several individuals and private agencies. Even more concerningly, it also exposed a systematic failure in oversight of vulnerable people both by the federal and state government agencies that should have been alerted following: firstly, the Oakden affair, and the chief psychiatrist report into that and the ICAC report into Oakden; the events that precipitated the aged-care royal commission and the disability royal commission; and the countless aged-care reports which painted a clear picture of the risks and poor treatment of all vulnerable people as well as the failings of government agencies.
Just as disturbing is that, despite all the revelations, all the publicity and all the community outcry, the incompetence, neglect and abuse continues. I believe it is far more widespread than generally acknowledged. In recent months I have had family members raise with me their concerns about neglect and about substandard care being provided to their elderly family members, who are people with serious disability but are in aged-care facilities. Almost every person in an aged-care facility has a disability. If they didn't have one, they'd more than likely still be living at home rather than in an aged-care facility.
In June this year, at a South Australian government owned rehabilitation facility run by the South Australian Department of Human Services, a vulnerable man was rushed to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in a serious state of neglect. This facility is not far from the now infamous Oakden facility, and the case comes in the wake of inquiries and media reports into the Ann-Marie Smith neglect. I understand that that case has been referred to the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission whom, it is reported, have said that the commission cannot investigate a state run facility—and so the buck-passing begins. Subsequently the South Australian government has launched its own investigation by the Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner. Adding to the buck-passing, some services at the facility are outsourced to private providers.
The recommendations in this legislation are an acknowledgement that the current oversight of vulnerable people is failing them. My concern is that the measures proposed, although welcome, do not go far enough and that they continue to be heavily dependent on those entrusted with oversight of vulnerable people doing what is right and what is expected of them. Nor does the legislation adopt all of the recommendations of the Robertson review of the Ann-Marie Smith death. Indeed, recommendations 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 of that review have not been adopted. The member for Fraser, in his remarks earlier, pointed to some of those recommendations and quite properly highlighted why they should have been included, yet they have not been. I won't cover the same ground that he covered on that topic, but I concur with his remarks in their entirety, because, if the commissioner did not believe they were important, he would not have included them in the 10 recommendations. Yet we have no explanation as to why they were not included. And they would make a difference. In particular, the issue of the community visitor scheme—which I believe is recommendation No. 4—was raised also within the South Australian parliament at the time because a community visitor scheme could have made a difference in the Ann-Marie Smith case and, possibly, in many other cases where people have been improperly cared for.
Referring the bill to a Senate inquiry would allow stakeholders time to scrutinise the bill and provide feedback, and I think that's important. My understanding is that stakeholders are the people who understand what happens in the real world for a person with a disability who, every day, has to live with the disability and the support services that are available and who society has, shamefully, failed for too long. It's also my understanding that the disability rights organisations and advocates have asked for more time to consider this legislation. Again, I believe that they should be provided with that time. They are the people who, on a daily basis, have to deal with the issues that we in this parliament are discussing with respect to this very legislation.
I also note that, earlier this year, the Morrison government conducted independent assessment trials. Whilst I had some personal feedback with respect to those trials, I also am aware that the trials were not supported by many of the stakeholders out there. And, whilst I also accept that the government has, for the time being at least, withdrawn from those trials and put them on the backburner, it's clear in my mind that the intent of those trials was, ultimately, to cut costs and cut services. That would have been the objective of them, and the government was trying to find a way of doing that.
If the government wants to cut costs, it could start by reviewing the amount of funding that goes to service providers and the services that they provide. I make this qualification: I accept that there are many good service providers out there, but there are also many who are overcharging for the services they provide and where much of the funding is going into what we would term their administrative costs rather than going into client services. Indeed, it would be interesting to know just how much of the total amount of money expended under the NDIS actually goes to services for the people who need those services as opposed to going into administrative costs for the organisations that are providing the services. I don't know those figures, but perhaps one day we might be able to get them and some real savings might be made. Also, there have been allegations of rorting of the scheme by unethical providers, with several cases of alleged fraud having been reported. In one case, it was alleged that something like $10 million over a four-year period was defrauded from the NDIS. I have little doubt that fraudulent acts and unethical behaviour or rorting of the scheme is much more widespread than reported. But there are also a lot of very good service providers who are doing an excellent job.
Finally, I want to refer to the campaign currently underway that is run under the banner of Disability Doesn't Discriminate. The campaign, in my view, raises some legitimate anomalies relating to access to NDIS support, with particular reference to people aged 65 years and over. Currently, NDIS support is only available to people up to 65 years of age, and that support is not means tested, unlike aged-care support. The pension age is now 66½ years, so there seems to be some discrepancy in the logic of cutting NDIS support at 65 years of age when the pension only cuts in at 66½ years. That's another issue that needs to be addressed. All of those anomalies raise valid grievances and they must be addressed. I accept that, at the time that the scheme was put in place, it was done in good faith and in a way that would at least address the issues that appeared to be outstanding, and services for people under 65 years were simply not addressed. However, given that those matters have now been raised, it is time that they were properly addressed.
The other issue associated with all of that is that navigating the NDIS system is not easy. It is very, very difficult. I wonder how many people have actually given up on trying to apply for the services and support that they would be entitled to, but, because the process is too difficult, they were unable to apply. Particularly if the person already has a disability that affects trying to navigate through the process, it would have to be a nightmare. The process has to be simplified so that all people who have a disability and are entitled to support are able to get the support that they should be getting. If that's one of the objectives that we should be looking at in making changes to the NDIS, then we should be doing that. In my office, and I'm sure it's the same in the offices of all other MPs in this place, one of the issues that is most commonly referred to us is the issue of assisting people who have run into stumbling blocks with respect to their NDIS applications.
The NDIS was an important Labor initiative. However, at the time, it was not enthusiastically supported by coalition members. Today it provides an invaluable service to people with a disability. As the member for Fisher quite rightly said, it has changed lives. That's exactly what it was intended to do: change lives. It was intended to do that because the parliament at the time accepted that additional funding would be put into the services available to people with a disability. That was the whole intent of the scheme, and of course it has done that. If it had not, it would have been a complete failure. The scheme can be improved, and we should look to the experience to date of the people who have been participants in the scheme and those who have been service providers in the scheme. We should use their experience as the basis upon which we can improve the system. That's what the review was partly all about, that's what this parliament should be doing on a regular basis, and that's why Labor has moved some amendments to the legislation, because our view is that we should learn from what's happened in recent years and make the scheme even better for more people.
Over the next few weeks, members of this place will be cheering on our representatives in the Paralympics. We've had a wonderful period of enormous success cheering on our athletes at the Olympics, and we've got another two weeks where we'll get the opportunity to do the very same. I want to give a shout-out to some local athletes from the Illawarra and South Coast, including my very good mate Brett Stibners, who will be attending his fourth Paralympics in the wheelchair basketball. He has been a linchpin of the Roller Hawks in the Illawarra, who are ranked third-best wheelchair basketball team in the world. They are a force to be reckoned with. Brett Stibners is an absolute champion and will be a critical part of that team as well.
I want to give a shout-out to Jonathan Goerlach, who's competing in the triathlon, and Jasmine Greenwood from the South Coast, who's competing in the swimming. The next athlete is not from my area, but if you can't give a shout-out to your cousin then it's a pretty ordinary sort of place, so I want to give a shout-out to Ashley Van Rijswijk, who will be competing in the 100-metre breaststroke and the 2 x 100 metre medley. There will be hordes of Van Rijswijks and Joneses who will be cheering on from back here in Australia to see Ashley do her very, very best. We wish you well. All the best, Ash.
This is all important. I think, politics aside, every single person in this place will be cheering genuinely for our Paralympic representatives. But the absolute best thing that we could do for people who are living with disabilities and their families and carers would be to provide stability and some certainty in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Before somebody hastens to say that not everyone who's representing Australia in the Paralympics is a recipient of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, that is true. It is equally true that not everybody who is a recipient of the National Disability Insurance Scheme benefits gets the recognition that our representatives do at the Paralympics, and we need to ensure that they are at the forefront of our minds when we're debating bills such as this.
I've got to say the NDIS is a piece of social reform introduced by the Labor government in 2013 which has a very thin vestige of bipartisan support. When you peel below that vestige, you see actions and initiatives which belie the talk of bipartisan support of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I could talk of a range of things that have occurred over the last three years which speak of a very different attitude from the Morrison government and coalition governments before them. For example, in 2019 alone, the coalition government ripped out $4.6 billion from the National Disability Insurance Scheme to prop up a budget in a vainglorious hope to bring that budget back into surplus. At the very time that that money was being withdrawn from the National Disability Insurance Scheme, there were people living with disabilities who were struggling, with their carers and planners, to put together plans based on the funds that were allocated to them to meet their very basic needs. Time and time again, the struggle to get recognition for transport costs comes up as something that is simply not recognised properly in the NDIS. There wouldn't be a member in this place who has not had representations from their constituents on that particular issue. If it were just that, Deputy Speaker, you'd say, 'They got that wrong, but we've got the opportunity in debates such as this to turn the ship around.' Unfortunately, it has not. The massive underspend has resulted in those that really, really do rely on the scheme having limited access to services, underfunded plans and excessive wait times.
In addition to the $4.6 billion worth of cuts, last year the government tried to ram through the independent review process, which had one purpose and one purpose alone, and that was to reduce the amount of funds made available to people living with disabilities through their plan. You can be guaranteed that the purpose of that independent review process was not to lift people up and ensure that they had sufficient funds to meet all the services that they were struggling to pay for.
The scheme is not perfect, and we understand that, when you introduce a scheme revolutionary in its design and extensive in its ambition, there are going to be teething problems. We don't deny that the government has had to deal with some of those teething problems. But too often they have gone down the wrong path. Last year, for example, we were made aware that, between July 2016 and September 2019, more than 1,200 Australians died while waiting for support through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I'll say that number again: 1,200 Australians were assessed and qualified as eligible for services but died while waiting for support through the NDIS. It's not good enough—simply not good enough. I want people to remember that number: 1,200 Australians died before they accessed the scheme. We'll stand in this place over the next fortnight and give speeches about how well we are supporting our athletes at the Paralympics. Of course we should be doing that, but it's much more important that we're supporting everybody with a disability here at home.
I have a few words about the bill. Following pressure from Labor's shadow minister and the South Australian shadow minister, the Morrison government established an independent inquiry into the tragic death of an Adelaide NDIS participant, Ms Ann-Marie Smith, who died of severe septic shock, multiple organ failure and other issues connected, tragically, with her cerebral palsy. Ann-Marie's NDIS package included six hours of support per day. Reports are that she only ever received two hours of care per day and had not been seen outside of her home for over a year. Ann-Marie's terrible death is nothing short of a tragedy. She should be alive and thriving—perhaps cheering on the Olympics. Instead, she was neglected and abandoned and suffered a tragic death.
Labor was very relieved and welcomed the fact that the Morrison government heeded our calls for an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ann-Marie Smith's death. Reviewer Alan Robertson made 10 recommendations aimed at addressing the broader system failures within the NDIS. The government didn't formally respond to the Robertson review. Without any formal public consultations or sector engagement, the government introduced the bill which is before the House today. We simply say: this is not the right way to introduce reform. To partially implement the recommendations of the Robertson review does no justice to that deliberative process.
The bill amends the provisions in the NDIS Act to support the implementation of changes in response to recommendations 1, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 and is aimed at improving supports and protections provided to NDIS participants. Labor welcomes these initiatives. However, proper consultation on these changes is needed before they can and should be passed, and disability advocates want to be consulted. Indeed, they deserve to be consulted.
I want to tell members of the House a story about a constituent of mine, Mr Rafal Oleszczuk. He's a local constituent from Mount Warrigal. Last year, he contacted my office. In 2009, he suffered a serious motorcycle accident and lost his leg in that accident. Since then, he has had to rely on a very basic, unsafe and incredibly painful prosthesis. He could only wear the prosthesis for one hour at a time, and it was so worn down that it was causing blood boils to form and ultimately burst. All of this restricted Rafal's range of movement and his access to the wider community. When the NDIS was first rolled out in 2017 in the Illawarra region, Rafal and his family only hoped—