Monday, 30 August 2021
Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021; Second Reading
Proposed amendments to clause 6OP ensure that these types of accounts will be subject to the same protections. The records will be held securely by the custodian, the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, when the inquiry ends. A court will not be able to compel the department to disclose this information and third parties will not be able to seek this information under the freedom of information regime.
Confidential information will only be able to be used in the report of the disability royal commission if it is de-identified or if the information is also given in evidence.
Flexible non-publication direction procedures
Subject to the passage of this bill, additional amendments will streamline existing arrangements in the act to enable certain members of a royal commission to more efficiently make directions for the non-publication of information and identities.
Non-publication directions ensure that any evidence, documents or descriptions of anything produced that might enable a person to be identified shall not be published or shall not be published except in such a manner, and to such persons, as the commission specifies.
Non-publication directions are an essential feature for protecting the identity of individuals, and other sensitive information such as locations or institutions, when giving evidence or providing information to a royal commission such as through a notice process.
The chair of the disability royal commission wrote to the Prime Minister and requested an amendment to the act that would overcome practical difficulties for commissioners of a royal commission when making a non-publication direction.
Practical difficulties can arise particularly when an urgent direction is required, as commissioners may fulfil their duties at different locations within Australia. During the COVID-19 pandemic, commissioners have been required to undertake official duties remotely in different locations, which has heightened the need for simplified processes.
At an authorised member hearing, a direction may be made by either the chair alone, provided the chair is present at the hearing, or all members of that hearing.
In circumstances other than an authorised member hearing the chair may give the direction, or a majority of the members of the commission may give the direction. This resolves the practical issue whereby a majority of commissioners have been required to collectively make a direction when a hearing is not occurring.
This bill will provide greater flexibility for the disability royal commission, and commissioners of future royal commissions, to make non-publication directions.
Efficient information sharing
The bill would also act on a request by the chair of the disability royal commission to improve arrangements for Commonwealth royal commissions to communicate information and evidence obtained during the course of its inquiry with a royal commission, and a commission of inquiry, of a state or territory.
This is an important and essential mechanism for this inquiry which has been set up as a joint Commonwealth and state royal commission, established through the issue of concurrent letters patent under the respective royal commissions legislation. Streamlining these information-sharing arrangements will create important efficiencies for the disability royal commission, and future royal commissions. Currently, most evidence tendered in the Commonwealth royal commission must be tendered for the concurrent state royal commissions. This is impractical and time consuming. The amendments will streamline the process of tendering documents by enabling evidence tendered on behalf of the Commonwealth disability royal commission to be easily shared with all concurrent state royal commissions.
Improved processes for receiving and handling evidence will assist the commission to efficiently prepare a single and comprehensive final report drawing on all the evidence before Commonwealth and state commissions established under each jurisdictions respective legislation.
This amendment would also remove onerous administrative requirements for the tendering of large volumes of evidence in each jurisdiction, in particular where it has been obtained under a compulsion pursuant to different state royal commission laws.
The government has given careful consideration to the development of this bill to ensure that it provides comprehensive protections to sensitive information.
The drafting of our bill takes into account the specific circumstances in which people have given information to the royal commission. Royal commissions determine their own operating procedures, which includes the way that they invite people to make submissions and engage with it.
It is important that the government has a proper understanding of these procedures so that the legislation can be drafted in a way that captures the information the chair of the royal commission has identified as needing protection.
This is why the disability royal commission has been consulted closely on the development of the bill.
The outcomes of the disability royal commission will be guided by people's lived experiences, and its outcomes must be based on a true reflection of those experiences.
In order for the royal commission to fully realise the scope of its inquiry, it's important that the Australian community feels comfortable and supported in fully engaging with the royal commission.
It is critical that people sharing their lived experiences with the royal commission feel respected and that survivors of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation have their experiences appropriately acknowledged, recognised and validated.
I rise to speak in support of the Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021 and to make it clear that Labor supports the amendments contained in this bill, which do serve a critically important service in the public interest and in the interests of the many Australians who deserve to be able to tell their stories on their terms, without concerns about reprisals or other matters relevant to their privacy, in circumstances going to these vitally important commissions of inquiry—perhaps none more important than the one which has given rise to the need to bring this bill before the parliament, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. The amendments that are contained in the bill were requested quite some time ago by the commission chair, the Hon. Ronald Sackville. It is important that this request and the request of others be responded to and that we consider some of the wider circumstances.
Some of these issues I'll put before the House in the form of a second reading amendment. Others, I think, have been touched upon effectively by the minister responsible for the bill in the House, setting out the extraordinary importance of those of us in this place doing all we can to ensure that the experiences of people with disability, those who care about them and those who have information relevant to their mistreatment—where they have been subjected to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation—particularly in circumstances where these issues may be systemic, are brought before the royal commission so that its deliberations can give us the best possible picture to respond to.
The bill before the House consists of one relatively short schedule. Part 1 deals with the substantive amendments to the Royal Commissions Act 2002 and part 2 with some consequential amendments relating to the Freedom of Information Act implications. The impetus for this bill was the calling of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability in 2019. Of course, the conduct of that inquiry is governed by the Royal Commissions Act and the terms of reference given to the commission. I note in particular paragraphs (e) and (g) of those terms, which provided that the commission have regard to the following:
(e) all forms of violence against, and abuse, neglect and exploitation of, people with disability, whatever the setting or context—
(g) the specific experiences of violence against, and abuse, neglect and exploitation of, people with disability are multilayered and influenced by experiences associated with their age, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, intersex status, ethnic origin or race, including the particular situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culturally and linguistically diverse people with disability …
These provisions of course necessitated collecting evidence in the form of the stories of people's experiences in relevant settings, which led to a concern from those currently in these settings. Given the nature of this inquiry, the vast majority of those with such stories—or a large number of them, one would imagine—and their families might be disinclined to give evidence out of concern that this might lead to them being considered troublemakers or perhaps subjected to some form of unfair treatment, including breaches of their privacy. So it is important that we take appropriate steps to guard against this and also to ensure that people aren't dissuaded by these concerns from telling their stories and so depriving the commission and ultimately the Australian people of valuable perspectives and evidence.
I note that similar issues arose in the course of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and that the Royal Commissions Amendments Bill 2013 made amendments to the principal act in recognition of this. Further, in 2019, those amendments, which enabled material to be put forward and to be received by the commission in private sessions, were able to be applied in other royal commissions through the enactment of the Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Act 2019.
However, it has become apparent that these changes did not entirely resolve the issue of addressing barriers to having important witnesses come forward and having their stories be both heard and appropriately protected. Of course, ensuring the protection is critical to giving people the confidence to come forward in many circumstances. This bill seeks to address this through recognising that some information put to the commission other than through such private sessions could need to be protected, particularly once the commission has come to an end and has reported.
Last year, Senator Steele-John introduced a private senator's bill in substantially similar form to this bill, and I think that is something that we should acknowledge. Now, for reasons that are not entirely clear—but I do acknowledge that some further amendments improve the legislation before us—the government has introduced its own legislation, which I am pleased to speak to and indicate Labor's support for. It is of great importance that we protect the privacy of witnesses, including whistleblowers, who are making allegations about systemic failures in this sector and, more broadly, that we encourage all those with relevant experiences to come forward and share these with confidence.
I spoke about the scope of the terms of reference. When we think about those, it becomes clear how attentive we need to be when putting in place these provisions that enable all the perspectives that the commission has been asked to bring to bear to ensure that none are dissuaded from coming forward. I note that disability organisations and advocates have called for this to be better reflected. Further, I note that the Attorney-General has indicated that there is to be a wider review of the principal act to identify any impediments to people sharing information with a royal commission, and this should be an important process too. But, for this royal commission to fulfil its purpose, we do need to have in place a greater capacity to protect and assure privacy on the part of the commission. This bill does that in its amendments to the making of non-publication orders, as has been discussed, and through the broader confidentiality protections which are contained in item 5.
I flagged earlier the reasons for which I thought a second reading amendment to the legislation was necessary, and 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:
(1) notes that:
(a) in October 2020, the former Attorney-General, the Member for Pearce, said that the Government would 'work swiftly' to introduce these new confidentiality protections for people giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability—protections that had been explicitly requested by the Chair of the Commission, the Hon Ronald Sackville AO QC;
(b) despite that commitment, the Government did not introduce this bill until 17 March 2021; and
(c) the Government also took over six months to respond to Commissioner Sackville's request for an extension to the Disability Royal Commission's reporting date;
(2) is of the view that it is unacceptable, and disrespectful, for the Government to take many months to respond to requests from the Chair of the Disability Royal Commission; and
(3) calls on the Government to respond promptly to any future correspondence from the Chair of the Commission".
It would be remiss of me to conclude my remarks on this bill, given its subject matter and the weight of that subject matter—which you, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, would be very well aware of—without acknowledging the fact that, as I stand here today, many thousands of vulnerable Australians with disability are still unvaccinated against COVID-19. It is deeply concerning that, at the same time as the disability royal commission has been investigating how to better protect people with disabilities from experiencing neglect, the Morrison government's rollout of vaccinations to people with disabilities, especially those in residential care settings, has been such an abject failure. People with disabilities are amongst those Australians most vulnerable to COVID, yet barely a quarter of participants in the NDIS have reportedly been vaccinated. That is behind the national average.
Much more can and will be said about this abject policy failure of the Morrison government, including, I'm sure, by the processes within the royal commission itself. Perhaps, in closing, that's a note that is worth reflecting on. It is absolutely imperative that, for the commission and, indeed, any royal commission to do its job, the best possible evidence be adduced before it. The provisions of this bill go quite some way towards not only filling a gap—a very important gap—that will enable this royal commission to do incredibly important work of advising this government and future governments and the Australian community but also recognising a future standard that must be met in ensuring that such commissions of inquiry can hear from every perspective they need to hear from. I commend the bill to the House.
I'm pleased to speak to the original bill, the Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021, which is putting in place amendments to improve the Royal Commissions Act, particularly as it applies to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse and Exploitation of People with Disability. This royal commission was established in April 2019 in response to community concern about widespread reports of violence against and the neglect, abuse and exploitation of people with disability. The disability royal commission is: investigating, preventing and better protecting people with disability from experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation; achieving best practice in reporting, investigating and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability; and promoting a more inclusive society that supports people with disability to be independent and live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. The disability royal commission is investigating and reporting on experiences and conditions in all settings and contexts, including schools, workplaces, jails and detention centres, secure disability and mental health facilities, group homes, family homes, hospitals and day programs, and the incidents might have occurred recently or a long time ago. The government has committed $527 million for this royal commission, which includes funding to support people with a disability to participate in the commission. The disability royal commission is gathering information through research, public hearings and hearing about the personal experiences of people through their submissions, private sessions and other forums. As at August this year the royal commission has already undertaken significant work: 2,857 submissions have been received; over 10,000 phone inquiries have been received; 13 issues papers have been released; 605 responses to issues papers have been received; and 482 private sessions have been held.
The royal commission is due to give its final report to the Australian government by 29 September 2023. However, in a commitment to full transparency, the commission is releasing six-monthly reports and has filed an interim report as at 30 October 2020. In this interim report the royal commission has identified a number of themes which have emerged as particularly pertinent to the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. The themes thus far identified include choice and control, attitudes towards disability, segregation and exclusion, restrictive practices, access to services and supports, advocacy and representation, oversight and complaints, and funding. The royal commission has already highlighted that, while we have reliable data on the number of people with disability, which is roughly 4.4 million people in Australia, we do not have reliable, thorough or consistent data on neglect, violence, abuse or exploitation experienced by people with disability. This, in all likelihood, will be the subject of a royal commission recommendation.
While this royal commission has already undertaken significant work and many people have already shared their stories and experiences with the royal commission, it is vital that all people feel confident and safe in coming forward to share their stories and experiences. Indeed, the letters patent for this royal commission stipulate that people with disability are central to processes that inform best-practice decision-making on what all Australian governments and others can do to prevent and respond to violence against and abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability. Ensuring that such people are heard in this inquiry is key. Any shortfall in community confidence in the royal commission will impact upon the royal commission's ability to fulfil its obligations and, ultimately, to produce a final report which will assist all of us in the vital work needed to improve laws, policies, structures and practices to ensure a more inclusive and just society.
To that end the chair of the royal commission, the Hon. Robert Sackville AO QC, has advised the government that people with disability, their families and supporters and people who identify as whistleblowers do not feel confident that the information they provide to the royal commission can remain confidential after the royal commission ends. Alongside people with disability and a range of disability advocates, including a Greens senator from my state of Western Australia, he has requested that changes to the bill be introduced to provide greater protections to all those who are participating in the royal commission.
This bill implements the changes that have been requested. They have been developed following extensive consultation by the Attorney-General with the office of the disability royal commission to ensure that they align with the processes of the royal commission and that they will encourage people to come forward. In essence, this bill will extend confidentiality measures by ensuring the confidentiality of certain information given by or on behalf of individuals to the royal commission by applying limitations on the use and disclosure of that information about their or others' experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation—where that information was given for purposes other than a private session and the information was treated as confidential by the commission at all times.
Private sessions are an important mechanism that enables individuals to share highly sensitive and personal information in confidence. But there are other ways in which people engage with the royal commission and share sensitive and highly personal information, and they do so in the expectation that it will be kept confidential. For example, they do this by providing confidential written submissions and accounts, or through interview processes, where the royal commission needs to be satisfied that the matters fall within the terms of the inquiry or they need to discuss the potential of the giving of evidence. This information should properly receive protections similar to private session information, and that is why this bill is extending those protections to individuals engaging with the disability royal commission providing accounts of violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation on a confidential basis.
The proposed new clause in this bill will provide that confidential information is:
… not admissible in evidence against a natural person in any civil or criminal proceedings in any court of the Commonwealth, of a State or of a Territory.
Further, a provision of the law of the Commonwealth, a state or a territory will have no effect to the extent that it would otherwise require or authorise a person to make a record of, use or disclose the information. The records will be held securely by the custodian, the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, when the inquiry ends. A court will not be able to compel the department to disclose this information and third parties will not be able to seek this information under the freedom-of-information regime. Confidential information will only be able to be used in a report if it is de-identified or if the information is also given in evidence. These confidentiality protections apply to both individual accounts and accounts identifying systemic forms of violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation experienced by a natural person or another person.
In order for the royal commission to fully realise the scope of its inquiry, it is important that the Australian community feels comfortable and supported in fully engaging with a royal commission. It is absolutely critical that people who share their lived experience with the royal commission feel respected and that they don't have any fears or concerns about what might be done with the confidential or sensitive information that they provide. Anybody who has ever appeared before a royal commission or any other form of inquiry—indeed, in front of a court process—can appreciate the fear, anxiety and concern that goes with those processes. This is particularly so if you are sharing private, personal and, in many cases, deeply distressing information, and you're doing so in the hope that it will lead to overall improvements for everybody else. You need encouragement and certainty that your confidences will not be broken. In engaging with this process and in seeking to ensure we are making a system which is better, more just and more inclusive in the future, you want to make sure that you are protected.
These amendments which we are putting forward will strengthen the existing protections in the act, and remove any doubt about the safeguarding of confidential information beyond the life of the inquiry. As noted earlier, the Attorney-General has worked with the royal commission chair and office to ensure that these amendments address the issues and concerns which have been raised by the chair with respect to the comprehensive protection of sensitive information. With that, I commend this bill to the House.
[by video link] I'm pleased that the government has brought this bill to the House, it having passed through the Senate, because it will close a loophole that was getting in the way of people telling their stories—stories about abuse and neglect—to the disability royal commission, for fear that what they told the royal commission might not be kept confidential. Many people had a really well founded fear that, if they blew the whistle and spoke to the royal commission, they might find themselves exposed because what they told the royal commission wasn't confidential. That, it turns out, was a very well founded fear, and it was a fear that the royal commission itself shared. The royal commission said that we needed to close that loophole and change the law so that it was crystal clear that people who wanted to come and tell their stories, who wanted to come and give evidence to one of the most crucial royal commissions that have been held for some time, would be able to do so without any fear of retribution.
As I said, I'm pleased that the government is bringing this bill here, but there's one person in this parliament who, above everyone else, is the reason that the government is bringing this bill here, and that is the Greens disability spokesperson, Senator Jordon Steele-John.
Back in October of last year, well after having received the request from the royal commission to close this loophole, the government said that they would bring legislation forward urgently. Months passed, and nothing happened. Senator Steele-John introduced his own private member's bill, which bears a remarkable resemblance to this bill, to close that loophole. That bill gained widespread support. The government weren't prepared to support that bill, but what they did do—and I want to acknowledge this—was work with Senator Steele-John to come up with a bill that closes the loophole and will give people the confidence that they need to come forward. That bill passed the Senate unanimously, as far as I'm aware—with everyone's support—and I hope that the bill will do the same now that it is before the House.
As well as giving confidence to whistleblowers and allowing people to come forward and make arrangements to talk to the royal commission in ways that they feel comfortable with and in ways that will ensure their confidence, we've also been able to secure some additional protections as part of this bill, which we're very proud to have achieved. One that has been referred to is the review that'll be conducted in a short period of time to ensure that whistleblower protections work properly. It is crucial in this country, because in other areas—not in the disability area, but in other areas—we've seen this government hound whistleblowers who've come forward to do the right thing. We've seen hounded in the past whistleblowers who have come forward and said that governments have been acting illegally or governments have been acting unfairly. That shouldn't be the case. Whistleblowers should be entitled to protection. So we're pleased that there will be a review process to ensure that this protection in here is going to do what it's meant to do. That is going to be of great benefit to everyone, including any people who want to participate in and give evidence to royal commissions.
What this bill now needs is to do its job, and, for the bill to be successful, it needs to encourage people to come forward. People now need to feel comfortable that they can come forward once this has passed, and I hope they do. I say on behalf of us, as the Greens, who have been a driving force in trying to make this legislation happen, that you should now feel confident that the legislation, when it is passed—which hopefully it will be soon—will mean that you are now able to come forward and tell the story. You can tell the story on your own behalf, you can come forward and give evidence on behalf of others and you can arrange with the commissioner to do it in a way that works for you and that guarantees confidentiality. That is critically important for people who want to blow the whistle, because now you know you can come forward and you can name names, you can talk about specific incidents that have happened to you and you can also talk about the systems that have worked to discriminate against you, and you can do it in a way knowing that the law will have your back. And I presume that, once this legislation has passed through this House and comes into force, the royal commission, itself, is going to make its own announcements to give people that level of comfort as well.
Having had this spoken about more forcefully in the Senate, especially being led by Senator Steele-John, I'll leave my remarks there and just say it is good that this has happened, it should have happened much sooner and it could have happened much sooner. One of the things that this shows is that when you have people like Senator Steele-John and the Greens in the Senate, who introduce private member's bills of matters of concern to the community that are otherwise trying to be put in the too-hard basket or dropped off the list, we can get results. I want to congratulate Senator Steele-John in particular and the community for people with disabilities, who worked together with him to ensure that this legislation became a reality, for pushing and pushing and pushing. This very, very significant win, this very important protection that is now being gained, is down in very large part to you. Once again, I say congratulations.
It's a great privilege to be able to speak in support of the Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021, as other members have done so, but without the partisan pontificating of the member for Melbourne, because this bill comes to the heart of what the government is seeking to provide—that is, assistance for Australians who have a just reason to raise legitimate grievances of abuse, neglect or violence and to make sure that in the context of the royal commission confidential information is treated with confidence to ensure that Australians with a disability who are victims of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation know with absolute confidence that their information is not going to be released without their approval, so they will be forthcoming and provide information so that the royal commission can fulfil its important role.
It really shouldn't need to be said, but there is no place for violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation of people with a disability. I'm sure everybody in this House will agree that such conduct is abhorrent and it should be taken very seriously. And, like many times when we have a royal commission, we start from the basic proposition that we wish we never had the need to have one. But, for a royal commission to get to the bottom of the challenges that are faced and to make sure the issues that sit at the heart of its calling can be fulfilled, information is required. Australians need to come forward and inform the commissioner, the Hon. Ronald Sackville, to provide the information base the commission needs to make fair determinations of the problems that sit at the heart of the system. And, of course, they're both individual complaints and systemic ones.
As you may recall, Deputy Speaker, we dealt with similar issues in the context of the human rights commission's inquiry into sex discrimination in this place and the need to ensure that there were proper protections in place to make sure that those who wished to bring forward allegations and confidential information could do so and know that it would not be revealed at a later point or without their permission through other processes such as freedom of information.
This bill dealing with the royal commission into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with a disability is implemented fulfilling the request by the chair of the royal commission to make sure that those people with disability and those who are also including a large number of advocates have sought these protections to make sure that that information can be brought forward. The tragedy of the need for a royal commission will lead to really what will be no doubt very confronting evidence, even if it is anonymised and de-identified. We all know that tragically there are people who do wrong against people in vulnerable situations or in vulnerable conditions. We saw that, tragically, in the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and the recommendations that came as a direct result of that. Sadly, I doubt many of us are expecting that we won't see systemic as well as individual problems in the context of people with a disability.
The protections will apply if the information was treated as confidential by the disability royal commission at all times after being provided by the royal commission. Sometimes the confidential status of information will change during the inquiry; for example a person may decide to appear at a hearing and give evidence after initially providing their story to the commission on a confidential basis, because—many members will know—many times we get approached with information, and people subsequently decide they wish to keep it confidential for their own reasons or the protection of others, or, of course, because of a concern about their own health and security. Often when it comes to matters of health, the importance of medical privacy is a key condition of concern and it can lead people to become increasingly concerned about their privacy and their safety as a consequence of the release of information publicly.
There will be information that will be protected which will carry offences if revealed of up to 12 months imprisonment for the unauthorised use or disclosure of information. Any information provided will not be admissible against the person who provided it or on whose behalf the information was provided in any criminal or civil proceedings. The government amendments ensure that information which is given by a person or by another person on their behalf is not admissible in proceedings against either person. It is important that we recognise that some people may not feel confident telling their story to commissioners without these important protections and also to ensure that family members and other carers feel confident telling their stories. And people with severe or cognitive disability may be unable to give information themselves and may rely on a third party to provide their account to the royal commission.
Of course, there are always challenges when we go around collecting information for important work such as this royal commission but when we do so what we critically want is a hard evidence base to inform the consideration of the royal commission and to ensure that it makes findings and recommendations that are provided both to the public but also to this parliament with the confidence that they have thoroughly and appropriately considered the weight and body of evidence available. But that only comes from courageous people who come forward and tell their story, tell their truth, and tell their lived experience as a mechanism by which we can learn and establish the basis of our empathy and where wrong has been done that there are proper steps towards accountability. If people fear providing that evidence base to the royal commission then what is deprived is not just their story and their lived experience—though it is—but the capacity to inform the royal commission so that it can make full and judicious decision-making and recommendations to this parliament, though that is also a critical part of it. But ultimately what is denied is the confidence that the public and the people of Australia will have in its recommendations.
What this bill is focused on is not just giving people a pathway to provide their stories with confidence—though it is—the real strength of it is that it will build public confidence that no stone is left unturned, that the royal commission is free in its capacity to do its work, that victims of abuse or neglect and other nefarious behaviour have a chance to tell their full story and, more critically, to have a royal commission that fulfils its purpose and maintains public confidence as part of a judicial process and a legislative process to ensure that the days confronting Australians with a disability are brighter, not just because we have provided a pathway for truth-telling, not just brighter because we provide a pathway to address their concerns and understand them, but to ensure that this parliament gives full consideration of what we need to do to make sure that the wrongs of the past will not be repeated in the future.
This Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021 amends the way in which we treat evidence given to the royal commission into disability. For the information of the House, I chair the coalition policy committee on Indigenous families and disability. Dealing with those in our community who are disabled forms a very large part of what we do. Of course, the rollout of the NDIS has occurred almost entirely under this government. It was certainly suggested, initially, by the previous government, and the initial legislation lay there, but in fact we've moved on with it very well. There was an article today—I think it was in today's Australianwhich portrays some of the dangers which lie within the budget for it. It seems to be stubbornly refusing to stay within any kinds of predictions it had at all. But I might say that 4½ million Australians, or thereabouts, are in receipt of payments from the NDIS, averaging more than $50,000 each—so people can actually work out what that means.
Anyway, as a government we are committed to those with disabilities. In April 2019 we announced the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. There is one thing a royal commission needs more than any other, and that's honest contributions from people who are affected, and it needs people to come without any fear of retribution or fear of kickback, if you like. It's very important that we protect those people. It has to be one of the most confrontational things to do. We have moved in this place previously to protect people in courts of law from having to face their accusers or abusers face-to-face. That's to protect individuals so they can't be targeted after court procedures. It's exactly the same with this royal commission bill.
I have a friend who is fighting a quite high-profile and very public battle at the moment with a major national corporation. Quite frankly, it's exhausting. There are some things you cannot hide from the public view and if you elect to take that road then you have to wear it, I suppose. But I can see the toll it takes on the individual, day after day, in having to front up to accusations which can't necessarily be put to bed but which they need to keep bringing forward to establish the truth and principle behind the actions. The experience of those who give evidence at a royal commission with 'the establishment'—I shall call it that for the purposes of this debate—is often not good. They don't necessarily see people from the government, who are theoretically there to help them, as the answer and the solution. So it can take quite a lot of courage to stand up and tell your story, as it were.
In the past, we've had restrictions that have applied to the use of information provided to royal commissions. But the government has been asked by a number of people working in the industry and individuals to extend the provisions in the case of this royal commission, as we have done before, and to clarify those protections. The amendment also clarifies how the royal commission can use the confidential evidence which comes before it. Personal and sensitive information does not come to the royal commission entirely by private sessions; it comes by emails or letters or conversations. So we're moving in this amendment to also ensure that that information enjoys the same protection as evidence given in person and in session. Similar clauses were drafted for the child abuse royal commission, and, essentially, the disability royal commission meets those same criteria.
Now, there are some parallels in the lives of high-profile people, be they in politics, sport, business or public administration, where allegations are made, many times without substance, and the individual is drawn into a vortex demanding that they defend themselves on a daily basis. This is the same situation that I was alluding to a little earlier in this speech. This legislation is not intended to address that situation, of course. But, once again, it reminds me of the stress that individuals can come under when having to relive one of the most unpleasant experiences in their lives.
What we need is for royal commission witnesses to come forward freely, and we need to minimise the stress of their contribution, which is what this legislation seeks to do. To itemise some of those things that we are aiming at, the amendment will, as I said, cover letters, emails, submissions and statements covering personal and third-party experience. It will apply to individual and systemic forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. If we are wondering what systemic exploitation is, it might be the situation where someone works in the education system and they are aware that the system or individuals within the system are using the protections of that system to abuse people or take advantage of them. So it covers whistleblowers, if you like. It allows them to speak to the royal commission and not have their position and place in the organisation exposed.
Unauthorised use or disclosure of information that is deemed to be kept private by the royal commission will be an offence incurring a prison term of up to 12 months, and that's a pretty fair kind of penalty I would have thought. Amendments will ensure evidence provided by or on behalf of individuals cannot be used against them in a criminal case. This brings it into line with our courts system, where the defence of self-incrimination lies at the heart of the system. This is merely being extended to people who are willingly giving evidence at the royal commission. The records of the information will not be available for open access for up to 99 years. I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, that that will give both you and I great comfort. We may see that evidence come out in public, but, speaking for myself at least, I suspect that I'll be a bit past responding to it. It seems to be a very appropriate amount of time. Pretty much anyone who is anything more than an infant at moment can assume that it's not likely to come out in their lifetime. If the royal commission wishes to use information confidentially, it can only do so when it has been de-identified.
It seems as though these amendments have the support of both sides of the parliament. I think that's a very good thing. We should come together on such issues. Perhaps we should come together on more of them. But, in the case of this royal commission, it is doing good work. It is under way. It has already taken thousands of submissions, and we look forward to seeing what it has to say, even though, like other royal commissions, it may come with a rather nasty sting in the tail. In the identifying of substandard practices, they have already delivered an interim report to that effect. I commend the bill to the House.
In summing up, I thank all honourable members for their contributions to the debate on the Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021. The government takes violence against and the abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability very seriously. All forms of violence against and abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability are abhorrent. The government has listened to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, people with disability, their families and carers, and the broader Australian public about the importance of ensuring people have the confidence to come forward and tell their story. As a result, this bill provides confidentiality protections for certain sensitive information that is given to the disability royal commission by strengthening and expanding the existing protections to the Royal Commissions Act 1902 to remove any doubt about the safeguarding of confidential information beyond the life of the inquiry. It also expands existing protections in the Royal Commissions Act to provide clarity for people that a broad range of sensitive information given to the disability royal commission will be fully protected. The bill amends the act to ensure the confidentiality of certain information given by or on behalf of individuals to the disability royal commission is protected.
The use and disclosure of information given by individuals to the commission about their or others' experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation will be limited, where that information was given for purposes other than a private session, and the information was treated as confidential by the commissioner at all times. The amendments will provide that this category of confidential information is not admissible in evidence against a person in any civil or criminal proceedings in any court of the Commonwealth, state or territory. Further, a provision of any law of the Commonwealth, a state or a territory would have no effect to the extent that it would otherwise require or authorise a person to make a record of, use or disclose the information. In addition, it would be an offence to disclose or use this confidential information without authority. The other place also agreed to government amendments to the bill, following which the bill's protection will apply in the circumstances where information is given on behalf of another person—for example, a carer or parent giving information on behalf of a person with disability—and will also clearly cover accounts of systemic forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability, and not just individual accounts.
Records of the confidential information will be held securely by the custodian, the secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, when the inquiry ends. Just like private session information, a court will be unable to compel the department to disclose this information. It will not be admissible in court proceedings and third parties will be unable to seek this information under the freedom of information regime. The bill also provides for other technical amendments which will improve the efficiency of the disability royal commission and future commissions. The bill will streamline arrangements to enable directions to be made by differently configured groups of commissioners in or outside of a royal commission hearing. This will enable the disability royal commission and future commissions to move flexibly to make urgent directions for the non-publication of sensitive information to protect the identity of a person, locations or institutions.
Finally, the bill improves arrangements for Commonwealth royal commissions to communicate information and evidence obtained during the course of their inquiries with the royal commission and a commission of inquiry of a state or territory. This is an important and essential mechanism for the disability royal commission, which has been set up as a joint Commonwealth and state royal commission, established through the issue of concurrent letters patent under the respective royal commissions legislation. Currently, most evidence tendered in the Commonwealth disability royal commission must also be tendered for the concurrent state royal commissions. This is impractical and time-consuming. Streamlining these information-sharing arrangements will create important efficiencies for the disability royal commission and future royal commissions by enabling evidence tendered on behalf of the Commonwealth disability royal commission to be easily shared with all concurrent state royal commissions.
The government has carefully considered the development of the bill and has closely consulted with the disability royal commission to ensure it provides comprehensive protections to sensitive information. I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate on this important bill.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Scullin has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.
Question agreed to.
The question now is that this bill be now read a second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.