Thursday, 30 March 2006
Family Assistance, Social Security and Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2005 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2006
by leave—I move Labor’s amendments (4) to (10) on sheet 4887:
(4) Schedule 5, page 25 (line 2), omit “Reducing allocation of child care places”, substitute “Allocation of child care places”.
(5) Schedule 5, page 25 (after line 14), after item 2, insert:
2A Section 206
Before “The Minister”, insert “(1) Subject to subsection (2),”.
(6) Schedule 5, page 25 (after line 14), after item 2, insert:
2B Paragraph 206(a)
Repeal the paragraph, substitute:
(a) procedures relating to the allocation of child care places to approved child care services, provided that such procedures:
(i) must specify that child care places may only be allocated if an application is received from a person able to provide approved child care services; and
(ii) must specify that decisions about the allocation of child care places are to be reviewed by the Secretary at least monthly;
(7) Schedule 5, page 25 (after line 14), after item 2, insert:
2C Paragraph 206(b)
Repeal the paragraph, substitute:
(b) matters to be taken into account in working out the number (if any) of child care places to be allocated to approved child care services, provided that the guidelines specify that the primary matters to be taken into account are the relative needs of:
(i) different areas of Australia for the kinds of child care places to be allocated; and
(ii) people in each area who have work, training or study commitments;
(8) Schedule 5, item 4, page 26 (lines 6 and 7), omit paragraph 207A(1)(a), substitute:
(a) that number has exceeded, for a continuous period of at least 12 months, the number of child care places provided by the service; or
(9) Schedule 5, item 4, page 26 (after line 25), after subsection 207A(4) insert:
(4A) If the Secretary reduces under this section the number of child care places allocated to an approved child care service, the Secretary must, within 7 days after the day on which the reduction takes effect, allocate the same number of places to one or more other approved child care services.
(10) Schedule 5, item 4, page 27 (after line 11), after section 207B, insert:
207C Details to be included in annual report
The Secretary must include, in the annual report made under section 232, details of
(a) the number and the location of child care services which have been subject to a decision to reduce the number of child care places allocated to them;
(b) the number and location of child care services which have been allocated places taken from other services; and
(c) the number and location of child care services which have applied for places or for additional places but not been allocated those places or those additional places.
As we know, the Family Assistance, Social Security and Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2005 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2006 gives the Secretary of the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs the power to take allocated but unfilled places from a child-care provider. The justification given to allow this new power is that it allows redistribution of places from areas of low demand to areas of high demand, and that sounds an eminently reasonable proposition. But unfortunately that is not what is going to happen. Because the child-care allocation system is so slow and unresponsive, centres and family day carers will have to wait for two years to get back places taken away from them forcibly by the department. The question needs to be asked: who will have the power to decide when to take places and when to give? The answer is the department. This is the same department that, because of policies of this government, admits that it does not even know where child-care places are needed.
Labor senators asked the following questions about this issue during the inquiry that was undertaken on this bill. How prepared is the department to deal with this new power? Do the bureaucrats in Canberra know more than individual child-care operators know about the demand for these services now and six months into the future? The answers we received were quite concerning. The department admitted that it does not have any way to measure demand at a regional level. It does not know how many places are currently being utilised; it has ‘some sense of the numbers’. It has not yet decided on a definition of ‘excess places’. In other words, the government has decided to propose a new power to take away from a provider child-care places that have been consistently unused, but it has not decided on what ‘consistently unused’ means. This parliament is now being asked to allow child-care places to be involuntarily relinquished by child-care providers, despite the government not knowing where the areas of high and low demand are, nor how long a vacant spot needs to exist before the government can arrive on the doorstep and take it away.
Labor’s objections to these changes can be expressed quite simply and include the fact that places removed from one service do not have to be reallocated to another service. The system for reallocating places is rigid and slow. Generally places are only allocated within advertised windows wherein services are invited to apply, and there have been fewer than five such windows since the year 2000. Child-care services often have to wait up to two years from the point of request for new places for those places to be allocated to them. Parents around the country might be without a child-care place simply because the allocation system lags behind the new demand, and the government’s ability to accurately assess unmet need for child care is poor. It admits—on occasions when it suits—that that is the fact.
Labor is moving amendments to rein in the secretary’s new proposed powers and to improve the system of allocation. The amendments that we have proposed will limit the secretary’s power to reduce the allocation of places to a service unless, firstly, it has been continually vacant for 12 months and, secondly, it will be reallocated to another service within seven days of removal. The amendments oblige the secretary to assess applications for additional places to meet demand from child-care providers throughout the year—and we propose every month—and not just in infrequent and unpredictable windows. Lastly, the amendments will require the government to include in the annual FaCSIA report to parliament information about the number and location of services suffering an involuntary removal of a place, information about services that have been reallocated those places, and services that have had requests for more places declined.