Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Ministerial Statements

Disability Employment Services — Employment Support Service

5:33 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to take note of the ministerial statement on Disability Employment Services.

Leave granted.

I rise to take note, as long as my voice holds out.

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Ageing) Share this | | Hansard source

It is holding out quite well, Senator Siewert.

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It must be time that we were able to use sign language here, Senator Siewert.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

That is true. Unfortunately, although I know a bit of Auslan, I certainly do not know enough to carry through this speech—although it would be appropriate given that I am talking about Disability Employment Services.

I rise to take note of the ministerial statement from Minister Ellis on the outcomes of the Disability Employment Services employment support service tender. The Senate may recall that there was an inquiry into some of the processes around Disability Employment Services that started about 18 months ago. It made a number of recommendations around Disability Employment Services. The government certainly paid some attention to some, but I am disappointed that they did not pick up a lot of the recommendations around the quality of the provision of services through Disability Employment Services and the star rating process.

This new process the government has gone through is based around that ratings process. One of the points that providers made to us during the inquiry into Disability Employment Services was that they were concerned about the star rating process and the fact that, because they spent more time in supporting people with disability and looking for some quality outcomes, they had foregone trying to get that fourth star—which is the all-important star.

Secondly, they identified what they were calling 'gaming processes' or what others call 'sharp practices'. The department, through Senate estimates, has responded to questions and said that they had had a look at so-called gaming practices, or sharp practices, in Disability Employment Services and said that they do not think there is an issue there. I note that that is the same answer that I got through estimates when we were asking questions about the Job Services Australia providers and it subsequently turned out, as we established during estimates just two weeks ago, that there have been some significant problems with Job Services Australia providers and some sharp practices that have been carried out—with the point being that there looks like there will be some millions of dollars returned to the department as a result of the subsequent audit into some of these sharp practices. I will put on record that there were different sharp practices, but I must admit that I do not necessarily share the department's confidence that there are no sharp practices going on, given subsequent events.

With respect to this new tender process, I only have the results for Western Australia; I do not as yet have the results across the country. But, from the information that has been provided, across the country there have been 69 providers who will leave the sector. Of those providers, 17 did not tender for new services this time and just over 50 did tender and were not successful. It appears that what has happened is that some of the bigger operators have got bigger while 69 leave. What we do not know yet is what impact this is going to have on regional areas in particular. It is very clear that some clients will be moving providers, and the government has acknowledged that there will be transition support. One issue that was raised during the inquiry is the significant impact that moving providers has on people with a disability, so we will be watching that transition process quite carefully to make sure that the process adequately supports people.

Another issue that was brought to my attention is that it takes a lot to tender for these processes, and the bigger providers can afford to hire consultants to write their tender applications. It has been reported to me that people can spend as much as half a million dollars on developing their contracts, and some of them cover multiple states as well. There is no way that smaller providers can afford to compete and to spend that sort of money on their tenders. Although they may be quality services, they are basically out-competed because the big providers can spend the money on their applications. I do have concerns around that and I know that some of the smaller providers in the sector have those concerns. I am not saying that the big providers are not necessarily capable of providing strong support, but I know that some of the small providers—I have spoken to many of them—really pride themselves on providing quality services. I think there does need to be some ongoing review to make sure that as the big providers come in they are providing the same level of support, particularly the ongoing support that people with a disability need in the workplace. That is one thing that people with a disability have told the inquiry and me personally: ongoing support as you go into a workplace—for the first time or when people have cycled in and out of work—is very important to be able to maintain a position, and it is critical that the providers continue to provide that.

It appears that the tender selection process was constructed through the competitive market. It was assessed by DEEWR, and I would like to know if there was a consumer voice involved in the assessment process and if they had someone with employer expertise also involved in the process. If the process was similar to the Job Services Australia process, we know that a lot of that process was desktop assessment. Desktop assessment, while it is very important, does not always give the best view of how a service has been provided to those requiring that service.

I am concerned that we are seeing so many providers exit. I do not think that having only big providers is the best outcome. I know some of the providers that are exiting from Western Australia have a great deal of expertise, and I am concerned about the loss of their expertise to people with disabilities in Western Australia. The new providers are going to have to be very good to be able to provide the same level of support that I know some of the providers who are leaving have been providing. I do not know if it is the same case across the rest of Australia; I have only been provided with the Western Australian figures. I presume that other senators have been provided with the figures from their states. I will seek to get the figures for the whole of Australia so that we can get a bit of a picture of where providers have exited, entered and are continuing, particularly with a view to looking at regional services—again, because we know from experience with Job Services Australia contract turnover that concerns were raised around the impact on delivery of regional services.

The services that disability employment services provide are particularly important because we know that a high proportion of those on Newstart have a partial disability, and people on a pension want to be working. People with a disability have repeatedly said to me that they want to be working but they need good quality support to find a job in the first place and also to maintain it. It is absolutely critical that we get this right, and I am worried about the loss of expertise from the loss of 69 providers. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.