Social Services Regulation Bill 2021 – Second Reading

I am very pleased, and also very proud, to support the Social Services Regulation Bill 2021.

I would like to begin by thanking the Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers for introducing this bill, as well as his hardworking ministerial office. Additionally, and perhaps most of all, I would like to acknowledge some very special people at the newly formed Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, for their work in crafting the legislation we have here today.

And as always, this legislation has not been developed in isolation. There has been extensive consultation with sector-specific peak bodies, regulatory and oversight bodies, and senior departmental subject matter experts. Furthermore, over the past two years the department has engaged both service providers and service users, through directed communication and public updates, as well as through a range of information sessions and forums across the relevant sectors. Through this consultation, these stakeholders have told us of the gaps and the overlaps in the existing regulatory framework, who have told us about its complexity and the confusion that results.

This extensive consultation has proved extremely valuable, and has revealed widespread agreement on the need to prioritise the safety of people experiencing vulnerability. Input from, and support for, stakeholders will continue as these reforms are phased in. What this consultation has underscored is that the existing regulatory environment for social services providers is far from ideal.

The fragmented legislative landscape regulating social service delivery, which has developed in isolation and over time, certainly requires both clarification and streamlining. The current regulation includes burdensome overlaps, where providers working in multiple areas must stay abreast of duplicative regulatory requirements. There are also troubling gaps, where certain services—including some in the hugely important areas of family violence and homelessness—are not guided by regulatory frameworks. Service providers in these areas deserve more clarity and they deserve more support. Also of concern is the ability of a regulator to separate out the funding and the regulation of services organisations, and to intervene early when necessary to forestall unsafe outcomes.

We’ve listened to those in the sector who have spoken out about these difficulties, and this government recognises the need for a robust regulatory framework. We need to strengthen safeguards and simplify processes to better facilitate the work of our excellent social service providers, and to ensure the quality and safety of services provided to vulnerable Victorians.

We need to modernise and to simplify this regulation. We need a streamlined set of standards and a streamlined registration process. And this is what this bill will deliver.

The Social Services Regulation Bill 2021 creates a unified regulatory framework to support the safe delivery of social services, and to protect the rights of social service users. These are vitally important services, and we must ensure that they are safeguarded in a manner that reflects this.

Firstly, and primarily, the bill introduces the Social Services Regulator, a new independent authority which will take the place of the human services regulator. This new regulator will oversee the services delivered by more than 1200 organisations, in areas including child and youth out-of-home care, disability services outside of the NDIS, supported residential services, family violence services, sexual assault services, and homelessness services.

This is a broader remit than the previous human services regulator, and also ensures a larger degree of separation from the department. This remit will also cover both government and non-government services, providing accountability and consistency of standards across the sector, and to ensure that service users can expect the same fundamental protections regardless of an organisation’s public or private status.

The Social Services Regulator will be able to identify shortcomings in service delivery and will be empowered to work with service providers to improve standards across the board. They will also recognise other regulatory schemes of relevance, ensuring that the regulatory environment remains coordinated and simplified, and benefiting those providing a broad range of essential social services.

They will also be empowered to monitor and investigate relevant providers, with the flexibility to enforce compliance in a manner appropriate to each given situation. Less serious non-compliance will be met with measured responses such as warnings and infringement notices, which will allow the regulator to step in early and reform concerning practices. More serious breaches may be met with further compliance notices and court-based civil and criminal remedies. And in limited situations, with rigorous safeguards, authorised officers under the regulator may enter certain premises for inspection. All these measures work to ensure the safety of both service workers and service recipients.

Additionally, the regulator will oversee the registration of social service providers. This is a key preventative measure which pre-emptively addresses harmful practices, with all social service providers required to go through the registration process. Applicants will be assessed on core capabilities and their capacity to provide for user safety, and a registry of approved social service providers will be published by the regulator.

This bill also provides for social services standards, to empower registered providers via clear and consistent guidance. These include standards around safe service delivery, service user agency and dignity, safe service environment, feedback and complaints, accountable organisational governance, and workforce safety. These standards are focused on ensuring service safety and on protecting the human rights of service users.

In addition to registration and regulation, this bill additionally anticipates and address several other legislative needs.

It details a worker and carer exclusion scheme, initially focusing on carers but with room for expansion, for high-risk sectors whose risks cannot be adequately mitigated through service provider regulation alone. It establishes an information-sharing scheme, to better align the regulator with other government bodies in informing action and minimising regulatory duplication. It specifically addresses the status of supported residential services, to make clear that their residents have no reduction in rights or protections under this legislation. And it contains general provisions including regulation-making powers, so that the resulting scheme can be flexible and continuously relevant.

I also welcome the recent amendments introduced by the minister, which further clarify and strengthen the objectives of this bill. These include expanding the objects of the regulator, to include promoting and supporting the delivery of safe and effective social services; encouraging a culture of continuous quality improvement in the provision of social service; and providing confidence to service users and the community in the safety and quality of social services. The regulator’s guiding principles will also include assisting service providers via guidance and education, as well as to make decisions using intelligence-led integrated approaches that are proportionate to risk and that minimise regulatory burden.

Additional amendments clarify that the regulator is to liaise with other regulatory and investigator bodies to avoid the unnecessary duplication of investigations, and that the regulator must carry out consultations before issuing guidelines. Together, these various amendments work to further refine the position of the regulator, providing a clear mandate and building confidence in their role.

This scheme will come into effect from 1 July 2023 via a phased-in approach to ensure the appropriateness of the regulations, as well as to allow service providers time to accommodate any necessary changes. As I’ve already mentioned, stakeholder involvement will continue throughout this process and beyond, and guidance will be delivered to providers to support compliance. The phased implementation will also initially prioritise social services carrying a high degree of inherent risk of harm to users. Through this approach, the scheme provides support to providers whilst safeguarding the safety of users.

Finally, the amendments provide for this act to be reviewed after its first three years of operation with a report to be tabled in Parliament, ensuring that consultation and feedback in this space will continue.

One of the great privileges of my role as the member for Wendouree is to interact with a wide variety of community members and organisations, and as a result I am very familiar with the essential and vital work done by social service providers across Ballarat. I wish to acknowledge all those working in this space—the benefit they provide to our community is incalculable. Both service providers and service users deserve support and clarity from their government, and this is what this bill today ensures.

This is fundamentally important legislation, both for my community and for all of Victoria. I commend this bill to the house.

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