Ms TIERNEY (Minister for Training and Skills) — I move:
That the bill be now read a second time.
Incorporated speech as follows:
The government takes very seriously its responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of our community, children. Child safety is everyone’s responsibility.
This bill proposes amendments to the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 to better protect children from abuse and child-related misconduct by establishing a reportable conduct scheme. A reportable conduct scheme will improve oversight of responses to allegations of child abuse, sexual misconduct and other child-related misconduct in organisations that exercise care, supervision and authority over children.
The bill will maintain the primacy of an investigation by Victoria Police of any allegations of criminal misconduct and will require allegations of suspected criminal conduct to be reported to Victoria Police. Additionally, the bill will ensure that persons who have been investigated under the scheme and found to have committed reportable conduct can be assessed for suitability to continue working or volunteering with children by enabling information to be shared with the Department of Justice and Regulation (for the purposes of a working with children check) and relevant professional registration bodies and regulators.
On 13 November 2013, the Family and Community Development Committee tabled to the previous Parliament its report entitled Betrayal of Trust — Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations (known as the Betrayal of Trust report). The committee made a number of findings and recommendations about the need to improve organisations’ responses to child abuse and prevent child abuse from occurring in organisations.
This government is committed to implementing all of the Betrayal of Trust report’s recommendations and has already responded to the majority of those recommendations. This bill substantially implements recommendation 18.1 and a key component of recommendation 10.1 of the Betrayal of Trust report.
In particular, the Betrayal of Trust report recommended that the Victorian government authorise an independent oversight and monitoring scheme to improve the handling of allegations of child abuse in relevant organisations, including government departments, religious and non-government organisations.
Organisational responsibility for protecting children is the subject of a range of regulation and reforms, in addition to the reportable conduct scheme. Most recently, the child safe standards were introduced to drive a culture of child safety and continuous improvement in organisations, supported by a new role for the Commission for Children and Young People (the commission) to build the capacity of organisations to improve child safety.
Building on those reforms, this bill requires that an allegation of reportable conduct committed by an employee is appropriately reported and responded to. This bill will expand the powers and functions of the commission to receive notifications of reportable conduct from organisations, and will allow for independent scrutiny of the way organisations investigate misconduct involving children. Fundamentally, it will ensure that the commission is aware of every allegation of certain types of employee misconduct involving children in relevant organisations that exercise care, supervision and authority over children. The commission will also be able to appropriately share information to better prevent and protect children from abuse.
This misconduct could include sexual offences or sexual misconduct, physical assault, significant neglect, or behaviour that is likely to cause significant psychological or emotional harm to children and is collectively referred to as ‘reportable conduct’ for the purposes of this scheme. Importantly, while the scheme will not interfere with criminal investigations, it will capture conduct that falls below a criminal threshold, and may not be necessarily reportable to police. This will ensure that grooming and other inappropriate patterns of behaviour can be identified in the early stages, and the risks to children appropriately responded to.
‘Employee’ has a wide definition under the bill and includes adult employees, contractors, officers, volunteers and religious personnel. This will ensure that the scheme is able to receive allegations of child-related harm and misconduct regardless of the legal status of the person that is alleged to have caused the harm, and irrespective of whether there is a formal employment relationship with the organisation, such as where the person is a religious leader. This will ensure that all children receive the same degree of protection and that child abuse is prevented, wherever it occurs.
Under the bill, organisations subject to the scheme will be required to have in place systems for reporting allegations of reportable conduct and misconduct towards children made against employees. These systems must ensure that the head of the organisation is made aware of the allegation and that there are appropriate organisational processes for appropriately responding to the allegation.
As the reportable conduct scheme applies to a diverse range of organisations, the definition of the ‘head’ of an organisation is defined to capture personnel who hold a relevant position of responsibility in an organisation. Additional heads of an organisation may be prescribed by regulation if necessary.
Under the bill, the head of an organisation must notify the allegation to the commission. In particular, the head of an organisation must, within three business days, notify the commission when it is first made aware of an allegation, and must then provide more detailed information as soon as practicable and within 30 days. These time frames build on the requirements of the scheme in New South Wales, and will ensure that organisations take prompt action to identify allegations of harm and effectively respond.
The head of an organisation must appropriately respond to the allegation by undertaking an investigation, or permitting a regulator or another independent body or person with appropriate qualification, training or experience to investigate the allegation. The findings of an investigation, and reasons, must be provided to the commission at the conclusion of an investigation, ensuring that the commission is aware of the outcome of investigations as well as the processes the organisation has in place to respond to and prevent reportable conduct by employees.
As the Betrayal of Trust report recommended, the bill will ensure that employees who have been investigated under the scheme and found to have committed reportable conduct can be assessed for suitability to continue to work or volunteer with children. In particular, the bill will enable information to be shared with the Department of Justice and Regulation for the purposes of the working with children check, and with relevant professional registration bodies and regulators. This will equip the regulatory system to assess suitability and, where appropriate, exclude people who have been found to pose an unjustifiable risk to children from working or volunteering with children.
Building on its existing roles to promote the safety and wellbeing of children and monitor and oversee compliance with the child safe standards, the commission will be provided with appropriate powers and functions to administer the reportable conduct scheme. These powers enable the commission to:
educate and provide advice to organisations and regulators;
oversee investigations into reportable allegations;
where necessary, conduct its own investigations into reportable allegations;
investigate the handling of a reportable allegation by an organisation or regulator;
scrutinise the systems in place in organisations which are subject to the scheme to prevent reportable conduct;
monitor compliance with the scheme; and
report to ministers and Parliament on the scheme.
In administering the scheme, the commission will also build the capacity of organisations to respond appropriately and effectively to reportable allegations, assisting organisations to better prevent and respond to child abuse.
A range of organisations that exercise care, supervision or authority over children will be covered by the scheme. To ensure the effective operation of the scheme and to provide organisations with additional time to prepare, the scheme will apply to organisations that have responsibility for children in three phases.
From commencement of the scheme, the scheme will apply to child protection services, out-of-home care services, disability services providing residential services for children with a disability, certain education providers, government and non-government schools, youth refuges, certain health services with inpatient beds, and government departments.
From six months after commencement, the scheme will apply to hospitals, other disability services for children, providers of overnight camps, religious bodies and the residential facilities of boarding schools.
From 18 months after commencement, the scheme will apply to early childhood services, approved education and care services (for example, kindergartens and after-hours care services), children’s services (such as occasional care providers), and prescribed statutory bodies that have functions of a public nature, such as public museums and galleries.
The development of the bill involved extensive consultation with representatives of government and non-government stakeholders. There is broad support for the scheme proposed in this bill.
In conclusion, the bill will amend the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 to establish a reportable conduct scheme, in order to better protect children from the risk of abuse in organisations that exercise the closest care, supervision and authority over them. The bill will also make consequential amendments to other legislation to enable information to be appropriately shared to better protect children from abuse and harm.
I commend the bill to the house.
Debate adjourned for Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) on motion of Mr Ondarchie.
Debate adjourned until Thursday, 16 February.