I rise to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Child Safe Schools) Bill 2015. I take the opportunity in my introductory remarks to congratulate the members of Parliament on the Family and Community Development Committee in the previous Parliament who inquired into and reported to the Parliament on this very important issue. I also take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of the support staff to that committee — the clerks, the secretarial support and of course the team who provided legal support to the committee. It must have been quite harrowing at times to hear so many horrific stories that have impacted on the lives of so many — not only those who were victims and survivors but also their families and friends.
Having said that, the work of the committee put the real issues that have confronted many people in many institutions for a long time on the table for the first time. It has given us not only the stories but hard evidence and a narrative that demonstrates that child abuse in our society is systemic. That is a fact; it is a frightening fact, but it is a fact. Therefore it is now a matter not only for parliamentarians but for members of our community to do what we can to make sure that we can rid ourselves of this practice that has been going on for far too long. The legislation we have before us tonight is a start in implementing the recommendations of that report.
As previous speakers have alluded to, there are two specific recommendations that are dealt with in the bill before us this evening. Every time legislation like this comes before us and we make advances towards eradicating such outrageous practices it is important that we give the history and honour those who were involved in that inquiry. We should honour those who had the fortitude to appear before the inquiry and give that important evidence.
The bill before us tonight firstly amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 to add a minimum standard for registration of government and non-government schools in ensuring child safety and responding to suspected child abuse within Victorian schools. Secondly, it empowers the minister to make a ministerial order to prescribe the policies, procedures, codes and other measures that schools are required to develop and implement to manage the risks of child abuse. Thirdly, it enhances the powers of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority to monitor and ensure that schools comply with the prescribed minimum standards for registration. Fourthly, it makes a number of statute law revision amendments to fix typographical errors and incorrect numerical and technical references.
The bill recognises that children are vulnerable and in need of special protection by the state. The implementation of this bill is crucial in protecting the rights of children in our government and non-government schools and protecting them from child abuse. The bill will ensure that allegations of child abuse are properly dealt with and that the risks are minimised.
Recommendation 12.1 of the Betrayal of Trust report recommends that the government establish minimum standards for maintaining child-safe environments at organisations that have contact with children. Today we are dealing with amendments to the education and training area and therefore we are implementing this recommendation in our government and non-government schools.
Recommendation 16.1 of the Betrayal of Trust report recommended a review of the procedures used by Victorian government schools for reporting and responding to allegations of criminal child abuse, as well as identifying a benchmark for non-government schools. Under this amended legislation it will be mandatory for registered schools to satisfy their regulator, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, that they have taken action to manage the risk of child abuse, including their response to child abuse.
This bill also provides more power to the Minister for Education in respect of making ministerial orders to guide schools in how they can achieve a child-safe environment. More powers are also provided to the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority to monitor and ensure school compliance with the minimum standards, including those to protect children from abuse within schools. Members who are familiar with recommendations 12.1 and 16.1 of the Betrayal of Trust report will know that the amendments in this bill do not fully cover what the recommendations aim to cover; however, they are an important step, and the government is working on amendments to other legislation to achieve this.
At the beginning of my contribution I alluded to the Betrayal of Trust inquiry and mentioned the important work its members did. I have no doubt they would consider that the work that was done to produce that report was probably one of the most confronting but satisfying elements of their working lives. That has certainly been the case when I have been able to talk to committee members on a one-on-one basis.
The committee provided us with 15 important recommendations, each and every one of which will be implemented by the Andrews government. The recommendations cover five areas to improve the responsibility of religious and other non-government organisations for the abuse of children in their care. These areas include criminal law reform, improving access to civil justice, improving organisational capacity to respond appropriately to allegations of abuse, improving organisational capacity to prevent child abuse and alternative avenues to justice and redress.
Consistent with other crimes of a similar nature, wherever child abuse occurs it is chronically under-reported. We have seen, particularly through the Victorian government’s inquiry, as well as through the royal commission set up by the Gillard federal Labor government, that many victims do not disclose their personal experiences until many years, sometimes decades, later. Page 54 of the Betrayal of Trust report states that 39 per cent of written submissions to the inquiry detailed abuse that occurred in schools, with most of that occurring within a 30-year period between the 1950s and the 1980s. With those figures in mind, it is clear why the bill we are debating is crucial. The inquiry also found that less than 1 per cent of the reported abuse happened after the 1990s. Whilst this might be good to hear, we all know that child abuse, tragically, still occurs and, as stated, is chronically under-reported, so it is absolutely necessary to implement these amendments.
Page 51 of the report details that almost half of the abuse reported to the inquiry was of a sexual nature, with just under a quarter being of a physical nature and just over a quarter being a combination of both. I have no doubt that those who have read the report feel the same sense of disturbance, anger, sadness and other emotions whilst reading in more detail about these practices that went on in our state. As the report states:
The criminal abuse of children represents a departure of the gravest kind from the standards of decency fundamental to any civilised society.
No-one could possibly disagree with that statement. It is the responsibility of each and every Victorian to do everything we possibly can to make sure that our children are safe and protected and that there is justice for victims, and it is the responsibility of the government of the day to ensure that frameworks and policies are in place to give our government and non-government organisations the best environment to keep Victorian children safe.
Again I congratulate members of the Family and Community Development Committee on this report, and I congratulate the minister on bringing this bill to the Parliament. I also acknowledge a number of members of the previous Parliament who gave speeches in relation to the report, which will stand us in good stead not just now but well into the future. I commend the work of that committee and its chair, Ms Crozier.