Social Services Regulation Bill 2021 | Bill

Ms VAGHELA (Western Metropolitan): It is my great pleasure to rise and speak in support of the Social Services Regulation Bill 2021. It is an honour to be contributing to something that creates a fairer society where our vulnerable population remains protected. This bill is an important one, because social services touch the lives of so many people across Victoria. The Western Metropolitan Region is home to many social service providers, social service workers and social service users. Many of these social service workers are helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic at the front lines.

As we go through the coronavirus pandemic it has exposed several shortcomings in the Victorian social services regulatory regime. Social workers are doing the most essential work, taking care of the vulnerable population that is more at risk during this pandemic. Therefore we are bringing this bill to make sure that we protect the most vulnerable people in our community. Each part of this important reform addresses risks to social service users and attempts to improve the quality of those particular services.

The Social Services Regulation Bill 2021 seeks to replace a number of regulatory schemes with one—a single set of standards, a single regulator and one registration process. This will lead to a more efficient and an improved regulatory system. This better system will give service users the opportunity to make themselves more informed and help improve the services they are seeking.

This bill will reduce the red tape burden for our hardworking service providers. There are many providers that give services across different areas. This currently means that they are subjected to differing regulatory schemes, leading to regulatory burden. These reforms will make sure that service providers will only need to register once and adhere to one set of standards. We are also removing the need for costly independent review board audits.

This bill is very timely. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the social challenges for at-risk people in Victoria. There are more and more people reaching out to support services to find safer environments for themselves. This bill has gone through a great deal of discussion. We have undertaken extensive consultation with key sector leaders, social service users, social service providers, sector peak organisations, safeguarding bodies, Victorian government and statutory authorities and independent review bodies. Following further consultation with the sector the government has tabled a number of clarifying amendments to support the bill. These include an amendment to include three additional objects of the regulators. The amendment also includes avoiding unnecessary duplication, additional guiding principles, a review of the act and consultation on guidelines and codes.

We are also committed to ongoing consultation. The government will establish a social services regulation task force to support and guide the regulation development process over the next 12 months ahead of the scheme commencement from July 2023. The task force will have an independent co-chair to represent both service providers and users and a government co-chair representative. The government looks forward to working with the sector over the coming months to develop a contemporary and robust Social Services Regulator. We also recognise that the industry will need support to transition to the new Social Services Regulator. To support them this bill ensures that plenty of time is given to service providers. All regulation requires time to implement. This will ensure that the guidance is in place to support service users and providers.

Strengthening the regulatory framework for social services provides an opportunity to promote the safe delivery of social services and the protection of the rights of service users to minimise risks of avoidable harm.

The current regulatory regime for social services is deficient in many ways. There is currently a fragmented regulatory framework. Fragmentation creates gaps, which could have deadly outcomes. It creates confusion among service providers and increases red tape through overlapping legislation. This fragmentation creates barriers to effective risk management by the government. Repeatedly, stakeholders have been able to spot overlaps, duplication and gaps. These drawbacks lead to reported confusion about the regulatory environment. Social services are mostly exposed to similar risks with wonderful service users, and not all services are subject to formal regulation. For instance, family violence and homelessness services are not subject to legislative regulations. These services rely on funding agreements to set safety standards. Through this bill we plan to address these gaps while removing unnecessary bureaucracy.

There is a lot of duplication in the current regulation. There are overly complex requirements which create inefficient processes for both providers and the government. There are a lot of overlapping regulatory schemes, which could require double the effort. This wasted effort can be spent supporting their users. The lack of information-sharing provisions and mutual recognition means compliance requirements for one service provider can be duplicated across different regulatory schemes and funding arrangements. This bill places attention on regulating the organisation based on what service they provide, instead of regulations applying to certain types of organisations providing services. It applies a risk-based approach to monitoring whether these objectives and expectations are met. Best practice regulation also involves the regulator having access to a comprehensive regulatory toolkit. This allows them to respond to risks in a timely, targeted and proportionate manner.

Another goal we are trying to achieve through this is to provide clear regulations and enforcement powers. Through this bill comprehensive regulatory toolkits for compliance and enforcement powers are given when services are failing their clients. This bill creates a new independent regulator. The new regulator replaces the human services regulator that is currently within the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. It is noted that in the current regulations there are insufficient powers to act in a timely and proportionate manner. This means even when the regulator identifies a problem with the service provider, it does not have the tools and powers to enable it to take the right actions to address the risks of harm. Having a wide range of regulatory tools at their disposal, the regulator will be able to support compliance and address non-compliance with social service provider requirements.

This new regulator will be better for service providers too. Service providers will not be required to continue to engage independent review bodies at a significant cost to certify them against the standards. Instead, the regulator will run an inspection regime, allowing the regulator to focus its attention on high-risk providers who demonstrate greater levels of non-compliance and expose service users to increased levels of harm. These auditing costs can range from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for service providers.

The independent regulator that this bill creates will report directly to the minister, instead of the department secretary. This will create a separation from the functions of systems to achieve policy design, funding and contract management. The independence of the regulator provides decision-making separation between the regulator and the department, which is particularly important when the department is delivering services. This has been welcomed by the sector. There are a number of mechanisms that will make sure that the regulator is held accountable for its approaches and decisions. This creates a robust and accountable approach. This will make sure that the independent regulator does what they are supposed to.

The bill will establish a worker and carer exclusion scheme that removes workers and carers who pose an unjustifiable risk to service users from high-risk roles.

The new scheme will replace the current carers register and will be administered by the new Social Services Regulator when the new framework is operational. When the scheme has commenced, service providers who are engaging workers and carers to care for children and young people who are within the child protection system will need to confirm the worker or carer is not listed on the exclusion register prior to engagement. The scope of regulatory coverage will encompass social services subject to schemes currently captured by the human services regulator and some department-funded services that are not subject to a legislative regulatory framework. As I mentioned earlier, this bill contains amendments that streamline registration, reporting and regulations. As part of our focus on red tape reduction, the government recognises the need for the new regulator to be able to recognise other regulatory schemes. It is absolutely critical that the regulator has the flexibility to recognise scheme equivalency into the future, also noting that existing schemes may change. This is why the government has sought not to list one by one other schemes in the bill but to give the regulator the flexibility to recognise these rather than having to come back to Parliament when schemes or circumstances may change.

In conclusion, the Andrews Labor government is making Victoria a better state for our vulnerable population. Good governance underpins a good social services sector. These services are important for vulnerable Victorians. The social services industry is essential for a functioning, developed democracy, and we cannot let red tape bog it down. We have an extraordinary social services workforce in Victoria. In the last year and a half our workers have been exposed to employment under difficult circumstances. The work they are doing is extremely important. It has to be done, but that does not mean that we leave them behind. I want to acknowledge the tireless work our frontline and social services workers have done. I hope this legislation makes their job a little easier. I commend this bill to the house.