Child Wellbeing and Safety (Child Safe Standards Compliance and Enforcement) Bill 2021

Bill Speech

Over lunch the discussion was with the German philosopher Goethe, who said, ‘As knowledge grows, so does doubt’. I have sometimes observed that this is a problem for some of us here in this place—but nonetheless, let me just say there appears to be no doubt from the opposition regarding this particular bill. They recognise that it is important and worthwhile, and I think we can all be very pleased about that. However, it was disconcerting to hear the member for Lowan degenerate into very pessimistic, depressing words like ‘massive problems’, ‘shameful record’, ‘strangled by grimness’—well, no, that was my observation that it was strangled by grimness—‘depression’, ‘building bureaucracy’, ‘much shaking of heads’ and ‘blaming the government’.

The only good work that seemed to be identified was from Ms Georgie Crozier in the other place—
standards are not held and so on. And then the member for Caulfield was again singing the praises of Ms Georgie Crozier but this time including Mr Ted Baillieu, who comes from Hawthorn—and only good comes from Hawthorn; that is true. So it was good to hear Ted Baillieu being quoted there. He threw in words like ‘absolute disgrace’, ‘absolute failure’, a few other absolutes, ‘many instances’ and so on and so forth. It was really unhelpful, I think, because we are wanting to go forward; we are not wanting to pick holes in the legislation. We know that with any sort of legislation there will always be slips; there will always be times when you think, ‘No, that point was not covered there’ or ‘That’s not right’ and so on and so forth. There is no question about that, but it is just simply regurgitating these stories, important though they are—and these things cannot just be swept under the carpet. But let us not let them get in the way of good legislation and going forward.

So these child safety standards, we will call them, were developed in response to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations and its Betrayal of Trust report, handed down in 2013. The standards are a vital response to the inquiry, which found that serious incidences of child abuse were happening in some of our most well-regarded and important institutions and organisations. The standards apply to over 50 000 organisations in Victoria providing services or facilities catering for or employing children or young people. Included in this number are government departments, schools, hospitals, child protection services, religious bodies, charities, youth organisations, councils and various private sector businesses. The standards became fully operative a few years ago now, on 1 January 2017, and assist organisations in preventing child abuse and improving responses to allegations of child abuse by ensuring cultural change and putting child safety at the forefront of operations.
As part of its response to the federal government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the government committed to reviewing the Victorian child safe standards
scheme. This review, completed in 2019, found that there was strong support for and commitment to the standards across Victoria’s wideranging child protection sectors and organisations. Another
important outcome of the review was that most organisations involved in child-related work became even more aware of how vital it is to provide a safe environment for children and young people and genuinely seek to do so.

Despite widespread support for the standards, the review also found the regulatory framework in need of significant reform—and this is where we come in. The review made 15 recommendations, which were all accepted by the government in December 2019, and, as outlined in the second-reading speech, if I can just repeat them, because they are important, very important, they include:

  • improve regulatory oversight and clarity of regulator’s functions
  • provide regulators with a contemporary, graduated set of regulatory powers to monitor and enforce compliance with the Standards
  • improve information sharing between regulators to allow regulators to coordinate regulatory activity and share intelligence, to better identify risks to children and young people and to inform educational activities— and then the fourth of these—
  • provide the Commission for Children and Young People with critical state-wide leadership and capacity building functions

So what else does the bill do? The reforms outlined below are substantial and underline the
government’s commitment to ensuring the highest possible standards are in place to protect children and young people from harm. They promote and enhance compliance with the child safe standards across approximately 50 000 Victorian organisations, including schools, hospitals and churches, which will make these places safer for children. The bill implements eight of the 15 recommendations of Victoria’s review requiring legislative amendment, with the remaining recommendations being implemented administratively or via a further legislative instrument. Watch this space.

Another important aspect of the bill is the proposed amendments to the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005, which will (a) provide regulators of the standards with contemporary monitoring and
enforcement powers, (b) include a mechanism clearly identifying the regulator for each sector that is subject to the standards and provide the Commission for Children and Young People with additional statewide leadership and capacity-building functions and (c) facilitate improved information sharing between regulators so that non-compliance with the standards can be more effectively and efficiently identified, thereby making organisations safer for children.

Another finding of the 2019 review of the child safe standards scheme was that regulators of the standards should look to integrate the standards into their existing regulatory frameworks. To facilitate the standards being integrated into the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act, the bill also amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. The bill provides too the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority—the VRQA as we know it—with the necessary regulatory powers so other aspects, such as requirements for registration and approval, are enforced. The bill also amends the ETRA by introducing new powers to monitor and enforce compliance with the standard into Victoria’s existing regulatory framework for schools and other educational organisations, thereby ensuring the burden is reduced by having one regulatory framework instead of two.

The government has consulted extensively with interested parties during the drafting of the bill. These include regulators of the standards, child advocacy groups and organisations subject to the standards, including sporting clubs, religious bodies, Aboriginal organisations, private businesses, disability service providers, peak representative bodies and councils.

Further changes in the bill provide regulators with clear powers to monitor and enforce the standards. Regulators will provide information and advice to assist organisations in their understanding of their obligations to promote consistent child safety outcomes and to encourage child safety and wellbeing across a wide range of organisations. Regulators will also have a range of options to assist them in better tailoring their responses to risk—for example, by giving an official warning, where appropriate, instead of issuing an automatic fine or commencing a prosecution.
This legislation is yet another very fine example of the government’s commitment to protect children and should be widely supported. Of particular importance is the groundbreaking intensive family preservation and reunification response with its focus on intervention and prevention, and Home Stretch, where 500 or so young people are being supported so they can stay at home with care and family. I commend the bill.