November 17, 2016  |  second reading speech

Working With Children Amendment Bill 2016

Mr CARROLL (Niddrie) — It is my pleasure to speak on the Working with Children Amendment Bill 2016. I thank the member for Hawthorn and the opposition for their support for this legislation. I will get to a couple of the points that the member for Hawthorn made in his contribution.

The working with children legislation came into operation quite a few years ago now — in April 2006, I think it was — after having been introduced by my predecessor as the member for Niddrie, Rob Hulls. Since then literally hundreds of thousands of people have proceeded to have a working with children check. I was fortunate enough to work in the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office at the then Department of Justice in the heady days when the working with children check unit was established at Box Hill. It is fair to say that this legislation — which is not unique to Victoria; it has been implemented right around Australia — has been embraced by the community because of its importance. There can be no more important role — particularly for volunteers working with children at sports clubs — than ensuring the safety and sanctity of our children. The purpose of these checks is to assist in protecting children from sexual and physical harm and to ensure that people who do work with children are suitable and have the right characteristics. That is why the Department of Justice and Regulation plays an integral role.

The scheme is designed to minimise the risk of harm to children by ensuring that people who do work with or care for children are subjected to a screening process. Support for the working with children check has far exceeded expectations. As of 30 September 2016 there had been almost 2 million working with children check applications received in the 10 years since the scheme’s commencement. As I highlighted earlier, every jurisdiction bar South Australia currently operates a working with children check scheme. I think it is very important that we acknowledge the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and its outstanding Working With Children Checks report, which I have had a bit of a read of. I will just highlight what the executive summary says:

We decided to examine the WWCC schemes because early in our work it became apparent that the schemes were not as effective as they could be at contributing to children’s safety in organisations. We therefore looked at the schemes as they currently operate and considered whether, if strengthened, children could be afforded better levels of protection from the schemes. We concluded, overwhelmingly, that this was the case.

Victoria should be proud of its 10 years of running a working with children check scheme. This legislation is important and goes to the heart of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We must acknowledge that Victoria, a progressive state that is at the forefront of policy, has a comprehensive and robust scheme in place. What I think is very gratifying from the Attorney‑General and the Department of Justice and Regulation is that Victoria was already on top of or enacting a lot of the recommendations that came out of the royal commission’s Working With Children Checks report. Having said that, we need to ensure that we have national consistency and there are a number of recommendations that could be progressed. We are still working with the commonwealth on some recommendations to ensure that we get them right before they are implemented.

As I said earlier, there is no more abhorrent crime than the sexual abuse of children. The key role of government is helping to ensure that children are kept safe from harm. In 2006 we implemented the Working with Children Act 2005, which changed the way Victoria and indeed people working with children were screened and the standards that need to be met by people volunteering with children. The act recognises the unique position of trust held by those individuals who engage in child‑related work and seek to prevent any form of unjustifiable risk to children from those working or volunteering with them. Overall more than 1.93 million working with children checks have been issued.

This bill is very important. It is important to highlight the five recommendations that will be implemented by the bill. They include recommendation 7, which expands the definition of ‘child‑related work’ beyond physical contact; recommendation 9, which removes the element of ‘supervision’ from the definition of child‑related work; recommendation 12, which expands the working with children check scheme to include kinship carers; recommendation 17, which includes non‑conviction charges in working with children check assessments; and recommendation 33, which gives the Secretary of the Department of Justice and Regulation the power to compel relevant information for the purposes of compliance monitoring of working with children checks. There are other technical and minor elements in the bill that seek to improve the operation of the working with children check scheme.

The member for Hawthorn raised a couple of matters that go to the heart of the legislation, in particular regarding clause 18(4) of the bill in response to concerns about when there is a refusal to provide information on the grounds that it could incriminate a person. I just want to reassure members that the Department of Justice and Regulation, in particular the secretary, can undertake further investigation or refer the matter to an appropriate authority, such as Victoria Police, should further investigation be required. This legislation very much goes to the heart of ensuring that it is in the 21st century and meets the expectations that we all hope for and desire.

I want to congratulate the Attorney‑General. The safety of our kids is our top priority. That is why we are introducing these new laws that will make the application process for working with children checks stricter and more thorough. Every child deserves to be safe while in the care of others. These laws address key recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to help protect our kids.

In my own electorate of Niddrie we have an incredible diversity of organisations and many of my constituents have undertaken a working with children check. I see their cards when I am at different sporting events and doing different things with different clubs and school fetes. Everyone realises how important this scheme is. If you go back to the Bracks government, then Attorney‑General Rob Hulls led it; he implemented it. We are pretty much seeing the fruits of that labour now, with more than 1.93 million people having gone through the application process for a working with children check.

When I was at the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office we had the working with children check unit out at Box Hill. I know the Department of Justice was very proud of the work it was doing out there. In many respects it was a real growth period in the sense that there were opportunities and people could really hone their skills on this new piece of legislation dealing with people working with children. It has been embraced by the community.

Following the royal commission and its findings, particularly the five recommendations that I outlined earlier, we are now seeing the next iteration of the working with children check legislation. It will ensure that our children are protected. We need to make sure that the application process is rigorous and that it addresses all the recommendations that came out of the royal commission. I want to commend the Department of Justice and Regulation. I also want to commend the parliamentary library; it did a good job in terms of the bill book it put together. Having read through the Working with Children Checks report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, I think it goes to the heart of the issue. While the work of that royal commission was incredibly broad, the fact that it released a specific report dealing with the responses to child sexual abuse and what amendments can be made to the working with children check process is critical.

I understand the final report is going to come from the royal commission later this year, but given the urgency of this legislation, it is good that the Department of Justice and Regulation and the Attorney‑General have been right on top of it. We now have this legislation in the Parliament about to go through the lower house with the support of the opposition. I think it is important legislation. There can be no more important legislation, and I commend the bill to the house.