Aging and Disability Commissioner Bill

(Debate on Bill, 28 May 2019, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

Few roles are more important in this House than protecting our most vulnerable people. During the election campaign, I heard from many constituents about State politics needing more heart in dealing with people who experience disadvantage. It is a welcome step that the first piece of legislation introduced in the Fifty-Seventh Parliament will create such a vital safeguard for such vulnerable adults.

The Ageing and Disability Commissioner Bill 2019 creates a new role of commissioner charged with investigating reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation of adults with disability and adults who are elderly. Gaps in the protection of this cohort of people have been widely identified in examinations by the Legislative Council General Purpose Standing Committee No. 2, the Australian Law Reform Commission, the NSW Law Reform Commission and the NSW Ombudsman. All concluded that we need an independent statutory office with a clear role to safeguard vulnerable adults. I understand that one of the biggest concerns is the lack of oversight of, and protections against, abuse and neglect in the home by a family member or carer—someone who the vulnerable adult should be able to trust. Many forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation do not meet the threshold for criminal intervention but are nonetheless very distressing for the victim, contrary to community values and need to be addressed. Examples include repeatedly threatening to put an older person in a home, incurring bills for them or forcing them to sell their property.

A major problem with abuse of vulnerable adults in community settings is that many people fail to recognise it or they dismiss it as a private matter and as a result do not report disturbing events they may have witnessed. The new commissioner's education role will be vital to teach the community and service providers how to recognise abuse and neglect and where to make reports. While the bill has widespread support, the disability sector has made some suggestions that would improve safeguards within the commissioner's role, which I ask the Minister to consider. The Minister's involvement in the operations of the commissioner's office, including in administration and budget matters, do not support full independence of the role. Independence is vital to putting vulnerable people at the forefront of all operations and I support strengthening the autonomy of the office.

There is some concern that two separate agencies will now deal with visitors' reports and death reviews, with visitors' reports moving to the commissioner, and the death review team staying with the Ombudsman. There is an overlap in issues and trends that come out of reviews of deaths and visitors' reports. Having one body responsible for both would help that body identify systemic problems more quickly. With the Ageing and Disability Commissioner to become the chief oversight body of people with disability, there is an argument to move the death review team to that office. I ask that as the commissioner's role and office develops the Minister consider whether a transfer of the death review team to the commissioner's office is appropriate.

There are concerns that the commissioner will be required to refer reports of neglect and abuse to the Health Care Complaints Commission, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, or the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission if one of those agencies is the appropriate body for the report. The concern is that this could hinder collaborative approaches between the commissioner and those agencies. Reports could be delegated automatically rather than the two offices working together to achieve better outcomes. I ask the Minister to monitor whether this requirement has such an effect. Notwithstanding those concerns, there is no question that the bill represents a big step forward in the protection of vulnerable adults in our community.

This will become all the more important as our population ages and there are fewer people to look after the elderly and frail in our community. The Australian Law Reform Commission and the NSW Law Reform Commission have recommended a suite of other important reforms to wills, enduring powers of attorney, enduring guardianship documents, assisted decision-making and the right to legal representation at the tribunal to safeguard vulnerable adults. I hope these matters are considered and that we will see additional reforms introduced in this Parliament. I congratulate the Minister on advancing the lives of our most vulnerable in his first move in the portfolio. I commend the bill to the House.