News | 29 September 2020

Every Australian Counts goes to the NDIS Joint Standing Committee

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Photo of a glass panel with a section of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission logo.

You will remember that following Ann Marie Smith’s horrific and tragic death, the NDIS Joint Standing Committee announced a super fast inquiry into the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

When the inquiry was announced, we put the call out to everyone in the Every Australian Counts community to tell us about your experiences with the Commission – and what you thought needed to be done to make the system work better for people with disability.

As we always do, the stories provided by you are sent to the Committee – but they are not made public. We do that because sometimes people share details which could potentially identify them.

But our summary is always made public.

Here’s Kirsten’s opening statement to the Committee.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which I am standing and acknowledge elders, past present and emerging. I would like to acknowledge that this is was and always will be Aboriginal land that was never ceded.

I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to give evidence here today and for their ongoing work in providing critical oversight of the operation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

I would also like to publicly thank every single person who responded to the call out by Every Australian Counts to provide experiences, ideas and stories for the submission to this inquiry. Our submission and this brief statement summarises those stories and adds some additional commentary based on my own personal experience of running EAC over the last couple of years.

The Committee will see we have seven recommendations in our submission. I will use my brief time here to highlight four issues.

1. The Commission needs to talk more to people with disability and their families

Everyone appreciates that the national approach to both quality and safeguards for disability services is very new. In fact not yet even truly national yet. But it is very clear that many people with disability don’t know the Commission exists or what they do or how their work relates to them. The Commission needs to do much more to explain what they do and how they do it – and its relevance to people’s lives. And it needs to be much more than fact sheets on a website – it needs to get out and talk to people where they are. And in simple plain everyday language that makes sense to them.

2. People feel the Commission is very much weighted to providers

And those that do know that the Commission exists and have made a complaint are frankly not very impressed. We received very few positive stories about interactions with the Commission. The overwhelming feedback we receive is that Commission appears to be “weighted” in favour of providers. People feel that the odds are stacked against people with disability and their families. They do not feel the Commission is “in their corner”. They feel the Commission too often accepts the explanations of service providers without thorough investigation. The leaves people with a terrible “what is the point” feeling. They feel that they go through a tick and flick exercise with very little change as the end result.

3. The Commission needs more tools in its toolbelt

What is clear from the stories and experiences of people in the EAC community is that many people with disability and their families don’t feel the Commission is using the tools it does possess very well. But it is also clear from people’s comments that they believe the Commission needs that needs a more diverse range of options to truly keep people safe as well as improve quality of services.

One of the things that is very striking when you read the stories in the submission is why people decided to complain. Sometimes people complain to get a resolution of an issue for themselves. But more often than not people also complain because they want things to be better for the next person. They want to spare anyone going through what they have gone through. They want things to be better. They want services to improve. They want quality to improve. And that is at the heart of their anger and frustration with the tick and flick approach – that they have been through all of this and in the end nothing much has changed. They feel there is not enough attention paid to the follow up – people want reassurance that what happened to them doesn’t happen again. They want to know that behaviour will change. That policies and procedures will change. That training will improve. Whatever the mechanism – they want things to get better. So they want the Commission to have more options to make that happen – and the ability to check back to make sure it actually does.

One of the most important tools that is missing is who is able to bring a complaint. The entire complaints system relies on individuals being able and willing to make a complaint. So one of the most important changes is to allow third parties or Commission to generate own investigations so that change is not reliant on individuals coming forward. This would move the Commission from just being reactive to proactive.

4. Want to make a plea for putting the work of the Commission into a bigger context

I note that this inquiry was prompted by the horrific circumstances surrounding the death of Ann Marie Smith. Given that I like many other people want and expect those responsible for her death to be held to account will not make further comment about Ann Marie for fear of jeopardising what is still to come.

But like many other people I am increasingly concerned that the response to her death is solely focused on systems.

And that I am afraid is a terrible missed opportunity and won’t really lead to the kind of change we want to see. Because systems alone cannot make sure people with disability are able to lead lives of their choosing, safe and free from violence, abuse or neglect. Rules, regulations, policies and systems – they all have a role to play in keeping people safe. But all the evidence shows that what really keeps people safe is exactly the same thing that makes a good life. Community. Inclusion. Having a job. Going to the local school. Singing in the choir. Being part of something. Having friends. Being missed when you are not there.

I would like to finish by making a plea to the Committee to use this inquiry to go beyond just looking at the role of the Commission to being part of a much bigger national conversation about what it will take to start dismantling the barriers that prevent people from disability from being included in the community and start talking about what we have to do to make sure they have the same opportunities as everyone else.

That’s not just the Commission’s job. That is everyone’s job.

Thank you.

Questions from the Committee

Kirsten also answered many questions from Senators and members of the Committee.

Kirsten told the Committee members just how hard it is and how many steps are necessary for people to make a complaint. And while it is one thing to make a complaint about a service you have stopped using, or plan to stop using, it is quite another thing to make a complaint about a service you are still relying on every day. Particularly if that service is critical to your life – like where you work or where you live. And where the repercussions of making a complaint might be very, very serious.

This inherent power imbalance makes it very difficult for people to complain when they are unhappy. Or worse – when bad things happen to them. And the horrific and tragic death of Ann Marie Smith shows the terrible flaws of a system that relies entirely on individuals coming forward to complain.

Which is why it is so important that the Commission moves from a reactive model to a proactive model. Instead of just waiting for complaints from individuals, the Commission needs to be able to investigate issues that might come to them from a range of ways – from advocates, or from Community Visitors or through their own spot checks of services.

Kirsten also spoke about the critical importance of advocacy in supporting people with disability to understand their rights. And in providing support to people who want to make a complaint. Noting of course how underfunded advocacy is and how many advocacy organisations already have lengthy waiting lists of people desperately needing help.

Comments from the Commissioner

Mr Graeme Head also gave evidence to the Committee. Mr Head is in charge of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

He told the Committee that the Commission is able to take a complaint from anyone. In the last twelve months 30% of complaints came directly from people with disability, 31% from family members and about 18% from support workers or providers. Mr Head did not say how many came from advocates.

He also told the Committee he did not believe the Commission always waited for an individual complaint to act. Mr Head said sometimes during the investigation of one issue or complaint the Commission came across another issue – and then investigated that one as well.

At the moment the Commission had about 170 investigations underway.

Mr Head did agree that the Commission could do much more to make sure the information it provided to people with disability and their families was simpler and easier to understand. And much easier to find on the Commission’s website. He said the Commission was planning a revamp of the website soon.

Want more?

Every Australian Counts submission to the NDIS Joint Standing Committee inquiry into the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission

New inquiry into the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission

Joint Standing Committee on the National Disability Insurance Scheme inquiry into NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission

NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission website

You can list to the public hearing below. The Hansard (transcript) is available from the Parliament website in HTML or PDF format.

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