Mr GEPP (Northern Victoria) (17:48): I rise today to speak on this very important bill, the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Regulation of Student Accommodation) Bill 2020. It is so very nice to be in the chamber when everybody is speaking positively about a bill—where we are all as one. It brings out the best, I think, in this place when we can come together as a Parliament and focus on a bill that is going to do such fundamental good in our society. As so many speakers have already said in this debate so far, there is nothing more precious in our community or in our society than our children. A sacred trust exists between children and adults, and in that equation we must always protect those children as best we possibly can. Proudly this bill aims to achieve that.
The bill amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 to expand the regulatory powers of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, the VRQA, to register and regulate Victorian school boarding premises. The registration and regulation of those school boarding premises are intended to ensure, as I say, that they are child safe environments. The bill will amend the act to expand the powers, as others have said, of the VRQA to regulate those school boarding premises. It will require, importantly, the registration of school boarding premises with the VRQA. It will also prescribe and enable the regulations to further prescribe minimum standards for the registration of school boarding premises, including in relation to Victorian child safe standards in accordance with a ministerial order for managing the risk of child abuse under this act. It will also set out processes for reviewing the compliance of school boarding premises with the prescribed minimum standards for registration, and most importantly, it will provide the VRQA with the necessary compliance and enforcement powers to ensure those school boarding premises satisfy the minimum standards for the registration.
But why do we need these standards? As Dr Bach alluded to, I too was very surprised to learn that in fact there are no government regulators that directly monitor the compliance of school boarding premises with the Victorian child safe standards. You would think in 2020: how could that be? If that alone were the reason for this bill, then it should be warmly received by everybody in this place.
The regulation of boarding schools for compliance with those standards was of course a recommendation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The royal commission identified boarding schools as a particularly high-risk environment for students, and in Victoria some school boarding premises have been the site, as we know, of some terrible, terrible, terrible historic cases of child sexual abuse.
I might just touch a little bit on those recommendations from the royal commission. It is important, I think, that we remind ourselves of why we do some of the things in this place that we do—of the important reasons as to why we do them. The regulation of boarding schools for compliance with these standards was a recommendation, as I said, of the royal commission, and it did identify some of the boarding school environments as having some of the worst historic cases of abuse. In its final report the commission found that the proportion of kids who informed the royal commission about sexual abuse in boarding schools was relatively large given that only a small proportion of schoolchildren go to boarding schools. So think about that—a large proportion of the small cohort that actually go to boarding schools informed the royal commission about sexual abuse in those environments.
The royal commission also identified a number of situational factors placing boarding school students at a much higher risk: the closed nature of the boarding schools, of course, after everybody else has got home; the power imbalance between, as I said at the beginning of my speech, adults and kids created by the dependence of the children on the adults to meet their needs; the unsupervised contact, as Dr Bach has talked about; the level of authority over the children; and the prioritisation of reputation over the risk of child sexual abuse. So is it any wonder that today we find ourselves dealing with this very, very important piece of legislation? We have known since the end of 2017 that there has been a particular issue, a particular problem; that a group of kids are at particularly high risk.
I know for constituents of mine in Northern Victoria Region—I can see Ms Maxwell in the chamber; she shares the electorate with me—many do send their children to boarding school. As much as we want to provide the environment for those children to be safe in that boarding school environment, we also want the parents of those kids to know when they are sending their kids to those boarding school premises and into those environments for long periods of time—where the only adult supervision the children have is the supervision provided by the school in the boarding premises—that they are well cared for, that there are standards in place which those schools have to adhere to and that the parents and the children can feel comfortable that there is somebody who is watching out for them, independent from that environment, who has the power to do something about the circumstances.
I talked a little bit at the beginning about the powers of the VRQA, and they are very important. There is no point putting these things in place if we then cannot ensure that there is compliance and enforcement around those new powers. What this bill will provide the VRQA with are powers to take action against the registration of a school boarding premises for non-compliance with the prescribed minimum standards for registration.
Some of these powers include: imposing interim conditions on the registration of the premises before completing a review; imposing conditions on the registration of the premises in other circumstances after completing a review; prohibiting the premises from accepting any new boarders; and requiring the provider—and this is of course where the provider of the boarding school does not comply with the minimum standards—to report on non-compliance to the parents of boarders at the premises. So if they fail, then that premises is required to tell all of the parents of all of the kids in that environment of their failure to meet the standards so that the parents may choose to take action themselves as well.
For non-compliance with minimum standards there will also be the acceptance of an enforceable undertaking by the provider on any matter in relation to which the VRQA has a power or function under the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 or any matter relating to non-compliance with the prescribed minimum standard for registration, and of course the VRQA can also suspend or cancel the registration of the school boarding premises. The VRQA must satisfy itself that the proposed action is in the interest of the boarders at the premises or it is in the public interest to take that action, and before the VRQA decides to take that action the provider of the school boarding services will be able to make submissions to the VRQA and to the minister to show cause as to why any action proposed by the VRQA should not be taken. So there are checks and balances in the system. There is a power for compliance. There is a power for enforcement, one that will be monitored and indeed used by the relevant authorities.
I will take just a couple of quick minutes, if I might, to go through the implementation process for the bill. The amendments to the act and regulations will commence by term 1 of 2021. On commencement, existing school boarding premises will be automatically registered with the VRQA and will remain registered if the provider gives to VRQA within three months of commencement, one, a self-assessment of the compliance of the premises with the prescribed minimum standards for registration in the act and regulations and, two, most importantly, a statutory declaration that the self-assessment is true and correct. So they can provide the self-assessment, but they then must also provide that statutory declaration to confirm that it is true and correct.
If the provider does not submit an assessment with a stat dec, the VRQA may review the school boarding premises against the prescribed minimum standards and the VRQA will then determine the registration status of the premises. So it is going to be in the interests of those organisations to do that and to ensure compliance by the commencement of term 1, 2021. New school boarding premises which are proposed to start providing services after commencement of term 1, 2021 will also be required to provide the VRQA with full documentation demonstrating that the premises and services meet the prescribed minimum standards for registration under the act and under the regulations. So there are checks and balances throughout this bill.
It is a very timely bill. It does respond to the royal commission, as I mentioned earlier in my speech. I want to congratulate members for all of the wonderful speeches that have been made in this place today and in the other place in support of a very, very important piece of public policy. I commend the bill to the house.