Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

Child Protection (Working With Children) Amendment (Statutory Review) Bill 2018

Two brothers

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS ( Ku-ring-gai ) ( 11:32 :02 ): I support the Child Protection (Working with Children) Amendment (Statutory Review) Bill 2018. In my youth, I was very fortunate to be engaged in a range of sporting, musical and dramatic activities that brought me into contact with some of the most marvellous and sometimes not so marvellous adult volunteers. The not so marvellous adults were not sexually or otherwise abusive but reflected the great variety of human beings to whom young people should be exposed when growing up. But this bill deals with the sorts of adults to whom young people should not be exposed when growing up.

I have tried to honour the volunteers that I came in contact with as a young person by being active in my children's school and sporting endeavours. By doing so I have come into contact with som e great young people who, by and large, have grown into great young men and women. I hope to have played a small positive part in their having grown up that way. Some of them are basketballers. I have seen kids grow from being tiny five year olds and six y ear olds to become six feet eight inch giants of 110 kilograms plus. When I reflect on that level of growth, the transformation is quite remarkable.

In my professional life as a barrister and solicitor I sometimes came into contact with adults who had been sexually abused as children. I have observed the profound damage that people can suffer for their entire life as a consequence of child sexual assaults. It is in that context that the Minister for Family and Community Services, Minister for Social Housing , and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault ought to be congratulated. As all members know, last year the groundbreaking Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse concluded. The royal commission shone a light on some of the darkest chapters of our history and allowed voices which had previously been silenced to be heard loud and clear. Those voices were a call to action and the New South Wales Government consistently has heeded that call.

This bill tak es another important step along that continuing journey. I am proud to say that the Government has already made several amendments to align the New South Wales working with children check with the royal commission's recommendations. There are only a few re commendations outstanding and ready for inclusion in the New South Wales working with children check. Under proposed new section 6 (1) (a) in item [3] of schedule 1 to the bill, the definition of child-related work will be clarified. The royal commission r ecommended that working with children checks should be required only when direct contract with children is a usual part of and more than incidental to the work. That is so that organisations do not overly or inappropriately rely on working with children ch ecks in isolation without considering what other measures should be put in place. The royal commission recognised that there is a full range of strategies that are necessary to keep children safe. The new definition should go some way towards making sure t hat working with children checks are used only for their intended purpose, so that a balance is struck between the rights of individuals to choose where they work and what kind of work they do and stopping inappropriate people from having the opportunity t o access children through their work.

Proposed new section 5C in item [2] of schedule 1 to the bill adopts a second key recommendation of the royal commission in a clear and comprehensive definition of "criminal history". While the Children's Guardian alre ady considers the full range of an individual's criminal charges and convictions, whatever the outcome, the legislation currently refers to two terms, namely, "criminal history" and "criminal record". To make matters clear, the bill consistently will refer to criminal history as defined in the royal commission's recommended terms. The definition will remove ambiguity and make it clear to applicants that all criminal convictions and charges are taken into account in assessing whether they are suitable to wor k with children, whether those convictions may have been spent, quashed or set aside, or are pardoned, or a charge has been not proven or dismissed. It is by looking at the full picture of a person that the Children's Guardian and the NSW Civil and Adminis trative Tribunal reach a fair and thorough conclusion about a person's risk.

Defining criminal history in the legislation is not only recommended by the royal commission; it is also a measure to enhance procedural fairness for applicants. The royal commiss ion also recommended that parents who volunteer on overnight camps be required to obtain a working with children check. In New South Wales, parents who volunteer to supervise their own children currently are generally exempt from having to obtain a working with children check in recognition of the right of parents to participate in activities with their own children. After careful consideration, the Government has come to the view that a change would recognise the risks of overnight activity and take accoun t of the fact that stakeholders consulted during the statutory review process widely supported this change.

It is clear how the bill is the result of considered listening not only to the royal commission but also to key stakeholders and to the community. T he royal commission recommended that failing to notify a screening agency of relevant changes in circumstances, particularly changes to criminal history, should be an offence. That requirement is already in place in jurisdictions around Australia. The Gove rnment has listened to concerns raised in consultations that suggested such an offence could be unjustifiably punitive and possibly disadvantage vulnerable individuals who, through no fault of their own, simply forgot to update their details with a governm ent department. But the Government is mindful of minimising inefficiencies. Making it an offence for individuals to fail to notify the Children's Guardian of, for example, minor traffic offences, would be an overburden both on individuals and government an d would not necessarily improve child protection outcomes in this State.

A system is already in place for the NSW Police Force to inform the Office of the Children's Guardian of relevant new criminal charges against applicants and holders of working with children checks. This enables the Office of the Children's Guardian to ensure that clearances can be cancelled and applications refused, based on the most current and relevant information. In light of this, the bill introduces a measured offence for failing to notify of changes to personal details only, within three months of the charge and without a reasonable excuse. Again the Government is endeavouring to strike a fair and appropriate balance between overburdening citizens and doing what is needed to protect the most precious members of our community: our children.

The proposed changes have been recommended by the royal commission after careful deliberation. Further, they have been consulted upon widely during the statutory review process and should be welcomed by all. They consolidate the position of the New South Wales working with children check system as the most effective system in Australia and demonstrate this Government's commitment to continuing to improve the system by adopting the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, taking necessary steps towards nationally consistent standards. This is important work. We should never allow a generation of children to be abused as has happened in the past. With each piece of new legislation we incrementally improve the protection for the most vulnerable in our community whilst ensuring that people have the best part of their youth, which is to engage in fruitful and beneficial activities with adults as they themselves learn to become adults and contributing members of our community. I commend the bill to the House.