Address to the National Disability Services employment forum 2011

Speech
  • Minister for Employment Participation and Child Care

Hilton Hotel, Sydney

Thank you to National Disability Services [NDS] for having me here today to engage directly with so many providers working hard within our community to improve the lives of Australians with disability.

As you are all aware our Government has an ambitious agenda to prioritise appropriate care, services and support for people with disability - to ensure that they are not left on the margins of our community. And of course employment and employment services play a key role in meeting this aim.

Now obviously with any reform - change often brings mixed views and opinions - but I want to speak to you today about our vision for the disability and employment services sector and my view that it is absolutely fitting that as we introduce more programs to assist the disabled, invest more funding than ever before, we also demand the highest quality service provision.

The Government’s agenda to better address the needs of Australians living with disability is a broad one and a substantial one.

Just recently we’ve seen the Prime Minister successfully negotiate with each State and Territory Government to work together to create our first ever National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Now obviously this is a big project, it is an expensive reform - but it is one we see as critical to ensuring that all Australians with a get the support that they need throughout their life times.

We recognise that the system that currently exists in our country is a haphazard one, a patchwork one - a system that focuses too much on how individuals acquired their disability rather than how much help they need to live with and manage it.

As Minister Macklin said only recently in the Parliament – “the system needs a complete transformation to deliver the kind of care and support the community expects for people with disability.”

And I am proud to be part of a Government that in addition to the announcement of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, is already delivering for people with a disability.

We are doubling the funding we provide to State and Territory Governments who provide integral support services to people with disability.

We have more than tripled the rate of indexation of that funding, so that our investment in services grows faster over time and people with a disability aren’t left wanting as our economy grows and develops.

We have delivered pension increases to people on the Disability Support Pension and Carer Payment. In fact we have increased the maximum rate by around $128 a fortnight for single pensioners and $116 for couples since September 2009, making a real difference for people with a disability and the people who care for them.

As you would all know we are also working to reform the Disability Support Pension to better support people with disability into work wherever possible, because we know that many people with disability want to do more and want to participate in economic life.And of course employment services and access to work is an incredibly important piece of that puzzle.

I know you have heard the Prime Minister speak on many occasions about how important our Government considers paid employment to be and of the independence, dignity and social connectivity that comes with working.

The benefits of having a job would come as no surprise to you. It is well established the impact that employment has on confidence, on happiness on a basic feeling of self worth. What is perhaps less known is just how significant the health risks are for people who are out of work.

In March this year the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in itsAustralian and New Zealand Consensus Statement on the Health Benefits of Workreviewed evidence on health and wellbeing from joblessness.

Shockingly, they found that the health risks of being long-term unemployed are equal to the risks of smoking 10 packs of cigarettes a day.

Young men are 40 times more likely to commit suicide once they’ve been out of work for more than six months.

These findings provide us with more evidence of the critical importance of the work that employment services undertake.

When you consider the further social isolation, financial stress and risk of exclusion and disadvantage that is faced by job seekers with a disability then it is clear how significant the work that you do each and every day to help people living with disability, into work.

This context makes the Government’s continuing commitment to growth and reform of disability employment services so important.

We’re proud of the long history of Labor’s commitment to the rights of people with disability, including their right to work.

The Hawke and then Keating Governments introduced the Disability Services Act 1986 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. Those Governments developed local services for people with disability into an on-going, open employment program.

The Support Wage System, introduced in 1994, was a genuine innovation adding productivity-based wages to the tools available for securing open employment.

The Gillard Government has - I believe - continued that tradition of commitment and reform.

Our historic decision to uncap Disability Employment Services has meant that many more people with disability than ever before are receiving assistance to help them to find and keep a job.

The uncapping of DES in 2010 has seen a 39 per cent increase in the number of job seekers accessing assistance.

This year’s Budget has demonstrated the Government’s continuing and growing commitment to development of the DES program and support for the employment of people with disability.

Over the next four years, our Government will spend over $3 billion dollars in DES.

Quite rightly, DES services are the most highly funded of all Australian Government employment service programs, reflecting the fact that services work with those who face the greatest barriers.

You will be aware that the Budget included significant additional funding for new wage subsidy programs to assist people with disability into employment.

Social enterprises will be eligible for the larger of these wage subsidy programs, for the first time, DES providers will be able to directly refer, support, and count placements of people with disability into the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme.

Through the National Mental Health Strategy access to employment, related mentoring services will be provided as well as for professional development among employment service staff.

The Government has renewed its commitment to productivity based wages with a new payment available to employers that utilise the Support Wage System without employment service support as well as a review SWS to ensure the system is relevant for workers with mental illness.

We have a long standing record of commitment to reform and investment in improving the opportunities for people with disability to find work. And it’s a record we will continue to build upon.

This Budget was an important one for the Employment Participation portfolio.

I recognise that perhaps the most significant decision for many of you was the opening of the Disability Employment Services Employment Support Service program to a substantial competitive tender process. That decision was taken following consultation, which - as expected - found a diversity of views.

The Government is committed to this decision and I am convinced that it was the right decision.

I appreciate that there is a degree of uncertainty and anxiety in response to it.

I know you are deeply committed to the work you do.

Therefore, it is not surprising that some seem offended - feeling that the tender decision in some way questions their long professional history and personal commitment to people with disability.

I’ve expressed on many occasions the appreciation that I have for the work you do.

More importantly, I’ve worked hard to make sure you have more resources to support your work.

Further, the decision to extend the existing contracts for DES-ESS providers, and previous announcements by past Ministers of the intention to have services decided by tender, have given you a great deal of time to plan and prepare for this tender.

The Government has also taken active steps to support providers.

When DES was created, we established a Capacity Building Fund to assist DES-ESS providers performing at 2 stars or below.

More recently, the Department has been working with KPMG to deliver Business Capability Sessions for DES-ESS providers with a rating of 3 stars or below.

You are also being given opportunities to inform the tender process to ensure that it is fair, as well as open and competitive.

An Issues Paper was recently released. A fuller document will be issued next month with a Draft Request for Tender document released early in the New Year.

There are important issues associated with the tender process that will benefit from your input such as the extent to which recent and historic patterns of provider performance are weighted.

How performance is balanced with expertise in working with people with disability or local connections with employers and community services are other matters about which your views are sought.

Some services rely on direct registration rather than an assured share of existing markets.

The Government’s firm view is that people with disability deserve access to the very best possible services.

The work of the Productivity Commission, the recent history of improved outcomes from the introduction of DES show that competition between providers and the use of outcome payments leads to improved effectiveness and efficiency in finding better ways of achieving employment outcomes for job seekers.

DMS providers, whom under DES have delivered the strongest growth in employment outcomes, have been through a comprehensive competitive tender process.

Several providers and peak bodies have pointed to the impact of tendering on service capacity and relationships with employers.

Of course a tender does have a short term cost for both providers and Government. However, the focus of Government is on the medium and longer term.

Stronger services will improve relationships with employers and delivery better outcomes for people with disability.

An open purchasing process also provides an important boost to the credibility of the sector enabling future and further support for a more confident population of service providers.

I believe this decision serves the public interest, will be important for employers and will best serve to advance the rights and interests of people with disability.

Most acutely, I feel the responsibility that I have to job seekers with disability right around the nation who want to know that when they enlist help to enter the labour market - they are going to be given the best quality support in their endeavours. And that is the assurance that this process aims to deliver.

I also recognise of course, that – as is so often put to me - this is a process of both supply and demand.

There is no question that working with employers is another important part of this equation. And that now is exactly the time that we should be grasping the opportunities that economic conditions present to get the results we want to from this.

As we’re aware Australia’s current unemployment rate and projections for the future compare favourably with much of the developed world, who look with envy at our current circumstances.

In fact in many parts of the country we are faced with the opposite dilemma - massive worker shortages and skill shortages.

As many move to take up employment in the resources and other sectors, it provides vacancies elsewhere and vacancies that we need to capitalise on to ensure that no one gets left behind.

I believe we are faced with unique opportunity to assist people with a disability who may have spent many years out of the paid workforce to find a job.

It is critically important to support and encourage employers to take on these job seekers – to give them a chance – and as we all know, then reap the many benefits that come with employing someone with a disability.

I recently released a new survey, which asked employers about their attitudes to hiring someone with a disability.

That survey revealed that small employers and employers who have not used DES may be more resistant to the idea of hiring a person with disability.

It told us that financial incentives can be very effective, particularly for engaging small employers with greater sensitivity to up-front costs. Periodic payments for subsidies were also sought.

In this regard, the forthcoming DES and VLTU Wage subsidies will, I think, provide helpful to getting a person with disability in the door to clear this barrier.

However, without the right person for the job, job outcomes are unlikely to be sustainable long term.

In fact, those who reported dissatisfaction with DES listed the main reasons as being poor job matching and providers not understanding business needs.

Overall, feedback from employers was positive. More than 50 per cent of employers who had used DES rated the service as good or very good. A further 33 per cent rated the service as acceptable.

Generally, employers that have used DES have a more positive attitude toward employing people with disability and in a fairly common sense way – this shows us that the best way to have employers who are open to employing someone with a disability, is for them to have successfully hired someone with a disability before.

It is this first step – getting an employer to realise that it isn’t necessarily more costly or burdensome to hire someone with a disability – it just involves a different route through the hiring process – that is the hardest.

Attitudes can sadly be more entrenched than laws and I know that for some time, many of you have been eager to see a communications campaign that would encourage employers to access the benefits of hiring someone with a disability.

Yesterday saw the launch of a major communications campaign associated with the Building Australia’s Future Workforce package.

As you know, employers seek people who can do the job – that’s how placements last. Therefore, this first phase of the campaign begins with a focus on skills.

Future phases of the campaign will target employers and more specific messages around engaging a diverse workforce – including people with disability - will be a part of that.

Of course, your services engage with employers constantly but to provide additional support the Budget included funding for ten disability employer broker projects.

Labor in Government has a long and proud history of reform to address discrimination, protect rights and support people with disability into work. There are few more important rights than the right to work and sadly that is too often denied to people with disability.

Strong performing employment services are vital to realising the right to work.

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to share the Government’s approach to supporting the employment of people with disability.

I hope that the information I provided today will help you in your invaluable work supporting people with disability. This work is life changing.

And I know we will continue to build on our achievements so far to help more people with disability realise their full potential, in life and in employment.

Thank you.

- Ends -

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