Jordon Steele-John NDIS Stuart Robert National disability insurance scheme
Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John (Image: AAP/Rohan Thomson)

A joint standing committee inquiry has been launched to address the failings of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) watchdog, the Quality and Safeguards Commission.

It follows revelations the commission is overburdened with complaints and reported incidents — some involving neglect, abuse and sexual assault.

Disability experts say solutions are already available, urging extra funding, more powers and a proactive approach for the commission.

Check-ups and check-ins

One step in addressing the failures of the system is as simple as actively reaching out to people with disabilities, Flinders University professor in disability and community inclusion Sally Robinson told Inq. 

“One of the biggest barriers is that any complaints based system relies on people having access to technology, are able to articulate a complaint, and can independently find out who they can complain to,” she said.

“Regardless of whether you’re complaining to the commission or an ombudsman, you have to have a certain level of capability.”

32% of people with a disability in Australia have a severe or profound disability, needing help with self-care, mobility or communication.

Of those who can reach out, many are reluctant to do so because they’re worried services may be affected by lodging a complaint.

Following the death of SA woman Ann Marie Smith and NSW man David Harris, advocates have called for improved community visitor schemes, with volunteers dropping in to check up on those in care.

But volunteers shouldn’t be the only safeguard — representatives of the commission should be visiting NDIS providers too, advocates argue.

Disability service providers conduct self-assessments which are submitted to the commission. When doing so, providers pick which client experiences to put forward, says disability advocate and former parliamentary adviser Sam Paior

“The ones they check in with are the ones who can speak, which rules out potentially the most vulnerable participants,” Paior told Inq, adding that random surveys and unannounced visits would allow for better representation of clients.

Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie told Inq the commission needed to act as an auditor. 

“The commission needs to be robust and just drop in on providers and demand them to open their books,” she said. 

Greater powers, more resources a key factor

Having issued just 22 ban orders since it was created in 2018, the Quality and Safeguards Commission lacks the power necessary to function as intended, says People with Disability Australia spokeswoman El Gibbs.

“The current commission does not have [powers to protect, investigate and enforce findings], nor the resources to investigate and prevent violence against us,” she said. 

While these powers are important, WA Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John — who is a member of the Senate’s Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS — told Inq they’re “meaningless without resources”.

“The reality of the NDIS itself is that it’s chronically understaffed,” Steele-John said. 

There is a cap of 3000 employees at the National Disability Insurance Agency, despite the body finding that 10,000 staff members are needed to implement the scheme to its full capacity. 

While Steele-John doesn’t believe the commission’s leadership is misplaced, he said a cultural shift was needed. 

“With a commission like this, you need people who understand contextual factors: how organisations cover up, excuse and normalise neglect and abuse,” he said.

“You need to put people with lived experience and with expertise in violence and neglect at the centre.”

None of the nine executives at the commission have disabilities.

Legislation will soon be introduced to allow the commission greater oversight in banning problem workers and service providers from re-registering after they’ve stopped providing NDIS services.

What do the inquiries hope to achieve? 

There have been no media releases and no references to the Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS inquiry on the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission website.

Steele-John said the inquiry hoped to hear from employees at the commission. But while public servants are protected under whistleblower legislation, legislation isn’t everything, Melbourne University senior lecturer Dr Gladys Lee told Inq.

“The culture of an organisation has a lot to do with whether employees report their concerns as well as whether they are well-protected. Whistleblowing is by no means an easy task,” she said. 

“Employees are reluctant to blow the whistle unless an organisation sets the right tone, fosters the right culture, and gives them the assurance, support and the platform to report their concerns.” 

A spokesperson for inquiry chair and Liberal MP, Kevin Andrews, told Inq: “It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee, and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt.”

The spokesperson added the committee “placed extensive information on its website regarding the inquiry, and has written to stakeholders inviting submissions”. 

Meanwhile, the Community and Public Sector Union has placed a submission to the inquiry outlining anonymous staff experiences.

A federal inquiry headed by former Federal Court judge Alan Robertson SC, focusing on the circumstances relating to the death of Ann-Marie Smith, is also underway.

Smith, who had cerebral palsy, died from sepsis earlier this year in South Australia after being left soiled a cane chair by her providers.

Submissions for the inquiry into the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission have closed. Anyone who wants to make a late submission can do so by contacting the secretariat

Peter Fray

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