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Estimates - domestic violence and homelessness

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Scott Ludlam 4 Jun 2015

Senator Ludlam speaks to the Department of Social Services about Homelessness and domestic violence, including crisis accommodation and front line services.

Senator LUDLAM: I want to go to a couple of questions relating to women and kids fleeing domestic violence, which I believe is still the largest single cause of homelessness. How will the minister's direction that the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness funding will be focused on domestic violence be implemented? It seems like a sensible direction, but let's go to how you intend to do that.

Mr Scott: The Commonwealth funds the structure of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness to $115 million per year, which is then matched by the states and territories. The states and territories then have the responsibility to identify area service providers and geographic footprint for service delivery. As you have pointed out, in announcing the new two-year homelessness agreement, Minister Morrison identified as two priority areas homelessness arising from domestic and family violence, and youth homelessness. We are currently in negotiations with the states on the new agreement, including how that particular aspect of the Commonwealth's commitment will be implemented. We are proposing that at least 50 per cent of Commonwealth funding be prioritised to servicing those client groups.

Senator LUDLAM: And you are discussing with the states how they carve up?

Mr Scott: We are currently in negotiations with states about the agreement. The way we would envisage that it would be implemented is that, under the partnership agreement, a detailed project plan has to be developed and implemented, and those project plans include an indication of providers' funding and types of services that have been delivered. It would be through those project plans that we would monitor the implementation of the prioritisation.

Senator LUDLAM: Do those plans come in from the states and territories one at a time? Are they on deadline?

Mr Scott: Again, we still under negotiation with jurisdictions, but we are proposing for a broad strategic overview of their plans to be lodged with us by 1 July, and more detailed project plans to be finalised with us by 1 September. We are looking at adopting that approach for this two-year agreement on the basis that (1) it is a two-year agreement and (2) some jurisdictions are interested, and, given that it is a longer time frame, they are wanting to look at their service delivery footprint and services, and that gives them additional time to be able to go through procurement processes and what have you.

Senator LUDLAM: Do those draft plans that are submitted to you and the final ones that come on 1 September end up being public documents, either at the state end or when they are lodged with you?

Mr Thomas: It is proposed that the project plans be published on the federal financial relations website with commercial-in-confidence information redacted.

Senator LUDLAM: That would presumably be when they are in their final form in September rather than in draft documents in July?

Mr Scott: No, that is right.

Senator LUDLAM: Would you propose that the draft documents that are lodged with you in July are subject to any kind of consultation or review by those in the sector, or do you leave that to the states and territories to do?

Mr Scott: This goes to the primacy of states and territories in the homelessness service delivery space. Yes— they will have the interactions with service providers, and our experience is that a number of them, if not most of them in fact, have quite well established forums and engagement with their service providers.

Senator LUDLAM: The states are responsible for more direct delivery of services, but obviously they look to the Commonwealth's taxing powers to provide a lot of funds—not all, but a lot. In the 2014-15 budget, the $44 million capital program for new homeless and domestic violence shelters was cut. It has not been reinstated in the 2015-16 budget that I am aware of. What was the basis for cutting that funding? Who made that decision, and on what grounds was it made?

Mr Thomas: In the context of the 2014-15 agreement, it was determined that the agreement would focus on service delivery

Senator LUDLAM: That is the practical impact. It does not go to your understanding of who made that decision and on what grounds it made—to not provide for any further expansion of shelters for people fleeing domestic violence or finding themselves homeless.

Mr Pratt: That was a government decision in the previous budget.

Senator LUDLAM: It was, and presumably it was a government decision to not reinstate that funding. I might properly direct this question to you, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, if that is appropriate.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: Remember that when we came into government, there had been no provisions made. Funding had been cut, and we extended these agreements for two years.

Mr Pratt: One year in the first instance.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: One year in the first instance—thank you, Mr Pratt—and then again. I want to make very clear that we have given priority to front-line services and the need for front-line services to continue. Given what we inherited, we have made sure that front-line services were continued, and that was the decision we made as the government.

Senator LUDLAM: We will not know whether a Labor government would have continued to fund the capital projects, the new shelters.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: I think we do know because—

Senator LUDLAM: But we don't, because they didn't deliver the budget, you did.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: they made no provision in the forward estimates for funding.

Senator LUDLAM: But that is reasonably common. I do not think it is fair to say that it did not exist, because they were not given the opportunity to hand a budget down.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: When I read forward estimates, I read into forward estimates the intention of a government to do not do something. We inherited a situation where the funding was going to cease. To me, that indicated a clear intention by the previous government not to pursue funding in this space. We came into government and we chose to ensure that front-line services were continued, and that was the decision that we made.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay, I am getting time-checked by the chair, so I will move this—

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: I am just making the point, Senator Ludlam, because your assertions were incorrect, and I am correcting them.

CHAIR: Thank you—I think your point is well made.

Senator LUDLAM: Let us move towards this government rather than rehashing the previous government. I am actually much more interested in what happens next.

Mr Scott: Could I also point out that under the National Affordable Housing Agreement there is also a $260 million element that is for homelessness, and that is available for capital use as well. So the Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, yes, is one important contribution the Commonwealth makes, but the funding under NAHA is also relevant here.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. I am happy to take this on the basis of what you inherited and where you see it now, if we are looking at what occurred upon the change of government and where this government is taking this portfolio. What is the measure of the current gap for service shortfall for domestic violence shelters and shelters for others seeking emergency accommodation for whatever reason? Let's talk about the present day.

Mr Scott: We do not have that information available. I am thinking that this might be better discussed with Family Safety—

Mr Pratt: We will check whether or not they have information in this area. In terms of your question, we know that currently about a third of services provided by the homelessness services funded through NPAH go to women and children who are fleeing family or domestic violence. Colleagues have identified that the government is seeking to increase the priority placed on that type of servicing in the two-year agreement from July. I think you can take from that there is a recognition that this is an incredibly important area; it is already heavily resourced and is being further resourced as a result of recent government decisions.

Senator LUDLAM: I am trying to get a sense, and a sense with some data would be really appreciated, of the gap between what is being provided and what is actually needed. I would have thought it would be well within your domain to be able to tell me, for example, about turn-away rates. How many women fleeing domestic violence turn up at a shelter—assuming that they know that it is there—and are told that they cannot be assisted at that particular time? That would give us some idea of the scale of need, I would have thought.

Mr Pratt: This may be information we can get from the report on government services, so we will take that on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: Women who are older and living alone will be poorer than men of the same—

Mr Pratt: Sorry to interrupt. We do apparently have that information.

Senator LUDLAM: If there is a fair bit there, do you want to just table that for us?

Mr Scott: The principal bit of data I can report to you is from the AIHW Specialist Homelessness Services, where the reports suggests that in the order of about 420 requests for services are not met daily. That is not specific to domestic violence—that is overall.

Senator LUDLAM: I might put this on notice, to the minister. Does the government intend to close that gap and meet that unmet need; and, if so, what time frame do you have in mind? Have you set any targets? Do you intend to set any targets?

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: The extension of the funding certainly is in relation to providing certainty in future funding arrangements. But let us not forget that we do have on foot a series of considerations and, in particular, the white paper on the reform of the Federation, which does have the housing and homelessness component. So that is where we are coming from.

Senator LUDLAM: I understand that. I am checking whether you heard the question I just put to you about whether the government has any targets for the 400, or thereabouts, turned away every day. We could pause if you like and imagine what that statistic actually looks like in real life—the circumstances that these women are fleeing. Does the government have any intention to set any time lines or targets for reducing the number of people turned away?

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: I will take that on notice and refer that to the minister and give you a response.

Senator LUDLAM: My final question—and thank you for that, and for the chair's patience as well—is a little more general. Women who were older and living alone will be poorer than men of equivalent age. They will be less able to maintain home ownership and also less able to compete in the private rental market for affordable accommodation. It is now I think reasonably well established that older women who were living alone will be less well-off, less wealthy than men of their age, unless able to retain home ownership or compete in the private rental market. I wonder whether the government has a strategy to deal with that problem and whether you have any data on the profile of women accessing homelessness services. For example, is it changing in line with that general trend of older women simply not being able to compete for private rentals or home ownership?

Mr Pratt: I think we would want to take that on notice.

Mr Scott: On the broader question, yes, I can report that just in terms of the basic demographic data, again under the specialist homelessness services, around seven per cent of clients were 55 years or over.

Senator LUDLAM: I would be interested in anything you can provide us about trends but, more importantly, what the Australian government actually intends to do about that, because I think it is reasonably well understood that that is what is happening.

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