The below opinion piece appeared in The Australian on 11 October 2016: 

Cracking down on crooked child carers

Many Australian parents choose family day care for its flexible hours of operation, home-like environment and to keep siblings together. Which is why the rorting of this system by some operators has been so concerning – concerning to the Turnbull Government, the States and Territories, to honest, high quality family day care educators and to taxpayers.

We all have a role to play in ensuring the important work family day care provides is of a high quality, that it supports children and uses taxpayer funding for the right reasons.

Over the past three years the Coalition has acted. Some have criticised this action but there is no question it has strengthened the sector and empowered those genuine, high quality services. But there is clearly more to do.

The facts and figures from public reports over the years have been repeated in the media again recently and call attention to the loopholes and flaws that have existed; loopholes and flaws that the Coalition has actively been closing since 2013.

We’ve been closing those loopholes as quickly as we find them but we are partners in this process and it is up to the states and territories to fulfil their responsibilities as the level of government primarily responsible for regulating child care providers to ensure quality and compliance. 

Each dollar that is rorted from the system is a dollar of waste that our budget simply can't sustain when we are already stretching to find every dollar possible to ensure that children are well prepared for the start of their educational journey.

Since the original reports of child care fraud following Labor reducing the number of compliance checks to 523 in 2012/13, we’ve implemented dozens of measures and crackdowns – stopping ‘child swapping’ where child carers could get paid to look after each other’s kids, improving transparency in claims for payments, ensuring services tell regulators when their staff have committed serious offences and preventing payments going out the door for ‘imaginary children’.  

They are just a handful of the actions we have taken and while some of them sound basic, the compliance system was littered with holes like Swiss cheese. 

The compliance surge overseen by the Turnbull Government has resulted in the arrest of 16 people, the seizure of over $8 million, more than 3,100 compliance checks, enforcement action taken against 109 services and our hard work to shut the loopholes has stopped around $421 million going to rorters. Having increased compliance checks by 500 per cent during our time in office, we have been using all the intelligence available to us to zero in on the fraudulent operators. And we will continue to do so.

In fact, just yesterday even further rules came into effect that we expect will save another $27 million.  It is not acceptable to claim a session of care for only picking a child up from school and taking them home.  It is not acceptable to claim subsidies when the parent is in the same premises as the child. And it is not acceptable for an operator to withhold key information about significant incidents among educators that might make them unsuitable to look after children.

While all of these things have been expected all along, it sadly now needs to be spelt out in black and white so that an element of our society no longer flouts expectations.

Since July, the Commonwealth has suspended or cancelled over 30 services, none of which had received their initial service applications approved by the Commonwealth until they were approved by the states.

While this paints a concerning picture, we must remember these services are the exception, not the rule and while we will continue to introduce needed compliance measures, we must acknowledge the many high-quality family care services.

Having said that, the rorters have had it too good for too long and some states and territories fell down on the job.

On top of the work we have done so far, I have asked my Department to work with states and territories to explore any ideas or data that the Commonwealth can provide to assist them to better target their assessment of services. At the last Education Council meeting, the country’s education ministers agreed to come back together to work through some of the remaining options to address fraud and systemic issues in the child care sector, particularly in family day care. I expect this advice to be available by the end of the year.

All these changes will go some way to addressing the risks. But we recognise more needs to be done to fix the weaknesses in the system. That’s why we have introduced legislation to the Federal Parliament to comprehensively reform the child care system.

Our Jobs for Families package not only better targets child care assistance to families working the hardest but earning the least, it also includes provisions to allow the Turnbull Government to place a pause on new Family Day Care applications where there is an oversupply and non-compliance. This legislation is imperative to ensuring we have the powers we need to block providers from fraudulently claiming funding in the future. The new IT system linked to Jobs for Families will also ensure that fraud and non-compliance is easier to detect.

Access to affordable, high-quality child care is crucial to early learning and education, encouraging parents back into the workforce and a fundamental driver of our economy. Stopping unscrupulous operators from manipulating the system is a critical priority. The sooner we can implement our plan the better.