Ms Patten(Northern Metropolitan) — I rise to speak on the Rooming House Operators Bill 2015, which seeks to introduce a licensing scheme for rooming house operators in Victoria. I am very supportive of the notion of a licensing scheme. I think it is well overdue. Listening to the contributions to this debate from Ms Lovell and Mr Elasmar certainly highlighted some of the issues with such an unregulated industry.
I am very supportive of a licensing scheme, particularly because this is an industry that frequently involves very vulnerable people, and we want to ensure their safety. Accountability in that area is paramount. However, there are sections in the disqualification criteria that I just cannot in good conscience support, so I cannot support this bill without some amendments, which I will speak to in a moment.
The clause I have great concern with is clause 17, which contains the criteria for disqualification. These are the criteria that outline who would be disqualified from holding a rooming house licence. I find that this clause is incredibly broad. I do not believe that these offences have been appropriately scoped or that they do not reflect minor or trivial offences. It has been worded very broadly.
My particular concern in the bill is that a person who has worked as a street sex worker maybe seven to nine years ago, who has since undertaken significant changes in their life, cannot now obtain a rooming operators licence. So this is how small offences are treated, where we are ignoring some more serious offences. There is actually a rooming house in Western Australia that is run by a former street worker for street workers. Under this licensing scheme, as it stands today, that woman would be disqualified from having a licence to run a rooming house or some sort of house that would help sex workers possibly trying to leave the industry.
Mr Ondarchie — Acting President, I suspect that the Andrews-Jennings government thinks the Rooming House Operators Bill 2015 is a very important bit of legislation, and the state of the house indicates that there are not enough members here to actually form the quorum. I am sure Ms Patten feels that she is making a very important contribution. I draw your attention to the state of the house.
Ms PATTEN — I thank Mr Ondarchie for bringing me an audience. In the disqualification criteria, the term ‘sex offence’ is so broad that it is to include people who have been convicted for working as street sex workers. I find this entirely unnecessary, and I think it sets a dangerous precedent to people who may have worked as street sex workers. Generally speaking, people who are working as street sex workers are doing it most likely for a drug-related issue. They are most likely doing it to feed a drug habit. When someone comes out of that situation and starts to make their life good, to have doors closed such as this is completely unnecessary. I do not think precluding people who have been convicted of street sex work makes rooming houses any better run, and I feel that this is disingenuous.
There was a suggestion from the government that exempting these people from the disqualifying criteria would result in people who have a record of not complying with the law of the state being given the state’s permission to run a business that is likely to be the accommodation option of last resort for vulnerable persons. Where are the repeat driving offences? Where are the people who got done for drink-driving two or three times, who have obviously been ignoring legislation and who have got convictions? They are not being precluded from having a rooming house licence. Where are the people who have been done for the neglect of children, or who have been done for the neglect of the elderly? They are not being precluded or excluded from holding a licence. Many people who have committed crimes are not going to be excluded from holding a licence. I think it is very wrong to include in this disqualification criteria the offence of having been a street sex worker. It is not about being a street sex worker now. It is not about someone who is currently in that occupation. The restriction relates to someone who was a street sex worker eight or nine years ago.
There are many professions that deal with vulnerable people, not just rooming house licence-holders — lawyers, doctors, social workers, a whole bunch of professions. Being a street sex worker would not preclude you from being a doctor. It would not preclude you from being a lawyer. It would not preclude you from being a police officer. But under this legislation it will preclude you from being a rooming house operator. I think this sets a dangerous precedent. If we are going to start making broad disqualification criteria like this in this piece of legislation, I imagine that this will continue into other pieces of legislation, and I find this of great concern. A criminal record should be taken into account and it is taken into account in the professions that I just mentioned — lawyers, doctors, social workers — but this is not done without flexibility. Criminal records are considered, but it is not as black and white or hard and fast as this legislation is.
In fact in some circumstances when you are dealing with vulnerable people, actually having some experience and maybe a criminal past is seen as a benefit. I go back to the example of the sex worker running an accommodation facility for people trying to get out of the sex industry in WA. It is her experience as a sex worker that is enabling her to act compassionately and to understand the needs of those sex workers who are looking for a place to live so that they can get out of that industry and start looking at a new life.
I feel that the construction of this provision is sloppy. It is moralistic. It is too broad and it will inevitably target and capture the wrong people. When you talk about sex offences in this provision, not only are we talking about someone who nine years ago may have acted as a street sex worker and may have been convicted of being one. What about the university student who does the nudie run and gets caught and convicted? They do their streaking during O Week or their final week, they get picked up by the police and convicted of that crime. They will also miss out on being an operator of a rooming house. This section is far too broad.
I will be talking more to my amendments, which I think narrow this provision and tighten it to achieve the intentions behind this legislation — to ensure that people operating rooming houses are responsible, reliable, good people. I believe my amendments enable that without going as far and as broad as the bill currently does.
I also have great concern — and this was also raised with me by the Rooming House Operators Association — that there is absolutely no ability to appeal a decision of disqualification. Clause 32 of the bill reads in part that:
… if VCAT is satisfied that —
(a) a relevant person —
(1) meets any of the licence disqualification criteria or renewal disqualification criteria —
the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) must make an order cancelling the licence. VCAT has absolutely no discretion to take into account offences that might have happened a long time ago, or the circumstances in which the applicant found themselves at the time or life changes that have occurred. VCAT has absolutely no room to move. I received an email from the Registered Accommodation Association of Victoria relating back to the debate in the other house on this bill, which states:
Government speakers referred to the ability for an appeal mechanism being available through VCAT … The misconception being promoted is ‘if people feel aggrieved, if they feel that they have not been treated rightly … they have the ability to go to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal … and having a decision reviewed’.
This is inaccurate. There is no opportunity to appeal the disqualification decision at VCAT as there is no process of appeal apart from an ‘error of fact’ … The act does not allow for any regard to be had for the seriousness of the offence, the compliance history of the registered rooming house operator and any overriding public interest, such as the consequences for the tenants.
It is one strike and you are out — absolutely no questions asked. Someone might commit an offence that would come under the licence disqualification criteria of clause 17 or clause 18 and there are no questions asked — you are out. There is no discretion and there is no fair appeals process that would allow consideration of the circumstances. The government has said that this is to stop people clogging up the system with endless appeals. We need to have a fair and just system. Appeals are part of a fair and just system, and this bill does not provide for them.
The bill is unlikely to impact on organised crime syndicates. We have been told that this bill is to try to close down and prevent organised crime from being involved in rooming houses, and we all support that objective. But instead we may be capturing vulnerable individuals with previous histories, who may very well have been exploited by those same criminal syndicates that we are trying to exclude. We may be talking about the victims of those syndicates.
I plan to move four amendments to this bill. The main amendment is a very simple one. Before I speak to it, I would like to thank my colleague Ms Springle who helped me with it. Effectively it will amend the wording of clauses 17(1)(a) and 18(1)(a), which list the disqualification criteria for licences. Currently they read very broadly. Members who are interested can have a look at that.
What we have asked to do is amend the bill so that it will say that the following are the licence disqualification criteria: an offence involving fraud or an offence involving dishonesty, drug cultivation or trafficking, sexual slavery or servitude, child pornography or violence, a sexual offence or an offence against sections 5(1), 6(1), 7(1), 8(1), 9(1) or 11(1) of the Sex Work Act 1994 for which the person was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three months or more, or an offence that, if committed in Victoria, would constitute an offence referred to in subparagraphs (i) or (ii).
What this does is pull out the serious offences in the Sex Work Act, those being causing or inducing a child to take part in sex work, obtaining payment for sexual services provided by a child, agreement for provision of sexual services by a child, forcing a person into or to remain in sex work, forcing a person to provide financial support out of sex work and allowing a child to take part in sex work. All are very serious offences that I agree should disqualify someone from holding a rooming operator licence. However, what this amendment does is, in effect, pull out the offence of being a sex worker. I think this is quite right.
As I have said previously, there are many crimes that are not going to preclude you or disqualify you from having a rooming house. There are many crimes on our statute book that are not going to disqualify you, and I do not think that having been a sex worker eight or nine years ago should exclude you from moving on and possibly becoming a rooming house operator. I think this amendment reflects what we are trying to do. We do not want to stop former sex workers from moving on in their life in any way.
In closing, I think this would clean up the disqualifying criteria section. I believe that a fair and appropriate licensing system will clean up this industry, and I think this is very important. I do not want, however, this very small section of people to be disqualified from this for something they did in their life. Like the government and the opposition, I am supportive of a licensing system that will help regulate this industry, lessen the number of exploitative groups, improve the services that are available in rooming houses, improve the accommodation and ensure that people are not being financially exploited in these houses. However, I believe that the disqualification criteria was made overly broad, and for that reason I commend my amendments to the house.