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Education - Commission of Inquiry

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Tags: Commission of Inquiry, State Budget

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, the commission of inquiry is underway and I would like to hear what actions the department has put in place now; what changes have been to departmental policy around the reporting of abuse and the confidentiality of that process; the assurance that there will be no tampering of any evidence; and especially support of people who make complaints of abuse and sexual harassment?

Ms COURTNEY - Thank you for the question, Dr Woodruff. As the minister, but also as a community member, I am pleased to see the commission of inquiry is getting on with their work. I am looking forward to the recommendations that come from the commission of inquiry. We have a lot of expertise within the people that are involved and I think that is going to be a really critical for the whole community to have confidence in the way we do things.

From a commission of inquiry perspective, as with other departments, we are working hard through Justice, to provide information to the commission of inquiry. I am not waiting until we get the outcomes of the commission of inquiry before we take action. Making sure we implement measures to ensure we have a child-safe place as well as supporting the mechanisms for reporting is critical.

I will ask the secretary to outline the specific things he has undertaken already and is currently undertaking within the department, because this has been a clear focus. The work underway is extensive and some things have already been implemented.

Mr BULLARD - The department wants to be the most child-safe organisation we can be, so we are looking at improvements that can be made in the way we make our organisation safe. We know from the evidence that if abuse is taking place that is too late.

We have established a safeguarding children and young people office which is headed by an executive director reporting directly to me. The role of this person and this team we are establishing is to go through all policies and procedures, all induction, look at how we build our facilities, look at how we deal with some of the behaviour that might be suspect, not always with ill-intent, and ensure that it is dealt with appropriately and quickly.

We have strong policies and guidance already in place for staff in relation to protective practices and appropriate behaviour around children. Our more modern facilities are built to ensure that you can't close a door and not be seen, that you can see a whole corridor full of classes at the same time and that students who are out of class for any reason can be observed. All of those things are improvements but we need to ensure that is universal across the system.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you, that is good to hear. The secretary is taking it very seriously as I expect all departments would.

Minister, yesterday a woman who made a complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace found out that her complaint had been dismissed in public, when the secretary of the State Service released that information. The complainant, who has made a complaint of sexual harassment, assault and bullying, made a comment yesterday:

The harassment and bullying itself is one thing but the process and the gaslighting, minimising and brazenly ignoring which has followed it is equally if not more harmful.

Can you please give confidence to staff working in the Education department and all people working in Education by outlining the process for sexual harassment in the workplace and can you discuss how long it would take? There is a real concern that there is something happening across the State Service. All staff in Education want to be assured that if they make a complaint of sexual harassment they will be believed and it will be acted on and they will be the first to know about the results.

Ms COURTNEY - Thank you for the question, Dr Woodruff. Ensuring that we have robust practices are important for dealing with these complaints. With regard to the processes involved with the department of Education, I am happy for the secretary to comment on those. Any processes undertaken with an employee regarding allegations are dealt with through the department and not my office. I will ask the secretary to provide an update on that.

Mr BULLARD - Thank you for the question, Dr Woodruff. The inquiry you are referring to would be an ED5 inquiry under the State Service Code of Conduct. We take all allegations incredibly seriously. Every allegation that comes through a process and on which I form a reasonable belief that there is a breach of the code of conduct is independently investigated. It is not done internally. An independent investigator undertakes that and the report comes back to me.

When the investigation's under way there is priority to support both employees, because they are both our employees and we owe a duty of care to them. So the person making the allegation is supported as is the person against whom the allegation is made.

Until on the balance of probabilities I consider there is a breach, that person needs to be considered as innocent. The support is universal, so they have access to our employee assistant provider, but we are also very open to paying for individual support whether it be through a private psychologist or a counsellor to ensure that the matter is dealt with respectfully.

They are really serious matters and they are treated with the utmost care and diligence, ensuring that there is natural justice for all parties.