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Injury Prevention & Rehab Bill 2nd Reading

5 September 2001

Speech by Sue Bradford on the Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation Bill Second Reading

Mr Speaker

This Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation Bill which we're dealing with this afternoon marks the second round of the reforms of ACC begun by this Government when it first came to office nearly two years ago now. There is no question that ACC needs reforming.

As I imagine is the case with most, if not all other MPs in this House, a large proportion of the complaints and grievances that come to us inside and outside Parliament arise from the dealings of ordinary citizens with the ACC.

Whether it's self employed people harassed for what seem like extraordinary sums of money to cover their ACC liability or whether it's long term claimants who have been hounded over a protracted period to get themselves off earnings related compensation, or a whole myriad of other problems, it is certainly well past time that the Accident Compensation Corporation underwent a major shift in culture and practice.

This Bill begins the process, and not before time. Hearing submissions during the Select Committee proceedings has been one of the most gruelling experiences I've been through since coming to Parliament. A number of submitters, particularly those who have suffered through various permutations of work capacity testing and subsequent health and economic disasters, gave moving and ample testimony to the realities of life as an ACC recipient in the new millennium.

Just today I've received yet another letter from a chap in Hawkes Bay desperate for help in dealing with the attitude of the Hastings ACC towards claimants. This culture of denial, persecution and bullying which permeates some parts of the Corporation has got to end.

So the big question many people will be asking about this Bill, is how much will things really change once it goes through - and how fast will this change happen? I don't know all the answers to this as so much lies in the hands of ACC management and staff, way beyond the influence of non Government MPs and Select Committees.

However, what some of us, including Government and Green Party members have tried to do with this Bill is to make at least some substantial structural improvements to a system that was fast evolving into a kind of brutal nightmare.

>From our point of view, some of the key positive changes which this second round of ACC legislation brings forward include firstly, a mandate to develop a code of claimants' rights. This is a necessary step towards bringing the concept of accountability to injured workers, surely the key and primary stakeholder in this whole process, to the forefront of the Corporation's thinking.

This Bill not only calls for a Code of Claimants' Rights to be developed as quickly as possible after its introduction with a wide public consultation process, but also as a result of submissions we heard, the Select Committee decided to strengthen the situation for claimants whose rights have been breached. If it's not explicit that there must be consequences for ACC if it breaks the new Code, then of course it will just be a meaningless piece of paper, not what we want at all.

And behind the Code of Claimants Rights, the Green Party also believes that advocacy groups who work to defend and promote the rights of people on ACC should receive assistance from the Corporation to help with their day to day work, including financial support.

It is ironic that while for years we have had a situation where the Department of Social Welfare and its successors through mechanisms such as the Community Funding Agency have been able to help fund advocacy groups assisting beneficiaries, at the same time there has been no avenue of support through ACC despite the fact that taking on ACC cases has to be one of the hardest jobs welfare advocates ever undertake.

I will be putting forward an amendment to this Bill, proposing that to assist ACC in the effective and fair delivery of its services, the Corporation should be willing and able to at least provide partial assistance to some of the groups who carry out advocacy work on behalf of ACC claimants.

Another major positive shift with this Bill is in the area of work capacity testing. While this legislation will go nowhere near far enough in addressing some of the very real problems with the current system, at the same time it has made some progress, particularly towards recognising that there must be a holistic approach to assessing peoples needs, not based on a rigid assessment of their work injury but of their whole health and life situation - and alongside that there is a recognition that rehabilitation targets must be fair and realistic.

In the slightly longer term what's really needed here is a serious look by Government at the concept of a permanent pension. While this idea may be anathema to some in this House, for others of us this is the only compassionate and longterm answer to the problem of what to do in the case of people who suffer injury for which they receive earnings related compensation, and who are never able to work again. After all, the Woodhouse Report recommended that any compensation scheme must include permanent pensions for partial disability in recognition of the loss of earning capacity and for loss of bodily functions. And while we applaud the return of lump sum compensation, at least in a limited scope, we continue to believe that longterm we need to research and develop adequate policy which can cover the gaps between our accident compensation, work and welfare systems.

Is it fair that in our so-called fair society people should just wake up one morning and find themselves assigned to the scrap heap of the dole or the invalids benefit regardless of the reality of their individual circumstances, health or local job markets? That is what happens right now, and it's not good enough.

We need to find a middle road in which those few people who are permanently incapacitated for employment are able to remain on a fair rate of compensation until they reach the age of eligibility for national superannuation, without being badgered at every turn by work capacity tests and compulsory removal of to the purview of Department of Work and Income.

The Green Party will be putting forward an amendment during the committee stages of this Bill requiring the Government to make a serious examination of the options around permanent pension within the next two years.

I hope that the Labour and Alliance parties, if not others, will look seriously at this SOP of ours - it will not necessarily commit any Government to anything, but what its passing would do would be to at least guarantee a full examination of all the problems around permanent incapacity before too much more time goes by.

Another priority area for the Green Party in relation to ACC has been around finding ways to address the problems which arise around the definition of gradual process injuries and occupational diseases. Through the process of this Bill, and like a number of submitters including the Council of Trade Unions, we have called for the establishment of an expert panel which will be able to provide the Minister with advice on these issues, reviewing diagnostic procedures and criteria for determining acceptance of gradual process and work related disease and infection claims.

Ongoing research continues to reveal new links between chemicals, toxins and conditions in workplace environments which have a direct causal relationship with illness and disease. We believe that it is important that if evidence is found of such causal relationships, that the ACC can act quickly to ensure ill workers are able to access treatment, compensation and rehabilitation as soon as possible.

The diagnosis of gradual process injuries such as OOS has not been easy, and has at times been a highly contentious issue. Some ACC recipients have been deeply traumatised by having to wait for protracted periods before receiving any recognition of the justice of their claims, or compensation.

The Green Party believes that ACC would be better able to meet its functions and duties as outlined in this Bill, if it were to be assisted by a skilled and knowledgeable panel to make rapid, accurate and updated diagnoses of new gradual process and occupational disease claims, and we will be moving an SOP to this effect during the Committee stages.

In conclusion, I'd just like to add that while we will be putting forward these and other amendments to the Bill over the coming days of debate, the Green Party does applaud the overall direction the Government is beginning to take in this area. We support the moves to making injury prevention the primary function of ACC, towards things like more flexible products for the self employed, and towards better protection for claimants in all sorts of ways.

My plea is that we go beyond the legislation and the words, and towards a radical culture shift in which ACC will become truly accountable not just to its Government master but also to all the people it serves.

ends


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