Mr NORTHE (Morwell) — It gives me pleasure to rise this afternoon to speak on the Rooming House Operators Bill 2015. Might I say at the outset that we have only just been provided with the amendments that have been circulated, so the coalition will consider those during the course of the sitting week. Obviously we have not had time to look through them. Nonetheless, the rooming house industry has had quite a chequered history over the past decade. It has had some interesting publicity over a period of time going back to 2006, when we had the unfortunate circumstance where two people, Christopher Giorgi and Leigh Sinclair, lost their lives in a rooming house fire in Brunswick. It was a terrible event, and as legislators we must do all we can to ensure that we provide protection for tenants in making sure that the standards in rooming houses are adequate. Subsequent to that awful event there has been a lot of activity. Quite rightly there was a coronial inquest into those deaths. We had the establishment of the rooming house standards task force by the Labor government in 2009, which was chaired by the member for Albert Park, now the Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing, who has just disappeared. There have also been some substantial changes to the legislation and the standards over that period of time as well. I think the bill’s explanatory memorandum gives a pretty good overview of what the bill seeks to do — that is, to improve the operation of rooming houses by establishing a licensing scheme for rooming house operators. This is to be administered by the Business Licensing Authority and monitored by the director of Consumer Affairs Victoria. Currently there is no law regulating who can and cannot operate a rooming house. The intention is that once this bill comes into operation, in order to operate a rooming house legally in Victoria an individual or eligible corporate entity will need to apply for and be granted a licence to operate a rooming house as well as meeting other existing legal requirements, such as the registration of the rooming house premises with the council in whose municipality it is located. Importantly only persons who are deemed to be fit and proper within the meaning of the legislation will be eligible to be granted a licence. I do not think there is any issue with the intent of the bill — that is, with having a licensing regime. However, I will point out some industry and stakeholder concerns during the course of my contribution. I think it is important to understand firstly what a rooming house is. As you would appreciate, Acting Speaker Watt, it is interesting to see the definition of a rooming house, a boarding house or a backpackers hostel. If one looks through the booklet entitled Running a better rooming house, produced by the Registered Accommodation Association of Victoria, it gives a description of what a rooming house is. It states: Under the Residential Tenancies Act 1997, a rooming house is a building where: one or more rooms is available for rent, and the total number of people who may occupy those rooms is four or more. Also, in most rooming houses: residents have shared access to bathrooms, kitchens, laundries and living areas the owner and their family generally do not live on the premises different rental agreements are likely to exist for different residents. There are also different types of rooming houses. Community rooming houses are generally not for profit and funded by the government. There are private rooming house operators, who operate rooming houses for profit. The Building Regulations 2006 distinguish between small rooming houses, which are class 1b, and large rooming houses, which are class 3. To give a little more detail, class 1b rooming houses have up to 12 occupants and a total floor space of not more than 300 square metres. Class 3 rooming houses have more than 12 occupants and a floor space of more than 300 square metres. The member for Albert Park knows all of that. Mr Foley — I do. Mr NORTHE — Yes, I know. You should. Unfortunately over a period of time there has been a lot of media and attention, quite rightly, given to rogue and unscrupulous operators. It is important, as I said, that we have standards that apply. I refer back again to the tragic evening — I think it was actually the AFL Grand Final evening of 2006 — when a fire occurred in a rooming house in Brunswick. As I mentioned, Christopher Giorgi and Leigh Sinclair lost their lives in that terrible event. While it was 10 years ago, nearly, we certainly extend sympathy to family and friends who just endured such an awful, awful time. Coroner Peter White investigated the circumstances of the fire, and the coroner made a number of recommendations at the time. They were broken up into different areas, but there were essentially 18 different recommendations. Under the heading of ‘Consumer Affairs Victoria to henceforward play a leading role in the administration of the Health Act prescribed accommodation regulations and related matters’, there were four recommendations the coroner made at that time. One of those was to ensure that Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) had a campaign to identify and ensure that rooming house operators and the owners of rooming house premises certainly were made aware of their obligations around health and safety and the planning requirements of a home. The coroner recommended also that CAV be given powers of search and entry. Recommendation 3, which I will come back to, talks about the licensing regime. The coroner also recommended that the regulations be amended to require operators to prepare and publish an appropriate emergency management plan in consultation with other agencies. Under the heading, ‘Amendments to the prescribed accommodation regulations and the building regulations designed to facilitate improved oversight of the boarding house industry’, the coroner made five recommendations, primarily around lease arrangements. They were items such as the provision and display of a certificate that was issued by a building surveyor, the adoption of building code fire safety provisions, an increase in penalties for non-compliance and the advancing of prosecutions in appropriate cases, essentially to endeavour to close down any dodgy operators. The coroner also made five recommendations around tenancy agreements. A general summary of that was to improve the obligations for operators and indeed to produce a guide — such as the booklet I produced earlier — to make sure that rooming house operators and owners understood their obligations and, more generally, to improve the efficacy of tenancy agreements to also ensure that tenants were better informed and protected within those circumstances. The coroner also made three recommendations around administrative and legislative changes to try to make the approval system more friendly. Because of the way the system works, local governments of course have a strong obligation around the approval of rooming houses through the various acts that they administer, so the coroner recommended ways and means for working better on compliance with local government, improving communications between relevant departments, agencies and councils and also ensuring that council staff were equipped to deal with their particular roles. Finally, there were two recommendations around bedroom unit door locks in boarding houses. Of course one of the issues that we have heard time and again is around accessibility to doors in circumstances of an emergency. Part of the improvements in this area was the introduction of minimum standards. Hopefully they have addressed the coroner’s concerns and recommendations on this particular point. Recommendation 3 of the coroner says: That the director, Consumer Affairs Victoria, implement a licensing system for all rooming house operators with each such business to be managed by a nominee who shall be the person in charge, with such persons to be fit and proper persons having regard to criteria to be established by the director. In summary I suppose that is what this legislation seeks to do is to introduce that recommendation of the coroner. Once the coroner’s report was released there was a lot of media attention around it, and I think one of the compelling media reports that I saw at the time and read a transcript of recently was reporter Cheryl Hall’s interview on Stateline Victoria with Tim Adams, the lawyer for the families of those who unfortunately lost their lives in that horrific fire. I will read some of the transcript, if I may. Cheryl Hall, as the reporter, said: The families of Christopher Giorgi and Leigh Sinclair have waited three years to find out why the young couple died in a rooming house fire in Brunswick. Their family’s lawyer summed up their feelings. The response from the lawyer was: They feel that there’s three words that might encapsulate what’s happened in this case: ignorance, arrogance and greed. And they’re very hopeful that no other family will have to go through this again. The reporter then replied: Victorian Coroner Peter White quietly agreed with them when he handed down his report this week. He outlined not just a failure to maintain electrical wiring and the installation of smoke alarms in the old building in Brunswick, but also the failure of the local council to enforce building and health regulations, and the continued deception and lies by the owners of the building and the operators of the rooming house. The coroner found the fire on the night of the 2006 AFL Grand Final was probably started by a faulty light fitting and electrical wiring fixed to the restaurant ceiling below. In the darkness and smoke, they couldn’t find the key they needed to open the deadlock on their door. Despite an inspection by officers from the Moreland City Council, which is three doors from the rooming house, smoke alarms were never installed, a petition that blocked the fire escape was never removed and the rooming house was never registered. They are pretty strong words, and it is pretty emotive when you read the transcript of that. Again, you can only extend your sympathies to the family and friends of those two persons. As the member for Albert Park would know, the government of the day instigated the Rooming House Standards Taskforce. I will just read through the introduction of what the task force sought to do. It was announced on 15 July 2009 by the then Premier, John Brumby. As part of the group we had the current Minister for Planning, who was then the Minister for Housing; Tony Robinson, the then Minister for Consumer Affairs; and the current Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing was the chairperson. They were to report on solutions to problems associated with poor-quality rooming house accommodation services. Terms of reference were provided for the task force, and they were around the adequacy of existing enforcement and registration processes, options for increasing affordable accommodation to residents, finding best practice approaches in other jurisdictions and the appraisal of the need to lift standards and regulations amongst other things. There is a whole series of areas that are responded to, from things such as what a rooming house is, who lives in a rooming house and what the new trends are. There are a number of case studies within that report and the existing legislative framework. As I mentioned, the existing framework does have some complexities where you have a council endorsing particular provisions of rooming house operators, you have CAV doing part of it, and now there will obviously be a third layer with the Business Licensing Authority assessing those licence applications into the future as well. We go on to the standards and problems in Victorian rooming houses, and part 5 talks about a plan for action, which some might say is a bit of an anomaly, because despite this report being handed down, unfortunately there was very little activity in the latter part of the Labor government of the day. Nonetheless, in summary there were 32 recommendations across a whole range of different areas, including around standards, compliance and the enforcement part of it. From a registration point of view, recommendation 15 states: State government introduce a system of registration for rooming house operators in Victoria through the Business Licensing Authority. As a result, to operate a rooming house legally in Victoria premises must be registered with local government and operators must be registered with state government. This system will include sanctions against unregistered operators and reflect increased penalties for non-compliance with other applicable legislation operating in the sector … Recommendation 16: *State government establish a statewide register of rooming houses and provide this to agencies requiring this information to fulfil their accommodation and housing-related responsibilities. Further in my contribution I will talk about some of the implementation measures that the coalition had put in place, but that was certainly one of them. The task force report also talks about supply and about managing implementation. As I say, even four years after that terrible fire unfortunately there was very little activity under the previous Labor government. Mr Foley — Rubbish; that’s offensive rubbish. Mr NORTHE — The minister can stand up and counter that if he wants to. On that basis, I do want to thank the minister’s office and the department for their briefing and some of the information they have provided, despite forgetting the amendments, but we will get over that. Talking about what the coalition government did in its term and some of the initiatives that we did put in place, we can look back to a media release of November 2009. The then shadow minister, Wendy Lovell, a member for Northern Victoria region in the other place, called upon the then Minister for Housing to reveal as soon as possible the minimum standards for rooming houses that were to be phased in so that legitimate operators had enough time to become compliant. That was in November 2009. As I say, there was some disappointment that a lot of those measures did not take place. Then on 23 June 2010 the shadow housing minister of the day, Wendy Lovell, had been talking about the 32 recommendations of that task force. The implementation plan was supposed to have been delivered in December 2009, but six months later — this media release is from June 2010 — that still had not occurred, so despite the rantings from the member for Albert Park, that was the case. All those implementation plans ran very late, and by the time an election was held there was very little done. From a coalition point of view — — Honourable members interjecting. Mr NORTHE — I will repeat it if you want me to. Honourable members interjecting. Mr NORTHE — Concentrate. When we came to government we did a number of things. One of the things we did do was to ensure that Consumer Affairs Victoria had powers to issue on-the-spot fines to rooming house operators who failed to keep their accommodation up to legislated standards. We also implemented — and they became effective on 31 March 2013 — minimum standards. Minimum standards were very important, and again they were part of the coronial report and also the task force report, and included things such as having as a minimum standard that residents rooms have locks on the outside for when residents come and go; that there be two working power outlets and window coverings for privacy; that bathrooms and toilets have privacy locks or latches on them; kitchen facilities that are adequate for all residents and in working order; the front entrance to be well lit; and general standards providing that rooming houses have fire evacuation plans and good ventilation and ensuring that there were regular gas and electrical installations and checks. They were some of the minimum standards that we introduced. I might say that was done in concert of course with a range of stakeholders, and there was significant engagement from a number of those who supported the minimum standards at the time. One of the other things that of course needed to be increased was the inspections, so over a period of time there were significant inspections. I have just read a media release of June 2013 which outlined that officers had carried out more than 460 inspections at 275 rooming houses in a period of about three months to ensure that minimum standards were being enforced and being implemented. That was quite important. So over a period of time, as a bit of a snapshot, they were some of the measures. Also, as I mentioned earlier, a statewide rooming house register was to be established, and that is now available for the public to see where rooming houses are in their own municipality. From my own local perspective, within the City of Latrobe there are four. So there was a lot done under the coalition government to introduce not only the recommendations of the task force but also the recommendations from the coroner. There has been plenty of media coverage even over recent months. I will read through some of the material supplied. From the Herald Sun of 19 January 2015, an article headed ‘War on slums — Rooming house crisis’. I will not go into all the detail. There was an article in the Sunday Age of 21 June 2015 headed ‘High-rise slums’. It goes on and on. There has been a lot of media attention given to the fact that rooming house operators and owners need to ensure that they have appropriate accommodation available for tenants, and many tenants who can be vulnerable. But there is a whole range of different tenants who might use rooming houses, whether it is international students or students who might reside in country Victoria and need to stay in the city. There is a whole range of reasons why one might stay in a rooming house, and they are critically important. The feedback I had from stakeholders has generally been supportive. The Council to Homeless Persons is very supportive of the changes that are being proposed, and I will read part of its submission: The introduction of a ‘fit and proper’ persons check will be an effective method of improving the calibre of operators and therefore, their operational practices. The council strongly supports the introduction of a licensing regime. The Tenants Union of Victoria likewise supports the fit and proper person test and a licensing scheme to be applied. The submission from the Accommodation Association of Australia is an interesting one. It said that whilst it might have had problems in the past with such a bill, its position is that it supports it in principle as long as the direct cost of securing a licence is not prohibitive, the indirect cost of securing a licence is not prohibitive and that there is a level playing field across Victoria. I might say that some concerns have been expressed to me, and I refer to the Registered Accommodation Association of Victoria (RAAV). I preface my comments by saying whilst it and others are supportive of the intent of the bill and the licensing scheme, the devil in the detail is something that it has concerns about. First and foremost, the association has stated that, from its perspective, there has been a lack of consultation with it in the latter part of development of this legislation, and quite rightly asks whether there has been a regulatory impact statement considered as part of this, given that there could be financial impact upon its members. In particular the association has raised concerns around clauses 17 and 18 of the bill, which deal with the disqualification criteria. If you read clause 17, titled ‘Application for licence — licence disqualification criteria’, it says in part: (1) The following are the licence disqualification criteria — (a) within the preceding 10 years, a relevant person has been convicted or found guilty of — (i) an offence involving fraud, dishonesty, drug cultivation or trafficking, sexual slavery or servitude, child pornography or violence that was punishable by a term of imprisonment of 3 months or more at the time of the conviction or finding of guilt or a sexual offence or an offence connected with sex work that was punishable by a term of imprisonment of 3 months or more at the time of the conviction or finding of guilt … It also goes on to specify that if ‘within the preceding 5 years, a relevant person has been convicted or found guilty of’ a number of related rooming house offences against a number of different acts, including the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, the Building Act 1993, the Planning and Environment Act 1987 and the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act 2012, that fits within licence disqualification criteria, and that has caused some concern. Nobody disagrees with the notion that for those more serious offences one should not be allocated a licence. However, RAAV has expressed some concern about the second element of that; if there is a transgression against rooming house offences, against the number of acts that it is applied to, potentially you will see not being able to be allocated or issued with a licence for what they might deem as minor offences. The second part of their concerns relate to clause 18, which lists the renewal disqualification criteria, which are essentially all the same offences I have outlined in clause 17. Nonetheless, there are a number of examples that could be raised where one might not be issued a licence based on what the bill actually says. If someone has failed to keep documents related to the business available for inspection or has failed to comply with the plumbing order within a set time frame, could it be construed that they would not be a fit and proper person because they have unfortunately met the disqualification criteria? I might say that many of the rooming house operators do not necessarily have one rooming house but might have multiple. If they were issued with a licence and there was what they would call a minor breach, they would lose their licence altogether. Then a number of rooming houses would be impacted, and therefore the tenants of those rooming houses would be impacted as well. A number of other offences might potentially preclude one from obtaining a rooming house licence. If you have a look at the Public Health and Wellbeing Regulations 2009, regulation 26 pertains to maintaining a ‘register of occupants of prescribed accommodation’, and regulation 27 pertains to ‘advertising and prescribed accommodation’. There are other offences such as failure to display a statement of rights and house rules in a resident’s room or failure of an owner to give additional information. They are all currently offences that potentially could lead to one not being issued with a licence. I understand that there are exemptions noted in the bill, particularly when it comes to the issue of infringement notices, but, for example, in the Building Act 1993, section 221ZZC(1) says: An owner or occupier … must comply with … a plumbing order — so you are actually not able to issue an infringement penalty. Therefore there may be an option for a council — maybe an overzealous council — that wishes to not have a rooming house in its particular municipality to go to the nth degree to have a rooming house operator charged with such an offence. There are a number of other issues about which concerns have been raised through RAAV — — The DEPUTY SPEAKER — Order! The time has arrived for this house to meet with the Legislative Council in this chamber for the purpose of filling a Senate vacancy and electing members to the boards of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation and the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. Debate interrupted. Sitting suspended 6.45 p.m. until 7.00 p.m.