Labor is accusing the Morrison government of framing issues with the national child abuse redress scheme as budget “savings”, after the government revealed it expects to spend $610m less on payments to victims over the next two years.
The financial figures indicating the National Redress Scheme for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse has not delivered as previously expected come as the scheme falls about 12,500 applications short of the amount the royal commission believed would have been lodged by now.
In its budget update released last week, under the “major decreases in payments” section, the government explains the $610m decrease in payments to the fiscal year 2020-21 “largely reflects a re-profiling of expenditure due to slower than expected uptake by survivors accessing redress”.
The government said there had also been “an associated downward re-profiling of the expected receipts received from the institutions liable for the payments”, noting that once redress offers are accepted by victims, payments are generally made to them within a week.
While the government defends this as an indication survivor applications will be more spread out over the scheme’s 10-year window, Labor believes it demonstrates decision-making delays and poor processes plaguing the scheme, which echoes advocates’ concerns earlier this month that child sexual abuse survivors are still being re-traumatised because of shortcomings in scheme.
The opposition’s social services spokeswoman, Linda Burney, said the reduction in spending on redress payments was because “the government has botched the implementation” of the scheme.
Burney said that while the royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse had estimated 60,000 survivors would be eligible for the scheme, just 2,250 applications had been processed and victims paid out by the end of May.
“At this rate it will take around 50 years for the total estimated number of survivors to receive redress,” Burney said.
“This is the latest insult for survivors who have already waited too long for redress.”
She said that in the more than two years the scheme had been operating, “survivors have been reporting poor processes, unfair and inconsistent decision making, inadequate payments and chronic delays”.
“The National Redress Scheme is meant to deliver justice for survivors, not savings for governments and institutions.
“The scheme simply isn’t working as planned – thousands of people who deserve justice simply aren’t coming forward and the government needs to fix it,” she said.
However, the minister for social services, Anne Ruston, said “this is not a budget saving”, and the $610m reduction in spending on payments was instead an indication there would now be “a more even spread of applications lodged” over the 10-year life of the scheme.
“When the scheme was first set up we believed, based on the advice of the royal commission, that in 2019-20 and 2020-21 we would have received about 20,000 applications. However, we instead received about 7,500 applications.
“Our original forecasts estimated that there would be a large number of applications received in the first few years ... This is why the budget papers refer to reprofiling.
“Importantly, this is not a budget saving. The way the scheme works is that the commonwealth pays out redress payments once a survivor has accepted their offer and then the commonwealth recoups the payment from the relevant institutions later.”
Ruston said the government had “not shied away from the fact that the scheme is not perfect”, but said there were “various reasons applications may have come in more slowly than first assumed”.
“This may include that fact that it has taken some time to get all relevant institutions on board as well as the changes that have been made to the statute of limitations related to child sexual abuse in most states and territories since the scheme commenced,” she said.
The Guardian understands that at the end of June, 2,726 victims had received payments, while 350 cases had been processed in the first year of the scheme.
The average payment under the scheme has so far been $82,000.
The change in expected spending on the scheme comes after the federal government banned federal funding and threatened the charitable status of six groups that refused to notify of their intention to join the two-year window that ended on 30 June 2020. Since then, the number of institutions has reduced to four.