NSW Disability Services Minister Gareth Ward says the federal government has not made good on its promise of $28.5 million funding to keep the Ability Links program running.
The program, which won a Premier's Award in 2017 for improving government services, was poised to close in June but won a reprieve just before the March state election courtesy of a $28.5 million top-up from the federal government and $11.6 million from the state government.
But Mr Ward, under questioning from Labor MLC Penny Sharpe during a budget estimates hearing, said the Commonwealth had provided only $8.5 million of its commitment and he had been chasing the other $20 million from National Disability Insurance Scheme Minister Stuart Robert.
"I actually wrote to Mr Robert before he was sworn in and after he was sworn in in relation to this matter, and I'm continuing to lobby the Commonwealth for their share of funding, because we've provided our full share of funding," Mr Ward said.
Ms Sharpe: "And they're not providing that money?"
Mr Ward: "They've provided $8.5 million."
Ms Sharpe: "So they haven't provided what they committed to providing?"
Mr Ward: "That's correct."
Asked what had happened to the federal funding, Mr Ward said: "You'd have to ask the Commonwealth."
As recently as August 19, the NDIA told the Newcastle Herald that it had "committed $28.5 million for the continuation of the Ability Links program".
But on Tuesday the agency said the commitment was to provide "approximately $20 million through their Partners in the Community Program for Local Area Coordinator (LAC) Partners in NSW to deliver ILC [Information Linkages and Capacity-building] services as part of their 2019-20 Partner Agreements.
"In addition, the NDIA also agreed to provide NSW with $8.5 million in transitional ILC funding for 2019-20, which NSW planned on providing directly to providers delivering Aboriginal Ability Links," an NDIA spokesperson said.
"We can confirm the NDIA has more than met its commitments as outlined above. The NDIA has provided approximately $24.6 million to its LAC Partners in the 2019-20 financial year to perform ILC services and provided NSW with $8.5 million in transitional ILC funding."
Shadow NDIS Minister Bill Shorten said both governments needed to "stop squabbling" and keep the program open.
"This blame game will only see a program which makes a real positive difference to so many people end forever. That would be a disaster," he said.
Ability Links, which was piloted by the St Vincent de Paul Society in the Hunter six years ago then rolled out across the state via various providers, has been on funding life support for more than a year.
The Newcastle Herald reported last month that the program would close down at the end of October when the latest funding ran out.
The service helps people with a disability participate in sport, work, study and other community activities. It employs 400 people, including 39 in the Hunter, and helps tens of thousands of families.
"By all accounts this program has been outstanding," Ms Sharpe said.
"It actually fills a gap between what the NDIS and the transition to the NDIS is ... it provides pathways into genuine social inclusion and involvement.
"That is going to disappear at the end of October this year."
Vinnies has told the Newcastle Herald that its Ability Links programs in the Hunter and southern Sydney have been funded by the NSW government until October 31.
Mr Ward would not confirm in budget estimates that Ability Links was closing next month, but the Ability Links office in Hunter Street, Newcastle West, is being advertised for rent from November 15.
Ability Links workers had hoped the combined $40.1 million in state and federal money would help the program stay open until June next year.
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp said allowing the program to close was a "big step backwards" for people with a disability.
"Tens of thousands of families are being let down," he said. "To now know that the federal government has failed to meet their funding commitment is rubbing salt into the wound."
Mr Ward told the Newcastle Herald last month that the state government had funded Ability Links while the NDIS's Information Linkages and Capacity-building (ILC) program was rolled out.
He said in budget estimates that the ILC program was open this month for applications.
"I'm aware that a number of those providers currently providing Ability Links will be seeking ILC funding grants," he said.
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