Melissa Higgins arrives at court on Friday. Photo: Cole BennettsAn Albury day care ownerwho amasseda multi-million-dollar fortunethrough bogus government benefit claims has maintained her innocence, telling a psychologist she has no idea how or why she was foundguilty.

IN DENIAL: Melissa Jade Higgins has told a psychologist she has no idea how or why she was found guilty, a court has been told. Picture: FAIRFAX

Melissa Jade Higgins, 29, was last year found guilty by a juryof forging children’sattendancerecords at her Aussie Gigglesfamily day care centre to rake inmore than $3.6 million in taxpayer funding.

Higginswas convicted of 81 offences, including 66 counts of dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception, 14 counts of using a forged documentand one count of dealing with the proceeds of crime in excess of $1 million.

Higgins, who was the sole director of the company,madefake claims for special child carebenefits, which cover thecost of child care for children who areexperiencingor at risk of abuse orneglect.

The court heard thatHigginsclaimed the subsidy at an inflated rate of up to$180 per hour for 14 children who were not at risk and others who did notattend the centre,netting her $225,000 a month over a two-year period between 2013 and 2015.

Prosecutor Chris Taylor

Higgins, who has been on bail since herconviction,now faces imprisonment.

Asentencing hearing in the Downing Centre District Court in Sydney on Friday heard that Higgins had maintained her innocence to a forensic psychologist.

The psychologist told the court that Higgins’ was experiencing “extremely severe”anxiety, depression and stress and would need to be very closely monitored if she was given acustodial sentence.

The court heard that Higgins had at first enjoyed operating the child care centre but whenthe centre startedexpanding she “couldn’t keep up”.

Higgins, who was supported by her family in court, did not give evidence.

Her mother told the court her daughter had become depressed and quiet since her conviction, and she was concerned she might harm herself.

ButCrown prosecutor Chris Taylortold the court that Higgins’evidence could not be relied upon.

“The Crown maintains its submission that this offending appears to a large extent to relate to greed,”Mr Taylor said.“Need would not in the Crown’s submission be made out in the circumstances of this offending and would be an unreasonable interpretation of need.”

The Crown made anapplication to revokeHiggins’ bail which will be heard in court next Friday.

The jury verdict was handed down more than 18 months afterHiggins’bank account was frozen and $2,250,000 was seized along with other property, including a $90,000 car, during an arrest by the Australian Federal Police.

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A man who defaced the NSW Police Wall of Remembrance suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and was under a delusion he was being pursued by the government, a court has heard.

Hayden Jones, 30, has pleaded guilty to three charges of destroying and damaging police property – two charges relating to the memorial and one relating to a police van – in May last year.

The wall at The Domain displays the names of dozens of officers who have lost their lives while on the job.

It was marked with scratches and abusive messages. Police said they had to remove 28 panels from the memorial as part of the clean-up and the entire wall would have to be replaced.

In the Downing Centre District Court on Friday, Judge Robert Toner said it was “an exquisitely difficult sentencing matter”.

He said he had to weigh up the sensitive nature of the monument with Jones’ profound and chronic mental illness.

“There are few monuments in the community that properly are held in high esteem by the whole community and this is one of them,” Judge Toner said.

“To deface this wall was a dastardly crime.

“It is also irrefutably true is that Mr Jones’ commission of these crimes was largely driven, if not entirely driven, by the delusions he endures as a consequence of [paranoid schizophrenia].

“It’s patently obvious this was a crime generated by his disease.”

Jones, who was on a bond at the time of the offence but had a limited criminal history, has been in custody for 10 months. The court heard he is now on antipsychotic medication.

Judge Toner placed him on a two-year section 9 good behaviour bond under the condition he accepted supervision from community corrections, adhered to a regime of psychiatric treatment and had urine and blood testing. The judge told Jones any use of illicit drugs would have him returned to jail.

Judge Toner took into account a letter from Commissioner Andrew Scipione that said: “The Wall is akin to a sacred space and a place where those who have lost loved ones, and the broader police family, reflect, pay respects and mourns.

“The deliberate and wanton damage of the Wall in May of last year has undoubtedly added to to the deeply felt loss.”

A psychiatric report tendered by the defence said, at the time of the offence, Jones had a delirious belief that the government was after him and that he had been implanted with an electrode. To him, the wall represented a “manifestation of the government”.

The prosecution asked for a term of imprisonment.

But in releasing Jones on a bond, Judge Toner quoted from Winston Churchill’s famous speech about the mark of a “civilised society” being how it treated its weakest members.

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The Turnbull government has hand-balled responsibility for protecting people facing big pay cuts on Sundays and public holidays to the Fair Work Commission, effectively guaranteeing Labor and the union movement will mount a ferocious industrial relations campaign all the way until the next election.

In its long-awaited response to the commission’s February decision to cut penalty rates for workers in the hospitality, fast food, retail and pharmacy sectors, the government has made no suggestion on how the pay packets of those affected can be protected.

The government’s support for the penalty-rate cut will delight the business community and the Liberal Party base, who have long argued for a cut to Sunday penalty rates but will also hand a potent political weapon to the labour movement.

Labor, in its submission, restated its opposition to the cuts because of the impact on low-paid workers, and suggested the commission had misunderstood the laws it was required to interpret.

Labor leader Bill Shorten said: “These are Malcolm Turnbull’s cuts: he supports them, he could stop them if he wanted. Up to 700,000 Australians will lose up to $77 a week because of Malcolm Turnbull’s cuts.

“Inequality is at a 75-year high and wages growth is at record lows – yet Malcolm Turnbull is doing everything he can to give big business a $50 billion tax cut and doing nothing to stop a pay cut for 700,000 workers.”

But the Turnbull Government made it clear it did not consider it had any responsibility to suggest how low-paid workers’ pay packets could best be protected and rejected the option of legislating to allow take-home pay orders that would compensate those affected.

This was considered potentially the most effective way of protecting pay packets.

Instead, the government noted those orders were not applicable under existing legislation, highlighted the independence of the commission and noted previous cuts to penalty rates had occurred in 2008 and in 2010.

The government also estimated 300,000 to 450,000 people would be hit by the decision – not the 700,000 estimated by the union movement – when the decision is implemented from July 1.

In its February decision, the Fair Work Commission concluded cutting penalty rates immediately would hurt those who earn just enough to cover their weekly expenses and stated that “appropriate transitional arrangements” would be necessary to mitigate the hardship caused to employees who work on Sundays.

The commission asked for submissions on delaying the change for 12 months, issuing take-home pay orders, grandfathering or “red circling” penalty rates for existing employees and applying the lower rate to only new employees and, finally, phasing the cut in over two to five years.

But the government’s submission simply noted that take-home pay orders are not applicable, quotes the commission’s view that it does not support delaying the implementation 12 months or support “red-circling” and says the commission should make its own decision on transitional arrangements.

Labor argued in its submission there was “no transitional process or period that could be devised which would ever restore the real wage rates for all current employees under the relevant award”.

And it argued take-home pay orders would only operate for a limited period and thus have limited effect.

Last week, Prime Minister Mr Turnbull, for the first time, offered explicit government support for a cut to penalty rates.

The commission has recommended cuts in the retail sector, for full-time and part-time workers, which will see their Sunday penalty rates cut from 200 per cent to 150 per cent, while casuals will go from 200 per cent to 175 per cent.

Hospitality employees will face a cut in Sunday pay from 175 per cent to 150 per cent, fast-food workers will see their Sunday rates go from 150 per cent to 125 per cent for full-time and part-time staff and casuals will go from 200 per cent to 175 per cent.

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Medibank has topped the list of health funds that have shed the greatest number of members, according to a new report.

The Private Health Insurance Ombudsman’s latest State of the Health FundsReport shows that Medibank lost 45,676 customers between June 2015 and June 2016, followed by Westfund, which lost 865, and HCF, which said goodbye to 502.

The biggest winners from the exodus were HBF, which welcomed 49,949 new policyholders, Bupa, which won over 38,235, and NIB, which added 19,501.

The figures confirm Medibank had a tough 2016, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission accusing it of reducing coverage without notifying policyholders and an IT bungle that delayed the delivery of tax statements.

The Ombudsman received 4416 complaints, an increase of 3.5 per cent on the previous year’s figure.

The report also shows that despite having a market share of 27.6 per cent, Medibank accounted for 40.2 per cent of all complaints.

“Medibank is absolutely committed to delivering improved products and services for our customers and simply doing a better job for them,” its chief customer officer David Koczkar told Fairfax Media.

“Our share of Ombudsman complaints has fallen recently as a result of our investment in customer service and we remain focused on improving our customers’ experience.”

Overall, the industry experienced a growth of 1.35 per cent (86,939 memberships) in 2015-16.

However, confusing policies, annual premium increases of about 5 per cent, and concerns about “junk” policies have led to a declining rate in the take-up of health insurance.

Restricted membership funds, such as CBHS, Defence Health and Teachers Health, enjoyed membership increases of an average 6 per cent.

Gerard Fogarty, chairman of Members Own Health Funds, a group of 17 not-for-profit and mutual health funds, said while affordability was a growing concern, people valued insurance and searched for better deals.

He said Members Own recorded a 66.3 per cent growth in its share of the industry’s net growth in 2015-16, compared with 12 per cent for the big three – Medibank, Bupa, and HCF.

He said the growth was at the expense of the for-profit health funds.

“We know that the member-owned funds give more back to their members than the for-profits, and member-owned funds have much happier and satisfied members, and that’s shown by the amount of complaints compared to the market share,” said Mr Fogarty, also chief executive of Defence Health.

The Ombudsman’s figures have been released at the busiest time of the year for the industry, as people seek to switch funds ahead of the April 1 premium increase.

Premiums have consistently risen on April 1 for the past seven years. Of the big four health funds, NIB’s premiums have increased by 48.7 per cent since 2010, HCF 46.6 per cent, Medibank 45.3 per cent, and Bupa 43.7 per cent.

A survey by comparison website Finder found the average adult sticks with the same health fund for 11.8 years.

“As with other financial products, you should review your cover at least every 12 months because you could be missing out on the savings that typically come from shopping around,” said Finder’s Bessie Hassan. Savvy Consumer – Interact with us on FacebookLatest consumer affairs news

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