Thursday, 11 February 2010
National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009
Debate resumed from 19 November 2009, on motion by Ms Roxon:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise today to speak on the National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009. Security sensitive biological agents, whilst important in medical, health and scientific research, do pose a significant risk to human health. Bacterial and viral pathogens and toxins derived from living organisms have the potential to do untold damage through unintentional release, lax handling or, worse, malicious intent. With Ebola virus, the plague, SARS and anthrax listed in tier 1 of recognised SSBAs, the threat is all too apparent. It is important that regulation relating to SSBAs is effective, consistent and provides appropriate safeguards in the interests of national security. The coalition government initiated important reforms in this area in 2002. The bill before us today is consequential to those reforms.
An agreement was reached at COAG in 2002 for a national review of the regulation, security and management of the storage, sale and handling of SSBAs. Following the 2002 COAG agreement, the coalition government provided an investment in national health security capability in the budget of 2004. Through the budget measure, the coalition strengthened national health security, preparedness and response capability in the event of a national health emergency or terrorist attack. The budget measure included provisions for a national register of laboratories that use or store high-risk pathogens and toxins. In 2007, COAG agreed to the recommendations of the report on the regulation and control of biological agents. The report analysed the effectiveness of Australia’s existing regulation of SSBAs and ASIO’s assessment of threats to Australian institutions and entities storing and handling high-risk biological agents. Accordingly, COAG agreed to a nationally consistent scheme to regulate all aspects of the supply chain for SSBAs.
The National Health Security Act, which this bill seeks to amend, was introduced by then health minister, Tony Abbott. The scheme introduced under the National Health Security Act aimed to ensure that national health security was maximised whilst minimising the regulatory and administrative burden on affected institutions. The National Health Security Act targeted security risks by consolidating the regulation and monitoring of facilities that handle SSBAs across all jurisdictions. The risks identified as a result of a lack of nationally consistent legislation included: the limited physical security requirements for facilities and entities holding SSBAs; lack of monitoring of the location, nature or destruction of SSBAs; no requirement for checking of facility and entity employees with access to SSBAs to ensure that they did not have criminal or terrorist links; and facilities and entities did not uniformly record access to SSBAs. The National Health Security Act addressed these risks.
In relation to the bill before us today, section 35 of the National Health Security Act provides for the minister by legislative instrument to set requirements relating to the security status of individuals who are entitled to handle or dispose of SSBAs. This bill explicitly provides that the minister may require background checks in setting those requirements for individuals involved in handling or disposing of such biological agents. The bill further provides that background checks be conducted under AusCheck for individuals who handle or dispose of SSBAs. AusCheck is a division of the Attorney-General’s Department and has been responsible for background criminal and security checks on applicants for aviation security identification cards and maritime security identification cards. The AusCheck Amendment Bill 2009 sought to expand the range of background checks that AusCheck was authorised to undertake. The original expansion was to include matters related to: Australia’s national security; the defence of Australia; a national emergency; the prevention of terrorism offences; and executive power of the Commonwealth. A Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry recommended, amongst other things, that, in order for AusCheck to conduct background checks for individuals, there must be provisions made in the principal act. The coalition also noted the concerns of the committee in relation to the lack of consultation by the Rudd government prior to the proposed expansion of AusCheck’s role. The government subsequently amended the AusCheck bill to account for the committee’s recommendations. The bill today complies with the Senate committee’s recommendation and the subsequent amendment to the AusCheck bill for authorisation for such background checks to be included in the principal act—in this case, the National Health Security Act.
Under the AusCheck regulations, where the secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department makes an assessment that a background check should include information about a person’s unfavourable criminal history, the secretary must give the individual written notice about the substance of the unfavourable criminal history advice and give the individual an opportunity to make representations to the secretary on or before the day mentioned in the notice, or at a later day nominated under subregulation. The regulations also provide for an individual about whom advice of the outcome of a background check contains unfavourable criminal history to apply to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for review of the decision.
I note the minister’s statement that the details of the SSBA background-checking scheme will also be set out in the SSBA Standards and will be subject to further consultation. Background checking for individuals involved in handling and disposing of SSBAs is consistent with the intention of the National Health Security reform process. The coalition accepts there has been substantial consultation throughout this process. The coalition supports measures which provide sensible safeguards to human health and the environment as provided for in this bill.
I speak today on the National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009, which amends the National Health Security Act 2007—the NHS Act—to enhance Australia’s controls on certain biological agents that could be used as weapons. The regulatory scheme for security sensitive biological agents, SSBAs, currently includes stringent requirements relating to the notification of the type and location of SSBAs, along with standards that must be met by organisations, such as laboratories, handling SSBAs. Standards may also set requirements for the security status of personnel who handle SSBAs.
Since the passage of the NHS Act in September 2007 extensive consultation has been undertaken with stakeholders to develop requirements in the standards relating to the security status of persons who handle or dispose of SSBAs. Stakeholders have been consulted on the need for background checking of persons who handle or dispose of SSBAs and on the proposal that the checks be conducted by the Australian Background Checking Service of the Attorney-General’s Department, otherwise known as AusCheck. The legislative framework for AusCheck to provide background checks under the SSBA standards was included in the AusCheck Amendment Bill 2009, which was introduced into parliament during the 2009 autumn sittings.
That bill was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee in May 2009. The Senate committee recommended that no background checking scheme could be established under the AusCheck legislation in the absence of another act of parliament providing for the establishment of such a scheme. The proposed change made by this bill has arisen because of the Senate committee’s recommendation and is simply to enable a principal act, in this case the NHS Act, to authorise the establishment of a background checking scheme, to be conducted by AusCheck, to be used for screening individuals who handle or dispose of SSBAs.
The proposed change will clarify that, in determining the requirements in a standard relating to the security status of individuals who handle or dispose of SSBAs, the minister may require background checks. The background checks will be conducted under the AusCheck scheme. The proposed change will align with the amendments proposed by the AusCheck Amendment Bill 2009. The amendments will enable the AusCheck regulations to provide for a scheme relating to the conduct and coordination of background checks by AusCheck where another act has expressly provided for the making of a legislative instrument requiring a background check of an individual to be conducted under the AusCheck scheme.
The proposed SSBA background checking scheme has been the subject of consultation with agencies responsible for obtaining and assessing information about the risks and threats posed by biological agents—such as ASIO and other intelligence agencies, public and animal health laboratories, state and territory government agencies, and other experts in SSBA.
I am confident that the bill addresses concerns of stakeholders and ensures that we continue to deliver on our international commitments and the national imperative to actively improve our capacity to maintain adequate controls on biological agents. This bill ensures that people handling biological agents that could be used for terrorist attacks will face new background checks that ultimately could save lives.
I agree with the federal Minister for Health and Ageing that these changes will enhance Australia’s capacity to secure biological agents of diseases such as anthrax, smallpox and the plague, which are known as security sensitive biological agents or SSBAs. I believe there are already stringent requirements covering such agents; however, these new measures enable the federal health minister to determine that background checking of people who handle SSBAs is conducted by the Australian Background Checking Service, or AusCheck, of the Attorney-General’s Department. I commend the bill to the House.
I rise to speak on the National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009 and, as we would all be aware, this is an important issue to our electorates, particularly to the national health security system. Every day Australians rely on our health system to function and having the health system function efficiently is very important. In my own electorate we have challenges with hospitals and other health services. It is important that hospitals and health services are provided with adequate funding. In closing, I would just like to say that this is a very important issue that all Australians will be focusing on.
Debate (on motion by Mr Albanese) adjourned.