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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 6954

Mrs ELLIOT (Minister for Ageing) (9:57 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill amends the National Health Security Act 2007 to enhance Australia’s obligations for securing certain biological agents that could be used as weapons. Such a biological agent is also known as a security sensitive biological agent, or SSBA, and includes Ebola virus and foot-and-mouth disease virus.

The bill reinforces the Rudd government’s ongoing commitment to seek to protect all Australians from emerging health and security threats.

The regulatory scheme for SSBAs currently includes stringent requirements on the notification of the type and location of SSBAs in Australia, along with standards that must be met by organisations handling SSBAs. The standards are on matters such as the secure handling and movement of SSBAs, along with personnel requirements and risk management strategies.

Over the past year and a half the Rudd government has worked closely with organisations that handle SSBAs, and other experts in the field, to ensure smooth implementation of the legislation. During this time, a number of areas have been highlighted where improvements to the scheme might be made. The bill I have introduced today enhances the SSBA Regulatory Scheme in three important ways.

First, the proposed amendments enable the responsible minister to respond immediately and appropriately to safeguard public health and safety in the event of an SSBA related disease outbreak. The proposed changes enable the suspension of certain existing regulatory requirements and the imposition of new conditions to ensure that adequate controls are maintained.

The proposed amendments also ensure that the responsible minister has all relevant information to hand, including advice from the Secretary to the Department of Health and Ageing, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Veterinary Officer and others with scientific or technical expertise in SSBAs.

Second, the amendments will extend reporting controls to biological agents ‘suspected’ to be SSBAs. This measure will clarify the obligations of entities at the early stage of handling a biological agent when, after having performed all of their usual testing procedures for that biological agent, there is a positive presumptive identification for an SSBA. The new provisions will require an entity to report its handling of suspected SSBAs, including transfers of those agents, and will require entities to comply with new SSBA standards for suspected SSBAs.

Third, the bill will enhance the investigation powers available under the National Health Security Act. The act currently provides inspectors with monitoring warrants which do not extend to seizing evidential material. This new measure introduces offence-related warrants that provide powers to search premises and seize evidential material. Importantly, this increase in investigation powers is complemented by necessary safeguards to ensure proper use of the powers. This includes safeguards such as authorisation by a magistrate and provisions governing the return of seized property and compensation for damage.

The bill also makes some less significant but equally important amendments to improve the operation of the legislation and provide greater clarity for those working with SSBAs.

In particular, the bill requires that, in addition to reporting certain events (such as loss or theft of an SSBA) to the Secretary to the Department of Health and Ageing, the entity must also make a report to local police. While entities would, as a matter of practice, make a report to police in these circumstances, the proposed changes put the matter beyond doubt and ensure a comprehensive investigation of the incident including law enforcement input.

Other measures in the bill deal with the administration of the reporting scheme. Entities dealing with SSBAs are currently required to report any changes recorded on the national register (such as changes to contact details) annually or biannually. The proposed amendments will require registered entities to lodge ‘nil’ annual and biannual reports rather than simply lodging no report at all. Nil reporting will ensure that entities do not forget to check if they have changes that need reporting and will ensure that information recorded on the national register is kept up to date.

The proposed amendments also enable the Secretary to the Department of Health and Ageing, on application by a registered entity, to cancel the registration of an entity or its facility if they no longer handle any SSBA. This is a sensible change that simply ensures that the entity or its facility is no longer captured by the act and its reporting obligations.

Finally, the proposed amendments include a new definition of ‘biological agents’. The definition of ‘biological agents’ currently includes bacteria and viruses ‘that can spread rapidly’. The requirement that the bacteria or virus be able to spread rapidly unnecessarily limits the definition of biological agent and excludes agents such as anthrax that do not spread between humans but are highly dangerous. An amendment is therefore proposed to address this issue.

Given the importance of the National Health Security Act, the Minister for Health and Ageing has ensured that the proposed changes have been subject to extensive consultation with experts. This has included consultation on an exposure draft of the bill with agencies such as ASIO who assess the risks and threats from SSBAs, public health laboratories, state and territory government agencies and other experts in SSBAs.

I am confident that the bill before us appropriately enhances the existing regulatory scheme for SSBAs. It underlines the Rudd government’s continuing commitment to keep Australia secure from potential threats and uphold the health and security of all Australians. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Billson) adjourned.