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Thursday, 20 August 2009
Page: 8475


Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Home Affairs) (9:31 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I rise to introduce the Crimes Amendment (Working With Children—Criminal History) Bill. This bill implements the agreement made by the Council of Australian Governments on 29 November 2008 to enable the interjurisdictional exchange of further criminal history information for people working with children.

The bill amends part VIIC of the Crimes Act 1914, to create exceptions to provisions that prevent the disclosure of pardoned, quashed and spent convictions.

It will create new exceptions allowing pardoned and quashed convictions to be disclosed and expand the existing exception for the disclosure of spent convictions.

The scoping study and implementation plan, which preceded the COAG agreement, identified the safeguarding of children from sexual, physical and other abuse as a key priority for all governments.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, unofficial estimates are that approximately one in four girls, and between one in seven and one in 12 boys, are victims of some form of sexual abuse alone.

The effects of abuse and neglect on children are also tragic. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that there are established links between abuse or neglect as a child and poor social, behavioural and health outcomes as well as a higher likelihood of criminal offending and mental health issues.

It is for these reasons that governments across the Commonwealth have established schemes such as child protection registers and working with children checks to ensure we protect children, the most vulnerable members of our society, to our utmost ability.

The scoping study noted that assessment of the criminal history of people working with children or seeking to work with children is an important part of the overall strategy for managing risks to the safety and wellbeing of children.

It also recognised that child-related employment screening is a difficult and challenging process, which requires careful balancing of potential risks to children with individual rights to privacy, employment and the freedom to participate in the community as a volunteer.

The Australian Institute of Criminology, in its report Child sexual abuse: offender characteristics and modus operandi, noted that incarcerated sexual offenders are more likely to have previous convictions for non-sexual offences than for sexual offences.

Further, law enforcement agencies have indicated that charges relating to offences against children are often withdrawn as a decision is made to protect the child victim from the stress and trauma of giving evidence, cross-examination and simply waiting for committal and trial.

For these reasons, jurisdictions considered at COAG that it was appropriate to consider a person’s full criminal history, including non-conviction information, in assessing whether he or she poses a risk to children if employed in child related work.

The current provisions in the Crimes Act prevent the disclosure of a person’s full criminal history. This bill carves out an exception to these provisions, allowing for the interjurisdictional exchange of criminal history information, including information on pardoned, quashed and spent convictions, for the specific purpose of child related employment screening.

The exchange of the information permitted by the bill is subject to stringent safeguards to ensure that the information is dealt with appropriately and to limit any potential misuse of the information.

Firstly, the COAG agreement requires that a person or body will only be prescribed in each jurisdiction for the purposes of enabling them to receive conviction information if the person or body:

  • is authorised by the government of the state or territory in which it operates;
  • has a legislative basis for screening that prohibits further release or use of the information (except for legislated child protection functions in exceptional circumstances);
  • complies with applicable privacy, human rights and records management legislation;
  • reflects principles of natural justice; and
  • has risk assessment frameworks and appropriately skilled staff to assess risks to children’s safety.

Secondly, to reinforce the importance of these safeguards, before a person or body in a state or territory can be prescribed in regulations to allow them to deal with Commonwealth criminal history information, I must first be satisfied that they meet all of these safeguards in their own jurisdiction. In particular, I will require their assessment processes to reflect principles of natural justice, including access to a merits review or appeal process by an independent arbiter.

Thirdly, the information can only be used to assess a person’s suitability to work with children and cannot be used for a general employment suitability or probity assessment.

The bill also requires that a review of the new provisions be started no later than 30 June 2011 and be completed within three months.

Given the sensitive nature of the information that will be available under the information exchange, it will be important to assess the effectiveness of the regime, and ensure that information is being dealt with appropriately.

I commend this bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ciobo) adjourned.