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Thursday, 11 February 2010
Page: 1166

Ms CAMPBELL (11:52 AM) —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.