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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2090


Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(4.41) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

The amendments proposed in this Bill largely relate to section 20 of the National Crime Authority Act 1984 which empowers the Authority to require information from Commonwealth agencies.

Certain information, often of a sensitive and personal nature, obtained under various legislative provisions is specifically exempted from the ambit of section 20, by virtue of that legislation being listed in the Schedule to the Act.

Sixteen Acts were included in the section 20 Schedule when the Act was passed but an exhaustive examination of all Commonwealth legislation prior to the Act being passed was not possible. Subsequently, all Commonwealth Departments were invited to submit views as to what further Acts should be included.

As a result of this detailed examination, this Bill proposes that a further number of Acts now be included in the Schedule.

Generally, inclusion of the additional Acts is proposed to protect information in the following categories:

(a) sensitive, personal information, such as medical information held under the Health Insurance Act 1973 or information derived from the use of listening devices under the Customs Act 1901;

(b) sensitive commercial information such as that held under the Prices Surveillance Act 1983 and the Reserve Bank Regulations; and

(c) information given to Courts, tribunals and like bodies; for example, information held under the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 and the Human Rights Commission Act 1981.

While affording protection to this sensitive information, simply adding these matters to the Schedule would, under the existing provisions of the Act, prevent all such information from being made available to the Authority, irrespective of the circumstances. Of course, much of this information may not be of relevance to the Authority's investigations in any event.

In view of this and after carefully considering the balance between the duty to protect sensitive and personal information and the need for the NCA to have access to information which could be relevant to its investigations, the Government has accepted a suggestion from the Authority that Commonwealth agencies immune from the Authority's powers under section 20 of the Act, should have a discretion to pass on relevant information to the Authority.

Clause 5 of the Bill inserts in the Act a new section 19A which will allow a Commonwealth agency exempt from the section 20 requirement to provide information to the Authority, to comply with requests by the Authority for information and documents relevant to a prescribed investigation.

In conjunction with these legislative proposals, the Government will introduce a number of administrative measures to ensure that the right balance is struck between access by the Authority and protection of personal privacy.

Guidelines will be developed, in consultation with the NCA and the various agencies concerned, covering the types of information which could be released and which ought not be released. The guidelines could, for example, indicate that in relation to information under the Health Insurance Act, patient medical histories ought not, as a general rule, be released; whereas details of a person's name, address and whereabouts could be released.

In addition, after one year, the Authority will report to me on requests made under the proposed section 19A, including on the number, nature and outcome of requests, the information obtained and the use to which it had been put. A copy of the report will also be forwarded to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority. Should any problems emerge under the arrangements in proposed section 19A, the Government will move quickly to take appropriate action, whether it be revising the guidelines, amending the Acts, or both.

The Bill also establishes a particular framework for dealing with information held by the Australian Taxation Office. Honourable Senators may recall that parallel to the legislation to establish the Authority, the Government amended the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936, to enable the Authority to have access to income tax information. Given the Costigan Commission's Comments on the usefulness of this type of information in pursuing its investigations, the Government was concerned to ensure that this information was also available to the Authority.

Access to income tax information is currently available to the NCA under a two tier scheme:

for the purposes of a tax-related investigation, information may be passed to the Authority by the Taxation Commissioner, or a Royal Commissioner who has received the information under s. 16 (4) (k) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936; and

for the purposes of a special investigation not related to a tax matter, information may be obtained by the Authority under a judicial warrant.

Before access is given to the NCA under judicial warrant, the Judge must be satisfied that the information is relevant to the Authority's investigations and that the information is not readily obtainable elsewhere. In addition, the judicial warrant may prohibit the NCA from communicating the information other than to the person, and in the manner, specified in the warrant.

Such access arrangements are currently limited to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936. They do not extend to other taxation Acts. A number of these are excluded from the provisions of section 20 (by virtue of being included in the Schedule) and as a result, the Authority has no avenue of access at all to the tax information covered by the presently scheduled Acts.

Again, after giving careful consideration to the balance between the duty to protect sensitive information and the need for the NCA to have access to information which could be useful to its inquiries, the Government has decided to extend the access arrangements set in place for information under the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936, to those taxation Acts within the meaning of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 definition of ''taxation law''; i.e. those taxation Acts currently listed in the Schedule to section 20 of the National Crime Authority Act 1984. This is the purpose of clause 11 of the Bill which inserts in the Taxation Administration Act 1953 a new section 3D.

Clause 13 ensures that the NCA access arrangements currently set out in section 16 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 will continue to apply in relation to information passed to the Authority before commencement of the new section 3D of the Taxation Administration Act 1953.

I stress that the Government is conscious of the sensitivity of this type of information but considers that the safeguards built into the access arrangements, particularly that of a judicial warrant where the information is not relevant to a tax-related investigation, are appropriate.

The Bill also covers a number of minor matters. Section 48 of the National Crime Authority Act 1984 is amended to allow the Authority to engage consultants without the need to obtain the approval of the responsible Minister. This follows the arrangements introduced by the Public Service Board for Government Departments whereby Public Service Board approval of consultancies is no longer required. General financial control will, however, be exercised through the budgetary process. This proposal is in line with procedures being adopted for other statutory authorities.

There is also a slight amendment to section 53 of the Act. This is a further tidying up measure raised by Parliamentary Counsel. A number of corrections and editorial amendments are also made to section 16 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936. No additional costs should be incurred as a result of the amendments proposed in this Bill. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Reid) adjourned.