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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6744

Senator McLUCAS (4:05 PM) —I lay on the table the Scrutiny of Bills Committee Alert Digest No. 14 of 2002, dated 19 November 2002, and I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the document.

Leave granted.

Senator McLUCAS —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

The AlertDigest which I have tabled today is unusual in that it addresses matters in relation to a bill considered earlier by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee but which the committee has decided to revisit. The bill was the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002, later split into the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 and the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002. In earlier editions of the Alert Digest, the committee advised that it had no comments in relation to the bill.

Senator Collins has subsequently written to the committee, pointing out the substantial number of amendments which have been proposed in relation to the bills and suggesting that the committee scrutinise amendments, whether made, moved or circulated. Others also asked if the committee could look again at certain provisions for the making of guidelines. The committee thanks Senator Collins for her letter, which raises significant issues for its operation. The committee has now discussed the letter, and the special AlertDigest, which I have just tabled, sets out its conclusions.

In relation to the scrutiny of amendments, the committee has decided not to change its present practice of commenting only on amendments actually passed, rather than extend its scrutiny to amendments which are moved but not passed or which are merely circulated. The committee decided that, on the basis of principle, precedent and practicality, it would not be feasible to implement the proposal.

In brief, the practicalities alone would preclude the committee from scrutinising all circulated amendments, at least without substantial notification of its methods of operation. At present, the committee's processes include receiving a report from the legal adviser on each bill, meeting to discuss the Alert Digest, sending and receiving ministerial correspondence and, finally, reporting to the Senate. This timetable would be difficult for most amendments but would be impossible for many others. For instance, drafting instructions for amendments may be given at short notice with only a brief period before circulation. In such cases, the committee would be simply unable to respond in a meaningful way which would assist chamber's consideration of amendments. The proposal is not realistic at the present time, given the committee's existing role and procedures.

The committee, however, has agreed to raise with the minister the question of clauses in the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002, providing for the issue of guidelines which may be legislative in nature but which are not subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Legislative instruments should, in general, be subject to parliamentary scrutiny by possible disallowance or at least by tabling. In the present case, the only safeguard is that one set of guidelines must be specified in the Gazette, which may not sufficiently protect parliamentary propriety. The position is exacerbated by the fact that several of the guidelines have effect or are in force from time to time, which means that legislative power is not simply delegated as a single but as a continuing exercise of power. One of these provisions allows the regulations in effect to subdelegate legislative power to any person at all and to permit its operation from time to time without any parliamentary scrutiny. Here the regulations could be disallowed, but the subdelegated power will not have parliamentary supervision. I should add that the powers which I have described relate to an offence provision, the penalty for which is imprisonment for up to five years.

Finally, at its meeting yesterday the committee discussed its future direction and ways in which it could enhance the assistance which it gives the Senate in relation to personal rights and liberties and parliamentary propriety. The committee has now been operating for 20 years, and I think all members are keen to see the committee develop. When this topic was raised at the meeting, members brought forward numbers of what I thought were original and exciting ideas. Members are agreed that it is appropriate to expand our activities, and so it is now a question of refining some of the concepts which we have. On behalf of the committee, I will report again when we have advanced further along these lines.

Question agreed to.