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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7204

Senator HARRADINE (7:12 PM) —by leave—I move amendments (8A), (8B) and (8C).

(8A) Clause 29, page 20 (line 10), after “licence”, insert “and the reasons for the decision to issue a licence”.

(8B) Clause 29, page 20 (before line 8), before paragraph (a), insert:

(aa) the membership of the HREC which approved the activity for which a licence was granted.

(8C) Clause 29, page 20 (after line 20), at the end of the clause, add:

(5) Information mentioned in subsection (1) must be made available on the NHMRC Licensing Committee Internet site within 30 days of the HREC assessment.

These amendments have been devised having regard to discussions that have taken place over the life of this committee stage of the bill. There is a regime, which has been established in this legislation—and I use the terms used in the legislation—for the use of excess ART embryos for the purposes of experimentation or research, whichever word you prefer. That whole structure is based upon two rocks. We have been told, `Don't worry, these applications for a licence to destroy human embryos are to go through a human research ethics committee.' That is the principal foundation of the whole structure: `Don't worry about things that go through this particular committee.' There is another foundation of this whole process and that is accountability and information. The bill does not provide for this information. In fact, it is a secretive approach because the decisions and the evaluation of an application for a licence from the NHMRC Licensing Committee are withheld and kept secret from the public.

I know that the NHMRC has had a culture of secrecy over a period. That has been loosened up a little bit, perhaps over the last two years. Before that, there was a culture of secrecy and I fear that elements of that are still there, and this is one of them. The human research ethics committee will not provide the information as to why it has decided to approve or reject an application. Let me again give an example: a drug company, or a scientist who is involved with a drug company, seeks to use embryos or embryonic stem cells to test drugs. Where does the application go? It goes to the human research ethics committee. Who appoints the human research ethics committee? The institution— the drug company. The minister will say, `But it's been established according to the NHMRC guidelines.'

I do not have time tonight to go through all those NHMRC guidelines, but the fact of the matter is that the committee is predominantly research oriented. Two people from the community will be appointed under the guidelines, but preferably they will be from a community very close to the institution. I put it to you that it is not appropriate to have a situation where that organisation is not accountable to anybody. It is certainly not accountable to the public, because the public does not know and is refused the information as to why the committee has acted as it has about an application. I propose to ensure that at least that information is made available to the public.

I am concerned about the fact that the committee is appointed by the institute that makes the application for a licence. That creates many problems. In addition, these sorts of committees very often do not have the resources that are needed to give a truly independent evaluation of the research project for which a licence is required from the National Health and Medical Research Council Licensing Committee. I raise these matters and I would like some response in the first instance to the question: is the government going to do something to ensure that information is made available to the public in the interests of accountability and transparency?

Progress reported.