Safer Witnesses Act
An Act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act
Vic Toews Conservative
Concurrence at Report Stage
Subscribe to a feed of speeches and votes in the House related to Bill C-51.
- May 23, 2013 Passed That Bill C-51, An Act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act, be concurred in at report stage.
- Feb. 12, 2013 Passed That the Bill be now read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security.
Safer Witnesses Act
May 23rd, 2013 / 4:50 p.m.
Francis Scarpaleggia Lac-Saint-Louis, QC
Mr. Speaker, to start, I would like to read an excerpt from the Library of Parliament's legislative summary of Bill C-51. I think that this excerpt provides a good summary of the purpose of the federal witness protection program.
Protecting witnesses against intimidation, violence or retaliation is crucial to maintaining the rule of law. The experts agree that without effective measures to protect vulnerable witnesses and their families, many would be reluctant to cooperate with the authorities.
The federal witness protection program is a key tool in the fight against organized crime. When a person testifies about the activities of a group with which he was once associated, some members of that group may hold it against him. The program is therefore an effective tool in the fight against organized crime.
I would also like to commend the police and peace officers who work in the witness protection program. They do extremely dangerous and difficult work. These police officers often have to live a shadowy existence and lead parallel lives. A witness told us that he sometimes had to rent an apartment for himself because he could not work from his own home where his family lived. He had to stay away from his family to do his work. We must therefore commend these peace officers who are doing a great service for Canadians and our society.
This bill will allow us to expand the witness protection program and make it more effective in the fight against terrorism. It does not seem as though anyone mentioned this in the speeches that I heard. To date, witnesses of terrorist acts or potential terrorist acts do not benefit from the protection offered by this program. We therefore expanded the scope of the program, which is a good thing.
It is important that the federal witness protection program be as efficient as possible in terms of streamlining and expediting the process of admission to the program.
Some provinces and municipalities also operate witness protection programs, so it is not just the federal RCMP. These provincial and municipal programs must co-operate with the federal government in order to have witnesses' identities changed, for example. Those programs would have to deal with Passport Canada and perhaps Human Resources and Skills Development Canada to get social insurance numbers changed and so on and so forth.
Up until this point, the problem has been that if a provincial program identified a witness it wanted protected, it would have to not only accept that the individual should be protected, meaning that the person would essentially be applying to the provincial or municipal program, but that if the person was admitted, the provincial or municipal program would then have to go to the RCMP and ask for admission to the federal witness protection program. Only once the admission was accepted would the paperwork get done that would allow the person to assume a new identity and a new personal history, if one may put it that way.
As a result of this bill, that would not be the case anymore. There would be designated provincial and municipal witness protection programs, and once the witness would be accepted in that designated program, that witness would not have to apply to the RCMP federal program. He or she would simply be able to get the paperwork done by having been admitted to the provincial and municipal program. This is a step forward. This is a step toward making the system more timely, because in these matters we know that time is of the essence.
Speaking of time, the bill would also extend the period during which a potential candidate for the witness protection program can receive emergency protection. It is a very difficult decision to decide to go into the witness protection program. It requires a lot of thought and consultation with family members and so on. Up until now, candidates for witness protection could get some kind of witness protection for 90 days while they made up their mind about whether they wanted to go through with this major step. Now, as a result of Bill C-51, people would have the possibility of a 90-day extension, which would take the emergency protection to a maximum of 180 days. That is a very practical change.
As I said before, the bill modernizes witness protection to assist in the fight against terrorism. The fight against terrorism is an ongoing process of updating the relevant public security tools at our disposal in order to adapt them to the needs of this not-so-new yet ever-evolving challenge.
Witness protection is one area where changes were recommended most notably by the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182. The commission found that the federal witness protection program “is not fully attuned to the needs of sources and witnesses in terrorism investigations and prosecutions”. The report concluded that CSIS, for example, should have access to programs to protect vulnerable witnesses and sources. The report also concluded that the federal witness protection program is too rigid and is based on the assumption that most sources and witnesses have criminal backgrounds.
In a terrorism case, it would be very likely that a witness would not have a criminal background and as a result would not be admissible to the program and would therefore essentially be discouraged from handing over information that could stop a terrorist incident. It is very important that the concept of witness protection be broadened to include not necessarily people who were involved in a crime but people who were witnesses to, say, a terrorist plot. That was the recommendation by the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182. That was the second recommendation.
It is interesting to point out that the bill passed a report stage vote 200 and some votes to none. It obviously is clear that all parties in the House support strengthening the witness protection program.
I should also mention that there were no amendments adopted at committee. That says something as well. It says that this is a non-controversial bill, that it is more of an administrative or procedural enhancement kind of bill. It was quite obvious what needed to be done, and it has been done.
Again, this points to the fact that this is really a technical matter, and I am not sure that it really warrants the kind of partisan debate that we have witnessed so far this afternoon, but so be it.
There are other changes that have been recommended to the witness protection program that are not in the bill, but that we were told the government would implement outside of the bill. There are three particular improvements that have been recommended to the witness protection program: one, separating investigations and decisions about admission to the federal witness protection program; two, offering legal counsel to those negotiating entry into the program; and three, offering psychological assessments to program candidates.
In 2008, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security recommended that a clear operational distinction be made between the investigations and prosecutions function of law enforcement on the one hand, and the decision-making function for admitting a candidate to the federal witness protection program on the other, making “it plain [to the candidate for witness protection] that protection is not a reward for cooperating with the authorities”.
Until now, basically it was the same group within the RCMP that was providing protection, but also making the decision about whether the witness should be admitted to the program. One can understand that would put certain individuals in the RCMP in a bit of a contradictory situation or a potential conflict of interest situation. Therefore, it was recommended by the House of Commons committee in 2008 that a separate department be created to make the decision about whether somebody should be admitted to the witness protection program, separate from the RCMP whose main function and concern would be to provide protection. That was not done. A separate agency was not created, but we got assurances from the minister and the government that these two functions would from now on be separate within the RCMP, and that is a very good thing.
The second item was not in the bill but it is germane obviously to the witness protection program going forward. Negotiating entry into the program is a complex matter, as is negotiating a contract with the RCMP for witness protection. Therefore, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, in 2008, recommended offering candidates the aid of legal counsel during the signing of protection contracts to increase the likelihood of fair and equitable negotiations. Again that is not in the law, but something the government has committed to do.
On the third item, as I mentioned, entering a witness protection program is not an easy decision. It is not easy to live the rest of one's days under a new name, identity and personal history. In recognition of these pressures, which can lead some people who enter the federal witness protection program to voluntarily terminate their participation in the program down the road, the government would now apparently be offering candidates for the program psychological assessments to determine if they are likely to remain in a program over the long term. This would be a very constructive change and new way of doing things that would reduce the likelihood that someone would enter the program and then leave it. It is worth noting that the provision of psychological assessments was a recommendation of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security when it did its review of the witness protection program in 2008.
There has been talk about how the program may need additional funding. It is true, the RCMP did say that lack of funding would never lead them to refuse a candidate for witness protection and I believe that. However, the funding issue is not really about that. It is a little more complex and it bears mentioning.
We did have one witness who came to the committee and spoke to the funding issue. Micki Ruth, of the Canadian Association of Police Boards, appearing before the committee, highlighted the fact that the RCMP can charge back to municipal police forces the costs of witness protection. To quote Ms. Ruth:
Currently, when a municipality does make use of a provincial witness protection program and the crime is federal in nature or involves drugs, then the RCMP takes over and charges the local police services the full cost, which is an expense that many services cannot afford.
We know this, and it was mentioned previously by the hon. member from Portage la Prairie, that the committee on public safety is conducting a study on the rising costs of policing in order to determine how we can contain those costs. We can see that police forces around the country are cash strapped. It would be a concern to them that they would bring someone into the federal witness protection program because the crime involves a federal crime and then find that they are going to have to pay for putting that person into the witness protection program. That might discourage a local police force from pursuing the option of seeking the co-operation of a witness under the understanding that that person would enter the witness protection program. Cost becomes a factor.
It is not right to say that cost is not at all a factor in the matter of witness protection. In fact, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, in 2012, also noted that one of the difficulties associated with the federal witness protection program is a lack of resources. It recommended that the federal government allocate dedicated resources to managing the federal witness protection program. We have three reports that have been recommending changes to the witness protection program.
Regarding the comments from the member for Pontiac that it is so obvious that there were improvements to be made in the legislation and wondering why these improvements were not made right away, that is not how it works in the House. We have to study the situation and that can take time. Out of those studies that call witnesses to appear and provide expert opinion we develop recommendations for change. That is what has happened with witness protection.
There have been three committees that provided input into what kinds of changes are needed to the program: the House of Commons public safety committee in 2008, the committee on justice and human rights in 2012, and the Major inquiry in the Air India bombing. These changes are rooted in careful study and that is what makes it a good bill. That is probably why there is no dissent on the bill. Everyone here today voted for it at report stage.
There are some issues that I would have liked to touch on if I had had more time. There is probably a need for the government to look at another aspect of witness protection, which is not the witness protection program narrowly defined. In other words, there are some people who do not want to go into the program, who do not need to go into the program, but they need to testify and they are going to be intimidated. We need to find better ways to allow people to testify in court proceedings where their anonymity can be ensured. This is something the government needs to look at.
There are ways that anonymity can be partially protected. People can testify on closed-circuit television, behind a screen and with their voice changed through synthesizing processes, but we are told that more needs to be done to really make sure that criminal elements do not discover who these people are who are testifying.
Safer Witnesses Act
May 23rd, 2013 / 4:50 p.m.
Sadia Groguhé Saint-Lambert, QC
Mr. Speaker, I congratulate my colleague on his speech. He dealt with a number of issues.
I would like to ask him a question. One recommendation that came from the Air India inquiry involved establishing a more transparent and more accountable eligibility process. Simply put, Bill C-51 does not include any provisions in that regard.
What can our colleague tell us about the government's refusal to really commit to making the program more transparent?
Safer Witnesses Act
May 23rd, 2013 / 4:35 p.m.
Jean Rousseau Compton—Stanstead, QC
Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate my hon. colleague from Pontiac on his excellent speech.
Bill C-51, An Act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act, would amend and update the witness protection program. Many people familiar with the system have been saying for a long time that it needs to be expanded and modernized.
On the other hand, the task is not an easy one, given the enormous changes that have occurred in computer espionage technology and the inexhaustible ways of obtaining information about people today. Just think of how many times a scandal has come to light where information was obtained more or less legally or a document containing information was lost. Similar things can happen when the time comes to protect witnesses in extremely important trials like the Air India trial.
We must not forget that criminal organizations are highly skilled at making arrangements to infiltrate various government and public agencies. Once again, how many times have we heard about a person who obtained information or managed to get their hands on a hard drive or CD containing encrypted information?
In the course of the fiscal year ending in March 2012, the federal witness protection program accepted only 30 applications out of 108, at a cost of just over $9 million. That is only 30% or 40% of applicants.
Once again, families and various players in the system have been saying for a long time that the program needs to be expanded because there are trials under way that cannot be completed because of a shortage of information and evidence.
For instance, in Quebec, evidence against criminal gangs is difficult to obtain because there are so many friends and family members. It is extremely difficult. As its short title indicates, the bill therefore redefines several provisions to make witnesses safer.
For example, it provides for the designation of a provincial or municipal witness protection program. It authorizes the RCMP commissioner to coordinate, at the request of an official of a provincial or municipal program, the activities of federal departments, agencies and services in order to facilitate a change of identity for persons admitted to the designated program.
This is extremely important, because when someone's identity is changed or a witness is assigned to a location, the municipality and province in question are responsible for that person and also for that person’s protection.
The bill adds prohibitions on the disclosure of information relating to persons admitted to provincial and municipal programs, to the means and methods by which witnesses are protected and to persons who provide or assist in providing protection.
Even RCMP and Quebec provincial police officers have told us that they or members of their family involved in the program are at risk. The program therefore needs to be broadened to ensure that everyone is protected.
The bill will also specify the circumstances under which disclosure of certain protected information is permitted. It exempts a person from any liability or other punishment for stating that they do not provide or assist in providing protection to witnesses or that they do not know that a person is protected under the program. It also expands the category of witnesses who may be admitted to the federal witness protection program to include persons who assist federal departments, agencies or services. This is extremely important.
It allows witnesses in the witness protection program to end their protection voluntarily. The testimony suggests that people sometimes ask to end their protection. They say everything is okay, that there is no problem. However, there were still some reservations about that.
The reverse is also being proposed, namely to extend the period during which protection may, in an emergency, be provided to a person who has not been admitted to the federal program or who would like to put an end to it in a situation where the federal program comes to an end. Finally, it also proposes to make a consequential amendment to another act, namely the Access to Information Act.
Bill C-51 proposes a better process to support provincial witness protection programs and expands the program to other agencies with national security responsibilities. This could mean a department, a municipality or an agency. They really need the support.
The bill will expand the protection program eligibility criteria by including street gang members and by accepting a new group of people who assist federal departments. Federal departments and agencies with a mandate related to national security, national defence or public safety would also be able to refer witnesses to the program.
The bill would extend the period for emergency protection, as I was saying, and clear up some of the technical problems that were occurring in relation to coordination with provincial programs. This is extremely important, because the lack of coordination between the stakeholders at the provincial, federal and municipal levels, especially in large municipalities such as Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, was causing serious problems.
There are also a few other changes, but there is one in particular that I find worth mentioning, specifically the change to the definition of “protection”. This definition would be replaced by the following in clause 3 of the bill:
...protection may include relocation, accommodation and change of identity [which is quite legitimate] as well as counselling and financial support for those or any other purposes in order to ensure the security of a person or to facilitate the person’s re-establishment or becoming self-sufficient.
This is extremely important. When you change someone's identity or place them in the protection program, at some point they will have to integrate into society and resume living their lives. This paragraph alone may have more financial implications than one might think.
What about loved ones? This is not clearly defined. It is one of the questions that remain to be answered. The loved ones of witnesses in the protection program are not clearly defined, if they are defined at all. Are they the immediate family, or more distant relatives? Are the gang members still considered loved ones? There is no way to be sure.
If the Conservatives truly want to improve the witness protection program, they should commit the money needed to implement the measure. They should also truly want to protect everyone involved in the program, including the officers, as I already mentioned. Officers have told me that when they participate in witness protection programs, their loved ones can sometimes be in danger. That is important to keep in mind.
Bill C-51 makes enough positive changes that we will support it at third reading. I think that everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, agrees with expanding eligibility for the witness protection program.
Authorities who work on combatting street gangs say that it would be an improvement and would help them do their job if gang members who are trying to leave that lifestyle could have access to the program.
However, there is one thing we must never forget. People are what matter to the NDP. Everything we do, we do for the people of Canada. We are committed to building safer communities and neighbourhoods for seniors and the general public, so that everyone feels comfortable being out and about in this country.
We can also improve the witness protection program by bringing peace and justice to our neighbourhoods. We can do so by giving federal, provincial and municipal police forces the additional tools they need to combat street gangs and organized crime groups, which are becoming increasingly better equipped in terms of technology and information, as I mentioned.
The government has cut nearly $190 million from the RCMP and over $140 million from the Canada Border Services Agency. The government will not create a free and peaceful Canada by making cuts to our police forces and to public safety.
Safer Witnesses Act
May 23rd, 2013 / 4:30 p.m.
Pierre Jacob Brome—Missisquoi, QC
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Pontiac for his very fine speech.
The Liberals have every right to criticize the Conservative government, because it has not done enough with Bill C-51. However, with respect to eligibility and lack of funding, why did the Liberals not respond to criticism of the witness protection program when they were in power and had the chance? In other words, why do they continue to say one thing and do another?
Safer Witnesses Act
May 23rd, 2013 / 4:20 p.m.
Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Compton—Stanstead who works very hard to serve his constituents.
I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-51 at third reading. This bill contains measures that have been long called for by the NDP. Among other things, it will: expand the eligibility criteria for informants and witnesses; extend the duration of emergency protection; and speed up the process for obtaining new pieces of identification. Those are all good things.
The Witness Protection Program Act, passed in 1996, sorely needed to be strengthened. In fact, we have been insistently calling for better coordination of federal and provincial programs and improved overall program funding since 2007.
Even though we support the bill because we believe that it will further improve the program, we still deplore the fact that the Conservative government refused to provide additional funding for the program, knowing that the announced changes may well increase the number of beneficiaries, which will certainly increase the financial burden on municipalities and police services, because of the downloading of costs.
At the committee hearings, some witnesses expressed their fears in this regard. On March 7, 2013, a commissioner with the Canadian Association of Police Boards said:
...we see problems with the ability of municipality police services to adequately access witness protection because they lack the resources... I want to emphasize that, while we support the intent of Bill C-51, CAPB has a duty to its members to ensure that legislation passed by the government does not result in a downloading of additional costs to the municipal police services that we represent.
It is important to provide the resources needed to implement our changes. When a new piece of legislation has an impact on criminal justice, we must always look at the costs and budgetary implications. Our police officers look after the well-being of Canadians every day by protecting them without their even realizing it. It is our duty to give them the tools they need to do their jobs. I need to say this.
To combat organized crime, it is obviously necessary to update and modernize our laws. That is what Bill C-51 does. Doing undercover work in the underworld is complicated, time-consuming and dangerous. The police need informers and informants if they are to infiltrate criminal organizations.
Bill C-51 improves protection for witnesses and informants who help the police, and it also improves the ability to make use of these sources of information. This is important. We want those who combat street gangs to know that giving gang members who want to leave the gang access to the program will be an important additional tool to help them eliminate the problem.
Organized crime is growing with alarming speed in Canada, particularly in Quebec, where my riding is located.
Through this support, the NDP is committed to building safer communities. One way of doing this is to improve the witness protection program to ensure that our constituents can live in safe neighbourhoods and cities and to provide the various police forces with additional tools to combat street gangs and organized crime. It might also provide added protection for our police officers.
Needless to say, the more information is available to the police, the better they will be able to do their jobs and the better they will be protected.
The federal witness protection program has long been criticized because of its strict eligibility criteria, its poor coordination with federal programs and the small number of witnesses admitted to the program. Furthermore, only 30 of the 108 applications examined were approved in 2012.
Since the Witness Protection Program Act was passed in 1996, the Liberal and Conservative governments have done very little to respond to criticism of the system, even though a number of bills have been introduced in the House of Commons to deal with some parts of the protection program, including the protection of witnesses in cases of family violence, which was supported by the NDP, but rejected by the Liberal government of the day. The basic issues of eligibility, coordination and funding have never been addressed.
That is why this bill is essentially positive. We hope that the Conservatives will offer the support that local police organizations need to ensure that witnesses will come forward in matters such as street gangs. The safety and welfare of the whole population is at stake. The more informants feel that they are protected, the more likely they will be to come forward and work with the police. We will give these people a real chance to change their lives and contribute to the well-being of their families and the community by attempting, through the information they provide, to rein in and perhaps even eliminate street gangs.
The government is responsible for giving people the tools they need to achieve their full potential. However, we need to be able to act upon our convictions. I want to reiterate that additional funds would have enabled municipal police forces to do more. I nevertheless maintain that the witness protection program is often an essential tool for encouraging people to work with the police.
We recognize that the bill is proposing significant improvements and a better process for supporting provincial witness protection programs. The bill would broaden the scope of the program to include national security agencies. That is another good thing.
Our view is that strengthening the witness protection program will improve public safety and help the various police forces to combat violence. It is therefore because of my desire for change that I endorse Bill C-51 and give my full support to all the police officers in my riding who help to make the towns and cities in Pontiac safer.
Safer Witnesses Act
May 23rd, 2013 / 3:50 p.m.
Candice Bergen Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise and speak in support of Bill C-51, the safer witnesses act.
At the onset, I was going to thank the opposition members because up until this point they have been supporting this very important piece of legislation. However, it is very disappointing to see the games that we have just witnessed and their delay tactics in trying to stop this important piece of legislation from being advanced.
It is important that witnesses be protected. It is important that police officers and front-line officers be protected. That is why we have brought forward this legislation, and it is very disappointing and troubling to see the opposition members delay this important legislation as they have been doing.
Strengthening our federal witness protection program should not be a partisan issue. Rather, it is an issue of public safety and effective justice.
In general, we are all in agreement on the critical role that witness protection plays in our criminal justice system. I believe that most Canadians understand that in order to give our police and courts the best chance to apprehend and convict offenders, we need individuals to feel confident in moving forward to help with investigations. In fact, protecting witnesses is vital to our justice system. These are individuals who have agreed to help law enforcement or provide testimony in criminal matters. Their input and help is vital.
The end goal is to remove criminals from our streets and indeed make our communities safer. In many cases, these individuals have inside knowledge about organized crime syndicates or the illicit drug trade because they themselves are involved in these elements. The information that they have agreed to provide to authorities may be invaluable, and it could place their lives at risk.
Witness protection is recognized around the world as an important tool that law enforcement agencies have at their disposal to combat criminal activity. In the case of organized crime in particular, these witnesses are often the key component to achieving convictions. To ensure a fair and effective response to organized crime, terrorism and other serious crimes, government and police agencies must provide protection to informants and witnesses who could face intimidation, violence or reprisals. The safer witnesses act contains a number of proposed changes to the Witness Protection Program Act that would do just this.
These changes fall within five broad areas, and I will speak on those areas.
First, the bill would promote greater integration between the provincial and federal programs by enabling the provinces to have their respective programs designated under the federal act. There would be some very positive benefits to the provinces' programs with these changes, but chief among those benefits is that the provincial protectees would be able to receive a secure identity change without having to be admitted to the federal program. As members know, under the current system, provincial witness protection programs provide a range of services on a case by case basis, including short-term protection and limited financial support. In cases where it is determined that provincial protectees require secure identity changes, they must be transferred into the federal program. That is the way the process works now. This can cause delays. It can be very difficult for these individuals to get the documentation they need and it can take a very long time.
As we consulted with stakeholders, these problems were identified and it was deemed necessary to make these changes that are proposed in Bill C-51 to address this concern. Stakeholders from the provinces indicated that the requirement to transfer their protectees to the federal program for secure identity changes was cumbersome and time consuming. With Bill C-51, we would address this concern. We would do that by allowing the Minister of Public Safety to designate a provincial program, thereby allowing the RCMP to work directly with that designated program to help obtain secure federal identity documents for a protectee. Again this would eliminate a lot of red tape and process, and instead ensure that these individuals who are under the witness protection program receive the identity documents that they need in a timely manner. We would also provide a more efficient and secure process for obtaining these documents by identifying a single point of contact for each designated provincial witness protection program, again eliminating red tape and redundancy, making the process proceed in a more timely manner.
The second change under Bill C-51 relates to secure identity changes as well. Federal organizations would be required to help the RCMP obtain secure identity changes for witnesses in both the federal program and in designated provincial programs.
To ensure a streamlined process, the RCMP would continue to act as a liaison between the provincial and federal programs. Again, it would be a better and more streamlined way to get the important identity documents that witnesses who are under the protection program require.
Third, Bill C-51 would broaden prohibition disclosures, ensuring protection of provincial witnesses and information at both the federal and provincial levels. Again, it is a very important change that has been needed. We heard about it at committee many times in consultation with stakeholders. We heard that broadening the prohibitions of information that could be released was an important part of the witness program that had to be changed. This change addresses calls by the provinces to ensure that witnesses in their programs are protected from disclosure of prohibited information throughout Canada. I will speak more to this important change in a moment, because it really is a very critical part of the bill.
The fourth change proposed under the safer witnesses act is to expand which entities are able to refer individuals to the commissioner of the RCMP to be considered for admission into the federal program. Currently, only law enforcement agencies and international criminal tribunals can make such referrals. Bill C-51 would allow federal organizations that have a mandate related to national security, defence, or public safety to refer witnesses to the federal program. These organizations may include CSIS and the Department of National Defence. This was a recommendation that came out of the Air India enquiry and the recommendation that who would be allowed or considered for this program be expanded. Our government responded by making these changes and by introducing Bill C-51.
We feel it is so important that bill is passed, and we really hope that the opposition will stop playing any kind of games and work with us to get this important piece through. They are laughing, but it is really not a laughing matter at all, not when we are talking about protecting witnesses, which, in the long run, protects Canadians. We are talking about gangs, drugs and organized crime. It is not a laughing matter at all. It is very serious.
The bill addresses a number of other concerns raised by federal and provincial stakeholders, such as allowing for voluntary termination from the federal program and extending emergency protection to a maximum of 180 days, up from the current 90 days. Right now, under the current legislation, someone could be under an emergency protection order for 90 days, but we want to extend that so that they could be protected in an emergency situation for up to 180 days. This received broad support from the witnesses as well as stakeholders.
Together, these proposed changes would serve to strengthen the current Witness Protection Program Act, making the federal program more effective and secure for both the witnesses and those who provide protection. This is the goal of the program, to keep those involved and their information safe and secure.
As I mentioned, I want to go back to one of the changes that is related to the disclosure prohibitions. Before I go into that, I want to say that we heard in testimony, whether it was from the police, Tom Stamatakis of the Canadian Police Association, or other law enforcement agencies, that the protections required are certainly not just for the witnesses who are involved in the witness protection program. We are extending that to cover the law enforcement people who have been organizing and working with them. These are sometimes undercover police officers or other law enforcement individuals who currently are not protected under the prohibitions for information. Bill C-51 would give front-line officers and law enforcement workers the protection that they need. Again, the Canadian Police Association is very grateful and supportive of this legislation.
Currently, the act prohibits the disclosure of information about the location or change of identity of a current or former federal protectee. That is basically the only current prohibition. In stakeholder consultations, some provinces requested that these disclosure prohibitions be extended to include information about provincial witness protection programs and those they protect. The safer witnesses act addresses this concern with changes that would broaden the prohibitions on disclosing information in a number of ways.
We are going to extend and broaden what kind of information cannot be released. I think all Canadians, including all members, would agree that when someone's identity needs to be protected, there are so many pieces of information that, unfortunately, could tip off somebody who would want to do them harm. Therefore, it is very important that we broaden the information that is prohibited from being released.
First, the safer witnesses act would prohibit the disclosure of information related to the individuals who are protected under designated programs, and we are going to expand it to designated provincial programs.
Second, it would prohibit the disclosure of any means or method of protection that could endanger the protected individual or the integrity of the programs themselves. Again, that broadens it. The language is within jurisprudence and other language in the Criminal Code. This includes information about the methods used to provide or support protection and record or exchange confidential information as well as data about the location of secure facilities.
Third, it would prohibit disclosure of any information about the identity or role of persons who provide, or assist in providing, protection for the witnesses. That is where law enforcement comes into play. Part of their job is to assist and protect witnesses. They need to be protected too. That is why the bill is so vital and why law enforcement and stakeholders across the country have been asking for it and why it is important that we pass the bill.
Further, the bill would clarify language in the current act to ensure that these measures apply to situations where a person directly or indirectly discloses information. I want to stress that the bill also specifies that one must knowingly reveal this information for it to be an offence. This means directly and intentionally releasing information with the knowledge that one is releasing information that is prohibited. The bill specifies that if someone does it unknowingly, it would not be an offence.
As with many laws regulating privacy and personal information, there are exceptions to these disclosure prohibitions. Bill C-51 includes changes that would further strengthen the legislation in this regard. For example, as stated in the current act, a protectee or former protectee can disclose information about him or herself as long as it does not endanger the life of another protectee or former protectee and if it does not compromise the integrity of this important program. Under Bill C-51, the wording would be changed to remove the reference to the integrity of the program and to clarify that the protected person can disclose information if it could not lead to substantial harm to any protected person.
The current act also allows for disclosure of prohibited information by the RCMP commissioner for a variety of reasons: if the protected person gives his or her consent; if the protectee or former protectee has already disclosed the information or acted in a manner that results in disclosure; if the disclosure is essential to the public interest for purposes such as investigations or the prevention of a serious crime, national security or national defence; and finally, in criminal proceedings where the disclosure is necessary to establish the innocence of a person. There are some good safeguards in place regarding the prohibition of information.
Under the safer witnesses act, we would change the wording as it relates to the RCMP commissioner disclosing prohibited information for the public interest. Instead, under Bill C-51, the commissioner may only disclose this information when he or she has reasonable grounds to believe that it is essential for the purposes of the administration of justice. Furthermore, we propose a change in the wording related to disclosure for national security purposes. Under Bill C-51, the commissioner could disclose prohibited information if he or she “has reasonable grounds to believe that the disclosure is essential for...national security or national defence”.
Along the same vein, Bill C-51 contains several proposed changes that would authorize the RCMP commissioner to disclose information in specific situations. He or she could disclose information about both federal and designated program protected persons for the purpose of providing protection to federal protectees or for facilitating a secure change of identity for provincial protectees. The commissioner would also be able to disclose information about federal and designated program protectees in situations where a protected person either agrees to the disclosure or has previously disclosed information, such as if the protected person has revealed his or her change of identity to family or friends. Again, some of the same safeguards are in place.
Additionally, the commissioner would be authorized to disclose information about the federal program itself, methods of protection and the role of a person who provides protection under the program. This would only be done when the commissioner had reasonable grounds to believe that the disclosure was essential for the administration of justice, national security, national defence or public safety.
This is a good and concise overview of those elements of Bill C-51 that relate to safeguarding and disclosing information that would compromise the safety of a protected witness or those who provide protection for that witness.
I would like to close by taking a few minutes to talk about some concerns raised in committee. We heard some concerns from the opposition that this would mean rising costs. However, we heard directly from witnesses, including the RCMP, the Minister of Public Safety, the Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP and other stakeholders that rising costs were not anticipated.
We also heard some concern that there would be a great influx of witnesses coming into the federal program. Again, witnesses and experts told us that the prediction was that there would not be a great influx. The number of witnesses accepted into the program fluctuates from year to year, but a huge number coming in now is not anticipated. Admission to the program is based on a set of criteria found under section 7 of the act. Only one of those is cost.
Todd Shean, the RCMP Assistant Commissioner, stated, in his committee testimony, “since my time in the chair, never have I denied an entry because of costs”. Therefore, we were able to clear up the concerns some opposition members had. It was clear that no witness has ever been denied access to the program because of cost. Costs are not expected to rise under this new legislation.
Regarding who would be administering the program, there were some concerns about whether it should be the RCMP. There were some recommendations that it could fall under the Department of Justice. We looked at this recommendation and conducted extensive consultations. It was determined that the RCMP was best suited to managing the program.
There would be a clear distinction between investigative and protective functions to ensure objectivity with respect to witness protection measures, so there would be two separate organizations within the RCMP. One would manage the actual witness protection program and decide who should be involved in it, and one would be the administrative part, which would be completely separate.
As I said at the outset, a strong federal witness protection program is critical to keeping our law enforcement and justice systems working effectively. We need to take these steps to ensure that individuals are protected and that our communities are safe. That is why our government is committed to strengthening our federal witness protection program. That is why we are committed to doing this to address the threat of organized crime and drugs in our communities and to make sure that informants and witnesses can collaborate with law enforcement. As such, it is vital that we pass this piece of legislation in a timely way so that it can become law and we can give law enforcement organizations the tools they need to keep Canadians safe.
The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-51, An Act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act, as reported (without amendment) from the committee.
Business of the House
May 23rd, 2013 / 3:05 p.m.
Peter Van Loan Leader of the Government in the House of Commons
Mr. Speaker, as you know, our government has moved forward this week to conduct business in the House of Commons in a productive, orderly and hard-working fashion, and we have tried to work in good faith.
We began the week debating a motion to add an additional 20 hours to the House schedule each week. Before I got through the first minute of my speech on that motion, the hon. member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley interrupted with a dubious point of order to prevent the government from moving forward to work overtime. His was a bogus argument and the Speaker rightly saw the NDP delay effort as entirely devoid of merit and rejected it outright.
During its first speech opposing the motion to work hard, the NDP then moved an amendment to gut it. That amendment was defeated. The NDP then voted against the motion and against working overtime, but that motion still passed, thanks to the Conservatives in the House.
During the first NDP speech on Bill C-49 last night, in the efforts to work longer, the NDP moved an amendment to gut that bill and cause gridlock in the House. I am not kidding. These are all one step after another of successive measures to delay. During its next speech, before the first day of extended hours was completed, the NDP whip moved to shut down the House, to go home early. That motion was also defeated. This is the NDP's “do as I say, not as I do” attitude at its height.
Take the hon. member for Gatineau. At 4 p.m., she stood in the House and said, “I am more than happy to stay here until midnight tonight...”. That is a direct quote. It sounded good. In fact, I even naively took her at her word that she and her party were actually going to work with us, work hard and get things done. Unfortunately, her actions did not back up her words, because just a few short hours later, that very same member, the member for Gatineau, seconded a motion to shut down the House early.
I am not making this up. I am not kidding. She waited until the sun went down until she thought Canadians were not watching anymore and then she tried to prevent members from doing their work. This goes to show the value of the word of NDP members. In her case, she took less than seven hours to break her word. That is unfortunate. It is a kind of “do as I say, not as I do” attitude that breeds cynicism in politics and, unfortunately, it is all too common in the NDP.
We saw the same thing from the hon. member for Davenport, when he said, “We are happy to work until midnight...”, and two short hours later he voted to try to shut down the House early. It is the same for the hon. member for Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing and the hon. member for Drummond. They all professed an interest in working late and then had their party vote to shut down early. What is clear by their actions is that the NDP will try anything to avoid hard work.
It is apparent that the only way that Conservatives, who are willing to work in the House, will be able to get things done is through a focused agenda, having a productive, orderly and hard-working House of Commons. This afternoon, we will debate Bill C-51, the safer witnesses act, at report stage and third reading. After private members' hour, we will go to Bill S-12, the incorporation by reference in regulations act, at second reading.
Tomorrow before question period, we will start second reading of Bill S-14, the fighting foreign corruption act, and after question period, we will start second reading of Bill S-13, the port state measures agreement implementation act.
Monday before question period, we will consider Bill S-2, the family homes on reserves and matrimonial interests or rights act. This bill would provide protection for aboriginal women and children by giving them the same rights that women who do not live on reserve have had for decades. After question period, we will debate Bill C-54, the not criminally responsible reform act, at second reading, a bill that makes a reasonable and needed reform to the Criminal Code. We are proposing to ensure that public safety should be the paramount consideration in the decision-making process involving high-risk accused found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder. It is time to get that bill to a vote. We will also consider Bill C-48, the technical tax amendments act, 2012—and yes, that is last year—at third reading.
On Wednesday, we will resume this morning's debate on Bill C-52, the fair rail freight service act, at third reading.
On Thursday, we will continue this afternoon's debate on Bill C-51. Should the NDP adopt a new and co-operative, productive spirit and let all of these bills pass, we could consider other measures, such as Bill S-17, the tax conventions implementation act, 2013, Bill C-56, the combating counterfeit products act, Bill S-15, the expansion and conservation of Canada’s national parks act, and Bill C-57, the safeguarding Canada's seas and skies act.
Optimism springs eternal within my heart. I hope to see that from the opposition.
Motion That Debate Be Not Further Adjourned
Extension of Sitting Hours
May 22nd, 2013 / 4 p.m.
Peter Van Loan York—Simcoe, ON
Mr. Speaker, we always conduct ourselves with very high ethical standards. In this case, there is one very important ethic. It is called the work ethic. We on the Conservative side of the House believe very strongly in the work ethic. That is what we are seeking to advance here.
Let us talk about some of the important bills we are looking to have debated in advance as a result of the motion to extend hours here.
There is the technical tax amendments act, Bill C-48. This bill has been around for years. There is uncertainty in our economy and uncertainty among those who are functioning, because these changes have been put in place structurally but need to actually be cemented legislatively. It is about time we got on and did that.
There is the Canadian museum of history act. The bill would help us create relevant history for Canadians and respect for our Canadian national identity in a proper and full way. This is something that is very much overdue.
There is the safer witnesses act, Bill C-51. It is very important for us to provide changes to the Witness Protection Program Act if we want to have safer streets and communities. Why would anyone from any party want to resist having a bill like that debated? Why would they want to limit the amount of debate in this House so as to keep bills like that and the others from moving forward.
I will continue going down this list as we discuss this. These are very important priorities for Canadians, and that is why we are bringing in this motion to work a bit harder.
Extension of Sitting Hours
May 21st, 2013 / 12:35 p.m.
Peter Van Loan York—Simcoe, ON
Mr. Speaker, I will pick up where I left off. Obviously my hon. friend did not hear this and has not read the motion. I will respond to his macho riposte at the end of his comments by pointing out that the motion would do three things: first, it would provide for us to sit until midnight; second, it would provide a manageable way in which to hold votes in a fashion that works for members of the House; and third, it would provide for concurrence debates to happen and motions to be voted on in a fashion that would not disrupt the work of all the committees of the House and force them to come back here for votes and shut down the work of committees.
Those are the three things the motion would do. In all other respects the Standing Orders remain in place, including the Standing Orders for how long the House sits. Had my friend actually read the motion, he would recognize that the only way in which that Standing Order could then be changed would be by unanimous consent of the House.
The member needs no commitment from me as to how long we will sit. Any member of the House can determine that question, if he or she wishes to adjourn other than the rules contemplate, but the rules are quite clear in what they do contemplate.
As I was saying, the reason for the motion is that Canadians expect their members of Parliament to work hard and get things done on their behalf.
Canadians expect their members of Parliament to work hard and get things done on their behalf.
We agree and that is exactly what has happened here in the House of Commons.
However, do not take my word for it; look at the facts. In this Parliament the government has introduced 76 pieces of legislation. Of those 76, 44 of them are law in one form or another. That makes for a total of 58% of the bills introduced into Parliament. Another 15 of these bills have been passed by either the House or the Senate, bringing the total to 77% of the bills that have been passed by one of the two Houses of Parliament. That is the record of a hard-working, orderly and productive Parliament.
More than just passing bills, the work we are doing here is delivering real results for Canadians. However, there is still yet more work to be done before we return to our constituencies for the summer.
During this time our government's top priority has been jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity. Through two years and three budgets, we have passed initiatives that have helped to create more than 900,000 net new jobs since the global economic recession. We have achieved this record while also ensuring that Canada's debt burden is the lowest in the G7. We are taking real action to make sure the budget will be balanced by 2015. We have also followed through on numerous longstanding commitments to keep our streets and communities safe, to improve democratic representation in the House of Commons, to provide marketing freedom for western Canadian grain farmers and to eliminate once and for all the wasteful and inefficient long gun registry.
Let me make clear what the motion would and would not do. There has been speculation recently, including from my friend opposite, about the government's objectives and motivations with respect to motion no. 17. As the joke goes: Mr. Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. So it is with today's motion. There is only one intention motivating the government in proposing the motion: to work hard and deliver real results for Canadians.
The motion would extend the hours the House sits from Monday through Thursday. Instead of finishing the day around 6:30 or 7 p.m., the House would sit instead until midnight.
This would amount to an additional 20 hours each week. Extended sitting hours is something that happens most years in June. Our government just wants to roll up our sleeves and work a little harder, earlier this year. The motion would allow certain votes to be deferred automatically until the end of question period, to allow for all honourable members' schedules to be a little more orderly.
As I said, all other rules would remain. For example, concurrence motions could be moved, debated and voted upon. Today's motion would simply allow committees to continue doing their work instead of returning to the House for motions to return to government business and the like. This process we are putting forward would ensure those committees could do their good work and be productive, while at the same time the House could proceed with its business. Concurrence motions could ultimately be dealt with, debated and voted upon.
We are interested in working hard and being productive and doing so in an orderly fashion, and that is the extent of what the motion would do. I hope that the opposition parties would be willing to support this reasonable plan and let it come forward to a vote. I am sure members opposite would not be interested in going back to their constituents to say they voted against working a little overtime before the House rises for the summer, but the first indication from my friend opposite is that perhaps he is reluctant to do that. Members on this side of the House are willing to work extra hours to deliver real results for Canadians.
Some of those accomplishments we intend to pass are: reforming the temporary foreign workers program to put the interests of Canadians first; implementing tax credits for Canadians who donate to charity; enhancing the tax credit for parents who adopt; and extending the tax credit for Canadians who take care of loved ones in their home.
We also want to support veterans and their families by improving the determination of veterans' benefits.
Of course, these are some of the important measures from this year's budget and are included in Bill C-60, economic action plan 2013 act, no. 1. We are also working toward results for aboriginals by moving closer to equality for Canadians living on reserves through better standards for drinking water and finally giving women on reserves the same rights and protections other Canadian women have had for decades. Bill S-2, family homes on reserves and matrimonial interests or rights act, and Bill S-8, the safe drinking water for first nations act would deliver on those very important objectives.
We will also work to keep our streets and communities safe by making real improvements to the witness protection program through Bill C-51, the safer witnesses act. I think that delivering these results for Canadians is worth working a few extra hours each week.
We will work to bring the Technical Tax Amendments Act, 2012, into law. Bill C-48 would provide certainty to the tax code. It has been over a decade since a bill like this has passed, so it is about time this bill passed. In fact, after question period today, I hope to start third reading of this bill, so perhaps we can get it passed today.
We will also work to bring Bill C-52, the fair rail freight service act, into law. The bill would support economic growth by ensuring that all shippers, including farmers, are treated fairly. Over the next few weeks we will also work, hopefully with the co-operation of the opposition parties, to make progress on other important initiatives.
Bill C-54 will ensure that public safety is the paramount consideration in the decision-making process involving high-risk accused found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder. This is an issue that unfortunately has affected every region of this country. The very least we can do is let the bill come to a vote and send it to committee where witnesses can testify about the importance of these changes.
Bill C-49 would create the Canadian museum of history, a museum for Canadians that would tell our stories and present our country's treasures to the world.
Bill S-14, the Fighting Foreign Corruption Act, will do just that by further deterring and preventing Canadian companies from bribing foreign public officials. These amendments will help ensure that Canadian companies continue to act in good faith in the pursuit of freer markets and expanded global trade.
Bill S-13, the port state measures agreement implementation act, would implement that 2009 treaty by amending the Coastal Fisheries Protection Act to add prohibitions on importing illegally acquired fish.
Tonight we will be voting on Bill S-9, the Nuclear Terrorism Act, which will allow Canada to honour its commitments under international agreements to tackle nuclear terrorism. Another important treaty—the Convention on Cluster Munitions—can be given effect if we adopt Bill S-10, the Prohibiting Cluster Munitions Act.
We will seek to update and modernize Canada’s network of income tax treaties through Bill S-17, the Tax Conventions Implementation Act, 2013, by giving the force of law to recently signed agreements between Canada and Namibia, Serbia, Poland, Hong Kong, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
Among other economic bills is Bill C-56, the combating counterfeit products act. The bill would protect Canadians from becoming victims of trademark counterfeiting and goods made using inferior or dangerous materials that lead to injury or even death. Proceeds from the sale of counterfeit goods may be used to support organized crime groups. Clearly, this bill is another important one to enact.
Important agreements with the provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador would be satisfied through Bill S-15, the expansion and conservation of Canada’s national parks act, which would, among other things, create the Sable Island national park reserve, and Bill C-61, the offshore health and safety act, which would provide clear rules for occupational health and safety of offshore oil and gas installations.
Earlier I referred to the important work of committees. The Standing Joint Committee on the Scrutiny of Regulations inspired Bill S-12, the incorporation by reference in regulations act. We should see that committee's ideas through by passing this bill. Of course, a quick reading of today's order paper would show that there are yet still more bills before the House of Commons for consideration and passage. All of these measures are important and will improve the lives of Canadians. Each merits consideration and hard work on our part.
In my weekly business statement prior to the constituency week, I extended an offer to the House leaders opposite to work with me to schedule and pass some of the other pieces of legislation currently before the House. I hope that they will respond to my request and put forward at our next weekly meeting productive suggestions for getting things done. Passing today's motion would be a major step toward accomplishing that. As I said in my opening comments, Canadians expect each one of us to come to Ottawa to work hard, vote on bills and get things done.
In closing, I commend this motion to the House and encourage all hon. members to vote for this motion, add a few hours to our day, continue the work of our productive, orderly and hard-working Parliament, and deliver real results for Canadians.