Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my hon. colleague for his remarks. However, I would like to refute the last statement he made in regard to people always saying they need more money. Time and again tonight, we have heard Conservative members talk about how the officials from the RCMP said they did not need more financing.
I am rising this evening, like everyone else, to speak to Bill C-51, An Act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act. The NDP supports Bill C-51, as it attempts to improve the witness protection program. However, we still have concerns about this bill. We are concerned that the Conservative government has refused to commit any new funding to the system. We are concerned that the Conservatives' requirement that the RCMP and local police departments work within their existing budgets would hinder the potential improvement of the program.
This situation is similar to other legislation we have seen before this House lately; namely, the Conservative government bringing forward legislation that would only partially fix a problem. Why are the Conservatives unwilling or unable to find the courage and political will to develop legislation to the point where it would actually be as effective as it could be? Once again, I find myself supporting legislation that is a half measure. It would in fact help, but would not fully resolve a problem that the government could be resolving.
Another shortcoming of the bill is that it does not include provisions for an independent agency to operate the program as recommended in the Air India inquiry report. The RCMP would continue to be responsible for the program, and this would leave the RCMP in a potential conflict of interest, being the agency both investigating the case and deciding who gets protection.
The federal witness protection program has long been criticized for its narrow eligibility criteria, poor coordination with provincial programs and low number of witnesses actually admitted to the program. Only 30 out of 108 applications considered were accepted in 2012. The blame for that has to go to the original authors of the bill, which would be the previous Liberal government members.
Since the Witness Protection Program Act passed in 1996, the Liberal and Conservative governments have done little to respond to the criticisms of the system. Some bills have been presented in the House of Commons to address small components of the protection program. As an example, Bill C-223 from a Reform member of Parliament in 1999 regarding witness protection in cases of domestic violence, was supported by the NDP and was defeated by the then-Liberal government.
The overarching issues of eligibility, coordination and funding have not yet been addressed. The New Democrats are on record as repeatedly asking the Conservatives to address the three key issues in the witness protection program: expanded criteria eligibility, co-operation with provinces and adequate funding.
In November 2012, the NDP member of Parliament for Trinity—Spadina called for more support for the federal witness protection program, pointing to the difficulty Toronto police faced in convincing witnesses to this past summer's mass shooting at a block party on Danzig Street in Scarborough to come forward. The Danzig shooting is just one of many examples I could point to where witnesses have been reluctant to step forward due to concerns for their own safety.
Bill C-51 proposes a better process to support provincial witness protection programs and would expand the program to other agencies with national security responsibilities. Bill C-51 would expand the eligibility criteria of the witness protection program to include various requests from the RCMP, such as including youth gang members by covering a new group of people who would give assistance to federal departments. Federal departments and agencies with a mandate relating to national security, national defence or public safety would also be able to refer witnesses to this program. It would also extend the period for emergency protection and clear up some technical problems in coordinating with provincial programs.
Provinces such as Ontario and Alberta have been pushing for a national revamp of the witness protection program, including more recognition of their existing programs. Bill C-51 would provide for the designation of a provincial or municipal witness protection program so that certain provisions of the act would apply to such a program. It also would authorize the Commissioner of the RCMP to coordinate at the request of an official of a designated 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.
Bill C-51 includes enough improvements to warrant our support through third reading, though concerns about funding have been reiterated multiple times in committee and over and over again tonight, and there are still no answers from the government.
Expanding eligibility for the witness protection program is a generally popular policy. Those working to combat youth gangs feel allowing those seeking to leave gangs access to the program would be an important addition to the tools they need. This issue retains a high profile in the South Asian community due to the attacks on witnesses during the Air India inquiry, where witnesses were not eligible for the program as it currently excludes witnesses in national security cases.
The provinces have long been calling for better coordination between federal and provincial programs. Now, of course, in terms of coordination between federal and provincial programs, we know that is a weakness of the current government, when we look at the Prime Minister who has refused to meet with the first ministers as a group over the seven years the Conservatives have been in power.
We are also disappointed that the bill did not include more recommendations from the Air India inquiry, such as a more transparent and accountable process for admissions into the program. Even the government itself identified this as a serious problem, and yet it failed to address it in the bill.
Overall, Bill C-51 is a positive step, but unfortunately we do not see the Conservatives providing the resources to make it really count for communities. We want to see them provide local police departments with the support necessary to make sure witnesses come forward in gang situations, for example. The Conservative government is not acknowledging the high cost borne by local police departments. There are also provincial witness protection programs, but if the crime is federal in nature or involves drugs, the RCMP take over and then charges local police departments the full cost, something many local departments cannot afford, particularly in small communities.
The RCMP's own website states, “There are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies”. I have not heard one member of the government speak to that issue here tonight.
While the NDP has been calling for changes to the witness protection program since 2007, it is just now that the Conservative government is responding to our concerns, as well as many stakeholder concerns.
The NDP would like to believe the Conservative government is committed to improving the witness protection program but without the necessary funding for the RCMP to carry out these changes, we fear the improvements that are needed will not necessarily materialize.
Speaking of resourcing, several witnesses and the RCMP at committee said that they in fact do believe that they have the resources to take care of their share of the burden. However, as I mentioned previously in my speech, local law enforcement agencies and provincial law enforcement agencies are going to end up bearing many of the costs that are associated with changes in the witness protection program.
We have seen this kind of approach time and time again with the Conservatives' crime agenda. They make changes to legislation that are going to impact provincial and municipal budgets without providing any of the funding to absorb the costs. What ends up happening is an insidious form of downloading. Instead of the costs of the federal changes being borne by the federal government, they end up being borne by the provinces and municipalities, which are already straining to a much greater extent than the federal government is.
It is very unfortunate to see this kind of approach continuing. Back in the 1990s, the Liberal government downloaded billions of dollars on the provinces, and then the provinces, like mine of Ontario where we had the Mike Harris government, proceeded to download provincial costs, like social services and welfare programs, onto municipalities without actually giving them the funds to address the issues.
It is sad to see here in 2013 that we are in fact seeing the same kinds of things happening.
While the NDP is supporting the bill, once again we are seeing a bill that we do not think addresses all the issues that could be addressed in the bill.