Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member for Jonquière; I fully support her initiative. I think this bill is very important.
The principle being brought forward in the bill is of undeniable importance.
I share with an overwhelming majority of Canadians the moral outrage expressed by the previous speaker. As a parliament, we must address some of these very important issues. Some of these issues however have gone to the courts rather than being dealt with here in the Parliament of Canada. We all have to take responsibility for that but it is the government that drives the agenda. As much sparseness and paucity as there is with that agenda, it is the government's responsibility to bring the priorities of the nation forward.
I would say that is exactly what my colleague from the Bloc is doing in her efforts to bring attention through Bill C-208 to the issue of sexual interference and sexual assault on children. One of the most horrific things a child can experience in his or her young life is abuse, and very often the abuse is committed by a person in a position of trust because of the access that person might have to a child in a vulnerable position.
Through Bill C-208, the Bloc is attempting to deal with specific criminal code amendments that would in essence limit the discretion exercised by those within the justice system. I must say with great regret that I have some difficulty with the way in which the bill is presented. However I completely embrace the intent, the spirit and logic behind it and I completely support what the member has set before the House.
I listened intently to the member's remarks and the emotion and sincerity that she brings to the issue is undeniable. However, and I say this with some reluctance, I associate myself with the remarks of the parliamentary secretary in this regard because of the difficulties in limiting the options available to those currently working in the justice system. I say that with the greatest respect and as somebody who has worked in the justice system.
The difficulty with removing the ability of charging under the criminal code under a hybrid section, that is to say taking away the discretion of the crown to proceed by way of summary or indictment, severely limits one of the dirty little secrets about the justice system, which is that a great deal of plea bargaining goes on. That is the reality of how our system functions on a day to day basis. It is one of the practical and necessary evils of what takes place in our justice system.
I do not want to cloud the issue with lawyer talk and mumbo-jumbo and be accused of somehow supporting any effort whatsoever to shield from justice those who perpetrate horrific crimes against children or to suggest in any way that we should water down sentences. That is not what I am putting forward.
Sadly, taking away the ability to charge somebody with a summary offence under a sexual assault provision of the criminal code, in particular section 151 which deals with sexual interference, and making mandatory minimums, does away with one of the fundamental, practical blunt instruments of our justice system and that is the ability of the crown and the defence to sit down and discuss in a practical way how to mete out justice, how to proceed in the best interests of protecting society but, most important, I would suggest in these instances, of protecting an innocent child, a young person who has been victimized. That often entails not going to trial and working out, in some fashion, a guilty plea.
To say, by virtue of the change that will be enacted through the passage of the bill, that one can no longer do that and has to go for a mandatory minimum of two years or, in an indictable offence, five years, would tie the hands of crown attorneys to enter into those discussions in good faith. They would no longer be able to say that in the best interest of the child counselling may be needed.
To her credit, the member for Jonquière has included something which I completely and wholeheartedly embrace. She has included the mandatory supervision and counselling elements in the legislation. However, in removing summary conviction from the wording, it would make sexual interference with anyone under the age of 14 an indictable offence and puts in place mandatory minimum sentences.
There are cases where a mandatory minimum would be fitting and appropriate. However, and I am speaking bluntly from a perspective of having worked in the justice system, there is in everyday parlance a scale of seriousness for sexual assault. The hon. member mentioned rape. Rape has a horrible impact on a young person's or anyone's life. At the far end of the scale is touching for sexual purposes, something that is inappropriate and offensive in many ways. Depending on the sensibilities of the victim it may have a psychological impact almost equal to rape. Yet on the scale of seriousness it must be deemed to be on a different level than rape.
By curtailing the power of crown attorneys, judges and police officers to lay charges I have great concerns that the way the bill would be implemented would cause problems and practical interference with the administration of justice as opposed to addressing the issue the hon. member wants it to address.
The charge demonstrates the spirit of public sentiment as does the bill, but it would have the opposite of the desired effect. By requiring proof of intent including proof of sexual purpose it would raise the ante. It would increase the ability of the crown to decide how to proceed with an offence, whether by trial or in another way.
Currently in cases that are considered borderline or where there is circumstantial evidence a judge or jury can recommend a lesser punishment. If the sentence were always a minimum of two years, defence counsels would go to trial in each and every case. Some Canadians and hon. members may consider this to be backing away from the need for our justice system to respond in a strong way and mete out deterrence not only for individuals but for the public. There is a need to show our revulsion and denunciate any type of offence involving sexual assaults on children.
However the ability of judges, crown attorneys, defence lawyers or police officers to proceed by way of summary conviction is an option that keeps the wheels of justice turning in many cases. We have huge backlogs in the courts today. That is a whole other issue but it is a practical consideration.
My hon. friend spoke of the Sharpe decision which we in the Progressive Conservative Party absolutely denounce. However in many instances judge made law is backfilling shortcomings in our law for which the government must take responsibility. We often hear the government pointing the finger at the opposition or at an administration of 10 years ago. Well, it is the present government that is in office. It must take responsibility for its decisions today. That responsibility to be lacking and the Canadian people will find it to be so.
The amendment would completely remove flexibility from our justice system. It could have the opposite effect. It could keep first time offenders from being released because of the crown's decision to proceed by way of indictment and higher sentences in every instance.
The Conservative Party maintains that there is a clear and undeniable need to protect those who are most vulnerable in society. We need to focus on that in every avenue and at every opportunity. Sexual assault in all its forms is an issue of power and control. The effects on the victims, particularly children, are incalculable in both the long and short term. As studies have shown, recidivism is most serious in cases involving sexual assault.
I applaud and support the hon. member in her intent to bring the bill forward. I support her in every way to have the issue addressed further. I will continue to do so in every fashion.