Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-462, which is a lengthy private member's bill that would make a considerable number of amendments to the Access to Information Act. Indeed, I do not think it is going too far to say that Bill C-462 constitutes a major effort to overhaul the Access to Information Act.
Clearly, the member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot once again has focused our attention on the Access to Information Act by bringing forward his extensive bill. Accordingly, my purpose today is to comment on the member's bill, which I intend to do from more than one perspective. Before doing that, I want to take a moment or two to make some introductory and background comments.
I do not know if all the members of the House are aware of how long the member has been working on reforming the Access to Information Act. I believe I am right when I say that he first introduced a private member's bill to amend the act in the fall of 1997. The bill was then numbered as Bill C-264. The member made certain improvements to Bill C-264 and reintroduced it in 1998 as Bill C-206. In the summer of 2000, Bill C-206 was defeated. Prior to this, the member had twice obtained more than 100 signatures in support of his bill.
I want to elaborate on a point to which I alluded a moment ago, which is the importance of access to information legislation. Here in Canada, we are fortunate to have had such legislation in place at the federal level since Canada Day 1983. As so often happens, we have a tendency to take this for granted because we have benefited from the Access to Information Act for more than 20 years.
The Supreme Court of Canada has said that one of the pillars or cornerstones of a democracy is a law that gives citizens a right to gain access to government information. Of course, this right to government information is not absolute or unfettered, and certain government information must still be kept confidential. Some good examples of this are taxpayer information, sensitive and confidential business information that a company provides to the government, sensitive government information such as the contents of an upcoming budget, and information relating to the defence of Canada.
These examples do not detract from the general principle that most government information should be accessible so that Canadians can, if they wish, find out what the government is doing. Put simply, allowing Canadians to check up on the government is an important part of our democracy.
Although many may not realize this, Canada is viewed as somewhat of a pioneer in the field of access to information legislation. Various countries in the world are developing democratic principles for themselves and some of these countries seek Canada's advice on how to create access to information legislation for themselves. In some of these countries, the government can, based on whimsy or whatever good or bad reason it chooses, completely ignore a citizen's request for government information or untruthfully tell the citizen that the information does not exist. Regardless of whether our Access to Information Act is out of date and in need of some modernization, the fact remains that, fortunately for us, the situations I just mentioned are contrary to our federal law.
So far I have attempted to make the general point that we are fortunate to have access to information legislation. I wish now to turn to Bill C-462 itself. What I intend to do in the next few minutes is mention a number of proposed amendments in the bill that are worthwhile and then draw the House's attention to a few proposals that I think require some additional thinking, examination and refinement.
Before doing this, let me say that, as we know, the Minister of Justice is responsible for any reform of the Access to Information Act. The minister does not oppose the general direction of this bill. However, certain concerns needs to be addressed.
In the category of worthwhile amendments that are proposed in Bill C-462, I want to begin with one in particular. As everyone in the House knows, the repercussions of the horrifying attacks that took place on September 11, 2001, are still with us. In this regard, this bill proposes a seemingly small but, in my view, quite important addition to the Access to Information Act.
Currently, section 20 of the act essentially protects trade secrets and other confidential commercial information that a government institution receives from a third party, usually a company. The proposal in this bill is that this exemption be amended to add a specific protection for information relating to critical infrastructure. As I mentioned earlier, the right to gain access to government information is not absolute. Certain information must be kept confidential, and I think that for security reasons information on critical infrastructure falls neatly into this category.
Sometimes an issue arises when a request is made under the act for records subject to solicitor and client privilege. Certainly, the act currently contains an exemption that can be used to protect records covered by this privilege. However, when the government is willing to discuss part of a record covered by solicitor and client privilege, there is concern that the privilege in relationship to the remainder of the material might be endangered. Bill C-462 tries to address this concern by specifying that the disclosure of part of such a record does not constitute a waiver of the privilege in relationship to the remainder of the record. This proposal is worth examining further.
I have one further comment to make in the positive category before moving to some of my concerns. At present, the act states that if a requester is unhappy with how her or his request has been handled, or with the records that she or he has been given, the requester can complain to the information commissioner within one year from the date on which the request was made.
The difficulty that requesters can encounter with this section is that sometimes, legitimately or not, government institutions do not respond to requests until later than one year after the date on which the request was made. The proposal in the bill, which I view as entirely sensible, is to amend this section to say that a requester can complain within 12 months from the date of the request or such other time as the information commissioner may allow.
Turning now to my concerns, the following two proposals concern me because I believe they go further than necessary to accomplish the policy goal. Therefore, at the very least, they need to be very carefully scrutinized. First, the bill is proposing the outright repeal of section 24 of the act. Let me take a moment to described what that section does.
As I mentioned earlier in this speech, the Access to Information Act contains several specific exemptions that serve to protect from disclosure certain types of confidential information. One exemption, section 24, is slightly different. It requires the protection of information that is described as confidential in other statutes.
Attached to section 24 is a schedule that lists the confidentiality provisions in the other statutes of Parliament. Included in the list are, for example, a section of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, the Defence Production Act, the Income Tax Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act, the Statistics Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992, and sections of the Criminal Code and the Patent Act. In addition to these, the list in the schedule contains about 50 other statutes. I do not believe the complete repeal of section 24 is the correct approach.
No conclusion regarding section 24 should be reached until after each and every confidentiality clause listed in the schedule has been examined and evaluated, and every entity that could be affected, for example, CSIS, Statistics Canada and the anti-money-laundering agency, Fintrac, has been thoroughly consulted. We simply cannot afford to not get this right.
The second proposal that causes me considerable concern again does so because I think the proposal in its current form may well go too far. I am referring to the proposal in the bill that the definition in the act of a government institution be expanded to include not only parent crown corporations but also their wholly owned subsidiaries and “any incorporated not for profit organization which receives at least two-thirds of its financing through federal government appropriations”.
I am not entirely sure what this proposal would mean in practice. It seems to mean that any charity that receives most of its money from the government would be subject to the Access to Information Act. This might require charities to expend time and money on creating the necessary infrastructure to deal with requests under the act. If I am right, is this result desirable? It is a question.
Regarding the wholly owned subsidiaries of crown corporations, we need to have a complete and up to date list of these so we know exactly which entities we are talking about.
Furthermore, a related proposal in Bill C-462 makes it clear that the CBC would be covered by the Access to Information Act. Would this mean that people could send Access to Information Act requests to the CBC in the hope of discovering information about confidential sources or investigative reports? Again, if I am right, is it appropriate and desirable?
I wish to move now to certain points that concern me less but to which I still want to draw the House's attention. We are puzzled with one proposal in Bill C-462. A few years ago, as a result of another private member's bill, C-208, a criminal offence was added to the Access to Information Act to cover essentially the intentional destruction, alteration or concealment of a record in order to thwart the Access to Information Act. Accordingly, I do not understand why the member sponsoring this bill is proposing to add another quite similar criminal offence to the act.
The final concern is related to an issue I mentioned a moment ago, and that is the coverage of crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries.
The Minister of Justice does not oppose the general direction of the bill, nor does he oppose this bill going to committee. However, he strongly believes that certain concerns need to be addressed. I mentioned a few. It remains an open question whether this bill could in fact be repaired at the committee stage. That is the position of the justice department.