Mr. Speaker, I move:
That Bill C-25, an act to establish a procedure for the disclosure of wrongdoings in the public sector, including the protection of persons who disclose the wrongdoings, be referred forthwith to the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates.
Mr. Speaker,Canadians have every right to expect that their government will act in accordance with the highest standards. They must have confidence that their government is acting in an open, honest and transparent manner.
The government is committed to ensuring transparency, accountability, financial responsibility and ethical conduct in the public sector. That is why on March 22 I tabled the public servants disclosure protection act in the House.
Federal public sector employees must always perform their official duties and arrange their private affairs in a manner that bears the closest public scrutiny. The vast majority of public servants do serve Canadians with honour, integrity and excellence.
In some exceptional situations, however, this is not the case. So the government must create an environment in which the reporting of wrongdoing can be made without repercussion for the individual who comes forward.
This bill acknowledges that existing procedures can effectively handle many issues of reported wrongdoing. It also establishes additional support and protection for public sector employees to make good faith disclosures. It significantly strengthens protections available to employees throughout government, including those in crown corporations.
The preamble recognizes that there must be a balance between the public servants' duty of loyalty and their right to freedom of expression. This balance is essential to adopting the right disclosure procedures and justifying their implementation.
The preamble also commits the government to establishing a charter of values of publicservice setting out the values that shouldguide public servants in their work andprofessional conduct.
The law will apply to employees in all sectors of the public service, including the executives in each organization, including the crown corporations.
However, because of their distinct employment status and security concerns, the Communications Security Establishment,the Canadian Security IntelligenceService, the uniformed members of the Royal Canadian MountedPolice and members of the CanadianForces will not be subject to this law. In the case of the latter two groups, however, civilian employees will be covered by the bill.
Nevertheless, these organizations will be expected to establish comparable procedures for their members and employees, including a code of conduct and a mechanism for protection against reprisals. This means that if these agencies do not establish a code of conduct, the Treasury Board will ensure that they implement one in the same spirit as the bill before us today.
The bill requires the Treasury Board to establish a code of conduct for the entire federal public sector. Chief executives may establishacode of conduct applicable to the portion of thepublic sector for which they are responsible, but these codes must be consistent with the one established by the Treasury Board.
The code will also be referred to the committee of the House for examination. So, in order to deal properly with the issue of the democratic deficit both with the framework legislation and the code of conduct, we are committed to having the House committee carry out a thorough study of these two aspects.
Let us look at the definition of wrongdoing. The bill defines wrongdoing as: a contravention of any acts or regulations; a misuse of public funds or a public asset;a gross mismanagement in the publicsector;an act or omission that creates asubstantial and specific danger to the life,health or safety of persons or to the environment;a serious breach of a code of conductandthe taking of a reprisal against a publicservant who has acted in good faith in making a disclosure.
These are clear criteria for disclosure allowing public sector employees to determine misconduct and decide on disclosure.
The bill also sets out how employees can properly make a disclosure and what happens with that information.
First, each deputy head or CEO in the federal public sector must establish an internal disclosure mechanism, including the appointment of a senior officer to take disclosures and investigate possible wrongdoings.
Second, to ensure there is an additional avenue for disclosure in cases where internal mechanisms do not suffice, a public sector integrity commissioner will be appointed by the governor in council. The commissioner will serve for a term of seven years following approval by resolution of the Senate and the House of Commons. This position is similar to the current public service integrity officer, but with a wider legislative mandate.
The commissioner will be able to investigate alleged wrongdoings, including reprisal, and make representations to deputy heads and CEOs on his or her findings. Chief executives and all public sector employees must, and I repeat must, cooperate with the commissioner, and provide him or her with any information, assistance and access to premises required for investigations.
The commissioner will be able to make a report to the minister of the department or to the board of a crown, in cases where a deputy head or CEO does not follow the commissioner's recommendations, or if the commissioner's investigations led him to believe there was a substantial, serious and immediate danger to public health and security or to the environment from an alleged wrongdoing.
If the issue is still not resolved, the commissioner could make a special report to a minister who will be designated by the governor in council. A special report of this kind, like the commissioner's annual report, would be tabled in Parliament.
Let us talk about reprisal protection. Reprisal is defined as disciplinary action against a person because he or she reported a wrongdoing or cooperated in an investigation of wrongdoing. Reprisal can include actions such as demotion, termination of employment, or anything else that adversely affects the employment or working conditions of a person, or even a threat to do any of these things.
Under the proposed legislation, reprisal is defined as a wrongdoing and can be investigated as such. A person who feels that a reprisal has been made against him or her may make a complaint to the public service integrity commissioner or the appropriate board that deals with staff relations, such as the Public Service Staff Relations Board or the Canada Industrial Relations Board. If a reprisal is found to have occurred, these boards would have the power to order that the employee be reinstated in his or her position, if the employee had lost his or her job as a result of reprisal, or be compensated for other penalties or losses.
These are strong measures to ensure that public sector employees can have confidence that reprisal will not be tolerated if they disclose a wrongdoing.
Now, for confidentiality. The commissioner is required to ensure that the right to proceduralfairness and natural justice of all personsinvolved in investigations is respected.
In order to increase the trust of public servants and provide them with the assurance that they can make disclosures without risk and that their identity and information will be protected as much as possible, the commissioner has the capacity of an investigative bodyunder the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.
In other words, the commissioner would have some degree of latitude in disclosing information which would identify the person making the disclosure and the person alleged to be responsible for wrongdoings. This is not an absolute latitude, but will enhance confidentiality compared to the present system and increase people's trust of the system.
I would also like to make it clear that the internal disclosure system remains fully operational until such time as the bill has moved through the entire parliamentary process. Employees within the public service can still report wrongdoings to their immediate superior or to the public service integrity officer.
Moreover, the government has changed the internal disclosure policy in order to ensure that no employee would become a victim of reprisals, including administrative or disciplinary measures, for having disclosed a wrongdoing in good faith, in accordance with the policy, or as part of a parliamentary proceeding or an investigation related to the Auditor General's 2003 report.
Increasing confidence, providing protection, ensuring that investigations are held, are essential elements of this bill being presented, a bill that recognizes the integrity of the public sector and provides sound mechanisms for addressing reprehensible acts and protecting whistleblowers.
As hon. members know, the bill is of great interest to the public. There are indeed many well-informed and trustworthy stakeholders. Given the importance of the bill to the future of the federal public administration, I am pleased that my parliamentary colleagues can debate it and examine it from all angles. I am especially pleased at the idea of actively debating the substance and the spirit of the bill.
A lively debate has already begun in the public domain. I would like to address some of the concerns that have been raised recently. These issues include access to the commissioner, exclusions, boundaries of investigation, as well as the independence and powers of the commissioner.
First, employees should normally use, and be able to trust, internal mechanisms before going to a third party, but public sector employees also would have direct access to the commissioner if they believe the nature of their disclosure requires it.
Second, in respect of the excluded organizations, as I explained earlier, these organizations are not exempt from having similar disclosure regimes and protecting their employees from reprisals. This point needs to be emphasized again. Employees in these organizations will have access to a similar disclosure regime.
Third, with regard to the commissioner's ability to investigate wrongdoing outside the public sector, I would like to make it clear that the bill does authorize such investigations. They would be carried out by a competent authority, such as the RCMP or the proposed ethics commissioner, on the basis of information provided by the public sector integrity commissioner.
Another point related to this is that even though the bill applies only to public sector employees, they will be able to make disclosures about those who are not covered by this legislation. They can make these disclosures through the normal channels and will be protected if they do so.
Finally, there has been a great deal of discussion about the independence and powers of the commissioner. It is my belief that the commissioner will have everything he or she needs to play an independent and effective role while at the same time holding government accountable for the good operations of the federal public sector.
The commissioner's appointment will be recommended by Parliament and he or she will report to Parliament.
Consequently, I support the motion to refer the bill to committee before second reading.
Canadians have asked the current government to enhance and ensure integrity and accountability. We have listened and acted swiftly. The government will not tolerate having the improper behaviour of a handful of people overshadow the good work of the majority.
We will keep the promise we made in the Speech from the Throne. We will build upon the integrity, professionalism and impartiality of the public sector. We will promote the excellence and sense of accomplishment of the public service. And we will achieve our goal of having nothing short of the best public service in the world.