Mr. Speaker, I rise this afternoon as the Bloc Québécois health critic to address Bill C-6, an act respecting the safety of consumer products, which was introduced by the Minister of Health at first reading in this House on January 29, 2009.
I will read the summary of this bill.
This enactment modernizes the regulatory regime for consumer products in Canada. It creates prohibitions with respect to the manufacturing, importing, selling, advertising, packaging and labelling of consumer products, including those that are a danger to human health or safety. In addition, it establishes certain measures that will make it easier to identify whether a consumer product is a danger to human health or safety and, if so, to more effectively prevent or address the danger. It also creates application and enforcement mechanisms. This enactment also makes consequential amendments to the Hazardous Products Act.
The very least we can say is it is about time. In fact, we have known since November 2006, because of a report tabled by the Auditor General, that there are problems and that urgent action is needed. Those responsible for the safety of consumer products were not given or no longer had the means to effectively carry out their duties. Nevertheless, we have had to wait more than two years to debate, in this House, at second reading, Bill C-6 on consumer products.
I would just like to give a bit of background. As I said, we waited far too long before we could debate this bill in this House. Canada currently does not require that manufacturers of hazardous products under its jurisdiction, such as cosmetics, cradles, tents and carpets, test their products or prove that they do not pose any threat to consumer health and safety. As a result, consumers would not have any real protection against incidents like the one that forced the recall of a number of products some time ago. Many parents feared the worst and, with the approach of the holiday season and other gift-giving occasions, wondered whether what was on the shelves in stores was safe and what precautions they should take to make sure that what they were buying for their beloved children was hazard-free.
In December, after four months of inertia in the wake of the first toy recall in the summer of 2007, the government finally proposed to introduce a bill early in 2008 and to change its strategy for regulating product safety.
This inaction created a real feeling of insecurity, especially around toy purchases. You could feel it when you listened to consumers talking about product safety on radio and TV and read their letters in the papers.
But it is important to point out that instead of introducing a bill quickly, the government decided last fall to post a survival guide online to help parents protect their children's safety. In late November, it launched a personal test kit consumers could use to determine the safety of consumer products themselves. This is a government that is clearly abandoning its responsibility for product safety.
It made consumers and parents responsible for making sure that the goods they buy are safe for their families and children. The government should be responsible for making sure that consumer products are safe, but it abdicated its responsibilities the moment it put that guide online.
However, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, in November 2006, the Auditor General of Canada warned the government about concerns involving dangerous consumer products. These concerns were expressed by program managers. Chapter 8, Allocating Funds to Regulatory Programs—Health Canada, clearly indicated that product safety program managers could not do their jobs properly for a number of reasons. I will read points 8.21 and 8.22 of the Auditor General's November 2006 report.
Product safety program managers considered many of their regulatory activities to be insufficient to meet their regulatory responsibilities. We found these opinions were confirmed in an internal study of the program's resource needs, documents relating to resource allocation, and in interviews conducted as part of our audit.
The product safety program has requested additional funding, but it received very little funds for special initiatives in 2005-06 to address the shortfalls presented above. Program managers indicated that their inability to carry out these responsibilities could have consequences for the health and safety of Canadians, such as exposure by consumers to non-compliant hazardous products. There is also a risk of liability to the Crown.
Because of the Auditor General's report, the Government of Canada has known since November 2006 about the risk to consumers resulting from inadequate program funding. This raises a number of concerns about the government's real desire and commitment to move forward. However, now that we have Bill C-6, we need to take a closer look and pass it at second reading so that we can hear from stakeholders in committee without delay.
I therefore encourage all of my colleagues to proceed appropriately with the second reading examination of this bill, not only here in the House but also at the report stage in the Standing Committee on Health. As colleagues have done before me, I would encourage all stakeholders, as well as all colleagues here in the House, to give us their views and any clarifications in order to ensure that Bill C-6 is as effective as possible and that lack of consumer safety will be, no longer the rule, but the exception, and a rare exception at that.
Essentially, this bill comprises five measures, which I shall present to my colleagues and to all those listening this afternoon to this debate on second reading.
I will give a brief overview of the five measures aimed at reversing the burden of proof concerning safety.
First of all, there is the safety of consumer products. As I said, currently, no constraints are imposed on manufacturers or importers. They do not have to prove that their products are not dangerous and do not pose a threat to consumer safety. Bill C-6 is intended to reverse this. In future it will be up to the manufacturer to prove to us that the products offered to consumes are without danger.
The bill also proposes forcing manufacturers and importers of consumer products to test the safety of their products regularly, and, most importantly, to disclose the test results in order to ensure maximum transparency.
The bill would also require businesses to report all measures taken or illnesses caused because of their products, whatever the country. This puts the onus on manufacturers and importers, because it forces them to prove that their products are safe,
The second measure has to do with increasing inspectors' powers. As the Auditor General stated in a report, in order to ensure that this bill is implemented and effective, inspectors on the ground will have more powers when Bill C-6 comes into force.
For that to happen, consumer products will have to be subject to recall, relabelling or a licensing amendment. These inspectors will be the means to enforce this bill's most important provisions.
It is important to point out, however, that increased duties and responsibilities can raise a certain number of concerns and questions. As part of the committee's review of this bill, it will be important to confirm whether there are enough human resources to ensure that the strict measures outlined in Bill C-6 can be properly monitored and enforced across Canada.
This bill also gives the minister new powers concerning recalls. At this time, health authorities do not have the power to recall consumer products found to be dangerous. Recalls are issued on a voluntary basis by manufacturers and importers themselves. This bill would give the minister the power to recall any products that are defective or endanger consumer safety. However, the regulations will stipulate the requirements and the conditions under which the minister can act. In committee, it will also be important to look at how this recall power can be executed.
There are also stricter punitive measures that will provide a greater deterrence. At this time, for instance, the fines imposed are usually around $5,000. With Bill C-6, an offence could lead to a fine of up to $5 million for the company at fault, and people caught red-handed could face up to two years in prison.
Lastly, Bill C-6 will introduce product traceability. The bill includes a record-keeping requirement that could be compared to a traceability process, as I said earlier. With this record-keeping system, we will be able to determine the product's history and quickly track down retailers who have the product, as well as its origin.
In addition, if an incident occurs here or elsewhere in the world, the manufacturer or importer is required to notify the minister, which will allow the authorities to more efficiently remove products that could pose problems.
I would also like to share a few comments, and we will have the opportunity to come back to this in committee and further question the officials who drafted the bill, as well as the Minister of Health. In the preamble—it is unusual to spend any time on the preamble, because we spend much more time on the clauses of the bill—there is a definition that approaches the precautionary principle. It would be interesting to know what the government's real intention behind this statement is, with regard to enforcing the legislation.
I would simply like to read part of the preamble into the record:
Whereas the Parliament of Canada recognizes that a lack of full scientific certainty is not to be used as a reason for postponing measures that prevent adverse effects on human health if those effects could be serious or irreversible;
The preamble also contains a general statement about the relationship between consumer goods and the environment:
Whereas the Parliament of Canada recognizes that, given the impact activities with respect to consumer products may have on the environment, there is a need to create a regulatory system regarding consumer products that is complementary to the regulatory system regarding the environment;
Outside of the preamble, the environment is only mentioned in clauses 16 and 17 of the bill in connection with disclosure of personal information. It will be interesting to ask the government about its intentions.
Would the government like to go a little bit further in the regulations and impose more environmental requirements?
We can come back to that. With regard to regulations, Bill C-6 contains a number of measures that can be taken by the minister by regulation. Thus, the regulatory powers are expanded and it will be interesting to see in committee how the minister will use this discretionary power and what limits will be placed on this power.
In closing, I would simply like to say that the industry cannot be allowed to be self-regulated. There have been a number of cases in the food industry, not covered by this bill, demonstrating that self-regulation alone cannot address all problems.
We have to give some teeth to the bill and some powers to the inspectors responsible for enforcing it.