Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the amendments to the Sex Offender Registry. It is not an easy issue to talk about. Any time we talk about sex offences, it is one of those issues that really causes us great personal pain. Whether as parents or as members of the community, when we hear about these offences, we recognize they are some of the most despicable and horrible acts that can happen in our communities. I do not think any member of the House would say that we should not put at the disposal of police officers every tool they possibly can have to stop one of those crimes from happening, to stop there being a victim in the first place.
I am pleased to be generally very supportive of these changes, but I will do something to start that I do not typically do, and that is to quote myself. The reason I will do this will become clear in just a moment:
We the know of the Stephensons, who lost their son, and all the work they did in developing Christopher's law. It has led in Ontario to some very effective legislation, legislation that is used many hundreds of times a day and searched far more than the national registry. The success of that registry underscores the failure of the national registry. When we look at the statistics, and it is hard to believe, the Ontario registry is used four times more in a day than the national registry is used in a year.
I do not think there is any disagreement from anyone in the House that the sex offender registry is in need of modernization and amendment, and I welcome that debate.
The reason I quote myself is because that was almost exactly a year ago in June 2009 when the House had this debate. At that point in time, I made a speech on the necessity of moving forward with then Bill C-34. Everyone was participating in that debate agreed there was a need to move forward expeditiously.
However, we are here after prorogation, after the government killed that bill, to debate it yet again. What is so frustrating about the bill is the government not only short-circuited, through prorogation, the efforts of the House to deal with modernizing the National Sex Offender Registry, but in committee when we had undertaken a mandatory legislative review, as dictated by the government. We cleared our committee calendar. We pushed away all other business. We said that this was important, that we ought to sit down and work on this in a bipartisan way, We did exactly that.
We went over the National Sex Offender Registry. We had witnesses come from across the country and heard their testimony. As we were developing our report for the government, the government short-circuited all of it and tabled its bill without having even the courtesy of listening to the conclusions of the committee before ignoring them. Our committees are used to being ignored, but usually the government has the courtesy of letting the committee table the report before it ignores it. In this case, it did not even wait for that report. The Conservatives stated that the reason they needed to short-circuit our process was the legislation was so urgently needed, it was so desperate to push this forward and have it done, that they could not even wait to hear from the committee.
Then the summer passed, then prorogation and now we have the bill again. They would not wait for the opinion of committee, yet it was okay to prorogue and cancel the bill and now bring it back and talk about it with great urgency yet again, a year later. It shows of pattern behaviour. The government holds a reservoir of crime bills that it puts forward, retracts, puts forward, retracts, prorogues, kills, moves to the House and there is a curious timing with these bills. They seem to coincide with big Conservative problems.
Right now the government is embroiled in a rather large scandal, involving more than $1 billion that is being wasted on G8 and G20 summits. If Conservatives do not want to talk about fake lakes, gazebos, sidewalks to nowhere and some of this colossal waste they have undertaken, they switch to a crime bill and say that we have to deal with it, that it is urgent. They expect everyone is going to forget that they killed their own bill, are reintroducing it, short-circuited committee's process a year ago because they said that it was so urgent.
Canadians are a little smarter than that. They see the game and it is unfortunate because, as I said, these changes should have been made a year ago.
My colleague from Scarborough—Guildwood asked an excellent question to which he did not get an answer just a few moments ago. Why on earth, if all of these bills are so urgent, did the Conservatives not reintroduce them in an omnibus fashion? They did it with the budget, Bill C-9. They put everything but the kitchen sink into the budget bill. Yet when it comes to a crime bill, they have to reintroduce them one at a time, month over month and there is suddenly time to match whatever controversy they happen to be embroiled in at the time. It certainly makes one ask the question of why the Conservatives are introducing these bills when they are. It would seem that they are channel-changers more than genuine attempts to change legislation.
It is important the committee identified a number of items within the sex offender registry that needed change. The bill has now incorporated many of those amendments, now that the government has waited a year and actually listened to what the committee had to say.
One of the provisions in the bill, which is clearly very important, is automatic inclusion, the idea that people who commit offences of a sexual nature be automatically included in the sex offender registry. When we were hearing from those who were involved in creating Christopher's law in Ontario, they told us how important this provision was. We heard that there were roughly 12,000 people, as of last April, on the Ontario sex offender registry. On our entire national registry, there are only 19,000, to give an example. As I mentioned earlier in my speech, it was being used more times in a single day in Ontario than it was being used in a year. Clearly police did not find this registry reliable and automatic inclusion was an important provision with which to move forward.
The second element we heard again and again in the committee testimony was the importance of the ability for the police to use this tool proactively. As an example, if people call in suspicious activity around a school or somebody acting in an odd way that is causing them concern, if police officers are called, they are able to reference that person against the sex offender registry to find out if that person has a history of sexual-based offences. This is something police officers could not do before and it something they said they needed to do. The bill before us today can do that.
The next point is it allows accredited law enforcement agencies to share information. What we do not want to have is silos, where the RCMP is guarding its information, a municipal police force is guarding its information and there is no exchange of data. In that situation, with those silos, there is opportunity for information to be missed, for somebody who should have been recognized or noticed before a crime occurred not to be noticed. That inclusion is important.
Another provision that one would have thought was in there but was clearly a mistake and an oversight was the fact that if somebody committed an offence overseas in another country, he or she would not be included on the National Sex Offender Registry. Clearly this is a huge loophole. We are aware, unfortunately, that sex crimes are very prevalent in certain parts of the world, where people will actually travel to commit sex crimes. It is essential that this information be captured in our national database and that when police search records, it is not just domestic instances that are picked up, but also anything that happened internationally.
Something left out of the bill, which we recommended as a committee a year ago, was vehicle registration and ensuring the licence plate and vehicle were also registered. This was a big omission. Clearly when police officers are trying to ascertain whether there is something amiss, a vehicle with the plates registered to somebody who is a sex offender is very useful information.
None of these items unto themselves necessarily will stop every crime, but we are trying to empower our police officers to the best of our ability, to give them the tools they need to get the job done.
There were a couple of areas throughout the committee hearings that were concerns and to some extent remain concerns. Christopher's law in Ontario includes a very focused list of sex offences that have been very effective when used by police.
We heard from some witnesses that they were concerned with some of the additional lists of sex offences that were included in the sex offender registry, as they could weaken the registry, for example, if someone were charged with an office indiscretion. None of us want to see that sort of behaviour go on. Clearly it needs to be addressed and needs to have justice be served. However, does it make sense for an office indiscretion or for a mistake of a minor nature to land somebody on the sex offender registry? What the police said was this would weaken the sex offender registry by including too many people who were not an imminent threat to their community and therefore lengthening the amount of time police officers had to search through data and information to get at what was relevant.
For expressing and voicing the concern that police had about weakening this registry, one of the hon. members with the Conservative Party labelled me as trying to weaken the sex offender registry on a panel on national television by saying that I was against the sex offender registry. Again, this leads to yet another tool that the Conservatives often use with their crime bills.
If members ask any questions or raise legitimate concerns, concerns that police themselves are asking, the Conservatives try to make it sound as if we are somehow for sex offenders. Nothing, however, could be more patently absurd or intellectually dishonest.
Another issue for which there was concern had to do with judicial discretion, which is tied to the first point that I made. The committee and the Senate made recommendations, which failed, that said that only in the most extraordinary of circumstances, where judges recognized that inclusion in the sex offender registry would be a gross miscarriage of justice, should there be the opportunity for a judge to say no, that it does not make sense to put that person on the list. So, in the rarest of rare circumstances, would a judge be given a modicum of discretion to ensure that only the right people get on that registry.
Again we were attacked for making that point but it is an important one. Policemen say that they would be put into a situation where the discretion would be forced on them to decide whether putting somebody on the sex offender registry would serve society well or be fair to that individual. Suddenly, the discretion is being put on police to make the decision to not to charge that person. Now, somebody who has committed a more minor offence might be in a situation where he or she is not charged at all after having committed the offence. That remains a concern.
In a broader context, there are a couple of other concerns that raise the question of how we deal with victimization before it happens. I was deeply disturbed when I had the opportunity as public safety critic to tour this country and meet with groups, including the Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Clubs and church organizations, that have seen their funding slashed for crime prevention, for the work they do on the front lines to try to stop crime before it happens. This is stuff that often does not get big headlines because, if it is successful, it never turns into a story.
If one has worked really hard at crime prevention, one can wake up one morning in a safer community. There are no headlines and nothing is trumpeted. There are just less victims and less crime. If we strip away all the rhetoric, should not one of the most major goals of government be to ensure communities are more safe, that crime never happens in the first place and that there are no victims to write about?
This slashing of that base infrastructure that communities have to stop crimes before they happen and to break the cycles of violence is deeply distressing because violence does not come out of the ether. It is not something that appears magically. More often than not, people who commit acts of violence have themselves been victims. They are caught in a cycle of victimization where they are playing out the same tragedy over and over again over successive generations.
What is desperately needed is intervention, to provide people with the opportunity to turn their life toward a bright path, particularly when they start to walk down that dark road. Again and again, when we talk to communities about the most important thing we can do to improve community safety, it is that, and yet, by more than half, spending on crime prevention in this country has been slashed and cut while prison spending has skyrocketed, an issue that, if I have time, I will come back to.
The second area of broader concern is the 41% cut to the victims of crime initiative, which is front line work with victims. The Conservatives often try to haul out the most tragic, terrible, awful examples that make all of our stomachs turn, but the reality is that victims cover a whole range. More often than not, very tragically, victims are aboriginal mothers stuck in a violent situation and needing help to get out of it. The victims of crime initiative worked with those victims to empower them and help them.
The victims ombudsman, the person the Conservatives put in place to be on the front lines of helping victims and recognizing their needs, said that the government's plan was unbalanced and would not work. When he decries the cuts to the victims of crime initiative, there is a pretty big gulf between the rhetoric of the government on victims and the reality. It is a gulf that is unfortunate because, more often than not, it seems that crime is a political tool. Instead of first asking how we can develop good policy, how we can work with stakeholders, how we can develop good legislation and then develop talking points and communiqués around that, the government seems to first want to create communiqués and talking points and then find legislation to make it match.
Another area of concern deals with lawful access. An hon. member of our caucus put forward a private member's bill several times through successive parliaments that would have given police the ability to go after crimes of the digital age. Police have been asking for many years to implement updated powers and abilities to track criminals online, to deal with new technologies and new ways in which criminals are communicating, planning and conducting crimes. When we are dealing with sex offences, particularly sex offences against children, this is an area that is particularly relevant.
In 2005, the then Liberal government introduced a bill to modernize our lawful access rules and to empower police to use the most modern investigative techniques to go after these types of crimes. Unfortunately, that legislation has languished. It was first killed by an election. It was then introduced by a Conservative government but it killed it by calling an election. It was introduced again and cancelled again by it calling an election. It was introduced again and then killed when the Conservatives prorogued. They have introduced it yet again and we still do not have it. It follows a pattern of a lot of talk but very little action on something that is very relevant to both sex offenders and to fighting crime in general, something that police have been demanding.
The last point I will make is with respect to broad concerns as they affect the sex offender registry, and they have to do with the DNA data bank. There is a provision in the bill that ensures that somebody who is on the sex offender registry is automatically included in the DNA data bank. That is something that is laudable and supportable. However, the problem is that the DNA data bank is desperately underfunded. We know that the RCMP is taking seven to eight months to turn around requests and that its office simply cannot handle what is given to it. This automatic inclusion of all of this additional data will mean that the backup will be even bigger.
Again, we have a government passing something but not following it up with the resources to really make it work. If we are to have automatic inclusion in the DNA data bank, it is rather meaningless if the police do not have the resources to actually process and use that information.
We want to see the bill move forward. We are deeply disappointed that we are dealing with it yet again. It should have been dealt with more than a year ago. However, we look forward to its speedy passage through this place and the opportunity in committee to ask some of these important questions.