Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to speak to Bill C-61, immediately after the presentation by the hon. member for Prince Edward-Hastings, especially since the hon. member, until quite recently, operated a big farm in his own riding and is an expert on the subject.
The purpose of the bill before the House today is to provide enforcement options to deal with persons who violate certain laws that regulate health standards and the quality of agricultural products sold in Canada and, of course, Quebec.
This legislation, as we just pointed out, will affect eight acts and their regulations, including the Canada Agricultural Prod-
ucts Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Fertilizer Act and the Health of Animals Act. With Bill C-61, the government establishes what are referred to as AMPS. AMPS stands for administrative monetary penalties system. Throughout this debate, when we refer to AMPS, that is what we mean. The purpose of Bill C-61 is to extend the range of enforcement options available in legislation administered by the Food Production and Inspection Branch.
Under this system, an inspector from the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food will be able to impose penalties when regulations are violated. This procedure would obviate the need for going to court, so this is also a matter of alleviating the burden on the judiciary system.
After reading the Auditor General's comments on inspection procedures, it is clear changes were necessary. I realize that these changes are not directly related to the changes recommended in the Auditor General's report, but this may be a first step.
I may remind the House that in his latest report, the Auditor General of Canada pointed out that resources were being wasted as a result of the incredible confusion with respect to inspection standards. A document from the Food Production and Inspection Branch tells us that the government expects to cut $44 million in this sector over five years, including $22 million in the next budget, which the minister will be bringing down a few weeks from now. After the by-election in Brome-Missisquoi, of course.
It would be worthwhile knowing the savings, which my colleague from Prince Edward-Hastings did not mention, the amount of the savings generated by this new approach and whether these savings are included in the cuts mentioned earlier.
We must be very careful to avoid imposing drastic cuts that could affect the quality of inspection services. At the risk of digressing briefly from the context of the bill we are currently considering, that is Bill C-61, I will take the liberty of adding that I have received a lot of mail from small meat-packing firms concerned about possibly having to pay inspection costs themselves.
The members of the Bloc quebecois will be keeping a close watch, at the appropriate time, to ensure the government does not dump the costs onto small businesses. That is the end of my brief digression, Mr. Speaker.
The fact remains that the AMP system provides for the imposition of fines, but through an administrative process. An AMP cannot lead to either a criminal record or imprisonment. The main objective of the system is to ensure compliance with the law, it appears. It is not intended to impose heavy fines as the result of an offence.
The system invites negotiation much more than severe penalties. In fact, to my understanding, it provides an alternative to public officials who must ensure compliance with legislation. The principle is clear: the intention is to reduce the number of legal proceedings and to provide more satisfactory solutions to carrying out the law.
Representatives from the agricultural sector have already pointed out that overly excessive fines were sometimes imposed for offences and that officials sometimes had to simply overlook certain mistakes. The flexibility of the AMPs could lessen the problem.
What Bill C-61 provides that is new is an alternative solution for the offender. Once an individual is found guilty, he has a number of options open to him. He can contest his guilt with the minister within a prescribed time frame and under certain terms of the regulations. If, on the other hand, he accepts the guilty verdict and pays the fine, the amount of the fine is automatically cut in half.
In our system of justice, the presumption of innocence is a fundamental right. By giving the offender this option, the accused is in effect threatened with having to go to trial and having to hire a lawyer to defend himself, with all that entails. He is simply told to pay up and be quiet. We oppose this principle which would require the less affluent to admit their guilt even though they would like to proclaim their innocence. The implementation of this measure could create a dangerous precedent.
I would like to compare this possibility to a personal experience of mine. I was stopped by an officer of the Sureté du Québec; I was certainly at fault, driving at 141 km per hour. The officer said, very kindly, "Sir, you were doing 141 but we will say 135, that will save you this much, you will save that much".
Once he gave me the ticket, I of course wrote out the cheque as soon as I got home and sent it off right away and, in so doing, admitted my guilt. As another example, one of my friends was once ticketed in a different but similar situation, for failing to come to a stop, although he was sure he had stopped properly.
He decided to plead not guilty but he too, poor fellow, should have written out a cheque as I did to get some peace of mind. He had to appear three times in court in Thetford Mines. The first time, the case was postponed because the judge was not in a good mood. The second time, the officer failed to appear. He had informed the court, but there had not been enough time to inform my friend; the third time, he won.
Yes, he won, but the money he saved did not make up for the costs incurred since he missed nearly three full days of work, not to mention his travel expenses and what he paid for his defence.
So, you see, I am more or less convinced that many of our fellow citizens will simply pay, even if they are not at fault, they will pay immediately to receive the 50 per cent reduction. What a deal!
You know that for a $2,000 fine, the fine is reduced by 50 per cent if paid in cash. So, for that reason, I strongly suspect that many people will pay forthwith to avoid costs which, in my opinion, would be much greater. It is a basic right and it must still be respected. As the hon. members opposite have said so well, we live in the world's most democratic country, so we must not let this wonderful democracy run wild, even though it sometimes seems, in my opinion anyway, to only hobble along in some cases.
Therefore, we are against the principle which obliges the less well-off to admit their guilt, even though they would rather claim their innocence. Applying this measure could set a dangerous precedent because the other available option, if the fine is $2,000 or more, is to reach an agreement with the minister. Applying this alternative solution is simple. If the minister accepts-the decision is discretionary-offenders can considerably reduce or even cancel their fines if corrective measures are taken to comply with the regulations in the future, that is individuals or businesses will see their fines reduced by $1 for each $2 they invest to improve their methods, businesses, ways of doing things or working, whether they buy new equipment or give new training to their employees.
Therefore, for each $2 invested in their businesses, $1 is taken off of their fines. This means that for each investment made to comply with the department's regulations, their fines are regularly reduced by 50 per cent. Thus offenders are able to negotiate their sentences. Our judicial system does not lend itself, in my opinion, to this kind of negotiation. When people make mistakes, they must bear the consequences.
This method constitutes a form of economic discrimination in the sense that individuals and businesses with bursting wallets will barely feel the impact of the sanctions, while people who are innocent, but have less financial means at their disposal, could pay bigger fines than their rich neighbours, sometimes for lesser violations.
We also have no idea of how the offenders' compliance costs will be estimated, or of what will happen if suppliers inflate prices. If we want to give businesses incentives to invest, let us do it through tax programs or through other means, not by negotiating sentences.
Another thing that bothers me is the power given to the minister and, by extension, to his employees. The minister will use his own employees to ensure compliance instead of the courts. They will be the masters of the destiny of those who have committed violations. They decide if there has been a violation, label it as minor, serious, or very serious, set the amount of the penalty, decide on the cases in which the tribunal may intervene and approve or reject compliance agreements. It seems to me that this is being done and that it could be detrimental and could lead to the obvious risk of political interference, not to say barefaced patronage.
These officials will have full authority to determine whether or not there has been a violation, and if so, the degree of fault. Who will decide if the fine is $2,000 for a minor infraction, $10,000 for a serious infraction or $15,000 for a very serious infraction? The decision-making process is therefore decentralized and the minister claims that the regulations remove any risk of arbitrary decisions. Because they are seen by the department as essential to an equitable application of penalties, it goes without saying that a draft of the regulations must be made available to the members of the committee studying this bill.
I am also somewhat bothered by the independence of the tribunal responsible for hearing the complaints of those named in notices of violation and for reviewing the decisions made by the minister or his officials. This reminds me, if I may digress again, of the meeting last week of the 19 Quebec Liberal members with the president of the CBC to discuss coverage of the referendum campaign in Quebec. It is terrible, Mr. Speaker, the political interference of this government in information. When we speak of democracy in a country such as ours, the first thing this should call to mind is the right to accurate, truthful and unbiased information. When a Liberal party caucus meets with the president, it is not to tell him: Cover the referendum, but do not slant it in favour of the Yes side, slant it in our favour because we are the ones who pay you, who set your budget and who will reappoint you to your position. And, for that matter, we are the ones who appointed you to it in the first place.
I also heard in the fall in this House that the minister of heritage had written to a quasi-judicial body, the CRTC, which reports through his department. The minister had written so that one of his constituents could obtain a licence. And the Prime Minister excused him by saying that he was not alone, that eight other ministers had written-