Mr. Speaker, the government has tabled Bill C-61 introducing the Agriculture and Agri-Food Administrative Monetary Penalties Act, a major component of our program to reform enforcement of the regulatory system for agriculture and agri-food products.
This bill introduces an option to enforce agriculture regulations outside the courts when domestic or imported products do not measure up to Canada's excellenct standards for health, safety and quality. A system that allows for equal treatment of domestic and imported products has been requested by the industry.
The administrative monetary penalty system, AMPS, would allow government officials to issue monetary penalties for most breaches of eight federal statutes and regulations under those acts in cases involving both domestic and imported products instead of proceeding through the criminal justice system as has been the case in the past.
The use of the criminal justice system would be reserved for serious breaches warranting high fines, a criminal record and the possibility of imprisonment. The move is in keeping with the government's overall plan. This overall plan will include that we ensure our high standards, apply those standards consistently to both domestic and imported products, increase the rate of compliance and perform our important regulatory function in a more efficient and cost effective manner.
The administrative monetary penalty system means precisely what it says. Monetary penalties will be imposed for violations under eight acts and their regulations, including the Canada Agricultural Products Act, the Feeds Act, the Fertilizer Act, the Health of Animals Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Pest Control Products Act, the Plant Protection Act and the Seeds Act.
The system we are proposing today was developed in conjunction with the Department of Justice through the regulatory compliance project, a cross government initiative looking at alternatives to criminal prosecution of regulatory violations. The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food and I are acutely aware that food safety and quality have been and must continue to be our top priority.
Our reputation for safety, quality and the competitiveness of Canadian products is vital to our domestic consumers. It gives producers and processors a critical advantage in the international marketplace. Doing a better job as regulators means protecting that reputation both at home and abroad. That is tied to our overall government commitment to jobs and growth by making the most out of liberalized world trade.
A year ago this government made a number of commitments to the people of Canada. I am pleased to say that within our first year of office we have made a great amount of headway on a number of fronts. Improving the regulatory system is one of those areas.
In reforming the way we enforce regulations we have asked some basic questions. Does what we do now make sense practically and economically? How could we do a better job of regulating? What does the industry want? What about consumers and what about our international obligations?
Under the present conditions penalties for regulatory offences are dealt with under criminal law. That means they are prosecuted in the courts. This is costly. It can cause delays and means that strict requirements of criminal procedure must be followed. This places a considerable pressure on our limited resources.
As a regulatory department we are not dealing with crimes in the order of murder, theft and assault. We are dealing with regulatory contraventions that fall outside true criminal law such as misleading labelling of food products, improper sanitation procedures in food processing and failure to follow market requirements for federal inspection or for packaging.
This legislation, AMPS, will allow us to treat most of these regulatory violations outside criminal courts in a manner that requires less formal procedures and lower costs for proceedings. It will allow us to allocate our scarce resources to uses with the highest value.
This legislation is far more efficient than prosecution, as it allows for the settlement of penalties without going through a hearing process. It is also a much fairer process for violators, as it removes the criminal stigma with these violations.
The use of the administrative monetary penalty system would widen the array of options available to the department in responding to non-compliance. We now prosecute essentially in situations of serious non-compliance such as actions that introduce a foreign disease or a pest into the country. Those are the main areas in which we follow the present process because of the cost and time involved.
A suitable alternative to prosecution that provides suitable deterrents to non-compliance is needed for effective regulatory enforcement. AMPS is such a system.
AMPS would provide the government with a much needed method of enforcing compliance with our regulations. The United States uses a monetary penalty system for exporters, yet we have not had this option to ensure that imports meet our standards in Canada. The United States department of agriculture and most other regulatory agencies in the United States use a system of monetary penalty.
Currently we have federal inspectors in plants and establishments in Canada and we generally have effective enforcement options in these situations to deal with non-compliant products. We can seize and detain the product in establishments or stop the processing line until the product is brought into compliance. For imported products these options are not possible. However, the monetary penalty system would give us an effective response to non-compliance in the market of these products.
The system would allow for the use of consistent enforcement practices against importers and domestic companies marketing products that do not meet Canadian health, Canadian safety or Canadian quality standards. Consistency of consequences for non-compliance combined with a greater rate of compliance increases the competitiveness of Canada's agri-food sector.
The recommendation to move to an administrative system came out of the department's regulatory review, where industry associations pointed out the need for active enforcement of domestic standards to imported products. They want a level playing field. This system would lead to equitable enforcement of regulations for domestic and imported products. Further consultation with the agri-food industry would take place in the development of regulations for the system.
The system emphasizes compliance, not punishment. In general, warnings would be issued before an administrative monetary penalty is proposed. In those situations where a penalty has been imposed, the system would allow officials with the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food to negotiate solutions with companies when the product violates an act or a regulation. Penalties may be reduced or indeed waived if corrective actions such as processing modifications, staff training, the purchase of new equipment or whatever it takes to ensure future compliance, are made by the industry.
This kind of immediate corrective action results in a better product. It also results in improved health and safety and, in the end, more effective enforcement. Negotiated solutions to non-compliance are not now available.
With the monetary policy system being administrative in nature, it would replace most prosecutions and decriminalize violations of the various acts, as there is not a possibility of obtaining a criminal record or of being imprisoned. The system represents a further step toward decriminalizing our regulatory violations. We would retain the right to prosecute offences committed with intent that have the potential to cause significant harm. As well, we would ensure the effective regulation of health, safety and quality of both domestic and imported products.
The system would also allow us to issue tickets at ports of entry to Canada and allow us to issue those tickets for minor violations committed by the travelling public that try to illegally bring meat or meat products or plants or plant products into Canada.
The problem of that type of thing happening has the potential to be serious because of the possibility of introducing plant or animal diseases into the country. For example, the introduction of foot and mouth disease a number of years ago resulted in millions of dollars in damages and costs for its control and eradication. The current system based on prosecution before the courts is generally inappropriate for these violations unless significant harm is done.
Along with an education component developed by the department to increase awareness of important requirements called "Beware and Declare", we expect the monetary penalty system to solve the problem efficiently and effectively.
Through these initiatives major airlines will be showing travellers coming into the country a video on the restrictions surrounding the importation of agriculture and agri-food products and the possibility of receiving a penalty if they attempt to bring meat or plant products into the country without declaring them.
The use of the monetary penalty is not a new concept in the federal regulatory system. The AMPS being proposed in the bill borrows on the system used by Transport Canada to regulate activities under the Aeronautics Act as does Human Resources Development Canada for enforcement under the Unemployment Insurance Act. Other departments are as well considering a system for use in their regulatory areas.
Under the administrative monetary penalty system we expect a higher rate of compliance simply because the system is flexible, faster, fairer, and sends a clear message on what the response to non-compliance will be. We believe the system makes sense as we move toward a partnership with industry and as we shift many of our inspection activities away from hands on inspection and move more toward a monitoring role.
New enforcement options are needed to address this shift in responsibility as industry will take on a greater ownership of ensuring that agri-food products are in compliance with regulations.
The administrative monetary penalty system provides alternatives to both overly strict and weak enforcement. As I said earlier, our main enforcement options at the present time are to seize and detain a product and to prosecute. In addition, we can suspend and cancel licences, deregister plants and withdraw services. Because these last three options stop business operations either temporarily or permanently, we have used these sanctions sparingly and only as a last resort. As well these sanctions are not available for imported products.
A monetary penalty would generally be considered appropriate when the violation posed actual or potential risk of harm to health or safety and would cause economic harm or is a threat to the environment.
Administrative monetary penalties would be imposed on the basis of absolute liability, that is the penalty could be imposed without proving intent or negligence. The concept of absolute liability is appropriate to the administrative enforcement of regulations with modest levels for penalties and no threat of imprisonment.
We expect to begin implementation with penalties that will be broken into three basic levels ranging from $50 to $6,000 depending on the severity of the offence. The proposed legislation, however, would allow us to set maximum penalties at $15,000. This built-in flexibility would help to accommodate future increase that might be due to inflation and other causes.
The amount of the penalties could be adjusted higher or lower based on several mitigating or aggravating criteria, including seriousness of the violation, the compliance record, the degree of intent to commit a violation, the amount of harm done including harm to health and safety and economic and environmental harm.
As part of the system a review process would be set up to give an opportunity to be heard to those who believe they did not commit a violation. That review would be carried out by an appropriate government official, or a violator could request a hearing before an independent tribunal with recourse to the Federal Court of Canada as the final level of review.
Again in keeping with the emphasis on compliance, not punishment, the proposed act would authorize officials to enter into negotiations, if requested by the offenders, for the amount of penalties and for concluding compliance agreements. Under the compliance agreements, fines can be reduced or waived if the industry takes the necessary steps to ensure future compliance.
As well, under this system fines will be reduced by 50 per cent for offenders who pay the fine within the time prescribed by regulations without asking for a review. Doing a better job of regulating makes sense for the consumer, for the industry and for government.
The administrative monetary penalty system would provide for a quick response to most non-compliance situations. Combined with other enforcement measures, this should have the effect of improving compliance with the regulations. In turn this is expected to reduce the government's exposure to liability resulting from the underenforcement of statutes and regulations.
To conclude I would like to say that to introduce this system initially requires the passage of this omnibus legislation that would amend the eight acts I listed earlier. Implementation of the administrative monetary penalty system is an important step in our overall plan. It is important in order to improve the agriculture and agri-food inspection system. It is important to apply our standards of high quality, high health and high safety equally to products coming into the country and to products produced in Canada. It is important to stop the travelling public from bringing in illegal plants, animals or products made of plants and animals, and to bring an overall greater sense of fairness and expediency to the enforcement of regulations.
We are working in close co-operation with the industry. We are adapting to the changing business environment. We are finding different ways of doing business that do not compromise on the world renowned standards of excellence in Canada.
I recommend members of the House approve Bill C-61 as expeditiously as possible.