Mr. Speaker, it is my privilege to participate in the debate on third reading of Bill C-13, the witness protection program act.
I am sure that most hon. members are aware that the intent of the witness protection program act is to ensure that our federal witness protection program will provide the best possible protection to both witnesses and sources.
The legislation proposed by the bill creates for the first time a statutory foundation for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police source witness protection program.
On behalf of the Solicitor General, I would like to thank all the members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs for the time and energy they put into consideration of this bill last fall.
During this period, the committee heard people from various backgrounds, including the police, representatives of victim support groups, legal experts and a former witness.
It also heard my hon. colleague, the member for Scarborough West, whose interest in the matter of witness protection is well known, and who stimulated discussions significantly on this important question.
The government has taken careful note of the legitimate concerns expressed during the hearings of the committee, and they are reflected in the amendments made to the original bill.
Thus, the bill before you today is better and more solid than the one tabled at first reading.
The committee deserves our thanks for this.
The proposed changes will improve the transparency and the efficiency of the RCMP's source and witness protection program, which has existed as an administrative program since 1984, by giving it a solid statutory and regulatory basis.
We are creating a witness protection program with a basis in law.
This legislation will have the important effect of giving the RCMP's source and witness protection program a higher profile. The need to report on the operations of this program will be specified.
Of course, the identity of the sources and witness will remain secret, but the selection criteria and the scope of protection will be clear and transparent.
Thanks to these statutory provisions, the participants in the program and the RCMP administering it will be clear as to their rights and obligations and the scope of the protection and benefits provided. This should also eliminate any misunderstanding between the RCMP and the people being protected.
In all, the changes to this RCMP program will meet the needs of both the police and the witnesses and sources requiring protection.
The proposed changes will ensure that the eligibility criteria for witnesses are clearly defined; they will ensure standard case handling across the country; a clear definition of the responsibilities and obligations of the program administrators and participants; a better defined management structure within the RCMP for day to
day program operation, which will reinforce the reporting requirement; a complaint resolution mechanism and the presentation of an annual report on the operation of the program by the commissioner of the RCMP to the Solicitor General, which will be tabled in the House of Commons.
Provincial and municipal law enforcement agencies may still make use of the RCMP source and witness protection program, as they did in the past, on a cost recovery basis.
However, the bill does not seek to replace witness protection programs administered by provinces or municipalities, nor does it seek to set up a national program.
Through these brief comments, I tried to present as clearly as possible the key components of the bill. I am convinced that hon. members know that the source witness protection program is a very powerful tool for law enforcement purposes.
However, I am aware that there are lingering concerns over certain aspects of the program. I will discuss some of these now, particularly those raised by the hon. member for Saint-Hubert. During the debate at second reading, the hon. member for Saint-Hubert asked the government to clarify three basic points.
The first one is the budget allocated for the new program; the second one is the time required to put the program in place, once the bill is passed; and the third one is the number of people who should take part in the program. These are important issues and I will begin with the budget.
The annual costs of the RCMP source witness protection program currently stand at $3.4 million. I am pleased to tell the House that the bill will not result in any additional costs. The average cost per case is $30,000, and in about 60 per cent of the cases it is under $20,000.
The second issue raised by the hon. member for Saint-Hubert is the time required, once the bill is passed, for the new program to become operational.
The RCMP assures us that the new program could be operational a few weeks after the bill is passed. It is to be noted that the current source witness protection program will be maintained until the proposed changes are implemented.
The third and last point raised by the hon. member for Saint-Hubert is the number of people who should take part in the program every year. There are, at any one time, between 80 and 100 people, including family members, actively participating in the program. This average figure should not change in the foreseeable future.
I want to point out that protecting sources and witnesses will not eliminate violent crime, or even organized crime. However, the program is an important investigation tool for law enforcement authorities. It greatly helps police in its constant fight against organized crime and major criminal activities in Canada.
We must make sure that the program continues to be such a useful instrument.
When the government was elected it made a commitment in its election platform to a safer homes and safer streets agenda. Since taking office we have honoured that commitment.
To date we have brought about the reform of the corrections and conditional release system through the passage of Bill C-45 which became law in January of this year. Improvements were equally made to the Canadian Police Information Centre data banks to help screen out child sexual abusers as potential employees and volunteers working with children.
We established a national flagging system to help crown attorneys deal more effectively with high risk offenders. We equally passed comprehensive gun control. We created a National Crime Prevention Council and passed amendments to the Young Offenders Act.
The witness protection program act is yet another important component in our overall effort to improve safety and security for all Canadians. I believe that all hon. members recognize the importance of and endorse the changes proposed in the witness protection program act.
I would like to thank once again all members of all parties for their past support of the bill. I hope we can count on their continued support to ensure speedy passage of Bill C-13 at third reading.