Mr. Speaker, I am extremely honoured to rise to speak to the merits of Bill C-69, an act to amend the Criminal Records Act.
This is an extremely important bill, dealing as it does with improving the safety of our children and other vulnerable people. This is an objective shared by all parties, as was amply demonstrated during debate and in committee.
I would like to begin by complimenting my colleagues sitting opposite on the spirit of co-operation that clearly demonstrates the extent and depth of our shared commitment. With the co-operation and advice of the other parties, this bill, as amended, is even stronger than it was when first tabled.
In particular, I am pleased to acknowledge the initiative taken by my hon. friend from Calgary Centre to introduce his own private member's bill on this same matter.
With his co-operation we have been able to ensure that the principles of his Bill C-284 are captured within Bill C-69 so that we can proceed expeditiously with this single proposal.
The central objective of the bill will be achieved by a process that it is outlined in clause 6. It will allow a flag to be placed in the criminal records system when a sex offender is granted a pardon and that record is sealed. This will help ensure that such records are identified and can be disclosed by the solicitor general for screening purposes.
As hon. members will know, the Criminal Records Act establishes a system to offer pardons to former offenders who have demonstrated a return to a law-abiding life.
It is designed to both recognize that return to good conduct and to encourage continued positive adjustment by removing the stigma and barriers to normal social participation created by a criminal record. Under that act, offenders can have their records sealed by obtaining a pardon from the National Parole Board.
I should point out that this does not expunge the conviction nor does it erase the record. The conviction is a matter of historical fact and the criminal record can be unsealed on the authority of the solicitor general if that is required in the interests of the administration of justice or national security.
Pardons are granted only when it has been demonstrated that crime free conduct has been resumed. In the case of summary conviction offences, this requires a three-year crime free period after completion of any and all sentences. In the case of more serious indictable offences, the waiting period is five years. Before a pardon is received, police are consulted in every community where pardon applicants have lived during the past five years.
The rate of success in obtaining pardons by applicants is quite high, well over 90%, but this does not reflect any lack of diligence in considering pardon applications. Rather, it indicates that the vast majority of applicants qualify for a pardon, whereas those who would obviously not qualify are deterred from applying when they see the thoroughness of the application information they must provide, including fingerprints.
The vast majority of pardon recipients are law abiding at the time of being pardoned. In fact, most pardon requests arise precisely because the applicants have returned to a stable law-abiding life.
As most hon. members will know from the inquiries they receive from their constituents, the most common reason for seeking a pardon is for purposes of employment and travel outside of the country. Moreover, and perhaps most important, the vast majority of pardon recipients remain law abiding.
During the past 28 years, nearly a quarter of a million pardons have been granted and of these, just over 6,000 have been revoked for a new offence. This is a “success rate” of over 97%.
Now, I hasten to note that Bill C-69 deals primarily with sex offenders, a small segment of the larger pardon group.
The solicitor general's department has recently estimated that, during the past 28 years, 4,200 sex offenders have received pardons and, of these, 114 or 2.6% have had their pardon revoked for commission of another sex offence.
Thus, these estimates demonstrate that, thankfully, only a very small number of pardoned sex offenders continue to pose a risk to society and to children in particular.
No matter how small the number, we are determined to reduce that risk to the lowest level possible. And that is why Bill C-69 is so crucial.
This is not a new found concern of the government. Bill C-69 is founded on measures that have been taken since the beginning of our mandate.
In 1993, extensive consultations were conducted in every region of this country with child-caring organizations of many descriptions: school and child welfare officials, voluntary organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brother and Big Sister agencies, Volunteer Canada, etc.
Police were also included in all of these consultations as were victims organizations. It was clear in those consultations that a check of criminal records constitutes only one part of a comprehensive screening process, but an important and essential part.
Based on that consensus, the national screening system was launched in 1994. That system is a collaborative effort involving child-caring agencies, the police community, the Canadian Police Information Centre, or CPIC, and the departments of the solicitor general, health and justice.
Volunteer Canada in particular has been an important partner in training and informing the voluntary community about sound screening practices Only recently, I was proud to participate in the launch of a public information campaign by Volunteer Canada.
With the motto “You Have A Responsibility to Question”, it will encourage parents to insist that organizations to which they entrust their children have effective screening practices. The national screening system provides access to criminal records of applicants for positions of trust with children and vulnerable persons.
With the consent of the applicant—I repeat, because this is important, with the consent of the applicant—local police check the CPIC records system for a criminal record. They then provide the results of that search to the screening agency, usually through the applicant him or herself, for review as to its relevance to the position in question.
The national screening system has been working well and its use by the voluntary sector and other bona fide organizations is constantly expanding. There have been over 700,000 searches conducted to date.
Bill C-69 further refines the national screening system by correcting a weakness that has been identified in its use. That is the fact that a pardoned record of a sex offender could be overlooked during a routine screening check of the CPIC system.
As it stands today, the solicitor general has the authority to unseal and disclose a pardoned record for purposes consistent with the administration of justice, including screening. However, he cannot use that authority if such records are not requested—and they cannot be requested if their existence is unknown.
Because such records are removed from the CPIC system and kept separately in a sealed database, they do not show up when a routine query of CPIC is made.
This is exactly what is intended by the Criminal Records Act. For most purposes these records should be invisible. However, when persons are applying for a position of trust and their record suggests there would be an increased level of risk to a specific vulnerable category of person, an exception is warranted.
There was unanimous agreement on this point among the federal, provincial and territorial ministers of justice and solicitors general when they met in October 1998. A working group of senior officials examining ways to better protect children submitted 10 recommendations to their ministers. All 10 were adopted and are being implemented at this time.
One proposal was that the records of pardoned sex offenders be made available for consideration during screening of persons for positions of trust.
The federal Solicitor General, with the support of the Minister of Justice, undertook at that meeting to determine how best to do so, in consultation with provincial partners. Consequently, Bill C-69 provides that when a criminal record that includes a sex offence is pardoned and removed from CPIC, a notation or flag will be left in its place. After that, when a screening check is conducted, that notation will direct the police officer doing the search to submit fingerprints to CPIC headquarters with a request for that record. It will then be brought forward to the Solicitor General to consider its unsealing.
Some will say that this measure runs counter to the fundamental intent of the Criminal Records Act. Admittedly there is some basis for that position, but it is the government's view that this is a narrow and limited exception that is warranted.
Ministers of justice from all jurisdictions have supported this principle, as have all parties in this place.
Not taking this step would risk incurring the potential consequences of the pardon helping a predatory sex offender work his way into a position of trust with vulnerable people. I say it is a narrow exception. Only sex offences on a list that will be placed in regulations will cause a flag to be placed on CPIC.
This flag will only become visible during a screening search that will be indicated by the entry code on the computer terminal.
Unauthorized use of that code will be prohibited by the act and by CPIC policy. Moreover, there will be other safeguards built into the system.
Consent of the applicant will always be required and he will retain the option of abandoning the application if he wishes not to disclose his record to the screening agency.
Fingerprints will accompany the request to unseal a pardoned record to ensure the accurate identification of the applicant. And finally, the Solicitor General will have to agree that disclosure of the record is warranted.
These safeguards will protect the rights of pardoned ex-offenders. They will protect them from having their pardoned records arbitrarily disclosed while ensuring that bona fide agencies will have access to the full record of applicants who have committed sex offences.
This will not automatically deny them placement in such positions, but it will allow agencies to fully consider what role in their organization would be appropriate for such persons.
Ensuring that police will play a central role in screening will provide considerable assurance that the system will not be abused by persons who are trying to evade detection.
Before concluding, I should mention that flagging pardoned records on CPIC is not the only provision in Bill C-69. The bill will also clarify and strengthen the pardon system is other ways as well.
For example, it will provide that pardons will be automatically revoked upon conviction for a so-called hybrid offence—one that can be prosecuted by indictment or a summary offence.
At present, automatic revocation applies only to indictable offences.
In addition, a waiting period of at least one year will be required before an applicant who has been denied a pardon can apply again.
Appeals to the board in cases of denial or revocation of a pardon will now normally be in writing only, and the act will specify more clearly that the effect of the pardon is to seal the record, not expunge the fact of conviction.
Regulations to the act will also specify the sex offences that will be flagged on CPIC and the wording that must be used in the consent form that applicants sign.
Regulations will also set out the factors that are considered by the Solicitor General in making his decision whether or not to unseal a record.
These are important changes. They are changes that are based on experience with earlier and effective measures already instituted by this government. They respond to the unanimous recommendation of provincial and territorial colleagues. They are consistent, I believe, with the shared concern of all hon. members to do all that is possible to protect our children and vulnerable adults from predatory sexual offenders who would conspire to harm them.
We on this side of the House welcome the interest and support of the other parties for this important legislation. In view of the clear interest of all parties, I am confident we can proceed expeditiously with this legislation. Naturally, I invite all my colleagues in this House to support the bill. I will conclude, however, by again complimenting them all, particularly the hon. member for Calgary Centre, for the superb contribution and excellent co-operation that has led the Standing Committee on Justice to stand unanimously behind this bill.