I have a ruling to give on a question of privilege raised by the hon. member for St. Albert on February 10, 2003, concerning disclosure of a confidential draft report of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts prior to the report's adoption by the committee or its presentation to the House.
I would like to thank the hon. member for bringing this matter to the attention of the House, as well as the House leader for the New Democratic Party, the hon. members for St. John's West and Ottawa Centre as well as the House leader of the official opposition for their contributions on the question. I would also like to thank the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre for his clear and succinct statement on the matter.
The hon. member for St. Albert, in raising this matter, pointed out that some portions of the draft report of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts were divulged in a newspaper article before the committee had adopted the report or even deliberated upon the draft document. He drew the attention of hon. members to the newspaper report published on February 10 by the Ottawa Citizen , in which sections of the draft report are referred to.
In that article, the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, a former member of the public accounts committee, is quoted as making comments regarding the contents of the document. The hon. member for St. Albert also raised the matter of a news conference, scheduled but later cancelled, by the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre to discuss a dissenting opinion prepared as a possible appendix to the draft report. The hon. member for St. Albert named the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre as the source of the leaked document and asked the Speaker to consider this a prima facie case of privilege.
In her comments on the matter, the hon. House leader for the New Democratic Party stated that she had spoken with the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, who very firmly denied leaking the draft report to the media. She also pointed out that the first article regarding the leaked document had appeared on Friday, January 31, 2003, in the National Post and stated that the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre did not release the document in that instance either. The hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, in his statement to the House on February 13, 2003, confirmed his House leader's remarks.
There are two issues related to this particular question that the Chair feels must be dealt with. First of all, there is the matter of the divulgation of a draft report of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts.
As the House is aware, there have been a number of cases recently concerning the premature release of confidential committee material. In this instance, the draft was released even before the committee had a chance to deliberate and decide on the final contents of its report. This is, of course, contrary to the rules of the House, as is clearly indicated in House of Commons Procedure and Practice on page 884, and as I and previous Speakers have pointed out on numerous occasions.
However, I have examined both of the press articles dealing with this draft report with great care and can find nothing in either of them to indicate that the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre is the source of the leak to either newspaper. Moreover, the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre has explicitly denied that he was responsible for divulging the draft report. There are, therefore, no grounds for the finding of a prima facie breach of privilege in respect of this matter.
I remind all hon. members once again that it remains the responsibility of committees themselves to examine possible breaches of this nature and, where appropriate, to report them to the House. I refer hon. members to the rulings of Mr. Speaker Lamoureux, in the Journals of March 31, 1969, pages 873-4, and Mr. Speaker Rhodes in the Journals of July 1, 1919, page 498, in this regard.
In addition, I believe I must draw to the attention of hon. members their responsibilities with respect both to committee reports that have not yet been tabled in the House and to committee proceedings that take place in camera.
In a ruling given on May 14, 1987, Mr. Speaker Fraser stated, and I refer to the Debates of May 14 of that year, at page 6110:
...when a committee resolves to meet in camera, all the deliberations which take place at such a meeting...are intended to be confidential. All Members attending such a meeting, together with any members of the staff assisting the committee, are expected to respect the confidentiality of the proceedings which take place at that meeting. This place can only operate on the basis of respect for its rules and practice and of confidence and trust among its Members.
The hon. member for St. Albert, in drawing this matter to the attention of the House, indicated that he believed that the member for Winnipeg Centre had made use of information entrusted to him in confidence as a member of the public accounts committee. The hon. member for Ottawa Centre alleged that other members in the committee, on earlier occasions, had also breached the confidentiality of in camera proceedings.
In the absence of a report from the committee on such an issue, it is virtually impossible for the Chair to make any judgement as to the prima facie occurrence of a breach of privilege with regard to such charges.
While I appreciate the obligation that members may feel to provide their views on issues of current interest, this must not be allowed to override the duty they have to respect the confidentiality of committee proceedings. The fact that a report has been leaked to the media does not absolve members of their obligation not to divulge a committee's in camera deliberations. The hon. member for Winnipeg Centre made explicit reference to this principle in describing his decision to cancel a press conference he had scheduled for February 10, 2003.
In closing, I would point out that, as Speaker, any intervention I might make on these questions is necessarily restricted to strictly procedural matters. However, given the frequency with which this problem seems to occur, as evidenced by the number of times it has been brought to the House's attention in this session, and the very obvious frustration felt on all sides of the House when these incidents occur, hon. members may wish the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to take another look at the entire issue of leaks of committee documents and in camera proceedings. Although that committee dealt with the topic in its 73rd report during the 1st session of the 36th Parliament, the House did not choose at that time to take up the report or adopt its recommendations.
It seems clear to the Chair that whether or not the committee pursues the matter, unless the problem is addressed by all parties and by each individual member as a matter of honour, then the ability of the House and its committees to function in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect will continue to be put at risk.
The Chair has notice of a question of privilege from the hon. member for Mississauga West.