Before we go to orders of the day, I wish to indicate that I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for St. Albert on February 27, 2003, concerning release to the media of information related to the main estimates 2003-04 before that information had been tabled in the House.
I would like to thank the hon. member for St. Albert for having raised this matter, as well as the hon. government House leader and the hon. member for St. John's West for their contributions.
The hon. member for St. Albert complained that a government press release provided detailed information concerning the breakdown of funds sought for the Canadian firearms program in the main estimates 2003-04. Further, he noted that a spokesperson for the Minister of Justice was cited in a report in the National Post as indicating that this detailed information would not be provided to the House until later in the month of March. The hon. member surmised that the information would be included in the Department of Justice's “Report on Plans and Priorities”, the main estimates part III, as they are commonly called.
In addition to this issue, the hon. member also drew the Chair's attention to a note in supplementary estimates (B) for 2002-03 which, he said, indicated that the sum of $14,098,739 had been provided to the justice department out of Treasury Board vote 5, the contingencies vote. He indicated that if this money had been provided to make up for a shortfall in the funding of the firearms registration program, arising from the withdrawal of the request for funds originally contained in supplementary estimates (A) 2002-03, this would constitute a disregard of the will of the House and a contempt.
In speaking to these charges, the hon. government House leader informed the House that the $14 million provided out of the Treasury Board Contingencies Vote had been used by the Department of Justice for drug prosecution and aboriginal litigation.
In a further statement on this question of privilege, made on February 28, 2003, the minister confirmed that these monies were indeed part of the incremental funding needed to address the core operational requirements he had identified, namely an increased workload in drug prosecutions and aboriginal litigation.
Given the minister’s explanation, the Chair can consider this aspect of the matter closed.
Members seeking further information on the use of the contingencies vote funds have ample means at their disposal to obtain it. For example, members may, of course, seek such information from the President of the Treasury Board during question period or when she appears before committee. Alternatively, members may prefer to question individual ministers, parliamentary secretaries or senior officials testifying before committees on main estimates as to whether their particular departments or agencies have had to seek additional funding from Treasury Board via the contingencies vote.
The other point raised by the hon. member for St. Albert concerns the premature release of information. Our practice in this area varies greatly, depending on the nature of the information and the purpose for which it is presented to the House.
As the hon. member pointed out, previous rulings have made it clear that to divulge proposed legislation of which notice has been given prior to its introduction in the House is a breach of the privileges of the House. As I stated in a ruling given on March 19, 2001 at page 1840 of the Debates :
The convention of the confidentiality of bills on notice is necessary, not only so that members themselves may be well-informed, but also because of the pre-eminent role which the House plays and must play in the legislative affairs of the nation.
As well, all members are familiar with the requirement for the confidentiality of committee reports prior to tabling, which is set out in House of Commons Procedure and Practice , at p. 884.
Our practice also safeguards the confidentiality of all reports tabled pursuant to an act of Parliament or a resolution of the House, as provided for in Standing Order 32(1). With respect to annual reports, I refer hon. members to the statement made by Mr. Speaker Fraser on May 7, 1992, at page 10407 of the Debates .
In the present case, the information whose disclosure is under dispute was apparently made public as background material related to the main estimates. Those estimates were tabled in the House in proper form on February 26, 2003, and there has been no allegation that they were prematurely released to anyone outside this place. However the hon. member for St. Albert surmises that this background information might be included in the justice department's “Report on Plans and Priorities” when it is tabled later this month. It is on this surmise that he bases his allegation that the information was prematurely disclosed and it is on the charge of premature disclosure that his argument on contempt must rest.
Let us consider the context. First of all, it is important to recognize that there have been many attempts over the years to address the various frustrations encountered by members in undertaking the scrutiny of the main estimates. Some hon. members will remember a time when, along with what is commonly called the “Blue Book” in which parts I and II, namely the government expenditure plan and the main estimates, respectively, the government tabled the accompanying part IIIs. This additional blue book for each department and agency contained the detailed breakdown of all the votes listed in the main estimates. When members of Parliament complained that the detailed forecast of proposed annual expenditures left them awash with information but no better informed as to the strategic plans on which those expenditures were presumably based, the government responded by developing the current system of reports on plans and priorities.
The current form in which the “Reports on Plans and Priorities” are presented to the House resulted from considerable study of the business of supply by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs during the period 1995-98. Now tabled annually, the “Reports on Plans and Priorities” are described in the estimates documents as:
--individual expenditure plans for each department and agency (excluding Crown corporations). These reports provide increased levels of detail on a business line basis and contain objectives, initiatives and planned results, including links to related resource requirements over a three-year period. The RPPs also provide details on human resource requirements, major capital projects, grants and contributions, and net program costs.
“Reports on Plans and Priorities” provide details about the government’s intentions not only during the current fiscal year, but also during the two following years. In addition, as the House has recently seen, they contain information about the budgetary requirements for the current year as reflected in the main estimates and involving as well supplementary requests that have not yet been placed before Parliament. They are examined by committees in conformity with the provisions of Standing Order 81(7). It may be, given their relatively recent development and the recent experience that the House has had with them, that further consideration should be given to their format or presentation.
In one sense, then, it is reasonable to conclude that, like departmental annual reports and the reports of our committees, it is a breach of the privileges of this House to make public “Reports on Plans and Priorities” before they have been tabled as required. In the case before us, however, we are not faced with the premature release of the “Report on Plans and Priorities” of the Department of Justice, but only with certain information that is presumed to be included in it. This is information that complements the information provided to the House in the proper form in the main estimates. While our procedure with respect to documents is clear cut, our practices concerning information are less well-codified.
Where information relates directly to decisions that the House is, or may be, called upon to make concerning legislation or the recommendations of committees, obviously the rights of the House must prevail and so must be considered pre-eminent. In other cases, there is considerably more latitude. We do not expect, for example, that every piece of information contained in a department's annual report will have been kept from the public until that report is tabled in the House. This would require the government to conduct its business under a shroud of secrecy that would be contrary to the openness and transparency that this House and all Canadians expect.
The main estimates 2003-04 are already before the House. Making public supplementary information concerning estimates figures which are already available does not seem to me to represent an objectionable practice and it might be unwise for your Speaker to comment on how sensible it is to make available to the media, information that is not, at least simultaneously, made available to members.
Members may well believe that this information should have been included in the main estimates or perhaps tabled with them in a separate document. The Speaker is aware that both the manner in which the estimates material is brought before the House and the nature and extent of that information is of ongoing concern to many members. When, in due course, standing committees take up their study of the main estimates, they may wish to pursue the concerns arising from the case before us.
In light of our current practice, I do not find that the simple disclosure of this additional information constitutes a breach of the privileges of the House.
I would like once again to thank the hon. member for St. Albert for having raised this issue and for his continued diligent interest in the proper observance of the rules governing our financial procedures.