House of Commons Hansard #122 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was havens.


User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:15 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Jim Abbott Canadian Alliance Kootenay—Columbia, BC

Madam Speaker, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to speak to Bill C-212.

This is a very important bill in spite of the fact that it deals with a tremendous amount of arcane information. It is one of those things where as the country of Canada has become the great nation that it has, over a period of time we have ended up with an awful lot of practices within Parliament. There are parliamentary procedures and practices within the bureaucracy that are responsible for putting together regulations surrounding the laws that are passed in Parliament.

As a consequence, there has been a buildup of detail and a buildup of law that has ended up beyond the control of the people who are elected by Canadians, namely the parliamentarians. We have ended up with a situation where as much as 90% of the law, the rules and regulations, and the procedures that citizens and companies have to go through are actually beyond the control, direction, and oversight of parliamentary procedure. This bill is one of a number of steps that have come from the backbench that would start to correct that situation.

I would like to mention that the member for Surrey Central just recently was successful in having a bill passed that had to do with the disallowance of regulations. As I mentioned, it is a rather arcane topic. It is an arcane description. Let me explain the disallowance of procedures.

Basically, what he managed to do--and it is parallel to what this bill is attempting to do in my judgment--is to put parliamentarians, who are the representatives elected by and accountable to the people of Canada, back into the process. What we will basically be looking at now are a number of fees, regulations, and procedures that have been developed, presumably in good faith by the bureaucracy that have ended up beyond the control of even the ministers of the Crown.

As I understand Bill C-212, it has to do specifically with user fees. According to the documents I have in front of me, it says that this act may be cited as the user fees act. When I go through this bill and I come to clause 5.1, reduction of user fee; clause 6, resolution of the House; and clause 7, adjustments in the applications of user fees; I see very clearly and specifically the intent of the bill, which is basically to allow parliamentarians to review user fees and potentially reduce user fees.

I want to be crystal clear as to where the Canadian Alliance is coming from. We believe in user pay; we believe in user fees. That is not the issue. The issue is how fair they are, and indeed if they are unfair, what the process would be that would be undertaken today prior to the enactment of the provisions in Bill C-212? What would actually take place today?

The fact of the matter is that with the exception of this new bill that my colleague from Surrey Central managed to get through, we have never really had a tool within the parliamentary process to be able to do it. That is why this bill is very complimentary to the bill that my colleague from Surrey Central managed to get through.

Let me give an example. I am the Canadian Heritage critic. I am familiar with what are called part II fees under the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

The CRTC has basically two levels of fees. The first fee is the actual user pay. I must say that as far as many of the broadcasters and people in the industry that are paying the fees, they feel that the user pay portion is very generous toward the CRTC.

What is part II? Part II has to do with the fee that in no capricious way but nonetheless without any real structure has ended up evolving over a period of time. There is a part of the spectrum that the broadcasters use either for audio or visual transmission or digital transmissions and have access to, have rights to. Therefore, because those frequencies in the spectrum are assigned specifically to them for their use, they bring radio and television, and other broadcasts into that spectrum at that frequency. The thought has been that that is worth x number of dollars.

Again, we are very sensitive in the Canadian Alliance to the fact that there are public commodities like spectrum, like frequencies that indeed do have some commercial value. Unfortunately, for the broadcast industry, what has occurred particularly over the last 10 years--and in an accelerated way over the last 10 years--is that the value of those frequencies within the spectrum has plummeted. It has basically gone through the floor. Why? Simply because of the new technology that permits broadcasters and people wanting to broadcast information to be able to get onto the air.

We speak frequently of the so-called 500 channel universe. It used to be that there was an area, a green tier it was called. A green tier for broadcasters simply meant that one wanted to be on channel 2 through 13 because those were the ones that were on the UHF, the ultra-high frequency dial. Past that, we were getting into a different television frequency and the broadcasters were going to be lost. There has been an historic clamouring on the part of broadcasters to get into the green tier, to the 2 through 13, because they want to be found and easily seen.

As a consequence of digital transmissions, we can now go to channel 163 or channel 359. It does not make any difference. We can program our VCR and television receiver to wherever we want to be on the dial. I was speaking to a colleague about this bill earlier today. He was saying how it used to be that when a familiar channel was bumped for whatever reason and moved to another portion of the dial or frequency, that all of a sudden he would end up with all sorts of calls to his office from people complaining about it being moved. Why are they not complaining now? Well, because there are so many channels being added that it is a simple matter of re-computing one's television set so that for people who are watching CPAC right now on channel 69 in Ottawa, and I am making that up as I do not know what the channel is--

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:20 p.m.

An hon. member

It is 24.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:20 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Jim Abbott Canadian Alliance Kootenay—Columbia, BC

Channel 24. Other people are watching it on channel 69 in Vancouver or 71 in Cranbrook or wherever it is. If CPAC was moved on the dial, fine, it is moved on the dial. People find out where it is, reprogram their computers and for all the scintillating television that can be watched on CPAC they can find it all over again. The value of the frequencies has diminished.

The second thing that has happened in radio is that it has become very inexpensive to be able to rebroadcast Calgary stations, for example, into my constituency up and down the Columbia Valley. On the AM spectrum, 830 was the only frequency that had commercial usage and 92.7 or whatever it was on the FM dial was for CBC. Those were the only two that I could get on my frequency, now when I drive around the Invermere area there are up to 15 different stations that I can get.

This is why the value of the frequencies, the value of where one is on the dial, has diminished to the extent that it has. That is real life.

Unfortunately, what has occurred--

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:25 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

Resuming debate, the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:25 p.m.

Oak Ridges Ontario


Bryon Wilfert LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance

Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair.

I want to, first, commend my colleague from Etobicoke North for the tremendous amount of work that he has done on the subject. He has elevated the subject of external charging to a new level which is very important.

The importance of external charging extends beyond the House, of course, to those who pay. But it also extends to the broader public interest, which is at the very heart of every program, whether it charges direct users or is funded solely through taxation.

It is through the work of parliamentarians that these interests are brought together so that sound management practices are in place. That is why this debate is so critical.

From the perspective of the House, and of parliamentarians, the fundamental feature of Bill C-212 is the provisions for greater committee scrutiny of departmental charging initiatives.

Ministers would be required to table all proposals for new or amended charges before the House, if the bill is passed. The proposal would then be subject to review by a committee of the House and the committee would then have 40 sitting days to make its recommendations to the House.

In considering the merits of Bill C-212, we should first consider the process that now exists; the process that would be more or less supplanted by the measures of the bill.

At present, it is handled by a committee of cabinet, specifically the special committee of council, or the SCC. Its members are authorized, on behalf of cabinet as a whole, to make decisions with regard to matters that have to be implemented by regulation.

In fact, this includes most user fees which are most commonly established under regulatory authority. Therefore, they must go back to the SCC and subsequently be published in the Canada Gazette . The process followed by the committee is outlined in detail in the public document “Guide to the Regulatory Process”, but the following is a brief sketch of how it works.

When a regulation is signed off by the minister, it goes before the SCC, which then makes a decision on whether the proposed regulation will be pre-published in the Canada Gazette .

The regulation is examined, including its regulatory impact statement, to see if the period proposed for public comment is adequate, given the complexity and importance of the user fee proposal.

The committee may also consider the sensitivities raised by the regulation, even though the decision to pre-publish does not mean that the regulation will ultimately be adopted exactly as it was initially proposed.

Assuming that the committee agrees that there will be pre-publication, the regulation and the regulatory impact statement then appears in the Canada Gazette , along with information that a period for comments is being allowed and where to submit any comments.

It should be noted that departments may also disseminate this information through their own network of stakeholders. These other methods are increasingly used as departments recognize the merit of broadcasting their activities as openly as possible.

The comment period posted in the Canada Gazette is, at a minimum, two weeks. More serious matters may take 75 days, or even longer, depending on the determination of the SCC.

Departments are required to receive these comments and take them into account in terms of amendments to the proposal or in terms of explaining why the comments should not be accepted as offered.

The regulation then comes back to the committee, which then looks at the regulation in more depth. When looking at user fee proposals, the examination typically includes the service to be provided and the terms which apply, such as the service standards, and how the department intends to monitor them.

The committee, at this stage, also has full rights to send the regulation back to the department for further work to improve it with modifications or to send it to a cabinet committee or to full cabinet.

Finally, when the committee agrees with the regulation, possibly with amendments, it then authorizes publication again in the Canada Gazette and the publication will stipulate when the regulations come into force.

My intent, in outlining the existing process, is to ask the House whether it has given this bill full consideration. That requires a look at the existing process, of course, but also the potential impact of this bill on the operation of the House. That, in turn, is the real test of this bill's effect on the quality of Parliament's oversight of external charging.

Given the complex circumstances surrounding some of the user fees and the diverse stakeholder interest that may be involved, a standing committee could be consumed in discussing even a small number of fees.

I have certainly raised this before with the member and I have raised this in committee. Again, with great respect to the member, I know that he has responded to this issue on a number of occasions. The concern, though, is that the committee's time would be used in calling witnesses and engaging in debates. What would be the impact on other responsibilities of a committee to work on policy or regulation? How many regulation changes would in fact be coming to the committee? That would depend obviously on any given time frame. However at present committees sometimes find it very difficult to manage their workload as they ideally like.

What work should be given a lower priority in order to meet the bill's provision for more committee review of charges? As different committees make different decisions given different circumstances in which they work day to day, how consistent will the review be? Is consistency not critically important to our departments, to our stakeholders and of course to Canadians as a whole? This is the only area about which I personally have a concern with regard to the member's bill.

I would suggest in closing that in the final analysis we must consider whether the bill is necessary, given the revised policy. I will be interested to hear further debate on this and whether it is the view of the House to move forward. However those are the considerations we have.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:30 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Norman E. Doyle Progressive Conservative St. John's East, NL

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to say a few words on this bill on behalf of our finance critic, the member for Kings--Hants, who supports the bill in principle and as a consequence of that, all of us in the PC caucus will be supporting it.

As we are all aware, back in 1994 the government moved massively into charging fees for mandatory regulatory services. It increased regulatory fees for businesses in general by almost 47% over a two year period. For manufacturers in Canada, fees increased by 153% over that same period. From inspecting meat to approving ingredients for anti-bacterial kitchen cleaners, if Canadians wanted a regulated product the fee had to be paid. No fee, no product.

The government insisted on more money to regulate products and services and it promised program efficiency, better service and smarter performance. Very little of that has happened. Canadians and their companies are paying much more and getting a whole lot less.

I am told by the member for Kings--Hants that the problem is the vast majority of these user fees were set by regulation, with no parliamentary input and no real consultation on their business impact or how they compared internationally.

Both the Auditor General and the parliamentary finance committee have pointed to the seriousness of this problem. Added to that, the Supreme Court has now decided that some user fees are a tax levied by governments. Individually and viewed together these judgments point to serious problems which the government will now have to be seized with.

We need a public debate about whether services delivered actually give value for money.

This legislation would make Parliament rather than government departments and agencies ultimately responsible for approving new user fees or increasing existing ones. That is why we support Bill C-212 in principle.

User fees are really hidden taxes or taxes under another name and ought to be examined with parliamentary scrutiny to see how effective they are. We have always argued that Parliament needs to play a wider role in how government raises revenues. This is a clear example of that.

While the government asserts that fees are not a tax and are primarily focused on improving resource allocation, the evidence clearly points out that they are having the effect of a tax on business, with the sole purpose of generating revenues for departments.

The Supreme Court appears to agree with that assessment. In its recent ruling in the Eurig case, the court ruled that probate fees in Ontario are a tax. In making its decision, two key points were raised by the court: first, fees must be directly related to the actual cost of providing a service, otherwise they are a tax; and second, taxes must be imposed by an act of the legislative body, not by regulation.

We need to encourage innovation in Canada. For example, we need to ensure that in line with our environmental and health related commitments, new products coming out on the pharmaceutical and chemical markets which are more effective and less toxic receive timely turnaround and can be introduced on the Canadian market to encourage people to use safer products.

Moreover, it is imperative that we take into consideration how we measure up internationally and this bill would require that the departments that wanted to charge a new fee or raise an existing one benchmark it against the country's major trading partners. If a department overshot its timeline to complete the work by more than say 10%, it would start to lose its fee on a sliding scale.

About five years ago our finance critic, the member for Kings—Hants, brought forward the same kind of issue. He argued that the government ought to implement its regulatory budget parallel to the traditional spending budget which would detail estimates of the total cost of each individual regulation. The PC finance critic supported a risk benefit analysis of each regulation to enable a cost benefit analysis of regulations for parliamentarians.

The bill we have before us today differs somewhat in substance but it retains the same important philosophy. Because of that, we support the bill in principle.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

York South—Weston Ontario


Alan Tonks LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment

Madam Speaker, I wish to recognize our colleague, the hon. member for Etobicoke North, and his achievement in raising the profile of the subject of external charging, as has been pointed out.

The government's commitment to greater accountability in this area was affirmed in budget 2003 with a specific commitment to set out principles and enhanced implementation requirements for improved management of the whole architecture of user charges and cost recovery. The external charging policy, which was announced on September 3 by the President of the Treasury Board, delivers on that commitment responsibly and effectively.

And for those reasons, the government is not supporting Bill C-212. With stakeholder consultation as its backbone, the policy strikes a balance between two sound management practices, which if put forward will accommodate some of the concerns of and the suggestions that have been made by the member. While it strives for government wide consistency, it still provides the flexibility for individual programs to meet the needs of the varied and diverse interests of their stakeholders.

This is particularly important given today's fiscal realities that limit finite resources, and it also implicitly recognizes that federal departments face the difficult job of setting priorities within those limits day to day. The revised policy is the result of a thorough review that sought the input of paying users and other external stakeholders as well as departments. Members of Parliament made their views known through the efforts of the Standing Committee on Finance, which has a long-standing interest in this issue.

The review heard that there is broad support for the principles of equity and fairness that underpin the policy, but the review also revealed that stakeholders shared a number of substantive concerns that needed to be addressed. And through the policy, I believe that they have been.

The result is a revised policy that focuses on accountability and transparency as called for by stakeholders and, more importantly, by parliamentarians. Note that during the review a benchmarking study of other jurisdictions showed that Canada's charging policy compared quite favourably to other jurisdictions in terms of the clarity and thoroughness of its guidance and its principles based character.

The revised policy builds on this solid foundation to meet the concerns raised during the review as well as by my colleague's bill. Through the revised policy, the existing link between fees and service performance is made stronger. Service standards are now mandatory for any program with external charges and so is the need to develop them through consultation with stakeholders. But the policy makes clear that service commitments must also take account of the program's priorities as set through legislation or regulation. Service delivery is in the broad public interest and the policy recognizes that standards must reflect the needs of all Canadians in a balanced and even-handed fashion.

Furthermore, while departments are required to consult on actions to be taken if service commitments fail, the policy does not focus solely on fee rebates as Bill C-212 seems to. Instead of concentrating on negative consequences for departments, the policy encourages an approach that resolves the issues proactively. The hope is that consultation up front can reduce the need for confrontation after the fact.

By giving departments and stakeholders the flexibility to explore a range of options, the policy recognizes the message consistently sent by external stakeholders. The key issue is service improvement. Many paying users and their associations have expressed a willingness to pay higher fees in order to invest in better service. It follows logically, therefore, that concentrating on fee rebates may not provide the answer paying users are looking for, namely, improved service delivery.

While the review found that departments generally handle complaints well, better communications were called for. In response, the revised policy requires that dispute management processes be more formally structured, more visible and more clearly communicated during consultation, and the policy explicitly acknowledges that ministers may request recommendations from independent advisory panels.

The government also acknowledged the concerns raised by parliamentarians in that departments must do a better job of reporting detailed information on external charging activities to Parliament and to the public. Therefore the revised policy commits the government to annually report details on cost, revenue and performance information to Parliament through existing vehicles, such as the public accounts, the reports on plans and priorities and the departmental performance reports.

The government did not wait until completing the policy. It has already met this commitment as shown in the 2002-03 departmental performance reports to be tabled this fall.

The revised policy also touches on other important requirements, such as analysis, costing and pricing practices, and monitoring.

The overall aim is to provide better guidance and direction to departments while providing greater clarity and certainty for paying users, parliamentarians and other external stakeholders, all with the overriding objective of enhanced accountability and transparency.

With these improvements, the policy addresses many of the concerns raised by stakeholders and Bill C-212. The policy also has the advantage of avoiding the potential problems contained within Bill C-212, problems associated with its potential impacts on Parliament.

If passed, the bill would establish a confusing system of overlapping authorities, bringing the review powers of committee into conflict with the principle of ministerial responsibility. As well, they would conflict with the current roles of various cabinet committees which themselves have a role in the existing review process. This was enunciated by our former colleague, Mr. Herb Gray, when he appeared before the House finance committee studying Bill C-212. I would encourage members to read his testimony on this important matter.

If passed into law the bill would potentially allow the courts, and not Parliament, to oversee the detailed management of external charging practices. This is because stakeholders, if unsatisfied, could ultimately take their complaints to the court.

The revised policy makes it unnecessary for these risks to be taken. We have the tools now to ensure that implementation of external charging is improved.

For the reasons I have mentioned, and with great respect to my colleague who has given a great deal of consideration to Bill C-212, the existing external charging policy meets many of the concerns expressed by parliamentarians and stakeholders without the potentially problematic issues that would arise from the passage of Bill C-212.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Richmond B.C.


Joe Peschisolido LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Madam Speaker, let me begin by acknowledging the efforts and the hard work of our colleague, the member for Etobicoke North, aimed at improving the management of user charging.

The government also shares his desire to improve the fee setting process. It is in that spirit that in August the President of the Treasury Board announced the revised external charging policy and this policy is now in effect. I believe it addresses many of the concerns raised by my hon. colleague. I am confident that a policy based approach is more effective than passing Bill C-212 into law. For those reasons I join with the government in not supporting Bill C-212.

The government demonstrated its commitment to make improvements to external charging when it launched its review of the policy. The government consulted with stakeholders in industry associations and firms which pay federal user charges. The government heard from members of Parliament and in particular, members of the Standing Committee on Finance.

The review found that stakeholders, generally, expressed support for the policy's underlying principles of equity and fairness. However, the review did raise a number of important issues, concerns that need a resolution. And the government has indeed responded with a revised policy.

The revised policy builds on this solid foundation to meet the concerns raised during the review, concerns like the key elements of our colleague's bill.

For instance, the revised policy strongly reinforces the link between fees and service performance. Now departments through stakeholder consultations must establish service standards and the action to be taken if these standards are not met.

Another example is the revised policy requires departments to communicate more clearly their dispute management processes and make them available to stakeholders.

In the review, the call of parliamentarians for more complete reporting on external charging was heard loudly and clearly and the impact on the policy is clear. Under the revised policy, departments will now annually report in much greater detail on cost, revenue and performance information to Parliament, and to the public as well, through the public accounts, annual departmental performance reports and annual reports on plans and priorities.

These major improvements taken together with the other revisions demonstrate that retaining a policy based approach has many advantages over Bill C-212.

It should also be noted that the bill and the policy are in many ways in sync, in terms of their underlying objectives of improving accountability, transparency and service delivery. But there are, however, important functional and operational differences.

The policy is more compatible with existing accountabilities in that it is consistent with the notion of ministerial responsibility, namely that ministers are responsible for the fees and charges emanating from their departments. It respects the existing roles of cabinet committees and it strengthens reporting to parliament through existing vehicles, notably the public accounts, departmental performance reports and reports on plans and priorities.

Via this reporting, the role of members of Parliament and committees is also strengthened. Committees can and should call for the departmental officials or ministers and stakeholders alike to question them on the charging activities of their departments.

I believe that this approach, while maintaining the gist of our colleague's bill, is a more balanced one. Bill C-212's perspective appears to be based on the issues known to affect a relatively low number of regulatory programs.

Bill C-212's provisions would remove flexibility and incur additional costs and workload in all programs with charges, not simply the ones that have been the focus of stakeholder concerns. For example, it suggests that every department establish an independent dispute management process, when in fact the policy review indicated that most departments were handling disputes to the satisfaction of their stakeholders.

Bill C-212 also contains explicit consequences for departments that miss their service standards. The revised policy shares this concern with service commitments and departmental performance but its approach is proactive, not punitive, and focuses on consultation and reporting on achievement. It requires consultation on feasible options that can be taken if standards cannot be met. This openly recognizes that a one size fits all consequence, like the fee rebate envisioned by the bill, may not be the best response in all cases.

If paying users are right in saying that service improvement is the key issue, as I believe they are, then we must examine each case on its own merits and find solutions that fit the specific circumstances case by case.

Rebates will not provide a useful signal for a program where funding constraints have an impact on service. They will simply reduce funding and increase red tape.

In that light fee rebates are not a consequence only for the department but for the stakeholder too because they want to see the service improved, not worsened by a focus on disputes, conflict and punishment.

Bill C-212 in general will overhaul authorities and accountabilities as we presently understand them in Parliament but its consequences are not clear and are potentially negative in nature.

For example, it does not define, but appears to fully endorse, the concept of independent dispute resolution.This needs to be fleshed out or we risk undermining the principle of ministerial accountability with no clear vision of how responsible decision making is to occur. The policy by comparison provides greater clarity, as it recognizes a role for independent advisory panels in providing recommendations to ministers.

By passing the bill into law, paying users would be able to take their disputes to court thus potentially giving Canada's judiciary the final say on external charging practices. Bill C-212 would effectively reduce Parliament's role rather than strengthen it.

It is for these reasons, with all due respect to the hard work and solid approach taken by our colleague from Etobicoke North that I feel strongly that Canadians are better served by working within our existing policy based approach.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

Chicoutimi—Le Fjord Québec


André Harvey LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to acknowledge the exceptional work of my colleague, the hon. member for Etobicoke North, particularly this afternoon, when he had the opportunity to comment on the Bloc Quebecois's proposal.

I greatly appreciated his most rational remarks on tax issues. It was very interesting. As for the proposal that was moved and that was debated all day, he even proved to us that the Bloc got the wrong country. In other words, this proposal was developed and prepared on the corner of a table. I thank him for his remarks this afternoon.

The government shares his desire to improve the fee setting process. It is with this in mind that the President of the Treasury Board announced the implementation of a new policy on external user fees in August. This policy is now in effect. I think that the new policy solves many of the problems raised by the member for Etobicoke North. In fact, I am convinced that, in this case, it is preferable to have a policy than to pass the bill before us.

Since it is based on consultation, the policy provides a balance between two sound management practices. While ensuring government wide consistency, it provides individual programs with the flexibility that is needed to satisfy the numerous demands and interests of stakeholders.

The government then decided to consult the businesses and industry associations, those who pay the user fees. It also consulted the members of Parliament, including members of the Standing Committee on Finance.

The review showed that the principles of equity and justice underlying that policy have strong support. However, the review also showed that the stakeholders shared some major concerns which the policy had to take into account, and it did just that in my humble view.

It started from the already existing strong foundation and designed a new policy which would solve the problems uncovered during the review and reflected in the key elements of the bill being proposed by our colleague.

The new policy considerably strengthens the links between user fees and the level of services. The departments must now establish standards of service in consultation with those concerned and determine what measures will be taken if the standards are not met.

However, the policy states that service commitments must also take into account the program's priorities as established in the acts or regulations. Services are provided in the interest of the public, and the policy recognizes that the standards must equitably take into account the needs of all Canadians.

By allowing the departments and stakeholders to explore a broad range of options, the policy reflects the message sent by a majority of external stakeholders, which is that the main goal is to improve services.

Many paying users and their associations said they were willing to pay higher fees if the money was invested in service delivery. Therefore, any effort made to reduce the user fees may not meet the expectations of paying users, especially in terms of service delivery.

The review showed that departments usually handle complaints properly, but that communications might be improved. Therefore, under the revised policy, the dispute resolution mechanism has to be formally structured and clearly explained during the consultations. The policy also recognizes that departments may ask totally independent advisory committees to make recommendations.

During the review, parliamentarians asked for more detailed reports of external charging. Their message was heard loud and clear. The policy takes their concerns into account. Under the new policy, departments will now have to report to Parliament and the public on a yearly basis. This will be done through public accounts, departmental performance reports and reports on plans and priorities. Departments will also have to ensure that more detailed information on costs, revenues and performance is included in these reports.

The government did not wait until the report was completed. It is already honouring its commitment, as the 2002-03 Departmental Performance Report to be released this fall will show.

The over-all purpose of this policy is to provide departments with better guidelines and directives, and to provide more transparency and stability to the users who pay, parliamentarians, and other, external stakeholders, with the ultimate objective of strengthening transparency and accountability.

I would also like to point out that the fundamental objectives of the policy and of Bill C-212 are similar in many aspects: both seek to improve accountability, transparency and service delivery, but there are important differences between them in functional and operational terms.

The policy is more compatible with the existing authorities, since it respects both the principle of ministerial accountability, by which ministers are responsible for user fees charged by their departments, and the role of existing cabinet committees. It provides for more accountability to Parliament, but does so by means of existing mechanisms, particularly Public Accounts, departmental performance reports and planning and priority reports.

These reports also reinforce the role of Parliament and its committees, which should not hesitate to question senior public servants and ministers on their deparments' user fees, since this is one of their duties.

The policy makes more sense that the bill. The approach taken in Bill C-212 seems to have been chosen on the basis of problems related to a relatively small number of regulatory programs. The provisions of the bill would deprive the programs of their flexibility and increase the costs and the workload for all those who charge fees, not only those that have been a cause for concern.

For example, all departments would be encouraged to create an independent dispute settlement mechanism. However, the study carried out before the new policy was drafted has shown that, in most cases, the clients were in fact satisfied with the existing mechanisms.

Bill C-212 also outlines specific severe “consequences” for the departments that do not meet their service standards. It forces departments to consult stakeholders on the alternatives when it is impossible to follow standards, recognizing that a single consequence, such as the fee rebate proposed in the bill, will not always be appropriate.

Passing the bill would implicitly allow the courts, rather than Parliament, to provide detailled monitoring of the management of practices used for the external user fees. Indeed, dissatisfied stakeholders would, as a last resort, be allowed to take their case to court.

The revised policy allows us to avoid being unnecessarily exposed to such risks, since we already have the tools to ensure the improved setting of external user fees.

Bill C-212 would completely change current responsibilities and powers, as Parliament understands them. The consequences of such changes are difficult to assess and could well prove disastrous.

In closing, let me once again congratulate my colleague for the constructive work he has done in this House.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

September 18th, 2003 / 6:05 p.m.


Yolande Thibeault Liberal Saint-Lambert, QC

Madam Speaker, I too am aware of the excellent work by my colleague, the member for Etobicoke North, who shed light on external charging, not only by introducing his bill, but also through the excellent work he has been doing for a very long time as a member of the Standing Committee on Finance.

That having been said, the external charging policy that the government has just published is based on the conclusions of a triennial review of the policy, during which external stakeholders were invited to give their impressions.

Comments were collected through a vast survey based on interviews of government users and an advisory group of experts in external charging.

These two mechanisms sought input from the members of the Business Coalition on Cost Recovery, a broad-based industrial group that represents the interests of companies that pay external charging.

The revised external charging policy, announced on September 3, 2003, contributes a great deal to many of the major themes addressed in Bill C-212, namely improving performance and increasing ministerial accountability to Parliament.

This policy, which replaces the cost recovery and charging policy of 1997, is not merely revised, it repeats and reinforces the fundamental principles of fairness, accountability and communication.

In its revised form, the external charging policy ensures stronger accountability, transparency and consultation with stakeholders regarding the implementation of external charges, and requires that monitoring and reporting be as detailed as possible.

Furthermore, the revised policy ensures that the application of external charging better respects the economic environment and overall government policies.

This policy confirms the government's intention and ability to implement external charging in the best interests of all Canadians. It includes the following main improvements:

The first improvement aims to provide more complete and in-depth reported information to parliamentarians, so that members are better informed and more actively involved. This is in line with commitments made in the 2003 budget to improve reporting of external charging.

The government has made great strides in getting ministers to provide information on external charging, particularly with regard to costs, services, performance results, consultations and conflict resolution.

The guidelines for preparing reports on plans and priorities, which will be published shortly, will contain similar reporting requirements.

The second improvement is to make it mandatory to establish realistic and appropriate service standards and to report on these standards, and to this end, to carry out consultations with stakeholders and discuss possible options, such as cutting the fees applicable in case of non-fulfillment of commitments.

The third improvement is aimed at increasing active monitoring to ensure compliance with the policy and consistency in its application throughout the government.

Finally, the fourth improvement gives stakeholders an advisory role in the departmental decision-making process regarding dispute management.

The policy is more balanced. Bill C-212 seems to deal only with issues that are known to touch a limited number of regulatory programs.

The provisions of Bill C-212 reduce flexibility and increase the costs and the workload associated with all programs involving external charging. For example, all departments could eventually be required to have an independent dispute management process, when the policy review shows that most departments settle disputes to the satisfaction of stakeholders.

The policy is more effective. It provides clear directions with regard to all aspects of its implementation.

In conclusion, with all due respect to the member for Etobicoke North, I am asking the House to vote with the government against Bill C-212.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Barrie—Simcoe—Bradford Ontario


Aileen Carroll LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Madam Speaker, I wish to recognize our colleague, the member for Etobicoke North, and his many achievements but particularly his achievement in raising the profile of the subject of external charging.

The government also shares his desire to improve the fee setting process. It is in that spirit that in August the President of the Treasury Board announced the revised external charging policy and this policy is now in effect. We believe that it addresses many of the concerns that have been raised by hon. colleague from Etobicoke North. The confidence seems to be there that a policy based approach is more effective.

With stakeholder consultation as its backbone, the policy strikes a balance between two sound management practices. While it strives for government-wide consistency, it still provides the flexibility for individual programs to meet the needs of the varied and diverse interests of the stakeholders.

The government consulted with stakeholders in industry associations and firms, which pay federal user charges, during its policy review and it heard from members of Parliament and in particular, members of the Standing Committee on Finance. These consultations were central to the development of the revised policy.

The review heard that there is broad support for the principles of equity and fairness that underpin the policy.

However the review also revealed that stakeholders shared a number of substantive concerns that needed to be addressed and, through policy, it is believed that they have been.

The result is a revised policy which focuses on accountability and transparency, as called for by the stakeholders and parliamentarians. The revised policy builds on this solid foundation to meet the concerns raised during the review as well as by my colleague's bill.

The revised policy strongly reinforces the link between fees and service performance. Now departments, through stakeholder consultations, must establish service standards and the action to be taken if these standards are not met. However the policy does make clear that service commitments must take account of the program's priorities, as set through legislation or regulation. Service delivery is in the broad public interest and the policy recognizes that standards must reflect the needs of all Canadians in a balanced fashion.

User Fees ActPrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

The time provided for the consideration of private member's business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.

It being 6:15 p.m, the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m. pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 6:15 p.m.)