Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank all those who participated in the debate on Bill C-212, an act respecting user fees. The debate on this topic has been very thoughtful and productive.
I would also like to thank the members of the Standing Committee on Finance for the work they did in relation to the bill, and all the witnesses who appeared before the committee to speak to the User Fees Act. Furthermore, I also want to thank the clerk of the Standing Committee on Finance.
Later this week when we vote at third reading of the bill, if we do not vote on it here today, members of the House will have a very clear choice: continue to deal with user fees through government policies, albeit an enhanced policy environment because of recently announced user fee changes by the government, or embrace the legislative approach proposed by Bill C-212.
I submit to colleagues that Bill C-212 is the preferred route for the following three reasons. First, federal government user fees, which currently generate about $4 billion in revenue annually, while not taxes are akin to taxes and need the scrutiny of Parliament.
Second, these same user fees are priced by monopolies, by officials in departments and agencies with limited input from elected representatives.
Third, the policy approach to user fees has not worked in the past and is not working now. There is little likelihood that this approach will produce the needed results in the future.
Some members have said that users are generally satisfied with the government's cost recovery user fee policy. This is not consistent with the facts before us. The vast majority of users are not happy, nor do they have confidence that the government's new policy will make any real difference.
Bill C-212 builds in consequences should departments or agencies fail to meet their performance targets by more than 10%. In jurisdictions, like the United States and Australia, where user fees and performance are linked, service standards are met close to 100% of the time. The same will occur here in Canada if Bill C-212 is adopted. The end result will be a more innovative and competitive economy and better service to Canadians.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance unanimously approved Bill C-212. Over the years, it has reviewed the public policy on user fees and cost recovery a number of times. Members of the committee know the issue very well. Their work should be of great interest to my colleagues.
To enhance the bill I introduced a number of amendments at committee in response to feedback and comments. Some of these changes were more minor in nature but others were more significant. Allow me to comment on the latter.
Some individuals were concerned that Bill C-212 as it was originally written would compromise the ability of the executive branch of government to implement policies because the House of Commons had a veto power over any new user fees or any increase in user fees.
The amended Bill C-212 removes the veto power of the House of Commons but replaces it with a recommending authority. In lieu of this, penalties for non-compliance by departments and agencies for the failure to meet stated performance standards, as I described earlier, have been written into the bill.
Some were concerned that committees of the House of Commons would be inundated with user fee requests. Although a variety of evidence presented at the finance committee hearings seemed to refute this, an amendment was passed at committee stating that if a standing committee of the House of Commons does not report back to the House within 40 sitting days of receiving such a user fee proposal, the committee will be deemed to have approved the proposal. This provides the committees with the latitude they need to manage their workload and priorities.
There were other amendments which were adopted by the House of Commons finance committee and Bill C-212 is a better bill as a result of those changes.
The government, as I said, has introduced a new policy. It comes a long way and I thank the President of the Treasury Board for that. However in my judgment the revised policy falls well short in the following key areas. First, the new policy still lacks real teeth to deal with departments and agencies that fail to meet stated performance standards. With Bill C-212 there are real consequences if standards are not met.
Second, while the new policy improves the process for resolving disputes between users and federal government departments and agencies, this process is still an internal one; whereas Bill C-212 calls for an independent dispute resolution mechanism.
Third, Bill C-212 explicitly states that user fees are appropriate when private benefits are conferred; otherwise they are clearly taxes. The government policy is somewhat silent still on this point.
There are other differences between Bill C-212 and the new public policy. However, the ones I have underscored are the main ones.
Again, the choice is a clear one. I urge my colleagues to vote for Bill C-212 and support accountability, transparency and the legitimate role of members of Parliament.