Mr. Speaker, I must say that I share the enthusiasm of the member for Central Nova concerning this bill and I would like to tell the member who introduced it that it is certainly worthwhile. I believe that he deserves congratulations for having promoted this bill for seven years, as he told us.
Essentially, we will agree with this bill. We hope, as does the representative from Central Nova, that it will come into force quickly.
However, there are still some difficulties that I would like to raise and that might be solved, I hope, before it is studied in committee. I hope that its mover will appreciate that this is a criticism to improve his bill and not to discourage him from proceeding.
I would say that my first reaction, when I was told about the establishment of the office of victims ombudsman, was, “Gosh, is the federal Liberal Party still obsessed with interfering in provincial jurisdictions?” Because, as far as I know, compensation for victims of criminal acts is a provincial jurisdiction. I thought that this was the member's objective. As soon as I started reading the bill, I understood that it was instead the Parole Board ombudsman. The member is thus clearly within federal jurisdictions.
Let us consider the word “ombudsman”. When used in the context of any organization—I think there is even one at the CBC—it is clear that it means that the public can contact this person to ask something of the organization for which he or she acts as the ombudsman. Perhaps, to prevent confusion in people who may have thought like me at the beginning, this ombudsman could be called the parole board ombudsman, since this is clearly what the hon. member is seeking.
In section 198.12, the hon. member asks that the governor in council be allowed to appoint a person to be known as the victims ombudsman of Canada. As we know, we have in our statutes a considerable number of laws that have never come into effect even if they have been enacted. It seems to me that, to achieve the result we are all looking for in terms of improving the parole board, the provision should read that the governor in council “shall” appoint a person.
I might add, before I go any further, that I remain a staunch believer in the need for a parole board. I think that, in difficult circumstances, the members of the board carry out their functions very well. I would not want the creation of this ombudsman position to be viewed as criticism, at least not on my part, of the overall work they do.
Let me remind the hon. members of this House that we often forget that to deal with the prisoners is to deal with failure, all failures. Those who are in prison represent a failure of society, school, family and, in many cases, personal failure. So, to ask a correctional service or a parole board to be 100% successful in managing the failures of everyone else in society is to ask them to do the impossible. It is difficult the work in these conditions.
My second reaction in reading this bill was that it was again creating administrative difficulties. The government has loads of good ideas. That is how deficits are created, by its developing structure upon structure. Indeed, here we have yet another structure being proposed.
However, I do believe that, in this case, given the complaints filed in the past by victims, as well as the misunderstanding of victims and their helplessness in dealing with the system, this is an excellent idea and that it is right to establish the office in question.
Now we would like to see an obligation created to appoint an ombudsman, and we would also like that position to be independent. I am sure that is also the intent of the member who introduced this bill. A five-year period is relatively short when the mandate is renewable. Let us not forget that this ombudsman would often be criticizing government policies. We think there would be greater independence if he were appointed for a longer period, say a 10-year, but non-renewable mandate. There would therefore be objectivity on both sides.
There is one section , however, that really causes me a problem, the major problem I have with this bill. It is 198.27 (3), which creates an exemption from the application of the Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act.
My first comment is that it is going a bit too far to state that such exemptions would be necessary in the interests of the minister. That is going a bit far. I feel that this needs a lot of rethinking, even here, and it is my hope that we will be able to do that together, before the discussions in committee begin on the reason for this exemption and from what the exemption will be.
The Privacy Act sets out some values of importance to today's society, particularly since invasion of privacy has become so much easier with modern technology. This means there is a general conflict of values that must resolved in some better way than merely creating an exemption that can be used in a highly discretionary way. I very much want to see us reach agreement on that point.
I want to point out one last problem with section 198.37 so that it can be corrected at committee. This section would make it an offence if someone “without lawful justification or excuse, refuses or wilfully fails to comply with any lawful requirement of the Victims Ombudsman”. I have looked in this bill for the ombudsman's requirements, but I cannot find them. The closest thing I see to ombudsman's requirements is in section 198.21 where it says, “in the course of conducting an investigation, a review of Service or Board policies or a study, the Victims Ombudsman may require any person” and then it lists a number of things. In French it says “peut demander à toute personne”.
As far as I know this particular wording does not create a requirement. When I am asked to do something I have the right to say no, unless I am being given an order. I do not think this is a bad idea. We might want to give the ombudsman the authority to call witnesses and require them to give information or produce documents. I think this is worth considering in order to improve this aspect of the bill. Do we want to give the ombudsman the powers of a judge or could these powers be exercised by reference to the Federal Court, which does not take its orders from the ombudsman?
I think if we tell a person, through legislation, that they may be required to do something, then we are telling them they may refuse to do what we are asking.
However, section 198.27 seeks to create an offence. We think—and rightfully so—that if this is mandatory, the legislation should clearly say so and the procedure be set out.
All in all, having learned this morning that this bill was first initiated seven years ago, I cannot help but join my colleague from Central Nova in warmly congratulating its originators. If this ombudsman ever comes into being—which I hope happens—they can proudly take credit for making this improvement during their time in Parliament and know that we are able to put politics aside when it comes to improving our system.