I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Yorkton--Melville on February 3 concerning information contained in the Department of Justice performance report for the year ending March 31, 2003. I would like to thank the hon. member for drawing this matter to the attention of the Chair. I would also like to thank the hon. parliamentary secretary to the government House leader for his intervention.
In his presentation, the hon. member for Yorkton--Melville stated that information regarding expenditures by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade that was provided in the government response to Question No. 194 of the second session contradicted information found in the Department of Justice performance report for 2002-03. The hon. member added that, in his opinion, a statement in the report that professed to represent the views of the Auditor General did not correspond to the opinions expressed in the Auditor General's report itself. The hon. member made reference to other information contained in the performance report that he believed to be erroneous, a list of which he provided to the Chair. He concluded that the Minister of Justice, in tabling the report, had misled the House and was therefore guilty of contempt.
In his response to the matter, the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader stated that there was no provision in the rules that required the Speaker to review government responses to questions. He added that in similar cases in the past, Speakers had consistently ruled that it was not the role of the Chair to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House were accurate. Nor was the Speaker required to assess the likelihood of an hon. member knowing whether or not the facts contained in a document were correct.
With regard to the accusation of contempt, the parliamentary secretary stated that there is considerable onus on a member who alleges a contempt to establish that the accused member knowingly included false information in a report and did so with an intention to mislead the House.
The need to provide the House and all its members with accurate information is very important. Hon. members have frequently pointed to the difficulties caused when confusing or inaccurate information is tabled in the House. The Chair agrees that all hon. members should strive to be accurate in the information they present.
The hon. member for Yorkton--Melville provided the Chair with detailed material outlining specific instances where he disputed the accuracy of the information presented in the performance report, and I have reviewed the material with interest. However, I must remind the hon. member that the Speaker has no role in settling disputes as to fact. House of Commons Procedure and Practice states on page 443:
There are no provisions in the rules for the Speaker to review government responses to questions... The Speaker has ruled [on a number of occasions] that it is not the role of the Chair to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate nor to “assess the likelihood of an Hon. Member knowing whether the facts contained in a document are correct”.
Previous Speakers have consistently ruled that it is not the role of the Chair to judge the quality of information. For example, in her ruling recorded in the Debates on February 28, 1983 at page 23278, Madam Speaker Sauvé said in a situation similar to this one:
The essence of [the] submission was...that the documents tabled in the House contained errors of fact...Clearly, the Chair cannot make such a determination even on a prima facie basis. It is not the function of the Chair, furthermore, to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate. Neither is it the function of the Chair to assess the likelihood of an Hon. Member knowing or not knowing whether the facts contained in a document are correct.
I can see no grounds for departing from this practice in the present case.
With regard to charges of contempt, providing incomplete information has not been found, in and of itself, to constitute a prima facie contempt of the House. To find someone guilty of contempt would require, as the parliamentary secretary pointed out, proof that the person provided false information with the intention of deliberately misleading the House.
I refer hon. members to a Speaker's ruling given on December 6, 1978, and described on page 87 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice. In finding that a prima facie contempt of the House existed, Mr. Speaker Jerome ruled that a government official, by “deliberately misleading a Minister, had impeded a Member in the performance of his duties and consequently obstructed the House itself”. It is this element of deliberately seeking to mislead the House and not the presentation of information subject to differing interpretations that is key. In the case before us today, I have found no indication that there is any basis for alleging that such a contempt has taken place.
I thank the hon. member for Yorkton--Melville for his usual vigilance and for bringing this matter to the attention of the Chair. However, I can find no prima facie breach of privilege or a contempt of the House at this time.