I thank the hon. member for Dewdney--Alouette for allowing me to interrupt his very moving remarks.
I am now prepared to rule on a point of order raised by the hon. opposition House leader earlier today concerning proceedings in the Standing Committee on Public Accounts.
I would like to thank the hon. opposition House leader for presenting this issue to the House, as well as the hon. parliamentary secretary to the government House leader for his comments.
The opposition House leader stated that the public accounts committee had before it a motion concerning the making public of in camera testimony delivered before the public accounts committee in the first session of this Parliament. He pointed out that the past practice with respect to in camera testimony indicated that it had only been made public by order of the House, and he relied on a precedent I believe cited to him concerning the year 1978, as I recall. He argued that the proper course for the committee would be to seek such an order and that, in acting on its own initiative in this matter, the committee would be exceeding the power delegated to it by the House. In support of his position, the opposition House leader cited a letter from the Clerk of the House to the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, in which the Clerk indicated that it would be prudent for the committee to seek such a House order.
The opposition House leader also stressed that, if no preventative action were to be taken to prevent the committee from making the in camera testimony public, the harm done would be irreversible and that it was therefore necessary for the Speaker to rule as soon as possible in order to forestall that eventuality.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader in his intervention, stated that it was contrary to our practice to intervene while a matter was before a committee. He indicated that the proper course procedurally would be to wait until the committee reports to the House. At that time, any potential procedural irregularities that had occurred could be raised and the Speaker could deliver an appropriate ruling.
I would like first to indicate the extent to which the Chair views this as a question of the utmost importance. The Standing Orders accord to committees considerable powers in order that they may carry out their work. Committees are also accorded extensive freedom to organize their inquiries as they see fit and to control their own proceedings.
At the same time, they remain creatures of the House. They are bound by the applicable provisions of the Standing Orders and may not exceed the powers they are given or conduct themselves in a manner that is contrary to the practices and traditions of this place.
It is, however, precisely on that basis that, in the first instance, it is the public accounts committee that must take responsibility for its actions. I certainly agree with the opposition House leader that there are important procedural questions at issue here. It is evident, by their seeking advice from the Clerk of the House, that the members of the committee are aware of those issues.
The Speaker is however not empowered to substitute his judgment for that of the committee prior to any decision being taken by it. The members of the committee will, mindful of the rules of the House and the precedents in matters of this sort, decide on what they consider to be the proper course of action. The Speaker has no power to anticipate such a decision, nor to intervene in the internal deliberations of the committee. I have stated that on many occasions.
While I appreciate that the subject matter before the committee is of considerable interest both to members of the House and indeed to all Canadians, that does not change either the Speaker's role or his obligation to refrain from intervening in the committee's business. If members feel that the committee requires some direction in this matter, beyond the advice that has already been provided, they may wish to consider having the House provide an instruction to the committee.
Once again, I would like to thank the hon. opposition House leader for having raised this matter. I am sure that we can rely on his continued vigilance with respect to proceedings in the committee and to any issues raised by its reports to the House. That is my ruling on the matter today.