Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today on this bill which addresses the administration of customs.
In recent years, as the aftermath of 9/11, there has been a very marked tightening of customs security. There is at the same time an awareness that a balance must be struck between security and the need for proper service and for avoiding problems because of the way things are being done. If all the priority is given to security alone, the end result may be hindrance of the border-crossing mechanisms.
The border between Canada and the U.S. is a very long one. Obviously it can be crossed by road, or even just on foot, but it can also be crossed in a plane. This bill before us is an attempt to remedy the situation. The Bloc Québécois will be voting in favour of this bill because we feel that the measures it contains are appropriate. Time will tell whether they actually succeed in improving the situation on any ongoing basis, but the bill is evidence of good will and we hope it will be passed.
Primarily, though, this bill is designed to provide Canada Border Services Agency officers with the information, tools and flexibility they need to identify threats and prevent criminal activity, while ensuring that legitimate goods and travellers can cross the border efficiently. Under the amendments that have been announced, all businesses that are part of the import chain are required to provide the Canada Border Services Agency with electronic data on their shipments before the goods reach Canada.
In the last few years, particularly with the cooperation of the U.S., a system was put in place to ensure security within the companies themselves. Care is taken to ensure that the products are protected and isolated, and also that shipping does not reopen to question their seal or their security when handled, when additions are made to them, or when they are processed. This is what these amendments reflect.
With this advance electronic information on transportation, the Canada Border Services Agency will be able to make better decisions about admitting goods and analyzing the risks they pose to Canadians and Quebeckers. We see this as a positive measure. Of course, we have to ensure that implementing this electronic system will not interfere with existing laws and regulations, such as those governing privacy. However, in the transportation sector, this kind of situation occurs infrequently, and we have not seen any such complications in the existing act.
Other changes will allow the Canada Border Services Agency to fully establish customs controlled areas. These areas will be specific territories, legal entities. When an individual arrives at an airport, customs officers will have the authority to exercise the rights set out in the act. This will clarify notions that are set out in the existing act but that do not enable customs officers to take appropriate action. That is what this bill seeks to fix. Officers will enjoy greater freedom to examine goods and question and search people, regardless of where they are in these areas, not just at exit points, as the current law states. The current law does not allow officers to search individuals until they have left the customs controlled area. People exhibit all kinds of behaviours within the areas themselves, and in the past, situations have arisen that may have required officers to intervene, but they could not. This bill would resolve that problem.
At first sight, the bill seems adequate, but an in-depth review and close questioning of Canada Border Services Agency inspectors and government officials will be necessary. As I said at the start, we must not nitpick to the point where we would be creating a situation more complicated than the one we already have. What we need is a fluid border for land and marine crossings but also for the movement of people and goods by air.
That will be the primary concern of the Bloc Quebecois when the bill goes through detailed analysis in committee. That is why we will want to hear witnesses from the government agency and from companies that do transborder trade and want decent services. We can also expect that organizations advocating privacy protection and individual rights will want to make sure that the legislation does not complicate the situation on the Canadian side and does not undermine citizens' rights.
The bill was introduced on January 29, 2009 by the Conservative leader in the Senate and later sent to this House. We do not think that the introduction of bills first in the Senate which then sends them to this place is the best way to do things. It is always better to introduce bills first in the elected House of Parliament instead of the other chamber, where members are not elected. This way of proceeding should be changed to ensure the government does not use it to get around the urgency of certain issues or to introduce through the back door measures it does not want to introduce directly.
This bill is identical to the one introduced on December 2, 2008 and to Bill C-43, which was introduced on February 15, 2008 during the second session of the 39th Parliament. Both these bills died on the order paper. We can therefore understand how anxious the Canada Border Services Agency is to have the act finally amended. The Bloc will cooperate on passing the bill and will support it at second reading by not prolonging the debate. However, it will also make sure that the committee hears witnesses and considers the bill in a timely manner.
Bill S-2 amends the Customs Act to clarify certain provisions of the French version of the act and to make technical amendments to others. We felt it was important to correct these provisions. Often, bills are initially drafted in English, and there are regularly problems with the translation, which can lead to misinterpretation of the act once it comes into effect. These things must be corrected. The current bill makes much-needed improvements and should be passed as soon as possible.
The bill also imposes additional requirements in customs controlled areas, grants the minister the power to authorize entry, amends provisions concerning the determination of value for duty and modifies advance commercial reporting requirements. The search powers of customs officers are expanded to include individuals and their goods that are in or are leaving a customs controlled area. The current Customs Act does not allow officers to go and get someone who refuses to be searched and stays in the buffer zone. This legal vacuum causes unacceptable situations and needs to be addressed.
The bill also provides that regulations may be enacted that describe the time frame and manner in which information about passengers may be provided by prescribed persons. This is the whole issue of personal information that I was talking about earlier. With regard to searches, we must ensure that customs officers do not have undue authority and that the rights of Canadian citizens and foreign travellers are properly protected.
The current Customs Act was passed in 1986 and is the result of the total revamping of the 1867 act. This shows that the customs sector has been around for a very long time. When Canada was created, a customs service was established and has evolved over the years. The pace of change seems to be accelerating, driven by the arrival of new electronic technologies that can be used both to improve the system, but also by people who want to bring illegal goods into Canada. In that regard, it is very important to ensure that our technologies are up to date in order to detect potential inadvertent errors or malicious acts.
As we have heard, since 1986, the act has been amended continuously in response to free trade and related international agreements, and to fine-tune international trade measures.
Again recently, we have seen how certain countries can also use customs legislation to practice a form of protectionism. We hope that is not the case at this time and that Canada does not anticipate that kind of situation. In the past, the fluidity of the border between Canada and the U.S. has benefited Canada and particularly Quebec. We also know, however, that since the establishment of free trade agreements that are casting the net wider in light of globalization, we are seeing increased competition. We must ensure that Canadian products are imported and exported properly. The same is true when it comes to people crossing our borders, and that is how we must look at this bill.
I will elaborate on this.
Clause 2 of the bill removes the authorization-by-regulation requirement by which the minister currently approves access to a customs controlled area by a person.
There will be no need for a regulation to allow that. It will be possible to do so directly under the act. The minister will be able to grant that access directly.
Clause 3 of the Bill removes an exemption that applied to persons boarding a flight to a destination outside of Canada who were leaving a customs controlled area. By the removal of this exemption, such persons are obligated to present and identify themselves to an officer and to report any goods obtained in the area and answer questions asked by an officer.
We will examine closely what this means in order to avoid administrative duplication, for example. It will be important to verify such concerns.
Clause 4 amends the regulation-making powers of the Governor in Council to include regulations prescribing the persons or classes of persons who may be granted access to customs controlled areas and the manner in which a person must present himself or herself upon leaving, or while in, a customs controlled area.
Therefore, these are fairly technical points that are being amended in order to give customs officers more latitude as well as the ability to act more quickly and efficiently within customs controlled areas.
Clause 7 amends the methods available to adjust the transaction value of the goods being imported when the vendor receives a benefit from a subsequent sale... This may lead to higher valuations and therefore higher duties being paid by importers.
They must try to state the real value of the goods to ensure that we do not open ourselves to the black market or to a market that does not reflect the true value of the good.
Clause 11 [amends the bill] so that a customs officer is authorized to conduct a non-intrusive examination of goods in the custody or possession of a person in or leaving a customs controlled area, in accordance with the regulations.
After seeing how people often behave in customs, it is important that, on occasion, action be taken to allow the non-intrusive examination of goods that is not detrimental to the individual and that does not create an undesirable situation for the person concerned.
We could say that this bill makes the connection between the customs provisions that impose duty and tariffs on importers and the security measures in various other laws.
The proposed amendments to the method of calculating the value of imported goods could reduce the number of disputed duty calculations. We hope that the number of disputes will decrease and that border traffic will flow more freely but with adequate control.
It is also thought that revenue from duties could increase if the value of goods imported is more likely to be adjusted upward as a result of the proposed changes to the methods for determining customs value. There is no point in pretending that the changes will probably result in additional revenue for the government because they will be taxed on the real value of the goods much more than is done at present.
The purpose of the provisions of the bill that require information to be provided in advance is to improve the risk assessment of goods at the border. In the past, particularly with the implementation of what is called C-TPAT, an American law to ensure oversight of what is happens in factories, we have seen that there is no rechecking done at each stage during transport. We hope that there could be this new type of facility for the new powers granted. Combined with the creation of the broader search power for officers in customs controlled areas, this measure could reduce the number of dangerous counterfeit products entering Canada through customs controlled areas.
We have seen in the past that goods entering Canada were in fact illegal copies that infringed rights and patents that had been paid for, for example, but most importantly they were goods that could have negative impacts on health and that could even affect children’s health. As well, there are people who travel and may bring back samples of products. We also want to ensure that there is less and less counterfeiting occurring, to eliminate the problem at the source rather than having this unacceptable situation.
We are also told that border services officers may now search persons only when they leave controlled areas. In future, it will be possible to do that inside the controlled area itself, and this will be easier because we know that, at present, the officer questions people as they leave and can even conduct a search if the officer thinks it necessary.
In the new scenario, officers will be able to ask the same kinds of questions inside the controlled area, and if there are reasonable grounds, they will be able to conduct a search. They will be given adequate training and people who enter a controlled area will be informed of the possibility of a search. They would have notice. So we see the bill as a whole and the perspective the minister wishes to take.
I hope that this bill will reflect a different philosophy from the one we see at present in the government’s approach, for example in connection with Mr. Abdelrazik's return to Canada. He is a Canadian citizen who is currently at the embassy in Khartoum and wants to return here. There is an international convention that allows him to return to his country, even if he is on a UN no-fly list.
The Canadian government is currently refusing to apply the agreement that it signed. The government behaves this way in regard to a symbolic matter, but we certainly hope it does not when it comes to the implementation of an actual piece of legislation, such as the one we will be voting on with Bill S-2. If this kind of behaviour turns up in other similar cases, if it occurs in the enforcement of a law, if the bill we are voting on allows this sort of thing, I think these kinds of excesses would be totally unacceptable. That is why the committee must ensure that the bill respects with all individual rights.
I invite all groups that want to make presentations to do so in committee. When the bill comes back to us at report stage and at third reading, all the necessary changes will have been made to ensure that customs officers can do their jobs more effectively and satisfactorily and speed up border crossings for airlines, while at the same time showing respect for the citizens who are being processed, both Canadians and people from abroad who are visiting us.
Over the last few years, there has been a major drop in tourism to Canada. Every time we make a decision about customs, we should ensure that we are not adding another obstacle, as we did to some extent by increasing the cost of passports.
The Americans now require passports of people even when they are using a land crossing and we have seen the additional costs involved. This will probably cause some American families interested in vacationing in Canada to go instead to another American state. For a family of four or five, that is an additional cost that could equal the cost of two, three or even four vacation days. As a result, some will prefer to stay in the United States and spend their money there, even though we were trying to create a free trade area in which everyone would benefit from more exchanges.
When we pass bills like S-2, we will have to adopt a perspective and take an approach that avoids this kind of complications. We will also have to look into whether the situation will be different at small airports and large airports. We should ensure as well that the customs controlled areas that are created—I am thinking of small airports like those in Gatineau or Rivière-du-Loup where there are no customs services as such—do not require additional security services to be established that are not necessary and currently not required.
We will have to pay particular attention to this if we want to have a bill that facilitates the flow of people rather than impeding it.
I will conclude on that note and encourage the House to pass this bill as soon as possible.