Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on Bill C-21, the purpose of which is to impose harsher sentences for economic crimes.
Since I will probably be the last speaker to rise on this bill this evening, I will give a brief overview and remind everyone that the bill contains the following measures: two-year minimum sentences for acts of fraud exceeding $1 million, and the addition of aggravating factors including financial and psychological impact on victims; failure to comply with professional or licence-based rules; and, the scope and complexity of the fraud, including the time and level of planning that went into it.
The bill also sets out a broader definition of victims. The court may entertain a written statement outlining any impact on the community including losses resulting from the fraud. The term "victims" may therefore denote more than any one individual, or individuals, directly affected, and may include an entire community or particular group that has suffered at the hands of fraudsters.
Other measures are also included in the bill: an option for the courts to make an order for the restitution of property and, failing this, an obligation on the court to explain its decision; and, lastly, the option for the courts to prohibit fraudsters from certain activities.
We agree with the principle of this bill. The Bloc Québécois would like to improve the bill in committee and address a number of major shortcomings. Over the next few minutes, I will speak to a number of these shortcomings.
It can be a lot better. In September 2009, we called for the implementation of concrete measures to fight fraud. Americans are not the only ones to be affected by major fraud; it is happening the world over. Unfortunately, we have our own examples of this in Quebec.
During today’s debate on Bill C-21, several members have given examples of cases of fraud that have occurred in almost all corners of the world. There have been financial scandals in Quebec including the Cinar affair, Norbourg— a sadly notorious case—and Earl Jones, whose acts have laid bare weaknesses in the current system’s ability to monitor and fight crime. When we broached the subject, instead of rallying behind us, the Conservatives immediately decided to put forward their own measures. We are of course in favour of some of these measures, but we do not understand why it seems as if the job was botched and done in a panic for the purpose of looking after their own interests, while the victims are simply asking the government to act, and to act quickly.
We will probably never be successful in completely eradicating fraud, which never stops. While listening to the news earlier on Radio-Canada, I heard that the Insurance Bureau of Canada just issued a warning about a fresh wave of fraud affecting auto insurers, and that the IBC decided to warn its insurers. An investigation had shown a spike in the number of completely staged car accidents. People are deliberately having car accidents in order to make fraudulent insurance claims. It is probably not brand new, but there is apparently a wave of this hitting the industry right now.
When I was a journalist, I covered an event based on information obtained by the police. In fact, after noticing that the water level of a lake had risen—it was an abandoned pit—cranes regularly went and dragged out cars from the bottom of that lake. People had pushed their cars in there in order to claim insurance. Thus, there is nothing new under the sun.
It will be tough to completely stop these acts of fraud. At least if we manage to put concrete measures in place—and I believe that some of my colleagues from the Bloc Québécois have referred to such measures here over the course of the day—that that will have a dampening effect on these financial scandals.
On September 2, 2009, the Bloc Québécois introduced a series of measures to improve the system and make crimes harder to commit, easier to detect, and subject to tougher penalties. A comprehensive approach is needed in order to understand, and effectively fight, this type of crime. In response, a couple of days later ,on September 16, the government came up with a bill which was supposed to include minimum sentences, aggravating factors and the option for the courts to make an order for the restitution of property. That was Bill C-52, which is now Bill C-21.
This bill contains very few measures and will be only minimally effective. I will speak a bit later about the measures favoured by the Bloc Québécois. In this the bill in its current form, the Conservative’s primary measures include minimum sentences. They have no deterrent effect, just as in other areas. Acts of fraud over $1 million are rare. The Minister was unable to cite a single case of major fraud for which the sentence handed down was less than the suggested two years. In fact, 6- to 7-year sentences were generally handed down in these cases.
The courts already took into account the aggravating circumstances that have been included here. So this addition does not change much. Almost all, if not all, the aggravating circumstances listed in this bill were included in the Vincent Lacroix decision, which sadly is a well-known example. It makes you wonder whether the Conservatives just copied and pasted the decision because they told themselves that was what they needed to do.
Therefore, the judge in this case had the tools at his disposal. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We must improve the situation and put an end to such financial scandals instead of redoing what has already been done. It would not change much. A bill that contains the same measures that judges are already using will not help fraud victims.
Restitution orders already exist. They are broader in scope in Bill C-21, but experts have raised concerns about the feasibility of these measures in practice. I am not an expert, but I know that committee members from all of the parties will be able to question these experts about all of the proposed measures.
The part of the bill that restricts the activities of convicted offenders is interesting. But that, too, is at best an existing practice whose scope has been broadened.
Thus, Bill C-21 is missing the most important measure, that is, abolishing parole after only one-sixth of the sentence has been served. We have been calling for that for quite some time. When I say “we”, I mean that is what the people of Quebec want. I am not deaf and blind to what is happening in the rest of Canada, where people have also been calling for that, but especially in Quebec, because of the cases mentioned earlier—Norbourg, Earl Jones, Cinar—people are particularly aware of and angry about the fact that, although the sentence might appear harsh, someone can be released after serving just one-sixth of the sentence. That is the main source of frustration.
Despite Bill C-21, Earl Jones and Vincent Lacroix will be able to benefit from this mechanism to get out of prison before having served a sufficient amount of their sentence. We know that minimum sentences do not solve this problem. We limit any room to manoeuvre for the judge who has to examine all the circumstances of the crime. Just because someone appears before a judge for committing a crime does not mean there are no extenuating circumstances. The judge needs enough room to manoeuvre to give an accused who is eventually found guilty four years in prison for precisely what happened and the role he played. Another person involved in the same crime might end up with 7, 8 or 10 years because the circumstances were not necessarily the same. We have to give the judge this room to manoeuvre so that he or she can use a balanced approach.
When we impose minimum sentences, there is no room for second thoughts. Regardless of the extenuating circumstances, a person who commits a crime and is found guilty will be given two years in prison, while under the current system he might have done a bit better than that. Depending on the case, we might be too strict or not strict enough, especially when minimum sentences are involved.
We are not addressing tax havens either. We heard that a few times in the speech before mine. That is where the fraudsters hide their loot. What point is there in ordering restitution of the hidden money when we are not addressing the issue of tax havens?
The Bloc Québécois has prepared a six-point plan to deal specifically with white-collar crime. They are effective measures. We also want to restore the confidence of victims and citizens in general. This confidence has been clearly undermined for two main reasons. I spoke earlier about release after serving one-sixth of a sentence. There is also the notorious two-for-one credit for time served before sentencing, which makes it possible for someone convicted of a crime to have double the amount of his time spent in preventive custody deducted from his sentence. He will obviously get out more quickly.
On September 2, 2009, to make life difficult for fraudsters and to prevent other investors from losing their life savings, the Bloc Québécois presented a plan to fight white-collar crime. This balanced plan consists of six measures: three of them target crime prevention in particular, two ensure that justice prevails when a guilty verdict is handed down, and one helps victims.
First, we are calling for the complete elimination of release after serving one-sixth of a sentence. If I remember correctly, when this session of parliament began, it was the first thing we asked for because we were right in the middle of the scandal of Vincent Lacroix from Norbourg. We expected all parties in this House to allow us to fast track this legislation. Unfortunately, the Conservatives did not agree.
We are also asking that the Criminal Code provisions on confiscating proceeds of crime be amended to include fraud of more than $5,000.
Next, we are calling for police forces to be reorganized, what concerns us here in the House of Commons and at the federal level being the RCMP, to create multidisciplinary squads specializing in economic crime. At present, the police are extremely competent, but we need to expand the range of skills, including for tax fraud cases, which are now significant and which very often exceed the basic skills of a police force. We have to have experienced accountants and lawyers who are well versed in all the tricks developed by these big fraud artists, particularly given that the fraud is often committed at the international level, using tax havens. The work of a mere investigator is not going to uncover all the ins and outs of these. When fraud artists, criminals, on this scale are discovered, we realize everything they have managed to do with sleight of hand and shell games to defraud thousands of people, often out of millions of dollars. And then we realize that we need to have multidisciplinary squads composed of people with a variety of skills, to be able to explain properly to the investigators exactly how these people have managed to operate. We would not have those people just to uncover things, but also to combat fraud artists who might be tempted to continue in that vein.
We are also calling for banks to have an obligation to report irregularities in trust accounts to the Autorité des marchés financiers and the user’s professional body. We recently had an example of this, and investigators are still trying to wade through this scandal: people used a bank to commit tax fraud, it seems, and to evade taxes, by investing the money in Switzerland. Obviously, we will know more as the investigation progresses.
We are also calling for a review of the amendments that could be made to the Income Tax Act to assist the victims, in particular by introducing a provision to allow victims of fraud to deduct the stolen money from their income, instead of those amounts being considered to be capital losses. Often what we try to do in these situations, as is to be expected, is either to combat the fraud or to arrest the people who committed it. Sometimes, however, we may unfortunately forget the victims. Well, in the measures proposed by the Bloc Québécois, the victims are not being forgotten. And so when we study Bill C-21 in committee, we will ask that we be able to make that amendment to the Income Tax Act.
We are also asking that the Income Tax Act be amended to put an end to the use of tax havens. This practice allows individuals and companies to hide money and avoid paying taxes. Many examples of this have been mentioned here in the House today.
I have a few minutes left to go into detail about my first point. Since 2007, we have been proposing that the chance of parole after serving one-sixth of the sentence be abolished. This idea is not new. It is not that we have just now realized what needs to be fixed. For three years, we have been asking that this measure be abolished as it undermines the credibility of the justice system. Abolishing it would allow us to extend prison sentences for those who commit fraud, even for those who have already been arrested and who are awaiting their criminal trial. It would contribute to restoring—