Madam Speaker, on behalf of the New Democratic Party, I am pleased to speak to Bill S-2, which is the reintroduction of Bill C-34 from last session, including amendments made by the committee to that bill.
New Democrats generally support the bill at second reading. We support a productive and, we hope, collaborative review of the bill at committee, as happened with Bill C-34 in the last session. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out by many of my colleagues, the bill died with the government's decision to prorogue Parliament.
The bill contains many important changes to the sex offender registry. The New Democrats support the general thrust of this. We believe there are important loopholes in the present legislation to close and there are strategic and surgical improvements that can be made to the bill that would strengthen the registry.
However, as with a lot of bills, the New Democrats have concerns with the bill. We have reservations around certain specific issues, which I will highlight in my remarks this morning. We trust that all parliamentarians will work together to ensure we have a strong sex offender registry that not only works to make our community safer but also is effective and, at the same time, respects the human and judicial rights of everybody involved in the justice system.
Sex offences generate a great deal of public concern and suffering for the victims of these offences. Many times offences of a sexual nature involve children. As parliamentarians, we are never more engaged than when we talk about protecting women, children and any type of victim from the egregious and horrific offence of a sexual nature.
As a result of these high personal and social costs, governments are constantly looking for tools and methods capable of reducing the incidents of sex offences and protecting the public against the threat that some sex offenders represent.
One attempt to find a solution was the creation, in 2004, of a national registry containing information on offenders who had been convicted of a sexual offence or who had been found not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder. This resulted in the creation of the Sex Offender Information Registry Act, which established, for the first time, a national sex offender registry. This registry has been available to law enforcement agencies in Canada for slightly less than five years.
That original legislation contained a mandatory legislative review, which was supposed to take place after two years. Because of previous Conservative and Liberal governments, that review did not take place within the statutorily required two years. They will have to answer to Canadians for that.
However, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security did commence and complete a review of this registry, beginning in 2009. I sat on that committee on behalf of my party and I was pleased to have participated in that review.
What is the sex offender registry? It is a national data bank that contains information on certain sex offenders who have been found guilty of designated offences under the Criminal Code of Canada. These include things such as sexual assault, child pornography, child luring and exhibitionism or, once again, those who were convicted of such offences but held not criminally responsibly on account of incapacity or mental disorder.
Pursuant to the code, the Crown must initiate the registration process. If a court rules that the offender should be registered in the national registry, then an order is issued that requires the offender to report to a designated registration office in the 15 days following the issuance of the order or the offender's release. In April 2009 the committee was informed that the national registry contained the names of over 19,000 offenders.
SOIRA is designed to help the police officers investigate crimes of a sexual nature by giving them access to reliable information on offenders found guilty of these crimes. The registry then contains information that is essential to police investigations, such as the offender's address and telephone number, the nature of the offence committed, the age and gender of the victim, the victim's relationship to the attacker, any aliases that the offender uses and a description of any distinguishing marks or tattoos that the offender might have.
It is important to note that the public does not have access to the national registry. Only police officers can access it and, under the previous act, only when they are investigating a crime of a sexual nature and have reason to believe that a crime of a sexual nature has been committed. Querying the national registry allows police officers to identify possible suspects among the sex offenders living in the area where a crime of a sexual nature may have been committed. It allows them to eliminate certain people from the list of suspects in order to move the investigation in a rapid and hopefully productive direction.
During her appearance before the committee, Chief Superintendent Kate Lines of the Ontario Provincial Police noted that a registry system:
—saves a lot of time for investigators, who can now move in another direction....Taking someone off the list rather than identifying them has great value when investigative time is of the essence.
With this point in mind, the crucial factor in designing the registry and proposing amendments should be in ensuring that those who pose a danger to the public are in fact registered, but equally, those who pose no danger are not on the registry. That wastes police time investigating pointless leads in those crucial minutes when lives are at stake.
Ms. Lines presented statistics to our committee to illustrate the vital importance of a rapid response in these cases. She said that in cases where a child was kidnapped and murdered, 44% were dead within an hour of the kidnapping, 74% were dead within three hours and 91% were dead within 24 hours. A well-designed, properly functioning sex offender registry is clearly an important tool for police across the country.
The sex offender information registry's purpose has always been based on the following principles. This is language from the current legislation, which has been supported by all parties in the House.
First, in the interest of protecting society through the effective investigation of crimes of a sexual nature, police departments must have rapid access to certain information relating to sex offenders.
Second, the collection and recording of accurate information on an ongoing basis is the most effective way of ensuring that such information is current and reliable.
Third, the privacy interests of sex offenders and the public interest in their rehabilitation and reintegration into the community as law-abiding citizens require that the information be collected only to enable police departments to investigate crimes that there are reasonable grounds to suspect are of a sexual nature and to ensure that access to the information and the use and disclosure of such information is restricted to police.
Proposals to amend the sex offender registry should be measured against those principles.
We have heard some reference to the current government playing politics with this issue and I reluctantly have to agree with that description. The bill could be law today, but the Conservatives prorogued Parliament and killed their own bill. This is a perfect example of the Conservatives playing politics instead of protecting victims of crime.
The public safety committee was 90% complete of our statutory review of the sex offender registry. While we were doing that mandatory legislative review and putting the finishing touches on our report, which had all-party co-operation and contained extensive recommendations after hearing voluminous evidence and careful study, the government introduced Bill C-34 in the last session without even waiting to read our report. Therefore, as might be expected, Bill C-34 contained many holes and did not include important changes that witnesses had proposed to the committee. I will give an example.
The NDP had proposed an amendment at committee that would require sex offenders to disclose the make, colour, licence plate and registration of vehicles they owned or regularly used and add that to the registry. The New Democrats proposed that important closing of a loophole and strengthening of the registry. The government introduced Bill C-34, which did not even have that in it.
We all know that in a case where sex offenders might be in dangerous areas, trolling around schools, knowing the vehicles they have access to and are using is a critical component to protecting our children. Yet the Conservatives, who always claim to be tough on crime, introduced a bill in the House that did not even require sex offenders to disclose the cars that they drove or used. It was the New Democrats who caught that and improved the bill.
This was something police officers testified they needed in cases where all they had was a report of a suspicious vehicle seen near a playground or a school. This shows what happens when the government plays politics instead of making sound legislation that is careful, considered and effective.
The proposed bill before us closes some serious loopholes in the registry. Currently there is no way to track whether a sex offender is presently incarcerated or even deceased. The criteria are so strict that what information can be tracked, police officers are legally prohibited from recording, whether they can even get that information. The bill closes that loophole, which is a good thing.
Because every minute counts in investigations of sex offences and in cases of missing children, police officers would be wasting their time verifying the whereabouts of dead or incarcerated individuals because of this flaw in the current registry.
The proposed bill will expands the range of data that is tracked in the registry and this also is a good thing. If we are investing money and police resources into maintaining the registry, it should contain all the information needed for police to rapidly investigate crimes.
However, I want to talk about something that, again, the government, in its rush to play politics with this issue, overruled its committee on, which makes the bill questionable. It has to do with the concept of automatic registration. The bill proposes automatic registration for all offenders who commit designated offences.
The committee undergoing the study examined automatic registration in great detail. After hearing from all the witnesses, even the Conservative members of the committee agreed there should be judicial discretion to not put someone on the registry where it would harm public safety.
The police representatives who testified before our committee that speed was of the essence when they were investigating. If there were a number of sex offenders who did not pose a threat to the general public, adding those people to the list would actually waste their time at critical moments where speed was called for. If they had 1,000 people on the registry who they had to check in a certain area and they only had 2 hours to do it, they had to track down all those people to rule them out as possible suspects.
We heard from police officers who were familiar with this registry. They said that it was far more important to put people on the registry who did pose a risk so the police could target those suspects in those critical moments. That is why judicial discretion and prosecutorial discretion are important in this registry. We should not put every person convicted of every kind of sexual assault on the registry. Some offenders are not appropriately put on that registry.
As an example, it might be an 18 or 19 year old male who commits a minor transgression, which is still considered a sexual assault. I want to be clear that all sexual assaults are serious, but there is a degree on the continuum and it may well be that it is not appropriate to put the person on the list. Maybe the person is simply not at risk, by any rational examination, of committing a sexual assault in the future. To add that person to the list clogs the system and makes our communities less safe as a result.
I want to talk about sexual abuse in general. The government is quick to go to the punitive side when we talk about sexual offences. I want to talk about helping victims of sexual abuse and show how the government's misdirected and misguided agenda does not really help in many cases.
Earlier this year, Steve Sullivan, the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, testified at the public safety committee. He spoke about the need for the government to fund child advocacy centres in major cities across the country. These centres would provide counselling, support and referrals to other resources for child victims of crime, particularly victims of sexual abuse. We know, and there is no question, the data shows that many sex offenders were themselves sexually abused, often as children. Therefore, child advocacy centres would be an important part of helping to prevent future sex offences.
The victims ombudsman asked the government twice for $5 million to fund these centres and the government refused. The government refused to put up $5 million so that child victims of sexual abuse in this country would have a place to go to in the major urban centres of this country where they could be treated and counselled.
Despite the fact that this was an egregious and terrible decision made by a government, we should think of the implications for public safety because once again, some of those victims of child sexual abuse will be more likely to become adult child sex offenders or sex offenders when they grow up because of their own victimization.
For a very small amount of money, the government could have taken a concrete step that not only helps the children of our country, some of the most victimized children who are most in need of our assistance, but it has also lost an opportunity to make a dent in preventing future sexual offences.
The other thing that is important to note is that we cannot just have a registry. We also need the resources necessary so that our police forces can have access to the registry. Nothing I see in the bill before us contains any increased resources for the sex offender registry. I am concerned that it downloads the burden on to already overstretched police forces. We will need to ensure that if we are to increase registration in the registry, we ensure police forces have the resources necessary to access that registry.
I also want to talk about crime prevention. The bill adds crime prevention to the list of purposes to the act. New Democrats agree with this because originally police officers told us that access to the registry was too rigid. They testified before our committee that the test of waiting until they had reasonable ground to suspect a crime had been committed of a sexual nature was too strict. The example they gave was that they might get a call from a distraught mother who said her child was missing. That may be enough to suspect that a crime has been committed, but there is really no reasonable basis at that point to suspect it is of a sexual nature. New Democrats heard from police officers and we agreed with them that we needed to make changes and expand the opportunity for police to access the registry.
I am pleased to see in the bill that the government is moving in that regard. By putting in crime prevention, it allows police to access the registry in order to prevent a crime, and I think that is a positive thing. However, we must also be careful to ensure that there are parameters around that power because once again, it is important to control access to the registry and the way police use it so that sensitive information is not used in an inappropriate manner.
I also want to talk a little bit about the New Democrat position on crime prevention because it is one of the major deficiencies in the government's approach to the crime agenda. Its agenda is always about measures to deal with a crime after it has been committed and it is always about punishing harder and longer. It does not put resources into crime prevention, which I think is what Canadians really want.
Canadians want to live in safer communities. We want to ensure we reduce our crime rate. We want to ensure there are fewer victims of crime, not harsher punishment of the offender after the crime has been committed.
In terms of crime prevention, what I am looking for from the government, not only with this legislation that is important to deal with offenders after they have committed a sex offence, but with my New Democrat colleagues, we will continue to press the government to add resources and to take legislative measures that will help prevent crime in this country.
I have already mentioned child advocacy centres. We have already heard that Steve Sullivan, the victims ombudsman, has testified that victims want more resources put into crime prevention because nobody can undo or understand the damage that is felt by a victim of crime.
What we need to do and what victims want is for us to pour resources into helping ensure that those crimes are not committed in the first place.
The government has a responsibility to work with offenders. We call on the government to ensure that we take intelligent measures, that when offenders are caught they get the kind of help and therapy that hopefully will help them not to reoffend in the future.