Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the fine gentleman and MP for Burnaby—New Westminster, who does a fantastic job on this file and many others.
I rise today to speak to Bill S-5, which looks to update the legislation relating to banking and financial institutions in Canada. Anyone who follows my interventions in the House will know that these issues are very close to my heart as the NDP consumer protection critic. I think it is very important for parliamentarians to have an opportunity to review legislation that relates to the banking sector.
Banks are vital to the Canadian economy. Canadian banks directly employ a quarter of a million people across the country and pay almost $1 billion in payroll taxes each year. They also spend around $15 billion on services and goods within the economy, thereby indirectly supporting even more jobs. Moreover, banks and other financial institutions provide a vital service to the economy as a whole. They provide lending services for individuals to buy homes and for businesses to invest and expand.
It is important to ensure that Canada has a world-leading system of banking regulation to allow our banks to stay strong and support the economy as we continue through a time of global financial uncertainty. Therefore, I will be supporting the bill at second reading to ensure that this important legislation gets the attention it deserves at committee.
Unfortunately, as has so often been the case since last year's election, the government is more interested in ramming through legislation than in the process of debate, which is the hallmark of Canadian democracy.
First, we again find ourselves limited in the amount of debate we can have on an issue before the House. By my understanding, the government has now shut down debate 16 times in just 80 sitting days and 4 times in the last 12 days. The bill would amend 13 pieces of existing legislation, including the Bank Act, all of which relate to the direct functioning of our economy, and yet the government is trying to push this review through without the dedicated analysis that these changes warrant.
Debate in this chamber is not just for show and it is not just some inconvenience for the government. It is fundamental to the proper functioning of our democracy. It allows various points of view representing the geographic, cultural, linguistic and social diversity of our great country. Being part of this legislative process is too important for us to continually have time allocation imposed.
Second, the bill was introduced in the Senate rather than here in the House of Commons before democratically elected representatives. Then, just as the case here, the bill was pushed through the Senate's legislative process without proper review. In fact, the whole process took just three weeks.
This is the second major economic issue the government has pushed to the Senate in order to marginalize the ability of democratically elected parliamentarians to take part in important debates. The other was the study of price differentials between the U.S. and Canada.
It also worries me that the government failed to widely consult on these changes before introducing this review. Given the important role of the banking sector in our economy, I find it disturbing that there were no coordinated national public consultations with consumer groups and small businesses to try to understand how the banking system could be improved from their perspective. In fact, the government's little publicized online review solicited only 30 submissions and 27 of those respondents opted to remain anonymous. While there may well be some important details to be drawn from these submissions, I find it highly doubtful that we can hope to understand the full range of opinions and debate on how to update our banking legislation from such a small sample size.
I will talk in detail about some of the issues addressed in this legislation, specifically those relating to my own area of focus, consumer protection.
As our consumer protection framework currently works, various government departments are responsible for consumer protection for specific issues. This makes it very difficult for consumers to know where to go when they are confronted with a consumer problem. Depending on the type of issue to be resolved, a consumer may be required to work with Industry Canada, Health Canada, or Transport Canada, or even with the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, FCAC, if the issues relate directly to banks and financial institutions.
Ending this confusing framework would have gone a long way to ensuring that Canadians have more confidence in their day-to-day dealings with financial institutions. However, the government refuses to move in this direction, and so what is it offering consumers? First, this bill would extend the definition of consumer provisions in regard to financial institutions to include agents and affiliates of banks that offer financial products. This would extend the scope of entities that come under FCAC's consumer protection provisions, which I support. It would also increase the ability of the government to introduce regulations and deferred legislation, giving the government the opportunity to introduce further consumer protection measures in the financial sphere. Furthermore, the bill would increase the maximum fine that FCAC can levy on financial institutions from $200,000 to $500,000.
All of these changes should be welcomed, but with some caveats. The increased ability to introduce consumer regulation is only noteworthy if the government utilizes that ability; otherwise, it is simply a nice talking point. The same can be said for increasing the maximum fine the FCAC can levy. When this bill was first introduced in the Senate, various stakeholder pointed out that FCAC very rarely levied its current lower maximum penalty. Given this fact, increasing the maximum penalty seems to be somewhat of a toothless change. In effect, these changes, while welcome, seem much more powerful in theory than in practice.
This bill is missing a change that would have incurred no cost for the government and massively increased the clout of both the consumer and small business protection regimes in Canada, namely, mandating that banks must be part of the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments complaints resolution process. OBSI offers a fair method for consumers and small businesses to address complaints to banks that cannot be dealt with by a bank's in-house complaint mechanism.
However, under the government's watch, both RBC and TD have been allowed to leave the OBSI system and instead use a Bay Street law firm to settle complaints. That law firm has been hired by the banks, and as the banks' customer its first priority is to please its clients, not to offer a proper method of redress for consumers and small businesses. This is simply unacceptable and the government should step in and mandate that banks use an impartial investigative process.
Moreover, there is nothing in this bill to look at the fees and charges levied by banks. I have heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of Canadians regarding ATM fees, credit card interest rates and current account charges. Banks obviously need to make a profit and be viable, but when we compare this bill to, say, the amendments tabled by Illinois senator Dick Durbin in the U.S., we can see there is room for discussion and debate on these issues.
In terms consumer or non-consumer related issues, this bill has some changes requiring some vigorous debate. For example, this bill would require Canadian banks to gain ministerial approval if they wished to purchase foreign entities. It would also increase the value a bank must reach before it is required to have its shares widely held, and it would allow Canadian financial institutions to sell their shares to foreign institutions ultimately owned by foreign governments.
I could go on and on about the importance of this subject and the debate that we need to continue to have, but I know my time is running out. In summary, if the government refuses to listen to these groups and insists on passing this bill in its current form, then at best this bill will have little positive change and, at worst, could end up doing more damage than good.