Mr. Speaker, first of all, I welcome you back after our recess over the summer. This is the first time I have had an opportunity to rise in the House and speak since we came back and I hope everyone had a good summer. I know that we were all busy in our ridings taking care of constituents and constituency business. I certainly was and it was very good to connect with people because we are so often here in Ottawa in the House. We are nevertheless glad to be back in the House debating various pieces of legislation again.
As was just pointed out, Bill C-37, proposes to amend the provisions of the Criminal Code on victim surcharges, namely section 737 in the Criminal Code. It would double the amount that offenders must pay when they are sentenced. It would also make the surcharge mandatory for all offenders.
By way of background, we know that a victim surcharge is an additional sanction imposed at the time of sentencing on offenders who are found guilty. It is collected by provincial and territorial governments and is used to provide programs and services for victims of crime in the province or territory where the crime was committed.
Obviously that is a very important service provided and I am sure we are all aware of situations where people or their family members have suffered as a result of their being a victim of crime. It is very important to have the support services and programs in place. This kind of program is something that is very important in our society.
We know that the bill being debated at second reading proposes to amend the provisions of the Criminal Code relating to the amount of the victim surcharge, which the bill would in fact double. The proposed surcharge would be about 30%, or higher than the current 15%, of any fine imposed on the offender. Where no fine is imposed, it would be $100, again representing a doubling because it is currently $50 for summary conviction offences, and $200 for indictable offences, from the current $100.
That sounds reasonable and is something that we have supported in principle. However, we do have some concerns about the bill that some of my colleagues who have spoken previously have put forward. I wish to put them on the record as well.
One of our concerns is that the bill removes the ability of the court to waive a victim surcharge if the offender can show that paying the surcharge would result in undue hardship to either himself or herself, or to his or her dependants. This is now contained in subsection 737(5) and would be repealed by the bill.
The second concern we have is that while on the one hand judges would retain the discretion they have to increase the victim surcharge if they believe the circumstances so warrant, on the other hand their discretion would be removed as to whether or not there was some undue hardship. This is quite problematic and part of a pattern that we have seen in many of the so-called law and order bills the Conservative government has brought forward. The thrust of these bills, and certainly this one is now another example of this theme, has been to undermine the discretion of the court system, and judges in particular.
We have a lot of concerns about the bill. We believe that it needs to be studied at committee, particularly with regard to the decreased discretionary power of a judge to decide if paying a surcharge would cause undue hardship. Why do we believe that? It is because we believe very much in the importance of discretionary powers of a judge and the autonomy of judges within our judicial system. That will be restricted by the bill.
The withdrawal of the undue hardship clause and the provision seeking to double the surcharge could be problematic for low-income offenders. It would not always be the case, but certainly there are situations and experiences where this would be a consideration.
Therefore, it seems very puzzling that we have a government that would bring forward yet another bill that would seek to restrict the scope and discretion of what our judicial system can take into account at the level of the decisions that judges make and what information they can look at.
That has a lot of consequences. When we look at this particular bill in the context of all of the other bills we have dealt with that also have the same kind of purpose in restricting judicial discretion, then we can see that we are fundamentally changing what our judicial system is about and how it operates. As legislators, members of Parliament representing our constituents across the country in so many diverse ridings, this is actually something that we should be concerned about. It is very easy to look at legislation one by one and say it is not a big deal, that maybe we could live with it. However, when we begin to add it up and we see the incremental changes in a more comprehensive way, we begin to realize that there are some fundamental changes taking place.
That is something that concerns us. We believe there should be proper analysis. We should look not just at this piece of legislation but at all kinds of legislation to see what those impacts on the judicial system are.
For example, the Elizabeth Fry Society is very concerned about the impact of these additional fines on, for example, aboriginal people and people who do not have the means to pay. The John Howard Society has also expressed concern that the fines could be disproportionate to the crimes committed. These are two very notable, hard-working, credible organizations in our society. They operate across the country. They know the system first-hand from the ground up. They deal with offenders as they come out of the system and are making a transition back into society. When we hear organizations like the Elizabeth Fry Society and the John Howard Society express their concerns based on their real experience in dealing with offenders in a community setting, this is something that we should take note of. It really worries me when Conservative members will just sweep that concern under the carpet and say it is of no consequence. Someone in this place has to take note of what the impacts and consequences are.
What I am trying to argue here is that the principle of sanctions against offenders is a good principle. It is something that we have supported. We have supported the ombudsperson's report on this matter. However, we have to look at the very fine details of this legislation and examine whether or not it has gone further than it needs to go and cause more negative impacts by removing the discretion we now have. This is something that we very much need to examine at the committee level.
Over the summer I had the pleasure of attending the Canadian Medical Association's general council meeting in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. We heard an extraordinary speaker, Sir Michael Marmot, one the world's renowned experts and researchers in the social determinants of health. He made a quite remarkable presentation to all of the doctors assembled there as members of the CMA. He spoke about how our society has moved so far away from establishing some of the basic foundations of a healthy society, like a decent income, a good education and proper housing. He was speaking about these matters as they related to the health of our society, not just in terms of our personal health but also our overall health. I wanted to bring this into the debate today because to me it is very pertinent to what we are looking at in Bill C-37.
Again, what really worries me about the government we have in power right now, which hopefully will not be there for too long, is its emphasis on punitive measures addressing issues after the fact. As Sir Michael Marmot said, we need to go upstream. We need to be developing much stronger foundations for healthy communities and healthy people, ensuring that people have proper education and decent incomes. The evidence is overwhelming that all of these things ensure that a society is more sustainable, not just in terms of the environment but also in social terms.
When we ignore those questions and focus so much on fixing everything with a new piece of legislation, or changing the Criminal Code and saying that somehow that is going to fix issues and problems in our society, we are under a terrible illusion. I know the members across the way in the Conservative government cannot look beyond that. They are very focused and driven by that simplistic approach. I am very glad to say that we on this side of the House in the NDP have a much more progressive, complex and intelligent analysis of what we need to do to make safe and healthy communities.
In speaking to this legislation today, I know we are going to hear a barrage of questions and comments, if we get to them, because if we dare to question any of the Conservatives' law and order provisions then we are said to be favouring the criminals. It is such a simplistic, ridiculous debate that they try to engage in. We do as much as we can on this side to resist that kind of ridiculous, absurd debate.
We are here to look at legislation based on its merit and its consequences for our society overall. That is a matter of balancing the rights of victims. This is something we believe strongly in. Victims have rights. They have the right to be supported. They have the right to know that a judicial system will work for them and that prosecutions will be dealt with in due diligence. However, we also have to ensure that our judicial system is balanced and ensure that discretion is there so that people are not penalized unfairly.
I represent a community that has many low-income people. Many of my constituents have been through the judicial system and have had horrible experiences. They would have been better out of prison. They would have been better with programs that might have focused on restorative justice. They would have been better in programs where there was attention paid to youth at risk, so that youth would not even get into the criminal justice system. However, yet again we see a government that has moved away from that kind of approach and has focused on the need for yet another law and punitive measure.
In conclusion, my colleagues and I have voiced our support at second reading for the principles in this bill. We have reservations and concerns and will take our responsibility to ensure that if this bill goes to committee, we will examine it clause by clause. We will look at it very carefully. We will propose amendments, I have no doubt. Our justice critic is very able in doing that. Our aim is to ensure that this bill becomes one that would not cause problems or unintended consequences.
I have been pleased to speak to this bill today. I look forward to its going to committee and the amendments that I know we in the NDP will propose to improve it.