Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to stand to speak to the 42nd report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
I should say at the outset that this was a really fascinating study. Although it is very complex and at times the study seemed to raise more questions than it offered answers, I think the committee did an exemplary job of trying to come forward with guidelines for procedures to assist both the Speaker and the House administration on this issue.
For the benefit of members who may not be aware of the 42nd report or for the benefit of Canadians who may be watching this debate today, I will try, in the few moments I have, to frame the question as it occurred and then provide a brief recap of the findings of the committee.
What happened in June of 2012 was a situation that really had not been encountered before, which was that there was an access to information request of the Auditor General to release certain documents—emails, in fact—relating to the Auditor General's appearances before committees earlier that year.
Unfortunately, the request was made when the House was not sitting. Therefore, the Speaker and the House administration could not consult with members of the House, since Parliament was adjourned for the summer. In that light, Mr. Speaker, I believe you and other House administration officers did what they could only do, which was that in order to protect the parliamentary privilege rights of members, they had to refuse those documents being released.
As you well know, Mr. Speaker, and I think all members in this place know, all parliamentarians, whether in this place or the other place, are protected by parliamentary privilege. There are many good reasons for that, and I will not have to illuminate or articulate those reasons. Suffice it to say that all members are free to speak in Parliament during debate or examination in committee without fear of retribution or of having legal action taken against them. That privilege extends to discussions in committees.
When Parliament was not sitting and an access to information request was made for documents from committees, which are protected by privilege, the Speaker rightly said he was sorry, but he could not release them because he did not have the consent of the members of that committee.
There is a bit of a conflict between parliamentary privilege and the Access to Information Act. Privilege is embodied in our Constitution. It is referenced in the Constitution Act, 1867, and the Constitution Act, 1982, and, as such, since it is in the Constitution, parliamentary privilege is sacrosanct. That means that since the Constitution is the supreme law of Canada, it at all times must be observed, and those elements of the Constitution that are protected by constitutional rights have to be observed.
However, the Access to Information Act does not recognize parliamentary privilege. Parliamentary privilege is not exempted from the Access to Information Act. There are no exceptions in the Access to Information Act reflecting parliamentary privilege, so there was a conflict. On one hand, parliamentary privilege itself would prevent certain documents from being released; on the other hand, the Access to Information Act is there to provide information to Canadians who are seeking information from government, and it is a fundamental tenet of our democracy to be able to provide such information to Canadians.
The question then became how to resolve it. In this particular case, when Parliament resumed in September of 2012, the House unanimously agreed to provide those documents that were requested through the access to information request, but it also pointed out to the Speaker and House administration the possibility for future cases coming forward. The Speaker then referred the question to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, asking for guidance on how the House should respond in the future should another example of an access to information request come forward when Parliament was not sitting.
The committee did an exhaustive study of this question. It brought forward many expert witnesses. The Information Commissioner and her legal counsel, the Clerk of the House, and the law counsel of the House of Commons all gave testimony.
Testimony seemed to be in conflict, because while privilege is sacrosanct and while privilege is recognized in the Constitution, the Access to Information Act states that privilege is silent within the act, so how does one reconcile these two seemingly contradictory points of view?
After much discussion and after hearing much testimony, the procedure and House affairs committee came up with some guidelines to assist you, Mr. Speaker, should the situation ever arise again. It basically identified four categories in which you could take action should a request come forward when Parliament is not sitting.
The first category deals with public and accessible documents.
In other words, if testimony or documents were provided at committee and those documents and that testimony were publicly accessible because, for example, the committee's discussions and deliberations were held in public—sometimes they were even televised—then the answer is certainly yes. The committee suggested that the House be able to release those documents when a request was made.
The second category is for documents and testimony provided during in camera discussions at committee.
Clearly, the committee felt that in camera was sufficient and that no documents or testimony, if provided during an in-camera session of a committee, should be available, even though an access to information request had come forward.
The third category is for not-publicly-accessible documents that were presented in a committee that was not in camera.
In these cases, Mr. Speaker, the committee suggested to you that those requests be considered on a case-by-case situation. In other words, if the documents dealt with sensitive information, perhaps of a personal nature or a legal nature, then those documents should not be presented or provided to those people who were making the request to begin with. However, if they were non-sensitive items, then yes, that information could be provided.
If a committee was sitting—in other words, if Parliament was in session—the committee would make that determination itself. However, if Parliament was not sitting, then it would be up to the Speaker to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not to release those documents. However, the guidelines are in place: sensitive information, documents should not be released; non-sensitive information, documents could be released by you, in your determination, Mr. Speaker.
The final category relates to documents that were prepared for testimony at committee but never presented.
Many times documents are prepared for the benefit of witnesses appearing before the committee, but those documents may never be released or discussed at the committee itself. If those documents were requested and if it was a public meeting—in other words, it was not in an in camera session—then the procedure and House affairs committee felt those documents could be released.
However, again, if the documents were presented in an in camera session, the answer would be no. Any documents or testimony presented in camera should not be released, regardless of a request through access to information.
I should also point out that privilege still remains even if documents are released. By that, I mean that documents may be presented to any member of the Canadian public who requests them, but privilege remains intact. For example, if the documents refer to commentary from a member, whether in debate or in committee, and they could be considered to be somewhat defamatory or libellous, privilege would still protect the member, even though the documents had been made public.
Mr. Speaker, I hope that is of assistance to you in future dealings of this sort and I hope the explanation has been of benefit to those members who may not have been aware of this report.
Let me finally say once again that I applaud all members of the procedure and House affairs committee for some very good work during committee.
I know there will be a dissenting report coming from members of the official opposition. I think some of the points made in that dissenting report are reasonable.
However, it just goes to show, once again, that when they want to, members can really work together well in committee, and I think it shows this Parliament is working extremely well in this regard.