Mr. Speaker, I am going to say honestly that I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-51 at second reading, not so much personally, as I was already up speaking this morning, to Bill C-42, as was the parliamentary secretary, but because, like many members, we have had challenges even getting to the House today.
As the NDP public safety critic, I have the honour of speaking in the House quite often. Unfortunately, too often, it is on bills motivated by the Conservatives' tough on crime attitude. The parliamentary secretary asked why we do not support all of their bills. I would like to take just a moment to talk about this tough on crime attitude, because this is an attitude that too often results in policies that are ripped from headlines.
At best, it is based on a faulty concept of deterrence and the idea that harsh sentences somehow deter crime. There is actually no imperial evidence to show that. The only way deterrence functions is when the investment is made at the front end of law enforcement. It is the certainty of being caught and the swiftness of prosecution that puts people off committing crimes.
Most criminals do not sit at home thumbing through the Criminal Code to see which offence to commit based on the length of the sentence. Obviously they are motivated by other social, economic and personal factors. If resources are put at the front end, we get better results. That is one reason this legislation looks a lot better to us than most of the bills that come forward from the Conservatives.
At worst, the tough on crime agenda appears to be based on little more than retribution, and retribution is not an effective approach to crime. Although it may make some people feel better for a short period of time, it results in policies that are expensive and that rarely show any positive results. In contrast, we in the NDP believe in evidence-based measures, which will help us build safer communities.
I am honestly pleased to stand in the House today to support Bill C-51 at second reading. We have seen a couple of hopeful signs from the Conservatives with this legislation, and also with Bill C-54, which deals with measures for those not criminally responsible. We have seen more consultation from the government on these two bills. We have seen more attention to evidence on these two bills than we have seen before. In this case, action is long overdue. We are glad that the government finally listened to stakeholders, as we have been asking it to do this since 2007.
In November 2012, the NDP member for Trinity—Spadina repeated our call for action to expand eligibility for those going into the witness protection program. This is particularly important in the struggle against street gangs. The previous narrow definitions excluded them from the witness protection program. We and government members have heard from many community representatives, and from many law enforcement agencies, that to get co-operation to help break street gangs, inclusion of possible witnesses in this program would be very important.
Since 2007, the NDP has also specifically called for better coordination of federal and provincial programs and better provision of services to those provincial programs, which is another positive measure we see in the bill.
We have always called for better overall funding for the program. I will come back to that question.
While we support what the bill attempts to do, which is improve the witness protection program, we are concerned that the Conservative government will refuse to commit any new funding. In fact, the minister said during the introduction of the bill that this would have to be funded from existing funds.
While there is no legislative flaw we can see at this point in the bill, which ensures that we will support it at second reading, we are concerned, because as I often like to say, the proof is in the funding. If we make these improvements, but law enforcement agencies do not have the funding they need to operate the program, we have not moved very far forward.
Whatever the improvements here, the demand that the RCMP and local police departments work within their existing budgets will likely hinder the implementation of the proposed amendments and the improvements in the bill.
The RCMP's own website states that there are instances when the cost of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies. When municipal departments, which are extensive across this country, try to make use of the program, they must reimburse the RCMP fully for the costs, which can be very high. This is an ongoing cost for them. Most of them have no provision in their budgets for making use of this program. It means, oftentimes, that front-line law enforcement officers have to make difficult choices, because they cannot get those who need protection into the program, because the funding is not available to support those individuals once they are in the program.
Again, the witness protection program is often crucial to getting the co-operation the front-line police need so that they can get convictions that will take key organized crime figures out of the community. If there were adequate funding, the same would be true for getting key witnesses to testify against street gang members to help break up those street gangs.
The federal witness protection program has long been criticized for its narrow eligibility criteria, for its poor coordination with provincial programs, and for the low number of witnesses actually admitted to the program. In 2012, 108 applications were considered for admission to the program, and, largely due to funding constraints, only 30 people were accepted.
What does that mean? It means 78 cases for which we might have been able to get a conviction and might have been able to make progress on organized crime, because that has been the focus of the program to this point. We did not get that because of inadequate resources.
There are some important improvements, as we acknowledge, in the bill. Bill C-51 proposes a better process to support provincial witness protection programs. This would be especially important for expediting getting new identity documents for those in provincial programs. Before, as the parliamentary secretary mentioned, this required transferring them to the federal program and transferring them back, with an enormous amount of bureaucratic time-wasting and cost. We are pleased to see that.
The expanded definition is important. In addition to including witnesses in street gang cases as possible entrants to the program, it would also expand the program to include agencies with national security responsibilities.
It would also extend the period for emergency protection. That is one of the key issues local law enforcement figures have raised. Sometimes people need to go into this program very quickly, and sometimes it takes a while before they can get into a more permanent situation. Extending that emergency protection is important.
Provinces such as Ontario and Alberta have been pushing for a national revamp of this program, including recognition of their existing programs. Again, the designation of programs and recognition of those programs is a positive feature of the bill.
For federal departments and agencies with a mandate related to national security, both those that function under national defence and those that function under public safety would now be able to refer witnesses to the program. I will say in a minute why that has been a gap of very great concern in the past.
Because there is no direct reference to eligibility for the program for witnesses in street gang cases, many stakeholders have been concerned that street gang witnesses may not fit these new criteria. We are assured by the government that they will. We look forward to talking about this question in committee to make sure that this critical area is indeed covered by these changes to the witness protection program.
At committee I will be asking those questions to make sure that the federal government is truly committed to the inclusion of street gang, youth gang and national security witnesses in this program. This will be an important step toward building safer communities in Canada.
We believe that the bill addresses the key problems. There are still a few things it does not do. Again, we would like to talk about those in committee.
Bill C-51 does not include provisions for an independent agency to operate the program, as was recommended in the Air India inquiry report.
There is kind of a conflict of interest when the RCMP manages the program and also manages the investigations. It is able to use the incentive, I guess one would say, of the witness protection program to get co-operation, and then, later, it makes the decision about who is actually eligible to be in the witness protection program. The Air India inquiry report suggested that there should be an independent agency to make those decisions that involve the RCMP as both the investigating authority and the decision-making authority on who gets protection from the program.
When we look at national security, the inability to protect witnesses was a major obstacle to prosecutions in the Air India bombing case. That is why, in the report, there was a lot of attention given to the witness protection program. One witness, Tara Singh Hayer, publisher of the B.C.-based Indo-Canadian Times, was assassinated in 1998. This made the affidavit he had given the RCMP in 1995 inadmissible as evidence in the case.
I would say that Mr. Hayer was not a likely candidate to go into the witness protection program because he was a very brave individual. However, two additional witnesses, seeing what had happened to him and not being eligible to go into the witness protection program, refused to provide evidence to the RCMP or the Air India inquiry because of what they had seen happen to another witness who had provided information, and the fact that he was assassinated.
Justice Major, in his report, acknowledged that he felt unable, because of the restrictions in the witness protection program, to provide the protection that would be necessary for prosecution in the case of Air India.
The RCMP has also called for intensive psychological examination of potential protectees, a national support centre for the program, and has also supported the call for an external advisory board in their case to serve as a watchdog on the decisions being made.
We recognize that these are all potentially outside the scope of this bill, but I still think it is worth having a discussion in committee about some of the other things that the RCMP has said are necessary for the efficient operation of the witness protection program.
New Democrats believe that strengthening the program will improve co-operation with local police and the RCMP in the fight against gang violence, and in doing so will help make our communities safer. It has a proven record of success in the fight against organized crime.
While the Conservatives have been slow to respond to this issue, and we on our part have been calling for these changes since 2007, we are pleased to see that the government has listened to the stakeholders in this case and brought in this new legislation to expand the program.
Bill C-51 does address key legislative concerns with regard to the witness protection program and therefore warrants our support. Despite our ongoing concerns about funding, the NDP recognizes that Bill C-51 still falls short on some key changes to the program, such as having a more transparent and accountable process for admissions into the program. Again, the Conservative government has ignored the important recommendations of the Air India inquiry with regard to this independent review of who is admissible into the program.
We do feel that Bill C-51 provides the basic legislative fix that we need. We will wait to see if the Conservatives are going to provide the resources to make it really count for local communities. As I often say and will say again, the proof is in the funding. Local police wish to make use of this program. They welcome these changes. They are waiting to get to work on some of the street and youth gang problems they have when this tool becomes available to them. However, it will not work if they do not have the funding at the local level.
At the public safety committee, we are doing a large study on the economics of policing. I think it has made all members of Parliament aware of the constant downloading of costs and responsibility onto police forces.
When we asked witnesses at committee what percentage of their calls for service were actually what people regard as crime, they responded that it was around 20%, saying that 80% of the time the police spend working on other issues. What that really means is that they are working on things like mental health, addictions, and all those other social problems of exclusion and marginalization. In our society we have made what I would call an unconscious decision that we will leave all those responsibilities to the police. One good sign of that, which we often see, is the difficulty of finding emergency social services, even in urban areas, after five o'clock. Who will one call after five o'clock when most people have their mental health and addiction crises? Those offices are closed.
The police become the agency called to deal with those problems. This is one of the huge, and probably the most important, cost drivers in policing. I know that the Minister of Public Safety suggested that police salaries were in fact a cost driver and that they took away resources from other things they needed. We on this side believe that the police who serve our communities as highly trained professionals need to be paid a fair, professional wage. We recognize that most of the time wages—and certainly in municipal and provincial departments—have been set through a process of free collective bargaining. Therefore, it not the police salaries that prevent resources being available for things like the witness protection program, but government budgets and all those other demands that we place on the police every day of the week.
As I said at the beginning, we know that the police are out in snowstorms doing all kinds of things that are not strictly fighting crime but providing emergency assistance to the public. I am looking forward to the work in committee not just on this bill but also on the study on the economics of policing to help find some ways to get the cost of policing under control by getting the focus back on building safer communities.
We in the NDP are committed to this concept. We need measures based on real evidence that will lead us toward solutions that make our communities safer. One way of doing this is through an improved witness protection program that helps keep our streets safe by giving police additional tools to fight street gangs.
The parliamentary secretary talked about an expedited process. I want to again reassure her, as I did in the questions asked at the beginning, that on this side we are committed to getting this bill to committee as soon as we can, and giving it a high priority in committee and bringing in the witnesses we need to talk to as quickly as possible. We will not prolong the process beyond what is needed, because we know that local police forces are in fact waiting for this tool to be made available to them in order to do some very important work in community safety.
At this point, I am happy to conclude my remarks by saying that this is one case where the New Democrats believe that the government has listened to stakeholders and has consulted. It might be a little late, but we are pleased to see that it brought in this legislation, and we will be looking at the next budget to make sure that the resources that police forces need, particularly the RCMP, are there to ensure that this new and improved witness protection program can actually be used by those on the front line.