Mr. Speaker, I am going to be speaking to the bill as a whole. Despite the fact that amendments have been introduced, this is probably the best opportunity to talk about the bill as a whole.
I will accept the parliamentary secretary's assurance that these are in fact housekeeping amendments to correct errors. I will come back to that point in a minute.
The NDP will be speaking in favour of Bill C-479, because we believe that the bill, after it has been extensively amended, still contains important improvements in victims' rights, though we were disappointed by the unwillingness of the government to go further in some areas.
New Democrats remain concerned, however, about the use of numerous private members' bills to amend both the Criminal Code and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. There are several reasons for this. Often these private members' bills are inspired by a single incident or a single case, and therefore they have a very narrow focus. What this means is that sometimes they miss larger issues in the criminal justice system because of that focus on a single incident or a single case.
Second, private members' bills do not get the same technical expertise applied to them in their drafting as government bills do. This is a natural phenomenon, as they are prepared by a single member of Parliament, who does not have access to the large legal and policy expertise a federal department would have if it were drafting the same legislation. Thus, we end up in a situation, which we had with Bill C-479, where we had numerous amendments to the bill at committee stage, which were necessary, and even the additional amendments that were introduced at report stage. That is one reason we have concerns about the extensive use of private members' bills to amend what are really quite technical bills, the Criminal Code of Canada and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
As well, private members' bills do not go through the screening that all government bills must go through or are supposed to go through. That is the one that supposedly checks for compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In a government bill, the Minister of Justice would be required to certify that the bill did not conflict with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We do not get that kind of scrutiny for a private member's bill.
Finally, we remain concerned about making extensive changes through multiple bills proceeding along different paths through Parliament on different timetables. The sheer volume of changes being made to the Criminal Code and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act are often a problem, because they are being considered at different committees. Some of these bills are going to the justice committee, and some are going to the public safety committee. There is a risk of having legal errors and omissions as well as unintended consequences when we have different bodies of Parliament dealing with the same bill and amending the same bill on different timeframes. This, of course, includes the Senate, which would be dealing with these in a completely different timeframe.
What we have had was some bills going to the justice committee and some bills going to the public safety committee. We in the public safety committee do not have the benefit of hearing the witnesses and hearing the debate on those bills that are in justice and vice versa. They do not have the benefit of seeing what work we have been doing in the public safety committee.
For instance, specifically in the case of Bill C-479, the public safety committee did not have the advantage of seeing the text of the government's victims' rights bill, Bill C-32, and now that bill will go to the justice committee, which will not have had the advantage of hearing the witnesses on Bill C-479, which amends the very same bill on the very same topic. I think we risk errors, omissions, and unintended consequences when we proceed in this way in the House of Commons.
I hope that when the debate in justice comes to Bill C-32, it will hear some of the same witnesses we heard. However, I am sure it seems to those witnesses that Parliament has become a very inefficient place if they have to go talk about the same bills multiple times at different committees.
As I said before, and despite the rhetoric we so often hear in the House, obviously no party has a monopoly on the concern for victims of crime. However, New Democrats do differ with the government on how best to serve victims and how best to make sure that there are fewer victims of crime in the future. We in the NDP understand the importance of utilizing our corrections system to prevent additional Canadians becoming victims of crime in the future. Clearly, if one is going to do that, what one needs is a properly funded corrections system where offenders receive the treatment and rehabilitation they need, whether for addictions, mental illness, or more specific problems they may have, and where they can access training and education opportunities that are necessary for successful reintegration into our communities. If they do not get successful treatment for mental illness and addictions, if they do not get job training, then offenders will find themselves back in the same circumstances as before and therefore are very likely to reoffend, creating even more new victims.
When committee members previously visited one of our federal correctional institutions and met with the prisoners committee, two of the people there had returned to prison, and we asked them why. They both gave the very same answer. They said when they got out, they did not have any resources, they had not had the training they needed, and they ended up back with the same friends who got them into same trouble they had been in before.
Therefore, New Democrats would like to emphasize that one of the very important things we can do to prevent victims of crime being created in the future is to have a properly functioning corrections system, and we know right now we do not have such a system. There is overcrowding in the corrections system, there is underfunding of training, there are long wait lists for mental health and addiction programs. If they are not fixed, it will lead to more victims of crime in the future.
The Conservatives, especially in private members' bills, often focus on the understandable feelings of some victims that the justice system ought to be more punitive and provide a greater sense of retribution, or they focus on the victims who believe toughness is the solution for crime. However, in doing so, they risk missing the more fundamental feeling expressed by nearly all victims. The one thing that nearly all victims of crime will say, the one thing they seem to share, is the wish that no one else has to go through what they went through. This is where victims start and end.
For New Democrats and, I believe, for most Canadians, there is a concern that we not lose the balance in our justice system between the need for punishment and the common good of increased public safety that we can achieve through rehabilitation programs. That balance is placed in jeopardy by the Conservative government's “penny wise and pound foolish” approach to public safety budgets. The consequences of this failure of the Conservative government to adequately resource the corrections system will, unfortunately, be seen down the road in additional victims.
Today, we in the NDP are supporting Bill C-479 because there are provisions in it which are of clear benefit to victims. Indeed, most of the provisions in this bill are already normal practice in the parole system. These include the presence of victims or members of their families at parole hearings, consideration of victims' statements by the Parole Board in its decisions, some special provisions for the manner in which statements can be presented at parole hearings, a stronger requirement to communicate to victims information that the board considered when making its decisions, an obligation to make transcripts of parole hearings available to victims and their families, as well as to offenders, and a better system of informing victims when an offender is going to be granted a temporary absence or parole or is released at the end of his or her sentence.
All of these things normally take place and New Democrats agree that it is a good idea to entrench these rights for victims by placing them in legislation. They are now mostly discretionary and we are saying these things need to be a right for victims. It is kind of peculiar to me that Bill C-479 actually has more rights for victims in it than the so-called victims rights bills. This actually entrenches many things in legislation.
New Democrats were, however, surprised to see the government reject one amendment which we put forward. We said that right now we have a strange situation. If, for some reason, a victim is not allowed to attend a hearing, either because he or she threatened the offender or some other reason, the victim is allowed to observe the parole hearings through teleconference or video conference. Other victims do not have that choice. We proposed an amendment giving every victim the right to observe parole hearings through video conference, teleconference, or by some other means where the victim does not have to be present in the room. Some victims do not want to be in the room because of fear, some do not want to be in the room because of revulsion, and we believe that all victims should have the right to observe parole hearings by video or teleconferencing, if they so choose. As I said, it was very surprising to me that the government voted against this amendment.
Making video conferencing available also has another very important impact for victims and their families. Sometimes people have to travel across the country. If offenders have been transferred, they may no longer be in institutions near the victims, so the victims would incur travel costs and might have to take time off work that could be avoided with video conferencing. One thing New Democrats have confidence in, as raised by the member for Malpeque, is that this bill does preserve the discretion of the Parole Board with regard to how long hearings have to take place.
As my time draws to a close, let me conclude by saying the New Democrats support strengthening victims rights, but we urge all members to consider another important thing that victims need, not just legislation but also well-supported programs to help them put their lives back in order.