I am now prepared to rule on the questions of privilege raised on April 30, 2015, by the member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley and on May 8, 2015, by the member for Toronto—Danforth regarding the delays they and other members experienced in gaining access to Parliament Hill.
I would like to thank the members for having raised this matter, as well as the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, the House Leader of the Official Opposition, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, and the members for Saanich—Gulf Islands, London—Fanshawe, Winnipeg North, Hamilton Centre, Ottawa—Vanier, Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, Saint-Lambert and Northumberland—Quinte West for their comments.
Before we start to look at the issues that were raised, the Chair would like to take a few seconds to deal with the comments on the timing of questions of privilege.
Some members alluded to the fact that some interventions were made at a very specific moment in order to delay or prevent business. I am sure all members would agree that it would be unfortunate for a subject as important as parliamentary privilege and the right of access of members to be trivialized in any way, either by raising what some might call “nuisance” questions of privilege or by quickly dismissing outright such claims of privilege simply because they are perceived to be impeding the normal course of business.
In raising his question of privilege, the member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley explained that, on April 30, he and several other members were attempting to access the parliamentary precinct through the East Block entrance in order to attend a vote in the House when the shuttle bus they were on was stopped temporarily by an RCMP officer. While acknowledging the need to keep Parliament secure, the member insisted that this physical obstruction constituted a denial of reasonable, timely access to the parliamentary precinct, thereby impeding him from performing his parliamentary duties and constituting a breach of privilege.
The Leader of the Government in the House of Commons claimed that, since the RCMP had determined that the bus in question had been delayed for only 74 seconds, this case amounted to no more than a momentary delay, which does not qualify as a breach of the privileges of the House. He contended that, while denial of access to the precinct is indeed a breach of members’ privileges, a delay should not be considered as such unless it is a significant one. Calling for a measured, reasonable perspective, the government House leader explained that the privilege of access to the parliamentary precinct is not an unqualified right, and that issues of safety and security may temper this right of access in certain situations.
Then on May 8, 2015, the member for Toronto—Danforth complained of delayed access to Centre Block that day by an RCMP officer. He noted that the officer had received orders to stop all individuals from entering while a delegation of VIPs accessed the building, orders which made no distinction between the rights of members of Parliament and those of the general public. Maintaining the length of the delay was irrelevant, the member for Toronto—Danforth contended that this incident also constituted a breach of privilege.
To begin, I will remind the House of the well-defined, albeit limited, role of the Chair in determining matters of privilege. O’Brien-Bosc, at page 141, states:
Great importance is attached to matters involving privilege. ...The function of the Speaker is limited to deciding whether the matter is of such a character as to entitle the Member who has raised the question to move a motion which will have priority over Orders of the Day; that is, in the Speaker’s opinion, there is a prima facie question of privilege. If there is, the House must take the matter into immediate consideration. Ultimately, it is the House which decides whether a breach of privilege or a contempt has been committed.
The two incidents now before the House have served as a clear reminder that members not only require but are entitled to access to the parliamentary precinct at all times, without interference. This is uncontested.
In 2004, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, having considered a question of privilege related to the physical obstruction of members, stated in its twenty-first report:
The denial of access to Members of the House—even if temporary—is unacceptable, and constitutes a contempt of the House. Members must not be impeded or interfered with while on their way to the Chamber, or when going about their parliamentary business. To permit this would interfere with the operation of the House of Commons, and undermine the pre-eminent right of the House to the service of its Members.
In listening to the submissions of members on this issue, it is clear to the Chair that the larger issue of security in the parliamentary precinct is a major preoccupation for members, one that informs their perspective on individual incidents and that now looms large given the changing security environment on Parliament Hill as a result of the events of October 22, 2014.
Following those events, members will recall that I ordered a comprehensive review of our security systems and procedures. Parliamentary security operations have since been tightened and have continued to evolve, leading up to the Senate and House's decision to unify the protective services in November 2014. Then on February 16, 2015, the House adopted a motion calling on the Speaker of the House, in coordination with the Speaker of the Senate:
...to invite, without delay, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to lead operational security throughout the Parliamentary precinct and the grounds of Parliament Hill, while respecting the privileges, immunities and powers of the respective Houses, and ensuring the continued employment of our existing and respected Parliamentary Security staff;
That the House chose to make this decision is not a matter for the Chair to comment on, other than to say that from a procedural standpoint the motion was taken up by the House in accordance with our rules and practices and remains a valid decision, which the Speaker is bound to implement.
Since then, considerable progress has been made toward arriving at an agreement to have the RCMP lead physical security services throughout the parliamentary precinct and Parliament Hill. Yet there is no denying that ensuring the security, in a changed world and in a changed arrangement, for all who enter the parliamentary precinct, is going to present some challenges as we transition to the new security regime. However, none of this obviates what I stated in my ruling of March 15, 2012, where I confirmed the importance of members' right of access to the precinct. I stated at page 6333 of Debates:
...the implementation of security measures cannot override the right of members to unfettered access to the parliamentary precinct, free from obstruction or interference.
As Speaker, it is my role to support the House and its members as we proceed with various changes to our security arrangements. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that any and all changes uphold the privileges, immunities, and powers of the House, as has always been the case.
Several members have expressed concern that a heightened level of security could lead to more incidents where members are unnecessarily impeded as they carry out or attempt to carry out their Parliamentary duties. The incidents raised by the members for Skeena—Bulkley Valley and Toronto—Danforth have certainly served to highlight those broader concerns.
I would like to assure all hon. members that protecting the rights and privileges of the House and of its members is a priority for me as our security forces continue to work in close partnership in order to provide a safe environment for all members, parliamentary staff, and visitors to the Hill.
The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, in its thirty-fourth report regarding the free movement of members of Parliament within the parliamentary precinct, summed up the challenge when it stated:
Cases of privilege in which Members have had their right to unimpeded access to the Parliamentary Precinct denied have occurred in the recent past with all too great a frequency. The Committee considers the best solution to this issue to be improved planning, greater coordination between partners, and increased education and awareness of security services and Members.
As your Speaker, I can only agree. In fact, I recently had occasion to discuss this challenge with Commissioner Paulson, who agrees that all protective personnel need to know the community they serve. They need to be sensitive and responsive to the community they serve, and they need to be familiar with the expectations of the community they serve. This includes having the primary function of this place top of mind as they go about performing their duties.
At the same time, we as members need to be mindful that increased security does require adjustments. It may mean that members will notice changes that will make the grounds and buildings safer while still ensuring that they can carry out their work.
This is consistent with the ruling I delivered on March 15, 2012, in which I stated:
In this light, emphasizing the notion of balance, questions raised by the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons are pertinent with regard to defining what constitutes an impediment to unfettered access for members to the parliamentary precinct and buildings. It would indeed be unfortunate for members to carry the concept of physical obstruction to illogical and unreasonable lengths. However, I would caution that the House ought not either to fall into the trap of assessing these matters on the sole basis of the duration of a delay or impediment. One can easily imagine a situation where even a very brief obstruction, depending on its severity or nature, could lead a Speaker to arrive at a prima facie finding of privilege and to allow a debate in the House.
Therefore, for these reasons and given the arguments presented by hon. members and in view of the vital importance of this issue to all members, particularly in this current context, I have concluded that the broader subject matter of the rights of access of members merits immediate consideration. I have come to this conclusion so that the House has the opportunity to hear the views of members on the balance that must be struck between the need for reasonable and timely access to the House for members and the support and guidance this House can provide to its security partners. This contribution will be important as we continue to navigate the transition with which we will be faced in the coming months.
As we all know, the parliamentary precinct and its buildings exist primarily to support the functions of the legislative branch. The Centre Block in particular, housing as it does the House of Commons and Senate chambers, is a working building where parliamentary proceedings are carried out and where members must be free to perform their duties without interference even when other activities are taking place. Needless to say, these heritage buildings, especially Centre Block, are also ideal venues for all sorts of events and we are all proud to showcase them for our distinguished visitors. However...extra care is needed to ensure that competing requirements regarding the use of the buildings and precinct are understood, with due accommodations and with the proper balance.
Accordingly, I will now invite the member for Toronto—Danforth to move his motion.