Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate on the report of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration entitled “Starting Again: Improving Government Oversight of Immigration Consultants”. I want to thank the committee for its valuable and thoughtful report. Also, thank you to the many witnesses who took the time to appear before the committee to provide their insights.
I want to assure the members of this House that the government takes very seriously the protection of the public from cases of unprofessional or unethical practices. The government will conduct a comprehensive review of the issues raised and address any concerns appropriately. The government also agrees that it is necessary to deter those who would work as consultants while unauthorized. There is a strong need to ensure that practitioners operate in a professional and ethical manner, that public confidence and program integrity are maintained, and that the interests of newcomers and applicants who wish to retain the services of consultants are protected.
In its report, the committee provided a series of recommendations that call for fundamental changes in three main areas: the legislative framework for the body responsible for governing immigration and citizenship consultants; investigations and enforcement concerning the offence of practising while not authorized and other offences; and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, or IRCC, procedures for processing applications and for communicating with clients and with prospective applicants.
These are complex issues that have an impact on public confidence, clients, and authorized immigration and citizenship consultants. Because of this complexity and the inter-dependence of the issues at hand, the government will take the necessary time to carefully consider the committee’s report. IRCC will undertake a thorough analysis of the key recommendations before determining the best way forward to address these issues successfully.
The government expects to be able to provide more information on this way forward next year. While this analysis is being undertaken, the government will continue to monitor the performance of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, the ICCRC, and will refer complaints of unauthorized practitioners to the Canada Border Services Agency.
In addition, the government will continue to urge the public not to use unauthorized consultants and to file complaints with the ICCRC in the event that one of its members provides unprofessional and unethical advice and representation. I encourage the committee and my colleagues to do the same.
To help with this, IRCC will provide an information toolkit to the committee and MPs to support its outreach efforts. This is because public awareness and public education are key to helping immigration clients protect themselves and report offences to our law enforcement authorities. It might be helpful to this debate to have a bit more context about how the regulation of consultants currently works, as well as what constitutes unethical or unprofessional behaviour on the part of consultants.
As I mentioned, the ICCRC has been designated by legislation and the minister as the regulator of immigration and citizenship consultants. It is a self-governing, not-for-profit body that has an arm's length relationship with IRCC. It currently has more than 3,700 active members.
The ICCRC manages members' entry-to-practice standards, including training, testing, and accreditation, as well as professional requirements such as education obligations. The ICCRC is also responsible for ensuring that an effective complaints and discipline process for members is enforced.
As I said earlier, the government is always prepared to take action against unscrupulous and fraudulent activities by immigration and citizenship consultants when it becomes aware of, or suspects, improper activities. One such damaging activity can include acting as a so-called “ghost consultant”, that is, providing or offering to provide advice or representation for a fee at any stage of an immigration application or proceeding without being authorized to do so. Authorization means being a member in good standing of the ICCRC, a lawyer or paralegal who is a member in good standing of a Canadian provincial or territorial law society, or a notary who is a member in good standing of the Chambre des notaires du Québec.
When Government of Canada officials believe that an authorized representative has contravened any professional or ethical obligations, they have clear authority to share this information with the respective governing body, be it the ICCRC or the provincial law society, in a manner consistent with the Privacy Act.
The council has a mandate to govern such consultants by employing tools such as their code of professional ethics and code of business conduct and ethics. It also has the authority to investigate allegations of unethical or unprofessional behaviour on the part of authorized consultants.
Here are some examples of what constitutes improper or unethical activities that can be shared with the council: making false promises to an applicant, providing false information about Canada’s immigration processes, failing to provide services agreed to between the representative and client, and counselling to obtain or submit false evidence.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canada Border Services Agency are responsible for investigating both authorized consultants who engage in criminal offences, such as fraud, and ghost consultants who operate outside of the law governing immigration representatives.
The committee has made significant recommendations regarding this regulatory framework, many of which would include legislative amendments. As mentioned in the government's response to the report, the government is committed to thoroughly examining the recommendations, options, and possible changes.
In addition to providing recommendations related to consultants, the committee also made a number of recommendations related to procedures for processing applications and for communicating with clients and prospective applicants.
I can assure my fellow members of Parliament that the government is committed to delivering the best possible client service in both of these areas. IRCC knows that its clients want processes that make sense to them, they want reliable information about their case status, and they want to know someone is listening when they raise concerns.
There are a few recent examples of improvements being undertaken that I can point to today, including a revamp of how processing times are communicated online, a plain-language review of our refusal letter, a pilot project to text family sponsorship clients when their applications reach the department, and improvements to case status messaging in clients' online accounts.
Significant changes have also been made to improve the forms and tools provided to applicants. Some lines of business, including express entry and electronic travel authorization, are already using dynamic online applications instead of application forms.
IRCC is already making efforts to identify where forms can be improved or simplified, and to flag to clients areas where mistakes are commonly made. These efforts will be ongoing, and the department uses client feedback to continue making changes going forward.
In addition, IRCC understands that the department’s client base has a range of abilities when speaking an official language. Agents are therefore trained in techniques to communicate efficiently with clients in clear and simple language and to be alert and sensitive towards clients with varying degrees of fluency in our official languages. IRCC’s Client Support Centre also has a standard process to facilitate calls between agent and client when an interpreter is used to assist in the communication.
In addition to providing clearer information on processes for application, IRCC also understands the need to provide more information to clients about the rules regarding legal representation and applications prepared with the aid of an unauthorized practitioner. The department will continue to encourage clients to come forward and report such individuals.
Addressing the problem of unauthorized practitioners and providing relevant information to all clients is a priority for IRCC. This priority is also in line with the department’s client service goals. IRCC will continue to provide information about clients’ rights and responsibilities. It will do this through its website, in application guides, and on the “Use of a Representative” form.
The government is committed to continued exploration of additional changes that could be made. This could include further simplification of the language in the guides and forms and on the departmental website. IRCC is also exploring engagement with clients on a number of fronts in order to better understand the challenges they face when dealing with these processes.
IRCC actively monitors feedback received in an effort to improve services and target public awareness. It is worth noting that the department participates in Fraud Prevention Month by communicating fraud prevention messaging to Canadians, newcomers, and potential immigrants.
This happens through a number of avenues, including social media.
IRCC will also continue to work with Canada’s diplomatic missions abroad to increase public awareness about unauthorized representatives.
Once again, I want to assure my colleagues both on the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration and in this place that the government is seized with the important issues raised by the committee’s report.
Like the committee, we want to protect the interests of individuals who are applying to immigrate to Canada, while at the same time safeguarding the integrity of the immigration program. Their well-being is crucial, as is the integrity of the system as a whole. It is imperative that any action we take is in the best interests of newcomers, applicants, legitimate authorized consultants, and also Canadians, more broadly. We must always consider any potential impacts on public confidence in our immigration system.
That is why the Government will be taking a serious and detailed look at the committee’s report and the ways that we can address their concerns.
Once again, I thank the Committee for their report. It has certainly provided much food for thought.
As mentioned in its written response to the report, the government expects to be able to provide more information on the way forward next year. I look forward to being able to report back to my fellow members then.