Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address the House today with respect to the passage of Bill C-22, which would establish the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians, also known as NSICOP.
Canadians want and need to be assured that our national security and intelligence community's activities are conducted responsibly. This means that these important activities fully respect individual rights, including privacy, and that they are carried out according to the rule of law.
Canadians also expect that we as parliamentarians are in a position to hold the government accountable as to the conduct of these activities so that both Canada's national security and Canadians' rights and freedoms are assured.
Bill C-22 provides a well-designed framework within which the government would be able to share highly classified information with a statutory committee of members of the House of Commons and the Senate to be selected on a multi-partisan basis according to the provisions set out in this legislation. As members of this committee, they would be able to review the government's national security and intelligence activities to ensure this highly sensitive work is conducted responsibly and thoroughly.
Such a bill is long overdue. Once it is enacted and when the committee of parliamentarians becomes operational, the committee would be independent of the government for the purposes of its mandate. This would include the ability of the committee to decide which matters to review, in what priority and to what depth, while ensuring that the appropriate safeguards are firmly in place.
Bill C-22 enables the committee to review any federal department or agency that performs national security or intelligence activities. For example, activities at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and a number of other organizations would be part of the committee's responsibility.
The national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians would be unique in Canada in that it would have a government-wide mandate that sets it apart from other bodies established to review a specific agency, for example, either the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment, or the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP. In this way, NSICOP represents the biggest change to the national security review structure in a generation.
The proposed committee of parliamentarians would review the legal, policy, and administrative frameworks that underpin national security operations. It would also be able to scrutinize the operational aspects of security and intelligence work. To do this, Bill C-22 grants the committee the powers to access the information it would need, including highly classified information.
It is important that hon. members appreciate that Bill C-22 has been carefully crafted to avoid unnecessary duplications of efforts within the broader national security community. This means that relevant information, such as reports, findings, and opinions, may be shared between the committee of parliamentarians and the other review bodies during the conduct of their respective work. This represents an important way of leveraging the good work of these organizations to help NSICOP get up to speed on issues and to fulfill its role in ensuring that national security and intelligence activities are in Canada's best interests.
To ensure accountability and transparency, the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians would be required to report annually on its work, including its findings and recommendations, as appropriate, and these reports would be tabled in Parliament. The committee would also be able to independently issue special reports as necessary.
Although the bill requires that reports would be submitted to the Prime Minister before tabling for the sole purpose of ensuring that classified information is not contained in the reports, I want to reassure hon. members that the bill does not provide the Prime Minister with the power to change the committee's findings or recommendations. To reiterate, the intent of this provision is to ensure, in the final stages before a report becomes public, that classified information is not inadvertently included. This is in everyone's interest.
It should also be noted that Bill C-22 enables the committee to provide classified reports to a minister or ministers at its own discretion. In doing so, however, the committee would still be required to include an unclassified summary of any such report in its annual report.
While it is vital to involve more parliamentarians in examining how federal national security entities and agencies carry out their national security responsibilities individually or collectively, there must also be some boundaries to ensure that ministers remain fully responsible and accountable for their department's activities. Every department and agency of the security and intelligence community reports to the minister, who is ultimately responsible for its conduct. This minister is accountable to Parliament, and ultimately to Canadians, for ensuring that the organization under her or his charge carries out its duties to keep us safe, while respecting our fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law.
With respect to access to information for the committee of parliamentarians, I believe that the amendments proposed by the government at report stage represent a balanced, reasonable approach to some of the changes proposed by the standing committee. Notably, the proposal by the government to reintroduce some of the mandatory exceptions to the committee's access in clause 14 is intended to ensure that certain categories of sensitive, highly restricted information are protected from any inadvertent release that may cause harm to individuals and/or to national security related operations.
The government's proposed reinstatement of clause 16, as it appeared when the bill was tabled, would further provide ministers with a mechanism to ensure that special operational information can be protected, but only where necessary to protect national security.
Bill C-22, with the amendments proposed by the government, provides the necessary checks and balances, and I encourage hon. members to join me in supporting it. For example, if a minister determines it to be necessary to withhold information from the committee at a specific point in time to ensure the integrity of a national security operation, the minister would be required to explain the request to the committee. If disputed by the committee, the committee would have the ability to report this matter to Parliament.
I can assure hon. members that Bill C-22, with the proposed amendments, would give the committee of parliamentarians the ability to hold the government accountable as to its national security and intelligence activities. Also, the committee would be able to play a key role in ensuring that ministers take the necessary action to address problems and to fix deficiencies within their own areas of responsibility.
I want to emphasize that the bill would provide the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians significant powers with which to conduct its important work. However, it is also important to add that the bill also provides support for the committee by creating a professionally staffed secretariat.
Bill C-22 demonstrates that the government intends to set the bar higher for national security and intelligence matters because of the transparency and accountability it requires. Our government wants Canadians to feel confident that their Parliament will be able to hold the government to account in this regard.
I want to share with hon. members that it is my wish that the bill be seen as one of the building blocks to restore a high level of trust and respect of Canadians in parliamentarians. I hope hon. members from all parties will join me in supporting the enactment of the bill with the amendments we have proposed at this time.