Mr. Speaker, I would like to recognize the efforts of my colleague from Etobicoke North that are aimed at improving the federal fee setting process in Canada.
I would like to provide the House with some information on cost recovery and user charging in relation to what is in place and what my colleague's bill aims to achieve.
Currently, pursuant to the authorities granted to them by Parliament, individual ministers are responsible for establishing and amending fees. As such, ministers are responsible for evaluating and responding to the many factors relevant to a charging decision. They are accountable to the public and to Parliament.
The Treasury Board cost recovery and charging policy works inside this legislative framework, as it must. It sets out the conditions and factors ministers are to consider when users are charged.
Bill C-212 would change Canada's approach. It would establish a standing committee or mandate an existing standing committee to scrutinize all proposed user charges and make recommendations to the House for their approval or rejection.
This overlooks that standing committees currently have the power to examine user charges in their departmental portfolios and call on ministers to provide information.
As this debate has shown, the Standing Committee on Finance is willing and able to examine a government-wide practice like user charging in a very effective way.
The additional provisions of Bill C-212 would create an unprecedented overlap in responsibilities and authority between ministers, the standing committee, the House, and new undefined independent dispute mechanisms. It would create a new role for legal challenges so that ultimately the courts would decide.
That would make existing parliamentary oversight much less effective. This is because the bill would replace existing lines of authority with a very complex, costly and unwieldy new process. First, the bill's proposed approval process would require the House of Commons to approve, reject or amend all user charge proposals upon consideration of the committees recommendation. This would stray from the current practice and philosophy that Parliament delegates questions of application and detail, such as fee setting, to the executive which is done in the name of efficiency.
Second, as an act, the provisions of the bill would be enshrined in law. The ultimate arbiters of user charging then would not be parliamentarians or the executive. It would instead be Canada's court system. Complainants dissatisfied with a departmental decision or simply seeking to delay things might well go to court to argue a technical issue. For example, paragraph 4(1)(a) of the bill would require that:
Before a regulating authority fixes [or amends a fee]... it must take reasonable measures to notify clients...of the user fee proposed...
Paragraph 4(1)(b) adds that the regulating authority:
give all clients or service users a reasonable opportunity to provide ideas or proposals for ways to improve the services to which the user fee relates;
There is no definition as to what constitutes reasonable in these cases. Therefore complainants lose nothing by contending in court that the Canada Gazette and the Internet were not reasonable means of notification, or that a four week consultation period was not reasonable as it coincided with a busy period in their work cycle.
Imagine the caseload on the already overburdened court system. Consider how this would delay decision making for new fee proposals. Imagine how all this would impede the courts' ability to hear more serious cases, such as violent crime, and consider, of course, the court and legal costs.
Third, paragraph 4(1)(e) calls for each charging authority to:
establish an independent dispute resolution process to address a complaint or grievance submitted by a client regarding the user fee or change.
The bill does not establish whether this new ruling authority would overrule the minister responsible for the charge. For that matter, it might overrule the authority of the House committee.
Nor does the bill define what constitutes a complaint or grievance. The government is well aware that complaints range from relatively minor practical questions to challenges of a department's fundamental right to institute charges.
Fourth, the bill would extend the reach of this approval process more broadly than perhaps was intended. We must note that it would also apply to crown corporations. Their ability to quickly respond to clients would be delayed by this new process and that contradicts the reason Parliament granted them a reasonable degree of independent authority: so that government could be more businesslike.
Much hard work was done here in Parliament to create crown corporations like Canada Post. The intent was to make these organizations more efficient and reduce the red tape burden on delivering these services to Canadians. Why would we undo that work and effectively make them less responsive? Yet that is what the bill would do.
Furthermore, the bill reads, “This Act applies to all fees fixed by a regulating authority”. The bill defines “regulating authority” as:
--a department, agency, board, Crown corporation, commission, or any other body that has the power to fix a user fee or a cost recovery charge under the authority of an Act of Parliament.
As worded, the bill could also apply to private sector entities, such as Bell Canada and Shaw cable, whose prices are “fixed by a regulating authority”, like the CRTC. These businesses would be embroiled in yet another round of hearings and the expense and delay associated with them. The repercussions would be far reaching and potentially very serious for firms who rely on faster, not slower, decision making authorities, which in turn affects their bottom line.
Fifth, the proposed process would also require fees to be justified in comparison to all those of all other OECD countries. This risks pressuring Canada to establish fees at an international lowest common denominator. Canadians feel strongly about their government's role in protecting public health, safety and security. They expect better of us than such an unsophisticated approach. They understand that many complex factors determine the level of service people want and the amount they are willing and able to pay.
I wish to convey strongly that the government is committed to the values of transparency and accountability which are so important to this subject. It is very serious about improving the current policy on user charging, which is now in the final stages of development. Extensive consultations have been held with internal and external stakeholders. In December, the government distributed a second draft of proposed policy changes to all policy review advisory committees. For its part, the government remains committed to acting on this feedback to address outstanding concerns.
The policy remains open and the review continues. The direction it is taking will provide more explicit guidance to departments who charge. This will strengthen the accountability of the fee setting process to Parliament, to stakeholders and to the public to bring about greater consistency.
This is in response to previous recommendations of the Standing Committee on Finance and the Auditor General. The changes clearly address the concerns raised by my hon. colleague's bill, which include: improved consistency through clear overall direction with respect to what departments must do and consider when introducing or amending charges; greater clarification of the objectives and requirements expected for meaningful consultations and that these consultations will be ongoing throughout the life of the charging program and not just at the inception of the charges; all programs with charges to have service standards; increased attention to monitoring user charging activities within departments; increased direction and emphasis on establishing and communicating dispute management mechanisms; and more open, clearly communicating information through enhanced annual reporting to Parliament and the public.
These are the reasons why I commend my hon. colleague's concern about improving the situation. I hope I have injected some of the reasons why the system we have now, while it can be improved and I hope it will be improved, is working quite well.