Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity once again today to address the House on Bill C-22, legislation that will at long last establish a parliamentary body to scrutinize the work of all our national security and intelligence agencies. This is something that has been called for by parliamentarians, academics, other experts, commissions of inquiry, by the Auditor General, and many others, going back for more than a decade.
The committee that will be created by this bill is key to our efforts in ensuring that our national security framework keeps us safe while protecting our rights and freedoms.
When the initial version of this legislation was introduced last June, experts such as Professor Craig Forcese from the University of Ottawa noted that it would put in place “a stronger body than the UK and Australian equivalents”, and that it would be “a dramatic change for Canadian national security accountability”. Since then, the public safety standing committee of this House has studied the bill extensively and proposed a number of amendments. I thank the committee for its work and support many of its amendments to help ensure that the mandate, authorities, and access of the new national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians will be extensive, effective, and appropriate.
Let me pause here to note that the title of this new entity is quite a mouthful, so during my remarks today, to save time, I may well use the acronym NSICOP.
With respect to the amendments that have been proposed by members of Parliament, the government has agreed to add a whistle-blower clause in clause 31 of the bill, requiring the committee to inform the appropriate minister, as well as the attorney general, if it uncovers any activity that may not be in compliance with the law. We also agree on a change that would restrict the chair of the committee to voting only in the event of a tie rather than having the chair vote as a matter of course.
We agree on amendments that would deal with the NSICOP's annual reports. MPs on all sides of the House have concluded that the Prime Minister should have the authority to redact certain sections of those annual reports if necessary, to safeguard vital national security interests or solicitor-client privilege. However, it would be mandatory for these reports to indicate the extent of and the reason for any such redactions. This is a reasonable and responsible approach, and I thank committee members for putting it forward. In essence, it mirrors the practice in the United Kingdom.
We are also agreed on amendments to the section dealing with NSICOP's mandate. Accordingly, the authority of a minister to determine that an examination would be injurious to national security and therefore fall outside the mandate of the committee would apply only to ongoing operations. What is more, the minister would have to explain that determination to the committee, and would be bound to alert the committee as soon as the determination changes or as soon as the operation is no longer ongoing.
We are also supporting several big amendments to clause 14, which is the section that lists the type of information to which the NSICOP would not have access. We have removed from this exclusions list, information about ongoing defence intelligence activities supporting military operations, privileged information under the Investment Canada Act, and information collected by the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada. All of these areas would have been excluded from NSICOP under the initial version of the bill. Those three blanket exclusions are now gone.
As we can see, the legislative process on Bill C-22 has been unfolding in a constructive manner. The government put forward a bill, the bill was studied in committee, amendments were proposed, and the government, after careful reflection, has agreed to accept a majority of what the standing committee requested. However, in all fairness and candour, there are also certain points on which we disagree with the committee, which is why the government House leader introduced amendments at report stage on Bill C-22.
For one thing, the government sincerely believes that giving blanket access to information about the personal identity of human intelligence sources and people in witness protection, as well as ongoing police investigations, is wrong. It could put lives at risk.
Certainly I do not expect parliamentarians to be indiscreet with this kind of information, but the risk grows each time we widen the circle of those who know the identity of a protected witness or intelligence source. The NSICOP is certainly able to do its job of scrutinizing the work of security and intelligence agencies without personally identifying individual protected witnesses or sources.
With respect to ongoing police investigations, I have two primary concerns. One is the simple importance of avoiding the perception of political interference in criminal investigations, which could appear from having politicians oversee police work in real time. The other is the potentially harmful impact of requiring law enforcement to divert resources from operations on the ground in order to keep parliamentarians apprised of their work while that work is actually happening.
On this point, the CSIS director gave the standing committee the very good example of last year's police operation in Strathroy, Ontario, in which a possible terrorist attack was effectively thwarted. In that kind of fast-paced, resource-intensive situation, requiring resources to be assigned to send information to the committee of parliamentarians “would have been a distraction from the operation in progress” and could have constituted a public safety risk.
We are also proposing to reinsert clause 16, which allows a minister to determine that certain information, narrowly defined, should be withheld from NSICOP on security grounds. I would point out that this is entirely in keeping with the way that these kinds of committees work in other countries, in the U.K., New Zealand, and Australia specifically.
In the U.K., for example, a minister may prevent information from being shared with the committee on the grounds that it is too sensitive and should not be disclosed.
In New Zealand, a witness may decline to provide information on the grounds that it is sensitive and that disclosing it would not be in the national interest, and then it is up to the prime minister to overrule the witness and force disclosure. Incidentally, in New Zealand, it is the prime minister who chairs the committee.
In Australia, ministers can issue certificates preventing witnesses from giving evidence to prevent disclosure of “operationally sensitive information”.
Therefore, as members can see, clause 16, as we have proposed, is very consistent with the best practices of our allies. Their ability to share information with Canada could be jeopardized without clause 16.
However, in other ways the NSICOP to be created by Bill C-22 would go well beyond the scope that exists in other countries. The British committee requires a memorandum of understanding with the prime minister in order to examine anything beyond the work of three specific agencies: MI5, Ml6, and GCHQ. In Australia, the committee is limited to conducting statutory reviews of legislation and examining the administration and expenditures of particular agencies. A parliamentary resolution or ministerial referral is required for the Australian committee to even look at any other issues related to those agencies. The Canadian committee, by contrast, would be able to look at any activity carried out by any government department or agency that relates to national security and intelligence, and it would be able to follow the trail throughout the federal government. That is a far broader scope than exists in most other countries.
In other words, the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians created by Bill C-22 would have more access and more teeth than its counterparts elsewhere in the world. That was true even before the amendments made by the House standing committee, most of which the government is accepting, and it is certainly more true with those amendments now in place.
Finally, with the passage of Bill C-22 we will fix an anomaly in our security architecture and have a form of parliamentary scrutiny that this country deserves.