Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise and speak in support of Bill , the safer witnesses act.
At the onset, I was going to thank the opposition members because up until this point they have been supporting this very important piece of legislation. However, it is very disappointing to see the games that we have just witnessed and their delay tactics in trying to stop this important piece of legislation from being advanced.
It is important that witnesses be protected. It is important that police officers and front-line officers be protected. That is why we have brought forward this legislation, and it is very disappointing and troubling to see the opposition members delay this important legislation as they have been doing.
Strengthening our federal witness protection program should not be a partisan issue. Rather, it is an issue of public safety and effective justice.
In general, we are all in agreement on the critical role that witness protection plays in our criminal justice system. I believe that most Canadians understand that in order to give our police and courts the best chance to apprehend and convict offenders, we need individuals to feel confident in moving forward to help with investigations. In fact, protecting witnesses is vital to our justice system. These are individuals who have agreed to help law enforcement or provide testimony in criminal matters. Their input and help is vital.
The end goal is to remove criminals from our streets and indeed make our communities safer. In many cases, these individuals have inside knowledge about organized crime syndicates or the illicit drug trade because they themselves are involved in these elements. The information that they have agreed to provide to authorities may be invaluable, and it could place their lives at risk.
Witness protection is recognized around the world as an important tool that law enforcement agencies have at their disposal to combat criminal activity. In the case of organized crime in particular, these witnesses are often the key component to achieving convictions. To ensure a fair and effective response to organized crime, terrorism and other serious crimes, government and police agencies must provide protection to informants and witnesses who could face intimidation, violence or reprisals. The safer witnesses act contains a number of proposed changes to the Witness Protection Program Act that would do just this.
These changes fall within five broad areas, and I will speak on those areas.
First, the bill would promote greater integration between the provincial and federal programs by enabling the provinces to have their respective programs designated under the federal act. There would be some very positive benefits to the provinces' programs with these changes, but chief among those benefits is that the provincial protectees would be able to receive a secure identity change without having to be admitted to the federal program. As members know, under the current system, provincial witness protection programs provide a range of services on a case by case basis, including short-term protection and limited financial support. In cases where it is determined that provincial protectees require secure identity changes, they must be transferred into the federal program. That is the way the process works now. This can cause delays. It can be very difficult for these individuals to get the documentation they need and it can take a very long time.
As we consulted with stakeholders, these problems were identified and it was deemed necessary to make these changes that are proposed in Bill to address this concern. Stakeholders from the provinces indicated that the requirement to transfer their protectees to the federal program for secure identity changes was cumbersome and time consuming. With Bill C-51, we would address this concern. We would do that by allowing the to designate a provincial program, thereby allowing the RCMP to work directly with that designated program to help obtain secure federal identity documents for a protectee. Again this would eliminate a lot of red tape and process, and instead ensure that these individuals who are under the witness protection program receive the identity documents that they need in a timely manner. We would also provide a more efficient and secure process for obtaining these documents by identifying a single point of contact for each designated provincial witness protection program, again eliminating red tape and redundancy, making the process proceed in a more timely manner.
The second change under Bill relates to secure identity changes as well. Federal organizations would be required to help the RCMP obtain secure identity changes for witnesses in both the federal program and in designated provincial programs.
To ensure a streamlined process, the RCMP would continue to act as a liaison between the provincial and federal programs. Again, it would be a better and more streamlined way to get the important identity documents that witnesses who are under the protection program require.
Third, Bill would broaden prohibition disclosures, ensuring protection of provincial witnesses and information at both the federal and provincial levels. Again, it is a very important change that has been needed. We heard about it at committee many times in consultation with stakeholders. We heard that broadening the prohibitions of information that could be released was an important part of the witness program that had to be changed. This change addresses calls by the provinces to ensure that witnesses in their programs are protected from disclosure of prohibited information throughout Canada. I will speak more to this important change in a moment, because it really is a very critical part of the bill.
The fourth change proposed under the safer witnesses act is to expand which entities are able to refer individuals to the commissioner of the RCMP to be considered for admission into the federal program. Currently, only law enforcement agencies and international criminal tribunals can make such referrals. Bill would allow federal organizations that have a mandate related to national security, defence, or public safety to refer witnesses to the federal program. These organizations may include CSIS and the Department of National Defence. This was a recommendation that came out of the Air India enquiry and the recommendation that who would be allowed or considered for this program be expanded. Our government responded by making these changes and by introducing Bill C-51.
We feel it is so important that bill is passed, and we really hope that the opposition will stop playing any kind of games and work with us to get this important piece through. They are laughing, but it is really not a laughing matter at all, not when we are talking about protecting witnesses, which, in the long run, protects Canadians. We are talking about gangs, drugs and organized crime. It is not a laughing matter at all. It is very serious.
The bill addresses a number of other concerns raised by federal and provincial stakeholders, such as allowing for voluntary termination from the federal program and extending emergency protection to a maximum of 180 days, up from the current 90 days. Right now, under the current legislation, someone could be under an emergency protection order for 90 days, but we want to extend that so that they could be protected in an emergency situation for up to 180 days. This received broad support from the witnesses as well as stakeholders.
Together, these proposed changes would serve to strengthen the current Witness Protection Program Act, making the federal program more effective and secure for both the witnesses and those who provide protection. This is the goal of the program, to keep those involved and their information safe and secure.
As I mentioned, I want to go back to one of the changes that is related to the disclosure prohibitions. Before I go into that, I want to say that we heard in testimony, whether it was from the police, Tom Stamatakis of the Canadian Police Association, or other law enforcement agencies, that the protections required are certainly not just for the witnesses who are involved in the witness protection program. We are extending that to cover the law enforcement people who have been organizing and working with them. These are sometimes undercover police officers or other law enforcement individuals who currently are not protected under the prohibitions for information. Bill would give front-line officers and law enforcement workers the protection that they need. Again, the Canadian Police Association is very grateful and supportive of this legislation.
Currently, the act prohibits the disclosure of information about the location or change of identity of a current or former federal protectee. That is basically the only current prohibition. In stakeholder consultations, some provinces requested that these disclosure prohibitions be extended to include information about provincial witness protection programs and those they protect. The safer witnesses act addresses this concern with changes that would broaden the prohibitions on disclosing information in a number of ways.
We are going to extend and broaden what kind of information cannot be released. I think all Canadians, including all members, would agree that when someone's identity needs to be protected, there are so many pieces of information that, unfortunately, could tip off somebody who would want to do them harm. Therefore, it is very important that we broaden the information that is prohibited from being released.
First, the safer witnesses act would prohibit the disclosure of information related to the individuals who are protected under designated programs, and we are going to expand it to designated provincial programs.
Second, it would prohibit the disclosure of any means or method of protection that could endanger the protected individual or the integrity of the programs themselves. Again, that broadens it. The language is within jurisprudence and other language in the Criminal Code. This includes information about the methods used to provide or support protection and record or exchange confidential information as well as data about the location of secure facilities.
Third, it would prohibit disclosure of any information about the identity or role of persons who provide, or assist in providing, protection for the witnesses. That is where law enforcement comes into play. Part of their job is to assist and protect witnesses. They need to be protected too. That is why the bill is so vital and why law enforcement and stakeholders across the country have been asking for it and why it is important that we pass the bill.
Further, the bill would clarify language in the current act to ensure that these measures apply to situations where a person directly or indirectly discloses information. I want to stress that the bill also specifies that one must knowingly reveal this information for it to be an offence. This means directly and intentionally releasing information with the knowledge that one is releasing information that is prohibited. The bill specifies that if someone does it unknowingly, it would not be an offence.
As with many laws regulating privacy and personal information, there are exceptions to these disclosure prohibitions. Bill includes changes that would further strengthen the legislation in this regard. For example, as stated in the current act, a protectee or former protectee can disclose information about him or herself as long as it does not endanger the life of another protectee or former protectee and if it does not compromise the integrity of this important program. Under Bill C-51, the wording would be changed to remove the reference to the integrity of the program and to clarify that the protected person can disclose information if it could not lead to substantial harm to any protected person.
The current act also allows for disclosure of prohibited information by the RCMP commissioner for a variety of reasons: if the protected person gives his or her consent; if the protectee or former protectee has already disclosed the information or acted in a manner that results in disclosure; if the disclosure is essential to the public interest for purposes such as investigations or the prevention of a serious crime, national security or national defence; and finally, in criminal proceedings where the disclosure is necessary to establish the innocence of a person. There are some good safeguards in place regarding the prohibition of information.
Under the safer witnesses act, we would change the wording as it relates to the RCMP commissioner disclosing prohibited information for the public interest. Instead, under Bill , the commissioner may only disclose this information when he or she has reasonable grounds to believe that it is essential for the purposes of the administration of justice. Furthermore, we propose a change in the wording related to disclosure for national security purposes. Under Bill C-51, the commissioner could disclose prohibited information if he or she “has reasonable grounds to believe that the disclosure is essential for...national security or national defence”.
Along the same vein, Bill contains several proposed changes that would authorize the RCMP commissioner to disclose information in specific situations. He or she could disclose information about both federal and designated program protected persons for the purpose of providing protection to federal protectees or for facilitating a secure change of identity for provincial protectees. The commissioner would also be able to disclose information about federal and designated program protectees in situations where a protected person either agrees to the disclosure or has previously disclosed information, such as if the protected person has revealed his or her change of identity to family or friends. Again, some of the same safeguards are in place.
Additionally, the commissioner would be authorized to disclose information about the federal program itself, methods of protection and the role of a person who provides protection under the program. This would only be done when the commissioner had reasonable grounds to believe that the disclosure was essential for the administration of justice, national security, national defence or public safety.
This is a good and concise overview of those elements of Bill that relate to safeguarding and disclosing information that would compromise the safety of a protected witness or those who provide protection for that witness.
I would like to close by taking a few minutes to talk about some concerns raised in committee. We heard some concerns from the opposition that this would mean rising costs. However, we heard directly from witnesses, including the RCMP, the , the Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP and other stakeholders that rising costs were not anticipated.
We also heard some concern that there would be a great influx of witnesses coming into the federal program. Again, witnesses and experts told us that the prediction was that there would not be a great influx. The number of witnesses accepted into the program fluctuates from year to year, but a huge number coming in now is not anticipated. Admission to the program is based on a set of criteria found under section 7 of the act. Only one of those is cost.
Todd Shean, the RCMP Assistant Commissioner, stated, in his committee testimony, “since my time in the chair, never have I denied an entry because of costs”. Therefore, we were able to clear up the concerns some opposition members had. It was clear that no witness has ever been denied access to the program because of cost. Costs are not expected to rise under this new legislation.
Regarding who would be administering the program, there were some concerns about whether it should be the RCMP. There were some recommendations that it could fall under the Department of Justice. We looked at this recommendation and conducted extensive consultations. It was determined that the RCMP was best suited to managing the program.
There would be a clear distinction between investigative and protective functions to ensure objectivity with respect to witness protection measures, so there would be two separate organizations within the RCMP. One would manage the actual witness protection program and decide who should be involved in it, and one would be the administrative part, which would be completely separate.
As I said at the outset, a strong federal witness protection program is critical to keeping our law enforcement and justice systems working effectively. We need to take these steps to ensure that individuals are protected and that our communities are safe. That is why our government is committed to strengthening our federal witness protection program. That is why we are committed to doing this to address the threat of organized crime and drugs in our communities and to make sure that informants and witnesses can collaborate with law enforcement. As such, it is vital that we pass this piece of legislation in a timely way so that it can become law and we can give law enforcement organizations the tools they need to keep Canadians safe.
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for , who works very hard to serve his constituents.
I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to Bill at third reading. This bill contains measures that have been long called for by the NDP. Among other things, it will: expand the eligibility criteria for informants and witnesses; extend the duration of emergency protection; and speed up the process for obtaining new pieces of identification. Those are all good things.
The Witness Protection Program Act, passed in 1996, sorely needed to be strengthened. In fact, we have been insistently calling for better coordination of federal and provincial programs and improved overall program funding since 2007.
Even though we support the bill because we believe that it will further improve the program, we still deplore the fact that the Conservative government refused to provide additional funding for the program, knowing that the announced changes may well increase the number of beneficiaries, which will certainly increase the financial burden on municipalities and police services, because of the downloading of costs.
At the committee hearings, some witnesses expressed their fears in this regard. On March 7, 2013, a commissioner with the Canadian Association of Police Boards said:
...we see problems with the ability of municipality police services to adequately access witness protection because they lack the resources... I want to emphasize that, while we support the intent of Bill C-51, CAPB has a duty to its members to ensure that legislation passed by the government does not result in a downloading of additional costs to the municipal police services that we represent.
It is important to provide the resources needed to implement our changes. When a new piece of legislation has an impact on criminal justice, we must always look at the costs and budgetary implications. Our police officers look after the well-being of Canadians every day by protecting them without their even realizing it. It is our duty to give them the tools they need to do their jobs. I need to say this.
To combat organized crime, it is obviously necessary to update and modernize our laws. That is what Bill does. Doing undercover work in the underworld is complicated, time-consuming and dangerous. The police need informers and informants if they are to infiltrate criminal organizations.
Bill C-51 improves protection for witnesses and informants who help the police, and it also improves the ability to make use of these sources of information. This is important. We want those who combat street gangs to know that giving gang members who want to leave the gang access to the program will be an important additional tool to help them eliminate the problem.
Organized crime is growing with alarming speed in Canada, particularly in Quebec, where my riding is located.
Through this support, the NDP is committed to building safer communities. One way of doing this is to improve the witness protection program to ensure that our constituents can live in safe neighbourhoods and cities and to provide the various police forces with additional tools to combat street gangs and organized crime. It might also provide added protection for our police officers.
Needless to say, the more information is available to the police, the better they will be able to do their jobs and the better they will be protected.
The federal witness protection program has long been criticized because of its strict eligibility criteria, its poor coordination with federal programs and the small number of witnesses admitted to the program. Furthermore, only 30 of the 108 applications examined were approved in 2012.
Since the Witness Protection Program Act was passed in 1996, the Liberal and Conservative governments have done very little to respond to criticism of the system, even though a number of bills have been introduced in the House of Commons to deal with some parts of the protection program, including the protection of witnesses in cases of family violence, which was supported by the NDP, but rejected by the Liberal government of the day. The basic issues of eligibility, coordination and funding have never been addressed.
That is why this bill is essentially positive. We hope that the Conservatives will offer the support that local police organizations need to ensure that witnesses will come forward in matters such as street gangs. The safety and welfare of the whole population is at stake. The more informants feel that they are protected, the more likely they will be to come forward and work with the police. We will give these people a real chance to change their lives and contribute to the well-being of their families and the community by attempting, through the information they provide, to rein in and perhaps even eliminate street gangs.
The government is responsible for giving people the tools they need to achieve their full potential. However, we need to be able to act upon our convictions. I want to reiterate that additional funds would have enabled municipal police forces to do more. I nevertheless maintain that the witness protection program is often an essential tool for encouraging people to work with the police.
We recognize that the bill is proposing significant improvements and a better process for supporting provincial witness protection programs. The bill would broaden the scope of the program to include national security agencies. That is another good thing.
Our view is that strengthening the witness protection program will improve public safety and help the various police forces to combat violence. It is therefore because of my desire for change that I endorse Bill and give my full support to all the police officers in my riding who help to make the towns and cities in Pontiac safer.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate my hon. colleague from on his excellent speech.
Bill , would amend and update the witness protection program. Many people familiar with the system have been saying for a long time that it needs to be expanded and modernized.
On the other hand, the task is not an easy one, given the enormous changes that have occurred in computer espionage technology and the inexhaustible ways of obtaining information about people today. Just think of how many times a scandal has come to light where information was obtained more or less legally or a document containing information was lost. Similar things can happen when the time comes to protect witnesses in extremely important trials like the Air India trial.
We must not forget that criminal organizations are highly skilled at making arrangements to infiltrate various government and public agencies. Once again, how many times have we heard about a person who obtained information or managed to get their hands on a hard drive or CD containing encrypted information?
In the course of the fiscal year ending in March 2012, the federal witness protection program accepted only 30 applications out of 108, at a cost of just over $9 million. That is only 30% or 40% of applicants.
Once again, families and various players in the system have been saying for a long time that the program needs to be expanded because there are trials under way that cannot be completed because of a shortage of information and evidence.
For instance, in Quebec, evidence against criminal gangs is difficult to obtain because there are so many friends and family members. It is extremely difficult. As its short title indicates, the bill therefore redefines several provisions to make witnesses safer.
For example, it provides for the designation of a provincial or municipal witness protection program. It authorizes the RCMP commissioner to coordinate, at the request of an official of a provincial or municipal program, the activities of federal departments, agencies and services in order to facilitate a change of identity for persons admitted to the designated program.
This is extremely important, because when someone's identity is changed or a witness is assigned to a location, the municipality and province in question are responsible for that person and also for that person’s protection.
The bill adds prohibitions on the disclosure of information relating to persons admitted to provincial and municipal programs, to the means and methods by which witnesses are protected and to persons who provide or assist in providing protection.
Even RCMP and Quebec provincial police officers have told us that they or members of their family involved in the program are at risk. The program therefore needs to be broadened to ensure that everyone is protected.
The bill will also specify the circumstances under which disclosure of certain protected information is permitted. It exempts a person from any liability or other punishment for stating that they do not provide or assist in providing protection to witnesses or that they do not know that a person is protected under the program. It also expands the category of witnesses who may be admitted to the federal witness protection program to include persons who assist federal departments, agencies or services. This is extremely important.
It allows witnesses in the witness protection program to end their protection voluntarily. The testimony suggests that people sometimes ask to end their protection. They say everything is okay, that there is no problem. However, there were still some reservations about that.
The reverse is also being proposed, namely to extend the period during which protection may, in an emergency, be provided to a person who has not been admitted to the federal program or who would like to put an end to it in a situation where the federal program comes to an end. Finally, it also proposes to make a consequential amendment to another act, namely the Access to Information Act.
Bill proposes a better process to support provincial witness protection programs and expands the program to other agencies with national security responsibilities. This could mean a department, a municipality or an agency. They really need the support.
The bill will expand the protection program eligibility criteria by including street gang members and by accepting a new group of people who assist federal departments. Federal departments and agencies with a mandate related to national security, national defence or public safety would also be able to refer witnesses to the program.
The bill would extend the period for emergency protection, as I was saying, and clear up some of the technical problems that were occurring in relation to coordination with provincial programs. This is extremely important, because the lack of coordination between the stakeholders at the provincial, federal and municipal levels, especially in large municipalities such as Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, was causing serious problems.
There are also a few other changes, but there is one in particular that I find worth mentioning, specifically the change to the definition of “protection”. This definition would be replaced by the following in clause 3 of the bill:
...protection may include relocation, accommodation and change of identity [which is quite legitimate] as well as counselling and financial support for those or any other purposes in order to ensure the security of a person or to facilitate the person’s re-establishment or becoming self-sufficient.
This is extremely important. When you change someone's identity or place them in the protection program, at some point they will have to integrate into society and resume living their lives. This paragraph alone may have more financial implications than one might think.
What about loved ones? This is not clearly defined. It is one of the questions that remain to be answered. The loved ones of witnesses in the protection program are not clearly defined, if they are defined at all. Are they the immediate family, or more distant relatives? Are the gang members still considered loved ones? There is no way to be sure.
If the Conservatives truly want to improve the witness protection program, they should commit the money needed to implement the measure. They should also truly want to protect everyone involved in the program, including the officers, as I already mentioned. Officers have told me that when they participate in witness protection programs, their loved ones can sometimes be in danger. That is important to keep in mind.
Bill makes enough positive changes that we will support it at third reading. I think that everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, agrees with expanding eligibility for the witness protection program.
Authorities who work on combatting street gangs say that it would be an improvement and would help them do their job if gang members who are trying to leave that lifestyle could have access to the program.
However, there is one thing we must never forget. People are what matter to the NDP. Everything we do, we do for the people of Canada. We are committed to building safer communities and neighbourhoods for seniors and the general public, so that everyone feels comfortable being out and about in this country.
We can also improve the witness protection program by bringing peace and justice to our neighbourhoods. We can do so by giving federal, provincial and municipal police forces the additional tools they need to combat street gangs and organized crime groups, which are becoming increasingly better equipped in terms of technology and information, as I mentioned.
The government has cut nearly $190 million from the RCMP and over $140 million from the Canada Border Services Agency. The government will not create a free and peaceful Canada by making cuts to our police forces and to public safety.
Mr. Speaker, to start, I would like to read an excerpt from the Library of Parliament's legislative summary of Bill . I think that this excerpt provides a good summary of the purpose of the federal witness protection program.
Protecting witnesses against intimidation, violence or retaliation is crucial to maintaining the rule of law. The experts agree that without effective measures to protect vulnerable witnesses and their families, many would be reluctant to cooperate with the authorities.
The federal witness protection program is a key tool in the fight against organized crime. When a person testifies about the activities of a group with which he was once associated, some members of that group may hold it against him. The program is therefore an effective tool in the fight against organized crime.
I would also like to commend the police and peace officers who work in the witness protection program. They do extremely dangerous and difficult work. These police officers often have to live a shadowy existence and lead parallel lives. A witness told us that he sometimes had to rent an apartment for himself because he could not work from his own home where his family lived. He had to stay away from his family to do his work. We must therefore commend these peace officers who are doing a great service for Canadians and our society.
This bill will allow us to expand the witness protection program and make it more effective in the fight against terrorism. It does not seem as though anyone mentioned this in the speeches that I heard. To date, witnesses of terrorist acts or potential terrorist acts do not benefit from the protection offered by this program. We therefore expanded the scope of the program, which is a good thing.
It is important that the federal witness protection program be as efficient as possible in terms of streamlining and expediting the process of admission to the program.
Some provinces and municipalities also operate witness protection programs, so it is not just the federal RCMP. These provincial and municipal programs must co-operate with the federal government in order to have witnesses' identities changed, for example. Those programs would have to deal with Passport Canada and perhaps Human Resources and Skills Development Canada to get social insurance numbers changed and so on and so forth.
Up until this point, the problem has been that if a provincial program identified a witness it wanted protected, it would have to not only accept that the individual should be protected, meaning that the person would essentially be applying to the provincial or municipal program, but that if the person was admitted, the provincial or municipal program would then have to go to the RCMP and ask for admission to the federal witness protection program. Only once the admission was accepted would the paperwork get done that would allow the person to assume a new identity and a new personal history, if one may put it that way.
As a result of this bill, that would not be the case anymore. There would be designated provincial and municipal witness protection programs, and once the witness would be accepted in that designated program, that witness would not have to apply to the RCMP federal program. He or she would simply be able to get the paperwork done by having been admitted to the provincial and municipal program. This is a step forward. This is a step toward making the system more timely, because in these matters we know that time is of the essence.
Speaking of time, the bill would also extend the period during which a potential candidate for the witness protection program can receive emergency protection. It is a very difficult decision to decide to go into the witness protection program. It requires a lot of thought and consultation with family members and so on. Up until now, candidates for witness protection could get some kind of witness protection for 90 days while they made up their mind about whether they wanted to go through with this major step. Now, as a result of Bill , people would have the possibility of a 90-day extension, which would take the emergency protection to a maximum of 180 days. That is a very practical change.
As I said before, the bill modernizes witness protection to assist in the fight against terrorism. The fight against terrorism is an ongoing process of updating the relevant public security tools at our disposal in order to adapt them to the needs of this not-so-new yet ever-evolving challenge.
Witness protection is one area where changes were recommended most notably by the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182. The commission found that the federal witness protection program “is not fully attuned to the needs of sources and witnesses in terrorism investigations and prosecutions”. The report concluded that CSIS, for example, should have access to programs to protect vulnerable witnesses and sources. The report also concluded that the federal witness protection program is too rigid and is based on the assumption that most sources and witnesses have criminal backgrounds.
In a terrorism case, it would be very likely that a witness would not have a criminal background and as a result would not be admissible to the program and would therefore essentially be discouraged from handing over information that could stop a terrorist incident. It is very important that the concept of witness protection be broadened to include not necessarily people who were involved in a crime but people who were witnesses to, say, a terrorist plot. That was the recommendation by the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182. That was the second recommendation.
It is interesting to point out that the bill passed a report stage vote 200 and some votes to none. It obviously is clear that all parties in the House support strengthening the witness protection program.
I should also mention that there were no amendments adopted at committee. That says something as well. It says that this is a non-controversial bill, that it is more of an administrative or procedural enhancement kind of bill. It was quite obvious what needed to be done, and it has been done.
Again, this points to the fact that this is really a technical matter, and I am not sure that it really warrants the kind of partisan debate that we have witnessed so far this afternoon, but so be it.
There are other changes that have been recommended to the witness protection program that are not in the bill, but that we were told the government would implement outside of the bill. There are three particular improvements that have been recommended to the witness protection program: one, separating investigations and decisions about admission to the federal witness protection program; two, offering legal counsel to those negotiating entry into the program; and three, offering psychological assessments to program candidates.
In 2008, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security recommended that a clear operational distinction be made between the investigations and prosecutions function of law enforcement on the one hand, and the decision-making function for admitting a candidate to the federal witness protection program on the other, making “it plain [to the candidate for witness protection] that protection is not a reward for cooperating with the authorities”.
Until now, basically it was the same group within the RCMP that was providing protection, but also making the decision about whether the witness should be admitted to the program. One can understand that would put certain individuals in the RCMP in a bit of a contradictory situation or a potential conflict of interest situation. Therefore, it was recommended by the House of Commons committee in 2008 that a separate department be created to make the decision about whether somebody should be admitted to the witness protection program, separate from the RCMP whose main function and concern would be to provide protection. That was not done. A separate agency was not created, but we got assurances from the minister and the government that these two functions would from now on be separate within the RCMP, and that is a very good thing.
The second item was not in the bill but it is germane obviously to the witness protection program going forward. Negotiating entry into the program is a complex matter, as is negotiating a contract with the RCMP for witness protection. Therefore, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, in 2008, recommended offering candidates the aid of legal counsel during the signing of protection contracts to increase the likelihood of fair and equitable negotiations. Again that is not in the law, but something the government has committed to do.
On the third item, as I mentioned, entering a witness protection program is not an easy decision. It is not easy to live the rest of one's days under a new name, identity and personal history. In recognition of these pressures, which can lead some people who enter the federal witness protection program to voluntarily terminate their participation in the program down the road, the government would now apparently be offering candidates for the program psychological assessments to determine if they are likely to remain in a program over the long term. This would be a very constructive change and new way of doing things that would reduce the likelihood that someone would enter the program and then leave it. It is worth noting that the provision of psychological assessments was a recommendation of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security when it did its review of the witness protection program in 2008.
There has been talk about how the program may need additional funding. It is true, the RCMP did say that lack of funding would never lead them to refuse a candidate for witness protection and I believe that. However, the funding issue is not really about that. It is a little more complex and it bears mentioning.
We did have one witness who came to the committee and spoke to the funding issue. Micki Ruth, of the Canadian Association of Police Boards, appearing before the committee, highlighted the fact that the RCMP can charge back to municipal police forces the costs of witness protection. To quote Ms. Ruth:
Currently, when a municipality does make use of a provincial witness protection program and the crime is federal in nature or involves drugs, then the RCMP takes over and charges the local police services the full cost, which is an expense that many services cannot afford.