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.