Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I want to thank the committee for inviting me to appear today as it undertakes consideration of the question of privilege referred to it by the House on November 29, 2010, regarding the premature disclosure of the draft pre-budget consultation report of the Standing Committee on Finance.
As I indicated in my ruling on this matter, it is unusual for the chair to involve itself in committee proceedings. However, the Standing Committee on Finance felt so strongly about the leak of its draft report that it took the rare step of reporting it to the House as a possible breach of privilege, unanimously believing that it merited further investigation.
As honourable members of the committee will know, the role of the Speaker when questions of privilege are raised is narrowly defined. As House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, states at page 141:
The function of the Speaker is limited to deciding whether the matter is of such a character as to entitle the Member who has raised the question to move a motion which will have priority over Orders of the Day; that is, in the Speaker's opinion, there is a prima facie question of privilege. If there is, the House must take the matter into immediate consideration. Ultimately, it is the House which decides whether a breach of privilege or a contempt has been committed.
This is precisely what has happened in this case. The Member for Outremont raised the question, I made a ruling, the House debated and agreed with the motion that was moved, and here we are with this committee seized of the matter.
I referred in my ruling to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, which is very clear about the confidential nature of committee reports. On page 1073 it states:
Committee reports must be presented to the House before they can be released to the public. Even when a report is concurred in at a public meeting, the report itself is considered confidential until it has actually been presented to the House. In addition, any disclosure of the contents of a report prior to presentation, either by Members or non-Members, may be judged to be a breach of privilege.
I went on to state on page 6560 of the House of Commons Debates that:
It is with good reason that draft committee reports are treated as confidential. To do otherwise might well prejudice the ability of committee members to engage in candid deliberations free from outside interference. Violation of this principle of confidentiality can thus be seen as direct interference with the ability of members to discharge their duties.
Confidentiality was clearly the overarching, institutional issue and its infringement was the primary reason for finding the matter prima facie.
Not so long ago, many committees had strict processes in place to protect the confidential nature of committee reports. For example, access to the draft reports was limited, copies were numbered and distributed at meetings only, and no copies were allowed to leave the room. Today, however, we've come to rely heavily on technological tools to distribute information. And while on the one hand they can facilitate our work and make us more efficient, on the other hand, they give us the ability to disseminate confidential information quickly and widely with the mere push of a button.
I do not believe it is realistic to think that it's possible to turn back the clock and return to past practices that do not harness the power of the tools that are at our disposal. As such, the real challenge for this committee, in my view, lies in developing recommendations that will facilitate the consideration of confidential documents within the context of the evolving technological environment. Whether this could be achieved through changes to the Standing Orders or whether it requires other changes in order to achieve this remains for this committee to decide.
The order of reference now before you offers the committee an excellent opportunity to investigate the larger issue of confidentiality and perhaps to recommend changes to our rules and our practices with a view to preventing this from happening again.
I would like to commend the Committee for its prompt attention to this matter, and would be pleased to answer any questions the Committee may have.