Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on this bill today, and with a lot of relief, in that the government seems to be in an even greater rush to pass this bill and has trampled right over our co-operation in this case.
I want to review the timing that we are dealing with. This legislation was introduced on December 11, 2012, just before the Christmas break, so unfortunately it could not be dealt with at second reading until we came back.
It was dealt with at second reading on February 12, 2013. Then it was sent to committee. At committee, the government moved a motion suggesting that we should deal with the committee and hear our witnesses within four weeks.
We in the NDP agreed to that motion. We accepted a motion to limit our time in committee and to bring this back to the House in a timely fashion, so it came back here on March 26.
The first day of debate was less than a week ago. What we intended to do on this side of the House was to point out our concerns about the bill, but not to hold up this bill unnecessarily.
What we got was two speakers on the bill before the government decided it was time for time allocation. No one had threatened to put up every single member on the opposition side to speak, but we did have members who wished to speak on the bill.
I did hear some of the minister's comments on the imposition of time allocation, and I frankly cannot understand them. He was saying that we did not move any amendments at committee and that therefore we must have nothing to say.
At committee, we agreed to a number of witnesses so that we could bring this bill back in good time, have the debate and pass it in a timely fashion. In a way, what I heard the minister saying is that when we try to co-operate on the bill, he is going to punish us for that as well by restricting debate in the House. The comments from the Minister of Public Safety were nonsensical.
The member for Crowfoot, the chair of the public safety committee, acknowledged in his very good speech that we worked together in committee to talk about the problems with the bill but that we had agreed that the bill had taken too long to get here. The NDP has been calling for action on the witness protection program since 2007.
We agreed not to go into an extensive process of disagreement over amendments and call a lot of other witnesses. We agreed to get this back here because we on this side of the House do believe that there are improvements in this bill sufficient to allow it to proceed.
It is hard for me to understand how the minister could say we have nothing to say when he has not heard us yet. It is one of those odd comments: “The opposition must have nothing to say about this bill; therefore, we will not let them speak.”
Before the session this morning, I was very privileged to speak to a group of young, very politically active gay students, organized by Jer's Vision. There were two members of Parliament there, and we were explaining to them that we would have to leave and come to the House in order to discuss and vote on a motion.
They asked what the motion was, and I have to say it was embarrassing to say to these students who are very involved in learning about politics and democracy that we were going to vote on cutting off debate for the 38th time.
The response from those students was, “But is it not your job as a representative to go there and speak? How can they suggest you should not have the right to go there and speak? Is it not your job to bring up criticism to the government? How can they say you should not have the opportunity to do that?”
It was clear that even those who are very new to the political process seem to have a basic understanding of what we are doing here in debates in the House of Commons, which is representing our constituents and bringing forward alternative points of view. It is not always about the technicalities of a piece of legislation. It is not always about amendments.
We heard the member for Newton—North Delta talking about the concerns in her riding, both with the Air India tragedy and with youth gangs and youth violence. She has a very important perspective to bring forward on this bill. It is not about amending the bill; it is about getting the public to understand the importance of the bill and the fact that on this side of the House we think there are further things we could do in this area.
Bill C-51 is not the be-all and end-all for witness protection; it is the beginning of some reforms that we need to make.
Again, it is very difficult to face, 38 times, a government that seems addicted to shortcuts. We have seen how taking those shortcuts has got the government into trouble on other things. Examples are the chief of staff to the Prime Minister and the Senate. It is not always a good idea to adopt the shortcuts.
However, here we are again. To me, that is what closure is, an attempt to shortcut the process and shortcut democracy. The government is saying, “We have a majority. We know what is best. We are just going to do it anyway, so you on the opposition side should be quiet, get out of the way and let us go.” The government does this even when we are co-operating to get the bill through this House of Commons in the best form possible.
It does not make any sense to me.
I do not mean to belittle or diminish the importance of the word “addiction”, because I know many people in our society have severe addiction problems, but it does seem like an addiction when it happens 38 times, 5 times in one week, and this week it even happened twice in one day. It seems like a solution in search of a problem. Everything that comes up has that same solution.
I have heard other members use that old adage, that when all one has is a hammer everything looks like a nail. However, it is not true in this House that the only thing the government has is closure. The Conservatives could actually come in and engage in debates and represent their constituents, and we could still get the public's business done in good time. So I am very disappointed that we have time allocation on this.
As the critic, I was travelling with the public safety committee last week. I almost did not get a chance to speak to the bill, and I am supposed to be the NDP's spokesperson on it. Only two speakers spoke. We had less than an hour and a half of debate in this chamber before time allocation was used again, for the 38th time.
Turning to the substance of the bill, I will talk first about why the NDP is supporting this bill, and then I will talk about what we see as the deficiencies in the bill.
First, as many members have noted, probably the easiest thing to understand is that the witness protection program, as it exists, has very narrow criteria for its admission, and it left out the important areas of national security. In an age when we are faced with the threat of terrorism and we are trying to combat that threat, being unable to offer witness protection to those in national security matters is an important gap in our legislation. Therefore, we on this side do support Bill C-51 because it would take that important step to allow the Department of National Defence and CSIS to recommend people to the witness protection program. This may be a very useful tool for those investigating and prosecuting terrorism cases. The other area in which I believe the criteria would be expanded is that it would explicitly allow the use of witness protection for those involved with gangs. Some members on the other side insist that this was always possible, but it certainly was not explicit. This legislation would provide that reassurance that we can use the witness protection program, which may be essential in cracking some gang activity.
The second aspect which is very positive and which has received much less attention is that it would provide better protection for those staff who are involved in the witness protection program in providing things like new identities. In particular, if witness protection is used, as it often is, in the case of organized crime, if members of organized crime are trying to find out what has happened to that witness, they may attempt, and have attempted, to learn who provided the new documents, and then place pressure on that public servant or that public servant's family in order to get access to the new name that was provided to someone and find out where he or she is. Therefore, this bill very clearly would provide additional protection to those other staff members outside the police who often facilitate the witness protection program, and that would be a very important improvement.
Third, one of the things we in the NDP have always been calling for is better co-operation and coordination of witness protection with the provinces. This bill would make it very clear and would remove some of those legal hurdles that made it difficult for the provinces to make use of witness protection. In particular, it made it difficult for those who, at the provincial level, wanted to use witness protection to get new documents quickly for those who needed a new identity for their protection. This bill would do a very good job in setting up the ability to designate provincial programs and would remove a lot of that red tape for co-operation between the two programs.
The fourth reason that I believe this bill is worth supporting is that it would extend the period provided for emergency protection for those who may need witness protection. This a formal program where people are assessed and their lives are completely reorganized. However, quite often there is an intervening period before they are formally in the program, when people may not even have yet given their testimony, when they need this protection. That originally was 90 days but it would now be 180 days. Given the delays in our justice system, it is very important that we expand the ability to have this emergency protection.
Why is the NDP providing support to a bill that it does not think is perfect? I have given four reasons at this point. They are the expanded criteria, the broader protection of staff working in witness protection, better coordination and the extended emergency period. We think that is enough to proceed with this bill and on that basis, we did agree to expedite the bill. We co-operated at committee and said yes, we can make our points in five meetings of the committee and we will do that.
However, we did not expect, in return for that co-operation, to have our ability to comment on the bill cut off at third reading through time allocation. If I had been dealing directly with the minister, I would have said it was a case of bad faith. However, I was dealing with the parliamentary secretary and the committee chair. I think they entered into that co-operation on good faith and they may, in fact, be as surprised as I am to find that time allocation was needed for a bill on which the opposition was co-operating.
What do we think is remaining that could have been in this bill? There are two things that I want to focus on. One of those was raised by the member for Newton—North Delta, and that was the recommendations of the Air India inquiry. At the end of the inquiry, Mr. Justice Major pointed to the very obvious thing that had happened, which was that one of his key witnesses in the inquiry had been assassinated. He was killed. Obviously, he could have been able to make use of the witness protection program, although knowing Mr. Hayer as I did, he was a very brave individual and I doubt he would have gone into the witness protection program. He had been threatened many times. He had also actually been physically harmed many times before he was eventually killed.
However, there were other witnesses, as Mr. Justice Major said, who would have gone into the witness protection program had it been available. This bill took that first step by expanding the criteria. What it did not do, which Mr. Justice Major recommended, was establish an independent authority, perhaps in the Ministry of Justice, but somewhere outside the RCMP, to determine the eligibility for entry into the witness protection program.
If we think for a minute, most people can figure out the problem here. The RCMP is doing the investigating of these cases. At the same time, it is the group that decides whether a person gets into the witness protection program. It creates an obvious conflict of interest when the investigators can dangle or hold out the acceptance or rejection from the witness protection program in front of the witness. Therefore, Mr. Justice Major's recommendation was that there be some independent agency within government, but not within the RCMP, that would make those decisions on witness protection. It did not have to be some completely separate agency.
We did not move amendments in that case, as we said, to expedite the bill, but also for a second reason. The RCMP recognized the spirit of that recommendation and it has now separated the decision of witness protection from the investigators. It is not a perfect solution, and we will see how it works, but going forward, the investigators will not make the decisions on the investigations. There will be a separate office within the RCMP Commissioner's office, which will make the decisions on acceptance into witness protection.
It is a step forward, but on this side, we think that when someone as distinguished as Mr. Justice Major makes a recommendation in a very critical area, we probably should have pursued it.
There are several other things that I could talk about, but I will only focus on a second one. That is the question of funding. This is not a budget bill, so we are not saying on the question of funding that the bill should have allocated x dollars to the witness protection program. However, I want to quote from the minister's statement when he introduced the bill, because it did raise a very big red flag. He said:
It is important to note that it is not anticipated that there would be any need for additional funding to accommodate this change. The program is currently funded by the RCMP from existing operational resources, and that will remain the same under Bill C-51.
That would be okay, except that it ignores one very large problem, which is that he is only talking about the witness protection program operated by the RCMP. When any other police force in the country uses the witness protection program, it is billed back for the entire cost of the program. If the provincial police in Quebec or Ontario or a municipal police force uses the witness protection program, it is going to get a bill.
Therefore, the witnesses we heard before committee were the RCMP's, saying that they did not have a problem with the budget and that they have never denied anyone using this program. However, we had some other witnesses, who the government ignored. I want to take a bit of time to mention one of those: the RCMP.
The RCMP website states, “There are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies.” The minister said that we have no problem with funding. The RCMP states that while it does not, other police forces do have problems with funding of the witness protection program.
We had a very persuasive witness who is the vice-chair of the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners. Her name is Micki Ruth. I want to take a moment to tell members what she had to say about this funding question. It is an extensive quote. I do not normally read extensive quotes in my speeches, but this is worth listening to.
Commissioner Ruth stated:
Like many issues facing government today, funding is one of the biggest and toughest ones to find solutions for. The problems identified back in 2007 with the adequacy of funding for the current witness protection program are not addressed in Bill C-51. Unfortunately, we see problems with the ability of municipality police [forces] to adequately access witness protection because they lack the resources.
I want to emphasize that while we [the Canadian Association of Police Boards] 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. This is an important element of our work on the economics of policing, a subject with which you are already very familiar.
Therefore we urge you to appreciate our position that unless the issue of adequate funding is addressed, the legislation will not produce the result that is intended.
That important testimony that we heard at committee contradicts what the minister had to say when he introduced the legislation. It draws attention to the fact that not just small police forces but police forces in Halifax, Toronto or Victoria, my own community, do often face this tough question. Could they make progress in a very serious investigation by using the witness protection program? We would need a big bill. Can they really afford to take on organized crime and gang crime in their community if they would get several hundred thousand dollars billed back? There is no mistake about it. The witness protection program is not a one-time cost. It is an ongoing cost for those police departments. They do not just get one bill. As long as those witnesses are in witness protection, they will get bills for any of the costs associated with that. The initial costs are high and the ongoing costs are lower. Nevertheless, it is something they have to think about when making a decision on what kind of crimes they can successfully investigate in their community.
When the minister, in imposing time allocation, said that we had nothing to say, I am afraid what he meant was that he was afraid of what we might say if we had the chance to debate the bill.
The minister said at committee that no concerns were raised. With due respect, the minister was not present at all the committee sessions and seems to have a faulty memory because when he did appear at committee we did ask him about these concerns. These concerns were raised at committee. Therefore, if he does not have a faulty memory, then perhaps he has a selective memory about what happened in committee with respect to this bill.
It is frustrating for the opposition when we say to the government that we are prepared to work with it and try to get a bill through in an expeditious manner to then have the minister stand up in the House and say that somehow we are dragging our feet and that we are ragging the puck on the bill when what we want to do is make the public aware of the issues that remain outstanding.
We will be supporting the bill and will work to move it through Parliament, not instantly and not without debate but in an expeditious manner. The bill will have been passed in very few months. Had the government introduced it earlier in the term it would already be enacted. However, for some reason, even though it was aware of the concerns from 2007, it only brought the legislation forward just before the Christmas break of 2012. Therefore, if anyone is responsible for delays in getting this bill passed and getting these important improvements made to the witness protection program, unfortunately it is the government that will have to take responsibility for that.