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Conservative House Leader John Baird speaks in the House of Commons on Feb. 17, 2011. Mr. Baird released cost projections for a number of crime bills. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Conservative House Leader John Baird speaks in the House of Commons on Feb. 17, 2011. Mr. Baird released cost projections for a number of crime bills. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Opposition demands 'real facts, real figures' on justice bills Add to ...

Conservative House Leader John Baird has released cost projections for a number of crime bills, a defensive move aimed at stifling one of the attempts by opposition MPs to have the government found in contempt of Parliament.

The sparse three pages of documents made public on Thursday by Mr. Baird suggest that 11 of the 18 justice bills being debated by MPs and senators come with a combined price tag of about $650-million over five years.

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Liberal MP Scott Brison, with the support of the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois, had asked Speaker of the House Peter Milliken to rule that Parliament's right to know the cost attached to the bills outweighs the need to protect cabinet secrets - one of the reasons given for withholding the numbers.

"Look at what they asked for and that's what we answered, which is appropriate," Mr. Baird said when cornered by reporters about the thin nature of the information released.

The tabling of that information in the House of Commons may be enough to convince Mr. Milliken that the government has met its obligations, but opposition MPs are not satisfied.

"We asked for a breakdown of costs, and the government continues to stonewall us by giving us unbelievable figures with no backup," Mr. Brison said. "We need to have the real facts and the real figures."

The documents provided by Mr. Baird to the House of Commons consist of a list compiled by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) of 18 justice bills. Only 11 were costed, eight of which had been specifically mentioned in Mr. Brison's motion.

The documents said the CSC did not expect any significant cost to result from seven of the bills for which it provided an accounting.

The agency refused to answer reporters' questions. But it can be assumed that the reason so many bills will have no effect on federal coffers is that the costs arising from some of them will be paid by the provinces. That is particularly true of legislation that would end house arrest for property crimes, impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, and toughen penalties for auto theft.

The cost to the provinces and territories, which already have a problem with overcrowded prisons, was not included in the documents provided to Parliament.

Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has estimated that just one federal crime bill - legislation ending the practice of giving criminals double credit for time served before sentencing - will cost the federal government $5-billion and the provinces another $5-billion to $13-billion. The government disputes that, saying the amount is closer to $2-billion for the federal share. The bill has already been passed and was therefore not included in the accounting.

The government has not provided documents to back up its projections. But the disparity in the two estimates led Mr. Brison to question the veracity of the government's assertion that the price of 11 other bills would add up to $650-million over five years. "We were looking for information for Parliament, not an insult to Parliament," he said.

Irving Kulik, executive director of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association, which has opposed many of the government's crime bills, said he believes the documents present a reasonable estimate of the federal cost of the bills.

"I think it's fair to say that these pieces of legislation will be costly, but the costing that was delivered in the House appears to me to be a ballpark estimate that is relatively reasonable," Mr. Kulik said.

"I think it is fair to say that the costs will not be felt by the Correctional Service of Canada," he said. "However, one can imagine that there will be costs in other levels of government in some of the bills."

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