Speaker Andrew Scheer will inform the House of Commons that it sent the wrong version of a bill to the Senate in June, and that the right version will be sent in its stead, when Parliament resumes sitting in the middle of this month.
But the Senate is still scrambling to determine how it will fix the problem, a week after The Globe and Mail first revealed the errors in a tough new parole law. And there are enough complications, including a constitutional problem that at least one senator insists needs repair, that the bill may never become law.
“We understand that the Senate Clerk and the procedure officials are presently working on various scenarios,” said Sébastien Gariépy, a spokesman for Claude Carignan, the Government Leader in the Senate. Mr. Carignan is out of the country and was unavailable for comment. “It is impossible for us, at this moment, to give you more details on the procedure that would be used to correct this administrative error made by the House of Commons.”
Bill C-479, amending the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, would extend the wait for a parole review for federal prisoners rejected on their first try. Currently, the wait is two years; it would be extended to up to five years for violent offenders. The idea was to spare victims from appearing regularly at emotionally difficult hearings. (Their appearance is voluntary.)
In the Commons’ first public acknowledgment that it made a mistake on the bill, it threw the ball over to the Senate’s court, saying the Red Chamber will be responsible for dealing with the problem after it receives the corrected version.
“The House passed the right version of the bill,” said Heather Bradley, a spokesperson in the office of the Speaker. “Just the wrong version was sent to the Senate. So the corrected version will be sent to the Senate. The Speaker will be advising the House in September.”
The Senate has already discussed the wrong version of the bill twice, approved it in principle on June 19, and sent it to a committee for detailed study. Several obstacles now lie ahead, according to Senator George Baker, a former chief clerk of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, and a parliamentarian for 41 years.
“There now has to be unanimous agreement to withdraw the bill and start at square one. We’ve been dealing with a bill that was not passed by the House of Commons. You can’t do that.” Then, when it reaches second reading again, it would have to line up behind other bills. “At second reading, it’s dealt with in the order in which it comes.” Afterward, it would face yet another lineup.
“When it’s dealt with by the standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs, it has to take its place at the bottom of the pile unless there’s unanimous consent to do otherwise.”
Complicating matters further, he said, is that both Conservatives and independent Liberals in the Senate are concerned that the bill may be unconstitutional because it appears to add extra punishment to current prisoners. (The bill says a second rejection for current prisoners would bring up to a five-year wait for a third review, instead of two years.) If the Senate amends the bill to remove its retroactive approach, it would have to be returned to the House of Commons for approval.
All this, he said, “really jeopardizes the passage of the bill.”
The Commons said on Tuesday the mistake was made in the Journals branch, responsible for keeping the records of the Commons. It also brought to light a similar mistake in 2001, involving a bill on Nunavut’s water resources. That mistake was quickly fixed when the Commons clerk, at the direction of the Speaker, contacted his Senate counterpart and informed him of the error. But unlike in the current case, the Senate had not yet started debate.
In the case of Bill C-479, officials with the Senate offered no acknowledgment that the chamber had failed to notice a mistake.
“The Senate studies bills it receives from the House of Commons and vice versa,” Francine Pressault, a Senate spokeswoman, said. “The Senate must assume that the bills and messages from the House are those that have been adopted.”
Mr. Baker emphatically disagreed.
“The senators should have seen this. The mover of the motion, [Conservative Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu] and the research bureau should have seen it. I should have seen it as the critic for legal matters in the Senate.”
Mr. Boisvenu did not reply to a request for comment.