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The federal government is fighting charges of a billion-dollar bungle after the Auditor-General accused the Justice Department of hiding cost overruns in the new firearms registry, whose price tag is expected to increase to $1-billion from $119-million.

"The issue here is not gun control," Auditor-General Sheila Fraser said in a report released yesterday. "And it's not even astronomical cost overruns, although those are serious. What's really inexcusable is that Parliament was in the dark. I question why the department continued to watch the costs escalate without informing Parliament and without considering alternatives."

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon defended the registry and said the government will order its own audit of the program to be completed by February.

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Opposition politicians said the report shows that the government should never have conceived and implemented the registry.

"Gun control is a billion-dollar" mistake, Canadian Alliance MP John Williams said. "It doesn't work. It's a sad, sad reflection of the incompetence of this government."

Ms. Fraser noted that officials in the gun registry program say costs will hit the $1-billion mark by 2004-05, offset by only about $140-million in registration fees.

The registry, which requires all firearms to be licensed in Canada by Jan. 1, 2003, has sparked national debate since the government passed tough new gun laws in 1995.

When it was first proposed, the Justice Department said setting up and administering the registry would cost $119-million and that most of it would be recovered through registration fees, leaving a net cost of only $2-million.

Ms. Fraser said many of the reasons provided for the registry's ballooning costs were insufficient.

Her report said the department attributed the cost overruns to delays in making regulations, to some provinces and territories opting out of the program and to an "excessive focus on regulation and enforcement of controls." Technology was also blamed, with more than 1,000 changes ordered in the program's computer system by 1999.

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The report found that the government concealed nearly $700-million of the estimated cost overruns in May of 2000 and that the RCMP database for gun licences under the program was flawed. The report found:

The Justice Department told the Commons standing committee on justice in May of 2000 that it had spent at least $327-million on the program. However, at the same time, the department informed the government it estimated the cost of the registry to be more than $1-billion by 2004-05.

The Justice Department obtained nearly one-third of the program's $750-million in funds between 1995 and 2001-02 outside the usual appropriations channels.

The department sought an additional $220-million for the period between 1999-2000 to 2002-03 because costs for implementing the program were more than expected. For example, about 90 per cent of the licence and registration applications contained errors or omissions, higher than the predicted 20 to 40 per cent.

Information to screen applicants for firearms licences may not be accurate. The report found the RCMP database program was flawed. An April of 2001 RCMP review of the data quality stated: "Persons are known to be in the database who should not be, and thus could be denied firearms licences or have their eligibility reviewed" and "some persons who could be in the database are not and these individuals could be issued licences and subsequently use firearms to commit a violent offence."

Mr. Cauchon denied his government was trying to hide the registry's costs from the public. "If you look at the report there's no wrongdoing at all," he said. "We still have, at this point in time, a good and valued program. Of course, we'd like to do better."

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He said the program is working. So far, there are 1.9 million licensed firearms owners in Canada and 5.2 million guns have been registered.

The Auditor-General recommended that the Justice Department report annually to Parliament on the progress and cost of the registry. She also urged all revenues be reported and "complete explanations" be provided for changes in costs and revenues in the overall program.

Industry Minister Allan Rock, who was justice minister when the program was introduced, said he is "very proud" of his role in setting up the registry, saying statistics show that it helps save lives and that it reflects Canadian values. "What's the value of a human life? We can't just look at cost, we also have to look at the benefits."

But Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark accused the Liberals of keeping a "$700-million secret" from Parliament and taxpayers. "The minister [Mr. Cauchon]can't get away with saying 'I'm sorry.' He broke the law of Parliament and so did his Prime Minister. They knew about $700-million in overspending. They had an obligation to tell the House of Commons and they zipped their lips."

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