A tough new parole law initiated by a Conservative backbencher is raising concerns over the level of scrutiny given to crime bills introduced by individual members of Parliament, with government backing.
Revelations in a Globe and Mail story that the House of Commons sent the wrong version of the Fairness for Victims Act to the Senate shed light on how little attention is paid to these bills, which are growing in number.
Of the 30 crime bills either currently before Parliament or just passed in June, 25 were initiated by a member of Parliament rather than by the government. Four of those 25 have already received royal assent, but they tend to be fairly minor bills, such as one setting out mandatory minimum penalties for those who deface war memorials. But the Fairness for Victims Act, sponsored by MP David Sweet, is far greater in impact.
And the government is clearly behind it. It put the law on a priority list of nine bills that the Senate needed to quickly approve in principle and send to committee. Only two weeks remained before the Senate's summer adjournment at the time, according to Senator George Baker.
Bill C-479, as it is called, could make parole harder to obtain for federal prisoners, a major change to Canadian practice. Violent criminals whose first request for parole is rejected would have to wait up to five years for another chance, instead of the current wait of two years. Yet the House of Commons committee that reviewed the bill clause by clause did not hear from a single expert from the parole board, and at least one committee member said just before voting for it that it was difficult to understand what was in the bill.
Howard Sapers, the ombudsman for federal prisoners, said that while it is Parliament's prerogative to change federal laws, he was unhappy about how Bill C-479 came to be. "Frankly, it surprised me that something as fundamental to Canadians as their liberty interests would be dealt with through a private member's bill," he said in an interview.
"Private member's bills typically don't benefit from the same kind of analysis put together by the Library of Parliament that government bills are subjected to. So Canadians don't have the benefit of that kind of analysis when they're trying to understand the intent of the legislation."
Mary Campbell, who retired last year from a senior post in the Public Safety department, was the first to spot an error in the printing of the latest version of the bill on the parliamentary website. The Globe later confirmed with Mr. Baker, Mr. Sweet and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney's office that an error had been made in the version sent to the Senate.
When an MP proposes a bill, government officials do not analyze whether it passes constitutional muster, but they do for bills proposed by government, Ms. Campbell said. "That leaves some people to suggest that, on some of these private member's bills, they're actually a government idea and they've shopped it around to a government MP to avoid Charter scrutiny."
Jason Tamming, a spokesman for Mr. Blaney, rejected that view.
"Members of Parliament sponsor their own legislation," he said in an e-mail. "While Minister's Office staff may provide assistance based on their expertise, they certainly do not impose anything on elected members of Parliament."
Mr. Blaney became involved in the bill through his parliamentary secretary, Roxanne James, who came late in the process to the Commons committee studying the bill and proposed several amendments.
The bill received unanimous support, though more than one member of that committee complained the review was inadequate.
MP Randall Garrison, a New Democrat, said the committee did not even hear an expert from the parole board, which he felt was essential. "We feel that we've gone too rapidly, that we didn't hear all the witnesses we needed, and that we've been making really a large number of amendments to a very short bill. It's very difficult to see, as was just indicated to us by our experts, what we have in front of us."
MP Rosane Doré Lefebvre, another New Democrat member of the committee, said in an interview that the party supported the bill based on the belief that it applied only to the most violent criminals, such as murderers. But in fact, it also applies to what are known as Schedule I offences in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which includes a wide variety of crimes, including assault.