POLITICS

Departments ignore House of Commons committee's request for documents

03/08/2013 04:30 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - Several departments are ignoring a House of Commons committee's demand to turn over action plans after being scrutinized by the auditor general, a failure one MP calls contempt of Parliament.

The public accounts committee passed a motion in 2011 that all departments who have their performance audited must table their plans within six months of an auditor general's report.

The requirement applies whether or not the department is invited to appear before the committee.

But 18 months after the auditor general's fall 2011 report, only two out of 13 departments and agencies targeted with recommendations have responded to the committee. More recent reports have similarly poor response rates.

The public accounts committee is the key parliamentary body examining the government books. Committee chairman David Christopherson said MPs need to revisit the action-plan issue.

"All of the departments that are affected by all the chapters (of the auditor general's report) are supposed to provide action plans, and I'm not sure we do a thorough enough job of ensuring that those plans are forwarded to us when we don't hold the public hearings," said Christopherson.

Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, a committee member, said central departments such as Treasury Board and Finance send officials regularly to attend committee meetings, and should know the rules.

"There is nothing that has changed or can be considered to have loosened over the course of time," he said.

"This requirement is binding on all departments, and failure to fulfil the commitment is in my opinion a contempt of Parliament."

The parliamentary budget officer has faced similar trouble getting information from departments. But a committee's right to ask for documents is inviolable — one of the tenets of parliamentary privilege.

The Canadian Press requested an explanation from the 11 departments in the 2011 auditor general's report who had not tabled action plans with the committee. Industry Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and regional development agencies reviewed by the auditors, directed inquiries to the Treasury Board Secretariat, which had already tabled its own action plan.

The fall 2011 report's cited the agencies and Industry Canada separately from Treasury Board. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada was the subject of separate chapter in the report.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada says the rule applies only if the department is asked to testify at the committee.

"An action plan relating to an OAG (Office of the Auditor General) report is normally tabled after the committee calls the department to appear as part of a study of that OAG report," said departmental spokeswoman Tracie LeBlanc.

"In this case, the ... committee ... has not yet chosen to study this OAG report, and thus has not called Citizenship and Immigration Canada to appear before the committee."

The Department of National Defence responded identically. The Canada Border Services Agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Conservative MP Daryl Kramp, who sits on the committee, said he also had concerns about the poor response rates.

"I can recall, I sat on the committee before this happened, and the public accounts committee declared this to be critically important to be able to keep the feet to the fire for either errors, omissions or modifications and changes," said Kramp.

"That should be done, and if it's not done, and there's a tardiness to that, I as a government member would be just as vociferous in asking for an answer."