The committee on procedure and House affairs is calling for a tightening of the conflict of interest code for MPs to increase transparency — suggestions that come amid intense scrutiny of questionable spending by senators.
Federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mary Dawson carries out confidential investigations of complaints against MPs alleged to have breached the code.
The code prohibits MPs from accepting gifts unless they are routine expressions of hospitality or protocol.
Even then, any acceptable gift worth more than $500 must be publicly disclosed — a value the committee recommends be dropped to $200. The lower figure would bring the House of Commons in line with practices in several provinces, the report notes.
In addition, the committee says any outside contributions above the gift threshold to an MP's travel should be publicly revealed — a move that would toughen the current reporting standard.
Travel both within Canada and to other countries is an essential part of an MP's duties, allowing them to experience first-hand the challenges and opportunities in different communities, the report says. For this reason, MPs are allowed to go on trips paid for — in whole or in part — by outside interests.
Currently, if travel costs exceed $500 and are not wholly or substantially paid for out of an MP's own pocket, through parliamentary funds, a political party or an interparliamentary association, the MP must note the trip publicly. A report on sponsored travel is published annually.
Dawson told the committee the phrase "substantially paid" was too vague.
She also noted that interparliamentary groups may receive third-party funding. As a result, the committee recommends the code be amended to require that members publicly declare any funding for sponsored travel directed through such a group.
The code prevents the commissioner from commenting publicly on a preliminary review into a complaint. If the commissioner does not find sufficient grounds to conduct an inquiry and then issue a finding, there is no opportunity to correct possible "misinformation" about allegations against an MP, the committee report says.
The committee therefore recommends the watchdog be permitted to comment publicly on the reasons for not pursuing an inquiry, "where to do so is in the public interest."
In some cases, an MP will publicly announce their call for Dawson to investigate a fellow parliamentarian. The MP facing allegations may, as a result, learn about the matter through the media before hearing from the commissioner's office.
The committee recommends that MPs who request an inquiry be prohibited from commenting publicly until the commissioner confirms that the subject of the complaint has received a copy of the allegations. The commissioner would have 14 days to confirm that the accused person had been informed.
Finally, the committee calls for a more complete review of the code, lamenting that it was "unable to devote more time" to its study, which began in May 2012 and was delayed due to a heavy workload.
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