Canada: Committees told to use their powers to help budget watchdog

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A joint parliamentary committee wants MPs and Senators to use their sweeping powers to help Canada’s budget watchdog get access to economic and financial data from stonewalling federal departments.

The joint parliamentary library committee is urging MPs and senators to invoke their sweeping powers to send for “persons, papers or records” to help Canada’s budget watchdog get the information he needs to do his job.

The committee passed a motion in a recent closed meeting for the three standing committees, central to the Parliamentary Budget Office’s mandate, to use their “considerable power” to send for records on behalf of the PBO.

The three committees are the Commons finance and public accounts committees and the Senate’s national finance committee. Committees have no limit on the type of papers and records they can ask for – as long as these exist in hard copy or electronic form in Canada.

The motion marks the first time a committee has acknowledged that Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette faces a problem prying information from government departments and recommended a way to fix it.

The joint library committee advises the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate on how to manage the Library of Parliament, which oversees the PBO. As an advisory committee, however, it cannot force Parliament to act.

But the committee’s recommendation does bring political pressure to bear because it would be difficult now for the three other committees to ignore a problem brought to them by Frechette when another committee had told them to help him.

Frechette said the motion is a significant breakthrough for his office, which faces increasing resistance from departments, from nitpicking delays to outright refusals to provide information. So far, his biggest battles are with National Defence and Canada Revenue Agency.

“It is certainly affirmative and transparent action taken by Parliament,” said Frechette.

“I feel confident and optimistic that the three standing committees will add pressure on departments that do not provide free and timely access to any financial or economic data that they possess.”

Senate Liberal Percy Downe acknowledged the motion is a step in the right direction but questioned how effective it would be with Conservative-dominated committees.

“We’ll see what happens when push comes to shove,” he said.

Downe asked the PBO more than two years ago to calculate the tax gap – the difference between what money is owned in taxes and what is collected – to help get a handle on money lost to overseas tax evasion.

The PBO has since been mired in fruitless negotiations with the tax agency that broke down several weeks ago with no information provided. Downe has pressed the PBO to take the CRA to court get that information.

Frechette said he now plans to write the chairs of the three committees and is eager to see “how this will develop over the next weeks and months” before deciding on any court action.

SOURCE: Ottawa Citizen, April 14th 2015: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/committees-told-to-use-their-powe...