Hon. A. C. Abbott (Minister of National Revenue and Minister of State (Small Business)):
Mr. Speaker, I should like to take a moment or two, because of the seriousness of this problem, to deal with the question of taxation documents and why they may be in the hands of Statistics Canada. During the course of this intervention there have been allegations made from various quarters that Revenue Canada has been slipshod in the handling of these documents and that Statistics Canada should not necessarily have the documents.
The point I would first like to make is that Statistics Canada has an obligation to provide facts, collect statistical
information, and provide, among other important facts, the earnings by society of income and its distribution.
The tax returns of individuals and corporations which are provided to National Revenue for purposes of tax administration provide the best and most reliable source of information on incomes. Parliament recognized this in section 23 of the Statistics Act when it stated:
The Chief Statistician or any person authorized by him to do so may inspect or have access to any returns, certificates, statements, documents, or other records obtained on behalf of the Minister of National Revenue for the purpose of the Income Tax Act.
At the same time, parliament was concerned that the information so provided to Statistics Canada should be kept confidential and, therefore, it further provided that the "information when communicated to Statistics Canada shall be subject to the same secrecy requirements to which it was subject when collected". Clearly this means that employees of Statistics Canada are required to comply with the severe confidentiality provisions of the Income Tax Act which imposes penalties upon an official or authorized person who shall knowingly communicate or allow to be communicated any information obtained for the purposes of the Income Tax Act.
Statistics Canada publishes income information only about groups in a way that hides tax information about any individual. Those are the provisions of the law, provisions of the Income Tax and the Statistics Act, and my department and Statistics Canada, to the best of my knowledge, operate in accordance with these provisions.
We now come to the point raised by the hon. member for Central Nova (Mr. MacKay). He refers to my position the other day, that I was concerned that members were making wide ranging allegations that income tax information, not simply in the hands of Statistics Canada but perhaps also in the hands of Revenue Canada, were being handled in a slipshod manner. I attempted during the question of privilege to assert that this was not the case and that a good deal of the blame for this whole incident rests with the hon. member for Central Nova.
In an article in the Globe and Mail of February 23, which I did refer to earlier on the question of privilege, the hon. member revealed that he had gone to Statistics Canada and had found about 50 cardboard boxes full of confidential tax returns which he said were "lying unattended in a Statistics Canada office building in Ottawa". The duties and responsibilities of the hon. member as a parliamentarian do not give him the right to go into a building which he may say is improperly guarded and under the guardianship of Statistics Canada, to go down to the basement of the said building and look at files in boxes which are marked confidential, return and presumably, if this article is correct, encourage others in the form of news cameramen or others to take the same journey and photograph the boxes and whatever documents may be there.
The hon. member, knowing the law, knowing the obvious security provisions of the Income Tax Act, and knowing that he himself had seen the boxes marked "confidential", received,
March 6, 1979
he asserted, 100 or so returns. Ele showed a Globe and Mail reporter copies of four 1974 tax returns he had been given, the taxpayers' names having been obliterated, but with the social insurance numbers, the taxable income, income taxes paid and spouses' names in full view. The article goes on to state:
The Nova Scotia MP said he would not release the names on the returns. He said some have already been destroyed but he would not say where the others are although he promised he would eventually destroy all the forms he had been sent.
He knew perfectly well that he was not entitled to copies of those forms. He knew they were bound by the Income Tax Act, and he knew that whoever had communicated them to him had done so not only improperly but unlawfully. When, indeed, I suggested he was possessed of stolen reports, I had no doubt that these returns, if transmitted to him anonymously or otherwise, had been transmitted by someone acting outside his right under the law and who was committing a serious offence. Naturally, knowing the hon. member's zeal for justice and his inquiring mind, his instincts as a detective-we all remember the bugging caper of not so long ago-he recognized that he had a self-appointed duty to ferret out such matters.
Certainly I was not accusing the hon. member of any criminal offence because he had those documents in his possession, for many people, perhaps disgruntled people, know him as a likely source of interest to whom such information could be sent. Nor do I stand and say that Statistics Canada, in the instance the hon. member revealed, was managing the documents with the kind of care which is required under the law. I think that my colleague the Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce (Mr. Horner) confirmed this somewhat when he said that the law had to be obeyed but that it was because of financial shortcomings that they could not properly look after the documents. I do not think that this is a reasonable excuse. Statistics Canada must obey the law and look after such documents with great care.
At the same time, however, I think that I was right in taking the position back to the hon. member himself that he had gone to a building, that he knew the records were highly confidential, that he only raised the point because of this high confidentiality and the legal requirements for secrecy and that he brought the matter before parliament and the news media and showed them returns in a fashion, according to the report, that any intelligent observer could find out to whom the returns belonged. For example, the report stated that some of the returns were from Alberta farmers. There was a picture taken, thanks to the guidance of the hon. member who led the media to the premises of Statistics Canada, which shows the form of a resident of Courtenay, B.C. The name was obliterated from the picture, but it was taken.
I suggest that the hon. member did not act with the kind of responsibility which one should expect of a member of parliament in such circumstances. He seems to have done so only for the purpose of gaining the centre of attention by leading his crew of cameramen around so that he could be photographed in his self-appointed role as guardian of our society. When
I stated that that information was stolen I suggest that clearly I am correct. The hon. member had no business having that information in his hands. It should not have been transmitted, anonymously or otherwise, by the person or persons who did so, and it is a serious offence under the law. I suggest also that the hon. member acted with a good deal of recklessness in encouraging reporters to take a look at the documents he had in his hands and in encouraging other media representatives to take a tour of Statistics Canada's building to see other tax returns.
I do not feel that there is a question of privilege here. If I had accused the hon. member of stealing documents, of course, I would have been wrong and would have quite properly been obliged to withdraw the remark; but I do think that anybody could assert that the 100 income tax documents which were marked highly confidential and which were in the hon. member's hands, having been sent to him anonymously, could have been sent to the hon. member by anybody who was doing anything but stealing that information as defined under the law.
I am not suggesting that the hon. member is guilty of a criminal offence because he held on to those documents. Perhaps in his position as a member of parliament he has certain rights in the interests of the public to deal with the matter and acknowledge his possession, I do not know. What I suggest is that there is no question of privilege, and 1 believe that my position in this matter is entirely conscionable.
Topic: ORAL QUESTION PERIOD
Subtopic: REFER SECURITY PROCEDURES TO STANDING COMMITTEE