Appearance before the Senate Standing Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce on the Study on Bill C-377, An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations)

May 29, 2013
Ottawa, Ontario

Opening Statement by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)


Introduction

Honourable Chair and Senators, thank you for inviting me to speak with you regarding Bill C-377, An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations).  I am joined here today by Patricia Kosseim, our Senior General Counsel.

Let me say from the outset that I believe transparency and accountability are essential features of good governance and critical elements of an effective and robust democracy.

However, as the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, I should underscore that transparency and accountability need to be appropriately balanced with the protection of individuals’ privacy. Put differently, any public disclosure of personal information, as contemplated in Bill C-377, needs to be carefully assessed against a substantive need for disclosure.

Representation made before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance

As you know, I appeared last November before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance to present my views on Bill C-377 as it then stood.

At that time, I expressed concern with the level of public disclosure of personal information contemplated in the Bill. Specifically, I was troubled by the idea that the names and salaries of all union employees would need to be publicly disclosed, without individuals’ consent, to achieve accountability objectives.

I submitted that limiting the scope of disclosure would result in a more balanced, yet equally effective result, and suggested that disclosure be limited to the highest compensated officials or to providing the number – not the names – of union employees within specified salary ranges.

I also suggested that disclosing aggregated financial statements could be seen as a valid alternative to achieve public accountability and transparency objectives.

Amendments made by the House of Commons

In this respect, I was encouraged to see that the House of Commons adopted some privacy protective amendments at Report Stage. My understanding is that they do the following:

  • The obligation to disclose no longer applies to the activities and operations of pension, healthcare and insurance plans;
  • The address of individuals for whom disclosure applies will no longer be reported;
  • Disclosure of compensation disbursements and names will now be limited to officers, directors and trustees with compensation over $100,000, and to other senior union officials;
  • Disclosure of disbursements made to other employees and contractors will be made in aggregate form; and
  • Disclosure of disbursements related to labour relations activities, organizing activities, and collective bargaining activities will also be reported in aggregate form. 

These are improvements over the previous disclosure regime as far as privacy protection is concerned.

Remaining issues

However, some privacy considerations remain.

In principle, under Section 241 of the Income Tax Act, information about individuals is confidential, unless a specific exception to this prohibition to disclose is set out. I am aware that, if Bill C-377 were adopted, it would specifically allow for an exception to the confidentiality rule. While from a legal perspective, this would be permissible under the Privacy Act, I am concerned with the creation of yet another exception.

Specifically, the names of individuals will still have to be disclosed for certain disbursements that have a cumulative value above $5,000 such as loans, political activities, lobbying activities, contributions, gifts, grants, conference activities, education and training activities.

These disclosures clearly involve personal information and, in many cases, sensitive personal information. Again, one possible way to reduce privacy intrusion while still achieving accountability objectives would be to limit the scope of disclosure to aggregate numbers, or to withhold the names of individuals. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, I hope that my comments have been useful in assisting Parliamentarians to strike the appropriate balance between transparency and accountability on the one hand, and the privacy rights of individuals on the other.

I am happy to answer any questions.

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