Ms. Diane Ablonczy (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to introduce at third reading C-37. The bill would amend the legislation concerning the framework for financial institutions operating in Canada and it comes out of the five year review of the Bank Act undertaken by Parliament.
The financial services sector is key to the success of a modern industrial economy. That goes without saying. The sector plays a unique role in fuelling the growth that is essential to the success of the Canadian economy, but the significance of this proposed legislation goes beyond our borders. Canada is recognized internationally for our safe and secure financial sector and the bill would help ensure that Canada remains a world leader.
The goal of Canada's new government is to improve our quality of life and make Canada a world leader for today and future generations. How will we do that? Along with November's economic and fiscal update, the Minister of Finance introduced “Advantage Canada”. This long term plan will achieve a higher standard of living and better quality of life for Canadians as the world economy continues to transform.
I will talk a bit about the plan and illustrate just how Bill C-37 fits in.
“Advantage Canada” is rooted in the realities of global competition and Canada's existing strengths and economic challenges. As a long term vision, it will serve as the framework for government decision making for years to come. Competition drives firms to become more efficient, invest in new technologies and introduce new products and services that benefit consumers. A highly competitive and open national economy also helps our companies and organizations to be more successful when competing in global markets, which means more and better jobs in Canada.
Government has a role to play in creating the ground rules for competition in Canada. Consistent with the overall purpose and principles of the “Advantage Canada” plan, Canada's framework of competition will create competitive marketplaces that serve both individual and business consumers with low prices, choice, quality and service. The investment will also drive and foster innovation investment and efficiency that grow productivity and competitiveness and it will promote a more resilient adaptable economy.
“Advantage Canada” is about making Canada a world leader and a safe and efficient financial system is crucial to achieving that goal.
Canada has a strong and sound financial system that serves Canadians well. It is an asset unto itself, providing high end, knowledge based and well-paying jobs for Canadians. Of course a strong financial system needs to be able to adapt to the evolving needs of households and businesses.
Keeping Canada's financial institutions and markets innovative and competitive with a flexible regulatory framework founded on sound principles will ensure that they continue to meet not only the needs of our growing economy but also the needs of Canadians. That is where Bill C-37 comes in.
Just as “Advantage Canada” is about making Canada a leader in the world, the bill is about ensuring that Canada's financial system remains a leader in the world. To attain that goal, Canada must have a regulatory framework that allows financial sector participants to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The Government of Canada is responsible for maintaining the safety and soundness of the financial institution sector. It is also responsible for ensuring that consumers and businesses are properly served and protected. The regular five year review of the financial sector framework is an important tool in meeting these responsibilities, and a consultation process was an integral part of that review.
A large and representative group of stakeholders provided comments to shape the review of the financial sector statutes. Over 50 submissions were received from various stakeholders, including industry associations, financial institutions, consumer groups and individual Canadians. Those submissions culminated in a white paper issued by the Minister of Finance this past June. The drafting of Bill C-37 followed to legislate the proposals set out in the white paper.
While stakeholders agreed that no major overhaul was needed, there was acknowledgement that some steps could be taken to enhance the interest of consumers, increase legislative and regulatory efficiency and adapt the framework to new developments. These three objectives are the framework on which the bill is built.
I will now illustrate how Bill C-37 meets these objectives.
First, Canada's new government wants to ensure that the interests of consumers are well served. As members can imagine, competition in the industry in technological innovation can sometimes make for a confusing array of products and services confronting consumers. It is therefore important that consumers have the information available to them to help make informed decisions.
That is why Bill C-37 proposes to improve disclosure to consumers. Perhaps one of the best examples of improved disclosure to consumers relates to the growth of online services. Currently, federally regulated financial institutions must disclose in their branches information on the amounts charged for services normally provided to their customers and the public.
However, with consumers increasingly managing their finances using Internet banking, these disclosure requirements currently do not extend to the online world. To ensure that consumers have sufficient information, Bill C-37 proposes to harmonize online disclosure requirements with those of the in-branch requirements. This proposed legislation will allow consumers to compare banking products and services more easily online.
Another important measure to address consumer interests in the bill is the proposal relating to complaint handling procedures. Federally regulated financial institutions are required to have procedures and staff in place to deal with complaints from consumers. These procedures must be filed with the Commissioner of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada and must be provided to consumers when they open a deposit account.
However, there are currently no requirements to ensure that consumers have access to information on these procedures on an ongoing basis. In addition, consumers who do not open an account, but rather obtain other products and services such as a mortgage, do not receive any information on complaint handling procedures.
Consumer groups have raised concerns that consumers may be unable to readily obtain the necessary information on the proper complaint handling procedures when a complaint with their financial institution arises. Bill C-37 addresses that issue by proposing amendments to the financial institutions statutes that will require financial institutions to make their complaint handling procedures publicly available for all consumers to access whenever they choose.
One of the biggest advantages of a regular review of the financial sector, such as we have in Canada, is the ability to modify just the framework as the sector changes and evolves. For example, there is now increased competition in Canada from foreign banks. The framework encourages competition through the entry of foreign banks into the Canadian market. However, while foreign banks have considerable flexibility to do business in Canada, some aspects of the current regulatory mechanisms have been criticized as being complex and burdensome.
An area of significant concern has been the regulatory burden placed on the so-called near banks. These foreign entities are not regulated as banks in their home jurisdictions, but provide banking type services such as consumer loans. Of particular concern is the ministerial entry approval that near banks must obtain to undertake unregulated activities. This requirement is regarded as unnecessary and costly. Moreover, it results in delayed transactions and provides little benefit.
To simplify the foreign bank entry framework and reduce the administrative burden, Bill C-37 proposes to narrow the framework to focus on real foreign banks and remove near banks from the foreign bank entry framework by eliminating the entry approval for near banks undertaking unregulated financial services.
The financial services sector has changed dramatically in recent years. Globalization has certainly played a major part in this change but so too has convergence and consolidation in the industry and, of course, advances in technology have changed the way we do banking today. One just needs to look at the way cheques have been processed for years.
Traditionally, the cheque clearing process involved the physical delivery of cheques to the issuing financial institution before a decision could be made whether or not to make the payment. Now, with the use of computer scanning technology, cheques can be sent electronically to the originating financial institution.
The faster processing enables financial institutions to clear cheques more quickly, thus allowing consumers and businesses to have more timely access to funds. To reflect the faster cheque processing time, Bill C-37 proposes to facilitate the introduction of regulations limiting hold times imposed on cheques.
Instead of using this regulatory power, however, the government is in the process of finalizing an agreement with the banking industry to reduce the maximum hold period voluntarily for cheques to seven days from ten days. Once cheque imaging technology is fully implemented across Canada, the cheque hold time will further be reduced from seven days down to four days. This, of course, represents a significant benefit for consumers and businesses alike.
Once more, these changes illustrate the importance of having an up to date framework to allow financial institutions to evolve and prosper while benefiting consumers.
Bill C-37 also contains a proposal that would attract additional expertise to the industry. Specifically, the bill proposes to reduce the board of directors residency requirement for Canadian financial institutions from two-thirds to a majority. This would l allow Canadian financial institutions to add more foreign experts to their board. It would also enhance flexibility and give financial institutions new scope to pursue global business opportunities while maintaining a strong Canadian presence on their boards.
All told, the proposals in Bill C-37 will help modernize the regulations for our financial institutions, which makes this bill important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the bill is important because it would cut red tape and advance the interests of consumers. It is also important because it would amend the legislative framework so that Canadian financial institutions can better compete in the international marketplace. The bill is important for Canada because it would ensure that Canada continues to be a world leader in the financial services industry.
I therefore would ask all hon. members to give this bill careful consideration and allow it to pass without delay.
Hon. John McCallum (Markham—Unionville, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-37, an act to amend the law governing financial institutions.
I was glad to see that all the members of the Standing Committee on Finance delivered the bill back to the House in such an expeditious manner. We certainly look forward to continuing the debate here.
A vibrant 21st century economy requires, at its bedrock, a strong and well regulated financial sector that is not needlessly bound by red tape and yet, at the same, protects the interests of its citizens.
In many respects, Canada's financial services sector is the envy of the world. The expertise of our financial services sector is often sought out by our international friends. It has also helped our homegrown Canadian banks make real progress in expanding their services to other countries.
In fact, while our banks currently employ about a quarter million Canadians here at home, they now employ roughly 40,000 other people around the world. Indeed, this function of our banks, and at least as much our insurance companies, in taking on the world overseas in China, in India and in many other countries, is a very good thing for this country. Canada, as a whole, needs to take on the world. We need to compete with China, India and other emerging economic giants and, therefore, it should be core and central to government policy to prepare us for this new, highly competitive 21st century.
While our banks are certainly doing well, our government in the past year has been totally asleep at the switch. In terms of preparing Canada for the 21st century economy, I would contend that just as the government wasted a year when it came to the environment, cutting environmental programs until it woke up and looked at the polls, similarly, it has been totally asleep at the switch and totally wasted the last year when it comes to building a strong economy for the 21st century.
It is not a great puzzle what has to be done. We in Canada will compete with China and India, not through low wages, which is the last thing we want to do, but through good ideas, a highly educated workforce and research and training, which are all the things the government has cut.
We must also compete through lower income taxes and competitive taxation but the government raised income taxes.
At a time when the government has literally been swimming in money, with huge surpluses bequeathed to it by the previous government, it saw fit to slash funding for research, cancel programs for training Canadians and to raise income taxes. Those are all things that are the antithesis, the opposite of what has to be done in order to prepare Canada for the 21st century economy.
It is not as if our competitor countries have been standing still. We can look at what Australia has been doing. While our government insults China, Australia has been negotiating agreements with China. While Australia has reduced its income taxes, increased credits for low income Australians and made company taxes more competitive, what has our government done? It has raised income taxes. Yes, it has reduced the GST but that does nothing to make our country more competitive. While Australia forges ahead, Canada sits back and does nothing.
The United Kingdom is another example. It has ambitious targets for research and development over the next decade, backed by government support to achieve those targets. The European Union has even more ambitious targets for research. What do we do? We slash research funding.
I think this is totally irresponsible behaviour on the part of the government. When it is swimming in cash, it has no excuse for raising income taxes, no excuse for slashing research funding and no excuse for slashing support for training Canadians because it is only through well-trained, well-educated and innovative people that we will be able to take on the world, and the government has gone in the opposite direction.
I applaud our financial institutions for taking on the world and for showing success in Asia, but the government has to go beyond those successes that we see today. The government has to build a strong economy. It has to put in place policies that will create jobs for the future. The government, sad to say, has done precisely the opposite.
To return to the Bank Act, the five year review of the act is not something that happens overnight. In fact, it began more than two years ago, when the previous Liberal government began a consultation process and outlined what ground it expected the review to cover. While it is good to see good Liberal policy brought to this place--
Mr. Brian Jean: Is there such a thing?
Hon. John McCallum: --it also leaves me with some concerns about the government's broader agenda.
On the one hand, I am glad to see that the Conservatives have decided to model their bill closely on the Liberal proposals. This bill really is 100% proposals from the previous Liberal government. Naturally, therefore, we do not hesitate very much to support it, but I do have some serious concerns about the government's ability to conceive of any truly new legislation.
Canada's alleged new government is actually starting to look an awful like Canada's used government. If we look beyond the Bank Act to some of the other pieces of legislation put forward by the government, it is hard to see anything that the Conservatives have conceived of themselves. The Conservatives may have promised new government, but they have only delivered borrowed government.
For instance, the EnerGuide retrofit program for homes was once thought a wasteful program by the Conservatives before they looked at the polls on environment. We remember that just three months ago the Conservatives thought spending any money on a clean environment was wasteful. Now they have brought back the old Liberal plan.
However, instead of bringing back the full program, they have eliminated portions of it, particularly the money for energy audits. What will this do? Effectively this will help ensure that low income Canadians are unlikely to be able to afford making use of the program, but low income Canadians are not the base of the Conservative Party so the Conservatives do not really care about that.
This is a shameful act, because I remember very clearly from the time when I was natural resources minister that low income people are particularly hard hit by high energy prices. Low income Canadians pay out 25% of their low incomes on energy, but how has the Conservative government amended and altered our EnerGuide program? It has cut out the audit part, the part that is essential to allow those low income Canadians to access the program.
The Conservatives have deprived these people who are most subject to difficulties from higher energy prices. They have effectively excluded those people from this program. I think it is typical of their behaviour because they do not regard low income Canadians as part of their constituency, so if those people are excluded, that is fine.
If only the government could swallow its pride and reinstate the full EnerGuide program, which I am confident is useful; I am not so confident the Conservatives see it as useful, but that is what is in my speech. Meanwhile, at least they have brought back part of the program, but they have excluded that most critical part, which is the part that is essential to help lower income Canadians.
Another example is Bill C-25, An Act to amend the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, which we passed last fall. Much like the Bank Act before us today, nearly all of the bill was drawn from proposals drafted by the previous Liberal government. It was a sensible bill, but because of near complete inaction on the part of the Conservatives, Bill C-25 had to be rushed through the House and the Senate in order to make sure it received royal assent in time to be compliant with our international partners.
Today we find the same thing. Once again, we are rushing to get Bill C-37 through both chambers. The Financial Institutions Act was scheduled to sunset this past October, which is why the previous Liberal government began the consultation process over two years ago, but the Conservatives delayed. They dithered. They delayed the release of the white paper and gazed at their navels until they had to ask the House to extend the act by six months, which we of course did. Now we are forced to get this legislation through both chambers in the next 50 days in order to beat the April 24 sunset clause.
So on the one hand, I am impressed that the Conservatives have been, generally speaking, willing to implement the majority of Liberal policies that were waiting for them when they came to power last year. On the other hand, I am a little concerned that they are willing to implement some of them in such a piecemeal and rushed fashion and they seem to have so few ideas of their own in the legislative cooker.
Worse still, and this is perhaps the most important point, when the Conservatives do manage to dig an idea out of their own caucus, it is almost universally panned by everyone else. I do not think it would be a stretch to say that their so-called clean air act was a complete failure, and their reverse onus legislation has been called unconstitutional by the legal community.
Thank goodness for our financial institutions and the millions of Canadians who rely on them that this used Conservative government has decided to stick with Liberal policy on Bill C-37.
Let us hope that when the upcoming budget rolls around next month the Conservatives will remember a few other Liberal programs that they have ruthlessly cut. I am talking about literacy programs. I am talking about funding for Canada's struggling museums. I am talking about the GST visitor rebate program, without which our tourism industry will be at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world.
It is truly amazing that the Conservatives cut that visitor rebate program, making Canada the only OECD country that does not have such a program, depriving Canada of the convention business and of foreigners who come to this country as a consequence of that program. Experts have indicated that the government will lose more tax revenue by ending this program than it gained by cutting the program, and it has done so at a time when it is swimming in money. There was no need to cut that program, just as there was no need to cut literacy or status of women programs or museums.
The government is swimming in money but nevertheless has struck out and cut the programs that have provided assistance to Canada's most vulnerable. The Conservative government also struck out and foolishly cut programs like the visitor rebate program, which makes absolutely no sense. I remember this, because when I was doing expenditure review in the previous government the bureaucracy suggested that we cut the visitor rebate program, so I know where the recommendation came from. The Liberal government had the good sense to say no to the bureaucracy. The Conservative government simply followed what the bureaucracy recommended. That turned out to be an extraordinarily foolish and counterproductive move.
Returning now to the white paper that the Liberals commissioned in preparation for the five year review of the Bank Act, one of the most exciting things the Liberals were exploring in that paper was writing electronic cheque imaging into law. The bill states that banks will be required to use new technologies to better serve the needs of Canadians.
As it stands right now, the maximum hold period on a deposited cheque is 10 business days. That can be an excessively long time for some Canadians, especially low income Canadians who need access to those funds much more quickly in order to pay their bills and buy their basic needs. Bill C-37 will immediately lower this hold period to seven days, allowing Canadians faster access to their own money.
This can be done even faster. I am speaking specifically to electronic cheque imaging, which Canada's banks have already begun to implement. By adopting electronic cheque imaging, banks will no longer need to physically exchange copies of cashed cheques with other institutions. Instead, a captured electronic image of the cheque can be sent instantaneously to another financial institution.
Better still, when all of Canada's financial institutions have installed electronic imaging equipment in the next couple of years, the maximum hold on cheques will be reduced from seven days to a mere four days. Furthermore, I hope that as the technology advances we will be able to further reduce the maximum period.
A second aspect of this bill that I approve of is a provision for an increased disclosure regime that will provide Canadian consumers and businesses alike with the information they need in order to make the most informed investment decisions possible. Bill C-37 will ensure that the savings product disclosure regime is just as effective for the millions of online bankers as it is for branch customers. Strong competition and information disclosure are two of the best tools available to ensure that Canadian consumers' needs are being served well by our financial institutions.
As I have said, the official opposition will be supporting this bill. My colleague will expand on my remarks in terms of some other items contained in the bill. But I do hope that Canada's alleged new government will continue to use our ideas to their fullest and can refrain from returning to the dangerous incompetence of the previous Conservative government that was so damaging to Canada's economic well-being.
Perhaps I should expand briefly in my remaining time on that last comment. What do I mean by Canada's last Conservative government being damaging? There is a pattern here, in that Conservatives create deficits and leave those deficits for Liberals to clean up. The most glaring example in our recent economic history was the Mulroney government, which bequeathed to the Liberal government a $42 billion deficit. It took some time to clean that up.
Indeed, the Mulroney government received a credit downgrade in 1992. Since 1951, Canada had consistently had an AAA rating. Then, after a series of deficits that had us, according to the IMF, headed for third world status, the credit rating was downgraded in 1992. It took 10 years of the Liberal government cleaning up the Conservative mess to restore that credit rating to its AAA status.
It is not as if that is an isolated example. Looking south of the border, we saw Bill Clinton running surpluses. Who has been running the huge deficits? George W. Bush and, before him, Ronald Reagan. Or we can look to Ontario. The pattern is always the same. It was the Mike Harris-Ernie Eves government that ran on a campaign of a balanced budget, but when that government lost and the auditors came in, what did it show? It was a $5.8 billion deficit. That is of some relevance here, because three of our most senior ministers were senior members of that government.
Conservatives, whether we are talking about Ronald Reagan or George Bush in the United States, or Brian Mulroney or Mike Harris in Canada, historically have run huge deficits. They have left those deficits for successive Liberal governments to clean up.
What has happened to this Conservative government? It has been bequeathed the largest surpluses in Canadian history. That is why it is particularly incumbent on the government to use that money wisely, but it has not.
As I said, the Conservatives have done the opposite of what Canada needs for a strong economy to take on the 21st century. They have raised income taxes. They have slashed research. They have slashed learning. They have slashed programs for Canada's most vulnerable, the literacy programs, women's programs and the museum programs, and they have done all that at a moment when they have been literally drowning in the hard-earned cash of hard-working Canadians.
That is where I will conclude my speech, by saying that I hope this new government will continue to use our ideas to their fullest and can refrain from returning to the dangerous incompetence of the previous Conservative government that was so damaging to Canada's well-being.
Mr. Pierre Paquette (Joliette, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, before I begin my remarks on Bill C-37, I would like to add a few comments on the issue of public finance.
The Liberal finance critic who just spoke reminded hon. members that the Mulroney years were extremely disastrous as far as public finance was concerned, with major deficits including the last one of $42 billion.
Nonetheless, I want to provide a few facts for the public's information and so that everyone knows the whole story. The first deficit recorded in 1975 was run by a Liberal finance minister, John Turner. Then a whole series of deficits followed until 1993-94. The Liberal solution was to offload the problem to the provinces, Quebec in particular, by creating the fiscal imbalance. If we look at the true public finance story of the past 20 or 30 years, neither side has anything to teach us.
Let us come back to Bill C-37 , An Act to amend the law governing financial institutions and to provide for related and consequential matters. The Bloc Québécois will obviously be in favour of this essentially technical bill and we will have no problem supporting it.
Precisely because this is a technical bill, it does not address the substantive questions that we would have expected the Conservative government to provide us with some answers to, some possible solutions, or even that it raise issues. I am thinking, for example, of the entire question of electronic transactions. There is absolutely no reference to that, apart from cheque imaging, which I will come back to.
We know that this is a major issue in the economic development of Canada and Quebec and all of our economies. Failing to address this question, failing to provide solutions, at least in terms of regulation, means that we run the risk of hitting a ceiling over the next few years in terms of electronic transactions. The regulatory framework is inadequate. We would therefore have expected that this question be addressed in Bill C-37.
The same is true of bank fees. It may be appropriate for there to be fees for certain transactions. But do fees need to be charged for all transactions? Some transaction charges are surely somewhat questionable. An example might be a cash withdrawal at an ATM that belongs to a bank other than the one that the person ordinarily does business with. There are relatively high fees for that transaction. This might at least have been given some thought.
In fact, the Minister of Finance will be meeting with the banks in a few days to discuss these questions. It would have been useful, before they are discussed with the banks, if we could have had a substantive discussion at the Standing Committee on Finance, based on various information that both the Department of Finance and the Minister of Finance could have provided to us. But no, the question had to be raised by one of the members of the Standing Committee on Finance and the committee had to take it upon itself to initiate a study of bank fees.
Once again, on questions of this type, we must not take an ideological approach, whether on the right or on the left. We must first try to understand why banks charge these fees, what they are for, and to establish rules or limits, to regulate this practice based on information and facts, and not based on preconceived notions.
The work on this will be done by the Standing Committee on Finance. We would have expected, however, in a bill to revise the Bank Act, something that happens only every five years, that these subjects, which have been widely debated in Canadian and Quebec society, would have been addressed.
There is another matter that should have been included in this bill. That is the entire question of reinvesting in the community. We know that discriminatory practices sometimes occur on the part of our banking institutions. I would say that they are not even committed intentionally. It is simply a certain way of doing things that is referred to as systemic discrimination.
Here is an example. Every year, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which is hardly a left-wing institution, as we know, speaks out against the discrimination that women entrepreneurs suffer, particularly small and medium-sized business owners. March 8 will be International Women's Day, and they will probably speak out against it again this year.
This is a known fact that even the business community recognizes, and we must therefore find ways to counter this systematic discrimination.
In the United States, community re-investment is a practice that forces financial institutions to take stock of their loan and credit applicants, and how the banks approve the applications. If it appears that certain groups are under-represented despite their applications, a special fund makes money available to those investors who have been discriminated against by the banks based on their profile. It is even better when there is no discrimination and the financial institutions take stock of the ratio of loan applications and approved loans.
However, I repeat, this is common practice in the United States, and this forces the financial institutions to re-invest in the community, in those groups that have the greatest difficulty obtaining credit, in particular, to start up a business.
Another question should have been addressed during the examination of Bill C-37 and that is the issue of tax havens. How is it that Canadian banks are such frequent users of tax havens? The Bank of Nova Scotia comes to mind, among others, since I discovered that it has locations in nearly all the tax havens in the West Indies, including Bermuda and the Bahamas. Why? Is it simply because it does not have the choice, given the global economy? We would like to know. The question has not even been asked. Is it because Canadian laws and regulations are not stringent enough? The Standing Committee on Finance began examining one possibility and will delve further into this over the coming weeks.
People will remember some interesting debates we had in the House on how companies like Canada Steamship Lines Inc. were using tax havens to avoid their responsibilities as good corporate citizens. As I was saying, we should at least have touched on this, although we still can. The Bloc Québécois intends, by the way, to introduce a motion in the next few weeks that the committee should pursue its work on tax havens.
Another aspect is identity theft. We know now that criminals can access our entire profile using social insurance cards. There are about five million too many of them in circulation.
With a certain amount of credit information, these people can go to a financial institution, take out a mortgage on someone’s house and disappear with the money. Unfortunately, these things happen every day. There is nothing about this crime, which is still not recognized as such. Sometimes people discover from one day to the next that they are indebted to the banks.
Who is responsible when this kind of thing happens? Are the banks not responsible for ensuring that when someone comes to them with certain information, he or she is the right person?
I think that we could have an interesting debate on this. We did touch on it when Bill C-37 was being studied. However, the department officials told us that it would have to be listed first as a crime in the Criminal Code before it could be included in the Bank Act.
We should have suggested a number of possibilities. The opposition parties, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, have obviously tried to fix some things. However, most of their amendments were deemed out of order because they went beyond the bill before us.
As I was saying, this bill severely restricted parliamentarians’ ability to do their job and review the Bank Act. Unfortunately, this opportunity only presents itself every five years. I hope that the department, the minister and the Conservative government will not wait five years to do something about these issues of considerable concern to the public.
Some other things too would have deserved further consideration, such as the question of the bank ombudsman, for example.
I quite liked the debate that started up where bank representatives explained what this system was and why the banks financed it. These representatives also explained that the ombudsman is quite independent and the banks have complied with fully with his decisions since the position was created.
Nevertheless, some consumer associations and individual consumers still appeared before the committee and said they did not think they had the protection they needed to proceed with some of the outstanding legal actions between consumers and the banks.
I for my part will not prejudge the issue. However, it seems to me that we should have pursued this further. Even after Bill C-37 has gone through the study phase, consumer associations will continue to think, whether rightly or wrongly, that the Bank Act does not protect consumers sufficiently. I think that they are right at least in regard to the fact that we have not studied this issue enough and did not go into it further. To this extent, their questions remain unanswered.
As I mentioned earlier, Bill C-37 is very technical and has limited debate on a number of questions. Furthermore, this bill was studied very quickly, I must confess. The committee did this work in three sessions. I do not think that the members of the committee needed a great many more sessions, given the technical framework of the bill. However, in my opinion, in future, when we study a bill like this one, we should have much more substantial debates, especially since the Bank Act is only reviewed every five years.
As I have already mentioned, the Bloc Québécois will vote in favour of this bill. Although it does not affect the big societal debates surrounding banking institutions and the Canadian banking system as a whole, Bill C-37 will nevertheless introduce a number of measures on which the Bloc agrees. For example, it will introduce mechanisms for conveying information to consumers, and this will enable them to get more information so that they can make informed decisions regarding their use of bank services. This is a step in the right direction. More remains to be done, but we are headed in the right direction.
Also, a regulatory framework allowing the use of digital data in the processing of cheques has been introduced, and this will reduce the length of time cheques are held by banking institutions.
There too I do not think anyone will complain about the fact that, instead of their cheque being frozen for ten days or seven days, as provided under the voluntary agreement between the banking institutions and the Department of Finance, the funds will only be frozen for four days, if I remember correctly. I will come back to this. The members of the committee nevertheless wondered why the banks were continuing to freeze the funds of deposited cheques for more than 24 hours, in spite of all the electronic means at our disposal.
We will have to wait till digital imaging is put in place. We have not had any answers on this.
The time during which such funds are frozen must be reduced to a minimum. This creates a lot of problems, particularly for small investors and small and medium-sized businesses. Still, the possibility of imaging will be there. Let us hope that the banks will use it to reduce waiting times for releasing funds as much as possible.
There is a provision for reducing the regulatory burden on foreign banks, credit unions and insurance companies in order to make the regulatory approval regime more efficient. Obviously nobody wants regulations for the sake of having regulations. Everyone agreed that this was a good step, especially for the credit unions.
Facilitating the establishment of foreign banks in Canadian and Quebec markets can only be beneficial for consumers. We know that our banking market is extremely concentrated in Canada, with only five major players. Despite the efforts that have been made to create competition, in particular with the passing of Bill C-8 a few years ago, we have to acknowledge that there is not much competition, particularly in the regions.
In the case of Quebec, for example, it could be said that, in the regions, the Desjardins movement practically has a monopoly because the major financial institutions have decided to desert this market as it is not lucrative enough for them.
We find ourselves in a situation where competition does not have all the results expected and the arrival of foreign banks and credit unions provides an opportunity for real competition in the financial sector, which is quite desirable.
Regulations governing mortgage loans are also revisited: the insurable portion of a mortgage will be reduced. At present, up to 75% of a mortgage does not have to be insured; the remainder does. Naturally, that leads to additional costs for consumers who wish to purchase a home. The uninsured portion is being increased to 80%. Reducing by 5% the portion to be insured will make it easier for a number of individuals to purchase property and lower the cost of borrowing. We obviously cannot be against this measure.
Various other matters were also reviewed. They relate to the proportion of equity of a bank held by a single shareholder or groups of shareholders. This should make it easier for small banks to enter the market. That is desirable. As I mentioned, past legislation adopted has not yet led to the desired competitiveness in the financial market.
Therefore, we will support this bill. In the time allotted to me I would like to talk in more detail about certain matters found in Bill C-37.
My presentation will address the bill's objectives.
The first objective covers all matters affecting the interests of consumers. A certain number of measures in this regard were taken by Bill C-37. As I mentioned, we do not go far enough; however, some measures are headed in the right direction.
The second objective is to improve legislative efficiency and there are a certain number of measures in this regard in Bill C-37.
The last objective pertains to a group of varied measures in Bill C-37.
The first key objective, which is enhancing the interests of consumers, includes a first main element, namely to improve the system of disclosing information to consumers. I talked about it earlier, in my introduction. This will help consumers make informed decisions about the investment vehicles that they choose.
It was decided to set higher standards for disclosure of charges and obligations. Penalties that apply to various accounts and investment vehicles are also heavier. Moreover, once the act is passed, it will require institutions to clearly disclose this information in all their branches, through the Internet, and also in writing to any individual who requests it.
Some might think that it goes without saying, but these provisions were not yet included in the Bank Act. Since one can hardly be opposed to virtue itself, we will support this measure.
There is a second element in this key objective of enhancing the interests of consumers. It is, as I mentioned, the change made to the regulatory framework to provide for the introduction of electronic cheque imaging. This will allow financial institutions to reduce the hold period on cheques. That is also a change that was asked for.
As for legislative efficiency, I already talked about reducing the regulatory burden for foreign banks and for credit unions. We will have to streamline the regulatory approval process, and provide a more flexible framework for credit unions.
Finally, as regards the other measures, the most important one is, as I mentioned, to increase from 75% to 80% the loan-to-value ratio for which insurance is mandatory on residential mortgages.
In conclusion, as I said at the outset, the Bloc Québécois will support Bill C-37.
Ms. Judy Wasylycia-Leis (Winnipeg North, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate at final reading of Bill C-37. The bill would ensure that legislation is changed to reflect the Bank Act review.
I have to say from the outset, as we heard repeatedly at committee, that this whole process and the legislation is a major disappointment to Canadians everywhere. We are talking about a fundamental issue pertaining to communities in this country, and that is the right to access community financial service.
We are dealing with a fundamental obligation on the part of our chartered banks. We are dealing with a situation where increasingly Canadians are feeling overburdened by the regulations and the charges of the banks without access to information so that they can make wise decisions.
We are dealing with communities everywhere, especially inner city, rural and northern communities, which are faced with branch closure after branch closure. We are dealing with people in communities who are then left to deal with payday lenders and other fringe financial institutions on a regular basis where, of course, they are subject to astronomical interest charges. We are dealing with people in communities who are left to access their hard earned money through ATMs, automated banking machines, for which they must pay dearly.
On every aspect in this whole area of banks and financial institutions, Canadians have not been served well by this legislative process. This is an opportunity we have every five years to review the Bank Act and to make necessary changes to ensure that we keep pace with Canadians' concerns and that we keep pace with changes in new technology.
We have not done that in the bill. We have failed Canadians dismally. Why? How did this happen? Let us start with the fact that by and large the dominant players in this process of review and study of the Bank Act are the big banks, moneyed institutions, and people and organizations with a heck of a lot of power and money.
It is pretty hard in that context for ordinary Canadians, for everyday working families, and for non-profit advocacy organizations to compete in that context. There is no money and support from this government to help balance out the equation. There has been no attempt on the part of governments, whether it is this one or the previous Liberal one, to actually ensure a level playing field to ensure that consumer groups and everyday Canadians could have a say in this Bank Act review process and be equal to the part being played by big banks, big insurance companies and moneyed interests in this country.
As a result, we have before us a very limited piece of legislation that tinkers with the system, does make a few necessary changes, granted, but misses the boat on the most pressing issues of the day in terms of banking and financial institutions.
If there is one shining light in all of this, if there is one silver lining in this process, it is the fact that because of the turbulent political times we are in, the present government and the former government have decided to pull back on their agenda to adhere to the banks' wishes for mergers, both in terms of banking institutions and cross pillar mergers.
It is a blessing that this minority situation we have been in for the last couple of years has slowed down the agenda of big banks and their mouthpieces here in Parliament. This legislation, thank goodness, does not include any reference or any permission to allow for bank mergers, nor does it allow for cross pillar mergers which involves the sharing and the merging of responsibilities around insurance.
That was a fear many of us had. Many small insurance brokers right across this country thought that the banks would win the day and gain control not only of every other area in the financial world but also of insurance, thereby putting out a lot of independent insurance brokers and leading to tied selling and lack of competition. One good thing about this bill is that is not in the legislation. However, that is about all I can say right now on the positive side of things.
What is so sad about this bill is what is missing in terms of the everyday lives of Canadians. There is nothing in this bill to make the banks accountable to Canadians and responsible for demonstrating why the banks deserve $19 billion in profits this year. We only have to look at the statistics to know that the banks are in a very stable and very lucrative position with better profits than they have ever enjoyed. On top of the huge profits that we see being earned by the banks, the CEOs of the major banks are being paid exorbitant, unbelievably high salaries.
A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives documented that the salaries of CEOs at the big banks and big oil companies were so high and out of line that the CEOs could make in a few hours what many Canadians make in a whole year.
That has certainly been revealed to us by the recent decision of the Royal Bank of Canada. By the way, the bank was up 40% in terms of profits this past year. It brought in $4.7 billion in profits. The Royal Bank gave its CEO, Gordon Nixon, a 25% raise last year, up to $11.9 million, including a salary bonus of $5 million. Mr. Nixon receives a salary of $1.4 million, a bonus of $5 million and deferred shares and stock options valued at $5.5 million. That is up from $9.5 million in fiscal year 2005. The bank also contributed about $766,000 to Mr. Nixon's pension plan, compared with $620,000 a year earlier.
Never mind that the CEOs make in a few hours what Canadians make in a year; I think those CEOs make in a year what Canadians could never make in a lifetime.
It would not be so bad if we could actually get some accountability from the banks. That is the purpose of government. That is the purpose of legislation. That is why we are here: to scrutinize legislation to ensure that there is a level playing field and to ensure that Canadians are given some protections. I am afraid we do not find that in this bill.
Before I give some of the critiques of this bill on that front, let me also say that when it comes to the big banks we also know that many of these institutions are moving their money offshore to avoid paying taxes. Let us not forget the studies. I am referring to one that is a couple of years old, but I am sure its findings are still current. It was clearly reported that Canada's top five banks have deprived tax coffers of $10 billion since 1991 through offshore tax havens. Not only are banks making those kinds of profits, they are moving money offshore so they do not have to pay taxes on it.
And of course they were anxious to make sure that we followed the advice of the Liberals and kept the income trusts alive and well on our agenda so they could have these flow-through entities and not have to pay taxes. Let us keep that in mind as we hear the former Liberal finance minister criticize the New Democratic Party which had the strength of its convictions to stand pat and stand firm and to say from the very beginning that income trusts had to be phased out, that we needed to do everything we could to stop this tax leakage and to close all corporate tax loopholes. This is something that he and his colleagues did not do when they had a chance in government. Despite all the hot air today, we know on what side their bread is buttered and on whose side they stand when push comes to shove.
Let us also be clear that the banks have used much of their money to gamble on the international casino stage. Let us not forget some of the endeavours by CIBC and its ties to Enron. Let us not forget some of the scandals that our banks have been involved in. We have seen some of the profits squandered in terms of playing the casino game on the international scene.
I say all of this to make the point that in fact we have to do something as a Parliament to get control over the situation and to hold the banks to account. Reputation is important and the banks know that. I think their response by some of the big banks to our plea for a rolling back of the fees charged to people when they use ATMs is an indication that they realize they have a public relations problem on their hands and that they must begin to deal with it.
In speaking of the need for Canadians to have confidence in the banks, I would like to refer to statements by the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions and to Nicholas Le Pan's statement not too long ago when he said:
|| There is no other basis for the financial services business than trust and confidence! And that goes to a firm's reputation and why reputation is a zero tolerance risk.
That is the message the banks need to hear from this Parliament. The banks need to be told that they are way beyond the zero tolerance risk level. The banks do not have the trust and confidence of Canadians. They do not have absolute loyalty to the very advantageous position of the banks today. This is what we have to change. That is why we are here. We are here to say that the banks owe it to Canadians to be accountable, transparent and open. There is nothing in the Bank Act and nothing in this legislation before us that requires the banks to do that.
It is interesting that according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, which is authorized under the Bank Act, there are hundreds of violations, but do we know the names of any of the banks that have violated the Bank Act and violated the laws of this country? No. There is no obligation for the banks to come forward. There is no obligation on the part of government to give their names.
Consumers who want to shop around to get the best service available cannot get the basic information to do that. We could get it if we were buying a toaster. We could get it if we wanted to take a vacation. We could get it if we were buying a house. However, we cannot get the basic information to choose a bank. Canadians cannot get the information they need to make a wise decision--
Mr. John Cannis: Why?
Ms. Judy Wasylycia-Leis: --because in fact the Bank Act is not written to ensure transparency and accountability to Canadians.
I see there is some curiosity on the part of my colleagues across the way. Let me tell them what we tried to do at the committee that was studying Bill C-37. In order to get some accountability from the banks, we moved a motion suggesting that there should be publication of the names of the banks that violated the consumer provisions of the Bank Act. We were not allowed to do that. Supposedly it was beyond the scope of the bill.
I must say that outside of an amendment from the Bloc around equity in community reinvestment and a few technical amendments from the Conservatives, the rest of the amendments came from the New Democratic Party. The two hours spent debating and amending the bill were primarily focused on the 30 or so amendments that I put forward. Not one was put forward by the Liberals, not a single amendment, not a single recommendation to change the Bank Act. Nothing. Nada.
Yet the former minister of national revenue, presently the Liberal finance critic, stands up in the House and lambastes the NDP for what? For doing our job. For devoting time and energy to study a piece of legislation.
Or is it still a sore point around the income trusts and the fact that we did our job when the Liberals were in government? When the Liberal government would not answer for the suspicious stock market activity on November 23, 2005 we asked the government to do something about it. We asked the government to investigate. It would not.
Mr. John Cannis: You asked the RCMP.
Ms. Judy Wasylycia-Leis: Excuse me, Mr. Speaker. There is a Liberal cat calling suggesting that we asked the RCMP. We did, but not until we asked the Liberal government to take this seriously. When the Liberals refused, we did the obvious thing, the only thing available, something that those Liberals would do today, which would be to ask for an investigation.
Mr. John Cannis: There was no government.
Ms. Judy Wasylycia-Leis: Mr. Speaker, yes, I guess we could say there was no government. The Liberals were acting as though they were not a government at the time.
Ms. Yasmin Ratansi (Don Valley East, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my constituents of Don Valley East, I am pleased to address Bill C-37, An Act to amend the law governing financial institutions and to provide for related and consequential matters.
Canada is somewhat unique in the sense that all federal legislation relating to financial institutions is subject to a sunset clause and must, therefore, be reviewed every five years by law. This has the effect of making Canadian financial institutions more efficient by keeping up with rapid changes in technology and the variety of services which arise from new technologies.
As the hon. member for Markham—Unionville has indicated in the House, the main content of Bill C-37 is largely based on the white paper commissioned by the former Liberal government in preparation for the statutory review of the Bank Act.
One of the aspects of this bill that I approve is the provision for an increased disclosure regime that would provide Canadian consumers and businesses alike with the information they need in order to make the most informed investment decisions possible. Bill C-37 would ensure that the savings products disclosure regime is just as effective for the millions of online bankers as it is for branch customers.
Strong competition and information disclosure are two of the best tools available to ensure that Canadian consumers' needs are being served well by our financial institutions. On the disclosure front, however, I am disappointed that the Conservatives have ignored one strong suggestion from the white paper regarding the complaint process for financial institutions.
I imagine that many Canadians are not very familiar with what the complaint process is at their local banks. Legislating that information with respect to the complaints process be readily available would have been a good idea.
I am willing to bet that there are a good number of Canadians who do not even know that there is an ombudsman for banking services should they exhaust all venues available to them. However, the ombudsman for banking services and his office do fine work and I would like to have seen a requirement for information about his service be made readily available.
Canada's mortgage loan insurance threshold would also be changed by this bill. Currently, any homebuyer who provides less than a 25% deposit is required by law to ensure that a mortgage through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation or similar private sector providers will be able to attend to this.
Bill C-37 would reduce this minimum requirement of 25% to 20%, allowing more Canadians to secure a home mortgage without having to pay the additional costs of mortgage insurance. Obviously it is sensible to have some sort of legal threshold under which Canadians must purchase their mortgage insurance. During the Mulroney years of uncontrollable inflation, it was far more than sensible. It was both prudent and necessary.
After decades of strong Liberal leadership, however, this country is enjoying both low inflation and record low unemployment rates. As a result, it is more important than reasonable to reduce the minimum deposit that Canadians must have in order to secure a mortgage without insurance.
I would also like to say that from the outset Canadians must place their trust in government to provide adequate consumer protection. Last year, however, the Conservative government shocked the nation with a devastating announcement that brought a key election promise.
On October 31, the Conservative government dropped a bombshell on Canadians by imposing a new tax regime on publicly traded income trusts. The effect on Canadian markets was devastating, resulting in the permanent loss of well over $20 billion in wealth, most of it at the expense of Canadian seniors who were relying on income trusts for day to day living expenses.
Worst of all, Canadian investors were lured by a Conservative election promise made by the current Prime Minister. In the middle of the last election campaign the Prime Minister said, on December 9, 2005, “A Conservative government will never raid seniors' nest eggs by taxing income trusts”.
Canadian investors took the Conservatives at their word and put more and more of their life savings into income trusts, making this the fastest growing sector on the market, all until the Prime Minister broke his word to Canadians. Sadly, Canadians are learning the hard way. The Conservatives are more than willing to betray election promises without any regard for the damage done to thousands of seniors who worked hard for their life savings only to have it wiped out with the stroke of a pen.
This is a sample of one of many letters and emails that I received from my constituents of Don Valley East. It states:
|| The damage done to the value of my investments in income trusts is devastating. I have incurred a 20% decline in value. It is my sincerest wish that an election will be held in the very near future and that the majority of Canadians will not re-elect your party. This is a very sad commentary and one I wish was not necessary to write. However, I have definitely lost my confidence in your party's approach to fair treatment of its citizens, particularly seniors of which I am one.
The current Prime Minister knew how much seniors were depending on income trusts and yet he was determined to break his word. With one hand the government has swiped billions from seniors through their income trust savings and with the other offered very little in the form of income splitting. In fact, some have construed this pension splitting to be income splitting. It is not.
Pension splitting will do little to curb poverty among seniors and even less to alleviate the huge losses they have suffered as a result of the Conservatives' broken election promises. Hundreds of thousands of single seniors, the majority of them women, will not see a penny from this policy.
I am pleased to support Bill C-37 at this stage. I am glad to see that the Conservatives are continuing to implement the Liberal agenda on so many fronts. It is, after all, the same Liberal agenda that saw Canada make a complete economic U-turn after years of Conservative fiscal mismanagement. It was not long ago when the Wall Street Journal referred to Canada as a third world economic basket case because of the damage done by the previous Conservative government.
Thank goodness the Liberal Party was able to come to power to eliminate Mulroney's $42 billion deficit, balance the books for eight straight years, while offering Canadians the biggest tax break in Canadian history.
I sincerely hope that Canada's alleged new government will continue to use our ideas to their fullest and can refrain from returning to the dangerous incompetencies of the previous Conservative government, which was so damaging to Canada's economic well-being.
Mr. Paul Crête (Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak today to Bill C-37. This bill is the mandatory review that is provided for regarding the operation of the banking system. Every five years, we have to review that piece of legislation to try to make it as functional as possible and to adjust it to changing technology. The Bloc Québécois will therefore be voting for the bill, because even though it is not perfect, it does contain significant improvements.
First, Bill C-37 institutes mechanisms for disclosing information to consumers, so that they will be able to make informed choices regarding the banking services they use. We all know that, historically, banking services have not always been models when it came to providing information to consumers. People did not find it easy to understand and it was very difficult to compare one bank to another. There are improvements in the bill that will allow people to get this kind of information, and this is a benefit for consumers.
Second, the bill will establish the regulatory framework to allow for digital data to be used in cheque processing, which will reduce the time that cheques are held by banking institutions. A new technology has been adopted, and this means that a cheque will be frozen in a banking institution for less time. This provides a benefit for the consumer and an important benefit for small and medium-sized businesses, which often have to wait until a cheque is released before it becomes available and can be cashed. It will facilitate both business operations and everyday management of family and individual budgets. In this respect, it is a practical application of a technology.
Third, the bill will reduce the regulatory burden for foreign banks, credit unions and insurance companies, to make the regulatory compliance mechanisms more efficient. For example, credit unions that have fewer people and that apply to do this will be recognized. As for foreign banks, the aim is for there to be more competition because a lack of competition is a problem in the Canadian system. In regions like the one I represent, bank branches have disappeared, one after the other, in recent decades.
At present, I can tell you that the Desjardins movement is represented, as is the National Bank of Canada and a few other banks, but those institutions cover huge geographic areas. The way that the rules about loans to businesses or individuals are applied, for example, increasingly fails to take the local situation into account and is increasingly often no more than a mathematical financial calculation. From that perspective, even the disappearance of the banks has an effect on how credit unions operate, because the banks' focus on profitability at any cost has prompted the Desjardins movement, for example, to review its structures with a view to that fact.
We have to find solutions to the lack of competition, solutions that may lie in providing foreign banks with market entry conditions that enable them to offer services so that ultimately the consumer wins. This should be done, on condition that appropriate operating rules are obeyed and also that we ensure that in terms of employment spinoffs, jobs are not simply being exported abroad. On that point, the amendments in the bill are acceptable, and are even attractive.
Fourth, the bill aims to amend the rules governing mortgage loans, thereby enabling more people to take advantage of that financial tool. A previous amendment has already increased the percentage that could be obtained without an insurance guarantee. This bill aims to increase it to 80%.
Lastly, the government is increasing the equity threshold from $1 billion to $2 billion, thereby making it possible for a single shareholder to wholly own a bank, and thus encouraging new competitors on the market. I mentioned that earlier. We need to ensure greater competition. This measure aims to move forward in this area.
The Bloc Québécois wants to ensure, however, that the amendments to the regulations do not allow the kind of uncontrolled mergers and acquisitions we have seen before in the banking sector. I have been a member of this House for about 12 years and we have seen all kinds of situations in terms of bank mergers. Under the former Liberal government, during my first few years as a member here, there was greater willingness to allow this. Systematic opposition from the Bloc Québécois, other parties of this House and civil society made it possible to ensure that there were no uncontrolled mergers and, that, at the end of the day, there were no fewer intervenors.
Canada currently has five major banks. If that number had decreased to only two, clearly, there would have been less competition. If we do not open the market up externally at the same time, we would be creating a duopoly, and we certainly do not want that to happen.
While the committee was studying the bill, we wanted to make sure that we continued to look at this issue to avoid unrestrained mergers.
Speaking of mergers, we demand that any amendment to the moratorium on bank mergers be made in the best interest of citizens, not just to make the financial markets happy. There is an unfortunate tendency in this sector to see this activity as being the sole province of economic players, but clients, consumers, citizens, have the right to know how these things work. We must ensure that the mechanism gives everyone a fair chance and that we have a stable, structured system that fosters real competition. In that respect, the Bloc Québécois will ensure that the committees hear all relevant witnesses so they can make good recommendations.
That, in a nutshell, is the Bloc Québécois' analysis of this bill.
I would also like to talk about promoting consumers' interests by improving the information disclosure regime. A lot of progress was needed on this issue. For example, institutions will be required to clearly disclose their information on the Internet, in all branches and in writing to anyone who asks. This is a major change to the way banks do things, a change that we applaud. We hope that this will come to pass and that the banking system will become more democratic.
We also want to change the regulatory framework to enable the implementation of digital imaging. The legislative framework must therefore allow digital imaging in order to facilitate the cheque cashing process and to reduce the length of time banking institutions can hold cheques, as I mentioned earlier.
We must also reduce the length of time banking institutions can hold cheques directly, because following the publication of the 2006 Financial Institutions Legislation Review, the government promised to reduce the cheque holding time to make life easier for SMEs and other citizens. Bill C-37 gives the superintendent the authority to limit the length of time for which cheques can be held. We will see how that works out in practice.
The white paper proposed an immediate reduction of the maximum hold time to seven days, and to five days once the digital cheque imaging system is in place. We will see how this works.
Cheque holds affect not only consumers who need to have access to those funds to pay their bills, but also small and medium businesses that must pay their employees and keep the business operating out of the funds they deposit.
There are currently cash flows because of how quickly businesses are operating and because of the introduction of just-in-time systems. Financial flows need to be just as quick. In that sense, the improvement to the bill should help businesses.
The government wants all users of the payments system—including consumers—to benefit from the increased efficiency resulting from the Canadian Payments Association initiative that involved changing the payments system to facilitate electronic imaging of cheques. These changes must do more than just improve profits. We must ensure that the services are adequate and that the savings are passed on to the consumer.
The second objective is to increase legislative efficiency by lightening the regulatory burden on foreign banks so as to facilitate their access to the Canadian market and stimulate competition.
Competition exists. However, certain problems were raised concerning the regulations governing foreign banks. This bill aims to clarify the measures applying to foreign banks operating in Canadian territory by refocusing the regulatory framework on the chartered banks and simultaneously excluding the near banks.
The near banks are companies that offer banking-type financial services. Unlike chartered banks, near banks cannot change their basic money supply, that is, they cannot borrow money from or lend money to the Bank of Canada to make new deposits or new loans.
Still in the same section, a second measure aims to improve legislative efficiency and streamline the regulatory approval regime. We want to ensure that decisions that do not impact public policy, as provided for in the legislation, are in the hands of the superintendent.
In the opinion of the Bloc Québécois, the minister must not be permitted to depoliticize operations that will have an impact on public policy. We have to make sure that the minister continues to assume his responsibilities. Given the current practice of the Conservative government of not wanting to intervene in the economy, such a caution is quite justified.
The bill also relaxes the federal framework governing credit unions. For example, in order to facilitate the opening of new credit unions, the government would lower to two the number of institutions required to constitute a credit union. At present, a minimum of 10 credit unions is needed to establish an association under the Cooperative Credit Associations Act.
Still, in light of the new commercial possibilities offered by retail associations and ongoing consultation in the cooperative credit system, the current entry threshold is too high. This is why the amendment corresponds to the market reality, which seems to be an advantage. This would increase this sector’s ability to adapt to new developments and better serve consumers and SMEs.
The third objective of this bill would increase from 75% to 80% the loan-to-value ratio for which insurance is mandatory on residential mortgage loans. This ratio was set over 30 years ago. It is a cautionary measure designed to protect lenders from fluctuations in property values and payment defaults by borrowers.
The last time this ratio was changed was in 1965, when it was raised from 66% to 75%. But the marketplace has changed since then. Lenders’ risk management practices have improved, risk-based regulatory requirements concerning capital have been implemented and the financial markets have changed and stabilized.
Finally the supervisory framework for federally-regulated financial institutions has been strengthened. So it seems that the restriction no longer plays the same role with respect to caution. A cautionary provision requiring borrowers to take out mortgage insurance at a loan-to-value ratio set at 75% might mean that some consumers are paying more than necessary for their mortgage.
The second part has to do with readjusting the equity thresholds, which would allow sole ownership or to force wide ownership. They also want to increase, from one third, the minority limit on the number of foreign directors on the boards of Canadian banks. There is an array of measures, therefore, intended to make the banking system work better.
As I said at the outset, my fellow citizens and the electors in my riding are very concerned about the availability of bank services. The banks have undertaken some major offensives over the last few years and have invaded the insurance market, for example. The insurance brokers came up with a strong response to show us what a negative effect this would have had on regional development.
The Bloc Québécois believes that this bill, generally and overall, improves the way the bank system works.
Obviously, there are still some basic questions. However, in view of the fact that the act will have to be reviewed within five years and the government has already offered an additional six-month period ending April 24, we should definitely pass this bill and hope that ultimately the government will listen to what the Bloc has to say. We will continue to monitor these matters.
I want to conclude with the question of bank mergers. This is an area where the federal government's actions have lacked transparency over the last few years. They have gone back and forth and even hidden a document for a few months on the pretext that since we have a minority government, it might have been damaging to make it public. In the meantime, life goes on.
I think that it is good to have an open public debate in a sector like this. We should take a global view now of the measures we are taking and the corrective steps we want to take, to ensure there is genuine competition and we do not just end up creating duopolies.
Foreign banks can come and compete, just as the Canadian banks can make foreign purchases. Globalization in itself is not a bad thing, but we need to ensure that it is done in a way that leaves us winners.
The federal government has often neglected to use all the tools at its disposal, including the safeguards enabling industrial sectors such as the apparel and textile industries to protect themselves, to have a transition period. This was not done in these industries.
With regard to Canada's banking system, which has grown along with Canada, it is solid but it must adjust to new global realities. It must be given the requisite opportunity to serve consumers adequately. In this regard, there are still improvements to be made in terms of the transparency of information available.
I am anxious to see whether or not the clauses of this bill that pertain to disclosure of information to consumers, will be applied correctly and if the banks will provide the maximum amount of information. In the end, the Bloc Québécois will be able to see whether or not results are achieved.
In any event, this is an on-going process. We will have to re-examine this legislation to ensure that it always reflects the market reality. However, at present, the Bloc Québécois thinks it is a good thing to vote in favour of this bill, which makes certain improvements to our banking system. We hope that the banking system will be of benefit to our entire economy and that, in particular, it will address the lack of service in areas outside of major centres, in the rural areas of Quebec and Canada. In this regard, the banking system needs to pay more attention to our citizens.