OTTAWA - New amendments to the government's prostitution bill will give it a better chance of withstanding a constitutional court challenge, says a leading Conservative on the House of Commons justice committee.
"Every clarification makes it more supportable under the charter," said Conservative MP Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Peter MacKay. "It will reduce the likelihood that it will be challenged, and it will make what the bill means much clearer."
Dechert was commenting on the final day of committee hearings, which involved a painstaking, clause-by-clause review of the bill after it was the subject of four full days of testimony last week.
The committee, on which the governing Conservatives hold a majority, voted Tuesday to amend the bill, which was tabled in response to the Supreme Court of Canada's decision last December to strike down the old law as unconstitutional.
The amendment, which the Conservatives themselves drafted, will now criminalize prostitutes if they communicate for the purpose of selling sex next to a school, playground or daycare centre.
It passed over the objections of opposition Liberal and NDP members, who are in the minority on the committee. NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin was among opposition MPs who objected to any provision to criminalize prostitution and questioned whether the amendment provided any additional clarity.
Dechert told the committee the change was necessary because the bill, as drafted, was too vague, because it referred simply to places where children were expected to be.
The ability of the bill to withstand a future challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has become the core issue in this unusual summer sideshow on an otherwise politically dormant Parliament Hill.
MacKay said last week he fully expects another challenge to the law, but he wouldn't say where it might be vulnerable.
About three dozen witnesses at last week's lengthy hearings urged changes to the part of the bill that still makes prostitution a criminal offence in those limited circumstances.
Overall, the bill introduces new criminal penalties for pimps and johns, and largely considers the prostitutes to be victims of abuse.
Opposition MPs appeared deflated after a final half-day of procedural hearings in which they debated almost two dozen proposed changes to the legislation.
A series of NDP amendments were met with a brick wall of resistance and were voted down.
Dechert, who was tasked with getting the bill passed, assumed the role of chief government naysayer and took the lead in speaking against the proposed NDP amendments.
As the hearings ground towards their conclusion Tuesday afternoon, Dechert appeared to surprise his main opponent across the table, Boivin, when he partly endorsed one of the opposition's proposed amendments.
"I do believe this is a good idea," Dechert said.
The amendment called for a Commons review of the new law two years after it is enacted.
"I believe that it is fair and reasonable," said Dechert, before proposing one key change: that the review take place after five years, not two.
An exasperated Boivin replied: "Why can't you just say yes, completely, once?"
The committee voted for a review after five years.
The Supreme Court struck down the old prostitution law because it was found to violate the basic charter right to security of the person. The justices were concerned that the law unduly increased physical risks for prostitutes.
The court gave the government until December to replace it with a new law that would comply with the charter.
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