ABOVE: NDP transport critic Hoang Mai wants answers from the federal government following release of internal audit
OTTAWA — Transport Canada has a “number of weaknesses” in its oversight of safety and security inspectors, an internal audit concluded.
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This report is one in a growing number pointing to the department’s troubles with transportation safety oversight, including from the federal auditor general.
“It’s a trend we’ve seen of Transport Canada failing to properly oversee safety investigations and follow up when deficiencies are found,” said NDP transport critic Hoang Mai. “In this case, we see there are no systems in terms of performance assessments or in terms of making sure safety and security inspectors have a framework to ensure they’re not in a conflict of interest.”
According to the Transport Canada-commissioned audit, which appears to have been posted online several weeks ago, the department does not provide enough direction to give inspectors clear objectives — a shortfall that could exacerbate the department’s known weakness in conducting and documenting inspections.
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Transport officials are also dropping the ball when it comes to gauging the performance of their safety and security staff, according to the auditors, who examined assessments of a random sample of regional inspectors and managers without being able to find any reference to either “performance gaps” or ”weaknesses.”
The department also lacks a well-developed system for preventing conflict of interests, which auditors said was especially troubling considering “it is acknowledged throughout the department that the inherent risk of [conflict of interest] is high” for inspectors.
“It was found there has been little guidance to date on the [conflict-of-interest] issues that could arise for inspectors, for example opportunities for outside work in companies whose activities are overseen by the department,” the report continued, noting the department has paid little attention to 2005 legislation requiring all federal departments to establish informal conflict resolution systems.
In an emailed statement, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said she welcomes the findings of the internal audit.
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“Transport Canada has accepted all the recommendations in the report and it working on implementing them,” she wrote.
Though this audit focuses on inspectors for air, road, rail and ship, Auditor General Michael Ferguson in November found the existing frameworks at Transport do not ensure independence and objectivity of rail safety inspectors, specifically.
Ferguson’s office was looking into this because Transport Canada hires many of its rail inspectors and managers from federal railways.
“This is actually quite surprising,” Mai said. “We know that Transport Canada has transferred a lot of the inspections to the rail companies, and now we realize there’s no one looking into what’s happening in terms of conflict of interest … It’s definitely a concern. How can you be the one who’s going to be applying the rules and also the ones who are benefitting from the lack of imposing the rules?”
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The department’s response to the audit, posted online late last month, indicates the department is taking steps to address the recommendations in the report.
For example, Transport’s human resources advisors have conducted “values and ethics awareness campaigns,” and communications have gone out to all Transport Canada employees alerting them of requirements concerning conflicts of interest.
Further says it is in the process of implementing a system to help ensure all safety staff is clear on what’s expected of them and the standards they should meet during inspections. Transport Canada has also indicated it will ensure third parties check their inspectors’ work.
The audit was completed in June 2013, and appears to have been posted online several weeks ago. The review was part of the department’s 2012-13 internal audit plan, and examined the management practices supporting Transport Canada’s 1,200 safety and security inspectors and managers.
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About 25 per cent of all of Transport Canada’s employees are safety and security inspectors, operating out of approximately 70 departmental offices.
“The work of these inspectors is vital to the safety and security of Canada’s aviation, rail, marine and transportation of dangerous goods,” the auditors wrote, noting those employees are responsible for determining whether industry is meeting safety standards.
“If these standards are not being met, it is Transport Canada inspectors that assess the companies’ corrective actions plans and decide when the plans can be considered implemented. “