House of Commons Hansard #40 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was ethanol.

Topics

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

January 30th, 2008 / 6 p.m.

Independent

Louise Thibault Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

moved:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should review the Old Age Security program with a view to: (a) reduce the program’s operational costs by ceasing to pay benefits that subsequently have to be repaid; (b) allocate these savings first to single, divorced and widowed Guaranteed Income Savings recipients, specifically to people who did not have an opportunity to prepare for their retirement; (c) improve the Guaranteed Income Savings benefits for elderly single, divorced and widowed individuals; and (d) increase the other income threshold so that Guaranteed Income Savings recipients may receive the equivalent of 15 hours per week of work at minimum wage in their province of residence without penalty.

Mr. Speaker, I am proud and moved to open the debate today on an issue that is very important to me, on behalf of thousands of seniors in my region, in my riding, in Quebec and in Canada. I am talking about having a decent guaranteed income supplement worthy of its name.

I would like to begin by thanking the hon. member for London North Centre for agreeing to second my motion. I chose this hon. colleague because he is fine man with a deep sense of common good and social justice. I am sorry I cannot speak his name.

This debate is necessary and urgent because it addresses the financial situation of low income seniors, which has been critical for far too long now and has had a serious impact on many aspects of their lives. A quarter of a million seniors live in poverty and the majority are single women. This deplorable situation includes seniors who are receiving the maximum guaranteed income supplement benefit and those who are eligible to receive it but are not aware of that fact.

I took the initiative to start a petition in support of this motion and I collected 7,000 signatures from people all across eastern Quebec, from La Pocatière to the Magdalen Islands and even from New Brunswick, who approved the timing of this motion. This shows that people, seniors or not, recognize the merits of this motion and, accordingly, the need for elected members of this House to make it clear to the government that something needs to be done about this right away.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Paquette from the Carrefour des 50 ans et plus in eastern Quebec, all the members of the affiliated clubs and all the people who signed the petition.

It is unacceptable and shameful of the government to allow thousands of seniors to live below the low-income cutoff, which is just a euphemism for poverty line. They are living in extreme poverty. These people are suffering greatly and it is time to do something about it.

The motion I am presenting calls on the government to review the old age security program to ensure that our seniors are getting adequate benefits. The motion is divided into four parts.

First, it involves reducing the program’s operational costs by ceasing to pay benefits that subsequently have to be repaid. In my view, this is only logical.

Second, the motion aims to allocate these savings first to single, divorced and widowed guaranteed income supplement recipients, specifically to people who did not have an opportunity to prepare for their retirement. Indeed, many of our seniors are in this position.

Third, it involves improving the guaranteed income supplement benefits for those same recipients, those I just mentioned above.

Fourth, the motion aims to increase the other income threshold so that guaranteed income supplement recipients may receive the equivalent of 15 hours per week of work at minimum wage in their province of residence without penalty.

I would now like to explain these four points one by one.

The first has to do with the fact that thousands of people aged 65 and older receive old age security benefits, which are often referred to as the “old age pension”, and pay it back in full when they file their income taxes. According to Statistics Canada 234,623 recipients had to repay a portion of their pension in 2006. Of that number, 47,334 had to pay it back in full or nearly in full. The reality is that seniors who have a gross annual revenue of $103,000 or more do not really need a taxable monthly pension of $500.

Although I know that some members of this House do not want this aspect of the old age security program to be called into question, I personally believe that the money saved should be used to increase guaranteed income supplement payments for people who are currently living below the poverty line—well below the poverty line.

The second point raised in my motion concerns the costs of running the old age security program. I am talking about the costs associated with managing overpayments, which cost the government and therefore taxpayers a great deal of money. In her 2006 report, the Auditor General indicated that old age security overpayments totalled $82 million as of March 31, 2005. She also stated that recipients who had not yet repaid their overpayments were continuing to receive benefits. These overpayments are sometimes the result of file processing errors. They are not necessarily due to fraud.

In the same report, the Auditor General said that the quality of application processing is not adequately monitored and that 9% of applications showed quality deficiencies. That created payment errors amounting to 0.6% of the total amount of benefits, which is $27.9 billion, as I am sure my colleagues know. If we do the math, we get $167 million, which is no small amount. I am asking that the money the government saves by putting an end to many of the overpayments be used to increase guaranteed income supplement payments for poor seniors.

The third part of my motion is crystal clear: “improve the guaranteed income supplement benefits for elderly single, divorced and widowed individuals”, meaning people who live alone. Why? Because essentials such as rent, heating, electricity, basic telephone service, cable, essential travel—I am not talking about vacation travel—and food cost as much for a person living alone as for a couple, and sometimes even more.

The situation of single seniors who receive the guaranteed income supplement, and mainly those who receive the maximum, is nothing short of disastrous. These individuals are thousands of dollars below the poverty line. For example, in my riding, recipients of combined benefits—old age security and the guaranteed income supplement—receive $14,000 whereas the poverty line is $18,000. They have a shortfall of $4,000. What about recipients who live in major centres where the poverty line may be $22,000, $24,000 or $27,000? The shortfall is greater. These individuals are living in extreme poverty and that has to change.

It also has to be said that although both men and women are caught in this deplorable situation, it is women—particularly the oldest— who are more often the victims of this poverty. Many of these women were unable to pay into pension plans because of their role as housewives, a very noble role indeed. All women who worked at home, often with their spouses—farm wives, for example—did not earn an income and thus could not contribute to a public pension plan.

Furthermore, speaking of women, we know that they have a greater life expectancy: 82.5 years for women compared to 77.7 for men. These women who live in poverty will be subjected to these conditions for a longer period of time. I believe that everyone in this House will acknowledge that this is shameful.

It is unacceptable and the government must take action to correct this situation.

I must point out that this situation still exists despite the improvements various successive governments have agreed to make over the years, mainly—let us face it—because of social pressures and the work of the opposition to increase the guaranteed income supplement and facilitate the process somewhat.

Our seniors are still living in poverty and are being kept in poverty because of unfair provisions. We must eradicate poverty among seniors—and the government has the means to do so—with a system that respects dignity and that everyone can get behind. This social value has been embraced out of respect for our seniors. The token amount they are being given right now does not reflect their contribution to society.

My fourth request asks the government to increase the level of other income permissible in order to allow recipients of the guaranteed income supplement, who so desire, to work 15 hours a week at the minimum wage of the province they live in, without penalty. We know that currently, a claimant's guaranteed income supplement is decreased for any earnings over and above $24. This is absolutely ridiculous.

Research has shown that people 65 and older who wish to continue working do so for far less than minimum wage. People 65 and older do want to keep working. They are often recruited during peak periods in sales sectors, agriculture, agri-food and tourism. Some of these people that I meet tell me that they are practically encouraged to work under the table. It is not right for a government to penalize honest people who are simply trying to have a decent life.

On the subject of the incomes of seniors, the framework prepared in 2005 by the Committee of Officials for Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors is telling:

—income is one of the most important health determinants and the basis of an individual's ability to access appropriate housing and transportation required to maintain independence; nutritious and sufficient food to maintain health; and non-insured medical services and supports such as medication and home support.

Income is an important determinant when it comes to poverty. If we really want to help our seniors live better, this is where we must start.

In conclusion, through this motion, and this goes without saying, I am inviting all parliamentarians to join me in calling on the government to seriously and actively deal with the issue of poverty among seniors, particularly seniors living alone. The situation is critical. The government, and each elected member in this House, must be guided by values that focus on the common good, and the government is responsible for redistributing our collective wealth. All I ask is that our seniors be able to live with dignity. They helped build our society. We owe them this.

I have suggested realistic solutions. I will leave it up to the government to decide how to implement them. This is why I chose to move a motion instead of introducing a bill, knowing full well that it is rare for a member's bill to receive royal assent if it requires the government to incur expenses. For the sake of our seniors, I hope that each member in this House will think carefully and ethically about this, and that a majority will vote in favour of this motion.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

NDP

Chris Charlton Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, I really appreciate that this motion is before the House because there are few issues that are more pressing than the income needs of seniors, particularly the most vulnerable seniors in our communities.

I know that the member spoke very eloquently about the needs in particular of senior women in our communities. When they are living alone, they do experience much higher rates of poverty than any other segment of the senior population. I know that is true in Hamilton. I certainly know it is true in my riding of Hamilton Mountain, yet there is a section in the motion that I find kind of awkward.

When we talk about elderly, single, divorced and widowed individuals, that section to me gives the impression that we are advocating that government benefits, as essential as the GIS, are being allocated based on marital status.

I would like to think that the wording is as it is in that motion simply because that is how the actual legislation deals with people who are single and living alone, and that we are not actually supporting this distinction based on marital status. I just wonder whether the member could elaborate as to what her intent is and whether she is indeed just copying the language of the bill.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Independent

Louise Thibault Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for her question. Obviously, I hope she will support this motion. She is absolutely right. The only reason I used the language I did is that it is important to respect the administrative language, the language used in the legislation.

My goal in introducing this motion is to help single people. We all know that typically, this affects older women—much older women. I am not just saying this because I am a woman.

I am just using the existing language. The member can be sure that I did not intend to reveal or hide anything.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Bloc

Raymond Gravel Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague from Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques because the subject of seniors is very important to me. I, too, am here to work for seniors.

I would like my colleague to clarify two points. First, the motion specifies “single”, “widowed” and “divorced” people, but it should also include “separated” people. Perhaps these people have been forgotten because they constitute a different group.

My other question has to do with the program's operational costs mentioned in the motion:

(a) reduce the program’s operational costs by ceasing to pay benefits that subsequently have to be repaid;

How much are these operational costs estimated to be? If part (a) is rejected, then part (b) will automatically be dropped. I think it would be deplorable if funds were not redirected to the recipients of the guaranteed income supplement.

I would like some clarification on these points.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Independent

Louise Thibault Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, to my knowledge, when we worked on the wording, we used the three terms that were there. Obviously, if “separated” needs to be added, I would be happy to do so. There was no moral dimension in the words used in the motion. I really meant people who live alone.

As for the operational costs, we are talking about several million dollars. This is why I would like to see that money redistributed, of course, as I said, so that those who really need it can benefit from it. In my view, it is completely unacceptable that people who do not need the pension at all receive it.

The question of overpayments and managing the program is a major issue. We are spending ridiculous amounts of money to manage incompetence. That must be corrected. Generally speaking, the government is very stingy. When it is spending money to help our seniors, it must ensure that this money goes to the right people.

I thank my hon. colleague for his question.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Blackstrap
Saskatchewan

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for raising this issue in the House today. My colleague, like every member in the House, cares deeply about seniors and seniors' issues, especially the issues faced by seniors living in low income situations.

I would like to take this opportunity to discuss this government's actions with respect to seniors' issues, and we welcome any input from the opposition.

The good news is that Canada has one of the lowest poverty rates among seniors in the world. In fact, most Canadian seniors enjoy a high standard of living. Since 1980, the level of low income among Canadian seniors has dropped from just over 21% to about 6%, yet even this remarkable achievement leaves too many Canadian seniors living below the poverty line.

That is why this government continues to make the needs of low income seniors a priority, and that is why I welcome the opportunity to address the motion before the House today.

The motion proposes that the government review the old age security program with a view to achieving four main objectives. I would like to address each of these now.

First, the motion proposes that the government reduce operational costs in the old age security program by ceasing to pay benefits that subsequently have to be repaid.

Second, it proposes that any savings from these measures should then be allocated first to beneficiaries of the guaranteed income supplement, or the GIS, specifically elderly, single, divorced or widowed individuals.

It is exceedingly rare that the old age security program pays out a benefit that must later be repaid. Most of the overpayments result from errors in statements of income or a late notification of changes in marital status or death. Overpayments occur in less than one-third of 1% of all files and amount to about 1% of total benefits paid out annually.

Our government is working to eliminate even these rare instances of overpayment. Service Canada is working with the provinces to collect vital statistics in a more efficient and timely manner to eliminate the overpayments that occur due to late notifications of death or a change in marital status.

As a result of the government's successful modernization of this important program, the first two sections of this motion are unnecessary. In the very near future the savings to be made from overpayments will amount to mere fractions of pennies for each recipient.

The third provision calls on the government to improve GIS benefits for elderly, single, divorced and widowed individuals.

Under this government all seniors, including those groups mentioned in this motion, are receiving hundreds of more dollars in guaranteed income supplement and old age security benefits than under the previous Liberal government.

In fact, since we took office two years ago we have overseen two increases to the GIS.

Effective January 2006, we raised the GIS by 3.5% and we did again in January 2007. These measures are providing all single recipients with an additional $430 per year and $700 more per year per couple.

These increases will raise the total guaranteed income supplement benefit by more than $2.7 billion over the next five years and benefit more than 1.6 million GIS recipients, including more than 50,000 seniors who were not eligible under previous Liberal governments.

The fourth provision in the motion proposes to exempt 15 hours per week of earned income at minimum wage in the recipient's province of residence without penalty.

Given the range of minimum wage rates across the country, the income exemption would vary from just under $6,000 in Nova Scotia to just over $6,000 in Nunavut. Such a measure would raise serious equity concerns as seniors would receive different benefits depending on their province of residence.

The GIS is an important resource for low income seniors. It was never intended to supplement an individual's income. Rather, it was and is intended to ensure every pensioner has enough income from all sources, including the GIS, to maintain and improve the standard of living of Canada's seniors.

That said, we currently have an earned income exemption for GIS recipients of 20% of earned income above and beyond any benefits received from the government. This exemption is capped at $500, which is reached with an income of $2,500 per year.

Providing additional assistance to older workers and to seniors wishing to re-enter the workforce is a worthy goal, especially given the labour shortages that exist in so many sectors where seniors are likely to take a part time job. Let us examine the proposed solution for a few moments.

Recent statistics show that only about 4% of guaranteed income supplement recipients have earned income above and beyond the benefits provided to them. Many of those who have decided to enter the workforce have done so for personal reasons that are not financial, for example, to maintain social connections, to continue contributing to the community, to stay active, or just to be out of the house.

Then there are the real considerations. If all of these seniors were to take advantage of the 15-hour exemption, this would cost the GIS program almost a quarter billion dollars each year. This figure assumes no additional seniors would choose to enter the labour market. This translates into a large cost to taxpayers to benefit a very tiny percentage of seniors, and the seniors who could benefit are not likely to be the seniors most in need of additional assistance.

The government is committed to the financial well-being of Canadian seniors, especially those with low incomes. This is why we have done more for seniors in 24 months than the previous Liberal government did in 13 years.

We made it easier for seniors to apply for Canada pension and old age security benefits through the passage of Bill C-36.

We have reduced combined income taxes by allowing senior couples to split their pension income.

We have reduced the GST twice, which is often the only tax that low income seniors pay.

We have created the National Seniors Council to advise the government on matters related to seniors' well-being and quality of life.

We have committed $10 million to combat elder abuse through public awareness and education and upgrading of community buildings and equipment used by seniors.

We have also budgeted an additional $10 million per year to the new horizons for seniors program to encourage seniors to contribute to their communities.

As I said before, this government is serious about improving support for all seniors. That is why we have examined the provisions of this motion with particular attention.

Again, we thank the member for her concern for seniors. However, it is clear that despite its good intentions, the motion does not do what low income seniors might expect. It does not provide substantial and effective assistance of any kind to seniors, which this government has offered in the past and will continue to offer in the future.

For these reasons, I oppose the motion and urge all members of the House to join me in doing so.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:30 p.m.

Liberal

Glen Pearson London North Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of the member for Rimouski and the motion she has put forward. I do it for a number of different reasons, some of which are personal.

What we just heard in the House in the last intervention really does not deal with the aspect of seniors' poverty which we are facing now. This is a huge issue and a significant one.

The old age security and guaranteed income supplement were designed at a time when our country was in a very different place. It was a world in which mothers worked at home, raised children and were widowed young, but not divorced, where fathers worked in industrial settings, and where both men and women had much shorter life expectancies at older ages than those of succeeding generations.

Today we know that life is very different and as a result, the social impacts of a changed society have had dramatic repercussions on all segments of this society. For Canada's low income seniors these changes have meant a lingering cycle of poverty. We as parliamentarians actually have the ability to change that.

While there has been a clear improvement in the economic situation of Canadian seniors since the 1980s, a substantial number of seniors continue to live under very difficult economic conditions. While many consider Canada's combined public-private retirement income system a success story, poverty among seniors is not a rare occurrence. It is most common among seniors living alone, women over the age of 80, visible minorities and immigrants.

For a good number of these seniors living in poverty, the prospect of a golden retirement simply does not exist. The gains in old age security and CPP cut seniors' poverty in half during the 1980s and the 1990s, a very significant accomplishment, but it showed what government could do when it applied itself to seniors and the struggles that they were facing.

I speak from experience. I am a director of the food bank in London. I have been a volunteer director there for 21 years. We had not seen so many seniors coming to food banks over the course of the last two decades, but that number is now beginning to change. We are seeing more and more of them starting to come and more and more of them in desperate situations.

These are terrible situations for seniors to have to resort to. For a senior who has provided for his or her whole life, who had fought in a war, who had worked, to have to come to a food bank and depend on community largesse and charity is something that is just not right. For many of these people, they are stuck. They are trapped in a system from which there is no escape.

It is worse. There is a huge demographic shift coming. We all know it. We all know that the number of seniors is going to multiply in the next number of years. Food bank statistics, not only from my food bank, but from all the Ontario association of food banks across the province reveal that more and more workers have less and less savings and less and less investment in pension plans.

Those who are poor have absolutely no real hope of building up a cushion of RRSPs. A large number of today's workers will reach retirement age in the next decade and they will have to find creative ways to fund their senior years. This motion, should it pass, and it should, will help all those coming on to OAS, a great many of whom do not have a sufficient form of public protection.

Let us look at some of the statistics of what the population in Canada will be in the next few years. Between 1981 and 2005 the number of seniors in Canada increased from 2.4 million to 4.2 million. Their share of the total population jumped from 9.6% to 13.1%. The aging of the population will accelerate over the next two decades particularly as baby boomers begin turning 65. That will be me soon.

Between 2006 and 2026 the number of seniors is projected to increase from 4.3 million to 8 million. Their share of the population is expected to increase from 13% to 21.2%, this from Statistics Canada in its Portrait of Seniors in Canada.

It has been suggested that the chief problem with Canada's pension system for women is that pension schemes in both the public and private sectors were indeed developed with men in mind. This is true and these last few years are showing this to indeed be the case and we are experiencing this once again on the front lines of food banks.

Elderly single women have consistently been disproportionately represented among the poor in Canada and are twice as likely as elderly men to live in poverty. In 1997 almost 50% of single women over the age of 65 lived below the poverty line, a figure that has remained consistently high over these last number of years.

Various reports have concluded that if the rate of poverty continues for the next two decades with all of these new seniors that are coming in line, the number of poor seniors is expected to double as the population of seniors increases twofold. The government has not yet answered as to how it is going to deal with the influx of people coming in.

Because of the inadequacies of our present system, we are finding seniors in desperate situations. I would like to speak about women and the particular difficulties that they face.

There are many reasons that the current system is not working for Canada's seniors who would otherwise rely on it. Among them, women often find themselves the hardest hit. Some of the reasons for this are pretty obvious.

Women's participation in the paid labour force remains well below that of men. For aboriginal and racialized women, this number is even lower.

The kind of work that women do is also a major factor. Only those who work for relatively large employers can have this kind of benefit. More women than men work in non-unionized jobs and women generally work in sectors where pension coverage is the lowest, such as the retail trade and community, business and personal services.

Above all, one of the greatest obstacles for women saving for retirement is that they simply earn less than men. They still make 72¢ for every dollar that a man makes. Women, therefore, have smaller pensions in retirement.

We know that the social programs that we as parliamentarians help to create directly affect things like health, housing and income, in short, the general well-being of many vulnerable groups. Low income seniors are no exception. With limited access to professional financial training, services that are generally available to all higher income Canadians, it is the role of government, all of us, to ensure that programs are properly designed to benefit low income seniors.

OAS and GIS have made great advances, but millions of seniors who live alone have not been able to increase their economic security; in fact, many are sliding backward. Inequalities in incomes and assets have not declined. Divorce rates continue to climb among middle age Canadians, and more of us, especially women, are choosing to raise children alone.

These trends and projections presented today suggest that low income Canadian seniors will be no better off in the future than they are today in spite of what we have just heard. If we are to increase benefit adequacy and economic security for these vulnerable elders, it makes sense to incorporate an effective income floor into the system. Canadian seniors deserve such a commitment. The reforms put forward by the hon. member present an opportunity to attack this particular problem within our own system.

I thank my colleague from Rimouski for bringing up something that I think is very important. From personal experience and the experience that many members have had, I ask that we look at her leadership and take on this initiative in the spirit in which it was given.

None of us wants to see seniors suffer. All of us want seniors who are living in poverty to be able to climb out of it. We all say the words and I believe we probably all mean them, but we set up a system that is a trap and seniors are not able to work their way out of it.

Especially for senior women, I ask that all members of the House support this particular motion, not because of from whom it comes or even so much the language that is used, but the time has come when we should accept what senior women are going through and all of us should act on it. I thank the member for taking the initiative.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Bloc

Raymond Gravel Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, I too want to support the motion of the hon. member for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques. Seniors are as important to me as they are to her. This motion is in line with Bill C-490 introduced by the Bloc Québécois in December.

My Liberal colleague had some very interesting points to make. However, I find the comments of my colleague opposite, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, to be amazingly nonsensical. By “nonsensical” I mean foolish, silly, and just plain stupid.

When I heard the hon. member say that the Conservative government has been quite generous to seniors, I wondered what planet she has been on. I know that in two years the government has given an additional $18 to the guaranteed income supplement, when it knows that people are living below the poverty line. I do not see any generosity in that. When she argues that in 13 years, the Liberal government did nothing and that the Conservatives have done more in two years, I do not think it is right to justify doing more by comparing oneself to those who did nothing.

I am very pleased to speak to this motion. As I was saying earlier, it looks a lot like our bill C-490 tabled last December by the member for Alfred-Pellan. This bill follows up my tour of Quebec, in 2007, to identify the needs of the seniors of today and of the future.

Having realized that seniors have become impoverished over the past ten years, I met with several seniors' groups and associations in all parts of Quebec who shared with me their fears, needs and hopes. They spoke of the quality of life of seniors, of the causes of their poverty and of the solutions recommended to various levels of government. I also heard the opinions of seniors on Quebec society. The results are reflected in the bill that we tabled and that has four components. It is very much in keeping with the motion by my colleague for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques.

The first component is automatic registration for the guaranteed income supplement. Why? Simply because this supplement provides additional income to low-income seniors. When we say low-income we are talking about individuals living in poverty. We know that poverty takes many forms and that thousands of seniors are entitled to the guaranteed income supplement. However, they do not receive it because they do not know about it, which is also due to their poverty.

On August 23, 2001, the Toronto Star estimated that 380,000 seniors in Canada were eligible for the guaranteed income supplement but were not receiving it. In Quebec, more than 80,000 people were in this situation. The reason is simple. Poor seniors often have difficulty reading and understanding forms, and the forms at the time were extremely complicated. People were also unaware that they had to apply every year. This is no longer the case thanks to Bill C-36, which was adopted last May.

There are other reasons associated with poverty as well. Poverty affects people who have never worked outside the home, who do not file income tax returns, who are aboriginal or who live in remote areas. We also think of people with poor literacy skills, people who speak neither French nor English, people who are disabled or ill and people who are homeless. There are many reasons.

If these seniors were automatically registered for the guaranteed income supplement at age 65, this problem would be eliminated. The work the Bloc Québécois has done over the past several years has drastically reduced the number of people who do not receive the guaranteed income supplement. In Quebec there are apparently still about 40,000 people who do not receive the supplement, but in 2001 there were 80,000.

The second part of our bill involves a $110 a month increase in the guaranteed income supplement. This would bring the poorest seniors up to the poverty line, as my colleague's motion says. The calculation was done in 2004, when the poverty level for a single person was set at $14,794 a year. Poor seniors who receive the maximum guaranteed income supplement are getting only $13,514 in 2007-08.

This means that that their income is $1,280 below the poverty line, or $106 per month, which we have rounded up to $110. This is not asking for much, just getting them over the poverty line. That is not too much to ask in a country like ours.

The third part of our bill concerns full retroactivity of the guaranteed income supplement for people who have been given a raw deal under the current system. In May 2007, Bill C-36 resulted in just 11 months of retroactivity for poor seniors. That is not enough; we must do more. During the election campaign, the Conservative Party agreed to fix this problem. Now that they are in power, they do not want to talk about it. Nobody is asking for handouts here; we just want seniors to get their fair share from a system that ripped them off.

When one owes money to a person, one has a legal debt to that person. This is about justice, honesty and dignity. Just think of Mrs. Bolduc in Toronto who told a Radio-Canada reporter what it is like to live in poverty. Many seniors are in the same position as Mrs. Bolduc.

The fourth element our bill introduces is a six-month compassion period for seniors who lose their spouses. We know what kind of situation these people face. A six-month period would enable surviving spouses to recover from the grieving process and figure things out, because their benefits will automatically be reduced. This period will certainly offer a degree of security to grieving seniors.

The government's failure to help our poorest seniors is unacceptable. We have known for quite some time now that seniors are some of the poorest people in our society. Poverty affects their health, makes them feel insecure about their future and makes them even more vulnerable to those who claim to be taking care of them. Many newspapers have reported on violence against seniors and exploitation of the elderly. These people are in a very vulnerable position. It is disgusting that, despite vast budget surpluses, one government after another has failed to solve the problem raised by members of the Bloc Québécois.

The Bloc Québécois supports the motion by the member for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques. That is a long name for a riding; it would be easier to call her by her name. I am asking all parliamentarians to support this motion as well as our bill, which will be debated soon in the House. It is a question of justice, fairness and dignity for all those who came before us and paved the way for us.

I would like to close with the 2006 definition of poverty by the National Council of Welfare:

—poverty is not just a lack of income; it can also be a synonym for social exclusion. When people cannot meet their basic needs, they cannot afford even simple activities. Single parents or persons with a family member who is sick or disabled often suffer from “poverty of time” as well, and have too few hours during the day to earn income, take care of others, obtain an education, have some social interaction or even get the sleep they need. This form of social exclusion and isolation can lead to other problems, such as poor health, depression and dysfunction. Poverty can quickly deprive individuals of their dignity, confidence and hope.

This often happens to our seniors who are sick and poor.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

NDP

Chris Charlton Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to participate in the debate tonight on the motion brought forward by the member for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques on the old age security system. This motion is very timely.

This afternoon I tabled yet another petition in the House signed by hundreds more seniors, asking the government to pay them the money they were owed as a result of the StatsCan error in calculating the cost of living increase. Seniors were shortchanged on their public income supports because of this error. In calling on the government to reimburse them, they are simply asking for fairness. Yet the government is refusing to act.

If the government will not give seniors the benefits to which they are already entitled, I am not optimistic that it will contemplate enhancements to those benefits. However, I nonetheless believe that this is a critically important debate.

Unlike the parliamentary secretary, the Prime Minister cannot script me. Nor can he prevent me from speaking up on behalf of seniors. In fact, that is why I was elected to the House, to represent the views of the residents of Hamilton Mountain and to ensure that their concerns were being championed in the single most important democratic institution in this nation.

All politicians pay lip service to the fact that seniors built our country. They talk about needing to ensure that seniors can retire with dignity and respect and that they deserve that dignity and respect.

Let me tell the House what is happening to seniors, not just in my community, but across the whole country. With each passing year, it becomes more and more apparent that seniors are falling farther and farther behind. They have worked hard all their lives, they have played by the rules, but now everywhere they turn, every bill they open, they are paying more and getting less.

It is a fact that increases in the cost of living hits seniors disproportionately harder than any other segment of the population. When StatsCan determines the annual cost of living, upon which adjustments are based, its basket of goods includes things like plasma TVs, IPods, computers, all goods which are coming down in price and reducing the cost of living figures. Those also are not goods that poor seniors are buying. The items they are spending money on are essentials like heat, hydro, food and shelter, all of which have been going up and up.

In a series of polls that were conducted by the Canadian Labour Congress in 2004, 73% of Canadians polled said that they were worried about not having enough money to live after retirement, up by almost 20% from just two years before.

Canadians are worried about the solvency of their private pensions and the adequacy of both CPP and public income supports. Those fears are well-founded. Since the middle 1990s, the income of seniors has reached a ceiling and the gap between the revenues of seniors and those of other Canadians is now increasing.

According to the government's National Advisory Council on Aging, between 1997 and 2003 the mean income of seniors' households increased by $4,100, while the average income of other Canadian households increased by $9,000. The situation is even more pronounced for seniors living alone.

Private retirement savings are concentrated in a very small percentage of families. According to StatsCan, 25% of families hold 84% of these assets, while three out of ten families have no private pensions at all.

We find ourselves in a situation now where, across Canada, we have over a quarter of a million seniors living in poverty. That is hardly retirement with dignity and respect.

What is the government doing to address this issue? In fact, I would argue, precious little. We have now had two throne speeches, two budgets and one economic update from the government and none of them left seniors with anything about which to cheer.

We did not get universal drug coverage, no improvements to health care or long term care, no national housing strategy and no review of public income supports. The only people cheering were the Liberals who supported the Harper government's first throne speech and let the most recent mini-budget pass—

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Andrew Scheer

I want to remind the hon. member not to use proper names, but ridings or titles when referring to our colleagues.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

NDP

Chris Charlton Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, I apologize for using the Prime Minister's name.

Nonetheless, the Liberals did give the Conservatives what the voters would not do, which is in essence a de facto majority government.

In a country that had a surplus of over $14 billion, that simply is not good enough. The income security of seniors must be at the top of the government's agenda, but it is not.

In fact, while we are debating an enhancement to income supports for seniors, the government is not even doing a particularly good job of getting seniors the benefits to which they are already entitled.

According to the government's own statistics, an estimated 130,000 Canadian seniors who are eligible for the guaranteed income supplement are not receiving it. Why? Because even if they are aware of the program, the application process is unduly complex, and many seniors lack the language or literacy skills to avail themselves of this benefit.

What has the government done about this? Instead of pursuing aggressive outreach programs to inform seniors of their entitlements, the Conservative government has re-designated positions at Service Canada so that experts, whose only role it once was to assist seniors to find their way through the maze of the CPP, the OAS and the GIS, have now been replaced by generalists who deal with everything from employment insurance to boat licences.

To add insult to injury, if they do not apply for their entitlements in a timely fashion, they can go back only so far in claiming retroactivity. A system designed like that is clearly not a system designed to help seniors retire with dignity and respect.

That is why I welcome the motion that the member from Rimouski has brought before this House today. In fact, it picks up on an item that was already part of the NDP's seniors charter, which I had the privilege of introducing in the House last year.

The seniors charter called on the government to guarantee for every senior in Canada the right to income security through protected pensions and indexed income support that provides a reasonable state of economic welfare. That charter, I am happy to say, was passed by members of this House by a vote of 231 to 52, including by the Conservative MPs in this chamber, I might add.

Only the BQ voted against it. Despite the fact that seniors from coast to coast to coast built this country, including seniors from Quebec, of course, the BQ abandoned the elderly in the province of Quebec simply for its own narrowly defined partisan purposes. Perhaps that is why the member from Rimouski has abandoned her former colleagues and now sits as an independent. She is finally free to advocate on behalf of seniors in her community.

In any event, as I said, her motion speaks to one of the sections that was part of the NDP seniors charter and so I am happy to support it here in principle. I say this on the understanding that the motion will be amended at the next debate and therefore will focus on the core section of the motion that I expect to survive after the amendment.

In essence, what the motion proposes to do is enhance the guaranteed income supplement for the very neediest of seniors and increase the income threshold for eligibility.

As members of this House will know, the guaranteed income supplement is one of the three major income support programs available to seniors through the federal government. It was developed to reduce poverty among seniors by providing a monthly income supplement for eligible seniors with low incomes.

However, as I said earlier, despite this program, there are still a quarter of a million seniors living in poverty. I am proud to support any motion that will assist this group of the most vulnerable in our community.

From my perspective, I think we in this House could and should have gone further. As it stands now, Motion No. 383 will enhance GIS benefits for only the very neediest in our community, yet from my perspective everyone who receives the GIS desperately needs more money.

While any increase is certainly welcome, what we really need is a comprehensive review of the entire income support system for seniors. Indeed, I have a motion on the order paper, Motion No. 128, which does precisely that. It calls for a review that looks ahead 10 years and ensures annually that seniors have an income that allows them to live with the dignity and respect they deserve. I am proud to say that this is the very first motion that I tabled in this House upon being elected.

It is precisely because I am keenly aware of the growing income needs of seniors that I am happy this motion is before us today. Certainly, as I said earlier in my comments, the many elderly women in my community of Hamilton Mountain who are living alone are experiencing poverty at much higher rates than any other segment of the senior population. Indeed, it is for every senior who is living on his or her own that I will stand in support of this motion.

I know that my time to speak tonight is short, so I would like to focus just briefly on the last part of the motion, which would make more seniors eligible for the GIS. Surely we can all agree that this is a laudable goal.

What section (d) of the motion does is raise the income threshold for GIS eligibility. It is a sad reality in Canada that many seniors cannot survive on their public income supports alone, so many are supplementing their income by participating in the workforce far beyond the normal retirement age.

I heard from a woman in Vancouver just two weeks ago who told me that her husband is in his eighties and still working because it is the only way that they can afford her prescription drugs. While that is a national disgrace and should be addressed through a national pharmacare program and adequate income support for seniors, it is a reality that is being lived daily by thousands of seniors across the country.

Income security is crucial to a retirement with dignity and respect. I say to all of the seniors watching our proceedings tonight that they should not let anyone tell them that it cannot be done.

Old Age Security Program
Private Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Andrew Scheer

The time provided for private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

6:55 p.m.

Liberal

Gurbax Malhi Bramalea—Gore—Malton, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to ask the government for a third time to explain its lack of compassion and its discriminatory approach to visitor visas. Not surprisingly, my previous attempts to get an answer from the government were met with empty words. Instead of addressing the reality of our broken visa system, the minister claimed that the real issue is “the safety and security of those who are already here”.

The minister's deflection from the problem at hand is typical of the government.

Is the security of our country put at risk when a bride to be invites her parents to come to Canada for a visit to share the joy of her wedding day? Is the safety of Canadians threatened by a Nigerian grandmother who wants to come to our country to see her newborn grandchild?

Of course, invoking national security is a convenient tactic for the government, considering that no usable data are kept on the reasons for denying visitor visa applications. Even if security were the main reason for refusing visitor visas, we would have no way of knowing it.

The reality faced by my constituents and by Canadians across the country is that the decisions made by visa officers are often difficult to understand. Some visas are denied to people who have visited Canada many times under the previous government. Similarly, more than once I have seen cases in which an applicant was denied entry to Canada even after being granted multiple entry visas to both the United Kingdom and the United States.

One of the most tragic examples of the failure of the current visa system was laid bare in the August 21, 2007 issue of the Toronto Star. Nicholas Keung writes of how the body of Hu Xiu-hua, an immigrant to Canada who passed away last summer, lay unclaimed in a Toronto morgue for almost two months. As citizens of China, Ms. Hu's elderly parents were required to apply for a visitor visa to claim their child's remains. Their application was denied not once, not twice, but six times.

The ugly truth is that the vast majority of these cases involve applicants from developing nations. How can the government claim that the visitor visa system is fair and impartial when it so clearly discriminates against Canadians with families from developing nations?

I am not alone in my frustration with the visitor visa system. I am sure that my colleagues of all political stripes deal with many similar cases in their constituencies. The government must stop denying that the visitor visa system is broken and start working to find solutions that benefit Canadians and their families abroad.

7 p.m.

Souris—Moose Mountain
Saskatchewan

Conservative

Ed Komarnicki Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity to comment on temporary resident visas.

There is no question that there is a lot of rhetoric coming from the member opposite. It is clear that the intention of the hon. member in large measure is political and is not based on the facts.

The reality is that the overall approval rate for temporary resident visas has remained consistent, ranging between 79% to 82% over the past five years.

The government has an application process for temporary resident visas in order to protect the integrity of the immigration process and to maintain the safety and security of Canadians. The member opposite knows that.

Visa officers assess individual temporary resident visa applications and take into account the circumstances of the applicant, including the reason for travel. Applications are considered on a case by case basis on the specific facts presented by the applicant.

The government aims at being compassionate in issuing visas. However, given the high levels of fraud and misrepresentation in some regions of the world, it is incumbent upon visa officers abroad to examine all visa applications very carefully.

As my hon. colleague knows, temporary resident visas are issued to bona fide visitors, students or workers who will comply with admission requirements. This includes leaving Canada at the end of the authorized period of temporary stay. All of these factors must be taken into account by our visa officers overseas.

The government has improved service for travellers coming to Canada for business or personal reasons, using our visa application centres in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia, and is considering extending such services to several other countries.

In India, for example, this means that citizens wishing to apply as visitors, students or workers can submit their temporary resident applications at nine visa application centres across the country and at a centre geographically convenient to them.

In 2006 the visa offices in New Delhi and Chandigarh together processed almost 78,000 visa applications with an approval rate of 67.4%, or slightly more than two out of three. Those are the overall systemic numbers. We accept more immigrants from India than any other country but China, and 10,000 more last year than a decade ago, from 19,000 in 1997 to more than 30,000 last year.

The overall approval rate for temporary resident visas has remained historically consistent. In 2006 it was 81% and has remained at just over 80% for most years since 1983.

The government is also making efforts to permit visa-free travel to citizens from a greater number of countries. In 2006 the visa requirement for Estonia was lifted. In October of this year, we lifted the visa requirements for the Czech Republic and the Republic of Latvia.

Citizens of these countries can now visit Canada without a visa. Citizens in half of the 12 countries who have joined the European Union since 2004 enjoy visa-free travel to this country. We continue to review the remaining EU countries where a visa is still required.

These measures by our Conservative government are helping families maintain their close ties.

Visas are effective tools to protect the integrity of our borders and to ensure the health and safety of Canadians. The Government of Canada has no greater duty than to protect and maintain the safety and security of its people.