House of Commons Hansard #91 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was income.

Topics

Opposition Motion--The Economy
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

All those opposed will please say nay.

Opposition Motion--The Economy
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

Opposition Motion--The Economy
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

In my opinion the yeas have it.

And five or more members having risen:

This vote is consequently deferred until the end of government orders on Monday.

Opposition Motion--The Economy
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bruce Stanton Simcoe North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I wonder if there might be unanimous consent of the House to see the clock at 5:30 p.m.

Opposition Motion--The Economy
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

Is it agreed?

Opposition Motion--The Economy
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Opposition Motion--The Economy
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

The House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

Old Age Security Act
Private Members' Business

5:15 p.m.

Bloc

Robert Carrier Alfred-Pellan, QC

moved that Bill C-490, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act (application for supplement, retroactive payments and other amendments), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to speak today at second reading of Bill C-490, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act (application for supplement, retroactive payments and other amendments), and more specifically, concerning the guaranteed income supplement.

This bill, which I introduced on December 5, 2007, proposes the four following themes: automatic registration for the guaranteed income supplement; full retroactivity for unpaid pension amounts; increase in the monthly payment of the guaranteed income supplement; and payment of the pension and supplement to a person whose spouse or common-law partner has died.

This is the first time since the voters in Alfred-Pellan elected me in 2004 and in 2006 as a member of Parliament that I have had the privilege of introducing a bill, a bill to allow our seniors to improve their living conditions.

My colleague from Repentigny went on tour during the summer and fall of 2007 to investigate the situation of seniors. His encounters with seniors and seniors' groups and associations throughout Quebec shed light on how impoverished seniors have become over the past decade or so.

Although pensions and the guaranteed income supplement have increased in line with the consumer price index, this does not reflect the real situation for pensioners and recipients of the supplement. The cost of living for seniors tends to be affected more by the cost of drugs, health care services and housing.

For years the Bloc Québécois has been criticizing the irregularities in the federal guaranteed income supplement program, which provides supplementary income to low income seniors. The Canadian government's mismanagement was such that in 2001, more than 800,000 seniors in Quebec were still not receiving the supplement to which they were entitled and which they truly needed. A poll conducted in 2001 showed that only 15% of seniors who were using food banks were receiving the guaranteed income supplement, even though almost all of them were entitled to receive it.

For several years, the Bloc Québécois has carried out an extensive operation to track down some 42,000 of these people in Quebec. In 2007, quite recently, about 135,000 people were shortchanged by the guaranteed income supplement, 40,000 of them in Quebec alone. Many seniors are not receiving the guaranteed income supplement because they must submit a written application each year.

After meeting with ten or so seniors' associations in my riding, I realized that it is not easy for most seniors to fill out the application form. The Minister of Human Resources and Social Development does not seem to realize that this program is geared towards seniors, who have difficulties reading the small print on the form and who cannot always answer the questions because they do not understand what the letters CPP, QPP or RRIF mean.

The government's recent announcement that seniors would only have to fill out an initial application to receive the guaranteed income supplement shows that it does not understand the situation facing seniors or their needs. The 135,000 people who do not receive the guaranteed income supplement are the ones who do not know it exists or are not able to understand and properly fill out the application form.

The government has an obligation to track down all the seniors who have been forgotten over the years by the machinery of government. It must create a system that enrols them automatically, since it is now allowed to exchange information with the Canada Revenue Agency.

The Privacy Commissioner told the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities that “—Section 241 of the Income Tax Act specifically authorizes CCRA to disclose taxpayer information for the purposes of administering the Old Age Security Act”.

More ridiculous still is the fact that the 42,000 people that the Bloc Québécois tracked down in Quebec who are entitled to the guaranteed income supplement will receive a maximum of 11 months' retroactive payments from the federal government. As far as I know, when a taxpayer owes taxes after an audit of returns from previous years, the government is not limited to 11 months' retroactivity. The government demands every retroactive penny owing. This is a striking example of the federal government's abuse of its power over the poor.

I visited a housing cooperative in my riding, and I remember an elderly lady who told me, “You know, seniors are afraid to speak up”. I truly believe that the federal government is taking advantage of seniors' fear of speaking up. Yet, before the 2005 election, when the Conservatives were in opposition, they supported the Bloc Québécois' Bill C-301. We must also remember that all of the Conservative members in the House voted in favour of that bill. Now that they are in government, the Conservatives have an opportunity to prove that they were sincere back then by supporting my bill now and seeing to it that it receives a royal recommendation.

The government can be sure that it will have the support of Quebec, which it recognized as a nation. Indeed, Quebec's National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion in support of seniors who have not received the guaranteed income supplement that low-income people are entitled to.

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. Housing, transportation and food account for more than two thirds of the expenses of senior households. According to 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, such as inviting family or friends to dinner occasionally or buying gifts for a child or grandchild. Poverty leads to isolation and social exclusion, which in turn lead to other problems, such as poor health, depression and dysfunction. Poverty can quickly deprive individuals of their dignity, confidence and hope.”

The guaranteed income supplement for low-income pensioners does not even bring them up to the low income cutoff, formerly known as the poverty line. What message do we want to send to our seniors? That they are poor and that we are willing to help them, provided they remain poor.

The guaranteed income supplement must be increased by $110 a month to bring recipients up to the low income cutoff.

Seniors' associations have also asked that where couples are receiving the guaranteed income supplement, the surviving spouse be entitled to receive the deceased spouse's benefit for six months.

Currently, the surviving spouse receives a benefit as a single person, beginning in the month following his or her spouse's death, which heavily penalizes the survivor.

My bill therefore provides that, from now on, the spouse or common-law partner of a deceased recipient can continue to receive the deceased person's benefits for six months following his or her death.

Jean Cocteau said, “The older I get, the more I realize that what does not fade is dreams.” Since December, I have explained my bill to hundreds of seniors in my riding. I can confirm that they are very happy we are looking after them. They appreciate that we are helping them and want to give them better lives. I finally understand that our seniors have only one dream: to be able to live in dignity.

I am certain that my colleagues in all parties recognize that we all have a duty to the people whom we have to thank for what we are today and who are now waiting for our recognition. On their behalf, I thank my colleagues.

Old Age Security Act
Private Members' Business

5:25 p.m.

Blackstrap
Saskatchewan

Conservative

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

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to contribute to the debate on Bill C-490 in which the hon. member for Alfred-Pellan proposes certain amendments to the Old Age Security Act.

Since taking office, our government has acted decisively on its commitment to protect the security of Canadian seniors. This government cares deeply about the many contributions that today's seniors have made and continue to make to our society. These seniors raised families, they helped to build up our national economy and they made vital contributions to our health, safety, education and culture. Furthermore, many Canadian seniors are veterans who risked their lives to preserve our freedom.

For these reasons and many more, our government will continue to do its utmost to ensure that Canadian seniors are treated with dignity. We will ensure that they receive the full respect they deserve.

All Canadians can be proud that the guaranteed income supplement, or the GIS, has played an important role in reducing the incidence of poverty among seniors. As my colleague pointed out a few minutes ago, the poverty rate among seniors has declined dramatically over the past 25 years. The average income for seniors in that time has doubled.

Bill C-490 proposes that the monthly GIS payment be increased by $110 to reduce poverty among low income seniors. In fact, Canada already has one of the lowest levels of poverty among seniors of any country in the industrialized world. This makes us the envy of many other nations, including Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, when this government was elected, we raised the GIS by 3.5% and we did it again in January 2007. This amounts to an additional $36 per month for single seniors and $58 per month for couples. These increases will raise the total GIS benefit by more than $2.7 billion over the next five years. It will benefit more than 1.6 million GIS recipients, including more than 50,000 seniors who were not eligible for the program under the previous Liberal government.

By proposing a $110 per month increase for all GIS recipients, Bill C-490 would not be focusing on seniors who are most in need, and this is not the responsible thing to do.

In addition, the bill proposes unlimited retroactivity for the GIS. The cost of such a measure would be enormous. It would be as high as $6 billion. We are confident that the current one year retroactivity provision of old age security and GIS benefits reasonably accommodates delays or oversights for applying for the benefits. I also want to clarify that these benefits have been designed to help low income seniors meet their current needs. They are not there to address past needs.

We make every effort to ensure that eligible low income seniors receive the benefits to which they are entitled just as soon as possible. This includes sending out GIS applications to low income seniors identified through the tax system as not currently receiving the supplement. This measure has put GIS benefits in the hands of an additional 325,000 low income seniors. As well, we work with community and seniors' organizations to reach the vulnerable seniors who are not on the tax roles.

Furthermore, as a result of Bill C-36, seniors now only have to apply once for the GIS. They will then automatically receive the benefit in any year they are eligible, as long as they file a tax return.

All these measures reduce the likelihood of eligible seniors missing out on GIS benefits to which they are entitled as well as the need for retroactive payments.

I would also like to respond to the proposal in Bill C-490 that a surviving spouse be allowed to receive his or her deceased spouse's pension payment for six months. Such a measure would raise a major equity issue. Newly widowed persons would temporarily receive higher benefits than other single seniors living on single incomes.

Finally, Bill C-490 proposes that the requirement for seniors to apply for GIS benefits be eliminated altogether. We require a formal application because the information available from the Canada Revenue Agency is not always sufficient to determine a person's eligibility. As well, some Canadian seniors choose not to receive the GIS for personal reasons. That is a decision that we must respect.

We also recognize and respect the choice of many of today's seniors to continue working. To assist low income seniors who choose to work, budget 2008 proposes to invest $60 million per year to increase the GIS earnings exemption. This important measure would exempt fully the first $3,500 of earnings and the average earnings of working seniors who receive the GIS. Low income seniors who want to remain in the workforce would, therefore, be able to keep more of their GIS benefits. Nearly 100,000 low income seniors will benefit.

The budget also proposes to extend the targeted initiative for older workers until 2012. It would add $90 million to the federal-provincial employment program for unemployed older workers in vulnerable communities to help them stay active in the workforce.

Budget 2008 made crucial investments on behalf of seniors by addressing the problem of elder abuse in all its ugly forms. Over three years, our government will invest $13 million to help seniors and others recognize the signs and symptoms of elder abuse and to provide information on available support.

I believe our government's creation last year of the position of Secretary of State for Seniors speaks directly to our promise to ensure the continued well-being of all Canadians aged 65 and up. We also established the National Seniors Council to advise us on seniors' issues of national importance. It will help to ensure that our policies, programs and services meet the evolving needs of Canada's aging population.

In February 2008, after its consultations on elder abuse, the council began a Canada-wide series of round tables. They were designed to better understand the challenges of seniors living on low incomes, particularly senior women. My remarks clearly show that our government takes the needs of Canadian seniors very seriously.

Since taking office, we have responded to those needs decisively. This includes the monthly increases to the GIS in 2006-07, as I have mentioned before. Our policies and programs are working and they are working in a very concrete and concerted way to support Canadian seniors' well-being and financial security.

The proposals contained in Bill C-490, on the other hand, would require enormous financial investments that would not be targeted to those most in need.

For those crucial reasons, and they are crucial, our government cannot support Bill C-490.

Old Age Security Act
Private Members' Business

May 8th, 2008 / 5:35 p.m.

Liberal

John Maloney Welland, ON

Mr. Speaker, once among the poorest members of society, Canada's seniors now have access to a public pension plan and supplementary benefits for those most in need, but it is not all peaches and cream.

The critical issue for many marginal income seniors is that it is still not enough to keep them above the poverty line.

A succession of Liberal governments over the years were instrumental in providing support for Canadian seniors. Liberal governments were responsible for establishing a social safety net for our seniors.

In 1952, the Old Age Security Act established a universal old age security pension at 65 years of age. In 1966, the Canada pension and Quebec pension plans created a pension scheme where working Canadians contributed to a government pension plan to be drawn on upon reaching the retirement age of 65, while some time later amending the scheme to provide for an early retirement at age 60 subject to reduced benefits.

In 1967, the guaranteed income supplement for very low income seniors was instituted to top up our old age security benefits. In 1998, a restructured Canada pension plan was instituted to ensure its sustainability.

Government action to financially secure the public pension system meant that Canada was the only country in the G-7 with a fully balanced public pension plan system assessed by actuarial experts to have long term sustainability.

The Canada pension plan and the old age security are indexed quarterly based on the consumer price index which allows for modest increases in accordance with a comparable increase of the consumer price index. In reality, however, the value of such increases for an individual is literally small change.

In 2005, the guaranteed income supplement benefits for low income seniors was increased by $2.7 billion over two years. This was the first non-cost of living increase since 1984. As a result, the maximum GI supplement was increased to more than $400 per year for a single senior and by almost $700 for a couple.

Successive governments have tried to assist our needy seniors in other ways as well. For instance, Liberal budget 2005 doubled to $10,000 the maximum amount of medical and disability related expenses that caregivers could claim on behalf of their dependants, and further, approximately 240,000 seniors were removed from the tax rolls in 2005 when the basic personal exemption was raised to $10,000.

Under the Conservatives, the government signed into law Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act, which made it easier for the long term contributors to the Canada pension plan to qualify for disability benefits and simplified the application process for the GIS.

In budget 2006, an estimated 85,000 pensioners no longer had to pay income tax as the maximum eligible amount for the pension income rose from $1,000 to $2,000 starting in the 2006 tax year. At the same time, other measures, such as the refundable medical expenses supplement, rose from $760 to $1,000.

Under budget 2007, the Conservatives increased the age limit to 71 from 69 for RRSPs and registered pensions and also permitted pension income splitting for eligible pensioners. The age credit was increased by $1,000, which meant approximately $150 in tax relief for low and modest income seniors. It also permitted phased in retirement, which allowed an employer to simultaneously pay a partial pension to an employee and provide further pension benefits accruals to the employee.

In budget 2008, the current guaranteed income supplement earned income exemption was raised to $3,500 from its maximum level of $500.

Those measure confirmed the concern that our successive governments and all political parties have for our aging citizens and also was a recognition of the financial difficulties many seniors face.

All that being said, however, today in Canada 242,000 seniors still live in poverty, a situation that should be an embarrassment to all members in the House. Behind these numbers and behind these statistics lies a huge human tragedy.

Men and women who made this country what it is today, men and women who built this country all too often sit down to a dinner of tea and toast or go hungry. Many live in substandard housing because they do not have the financial resources to lift themselves out of hovels. Others do not have the financial resources to repair old family residences that have fallen into disrepair, which leads to further disrepair as conditions continue to deteriorate.

In carrying out our responsibilities as members of Parliament, we interact on a frequent basis with our constituents, many of them seniors. I would venture to say that all members of the House have been approached by seniors at one time or another who inquire whether the government could increase their pension benefits a reasonable amount because they just cannot make ends meet anymore.

Seniors' household expenses are rising, including the municipal taxes for those who own their own homes or lease payments for those who rent, energy costs, food costs, even the basic loaf of bread has increased appreciably as the cost of grain and rice have skyrocketed. For those who can afford an aging car, the cost of gas has gone out of sight, while public transportation tickets also escalate. What is worse, our economic predictors suggest that these galloping costs will only continue to increase.

Many of our seniors are faced with such rising costs in their attempt to eke out a meagre existence that far exceeds their pension incomes. The reality is that rising housing costs and living expenses are pushing more seniors back into the workforce. Some have returned to work doing anything that frail bodies will allow until these same frail bodies simply give out.

A Statistics Canada report last year showed that more than two million Canadians aged 55 to 64 were employed or looking for work in 2006, up from one million in 1976. The callous will say that they should have better prepared for their retirement.

What about their employment pensions? Many stay at home parents never had a chance to pay into the Canada pension plan or make modest contributions from part time income. Many of today's seniors never had an employment pension. After 30 or 40 years of service, they walked out the door with their lunch pail. Some may have had pensions but they were not indexed and now, after many years, these pensions bear no relation whatsoever to what it costs to live. Some paid into employee pension plans but these companies have gone bankrupt leaving severely underfunded pension plans or nothing at all.

What are these poor seniors to do? Some will be forced to avail themselves of food banks. Some are taken in by family, if they have one. Some will turn their furnace thermostats down just enough to keep their water pipes from freezing. Sure, they throw on more clothes to keep warm or huddle under a blanket to try to stay healthy, but it is not enough. Some seniors develop colds, respiratory problems or flu, which leads to increased health care costs.

I recall an elderly lady calling my office in tears saying that she could not afford to pay her monthly charges on a heating contract and was seeking our assistance to get out of the contract. I attended her residence on a December day to find a lady in her nineties bundled in sweaters, with the heat turned down, living in a few rooms of her residence with the other parts of the house closed off.

I recall speaking with the president of a seniors club who briefed me on the financial plight of some members. I asked if he could provide me with an anonymous record of some of these seniors' income and expense summaries and was shocked, no, appalled, on how little money they had to cover their expenses. It was not enough to do so. He pleaded with me for our government to do something.

He also told me of a situation where a senior who suffered from incontinence was known to wash out paper diapers because that person could not afford to use these products regularly when needed. These are the actions of an individual in desperate straits.

Bill C-490 would help to respond to the pleas of the president of the seniors club, albeit in a small way. The bill would remove the necessity for an individual, who would otherwise qualify for a supplement, to make an application and would place the responsibility on the minister to provide guaranteed income supplement when income levels indicate a qualification point. The bill would also allow for retroactive payments of supplements. Many times low income seniors are not aware that they may be entitled to benefits and do not apply. Others forget to reapply for supplements. This provision would address this deficiency.

Another situation where a senior couple had retired on their combined CPP and OAS incomes, the death of one of these individuals and the loss of a deceased's pension income can present a severe financial crisis for the survivor at a time when he or she is also trying to cope with the loss of a loved one. The bill would provide interim relief for a transition period of six months for the surviving spouse or common law partner to receive the pension that would have been payable to the deceased spouse or common law partner. This is a humanitarian approach that would not incur huge sums for the Canadian taxpayer but substantial human benefits to a low income senior. The suggested increase of $110 a month would barely raise the threshold to the poverty line.

Bill C-490 is an attempt to address an unfair situation that we as parliamentarians face in our constituency offices on a regular basis. We were elected as advocates for our constituents. The bill is an example of a fulfillment of this responsibility. The bill should be supported by all members of the House.

Old Age Security Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

NDP

Tony Martin Sault Ste. Marie, ON

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words about this very important initiative targeted at our seniors across the country. I think, right off the bat, it really is a no-brainer. It is something we should have done a long time ago.

I know that it has been brought forward on a number of occasions. Members of this House from different parties have brought forward similar bills before the House only to be defeated by the government of the day. That was at one point the Liberals and now we have the Conservatives. Although it is good today to hear from the Liberal member who just spoke, from the wonderful Welland area of Ontario, saying that he thinks this bill should be supported. I definitely think so as well.

One of the things that we as members of Parliament run into, when we go back to our constituencies on weekends from this place, are seniors who come to our office to share with us how difficult it is for them to gather the few pennies that they have and make ends meet. It is a tough problem to have to deal with because there really is not much out there by way of support above and beyond the very modest amounts of money that seniors in this country receive through the CPP, OAS and GIS.

I suspect that as we move forward in the economy that we are now looking at, and we are talking about it in some great detail here today, that there will be fewer private pensions available for people because that is just not what corporations are interested in doing these days, never mind indexing those pensions.

When looking at the CPP, GIS and OAS, we should do everything that we can to make absolutely certain that anyone who is entitled to a pension under the Canada pension plan actually gets it. I remember the first time I was presented with this by a senior. Richard Shillington has championed this cause for a number of years. He has done the math and understands this better than anyone I know. He has spent some significant time trying to educate me about it. He tells me that there are over an estimated 130,000 individuals in Canada who still are not applying for and getting their GIS.

That does not make any sense. We pay into Canada pension during our working life and would expect that it would be automatic once we reach 60 or 65. We would assume that we would get that and everything we are entitled to, that we would not have to fill out an extra form to qualify further for the supplement that is entitled to the really low income seniors.

I believe that in Quebec it is automatic and that once people apply for Canada pension, if they qualify for the extra GIS, it comes and they do not have to continue to reapply. I want to commend the government for actually making that small change just recently where people do not have to reapply every year for this benefit.

However, the fact that we have to apply in the first place means that there are literally hundreds of thousands of seniors out there who do not get it because they do not know it is available to them or they do not know enough to apply. We as parliamentarians and people who have been given responsibility for leadership in this place should be doing everything possible to make sure in the first place that people who qualify are entitled and get what is coming to them.

I want to move on to another piece of the bill which is the retroactivity of the GIS when people do not get it in the first place. I was astounded when I was first told that if seniors discovered later in life that they were entitled to this benefit that in some instances, the CPP itself but the GIS particularly, they could apply to receive retroacticity, but they could only get retroactive money for 11 months even though they may have qualified for 5, 10 or even 15 years in some instances. That is all they would get.

So here we have folks who, if they had applied, would have been getting this money, money that they were entitled to, but because they had not applied and because of the rules that we have in place governing this fund, they do not get a lump sum to reflect that which they in my view are owed.

I think that is criminal and I stack that up against somebody who is found to owe the government money over a number of years and all of a sudden it is discovered. There is no limit to the retroactivity there. Every penny plus interest is collected in that instance, and if one does not pay it, one could end up doing time. Why the government thinks it can get away with continuing to perpetrate this behaviour on seniors, on the people who actually built this country, at a time when they need it most, when they are most at risk of falling into poverty, is beyond me.

Therefore, I certainly would be in support, aggressively in support, of making sure that any money that is owed is given retroactively to the time when the person first qualified for it and was entitled, and that there be interest on top of that so that they are made whole, so that they are not left in a position where they in fact are now less well off as they would be if they had been getting this in the first place over those years. This only makes sense.

Having a provision to also provide some small support to a widow or a widower once their partner or spouse passes on is also a very good idea. Anybody who has been through a funeral with a family member, a parent or a spouse, will know that that whole experience is very expensive and getting more expensive with every day that goes by. A little bit of money, based on what was owed a spouse through the CPP and the GIS so that the spouse might find himself or herself in a position of not falling into poverty even further because of losing a spouse, makes a lot of sense to me as well.

I am trying to understand why the government would not see this as a no-brainer, why the government would not be automatically inclined to say, “Okay, let us do this because it makes sense. It is the right thing to do”. In my view it is the legal thing to do because people are owed this money. Why would the government not do that? Why would the previous Liberal government choose not to do it and why would now the Conservative government not see this as within the program? I am thinking that it is probably because it thinks it is going to be too expensive.

We again had that conversation here today about the priorities and choices that we make as government. We have seen, over the last two years, the government make a decision to spend literally $200 billion in a tax relief package that is going to go primarily to big corporations, financial institutions and the oil industry.

What would be wrong with taking a small percentage of that and making sure that our seniors are looked after out in our communities across the country? Those seniors would take every penny of that and spend it in the communities in which they live, on food, on clothing, on paying their rent. It would stimulate the economy of those communities.

It is not like we are putting money into a big black hole someplace. This would be an investment, an investment in our seniors, an investment in the communities in which they live, an investment in the lives of all of us as we watch these people who built this country trying to do better than they are at the moment.

Certainly, we commit our caucus to being behind this bill and voting for it, and we encourage the Conservatives to support the Liberals and the Bloc in doing the same.

Old Age Security Act
Private Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Bloc

Raymond Gravel Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise to speak to this bill. I am going to follow the lead of my hon. colleague from Alfred-Pellan who introduced this bill, which I seconded.

I have been a member in this House for a year and a half, and I am the critic for the seniors file. I try to be attentive to their requests, their desires and their needs. Incidentally, I would like to thank my Liberal colleague and my NDP colleague. I listened carefully to their speeches and they really touched on the points in our bill.

For instance, I must say I am a little shocked by what the parliamentary secretary, the hon. member for Blackstrap, said earlier in her speech. I had the impression that I was listening to a tape recording of what she said last December, when the bill was introduced.

I would like to come back to what she said earlier, because I find it completely absurd. I cannot believe she is repeating this six months later. She talked about increasing the guaranteed income supplement by $110 a month and she wondered how we could be sure that this money would go to those who need it most. I would point out to her that the guaranteed income supplement is intended for the poorest seniors, not the wealthy ones. If the guaranteed income supplement is increased, it will naturally be the poorest who will receive it. Thus, the reason given is not a valid reason to vote against this bill.

She then said that full retroactivity of the guaranteed income supplement would cost $6 billion. We do not have the same figures on this side of the House. In fact, our calculations found the total to be half that amount. We all know that the government has accumulated a surplus of over $10 billion. It would be worthwhile to allocate a portion of that to our seniors, who are growing in numbers and becoming poorer and poorer. We have seen this over the past 10 years.

Perhaps we could draw a parallel with the military spending the government has adopted. It is scandalous to see how much money has been invested in the military, when hardly anything is being invested for our seniors.

I will give a few examples of the military spending. On June 6, 2006, the former Minister of National Defence announced the purchase of 16 heavy helicopters to the tune of $4.7 billion; 4 C-17 strategic lift aircraft for $3.4 billion; 17 C-130J tactical lift aircraft for $4.9 billion; 2,300 transport trucks for $1.2 billion; 3 supply vessels for $2.9 billion, for a grand total of $17.1 billion, and they are not ashamed of that. That amount went to the military alone, to make war in Afghanistan. How nice.

I am scandalized. I may be a fish out of water here in Parliament, but it seems to me that we should be scandalized to see so much money being invested in the military when the government cannot even give a bit of money to seniors who need it because their incomes are below the poverty line.

Earlier, the parliamentary secretary spoke of the compassionate care benefit. She said that this would be unfair because widowed persons would receive more than single seniors. She did not understand that compassionate care benefits are paid for only six months; it is not a permanent benefit. The purpose of the benefit is to give seniors in mourning time to deal with the loss of a certain part of their income after their spouse has died.

It does not take a genius to realize this is a temporary measure to allow people to go through mourning, especially seniors who are still living in their homes. If a person loses their spouse, they wonder whether they will keep their home, or how they will maintain and keep the family home. These questions come up. The compassionate care benefit simply shows a bit of humanity toward our seniors.

At the end of her speech, I heard her say that the Conservative government has been very generous to seniors. It showed extraordinary generosity by increasing the guaranteed income supplement twice in two years. It was increased by $18 in 2006 and by another $18 in 2007, which means $36 for two years. That is indescribable generosity. I cannot believe that such speeches would not get a reaction from our seniors.

We have the support of numerous seniors and seniors' associations.

This morning at a press conference, we presented a stack of support letters that were sent by AQDR, AREQ, FADOQ and numerous seniors' groups from our parishes and communities. In my opinion, our seniors are able to see that if the government does not support this bill, it is totally off the mark.

I would ask the Conservatives to support this bill at second reading. We will evaluate the cost when it goes to committee—I have a bit of experience in that—and we can vote at third reading. The government can vote against it if it so chooses, but it would seem to me to be a good idea to vote in favour for now so that we can at least analyze the Bloc Québécois request to increase the guaranteed income supplement and analyze the other aspects of the bill, such as automatic registration.

It would not be terribly difficult to automatically register people who need the supplement. What is needed is an increase in the amount of the guaranteed income supplement, full retroactivity and a compassionate measure for people who have lost a loved one. I ask all the members in this House to vote for this bill. It will be studied in committee, and members will still have an opportunity to vote against the bill at third reading, but at least this will give everyone a chance to understand the bill and listen to seniors.

This weekend, we will celebrate Mothers Day. The members of the Bloc Québécois are going to meet with seniors in drop-in centres and even at church if need be to tell them about this bill. In my opinion, this is necessary. When I toured Quebec, many seniors asked us to pay attention to their needs, because they are really living in poverty, and often these are people who do not ask for anything. I believe it is our role to defend these people. They built Quebec and Canada as well, because there are people like this across Canada. These people deserve more than what the Conservatives want to give them today.

In conclusion, because the member for Alfred-Pellan alluded to this earlier, I would simply like to go over what I said in the House when this bill was introduced. I spoke about the National Council of Welfare's definition of poverty. Poverty is not just about having or not having money. It is more than that. An increased suicide rate among seniors is linked to increased poverty among seniors. The National Council of Welfare also said that 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—and I would add that it can even lead to suicide. Poverty can quickly deprive individuals of their dignity, confidence and hope.

I think that our bill is realistic. It is a matter of dignity, justice, entitlement and rights for our seniors.

Old Age Security Act
Private Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Conservative

Gord Brown Leeds—Grenville, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to join in the discussion on Bill C-490, concerning the cornerstone of Canada's retirement income system, the Old Age Security Act. I appreciate the opportunity to rise to speak about the government's record on seniors' issues because we have a record worth talking about.

Unlike the Bloc Québécois members who can only sit in the House and complain, the government has taken real action to support Canadian seniors. We recognize the contributions seniors have made and continue to make to our nation. That is why we have taken measures to ensure that the OAS and the GIS continue to meet the needs of seniors. Unlike the Bloc, we must concern ourselves with the consequences of our actions. We do not have the room for hypocrisy that members opposite have, knowing they will never form the government and never need to worry about the future of a program as important as old age security.

OAS is one of the most important programs in our social safety net. It is important for all Canadians, those who are seniors now and the Canadians who will be seniors in the future. It is the responsibility of the government to manage these programs so they will continue to exist in the future.

Bill C-490 proposes to increase the monthly GIS payment by $110 per month. I commend the hon. member for trying to find ways to alleviate poverty among seniors. I believe, however, this proposal would not achieve the results the hon. member desires. It would instead have the opposite effect. It would bankrupt the program.

We have spoken about this important issue in the House several times. I point out for my colleague that income for Canadian seniors has risen dramatically over the past 25 years. According to Statistics Canada, the income of Canadian seniors has more than doubled over the past 25 years and the rate of poverty among seniors has been cut from 21% in 1980 to less than 6% today. Canada now has one of the lowest levels of poverty among seniors in any country in the industrialized world.

Certainly it is not time to stop working to reduce poverty further because even one senior living in poverty is one too many. That is why the government acted when we elected to increase the GIS by 7%. We did this again in January 2007. These measures are providing all single recipients of the GIS with an additional $430 per year and $700 more per year for a couple.

These increases will raise the total GIS 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 for the program under the previous Liberal governments.

The government heard from thousands of seniors across the country in the lead up to budget 2008. We heard that more and more of them wanted to remain in the workforce. They want to continue working, but under the previous Liberal regime they could not do it without having their hard earned benefits clawed back. That is why the government proposed in budget 2008 an increase in the earned income exemption to $3,500, up from the previous Liberal system that only allowed $500 in earnings before benefits were withheld.

My colleague across the aisle also proposes that we bring in unlimited retroactive payments of the OAS/GIS for eligible beneficiaries. I remind the House that currently these benefits are payable retroactively for up to a year from the month of application. This period of retroactivity is consistent with retroactivity provisions of most other international jurisdictions.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that these benefits have been designed to help low income seniors meet their current needs, not to compensate them for past needs. Yet, the government does make exceptions to the basic one year limit to ensure that seniors are treated fairly. If the person is incapable of applying, or is given bad advice or if the mistake is an administrative error of the government, we will ensure that people get the benefits that they are entitled to.

I would ask the House to consider the financial implications of adopting the proposed measure. It is estimated that there would be an initial lump sum payout to clients amounting to $300 million for each additional year of retroactivity. And where would it stop? A new five year limit could entail a payout of $1.5 billion, a 10 year limit would be more than $3 billion and unlimited retroactivity could be as high as $6 billion in initial lump sum payments.

The government takes significant efforts to ensure that eligible low income seniors receive the benefits to which they are entitled. GIS applications are sent to low income seniors who do not receive OAS and GIS. Our efforts have resulted in an additional 325,000 low income seniors receiving the benefits that they were not getting before.

Through Bill C-36, we have also enabled seniors to make a one-time application for the GIS and receive it whenever they become eligible, as long as they file a tax return.

These are reasonable actions that will ensure the OAS and GIS programs exist well into the future.

Speaking of the survivor's pension payment, the bill also proposes to pay six months of the deceased person's pension to the survivor. While we are all sympathetic to those who lose their life partners, it would be patently unfair to other single seniors living on single incomes. The GIS already makes adjustments for changes in family status because low income seniors may become eligible for the GIS or an increase in that supplement owing to their now single income status.

We should also remember that the Canada pension plan and the Quebec pension plan contain survivor benefit provisions.

Finally, the proposal to eliminate the requirement to apply for GIS benefits is, unfortunately, not workable. Formal application is needed since the information available from the Canada Revenue Agency is sometimes insufficient to determine eligibility. As well, some persons choose not to receive the GIS for personal reasons and it is incumbent upon us to respect their wishes.

The onus remains on the individual to make the initial application, but with the single lifetime application, most of the necessary information can be captured at the time the client first contacts Service Canada prior to their 65th birthday.

We can applaud the sentiments behind Bill C-490, but for the reasons I have outlined, we cannot support it. I can assure the House, however, that the Government of Canada will continue to ensure that its policies, programs and services meet the evolving needs of Canada's senior population.

Old Age Security Act
Private Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

The hon. member for Laval has three minutes today, and she will have seven more minutes when we resume this debate.

Old Age Security Act
Private Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Bloc

Nicole Demers Laval, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in this House to discuss the bill introduced by my colleague from Alfred-Pellan.

I listened carefully to what previous speakers had to say. I think it is deplorable that, now that the Conservatives are finally in government, they are deviating from the stance they took two years ago when they were in opposition and insisted that eligible individuals receive the guaranteed income supplement with full retroactivity.

Why is it that, when people move from one side of Parliament to the other, their perspective undergoes a corresponding shift? Is this some kind of disease that affects parties as soon as they come to power, making them change their stance on issues? Suddenly, they no longer have the same convictions, the same desire to give seniors their due. Is that kind of attitude normal?

This government has broken its promises to women, to veterans and to seniors. Now it is once again breaking its promise to seniors. That is a real shame.

Every year, seniors give about $60 billion back to the system in the form of volunteer work. What we are talking about here is a mere $3 billion in retroactive payments. This is serious. Seniors volunteer 5 billion hours of their time. They would have to wake up, band together, and go on strike for a day for this Parliament to realize how much work they do. Unless they do that, the government will never understand how important it is to give them their due.

My time is up, so I will conclude my speech another time.