House of Commons Hansard #97 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was crime.

Topics

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:20 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Madam Speaker, that is how the federal government treats our seniors. The Conservatives have picked up where the Liberals left off. Employment insurance is a perfect example. The Liberals decided to plunder $54 billion from the fund and now the Conservatives are saying there is no money left, that we have to start over. The Conservatives are saying they were not the ones who stole from the fund; it was the Liberals. Our unemployed workers are the ones who lose in the end.

The same goes for our seniors. The Liberals did not adjust old age pensions as they should have. And the Conservatives decided to do the same as the Liberals. Under the Liberal government, the Bloc Québécois called for a monthly increase of $100 in the guaranteed income supplement. The Liberals said no. We asked the Conservatives for the same thing and they also said no. That is the reality of those two old parties. They decided to abandon seniors, older people, unemployed workers and forestry workers. I thank my hon. colleague for giving me the opportunity to talk about it.

Now they are wondering why people have had enough of them. It is quite simply because their way of doing politics is outdated; it is no longer appropriate for our times. Those two parties do not care about defending the interests of seniors and workers the way the Bloc Québécois does. We will continue to defend them every day that we are here in the House.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:20 p.m.

Bloc

Jean-Yves Laforest Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Madam Speaker, my colleague talked about the misleading title of this bill. The Conservatives are introducing a bill that says it would amend the Old Age Security Act. My colleague explained to us the anomaly between the content of the bill and its title. With such a title, the Conservatives could have included a measure to make good on a promise, such as automatic registration of all people entitled to receive the guaranteed income supplement. They promised to do that in the 2005-06 election campaign, but they have not done it yet. Because it is not automatic, there are still many people, many seniors, who are not receiving the guaranteed income supplement even though they are entitled to it. It would be very easy for the government to make it automatic. I would like to hear what my colleague has to say about that.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:20 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Madam Speaker, I am glad the question came from my colleague from Saint-Maurice—Champlain, because his predecessor was the driving force behind that bill and that request.

The Bloc Québécois took an interest in this issue after it discovered that thousands of Quebeckers and Canadians had not received the guaranteed income supplement, which they were entitled to. The Bloc Québécois canvassed seniors associations all across Quebec and identified thousands of people. We know that there are still thousands of people who are not receiving the GIS. Because applicants have to produce their tax return, the simplest solution would be to automatically send a cheque to the people who are entitled to the GIS. Instead, the Liberals decided to shorten the form by reducing the number of questions, which means that people have to fill out another form to qualify. The Conservatives kept this practice but shortened the form even further to make it easier to fill out. So the GIS is not paid automatically.

Often the least fortunate have difficulty taking care of their own affairs either for health reasons or for other reasons. My colleague is right; it would have been very simple. That is what I am saying: the Liberals and the Conservatives are one and the same. All they want is to try to save money on the backs of the taxpayers to advance their own spending projects. The Conservatives are more focused on military spending, while the Liberals have other priorities. But the average citizen never wins. It is never the least fortunate that win. Money is being ripped out of the hands of the unemployed and of seniors when they are not automatically given the guaranteed income supplement. The government has decided not to help out forestry workers in order to save money because it decided to help Ontario's automobile industry instead. It is a choice.

These are political choices that the Conservatives and Liberals have made to the detriment of the least fortunate in Quebec. They then wonder why they do not win over this part of the population. It is simply because these people know the score. And it is not with a bill like the one introduced today, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act, which does not address the real problems facing seniors, that the government will manage. The government could have introduced a bill called, “an act to prevent prisoners from receiving their old age pension”, but that would not have been as glamourous as the one they are currently introducing.

Message from the Senate
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

Before we resume debate, I have the honour to inform the House that a message has been received from the Senate informing this House that the Senate has passed the following public bill to which the concurrence of the House is desired: S-7, An Act to deter terrorism and to amend the State Immunity Act.

It is my duty, pursuant to Standing Order 38, to inform the House that the questions to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment are as follows: the hon. member for St. John's South--Mount Pearl, G8 and G20 Summits; the hon. member for Laval--Les Îles, International Aid.

The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act, be read the third time and passed.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, I arrived this morning to listen to some more of the debate and followed it closely as it has moved through the system. The summary of the bill states that:

The enactment amends the Old Age Security Act to preclude incarcerated persons from receiving benefits under this Act while maintaining entitlement to benefits for, and avoiding a reduction in the amounts payable to, their spouse or common-law partner under this Act.

This was prompted by a report, before last summer, that the serial killer Clifford Olson was receiving old age security.

Canadians were outraged and parliamentarians agreed and, in fact, all parties agreed that we should move forward with this.

Whenever we do a bill, however, it is not just good enough to say that we all agree, just pass it and let us go. We have to very careful, and some members have already spoken about potential unintended consequences. I must admit there are some circumstances in which questions could be raised. So, I want to touch on a few of those.

First, old age security, as we know it today, and members are familiar with this, is a benefit that is received by all Canadians who reach the age of 65 and is subject to certain criteria, specifically income, because there is a clawback provision, which means that if a person makes a lot of money in Canada they will not get the old age security.

Interestingly enough, up until I believe it was 1969, Canadians actually paid premiums for old age security. There actually was a specific premium on the tax return to make a contribution toward one's old age security. That makes it different for those who did and those who did not pay into OAS during their working careers. It was contributory and then it stopped, I think in 1970. So we have two different classes of senior, those who were in the OAS contributory plan up until 1970 and those who were not. That raises the question about whether or not there are any other areas in which people have different circumstances.

I wanted to raise these because it would appear that, in the haste to get this bill put together, some of these were not taken into account.

I also understand that once the bill was actually tabled and received a bill number, Bill C-31, it basically languished for a long period of time. It was not dealt with by the government quickly. In fact, it just sat there, and it was not until September 23 that we actually had the first hour of debate at second reading.

We have to ask this question. How is it that the Parliament of Canada can put together a bill so quickly and yet not dispose of it, given the time frame that has already passed, especially when, with discussion among the various House leaders and party leaders, there could be consent? Even today, the House leader did make a reference that we should, right now, have unanimous consent to support and to pass all of the outstanding justice legislation at all stages now.

That was proposed to the government in the last Parliament. to fast-track bills, and the government turned it down.

We have to ask ourselves, even though we are dealing with a specific bill, if we have learned any lessons from the process we have gone through and from what seems to be happening.

The pattern has been that when the government gets into some difficulty, when some tough issues come up, when it gets caught or trapped, such as with whether or not Canada is going to stay in Afghanistan on a training mission, and when there are a lot of concerns and a lot of issues, the government announces that the following week it will be bringing back all of its justice bills and we will debate justice bills for a whole week. We just have to look at the government's record.

That is not the way to do it, because it is basically politically motivated. When there is a difficult issue, when the government does not want people to dwell on a problem or it does not want a problem articulated too loudly, it switches the channel.

We have switched the channel and we are now on this bill. However, this bill has been with us since before we rose for the summer. Nothing happened to it until September 23, and then it was rushed through the House after a couple of hours of attention and sent to committee. Some concerns were raised by witnesses and amendments were made. When we work together, things can happen. But the bill, as I can see right now, could probably have been completed before we rose for the summer. If the government was serious about the bill, it could probably have been passed at all stages before we broke for the summer. That has to tell us something, and it concerns me.

The other point I want to raise is with regard to the process of bringing this legislation forward. The last thing that happens before the bill comes here and a minister rises to present it, is that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada has to opine on whether the bill is charter-proof, whether the bill is in good form. We cannot have legislation before the House that would be in violation of the charter.

Interestingly enough, today in debate I engaged the member for Windsor—Tecumseh in a question or two about whether or not this bill is charter-proof. The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada gave the opinion to cabinet and the bill was signed off and presented to the House. That does not mean that there cannot be a challenge.

The member for Windsor—Tecumseh also said that the bill would only apply to about 600 prisoners out of the 14,000 in our prisons in Canada. Many of them probably would have income from other sources and may very well earn enough income so they do not get old age security. It is very unlikely that they would get it.

If we took all of the people out who would maybe entertain a charter challenge on the basis that they were being discriminated against under the charter, the number of those 600 is really reduced. Some might have so much money that they do not care to do it because it is of no interest to them. Somebody in the middle might not be able to afford to go through the process. The member concluded that, in our situation, a charter challenge probably would never come forward.

The issue came out at committee. If members consulted some of the committee evidence, they would find that the issue did come out. The Canadian Criminal Justice Association raised the validity of the charter on this matter as one of its first points.

When I see things like this happen, I have to ask myself whether or not we have learned any lessons from the past. It is difficult to understand how legislation can be questionable under the charter and has not been nailed down 100%. That might be the first point. Why is it, if it can be demonstrated that there is a risk about whether or not a bill is charter-proof, that it would be up to someone who was aggrieved by the legislation to fight that case?

We have the potential for some unintended consequences. The issue of unintended consequences was raised by the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour in his speech as well. If our enthusiasm and our motivation for changing the Old Age Security Act is because everybody would like to punish Clifford Olson, is there somebody else who may be touched by this but we have not thought it through?

The speech given by the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, who is a member of the committee, by the way, really concerned me. In committee he said that Correctional Service Canada did not seem to be fully informed about the prison population, about inmates' financial considerations, health issues, families, who was splitting benefits, whether they were eligible to do that where there were spousal payments, whether there were orders from other jurisdictions for moneys to be withheld and attached by some other court order.

There is a fair number of details, and none of these things have come up in speeches given by government members. There is one reason, and it is that they do not give speeches. They have someone to present a bill and then they sit on their hands. They do not give speeches or ask questions. They let the opposition parties spin their wheels, and they know that as long as they do not give speeches, they will not have to answer any questions.

That I find somewhat contemptuous of Parliament. Debate is an integral part of what we do here. If the government is not prepared to be accountable and transparent in what it is doing and how it is doing it, then we should express some concern. I hope more members will do that.

This particular bill is not rocket science. As has been outlined to the House, many countries have similar legislation wherein persons incarcerated over a certain period of time are not eligible to receive benefits. They include places like the U.K., Ireland, Austria and a number of other countries. They have various iterations of programs.

The question of unintended consequences is probably what the Bloc member who just spoke was most concerned about. Some people may not agree, but I find this interesting. When somebody over the age of 65 is in jail and will eventually get out of prison, that person needs to live and survive. Nobody wants to be a ward of the state and to be on welfare. People want to live in dignity.

Pension security has always been an issue, and of late a lot of Canadians have expressed that they have not adequately provided for their pension requirements in order to maintain a dignified lifestyle during retirement. Prisoners are still seniors, and the Bloc member gave a very good intervention from the heart about the fact that we should not consider prisoners to be devils, people who should be punished for the rest of their lives.

In fact, our criminal justice system has pillars that work against that kind of thinking. It is a system that, yes, includes punishment for crimes committed, but another important pillar is to provide rehabilitation so that when people ultimately come out of our prison system they understand what they did, are remorseful for it and are looking forward to picking up the pieces of their lives and making the best they can of it.

The other part is to provide for reintegration. That is the part this bill addresses and may be the unintended consequence. People who do not have a lot of money will receive old age security. However, people say that inmates receiving all of these benefits are not entitled to them and we should take it away. But all that does is take away the resources people may need for getting themselves reintegrated into society.

It may take away the money that will be necessary for their burial. It may take away money that is necessary for caring for any persons for whom they have responsibility or persons whom they love. It does not give them that opportunity. In fact, in some cases we will have people who will not be able to live in dignity after they have served their sentences and paid their dues.

We should learn from our experience in some of these bills. The bill was hastily done and there is some fear that we have to do this and everyone is going to jump onside simply because if we do not the public is going to say that we think Clifford Olson should get his old age security. There are many ways to do this, but we did not think about the victims of the crimes that were committed by those persons in jail. We did not think of what happens if the old age security is not paid to certain of these prisoners. That money stays in the coffers of the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development. It never goes anywhere near the victims. Probably one of the areas that we have not dealt with as legislators as much as we should is dealing with and helping victims of crime.

We also should be talking about the prevention side.

Our criminal justice system has many tentacles. A parallel would be when I first became a parliamentarian in 1993, and at the health committee, the first committee I was on when I became an MP, we were given a briefing on the state of the health system in Canada. We were told that 75% of what we spend is spent on fixing problems and 25% is spent on preventing them. Their conclusion was that the system or the model was unsustainable.

It is interesting. I see it as a valid parallel because right now the Conservative government is totally preoccupied with punishing people, but we have not talked very much about rehabilitation. We have not talked very much about prevention or reintegration. All we are talking about is punishing people who eventually will get out of jail and will have to reintegrate into society. We played with a number of bills that deal with parole, et cetera, and shortening that so that people spend a longer time in prison, even though all of the evidence indicates that people who earn parole and spend less time in jail are less likely to reoffend. We need to learn lessons like that and make sure that our legislation is cognizant of some of those details.

Earlier this morning the member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca was speaking to another bill. One of his points was about how half the people in the jails in Canada suffer from mental illness and things like fetal alcohol syndrome. He said that the jails are filled with people who really should not be there and for whom rehabilitation is not possible. That would be another example of where in dealing with legislation, the thinking has to go on. In that case it was dealing with the sexual exploitation of children over the Internet. There are other aspects of legislation to be taken care of.

If we look down the list of the criminal justice bills, many of them are linear bills. Many of them have to do with sentencing. Many of them have to do with parole. They could have been rolled together into an omnibus bill, one to deal with sentencing principles and provisions. The reason the government has not done that and we are dealing with this one very linear issue in a bill is that the government does not want these things to be completed and made into law. The government wants to continue to have them there on the shelf, ready to bring them out, to recirculate and recycle them so that it can change the channel whenever it gets into some difficulty.

It is kind of cynical to say that, but the evidence speaks for itself. Many of these bills were active in the last Parliament, and they have come back. They were not reinstated in the same position after prorogation. Some came back and were actually put together in an omnibus bill. Others were not, but the names were changed.

I support the bill but we have missed some opportunities to make our criminal justice system better.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, the parliamentary secretary has indicated that the government plans to save $2 million by cutting off the pensions to inmates. If all the provinces sign on to the plan, it could potentially save another $10 million.

We have had information from the member for Windsor—Tecumseh and others who say that the government has no clue as to how many people this measure would actually affect.

Why is the government proceeding on pure speculation? We know that these pensions were first implemented in 1979 by the Joe Clark Conservative government. We asked the government questions about the reasons at the time for Joe Clark to institute these payments to prisoners? There is no information. Either the government does not know, or it does know and it does not want to tell us the information.

The government is now saying it is going to save $2 million at the federal level and $10 million at the provincial level. If we do not even know how many prisoners are collecting, are we really dealing with reality here and with proper numbers?

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:45 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, I believe some time earlier one of the members, and it may have been the member for Windsor—Tecumseh, did say that there were about 600 of the 14,000 prisoners in our jail system who were eligible. However, that does not mean they applied.

We do know that the number is less than 600. Even if it is 600, the savings that have been suggested by the government seem to be a little bit out of line.

It is yet another case where the government has not done its homework. It has not done the bill justice and it has not done Parliament justice, simply because it did not do its homework. It does not know what is involved.

All the government knows is that the public will think that taking the old age security away from Clifford Olson is great, and it will get the political benefit from that.

But if everything we do around this place has to do with how we get political benefit, there is no question in my mind that the prayer we say, that we make good laws and wise decisions, will almost be impossible to achieve.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Madam Speaker, a proposal was raised by New Democrats through this debate. I am wondering about the member's opinions and his party's opinions on this.

I think the government has found a loophole that involves people who are staying beyond their retirement years who are then having their room and board taken care of, if we want to call prison “room and board”, but are also receiving old age security payments. The government wants to take those funds that have been allocated, and constitutionally allocated, to those prisoners and put them into a fund to help with the rehabilitation process and to help with external programs that it has since cut.

One of those programs that we are very intimate with in the riding I represent is the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. This was an institution set up to help with the institutional effects of residential schools over many generations. The government decided to cut those funds, and the effects have been felt throughout.

The reason I raise aboriginals in this particular case is we know that first nations are overrepresented in our prison system as it is right now. One of the ways to help people either stay out of prison, or if they go in to not go back in, recidivism, is to make sure there are supportive programs when they come out.

The government seems to be blinkered in its attitude towards crime, they believe that the only satisfactory response to crime is to build more prisons as opposed to stopping the crimes from happening in the first place.

If we really want to stand up for victims' rights in this country, we would create fewer victims. By creating more programs there would be fewer victims in the country and fewer crimes happening.

I am wondering about my colleague's opinion about taking this one issue, this so-called Olson bill, and referring it to something a little bit more profound and getting at the sources and roots of crime, the actual nuts and bolts.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:50 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, I fully agree with the member. This is part of the problem. The government has not thought it through and has not done a good job on the bill, whether it be the funds for rehabilitation purposes, whether it be for victims of crime or anything where it puts those savings, whatever they might be, in a manner that is going to contribute to the reduction of repeat offenders and help people to reintegrate.

My concern is that if the numbers that we are talking about are as small as they are, I suspect that the administration that would have to be set up to deal with this would cost more than the money that one would actually get.

That is why the government needed to have done the work, and if in fact it found out that this was not economically feasible, even the way it is right now where the moneys are retained in human resources and not for victims or for justice-related issues, it probably should have simply had a specific Olson bill to say that Clifford Olson does not get OAS, period, and we are done. It would have gotten unanimous consent and we would not have to spend months with a bill behind which the government really has not put its work nor its heart.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Madam Speaker, I am proud to stand up on behalf of the New Democratic Party and speak about this bill.

As I mentioned earlier today, there are few topics that are more profound than those that involve crime and punishment. When we talk about punishment, we are talking about some of the most serious issues that any mature society can deal with. We are dealing with tragedy, with victims, with pain, damage, some of it permanent, and it is always something that legislators need to take with the most serious of intentions and the utmost good faith.

I am not sure that the bill before us, Bill C-31, was born out of that kind of approach. In the last six months, the prospects of Clifford Olson getting a pension came up in the news and the government then sprang into action, as it often does with crime bills, by governing by exception. The Conservatives will take a case that comes up in an exceptional circumstance and then they will rush to legislate, and I think this bill is a product of that. That is regrettable, and I would urge the government and all parliamentarians to take a more considered, more fact-based and more effective approach to making policy when it comes to Criminal Code amendments and when it comes to determining how we deal with those who have breached the rules of society.

Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act, I will say at once, suffers from a very common problem that is becoming increasingly used by the government, and that is the interjection of hyper-partisan short titles of the bill. I heard a cabinet minister today say that the opposition is just focusing on the short title. I think there is something more important at stake, and that is the integrity of the laws of the Government of Canada. There are many lawyers in the House. I myself am a lawyer, and the way that the government has interjected its own partisan leanings into what should be an objective and lawful description of the laws that all citizens of this country have to abide by is regrettable.

The Conservatives have described this bill in short form as the “Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act”, which again is probably not accurate. For sure it is partisan and it does not do justice to what we as parliamentarians ought to be doing in the House.

The bill suspends payments of old age security and guaranteed income supplement payments to all persons 65 years of age and older while they are serving more than 90 days in a federal correctional facility. Of course, a person has to be sentenced to two years or more in order to be in a federal correctional facility in this country.

The bill would suspend payments of the spousal or survivor allowance to eligible individuals between 60 and 64 years of age, while that individual is serving time in a federal facility. The bill does maintain OAS and GIS payments to spouses and partners of those who are incarcerated. They are to receive these payments at the higher single rate, based on their individual, not combined, spousal income. To that degree, I would offer my approval and support to the government for at least having the foresight and care to not penalize spouses of those incarcerated in federal institutions who are over 60 years of age.

The bill would maintain the spousal allowance benefits to the spouse of incarcerated individuals. It also allows provinces to opt in by entering into agreements with the federal government to suspend OAS and GIS and spousal allowance benefits under the terms that I have mentioned, to all individuals incarcerated for a sentence that exceeds 90 days in a provincial facility.

Notwithstanding what I have just said, benefit payments would still be paid during the first month of incarceration, and benefit payments would resume the month that an individual was released on earned remission, parole, statutory release or warrant expiry upon application by that individual.

I want to first deal with a little bit of history, because I think this is instructive. It is interesting that prior to 1979 in this country, inmates in federal penitentiaries did not receive old age security or GIS.

Interestingly, I think Canadians would be very surprised to learn that it was a Conservative government, Joe Clark's government of 1979, that restored pensions to prisoners serving time in federal institutions.

I think this shows just how far the government has strayed from any notion of progressivity that once was a hallmark of the Conservative Party in this country, as it was then called the Progressive Conservative Party. Canadians need to know that Conservatives gave prisoners pensions in this country. I would ask that the members on the other side of the House reflect on that at some point and think about where they have come from and where they are going.

I have some quotes from the Hon. David Crombie, who was the Minister of National Health and Welfare at the time. This is what he said in 1979 when he, as a Conservative, was granting pensions to offenders in federal institutions in this country:

If I may refer now to the provision which will end the suspension of the OAS benefits for prisoners, this is also an improvement of some significance....

This provision has, over the course of years, proven both difficult and unfair. When OAS pensioners are imprisoned and their benefits are subject to suspension, any delay in effecting the suspension can result in overpayments which must be collected when the pension is released. Even if there is no overpayment, the lack of benefits during imprisonment can mean that these people are released with little money at an advanced age and few prospects for making a living.

There are fewer than 100 persons affected by this provision in any given year. The cost of maintaining payment of their OAS benefits is a small fraction of a per cent of program costs. However, if even one prisoner is able to find a better life as a result of this change, and one prisoner's spouse is not deprived of her allowance, it will be well worth the effort....

I invite the support of all members of this House for this particular step, to improve the humanity of a program now in place, and for the broader examination which we hope to carry out, in co-operation with provincial governments and the private sector, to ensure that we have the best possible pension system that we can afford to provide retirement protection for all Canadians.

That is what Conservatives said in 1979.

What they want to do now is strip pensions from certain people in this country, in this case prisoners, and they have done absolutely nothing to address senior poverty in this country or to improve the Canada pension plan or any pension legislation that will actually help our seniors have a retirement and live in dignity in their golden years.

That said, I also want to point out that at that time, in 1979, there were about 100 people who would be affected by the pension. It is not much different today. I have done some research and discovered a number of facts.

There are 398 people over the age of 65 in the federal corrections system. That was as of March 31. Interestingly, many countries have similar legislation, including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. At least six provinces and territories now stop social welfare for more than three months when people are in prison: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories.

I think it is important to ask the government where we sit in terms of comparing ourselves to other countries in the world when it comes to how we are dealing with issues such as this.

I want to talk about some of the positive aspects of the bill, because I think it has some positives and some negatives. First, there is an inherent and undeniable logic to suspending payments designed to provide for the basic necessities of life in cases where our taxpayers are already funding the basic necessities of life for people who are sentenced to federal prisons.

I want to stop there. That makes some sense. I think it would pass the smell test for Canadians that old age security is intended to provide a certain amount of money to seniors. It is not very much. I think it is approximately $10,000 a year, and that would go to helping a person pay for shelter and food. One could argue, and I think it is a valid argument, that if individuals are in a federal institution and already have their accommodation and food taken care of, the justification for receiving that OAS payment may not be there.

I think there is some small savings to this measure. It has been estimated that suspending OAS and GIS payments to prisoners over the age of 60 would save about $2 million a year immediately and up to $10 million per year if all provinces and territories opted into this program.

I want to reiterate that I think the way this legislation is drafted mitigates to an extent the financial impact on spouses of offenders in federal institutions by allowing them to receive OAS and GIS payments at the single rate and based on their individual rather than combined spousal income, although it must be recognized that a spouse of an offender and their family very likely would stand to be hurt by this provision because they would be deprived of that spouse's income that would otherwise come to the family.

There are some negative aspects of the bill. The constitutionality of these provisions has been questioned. Some may view this provision as an attempt to add a sentencing provision to someone. It brings up the concept of civil forfeiture, which was a concept abolished in the British Commonwealth system some 150 years ago. That is the notion that when people are convicted of a crime, the sentence that is carried out by the state is that they are deprived of their liberty and they are deprived of their ability to walk freely in society. Those I do not think should be underestimated in terms of the profundity and the impact of those losses.

But otherwise a person, even in a federal institution, still retains certain rights as a citizen. They have the right to vote. They have their basic human rights. They have the right to communicate with their lawyers. Stripping them of their private property, as was done in Britain 150 years ago where people convicted of an offence might have their property, personal or real, seized by the Crown, which would throw families into poverty, and where they had debtors' prisons, has been a concept that most mature, civilized societies have rejected. So the concept of stripping someone of an entitlement that is universal in this country may be seen in that respect.

I think it could be argued that this bill would violate the universality aspect of our OAS system, a principle that I think a lot of people in this House hold dear.

We do not accord universal health care or OAS payments generally based on our evaluation of whether that person is a likeable person or whether that person has done something with which we may disagree. We generally accord those principles to every Canadian citizen as a matter of citizenship and as a matter of right. It can be considered worrying that when we open the door to taking away a universal benefit such as this bill would propose, it may open a door to which there is a sliding scale, the destination of which we know not. An example could be that if the logic of this is why are we paying for prisoners' room and board when the taxpayer is already paying, it leads to an argument that maybe we should do that if a senior citizen breaks a hip and has to be in the hospital for three months. Could the argument then be made that while the taxpayer is already paying for the lodging and food for that person for the three months, therefore we should suspend that person's OAS or GIS payments for that three-month period?

What about people who are in psychiatric hospitals or under the care of the state for mental health issues? Is that the next argument that the government would make, that we should be stripping OAS and GIS from those people?

I think we have to be very aware of where this bill could take us.

As I pointed out, the bill would have an unavoidable negative financial effect on some spouses of inmates who would lose out on almost half of the joint income used to support them. This may have a significant negative impact on spouses who are under the age of 60 and are being supported by the OAS and GIS payments made to an individual who is subsequently incarcerated, because no federal pension benefits would be provided to them.

In those cases, HRSDC officials have indicated that the provincial social assistance systems would be required to support those individuals. Once again, I think we are seeing a case where a piece of federal legislation may have a deleterious effect on the provinces by downloading onto them the requirement to use their welfare programs to support certain people who otherwise would not need that support.

I think this is very similar to the two-for-one piece of legislation where the result of us taking away the two-for-one credit for pretrial custody would no doubt result in many more prisoners spending much more time in provincial remand centres and provincial institutions and cost the provinces much more money.

Suspending pensions for inmates may also affect their ability to make court-ordered restitution payments to victims, something that is widely recognized by victims' advocates as a key component of healing, and what criminal justice experts regard as an important rehabilitative process for offenders.

We must also remember that most offenders are already poor. In fact, poverty is one of the determinative causes of crime. For those individuals who are released back into society, there is a positive social benefit in having their difficult reintegration process aided by savings of several thousand dollars. This is true particularly for seniors, who will be even less likely to quickly find employment after release.

This government bill was targeted at individuals like Clifford Olson, which every member of this House agrees has committed crimes of unspeakable evil. We all agree that Mr. Olson should never, ever see the light of day, and that Mr. Olson should not get any entitlements beyond the bare minimum that a humane society would accord a prisoner like him. But whether or not that is a sound basis upon which to make policy is a different question.

I would have preferred to see the government introduce legislation that targeted the removal of pensions for people serving life sentences. That would have been a more measured approach that would have accomplished what I think is the goal. But this bill takes away OAS and GIS from every single senior in the federal system. We could have a member of our society who is 59 or 60 years old and who gets sentenced to 2, 3, or 4 years. That person may have an interest in maintaining an apartment or house, because he or she is going to come out in perhaps two or three years. This bill would have a very deleterious effect on such people.

This legislation was motivated by a desire to reflect Canadians' great distaste and horror at the prospect of Clifford Olson receiving a pension. But we must realize that this has broader effects.

I want to talk about something my hon. colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley brought up. It is a positive suggestion by our party that ought to be considered by the government, namely, if we support this bill and it is passed, we should take that $2 million to $10 million a year and, instead of putting it back into general revenue, put it into programs that aid the rehabilitation of senior prisoners.

We can leave aside the people who have life sentences, people like Clifford Olson. Rehabilitation is not an option for those individuals. We all agree on that. But there are 300 or so senior citizens in the federal system who are going to come out, and who did not commit crimes like Mr. Olson. They are not murderers. They have not committed manslaughter. They are people who have been convicted of all manner of crimes, but most of their crimes are not anywhere near those that Clifford Olson committed. Perhaps we can take that money and do some good with it. We can target that money to programming that will help them reintegrate into society.

Steve Sullivan, the victims' ombudsperson, who was not reappointed by the government, has pointed out that victims do not want offenders to serve longer periods of time. They do not want them to suffer unduly. All they want is for those offenders to come back into society and not reoffend. They want to be able to walk safely in their communities and in our streets. That is what those victims want. It is what we all want. Any policy measure, any bill, any piece of legislation that is considered by this House should be measured against that standard. Will it help that offender not to reoffend? If it does not, then we know that we are playing politics. We are not making sound policy.

I also want to talk a bit about pensions. It is interesting that the government has done nothing to improve the pensions or the income security of seniors since it was elected in 2006. The government has been in power for coming up to five years, and that is a decent amount of time for government to reveal what its agenda really—

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Andrew Scheer

Order. I will have to stop the hon. member there.

It is time to move on to questions and comments. The hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Oxford
Ontario

Conservative

Dave MacKenzie Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety

Mr. Speaker, I have listened to my colleague across the floor. He frequently mentions that he was a labour lawyer before he came here. What I notice is he talks, as other members of his party have, about not liking the short-form titles of bills. The people in my riding like the short-form titles, because they know what we are talking about and they agree with these bills.

I am puzzled as to why the member would be locked into issues of 31 years ago and why he would think there is something wrong in changing legislation that is 31 years old. In this case, with respect to people doing long sentences in federal institutions, I would like to know why he thinks for one minute that the government should even consider allowing them to continue to receive benefits.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the member a question. He has probably been a member of the Conservative Party for 30 years. I wonder what his position was in 1979 when his Conservative party was giving pensions to prisoners in the federal system. I do not know that there was any great hue and cry.

If this was such a big issue, I wonder why my friend sat on his hands in 2006. Where was the government in 2007, 2008, and 2009 if this was such a big issue? Conservatives sat there, because they gave prisoners pensions. They do not like it when we point that out, because they want to look as if they are tough on prisoners in our federal institutions. They do not want to have Canadians know they are the ones who gave pensions to prisoners.

Of course, that is what Canadians need to know. People should ask the Conservatives why they gave prisoners pensions. If it was a bad idea, what did Conservatives say about it in 1982, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009? That is what Canadians want to ask. Why are they making policy off headlines?

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I often make the mistake of referring to the member as the member for Edmonton Kingsway only because I would like to bring him back to my fair city, but I am glad he is representing his area well. It has been brought to my attention by another one of my colleagues, the member for Nanaimo—Cowichan, that a critical publication in my city, the Edmonton Senior, has spoken out on this issue in a way that does not seem well represented in the House. We heard there are polls where people are saying it is reprehensible that prisoners should receive pensions. But let me repeat the statement in the Edmonton Senior , which said that the “concern is not around whether or not senior prisoners should receive pension money, but what the correctional system is doing to prepare offenders for their release”.

I wonder if the member could speak to this very thoughtful commentary, which reflects on a more measured response, reflects on the broader issue of what gets people into prison in the first place and what we are doing to prepare them for their release. Further, I would like to hear his thoughts on where those moneys should go other than to general revenue.