Mr. Speaker, this is my second opportunity to speak about Bill C-36. I am happy to do so, particularly because I am the critic for seniors' issues.
I would simply like to remind members, as others have done before me, that in 2006 we introduced Bill C-36, but I think it should have been introduced long ago, since five years earlier the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities examined the guaranteed income supplement, a non-taxable monthly benefit, which is supposed to be paid, based on household income, to low-income beneficiaries of the old age security pension.
In its December 2001 report, the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities observed a number of deficiencies in the application of the guaranteed income supplement program, which is among the three income-maintenance programs for seniors administered by the Department of Human Resources and Social Development. The three programs are not perfect, but today I will only address the guaranteed income supplement, because there are some serious deficiencies in its application.
First of all, in order to receive the guaranteed income supplement, citizens had to apply for it every year. Eligible individuals usually applied for a renewal when completing their tax returns. It is precisely this last point that is the source of a grave injustice.
In its analysis of the matter, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities referred to a study conducted in Toronto in early 2001 by social statistician and policy analyst Richard Shillington. The study found that only 15% of seniors who were using food banks were getting the guaranteed income supplement, though nearly all were eligible for it. Furthermore, a news report in the August 23, 2001 edition of The Toronto Star stated that more than 380,000 Canadians eligible for the guaranteed income supplement were not receiving it.
Personally, I find these statistics appalling, since seniors are vulnerable individuals who are often unable to stand up for themselves.
The question was simple. Why did so many people fail to apply for the guaranteed income supplement, something that could be so beneficial to people who are poor and without resources?
The answer was equally simple. For one thing, it is not easy for elderly people with low literacy levels or failing eyesight to understand the complexity of the eligibility criteria, the content of tax returns and the information pamphlets written for them. For another thing, many people did not know that they had to renew their application every year.
The guaranteed income supplement is for seniors who have physical or mental health problems, physical limitations, language barriers, or limited literacy skills who receive complicated documents, written in language that is often inaccessible and difficult. It is therefore not surprising that 85% of eligible individuals do not take advantage of this income.
Furthermore, Human Resources Development Canada apparently had difficulty contacting particularly disadvantaged clienteles, such as people who have never worked outside the home—often women at that age, and a significant number of them—, people who do not file income tax returns—also numerous—, aboriginal people, residents of remote communities, people with limited literacy skills, people who do not read or speak either official language, people with a disability or who are ill, and the homeless.
Most absurd of all is no doubt the fact that HRDC had been aware of the under-subscription of GIS since at least 1993, but never did anything about it, as evidenced by the fact that the problem persists, or at least did so at the time when Bill C-36, which has yet to come into force, was introduced.
There are not very many options to solve this problem. First and foremost, potentially eligible individuals, whether they file income tax returns or not, have to be contacted directly.
Naturally, it is easier to contact those who file income tax returns, given that their income is already known to the government. However, the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities noted that the human resources department refrained from using information from tax returns for fear of contravening the provisions of the Income Tax Act governing the protection of taxpayer information.
Had this money been owed to the government, I think that this fear would have been quickly alleviated.
The Privacy Commissioner had to intervene to lift this fear, stating before the committee that, under section 241 of the Income Tax Act, the provision of information was allowed for the purposes of the administration of the Old Age Security Act, because the GIS is nothing more than a component of the OAS.
This means that HRDC had not only the means but also the authority to check. So, for the past 14 years, the department could and should have been helping tens of thousands of people among the least fortunate in our society, but has not. That is bordering on scandalous.
Simply put, by its lack of action, HRDC financially penalized individuals among the most disadvantaged. It is mystifying to see that, at the time when this study was tabled, in 2001, officials admitted that the government had been aware of the situation for at least eight years and, yet, HRDC did not manage to take appropriate steps to remedy the problem.
Luckily the Bloc Québécois was there. Over the past few years, the Bloc Québécois has noticed that seniors are among those the most affected by the federal government cuts to transfer payments. The quality of life of older persons quite often depends on the care they can receive. This quality of life also depends on their income.
That is why the Bloc Québécois harshly criticized the irregularities in the guaranteed income supplement program, which guarantees low-income seniors additional income. The negligence of the Liberal government in managing the guaranteed income supplement program was such that in 2001, more than 68,000 seniors in Quebec, who are among those who needed it the most, were still being short changed up to $6,600 a year. I think that would be a significant amount of money to a low-income person.
A major operation by the Bloc Québécois has so far uncovered roughly 42,000 of these people, several of whom did not receive the money they were entitled to for years under the federal guaranteed income supplement program. This effort represents roughly $190 million more, redistributed to the least fortunate in our society. What is $190 million compared to the billions of dollars invested in the military?
A lot of work still needs to be done. In the riding I have been representing for almost four months, I have been in contact with the owner of a retirement home, who is aware of the issue, to ask him to approach the seniors in his establishment to determine their financial situation. The man in question sent a short letter to all his residents explaining that if their income did not exceed a certain amount, they could verify whether they were entitled to receive the guaranteed income supplement. Believe it or not, after three weeks, we have already met three people who were entitled to this supplement who were not receiving it. And that is just in one retirement home. Imagine what we would find across Quebec and Canada.
That means that in Quebec, and elsewhere in Canada, a number of people have been swindled by the federal government. These people should be reimbursed.
The Bloc Québécois plans to continue its efforts to ensure that older persons who are entitled to the guaranteed income supplement receive it, and that the government reimburses the $3.2 billion that it stole from them over the years by feigning ignorance.
In 2001, the committee studying the guaranteed income supplement issued seven recommendations. I would like to review them briefly. Unfortunately, these suggestions and recommendations were not included in Bill C-36 as tabled.
The first recommendation in the committee's report was to ask HRDC, in conjunction with other relevant federal departments, to work immediately to develop an automatic notification process so as to ensure that all potential guaranteed income supplement applicants, prior to their 65th birthday, are apprised of the availability of this income support.
Second, the committee recommended that HRDC, in conjunction with the Canada Revenue Agency, take the necessary steps to develop an automatic process for renewing guaranteed income supplement eligibility, and that the department take immediate steps to simplify the initial application for the guaranteed income supplement.
Third, the committee recommended that the government consider adopting a variable retroactive guaranteed income supplement payment period.
The Bloc Québécois found that this recommendation could be improved and suggested that the committee recommend that the government pay out full retroactivity for the guaranteed income supplement and the allowance. Such a policy would have ensured retroactive payments for the entire period of entitlement. The Bloc Québécois' recommendation was not adopted.
Fourth, the Committee recommended that the Government of Canada define “occasional income” and exempt a certain level of occasional income for the purposes of the guaranteed income supplement and the allowance.
Fifth, the Committee recommended that HRDC undertake an extensive and systematic public awareness campaign to ensure that all seniors receive clear, simple and easily understood information on how to access information on the guaranteed income supplement.
Sixth, the committee recommended that HRDC and the CCRA continue to work together to identify and directly contact seniors who may be eligible for the guaranteed income supplement.
Seventh, the committee recommended that all future annual departmental performance reports of HRDC include an estimate of the number of eligible seniors who do not receive the GIS, the spouse's allowance, the OAS or CPP. In addition, HRDC should prepare a special report, to be tabled in Parliament by October 2002, outlining the progress it has made to address the GIS under-subscription problem.
After having been introduced, having received second reading on January 29 and having been referred to committee, the bill is now coming back to the House to be passed. The Bloc Québécois recognizes that Bill C-36 will make it easier for disadvantaged seniors to have access to the guaranteed income supplement program by allowing for automatic application renewal and payment of the guaranteed income supplement to couples on the basis of only one spouse's income tax return.
The Bloc Québécois also recognizes that Bill C-36 allows seniors who suffer a sudden reduction in employment or pension income during a fiscal year to submit a GIS application based on an estimate of their employment and pension income.
The Bloc Québécois further recognizes that Bill C-36 amends and fine-tunes certain sections of the Old Age Security Act in order to deal with inconsistencies that it contained.
Finally, the Bloc Québécois recognizes that Bill C-36 introduces certain measures amending the Canada Pension Plan, which does not at all affect Quebec and its constitutional jurisdictions.
Therefore, the Bloc Québécois supports the principle of this bill. However, it is opposed to broadening restrictions on new Canadian citizens who have immigrated to this country. To the Bloc Québécois, there cannot be different classes of Canadian citizens, regardless of how they came to be here. Every citizen has access to the guaranteed income supplement.
The Bloc had also recommended that the committee look at requiring the government to pay full retroactive guaranteed income supplement benefits, rather than a maximum of 11 months, as provided under the legislation on guaranteed income supplement and allowance benefits. This would mean a retroactive payment covering the whole eligibility period.
The Bloc also had reservations about the discretionary power, about waiving the requirement for a renewal application for the guaranteed income supplement and allowance benefits, once an initial application has been made. The relevant wording reads, “The Minister may waive the requirement”. We wanted it to read, “The Minister must waive the requirement”, but that was rejected by the committee.
The Bloc Québécois will ask that the Privacy Commissioner testify with regard to the expanding the list of third parties to which the contributor's personal information may be forwarded. We will also ensure that amendments to the current regulations will not restrict access to the guaranteed income supplement.
The Bloc Québécois will continue its longstanding battle with the federal government to ensure that it puts in place all the necessary elements to allow seniors entitled to the guaranteed income supplement to have access to it. With regard to interest charged on overpayments, the Bloc Québécois will ensure that the bill treats all taxpayers equally.
Lastly, the Bloc will make sure that the limitation period for claims of government overpayments is proportional to the period during which individuals can claim amounts owing. The government is not proposing full retroactivity, yet it seems to do away with any limitation period when it comes to the money it is owed.
In conclusion—as I know that my time is almost up—there has been progress. In fact, we are pleased to recognize that progress has been made on several points.
After the report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities was tabled in 2001, forms were simplified and sent by the Department of Human Resources and Social Development to pensioners who might be eligible for the guaranteed income supplement. Seniors only have to sign the document to give the Department of Human Resources and Social Development permission to examine their file.
Renewal application forms are now more readily available, especially since they are found on the Department of Human Resources and Social Development website. Unfortunately, seniors do not often use the Internet.
There is much more to be done. It is deplorable that, for all these years, the successive Liberal and Conservative governments neglected, muzzled and ignored the most vulnerable seniors in our society. Fortunately, the Bloc Québécois was there to ensure that our most vulnerable seniors were heard by the government. Through its numerous interventions in the House, in committees and in the media, the Bloc Québécois was able to keep the spotlight on a group of individuals excluded from the priorities of the Liberal and Conservative governments.
Some progress has been made. However, these few measures will not silence the Bloc. We will continue to fight the federal government in order to obtain justice for all those individuals who made it possible for Quebeckers and Canadians to form the nations that they have become.