Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to rise in the House and speak to Bill C-36.
First of all I would like to say that I am very proud to transfer the file on seniors and persons with disabilities to my new colleague from Repentigny, who I think will defend this file with as much enthusiasm, passion and determination as I did, and as all my colleagues of the Bloc Québécois who held the file before me have done.
This is a very important bill, which for us in the Bloc Québécois answers some of the requests that we have been making for many years and certain demands that we have concerning seniors, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society.
However, I have to say that there are still some shortcomings in this bill. As in all bills that interest us, we have done our homework. We have been in touch with the various seniors’ associations, the various organizations of seniors in Quebec and even some in Canada, to check with them and their representatives whether the bill was satisfactory in their view, if it met their needs, their concerns, and whether we could go ahead and support it.
At the outset, when we had the first information session, I was very pleased to see that finally this request made for so long concerning the guaranteed income supplement had been met, that is, that the supplement should become automatic, that people should have to apply for it only once and then it should become automatic.
From the first day, I was ready to say yes, to support this bill, to fast-track it and pass it right away so that people could start receiving their income and money in time for Christmas, so that they would be pleased to see that the guaranteed income supplement had become automatic.
I reminded myself that we should never be in too much of a hurry and that we have to be very careful, even if sometimes something looks like an excellent solution overall. Indeed the automatic GIS was the good news we had been waiting for for nearly ten years.
However, other aspects of this bill, which could harm seniors and might be negative for them, told us we had to be careful before giving our assent too quickly, because we wanted at all costs to be right concerning the guaranteed income supplement.
This shows once again that when the Bloc Québécois deals with an issue that affects Quebeckers and Canadians and a segment of society that is very vulnerable and fragile, it pays attention to what it is doing and the decisions it makes. We are very careful. I think it is worth it.
We certainly support this bill in principle. It is hard to be against virtue itself. However, the hon. members will recall a few years ago my colleague Marcel Gagnon, who is no longer in the House, defending this cause with great determination and courage. He toured all of Quebec and even some parts of Canada. He defended the guaranteed income supplement and the need to find people to whom it was owed. We managed at the time to find about 40,000 of the 68,000 people there were in Quebec. We suspected that there were 68,000 people just in Quebec who were entitled to the GIS but were not getting it because they did not know it existed. We found 42,000 of them. This means that there are still 24,000, 25,000 or 26,000 who have not been found yet.
What is being done for these other people who have not been found yet for all sorts of reasons? They are people who never applied for the GIS because of a physical or mental health problem, a physical limitation, illiteracy or a linguistic barrier.
Some citizens were even deprived of considerable amounts of money and did not get the GIS even though they were entitled to it. The Department of Human Resources and Social Development apparently had difficulty contacting particularly disadvantaged clienteles such as people who have never worked outside the home, people who do not file income tax returns, natives, residents of remote communities, people with few literacy skills, people who do not read or speak either official language, people who are handicapped or ill, and finally, the homeless.
When we think of all the people involved, we have to wonder whether this bill will give use the tools we need to contact them and give them the money they are owed.
As I said earlier, we consulted various organizations and groups that work with seniors in Quebec. One of them, the Conférence des Tables régionales de concertation des aînés du Québec, took time to read the bill, study it and send us their thoughts on it.
It should be remembered that this is a rather large association that includes most Quebec seniors, since it is made up of Quebec's 17 regional round tables. As we know, Quebec is divided into 17 regions. This is the only group that covers all of the Quebec territory. It also has a key link with the Quebec seniors council and helps it fulfill its mandate by supporting its initiatives in the regions. We also know that the conference and the round tables are the primary contacts of the Quebec Minister of Family, Seniors and Status of Women. This is important. When these people talk, or when they look at a bill, we listen very carefully to what they have to say.
We can already tell the House that, for a long time now, regional tables for seniors had been asking to group together applications for old age security and guaranteed income supplement, so that a single application would be necessary for those who are entitled to both amounts. This is what Bill C-36 purports to do, and we are very pleased about that. As for the changes to the disability insurance, we think that this insurance is well adjusted to today's labour market.
There was nothing either on the fact that interests can be collected on overpayments—which is normal—but the government should also pay interest on the money that it owes to pensioners, because this is also as it should be. If one wants to get something, one should be prepared to give something. This works both ways.
Clauses 11 and 25 make it possible for a larger number of third parties to have access to personal information on the contributor. This raises privacy issues and requires the establishment of strict rules to ensure a monitoring process, so that not everyone has access to such information. It is a good thing that the requirement for spouses or common law spouses to provide information on their income or family status was abolished, when that information is already provided by the other spouse or common law spouse. This will make it simpler to file income tax returns. However, there is no indication of the Canada pension plan, the old age security benefits or the guaranteed income supplement being indexed. It is also most unfortunate that there is no retroactive measure regarding the guaranteed income supplement.
FADOQ is another seniors group in Quebec that serves hundreds of thousands of people, which is not a small gathering that can just be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of seniors belong to this group. Their concerns are the same, but we believe there may be room to make other changes to the Canada pension plan.
Among other things, they are saying that the measures proposed in Bill C-36 only concern the continued renewal of the guaranteed income supplement application and not the initial application for receiving the GIS for the first time.
The purpose of the bill is not to reduce the number of seniors who are eligible for the guaranteed income supplement, but to reduce the number who do not receive it. However, in Canada in 2003, despite the progress made in the past few years, 37,000 seniors who were eligible for the guaranteed income supplement still had not received it. These uncollected benefits totalled $204 million in 2003, for all of Canada—$204 million! Since the guaranteed income supplement is used as an eligibility criterion for a number of other programs, non-participants also miss out on the benefits the provinces and territories give to low-income seniors.
In Laval we have 40,000 seniors 65 and older of whom 38% are over 75. That is a significant number. In other words, many people who are over 75 are likely entitled to the guaranteed income supplement. It is not always easy to find these people since they are not used to asking for services; they are used to taking care of themselves.
Another problem is the fact that Bill C-36 says nothing about the clawback of old age security benefits imposed since 1989 on high income seniors, whereby they have to give some back. With respect to those seniors who have already reported high incomes and seen their pension clawed back after filing their income tax returns, the federal government seems to take for granted that their income level will remain unchanged, and advance pension deductions are made the following year. This means that, while these seniors do receive a monthly pension, the amount received is reduced based on the previous year. Members know that the income of seniors often varies, which makes this practice unworkable. Some seniors have told us that such a measure was likely to deprive them of a part of their income to which they are entitled.
At present, seniors who foresee significant changes in their income have to file pro forma tax returns with the Canada Revenue Agency. It might be simpler and more appropriate to have them report their income directly to the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development, since that is the department responsible for administering the old age security program.
Since the late 1990s, the FADOQ, Mouvement des aînés du Québec, has been calling for the OAS clawback rate to be lowered, as it reduces excessively the income of retirees who have managed to put a little money aside. The FADOQ even suggested increasing the threshold in personal income beyond which benefits may be clawed back through income tax.
In spite of all these shortcomings and oversights, the Bloc Québécois recognizes the very exciting measures contained in this bill. We will support the bill in principle, so that it can be referred to committee, where it can hopefully be amended to some extent to make it even more exciting for our seniors, who are for the most part disadvantaged people.
Given that Bill C-36 will make it easier for disadvantaged seniors to benefit from the guaranteed income 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; given that Bill C-36 enables seniors who are faced with a sudden drop in their employment or pension income during the fiscal year to apply for the guaranteed income supplement using an estimate of their employment and pension income; given that Bill C-36 explains and clarifies sections of the Old Age Security Act to correct inconsistencies; and, finally, given that Bill C-36 makes changes to the Canada Pension Plan—which does not affect Quebec and its constitutional jurisdictions—we will support this bill in principle.
However, the Bloc Québécois is opposed to broadening restrictions on new Canadian citizens who 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 following clauses pose a problem by creating different classes of Canadian citizens: 11(4), 19(3), 19(6)(d)(ii), 20 and 21(9)(c)(ii), which refer to persons in respect of whom an undertaking by a sponsor is in effect as provided under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. These clauses exclude new Canadian citizens who are still being sponsored.
The committee and the Bloc ask that the committee amend the bill so as not to limit the rights of new citizens, as referred to here. The obligations of the sponsor, who vouches for and looks after a person who has immigrated here, generally take effect as soon as the sponsored person obtains permanent resident status. This commitment cannot be terminated, and it remains in effect when the person obtains Canadian citizenship, separates or divorces, or a moves to another province. It would remain in effect even if your financial situation were to deteriorate.
Can we allow ourselves to leave seniors destitute, simply because the person who was supposed to sponsor them has suffered a loss of income or has lost his or her job? Many textile factories are closing their doors because the government did not think to support the textile industry. Furthermore, many people will not have work in certain areas, such as at Bell Helicopter, because the government did not bother to confirm with the United States whether something could be done to ensure that people from various cultural communities could obtain the contracts offered by Bell Canada.
Many other jobs are being lost in the wood products and forestry industries. People born outside of Canada often hold these jobs. These people often act as sponsors of another individual whom they have helped come here. Unfortunately, and through no fault of their own, they can no longer properly take care of the senior whom they have taken into their home.
Will we simply leave these people in need, in difficult situations, because the person hosting them is also having difficulties? In my opinion, we must pay attention and ensure that everyone who decides to live here has a decent minimum income.
The Bloc Québécois also recommends that the committee examine the obligation to pay the full retroactivity. Last year in this Parliament, in 2005, we decided unanimously to reimburse individuals and give them full retroactivity. What has happened since then? A government, a new government, which had voted in favour of the motion of my colleague from Saint-Maurice—Champlain, has now decided that it will not respect its commitments.
We are asking the government to pay the full retroactivity, or at least that the committee study the obligation to pay the full retroactivity and to not limit it to 11 months, as provided by law regarding the guaranteed income supplement and spouse's allowance. This policy would allow for retroactive payment covering the full period of eligibility.
The Bloc Québécois will also ask that the Privacy Commissioner testify with regard to the broadening of the third-party group to which the contributor's personal information may be forwarded. We will also ensure that amendments to the current regulations will not restrict the scope of the guaranteed income supplement. We will continue our longstanding fight against the government to have it put in place all the elements required to ensure that seniors who qualify for the guaranteed income supplement have access to it.
With regard to interest on overpayments, we will ensure that this bill treats all taxpayers fairly. Finally, we will ensure that the time limit in which the government may reclaim overpayment of benefits is proportional to the period in which individuals may seek a--