I am now prepared to rule on the point of order raised on November 23, 2016, by the hon. member for Kingston and the Islands concerning the requirement for a royal recommendation for Bill C-243, an act respecting the development of a national maternity assistance program strategy and amending the Employment Insurance Act (maternity benefits), standing in his name.
I would like to thank the hon. member for Kingston and the Islands for having raised this important matter as well as the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, the hon. member for Essex, the hon. member for Cambridge, and the hon. member for Perth—Wellington for their comments.
This bill is intended to provide for the development and implementation of a national maternity assistance program strategy and to amend the Employment Insurance Act. It is the latter portion of the bill that is at issue in the present case.
The purpose of clauses 6 and 7 of the bill is to allow a pregnant woman to claim employment insurance benefits if she has obtained a certificate, completed by a medical doctor, attesting that she is unable to perform the duties of her regular or usual employment or of other suitable employment, because the job functions may pose a risk to her health or to that of her unborn child.
Under the present regime of the Employment Insurance Act, any pregnant woman could have access to pregnancy benefits for a total of 15 weeks starting, at the earliest, eight weeks before her due date. The decision on when to begin receiving benefits is entirely up to the applicant, and the act is silent as to any governing reasons or criteria. The bill would provide access to these benefits starting 15 weeks before the due date if there is a health risk due to the claimant's work environment.
In other words, the claimant, instead of claiming eight weeks of benefits before her baby was born and seven weeks after, could claim the entire 15 weeks prior to the birth of the child.
The member for Kingston and the Islands argued that Bill C-243 does not need a royal recommendation, since the effect of the bill would not result in an increase of the amount of benefits paid or an increase of the benefit period or of the number of weeks an individual is entitled to claim, nor would it change the eligibility requirements to make employment insurance benefits accessible to more claimants.
Since the bill would simply shift the existing entitlements, any cost associated with the changes would be merely operational. His central argument was that protecting maternal health is already a function of maternity benefits, and since the bill aims at achieving the same result through existing entitlements, it cannot be considered to be creating a new function.
He went on to indicate that since “applicants are already permitted to take benefits during their pregnancy, up to eight weeks prior to their due date, [it] is strong evidence that maternal health and maintaining a safe pregnancy are existing purposes of maternity benefits”.
The parliamentary secretary to the government House leader argued that the royal recommendation attached to the Employment Insurance Act covers not only the charges envisioned by the act but also the terms and conditions of each benefit. He stated that “altering when a person is eligible to receive a benefit under the Employment Insurance Act, even if the change to the benefit would not increase the overall charge, would constitute an alteration to the terms and conditions”.
House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition, at page 834 states that:
A royal recommendation not only fixes the allowable charge, but also its objects, purposes, conditions and qualifications. For this reason, a royal recommendation is required not only in the case where money is being appropriated, but also in the case where the authorization to spend for a specific purpose is significantly altered. Without a royal recommendation, a bill that either increases the amount of an appropriation, or extends its objects, purposes, conditions and qualifications is inadmissible on the grounds that it infringes on the Crown’s financial initiative.
In the present case, it is clear, as the sponsor of the bill argued, that there is no increase in the overall amount of benefits. The shifting of the time period would have no bearing on the total amount of money disbursed.
However, in these matters, the cost is not the only factor. The question for the Chair is whether or not the changes proposed would significantly alter the objects, purposes, conditions, and qualifications of the benefits such that they would require a royal recommendation.
On May 8, 2008, Speaker Milliken delivered a ruling that can be found at page 5587 of Debates, on Bill C-490, an act to amend the Old Age Security Act (application for supplement, retroactive payments and other amendments). While the bill clearly provided for increases in supplements, it also made changes in the manner in which people applied for benefits and the extent to which qualified persons could claim benefits retroactively. In Speaker Milliken’s view, this:
...would alter the conditions and qualifications that were originally placed on public spending on old age security payments when those benefits were approved by Parliament.
As I have reminded the House on a number of occasions, funds may only be appropriated by Parliament in the manner and, as explicitly stated in Standing Order 79(1), for purposes covered by a royal recommendation.
In this case, Bill C-243 does not impose any new charge on the public treasury but creates a new set of conditions, relating to the safety of their workplace for their pregnancy, under which pregnant women could have access to benefits related to their pregnancy from as early as 15 weeks before the birth of their child. Though the sponsor of the bill argues otherwise, the Chair is not convinced that the current act allows spending under the circumstances, in the manner, and for the purposes he proposes. This being a circumstance not yet envisioned in the Employment Insurance Act, it infringes on the terms and conditions of the initial royal recommendation that accompanied that act and therefore requires now a new royal recommendation. This remains the case, even if the total amount of benefits stays the same.
Consequently, the Chair will decline to put the question on third reading of the bill in its present form unless a royal recommendation is received.
I thank hon. members for their attention.