Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act

An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act

This bill was last introduced in the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session, which ended in March 2011.

Sponsor

Diane Finley  Conservative

Status

This bill has received Royal Assent and is now law.

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This 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.

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 1:40 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate my colleague on an excellent job. I also congratulate the work being done through the committee, such as zeroing in on the unintended consequences of something like this.

At the very outset, of course, we do not want to punish those who are receiving the money outside of the individuals themselves. We may have people living in poverty where the consequences were of no fault of their own and yet they are the ones being punished because they are not the ones receiving the public subsidy or receiving money from the government to survive, such as those who are incarcerated. Therefore, I congratulate the member and the committee on their work.

I found it very strange and disingenuous of the parliamentary secretary to raise the issue of 13 long years. It has been four years, for goodness sake. On a three page bill, someone should have flagged at some point that this should have been done. How much time has to elapse before we realize that we are now the author of our own demise and no one else wrote that for us.

It goes back to the debate we had earlier. In the other bill dealing with tough on crime, all of these small items could have been done through the Criminal Code on a larger basis. We could have one piece of legislation that takes care of all of that if there were a vision in place by which the government wants to tackle or fight crime.

However, there does not seem to be a vision because it does not go lockstep with anything else. It is incarceration. However, eliminating that crime before it actually begins is just not a part of the vision.

Could my hon. colleague comment on that please?

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 1:40 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I believe there was a recent report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer concerning the billions of dollars, I think it was $12 billion, that it will cost both federally and provincially for all the new prisons that will be required after all this legislation is passed.

It seems to me that investing in crime prevention and organizations like that are the way we need to be going so we can get rid of these criminals so that maybe they are not created. Maybe we could put more money into schools.

I represent a riding that has many challenges and, clearly, from what I understand, investing in early childhood education, showing kids that they have opportunities in the future and giving them hope does far more than building more prisons. We could take that $12 billion and put it into everything from early learning opportunities to providing hope for people so that, no matter what their background is, there is opportunity for them to move ahead in our society. Whatever challenges they are facing, there are ways to get out of that.

As a society, we should be doing more to help people achieve their goals instead of building so many prisons.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 1:40 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would appreciate it if you would delay the time for questions so that I can finish my speech. My colleague from Hochelaga agrees with me.

I am pleased to speak to this important bill. It is important because it shows the true face of this government and it lets us see the government for what it is.

This bill, which was introduced on June 1, 2010, would eliminate old age security benefits for prisoners. From the outset, the Bloc was clear that it would support this new measure in principle, contrary to what our Conservative colleagues are trying to insinuate. We support this bill in principle.

We also said from the outset that we wanted the bill to go to committee, and it was studied by the committee I have the honour to sit on, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. We made a unanimous recommendation in this House that would correct this flaw that allows prisoners, who are fed and housed at public expense, to receive old age security benefits, which are not earned through employment or otherwise.

The government made this an urgent issue, even though we did not see it as urgent. We saw the need but not the urgency, because no one was threatened or hurt by this situation. It was a matter of recovering the money these people had received unfairly. We discovered along the way that the Conservatives were just paying lip service to the idea of urgency, because they tried and are still trying to drag out the debate so that they can make purely demagogic arguments implying that the opposition parties disagree with the principle of this bill. Clearly, we are talking about something that went unnoticed for years and only came to light because of Mr. Wilson's situation.

A more urgent issue would be the situation of seniors who are not incarcerated, but who live in the community and have to make do with an income that is not enough to let them live in dignity.

I will talk about two specific measures. The first is the guaranteed income supplement, including income security. One seniors advocacy group, FADOQ, has brought this issue forward on a number of occasions, and started a petition that I tabled in this House a week or two ago. My Bloc Québécois colleagues have also filed petitions from each of their ridings.

We find ourselves in this House with petitions presented by Bloc colleagues. These petitions, started and sponsored by seniors groups, are calling urgently for an increase in seniors' income, which consists of basic income security, known as the old age pension, and the guaranteed income supplement for those who receive old age security but still do not have enough income to pay for housing, food, clothing and medication.

In Quebec alone, 78,000 seniors find themselves in this situation; in Canada, the number is threefold.

Therefore, this is of concern to us. A well-known Quebecker said that a society is judged on how it treats its children and its seniors. Given that we can identify 78,000 Quebeckers and more than 200,000 Canadians living not just below the poverty line, but below the level of income considered necessary to live with dignity, something is not working properly in our society.

This is an indication that the laws are poorly designed or not being enforced.

In the case of the guaranteed income supplement, the legislation is being misapplied, perhaps even deliberately misapplied. Eight years ago in 2002, it was discovered that 83,000 eligible people in Quebec alone were not receiving the guaranteed income supplement. And yet, they were entitled to it.

Year after year, we have asked the government why these people are not receiving the guaranteed income supplement even though the government receives their income tax returns and has knowledge of their income. Almost none of these people are aware of their entitlement. They are isolated in the community and lack the necessary knowledge and education. And yet, the government knows who these people are.

Bloc Québécois members including Marcel Gagnon, the former member for Saint-Maurice—Champlain, campaigned to make people aware of their GIS eligibility. Tens of thousands of people discovered that they were entitled to the GIS as a result of this campaign. And yet, these people were living in poverty—which I will not describe as abject, because they are proud people—but in poverty that was barely tolerable. The upshot was that over 40,000 people found out about their entitlement and filed applications.

At this very moment, there are still 42,000 people in Quebec and three times that many in the rest of Canada who have fallen through the cracks. There is the very familiar case of the woman from Toronto who had been living in absolute poverty and found out only two years ago that she had qualified for the guaranteed income supplement for the past 10 years or more. News of our campaign spread to Toronto, where she found out about her entitlement and was also discovered. Her story made headlines. That is just one case. There have been tens of thousands of similar cases.

There is a lot of urgency around this first measure. Not only does this situation require urgent attention so that these people get the guaranteed income supplement, but also, benefits must immediately be paid retroactively since over $3 billion has been misappropriated. That money belongs to seniors. This wrong must be righted immediately.

To correct this injustice, in April, my colleague, the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, introduced Bill C-516, which includes the following measures. We in the Bloc Québécois truly hope that all members of the House will support this bill and, when the time comes, vote for it. The bill would increase the guaranteed income supplement by $110 per month. It proposes a six-month extension to the pension and surviving spouse or common-law partner benefit. This six-month extension would ensure that a survivor is able to bridge the gap after the death of his or her spouse. Also included is automatic enrolment for those over the age of 65 who are eligible for the GIS—which I mentioned earlier, and it is ridiculous that this has not yet been done—retroactive guaranteed income supplement payments to seniors, and a surviving spouse benefit increase to match GIS levels.

These are the measures that must be taken immediately with respect to my first example.

My second example has to do with the people who have not reached the age of eligibility for the income security pension, that is, the old age security pension and the guaranteed income supplement, and who lose their jobs while still under the age of 65. Beginning in 1989, we had a program for older worker adjustment, the POWA, for workers aged 55 and up who lost their jobs and were not able to find new employment, particularly in one-industry regions. These people were left with nothing once their employment insurance benefits and benefit period ran out, and they ended up on welfare.

From 1989 to 1997, we had a program called POWA, the program for older worker adjustment, which enabled these people, for whom there were no jobs available, to receive income from employment insurance to allow them to live decently.

In 1997, the Liberal government cut that program completely, and it has not existed since then, which means that factories have been shut down in many regions in Quebec and elsewhere. Other members can speak for what has gone on in other provinces.

There is Whirlpool, for example, which shut down in Montmagny in 2004. Nearly 30% of the 245 employees were over 55. The primary employer in the region closed its doors and there were no jobs for the employees who were over 55. The younger ones could always find work elsewhere, but it was a difficult time. What happened to these people? They ended up on welfare. These people had worked and paid into employment insurance their entire lives, and the government did not even support them with a measure that was paid for out of their own pockets.

What happened during that time? The employment insurance fund was generating surpluses every year. In 1997, the same year the government cut the POWA, a surplus of over $7 billion had accumulated in that fund. Yet over 50% of the employees who had paid into the EI fund were not eligible to receive EI benefits. As a matter of fact, surpluses accumulated year after year, thereby allowing both parties that formed successive governments to misappropriate over $57 billion from the EI fund over a period of 13 or 14 years. During that time, older workers were losing their jobs and not receiving any benefits, even though they had paid into the EI fund their entire lives.

As we know, some measures were taken during what has been called the economic crisis. These include the stimulus plans for municipal infrastructure, special measures for the automotive industry, and so on. Then again, even if there is no national economic crisis, people who lose their jobs go through their own economic crisis and so do their families.

On behalf of my party, I introduced Bill C-308 to correct the situation, but the Liberals sided with the Conservatives to defeat that bill.

To be fair, some Liberal members voted in favour of the bill, but they arranged, as they so often do, to have enough members absent—including the Liberal Party leader, first and foremost—to ensure it did not pass. We had just won an opposition vote on a Liberal motion, and the Liberal Party leader practically ran down the aisle to leave so he would not have to vote. It was a little pathetic.

So, yes, there are victims who need to be taken care of, victims of crime, of course, and victims of the economic situation. I illustrated this with two very specific cases.

In closing, Mr. Speaker, I would like to know when I will be able to finish my speech.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:05 p.m.
See context

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to tell you that all four of your House leaders are working very well together.

I did notice the enthusiasm of the member for Winnipeg South Centre, who wanted to pass more crime bills, so I wondered if we could have the unanimous consent of the House to pass all of the crime bills that have been put forward by the good Minister of Justice.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:05 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I will conclude my speech on Bill C-31, which aims to preclude criminals over age 65 from receiving old age security benefits.

My hon. colleague from Hochelaga was quite right to remind me earlier that there are several kinds of victims in society, including victims of crime and victims of economic crime, and that one serious economic crime is depriving people, such as seniors who are entitled to the guaranteed income supplement, and we know who is doing that. The same is true for people entitled to EI benefits. Yet, the Conservatives have found a way to take away those benefits.

The Conservative government sings its own praises and takes pride in defending victims' interests. But something is not right. My colleague from Compton—Stanstead introduced Bill C-343 in support of victims of crime. In accordance with the will of the majority of the House, this bill was studied by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. But five Conservatives voted against it. That was the first time since I came to this House that a bill specifically meant to help victims of crime had been introduced and, contrary to expectations, the same Conservatives who claim to defend the interests of victims of crime voted against it. That is the real face of this party, which is hypocritical and lies to the public. All it wants is to complicate legislation concerning criminals.

I mentioned this morning that a number of these bills were supported by the Bloc Québécois because none of them were that excessive. The Conservatives have voted against our every effort to make amendments in support of victims.

To conclude, I would like to say again that we will support Bill C-31 because it establishes a balance between those who qualify for old age pensions and those who do not. Of course, criminals do not qualify. However, we strongly condemn the fact that the government is not following through on its commitment to help victims of crime. In fact, it stonewalls all attempts to do just that.

I hope that when the time comes, when we come back to the House for third reading of Bill C-343, all members of the House of Commons will vote in favour of it, including our Conservative colleagues who, this time, might have the heart to support victims of crime.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:10 p.m.
See context

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Mr. Speaker, this bill is one that all parties support. It is one that really has caused, I think, a good deal of consternation in the country. The NDP will be part of that coalition of all parties to support the bill. However, I do want to make some points about, really, a missed opportunity with regard to this bill.

It is fairly straightforward what we are doing here. We are simply removing, while a person is incarcerated in a federal prison, his or her right to receive old age security benefits. So, it is quite straightforward in that regard. That provision has been in our laws since the Conservative government of Joe Clark, in the late 1970s. The only reason, quite frankly, this bill is coming forward at this point is because of pique on the part of the Prime Minister, who received a letter from Clifford Olson, we all know he is, sort of taunting the Prime Minister about the fact that, now that he was over 65, Mr. Olson was receiving old age benefits.

Unfortunately, as is all too often the case with the current government and the current Prime Minister, there was a knee-jerk response to dealing with the issue.

As I said, all parties agree that federally incarcerated prisoners, as a general rule, should not be receiving both support while they are in custody in a federal prison and old age benefits from the federal government. That is a given. And it is part of the problem that there should not be an absolute rule.

As I have said, this has been going on now in this country for more than 30 years, getting into 35 years now. However, instead of taking the time, rather than taking a prudent, fiscally responsible and, from the perspective of the victims of crime, thorough review of this, we simply had this knee-jerk response by the Conservatives that they would show Olson, that they would take this right away from him and, at the same time, take it away from everybody else.

Here is where the problems lie. This has been through committee and we dug up as much information as we could. There are all sorts of potential situations we are not aware of. For instance, we do not know who is receiving the old age pension, who is entitled to it at this point. The figure we received was a bit vague. There are approximately 600 prisoners in our federal prisons, out of about 14,000, who are eligible to receive it, as they are over the age of 65. We do not know, though, how many have ever applied or how many have actually received the old age benefit. We do not know that. The only people who would have that information are the individual prisoners who are incarcerated. We have never made any attempt within Corrections Canada to ascertain that information. We were told by the commissioner of prisons that it would take literally months and months to go through every single prisoner over the age of 65 to ascertain that information.

We also do not know if, in fact, these moneys are subject to other court orders. Certainly, we see periodically that there are orders for restitution. We do not know if these funds would have been available for that purpose and, in fact, were being used for that purpose of paying restitution to victims of the crimes these prisoners had committed. We do not know if there are any dependants of the prisoner, to whom these funds are flowing.

Had this been done prudently, properly, the way we are supposed to pass legislation in this House, we would have discovered answers to all those questions.

Finally, with regard to what we do not know, is this going to have an impact of any kind on the amount of money that is received by the federal prison system?

There is a provision within section 78 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that allows the corrections authorities to actually take moneys from prisoners for the provision of their food, clothing and one other minor item, but basically for food and clothing. We in fact do that on a very limited basis; it is hardly at all, but we do it a little bit. Therefore we do not know in this case whether those funds would be used for that purpose.

If the bill goes through, which obviously it is going to, since it has unanimous support, we do not know if in fact some money is going to be lost to Corrections Canada in that regard.

We know this. It is going to save the federal treasury some money. I will add to the list of things we do not know. We have no idea, even though there have been estimates from the government, how much it is going to save. It goes back to the point that we have no idea how many prisoners have, in the past, applied for and begun receiving the old age security benefit.

I want to make one point about the bill itself that gave all members of the committee cause for concern. I moved a series of amendments to the bill. There was a provision in the bill that made it very clear that persons could only, in effect, reinstate their pension benefits once they were released from the federal prisons by notifying the minister of their release. Because of the way the section was worded, they could only give that notice of release after they had been released.

On my party's behalf, I moved amendments, and ultimately after some negotiations with the government and the opposition parties, we reached an agreement and we have amended the bill so that, when prisoners are advised of their pending release, they at that point can give notice to the minister of their pending release so that paperwork can begin to be processed.

This is not a reflection on the officials within the human resources department, but we all know there are times when payments get delayed. There was quite a concern that, if delays occurred, we would have the situation of people being released on the street over age 65, almost certainly unemployable, and then either having to receive municipal welfare benefits and having that level of government shoulder this burden, when clearly it is the responsibility of the federal government, or because of being desperate for revenue, committing further crimes in order to support themselves.

For those two reasons we moved those amendments. We got the co-operation of the government ultimately to change the wording somewhat to provide that notice can be given at the time the notice of release is being given. That usually is a minimum of 30 days before the person is released, so there will be sufficient time for the department to process the application.

I will spend a few more minutes on the other missed opportunities that I made some reference to. There was not only an opportunity to take this benefit away from convicted criminals but there were also, had we moved on this, a number of other areas where we could have implemented some reforms that in fact would have aided victims directly.

I want to be very clear that this saving is going to stay in the human resources department. It is not going to go to the victims. The victims' benefit out of the bill is absolutely zilch. That is where the missed opportunity was.

We are not talking a great deal of dollars, but it is a substantial amount when we look at the number of prisoners. It could be as much as several million dollars. We could have, for instance, said that while they were incarcerated all of this money would be paid into a victims' compensation fund. That did not happen.

We could have gone beyond that and looked at other revenue streams and other assets that could have been made available as compensation for victims. This would be compensation for physical injury more often than not, as well as for psychological trauma suffered as a result of a violent crime perpetrated on a victim, or in some cases a victim's family.

Because of what happened in the exchange between Clifford Olson and the Prime Minister, we had an opportunity to make significant amendments to expose those other assets through court orders so that victims would be able to receive the funds directly and be compensated for the injuries they suffered. We missed that opportunity completely.

We could have looked at several areas, such as expanding a source for restitution to be paid, expanding payments directly to victims as a result of individual lawsuits against the perpetrators of the crimes, and exposing other assets. We had the opportunity to look at all of those, but the government chose this knee-jerk response to slap back at Mr. Olson. We must recognize that this does nothing for any of the victims and it is not going to do anything for any of the victims.

Those were missed opportunities. I would urge the government to consider, as I did during committee hearings, those potential amendments.

It was interesting to listen to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation at committee. It stated that there already was a section in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that would allow the government to take money from prisoners. This group is not exactly an ally of my party on a historical basis, but on this we agree, that there are opportunities here to save the taxpayer some money. From my perspective, the government should go after the assets of some wealthy prisoners to compensate specific victims or the money could go into a general victims compensation fund. It is a fund that we are beginning to scratch the surface on with the government. An additional source of revenue would be a great boon to what we could be doing to assist victims of crime.

This was a missed opportunity. I urge the government to take another look at this area for other reforms that are badly needed, which would be useful to the victims of crime.

We will be supporting the bill, but we hope that at some point in the future the government will move on these other areas.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:20 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, the member made a thoughtful and constructive intervention on this bill, which is going to pass.

We are always looking to learn lessons from how legislation has been crafted. Many members will not be able to fully understand the significant forces which come to play on a matter like this one, where we are trying to surgically remove something without unintended consequences. I have a feeling there probably are unintended consequences. That concerns me. It concerns me when a piece of legislation is motivated by public outrage regarding Clifford Olson as opposed to helping victims of crime.

Not having been able to participate on committee and to discuss this issue with officials or expert witnesses, I wonder if the member would care to advise the House about the charter implications of dealing with some people one way and with others another way. This may be affected by their personal wealth, their name, whatever it might be. It seems to me there may be pressure with respect to charter violations in terms of people not being equal under the law.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:25 p.m.
See context

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Mr. Speaker, at committee I raised the issue of whether this bill was charter proof. I have some doubts as to whether it would survive a charter challenge. From discussions with defence lawyers and some of the agencies that deal with prisoners, it is unlikely there would ever be a charter challenge, and practically speaking, it probably would never happen.

The agencies that deal with prisoners believe that the vast majority of prisoners currently incarcerated do not apply for the old age security benefit until shortly before they get out. That is the general belief. That category of prisoners is not going to bring the application on.

These applications are very expensive. An applicant, in effect, would be taking on the federal government in at least the Federal Court of Appeal if not the Supreme Court of Canada. There is no practical way a prisoner could afford that. Even wealthy prisoners who might be able to afford the fees would look at the minimal amount they would get. They would probably not receive much with the clawback, and they may get as little as zero. There would be no motivation for people who could pay for it. The final issue is whether the provincial legal aid plans would cover it. They may very well not, given what the costs would be.

There were comments made in the response from the minister's office that it was charter proof. It pointed out some examples at the provincial level where benefits have been taken back. When we analyze each one of those benefits, there is criteria that has to be met. It is understandable why the benefit could be taken back or there could be a refusal to pay it while prisoners were incarcerated in provincial institutions. That criteria is entirely different from the criteria of what is needed in order to get the old age pension in this country.

If somebody does challenge it, I think there is a reasonably strong chance it will be overturned, but the reality is it probably will never be challenged.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:25 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act, which would eliminate entitlements for prisoners.

I was on the human resources committee which dealt with this bill after it passed the House with the support of all parties. We supported the bill then and we are supporting it again. We hope it is dealt with very quickly. However, that does not mean we do not have certain issues and questions. That is why we have a committee system in Parliament. We look at issues to ensure that however well intended a bill might be, it does not have unintended consequences that could come back to bite us after the fact.

My colleague from Mississauga South referenced that. His view is that it is very possible it will come back to bite us. I tend to agree. I am sure there are parts of it on which we will look back and ask why we did not spend more time on them at committee. We did raise significant issues at committee. My colleague from Windsor—Tecumseh raised some. We raised a number. They were dealt with.

In simple terms, to reinforce what Bill C-31 is about, under Bill C-31, the old age security pension, the GIS provided for under the OAS would not be paid to persons who are incarcerated in a federal institution and serving a sentence of more than two years, incarcerated in a provincial institution and serving a sentence of more than 90 days, or incarcerated in a territorial institution and serving a sentence of more than 90 days.

I think people would say that makes sense but they would want to know how it came about. I want to go through the timeline on this as I think it is somewhat instructive.

On March 26 news reports surfaced across the country that Clifford Olson was getting a pension while in prison. Because of the heinous nature of his crimes, people were understandably and rightly offended by that. That very day the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development made a comment in the House. This is what she said:

...I am very concerned and disturbed [about these reports]. Members can rest assured that we are making every effort at a very rapid pace to ensure the situation does not continue and that it is prevented from happening in the future.

Those were the comments of the minister on March 26. Our party's critic, the member for York West, indicated right away that we would support getting the bill through the House as quickly as possible. Yet it was not until June 1 that the government introduced Bill C-31. The House recessed for the summer on June 17 without the bill having been called for second reading.

On September 23 we came back from the summer break. We had some debates, and the second reading vote was on September 24.

On September 30, we had our first meeting of the human resources committee, referred to as HUMA. It was on October 7 that we finally met to deal with Bill C-31. In fact the first meeting the minister was meant to attend, she was unable to make it. That meant another meeting went by without our being able to act on this bill.

It is a duty of the committee to look at these bills. There may be some unintended consequences. That does not mean this bill could not have come before us quicker. I just say that to show that the official opposition, and I think all opposition parties, wanted to deal with this bill as quickly as we possibly could.

The question is whether this bill will do what it is supposed to do, which is to make sure that Canada's most violent and offensive criminals who are serving long periods of time in jail are not receiving OAS and GIS payments. I think we all agree on that.

On the other hand, there are a number of people who are incarcerated in the prison system and upon release after many years in jail, what are their options? If their options are prefaced by a complete lack of money and resources, what is the action that obviously will follow? In many cases the person who had been an offender will most likely reoffend because the person has no income.

That does not mean those people should receive the payments. We believe they should be withheld, but we wanted to ensure during the course of this that the system was not only taking the payments away when appropriate but also that the payments would resume when appropriate.

We were surprised, perhaps even astonished, at how little information the corrections service keeps on prisoners' families. In fact, the commissioner was unable to tell us some very basic information about the income status of some of the prisoners who were in the system, which obviously could have a direct impact on their families. That was one thing we found surprising. There was not as much information as we thought there should be.

What are other countries doing? I think every country in the world would look at their most violent criminals and say that they need to have a look at that and see if they should be treated differently.

Some work has been done on this. For example, the United Kingdom, Austria, Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg do not pay state pensions during the duration of prison sentences. In some cases those are recent changes and in some cases that is the way it has been for some time. Austria and Ireland confirmed that the legislation specifically excluded convicted prisoners from receiving their state pensions but that it did not apply to those remanded in custody. Dependants could apply to receive a portion of the pension.

Just about all countries that responded stated that prisoners would not be entitled to the full resumption of their benefits once they left prison, which is certainly the case here, but, as my colleague from the NDP, the justice critic from Windsor—Tecumseh, indicated, the bill had to be amended for us to be certain that the process would be in place to ensure that those payments would continue as appropriate.

Some other EU countries do in fact pay state pensions to prisoners during their sentences. Belgium and the Czech Republic continue to pay state pensions. In France, the payment is made into a prison account. Ten per cent is deducted and allocated to the prosecution and 10% goes toward a release allowance. In Germany, elderly prisoners are entitled to receive state pensions during the period of their prison sentences that is paid into a private bank account. In Norway, sections 3 to 29 of the national insurance act suggest that pensions are subject to deductions during the prison service, according to rules similar to those applying to those in long-term accommodation. In health institutions, the prisoner will receive reduced payments.

Therefore, other countries have had a look at this and some have decided that they should go the route that Canada is going, which is to ensure that people do not get payments while they are in prison.

As I have indicated, we are supportive of this measure because we think it makes sense, but that is not to say that there are not legitimate concerns that have been raised. Some people have indicated that they are concerned that this may not withstand a charter challenge. I am not a lawyer. I have been accused of being one, but I am not a lawyer and I cannot speak effectively to that.

I do want to suggest that there was significant opposition. The Canadian Criminal Justice Association sent some information around to all of us indicating its concerns. Its main points with regard to Bill C-31 are: that it may be in violation of the charter; that it may set a precedent to deny benefits to others housed in government institutions, specifically mental health centres or hospitals; and that the bill may take away funds that may be needed for food and shelter upon release. This goes to the issue of what people would live on when they leave the institution.

The association goes on to say that a waiting period of weeks or months to reinstate payments would exacerbate this problem. I wanted to mention that because that was the biggest issue in our committee and the subject of the amendments, on which the opposition parties and the government eventually came to terms.

The association was also concerned that it may create additional victims out of families, spouses and children of prisoners, as pensions may contribute to household income, and that it could contribute to household disintegration due to lack of income, resulting in additional expenditures to Canadians. There were a number of other issues.

One of the association's biggest concerns, which was a concern expressed by a number of people throughout the country, is whether this is the best way to do criminal justice. Do we react to a headline of a story and then determine that is the course of action?

Back in early summer, Craig Jones, who was then the executive director of the John Howard Society, suggested that this was being used to divert attention from other problems plaguing the government. I want to indicate what his view was. Mr. Jones warned against quickly crafting new laws based on the most extreme examples of offenders. That was a legitimate concern and one that we had to take into account as we did our committee deliberations.

It is not hard to imagine that most Canadians would be generally in favour of suggesting that inmates should not get pensions. In fact, I would reference an Ekos poll taken back in April, shortly after this story broke, under the topic of entitlement to old age benefits while in federal prison. The poll showed that 59% of Canadians agreed with the statement that all federal prisoners should lose their benefits while in prison; 25% said that only federal prisoners with life sentences should lose their benefits; and 17% said that all federal prisoners who are entitled to federal pensions should receive them.

The percentages in the poll were not particularly surprising and probably spurred the government on to ensure that this legislation was brought forward.

However, as I said before, we think it could have been done quicker and, in fact, could have gone to committee before the summer break. Certainly our critic from York West indicated that we would have been very supportive of that.

There were a number of questions, but the key question and the first question I asked when we had committee meetings was: How do we ensure that this gets administered in a way that is not only reasonable for the families, who, in many cases are the unwitting victims of what their loved ones have done by committing offences, but also ensure that we have streets that are safe? How do the benefits get stopped and how do the benefits get started?

We agree that when somebody is in an institution they should not be getting old age benefits and GIS. The spouses could still qualify for GIS on their own income. If it is determined that prisoners will not get benefits while in a federal institution, how would that actually happen and how do we ensure it happens correctly on both ends?

The Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, Don Head, presented to us on October 26. He took us through a number of things about what happens to inmates while they are in prison. He said:

I would like to address the mechanics of how Correctional Service Canada would help implement the withholding of old age security benefits. We have developed a draft informationsharing agreement with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada that would permit the disclosure by CSC of information on federal offenders age 60 years or older. This would include information on those who are incarcerated in order to facilitate the suspension of payments, as well as information on those who are recently released by virtue of parole or statutory release, so that payments can be reinstated.

I want to emphasize the words “as well as information on those who were recently released”. This would indicate that as prisoners are entering the prison system, when the time has come for their benefits to be stopped, that will happen automatically. On the reverse side, when prisoners come out, the bill stipulates that they must notify the minister, i.e. Service Canada, for the resumption of benefits. What the Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada indicated was that the department would provide information on those who were recently released.

That is a bit of a concern in that it means that people would be hitting the streets without any income to support themselves and potentially their families. We asked if there were a way that Correctional Service Canada could work with inmates as they are coming up for release, either being paroled or at the end of their sentence, to ensure they can make contact with Service Canada to avoid a month or two month delay when they get back onto the streets and hopefully back to their homes, if they have them.

I do not have any reason to doubt the integrity of the Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada or the people who work in the system. I think they are all very well-intentioned and do a very good job. However, they indicated that they could not assist us in ensuring that would be the case.

The nature of the amendments that were provided by the opposition were to ensure that prisoners getting ready for release, not just after they are released, would actually receive those benefits upon release. I think that was taken care of. We had discussions in committee and eventually the government and the opposition parties got together and agreed on some wording to that effect.

As I indicated, I do not know if it is a charter challenge. I am not a lawyer so I cannot speak very effectively to that. However, what makes perfect sense, I think, to most Canadians is that prisoners serving long sentences for serious crimes should not be getting OAS and GIS.

On the other hand, we need to ensure that there will not be some unintended consequences where families will simply have no option. In many cases, it is through no fault of their own that they are involved with people who commit these violent and serious offences.

The other part of this is the cost and/or the savings to the government. We have been told that there needs to be a coordination with the provinces but not all the provinces have signed on. The minister acknowledged this when she appeared before committee. She said that a number of provinces indicated that they would coordinate this with the federal government but that not all of them have. This is something that will need to be worked out, respecting provincial jurisdiction and the fact that some of these costs could be borne by the provinces. Somewhere between $2 million and $10 million, which are the numbers we heard, would be withheld or, in other words, saved. The government would spend $2 million to $10 million less a year.

When the minister appeared before committee, I asked her if that money could be used to support victims of crime. The critic for the Liberal Party indicated as far back as the spring that it was our view that the savings should go to victims of crime. There are some victims of crime organizations that have had funding cuts or their funding has lapsed with the government. I think we all agree that a lot of people who are victims of crime should get the benefit of the doubt.

If $2 million to $10 million will be saved, why can we not allocate that? We all understand that the money goes back to a certain department but there are lots of ways to allocate a certain amount of money and ensure it goes toward something specific. We think it is perfectly sensible and logical that the money should go to victims of crime.

The government talks about victims of crime a lot but it cut the budget of the grants for victims of crime initiative by 41% and the contributions for the victims of crime initiative by 34%, $2.7 million. There is a need by the groups working with victims of crime and we do not understand why that money, which in fact would be money saved because of this bill, could not be dedicated to them.

The saving of money was not the primary purpose of the bill. The primary purpose of the bill was to ensure that people who commit violent crimes do not benefit while in prison. Their costs are already being paid. Why would they need OAS and GIS? We understand that. However, if there are savings to be made, why could that money not then be turned over to victims of crime organizations?

The minister indicated that statutorily the money goes into the department, and we understand that, but whatever the savings are we could very easily designate those savings to the victims of crime. It is all taxpayer money and it all comes out of the same pot at the end of the day. We believe that amount of money, whether it is $2 million or $10 million, would make a bigger difference to victims of crime organizations than it would to the overall bureaucracy that administers OAS and GIS. We were a little disappointed, because we felt this was an initiative that was well worth supporting, that the government did not see fit to support that.

The committee meetings that we had on this were generally productive. As I said, we heard from a number of witnesses, such as Correctional Service Canada and victims groups. We heard some very compelling testimony from people who had been victims of crime. As one can imagine, they tell stories that most Canadians do not want to hear but when they do hear them they feel great empathy and compassion for the families.

The committee worked and at the end day we fashioned a bit of a compromise on an amendment to ensure that more would be done to ensure that long-term prison inmates would not hit the streets without anything for the good of society as much as for the good of themselves and their families. The bill is back in the House today.

I can support this bill. In our country now there is a big need to recognize that there are causes of crime that we can be tough on, but we also want to ensure that we are reasonable, fair and that we are not paying benefits to prisoners that, by and large, Canadians do not think they are entitled to, and I tend to agree with that.

We do not think it is a perfect bill, and there may well be some things that come out down the road, but for today it is an important step for Parliament to say that it is a step forward, that this is a better way of doing things, let us not make perfect be the enemy of better and let us pass Bill C-31.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:45 p.m.
See context

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for his very cogent comments and for the support he clearly gave to some of the proposals put forward by our members in the committee, which have strengthened the bill.

From the evidence given today and the reply to the bill, it is very clear that the vast majority of prisoners apparently do not even apply for these benefits just before or after they get out of prison. I do not think any Canadian believes that people who commit serious crimes should have the double benefit of having their room and board paid in prison and at the same time bank money to cover the room and board that they do not need outside of prison.

However, the member raises a number of really critical points. It is regrettable that the government did not listen to or support some of the amendments, particularly the amendments that the member raised about re-channelling those moneys. In other words, if a prisoner would have been able to gain the benefit of OAS and GIS payments, why not put those into a fund that would benefit the victims of that crime, for example, crime prevention funds? Why not fund educational programs in prison so when prisoners get out there is less chance they will violate again? What about the money the government has yanked from the Aboriginal Healing Centres?

Could the member expand on that?

Also, could he also speak to the issue raised by my colleague, the member for Nanaimo—Cowichan? She raised concern that we were talking about a relatively small amount of money related to the pension fund. In other words, by denying these funds, we are not really putting a lot back in to benefit those who would normally benefit from pension funds, yet we have veterans living on the street and having to go to food banks. Could he address the broader matter that we are spending all this time debating the bill, which does not really give a lot of benefit to Canadians, when we should be standing in the House and debating specific concrete measures to enhance the pensions to Canadians, including veterans?

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:45 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Madam Speaker, my colleagues raises some very good questions. When we look at how many people currently incarcerated in federal penitentiaries would be affected by this, we are told it would be 400, potentially up to 600 if we include provincial institutions, at a cost of somewhere between $2 million and $10 million.

The bill probably could have been handled much more expeditiously. The last government bill we saw on employment insurance was the military families one, which would affect 60 people a year at a cost of somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million a year. Many things we do in the House are more about politics than they are about principle or policy.

Having said that, we follow the rules of this place and we want to support the bill. We want to get it through.

The member mentioned a number areas where the money could go, whether it be $2 million or $10 million. There are some things that could be done with that in our prison system and for our veterans. I suggest the money could be dedicated to reopening prison farms, which was only a matter of a few million dollars a year and had great benefits. There are many areas where that money could go. It is not a large amount of money in the overall scheme of things on OAS and GIS, but on specific targeted measures it could have made a significant difference.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:50 p.m.
See context

NDP

Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, I appreciate the fact that the member has done a fair amount of research on the bill. However, in his research work, was he able to ascertain why and when federal prisoners started receiving pensions in the first place? I think the member would discover that it was the Joe Clark Conservative government in 1979 that started issuing the cheques to prisoners. How did that come about?

Presumably when the government was doing its research, as any government would, it would have found out the reasons for instituting the practice in the first place. Was it a court order? What where the reasons? There must be some Hansard from those days. There must be some papers available. I have asked government members that questions several times, on the very few times they speak to the bill or any other bill for that matter. I have yet to get a response from them as to why their Conservative government of Joe Clark would bring in this measure in the first place. Now all of a sudden, because of a letter from Clifford Olson and a couple of newspaper articles, we are here, almost in knee-jerk response, cutting these pensions.

We support the bill. Why did the government in 1979 institute this practice in the first place?

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:50 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Madam Speaker, I know he has asked that question before. I do not know the answer. I do not know why it would have started. I was not aware until recently that it had actually been instituted in 1979 under Prime Minister Clark, a person for whom I have enormous respect. I do not know what the reason is. It might have been something in the courts and if it was post-charter, then maybe that makes it even more problematic now. I do not know the reason for that.

The member is right to ask the government. It is very reasonable. I am sure he could make an appointment with the Minister of Justice or the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development. For five or ten minutes, they would be happy to sit down and be very open and transparent about the whole process. They would be better able to give the history than I would.

For now, the history is important. It is important to look at what other people do, particularly those countries to which we like to compare ourselves, European countries, OECD, the United States and other countries, and figure out where we are now. I would be very interested in what he finds out about 1979. I just cannot answer the question.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:50 p.m.
See context

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Madam Speaker, it is nice to hear my hon. colleague say what the government is not willing to say on some of these issues, which is he does not know why this was instituted in the first place.

A number of times I have seen the government take a very specific case or a story out of a newspaper and then draft entire legislation around it. It is not necessarily just specific to the bill that is before us, because these bills take a great deal of effort. They change the laws in our country, so they do not just apply to the newspaper story case or to individuals. They apply to everybody.

We have seen this developing pattern from the supposed tough on crime government where it uses individual cases, newspaper articles or something in the evening news to build legislation and craft Canadian law. This precedent sends us down a very dangerous road. There is the rule of unintended consequences when we craft legislation. We craft it for one purpose, but the way the law works in applying to everything has all sorts of other consequences.

In the case of the so-called Olson bill, I think my colleagues have expressed it well. Canadians have a great resistance to the idea of also paying for CPP and what not. However, there is this principle of designing legislation based upon media moments that may grab a few more votes and bits of attention. It was said once that we should worry as much about who was going into prison as who was coming out.

Could the hon. member comment on this? The government seems not so concerned with the rehabilitative process of prisoners or the fact that they will likely commit a crime again if they do not receive any kind of service or help whatsoever to rehabilitate themselves fully.

Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners ActGovernment Orders

November 16th, 2010 / 3:55 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Madam Speaker, that is a good question, and I referenced it a bit in my comments. There is certainly a proclivity for the government to take headlines and turn them into immediate pieces of legislation and give them slick-sounding names, which is another thing we see with a lot of the legislation. It does not mean that the bill is wrong, but it does mean that it becomes very political.

We saw that with the last piece of EI legislation on the military families. I am not sure, I have not been around this place long enough, although it seems like an awful long time, to know what can be done without having to come to the House of Commons. We all agree with some of these measures. We could have done it very quickly.

We support this legislation. We think it makes sense. We think it reflects the feelings of Canadians, which is we need to do a better job of reflecting how they want to see their government act in certain matters. However, I certainly agree with my colleague that a lot of these things are taken out of the media, dressed up and some of the policy gets lost amidst the politics, which is disappointing.