Mr. Speaker, I am rising to speak to Bill C-31. I want to start out with a very brief summary of what is included in the bill. I also want to acknowledge the fact that a number of other speakers have talked about the importance of turning full attention to the bill and studying it so that we are not looking at unintended consequences.
Many members of the House were here a couple of years back when the government of the day passed a bill on voter identification that resulted in thousands and thousands of rural voters being excluded from voting because of a flaw in the bill. It was a bill that was rushed through the House, despite the fact that the New Democrats protested loudly about the problems with the bill. The government subsequently needed to bring forward amendments to its own legislation, because the bill had unintended consequences. I raise that as an issue in the context of this particular bill so that we do not try to rush through a bill that has unintended consequences.
I also want to acknowledge the member for Windsor—Tecumseh who has, as usual, done stellar work on this, and also the member for Vancouver Kingsway and the member for Hamilton Centre. All of these members have contributed to the NDP process in considering this bill.
The bill suspends payments of old age security, OAS, and the guaranteed income supplement, GIS, to all persons 65 years of age and older while they are serving time in a federal correctional facility when they are sentenced to two years or more. It would suspend payment of the spousal and survival allowance to eligible individuals aged 60 to 64 if they were serving time in a federal facility. It would maintain OAS and GIS payments to spouses and partners of those who were incarcerated and would provide that they receive these payments at the higher single rate based on individual, not combined spousal, income. It would maintain spousal allowance benefits to the spouses of incarcerated individuals and allow provinces to opt in by entering into agreements with the federal government to suspend OAS and GIS and spousal allowance benefits on the above terms to all individuals incarcerated for a sentence that exceed 90 days in a provincial facility. Notwithstanding the above, benefit payments would still be paid during the first month of incarceration. Benefit payments would resume the month an individual was released on earned permission, parole, statutory release, or warrant expiry.
There are two aspects of the bill that are troubling. One is that it appears that this could be the wrong method for dealing with this situation. The member for Windsor—Tecumseh has suggested that in looking at this, what we really should do is look at the criminal jurisdiction. He suggested that an order could be put in place at the time of sentencing or thereafter that would deal with these payments. The concern that arises when it is dealt with under income security for seniors is the fact that it could undermine the universality of our old age security and guaranteed income supplement.
I talked about unintended consequences, which are a concern for New Democrats and for seniors across this country if we apply this logic to anybody who is in federal care, anybody who is receiving benefits and housing. Just look at veterans who might be in long-term care hospitals, even though we are closing vets hospitals as we speak. If a veteran were in a long-term care hospital and was being provided for under veterans' allowances, what would happen to universality? Would that also be an argument for the government to claw back OAS and GIS? The questions around universality are really critical.
I want to refer to some issues related to universality. This quote comes from the Historica-Dominion Institute, which did a number of studies on universality. It talks about the impact on our society of the change in universality. This is something the House and the committee, if this bill gets there, need to consider. The section entitled “Social Security in Canada - a Receding Tide” says that “[t]he direction of these cuts and their overall purpose in improving the Canadian economy was laid out by the Conservative government in Ottawa in 1984”.
That was the start of the clawback of universality.
From this perspective, the government moved to eliminate universality in family allowances and old-age security. In 1989 the government introduced a “clawback” to both universal programs that required upper-income families to repay all of their benefits. The same applied to the highest-income seniors.
It goes on to talk about the impact on child tax benefits and whatnot.
Later on in the article, it says:
The Liberals, on their return to power in 1993, completed the sweep against universality by announcing in 1996 that the Old Age Security program would be replaced by an income-tested Seniors Benefit in the year 2001.
There are some different models out there. What we saw is an impact on seniors and families in this country that we are still living with to this day.
In this article, the Historica-Dominion Institute argues that there could be a new direction for social security in Canada:
A contrasting model of social security, one that is more commonly found in western European countries, is an integrative-redistribution model that provides universalist services to broad categories of need. This model has egalitarian goals that aim to lift individuals and families out of poverty and away from social exclusion.
It concludes by saying:
Evidence of social exclusion in Canada abound - the homeless, Canadian children growing up in poverty, the clientele of food banks and the army of unemployed. The one shining example of a Canadian social security program which promotes inclusiveness and a sense of community is Canada's system of public, universal, prepaid health care.
Of course, we know that in recent years that has also been eroded as more people have been forced into a two-tier health care system by long waiting lists, lack of access to drugs, and so on. However, universality is one of the fundamental principles Canadians look to.
A number of people have raised concerns about the approach the government chose to take by having this managed through Human Resources Development Canada under CPP/OAS/GIS instead of through a criminal jurisdiction.
I also want to raise a point. It is interesting that the first bill the Conservative government has brought forward to deal with pensions is this one that would strip federal old age security from federal offenders. It will save approximately $2 million. Those savings could go up if the provinces decide to opt in.
It is a sad comment on the approach to income security for seniors in this country. I would suggest that it probably fits in with the so-called tough on crime agenda the Conservatives are putting forward. The reality is that we have thousands of seniors in this country who are living in poverty. I wonder why the government did not choose to bring forward a pension reform bill that deals with the poverty facing these seniors in this country instead of this bill. I agree that the fact that federal prisoners are receiving old age security certainly warrants some attention, but I would question the current government's priorities.
I want to also mention that there is an alternative way to approach this. The member for Burnaby—New Westminster put forward a motion, Motion No. 507, which was much more narrowly defined, that would deal with clawing back the old age security/guaranteed income supplement from only murderers with life sentences for multiple murders. The Conservatives are actually proposing a fairly broad sweep of prisoners over the age of 65 in this proposed clawback of OAS/GIS.
Going back to seniors, recently we discovered that old age security was increased over the summer by 0.6% for seniors who live outside of prison. It was the first increase in over two years, and it amounted to $1.55 per senior. These are seniors. These are the poorest of the poor. These are the seniors who are worried about whether they can pay their rent, whether they can feed themselves, and whether they can pay their drug costs.
With all the attention we have placed on other matters in this House recently, seniors are simply being left off the agenda. There have been a number of groups and organizations working together that are calling on the current government for serious pension reform.
Certainly New Democrats have been front and centre on this. I also want to acknowledge the member for Sault Ste. Marie, who has been leading the charge to deal with poverty among seniors and other Canadians. Certainly seniors factor largely into a lot of the work the member for Sault. Ste. Marie has been doing.
In June, our leader announced a number of initiatives to deal with some of the income security issues for seniors. One of them, of course, was helping the quarter of a million seniors who are living below the poverty line. We can do it tomorrow by injecting $700 million into the guaranteed income supplement, which is part of old age security. That is one-twentieth of what the Prime Minister's corporate tax cuts will cost us annually by 2012.
Second, let us build on that bulletproof Canada pension plan. Let us phase in a doubling of maximum benefits to $22,000 per year. That means increasing the CPP deductions that appear on one's paycheque, but these deductions are savings, not taxes.
Of course, there are other organizations, such as the Canadian Labour Congress, that have also been calling for reforms to our income security system for seniors. Their first calls in asking the federal and provincial governments to work together, are one, to phase in a doubling of payouts from the Canada pension plan and the Quebec pension plan, and two, to immediately increase old age security and the guaranteed income supplement for all retirees.
They also go on to talk about the fact that what we really need to do is have a very broad strategy for dealing with all aspects of pensions in this country, whether it is for workers who have private sector pension plans that are under threat because their companies are going bankrupt, whether it is for workers who simply do not have another pension plan and are relying on the Canada pension plan, old age security, and the guaranteed income supplement to pay their bills, or whether it is to regulate some of the financial products and some of the risks for those people who actually have enough money left over to invest in RRSPs.
It is interesting that the very first approach to income security for seniors deals with federal prisoners. It does not look at those broad needs for our seniors.
There was an article in a paper called the Edmonton Senior in June, after this bill was announced, that said that ending prisoner pensions is not so simple. There were a number of interesting points, including some concerns about universality. The article in this seniors' magazine, which addresses issues that seniors are concerned about, also pointed out the fact that once again we are lacking an overall, comprehensive plan to prevent people from going to prison in the first place. Others, such as rabble.ca, have also raised the issue. For instance, there is the four-pillar approach to crime prevention that looks at all the things that can be done to keep people out of prison in the first place, whether that is a poverty reduction strategy, adequate alcohol and drug counselling, educational strategies, or adequate housing.
We acknowledge that people who commit crimes and are found guilty through our justice system need to have appropriate consequences.
I am the aboriginal affairs critic for the NDP. We know that aboriginal peoples are hugely overrepresented in federal and provincial prisons. Once they are in prison, they need appropriate programs for rehabilitation.
The article from Edmonton Seniors says:
The concern is not around whether or not senior prisoners should receive pension money, but what the correctional system is doing to prepare offenders for their release.
It goes on to quote Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, who says:
We know that homelessness, we know that poverty, and we know that lack of resources in a number of areas are contributors to coming into conflict with the law. When an offender is released, whether they are 25 or 65, they face the same barriers that non-offenders would face if they don't have resources. And of course you want to encourage these folks to live peacefully and lawfully in the community. Simply put, there is some requirement to provide them with legitimate access to some financial means. That's the basis of income security programs in Canada to begin with.
He goes on to do an analysis of what prisoners have to pay for when they are in the federal system and so on.
This piecemeal approach to the criminal justice system again is quite troubling. To reiterate, we need prevention, we need a criminal justice system, we need police resources and so on that can actually deal with offenders and incarcerate them where appropriate, make sure that when they are inside that what we are doing is looking at rehabilitation and the tools and resources, so that when they come out of the system they can be reintegrated into communities in a peaceful and law-abiding way.
The piecemeal approach that we have seen from the Conservative government simply is not addressing all of those issues. I turn to Insite, the safe drug injection site in Vancouver, which we know is helping to keep people safe and alive, and hopefully out of the prison system by providing with supports at the safe injection site. Yet, we see the Conservative government constantly trying to find ways to close it down.
Instead of taking a look at the issues around drug and alcohol addiction in a more holistic kind of way, it is--