Madam Speaker, Parliament is currently reviewing the contents of Bill C-47, the Conservative government's budget implementation act. The bill was tabled on March 4 and received first reading only on September 30.
This is the largest deficit spending budget in the history of Canada. The spending will occur through borrowed funds that not only this generations but generations to come will have to pay for. The debt will be growing.
What is not unveiled in this budget document is another source of income to pay for these provisions within the budget document.
Canadians were told, it was revealed in the House just last week, that a significant source of the income of the funds required to pay for this largest deficit spending budget in the history of Canada will be borne on the backs of Canadian seniors.
It was revealed just last week that a secret policy had been established by the Conservatives to strip seniors of their pensions, to do so by taking away the right to GIS, a guaranteed income supplement. This is absolutely ridiculous.
The policy dates back to May 17. There was absolutely no notice of the policy. There was absolutely no information given to any Canadian senior or any Canadian citizen. It goes beyond impacting seniors, because it also impacts any Canadian who is attempting now to put money away for future retirement through an RRSP.
We know that our retirement system is based on several key platforms or planks. One of course is the Canada pension plan; another is the OAS, the old age security and subsequent GIS benefits, which flow from it; and the other plank is private investment, where working Canadians through the course of their entire working lives try to put a few dollars away in an RRSP, in a sheltered RRSP, which by law must be converted into a registered retirement income fund in due time.
The travesty has so upset Canadian seniors, when they discovered this information through things that were revealed in the House by myself and through the hard work and dedicated work of a retired Service Canada employee. He spent his entire working lifetime helping and supporting seniors and helping them navigate and understand the rules related to Canada's pension systems, Canada's public pension system and as well trying to navigate those rules and how they work with Canada's private pension system.
It was revealed by a Mr. Gerard Lee through his own work, through his own understanding and investigations of this that secret rules were put in place on May 17 affecting a senior's eligibility for GIS, the guaranteed income supplement.
For the benefit of members on the other side of the House who may not be aware of how the GIS works, the guaranteed income supplement is a key plank, an income-tested plank in the public pension system of our country. It builds upon the old age security program, OAS, which is a near-universal public pension for seniors. The GIS, which flows from that, is actually a directed pension system, directed in particular at our lower income Canadian seniors.
How the GIS is influenced by other forms of income is very important. In order to determine eligibility, the GIS is not based on seniors' current year income. It is actually assessed on their previous year's income. In other words, the determination of whether a senior might be eligible or might be receiving a GIS supplement in 2010, a guaranteed income supplement, was made based on 2009 income. The total amount of income seniors received in 2009 would determine whether or not they were eligible in 2010.
However, because last year's income is not always a very appropriate determiner of what resources a senior has available to him or her in this year, 2010, the government when it established this program recognized that one-time or lump sum income sources can be excluded from the income assessment for the pensioner in determining eligibility for GIS.
Specifically, income sources such as employment insurance benefits, which have a finite start and stop, which were basically made available in the previous year, can be optioned out of the GIS eligibility criteria in determining this year's benefits. Workmen's compensation benefits, which have a finite stop and start, could also under existing, former and current rules be optioned out of the eligibility calculation. Certain pension benefits and annuities can be optioned out of the calculation.
Since 1957, Canada has had a registered retirement savings plan and we champion that as a source of retirement investment. We encourage Canadians to invest in RRSPs. We put it into law that any RRSP after a senior hits the age of 71, must by law be converted into a RRIF. So we encouraged investments into RRSPs by granting tax shelter benefits, tax reprieve at the time of the investment, and we guaranteed our citizens that we would not mess with it; we would keep this as a stable, solid investment in perpetuity. We want to encourage working people to invest in RRSPs so that, coupled with the public pension systems and their own workplace pension systems, they have an additional source of income to be able to meet their needs and to meet the needs of their families. That was a solemn commitment, I thought.
On May 17, in a very secret, very dishonest way, the government changed all that. Conservatives put in place a new system of rules for the calculation of the guaranteed income supplement. They did not announce one word of it to any citizen. They did not put out a press release. They did not make this information available to any seniors' organization. Conservatives said, effective this date, that for the purposes of calculating the guaranteed income supplement, when senior citizens withdraw any money from a RRIF, deplete a RRIF, that money now is calculable against their income for the purposes of whether or not they are eligible for the GIS.
Let us think of a senior citizen who puts away a small amount of money under an RRSP, by law is required to roll it over into a RRIF, thinking that is a nest egg, a safety net, a source of funds to respond to emergencies with. That senior citizen, after the age of 71, has the unfortunate circumstance of having to bury a loved one, or pay for emergency home repair or pay for unanticipated costs related to a medical illness, cancer, heart attack or otherwise. Prior to May 17, he or she could use RRIFs, could organize finances in such a way as to use some of a RRIF, withdraw those funds, deplete that RRIF and not have that money used against him or her for the purposes of the calculation of the GIS. That is no more.
Now as of May 17, the government decided, but did not tell anyone, that any senior citizens who withdraw their RRIFs in a lump sum payment or otherwise now are going to lose their GIS. Fundamentally what the government did was it took the value of their RRSPs, the value of their RRIFs, and cut it by 50% right off the top, and it is also taxable at the moment the money is withdrawn from the fund. It is an incredible assault on the well-being and the security of our seniors, and the Conservatives did not even bother to tell anyone about it.
It has been said here in this House that (a) the minister did not know anything about it, but (b), now that she does know, it really does not affect too many people.
First, let us talk about whether or not the minister knew anything about this.
In the last number of weeks, when queried by investment counsellors as to whether or not the practice had changed, the Minister of Human Resources Development Canada sent out letters acknowledging the change made May 17 and defended the policy.
Second, the minister now says that this does not affect very many seniors.
Let it be understood that there are 1.5 million eligible recipients today of the guaranteed income supplement. That is 1.5 million, by definition, lower-income Canadian senior citizens. As I said, the GIS is income-tested. Only those who have a lower income threshold are eligible for the GIS. There are 1.5 million lower-income Canadian senior citizens who are directly impacted by this.
Bear in mind that $3,500 is not an elitist amount, $3,500 a year to try to help maintain and stabilize the standard of living of a senior. However, any senior citizen who withdraws any more than $3,500 a year from a RRIF will lose the GIS or a substantial portion of it. Those are the facts.
Any senior citizen who contributed a dime into an RRSP, over 20, 30 or 40 years of a working lifetime, will be directly impacted by this decision, because as we know, an RRSP must be converted to a RRIF, by law, at the age of 71.
The minister suggests this is only a small number of lower-income senior citizens, and I would love to know exactly what the minister thinks is just a small number. Lower-income senior citizens are directly impacted by this cash assault for the benefit of paying for Bill C-47. What is it, 200,000, 300,000 or 400,000 Canadian low-income senior citizens? I guess that is a small amount.
This is an outrage. It is not only the 1.5 million Canadian seniors currently depending on the GIS system for their income who are affected. People who are now contributing to an RRSP, thinking they are developing a modest nest egg for their security in retirement, need to know whether or not they should stop doing that and start putting their money underneath their mattress.
Here are the consequences of these rules. When funds are withdrawn from a savings account, not a registered account, to pay for a cancer treatment, emergency home repairs or to offset the cost of the burial of a loved one, that is not computable against the GIS. That is a person's own money. However, withdrawing money from a registered retirement income fund, which one may have spent a lifetime trying to acquire, is computable against GIS.
In other words, the RRSP and RRIF system is now in jeopardy. Not only would one lose 50% right off the top but other benefits too.
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, and many other provinces base their social programs for senior citizens on an income-tested program. Instead of creating a second set of rules, considering the federal government's guaranteed income supplement, GIS, is income-tested and is directed specifically at lower-income senior citizens, many provinces simply model that, and a recipient of GIS will also get other benefits, such as a provincial senior citizen's drug card.
A drug card can be worth anywhere from nothing, if you happen to be fortunate enough to be in great health, to $50,000 per year, if you happen to need emergency high-cost medications and other services. All of a sudden this decision to pay for the federal budget on the backs of senior citizens in a secret, clandestine way, is not only costing senior citizens their full GIS entitlements that they worked so hard for, fought for and built this country for, but what is not known to many of them is that they are also losing their drug cards from the provincial governments as a result.
The government did not have the gumption to even bother to inform them what would happen if they made this decision. After years and years of following a particular practice and of understanding the rules a certain way, seniors acted within what they felt were the rules. It is hard to act within the rules when we are not even told what they are. In other words, if senior citizens, on November 30, 2010, withdrew RRIF funds thinking the rules were in place in a certain way, they will not find out that they just hit themselves very, very tragically in their own personal finances until next year, because GIS is not based on a person's current year's income. If we make a withdrawal from a RRIF, deplete a RRIF in 2010, the impact is not even foretold to us until Canada Day, July 1, 2011. Happy Canada Day.
That is what a secretive government does. It prevents us from knowing what the consequences of its actions are and prevents us from acting in our own best interest. That is what they did to Canada's senior citizens.
It would not be until 2011 that anyone who withdrew any funds from a RRIF, depleted a RRIF, would even know about it, because the exercise of optioning those funds would not be explained to them, or the fact that they cannot option those funds like they can option employment insurance, workers' compensation benefits and certain annuity payments. To pay for Bill C-47, the budget implementation act, the most significant deficit-spending budget in the history of Canada, what was not told to them, was not told to me, was not told to us and what was not told to any Canadian citizen is that the government will pay for this budget on the backs of Canadian seniors. The cash grab in all of this is unreal.
The minister has said that he has just found out about this and he will put a stop to processing the policy right now. He will review it, but it is still very much on the table. It is still very much on the table for him to do it down the road, and should he, by implication, agree with what he decided on May 17, 2010 after all, he will recoup an awful lot of money. He will have court judgments or whatever. He will file letters of notice that the money he is forgiving right now, he will recoup down the road.
The integrity of our registered retirement savings plan system, of our registered retirement income fund system, and of our public pension plan system requires consistency and a solid, steady hand at the administrative wheel. It does not need and will not accept a minister who decided but just got caught, so now he will give it a temporary reprieve to try to get out of this mess, but he will hold us in limbo until he figures out whether or not he will keep the policy.
Our seniors deserve better. Rescind this policy, do not review it.