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.