Mr. Speaker, Bill C-54, an Act to amend the Old Age Security Act, the Canada Pension Plan, the Children's Allowances Act and the Unemployment Insurance Act, was tabled on October 7 by the Minister of Human Resources Development.
The proposed amendments to the Old Age Security Program and the Canada Pension Plan will provide for certain improvements that will benefit senior citizens, but the bill's lack of clarity is certainly no guarantee that senior citizens will have an adequate level of financial security. The bill may even reduce the incomes of some seniors.
As the critic for seniors' issues, it is my duty to ensure that the social security review does not become an exercise in making cuts in all programs designed to protect the neediest in our society, especially senior citizens.
Most senior citizens have modest incomes. According to a report by the National Advisory Council on Aging, disposable incomes of senior citizens were as follows: the incomes of families headed by seniors were 68 to 80 per cent of the incomes of other Canadian families, depending on the income measure used and the Canadian region concerned. In 1989, for instance, the average income of families headed by seniors was only $37,462 or 72 per cent of the incomes of families where the head of the family was under 65.
In 1989, the average income of single persons aged 65 or over was $16,316, while the average income of single persons under 65 was $23,080. A single person is an individual who lives alone or in a household where the person is not related to other members of the household. Single persons, irrespective of their age, tend to have relatively low incomes. Consequently, if we consider single persons as a group, the gap between senior citizens and the rest of the population is not as wide as it is between families, but it is still substantial.
Responsibility for seniors is shared by two departments, Human Resources Development and Health, with the Seniors Secretariat, which is responsible for giving seniors the information they need on federal programs and services, while providing liaison with the federal and provincial departments responsible for programs for senior citizens. Why not have a minister responsible for senior citizens, like the previous government? I asked this question at the very beginning of my term as a member of this House.
In addition, the National Advisory Council on Aging advises the Minister of Health on the quality of life of senior citizens, either at the request of the minister or on its own initiative. The council's role consists in disseminating information and publishing reports, for instance. The federal government assists senior citizens mainly through two programs: Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan, and a number of tax measures.
The purpose of the OAS program is to provide seniors with a decent level of income. The program includes three kinds of benefits under the Old Age Security Act. The basic old age security pensions provide seniors with the basis for a decent level of income. Pensions are paid to all Canadians and Quebecers 65 years of age and over who meet residence requirements. They are taxable and subject to partial or full clawback in the case of seniors with high incomes.
The guaranteed income supplement ensures a minimum level of income to old age security pensioners. Benefits are paid to old age security pensioners who have a low or modest income. The amount of benefits is established through an assessment of annual income, generally based on the individual's income for the previous year areported for tax purposes.
The spouses's allowance helps married, retired and low-income couples who receive only one old age security pension or guaranteed income supplement, as well as low-income widows and widowers, aged 60 to 64, who meet the old age security requirements in terms of residency. Benefits are determined through an income assessment similar to the one applicable to the guaranteed income supplement. The Canada Pension Plan is a mandatory and contributive social insurance program designed to protect Canadian workers and their families against a loss of income due to death, disability or retirement.
Retirement pension benefits are equal to 25 per cent of the pensionable earnings of the contributor, with this average being established for the net qualifying period. These benefits will help about 2 million pensioners each month, for a volume of transactions of $9.6 billion in 1993-94. Survivor's benefits consist of a monthly benefit paid to surviving spouses of deceased contributors, an overall benefit paid to the succession and orphan benefits paid each month to children of deceased contributors. Benefits paid to surviving spouses are reduced if spouses are aged 35 to 45, are not invalid or have no children. Disability payments are made monthly to contributors who have not yet reached 65 years old and have a chronic and serious disability and to their dependent children who are 18 years old or less or 18 to 25 if they are full time students. In 1993-94, approximately $2.5 billion will be paid to 325,000 recipients every month.
Bill C-54 highlights contain, among other things, two specific amendments which will have a positive impact on the programs for the elderly and the amendments are the following.
Spouse's allowances automatically become old age security benefits when the recipients reach 65 years old. The guaranteed income supplement and spouse's allowances will be paid even when applications are late. The intent of the proposal is to amend the Old Age Security Act in order for the minister to be able to exempt some recipients from filing an annual application for the renewal of the guaranteed income supplement and spouse's allowances.
However, the Bloc Quebecois cannot support Bill C-54's provisions which change access to some information, since the government wants to increase the number of departments, agencies and persons given access to personal information used in the administration of the acts amended by this bill.
According to the legislation as it stands now, the agencies having access to information are the departments of National Revenue, Finance and Supply and Services, the Employment and Immigration Commission, Statistics Canada and any provincial authorities administering an assistance program. These agencies do have access providing the information deals only with the status of recipients or the amount of the benefits or where disclosure of information is required for the purposes of administering the act.
We must be careful when gathering personal information on elderly people, because this can be used for other purposes. We must protect them from possible abuse. The government has not demonstrated that privileged information disclosure was required and essential. The government must always be accountable to elderly people by showing that the gathering of such information is not abusive.
Governments are encroaching more and more on the private lives of people, as we saw recently in the Grant Bristow case. Furthermore, the Bloc Quebecois does not accept the clauses providing for sanctions in case of illegal communication because they do not go far enough.
Also the bill's clauses relating to information add the following agencies to the list of those who can have access to that
information, namely Canada Post, Correctional Services of Canada, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Department of Justice and the Attorney General and even federal MPs and any other person designated by the minister as a health professional.
Some information will be made available to a greater number of departments. It is important to note that Correctional Services of Canada will have access to information on pensioner inmates in order to force them to pay back part of the costs of their detention.
The Department of Justice as well as the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will have access to obtain information that could help them catch war criminals. Of course, this is aimed at Nazis who migrated to Canada after the last World War, among others. It is not explained why it is necessary to include any other person designated as a health professional by the minister. It is also mentioned that it would be useful to include Canada Post since that agency could, by using new techniques, help speed up the processing of pensioners' cheques.
Another important point in Bill C-54 has to do with the government's plan to save money. From now on, clients who apply late for their pension will be able to receive up to one year's retroactive payment of benefits. In the case of Old Age Security, this is a reduction from five years to one year. For the Canada Pension Plan, this kind of situation is dealt with through actuarial adjustments.
This provision will come into force on April 1st, 1995. However, pensioners who owe money to the OAS plan will have their debt forgiven if it is the result of an administrative error or erroneous advice on the part of a departmental official.
The maximum deadline for the recovery of OAS overpayments will be eliminated. This way, the government will be able to get back between one and two million dollars.
Moreover, the minister may stay payment of benefits pending an appel or a judicial review, thus depriving beneficiaries of money they need since it is often their only source of income.
The Old Age Security pension and the guaranteed income supplement are paid to 72 per cent of women pensioners and 50 per cent of men. Only 5 per cent of senior citizens have incomes above $50,000. Their life expectancy has improved and we must ensure that these senior citizens lead a full and satisfying life during these extra years.
By putting more stringent conditions on programs for senior citizens, the government is merely cutting the income of these people. The government is saying that the retroactive period has been shortened from five years to one year, to make the OAS program consistent with that of the Canada Pension Plan.
According to the present legislation, the government can go back a maximum of two years. Abolishing this provision would save the government between one and two million dollars. Given that people are protected from possible errors by civil servants, they would not have to refund any excess payment in such a case. The minister should tell us where he is going to take that money.
In the event of an appeal, the minister will be authorized to delay payment. Yet, the government itself recognizes that a large percentage of pensioners have no other incomes.
Let us not forget that the federal government has decided to reduce the tax credit given to senior citizens. At the present time, all taxpayers 65 and over can claim a tax credit equivalent to 17 per cent of $3,482 at the federal level, and 20 per cent of $2,200 in Quebec. This tax credit is non-refundable, that is to say, taxpayers can use it to reduce the tax they owe, but they cannot ask for a cash refund on any unused portion of it. However, such an unused part can be transferred to the spouse.
This tax credit amounts to a reduction of federal tax of about $610 per year for all tax-paying senior citizens. In most provinces, and in Quebec in particular, this credit also reduces the provincial tax. The combined reduction of federal and provincial taxes averages about $950, but in Quebec it comes to about $1,050.
On May 31 of this year, I took the floor to oppose any reduction of the tax credit for senior citizens. I stressed that once again the meagre efforts to reduce spending were done at the expense of the neediest. At that time, I also mentioned that, on May 10, I had questioned the minister responsible for seniors about the projected use of so-called voice mail boxes to answer inquiries from senior citizens.
The Minister of Human Resources Development merely stressed the efficiency of the proposed service. I explained that a lot of seniors hate to use this type of service and that the golden-age club representative voiced their concerns. In the last year, the Minister of Human Resources Development received numerous letters from Quebec members of the AFEAS, the Association féminine d'éducation et d'action sociale. Here are excerpts from one of them:
We heard that your department, Human Resources Development Canada, is planning to use voice mail in its communications with senior citizens wanting information on income security matters.
We believe this measure will affect people who may naturally be at a loss when confronted by this technology. Moreover, many of them do not have the required telephone sets.
We AFEAS members are strongly opposed to your project to provide services to seniors through voice mail instead of having real people answer questions about income security.
We ask you to reconsider this unfortunate decision as soon as possible.
On May 11, 1994, I insisted again. I then asked the House: Why does the federal government insist on attacking senior citizens, considering that most of them find it very difficult to deal with a system that is so impersonal?
Last September 28 in this House, I asked the following question of the Minister of Human Resources Development: Does the Minister of Human Resources Development still intend to slash programs for seniors in order to finance other federal government programs? Will we have to wait until after the Quebec referendum to know the answer?
On September 29, I rose again in this House, in an attempt to get a formal commitment from the government not to tax RRSPs. The purpose of my remarks is not to reject all the measures in Bill C-54 affecting senior citizens, given that certain rules that complicated their lives unnecessarily have been relaxed.
However, the government must guarantee seniors a certain security by not slashing the social programs that affect them. The government's direct expenses associated with senior benefits, which include old age security, the guaranteed income supplement and the spouse's allowance, represent $20.6 billion in 1994-1995. The burden carried by seniors must be fair and equitable. Recent studies indicate that one person in eight is over 65.
In ten years, the number of people 65 and older will increase by at least 40 per cent. More Canadians aged 65 and older will have to rely on the ability to pay of working Canadians aged 15 to 64. However, many seniors are still active and prefer to live at home, look after themselves and make their own decisions.
With respect to seniors who wish to live together, one measure that I find very discriminatory is reducing old age security payments when seniors living in a residence decide to share an apartment with their spouse. Do you not think that more humanity, more generosity and less pettiness are in order?
In conclusion, I move, seconded by the hon. member for Châteauguay, that all the words after the word "that" be struck out and the following substituted:
"this House declines to give second reading reading to Bill C-54, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act, the Canada Pension Plan, the Children's Special Allowances Act and the Unemployment Insurance Act, because it does not provide a penalty under the Criminal Code for the disclosure of personal information concerning beneficiaries to persons who are not legally authorized to such information pursuant to Access to Privileged Information."