Madam Speaker, I welcome this opportunity today to speak to Bill C-54, an Act to amend the Old Age Security Act, the Canada Pension Plan, the Chidren's Special Allowances Act and the Unemployment Insurance Act, introduced by the Minister of Human Resources Development. This legislation contains amendments to several acts that are extremely important to the economy of Quebec, and to Canada's as well.
Furthermore, it gives us an opportunity, as members of the Bloc Quebecois, to explain our position on social security reform. On several occasions we have made it clear where we stand on these programs, and Bill C-54 is another opportunity for us to show that we support social programs and that we are prepared to defend the interests of those who are affected by this bill.
I think it is important to realize, as I said earlier at the beginning of my speech, that this bill concerns people who receive old age security benefits. This means they are 65 years of age and over. People in this age group may be less aware of their rights and obligations under this legislation, and they may also be more vulnerable than young couples or people in their thirties or forties who can find their way through the legislative maze. That is something we should not forget.
However, in this bill, I am particularly worried about the fact that certain government agencies will have access to information on beneficiaries. The government already had legislation that authorized communication of this information to certain agencies, but Bill C-54 has expanded this authority to include agencies such as Canada Post, the Correctional Service of Canada, the Commissioner of the RCMP, the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General, Members of Parliament and persons designated by the minister as health care professionals.
This authority is very broad. It means giving a large group of people access to a very extensive data bank. That is why, at this stage, we moved an amendment to ensure that no one will abuse this information, bearing in mind that these people are among the most vulnerable in our society and that there is always the possibility that someone could, not necessarily use the information to blackmail them, but use it improperly.
The amendment we are suggesting is very simple. It says that we refuse to support the bill on second reading because it does not provide for any sanctions under the Criminal Code for anyone who discloses personal information on beneficiaries to sources not authorized to have access to privileged information.
Where I come from, we always say: "Too strong, will not bend". I think a chapter could be included to really ensure that whoever has access to such information will pay careful attention to how it will be used.
This is what our reasoned amendment is about. I will tell you, in my speech, about another reasoned amendment we could have tabled but did not. This amendment also deals with an important matter.
I must say right away that I am not against the bill as a whole. On the contrary, I think it contains some valuables clauses and principles that will make certain things easier. But we must always be very careful with this kind of legislation.
Let us look at certain changes together. Some of these set limits regarding access to information, as I said earlier. They introduce time frames concerning the return of benefits to save money. I have no problem with that.
Others deal with technicalities concerning benefit repayment. They change the appeals system and enable the minister to acquire assets. I have a little problem with that, but I will address it later on.
All in all, the Minister of Human Resources Development saw fit-and we are behind him on this- to make the benefit scheme and plans for the elderly easier and more flexible. Contrary to what the minister claims, as have several other ministers during question period, we do not systematically object to any government proposal. If he listened more carefully, he would realize that we do support some of this government's initiatives, as I said earlier.
At any rate, before dealing with the bill per se, I think it is important, in fact essential, to take a look at the situation of the elderly, because it is not quite as rosy as the government seems to believe it is.
I think I should remind the minister of certain figures. For example, in 1992, the average income of elderly families was $39,439, as compared to approximately $56,000 for other families. Also, and more importantly, the average income of the single elderly was $18,434, as compared to $25,000 for other single individuals. Moreover, some 21 per cent of seniors, or 625,000 seniors, are considered as low-income earners. While this number remains mind-boggling, it must be pointed out that it has gone down over the past decade. The number of low-income seniors has decreased while it has increased in the general population.
However, the proportion of low-income people among seniors is consistently higher than in the general population. So we can see that the situation of seniors deserves special attention and compassion going beyond the Canadian finance minister's obsession with the deficit, but this can improve with time. People in exceptional situations need exceptional, but not drastic, solutions.
Over the years, the federal government has come up with several ways to help seniors. There are the two main programs, Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan, as well as some tax measures such as the guaranteed income supplement, spouse's allowance, survivor benefits and disability benefits. All these measures are designed to ensure the well-being of seniors.
It must also be noted that since the Liberals took office, Quebec's welfare rolls have swelled up by 30,000, and that the Minister of Human Resources Development's social program reform will make the situation worse. Employment development requires much more than an infrastructure program. The thousands of jobs the Liberals boast of creating are almost all temporary.
Before we scrutinize Bill C-54, it is important to look at the tendency shown by the government in its first budget, however slim it is. We must remember that the past tells us about the future. The measures in the last budget call into question all the social programs Canada and Quebec have put in place in the last 30 years.
The last budget sets the tone for the government's direction. This little test by the Minister of Finance involves cuts to unemployment insurance and, of special concern for seniors, to the age credit.
The Minister of Finance made the decision to reduce the age credit, so that all taxpayers aged 54 and older can claim a tax credit amounting to 17 per cent of $3,482 at the federal level and 20 per cent of $2,200 in Quebec. This credit is non-refundable, that is, it can be deducted from taxes payable but the excess portion cannot be refunded. Any unused portion can, however, be transferred to one's spouse.
The combined federal and provincial tax reduction averages about $950, while in Quebec the reduction is around $1,050. The change brought about by the last budget aims to reduce this credit for seniors whose net income is over $25,921. The applicable threshold for other credits is based on one's income. The amount of that threshold will be indexed according to the fraction of the annual consumer price index increase which exceeds 3 per cent. As I said earlier, the credit will be reduced by an amount equal to 15 per cent of the part of an individual's net income which exceeds $25,921. That credit will completely disappear when a person's income reaches $49,100.
These measures raise questions. Does the government consider that a senior with an income of $25,000 is a rich taxpayer? That measure does not target the rich; once again it affects the middle class and, this time, more specifically the older people who belong to that group.
The feeble attempts to reduce spending are made at the expense of the poor, the unemployed, the welfare recipients and the middle class. We cannot say it often enough. The more we repeat it, the greater the chances the minister will finally understand.
The government has difficulty understanding what fairness implies. In fact, this government seems to adhere more to the notion of unfairness. After all, where is the fairness in this double standard whereby, for the 1993 taxation year, old age security pensioners whose net incomes exceed $53,215, see their pension clawed back at a rate of 15 per cent, which gradually increases to the point where the whole pension is clawed back for pensioners whose income reaches $83,215?
Moreover, in his social policy reform, the Minister of Human Resources Development excluded programs for seniors. However, the fate of our seniors is sealed in the budget of his colleague, the Minister of Finance.
On page 41 of the Budget Plan, the minister says that: "the government will[-] release in the coming months a paper which will examine the challenges and the opportunities posed by Canada's aging society. The paper will examine what the aging society will need in terms of services and what, if any, changes are required to the public pension system to make it financially sustainable". This leaves the door open to a lot of things.
He goes on saying: "The paper will also examine what, if any, changes should be made to the tax treatment of contributions to, and income buildup in, registered pension, profitsharing, and retirement savings plans".
If the Minister of Finance is going to take care of senior citizens instead of the Minister of Human Resources Development, we can conclude that the Liberals are seeing senior citizens as economic factors, just like interest rates, rather than a productive human resource. And that should worry us.
Now, as to the bill and its main cost cutting measures, I must say that it is comforting to see that the government is trying to put some oil in the gears of a very heavy bureaucratic machine. These are the positive aspects of the bill, the ones we can agree with.
It is nice to know that those applying late for their pension will be able to get up to a year's worth of payments. That is a good thing although, in the case of OAS, this is a reduction from five years to one. As well, clients can be forgiven OAS benefit overpayments that are the result of an administrative error or erroneous advice from department officials. This too, I think, is fairer.
In addition, the timeframe restriction for the recovery of guaranteed income supplement overpayments will be removed. I find this a bit dangerous. If the errors were made by civil servants and the situation is allowed to drag on for several months, several years, this is dangerous for the person at the point where the government notices the error and claims its due, the overpayment. No limitation is mentioned, however, and this needs to be looked into. If I were an older Canadian, this would worry me. I would want to ask the department how this would be dealt with.
In addition, we are told that the government hopes to recover 1 to 2 million dollars with this measure. The Minister of Human Resources Development will also be able to postpone payment of benefits pending a review or an appeal. This sets off warning bells. It is an opportunity ripe for patronage. What will go on? The minister reserves the right to postpone certain payments, certain decisions. I do not like things that are not clear and this point is not clear.
Claimants could thus be deprived of benefits that they need to live, and that are often their only source of income during this entire period.
There are a series of clauses of a somewhat technical and administrative nature that I will not dwell on, given that we are in agreement. I think that if there are any points on which we do not agree and that should be raised immediately, I will do so.
First of all, the government is saying that it has reduced the period of retroactivity from five years to one in order to increase consistency between the Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan programs.
It must be noted that every time such concern arises, the result is a downward adjustment. It boils down to the government making even tighter the qualifying conditions for programs for the elderly. Therefore, the government will have to explain how the existing provisions on old age security benefit overpayment do not provide it with adequate protection.
As it stands, the act provides that the government may go back up to two years. Eliminating this time limit would enable the government to recover anything between one and two million dollars, as I said earlier. Considering that beneficiaries are afforded protection against potential mistakes by civil servants, these two provisions seem to be in contradiction. This clause would really need to be clarified so as to not generate a conflict between citizens 65 and older and the government.
I must reiterate in this House that people over 65 years of age tend to be less inclined to put up a fight. They may be less affluent and more vulnerable in this respect. Perhaps the govern-
ment will take advantage of this situation to claim repayment of benefits whenever it feels like it.
Moreover, in case of appeal, the minister could defer payment. But the minister himself admits that a major portion of beneficiaries have no income besides old age security benefits. That being so, many beneficiaries could finds themselves in an extremely difficult situation when this provision is put into application.
At the end of the day, while they will not have a substantial impact of recipients in general, these provisions nonetheless reflect the direction this government has taken since coming to power, that is to say, to cut in social programs.
I also have reservations about a few other provisions and one, in particular, whereby clients required to repay to Revenue Canada amounts claimed from old age security using the revenue-tested reduction rate will be able avoid repaying by asking that benefit payments stop. This should be clarified in the bill, to facilitate the interpretation of the act.
I mentioned earlier that we had moved only one reasoned amendment, while we might have moved two. At least, we considered the possibility. I think it would have provided the government with a great opportunity to include some kind of safeguard in this bill. With everything that is now going on in the House, with everything that we want to cut-and when I say "we", I mean the government-with everything that the government wants to cut, in wide swarths, billions and always in the same direction, of course. But there were times when they frightened elderly people in Quebec, on several occasions; the federal government frightened seniors-In the 1980 referendum, they said, "If you vote for sovereignty," even though that was not the question, "the PQ and the sovereignists will cut your old age pensions".
That was the time for the federal government to put a provision in the law, in this law, in Bill C-54, to guarantee this income for people in need, to put a clause in the law saying: "We guarantee that you people 65 and over who need your pension will have it, whatever cuts are made in social programs; we will not cut your family income and we guarantee these old age benefits for you". But no, there is nothing like that in the bill.
If I were a senior, I would be worried about that. I would call the department to find out what is going on. "Why do you not guarantee this sum of money? We need it. In many cases, it is our only source of income".
No, there is nothing.
That being said, I think that I have presented enough material to show that on the whole, Bill C-54 has some good features, but it should be amended to make it more humane, fairer and more equitable for everyone.