Mr. Speaker, members of the official opposition are used to seeing their amendments or their comments misunderstood or not understood at all. This is once again the case. It must be understood that we are significantly amending an act, and that seniors or people who are eligible either for the Canada Pension Plan or for family allowances may discover, at some point, that they received more money than they were entitled to.
The current act, which we are in the process of amending, includes a provision which is fair in that it provides the following, and I quote: "Where a person has received or obtained a benefit payment to which the person is not entitled, or a benefit payment in excess of the amount of the benefit payment to which the person is entitled, the amount of that benefit payment or the excess amount, as the case may be, constitutes a debt due to Her Majesty and may be recovered in proceedings commenced (a) at any time, where that person made a wilful misrepresentation or committed fraud for the purpose of receiving or obtaining that amount or excess amount". In other words, if someone cheats, the government can, at any time, recover the money.
However, there is also a (b) in the existing section, and we hope that the government will listen and keep that provision. Part (b) provides this: "in any case where paragraph (a) does not apply, at any time before the end of the fiscal year immediately following the fiscal year in which that amount or excess amount was received or obtained". We will see what these other cases are.
We feel that the (b) part should be kept. But what is the government doing? It is eliminating that provision. The government says that any such payment constitutes a debt to Her Majesty, as though the recipients were cheaters. I agree that the government is significantly amending the legislation to make things easier for the public. For example, I can think of the income supplement for needy elderly people. As you know, these people currently have to sign a form every year. The bill before us provides that they will no longer have to sign that form. However, it could be that, without any ill intent on the part of the elderly, their situation may change, because they inherited some money or for whatever reason, so that they are no longer eligible for a supplement, but will not know that and may continue to receive such supplement for years, until someone finds out.
Without being in any way guilty or even responsible, they would find themselves in the situation of having to pay back a large sum, even though responsibility for the overpayment might rest entirely with the system. I asked the committee to ensure that people knew what they were entitled to annually. I was told that that would be done through the regulations. I have no guarantee. I was shown nothing.
It seems to me that we cannot, on the one hand, increase the opportunities for administrative errors and, on the other, remove this limit, which forces the government to recognize that people are not required to pay for the errors it makes, because in fact, in this bill, the government is doing two things. It is taking away the five-year period within which a person could make a claim for benefits to which he was entitled. There was agreement with that, but at the same time, the government is giving itself unlimited powers to go after these amounts, which again may not have been fraudulently obtained, but might simply be the result of an administrative error. It is giving itself the power to subject members of the public to serious hardship, even in the case of an administrative error. We know that the people in question are generally seniors or families on income support.
Therefore, it seems to me that this is a measure worthy of the government's attention. We are concerned about the likelihood of administrative errors, and we will be supporting the Reform Party's amendment, and adding an amendment to the amendment deleting subsections 7 and 8.
The Reform Party wants members to be told exactly how the legislation has been administered so that they are aware of the large number of errors that have been made. We are in agreement with that, but do not agree that the government should not correct the errors, and we can be sure that the government will wish to correct them only in those cases where there has been prejudice done. We do not agree that errors should be allowed to stand until the House moves in this regard, particularly as any motion it brings forward can only be a recommendation.
Here is the amendment. I move, seconded by the member for Argenteuil-Papineau:
That Motion No. 7 be amended by deleting the new subsections (7) and (8).
But, it boils down to the same thing. Yes, we should improve the administration of the law but, in doing so, we should be very careful not to increase administrative errors and inconvenience people who are most in need and who are often unable to defend themselves. Individuals should not have to pay.
The current two subsections of the act stipulate that the government can recover its due at any time, regardless of the time which has passed since payment, if fraud is involved. If administrative or other errors were in play-mostly administrative errors-the stipulated time period is one year, and I stress this point all the more because this provision is contained in legislation, which increases the likelihood of administrative errors. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that we know, from what has gone on in our ridings, that when the new computer program was introduced, there were many administrative errors.
These administrative errors hit citizens hard, citizens who did not receive any pension cheques at all. Those are obvious errors. When people stop receiving pension cheques, often, they call their MP, and I am glad that that is what happens. But, other administrative errors occurred, causing people to receive supplements to which they were not entitled.
I do not know whether you have ever helped people of a certain age who do not quite know how to go about it or what their entitlements are to fill in those forms. They can easily, with the best intentions, end up receiving benefits to which they are not entitled and have no idea what to do to fix the situation. In those circumstances, the same errors which deprived people of their entitlements could have the effect of giving people benefits to which they were not entitled, which they did not seek to obtain and which they could be obliged to pay back at one point. In my opinion, that is very unjust.
The government should take this matter seriously. Is that not the rule of thumb to ensure that administrative errors do not occur? Nothing is easier when cutting the payroll than letting administrative errors go by.
I am not saying that this is the government's aim but that there is nothing meaner and more stupid than wholesale jobs cuts which end up negatively affecting seniors in particular.
I hope that they will listen to our message, which is not an extremist message, contrary to what my honourable colleague said, but one of reason and compassion for people. Far from being extreme, our position consists of maintaining in part the current legislation. It appears to me that it is more my honourable colleagues opposite who are breaking with the Liberal tradition, which used to take into consideration the rights of people and was compassionate with them, a tradition which is broken with here. I invite them to correct this serious error in approach.