Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to rise and speak in the debate today on Bill C-67.
For the benefit of those viewing this at home, Bill C-67 has to do with the review procedure for pensions of people who represented and fought for our country in the last world war. It is apropos that we should be speaking about this having just gone through the victory in Europe celebrations and remembrances last week.
As we discuss the bill concerning pension reform we should keep in mind that the average age of those involved is 74 years. That means that the motivation for the government to proceed with this bill now is to try to speed up the process.
When we want to find out how things affect veterans in our country it makes sense to go to the Royal Canadian Legion. As everyone knows, the Royal Canadian Legion by and large speaks for veterans. To some degree it is supportive of the bill. Its concern has to do with four basic facts. It wants to see that these four basic principles in the adjudication of pension disputes are met.
First, it wants to preserve the benefits and services provided to veterans. That goes without saying. It does not want to see this reduced in any way.
Second, there is a need to protect the benefit of the doubt provision. If the bureau of pensions is to err on one side or the other then it would err for the benefit of the applicant.
The third principle is to ensure an independence of advocacy and adjudication. Members should keep that in mind.
The fourth principle is to achieve the necessary speed and generosity to ensure that pensions and other benefits are received by the veterans when they are entitled to them.
The Royal Canadian Legion believes these four basic principles should be upheld by the bureau of pensions. Further it has two basic problems with the bill. They are the levels of expertise to be afforded the applicant at the first application level under the new system and the need to maintain continuity of process between the first application and any subsequent review or appeal.
Members may know, but many people watching may not be aware, that when a veteran appeals for a pension it is a two-step process. If the pension is applied for and granted, that is the end of it. However only 30 per cent of veterans who apply receive a pension after the first round. Therefore, most of them go to appeal.
When veterans are talking about the continuity of process, they are saying it makes sense for their advocates at the first level to also be their advocates at the second level at appeal.
It is interesting that of the 70 per cent who are rejected at first application and go on to appeal, fully 80 per cent of applications appealed are granted. That would be the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, the vast majority who apply for a veterans pension get it. Keep in mind that they are 74 years of age.
If we follow the logic of the whole process as I have described it, a veteran, whose average age is 74, requests a pension. Thirty per cent receive it and 70 per cent do not. Of those who do not receive it and appeal, 80 per cent end up winning their appeal. A lot of those would be based on the benefit of the doubt provision which is one of the four principles the Royal Canadian Legion particularly would like to have.
Another principle the Royal Canadian Legion has identified is the importance of an independent adjudicator. That is the Achilles' heel of the legislation.
The government has stated a number of times that the goal of the legislation is to speed up the time it takes a veteran to get a
disability pension without the veteran losing any of the rights the veteran currently possesses. That is a very laudable objective. However, we have identified a serious deficiency in the bill.
The disagreement centres on whether the bureau of pension advocates should remain an independent body at the disposal of veterans at the first level or whether it should be made part of the department reserved for appeal level only. If 30 per cent of the applicants get their pension and on appeal 80 per cent win, why are we not making the gates a little wider at the beginning?
A number of arguments were made in the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs and in the House in this regard and they have been reviewed extensively. After consideration I have concluded that the bureau of pension advocates should remain an independent body at the exclusive disposal of the veterans. Why? I fail to see how removing the bureau from the first level will save any time in the current system. The only way to speed up the system is to ensure that more applications are accepted at the first level.
If 80 per cent of the appeals are granted, why not grant more of them at the first level? These applications must be well prepared in the future because the department currently rejects 70 per cent but goes on to accept 80 per cent on appeal. The typical time it takes for a lawyer to prepare an application is two to three months, a modest period of time to prepare a case when the veteran is forced to battle the department to receive a disability pension. The remaining delays at the first level, which can take up to a year and a half, are the responsibility of the department.
The problem is not with the veteran or with the lawyer who prepares the application, the problem is with the department. Much of that was identified earlier by my colleague who went through a step by step process of showing how the application goes from Ottawa, gets copied and then ends up in Prince Edward Island because the former government decided to put the bureau in Prince Edward Island.
Ironically, the government feels that removing the bureau from the first level will speed up the system because it will focus on appeals only. Under the legislation the government intends to have departmental clerks assist the veteran in filling out the first level application. That is a potential problem which the Royal Canadian Legion identified because it is the skill and the proficiency with which the first application is completed that will determine its acceptance.
The first level decision would then be adjudicated within the department. It could be true that the first level decision would be faster, but would the acceptance rate be higher than the existing norm of 30 per cent? Given the department's past record of rejecting 70 per cent of first level applications, I doubt it. If the veteran then has to appeal the case he has to go to a bureau lawyer who would work directly for the department.
The current system is that an outside, independent lawyer who is acting on behalf of the veteran, makes the application and then follows through with the appeal. Under the new system a departmental clerk will complete the application and only if the application is refused would the lawyer go to work to prepare an appeal for the applicant, which would take a further two to three months. The veterans say that streamlining of the whole process is in large measure due to how well the first application is put together.
If the government intends to focus all of the bureau's resources at the appeal level, then it is obvious that the first level acceptance rate will not increase. The majority of veterans will still have to wait years to get their disability pensions, and we must remember that their average age is 74 years.
If the process is to be speeded up the first level acceptance rate must be increased so that there will be fewer appeals. The way to accomplish this is twofold. First, have the first level application expertly completed by a bureau lawyer so that the veteran's case is solid. Second, the department should consider the success rate for past appeals, which is 80 per cent, and use the benefit of the doubt provision more liberally to increase first level acceptance. This two-track approach would substantially speed up the system and serve best the interests of the veterans. I know that it is serving the interests of the veterans that all members of this House and indeed all Canadians are firmly committed to achieving.
While the intent in this bill is certainly a step in the right direction, as with much legislation that comes before this House there are certain aspects of it that could be substantially improved. I draw again on the suggestions made by the Royal Canadian Legion that the four paramount underpinnings of the foundation of the veterans' appeal must be to preserve and protect the benefits and services provided to the veterans of Canada; to protect the benefit of the doubt provision; to ensure an independent advocate; and to achieve the necessary speed and generosity to ensure that our veterans, whose average age is 74 years, are honestly and fairly dealt with.