Mr. Speaker, it is indeed a privilege to address the House with regard to Bill C-67 on third reading of the Veterans Appeal and Review Board Act.
In the last few days our attention has been focused on the men and women who served our country so valiantly 50 years ago, men and women who left family and friends to fight for freedom, democracy, and peace. As I and thousands and perhaps millions of other Canadians witnessed the V-E Day celebrations here in Ottawa and on television from Europe last week, it evoked emotions of pride for this country and respect for all
those who served here and abroad. While we have honoured these veterans through pomp and ceremony, we have failed in many cases to provide them with the compensation that is due them.
I want to briefly refer to a couple of incidents that happened in my riding. First, there was a huge air show in the city of Lloydminster last week where we were able to show off both military and domestic planes in a huge air show. It was a success. The Snowbirds were involved. Of course they are based at the Moose Jaw airbase. They were very well received.
A couple of days later there was another event in my riding. It too occurred in the city of Lloydminster. It was sponsored by the Kinsmen and the Kinnettes. It was a raising of the flag ceremony. It was truly an honour for myself as well the mayor of Lloydminster and one of the MLAs from the area to be involved in the ceremony where annually they raise the flag and we reflect on our country and the democracy we enjoy and remember those who paid a heavy price for the democracy that we enjoy. There was a colour guard there and cadets present, as well as the Kinsmen and the Kinnettes and dignitaries.
Following the raising of the Canadian flag and following the ceremonies I had an opportunity to meet with a couple of veterans. They were two brothers from the area who had just returned from the Netherlands and the celebrations over there. We were able to talk with them about their own experiences, first of all on the advancement into Europe when the liberation took place and then the recent trip over there. They expressed real emotion about the warm greetings and the warm reception they received from the people of Holland for the efforts they had been involved in 50 years before.
As I spoke to one of these veterans, one of these brothers, he said he had not been able to stay the full time. He had not been involved in the entire liberation, he said, because he got hit a few times. He pointed to his left hip and said "I got hit here first and then a little while later I got hit in this hip, and then finally they got me a little higher up, in the arm and the chest. After that they decided they had better send me home."
When we think of the commitment to democracy and we think of the commitment to Canada and what we stand for that was displayed by these veterans 50 years ago, it really humbles us who have not experienced the sacrifice and hardship that they did. It elevates in our minds the value of our veterans for their dedication and for their service to our country, and not only our country but democracy around the world.
Just a few minutes ago we also listened to the member for Nanaimo-Cowichan as he also described some of the horrors of war both past and fairly recently, including the gulf war and the gulf war syndrome.
We realize that war is a terrible thing and that people are involved in it not because they enjoy it but because they feel a sense of duty and want to be involved for the pursuit of peace and democracy.
We realize once again that we do owe them more than just a thank you for a job well done. We need to come through with more than just kind words and phrases, but with actions and deeds as well. That is why it is a privilege for me to speak to Bill C-67, the bill that deals with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act.
The government has stated in this House a number of times that the goal of this legislation is to speed up the time it takes veterans to get their disability pensions without the veterans losing any of the rights they currently possess. This too is the aim of the Reform Party. Yet we disagree with the means to this end.
One of the main points of 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 the appeal level only. A number of arguments have been made in the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs and in this House as well in this regard. They have been reviewed extensively by my colleagues in the Reform Party, my fellow MPs who sit in this part of the House. After careful consideration we have concluded that the Bureau of Pension Advocates should remain an independent body at the disposal of all veterans.
Let me explain. 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. These applications must be well prepared, because the department currently rejects 70 per cent of first applications but then goes on to accept 80 per cent of appeals at the second or third levels.
The typical time it takes for a bureau 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 do battle with 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. Ironically, the government feels that removing the bureau from the first level will speed up the system because they will now focus on appeals only.
Under this legislation, the government intends to have a department clerk assist the veterans in filling out their first level application. The first level decision will then be adjudicated within the department. It could be true the first level decision will be faster, but will the acceptance rate be greater than the current 30 per cent? Given the department's past record of
rejecting 70 per cent of first level applications, I doubt if this will change. We have no reason to believe that Bill C-67 will improve this situation.
If the veteran then has to appeal his case, he will have to go to a bureau lawyer who works for the department directly. This lawyer, who answers to the minister, must start to prepare the appellant's case from scratch, which will take months or years, because there is nothing in this bill that will speed up the appeal process, which currently takes up to three and a half years.
One gentleman who had served in the armed forces for a number of years waited approximately five years to receive a disability pension for military related injuries. This was after he had made several long trips for medical examinations for the appeal process and after he had written a number of letters to the department.
Veterans are becoming increasingly frustrated, frustrated to the point that many are unwilling to go through the lengthy appeal process. How many bureaucratic hoops must these veterans jump through to receive what they are legally entitled to?
If the government intends to focus all the bureau resources on the appeal level, it is obvious the first level acceptance rate will not increase. The majority of veterans will still have to wait years to get their disability pension. With an average age of veterans approaching 74, this is too little and too late.
I firmly believe that if the process is to be speeded up, the first level acceptance rate must be increased so there are few appeals. The way to accomplish this is twofold: first, have the first level application expertly filled out by a bureau lawyer so 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 clause more liberally to increase the first level acceptance rate. This two-track approach would substantially speed up the system and serve the best interests of all veterans.
The government in this piece of legislation has also proposed the merging of the Canadian Pension Commission and the Veterans Appeal Board. It has been implied that this amalgamation will streamline delivery and hence cut turnaround time for pensions in half and eliminate the backlog in two years. This is to be done without affecting veterans' benefits or appeal rights.
As this House knows, the Reform Party is in favour of streamlining government and eliminating bureaucratic entanglements. However, there must be some guarantee that the veterans will receive what they are entitled to in the shortest period of time. As I have already noted, only 30 per cent of veterans' claims are accepted by the Canada Pension Commission, whereas 80 per cent of the appeals heard by the Veterans Appeal Board are accepted. Why is there such a discrepancy in the rulings of the two commissions?
Currently the Canada Pension Commission has an independent policy from that of the Veterans Appeal Board to determine what constitutes a disability. With 70 per cent rejection of veterans' claims by the Canada Pension Commission, it is evidence that they have taken a more restrictive view of the assessment of disabilities than the Veterans Appeal Board.
What position will the new amalgamated board take? Will it take a more restrictive position, as that of the Canadian Pension Commission, or will it take a more liberal position, as that of the Veterans Appeal Board? A more restrictive position taken by the board will undoubtedly increase the number of second appeals and lengthen the average turnaround time. Therefore it is essential that if the two boards amalgamate they adopt the more liberal policy of the Veterans Appeal Board. Any other position would adversely affect veterans' rights and benefits.
In addition, there is some concern from veterans whether or not the proposed Veterans Review and Appeal Board will provide for a new and independent look at each of the levels or simply be a review and appeal process. Under the new board, commissioners may hear both reviews and appeals but not of the same case. The whole review and appeal process would lose its independent look. As a result, any appeal would essentially follow the department's stated policy and procedure. The checks and balances the two independent boards have provided would be lost. Further, there would be no reason for a veteran to appeal any decision made at the first level.
We have given our veterans medals. We have honoured them in ceremonies, and rightly so. We have given our veterans parades. However, we have failed to provide our veterans with adequate financial compensation for their faithful and loyal service to this country when it was due.
We in this House have a moral obligation to provide support to veterans in a reliable and timely manner. How else can we say thank you to those individuals who laid down their lives for us?