Mr. Speaker, I move that the sixth report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, presented on Tuesday, December 4, 2001, be concurred in.
Mr. Speaker, in December and during all of last fall, we, at the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, were pleased to study, among other things, the issue of seniors.
For that study, the committee invited many people to speak to this issue in particular. There were discussions about the guaranteed income supplement.
We realized that a really scandalous situation had been going on for eight years across Canada and that about 270,000 Canadians were deprived from the GIS they were entitled to.
Out of these 270,000 Canadians, 68,000 live in Quebec. That is simple. When we talk about figures, we are always asked where they are coming from. Those figures were provided to the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities by the department itself. As for the figure of 68,000, we simply divided 270,000 by four since Quebecers account for about 25% of the Canadian population.
Who is entitled to the GIS? Those people who do not have enough income to have decent standard of living in their old age. The expression guaranteed income supplement says it all: it is a supplement provided to those who need it most.
We realized that, almost on purpose, the government and the department forgot about the poorest members of our society, the people who are eligible to this supplement, the people they do not look for or simply fail to find because they do not have the proper tools to do so.
Who is not missing out on the guaranteed income supplement? According to the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, whose members unanimously supported the report, and the expert witnesses we heard, these are usually the people who find themselves outside the mainstream society. They are almost always the poorest members of our society. Who are these people we are looking for? Let me list some of the target groups that the department should have tried harder to reach out to.
When we heard about this issue, the caucus of the Bloc Quebecois asked me, as the critic for seniors, to look into it. I was also asked to try to find people the Department of Human Resources Development could not reach.
I met with thousands of people at 27 meetings, press conferences and other get togethers with representatives of senior organizations in Quebec.
I realized not only that the report was not an exaggeration, but that the situation was even worse. When we go in the filed and talk to people, we realize that many more people than we thought are missing out on this program.
Who are the people that could not be reached? We have, for instance, the people who have never worked outside the home. As Yvon Deschamps, a stand-up comic from Quebec, once said, “They are the people who had too much work at home to work outside the home”.
Between 95% and 98% of these are stay at home mothers who worked hard to build our society and to make us what we are. At this late stage in their lives, they do not necessarily show up on any list of the Department of Human Resources Development to be entitled to the guaranteed income supplement. They are among the forgotten ones.
At the same time, when we try to determine who is affected by poverty in our society, we find, oddly enough, that elderly women are forgotten in the guaranteed income supplement program. These people do not file income tax returns.
During my visits, I asked them “Why do you not file an income tax return?” Someone told me, “I do not have a penny to declare. Why would I file a tax return?” Of course we have to explain to this person that it pays to do so, because it allows him or her to claim the guaranteed income supplement.
These people include aboriginal, residents of remote communities and people who do not have much of an education. In spite of the measures taken by the government to reach them, if these people can neither read nor write, if they are isolated, they have little chance of having access to the information provided by the government.
These are people who speak neither of the official languages, immigrants who have been here for a number of years and whose children have adjusted well. However, a number of these immigrants have continued to live in their own language and society. Therefore, they cannot be reached through advertising, or through the information that is provided.
These people also include disabled and sick persons. During my consultations and meetings, I met many people who were alone, sick and old. These people often no longer want to fight a system that does not help them. This group also includes, of course, the homeless.
These people, who are the poorest and who have the greatest needs, have been forgotten. Why? Because, instead of attracting them, the system excluded them. Just to obtain the guaranteed income supplement form, one must dial a telephone number and wait for hours to get service. It is true, we checked. The caller is asked to press key No. 1, 2 and 3. In the end, the poor person, who had to fight to get the information, just gives up.
After finally getting service, we are sent a form to fill out, but this form is out of proportion with the service provided by the government. So, these people give up again. The system is designed to forget the elderly and the poor, that is those who need this money the most.
The Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities came to the conclusion that the bureaucratic intricacies were part of the reasons why some of the most disadvantaged members of our society are forgotten almost on purpose.
I have just listed some facts that support this conclusion. Take for example the problems with telephone service; this is an automated service, and seniors do not get to speak to another human being. The telephone service is automated and the voice mailbox system is complex. There are also forms, which are complicated, and publicity that is obviously not working.
Incidentally, I have to admit that publicity is somewhat better now. It has improved, but it is still not very efficient. One liberal member was telling me the other day “I do not know where you find these people that we have forgotten. In my riding, we do a lot of publicity and the people who answer are not forgotten by the system”. Well, of course, when you look where there is nothing to be found, it is quite normal not to find anything.
We cannot rely only on radio, television and newspaper publicity. Publicity has to be done through word of mouth. It must rely on human contact. It must reach those who are difficult to reach for the reasons I gave earlier.
There are also administrative excesses. I have filled forms all my life. When I see the forms sent to the poor people who are often also disadvantaged on the instruction level, people who are alone and often disheartened by the system, these forms are so complicated that it is tantamount to excluding these people from the system on purpose.
There is also conflict of interest. I think that this has played a large role. For eight years now, the government has boosted its fund with $3.2 billion taken from the poorest members of society; $3.2 billion which should have gone to those most in need, to those whose income does not even top $12,648 annually if they are single, and $16,640 if they are living as a couple, whom the government has failed to locate.
The government has saved $3.2 billion on the backs of these disadvantaged citizens. In Quebec alone, some $800 million, close to $1 billion, has been saved and is in the government's coffers. This has helped to wipe out the deficit. All it did was further swell the EI fund which we so often speak about. There is $45 billion in the EI fund, which also belongs to workers, who are certainly not among the richest members of society.
This has gone into the fund, not just to eliminate the deficit, but also to pay down the debt. This debt is not something seniors and the disadvantaged owe. It is wrong to claim that these people must pay down the debt, when they barely have enough for a comfortable old age.
What we discovered was an unspeakable scandal. In every region of Quebec I visited, and even outside Quebec, since I went to Vancouver, I spoke about this issue. It is a scandal.
What makes it worse, Mr. Speaker, is that if the government discovers after the fact that people owe it money, it can collect it for five years back. If an investigation finds that you are at fault, there is full retroactivity.
In the case before us, in Quebec, I found seniors who were owed large amounts, because the information had not been provided, because it had been badly targeted, and because the government was at fault. In Quebec, I found cases where the government owes seniors up to $90,000. In Rimouski, I found someone to whom the government owes $4,000 a year. Similar cases are being found throughout Quebec.
Do you know what kind of answer we get? When we told the government that it owed money to seniors, that we had proof of this, the government told us that the retroactivity was for 11 months. It is keeping money that does not belong to it, that belongs to the poorest members of society. When these people, after going through a terrible hassle, finally get the necessary information, they are told that there is only 11 months of retroactivity.
This is unacceptable. This was also the conclusion of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. It is unacceptable to behave this way when dealing with the poorest members of society, those who helped build this country, people to whom we owe so much more than money, to whom we owe recognition and respect. It is unacceptable for them to end up in this type of situation.
The Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities made proposals to the government. We asked the government to simplify the registration procedure, for instance. It is ridiculous that there is such a complicated process to ask for that which one deserves. It makes no sense to use such complicated forms for people who are poor and often worn down by life. When people reach 70, 72, 75 or 80 years of age, they are often tired, sick or depressed, and they do not feel like fighting. When they have to fight against a system that denies them what they deserve, it is depressing.
The Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities also reached the conclusion that retroactivity must go back five years. Retroactivity must be full and total. The government must adopt the same measures when paying out money owed to the poor as they use when collecting the money it is owed.
When I owe income tax to the government, it can go back five, eight or ten years. If I am responsible, I must pay a penalty, and interest on the amount. It makes no sense that when the same thing happens in reverse, to the poorest members of society, when a lady from Sherbrooke realizes that the government owes her $90,000 in guaranteed income supplement, the government says to her “We will only give you 11 months of retroactive benefits”. Yet, if the opposite were to happen, that person would be required to reimburse the government $90,000 in addition to a penalty and interests.
I believe the committee has reached the conclusion that the government must improve the way it is doing things. It must change its procedures. The system must be made as automatic as possible. It makes no sense that a person in need of the guaranteed income supplement must reapply yearly. Everything in possible is being done to exclude people, whereas if they were honest, they would be doing everything possible to include them, if only out of respect for those who built this country.
My colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois and myself will do our utmost to see that this matter is finally settled and that more honest methods are adopted. It is not a matter of charity, but merely of honesty to those in our society who are the least well off.
What would you or I do with $12, 648 a year? If a person has less than that, and is entitled to the GIS but no effort is made to get that money to them, their situation almost defies description.
I have introduced a private member's bill in order to force the government to change its way of doing things and to apply the same approach and the same retroactive period as it does when it owes taxpayers money. It is not true that seniors are responsible for going after the money they are owed. When the government owes them money, it has to pay it back. It will have to show some basic honesty.