Mr. Speaker, this morning I hope that we will have as much co-operation as we gave the government regarding the issue it raised a few minutes ago, so that my motion will be adopted. The motion reads as follows:
That the Seventh Report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, presented on Thursday, March 21, 2002, be concurred in.
It must be pointed out that this is a unanimous report tabled by the committee following numerous complaints about the government's interpretation of the eligibility criteria for the disability tax credit.
As I said before being interrupted, all hon. members have had constituents come to their riding offices to tell them that they themselves, or a relative or a friend, had been wronged by Revenue Canada's very restrictive interpretation of the disability tax credit.
Worse yet, we realized that the federal government had indeed decided on retroactivity for the 100,000 plus individuals whose tax credit applications had been approved prior to 1996. The decision was made to backtrack in order to see that they were really entitled to the tax credit.
Looking at the double standard we see today, we want the federal government to get back the money paid out under unacceptable conditions to sponsorship agencies, a subject we are forced to keep bringing up in oral question period, while at the same time the federal government is trying to get money back from persons with disabilities who had been eligible for the tax credit. Now they are being asked to again prove their eligibility.
This has triggered a uproar among the committee members and MPs in general. Among the condemnations in the unanimous report was the following:
This unacceptable lack of action seems to be endemic among those who administer the tax system.
The subcommittee was so alarmed by the consequences of the re-examination of eligibility for this group, that is pre-1996, that it wrote to the national revenue minister and organized a press conference in December. At that time, the desired results were not forthcoming.
The committee decided to carry out a more thorough study of the entire situation and a series of unanimous committee recommendations were formulated. Finally, MPs realized that application of the tax credit as currently set out in the law was far too restrictive and had negative consequences. It lacked the minimal sensitivity there should be in this House for those who are less fortunate than ourselves and are experiencing difficult situations.
There are aberrant situations in which a person wishing to prove eligibility has to be totally bedridden to prove he or she is mobility impaired. That person must not be able to get around at all or to work in any way. This is far more restrictive than the similar credit available from the Government of Quebec, which has a far broader interpretation.
Last week, the member for Dartmouth moved a motion similar to mine. However, I thought it was relevant this morning to come back to this issue, because the report that was tabled on March 21, 2002 was unanimous.
Since that time, the government has had ample time to study the report, and today they have the opportunity of debating it with us. I hope that this debate will take place, and that the government will not call orders of the day.
As the end of the session approaches, a modicum of decency must be respected; a compassionate gesture would be to allow the report to be adopted, in order to reassess and reconsider the whole issue of the disability tax credit, so that the recommendations made by the committee could be implemented as soon as possible.
During this debate, if the government decides to evaluate and to debate each of the recommendations, rather than coming back to orders of the day, why not debate this today? Let us assess each of the recommendations; let us look at which ones the government agrees to and which ones satisfy the opposition parties.
However, let us not forget that these recommendations are the unanimous result of the work done by the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. So, members of the majority government did take part and give their approval. If there was a debate on this, they would have the opportunity to express themselves freely.
It is often said that there should be more free votes in the House, that members should have the opportunity to be more autonomous, without always having to toe the party line. The government has a wonderful opportunity here, to put this issue on the table and to allow members to speak to it.
I want to quickly read some of the recommendations. For example, the committee recommended:
—that the CCRA send a letter to every individual who received the letter dated 19 October 2001 requesting DTC recertification. This correspondence should apologize for the tone of the letter and provide a complete explanation as to why the CCRA requested recertification.
Indeed the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency showed a total lack of sensitivity. It dealt with disabled persons the way it would have done with a company guilty of tax evasion. This letter treated them more or less as if they were asking for an investment tax credit, but these are human beings, they are people who find themselves in difficult situations. Then there are those who are responsible for ensuring adequate living conditions to these disabled people. It is essential that this gesture be made.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and the committee has made many other recommendations. Among others, it recommended:
—that all individuals who obtain recertification as a result of the October 19 letter be compensated upon the production of a receipt for any costs incurred in obtaining the services of a qualified person to complete the appropriate form or for providing ... any supplementary information.
In other words, the federal government must pay for the mess that it created when it launched this operation, which I would call dehumanizing. These are often questions of law, and the people who tried to stand up to the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency regarding the interpretation of tax credits are very aware of what we are talking about.
Companies have legal advisors, and some people can afford legal advisers, lawyers or notaries to defend them, but it is unacceptable that the government would suddenly tell disabled people who have been getting the tax credit for years “We may have made a mistake during those years when we gave you this credit; we want to reconsider this issue”. If costs were incurred following this action by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, then these people should be compensated.
The second recommendation reads as follows:
The Committee recommends that no new requests for recertification be sent to individuals who have claimed the DTC in whole or in part during the period 1986 to 1996 until the form is redesigned.
In other words, we do not want the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency to do through the back door what it is not allowed to do through the front door, that is, we do not want it to continue to harass people, to have new demands on people with disabilities until the form has been changed.
It also says:
The Committee recommends that the government--
(a) Add “breathing” to the list of basic activities of daily living--
The interpretation made by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency is word for word: the law is the law, the regulations are the regulations. If we want to get correct interpretations, we must be able to change the law in an acceptable manner.
So there is a series of recommendations to bring some oxygen into the interpretation of the disability tax credit and thus ensure that we have an interpretation of the tax credit rule that better reflects the reality.
For example, the committee makes the following recommendation:
--reword subparagraphs in order to better reflect the everyday situations of individuals with severe speaking and hearing impairments.
As the legislation on the tax credit is currently interpreted, this causes a problem, because the interpretation is too restrictive.
The committee also calls for the following:
(d) Add “registered nurse” to the list of qualified persons for those residing in a remote part of Canada where access to other medical professionals, especially a medical doctor, is extremely limited.
Several members represent people living in remote rural areas where one has far to go to find a doctor. Currently, they are given very administrative and bureaucratic answers, such as “Medical opinion is required”. Often, to go and get this opinion, the person must incur very substantial expenses. Moreover, when people are severely disabled, it is very complicated for them to go and see their doctor.
This kind of recommendation, especially this one, shows that committee members were interested in seeing a more humane approach to the interpretation of this tax credit.
As parliament prepares to rise for the summer tomorrow, this would be a very appropriate time for the government to approve the committee's report so that the recommendations could be implemented.
We do not necessarily need to adopt each small detail of the report today. But if the report is concurred in, this will force the government to take another step forward and incorporate the recommendations into the legislation. This would be desirable for everyone.
One of the recommendations is as follows, and I quote:
The Committee recommends that the CCRA and the Department of Finance take immediate steps to consult widely to develop amendments to the Income Tax Act, a better DTC application process and application form. This consultation should include representatives of organizations concerned with various types of disability, representatives of professional groups of medical practitioners qualified to certify eligibility for the DTC, and the Office for Disability Issues.
It goes on:
The consultation exercise should pay particular attention to the need to develop eligibility criteria and an application form that treat mental illness, and cognitive disabilities in an appropriate manner. The CCRA and the Department of Finance should submit a written report to this Standing Committee about the nature and results of its consultative process by 1 December 2002.
There are some parallels here with seniors and the guaranteed income supplement. The attitude of this government's bureaucracy has to change. The standard approach should not be to save as much as possible and give out as little information as possible, with the result that we end up with restrictions not because of what is in the legislation but because of how it is interpreted.
We think that this attitude has to change. It must be changed with respect to the guaranteed income supplement. The repeated requests from members on this topic have started to produce results. We need to do the same thing for the disabled.
Furthermore, seniors who need the guaranteed income supplement can very often also be affected by the disability tax credit.
The committee also recommended, and I quote:
—that beginning with the tax year 2002, the government pay the cost for the services of a medical practitioner who provides the CCRA with any additional information beyond completing the basic form—
In other words, if Revenue Canada needs additional information, it must be the one to pay for it, not the disabled person. This is a recommendation in the same spirit and following along the same logic, and is of great interest.
It goes on:
This includes any charge for providing CCRA with supplementary information about an individual’s DTC recertification or a medical appraisal for the purpose of appealing the denial of a DTC claim. For greater clarity, applicants or appellants would not be able to claim these costs for providing any additional information beyond a completed Form T2201 until their DTC claim is approved.
This is, therefore, a measure which would make it possible to improve the situation and would, as I have said, bring some oxygen into the system, as well as some respect at last for our disabled citizens.
Ours is a society that can afford to give them more equitable treatment. Former Quebec premier René Lévesque said that a society should be judged by the way it treats its least advantaged members.
At this time, the federal government has most certainly not earned a passing grade. It is behaving instead like someone who is protecting those members of society who are already well organized, who is protecting its friends. On the other hand, when it comes to individuals, people who are not necessarily organized collectively, it is far more difficult.
In this connection, the government ought to heed the message issued by us MPs—whose job it is to represent these people—which is part of the report. The report should be concurred in to ensure that the government follows up on it.
As another indication of the direction taken by the recommendations, I will quote again as follows:
The Committee recommends that the CCRA put in place an information and education strategy and campaign for the 2002 tax year. Prepared in co-operation with the disability community and medical practitioners, this information strategy should:
(a) Educate the general public about the purpose, nature and provisions of the Disability Tax Credit;
(b) Provide information to assist persons qualified to certify individuals’ eligibility for the DTC (particularly those dealing with mental, psychiatric and learning disabilities) to understand the nature of the certification process and the nature of the information required for certification.
In other words, we want the process to become transparent and public, not the purview of specialists who can take advantage of the situation, particularly in the case of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency with its very restrictive interpretation, and who can indulge in interminable legal wrangling, where the only ones who win are the bureaucrats, on the one hand, by justifying their jobs, and the specialists, on the other hand, who are able to make a pretty penny off it.
I believe that we have an opportunity here to open the process up, to ensure that decisions are much simpler and more transparent, and also to lessen the need for specialists. This could be done by treating those who apply for the tax credit as though they were eligible for the credit, and not as though they were trying to defraud the system.
Obviously, this does not mean there would not be any controls. Things must still be done properly. However, instead of greeting people with a closed door, the door would be cracked open, to allow people to benefit from these tax credits, which are not overly generous.
We are not talking about something that will allow people to get rich here. This is something that often provides a minimal service to persons with disabilities, and often these are severe disabilities. The money provided by the tax credit is truly used to meet their basic needs, to help them and their family.
The report on this is very convincing and well written. I think that we must congratulate all of the committee members who worked on this report and who drafted the recommendations along these lines. With reports such as this, we can tell voters—who often have a negative impression of politicians—that members of the House are able to work in the best interests of the public, the interests of the most needy in society.
Now that we have a unanimous report, even though in other circumstances, for example with regard to the employment insurance issue, the committee's recommendations fell on deaf ears, I think that in this case the need is even greater for the government to agree to review the situation. I hope we will not have to wait for the next throne speech to get a bill that will come into effect once it has been passed. In the meantime, for a year or two, people will have been gone after and somewhat harassed by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, and their case will not be settled retroactively. We feel such situations are unacceptable and should be corrected.
All in all, this is an excellent report, an indepth review of the issue that led to unanimous recommendations; it showed a willingness to treat persons with disabilities in a humane fashion, to give them a well deserved chance as far as tax law interpretation is concerned.
I therefore ask the House that this report be concurred inm so that we can get the government to make the appropriate decisions, in order to correct this anomaly, which is penalizing disadvantaged people so heavily.