Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-50. This is a very important debate for the future of the support programs, including that for widows and widowers. Because there are more and more women in the Canadian Forces, there will be an increasing number of veterans' widowers who will be entitled to certain benefits.
The advantage of this bill was that it would make certain improvements to the existing program. That was the goal. Obviously, we all would have liked to see the improvements to the existing program made in the right order and with respect for all the people, all the women and men who become the widows and widowers of veterans. But this was not what happened.
For instance, there is a very specific program that provides support to veterans to give them help with housekeeping and grounds maintenance. It has been a much appreciated program, so much so that many requests were made by widows and widowers, because it was a time-limited program. The veterans who qualified for this program could have help with household tasks and grounds maintenance, and it would continue for one year after the death of the veteran.
Therefore, the majority of surviving spouses can receive this allowance under the veteran's independence program. The program goal is clear from the title. Its purpose was to provide veterans suffering from health problems due to war wounds, for example, with assistance so they could remain independent and continue to live at home and take care of their property. Those unable to do so were entitled to assistance under the veteran's independence program.
This program provided an allowance for housework. As a result, this meant someone could be hired to do the housework or yard work. This program took care of that. Under the old rules, once a veteran died, the surviving spouse could continue to receive this allowance for one year.
Obviously, if veterans were no longer able to do this work while still alive, it was quite logical to cut off this allowance one year after their death. The need was there, it was urgent while the veteran was alive and then, after one year, the need suddenly disappears.
There were long discussions, great debates and the program was amended. Everyone in the House wanted this program to be provided on a permanent basis. Therefore, when a veteran receiving this allowance died, the surviving spouse would be entitled to it for life. That was the objective.
Once again, when the regulatory changes were made, for purely budgetary reasons, one entire portion of the program for surviving spouses of veterans was shelved. A cut-off date was introduced. Surviving spouses of veterans who have died within a certain period of time could benefit from this program for life, and those no longer receiving this allowance would not be entitled to it.
All the complicated explanations from the minister or the Liberal members make no sense whatsoever.
A person either is or is not a veteran's widow. This bill and the regulations create two categories of widows.
Some will be entitled to the program for life, while others will not be entitled to it at all. Here, I am talking about those who are no longer entitled to it. Those who were subject to the previous legislation and received benefits for a year and complained, the widows who received nothing or lost this assistance after a year. They are the ones who put pressure on the government, explaining that the reason their spouse received benefits from this program was that they were unable to take care of their home.
The program's objective is to help veterans live independently. It is only normal that in our society, our veterans, those who fought for us and defended us, at least have their independence. That was the objective.
Several widows and widowers felt that the program was completely unacceptable. They wondered why they were getting benefits for only one year. The government, in its wisdom, has decided to study and analyze the program and say yes to all those who complained about it ending one year after the veteran's death.
The government says that, effective May 12, 2003, widows of veterans who were entitled to the program will receive benefits for life. However, people complained for 10 or 20 years, and said that the program was worthwhile and important. They used the program because they were unable to be independent at home. These are the people who managed to move this issue forward. Yet, because the government was short of funds, it decided to deny benefits to widows whose husbands had passed away before May 12, 2003. In fact it is May 12, 2002, because those who had been receiving benefits from the program since May 12, 2003 would continue to do so for life.
According to the figures available to us, benefits are being eliminated for 23,000 surviving spouses, mostly widows. Often these women are the ones who fought to obtain the program. They are the ones who led the battle to let the government know it made no sense to provide assistance for a year and then do away with the program. Loss of their husbands has meant the loss of their independence. They are often compelled to sell their homes because they cannot carry out housework and yard work. Yet the specific purpose of this program was to provide veterans and their spouses with peace of mind. That was the reality.
We agree with the new measure whereby, after the death of a veteran, his or her surviving spouse could go on living as before. We support the measure, but what we do not support is the regulations setting a cutoff date. It will, according to our estimate, make 23,000 widows ineligible for the program.
The minister has criticized members for stating in the House that certain people would no longer be on the list. He is the one who drew up this new list. It encompasses the surviving spouses of veterans effective May 12, 2003 or 2002, depending on the technical calculations.
He is the one who drew up the list, and some people will no longer have any entitlement. What is even more serious, I repeat, is that these are the people who fought for this program to be maintained, the people who have been trying for decades to get the government to understand the objective of the VIP program. Its purpose is precisely to allow veterans' families to remain in their homes in peace.
This is a serious matter. We will be told that care must be taken because of the money involved. I will spare hon. members a repeat of all the money the government has wasted. There has been plenty of media coverage, and plenty of reference in this House to all the scandals and overspending in all departments, not to mention the constant surplus, which they underestimate in order not to have any money left for the provinces. We are told that the surplus will not be more than $3 billion, yet in the end the figure is said to be $7 billion.
It is not true that there is no money. It is a matter of putting money in the right place. That is the reality. What the opposition wabts is simple. There is a good veterans independence program in place, and wives, widows and a number of widowers have been requesting for decades that it be maintained indefinitely so that veterans' widows and widowers can continue to enjoy the same quality of life they enjoyed when their spouse was with them.
I repeat that not all veterans were eligible for this program, only those who were unable to look after their housekeeping or groundkeeping for any number of reasons, be it health reasons, war injuries or what not.
Again, this is an indication that the Liberal government is not spending wisely. We could give a long list of examples of departmental expenditures. Departments could be told to start putting money in the right place. Compensation should be provided to these 23,000 widows and widowers. We in the Bloc Quebecois sincerely believe that this would be spending the taxpayers' money wisely.
This is the simple rationale we are trying to get across to the government. The bill contains many other measures to improve the situation of veterans, former POWs and others. In that respect, we agree. We are also pleased that there was broad consultation on this bill.
The only problem is that no one has ever held consultations saying that a cutoff date would be introduced for the veteran's independence program and that there would be two categories of surviving spouses: those who lost their spouse prior to May 12, 2003, and those who lost their spouse after that date.
It is wrong to say that it was discussed. The minister is saying that broad consultations were held. However, all the stakeholders challenge this. We cannot have two categories of surviving spouses. But that is what the government is doing today.
The minister can insist all he wants that he is trying to find solutions, but there are none. The only solution is for all the surviving spouses of veterans to be entitled to the veteran's independence program. That is the only solution. No other solution is possible. The minister wants discussions, but about what? Does he want to move back the date from May 12, 2003, to May 12, 2000, or 1990?
There are no other solutions. The only solution is to put the money on the table to ensure that all the surviving spouses of veterans are entitled to this assistance program. That is the only possible answer.
The minister would have us believe that he is not hesitating, but he is. There is no other alternative. Thinking that an opposition member would rise in this place to set a new cutoff date or to exclude widows and widowers is wrong.
The solution is for the minister—that is what a responsible minister would do—to move an amendment to his own bill. He would have to admit that he made a glaring error in setting a cutoff date that creates two categories of widows and widowers of veterans, and to eliminate it. There is no way that this date should be maintained and that two categories of widows and widowers of veterans should be created.
That is all we are expecting from the Liberal government. At the end of the day, that is all we are expecting from all the Liberal members who will rise in this House to speak to Bill C-50. Do not tell us that efforts are being made to find a solution. We want to hear that the bill is fair to all widows and widowers of veterans.
That is the only outcome the opposition, and the Bloc Quebecois in particular, expects. Why? Because all widows and widowers of veterans are entitled to the same quality of life they enjoyed when their spouse was alive. It is as simple as that. It is a matter of quality of life and humanity, no more no less.
The problem is that the government side is not listening; it does not want to listen. Once again, the minister is trying to hide and to have us believe that he is not hesitating. He is boasting about being able to clearly communicate such a simple idea. The questions opposition members put to him all boiled down to this: Will you make money available so that all widows and widowers of veterans have access to the same program? That is what they were asking him.
The minister tried his best not to answer the question. The bottom line, as we know, is a budget issue. We are told that there is no money for these 23,000 widows and widowers who lost their wife or husband before May 12, 2003. That is the reality.
With the federal government surpluses, cost overruns, everything that happens in the public service, and the money the Liberal government has wasted, we do not believe there is no money for this. We believe it is simply a matter of the minister not wanting to spend that money. He habe better not try to make us believe that veterans and groups have sent him letters of thanks.
I would say that indeed, important provisions have been included in this bill. However, there is no reason for having two categories of spouses of deceased veterans.
We must be careful. We have to be able to talk about what is good in this bill, but also agree on what does not work in this bill.
The Liberal government must move calmly and gently. Moreover, all the Liberal members in this House should sit down with the Minister for Veterans Affairs and tell him that the money will have to be found and ask him to pressure the Minister of Finance to do so.
Before this bill is passed, he will be able to tell us that it will be amended and that we will guarantee all the spouses of deceased veterans that the veterans independence program will be maintained so that they can continue to enjoy the quality of life they had before their spouse's death.
That is all the Bloc Quebecois is asking for.