Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on the budget implementation act.
A budget was recently delivered and in that budget some of the key features and significant investments were in health care, families, research and development, learning and Canada's military, as well as tax reductions to encourage savings and investment, and new measures to make government spending more accountable.
The government presented a balanced budget for this year, the sixth consecutive balanced budget, and for the next two fiscal years as well. The budget would restore the full annual contingency reserve and economic prudence factors which have been part of our budgeting process since the government came into power in 1993.
The government recognizes the critical link between social and economic policy and continues its balanced approach to managing the nation's finances. This approach plays a critical role in building a Canada that all Canadians want.
It does that in three ways. First, by building a society Canadians value through investments in individual Canadians, their families and communities. Second, by building an economy that Canadians need by promoting productivity and innovation while staying fiscally prudent, which Canadians have also asked for. Finally it achieved the objectives of the budget by building the accountability that Canadians deserve by making government spending more transparent and accountable.
There are many provisions in the budget. I would like to address the Canada student loans program. I have three children. One has completed university, one is finishing off a master's degree at the University of Waterloo, and one is in the middle of her engineering program at Queen's University. I know very well how expensive it is to get an education in Canada, but I also know how important it is that our youth get the best education possible in the best interests of not only themselves but of Canada as a whole.
The government recognizes that skills development and lifelong learning are critical to the country's economic prosperity and to individual success. Between 1993 and 2001 the Canada student loans program assisted more than one and a half million full and part time students, an investment of approximately $11.4 billion. In the 2000-2001 fiscal year the Canada student loans program provided $1.57 billion in full and part time student loans at an average of $4,554 per full time student.
Building upon our throne speech of 2002, it was our commitment to ensure access to affordable post-secondary education. Therefore, we continue to strengthen the student loans program by providing an additional $60 million over two years in direct support to students.
The $60 million measures in the 2003 budget are expected to be implemented by August of this year. They include, first, putting more money in the hands of students by allowing them to keep a greater share of income earned during their studies. The exemptions for income earned while in school would be increased to $1,700 annually, being a maximum of $50 a week, from the previous level of only $600. Second, by extending access to interest relief, debt reduction, and repayment measures would help student borrowers experiencing hardship in their repayment. As a result of these measures, borrowers in difficult financial circumstances could have their student loan debt reduced by up to $20,000 over three years. Third, we would be broadening the access to the Canada student loans program to protected persons, including convention refugees.
These actions respond to the key concerns of stakeholders and provincial and territorial governments who are partners in the delivery of the Canada student loans program.
This investment, along with other recent budget announcements, shows our ongoing commitment to ensuring that Canadians have the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge, and contribute to Canada's prosperity.
In my remaining time I would like to comment on an aspect that is not included in the budget. For a number of years now I have taken the opportunity to inform myself about fetal alcohol syndrome. Some know it as FAS. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious problem because the maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy turns out to be the leading known cause of mental retardation in Canada. It is a very expensive proposition and in fact fetal alcohol syndrome takes away the potential of a human being starting from birth. This is a tragedy.
When I first became a member of Parliament in 1993, and health care was recognized as the most important issue to Canadians, I asked to be on the health committee. When I went to that committee I looked at the history and tried to see what the committee had been working on in the prior Parliament. One of the reports it had issued was called “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: The Preventable Tragedy”.
I am married and have three children. I am well educated and very involved with my community. I spent nine years on the board of directors of my hospital but I had never heard of fetal alcohol syndrome until I became a member of Parliament. I cannot imagine how it was possible that I did not know about FAS or fetal alcohol effects, which is a similar problem. I did not know the risks we were taking as parents during the time we were having children.
If I did not know, I was absolutely convinced that other Canadians did not know. Although many people will suggest that it is common sense to abstain from or reduce the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy, as well as drugs and smoking, the fact is that the majority of Canadians do not know that it is not simply a matter related to people who are alcoholics. Canadians do not know that one drink at the wrong time can affect the fetal heart rate.
Fetal alcohol syndrome has associated with it characteristic facial features. I have done a lot of work on the issue of children right from conception and the research tells me that the facial features of a human being are established between days 15 and 22 of pregnancy. Canadian women do not even know they are pregnant between days 15 and 22. Those facial features are established within a human being between days 15 and 22 of pregnancy. For a woman waiting to find out that she is pregnant, it is too late.
In all the work I have done I have found that most of the NGOs and the programs we have are suggesting to women that if they are pregnant they should abstain or reduce their consumption of alcohol before it is too late. I have tried to convey the message that we should be speaking about the facts on a single sheet right across the country to say that if pregnancy is possible, if a woman is in her birthing years, if she is sexually active and not using protection, she should abstain from alcohol then and not wait until she has determined she is pregnant. Only then can we totally eliminate the risk of damaging the unborn child.
Although we have had references to fetal alcohol syndrome in past throne speeches and some moneys have been appropriated for public education, in this budget we have had yet again a false start. We have not made the kind of progress we should be making on fetal alcohol syndrome. I regret that this budget does not appropriate specific money to address this most serious preventable tragedy. I want my colleagues to know that I will continue to do the best that I can to promote public education about fetal alcohol syndrome, the preventable tragedy.