Mr. Chair, I am extremely pleased to be here tonight. I will be posing a question to the minister in a moment, but first I would like to talk about a passion. I have spent at least 10 years working very hard on some issues. In particular I along with my colleagues have worked hard on issues involving children and seniors, and for very good reasons.
There are nearly one million single seniors in the country. Most of them are women who are living in poverty. That is why the government, with the aggressive work of the women's caucus, a social policy caucus which I chair, and my colleagues have worked very hard to make sure that we have proper programs for seniors. The budget includes, as the minister just mentioned, increasing the guaranteed income supplement by $2.7 billion, doubling the caregiver program, the new horizons program, which is absolutely fantastic, as well as establishing the secretariat to make sure that programming and dialoguing with seniors is not a one time thing but is a long term commitment on the part of our government. This is extremely important for seniors in my riding and in the rest of the country.
My colleagues and I have also worked very hard on the children's agenda. I have always believed that investing in children and families remains one of the best ways to enhance the social economic fabric of the country. For me it is an economic policy, not just a social policy. Eight MPs, of which I was one, pushed and fought for close to a year to get the Canada child tax benefit and national child benefit supplement for low income families started. In 1996 we did that work. The government started investing in children and today it helps more than 3.5 million families defray the cost of raising their children. By 2007 investments through these initiatives is projected to reach $10 billion. This is where I think we make a great difference in the lives of families.
In 2000 maternity and parental benefits through the employment insurance program were extended to provide replacement income for up to a year while a new parent stays at home with their newborn or newly adopted child. These benefits go a long way to help parents balance the demands of work and family life. In 2003, 86.4% of women with insurable earnings and with children under 12 months of age received maternity and/or parental benefits. The number of parental claims established by men also continued to increase although at a slower rate than when the enhancements were first introduced. About 11% of men claimed or intended to claim parental benefits. This is an inclusive program and it is very important.
The Canada pension plan also has a provision to ensure parents who take time out from full time work to raise their young children do not experience reduced pensions later in life. This is very important for mothers and fathers who wish to stay at home with their children and are able to continue and do not have to give up their own financial security for when they retire.
In addition, the government has introduced targeted measures for children with disabilities and their families, including the new child disability benefit and other tax based initiatives. These are helping families with the additional costs associated with raising a child with disabilities.
Through joint initiatives with the provinces and territories, the government is also helping to improve and expand our range of early childhood development programs. The understanding the early years initiative will expand to at least 100 more communities across Canada. Through it the government is helping provide communities with the information they need to ensure that children are ready to learn when they start school. There is nothing more valuable than investing in our children. There is nothing more valuable than ensuring that not just those children who have money, who have parents at home, but all parents have a choice and their children are able to start learning early. We are talking about early education, not about child minding, which people sometimes confuse.
Early learning and child care is extremely important, yet for all of this valuable support from the Government of Canada, gaps remain. We know that. In particular most families still do not have access to the kind of quality early learning and child care programs that can help set their young children on the path to success. This we know is a fact, as we know that nearly 70% to 80% of parents in our society work.
It is crucial that Canada do more. Research clearly indicates that access to quality early learning programs contributes significantly to the healthy development of young children. It also affects the ability of many parents to participate in the labour force. This is important because the great majority of families with low income, lone parents, persons with disabilities, et cetera, are families with only one income. Living in poverty of course has a huge effect on a child's development.
Further, even children who are cared for primarily by a parent at home can benefit from taking part in nursery school or preschool programs for a few hours each week. We have seen this with the early years programs. A lot of parents who are at home in fact do bring their children to these programs. However, there are not enough spaces for these children. Even those who can afford to pay full fees cannot find suitable child care arrangements.
Seven out of ten children under the age of six live in a household where both parents or their lone parent are in the workforce or in school. Yet only one in five child care spaces in our country is regulated. One out of five is not good enough. It is absolutely not good enough. Moreover, programs are too expensive for many parents and the quality varies dramatically across and within provinces and territories.
The government has moved to address these concerns through the multilateral framework of early learning and child care established in 2003. The Government of Canada is transferring more than $1 billion over five years to provinces and territories. Budget 2005 confirmed ongoing funding for this initiative at $350 million per year.
These investments are already making an impact. They are improving early learning and support for children across the country.
Budget 2005 also confirmed the Government of Canada's commitment to invest an additional $5 billion over five years for a new national initiative to accelerate the development of an early learning and child care system in every province and territory in the country. This is an early learning and child care system based on the QUAD principles: quality, universally inclusive, accessible and developmental.
The Government of Canada is now working with each province and territory to help with bilateral agreements in principle. These agreements will set out the overarching national vision, principles and goals for early learning and child care; clear and measurable objectives; funding levels and eligible areas for investment; strong accountability through public reporting; a commitment to collaborate with each other on knowledge, information and best practices; and a provincial and territorial commitment to develop an action plan for the period of federal funding in consultation with citizens and stakeholders.
This is extremely important. This is what Canadians have been asking for for decades. This is what the activists and the women and mothers and fathers out there have been asking for: accountability, quality, regulated, accessible, affordable. These are the things that matter to families. It is extremely important. I am proud that this is what is in our budget and that this is our plan.
At this point I want to ask the minister one question. I think the importance of this program to me is extremely clear. There are some members in the House who still seem to have doubts as to how important this program is.
I would like to ask the minister, how will the Government of Canada ensure flexibility and choice within a national framework for early learning and child care so that Canadian families can give their children the best possible start in life?
Choice is important. We have heard that tonight. I believe that our proposal and our program will in fact offer that. I would appreciate it very much if the minister would address that.