Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to address Bill C-55, an act to establish the wage earner protection program act and also to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act and make consequential amendments to other acts.
This is very complicated but important legislation. I am pleased to say that my Conservative colleagues have shown a great interest in the bill. A number of them will be speaking to the various aspects of it and the amendments. We will be proposing amendments at committee stage on this bill which we think will improve the bill.
It is appropriate, and the minister mentioned this, that we should recognize the member for Winnipeg Centre who raised this issue in a private member's bill. It should be noted that he brought the issue to Parliament's attention. Our party certainly appreciated his efforts in this area. We did have some disagreements, but our response, I thought, was very responsible.
We formed an internal committee under the leadership of our labour critic to try to formulate our party position on the issue even prior to the government bill being introduced. We wanted to be ready as a party to debate this issue substantively. Today I would like to offer our party's position on this legislation, but obviously other Conservative members will expand the comments in other areas.
Our view is that Bill C-55 is a good first step. We recognize that both the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act need to be amended.
It is a sad fact that every week dozens of companies and individuals declare bankruptcy in this country. We need to make sure that we amend our bankruptcy legislation so that it is clear and workable. Some 11,000 businesses and 100,000 individuals use the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act on an annual basis. Therefore, I support making changes to both acts.
One particular proposal I support is that bankrupt individuals with more than $200,000 in personal income tax debt representing 75% or more of their total unsecured liabilities will not be eligible for an automatic discharge.
I am also pleased that we are trying to bring our bankruptcy laws in line with international insolvency laws. That being said, there are some problems with Bill C-55 that we will be seeking to remedy at committee. I have made some efforts to be in touch with various associations, organizations, labour groups and people in the private sector who are anxious to make representations on the bill. Hopefully they will all be able to do so at committee.
We will seek to clarify some issues because the legislation is rather complicated, particularly on the bankruptcy side.
The first issue I want to touch upon is wage earner protection. I want to be clear that prior to this legislation our party fully supported, as we do now, the payment of unpaid wages in a quick manner.
Bill C-55 will compensate individuals for amounts earned but not paid during the six months preceding the bankruptcy or receivership of their employer. The wage earner protection program will be funded by the consolidated revenue fund, which is essentially the taxpayers of Canada. Payments of up to $3,000 will be made to employees. I support the expedited payments to workers who are caught in bankruptcy proceedings. It is an appropriate amount of income to be paid in these situations.
Our party does have some concerns with the proposed change in the rank of creditors. Though it may sound strange, good national and provincial bankruptcy and insolvency laws improve the investment environment. Investors gain confidence knowing that should something go wrong, a stable system is in place to protect what is left of their assets.
With that in mind, wages are currently paid fifth after secured creditors and other preferred creditors. I am concerned that elevating wages above secured creditors may lead to increased financing costs for small business owners and therefore fewer investments. While I support the wage earner protection program, I do not believe that the rank should be changed from fifth to third or to a limited superpriority status. I want to be clear on this. We are not opposing payments to the workers. That should be done and it is something that our party supports.
Our party is concerned that once the government pays the worker, the government then takes a position and its position as a creditor is what has changed from fifth to third. Our concern is that this may impact the investment climate, particularly for small and medium size businesses that are attempting to access capital. I believe my colleague from Edmonton addressed that in a question to the minister.
We look forward to input from the Canadian Federation for Independent Business. I know it is concerned about this specific issue. In an attempt to address an imbalance in a system for workers for a small amount of income, we should not in remedying that injustice cause an injustice to small business owners who are creating an awful lot of jobs across this country.
We think it could be left in fifth place where it is currently. To be clear, the worker would be paid but the government would take fifth place and therefore not upset the investment climate for small and medium size businesses. My colleague from Souris—Moose Mountain will be addressing the wage earner protection program in his speech in great detail.
What I want to touch on next is the whole issue of RRSPs. Under the current laws if people go bankrupt, the trustee will seize their RRSPs. Bill C-55 will make RRSPs exempt from seizure with a few exceptions. For instance, contributions made in the 12 months prior to bankruptcy will not be exempt.
RRSPs have become a contentious issue. For example, the province of Saskatchewan exempts RRSPs entirely in bankruptcy proceedings. One of the issues we will need to address at the committee stage is whether or not there should be a cap on the dollar value of the RRSP. While pension plans can safely accumulate, RRSPs are still partly vulnerable and self-employed individuals could lose their investments and security upon bankruptcy.
This is something that was called for by investors and self-employed people who use RRSPs to build up their nest egg for retirement. We think it is a reasonable change to make, such that if people in their 40s or 50s have to declare bankruptcy, their entire nest egg will not be taken from them at that stage. Obviously the exception of the 12 months prior is to prevent someone from loading up his or her RRSP in the last few months and then declaring bankruptcy. This is a good change, especially for entrepreneurs who rely very heavily on RRSPs for their retirement years.
In addition, the bill is silent on registered education savings plans. This is an issue on which the Senate committee on banking made a recommendation in 2003 in its comprehensive report regarding bankruptcy and insolvency. I was remiss in not complimenting the report and the senators who worked on it, as well as the member from Winnipeg. The report was certainly instrumental in bringing forward a lot of the changes to the bankruptcy laws. The Conservative senators who worked on it did an absolutely outstanding job, in my view.
In addition, Bill C-55 makes changes to the treatment of student loans. Currently student loans are not discharged in a bankruptcy unless 10 years has passed since the applicant was a student. Bill C-55 reduces the period from 10 years to 7 years. In other words, the student loans of a person who goes bankrupt after having ceased being a full time or part time student for seven years will be automatically discharged. The Senate banking committee report which I referred to earlier recommended that there only be a five year wait before the discharge of student loans. I know the New Democratic Party would prefer the time period of two years.
The second issue regarding student loans is hardship. There is a provision to allow for the discharge of a student loan due to hardship. Bill C-55 allows a bankrupt person to apply to the court to obtain a discharge on the grounds of hardship five years after the person has ceased to be a full time or part time student. Five years in this case may be too long if we add in the additional issue of hardship, but that is certainly something the industry committee can look at more closely. It is a reality that all post-secondary education costs have risen since the Liberals have been in office.
While many individuals successfully finance their education and repay all their student loans on time, some Canadians are burdened by student loans to the point where they have difficulty providing for the basic necessities of life. Therefore, I think the so-called hardship clause should be examined in detail at committee.
Another issue that Bill C-55 raises is that of income trusts. This has become a very topical issue recently with the Minister of Finance, quite frankly in my view, making an absolutely unprecedented interference in the marketplace, in our investment community. This is disrupting the retirement nest eggs of thousands and thousands of Canadians. It is affecting the investment climate in perhaps the most negative way in recent years. I just cannot believe a finance minister would act so imprudently. It is an absolute disgrace.
We in the Conservative Party under our finance critic, the member for Medicine Hat, have argued that we need certainty in our investment community. We should also realize, though, that it is mainly middle class Canadians who have a lot of their retirement funds tied up in the stock markets. To cause markets to decline precipitously overnight because of the imprudent actions of the finance minister is unconscionable. I hope that decision will be reversed, but unfortunately, I do not think it will be unless there is a change of government.
The whole issue of income trusts is raised in the bill. My colleague, the member for Kelowna—Lake Country, the vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Industry will be addressing the whole issue of income trusts in his speech, how they are affected by the bill and what should be done. I do not know whether the government is intending to change how it will address income trusts with the recent actions by the finance minister, but that is something the government should address.
I want to conclude by saying that consumer insolvency has increased on average by 12.8% per year since 1968. Business bankruptcies are decreasing, which is good news. We do like the parts of the bill particularly that amend the bankruptcy legislation, which encourage restructuring of viable but financially troubled companies. Obviously, we would like to see it worked out rather than going to bankruptcy, if it is at all possible. A lot of the recommendations made to address the Bankruptcy Act that were in the Senate report in our view would lead to less regulation, less interference and would make it more efficient. Those initiatives that address that part of the act we certainly support.
We also recognize that we need better protection for wages. We are fully prepared to support that, but we obviously want the issue of where the government ties in, in terms of the creditors issue to be addressed at committee.
We do support the principles in the bill. We will be supporting the bill at second reading. At committee we will be asking all sorts of witnesses to come forward with their thoughts on the bill. We will be proposing some amendments. We hope other parties will approach the bill in the same reasonable, prudent manner that we have, and in the end we can address all of these issues in a very responsible manner.