Mr. Speaker, I thank the House for the opportunity to rise and speak to this motion, and I want to say at the outset that I do support the motion.
It gives a strategic, coordinated approach to this multi-faceted area dealing with seniors in this country. We can call it what we want, but I would like to see it condensed into a national seniors strategy. I congratulate the member opposite for bringing this motion to the House.
This is a very important issue for all Canadians. As has been stated before in this House, there are some very fundamental demographic shifts going on in this country. In the year 2001, one in eight Canadians were aged 65 or over. In the year 2026, that will reach one in five Canadians.
Seniors are not a homogeneous group, and if anyone tries to interpret that in this debate or suggest that, I believe they do so in error. As we speak, somewhere in Canada there are 72 year old men or women teeing off at a golf course. Those individuals have the benefit of a public or private pension plan, own their own home and have their health. The issues that concern them are probably issues of lower taxes. They want somebody to stop the slide of the stock market and they want the government to leave them alone.
At the same time, there are other 72-year-old people living in one of our inner cities who have health issues, security issues, housing issues and other issues, and are looking to the government for help. That is something that governments at all levels have to respond to, but again the point I am making is that we are not dealing with a homogeneous group.
There are seniors living in very challenging circumstances and that is the cohort within the larger group where we do have to focus our attention and we do have to come forward with a very comprehensive and inclusive strategy.
I should point out that there has been a lot done over the last number of years. There are still some major gaps, as members will hear today from myself and from other speakers, in the policies and programs that are offered to seniors, but a lot has been done.
In the year 1981, 20.8% of seniors would be classified as living in low income circumstances. By the year 2001, that figure was reduced to 7.3% of the senior population, which I consider to be a dramatic decrease in this number; however, if one is part of the 7.3% it really does not help all that much.
There have been some very progressive programs adopted by the Liberal government over the last number of years, of which I am very proud. I am very proud to have been part of it. It does not quite go all the way, but it certainly has made some tremendous strides in this whole issue, and I am now dealing with the whole area of economic security.
The framework policy is of course the guaranteed income supplement. Members will recall we used to have the old age pension. We still have it but it has been changed dramatically. The cornerstone of our economic security for seniors now is the guaranteed income supplement, and that was increased in the 2005 budget by $2.4 billion over two years, which would be an increase of approximately $400 per year for single seniors and approximately $700 per year for couples.
I should point out that other provinces, particularly Ontario and Saskatchewan, offer supplemental benefits over and above what is offered by the federal guaranteed income supplement program.
There is a basic policy of economic security for seniors living in Canada. Is it enough? Probably not. Has there been a dramatic improvement over what was available 10 years ago? The answer is yes. This may be an error in the motion, but this particular program is tied to inflation. I believe it is increased twice or four times a year based upon the rise in the consumer price index.
Another program that I am very proud of that has been enhanced over the years is the Canada pension plan, our public pension plan. Most plans in other countries are underfunded and have all sorts of problems. Our plan is and will be for the next 40 years actuarially sound. I am very proud of this plan. It is part of the economic security offered to seniors. However, there are a lot of seniors who do not qualify for benefits under the Canada pension plan.
The increase in the amount that can be contributed to an RRSP and the increase in the year that withdrawals have to be made from 69 years old to 71 years old have been beneficial steps in the right direction. The announcement in the last budget by the finance minister of increasing the deduction from $1,000 to $2,000 is also a step in the right direction.
I hope that most of the legislative changes that the previous government adopted dealing with pension protection will help, but again we are into some jurisdictional issues here. The whole area of private pensions in Canada will require more work by the present government and by provincial governments right across Canada.
We heard of the situation which occurred in Nackawic, New Brunswick, where people who had worked for 25, 30 and 35 years basically lost their pensions. It is my position that this should not happen in a country like Canada. If it does happen, then we as legislators and people in the provincial assemblies who are supposed to protect these workers are just not doing their jobs.
Another matter that I have some concern about is the funding of our private pension plans. I do not believe the law is vigorous enough. We are going to see problems in the years to come. A lot of private pension plans right across Canada are underfunded and I know the primary obligation is on the owner to bring these plans up to a proper level.
This is a multi-faceted motion. It is an omnibus issue and touches on the lives of a lot of seniors. It talks about housing. It is my position that this is a basic right of seniors. The federal government provides some funding for affordable housing programs and for seniors housing programs. The primary jurisdiction is in the provinces.
The federal government has an obligation and a duty to work very closely with its provincial counterparts so that seniors have the housing they deserve. The benchmark that is being used in most of the provinces, and I accept this, is 30% of a person's gross income. No person should pay more than 30% of their gross income toward their accommodation needs and accommodation should be available to all persons.
The motion talks about wellness, health promotion and preventive measures. I agree that there is a role for the federal government, but again it is a provincial issue. This is something that has to be included in a national seniors agenda with a clearly defined focus and strategy.
Again, this talks about the preventive measures, it talks about drug costs, it talks about drug accessibility, and it talks about public education. It speaks of the services that are available to seniors. This is why I am agreeing with this particular motion.
We talked about primary health care. In Canada we have a universally funded, publicly accessible health care program.
The motion talks about some expansions to this program that should be made available to seniors, and I certainly agree with the gist of the motion. It talks about dental care, product care, home care, and other forms of health care that are particular to seniors, and I agree. That is why the way it is worded in the motion is quite correct.
Another area that calls for additional resources and changes in policy is this whole area of self-development.
One of the programs which I was so proud to see brought back, and I was disappointed of course when it was cancelled, is the new horizons program. This is a program that is available to seniors groups right across the country. It is not a large amount of money, but it provides seniors groups with certain amounts of funding so that they can get established, get organized, come together for recreation, education, or for whatever needs and wants.
Again, we are not talking a lot of money. However, this was a program that was cancelled back in the mid-90s and was implemented about two years ago now, and the budget is, I believe, $50 million a year. I have experience with a lot of these applicants who have applied for this program. It is a good program and I am proud to be associated with the re-establishment of this particular program.
When I am speaking of this issue, I do want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the National Advisory Council on Aging. It has certainly done a lot of great work over the years on this whole issue. Any of the papers, documents and positions that it has come forward with have pushed the envelope on this particular issue and it has been very helpful over the years.
One thing that did disappoint me in the last organization of the last government was the dropping of a separate minister responsible for seniors. In the last government we did have a secretary of state for seniors and it was his job, it was a he in the last government, to bring together different departments and to bring a seniors' focus to the whole government agenda. I believe that this is needed, and I believe that is exactly what this motion speaks to.
This motion calls for a national seniors agenda, and again we are not talking about a homogenous group but a collaborative group. Every department has to be brought together, not only from the federal government but from the provincial government and also the municipal governments that offer other services, such as public transit, recreational services and so on.
So again, I was disappointed, when the new government was formed in February, that we did not have anyone out there speaking for seniors. Of course it was a major disappointment. In actual fact, I did hear members of that party, prior to the election, speak in this House that it would be part of the government, that there would be a minister responsible for seniors.
Another issue that the motion does not speak to but is something that, at some point in time, this assembly will have to have a debate on, and that is this whole issue of seniors in the workforce
It is more than just seniors wanting to work. When we look at the demographics and the labour shortages developing in certain areas and in certain industries in the country, I believe our economy will need a certain number of seniors to stay in the workforce, maybe not on a full time basis but at least on a part time basis. I have a number of recommendations that I would think the government ought to consider in the future.
The first deals with clawback. Right now certain seniors may want to go back to work, but not on a full time basis. Right now these seniors are receiving the guaranteed income supplement or some other similar program. If they get a part time job and make $3,000 or $4,000, that whole amount is clawed back from them. Unfortunately, this is a very severe disincentive for a senior to do anything, and in most cases they will not.
The government should look at this in the next budget. I do not think we are talking about a lot of money. I believe we should look at some program or policy that would remove that disincentive for seniors who want to stay in the workforce in some minor or part time basis.
Another area is mandatory retirement. I believe we are moving beyond that as a society. I think mandatory retirement has been rejected in different provinces. Whatever the programs and policies are, we should abandon the concept all together. Again, this is an issue of policy. Mandatory retirement goes beyond seniors and it gets into our economy generally.
Another important area, which the resolution does deal with, albeit indirectly, is the amount of volunteer work that is done by our seniors. Right now approximately 18% of the population of our seniors volunteer regularly. That is slightly in excess of the average for the Canadian population.
I should point out to members that the people who do volunteer, they volunteer a lot more than the average Canadian. In actual fact, the statistics indicate that a senior volunteers on average of 269 hours per year. This is quite a bit more than the average Canadian that does volunteer.
This ties into the new horizons program. It ties into some of the volunteer programs of the federal government. However, it has to be tied in with the whole area of a comprehensive seniors strategy that acknowledges the volunteerism of our seniors across the country.
The area of elder abuse requires a lot more public education, although there is more education on that now than there was at this time last year. This is much more prevalent than people think. It is physical and it is financial. A lot of times it involves family members. Many times elder abuse is not reported. A lot more elder abuse occurs than what the statistics suggest. In most instances it is sloughed under the table. It is very much out there in the public. I believe the federal and provincial governments have an obligation to come forward with a very comprehensive public education strategy on this whole issue.
I support the motion and congratulate the member for bringing the motion forward. As far as I am concerned, it wraps around a lot of issues that involve federal, provincial and municipal jurisdictions. It cries out for what I would call a national seniors strategy. This is a strategy that will require more focused attention from the government. When we boil it all down, a lot of times it talks about how and not what.