Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-36.
This is an important legislative proposal, the amendments to the Canada pension plan and the Old Age Security Act. I wish to speak to the impact of the proposed changes to the Canada pension plan for people living with disabilities in Canada.
Canada's new government understands the need to ensure that people living with disabilities are given the support that they need. People with disabilities are our friends, our families and our constituents.
We campaigned and were elected on our commitment to stand up for Canada. Canadians were offered the priorities of our Conservative government and found that we hold all the same values dear. We all want a government that makes careful use of public resources to ensure that they are there to help our families and friends who need it.
The new government is getting things done for our friends and for our families with disabilities. For instance, budget 2006 committed enhanced assistance for persons with disabilities. This was done by increasing the maximum annual child disability benefit to $2,300. We expanded the eligibility for the same benefit. We boosted the maximum refund for the medical expense supplement to $1,000, and HRSDC has put together labour market agreements and the opportunity fund for persons with disabilities.
Canadians want what we are all looking for. We want a government that understands that the federal government and provinces need to work together constructively. Canadians can take heart. The legislation comes as a result of a healthy and renewed relationship that our new government has forged with our provincial partners.
Most Canadians recognize the importance of the Canada pension plan to their income security. Along with old age security, the Canada pension plan provides Canadians with the foundation upon which to build their retirement income. Together, Canada's public pensions deliver about $54 billion in benefits to Canadians every year.
However, the Canada pension plan is much more than a retirement pension. Through its disability program, the Canada pension plan provides basic coverage to approximately 295,000 Canadians with severe and prolonged disabilities and to 90,000 of their children. Indeed, the Canada pension plan is considered the largest long term disability insurance program in Canada.
Every three years the ministers of finance review the Canada pension plan to ensure that it remains financially sound and to make any necessary adjustments. The triennial review also provides an opportunity to see that the Canada pension plan evolves to meet the changing needs of Canadians throughout their lives. It also exemplifies that the CPP's accountability and transparency is there for Canadians.
The most recent review, completed in June, confirmed that the Canada pension plan is on solid financial footing, but the review also showed that together we could all do a better job of recognizing contributors with long term attachment to the workforce by making their CPP disability benefits more accessible.
Federal and provincial finance ministers understood that it was time to address an issue that has been raised as a concern by people living with disabilities, their representatives and members of the House. The ministers listened to the people who came to them. They took on the issue. They showed leadership that had been lacking by pursuing this change.
There has always been a minimum qualifying period for CPP disability benefits since they were first issued in 1970. Over the years this qualifying period has been amended on several occasions. For example, from 1987 to 1997, applicants needed contributions in two of the three years or five of the last 10 years to qualify for disability benefits.
In 2003 Parliament heard from long term contributors who were ineligible for benefits because of the change requiring contributions in four of the last six years that was introduced in 1998.
What followed was a report prepared by the chief actuary regarding Canadians with a long history of workforce attachment and who were denied CPP disability benefits on the grounds that they had insufficient contributions. The study found many of these applicants had contributed for two or three years of the minimum qualifying period but had not done so for a fourth year. Without that fourth year of contributions they could not qualify for benefits under the existing rules despite in some cases more than 30 years of overall contributions.
Imagine a woman who has worked steadily for 25 years and has contributed faithfully to the Canada pension plan, including for three of the last six years. She feels that these substantial contributions will give her access to disability benefits when she needs them. Suddenly a major medical condition takes her out of the workforce and then she discovers that she does not qualify. She needed to contribute to the CPP for one more year before she could qualify. Imagine her sense of disappointment and frustration. Despite her lengthy contributions to the Canadian workforce her Canada pension plan disability benefit was not there for her when she needed it.
As I said at the outset, Canadians elected Conservatives to stand up for them. They elected us because they knew we understood them and their concerns. We were elected by Canadians because they knew we would get things done and we are getting things done. The government is acting to ensure that thousands of Canadians who are long term contributors to the CPP are not left alone to fall through the cracks. We stand with them and we are standing up for them.
I am pleased to say that Bill C-36 is a positive response to the desire for greater fairness expressed by the Minister of Finance. It is an obvious response to the needs of persons with disabilities whose concerns were too long ignored.
Under the proposed legislation, applicants with 25 or more years of contribution would become eligible for benefits if they contributed in three rather than four years. All other applicants would still have to make contributions in at least four of the last six years and of course all applicants must still meet the medical eligibility requirements.
What does this legislation mean for Canadians? It means an additional 2,000 long term contributors with severe and prolonged disabilities would be eligible to receive benefits by 2008. By 2010 the new beneficiaries could total about 3,700. Close to 1,000 children of these beneficiaries could also receive benefits.
Through this legislation the Government of Canada is sending an important message to long term contributors to the Canada pension plan who are forced to leave the workforce because of a severe and prolonged disability. It says that Canadians have told us that the current disability program does not meet their needs. It says that we have heard their concerns and we are acting on them.
This legislation is part of the government's commitment to greater accountability and to action that restores the public's trust in government. It says the government balances the social needs of Canadians within an accountable and transparent fiscal framework. The legislation change is fully affordable at the current CPP contribution rate and will not compromise the financial sustainability of the plan.
It pleases me that other members of the House are in fact agreeing to support this important bill that will help our Canada pension plan. It also tells me that everyone, along with our new government, understands that seniors have made contributions and continue to make huge contributions to our country. Seniors know that Conservatives and the House share the same values and concerns as they do, and that these are the values and concerns of all Canadians. We all understand that sometimes the world changes and that we need a government that will ensure that seniors are not left behind.
We recognize a commitment to the Canada pension plan, old age security and the guaranteed income supplement as fundamental guarantees of income security in retirement years. We promise to ensure that seniors have the respect and integrity that they deserve. Our pension plan has been integral in dramatically reducing the level of poverty among seniors. Back in 1980 almost 21% of seniors lived on low incomes. Today, because of changes that were made, we have reduced that number to less than 6%.
To address presently changing needs of seniors, we are making significant investments across a full range of seniors programs, from health care to housing, from retirement savings programs to assistance for caregiving. We have shown support in budgeting for seniors: $64 billion a year on programs for seniors, including our public pension programs.
Our public pension programs are something Canadians can rightly take pride in. Our public pension system is recognized worldwide as one of the best. It plays a vital role in ensuring the economic well-being of thousands of Canadians.
Today seniors are generally healthier, better educated and economically better off than in previous generations. Today's seniors are looking for new ways to contribute to their country. Seniors work longer, volunteer more, and play an active role in the communities across Canada.
As the baby boomer generation marches toward retirement, we need to take steps to prepare for the growing number of seniors. I am one of those baby boomers and I am concerned that in the next 25 years nearly one in four Canadians will be a senior citizen. The aging of our population means that we cannot take our cherished public pension programs for granted.
We understand that the future of these programs is a matter that affects all Canadians. This is why our new government is strengthening our social foundations. Standing up for seniors mean ensuring these programs are there for seniors now and in the years to come. As well, Conservatives and all Canadians understand that the retirement income system, the Canada pension plan and old age security are key pillars of Canada. These pillars must be maintained and cared for if they are to be counted on to maintain and care for the needs of Canadians.
Something also important to Canadians are the changes proposed in the bill that will improve the way governments administer pension programs. Together these amendments strengthen fairness and accountability. In the past, concerns have been raised that eligible seniors may not be receiving the guaranteed income supplement because they were not aware of the program and did not apply. Much has been done already to remedy such situations. This legislation, however, goes one step further.
To explain, under the proposed changes seniors apply for GIS at the same time as they apply for old age security. No separate application form would be required. In addition, as long as seniors file a regular tax return they will automatically receive the GIS benefit in any year they are entitled to. They would never need to reapply. This cut in red tape makes sense. It is the kind of sensible thinking that our new government has put into creating “Advantage Canada”. In a nutshell, it means that all eligible seniors should receive the GIS as long as they file a Canadian tax return.
The same sensible thinking is what led our new government to propose amendments to the Canada pension plan that are found in the bill that I spoke about earlier, making it easier for long time contributors to qualify and working Canadians who are attached to the workforce. Canadian seniors, men and women whose hard work helped build this country, deserve to have a government that stands up for them and I am proud to be a part of this government. I am proud that we are taking steps to put in effect the existing full funding provision of the Canada pension plan.
The new provision adds transparency to the existing provision, which requires any changes to the plan's benefit be paid for in full so their costs are not passed on to the future.
This is what Canadians want to know, that CPP is on sound, financial footing now and for future generations. This change would help get that done.
Our new government will also be modernizing service delivery, to ensure electronic services for pensions are available for seniors across the country, a simple, practical thing in this modern age of technology. However, a change to the legislation was needed to enable seniors to apply for benefits online.
These amendments would also close loopholes and prevent misrepresentation, which ends up costing all taxpayers.
Enhancements to our retirement income system are one of the ways we are helping to improve the quality of life for Canadian seniors. As I said earlier, the government is doing even more. Let me give a few quick examples.
We are reaching out to seniors across the country, thanks to our new horizons for seniors program. Through this program, we are helping to harness energy, skills and leadership of seniors and projects that make a difference in their communities. Consider the grandfriends program in Prince Edward County, where seniors are giving back to their community by acting as storytellers to children.
Canada's new government promised new measures to provide tax breaks for older Canadians, and we got it done in budget 2006. Starting in 2007, seniors couples can split their pension income. We increased the age credit amount by $1,000 to $5,066, retroactive to January 1, 2006. We doubled the amount of eligible pension income that can be claimed under the pension income credit from $1,000 to $2,000, starting this tax year.
Through these tax measures, we are putting back into the pockets of our seniors who have already contributed to so much in our country.
Our new government is standing up for those who have spent their lives raising families, saving for their retirement and building up our nation. We are standing up seniors because we are committed to protecting what is great about Canada.
With the proposed amendments in Bill C-36, we will are helping to ensure that all Canadians, young and old alike, can rely on the Canadian pension plan and old age security as key pillars of their retirement income.
This important matter crosses party lines. I am happy and pleased to say that everyone in the House wants what is best for seniors. That is why I am thankful that hon. colleagues in the opposition, along with us, have given their stamp of approval to this important legislation.