Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to participate in debate on Bill C-490, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act (application for supplement, retroactive payments and other amendments), on behalf of the NDP caucus and as the critic for seniors and pensions.
I fully support this bill. In many ways, it is the companion piece to my own bill, Bill C-336. Whereas my bill seeks to enhance the ability of pensioners to access their CPP benefits retroactively, the bill before us today deals specifically with the guaranteed income supplement. Both are fundamentally about fairness for seniors and both are long overdue in their adoption.
The bill before the House today simply seeks to accomplish four things. First, it would no longer require seniors to apply for the guaranteed income supplement. This is an absolutely essential piece. By the government's own admission, there are currently 135,000 seniors in Canada who are eligible for but not receiving the GIS. Why? Because even if they were aware of the program, the application process is unduly complex and many seniors lack the language or literacy skills to avail themselves of the benefit.
What has the government done about that? Instead of pursuing aggressive outreach to inform seniors of their entitlements, the Conservative government has redesignated positions at Service Canada so that experts, whose only role it once was to assist seniors to find their way through the maze of CPP, OAS and GIS, have now been replaced with generalists to deal with everything from boat licences to employment insurance. In-depth counselling for seniors no long exists.
If we are not prepared to help seniors access the benefits to which they are legitimately entitled, then why do we not make it as easy as possible? Bill C-490 would accomplish that goal by taking away the requirement to fill out an application in order to receive the benefit. It makes perfect sense.
The Department of Human Resources and Social Development, which administers the GIS, is allowed to exchange information with the Canada Revenue Agency. The CRA collects the tax returns of seniors and therefore the government already has the information that it needs to determine whether a senior is eligible for the guaranteed income supplement.
In case anyone still believes that this kind of information exchange may violate a senior's privacy, I would remind members in this House that Canada's Privacy Commissioner told the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities that “Section 241 of the Income Tax Act specifically authorizes CCRA to disclose taxpayer information for the purposes of administering the Old Age Security Act”.
The GIS, of course, falls under the Old Age Security Act.
The government suggests that the application process is nonetheless necessary because there may be seniors who do not wish to receive the guaranteed income supplement. I cannot imagine that any such person exists in Canada.
The guaranteed income supplement is a means tested program that goes only to the neediest seniors. It was brought in as a measure to attempt to deal with poverty in the older adult population. Does the government really believe that seniors who have worked hard all their lives, who have played by the rules but are now finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, would turn down such desperately needed financial assistance? It is nonsense.
However, even if such a person did exist, I am sure it would be easier for the government to deal with the handful of applications from those who wished to discontinue their benefits than to deal with the tens of thousands of new applications that currently need to be filed every year. The government's argument here simply does not cut it.
What about those 135,000 Canadians who still are not receiving their benefit? The government says, and I quote from the parliamentary secretary's intervention earlier in this debate:
We make every effort to ensure that eligible low income seniors receive the benefits to which they are entitled just as soon as possible. ...we work with community and seniors' organizations to reach the vulnerable seniors....
I have the great privilege to work with one of those organizations in my home town of Hamilton. It is the Seniors and Poverty Working Group, which dedicates itself to assisting and empowering the most vulnerable seniors in our community. On shoestring budgets, the dedicated volunteers and professional members of our group do phenomenal work with and on behalf of seniors. In fact, they have taken a leadership role in exploring ways to ensure that seniors are made aware of their financial entitlements.
The group organized a series of public meetings and train the trainer sessions that had a profoundly positive impact both on individual seniors and on community capacity building through the collaborate community based nature of the process. The aim was to ensure that every senior who is entitled to the GIS would be made aware and assisted with their applications.
The Seniors and Poverty Working Group believes that to do anything less is to perpetuate the systemic neglect. However, that is the point, we are talking about systemic neglect. Our system of government has the ability to correct that neglect simply by doing away with the application process.
Community groups should never need to use their scarce resources to backfill gaping holes in the government's implementation of its own program. They simply are not funded or resourced for that. The fact that they are doing it anyway speaks volumes about their profound commitment to the right of every senior to retire with dignity and respect.
When community groups actually find people who were not aware of their entitlements, they cannot even help them to claim their full entitlement. The GIS can only be received retroactively for a period of 11 months. A system designed like that is clearly not a system designed to lift seniors out of poverty. What a disgrace.
If seniors owed the government money, the Canada Revenue Agency sure would not limit itself to 11 months of retroactivity. It would hound seniors until it had every last cent owning to it. So it should be for seniors, and the bill before us today would achieve that laudable goal. It would allow for full retroactivity for unpaid pension amounts.
Right now in Canada, almost one-quarter of a million seniors live in poverty. Even the ones collecting the GIS are still not receiving income that is high enough to lift them up to the poverty line. That is hardly a retirement with dignity and respect.
That is why the third component of Bill C-490 seeks to raise the GIS by $110 per month. The Conservatives say that such an increase, combined with full retroactivity, would simply cost too much. They put the figure in the billions of dollars.
Let me get this straight. The government can find $2 billion to continue subsidizing the big banks and polluters but it cannot find the money for the neediest seniors in our country? This is not about a program costing too much. This is all about a government that cares more about its wealthy friends than it cares about the people who built our country.
Conservative MPs should be ashamed of themselves. If they got their heads out of the tar sands long enough to actually notice what is happening in communities across our country, they would realize that by denying seniors an adequate standard of living, they are also denying them hope.
Let me quote, as others have done, from the National Council of Welfare, which stated:
poverty is not just a lack of income; it can also be a synonym for social exclusion. When people cannot meet their basic needs, they cannot afford even simple activities, such as inviting family or friends to dinner occasionally or buying gifts for a child or grandchild. Poverty leads to isolation and social exclusion, which in turn lead to other problems, such as poor health, depression and dysfunction. Poverty can quickly deprive individuals of their dignity, confidence and hope.
What message are we sending to seniors when we are refusing to lift them up to the poverty line? This is not good public policy. It is not even good fiscal management. It is simply meanspirited. The government's objection to the final part of Bill C-490 makes that a abundantly clear. It proposes that a surviving spouse be entitled to receive his or her deceased spouse's pension payment for six months. It hardly seems unreasonable to allow people time to mourn their loved ones.
Many will have to make decisions about whether they can continue to live in their homes and keep up their bills. To give them a little time for those decisions after the devastating loss of a spouse is simply the compassionate thing to do. The six month extension of the deceased spouse's GIS simply shows a bit of humanity to seniors.
However, the government is not often accused of being compassionate. Instead of accepting the proposals of Bill C-490 and taking pride in having done right by seniors, its approach to dealing with the GIS is telling seniors to get a job.
In their last budget, the Conservatives announced that seniors could now work and earn up to $3,500 before their GIS would be clawed back. Nothing defines the differences between the Conservatives and the NDP more clearly. The Conservatives want seniors to retire in the uniform of a Wal-Mart greeter. New Democrats want seniors to retire in dignity and respect.
I cannot wait for the votes to be counted on this bill. For every member of the House, the question will be, “Which side are you on?” I know NDP members will be voting in favour of the bill but this is a private member's bill where all of us can cast our votes free of party discipline. Conservative MPs will be able to vote their conscience. I cannot wait to see which side they are really on.