Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to add my comments on Bill C-490. I appreciate the opportunity to speak about our government's record on seniors' issues, because we actually have a record worth talking about.
That is why we have taken measures to ensure that OAS and GIS continue to meet the needs of seniors. This government was elected to take responsible, measured actions to support Canadians, and we have to look to the future when considering changes like the ones outlined in the bill.
Our government is very much aware of the significance and the importance of a program such as old age security. The program is an integral part of our social safety net. It is important for all Canadians and must be accessible by all Canadians for years to come.
It is also the responsibility of this government to manage these programs so they will continue to exist in the future. This is a responsibility that I think members of the Bloc in some respects have set aside, although maybe as members of the opposition they do not have the same concerns as Canadian taxpayers.
I would like to touch on three areas around OAS and the GIS. First, there is the increase in the monthly GIS payment. The bill proposes to increase the monthly GIS payment by $110 per month.
I commend the hon. member for Alfred-Pellan for his compassion in wishing to find ways to alleviate poverty among seniors, but the proposals outlined in the bill will not meet those objectives. In fact, quite the opposite may happen. This would bankrupt the program so that it would no longer exist for future generations of Canadian seniors.
Although it has been said in the House on many occasions, it is worth saying again that Canadian seniors have one of the highest standards of living in the world. Their income has more than doubled over the past two decades.
It is also important to remember that Canada now has one of the lowest levels of poverty among seniors of any country in the industrialized world. It has dropped from 21% in 1980 to less than 6% today.
We have lower poverty rates than our G-8 partners. Our social safety net is already the envy of the world. This is something the government will protect for future generations.
Certainly it is not time to stop working to reduce seniors' poverty further, because even one senior living in poverty, as we often say, is one too many. That is why this government acted when we were elected to increase the GIS by 7%. We did this again in January 2007. These measures are providing all single recipients of the GIS with an additional $430 per year and $700 more per couple per year.
These increases will raise the total GIS benefit by more than $2.7 billion over the next five years and benefit more than 1.6 million GIS recipients, including more than 50,000 seniors who were not eligible for the program under the previous Liberal government.
This government heard from thousands of seniors from across the country in the lead-up to budget 2008 and we heard that more and more of them want to remain in the workforce. They want to do it to stay active in their communities, to make a little extra cash to have some fun or to spend it on children, grandchildren or family, or just to do something for themselves.
Seniors' groups also told us that their members would love to continue working, but under the previous Liberal regime they could not do it without having their hard-earned benefits clawed back. There was little incentive or initiative to go out to earn a little extra for the things they wanted or, quite honestly, just to keep active and be involved. That is why this government increased the earned income exemption to $3,500 from the previous Liberal system, which allowed only $500 in earnings before benefits were withheld.
This important change will allow GIS recipients to keep more of their hard-earned money without any reduction in their GIS benefits: $3,000 more before benefits are withheld. I note that the Bloc actually opposed this in the last budget.
The second issue I want to talk about is the unlimited retroactivity. My colleague across the aisle also proposes that we bring in unlimited retroactive payments of the OAS-GIS for eligible beneficiaries. I would remind the House that currently these benefits are payable retroactive for up to one year from the month of application.
This period of retroactivity is not unusual. In fact, it is consistent with the retroactivity provisions of most other international jurisdictions. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that these benefits have been designed to help low income seniors meet their current needs, not to compensate them for past needs.
Yet the government does make exemptions to the basic one year limit to ensure seniors are treated fairly. If the person was incapable of applying, was given bad advice, or if the mistake is an administrative error, the government will ensure that people get the benefits they are entitled to.
I would ask the House to consider the long term ramifications of this bill. In fact, this government and this House need to be very concerned regarding the ramifications of this bill. The costs of the retroactivity provisions alone could be in excess of $6 billion per year. This government cannot and will not take a risk like that with such an important program for seniors.
This government makes significant efforts to ensure that eligible low income seniors receive the benefits to which they are entitled. GIS applications are sent to low income seniors who do not receive OAS and GIS benefits.
Our efforts have resulted in an additional 325,000 low income seniors receiving the benefit who were not getting it before. With the GIS increase, as I mentioned before, for 50,000 new eligible seniors, plus the 325,000 who now get benefits under the Conservative government, that is significant.
Through Bill C-36, we have also enabled seniors to make a one time application for the GIS and receive it whenever they become eligible as long as they file a tax return.
These are reasonable actions which will ensure that OAS and GIS programs exist well into the future.
Last is the issue of the elimination of the requirement to apply for GIS benefits. The proposal to eliminate the requirement to apply for GIS benefits is unfortunately not workable. Formal application is needed since the information available from Canada Revenue is sometimes insufficient to determine eligibility. For example, not available in income tax returns could be information such as updated marital status and also residency in Canada.
The onus remains on the individual to make the initial application, but with the single lifetime application that this government introduced in Bill C-36, the process has become much easier and friendlier for Canadian seniors.
We can all applaud the stated goal of the bill and certainly the member for Alfred-Pellan for his desire around Bill C-490, but unfortunately it will not meet the goal and will put the future of this necessary program on the line.
For that reason, I cannot support it. I can assure this House, however, that we will continue to work hard and provide a bright future for all Canadian seniors.