Mr. Speaker, it is interesting to hear the member speak for and against a subject that would help seniors and older workers in a number of ways that I and the hon. member have listed. It is certainly something that would have been worthy of support, but she is focused on her particular motion and I would like to speak to that.
I would speak in support of our public pension programs and the good work the Conservative government has been doing for some time to help seniors. Since its first day in office, our government has been absolutely committed to improving the lives of seniors. We have done that by making seniors' issues a priority and by sticking to improved programs such as the GIS the member referred to, so we can do an even better job of serving Canadians.
A great deal has already been done to translate this commitment into reality. For example, since taking office we have increased the GIS by $36 per month for unattached seniors and $58 per month for couples in January 2006 and January 2007. These monthly increases to the GIS amount to a 7% increase over and above regular indexation to compensate for the increase in the average wage. The total cost of this measure alone is $2.7 billion over five years.
We have also increased the GIS earnings exemption from $500 to $3,500, so that many working pensioners can now keep up to an additional $1,500 in GIS benefits.
We also passed Bill C-36, legislation that makes it much easier for seniors to apply for and receive their GIS payments. This change allows seniors to make a one-time application for the GIS and receive it year over year as long as they are eligible, provided they file annual tax returns.
To help encourage seniors to apply for GIS benefits which they may be entitled to, we send out application forms to low-income seniors identified through the tax system. These efforts have helped to put benefits in the hands of more than 328,000 additional seniors.
For seniors who do not file income tax returns, we have undertaken aggressive targeted outreach efforts to reach seniors who may be eligible for GIS. These efforts range from setting up information booths at events to working closely with the volunteer sector and first point of contact service providers. Targeted groups include newcomers, persons with disabilities, aboriginals and the homeless.
Our support for seniors has not stopped there. We have also provided more than $1 billion in tax relief each year to Canadian seniors through pension income splitting and enhancements to the age and pension income credits. This amounts to a significant amount of dollars.
More recently, through our economic action plan, we have introduced measures that will also help seniors in many additional ways. For example, we are increasing the age credit by $1,000 for 2009 and beyond to allow eligible seniors to receive up to an additional $150 in annual tax savings.
We are investing an additional $60 million over three years in the targeted initiative for older workers program. We are expanding the number of potentially eligible communities to include older workers in small cities.
We are providing $400 million over two years through the affordable housing initiative for the construction of housing units for low-income seniors.
Canada can be proud that the poverty rate among Canadian seniors has declined dramatically over the last 25 years. In fact, the average income for seniors in that time has doubled.
Canadians can also be proud that we already have one of the lowest levels of poverty among seniors of any country in the industrialized world, at around 5%. It is quite a remarkable figure. This makes us the envy of many other nations, including Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom.
That being said, there is always room for improvement. Our government will continue to work to ensure that the needs of all seniors, including low-income seniors, are adequately met.
Let me turn to the motion before us today. Given the size and complexity of the GIS program, upon which many of our most vulnerable citizens depend, it is vital that each and every change being considered be examined thoroughly. Careful consideration must be given to impact and cost.
With that in mind, I would like to take a few moments to examine the proposals contained in today's motion and how they might affect the GIS program and the people it benefits.
To begin with, there is a proposal to increase monthly benefits by $110, a move which could cost as much as $2 billion a year. The motion also calls for unlimited GIS retroactivity which, by some estimates, could cost as much as $3 billion. These two measures alone would cost several billions of dollars. We are talking about huge sums of money, especially given the economic times we are living in right now.
It is important to note that GIS benefits are already paid retroactively for up to one year. The current one year retroactivity provision is at least on par with, and in some cases superior to, retroactivity provisions for similar programs in other Canadian and international jurisdictions. For example, retroactivity provisions for the Alberta seniors benefit, British Columbia's senior's supplement, and Ontario's guaranteed annual income system allow for a one year retroactivity limit. This is also the case for the Canada pension plan.
The current one year retroactivity provision contained in the OAS act is even more generous than similar programs in other countries. For example, Australia's age pension, New Zealand's superannuation and Sweden's guaranteed old age pension provision provide for no retroactivity. Social assistance programs such as Alberta works, Nova Scotia's income assistance program and Ontario works also have no retroactivity provisions.
In this regard, I would like to point out that the previous Liberal government was in agreement with this particular point. Here is what the Liberal member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, on November 18, 2005, had to say on this issue:
With respect to retroactivity, I think it is more important that this program be totally consistent with existing provincial income supplementation programs. On the issue of retroactivity for one year, there is no discrepancy between this program and the provincial programs, which are income supplementation, security or support programs.
It is also very important to note that full retroactivity could also mean increased costs to the provinces and territories whose income supplement programs are based on eligibility for the GIS.
All that said, we must keep in mind that there are already two exceptions when retroactive payments can be made beyond one year: first, when the applicant would have been incapable of expressing the intent to apply for benefits; and second, when an administrative error has occurred or erroneous advice was given.
This motion also proposes paying six months of a deceased person's pension to the survivor. While this proposal seems reasonable at first glance, it is important to note that the GIS is already adjusted for changes in family status following the death of a partner since many low income seniors become eligible for GIS or an increase in that supplement due to the fact that they are now single income individuals. Furthermore, both the Canada and Quebec pension plans contain survivor benefit provisions that help seniors in such situations.
Last but not least, this motion proposes eliminating the requirement to apply for GIS benefits, which is also difficult since the information available from the Canada Revenue Agency is often insufficient to determine eligibility. In this regard, the former Liberal member for Ahuntsic and former parliamentary secretary to the minister of social development said that doing away with the application process would:
--unreasonably burden the governmental retirement system administratively, technically and financially...Without the application process and income verification, the system would be open to abuse. In addition, we would not have enough information to determine entitlement for seniors who, for instance, do no file tax returns. This would also substantially increase the risk of errors within the system.
Those words are from a Liberal predecessor of mine on this very topic. These comments were made in this House on October 24, 2005.
The onus for making an application must continue to rest with the applicant. Thankfully, as I have mentioned, due to the actions of this government, our seniors now only have to apply once for the GIS benefit.
For the reasons I have outlined, we cannot support this motion. While the proposals are well intentioned and we cannot disagree with the intent of the motion, the reality is that implementing these measures would require enormous financial investments and would have widespread ramifications and implications for other government programs, both at the federal and provincial levels.
As such, I would urge all members of this House to work with the government as we continue to ensure that our policies, programs and services meet the needs of Canada's seniors in a responsible manner. We will continue to do that and we will continue to look at ways to enhance their benefits. It must be at a progressive rate and at a time that the government decides.
Therefore, I would ask members not to support this motion.