Madam Speaker, I am proud to stand up on behalf of the New Democratic Party and speak about this bill.
As I mentioned earlier today, there are few topics that are more profound than those that involve crime and punishment. When we talk about punishment, we are talking about some of the most serious issues that any mature society can deal with. We are dealing with tragedy, with victims, with pain, damage, some of it permanent, and it is always something that legislators need to take with the most serious of intentions and the utmost good faith.
I am not sure that the bill before us, Bill C-31, was born out of that kind of approach. In the last six months, the prospects of Clifford Olson getting a pension came up in the news and the government then sprang into action, as it often does with crime bills, by governing by exception. The Conservatives will take a case that comes up in an exceptional circumstance and then they will rush to legislate, and I think this bill is a product of that. That is regrettable, and I would urge the government and all parliamentarians to take a more considered, more fact-based and more effective approach to making policy when it comes to Criminal Code amendments and when it comes to determining how we deal with those who have breached the rules of society.
Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act, I will say at once, suffers from a very common problem that is becoming increasingly used by the government, and that is the interjection of hyper-partisan short titles of the bill. I heard a cabinet minister today say that the opposition is just focusing on the short title. I think there is something more important at stake, and that is the integrity of the laws of the Government of Canada. There are many lawyers in the House. I myself am a lawyer, and the way that the government has interjected its own partisan leanings into what should be an objective and lawful description of the laws that all citizens of this country have to abide by is regrettable.
The Conservatives have described this bill in short form as the “Eliminating Entitlements for Prisoners Act”, which again is probably not accurate. For sure it is partisan and it does not do justice to what we as parliamentarians ought to be doing in the House.
The bill suspends payments of old age security and guaranteed income supplement payments to all persons 65 years of age and older while they are serving more than 90 days in a federal correctional facility. Of course, a person has to be sentenced to two years or more in order to be in a federal correctional facility in this country.
The bill would suspend payments of the spousal or survivor allowance to eligible individuals between 60 and 64 years of age, while that individual is serving time in a federal facility. The bill does maintain OAS and GIS payments to spouses and partners of those who are incarcerated. They are to receive these payments at the higher single rate, based on their individual, not combined, spousal income. To that degree, I would offer my approval and support to the government for at least having the foresight and care to not penalize spouses of those incarcerated in federal institutions who are over 60 years of age.
The bill would maintain the spousal allowance benefits to the spouse of incarcerated individuals. It also allows provinces to opt in by entering into agreements with the federal government to suspend OAS and GIS and spousal allowance benefits under the terms that I have mentioned, to all individuals incarcerated for a sentence that exceeds 90 days in a provincial facility.
Notwithstanding what I have just said, benefit payments would still be paid during the first month of incarceration, and benefit payments would resume the month that an individual was released on earned remission, parole, statutory release or warrant expiry upon application by that individual.
I want to first deal with a little bit of history, because I think this is instructive. It is interesting that prior to 1979 in this country, inmates in federal penitentiaries did not receive old age security or GIS.
Interestingly, I think Canadians would be very surprised to learn that it was a Conservative government, Joe Clark's government of 1979, that restored pensions to prisoners serving time in federal institutions.
I think this shows just how far the government has strayed from any notion of progressivity that once was a hallmark of the Conservative Party in this country, as it was then called the Progressive Conservative Party. Canadians need to know that Conservatives gave prisoners pensions in this country. I would ask that the members on the other side of the House reflect on that at some point and think about where they have come from and where they are going.
I have some quotes from the Hon. David Crombie, who was the Minister of National Health and Welfare at the time. This is what he said in 1979 when he, as a Conservative, was granting pensions to offenders in federal institutions in this country:
If I may refer now to the provision which will end the suspension of the OAS benefits for prisoners, this is also an improvement of some significance....
This provision has, over the course of years, proven both difficult and unfair. When OAS pensioners are imprisoned and their benefits are subject to suspension, any delay in effecting the suspension can result in overpayments which must be collected when the pension is released. Even if there is no overpayment, the lack of benefits during imprisonment can mean that these people are released with little money at an advanced age and few prospects for making a living.
There are fewer than 100 persons affected by this provision in any given year. The cost of maintaining payment of their OAS benefits is a small fraction of a per cent of program costs. However, if even one prisoner is able to find a better life as a result of this change, and one prisoner's spouse is not deprived of her allowance, it will be well worth the effort....
I invite the support of all members of this House for this particular step, to improve the humanity of a program now in place, and for the broader examination which we hope to carry out, in co-operation with provincial governments and the private sector, to ensure that we have the best possible pension system that we can afford to provide retirement protection for all Canadians.
That is what Conservatives said in 1979.
What they want to do now is strip pensions from certain people in this country, in this case prisoners, and they have done absolutely nothing to address senior poverty in this country or to improve the Canada pension plan or any pension legislation that will actually help our seniors have a retirement and live in dignity in their golden years.
That said, I also want to point out that at that time, in 1979, there were about 100 people who would be affected by the pension. It is not much different today. I have done some research and discovered a number of facts.
There are 398 people over the age of 65 in the federal corrections system. That was as of March 31. Interestingly, many countries have similar legislation, including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. At least six provinces and territories now stop social welfare for more than three months when people are in prison: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories.
I think it is important to ask the government where we sit in terms of comparing ourselves to other countries in the world when it comes to how we are dealing with issues such as this.
I want to talk about some of the positive aspects of the bill, because I think it has some positives and some negatives. First, there is an inherent and undeniable logic to suspending payments designed to provide for the basic necessities of life in cases where our taxpayers are already funding the basic necessities of life for people who are sentenced to federal prisons.
I want to stop there. That makes some sense. I think it would pass the smell test for Canadians that old age security is intended to provide a certain amount of money to seniors. It is not very much. I think it is approximately $10,000 a year, and that would go to helping a person pay for shelter and food. One could argue, and I think it is a valid argument, that if individuals are in a federal institution and already have their accommodation and food taken care of, the justification for receiving that OAS payment may not be there.
I think there is some small savings to this measure. It has been estimated that suspending OAS and GIS payments to prisoners over the age of 60 would save about $2 million a year immediately and up to $10 million per year if all provinces and territories opted into this program.
I want to reiterate that I think the way this legislation is drafted mitigates to an extent the financial impact on spouses of offenders in federal institutions by allowing them to receive OAS and GIS payments at the single rate and based on their individual rather than combined spousal income, although it must be recognized that a spouse of an offender and their family very likely would stand to be hurt by this provision because they would be deprived of that spouse's income that would otherwise come to the family.
There are some negative aspects of the bill. The constitutionality of these provisions has been questioned. Some may view this provision as an attempt to add a sentencing provision to someone. It brings up the concept of civil forfeiture, which was a concept abolished in the British Commonwealth system some 150 years ago. That is the notion that when people are convicted of a crime, the sentence that is carried out by the state is that they are deprived of their liberty and they are deprived of their ability to walk freely in society. Those I do not think should be underestimated in terms of the profundity and the impact of those losses.
But otherwise a person, even in a federal institution, still retains certain rights as a citizen. They have the right to vote. They have their basic human rights. They have the right to communicate with their lawyers. Stripping them of their private property, as was done in Britain 150 years ago where people convicted of an offence might have their property, personal or real, seized by the Crown, which would throw families into poverty, and where they had debtors' prisons, has been a concept that most mature, civilized societies have rejected. So the concept of stripping someone of an entitlement that is universal in this country may be seen in that respect.
I think it could be argued that this bill would violate the universality aspect of our OAS system, a principle that I think a lot of people in this House hold dear.
We do not accord universal health care or OAS payments generally based on our evaluation of whether that person is a likeable person or whether that person has done something with which we may disagree. We generally accord those principles to every Canadian citizen as a matter of citizenship and as a matter of right. It can be considered worrying that when we open the door to taking away a universal benefit such as this bill would propose, it may open a door to which there is a sliding scale, the destination of which we know not. An example could be that if the logic of this is why are we paying for prisoners' room and board when the taxpayer is already paying, it leads to an argument that maybe we should do that if a senior citizen breaks a hip and has to be in the hospital for three months. Could the argument then be made that while the taxpayer is already paying for the lodging and food for that person for the three months, therefore we should suspend that person's OAS or GIS payments for that three-month period?
What about people who are in psychiatric hospitals or under the care of the state for mental health issues? Is that the next argument that the government would make, that we should be stripping OAS and GIS from those people?
I think we have to be very aware of where this bill could take us.
As I pointed out, the bill would have an unavoidable negative financial effect on some spouses of inmates who would lose out on almost half of the joint income used to support them. This may have a significant negative impact on spouses who are under the age of 60 and are being supported by the OAS and GIS payments made to an individual who is subsequently incarcerated, because no federal pension benefits would be provided to them.
In those cases, HRSDC officials have indicated that the provincial social assistance systems would be required to support those individuals. Once again, I think we are seeing a case where a piece of federal legislation may have a deleterious effect on the provinces by downloading onto them the requirement to use their welfare programs to support certain people who otherwise would not need that support.
I think this is very similar to the two-for-one piece of legislation where the result of us taking away the two-for-one credit for pretrial custody would no doubt result in many more prisoners spending much more time in provincial remand centres and provincial institutions and cost the provinces much more money.
Suspending pensions for inmates may also affect their ability to make court-ordered restitution payments to victims, something that is widely recognized by victims' advocates as a key component of healing, and what criminal justice experts regard as an important rehabilitative process for offenders.
We must also remember that most offenders are already poor. In fact, poverty is one of the determinative causes of crime. For those individuals who are released back into society, there is a positive social benefit in having their difficult reintegration process aided by savings of several thousand dollars. This is true particularly for seniors, who will be even less likely to quickly find employment after release.
This government bill was targeted at individuals like Clifford Olson, which every member of this House agrees has committed crimes of unspeakable evil. We all agree that Mr. Olson should never, ever see the light of day, and that Mr. Olson should not get any entitlements beyond the bare minimum that a humane society would accord a prisoner like him. But whether or not that is a sound basis upon which to make policy is a different question.
I would have preferred to see the government introduce legislation that targeted the removal of pensions for people serving life sentences. That would have been a more measured approach that would have accomplished what I think is the goal. But this bill takes away OAS and GIS from every single senior in the federal system. We could have a member of our society who is 59 or 60 years old and who gets sentenced to 2, 3, or 4 years. That person may have an interest in maintaining an apartment or house, because he or she is going to come out in perhaps two or three years. This bill would have a very deleterious effect on such people.
This legislation was motivated by a desire to reflect Canadians' great distaste and horror at the prospect of Clifford Olson receiving a pension. But we must realize that this has broader effects.
I want to talk about something my hon. colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley brought up. It is a positive suggestion by our party that ought to be considered by the government, namely, if we support this bill and it is passed, we should take that $2 million to $10 million a year and, instead of putting it back into general revenue, put it into programs that aid the rehabilitation of senior prisoners.
We can leave aside the people who have life sentences, people like Clifford Olson. Rehabilitation is not an option for those individuals. We all agree on that. But there are 300 or so senior citizens in the federal system who are going to come out, and who did not commit crimes like Mr. Olson. They are not murderers. They have not committed manslaughter. They are people who have been convicted of all manner of crimes, but most of their crimes are not anywhere near those that Clifford Olson committed. Perhaps we can take that money and do some good with it. We can target that money to programming that will help them reintegrate into society.
Steve Sullivan, the victims' ombudsperson, who was not reappointed by the government, has pointed out that victims do not want offenders to serve longer periods of time. They do not want them to suffer unduly. All they want is for those offenders to come back into society and not reoffend. They want to be able to walk safely in their communities and in our streets. That is what those victims want. It is what we all want. Any policy measure, any bill, any piece of legislation that is considered by this House should be measured against that standard. Will it help that offender not to reoffend? If it does not, then we know that we are playing politics. We are not making sound policy.
I also want to talk a bit about pensions. It is interesting that the government has done nothing to improve the pensions or the income security of seniors since it was elected in 2006. The government has been in power for coming up to five years, and that is a decent amount of time for government to reveal what its agenda really—