Madam Speaker, I am certainly pleased to rise in support of Bill C-55. I am just trying to get over the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore's suggestion that he might possibly vote for a budget. It came as quite a shock. I was caught off guard here for a moment.
This is an important step forward in dealing with the very important issues that veterans have raised. As a matter of fact, those who attended the veterans affairs committee today heard the ombudsman encourage us all to move on and get this bill forward. The reason we want to move it forward is, although it does not answer all the questions, it brings these incredibly important issues forward and makes these payments available to those veterans as soon as possible. Therefore, I encourage all members to support the bill and get it through.
This new enhanced veterans charter act only fulfills a promise made by the Minister of Veterans Affairs to improve the financial benefits available to injured Canadian Forces members and veterans. However, it also reflects how this government listens to our veterans.
The measures I speak to today amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act proposed by the previous government, commonly known as the new veterans charter. The act received royal assent in 2005, passing unanimously through both this House and the other place.
At the time, it was a groundbreaking piece of legislation. It focused on giving our service men and women the tools to live healthy and productive lives once out in the civilian world. We are hearing that more and more, not about the payments on a regular basis but the support mechanisms, the compensation, and the initiatives that help these brave men and women get back into regular life and live a good, normal life for as long as they possibly can.
Experts agree with the approach. Various advisory councils agreed with this approach as well. We knew at the outset that developing new legislation for our new generation of veterans would not be without its challenges. Today we are five years into the new veterans charter and have gained valuable insight and experience.
We rarely acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns with the charter and we are responding to them in real and meaningful ways. Although it will not all be fixed at once, this definitely is a very important step forward. That is why we have introduced these changes that will benefit thousands of veterans over the coming five years. These improvements underscore our government's deep commitment to repay the growing debt we owe Canada's veterans and their families.
Following extensive discussions with veterans right across the country, we have proposed our first step in moving the veterans' concerns forward.
The bill contains three key financial benefits that will improve the life of thousands of new veterans.
First, it improves access to the permanent impairment allowance under the new veterans charter and the exceptional incapacity allowance under the Pension Act.
Second, it introduces a $1,000-a-month supplement for severely injured veterans who are unable to be gainfully employed and who are already receiving the permanent impairment allowance.
Finally, it gives Canadian Forces members and veterans a choice on payment options for the disability award.
One of the key features of the new veterans charter is the disability award, or lump sum payment as it is better known. Certainly, we have talked about this at length in the past few months.
For the record, I am not sure how much clearer I can be than to say that the disability award is for pain and suffering. I would like to say this in no uncertain terms. The disability award is not a pension. It is not a monetary pension set for that purpose. It is to recognize the pain and suffering these terrific people have gone through.
Each of these improvements is designed to address concerns we have heard from veterans and their families, other stakeholders, as well as through our own evaluations. They spoke and we have listened. Now we are acting, just like we said we would do all along.
Allow me to provide some detail on each of these important initiatives.
The permanent impairment allowance and the exceptional incapacity allowance provide monthly support for veterans whose disabilities result in permanent and severe impairments. They also recognize that serious injuries such as amputation, loss of vision, hearing or speech, or severe and permanent psychiatric conditions are not only physically devastating but can result in diminished employment potential.
It takes very little imagination to see that they can affect a person's ability to earn a living. As we know, that inability to support one's self can be just as devastating to one's health as the physical injury.
These allowances were a progressive move but in retrospect access was too limited. Currently, only a handful of veterans receive it, and clearly it is not providing the support and financial independence it was supposed to provide. By adjusting the eligibility criteria for these allowances, thousands more veterans will be eligible to receive monthly financial support.
The permanent impairment allowance provides $536 to $1,609 per month to seriously injured veterans, depending on the extent of their injuries. Our determination to stand by our veterans and men and women in uniform does not end there. These new changes also offer up to $1,269 per month under the exceptional impairment allowance.
Many individuals with serious disabilities can and do continue to work with the help of rehabilitation and other supports. Some, however, simply cannot. Additional measures in Bill C-55 offer an extra $1,000 per month to veterans who receive the permanent impairment allowance and who cannot return to work at all at full potential due to the severity of their impairment.
While the new veterans charter in place today is a great foundation, we recognize the need for adjustments in legislation to address the shortcomings we have only come to realize through experience.
Through consultation with veterans and their advocates and with good research and study, we now know what can be adapted and adjusted to better fit the evolving needs of modern day veterans and their families. Veterans themselves have told us what we need to do and we are doing it.
A perfect example of that feedback is how we have made some changes in the regulations for the earnings loss benefit, another financial support under the new veterans charter.
Changes to our regulations will guarantee recipients of the monthly earnings loss benefit a minimum of $40,000 per year, no matter what their salary was when they were serving in the Canadian Forces. This important change will benefit veterans who were released early in their careers when they held a low rank in the military or for those veterans who were released years ago when military salaries were much lower.
Finally, this legislation would provide veterans with a choice of how they wish to receive their disability award.
This tax free disability award was established to recognize the pain and suffering caused by a service-related injury. As I mentioned earlier, it does not replace a pension. In fact, it was a completely new benefit in 2006. There was never recognition for the non-economic losses associated with an injury prior to the new veterans charter.
This new legislation would allow veterans to choose whether to receive their disability award as a lump sum, in annual payments, or a combination of each. Furthermore, at any time, veterans who so choose may change their minds and receive the remaining amount as a lump sum payment.
This action was taken because veterans themselves asked for it. The decision demonstrates our government's commitment to amend and improve elements of the new veterans charter. It is not about turning back the clock but instead responding to sound advice and recommendations, so that we have a strong array of programs geared to the needs of our modern day veterans.
This government's priority is to ensure that Canada's veterans and their families have the support they need when they need it. We are committed to extending these supports as soon as possible, and we urge the House to join us in giving veterans what they need to live their lives with honour and respect, comfort and dignity.
The minister has worked hard on bringing forward a lot of changes. We have heard a lot about the many changes over the past year. We heard the many concerns that were expressed and we are responding to those in a timely fashion. As well, changes are taking place within the department to better adapt to and respond to the needs of our veterans on a first case basis.
Along with what else is going on, we believe that this initiative today is not the end of the journey, but is a strong start in response to those important priorities veterans have brought before us over these past few months.