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House of Commons Hansard #11 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was seniors.

Topics

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

June 20th, 2011 / 11:05 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

moved:

That, in the opinion of this House, ending seniors' poverty in Canada is fiscally feasible, and, therefore, the House calls on the government to take immediate steps to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement sufficiently to achieve that goal.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin this morning's debate with a few illustrations of why this motion is so important.

We are talking about the people in our communities, seniors like Cliff Stafford from Oshawa who, after 50 years of hard work as a mechanic, has to rely on food banks to feed himself. That is wrong. He lost his wife nine years ago, he still has a mortgage to pay, and he is grappling with an illness. He watches every penny he spends, but the money just does not stretch far enough.

There is Tony from Vancouver who was a former real estate agent. After a divorce and two bouts with cancer, all of her RRSPs have been cashed in and she has no savings left. At 62, she cannot afford a place to live.

There is Frank, a senior in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, whose bills for basic utilities have gone up by $20 a month because of the government's HST. This may not seem like a lot of money, but it is when one is trying to make ends meet. It is cold up there and turning off the heat is not an option.

There is also Joey Jayne in Winnipeg who was forced into early retirement due to an injury at her workplace. She is now forced to use a food bank as her small pension and benefits are just not enough.

In Winnipeg, the number of seniors using food banks nearly doubled last year. Sadly, this is a trend right across the country. In Waterloo, one in four users of food banks are seniors.

The plight of seniors living in poverty is unnecessary and easily addressed with a targeted increase to the GIS. That is the reason why this motion is so very important. With a small investment, we can make a significant impact on the everyday lives of seniors. This is intelligent, practical and affordable. This targeted increase to the GIS would cost significantly less than the $700 million that the government gave to the G20.

To give the House some perspective, the Senate of Canada costs Canadian taxpayers $106 million a year. Since April 2006, the federal government has spent over $125 million on hospitality expenses. The Government of Canada spent $26 million in three months on advertising its economic action plan before the last election. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the total federal advertising cost taxpayers $136.3 million. From 2006-10, the government spent over $6 million on Google word ads.

Perhaps the government would prefer not to make cuts to advertising or hospitality, but we could look to where the government is now losing revenue. Last year corporate tax cuts cost the government $8 billion and $6 billion this year. A tiny fraction of this amount would be enough to bring our seniors out of poverty.

The GIS, which is supposed to help seniors, actually forces many seniors, especially those who are single, into poverty. The amount of money they have to live on is not enough to make ends meet. If they try to earn more, their benefits are clawed back, which further condemns them to poverty. The motion before the House today would give those seniors enough money to bring them up to a reasonable standard of living without facing clawbacks of the benefits they depend on for quality of life.

The National Union of Public and General Employees outlines the critical problem with the small GIS increase in the most recent budget. NUPGE argues that the government's increase would provide only $1.64 a day for single seniors and $2.30 for couples. This amount would only go to those with less than $2,000 in annual income, excluding moneys from OAS and GIS. Any income over $2,000 and seniors would see their increase clawed back at the rate of 75%. It is shameful that we would expect anyone to try to scrape by on so little and then penalize them if they manage to make a little more money to buy food and other necessities.

According to CARP, Ontario is home to 1.7 million people receiving OAS. Of that group, over 475,000 Ontarians receive GIS benefits.

Eligibility for GIS is based on a maximum income, other than OAS, of $15,888 per year for an unattached person over 65 and $20,976 for a married couple. Individuals living just above the income threshold are ineligible for GIS benefits. This is not a lot of money when one considers the cost of rent, prescription drugs, and all the other bills that have to be paid, particularly for unattached seniors. It is for those who do not have pension savings or an adequate income that this motion is designed to help.

The maximum benefits that one can receive from OAS and GIS combined is $1,191. That is just over $14,000 a year. This money will barely cover rent in most cities in this country and that is a travesty, especially since it is something that we can fix.

Canada is a rich and privileged country. We need to support our seniors because it is the ethical thing to do and practical in terms because our seniors support the economy and their families. We depend on seniors' volunteer work. We depend on their help with child care. We depend on them to participate in the economy. They can do none of this if they are struggling in poverty.

Today, we are talking about our parents and our grandparents, but our handling of their concerns will affect not just them but also our generation and that of our children.

Seniors represent one of the fastest growing populations in Canada today. The number of seniors in Canada is projected to increase from 4.2 million to 9.8 million between 2005 and 2036. With so many more seniors retiring in the years to come, we need to have a social safety net in place now to avoid dramatic increases in the rate of poverty in the future.

The concerns for the future are very real. Today, only 38.5% of Canadian workers have workplace pensions and nearly one-third have no retirement savings at all. More than 3.5 million Canadians are not saving enough in RRSPs for what used to be called their golden years, and 75% of workers are not even participating in a registered pension plan.

Clearly, the notion that retirement savings can be adequately accounted for through purchases of RRSPs does not work and urgent government action is needed.

It should further be noted that private retirement savings are concentrated in a small percentage of families. According to Statistics Canada, 25% of families hold 84% of these assets, while 3 out of 10 families have no private pensions at all.

Seniors have worked hard all their lives. They have played by the rules. They simply want access to the programs and services that their hard-earned tax dollars helped to build. Programs such as the GIS are essential to their full participation in Canadian society. They allow seniors to retire with the dignity and respect they deserve.

But when income supports are inadequate, there are terrible consequences. One of my constituents, Ruth, lives with her daughter now because she cannot afford to live on her own. Ruth's daughter has lost time from work to care for her mother. But when Ruth's daughter attempted to claim a caregiver amount on taxes to assist with lost wages, she was denied because Ruth's income was $1,057 over the yearly maximum allowable, even though Ruth's income leaves her below the poverty line.

There is also Judy Howe and her husband from Halifax who struggle to get by. Their rent is nearly $1,000 per month, leaving them with very little for food. In the public housing for seniors, where they live, they battle mice and rarely have access to hot water or heat.

Every senior in Canada has the absolute right to income security. In a series of polls conducted by the Canadian Labour Congress in 2004, 73% of Canadians polled said that they worried about not having enough income to live after retirement. The number of people who worried about income security had increased by almost 20% from two years before.

Canadians are worried about the solvency of their private pensions, the adequacy of both CPP and public income support, and their ability to cope with what Statistics Canada confirms is a higher inflation rate for seniors and for the average Canadian. Those fears are well-founded.

For instance, in London, Ontario, McCormick, which later became known as Beta Brands, a food processing firm which had been part of manufacturing in our community for more than 100 years, was purchased in 2007 by a Florida investment firm. The company laid off the entire workforce of 275 workers. It closed the plant and denied the workers their vacation pay, severance pay, and denied them their pensions.

Many of the workers at Beta Brands had been there for 35 to 40 years. Some were married couples. When the plant closed, many of these workers were utterly destitute. Despite having worked all their lives, the employees of Beta Brands face poverty and a loss of quality of life in their senior years. While this motion will not give them back their pensions, it will ease the pressure on their monthly bills.

In total, more than a quarter million seniors live below the poverty line. Since the mid-1990s, the income of seniors has reached a ceiling and the gap between the revenues of seniors and those of other Canadians is now increasing. According to the government's own national advisory council on aging, between 1997 and 2003 the mean income of senior households increased by $4,100 while the average income of other Canadian households increased by $9,000.

The situation is even more pronounced for seniors living alone. A life of poverty is most prevalent among women, those widowed, separated or divorced, recent immigrants, tenants, those without private pension coverage, and not surprisingly those with low wages.

Senior women face harsh realities upon retirement. The poverty rate for senior women is almost double the poverty rate for senior men. In particular, unattached women remain very vulnerable. They make up 60% of seniors living below the poverty line. In 2003, according to a Government of Canada report, 154,000 unattached senior women lived in poverty.

How do our mothers and grandmothers end up living in poverty? There are many reasons. Women's unpaid work makes their risk of poverty higher and results in less access to private pensions. Older women tend to have lower incomes because they live longer, which leaves them at greater risk of using up their savings as time goes by. Immigrant women are particularly vulnerable. Many over the age of 65, who have lived in Canada for 10 years or less, are without any income at all. Senior women receive smaller pension incomes because of the wage difference between men and women. Most divorced women do not claim a portion of their former spouses' pension even though they are entitled to it. Many retirement plans do not compensate for absences to raise children or look after sick relatives and we know that these absences are generally taken by women.

The ratio of male-to-female earnings tells a story of persistent, systematic inequality between male and female incomes, whether from employment or pensions. Women are concentrated in low wage and part-time jobs where there is rarely a pension available at all.

Women who are able to work are still at a disadvantage. Women in this country work for pay at 75% of their potential working years, whereas men work for 94% of their potential working years. Consequently, women have less opportunity to save for their pension. More men than women save through RRSPs because men tend to make more money and they are able to put more money aside for their retirement.

I think that it is very important to emphasize that these senior women living in poverty did not end up there the day they retired. It was the poverty of their youth or the near poverty that prevented them from setting aside money for retirement. That is the real source and genesis of this problem.

Senior women, whose spouses pass away, face a reduction in their partners' private pension and CPP, a deduction of 40%. This is problematic as some women may not be able to afford to maintain their standard of living. Expenses for a single person are about 70% of the living expenses for a couple. This has the potential to drive women into poverty as many senior women depend on their spouses' pension for the couple's income.

Our senior women need access to pension dollars, whether they work outside the home or in the home raising a family. Our mothers, our grandmothers, our fathers, our grandfathers, they all deserve the right to live in dignity, the right not to live in poverty.

Another of my constituents, Maria, is turning 65 next month and is currently on a provincial disability support plan. Maria learned that her CPP entitlement would be a meagre $22.49 per month and that she would be eligible for OAS in the amount of $286.89 per month. Maria receives assistance for incontinence and diabetic supplies through the provincial disability program, of about $500 per month, but she will not be eligible for the extra medical expenses through OAS. She is worried about how she will manage when she is on the Canada pension plan and no longer entitled to this extra provincial help. Maria thought that her monthly income would decline by about $1,500 with the extra medical assistance and that her income would be $309.38 a month to live on. No one told her about the GIS top-up and, as a result, Maria was experiencing profound anxiety regarding her financial difficulties to come.

Maria came to my constituency office in great distress, having been told there was no other help for her. I am lucky to have a wonderful and compassionate staff who went to work for Maria. My office was able to quickly determine that she was eligible for the GIS top-up, equalling $902.08 monthly. With GIS, OAS and CPP, she will receive $1,191.85 monthly, but she will still fall well below the $1,500 that she was receiving on disability. Maria is expected to manage on less than $15,000 a year, which is well below the poverty line.

This motion will go a long way in helping Maria to make ends meet.

Another woman, a 63-year-old from Waterloo, spends the majority of her disability pension on rent. This leaves her with a mere $48 per month to live on. She is on a six-year waiting list to get into affordable housing.

Our Party, the New Democrats, have been fighting for the rights of seniors for many years. When the GIS was first introduced as a bill in the House, New Democrats were there speaking in support to eliminate the poverty of our seniors. I would like to quote New Democrat Grace MacInnes, who spoke in this very chamber on December 5, 1966, on behalf of the poor and in support of the GIS. Grace said:

When I think of the elderly people of this country, those who have built this country, have hewn its forests and tilled its fields, have made its homes and raised its children, have worked its mines and fished its shores, those elderly men and women both in my riding and in ridings across the country who have nothing to depend on except their community for which they have worked so long and so hard, people who believed and had faith in the minister's statement that something much better would be in store for them,. I am reminded of a verse which puts the situation much more eloquently than I could put it:

Two things, says Kant, fill me with awe,
The starry heavens and the moral law
And yet a third, more awful and obscure,
The long, long patience of the plundered poor.

I feel, Mr. Chairman, that the elderly people of this country have certainly had the long, long patience. But this government has permitted them to be plundered of their heritage and their birthright, which surely is to finish out their days in this country in comfort, with modern living standards and in security. I appeal to the minister to cut out playing with words and to amend the legislation so that we may once again go back to an across-the-board old age pension in this country as of right. I ask the minister to undertake a study to fix an income level which we can truly call a guaranteed income for the elderly people of this country.

Mr. Speaker, we have come a long way since those days in improving pensions, but there is much more to do. Grace's words are as true today as they were in 1966.

We in the New Democratic Party will never stop making proposals for seniors. We did in the past and we will continue in the future. We will, again and again, move motions to protect seniors, because they are our parents and grandparents, the builders of this nation.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, the Liberals have recommended a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy and, of course, campaigned on increasing the GIS, as well.

I wonder if the member could comment on the recent research showing that reducing income inequality in a society, in a country, actually benefits all members of that society from reduced crime levels, improved health and in terms of a number of other quality of life metrics.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, the member is quite right that there is a profound benefit for every single member of our community from reducing poverty among all members of our community.

We do, indeed, see increased costs to society in regard to health care. If people cannot afford a decent home, cannot put good food on the table and are constantly in stress, spending all of their days trying to figure out how they are going to manage, how they are going to raise their kids or, in the case of seniors, how they are going to meet those bills, prescription drug bills, rent, transportation, then their health is impacted.

A lot of seniors end up in emergency rooms. In fact 30% of the beds in emergency rooms are occupied by seniors in distress.

We have seen statistics that the cost of poverty in this country is about $30 billion a year. That $30 billion comes out of our economy because we do not have the wherewithal to look after the people in need, our seniors and our children, the people who depend on us.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:25 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the member for London—Fanshawe for very ably outlining the dilemma and the dire circumstances actually facing many seniors in this country.

The member talked about the fact that in many of our cities and towns, seniors cannot afford rent. I know in my own riding that I have had seniors come to me and say that after living in their community for many years, they have had to move because they can no longer afford the rent in Duncan.

One of the things the member for London—Fanshawe touched on was the changing circumstances for many seniors. I know that in my riding and others we are seeing an increasing number of seniors raising their grandchildren. In Nanaimo—Cowichan, Joy and Carl are a couple of seniors who have had to take in their young grandchildren because of the changed life circumstances of their own children.

I wonder if the member could comment on the fact that not only have our seniors been working hard all their lives and hoping to retire with dignity and a comfortable existence, but now because of the economic times many of them are having to take in and raise their grandchildren. That is simply not something most of us would expect to do. I wonder if the member could comment on that.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:25 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, that is a very important question because it is a very serious reality.

In the province of Ontario, we hear more and more about seniors who are indeed raising grandchildren, because their own children are without work, having experienced economic or marital difficulties of some kind. The end result is that these seniors are indeed looking after the next generation, but without any supports.

There are no provincial benefits. The federal government does not have any programs in place to support and help these seniors. We need affordable housing. We need universal child care. We need all kinds of systems in place to help people manage.

Unfortunately, the current government has seen fit to deny Canadians all of these important support systems. That puts everyone, including seniors, in jeopardy.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:25 a.m.

Bloc

André Bellavance Bloc Richmond—Arthabaska, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to inform the member that the Bloc Québécois will support her motion. I would be very surprised if any member in this House did not support this motion for seniors.

Does she believe that the government has its priorities right when, for example, the purchase of fighter jets will cost the government $35 billion and a one-point GST cut means the government loses $12 billion to $13 billion?

If members of the Conservative government vote in favour of this motion today, does the member believe that the government will finally make poverty a priority and take action to bring seniors out of poverty, specifically by giving them easy access to the guaranteed income supplement to bring them above the poverty line, with $110 per month, instead of the $50 included in the budget?

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:25 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, it would not surprise anyone in the least to hear me say that the current government's priorities are askew. They have nothing to do with the reality of the people the government is supposed to serve.

If we look at budget 2011, which was just passed, less than half of what is needed to lift all seniors out of poverty was allocated in the budget. Yet as the member pointed out, $35 billion was made available for fighter jets.

Here it is interesting to note that the government is quite prepared to support the aerospace industry in the United States but not in Canada. In addition, there are concerns that by the time the jets are delivered, they will be obsolete. They are designed for air-to-air combat, which is something Canada is not likely to do. There are suspicions that the jets are going to be used strictly on standby for the Americans, when they decide to bomb a country or take out their frustrations with regard to another country and launch a war.

We have seen tax cuts for profitable corporations to the tune of $60 billion. That is $60,000 million. If we can afford to give the fat-cat corporations this largesse, surely we can afford to raise our parents and grandparents out of poverty.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:30 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, in this important debate, I would be interested to know if the hon. member and her caucus have been considering the advantages of a nationwide guaranteed annual income or guaranteed livable income that would apply to all Canadians without a needs test.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, that is a thoughtful question. Of course, a guaranteed annual income is something that has come up over the decades quite consistently with New Democrats and, I suspect, with others. When one considers the advantages of making sure there is adequate income, the advantages are profound.

I go back to the first question with regard to ensuring the health and welfare of members of our community. People simply cannot manage. They cannot raise kids, look for work, or be contributors to the society and economy that are depending on them if they are constantly worried about income.

As I pointed out, the cost of poverty in this country is reckoned to be about $30 billion. We cannot afford that; we can only afford to look after people.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, I want to ask my hon. colleague a question regarding an issue that is prevalent across rural parts of this country, certainly in my area, the utility bills that impoverished people, especially seniors, have to pay.

There is one charity organization in Toronto called Share the Warmth whose whole point is to produce electricity credits for those who are impoverished and vulnerable, because one of the last things that happens when their utilities are cut off is that they become officially homeless. A lot of seniors in my area fall victim to that simply because they have homes they have owned for many years and on which they pay no mortgages, but which are large, inefficient and very expensive to heat.

I was wondering if my hon. colleague could comment on that and how we can make certain strategic investments to help seniors with utilities.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, yes, the cost of utilities is driving seniors out of their homes and that is why New Democrats proposed removing the HST from the cost of heating and utilities. When they fall behind in paying their utilities, the cost to have their utilities reconnected is horrific and simply beyond their means.

In the last budget the government reintroduced the retrofit program, but only for one year. It is not enough. There has to be some intelligent long-term planning in terms of how we address the needs of our communities, and increasing the GIS would be among them.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:30 a.m.

Simcoe—Grey Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member for London—Fanshawe on her recent re-election to the House of Commons.

Since this is my first speech since the election and the start of the new Parliament, I will take a moment to thank a few people.

First, I thank the Prime Minister for appointing me as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour. I truly appreciate being entrusted with this responsibility. It will be a pleasure and a privilege to work with these ministers.

I thank my family for their ongoing love and support, especially during the election campaign, my father, Kit Leitch, my siblings, Melanie and Michael, and our extended family who provided me with so much overwhelming support.

I also thank every person who worked on my campaign team, especially Ted Rowe, John Hethrington, Charlie Tatham, Sidney Stevenson, Ernie Purkis and Jacquie Noble. Their dedication and support will never be forgotten.

Last, but not least, I thank the people of Simcoe—Grey who put their trust in me to represent them in Ottawa.

The motion by the hon. member for London—Fanshawe calls on the government to take immediate action to increase the guaranteed income supplement, which is exactly what we have done and which is why we will be supporting this motion today.

In the Speech from the Throne, we announced that the low tax plan that our government is committed to implement will include:

A permanent increase in the guaranteed income supplement for some 680,000 of the most vulnerable seniors.

In budget 2011, we have clearly demonstrated that we are determined to contribute to the security of seniors who have worked all their lives to build a better Canada and to be able to retire with dignity. It should come as no surprise to members opposite as this Conservative government announced we would do this in the first budget 2011.

On the campaign trail, the Prime Minister said:

Although Canada has a strong system of support for retired seniors, there are still too many Canadian seniors who experience financial difficulties. A re-elected Conservative Government will ensure that we provide assistance to those seniors most in need, in recognition of the contributions they have made to our country.

That is a promise kept.

In the next phase of Canada's economic action plan, we will enhance the guaranteed income supplement for seniors who depend almost exclusively on old age security and the supplement. As of July 2011, eligible seniors will receive up to $600 a year in extra benefits in the case of seniors living alone, or up to $840 in the case of couples.

This increase will help the most vulnerable seniors, especially widows and single women with low incomes, to make ends meet.

We are talking about the greatest increase in the GIS for the lowest income seniors in 25 years. That is not nothing. Let me also point out that, because of the measures we adopted soon after we took power in 2006, seniors and pensioners have now benefited from almost $1 billion annually in increases in the GIS and will benefit from targeted tax relief of $2.3 billion in 2011-12.

What are these tax breaks? First, we raised the age credit by $1,000 in 2006 and by another $1,000 in 2009. Second, we doubled the maximum amount of pension revenue that is eligible for a pension tax credit, which has gone up to $2,000. Third, we have allowed pension splitting. Finally, we have raised the age limit for converting pensions and registered retirement savings plans from 69 to 71.

As a result of our tax relief measures, 85,000 seniors have been removed from the tax roles entirely. In 2011, a single senior will earn at least $19,064 and a senior couple will earn at least $38,128 before paying any federal income tax.

It is clear that an important dimension of economic well-being for the senior population is the income at their disposal relative to the working population. A good income security system contributes to maintaining the standard of living of seniors and minimizes the risk of poverty. This year almost $70 billion will be paid out to Canadians through Canada's public pension system, which includes old age security and the Canadian pension plan.

The guaranteed income supplement, or GIS, is part of the old age security program. For this program alone, more than 1.6 million seniors received more than $7.7 billion in 2009-10. This is in addition to the $26.4 billion provided to 4.6 million OAS pensioners. It provides extra support to seniors with little or no income and has been instrumental in reducing poverty among seniors in Canada. That is why we have enhanced the GIS benefit by 7%, over and above the cost of living, since 2006.

The numbers speak for themselves. Canada has one of the lowest rates of senior poverty among the countries in the OECD. It is lower than that of Denmark, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. We are proud that the rate of low income among seniors has steadily decreased from a high of 21.3% in 1980 to less than 6% today. Canadians can take pride in this notable achievement. We have also changed the rules so recipients can earn up to $3,500 without affecting the benefit amounts.

Given that our economy is so fragile, in spite of the recovery, we must limit our spending while keeping tax levels low. In addition, given the aging population and other demographic challenges, there will be significant pressures placed on Canada's pension system in the coming years. We need to be fiscally responsible now to ensure support remains available for those poor most in need.

The $300 million a year increase in the guaranteed income supplement allows us to focus our efforts on those seniors who need it most.

This is a balanced approach. It allows us to help the most vulnerable among us while fostering efforts to boost growth and create jobs.

However, what we have not heard from the opposition is a concrete plan. We see a general concept in this motion, which we will support and believe we have addressed this in the budget, but we do not see a strategy or a costed proposal. Depending on the measure of poverty that is referred to, the NDP may be talking about a $2 billion a year increase in government costs. In an era of fiscal restraint, one is left wondering how we might fund such a program.

It raises a question as to whether we would be perpetually required to increase funding as we chase a relative measure such as the low income cutoff. Using LICO, which relies on an average, requires perfect equality for all income brackets to end poverty.

While we support this motion and we believe we have addressed this issue in the budget, we would like some clarification from the members across on what they are actually using to define poverty, because, as I noted earlier, Canada has one of the lowest instances of senior poverty in the world.

Everyone, including our government, is concerned about the financial security of our seniors.

However, to be effective, we need to target our interventions. It is in this spirit that we brought in the largest increase in the guaranteed income supplement for the lowest of income seniors in 25 years to help those seniors who need it the most.

For the most part, the majority of individuals who will receive the top up are women, women who may never have worked outside the home long enough to build a retirement pension in their own name or contribute significantly to the Canada pension plan, women who have had informal precarious jobs without any social benefits, and women who reach the age of retirement without sufficient private retirement pension benefits even though they have made a huge and valuable contribution to their family, their community and to our society.

We are proud of what we are doing to ensure the financial security of our seniors. Efforts over the past few years to reduce poverty among seniors have borne fruit and the statistics speak for themselves.

We are indebted to the previous generations who built this great country.

We owe it to our seniors to ensure they have a high quality of life and that they can retire in dignity.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate my colleague on her maiden speech. It has been both interesting and fascinating to hear words and more words. All the gestures that we have heard from the government in the past are nothing more than gestures because it still has left a quarter of a million seniors in poverty.

If the member wants to know where the money will come from, I have a simple solution. If we look at the tax cuts that the government is giving, the largesse that I spoke of, we can easily find the money: $60 billion In tax cuts to profitable corporations; and $20 billion in terms of what has been given to the banks over the years.

All we are talking about is $700 million. It is a lot of money but it is about the cost of a G8 photo op. We can afford it. We cannot afford to allow our seniors to be impoverished.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, again I ask about the NDP proposal and how it would lift seniors out of poverty. The NDP proposal is unrealistic. It would actually cost $2 billion annually, not $700 million as stated by the NDP. In our current fiscal environment this is not realistic.

The top up of the GIS of more than $300 million annually is the largest increase for the lowest income seniors in a quarter century. This will reduce the depth of poverty for seniors living in poverty by over $500 annually.

I would ask the member opposite to give us a specific costing plan so that we can understand how much this would cost Canadian taxpayers.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, from my understanding, and I think I have this correct, the government will support the motion, which reads:

That, in the opinion of this House, ending seniors' poverty in Canada is fiscally feasible, and, therefore, the House calls on the government to take immediate steps to increase the guaranteed income supplement sufficiently to achieve that goal.

If I am not mistaken, the vast majority of literature that exists on ending the two pillars of the OAS and the GIS calls for that increase to be in excess of $700 million. What we are seeing here is a $300 million investment by the government, which is actually less than half. I am not quite sure if the government can really support this unless something more is coming, which would be appreciated.

I am wondering if the parliamentary secretry could tell the House what she heard on the campaign. Is there more to come given the wording of this motion?

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, the government is committed to the well-being of low income seniors and we have taken several steps.

The government has increased the GIS by more than $1 billion per year over the last number of sessions. In 2006, we increased the GIS by $18 per month for single seniors and $29 per month for couples. In 2007, we increased it again by the same amount, an increase of approximately $700 million annually. Now, in 2011, we have introduced a GIS top up for those most in need, and I emphasize that, of $50 for single recipients and $35 for each member of a couple. In addition, we have increased GIS earnings exemptions from $500 to $3,500 before paying tax.

We have taken numerous other initiatives, whether that be income splitting for seniors on their pension incomes, or the tax free savings accounts. This government has moved forward on numerous other initiatives in order to support those people who built our country.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Robert Chisholm NDP Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments made by the hon. parliamentary secretary. She talked a lot about how we would pay for this and what would be the plan.

As my colleague, the member for London—Fanshawe, explained, we put forward a very clear strategy on how to increase the GIS, and that is by spending $700 million. As has been said, it is a lot of money, but it is clearly something that is within the government's capacity. That would lift all seniors now living in poverty out of poverty.

We also talked considerably in the election, and prior to the election, about strengthening and expanding the Canada pension plan. That would enable seniors and other Canadians to realize not only a pension that would provide them with some standard of living, but one that would be affordable. It was a phased in strategy that both employees and employers would be able to contribute to and that would be affordable.

My question for the hon. parliamentary secretary is this. We have provided a lot of solutions. Why does the government continue to choose to pour billions of dollars into the coffers of corporate executives rather than ensure that our seniors can eat and pay their rent?

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, again, this government has done a significant amount for those seniors who have helped build our country. Whether it be pension income splitting, or an increase in the GIS or the increase in the exemption from $500 to $3,500, the government has shown that it supports seniors and especially low income seniors.

In addition to that, we would like to see the true costing of the NDP plan. What are the details for the $700 million plan? We know that is unrealistic and could cost Canadians as much as $2 billion annually. In our current fiscal environment this is truly not realistic.

The top-up for the GIS is more than $300 million annually. It is the largest increase for our lowest income seniors in a quarter century. Will the members opposite support this?

Will the NDP please tell us the costing of its plan? We believe it is $2 billion.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:50 a.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have a question for my colleague on the government side.

In my riding, seniors who have a hard time making ends meet are asking me why the government is giving money to big corporations and to the heads of the major banks and oil companies. They are asking me why these companies are receiving tax credits when they are able to manage.

Could my colleague tell me why these people are getting preferential treatment over our seniors who are living in poverty?

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, as I have mentioned already, the government has been focused on supporting Canadian seniors, particularly low income seniors.

The additional GIS top-up is over $300 million annually and will benefit over 680,000 of our lowest income seniors. It is the most significant increase in a quarter century. When combined with the 2006 and 2007 GIS increases, the government has provided over a billion dollars per year in annual benefits to GIS recipients over and above the regular index.

The GIS top-up was designed to target the lowest income seniors who are the most in need. This includes approximately 460,000 women, many of whom have made a valuable contribution to their families, their communities and Canadian society.

Targeted benefits to the lowest income seniors allow resources to be used effectively. In the current fiscal environment, we believe this is fiscally responsible.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I want to bring it back to real people, the seniors who need the money.

As I am sure all members have heard, seniors are not getting enough money to have a disposable income that enables them to buy the necessary drugs and medications, or to take their grandchildren out for a meal.

Does the member believe the government is giving enough for seniors to suffice over the next couple of years, or does she anticipate more will coming in the next year or two over and above what the government is currently committed to doing?

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, as I mentioned before, these seniors have built our country.

In addition to the GIS top-up that we have talked about, this government has made significant investments in seniors: $10 million to increase the funding to the new horizons seniors program; $50 million as a targeted initiative for older workers; and a pooled registered pension plan is a commitment on which the provinces and territories have been working together.

This government is committed to seniors. We have shown that in the past and we have shown it in budget 2011.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate you on being elected to this new Parliament.

Today we are looking at an NDP motion from our colleague from London—Fanshawe, calling for an end to poverty among the seniors, something we have talked about for some time. The member says that the government should use the guaranteed income supplement to accomplish that goal.

However, seniors collecting the GIS are not the only seniors facing challenges. This is the problem with the NDP. Focusing just on the GIS is insufficient.

We need to start to look at the real issues of poverty, pension income replacement and quality of life for all seniors in a much more holistic way. Trying to pass off a one-size-fits-all solution is irresponsible, reckless and short-sighted.

As the critic for seniors, pensions and women's issues, I will vote for this motion. I would expect all of us in the House would and should vote for it, but it is very limited when it comes to its real scope.

The Liberal Party is prepared to work, as we have before, to support the goal of ending poverty. I hope it is a goal that all of us in the House will work toward.

In our most recent campaign, the Liberals made senior issues central to our platform. The Liberals were proposing, as was the NDP, to increase the GIS by $700 million a year. If we truly want to eliminate all of those seniors who live below the poverty, there is only one way to do it, and that is by increasing the GIS by that amount of money.

Let us look at the corporate tax cuts. Simply eliminate one corporate tax cut of $1 billion and there would be enough to do a bit more than that.

The Liberal plan would benefit all 1.6 million seniors who are living below the poverty line, not half of them now and half of them in the next budget. The lowest-income seniors would have had an extra benefit of $650 a year.

I am not here just to poke holes in the NDP proposal. I am here to put forward constructive ideas, which is what I hope all of us will do in the House. The NDP plan is limited and overly simplistic, but the end result is very much worth supporting. Maybe we can all agree, following the debate today, on what the end goal will be.

The Conservative budget unveiled earlier this month includes a $300 million bump to the GIS. That increase will be accessible to some 680,000 of the poorest seniors in Canada. Again, it is for only those who quality, only those who are eligible, not all of those seniors living below the poverty line. In fact, what it is actually doing is giving those seniors enough for probably a cup or two of coffee a day.

This is what the Conservative plan does not do. It does not address the fact that women endure higher levels of poverty than men. It does not address the fact that 75% of Canadians do not have access to adequate pension savings, which is the core of the problem about which we are talking.

It does not address issues such as seniors' transportation or access to affordable medications. Nor does it address poverty faced by certain marginalized communities, such as rural, northern or Aboriginal Canadians.

What would I do differently if I had the opportunity to put something forward? Let me talk about some of the things I have done as the seniors critic in the last two years.

Last October I released a comprehensive white paper, which examined the issue of pension reform in a holisitic manner. It is available on my web site and I would be glad to share with anyone. I shared it with the government at the time I introduced it.

The paper contained 28 recommendations, covering everything from the cost of living increases and the establishment of a real poverty line to enhance the CPP and to make the Income Tax Act more senior-friendly.

I introduced the pension income bill of rights, which I have re-introduced in this Parliament. That bill would have given every person a chance to accumulate retirement income in a plan, which would be there in the long term for Canadians. It promoted good administration of retirement plans, to ensure that members of retirement income plans would regularly receive good, plain English information that they needed to understand their plan. However, to set out in law the goals to which we aspire legislatively as they relate to retirement income, a pension income bill of rights would protect pensions and protect pensioners.

Last week I put 15 motions on notice, aimed at dealing with seniors poverty in a real and substantive way. These motions build upon the ideas contained in that very same white paper.

One of those motions was to establish a national program for poverty prevention and independent living to provide support to Canadians over the age of 65 who had expressed a strong desire to remain in their homes regardless of advancing years or faltering health. Many of us, through the campaign, met seniors who were doing everything possible to remain in their home and were looking for assistance, whether that meant home care support, friendly visiting, or somebody checking in on them every couple of days to ensure they were well and had what they needed.

Another motion calls on the government to implement a national and voluntary supplementary Canada pension plan designed to provide enhanced retirement income savings opportunities and income support for Canadian seniors. This would allow people to contribute extra to a supplementary Canada pension plan and would help them save for their future. There is no vehicle for Canadians other than an RRSP. The current government is talking about a PRPP that would make banks and insurance companies rich, but would do little to help people save for their retirement.

Another motion calls on the government to launch an immediate review of the manner in which cost of living is calculated for the purposes of old age security pension, the guaranteed income supplement to the Canada pension plan and the Quebec pension plan.

Another motion is that the government should revise the existing Canada pension plan so as to remove any systemic inequities.

That talks about the failings of the current government and some of the things it could be doing. However, there are issues when it comes to the NDP motion and its failings.

Unfortunately, as much as I applaud today's motion, it is still nothing more than a long stream of motions put forward that fail to seriously address the problems. It is another list of sound bites, same kind of rhetoric, but it does not talk about what we really need to do to move forward. It sounds good, but it misses the mark by reducing a complex national program to a sound bite.

I propose we remove the politics in favour of genuine problem solving. I know the member for London—Fanshawe is very much committed to finding solutions to poverty especially among seniors and throughout the country.

As to some of the failings of the Conservative government, two years ago the minister stated in the House at question period that pension reform had no place in Ottawa. He said that the matter was provincial. The government has reluctantly retracted that stand due to massive public pressure and now admits it does have a role when it comes to pensions. However, the government has still not put forward any real solution to the pension crisis that the country faces. We know that 75% of Canadians do not have a pension plan and do not have the opportunity to save.

The government talks about Bill C-3, which it has the courage to call, “Supporting Vulnerable Seniors and Strengthening Canada's Economy Act”. For the $300 million to go to poor seniors in Canada, the government calls it, “supporting vulnerable seniors”. If it really wanted to take credit for that, it would have put $1.6 billion in there and eliminated the poverty level.

That bill helps seniors by providing $20 million to help the Canadian Youth Business Foundation. I am not quite sure how that would help seniors.

Also, Bill C-3 would help seniors by strengthening the government's oversight of the mortgage insurance industry. I am not sure how that helps seniors either.

As well, it would help seniors by reducing the in-study interest rate for part-time students to zero, bringing them in line with full-time students. How is that strengthening vulnerable seniors? I do not think it does.

Let us talk about the way ahead, the way we want to go, the way we would hope all of us would work toward to making a change. We need to change our national priorities.

In 2010 the government spent more than $1 billion on things such as fake lakes, snacks, hand lotion and glow sticks at the G8 and G20 summits. That is more than $1 billion and yet all it has for seniors living below the poverty line is $300 million. There is clearly a problem. It does not have the same priorities that a lot of us have.

At the same time, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons tells us that 200,000 seniors still live in poverty. That same $1 billion used for fake lakes, snacks and hand lotion could have been used for seniors. Increasing their income by $5,000 would give them free groceries for a year. This must change.

In the way ahead, the government says it wants to stop elder abuse. That is a very important issue and something we need to take a stronger stand on. However, on page 179 of the 2011-12 estimates, the government committed to slash the funding to non-profit organizations that are working to reduce the incidence of elder abuse and fraud. How can the minister stand and say he is going to reduce elder abuse and then turn around and cut the money that supposed to do that? It is the doublespeak that we continually hear. I could other words than “doublespeak”, but I will not in respect to the Speaker and the House.

That is right, despite the promises of help to prevent elder abuse, the government cut it by 44%. Elder abuse is a heinous crime that can and must be stopped. Again, it is all about priorities. Sound bites will not reduce poverty in our country, end elder abuse or alter the government's priority on pension security coverage inadequacy.

The white paper that I put forward in the Liberal plan is comprehensive, targeted and affordable. I would like to invite the government to start taking its responsibility for moral leadership more seriously.

We talked today about what the way ahead is and where we are going. It is the beginning of the 41st Parliament. I believe the issue of seniors for the first time in the last election, thanks clearly to the opposition and a variety of organizations, made it very clear that seniors have to be looked at seriously, treated with a level of respect and given the hand up that they need in so many ways.

I heard about housing throughout the campaign. Some people want to stay in their homes and want the support to be able to do it. For others it was a question of moving into apartments better suited to their needs, but there was nowhere to go. For the aging population, there is a need for more nursing homes. There is a whole segment of issues that need to be addressed in a much more mutual way, along with the provinces of this country.

The Liberal Party of Canada introduced old age security. The Liberal Party of Canada introduced the guaranteed income supplement. The Liberal Party of Canada also introduced the Canada pension plan and in the future hopefully will introduce the supplementary Canada pension plan. Clearly, Liberals have shown their commitment to not only ending poverty but ensuring that Canadians can retire with dignity and a quality of life. It is an objective of the Liberal Party and one that it will continue to fight for.

I am thankful for the opportunity to speak today. I again applaud my colleague from London—Fanshawe for bringing the issue forward today. I hope that together all of us in the House can move this issue forward and find a way on a national level to truly help our seniors, to ensure that they have the quality of life they very much yearn for and do not have to eat macaroni and cheese twice a week or be unable to fill prescriptions. We are very focused on the poorest of the poor at this particular time.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would point out that it might be prudent for my hon. colleague to read the NDP platform from the last election because pensions and seniors were the focus of it. New Democrats spent a great deal of time analyzing the situation with seniors and proposed some very important things, like better long-term care, home care, affordable housing and CPP reform. There needs to be CPP reform in the long term, but for now we need an immediate GIS increase because the reality is that a quarter of a million seniors live below the poverty line.

I would ask the member for her opinion on income splitting of pensions. One of the things the government ballyhoos is pension splitting. The problem is while it sounds very good on the surface, for seniors who are single, mostly women, income splitting is no solution at all. Once again, the government has come up with half measures like its paltry $300 million, when what is needed is $700 million, and income splitting that does not help seniors who are single.

Opposition Motion—Seniors' PovertyBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, clearly, the government's focus is on the seniors who are doing very well. Income splitting helps a lot of people. So be it. Let that happen. Let that continue.

However, there are all those seniors who do not benefit from income splitting. Sometimes we think that in order to get one thing we have to give up on a whole lot of others things.

Given the fact that are $6 billion in tax cuts in this current budget, why is it we have to take from the poor, frankly, to give to the rich? I would like to live in a country that cares about everybody. Because when people are strong and people have money in their pockets they can buy medication, they can eat properly, they can have a good quality of life. We do not have to take from one to give to the other.

When we talk about income splitting, there are other benefits to that, clearly, and I do not want to take it away from people. I think that we can redirect the money that was going into corporate tax cuts and fighter jets to the people of Canada and to ensure that people have the quality of life that we would like to see them have. They contributed and worked for many years and after all they have done, they should not have to be sitting on the edge worrying about how are they going to be able to buy their medications when they need them.