Mr. Speaker, it is always a great honour for me to rise in this House of Commons to speak and an even greater honour when it comes to speaking about our veterans. To begin, I want to say to our veterans who are watching us and to their families that all hon. members, regardless of their political differences—there are always differences—want to salute them and thank them for everything they do for our country, what they have done and what they continue to do. Veterans are at the heart of our society and our democracy. All parliamentarians can say thank you to our veterans and their families for what they have done and what they continue to do for us.
It is an honour for me to speak as a member of a government that, for six years, has been putting its heart and soul into improving the quality of life of our veterans.
I want to commend the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore on his motion. I know that he works hard for veterans. He is an honourable colleague for whom I have a great deal of respect. However, I must point out that when it comes time to stand up in the House for veterans—and not just talk about them—by voting funding for them, with the exception of Bill C-55, the opposition members fail us, unfortunately. They are not there when we need them in the House to implement budget initiatives to improve the quality of life of our veterans.
As I just said, I certainly acknowledge the work of this member and the opposition regarding our veterans, as well as their great speeches today in support of our veterans. However, there have been times when I think those members had wished they had stood with our government and supported our new investment in veterans and their families.
Unfortunately, time and time again, the New Democrats and the Liberals have voted against the veterans and against our budget initiatives. For that reason, I find it rich that the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore would bring forward a motion questioning our government's support and commitment to our veterans and their families, which is rock solid.
We have a motion in front of this House that deals with providing programs and services to all military and RCMP veterans. We are also serving RCMP veterans. I want to salute them today, including for their valour.
Our Conservative government has a record of investing in our veterans and their families. Let us be clear, as I have said over and over in and outside this House: we will maintain benefits to veterans, because we believe in our veterans. However, and let me be crystal clear, this will not prevent us from cutting red tape for our veterans.
Our veterans deserve a streamlining of the processes. Our government will keep on improving our processes and making this the hassle-free service they deserve. For this, I seek the support of the opposition. Are they willing to maintain the cumbersome red tape facing veterans?
I think we have an opportunity today to say clearly that we will maintain veterans' benefits but also make sure that we are making life easier for them when they deal with the government and Veterans Affairs. That is why in this form, the motion is not helping veterans. Our country must be there for veterans when they need us, and in clear and plain language. Of course, our government is committed to providing these men and women with the benefits and services they need and deserve.
I am very proud to hold the portfolio of veterans affairs minister within this Conservative government. My predecessors have gone to great lengths to improve the lives not only of our traditional veterans but also of our modern veterans, and their families as well. That is what this government is committed to, and why this government's record over the last six years is unprecedented.
Canadians have not seen such a commitment to our veterans since the end of the World War II. That is a fact. That is the truth. The numbers tell the same story, whatever the opposition might try to say.
First and foremost, we have been making significant investments in the programs, benefits and services that our veterans, our Canadian Forces members and their families depend on. Everything we do is a reflection of our commitment to supporting our veterans with the care they need, when and where they need it, and for as long as they need it. In the last six years, our government has consistently increased its budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve the care and support we provide to our veterans and their families. We have increased the budget for the last six years.
Where were the opposition? They were opposing our budget initiatives. They were voting against our budgets. Which members supported our veterans, steadily and readily, in this House for the last six years? They can be found here around me, the Conservative members of this government. I want to thank every single member who has supported our veterans' initiatives.
Just last week, we demonstrated our commitment once again when we tabled the 2012-13 main estimates. These estimates provide Veterans Affairs Canada with nearly $3.6 billion, an increase of $44.8 million, or 1.3% of it overall annual budget shown in the main estimates.
Last week, we went back to ask for additional funds to ensure that our veterans have access to the programs and services to which they are entitled and which they deserve. Tomorrow, I will be appearing before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and I hope to have the support of opposition members to approve not only the supplementary estimates (C) required to close out the current fiscal year, but also the budget for next year.
Once again, as in the past six years, we are increasing our investment. Why? For a very simple reason: we are creating programs for our new generation of veterans.
Just a few weeks ago, I was in Winnipeg announcing the cutting red tape for veterans initiative. This plan will reduce cumbersome red tape and provide our veterans with the hassle-free service they deserve. That is why we need the support of the House to make sure that we are cutting red tape. That is why we need to change the motion to make the lives of our veterans better when dealing with our department.
As I said during the announcement, much of what is needed to make these improvements simply involves returning to the basics and overhauling how the department works. With that in mind, we are putting in place updated and more efficient technology to significantly reduce bureaucratic delays. We are modernizing the tools that our officials use when they are serving our veterans.
I want to raise the high profile of our officials working in the department. They are dedicating their hearts and souls to making the life of our veterans better. It is not always easy and not always perfect, but they are doing their best to make sure that the veterans get the best service they deserve in a timely manner and that they, of course, respect the rules to which they are entitled and under which they have to apply.
Therefore, we are providing our officials with a new tool called the benefit browser. This tool is aimed at helping our employees make sure they get information on all the services our veterans can receive.
I announced our red tape reduction initiative two weeks ago in Winnipeg. This will ensure that our veterans have access to the services to which they are entitled in a more timely manner and with less red tape. I am very proud of this initiative.
We listened to veterans and the veterans ombudsman. They asked us to cut red tape and to communicate with them in clear and plain language. The work began a few years ago. The ombudsman has acknowledged that there has been some improvement and that our correspondence contains the elements for communicating with our veterans. Almost 41,000 letters a year are sent to veterans. However, there is a problem: the letters are often three pages long and can be difficult to understand because of the rather bureaucratic language.
We are therefore changing the way we communicate. We are improving it by providing reasons for the decisions rendered. That means that every letter sent to a veteran is divided into sections so that the veteran can understand the logical progression of the letter. What was the veteran's request? What is the decision? What is the evidence to support that decision? What factors, references, codes, regulations and tools allowed us come to that decision? How can veterans obtain more information or, if applicable, how can they request a review of the decision, sometimes with new information?
This is at the heart of the red tape reduction initiative. By communicating clearly and effectively with veterans, we will avoid many annoyances. Nothing is more insulting to a veteran, or to anyone for that matter, than to be sent a decision that he or she does not understand. That is why, as of two weeks ago, our department is communicating with our veterans in clear and concise language. I must say that we have already had very positive feedback from veterans. We are following up with them and we are receiving very constructive comments. Above all, this process is helping our veterans to better understand the decisions and avoid a certain amount of frustration.
Veterans are seeing a difference already with the consistent measures we are putting in place to make the lives of our veterans better. We have improved the response times at our national call centre and we are reducing the amount of paperwork veterans have to complete for many of the health benefits provided by the department. As well, with direct deposit now available for a number of benefits, veterans and their dependants are receiving their money faster and easier. That is why I invite the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore to support the amendment we will be putting forward because we want to make the lives of our veterans easier.
More than 41,000 disability benefit applications from veterans are presented each year and now we are responding in clear and plain language with the reasons for the decisions. We are moving forward and going ahead. We are cutting red tape, and this is only the beginning, because there are a lot of internal efficiencies we can make and many ways in which we can improve the way the government and the department are dealing with veterans. Are we getting support from the opposition to move forward and make the lives of our veterans easier? That is what I hope because this is where we want to go.
Our government will never be satisfied with the status quo. We will not do things just because they have always been done that way. We are looking at ways we can improve. It is most interesting that those improvements are coming from the veterans and from our officials who know how we can make things better.
That is why in January our right hon. Prime Minister announced funding for another great initiative that, unfortunately, the opposition decided not to support. However, the opposition was alone because we got support from the unions, provincial governments, workers and veterans because this program is called “helmets to hardhats”. The program is aimed at ensuring that military personnel who are leaving the forces can transition in a seamless manner into civilian life. This is a huge success. Everyday I receive calls from entrepreneurs who want to hire veterans. I hear from many groups that are willing to join in the helmets to hardhats initiative. We are ensuring that our veterans go into high paying jobs in the construction industry. Do members know who the winners are? Our country, our veterans and our economy are the winners.
We want to be on top of the wave when it comes to health, research and all aspects regarding our veterans' physical and mental health. Last December, I established the new scientific advisory committee on veterans' health. All veterans who want to get in touch with the committee can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be able to submit their information to the committee, which is working on health issues, the first one being depleted uranium. We are hearing the veterans, working with them and we are delivering.
That is not the only thing. Last fall, thanks to the leadership of this government, we announced significant enhancements to the new veterans charter which is at the core of our new program to meet the needs of modern veterans. Once again, we listened and took action with the committees, the Royal Canadian Legion and all the great stakeholders of this country. They told us that the charter that was initiated awhile ago did not go far enough. They said that it needed to be adjusted to keep pace with the care and support they required. It is a living document and these enhancements are doing just that.
Within the next five years, there will be an additional investment of $189 million. I will be going to committee tomorrow to ask for additional funding because there is a strong uptake by our modern veterans into our new programs. We expect that more than 5,000 veterans will benefit from these programs. The accrued costs are $2 billion.
Our government is investing in veterans. We are moving forward.
I spoke briefly about the improvements to the new veterans charter. Obviously, we have achieved many things over the past six years, whether it be the creation of the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, the creation of the veterans charter or the broadening of the scope of many programs, including the veterans independence program. We are moving forward.
However, I had a bit of a problem with one thing that the hon. member said earlier in his speech, and that is when he said that he wanted to help me. And so, I actually found a way for the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore to help me.
If the member wants to help our veterans, he should support them, support our government, support our budget and support the amendment I am willing to bring forward.