Mr. Speaker, as a former member of the armed forces, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this motion. I have wonderful memories of various evenings spent at the Royal Canadian Legion. We always had a very pleasant time. It is an honour for me to speak to this motion.
Since 2007, the government's strategic review has focused on cutting various federal programs and services. These cuts have affected all departments, including Veterans Affairs. The goal of this exercise is to cut 10% from each department. In the case of Veterans Affairs, 90% of the budget is spent on programs and benefits for veterans, and 70% of the staff deliver services directly to veterans. There is not much room for cuts.
In this situation, the math is simple: if the government wants to cut Veterans Affairs Canada's budget, it will have to cut the services and benefits that go directly to veterans. Budget and staffing cuts will inevitably compromise the department's ability to deliver services to the country's veterans.
Our veterans already have trouble accessing some of those services, and many of them have noticed that the quality of services has suffered over the years. In particular, there have been problems with case processing. It is getting harder to reach an agent by phone because there are fewer call centres. If this keeps up, veterans will find it easier to speak to someone at their ISP's customer service centre in India than to a Veterans Affairs Canada agent in our own country.
The agents now have less time in which to make decisions about veterans' needs. In contrast, once the decision has been made, it takes just as long as ever for veterans to receive psychological care and services. The cuts are already being felt. Agents have to work faster, work overtime and make decisions more quickly. This means that they may not be able to take the time required to do their work properly.
Currently, a number of organizations are speaking out against the cuts to Veterans Affairs. Among others, the Royal Canadian Legion and the Veterans Ombudsman have shed light on the problems these cuts will cause and the problems encountered as a result of the staffing cuts. Veterans returning from Afghanistan, just like current soldiers, need and deserve services.
I am a nurse by training and when I talk to soldiers returning from military operations, I know the consequences that these operations can have on a person. I am talking about physical and mental health problems and post traumatic stress disorder. These are all serious consequences that require immediate care, and aftercare as well.
Roughly 20% to 30% of the soldiers who went to Afghanistan have mental health problems or have post traumatic stress disorder, not to mention physical injuries. These are not problems that can be left unaddressed for two years before something is done. We are talking about serious health situations that require immediate care and assistance.
Since 2001, 40,000 members of our Canadian Forces have been deployed to Afghanistan. Some are still in active service, of course, but some have become veterans. An average of 25%—roughly 10,000 veterans—have health problems. They compromised their health to serve our country. These huge numbers come from the Department of National Defence. They show the critical importance of taking services for veterans seriously.
I am talking about veterans, but we should also talk about their families. Soldiers return home at the end of their mission; unfortunately, some do not. In both cases, the families need assistance. It is very difficult to support someone who is living with post traumatic stress disorder.
Consequently, the families also need help. The children of these soldiers need help supporting their mother or father who has experienced these problems and who may be injured.
When we talk about veterans, we are not just talking about soldiers, veterans and former members of the RCMP, but also about the families of these people. We must never forget that.
Today, we are asking that the Department of Veterans Affairs be exempt from cuts in the 2012-13 budget. This budget is vital to maintaining a certain level of service and the quality of the programs and benefits to which members of the military are entitled. We must take into account that there are already some problems with this program. It is not a program that works seamlessly. There are already problems and budget cuts would only add to them. At this time I believe that our request to exempt Veterans Affairs Canada from budget cuts is reasonable.
Every day in this House, between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., I hear the Associate Minister of National Defence or the Minister of National Defence repeatedly say that I do not support our troops when I ask for explanations and answers that the opposition and Canadians are entitled to regarding what is happening with the F-35 program. When we talk about the men and women in uniform who return from a mission, people who have given many years of service to this country, who have risked their lives, who have been lucky enough to come home, and who often need psychological, financial and professional support, we are met with budget cuts.
The government can afford jets that are not yet operational, at a cost that is increasing astronomically and with a delivery date that keeps being postponed, but it cannot provide financial support for our veterans who come home after serving their country. This makes absolutely no sense to me. It makes you wonder who in this House is really supporting our troops.
When that party was the official opposition, it said that it would extend the veterans independence program to widows of World War II and Korean War veterans, but it did not.
In 2005, that party, which is now in office, called for a public inquiry into Agent Orange and full compensation for veterans and civilians who were exposed to it, but it has not followed through.
In 2007, the government committed to take action to address the unfair nature of the service income security insurance plan and long-term disability benefits for members of the Canadian Forces who are medically released, but it did not do so.
In 2005, that party committed to reforming the Veterans Review and Appeal Board and replacing it with a board made up of qualified members with a medical or military background, but it did not do so.
I am wondering what it really means to support our troops. I think that asking this government not to make cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada is a much better way to show our support.
The NDP has asked the government many times not to make cuts to services for veterans, but without success. The NDP has proposed many measures to improve services for veterans, including health care centres of excellence for modern-day veterans, improved access to veterans' hospitals, reforms to the new veterans' charter, an increase in funeral expenses, and concrete action to combat homelessness among veterans.
The NDP's proposals show what it means to support our troops.
In addition, the NDP continues to ask the government to stop clawing back the pensions of retired and disabled Canadian Forces and RCMP personnel; to extend the veterans independence program, which also applies to former members of the RCMP; to eliminate restrictions on pensions and health benefits for spouses in the case of marriage after 60; to provide better care for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; to reduce waiting lists for disability benefits; to fairly calculate annual leave entitlements for retired members of the Canadian Forces who want to join the public service; and to eliminate or reform the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. We are thus calling for a number of measures. Again, this is what I call supporting our troops.
In order to support our troops, it is essential that the government not cut Veterans Affairs Canada's budget. This is really the only reasonable attitude that this government can take toward our veterans.