Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-27, the Veterans Hiring Act.
This bill corrects the problems with Bill C-11, which was introduced earlier this year or late last year. We had a first day of debate, but there were problems that the government corrected. In fact, it withdrew Bill C-11 and returned with a new version, Bill C-27.
Unfortunately, the government did not adequately consult groups of veterans about this bill. All too often, the government fails to consult. For example, with respect to the first nations education bill, very few aboriginal people were consulted even though the government has an obligation to do so. There was not enough consultation with respect to Bill C-11. Thus, the government came back with Bill C-27.
Despite what I would call a lack of professionalism on the part of the government, I am obviously pleased to rise and say that we will be supporting Bill C-27, introduced by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, because all measures to improve veterans' quality of life are important. In order to improve the career transition of our injured veterans, we will obviously support any measure such as this one.
However, as I said when asking the parliamentary secretary a question, I feel that, in some respects, this is a half measure to address the problems with the transition to civilian jobs, which too often is difficult for veterans.
Consequently, if we consider all the problems pointed out, mainly in the ombudsman's reports, it is very little. The government often tends to go for window dressing. However, upon closer inspection, the proposals are all too often half measures, which do not enhance our veterans' quality of life.
I am thinking of the changes made concerning career transition, but I will get back to that. They said there would be bigger budgets, but if we look at the details, at what was budgeted, this will help only a handful of veterans finish university. If we look at the changes announced to the funeral and burial program for veterans of modest means, the government really boosted funding for that. Not long ago, it was paying just over $3,000 to cover funeral costs for the neediest veterans, and now that amount has been increased substantially.
However, if we look at the eligibility criteria, those have not changed. For the very neediest veterans, those living below the poverty line and some others, it would be good to expand the eligibility criteria to really help more veterans. There are a lot of these half measures. On the surface, they can say they are helping veterans, but in reality, they are not helping a lot of people. That might be the case with this bill too.
After it came to power in 2006, the Conservative government passed the new veterans charter. Actually, it was passed that same year or a little before. They called the new charter a living document and said it would improve veterans' lives, especially for modern-day veterans. They knew that younger and younger veterans were coming home from Afghanistan wounded, so they had to do away with the old pension system and put more emphasis on incentives to participate in career transition programs. It was supposed to be a living document. It was kind of rushed through the process. They said they would adapt it over time as problems came up. Since then, however, only one small cosmetic change has been made, and that was in 2011. They improved the charter, but only a little.
It turns out that there are all kinds of problems with the new veterans charter. It is very disappointing that the government has turned its attention to this problem just once in nearly eight years. That is not very much. As the parliamentary secretary said, there is a review of the new veterans charter going on right now.
We will prepare a comprehensive report. I hope that the government will respond favourably to most, if not all of the recommendations because this new charter has a lot of problems. The government has to stop twiddling its thumbs when it comes to improving the new veterans charter. It has to come up with appropriate, concrete and comprehensive measures because there are far too many problems.
The new veterans charter is described as a living document. I would say that it is on life support and in desperate need of oxygen because it is weak and, as I was saying, full of problems.
The new charter was passed in 2006, and we expected it to be amended as problems arose. As we can see, the government has dropped the ball on improving the new charter.
Our troops suffered heavy losses during the mission in Afghanistan. To date, 158 deaths and more than 2,000 injured soldiers have been reported. This number could go up given that it sometimes takes years for the initial symptoms of PTSD to appear.
According to a recent study, 14% of our soldiers returned from Afghanistan injured, but it is thought that this number is actually much higher.
It is in this context that Parliament passed the new veterans charter, calling it a living document. However, it must be improved as soon as possible after we table our report, which we intend to do in a matter of days. The government must respond favourably to it by adopting appropriate measures.
That is what brings us to debating Bill C-27, which essentially seeks to give priority for public service jobs to serving and former members of the Canadian Forces who are released for medical reasons that are attributable to service.
If, during the hiring process, the veteran demonstrates the essential qualifications required, the Public Service Commission will have to appoint that person in absolute priority, ahead of employees who are considered surplus or on leave. These veterans will henceforth be in the highest category of hiring priority. That priority will be valid for a period of five years. Previously it was valid for two years. To be clear, it is five years after the soldier is released for medical reasons that are attributable to service.
A second measure in this bill would give members of the Canadian Forces who have accumulated more than three years of service the right to participate in an internal public service appointment process. Section 35.11 states that veterans who have been honourably released may, during a period of five years after their date of release, participate in this process, but they would not have priority.
Furthermore, subsection 39(1) of the Public Service Employment Act gives preference to World War II and Korean War veterans, among others, ahead of all Canadian citizens. A veteran is defined as someone who served at least three years in the Canadian Forces and was honourably discharged.
We will obviously see a resurgence of veterans who have preference in the appointment process over Canadian citizens. This preference will be valid for a period of five years. However, survivors of a veteran and former members of the Canadian Forces who served at least three years will not have access to that preference.
This is a noble gesture on the part of the government. However, like the measures it has taken previously, such as the Last Post Fund and the reimbursements for training and post-secondary education, these are half measures that will have little impact on the quality of life of most veterans.
There will be few jobs available in the public service in the short and medium term, since the public service is currently restructuring and undergoing budget cuts. The public service is being cut, and it will be a long time before a new crop of public servants is hired. For that reason alone, I do not think that this bill will help a lot of veterans.
With regard to priority access for medically released members of the Canadian Armed Forces, what will happen to veterans who are not released for medical reasons and who appeal the decision to VRAB? It can take three or four years before the board determines whether the injury is in fact related to the member's service. Is the government prepared to extend that five-year period? It can easily take three or four years after the member is released for VRAB to render a favourable decision, so the period of five years set out in the bill is a problem. This sort of thing happens fairly frequently. The five-year period must be extended so that veterans are not penalized by an initial unfavourable decision. If the department's decision is overturned by VRAB, the veteran must get an entitlement period of five years.
The Veterans Ombudsman made some comments in this regard on his blog. He said:
However, under the new legislation, the system will have to adjudicate an individual’s file to determine if the medical release is related to service or not. This could add additional red tape to the release process and potentially delay the ability to access priority hiring upon release.
Like the ombudsman, we are worried about this legislative uncertainty. Would it not be better to use the recognition of the link between the injury and the service to determine the accessibility and length of the priority entitlement? This could be done two ways: either the reason for release is designated "service-related medical release" or the link between the injury and the service is recognized by Veterans Affairs Canada or VRAB. Either way, the system remains consistent, some of the red tape can be avoided and we could ensure that veterans do not lose their entitlement priority.
This bill also creates categories of veterans, and we are against that approach. The NDP supports the principle of having a single category of veterans, rather than many categories. We believe that all veterans, regardless of which war they served in, whether it be a past war or a modern war, deserve the same status. They are all soldiers who served our country. We are against creating categories of veterans.
Veterans of the RCMP are not included in the bill and remain in the regulatory category. I think that a member of the RCMP who suffered a trauma and wanted to get out of the policing environment to start a new career could have benefited from priority hiring under this bill. Including veterans of the RCMP would have been a way of thanking them for their service and sacrifices. Only members of the Canadian Forces released for service-related medical reasons will have this priority entitlement. Unfortunately, others will not.
In addition, the bill amends the definition of veteran and specifies that the surviving spouse of a veteran is not eligible for the same hiring preference within the public service. The surviving spouse of a traditional veteran used to take priority over Canadian citizens. Why did the minister specifically make spouses of Canadian Armed Forces veterans ineligible? That is one question we have. The government likes to break veterans into distinct categories, which I have no choice but to oppose.
In this era of budget cuts, when massive numbers of public servants are losing their jobs, this bill may help veterans only in the long term. In the short term, I do not see how this could make for a better career transition for veterans who are given hiring preference within the public service. In this case, when there are massive layoffs, it will not help them.
This bill is a response to the government's lack of leadership on the issue of career transition.
It reacted by introducing this bill, but it did so during a time of budget cuts. I think the government needs to work harder to improve our veterans' lives and their transition to civilian life. They really need help. They need more than half measures.
From 2006 to 2011, about 2,000 veterans took advantage of this hiring priority. Of those, 1,024 veterans got jobs in the public service, and of those, 739 got jobs with National Defence. That is about three-quarters or 75% of all veterans who found work in the public service. In other words, they do not have access to many jobs outside of National Defence.
The situation at Veterans Affairs Canada is even more disastrous. During the five-year period between 2006 and 2011, only 24 veterans were hired at Veterans Affairs Canada. That is just 2% of all the jobs, which is very little considering that Veterans Affairs is probably one of the departments that could really benefit from hiring veterans because they have the experience and they know about the programs the department offers. It would seem to be an ideal match. I think that the minister and the department are not doing enough to recruit veterans within their own department.
The statistics for veterans finding work in the public service show that, other than National Defence and maybe Public Works and Government Services Canada, there are very few departments—almost none, in fact—that hire veterans. There has to be a shift in mentality in the public service and the departments so they recognize the skills that veterans have and make more room for them. There has to be a shift in mentality. This bill will not shift anyone's mentality, but it will help give priority to veterans in the public service. There has to be a shift in mentality so the departments do a better job of recognizing our veterans' skills.
According to the ombudsman, about 4,500 veterans sign up for rehabilitation services and vocational assistance. On average, 220 veterans get their names on the list for priority hiring, and 146 veterans, on average, get jobs in the public service that way. That is not a lot of people. Even with this bill, the numbers are likely to go down in the short term and possibly even in the medium term if departments do not end up hiring a lot of people in the medium term. That is not a lot. This bill is unlikely to have a significant impact on the majority of veterans; it will affect just a few of them.
These numbers also show that veterans previously did not have the skills or university training to obtain many of the jobs in the public service. As I was saying, this perhaps reflects lack of interest or lack of qualifications. This is something that needs to be addressed during the career transition. We must provide university training to veterans who are willing and able. This would go a long way in helping them find a new job in the public service.
In fact, veterans are required to accept a job in a field that does not necessarily interest them, but for which they have certain skills. The ombudsman also indicated that veterans are not given enough opportunities to start a new career. Veterans do not necessarily feel like continuing on with the same type of work they did when they were in the Canadian Forces. We must give them the ability to choose something other than what they know. This would also help veterans immensely during their career transition.
In closing, we will support this bill, but the government will certainly have to allay our concerns in committee. It will also have to make the necessary changes with regard to the entitlement period for veterans who dispute the reason they were released from the forces and win their case before VRAB, to ensure that they are not penalized.
We look forward to studying this bill in committee.