Madam Speaker, I will start this evening by sincerely thanking the member for Courtenay—Alberni. The motion we are discussing today, cloaked in the guise of financial reporting standards, cuts to the core of this government's commitment to the men and women who have bravely served this country.
As we draw closer to the centennial anniversary of the armistice that was supposed to end all wars, it is important that we consider the commitment we owe to those men who fought a century ago and to the men and women who have fought and protected us since.
Veterans Affairs' entire foundation is set around its responsibility to ensure that veterans and their families receive the respect, support, care and economic opportunities necessary as they transition to a post-military life.
Let us be clear. The support that our government gives members of the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans and their families begins the moment they are recruited and continues throughout their careers and their lives. We are ensuring that each of them has access to any program they need for as long as they need it.
The motion today is based on the premise that lapsed funding in Veterans Affairs Canada is in and of itself a problem. The motion seeks to address a concern that lapsed funding creates a use-it-or-lose-it scenario for the department. The assumption seems to be that when there are lapsed funds, there must be programs or services that have been underfunded or not delivered. This could not be further from the truth, which is why there is no need to change the accounting for a process that works for veterans. However, there is an opportunity today to explain and perhaps educate members on the root cause of lapsed funds.
Whether 10 veterans come forward or 10,000, no veteran who is eligible for a benefit will be turned away because we do not have the funds. To ensure that is the case, we go through the annual estimates process and forecast how many veterans will avail themselves of our benefits.
Given that demand can change throughout the year, our programs are quasi-statutory, so that the government does not need to come back to Parliament if we exceed our forecast of the demand from veterans. If a veteran is eligible for a benefit, that veteran will get it. When that pendulum swings the other way and there are fewer veterans seeking a particular benefit, the money stays in consolidated revenue ready to be used the next year.
Lapsed funding is not a new phenomenon, but it is critically important to distinguish the causes of those lapsed funds. This government has generated lapsed funding because, simply put, our estimates of the level of demand for services have been high. That is distinguishable from the previous government, which lapsed over $1 billion while cutting front-line staff, closing offices and letting the new veterans charter wither unchanged on the vine.
Simply put, one can generate lapsed funds and attendant cuts by placing barriers between veterans and the programs or services to which they are entitled.
The previous government demonstrated from the outset that it wanted to balance the budget and that veterans and their families were not immune from its red pen. We thought those cuts were unconscionable.
That is why our first acts in our first budget were to increase the disability award to a maximum of $360,000, where it should have been for years, and increase income replacement for ill and injured veterans to 90% of their pre-release salary. We reopened all of the offices the Conservatives closed. We started to staff up Veterans Affairs again after nearly a quarter of the workforce was wiped out by the Conservatives. We expanded eligibility to programs veterans were asking for. We made it easier to access dignified funeral and burial services. And we did not stop there.
In the budget of the following year, we introduced our new education and training benefit, which applies not only to ill and injured veterans but also to those leaving the Canadian Armed Forces for any reason after six years of service.
We reformed the broken career transition services that the Conservatives had ample opportunity to fix by changing it from cutting a cheque for $1,000 and saying “good luck on the job hunt” to a comprehensive program veterans and their families could access for job training and job-finding assistance.
Last December I was thrilled to finally unveil the new pension for life, which delivers on our campaign promise to provide a monthly tax-free payment for life in recognition of pain and suffering. This pension for life also simplifies many of the other benefits we offer, making it easier to apply for and access the resources veterans and their families need and deserve. It is no surprise, then, that since coming into office, we have marked a 37% increase in applications for programs and benefits. Veterans are coming forward again to get the help and the support they need in their post-military lives and careers.
We are getting better at forecasting the budget, but due to the nature of the demand-driven programs and services at Veterans Affairs Canada, we will never be able to estimate with 100% accuracy the exact funds required for every program. Looking at the types of services and benefits we provide and the continually evolving demographics that we serve, this approach cannot change.
There are approximately 649,300 veterans in Canada and 95,000 serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Veterans Affairs provides services to nearly 200,000 veterans, family members, RCMP members and others who require support.
Ranging in age from 18 to 100, we serve traditional veterans who served in the Korean War or earlier and modern-day veterans who served after the Korean War. To say we serve a changing and diverse population is an understatement, and each one of them has different needs.
This is why we have seen a significant increase in demand for programs and services, and that is a good thing. It means veterans are coming forward and getting the help they need.
In order to respond to this increased demand, the department has to request additional funds in the middle of the year. As many of my colleagues in the House are aware, these are the supplementary estimates. The department asks Treasury Board for more money, because we have more veterans who want more of the programs and services they are entitled to and, indeed, they deserve.
This is why our services are demand-driven, so whether it is 10 or 10,000 veterans coming forward, they will receive those services. Instead of going back every day when we see another veteran come forward, the department estimates how many people will access benefits and how much money is needed. It is not an exact science. This process guarantees that whether veterans come forward this year or next year or the year after that, we will always have the resources available for them and their families to access programs and services.
If we overestimate in our zeal to ensure that everyone who comes forward requiring that service or benefit receives it, then so be it. Our primary concern is to ensure that the funds are available if they are required, period. Government policy dictates that any money that is not used for its identified purpose by year end must be returned. It is as simple as that. Lapsed funds do not indicate lost money. They do not indicate penny-pinching at the expense of veterans.
Perhaps I have to remind my hon. colleague who put forward this motion that penny-pinching at the expense of veterans would look like a promise to balance the budget no matter what, to balance the budget come hell or high water, a promise he and his colleagues ran on in the last election.
Almost 20% of new funds in the last three budgets have been for veterans and their families, funds they would not have received if the New Democrats were running the show. We know this is a source of confusion amongst veterans and their families, amongst stakeholders, and amongst the general public. This is why we have been addressing it at town halls and stakeholder meetings right across this country.
Just last week we held our national stakeholder summit here in Ottawa. We covered this exact subject in depth to ensure that participants understood the process. We know they have questions. We wanted to explain exactly how an idea goes from a concept to implementation, from gaps or issues being identified to research and analysis to the memorandum to cabinet that paves the way to implement a new program or benefit.
The department's programs are ongoing, and each year adjustments are made to ensure that we can provide for all veterans and their families who may be entitled to benefits. My department will continue to provide programs and services that adapt to the changing needs of veterans and their families. We will continue to review these programs and services to see where things can be improved.
When we came to office, we knew we needed change. Veterans made it clear that there were problems, and they wanted them fixed. They deserved to have them fixed. The Prime Minister tasked us with an aggressive mandate to address these problems, from improving veterans financial support and reopening offices to streamlining the transition from military to civilian life and overhauling how the department's services are delivered. Three years later, we are on track or have delivered on all of them. However, make no mistake, wholesale change was needed to accomplish this, and that could not happen overnight, not if we wanted to do it right.
We also knew that a full conversation was needed. We could not start making decisions on an individual basis. We had to open a dialogue with those who were affected, and that is what we have been doing.
We have heard that service delivery is an issue, and we have been diligently taking steps to resolve this. As a starting point, we opened 10 offices to provide better in-person services to veterans and their families, in addition to hiring over 470 new staff, which has included close to 200 case managers.
Service delivery is now focused on individual veterans: their circumstances, needs and strengths and those of their families. The department is streamlining the processes for applying for and delivering benefits. It is also ensuring that veterans and their families get information they need about the programs, services and benefits they are entitled to, which has been an issue in the past. Some veterans simply do not know what is available to them.
We also increased service in the north, and in 2017, our staff made 12 trips to Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse to meet with veterans and their families. Our staff is committed to ensuring that veterans and their families are better informed, better served and better supported. The approach is working. Applications are on the rise. This is a good thing. It means that more veterans are applying for the benefits they have earned through their service to Canada. It is also why the department is focusing on improving service delivery and streamlining the application process.
This government made a commitment to make it easier for the men and women who have served in uniform to access the benefits they deserve, and we have spent $10 billion in three years to do just that. Starting with increasing the disability award and the earnings loss benefit and expanding the career impact allowance, we are putting more money in the pockets of veterans and caregivers. We also supported a continuum of mental health services, introduced new education and training benefits and expanded a range of services available to the families of medically released veterans.
While there has been a lot of change at Veterans Affairs, the steadfast commitment to veterans and their well-being has remained the same. It is that commitment to wanting to ensure overall well-being that drove the need to take a step back to look at how they could get to where they wanted and needed to be. They knew that well-being was defined as a veteran with purpose who is financially secure, safely housed, in good physical and mental health, highly resilient in the face of change, well integrated in the community and proud of his or her legacy. That fuelled the new vision of a comprehensive approach to veteran well-being to address all aspects of wellness.
In looking at the many factors, we can all agree, without a doubt, that without financial security, it is hard to focus on anything at all. That is why we pushed to reintroduce lifelong pensions. Last December, this government announced plans to restore the pension for life for ill and injured veterans. With the return of a monthly pension option, the pension for life recognizes and compensates veterans for disabilities resulting from a service-related illness or injury with a combination of benefits that provide recognition, income support and stability.
One of the key new benefits is pain and suffering compensation. This is a monthly, tax-free, lifelong payment recognizing a member's or veteran's pain and suffering caused by a disability resulting from a service-related illness or injury. The monthly amount can be cashed out for a lump sum, giving members and veterans the flexibility to choose what works best for them and their families.
Additional support for those with service-related severe and permanent impairments causing a barrier to re-establishment into post-service life is available through the additional pain and suffering compensation, provided as a monthly tax-free benefit.
The income replacement benefit is a monthly program that will replace six current benefits and will provide income support for those facing barriers to re-establishment caused by health problems resulting primarily from service. Additionally, veterans who are able to join the workforce may earn up to $20,000 per year before any reduction to their IRB payment.
Set to come into force on April 1 of next year, the pension for life combines what veterans have been asking for with the most up-to-date research and understanding of the well-being of veterans. More important, it will become an integral part of that comprehensive approach to the well-being of veterans, reinforcing all the programs and services available at Veterans Affairs, of which mental health is a priority.
Pension for life was announced with budget 2018, which reflected other commitments of our government when it came to better supporting veterans and their families. In addition to the $24.4 million over five years for cemetery and grave maintenance to eliminate the current backlog of grave repairs, budget 2018 also committed $42.8 million over two years to increase service delivery capacity, building off the $78.1 million already invested over the last two years.
Make no mistake, Veterans Affairs continues to strive to provide faster, more efficient and higher quality service for our veterans. However, in our efforts to accomplish this, we must rely on our expenditures forecasting to ensure no veteran or family member goes without. That will always result in some degree of lapsed funding. That is simply the nature of the government's accounting process.
I think all of us here can agree that Canada's veterans deserve respect, financial security and fair treatment. I assure members that this government is committed to treating our veterans with the care, compassion and respect they have earned. This government will never cease in our efforts to improve the lives of our veterans and their families.