That, in the opinion of the House, the government should automatically carry forward all annual lapsed spending at the Department of Veterans Affairs to the next fiscal year, for the sole purpose of improving services for Canadian veterans, until the Department meets or exceeds its 24 self-identified service standards.
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my good friend and colleague from Jonquière.
Canadians love our military and RCMP veterans and their families. We thank them for their service and sacrifice. However, thanking veterans and their families is not enough. Words must be backed by action, so I am pleased to rise in this place today and put forward this motion. If passed and implemented by the government, the motion will dramatically improve the lives of veterans and their families at no additional cost to taxpayers.
The motion seeks to end the practice of leaving hundreds of millions of dollars unspent each year at Veterans Affairs Canada and instead transfer those dollars to the next year for the sole purpose of improving services for veterans.
While the motion is inherently non-partisan and forward-looking, we must provide some historical background to demonstrate why it is needed.
In the nine years of the Harper Conservative government, more than $1.1 billion of spending that was approved by Parliament for the Department of Veterans Affairs was left unspent. This money was left unspent while the government cut more than 1,000 full-time jobs at Veterans Affairs and closed nine regional offices. The effects of those cuts are still being felt today, as there is a tremendous backlog in the administration of nearly every program and service delivered to veterans through Veterans Affairs.
Canadians were unhappy with this practice among others and voted for change in 2015. Throughout the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals campaigned on ending lapsed spending and improving services at Veterans Affairs Canada. Unfortunately, they have been unable to deliver on either commitment in their government.
In its first three years, the Liberal government has left $372 million unspent at Veterans Affairs and has done so while meeting just 12 of its own 24 service standards for that department.
Some may argue that lapsed spending is nothing more than an administrative issue and that this money is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but New Democrats disagree. Presently the Department of Veterans Affairs employs 2,609 full-time employees across the entire department. Had it chosen to spend the $372 million that was left unspent, the government could have hired over 5,000 more full-time caseworkers instead of the 260 it has done so far. Making use of the lapsed spending in this department could make a real difference in the lives of veterans, especially if it is dedicated solely for the purpose of improving services as prescribed in this motion.
Ending lapsed spending in the department is important, but the motion proposes so much more than that. Passing and implementing it will ensure that each and every one of the 24 service standards at Veterans Affairs are met and do so within the existing operating budget of that department.
What does that mean exactly?
We can view all of the 24 service standards on the Department of Veterans Affairs website, but in real life it means that when veterans or family members call the department for help, they will actually get their calls answered quickly. It means that hundreds of caseworkers, who are so desperately needed, can finally be hired and that the veteran to caseworker ratio will never be more than 25:1 again. It means that those caseworkers will finally be able to clear the backlog of applications for disability benefits and that future applicants will receive their decision in a timely manner.
Indeed, if the motion is passed, it will clear all the backlog for all programs and services at the department: for long-term care applications, for rehabilitation programs, for career transition programs, for earning-loss benefit applications and for the war veterans allowance program. It will mean that if veterans or their families are unhappy with the department's decision to deny them benefits, they will be able to appeal those decisions and receive a resolution quickly.
In short, if the motion is passed, it will mean that we can finally fix the Department of Veterans Affairs once and for all, without spending a dollar more than what is budgeted and approved by Parliament. Carrying forward unspent money at Veterans Affairs and using it to improve services is a no-brainer, but make no mistake. We know that meeting all 24 of the existing service standards is just as difficult as it is important.
However, I was greatly concerned to read in a Globe and Mail article, published on October 9, that a departmental official confirmed that Veterans Affairs was actively working on lowering its service standards instead of trying to meet its current targets. Lowering the service standards at Veterans Affairs is not a solution to these problems and it is not in the best interests of veterans and their families. We can and we must do better.
I am proud that New Democrats were the first to uncover the problem of lapsed spending at Veterans Affairs in 2013 and I am proud to rise today on behalf of New Democrats to offer a solution.
Lapsed spending at Veterans Affairs was first raised in the House by former New Democrat member of Parliament John Rafferty back in 2013. As the Conservatives cut 1,000 jobs and closed nine regional Veterans Affairs, John sought answers on behalf of the constituents of Thunder Bay—Rainy River. Why were they losing their regional office? Why would his constituents be forced to drive to another province to receive face-to-face service from Veterans Affairs? Surely there was $5 million available somewhere at Veterans Affairs that could keep the Thunder Bay and other offices open.
As usual, John's instincts were correct. He requested a departmental briefing, and during that presentation, a budget line simply titled “lapsed” was discovered.
Veterans Affairs officials confirmed that this money that had been approved by Parliament was left unspent. In the same year the Conservatives were closing nine Veterans Affairs offices to save $5 million, New Democrats found that the department was failing to spend more than $170 million of its approved budget. With $170 million, the government not only could have saved those nine offices, but could have opened hundreds more.
On behalf of New Democrats across Canada, we need to thank John for working so hard on behalf of veterans and his constituents. There is no doubt in my mind that the Thunder Bay Veterans Affairs office was reopened as a direct result of his hard work. Everyone in this place sends him strength, good wishes, and all the best while he fights his health battle right now.
While it is true that the government plans to spend more money in the future, and some benefit levels are increasing for some veterans, the current level of service provided by the department to the same veterans is completely unacceptable. After all, what good will more program spending be for veterans and their families if no one in the department is there to answer their phone call or process their applications. The $10 billion the government talks about will not help anyone if there is no one there to answer the phone.
Finally, I have heard that some in this place believe that the transfer of lapsed spending from one year to the next is prohibited. This is false. In a 2015 report titled, “Why does the government lapse money and why does it matter?”, the Parliamentary Budget Officer wrote:
The Government manages an administrative framework to accommodate the shifting of lapsed funding from one year to the next.
I have a copy of that report in both official languages for tabling at the conclusion of my remarks.
New Democrats have a proud tradition of supporting Canada's veterans. I would also like to thank former NDP MP Peter Stoffer and the current member from London—Fanshawe for their outstanding work on behalf of veterans and their families.
To my colleagues here in all parties, we have a real chance today to do something very special for Canada's veterans. Together, we can finally end lapsed spending at Veteran Affairs, and deliver the high level of service that Canada's veterans and their families need and deserve, and were promised.
I urge my colleagues across political lines to support this motion so that we can all return home and deliver this good news in person to our veterans and their families this Remembrance Week.