Mr. Speaker, this is the first time I have spoken in this House. I want to thank the voters in the riding of Beauharnois—Salaberry, and all the election volunteers and workers who gave me their trust during the last election in June.
I would like to say from the start that the Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-5 in principle. However, we want to consider it thoroughly in committee.
This bill raises several questions that require answers. It is intended to encourage and facilitate access to post-secondary education for children of lower-income families. It enhances the Canada education savings grant.
The Bloc Québécois finds it useful to set up an education savings bond program, as this will directly help lower-income families, which the Canada education savings grant currently does not do. This will be a big help to children of lower income families, who have greater difficulty accessing post-secondary education.
The Bloc Québécois agrees that this measure helps families in planning and saving for their children's education. Accessible education and equal opportunity for everyone are two priorities of the Bloc Québécois and Quebeckers.
We think this measure is clearly inadequate; correcting the fiscal imbalance and returning to equitable transfers between provinces would obviously permit the Government of Quebec to support Quebec's students appropriately.
The Bloc recognizes that Bill C-5 will definitely encourage education for all families, whatever their income. There are figures showing that only 50% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 are pursuing post-secondary education.
As the critic for youth, I am greatly concerned about this situation. This measure will make it possible to increase attendance at post-secondary institutions, but it must not look like federal interference in the system of loans and bursaries. That is why we need thorough study of the bill in committee.
Moreover, this learning bond program is a non-negotiable means of adding to the savings options for low income families. This learning bond program will help children from low income families get into post-secondary studies, which is a comfort for their parents. The Bloc Québécois is concerned about social justice in this matter. This is clearly a sign of hope that the less well off in our society may have access to higher learning.
Although many questions related to his bill have yet to be answered and will be studied by the committee, I can already point out certain weaknesses in the bill's current wording.
First of all, the learning bonds will not help Quebec provide quality education, because they do not give Quebec the means to do so. They enable students to cover part of the cost of their post-secondary education, but do not improve the quality of services provided by the educational system.
I want to point out that, in its current form, the bill says that the government will take back the money it has invested when the beneficiary of the program reaches the age of 21 years. That seems very bizarre because college education is totally free in Quebec.
In addition, the learning bonds will be automatically taken back when the student reaches the age of 21. Only those who go to university will benefit, and not a great deal more. It will only be for a year or two, to use the money provided by the federal government. The Bloc Québécois therefore proposes that the maximum age be set at 25.
Any money provided by the government that has not been used for post-secondary education will be taken back instead of being reinvested where it belongs, that is, in the education system. The Bloc Québécois reiterates that, if it were not for the fiscal imbalance, this money could be put directly into Quebec's education system, instead of being spread around in federal aid packages. Quebec alone can determine what the province's educational priorities are. It should benefit directly from federal transfers in order to distribute the money where it is needed.
With this bill, the government announced a $40 million dollar budget for the administration of the program during the first three years. We are used to the federal government underestimating costs. We need only think of the firearms registry. The Bloc Québécois promises that it will keep a very close eye on how such a registry will be administered, to ensure it is managed properly.
I feel that the administration costs are excessive: more than $13 million annually to distribute some $80 million. This is a fine example of the priorities pursued by the government with this bill: instead of assisting students fully by financing the education system properly, it would rather take a piecemeal approach.
With this bill, the government is trying to improve an existing program, namely the Canada education savings grant introduced in 1998, which, incidentally, has missed the mark vis-à-vis its initial objectives. This grant program does nothing for the least well off families, because the government only contributes up to the amount invested by the parents. Obviously, families with an income under $35,000 seldom manage to set money aside for their children's education.
With this bill, the government is improving the current program by 20%, which contributes up to 20%, to a maximum of $400 per year. The bill not only establishes the learning bond, but it also increases the amount of the education savings grant, which is an additional contribution made by the federal government for each dollar contributed to a registered education savings plan until the beneficiary under the plan turns 17.
The Canada education savings grant rate will double, from 20% to 40%, on the first $500 of savings placed in an RESP by families with a net income of up to $35,000. For families with a net income greater than $35,000 but not exceeding $70,000, the Canada education savings grant contribution will increase from its present 20% to 30%. Any subsequent investments by the family or the beneficiary will remain at the current 20% level. The Canada education savings grant cannot, however, exceed $7,200 for the 16 years during which families and beneficiaries remain eligible.
The Government of Canada announced the creation of a learning bond program for post-secondary education in its March 2004 budget. This takes the form of a bursary of a total value of $2,000 for each child born after 2003, but this is of course only for children of families entitled to a national child benefit supplement. After the initial $500 at the time of birth, the child will receive annual Canada learning bond instalments of $100 a year until the age of 15, provided the family continues to receive the national child benefit supplement.
However, parents must initiate the process by setting up a registered education savings plan. The learning bond is valid until the child reaches the age of 21. Then, the federal government takes back the money that it invested in the registered education savings plan and leaves the family's interest and savings, which become taxable. The purpose of the learning bond is to encourage low and middle income families to save money for their children's post-secondary education.
The Bloc Québécois likes the idea of making higher education more accessible to low income households. Quebec families that qualify for the national child benefit will be eligible for this bond program, without having to contribute to an education savings plan. The Bloc Québécois believes in accessibility to education. Thanks to the improved Canada education savings grant and to the learning bonds, students will be able to pursue a higher education, regardless of their social condition.
However, let us not forget that this program will be very costly to administer and that the federal government could, if the will was there, refrain from needlessly wasting public funds and taxpayers' money by dealing with the fiscal imbalance. The Quebec government would then not be subjected to the current budget cuts and would have the necessary money to invest in education and to improve its loans and scholarships program.
We are very pleased to see that the federal government is concerned about young people and the low enrolment rate in post-secondary institutions. However, we want to mention again the fiscal strangulation of the provinces. Quebec would prefer by far to manage the money to which it is entitled, instead of benefiting from ad hoc and arbitrary donations from Paul Martin.