PARLIAMENT of CANADA

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Publications - October 23, 2001
 

STANDING COMMITTEE ON HUMAN RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT AND THE STATUS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES

COMITÉ PERMANENT DU DÉVELOPPEMENT DES RESSOURCES HUMAINES ET DE LA CONDITION DES PERSONNES HANDICAPÉES

EVIDENCE

[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

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[Translation]

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques (Shefford, Lib.)): Order, please. We will now begin our meeting. I would like to begin by thanking our guests, who are here this morning to talk to us about the undersubscription by elderly Canadians to the Guaranteed Income Supplement and other related issues.

This morning, we welcome Mr. Paul Migus from Human Resources Development Canada, who is accompanied by Ms. Sue Pitts and Ms. Nada Semaan. We also welcome officials from the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, Mr. David Miller and Ms. Kathy Turner.

A little later on, we will also be hearing from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Mr. George Radwanski, who is now before another committee. He will therefore arrive somewhat later, around 12:35 p.m.

We will begin immediately. The way our committee works is that witnesses give a presentation lasting approximately five minutes and then each member has the chance the ask questions, with government members and opposition members alternating in their questioning.

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Ms. Raymonde Folco (Laval West, Lib.): Excuse me for interrupting, Madam Chair. I wanted to table a motion regarding one of the two subcommittees that normally reports to this committee, and I wondered if I could do it before we begin. It would only take a few seconds to get this out of the way.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Okay, but I want to make sure we have a quorum.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: Do we have a quorum?

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Yes. If no one objects, I will let Ms. Folco present her motion for recreating the Sub-committee on Children and Youth at Risk.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: Thank you, Madam Chair. I therefore move that Mr. John Godfrey be chair of the Sub-Committee on Children and Youth at Risk, established pursuant to Standing Order 108(1) and 108(2) and to an order of the committee of March 1, 2001, and that the membership of the sub-Committee, composed of nine members or associate members of which five shall be government members and four shall be opposition members, be appointed following the usual consultations with the whips, and filed with the clerk.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Does the committee approve?

(Motion agreed to)

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): We will turn now to another motion.

[English]

Ms. Anita Neville (Winnipeg South Centre, Lib.): Madam Chair, I move that Carolyn Bennett be chair of the Subcommittee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities, established pursuant to Standing Orders 108(1) and 108(2) and to an order of the committee of March 1, 2001, and that the membership of committee be composed of nine members or associate members, of which five shall be government members and four shall be opposition members, to be struck following the usual consultations with the whips and filed with the clerk.

[Translation]

Mr. Marcel Gagnon (Champlain, BQ): I give my approval, but I would like to have your attention for 30 seconds afterwards.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Okay. Does the committee give its approval?

(Motion agreed to)

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Mr. Gagnon, you wished to make a comment.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: Yes. I would like to ask you a question. I would like to know whether the minister intends to table her response to the committee's unanimous report on employment insurance in the House tomorrow. It would be important to know whether this will be done tomorrow.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Yes. Perhaps Ms. Folco could answer your question.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: We are very hopeful that the minister will be able to table this report in the House this week. I cannot tell you whether this will happen tomorrow, but it will certainly happen within the stipulated period of time.

Madam Chair, since our usual chair is absent today, and I have been advised—

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): I have not been advised.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: —I also wanted to inform the committee that the minister will be here with us on Thursday, at our next meeting, that is, two days from now in the morning, and she will take any questions that you would like to ask.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Are you happy with that, Mr. Gagnon?

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: I would like to ask one last question. Would it be possible to find out—you will know very shortly—when her response will be presented to the House? That is what I asked you earlier.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: Are you talking about the report, the response to the report?

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: Yes, the report.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: What day is it today? Tuesday? Yes, certainly.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: Are you going to tell us?

Ms. Raymonde Folco: I will let you know.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: You're very kind.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: I'm happy to do this.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Are you satisfied, Mr. Gagnon? Thank you.

If we may, we will now turn the floor over to Mr. Migus.

Mr. Paul Migus (Assistant Deputy Minister, Income Security Programs, Human Resources Development Canada): Thank you, Madam Chair.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you again—to bring you up to date on what we're doing for seniors with a low or modest income and to answer your questions.

I would first like to introduce my colleagues from the department: Nada Semaan, Director General, Program Policy and Planning, and Sue Pitts, Director, Old Age Security Program Policy. Our focus today is on the Old Age Security Program, specifically the Guaranteed Income Supplement and the Allowance.

[English]

Our primary objective at HRDC is to ensure that everyone receives the benefits to which they are entitled under these programs. We have made a public commitment to improving our services, to becoming a truly client-centred organization. Currently, our programs help millions of Canadians in Canada every day. Today some 3.8 million seniors receive the basic OAS pension. That's a remarkable 97% of all seniors. In most performance reporting that's near perfect, but with such huge numbers, missing even a fraction of a percentage of our clientele means missing large numbers of people. That's why we're very concerned about reaching all Canadians with our messages, and we will not be satisfied until we achieve our 100% target.

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We have made extensive efforts to tell Canadians everywhere about our programs, but there are still people we have not been able to reach. That's why we welcome the input of citizens and advocacy groups and the recent media attention we've had. Yes, some of it has been critical, but it has also been helpful. It's been drawing attention to the benefits available through our programs and directing potential clients to our services.

This is especially important in the case of the GIS and the allowance. People who qualify for these supplementary benefits are seniors with the lowest incomes. As of June this year, some 1.4 million OAS pensioners received the guaranteed income supplement, and some 100,000 of their spouses or common-law partners or their survivors received additional financial assistance in the form of the allowance.

So what's the problem? The problem is that we're not reaching everyone who may be eligible for these benefits. The problem is that there are Canadians out there who need financial help and may qualify to receive it, but are not getting it. Minister Stewart has instructed the department to consult with officials at CCRA to explore ways to work even more closely together to get the message to all people who need it.

So what are we doing about getting the message out? Contrary to popular impressions, we do not sit around and wait for applications just to arrive. Nationally, we have an extensive regional and local service delivery capacity, with 320 offices providing information face to face, obtaining applications, making payments, and handling over five million phone calls a year dealing with pension issues.

We produce tens of millions of pieces of information, brochures, fact sheets, inserts, and so on, which we distribute to millions of Canadians, either individually with our other documents, or with other documents, like T-4 slips, or with our Canada Pension Plan statements of contributions.

We hand out publications personally across the country through about 100 outreach staff, who also speak to seniors groups and service providers, and we provide presentations to financial advisers and financial planning organizations.

We work extensively with the various print media. For example, this month's Maclean's and L'actualité magazines are featuring an advertising supplement on the CPP and OAS pensions, and we provide articles of varying length on pension topics for use by the mainstream newspapers, as well as community newsletters.

[Translation]

We have supported the production of videos and cable TV productions, including a series of episodes in Y'a plein de soleil in Quebec—as Ms. Folco mentioned—and a video entitled As Time Goes By on the CPP and OAS programs that is about to be released.

Speaking of Quebec, we also work closely with the Régie des rentes du Québec to co-ordinate our outreach and communications activities.

Our Internet site provides information on all aspects of our benefits and financial assistance and includes links to related information.

Next year, we'll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of old age pensions in Canada.

We have worked with Historica to bring this significant event to the attention of all Canadians and will be stepping up our promotional activities throughout the year.

[English]

But direct contact is usually the best, and wherever possible we send out information directly. For example, our old age security application forms ask applicants whether they wish to be considered for GIS benefits. We proactively mail out these applications to seniors before their sixty-fifth birthday.

We reach millions of Canadians with our messages, but certain groups present special challenges for all of us, people who have never worked outside the home, people who don't file income tax returns, aboriginal citizens or residents of remote communities, people with low literacy skills, people who do not read or speak either official language, people with disabilities or ailments.

We do undertake many local initiatives to get the message right to the people who need it. Let me give you two examples.

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HRDC is participating in a joint pilot project with CCRA in the far north to send a bilingual employee, English and Inuktitut, to travel around the northern communities on a regular basis to help people understand the program and apply for benefits.

In Toronto staff have visited some 28 shelters and support organizations for the homeless, one of the hardest groups to reach using standard information vehicles, to try to tell them what's available and to help determine whether they might be eligible for the benefits.

At headquarters we work with traditional, ethnic, and specialty media to reach the diverse clientele we serve.

Generally, we're looking at all communication products, simplifying the language, finding ways and means of improving the outreach and targeting the messages specifically to the groups we are failing to reach. The bottom line is that no senior in need should ever be denied assistance, and it's up to the government, working in partnership with others, to provide it.

[Translation]

So what else can we do? Improved data sources and systems are making it possible to speed up the application process, and just recently we've been able to renew most GIS and allowance benefits automatically for those who file returns by April 30.

We're working on improving our systems still further to reduce the paper burden and the complexity of the application process for our clients.

Although we know who receives an old age pension, we don't know their current income levels and therefore can't determine whether they might be eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement or the Allowance.

[English]

CCRA has agreed to help in a variety of ways, and my colleague the assistant commissioner of the CCRA will describe these. These measures will be of considerable help in addressing the problem of extending our reach, but we have to balance the very legitimate privacy concerns of individuals against our responsibility to reach Canadians with our messages and to respect the rights of those who do not wish to receive these benefits.

How can we improve our future service delivery even more? We are now looking at how to simplify our application process, not only to use clearer language, but also to reduce the paper and transactions. One option is to develop technology to help us use our information more effectively. For example, if our data indicated that certain people were eligible, then we could ask them just to confirm our information, rather than having them fill out complex forms and follow sometimes inconvenient procedures.

We are striving for modernized service delivery, and we're developing government on-line initiatives that will increase collaboration with our partners, especially other government departments, and make service delivery as seamless as possible.

We are looking for creative improvements to fundamental service delivery, while respecting Canada's privacy legislation in all that we do, and we're looking for your help and your guidance. We thank you for your attention.

I'll turn it over to my colleague David.

[Translation]

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Thank you, Mr. Migus. I will now turn the floor over to Mr. Miller. Welcome to the committee.

[English]

Mr. David W. Miller (Assistant Commissioner, Assessment and Collections Branch, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency): Thank you.

First, I would like to introduce Kathy Turner, who's the director general of our benefit programs within CCRA.

We are pleased to have the opportunity to appear before this committee to discuss the steps being taken by the CCRA to help Human Resources Development Canada increase enrolment in the guaranteed income supplement program. The CCRA is concerned with the economic and social well-being of all Canadians. We fully respect and support the need to pay all Canadians the amounts to which they are entitled, be it the GIS or other benefits and credits, such as our own goods and services/harmonized sales tax credit, the Canada child tax benefit, or many of the companion programs offered by a number of provinces that we administer.

As you may know, the CCRA and HRDC have been working together since 1998 to allow the transfer of income information provided on tax returns to improve service to seniors. Although clients must originally apply to HRDC to receive the GIS, benefits may be renewed each year upon the filing of an income tax return. On original application, clients sign a declaration permitting their information to be disclosed where authorized. Legislation only permits the CCRA to provide information to HRDC for their clients, for example, old age security applicants and their spouses or beneficiaries.

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It has been widely reported that approximately 380,000 eligible seniors may not be receiving the GIS. I am not sure this is the right number, but the fact that such a situation exists causes great concern to both the CCRA and HRDC. Officials of both organizations are working closely to explore all options available to facilitate enrolment in and awareness of the OAS and GIS programs. We have also been holding ongoing discussions to improve ways to communicate with seniors.

At this time the CCRA and HRDC have agreed to undertake the following initiatives.

As my colleague Mr. Migus mentioned, the CCRA will now provide HRDC with a list of low-income seniors who were in receipt of the old age security pension in the year 2000, but did not receive the GIS. There's no legislative impediment to providing HRDC with this information.

Second, the CCRA will provide GIS program information to every low-income senior who filed a 2000 tax return and is not in receipt of either the old age security or the guaranteed income supplement. Each year millions of Canadians with little or no income file an income tax return to be eligible for other benefit programs, such as the GST/HST credit.

Third, in order to help HRDC increase program awareness, the CCRA is adding information about the GIS to the T1S-A guide, which is used exclusively by seniors. This guide is distributed to almost one million seniors with incomes of less than $50,000.

I'd like to turn to the question of whether seniors should apply for the GIS on their annual tax return. It is not clear that being able to apply directly on the income tax and benefit return would help those individuals who are unaware of the program. Moreover, if an individual chose not to apply for the GIS or simply forgot to apply, we would likely be facing the same situation we are witnessing today, that is, a segment of the eligible population not being in receipt of the supplement. Nevertheless, we will continue to work with HRDC to find ways to simplify and, where possible, automate the process of applying for the GIS.

In summary, if you filed a tax return and we believe you may be eligible for the GIS, you will be contacted. This leaves the much more difficult issue of identifying and reaching those who do not participate in the tax and benefit system, but because of their low or modest incomes, may be entitled to a variety of payments from the federal and provincial governments.

In closing, I want to let you know that discussions between the CCRA and HRDC remain ongoing. Where necessary, we will seek guidance from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure that all information collected for income tax purposes is used only as permitted by law and that confidentiality of that information is protected.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

[Translation]

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Thank you for your excellent comments.

We will now proceed with the question period. I would remind all of the committee members that we will be rotating interventions between the government side and the opposition side and you'll have approximately five minutes for your questions and answers.

Please begin, Joe.

[English]

If you don't mind, I will call you Joe. It will be easier.

Mr. Joe Peschisolido (Richmond, Canadian Alliance): No, that's fine, Madam Chair. Thank you very much.

Mr. Miller, Mr. Migus, thank you very much for appearing here and talking about an issue that is, I know, very dear to all our hearts. It's a very serious issue.

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Mr. Miller, you mentioned a number. I assume you're referring to a Toronto Star article back on August 23 that had 380,000 seniors eligible for the GIS, but for whatever reason, not obtaining it. You mentioned that you didn't think that was the exact number. What do you think the number is? What would the variables and criteria be that you used in order to come up with the number of individuals not receiving the GIS?

Mr. David Miller: As soon as the article came out, we undertook to try to identify the people who may be included in this. But it becomes much more complicated when you consider the eligibility criteria for the program. If it were simply a matter of, “Are you at the age of 65 and is your income at a certain level?”, we would have been able to determine very quickly how many people may or may not be eligible for that program. But the criteria are much more complicated, not only based on the type of income, but on your eligibility criteria as to how long you've been a resident of Canada, which differs between the programs, and several other factors as well.

With 23 million people filing income tax returns, it's a very complicated process to select only those individuals who may fit into this particular category, and it's one that both our organizations are working towards, specifically identifying the actual circumstances. We could then do an extraction from that 23 million to actually come up with those who.... Again, we would refer to Human Resources Development Canada in the case where they're indicating that they have the old age security, but not the GIS, or in our circumstances we might feel their income level is low or moderate, and so they could be entitled to both. It'll be another several weeks before we actually determine that number.

My expectation is—and this is, unfortunately, not scientific, but more a gut feeling—that it will about 220,000 who may be in the circumstances described, and there'll be probably another 50,000 who are low-income and did not get any benefits from either the old age security or the GIS.

Mr. Joe Peschisolido: I don't know to whom I should refer this question, so let me just throw it out there—whoever wants to take it, take it.

You mentioned a variety of criteria and various groups that may be affected by this for a variety of reasons, lack of facility in the language and what not. Mr. Miller mentioned that he believes there are about 220,000 who haven't been receiving the GIS and another 50,000 who haven't been receiving the OAS. I have two questions. Could that also apply to other programs, like the CPP or the QPP? Second, within the 220,000, do you have analysis of the breakdown of, for instance, new Canadians? Have you broken it down regionally? You mentioned programs working with certain ethnic Canadians on getting the message out. Have you done that type of analysis?

Mr. Paul Migus: Our department, HRDC, in 1998 undertook studies to take a look at the impact of GIS, and we have some preliminary information from that period, using Statistics Canada and some of the information we had available at the time to look at demographic profiles across the country and where there were different take-up rates. In fact, I believe some of that was commented on by some of the researchers at your last meeting.

The issue we have in trying to identify the target populations is that there is much information we do not have. We do have a ten-year residency requirement as one of the eligibility criteria. We do not have easy access to exact information about who has resided for how long in this country, how long people have gone in and out of the country, because the residency is based on actually being in Canada and not travelling abroad. So there are issues about which we don't have that information, and I would not even know how to get that.

With respect to income level, it is based not only on a single individual, but on married couples. We do not know when couples divorce, sit, split, separate. That's not the kind of information we have access to or even want to know in detail. So it would be very difficult to hypothesize about the exact number in that area as well.

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With respect to income, it does vary from year to year, and there are many different sources of income. While we know that for purposes of a single person, once you're above $12,600 of income, you're no longer eligible for GIS, $16,400 for a couple, but it's again different if the couple has one person working and one who's not working. So all these variables almost make it nearly impossible to figure out who's missing and who's not.

Mr. Joe Peschisolido: You have 220,000 people, a lot of individuals, who are not receiving GIS and 50,000 who aren't receiving the old age security and should be. Are you arguing that the way this present government is delivering these services is simply unworkable?

Mr. Paul Migus: On the contrary. The 50,000 you make reference to are compared with 3.8 million who are in receipt. So when you take a look at that number, 97% are in receipt of those benefits and have been.

One must also realize that some people do not choose to apply. In 1999 we were very concerned about the take-up rate in GIS, and we engaged consultants and asked them to go out and survey almost 1,000 people with the question, if you are eligible, why are you not applying for GIS? We found all sorts of explanations and reasons, including that people did not want it. They were in an income bracket that would have precluded them from getting GIS in any event. After $90,000 there is a provision for reduction of all OAS payment, and there are individuals who do not choose to apply, because it is of no benefit to them.

There were also eligible individuals who were aware of the program's existence and chose not to apply for religious reasons. In some cases there was a perception that this was, in fact, a welfare program, and so, from their personal convictions, they did not want to get involved with this kind of government program. Others have personal convictions that lead them not to be involved with government programs at all.

It's very difficult to know all the reasons, but the survey that was done clearly indicated that notwithstanding all the information methods we're using, we have not been able to reach everyone.

Thank you.

[Translation]

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): We will now turn to Ms. Folco, who will be followed by Mr. Gagnon and Ms. Neville.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: Thank you, Madam Chair.

Thank you Mr. Migus, for reminding me that I had been on the program Y'a plein de soleil. For people who do not come from Quebec, I would simply say that this is a program broadcast every Sunday morning in Quebec, in French, and which targets senior citizens. What is interesting, is that apparently, at the end of the program, the producers—I don't know exactly who—received hundreds of calls from people telling them that they hadn't known about that.

I have no doubts about the veracity of the information that you have given us and about the fact that you have an outreach program and that you are moving ahead. I would add that, based on my experience with very elderly people, it often happens that you tell them something, which they understand but which they forget one or two weeks down the road. This is part of what we are all perhaps going to experience if we are fortunate.

Have you thought, on the one hand, about repeating the message over and over again and, on the other hand, have you asked yourselves if there are any other ways to reach these people? I know that when Mr. Martin prepared his heating oil program, for instance, he decided that anyone who had paid a certain amount based on their income tax was entitled to a $300 cheque. This may not, however, be a model that would enable us to reach the public more automatically, because I feel that this is what is missing.

I know that the system is complex. I also know that people do not always respond. Some of them know that they are entitled to this benefit, but they do not know how to go about getting this money. Is there any other way, even if it is not perfect, that would enable us to set up a system that would be virtually automatic for the public?

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Mr. Paul Migus: This would be difficult to do at present because the act does not allow us to issue a payment unless an application has been made, meaning that the citizen or the resident would have to submit an application in order to receive this subsidy.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: This is a requirement of the act?

Mr. Paul Migus: Yes, this is what is provided for in the current legislation.

Ms. Raymond Folco: Madam Chair, do I have enough time to ask another question?

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Yes, you still have a little bit of time remaining.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: The answer was so short...

Mr. Paul Migus: I apologize. We really try to do several other things in order to enhance outreach. In the North, we have officers who put on presentations to citizens and distribute their benefits to them. Canada, however, is really a huge country. It is very difficult to reach everybody.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: Mr. Migus, I would add something that I will say to the members of this committee. If it's in the legislation, it is incumbent on the members of this committee to see whether or not recommendations could be made to the minister about certain aspects of the act.

Setting aside the fact that we are dealing with a piece of legislation that does not help us in this respect and which, in fact, prevents us from doing this, is there any way we could do this technically?

Mr. Paul Migus: Technology improves every year. Accordingly, I think that this would be possible in the future. Right now, this is very difficult to do, but theoretically, technology will enable us to automate these applications.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: Will there be any problems because of the Privacy Act? In your opinion, could this law complicate or even prevent this type of process? Naturally, this is a question that we could put to the Commissioner later on.

Mr. Paul Migus: As I said earlier, some information is really delicate, such as marital status. We could perhaps obtain this information from other sources, but I think that we must first of all obtain authorization from the citizens before using this information.

Ms. Raymonde Folco: Mr. Miller, would you like to add anything?

[English]

Mr. David Miller: As Mr. Migus stated, our primary concern is the confidentiality of information received through something like the income tax return. We are very careful about our exchange of data with any organization. It is clearly authorized by legislation when we do exchange information, which, of course, Parliament may change. I can only add that every individual in the agency is acutely aware of the importance of protecting privacy and the information provided to us through tax returns and other sources. So we are very careful, within the legislative framework, to only allow exchange of information that is clearly identified.

It may be an issue, it may not. It would depend on the specific nature of the information exchange, on the details, and on existing legislation, which can be changed, but we're extremely careful. Even public information, such as name and telephone number, we do not exchange or provide to anyone outside the legislative provisions of our current act.

[Translation]

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): We will now turn the floor over to Mr. Gagnon, who will be followed by Ms. Neville. Then it will be Carol Skelton, followed by Bob Speller.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: Thank you, Madam Chair.

I was going to say to Ms. Folco that if we got such brief and specific answers at the House of Commons, we would be able to ask more questions.

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Ms. Raymonde Folco: Mr. Gagnon, I asked very precise questions, unlike what we sometimes see at the House of Commons at 2 p.m.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: I was expecting that answer.

This is the second time that we have talked about this very troubling file. I really don't know what question I should ask you, because I can see, from the steps that you have taken, that you appear to have explored every available avenue to inform people of their rights, to inform them about something that is not a privilege, but an entitlement.

The third page of your document gives a good description of the people who are really vulnerable and whom you do not manage to reach or who are not informed for a variety of reasons: they don't read the papers, they don't listen to the news or God knows what else.

Since this came to my attention, I started trying to contact people, groups or associations in my riding. This is not perhaps as easy to do in large centres and in big cities, but in semi-urban areas, just about everybody knows each other. You can find an association that knows just everybody.

Have you given any thought to a similar program to try and meet, for example, the AFEAS? In Quebec, there are senior citizens' clubs, senior citizens' associations and perhaps other groups. In La Tuque, in the northern part of my riding, in upper St. Maurice, we have one group called the Knights of Columbus which is comprised of retired people who do wonderful community work seeking out those in need and trying to help them. Every time we meet them, they say that they do not have enough money. This is a source of money which is being kept from the people.

My question is as follows: Would it be possible to target associations that could help us and that could, in particular, help the elderly receive their entitlement?

Mr. Paul Migus: The short answer is yes. In fact, we have about 100 officials who are working hard in the communities, in partnership with associations. The targeted associations are those who look after the homeless and people with modest incomes. At the same time, we have tried to encourage our employees to establish other partnerships, with community centres, multiculturalism centres, ethnic groups, etc. We have put up posters in areas where citizens go, such as drugstores, medical clinics, credit unions, for example.

There are also some individuals who try to help

[English]

the information presentation to whichever group we can.

[Translation]

For example, with my colleague, the two groups work with the associations that help individuals fill out their statements of income. That means that we provide services directly to citizens who need assistance, citizens who have language or health problems.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: In your answer, you said that the current legislation does not enable us to obtain certain information. The Privacy Act, for instance, comes to mind.

In your opinion, do you think it would be possible to broaden access somewhat? I think that my question is along the same lines as that put by Ms. Folco. Or, has any thought been given to amending the legislation so that we can exchange information about the elderly?

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Mr. Paul Migus: I am not sure that this is a problem that is linked to the Privacy Act. Rather, the problem lies in the information pertaining to the eligibility criteria of this program.

For example, as far as families are concerned, it is really difficult to obtain information pertaining to the marital status. Some people have been living as a couple for some time, and then they separate. How do we obtain this information? Is the information truly accurate and how long will it remain so? It's difficult. That means that the problems are related to eligibility. We need to analyze the criteria of this program and perhaps we can come up with a way to improve and simplify the criteria in the future. It's a challenge.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Mr. Gagnon.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: We are going to have to have shorter answers.

You say that some people refuse to take the supplement for various reasons. They think it amounts to begging. When people refuse the supplement, could they ask that the money be given to a particular charity? Could this be done?

Mr. Paul Migus: I do not think so.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: This might be an idea for those who refuse the supplement.

Thank you.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Thank you very much.

We will now go to Ms. Neville, who will be followed by Ms. Carol Skelton and Mr. Bob Speller.

[English]

Ms. Anita Neville: Thank you.

I'm just going to throw out a number of questions to get them in and ask whoever is able to answer.

I am a relatively new member of Parliament, and my experience is telling me that many of those who are not getting the benefits they're entitled to for one reason or another are women, for the most part elderly women, frequently used to having others take care of them. As a result of this, they aren't finding their way through the system. I find this a very distressing matter. I did not see the August article in the Toronto Star. I'm wondering how proactive you were—and I'm hearing some of what has been happening prior to the Toronto Star article—or has that really galvanized you into action?

I'm concerned about the issues related to privacy, because I understand that section 8 of the Privacy Act states that personal information under the control of a government institution may be disclosed when disclosure would clearly benefit the individual to whom the information relates. I'm curious to know how that plays in.

I'm also concerned about the retroactivity, the fact that if someone comes into my office next week and we determine that she—and it's usually a she—is eligible, the retroactivity can only go back 11 months, whereas I understand at one time it went back a significantly longer period of time.

I'll start with that.

Mr. Paul Migus: I'll start with the issue of women as beneficiaries. The information we have available with respect to old age security indicates that there's a fairly even take-up as between men and women. I think there are areas where the take-up rate by women is greater than with men, certainly in the allowance area. In the program for widows or widowers it's mainly been the widows who have been applying, not the widowers. So it varies. I'm not aware of a great discrepancy, but I'm looking at my colleagues to see whether they've....

• 1150

Ms. Anita Neville: I'm just telling you anecdotally.

Mr. Paul Migus: I don't dispute that, and there is that perception. I'm just indicating that from the research we've done and the studies we have, it appears to be fairly balanced, within a percentage point of each other, as between the various age groups, as well as between the two genders. That's on the first point.

You asked if we were galvanized to act after the Toronto Star article. I'd say that we have certainly been more focused in the last couple of months, but David and I have been meeting for some time, and the department itself has been aware that we have not been successful in reaching this group of citizens and residents. Back as early as 1999 the study that was done asked very specifically why we were not more successful in this area. So this is a perennial concern for us. We haven't stopped, and we won't stop until we figure it out and become more sophisticated with the technology and the techniques to target those in greatest need.

With respect to retroactivity, all of the program areas, all of the legislation that touches the areas I have responsibility for, the Canada Pension Plan, the old age security, the GIS, the allowance, disability insurance, have a one year retroactivity. The old age security, not the GIS part of it, had a five-year period from, I guess, 1952 to 1995, and in 1995, as part of a number of initiatives that were taken, the retroactivity on that particular program was reduced to a year. It had to do with a realization, to some extent, that individuals might have been able to abuse the system by declaring that they had less income, not taking the old age pension, claiming all sorts of other benefit programs, welfare programs from provinces and other associations, and then taking a lump sum five-year amount after they'd collected from everything else. It's very difficult to collect back from those other program areas. And basically, it was the harmonization. When one looked at the individual types of payments the provinces were providing for social assistance, there was basically a one-year payment as well. So to some extent it was making it consistent with all the other legislation, as well as what was happening across the country with the provinces.

With respect to the Privacy Act, both the Income Tax Act and the Old Age Security Act have very specific clauses that allow the two organizations to be able to communicate with one another where it provides benefits to the citizens we're serving. It's in the Old Age Security Act in regard to who our target audiences are.

Mr. David Miller: Perhaps I can just add a few points for clarification. We talked about a program where we had 15,000 Canadians volunteering to help over 470,000 seniors last year prepare their income tax returns. In fact, this is the thirtieth year of that program, and it's grown. It's a way for us to go out into the communities, to the actual senior citizens' residences and other places, to help them prepare returns. Since the bulk of the returns are for seniors and for those with limited income, it's a target group we want to emphasize more and more. We've been fortunate to have the growth in both the number of volunteers and the number of returns that are processed under that.

We also, as Paul mentioned, have a committee that we jointly organize for seniors associations. We met, in fact, last month with this group and specifically discussed this issue. They were quite comfortable with the steps being taken by the agency and the department, and it was no mean feat, believe me, to convince them we were doing what we should.

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It is extremely difficult if persons are outside our normal system. If people file returns and we are able to exchange information, that's fine. And it's not necessarily the Privacy Act, it could be the Income Tax Act that has restrictions. In specific relation to what information we can exchange with HRDC, it is a complicated legal process. It's the only section of the Income Tax Act I've read several times, because it's the only one that can get me in jail, rather than just in trouble. So I'm very careful about what we do, and so are our organizations.

So there are issues concerning the exchange we have to look at from a legislative point of view, but I think it's important for the committee to remember that it was only two years ago that in working towards a better way of dealing with the administration of these programs, we allowed people to reapply for the GIS through their tax return rather than a separate application. So it was in 1999 that we adopted a process that was much more streamlined for the recipients.

[Translation]

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Before we go to the next question, could the two departments get us some studies on the subjects under discussion, namely the Garanteed Income Supplement and Old Age Security, so that we can review this issue better? Could that be done? You could submit these documents to the clerk, who would distribute them to all committee members. Thank you.

I will now give the floor to Carol Skelton, on the second round. She will be followed by Bob Speller and Mr. Schmidt.

[English]

Ms. Carol Skelton (Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, Canadian Alliance): First, I'd like to know how long HRDC and Canada Customs and Revenue have known about this GIS problem with the seniors? Did you realize it was happening before? When did you first realize there were a lot of seniors falling through the cracks?

Mr. Paul Migus: I've gone into documentation back to 1993-1994, and there was a recognition that there was a challenge.

Ms. Carol Skelton: Do you feel that it's been worsening as the years have gone by, or was it greater in 1993?

Mr. Paul Migus: For the record, it was higher in previous years, and the cooperation between the two organizations to try to target the individuals has had some success. But at the same time, the size of the seniors population continues to grow every year as well.

Ms. Carol Skelton: Yes, I know all of them

Mr. Paul Migus: So do I.

Ms. Carol Skelton: So that would be eight years that this has been going on. What have you been doing over those eight years in trying to fill in those cracks?

Mr. Paul Migus: We've developed outreach programs, where we've actually engaged staff to go out into the communities. We've developed the statement of contributions for CPP; we mail out over 12 million statements, to every Canadian that has a CPP contribution, with information on them dealing with old age security, and specifically the GIS. We simplified the application forms to allow them to tick a box to say, I'm interested in GIS. We go out with over 200,000 application forms to citizens before they even reach the age of 65 asking them to apply, not waiting for them to find out about it, but asking them, because we know about them. There are some 300,000 old age pensioners who do not file income tax at all who we go out to. There are another 300,000 pieces of application information saying, please apply for your GIS, you're eligible. So where we know about them, we try to reach out to them.

Ms. Carol Skelton: Okay.

Mr. Miller, you've mentioned that all seniors are going to be contacted. How are you going to contact them, and when are you going to contact them?

Mr. David Miller: There are actually two processes. The first ones are those seniors who are in receipt of an old age security payment, but are not getting the GIS, though by our analysis, they should be entitled to that through their income levels and other criteria. We will provide that information to HRDC, but they will still have to run it against some of their own requirements, such as residency and marital status, because there are different provisions. In fact, how old your spouse is has an impact on how this program works. So that will be step one, dealing with those who specifically get the old age security payment now and are filing a tax return.

• 1200

The other group who are filing a tax return are those who do not get either program, and again, based on legal advice, we cannot provide that information to HRDC, because technically they are not clients of HRDC. So on our own we can undertake to go out—and we've done this before on behalf of other groups, such as the Treasury Board for the pay equity—and contact them and say, based on our information, you should apply.

Ms. Carol Skelton: I've heard lots of comments that the forms are very complex and very hard for seniors to fill out. Have you looked at making them easier for them to work on?

Mr. Paul Migus: We've engaged a consultant, who now is an employee, who does nothing but plain language and analysis of the kind of product we put out to make sure it is as easily understood as possible. And we also focus-test our products with citizens they're targeted for before we put them out.

[Translation]

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): For your information, on the second round, I am trying to reduce the time so that everyone has an opportunity to ask questions. So we will turn now to Mr. Speller, who will be followed by Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Bellemare.

[English]

Mr. Bob Speller (Haldimand—Norfolk—Brant, Lib.): Thank you very much, Madam Chair, and I want to thank the witnesses for coming.

On page three of your comments you say that CCRA has agreed to help by providing HRDC with a list of seniors receiving old age security etc., and you'll help them obtain information. Could you tell me how that physically works? Are you actually doing that right now? I've been around a bit, and I've seen these sort of things before, but when it comes down to it.... I'm trying to figure out how it works.

Second, why doesn't HRDC help people who walk in off the street to fill in their applications? If we're interested in getting them to apply, and these applications are so complex for many seniors, why is it that we're not helping them when they walk in off the street into an HRDC office?

Third, you talked about possible changes coming. When can this committee actually expect legislation on this that will help resolve some of these problems?

Fourth, you talked about technology, and technology certainly may help, but as you understand, seniors and technology don't always go hand-in-hand, and sometimes it's difficult for them to understand it. If the technology is in the department itself and communications between the departments, when can we expect that?

Mr. David Miller: First, we're not sure it will require legislation. Again, what we want to do is go out under existing legislation as quickly as we can to contact as many people as we can. If that covers the waterfront in respect of those people who, for example, are filing tax returns, then it's very difficult to develop legislation that would help with that. So it's a question of going out, finding those individuals who are in the system now, and dealing with them in the most appropriate manner, given our current legislative requirements.

The technological changes also expand to different ways citizens can deal with the government, and hopefully, those will be simplifying processes, based on individual citizens' preferences, as to how they can share information and how that will work. This is a new area for the federal government, and one where we'll be working with not only HRDC, but Treasury Board, as the government's lead agency on these kinds of developments.

Third, I'd like to ask Mrs. Turner to talk about some of the information exchanges—and believe me, it's not just this one that we have currently with HRDC—and to clarify that question.

Ms. Kathy Turner (Director General, Assessment and Collections Branch, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency): Perhaps I could just explain briefly how we are bringing together the data to provide HRDC with the list of people who appear to be qualified. Is that what you'd like me to do?

Mr. Bob Speller: I'm more interested in what HRDC actually does with the information when they get it. Do they physically pick up the phone and call the person? Do they send them a note? How do they make sure that information is taken and the person applies?

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Mr. Paul Migus: When we receive the information, we identify the addresses, the contacts, and the phone numbers, and we do two things. In some parts of the country we actually call the individual to say, are you aware that you are eligible for GIS and that you have not applied? Are you interested in doing so? Can we mail you an application? But as a minimum, we do take that list and provide more information in plain language that they are eligible and a copy of the application form, identifying where they can call or where they can go to get assistance. Those are the mechanics that take place at our end.

You asked a couple of other questions with respect to legislation. The HRDC is constantly looking at our policies and procedures, the legislation, the regulations, specifically right now in the context of Government On-Line, where technology may, in fact, have an impact on how we deal with citizens and the kinds of programs and restrictions we have currently in place. So within our program area, the OAS program, we're definitely looking at the technologies that exist and that may be coming along and how that would affect the kinds of criteria through simplification of approaches in dealing with the citizens we serve. So that's one area.

You also asked why we do not assist citizens at the front counter when they come in. In the Human Resources Canada centres—there are some 320 across the country—there are probably some 500 staff we have for old age security programs who provide support, but we do not have officials in every office. It could be the remoteness or the size of the office. Some of it also has to do with the fact that some citizens have indicated, through the surveying we've been doing, that they prefer, especially if they're elderly, not to travel to an office, but would rather pick up the phone. So we do have a large organization of call centres across the country.

Mr. Bob Speller: And then they end up in our office, because HRDC won't deal with it.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Excuse me, Mr. Speller, the time is over. Sorry about that.

[Translation]

I will now give the floor to Mr. Schmidt, who will be followed by Mr. Bellemare and Mr. Spencer.

[English]

Mr. Werner Schmidt (Kelowna, Canadian Alliance): Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you, folks, for being here. It's really good, I think, Madam Chair, that you've got both the CCRA and the HRDC assistant deputy minister. I think it's great to have these two agencies here.

I'd like to address my question, I think, to Mr. Miller in the first instance—perhaps, Mr. Migus, you'd like to come in as well. It has to do with a comment you made, Mr. Miller: if you file an income tax return and if we believe you would qualify for GIS, an information package will be sent out to you. My question relates to your determination of whether you believe these people qualify, and it has to do with low-income people in particular.

Before I go any further, I'd like to ask you whether you are familiar with the study done by Richard Shillington with the C.D. Howe Institute? He makes the observation there, I think, about the people who have an RRSP, for example. I guess there's a technical question here: does the total value of the RRSP become part of the eligibility criteria?

Mr. Paul Migus: Not the value of the RRSP, but the value of the RRSP when it's cashed becomes part of the income of the recipient, and in the case of the guaranteed income supplement, if the income goes up beyond the threshold, say $12,000 for a single individual, then yes, they would not be eligible for GIS.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: Okay, but that's not quite my question.

Mr. Paul Migus: Sorry.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: Is it the capitalization of the RRSP at that time or is it the income generated by the RRSP into that particular person's income on the annual basis?

Mr. David Miller: Perhaps I can answer. In general, the RRSP is a deferral of income, by definition. So it's only when the encashment takes place or a part of it is used and declared in income for the year that it's calculated in. So you could have an RRSP that's very large, but if it's just sitting there, you've deferred that income from a previous period and there are no tax implications for that, no impact on the benefit programs.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: That's not my question. With the money that is generated by the RRSP, if it's converted in to an RRIF or if it's converted into an annuity, whatever the case may be, which is the amount that is put into the income tax return?

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Mr. David Miller: As long as the RRSP is not touched, whatever capitalization occurs within the fund is not taxable; it's only when amounts are withdrawn.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: And that is all.

Mr. David Miller: Yes.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: Okay.

If a person does not have an RRSP income, but a dividend income, the dividend income is grossed up and taxed at the marginal rate, wherever that individual arrives. Does that figure into your determination of whether a person is eligible for GIS or not?

Mr. David Miller: I would have to defer to HRDC. It certainly is calculated in your income, and there are variations as to how one declares income for tax purposes and for some of the benefit programs, but I'll let Mr. Migus answer that.

Mr. Paul Migus: It is considered income for purposes of determining the eligibility thresholds for beneficiaries, yes.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: So an individual who has dividend income is actually penalized relative to an individual who is either on a salary or on an interest income that they generate.

Mr. Paul Migus: No, I'd say that all income is considered, other than the old age security pension itself, and treated as income for purposes of determining eligibility through an income-tested system.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: I appreciate that, but what about the individual who derives his income from dividends, who will have a higher income because of the gross-up provision than an individual who collects money from a Canada Savings Bond or some other guaranteed income certificate?

Mr. Paul Migus: I believe that's exactly the argument Mr. Shillington has been making in his paper.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: That is the argument he makes, but I'm asking you whether he's right.

Mr. Paul Migus: I'm not an actuary and I'm not a financial adviser. I would assume that he's right, but I don't know. It makes sense when you read the article.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: Okay, but my question then really is, if it does make sense—and I believe it does make sense, I think it's accurate—and if that's the case, is there not within our tax system a discrimination against low-income Canadians in particular? The people you are trying to help with your GIS system are the very people who are penalized by our taxation system—is that not true?

Mr. Paul Migus: I don't work in that area, I'm not able to comment whether it is or not. I read the article, and as I've pointed out, it seems to make sense, but I would have to defer to people who are experts in the financial community and can tell you that.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Mr. Miller, we don't have a lot of time, so if you can, make it short please.

Ms. Kathy Turner: I just clarified with one of the people here who is working with us that the amount of dividend income that is used is not the grossed-up amount. So when you report your dividend income on your tax return, it is grossed up, but the amount actually used for the calculation of the benefit is the amount prior to gross-up. Dividend income is treated in that instance like any other income.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: So this is an exemption under the provisions of the Income Tax Act.

Ms. Kathy Turner: No, it's under the OAS Act, the elements of income they use to determine your benefit level.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Thank you, Mrs. Turner, and I'm sorry we don't have more time.

[Translation]

Mr. Bellemare, you now have the floor. Next will be Mr. Spencer and Mr. Malhi.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare (Ottawa—Orleans, Lib.): Thank you, Madam Chair.

[English]

I'm aware that assisting people in need is not an easy task for anyone, at the individual level, the corporate level, the institutional level, or the government level. I'm very much in favour of a public service person's being from the area. I wonder, do you have enough personnel to do the work? Just a yes or no will do.

Mr. Paul Migus: The size of our population continues to grow every year, and it is a challenge to ensure that we are able to provide service at the same high standards we are accustomed to.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: I'm concerned that the public service is aging. Is it being renewed fast enough for you?

Mr. Paul Migus: Is it showing that badly already?

There are initiatives within the public service, as you may well be aware. There is a committee that has been instructed to look at modernizing the human resources within the federal public service, and they're far more competent to tell you of the initiatives they'll be undertaking to achieve that.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: My concern is that when you ask someone to do some work, you have to give that person the tools.

Mr. Paul Migus: Absolutely.

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Mr. Eugène Bellemare: This is why I'm bringing up these questions.

Do you have a sample form? We hear about this application form being very difficult to fill in. Would you, perchance, have a sample copy here?

Mr. Paul Migus: I believe so.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: Finally, when I read a newspaper article, I always sort of grin, you know, wondering what is the real objective of the article. And when I see that this Mr. Shillington made a survey—it wasn't much of a research thing, it looked like a survey—I'm not sure if he did it personally or if he sent some students in to ask questions to seniors in a food bank. Have you ever verified all this? Some of the people who walk into a food bank shouldn't be walking into a food bank, we know that. Some people ask for food they're really not permitted to have. Some people look older than they are, and we would have to verify their age. If this is only 15%....

[Translation]

It has been said that only 15% of seniors who use food banks are getting the supplement.

[English]

This would suggest that whoever was making that survey would ask anyone who looked like a senior, do you receive this or that benefit? The answers, to my mind, are really not something you could use in a proper survey or statistical research. And it's done in Toronto, in only one spot, then you project the figures across Canada, and as Monsieur Gagnon mentioned, the smaller the community, everyone knows everyone and everyone wants to help everyone, except for very few cases. Did you not, within your group, want to verify these projections—and that's what they are, projections?

Mr. Paul Migus: Let me begin by saying that we welcome all advice, all comments, and Mr. Shillington has a very strong reputation in this area and has been very helpful to many. I believe also stated that the numbers used by the Toronto Star were not the numbers he had used in his survey, and so I think we have two sets of numbers.

Are we concerned? Absolutely, and that's why my colleague has been doing the analysis and trying to get the data out of the CCR data bank, so that we have the hard numbers and the lists. We hope to have that in the next few weeks.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: Will we be getting that report in the committee?

Mr. Paul Migus: I'm not sure. We're looking at a list of addresses we have. I can't divulge the addresses of all the individuals.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: No, just the number.

Mr. Paul Migus: Oh yes, we can do that.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: That number is moving from 320,000 to 220,000. It may fall to 75,000—we don't know.

Mr. Paul Migus: We definitely can make that available.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: Thank you.

[Translation]

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Mr. Spencer, followed by Mr. Malhi.

[English]

Mr. Spencer.

Mr. Larry Spencer (Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, Canadian Alliance): Thank you, Madam Chairman.

I'm concerned in my riding about two specific problems, one of which came about even during my election run-up. Seniors were being taxed beyond what they had been in previous years, and they were just struggling. For some reason, they were getting a clawback or a tax impact that was making it impossible for them to live. I'm also concerned about those who have been paying extremely high utility rates.

Can you address for a moment what you see as the impact on seniors through being taxed back, when they're really struggling?

Second, is there any way you see for seniors to be given some guaranteed rate of utilities, or a rebate or tax credit of any kind to cover extreme rises in utility costs?

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Mr. Paul Migus: I'll try to address the first part of the question, the issue of individuals with higher income having some level of the old age security being clawed back—I think that's the term that was used.

I'd like to point out that of the 3.8 million Canadians who are recipients of old age security approximately 100,000 have income above $55,000, and therefore the clawback begins. The income of those among the 3.8 million who actually have the full amount clawed back is in excess of $90,000, and there are actually around 75,000 Canadians at that level. So in effect, the full clawback applies to 2% of the population of old age security pensioners, and the clawback has an impact on about 5% of the total, with respect to the people who are actually receiving old age security payments.

Mr. Larry Spencer: The case I was referring to was receiving only a total of around $12,000 or something, but was receiving a tax bill for $900 and something a year for the past two years. That was new to her. Does that sound like a correct figure?

Mr. Paul Migus: I can't comment until I know a little more about the specifics of the case.

Mr. Larry Spencer: I have one final question. The 220,000 you're talking about, how and when do you plan to notify these people who are not receiving GIS? I think Ms. Skelton asked that question, and it wasn't fully answered.

Mr. Paul Migus: As soon as we receive the information from the CCRA, we will be calling individuals, as well as mailing out the information, trying to identify the target areas, which parts of the country they're in, and to see what other activities we have with respect to the senior citizens associations that are out there. We'll also be trying to look at different approaches in respect of language profile and communicating through the various ethnic media, ethnic radio stations—we do that as well. So we'll be targeting very specifically this time around, based on the number we do have.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): I think Mr. Miller has something to add on that.

Mr. David Miller: Perhaps I could add, as we've been talking about it this morning, that it's very complicated to come up with the right set of criteria, depending on marital status, age, income, residency qualification, all these other factors. So it will be a few weeks. Will it be a few months? We certainly hope not, but it will be a few weeks before we're able to correctly identify those who may qualify and to provide that information to HRDC. So we're hopeful that before the end of the calendar year we'll have this information out.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Okay. Is it okay with you, Mr. Spencer?

[Translation]

Thank you very much.

I have just been told that the document requested by Mr. Bellemare was not available this morning. So, for everyone's benefit, please send a copy of it to the clerk, so that it can be distributed at a future meeting.

Mr. Malhi, followed by Mr. Gagnon.

[English]

Mr. Gurbax Malhi (Bramalea—Gore—Malton—Springdale, Lib.): Thank you, Madam Chair.

When the clients call for the information on the phone, so many times the phone is busy, and then they call our office. This is not a one-time thing, I have so many complaints every day. I don't know why. When we call, we get the line, but when the clients call, they say the phone is busy all the time.

Second, when they ask something on the phone, the people are very rude. They don't give the right information, and then the people bring the form to our office and say they didn't help us this way.

Third, the form is so complicated and hard to understand. Some people pay the counsellor $100 or $200 to fill out the form. After that, once they fill out the form, there's unnecessary harassment, or then they say, come here, we need this document; they produce that document, and then they ask for another document. I have so many cases like that.

If you know there are some areas with ethnic communities, why can you not appoint a person who knows those languages? That ought to be easy for them.

• 1225

Mr. Paul Migus: Let me start with the first question about phone service. We answer some five million phone calls a year about income support programs. You are right, we do not achieve 100% pick-up in the first 30 seconds. I wish we could. We are quite pleased if we achieve 97% pick-up in the first three minutes. We are aware that we do not have all the capacity at the moment and all the technology necessary to make it easier for citizens to call in. It's a major area of activity, not only for HRDC, but for all call centres across the Government of Canada. The government is looking at ways and means of making it much easier.

I am disappointed that you have an impression that some of our staff are rude on the phone. I certainly would welcome any examples or any sorts of complaints. I will personally look into each and every one of them. When you have five million phone calls, you can have bad moments, and I certainly do apologize on behalf of my staff if they have done that. But I can assure you that we take great pains in training, selection, and recruitment to try to ensure that we provide the best possible sympathetic and compassionate service.

With respect to the complexity of the application forms, I do agree with you. I have gone through the application forms, I've gone through some of the evidentiary requirements, and I am sympathetic. Some of these processes were put in place and developed over 30 years and need a serious reexamination. In fact, my director general, Nada, and Sue, the director, have both been looking over the last six months at how we can, with today's technology, in today's society, simplify some of that and make it more relevant.

My colleagues have been going out to try to find ways and means to address the reality that today's Canadian population is very much more diverse than it was 30 years ago. How do we change the level of service we provide in the languages of the communities we serve? We do have some challenges, and I accept the comments and commit us to making improvements in each of those areas.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Is it okay with you, Mr. Malhi? Okay.

[Translation]

I will now give the floor to Mr. Gagnon, and then to Mr. Schmidt, for a fairly brief final question.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: I have three small questions, and I will ask them all at once.

You spoke earlier about an 11-month retroactive period. If, for example, I find someone who is eligible, but who, unfortunately, did not understand or realize this, and the 11-month period is exceeded, the money for the time beyond the 11-month period is lost. You spoke about this earlier, but I did not understand your answer correctly. I find this rather difficult, particularly for people of this type, because there may be some of them who cannot read very well, or have other similar problems. I think that in these cases, the 11-month retroactive period is rather harsh for these people, who are among the most vulnerable in society.

I was wondering whether you had a breakdown by province. We know that the figure for Canada as a whole is approximately 380 000. You mentioned that you work with organizations such as the QPP in Quebec. Can you tell us how many people in Quebec, who would be entitled to these benefits, have not been reached?

I ask my last question out of curiosity. Do other countries with similar programs have the same trouble reaching people? If not, how do they go about it? That is a rather large question, but I will give you all the rest of my time to answer it. Thank you.

Mr. Paul Migus: I can give you a partial answer to your question about retroactivity. The act states clearly that we really do not have much flexibility to make exceptions, except in two cases. The first is those cases where the government makes an administrative error. The second is when individuals have genuine disabilities which mean that they do not understand at all, because of their health. We can be a little more flexible in these two cases.

• 1230

As to the number of people receiving the Guaranteed Income Supplement in Quebec, our figures show that 90% of those eligible for the supplement are receiving it.

How does this compare with the other provinces? The level is almost the same in the Maritimes, but the figures for Ontario and British Columbia are lower than those for Quebec.

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: And you do not have the time to go and see what happens in other countries.

Mr. Paul Migus: No.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Does that answer your questions, Mr. Gagnon?

Mr. Marcel Gagnon: Yes.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): I will now give the floor to Mr. Schmidt for a final question.

[English]

Mr. Werner Schmidt: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I have one very short question.

Could you explain the rationale for collecting income tax on the basis of individual returns and using family income for the computation of qualification for GIS?

Mr. David Miller: Perhaps I could start. In fact, almost all of our benefit programs are based on family income, not just the GIS or the OAS, but also—

Mr. Werner Schmidt: I don't know the explanation or the rationale.

Mr. David Miller: Most of the income tax system is based on at least spouse-related income, so there are very few deductions that don't take that into account, which is why most people have to prepare their tax return with their spouses. Even transferring deductions such as charitable donations takes place between the two spouses. Almost our entire structure is based on family-related income. Very few things relate to an individual in and of themselves. So I don't think it's unique in that. Certainly, all the programs are family-related. I think it makes sense when you're looking at people living together and their requirements for the individual programs, and it's preferable to treating everyone as an individual, I think, for social program objectives anyway.

Mr. Werner Schmidt: I'd like you to explain what family-related means.

Mr. David Miller: Family-related income?

Mr. Werner Schmidt: Yes.

Mr. David Miller: We have different definitions of spouse, and it gets very complicated. Basically, if you're living with someone for more than a year, you may be considered as a family unit. For whatever reasons, without getting into details, it's a basic criterion. People have to declare and indicate for things such as the child tax benefit, the GST or HST credit, as well as other benefit programs, like OAS and GIS.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St. Jacques): Okay, Mr. Schmidt?

Mr. Werner Schmidt: No, but I don't think we have time. I'll pursue it in another quarter.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St. Jacques): Okay, thank you very much.

[Translation]

I would like to thank our guests this morning: Mr. Migus, Ms. Pitts and Ms. Semaan from Human Resources Development Canada; and Mr. Miller and Ms. Turner from the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. I think the information you provided was very relevant and will be discussed at a future committee meeting—the exact date remains to be determined—to see whether we will make any recommendations to the minister.

I would invite you to stay with us, if you wish, for the Commissioner's presentation. He is currently appearing before a committee in the Centre Block, and that meeting will end at 12:30. So we expect him to be here in a few minutes. He is appearing before the committee studying the antiterrorism bill.

For the benefit of my colleagues, I would like to mention that on Thursday we will have with us the Minister of Human Resources Development to talk about administrative matters and to answer our questions about the current economic situation since the events of September 11. On Tuesday of next week, we will be having a round table discussion on financial assistance for students.

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If you like, I will suspend the meeting for a few minutes, until Mr. Radwanski gets here. We will be back in a few minutes.

Once again, thank you very much for appearing before us today.

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The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): I would like to welcome Mr. Radwanski, the Privacy Commissioner. I will give you a few minutes to make your presentation, and I will ask my colleagues to co-operate as regards the question and answer period, because we would like to end by 1:00 p.m. That gives us very little time, but we will do our best in the brief time we have.

Welcome, Mr. Radwanski.

Mr. George Radwanski (Privacy Commissioner of Canada): Thank you, Madam Chair. I apologize for being late, but I was appearing before the committee studying Bill C-36. Then there were some journalists who wanted to ask me some questions, as usual. I do apologize.

[English]

I do have some brief introductory comments. I appreciate the opportunity to appear here, although as my office indicated to your committee, I don't have a great deal to say about this issue, because very frankly, this is not a Privacy Act issue to begin with. The Privacy Act protects personal information only insofar as other laws don't apply. Section 241 of the Income Tax Act contains provisions that deal with the confidentiality of taxpayer information. These provisions take precedence over the Privacy Act. Section 241 also lists a number of situations in which taxpayer information can be disclosed. For example, the act appears to specifically authorize the disclosure of information for the purposes of administering the Old Age Security Act.

However, just because the issue does not directly involve the Privacy Act, it doesn't mean that I'm not interested in it as an issue. There are any number of important issues where I am called on to take a firm position to protect the privacy rights of Canadians. There are other issues where a lack of common sense results in privacy ending up with the risk of getting a bad name.

One of the unfortunate aspects of the issue I'm talking about today is that privacy has been portrayed not as something that protects us, but as something that hurts us. This is not the purpose of privacy legislation, and it is not how I see my role. A lot of my job involves applying common sense. In this case there appear to be a number of common sense solutions that would help resolve the situation without negatively affecting privacy.

First, I have already mentioned that section 241 of the Income Tax Act specifically authorizes CCRA to disclose taxpayer information for the purposes of administering the Old Age Security Act. Section 33 of the Old Age Security Act has a reciprocal provision. It's not my role to interpret the Income Tax Act or the Old Age Security Act, but I think a case can be made that the guaranteed income supplement is simply a component of the OAS. The Old Age Security Act specifically mentions the GIS. As Privacy Commissioner, I would not take the view that this is an interpretation of the law that somehow abuses the privacy rights of Canadians.

Second, CCRA should, and I believe will, revise its tax guide for seniors with low income to include relevant information regarding a senior's eligibility for the GIS and how to apply.

Third, I don't see why CCRA could not also include a note in big, bold, clear type on the notice of assessment forms that it sends out to everybody after they have filed their income tax, a note informing those seniors with low income that they appear to be eligible for the GIS and telling them to call a 1-800 number for more information. That strikes me as simply a common sense thing that could very readily be done.

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Fourth, as an immediate measure, CCRA could send a notice on behalf of HRDC to those seniors who qualify for the GIS, and that would not have to involve disclosing any information to another department at all. They can get the relevant information from HRDC and send it.

Members of my staff have been talking to CCRA and HRDC about these and other options. We will provide any advice we can to help CCRA and HRDC come up with a solution that will assist low-income seniors and protect privacy.

Let me conclude by talking for a brief moment about privacy. As you may know, I just appeared before another House committee reviewing the anti-terrorism legislation bill, and I'm going to be appearing before a Senate committee on the same matter later today. In today's climate it is all too easy to see privacy as a barrier, as something that can be set aside when we are worried about our security or when, as a society, we have to deal with some particularly difficult problem. The Privacy Act was not passed to stop government departments from engaging in activities that help Canadians. It was passed to protect a fundamental human right.

As an independent officer of Parliament, my role is not just to administer this legislation, but to serve as a champion of privacy rights for all Canadians. Part of that championing, I guess, is to do my best to ensure that bureaucratic inertia or a certain lack of speed in looking for common-sense solutions when they involve several departments does not mistakenly get taken for a weakness in the concept of privacy. That's really the point I want to make with you today.

Thank you.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Thank you very much, Mr. Radwanski.

[Translation]

We will now move to the question and answer period. Mr. Peschisolido will begin.

[English]

Mr. Joe Peschisolido: I don't have any questions, and my colleagues don't, but on behalf of my colleagues, I would like to thank Mr. Radwanski for coming and appearing before us and clarifying a very important issue.

Mr. George Radwanski: It's good to see you again. My pleasure.

Mr. Joe Peschisolido: It's good to see you again as well.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Thank you very much.

[Translation]

Ms. Neville would now like to ask a question.

[English]

Ms. Anita Neville: Thank you very much.

I too want to thank you for coming and clarifying it.

I have one brief question. We heard a presentation prior to your coming that involved issues related to the Privacy Act. What advice do you provide to bureaucrats as to where the Privacy Act is or is not applicable and where—I'm struck by your comments about working towards the benefit of citizens—they can move forward without invoking the Privacy Act?

Mr. George Radwanski: As I say, in this instance the Privacy Act isn't even in play, because the Income Tax Act provisions supersede it. My officials have been participating in the meetings between these two departments and have certainly been encouraging them to take a common-sense approach. One hears, for instance, the suggestion that because one of the privacy principles we always advocate is that information collected for one purpose should not be used for another, it might even be somehow inappropriate for the CCRA to send out the kind of notification I was talking about, even in its own name, because it would be using tax information. Well, you see, there one can apply common sense again and say, another privacy principle is that of consent, which can sometimes be implied consent.

I would argue that when people provide information to government, even on their tax returns, it is reasonable to believe that they give implied consent. If, for instance, they are elderly and destitute, eating cat food, they are giving implied consent to have the government let them know, based on their tax return, that they qualify for a no-strings-attached cheque from the government. I think that is simply a common-sense interpretation of privacy principles, and that is the kind of advice we try to provide. Sometimes different government departments, through an excess of caution, want to respect privacy rights, so they become trapped in an interpretation we can help them to surmount.

Ms. Anita Neville: And do you?

Mr. George Radwanski: That's why we're here. We can't force them to listen, but we can give advice.

Ms. Anita Neville: Thank you.

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The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Do I have any other questions?

Monsieur Bellemare.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: Everyone has to fill in an income tax return if they make money, even people who do things that are shady or criminal, don't they? For example, a bookie has to fill in a report, doesn't he, to say that he's received so much money? So it is too with someone who's in the entertainment field. If they do have to fill in these reports and say, I made so much money—profession: bookie, entertainer, whatever. Does that mean, if you go back to your common sense, the income tax people should refer that information to the RCMP?

Mr. George Radwanski: Of course not. That's not for a moment what I was suggesting. I'm talking about a common-sense interpretation of the privacy laws and privacy rules. Certainly, in the first instance, I believe it is possible. HRDC takes the view that the GIS program is part of the old age pension. I don't have any difficulty with that view. So we're talking about something that is already legislatively mandated.

Second, I believe it is entirely within the spirit of the privacy law, and even within the spirit of the tax privacy principles or rules in the Income Tax Act, that CCRA can inform people that they qualify for a benefit. I simply don't see how you could make the argument that somebody's privacy right is being violated.

Of course, if confidential tax information is shared with third parties in a way that's not permitted by law or in a way that can cause any detriment for the individuals whose information it is, that's a violation of privacy principles. I don't see the analogy at all, with respect, between the examples you were giving and people being informed that they qualify for benefits. That's a provision of factual information, which is a very different matter from disclosing information about individuals provided under the secrecy of the Income Tax Act.

As I say, one has to apply common sense. Common sense doesn't mean we can violate people's privacy rights, it means there are sometimes instances where something helps people by way of providing them with information, and it's so clear that it doesn't need to be turned into a privacy problem where one doesn't exist.

Mr. Eugène Bellemare: Merci.

The Vice-Chair (Ms. Diane St-Jacques): Thank you.

[Translation]

We managed to stay within the time specified. Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Radwanski, for your very relevant remarks to the committee.

I would like to remind you that the next meeting is on Thursday, with the Minister of Human Resources Development. Have a good day, everyone.

The meeting is adjourned.

ParlVU