2 SEPTEMBRE 1997 ASSEMBLÉE LÉGISLATIVE DE L_ONTARIO
The House met at 1830.
ORDERS OF THE DAY
SOCIAL ASSISTANCE REFORM ACT, 1997 / LOI DE 1997 SUR LA RÉFORME DE L'AIDE SOCIALE
Resuming the adjourned debate on the motion for second reading of Bill 142, An Act to revise the law related to Social Assistance by enacting the Ontario Works Act and the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, by repealing the Family Benefits Act, the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Act and the General Welfare Assistance Act and by amending several other Statutes / Projet de loi 142, Loi révisant la loi relative à l'aide sociale en édictant la Loi sur le programme Ontario au travail et la Loi sur le Programme ontarien de soutien aux personnes handicapées, en abrogeant la Loi sur les prestations familiales, la Loi sur les services de réadaptation professionnelle et la Loi sur l'aide sociale générale et en modifiant plusieurs autres lois.
Hansard shows that her concern is that it is not set out that a lien could only be put on a primary property. I'm sure that is not her concern. That it could not be put on a primary property is really her concern. I just wanted to go on the record to correct that.
Our intention is that in the area of liens it not apply to a primary property for persons under the Ontario disability support plan, and I'm sure we can come to some agreement that that would become obvious.
A second area of concern to her is the whole area of an administrator being able to make a decision about the payment of benefits for a person under the Ontario disabilities support plan being directed to a third party. That is the way the current legislation reads, as I understand it. What we have added in the new legislation is a sense of responsibility for that person receiving those benefits on behalf of the client, and we've added in there that they cannot receive any remuneration for that.
The interest here is to protect that person who is receiving benefits and is not able to spend them wisely on behalf of themselves or on behalf of a family member. Someone is needed to make a decision on their behalf. If they have not had a guardian appointed, the administrator of the plan has the right to do that, and with protection we believe that's appropriate.
About seven years ago the mine layoffs started in Elliot Lake. It was a very dramatic time. In 1992 they accelerated even further. One of the great problems we had during the transition was the older worker, the person who is 55 to 60 and had worked his or her whole life but was no longer in a position to seek employment. The employment within the area, the opportunities, were basically nil at that point.
The provincial government and the federal government, I think all three political parties, somehow got involved during that process -- the federal Conservative, initially a provincial Liberal and then a provincial NDP -- so we all worked together to get some progress.
The problem I'm trying to identify here with the legislation as it is proposed is persons between 60 and 65 years of age who will have their benefits reduced to about half; you will receive about half if you go on to public support at that point. That is cruel, it is unusual and it doesn't relate to the real world. I tell you I've gone through these problems. Other members have gone through these problems. It happens all over, but I think in Elliot Lake it was probably the best example. Any government with any heart would not even consider this change.
I share this member's concern for people with disabilities and I'm very proud of what our government is doing in this legislation for people with disabilities. It was very significant that the member for London Centre and the member for Beaches-Woodbine commended the government and said they agreed with the parts of this legislation in terms of improvements and changes that were being made for the people in this province who face on a daily basis challenges which the rest of us, God willing, will never know. I feel that when that happens, it is good government and it's the way this House is supposed to work.
I think it takes a person with greater ability and a bigger mind to be able to stand up and say when something is right and not always criticize. I've been in opposition for 10 years and I know the compulsion you feel to criticize the government. But there were times when I too stood in my place and complimented the government when they earned it.
I'd like to say to the member for Chatham-Kent that I'm glad he agreed with me and asserted, with respect to the issue of liens on property, that the government's position is set out nowhere in the legislation. I implore you to think about making that clear in the legislation. I heard some consideration that you might do that, and I think that's a very important amendment.
With respect to the issue of declaration of capacity, I understand quite fully that the current legislation has that provision. I've said to you that in your own presentation of this section of the bill -- we're dealing with the disabled community section of the bill, not the general welfare section -- you indicated that you wanted to move away from the patronizing system that had existed in the past. I think other legislation which has come into effect, since the original proclamation of that capacity determination, by bureaucrats within the social assistance act, not giving way to the Substitute Decisions Act and the others that give persons with disabilities the right to challenge and to assert their own right of decision-making, is really wrongheaded and very patronizing. I hope we could see some amendments there.
The other section where I'm hoping we will see some amendments in this part of the bill is with respect to the regulations that allow other conditions of eligibility to be imposed without any sort of clear definition of what that is.
Lastly, I just want to say that I think there are improvements required to this section of the bill, but I have said on record that I am generally supportive of the thrust of the disability income support program. The problem I have is that you've combined it with something which is a complete anathema to me. These two sections of the bill should be split. Good public policy should allow us to debate both sections separately.
It marks the first time an Ontario government has undertaken fundamental reform of the welfare system with one clear aim in mind: to help people get back to work. I think it is especially important therefore that in considering this bill, members are clearly aware not only of the principles underlying the Ontario Works Act, which have been addressed by the minister, but also specific objectives of this legislation and how each is to be accomplished.
Through this legislation, the government will achieve four significant and fundamental welfare reform objectives.
First, it will help people on welfare to become employed and achieve self-sufficiency. It will do so through a program of mutual responsibilities. The recipient has a responsibility to participate in the program, and the delivery agents for the program, namely municipalities and the first nations, have a responsibility to offer employment assistance to help recipients prepare for and obtain employment.
The second objective achieved will be ensuring that this assistance is a last resort and goes to those most in need. There will be fairer eligibility requirements.
Third, it will improve fraud prevention and control. Taxpayers have told us they support their dollars helping those most in need, but they won't tolerate fraud and they won't tolerate abuse of the system. Our government won't either.
Fourth, the legislation ends the long-standing two-tier delivery system through which welfare programs have been provided in Ontario. It will streamline the delivery system and deliver on our government's commitment to reduce waste and duplication.
The Ontario Works Act is contained in schedule A of Bill 142. I will deal with each of the bill's five parts to illustrate how it meets the government's objective to reform the welfare system.
As an overview, part I covers eligibility for and provision of assistance. Part II is concerned with the effective date of decisions, internal reviews and the appeal process. Part III focuses on the delivery and operation of the Ontario Works program. It specifies the responsibilities of delivery agents in the province and describes the measures to control fraud. Part IV provides for the creation of a new Social Benefits Tribunal, which will replace the current Social Assistance Review Board. Part V provides for a number of general powers and authorities.
In addition to schedule A and schedule B dealing with the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, there are three schedules to the legislation. I will talk about them later in these remarks.
Turning then to the details beginning with part I, this contains the proposed rules governing the types of assistance available, both financial and employment related. It defines eligibility: who may receive assistance and the terms and conditions. It establishes the consequences for failure to comply with the conditions of eligibility.
As the minister mentioned, this legislation will require recipients to participate in activities that benefit the community and help them to get back to work. They will take part in community improvement projects to help them acquire skills and make contacts with potential employers. They will undertake job-specific skills training. They will be required to look for a job and accept offers of employment. The philosophy governing these requirements is that social assistance is temporary support while recipients work towards becoming self-sufficient. If those requirements are not met, financial assistance may be withheld.
Critics have described this approach as tough. I think the better word is "fair." I believe it's fair to both the participant, the recipient of welfare, and to the taxpayer who is supporting it.
Participation in specific Ontario Works activities is mandatory for all able-bodied persons. This legislation will also extend opportunities to single parents who will be required to participate fully when their children are in school. They will be able to fulfil their Ontario Works requirements while their children are attending classes. The government has committed $30 million annually to help cover child care costs in these circumstances as well.
We've made this commitment because we don't think it's fair to leave single parents and others trapped on welfare without an opportunity to return to the workforce. We believe they deserve better. We also believe their children deserve better because, as the minister has said, we know that children are better off when their parent is working.
I must emphasize what the minister has already stated: Ontario Works is already giving people opportunities. We have heard positive feedback from across the province from participants, communities and administrators.
For example, the town of Goderich has benefited from over 12,000 hours of community placement efforts since the program was initiated there. These projects have contributed to improving the town's environment. They include clearing fallen trees after a storm, refurbishing park benches and picnic tables and beautifying beach areas. None of these projects could have been accomplished without the participation of Ontario Works.
In the Huron County Museum, 20,000 artefacts have been cleaned, catalogued and entered into a data system by a team of nine Ontario Works participants. They have worked with the professional museum staff and acquired some new skills in the process.
In the region of Sudbury, more than 100 Ontario Works participants have participated in a community beautification project, with activities including sprucing up barren lands outside of Sudbury by planting trees.
There are many other examples from across the province. Participants are enthusiastic about the opportunity this presents to them. Most refer to the sense of accomplishment and feeling of pride they get from contributing to their communities.
All of this speaks to our government's first goal for Ontario Works, and that's helping and encouraging people to become self-sufficient and to re-enter the workforce. It's not only the recipient who has obligations; delivery agents, acting on behalf of the province, also have obligations. They have obligations to identify and provide community participation activities and to provide employment measures, from basic education and training referrals through job-search support and employment placement.
Part I also establishes how financial assistance is to be paid and how to recover overpayments. There will be, for example, the ability to pay landlords and utility companies directly to ensure both that recipients' obligations are being met and that they are not at risk of losing basic necessities.
There will be significantly improved eligibility rules to ensure that Ontario's resources go to those who need assistance most -- our second key objective.
At the same time, vision and basic dental care for children in financial need have been discretionary under the General Welfare Assistance Act. In future, those services will be mandatory for all children whose families receive support under Ontario Works.
Another important change under the Ontario Works Act will make it possible to place a lien on the residence of long-term social assistance recipients. For example, when assistance provided by the government increases the value of the home over an extended period of time through the payment of mortgage payments or emergency repairs, it makes sense to provide for a recovery under those circumstances. As the minister has explained, the purpose is to allow taxpayers to recover a portion of their investment and support, but that only happens on the disposition of the property. No one is going to be forced to sell their home to satisfy such a lien.
It isn't just the need to be fair to recipients in different situations. People on welfare are supported by taxpayers. No one denies that. There are thousands of hardworking Ontario families who don't own their own homes and who have never needed income support from the government. These people need to know that their hard-earned dollars and their tax dollars provide support where needed, which is appropriate, but not are intended to satisfy an unrecoverable increase in assets. People on welfare in this province should not end up better for having been on welfare than the people who are working.
Financial assistance will no longer be paid directly to young people under the age of 18. Instead it will be paid to a trustee or guardian, but only if the young person is attending school or an approved alternative learning program. It is again an instance of mutual responsibilities. It is aimed at better, fairer outcomes for recipients as well as for the taxpayer.
In part II, the section covering decisions, reviews and appeals, we find, for example, authority to provide assistance on an interim basis while an appeal is under way. Even before a formal appeal begins, there is a requirement for an internal review by the delivery agent. This will provide quicker decisions for clients. It's intended to reduce the overload on the formal appeal process which exists now. It will help resolve misunderstandings much more quickly and clarify what is being disputed.
There are of course rules on how appeals are to be made, what decisions may be appealed and who may make those appeals. There are also rules to prevent unnecessary and inappropriate use of that appeals process. The person applying has the clear onus to satisfy the tribunal that the administrator's decision was wrong in the first instance. The tribunal can also refuse to hear frivolous appeals.
Ontario Works is a cost-shared program between the province and municipalities. Part III establishes the basis for that cost-sharing, including how the process will work in territories without municipal organization. At the same time, there is a need to consolidate the delivery of the new program. This will meet our government's commitment to eliminate waste and duplication and to reduce administrative costs. This should go a long way to helping municipalities in the coming months to reduce their costs of operation. As already announced, the ministry is working to reduce the more than 200 municipalities directly delivering assistance to approximately 50.
The government also agrees that first nations should continue to deliver social assistance programs to their own people.
Part IV of the act provides for the creation of a new Social Benefits Tribunal. This will replace the existing Social Assistance Review Board. Members of the Legislature should, however, be aware of the major policy decision underlying the creation of this new body. The proposed legislation establishes a more rigorous process for adjudicating disputes over decisions affecting eligibility, types and amounts of benefits and other matters.
Finally, we are proposing to remove jurisdiction from the tribunal to consider constitutional issues. The reason for this proposed change is simple: Constitutional questions involve complex legal issues and can have far-reaching consequences that are better addressed, in our opinion, by the courts.
Part V provides for a variety of general powers and authorities which are required by the ministry and municipalities. The purpose is to support accountability, enforcement, compliance with the act and regulations, as well as the overall integrity of the Ontario Works program. It will permit the collection and disclosure of personal information while setting strict limits and safeguards to protect and preserve confidentiality. This section will help the government to combat fraud to protect the system for people in need. It permits the sharing and comparing of information between jurisdictions. The purpose is to assist in law enforcement programs. It also is intended to assist in the administration and in research relating to fraud.
We do intend to protect the privacy of individuals, and do not intend to compromise on the privacy issue at all. We intend to reduce and eliminate, for example, the use of false or multiple identities and the illegal collection of benefits from more than one program, and to end the collection of welfare while in prison. These measures laid out in this section will help us to achieve those objectives.
Our government has already put an information-sharing agreement in place to prevent the collection of welfare in jail. As a result, inmates have had their welfare benefits cut off. This legislation further strengthens the ministry's ability to exchange information with the Ministry of the Solicitor General and Correctional Services to identify a prisoner who is receiving welfare or someone on welfare who is being sent to jail.
The act also provides authority for new measures such as finger scanning and other innovative security technologies to further combat fraud and prevent taxpayers' dollars from being wasted. As the minister mentioned, finger scanning is not fingerprinting as it is generally known. Its only purpose is to prevent fraud and to protect the welfare system for those who really need it. It will not be used until it has been thoroughly piloted and evaluated for its objective. We are also aware that there are many new technologies being developed which may prove even more effective in ensuring security and privacy, and we will be considering all of those options.
The legislation would also provide authority for the ministry and each delivery agent to establish a social assistance fraud control unit.
Of the three schedules mentioned earlier, schedule D, which contains traditional provisions, will likely be the most pertinent to the members of this House. This schedule provides for the orderly transfer of responsibilities and recipients from the old programs to the new programs. It also allows for the phased implementation of both Ontario Works and the Ontario disability support plan.
The Ontario Works Act is the legal framework for a new era of welfare assistance in Ontario. If approved by the Legislature, we believe it will provide significant improvement for people who truly need help and for taxpayers, as well as those who administer and deliver the programs. We also believe it will offer significant improvements for the communities of Ontario and the members of this Legislature in the exercise of our responsibilities to the people of Ontario. It will write an important chapter of progress in the social systems of Ontario.
I referred earlier to the success stories coming out of Ontario Works, and I know this legislation will produce thousands more. Land reclamation is under way. Conservation authorities are conducting research. Communities win, local organizations win, Ontario Works participants win and taxpayers win. Ontario Works participants win because they are significantly closer to becoming employed and achieving self-sufficiency, and taxpayers win because fraud and abuse of the system will not be tolerated any longer. To put it in a phrase, Ontario Works works.
What I look at is that it sounds very reasonable when the ministry or whoever writes it reads it until you look at the exceptions. I hope the government will look at the people who are the exceptions in the system, the people who would not benefit by this legislation.
I don't think anybody quarrels with the fact that, first of all, you want all fraud removed from the social service system. I can't think of anybody who should quarrel with that legitimately in this House, and so you don't find that kind of disagreement.
Second, I think the goal of everyone is to have everyone who is capable of working doing so by providing those kinds of job opportunities. I think the member would know that what's happening lately is that many of the jobs -- he has listed some where people are working -- that used to be available to people who might not have an educational background or the technical skills to be able to take advantage of some of the good job opportunities out there are gone now, and you're finding that people are absolutely desperate.
There's another group that I think you see an awful lot of on the streets today, and these are ex-psychiatric patients. What I say to people when they say, These people should be working," my first question to them, "Would you hire them for your workplace?" Very often that is where the support declines.
I have to say that there are a number of things in the member's speech, in terms of the rhetoric of it, that I would agree with. Who could disagree with trying to go after fraud? Who could disagree with trying to give people a hand up and put them back to work? But the facts are very clear. Your Ontario Works program, your workfare program, is a dismal failure. You look at community after community where there are barely any people registered, where people are supposed to be getting new skills and they're out painting picnic tables, which by the way used to be part of a multiskilled job of a maintenance worker or other in a municipality, taking away work from people, like in North Bay. The agency which worked with placing people into jobs, that's now being done by workfare recipients, and you're taking away real work. Let's talk about things like how this will apply to people whom you now apply it to, like 60-to-65-year-olds who are going to have to participate in workfare. What opportunities for jobs are there? It's jobs that you need.
The other thing I want to point out is that the member, other than referencing that one section of the bill dealt with disabilities, spent his whole time talking about the Ontario Works Act. I actually think that's appropriate, because I think they're two very separate pieces of legislation. It is not reasonable that these two bills have been lumped together when I, for example, as a member would probably, if there were amendments accepted by the government, support the disability support income program but am very opposed to the direction you're going with Ontario Works. It's an example that this government wants to ram things through and combine bills that are totally different, dealing with different communities and having different elements.
I would suggest to the government once again, divide the bill and let's have reasonable debate on both of them.
There are a couple of things I want to remark upon. I want the people who are listening or watching in the audience here or via television to know that this is the first overhaul in 40 years. This legislation has been encrusted like barnacles on a sinking ship. The archaic matter, as my friend refers to, is the fact that this piece of legislation has not had significant legislative redraft in over 40 years. I think that is a very important point to recall.
What we're talking about here, as the honourable member has explained, is increasing responsibility by the individual recipient to ensure the outcomes are the ones that the recipient wants and that society wants. He mentioned in particular the provisions in terms of financial assistance for those under 18. They are held in trust, they are not delivered to the person in particular, to that person's doorstep. But we're saying, if you are in school, if you are trying to get ahead in life, which is what they should be doing at that age, under 18 years of age, we have a system that will help you get to where you want to go. I think that's an important aspect of this bill.
Another important aspect of this bill which the opposition belittles is the anti-fraud mechanisms. When someone takes welfare money as a result of fraud they are taking it away from other recipients who deserve that. This piece of legislation puts this in the proper context for the first time in 40 years, and I'm pleased to support it.
There may be a spouse who didn't work outside the home, and we know that much of the work in the past raising families has been done inside the home. I think it's unconscionable that these individuals who are entering the later years of their lives, who may not have the training to join this workfare that the government is proposing, will have to. I think it's a bit of an attack -- more than a bit of an attack -- I think it is an attack on the seniors of our province, and I would hope, if I am wrong about this, that somewhere, some time this evening someone will make it very clear to the seniors in my riding that they will not then be required to do this.
I'd also like to say that based on my personal experience travelling this province over the last number of weeks there are many participants in Ontario Works who do not have the same view that the opposition has of Ontario Works.
We need to make certain that the suffering of the most vulnerable in our society is not increased, as seems quite possible from our reading of the bill and that of the experts we have spoken to. I can't stress enough that a great many knowledgeable people in the disabled community are extremely concerned about the implications of this legislation. Contrary to what you might believe, support for these changes is not unanimous.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to hear the concerns of the mental health community in Ottawa-Carleton, together with the members from Ottawa South and Ottawa Centre, Mr McGuinty and Mr Patten. It was unfortunate that no one from the government thought they should be in attendance, because the insight we got from that forum was extremely valuable. I would like to convey some of their concerns to you for your consideration. I will quote from their documentation, copies of which I will be happy to share with anyone who is interested.
First of all: "The tone of the act is very punitive in nature. As consumer-survivors of mental health services, we are not criminals but are individuals with a recurrent and cyclical mental illness, and we need support."
"In attempting to be accountable to the taxpayers of Ontario, there is an implication that people receiving income assistance and individuals with disabilities do not pay taxes like everyone else in Ontario. We know that this is not true."
This interpretation of the bill by those who will be affected by it should be taken to heart by all of us. It has always been true, and continues to be so in times of financial restraint, that the strength of our society is measured by how we treat the most vulnerable. I'm sure that the minister is attempting to create the best system, but these interpretations must be taken seriously.
A major problem with everyone we have spoken to lies in the definition of "disability." It is a fact that 90% of people with disabilities are considered to be mild to moderately disabled. With the definition of "disability" we are given in the present bill, the system appears to be designed to cut out the majority of those now considered disabled.
According to the definition provided, to be considered to be a person with a disability you must meet all of the following criteria: You must have a substantial physical or mental impairment which is expected to last at least one year. The impairment can be either continuous or recurrent. You must prove that the direct and cumulative effect of the impairment causes substantial restrictions to all of the following: your ability to attend daily to your personal care, like washing and dressing, and your ability to function daily in the community, like shopping, attending events or volunteering, and your ability to function in your workplace on a daily basis.
I'd like to quote again from the mental health community we met with:
"The definition of 'disability' does not take into account consideration of the unpredictable nature of mental illness. To be eligible for income assistance, we will have to be defined as having a mental impairment. We do not all see ourselves that way. Due to the recurrent and cyclical nature of mental illness, it might not appear to last for at least one year.
"There will be periods of time in which we are perceived as being too well to qualify because of community support services, medication or reduced stress. Many individuals with mental illness still need income support during these periods.
"The definition requires a person to demonstrate impairment in three areas: self-care, functioning in the community and functioning in the workplace. These criteria are not adequate measures of eligibility for people with mental illness."
It is actually rather rare that an individual with any disability is not able to do at least some of the activities described. The fact that substantial restrictions must apply in all these areas for a person to be considered eligible makes it pretty clear that the definition would be more restrictive than it is now. This new definition has therefore caused a lot of stress to a great many people in the disabled community. That includes people suffering from lupus, kidney disease, manic-depression, HIV and AIDS.
Often a person's disability prevents them from being able to work, but they can look after their personal care and function in the community. How will they be treated under the new system? We have received many assurances from the government but we can accept none of them until they are reflected in the legislation. To address these concerns, the definition should be changed to recognize that a substantial restriction in even one of these areas be sufficient for eligibility.
Another problem with the definition as written is the stipulation that the direct and cumulative effect of the impairment causes the disability. However, in many cases the indirect effect of the treatment may be so debilitating that the treatment impairs the individual. Again according to the mental health community in Ottawa:
"The side effects of medication can be draining and put limits on the amount of time an individual can be active each day. The physical and mental demands of doing paid or unpaid work can be stressful and thereby increase the possibility of relapse. Doing volunteer work or community work does not mean we have the ability to always be paid for our work. There are different demands on a person's stamina and productivity in a paid versus unpaid work setting."
I've seen the recommendation that the definition be changed to recognize this reality and be clarified to refer to the direct or causally connected effect of an impairment. That change would more fairly reflect the reality of individuals who are trying to function under often crushing personal circumstances. They should not have to choose between receiving treatment and letting their situations deteriorate so that they can be eligible for income support.
Another area of significant concern is the legislation's outright refusal to consider addiction as a disability. This is completely contrary to the accepted view of the medical and psychiatric community. It is well known that addiction is often inextricably linked to mental illness to the point that it is difficult to determine what came first. The exclusion of the addicted sets an unfortunate precedent of passing judgement on various disabilities and granting support on the basis of that judgement.
There are now people who have been waiting two to five years to be accepted on to family support. Many who now qualify and are merely waiting to get on may never be accepted. There has been some feeling in the community that the interpretation of existing definitions of "disability" has been slowly tightened over time, making people with disabilities less likely to be eligible for benefits under programs like the Canada pension plan and workers' compensation.
The accumulated stress that all these changes are causing people who are least able to cope with them is terribly unfair. Again I would like to call on the minister to release the regulations now, to clear up the uncertainty these people are facing.
Although I haven't been able to verify it, some in the disabled community have told me that there has recently been a surge in reassessments for those presently receiving family benefits. This could be seen as an attempt to pare down the numbers of recipients before grandfathering secures them under the new system. Whether this is an accurate picture or not, it is a measure of the fear in the community that hard times are coming for a great many people who will not be considered disabled enough under the new system.
The Ontario Disability Support Program Act and the Ontario Works Act both contain significant changes to the appeals process. Under the Ontario disability support program, the appeals process is seriously compromised. The nature of the information required, the time lines that must be adhered to and the options that are available for appeal seriously undermine the effectiveness and fairness of the appeal process. According to the legislation: "If the director's decision is not appealed to the tribunal within the time required under this act, no further appeal lies to the tribunal or a court with regard to that decision."
Given the nature of the disabilities of many vulnerable people, these provisions are unnecessarily punitive. Many of those with mental illnesses have an aversion to officials and bureaucracies and have a very difficult time managing their day-to-day responsibilities. To have them jump through legal hoops is just asking for them to fail in securing their rights, and through technicalities. That is hardly fair.
Under the Ontario disability support program, the only guaranteed right of appeal relates to benefits for a disabled child. There is an outright prohibition on appeal for the denial of benefits or amount of entitlement, which should be guaranteed as it is in the Ontario Works program. This is outright discrimination against disabled people. In the words of one advocate, "When one is talking about basic subsistence, the ability to house and feed oneself, the right to appeal becomes absolutely fundamental."
Exempt from appeal is the following open-ended list, and I quote from the legislation:
"1. A decision respecting discretionary income support.
"2. A decision of the Lieutenant Governor in Council respecting income support in exceptional circumstances.
"3. A decision to provide a portion of income support directly to a third party.
"4. A decision to appoint a person to act on behalf of a recipient.
"5. A variation, refusal or cancellation of income support caused by an amendment to this act or the regulations."
"6. A prescribed decision." And we don't know the regulations.
Each of these exemptions from appeal is extraordinary. Quite independent of the Substitute Decisions Act, the government is permitting the appointment of a third party to manage or receive a recipient's financial benefits. That includes a landlord to whom rent may be paid directly. That landlord arguably may take advantage of the situation to not live up to their commitments, because no appeal is possible. That, to me, is incredible. There must be a right to appeal the appointment of a third person to receive benefits on behalf of a recipient in order to prevent abuses against them.
Again, a person will not be able to appeal the change of benefit levels, their cancellation or refusal should any changes be made to the regulations governing this act.
The legislation also leaves open the door to refusing appeals to decisions it has not yet decided on in the regulations, just to make sure.
I quote from an excellent brief from the HIV-AIDS community:
"The loss of fundamental rights and the potential for abuses makes the lack of a right to appeal these decisions unacceptable. Furthermore, if a recipient is not mentally incompetent, why should their money be managed for them against their will? Why should disabled people be treated like second-class citizens? We believe that it is essential for the dignity of human beings to have as much control over their lives as possible. Disabled people should not be punished for being disabled.
"By disallowing appeals in these areas, Bill 142 creates situations where individuals will be forced to turn to courts for relief. The process of judicial review of administrative decision-making is lengthy and complicated, and recipients will probably need legal representation in order to pursue it. Clogging the courts with these kinds of applications is not a reasonable desired outcome for a government. Therefore, recipients must be able to appeal these kinds of decisions to the tribunal."
The difficulty that many see in the role of the Social Benefits Tribunal is its lack of independence as a quasi-judicial body free to consider established law. Instead, the government-appointed body will be bound by the policy of the government of the day.
I quote from the bill: "The minister may make regulations prescribing policy statements which shall be applied in the interpretation and application of this act and the regulations." Very clear. I believe the scope and breadth of concern in the disabled community about the proposed appeal process indicates a major problem with the legislation.
Another problem is the new approach to viewing the benefit system as not one of entitlement on the basis of need, but as a loan. The expectation that individuals with disabilities may one day have to repay the government for benefits received, or have their dependants do so, is an incredible burden. Should an overpayment be made through a bureaucratic error, repayments can be extracted from either the recipient or their spouse. The suggestion that a lien may be placed on a disabled person's home as a condition of receiving benefits is also creating a great deal of concern. There is room in the legislation also for the imposition of a copayment for receiving employment supports. That will likely be imposed on the highest income earners. Nevertheless, it is a precedent that bears watching.
I wonder if this is not a trend, an indication of a general change in philosophy. If so, I think it poses a danger to how we have come to view our society. We have always prided ourselves on being more compassionate than others. We've always believed that if something terrible should happen to us, the system would look after us. After all, we have paid taxes all our working lives to support that system.
I know of a man who experienced a terrible accident and was no longer able to work. He was suddenly made incredibly familiar with the system he had paid into for a long time and believed he could count on. He was humiliated, and frankly broke down in tears, when he described his first visit from a social services worker. He had to empty his pockets to show her how much money he had left, to prove how much he was entitled to.
I really don't believe that many people in Ontario would expect a harsh accounting of every dollar spent on helping the most vulnerable among us. I think we are proud to help them achieve or maintain lives of dignity and self-respect. I think those are the values we've all been raised with as individuals. I believe those values can be reflected in the way we manage public policy.
The concerns that we have heard in the community are extensive and substantial. There is no way I can do justice to the people for whom I am speaking in the time I have allotted to me. My main concern is this: that you listen to them, really listen. It is obvious from the problems with this bill that whatever consultations you have engaged in were not thorough enough. That is why the broadest public hearings possible are absolutely crucial.
We have a responsibility, as representatives of all the people of Ontario, to ensure that public policy is shaped to discriminate against no one, either deliberately or unwittingly. I have brought to you just some of the concerns I have heard, without, I hope, any kind of political slant to them. I would just ask that we all work together to make sure no one is left out or treated unfairly. Thank you for your attention.
It's a cruel hoax that this government, with its Newspeak, its persistence in neologisms, tries to paint a picture that is the absolute contrary to what will be the reality once its legislation passes. That is as applicable to Bill 142 as it is to any other number of pieces of legislation.
Yes, it's providing its tax breaks, two thirds of which will go to the top 10% of income earners, and it is making some of the most vulnerable people in our community, in our society, in our province pay for that tax break, bear the brunt of that tax break, the very people who our colleague from Carleton East addressed during the course of his 20 minutes here.
I call upon the government to do more than merely listen to the submissions. I think this government should acknowledge that this whole bill, Bill 142, is in no way a positive or a progressive reform of welfare or assistance legislation in this province, but indeed puts the poorest and the most vulnerable in our society at even greater risk, ignores their needs, and again does it all for the sake of a accommodating this government's rich and wealthy friends.
Peter McGrath of the Ottawa-Carleton Independent Living Centres I presume is familiar to the member: "I think it's good news.... I think most people with disabilities in Ontario will be happy to know that they can...if they leave the welfare rolls and get into a support program that will enable them to enter the job market, that is the ultimate goal of most people and I think that if it moves that way it'll be a positive step forward."
The Ottawa Citizen in an editorial on June 11, again I'm sure a publication that the member is familiar with: "Getting rid of the 'permanently unemployable' tag is an excellent move. It was more than demeaning. It was also inaccurate for a large number of people who had to accept it in order to get the help they needed."
Even more current and up to date, September 2, the Ottawa Citizen:
"The government of Ontario's new plan for the financial support of the disabled, the Ontario disability support program...will bring a welcome restoration of the dignity for the disabled."
It goes on to quote an example: A person with a relatively minor ailment, such as a bad back, can be considered "disabled" if he has little education and lives in an area where there's only heavy work available. By including these people in the label "disabled," the FBA "encourages them to do nothing to change their circumstances." We trap them in the system. "The government should be congratulated, not reviled, for removing this pitfall."
As a final comment, it says, "But so far, the disabled have nothing to fear from the Tory plans." All from Ottawa-Carleton.
If I may just address even the comments that the member for Chatham-Kent made earlier, those articles are fine to read. I think what's important to note here is that the member very clearly was trying to make a real effort to speak to the minister and to speak to this bill on specific concerns he had, and in that sense was not operating in a partisan manner at all. He has some concerns. He has looked at it carefully.
I know the minister herself was listening to the member's remarks, and that's very important because what he was talking about are people who truly are most vulnerable in our society, people who need those of us in the Legislature who truly, truly care for all people in the province, who care about those issues. His concerns about the definition of "disability," his concerns about the fact that the people on disability who will be eligible will not have the same appeal process rights as others will have: The member has addressed these issues in a very productive and a very helpful way. I hope the minister was listening and I hope all the members in the House would recognize that he's looked at that bill in careful manner. There's often criticism that members are not dealing directly with the bill at hand in any kind of formal fashion. I think the member for Carleton East did that in a very specific way and I can give him nothing but credit.
It's important to note that there are some aspects of this bill that need to be dealt with. There's going to be a need for consultation after the fact. There's a need to release the regulations which are attached to this bill. The one thing that has become very clear is that the devil truly is in the details, and I think we have to continue to call upon the minister to do that, but I will perhaps get an opportunity later to speak more on this.
Anybody who knows the member for Carleton East would not classify him as somebody who is out there on any kind of fringe. He's a very thoughtful person who even I believe has some military background in his past and brings to this House some very detailed concerns that he has around the piece of the act that deals with those who have disabilities of various sorts.
He points to the fact that many of the most damaging cutbacks which are likely to occur in this act are not set out directly in the act itself. They'll happen after the government passes the act, when the provincial cabinet and the Ministry of Community and Social Services enact regulations and policy guidelines to implement the Ontario Works Act and the Ontario Disability Support Program Act. This act gives the government very wide powers to make major changes in the system through regulation and policy guidelines, such as declaring whole classes of people totally ineligible for social assistance or setting time limits as to how long people can receive social assistance.
I warn people as they listen to the way this is rolled out and spun by the government as the best thing since sliced bread that the bad news is yet to come. The ability of this government, the power that this government has given itself by way of regulation to enact regulations, to enact laws and rules, is frightening to say the least.
The people I've contacted are not only a few people at the Citizen or other newspapers who are commenting. Those are remarks that were not researched properly, in my opinion.
All you have to do again is to read the act itself, understand it. Any government -- that is addressed to the Liberal, to the NDP, to the Conservative -- that embarks on a path that will not take care of the disabled, of the people who cannot fend for themselves, is a government doomed to failure. That's all I'm saying. We all have to participate, to listen to those people in need, to help them out. There's nothing wrong in making an honest dollar, but there is something wrong when we're not capable of sharing it with others.
That is, to me, the opinion of many of my colleagues. That is so important. So all I ask you, I beg you, is to look at the act, understand the issues. You have disabled people in your community. Go and meet with them. Many of them are scared of the government. They can't even talk to an MPP. They are worried. They look at an MPP as an authority, somebody you cannot even approach. Go and listen to them like I did last Friday. Go and talk to them. Listen attentively and you will feel that it is your responsibility to fight for them, because if you don't, you're not doing your job properly, and if you're not capable of voicing the opinion of the people who cannot fend for themselves, you don't deserve to be in this House. That is our job.
Last Wednesday I was up in Ottawa on the picket line with Bradson security guards, Steelworkers who have been locked out of their workplace, their jobs, for over nine months now through the coldest of the winter months in Ottawa, locked out and with no overtures from their bosses, part of the big Minto corp, with a view to negotiating a fair settlement, and on a daily basis watching scabs cross their picket line doing their work with the complicity of the federal government, because the vast majority of the work sites for these Bradson workers are at federal government locations. I say complicity of the federal government because the federal government, both before and since the most federal election, has condoned the scabs who come on a daily basis to take away work and to take away income from these Bradson security guards, some 300-plus women and men who work hard and work professionally for what have been modest wages and for what, even if they're successful in their demands for some fair and modest increases, will remain among the lowest-income people in our province.
I mention that in the context of Bill 142 because on Saturday this past weekend I was again on a picket line, this time with SEIU workers, Service Employees International Union, women who are parimutuel clerks at the Flamboro offtrack betting, as it was done in Welland in this instance. Mary Hudak, I've known her and her family for years, and her sisters, all of them having worked professionally and worked hard as parimutuel clerks, now find themselves locked out as on a daily basis scabs cross their picket line in Mike Harris's Ontario to take their jobs and their income, an income which I tell you is not a liveable wage. It isn't, which is why those women and men who are parimutuel clerks at Flamboro seek some parity, something akin to parity with for instance their colleagues in the Jockey Club parimutuel system who struggled in their own right.
I was with those women, those working women who are witnessing their jobs being taken on a daily basis by scabs here. They're Mike Harris scabs, because Bill 40 had outlawed scab workers, scab labour in this province. Bill 40, by virtue of the outlaw of scab labour, had created an era of labour peace in this province that we certainly haven't seen since Mike Harris and his crew were elected here to Queen's Park.
Just one more: Yesterday of course I was with working women and men in the Labour Day parade up in Merritton.
Yesterday I was at the Labour Day parade in Merritton, along with Jim Bradley, the member for St Catharines, who could have --
Let me tell you why I mention and why I preface what I've got to say here with my reference to working people in this province. There are no two ways about it: The attack on the poorest, the commitment to cut by 21.6% the allowances provided to the poorest, to the unemployed in our province had, and I acknowledge this, some currency among a whole lot of Ontarians, including some of the same workers -- they've admitted as much to me -- I was walking with on the picket lines last Wednesday up at the Bradson strike in Ottawa, some of the same workers -- they've told me as much -- I was walking with on the picket lines at the Flamboro offtrack betting in Welland, like Mary Hudak and her colleagues from the SEIU, and had some currency with the trade unionists, the workers, the auto workers, the steelworkers, the municipal workers, the health care workers, the teachers; they were there yesterday too.
These were people who had worked hard and paid taxes and from their perspective had paid and paid and paid, seemingly with no relief. What they have learned in the course of two years is that the attack on the poor, the attack on single mothers, the attack on kids who live in poverty in our province by the Harris government quickly grew into an attack on them as well and into an attack on the right of workers to collectively bargain, and that there's a scheme here, there's a purpose here, there's a motive here.
This government promised 725,000 new jobs -- not even close yet. It promised 725,000 new jobs, and is not even close. The fact is that unemployment in the Niagara region remains at the double-digit level, and for people under 25 it's twice that. I'm seeing the tragedy of ongoing poverty among children, among their parents and, more sadly, among seniors. We've already had some reference to what Bill 142 does to seniors aged 60 to 64, and I know a lot of them: folks who have worked all their lives, just like many people in that age group who were abandoned when Wabasso shut down in Welland. They found themselves in an age group with double-digit unemployment like there is in Niagara, and I'm convinced across the vast part of this province, folks for whom there were no employment opportunities.
I understand that those who are already receiving under the Family Benefits Act are going to be entitled to those same benefits by virtue of being -- what do you call it? -- grandfathered. With Mike Harris's new legislation, those folks sometimes are parents or grandparents or neighbours who find themselves jobless through no fault of their own, yet in that age range they are going to find themselves forced into the deepest of poverty by this government that in Bill 142 has mounted a very concentrated attack on the elderly, and very clearly on the elderly worker who falls into this abyss of unemployment through no fault of their own. We know it. These folks are going to have benefit allowances that are but a fraction of what they were entitled to under the Family Benefits Act, which is being abolished by this legislation, and they're going to bear the brunt: They're going to help pay for this government's tax break for the very richest, two thirds of which is going to go to the top 10% of income earners.
A whole lot of people in this province some two years ago found the prospect of clamping down on welfare recipients perhaps something worth considering. Many of them considered it. They found the prospect of a tax break -- yes, some of the same workers I was with in Ottawa on Wednesday and in Welland on Saturday and at the Labour Day parade in Merritton on Monday, some of those same workers told me so, but they understand now that there is no tax break for working people, that there's only a bigger and bigger burden to carry and a higher and higher risk of unemployment, be they public sector or private sector.
It's abominable that this bill could be put forward for second reading by this government, this attack on the poor and the unemployed, when some of Canada's major banks just last week announced yet higher profits for their most recent quarter, higher than the profits of the quarter before and higher than the profits for the year before that and the year before that, billions and billions and billions of dollars of new profits. And these same banks, how do they respond? They respond by laying off more and more people and eliminating more and more jobs and increasing the number of unemployed in this province who are being forced into poverty and despair by this government with its policies that drag us back into the 1950s.
The government talks about jobs, but this government has either been incapable of or unwilling to tell us what these so-called new net jobs are. We know that the vast majority of the jobs that this government talks about are temporary. They're part-time and they're almost inevitably minimum wage or, with the increasing number of schemes and scams that are available to bosses, increasingly subminimum wage. This government has either been incapable or unwilling to tell us about these so-called net jobs. These aren't jobs; these are merely prolongations of the despair that people have increasingly felt under this government's boot.
I'll tell you, this government has no qualms about setting its sights on single mothers or on the elderly, has no qualms about setting its sights on working people, but when will this government be so brave as to start making the banks, with their tremendous, multibillion-dollar profits -- when will this government display some of the courage that would be required of them to make the banks start to pay their fair share?
Workfare: Workfare ain't working. The fact is that only a handful of communities have been participating in these fraudulent programs. The fact is that it sounds good to those who want to see the poorest pay some sort of penance for their poverty. The fact is that seniors, 60 to 64, are going to be compelled to participate in these phoney schemes as well. But we know that if you're really going to change the plight of the unemployed and the poor, first of all you've got to make sure that there are jobs available for them to participate in, and this government has failed miserably in that regard.
The fact is that you've got to provide meaningful educational upgrades. We know that many of the poor in this province have far lower than acceptable academic or educational backgrounds. It's not always the case, but a big chunk do, and unless and until we commit ourselves to making educational upgrading available to them, all the promises in the world mean zip. They need specific job training and job skills, so they can assume some of the positions that might be made available over the course of time.
But at the end of the day, the real issue is this government's failure to reduce the levels of unemployment in this province and its desire -- and it does, of course, take credit for new net jobs without any reduction in unemployment -- to increasingly see jobs that are minimum or subminimum wage, that are temporary and part-time.
It would be easy to suggest that the government was merely being malicious in pursuing this course of action, but I think not.
I'm convinced that this is part and parcel of a drive that is going to create two very distinct groups in our community, in our society: a very small but very wealthy group of haves that this government is not just disinclined but thoroughly unwilling to confront, indeed is dedicated to assisting, and a much larger group of have-nots, including the unemployed as well as growing numbers of working poor. This government is committed to driving down the minimum wage and it's in the process and it has been in the process of doing it for two years now.
This government is committed to destroying free collective bargaining for workers and it's in the process by virtue of Bill 136 of doing that very specifically to public sector workers here in the province of Ontario right now. This government shares the same goals of the corporate sector, which are to drive down wages and reduce as many jobs as possible, and it's going to give the tools to the private sector to achieve that end as well.
There's going to be great wealth -- well, there is great wealth being generated here in Ontario. We know it. This government's commitment is to isolating ownership of that wealth in fewer and fewer and fewer hands, and it has been eminently successful over the course of a mere two years. The seniors, the poor, the unemployed, the ill-educated, the victims of private sector restructuring are to be called upon to pay for Mike Harris's tax break for the very rich, two thirds of which goes to the top 10% of income earners. Those are the facts. Those are the numbers. It's unavoidable; it goes beyond cruel to criminal. I tell you, the people of Ontario are anxious for an opportunity to indict this government, and not only indict it but sentence is to a mere and unpleasant part of our history.
I'm voting against Bill 142. Bill 142 is a fraud. Bill 142 is designed to create more poverty and is nothing of what it speaks to be.
Quite frankly, I think welfare reform is something that the people in my riding, regardless of the party they support, want to see. They want to see some significant reform so that there is a real tightening down of the whole system. They want to see that disabled people get treated with respect and get treated in such a way that they know and understand what rights they have and what benefits they're going to receive.
They also want our government to make sure that when we amend welfare, we make sure there is an emphasis on workfare, and I can say, in the area that I represent, the workfare scheme, the numbers are not growing very quickly, but they are growing slowly and they are growing month by month, and the municipal people that are working on it are committed to it. They think it's a good scheme, and I know they're going to take it with enthusiasm when they get it under the new Who Does What process and they're going to run with workfare. I'm quite enthusiastic about it and I know the people in my riding are enthusiastic about it as well.
This is not a bill that relates to the banks. The member for Welland-Thorold says, "Make the banks pay." I think there's more to it than that. We have to take a closer look at welfare and we have to make sure that the disability legislation is separate from that.
When the word "fraud" is mentioned, I would like to say that there isn't anybody in this Legislature, anybody in this province, save a few, who doesn't want to eliminate all forms of fraud, whether it be in the welfare system, whether it be in the workplace, whether it be in our financial district. It might interest you, to put it in a little context, that we are concerned about fraud in the welfare system. We spend, give or take a few dollars, $6 billion to $7 billion a year in all welfare and family benefits, but this year in Canada workplace fraud will amount to $20 billion, almost three times or maybe more than three times the total welfare bill for the province.
I think where some of our energy can be spent is not only in fighting fraud in welfare but in fighting fraud in the workplace, where many of the workers of this province defraud their employer.
I think he does something in his speeches from time to time that's important for all of us to do, and that's to look at the broader and the wider context, the framework within which a piece of legislation fits, and what it is that this government is wanting to do overall with its agenda. He, in his own words, says, very much as my colleague from Algoma says from time to time, that this government believes that the poor have too much and the rich don't have enough. So they're going about doing all in their power to right that wrong.
I don't understand that, the member for Welland-Thorold doesn't understand that, my colleague from Algoma doesn't understand that --
It's a little bit of déjà vu in Ontario today, and I'll tell you, it'll come back to haunt you.
First of all, he talks about the group of people from age 60 to 64. If a person is 59 years old in Ontario, they're on the Ontario Works program. I understand the member for Welland-Thorold to suggest that as they move from 59 to 60, we automatically should call them disabled. I know an awful lot of people who are 60 years old, many in this House, and I believe they would resent the member for Welland-Thorold suggesting that because you turn 60 you become disabled. In his final comments he might want to make some reference to why he feels that would be appropriate.
The other thing that's interesting to note, and I haven't been around here a long time, but I do know that the member for Welland-Thorold was a key member of Bob Rae's government. I know that. I read the newspapers. I know he was a key member of Bob Rae's government, and I do know that in that position he was certainly responsible and supported many of the activities of that government. I really have a hard time dealing with his being critical of our record of job creation when he compares it to the previous five years before we came to power, when in actual fact there was a net loss of jobs in Ontario under the able leadership of Bob Rae.
During that same period of time, hundreds of thousands of people were added to the welfare rolls. The debt tripled to $100 billion. Taxes were raised 35 times. So I really struggle with the member for Welland-Thorold, the key member of the previous government, the NDP government, standing up and being critical of Mike Harris and the Conservative government for their record as far as reducing the welfare rolls by over 200,000 people, creating 125,000 new jobs in the last five months alone.
I think our record stands the test very well against his former government.
I still have to address the failure of this government to deal with, in my opinion, the irreconcilable fact that the corporate world, the banks, the manufacturing world, the big multinational corporations here in Canada are enjoying record profits, profits of millions and, yes, billions and billions of dollars. Yet the rate of poverty is increasing in this climate where wealth is being created manifold for the corporate world. Human Resources Development Canada said that in June 1997 there were approximately 31,000, slightly less than 31,000 job vacancies here in the city of Toronto, yet there were over 207,000 jobless.
This government is hell-bent on creating a bigger and bigger gap between a smaller and smaller group of very wealthy and a larger and larger group of increasingly poor people, including working people, and ensuring that levels of unemployment persist as part and parcel of their attack on minimum wages, their attack on the trade union movement, their attack on collective bargaining, creating literally a pool of workers that the corporate world, like Bradson, can utilize for scab labour if and when the need motivates them.
In all the speeches I've heard from the other side, I dare say I haven't heard one opposition member say -- and you can correct me if I'm wrong -- how wonderful and how effective our welfare system is. That's because they know that the system was not working, that it was not helping people move into other jobs and that it was doing little to meet the demands of those persons with a disability. There is no clearer indication of the system's failure than the fact that in just 10 years, between 1985 and 1995, both the Liberal and NDP governments had spent about $40 billion on welfare, resulting in the highest per capita welfare caseload in the country. If ever a government program needed reform, it is our current welfare system.
All of the changes cited in this bill are directed at making the welfare system fair, accountable and effective, as all government programs should be. And as the Minister of Community and Social Services has consistently pointed out, fairness, accountability and effectiveness are the underlying principles of this welfare reform package. They are also the principles on which the welfare system was first created.
The Ontario Works Act seeks to bring back the original intent of this system, which was to provide people with an income assistance program of last resort and to help people return to work. The system was not created as an incentive for people to stay on it and to become dependent upon it. In the long run, that has not done recipients any great favours. We all know that people are better off with a job than without a job. Ontario Works gives recognition to this obvious fact. Ontario Works, unlike our current system, will operate on the basis that people will be better off with a job.
The new program will operate very differently from our current program. Most important, it will be mandatory. To be eligible to receive financial assistance, participants must use the employment tools that the program will make available to them. The Ontario Works Act will offer employment assistance in order to help participants move back into the workforce. The act will focus on providing community participation activities that allow participants to acquire the skills, the confidence, the contacts and the opportunities to return to work while contributing to their communities. It will also provide job searches, services to support job searches, referral to basic education, and job-specific skills training and employment placement. These employment assistance tools are crucial to helping persons get a paying job.
So often when people are between jobs, especially if they have had the same job for a long period of time, they feel lost, they feel despondent, they feel as if they don't know how to start looking for another job. They may lack confidence and they may not feel certain as to what options are available to them in their job search. These can be serious problems that can easily be remedied through the proper employment support system. I believe the mandatory nature of these employment assistance services will go a long way towards alleviating the psychological barriers that some people experience when they are trying to move between one job and another.
Already there are over 36,000 persons participating in one or more of the mandatory Ontario Works activities. We intend to help municipalities increase this number.
The Ontario Works Act also requires that sole-support parents take part in this program when their children are in school. If child care services are needed, they will be provided. The inclusion of sole-support parents in this program is a very important element of this package because single parents on welfare desperately need the supports to help them get a paying job. Single parents may have been out of the workforce for a very lengthy period of time, making their situation seem increasingly difficult. Single parents can benefit greatly from an opportunity to develop their job skills in a community placement, and they can benefit from an opportunity to set goals and objectives and a strategy for their family's future with experienced employment counsellors.
We know that children are better off living in a household where their parent is working than they are living in a household dependent on welfare. We want to help families so that they can take care of themselves. We want to help them get jobs.
For those who doubt our intentions, let's be very clear about the facts. This province is leading the country in job creation. In the last five months alone, the private sector has created some 124,000 net new jobs. Our employment rate is down to 8.2%, the lowest it has been in a very, very long time. It is projected that our economy will continue to grow, creating more jobs for Ontarians in the process. This has been our commitment to the people of Ontario from the start, and that is what we are delivering.
Another element of this package which I believe is important is the introduction of new measures to fight welfare fraud. There's nothing more damaging to the credibility and integrity of such a program than acts of abuse and fraudulence. Welfare fraud hurts those who are in real need of this program and it hurts the taxpayers who are paying for it. Given that the Auditor General has estimated that welfare fraud can cost the government up to $100 million a year, it is imperative that we implement effective measures to minimize this problem. The provisions dealing with fraud in this act, from the information-sharing between ministries, agencies and other levels of government to the use of new identification-verification technologies, will go a long way towards combating welfare fraud.
Just as the Ontario Works Act makes huge strides in reforming an ineffective system, the Ontario Disability Support Program Act takes a giant leap towards a more responsive and progressive way of dealing with persons with disabilities. Bill 142 creates a new and separate program for disabled persons, a separate program that seeks to meet their particular needs and protect their benefits. For the past 30 years, successive governments have placed persons who experience specific physical barriers to normal employment into a welfare system that could not respond to their very particular needs. Moreover, as disabled people had been telling governments over the years, they found the system patronizing and humiliating. It discouraged disabled people from working and it penalized them when their families helped them out. The creation of a separate program designed specifically for disabled people has most definitely been a long time in coming.
The advantages of the Ontario disability support program are, as even the opposition has admitted, numerous. This program no longer classifies people as permanently unemployable, it covers all the different effects of a disability on a person's ability to function, it recognizes the reality that some disabled people have recurrent impairments, and it excludes substance abuse from the category of impairment.
Moreover, this act will protect the benefits of disabled people. Disabled people will be able to benefit more from gifts and inheritances, giving them more security and thus helping them cope better with their disability. It will also allow people with disabilities to keep more of their liquid assets, compensation awards and life insurance. This bill will further get rid of the requirement that disabled people pay 25% of the cost of necessary devices, such as artificial limbs. Disabled people can face huge financial burdens due to the special difficulties they face in their daily activities. The government's role should be to try to alleviate these difficulties, not to aggravate them. With these changes, which are aimed at protecting the benefits of persons with disabilities, our government is doing the right thing in acting to meet the special needs of the disabled.
The progressiveness of this bill is also reflected in the changes directed at making it easier and less worrisome for disabled persons to take on a job. Past governments have created barriers for disabled people who felt as if they would like to try and take on a job. They created a disincentive for them by placing them in a position where they felt they would be jeopardizing their benefits if a job did not work out for them after a certain period of time. Our government wants to break down these barriers. If a person in a wheelchair has the potential of becoming an ace computer programmer, why not support them in their efforts and make it easier for them to achieve their dreams? All disabled persons should have the fundamental freedom to take on a job without worrying about the ramifications should their jobs not work out. That is only fair.
This bill also offers disabled people supports to help them move into the workforce should they choose to do so. Only about 25% of those who use the existing system have jobs when they leave it. We want to make sure we do our best to increase this percentage. We will spend more money on these services, from approximately $18 million today to almost $35 million when these services are fully in place. These services will be based in the community, where they will be delivered more effectively and with less cost. Our government is strongly committed to helping persons with disabilities break down the employment barriers which they face. With these measures, we are acting on this commitment.
One certainly is the fact that indeed the regulations at this stage are not available for people to look at. It's very difficult when you've got a bill that has the implications of this bill, very difficult indeed, unless you're able to look at the details of the regulations. I think the minister recognizes that and the government members recognize that. They need to be released so they can be looked at, and those need to be dealt with.
I appreciate some of the comments that the member was making in terms of the applications as far as the disability portions are involved, but you have to also accept that the appeal process itself I don't think is fair. The appeal process is not fair in terms of how it relates to those people who are under the Ontario disabilities support program, because they have a very limited right of appeal, which does not seem to be fair at all. We look at the appeal process in general, simply how the Social Assistance Review Board is being changed and the appeal process that will take place afterwards. Again, no appeals will take place under any circumstances, even under OWA, unless there's an internal review that's been done.
There's a real question of trust here, I think is the problem, a question as to whether or not we can expect this government to -- as it often does, it has the rhetoric. The words can sound quite nice, and the intent, if you look at the words, can often seem nice. We've seen other pieces of legislation that read the same way. But it's the actions that follow and it's how we see the consultation process that doesn't work. We look at what happens in committee, which gives us great concern right now. We want to see some amendments to this bill and we hope that you'll listen.
The first and most fundamental thing you did within a month of being government in this province was to take 22% of the income away from the poorest and the most vulnerable and the most hard-stricken of the citizens who call Ontario home. That was done within a month of you being government. It's akin to a bully walking into a playground and picking out the smallest kid in the park and just pummelling the hell out of him and leaving him there with blood all over his face and then saying to the rest of the people: "That's the tone. Let there be no doubt who's in charge in this place from here on in."
If you really want to do something helpful for people on welfare, I would say revisit the document that was put together back in the early 1980s called the Transitions report, done by Judge Thomson. That was a document that was about this thick. All of us who were out there in those days participating in caring for people participated in putting that together. It was a blueprint that was hailed by everybody in the system at that particular time: by the recipients, by people who deliver services, even by the infamous Conrad Black himself. Why don't you dig that out, take the dust off it and use that as a blueprint?
I enjoyed also the remarks made by the member for Port Arthur where he said the member for Hamilton Mountain's remarks had a consistency or a pattern. You bet your boots they have a consistency or pattern; the member for Hamilton Mountain gave the same speech in this House that he gave in the course of the last general election campaign when he sought the voters' support in Hamilton Mountain. He said one thing before the election and he's saying the exact same thing here today. There is one policy, and that is the commitments that were made during the election campaign. You bet your boots the member for Hamilton Mountain was consistent and showed a pattern.
Our friends in the New Democratic Party, you can respect their opinion: They're against work for welfare. Of course, the Liberal Party campaigned on a platform to do that. This government is following through. So you bet your boots the member for Hamilton Mountain is being consistent.
I certainly appreciate the member's remarks when he spoke about the need to eliminate the barriers for the disabled who would wish to seek employment and to try to encourage those members of the disabled community who would wish to seek employment, to eliminate the barriers in legislation and regulation which might make them concerned that by leaving the social assistance system, their transition back to the system, should that follow, would be in any way in jeopardy. I certainly agreed with the member for Hamilton Mountain there.
He also spoke very eloquently when he said that the more effective way to deliver services is at the local level. I certainly agree. I have a lot of confidence in the delivery of social services at the local level in my part of the province. If it's anything like Hamilton, I would certainly agree.
The importance of welfare reform is very key. If there was one stream of thought through the member's remarks, it was that you don't simply help people by how much money you give them. You help people by creating a climate for job creation, for more hope and more opportunity. We've seen that with the over 200,000 net new jobs that have been created in the province. I know the opposition don't want to hear about the net new jobs, but it's good news because there's more hope and more opportunity.
I think the member for Sault Ste Marie set it out. This government has demonstrated more times than not, unfortunately for a lot of Ontarians, that when it comes to how you do business in this province, this government has got one mode: When it comes to workers, when it comes to those people who need them, when it comes to those people less fortunate, this government has got a vicious side to it. They're more than prepared to go out and put the boots to people in order to make the point they want to make: that everybody who is down and out, it's their fault. It's not because of the economy. It's not because of unemployment. It's not because of anything other than people choose to be on welfare, people choose to be unemployed, people choose to be in a less fortunate position. This government has decided they want to take a very tough stand against people when they're in that situation.
If they were on the other side, and in fairness to the government, to say that we're preparing and we're going to choose as a government to be equally tough with the people on the other side of the equation who are abusing the system on the corporate side -- I heard the Premier when he was first elected as Premier talk about how all of a sudden it was a virtue for corporations not to pay their taxes in this province. Isn't that abuse? Isn't that fraud? This government does nothing about the other side of it. They say it's a virtue for the rich to steal, but when it comes to the poor people who are found to be unemployed and, yes, needing social assistance, we will punish them. I say that is not only wrong, but that is a question of a government --
There are various aspects of this bill that I want to have an opportunity to discuss, but it's probably fair to begin with the fact that what this government does not seem particularly to understand very well is that there simply is no trust left in this government by the groups they say this bill is for.
They have proven themselves from the very beginning by absolutely attacking the very groups they say in their rhetoric they want to help. We know that the first action taken by this government, in July 1995, was to cut social assistance benefits by 21.6%. It was the first attack on people on social assistance and it began a process that was going to really --
This is a remarkable insult to the people of this province of that age group who have worked hard and done their very best in our society. If they find themselves in those circumstances, to put them in that program when they previously were not in it and were left out of the previous cuts this ministry made two years ago is a clearly hardhearted approach. To take that group and make it one more attack on the seniors in our province is absolutely unconscionable.
But the point is that there is a loss of trust that's going on out there among the groups that the members in the government side believe this bill speaks to. That's why, when I was speaking about the member for Hamilton Mountain's consistency -- it wasn't his specifically; it was the government members' consistency in terms of their speeches, their speeches on this bill this week and on 136 last week. There is a quality to them of, "This is the government line, and we are going to spit out that government line come heck or high water."
We know that the groups concerned about it, groups in my community of Thunder Bay -- I can certainly list off the groups: the Lakehead Social Planning Council, People Advocating for Change through Empowerment, the Thunder Bay Coalition Against Poverty, the Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic, the Faye Peterson Transition House, a number of groups. A whole number of groups in my community truly are banding together because of their fear of what this bill will ultimately end up doing to those people who are most vulnerable. Again, it comes down to a question of trust. They simply don't believe this government's intentions are to help those people.
We listened to the government members present their speeches and we listened to the minister present her responses, but the actions aren't there. The regulations themselves, the most important aspect of this bill, have not yet been released to the public for scrutiny. We need to see those. We've called upon the minister to release those regulations so they can be looked at.
Clearly, until one can see how the bill applies in regulation form, it's extremely difficult to ascertain exactly what the true meaning of the bill is going to be. We can't seem to have that being brought forward. That is a strange attitude for a government that says, "We want to have open and honest debate about this issue." How can you have open and honest debate if you don't have all the facts at hand? We call upon the government to do that. We've done that from the very beginning and will continue to do so.
The other aspect that really is important is that aspect of consultation. It's something that has bothered me consistently throughout the last couple of years, maybe more so in the last year, that public hearings and committee hearings themselves truly do not seem to represent what the government members and the government say they are. We expect consultation to take place. We expect legitimate amendments to come forward from all three parties. We expect the government to listen. There hasn't been a real show of that with any of the bills that have been put forward for public hearings.
I call on the government to listen to those, to look for those amendments. I could name the number of bills that have come forward where we have not seen any substantive amendments, certainly no amendments that reflect what was heard at the public hearings from the public at large. That's pretty frustrating to the public as well, because they're going forward with the best intentions, looking at the bill and saying, "These are the changes that need to take place," and those amendments aren't going forward.
I've had experiences on committee where the government members themselves have indicated that they would like to go forward with some of the amendments, "But this is not the appropriate time to do it" is the best answer we get, and of course that's not very acceptable.
The fact is that there are concerns about this bill. Various groups in my constituency have come to me and have talked to me about it and have asked me to put forward some of those concerns. I want to use part of my time today to express some of those concerns directly from the groups themselves. I certainly made reference to the clearly bad decision being made in terms of putting seniors from 60 to 64 under the Ontario Works program. It's clear that the government needs to look at that. It truly is hardhearted.
In terms of how those people on disability are affected, Persons United for Self-Help in northwestern Ontario, PUSH Northwest, an organization I work very closely with and an organization that works closely with the disabled community in northwestern Ontario, has a number of very specific concerns they've asked me to put forward. I want to refer to a letter they've sent me. I hope these go on the record and are listened to and are considered as changes. Speaker, you earlier spoke very eloquently on the bill and addressed a number of these concerns as well. I think it's important to have them brought forward.
One of the concerns they have is that too many provisions are left to regulations, which are not subject to hearings, and may be passed before they know the full impact of a law. That is a great concern.
That definitions also can be as restrictive as the person interpreting them is a concern the members of PUSH Northwest have. Definitions, for example, for eligibility can be narrowed without any legislative change. This is a concern. The ministry can appoint assessors who take a very restrictive view of who is disabled, which brings us to the whole question of the definition of "disability" and taking away the concept of permanent unemployability. Redefining "disability" is limiting the terms to a degree that a lot of people are very concerned that those people who are legitimately disabled will no longer qualify for the benefits they should receive under disability. That is a great concern and we need to deal with it.
Another issue is the appeals process, a great concern to a number of individuals and groups. Every case will have to go through an internal review before being appealed to the Social Benefits Tribunal. This can be used to delay cases unfairly, and also there is no provision for interim assistance during an internal review, again an area of great concern. Once the internal review is completed, the applicant or recipient may appeal a negative decision to the tribunal. At this stage interim assistance can be applied for, but if the appeal is unsuccessful, the interim assistance paid out will be considered an overpayment, which may be recovered by the government through any means necessary.
It has become accepted practice to fingerprint social assistance recipients and use any other technologies to identify recipients. Currently, the only people who are required to be fingerprinted are those who are being charged with a crime. Is this an assumption that people who receive social assistance are criminals? This is an issue that came up some time ago when I think the Premier mused that perhaps everybody should be fingerprinted. They can call it "finger scanning" or anything else they want. The fact is that the people of this province wonder why this is necessary when there's no particular added benefit to having it done, in terms of identification, in terms of identifying fraud.
There are a number of other concerns about benefits that will not be covered under 142 which I want to address at least very quickly. Assistance with homemaking, which was once provided under vocational rehabilitation, is no longer covered under the bill. The training allowance is gone in the new system. Funding for employment supports is limited to a certain amount annually, which covers technological aids and interpretative services, but this amount will not meet the needs of all people with disabilities who require the assistance.
There will be no exceptions to overpayment recovery, even when the overpayment is the result of administrative error on the part of the government. We've seen this happen before as well. I think it's only fair to recognize that people in a position where they are receiving an amount of money from the government expect that the amount of money they're being granted is exactly the amount the government says they're going to get. I've had people come into my constituency office who have had an overpayment, through administrative error which is no fault of their own, and we've seen some of the harshness that's happened afterwards as a result of trying to gather it back.
I'm running out of time. There are other issues I wanted to deal with but can't. There are changes that need to be made to this legislation, changes that should be done through the public hearing process. I hope the cynicism I'm developing about the public hearing process is misplaced and that there will be an opportunity at the public hearing process all across the province to make some of those changes and some of those amendments which I hope the government will agree with.
If we're going to talk about welfare and welfare reform, surely we should be talking about who is poor, why they are poor and why it is that such tremendous wealth is being generated in this province while the numbers of people and families and kids and seniors are being relegated to poverty and the despair and hopelessness that accompany it; kids whose futures are being short-circuited by being compelled to grow up in the devastating impact of poverty.
That's the debate that should be being held. That's the debate that's being short-circuited and curtailed by this government. That's the debate that this government would avoid and will avoid like the plague. That's what their rule changes are all about. That's why they're refusing to talk about what their so-called jobs really are: part-time, temporary and minimum or sub-minimum wage. That's why they are refusing to talk about increased wealth in this province being accompanied by increased levels of unemployment. That's why they are unwilling to talk about their phoney tax break being paid for by the poor and working and sick and students, two thirds of which is going to go to the top 10% of income earners.
I publicly at this time commend the minister and her ministry for the amount of consultation she has already accomplished in the area, particularly in the area of the Ontario disability support program. She has consulted with over 100 groups that represent persons with various disabilities on issues such as assets and gifts and trusts and assistive devices programs.
Other aspects of that particular bill have already been consulted on. We are entering the legislative committee phase of this process, and people who are watching should know that at that time there is an opportunity for the government and the opposition to get more advice on how we should engage in implementing the provisions of the legislation so that we do it right. That is the time when we can get even more input and make sure the regulations are done right.
I'd be remiss if I didn't say parenthetically at this time, in response to both the member for Port Arthur and the member for Welland-Thorold, that we all want to assist those who are in a situation where they need some help over a temporary period, but the system in place now is one where people are trapped within the system. They want to get out of the system as much as we want to get them out of the system and become involved in creative and opportune ways in our economy, but they can't get out because the system we have in place right now ensures that they stay there month after month, year after year. I don't know what else we can call that except an immoral, unjust system. We are doing everything we can on behalf of welfare recipients to change that system as soon as possible.
My colleague from Port Arthur has done what the minister and the government failed to do. The member suggests that the minister consulted with a great many disabled groups. Unfortunately, the minister did not deal with the key concern of the disabled groups, and that's what my colleague from Port Arthur was pointing out. She failed to deal with their concern around the whole definition of "disabled" and who is going to be considered to be employable.
I'm sure if my colleague had had more time, he would have spoken eloquently about the concerns he has for the psychiatrically disabled in our community and how they are going to be affected by the definition of "disabled." Are they considered to be functional? Can they hold down that job under an Ontario Works environment? I think my colleague would have wanted a chance to share his concerns specifically about those individuals.
I know my colleague would want to share concerns, as I would, about our disbelief that the government failed to hear that the seniors from 60 to 65 should not be included in this legislation. A representative spokesperson for the ministry said within the last couple of days: "We didn't make the change because, after all, it reflects the current work situation. Most people between the ages of 60 and 65 are indeed working." Of course they are, but there are very good reasons why many aren't. One of the reasons in the current work situation is that they've been laid off. They don't deserve to be punished. They are also trying to find productive volunteer work and that should be acknowledged and recognized.
I don't direct this at him, because he was elected in the last election so he can't be responsible for what his party's record was on this. But I find it passing strange that they can be critical of the government, which I am, for the way in which they've slashed welfare benefits and put in a workfare program, when I read from the Liberal campaign document, "Those who refuse to participate in the program," and this is essentially mandatory opportunity, "will receive only a basic allowance that is set at the national average and is less than the current Ontario allowance." That ain't a lot different from what we see here and what we hear being criticized.
I take the comments from the member for Port Arthur genuinely in terms of his constituents and his representation and the way he feels about this. I need to say to the government that I agree with him in terms of how wrongheaded this is. Your Ontario Works program is not working. Your workfare program is not putting people back to meaningful work or giving them meaningful skills. There needs to be a discussion in this province about poverty, about the need to expand the economy and create jobs so that people have real opportunities. Instead, we see a government that has brought together a bill which deals with disability income support.
In fact, there are some meritorious parts to it -- it needs changes -- but they've slammed that together with an untenable piece of legislation around Ontario Works and they've not allowed members of the Legislature to have a full debate on both pieces of very separate legislation. It's a wrongheaded move, both in terms of democracy and also in terms of the Ontario Works Act, the way in which it deals with people in poverty. They should not be penalized. They should be helped to find a job. You should be focusing on job creation, not on penalizing the poor.
One of the things I'm proudest about in being a member of the Liberal Party and the caucus is that I am encouraged to express my feelings about issues such as this, the fact that we care so much about vulnerable people, the fact that we worry so much about a government over there that seems to care so little, a government that puts forward a bill like 142, like 136, a bill that literally is going to hurt people -- it's going to hurt the disabled, it's going to hurt seniors from 60 to 65. Those are whom we want to focus on. I'm proud that I belong to a party and a caucus that support me in my battle, as we support all our colleagues here.
It's very clear: This is a badly flawed bill for a variety of reasons. I think the minister, who is here tonight -- and I appreciate that -- in listening to all our remarks recognizes there are some changes that need to be made. I hope she will use this opportunity tonight to think in terms of some of the amendments that need to be made to have this bill, if not withdrawn in a large fashion, changed so that it is more fair. The whole essence of the relationship in terms of those people who are disabled is scary to a large number of those people. When you redefine the term in more narrow terms, for good reasons a lot of groups that advocate for the disabled community, and the disabled community itself, have reasons to be concerned.
I am proud to stand here and fight for the issues that matter to me, to fight for the people in my community who matter to me. I've done it from the moment I got elected in 1995 and I will continue to do so with the full support of my colleagues on this side of the House.
This is an area where I have a great deal of interest in and concern about what is happening. Because of the limited time tonight I'm grateful that my colleagues, particularly the members for Beaches-Woodbine and London Centre, have been able to talk at great length about the disabilities part of this. I tend to agree with their position on that, with some amendments, which I hope the government is paying attention to.
Speaker, if I may say so now that I'm not in the chair, I enjoyed your speech and I think you and others gave some very good critiques of some of the problems with that part of the bill. I hope the minister -- I'm very glad to see that she is here tonight and paying attention -- will take into account with goodwill some of the very positive suggestions that have been made by both opposition parties after consulting with people from the disabled community, who generally support what you're doing. But there are some concerns, and yes, some real fears. I hope some of those amendments can be made.
I want to talk specifically about the other part of the bill. May I say to the minister that I really would like to see them separated out. I have very, very strong objections to the other part of the bill: the changes in the welfare laws. If the right amendments are made, I would like to be able to support wholeheartedly the changes to the disabled aspect. If this is not separated out, I will not have the opportunity to do that, which is a real problem. I have many objections to the other part of the bill, and I'm going to, in the few minutes I have, outline what some of those are.
First of all they should be separated. I'm very concerned that a lot of the provisions are left to regulations. I think there should be full public hearings so that people are aware of what you're thinking about. The minister did perhaps, from my understanding and knowledge of what happened, talk to some people on social assistance. I'm glad to hear she did that, but what I'm disturbed about is that I don't believe the minister listened particularly to the people who are going to be affected by this bill. That's why we have to demand that there are public hearings.
I'm afraid what often happens with welfare recipients is that they become the whipping-boy. During the election there was a big -- and Mike Harris ran on it -- "Let's get those welfare recipients. Let's get these people who are ripping off the taxpayers." So the first thing the government did was cut welfare by 23%. I don't know if they were thinking at the time, beyond their campaign promise, how many children were affected adversely by that cut and who are now lining up at food banks, who just started school today.
My colleague from Beaches-Woodbine, who is our critic for children's issues, has been talking repeatedly about child care issues and about poverty. So far, we have not moved forward. That's really what this debate should be about.
Apart from a general improvement in the economy which creates more jobs, we know now there are more people looking for work than there are jobs available. We have to look at that and accept it and start being creative and showing some leadership in how we are going to deal with that, because the whole work situation with the global economy has changed, is changing, and a lot of people are being left behind. That's a reality that this bill, I think the minister would agree, is not going to fix. It can fix some of the other problems but it's not going to find jobs for everybody and a lot of people are going to end up in part-time and dead-end jobs.
People on social assistance said they want to focus on general education upgrading and skills training in either a new occupation or their present occupation. Assistance with job-search skills such as looking for work more effectively, assistance with résumé preparation and making contacts and networking were not considered priorities by the recipients, yet what do we see here? The focus of Ontario Works is identifying the shortest route to paid employment, but the focus is not one which will lead to a better job.
Under the employment support program stream, participants can be assigned to one of structured or self-directed job searches, a program of basic education or short-term specific skills training. Get this: The program guidelines specifically forbid in-depth career assessments or in-depth career counselling. So the orientation, it seems to me, is heavily biased towards simple job readiness programs and job-search assistance and away from any kind of genuine skills training.
I can't cover all the issues I wanted to talk about. I'm also very concerned about a possibility that the OWA and the ODSPA will allow the government to require that applicants, recipients and their dependants, as a condition of receiving social assistance, have to agree to assign future income back to the Ontario government. That is very alarming to me.
There may be circumstances where that makes sense. I don't know exactly whom you have in mind here, Minister, but you that you can lead people in a vicious circle if you do that. I'm not expecting to see a lot of people on social assistance, given the mandate of this, going into high-paying jobs.
When people come off social assistance and get back in the workforce, they're not going to make a fortune. They could end up in this vicious downward spiral where they're finally earning, more than likely, minimum wage, possibly part-time, having to spend almost all of it in paying back over a number of years assistance they got when they were really in need and ending up at the food bank again. I don't think that's the purpose of this bill. I would like some assurance that is not going to happen.
I'm concerned about the lack of attention to child care. There are a lot of single parents who I know -- I think we would all agree that most people who are able to work want to work. What I don't like about this bill and the way you approached it in the election campaign, during a very bad recession, is that it preyed on people's fears and prejudices. It gives the impression that there are a lot of lazy bums out there who don't want to work. "First of all, we'll cut their cheques, and then we'll bring in a punitive bill to make sure they get back to work." But it doesn't give them the supports they need to get into the job force in a serious way that will give them the kind of income they can support their children on. That's the problem with this.
I've been paying some attention, as I expect the minister probably is, to what's happening in the US with various kinds of welfare reform there. The states where it seems to be most successful are those which are actually paying out more money than they used to pay in welfare recipients benefits, because they're using that money to put the supports in place: the child care, the job training, the travel vouchers, the medicare.
All those things that people desperately need, those supports, have to be there; otherwise this is a dead-end game. I fear that's what's being played here. There was a promise made, "We're going to get these welfare bums and we're going to get them off welfare and we're going to catch all these people who are cheating the system." Well, folks, this is not going to solve the problem at all. I hope the minister will go out and have hearings and consider these points.
To be trapped in the welfare system, as over one million people were in this province in the last 10 years -- there's an absolute guarantee that you will never, ever break the cycle of poverty. The only way out of that cycle, bar winning a lottery, is a job. If we as a government do not have the conscience to make sure we do everything we possibly can for those people who, in the member for Riverdale's eyes, are able to work and want to work, if we don't do everything we can to provide them with an opportunity to learn how to work and be productive members of our labour force, we are condemning them to a life of poverty.
That I think is the ultimate tragedy of the last 10 years in government, that we've said to those people, "We will continue to pay you benefits, we will continue to keep you trapped in the system, keep your children trapped in the system." That is the tragedy. Our program to encourage people to go to work, to get some training, become productive members of society, is the only way out of the cycle of poverty. That is a sign of good, compassionate government.
I'm surprised the member for Beaches-Woodbine, Frances Lankin, fell into the trap of accepting material from John Baird, the Conservative member who wants to please the Premier so he brings the item over to Frances to use today. I was at the Labour Day parade and I did not mention the social contract once. I did not mention the abrogation of every public service contract in Ontario once. I assure the member of that, even though I was with the brothers and sisters who would be receptive to that.
But to look at the provisions of this bill, I hope that the committee hearings, particularly on this bill, are meaningful and that the minister listens and the government listens. There are certain parts of it we have some concerns with. One is, what do you do with the people between the ages of 60 and 65? Some people will be able to work very well in that group, others will have a really difficult time healthwise, or being out of the workforce for a while, or simply because of personal circumstances; also people on disabilities, the definition of "disability." That will have to be done very carefully to ensure that people who have genuine disabilities are not excluded from assistance. As I mentioned before, I think of the ex-psychiatric patients in the province, many of whom simply cannot be employed because employers will not take them on their payroll and into their workplace and that's most unfortunate.
When you combine this with the ending of rent controls, with the reduction of support for public transit, with user fees which are increasing tremendously, this may well have an impact that the government didn't anticipate and really doesn't want.
I just want to indicate what a pity it is, with these rule changes, that the member for Riverdale only had the 10 minutes to speak. I remember during the years of government, in cabinet, what a fierce advocate the member for Riverdale was, and still is, on behalf of the poverty community. In attempting to ensure that changes in social assistance and redirection of programs, when we looked at establishing the child benefit program, and separating them out, and disability programs, separating them out, her focus was always on what it would mean for families in poverty, families caught in the cycle, and would it help or would it hurt. Her representations to the government on a number of specifics of this bill would have been very helpful.
It really does speak to what has happened with respect to debate. I was in a committee earlier today when we were involved in public hearings on a very short bill and it was very clear that the reason the bill is so short is that there is no detail in it, that everything is left to regulation. It is much the same here. The thorny issues, the tough issues are what we as legislators have a responsibility to be debating and determining, not just hitting hot-button politics, satisfying that kind of guttural need and leaving the detail to cabinet. That's a real problem and that's what we've got here.
I think as we listen to the debate, this speech and others preceding it, one of the things that is very clear is that all members of this House care for those who are disadvantaged, and that what we want to do is the right thing. This bill is now at second reading stage. We're looking forward to taking this bill into committee. We're looking forward to further consultation. Clearly, there are some areas of this bill that require some additional study. We look forward to the member's continued support for the principle of the bill. We look forward to her advice on some of the details in terms of implementation, the various issues that still need to be addressed. As we have said in debate, a number of the implementation issues will be dealt with in regulation. We look forward to the committee process to get input from members of the House, from members of the public to assist us with that.
At the end of the day, the principle we want to assure the people of this province of is that this government cares for those who are disadvantaged. This bill is designed to help those who need the help most. What we want to do is stop wasting taxpayers' dollars. We want to start to focus it on the needs of the people who really need the help, and through this bill, through the consultation process, I'm sure we'll achieve that.
To the member for St Catharines, what can I say? The exchange was mostly between him and the member for Beaches-Woodbine. Of course I was happy to see that he didn't mention the social contract all night.
To the member for Beaches-Woodbine, I would say the same thing. But she did take some time to talk about the fact -- and she's quite right -- that when we were in cabinet I was a strong advocate for people on welfare and for poor people. I still remain so, I suppose -- to get personal for a moment -- because I was there myself once and I can speak from experience. I think that can make a difference.
To the member for York-Mackenzie, I think you're badly misguided in terms of what you think you're going to be able to do to make changes to this bill. Your government consults and doesn't listen, and guess who's going to make the real decisions around this bill? It's going to be done around the cabinet table, I expect a very small portion of that cabinet table. So you're not going to have any say and neither will the public. That's the unfortunate truth about this bill.
During 1995, as you know, we campaigned on a promise to reform welfare, and the Ontario Works Act does just that. We also spoke about ensuring that people with disabilities were protected, and the Ontario disability support program does just that.
I want to tell you that last Friday I visited the Ontario Works office in my area and what I saw there was truly impressive. When you walk in the office, first of all, what you see is a job board, which I thought was terrific, because it had all kinds of jobs there, from clerical jobs to warehousing jobs -- all kinds of jobs. But as you walked into the office, there were computers, and everybody was sitting working on computers, typing up résumés, writing letters, going into offices using telephones, phoning employers, getting help with interview skills. The whole office was focused on employment and income maintenance. I was truly impressed.
What you saw there was a group of people, client service reps, who were dedicated and committed to working with people, to helping them better their lives and get off a system that they don't want to be on in the first place. To the people in that Hamilton office, I commend them for their friendly, committed attitude to helping people.
I wanted to focus today on the appeal process of the Ontario Works Act. The member for Windsor-Sandwich has stated often in this House that the bill is unfair, that there is no right of appeal in Bill 142. I just wanted to reassure her that in fact the appeal process is there. The appeal process has been streamlined.
The initiatives of the appeal process bring the clients to a faster appeal through a more streamlined process. The first step is the internal review, where they look at the reasons for why they're appealing the process and resolve it at the first step. The second step, if they can't resolve it then, is that it then goes to the appeal process, through the Social Benefits Tribunal.
The other thing is that the member for Windsor-Sandwich said, on Tuesday, August 19, "We used to allow people to receive interim assistance while they were appealing," and she claims that if the appeal was unsuccessful the welfare system would reclaim that and recover that money. What happens during those months and months while that's happening?
I'll tell you what happens: Those people who are going through the appeal process are provided with financial assistance if they need it. It's the very same as what it used to be. If it ends up, at the end of the appeal process, that they have been overpaid, they will repay that, similar to what they did before.
I just want to make sure that the public out there is aware that the right of appeal does still exist, that it's been fast-tracked, that there's an internal process, that a decision will be made within a matter of days as opposed to what currently happens, where the appeal process averages about 6.9 months.
I think that anything you can do to move things along, to get people out working, to get them off social assistance, to help them make their lives better, is a step in the right direction. So I'm standing today in support of Bill 142. I look forward to the hearings, to the input we'll hear at that time.
These are the things that have always been under consideration. You have led the public by the nose to believe that anyone could just walk in and get on the welfare roll. That has not been the case for years. If this government over the last two years has allowed others to be fraudulent about this system, that's because once again this government is painting the picture as though you're some kind of fabulous manager when in fact you, as a Conservative government, have not led the crackdown on fraud. Everyone in this House would agree that no fraud is acceptable in a welfare system, but you have taken punitive measures against people who truly need help and made it extraordinarily difficult.
You have not once addressed the fact that the most significant barrier to employment, mostly for women, is child care. This is the same government that put $40 million in the budget but, when you had got to the end of your fiscal year, hadn't spent a dime of it. Then you had the gall to say, "Well, we're going to put it in next year's budget." All those dollars that weren't spent on child care that actually acted as a barrier and kept women in the system longer -- your doing, no one else's.
The welfare system, by the way, didn't just start as we know it today, that 10 lost years which the government members like to relate to. It was around before that; yes, when the Tories were there 10 years ago too. They played a part too. It has been constantly changed and updated. You didn't start a process of getting people and assisting people and in fact requiring people to look for jobs. That's been a part of the system for a long time.
Our government, even though I know your party at the time objected to Jobs Ontario, although it was a new program -- and yes, there were glitches, but it was a program that I believe should have been expanded because it wasn't punitive, it was another step forward in terms of giving people meaningful work, meaningful training, helping the small businesses, on the whole -- there were some big but some small businesses -- in terms of training them. A huge number, I think it was 80% or 90%, of jobs were retained through that system.
Child care, which this present government cancelled, was attached to that program. That's all gone now. But if the member would take the time to look, at least have some kind of awareness of what's in the system now, then we might be hearing a little bit and getting a little bit more information about what she believes is right about this system compared to the systems before.
I am concerned because I see that there have been some cuts which have affected people who are in unfortunate circumstances, so it puts people in a vulnerable position. Even the working poor are placed in a vulnerable position. For instance, literacy programs I think are very helpful. It's amazing the number of people who have problems with literacy.
When I first came into this Legislature I was given the role that most new members are as the critic for correctional services. I remember touring several of the prisons in the province with the Honourable Gordon Walker, who was then the Minister of Correctional Services. One of the things I noted was that many of the people who are in the prison system were very deficient in terms of educational and employable skills, and that's why many of them ended up where they did. The only job that they ended up being able to do was a job that was against the law, and that was not acceptable. Literacy training is extremely important. We've seen cuts there.
We've seen cuts in child care, and obviously if you're going to have working parents involved, we'll need some funds for child care additional to what the government has proposed. We've seen some cuts in adult education, adult education being very important to help people to be able to market themselves within the work system. We've seen increased fees for tuition at colleges and universities, once again in places where people could upgrade themselves.
Her speech best describes and exemplifies where this government is at with a whole bunch of issues. They're trying to make a number of changes, in this case in the welfare system, on an ideological principle, not understanding how the system really works and what the practicality is.
The member stands up here and tries to make people in this Legislature believe and tries to make the people of Ontario believe that there have never been any changes to the welfare system over the last 50 years. It's like somebody all of a sudden invented welfare back in the 1940s and 1950s and he left it there and nothing ever happened and it just stayed the way it was, and finally, thank God, Mike Harris came around and now we're able to do something about it.
The reality is that every government, from the Bill Davis government to the David Peterson to the Bob Rae government, made a number of changes to the social assistance system to deal with what was happening in the economy. In our case we did a number of things, one of which was Jobs Ontario Training, a program that got people off the welfare system and put them into real private sector jobs that pay real dollars -- 95,000 people to be exact. But the member is trying to make people believe that nothing ever happened.
Then she gets up and says -- and this is really amazing and the reason I want to comment -- that she walked into her welfare department the other day and saw a jobs board.
What I was really trying to emphasize was not so much what was posted on the board; I was trying to emphasize the attitude that has changed in those offices, the attitude that has changed and is focused much more on employment and on helping people get to work. It was a much more positive attitude, and that's the point I was trying to get across.
I was disappointed that nobody commented on the appeal process, so I just want to reiterate that the appeal process is there, that it's a much more streamlined process, that there's an internal review first where issues can be resolved almost instantly before it goes to the tribunal. The social benefits tribunal then replaces the SARB and looks at the appeals as they go through, and they are fast-tracked so people know where they stand almost instantly, or within a matter of days, as opposed to 6.9 months. As they're waiting for their appeal they are provided with financial assistance if they need it. With respect to the appeal process, it's there, it's simplified, it's refined, it's streamlined and it makes it easier for people.
The House adjourned at 2127.
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