Thank you, everybody, for being here today. I would like to call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number five of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates.
The committee is meeting today from 7:09 to 9:09 to hear from the President of the Treasury Board and officials on the main estimates 2020-21. I would like to thank the president and the officials, who have agreed to stay longer so we can get this in. I appreciate that.
Pursuant to the motion adopted by the House on Wednesday, September 23, the committee may continue to sit in a hybrid format. This means that members can participate either in person in the committee room or by video conference via Zoom.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow. Interpretation in this video conference will work very much as it does in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of either floor, English or French. Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. When you are not speaking, we ask that you keep your mike muted. To raise a point of order during the meeting, committee members should ensure that their microphone is unmuted and say “point of order” to get the chair’s attention.
In order to ensure social distancing in the committee room, if you need to speak privately with the clerk or the analysts during the meeting, please email him through the committee email address.
Yesterday, the clerk sent out the speaking notes for the President of the Treasury Board. I will now invite the President of the Treasury Board to make his opening statement and mind briefly introduce those who are with him as well. I'd appreciate that.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I would like to begin by thanking the committee members for having invited me to discuss the 2020-2021 main estimates, which were initially tabled last February.
I will also comment very briefly on the supplementary estimates (B), which were tabled recently.
As you invited me to do, I am going to introduce to members of the committee the staff who will be here to assist me today. With me are Glenn Purves, assistant secretary, expenditure management sector; Karen Cahill, assistant secretary and chief financial officer; and Sandra Hassan, assistant deputy minister, employment conditions and labour relations.
To begin I would like to bring your attention to the main estimates of 2020-21. These main estimates provide a detailed view of responsible government spending to support the creation of opportunities for Canadians from coast to coast to coast and, therefore, reinforce Canada’s status as a responsible citizen of the global community. Following the recent prorogation and the recent return of Parliament, these same main estimates were re-tabled on September 30 to allow their continued study.
They present a total of $125.1 billion of budgetary voted expenditures, and $87.2 million in non-budgetary voted expenditures.
These main estimates also include information on $179.5 billion of statutory budgetary spending and $3 billion of statutory non-budgetary spending.
As the members of the committee continue to review the main estimates and supporting documentation, it will become clear to everyone that the government’s spending plan is closely aligned with the priorities expressed by Canadians in the pandemic.
It also includes the understanding that Canada must continue to work towards reconciliation with indigenous peoples. The expenditure plan, therefore, describes significant amounts for indigenous health and social services, for greater access to early learning opportunities, and for new investments to advance the proven benefits of indigenous self-determination in education.
Mr. Chair, Canadians understand that we have an obligation to be a force for good here in Canada but also in the world. The spending plans in the main estimates, therefore, support measures to advance human rights, invest in our armed forces and diversify Canada’s trade and investment opportunities.
We know that the environment and the economy go hand in hand, and that is why the expenditure plan includes major investments for measures that favour both solid growth and climate change mitigation.
As for my own department, the Treasury Board Secretariat, expenditures identified include $2.2 billion for us to discharge our obligations with respect to public service insurance plans, as well as a $282,000 contribution to the Open Government Partnership.
The main estimates also include central funds, which are essential to help the government deal with urgent matters, and to speed up the implementation of programs and services responsibly.
I will now speak very briefly about the 2020-2021 supplementary estimates (B)
These supplementary estimates provide information about expenditures that were incomplete when the main estimates were being prepared, but that have since been clarified to factor in changes made to a number of programs and services.
The 2020-2021 supplementary estimates (B) continue to report expenditures authorized for COVID-19 under the Emergency Measures Act, which ensures transparency and accountability in the delivery of programs and services to Canadians.
These estimates present a total of $79.2 billion in budgetary spending, including $20.9 billion to be voted on by Parliament and $58.3 billion in forecasted statutory expenditures. Of these amounts, roughly 74% of the voted requirements and 96% of the additional statutory forecasts are for the government's emergency and economic responses to COVID-19.
The voted spending in these estimates for emergency responses to COVID-19 includes $5.4 billion for medical research and vaccine development and $2.2 billion for purchases of personal protective equipment, medical equipment and supplies.
There are also economic responses to the pandemic. These include $2.4 billion in support for small and medium-sized businesses, salary top-ups for essential workers, and funding for provinces and territories to safely restart their economies and bring students back to school.
In addition, my department, the Treasury Board Secretariat, will receive $585 million for public service insurance plans and programs.
In conclusion, Mr. Chair, our government has the responsibility to ensure that Canadians have the support they need during the COVID-19 pandemic and to promote economic recovery and prosperity going forward. We do this by investing in critical health care and supporting the safe restart of our economy. Our spending plans will ensure that Canada and Canadians thrive and succeed.
The senior officials and I would like to thank you once again for your invitation to the committee. We will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Good evening to my committee colleagues.
I would like to welcome the minister as well as Ms. Cahill, Ms. Hassan and Mr. Purves.
I am delighted to see you all again.
I would like to begin, as the member of Parliament for Gatineau, by saying how grateful I am to the public servants who work day and night, as eloquently evidenced by the presence of those who are here this evening, often under extremely difficult conditions, to get us through this pandemic. Mr. Duclos, could you please, on behalf of us all, I believe, express the gratitude of each and every elected member to all public service employees.
That, precisely, is what I want to talk about. You perform a key role as the president of the Treasury Board because the Treasury Board Secretariat is the employer of the entire public service.
Needless to say, as a Quebec member for Gatineau, I was troubled by recent comments from the official languages commissioner, Mr. Théberge, according to whom official language and language of work provisions are not being followed in the workplace, virtually or otherwise, during the pandemic.
Mr. Duclos, what action have you taken, or are you going to take, in response to Mr. Théberge's comments, or since the start of the pandemic, to ensure that official language and language of work provisions are followed during the pandemic?
Thank you, Mr. MacKinnon.
I very much enjoy hearing what you have to say because you are a member from the national capital region and are fortunate to have in your riding a large number of public servants who are always hard-working, and especially so under the strenuous conditions of the pandemic. Both personally and professionally, things have often been getting more complex since the month of March. I appreciate hearing you express this gratitude.
Unlike you, I do not have quite so many federal public servants in my riding, but I live in another national capital area in which there are also many public servants. In both Quebec City and Gatineau, I can assure you that we are extremely grateful for their work during the pandemic.
But in Ottawa, more so than in Quebec City, we are also responsible for affirming the right of public servants to work in the official language of their choice, particularly in French. That's why, as soon as I heard Mr. Théberge and others report some concerns and even complaints about the ability to work in French, I wrote to all my ministerial colleagues asking them to ensure that this right is exercised in designated bilingual areas, including the national capital, within their respective departments.
It's more than a right; it's also a matter of work quality. If we want information is to be conveyed properly, and if we want everyone to be able to develop and work to their full potential, then people need to be able to work in their preferred official language. In many instances, in Gatineau and elsewhere, this means working in French.
Thank you for being with us this evening, Mr. Duclos.
The Treasury Board Secretariat contributes $282,000 to the Open Government Partnership, and sits on its board of directors.
How is it possible for the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, an independent organization, to have said in its report today on the 2020-2021 supplementary estimates (B) that “the amount of information that is publicly available to track this spending is lacking, thus making it more challenging for parliamentarians to perform their critical role in overseeing Government spending and holding it to account”?
For members of Parliament, everything is perfectly transparent. Why is this not the case for the government? This is one of the three aspects mentioned. How can the government fail to be transparent when it contributes to the Open Government Partnership, and sits on its board of directors?
Thank you for having asked that question Mrs. Vignola. It allows me to link these two aspects.
For many years now, Canada has been an important, and even a key, player in the Open Government Partnership, and we take great pride in this. Not only do we learn from best practices abroad, but we also give insights to other governments through our openness and transparency.
As for accountability, openness and transparency during this COVID-19 pandemic, you are absolutely right about the fact that things have been moving very quickly. And programs have been adjusting as quickly as the situation evolves. Just today, as you mentioned, measures have been identified. We will be called upon to vote tomorrow on a bill that would yet again change some key aspects of the government's economic response.
Information is nonetheless transmitted effectively and transparently. On the Open Government Portal, there are 316 postings exclusively about COVID-19 that can be consulted at any time. If you go to the GC InfoBase—
There has been no real decrease for the Public Service Health Care Plan. The plan had been funded for a period of three years.
However, I would like to point out that in 2018-2019, we allocated $3.1 billion to the plan, and it is now stable. That's why there are no additional funds. Over the course of the year, there will be an increase in the benefit plans in the supplementary estimates (B).
That, more or less, is why you could see a decrease.
As for planning, I totally agree with you. We make forecasts every year for the health care and benefit plans, and then adjust requests for funding accordingly.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to welcome back the honourable member Yves Duclos. I always enjoy your presence and certainly your leadership. Welcome to all of your staff here, as well.
I want to follow up on the Parliamentary Budget Officer's bombshell of a report on the financial and fiscal analysis of federal pay equity. You may recall—and I've shared this story before—that my mother used to work for Industry Canada. I can remember being a teenager and her explaining to me why she received an equalization payment as a federal member of government because, as a woman, she wasn't getting paid the equivalent to her male counterparts. Fast forward 20 years. Here we are today.
We know from the report that the “PBO requested information from the Treasury Board regarding the valuation of administering this legislation and implementing a proactive pay equity regime within the federal public service”, yet the Treasury Board “refused to disclose information or data regarding employee compensation.” This is on page 8 under section 2. Furthermore, “This included the number of employees who were impacted in each occupational group, and related increases in employee wages and benefits attributed to the Pay Equity Act. The information was deemed to be a confidence of the Queen's Privy Council”. It left the PBO to rely on “publicly available sources in its analysis of employee compensation for the federal public service.”
With a Treasury Board and a government that claims to be open by default, how do you justify not giving the PBO the critical information it needs to be able to provide Parliament with a critical analysis on federal pay equity?
Okay. So, not that then.
Let me get back to Mr. Paul-Hus' earlier question.
In the Official Languages Act, there is something that is triggered when they are asking for money. A couple of items will trigger a need for a completed official languages checklist and official languages impact analysis. WE would have done this.
The analysis should have included a summary of the official languages impacts and covered the steps taken to assure Treasury Board ministers that the program complied with the Official Languages Act.
It's very clear that the WE program did not comply with the Official Languages Act. It would have triggered an analysis that would have gone to you for approval.
Did you see this analysis, and if you did, why would you have signed off on it to allow the money for WE when, very clearly, it violated the Official Languages Act and would not have passed the small test for the Treasury Board?
Before it was approved, it would have triggered the impact analysis. To get that $910 million, it would have triggered it. Under sections 2 and 6, it would have been required, and it would have gone to Treasury Board.
I'm going to assume that the answer is you don't know, and I'm fine with that. I would like you to get back to the committee, though, if the impact analysis was done, as was required. Did you sign off on it? If you did not, who from Treasury Board would have signed off on it?
I'd like to move on, please.
According to the government website, in the first quarter, pre-COVID—the first quarter of the year—the economy was doing well, and the average wage settlement for unionized employees across the country for all sectors was 1.6%. During COVID, when millions of Canadians were losing their jobs, you settled and gave a 2.6% increase to public servants, an increase 62% above what the average Canadian would have received during the good times.
Why would you give such a generous increase, when the country was in such a raging economic downfall and running massive deficits? Why would you give such an increase far above what the private sector was giving to unionized employees pre-COVID meltdown?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. By the way, please make sure when a question is asked that we can hear the answer. I'm having a hard time understanding, particularly in a virtual meeting.
I would like to thank the minister and the senior officials for joining us.
Some members often think that we are responsible for the everyday tasks and that we should do more micromanaging. That is not usually our role. Ours is more like a board of directors. We take care of governance and it is up to the public servants to do the professional work, as they have.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we received feedback from all members of Parliament. This feedback was essential. As a member from the national capital region, I would like to thank all public servants, who did incredible work. If you had asked me a year ago whether it would be possible to create a program in under a month, I would have said no. But we did.
Mr. Minister, I would like to thank you, your team and the entire government.
I would now like to return to the various questions Mr. Green asked. I would like Ms. Hassan to finish commenting in response to Mr. Green's questions, including the one about the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
I will turn it over to Ms. Hassan immediately afterwards, but cannot refrain from telling you that what you have just said about the public service is extremely important.
Over the past few months, we have had a clear demonstration of the fact that public servants are dedicated, even in very difficult personal and family circumstances. We are greatly indebted to them.
Indeed, in only three weeks, public servants delivered the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. At the outset, many people, including some members of this committee, wondered whether it was really possible and had some doubts. But we proved that it was possible and, thanks to the capacity and commitment of the public service, we got it done.
That's it for me and I will now turn it over to Ms. Hassan.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Minister, for joining our committee today.
I'd like to turn back to the matter at hand today, which is, of course, the supplementary estimates (B).
Minister, this spring we debated and passed in the House several bills that contained vital measures to help Canadians get through the COVID-19 pandemic, and in particular, the estimates and the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act provided authority for a variety of COVID-19 spending, such as the CERB and the safe restart agreement, and others.
You mentioned in your opening remarks that these supplementary estimates (B) present information on the $58 billion in statutory expenditures. How much of this statutory funding is related to the COVID-19 response measures, and how are these items presented in these supplementary estimates?
Yes, the Treasury Board has been very focused on the health of its employees. In addition to what the minister indicated, we have, of course, extended some temporary measures to allow an expanded list of mental health service providers and have removed some requirements that used to exist. There is, as indicated previously, a centre of expertise on mental health.
In terms of the general workplace, we have been ensuring that our employees' health has come at the forefront to ensure their health and safety. From the beginning of the pandemic, we created a workplace that ensures that employees can work from home. We have expanded their capacity to log in to our infrastructure so as to be able to work their days in a safe environment when the situation in different regions is such that it's preferable, or recommended by the public health authorities, to be working remotely.
Also, when we were developing plans over the course of this summer for a return to the workplace, we worked hand in hand with the bargaining agents and the occupational health and safety committees to look at the workplaces to ensure that, if and when we would be returning to the office, the employees would be offered a safe environment to work, ensuring social distancing, and with other measures in place, so that when they do return to the workplace, it will be a safe place to work.
Since no one's answering and time is short, I'll move on to other questions.
You're aware of the access to information requests issue. We talked about it a little earlier. According to the online database, in the first five months of this year, 3,155 requests were processed and posted, compared to 15,000 last year. The minister told us earlier that this had recently started up again. However, I would like to know how many access to information requests have been made since the start of the year.
I don't know specifically to whom that question should go. Perhaps Ms. Hassan could answer.
That's precisely the point of my next question.
As we all know, the Treasury Board Secretariat manages the public service. So we'd like to get a clear picture of what's going on in the public service as a whole during the pandemic.
There are 200,000 public servants across the country who can go onto the network, and that's a good thing. However, what about the other 57,000? Are they on code 699 leave and waiting?
We'd like to get a report stating how many public servants in each department are at home and unfortunately unable to do anything. We're not at all saying it's their fault. We know it's because their work requires them to be at a certain place but that's currently impossible.
How many public servants from each department are at home on code 699 leave? I'd especially like to know how many there are from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
I don't have exact figures for every department, but I can give you the most up-to-date numbers I have.
Earlier you said that 200,000 public servants were able to work at home or remotely. As of September 6, 8,483 employees had used leave 699 code. Many other employees, such as correctional officers, food inspectors, certain nurses who work in the north and police officers, have to work on site. A lot of people aren't on the remote network because they absolutely have to do their work on site.
So approximately 200,000 employees are able to work at home. As I told you, as of September 6, nearly 8,400 employees had taken code 699 leave.
Thank you for the question, Mr. Chair. It's an excellent question.
We have a number of initiatives, and we transferred that money to a number of departments.
By the way, this information is also available on the “greening government” website. I can certainly provide the URL for that website to the clerk of the committee.
For example, under Public Services and Procurement Canada, there is a project to drive PSPC's procurement towards a low-carbon economy. This project will allow them to develop a science-based tool that will quantify the number of GHG emissions associated with procurement.
That's one example, but there are many others. Under the Department of National Defence, for example, money is being transferred for CFB Kingston to reduce GHGs. This project will design and install a net-zero heating source system in seven buildings on the base that currently rely on a steam heat source for a gas-fired central heating plant.
There are, then, a number of projects. In some cases, the projects are not only for one single year, but will last over a number of years. You may see these projects in front of you on many occasions. These are only two examples, but there are many examples on our website.
Going back to the insurance issue, we discussed that earlier, but it's still a bit of a mystery to me.
There are 257,000 employees, and I imagine the vast majority of them are covered by insurance plans. I mean, if the situation is similar to the one I experienced in a previous life, some part-time employees may not be covered. We know how much insurance plans generally cost. I'm talking about the public service health care plan here. In instances where the employer contributes to a plan, we know how much contributions increase from year to year.
I'd like to know why the total cost of the insurance plan is included in the main estimates. In other words, why do we see a portion of the costs in the main estimates and the rest in supplementary estimates (A), (B) or (C)? That's what I'd like to understand.
I'd also like to know whether those costs increase given the general aging of the population. That phenomenon must affect the public service in the same way it affects the rest of the population.
I'll answer that question.
We can definitely see a $511-million cut to our appropriations in the main estimates. That doesn't mean we don't attach any importance to public service insurance plans. The fact is there is a funding plan for those plans. We're working with the Office of the Chief Actuary and the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions to estimate the costs of social benefit programs and insurance plans. We request increases and cuts to appropriations every year.
You probably heard the Treasury Board president mention a figure of $585 million under Treasury Board Secretariat vote 20b in the supplementary estimates (B) for the 2020-21 year. That reflects an increase in the social benefits program and insurance plans that we offer our employees.
Mrs. Vignola, I understand why you were wondering why this isn't automatically in the estimates. That can actually be attributed to the way this vote is established. Don't worry, however, people are always covered and we always pay the employer's share.
I don't know whether Mr. Purves or Ms. Hassan wants to add to my answer.
Yes, certainly. I'm very happy to answer that question.
The Department of Indigenous Services used to be amalgamated with the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, what we call CIRNA.
In the separation and the creation of the new department, the department took on a host of measures, including working on non-insured health benefits for first nations and Inuit, which used to be within the purview of Health Canada. Every year a transfer goes from Health Canada to be able to deal with that, but there's also an augmentation in that, as well.
When you look at the supplementary estimates (B), we're going from about $13.5 billion to $14.5 billion, an increase of about $1 billion on the voted side, of which you have about $300 million dealing directly with the COVID response, meaning funding to support indigenous businesses. There are indigenous businesses that are finding short-term dislocations in their funding and their support. Effectively, there is funding that's been able to help them with their needs.
A host of different issues are listed on the page proof in the supplementary estimates (B) that go into all of those measures, but the particular ones, again, are for non-insured health benefits. About $256 million there is going to provide prescription drugs, dental care, vision care, medical transportation and medical health counselling for first nations and Inuit needing this access.
There's the first nations child and family services program as well as Jordan's principle, an initiative under the oversight of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. In particular, these two measures account for about $240 million for child and family services, as well as an additional $74 million for Jordan's principle, beyond the amounts for Jordan's principle that have been outlined already as part of supplementary estimates (A) and included in part of the main estimates.
Altogether, it's going towards a whole host of measures ensuring that first nations and Inuit are looked after with respect to a whole host of health, social and education issues.
Thank you for your question.
We've made sure to take care of our employees since the start of the pandemic. Code 699 is an exceptional leave code that we used at the start of the pandemic, when we sent everyone home to comply with public health directives and to ensure the safety of our employees and communities.
In the circumstances, few of us could access our computer systems. That code was then used in situations where the employer didn't permit employees to access systems or the network.
Similarly, at the start of the pandemic, schools, child care centres and babysitting services were all closed, and many of our employees had to try to work with children in the home.
Several months later now, the pandemic is part of our everyday lives. We have adjusted to directives as the situation has developed. Consequently, when the child care centres, schools and babysitting services reopened, we adjusted the directives to ask parents to try to make up missed working hours.
The directives were altered again on October 22. Leave code 699 will continue to apply but in more exceptional instances. For example, it may apply where employees are still unable to enter their workplace, whether regularly or on an exceptional basis. We were given the example of laboratory researchers who must work in rotations: in one in every four weeks, a team may not go to the laboratory because others are there. Consequently—
We have come to the end of the meeting, and I appreciate everyone's comments and questions.
It's 9:16 and we called the meeting to order at 7:09, so for us to have completed this with just seven extra minutes with all the questions, I appreciate that.
We will be sending a letter to the minister to ask him back to discuss the supplementary estimates further, and hopefully we will see back here again many of the officials we saw here today.
Mr. Purves, Ms. Paulin, Ms. Cahill, Ms. Hassan, Ms. McDermott and Mr. Halverson, thank you all for staying the extra time. This day went a little longer than we expected.
I would also like to thank all of the other officials here in the room, as well as the interpreters and clerks and staff who are here, for staying the extra time.
With that, the meeting is adjourned.