The minister has been invited for this Monday, and also we have Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week.
Members, welcome to meeting number 7 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. Pursuant to the House of Commons order of reference adopted on December 2, 2021, the committee is meeting on Bill , an act to provide further support in response to COVID-19.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of November 25, 2021. Members are attending in person in the room and remotely using the Zoom application. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. So you're aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee.
Today's meeting is also taking place in the webinar format. Webinars are for public committee meetings and are available only to members, their staff and witnesses. Members enter immediately as active participants. All functionalities for active participants remain the same. Staff will be non-active participants and can therefore only view the meeting in gallery view.
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As the chair, I'll be enforcing these measures for the duration of the meeting. I thank members in advance for their co-operation.
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I remind everyone that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.
With regard to a speaking list, the committee clerk and I will do our very best to maintain a consolidated order of speaking for all members, whether they're participating virtually or in person.
To members and witnesses, when you have 30 seconds left in your questioning time, I will signal you with this paper just to keep on track.
Members, before we get started with our officials today, I will tell you that we'll be going through three rounds to give enough opportunity to ask questions on Bill . I'm leaving the remainder of our meeting time for some committee business.
I would now like to welcome witnesses from the Canada Revenue Agency. We have with us Janique Caron, chief financial officer and assistant commissioner, finance and administration branch; Cathy Hawara, assistant commissioner, compliance programs branch; Marc Lemieux, assistant commissioner, collections and verification branch; and Frank Vermaeten, assistant commissioner, assessment, benefit and service branch.
Clerk, is one of the witnesses going to make an opening statement, or will...?
Okay, one of the witnesses will make an opening statement for five minutes before we move to members' questions. Who will be making the opening statement?
Good afternoon, everyone, and good afternoon, Mr. Chair.
I'm having some technical difficulties, as are some people in the agency today, so hopefully you can hear me loud and clear.
Thank you for the invitation to appear before this committee today to provide you with additional information regarding the support of the Canada Revenue Agency, or CRA, in delivering the Government of Canada's COVID‑19 emergency support benefits.
With me today are several of the assistant commissioners of the agency—namely, Cathy Hawara of the compliance branch, Marc Lemieux of the collections and verification branch and Janique Caron of the finance and administration branch.
Mr. Chair, over the past 20 months we have delivered support to both Canadians and businesses through several emergency support benefits, including the Canada emergency wage subsidy, the CEWS; the Canada emergency rent subsidy, the CERS; the Canada recovery sickness benefit, the CRSB; and more. I am proud to say that these benefits have been instrumental in Canada’s economic recovery. In fact, the CEWS has helped more than 5.3 million Canadians keep their jobs, with over $97 billion in support already paid out through the program to help employers rehire workers and avoid layoffs.
Additionally, the CERS has helped more than 215,000 organizations with over $7 billion in support for rent, mortgage and other expenses.
The Canada recovery sickness benefit has delivered over $829 million to 750,000 Canadians. This benefit has provided income support to employed and self-employed individuals who were unable to work because they were sick, needed to self-isolate due to COVID-19, or had an underlying health condition that put them at greater risk of getting COVID-19.
Mr. Chair, that is why the Canada Revenue Agency will be proud to continue to administer COVID-19 supports and benefits should Bill be approved. The proposed legislation would continue to provide targeted support where it is needed to those Canadians and Canadian businesses that are most affected by COVID. In fact, this proposed legislation would extend until May 7, 2022, the Canada recovery hiring program that was introduced in budget 2021, and would provide a subsidy of up to 50% to eligible employers with current revenue losses above 10%.
This extension would help businesses continue to hire back workers, increase hours and create the additional jobs Canada needs for a robust recovery. This bill would also deliver targeted support to businesses still facing significant pandemic-related challenges.
Additionally, this proposed legislation would support individuals who are affected by illness or family obligations through an extension of the Canada recovery caregiving benefit and the Canada recovery sickness benefit, as well as by establishing the Canada worker lockdown benefit to provide income support to eligible workers who are directly impacted by a COVID-related public health lockdown.
In closing, I would like to emphasize that the CRA's mandate is to administer tax, benefit and related programs, and to ensure compliance, thereby contributing to the ongoing economic and social well-being of Canadians.
For this reason, the agency remains committed to supporting Canadian businesses, as we have since the beginning of the pandemic, by putting Canadians at the centre of everything we do. CRA employees are very proud to have supported millions of Canadian workers and businesses, following our “people first” philosophy.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. We would be happy to answer your questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Of course, all questions will be through the chair.
I would like to thank the witnesses for being here today. We had a motion, and as a committee we felt it was really important for the CRA to have representation here. Over the course of the past week, we've had a very difficult time getting answers to questions. We know that the finance department, and all of our witnesses previously, couldn't tell us where the money that will be used is coming from. FINTRAC was here and let us know that they were not consulted with the drafting of this new bill, even with respect to their warning CRA, yourselves, in the summer of 2020, of the potential that these benefits could be defrauded.
On behalf of my constituents today in Miramichi—Grand Lake, number one, I hope we can break the streak and get some answers today. What role did CRA play in drafting the last emergency response bill related to the pandemic, the one previous to Bill ?
Maybe I can start. Others are welcome to provide additional comments.
Certainly part of our job is to work with other agencies when we have to administer something and there's legislation there. We look at it. We provide comments and try to make suggestions on potential improvements.
In terms of responsibility for the legislation, in the case of the business benefits, it's the responsibility of the Department of Finance, and in the case of the individual benefits, it's primarily Employment and Social Development Canada. It's their legislation, but of course others will participate by providing comments to make sure that the legislation is administrable as well as by providing any other comments that we might have for improvement. Of course, our role is not a policy role, in that sense. Our focus is really on the administration
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to start by thanking the witnesses, the civil servants from the Canada Revenue Agency, for being here today. I want to start by thanking you for the hard work that you've done in helping to deliver the programs that have rescued countless businesses and helped Canadians put food on the table in a desperate time during a global crisis. I think I speak for my colleagues when I express my gratitude to all of you for all of your hard work. We thank you for that.
Before I ask my question, I want to speak to what Mr. Stewart said.
I am disappointed, because questions that the Conservatives keep asking continue to be answered, yet the Conservatives pretend they haven't been answered. One of the questions that Mr. Stewart said wasn't answered was where the funding was coming from to pay for the measures in Bill . The very day that was asked—and you can check the Hansard—I read into the record the section of Bill C-2 that specifies where the funding is coming from. It's section 29. I'll repeat it again; it's in the consolidated revenue fund. The minister was clear in answering that question when she presented to us here yesterday.
On the question of the role of the Canada Revenue Agency in drafting the bill, which Mr. Stewart asked repeatedly of the civil servants from the CRA and argued that it wasn't answered, I thought that the answer from the representative from the CRA was very clear. They indicated that their role was to provide comments and input. The question has been asked. The question has been answered. On the first question, it was asked and it was answered.
It's shameful that some Conservative members are pretending their questions aren't being answered. It's shameful that they're treating our civil servants in this way, particularly the civil servants who have been part of the team that delivered the programs that have been so important to millions of Canadians.
I want to put that on the record, Mr. Chair.
My question to our witnesses is this. My understanding is that the Canada Revenue Agency would be responsible for administering the new benefits that are part of Bill . Could I ask you to describe in detail the cost and the impact of delaying implementation of the programs in Bill C-2? What would be the impact for Canadian businesses and what would be the impact for Canadian workers?
I'd be happy to begin answering that question.
As the committee is probably aware right now, without the legislation we're in a situation in which individuals, on the individual side, aren't able to access the sickness benefit anymore. The same thing is true for the caregiving benefit. Those supports are important for those individuals who find themselves in a situation, with the ongoing pandemic, of being sick, having a day care that's closed or having a child who's sick or potentially at risk for COVID. As a result, they're not going to be able to work. They need to stay home. This bill provides that financial support. That's not going to be available until the legislation is passed.
The new lockdown benefit would not be available, and then you've got the benefits on the business side. The new period is not available right now, so in terms of benefits going forward, this legislation is needed so that you can provide the support—the wage subsidy and the rent subsidy—in the new forms and in that particular sector of tourism. I'm not going to speak for the tourism and hospitality sector, but that's an area where there's a continued pressure. Not having these funds available is going to create challenges for the sector. We hear that. We are appreciative that we're not....
I think people recognize the challenges of delivering these benefits and that the legislation needs to be examined, but at the same time there's an impatience out there as far as delivering these benefits is concerned.
I am quite glad to have the Canada Revenue Agency officials with us today.
I am here as the critic for seniors. I have a vitally important question for the CRA officials about the Canada emergency response benefit, or CERB. It concerns seniors who were victims of a guaranteed income supplement, or GIS, clawback because they received the CERB during the pandemic, even though they were entitled to the benefit after losing their job.
Keep in mind that the CERB was not flexible. There was no option to claim anything other than the allocated $2,000. That was the case for everyone. Anyone who lost their job during the pandemic was eligible to receive that amount.
Right now, those seniors' GIS payments are being cut. This summer, the Bloc Québécois, with the support of my colleague Gabriel Ste‑Marie, wrote to the and the to inform them of the situation.
Before the election campaign, groups had reached out to us about these massive cuts. From the accounts I heard, people's payments were cut by an average of $400. We got the figures this week: 183,000 seniors have lost an average of $3,500 this year. On top of that, 83,000 seniors saw their GIS payments virtually disappear. We are talking about a crucial source of income, money that goes only to the poorest of seniors.
The issue was brought to the attention of the as early as June 2020 by family economics groups, including Quebec's Association coopérative d'économie familiale. They wrote to the minister about their concerns regarding the GIS and the post-pandemic impact. Seniors groups had already written to the minister responsible for the CRA about the potentially negative impacts these GIS cuts could have.
I'd like to hear what the CRA officials have to say about this. I was told that people had sent letters as early as June 2020 to raise the uncertainty around the fact that seniors might see their GIS payments reduced because they had received the CERB. In November 2021, my fellow member Mr. Ste‑Marie and I each wrote to the minister responsible for our respective areas once again, in other words, the , and the new . We are still looking for solutions.
I'm looking for details on the GIS reductions for CERB recipients.
Thank you very much for the question.
In calculating social benefits, the way the system generally works is that you're looking at an individual's income for the prior year. Individuals submit their tax return; their income is calculated, and that income is used by both the CRA and other departments, as well as provinces and territories, in terms of some of the benefits they might pay. We generally use net income.
The departments, in this case ESDC, would then use the information feed that we provide to calculate the GIS, etc. They're the department responsible for that, based on the income that we provide, which is always going to be the same.
I'm very happy to be back here.
Congratulations on your election as chair of the committee, taking over from Wayne Easter, chair of the committee in the last Parliament.
I would also like to thank the witnesses for their service to the country throughout the pandemic.
I have a number of questions. If you've got the answer, please give it. If not, I'll move on to the next question. I'm looking for responses in writing in all of these cases.
My first question is with regard to the Canada child benefit. How many recipients experienced a decrease in their CCB because they received payments from a COVID-19 financial support program? What was the average monthly reduction in their CCB payment?
You would also have the figures internally. We've questioned Canada Revenue before, and you do have the figures in your database. That's certainly what I and our finance critic, Daniel Blaikie, are looking for. It would also be useful for the committee as a whole.
I'll move on to any analysis the government did around anticipated impacts on low-income workers or self-employed workers from cancelling the CRB. I'm thinking of independent contractors, workers on online platforms, workers in contracted businesses, on-call workers and temporary workers.
Are you aware of any studies that were done or conducted of the impact prior to or after cancelling the CRB program?
I'm happy to answer that.
I've not been aware of any formal published studies on this.
I will, if I may, supplement, that yes, the Department of Finance and Employment and Social Development have been looking at the need for these programs, and the strategy has been to evolve these programs to fit the economic situation. That's why the CERB, when it started, was giving benefits to about four million people in that first week. Over time, as we moved to the CRB and the CRCB, we were down to 800,000 people who were using it a little while ago.
I'm not sure whether there has been.... I don't think there's been a formal study that says at that point.... However, the responsible departments, ESDC and the Department of Finance, have been looking at the need for these programs and how they should evolve with the economic situation and the pandemic situation.
I hope that wasn't too much.
I had quite some time to think about these questions, so I hope they're good.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Adam Chambers: Thank you, Mr. Vermaeten and all of the officials we see here and appearing before us today at the committee.
I want to also thank you for some very detailed information that you provided to this committee upon request. I understand that was done in very, very short order and it was very detailed, and I will focus a few of my questions on that information. We received this just as the committee started. I'm just looking for a little bit of clarification, so if you want to pull that document up, that would be helpful.
With respect to some of the audits and the numbers, I'm looking for clarification, and it looks as though there were about 700 audits completed in phase one with respect to CEWS. This is post-verification, as I understand, and about 2,500 are currently in progress. Is it safe to say that is about 3,200 audits out of approximately 4.7 million applications? Is that a fair characterization?
I can take that question.
Just to clarify, phase one of the audit is actually still ongoing. It was more of a sort of preliminary research audit phase, if you will, as we were learning more about the risks and how best to deploy our audit resources going forward. You're correct that 700 is the number of audits, but they are not all completed. That work is still ongoing.
We were able to launch our second phase in November, just this year. Those are just getting under way.
That's just to say, then, that the results will inform our future audit activities in this space. We're not quite there yet. It's still ongoing.
I would like to thank all the CRA officials for their extraordinary work. They had to deliver these programs at a time when all Canadians had to work from home, often in tough conditions. You have my utmost admiration.
I want to apologize for the tone of my Conservative colleague Mr. Stewart when he questioned you earlier. That isn't the way to behave in committee. That isn't how committee members should question witnesses who have been invited to appear. Please accept my apologies on behalf of my colleague.
Now, I want to talk about the Auditor General's 2020‑21 report. There was considerable focus on the agency's verification efforts. I have here the English version of the report.
The main point of the audit was about whether the Canada Revenue Agency designed a mechanism so that the benefit would support eligible workers who suffered a loss of income for a reason related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including limiting abuse of the benefit.
I would like to know if the CRA could explain what exactly the finding of the Auditor General was in this very recent report.
If I may, Mr. Chair, I will answer in French.
The Government of Canada swiftly provided emergency benefits and recovery benefits to millions of Canadians during the COVID‑19 pandemic. What we observed was verified by the Office of the Auditor General. The purpose was to determine whether we had taken a reasonable approach, in other words, using an attestation-based system to deliver the emergency response benefit and the recovery benefit to ensure that Canadians in need received the support quickly. This attestation-based approach is very similar to the one the CRA uses for income tax returns. It is based on the premise that people want to comply with the rules and will submit valid tax returns. We advanced this program on that basis.
As the Auditor General of Canada pointed out in her examination of the CERB, this approach has risks. Expediting payments to those in need is consistent with best practices promoted by the International Public Sector Fraud Forum and its principles of fraud control in emergency management. This approach is precedent-based and evolves over time.
The Auditor General also indicated that, once the program had been implemented, we made changes to the pre-payment control process. We added controls when we identified a risk of non-compliance. The agency's approach was really based on attestations and public education. People need the right information so that they can comply with the rules that we have to enforce.
We made a considerable amount of information available to Canadians to help them fully understand the eligibility criteria. In some cases, we even wrote to Canadians when the information we received showed that they were not eligible. The Auditor General also noted that.
I'd be happy to start. I'm sure my colleagues will supplement my answer.
Yes, it is a challenge to target payments to a sector, simply because there are borderlines. Whenever you create any sector, you're going to have a challenge about who's in and who's out, no matter how well the legislation is defined or, previously, the rules are established.
In terms of establishing borderlines, I think that under the circumstances, Bill has done an excellent job to try to articulate, as much as possible, borderlines of tourism, but you can imagine how there's always a borderline situation. If you are, for example, providing food and you are a chip truck, a poutine truck, are you a restaurant or are you simply selling chocolate bars and chips? Those kinds of questions ultimately can never be fully specified in legislation, and therefore the CRA will need to do its job of looking at the facts and trying to distinguish whether you're in this sector or that sector. That's the challenge.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
This is for all of the officials who are joining us today. I would like to know if there have been any impact studies or analyses regarding the Canada recovery benefit cancellation for self-employed workers and if you have any comments on that, or if you can share with the committee or table any documents to that effect.
If you need clarification on who I'm specifically referring to, this would be, for example, independent contractors, any workers who have online platforms, workers on contracted business, on-call workers and temporary workers.
I want to thank the officials for coming today and for giving us the answers we need to make sure we're moving this bill forward, but I will comment, and I want the officials to know, that many of us on this committee have enough background in finance and economics to understand that the consolidated revenue fund is just a bank account. The money still has to come from somewhere, and I encourage my colleague Mr. Baker on the other side to understand where that money must come from to arrive in the consolidated revenue fund in the first place. It will add a lot of value in that respect.
Mr. Vermaeten, you commented earlier about the patience regarding the delivery of benefits that certain people are going to require once this bill is passed and with respect to getting this bill passed. This is definitely a rushed timetable that has been placed upon us here. This committee was composed literally this week to look at what this bill should be.
My first question is this: Is it historically unusual to jam a spending bill this quickly in front of the finance committee immediately after Parliament is recalled?
Thank you for the question.
As you mentioned, with programs of this scale there will be some fraud. However, we have definitely learned and we have controls, tools and measures in place. We work with partners like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other government departments when we detect suspicious activities. It's been a learning experience. We take very seriously any cases that have been flagged to us or that we've uncovered ourselves, and we investigate them.
As scammers adapt their practices, so do we. We routinely monitor accounts for suspicious activity to detect, prevent and address the potential instances of fraud, including unauthorized use of stolen credentials and—
Listening to this conversation, I just want to say for those listening outside of these four walls that the vast majority of Canadians are honest. We all believe that.
I want to touch on Mr. Julian's comments too. I believe—and correct me if I'm wrong—that the minister was on the record as being committed to addressing the negative interactions between recovery benefits and the GIS. I just want to make sure that we actually mention that.
I would like to follow up on Mr. McLean's question and allow the answers, because that was actually one of the questions that I had and it was relevant to the checks and balances going forward, so if she could continue with her answer, it would certainly be appreciated.
As I said, we've definitely continued to learn throughout the process. We increased the capacity in the teams. We created a new team to coordinate all of the efforts so that we could share information as well and make the linkages between all of the behaviours we're seeing. Of course, we won't disclose all of the controls we have or the threats we are facing, but we are definitely learning.
One of the key tools we are using is data analytics and business intelligence gathered from many sources. We've had many partners. Law enforcement agencies and financial institutions have been key partners as well. We also get leads. Thankfully, as well, budget 2021 announced $330 million over five years that will, once approved, allow us to continue to invest even more in making sure that we protect ourselves, that we detect, that we control.
No taxpayers who have been confirmed as subjects of fraud incidents are liable for the amounts that were paid. We have them. We've also dedicated phone lines to help them and have increased the capacity in our call centres, because we do appreciate that this created a lot of calls to our organization.
Thank you. That's a great answer.
Sometimes around this table, with the rhetoric, I think we forget how chaotic the beginning of this pandemic was. I've been in public life for quite some time and I don't think I've seen bureaucracy or bureaucrats react so quickly, so kudos to you and your team at CRA.
With regard to the co-operation and communication among the different organizations relevant to fraud, what can you tell us about those lines of communication or those checks and balances? We had FINTRAC in here this week as well. We didn't have the RCMP here, but I know they've been mentioned several times. Can someone elaborate on the verification, the checks and balances pre and post that go into ensuring that everything you do is done adequately for the taxpayers of Canada?
We definitely collaborate. Perhaps Ms. Hawara will be able to complement the answer as well.
When we see, for example, something that meets the criteria to warrant our criminal investigation team looking into a situation, then we involve those experts on the file. They're the ones who interact very closely with the authorities and with the RCMP. That's definitely one of the partnerships we have.
As I said, we have partnerships with financial institutions as well. Those are critical. They have shared leads with us, for example, so we are very much working closely together.
I don't know whether Ms. Hawara would have additional information.
Thank you very much, Chair. It's great to be back at the finance committee meeting.
One of the recurring patterns I've noticed today, Chair—and I think colleagues around the table have seen it—is that Conservative colleagues are very preoccupied with questions relating specifically to audits but also more generally questions around due diligence. I find it interesting and a bit contradictory, with all due respect, because just a few months ago, a former Conservative member of the finance committee, Mr. Kelly, penned a letter to the Minister of National Revenue in November 2020 calling for audits to be suspended entirely. The letter was referenced earlier by Mr. Baker. These are audits on the use of the wage subsidy by small businesses, so I struggle to understand the Conservative position, but for the benefit of colleagues, specifically Conservative colleagues, I'll table that letter with the committee chair. I think it will help inform the work that's been happening here over the past few days.
To officials, first of all, thank you very much for your work throughout the pandemic and ongoing. It is truly appreciated by us but specifically by constituents in London, where I'm from—
Yes, and that's in normal times, but in the context of a pandemic, it's very difficult to do, and that's why the attestation approach was used, which is something mentioned in the sixth report of the Auditor General, which Madame Chatel referenced earlier.
For the benefit of the committee—this is not even a partisan comment—I would suggest that members read that report. It's highly instructive. It gives very good insight on CERB specifically, on some of the program design but also some of the thinking that went into that program design.
One of the key findings—and again, this is all in the context of analysis of an emergency program—is as follows. I quote directly from that report, Mr. Chair, and since Mr. McLean was so eager for me to read something into the record, I'll indulge him here.
It is paragraph 6.53. The Auditor General found, it says, the following:
We found that, by using attestations and limiting the number of pre-payment controls to validate eligibility, Employment and Social Development Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency were aware that some payments would be issued to applicants who were not entitled to the benefit. This included potential cases of intentional misrepresentation.
The key thing, though, is this:
Accepting risks in order to expedite payments to those in need is consistent with best practices promoted by the International Public Sector Fraud Forum and its Principles of Fraud Control in Emergency Management.
What we are left with is a really important insight, and again, to my colleagues across the way who have pressed this issue of due diligence, there were attestations. If there is time, I'll ask about those, but in the context of the pandemic, public servants put forward an approach that, yes, did involve some risk, but that always made sure to focus on Canadians, the now close to, as I heard Mr. Blaikie whisper a few minutes ago, nine million or eight million, or whatever the number is.
I'll go with public servants on that number, with all due respect to Mr. Blaikie. They get the support they need.
What I gather is that, with Christmas two weeks away, seniors aren't going to get an answer as to whether they'll be able to make ends meet. They will remain in a financially vulnerable position.
My last question is about something said yesterday. According to her, on a technical level, the issue is a bit complicated to address as far as the system's capacity goes.
Can you elaborate on those technological challenges? In 2021, is there no way to find a solution for seniors whose benefits were clawed back? Is it not possible to consider treating the CERB as work income? Would the technology allow for that, so that all the affected seniors could qualify for a review based on their actual income?
Chair, I can give you a flavour of why there are technological challenges. The GIS determination was made after we received individuals' tax returns for 2020. That was done, we'll say, in June 2021. Individuals had started receiving their benefits. Entitlements had been determined.
Now, as far as a solution goes, if this is the policy intent, you'd need to isolate the impact of CERB and determine how that impacted the GIS and then figure out when you're going to give those amounts. Are you going to give them all at once to the extent that you're going to provide an offset? Who will that be given to, and what happens to individuals, for example, who may have received CERB and then paid back CERB a little bit later? We did have a lot of people who did pay back the CERB afterward.
There are all kinds of complex data issues, and you want to try to alleviate the situation rather than make it worse. Therefore, I would say that in moving forward, you need to be very careful to get it right.
Sure. The bill recognizes that there are a number of industries that are in distress, notwithstanding whether there's a lockdown order in effect in a particular area that people would be working in, a geographical area. Right?
Mr. Frank Vermaeten: Yes.
Mr. Daniel Blaikie: They're listed in part 1. Now, if those industries are in distress, then self-employed workers, for instance, might need income assistance, whether there's a lockdown order or not. In fact, the government says they will. That's why they're making the wage subsidy available for workers in those industries.
I'm just wondering. If people were to attest that they work in one of those industries and derive their employment income from one of those industries, the Canada worker lockdown benefit could then be flowed to them regardless of the fact that there's a lockdown order.
Now, I respect that the legislation is not currently worded that way—
Thank you to all of our witnesses for being here today.
Thank you to the committee for all the good work we've been doing over this week.
I do want to take an opportunity to move a motion. Hopefully, we can get through it quickly and have more time with our witnesses before our time runs out.
It has become obvious, as we all know, that we lost part e) and part f) of the motion previously, but given the testimony we've had to this point, the urgency that is required to get these supports in place has been made very clear, not just for our tourism businesses and other organizations that are hard hit but for people in communities right across Canada, especially during the break after the House rises.
I do appreciate the points that have been raised by colleagues, especially around the cultural sector and around impacts of benefits, especially income-tested benefits, and it is with that in mind that I would like to move the following motion.
I move (a) that pursuant to the motion adopted on Monday, December 6, the Standing Committee on Finance reinvite the Minister of Canadian Heritage and officials to appear before the committee for one hour at 11 a.m. on Monday, December 13; (b) that all amendments to the bill be submitted to the clerk of the committee by 4 p.m. on Saturday, December 11; (c) that the committee proceed to clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-2 at 6 p.m. on Monday, December 13; (d) that at 10 p.m. on Monday, December 13, every question necessary for the disposal of the said stage of the bill shall be put forthwith and successively without further debate or amendment; and (e) that the chair be ordered to table the bill in the House on Tuesday, December 14.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I appreciate the motion.
I'm looking at the number of witnesses we've asked to be part of this committee so that we can get full disclosure on the effects of what are clearly undefined parts of this bill and what the financial implications are going forward, as well as the people who are affected. There's some important input that still has to come, and I really want to make sure we get that input.
When I look at the names we've put on the list, I look at FINTRAC, which we've heard from. We do need to talk to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, but it is really important to hear from the Auditor General of Canada. They need to have some input on this legislation as well.
We have other economists here who need to describe to us, from a finance committee point of view, exactly what the effects are of unlimited spending. As we've heard, that $7.4 billion has no modelling associated with it. It has no end date. It's been extended by two years, when the program was only supposed to be extended by seven months. It is deep in the weeds. The Fraser Institute would give us some explanation on this. There's the RSM tax department and, finally, the C.D. Howe Institute. These are all reputable institutions that could give us some guidance on how to make this bill better.
The fact that we're not even interested in trying to make this bill better at this point in time and the rushed timetable within which Parliament's been called upon to deal with this very quickly, because the money's needed.... We know the money's needed. Money's always needed.
There's a retrospective portion of this bill, as you will recall, Mr. Chair. That's very clear about how people are going to be dealt with once this is over. The spelling out of those details is not yet clear.
I would like that clarity. If anybody could provide it, some type of explanation would be appropriate for this committee.
Yes, I am. Actually, I am. I do have the floor, so thank you very little.
To go back to my point, the Liberals are learning that basically the taxpayer's being defrauded of money, that people are taking multiple CERB cheques in a week—even though it's a once-a-week benefit—that people who are organized criminals are defrauding the system and that people who don't even live in Canada are getting the money. What do they do? How do they respond to that news? They say, “Well, let's hurry up and pass some more government cheques” rather than “Boy, now that we've learned about all of this misappropriation, we'd better look into how that happened.” I think it's incredible how little interest they have in scrutinizing how the money is spent instead of just trying to shovel more and more of it out the door.
I would move an amendment to this proposed motion by adding the following paragraph—sorry; before I add the paragraph, I will say to delete all of the deadlines that Mr. Fragiskatos listed in his original motion for submissions of amendments and for reporting back to the House.
Instead, I would replace that with the following amendment: “That the Standing Committee on Finance continue to hear witness testimony on Bill the week of December 13, 2021; that the clerk reinvite witnesses who were unable to appear on Bill C-2 due to scheduling conflicts; that the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance appear before this committee on the economic and fiscal update 2021 for three hours prior to the House of Commons' rising on December 17, 2021; and that each answer that the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance provides does not exceed the time taken to ask the question.”
For some context—
Thank you. There were two handsome gentlemen over there, and I just mixed up which was which. I apologize for misattributing the original mover of the motion.
To her credit, the was here, but she specifically said that she couldn't answer certain questions because she didn't yet have a fall economic update. She specifically couldn't tell us how much debt we have in Canada or how much a one percentage point increase in interest payments would cost taxpayers. She said that once the fall economic update was introduced, she'd be able to answer these questions, so out of respect for her, I think the least we could do is call and ask her to testify on her update.
Now, this is conventional; when a finance minister introduces a fall update or a budget, typically they testify on it. We're scheduled to close shop for Christmas, unfortunately, as early as it is, so we would miss out on the opportunity to have the here to testify on her update. I know that she will be anxious to testify, so I am putting forward this amendment out of respect for her request to have a chance to speak to some of my questions after that update is introduced.
I'm furthermore open-minded to working with colleagues on all sides to make sure that the final amended motion that comes out of this place is one that everyone feels comfortable supporting.
You'll have to forgive me, because this is my first time on the committee, and I have a hard time with.... Perhaps Mr. Beech, who originally proposed the motion, has it is available in hard copy, or else could email it to the rest of us. It's quite difficult to manage what we're actually voting on.
I would like to make the point that when we're talking about timelines and witnesses, we are right now cutting into the witness testimony that we already decided was important to hear before we got to a vote or moved on to clause-by-clause consideration. I think it's important for this committee to feel comfortable that it's heard from all the witnesses. We know that some witnesses were unable to attend. We've heard that a few others have been invited, certainly from the labour organizations, and there were some others listed by my colleague. I think it would be imprudent to consider cutting off witness testimony or not allow relevant time for those witnesses to come and provide their feedback on this bill.
I do think we need to be careful to allow an opportunity for members of this committee, and in effect the general public, to hear from the witnesses we had anticipated to hear from before we agree to move any more forward.
I support Mr. Poilievre's amendment. I think the main part of this committee was to bring in the witnesses. This is an astounding amount of taxpayer dollars, dollars that were never defined in terms of where they were even coming from. I think the would be anxious to come back in here and answer all of the questions she couldn't answer this week. She admitted herself that she'd like to have more time to give more answers. There's all of next week, and there's more time beyond that as well.
By bringing in as many witnesses as we could possibly bring in, the members of this committee would get to ask more questions. We'd get to delve into the $7.4 billion. We know the track record of the government with taxing and spending. We know the track record of the previous legislation. That's why FINTRAC was called in here this week. We know that Canadian taxpayers have footed the bill for fraudsters, criminals and potentially even terrorist organizations. I don't think some of that's been proven, but it hasn't been unproven yet either. This is something the Canadian taxpayers deserve—the scrutiny of this committee.
I think Mr. Poilievre's amendment is sufficient. As members of this caucus, we want to be here to ask these important questions. I think it's important for all Canadians that safeguards are placed in the legislation. We know they weren't last time. I think it will be extremely important for the members of this committee to have the ability to ask those important questions on behalf of our constituents, on behalf of mine in Miramichi—Grand Lake and the rest.
Therefore, I support the amendment.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I appreciate the amendment very much.
I recall being here earlier this week. It's our first week at the finance committee. We've had a week of meetings and we've barely scratched the surface.
The was quite clear when she was here earlier this week, along with a high-level finance official who couldn't answer any question put to him, about the economic situation facing Canada at this point in time. This led us very clearly to the answer she gave, which was that she will be dealing with the economic situation in her economic update. We have the right and, I think, the parliamentary privilege of asking those questions.
The amendment is clearly in order and would add value for Canadians. It would add value to the respect this House has in terms of our looking at where government is spending money, how government is spending money and what the accountability is for that money. At this point in time, many Canadians are looking at those accountability mechanisms as completely lacking.
We have a bill before us today that refuses to be tightened in terms of the applicability and the definitions around some of the applications. Think about that, because it is a very compromising amendment that allows us to move forward with the business of Parliament while we also move forward with the business of passing a bill.
That is what we're here for. Let's take our parliamentary jobs very seriously, be accountable to Canadians and move forward with more than one dot on the map at a time. Let's move forward with what we're supposed to be doing here in the finance committee, which is addressing the finances of the country.
I just want to take a moment to say that the bill came here so quickly out of the House, with a certain collaboration in the House, that it seems like there's a plan for how this is going to happen.
I'm glad to be able to get one more of our witnesses here. I wonder if the Conservatives, who mentioned a number of witnesses, want to suggest a priority witness on that list. Sometimes the art of Parliament is to know when the jig is up and to get as much done as one can in the circumstances. If there's a suggestion from the Conservative bench for a priority witness for them who might be invited to accompany the CLC at noon, that's something I would urge them to consider while there's still time. It sounds to me like the bill is heading to clause-by-clause consideration. It would be good to hear from more people in the time we have available.
I know free advice isn't always appreciated at these tables, so take it for what it's worth. We'll see if there's anything more to say.
Yes. You asked if the....
The problem with the amended motion is that Mr. Beech is now clarifying that this is just a friendly invitation. We want the witnesses here. That's what we're seeking in exchange for allowing the debate to terminate. We need the Auditor General here. This is a $7-billion addition to an already nearly $100-billion package. We need to hear from the Auditor General on where the previous expenditures have gone in order to vote on these new expenditures.
The Auditor General fortunately serves Parliament. The Auditor General does not just come here when he or she desires; the Auditor General comes to Parliament when Parliament requisitions him or her. We're seeking the Auditor General. We want the Auditor General here. For Conservatives to support going to a vote on the passage of this bill, we need the wording to be clear that the Auditor General will be here and testify before the bill is returned to the House of Commons. We are not prepared to support going to a vote until that is clearly worded in the motion.
We hope that arriving at that outcome is not overly time-consuming. We should all agree—this is actually a fairly easy thing to agree on—that if we're passing a piece of legislation of this magnitude, the Auditor General would come to comment. Mr. Fragiskatos has said that the Auditor General has produced reports on the predecessor programs and has cited the AG's work in order to bolster the case for the bill, so he should have no problem supporting that the AG will come, or someone very senior in the AG's office in the event that there is a health problem or that some incredible extenuating circumstance interrupts. We're not asking for something unreasonable here.
I see Mr. Beech; let's see if we can work this out.
I'll beg your pardon on this side, because there are some things here that I don't think we can.... Remember, we talked about blocking out the space here about when we get this stuff done.
Mr. Beech, in here you talk about “4 p.m. on Saturday” to receive the amendments. That's before we're going to hear any witnesses on the Monday. I think the input from these witnesses will be important, so I'm hoping we can say “6 p.m. on Monday” as opposed to “4 p.m. on Saturday” with regard to when we can submit amendments based on the testimony we've heard here.
I'd also like to mention this part of the motion: “d) that at 10 p.m. on Monday, December 13, every question necessary for the disposal of the said stage of the bill shall be put forthwith and successively without further debate or amendment”.
However, we're talking about amendments here, so is that a misprint, or an oversight, or...? I mean, we're talking about putting forth amendments here.
Then it's those two things—those two words...or “amendment”, and the date, this Saturday, to submit those amendments prior to hearing the witnesses. Can we change those, get the Auditor General in here and make sure we have the input we require on Monday?
Well, no, we're not. We still want to have the wording clarified, because it's not clear that we're getting the Auditor General before the bill passes. If it is simply a matter of inviting the Auditor General, we've already done that. It hasn't worked so far.
The Auditor General serves Parliament. We are a creature of Parliament. The Auditor General must be here to testify on this bill before it goes back to the House of Commons. We want wording in the motion that would clarify that, or we will not go to a vote, because there are many more things that need to be said in this debate.
As you know, Mr. Chair, this is not a time-limited debate, nor can members be interrupted when they're speaking on a motion like this. I think it would be in the best interests of all committee members that we come to a conclusion that is amicable and reach consensus instead of just ramming it through.
Right. I agree. Let's talk about that, then.
I want to thank the chair for reaching out to the Auditor General. I have to say that there was some confusion about why the Auditor General did not appear when invited earlier on.
That said, this committee obviously can't approve billions more in spending without reviewing the Auditor General's inquiries into earlier and similar spending. If the government really has confidence in the way the dollars were spent, it should have no concern about having the Auditor General appear here to testify on that spending.
The members across the way tell me that she is coming to this committee, but they are not prepared to put that in writing. This welcomes the question, “Why not?” Are we expecting a last-minute cancellation? If so, why wouldn't we just specify in the motion a little bit of flexibility so that rescheduling could occur?
We have already, as Conservatives, indicated that we would even welcome another senior official from the Auditor General's office. It's rather unusual to allow that, because the Auditor General is a servant of Parliament and normally parliamentary officers show up here in a heartbeat when they are invited by committees. I don't understand why, frankly, the AG hasn't already arrived and testified, having been invited. That is very peculiar. Actually, I've never seen it in my 17 years here, including several years on the public accounts committee, that being the committee to which the AG reports.
I also note that one of the conditions for Parliament granting the expeditious passage of the COVID emergency spending was that the Auditor General would audit all of that spending. We're now coming on two years since that condition applied. By the way, this committee was responsible for overseeing all of that, and we still haven't had the Auditor General come here to tell us her findings. Putting aside that this government is now asking us to pass another $7 billion of spending, which in and of itself has been rushed, it would have been normal business for the AG to come to testify regardless.
We're saying that you don't even have to do that. Bring a senior representative in her place if she's not available but, for God's sake, surely this committee can't approve yet $7 billion more without at least hearing from the auditor who is responsible for telling us how the previous $100 billion was spent. It's a very small request, actually, and I'm confused as to why this is even controversial. I'm not expecting that the government is going to agree with my fiscal policy. Obviously we have very different points of view. If the—
All right. Listen, we are somewhat perplexed as to why you guys won't put that in writing if the AG has put it in writing. I've never seen anything quite like this—being told that something is going to happen but being asked to do it on faith. We will accept it this time, but we're early in this Parliament, and if there is a breach of trust on something like this, I can assure the committee, as you all know, that it would cause this committee to devolve into unproductive chaos for the rest of this Parliament.
The only way things ever work on these committees is if there is some level of trust that when one party.... While we fight tooth and nail, when we make deals, we shake hands, we make commitments and we keep them to each other. That's how parliamentary committees—and, frankly, this place—actually get things done.
We will assume, as I have every reason to believe that Mr. Beech is acting honourably here and that you, Mr. Chair, are likewise, that the Auditor General will be here. If that doesn't happen, then it would be a tremendous breach of trust towards the committee by the government.