HALIFAX, TUESDAY, MAY 10, 2005
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE HOUSE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Daniel Graham
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. WILLIAM DOOKS: Mr. Chairman, at this time I call for the estimates of Community Services.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Are there any additional comments from the minister before I recognize the Leader of the Official Opposition?
The honourable Leader of the Official Opposition.
MR. DARRELL DEXTER: Mr. Chairman, I rise today to join the debate on the estimates for the Minister of Community Services. I have to say, I just listened to all the good news that the member for Cape Breton West was talking about, and I barely recognized what he had to say, because certainly in the Department of Community Services, there has been very little for people to be happy with. In fact, unfortunately, over the past number of years - and I'm not trying to be overly unkind - the reality is that this minister has made a shambles out of the Department of Community Services. His seeming unwillingness to understand that the people with whose charge he is placed demand from him and his department their respect. That's what has been absolutely clear from the Department of Community Services over the past number of years that this minister has been in the position that he's in.
Mr. Chairman, what is particularly kind of galling about the performance of the minister and what is particularly disheartening and saddening to the people who watch his performance is the way in which he treats them, in a disrespectful and cavalier attitude. He will do things, and we've all seen him do it in the House, he pulls out press clippings from times gone by and refers to little bits of information which he thinks somehow, bizarrely, justifies the position he takes.
While what is happening around the province and throughout this Chamber, people simply sit across the way and shake their heads at the inability of the minister to understand that the people in the department for which he is given the responsibility to administer are out there every day simply trying to survive, trying to get by, trying to provide for their families.
In many cases, they are the people who are dealing with some of the most severe difficulties that we have in society. They're dealing with addictions, they are dealing with personal tragedy, they are dealing with disabilities, they are dealing with mental health issues, and yet the best that this minister can do is to reach into his folder and pull out some yellowed old piece of newspaper from two or three years ago and quote, out of context, the words of one of the other members in the House. It is a spectacle, Mr. Chairman, that just ought not to be tolerated by the government.
We need to look at what they've actually done. I just want to go through some of the things that they have done. The provincial home repair program, this was to assist people with little or no means to repair their homes. They cut it by $1.5 million. These are low-income individuals. The maintenance of children in the care of the minister, this year they will cut that program by $4.5 million, with no explanation of where they're going to get the money, without seemingly a thought about what effect that's going to have on the staff who have to look after these children, the staff who are charged with the responsibility to see that they are appropriately placed and cared for.
Mr. Chairman, they cut the Non-Profit Housing Program by $100,000. They cut the Employment Support and Income Assistance staff by 18 full-time equivalents. Those are the staff people go to, at the entry point to Community Services. These are the people who come in to try to get assistance from the department. So what do they do? They cut the point-of-entry staff, so that the waiting lists and the times are longer and longer. Every single person in this Chamber knows this is true, and do you know why we know it's true? We know it's true because they are in our offices. That's where they come for help, that's where they come for assistance, because they can't get through the doors at the Department of Community Services to get the help that they need.
Some of the other things that they've done. They have frozen the return-to-work initiative at the 2003-04 levels. These are people who are presently on social assistance who are trying to get back to work. This fund was supposed to assist people by buying work boots and by assisting them in their struggle to get back to work. They froze that program.
They froze transition house operational funding at 2004-05 levels. Now, the transition houses in this province provide an incredible service in this province, from one end of the province to the other. They are there to assist women and children in need at the point where
they find themselves in crisis. They have been saying for a long time now that they are dramatically underfunded. Do they move to increase the funding to transition houses, the operational funding? No. I will say this, there is an additional amount of money in the budget, but that's only going to be allocated after their redesign is complete. Have they ever told anybody what their redesign is going to look like? No, it is a closely guarded secret.
We know that the predisposition of this government, in fact, is to cut the number of transition houses. That's what they said in one of their original budgets and you may remember, as I do, Mr. Chairman, the way that the Minister of Finance wilted under the pressure, the day-to-day pressure of the members of the Opposition in both Parties, who identified this as a travesty.
They froze the rent supplements at 2004-05 levels. They froze residential placements under Community Supports for Adults, Mr. Chairman, people with disabilities who are trying to get residential placements. Oftentimes these are people who have elderly parents, people who need support, and what do they do? They froze those, and those people are remaining, many times, in situations where although the people who are there love them very much, they just don't have the capacity to provide them with the kind of supports they need.
Income assistance, child care funding, frozen, Mr. Chairman. I just want to think about the way that this minister has dealt with that whole question of children and their kind of cavalier attitude, because you should know that this department gave out more in bonuses to the deputy minister and to managers than any other department or agency in 2003-04. This is at the same time that they managed to increase the personal use allowance for disabled and mentally ill persons in care by $10 in January 2006.
Mr. Chairman, Nova Scotia, right now, has had the highest increase in food bank use in Atlantic Canada, a 46 per cent increase since 1997, essentially over the time period that this minister has been in charge of his department. And 40 per cent of those people using food banks are children. It is the food banks that have become the growth industry in this province.
Mr. Chairman, they increased the food allowance for those on community services by $4 in October 2006, after pretty much a 10-year freeze. What did the Minister of Community Services have to say about that? What he had to say was, well, people could eat a lot of pasta or some cheap vegetables if they were going to live on an allowance of $6.05 a day. What kind of a response from a Minister of the Crown is that, to people who are struggling every day to get by? It's a shameful display.
They continue to watch while daycares around the province close or face financial uncertainty, and yet the minister will not commit to a province-wide early child care plan with the new federal child care money, something the minister could do but has refused to do. He moved 11 men out of the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre to a temporary shelter
at Sunrise Manor in 2001, a temporary shelter. Do you know where those people are today, Mr. Chairman? They are still in Sunrise Manor, they are still in that temporary facility.
He spent the province's share of the federal affordable housing money on rent supplements instead of actually creating more permanent housing for families and for people who need it. That's what they did. They could have actually built affordable housing, but instead they allowed the federal government to spend their money building the units and they're taking their share of that money and providing rent supplements that are going to go into the pockets of the developers of the projects. Then after 10 years, when the program comes to an end, there's no guarantee that the developers even have to provide continued affordable housing for the very people that program was set up to benefit.
Mr. Chairman, it's just a terrible situation. After commenting publicly that there were enough shelter beds to meet demands, he was forced to fund Pendleton Place after being challenged by the Salvation Army and other groups. There was the spectacle of the minister not understanding what the extent of the homelessness problem was. These are the people, after all, who he is charged with the responsibility of caring for. One of the things that we have raised over and over again is just to point out how out of touch the minister is.
I want to give one more quick example. People on social assistance who would like to take advantage of their academic abilities to try to build a stronger province by becoming a nurse or an engineer or by trying to advance their way from poverty into prosperity are told by this government, by this minister, if you decide that that's what you want to do, we will take away the benefits to your families. This minister says the Student Loan Program is an income-tested program, it's interest free and goes on for two years beyond graduation. He shows he has no understanding at all of what the Student Loan Program is actually all about.
Mr. Chairman, it is with those words, with respect to the minister's role in the Department of Community Services, that I make the following motion:
I so move that the resolution be amended by reducing the amount provided for net program expenses of the Department of Community Services by $42,463.42, an amount equal to the minister's salary less $1. (Applause)
MR. CHAIRMAN: The debate will continue on Supply.
The honourable member for Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley.
MR. BROOKE TAYLOR: Mr. Chairman, I'm wondering if I could be provided with a copy of that motion. (Interruptions)
MR. KEVIN DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. I guess there's a motion on the floor. I'm trying to get some clarification as to the Chair's position. My understanding and the precedent of this House that was set, I recall, back in 2000 on the Education estimates, a motion was moved by the member for Halifax Needham, and at that point in time we had the vote. The vote was called, the bells were rung and the vote was held at that point. That's my understanding of the precedent this House has set. That's the custom of this House. (Interruptions)
MR. BROOKE TAYLOR: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. I'm looking for some clarification, because my experience around the Legislature in committee is that we have an opportunity as Members of the Legislative Assembly to speak to the motion that's put before us. (Interruptions)
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MR. KEVIN DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I think it's important to note, for the member for Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, that some motions are debatable, some are not debatable. You, as chairman, have to decide whether (a) it's debatable, and (b) is the vote to be called immediately.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, the honourable member, to some extent, is correct, that you have to decide whether or not the motion is in order. I would suggest to you that even if the motion is in order, other members who wish to debate the estimates of the honourable member should be permitted to do so.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton South.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I will defer to my colleague on a point of order.
MR. KEVIN DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. The difference is we have a motion on the floor. I understand the rights of the members to speak on Supply debate if they wish, but that's on the actual debate. This is an amendment to the actual Supply motion that was presented on Community Services. You as the chairman have to decide if the motion is to be voted on immediately.
That would be my recommendation, because that's what was done in 2000. We have a precedent in this House of a vote being handled immediately. It was not a debatable motion, that was the decision of the chairman at the time. The member for Colchester-
Musquodoboit Valley was that person in the Chair at the time, and it was his decision at that point in time to say the precedent of this House is that we do not have a debate, we go immediately to a vote on that motion which is an amendment. Mr. Chairman, I say it is your job to make that decision right now.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, if, indeed, the motion is in order, and the motion is to amend the estimates of the Department of Community Services, then that should be debated at the end - I beg your pardon, the vote should be called on that motion at the end of the debate on the estimates. (Interruptions)
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. As I understand it, what the Opposition House Leader is asking for is that we proceed immediately to a vote on this particular issue. Am I to understand from this House that as House Leader for our Party and as a member of this Legislature, that I would not be allowed to debate a motion of such seriousness, that if it's deemed to be a motion of confidence that it would bring this House down? I think the least I should be able to do is give the opinion of our Party on that particular motion before the question is put to this House.
Failing that, if this House decides, by your ruling, Mr. Chairman, that this is not something that will come to a vote now, then I ask that our Party be given the opportunity to proceed and question the estimates of the Minister of Community Services, and also during that time give some indication as to how our Party feels about this particular motion. I'm awaiting a decision of the House as to whether or not this question is going to be called now. If it's determined it's called now, then, certainly, we should have an opportunity to have our say on this issue, before it comes to a vote.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes, it's my learned opinion that the debate will continue on the estimates.
The honourable member for . . .
MR. KEVIN DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. First of all, far be it from me to suggest how you should be doing the job, but I believe the Government House Leader specifically suggested that you have to decide whether this motion is in order. I'm assuming that is what you are saying (a); and (b) if it is in order, I ask you to look at the precedent that was set only five years ago, in this House, with regard to the fact that the motion - there was no debate, it went to a vote immediately.
I would suggest to you, as chairman, that you better have some precedent to explain, on the other side, as to why that decision does not follow the precedent of this House in 2000.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is in order, and it is debatable. It will be debated at the end of the estimates. A vote will be carried at the end of the estimates.
The honourable member for (Interruptions) At the end of the estimates, honourable member. (Interruptions)
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: At the end of Community Services or the entire . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: The entire estimates.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: The entire estimates? (Interruptions)
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. At the end of the estimates on Community Services, there's usually a motion of some sort put, as to whether or not we agree to report back this estimate. I need clarification as to whether the motion, in your mind, is to be done at the end of Community Services, when we move that, or is it done at the end of the estimates in total?
MR. CHAIRMAN: The estimates, honourable member, are always left open. When we stand the estimates, we hold them in abeyance until the end. That will be the case on this one as well.
The honourable member for Cape Breton South.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I'm not sure whether I understand exactly what's happening here in terms of the time frame for voting. I do know this, that I would have expected better from the NDP, in regard to what the NDP is attempting to do here today. I've listened to what the Leader of the NDP had to say, and I paid particular attention to his condemnation of the Minister of Community Services.
Mr. Chairman, I have to tell you that I agree with most everything he said, in regard to that department and to its minister; however, what I don't agree on is the NDP trying to bring this House down today without having to vote Yea or Nay on the budget next week. I think the NDP, today (Interruptions)
Well, why else, Mr. Chairman, would the NDP move a motion of confidence here today? (Interruptions) The Finance Minister says it's a motion of confidence.
MR. KEVIN DEVEAUX: Point of order. Point of order.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: I believe I'm speaking in estimates here . . .
MR. DEVEAUX: And I have a point of order.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: And we're talking about the estimates of the Department of Community Services.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. I want to clarify that the Liberal House Leader should understand that this was never a motion of confidence on our part, and I've heard no one say in this House that this is a motion of confidence. As far as I'm concerned, we never moved a motion of confidence. (Interruptions)
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. That is not true. The Government House Leader came to me within hearing distance of that member and said that this is a confidence motion, and if it passes, pack your bags. That's what the House Leader said today, and he said the Finance Minister also considers it a motion of confidence here today. (Interruptions)
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. This is a vote in estimates, in committee. It may or may not be a vote of confidence. However, when the estimates are referred to the House, there will have to be a vote if, indeed, this amendment passes. There will have to be a vote on the Appropriations Act as amended. There is no possible way that that is not a vote on a motion of confidence.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton South. The floor is yours.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, again, I guess we're debating the future of this minister while we're debating the estimates. I certainly agree with the NDP that I hope the future of that minister in this portfolio is not very long down the road. I will say, again, the NDP should have the courage of their convictions that if they don't like what this government is doing and want to bring down a minister, they can do it by voting against the budget. They can send a signal to Nova Scotians that they're not satisfied with this government, and instead of trying to backdoor the demise of this government, they should tell Nova Scotians when the budget comes to a vote how they feel about that minister, that minister's budget, and if they feel that strongly about that minister resigning and his salary being reduced, then they would have no recourse but to vote against the budget. I'm not debating the incompetence of this minister, except to say that the (Interruptions) You have the unique quality of taking words right out of my mouth.
Anyway, I want to read something for the record on estimates, here. I entitle it A Minister Out of Touch. On April 22nd, in this House, when we were debating education for people on assistance, this minister said to this House that it would be unfair to give single parents student loans as well as social assistance. Continuing with statements of the minister, talking about university access for single mothers on assistance: Why don't we address the
waiting list for affordable housing, is that not a better way to address the problem? At some point in the estimates, I'm going to ask him to explain that statement. And here's one that people should be interested in hearing, this was on November 9, 2004, and it talks about his concept of the issues: Homeless means you don't have a place to stay. That's what the minister said.
Homeless means you don't have a place to stay - I'd like him to explain that during the debate. On why people are homeless in this province, his answer was because they don't have a place to stay. That is a piercing glance at the obvious, Mr. Minister.
The other one, of course, that's now a famous statement is, in response to the amount of money that the Leader of the Official Opposition talked about giving out to people on social assistance, when asked about the rates, the minister said they should eat more pasta. That's the contempt that this minister shows for those in this province who are less fortunate than those in this House, and in some cases those in the gallery and those out on the street. That's the answer this minister gave, they should eat more pasta.
A minister out of touch, Mr. Chairman. I hope the Premier is listening to this, because if ever a government should be indicted for putting absolutely the wrong person in a portfolio in a Cabinet, it's this government and this person in that job, unless the government had an ulterior motive. If they didn't want to do anything for the people in this province who are in need, then they have the right person for the job. I have to ask the Premier and other members of the Executive Council and other MLAs, is that what this government set out to do? Is that what they wanted to do?
Today, in this particular department, Mr. Chairman, there are more bean-counters than social workers, there are more bill collectors than people charged with the responsibility of helping people in this province. I can remember the days when the Department of Community Services was filled with caring people, social workers who wanted to do the right thing for people, and had some leeway in how they dealt with people in trouble, financially, or people in trouble with Children's Aid problems or with homelessness or with other things that we take for granted every day of the week.
But none of this is happening in the Department of Community Services today. I'll tell you, Mr. Chairman, what is happening is that some constituents of mine are getting calls regularly, looking for money from the Department of Community Services, a collection agency. They've turned over accounts from people who had overpayments, some as long as 10 to 15 years, they're now turned over to collection agencies and to Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, and by extension to collection agencies, to try to bleed these poor people for money, and hounding them by phoning them each and every day of the week, looking for $50 a month or $100 a month on overpayments.
What are these overpayments? Well, these overpayments are caused by - I'll give you an example, a person who was on Community Services benefits and eventually, through a long process, gets Canada Pension Plan benefits, and they make them retroactive to give the person a head start. They may make them retroactive six months to a year. But guess what happens? The Community Services Department serves notice that they're going to claw back those retroactive awards, and immediately tells the recipient they now have an overpayment and they need to pay it back to the government.
So the recipient, who was getting $700-something a month - I believe $780 is the maximum, around there - is getting harassed by this government for repayment of an overpayment because of Canada Pension benefits awards. Now, I'm sure that members of the government don't realize that's happening, some of them, because if they did, how could they live with themselves? How could they live with themselves when a person who gets $700 a month and who's paying $500 a month for rent, and at the same time has an overpayment because of a Canada Pension Plan award that may have added up to a few thousand dollars, which they could pay some of the bills off that they owed, and the government is now hounding them for money?
Mr. Chairman, the other interesting issue here is that the Department of Community Services no longer gives discretion to front-line workers. We talked about the issue last week of the telephone. A telephone, I think, is a necessity today, but not according to this government. There are certain things today that we take for granted that are not available to people on community services, and the reason they're not available is that this minister thinks that people are on Community Services benefits because of their own fault. They're the ones who are guilty in his eyes, and should be treated as such. I've never seen such a right-wing performance in all my life in a Minister of Community Services, and I've seen a lot of ministers come and go.
I agree 100 per cent with the Leader of the Official Opposition when he says this minister has to go. I don't exactly agree with the method by which they tried to do that today, because I still think there's a bigger picture brewing here. I think the NDP are looking for a way to get rid of this crowd without having to actually come clean and vote against the budget. We're prepared to stand up next Monday night and vote our conscience, how our Party thinks on this budget, and it won't be because that minister is incompetent or that the Finance Minister is incompetent or anybody else over there is incompetent, it will be because we feel it's not a budget that's in the best interests of Nova Scotians. We won't try to disguise our feelings on that by trying to ram a motion through here today to defeat the government on reducing the appropriation of the Department of Community Services.
I'd like to see the Premier do the right thing, Mr. Chairman, and the right thing to do here is obviously to agree that the direction Community Services is heading in is the wrong direction. As a matter of fact, it has gone too far now. I'd like to see the Premier take this minister out of that portfolio and put somebody in there who really cares about people. The evidence is clear, day in and day out in the House and day in and day out in his office, that he's not the kind of person Nova Scotians should have in that portfolio. I don't have anything against the gentleman personally, but I think he has a feeling in this province that people are in trouble because of their own fault, it's nobody else's fault, it's their own fault. If they can't afford to eat properly, let them eat pasta.
Mr. Chairman, the situation has gotten so critical that we have the ridiculous spectacle of a federal-provincial agreement on housing being signed two and a half years ago, which called for 1,500 homes in the province to be constructed. I think we may be up to a few hundred by now, most of them in the planning stage, some built. And the agreement runs out in a couple of years. Those are 50-cent dollars. The problem is that affordable housing for people in Nova Scotia is not a priority of this government. If it were a priority, the government would commit the 50-cent dollars of that $32 million project immediately so that we could get on with building affordable housing, instead of looking after their friends who are operating slums throughout this province, some of them down in my area, forcing people into slum housing, paying $500, $600, $700 a month for rat traps.
That's what's happening all over the province, because of that minister's inability to get on with that program, and also that minister's uncaring attitude towards those who need affordable housing. The housing authorities in this province need more money. They need more money to fix up their units. They should be given a mandate to develop more units, instead of driving people to slum landlords. This program is not going to use up all the federal-provincial money that's available because the clock is ticking on this, and we're going to have a situation where time is going to run out.
The minister sat in this House and never said a word when questioned as to why a Halifax Regional Councillor making $50,000 a year could access one of these homes that I believe was either a two-bedroom or a three-bedroom home under that program. She had no dependant, except I believe a cat, two cats. But she got a unit. There are people, Mr. Minister, in my riding with five kids, single moms who can't get a housing unit, and you sat there in this House and allowed that to happen. You sat there and did not even try to justify why your department allowed that HRM Councillor - I don't blame the HRM Councillor, if she's lucky enough to get a unit like that, fine, but surely to heavens there are people more deserving in this province than a Halifax Regional Councillor who's single, to get a housing unit that's designed for affordable housing for families in this province.
I hope that I'm not the only one who thinks that's a problem. I hope that I'm not the only one who thinks this government has lost its way when it comes to spending the federal-provincial monies that are made available for affordable housing in this province. We should
have 1,500 units up and running right now, Mr. Minister, if you were doing your job. The federal government put the challenge on the table to you, and you dropped the ball on this issue.
Mr. Chairman, I want to go back to the situation, again, with how this government is treating people in Nova Scotia. Not only do we have the spectacle of the Minister of Community Services allowing his department to harass people for repayments, I've written the minister on a number of occasions regarding situations where people were living on $700, $750 a month and they've been harassed, and they've actually been harassed to the point where they can't sleep because of operatives from Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations - and I know of a couple in particular, and I'll be generous today, I won't mention their names - but they must be on a quota system, because they're calling up and harassing people for money and telling them that if they don't get the money - now, remember, Mr. Minister, these are people living on $700 a month, and they're asking them for $100 a month - they're going to turn it over to a collection agency.
We've had the spectacle where Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations couldn't get anywhere with them on it, so now we get a collection agency out of Toronto calling these people and harassing them for money. These are people are social assistance. I wonder how many people in Toronto are calling big business in this province that are in default of their loans with the government, and harassing them every day to pay those monies back? Maybe the government can tell me that the big companies that we're giving millions to, they're getting harassed as well. Are they? I don't think so.
But I do know this, the people who are on minimal income in this province are getting harassed on a daily basis. Shame on that department, and shame on anybody who is working in that department who allows this to happen. It should not be. Mr. Minister, as I said to you before, those accounts should be written off. I believe in one letter I said to you it's like trying to get blood from a stone. This poor lady has $750 a month coming in, she owes about $6,000 in back Canada Pension Plan payments, has no hope of ever paying it, and you guys are spending more on phone calls and letters to her than eventually the account is going to be worth, because you're not going to get any money out of it. You know you're not going to get any money out of it, yet you're making this woman's life miserable. Not only one person, but hundreds of people throughout this province are in that predicament.
I've never, up until the last five or six years, heard of a case in Community Services - Mr. Minister, you can laugh all you want over there. You can laugh all you want and when you're finished laughing, I'll continue. That's why, Mr. Chairman, this minister should not be in that job. I'm talking about a poor person in this province making $700 a month being harassed, and that minister is laughing at me. That's what you have going on in this province, the uncaring attitude of this government when it comes to people less fortunate than we are.
Mr. Chairman, I want to move on a bit, and then maybe, before my hour is up, I might allow the minister to speak. I hesitate to do that, because I'm tired of listening to this minister waxing eloquent about all the wonderful things he's doing at Community Services, because I can't identify any yet. It would only be a repeat. (Interruptions) Yes, sure.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Justice.
HON. MICHAEL BAKER: Mr. Chairman, I'd like to rise on an introduction. I thank the honourable member for yielding the floor to me just for a moment. We have with us in the gallery today a number of distinguished visitors from Lunenburg County to watch the proceedings here at the Legislature. These are members of the board and staff of the LaHave Manor, an adult residential centre, located in Dayspring, Lunenburg County. Here with us today - and I hope I have everyone's name - is the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Maria Devries; we have Councillors Arthur Young and Diane Tanner; we also have with us Helen Corkum, Ellen Burt, Stephen Black, Joanne Wentzell-Vardy and Rick Hebb. I'd like to ask members of the House to give them a warm welcome today as they watch the proceedings here. It seems quite appropriate they're watching the proceedings of the Minister of Community Services. I thank the honourable member for yielding the time. (Applause)
MR. CHAIRMAN: Indeed, welcome to all our visitors in the gallery today.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, to the Justice Minister, I do want to apologize, I just read your note now. I didn't want to make you wait that long.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I'll remind all members to please direct any requests for introductions through the Chair.
The honourable member for Cape Breton South, you have the floor.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I'll just continue. There are some Small Options Program questions that I'd like to ask the minister as well. If his staff over there could jot them down, maybe the minister could respond to them after. I'm sure he'll want some time to respond to what I've said up to date. However, before I do that, I wish that the minister would actually, before the estimates are finished, agree with me that people on social assistance shouldn't be harassed for repayment of monies legitimately given to them through Canada Pension or the Workers' Compensation Board, because in that way what's happening here is the government is telling these people that the amount of benefits they received was only a loan.
It wasn't assistance, and you have to pay it back when you do get a retroactive payment, instead of allowing the person to climb out of the desperation they're in financially, instead of allowing that to happen, they want to claw back all the money they got from Community Services. Community Services should not be a money-making institution for the
government. It should not be a bill collection institution for the government. I say again, people on community services should at least be treated as fairly as people running big business in this province who owe the government money. That would be fine with me, but that doesn't seem to be happening.
The most vulnerable among us are being preyed on by the current Department of Community Services, whether it's housing, whether it's affordable education. I introduced a bill here - Mr. Minister, you know that - asking for some consideration for people to attend a four-year program at university and not have their benefits cut off. Do you know what's happening here? If a person even applies for a student loan to go to a post-secondary institution, they're cut off community services the day they apply, not the day they get it, the day they apply. So people are being discouraged from improving their education status, because there's no incentive. As a matter of fact, it is a disincentive to get them off community services.
I don't know who dreams up these programs or who the architects are of these draconian measures that are presently very much in evidence in that department. I'm sure there are some social workers in that department who are very upset about the direction this department is going in. It's not a department that services people anymore. I've said before, the discretion of social workers is very limited now. There used to be a time in this department, Mr. Minister, when, if a situation warranted it, the people involved in that case could react and react positively, or set aside a bill or an obligation that person owed the department, for an overpayment, because they simply couldn't pay it.
Instead of that, they turn it over to a collection agency and harass the people until they're crying themselves to sleep every night. That's happening. One woman told me if she doesn't pay it, she might have to go to jail. That's how afraid she is. In this day and age, in the year 2005, somebody making $8,500 is told they have to pay a bill back to Community Services, that's terrible. That is absolutely the most draconian measure I've seen yet coming out of that department. There has to be a change.
I think we have to go back to the days when social workers ran that department, Mr. Minister. I think we have to go back to those days. It would be interesting to find out what the ratio between bean-counters and social workers are in the Department of Community Services today. Social workers, I believe, have a role to play here that I believe is being diminished by this department.
I know that at one time a person on community services was a person they knew by name, and they knew the financial circumstances of that person and they could react to the individual person and their circumstances. Today it's all on the computer, they're all numbers, they roll it out, and if you can't fit the glove, then that's too bad. If you get an
overpayment because of Canada Pension benefits paid to you, then you have to pay that loan back. When did providing community services so people could live, eat, pay rent, send their children to school become a loan?
I thought, in our just society, that we looked after people who were less fortunate than ourselves, that we actually tried to improve the lives of people who were less fortunate than ourselves, that we actually would think that it might be a good idea to send a single mom to university, who has children, and look after those children in daycare and give her sufficient funds while she pursues her degree, and the eventuality would be that she gets off the public assistance system and becomes a taxpayer and becomes a citizen who is contributing to our society, raising her children in a better standard of living. That's not happening.
Do you know what it's all about? It's all about money. The government doesn't feel they should enter into a four-year program because it costs twice as much as a two-year program, but they've never adequately explained to me why they would allow somebody to go to a two-year program and access some assistance when they can't go to a post-secondary four-year program. Also, when a single mother with four or five children has to access a student loan for a four-year program, she's cut off social assistance, she has to use part of that student loan to live while she's going to school. Then, when she gets out of university, she owes $20,000, $30,000, $40,000. Is that fair? The government hasn't addressed that.
I'm saying to you, Mr. Chairman, that this government has not paid any attention to the housing needs of people in need in this province, they haven't paid any attention to the educational needs of people in this province, they haven't addressed the horrendous problem of student loan debt in this province, which keeps going up and up, and people who are fortunate enough to get a student loan will never have the opportunity to see themselves out of debt. Something has to be done about that. I believe the Minister of Community Services has dropped the ball on all those issues.
Mr. Chairman, the Minister of Community Services doesn't see the problem. He says it would be unfair to give single parents student loans, as well as social assistance. Hello! What would be unfair about that? He says, talking about university access, why don't we address the waiting lists for affordable housing, well, you're not doing that either. That was a cop-out, because not only are you not giving assistance to single mothers on assistance, you're not doing anything about the affordable housing issue.
And, of course, homelessness means that people don't have a place to stay, that's what you said, Mr. Minister. What a piercing glance at the obvious. The reason they're homeless is they don't have a place to stay. I would have suspected that you might have tried to address it this way, we have homeless people in this province and we're going to try to solve that problem by giving them a place to stay. And, of course, the rates that the Leader of the Official Opposition talked about, a $4 increase or an $8 increase or something, and his
answer to that was, well, if they can't get by on that, let them eat more pasta. Quite an answer from the Minister of Community Services.
Last Winter it came down to a decision, people on community services who I know, they either didn't eat or they froze, one or the other, in apartments. We have to have more affordable housing, Mr. Minister, in a hurry, in this province. We have to address the needs of those people who are less fortunate than us. And there's one particular group that I think I've written you about more than anybody, and that's the single mothers with dependent children who are struggling. Another group is the disabled who are struggling in this province.
Let me refer back, again, to the collusion between Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations and Community Services in trying to extract monies from people who can't afford to pay monies to Community Services. Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, I thought, was a department that would service the needs of Nova Scotians, not a bill collection agency. There are a couple of people from that minister's department who are harassing people on a regular basis. I think that, if nothing else, has to stop. At least I can say that the Minister of Community Services, his part in this charade is just to turn the names over to Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, the ones who are doing the harassing here, for the most part.
The Premier had talked earlier about this government falling, perhaps by accident. It won't be by an accident that this government is going to fall, the reason is it's going to be because of people in Nova Scotia getting fed up with what has been happening here, when this government can boast of a budget surplus this year but yet not look after people on community services adequately, that's one. Two, the Government of Nova Scotia has not paid any attention to the federal-provincial agreements on housing, because if they had there would be announcements of up to 1,500 housing units under construction or completed by now, two and a half years after the agreement was made. We are nowhere near that, we're light years away from those numbers, because this government doesn't consider their 50-cent dollars in this program to be a priority.
There are units in Cape Breton that are falling down, and yet there are a number of people well-known to this government who are operating slums in our area and other areas, and they're filled with people on community services, because those people can't get into a public housing unit and have nowhere else to go.
So, Mr. Chairman, it's not going to be by accident or the motion that was put today by the NDP to avoid the budget issue, it's going to be because Nova Scotians are being picked off by this government and are eventually going to be adversaries of this government, because we see it happening more and more each day. The government tries to disguise the fact they're responsible, yet the debt of this province keeps going up and up, even though the Premier said it wouldn't go up, but it is going up. And while the debt is going up, they're
bragging about a surplus. Well, if they're bragging about a surplus, Mr. Minister, how much money are you getting out of that surplus to help those in need in this province?
Part of the surplus or the majority of it came forward as a result of $50 million in exploration permits being turned back to the province, because the oil and gas industry has abandoned ship. It has taken off out of here. So that was put on the surplus, monies that were returned in exploration permits. Nobody highlighted that when they talked about the surplus. The Finance Minister didn't get up and say, because all these people left the province and returned their permits, we've got all this money. Nobody said anything about the $20 million the government put into Sysco this year, even though the place is closed. We heard a member earlier today talking about the waste of Sysco. Well, at least we kept 800 people working. The government put $20 million in this year and the place is closed, to make their bottom line look good. The place is closed.
Would the member for Cape Breton West rather the 800 people who were working there before, would he suggest that today is a better situation, where the government is spending millions on their friends, the contractors, and putting $20 million in there this year to make the bottom line of Sysco look good? That's his problem, if he can justify that to the steelworkers in his area, that's fine.
Mr. Minister, I had a call from a local organization with respect to the budgeting process for small options homes, and I want to get into that for a few moments. I indicated to them that I would be asking a few questions on their behalf, and questions that we're concerned about and interested in ourselves. I believe that as I ask these questions, you can answer them or you could wait until I finish asking all of them, that's up to you. I'll allow you the opportunity to answer them one by one or all of them.
The first question they want to know and I want to know is, how many clients are presently receiving care in small options facilities under the services for Persons with Disabilities Program? Maybe you might want to answer that question, Mr. Minister.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Community Services.
HON. DAVID MORSE: Mr. Chairman, with regard to the last question, approximately 3,000 in total in the Persons with Disabilities Program. I thank you for the chance to get to my feet, and I'll address some of your other concerns and the concerns of the Leader of the Official Opposition.
First of all, there was an interesting performance put on here by the Leader of the Official Opposition to start off the estimates today. I would suggest to that honourable member that when you get up here and you spend about 15 minutes attacking the character of a person in this House without backing it up with substance, it probably says something about either the operation of the department or your understanding of the operation of the
department. I really appreciate good debate in this House, and there has been some good debate in this House. As I made reference to earlier in Question Period, with regard to the member for Dartmouth North, some of the debate that he brought forward in last year's estimates in fact made a difference in the way that we evaluated affordable housing projects, as to whether we would approve them.
I really appreciate the chance to get up and talk on things of substance. I think that Nova Scotians, generally, would prefer us to speak on things of substance here, as opposed to personal attacks on character. However, it's not my time when the Opposition member gets up. If the Leader of the Official Opposition feels that's an appropriate way to use his time, then he is certainly able to do so. The Leader of the Official Opposition also made reference to my habit of tabling information, newspaper articles, quoting people in the past, and I have one here that I would like to table, and actually it deals with that member, when he was running to be the Leader of the NDP. It's interesting, it has six points that he spoke about, and none of them had anything to do with the clients served by the Department of Community Services. Yet, today he gets up here and has made quite a number of suggestions about this government and my own performance as minister.
I would suggest that back on March 7, 2002, none of the things that we had done in the Department of Community Services, such as increasing the basic personal allowance, the Affordable Housing Programs, the Community Supports for Adults Renewal Project, and the new programs that have come out of that, none of that was even on his radar screen until it was done by this government. I would like to table this, and I also want to put on the record that there has probably been no Leader of the NDP who has done less for the people served by the Department of Community Services by virtue of making it a priority in that Party's platform. In the election platform last time, it was non-existent. It's not lost on the advocacy groups. They do not appreciate it, and they have shared that with me.
So while he may have a lot of interesting things to say about the Department of Community Services, our government and, indeed, me personally, I think he should look at his own track record. He speaks about cuts. The Official Opposition critic, yesterday, got up and spoke of that, and I pointed out to her that in fact last year the Department of Community Services came out with a $28 million increase in its net budget, which was the second-largest increase for any of the departments after Health, and this year, with a $22 million net increase, it is the third-largest. Those are substantial increases.
So when he speaks of cuts, perhaps he should go back to the Estimates Book, and these are the estimates. I think it would help guide his criticism and perhaps direct him in a more constructive direction. Again, he makes a few allegations that were, quite frankly, bewildering to my staff here, who spend their time tracking the performance within the department. To be perfectly blunt, they didn't know what he was talking about. So I just want
to get on the record that there was not a great deal of credibility in some of the allegations that the Leader of the Official Opposition was making about the department.
Specifically, there are two that I'd like to touch on, and it's with regard to affordable housing. He was talking about a freeze in the rent supplement, which is in fact a very effective and efficient way of providing affordable housing to low-income Nova Scotians, those in greatest need. It is shown in the estimates as $2.6 million, and that has been steady. What he's missing is that the increases under the Affordable Housing Program, which is where the province is making some of its contribution, as our 50 per cent share, a lot of those rent supplements are in there. Year over year, the increase is $7.55 million to $10.3 million, which most people would agree is a fairly significant increase, somewhere in the vicinity of 30 per cent. You can see that on Page 4.4 of the Supplementary Detail.
Again, it's good to always bring a little bit of substance to these debates. He also made mention of bricks and mortar, as indeed did the member for Cape Breton South, as not being the way we have chosen to invest provincial monies in the Affordable Housing Program. In actual fact, the member for Halifax Clayton Park was also making reference to her disapproval. In essence, they were both advocating for bricks and mortar as the way to go, that means building new public housing units. Actually, Mr. Chairman, it's interesting. I've got an article here from the C.D. Howe Institute that talks about this. It says that, ". . . a dollar of spending on social housing produces 37 cents of housing . . .", that means if you invest in bricks and mortar, you get about a 37 per cent return over the long run, ". . . while the same dollar would have produced 85-to-90 cents of housing with allowances." - in other words, rent supplements.
So this is two and a half times more efficient, and in fact the provincial-territorial Housing Ministers were lobbying our federal counterpart to consider this. I'm pleased to say that after some persistence on our part, the federal government is also now recognizing that that is possibly a better way of delivering affordable housing than the traditional bricks and mortar. I would be happy to also table this.
One of the quotes that the Opposition Parties have used with reference to my empathy for people who are on social assistance or low income is with reference to a comment that I made about a year ago when we finally increased the basic personal allowance, the amount people are expected to live on for food and clothing, their basic personal effects. It had been frozen for a very long time, and through no initiative or encouragement from the Opposition, we increased it from $180 a month - which is not enough - to $184, and this year it has gone to $190. I would expect that as long as I'm minister, it will continue to go up every year, and as long as John Hamm is Premier. (Applause)
The suggestion is that this comment about eating pasta was somehow or other perhaps not respectful of our clients. In actual fact, Mr. Chairman, the comments were attributed to my own family. About 15 years ago I had a business that was growing rapidly.
It depended on the coast, the fishery basically, because I distributed, with my, eventually, four staff, music to smaller communities throughout Atlantic Canada. We did mail order, I went around, and I solicited accounts. When the collapse of the fishery came, I was loathe to react promptly and lay off staff, which in retrospect was probably a mistake. I tried to hold onto the staff, and things were pretty tight. We had just had our fifth child. My wife was either on maternity leave or back to school. We learned about things, like having powdered milk and mixing it with whole milk, and we ate pasta.
In fact, when a friend of ours had some tomatoes that were not suitable for harvest in the field because they weren't quite as aesthetically pleasing, we were quite pleased to go out and mix that in with the pasta. We probably had pasta every second night. You know, we did just fine, Mr. Chairman. We were a close-knit family. In the evenings we found things to do, like go down and play ball with my children in the summertime, and in wintertime perhaps we'd go to the local skating rink outdoors. It made us stronger.
But the reference to pasta, when you mocked me about my comments to pasta, you are mocking a difficult time that my family went through financially. I would allow Nova Scotians to judge whether that's the sort of behaviour they want from their elected representatives, making fun of people who have made difficult choices in order to support their families. I was in that position. One of the ways that we addressed it was to eat pasta, another way was that my children couldn't drink all the liquid milk that they'd like to drink, we had to mix it with powdered milk. Obviously there were other steps that had to be taken.
So while these Opposition members may think that it's funny that I made that statement, I'm quite proud of the way that we came through this, and we would do it again. That may possibly temper their remarks in the future, but I leave that up to them.
I want to say that the member for Cape Breton South does care about his constituents. I know that because he's a former social worker, and he writes me. He sticks up for his constituents and sometimes we are able to help them, and sometimes we're not able to help them. There are other members in the room from all sides of the House who care about their constituents, it's pointed out to me, but I'm just acknowledging the member for Cape Breton South, who made some comments about our practices about trying to address overpayments. Overpayments are often caused because people have a disability, they have no other means of support. Unfortunately they may not have any form of disability insurance, and after their employment insurance runs out - or in the case of a proprietor, they may not even have employment insurance - they are without.
Unless they get some support from somebody, there's no way they're going to be able to care for their families or themselves, even if they're a single person. So this is where the Department of Community Services steps in and will make advances against the possibility that they may be approved for Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefits. We do that in good faith. If they're turned down Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefits, they owe us nothing
for the advance. However, if they do pay them, and it would be retroactive to when they first applied for CPP, of course we expect them to pay back their advance. We do this based on a schedule of their ability to pay.
If they are no longer a client of the Department of Community Services, they go to Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, but as the member for Cape Breton South, I think, would acknowledge, if they still do not have the means to make regular payments, that is certainly taken into consideration with their payment schedule.
I would also like to point out that caseworkers are the front line and they are the backbone of the Employment Support and Income Assistance system, whether it's an employment support worker who's trying to help clients overcome barriers to employment so they can start a career, possibly obtain that degree they need to get a job or a diploma, maybe it's high school, they have discretion, as do the income assistance caseworkers. When it comes to our special needs, I think if anybody was to look at them, those are the ones which are really a measure of their discretion. There's no question, those caseworkers are in a position within policy to help those most vulnerable Nova Scotians who may be clients of the Department of Community Services.
Another interesting thing that I'm going to speak to before I sit down is I sort of get a charge out of the member for Cape Breton South. He is a pretty good performer here in the House, and I say that out of the greatest respect. We have a job to do here, and his job is to get up and to make his points. Sometimes I think he may embellish them a little bit, but that happens in the House. He made reference to the Affordable Housing Program, which is interesting to me, because as the Department of Community Services Critic, which includes Housing, last year he wrote a letter to the editor that was extremely critical of the fact that we were not getting the job done. He made quite a number of suggestions in his letter, he used some numbers about how far we had gotten in implementing the program, and this was after the Fall sitting of the Legislature.
Normally I don't respond to letters from Opposition members, but in this case I did respond to the two newspapers in the province that published his letter, including his own, and they both published mine. I pointed out that in the Fall sitting of the Legislature that member, in fact all members of this House were given an update on where we were with the Affordable Housing Program, how we were using the rent subsidy approach, and how many units were built, how much of a commitment had been made from the federal-provincial dollars and other dollars that we were able to leverage as a result of this program.
It was interesting that the numbers he was claiming, after having been given this information, were so far off the actual numbers. He was given the actual numbers, and what I would say is that while he writes a pretty good letter, if he did a little research, reading what was actually given to him, he would write an even better letter. He also made reference here today about the Affordable Housing Program, making reference to the fact it's a $32 million
program. Again, it's good to see that the member for Cape Breton South is interested in affordable housing. I think every member in this Chamber shares that concern, and certainly my staff at the Department of Community Services.
I have good news for the member, Phase I of the program was actually $37.26 million. So it's more than the $32 million he spoke of here, and we've since signed a Phase II, which adds another $18-odd million to it. So we're somewhere up in the area of $56 million. If the member would like to know the exact amount, I'd be happy to provide that to him. So that should be good news for the member for Cape Breton South. I appreciate his interest in affordable housing, and what he has learned here today, that in fact we've almost gotten double the commitment to affordable housing as what he suggested in the House, so I'm sure that he'll be very pleased with that information. I hope the debate goes forward in a constructive fashion, and that we can now focus on matters of substance in the department.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Richmond. There's five minutes remaining.
MR. MICHEL SAMSON: Five minutes, well, isn't that lots of time. Hopefully my questions will require much briefer answers from the minister. That was a bit of a long one. Apparently the minister wishes to remain in estimates for an extended period of time, with those kinds of answers. Let me be briefer, Mr. Chairman.
I've had the opportunity to write to the minister on behalf of constituents, and I specifically want to thank the deputy minister, who has certainly been extremely helpful on a number of very sensitive matters. I was extremely impressed with how they were dealt with. I've always spoken well of Wayne Bona, the supervisor at the St. Peter's Community Services office, and his staff who do their best to work with a limited budget.
One of the issues I want to raise in my short amount of time is on the issue of what's commonly known as grants for home improvements. This is certainly an issue with seniors who are trying to remain in their homes, for low-income families, and it's to the point where funding has been cut so much in this that what has happened is that they're only making money available for emergency situations. Even worse, what has happened with the reduction of funding is the cap for income has continually lowered; not lowered in a good way, lowered in the sense that if you make any more than, I think it's between $19,000 and $20,000 as a couple, you're considered over-income for a housing grant.
Mr. Chairman, if we are going to allow Nova Scotia communities to remain viable for seniors to remain in their homes, we have to address that cap. I believe there have been some announcements between the federal government and the provincial government regarding this program. My question to the minister is, could you indicate, is your department
moving on that income cap, the idea being that cap is going to go up, meaning that more families are able to qualify rather than the current cap which means anything over $19,000, $20,000 you're over-income? I don't think anyone in this province or anyone in this House believes that someone making more than $20,000 is well off or should be considered over-income for any government program. So my question to the minister is, could he briefly tell us, is there going to be a move on that cap that is currently in place?
MR. MORSE: I want to thank the member opposite, first of all for your comments about my staff. That's very important to me. They do hear the comments here in the Chamber, and it does make a difference. I appreciate the positive approach that you have brought to this debate, honourable member. I would also like to add that you are diligent in pursuing the interests of your constituents, and I find you to be most reasonable in your approach. It's a little non-partisan comment about the way that you conduct yourself, and it probably has something to do with the reason why you've won three elections.
To answer your question (Interruptions) Mr. Chairman, I think some of the other members in the room take some amusement from my comments about the dedication of the member for Richmond, but I stand by my comments and enjoy the jostling that he's getting as a result of them.
To answer your question, we are concerned about increasing the income thresholds for people who are applying for SCAP, the Senior Citizens Assistance Program, and the Provincial Housing Emergency Repair Program. The former being for seniors, the latter being for families. We do want to increase the threshold so that more people can access them. But there have been no cuts. We've not further restricted the access. Your point, I think, honourable member, is that we should be increasing them, and it is our intention to do so.
MR. MICHEL SAMSON: Mr. Chairman, I'm not saying there are cuts, but there's a lack of funding in that particular program, and when there's a lack of funding in anything, we know what immediately happens, the qualification for that changes because of the fact that there is a lack of funding. That's not just in this program, we've seen it in other government programs. That's a reality, when the funding goes down, the criteria change as to who can qualify, as a result.
My question, again to the minister, in light of the funding that's in place and some of the new federal dollars coming in, can we expect that the current limit - I believe it's around $20,000 - to qualify for one of these grants will be changed?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired. I'll allow a quick answer.
MR. MORSE: Honourable member, what you're asking about is funding for SCAP,
PHERP, and one of the ways we tried to address this was making that a priority last year with the strategic infrastructure monies in November. We put an extra $2.7 million in there. We are trying to lower the waiting list to address those outstanding legitimate applicants. You're quite right, when you increase the caps to let more people in, it's going to put more pressure on the program.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Sackville-Cobequid. Before you begin, I wonder if you would allow for an introduction?
MR. DAVID WILSON (Sackville-Cobequid): Yes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley on an introduction.
MS. MARILYN MORE: Mr. Chairman, I'd like to make two introductions. In the west gallery we have Yvonne Atwell, who's a former member of this Legislative Assembly for Preston, and we also have Mary Rothman, who's the Executive Director for the Nova Scotia Association for Community Living. I ask my colleagues in Committee of the Whole House on Supply to give them a warm welcome. (Applause)
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Sackville-Cobequid. The floor is yours.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Sackville-Cobequid): Mr. Chairman, it's an honour to stand today and make some comments, especially around the housing issues in our province. As the Housing Services Critic for our Party, it has been an interesting 18, 19 months since my election and being given the portfolio of Housing in this province. Housing in Nova Scotia and the need for affordable housing has been on the increase for many years now. It's my understanding that the federal government got out of affordable housing initiatives many years ago, downloaded it on to the province, and then realized, I think, the error in their ways and the need to address the affordable housing needs across the country.
This isn't something that's just a problem in Nova Scotia. I've spoken to many colleagues of mine, many people from different provinces that have the same problems we see here in Nova Scotia when it comes to affordable housing. What people really need in this province is a strong commitment from this government to address the needs of what I would say our most vulnerable residents in the province require: safe, adequate, clean housing to bring up their families or to spend their golden years in.
I must say since being elected and having the portfolio of Housing Services, I'm amazed at how many of the needs of Nova Scotians who are in the situation of trying to depend on government to provide this necessity for them have gone really unanswered for
many years. There are a lot of problems in this province, especially around our public stock. I think in the Nova Scotia Housing Development Corporation Business Plan 2005-06 it even states, I think it's around 64 per cent of our public housing is 25 years or older. I've gone to many of these dwellings throughout Nova Scotia, as the Housing Services Critic, but I've been in them over the last 10 years in my former profession. I must say it's a scary sight at times.
There's public stock that the province owns that is in dire need of repair, not only physical structure repair but there are issues about mould, mildew, about air quality - a big one that I've heard a lot about, especially in some of our senior complexes throughout this province. A lot of them were built back in the early 1970s or mid-1970s. It's funny, when these seniors come to me with their stories of how they feel and their health conditions when they're living in the residence that they live in, these individuals say they go for a trip, they go away for a month, they go visit another relative in another part of the country or go down South, if they're fortunate enough to have the revenue for that, and they tell me how they feel so much better when they get out of their seniors' complexes, when they get out of the dwellings they're living in. They realize what an impact their environment has on their health.
I remember a story from one senior who told me he just went to visit his kids for the weekend, over the Christmas holidays. He lived down in the Windsor area and went to Cape Breton for the weekend. He couldn't believe - and it had been a few years since this senior had left that residence - the difference in this breathing. He did have some health issues pertaining to his respiratory system, but he said it was like he walked onto a different planet, it was amazing. He said it was amazing to feel that he could breathe better. It wasn't two days later, when he returned home after his vacation, that he realized that it would have to be his environment that was causing some of the problems he has.
Mr. Chairman, that's just one of the stories. I've witnessed and been told many times over the last 18 months about the air quality and the mould and the mildew that's seen in some of these residences. A lot of these buildings were built before the specs we see today in the Building Codes, where there's a need to provide air systems to ventilate each room. I don't know if government is going to address those needs. I will get to those questions later on, hopefully, about maintenance and repair to some of the public stock in our province.
It just shows that with the agreements we've seen signed in this Affordable Housing Agreement with the federal government that an emphasis is needed on repair to our public stock. It's amazing to see the announcements that have gone out. I've been to many of the announcements with the minister, and read a lot of the figures and the money and the number of units that the government of this province wants to address with this Affordable Housing Agreement, but the sad thing is if we left today and the minister and I walked out of this Chamber and I asked him to take me to a new construction site for a new unit that was provided under this agreement, there aren't that many, Mr. Chairman.
I know the minister will stand up and quote about all the subsidies that are coming for rent subsidies and the units they're going to address but, seriously, if we walked out of here, there would be a dozen or two dozen units that we could go to. That's not just an issue for us, Mr. Chairman, it's an issue throughout the country. When it comes to rent subsidies and the choice of government, especially our provincial government, the choice for them to really commit the majority of our commitment with the Affordable Housing Agreement to rent subsidies, the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association and the University of Toronto researchers agreed that rent subsidies alone are not effective, and they must be paired with construction of more affordable housing units and an increase in public stock.
The concern we have is with the announcements of several of the agreements and contracts that the government has announced over the last year or so, when it comes to rent subsidies, is with the private developers. We feel that this isn't going to benefit the people who are in need right now of affordable housing, it's not going to benefit the people tomorrow who need affordable housing, and it definitely isn't going to affect the people in 10 years when the majority of these contracts mature, when they're in need of affordable housing.
That's where we, and I as Housing Services Critic, have many questions. It's about, what are we going to do in 10 years? Is the commitment from this government on addressing affordable housing just a short-term solution? From all indications, from the agreements that we've seen, the contracts that the government has gone into, you might say or the minister might say that 10 years is a long-term commitment, but I don't think it is. When you look at if there's an individual who's today receiving benefits under social assistance, who maybe will qualify for rent subsidies, is trying to get back to university, trying to educate themselves, trying to go back to school and hopefully better themselves, it's going to take several years for them just to get over that hump, and maybe several years just for them to try to figure out avenues for them to attempt to better themselves and try to get back to hopefully entering a university.
I know there are several pieces of legislation that our Party has brought forward concerning funding, especially towards individuals in this province who are on social assistance and trying to return to post-secondary education, especially those courses that are three-, four-, five-year programs. So, as I was saying, the concern we have is that in 10 years, where are we going to be? Are we going to be left with an even worse situation than we see today? I would hope the minister would agree that it's definitely time that the government needs to address these issues, because I've witnessed over my career just deplorable conditions throughout HRM. I know it's not just solely in this area of the province that we see conditions people should never be living in.
I'm always concerned when I see on the news or hear that a rooming house, say in downtown Halifax, was closed because of the fire marshal going in and charging them with violations to the Fire Code and closing them down. It's ironic that I don't see the Minister of Community Services or a member of the government stepping in and being in front of the media. It seems to always be thrown back onto the municipality. It's always the municipality trying to figure out where they're going to put these people, because it is through their department and through the fire department, they're the ones that actually initiated going into these rooming houses and assessing the safety and fire concerns of these rooming houses.
Mr. Chairman, I find that the government is lacking in their commitment, and the minister is lacking in his commitment to be a leader in this province. He needs to be up front, he needs to be in the forefront when situations like this happen, not only in HRM but throughout the province. I'll tell you, if the fire department were to execute their job appropriately, we'd be in a mess, not only in HRM but throughout this province. There are so many units, there are so many apartment buildings, rooming houses, single dwellings that probably nobody should be allowed to occupy. I've had discussions with the fire marshal of this province about this. He used to be a member of the Sackville Fire Department. I know that he has a job to do, but he understands that if he does his job to the fullest potential of the law, we wouldn't have enough beds in this whole province, in hotel rooms, to provide beds for the people who live in inadequate housing in this province.
That's why I think we really need to look at what we can do with these agreements with the federal government, especially when they're willing to get back into the programs and hopefully addressing the needs of people, of individuals in our province who require suitable housing. We have to look at what we have, and we have to increase public stock. If we don't increase the public stock - in our view, that's an asset we can have. That's something we're going to own in 10 years or 20 years, and then in that time we're not going to be in the situation where we're going to be wondering, what are we going to do in 10 years if the federal government, lo and behold - the Liberal Government may not even be in power in 10 days, let alone 10 years - all of a sudden decides to get out of the picture of affordable housing again? Where is that going to leave us in this province?
I've said it before and I'll say it again, I think this government's commitment to the affordable housing issue in the province solely depends on the federal government and the money they bring to the table. One of the interesting things I see, when I heard about these agreements, that our portion was 50/50 cost shared between the province and the federal government, really, it's not the province and not the taxpayers that are going to come forward with 50 per cent of our funding. Of course we've witnessed that our 50 per cent of the portion can come from private developers, municipalities throughout the province.
So when the minister stands up and says that the government has spent $37 million or $18 million or $9 million, it's not really the government spending all that money. You have to take into account that there are other avenues for the government to utilize municipal
money and other grants in lieu of when it comes to our portion of the Affordable Housing Program.
Some of the things we're concerned with in this budget, and maybe the minister can clarify these a little later - I know our Leader mentioned these earlier and we have a lot of concern with them - are the Rural and Native Housing cut, I think it was $993,000; the rent subsidies supplement frozen at the 2004-05 levels; Non-Profit Housing Program cut by $100,000; home repair cut by $1.5 million. There are a lot of concerns we have with the budget and the lack of vision, we believe, on the government's behalf to address the needs of the people in this province for affordable housing.
Mr. Chairman, I hope that the message we've sent today is a strong message, and an area that there's a lot of concern with. I think every member of this Legislature gets calls on a daily basis, if not a weekly basis, and I know our caucus does - I guess I can't speak for the other two caucuses - about the concerns people have in their communities, just trying to make a living, just trying to keep a roof over their heads. These people who are on assistance, for the most part, I know for a fact a lot of them tell you up front I don't vote, I don't support a certain Party, but we need help. We get assistance through the government that doesn't even pay for the going rate of an apartment, especially in my area.
I've said it before, the different amount of money that is provided for a family under Community Services for assistance, especially around housing, wouldn't even get a one- or two-bedroom apartment in most areas here in HRM. That concerns me, it concerns a lot of the members of our caucus. It seems that every time we try to go forward with this and try to get the government to realize they need to increase spending in this area, it just seems to land on deaf ears. These people are really in dire need for this government to step up and look at addressing what is really the core issue for many of these people, and it's the funding they receive and the programs they can gain access to.
I'd be the first one to say it's amazing, the staff at Community Services, especially out in my area, in the Cobequid Community Health Centre, the work and commitment they have, but many times they tell us, we can't do anything. We have guidelines we have to follow, we can't bend the rules. We're instructed that we have to follow these guidelines to a T, and there seems to be no avenue for them to make what I would think is the best call or the best judgment in dealing with community members' issues.
I'll bring up one issue that I was dealing with just before we came into session. It was around an individual on long-term disability. She was bringing in about $875 a month, living on her own, was very ill with a respiratory problem, and was very upfront with me, Mr. Chairman, about her condition and what had to happen. She was calling my office to try to get some assistance, trying to get some help. This lady was potentially a lung transplant recipient in Toronto, and was living on her own and had to give up her apartment to move to Toronto in hopes of receiving her new lung.
The process she went through and the doors that were shut in her face, about help that she needed, I just couldn't believe it, Mr. Chairman. This young lady who was upfront with me, and I know with members of the staff at the Community Services level about money she had in RSPs, this lady was upfront, saying I have money put away but I live on just under $900 a month. Community Services initially said they would help this lady, that they'd help pay her travel to Toronto, establish her in an apartment - she needed to be within a certain distance from the hospital - and everything seemed like it was going okay.
I guess at one point, somewhere along the line, her case was reviewed, and it was realized that, no, we have to put the brakes on this. We can't help this lady. I called, wondering what was the problem. It was because she had this money put away in RSPs. She told them exactly what the money was for, it was her hope that after her lung transplant that she was going to return to Nova Scotia, return to Sackville. She knew she would be required to pay for some of her medication, because not all of it is covered under MSI, just as her transportation there and her wait before the transplant weren't covered by MSI. She was told that unless she spent every last dollar she had in the bank or in RSPs, Community Services wouldn't help her.
She wanted the money just to get a new life, just to go back to school after she became more healthy after her lung transplant, just to hopefully get a better job, to get off assistance, so that she could be a productive member of the community, which she had been for many years until her illness. Mr. Chairman, at Christmas she did make the move up to Toronto, on her own behalf, with her family's help and with the help of the Nova Scotia Lung Association that was setting up a grant for her and hopefully to get donations provided to this cause to pay for her stay in Toronto while she waited for a donor.
She didn't make it, Mr. Chairman. She passed away about two and a half weeks ago, still up there, trying to struggle on $900 a month to pay a $1,500 rent in Toronto, and that was the cheapest she could find when she went up there. It's sad to say that we couldn't do more for her. It was disheartening to know that when you have someone like this go to Community Services and say, listen, I need some help. She wasn't trying to hide anything from the department, she wasn't trying to hide anything from the people who assessed her. She was very upfront with what she had, what her income was, and the reason for her having that income. It was in the hopes that she wouldn't need to depend on Community Services for that long.
That's just one personal case of mine, and I know the family doesn't mind me bringing her case up. I spoke to her family on the weekend. They just couldn't believe that in this province we don't provide a service such as that, where she's forced to go out of province to get the services, she wasn't able to get any help through the Department of Health, through MSI, because they would only cover the cost of an in-hospital stay, and then when her last resort was through Community Services, she was unable to get help through that department.
It just shows there are a lot of issues, not only pertaining to affordable housing in the province, that this government and this minister need to address. I would hope that over the next little while the government realizes that. Mr. Chairman, I would like to give the remainder of my time to my colleague, the member for Dartmouth North.
MR. MORSE: I think, in fairness to the member who has just spoken, it's important that some of his concerns he brought up be addressed at this time, and then I look forward to hearing the comments from the member for Dartmouth North. I'm not going to go on as long as I did last time. It's certainly a much more constructive approach by the member for Sackville-Cobequid.
Anyway, he spoke about his critic responsibilities, that being the Housing Services Critic. He made reference to the shortage of affordable housing in Nova Scotia. I think there was an acknowledgement that there was a shortage of affordable housing in Canada. He's right on both counts. I would suggest that around about 1993, as the member pointed out, things started to get worse because there was a change in government, the government of the day's Minister of Finance had to make some tough decisions, and one of the first areas that he cut was the Affordable Housing Program.
That minister has since become our Prime Minister, and it's interesting that since he has become Prime Minister, he is taking some steps to restore some of the damage that was done during the time he was Minister of Finance, which is constructive, because that's where we are today. We can't turn the clock back. All the units that were not created in that 10 years are never going to be brought back, but we can move forward and we are moving forward. We appreciate that the federal government has acknowledged a responsibility for social housing, as evidenced by their Affordable Housing Program and Nova Scotia accepting that offer and signing on as the first of the Atlantic Provinces, in both cases, for Phase I and Phase II.
What the member might be interested in is that the federal government actually has a name for the savings they got from cutting their commitment to social housing. They call it the legacy savings. The honourable member might be interested to know that depending on how you calculate those savings, which stretch out through 2035, when they'll have no further obligations under the commitments they passed over to the province, it's estimated, conservatively, that it will save them about $1 billion. That's $1 billion taken out of public housing.
So if we're wondering why it got a lot worse after 1993, you don't have to look too much further than what the federal government has called legacy savings. They cut their support for affordable housing at that time, and we are paying the price today. In fact, Canadians right across the country are paying the price today for that decision. But again,
they have come back to the table, and we are working constructively with them. We're very pleased that they now want to make amends for what was done. We appreciate that they had their situation to deal with at that time, but it's important to put that emphasis back on public housing.
The member made reference to the condition of houses in Nova Scotia, and he's quite right, we have an enviable statistic in Nova Scotia, 71 per cent of families own their own homes in Nova Scotia. That's an extraordinary number, 71 per cent. In fact, that enviable record of home ownership goes back a long time. Nova Scotia was one of the first places to be settled by the Europeans, our ancestors, and 22 per cent of our housing stock was built before the end of World War II. If you think about that, that's a lot of units that have had the chance to possibly deteriorate over that time.
If the homeowners are not in a position to effect the necessary repairs, it just makes it all the more apparent why it's important to have programs like SCAP, the Senior Citizens Assistance Program; the Public Housing Emergency Repair Program, also known as PHERP; RRAP, the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program, which is cost shared between the federal government and the province - the first two are entirely provincial - to help people who might otherwise not have the means of fixing up their homes, staying in them. When they need a roof or maybe their well goes dry, the septic system malfunctions, this helps keep those people in their homes.
Those programs are near and dear to my heart personally, and I think any MLA in this Chamber would have an appreciation of how good it is to be able to provide that assistance to a constituent, when they don't know how they're going to obtain those necessary housing repairs. Those programs long predate my coming into this House, but I'm very pleased that last year we were able to substantially enhance the monies that we put into those programs to shorten the waiting lists.
The member spoke about the housing authorities. His concern was about the condition of the authorities, and basically it was a maintenance question. I would point out to the member that due to good operating efficiencies within the department, last year we were able to free up a couple of million dollars, which was split between augmenting the Provincial Housing Emergency Repair Program I just spoke of, and an extra $1 million went into the housing authorities for maintenance.
Then when we got the $11 million through the return of the equalization monies that the federal government had clawed back a couple of years ago, $4 million went into the housing authorities, $2 million of which was for interior maintenance, and $1 million was for exterior maintenance. Of course there was $1 million for something my colleague, the member for Dartmouth North, has spoken of before, and that was the need for elevators, and something that we're becoming aware of right across the province because of the changing weather patterns, the need for emergency generators.
So that was $4 million that went into housing authorities, because of the strategic infrastructure monies, another $1 million because of internal economies in the department, and $3.4 million which went into emergency housing repair programs. Now the member was calling for more bricks and mortar, and without wanting to be repetitious, I did file some information that spoke of the importance of the rent subsidy approach. It was determined by people who looked at this analytically that this is a much more effective and efficient way of delivering affordable housing. Specifically, it was deemed that it's about 37 per cent efficient to put in bricks and mortar, that is basically public housing, where they estimated it was 85 per cent to 90 per cent efficient if you put it into rent supplements.
Now the other reason why the province has been focusing on rent supplements is that the initial Affordable Housing Program really was targeted more towards middle-income and bricks and mortar, it was absolutely tailored to build housing, but more for middle-income people. In Nova Scotia, it was a decision of this government - and I would like to say that I had something to do with making that decision, perhaps quite a bit to do with making that decision - that we strategically were going to target these affordable housing monies to low-income Nova Scotians in greatest need of affordable housing.
That was my commitment that I made to Nova Scotians, I made it in this House time and time again, I stand by that commitment, and if you're helping those in greatest need, it costs more to help them, because the gap, to make up the difference between what they can afford and what it costs for average market rent, is greater. That's why the number that the member for Cape Breton South was bandying about, 1,500 units in the first program, is not the number we're shooting for. We're shooting for more like 950 there, because we feel it's more important to help 950 families that otherwise would have no means of getting adequate affordable housing, than to help 1,500 who can get some form of affordable housing. It may not be as nice as we'd like it to be for them, but we are going to be targeting the lowest-income Nova Scotians in greatest need of affordable housing.
He also spoke a little bit, I believe, by reference, to some of the challenges of working through the Nova Scotia Housing Development Corporation, which is the corporation that's owned by the Province of Nova Scotia and that actually delivers these new public housing units, if we own them, as opposed to working with organizations and other private sector landlords. As the representative for Lower Sackville, the member would be aware that it seems to still be a challenge out there for the Nova Scotia Housing Development Corporation to put up a unit that's targeted for families. There was another one that we're still trying to negotiate for another area in HRM, and we're trying to be sensitive to the communities.
It's interesting that when we do it through third parties, whether it's non-profit organizations or commercial landlords, there's hardly a ripple. People all agree that we need more affordable housing, but it seems that it's more difficult, sometimes, to deliver it when it comes to the Nova Scotia Housing Development Corporation. That is an observation that
I've seen from my perspective as minister, and I'm trying to be respectful of everybody in this challenge.
The member spoke about frozen rent subsidies and, again, I want assure the member that the comments that were made just perhaps an hour ago by another one of his colleagues about the alleged freezing of rent subsidies, if he looks at Page 4.4 in the Supplementary Detail, he will find that, yes, there's $2.6 million in rent subsidies shown on the line, but what's not shown is the increase in affordable housing, which includes the new rent subsidies, and that has gone up from about $7.55 million to $10.3 million. In a one-year increase, that's about 30 per cent, and most people would say 30 per cent is a pretty big increase in the budget. So we are moving ahead in that area. It is an important area. I appreciate the comments of the member and his questions.
The last thing I want to deal with is, he was talking about the condition of the rooming houses in the city. The member might be aware that last November Mayor Peter Kelly and I convened a meeting of a lot of organizations that are devoted to helping the homeless and other people who are perhaps not as fortunate. One of the things that came out of this, or we had been working on and were able to share with those organizations, is that we have a memorandum of understanding with the city. If they know of a situation that they think is going to require attention, they give us a heads-up so that we don't discover that the fire marshal or the building inspector has gone in there, evicted everybody and they're out in the street.
We do try to work with them. We're not going to compromise health and safety, that's not negotiable. But where it's not so definitive, we do try to work with the city. We have a good working relationship with the city, and I enjoy my personal rapport with Mayor Kelly. Mayor Kelly is a very caring person, and he cares deeply, as do I, about those in need of affordable housing and the homeless. So, honourable member, I think that touches on most of your shopping list, and I look forward to questions, hopefully, from the member for Dartmouth North.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth North.
MR. JERRY PYE: Mr. Chairman, I think it might be a bit presumptuous for the honourable minister to hopefully wait for questions from the honourable member for Dartmouth North. I want to say, first of all, that I want to acknowledge that in 2003, we were fortunate enough to expand the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly on the New Democratic Party side. As a result of that, I've been lifted of some of the burden and responsibility, and we share it, across the government departments. One of those departments is the Department of Community Services.
I want to thank the honourable member for Sackville-Cobequid for taking up the Housing Services portfolio. I think the honourable member now understands the frustration that I have exercised over the years that I had been the Housing Services Critic. I also want to thank the honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley, who now must also be frustrated by the experiences she's having as the Community Services Critic in the Province of Nova Scotia.
It is a very unwieldy department. It is extremely frustrating to get work done. The department works so bloody slowly that, Mr. Minister, it is impossible to be able to address the issues that are in my constituency and the remaining 51 constituencies across this province. There seems to have been an aim by this government when it came into power in 1999 to balance budgets, which in all sense is not a bad thing. Balancing budgets is not a bad thing in this province. But when you balance the budgets on the backs of the most vulnerable in this province, then there is something radically wrong, Mr. Chairman.
I see this government boasting about bringing in three balanced budgets, not balanced budgets but surpluses, and in this year having the tune of some $63.7 million in surplus in this province, while we see people marching to the food banks, while we see people in Nova Scotia living in poverty. We have a province, Mr. Chairman, of less than 1 million people. We have a province where 50 per cent of those who are employed earn an income of less than $22,000 a year. That's what we have in this province.
And we have a debt that needs to be curtailed and the government on that side of the floor is trying to curtail a $12 billion debt on the backs of the most vulnerable Nova Scotians. How else is it, Mr. Chairman, that we stand here in frustration year after year for six years? I, as a critic, during that period of time brought before the Minister of Community Services the kind of social concerns that I see out there, the kind of poverty. Not only do I bring it to the minister and his government across this legislative floor, but I talk to the minister confidentially on a number of the issues as well.
The minister fully understands that in fact we are reaping the benefits of CHST transfers from the federal government, and we are reaping the benefits from the offshore economic development with respect to the offshore payments. That money is going to go towards paying the debt, but it still leaves an additional $50 million that could be better spent helping the most vulnerable people in this province. And that's exactly what we should do. There is absolutely no question, Mr. Minister, we can have it both ways.
The problem is it's a matter of priorities. It's a matter of where you want to put your priority dollars. I can never, for the life of me, as I stand here in this Legislature - and I know that the people who are watching Leg. TV today are sitting there watching and listening to
this debate on Community Services, and asking themselves, and wondering how it is that someone in the Department of Community Services can receive a bonus.
I can understand that coming from the Department of Finance, because Finance is talking about balancing budgets and bringing forward; I can understand that coming from the Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage, because it's a matter of generating, and you set quotas and revenues for doing that; I can understand that coming from a number of the departments over there, the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Economic Development. As all those Nova Scotians who have Leg. TV on today can see, you can understand and rationalize where and how those individuals might receive a bonus, even though it should be somewhat transparent, and it's totally wrong.
What I cannot see, Mr. Minister, is how - and I can't even possibly calculate - the process is set out where someone in the Department of Community Services receives a bonus. I can tell you that there are many Nova Scotians who ask the same thing. If, in fact, this department is set up to protect the most vulnerable people in our province - persons on disability, seniors, persons in poverty, persons who have to go to a food bank - then how is it that someone can receive a bonus, more than what the individual will ever receive in three years?
It really troubles me to have to stand here in this Legislative Assembly and look across the legislative floor and debate a department's budget that in fact tears my heart out. It tears my heart out because no matter how many times I have stood here and talked about this very important issue, it seems as though there has been a wall built up and no matter how much I blow, that wall can never be torn down and it can never be broken down. And to stand here and know the frustration that my colleagues are going through with respect to their second turn in debating the budget of Community Services is something that we should all stop, sit back, reflect and ask what's going on.
Just think about it. Bonuses in the Department of Community Services. How do you arrive at a bonus in the most vulnerable department in this province? People should be rewarded for the good work they do. There's no question. The way I was rewarded for the good work I did was if I didn't perform, I was out the door. I didn't get a bonus for setting the quota on the number of sheets of paper I might be able to produce or anything like that. I got a bonus saying you perform and this is what's expected of you, and if you don't do it, you're out the door.
If you set the bar high enough so no one can reach it, then in fact, Mr. Chairman, no one reaches the bonus point. But even at that level, I sit here and I watch people in the Department of Community Services having to craft their budget in such a way whereas they're expected to pay money, as the honourable member for Cape Breton South had indicated. Mr. Minister, you will be very much aware of this. The honourable member for Cape Breton South talked about overpayments.
Now, let me talk a bit about overpayments. The honourable member for Cape Breton South worked at the municipal level, I believe, with respect to community services. There is no one in this office more knowledgeable about the issues around Community Services than the member for Cape Breton South and the member for Halifax Needham, who has in fact studied social work. But I do want to tell you that as a layperson I have learned a tremendous amount about people and people's responsibilities during my seven years in this Legislative Assembly. I have watched the kind of action that takes place.
Now I want to go back to the issue of overpayments. We know, the minister and his department know, that there is no possible way for those individuals to pay back those overpayments. We have already heard where those overpayments come from. They sometimes come from workers' compensation, and more often than not they come from Canada Pension disability pensions, and that department requires people to sign a paper and make application if they're disabled. That's the crux of the whole thing. And it might also come from an insurance policy, Mr. Chairman.
Now the point is this, there's no question about some of that being recoverable, if you talk about the fairness and the equity of the taxpayers in this province. There's absolutely no question, but where do you draw the line, when you haul every single penny out of those individuals who have been bleeding for four or five years before they even get their Canada Pension? Now I asked you, and I asked the Deputy Minister of Community Services, who was a witness before the Standing Committee on Community Services, and I said, deputy minister, look at this, if we can in fact write off small businesses that owe the government, and there's a limitation and they cut them off, they may owe the government tax revenue, but because they don't pay it, they cut them off, and they can turn around and set up a business under another number or another name and receive funding from the government, because they're an entity unto themselves.
There's no such thing as a business being a personal thing. But because somebody is personal, it's tangible, and you can touch it and you can stick your finger on it and stick your finger in it, it means that you have to pull it out. That's the sad part of it. So you reach in their pockets, and you pull it out. I asked the Deputy Minister of Community Services to look at this. I said, at least recognize that there needs to be a statute of limitations around this very issue. The deputy minister did say to me that she and her department would look at that, that in fact there would be a review. I have heard absolutely nothing.
Do you know that the federal government, through the employment insurance, if someone draws their employment insurance, and there is an overpayment and that overpayment hasn't been collected for seven years, then the statute of limitations clicks in, and that's a write-off. The Department of Community Services, rather than badgering and trying to take out of people on social assistance money out of their allocated budget, to pay that through Service Nova Scotia's collection agency, needs to have a second reflect and a second look.
Let me tell you, Mr. Minister, and for those of you who are listening here today, when you craft a budget for an individual who's on social assistance, there is a craft of a basic need. The government meets the very basic needs. They set aside the number of dollars that are going to be for the shelter component, they set the number of dollars that are going to be for personal use, and that includes sundries and the whole bit. Now at one time they also paid for the children of those families. What happens now is the government ingratiates itself by saying that the Canada Child Tax Benefit is something we will not claw back, and that government, true to its word, introduced a piece of the minister's and the Premier's book during the election campaign, the platform, they did not claw back the Canada Child Tax Benefit.
What they didn't do is they didn't continue with the additional dollars that the Department of Community Services provided to those young people in order to help the families out. What does it take for government to think in terms like outside the box, outside the envelope, and think about a new way of delivering programs to the most vulnerable Nova Scotians? All the years that we were sitting here, crafting and balancing budgets, and bragging and boasting about surpluses, we were watching more and more people go to the food banks. We were watching our most vulnerable Nova Scotians go to food banks in this province, a province of less than 1 million people. That was something new, that was a phenomenon. Now it is one of the major industries in this province.
Mr. Chairman, I am the one who has to bring those clients in, along with the other members of the remaining 51 constituencies, who have to sit them down and talk to them about why that is. We have to say to them that whether you like it or not, it's what the government of the day considers to be its priorities, so that you don't have enough money for the right nutritional foods, that you must go to food banks in this province. So when they come to my office, I have no choice but to coach them on how best to use their dollars.
What we have to do sometimes is we have to tell them to go to the food bank to do their shopping for non-perishable goods and then use the money that Community Services gives them for perishable items. What do you think about something like that? What do you think, if each one of us were to do that? We all know that because of our age, and we sit here in this Legislative Assembly, that the majority of us have seen hard times. We have come from large families, we know how difficult it is to manage, but yet, Mr. Chairman, that does not translate into legislative policy throughout this province.
There are so many things that I could talk about, and I do know, unfortunately, that my time is running out. That's the most unfortunate part of this, Mr. Chairman, because I certainly have a number of other items, which I'm going to talk about. I want to tell you that in this province individuals who want a pair of glasses, who want dental work in this province, and it's ironic that the government provides them with a Quickcard but every single dental organization in this province, it ends up being a maximum of 20 per cent less
than what they get, so they have to take that 20 per cent out of their budget and pay for that dental cost.
They also have to pay that for their eyeglasses, or have an agency or an organization out in the community pay. Those agencies and organizations out in the community can no longer provide the dollars, because the government has gotten in the gambling business and taken away revenues that they would normally have generated to offset and assist those individuals in the community.
Mr. Chairman, I never even touched on housing. I want to talk about the minister's most recent announcement in Cape Breton and Inverness, and I believe it was called MacDonald Hall. I believe, in fact, there was an agreement, and actually there was a budget that came in, that said this was $600,000 to build. I believe the developer has already put a proposal in, I don't know if it has been approved yet or not, but I think it has been. I asked the minister, three years ago I stood before this Legislature and I listened to a group of individuals, and many groups of individuals, some 47 individuals, who comprised themselves together to bring in a Kendrick report. A report which this government endorsed and announced that it would be brought forward.
This government paid the shot for the Kendrick report. This government didn't even bother to have the courtesy to honour one of the very first, basic, fundamental commitments, and that was to set up a blue ribbon committee to study the issue of disabled persons in this province, and how they would be funded and where those dollars should go. As a matter of fact, what we're seeing now is the closure of small options homes. Do you ever look in your community to see how many small options homes have actually closed, or where there are no beds available?
Why do you think there's a freeze on small options homes? I ask you to reflect and think about that. Why do you think there's a freeze on small options homes? I'll tell you why there is a freeze on small options homes, it's because the government has gotten back into institutionalizing disabled people in this province. We get 13-unit buildings rather than thinking about what we did in 1966, when we de-institutionalized individuals with disabilities, both intellectual and physical. In 1966, we decided to move them out of institutions like the Nova Scotia Hospital, bring them in the communities and develop small options homes, to allow those individuals to be part of the community.
Now we have moved back into the institutionalization of persons with disabilities. Think about it, Mr. Chairman. Why else would the government be so proud to announce units of approximately - and I don't know how big the one in Inverness is, it might be a 13-unit building, actually it's a 12-unit building, I do know, but I was just checking with the honourable minister who represents the area. One of them is a respite unit, so there are
actually 12-bed units and the other one is a respite unit. There's also one going on Main Street in Dartmouth. As a matter of fact it's going in, I believe, on Lakecrest Drive/Main Street, Dartmouth.
I need to ask you, and I need to know, has the minister actually given consideration to why this is happening? Is this convenient for the government to do this? Does it run counter to community groups? Does it run counter to the Kendrick report recommendation? Does it run counter to the de-institutionalization of 1966? Then the minister needs to let us know, he needs to let us know about this.
Another bone of contention of mine is seniors' housing and seniors' units. Fortunately I had the opportunity to tour the province most recently. I've heard from seniors who spoke about the lack of seniors' facilities in rural Nova Scotia. As a matter of fact some seniors have told me that they're on a two-year waiting list, up to a four-year waiting list, some of them, and that they would have to move out of their community in order to get seniors' housing. Now these are people who have lived there all their lives, who will be passing their home on to their children.
Mr. Chairman, I'll tell you, I don't know what policy that is or where that government needs to go, but I can tell you it's not a policy that I've seen in the new directions of 1998, which in fact told this government how to address the housing issue, which had stakeholders and everyone else come before this government to talk about it. I also talked to the minister about rent supplements and about the utilization of rent supplements to allow the rent supplements to be portable, so that people who live in the community, who volunteer in the community and who can do a good job in the community and who have been long-standing citizens of the community could in fact be there and continue to live there.
Mr. Chairman, I want to tell you that that is the kind of thing that I'm still waiting to hear. I'm still waiting to hear the minister say that, yes, rent supplements can be portable. They're not going to one individual contractor, they're not going to one individual landholder, they're not going to one icon, investment property owners of this property. They're not going to one individual group, but they're going out there into the community.
Mr. Chairman, I am very pleased and delighted that at least the burden of responsibility has been moved off my shoulders and shared with my colleagues in this Legislative Assembly.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired for the NDP.
The honourable member for Glace Bay.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Minister, you can actually look at this as probably a seventh-inning stretch. I'm actually going to give you a chance to get up and answer some questions during this round. I wanted to say, to begin with, that probably coming from a riding such as mine in Glace Bay that about - and I'm just ballparking it - 65 per cent of my caseload would involve Community Services cases in Glace Bay, and that's probably the same as most in this Legislature, not most MLAs but most that you would find in an area that would be similar to mine, let's put it that way.
I have to say from the outset that the staff at the Community Services office in Glace Bay, you have a tremendous staff there. You have some fine people in Rosemary Lewis, in Graham Crosby, in Sue Deruelle, who are supervisory personnel. I worked on appeals with Mark Ryan, for instance, and the commissioner who does appeals hearings, Darren McFadgen. They've been fair individuals who have done some good work, and worked under some difficult circumstances. You know the situation there, because you've heard about it from the NSGEU, in terms of caseloads that individual caseworkers are handling there. They are large and, unfortunately, probably growing, Mr. Minister.
There are a couple of items in Glace Bay that I know have been brought to your attention, and I hope to get you to go on the record today as to what's being done to try to solve the problems there regarding these two items. One of them involves Brass Tack Industries, which is an employment training and opportunity centre in Glace Bay. It's an agency that provides day programs for adults with mental disabilities. It's a tremendous agency, I should say. You talk about a great staff that does some wonderful things with people, the staff at Brass Tack Industries is second to none. They're a very small organization that services Glace Bay and surrounding area.
For about the past 10 years they've been implementing an off-site community-based program that enables their clients to have access and to participate in their community. They've been doing that over the past 10 years with federal grants. They're faced with the decision now whether to cancel their off-site programs due to some insufficient funding. It's my understanding they've applied to the Department of Community Services for some permanent funding. The Department of Community Services has responded, my understanding, again, with a grant which will employ two people for the period of one year.
Now the problem is that over the past 10 years there have been approximately 99 people - I'm not talking about clients at Brass Tack - who have been employed on grants that have gone through the organization. Now this poses a problem in itself, because the individuals, the clients who are attending Brass Tack become accustomed to having someone there, familiar, all of the time. So all of a sudden, after a while, their grant is up and new people come in, and you can see the problem that would create.
I'm sure the minister understands that this is important, that this is invaluable work that is being done there, the people who are doing the work, the people who are served by the work. Mr. Minister, we take for granted sometimes our ability to do what we do, our ability, for instance, to do something as simple as going for a walk. It seems a rather simple thing to us, but for those individuals at Brass Tack Industries, they cannot do that unless they are supervised. So it becomes an obstacle if they don't have the supervision enabling the clients there to give them the support to do something that we would consider to be an everyday procedure.
I would like to know, Mr. Minister, according to Page 4.7 of the Supplementary Detail, the Rehabilitation Workshops budget has increased by some $200,000, so could you please outline the details of that line item increase in the Supplementary Detail?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member opposite, first of all, for his comments about my staff in the Glace Bay office. Again, it's very important that staff get this kind of feedback. When you speak of them in that manner, publicly, it really makes a difference in their work environment. We certainly try to support them in what's often a difficult job, because they are dealing with people who are in need, by definition it's a program of last resort. That's not an easy job. So I appreciate the member's comments in that regard.
The member is speaking of an adult service centre in his area, Brass Tack Industries. You've acknowledged that they've received a Canada-Nova Scotia Skills and Learning Framework grant, which has allowed them to get two additional staff to continue their outreach program. Specifically, you're asking about the increase of the $200,000 in the line, and basically that's to make sure that their salaries and benefits remain current. In addition to that, I can give a little more information, which the member may already have, but I think it's good to get it on the record.
In 2003-04, they received $141,646.47. That was what went to them. Their funding comes through a combination of an operating grant, which would be a set amount that goes to them and a per diem, which is calculated based on the number of days they care for participants in the program, they provide them work. Also, they are still in negotiations with staff, actually I think it's the last outstanding issue on the strategic infrastructure monies that were announced in November. This is the $11 million. They did put in a submission. We're working with them on that. My hope is that at the end of the day there will be an additional grant to help them in that regard.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Minister, don't get me wrong, it's not that the grant funding is not appreciated, but what I'm being told by people at Brass Tack Industries is that it's full-time funding that is required. These are off-site programs that are being offered to about 28 full-time clients and about six part-time clients, and they have a waiting list of about 18 to 20 people, that if the full-time funding were available, they could
hire the staff on a permanent basis to continue the programs they have. The fact that it's grant funding is actually part of the problem, as I understand, and a big part of the problem as far as the clients are concerned. Again, they just become familiar with someone who's working with them, and all of a sudden that person is gone and a new person is in their place.
So it's not that the grant funding isn't appreciated, it's just that the grant funding is not permanent enough. I would like to know if you could please indicate whether or not the budget, then, for Brass Tack Industries has been increased? Does that enable them to continue the off-site programming, the actual budget, the line budget item for Brass Tack Industries?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, the answer to your question is no, that would be through the supplemental grant. I do think it's fair to point out that we have about 30 adult service centres across the province. They generally attract some of the most wonderful people that you're going to find anywhere in your community. I know that in New Minas we have the Flower Cart, which, to me, will always set the standard for these adult service centres. I never hear any complaint from them or any of the others about having to apply for grants. They quite happily apply to HRSD every year, and they seem to have a great working relationship with them.
What Brass Tack Industries wants is the province to come in and provide that as part of their core funding. We will continue to support the area that we have identified as being for services to people with disabilities, and we look forward to working with HRSD and the 30 adult service centres across the province to augment those services, including the outreach.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Chairman, I know the minister understands that, yes, they do want this as part of their core funding. That's exactly the message that you've been receiving in letters from Brass Tack Industries, letters from myself, and letters from families and support people back home. The clients who are there are fortunate to have the support of organizations such as Brass Tack Industries, because they're not able to have their voices heard normally.
Mr. Minister, explain to me, then, why you wouldn't view the off-site programming budget of Brass Tack Industries as a priority item? This is an item that could, number one, employ people, first of all, but it could also take care of the needs of over - well, if you look at the waiting list, then you're looking at over 50 people who need the services. It could provide the needs of over 50 people on a full-time basis. Why wouldn't that be treated as a priority by the Department of Community Services?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, the member for Glace Bay is giving me a chance to explain where the province's responsibilities are, where Human Resources and Skills Development's responsibilities are, and that area that tends to fall in between. Brass Tack Industries, one of 30 adult service centres, is basically looking for special treatment, different than the other 29. The reason that this is a grey area is that we accept our responsibility for funding them for those who work within the centre, but when you get into outreach, then the question becomes the degree of disability. If you have someone who's perfectly able, it's Human Resources and Skills Development that takes the lead in terms of assisting them and provide employment.
You have people in the outreach program who have abilities, but they have some disability, and they need some supervision in order to be able to pursue a job or conduct a productive career. That's a great service. I guess what we have concluded is that we're working with HRSD, and for those people who are not clearly full-time clients, who work inside Brass Tack Industries or the Flower Cart or any of the other 28 adult service centres but who are actually placed outside the community, we have shared that responsibility with HRSD. We look forward to continuing to share it with them. We cannot single out one of 30 adult service centres and take over what we deem is shared responsibility with the federal government and make it all provincial core funding.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Chairman, I have another subject that I want to bring up, but before I leave that one, just let me say that the people at Brass Tack Industries are not looking for special treatment. They're just looking for fair treatment. I would suggest to you that if these off-site programs are as successful as you're suggesting, as I'm suggesting, that perhaps they should be looked at as part of core funding of the Department of Community Services in this province. If they are that much of a success, and I know they are in one instance, and I only know the background of Brass Tack Industries, which has been around for some time, and I know of the tremendous work they do with their clients and the tremendous service it provides to their community, that to me is a success.
If that translates into core funding and permanent funding equals a success for those clients, then that to me would be a win-win situation, not only for Brass Tack Industries but for the Department of Community Services in this province. I hope that the minister would continue to take a look at the situation, in terms of whether or not someday core funding could be provided, not just to Brass Tack Industries. If we have 30 such organizations in this province, I'm sure they're doing comparable work in other areas, and I'm sure that they deserve the funding as well. So let's take a look at that.
The other subject that I wanted to bring up was Town Day Care Centre in Glace Bay, Mr. Chairman. The minister is quite aware of this situation, and I must say to the minister that when I first brought the matter of the Town Day Care to the attention of the Department of Community Services, the deputy minister was very quick to respond. As a matter of fact, I don't know if there's any record of how quickly they respond to things in this province, but
I would suggest that if this was the case that perhaps your deputy minister has one of the quickest responses. Believe me, I'm not trying to get anything more here by saying that, I'm just telling you exactly what happened.
It was a quick response to what she realizes is a very serious problem in Glace Bay, and that is with Town Day Care Centre, under orders of the fire marshal, that they move on to a better building. They provide the space currently for about 72 subsidized seats. They're licensed for 94 subsidized seats. They have a list of 100 people, 100 kids - people, yes, but 100 kids. Most of that waiting list would be between the ages of 18 months and three years, so toddlers is the biggest group of people they have on the waiting list.
As I understand it, the Town Day Care Centre has applied under a program to the Department of Community Services for an expansion grant. So if I could, under the child care expansion loan program, ask the minister the current status, how much money has been set aside for the fiscal year for that program and loan programs, and to give us a time frame as to when people can expect to hear whether or not they have qualified for that grant program?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, the honourable member for Glace Bay would probably not be surprised if I was to tell him that I fully expected to get that question sometime before I was done with the estimates and from that member. He has written me, expressing his concern about the continuation of Town Day Care Centre, and we share that concern. I appreciate the comments about the deputy minister's responsiveness.
Just as a little point of background, and I've got all the numbers that the member's looking for and the answers to when they'll be making recommendations. Child care centres are big operations, they require a lot of government support to run them. In 2003-04, Town Day Care received $501,916.23 in funding from the department. They are by no stretch of the imagination the largest in the province, but they are a large one. They are a very important piece of the social safety net or infrastructure in Glace Bay. I am well aware of the difficulties they are facing in terms of having to get into a new building by a certain point in time. There was an agreement that was negotiated with the fire marshal that they could continue in their present premise under certain conditions, but it is understood that they have to be out at a set date in the not too distant future.
The member is referring to the start-up and expansion grant program. The total is $1.6 million, and it's split between non-profits and commercial. The non-profits are eligible for grants. Typically the grant is targeted at 75/25. That means that the child care centre is expected to come up with 25 per cent, and the hope is that the province could come up with the 75 per cent. So those are the parameters. So, of the $2.6 million, $1.6 million is for grants, and the other $1 million is, in essence, for interest-free loans for established commercial centres that meet the criteria that we have laid out.
Of the $1.6 million, we've had 22 applications, and we've had eight for the commercial. I just give that by way of being complete, because there are others out there who might be interested in the commercial side. In total it comes up to $6.4 million worth of applications, and we have $2.6 million to divvy up. I am hopeful that if we're able to conclude the bilateral agreement with the federal government for the new early learning and child care monies, it might afford us an opportunity to further enhance this.
But I want to tell you, honourable member, that the recommendations are coming forward next month, as to how to divvy up those monies amongst the applicants. I am very concerned about the continuation of Town Day Care Centre in Glace Bay. I don't mean to say that in the sense that I'm concerned that they're going to shut down, I'm concerned that everything possible be done to allow that organization to continue. I know they're an integral part of your community, and I appreciate the way that you have represented them here today.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Chairman, I wanted to point out to the minister, the minister is quite aware of the fact that, you're right, it's an integral part of Glace Bay, it's very important. It's a 30-year-old facility that was one of the first in the country to offer full service for children with disabilities, for instance. This has been a centre that has done, really, some groundbreaking stuff in Canada and has a tremendous reputation. As a matter of fact, they are out raising money on their own, they're fundraising, through donations from businesses, from former parents and so on. They've had bake sales and they've had the usual fundraising stuff. They've managed to raise $34,000 on their own to date.
So it's not like their board of directors or the staff is sitting back saying we want to put all of the weight on the minister's shoulders and hope someday that he'll come through. They're not doing that. They're working very hard on behalf of their community to try to keep that centre. It's obvious, Mr. Minister, that there's a need in Glace Bay. If you have over 100 children on a waiting list, I think the need is quite obvious.
The minister has given an indication, can he give us a little bit tighter time frame as to when Town Day Care will be informed as to whether or not the government is willing to support them in the construction of a new daycare centre?
MR. MORSE: As I recall, the briefing note from a couple of weeks ago made reference that the decisions would be made in June. I'm expecting that to come back as recommendations. I guess the comfort that I will try to offer to the member, again, is that I do recognize how absolutely central Town Day Care is to Glace Bay, and indeed we do hope to increase the capacity of child care in the province, assuming, again, that we're able to avail ourselves of that federal child care program. We are working on the bilateral agreement at the highest levels. That would certainly be one of the things we'd want to do. If there's a waiting list of 100 families or 100 children to get into Town Day Care, I think that probably bodes well for Glace Bay.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Chairman, I'm hoping and praying that the minister is right, because if, for instance, those spaces are lost, the bottom line is that families are going to move elsewhere. You'll lose families, or, either one or the other, you have a lot of people who'll end up not going to work because they won't be able to put their children in a daycare in order for them to go to work. You lose the bottom line. The community is the one that will lose.
I appreciate what the minister is saying, and I know that the situation is what it is, but if you have, as the minister said, just over $2 million to give out and you have over $6 million in applications, somebody obviously is going to be left on the losing end of things. I'm wondering, and just wondering, is there any way at all that funding could be made available for Town Day Care through line items other than the daycare budget that would see the appropriate financial support available for Town Day Care Centre?
MR. MORSE: Honourable member, a very prudent question for you to ask under the circumstances. I made reference to the possibility of the additional $20.4 million in the federal-provincial bilateral agreement, but I would tell the honourable member that there are more monies that are in the child care section of the budget this year through the early learning and child care agreement. That's the one that was signed a couple of years ago. It would be my expectation that there will be more start-up and expansion monies, regardless of whether the bilateral agreement comes in. Let's work on that bilateral agreement, because that will help solve a lot of problems for a lot of families looking for child care in this province.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Chairman, I should have, at the first, indicated that I am going to share some of my time with another member, the member for Preston. So having said that, I want to thank the minister but, again, as much as I can, I want to impress upon him how serious a situation this is in Glace Bay. Both instances that I've talked about today, Brass Tack Industries, Glace Bay Town Day Care Centre, are not just pieces of infrastructure in Glace Bay, they are two organizations that have done tremendous work for the people of Glace Bay, with their children, with people with mental disabilities.
It's something that kind of tugs at my heartstrings, when you talk about these institutions. I've had a child go through Town Day Care Centre, a tremendous organization, and certainly have worked with Brass Tack Industries over the years and watched the wonderful work that they do. So just to impress upon the minister, and I know, because I know from his correspondence, he certainly is aware of and he has kept up to date on what is going on, but the importance of those two items that I have raised today to the people of Glace Bay, I cannot impress upon you enough, Mr. Minister, just what that means to the people of Glace Bay. I thank you for your time, and I'd like to turn it over now to my colleague, the member for Preston.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Preston.
MR. KEITH COLWELL: Mr. Chairman, I have several questions I would like to ask the minister today, some you may not be able to answer right off the cuff, and I would appreciate it if you would just indicate if you'd be willing to table the information. The first one I have is, several years ago there were some agreements made between the provincial and the federal governments to arrange mortgages for people on low incomes so that they could buy homes and work through the process of being able to afford to buy a home that they otherwise couldn't get financed through the bank or other processes. I'm talking about agreements that were probably made in the late 1970s, 1980s, around that time. Would the minister be willing to table those complete agreements here, regarding mortgages on low-cost housing for that time period?
MR. MORSE: I thank the member for his question. I guess I'm looking for a little more clarification. We have the Family Modest Housing Program, which is 100 per cent financing for families that have a combined income of less than $50,000, for a maximum mortgage amount of $70,000 - I believe those are the right numbers. That is one program. Plus, we took over some mortgages when we signed the Social Housing Agreement with the federal government back in 1997. So if you could just give us a little more direction as to which area you'd like information on.
MR. COLWELL: Actually I'd like it on both programs. Would you commit to providing both?
MR. MORSE: Again, honourable member, I'm going to need a little clarification on this, because if you're asking for the individual files, of course we're not able to give you that information because of the protection of privacy. But if you're looking for the gross numbers on the mortgages - I'm going to sit down, I'm going to give you the chance to explain further.
MR. COLWELL: Actually what I'm looking for is the actual agreements that were signed between the province and the federal government, and the complete agreements with any amendments or anything that has been added to them.
MR. MORSE: The member is looking for, in essence, the master agreements that facilitated the transfer to the province. No problem, that's a matter of public record. I've asked staff to provide the honourable member with that information.
MR. COLWELL: Would the minister be able to provide those tomorrow? Would that be possible?
MR. MORSE: I'm advised by my staff that that will not be a problem. We will have them here for you on Opposition Day.
MR. COLWELL: I await the information in those agreements. I think they were good agreements, and they provided a lot of people with affordable housing, which is excellent no matter who instigated it or how it came about. I think it's excellent. I have some questions on other processes. Now, when an agreement is made with your department for someone to take a loan out to purchase a home either with the department or however they purchase a home, and they don't keep their commitment to pay the mortgage on that home, is there a written policy that the department uses in the process of getting prepared to either get the person to pay their mortgage on time, work with that person so that can happen, or failing all those activities and all those things that the department would, I trust and fully appreciate, do, before they go to the process of tax sale or sale or repossession of the home, is there a written policy to do that? If there is, would the minister commit to tabling it tomorrow?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, the honourable member made reference to the value of social housing agreements. I just want to caution the honourable member that the agreement that I'm going to provide him tomorrow is where the federal government turned over responsibility to the provincial government, which actually saved the federal government, it's estimated, somewhere in the vicinity of $1 billion in social housing between that time and 2035. I'm not sure that I would describe it as anything that created more social housing, it was just how are we going to manage the existing stock of social housing.
With regard to your question about procedure for clients who have taken out mortgages, or actually we should say customers who have taken out mortgages, because they're not necessarily clients of the Department of Community Services, in fact they may well not be clients. I am personally loath, and I know that my staff are, to have to precipitate any sort of foreclosure proceedings but, by the same token, we are obliged to make sure that clients do honour their commitments, because those are public monies and as they're paid back, if you think about it going into the pool, almost like a co-op, those monies are now freed up for other people who want that same chance that that customer had when they took out the mortgage.
So what I would tell the honourable member is that we absolutely bend over backwards to work with them, to make sure that they understand what's coming to them, make sure they have legal counsel. All these steps are taken before we ever foreclose on a mortgage. We're not in the business of foreclosing, but sometimes we're not given any alternative but to foreclose. It's certainly never by the choice of the department.
MR. COLWELL: I appreciate the minister's response to that. I in no way wanted to insinuate or indicate that the department is making a habit of repossessing people's homes. That's not the case at all. I know there are circumstances that arise from time to time when the department has exhausted everything and done everything they possibly can to try to keep somebody in the home, I indicate a customer who may be struggling to pay for it and for whatever reason they can't pay for it. Really what I'm asking for is a written policy of how,
if the department gets in that very unfortunate situation and the individuals get in that unfortunate situation, if there is a written policy that the department follows, in such cases.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, Mr. Hudson has made note of your request and he will include that with the rest of the information that you've requested for delivery tomorrow, on Opposition Day.
MR. COLWELL: These questions I'm asking have to be very difficult for your staff to deal with because there is nothing more precious than owning your own home, especially for people who unfortunately don't make as much income as maybe some other people do.
Also, could you provide how many homes the department has repossessed? When I say repossessed - I don't know if that's the right word or not - between January 1, 2003, and the end of April this year.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, we will endeavour to get the member that information and I do know the member had a difficult situation in his own constituency recently and I would just tell the member I can have some empathy due to recent experience in my own.
MR. COLWELL: It's not comforting to know you had the same problem, unfortunately, but those things do happen and we have to try to find solutions. I realize the minister is very caring about this type of situation and will do everything he can every time he can to do these things, but there are rules and regulations that you must follow.
Also, when you provide me with the list, could you provide me along with that, any properties that were repossessed - and I hope I'm using the right term here - a list of the homes that were repossessed in that time period that I just indicated between January 1, 2003, and the end of April 2005, the list of homes that you would have made public? I'm not asking for homes that you are negotiating with now. That's none of my business and it's nobody's business except the department's and the individual's, but any outstanding loans and the amount of those loans when the home went up either for repossession or sale by auction, or however it's done, and the amounts received from those properties when they were sold. Any of the ones that are already sold and the ones that aren't sold, just what the outstanding balances are.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I just want to make sure that we confirm what the honourable member is looking for. I believe what he's asking for is what was the amount outstanding at the time of the foreclosure and what were we actually able to realize of that amount and in some cases, one would hope that it might be more than the outstanding amount of the mortgage and that possibly some of those monies could conceivably go back to the homeowner.
MR. COLWELL: Actually, the information I do want is the amounts that were outstanding at the time that the department had to take action to move forward and the actual sale amount and you actually moved into my next question. What transpires if there is a surplus in that amount? Say if a house has an arrears of - I will just use a random number - $10,000 and the costs are say $12,000 total, with the outstanding mortgage and legal fees and everything else you have to do, and it's sold for say $22,000, what happens to the other $10,000?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, what the honourable member is asking is what happens with any surplus over and above the outstanding amount of the mortgage. That is handled at arm's-length by the sheriff's department so if there are other liens that are registered against that home, presumably the sheriff would discharge those liens before giving any residue to the homeowner or to the former homeowner. But that's not something that's managed by the Department of Community Services, the actual foreclosures are done by people at arm's-length.
MR. COLWELL: So basically once the foreclosure is completed by the department's legal representatives, once that transpires, then it's totally left to the sheriff's department and part of the process. Is that covered under the Act? I know if someone's property is sold for property taxes, I believe I'm correct on this, again the same process is gone through, if there are any other liens on the property, the money can be disbursed to whoever makes application to the court. Any funds that are left, the previous owner of the property has to go to the court and also make application to release the remainder of the funds. Is that the same process that's used in this case?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, the court ultimately has to be approached, first of all, if you have a lien. So if you don't show up, you've missed your opportunity to claim but this is really an arm's-length process and we leave it to the courts, the lawyers. We have an agreement in place. We are one creditor. As the mortgage holder, I guess we have a preferred position and once we are paid out, then really we don't have any claim to the residue.
MR. COLWELL: I appreciate the answer on that. I know it's a very difficult thing for many people when this whole thing transpires. Hopefully it never does but unfortunately it does.
During these sort of cases - and you may have already answered my question because you had a problem in your own area - is there any leeway in the rules and regulations and agreements you have in place for your department to intercede and do something, or is there a process in place that you can do something to help? In other words, one example might be to rewrite the mortgage over a longer period of time or to make some alternate payment
arrangements or anything like that the department can do to alleviate the stress on maybe someone who is under a very serious financial situation perhaps for a short time.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I want to make reference to a certain book of mortgages that we manage as a result of taking them over from Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation as part of the Social Housing Agreement. Those mortgages have set terms. They are frozen and we do not have any flexibility to change the terms. In some cases, we would have loved to have changed the terms but I understand the rationale for this is that some of them were taken out in the 1980s when the mortgage rates were up around 20 per cent. They were put out at several points below market and presumably CMHC floated a bond issue or whatever they do to finance them and they have locked in the rate that their customers have to pay and we do not have any flexibility to change that arrangement with them. I wish I could give the honourable member a different answer, but I've been down that path in the last year, asking those questions, and that was very clearly my answer and I asked the question more than once. I think I asked on behalf of somebody who is near and dear to the honourable member's heart.
MR. COLWELL: I'm sure the minister has and I appreciate that assistance with this matter. I'm looking at the future here as well because this is a very serious problem. If someone has a lifetime investment in a home and for whatever reason they lose that home because they can't pay the mortgage, maybe for a short period of time or whatever the case may be because every case is probably different, is there any way that the province could, in situations where the principal on the property is a whole lot less than the total value of the home, even today, could maybe guarantee those loans at a private bank so people could get loans or some arrangement like that could be made to ensure that people can stay in their homes? Has anything like that been looked at by the department?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, this goes exactly into the discussion that I've had with my staff on this matter at some length over the last number of months, really over the last year. To answer the member's question, as I go forward, conceivably that's possible because if it comes from the Family Modest Housing Program, that's entirely provincial and we would have more discretion in that area, but if it's one of the old Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation mortgages, we're locked in and we are obligated to hold the customer, the mortgagee, to the terms of the agreement and we have no flexibility to assist them, even though one could make a compelling case it's the right thing to do, we just do not have that ability to deviate from the terms of the agreement.
MR. COLWELL: Perhaps the minister didn't fully understand my question. It's my understanding - and maybe you can answer this one question and I will follow up with the rest of my thoughts - if I had one of those mortgages, which I don't have, but if I had one of those and I was in arrears on my payments and for some reason I could go to a bank or someone on my behalf could go to a bank, a family member or whatever, and say okay, I'm going to pay off this $10,000 mortgage plus the penalties or whatever that are with that, take
it to a private lending institution and then take this mortgage over and then I now buy the mortgage out from the agreement I have with the province, formerly the federal government, and now I have it with a bank like any other mortgage with anybody else, could that be done today?
MR. MORSE: Again, I make reference to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation mortgages. I believe that's what we are talking about. The member is nodding yes. In those cases, it is my understanding that we do not have any flexibility, whether you could pay it out in advance with a penalty, which would be considerable, we could ask that question but I don't think that the answer is going to be any different because I've been around this mulberry bush, so to speak, more than a few times.
I know the case the member is concerned about and I can tell the member that this consumed a fair amount of my time personally and my deputy minister and my assistant deputy minister, we asked all these questions. We went to the lawyers and we tried to find a way to accommodate this person so that we would not be in a position where we had to go through with the foreclosure. We very much wanted to reach an accommodation and we were not able to release them from the terms of the original CMHC mortgage.
MR. COLWELL: Maybe you are not understanding my question. I appreciate the answer on the situation that you are talking about. If I have a mortgage under this process, which again I stress I do not have, but if I had a mortgage under this process, under that old agreement that's very inflexible, can I buy the mortgage out? That's the question.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, again, I believe the answer is no, but we can double-check. I can remember asking those questions back when this came up and I was left with the impression that it was absolutely locked in, so the answer is no. But we will go back and we will ask that question again.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Preston, you have the floor, about 10 minutes remaining.
MR. COLWELL: I hope the minister is wrong. I really do hope you are wrong and I think probably you are because I have never heard of a mortgage anywhere that you can't buy out. I don't think anything exists like that because at the end of the day, whatever is owing, you can pay it if off and nobody will refuse to take your money, that I've ever seen anywhere. Usually people like to take your money when they don't deserve to get it. That, I think, is a serious question that has to be addressed here for many of the people who may be coming into this kind of problem or have this problem now.
There has to be a way that you can get out of this mortgage. You have to be able to go and buy it out if there is $10,000 or $20,000 left in it, you should be able to go to the bank, borrow the money, or to a friend, relative, whatever, and get the cash, pay it off; it's
paid off, it's done and gone. That's really the question I'm asking because if that was the case, I believe the government, then, would have some flexibility to possibly guarantee a loan - I think it would be an unusual thing to do - for that amount that's left or to make some other kind of arrangement to get out of that very inflexible arrangement to something that's more flexible, that maybe the payments could be handled because the income was insufficient to handle that one but maybe not this one, that sort of arrangement. Do you understand what I'm asking?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, again what the honourable member is actually talking about is refinancing the mortgage at a lower interest rate and that was clearly not an option as it was explained to me.
MR. COLWELL: No, that's not what I'm indicating. I understand that you may not be able to refinance something at a lower interest rate over a different period of time, whatever the case may be. What I'm saying is, is it possible to buy out these mortgages, straight buy them out, so if I decided tomorrow I'm going to buy a home from somebody who has one of these homes under this mortgage, can I actually take and buy this mortgage out and just straight buy it out? If I'm going to buy the house, can I buy the mortgage out? That's really my question. If the answer to that is yes, that means that something can be done with some of these mortgages because you can buy them out and then deal with them afterwards.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, to be specific, again I'm going to say no, I do not think that that is an option with the CMHC mortgages, but we've heard the member's questions and I have asked my staff if they can go back one more time and look at this. We did look at it at the time, if there was some way that your particular constituent could be accommodated by some sort of buyout or refinancing, and we were not given any encouragement that this would be possible and in actual fact, I think as the member is aware, lawyers were deeply involved in this and really were not given any encouragement that that was an option.
MR. COLWELL: I am looking for information about my own situation, but I'm also looking for global information on this more specifically because this could be quite an ongoing problem for the department and for hard-working people in Nova Scotia who may be in an unfortunate situation for a while. I know the minister, if he had a tool to do these things with, would accommodate people whenever you possibly could. Now that may not be possible every time and I'm not insinuating anything else. I know that that's the case.
I'm really looking for ways to prevent this in the future because I'm afraid in my own area, and maybe in the minister's area, and maybe other members' areas, there may be some more of these issues come up and if we can, between us, come up with some kind of a solution for this before it gets to a situation where someone has worked their whole lives to get a home, loses that home and never has a hope in their life again of getting another home.
As you well know, I don't have to explain to you how traumatic that is for a family and for the individuals involved. It's extremely difficult.
I will talk - I wasn't going to do that today - a little bit about the case that we have in mind and I won't mention anyone's name, of course, but I do appreciate the meetings we've had with your staff, it was very helpful, the information they provided me, and I really appreciate that. They did really go out of their way to try to help any way they could. In this case, it ended up that the individual owed very few dollars on this property. I believe less than $10,000. I don't have the numbers here with me today. At the end of the day, the family purchased the home because they were afraid that their grandmother/mother wouldn't be able to live outside of this home. It cost the family over $80,000 to buy this house back. This is actually not acceptable in today's society.
There has to be a way, and I know it's difficult, and I know when some of these arrangements are put in place they have the best interests at heart and have the interests of the individuals at heart, and the taxpayers at heart when they work at it, but when you take a family and it has to do this to buy a home back that they almost owned, I mean, it's not acceptable, it's simply not acceptable when you go through that process. Then you see some middleman making $20,000 for doing absolutely zero. Now, that's an argument for another day and how the process went.
I realize that the department did everything by the book, which they always do and you have to do to protect both the department and taxpayers, and the individuals involved, the best you can. But how can we possibly ever let this happen to anyone again? The minister may not be aware of the amount the family had to pay and the sacrifices they had to make to buy this house back, because without this home it took the heart and soul away from a very dear lady, a lady who had difficulty - I have to be careful what I say here in the Chamber - understanding exactly what the notices meant that the department sent, what the implications of those notices were, and what would happen down the road.
This is a very, very difficult case and I'm trying to gather more and more information on it and as I do I will make it available to the minister so he can see what difficulty this has caused this particular family. What I would like to do is share that information with the minister once I have it all assembled, which I'm working on right now, but it's very, very serious, this whole situation. I want this never to happen to anyone else. Could you please respond?
MR. MORSE: I want to assure the member I never wanted it to happen to anybody, ever, let alone in the future. I would assure the member that in the case he's speaking of, nothing was done without making sure the appropriate legal advice was in place for the customer. I do know other things about this that I am not able to divulge to the member that
I think would explain how it ended up being a much larger amount than the amount of the mortgage.
I will say that there is nothing that stops family - if somebody is fortunate enough to have family that have the means to assist a relative, whether it's a father, mother, son, or a daughter, from paying the mortgage for them and that certainly would always be an option for anybody, they just have to make arrangements to have the money come out of their account or put the money in for the person who has the mortgage account, and it can go forward, so that clearly would always have been an option.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Minister. The honourable member has a minute and a half remaining in his time allotment.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you, Mr. Minister, I do appreciate your reply. In this case I'm going to privately talk to the minister, if that's all right, about this case as well, so I can bring him up to speed on some of the other things that transpired here. I think I know the information - hopefully the family shared the same information with me - that you have through your department. I can talk to you about the information I have; you may not be able to talk to me about what you have, I understand that.
The point I am making here is that sometimes the person involved doesn't truly understand what is happening to them. I think in this particular case that was the case, and the family was not aware of what was transpiring and if they had been, they would have made arrangements to make the payments. That is my concern with this whole situation, it's a situation where it was happening to someone who if typically is dealing with this type of thing every day would have understood and said, fine, I have to make some arrangements with my family or whoever it's going to be to help me with this situation. This person didn't understand the ramifications that were going on here and I can give you more information regarding that. It made it very, very difficult for this person . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired for the Liberal Party.
The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MS. JOAN MASSEY: Mr. Chairman, I know I don't have a lot of time, but there are a couple of issues I hope to touch on this afternoon. One of them is an issue that is cropping up in my constituency office at an alarming rate, an increased rate I would have to say, and I believe in talking to other MLAs they are hearing and seeing the same kinds of issues in their offices. There's something going on in Community Services where there seems to be a push on collecting money that people do owe Community Services, and they're not denying that, but what's happening is an increasing number of constituents of mine are coming to me needing my help.
Right now I currently have 10 people, I believe, who have received income assistance in the past and through very hard work on their part - and probably on the part of their family and friends and whoever they can manage to get assistance from, and the government - they have managed to get off assistance. They have managed to get themselves a job, which is no easy feat right now in the HRM, but the problem is that no matter what they have done in trying to get off income assistance, and no matter how long they have been off it - in the cases that I'm seeing they have barely gotten off income assistance - Community Services is knocking at their door demanding, in a very forceful way, that they want any overpayments or money that Community Services deems is owed to them. They want that money back and they want it back right now.
They don't give people any assistance in telling them how to do that, how to make payments, they don't seem to be listening to peoples' issues as far as okay, I was on income assistance, I just got a job; if you're a single mom, or parent, or a new family starting out and you've had problems and are trying to get back on your feet, you have issues. Just because you have a job doesn't mean you have a bank account filled with money right away. When you first start a job, number one, you have probably built up some debts. Number two, you have bills that have to be paid, you have to get transportation to and from work, you have to clothe yourself still, you're trying to better yourself and get into a better place as far as housing goes.
What I'm looking for from Community Services is, there's nothing in between, it's Community Services saying, here you go, here's some money and now you're not on community services, get the heck out of here. If you owe us some money we want it back, we're not willing to listen to your problems, we're not willing to listen to what families have to say, and we're not willing to say, we realize you still are not back on your feet 100 per cent and that you still do need some help and it's not a handout, it's a hand up.
People are looking for a bit of breathing space and they don't need to be continuously hounded by Community Services to pay back money; it could be a small amount of money or a large amount of money. These people are not debating that they owe this money, they're just saying, can we have some breathing room; we've just gotten this job, we've just gotten our lives back to where we think we're on the road to a better future for us and our children, and that's what they are looking for.
Community Services can come in and take back that money either through somebody who is getting a tax refund. They have a job now finally, maybe they've gotten a bit of education or whatever and improved things and they have a job. The next thing they know their tax rebate is gone, or Community Services can come in and garnish their wages. All these things that are hanging over their head can cause stress; somebody has just started a new job, they're trying to look out for themselves and their family, and they're trying to be part of what we have going on here in Nova Scotia, so they're really just looking for a little bit of help.
As I said, there seems to be something afoot and it's a crackdown at Community Services throughout the province. I'm just wondering, all these bonuses that are coming out of Community Services, are these bonuses tied into how much money your staff can actually collect from these people? If not, what are the bonuses tied into? If you can answer that question and maybe let me know if there's anything down the road where Community Services is going to be looking at a way to help people in that period of time, an adjustment period, instead of coming after them the moment they have a job, is there some way you can work something out there?
It seems to me that the MLAs' offices are like an outpost for Community Services. I feel like we are part of the social worker sphere, and I'm not trained in that and my constituency assistant isn't either. We are trying our best to help people but when they go to the government and they can't get the help, or they've gotten help and the government is coming after them continuously and not offering them any options, then it puts us all in a position that all of us really shouldn't be in. I'm just looking for maybe some comments on that or if you can answer some of those questions, thank you.
MR. MORSE: I thank the member opposite for her questions. She touched on a number of areas, one is the collection of overpayments and the other is whether that ties in in any way with bonuses. I think that the short answer on the latter is there is no direct connection, but clearly, any well-managed department is going to have to have an understanding of how they go about dealing with overpayments and it should be done on a compassionate basis.
The member talked about somebody who has just gotten a job and perhaps they were on community services and they're moving off to start a career, and that's what Employment Support Services is about, that's why we had 10,800 people in Employment Support Services last year and we invested $17 million in them to try to get them to that stage. One of the things we invested in them was the ability to have the tools to go to work, and it depends on the type of job. If it happens to be perhaps a clerical job, that might involve a suit of clothes, a dress, or maybe a new pair of reading glasses.
Under the Employment Support Services I want to absolutely stress there is a provision available to clients who are moving off community services and, in fact, if there's no drug plan with the new employer, we allow them to stay on the Pharmacare Program for up to a year afterwards, and that can be a big deal for some clients. If you happen to be diabetic, as an example, and before we introduced our new low-income Nova Scotia drug plan starting with diabetics, that would be like a kiss of death. Unless you're making a substantial amount, you're not going to be able to cover the costs of your insulin, your strips, syringes, all the other things that go with being diabetic. I'm very pleased that the Department of Health is now funding this for low-income Nova Scotians, but for anybody who is moving off community services, we had put that provision in place to bridge them from moving from community services to work.
The specific case you're referring to involves an overpayment which means that the client, for whatever reason, was paid more than they were allowed by policy. Often, the most common form of that is if they got a Canada Pension Plan payment, as an example, but anyway, they were overpaid for some reason. If they go to a job and are no longer a client, that file would go to Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, so the things that you were speaking of would now actually fall outside the department.
The client's ability to pay is always taken into consideration and I can tell you there are clients who moved off community services, who had no means of repaying the loan, and they are put at a zero monthly payment, because we know they can't pay anything. They have to be in contact with their caseworker, if they're with Community Services, or the collection officer if they're with Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations. They have to give them that information that would allow them to make that decision.
What I would say to anybody who is having difficulty meeting their monthly loan payments is to get in touch with whoever is managing your account, give them your circumstances and explain that whatever amount has been assigned to you is difficult under the circumstances.
Mr. Chairman, perhaps I could continue the answer after the hour of interruption.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes, we've reached the moment of interruption and we will recess the committee until 6:30 p.m.
[6:00 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[6:30 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: I'm advised that the Minister of Community Services was in the middle of a response and wishes to complete that response. (Interruptions) Could I ask the Minister of Community Services to complete the response that he had to that earlier question in his response to the next question that's coming from the honourable member for Halifax Needham?
The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, because I have very little time, I'm sharing it with my colleagues. The matters I want to bring forward are very pressing in my constituency. As you know, I represent the constituency of Halifax Needham, the northern part of the peninsula. My constituency is within the central region of the minister's department. I want to raise some concerns about the direction of the central region.
The central region has a relatively new manager with respect to his longevity in the job. The direction this region has been going in causes me concern, based on what people tell me, people who work inside the department, people from the non-profit sector who deal with the department frequently and regularly, and people in the field of social work practice, my profession prior to coming to this place.
The concerns that are being expressed to me I think are important for the minister to hear because there are concerns from people who have invested a great deal of time in their professional training as social workers who are telling me they can't practise social work as they were taught. This department, and this region, is increasingly fixated and preoccupied with cost-cutting considerations and the reduction in services.
In this House I have raised various issues - I will just summarize some of them - around the cuts in comfort allowances, the personal use allowances for people in shelters. I have raised issues and written the minister with respect to the termination of adolescents in care, when they turn 16 if they have any problems whatsoever at all, without any transitioning into any other program, leaving them vulnerable in our community, and sometimes leaving the community vulnerable with respect to the difficulties that young people without supervision and a family can present in the community.
I am being told that there is a review underway for people who are in receipt of income support, a review that is looking at their telephone benefits and bus passes. Even people with extensive and permanent disabilities are being subjected to this review and it has raised a fair degree of anxiety in that group of people with respect to whether or not they're going to be able to maintain their telephone services and their bus passes.
I continually encounter situations in my own constituency where people have been inappropriately housed in senior citizens' public housing without the necessary supports and services they require. These are concerns that I encounter on a routine basis. As an MLA I'm increasingly seeing situations where people who are in need of special needs - what historically have been special needs - as they are in receipt of assistance - eyeglasses, dental care, particular crises that occur when they go to their Community Services worker and say I really need these things, if they are assisted - increasingly many of the things that were once seen as special needs are now being recovered from them as overpayments.
To get access to the appeal process is extraordinarily difficult. The waiting time to get a schedule, a formal appeal, is at least a minimum of four weeks - probably more like six weeks. When the decisions come, the decisions can be quite disgraceful. They are decisions that are written for the hometown team without any findings of fact. Anybody who has ever been before a tribunal will know that you really need to have at least some finding of fact in a case so that you can determine what the basis was on which the adjudicator made a decision.
I have to say, as someone who has practised in the field of social work for many years and who now represents a constituency where many people are - through no choice of their own - in a position where they rely on this minister's department, I see an enormous erosion in not just the services that are available to people, but as well, in the goodwill, the respect and the compassion with which people are treated. Indeed, in some cases, the professional values and ethics of a social work practice.
My colleague, the member for Cape Breton Centre earlier today made reference to his view that increasingly within the Department of Community Services, those with social work training and experience and expertise are being replaced by financial planners, managers and what have you. I must say, to some extent, while perhaps that's not shared by the minister's staff, it certainly is a perception that's not only a perception of members of this House, but of various groups, including the membership of the Nova Scotia Association of Social Workers.
I was in this province during the Savage years when we experienced deep cuts in many departments. I can tell you that one of the things that is often said in the social work profession today is that the Department of Community Services during the darkest period of cuts in this province escaped cuts. They did that for three reasons, according to people who have looked at this and analyzed why that was. They escaped cuts because they had a strong deputy minister, they had a compassionate minister who got it, and they had a Premier who also got it and understood the importance of having strong programs for people who are disadvantaged.
I really wanted to outline some of the concerns that are brought to me. I have two questions for the minister - I don't really expect a response from the minister with respect to the earlier comments I have made. Those are views that I express here on my own behalf and on behalf of people who are dependent in one way or another on the minister's department and on the government, who feel threatened to some extent from voicing those remarks directly themselves because their livelihood, in one way or another, depends on their relationship with the department.
It causes me great frustration when I encounter people - I have to say to the minister that these aren't isolated comments and situations. These comments that come to me and situations that are presented are so broadly based that I cannot be left with anything other than the impression that there is a general problem and a building problem throughout the helping professions, agencies and client groups and communities, certainly within the arena that I have contact with in the North End of Halifax, and throughout Halifax-Dartmouth frankly.
But specifically I want to ask the minister about two particular organizations or issues that I would like to get some answers around. The first is with respect to two daycare centres in Halifax Needam, one is the North End Community Day Care Centre and the other is the
Alexandra Children's Centre. Both of these daycares are very old, long-standing daycares. They're among the first daycares in the province. All the daycare spaces at both North End and Alexandra are subsidized daycare spaces. They're licensed as fully subsidized daycares and what this means is the families who rely on those daycares are families who come from low-income socio-economic backgrounds. They're either people who are in training, people who are in receipt of income support, people who are working but working at low income.
These daycares are both financially strapped. The North End Community Day Care Centre, the minister will be aware, is carrying a very serious deficit and requires support from the department. The Alexandra Children's Centre has moved from pillar to post and is attempting to find a permanent home and has a very good plan, but has not been able to get any support from the minister's department. So I want to ask the minister, what support is his department going to provide these daycares so that they can become stable and focus on what it is that they need to be focusing on, which is early childhood education, and when will this occur? So this is my first question to the minister.
My second question to the minister is with respect to the SASH project, which is a project for supportive assisted housing that has been submitted to his department from the Metro Non-Profit Housing Association. The minister will recall that he and I have exchanged correspondence with respect to that housing project. This is a sensible proposal and one that is extraordinarily important because of the growing number of men and women in our community who have mental health disorders, and also addictions, and their real need to live in an environment that is both supportive and is healthy, and to get people out of the derelict rooming houses and away from slum landlords into an environment where they will have the support and the respect that they need in order to lead a dignified life.
Those are the two questions I have for the minister with respect to the North End Community Day Care, Alexandra Children's Centre and the SASH project.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I will answer the honourable member's questions, but there are a number of things that I feel compelled to do as minister before I do that and she may not have invited me to respond to her preamble but, unfortunately, sometimes in the debate here in the House we forget that there are civil servants out there who are not able to defend themselves and I want to put on the record, number one, the confidence that I have in my staff.
I want to acknowledge specifically the comments from the Liberal Party about the great working relationship that they have with the staff in their areas and I acknowledge that immediately. I want to say that I think that some of the tactics by the Official Opposition today have been regrettable, going from substance to personal, and I'm going to respond to the comments by the member for Halifax Needham that personally attacked my staff publicly where they are in no position to be here to defend themselves. I would suggest that that sort of practice should not happen in the Legislature and I would further suggest that if you have
those sorts of concerns and you really want to deal with them constructively, you ought to bring it to me instead of some public forum.
The first comment that the member for Halifax Needham made was about our new regional administrator in the central region. She singled him out for criticism. (Interruptions)
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: On a point of order, Mr. Chairman, I would like the record to reflect what actually was said when I asked my questions. My questions were directed to the minister. They were with respect to concerns that have been brought to me with respect to the preoccupation of the central region with cost-cutting measures, and I outlined probably five or six substantive factual points to support the concerns that have been raised. Nobody is attacking the minister's staff, but I make no apologies for pointing out to the minister that it's his responsibility and his failings that are being spoken about here tonight.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Member, I'm at a slight disadvantage because I was not here when the comments were made, but I will now recognize the honourable minister responsible and I'll ask for order in the House.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I think Hansard will accurately record the actual comments of the member for Halifax Needham, including the one about questioning professional ethics of the central region's social workers which was not called for and not appropriate.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order once again, what I said, and I want the record to be accurate on this, is that people who are professionally trained social workers are expressing concerns that they are unable to practice within their code of ethics and to offer a professional practice because of the preoccupation of the minister's department with financial concerns and not human concerns. That is what I said.
MR. CHAIRMAN: It's not a point of order without substantive proof of this.
The honourable Minister of Community Services has the floor.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I'll refer to Hansard for the member's opening comments and rest my case.
The honourable member is claiming a preoccupation in the reduction of services and I don't have any problems with that sort of comment because I'm quite happy to stand up and speak to them. She made mention of cuts to comfort allowances and I would point out, Mr. Chairman, that the comfort allowances last year went to $105 from $95 in the central region
and on January 1, 2006, they will go to $115. She made reference to cutbacks within the central region, and specifically I'm going to refer to special needs because that is the catch-all. When caseworkers need discretion to help out a client in need, they can refer to special needs and it allows them some latitude to address their concerns.
I would point out, Mr. Chairman, that special needs in the central region were approximately $13 million last year and I understand that's an increase of somewhere in the vicinity of $5 million. So, again, I guess the evidence that I have in front of me would tend to contradict the suggestion by the member for Halifax Needham.
I would also like to point out that the basic personal allowance, which was an initiative of this government to increase after many years of it being frozen, went from $180 last year to $184, it's now going to $190, and partly in response to concern expressed by members in this House, during the estimates of last year, I followed through on my commitment to increase the shelter allowance for single non-elderly people. The boarding room rate went from $197 to $222 and the apartment rate went from $235 to $285. Not as much as I would like to have done, but I would think that anybody would suggest that that is significant. So I just wanted to put some perspective as to what's actually happening within the department, and I wanted to defend the record of my staff in particular.
There was also reference to the preoccupation on finances and the member for Dartmouth North made some comments about performance bonuses, and I think this plays into what the member for Halifax Needham was concerned about. I would have to say that based on the suggestions from the member for Dartmouth North, that he found somehow or other it was not appropriate for the Deputy Minister of Community Services to be on pay-for-performance, but that perhaps it was okay for all the other deputy ministers - and he's agreeing with me - I guess that my concern is that I would want to have the best people working in the Department of Community Services, the most competent, caring staff possible, especially in managers, and in order to do that and attract those sort of people, you have to be competitive.
I'm very pleased with not only my deputy minister, but I'm very pleased with the way that she is able to attract excellent staff to her, including the regional administrator for the central region, who came from Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, and has done such a wonderful job in working with the various organizations in the North End in particular. He has been the point person in dealing with the whole emergency shelter situation. He has built up an excellent rapport with the six shelters. They meet on a monthly basis and this is something that is very important to me and it's very important, I think, to all Nova Scotians that that be in place for people when they are without accommodation, that there is a safe place for them to go and get shelter and a warm bed.
I would say that the regional administrator has done an exemplary job in this area. He has also tracked the use that's being made of the facilities there and kept us informed of them, and has created a network between the six emergency shelters so that they are dialoguing amongst themselves much better and doing referrals. As a result of that, we made significant additional investments in that area.
The member asked some specific questions. I know I just have a few minutes left and I do want to respond to her questions. The North End Community Day Care Centre - just to put this into perspective, as I did for the member for Glace Bay - these are large child care centres. In 2003-04 they received $528,320 from the Department of Community Services to assist them in their operation, and the Alexandra Children's Centre, in the same year, got $491,263 from the department. These centres do have that in common with Town Day Care in Glace Bay in that it is an area that very much needs subsidized daycare spaces.
I am certainly aware of the challenges of the Alexandra Children's Centre, and I understand that they have applied under the expansion and start-up grant and they are an organization that I definitely want to be able to assist. I want to see them to be able to continue. With regard to the North End Day Care Centre, I am advised that there are some challenges perhaps regarding vacancies for that particular centre and that is a concern to me.
With regard to SASH, I would like to acknowledge that the member wrote me a rather thoughtful letter, basically outlining the challenges faced by mental health consumers who are in need of accommodation and that it's not just enough to put a roof over their head. They need the support services that are necessary to basically stabilize their situation and allow them to manage. With that regard, the proposal that was put forward was judged by the Department of Health and the Department of Community Services not to be sustainable.
But I did make the commitment to them and I made the commitment to the member, I believe, in the letter that I sent back that I do want to continue working with them until we get something that is sustainable and can assist those people who would be served by this. One has to remember that the whole SASH model is based on experiences in New York and London and much larger centres, and it may not necessarily fit with what's going on in Halifax.
I will continue to work with those people who have brought this forward. The regional administrator is in contact with them. I met with the proponents and we had a very productive meeting. I am pleased with the feedback and I intend to follow this through until we have the appropriate services in place to care for those people. So, Mr. Chairman, I would suggest with those few comments that we will be there for them.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Minister, there are about 10 seconds left.
The honourable member for Halifax Fairview.
MR. GRAHAM STEELE: Mr. Chairman, my question to the minister is, in the last 10 years, how many children in the care of the minister . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired for the NDP caucus. The time has expired for the day.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, I move that the committee do now rise and report considerable progress.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee rose at 6:57 p.m.]