HALIFAX, THURSDAY, MAY 12, 2005
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE HOUSE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Daniel Graham
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley.
MS. MARILYN MORE: Mr. Chairman, I'm sure we are all familiar with the connect-the-dot exercises that children like to do in their colouring books, so what I would like to do is connect some of the dots in terms of my Party's concerns about the Department of Community Services budget and create a picture which I think you will find is not a very pretty picture. I would even go so far as to say that in some respects the picture is going to indicate almost an atmosphere of mean-spiritedness and in the picture, the lines will be somewhat outside the lines.
I guess the reason I'm starting off this way is because this was the point of our motion on Tuesday, to take out the minister's salary except for $1. We wanted to bring to the government's attention the degree of dissatisfaction that we had with this particular department and this particular budget. I'm sure the minister has noticed that much of the so-called debate on the budget estimates around this department has been somewhat one-sided, that is the Opposition members have been expressing their frustration by listing a number of concerns rather than the more traditional back and forth dialogue. This wasn't planned, but I think it indicates a shared level of frustration with what's happening to the most vulnerable in our province.
So I would suggest that the department may be dealing with numbers and broad policy concerns but as MLAs in our Party, we are seeing and hearing from people who are suffering every day with what the department is doing and not doing. So to a large extent, I'm actually going to continue this trend this afternoon because I want to get my points across. I'm not suggesting that the minister and his staff take notes on what I'm saying because I actually will, if I have time at the end, ask some specific questions.
The first issue I want to talk about is why, after two years of being the Community Services Critic, I reached this level of dissatisfaction and frustration. I think in some respects it has been a learning process and I can't help but notice - and when I talk to my caucus colleagues, they have the same experience - that an increasing amount of my casework, my work in my constituency office, is the result of clients or want-to-be clients of the department having problems with the department. I'm noticing an increase month after month and it has reached a point now where it forms the majority of the work that I do in the constituency office.
I want to be clear here that I am not attacking the front-line staff in the department but I think what I've learned over the last year and a half is that those staff members are not allowed to use their common sense, they are not allowed any flexibility in their decision making, and there seems to be pressure on some of the top administrators to sort of micromanage so the front-line workers are not able to use their experience, their knowledge of the community, their knowledge of the system, to best match the needs of the clients with what's available. Yet, if they were allowed to do that, it would save the government money and it would be much more effective.
So some of the examples that I'm seeing in my constituency office, a number of low-income citizens are not able to get affordable housing. I wasn't sure if the minister was listening but I hope he is because this is serious. Other people who come into my office are actually in subsidized housing but they are having trouble with environmental sensitivities. There has been a lot of deferred maintenance, the housing authorities and other public housing organizations are not able to keep up with the repairs and the renovations necessary for the age of the buildings that these people are living in. There are lots of concerns about high-needs neighbours who are not given the appropriate supports to be in the building with others, so they are often a risk to both themselves and to the other residents.
I have a considerable number of people coming through the door who cannot manage to live on the amount of money, the rates that are provided by the department. They can't get the basic necessities. In fact, a single employable person in 2003 received only 31 per cent of the poverty line in terms of the department rates. A couple with two children had a net income of 57 per cent of the poverty line and this is an impossible amount to live on. Yet at the same time, when these people try to get a job to supplement so that they are able to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children or perhaps buy Christmas presents or a birthday present or even send their child, in the summer, to a church camp, they are penalized by having 70 per cent of their income taken off.
I see a lot of people with severe disabilities or suffering mental illness who are on wait lists and can't get into affordable housing or placement in small options or group homes. I'm hearing more and more about children in the permanent care of the minister who are being transferred out of their home, to their mind, where they feel comfortable and loved and well-treated, and the professionals who are dealing with these children, either medical
professionals or people who are looking after them, are told the only explanation is they are going to a cheaper placement, and this is absolutely incredible.
Sometimes, in terms of advocating for the people who come into the office, instead of calling head office and saying who I am, I'm an MLA, whatever, I actually try to use the process that's in place, that a client of the department would be encouraged to use. So I start with the caseworker, work up to the casework supervisor and continue on. Just occasionally I get to experience some of the reality of trying to communicate with the department. For example, first thing in the morning, being on hold for 10 minutes, going through the switchboard, unavailable personnel. Now admittedly, people have to be in meetings and have to be about doing their work but it seems to me that because of the under-resourcing of personnel in the various programs, the wait in terms of getting a response back is often longer and longer.
Delays in responses, procedural merry-go-rounds. A small example of what I'm talking about is a constituent who came to me, a person with a disability who is having a problem getting a medically required dental procedure covered with Quickcard and, as you know, this is the company that has been contracted out to pay for dental procedures. I've been two weeks trying to get this small issue resolved, between 12 and 15 phone calls and I just found out the other day that we're back to square one, have to start all over again. I'm thinking, okay, I like to think I know the system a little bit, I know how to get action, facilitate a response, and if I'm having that much trouble, how is a client supposed to get through these procedures?
I think the impact on the client is that they want to give up, they just don't want to pursue what might be a legitimate or well-deserved program or coverage. So it doesn't surprise me that some of the lists are getting smaller and smaller because I think the clients and the applicants are just giving up in frustration, trying to get some of the benefits to which they are eligible.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, I have a lot of sympathy for the front-line staff in the department, and I know they are overworked and they are overstressed, yet the budget indicates some significant personnel cuts. When I get to my questions at the end, I will be interested to know where the other positions are going to, if they are being cut in two of the large programs. Front-line staff are expected to nickel and dime cost savings for the department when their common sense and their genuine concern for their clients indicate there are more effective ways of dealing with many situations.
Another issue that's becoming more obvious is students in post-secondary programs running into financial problems toward the end of the school year. One that comes to mind is a young woman, a single mom, who was within two months of graduation from a two-year
community college program and she just needed a little bit of assistance to help her get through that two months. There was every indication that she was going to graduate and every indication that she would get a fairly well-paying job so that she would be independent and be able to support her child. According to the current regulations, if someone is registered in a post-secondary program as a student and they were not on community services before they started that program, they are not eligible to receive social assistance.
The advice to this young woman was, quit the program, lose the benefit of the student loan that she had taken out, apply for community services, get on community services, then take out another loan and lose all the benefit of the year and three-quarters that she had put into the program. Now, it just makes sense to me that a little bit of flexibility, a little bit of support for a couple of months would have saved a lot of money. Now, as it turned out, this young woman refused to take that advice and she's looking for other ways to continue on and graduate.
The other issue about staff that I want to talk about, and this is something that I brought up during last year's estimates as well, there have been lots of correspondence and studies done by unions and employee associations and professional associations and non-government organizations about under-resourcing of personnel within the department. I won't go into details. I'm sure the minister is very familiar with the impact report. This was produced by the Community Advocates Network in partnership with the Nova Scotia Association of Social Workers, and it certainly documents the human resource levels and worker-client relationships and the difficulties that these are causing clients and staff.
Casework load has increased. There is much frustration for recipients and workers. There is no time for social supports, sharing information, giving direction, providing empathy and support, and it often leads to inconsistent information and an interpretation of procedures across this province.
The other report that I know the minister is familiar with is the NSGEU Caseload Overload report in 2002 and it, again, outlines the challenges that staff within the department are facing. In fact, it was reported on CBC Radio that the minister was attending a function where youth in care of the minister, were, I believe, launching a youth newspaper and it was mentioned by one of the young women involved in this project that I think perhaps she had seen her caseworker once in the last year. So everyone is complaining, from the clients as young as teenagers right up to the organizations representing the workers, and also the community groups and provincial organizations that are working with the department to help them deliver their mandated services.
So it's interesting that in this year's budget, the department is cutting 18 full-time positions from the Employment Support and Income Assistance Program, which is, I understand, the largest program in the department, and also cutting 15 full-time equivalents from Housing Services. So in my mind, with the additional funding for new staff, it looks
as though there are 89 new positions, and later on I'm going to be asking the minister where those positions are going to be located.
The other issue I want to talk about is the unfair impact of a lot of the policies on women and children in this province. What seems to be missing within the department is recognition that government has to make women and children a priority because of the changing demographics in Nova Scotia and if they don't recognize this, it's not going to just unfairly impact on the women and children who are living in poverty, but it's also going to impact on the economy of this province because we need to ensure that we have a well-educated and productive workforce in the future that will support the tax base that's necessary for the quality of life, quite frankly, that we all enjoy and we all want to enjoy. But there doesn't seem to be any recognition and sort of proactive approach to the changing demographics.
So let me give you an example. In Nova Scotia, Statistics Canada indicates to us that young women and young men are increasingly delaying marriage or choosing not to marry. At the same time, young women are delaying having children or they are having fewer children, so this results in a declining birthrate. Now the government has recognized this in one other sense, in terms of their immigration strategy, but there is another side to this issue, and that's recognizing there is a declining birthrate.
Some of the reading and research I've done on this issue indicates that some of the factors affecting the declining birth rate are financial insecurity; the expense associated with post-secondary education and training, especially university; the fact that women have to have higher levels of education to earn an adequate or an equal income to men who have less levels of education; and, of course, many graduate with huge debts and are unable to start their families as early as perhaps my generation did.
Also, the cost of raising children is increasing. Families are smaller and more widespread so you don't have the family support in the community the way we once did. Often, children and their parents live some distance from grandparents and aunts and uncles and other members of extended family. Although parental leave has been extended, there is still an inadequacy in terms of pay during that parental leave and the last one that I'm going to mention, but certainly not least, are the long waiting lists for affordable child care in this province.
So it's obvious that we have to address some of these situations, especially through this department, in order to sustain our labour force and our tax base and our quality of life. So I'm suggesting that the women and children who are being underserved by the department are crucial to any such labour force strategy and this is going to have an impact on our economy. So I feel that it's really important that those issues be taken seriously and planned for; otherwise, women and children living in poverty are trapped into that cycle and they are not able to achieve their potential and that's not just a loss to them and their families, that's
a loss to our whole province. So we can't afford to neglect any of our citizens. They are part of the solution to our economic revival. So in my mind, any government that overlooks at best, or abdicates its responsibility to a sector of its human resources, does so at its peril.
There is also the interesting situation, people talk about gender equality but there is also the issue of gender equity, and that's when something impacts disproportionately on women more so than men and there are lots of examples of that. Just take for example the policy of having day surgery and early hospital discharge. This increases the unpaid caregiving responsibilities for mostly women in this province.
Also, the lack of affordable and licensed child care means that a lot of grandparents are now looking after their grandchildren and I've personally seen the impact of this in the voluntary sector, especially in rural communities where a lot of older women have had to give up their volunteer activities within community groups because they are now staying home to look after their grandchildren because their children could not find licensed child care within that community. So there is this ripple effect that's happening. It's just not affecting the people involved, it's having a broader impact on the family, extended family and the community.
The next issue I want to talk about is the lack of strategy to overcome poverty in this province. The 2004 Nova Scotia Child Poverty Report Card indicates that 36,000 children in the Province of Nova Scotia live in poverty.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. The time for the Official Opposition has expired.
The honourable member for Kings West.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I have a few questions to put forward to the minister, more pertaining perhaps to the area that I represent and perhaps a bit more indicative of Kings County. At a recent meeting with officials from Community Services held in Middleton, one of the staggering statistics - and just for Kings County - was that the waiting list now for affordable housing has stretched to over 500. We know that one little project has certainly gone on in Middleton but even that, of course, is one that is really more suitable for what I would call more of a middle-income group of people. There are some very big needs in our area, so right in the area where the minister resides and represents we have an enormous deficit of affordable housing. I would like to hear from the minister what his department and his plans are to address a growing issue in the Annapolis Valley.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Community Services.
HON. DAVID MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I want to thank my colleague from the Liberal Party, the member for Kings West, for his questions. This is the purpose for the estimates, to get answers, as opposed to get up and state positions. Let me just qualify that. It's refreshing that in estimates a member is actually taking advantage of the chance to get some answers, and I will try to provide them.
There is a problem right across the country and the member is right, there is a deficit. It was a challenge back in the early 1990s when the federal government pulled out of social housing and again we welcome them back in. The member did make mention to the fact that the first 15 units that were built and are occupied in Middleton are more for middle income. That's a good point and he's absolutely right, because that project really epitomizes what it was designed to do and that's something that we had changed in Nova Scotia in that we were implementing it. That's one of the reasons why we are using rent supplements to provide Nova Scotia's 50 per cent share for any of these projects.
The Affordable Housing Program really is designed as a way of paying down the capital costs of new construction and it was limited to a total of $50,000 per unit which is the maximum mortgage buy-down, which means that the balance had to be covered by the occupants, the new tenants. That's middle income. It's not really targeted for low income. One would argue that this program was really designed probably more for urban Ontario, and we have made the modifications in Nova Scotia with the flexibility that has been afforded to us by CMHC and the minister to move to the rent supplement approach so that we can target lower income Nova Scotians in need of affordable housing. We know that by doing that we are not going to create as many new units, but we feel that those that we do create will be going to people who would otherwise have had greater difficulty obtaining accommodation.
To the member's question about when is it rolling out or when are there going to be more announcements, the member might be aware that there is a 24-unit complex for seniors that is currently under construction in New Minas. I would say that I always appreciate when there are projects that come forward for Kings County because I know that it is an area where there is a tremendous demand for affordable housing, and that's why I was very appreciative that my colleagues were so quick to sign Phase II of the Affordable Housing Agreement which actually provides greater scope to address the needs of low-income Nova Scotians. We are assessing the call for proposals that came back from Phase II, or from the second call for proposals, and I'm looking forward to getting recommendations soon on new announcements.
So that is what's going on in terms of the Affordable Housing Program and if the member has any more specific questions, I would certainly endeavour to answer them.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I was wondering if any other areas had been targeted because I know that if we take a look at the list of people, especially those who are trying to live in the Berwick area, this area has become an important area to help attract people to the Valley for the farm labour pool and we have some migration, we especially see a real trend from Newfoundland toward the Valley for seasonal employment as their employment rate is somewhere between 15 per cent and 20 per cent.
I know through this Fall and Winter period, numerous calls - in fact, I have a tracking in my office, I could actually give you a number but I don't have that here with me today - with people who were trying to find family housing. This is a family of three, four and five who were living with somebody else as a temporary means. I put in many calls, as well, to Cobequid Housing, along with sort of a targeted area like Berwick where there is enormous need.
Also, the second part of my question then is, do you work in concert with Cobequid Housing to try to wrestle some of the housing needs that we have in this area and, by extension of course, across the province?
MR. MORSE: The first part of your question was what about other areas of Kings County and we look to the rental proposals to be generated by either the municipality, non-profit organizations, it can be commercial, and we assess it based on the value that we think it provides to people in need of affordable housing and, again, using the income criteria as one of the important ones. I want to make sure that we capture low-income Nova Scotians, as well as others who would perhaps benefit from the mortgage buy-down that comes from the federal capital contribution and provincially, we supplement the rents of lower income Nova Scotians.
So I guess to answer your question, a certain amount of it is generated by the community, which proponents will step up to the plate and put in an application, and based on the demand in Kings County, that's a good place for people to be submitting applications and if you know of non-profit organizations or if the town wants to get involved with this or whoever wants to come forward with a good proposal that can stand up against the criteria to deliver good value, we would be pleased to consider those proposals. Honourable member, because it's in the Valley, I would be delighted to attend any such announcements with the member for Kings West. So I hope that happens.
You were asking about Cobequid Housing. There are seven housing authorities in the province. Cobequid is in the central area and the reason that we have some units in the Annapolis Valley, indeed spread all over the province, is that there used to be the Rural and Native Housing organization called Ki'knu and actually, because of insurance concerns and the fact that they were no longer able to get insurance by agreement, their stock got rolled into the Cobequid Housing stock. Now we are in the process of divesting that across the seven regional housing authorities so that in future, if a unit is in Kings County, as an
example, it will be managed under the Annapolis Valley Regional Housing Authority. But that answers the question of how in the world did Cobequid Housing get involved in renting units in Kings County.
MR. GLAVINE: One of the sessions held on homelessness this year in the Valley was held in Middleton and it was well attended. It pointed out certainly some of the needs that do exist in our area. On that occasion, there were several people who said they would lobby hard to the Department of National Defence, in particular, to have a strong look at the housing that existed at 14 Wing Greenwood that has started to be dismantled over the last number of years.
Now generally speaking, from local contractors and people in the area, in fact, who have actually won some of the tenders to take down these buildings, all conclude that this housing stock is certainly in pretty good condition. I was one of the people who wrote the minister, met with people at 14 Wing Greenwood and while I got their response, I'm just wondering if the minister and his department did any lobbying for this housing or felt that it could complement and work toward solving some of the problems that we have in this area.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I want to commend the member for his interest and involvement in that area. I did have a conversation with, I believe it was, the executive director of CAYAC, the Children and Youth Action Committee, which is an interdepartmental creation that is trying to deal with some of the youth issues which also includes, of course, access to affordable housing. I was very impressed with this woman who approached me. She certainly had done her homework. She also spoke passionately about the opportunity that was there and I made the connection between her and the department and encouraged a rapport. But you're right, I think that the first decision is that the Department of National Defence has to basically put off the stay of execution on those buildings before we can go anywhere, but we are receptive to an approach from that community.
MR. GLAVINE: The last question regarding housing is a very specific one, I guess. In the Waterville area there are seniors' apartments located on Maple Street - I'm trying to think of the name of that group of houses there now, it will come to me here momentarily. In those complexes, for some reason or another, there seems to have been, I guess, the acceptance into those units of families as well as seniors - in other words, mixed age groups and so on - that has led to a number of problems for seniors and the older community there.
I'm just wondering why such a development is allowed, which we know in this case not only has the potential, but in fact a very unsettling set of circumstances has been going on for a period of time and I'm just wondering how department policy or the lack of implementing a policy there allows for such a situation to arise, which makes it certainly a very disconcerting and unsettling one for the residents there. In other words, I, as an MLA, when I was receiving calls about the number of complaints and so forth, I did have to register
them with authorities fairly strongly, but I'm just wondering why that situation is allowed to unfold.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, again thanks to the member for bringing up really a very important question that allows me to speak a little bit about public housing and some of the challenges and opportunities that we face with our current stock. We know that there are waiting lists for public housing, affordable housing, but that does not mean that every unit in the province is occupied. In fact, there are some units where we have chronic vacancies. In the case of a seniors' unit, we will not consider anybody under the age of 58 unless it's exceptional circumstances.
A chronic vacancy is one such case. In those cases, if it's determined that we are not going to be able to rent it to a senior, again somebody who is age 58 - and it's strange how 58 seems to be younger and younger every year I get older - we will consider applicants from other people. The member is referencing that some families have actually shown up in these units but before that is allowed to go forward, we do send a social worker in to evaluate them to try to determine compatibility. That information goes back to the housing authority, which actually makes the decision on who occupies their premises. It's up to them to make the decision to allow somebody under the age of 58 in.
So that's how it comes about and it's to address chronic vacancy and a social need and if you have available units and you are not using them, then you try to do something that is compatible with the existing tenants and occasionally, regardless of the tenant's age, you are going to find situations where people don't always get along in the same building. I think what the member is saying is that unfortunately that seems to be the case with at least one of these families.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you, Mr. Minister, for that explanation. One of the deficiencies in the area that has come to my attention a couple of times in the past year is appropriate housing and programming for youth with mental challenges. I'm in particular thinking of older children with severe autism who are no longer able to be handled or provided programs within the school system. I've had two families who have had to take their children to Yarmouth. I'm wondering if these programs are delivered on a regional basis, is there some way in which there can be a better array of services available, for example, again through the Annapolis Valley?
When circumstances like this arise, it's an enormous challenge to the family that already has difficult circumstances to deal with around their child, like when they have to try to work out something with an employer to take their child to Yarmouth on a Monday morning, go down for them and bring them back on Friday. I'm just wondering is there any planning for services that indeed could be delivered locally in cases like this?
MR. MORSE: Again, honourable member, you bring up good questions. In terms of servicing families that have children with special needs - or youth, I guess, in this case is really what we're talking about, who have special challenges - it depends on the severity of the challenge. In the case of those who are not able to live on their own - and I'm not sure that's where the member is going with this necessarily, but I don't think it's exclusive of this area as well - we do now have the Direct Family Support Program which basically empowers, financially, the family to work out a plan with the caseworker for that son or daughter as to what needs should be met in the home. We actually give the family a cheque for that amount and they purchase those services so, in fact, that would definitely bring it closer to home.
Now for the less challenging cases but ones that still present problems for the family, we actually have an extra million dollars in this year's Child Welfare and Residential Services budget specifically to assist families with those kinds of challenges. We recognize the problem and this is our way of trying to bring some resources forward, but with every client comes unique circumstances. That's one of the beauties of being in Community Services as a staff member, it gives you some flexibility in trying to help your clients. But it also comes with some challenges, everyone is a little bit unique and they need their own plan.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Minister, one of the areas that I brought up today in my resolution that certainly was impressed upon us very strongly by the poverty group, an interfaith group, the Face of Poverty Consultation Group - and I'm sure perhaps every member here in the House has, in fact, come across circumstances where a telephone is considered a necessary item toward helping their cause, helping themselves, especially with employment issues. We know that it is there for those who have medical issues and a very basic service. I'm wondering if the department has given serious consideration to that kind of lifeline, in some cases, and to that service that can, in fact, empower people on community assistance to have better opportunities for work.
We know how difficult and cumbersome it is. I've heard from people on provincial assistance who said that this was a real obstacle to exploring job possibilities that came along on short notice. They couldn't receive messages. They had things lined up with a neighbour, but that would sometimes fall through. Yes, it is a cost, there is no question, but I'm just wondering about the overall benefits. In my view, today, this is really a basic necessity and I'm wondering if the department is trying to move in a stronger direction toward having that as one of the inclusions in household support.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member for his question. I erred in where we put that million dollars in the department in my previous answer. It is in the Services for Persons with Disabilities section. I suggested it was in Child Welfare and Residential Services. I apologize.
The organization of which you spoke - which, in my mind, is Elizabeth Brown and some other very caring people and a lot of people involved with the church - is one of the groups that I would say has been a joy to get to know as minister and I've certainly appreciated their perspective that they brought forward. Your question, specifically, was about the opportunities for clients to have a telephone and maybe even more specifically as a means to help them get a job, launch a career. There is some discretion in the Employment Support Services section so that the caseworker could allow that to happen.
One of the things that I think is very important in the Department of Community Services is that discretion be maintained with the front-line caseworkers, the staff. So it is a tool that is available to them but I would acknowledge that it is not given to everybody. The total cost of providing telephones to all social assistance recipients is somewhere in the vicinity of $12 million and I think that my track record has been focusing on the basic personal allowance and if I was given an extra $12 million, you would probably see it go first into basic personal allowance and shelter but on selected cases, where deemed appropriate by the caseworker, for that purpose or for medical concerns, clients can get the cost of a telephone added to their budget.
MR. GLAVINE: My last question is around the supports for alternative living and that's a recent program for families who made the choice to get a challenged young adult direct family support. I know last year it was introduced and I was just sort of wanting, I guess, a little bit of an update. I've had a couple of families that were certainly wanting to have this as part of their means of going forward, that wanted to keep their young adults in their home and I would like a little bit of an update as to how that program is unfolding, what kind of participation is being involved with that particular program.
I think it has wonderful merits associated with it. However, I was just wondering how its execution was actually now taking place within communities, within families, because there are those who do make that kind of decision that, in fact, their young adult is going to remain with them and they are going to work for different degrees of independence as long as they are able to support them and until they are physically and mentally able to handle such children.
I've seen a real commitment from families in this area. However, many were reaching frustration that they weren't able to put together a program from Monday to Sunday that would be integrated with the community, a possible workplace, also some respite care. I think this program does have the possibility of meeting many of those needs. So I would like for the minister to comment on degrees of participation, degree of implementation of this program.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the member's interest in the Direct Family Support Program. He described it well, the purpose. There have been a number of applications across the province and a great deal of interest, I guess I would say, and we are
busy accepting more people into the program. That is where we have that extra million dollars. The member spoke of challenging youth previously and that million dollars I spoke of is, in fact, targeted to that area. I asked whether we had any current numbers today because I'm pretty interested in the numbers, but I have a very outdated briefing note here which I think we'll pass on and see if we can get some current answers because I would also like to see how we are making out in terms of uptake. It's a very important program.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I plan to share my time with my colleague, the member for Victoria-The Lakes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Victoria-The Lakes.
MR. GERALD SAMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Minister, for accepting the questions and what I am about to propose to you. Some of the questions that I will be asking are as a result of calls that come into my office. One current problem that seems to need to be resolved is the fact that when Community Services clients visit a dentist, the policy states that the social service recipient must pay 20 per cent of the cost, but the problem that exists is that the amount Community Services pays is based on older costs.
For example, if somebody has to get a tooth extracted, for round figures, we could say that if the cost was $100 five or 10 years ago, then Community Services will pay that $100 and the client would pay the $20, but what has happened since is that the billing of the dentist is going to be at today's rates. So today's rate could be $200 and the client, expecting to pay $20 doesn't have the $40 to pay and is left with a cost that they can't recover. I'm just wondering if there is any way that you could address that for me, please.
MR. MORSE: There are two parts to the answer. First of all, before the Employment Support and Income Assistance Program, basically dental did not exist for social services. Since that time, we now spend over $2 million a year on dental so that is a move in the right direction, but I'm advised that the dental association has not requested an increase in their rates under Quickcard which is the organization that administers our dental program.
MR. GERALD SAMPSON: I would like to spend a few moments and talk about rent subsidies that are paid to landlords and it appears that the landlords know what the subsidies are and usually clients of social services - not all but some - wind up in financial difficulties, maybe have a poor record of bill payment or are delinquent in some areas of their financial situation and therefore do not have a good financial record. The landlords know this and these clients wind up paying inflated rent to these landlords and a lot of them in the area are not really up-to-standard apartments. What I'm wondering is rather than paying inflated rents to landlords with not the best housing accommodations, why wouldn't the province see fit to build more low rental units for the clients that they serve?
MR. MORSE: Again, honourable member, a good question. The way that we administer the existing rent supplements - that's the $2.6 million that is currently shown separately in the estimates - is the housing authorities basically monitor what value is being returned to the clients, the tenants, and they are the ones who make the determination that the appropriate landlords who are providing good value get the rent supplements.
Under the Affordable Housing Program, it works a little bit differently because there you have a hybrid with new developments which are just, as you know, being rolled out. In that case you typically have what I call a mortgage buy-down, which is the federal government's 50 per cent share which brings the rates down for everybody in the unit, and then over and above that the province will allocate a certain number of rent supplements so that the maximum that people pay is 30 per cent of their income. Those particular rent supplements are, of course, attached to the unit because that was part of the agreement with the proponent before they started constructing the new buildings.
MR. GERALD SAMPSON: Mr. Minister, I would like to talk about not enough daycare seats. I guess there never really are enough, but what's coming across my desk is the fact that you have daycare seats, and people on assistance can apply and have these daycare seats, but sometimes you'll have a parent acquiring a subsidized seat and maybe you have a delinquent dad and when the application is made to get a daycare seat, there doesn't seem to be enough investigation, whether the mom has one or two children or whatever the case may be, into the possibility of getting some maintenance paid by the dad, whether he be delinquent or not. If it's not investigated, then you have somebody who is getting a subsidized seat who, if the financial end of it was investigated a little bit more, the dad could probably provide the financial assistance and it would be a paid seat. That would free up a subsidized seat for somebody who legitimately qualifies for it. Can you give me some information on that?
MR. MORSE: Honourable member, part of that falls under the Department of Justice because it's maintenance enforcement, that's outside of the Department of Community Services, but clearly we all want to see the non-custodial parent contribute toward the upbringing of their child or children. Should that person also be a client of Community Services and the other parent, probably the father, is behind in maintenance payments, arrangements can be made so that we basically guarantee that they will get their maintenance payments, the idea being that when they eventually come in, that will pay off the advance from Community Services or if they don't come in, it's not treated as an overpayment on behalf of the client.
MR. GERALD SAMPSON: Mr. Minister, another problem that has been prevalent in my office is the availability in Cape Breton of vacant units, yet the vacant units are not accessible to the people who are looking to occupy them because they have been vacant for quite some time and they remain vacant because of the lack of having them refurbished, repainted, brought back up to a standard where they can be reused by new clients. So
therefore there appears to be several areas where people are looking for housing, there are vacancies but until that unit has become refurbished, it's not available for habitation, and that way the person is left without proper housing and yet a unit is available. I'm just wondering, why the delay in refurbishing the units when the clients move out or the units become vacant?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, there are a number of scenarios that might fit what the member is describing here today. One may be that there may not be sufficient demand in the area so this is your chronic vacancy because, again, we do have some units in some parts of the province which we are not able to fill, people are just not looking to move in them. But for those where there is a waiting list - and perhaps the member is referring to this - I would point out that last year, when we had some good operating results early on, we put an extra $1 million into maintenance for the housing authorities.
With the strategic infrastructure funding, the $11 million that became available in November, we actually put an additional $4 million into the various housing authorities with this approximate breakdown: $2 million interior maintenance, $1 million exterior maintenance and $1 million was earmarked for things like elevators and emergency generators. So it is a place where we do like to invest more resources and when given the opportunity, we were quick to make that a priority.
MR. GERALD SAMPSON: Something that I like to promote in any and all departments, and sometimes it could resolve a lot of situations rather quickly, is the lack of flexibility in policy, flexibility at the local level, because the one size fits all never works properly. There are people who, because of varying circumstances, I'm just wondering if local decision making could be allowed in areas, especially in Community Services - and I would like to see it allowed in a lot of other areas - but flexibility simply because of the diversity of problems.
It appears you kind of take an average, create a policy and say this should be good for most of the population, or maybe 90 per cent of the population, but it's that 5 per cent or 10 per cent that comes out of the woodwork with the most dire needs or extreme circumstances and they just don't seem to fit the mould. I'm wondering if there is a move afoot that would allow local managers, or whatever they are properly called, area managers, regional managers, but somebody on a local level who could deal with the caseworker personally and give the caseworker permission to resolve that situation and then maybe forward the report on to the minister's office.
MR. MORSE: Thank you, again, for your question, honourable member. Mr. Chairman, through you, the department decentralized services a few years ago with the idea that we put more authority in the hands of the local casework supervisors and the regional administrators. The regional administrators in the Department of Community Services really have enormous budgets and they are often the ones who are making these decisions but just
by way of some numbers, since we are in the estimates, last year we spent about $35 million, which is about 10 per cent of the actual amount that went out to clients on special needs. So there is some discretion.
I think by definition, special needs pertain to exactly what the member is talking about. But it was more than that because in addition to that, we spent about $17 million in Employment Support Services which is tailored to the individual client and trying to give them some sort of plan to get an education and get back in the workforce or go directly into the workforce. So between the two, that's $52 million and that is, again, tailored really to the client's particular circumstances.
MR. GERALD SAMPSON: Mr. Minister, the reason I raised that was just the fact that there appears to be an innate fear on some of these people of crossing the line or going out on a limb and making a decision, and would feel more safe hidden within the bureaucratic realm of policy. That's why I bring that forward.
Mr. Minister, I would like to now turn over my time to the honourable member for Digby-Annapolis.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Digby-Annapolis.
MR. HAROLD THERIAULT: Mr. Chairman, last Fall, the power outage in November in the Digby area, and over Christmas, we had to set up our schoolhouse down there for a makeshift shelter for the people who never had any cooked food. Anyway, myself and my wife were there and we found that nobody seemed to be helping much. The Emergency Measures Organization was there, doing what it could. So my wife and I, we were cooking the food and trying to help the people and figure out how many people were there and where they were coming from.
Anyway, to make a long story short, we come to find out it was stated that the Red Cross was supposed to have a contract signed with Community Services to take over in emergencies like this in the communities, I guess all over Nova Scotia but in Digby, for two different incidents that I was there personally, these Red Cross people never showed at any time. I'm just wondering if you could fill this House in on what kind of contract that is. Is it just for non-emergencies or how does it work, because for both emergencies they never showed up. Maybe you could fill us in on that a little, please.
MR. MORSE: We are searching through our documents to confirm, first of all, the financial contract with Red Cross which I believe increased in the 2005-06 budget but I'm going to go on my last briefing note, or at least my memory from my last briefing note, and that is that we pay them $72,000 a year to provide emergency food and shelter and clothing
on behalf of the department, across the province. They are the ones who are supposed to organize the volunteers and I take note of what you are sharing with me. I know during White Juan, they certainly were on the scene in Kings County because I went to some of those meetings, as you are indicating you did down in your constituency, and they were busy trying to obtain beds and do what we are paying them to do. I am concerned that they were not present in Digby County and we will take that back and discuss it with them.
MR. THERIAULT: If that's the case, if they didn't show up on an emergency like that - I know this was last November during the big power outage of the whole province, then again between Christmas and New Year's. We were out three days, a lot of homes were out of power down there. Are these contracts honoured? How are they honoured? Are they paid per service or are they paid that whole amount in one year?
MR. MORSE: That's the retainer that is paid to them and I just want to correct a small detail in my previous answer. You have jogged my memory, honourable member. It was not White Juan where I encountered the Red Cross, it was the same storm. I think it was November 13th and November 14th. It was a Saturday and Sunday and we also were without power for some time in Kings County.
MR. THERIAULT: What other organizations, if any, does Community Services contract with? Is the Red Cross the only one?
MR. MORSE: I think what the member is asking me is do we contract for emergency social services with any other organization and the answer is no, it's just the Red Cross. But by way of informing the debate, we do have, of course, arrangements with multiple organizations to deliver many services on behalf of the department to the clients we serve. For instance, the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre is funded by the Department of Community Services. It is not part of the Department of Community Services and their employees are not civil servants per se, but they are funded by the Department of Community Services and there are many employers like that.
You would have adult service centres down in your area and group homes, and indeed the Children's Aid Societies are also a delivery agent for the department. So we have many arrangements with other organizations but to answer your question, which I think is about emergency social services, there is just one and it's the Red Cross.
MR. THERIAULT: I would like to share my time with the member for Glace Bay.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Glace Bay.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Chairman, how much time, approximately, do I have left please?
MR. CHAIRMAN: About nine minutes, actually.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): I had a chance to ask the minister several questions the other day concerning a couple of items in particular relating to the riding of Glace Bay. One was Brass Tack Industries, the other was Glace Bay Town Day Care. I did just briefly touch on a topic that I wanted to discuss further with the minister and I will take this opportunity to discuss that with him now.
It's a situation that was brought to his attention by the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union involving the caseload of workers, in particular at the Glace Bay office. The NSGEU, I know they have met with me, they have met with other MLAs and I believe that perhaps they may have met with the minister. I know they have corresponded with the minister anyway. It revolves around the issue of just how large the caseload is with individual caseworkers at the Glace Bay office. The NSGEU was saying that it's definitely in the hundreds and because of that, there is a great deal of stress that is being felt by caseworkers who are under a tremendous amount of pressure in the Glace Bay office.
As you probably are well aware, Mr. Minister, there would be in excess of 1,000 clients at the Glace Bay office for Glace Bay and surrounding area which would translate into approximately close to 4,000 men, women and children who would rely on benefits from the Community Services Department to exist on a daily basis. So could the minister explain to me what has transpired since the time that the NSGEU has brought this to his attention?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, yes, I am familiar with some of the difficulties that are being faced by our Glace Bay office and I think that as the honourable member might agree, it involves sick leave and long-term disability which put added pressure on the remaining staff. As a result of that, there was provision made for more staff to be brought into that office and that was following a meeting with their regional administrator, Frank Capstick, and the Glace Bay staff. They came up with a plan and the feedback that is coming back from that staff is they are happy with what has been done.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Chairman, perhaps the minister could indicate to me then, not only in the Glace Bay office but provincially - but in particular in the Glace Bay office - what is the average caseload per caseworker in this province? How many files are Community Services workers going into and dealing with on a daily basis? Well, we will deal with that first but I have a couple of other questions as well.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I have asked my staff to get their calculator out and do some divisions to give some approximate answers but I would like to speak to this. One of the things that has been a very positive development for our clients is that even though there has been a very significant reduction in the caseload in the department, it's now down around 32,000 and it seems to be stabilizing in and about that area because the remaining clients have multiple barriers to employment and it's more difficult to empower them to move into
a job and become completely free of the need for employment support and income assistance but we have not reduced the number of caseworkers, even though there has been a drop over time in the caseload.
But the number of caseworkers is also divided up. Are they employment support caseworkers, are they income assistance caseworkers, is their clientele people with disabilities, which means that they have limited prospects for obtaining employment and a fairly stable caseload? The point being, if it's just a question of processing a cheque every month, you can handle a pretty big caseload as opposed to, I would say, a more active caseload where people are actively pursuing employment prospects and there is a caseworker assigned to them through Employment Support Services to complement the income assistance caseworker, that's assuming it is a larger office and we have that division of duties, which is normally the case. So it's not really that simple to say all clients are the same because that's absolutely not the case. Everybody is individual and they have their own unique needs and we try to keep that flexibility in the system to accommodate them.
We have some caseload numbers here and I don't know if we've got an average but I'm going to let you ask your next question and just scrutinize the calculations.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): Mr. Chairman, I'm sure the minister will provide that number before the end of his time here. In particular, he made reference to long-term disability and there would be workers off at the Glace Bay office on long-term disability. So if you are going to put the blame - not the blame but the responsibility - on the fact that there are workers off on long-term disability, how many workers are you talking about who would be out on long-term disability at the Glace Bay office that would result in a higher caseload for workers in the Glace Bay office? Are you talking one or two or three or 15 workers who would be off on long-term disability?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, that sort of detail would be known to the regional administrator. For my part, I'm aware of it because every time there is any hiring within the department, I have to sign off, even if it is a casual, and I am familiar with a number of forms that have come through from the Glace Bay office for those purposes but to say that I would take a stab at a running count of what it would be at this point in time, I'm not comfortable making that sort of estimate but if you want us to get that information for you, that would not be a problem and staff are making notes now that they will attain it. So you are looking for the number of people who are off on disability, either sickness or disability at the Glace Bay office.
MR. CHAIRMAN: There are about 30 seconds remaining.
MR. DAVID WILSON (Glace Bay): I think in all fairness, Mr. Minister, if you are going to say that the cause of high caseloads at the office is going to be because some workers are off on LTD, then it would only be fair to provide the exact numbers as to how
many people are off on LTD and what's causing it because certainly that's not what the NSGEU is saying, that the stress there and the problem with increased caseloads is not because they are off on LTD . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. Time has expired.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I was discussing the issue of the lack of a government strategy for poverty and how it impacts on women and children in this province and I would like to continue on that theme. It's interesting, the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women talks about the reality of being a woman in Nova Scotia today. We are three times more likely to work over 60 hours of unpaid work than men. The average income of a woman in Nova Scotia is less than $29,000 versus $40,000 for men. Women must have at least a certificate, a diploma or a degree at the post-secondary level before they start earning what men earn when they graduate from high school.
Over 18 per cent of women in Nova Scotia lived below the poverty line in 2001 and that's about 4 per cent higher than men. Sixty-one per cent of people who live alone are women and 82 per cent of widowed persons are women, 47.4 per cent of female single parents live in poverty, compared to only about 20 per cent for single parents who are men and 60 per cent of caregivers providing aid to elderly or disabled family members are women. Women also make up 75-plus per cent of those services and trades that make less money than men.
So those are the facts, can't argue with them. At the same time that the Department of Community Services is increasing its administrative operating costs, we have people in this province who can't afford to eat adequate, nutritious meals on the low-income rates that the department is providing them and even the non-profits that support low-income people who are clients of the department, are struggling and many of these people are in your care, Mr. Minister.
So I'm wondering, whose responsibility is this to develop and implement a strategy to overcome poverty in this province? I mean is this something that should be left up to the corporate world, to the non-profits, to the media, to volunteers, those in need, the clients themselves? I think we would all agree that it really requires a visionary, caring government to take a leadership role in developing such a strategy. All those other groups and people certainly can be involved but there needs to be a leadership role and I would suggest that this government is not even recognizing the problem, let alone accepting the challenge and working toward a solution.
I've mentioned before in this House that of all the Atlantic Provinces, Nova Scotia saw the highest increase in food bank use in 2004, last year, an increase of 46 per cent since 1997. This means that every month, 40,000 people in this province have to use food assistance programs and these could be food banks, they could be shelters, they could be meal programs or drop-in centres, and 41 per cent of those 40,000 people are youth and children under the age of 18.
Now the other night I had the opportunity to take part in the Feed Nova Scotia annual dinner and auction and it was a tremendous event, and I have to say that the staff and volunteers who organized it did a marvellous job. Over 400 people attended that dinner and I found it quite interesting - I think I've mentioned this to the minister myself - and I'm not sure how many personnel or staff from the department were actually at the dinner, but I found it quite ironic that I happened to be sitting next to two staff members from the Department of Community Services and it was a wonderful opportunity to hear about their work, to share some of my concerns. I have to say they were top professionals, very discrete, but they did seem to take seriously some of the issues and concerns that I was sharing with them and I did appreciate that because that's not always the response when talking to others in the department.
I had mentioned earlier, before I sat down, that the 2004 Nova Scotia Child Poverty Report Card was issued in the Fall of last year and 36,000 children in this province live in poverty. I mentioned also that the majority of low-income families have to pay a disproportionate amount of their family income on affordable housing so they have to take this out of money that they would otherwise use for food or over-the-counter prescriptions or clothing or treats for their children and yet, in Nova Scotia, apparently over the last three years, we've only had 25 new affordable housing units in the whole province, 25 with the millions of dollars that came in in the Bilateral Housing Agreement. At the same time, this government cut non-profit housing by $100,000. There are discrepancies here that just don't make sense. The need is getting greater, and the strategies and the policies to meet the need are decreasing.
The average income shortfall in Nova Scotia is actually $662 a month, so I guess one could draw an assumption that the clients of Community Services who are getting the allowable rates should have that topped-up by $662 a month in order to survive at a basic level of living standards. That's the highest again in Atlantic Canada and this seems to be a continuing theme, that Nova Scotia is doing more badly than every other Atlantic Canadian province and that's not something to be proud of.
Last October the minister announced a $4 increase in personal allowance for the clients under income support and I believe this October there is going to be a $6 increase. So that's $10. We all know how prices have gone up. That money is just absolutely going to disappear down the hole of increased costs and cost of living inflation and yet at the same time the government is giving tax breaks to huge corporations, profits which will, for the
most part, be going to shareholders outside this province. That, instead of investing in people, people who are residents and taxpayers here.
You may be familiar with the Family Mosaic Project, a longitudinal study of one- and two-parent families in Nova Scotia, which was authored by Margaret Denchman. It indicated quite clearly the long shadow that poverty casts over a family. It goes on to indicate how long-lasting and profound the effects of poverty are on families. It showed that poverty, the lack of stable housing and low educational attainment are strongly related with poor academic performance in children, leaving school early and teen pregnancy.
You are probably aware, because of the bill that I introduced into the Legislature this session, that there is a lot of concern about the social assistance policy that does not allow single parents, mostly women, to stay on social assistance and if qualified and if accepted by a university, to attend that institution of learning. So this disproportionately impacts on women, but it also traps low-income women and their children into that poverty cycle.
I mentioned the many factors that affect children and women in terms of their health and education and I want to say here that even though today's focus is the Department of Community Services, there is enough blame to go around and I do want to admit to the minister that a lot of the issues and problems that he and his department are dealing with are not solely the result of his department. That's partly in recognition of the fact that there have been a number of changes and conditions that impact on other departments which have prevented people from getting on with their lives, prevented them from attaining the health status that they need to increase their employability, to increase their education levels and so those people do end up as part of the caseload of the Department of Community Services.
You are probably familiar with the concept of population health and the essence of it is that there are many factors impacting on each person in terms of their broad health, and these are all integrated and there is just no one factor that leads to a cause for someone perhaps not to be able to look after themselves. So, for example, if you have a department that hasn't provided intervention services for children, and let's look at the Education Department, for example, when the severe educational cuts were made about 10 years ago, they cut out a lot of the middle management interventions in schools. So, for example, there were long wait lists for speech therapy, long wait lists for resource people, long wait lists for people requiring counselling. So as more and more people went through the system and didn't attain their potential, and with the low rates of literacy, then often those are the same people who have poor health, who have poor marketable skills and require a helping hand. They are often people who end up at the door asking for programs and services from the department.
All the other departments, in a way, share in the responsibility for what has happened to the citizens in this province but I guess, in a way, that puts more responsibility on the Department of Community Services because that is almost the level of last resort in terms
of getting adequate, sufficient, effective help from a government department. So when your social safety net links are spreading apart and the holes are getting larger and people are falling through, if the Department of Community Services isn't there to help secure those links, then that's when people completely fall through the system.
I want to go on to mention the Campaign for Fairness. I think we are all familiar with the Premier and Cabinet and the government's concern with equalization payments, that the offshore resources of Nova Scotia were not bringing an adequate return or reinvestment into the Province of Nova Scotia. I think we all share in the excitement that the offshore accord is perhaps going to even up the playing field on those resources, but it's interesting because I think about 70 per cent of the past, current and potential offshore revenue was going to be clawed back by the federal government. The reason I sort of smiled to myself is the irony, because that's exactly the breakdown in terms of the proportion of any extra income that's clawed back by the department when social assistance recipients want to earn a little extra money.
So, for example, I think they can keep 30 per cent, supposedly as an incentive to work and supplement their rates, but 70 per cent of that is clawed back. So, for example, if you have a family that wants to recognize a special birthday, perhaps buy Christmas gifts for their extended family or send a child to church camp or something like that, the parent can go out and get a job but they can only keep about 30 per cent of their revenue. So I find it interesting that the Campaign for Fairness is accepted as an important value, in principle, in terms of intergovernmental relationships with the federal government, but the provincial government doesn't turn that around and use the same values and principles in terms of their dealings with people living in poverty in this province, especially those being served by the Department of Community Services.
AN HON. MEMBER: It's ironic, isn't it?
MS. MORE: It is ironic, yes. It's interesting, also, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said that in Nova Scotia, people with taxable income over $115,000 - okay, $115,000 - now pay, for each additional dollar earned, 29 cents in federal tax and 17.5 cents in provincial tax. So by contrast, again, the Province of Nova Scotia cuts 70 cents in benefits from each additional dollar when a social assistance recipient with an income of $10,000 tries to get ahead. There's a huge element of unfairness and inequality in all of this, and inconsistency. So one can hardly understand why something that seems fair to Nova Scotians in terms of the federal government cannot be turned around and applied to the citizens of that very province.
The next issue I want to move on to is the whole issue of regulated child care. Now this is an issue that's very dear to my heart. I've been involved on the periphery of it for over 30 years, but have had a chance to get immersed in it much more seriously since I was elected. I found it interesting, in my research - and I have to say that part of the reason that I have to use old statistics is because Stats Canada tends to do its analysis after the fact, and we haven't had a recent census. Also, sometimes it's very difficult to get up-to-date information from the department on their analysis and figures. But I think that even if there might be a slight variation because of the time gap, this will show the trends.
In 2001, Nova Scotia allocated $12.9 million to regulated child care. That broke down - these are not my figures, but they're from reliable sources - to $91 for every child aged 12 and under. That was the lowest per child allocation in Canada at that time. I would suggest that it probably hasn't changed very much in the intervening years. The same year, Quebec provided $980 per child. So that's $91 in Nova Scotia and $980 per child in Quebec. And we also have the dubious distinction of having the lowest percentage of children aged 12 and under in regulated care.
What does regulated care mean? I'm not suggesting that some of the informal care arrangements that parents in this province arrange with other family members or neighbours or friends or reliable people in their community, I'm not questioning those decisions or those situations. All I'm saying is that in regulated care, these are centres that are licensed by the Department of Community Services and therefore they are regularly inspected, and they have to meet certain standards in terms of staff/child ratio, they have to meet safety and health standards, food nutrition standards. So there's a whole level of sort of guardianship in there that is permitted by the regulated licensing process.
Yet in Nova Scotia, estimates range - it's difficult to get up-to-date figures - that between 8 per cent and 20 per cent of children requiring child care in this province are in regulated care. So I'll leave you to draw the implications, but I find that a bit scary. And yet 69 per cent of children ages 12 and under in Nova Scotia have mothers in the workforce; 66 per cent of children under five years of age have mothers in the workforce. I understand that some people think, well, if a family or a person has a child, that's their responsibility, it's not society's, it's not the government's, stay out of it. They make their own arrangements, it's their problem.
Well, I'd like to suggest differently, because I find it interesting that when a child reaches five years of age, suddenly it is a public responsibility. We invest millions and millions of dollars to make sure that they have as good an experience in public education as possible, that they attain their potential, and they go on to be productive members of society, able to add to the tax base and take part in the economy, and yet children under five are ignored, their needs and their family's needs. Some people flippantly say, well, the mothers shouldn't work. Well, quite frankly, our economy in Nova Scotia could not survive the
withdrawal of all the women who have children under five or children under 12 from the workforce.
They make up a significant number of our professionals, our resource industries, our trade and retail. We just couldn't survive as a province if these women were not in the workforce. So we do have a collective responsibility to provide safe, quality, affordable child care for these children. Quite frankly, our pensions, our standard of life, everything that we enjoy in this province depends on giving our youngest citizens the best chance possible to be productive members of their community.
Now it's interesting, getting back to the department, they've frozen the child care rates for people who are under the Employment Support and Income Assistance Program at $400 a month. I'm not sure how long that rate has been there, but it has been frozen there for several years. That does not meet the actual cost of child care for income assistance clients, people who might be taking upgrading, training or education programs or working part-time. So how are these clients, who we've already recognized are receiving at least over $662 less a month than they need to live on, able to make up the difference?
Well, in some cases they don't. They don't work, they don't take further education, they just accept their lot in life. I think that's really depressing that the one department that can encourage people to become self-sufficient puts such a minor barrier, one of many, in their way, that is making the child care rates realistic so that they actually cover the cost.
The Advisory Council on the Status of Women did an analysis of Stats Canada information called Women's Paid and Unpaid Work, Women in Nova Scotia, Part 5 of a Statistical Series. In 2001, the median monthly cost for centre-based full-time child care in Nova Scotia was $565 for children under 17 months, $490 for children 18 months to three years, and $488 for children from three to five years. Now those monthly rates are all considerably higher than the base rate of $400, which this department has again frozen in this year's budget.
The other area that I want to talk about, Mr. Chairman, is the lack of accountability in the department. I raised this issue during budget estimates last year, that the department is actually mandated under the Children and Family Services Act to do an annual review, have an annual review committee, of the Act. This has not been done for several years. It's mandated by the Act itself. The minister himself has mentioned the number of organizations, non-government organizations, and I say special interest groups in the most positive sense of the term.
We have a huge waiting list for the Standing Committee on Community Services. I sincerely think that one of the reasons we have this backlog is so many of the non-profit organizations that are supposedly working with and alongside the department to deliver both mandated and optional services in this province, and many of the associations that represent
people, like foster parents and others, who are involved with the delivery of services in this province, are running into a roadblock with the department.
There seems to be a problem with clear, timely communication. There seems to be a problem with getting concerns met in a reasonable length of time, and there's also concern about the delay in action and correspondence and meetings. So I think, quite frankly, that a lot of these organizations are coming to the Standing Committee on Community Services because they appreciate the fact that members from all Parties take their concerns seriously, treat them with respect, work with them to try to develop a motion or some suggestions as to what they should do next.
It was interesting, I believe last year in the business plan the department suggested that they needed to improve their relationship with the non-profit sector, especially those organizations helping them to do their service delivery. I'm not sure if there's going to be any sort of accountability or evaluation of how successful that particular goal or objective has been, but I have to say that in terms of their requests to the standing committee, we haven't seen much improvement. So some groups are sort of bypassing the department because they're so frustrated with the delays, and they're working through our committee. Not that we regret doing that, but we just think that probably this is another area that the department needs to improve.
In talking about the voluntary sector, I'd like to suggest that there seems to be a cat-and-mouse game going on here. The department sort of dangles the hope or expectation in front of a lot of these organizations that they're going to get stable operating fund increases, and then that expectation is jerked back and there's the suggestion, well, we need to do a review on it or there's renewal going on for that program or we're going to do some consultation. To many people's way of thinking, those terms - review, consultation, renewal - almost seem to be a code name for lack of resources, delay in decision making.
A lot of organizations are getting frustrated, and yet the government could never afford to do these services themselves. Now I'm thinking in particular about the transition houses and the women's centres. This issue has been going on long before I got involved in politics, but I understand there was supposed to be a cut and then there was some outrage from the sector and from the community, and so the department said, well, let's study. They threw it back on those organizations, which also included the men's intervention programs. They asked them to justify what they were doing, and considerable staff and volunteer time was spent on these studies.
They submitted the studies to the department, and they've sat there and sat there. There has not been much action. Now I have to admit there were one-time $10,000 grants made to transition houses, I believe, this year. But that hasn't stabilized their operating concerns, nor are the changing demographics and needs and priorities of rural communities being met here.
Transportation, as everybody recognizes, is the number one problem, no matter where you live in Nova Scotia. A lot of people who want to access these emergency and employment services are not able to get to the women's houses and the transition centres and the places of study and training. So a lot of those organizations would like to develop - some have, actually, they've found funding elsewhere - or expand their outreach programs so that they can take those programs and the counselling and the services to the women in the community rather than forcing them to travel. Sometimes they can't get there, so it's actually broadening the number of people who would benefit from these organizations.
Yet the funding that comes from the department doesn't recognize these changing demographics, as I said, these changing priorities and needs in rural communities. Quite frankly, the non-government organizations are getting frustrated. It's harder for them to get people to serve on their boards of directors, it's harder for them to get volunteers to work with the organizations, and it's harder for them to get other volunteers and community members to support them in a financial way. So that's putting that whole community safety net, one that is interdependent with the department, at risk. This is something that really has to be taken more seriously because, as I said earlier, the department could never afford to replace those community staff members, those community organizations, those community volunteers with paid public officials. There's no way that a province like Nova Scotia could afford to take over those programs and staff them with public servants.
I've been on my feet several times in the last week, and I've tried to use every opportunity possible to explain to the minister and the House why the NDP are so concerned, or particularly concerned, with the Department of Community Services, because at the same time that these negative impacts and the lack of opportunities and of being able to achieve their potential are happening to a significant number of citizens of this province, these things are happening. We have bonuses going to the deputy and middle managers, the highest bonus total of any department within this government. It's $13,200 to the deputy, $61,750 to the middle managers.
Now that may be deserved, but I think what citizens of this province and the MLAs in this House deserve is to know what it was based on. What are these people being rewarded for? If it's for making life better for low-income people in this province, I would be the first to stand up and support a move like that. But not if it is the result of a directive from goodness knows who that we're trying to nickel and dime and save, push people off social assistance, put people into cheaper accommodations.
I've heard recently that some of the post-secondary training tuition fees are no longer being paid from the department. So if someone on social assistance, who's perhaps in the employment supports side, wants to take a post-secondary program, now they're often being told that if their course is eligible for a student grant, rather than as before, the department
paying that fee, they're required, if they want to continue or go into that program or course, to take out a student loan. This, on top of all the inadequacies of the support system for these people, is discouraging many of them from taking the program or the course. This at the same time that the operating costs and the administrative costs for the department are going up, where they're increasing the IT, all kinds of things are happening. So the administrative costs are going up, and yet people are hurting more and more.
The minister stated that it was a good year for the department and therefore for its clients. I want to challenge that statement, and I want to challenge its assumptions. I know it hasn't been a good year for the clients. I see the proof of that every day. Several months ago I called the minister's office, I had a situation which involved a bright, young, energetic, interesting young woman. I just felt her story was so unique and yet typical of the potential that's being lost by many of the policies and programs of the department.
I was trying to set up an opportunity for this young woman to talk directly to the minister. I was told that the minister doesn't talk to clients of Community Services. I'm thinking to myself, okay, who is he talking to? Now, admittedly, he has his own constituency office, and I'm sure that some of these problems have been raised by people who come through his door, but they're being raised every day in my constituency office and those of my colleagues on this side of the House. We are trying to work with them to work through the system that's there to try to resolve some of these issues. I have to say it is very frustrating.
Now this sounds like a long litany of complaints and, as you well know, I'm actually a very positive person. I usually see a glass as half-full rather than half-empty. I have to admit it has taken me a year and a half to get to this point of frustration, but everything I see seems to indicate that the department is gradually becoming a barrier to citizens of this province who want to have a better life for themselves. So they're becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution. That terrifies me, because if the Department of Community Services is not the department that has clear, fair, caring policies and legislation, then - it's almost as though they want to write off a certain segment of our population. I find that offensive, and I find that very unfortunate.
I want to say that my Party and I would be very interested in trying to work through some of these issues and challenges within the department to try to make it more of a support for vulnerable people in our province, but we cannot sit by and just accept that the wait list is growing longer, the services and programs are not available, that these people don't count. Well, they do count. They're our neighbours, they're family members, there are people who love them in their communities, and they deserve to be treated with the greatest respect, they deserve to have the highest level of programming and services in place to support them. Certainly we would like to ensure that that happens. How much time do I have left, Mr. Chairman?
MR. CHAIRMAN: You have approximately 27 minutes.
MS. MORE: I thought I had 37 minutes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: You started at 4:15 p.m., member.
MS. MORE: I understood I had until 4:52 p.m. I can keep going. You're saying I have more time, are you? Okay. I think I'll go into my next phase, and I'll give the minister a chance to talk. I have some questions.
I referred earlier to the cut in staff, 18 from the Employment Support and Income Assistance and 15 from Housing Services, and yet in the business plan it indicates that there's a staff increase of 56. If my addition and subtraction is correct, there should be 89 new positions. So I'm just wondering if you could give me some indication of what programs and where those new positions are going to be?
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I am going to address the member's question, but I want to advise the NDP that they have gone on without giving me a chance to address some of the suggestions they've been making about the department, and before I'm done I will be addressing those, before my closing remarks.
You were asking a question about staff. Earlier on you had suggested, I believe, that there had been cuts in program delivery staff. I just want to unequivocally say that's not so. What you are referring to now is a reorganization within head office to create a new division that targets program and operation support, but that's a head office function. It has nothing to do with the actual program delivery out in the regions. Your question about what's going on with staffing levels at head office, which I believe was your last question, all revolves around the reorganization and putting those people who are involved with program and operation support under one division.
MS. MORE: Well, I would love to continue the questioning because, quite frankly, I have some other important topics to ask the minister about, but I really believe that my time is up, so I'm going to . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member started at 4:15 p.m.
MS. MORE: Yes, but we've had eight hours on Community Services between the two Parties. I don't feel it's fair to eat into other estimates, so I would give up the floor.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Very well, member.
The honourable Minister of Community Services for closing remarks.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, to the honourable member, in the Supplementary Detail, on Page 4.11, all the specifics about the breakdown and the shifts of staff within the department are there, and it goes down into minute detail of everything that has taken place. There are a lot of suggestions that have been made in the honourable member's presentation and those of previous speakers from the NDP, and I guess I have to challenge the premise of those allegations.
I'd like to start by looking at it globally. Even before I go there, I want to talk about people who we serve in this department, because the most gratifying part of being Minister of Community Services has been to get out and meet the people who we are there to serve. I've not only met clients, I've met service organizations, advocacy groups, staff, and there are a lot of incredible people - clients and families and staff - who are there to support the people served by the Department of Community Services. I don't think you could ever put a number on that, or the honour that it has been to be minister.
I can recall last December I got an invitation from the Salvation Army to go to their annual Christmas dinner. I doubt if a Minister of Community Services has done that before. Nobody indicated to me that was the case. I wasn't able to stay for the entire dinner, but I did go to the church service, and this was on Gottingen Street. I went in there, and there were people from all walks of life. Some of them had clearly had a rough life. It was the day before the $11 million announcement for the strategic infrastructure funding, and so I was able to bring the message that two-thirds of that was going to be going to various forms of affordable housing. I didn't give numbers, I just said that a good thing was going to happen the next day, and this was a priority.
The reaction that I got from the people attending the service, I'm not talking about the Salvation Army staff, I'm talking, in many cases you would call them, the street people or people who were on the margin. It was phenomenal, it was one of the most uplifting experiences I've ever had in my life. Trying to leave there, everybody wanted to talk to me, shake my hand. They were so appreciative I had come. That, I would just say, is one of the instances that I will always cherish, comments from people who had devoted their lives to serving these people, unsolicited comments, Christmas cards. I remember one from a gentleman who works in that area. He started off by saying he never writes to politicians, but he was going to make an exception with me. I kept that card.
Sometimes, like what happened on Tuesday, I think back on it, when your Leader, who has done very little to advance the causes of the clients in Community Services, got up and made a personal attack on me and then one of your senior members made an attack on the staff in the central region, I thought about that letter. He was actually making reference to when you have those days, and how appreciative he was that I was there. I take that as probably being a better barometer of how I'm seen by the people who were served by the
department, but the Opposition Party, the NDP may take a different point of view, and that's their perfect right. How they express it is up to them, and ultimately, depending on what happens on Monday, it will be up to the people of Nova Scotia, if they'd like to support that type of behaviour.
Within the department, last year the Department of Community Services, probably for the first time in history, had the second-largest increase in the budget of any department, second-largest next to Health. It was $28 million and that's net, because the actual gross increase was larger but we do give some recoveries to offset the increases. This year we had the third-largest, which is what you'd expect for the third-largest department, at $22 million. That does not include the extra $20 million that Cabinet has now agreed to in the bilateral agreement with the federal government. Those are federal dollars, but they're going to be invested through the Department of Community Services and the child care sector, which is a wonderful group of people who have met together.
I've got to say that it was under my direction that the commercial and the non-profits had to come together. I was not prepared to meet with them as separate entities, because they're all serving the same families and the same children. Now the families may choose whether they go to a non-profit or to a commercial, if they have that opportunity in their community, that they actually have a choice, but ultimately we're all going to work together for the good of the children and families served under that program.
It was kind of a novel idea, I think, to some of them, and they were a little tentative when they came. Again, it was one of the most positive meetings that I've ever attended in my life. The deputy met on a regular basis, as co-chairman, with them. The other chairman was Elaine Ferguson of Child Care Connections. They have made tremendous progress in coming to common ground.
The member spoke about an anti-poverty policy. Well, the government is working on a social policy framework. Poverty, clearly, is a significant component of that. I think the member did acknowledge that poverty is not unique just to the Department of Community Services, it is a societal problem. However, we certainly have a role to play in it, and it's an important one and it's one that I'm proud to advocate on our clients' behalf and anybody who may someday need to be a client of the Department of Community Services. It's a great honour.
I would also suggest that part of this province's success over the last number of years, which has increased our provincial revenues, but it has also helped reduce the number of people who are on Employment Support and Income Assistance, is a vibrant economy; 38,000 new jobs is the best first step to helping able-bodied people who are on Employment Support and Income Assistance. Now, when the water rises, not all boats rise at the same pace. That's why we have a social safety net. The Department of Community Services is a part of that.
The member made reference to the fact she wanted me to see one of her constituents, a smart young woman that she wanted to have me meet. I do meet some constituents, but as a general policy it's not the role of the Department of Community Services to be a caseworker. We have thousands of clients and, yes, I certainly do see some cases in my own constituency. That's part of having a constituency office, one of the things that I think drives us all to run in the first place. But it is my responsibility to make sure that the staff are in place, the programs are there, we fund them, and there are avenues of appeal when there are difficulties.
I've made reference to some of the wonderful groups that I've met, and I hope my staff would forgive me if I was to share their apprehension when the Community Advocates Network wanted to meet me shortly after becoming minister. They weren't too sure about this, but I was. I wanted to meet them. We set up, I don't know whether it was an hour or an hour and a half, and I had something in the middle of the afternoon that was supposed to take me away that wasn't crucial. It was more of a social function, we all get those invitations and it wasn't really crucial that I be there. I think I was there with them for three hours, three and a half hours, and it was a great first start. It was the best investment of time that I think a new minister could ever make in this department. I was very touched by some of the comments of these dedicated people afterwards. You know many of these people, honourable member.
The portrayal that your Leader made of me as minister seems to contradict what other people are telling me, but I obviously have a subjective view. I look to others for their feedback, their reaction. As I said in my opening comments, that has actually been one of the most gratifying things about being in this position, having a chance to meet with these people.
You talked about the clawback in the Employment Support and Income Assistance system. How to describe the amount of water in this glass? I think you have to bear in mind that whether the glass is half-full or half-empty has a lot to do with where you are relative to where you were before. So if we can take a family, maybe a single person and we can put the supports in place that allow them to take that step to gain their own job, the independence, the self-esteem that comes with it, the role model that they then become to their children, which is important to all our clients - because I do not appreciate people who come and suggest that people choose to be on Community Services. We have good clients, and what they really want is a chance to better their situation. That's why Employment Support Services is such an important component of Employment Support and Income Assistance, a fundamental change that came into place on August 1, 2001, when regulations became effective.
This past year we invested $17 million in our clients to increase their employability to overcome the multiple barriers to employment. When they get there, they can only go one way, up. It is not an easy time to be depending on the budgets that you get from Employment Support and Income Assistance, but every dollar they earn betters their situation by 30 cents
on the dollar over and above what they were before. So if they earn $1,000 in a month, they've got an extra $300, which makes a tremendous difference for that family. As I related earlier, some of you were making fun of the fact that at one point in time in my life, when my business was struggling because of the downturn in the fishery, my family had to eat pasta and we had to use powdered milk to dilute the liquid milk because we could not afford to give our five boys fluid milk, like so many other people in this province, which seemed to amuse some members of the Opposition. But they didn't know I was talking about my circumstances, perhaps, when they were mocking me for suggesting that pasta is one way of stretching a budget.
Anyway, if you can make an extra $300 a month, that moves you up the food chain, it means that you can rent some movies, perhaps, for your children, perhaps you can enrol them in organized sports. Of course there's KidSport, that's another $350, which is available to Community Services clients and to low-income Nova Scotians, so that they can have the same advantages as other low-income children, all children, to be clear. That's a wonderful program. As a former hockey and soccer coach, I am just delighted that the Minister of Health Promotion has been able to increase his budget in that area to help children who were previously denied the chance to play in organized sports to actually participate.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the Captain William Spry Community Centre, Youth in Care were launching their latest issue of The Voice, which is written by youth who have a story to tell. It's a wonderful organization. The children are just terrific. Did it ever pull at my heartstrings when one youth got up and talked about how he wasn't able to participate in hockey because he didn't have the money, or I guess it would be either his foster parents or the group home. Now, there would at least be $350 available to him over and above whatever was there. So that's a good thing. That's an initiative of this government.
Child care. You made reference to the difference between Nova Scotia and Quebec. There's a big difference between Nova Scotia and Quebec, and yes, Quebec puts a phenomenal amount of money into child care. Good for them. But what Nova Scotia does with its child care dollars is we target them to low-income families to try to level the playing field. In Quebec they make no distinction, so it's tougher on low-income families and it's easier on high-income families. We're not like Quebec, and I'm not criticizing Quebec. They've put an enormous amount of money into child care. Again, good for them for making it a societal priority. But in Nova Scotia, with the dollars we do have, we target it to low-income families first.
With the announcement today that we're now able to move forward and sign the agreement with the federal government, this is going to make an enormous difference for low-income families. My commitment to the people of Nova Scotia is that they are going to come first and foremost in divvying up that additional $20 million. I want to see an end to a waiting list for families that otherwise would qualify for subsidized daycare. If you qualify, you should have it. There should be no question. More families should have access.
You made reference to non-profit child care centres, and you spoke about how they were carefully regulated by the province. I want Nova Scotians (Interruptions) I am being advised by the member that she was not selecting out the non-profits, and she's right. My point was that all regulated child care centres receive the same scrutiny from the department, because we want parents to know that when they send their children to a regulated child care centre, they can count on a certain level of professionalism in caring for their children, regardless of whether it's commercial or non-profit. I thank the member opposite for clarifying that.
Transition houses. Yes, outreach programs, that's something that in many cases would be appropriate. That's why my assistant deputy minister, who's a wonderful person with very good people skills, is working with the transition houses across the province, trying to come up with agreements as to how they're going to serve their community. Every community is unique, no two are exactly the same. There is additional money in the grants to augment their budgets when they do sign a new service agreement. We want to know what services are being provided by them and have some comfort, after discussing with them, that they're the right services for that community. If that's a crime, we're guilty. I think most people would say that was appropriate.
Obviously there have been two different approaches taken by the two Opposition Parties. The NDP has chosen to get up and, basically what we normally call, filibuster. The number of questions I've gotten from the NDP, you could probably count on your hands, 10 fingers. The Liberal Party has chosen to take this time and ask questions and make some points, but it has been more of a balance. This is your chance on behalf of the people of Nova Scotia to ask the pertinent questions to me as minister, with my senior staff here, to get answers. You've chosen not to take advantage of that during the estimates.
Your tactic, as clearly evidenced by your Leader, was more to take a personal attack on my character, and Nova Scotians can judge me, that's not a problem. We're all elected people, and if I'm found not to be a good minister, not to be a good person, I should not be in public life, and I would accept that decision. I find it regrettable, though, that that was the method that was chosen by the NDP, as shown in particular by their Leader, to bring this forward.
My observations, not only during the estimates but also during Question Period, letters and personal approaches, these are all ways that you can effect policy. I had made reference to the questions that came from last year's estimates and previous years, and how it has impacted the development of policy. Now maybe it would have happened anyway, but the point is that I try to be gracious and when Opposition members make good points and government policy reflects that, regardless of why it's in there, I'm quite happy to share the credit with them.
I made reference to the member for Dartmouth North, his concern about accessibility in our awarding of affordable housing projects. And it's being done. I give that member some of the credit. He brought it up. Whether it would have been done anyway, it really doesn't matter. The point is the member brought it up, I listened to him, and you had that opportunity, as a Party, to do that again this year. Instead, you chose to get up and make speeches, and not so much the last 45 minutes or however long the honourable member spoke, but earlier the speeches tended to be very critical and there were a lot of errors in fact in the speeches which I am now trying to go through and address, at least the outstanding ones that I didn't get to address earlier.
So there was a pronounced lack of questions in the estimates, not a lot of questions during Question Period. My gracious, I get half as many questions as the previous minister did in Question Period. Now, either you don't have concerns, or you have other priorities. But if you really have concerns, which you claim to have as a Party, this is your chance to bring them out, and you chose not to do that. You have to take responsibility for not asking the questions.
Letters, you sent some letters. That's good. I try to respond to your letters. I always read what you send me, it's always given consideration. Sometimes I change the responses. You can always approach me personally. There's not a member in this House who has ever been turned away when they approached me with a concern, and I don't see that changing, including the Leader of the Opposition, despite how he behaves towards me. I will not reciprocate and behave in the same manner towards him.
Honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley, I want to tell you . . .
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. I think that it's really important that the minister understand that the time of this House belongs to the members to represent the people of their constituencies in the way that they know their constituents want to be represented. It's not up to the minister to tell the members of the Opposition what their role is in this place, and if the members of the Opposition want to stand up and lay out the problems of the minister and his leadership in his department, then they have the fundamental right to do that. We do not need to know from the minister that he thinks this time is for questions. (Interruptions) The Minister of Education knows this full well, as well, that this . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Order. It's not a point of order.
The honourable Minister of Community Services, please continue your dissertation.
MR. MORSE: I appreciate the honourable member's . . .
HON. JAMES MUIR: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. The honourable member for Halifax Needham was trying to defend an attack on a minister in this House, that in my six or seven years in here is the worst I have ever seen. There was no excuse for it, and for her to stand up here and try to defend that attack simply puts her down at that level.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I can see where this is going to continue.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. The e-mails and the phone calls that are coming into my office certainly support the concerns that we have expressed here about the approach of the Minister of Community Services to his department. I will defend our actions to the people of this province . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, order.
The honourable Minister of Community Services. I will allow you to continue your dissertation.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the fact the honourable member has come in and spoken. One of the most personally disappointing things I've ever seen in any member in this House, which I have not shared publicly, actually happened with this member. About a year and a half ago, I encountered a 16-year-old girl who clearly had just run away from home. She was on the street corner of Sackville and Barrington Streets. You know something? I was 48-years old. I'm a man. She was sitting on her knapsack, and she had vulnerable and gullible written all over her. She was in danger. This is awkward for somebody my age. (Laughter)
The member is laughing, she thinks it's funny. What happened, people of Nova Scotia, after I had tried to help this girl, tried to find out if she was hooked into Phoenix House, whether she had been to the shelters - found out quite a bit about her actually, in terms of her family situation - I asked that member to go and help her. She told me she would go and help her, because, as a woman, I thought she could probably do more, for me. I would just say, honourable member, she did not go and help her. (Interruptions)
Fortunately the people from Phoenix House basically put out a dragnet, based on some very sketchy descriptions on my part, and found her.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, would the minister entertain a question?
MR. MORSE: No.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Then please proceed with your remarks.
MR. MORSE: And my worst fears . . .
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. As far as I know the Minister of Community Services is responsible for people in this province who are homeless and on the streets. I have no idea about the incident that he's referring to, but as far as I can tell, he is the minister who is responsible for Community Services, and it's his responsibility to go back to his department in a situation like the one he just describes, I would think, and speak to any of the numerous social workers who would be employed in this department with the capacity to deal with that kind of problem. Certainly, that's what I would have told the minister, but I have no idea what he's referring to.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. Honourable minister, please continue.
MR. MORSE: All I asked was that she go and try to assist this young lady, and she told me that she would do so after the Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Fortunately, the people from Phoenix House were able to track her down. They basically put a dragnet out. There was a problem, and somebody did have designs on her. If you're an attractive young 16-year-old girl who's just run away from home, I can tell you those designs are not appropriate. (Interruptions)
Anyway, I would suggest that it was profoundly disappointing that when I asked, on a personal basis, whether you would assist a young woman, you told me that you would assist her, and you chose not to follow through. That's something that you can explain. (Interruptions)
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, on a point of personal privilege. I would say that the honourable minister has just imputed some kind of motive with respect to my reputation and my privilege in this Legislature. I would like a ruling on the allegation that the minister has made here. He made an allegation. I stood in my place on a point of order, and said I knew nothing about what he's speaking of. The minister continued to stand up, in fact he embellished further his allegation. So on a point of personal privilege, I would like to have a ruling on this, a retraction at the least.
MR. CHAIRMAN: My ruling, honourable member, is that it's not a point of order, it's a dispute between two members. I'll ask the honourable Minister of Community Services to please complete his closing remarks.
MR. MORSE: I would just say . . .
MS. MARILYN MORE: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. I'm not sure if it's a point of order or a point of privilege, but I'm feeling very uncomfortable with the level of discussion currently, and I'm wondering if it's possible to have a five-minute break, so that (Interruptions) As a woman in this House, I'm finding that this level of discussion has deteriorated to the point where I feel uncomfortable. I think I have a right as an MLA to ask for a break so that cooler heads can prevail.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I will rule that we will continue with the Minister of Community Services. Please complete your remarks.
MR. MORSE: Just to conclude that, I did not bring it up until this time. I think in view of what happened on Tuesday and the comments from the particular member, perhaps I felt, required some sort of response. Tim Crooks is the executive director of Phoenix House. He's well familiar with this case, as is his staff. So if there's some question as to the facts of the case, I would suggest that you can look outside of this Chamber for corroboration.
The Housing Authorities. There was concern on the part of the honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley about the maintenance there, and that is why we put an extra $1 million first in last Fall and then an extra $4 million into the housing authorities. It is something we want to do better, and when I had the opportunity to put more money into the maintenance, it was done.
You made reference about cheaper accommodations sometimes driving the decisions about where we place children. I can assure you that's not the case. Children are always placed where it's in the best interest of the child. Just to give an example, the province actually spends anywhere from - well, it would be zero if a child is successfully adopted out, and that's the best possible scenario for the child. But for some children who end up in group homes, the cost of caring for that child can go anywhere up to $175,000 per child. Foster homes are better than group homes, if we can find one for them. We've already dealt with staff, there hasn't been a single cut in program delivery staff, not a single cut, but there was a reorganization at head office.
Now the other day the member for Dartmouth North was speaking about overpayments, and specifically his concerns about how we proceeded with clawbacks. I think that it's important to note that overpayments are incurred, often when it's a Canada Pension Plan disability situation. Whatever is taken back from the client, first of all it's capped at a maximum of $45 but it can go down to zero depending on their circumstances, and if they are no longer a client of the Department of Community Services, those accounts go to Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations. But still, their ability to pay has everything to do with what they expect the clients to pay.
There was also a suggestion that when we went with the National Child Benefit Program that we no longer supported children through the Employment Support and Income Assistance Program. That's not so. We recognize them in the shelter allowance, we recognize them under special needs, and we recognize them under Pharmacare. Plus, if you're to compare what the National Child Benefit would be for a low-income Nova Scotian child, currently it's $263.65 per child, and with the increase in the basic personal allowance, it's going to $190; it's currently $184. So clearly the children are cared for, their food, their clothing, their basic personal effects, out of the National Child Benefit. That's the purpose of the National Child Benefit. It's there.
MR. JERRY PYE: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. I don't want to belabour this, because I do know that time is expiring and going on. I just wanted to make the point that with the additional revenues that come through the NCB, the National Child Benefit, in fact those revenues of $180, which has now moved to $184, and now will have additional dollars to go to $190, are basically assigned to personal allotments only. That's to the adult portion of the family. Now, how you calculate that, Mr. Minister, into being part of the children's component, I don't know, because that goes to the remaining members of the adult family for their money, and that money is not only for food, but it's for personals as well. So the $180 is a personal allowance.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, the member is absolutely right. What I said was there's still a component in there in shelter, special needs and Pharmacare for children. So if you have a single person who's on Employment Support and Income Assistance, their apartment budget today is $235, it's going to $285, but it's not enough. The point is if they now become a single person with a child, it goes to $550, that's because of the child. That's my point. Children are still recognized as part of the budgeting process, not in the basic personal allowance, that's addressed by the National Child Benefit.
MR. JERRY PYE: Mr. Chairman, on a point of order. I just want to make it clear that prior to any National Child Benefit, any other entities at all, historically that was always the component and that was always the nature of the structure under the Department of Community Services, both at the municipal level and now at the provincial level which, since 1995, has taken over everything.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, there was mention of MacDonald Hall, which is the new facility for people with disabilities in Inverness. The suggestion was that it was made as a larger centre instead of having a couple of smaller ones. In actual fact, the community wanted the larger centre because they were together, they're like a family, and they wanted to stay together, and this was the wish of those residents, and the wonderful people who are volunteers on the board of MacDonald Hall. I was at the opening, and it was great to meet some of the residents of MacDonald Hall and the volunteers who had worked so hard to make it happen and bring Inverness this wonderful new facility. The concern was we are
moving them into larger centres; in actual fact, it was the wish of the residents and the board to have one facility.
There was also talk about the waiting lists and what we're doing for people with disabilities. Last year we introduced three new programs or enhanced them. The Direct Family Support, which I've spoken of before, supports families to keep adults, children with disabilities, or sons and daughters at home, in supervised apartments for those who are almost able to make it on their own, they just need some supervision; and we're looking forward to also rolling out the Alternative Family Support Program, which provides a loving family for an adult with a disability. They can, perhaps, no longer live with their parents because their parents are growing older and are no longer able to care for them.
I want to thank the Liberals for the way they have taken advantage of this opportunity. This is my view of how estimates should work. You asked a lot of questions, good questions, and they were pertinent to your concerns per policy or per your constituency. The NDP chose a different approach. They wanted to get up, make points. It's their perfect right to do so. I would have appreciated it if I could have responded to some of the suggestions they were making about what was going on in the department and perhaps provide some information that would have given them a greater sense of comfort, but I was not afforded that opportunity. It is their perfect right to get up and speak at length without interruption.
They did personally single me out for a lot of criticism, and that's their right. I don't really take much offence to criticizing me personally, that's something that happens in politics. It brings us all down, people don't like it and they blame us all, but it happens here in this Chamber. I did not appreciate the comments about my staff in the central region. I did appreciate the comments from the Liberal Party about their working relationship with my staff. I note that there's a contrast. So if it's so good for the Liberal members, why is it so bad for the NDP members? Nova Scotians are going to have to ponder that.
I think when you have something positive to say about somebody, it's good to say it. They appreciate it, and I really felt that those comments were uncalled for the other day. I challenged the member for Halifax Needham on them at the time, and we had a little exchange. I guess I would say that the NDP, and particularly their Leader, is questioning my competence as minister, and people who have watched this can make their own judgment.
With all due respect, I say to the honourable critic, you asked me a question about the fact that we've gone from an accountability report to a business plan. Well, they were always there, one goes with the other. You are questioning my competence as a minister and you don't understand something that is fundamental to the running of the department, that we always have a business plan and there's an accountability report. You have to take some ownership for that, so if you're pointing your fingers at me, I think you might consider your own position.
Also, the interesting point that was brought up by the honourable member for Dartmouth North, that somehow or other management staff in the Department of Community Services should be treated differently from all other departments and not be considered for performance bonuses, I want the best people in the Department of Community Services. We are serving the most vulnerable people in this province and it is really important to me that we have the best people in place. If you have the best people in place, you have to pay them.
I was somewhat amused by the Leader's offence to my tabling clippings of his past statements. Somebody has to make you accountable just as you make us accountable every day in Question Period, this is your opportunity to make us accountable. If you're going to go out and make statements, if you're going to make your priorities something other than the people served by the Department of Community Services, and you put that on paper and you come in here two and a half years later and you rail about the department and me, I think that it's fair ball to point out that you have a track record of not making the people of Community Services a priority. It's not that some of you don't care about them but your Leader, during his time as Leader, has not made it a priority of your Party. You can check what you said in the last election, you can check what he said when he ran for the Leadership. It was not a priority.
I would suggest that no Leader in the NDP has made this less of a concern because I think traditionally your Party is a Party that is affiliated with sticking up for the plight of the poor, and I would say there is a change under his leadership. He's critical of the way I run the department, but yet he makes an amendment to strip my salary without checking out the consequences. Mr. Dexter said he never intended the vote to be one of non-confidence in the government, but he's criticizing me and I would table that.
I am just going to say that a lot of thank you's do come with this position, the people that I work with, whether they be in child care, emergency shelters, Employment Support and Income Assistance, the clients who got an increase who have never seen one before, and their caseworkers who care and get the feedback from them, people with disabilities, the advocacy groups, staff and the compensation comes from their appreciation.
In closing, Mr. Chairman, again, I appreciate the chance to have been here in estimates. Again, I acknowledge the Liberal Party's professionalism, I respect the NDP's approach that they do not have to ask questions.
In closing, I'm pleased to move Resolution E2.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E2 stand?
Resolution E2 stands.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, will you please call the estimates for the Department of Transportation and Public Works.
Resolution E32 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $263,954,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Transportation and Public Works, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Transportation and Public Works.
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, actually, we only have about 14 minutes until the moment of interruption, so perhaps I can introduce my staff after we get back after the moment of interruption and start off with my opening remarks. (Interruption) No.
Mr. Chairman, before I start my remarks I will introduce the two gentlemen with me. On my right is a gentleman, I'm sure, that every member of this House knows quite well, the Director of Highway Operations within the Department of Transportation and Public Works, Mr. Martin Delaney; and on my left we have Greg Penny who looks after the finances of the department. Over the period of the next several hours I will have other members in the gallery who will accommodate other aspects of the department.
Along with being the Minister of Transportation and Public Works, I'm also the Minister responsible for the Insurance Act and the Sydney Steel Corporation which, of course, includes the Sydney tar ponds. I would like to start with the Department of Transportation and Public Works.
As you likely know there are three major sections to Transportation and Public Works: there's Highway Operations, Public Works and Government Services. Straight away I want to acknowledge and thank the people who work for the department, both public sector and private sector workers. These workers do an excellent job and deserve positive recognition for their efforts on behalf of all Nova Scotian taxpayers.
The 2005-06 budget which we are going to be considering in the next little while, is a good budget for the Department of Transportation and Public Works, and I would suggest that it is a great budget for Nova Scotians. The Nova Scotia Government will spend $50 million more on roads than it collects in gas tax revenue this year and that is a watershed that we have surpassed. This marks a remarkable achievement where we've gone from a deficit from gas revenues of approximately $90 million in our expenditures, to today where we're now $50 million in excess of the money we bring in on gas tax revenues. We are investing $307 million to maintain and improve Nova Scotia's highways, roads and bridges for the benefit of all Nova Scotians.
Since 2000-01, this government has more than tripled TPW's capital budget. This means more twinned highways throughout Nova Scotia and improvement in our secondary roads. We are adding $44 million in combined operating and capital funding in 2005-06, to make our roads safer and smoother.
The government has earmarked $30 million in new capital spending just for highways. TPW intends to spend this $30 million in paving our secondary roads throughout the province. In other words, the additional $30 million that we are getting from the government for expenditure on highways this year, that $30 million will be going to the secondary road system, not to the 100-Series Highway system.
As you know, the government has also earmarked another $30 million in capital spending on highways for next year. By anyone's standards, $60 million to improve highways throughout this province is outstanding. Overall, Transportation and Public Works' capital budget for 2005-06 is about $161 million. This includes close to $143 million for highways, another $16 million for capital construction on buildings, and $1.7 million for corporate information technology support and public safety communications upgrades.
We recognize and acknowledge that not every road in this province is perfect and I don't take pride in telling people that but it's a fact, our road system does require substantial investment by the government, and I think that over the past three or four years we have started getting the additional funding that we need to do that. As I have said in this House on many occasions, you can add money to the Health Budget but it doesn't guarantee that you're going to get better health services. You can do the same thing in education, you can put more money into education but you're not necessarily going to get a better education system. But if you put more money into the highway system, it does result in better roads, it results in better roads right across this province and you see something indeed substantive for the investment that you've made.
I don't think Nova Scotians expect perfection, but I do think that they will appreciate that $60 million over two years will go a very long way in improving our secondary highway network. This extra capital also means extra work for our CUPE employees. We are adding about 100 full-time equivalent staff this year, and this means more hours for our CUPE workers. Technical staff in the department will be added as well.
Much of what we're dealing with today is a result of neglect from yesterday and by yesterday, I mean the 1900s. Highway infrastructure is vital. We need good roads to get products to market, to safely transport children to and from school, and to give tourists another good reason to come back and revisit this province. We are clearly investing a lot of money to include Nova Scotia's road network.
The results of these increased investments are evident. New bridges, new twinned highways, and new pavement are making our roads and bridges stronger and providing new opportunities for communities and businesses.
I would like to speak for a moment on some of the highlights of our recent work. Work will begin this construction season on twining Highway No. 101 from St. Croix to Avonport. The twinning of Highway No. 103 from Otter Lake to Tantallon is progressing and scheduled to open next year. Work will continue on Highway No. 103 at Barrington in Shelburne County. The Sydney River Bridge is being widened and later this year, the Coxheath Interchange will open. The department is planning to twin Highway No. 125, from Balls Creek to Sydney River and that project is continuing.
The department continues to replace its single-lane truss bridges in Nova Scotia. We will spend $13 million to replace more than eight bridges this year; in fact, we well may replace up to 11 of those steel truss bridges this year. I should mention also, while we're talking about steel truss bridges, we have about 200 steel truss bridges in Nova Scotia out of the roughly 4,000 bridges that we have. These steel truss bridges, the majority of them, are 100 years old or older, they are old, old bridges. They are still safe bridges, they are still good bridges, but they're not built for the traffic conditions that we have on our highways today. That is the reason why we have a push on to replace those bridges in particular.
The bridges were bought back around the turn of the century, back in the late 1800s, early 1900s. They were bought primarily from a company called American Steel and Bridge, and they used to have salesmen on the roads with catalogues, just like an Eatons catalogue. They would go around and visit municipalities, governments and other businesses that had a requirement for bridges and say, take a look at our catalogue, can we sell you a bridge - it wasn't the Brooklyn Bridge but that was the principle. The bridges came in various lengths, you could have a bridge 30-feet long, you could have one 120-feet long. Just like a Meccano set - if any of you remember Meccano - they would ship that up to the nearest port of the location of the new bridge, they would unpack it and bolt it together and there you go, Bob's your uncle, you've got yourself a new bridge.
We are looking at replacing those steel truss bridges and we're looking at something along the same lines as trying to get bridges that we can buy to a set design in different lengths and just take them out and have the abutments there and put them on top. If we didn't do that, to replace these bridges, some of them would cost up to $3 million. We can replace them with another type of bridge, perfectly adequate, a built bridge that will last for the next 30 to 50 years, and we can do it for just over $1 million. We are using the good judgment of the engineers that we have, to try to accommodate this tremendous problem we have, of replacing 200 bridges in this province. That is besides the other bridges that we have to replace around the province.
Bridges are a big part of our effort around the province, Mr. Chairman, every year we either have to replace or do extensive repairs or renovations to our bridge infrastructure. We did the Seal Island Bridge, I think everybody remembers we just finished it last year, actually. It was $15 million just to refurbish that bridge, not to rebuild it, it's a beautiful bridge but a very, very expensive bridge to refurbish. We built a brand-new bridge at Margaree Harbour and that was another $13 million bridge. Bridges are very expensive but certainly, we're doing our best within the cash envelope that we have to keep our bridges up to scratch.
As we make these improvements in bridges and roads across the province, the public is taking notice of what we're doing and as a result, our customer satisfaction levels continue to go up. I think it's important that people listen to these numbers. This past year the public satisfaction levels with the department jumped to 63 per cent from 59 per cent the year previous and it's up from 50 per cent in the year prior to that.
What we are doing is we're not getting to perfection but at least we are improving the systems to such an extent that the public is noticing a difference, and we will continue doing that. On top of that, I think our staff are giving impeccable service to the public and the public recognizes that. Nova Scotians are telling us that they feel safer on our roads and approximately 8 in 10 Nova Scotians, 5 per cent more than last year, have told us they feel very safe or somewhat safe on our highways.
Mr. Chairman, I'm just going to sit down for 30 minutes and come back to join you later.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Minister. We have reached the moment of interruption.
[6:00 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[6:30 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: I call to order the Committee of the Whole House on Supply.
The honourable Minister of Transportation and Public Works.
MR. RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, four years ago we put in place the RIM program, Road Improvement Money program. I'm pleased to advise the House that we're spending $15 million on RIM this year, that's an increase of $2.5 million over what we spent last year and actually, it's about $6 million more than the amount we allocated when we first started off with the RIM program. In fact, we have invested close to $70 million in RIM over the past six years. This money goes directly into road projects on the secondary and local road network and is divided by region, based on the volume of the roadways within a particular
region. The money goes toward small projects such as small-scale asphalt patching which is normally done with spreader patching.
I'm sure all rural members recognize what spreader patching is, it works very, very well and it certainly beats just pounding some asphalt into a hole in the pavement, which is likely to pop out. Asphalt paving is actually just a thin coating of asphalt but certainly one that provides permanence to the repair.
The feedback from communities has been exceptional. RIM projects are largely tendered, resulting in greater cost efficiencies for taxpayers and first-rate work for residents. Our investments in technology or intelligent transportation is helping to make travel safer.
I would like to bring to the attention of members our RWIS stations, these are the Road Weather Information System stations that are scattered around the province, adjacent to our highways. Most people know what they look like but they're just a tower and there's a few gadgets attached to that tower and they provide information back to our bases and they provide information on the network for all users of the highway system.
According to my notes, they contain weather monitoring devices on the tower and are connected to a hockey puck-sized sensor in the middle of the pavement. The devices and sensors accumulate air and ground temperatures and then forward that information directly to Environment Canada. The information comes back in readily available data which is used by staff to make decisions on salting. With that information, staff are able to put salt on the road before ice forms, making our roads safer, yet using less salt to do the same quality job.
I should point out, Mr. Chairman, that we were somewhat perturbed a number of years ago when the federal Department of the Environment declared salt as a toxic substance, and we were afraid that perhaps we would lose the ability to use salt on our roads. There is no doubt, I don't think, in anybody's mind that the most effective treatment for ice is salt. There are other salt-type compounds, but they are several times more expensive than salt. Salt is the cheapest substance we can use to get rid of ice or to prevent ice from forming.
We are very, very fortunate in this province that our people readily came to the rescue by going into a process called "wet salting" where the salt is dampened - or actually it's not a liquid but it's very close to being a liquid - and when it drops onto the road it stays there. Whereas if you've ever driven behind a salt truck on the highway and you've noticed them dumping dry salt, the salt comes down and bounces all over the place, including on your windshield. With wet salting you use a measured amount of salt, it goes on the pavement and sticks to it because it is wet and freezes in place.
Getting back to the towers that we have along the highways, these towers provide images of highway conditions and the staff can use these cameras to watch weather patterns across the province. This allows supervisors to be prepared for blizzards and to call in staff
on a timely basis. With 33 cameras, Nova Scotia is the leader in Canada, in the number of stations on our highways. Eleven stations have been added since last December and I believe we're putting in an extra five or six this year. These camera images are available on the net and I'm sure that most members, if they're living in rural areas, use them frequently to check on what the road condition is in the morning when they're heading off to work.
Our goal is to improve services and safety to the travelling public and the cameras are one method by which drivers can learn more about weather conditions, particularly in Winter. We are involved in two environmental remediation projects, one in Boat Harbour - which I'll come to in a moment - and the old Halifax Infirmary. Together with our federal partners, we are working with local industry to return Boat Harbour to a tidal state.
For those of you who don't know what Boat Harbour is, it's in Pictou County and back in the 1950s or 1960s, they first started taking the effluent from the paper mill and dumping it in a lagoon, which is Boat Harbour. Over the years it became something of a cesspool and a decision was made to clean that up. Working with the Department of Environment and Labour and the wonderful co-operation from the local Indian band, we've been able to bring that effluent problem under control and we're still working on the problem. It is the intention, eventually, to open up Boat Harbour to the ocean again, we have a dam across there right now. We will remove that dam eventually and we will return the effluent out to the ocean, which we hope will return Boat Harbour to becoming a fishing ground, which it once was, for the Indian band.
Public Works staff from the department have done an exceptional job of restoring and maintaining government buildings this year. Staff have worked on historic buildings and museums such as Province House, the Credit Union Building, Digby Courthouse, Sherbrooke Village, Uniacke Estate, Haliburton House, the Balmoral Grist Mill, and Fisherman's Life Museum in Jeddore. Right here in Province House, this magnificent building that we have, downstairs we put in - as you're probably aware - a magnificent tribute to Joseph Howe. This was built by workmen from within Public Works, carpenters, cabinet makers, electricians, et cetera, and they did a fantastic job down there.
This building itself has been restored to an extent that would have been unbelievable if you had seen this building back in the early 1980s, or the late 1970s when I arrived here, the building was entirely different. People had added a bit on here, a bit on there, put up walls, false ceilings and goodness knows what throughout the building. There has been a gradual reclamation to this place to return it to the way it was; we're not there yet but we're getting there. We still have work to do outside and we have work to do inside. This year, for instance, the back steps - or front steps, whichever way you look at the building - on Hollis Street will be given an extensive renovation this year.
We will be introducing a new barrier-free access policy this year. The province is committed to ensuring persons with disabilities benefit equally to the services offered to the general public within government-owned and leased premises. My department requires all new buildings and new leases to be barrier-free and incorporates barrier-free design into renovations of existing buildings whenever possible.
The Public Works section of the department continues to explore new opportunities to meet the government's Energy Strategy. Our latest steps in this field include energy-efficient building construction, which is resulting in substantial cost savings to government. In fact, the government expects to realize savings of $15 million over the next 25 years, due to reduced energy costs. In the future we will continue to build energy-efficient buildings and we will explore new ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The latest measure in this vein has been the testing of fish oil in the heating fuel that we use to heat our public buildings. We have about 20 government buildings in the province that have taken part in this test of a unique, made-in-Nova Scotia product.
The Department of Transportation and Public Works has a responsibility for the delivery of new schools and major school renovation projects are included in the program through the Department of Education. We continue to work with the Department of Education and the school boards to design and construct quality projects that will address the current infrastructure deficiencies and provide for the delivery of quality education in the future. These buildings will be designed and built to a standard that will prove to be efficient to operate, maintain and provide a healthy environment for the students and staff.
I should mention with that, Mr. Chairman, that back in the 1960s we built a lot of boxes with flat roofs and these were the school design structures of the period. We had a rather dismal record with those particular schools, in that they were built on slabs in the majority of cases, with flat roofs, very, very difficult to maintain and subject to rapid deterioration. We don't build those anymore, we're building good schools.
Since June 2000, 16 new schools have been completed. The latest was Shelburne High which was completed in March 2005. Two additional schools, Amherst Elementary and Cumberland Elementary, are in the last stages of construction and will soon be ready to occupy. Construction is underway on a new high school in Barrington and a new elementary school in Hammonds Plains.
Planning and design is almost finished for three additional new schools with construction activities planned to start in 2005-06. This includes a replacement school for Saint Pat's and QE High Schools, a new high school in Tantallon, a new school to replace the Harbourside/Robert Jamieson High School in Jeddore. Several large renovation and addition projects have been completed and others are underway at various stages of completion.
Government Services, as its name suggests, provides common services to government users. Under this umbrella falls everything from postal services, accommodation services, to government-wide provision of information technology and telecommunications services. Staff in this division manage accommodations for all departments, boards, agencies and commissions. They sell surplus land and manage inventory. They also protect our computers from outside attacks and manage the thousands upon thousands of e-mails that flow in and out of government each day. To give you an example of that - and I was really surprised at the number - we handle about 450,000 a day; just think about it, 450,000 e-mails a day.
There are staff within the department who handle government-wide contracts for telecommunications. These are the staff who negotiated tendered arrangements for local and long distance telephone service, as well as data and cellphone service. Our staff should be congratulated because their hard work has resulted in large savings for the taxpayers.
We should also congratulate them when their work results in enhanced public safety and enhanced responses to emergencies. I'm talking about the work of the Public Safety Communications Program Office, which is responsible for the Trunk Mobile Radio system or TMR. This mobile radio communications system links virtually all emergency services in the province. The system links 5,000 users from over 68 tower sites across the province. It is a first-class system which links police to EMO staff, to volunteer firefighters and many others, and I believe Ground Search and Rescue, all those bodies that utilize radio services accommodated through the Department of Transportation and Public Works.
Since 2000, the province has spent more than $37 million providing equipment and services to volunteer public safety agencies so they might access the Trunk Mobile Radio system. The province continues to assist volunteer groups with donated radios and free air time. We also do servicing repair and rehabilitation of devices before we hand them over to the volunteer services.
The department is also working towards a stronger province with our policy decisions and lobbying of the federal government. Certainly, that's what I have been trying to achieve in my talks with Ottawa around air policy. We have a very, very successful airport in Halifax International and it's a vital gateway to the Atlantic region. That is why I've been pushing Ottawa to liberalize air access and to allow new carriers to serve Nova Scotia.
We were successful in pushing the federal government to approve pre-clearance at the Halifax International Airport. Halifax was the only major Canadian airport without pre-clearance. Mr. Chairman, I can remember when I first came to this department back in 2001 and we started this campaign to try to get that and we were given all kinds of excuses: yes, if you can do this, if you can do that, and we'd do this and we'd do that and then there would be another list of things we'd have to do and we'd do those, and it went on and on. Finally,
with the management we have at the Halifax International Airport, last year we did indeed succeed in getting the approval for going ahead with having pre-clearance in Nova Scotia, and it's incredibly important. Business travellers going out of this country to get pre-clearance here can arrive in Newark, or LaGuardia or any of the other major airports and just pass through as though they were domestic passengers. We still have some problems with the air service and in particular, the viability of our smaller airports. We are encouraging Ottawa to address this issue as it affects Yarmouth and Sydney.
We had the select committee on air services down here about six weeks ago and we made a presentation to them and one of the things we were talking about was the viability of those small airfields and the importance of those small airfields, not only in Nova Scotia but right across this country. Unless you have those smaller airports that can feed the major centres such as Halifax International or, if you want, Moulton, Mirabel, any of the major airports, unless you have air service to them then, indeed, you're not going to have a viable air industry in the province.
I'm glad to see that the federal government took that under advisement, I'm also glad to see that they listened to us when we were talking to them about the fees that they're charging airports. It's a dreadful thing but they're making more money today - in fact, they weren't making money at all before, the airports in Canada, when they were under the federal government. They were a drain, a liability on the federal government which was costing them something in the order of about $500 million a year to maintain those airports. Now they're making $500 million a year from the airports, so we brought that to their attention.
I was glad to see just last week, I guess it was, that the federal government has decided that over the long term - admittedly a very long term - they will reduce the rental fees that they're charging to the major airports across this country.
We're also actively lobbying the federal government for stable, long-term funding to support highway construction in Nova Scotia. The federal government collects about $140 million a year in motive fuel taxes in Nova Scotia and over the past five years has returned less than $5 million a year to our roads and bridges. The federal reinvestment in our roads works out to less than 4 per cent per year. Mr. Chairman, this is a crucial issue for Nova Scotians. The federal government's apparent lack of interest in helping our government improve our highways is slowing us down. We are keen to move forward on many twinning proposals, but we have not been able to secure federal government funding for these cost-shared projects.
When we start talking to the federal government about making some arrangements they say, yes, we're going to help you, we're going to return tax dollars to the province, that's part of our platform. Then they say, this is going to be done through the programs to help municipalities. Mr. Chairman, I've said this in the House and I'm going to say it again, in Nova Scotia, the provincial government's Department of Transportation and Public Works
and the provincial government, in turn, their Treasury, provides the money to support 90 per cent of our roads and bridges in this province; 10 per cent of the roads and bridges are maintained, constructed, et cetera, by the towns and by the cities.
Returning federal tax money to the municipalities isn't going to help the provincial roads because we look after 90 per cent. However, they say, in Ontario they don't do it that way. Well, I don't care what they do in Ontario. In Ontario, the provincial government looks after 10 per cent of the roads and the municipalities look after 90 per cent, exactly the reverse of what occurs in this province. It's a solution that will work in Ontario - maybe Ontario because they want the votes - but it sure as heck doesn't work in Nova Scotia, it doesn't work in New Brunswick, it doesn't work in Newfoundland and Labrador, it doesn't work in the western provinces. When they say that they're returning tax money to this province under that program to fix the roads, they don't know what they're talking about. No matter how many times we write to them or we talk to them, they've come back with the same argument, we're going to return money, but it doesn't help us.
Twinned highways make for better driving, well, we all know that, but, however, motorists need to put safety at the top of their personal agenda when they're driving. My deputy minister and I, supported by staff at all levels, are committed to increasing public awareness around road safety. I want to thank the volunteers on the province's road safety awareness committee. These are people who have a keen interest in making our roads safer by creating awareness on the positive things that motorists can do to keep themselves and their children safe. They are helping to reinforce the idea that it isn't roads or highways that are necessarily unsafe, but the way people drive, and the dangerous behaviours that contribute to crashes and collisions.
The most dangerous of all things that will create accidents, is lack of attention of motorists when they're driving. They are too busy talking to the person sitting near them, or the person in the back seat, or listening to the radio and trying to tune something in, talking on a cellphone, maybe cleaning their nails, maybe reading a book. The behaviour of some drivers is simply atrocious and it's no wonder that they get into trouble, they're just not watching. We are going to have to engage ourselves in a program to bring to the attention of all people that inattention is the primary cause of most accidents. There are others that we have to deal with as well. Certainly, MADD has a wonderful campaign out there about intoxication when driving, alcohol abuse and the breathalyzer, those are programs we have to support but don't forget, the primary cause of accidents is inattention.
Another of the delightful jobs that I have is to speak and to look after the Insurance Act. I'm very pleased that over the past year we've seen positive results of auto insurance reforms introduced by this government in 2003. Our plan has resulted in 277,000 Nova Scotians sharing in over $55 million in rebates, and industry reports it has resulted in consumers having their rates rolled back by 24 per cent. That is unprecedented, it has happened nowhere else in Canada. We have a program in place that, quite frankly, has
reduced the dissatisfaction of consumers with their auto insurance from up here somewhere down to very close to zero. Myself, I used to get dozens of calls every day from people complaining about their insurance rates for their automobile. I get maybe one or two a week, if I get any.
The past year was marked by a great deal of activity and many significant accomplishments for the Nova Scotia Insurance Review Board. This is a seven-member board established to hold hearings on insurance matters. It held a hearing in October on the Facility Association rates and it still accomplished its main task of reviewing applications and issuing decisions on rate changes for 46 different companies currently writing auto insurance in Nova Scotia.
If you remember, Mr. Chairman, when we were talking about insurance in the Legislature, the matter was raised that if we introduced this legislation, all the insurance companies would leave the province. Well, we still have the 46 largest still in the province. Some of the other ones that have disappeared would have disappeared anyway.
The Insurance Review Board has also completed two reports for government, a study into the use of gender as a rating factor in automobile insurance in Nova Scotia, and a report on the rates and availability of fire, other property and liability insurance for homeowners, tenants, non-profit organizations, and small business. Both those reports continue to be reviewed by government and will no doubt provide us with critical data to help inform and direct future improvements to Nova Scotia's auto insurance regime.
The Office of the Superintendent of Insurance has been equally busy in addressing the last outstanding issue in our plan and that is the depopulation of the Facility Association. I'm pleased to report that as of last month - and that was April of this year - about 5,000 individuals have been removed from the Facility Association where they did not belong - for anyone who doesn't know what the Facility Association is, it's for high-risk applicants - and they're moving into the regular stream of the insurance industry. This success is due in large part to broker examinations which were conducted recently by the superintendent's office staff.
We will continue to monitor underwriting practices to ensure the Facility Association is only writing policies for those high-risk drivers, who legitimately require this coverage. This coverage should not be imposed upon people who have a driving record that in many cases is impeccable. Clearly, we have developed an auto insurance system that meets the needs of all stakeholders and more importantly, the consumers. Mr. Chairman, I see I'm going over what was my time, but I won't be too long.
I would now like to conclude my remarks with an update on the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency. I'm the Minister responsible for the Sydney tar ponds - not for making the tar ponds but perhaps I should say I'm the minister responsible for cleaning up the tar ponds.
On May 12, 2004, the Governments of Canada and Nova Scotia reached agreement on a $400 million cleanup plan for the tar ponds and coke ovens site. The plan calls for the removal and destruction of some of the worst contaminants and the in-place treatment of other contaminants using proven technologies. The Province of Nova Scotia has agreed to contribute up to $120 million towards the cost of that cleanup. The Government of Canada has agreed to contribute up to $280 million, so the whole thing is a $400 million project.
The year 2004-05 represented the wrap-up year for the cost-shared agreement, which saw more than $70 million invested in preliminary cleanup projects including: engineering, environmental and health studies; a cleanup technology and selection program; the installation of a major interceptor of sewer in Sydney; the closure of the former landfill site. Mr. Chairman, I don't know if you've seen the site . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. Order, please. There are several conversations going on in the Chamber right now and it's difficult for everyone to hear what the minister is saying.
MR. RUSSELL: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Some of them are missing some very vital information. The closure of the former municipal landfill - it was an environmental disaster practically, just to the sense of anybody who passed by - and now that landfill is a green mound, a beautiful spot. I think that is a tribute to what the federal and provincial governments, and also the CBRM, have done to resurrect that particular area. We've removed the above-ground structures from the coke ovens site and we have security on the grounds in place.
Our plans for this year are somewhat contingent on whether or not the Government of Nova Scotia decides to participate in a full-panel environmental assessment, ordered by the federal government. We are now in the process of reviewing our options and I expect to be in a position to announce our decision within a couple of weeks. In other words, the federal government decided to go for a full-panel review and quite a few people of substance within the City of Sydney were pushing for a comprehensive review. The federal government, however, decided to go to the panel.
Budget estimates have been prepared on the basis of an assumption that the cleanup will continue as a joint initiative with the federal and provincial governments. Major initiatives planned for this year include a detailed environmental impact assessment, which we have to do; engineering pre-design for the entire remediation project; tendering of a number of preliminary projects, including the realignment of the coke ovens brook; the replacement of a main water line between Whitney Pier and Ashby; the remediation of the cooling pond; and engineering design of the north pond cofferdam. It is estimated that in the
fiscal year 2005-06, Nova Scotia will incur net capital costs totalling $13.4 million on this project; net operating costs are expected to total $1.9 million in fiscal 2005-06.
Mr. Chairman, I appreciate having the opportunity to make some opening remarks and to more or less cover most of the responsibilities that we have within the Department of Transportation and Public Works. I look forward to the participation by members on anything that we do in the Department of Transportation and Public Works. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MR. CHARLES PARKER: I want to thank the minister for his thorough report of his department, for his lengthy dissertation, for his long-winded report of his department. It was entertaining and eloquent but a thorough report. I certainly want to welcome his staff members here as well this evening and look forward to some quick questions back and forth. Primarily, I'm going to focus on the transportation aspect of your department, and probably some other members will pick up on the insurance and Government Services aspect of your department.
I have listened carefully to what you've had to say, Mr. Minister, and it's good to get a report from all the various aspects of your department. I certainly agree with you that the infrastructure in this province is a very vital component to the quality of life here in Nova Scotia. It's vital that we have good-quality roads and bridges and maintain those.
I listened with interest when you were telling us the story about the bridges and how they were being replaced in this province. I must commend you on the story about the bridge replacement from the last century, perhaps even from 100 years ago, and you're a good salesman in how you present your department and give us the information about road maintenance and bridge replacement. But I guess I must question some discrepancies in your department. You've given us a very rosy picture of how the roads, bridges and infrastructure in this province appear. Not all is perhaps as rosy as you indicate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. There are several conversations going on at full volume around the Chamber. If it is possible for members to take those conversations outside, or learn to whisper, it would be really welcome and I think it would help the debate that is going on here today.
MR. PARKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. As I was indicating, what the minister has told us about highway infrastructure in this province is all very bright and cheery but the picture on the road, as you might say, in the constituencies, is considerably different. I know, Mr. Minister, you've heard in this House from many members, including myself, there certainly are problems out there with our rural infrastructure and not all constituents are happy with the state of our roads and bridges. I want to bring some of those to your attention and basically ask why there is such a discrepancy. You're indicating to us that everything is
doing better, there is certainly some more money going into rural infrastructure, but it's not nearly enough for what is needed. I think as the minister you probably will agree with that, we need more investment in our infrastructure.
You indicated earlier there was a study done by your department that showed there was a pretty good improvement in the satisfaction rate of the general public about roads. In spite of that it's still the number one issue in rural Nova Scotia and there's a real concern about our crumbling infrastructure.
Just to give you some examples, in my constituency of Pictou West, I continue to hear daily from individuals who are not very happy with roads - and I have brought them to your attention before - like Highway No. 256 that runs from Scotsburn to West Branch, the River John Road, the Old Post Road, Greenhill Road, White Hill Road, Abercrombie, Granton Road, the Sunrise Trail that runs from Toney River to the county line - and I'm sure the Minister of Education is glad to hear about that particular one - and I could go on. Around the province there are many roads that people are very dissatisfied with, the Upper Clyde River Road in Shelburne County, I'm sure there are roads in your own particular riding in Hants County, Highway No. 4 in Cape Breton, and on and on it goes. There are hundreds of examples that I could give of crumbling roads.
In spite of the satisfaction survey that your government had undertaken, there was also a survey that our Party did back in February that showed the number one issue that people were concerned about, or would like to see fixed. They were asked what that would be outside of metro and it turned out to be roads, it wasn't health care, it wasn't education. In fact, roads were about double the other issues that I mentioned, so it is well ahead in the number one position as being the major issue that people are concerned about outside of metro. In other words, 75 per cent of the province said that this issue was topmost in their minds, the condition of our rural roads.
I guess my first question is, the minister has painted a picture that's very rosy, everything is fine, wonderful, more money going into our infrastructure, yet the number one issue that is concerning people in rural Nova Scotia is roads. Why the discrepancy? You're saying everything is wonderful and people in the constituencies are saying just the opposite, that there are real problems and real concerns. I would like you to address that first of all.
MR. RUSSELL: I would like to thank the honourable member for that question, it's a relevant question and it's one that I'm delighted to answer. First of all, I, too, live in a rural area. The houses in my riding are not just side by side, they are about a quarter of a mile apart, most of them, and in between there's a stretch of highway. That stretch of highway, inevitably, is not quite up to scratch.
When I knock on doors, people don't tell me about the health care program, they don't tell me about their school system, they don't tell me about community services, they tell me about the roads. Come out here and look at the road, look at the ditch, look at the shoulders, look at the condition of the road, generally; that's what they are interested in. They get a phone call though that next evening from some polling organization that says, what do you think about the state of the health care system in Nova Scotia? Do you think we should spend more money on health care? Yes, I do. Is that your number one priority? Yes, it is - and so it goes.
I'm delighted that people are finally waking up to the fact that health is important, education is important, community services are important, but roads are vitally important and the roads will react to an input of additional funds by doing something that is going to make it more positive. I said just a moment ago, if you put more money into health care, it's not necessarily going to shorten up wait times. If you put more money into education, it's not necessarily going to get lower numbers in the classrooms, et cetera. But if you put money into roads, you see something and you have something that is going to last for 25 years, it's very, very important.
Now, you say, why are we in this particular state? I can tell you why, I can tell you why very easily. It is simply because of the fact that Transportation has been a cash cow for other departments. In the 1990s, when we had a different government - for some of it, anyway - and they ran short of money in some departments, they were examining the budget and saying, where can we get some more dollars? Look, we can take it out of road maintenance, it doesn't matter, we'll put some more money back in next year. But next year they took more and more and that's the reason why the budget of the Department of Transportation and Public Works, particularly for maintenance, showed a steady decrease, the capital also showed a steady decrease. That's why our road system got into the state that it is in today.
You know yourself, if you have a house and a shingle blows off the roof, you don't say, well, that's only one shingle, because you know darn well that if you don't fix that one shingle, pretty soon you're going to have no shingles on your roof at all and then it becomes a major expense. If you do ongoing maintenance you can take care of those things as they arise and you can keep your system up to scratch. Over that period of time, people weren't interested in roads, they didn't spend money on roads, and as a result the system went into decline. Now, when we go to put a lift of asphalt on a road we can't do that, we have to tear the road up and pulverize and build practically a new road, because of the fact we haven't had ongoing maintenance.
I'm delighted that the Parties opposite are onside, that they agree the Department of Transportation and Public Works is vital, it needs money, but we're going to hopefully get it in the future and your support is certainly appreciated.
MR. PARKER: I'm glad the minister agrees that all is not rosy, as I got from his opening statement, so we agree that there is a lot of work that needs to be done out there. In fact, about four years ago the department did their own study, it was called Nova Scotia's Primary and Secondary Highway Systems: 10-Year Needs, which identified in 2001 that there was an infrastructure deficit in this province of $3.5 billion, and I think we would agree that with inflation, that's probably $4 billion or perhaps even closer to $5 billion today. So we are underfunded somewhere between $4 billion and $5 billion in infrastructure.
The 10-year plan, if you divided it by 10, you would be somewhere around $350 million a year to bring that up just to address that infrastructure deficit, not for enhancements, not for extra things, but just to try to catch up with the problems that are there. Of course, the budget that was set this year and last year and so on is nowhere close to $350 million for roads. I think it's $263 million for the department this year, and that's for everything, for Public Works, for government buildings and so on. We are falling short, we're well behind what we need to even meet the 10-year plan. I guess we recognize that not enough money is going into the department to meet the plan that is there.
I would like to ask the minister - we're falling short on the plan, we're not meeting that - what is your plan to catch up to this $4.5 billion deficit that is out there now? Obviously, your budget is not addressing that, we're falling short. I would like to know what plans do you have for Nova Scotia to try to catch up to the crumbling infrastructure that is out there?
MR. RUSSELL: The honourable member said I was painting too rosy a picture. What I'm referring to is the fact that it is so much more rosy today than it was four or five years ago. We are showing improvement. By the way, the honourable member said that we're spending $263 million on highways, that figure is not correct. We're spending $307.327 million on highways and bridges this year, which is quite good.
In 2000, when we came into power, they were spending $44 million on highways. (Interruption) Well, this is the budget for 1999-2000. This year we are going to spend $142 million in capital, that's more than double the amount that was being expended at the end of the term of the previous government. We can't manufacture money. All we can do is operate within the framework that the Cabinet puts in place to provide funding for my department, for every minister's department. I still think that we should rate up there somewhere with Health and Education in the amount of money we get, but I will be sort of happy and satisfied if we can see an increase every year to try to eventually get to that magic number of $300 million-plus per year for highway construction capital. Are we finished?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The honourable Minister of Transportation and Public Works, there's some confusion about when we're finished; 7:22 p.m. is the time of interruption.
MR. RUSSELL: So, Mr. Chairman, while I recognize the fact that the situation with our roads in Nova Scotia is by no means 100 per cent at the present time, we are working towards resolving that. We can only do it as fast as funding becomes available to effect those particular improvements, and we are doing our best. We have staff who are incredibly innovative. We're getting maximum value for every dollar we expend and I would suggest to you that perhaps we're getting about 30 per cent more, for every dollar we spend, than we were getting for a dollar expended four or five years ago, just through better technology, better use of materials, and certainly through the loyalty and hard work of the staff within the department.
MR. PARKER: I know we're going to continue this another day but we all agree there's a shortage of money coming into the department, as compared to what there was a few years ago, and there's still a whole lot of work out there that needs to be done. People are still not very happy with their rural infrastructure, it needs a whole lot of work. You can drive around any road in Pictou West, or anywhere in Nova Scotia probably, and get evidence of that, so we need further investment.
I wanted to ask, there has been this relationship and ongoing discussion about the gas tax in Nova Scotia and what is actually collected. You've said yourself, Mr. Minister, that the amount is more than what we're actually spending on roads, so I would like to know, what is the actual amount of gasoline tax that is collected in this province and how does it relate to what is expended?
MR. RUSSELL: We get $256.895 million in revenues from our fuel tax, we are expending $307.327 million on highways and bridges. That gives us an excess in highway spending of fuel tax revenue of $50.432 million this year.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We are now at the moment of interruption.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, I move the committee do now rise and report considerable progress.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee rose at 7:22 p.m.]