MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Good afternoon, the Committee of the Whole House on Supply will now be called to order. We will begin with the estimates of the Department of Community Services.
Revolution E2 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $748,123,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Community Services, pursuant to the Estimate and the business plan of the Nova Scotia Housing Development Corporation be approved.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I recognize the Minister of Community Services to introduce her staff and make some opening comments if she so wishes
HON. JUDY STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it is an honour to appear before this committee and present the Department of Community Services budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year. It is still early days for me as I get immersed in the role and responsibilities that come with being minister of this huge department, but may I say that the more I learn, the more humbled I become.
Mr. Chairman, it didn't take me long to learn that I'm working with a dedicated group of people. These people are employees who serve those Nova Scotians who need our help most. Not only do we have a staff of more than 1,100 people, we have about 50
offices throughout the province, ensuring that our staff are close to our clients. I'm sure that for any members of this committee who may have had dealings with Community Services staff throughout the province, you will agree with my assessment that these people serve our province extremely well. Two of those people are with me today: George Hudson is the Executive Director of Finance and Administration, and Bonnie LeFrank is Manager of Budgets and Results. While I've learned a lot in the last two weeks as Minister of Community Services, I'm happy to have two right hands on whom to rely in this Chamber.
This estimates debate gives me a chance to profile the Department of Community Services, especially important for new members of the House and for our more seasoned members, a preview of our programs and services for the upcoming fiscal year. The most important piece of news is that our overall departmental budget is increasing, allowing us to direct more money to where it is most needed. The Community Services budget for 2006-07 is $748 million. That's an increase of $32 million over last year. That's $32 million more on behalf of low-income Nova Scotian families and in support of thousands of Nova Scotians in need.
There are four key program areas within the Department of Community Services: Persons with Disabilities, Family and Children's Services, Housing, and Employment Support and Income Assistance. Mr. Chairman, one of the first things I learned at the department is you have to understand the acronyms, so if I slip into SPD or ESIA talk at any time please remind me at any time to fill in the rest of the letters.
Here are some of the ways we will be helping Nova Scotians over the next year. Families. Mr. Chairman, this government's entire budget is built around families and our future, and nowhere is that more evident than at Community Services. Focus on child care, more than $130 million over 10 years. Nova Scotia remains committed to providing quality child care. The province is committed to a 10-year plan which is in excess of $130 million. This will provide more flexibility for parents and better training for child care workers, especially in rural areas. Pharmacare for children in low-income families, $2 million annually. Children of low-income families will benefit from extended prescription drug coverage. More than 33,000 children under the age of 18 will benefit from Pharmacare through a $1 million investment by the province this year, increasing to $2 million next year.
Mr. Chairman, the continued rollout of services for persons with disabilities renewal, $1.5 million. We will soon offer three programs to help those with disabilities: Direct Family Support, Independent Living Support and Alternative Family Support. This budget includes $1.5 million to continue the Direct Family Support Program and enables us to extend last year's Independent Living Support pilot project in Cape Breton to the rest of the province. We will also implement the Alternate Family Support
program. This new program helps people with disabilities live with another family when they cannot live in their own home.
Help for foster families, Mr. Chairman, to the tune of $400,000. Nova Scotia's foster families provide a valuable service for children who need a home. The province will increase base rates by 5 per cent for foster families, to $14.46 per day for children under the age of 10 and $21.02 per day for children 10 years and older. This represents a $400,000 investment to make life easier for foster families and the more than 1,200 children in their care.
Extending the age limits for the bursary program for children in care, $200,000. Currently youth in care are eligible for a bursary program to cover their post-secondary education costs. Government is pleased to extend the age limit from 21 to 24 years so that students who were formerly in care can continue their studies.
The introduction of post-adoption services, $200,000. We are putting more supports in place for parents who adopt children with special needs with this investment. Mr. Chairman, these parents deserve special recognition for the nurturing role they play, and our thanks for making a difference.
Housing - providing more affordable housing - $42 million over three years. In 2002, the province signed the Affordable Housing Agreement with the federal government, committing $56.18 million to create affordable housing by 2009. As of March 31, 2006, $37.3 million has been committed for the construction or renovation of more than 900 units. In the next two years we will commit another $20 million to invest in this worthy project.
Affordable Housing Trust, $23 million over three years. A further $23 million from the federal Affordable Housing Trust will also be allocated for the renovation or creation of more affordable and social housing over the next three years. We are prepared to invest these funds in various forms of affordable housing, including existing social housing. Investments will be delivered across a range of projects and programs. This means we will be creating and maintaining more affordable homes for low-income Nova Scotians.
Investing more in emergency home repair programs, $4.5 million. Nova Scotia has some of the highest rates of home ownership, but some of the oldest homes in the country. We will invest an additional $3.5 million in the Senior Citizens' Assistance and Provincial Housing Emergency Repair Programs. We also have access to $1 million under the Department of Health's Continuing Care budget, to deliver emergency repairs to seniors' homes.
Income Assistance - increasing income assistance to $5.6 million annually, total. For the third consecutive year, income assistance rates will be increased. Effective October 1, 2006, all income assistance clients will receive a personal allowance increase of $10 per month. Basic shelter allowance rates will be raised by $15 a month for single renters, and $20 a month for families. There is $2.8 million in this year's budget and this will be increased to $5.6 million next year.
Income assistance clients to keep a portion of their income tax refund. Income assistance clients will be able to keep 30 per cent of their income tax refund, Mr. Chairman. With this program, household income will increase as people keep 30 per cent of their tax refund, above their current level of assistance.
Increased dental fees paid on behalf of income assistance clients. Income assistance clients may be eligible to receive emergency dental coverage. We will increase the dental rates in the Employment Support and Income Assistance policy by 6 per cent. Clients will see a reduction in the amount they pay. It may also allow them to have emergency dental work that they wouldn't have been able to otherwise afford.
Mr. Chairman, and fellow members, these are just the highlights for the Department of Community Services for 2006-07. I would be happy to turn things over to you to begin the discussion.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth North.
MR. TREVOR ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, I would like to open by congratulating the honourable minister for her new role in the current government and to thank her, as well, for the efforts that she'll make over the next eight hours, along with her colleagues, in answering some very crucial, important questions that will be posed.
Mr. Chairman, I must inform you that it is, indeed, an honour for me to stand here as the Opposition critic for what I believe to be one of the major building blocks of this government's budget. I can tell you that standing here today I am quite troubled by the fact that the poor in Nova Scotia are amongst some of the poorest in Canada, and not only do we have the highest poverty rate, we have people living in some of the most severe cases of poverty across this country. Even more troubling is the fact that one in five children in Nova Scotia lives in poverty. I must tell you, right now, that Breakfast for Learning programs and food banks are only stop-gaps for some of these families who are experiencing these levels of poverty.
Today, Mr. Chairman, I stand before you with an opportunity to keep one of my very own campaign promises I made during the election. During the election, the third week of the election, I was accosted by a lady from our community who was frustrated, very frustrated, and she was in one of the more well-to-do areas, we'll call it. As she
approached me and my fiancée, she expressed her concerns to me that the government of the day - in particular, me - would not forget those who are in need of a hand-up, or some assistance to help them out of a mere rut. I pledged that day to make a consistent effort on behalf of her, as her representative, and a voice to the government, of her concerns.
Now some may say I'm naive because I have a lack of experience to this forum, but, Mr. Chairman, I must tell you, for 16 years I've been a home-care worker, I have seen those who have battled addictions, I have worked on the front lines of local food banks, and I have also witnessed the struggles of seniors who've been abandoned by their family members and who have only the "system" to rely on.
Mr. Chairman, if you walk around the streets of HRM, drive by most intersections, you can see for yourself the troubles many are facing in Nova Scotia. These are not only problems in the Regional Municipality of Halifax and Dartmouth, they are problems that are increasing drastically in our rural communities due to job losses, students, and family members moving away.
Mr. Chairman, my future wife says to me, Trevor, you always see the good in people. Well, today I stand here as an optimist. However, in saying that, I want to inform the honourable minister that although each issue she will speak on and express as being important to both her and her government, I want only to say that history sometimes repeats itself.
This government's commitment to those who find themselves in need and who live in poverty, continue to struggle merely to survive each day to the point of barely existing. Case in point, Mr. Chairman, in 2006, the NDP-led Community Services Committee held an open forum on poverty in which stakeholders presented their ideas and concerns, along with several recommendations, to this department. On the first day, only one Progressive Conservative representative showed up. On the second day, no Progressive Conservative members saw fit to attend. I can only hope, today, after listening and answering these important questions, the honourable minister makes a commitment to work, listen, and join in the efforts of the many organizations whose only goal is to improve the lives of all Nova Scotians.
With that being said, Mr. Chairman, I want to move on. My first questions will be in and around the Progressive Conservative platform, Building for families, Building for the future, which I can table. The Tory platform included the province to take the following actions - on Page 12 of the platform, it states: "legislate annual adjustments to the Department of Community Services' basic personal allowance."
Since the province de-indexed increases to family benefit rates in 1990, social assistance rates increases in Nova Scotia have been purely ad hoc, and for many years,
from 1993 to 2001, did not increase at all. From 1989 to 2004, welfare incomes in Nova Scotia, adjusted for inflation, decreased by 65 per cent for single, employable persons; 26 per cent for persons with a disability; 43 per cent for single parents with one child; and 31 per cent for a couple with two children. The 2006-2007 budget proposes an increase for the basic personal allowances component of social assistance rates by $10 per month for all income assistance clients - this will increase rates from $190 personal allowance to $200, as of October 2006.
Mr. Chairman, my first question to the minister is, will this minister confirm that the government will be introducing changes to the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act to entrench the indexation of the personal allowance component of social assistance rates?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I want to say welcome to my honourable colleague. As we work our way through the next eight hours, and indeed in the days to come, I would like to publicly state that I share my honourable colleague's optimism and I share my honourable colleague's optimism for the future. There was a quote that my mother used to use on a regular basis - it's one of the things that I've kept and held dearly from her memory - and that was that we look to the future and we learn from the past. I commit to all members of this committee and all members of this House that I, indeed, will live by those words, from my mother, that I hold so near and dear to my heart that we indeed will look to the future as we move forward in the days to come.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to review, briefly, in answer to my honourable colleague's question, the personal allowance history. In August 2001, the new Employment Support and Income Assistance Program increased the personal allowance rate to $180. It remained unchanged until 2004 when the rate was increased to $184. In 2005, the rate was increased by $6 to $190 - this 3 per cent increase was higher than the Nova Scotia inflation rate of 2.8 per cent. According to the Bank of Canada, the inflation rate for 2005, indeed, was 2.2 per cent. So I am pleased to be able to increase the personal allowance rate by $10 to $200 per month, effective October 1, 2006. This represents a 5.3 per cent increase over the previous year.
Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, approximately 35,000 individuals will benefit from this increase, and it will cost the province roughly $4.2 million annually. So I propose to my honourable colleague that indeed this is three years in a row, but this is the first year of my mandate as I make that move to the future and move forward. I certainly will commit to this House that, as is the case every year, we will analyze budget dilemmas and budget issues, and I'm pleased to be able to come to the floor in this, my first budget, with a $10 per month increase to that allowance.
MR. ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, I thank the honourable minister. In regard to the question I just posed, I'm wondering if the minister can also confirm that the indexation for the basic personal allowance referred to in the government's election platform will provide for the automatic annual and full indexation in accordance with increases in the Statistics Canada consumer price index?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as we make our way through different pages and documents, the question my honourable colleague poses regarding an annual statutory increase, certainly my honourable colleague needs to know that if that, indeed, is the promise of this government and the platform commitment of this government, it will be my personal commitment, as well.
MR. ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, I'm hoping to develop relationships in the future in my role as the critic, and I'll hold the honourable minister accountable to those very words. Bearing in mind that the recent conclusions of a UN committee, which severely criticized Canada and the provinces for providing social assistance at levels that are inadequate to permit poor people to meet their basic shelter needs, why, I ask the honourable minister, has the government not made a promise to also enact legislated annual adjustments with respect to the shelter allowance component of the social assistance rates?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I thank my honourable colleague for the opportunity to discuss the second component to this that I'm very pleased to be able to bring forward in the House today. In 2004, of course the shelter rates for single renters and single boarders was raised by $50 per month and $25 per month, respectively. The current rate for single renters is $285 per month. I am pleased to be able to increase the shelter rate for single renters by another $15 per month. Effective October 1, 2006, the maximum rate for single renters will increase to $300 per month. This increase will assist nearly 800 single renters, and carries an annual price tag of $140,000.
Now, there remains a gap between average market rents in a number of areas in the province, and the shelter rates under ESIA, and no adjustment has been made to family shelter rates for a number of years. So, Mr. Chairman, I'm pleased, again, to be able to increase the shelter rate for two-person and three-person families renting by $20 per month. Effective October 1, 2006, the maximum rate for two-person families will increase to $570 per month, and for a three-person family the rate will increase to $620 a month. This increase will assist over 5,400 families, and carries an annual pricetag of $1.3 million. I offer to my honourable colleague that, indeed, again, we see a positive step forward to assist those who most need our assistance.
MR. ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the numbers, and the government's commitment to this part and support of those who need it, but I believe my question was as to whether or not - I mean, I'm standing here in hope that the government will look at this on an annual basis and continue to look at the increases. In saying that, I just want to make a note that if we look at the region of Halifax and Dartmouth, on average, and I'm sure the honourable minister is aware of this, the price for rent has gone up. A normal three-bedroom apartment runs around $946, a two-bedroom apartment at a level of $762, and a one bedroom at around $552 per month.
In saying that, I just want to make it known to the honourable minister that when people are facing housing situations, they're often taken advantage of by landlords, based on the amounts they get. I guess that's what I'm hoping to convey to the minister, that she'll take back to her government that we should indeed look at this on an annual basis.
I want to move on - the second part of the election platform that I want to address, again on Page 12, states the Conservative Government would like to "Establish a new Persons with Disabilities Allowance that recognizes that many Nova Scotians are unable to work due to a permanent disability." That's on Page 12 of the platform.
Prior to the enactment of the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act in 2001, people with disabilities received assistance pursuant to a separate legislative regime, the Family Benefits Act. Disability advocates did not support having a separate scheme to providing assistance to people with disabilities, as it served to further marginalize people with disabilities by presuming that. Along with all other people in receipt of social assistance, they cannot contribute to the workforce either, with or without additional supports. Such supports are currently available and provided for under the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act, the ESIA. According to the creation of the separate social assistance scheme, it would serve to marginalize and disadvantage people with disabilities - in short, it would be a big step backwards.
Mr. Chairman, I'd like to ask the honourable minister, will the proposed "persons with disabilities allowance", announced as part of the government's election platform, recreate separate social assistance legislation for people with disabilities? If so, what consultation has the government and the minister conducted with disability groups with regard to the proposed new disabilities allowance, and what have those groups advised the government regarding the advisability of the separate regime?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I will address your question in a moment, but to go back to the last statement - again I'm pleased with the shelter commitment that I'm able to make here in the House today, and I want to make sure that my colleague knows that I will continue to press forward. It would be premature for me, in my role as minister, to presume what I will be able to work my colleagues toward and what I won't be able to, but certainly my honourable colleague needs to know that I'm pleased to be
able to make the commitment today, in this year's estimate, and that that bodes well for future years' estimates efforts on my behalf.
The questions that you raise regarding the platform are indeed very important and very pertinent questions. As we discuss and debate the estimates in front of us today, I have to remind myself that before I get ahead and move to years in the future, I need to address the estimates that are in front of me. So the estimates this year, certainly regarding the allowances and the commitments that we've made for this year, I'm pleased to speak to those specifics.
Now the specifics to the platform commitment, Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, I cannot commit today; that would be premature. As we move forward in the days to come, I will be in consultation with the Disabled Persons' Commission and the other member entities to create this persons with disabilities allowance to ensure that maximum benefit to our stakeholders and to our clients and all Nova Scotians are at the forefront. So as we move forward in those consultations with the key stakeholders, I want to assure my honourable colleague that we will certainly do due diligence with regard to all those who are concerned.
MR. ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, again I applaud the honourable minister for her honesty and her future efforts. I'd like to go back to the personal allowance increase of $10 per month. I think it has to be borne in mind that when the province first introduced the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act, August 1, 2001, the personal allowance it provided to the persons in need was $180 per month, which, if merely adjusted for inflation, would currently be over $205 per month. In other words, the budget announcements to take place in October 2006 regarding the increases for personal allowance doesn't even keep up the pace with the increases in the cost of living.
In May of this year, in response to the reports of the Government of Canada and Nova Scotia filed with the United Nations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights noted the following: "It notes with concern that in most Provinces and Territories, social assistance benefits are lower than a decade ago, that they do not provide adequate income to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, and that welfare levels are often set at less than half the Low Income Cut-Off."
As of 2003, social assistance income for single, employable people in Nova Scotia represented only 30 per cent of the poverty line, and 50 per cent for the single people with disabilities. The most recent report by the National Council of Welfare says that welfare policies in Canada are in utter chaos, and calls upon legislators to take action. The council also states: "Perhaps this year's dismal report will finally make people in the public life sit up, take notice and do something to remedy the situation."
For its part, the UN committee urged all levels of government to establish social assistance levels which ensure the realization of an adequate standard of living for all.
Mr. Chairman, my question to the honourable minister is, given the fact that the announced increase in personal allowance won't even provide the same purchasing power as when the government introduced the Employment Support and Income Assistance program in 2001, and given that the United Nations has very recently urged the provinces to comply with international human rights laws by proving adequate social assistance, will the minister announce that the Government of Nova Scotia will undertake and review all social assistance rates in Nova Scotia and commit to ensuring that new rates will be introduced that meet the Statistics Canada low-income cut-offs?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague across the way, again the optimism, that I would like to believe that this is just the beginning, that we will review, as we have in the past, these rates on an annual basis. Indeed, this is the third consecutive year with an increase. That bodes well, that provides a level of comfort and certainly a level of optimism. We review them continuously, and we'll take all factors into consideration.
Mr. Chairman, I would also reference for my honourable colleague, as I've learned over the last few weeks, the importance of some of the other programming and other funding that we're able to provide for our income assistance clients. Those include the National Child Benefit, the brand new Pharmacare Program, that I'm so very pleased to be able to bring to the floor of the House today, indeed, our $130 million child care plan, that I'm actually as excited about moving forward on, and special needs funding that factors in on a regular basis. So, indeed, with those other programs in place and the other funding opportunities in place along with that optimistic continual review of the rates, I look forward to the days ahead as we continue to build on addressing the needs of those Nova Scotians who most need our assistance.
MR. ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, again, I want to say that this government is making an effort, and I'll acknowledge that. I also want to inform the government that I'm here today for a reason and that reason is to speak out for the people that those programs aren't touching. To make known that there are people still living in poverty. So, as these programs unfold, I hope, and again, as the honourable minister has stated herself, I too am optimistic.
I want to move to the business plan and the budget and draw the honourable minister's attention to Page 6 of the Community Services Business Plan. On Page 6, the plan states that the trend over the course of the past five years has been positive. Declining by 11 per cent, from an average annual caseload of 36,210 cases in 2000-01,
to 32,245 cases in 2004-05. Further reductions of caseloads will become increasingly difficult to attain. Then on Page 26 of the Performance Measures, it states that the department's target is to maintain the average monthly caseload at or below the 2003-04 base year level, by ongoing monitoring of client eligibility.
Through you, Mr. Chairman, I ask the honourable minister, shouldn't the determination of how many caseloads are on employment support and income assistance, be the actual need in the province versus artificial reduction targets that only end up tightening the restrictions for people who are in need of this program.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague again, an opportunity to discuss something that does come almost like a double-edged sword. While we celebrate, and indeed we do celebrate in this province the decrease certainly from 1999, over 38,000 caseloads, to an estimated just over 30,000 caseloads for the 2005-06 year. That is an opportunity to celebrate the success of programs and programming and available assistance, the employment support programs that we have in place that indeed are successful in getting more Nova Scotian families back into the workforce and indeed, back on their own self-sufficiency and we're pleased to be able to work with those families and those individuals along the way, to assist them in times of need, when they do most need us. This indeed is a success to celebrate, that we are able to decrease the caseload, meaning more Nova Scotian families are succeeding on their own and more Nova Scotian families have the opportunity to experience that self-satisfaction.
Mr. Chairman, I have to just take a moment to share with my honourable colleague, going back to my years in the classroom, the unbelievable feeling of self worth and the elevation of the self esteem of young individuals, that I know exists in adults as well, when you're able to achieve and do things on your own. That indeed is something that I take with me in this new responsibility of mine and I know as we continue to aid and assist more Nova Scotian families and more individuals to be able to stand on their own two feet and move forward, having assisted them along the way to the point where they are now able to do that on their own, I take great satisfaction in that and will work to continue to decrease those numbers even more.
MR. ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, again, I'm standing here and as I have said in my opening, I've been a home care worker for 16 years, I've worked on the front lines of food banks, and I can honestly tell you that "the system" is in place and the monies are budgeted to it, but I too have witnessed many people who are receiving benefits. In all honesty, they're merely getting by. They're existing. The people I've spoken with have told me, Trevor, we're tired of just getting by, why can't we live?
So, again, I want to say that with the proposed programs this government has tabled in this budget, I can only hope that some of those people who are on these
programs do indeed follow through and eventually end up breathing and living some sort of life. Again, I'll say I'm optimistic.
I'll go back to the business plan again. It references increasing complexities of needs among the ESIA clients and multiple needs of children in care. Given that it is the case, I want to look at 4.8 of the estimates in the supplementary details. Under Maintenance of Children, the budget in 2005-06 was underspent by nearly $2.5 million. The 2006-07 budgeted amount for the maintenance of children is a modest 2.8 per cent increase over the last year and it's still $2.5 million less than the $70.7 million budgeted two years ago.
In the same fashion, if you look at the Child Welfare and Residential Services line, the budgeted amount of 2006-07 is $1.9 million, which is just a shade above what you spent two years ago. Given the complexity of needs of these children, which you document in your own business plan, why are the budgets that directly affect children in care at or less than two year old funding levels?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you to my honourable colleague for taking us to the Estimates Book and allowing me an opportunity to speak to some of the more specifics.
Certainly the maintenance of children represents the direct costs incurred by our six department child welfare offices and 14 children's aid societies related to the apprehension and care and custody of children. These services include everything from counselling and family support at the prevention and the child protection spectrum to full service parental-style services at the care and custody end of the spectrum. There are approximately 2,000 children and youth in need of protection who, I understand, are in the care of the minister. I went from being the mother of four to being the mother of 2,000 - certainly looking forward to those Mother's Day cards.
Placement services for children in care vary from subsidized adoption and foster care to licensed children's residential facilities. There are approximately 1,100 children in over 700 foster homes in Nova Scotia. The province has commenced a long overdue comprehensive review of placement services with the objective of improved services to the children in care of the minister, including the repatriation of some 17 children presently served in and out of provincial facilities.
The 2005-06 costs reflect declining caseloads and economies achieved through improved casework and continued scrutiny of contracted services, increased National Child Benefit revenues for children in care and savings in our secure care facility due to staff turnover.
The 2006-07 estimate reflects an additional $400,000 for increasing foster care rates, full funding for secure care, and the application of the NSGEU negotiated salary increases for staff in the children's residential facilities.
MR. ZINCK: I want to move on to the topic of poverty. During the recent election campaign, I must say again, as in my opening remarks, I was confronted by numerous people. Through my weekly work at the local food bank, it is of a concern to me. Groups like the Affordable Energy Coalition, the Nova Scotia Association of Social Workers, business groups, poverty activists and others all expressed a deep concern over the impact of poverty on our province. Many are calling for poverty action plans and for the implementation of suggestions put forward by the Community Services Committee, following the two-day forum on poverty held earlier this year.
One of the measures the Department of Community Services has announced is that it intends to help families struggling to survive on employment support and income assistance; that they will allow families to keep, as was mentioned, 30 per cent of their income tax refunds, instead of clawing back the 100 per cent that normally takes place.
Through you, Mr. Chairman, to the honourable minister, I ask this question; since this is not the government's money to begin with, why not allow families to retain 100 per cent of those refunds so that they can help buy better quality food, clothes for children, school supplies and pay for the skyrocketing utilities and heating costs?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I know that my honourable colleague has a copy of the Party platform so I don't believe I need to table this, but if you would like me to, I certainly would be pleased to. I want to add to the record, and certainly add my commitment to the commitment made, by reading aloud, indeed, the commitment of the government: "Develop and implement - in consultation with poverty advocates, social workers, educators, employment experts, business and community leaders - a multi-year Poverty to Work Strategy, aimed at reducing poverty, particularly among women and children, and generating more meaningful employment through a variety of ways to improve the standard of living of Nova Scotians struggling on low incomes."
Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, certainly that is a commitment made by this government and one that I certainly intend on keeping.
I would like to preface the statements regarding the allowable income by stating that my honourable colleague mentioned the work of the Community Services Committee. Indeed, I had the pleasure of serving on that Community Services Committee for some time before being named to Cabinet, Mr. Chairman. The work being done at the committee level is, indeed, extremely valuable. I know that many recommendations have come forward, and I know that I was part of that committee as we sent some
recommendations forward. Certainly in my role as minister, I am going to be looking at those recommendations again, to ensure that the valuable work done by that committee is not lost on my ministry or on my department. I wanted to make sure that my honourable colleagues in the House knew that I certainly would be taking a look at that myself to ensure that those issues are addressed under my purview.
Certainly, Mr. Chairman, when we talk about the income assistance retaining a portion of their income, and I believe that is a 30 per cent allowable retention of their earned income, again that is a positive, because what we are trying to do, as I stated earlier, is support those who most are in need of our assistance. Indeed, when we take a look at the caseloads, the income assistance is based on a budget deficit, Mr. Chairman, if I may. So the assets that our income assistance clients have are used to establish a proper amount that is required to meet their individual needs.
Certainly we look at that on a regular basis. The 30 per cent allowable retention right now is certainly something that as we move forward in the days to come, we may look at other ways of allowing individuals to expand upon that. As I referenced earlier, there are a multitude of programs available that I am very pleased and, hopefully, will get a chance to speak about today in this Chamber, the Pharmacare Program that we have for our children, and indeed the child care plan and certainly the National Child Tax Benefit. All of those factor in when we consider those budget deficits and where indeed we are able to provide that income assistance allowing, of course, our clients to retain 30 per cent of their earned income.
MR. CHAIRMAN: To the honourable minister, we would request that you table that document to which you referred, just for the record.
MS. STREATCH: Certainly.
MR. ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, I just want to go back - I have so many important questions and I think I can be assured today that I will go over some of these questions at a later time with the honourable minister - to the question that I posed and give a small sample of one of the situations that I recently had to deal with regarding income tax.
I'm not going to mention this person's name, but she's a senior citizen who is being supplemented by social assistance; she's also a Canada Pension recipient. When she recently had her taxes done, it was unknown to her that Canada Pension was taking extra monies from her. So what happened was there were monies showing up as income. There was a $300 refund that was given to her and when she called me - and keep in mind she's 67 years old, and when I found out that she was living on, or existing on, basically $7,500 a year combined, you know, I said to myself, gosh, I'm either lucky or
just ignorant to the fact that so many people in this province are living at those rates - she asked me, is this my money? I said to her, let me look into it, but I'm telling you now not to spend the money because, if you spend that money, you're probably going to lose it, but I'll get back to you.
I have to say that for somebody who is existing on $7,500 a year, living on her own, a senior citizen, having an extra $300, she's going to want to eat, there's going to be rent to be paid - find it very frustrating that what indeed happened was exactly what I told her would happen. The department found out and immediately took that money off her next paycheque. I say that - and I wanted to bring this up because it's something that I want to broach with the minister at a later time - perhaps a better communication could have taken place in this matter, perhaps a caseworker could have looked at this situation and said that maybe we can take it out over a couple of months instead of one lump sum, because what had happened was that when the monies came out all of a sudden, this senior was left short on her monies to pay her rent at the end of the month or to buy food. And I just wanted to bring that case up in reference to that question, because I think communication is definitely something that people in the department have to become better attuned to.
I want to move on. Earlier in the sitting of the House I was able to table a resolution in regard to food banks. I want to say that the people on employment support and income assistance are the largest group of food bank recipients in Nova Scotia and, of these clients, the majority are lone parents who are responsible for feeding over 8,000 of the province's children. The department has increased the personal allowance for adults on the ESIA by $10 yet, in 2001, children's personal allowances were eliminated and replaced by the National Child Benefit supplement, which is less money.
Mr. Chairman, through you to the minister, I want to ask, would the department address the child poverty and food insecurity that's currently running rampant in this province by either reinstating the children's personal allowance or by increasing the Nova Scotia Child Benefit?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, before addressing the answer to my honourable colleague, again I want to make a couple of general observations if I may. Certainly, as I had already invited and indicated, I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with my honourable colleague and discuss matters that we share in common. I look forward to being out of the House and being able to do that on a less formal basis, as we move forward some of the issues that we will share in the days to come - I wanted to get that on the record.
The second issue, although I would never speak to the particulars of any case any more than my honourable colleague wants to, I would say that I would like to discuss the particulars of the case that you mentioned in private and in consultation with staff here.
Indeed, those types of cases, as a general rule, would not qualify for income assistance - as a senior, the GIS and CPP should be sufficient. So I do want to discuss that case in particular with my honourable colleague, Mr. Chairman, to make sure that all needs of all Nova Scotians are being best met by this government, indeed, by my department.
Mr. Chairman, to the question, certainly the National Child Benefit coupled with the Nova Scotia Child Benefit, I am told, equals or exceeds the costs associated with raising a child, and therefore the coupling of those programs together is able to assist parents.
The other footnote that I would add, to my honourable colleague, he brought forward the good work that is being done in our food banks across this province. Indeed, there is no question that the individuals who work in our foods banks and the individuals they serve are very important and valuable. Food banks have been in place in many Nova Scotia communities for many years, with some receiving municipal support that has been continued by the province. I make the commitment today to my honourable colleague that we will continue to work with all our partners, working to meet the needs of our vulnerable Nova Scotians, through these food banks.
MR. ZINCK: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, I am going to move into the increases that you spoke to in regard to housing, and acknowledge the fact that the province is making an effort - some would say be it small - to increase the allowance for shelter and, hopefully, it will help some of the families who are struggling.
One of the things - a lot of people I have dealt with and you have probably heard of cases - that happens is when there is an increase in shelters, landlords see fit to automatically increase or gouge the rental properties that these people are trying to be housed in. I just want to know, why has the department focused the majority of its housing money on for-profit developments instead of encouraging the non-profit and co-op housing, where these people are in more stable situations and not being taken advantage of by these landlords?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed, the issue of affordable housing is one we have been able to make great gains in, I would suggest. Certainly under the Affordable Housing Program Phase II, just to remind members of this House, we were able to exceed 900 units in this province. As proposals come in, we analyze those proposals, we review those proposals, but I would review for this House that we had 570 new rental units, 178 individual home preservation units, 104 rental preservation, and six new home, as well as 70 rent supplements. That's just a small breakdown of the over 900 units that were able to be afforded to Nova Scotians under the $37.2 million Phase I.
As we move into Phase II, of course we will be looking for additional units to be positioned around the province as need is addressed. Indeed, we'll be looking again at
a variety of ways to maximize the benefit that we can put these dollars so that all Nova Scotians are able to access more affordable housing across the province.
MR. ZINCK: Mr. Chairman, housing is a huge, huge problem in this province and I'm sure it's going to be discussed over the next few hours, I think a real definition as to what a collective group in this province would term affordable housing - I think we have to come up with a real sense of what affordable housing is, and not what the current standard has set out.
I want to move on to early childhood learning and child care. The department states that funding for early childhood learning and care is a priority, yet I'm wondering if the minister can explain why the 2005-06 budget for early childhood programs, as outlined on Page 4.8 of the Supplementary Detail, initially set at the rate of $52.2 million, was under-spent by half, with only $26 million being invested into the sector?
Further to that line of questioning, I'm just wondering if the honourable minister wouldn't agree that the funding increases are only funding increases if they are actually spent. I would like to know - and in the early stages of this new appointment maybe the honourable minister isn't able to do it - I'm just wondering, where did that money go and how can we be assured that the entire $42 million that is budgeted for 2006-07 is actually going to be spent?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed, child care is a priority for this government, for all Nova Scotians. It was quite appropriate and prudent that the $20.4 million in federal funds designated for child care was preserved so we could turn $20.4 million for one year into a 10-year plan that the child care sector has blessed.
Let me go through a little bit in explanation of that. In co-operation with the child care sector and parents, the department held a series of consultation meetings in August and September of 2005 to help develop what was then a five-year child care plan. That plan was ready to be released when the new federal government came in with their $1,200 universal child care benefit for all families and children under six.
We had to develop a new plan, Mr. Chairman, which we did, and provided our child care working group, which represents various elements within the sector, non-profit, commercial, education, et cetera, the opportunity to review the new plan. That group helped to identify issues in support of creating a 10-year plan, a sustainable plan worth more than $130 million.
Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, to his question, we have our $20.4 million in the bank, and along with the second-year funding of $18.8 million, put that towards the $130 million that will help the industry to begin creating new child care spaces.
On May 8th, Mr. Chairman, I was pleased to be a part of the early learning and child care plan announcement at the Leeds Street Child Care Centre. At that event, Elaine Ferguson of Child Care Connections said, "This plan will provide a foundation for Nova Scotia to continue to build on. It is reflective of the many voices heard over the past year of consultation between the sector and the Department of Community Services."
We're ready with the funding and will begin implementation in the coming days. So, Mr. Chairman, just to repeat to my honourable colleague, indeed it was prudent of us to maintain that $20.4 million so that we could combine it and create a better, more sustainable plan for all Nova Scotians.
MR. ZINCK: I have to say that when viewing the former minister several months back when that proclamation was made, the announcement of the 10- year plan was to be put in place, it was on the news, it was on TV, and I couldn't help but notice that the actual owner of that daycare had stated there was a waiting list of 450 children. I have to say that a 10-year plan - you know people are frustrated, people need it now, 50 per cent of this province makes less than $25,000 a year and I believe we have a situation where not only are low-income people struggling, but we have working poor who are struggling.
Those working poor, they're just not going to be able to wait 10 years to continue to have some sort of life, because we want to live in Nova Scotia, we don't want to just get by. I think to say that you've held on to the money for this bigger, grandiose plan, it's like the health care wait times - it's frustrating to people. People need that now; people want to live now, they want their children taken care of now.
I have to say that this government's cousins in Ottawa have destroyed the funding of the universal day care plan in Canada. The $100 a month, it's a taxable income that people aren't even aware of. I've had many calls on this and it's frustrating because there's a divide in this province right now and it's between the middle class and the lower- income people. The working poor are frustrated that they're not going to fully benefit from these programs, the programs the federal government has pronounced, the programs and the 10-year plan of child daycare.
The other thing I want the honourable minister to know - I'm sure, Mr. Chairman she's aware - in recent days I've had an opportunity to meet with daycare workers, daycare directors, and the way this plan is being rolled out is very, very scary to the not-for-profit daycare situations, the reliance or the emphasis being put on these big box daycares and the monies that are going to be allowed to open these situations with this 10-year plan.
I'm frustrated, but again I will say that in the days and weeks upcoming, I will work with the honourable minister on some of these situations and, again, I'll remain optimistic, but right now I just want to ask with regard to daycare - the $100 per month, at the end of the year people are going to become frustrated when they realize that it is a taxable benefit and the actual gain out of that will not allow them to have that daycare need met, and the fact that a 10-year plan being rolled out does not meet their needs now - I want to ask the honourable minister, with all but the outright disappearance of the federal funding for child care, what is the province's plan to continue supporting and building this sector now, not 10 years from now, to help the working poor that need it now, who want to live?
MS. STREATCH: My honourable colleague raises a series of questions that I'm pleased to address with a few comments. I guess I would start by reminding all members of this House that in this upcoming budget the provincial tax portion of that federal child care will be tax exempt. So, while I won't speak for the Minister of Finance, I can indicate that that is a positive move on behalf of the Government of Nova Scotia, in recognizing that the provincial portion of this will be tax exempt. It certainly would be inappropriate for me to suggest how the federal government would handle their taxation.
I will move on for a moment, though, to briefly outline over the next number of years - and certainly I realize that when people hear a 10-year plan they envision the far end of the 10-year spectrum, so I would like to specifically talk about the first five years really, Mr. Chairman, and to my honourable colleague, that is when we will really see this plan truly unfold for Nova Scotian families, that indeed in the first five years the plan will be implemented and it is sustainable for a 10-year period.
So over the first five years of the plan, investments will be directed to the following areas: family home child care, which is one that I hold near and dear to my heart, an increase in the funding to child care provided in the care provider's home - this increases the availability of child care in rural areas and allows a family-like atmosphere and flexible hours and may be better suited to infant care; and specifically to my honourable colleague's question about child care spaces, a 10 per cent increase in the number of licensed, full-day spaces. Mr. Chairman, that is 1,000 spaces for families here in Nova Scotia and, specific to that, an increased number of full-day infant spaces, approximately 200 spaces, as well as make funding available to centres for repair, renovation, energy upgrade and accessibility.
Certainly the subsidized spaces, which are extremely important across the province, a 20 per cent increase in the number of portable subsidized daycare spaces to the tune of 550, and I want to speak to those for a moment, Mr. Chairman, because in the upcoming days we are slated to put 150 of those on the table. Those will be made available so that families can access those in the immediate - so, while we talk about a
10-year plan, we have to remember that the first five years we will see the rollout of those spaces year after year, which will alleviate some of those wait lists.
Mr. Chairman, I acknowledge there are wait lists across the province. My honourable colleague's comments do not fall on deaf ears, I acknowledge that. This is the way we are going to move forward to address those wait lists.
Mr. Chairman, if I can make a couple more comments - we feel that this child care plan, this 10-year sustainable plan, is in the best interests of all Nova Scotian families, that it is a blended approach, a made-in-Nova Scotia approach that joins together the availability of the federal dollars going into the hands of Nova Scotian families along with the plans that we have for the increase in our subsidized spaces, as well as the over 1,000 new spaces that are created. We believe, to my honourable colleague, that we are providing choices for families in Nova Scotia and, indeed, it is those families who are best suited to make those choices for their children and their families.
MR. CHAIRMAN: You have just a few seconds, honourable member.
MR. ZINCK: I will just finish up very quickly with one question in regard to people with disabilities. As I have mentioned several times throughout this process, I have been a home care worker for 16 years. One of the frustrations of many people facing various disabilities is the availability and accessibility to enjoy their lives, to be able to go and visit particular businesses or restaurants or functions. While I have only a short time to go into this, I will pose one very quick question to the minister. I would just like to know, what funding is in the current budget to address accessibility to businesses and organizations ?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague across the way, while we have a variety of programs certainly that exist within the department, the specific request from my honourable colleague, I believe, would fall within the parameters of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations and their accessibility dollars that are available to businesses, and to Nova Scotians for accessibility. So indeed that falls with my colleague, the Minister of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Your time has elapsed.
The honourable member for Preston.
MR. KEITH COLWELL: Mr. Chairman, first of all, I would like to congratulate the new minister on her new post. I'm sure the congratulations - as time goes on, she'll wonder why she took this post. It's a pretty difficult position to occupy with many
demands and very difficult decisions that have to be made. I know the minister is up to the challenge. I had the privilege of working with her brother on the regional council and if she is equal, and she'll probably say the better of her brother, it's going to be very nice to see her in this position, quite frankly.
I've got a few questions I would like to ask around housing grants to start. Most of my questions are going to be on housing today, but the housing grant system we have now works very well as long as the people can meet the income criteria and there's enough money in the program.
The big problem we run into on a regular basis is that the people are just slightly over the income criteria. Usually when the problem is there, it's a retired family with modest income and when you're talking about, I believe it's $14,000 or $23,000, I can't remember the exact numbers, the thresholds for receiving a grant for a new roof or a new furnace, or whatever the case may be, in an older home, a home that people have probably occupied pretty well all their lives, it becomes very difficult when they get an answer back from the department that says, no, we can't help you and they've got no money in a savings account, no way to fix this, and in some cases to the point that they almost have to leave their home or, even worse, they're living in very unsafe conditions.
I was just wondering if I could get the minister to tell me if there's any consideration of moving the income limit up a little bit? I know there's never enough money in this program, but move the income limit up a little bit and maybe make the grants a little bit larger so some of those people could be taken into consideration. Now, it doesn't matter how much you move the income limit up or how much money you put in a program, you're not going to satisfy everybody, but some movement in both of those areas would be very helpful.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, may I begin by thanking my honourable colleague, the member for Preston, for his kind words on my family pride, and certainly I take great pride in the kind words that you have to say regarding my older sibling who sits in another Chamber than this.
Specifically, Mr. Chairman, without dancing around a bunch of numbers, it's my understanding that the income thresholds indeed are negotiated with CMHC, which puts the majority of the dollars into the program and, therefore, it would be in negotiation with them that those income levels would be set. So certainly any negotiations that take place, my honourable colleague can certainly rest assured that we will continue to make sure that we're able to maximize the dollars that we have for our Nova Scotian families and individuals who need those repairs most and certainly at any point when negotiations do take place, we will certainly bring that issue to the table.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you very much, Madam Minister. I would just like to get your reassurance on that, and I believe that's what you told me anyway, that at least your department will look at the amount of the grant and, again, it's a dicey situation because the bigger the grants you make, the fewer grants you can do. The higher the income threshold you do, the fewer grants you can do, but if you don't do the grants properly and you don't properly repair someone's home, it's for nothing. So correct me if I'm wrong here, but the impression I got from your answer was that you will look at both the income threshold and the grant levels to see if those can't be improved to help many seniors in Nova Scotia?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I was just confirming the two separate issues, one with regard to the income thresholds, certainly that is in negotiation with CMHC, and so certainly that would be something that we would continue to negotiate in good faith, recognizing the income levels of Nova Scotians. The other issue as to the dollar amounts for the repairs, certainly we have increased over the last three years the monies available to Nova Scotians for the repairs, for emergency repairs as well as health repairs based on health and safety, and indeed we have made available to seniors an increase from $2,500 to a $5,000 repair level.
So that's a step in the right direction and indeed my honourable colleague can rest assured that we will continue to move in those steps forward to ensure, because what we have to remember, and I know my honourable colleague is well aware of this, the more repairs that we can do, the longer people can stay in their homes. The longer people can stay in their homes and truly have that quality of life that they so well deserve, the better off all Nova Scotians are - government, families, indeed all Nova Scotians. So certainly those repair dollars and the increase in the budget this year, as you see in the Estimates Book for those repair dollars, in my view and I believe in my honourable colleague's view, would be dollars well spent.
MR. COLWELL: I totally agree with the minister. I mean if you look at the cost of housing somebody in a nursing home - I'm guessing in numbers now - probably about $2,500 a month or more. If you put $5,000 into someone's home so they can stay there, they're only going to stay there two months and you've got your money back as far as taxpayers are concerned plus the individual has the pride and the reassurance that they're living in their own home and are usually healthier because they are. It's important that people who can't afford to look after their homes, that it's done in that way.
Now, the problem is with a lot of it and the $5,000 amount for repairs in a forgivable grant is a step in the right direction, but often what happens, the roof goes, the furnace goes, the pump goes in the well, everything seems to happen within a year of that. Is there any consideration for health and safety reasons, and I stress health and safety
reasons, for seniors that they can get more than one grant in - I believe it's a five-year waiting period? If the roof and the furnace - I mean for catastrophic things, not just because they need new windows because they look better or they might heat the house a little better, but I mean catastrophic things you require to live, that they could have grants more often than - I believe it's a five- year period?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, a couple of comments, if I could, in direct response to the question. Indeed the program that you're referencing is the RAP Program and, as my colleague would well understand, that's a federally regulated program. So where I can't change those regulations, certainly we can work with our federal counterparts and colleagues to make sure that indeed those repairs that need to be done for health and safety reasons can be done. So certainly that's something that I'll take forward in negotiations and in discussion to make sure that, as my honourable colleague indicated, the longer we can keep seniors in their homes, the better. The point that you made regarding the couple of months which provides a lessening effect for the Department of Health, I believe that was likely part of the negotiations as to why the Department of Health has funded our repair program actually to the tune of $1 million this year. So you'll find in the Estimates Book $1 million from the Department of Health to our department to provide for just exactly what my honourable colleague was referencing, these repairs for health and safety reasons for our seniors, the most needy sometimes in the province.
MR. COLWELL: Well, I'm pleased to hear that the minister is moving in that direction. I am going to go on to another specific case this time. This is not a very happy one, and the minister was not involved, she wasn't even elected at the time. This is a specific case, and I realize that the minister cannot divulge particular information on a particular individual, but this has been in the newspapers and it is a real tragedy.
What happened last year, there was a lady who lived in Cherry Brook who had her house repossessed by the department. I am going to give you some history on this, this is a really unfortunate, sad story. It should not have happened. In 1984, a mortgage was taken out for 20 years for $48,000 on a very nice home, a three-bedroom home, for a family of a gentleman who actually worked at that time for the Department of Housing, an actual employee of the Department of Housing, a position he held for between 25 and 30 years with the department. Now in 1984, a $48,000 mortgage, of course, the interest rate at that time was 13.5 percent, which in 1984 was not a bad deal. In today's terms, it is a terrible deal, but you have to go with the terms of the day and that was a good deal. It was the only way that these two people and their family - because they have children, a large family at home - could afford to buy this home. It was a wonderful thing that happened for them.
Unfortunately, the gentleman died in early 2000. I don't know if it was 2000 or 2001, in that time he died and therefore, his income which was brought into the
household was reduced. Actually, he had retired in the meantime from the Department of Housing. When he passed away, of course, his income reduced. His widow got in a situation where she was faced with paying a mortgage and the mortgage payments at that time, if you could just give me a second to go through my notes I have here, were about $700 a month. Now $700 a month in mortgage payments today is not very high, but for a lady who has very limited income, who is a senior, that $700 a month was absolutely impossible. Added to this problem was that the lady is illiterate, she cannot read or write. So when the department sent out bills and notices, she just laid them aside, she had no idea what they were for. Unfortunately, by the time this was brought to her attention by some of her relatives who came home and read these things and said look, you had better look after this, it was too late. The house had already gone to the legal process for sale.
Now at this time the remaining mortgage was $31,000. Now they paid diligently between 1984 and 2001 on this mortgage and only reduced the thing down to $31,000 from $48,000. They paid $110,000 in interest back into the system. Well, the dilemma gets worse. The total amount of arrears required at that time was $3,600, because she had been paying what she could pay on the mortgage all the way along, which sometimes wasn't very good or very much.
Well, when the house went for sale, they sold the house at auction for $55,000. So the house was still in pretty good shape. It needed some work and that wasn't the issue at all. So for the $55,000 option - and this is her home, her home that was built for her and her deceased husband and her family, her home is going away. So the family at this time got involved and said well, we are going to have to get this house, the lady will be absolutely emotionally destroyed.
Now when the thing was all said and done, and the family bought the building back the way they had to do it - and I won't go into the details of that but, on a personal basis, I could tell you what the details were, it cost the family over $100,000 to buy out the $31,000 mortgage that originally was there. By the time the legal fees were added - and a gentleman bought the property, a speculator bought the property, the only way they could get it back was they had to pay $75,000 to buy the property back. It is just a horrible story.
Amongst all this - and I met with staff in the department regarding this case - nobody in the department went out and actually sat down and talked to the lady and said this is the problem. When the process started to go through - which is the way I handle problems of this nature in my community, and I am sure you would do the same as MLA in your area - that didn't happen. So the lady didn't understand what was happening to her and her home.
So, as this thing progressed, things got worse and worse and worse. One good thing about the deal was, when it sold at auction for $55,000, the family did get $14,000,
which was eaten up by the new mortgage they had to put in place, which really didn't help a whole lot. What had to happen, her daughter and her daughter's husband and family had to move into the home, sell their home to buy this home. A really tragic story; this is an unbelievable story.
When you look back at how this was handled, and when you look at the paperwork - and your department was very generous with the information they gave me, and I thank them for that - it was handled the way on paper it should be handled, on paper. I think the paper has to be changed. It has to be changed. People should go out and do a personal visit and talk to the people and explain to them what could happen before it gets to the lawyers who are going to take it to a repossession sale. That has to change in the department, that has to change.
The other thing that has to happen - especially where this gentleman was an employee of the Department of Housing, it makes it even more tragic - there should be support within the government ranks for colleagues who work in the department, that should be there as well. Not special treatment, but there should be some extra effort put into coming forward and saying, look, this is one of our own workers here, what has gone wrong, why aren't these payments being made, and actually sit down and go through what the situation was.
Then, to make it more complicated, the family, who clearly told the department and told the lawyer who was looking after this - who did nothing wrong, the lawyer didn't do anything wrong, again, he processed this as he was supposed to do, as the contract had with the Department of Housing - went to him and said look, we are trying to negotiate a mortgage on this, it is going to take us some time to do that. They would not even give them the time. Housing would not extend that situation to give them the time to put this in place. That is why it sold at auction, they couldn't get the financing in place quickly enough to buy out the $31,000 mortgage, or even go to bid at the auction to buy it. They couldn't guarantee that they would have the funding. That is something else that has to change. It has to change in the department that if the family is truly doing that - and that is easily checked out, you can go to the financial institution, get a letter from them and say yes, we are working on this, but it is going to take us this length of time to get it done, that has to change.
So when all this is done, here is a situation with a young family with children, living with their mother. Which is a good situation if that is exactly what the family wanted to do all the way around, it is a very happy situation. This is a very happy situation in that regard, because they are all wonderful people and they love living together, but a young family who should be in their own home had to sell their home to pay out the mortgage on this one for the family. Now, not a lot of families would do that. That is how serious this was to the family.
I can go on with all these details and indicate that - what has to be done here? I really believe, this is my own personal opinion, I would like to sit down with the minister and go through this in detail with one of the family members to describe exactly what has happened. I would like the commitment, first of all, from the minister that you would do that.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, one thing that I'm sure my honourable colleague, and all honourable colleagues in this House, will agree to is sometimes some of the stories and some of the situations that we find ourselves in as MLAs are truly heartbreaking. I can tell from the passion in my honourable colleague's voice that this, indeed, was one that he was very passionate about and, indeed, is very sad. Mr. Chairman, through you to my honourable colleague, as you indicated, if a family chooses to come together and support each other by choice, then that's a cause to celebrate. If it's done out of necessity, unforeseen circumstances, then that's a different case altogether.
Certainly, let me state for the record, Mr. Chairman, absolutely, I would meet with my honourable colleague, and would be more than pleased to sit down and discuss the specifics, not that I can change the past, but as I indicated earlier, and perhaps my honourable colleague wasn't in the room, we look to the future and we learn from the past. If there are protocols in place that provide for situations like this to take place, then I want to be involved at the ground level to make sure that those protocols are reviewed to ensure that what really should happen in the best needs and the best interests of all Nova Scotians is what takes place. I would certainly make that commitment to my honourable colleague, that we would move forward in that manner.
MR. COLWELL: I'd like to thank the minister for that. I knew that would be your answer, and I appreciate that. Could you give me a timeline when this could happen?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as always, in due time, as we get out of the House, and if we can get beyond the pressing needs and I meet with my stakeholders, I'd be more than happy to make the commitment to my honourable colleague to sit down at the earliest convenience, certainly within a 30-day parameter, to discuss the particulars and to be brought up to speed, if I could, on the particulars of this case to see if we can move forward together.
MR. COLWELL: That would be very satisfactory. I realize the minister is new in the department, and something like this is going to take some time for you to review before you actually have a meeting and talk to staff about it. It's an extremely unfortunate situation. The situation is one that has repeated itself, I'm sure, in different circumstances all around. In all of the years I've been in politics, and I've been in politics a long time,
this is probably the worst tragedy I've ever seen for a family. It's been emotional, it's been very, very expensive for them financially, and it has taken more than just the individual who is working on this into the mix of things, it has taken extended family into it as well. That has been very heart-wrenching for everybody and extremely expensive.
We will supply the information, detailed information about just exactly how stressful this has been to the family. For the record, and I know the minister can't comment on this, I want to put the person's name on the record so we have it there, so we understand who we're talking about. I can do that, I have signed authorization from the person to do that. It's Shenner Williams of 24 Cherry Brook Road in Cherry Brook. She's a lady from the Black community, just so the minister knows. Again, I thank the minister for agreeing to meet on this topic to see if we can't work through this and ensure this never happens to another Nova Scotian family.
On housing issues, again, I can't stress enough how pleased I am with the department and staff when it comes to housing grants. I want the minister to know that, I want that to be on the record. We have a lot of very difficult situations in our community, as all communities do in Nova Scotia, but we have a lot of older families who have homes that they've worked all their lives to get and anything that the department can do, and they've been very helpful, I must admit, in doing things and helping people in the community stay in their homes and that's very, very important.
I want to make sure that the minister is aware that the staff she has working at that level have done an excellent job and have really helped us - not us, because it's not us that they help, it's the people in our community they help - and if they can't help, they tell us why, they explain it very carefully and they go on from there. Sometimes they can offer alternatives that may be suitable, sometimes they're not, but at least they try and they do everything they can. They really do care about the people they're working with, and that goes from the person who answers the phone to the person who signs off on the agreements. So I want that on the record for the staff - I can't express my gratitude enough, on behalf of my constituents, for the work they do in trying to help.
I really want to push the minister to make sure they go after the federal government to get more money for the program, a more generous amount of money for each person and the income they have because that is the key to this - our population is getting older, and in my area the community hasn't had the opportunity in some areas that other parts of Nova Scotia have had, and that is starting to show up now. The pensions aren't as high as they should be, the homes are in bad shape to start when they retire, and they just deteriorate more when they physically can't do the work themselves and the work goes on and on.
So it's a worsening situation - the families really help the seniors and the seniors are held in very high regard in the community, but they need the money to buy the materials. Again, we really have to look at that, and I'm going to ask the minister, are there any special programs that can go into the Black communities that would help them, considering some of the situations that happened in the past?
MS. STREATCH: I want to thank my honourable colleague for his comments about the staff, because I can't think of a greater compliment than for a minister to receive the goodwill from the members of this Chamber in regard to the very valuable and dedicated staff. I made reference in my opening comments about the over 1,100 employees and over 50 offices, so indeed to the staff of the department I say a huge thank you and thank you to my honourable colleague for putting that on the record. All too often as elected members we deal with some of the more difficult and frustrating cases and to know that the staff is handling them in a manner that is professional, and with all due respect it certainly makes me as the minister of the department feel very proud, and I want to thank you for those comments.
In your comments you were talking about the need to press the federal government - I want to assure my honourable colleague that there will be many issues that we will certainly move forward and continue to press the federal government on. Housing is one that the federal government, through Phase I and Phase II, we were able to move forward with some housing projects and now, as we take into context the federal housing trust and as we develop the protocols around that commitment, we will be continuing to work in a co-operative manner with our federal brethren to move those issues forward.
As my honourable colleague well knows, as I made reference in my opening statements that we have some unique situations here because we are one of the original founding provinces. We have homes in Nova Scotia - first of all, we have a very high percentage of home ownership and indeed we also have a very high percentage of older homes, and it makes it even more important and more pertinent to the Government of Nova Scotia to have those very serious discussions with the federal government to ensure that those factors are taken into account, whereas some of our other provinces across the country may not be in the same situation as we are in those two regards.
Now specifically to my honourable colleague's question regarding Black initiatives, I have to say that I'd be pleased to sit down and discuss that with my honourable colleague and indeed with my colleague, the Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, because as our department deals with all Nova Scotians, we deal with need on an across-the-province basis and that does not preclude certainly any community, but indeed includes all Nova Scotians. Of course, I would be more than pleased to sit down and discuss that with my honourable colleague as well as the Minister responsible for African Nova Scotian Affairs.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you very much, I appreciate that commitment. I want to table a document here that I received a little bit late on the other issue of the home that I talked about. It basically gives you the authorization to discuss that here in this Chamber if you wish to do so. I won't ask for that today, I can come back at a later date if you wish to do that, but that gives you the authorization and it's notarized so you know it's not something that somebody made up which normally you're not allowed to do.
Also just one quick question and this is an unusual request, if the minister could possibly come into my community, there are some living conditions I would like you to see first-hand. I would like to do this on an unofficial basis that you could go and visit some people to see the homes they're living in. This would be a friendly visit to talk to people and just say hello, no commitment that you're going to do anything, nothing like that. I just want you to see what I deal with every day, that you can go to see some of the people and say hello, no more than that, so when you come back and you're negotiating with the federal government, you know what we're trying to accomplish in communities, and it's just not my community, there are many communities like this. In areas that I represented before, the same situations existed and I want you personally to see this first-hand so you know that when you're there fighting for more money and a more generous thing from the federal government, you can visualize these people and their homes in your mind, that you know that you're doing for them, and these people may never apply for a grant.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague across the way and indeed to all members of this House, time is such a valuable thing. As we all reflect on the hours that we've spent in this Chamber and the hours that we're about to spend, or the hours that we spend in our jobs as MLAs and indeed as ministers, there are only so many hours in the day. We all have numerous tasks to juggle and everyone feels those pressures and those strains. Certainly upon being appointed Minister of Community Services, I began to reflect upon what type of personal causes, or what type of personal commitments I would like to make and champion. Having been born and raised in this province, having spent all of my years here in Nova Scotia, I realized that there are indeed many aspects and many parts of Nova Scotia that I, myself, have not visited.
Now, my honourable colleague's riding is not one of those. I have indeed on many occasions been to my honourable colleague's riding and, of course, he would know that I taught school in the Eastern Shore for many years and am familiar with quite a few of the communities along the area as well, but certainly I would be more than pleased to visit all 52 ridings in the province in the days ahead if indeed my schedule allowed for it.
HON. ANGUS MACISAAC: Alphabetically.
MS. STREATCH: Alphabetically says the honourable member for Antigonish. Indeed, Mr. Chairman, I would love to work my way across the province to get to know some of the stakeholders and the service providers, the staff, and the individuals whom I will work with and deal with each and every day.
So while I can't commit to a specific date or a specific time frame, I certainly would be more than pleased to visit the riding of my honourable colleague and walk and talk and meet with the fine folks of Preston and, indeed, in an attempt to make my way around the province and fulfill my requirements as Minister of Community Services for the entire Province of Nova Scotia.
MR. COLWELL: I understand the time constraints the minister has, being a former minister myself. It's pretty tough and it's going to get tougher, I can tell you that, as you go through the process. With those comments, I again want to thank the minister for her straightforward answers. I appreciate it. I'm going to turn this over to our House Leader to continue the questioning.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton South.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, how much time is left in our hour?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Until 2:56 p.m.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Madam Minister, I, too, want to welcome you to your new portfolio. I don't know if you know my background, but prior to a political career that's now in the 28th year, I was a social worker for the City of Sydney for 10 years. I did a bit of reading at that time about the changes that were made in the Department of Community Services, as it's now known. I go back to reading books about the Elizabethan poor laws in Nova Scotia, and then giant strides forward were made when the government took it over and called it the Department of Welfare in Nova Scotia. Then it moved from that to the Department of Social Services in Nova Scotia, and then it moved from there to the Department of Community Services and Housing.
So here we are today with the Department of Community Services. Also today, we have the age of computers in that particular department. I can recall, Madam Minister, when I was working in municipal Social Services - which was called the front lines at that time - dealing directly with clients, I had a motto in those days, when in doubt, give, to our social workers and people who were dealing with clients on a daily basis. Unfortunately, if there's one thing that has happened in the department, and it's certainly no reflection on you or the people working in the department today, it's a fact of life that
we're into the computer age, and people dealing with clients today in that department are basically dealing with statistics, and they're dealing with everybody in what I would refer to as a melting pot. If you're eligible, you get it, if you're not, you don't, there's no grey area, except in some emergency areas. But on a whole, the discretion for workers to deviate from the policy is not there anymore. Workers will be the first to lament that.
I'm going to say a little bit more about that, and then I would expect you to respond to my opening questions. Then I have a specific question for you. The problem has been that field workers, front-line social workers don't have the latitude in dealing with clients that they once had in Nova Scotia. I'm not so sure that's a good thing. I'm not so sure it's a good thing that the Department of Community Services should pride itself on balancing its budget rather than providing service to those in need in Nova Scotia. It seems to me that the former is taking precedence over the latter.
I had a chance before to question your deputy minister, at some point - I forget when it was now - but it had something to do with one of the committees of the House dealing with Community Services. I lamented the fact - your deputy minister and your senior people are well qualified - that graduate social workers are no longer running the Department of Community Services at the deputy minister level and in senior positions, in some cases. We used to have people running the Department of Social Services at the doctorate level in social work degrees and certainly at the master's level. Their whole concern was trying to make life better for those in Nova Scotia who are less fortunate than we in this House are.
It seems to me that the policies of the department have been moved slightly, if not dramatically in some cases, away from that mission statement to a mission statement of balancing the books in that particular department. Indeed, the previous minister of that department took great pride in the fact that his department came in under budget. As a former person working in that field, that would be the last thing that I would want to say to Nova Scotians, that we saved money off the backs of the poor people of this province. I believe that there has to be a rethinking of the mission statement of this department - I'll give you that as food for thought.
Can you tell me whether or not you've had any discussions about the mood of the people working in your department, or any representation from the Nova Scotia Association of Social Workers, for example, as to the possibility of the mission statement of your department being changed?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I want to say thank you to my honourable, esteemed colleague, 28 years in public life - I can honestly say that I hope to emulate my honourable colleague and have as many successful years in public life, and I look forward to the day when I can look across the room and think back fondly on my years as well. I know that I've had many discussions with my honourable colleague, outside
as well as inside this Chamber, and we've shared some stories that I had learned from my father, who knew my honourable colleague well, long before I - so we've shared a few of those, and I've appreciated that opportunity.
I did indeed realize, Mr. Chairman, that my honourable colleague had a social worker background - I didn't know in what capacity - so, certainly, I'm sure that he speaks quite passionately when he talks about the changes over the years that have come through and to the department, and he would know full and well what we all know, change can be good and sometimes change can be just that - and that is change.
So I want to make a couple of points about my honourable colleague's opening statements and then answer his questions specifically. While I appreciate the fact that the front line is the first line of defence and the first line of contact, and as MLA I have experienced those front-line workers myself, and they are an amazing, dedicated group of individuals who indeed deserve the high praise of all members of this House as they work through the challenging days, that they deal day in and day out with very challenging and sometimes very complex cases, and I know I share my honourable colleague's kind words that they do their very best under those circumstances that can sometimes be very stressful.
I also wanted to make reference that the challenge becomes, as my honourable colleague indicated, that we do not allow ourselves to become cases and case numbers, that we don't take the "personal" out of what we do. I say that in all honesty and all humility, Mr. Chairman, that we cannot allow ourselves to be so technologically connected that we lose the human touch. So I share that concern with my colleague and certainly understand his comments in that regard. I will, in the days ahead of me, investigate exactly what is at the discretion and what is available to those front-line workers. I believe there is emergency funding available and special need funding available should it be required - to what extent, I must acknowledge, I don't know the details of that, but I will look into that myself to ensure that it does remain personal from the caseworker point of view.
As well, Mr. Chairman, in my few short weeks in the department, I must indicate that the fine professionals that I find myself surrounded by at the senior level, and indeed as I hope to work my way through the department with all of our employees, the fine level of professionalism is certainly something that I'm very proud of. It's not about being of one profession or another, but I find myself being pleasantly and quite often pleased with the reception and the interaction that I have with my senior staff at the department.
I want to make a statement about assuring my honourable colleague - quite often I'm asked in a political capacity what it means to me to be a Progressive Conservative. It's something I learned at a very early age, and I take this with me into this new
department, but I think it's important that my honourable colleague knows, for me, being Progressive Conservative, and it's that that I will take with me into the department, has always meant that I pay my bills and look after those and work with those who can't.
So, while we celebrate the importance of balancing our budgets, which is a grand celebration, in a broad sense, it is equally as important to ensure that we help those who are in most need of our assistance, Mr. Chairman. So, certainly, I want to assure my honourable colleague that I will carry that thought with me, that it is not all dollars and cents, but it is about programs and helping all Nova Scotians, and those Nova Scotians who are most in need of this department.
Directly, to answer my honourable colleague's question regarding the mandate and the motto of the department, I have not to this date had the opportunity to go into detail with staff regarding that, as I've been immersed in the last two weeks in getting to know my department, getting to know my budget and preparing for the House, I haven't had an opportunity to do that, but I certainly want to thank my honourable colleague for bringing it to my attention that perhaps I should take a look at that and review what it is and decide if that matches the government of the day.
I thank my honourable colleague for that and will take that into consideration.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I guess the challenge is there, and I would also welcome your department balancing its budget as long as your clients are looked after, and their needs are looked after, in this province. I'll give you some examples. The challenges of the disabled in this province, for special needs, special diet, prosthesis, this kind of stuff, there's always a cloud between what the department can do and what another department can do, and the client becomes very frustrated when they don't seem to be able to access some of these services they need in order to perform their daily chores or live normally on a daily basis.
The other issue is, and this is a huge challenge, the challenge single mothers face in Nova Scotia, or perhaps in other jurisdictions as well, but I know Nova Scotia better than any other place and I know Cape Breton better than I know this part of Nova Scotia, I can tell you, the frustration that single mothers are going through in terms of their education requirements, if they're trying to get off the system by bettering their education in Cape Breton, the ones who I deal with.
Also, the problems they have with the court system regarding payments from delinquent fathers, and the problems they have in accessing student loans, because the policy of your department, Madam Minister, and I don't know whether you're even aware of this yet, but it's discriminatory in the fact that if a single mother, or anybody, for that matter, who is on community service assistance applies for a student loan, they're cut off their assistance and expected to live on the student loan. Madam Minister, not that
they are cut off when they get the student loan, they're cut off when they apply for the student loan. That's a very frustrating experience for people who are trying to go to university to get the necessary education so they can get off the system, as they say. That's the term they use. They want to get off the system. Some of these single mothers who I deal with are very bright, and because of circumstances surrounding their marriage they find themselves in a situation that, for the most part, was not of their doing. They want to get off the system, they want to get a better education so they can go out and contribute in the communities in which they live, in particular, the community I know best, my community.
There's the whole matter of the two-year program, the community college versus the four-year program in university. There's some discriminatory practices going on in that particular regard right now whereas there seems to be more access to a two-year program in my area than there is to a four-year program at the bachelor's level, and perhaps to go beyond that, perhaps another level such as a B.Ed, which a lot of the people I deal with, constituents of mine, would like to be able to access a B.Ed, very bright people, and if they had that they could go out and not only contribute to the community, but look after their family.
So, those are challenges they face and again, you know, practices of the department sometimes are discriminatory there. I'm sure that some of those have probably been brought to your attention already, particularly with the frustration that some of your line workers have when they say I would like to help you but I can't, policy does not allow me to do that.
So it's a serious problem for them. What do they do? If they apply for a student loan, they run the risk of being cut off assistance. Now, do they run that risk and try to make it on the student loan when it comes in, or do they just say I'm not going to bother this year, I'm just going to continue to get social assistance because I need the ongoing and the certainty of support on a monthly basis for my children? That's a serious dilemma that these women have - and I say "women" here, Madam Minister, because they're the most vulnerable, they're the ones who are most affected in our community.
It seems to me that the department should have some kind of a special policy to assist single mothers who want - not just assist them, but encourage them - to continue to upgrade their academic qualifications so they can do what they dearly want to do, and that's support their own children without the need for public assistance. That's a goal that is consistent with the ones whom I've talked to, that's what they want. They don't want to be, as they say, on the system, they want to be independent of the system. So I think it would be good business practice, if nothing else, for your department to set that
procedure in motion to make it easier for them to do that - and I would just like your comments on that, Madam Minister.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, again I appreciate his heartfelt comments as they relate, and I understand when you say that it's not just single moms, but that tends to be the category that a lot of the cases that you're referencing certainly fall into.
In my learning curve in this department, I've been very pleased with some of the programs that even I didn't realize were there - and I know that my honourable colleague recognizes the programs that are there - but certainly the two-year program, we have a phenomenal group of individuals who work with our clients to ensure that the programs that they need are best served, and sometimes we find that the programs that we best can help with are the coming out of high school program, the literacy program, and certainly the two- year program that my honourable colleague referenced would, of course, provide a wealth of opportunities in Nova Scotia, given the wonderful community college program that we have here in Nova Scotia that I know a lot of people are taking advantage of and realizing the full potential of those two-year programs.
Mr. Chairman, I would also reference the fact that we have in existence the opportunity for other programming to assist. We, of course, have the National Child Tax Benefit which assists our clientele; we have the Nova Scotia Child Benefit Program which assists our clients; and one that I'm extremely pleased about, of course, as I referenced earlier, is the Pharmacare Program which, again, can assist those income assistance clients of ours who find themselves in a position where the costs of the Pharmacare for their children may be prohibitive for them to move forward. So that program that we're rolling out this year is one that I think can make a huge difference indeed for our clients who most need our assistance when it comes to these types of programs. My honourable colleague also mentioned those special-needs cases and situations, and there is quite a list. I was reading the list that specifically indicates the special needs, whether it's emergency dental, or eye wear, or those types of special needs or special diet, Mr. Chairman, that's required, that the caseworker will work with the client to ensure that those special needs are addressed and dealt with. So those special-needs cases, there is a component available for that.
The other specific reference that my honourable colleague made regarding the maintenance, although I know it's out of my purview and I would not pretend to speak for the Minister of Justice, but I know that there are moves afoot within the Department of Justice to help in some of the shortcomings, or help in some of the casework, the caseload, as my honourable colleague has referenced the additional staff that will be brought on line to assist, again, those who are most in need of our help.
So, I welcome my honourable colleague's comments about the need to go even further, and, in the days to come, I certainly hope to be able to look and analyze the details of the department and move forward in some of those areas where we might be able to fill that gap, Mr. Chairman.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: I know my time is drawing near here, but I'll be back later because there are some other questions I would like to ask. Just a comment on that. What we're talking about here and what I was talking about earlier is the problem with deadbeat dads in the system. It would make the lives of the vulnerable people who I'm talking about a lot easier if the courts, in a timely fashion - and I know the Minister of Justice is concerned about this as well - would ensure that those people who owe their children money, pay the children their money in a timely fashion so that these people are not subjected to going back and forth to Community Services and saying my cheque didn't arrive now. Community Services would then lend them the money and then claw it back, and it becomes a serious problem for them. So, hopefully, a two-pronged approach from your department, and the Minister of Justice and his department, would make that process run a lot smoother than it is now. It's all about enforcement, it's all about having the tools to do the job in both departments, I realize that.
The other thing is, when I left Community Services in Sydney - Municipal Social Services it was called then - and went to the lofty position as mayor, from that job in Sydney I thought that I was going into a much more difficult job and, unfortunately for me, I guess, or fortunately, depending on what side of the fence you're looking at, the job followed me into the mayor's chair in Sydney. I had an open-door policy in dealing with my former clients, and I told the people who were working in our Social Services department to have an open-door policy with their clients, and all too often that's not the case today, where people have to call and make appointments, sometimes a week, two weeks. As I always felt, these people need assistance; the people who have to access your department need it now. They don't need it in two weeks time, or a week's time, and they don't need to be confronted now with locked doors and intake workers who are behind a screen and all this kind of stuff. I think it's intimidation that sets in.
We've moved so far in that direction, in this particular department, over the last few years that it makes it harder for the clients to access the service and harder for them to sit down and talk face to face with workers. I don't know whether it's a problem of the number of clients that each worker has, the availability of the workers, or whether it's safety on their part, whether they've tightened up security in the departments, but certainly access to the department at the front line is not as easy as it used to be. I would hope that someday we could get back to our system where, if the Mayor of Sydney can talk to a client face to face in his office without a security fence there, I'm sure that clients should be able to talk to Community Services workers in the community without having to first of all make a week or two-week appointment because they're busy, or secondly, be subjected to the kind of security that seems to be in place now, okay.
MS. STREATCH: As you were speaking, I was reflecting again on my days in the classroom when your door is always open; indeed, you're always accessible - and I used to marvel at some colleagues who would say you don't publish your telephone number in the telephone book, do you? I would say, of course I do, that's the way people can contact you.
So, I certainly share my colleague's desire to have that one-on-one relationship and that open-door policy and, though I would never speak to the specifics of a case, I was very pleased to be able to meet with the mother of one of my clients just the other day here at Province House - it was very satisfying for me and for the mother. So that was an opportunity for me to have that one-on-one, and I would share my colleague's feelings in that manner.
When it comes to the department, again Occupational Health and Safety is the utmost concern and that would be the rationale and the reasoning behind some of those barriers that my honourable colleague was referencing. But, certainly, I share your open-door policy, Mr. Chairman, I would share that with my colleague and would hope that I could continue to have that myself, as my honourable colleague does himself.
MR. CHAIRMAN: That's the time allotment. The House will recess for a comfort break for four minutes, with the intention of reconvening in five minutes.
[2:57 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[3:00 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley.
MS. MARILYN MORE: I want to begin by welcoming the minister and her senior staff. This department is very near and dear to my heart, and I must say I've been somewhat reassured by some of the responses the minister has made to previous speakers in terms of the sincerity she has been displaying in response to the issues raised and her openness and flexibility in willing to deal with the issues in an ongoing manner. I really appreciate that, and it's in that spirit that I will be making my comments and asking questions this afternoon.
I'm going to start off a little differently - I'm going to tell you the three things I think the department needs to do, and then I'm going to ask some questions and look for some clarification. I was the previous Community Services Critic for the NDP caucus and I have to say, over the three years that I held that position, I had increasing concern that the mantra of the department seemed to be more about cost containment rather than working across levels of government, working across sectors, across community groups,
and involving all those most directly impacted by their policies in developing a genuine social safety net for Nova Scotians.
I really think we need to get back on track because there are no quick, easy answers to the complex issues, many of which have been raised in the department's business plan for the coming year. I don't think the solutions to those problems are totally within the control or the ability of the department, which means all the more that department officials have to be working with the voluntary sector, with consumers and clients, with people within their department, from the front- line workers up to the minister, and involving all departments within government to work on these issues.
I'm sure it's no surprise to the minister, but I would suggest probably 75 to 80 per cent of the casework that I do and my assistant does within my constituency office is the result of poor policies or misunderstood policies of her department. I have to say, only half jokingly, that at times I have been tempted to invoice the Department of Community Services for the wages of my assistant. I'm thinking that if my assistant and the assistants of all the other MLAs of this province are working as sort of client representatives or navigators, or ombudsmen, for the clients of Community Services then this is a real indication that there is something wrong with the current approach. I feel, and I've mentioned this within the Standing Committee of Community Services, as well to the deputy, I think the department itself needs to set up a division or a group of people who can work with clients directly, in terms of helping them understand what the policies are, what is available to them, helping them navigate the different levels of the department, and acting as a patient representative does in the hospital system. That model works extremely well. It creates a high degree of satisfaction from everyone who is involved with that system. I really feel there's a huge void there in the department, and it needs to be met directly by the department because they best understand what can be done rather than the CAs and community-based groups who are trying to support the clients in the community. So that is my first suggestion.
My second suggestion is that there definitely needs to be an improvement of policies and funding rates. I will get into that a little further.
The third one is that I think the policies and legislation governing the department needs to have a gender-based analysis. The majority of staff of the department are women, the majority of clients of the department are women, and I'm not sure anyone fully appreciates how unfairly some of the decisions and the policies of that department impact disproportionately on women compared to male clients. I think that's an area that needs to be looked at. Again, I will give some examples in a few minutes. So if you get nothing out of what I ask today, please take those three recommendations back to the department.
I want to move on to the policies. Unfortunately, and I think it's been raised by earlier speakers, a number of the policies of the Department of Community Services actually discriminate and prevent the clients from doing the very thing that the department is trying to achieve, and that's to increase the independence and stability of families and their productivity - being able to get out to work and improving their standard of living.
It's interesting, I see in the west gallery, Carolyn Earle, who was actually part of the presentation of the Face of Poverty Coalition to the two-day Forum on Poverty that was held in January. I welcome you Carolyn. During that two-day forum, those of us who even felt we were somewhat informed about the issue of poverty I think had a very startling awakening to how serious the situation is in Nova Scotia. A couple of months after that forum, I was asked to do sort of a summary of the information and recommendations presented to the forum for all of the community health boards in the Capital District. It was interesting, because when I went through a number of the presentations, I would say that probably three-quarters of the recommendations - coming from a broad collection of coalitions and community-based organizations as well as individuals who had been impacted by poverty - dealt with changes they would like to see in policies of the Department of Community Services.
It was startling, I think, to all of us. I won't go into the details, because the minister well knows, the Standing Committee on Community Services sort of short-listed some of the recommendations they felt should have been included in the Spring budget, and the responses back from various ministers whose responsibility it would have been to include those in their department's budgets, basically, the answer was no. Even though these recommendations made sense, they would prevent the downward spiraling of many women and children in our province to further poverty. At some point we have to say stop. So I guess my first question to the minister is, how open are you and your department officials to looking at the policies of the department to see which actually prevent your clients from getting on with their lives?
MS. STREATCH: Excellent, thank you very much. Mr. Chairman, I'd like to thank and acknowledge my honourable colleague's work that we did together in the short time that we had on that Standing Committee on Community Services. I know, as all members of this House know, my honourable colleague does so with the best of intentions and with a true heart full of sincerity - it is not for political gain, it is not for any personal gain, it is out of a true commitment and I respect and recognize that publicly for all members of this House.
Indeed, under her chairmanship we certainly did attack and approach various aspects and certainly now in my capacity as minister I look forward to moving some of those perhaps onto my own plate and would welcome the opportunity - I have reviewed numerous documents in the last couple of weeks, I indeed did review some of the
information that came from the standing committee because I was looking at it with a different set of eyes this time and I certainly wanted to have a fresh look at that - I would welcome the opportunity, and we spoke about a time earlier, but if my honourable colleague could find time to sit down with me and walk me through some of those areas that she felt the committee had indicated as priority.
Mr. Chairman, I am going to ask clarification on one thing from my honourable colleague, because one of my trusty sidekicks might have gotten it but I didn't quite get the second of her three that she wanted me to go away with. I know it was pertaining to funding but I want to make sure that I had the exact words, so when I leave here I make sure that I am indeed on the right track on that one. So if I could have clarification on the second, then I'd like to address the question regarding the gender policy.
MS. MORE: I think the order I gave them was working towards a genuine social safety net, the need to improve policies and funding rates, and the third was the gender lens on policies and legislation.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you to my honourable colleage - it was the funding rates that I had only gotten half of my shorthand down on the page.
Mr. Chairman, to my colleague's inquiry regarding the gender balance with regard to policy, again I have to acknowledge that a lot of the policy in the department I haven't had the opportunity to fully digest because it is still such a learning curve. Certainly I always remind anyone who knows me knows that when I attack a subject or go about a project or take on, whether it's a political commitment, or a community commitment, I do so as a proud individual. I always ask people to look at me first and foremost as a capable, competent individual and then to factor in my gender, if it pertains. Sometimes you're able to do that and sometimes it doesn't quite work that way - certainly I would not want to indicate to my honourable colleague in any way, shape, or form that I would accept policy that was gender biased.
If indeed policy does exist within the department that is gender biased, I would like to become more familiar with all of the policy in the days ahead and I do know that policy is reviewed on a regular basis and indeed it's being reviewed as we speak under the umbrella of a whole review of different aspects of the department. I will be watching very closely to ensure that some of those specifics that my honourable colleague indicated, certainly if we can rectify any of those and ensure that the gender balance is in place in those policies, we certainly will do so.
MS. MORE: I do want to move on, but I just want to mention to the minister that when I'm talking about gender-based analysis, that I'm not necessarily talking about bias, I guess it's more on how the policy impacts differently on men and women.
Just to give you an example of something, let's look at the new policy of the department that does not allow single parents to attend training institutions or universities for courses longer than two years. The gender imbalance there is that 80 per cent of the 41 per cent of lone-parent families supported by the department are headed up by women. A policy such as that prevents more women from going on to get university education than it does men.
So that's the kind of unintended consequence that could be discovered by putting sort of a gender lens on policies and interpretations and legislation before it actually has that negative impact. When you consider that the majority of your caseload in your department are women, and most of those women have children, it also increases the poverty level of the children in those single-parent families. That actually leads to my next question, and that is about child poverty in our province.
It was interesting, even in the department's own business plan for this year, you admit, in the general sense, your department admits that there are 2,000 more children living in poverty in Nova Scotia than when the Progressive Conservative Government took over in 1999. Now, I would be bold, but I will suggest that part of that is because of the policies of the Department of Community Services. It's interesting, because later in the business plan it mentions that the Nova Scotia Government, probably the Department of Community Services, is actually the lead province for the evaluation for the National Child Benefit program, which was started, federally, in 2001. The business plan for this year from your department suggests that the evaluation of the National Child Benefit program will show positive results for low-income families. I'm wondering if the federal plan is improving the results for low-income families, yet more children in Nova Scotia are living in poverty, why the disconnect? Where's the problem?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I apologize to my honourable colleague, but I'm wondering if she could clarify for me the additional 2,000 children that she is referencing in the business plan, please.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, the minister will find that information, I believe, on Page 5. Just to elaborate, if you look at the 1999 figure, 24,000 children under the age of 18 were in low-income households, and the 2003 figure shows 26,000 children. I believe that's an increase of 2,000.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, thank you, to my honourable colleague for pointing out the specific location of that, and indeed I certainly recognize what she's referencing now. We do use those factors as a component to the creation and evaluation of such programming as the $10 a month increase for income assistance, the factors that we use for a variety of our programming, and so that is calculated in there. With reference to the National Child Tax Benefit and the Nova Scotia Child Benefit Program, as I stated earlier, the two together, I understand, are what are considered to be an amount equal to the national average for raising a child in Nova Scotia, or indeed in Canada, in both.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I think that proves my point, that the two combined together do not allow children in this province to be raised in dignity and have an adequate or reasonable quality of life. Between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of the food bank users in our province, not that they physically go but they're the ones who benefit from the food received from the food banks in our province, that food goes to children under the age of 18 - between 40 per cent and 50 per cent - and those are figures that come from Feed Nova Scotia.
The loss of the child allowance or the capacity for the department to add that into the rates that families on social assistance in this province receive is not - I mean that loss is being felt by families and children in this province. Their parents, or parent, are forced to go to food banks to supplement the personal allowance and so despite the fact that there's been a very small increase each year over the last couple of years, that in no way meets the nutritional standards necessary to raise healthy children in this province. So I'm wondering if the minister would like to comment on that, and if it might be more motivation to raise the personal allowances or bring back the children's allowance portion of social assistance rates?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I guess I would make a couple of comments to my honourable colleague's question. It's my understanding that the creation of the Nova Scotia child benefit was indeed to remove the child as a factor in the income assistance rates or monthly allowance and to treat that as separate, so that it's not used as a disadvantage, if you will, toward the monthly allowance. So, therefore, that was done in a manner to offset and to not penalize, if you will, the children of the families looking for income assistance.
As I stated earlier, and I know my honourable colleague is well aware, when we see the passage of this budget, Mr. Chairman, the third year in a row for an increase in the personal income allowance is something that I'm very pleased to be able to come to the floor of this Legislature in my very first mandate and be able to bring forward. That $10 a month increase which is, as I say, the third consecutive year of increase, certainly is something that I'm very pleased to be able to do and something that is very welcome amongst our income assistance clients. I know that it would be in everyone's interest to
increase everything if we could, if such a world existed, but certainly keeping within our means and being able to provide the maximum for our clients is certainly a priority for me and as we move forward in the days to come, certainly taking into consideration each one of those increases along with the shelter increase and the other programs that we're able to put in place certainly would hope to help bridge some of that gap.
I don't want to take all my honourable colleague's time, but the other thing that I hope to get an opportunity to discuss with my honourable colleague and other colleagues in this House is the Pharmacare program for children, which, again, is another program that we can use that we can maximize the assistance that's able to be provided to our clients, to those Nova Scotians who are most in need of our assistance. It is one that I think can be used, Mr. Chairman, in a very positive way. Thirty three thousand children in Nova Scotia - their parents, of course - will be able to now access that medication through the Pharmacare program, which allows them to better use those funds in other areas that they see fit.
So, again, it's another program that we're able to introduce and bring forward that will hopefully alleviate some of those other concerns and additional burdens for the parents.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I recognize where the minister's trying to go with that, but, actually, that program is going to benefit the children of modest-income families in Nova Scotia, and that's a worthy goal. Currently, I'm talking about the children of the lowest income families in our province, those families who are directly the responsibility of the Department of Community Services.
Before I leave this, I just want to give you an example. The minister may be aware that some excellent research work has come out of an initiative that's being coordinated by three of the women centres in Nova Scotia. The initiative is called the Social Assistance Reform: Moving Forward A Women Positive Public Policy Agenda. Their information indicates that for a lone parent - and I've already suggested that most of those under the purview of the department are women, so single mother families - currently, the National Child Benefit Supplement would be $143.50; the Nova Scotia Child Benefit, $37.08. This coming year, the National Child Benefit Supplement will go up to $162; the Nova Scotia Child Benefit Supplement remains at $37.08.
I just mention that because that does not replace the amount of money necessary to raise a child in this province, especially if you're handicapped with - which is often the case, and the department's own business plan refers to this. There are complex problems with these families. It's not just inadequacy of income, if you're poor in this province, you tend to have poorer health, you tend to have lower levels of education. In fact, a middle-income person in this province is twice as healthy as a low-income person. A high-income person is twice as healthy as a middle-income person. I would suggest,
and it has been proven in many other documents, that the adequacy of income and the opportunity to achieve as high a level of education as possible impact more on a person's health than anything else that can be done in this province. That is where I'm concerned about the policies of the Department of Community Services, because I feel that they perpetuate poverty and poor health in our province. We know that the Health budget is almost out of control, but you're not going to turn that around by investing everything in health promotion in terms of personal lifestyles, you have to invest in education and improving people's income. That's where you can make a real difference and stop this out-of-control growth and demand for health care services.
So instead of, as has been my experience, the Department of Community Services and the Department of Health often fighting over who does not want to take responsibility for looking after an individual or a family, there has to be closer co-operation and recognition that investment on one side is going to lower the costs on the other side. We need that cross-department approach to our public policy in this province or we're going to continue going the way we always have. So is the minister prepared to work with her colleagues in other departments to have that sort of population health approach that will take all these factors into account?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, thank you to my honourable colleague for the opportunity to address that specific question. It's very interesting that you would raise that question because just yesterday we were discussing setting up meetings.
There's no question, Mr. Chairman, government does not exist in isolation and departments do not exist in isolation. There is so much interdepartmental reliance that it's necessary - I would suggest that in my case it's very pertinent and very immediate that I get together with my colleagues. Certainly the Department of Health is the very first colleague and we have those meetings slated for next week, and I believe that the deputies of my department and the Department of Health met, actually yesterday, to talk about some of these joint initiatives that we have together - because my honourable colleague is absolutely right, it's not about whose responsibility it is because collectively as government it is our responsibility. So the toing and froing of who needs to take responsibility really is almost a moot issue because it's government collectively. We can only maximize the dollars, the resources, the personnel, the expertise that we have available to us if indeed we do work together.
So certainly the Department of Health, and I know that there are very specific initiatives underway, and through the continuum of care with my honourable colleague from the Department of Health - as well as dealing with the Department of Justice, Mr. Chairman, I would offer to my colleague is another one of the key stakeholders that we need to get to the table together with - because so often we are intrinsic in what we do
and, of course, the fourth component would be the Office of Health Promotion and Protection because, indeed, many of the programs that the Office of Health Promotion and Protection now has responsibility for and their mandate factors in with the Department of Health, the Department of Community Services and, to a certain degree, the Department of Justice.
So I fully expect and anticipate meeting with all of those departments and, first and foremost, Mr. Chairman, with the Department of Health. We do have those meetings slated for next week. So we'll move forward on those joint initiatives in the coming together of minds and departments as to how we can maximize those resources at our disposal.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I find that very encouraging, thank you very much. This issue of poverty really underlies so many of the concerns from my caucus because the amount of money you make is almost the single determinant in terms of the quality of life that anybody has in this province. I hope actually the minister will include - and she may have mentioned it - the Department of Education because we have to provide more opportunities for higher level education for the clients of the Department of Community Services, because the Advisory Council on the Status of Women has shown time and time again that not only in our province, but across Canada women have to have a higher formal educational level in order to make the same amount of money as a man in each province at a lower - for example, a woman with a university degree in Nova Scotia makes about as much money on average as a male high school graduate.
So, we have that income gap there to make up. When you have policies of the Department of Community Services that prevent women from getting university degrees, then they are locked into a cycle of poverty and often, you know, depression and poor health and everything that goes with that, for their life and often it continues on to the next generation. Certainly in Third World development countries, they have found out that by educating the mother, you have the best chance, you increase, you maximize the possibility that the children will go on to further education. So, you know, there's no reason why we can't be taking that international research and applying it here in Nova Scotia.
So I would like through you, Mr. Chairman, to ask the minister, would she work to convince her Cabinet colleagues to allow us to debate and to vote on a bill that would allow women who are single parents in this province to continue on to take university education and be able to break that lock on the poverty cycle?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, my honourable colleague brings forth a few items in that question and absolutely, how remiss of me to leave out the Department of Education, one that's near and dear to my heart. Certainly the Department of Education would be involved, as I've worked co-operatively with the Minister of Education already
on a couple of key initiatives that I know again are near and dear to the heart of my honourable colleague, and perhaps we'll get a chance to discuss those later on in the questioning if they come up.
I do want to indicate, Mr. Chairman, for my honourable colleague's knowledge and those other, perhaps newer members in the House, that through the Department of Community Services, we do annually fund through the community college adult education to the tune of $600,000 a year. So, again, we see that co-operative nature between the Department of Community Services and the Department of Education coming together and bringing those two departments together. As my colleague well knows, there is no single determinant for poverty and I know that she's fully aware of that and certainly understands the broader implications.
Mr. Chairman, specifically to my honourable colleague's question, and I wish my honourable colleague who asked me a question earlier was in the room as well - I'm sure word will travel to him. I would like to certainly indicate to my honourable colleague that, indeed, I have instructed staff to provide me with some options that would allow me to investigate the opportunity for income assistance recipients to perhaps pursue educational opportunities beyond a two-year program. So I'm very pleased to be able to share that with my honourable colleague again, someone whom I know takes these situations very seriously and I know my honourable colleague's time is very valuable, but I wanted to share a personal reflection, if I could, so that my honourable colleague understands my own personal pursuance of this initiative.
Mr. Chairman, we all have times in our lives when we're fortunate and other times when we're perhaps less fortunate. I can remember, quite a few years ago now, a very good friend of mine came to me and she was at a crossroads in her life. She was trying to make some very serious decisions and she felt that those decisions were being impeded by her lack of education and lack of employability. I remember her saying to me at the kitchen table, Judy, you're so fortunate. You have an education and you have a career, and if life were to put you in the situation where I am right now, you could make different decisions than I have available to me, because she did not have an education and she did not have a career.
Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleagues - I see my second colleague is now in the room as well - I've never forgotten that conversation. While I know that there are some things we're able to do in government and some things that we aren't, I do want to assure my colleagues that that's something that has stayed with me and certainly was instrumental in me asking staff to please provide me with some options and some analyses so that I could move forward with great expediency, and I would hope very quickly, to ensure that we do not let any Nova Scotians down and we do not do a disservice to any Nova Scotians. I certainly hope that my honourable colleague
understands the speed at which government moves sometimes, but I want my honourable colleague to know that I'm right there behind it, pushing it along as quickly as possible.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just a reminder to all members in the House when speaking, we are not to draw attention to members who are absent or present in the House.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley has the floor.
MS. MORE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Again I'm encouraged to hear that. I think so many of these things need to be reviewed because the context has changed. I think the revenue generation of the government has changed. There are all sorts of situations that currently might impact on opening up some of those policies and having a tremendous positive impact on our community service clients, so I'm really encouraged to hear that.
Just before I leave the topic of training and education for income assistance recipients, I do want to mention to the minister a growing trend, and I'm not sure where this is coming from, but a growing trend among caseworkers to be sort of counselling or pushing their employment support clients into shorter term programs at the community colleges. I think this is short-sighted. I'm not blaming the front-line workers for doing this. Again I think that in the past there has been, as I called it before, this mantra of cost containment. If you encourage men and women - women in particular because as we know, they make up the majority of the clientele of the department - into short-term programs that are going to continue the cycle of part-time, insecure, low-paying jobs, that's not going to help the government nor the client. It's just going to perpetuate the problem and continue the cycle of a job for a while, then back on social assistance, out working, back and forth. That pendulum doesn't help anyone.
We need to invest in the clients and those who wish to go on for further education have the ability to do it and are accepted by post-secondary institutions for well-trained or highly-skilled programs and then could go out and become productive members. We have had all sorts of personal stories through the media over the last several years, as various Opposition Parties have raised this issue in the Legislature. We have had all sorts of personal testimonies as to how effective it has been for men and women to be able to stay on social assistance while they apply, like everyone else, for student loans in order to go to university.
Again, I just want to remind everyone that with the wage gap between men and women, we have to ensure that women in particular have these opportunities because that is the best chance of allowing their children to go on to further education in future generations.
I would like to switch topics now. One of my new critic areas is the Disabled Persons Commission - persons with disabilities. I want to look - actually, we're going to get down to something specific in the budget, just a little bit of relief from all the philosophy. I'm looking at the line Community Based Programs, under Services for Persons with Disabilities. I notice that last year nearly $5 million wasn't spent on community-based programming and I'm wondering why.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Actually when I went through the Estimates Book myself I imagined that I was the one asking the questions, and then sat down with the staff and indeed walked our way through the questions that I had come up with. That was one of the questions I came up with. So my honourable colleague and I were in sync on that one.
I would draw my honourable colleague's attention to the line below, which is the long-term care. I believe you will see that one flips for the other. The long-term care is reflective of the $5 million shortfall that she is indicating in the line above.
MS. MORE: Thank you. I just wonder if the minister can give me a couple of examples of community-based programs. Let me tell you what I'm assuming here. I'm also the critic for the voluntary sector and that's my background before I was elected to the Legislature. I know that across this province, community-based programs and services not only help people with disabilities but help seniors, children, you name it. They are all - most of them are facing a crisis because there is very little core funding available for these organizations. Many of them are providing almost mandated or essential services that the provincial government is supposed to be providing. In some cases, they are contracted to provide the services, but the lack of core funding - and I could list 30 different issues facing the voluntary sector.
I guess my concern is, and I would like to have it clarified, the change in funding budget lines there, that $5 million, does that mean there is less money for those community-based organizations to provide direct programming to persons with disabilities?
MS. STREATCH: Indeed, the quick short and sweet answer is no. It doesn't mean that there is less money, but I want to walk through those three programs because they were the three programs that I learned about upon immediately coming into the department. They are three programs that, after the consultation process took place, there were options and discussions around programs that could immediately respond and receive the full support of all those stakeholders, and others that would take longer to develop.
Three of those programs that got the immediate support of all the stakeholders involved in the consultation process are the Direct Family Support, the Alternate Family Support and the Independent Living Support Programs. Those three programs themselves, as I referenced in my opening statements, are receiving $1.5 million in this year's estimates in the budget as we move forward.
Mr. Chairman, if I may, I will elaborate on those three programs for my honourable colleague, which she is indicating she is very good with. So I won't waste the time, I will allow her to ask her next question. If she's good with them, then I will let her move on.
MS. MORE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate your understanding of how short of time I am and that there are a number of points I still want to make. I understood that those three programs were meant to originally be part of last year's budget, so are you suggesting that the funding for those has been deferred to this year? I know one of them was scheduled to begin in April, I think that was the Alternative Family Support. Even in the business plan it says it was - I know those were recommendations and I think a lot of us thought they were going to start in the last fiscal year but according to the business plan, they are really just starting this year. So I'm wondering, was that money deferred from one year to another, or is this new money? Thank you.
MS. STREATCH: Perfect, yes. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Indeed, the total budget for those programs is $3.5 million, and the $1.5 million additional dollars this year certainly phases in the implementation of all three programs, especially the Independent Living Support Program, which was started as a pilot in Cape Breton, will now be provided across the province, in an attempt to broaden the scope of this very successful program. So indeed, it is not a deferral, it is a $1.5 million addition. It started with $1 million, then went $1 million, and now an additional $1.5 million.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, does the minister or her staff have any idea how many additional clients that is going to serve in the coming year under the umbrella of those three new programs?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I will indicate to my honourable colleague that at this stage I do not know an exact number of how many additional clients that will serve because, of course, it's all relative, and the uptake and the application process, as we move forward with the three programs, we will have a better understanding; certainly this time next year, we will have a better understanding as to what the uptake was. So indeed, if numbers become available, I would be more than happy to share those with my honourable colleague as they become available to us, but at this point in time I don't have a total number figure.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, last year some of us had meetings with department staff, I think on the regional level, and I was startled to find out that even within the Capital District - I'm not sure what your department calls the metro area - that 100 people with disabilities who qualified for housing and financial supports through your programs were on waiting lists. I was told that even though people need the program, or placement, and qualify, they meet the criteria, whether or not they get the program they need depends on the amount of money available, that they are not "entitled" to that program or service.
So I'm curious to know, do we have any idea how many people with disabilities qualify for department programs, either in metro or across the province, who are on waiting lists and not able, because of financial restrictions, to get the programs and services they require?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, certainly a very honest question, but a very complex one. When I consider the variety of programs that are available and that are offered - for example, there would be no wait list for income assistance for persons with disabilities. So that program would have a zero wait list, yet there may be other programs, depending on the uptake of the program, that perhaps may have a case where we don't have the immediate facilities. Some of our adult day programs, as my honourable college well knows, we are in an analysis of those right now to see how we can better serve all of our clientele here in the central region, as well as across the province.
So it really does depend on the program we are referencing, and where some would have virtually no wait list others may have a waiting period. So every additional dollar we can put into these programs, like the $1.5 million going into these three programs that are community-driven, that are at the heart of those persons who most need our assistance, every dollar we can put in there is a well-deserved dollar.
So, certainly, we would be working to eliminate the waiting for any of our programs, but as we go forward, we will have the ebb and flow as we work our way through the release of some program max-out into the availability of other programs.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I just want to respond by suggesting that perhaps in future business plans, when you have your evaluation or measurements at the end of the report, it would be very useful to have not only the numbers being served by individual programs covered by your department, but also to have the number of people who qualify for them better, on the waiting list. I think that would give us a true measure of the need in our province, and I think it might increase awareness not only among the Legislative Assembly, but also among the general public, just as publishing the wait times for different procedures and whatnot in the health field.
If social programs need a higher priority in terms of budgets in this province, then I think we need that baseline information to be able to make those decisions.
I just want to move on quickly in my last few moments to bring two other issues to the minister's attention. I want to refer quickly to concerns that the voluntary sector organizations that either work with her department or who are partially funded by her department have. I think we need a big improvement in the working relationship there - again, if we do have a chance to meet, this might be something we could discuss one to one and with your senior staff - there seems to be an element of distrust. The two partners have to work together as the department can't deliver the community-based services without these organizations, and the organizations can't do it without financial and, in kind, support and contributions from the department.
I'm still not clear on how the new Minister of Volunteerism - how that process is going to work. I think of all the departments in government, Community Services would be most impacted if we lost that community infrastructure that helps work with clients or children in care or children at risk in our community, so I will just leave that issue there.
The other one I want to mention - and I'm not sure how much the minister knows about this, I have to admit that it has taken me awhile to fully appreciate the significance of it - there is an initiative sponsored mostly by women's organizations in the province who are really concerned about changes in the agreement between the federal government and the provincial governments around equalization payments and whatnot, in terms of how it impacts on the Canada Social Transfer. I remember raising this with the previous minister a couple of budgets ago. I'm not going to expect the minister to give me a detailed response, but definitely her department has a mandate to secure a safety net for Nova Scotians. To do it we don't have enough revenue within our province, so we definitely rely on the federal transfers to do that.
In our province the Canada Social Transfer money, I think, goes to social assistance, post-secondary education, legal aid, child welfare, some of those things. Unlike the Canada Health Act, there is no sort of security in terms of amount, there are no standards in place. This coalition of women's organizations has been trying to get a meeting with both the Premier, who I believe is the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and also with the staff or Secretariat, whoever does the negotiations with the federal government, because they want to bring their concerns to the table. They would like to see this raised, even possibly at the next Premier's meeting in Newfoundland and Labrador in July.
I'm raising it with you, Madam Minister, because I think the chronic underfunding of that Canada Social Transfer impacts mostly on your department. When the funding arrangement changed about 10 years ago, billions of dollars were taken out
of the funding across Canada. Even the inadequate funding that we currently get, if that is at risk and not safeguarded for social programs, then I think the kind of country we are currently living in will change drastically.
I would just ask for some reassurance from the minister, through you, Mr. Chairman, that she will raise this issue with the Premier and her senior officials and perhaps facilitate a meeting between this coalition and those who have responsibility to add items to the agenda and make sure that information is passed on.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, yet once again my honourable colleague and I are in sync. There are a few things that my honourable colleague referenced and I will make reference to those quickly. Certainly building relationships is absolutely imperative and, as I indicated earlier to one of the other members opposite, I fully intend and I commit to building relationships with the stakeholders, with the volunteers, with staff, indeed with all of the service providers, et cetera, across the province that pertain to my department, and certainly I look forward to building those relationships. I couldn't agree more that the volunteer sector especially is one upon which we rely heavily and we cannot ever underestimate or downplay their significant contribution. So I certainly commit to my honourable colleague that that's something that definitely is on my priority list.
As well, I do know that it's a priority of the department with regard to the Canada Social Transfer that that be a priority at our federal, provincial and territorial meetings. I know that the department certainly has indicated that in my briefings, that that is a priority for them and indeed our counterparts across the country. I know that our own Premier has certainly championed the fiscal imbalance negotiations, the fiscal imbalance question, and I have complete faith that the Premier will continue to move forward for all of Nova Scotia's best interests.
The particular group that my honourable colleague referenced, I actually asked my staff just yesterday to please get in touch with that group of individuals that you were mentioning. I know that they would like to have a meeting before the meeting the end of July. I spoke with the honourable Deputy Premier about this yesterday and indeed did indicate to my staff that I first and foremost would definitely like an opportunity to sit down and hear the concerns that they have as they pertain to the Canada Social Transfer, and I certainly hope that that meeting can take place before the meeting at the end of July so that indeed I can share the result of that with the Premier and the Deputy Premier.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired for the honourable member.
The honourable member for Digby-Annapolis.
MR. HAROLD THERIAULT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, Minister. I appreciate the challenge that you have in this department and I also appreciate the challenge of some of the people who need this service in this province and especially in my riding. I certainly get many phone calls about Community Services and I know there's only so much to go around and it has to be divided, hopefully, equally and fairly amongst those clients as best as your department can do, and I'm sure you do that. I'm sure you know all the problems that are out there or if you don't, you will.
I would like to speak on people with disabilities. I know that I've been told by people with disabilities, and I don't know how true this is - this is why I'm here today asking these questions I guess - people with disabilities seem to have been let down as of lately, receiving less money probably than they used to. I'm going to ask you if you could provide me with, for a single person with disabilities, the rate of their shelter allowance, the personal allowance rate and the transportation allowance rate as of today and could you also please indicate or provide me at a later time probably - maybe not today, whenever - these same rates for shelter, personal allowance and transportation allowances under the previous Social Assistance Act, before the Act was changed probably two years ago maybe. If I could have that information, it would be a great help to me.
I also want to note during the election campaign, your Party indicated that you were bringing forward a "new persons with disabilities" allowance that recognized that many Nova Scotians are unable to work due to permanent disabilities. That question is, could the minister please provide some background on this particular allowance and when it will be available?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you to my honourable colleague, I welcome his questions and his comments and indeed his insight into some of these very challenging situations. He's correct, I don't know all of the problems yet, but I'm sure that they will come to me in all due time. Certainly the figures that you requested, staff will investigate those and I will get those to you at the earliest availability. I will provide those specific dollar figures to you, I don't have them right now, but I certainly hope my honourable colleague appreciates that I will get them to him as soon as possible.
Within the platform document that indicates the establishment of the new persons with disabilities allowance, that is indeed a future endeavour through this government and it's one that we will piece together in the days to come. It's a work in progress as we speak. It's not in this year's budget estimates as it's in the platform policy, it will come in the days ahead. Certainly, as we build that with our stakeholders and in consultation with those who know best, we will make the parameters and the protocols available to all members of this House and all Nova Scotians.
MR. THERIAULT: Thank you, Minister, that would be great if I could have that information; I certainly need that in front of me when the calls come in. Another commitment that your Party made during the election was for the department to stop the clawback of the Canada Pension Plan disabilities benefits. There was supposed to be no more clawbacks; that was, I believe, in your Party's platform. If someone received Canada Pension or so much - I'm not sure about the size or the figures - that no money would be clawed back due to that money coming from the federal government. Could the minister please indicate whether the plan is to stop the clawback and then reduce the benefits your department provides, or whether individuals will see more money under the commitment that you've made?
MS. STREATCH: Again, thank you to my honourable colleague for raising this additional platform commitment and, much the same as the first platform commitment, it is a work in progress as to how the specifics will be worked out. Certainly the financial experts will look at this and we will, together with the federal government and with our experts, bring forward the policy and the protocols as they pertain to this particular commitment.
Mr. Chairman, if I may, I recognize the challenge that it is for our clients to be faced with overpayments and then be faced with the necessity to repay that money. It's difficult for our clients to be faced with that and all too often we know that the struggle is there once money has been allocated, to then have to repay it. Certainly that would be something that we would not want to increase or encourage, so we recognize that that is a situation which exists and certainly that would not be something we'd want to continue or increase. As those policies and protocols become available, I certainly will make them available to all members of this House. As the government moves forward with its platform commitments, we'll make clear what that project entails.
MR. THERIAULT: Mr. Chairman, I would like to touch on funding that the department used to have in place, which I don't believe is anymore. It was at the local level, too. It was emergency funding, funding for things like when you have people come into your office in the winter time, as an MLA - and I'm sure the minister has had the same thing happen to her - when people are out of oil on cold days. You're looking for $100 for oil for them, or if you're looking for them because they're going to have their hydro cut off in 20 days or 10 days or five days, and they're out of food.
The first thing you have to do is oil. I've called local oil companies, trying to get these people help and they'll direct me to the Department of Community Services, where you run into a wall because there is no emergency funding for that. So you end up calling the Salvation Army, you end up calling some local churches you know. Should an MLA be doing this? I don't know, but that's what I do personally as an MLA to try to find somebody $100 worth of oil or to try to get some help with their electricity. I end up calling Nova Scotia Power, trying to get a person there to help me out and to not cut their
hydro off for a few days or a few weeks, to help them work out a bill of some sort, and sometimes you can do that. But there are times you can't.
The food, they're out of food with no place to go. It would be no good calling Sobeys or the Superstore for them. But you end up sending them to the food bank, and then you have to call around and find the person who's running the food bank to go in at a time when they're not even supposed to be in there to get them some food. I'm sure we've all done that, all members of this House. I know I have in my short time at it.
There used to be emergency funding there. I believe, probably it got abused to a point where maybe it had to be stopped. The people I've tried to help out, I know that they were out of food, they were out of oil and they were out of electricity. I know that those people that I personally helped were not out to abuse the system. If you know the people in your community, a lot of them, you know who the people are who do abuse that system, I believe. In the three years I've been at it, I've learned who will abuse and who won't. I'm sure the longer you go at it, the more you can learn of these people. If it's carefully watched, it wouldn't be abused, I don't think, the way it was.
My question is, has this department had any other complaints from any other MLAs about this emergency funding? If so, is it something the department is looking at, to maybe re-establish, to help these people out in emergency situations?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I thank my honourable colleague for bringing up something that certainly is extremely important. Again, when I listen to my honourable colleague talk about making the phone calls and going to the Lions Club and going to the churches, I know that he does that out of the kindness of his heart and not because it's simply his job, because that certainly is not the case. That's done on a personal commitment. I certainly applaud my honourable colleague for all those endeavours.
I know I would likely be safe in saying that at one point or another, Mr. Chairman, we've all made some of those phone calls ourselves. Indeed, I know that my honourable colleague would agree that the hard-working front-line caseworkers make a lot of those phone calls themselves. Indeed, a lot of man- and woman-hours go into attempting to provide as many services and needs as we can to our clientele.
I do want to indicate that we do, under the special needs portion of our budget, Mr. Chairman, on an annual basis, to the tune of approximately $20 million, have special needs funding which covers a variety of situations; it could be a transportation special need, it could be a special diet, it could be eye wear or emergency dental. So there is a
component available within the department's budget which addresses these special needs. It's done through coordination with the caseworkers.
I know my honourable colleague believes, as I do, in the fine work of our caseworkers and our staff, and certainly I know the honourable colleague would agree with me that accountability and transparency is extremely important to all Nova Scotians when it comes to taxpayers' dollars. So we want to balance the two, we want to make sure that we have accountability and transparency, and at the same time have some of that cushion for those special needs, as my honourable colleague indicated.
So that is there. As we move forward, in future budget discussions, I certainly will make sure that that remains in the forefront, that we do not lose funding for those special needs, which seem to be increasing year by year. Certainly, I would also indicate that my department and government in general, we know are indeed but one source, we cannot be all for everyone. We recognize that, and we do the best we can with what we have. A $32 million increase in our overall budget this year is a bit of that recognition. This government realizes that, indeed, there are good programs and good things being done through the Department of Community Services, and that $32 million increase in the budget is prime indication of that recognition.
I know there are many community groups out there that do provide assistance. I know there are even some companies; I believe Nova Scotia Power has a program with the Salvation Army that they fund. So we can applaud some corporate opportunities for the corporate sector to step up to the plate. That's something that we'll be encouraging even more, that corporate Nova Scotia and corporate Canada can indeed step up to the plate and provide assistance like that Nova Scotia Power program with the Salvation Army. We will continue to work with those stakeholders, and indeed within the parameters of our own budget, to ensure that those special needs are served, Mr. Chairman.
MR. THERIAULT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. You spoke about dental problems and special assistance for dental work. I've had people in my office, under the Social Assistance Program, and some of the things they brought to my attention were about the teeth, and the work that needed to be done to those people. Just where is the line drawn when it comes to special need for the work on teeth? I had one client here not long ago who had a child, 17, 18 years old - maybe not that old, maybe 15, 16 years old, whatever. That lady brought that child in, and the teeth and the gums came out so crooked that it caused infection on the inside of that person's mouth, and had been for years. Yet, social assistance wouldn't look at that, because they called that cosmetic. MSI wouldn't look at it, because it wasn't a medical emergency. So that person with the crooked teeth, so crooked that it caused infection inside that mouth, was in a Catch-22 situation.
So there's a line drawn there somehow between MSI and the Department of Community Services, that there are people there, one person I know for sure and there must be many more. Can't that line be drawn one side, one way or the other, to get that person, and probably more help, either through MSI or through Community Services?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed my honourable colleague raises a very serious question and a very serious predicament. Certainly, as I indicated earlier, through my department we will work closely with the Department of Health that, of course, would be the department with reference to MSI, but I'm extremely pleased to be able to in these estimates and in this year's budget indicate a 6 per cent increase in the fees for dental work for our clientele. Indeed, under this program approximately 7,000 clients and their beneficiaries receive this dental work and that program is worth approximately a $160,000 increase in this year's budget.
MR. THERIAULT: Mr. Chairman, I would like to just touch on community housing. Again, lots of calls for services there for low-income people on social assistance and low-income seniors, anywhere from roofs to be fixed, to windows put in their homes, doors on, to major work. Some have had some major work done and it's very appreciative of the work that has come out of Community Services through housing, but then again there are a few people, low income, I believe the cut-off mark is $19,000 for these people to apply.
You'll get some people, $19,050 or $19,100, who don't quite make the grade for that $40, or $50, or $100, whatever they are over, and it's a pretty hard situation, you know, when you're looking for a few thousand dollars for emergency grants and that $40 or $50 takes you away from that. To the Keep the Heat program, a couple in their home are allowed $25,000 and they can receive that. Has the department ever looked into - I don't know how long this $19,000 mark has been in place, but has the department looked at increasing this maybe even to the $25,000 mark where you can apply for the Keep the Heat program and receive it?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed a situation that is extremely important in our communities that my honourable colleague raises. I'm extremely pleased to be able to indicate that this government recognizes the importance in the home repair program. Indeed, we see over a $4 million increase this year in the overall budget to over $14 million for home repairs because we recognize that, as I had indicated earlier, Nova Scotia, because of the steep history that we have, we also have some of the oldest homes in the country. Indeed, we have more homes owned by Nova Scotians in Nova Scotia, more individual home ownership, and there's no question that that brings some challenges along with the challenges that my honourable colleague raised regarding the income levels.
I know that the repair program, in particular when it comes to seniors, has gone from $2,500 to $5,000, Mr. Chairman, and that is a recognition on this government's part, and indeed all members would agree, that that enables more seniors to be able to stay in their homes, have that quality of life they so deserve, and again provides not only that safety and security for our seniors, but also offsets the demands on the health care and home care that would be required if they were to go into nursing homes and hospitals and such. So those are a couple of the issues that my honourable colleague raised.
The other issue though, in particular, Mr. Chairman, when it comes to the income allowance that someone can make for an individual or a household, that's something regulated through CMHC and through the federal guidelines; it is not within our purview. So that's something that CMHC sets and we abide by those guidelines, and at any opportunity to negotiate a better situation for Nova Scotians, my honourable colleague can rest assured that I will make sure I push in those negotiations to ensure that those unique concerns of Nova Scotians, that I indicated earlier, are factored into that formula set down by CMHC.
MR. THERIAULT: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, I have another situation, an interesting one, and it gets more interesting as it goes. I have a situation down home where clammers - they dig clams on the beaches - their resource has gone down quite a bit in these past few months. Years ago when the groundfishery was better, a lot of these guys, I think, went into other fisheries - when the scalloping was better and the groundfishery was better they would go do some groundfishing and they diversified more.
These past few years they're stuck in one place, on the beach, and the beach is getting down. They have a plan in place that they've been looking at, an American plan to reseed, that has worked out good for the Americans across the bay in Maine. They have a plan to reseed their beach and bring it back and, hopefully, manage it a little better than before so it stays sustainable and, hopefully, diversify into something else - they can't dig around the clock and around the calendar.
Right now I think we're going to see - and some have already approached the Department of Community Services because in the Digby area and in the Annapolis area you know we've just lost Shaw Wood and we just lost the Weymouth mill, that shut down. The lobster fishery is still good, but that's out of season. It's not all bad, but it's not all good there either, that's for sure, and there aren't a lot of jobs around. Right now a lot of these clammers are looking for tickets out West, to get out of here. There are 282 of them in total, as a matter of fact - in total - there were 140 or 120 of them, or whatever, active in clamming. Anyway, they are in a bind and I think that the Department of Community Services is going to see a lot of them on their doorstep because it's not getting better, it's getting worse, until they get the reseeding done in the next year or two when they will have something up and going again.
I think that years back there used to be some programs - and maybe this should be directed more at the Department of Transportation and Public Works - I'm feeling that if these 140 people hit the doorsteps down there at Community Services that it's going to be their problem too, not just a problem of the Department of Transportation and Public Works. So is there something that could be done, between the Department of Transportation and Public Works and the Department of Community Services, to help these folks out with some make-work? There is lots of work to be done in the community, we know that. You could put them in the ditches to cut alders for the next year; they would work night and day, I'm sure, at it.
I think if there was something that Community Services could do there with the Department of Transportation and Public Works - I know there is a lot of work to be done in that area, some makeshift work for some of them, the ones who want to stay at home. I know a lot are going to leave, like I said, for Alberta, where they all seem to be getting quite rich out that way. All the word you hear around rural areas now is, go West, young man, and fill your pockets. So there are a lot looking for plane tickets and train tickets down there, but there are a lot looking for something to do to tide them over. I don't believe they're going to be able to dig clams enough to get their employment insurance benefits this winter from the federal government.
So it's something that I want to bring to the attention of Community Services, because it's going to happen. I have an appointment with the Minister of Fisheries to look at the reseeding plan. They're trying to make it a little better down the road, but in the meantime, there's going to be a problem there. I believe that if Community Services could look into something like that with the Department of Transportation and Public Works, one way or the other, they're going to be paid, some of them, to survive there.
There is some servicing to be done in that area, and one of them is alders in the ditches that could keep a big crew pretty busy for a long time. Is that something Community Services could do, rather than just paying them for sitting home, they could be paid to do a service in the community?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I thank my honourable colleague for a question that certainly touches a lot of us in rural communities. As my honourable colleague knows, I was born and raised in the beautiful Musquodoboit Valley, which is extremely rural. We have a large farming and forestry sector, and I share my colleague's concerns about the out-migration of some of our men and women in our rural communities. I make my home now in the beautiful community known as the Forties in New Ross, which relies heavily on the Christmas tree sector.
Again, we're finding more and more of our young men and women looking for opportunities outside of our rural communities and, indeed, it is a challenge for not only this government and this House, but a challenge for many governments today to ensure a stable economy and programming and those types of programming that are out of the purview of my department. So I'll go back to my department, specifically, in recognizing my honourable colleague's concerns.
There are numerous incentives and situations that can be provided through the Department of Community Services and, indeed, we do fund the return-to-work initiatives to the tune of $9 million each year, and that provides for incentives and opportunities for our men and women in our communities to find gainful employment and to be able to provide for their families and have that sense of belonging and self-worth within our communities.
As well, Mr. Chairman, we work with HRDC very closely, with the federal government, in regard to partnering and co-operation on services and programs that are available through funding through the HRDC.
A couple of other things, although it's not directly to the question of my honourable colleague, but this does exist in the department, and it's not so much about programming for jobs, but it is the policy of the department to allow income assistance recipients to maintain, keep 30 per cent of their earned income up to a certain maximum. This year, we're pleased to be able to introduce, in these estimates, the regulations that will provide for the income tax return for our income assistance clients to be considered earned income, thereby allowing our income assistance clients to maintain 30 per cent of that, as well. That will be able to help more than 3,500 clients of the Department of Community Services, for a total budget figure of $360,000.
So there is some good news there, and there are projects and opportunities available through the department that my honourable colleague had been asking about.
MR. THERIAULT: Mr. Chairman, I would like to share the rest of my hour with my colleague, the member for Halifax Clayton Park.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Clayton Park.
MS. DIANA WHALEN: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to have a chance to talk to the new Minister of Community Services. I know it's a very big department. I was actually pleased to see there's a lot more in the estimates for Community Services than there were for a couple of the other offices and agencies that I've had an opportunity to question on - there's certainly a broad-ranging number of issues and services offered through your department.
I wanted to pick up a little bit on what my colleague for Digby-Annapolis had spoken about, and that is what we experience as MLAs in our own constituencies. I think it's a tremendous learning curve and window on our community to realize the extent of poverty in Nova Scotia, in every riding. I know there are certain ridings of the province that one might expect that, but I can say that every riding has its share, and more, of poverty and hardship. It was a surprise to me in the riding of Halifax Clayton Park to realize just how many people require assistance and come to me with some really huge problems. It's very different than what I might have expected and I think that it provides a window on our communities to see how many people are there. They do come to their MLA's office usually at the point where many, many things have failed them and they're in pretty bad straits when they do come to ask for our help.
As my colleague said, we very quickly become experts - or at least we hope we're becoming experts - in what non-profit agencies are out there, because it doesn't take long as a new MLA to discover that the government programs have real limitations. I know the intent is to provide a social safety net and my understanding, as a middle-class citizen in that community, was that we did have a social safety net, and it came as quite a shock to me to see just how inadequate our programs often are and that they just are not able, really, to help people in the needs that they have.
There are so many specifics I could go to - we might talk first about the cost of housing in HRM as opposed to the cost of housing as an average across the province. This was one of the points that was raised in the Forum on Poverty that was held just - I'm looking at when it was held . . .
AN HON. MEMBER: In January.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you, January. I have the letter from the chair of that committee before me, a letter outlining seven points that were raised after two days of basically listening to people and hearing from advocates, from people who are living in poverty, from people who know firsthand what the experience is, and making recommendations about how programs could be changed. The committee members in that all-Party committee did try, as the minister will know, all-Party members who sat on that committee tried to filter through the many, many recommendations we heard, to come up with a few that were doable.
One of them was to say that it's quite obvious that if you live in Parrsboro, housing costs one thing and, if you live in Halifax, it's quite different. If you live in Clayton Park, it's really difficult to find an apartment at $600 a month; in fact many of the new units that you'll see along the highway in Parkland Drive and Lacewood are $1,000 a month and clearly out of the reach of many, many people. But there are not a lot of housing options and because we set one rate for accommodation, one rate for the
shelter allowance across the province, we're leaving people at a real disadvantage if the market where they reside is a lot higher.
Another example of a high market would be the university towns like Wolfville or Antigonish, because again it's similar to Halifax in that there are a lot of students coming in and they drive the prices up as well as a shortage of available apartments. So it's not only speaking of Halifax, but markets where the prices are higher.
The recommendation from the committee was that the department look at setting a percentage of the average market price, and in the committee we actually had said that the housing allowance should be at a rate of 85 per cent of the rental market in that city or that jurisdiction. So I'm wondering if you could start with that when we talk about how on earth can somebody living in Halifax get their shelter for their family with the amount provided by the department and still eat?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, thank you to my honourable colleague for the opportunity to discuss the very serious and very obvious problem of not just HRM clients, but, as my honourable colleague indicated, the fluctuation across the province - I referenced earlier the important work that the Standing Committee on Community Services does and the opportunity that I had to serve on that committee, even though it was just for a short time, I know that the work being done at the committee level is extremely valuable. I had been part of the group who put those seven suggestions forward and, upon resuming my new role as Minister of Community Services, I did go back and look at those seven recommendations, in particular.
This year, we are pleased to be able to increase the shelter allowance, Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, of course, $15 a month for single income assistance clients effective October 1st, and $20 a month for family households effective October 1st, as an acknowledgment that we do need to be conscious of the fact that rental properties, the rent is increasing and we need to try to respond to that for our clients across the province.
I will indicate, as well, that those are two forward increases in our programming that we're very pleased to put forward in these estimates. As well, I want to indicate to my honourable colleague that we are reviewing quite a few policies in the department, and the one she spoke about is one that's currently being reviewed, and that is how we do allow for the shelter allowances across the province and if there are things we can do within the policy that would make it more equitable. So I certainly want to indicate to my honourable colleague that that is something that is under review and that I certainly will be paying close attention to.
MS. WHALEN: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, I appreciate the fact that it's going to be reviewed, any increase is welcome. Only yesterday I spoke to a woman who
is on disability and receiving, I think, social assistance, as well. Her rent has just gone up $40 a month, from $585 to $625 a month, and that's for a one bedroom apartment in the Clayton Park riding. That's a huge increase for anybody on a fixed income and, certainly, she's very vulnerable. We were actually having a discussion, she feels we need rent control. So I guess we have to talk to someone else about that. That's not in your purview. At any rate, people are suffering. Rents are going up every month in the city.
My other concern with the shelter allowance is that so many of your clients are families, and they're often headed by women and, in those cases, what the women are often forced to do is use their Child Tax Benefit that they're getting from the federal government, to supplement this shelter allowance. You will find time and again that they are in arrears with their rent until that cheque comes in, and then they catch up on their rent and power bills. I just think it's important for the minister to hear it, and I know she'll hear it time and again from staff, from clients, from other MLAs, but it is so important to look clearly at how can a family, with that allowance they are given, the total budget they are given, possibly make ends meet and keep healthy? They are doing it right now as a result of using their federal money that's coming in, which was never intended for that purpose, right, it's intended that they have winter clothes, or boots, or the exceptional costs that come around schooling and those sorts of things. They basically are forced to take that money, redirect it to basic costs, and that shows that our system is not properly covering the costs of looking at their family.
In the same regard, I'd like to reference a study that was done, and it was a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, and the results were just made clear very recently. They did a study of what it costs in Nova Scotia to have a healthy, balanced diet for a family of four. You may be aware of that, I don't have the exact name in front of me, but I'm sure your staff are aware, as well. What they looked at was just a basket of food, a basic basket of food for healthy eating, if you were a family of four, and the amount they came up with was over $500 a month, something like $525, in that vicinity. Then they compared it to what that family of four would receive if they were on social assistance in our province and the shortfall is about 50 per cent, the amount available for the family on social assistance was about $225 - perhaps your staff has the exact figures but I know my estimates are pretty close - essentially they were short by half the amount of money they needed to eat well.
There are so many other health problems that come if you don't have proper nutrition. We've talked about children being overweight and we've talked about them having dental problems - you know you have to have a healthy diet in order to sustain your health. So I'm wondering if the minister or the department had a response to that study, to look at that and say clearly that we're failing to help these families?
MS. STREATCH: I thank my honourable colleague for the opportunity to discuss the issue that she raises. Indeed if I am referencing the same study that she is, yes, certainly we are in receipt of that study and recognize that poverty is a very complex issue, and this study is one tool that we can use to examine where we are on a national scale and how we are best responding to the needs of our clientele. I know the issues that my honourable colleague raises are serious and very important to all members of this House.
Indeed there are numerous programs that are available, so it's not just about a personal income assistance allowance increase or a shelter allowance increase, but it's the whole package - the National Child Benefit that my honourable colleague referenced, the Nova Scotia Child Benefit that we have in place in Nova Scotia to maximize families with children and assist with that, and the other programs that we have, the Pharmacare Program that I'm pleased to be bringing forth in this estimate and in this budget that will help 33,000 Nova Scotian children and their families with the cost of medicines and prescriptions that before would have had to come out of that same pot of dollars that we are now taking from that pot and allowing those dollars to be used for some of the programs or expenses that hadn't been allowed for before.
Child care - my honourable colleague mentioned the fact that we have families and single moms who have children and that makes it even more difficult to make those ends meet and that's why it was so important in this 10-year sustainable child care plan that we brought forward, that 550 portable subsidized child care spaces can be provided. Now, that in itself is another way for us to maximize what resources we have available to us and provide yet another avenue for our clientele. Of course we have employment supports and certainly through the first phase of our housing project, in co-operation and conjunction with the federal government, and now this second phase that we'll enter into - there are multiple and I know my honourable colleague knows those and perhaps will have an opportunity to discuss some of those at length.
MS. WHALEN: I appreciate the minister touching on other areas as well, but food security was the issue in particular and I think the minister is well aware of the shortfall in that area and, yes, there are other programs that could be accessed to hopefully cover it but the one she missed was the food bank. If we didn't have the food banks in every single community in this province we would be in dire straits, and they can't always provide what's needed either. One of the members today referenced going to the food bank and bringing food to one of their constituents and, honestly, that again comes back to our knowledge that's acquired very quickly about what is available in our community that can fill in the blanks and fill in the gaps when power is being cut off, when people are short money to pay essential bills - and food, of course, how much more essential can you get?
I think it just points to the fact, and I'm fully aware and I think the minister is probably thinking we only have so much money to go around, and I know that, but we do have to identify the most pressing needs and try and move forward with them. If we support families now, if we allow the children to be raised in some sort of security, we'll have a lot better second generation, as well. That's really what it is, an investment in those families. So I think it is really important that we look at it.
While we're talking about social assistance, income support, I want to talk about the telephone service, which was one of the recommendations of that committee. It was also something that I had representation in my office about from some social workers who are studying at Dalhousie University. As one of their projects, they looked at social assistance and felt that would be one of the most meaningful changes you could make, and that was to introduce telephone service as an essential service.
Mr. Chairman, to the minister, what I find truly ironic is that the basis of our income support program is that people should be looking for work, and that we expect them to be job hunting. If we expect them to be job hunting, then they really have to have a phone. The phones are only available now if you have a medical extenuating circumstance.
The cost of basic phone service has consistently come down over time. I'm not expecting you would have any of the bells and whistles or any of the frills, but the cost to have a basic phone service is not unreasonable. In fact, it's much cheaper than it was in years gone by. I would like to ask the minister why the department continues to leave telephone service out of their estimation of costs?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, that was suggestion number five that came forward from the standing committee. When we look at the overall budget and the different components, my honourable colleague raised the issue of employability and how can we expect people to be ready for employment if they don't have the telephone service, indeed, we do provide through the employment support program for those individuals, those clients who have gone through that program who are employment ready, we do provide that as part of that program. That is factored in there. So that is a positive.
I do know that where health and safety is involved, the department does provide telephone service, and that, of course, all members would agree, is of the utmost importance where health and safety is concerned. Mr. Chairman, I would never say that one program is more important than another, but the $13 to $15 million price tag that goes along with the telephones is a hefty price tag. So, we provided for the health and safety, we provided for the employment support, employment-ready clients, and we will, again, continue to revisit and re-evaluate all policies within the department.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The time allotment has been completed.
The honourable member for Cape Breton Nova.
MR. GORDON GOSSE: Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. I may switch on something here, but first of all I'd like to ask the minister a question concerning what she just talked about, telephones for low-income families. I find in this Department of Community Services, when you walk into that office, there's nothing that a client or somebody who is in need of Community Services can pick up, a brochure, that says, that I'm entitled to this.
There's nothing in that department, unless you know the policy, you cannot walk into an office of any Department of Community Services on Cape Breton Island and pick up a brochure and say I'm diabetic, I may need special needs and special medicine. I'll give you a quick example. In my riding there was a man who had to take his daughter to North Sydney for medical purposes. So he says, look, I am a little short on my food this month because I had to take my daughter - transportation. The caseworker said, well, you were entitled to transportation. Well, I don't know that.
Another client said, well, I was entitled to clothing, I'm going to start a job. There's nothing. When you walk into that department you cannot pick up something and say, I'm a single mother with two children, what am I entitled to? There's actually nothing in that department that enables that. How do clients know what they're entitled to when they walk in and they're not told by the department staff? I think something should be in that department when they walk in that door, if I'm a single mother with three kids, if I'm a single parent, a male, with three kids, or whatever happens, what am I entitled to?
There is nothing in the Department of Community Services that tells them what they're entitled to. I'd like to know the minister's opinion. When you walk in the department and you're down and out on your luck and you're afraid, sometimes you don't want to go there, you have to beg people to go there.
I remember my first case - a young girl who got a job at Wendy's and she needed a pair of non-stick shoes and she couldn't get the job because the department wouldn't pay for the shoes. I called the caseworker's supervisor - because I'm no longer allowed to speak to the caseworkers because of my advocacy on behalf of these people - so I said to the caseworker's supervisor, if she got this job making $130 a week, that's $8,000 a year that you won't have to pay her because she'll be working - for an $80 pair of shoes. She did not understand because she was mentally challenged. You know, there's nothing in that department, and I'm just wondering, is the minister going to look at something in her department where people can walk into that department and can have an idea of what they're entitled to?
MS. STREATCH: To my honourable colleague, I welcome the question because it's very interesting. Upon being named Minister of Community Services, I certainly didn't understand the full realm of the department - I understood what I had dealt with through my own MLA experiences, but one of the first things I said to the communications staff was that I would like for them to prepare for me an analysis of a marketing campaign that would do something along the very lines as what you're indicating. To make available, for our clientele, make available for the stakeholders and those Nova Scotians that we service, something that would do that and maybe even more - provide them with the contacts, provide them with the avenues and the options that they have ahead of them. So certainly, that's something that I will commit to my honourable colleague that I will continue to investigate and move forward.
So along with the brochures that are available now, the single individual brochures, and the information on the Web site, I will make sure that we move forward with that marketing campaign suggestion, to make sure that all the programs that can be made available, our clients are well aware of them.
MR. GOSSE: Thank you, Madam Minister, that's a very good idea. I think it's important because that's the major complaint - communication among the clients and among the caseworkers. In my case, in the office of the provincial building in Sydney, Nova Scotia, I'm just wondering if the policy across the department that handles single-parent families - is that a norm across all of the province or is it just the Sydney office where there's one caseworker who handles single-parent families? I forget the acronym they use, but in this office they have one caseworker designated and I want to know, is that true or not true?
MS. STREATCH: Indeed, just verifying that, it depends on the size of the office and the caseload of that office, and I believe in the office that you're referring to there is one caseworker who is responsible for those clients but, that's not the norm, it depends on the size of the workload and the office itself.
MR. GOSSE: That's what I thought, I thought that was strictly restricted to the Sydney office, where they have one caseworker handle single parents. Sometimes we wonder about when that happens, when you have one caseworker with all these different things, and I could go on here and talk about the overworked caseworkers in the department. At work they have caseloads, and I know that for a fact, that's a big part of my office since I've been elected, dealing with those issues. It's important that we do try to spread that around because sometimes with that stress of dealing with single-parent families and single people all the time, I find sometimes that actually as an elected official when somebody comes in my office, if I look at that person I can tell them who the caseworker is when they come in my door - I know who that caseworker is, that person.
Then I started to put it together - why do I know it's that caseworker? Then I realized that these were all single people who were coming in my door - that's how I put it together; that's how I know. This is not public knowledge that this one caseworker handles single parents. The reason I knew this was because I was getting complaints all the time and I put it together that each and every time I had a complaint it was because it was a single parent, a single person - that was by this one caseworker. That's why I knew and put this together, that that is the only office in the province that handles single people. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing but I do know because I kept putting it together, why am I getting the same caseworker all of the time? That's why and I knew there was something wrong why I was getting that caseworker's name.
Now I'm going to switch over to the minister and I'm going to ask the minister about some of my critic area, which is housing. First thing I would like to ask is, I heard you speaking earlier on Phase 1 completed. I do know they spent exactly $37.26 million in that phase. I am wondering two questions here, how many units were built in Phase 1 in the Province of Nova Scotia and how many units were built in Cape Breton under that phase?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. A couple of things before I get directly to the answer. There are over 400 caseworkers across the province and so, in response to my honourable colleague's question specifically about one office, and I believe it was the Sydney office, I have just had confirmation that there are at least 20 caseworkers in that office alone. So indeed, of the 20 caseworkers in that office alone, there are multiple responsibilities that go along with the caseworkers. I just wanted to point that out, that there would be at least 20 caseworkers in that whole office, and indeed, there are 400 across the province who work to deal with their clients.
Now, specifically to the housing question. Under Phase I, yes, my honourable colleague had the amount exact, $37.2 million. There were over 900 units - I believe 928 is the exact figure I am being told - and at this point I do not know the exact number that fell under that first phase for Cape Breton as a region, but I can certainly find out the information for my honourable colleague and get back to him at his and my earliest convenience.
MR. GOSSE: Maybe I will enlighten the minister on that answer, zero. I have stood up in this Legislature for two years on that issue - not one unit built in Cape Breton. On $37.26 million and I can't knock on a door - no other MLA from Cape Breton can knock on an affordable housing unit door. Now we have $18.92 million left in the second phase of that. I have known groups and organizations because I was part of helping some of them fill out their applications for the Affordable Housing Program.
The department's business plan states that 11 per cent of the privately-owned housing stock in Nova Scotia is badly in need of repairs. Given this fact, why doesn't the government work to change the income levels and criteria so more families and seniors can get help for the cost of these repairs? That was one thing that I heard on the doorsteps. I heard from seniors; seniors were saying, I want to live in my own home and I want to stay in my own home. Some of the seniors who have income levels, say, the steelworkers had passed away and they live on an income level with their spouse's pension and their pension. They are just over the limit for repairs for their homes. Many seniors have called and they are struggling with this issue, Mr. Chairman.
I will give you an example of one case I worked on. There was a family that made $19,000 per year. They were $1,000 over the limit. I know the limit is based on the Canada Mortgage and Housing authorities across the country. I wonder if the department is actually going to look at raising the limit for allowing more seniors to qualify for some of these grants. I guess the name of the programs - it was the more affordable housing program to keep seniors in their home. I wonder if that level could come up any?
I know many colleagues in the Legislature probably found this out on the doorsteps, that they want that level up higher so they can stay in their own homes and live with dignity and respect in their own home. Thank you.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Absolutely, to my honourable colleague across the way, that issue certainly has come up on the floor of this Chamber already today and indeed, many members in this House know the challenges. My honourable colleague asked specifically about the income allowability and he does recognize that that is something done through CMHC. As I have indicated already and will certainly repeat for this honourable colleague, that's something that, indeed, as we move forward, if we can move that as a department, on the federal level, as my honourable colleague well knows, we have more homes here in Nova Scotia that are owned by Nova Scotians, we have an older collection, an older inventory of homes, and those factors in themselves need to be properly addressed when dealing with the allowances that are available at that federal level. As we move forward, we'll continue to push with our federal colleagues to ensure that those factors are taken into consideration.
When it comes specifically to the seniors, the availability of the repair projects going from $2,500 to $5,000, indeed, is a good program, is a good plan. It will allow for our seniors to be able to stay in their homes longer, to have that quality of life that they so deserve, and anything that we can do to ensure that our seniors have that quality of life in the home that they choose to be in certainly would be a priority for this department.
MR. GOSSE: Thank you very much, and I'll enlighten the minister that there's 71 per cent - in the last stats that were taken - of Nova Scotians own their own homes,
it's 63 per cent nationally, across the country, but 71 per cent in the Province of Nova Scotia. There are 7,700 seniors who live in public housing in the Province of Nova Scotia. Canada Pension, Old Age Security, or Guaranteed Income Supplement, if they get a raise - a lot of seniors told me that as soon as they get their raise, one-third of that raise is gone the first time public housing incorporates their new income. So, actually, if they get a raise, they lose one-third of that raise automatically because it's included as income. So when we give a senior citizen in this province a raise, automatically the first month afterwards, when the Housing Department calculates that raise, one-third of that raise is gone.
I'm wondering if the minister could speak on that issue, about seniors when they receive a raise. For example, if they get a $9 raise in their government cheque, at the end of the month, public housing takes one-third of that, so $3 is automatically lost off that raise. I wonder if the minister has any plan to deal with that avenue, about seniors living in public housing.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, again, the income that is taken into consideration for our clients is indeed a federal purview. Again, the federal guidelines are set down, and we abide by those guidelines. Any negotiations or any efforts that we can make on behalf of Nova Scotians, certainly we will do that. The percentage is geared to their income, and that's federally regulated.
MR. GOSSE: The rates are federally regulated, but the public housing these seniors live in are owned by the Province of Nova Scotia. They receive an Old Age Pension cheque and they get a $10 raise, they lose one-third of that at the end of the month because the Housing Department calculates that as their total monthly income and they lose that. So here we are, saying to seniors who live in public housing, you got a raise but you lose that. The seniors, when they get a raise in their Pharmacare co-pay, they got a raise this year of $10, that's more money that they have to pay, plus living in public housing. I just think that we have to look at something as a province to see if we can alleviate, so when the seniors get a raise in their Old Age Pension or their Guaranteed Income Supplement that it will actually be a raise and they won't lose one-third of that out of their pockets.
Seniors today are the people who built this beautiful province that we live in, and they're the ones who are living in hard times. I hear that when I'm on the campaign trail. There's one more thing I would like to say, it's just time that we think, as a Department of Community Services, and we start treating seniors with dignity and respect, and seeing they have some money in their pockets so that they can do things.
Now, I'm going to go on to another thing, the Phase II of this. Let's talk a little bit about value for money. In the last two years, this government has moved towards a kind of housing deal where the developer puts in 20 per cent of the total cost of the
project, and the rest is covered by the federal capital funds and rent subsidies. After 10 years, the developer owns the building outright and has no further obligation to keep his rents affordable. Is this the minister's idea of value for taxpayers' money?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, there are many responsibilities that fall upon the shoulders of Community Services and building homes does not fall on the shoulders of Community Services which is, indeed, one of the things that does not as there are many responsibilities. So what we're able to do with these affordable housing phases, Phase I and Phase II, is work with the developers, work with the experts and those who do build the facilities, and then provide rent supplements or provide other ways and means that our clients are able to have affordable housing across the province without building them ourselves.
MR. GOSSE: Mr. Chairman, private for-profit developers in 10 years time - I will just explain - they'll own these buildings and there will be no rent subsidies for these people. Again, I just wanted to know if the minister understands what I'm saying here is that after they build these units, after receiving, I'll give you an example, $25,000 per unit that they build, I'm just wondering, it's announced that a private for-profit developer who pays 20 per cent can walk away in 10 years time with no rent subsidies in that building. I'm just wondering how does the minister justify private for-profit developers owning these units after 10 years and making money?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as I find my way through this department, I'm sure that there are all sorts of situations and policies that exist. I understand, I was just told that it's actually 15 years versus the 10 years, if we're on the same page on the programming, and indeed, you know, we all know that governments can't be everything to everyone. So what we attempt to do with the dollars and the resources that we have is provide the maximum affordable housing that we can for Nova Scotians and indeed this is the manner in which we do.
MR. GOSSE: It is 10 years. It is 10 years, it's not 15 years, you know, and here we are putting money into this and the province doesn't own the stock. The province doesn't own the stock. We own lots of stock in the Province of Nova Scotia.
My final question, I guess, will be on something other than housing. It will be on adults with disabilities. I'm just wondering, organizations like Horizon Achievement Centre, organizations like the Prescott Group here in Halifax, that have adults with disabilities, learning disabilities, with other disabilities they have, there's such a waiting list. There's almost like two years, I think, for these people to get into these programs.
Now, I'm just wondering, as a new minister in a new portfolio, to give an example of Horizon Achievement Centre in Cape Breton, it hasn't had a raise in operating budget. The ratio to client is eight to one right now and they haven't had an
actual core funding operating raise since 1994. I know that the minister is going to say that this is under review at this time, but that's 12 years operating under the same core funding and providing services to these people - the most vulnerable people in our society. I'm wondering if the department has a plan to invest some more money into these organizations like Horizon Achievement Centre and the Prescott Group, please?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed the situation with adults with disabilities across the province is something that the department takes very seriously. We realize and we recognize that we have some wonderful programs and facilities out there, but indeed we do find ourselves in a position where we have accumulated wait lists, as we've all come to understand the terminology to be. So, in fact, my honourable colleague provided part of the answer himself. We are doing an internal review of those programs, and, indeed, how we fund those programs and how we can best maximize the funding for those programs. Indeed, it will be a priority of this minister in this portfolio to make sure that we provide the maximum availability to those most vulnerable throughout the province that we can.
MR. GOSSE: I would like to pass some of my time to my colleague, the member for Halifax Atlantic.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Atlantic.
MS. MICHELE RAYMOND: Mr. Chairman, I welcome the opportunity to speak with the minister about this, because, as I'm sure the minister is aware, a large number of the people I come in contact with in my area, but certainly not all, are people who are what is commonly known as clients of Community Services. I tend to refer to them as citizens, but I realize that the popular phrase is client. I guess, to begin with a baseline here - I have difficulty knowing where to begin in my questioning because there is such a plethora of things that come to the fore. As a baseline, could I ask the minister, in fairness, what is the purpose of the Department of Community Services?
MS. STREATCH: Indeed, to my honourable colleague, without becoming technical - and certainly we all know the official guide is - Community Services is committed to promoting the independence, self-reliance, security and well-being of the people it serves, and that is indeed the motto or the mandate, but to my honourable colleague I would offer the suggestion that the Department of Community Services is there to provide that social safety net, indeed to be an avenue for those in our community who are most vulnerable, who find themselves in need of assistance. We all know the term of a hand-up and not a hand-out, and that is indeed some of the thrust behind the department. As my honourable colleague well knows, there are a multitude of divisions
within the department, but I think that the overall objective of the department is to serve Nova Scotians who find themselves in need of our service.
MS. RAYMOND: So the purpose of it, then, is in fact a compassionate purpose?
MS. STREATCH: Well, indeed, compassion, Mr. Chairman, is alive and well amongst all the staff and the employees, those who work day in and day out with the citizens that we find ourselves in contact with. So while we have a compassionate and an understanding approach, we also deal with the realities of the availability of resources, what we're able to work with, and the funds and resources that are at our disposal. We do balance both in an attempt to ensure that those most vulnerable in the province, who come to us in need, are able to be served to the best of our ability through the department.
MS. RAYMOND: Just before continuing, I was surprised to hear yesterday, in the Department of Finance, that out of - I believe it is seven internal auditors in the Province of Nova Scotia - three of those individuals are actually employed by the Department of Community Services. Did I hear right, that three out of seven of the internal auditors employed by the Province of Nova Scotia work in the Department of Community Services? I may be wrong about this, I'm not sure.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I understand that we have two internal auditors who are employees of our department, if that perhaps answers my honourable colleague's question. They're not through the Department of Finance, but we have two, internally, in the department.
MS. RAYMOND: Two of the province's seven, well, that's a little better. Certainly I would not have been too happy to hear that. One of the problems is - I'm assuming the Department of Community Services is not expected to turn a profit, that that's not its primary purpose, but there are anomalous things happening here. Sometimes the department is called on to perform services that aren't lucrative. They're services that I believe we, as a society, feel need to be provided, because they just plain won't happen any other way. There are a number of instances in which the department contracts out some of those what I would consider to be core services.
In my constituency, I have a number of people who are dependent on the Department of Community Services for income support services, but who, before that, were employed by agencies contracted by the department to provide some of those services. These would include Metro Community Living, which was operating small options homes, and the Riverview Daycare Centre. In both of those cases, these are employees who are short significant amounts of wages because of difficulties, presumably a failure in auditing, presumably a failure in the chain of accountability, I guess, between the department and its contractors, who are providing services that one would expect to be provided by a government.
Now, how does this paradox come about? Why is the department not keeping an eye on its contractors in the same way that it might be keeping an eye on the people who are receiving support from the department? And, is this not a case of, at the very least, penny-wise and pound-foolish?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it's my understanding, if I understand the question correctly, that what the honourable member is referencing is indeed a contract that is between the employer and the employee. Indeed, as we would have with any service provider in government, that is the case with the Department of Community Services as well.
MS. RAYMOND: It's just unfortunate that the department, in having put those contracts out, let those contractors - rather than providing those services, it may in fact have left a number of employees in grave and dire circumstances. I'm going to move on from that, though, because there are an awful lot of people who in fact haven't been employed before who are living in my riding. Quite honestly, I feel at times as though I'm dealing with a rather Dickensian situation.
I can tell you that I have constituents who live in apartments with two inches of water on the floor, and I can give you photographs. I can tell you that I have constituents who have lived for weeks in apartment buildings with no roof, because they were afraid to complain about that fact. They have lived in places without electricity, and that's one of the most dangerous situations I can imagine, because their electrical bills have fallen behind, they're living in multiple-unit buildings and they are lighting and cooking with open flame.
I would suggest that these are extraordinary conditions to exist in the 21st Century in North America, and people are afraid to complain. They don't want to lose their housing. I know that's a Residential Tenancies question, but I would suggest that the Auditor General's Report of two years ago had asked that the Department of Community Services seriously reconsider its policy of not expecting any kind of rent control from the places which are housing people receiving rent subsidies. I've just recently had notice, I know there was a recent shelter allowance increase. It was exactly mirrored by a recent rental increase in a number of buildings. Now, what can the department do about that?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, and to my honourable colleague across the way, I find it equally as disturbing as my honourable colleague would to hear those types of stories about those living conditions. I would certainly, privately outside the Chamber, welcome the opportunity to talk to my honourable colleague about those specifics, and certainly would guarantee, would assure my honourable colleague that I will personally check with the housing authorities to find out exactly what seems to be the void in the services being provided, because I completely agree with my honourable colleague, that's not acceptable. We have the seven housing authorities across the province that we rely
upon and, indeed, I do rely upon those seven housing authorities. If information could be made available to me regarding those specifics, I would appreciate that from my honourable colleague.
Now the shelter increase is something that we're extremely pleased to be able to bring forward. The $15 single and $20 household increase is something that does come with a hefty price tag and, again, is it enough? Is it ever enough? But it's a beginning - actually not a beginning, it's the second year in a row that we've increased that.
But specific to my honourable colleague's question, as she well knows and indicated, that is a Residential Tenancies issue with regard to the rent increase. That's certainly something that I could discuss with my honourable colleague who is responsible for the Residential Tenancies Act, but it's out of the purview of my department.
MS. RAYMOND: I realize it's out of the purview of the minister's department in terms of rent control, but I would hope that there would be some communication there that would mean those two things can't be tied together. That's certainly in the rental situation. I should clarify, of course, that we're not talking about housing authorities at this point, but we're talking about rental stock in the private market - it does find its way to the Residential Tenancies.
I'd like to flag another thing for you. I'm not sure whether you're fully aware of this - and I don't know if I have the story completely correct myself. Of course, and quite understandably, when people who are receiving income assistance have cash which is lost or stolen, as the case may be, that can't be replaced, and that's perfectly understandable, but I was recently told that the department draws its cheques only on one particular bank and that other banks don't necessarily, or in fact don't, accept those government cheques, which means there's a practice that has developed apparently of people signing over their entire cheque to a landlord who then gives back the change. I don't know, is the minister aware of this practice?
MS. STREATCH: If I understand correctly, the banks that are used for the issuance of the cheques are the national banks and so if this indeed is the case that my honourable colleague was referencing, I'm not aware how that would match with the cheques being cut through the national banks.
MS. RAYMOND: I can go into more detail with that with my colleague later, absolutely.
One other question I had was around dentistry. Again, it's just a paradox that I like to bring to your attention and it is one of the kinds of things that really does leave me disheartened.
I have a constituent who is receiving Employment Support Services. He has abominable teeth, they're in very, very bad shape and he has been told that he will need to have dentistry and that the department will pay - in order to continue his employment, Employment Support Services will pay for him to have his teeth removed, but they won't pay for a plate to replace them.
MS. STREATCH: Though I'm not aware of that specific case and would, again, like to discuss that with my honourable colleague outside the Chamber, the department has provided a 6 per cent increase for dental fees for all of those clients - over 7,000 clients and their beneficiaries - to the tune of $160,000 in this year's estimate, so that's a positive step in the right direction.
With reference to that specific case, I would like the opportunity to discuss that with my honourable colleague on a one-to-one basis, and I will investigate that and get back to her at the earliest convenience.
MS. RAYMOND: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, with that I will turn over the microphone to my colleague, the member for Hants East.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Hants East.
MR. JOHN MACDONELL: Thank you to the minister for a little bit of time.
I think in some ways, when I look at my office in Enfield, what I do as an MLA is somewhat similar to my brother who's a lawyer who works out of Shubenacadie (Interruption) Yes, a twin. In my brother's practice, in a rural area, you kind of have to be a master of a lot of things - property, criminal, whatever walks through the door, they pretty well try to deal with it.
In my office, it's very similar. Although until recently I had been the forestry critic, along with agriculture, since 1998, so whatever comes up across the province in those areas I do that. But I do all the health care, Community Services, pretty much whatever department I try to handle that and don't really go to my colleagues who are the critics that often.
Work in Community Services makes up a fair bit of what I do. I would say I'm not as well versed as my colleague, the member for Cape Breton Nova. But I want to tell the minister I'm amazed at how we treat people in this province. I think we do it because we can do it. I wonder at the people that I try to help and the policy of the Department of Community Services and I'm just amazed that in the 21st Century we are not, what I would deem to be, more forward-thinking in how we try to take care of people.
I want to know if the minister can tell me why she thinks children in this province are in poverty.
MS. STREATCH: I welcome the opportunity to discuss some of the issues that I know my honourable colleague, the member for Hants East will bring forward today. If I may, I would like to indicate that I know the honourable colleague's brother, I know him to be a very honourable professional and I can only assume, in my short amount of time here in this House, that my honourable colleague would be equally as honourable a professional as his brother is. I look forward to working with my honourable colleague in the days to come.
Mr. Chairman, we are indeed fortunate in this House to be able to do the things that we do each and every day in an attempt to serve Nova Scotians. I know, regardless of our political stripe, we all attempt to serve Nova Scotians to the best of our ability. I know when individuals come into my honourable colleague's office, he does just that - attempts to serve those constituents of his to the best of his ability.
I don't have a magic answer to my honourable colleague's question. I know that poverty is indeed a very complex issue. It is not one gender or another, it is not necessarily urban versus rural. We could find examples of Nova Scotians who are in need of our help, the most vulnerable across the span of this province. So I don't have a magical answer to my honourable colleague's question.
I do hope, in the time that I'm given in this portfolio, to be able to work to solving certainly the issue in particular to children who are at a disadvantage in this province.
MR. MACDONELL: Thank you, minister. I'm not sure that I know, but I think children are in poverty because their parents are in poverty. I think that if the government wants to address the issue of child poverty, they're going to have to come up with policy that addresses the issues around parents in poverty.
I think that maybe only for the grace of God, maybe good luck rather than good management, I wasn't one of the people who would be knocking on Community Services' door. I look at some of the people I've met and I think very few of those need help because of a planned act that took them down this road, usually it was something out of their control or sometimes the decision that went wrong or took them in a direction they never intended to go. So for me, certainly the younger the person is that we can intervene to help them, I think the better.
I don't really see the province going in that direction. Actually, when I think about it, one of the things that grates me is the idea that someone would try to go to university or community college and if they get a student loan that would be regarded as
income by the Department of Community Services, and because it would be regarded as income they would be cut off, they would have an overpayment and they would have to leave the program. So therefore, if they start down the road to be educated, to try to get off the system, really the Department of Community Services, I see, doesn't help in that regard.
Am I wrong in my interpretation of that? If I am, would you explain it and, if I'm right, can you explain why the department would do it?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. My honourable colleague brings forth quite a few topics in that, and I do want to agree with my honourable colleague. In a statement I heard one time, and I believe he was making the same type of statement, that indeed we have families who live in poverty and the children are a result of that family poverty, so the more we can do to alleviate that level of need from our Nova Scotian families, the better off our children and, indeed, the leaders of the future will be.
So some of the programs that I'm pleased with in this year's estimates that will attempt to do just that are indeed the programs like the Pharmacare Program for children for our low-income families in Nova Scotia because, of course, we already have Pharmacare for income-assisted families. So the Pharmacare Program allows for monies that would have needed to be spent on those medications and those prescriptions to now be diverted to another direction, and hopefully that will alleviate some of those stresses.
Indeed, the child care plan, which as we roll that out in the next number of years, will allow again for some more flexibility for some of our more needy families across Nova Scotia, and the Nova Scotia Child Benefit - and I know my honourable colleague knows all of those and I don't need to take all his time talking about that.
My honourable colleague brought up the issue of the two-year program. We all know the wonderful work done through adult learning and the monies we invest there with the community college. We know the wonderful programs, the two-year programs that are available through community college and the programs that we certainly do encourage a lot of our clients to enter into.
I do want to indicate to my honourable colleague here tonight that I have asked staff to provide for me options for extending that two-year program. If, indeed, we can help Nova Scotians, if we can provide an avenue for Nova Scotians to be more self-sufficient and to find themselves in a position to be able to better take care of themselves, Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague across the way, I am committed to doing that, and I am committed to doing that as early and as quickly as we can, knowing that sometimes government moves at a slower pace than we would like to see. This is one that is of a high priority for me and so I have instructed staff to do that - and I will make
that information available to all Nova Scotians and members of this House as soon as I have it.
MR. MACDONELL: Thank you, Madam Minister, and thank you, Mr. Chairman. Can the minister tell me what the department deems their two-year program to cost the department? That would certainly give an idea, if she is going to extend it to three years or four years.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and to my honourable colleague, I don't have that information available here as the cost of providing that two-year opportunity, two-year program for our clients, but as staff investigate options available to us, those will be costed out and indeed that would be transparent and known to Nova Scotians before we ventured into any type of program, but indeed, again, knowing that my honourable colleague understands that if we can offset on one end by providing people with an opportunity to educate themselves and then go on to better care for themselves and their families, that can only alleviate the pressure on the other end of the spectrum.
MR. MACDONELL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I thank the minister. I want to go down the road of the Pharmacare Program and the Child Care Plan, but I don't want to do those just yet, mainly because I have a couple of specific constituency concerns that I'd like to get addressed, and I have a habit of letting the time go and I won't get to them.
So, number one, I have five seniors' complexes in my constituency. There's one in Enfield, one in Mount Uniacke, one in Shubenacadie, one in Maitland, and one in Noel. The Sunnybrook in Shubenacadie has an elevator; Bayview, in Noel, is a single, one-level on the ground - not a two-storey building - so therefore it doesn't need an elevator; and the other three do need elevators. I've raised this other years with previous ministers and still I'm raising it again today and you can probably guess why - I don't have any elevators in those facilities yet. I'm not sure what the thinking was when these facilities were built, but it would seem to me that if the concept was we're going to build these for seniors but we're going to make them walk up a flight of stairs to get to the next level, they weren't all that well thought out.
I can probably say I consider ourselves lucky that for some of the people in these facilities - I can think of one lady who's 86, I think, and she has to go upstairs, and that means carrying her groceries or whatever, and as fit as she is for her age, which is a great thing, this is a bit of a challenge for her.
So I'm wondering about timelines. I'm of the impression that this is something the department has looked at, so can you tell me if any of my seniors' homes - they would be Cobequid Manor in Maitland and Parker Place Manor in Enfield, and I can't
think of the name of the one in Mount Uniacke - whatever you can give me on that, I'd appreciate.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, again, another issue that's extremely important to all Nova Scotians and certainly my honourable colleague raises a situation that I have become very well versed in, in the last little while, with requests from some of my other honourable colleagues in this Chamber.
Indeed, 85 per cent of the 7,700 seniors' housing that we have in our portfolio can be reached without using stairs, and so that's a good figure to start with. What we then need to do is analyze what we have available to us, and though I can't speak to the specifics of the five of your units, I would be happy to get back to you as soon as I get back to the department to discuss it with senior staff.
I can tell my honourable colleague that we will be doing between 10 and 12 elevators this year, and that's good news because it's absolutely pertinent that we allow for the seniors in Nova Scotia, who so well do deserve the quality living that we owe them, that we do make sure that we do everything possible and where, in some circumstances, we can move individuals to the first floor - sometimes that's not always a possibility and in those cases we do prioritize and the department does move forward with the installation of elevators, so the 10 to 12 this year will be done on a priority basis.
We'll span out across the province to see where the priorities are in our regions, and so I certainly would be more than pleased to discuss that privately with the member afterwards. I do want to indicate to the member that, under the Federal Housing Trust, we are working through the parameters and the protocols of that and we are certainly anticipating in our negotiations that we will be able to access some funds out of that Federal Housing Trust that indeed may be able to be used for the elevator installation that my honourable colleague raised.
MR. MACDONELL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister. I'm not sure whether to say that's good news. I guess my thought is, are three of the 10 to 12 coming to Hants East? I'm of the impression that you're not sure where they're going yet, so that makes me worry that the Federal Housing Trust, whether that's workable or not. If it is not, then we're certainly not going to get them. Anyway, I'll speak to the minister outside of estimates, to see if I can get a little more detail. This has been - well, as I say, I've been doing this since 1998 and it has been an issue since 1998, so if we're getting closer, that's great. A politician's longevity is not assured and so before I move on to another phase of my life, I would certainly like to know that these residents are taken care of. (Interruptions) Yes, at least three, if I can get my name attached to three of those, that would be great. Get me three and we'll talk.
Another issue, there are two public housing units or affordable housing units in Shubenacadie that are on, what I believe is, Havenwood Drive or Havenwood Road, just as you enter Shubenacadie. The concern that was raised to me by other residents on that road, that road has been expanding and some quite nice homes are there, but right at the entrance are these two buildings which are not quite nice. So they really need an upgrade in a big way. They don't look very good, if they are owned by the province. So I just wonder how they get into the queue to be fixed up a bit. I didn't get the impression from the residents that problems were on the inside, but certainly from people there, the outside is not too appealing. So I would like to know how I go about getting some work done on those two buildings.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Indeed, we do have funds available for those types of repairs and renovations that my honourable colleague is referencing. That is done on an annual basis, and we will make sure that in the days to come that we address that specifically for that one specific unit you were mentioning, to see if that can be factored in there. We did increase the amount for that. Do we know the exact amount for that? Thank you - 105 from 98. So that, indeed, is a substantial increase, so hopefully we will be able to catch up with some of those projects that you reference. It's more important than just a painting or a roofing, it's about the quality of life that one lives. It goes back to that same point I made earlier, that it's all about quality of life. We, indeed, need to ensure that all Nova Scotians, especially those who we assist, have that same quality of life that we do.
MR. MACDONELL: Well, I'm not entirely sure how many people want to have the quality of life that I do, or that I want to have the quality of life that some others do. I do know that everybody kind of has their own standard of quality that makes them feel comfortable. So I think for those people, there would be a minimum that we would all feel good about, and that's certainly where I would like to see people addressed.
Minister, I wonder if you can tell me - and I think I may have heard you speak to this, I don't know - does your department have a mission statement and, if so, what is it?
MS. STREATCH: Indeed, I did recite the mission statement earlier and if the member would like me to (Interruption) Certainly, we're committed to providing need and assistance to allow for the independent living of Nova Scotians, of those who are in most need of our assistance. So that is certainly the mission statement.
Certainly, as I move forward in this department, it's certainly something I will be ensuring that we move forward in all possible programs and with the resources we have available to us.
MR. MACDONELL: I want to say before I forget to do it, the people in your department that I deal with, mostly out of Windsor or out of the resource centre in
Elmsdale, they've been good, very good to deal with. I've been very pleased whenever I phone them - I kind of expect appropriate treatment, I guess I should say - they're professional, there's never an inappropriate tone whenever I'm dealing with them, they've been very good to work with. I think to a point, they feel their hands are tied because they act on policy, I don't think they're writing it.
One thing that kind of grates on me is the idea that Community Services will pay power bills for people - I think because their funding is not adequate enough - I guess it's the notion that a company that makes $100 million in profit in this province, that taxpayers will fund arrears of clients to them. It seems that if we're going to do anything, we should be trying to see that the people who need the funding - the recipients of Community Services - actually are funded at a level that would prevent them from going into arrears, and then of course that causes an overpayment.
I want to speak actually to what may seem like an oddity, I have a constituent who actually is a renter, but he can't get paid. If the client, the person on community services doesn't pay him, Community Services won't pay him. They will pay a company that makes $100 million in profit, but a person who certainly doesn't live at that level, if they don't get their rent - and this individual, it was $3,000 that was owed to him - that really seemed unfair to me.
As much as I'm sympathetic to the person on community services, this person was offering a place for this individual to live and there didn't seem to be a whole lot that could happen to help him. I pursued it with the department and actually wrote the Honourable David Morse when he was minister and it seemed that nothing could be done. Yet, if we called and asked Community Services to help pay on the power bill that was in arrears, they would do that and charge an overpayment back, but for somebody who was delinquent in their rent, there was no payment to that person and then an overpayment paid back.
Actually, we were told if the landlord had gone down to the office and set up that he was part of this whole deal earlier, maybe they could do something. That's exactly what we told him to do and he did. He went to Windsor and went in to see them and then later they said if he had come down - well, he did go down, so why not take care of him?
MR. CHAIRMAN: The time allotted the member has expired.
The honourable member for Halifax Clayton Park.
MS. DIANA WHALEN: I appreciate having a chance to ask a few more questions. I want to go back to something that was asked earlier by the member for Digby. He inquired about emergency funds, and in the minister's answer she referred to special needs and equated the two in the same breath that special needs are taken care of
in terms of perhaps diabetic diet or people who have special health needs, that sort of thing.
But I think the emergency we're referring to is sort of a one-off, not a continual condition that would require funding, but the idea of a situation that might arise in a person's life where they have a crisis, sometimes it's to relocate in order to work, sometimes - we talked earlier about how the bills pile up and the power is cut off, it might be that kind of an emergency, that you need your power reconnected and you have to pay a bill that's too great, or there could be bad things that happen in people's lives, so many unpredictable things.
The interesting thing in the department that you are responsible for is that it's people and we can never even begin to imagine all of the different combinations of circumstances that could occur in a person's life, so there are so many things that you could never write the policy to cover precisely, because you have to have some judgment, you have to have some leeway to respond, and my question to the minister is, could you respond specifically to the idea of emergencies that occur in people's lives, when a crisis occurs, rather than just the ongoing kind of plans, which are important too, to look at? Thank you.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I welcome my honourable colleague back to the discussion and look forward to continuing. Indeed, I referenced earlier the $20 million that we make available each year for those special needs. Under the purview of those special needs, yes, some are - for example, the set of eyeglasses or the emergency dental care - those things are emergencies at the time and so fall under the purview of that special need budget category.
To my honourable colleague's question specifically, recognizing that each and every Nova Scotian expects accountability and transparency, as we all do, I want to let my honourable colleague know that there is discretion available to the front-line worker, Mr. Chairman, and that discretion certainly is something that we take very seriously and I know the caseworkers take very seriously and that we do make available, as the member made it a one-off situation, we do make those monies available on a discretionary basis with the front-line worker.
MS. WHALEN: I want to ask the minister if that discretionary is referring to our loans, amounts of money made available and then clawed back later from what is already a budget that's not big enough to carry a family along from month to month?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to the specific question from my honourable colleague. In some instances they are loans, in other instances they are opportunities to provide a one-time assistance and, again, the discretion of the caseworker, of the front-
line worker comes into play. We rely on those front-line workers to provide us with the expertise that is so necessary in those very extreme, emergency cases.
MS. WHALEN: I would just like to close that discussion by suggesting, or asking the minister, if it could be considered in the review of your overall Employment Support and Income Assistance Program, which you indicate is being reviewed, to look at having a dedicated amount of money that would be for emergencies, set the controls in place, have two or three staff members review and sign off on any case like that, but make it available for those cases that are really important. I would welcome any kind of controls you would want to put on that so that there was proper accountability and transparency, but I do believe that cases arise where it is needed.
Just in speaking of that, I did want to thank the minister, or thank her staff really, through the minister, the people in the Halifax office have been very helpful to me, particularly your district manager - I think is his title - Mr. Gary Porter. He has been very good when I have emergencies in my office, which come up at all times. Even during the Christmas holidays I called his office to try to get help and he is very, very quick about returning my calls and making sure that I find the right person within the department to go to. We have discussed emergency funds and not been able to find them at times - in fact, by that name, we have never been able to find them.
I just wanted to raise with you that it's good, you have good communication with the MLAs and I do appreciate that, and I think their hard work should be noted because it is a very difficult and often trying area to be responsible for.
I want to go quickly to the area of women's centres. In that area I understand there are about, I think, eight women's centres in the province, none of which are in the HRM area. So I would like the minister to say - do I have the numbers right, and is there any recognition of pressing needs for women's centres in the urban HRM?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, the quick answer is yes, my honourable colleague is correct with the eight. Specifically in reference to the availability in the metro area, it's my understanding that the specialty services that are available in and around the metro area perhaps are different than those that are available outside the metro area, and that is one of the factors as to why the centres are in the peripheral and not in the metro area, itself.
I do want to answer my colleague's question that she asked prior to that question. I want to first of all thank her for her kind words about the staff because, indeed, it's absolutely essential feedback comes back so I can then take that back to the employees
and the staff and they can know that those challenging days that they have that they are recognized.
To the other question, can we provide emergency funding, accountable and transparent? Absolutely. It is something that we'll include in that review and attempt to make more available to those front-line workers in a more known fact, a more known manner, and ensuring that it is accountable and transparent, that's something we can look at as a department.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you very much, and to pursue the idea of women's centres a little bit further, I wanted to challenge what the minister has to say a bit about the specialty services being available in HRM. I've heard that answer before, from different bureaucrats or people working in various functions, but the difference is, there is really nothing quite like a women's centre. I can't compare a women's centre to my going to Community Services, or my visiting Public Health, or my going to the Housing office, all of those offices may be here in HRM, either in Dartmouth or in Halifax, and if I'm a low-income woman, I can probably get a bus. I hopefully have some bus tickets from Community Services. Maybe I can travel to those places, but it's very different from having a women's centre where women of all socio-economic levels will access those services.
I think if you look at the women's centres, the one that I visited most recently was Bridgewater, Second Story Women's Centre. It's a place that's welcoming to all women, and it doesn't marginalize women who perhaps have economic difficulties, or it doesn't just single them out. If you walk through that door, you would feel comfortable, and I would feel comfortable and, at the same time, so do women who have some real serious needs. A lot of the needs are uncovered because they come there for other courses. They come there for a parenting course, maybe a cooking course, health, whatever it may be, nutrition, they come in there to access those services. Women from all walks of life are there with children, with their other issues, and the workers in those centres then uncover other problems they can help address. I think that is very different from me being a social service recipient who needs to seek out individual services.
So I think we need to kind of look at what is a women's centre. How does it differ from my seeking individual services, and that there is a need for them, because it's a place where women feel safe, where they can talk about problems and where a lot of services can be delivered in a less bureaucratic or official way.
So I would like to challenge the notion that it may not be needed in HRM, and suggest that it is needed and that we should be trying to pursue that in this. I know there have been a few initiatives to try to make proposals. Now, where those proposals went, I'm not sure whether they were directed directly to Community Services, but I would like
the minister perhaps to be aware of the issue and to consider whether we could direct some kind of a proposal directly to the Community Services Department.
What I wanted to get from you, if I could, please, today, on the financial side, is a total breakdown of funding for women's centres. How much do we have available, and are they divided equally?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as the math is being done as I speak, I will make a couple of comments about my honourable colleague's suggestion regarding women's centres. To my honourable colleague, I certainly wasn't suggesting that we didn't need one or there wasn't a need for one, that wouldn't be my indication. I do well know the amazing things that are done in these women's centres. I have indeed walked through the doors of the one in Bridgewater, and it is very welcoming. It does cross the boundaries, as my honourable colleague was indicating. So if, indeed, there was a proposal, I have not seen one.
I would welcome the opportunity to work with any community groups, recognizing of course that Community Services doesn't build or create the women's centres - we do provide funding, and I would welcome that opportunity to be part of the ground-level work as we move forward. I know my honourable colleague knows full and well the amazing things that go on in family resource centres. Indeed, in my own community of New Ross we have a wonderful family resource centre that does a lot of the things that some of those women's centres do across the province, and so that might be another avenue that we could pursue together. Through the family resource centres, they may be able to do an outreach or another component of their mandate.
To my honourable colleague's question regarding the centres, there are eight across the province, and they are funded at $155,000 each, for a total of $1.24 million.
MS. WHALEN: Could the minister please tell me if that has gone up in the last year, is that an increase?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, the $155,000 is a sustainable figure. The $55,000 that has come over from Economic Development that wasn't there before provides stability for those centres. So, indeed, they are seeing $155,000 on their books this year for the first time in a sustained manner, which is welcomed by those women's centres.
MR. CHAIRMAN: At this moment, the House will recess for a four- to five-minute break, and we'll reconvene in about five minutes.
[6:07 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[6:12 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Community Services.
MS. JUDY STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, with the indulgence of the honourable members in the Chamber this evening, I'd like to make an introduction. We have with us this evening two very important individuals in the east gallery who are feverishly watching the goings on of the Chamber. We have with us Sebastian Young and Mark Young, and I would ask them to rise and receive the warm welcome of the House. (Applause)
Of course Mark would be the husband of Bonnie, and Sebastian the son. Welcome.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton South.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I'm just going to be a few moments, and then I'll turn it over to my colleague to complete our hour.
Madam Minister, it has been a long day, and I've been encouraged by some of your words today. I've been listening to the debate, and I know you mean well in what you've been saying here today. I think that while the words are welcome, the action following these words will be anticipated by people who need your service in this province.
Madam Minister, I think it's safe to say that this is all about a better quality of life for people in Nova Scotia - this whole debate surrounding your department - and protecting those, particularly, who are vulnerable. There are a couple of issues here that I want to just touch on briefly. One is the whole question of when you deal with people on a regular basis, you know there are certain nagging problems that keep coming up, and one of them is power bills among people who are on community services.
I've had many discussions with Nova Scotia Power people in our area regarding this problem. It seems to me that at least the local people I deal with are saying that they are now in discussion with the Department of Community Services, your department, and Housing Services, to come up with some kind of a lower rate for those on community services benefits, and a guaranteed system of payment to Nova Scotia Power which would have the effect of relieving those people who are on community services benefits from having their power cut off, particularly in the wintertime.
As you know, power is a necessity of life, and because of high power bills some of these people have not been able to pay their power bills because they may only be on partial benefits from your department and, as a result of that, perhaps weren't eligible, but there has been some discussion regarding a deal between Nova Scotia Power and the Department of Community Services to effectively stop any threat of power being cut off to these people.
We take it for granted. We get a power bill, we pay it. That's fine, but sometimes people on community services don't have the money to do that, nor do they have what they call a budget deficit in their allocation from your department to make it up. So would you mind commenting on that, Madam Minister?
MS. STREATCH: Again, thank you to my honourable colleague for bringing forward issues that are very important for the clients who are served through the Department of Community Services. I can confirm that Community Services is in negotiation with Nova Scotia Power. It would be premature, of course, for me to indicate how those negotiations are going along, but we are working with Nova Scotia Power to alleviate some of those pressures for our social housing residents, as well as moving forward to include some of our income-assisted clients as well.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Thank you very much, Madam Minister, that would go a long way in relieving some anxiety of people who are always in fear of getting their power cut off because, as you know, they're sent a number of reminders and then they're given a date when it's being cut off. Then they talk to the social workers and they say you don't have enough money in your budget deficit to pay it all, so it creates a problem. But if we can come up with a system to alleviate the threat of people on community services, or in social housing units, having their power cut off, it would be great. I thank you for that answer.
Just a couple of short snappers on housing and then I'm going to give way to my colleague. I'd just like to know what the current status is of the Federal-Provincial Affordable Housing Agreement that was signed some three or four years ago. I'll ask a couple of questions here. How much of the money that was allocated has been spent? I'd like to get the total amount that was allocated - I think it was $32.4 million or something like that, something in that area. How much of it has been spent to date, when does the agreement expire, and how many units have been constructed?
MS. STREATCH: I like the short snappers because it is getting late in the evening.
My honourable colleague brings forward the question regarding the Federal-Provincial Affordable Housing Agreement. Phase I has come to a conclusion with $37.2 million being allocated for Phase I. Phase II will have a total of $18.9 million, for a total of $56.1 million and that agreement will expire, I believe, in the year 2009, if my figures in front of me are correct. To date we have 928 units that have been afforded through that funding.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: The $37.2 million was allocated in the first phase, how much is spent? Let me rephrase the question, do you expect to spend the entire $37.2 million?
MS. STREATCH: Yes.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: The target for the first phase was 1,500 units. Do you expect to meet the 1,500- unit allocation?
MS. STREATCH: In the early stages of any project, one needs to always be very cautious not to overspend or over-indicate, overestimate numbers. I know there was some confusion in the beginning about how the protocols and the details would come together of Phase I. Indeed, Phase I will max out at 928 because when we took a look at how we would best spend that $37.2 million, it's my understanding - even though that was in the past - that we provided deeper rent subsidies which allowed for a greater availability of the program to be spent in a broader number of recipients.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: You can appreciate that housing is a serious issue in my home area. Of these 900 units you're talking about that are either under construction or completed, how many are in Cape Breton?
MS. STREATCH: Recognizing that these included rent renovations, rent subsidies, units in total, 928. It's my understanding that at least 138 of the 928 were allocated to the Cape Breton region.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Could the minister provide me with a list, Mr. Chairman, of where those are constructed in Cape Breton, and perhaps a list of where the rest of them are constructed around the province riding by riding or area by area? If there have been 120 units built in Cape Breton under this program, I haven't seen much evidence of it in my riding or in Cape Breton Nova or other ridings close to Sydney, so they must be well hidden if they've been built.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I'd be more than pleased to provide to my honourable colleague the list, which isn't all marked up and marked over, at the end of our session here. Just for clarification, I want my honourable colleague to know I'm not attempting to mislead him, these are not 128 new units that he should see scattered about the region of Cape Breton, these are 128 pieces of the 928, which include the rent renovations, the rent subsidies, et cetera. I would be happy to provide that entire list to my honourable colleague after the debates today.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Thank you for that, Madam Minister. I'll certainly be happy to get that from you at some point, tonight or tomorrow, it doesn't make any difference.
The reason I'm asking that question of the minister, Mr. Chairman, is we're having a great deal of difficulty with the public housing system down in my area. There are a lot of empty units, a lot of units that are in disrepair, a tremendous number of people looking for housing. The biggest issue I deal with, other than the issue I talked to you earlier about single-family units and the challenges they're facing, the second-biggest challenge and the challenge that that group faces, as well, is housing.
In my area, the Cape Breton Regional Housing Authority, with the limited resources at their disposal, is just not able to do the job. The units are not repaired. At any given point in time half of them are empty. People see them empty, and they ask why they can't get one. The housing authority has adopted a no-emergency type housing policy. In other words, the first applications get the units. It doesn't make any difference whether they're in need of that unit or not, if you apply first, you go in a queue and you get the unit. That's simply not fair to people who genuinely need the housing units.
The housing authority complains to us that the government is not giving them enough money to fix the units up, to make them liveable and to get people in them as soon as possible. Now, there could be some reasons for that, and I'd be interested in hearing why there are units sitting empty, and why the list is growing tremendously in our area where it's actually reaching a crisis situation down there in terms of affordable housing being needed. What it's doing, Madam Minister, is it's forcing people who are on community services into slum housing, paying high rents, and Community Services is paying those rents.
It would seem to me that an investment in the public housing unit sector down there would be much more beneficial to the taxpayers in the long run than paying slum landlords $600, $700, $800 a month for housing that's not worth half of that, and it's not doing much for the quality of life for people on community services, or low-income people and their children. That concerns me. When that question is answered, I'll turn it over to my colleague.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, I certainly share his concern if, indeed, we have housing that is vacant and we have housing that is not up to standard. I know that our housing authorities do work with specific budgets. I want to indicate to the member opposite that we have just announced an internal housing review within the department. Some of the concerns that my honourable colleague and other honourable colleagues have offered here today will be part of my presentation and my purview in that review. Certainly, we'll take those issues to the department and make sure that those issues are indeed brought to the forefront.
I do want to indicate to the honourable member opposite, in this year's estimates, we do have a $6 million increase to the public housing estimate. So that in itself will go a long way to relieving some of the challenges that our hard-working authorities across the province face, and hopefully will alleviate some of the concerns of my honourable colleague.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Annapolis.
MR. STEPHEN MCNEIL: Madam Minister, congratulations. Unfortunately, you had to do the entire debate, I get to join you now, today. I'm sure you heard from all members in the House today, the vast majority, most of our caseloads, I would say, deal with your department on the issues that the most vulnerable in Nova Scotia fall under your purview and with your department. I know you've been there for a short period of time. I'd like to get some sense of, if you could perhaps tell me, what your top two priorities would be to help move Nova Scotia forward and help reassure those who need the support in this province that we're moving forward?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I thank my honourable colleague. That's the first time that one has been asked today, and I welcome that question. A lot of the things that we've covered here in this debate today fall under the issue of priorities and, indeed, every issue is a priority. I want to speak specifically, and because my honourable colleague asked about two, I will speak specifically to two of those priorities.
I mentioned one earlier today that I know my honourable colleague will be pleased to hear about this evening, and that is the challenge that has come before this House on numerous occasions to allow income assistance clients to further their education before a two-year program. I know this is one that my honourable colleague shares, because immediately upon being named Minister of Community Services, he approached me about this very topic. So I'm pleased to be able to tell my honourable colleague, as I've told others here today, that I have asked staff to provide me with options and to provide me with information that would allow me to take this very serious issue of allowing income assistance recipients and clients to indeed fulfill a post-secondary program in excess of two years. That was a personal priority for me and one that I have asked staff to act upon immediately.
The other priority, as my honourable colleague would likely know from Question Period and from some of the days that I've had in the department over the last two weeks, is the increasing challenges that we find ourselves with in this department with our mental health complex cases, our services for persons with disabilities, and the programming that we're able to provide for those clients, and adult programs, and that program gap that we spoke about earlier on this session of the House for individuals aged 18 to 21.
So those two areas, the post-secondary extension beyond two years and the immediacy and the availability of programs for mental health within the purview of my department, would be my two priorities, Mr. Chairman.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I want to congratulate the minister on those two priorities, because as you begin to look around as an MLA in a rural area of Nova Scotia the challenges that are faced by the clients who are trying to access both of those situations that we're talking about are insurmountable at this particular moment. As you were talking about the number of seats, the educate-to-work seats, I wonder, could you tell me how many of those we presently offer across Nova Scotia?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, if I could ask for clarification from my honourable colleague as to the specific request, I'm a little bit . . .
MR. MCNEIL: What I'm wondering is, how many seats are presently made available to recipients of income support who want to go on to the two-year program? I heard you describe - it was described to me as the educate-to-work seats?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it's my understanding that there is no seat allotment, per say. We do fund through the Department of Community Services, Adult Learning to the tune of $600,000 per year, through our community colleges, and we do provide for the two-year program availability for income assistance recipients who qualify. But a seat allotment, I'm not aware of it at this time.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I would ask you to look into that for me because I believe there is. I know in my area, I believe, in the constituency that I represent, I believe there are seven. So the actual demand is outreaching the supply, and what is, if somebody who is attending a two-year program, so if they use those seven seats for that two-year program, there are none the next year, until somebody graduates the other end. If half of them go back, they stay. I think there is a number, but I'll ask you to clarify that for me and pass on to tell me whether I'm right or wrong.
One of the other issues that comes into our office regularly is the issue of clawbacks, the issue of money being pulled back. I want to just give you a hypothetical situation. If a Nova Scotian was to fall on hard times now and needed to apply for income support, and yet they also were going to be receiving income tax rebate, your department would immediately claw that back. It seems unfair, quite frankly, because you're not allowing that client to have the opportunity to move forward, to actually try to get their feet back underneath them. So I'm wondering if there is a review on the situation around clawback, not specifically to income support, but another number of issues.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, there are a couple of points that I can make to my honourable colleague's question here and perhaps this will provide some insight into the question. I'm very pleased this year to be able to include in the amount that an income assistance client is able to keep 30 per cent of the income tax refund, as we are now classifying the income tax refund as earned income. So that will factor in and that will affect over 3,500 clients, to the tune of $360,000. So that's a substantial move in the right direction, along with the 30 per cent of earned income that our clients are able to keep. So those two programs that we have currently are moves in the right direction and, indeed, as we continue to examine the income assistance and the employment support programs and policies in general, those will be included in the review process.
MR. MCNEIL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would suggest to you, and from my constituents - and I will speak specifically about those who come to me regarding this situation. We're actually putting disincentive presently for them to go to work. We're clawing back 70 cents of every $1. It should be our role to want to try to provide them with the opportunity to move off assistance. I think it may be more advantageous if we say to the client, we'll allow you to earn to a ceiling and then we start talking about clawing back. At that point, that client then begins to seek employment. It gives them that incentive to go.
I can tell you, I've had constituents come into my office who say, why would I go to work? You can only say so many times, because that's what you're supposed to do, right? That's what everyone has to do, and they're saying, but you're taking the money away from me. Give me some incentive to go to work, and I would say to you that clawing back 70 cents of every $1, is not an incentive. The 30 cents just doesn't cut it.
I think if we provide that ceiling - and I'll tell you what that will do. That will put that person into the workforce. It will put that person developing that network in the workforce. It will allow them then to build on that support. It will allow them to continue to grow their income, so that then to a point where we would start clawing back and then they would move off the system. So I'd like to just hear your opinion on that and whether or not that is something that we could work toward.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed, thank you to my honourable colleague for the opportunity to again speak to the issue of self-esteem and self-worth, and the desire to be able to fulfill your family or your individual requirements for a quality of life, and I couldn't agree more with my honourable colleague that indeed that's what it's all about. It's about having a quality of life and fulfilling that sense of self-worth. So indeed, as we move forward and we analyze the different policies that exist, I'd be more than pleased to look at what my honourable colleague has brought forward here this evening, to see if we can provide, in the years to come, additional supports and additional incentives, along with the ones like I mentioned here this evening that we've been able to do. Again, steps in the right direction.
Another step in the right direction that my honourable colleague I'm sure would agree on is the Pharmacare for children, for low-income families, because indeed that does provide incentive. That does dissuade individuals who may think that one would need to stay on income assistance to continue to get that program, it now takes away that necessity. So that, again, is another program in the right direction, to be able to alleviate some of those stresses and some of those, perhaps, leanings to stay on the system.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I couldn't agree more. That is a positive step in the right direction. I would say to you in combination with that, those two areas in combination would go a long way to providing self-esteem in that respect that you're talking about and provide them with the impetus to begin to move and search, to move their way off the system. So I would encourage you to keep those at the forefront as we move on the major priories that you set for - to help Nova Scotians who need it the most.
One of the other issues you had mentioned earlier was the issue around children 16 to 19. There's also, I think it's called, youth and parent conflict, and that is an issue where there's a child who is 17, we'll say, and parents say, I can't handle him anymore, or them anymore. The law enforcement removes them and says, you can't stay there. Your department will support him staying somewhere. He or they - not your department - will find that place, you will financially support it. One of the problems with that is, right now, your department has no way to control where that is. You can't assess the place he's living, or they're living in, the quality, whether or not it is the right environment, all of those things.
I'm wondering whether or not that issue falls, and should fall, with you, or whether Family and Children's Services should not be brought in to this particular case and this particular purview of cases that would be there because they have the experts on staff who deal with assessments at home and that. Ultimately we're taking a child or a child is being removed from an environment which is deemed to be unsafe for them and we have no way to ensure they're putting him in a safe environment. I think it's a real issue that we need to look at.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, there are numerous challenges that go along with the 12- to 19-year-old situation or gap, as we may refer to it. My honourable colleague is well aware of those challenges. Indeed, this is an ongoing issue for discussion amongst a variety of departments.
As we mentioned earlier today, there's oftentimes in the Department of Community Services where we need to partner quite closely with our other departments and that would include, of course, the Department of Health, the Department of Education, Department of Justice, to ensure that the appropriate and adequate and safe housing and living, for these 16- to 19-year olds who are very vulnerable, obviously, if they have been removed from their homes. If they are being placed in other locations that aren't where they perhaps would want to be or can be at the time, certainly we need to make sure those vulnerable, challenging situations are dealt with in a manner that is safe and provides security and stability for those individuals. As we move forward in those discussions, we want to make sure that clientele is well served. I share my honourable colleague's concerns that we are able to meet those concerns.
MR. MCNEIL: One issue that has been brought to my office, actually, unfortunately and in multiple cases, more recently, it just so happened this was the time it came to my office. It was around children with disabilities in high school who are turning 18 and their support is gone, their child tax credit is gone, parents are unable to support them. I can tell by the enthusiasm of the minister that she has a great answer for this one, so I won't say any more, I'll sit down and wait for the answer.
MS. STREATCH: Indeed, it has been a long day, but it's amazing that questions continue to come up that haven't been discussed yet. I do appreciate the opportunity to speak to this one because it was another issue that came to the forefront in the last few days, to my knowledge. It's not new to individuals in the community, but came to my department and to my ministry.
We know that we have an 18- to 21-year-old gap, if you will, another gap. I know the challenge most recently has been to ensure that those 18- to 21-year olds, as they fall under the services for persons with disabilities in particular, that their needs are met. There have been challenges in the last little while with regard to the cancellation of a federal program for the 18- to 21-year olds through Service Canada.
I would like to go on the record and inform all members of this House that I will continue to push and negotiate and discuss with the federal government the need and the necessity for this program. I want to set the minds of those members easier this evening and it is not my intention nor the intention of the Minister of Education to let these families down. We will continue to push the federal government, but rest assured, we will not let these families down and we will not allow that gap to create further challenges for these families.
MR. MCNEIL: Madam Minister, I'm pleased in your response. As you well know, probably before ever coming to this House, if there's a person with disabilities in Nova Scotia, the level of service is different depending on where you're living. The Flower Cart in New Minas is offering a wonderful, broad-based program for different varieties of disabilities. Carleton Road Industries in my riding is providing a certain level, but there are still people missing.
I would just throw this out to you as an opportunity. I think as government, we should look - there are a number of children graduating or leaving high school with their leaving certificate and have no place to go. The Flower Carts aren't there, the Carleton Road Industries aren't there. What they're looking for is a chance to feel, to be part of the community.
For example, in my riding, if somebody's graduating, having their leaving certificate, leaving high school, I wonder if we couldn't, as a government, look across the entire spectrum of the services we provide and say, is there a place inside some of our own facilities? I will say to you - for example, I'll use Mountain Lea Lodge in my riding which is a long-term care facility - I'm wondering if your department, partnering with the Department of Education, would say perhaps there's an opportunity here that someone could go work in the laundry, in the kitchen.
It would provide them with, not a full-time job as you are paying the people who are there, but a small stipend. More importantly you're providing these young adults with the opportunity to feel that self-worth as we talked about earlier, but also feel like they're contributing and providing their parents - quite frankly - with an opportunity that they feel like their children are continuing to move forward. So I'm wondering if that has been discussed and where we might be heading with that.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, you know, this evening just keeps getting better, because my honourable colleague across the way certainly shares many concerns that I do and I'm pleased to be able to speak to this issue which, again, is one that immediately coming to the department and coming from the community, if I may for a moment, of the South Shore where these services and this outplacement, as we would technically call it, has gone on for generations to great success. I only need to look to The Ark in Bridgewater to see the phenomenal success and every occasion I get to visit The Ark, I enjoy because I see individuals full of pride, full of self-worth, who are contributing each and every day to their own quality of life and to the quality of life in the community. So I share my honourable colleague's desire to see that grow even further.
I will mention that I was very pleased in discussion with a local business that came to me just a few weeks ago and it's a very exciting company that will be, hopefully, taking up residence in my constituency very soon. One of the things that they said to me when they were presenting it to me was that they were going to require as part of their employability the availability of jobs for persons with disabilities and, again, it made me feel very good that that was alive and well in new companies as well as ones that had existed for quite a while.
Now, I do want to make specific reference to my honourable colleague's request about have discussions taken place. My honourable colleague will be extremely pleased, I'm sure, to know that the deputy minister and I have actually discussed this very situation and, indeed, we discussed the opportunities that may exist within government to be able to do the very thing that my honourable colleague was referencing and bring these individuals into government and into government services and provide them with an opportunity to have that sense of self-worth daily in and about, as the Civil Service functions, and indeed as government does. So I have asked my department to provide me with some information and options as to how we could better fulfill that very worthwhile program.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I want to say to the minister, we've agreed on a lot. We should be skipping Question Periods. We've got lots settled but I would also say to you, if you're looking for a constituency to pilot this new spirit, I know one. It's actually first when you look at the political map, it's called Annapolis. So I would be more than happy to make that happen in the riding.
Just to change gears a little bit, in January I was fortunate to be part of this Forum on Poverty. We spoke about it in Question Period and the issue has been raised a number of times I'm sure earlier today. It was a real eye-opener for me, you know, it allowed me an opportunity to see the face of poverty outside of my own constituency and it changes from area to area. Regardless of who was presenting, one of the things we kept hearing was the Department of Community Services needs an entire review of the way that the income support is working. I noticed also in December 2005 the Auditor General on Page 14 of his report said, "The systems and controls used by the department to provide financial assistance through the Employment Support and Income Assistance Program are inadequate." I'm wondering what has happened with that and if this review is underway, and when would it be finished?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, specifically to the question of the Auditor General's suggestions and recommendations, it's my understanding that the income support programs are undergoing a review and analysis, an external consultation is taking place - so that, first and foremost, is a positive move to make sure the employment support mechanisms that are in place are working to the best way that they can be.
The other question, Mr. Chairman, I have to acknowledge that I am having a loss - what was the other question? The Auditor General's Report as it pertained to the inadequate reporting. Yes, indeed the response to that - it is getting late, I'm sorry - is the integrated case management program, which is up and running January of next year.
MR. MCNEIL: If the minister could tell me - and I thought you said it was an external audit - who's doing the audit and when could we expect the completion date?
MS. STREATCH: I can tell my honourable colleague that those results will be available this Fall, but I will have to beg his indulgence to get back to him regarding the firm that's doing it - I don't have that information at my fingertips, but I will provide it to him at the earliest convenience.
MR. MCNEIL: One of the challenges that I hear a lot in my constituency is around the caseload that caseworkers are carrying in the local office. A couple of questions, I guess. One is - and this is something I should perhaps know the answer to, but I don't - how many of those are actual social workers who are working in your department and how many just carry the caseload, and is there any possibility that the number of those will be expanded?
MS. STREATCH: Indeed, I do have the name of that consulting firm, we did find it. Goss Gilroy Incorporated is the firm - thank you to staff for providing that. And, Mr. Chairman, we have 1,100 staff across the province in over 50 offices. Of those 1,100 staff, 400 would be income assistance caseworkers.
MR. MCNEIL: The second part to that question is, is the department looking at expanding the number of caseworkers?
MS. STREATCH: Indeed, it's always good news in the Department of Community Services when the caseload goes down, declines, so while we've seen a decline in the caseload numbers over the last number of years - and we're pleased to see a decline again this year - we have no plans to reduce the number of staff or indeed reduce the number, and I do not know at present if there are plans at work to increase the number of caseworkers.
MR. MCNEIL: I didn't catch it, but did you indicate how many social workers are actually working in your department now?
MS. STREATCH: There are 400 caseworkers across the Province of Nova Scotia, working through the department right now on income assistance caseloads.
MR. MCNEIL: Are they social workers though?
MS. STREATCH: At this point, I don't have an exact figure for the number of qualified social workers that would be on staff, but I certainly would be pleased to get back to the honourable member as soon as possible with the number of social workers employed by the department.
MR. MCNEIL: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, I look forward to that, and I recognize that you may need to search that information out.
When I see staff sending stuff down, I think we should have BlackBerries during Question Period, because the answer came right out. You would be able to answer the Question Period stuff with those BlackBerries.
One of the other things that came forward during the Forum on Poverty was the issue around clients who were being cut off during the review process - when someone was questioning whether or not there was an issue with their case. I wonder if there have been any changes to that or if there will be a change to that, could the minister indicate that?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it is my understanding that, as a result of a review, if indeed a client is removed from the services then it is a result of that review, but it is not my understanding that it takes place during that review.
MR. MCNEIL: One of the things presented to us was that your department would give a 30-day written notice, but no guarantee that the review would be finished during those 30 days, so the client could actually be cut off and, indeed, clients have been cut off during the review process.
One of the recommendations that was put forward - and I would suggest that your front-line staff would probably indicate that is because of the workload they're carrying, as the workload may not be increasing but the complexity of the cases, I would submit, probably are increasing - to your department was that nobody be cut off assistance until the review process was complete and, if it was deemed that someone needed to be cut off, then your 30-day written notice take effect at the end of the review process. I wonder, is that the case, are we looking at that now?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I indicated earlier that those seven responses that came forward from the work of the Community Services Committee were brought back to my attention in the new role that I held as minister. I can tell the honourable member across the way that, as part of the annual review, each and every opportunity that we get to look at situations to see if we can better serve our clients, we will. That is certainly one I will take up with staff, to ensure that, if at all possible, a specific time frame can be provided, understanding of course that it goes both ways. We know that clients will report any changes in the programming that they have, and the caseworkers
can certainly allow for that review to take place before any services are terminated. So I certainly will ask staff to investigate to make sure that the maximum allowable time is provided.
MR. MCNEIL: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, I think that's going to take a policy change and it's going to take a direction from you and the senior staff to send out that no client - this is not a case of, as it was said to me, you know everywhere else hopefully you know you are innocent until proven guilty but in this particular case you are guilty, prove your innocence.
Quite frankly, the clients who are using your department need your voice, need our voice, need the support - they are the most vulnerable, quite frankly, in our province. So this needs to be a policy shift, and I would encourage you and your deputy to move on this quickly. I can tell you that the front-line people would be happy to hear it. This causes them a tremendous amount of grief. So this is - it's called fairness, that's all you're applying here, fairness to the system - I think it's something that all Nova Scotians would welcome as we move forward.
The issue of overpayments, the issue as we spoke about earlier about the income tax refunds and clawbacks that are coming, I'm wondering, can you give us an indication of how many of your files have been sent to a collection agency to have that money refunded and brought back?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it's not the policy of the Department of Community Services to send any type of overpayment collection to a collection agency. It's my understanding that we do that through Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, and partner with Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations to do that. So it's my understanding that they would do the collection of the overpayments. I do not at this point know the total number of cases, but I would be pleased to provide that to my honourable colleague at the earliest convenience that I find the information.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I would appreciate that, that would be interesting information. I think it has been echoed in the Chamber that your department may not directly send them there but they get sent there by another department, creating some concern. I would add, though, and I want to be on the record about this, I'll speak of my constituency, the staff you have on the front lines do everything they can to ensure that the recovery of overpayments are done in a way that is with the clients' best interests at heart.
Unfortunately, and I've said this a number of times and I will say it again, they will tell you they are hamstrung by many of the policies of your department. That's why
people are screaming for a review, that's why when we were at the forum, the face of poverty, the number one issue was to have a review. Everything your department may be doing may be right, but I think the review, this external review that we talked about earlier, will provide that reassurance. If it isn't, then we know there are deficiencies that we need to improve on.
I was asked and invited by a front-line caseworker from your department to come and spend a day to understand the variety that is put in front of them in a day, and I would encourage you to do that. It was just after this last election I was given the invitation, and I plan on accepting that. I would encourage you to do that. I think it's a challenge that all members should take. We know the variety and the complexity of the different issues that we face as MLAs in our ridings, but I don't know if we understand the complexities that are faced by caseworkers in your department on the front lines. I mean everything from - well you can just imagine.
We call, with the frustrations, and say why can't it happen? I think it would give us all a better understanding of exactly how these clients are fitting into the policies of your department and of the government. I think it's a challenge that all of us should take, and do that; some may have, some members who have been here for a while. I think it is important for us to somehow get as close to being in someone else's shoes as we can. I mentioned around transportation workers, our front-line people who take it all the time on the chin, your caseworkers are in the same situation and they take it from clients and then they take it from us as MLAs who are after them, but they're administering your policy.
The things that I hate, quite frankly, to hear from any of them is, it is policy. It's probably the first thing that gets me ready to jump through the phone. I would encourage you to do that, and really do that review on policy, it's just fundamental. All the other stuff we're doing, we're spinning our wheels, unless we can reassure clients, Nova Scotians, that policy is in the best interests of all of them.
My colleague, the member for Halifax Clayton Park, and I'm sure other people have spoken to you today around transitional houses, around women's centres, and I've spoken to you outside of the House about those issues. It is one that, as a province, is an issue that we need to eradicate, it's an issue that should not be tolerated, quite frankly, in 2006. It's an issue that we seem to have difficulty dealing with, part of it is funding.
There's another component to this, and it's around men's intervention programs. I know there were some recommendations put before your department around men's intervention programs and how we deal with that. It's like every other issue, unless we deal with the root cause of it - why their anger's there, why they feel compelled to take that out on their spouse or their children.
We now are going and finding a secure place to provide for that mother and her children, but we're not dealing with the issue of where he's coming from. Unless we provide that for the courts to say, you need treatment, and we can provide that treatment, we are committing that family to years and years of hell, quite frankly, if that's not unparliamentary. We need to deal with that issue. It's a complex issue, one that many of us, fortunately, are not faced with, but the ones who are, are living in fear inside of us, in their own homes, in their own communities.
We think by plucking them out and giving them a secure environment for a period of time, we've given a cooling-off period. We haven't. We need to deal with and provide that treatment. Quite frankly, if need be, we need to be able to have the courts say to men in this province who abuse their families, you need treatment and here's where you're going to get it.
I want to know if there's a move in your department to expand that program to ensure Nova Scotian families, Nova Scotian women and children, can feel we are doing everything we can to eradicate this problem.
MS. STREATCH: My honourable colleague raises a very serious - actually my honourable colleague raises two very serious issues. His first issue regarding going out with the caseworkers and walking a mile in their shoes, I find that a great challenge. I referenced earlier today the fact that it's certainly my intention as we move toward recessing the Legislature, to get out and travel across the province and visit with as many as I can of the stakeholders and staff and facilities that come under the purview of my department. Part of that would be meeting with those front line, who I'm so pleased to hear the honourable member say do a good job, do a great job.
We heard that said earlier today and it's important that staff hear that from the members of this Legislature because they do a phenomenal job and they deserve all the praise they can get. I commend my honourable colleague for that and accept his challenge to make my way across the province and come to know the details of my department and the details of those front-line workers personally.
The second issue my honourable colleague raised is one that I have discussed with my honourable colleague prior to this estimates debate. I know my honourable colleague brings this issue forward with all sincerity and with all genuine concern and desire to ensure that those who most need our help on the front end, get it. We use the expression that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That couldn't be more true than in this case. Those intervention programs for men we do fund to the tune of approximately $800,000 per year, and that's included in this year's estimates.
Could we be doing more? We could always be doing more. Are we making do with the best we can with our resources on top of the almost $4.5 million we provide to
the transition houses? Indeed those two coupled together hopefully will alleviate a lot of the stresses and strains. I couldn't agree more with my honourable colleague that the last thing we want to do is to put vulnerable families at risk.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The time has expired for the Liberal member that was speaking.
The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I want to start by congratulating the member for her promotion, I think, to the third largest and really important department, not just because of its size but because of its function in terms of what it does. I want to say to the minister I've been listening very carefully to the budget estimates and I'm very pleased to find that the minister is very engaged in the responsibilities that she has been entrusted with, and I think she has shown some real initiative in a couple of areas.
In particular, I want to congratulate the minister for saying that she has asked her staff to look at the question of educational opportunities and barriers for people in receipt of social assistance so that they will not necessarily be faced in perpetuity with a life of poverty, because we all know education is the route to better prospects, better financial and other prospects, including better health.
This has been a policy of this government that has troubled members of the NDP caucus greatly, and I know my colleagues in the Liberal caucus as well. I want to say to the minister, because she has said, you know, this is something that is of interest to her and she's showing leadership to have this policy reviewed. I have come to recognize that the perception is that it's people on social assistance who want to go to university or any programs that are more than two years who are unable to do that when the reality is, in fact, it's much more restrictive than that and it's not just universities and community colleges, but it's other programs.
I had a constituent, a young woman, single mom, who attempted to get into and was accepted into an Early Childhood Education Program offered by St. Joseph's, an early childhood education school here in metro. There's a great shortage in the field of early childhood educators. It's an area where the industry is already facing difficulty recruiting and retaining people in that field. Yet this young woman was unable to proceed in that program. I took a social assistance appeal on the case and because of the department's policy, we were unable to be successful at the appeal. I regret to say that that young woman today, two and a half years later, is basically sitting at home on income assistance. She's discouraged. She has lost interest in pursuing education, and it was her dream to be a child-care worker and do early childhood education.
I think the crime of this situation is that I knew her probably four or five years earlier when she had returned to a learning situation with a program called Options, which is a program for people in our province who are really marginalized in terms of their abilities to get back into either learning or the labour market and they really need upgrading. They need their GEDs, they need some life skills, and all of that kind of stuff. She had five years earlier taken this program, really turned her life around, and was on the path then to go further and was cut off at the knees. I'm sure I have other cases I can give the minister that I think really are very good grounds for a reversal of this policy. So I congratulate the minister, I think that's excellent, and I look forward and I will participate in that review, if required, on any level.
Premier Hamm, we may recall, indicated, I think at the end of his tenure, if there was anything that he felt he would have liked to have done that he hadn't been able to do. He said that he'd felt that he hadn't been able to do enough for people who live in poverty, or his government hadn't done enough, and I think clearly the debate here indicates that this is an issue that many members of this House consider to be a really important issue.
I think it's also very clear, to some of us, that the way to advance these issues is to have courage. To work and provide the leadership as minister, with your staff, but also with your caucus colleagues and collaborate with members in this House, to give you the kind of support and the clout that you may need in an 18-person Cabinet, to make those issues a higher priority on the public agenda. I can guarantee you that if you're looking to collaborate with members of this House to advance some of those issues, you'll find a great deal of support on this side of the House in doing that.
So those are my opening remarks. Now I have some very specific questions I want to ask and I want to start with questions around disability issues. We could talk about single moms and we can talk about all kinds of very important issues around your department, but I specifically want to look at some of the campaign commitments that were made by your government in the election we just had, to try to determine what, in fact, is the substance of some of these commitments. I want to start with the commitment of your government to establish a new persons with disabilities allowance that recognizes that many Nova Scotians are unable to work. So my question to you is, how many people with disabilities are you looking at, who are unable to work? When will this allowance come into effect? What is the ballpark cost of providing this allowance? I think those are three questions that are good to go.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I want to begin by thanking my honourable colleague for her voice of support. Indeed, as we move forward in the coming days, we will be looking to find support for all sorts of ventures and programs, and this is one that
is extremely important when we make reference to the post-secondary program. One that's extremely important to me was raised by members opposite, immediately upon me being appointed and it was one that I had shared a personal story with the House earlier as to my own personal reasons for wanting to advance this, but I won't take the member's time tonight to repeat, but I am certainly more than pleased to share with her at a later time as well. So as we move forward on that, I appreciate the level of support that has been voiced here this evening and I look forward to that level of co-operation and that expertise that I very well may come seeking.
Mr. Chairman, particular to the platform commitments that were made by this government and by the Premier during the campaign, I can tell this honourable member, the same as I referenced earlier today, that indeed those are commitments that will be fulfilled in the days to come. It was made clear that those were not for this year's budget and therefore the details of that specific program that my honourable colleague mentioned, the establishment of the new persons with disabilities allowance, is something that we'll be continuing to move forward and to work out the policies, the recommendations, to answer all of the questions that my honourable colleague had asked, will all come with those specifics.
Certainly, as we develop that, I want to assure my honourable colleague that that will be done in collaboration with the stakeholders, with those experts and with the individuals who best know the programs that are out there and the voids that exist, and we will certainly engage those experts in the process and let those details be known as soon as they become available.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, well, now I have to become a little better here on the floor of the House, I guess, because that's awfully vague for campaign promises. I would have hoped that if you're promising in your platform that you're going to do certain things, that you would have had some analysis, you would have had some idea of what it was going to cost and you would have some idea how many people would be impacted by that. I'm disappointed that the minister hasn't been able to tell me at least how many Nova Scotians will see the benefit of having a new persons with disabilities allowance.
The Province of Nova Scotia has the highest percentage of population to have a disability - I think it's around 21 per cent. I have to say that of all of the people I met during the election campaign with compelling and quite often desperate situations, it was often single people with disabilities who were in the most dire of straits. Often people who live so deeply in poverty, there aren't words to describe what their situations are like. I met people who live on way less than $500 a month; a woman with terminal cancer who talked to me about how much she wanted to be able to buy ice cream and couldn't do it because it's too expensive out of her monthly food allowance; a woman with cancer who lost a considerable amount of weight due to her illness and couldn't buy
any new clothes and said she felt embarrassed to leave her house wearing the clothing that she has - she gets slightly more than $190 a month for food, clothing, personal effects.
We know these situations are very serious and people with disabilities - I attended a social policy conference in Queens a number of years ago, a summer institute that they do every year for policy people. The Stats Canada people in their presentations, when they were looking at the trends in poverty and people falling into poverty across the country, said the most rapidly growing segment of the population that's falling into poverty are single people, particularly with disabilities and unable to work. Governments really have not done enough to adequately provide a basic income to these groups, so these are very important initiatives the government campaigned on, but with very little substance to tell us what in fact is being planned and who will be impacted.
Another commitment that the government made was to end the Department of Community Services clawback of CPP disability benefits. I want to ask the minister, what does this refer to? What is the clawback that the minister is talking about? In my mind, I have a number of ideas of what that might mean, but I don't know what the department means. I want to know how many people the government is currently clawing back CPP disability benefits from - surely that information must exist - and again, when will the clawback end? If it's not going to be in this fiscal year, what's the plan to end the clawback?
MS. STREATCH: The honourable member does bring forward a very important piece of information that certainly isn't lost on me or any other member in this House. Indeed, we do have some of the highest percentage of persons with disabilities here in the Province of Nova Scotia, and that presents challenges as we work with the resources and the budgets that we have available to us to ensure that we meet those needs to the best of our ability in the department. I acknowledge my honourable colleague's reference to that and thank her for highlighting the fact that it is a challenge given the high percentage.
Mr. Chairman, not to disappoint my colleague any further, and I certainly do recognize that my honourable colleague is attempting to gain some insight into some very exciting future programs and future options that we will have available, but I need to again say that the promises, the commitments in the platform were not intended for this budget year. As we debate the estimates this evening, I can indicate that those pieces of information, as they become available, certainly will be made available to my honourable colleague, that indeed the numbers that it would entail and exactly what type of clawback we're discussing and when that will begin, et cetera, those details will be coming in the future, and I would be more than pleased to provide those to my honourable colleague when I do have that information.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, the minister has department staff with her and I'm wondering if they could indicate what is the clawback now, what from CPP benefits are clawed back now? It's a very simple question.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, just for clarification, I can indicate to my honourable colleague that currently, of course, 100 per cent of the CPP is involved in that clawback. How much a dollar figure, if that's what she's looking for, is not available because it varies per case. The exact amount would vary per individual, and so that will all be taken into consideration as we move forward to eliminate it.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Thank you very much. That's very helpful, Mr. Chairman.
I want to ask the minister if she could tell me how many working families who don't receive IAES have extended Pharmacare now under your program and, if you don't have that information, I would ask if you could undertake to provide that information, as well as what the cost of those particular benefits are because I know that currently there are working families who do qualify - I know some of them quite well actually - but I would like to get a picture of how many we're talking about.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, certainly just to clarify with my honourable colleague, she is referring of course to the income assistance working families' Pharmacare Program which exists now, that is available for a one-year transitional period when the family is in that transition - just to get a nod of her head that that is indeed the number she's looking for, and if indeed it is the number she's looking for, I don't have that number available with me tonight but I certainly can get that for her.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, the minister is correct. That's partly what I'm looking for, but the other part of what I'm looking for is that there are people who work who have children, and they also have high drug costs in their households which their income is unable to support. They would qualify for extended Pharmacare of some kind. So I'm looking for both people who have been on social assistance who go back to work and that regulation will give them Pharmacare coverage, but there are people who have never been in receipt of assistance who also get extended Pharmacare - so it's both of those.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I thank my honourable colleague for the clarification, it is getting late and my brain is getting a little bit fuzzy. Both of those figures certainly can be provided to the honourable member, and I will do so as soon as they're available to me.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Thank you very much. I'm going to be sharing my time, and I will pass it along now to my colleague, the member for Dartmouth East.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MS. JOAN MASSEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm pleased to rise this evening and talk a bit about Community Services. Indeed, as an MLA, the newly elected MLAs will soon find out that Community Services is going to be an office that they won't be able to live without in their daily operations in their constituency offices.
In fact, something is going on in the province - I don't know what it is, it's certainly happening in Dartmouth East. We have, since I've been sitting here the last two weeks, been averaging four new cases a day in Dartmouth East. That's not a good thing. Although I do like to be busy, I prefer not to be dealing with the issues that we unfortunately face. So I will just list some of the bigger issues we deal with in our office. I think some of these issues are actually issues related to Community Services but they aren't always in your power to address, I realize that. Some of them are, some of them aren't. Food insecurities, rental issues - and I know we aren't going to have time to ask questions on all these - personal allowance, home heating, electric bills, literacy issues, mental health issues, Pharmacare, dental issues, all these things are just some of the things that an MLA will have to deal with in their daily operations in their constituency offices.
I also would be remiss if I didn't thank your staff, because I have had nothing but good dealings with the staff at Community Services. I think my constituency assistant deserves some credit, too, she tries to really be informed as much as she can before she contacts. We try to work with people to work through their situations and try to find them something better down the road. So we try to do that with Community Services.
It was interesting to hear earlier that there is, I think, 1,100 staff altogether and I believe 400 of them are caseworkers. That's a lot of people dealing with a lot of issues in this province. I guess the thing I will go back to is it seems like there are more and more people coming, I know at least in my office and I don't know about the other MLAs but I keep seeing more and more people, so there is something going on, I guess - economic development, health care issues, disability issues, all these things impact on people's lives. I know a friend of mine, he always says you're a banana peel away from being disabled.
I think we're all just a month away from being - at any time we can be out of work, we can be sick and not have our paycheque that we're used to. A lot of people don't realize they can quickly fall into debt. One of the ways that happens - one of the big ways that happens, I find in my office, is through these electricity bills and home heating issues. Now without the Keep the Heat program, that's another issue that I think
is going to impact some people. I actually had people last winter who spent most of the heating season in one room with an electric heater and the rest of their house was not usable. I think that a lot of people found the Keep the Heat program really beneficial, especially seniors in my area.
I would just like to reiterate that at any time it could be one of us in here who needs to phone Community Services, we don't know. It could be a year down the road, two years, who knows, right? I think it's very important to have really caring people working at Community Services, people who are willing to work with our clients in our constituencies, willing to listen to them with an open mind and to be empathetic and, really, to treat people with dignity, I think that's so important. What we are looking for in my constituency is not a handout, but a hand up. I think that's what I would like to hear you talk about this evening - what can you do in your office to help people find their way out of having to be on community services, and keeping in mind they may have been evicted recently, they owe back rent, they have electricity issues, and if they do happen to get a job and get back to work they still face those bills. We try to work with people to work out a budget - so I'm just wondering, do you have some kind of mechanism or resources to help people find their feet again, to get back out there and improve their life?
MS. STREATCH: Indeed, I want to thank my honourable colleague for the opportunity to address some of the concerns that she raised, and with her indulgence I'm going to share a little story that was a little bit out of the mouths of babes, as we would reference. You spoke about the ever-increasing number of cases that arrive in your office every day and, indeed, in all of our offices every day. Upon learning about my new job position at Community Services, my 12-year-old didn't quite understand what Community Services was. He understood what Tourism, Culture and Heritage meant, but he didn't quite understand the full realm of Community Services, so we spent some time talking around the table about what it meant. He was quite disturbed and he said, Mum, what happens when those people no longer need your help, you won't have a job, you won't be a minister anymore?
I thought, what a Utopia you live in young man of 12 years of age, if you think that perhaps that could happen someday I will share in your vision. So I assured him that I would do my very best to work myself out of a job, and so I offer that to my honourable colleague, to acknowledge that as an MLA indeed I deal with those same issues that you do and now as minister I take those responsibilities very seriously. That's why I've taken some of the steps that I have in the first two weeks of being in the office to move and advance some of those topics we talked about before - the topic of the post-secondary programming for income assistance clients to be able to live with dignity and pursue a life of self-worth and self-esteem, and to be able to better provide for your family. I can't think of a better legacy to leave should I move from this department than that legacy. That's one avenue that I have at my disposal - to be able to expand upon and to use.
The other thing that I would offer is the other program that I am extremely happy about and that's the Pharmacare Program for children. Indeed we need to ensure that those 33,000 children of low-income families in Nova Scotia are cared for to the best of our ability, and the Pharmacare Program is one way of doing that.
Increasing the personal allowance for the third year in a row is something that I am very pleased to be able to bring to this table today as well - a $10 a month increase is certainly not the end of the increases that hopefully we'll see in the future, but it's another step in the right direction for a third year in a row. The shelter increase, which I know my honourable colleague, coming from the metro area, would be pleased to hear about because of the challenges that go along with the rents here in the metro area in particular - so that increase in the shelter allowance.
Those are some of the ways that we're able to move forward and I would indicate that, hopefully, when this budget is passed we'll have in excess of $9 million in programs available and in excess of $6 million in staffing to help move those programs forward.
I want to clarify if I've misled this Chamber - the 400 are simply income assistance caseworkers, in actual fact I have over 240 child welfare workers and over 60 housing staff caseworkers. So indeed there are hundreds more on top of those 400 that we would consider front line, and who I am extremely pleased, again, to be able to recognize tonight on the floor, as my honourable colleague expressed her pleasure and her satisfaction with her interaction with them. It's extremely important that staff hear that from all 52 of us. I'm thankful to my honourable colleague for offering that praise.
MS. MASSEY: Thank you for all that information. I can only hope that some of these new steps the office is taking will lead to me being less busy in my office. That would be very helpful.
I think what I'd like to do is move on to a specific question or two. One is relating around the food and security issue. I know you mentioned that the personal allowance increase went up, but has the food allowance increase gone up or not? How does the department come up with that amount of money? I believe there was a committee or something that looked at it.
I know it's a big issue in Dartmouth East, the issue of food. A lot of my residents who are on community services do have to go to the food bank. I know you're only allowed to go to the food bank once a month and you can go, I believe, on Mondays to various food banks and you can get bread on Mondays, but the rest of the time you can't. They don't usually carry meat - it's a lot of canned goods and this sort of thing. There's not a lot of fresh vegetables or fruit, and this is what I hear people talking about in my constituency.
The churches take up a lot of the slack there, I know. I've heard you say this evening that in a perfect world we'd do this, that and the other thing. I'm just wondering how that amount of money came into being? I feel that in Dartmouth East we're really highly dependent on non-profit organizations and these food banks, which were supposed to be, of course, in the very beginning, temporary.
It's sort of like supplementary funding, if you took it away, you couldn't live without it, but yet you don't really want it to be there. So, food banks are great and wonderful, but we all wish we didn't have to have them. So, I'm just wondering if you could just answer some of those inquiries? Thank you.
MS. STREATCH: To my honourable colleague, she raises a very important issue and one we discussed here earlier and certainly food security is one that I, as minister, and this department doesn't take lightly.
For the third year in a row, the personal allowance has been increased. Now, when we get through estimates and get through this budget, the $200 a month includes funding for food and personal needs. Of course, as this is the third year in a row that we've increased that, there is no special formula that equals a certain amount for certain necessities, but as we increase that, we'll move toward ensuring that we continue to stay in line with the National Food Basket parameters.
Indeed, just making note for my honourable colleague, we have been involved with research opportunities with Dalhousie University and the Department of Health Promotion to ensure, along with the Nova Scotia Nutrition Council and the Atlantic Health Promotion Research, we've worked collaboratively to understand food security issues and to advance this very important topic amongst the different departments.
MS. MASSEY: Unfortunately, my time this evening is up and I'll pass along to my colleague for Shelburne.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Shelburne.
MR. STERLING BELLIVEAU: Madam Minister, again I want to thank the members of the House for this opportunity to speak tonight. I still believe this is a privilege and an honour. I know today a number of people have given a number of testimonies and first of all I want to give a little history of where I came from in my community. I was raised in Shelburne County, in the early 1950s and 1960s I grew up.
One particular summer, my father was sick, needed an operation, and I was very young at the time. On different days, mysteriously, there would be Irish moss show up in our community in front of our home, and it was a number of years later that I realized that it was a community that helped put that there, and maintain our income and
supported our family for that time being. It was a community project within the family and it helped us get over that particular year.
If I could fast forward, a number of years later when I went to municipal council in the late 1990s, I served nine years at the municipal level, and believe me, if there's a reality check - and as a warden and as a councillor of my district, I took the time over the last nine years and went to each individual applicant that was looking for a tax exemption form and I personally was involved in that, to me, that was a reality check in life.
Also, there were times when individuals where, basically, their roof was leaking and there was no program out there. As the councillor for the district, I was confronted with how to get this issue solved, and tried to address all the appropriate people. I simply went to the different churches in our community and I took them there when there was a rainstorm, and it was evident that something had to be done.
The community has always been there. My suggestion is - back in the mid-90s, this service was taken away from our local municipal governments and was diverted over to our provincial government. I feel, personally, that there are some flaws in this system, there are people falling through the cracks, and maybe of all the different departments, of all the offices that are within this government, this is maybe one that the people are looking for the MLAs to have their voice and their concerns brought forward. I think it's our responsibility to do just that.
There are a number of different projects that I think could assist people, especially in Shelburne County, in fact, across Nova Scotia.
Madam Minister, first of all, one of the things that bothers me, people who are on community services, there is a list, and I'm sure that you're very familiar with the different types of lists for emergency repairs, home repairs, people who have leaky roofs, who need their windows maintained, and it's been evident to me for a number of years, participating at the municipal level, that there is a great waiting period. People have been waiting three, four, or five years to have this service or maintenance done on their home. My first question to the minister is, can this list be available for me, especially in the tri-counties, in particular Shelburne County? I guess my first question is, is this list available?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as my honourable colleague, the member for Shelburne begins his time with me here on the floor this evening, I would like to welcome my honourable colleague. I've had the opportunity to know my honourable colleague from Shelburne in days gone by. I know him to be a very honourable
individual who will serve his community to the best of his ability, and I welcome him here to this Chamber.
Earlier, he spoke about the rural way of life and the values that come along with that rural way of life he experienced himself. I can remember on many occasions hearing those same types of stories. My grandfather often said that he would give anyone who came along the shirt off his back. It's something that I carry with me, that true value of caring for each other and caring for a community. Caring within a community is something that, as Nova Scotians, is extremely important for us to continue to instill in our children. It's a value that I take with me to this department as minister, and I take very seriously. I hope that it guides me, and I trust that it will guide me in the days to come.
Specifically, Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague's question regarding repairs and some of the projects we have underway, I know that in the Estimates Book it is indicated that there will be $14 million in the budget this year, an increase of over $4 million. I am hoping that can provide some relief for some of the projects my honourable colleague spoke of being on wait lists. Specifically he asked for a list of projects that were wait-listed, and I would be more than happy to provide that to him at my earliest convenience - I don't know if it is specific to Shelburne, but it may be the western region and we can work through that together.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Madam Minister, I believe you answered my second question here already, so I think I will move on to another question.
If I can just go ahead to the last campaign - I think this is actually a story that took place during the campaign. As you go door-to-door you engage with different people, especially seniors, people who are basically surviving, trying to stay in their home and they are determined to stay there as long as possible. Many of these individuals are applicants for long-term care, but they are determined to stay in that facility or maintain their home as long as possible. Many of these are seniors who may be alone, they are also looking after maintaining their home, the repairs that go with it, the upkeep of their property, just to paint the scenario.
If you go - and I actually had this happen - two doors down, or two homes down, you come in contact with someone on community services. That individual is trapped; they are trapped in a poverty cycle. Again, they may be a single applicant, they may be trying to put their child through school or continue their education, and they are also looking for jobs. For me it was very clear, if we had a program - and I suggest to the minister that this may be a good opportunity to spend that extra money that you suggested is available, $4 million I think I made note of - this would be a prime opportunity to create a pilot project. I hope your department would consider that in a time that those two scenarios - you have this individual who is trapped in a poverty situation,
is on community services, they could be the home caregiver if that person was trained, if they had access to the education, and the people literally next door could benefit from a program like that, and you keep all those individuals in your community.
My question to the minister is, could a pilot project like that get off the ground, especially in Shelburne County?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague across the way, I certainly would like to point out a few pieces of information which I know he will find beneficial. Indeed, in Nova Scotia, because of the deep history of Nova Scotia, we actually have one of the highest rates of home ownership - 71 per cent of homes in Nova Scotia are owned, and certainly some of that is of the oldest stock of homes across the country and that poses great challenges.
You made reference specifically to seniors in their homes. We all, in this House, know the challenges that face our seniors, those who deserve our respect and our assistance for all they have given, even more, so I am very pleased to be able to indicate that the dollars allocated for the senior program for repairs to homes is increased this year in the budget. We have a total of $4.5 million in the budget, with $1 million of that coming from the Department of Health - which brings me to my honourable colleague's question regarding pilot projects. I am all for good ideas that can help those who are most vulnerable and who need our help most. I would appreciate and look forward to the opportunity to work with the Department of Health to move forward on some of the recommendations - of course, continuing care and home care lie within the purview of the Department of Health, so I'd be more than happy when we meet, as we will be meeting next week, to move forward some of the joint initiatives that we have with Health to bring some of these ideas forward to see if, indeed, they can be added to the programs that we have out there that are available right now.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Madam Minister, I do think that our parents and grandparents taught us well, because the spirit of co-operation may be here tonight. I thank you for your time. At this time, Mr. Chairman, I would like to turn this over to my colleague, the member for Pictou East.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. CLARRIE MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, first, I would like to congratulate the minister on the new portfolio. I'm sure she is digging in there very aggressively, from what I've heard so far. We've had a number of personal testimonies, and several people have mentioned that you never know when you may need help. I remember, as a young lad, my father being smashed up in the coal mine after 33 years, and my mother making a deal with a sweater company to get some sweaters. She sold them door to door. I'm sure some of the people in the community who purchased those sweaters did it more to
help the family out than the need for a sweater. So you never know when you may need some assistance.
I have a few local concerns that I would like to raise. These are ones that have come forward in the short period of time that I've been an MLA. One of them is the back-to-school sales have begun, and some people on community services are wondering about the small allocation that is available for back-to-school supplies. I'm wondering, I think the amount is somewhere around $100 per child, I'm not exactly sure because I've heard a couple of figures. What is the amount, how long has it been in place, and is there any intention to increase that a little bit in light of the increasing, escalating costs of school supplies?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague across the way, thank you for the sharing of that personal story. It never hurts to remind ourselves that, indeed, we are human and that we come with those very personal stories that can aid us each and every day as we go forward in our very important tasks that we do here in this Chamber. I look forward to working with my honourable colleague to advance some of the local specific concerns that he has in the days to come, as I move forward in this role as Minister of Community Services.
The automatic payment that my honourable colleague is referencing, of course, is the back-to-school allocation that's available. It's available the end of July, to go on the August entitlement for our clients. I can tell my honourable colleague that it's been in existence for at least three years, the exact specific number of years, at least three years. I'm understanding that the amount is $50 for each child five to 12 years old, and $100 for each child 13 years and over. That is in addition, of course, to the regular entitlement, and of course the increases that we referenced earlier regarding income assistance support and shelter increases.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, my question to the minister was, is there an intent to perhaps increase that slightly?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, again, it amazes me that we can still find brand new questions after seven and a half hours of this. Indeed, a brand new question. At this point, there is no discussion in the department to increase nor to decrease that amount.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, another concern is the Community Services' housing grants. They're salary-based and there are situations where people do, in fact, go over the limit by a very slight amount and if the amount is, as I understand in one case, it might be $23,000 or $23,500, or something like that. It's my understanding that on occasion, and I have one situation which I think involved about $24 over the amount,
if I remember correctly. What I am asking the minister is, has there been any consideration, rather than having an exact cutoff amount that somebody who is $3 under gets advantage of the program and someone $24 over doesn't, does it not make sense to have some kind of a sliding scale so that a person does, in fact, qualify for at least partial payment or a partial grant?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as I made reference in the opening statements that I provided, I was extremely pleased to have my staff here who rapidly can provide some answers. So to one of your previous questions, Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, I can indicate that the program for school supplies began in the year 2000. So that's, I believe, the final question in the tri-fold questions of that program.
Now, Mr. Chairman, with reference to my honourable colleague's questioning regarding the income thresholds, I have prided myself over the last slightly more than a year in statements that I have made regarding continuing to better the federal-provincial relations that exist between this provincial House and our federal brethren, and it is indeed in that spirit that I indicate to my honourable colleague that those thresholds are set by CMHC and indeed the federal government sets those amounts and we live within those means. That doesn't mean that we can't negotiate and ask the federal government, because of those points that I made earlier about the fact that 71 per cent of our homes are owned and that we have older homes in this province than other provinces across the country, that those factors shouldn't be used when negotiating with the federal government to have those income thresholds raised. So I certainly commit to my honourable colleague that I will raise that on every possible occasion I can with the federal government.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, you've just given me a little bit of ammunition in relationship to my first question. A program that has existed for six years, it has been in place since 2000 and we are still dealing with $50 and $100 for school supplies. I know from some experience that I have in purchasing things for my grandchildren on occasion that the prices have, in fact, escalated considerably in six years.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I am happy to answer every question as honestly as I can and if that provides ammunition, then so be it, I will take my shots. I do want to indicate to my honourable colleague that the fact I have is that the program began in 2000. I cannot commit on the floor of this House this evening that the rates were as they are today. So I can certainly find out that information and provide it to my honourable colleague, but I do not know if indeed the rates were that much in 2000.
Certainly taking into consideration situations like the federal child benefit, the Nova Scotia child benefit and the three years in a row that we've increased the personal allowance and the shelter allowance, Mr. Chairman, it's never enough. We can never
fully satisfy - and I don't think that my 12 year old needs to be in any grave concern that I'm going to be able to work myself right out of a job in the near future - but we will continue to work with the resources that we've got and do the best that we can for all Nova Scotians, indeed, those who need our help the most.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, I want to revert, for a moment, to the Pharmacare issue and the election-based promises in relationship to Pharmacare. I'm wondering if the Department of Community Services is working in sync with the Department of Health to identify some of the new Pharmacare recipients who were in fact promised coverage during the election campaign. I can think of one situation where there is a 65-year- old who is covered with the Pharmacare card and a 62-year-old spouse who has not worked in years or may not have worked at any time, that person may have been a caregiver at home. That 62-year-old does not have coverage. Is there an effort to identify those people who have in fact, fallen through the cracks, as we've heard people say?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I thank my colleague for bringing this very important program to the floor this evening. Indeed, not to confuse the two issues, but the Pharmacare for children is a commitment in this year's estimates that we are debating here this evening, $1 million this year, $2 million next year, and the program will be up and running October 1, 2006 and that provides additional relief for 33,000 children in Nova Scotia. A program that is much needed and indeed leading the way in advances forwarded for our families in Nova Scotia.
The other program, the campaign commitment for the Pharmacare for working families, is indeed a work in progress. As we know, the campaign commitments are not included in this year's budget and therefore those details are being worked on as we speak. I know that the Department of Health and the Department of Community Services will work together jointly to move those initiatives forward and ensure that those plans and those details are available as soon as they possibly can be, Mr. Chairman.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, in exactly one month, one month since the election, I've run into a number of people who are concerned, as I already mentioned, about the once-a-month use of a food bank. I recently was dealing with one single-parent person with three children who, in fact, had already made her visit to the food bank and was in pretty desperate straits. Looking at some of the benefits going to some of the people, amounts of less than $500 per month to survive on, in these days, is just an impossible situation. I'm wondering, I'm sure the department is involved in constant reviews, but certainly some of these lower levels of assistance have to be reviewed?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, my honourable colleague raises an issue that I'm going to have to ask for a little clarification on the initial part, the visiting of the food banks once a month, I'm not sure if that's something that the honourable colleague is
indicating is practiced or is a rule and certainly I'm not sure of that, but I'd be happy to discuss that with him, either on the floor here this evening or after, but those would certainly fall within the purview of the food bank regulators themselves, and certainly as a department, as Community Services, we are very pleased to be able to bring that third year in a row of our increase for the income assistance, up now, once we get this budget through the House, to the $200 per month, and I know that that along with the shelter allowance increase, those other programs that we've all mentioned here this evening that I won't take my honourable colleague's time going over yet again, that all of those programs are offered with the utmost sincerity and honest effort to create that social safety net that is so important for our clients.
Mr. Chairman, would I like to be able to do more? Absolutely. Am I working with what is available right now? A $32 million increase in this department's budget is a wonderful thing for a brand new minister so there are lots of programs I will be looking to bring forward in that $32 million and as we go forward beyond this fiscal year, to bring even more programs to the table. So with that, I will turn it back to my honourable colleague.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The time allotment has expired.
The honourable member for Kings West.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. First of all, I want to congratulate the minister on her appointment and certainly look forward to working with you in the coming weeks and months. I know you have lots of challenges in that department but I certainly appreciate and applaud your enthusiasm for the position and obviously lots of stamina when we look at seven and a half hours here at it today.
For me, I think I will focus on the one area today of housing. Beforehand, I would preface my remarks with one comment that perhaps the minister has already started to delve into a little bit. In my two and a half years here, I guess approaching three now, for me one of the most moving and insightful events that happened here at Province House was the two-day forum on poverty. It was one of the most - certainly I thought - valuable, worthwhile and great recommendations that came out of that. If the minister hasn't taken some time and perhaps leisurely after the next day or so, to take a look at that report, even some of the detailed accounts that are recorded in Hansard, I certainly think it would be very valuable. I know there were two or three presenters who are certainly etched in my memory, and impact on some of the things I strive to hopefully achieve here at Province House.
One of the areas that for me, over the years as a teacher and perhaps Madam Minister encountered the same thing, that is when you had that occasion, because of coaching or a missed bus or whatever, and you bring a child home from school and you
have the child tell you that this is where they live and, of course, you find out, perhaps through some other means later, this is not where they live but this is where they got out because they didn't want to have you discover the home they actually did live in.
Here in my riding, rural poverty is a real thing. There is a lot of old housing stock and we are also in an area where there is population growth. Kings County is one of five counties in the province that is still growing. We get some in-migration due to, of course, harvesting and people come, especially currently from Newfoundland and Labrador, they stay on through that first winter and find themselves looking for housing. They will call my office, they may have gone to Community Services first and, of course, we know there is a considerable wait list and I will allude to that later on.
I know time is moving along here so I just want to get a few questions in. During the election campaign, government committed to accelerating the implementation of an affordable housing agreement, Phase II, within the next 24 months, ensuring hundreds of Nova Scotian families that they would have access two years sooner.
I am wondering, given that Phase II of the agreement was extended to 2008, how does 24 months now actually represent an acceleration?
MS. STREATCH: To my honourable colleague across the way, I thank him for the opportunity to discuss some of these issues here this evening. In my days as an educator and having been raised in rural Nova Scotia, I didn't have occasion to take students home and have that same situation, but I do know there were lots of opportunities where we helped out some students to some laundry facilities at the school and provided them with additional, extra supports. We knew they weren't getting those supports at home. Indeed, those cases are sad and none of us want to see those cases. In my capacity as minister, I'll certainly make sure we move forward to ensure those cases are minimalized.
Specifically to my honourable colleague's question about Phase II of the housing initiative, the 24 months was a commitment that was made and the monies will come forward along with the details as we know exactly where the units will be and exactly what type of units those will look like - whether they'll be renovation, rent subsidy, et cetera. That certainly is something that is attainable and we would envision being able to fulfill that in that 24 months.
MR. GLAVINE: When the provincial government signed Phase I of the agreement, there were media releases indicating up to 1,500 affordable housing agreements would be created or undergo renovation. Could the minister confirm how
many affordable housing units were created through Phase I of the agreement? I wasn't here for some of the earlier discussions today, you may have referenced this already.
According to a press release in March, 2005, 300 units valued at over $20 million, so this would have $17 million left over from Phase I and another $18 million from Phase II. I was wondering if you could provide an update on this program?
MS. STREATCH: Phase I was an opportunity for the provincial government to maximize those federal dollars and be able to bring forth a commitment to Nova Scotians to provide housing in a variety of manners - rent subsidies, renovations, new units, et cetera - across the province.
My honourable colleague asks specifically how many and 928 at the end of Phase I. I did make reference earlier today, so I will again for my honourable colleague, the initial indication of 1,500 was at the beginning of the plan when we were trying to assess exactly whose needs would be met. As a result of greater subsidies that were afforded to more of those lower income earners, we had to adjust that 1,500 to 928 to meet the needs of those who needed it the most.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you for that explanation. I was also wondering, has all the money from Phase I been spent at this stage?
MS. STREATCH: As we move into Phase II, we certainly have allocated the - I'm going to stumble on my dollars - $37.2 million has been committed to the completion of those 928 units.
MR. GLAVINE: I was wondering if you could just maybe touch upon a little of the overall action plan then for Phase II, if there are some breakdowns of types of housing, et cetera within Phase II?
MS. STREATCH: My honourable colleague surprised me. I was ready for the next question to be how many were in my area as I had been asked earlier. I had my list ready to table and provide to him later. Indeed, if he'd like to see that list, I offer that in a proactive manner for him if he would like to review that list.
The $18.9 million that's committed to Phase II will include extra units, more units for those who need it the most, for those low income units that we need to place across the province. The details of where those may be are not finalized at this point, of course. We need to consult with all four regions of the province to decide where the greatest need is and what types of units we will be able to provide, but it is for those most needy, the low income.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I know on a couple of occasions when I was in the House today that members did offer the opportunity to come into their riding and take a look at some of the housing stock, but for now I'll just ask the minister if she is aware of the wait list in Kings County needing affordable housing? Many of these cases have already gone through the background and assessment process of Community Services. So I was just wanting to know if the minister does have a grasp on that need that is so real in Kings County?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as I have made known to all members of this House earlier, I take the responsibilities of being minister very seriously. I've accepted the challenge to go to my honourable colleague's riding, the member for Preston. My honourable colleague, the member for Annapolis, has invited me down to his riding, as well. I made a commitment that I will be working my way across the province in an effort to better understand the needs of each and every one of our 52 constituencies, because it is the entire province that is my responsibility through this Phase II and in the days to come.
The question my honourable colleague raised about the specific wait list in Kings County, I can indicate the same as I indicated to my honourable colleague, the member for Shelburne, that I do not have it specific for Kings County, but I do have it for the region. I would be more than happy to provide that for my honourable colleague and review that with him as we continue to receive proposals for Phase II to see where the need most is across this province.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you, Madam Minister. I certainly look forward to that. I was going to ask about the plan for Kings County, Kings West in particular, in terms of possible projects. I will take that up with the minister at a later time.
One of the things I would like to ask the minister a question on is from Page 4.4 of the Supplementary Detail. At one point in time, the department used to break down the revenues and recoveries portion of the housing programs to amounts the department receives from other levels of government, as well as rental income. I note this breakdown is no longer available. So I was wondering if the minister could outline the breakdown of the following estimates in terms of this fiscal year: rental and other income, recoveries from the Government of Canada, recoveries from the municipalities, and whatever other recoveries are there? So just to review again, Madam Minister, the rental and other income, recoveries from the Government of Canada, recoveries from municipalities, and recoveries from other sources.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as we've worked our way through the day, at various occasions staff have had immediate answers, and then we've allowed for a few moments to go by and another question, and the answer has presented itself. So to my honourable colleague across the way, I can offer the approximation, but I can get him the
exact figures. Indeed, it's approximately 12 per cent of the housing total costs which, as I understand, would be an approximate $12 million price tag, or $10.5 million price tag. I will certainly get the details and the breakdown for my honourable colleague at the earliest possible opportunity.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, just perhaps a couple of specific questions to finish off with, and then my colleague, the member for Annapolis, will have a couple of further questions to finish off the day.
There are seniors apartments in the Waterville area - I'm trying to think of the name, it's Oakview or Oak Heights, the name of these particular apartments - while they're designated as senior, it becomes almost a multi-use facility at times. I am not sure if that is due to, again, the tremendous pressures for affordable housing, that when a unit is vacant and there is an emergency whether families go to those particular units. I am just wondering what the policy is that allows that to occur? I know that at times it can present problems if the stays are lengthy, and there doesn't seem to be compatibility with seniors who are in the complex. I was wondering what the minister's take is on that as to why it does happen.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I can well imagine the challenges that would pose as we bring together the needs of seniors versus families and children and some of those complex cases that I am sure would be involved in the placement, if it is an emergency placement, et cetera.
I have to acknowledge that I am not clear on whether there is a departmental policy regarding that, but I would be more than happy to go back to staff and ask them if there is a policy statement regarding that and perhaps to get better clarification and acknowledge the challenges that presents, and perhaps flag that as something that needs to be reviewed in the department.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I didn't go into a couple of the cases involved with that because they are somewhat lengthy and they have the details of what they have experienced, et cetera. I think the minister has grasped exactly what the circumstances are around those kinds of cases.
One other specific area to my riding is the affordable housing units, Lincoln Street, in Kingston. I am wondering, is Phase II incorporating renovations for affordable housing and are there are any targeted in the Kings County area?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I was just getting clarification. That specific project, I don't know if there are dollars being allocated there or not. We do have additional dollars in the budget this year, in the estimates this evening, for renovations to existing housing facilities and, indeed, Phase II will include a portion of that $18
million for increased renovations across the province, prioritized by the four regions. So exactly how many dollars may be going to the western region I am not certain at this point, but I would be more than happy to sit down with my honourable colleague and go over some of those that he may feel are priority.
MR. GLAVINE: Madam Minister, I thank you for those straightforward responses this evening and, likewise, look forward to further discussions on some of the issues that I have. I have been and continue to be on the Standing Committee on Community Services, so I am sure there will be other issues along the way.
With that, I will let my colleague, the member for Annapolis, who has many of the same concerns, finish up.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Annapolis.
MR. STEPHEN MCNEIL: I would be remiss if I didn't mention the housing problems in Annapolis. That is not what I am going to talk about tonight, but I will just put that on the record. So, if we are building housing - yes, right after long-term care. How much time is left, Mr. Chairman?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ten minutes and 15 seconds.
MR. MCNEIL: I just want to ask you to go to Page 4.3 in the estimates, the Early Childhood Development Initiatives Funding. When you look at administration and infrastructure, it is going up by $587,000, and program staffing is decreasing by $160,000. I wonder, could you explain to me those numbers?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, in these last 10 minutes, the more specific the question the better.
I thank my honourable colleague and I know he wants to hear me say, yet again, that I agree with one of his suggestions because we were batting a thousand there earlier. So, I know that he's anxiously awaiting - and I'll be very careful on what his questions are so that I don't get myself in any hot water, but indeed the question my honourable colleague raises about the early childhood funding is a reflection of the 10-year sustainable plan that we released in May. Indeed this is not a shortfall on one part of the department versus another, but it is a reallocation to sustain that 10-year plan of the child care plan that we introduced in May. If the question is more specific, then I'll ask for clarification from my colleague.
MR. MCNEIL: First of all, I will say we agreed so much today that I was going to ask when your deputy was retiring, because I might want to apply for the job - but his job's not reviewed every two years like mine has been so far.
I'm not sure I understand your explanation. I know it's over a 10-year period, but why would there be a front load on administration and infrastructure and a drop in staffing? I assume - let's take today as the base and we have a drop in staff, we wouldn't be knocking staff out would we, we would be increasing if we were going towards a long-term plan of 10 years?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I have received clarification as to the specific question that the member was posing, and there are many positive aspects to this 10-year child care plan. One of those I know will be of special interest, or particular interest, to the member for Annapolis because it pertains to the accessibility, the availability, of child care options information, et cetera, from an IT perspective. So it's that training availability that we will be providing for the regions across the province that we're so very pleased to be able to do for our workers and indeed for parents.
Parents will be able to access forms and applications on-line, and the IT component of that is the project which will better service all of our families across the province, and so that's the front end amount that he's referring to. It's to better provide those services across Nova Scotia, to families to better access the information that they're looking for.
MR. MCNEIL: I guess the follow-up to that would be the staffing issue. The reduction, the drop of $160,000 - the staff issue.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed, those staff that my honourable colleague is referencing were staff who were involved in the upfronting and the creating, and those staff will be reallocated as we work our way through the plan - and that accounts for the differentiation.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, on the same page, in the Forecast, there is the Early Learning and Child Care Programs - Phase II, the forecasted amount is blank, there's nothing there. Does that mean that the money that was allocated by the federal government last year was not spent?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed, the answer to that question is one that I posed to staff myself when looking through, wondering where that $20 million had been forecasted, and that actually is money that has been banked to provide for the $130 million plan that will be sustained over the 10-year period. So we didn't lose those dollars, we banked those, to include those in the 10-year sustainable plan.
MR. MCNEIL: So, I'm assuming then that the $12 million, which is still not accounted for, is still banked?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, could I get clarification on that, I'm not sure what the $12 million is that . . .
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, if you look at the estimate, it's $20 million and then if you go across to 2006-07, the estimate is $78 million, so there's $12 million missing.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, that is an indication of the reinvestment of that money over the 10-year sustainable plan of the child care announcement.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, if you look at Page 4.1 of the Supplementary Detail, Early Learning and Child Care Program, there will be an infusion of $39.1 million. The agreement with the federal government is $39.2 million. Does that mean the $39.1 million is all federal money, or is there provincial money in it? How is that divvied up there, because the two numbers aren't the same?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, once in a while it gives me great pleasure to say that the feds have come to the table and, in this case, the $20.4 million and the $18.7 million are all federal dollars.
MR. MCNEIL: There was supposed to be another $14.3 million that was coming to the province this year as the result of an existing agreement. Does that mean that agreement has been cancelled, or is that additional money that will be coming, as well? Or, is the new agreement actually $39 million minus the $14 million?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, there are four agreements that I'll list for the member, and, indeed, the numbers will add. The ECDI, $15.1 million; the ELCC, $8.7 million; the deferred of $4.156 million; and the ELCC Phase II, $7.8 million, for a total of $35.756 million, which I believe is the dollar figure that my honourable colleague is looking for.
MR. MCNEIL: The number in the agreement was $39.2 million, I think. I guess what I'm wondering is the announcement, then, there was additional money put on existing agreements, basically, that had already been signed between the province and the federal government, and have been re-announced as a new, larger agreement. Would that be correct?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I know this is very detailed and it's getting late, but I believe that is in subsequent years that my honourable colleague will find those dollars he was looking for in the last question.
MR. MCNEIL: Well, I'll stop at that point, Madam Minister. I want to thank you tonight, and all day, for putting in the service. I look forward to seeing this department be reshaped under you. As I told you earlier, I think you're in a position, actually, to change the face of Nova Scotia for many Nova Scotians who actually need our support, need government support. You need to recognize not only from the people sitting in this House, but all Nova Scotians are telling you that this department needs a major review, and I encourage you to push forward with that review. Then, as we continue to make sure those who are trying to access your department feel that they are being dealt with in the manner to which all Nova Scotians want to be dealt with, and that is with respect and dignity.
I look forward to that and, over the next year, working towards helping to implement some of those things. With that, Mr. Chairman, I'll sit down. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Community Services to close the debate.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it gives me great pleasure to rise to close debate. I hope all members here today have learned more about the Department of Community Services and the good work that is being done around the province on behalf of those who need our help. Indeed, I want to thank all members of the House who have offered their support as we move forward with some of these new initiatives that I know I can count on support from all around this House. We would also like to do more, but you have my assurance that we will deliver the programs and services laid out in this budget in the most responsible and cost-effective manner. In the year ahead, we will continue our efforts to help Nova Scotians in need.
In closing debate on these estimates, Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to move Resolution E2.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E2 stand?
Resolution E2 stands.
Order, please. The time allotted for today has expired.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. MICHAEL BAKER: Mr. Chairman, I would move that the committee do now rise, report considerable progress and beg leave to sit again on a future day.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[ The committee rose at 8:42 p.m.]