On Thursday May 27th, I had an opportunity to ask questions and to speak at second reading of Bill 72, the Disability Support Act, and Amendments to the Manitoba Assistance Act. My remarks and my questions with the Minister’s responses are below:
Bill 72–The Disability Support Act and Amendments to The Manitoba Assistance Act
Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): I certainly want to put a few comments on the record on this bill, which I think is an important bill and could potentially be an important step forward.
I will say that the Manitoba Liberals proposed that there should be a separate approach to people with disabilities. That was about 20 years ago. So it's good that the PCs are only 20 years behind us. Of course, the NDP never got there in 17 years. They maintained the status quo, and that's unfortunate; unfortunate for people with disabilities, unfortunate for all of Manitoba.
Now, as I understand this proposal, it would provide for a more secure approach for those who have severe and long-term disabilities. It would also provide the potential for more individualized approach. It would not require that individuals search for employment, but that if they would like training or support in order to learn or to have the potential for employment down the road, that that would be available to them.
These steps can be potentially very good, but of course much will be in the regulations. So, as one individual who's concerned about people with disabilities said to me: The devil is in the details as to whether this will turn out to be a good thing or not.
I'm pleased that there's going to be consultations with individuals and organizations in the disability community. This will be absolutely vital, in order to get measures and regulations which are workable and which will be helpful to those with severe and long-term prolonged disabilities.
I have some concerns and I will list these. First of all, the definitions of what is a severe disability–clearly, a severe physical or a mental disability should be eligible. There are instances, I suggest, where somebody who has a chronic addiction, which is essentially a chronic mental illness, should also be included on an individualized basis because I think that that is the kind of security that some individuals with addictions need in order to be able to access these supports and the help that they need to make progress and to get their lives turned around.
A prolonged disability: There seems to be an indication that this would be a disability for a year. I think very often, speaking from a medical perspective, one can make a judgment without having to wait a year to assess the extent of the disability, and I would hope that the government would enable this.
That is to say that just from an assessment of the type of disability that a person has and the type of medical condition, it should be possible to make a judgement of whether the disability will be long term in many circumstances. You know, one can't always predict, but certainly in many circumstances it should be possible to say that an individual fits the category of a prolonged disability without having to wait a long time.
It has been suggested–which I think is a suggestion which should be taken into consideration–that this category might include both those with a severe disability which is not necessarily prolonged and those with a prolonged disability which is not necessarily as severe as the government seems to indicate. So I hope that the government will look at those options.
There is a concern that many of the supports may just be the supports which have been present under EIA, that this could be just changing the name without really changing the substance. If this is going to be effective, the goal can't be just EIA under a different name; it needs to be something that is focused and needed and helpful to people with a long-term disability.
I would like to suggest to the government several areas where there are particular concerns. In this bill, the government has the ability to put a lien on a property where the government has contributed dollars to that property. There may be some instances where the government contributes a large sum, a single large sum of money to purchase a home or an apartment or make it into a condo, what have you, and that, you know, it would be justifiable for the government to take a lien on that property.
But on the other hand, if money from what would ordinarily be a rental allowance was able to be used in some circumstances by the person to pay on a mortgage–to pay for a home, so the person can build equity–then the government shouldn't take a lien on that property. That should be allowed.
Why can't somebody with a severe prolonged disability use the same money for equity in a home as they would be using to rent a home, just like others have that choice. Now given the amount of support, that may not often be possible, but where it can be, there's no reason it should not be.
Gifts from friends and families should not be considered as income. Most of the time, when friends or families provide funds for somebody who has a severe disability, they are providing those for a specific need or purpose, or so that the person with a disability can have, on occasion, a little extra money for something special. This shouldn't be clawed back. It shouldn't be considered as income under the program and clawed back as earned income is in the same way. I think that's not fair.
Earnings shouldn't be clawed back, as they currently are, as severely as under EIA at the moment. As an example, we shouldn't be taxing–which is essentially what you're doing when you're clawing back money–individuals with a severe and prolonged disability at a higher rate than they would if they were earning, you know, that particular level of income total.
So if somebody was earning $20,000 or had an income from–both from the support from this program and from what they earn of $20,000, their marginal tax rate should be the same as somebody who's earning $20,000. It shouldn't be 90 per cent after the first hundred or 200 dollars as it is today. So that this would allow individuals to retain more of the money that they earn without having to feel that everything they earn is being taken away from them which is not fair, and that's a bad system.
In fact, under the current system, what happens is that people often don't report that. It becomes a gotcha game on behalf of some of the people who work in EIA. But I mean, the fact is that we shouldn't be clawing back money or taxing it at a higher level in the way we are currently. We should change that.
It should be easy to add income without moving out of the program, recognizing that a person with a severe and prolonged disability is starting behind others, quite frankly, and the ability to have employment, to work, to manage conditions for themselves–there are often a lot of extra costs either from equipment or from therapies which are needed and, you know, this is not reasonable to be clawing back all the income that people are earning or the large majority of it.
It's important, with this program, to give people more flexibility. The program shouldn't try to control people's lives. EIA too often ends up putting people into a straitjacket and it is often not a happy straitjacket or an easy straitjacket because they become very limited in terms of what they can do. They feel they're being watched every move they make. And we need to be able to make people's lives a little more livable, a little more friendly, a little happier.
It is good that there is an appeal process. That appeal process needs people sitting on the board who have had lived experience. Those who have disabilities should form a considerable portion of the people on that appeal board so they understand what it is really like to live with a disability and can be really helpful.
There needs to be a process, clearly, for people who are moving off the program, who have got work, if–and we should congratulate them for that success. But there needs to be some security in terms of the ability to get back on the program if needed. There needs to be a situation where the people do not feel like they're taking a huge risk. It should be easy to move on and off the program so that it is a seamless change and not one which has got lots of hurdles.
The current legislation constantly includes changes in the income of a spouse or common-law partner. I think one has to be very careful with this, and part of the reason is this: A number of years ago, I was visiting in New Zealand, and we met with individuals in the disability community there who had been fighting hard to get a better situation. And what they had realized was that a very high proportion of instances where one of two partners or a spouse was severely injured in a car accident, that a very high proportion of those relationships ended up breaking up.
And why was that? That was in part because the demands of looking after somebody with a disability were so high that, in fact, it burnt out people or it resulted in them having to use a large proportion of what they earned to help their partner who had a disability and get them the support.
So it's really important to be able to create a little more distance between the income of the spouse or common-law partner and the individual with a severe disability. The person with a severe disability needs their ability to have, even within this relationship, some independence; independence in terms of financial stability, financial security.
And to have a situation where the whole burden is put on the partner is not satisfactory, because what you end up doing is breaking up really good and strong relationships which just can't stand the sort of pressure that is put on them. And we need to do better than that. We need to recognize this.
In the section in this bill under the Manitoba assistance amendment act, similar to what I've already said, we should be very careful about including as income gifts and gratuities. We should be careful in terms of including in income all real and personal property. There has been a tendency in the past to force people to sell property or take it away. You know, we should enable people to have some stability in their circumstances without having to take away lots of property, including the house and putting people really on a straitjacket under–whether it's EIA or under this new program.
So under the regular EIA there is a need to look at this issue of clawing back at a marginal tax rate. This is an area which would really help with some changes. For people who start to earn or have ability temporarily to earn income, to have their income, you know, all taken away is very discouraging and disheartening. We should give people a better chance than that.
Now, I want to, at this point, talk a little bit about where things are going. I said 20 years ago we put forward this sort of a program. We would have been a little clearer on some of the design, as I've already talked about. But now, in fact, what has happened is that there is a clear move toward providing people a minimum basic income.
And, quite frankly, I think that this is the direction that we need to consider. It is a step beyond what this bill is looking at. It provides people much more ability to determine their own situation. It provides a framework for people to earn income without having it taxed back or, clawed back at the rate that it is here, and it provides a situation where people can have a better opportunity to have a better overall income and get out of poverty.
So I think that we should be, in fact, taking a step beyond this and looking at a minimum basic income and implementing that. I know the Conservatives are not there at this point. I think that's a direction that we, as Liberals, have decided that it is worth looking at and moving forward on.
So I, at this point, have some generally favourable things to say about this bill, but at the same time some cautions in terms of how it will actually turn out. We await what will happen at committee stage and the input from people. I hope we have a circumstance where there are many people who come to the committee, who are there, ready to present and provide input and advice.
It is an important forum for people to contribute their ideas for all of us who are MLAs to listen to, and I think it would be a great thing if we had lots and lots of people from the disability community presenting and, at the moment, when we have virtual presenters, that, in fact, should be a lot more possible.
There are many people who are not going to be easily able to attend the usual type of committee meetings that we have but who now can, and I hope in the future that we're going to be able to continue to have virtual presenters because I think that would be a step forward and I think it would be a significant step forward, particularly for individuals with disabilities.
So, thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to put these words on the record. Merci. Miigwech.
Questions and Answers:
Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): My question to the minister is this, just to clarify the requirements for employment for somebody who has got a severe and long-term disability.
Is it correct that they will not be required to seek employment but that, on the other hand, that they will not be unable to get training for employment which they might be able to have a chance to get, even with their disability?
Ms. Squires: That is a great question. I thank my friend from River Heights for that question.
Of course, we want all people with disabilities to live full lives and realize their full potential, and if there is other programming that is relevant to their situation that they wish to avail themselves to, that would certainly–there's nothing in this legislation that would ever prohibit someone with disabilities from pursuing opportunities.
Mr. Gerrard: This question relates to the–where the government has made a payment in respect of mortgage, principal or arrears.
Now, I can understand that this could apply if the government has paid, you know, tens of thousands of dollars in order to put somebody into a house, but if the individual, for example, was able to have an arrangement so that instead of the money that they get for housing being used for rent it could be used toward mortgage payment, would the government still claim the lean against that house?
Ms. Squires: There are certainly many circumstances where we take a case-by-case approach to having assessments and providing that individual services. And we have worked with many individuals to ensure that they have–are able to have–receive benefits without having a clawback.
We've done that with many of the benefits that some of our EIA recipients have received and certainly we'll continue to look at future benefits or current benefits and make those assessments accordingly.
Mr. Gerrard: My question to the minister is this. If there's an individual with a disability that needs special housing needs, that housing will cost not what it is allocated, which might be in the range of $700, potentially with the Rent Assist component, but costs $1,000. And suppose that they have a family member who would be willing to top up from $700 to $1,000 in order to get that place.
I'm concerned about this section here which talk about that gift from a family member to be considered as income. I'm just trying to understand whether the government will claw back that $300 so the person would not be able to get into that $1,000 rental place–
Mr. Deputy Speaker: The honourable member's time is up.
Ms. Squires: I thank the member for that question.
Of course, there are many exceptions to the benefits that a recipient can receive without having additional clawbacks being taken, such as payments that they've received from other levels of government for–whether it be for a class-action lawsuit or whether it be for–as a survivor–as a residential school.
Those payments were never clawed back. These are something that we look at on a case-by-case basis. This is enabling legislation that allows us to bring in this new income stream for people with disabilities and, of course, a lot of those details will be worked out in the regulations. And I look forward to working with the member on ensuring that our regulations–
Mr. Gerrard: In follow-up to the minister's answer last time, I'd be very concerned if the government was considering as income gifts from a family member which might be, say, less than $500 which are helped and in fact sometimes necessary in order for them to get equipment or to get things that are not covered.
My question this time has to do with whether the disability community will be consulted with regard to the regulations before they're proclaimed.
Ms. Squires: Absolutely. I–we have undertaken to have a very robust consultation thus far. In fact, we've had two rounds of consultation on the legislation, which includes an online survey as well as a large in-person consultation session; that was pre-pandemic, of course. And then, more recently, we've had online focus groups.
What we are going to continue to do is hear from our individuals with disabilities, service providers, advocacy groups and people with lived experience about the legislation and about the corresponding regulations.
We released a What We Heard report last July, and the second What We Heard report is being finalized right now for approval and then released to the public so that the member can see what the consultations bared out.
Mr. Gerrard: In my experience, that is very important if you've got somebody on a chronic severe disability, there may be–particularly if it's a mental health condition, for example–the ability to work some of the time but not all the time.
And so it seems to me and my experience would be that it's very important that people are able to move back and forth in terms of earning income and–so that the program won't drop them when, in fact, they can't earn an income again, and that they would continue on the program.
I wonder what assurance the minister would provide in this respect.
Ms. Squires: I agree with the member that we need to ensure that the supports are there for people living with disabilities can live a full life and achieve their destiny. That is one of the things that we think is very important about this legislation, that right now we would remove that employment obligation that is currently outlined in legislation for them, and that and that employment services will be offered as voluntary only.
We think that that's really important, that people with severe and prolonged disabilities have the ability to achieve a full life and also receive these benefits that are vital to their well-being.
Mr. Gerrard: I ask the minister, am I correct in interpreting what the minister has said as that she is attempting to individualize to a greater extent the kinds of support that people with severe and chronic, long-term disabilities are going to receive in terms of supports?
I wonder if the minister can provide can provide a little bit more detail of how she will approach this ability to individualize support.
Ms. Squires: Certainly, I think that it's very important that we do take a look at the program–the traditional program where people with severe and prolonged disabilities were treated similar to how all the other individuals in the province of Manitoba, which is sometimes around 40,000 individuals, receive EIA benefits.
And the type of client outreach that we would do with the regular non-disabled EIA recipient is very different. And I think that we need to continuously modernize our approach, and when we've got people that we know are on the severe and prolonged disability category, that we have a very tailored approach to suit their needs and help them achieve a better destiny.