Canada's Social Development Minister has increased the size of the Social Security Tribunal to deal with a stagnant backlog of more than 11,000 appeals, mostly from people seeking disability benefits under the Canada Pension Plan.
Jason Kenney told the human resources committee of the House of Commons on Thursday that, when he was appointed in July, 2013, he was dismayed to learn of the number of people who were waiting to have their cases heard by the tribunal, which also handles appeals of Employment Insurance decisions.
The old Pension Appeals Board, which was replaced by the Social Security Tribunal (SST), had not informed the human resources department about the number of unresolved cases, Mr. Kenney told the committee. "This was an unexpected legacy backlog and I have, ever since I was appointed, been working very intensively with the chairman of the tribunal on fixing it."
Just before arriving at the committee on Thursday morning, he said, he had appointed an additional 22 part-time tribunal members. He has also shifted 12 members from the Employment Insurance section of the tribunal, where the queue has become manageable, to the overloaded CPP and Old Age Security section.
"The tribunal is doing a productivity model to see how many additional decision makers we may need to hire," Mr. Kenney later told reporters. "We now have basically over 100 decision makers working on the CPP side of the tribunal. I'm confident that [the backlog is] going to be coming down and, if we have to take additional steps, we will."
The Conservative government moved in 2013 to replace the Pension Appeals Board, which had more than 1,000 part-time referees, with the tribunal which had a legislated cap of 74 full-time members.
The tribunal inherited 7,224 appeals of income-security cases from its predecessor, most of them related to CPP disability. But in the first 13 months of the SST's operation, tribunal members heard just 348 CPP and OAS appeals while more than 3,000 new cases were added to the backlog. As a result, some sick and injured Canadians have been waiting years to get the benefits to which they are entitled.
Rodger Cuzner, the Liberal critic for social development who sits on the human resources committee, questioned Mr. Kenney's determination to resolve the problem. He pointed out that, six months after Mr. Kenney was appointed, there were still just 48 members of the tribunal with a large number of positions waiting to be filled.
"You inherited that large backlog, but it didn't seem that you inherited that degree of urgency to address the staffing shortfall within the SST," Mr. Cuzner said.
Mr. Kenney disagreed. He said he asked his staff to fill the tribunal vacancies as quickly as possible. But the minister told the committee he was hampered by a multiple-stage, pre-screening process that can last 12 months. That left him with a shortage of qualified applicants, he said.
"And let me be blunt," Mr. Kenney said. "The reason we put in that rigorous pre-screening process, as we did at the [Immigration and Refugee Board], is to make sure that we don't end up with unqualified patronage appointees."
A Globe and Mail review of the appointees to the tribunal that was conducted in May, 2013, found at least half of the 43 members appointed at that time had ties to the Conservatives.
On the Employment Insurance side, Mr. Kenney said the department has implemented a new, non-adversarial process which sees Service Canada agents call EI applicants to fix errors on claim applications before they can be rejected. That has reduced the number of EI appeals landing at the SST by 90 per cent.