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The Globe and Mail

Tories move probe of Veterans Affairs cuts behind closed doors

A Canadian veteran wears his medals ahead of 2010 Remembrance Day ceremonies in New Victoria, N.S.

PAUL DARROW/paul darrow The Globe and Mail

An opposition manoeuvre that prompted a public exploration of the effects of cuts at the Veterans Affairs department could come to a quick end.

The Commons committee investigating the issue went behind closed doors Tuesday after hearing from just one set of witnesses in its study of the reduction of $226-million over two years to the department's $3.5-billion budget.

What went on while committee was in camera is a secret. And the members will continue their debate in private at the next committee meeting on Thursday. But the Conservatives on the committee appear ready to stop the discussion before witnesses who oppose the cuts can be called.

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The Conservatives, who hold the majority of seats, originally determined that the committee would spend its time deliberating commemorative celebrations for veterans.

But, when one of the Tories was briefly absent last week, Liberal MP Sean Casey took advantage of a temporary opposition majority to turn the discussion to the budgetary reductions.

The Tories allowed the new line of inquiry to proceed – to a point.

Without consulting with the opposition members on the committee, they invited two Veterans Affairs bureaucrats – Keith Hillier, the assistant deputy minister of service delivery, and James Gilbert, the assistant deputy minister of policy, communications and commemoration – to offer assurances that the cuts will not affect services and benefits to veterans.

Once Mr. Hillier and Mr. Gilbert gave their testimony, the public portion of the committee meeting ended.

Mr. Hillier explained that the number of "traditional" veterans of the Second World War and Korea is expected to decrease by 42 per cent over the next five years as they succumb to old age. Meanwhile, the number of new veterans from conflicts like Afghanistan is expected to increase by just 24 per cent over the same period, he said.

A declining overall number of veterans means the department will be serving a reduced number of clients, Mr. Hillier said. The "demographic shift taking place does not represent any cuts or reductions in programs or services to Canada's veterans," he explained. "We simply expect to have a lower uptake of our programs due to fewer veterans."

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The department is also modernizing, he said, moving from paper processes to digitized information that could result in 500 job losses. But front-line workers will not be cut, Mr. Hillier told MPs.

Guy Parent, the veterans ombudsman, told a Senate committee this fall that the number of traditional veterans is not dropping as fast as projected and the department does not know how many new veterans will take advantage of benefits programs.

Mr. Casey has a long list of witnesses that he would like to call, including Mr. Parent.

"The problem that I have is that if we terminate this line of inquiry now, we have a very prominent and capable officer of Parliament, the veterans ombudsman, who says the death rate is not justification for $226-million in cuts," Mr. Casey said. "The math doesn't add up."

But Mr. Hillier said that if the department needs more money to pay for services and veterans, it will be provided. "Whether one more veteran comes forward, or 10,000 come forward," Mr. Hillier said, "the money is there to make sure they get the services and benefits that they receive."

Like all other departments, Veterans Affairs is undergoing a program review that requires all departments and agencies to slash between five and 10 per cent of their budgets. That review has been done, Mr. Hillier said, and it could result in job losses. But no decisions have been made, he said, and the program review is a "separate issue" to the cuts that have already been announced.

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