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Politics Ottawa tackles Social Security Tribunal benefit-claims backlog

Information regarding the Canadian Pension Plan is displayed of the service Canada website in Ottawa on Tuesday, January 31, 2012. Under the Conservative government’s new rules, people denied disability benefits lose the opportunity to directly appeal their cases.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A major backlog in benefit claims for Canadian seniors, the unemployed and people with disabilities is forcing Ottawa to expand the size of its Social Security Tribunal.

The government used a 2012 omnibus budget bill to create the new tribunal, which hears appeals related to the Canada Pension Plan, disability benefits and Employment Insurance and Old Age Security.

Now the Conservative government is using its latest budget bill, introduced on Thursday, to expand it. The new bill removes a line in the original law that capped the size of the tribunal at 74 full-time staff. It also removes limits on the number of hours part-time staff can work.

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The government says the change will allow it to add employees to respond to a backlog of nearly 11,000 cases related to CPP and OAS.

"Lifting both of these caps will help alleviate the current backlog and prevent future backlogs," a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said.

But critics say problems with the tribunal could have been identified and dealt with two years ago had the government created it through stand-alone legislation. The tribunal replaced four separate bodies as part of an effort to save money. Applications to the tribunal are heard by a single person, replacing the three-person panels of the previous system. The new process was also intended to increase the use of remote, rather than in-person, hearings.

"This is hurting people who are the most vulnerable and the most at-risk," Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner said of the backlog. NDP MP Jinny Sims said she hopes the change will address the "chaos" of the current situation.

The government regularly uses budget bills to pass a wide range of measures, including some that have no connection to budget promises. Individual measures in a budget bill receive far less attention and scrutiny from Parliamentary committees than they would if they were introduced as separate bills.

The latest budget bill has 460 numbered pages in addition to an opening summary. It contains a wide-range of previously announced tax changes, including an increase in the Children's Fitness Tax Credit. It also includes a change that will allow provinces to set minimum lengths of time people must be a resident before accessing social assistance benefits.

The bill does not contain changes to Canada's copyright laws, in spite of reports that new measures were expected.

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A report earlier this month by CTV News said the government has been working on a new copyright exception for political advertising. The report cited a memo to cabinet and suggested the move would be included in an omnibus budget bill.

The proposal followed a request to political parties from several television networks that they not use news footage in political ads without the permission of the broadcaster.

The response from Heritage Minister Shelley Glover on Oct. 9 left the impression that the report was accurate. However, Mike Storshaw, a spokesperson for Ms. Glover, confirmed on Friday no copyright changes are in the budget bill.

"Our position on speculation of copyright legislation has always been clear: there is a public interest in ensuring that politicians are accountable for their actions, and accountable for what they say in public settings," he wrote in an e-mail. "Major television networks should not have the ability to censor what can and cannot be broadcast to Canadians. We believe that this has always been protected under the fair dealing provisions of the law."

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