Stephen Harper: “Since coming to office … this government has enhanced veterans’ services and programs to the tune of some $5 billion.”
By: Sam Wollenberg on
Stephen Harper, Prime Minister and Conservative MP for Calgary Southwest, in Question Period on January 28, 2015
Government figures show a budget increase of $4.7 billion in Veterans Affairs spending between 2006 and 2014. Looking at actual spending plus cuts affecting service, the $5 billion figure is misleading.FactsCan Score: Misleading
In the House of Commons in January, Stephen Harper responded to questions about his government’s record on veterans support with a repeated claim. He said, “since coming to office … this government has enhanced veterans’ services and programs to the tune of some $5 billion.” Other Conservatives gave a similar figure in 2014 of $4.7 billion.
Did the government spend an additional $4.7 billion on veterans since coming to office?
The Conservatives campaigned on a promise of veterans support before getting elected in 2006, and an early move once in office was the New Veterans Charter. They’ve since introduced new programs and services and, accordingly, spent money.
The $5 billion figure is the net new money the Conservatives claim has gone into Veterans Affairs since coming to office. Put another way, Veterans Affairs 2014 fiscal year budget sits at roughly $3.5 billion, up from $2.8 in 2006 and the accumulation of this increase in funding over the last 8 years totals to what Harper rounded up to $5 billion, or what Veterans Affairs called a cumulative investment of $4.7 billion.
According to the funding breakdown from Veterans Affairs, more than half of the $4.7 billion was allocated for disability awards payments, which reflects the Conservative government’s policy of larger, lump-sum payments to disabled veterans, rather than installments. All other funding increases to the department were for amounts under $0.5 billion, for disability pensions, veterans independence programs, and earnings loss benefits. Finally, $0.3 billion of the total went to supplementing regular operating expenses.
Despite this informative breakdown, the $4.7 billion sum is problematic. A significant amount in allocated funding was returned to the federal treasury as lapsed funding each year, reaching a peak of 8.2 per cent of the entire Veterans Affairs annual budget in the 2006-2007 fiscal year.
This issue came to light when NDP MP John Rafferty submitted an inquiry in December 2013 on the amount Veterans Affairs annually returned to the government between 2006 and 2013. The department revealed more than $1.1 billion of its funding over that period was returned. Due to lack of detail in the budget and no response to FactsCan’s requests for more detailed reports, there is little information on what specific “services and programs” saw lapsed funding.
Veterans Affairs did provide a statement on why the lapsed funding occurred. In a written statement, Janice Summerby, a department spokesperson, said Veterans Affairs “uses forecasting models to estimate our annual benefit expenditures. However, expenses are only incurred for the Veterans who actually come forward to use the program or service.”
But other factors impact the ability of veterans to “come forward.” Recently released reports show the government eliminated around 900 Veterans Affairs staff positions since 2009, going from 4,137 in 2009 to 3,188 employees at the end of 2014. This annual staffing decrease is despite internal risk reports since 2009 that warn the department lacked the capacity to perform its operations. The Globe and Mail reported that these warnings continued each year. In its 2013-2014 report, the department said there was uneven services delivery across the country and “the department may not have the required numbers of staff with the required competencies and corporate knowledge to meet short and long-term program and service obligations.”
According to the Globe and Mail’s report, some of the largest cuts occurred in the disabilities awards branch. This is the same branch that received $2.5 of the $4.7 billion investment and shows how the same services and programs might be impacted by both new funding and cuts.
It is misleading to frame the sum-total the Conservatives have provided over the course of their time in office as an enhancement to veterans services and programs, while staff cuts and lapsed funding have limited delivery of these services and programs.