Liberal finance chair says government hasn’t been clear enough about risks of pandemic benefit fraud

The Liberal chair of the Commons finance committee says the federal government hasn’t been clear enough with Canadians about the sanctions they could face for improperly receiving the COVID-19 emergency response benefit — and Ottawa should do more to actively discourage bogus applicants.

CBC News has documented cases of Canadians, notably prisoners, claiming the $2,000 monthly benefit when they don’t qualify.

The National Post has published internal memos that instruct public servants to process claims even if they suspect the applicant isn’t eligible.

When pressed about fraud Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government was eager to get the support money out to Canadians as quickly as possible and it was willing to accept some impropriety.

“If it meant even accepting that 1 or 2 per cent might make fraudulent claims, that was the choice that we gladly made. We needed to get help to Canadians immediately and that’s what we did,” Trudeau told reporters at his daily briefing.

The government has so far refused to say how many cheques have knowingly been sent to people who are ineligible. Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough told CBC’s Power & Politics Wednesday that fewer than 200,000 claims have been red-flagged so far. The government has processed more than 7.8 million payments to this point.

P.E.I. Liberal MP Wayne Easter, the finance committee chair, said the money should be clawed back from those who are ineligible in order to protect the integrity of the system.

“The government has to make it clear that we’re not going to accept what is outright fraud and that money will be hauled back in. I think somebody needs to be clear,” Easter told Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who was a witness before the committee Thursday.

“The answer, to be honest, hasn’t been clear from the minister or the prime minister on that issue,” Easter added.

He acknowledged errors are inevitable in a system of this size — some of his constituents were automatically enrolled in CERB in error, he said — but the government should discourage “outright fraud.”

Morneau faced repeated questions at committee from Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative finance critic, about these claimants. Morneau said again that the government’s primary focus has been on getting cash to those who need it.

But after Easter’s remarks, Morneau promised action down the line to recoup funds, saying the benefit is only intended for a certain subset of the Canadian population — those who have lost most of their income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’d encourage people to be fair and honest in their attestation because the ramifications of not being [honest will be] a problem for them afterwards,” Morneau said, citing the terms applicants must agree to before submitting a CERB application.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau responds to a call by Commons Finance committee chair Wayne Easter that cheating won’t be tolerated by Ottawa on COVID relief 2:08

“The fact that there are some people who are committing fraud, or that there are accidents, is a problem and we’re going to have to come back to these problems. For people who are fraudulent — it’s not acceptable.”

Cliff Groen, a senior public servant in Service Canada’s benefit delivery services branch, told the committee today that a departmental memo was issued to bureaucrats instructing them to process payments even in cases where they suspect abuse.

But Groen said there are measures available to recoup money in future for people who do not meet the program requirements.

To qualify for the CERB, an applicant must be a Canadian resident over 15 years of age who has been forced to stop working because of the pandemic. The applicant also must have earned a minimum of $5,000 over the last 12 months and must expect to make less than $1,000 a month while collecting the benefit.

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