The Liberal government is proposing legislation that would impose tighter rules for claiming the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and is threatening to impose fines and jail time on those who deliberately lie on applications.
The bill comes as the government faces pressure from the Conservatives on the one hand to weed out fraudulent claims and urge people to get back to work — and pressure from the NDP on the other hand to extend emergency aid and avoid going after Canadians who file ineligible claims.
In a bill to be tabled in the House of Commons Wednesday, the government says Canadians won’t be eligible to claim the benefit if:
- They fail to go back to work when it is reasonable to do so, and their employer asks them to return.
- They fail to resume self-employment when it’s reasonable to do so.
- They decline a reasonable job offer when they are able to work.
The bill also lays out penalties for claimants whose applications include information that is “false or misleading,” and for those who “knowingly failed” to disclose sources of income or other relevant facts when they applied for the federal aid.
An offence could net a fine of up to $5,000, plus a penalty equal to double the amount of the income support claimed, or a fine plus a period of imprisonment up to six months, according to proposed legislation.
The bill says the government can rescind or reduce the penalty in response to new facts, and can issue a warning instead of a penalty.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday the bill is meant to protect the integrity of the program. He said the government acted fast to get money out the door for desperate Canadians, and that anyone who received money in error because they weren’t clear on the rules will simply be asked to repay the money.
“We’re not looking to punish people who made honest mistakes,” he said.
But the government will crack down on the small minority of “deliberate fraudsters” who took advantage of the pandemic and collected benefits they knew they weren’t eligible for, Trudeau said.
About eight million Canadians have received CERB, which offers people about $2,000 a month for up to 16 weeks.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh accused the government of “criminalizing” people who collected benefits in error, and suggested the penalties will harm the most vulnerable Canadians.
“The government has said, ‘It’s okay, try anyways, apply in good faith, you won’t get in trouble,'” he said. “Now they’re saying you’re going to get in trouble and that’s going to impact, without a doubt, racialized people more than anyone else.”
Federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough told Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos that with both the CERB and the new pandemic benefit for students, the government’s aim is simply to get money back from ineligible applicants.
“There’s not going to be penalties, and we’re not going to punish people if they did it in good faith,” she said on May 14. “But at the end of the day, there’s rigour at the end of the process and we will figure that all out.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has called on the government to clamp down on fraudulent claims for benefits, and also has urged the government to revamp programs so that workers are encouraged to go back to work as soon as it’s safe to do so to help the economy recover.