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Liberals fail to win support for latest CERB bill on fraud fines, jail time

What options do you have once CERB runs out?
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit has been a lifeline for many Canadians who found themselves out of work because of COVID-19, but what happens when it runs out? Economics Professor Tammy Schirle discusses ways the federal government can continue to provide financial support to CERB applicants who need it.

Opposition parties have blocked a government attempt to debate and speed up the process of voting on a bill to adjust the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

The Conservatives, Bloc Quebecois, NDP and Greens all denied unanimous consent to a motion asking the House of Commons to debate and vote on the bill under the accelerated time frame that has been used for the last four coronavirus emergency support bills.

That came after the Liberals tried to split the bill into two separate pieces of legislation in a bid to gain support: one bill that would have dealt only with the section authorizing the rolling out of support payments to Canadians with disabilities, and another dealing with the penalties and fines for fraudulent CERB applications.

The bill is now effectively frozen at first reading with no clear path forward.

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The House of Commons is not scheduled to meet again until June 17 and there are already several other items scheduled for discussion at that time.

“At this moment, I don’t know yet what the next step is,” said Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez when asked if he anticipates a second try at getting consent for the bill at that point.

“I need to talk to the other parties. We were working extremely hard on this clear path to help Canadians, clear path to help Canadians with disabilities. The next step is not as clear.”

READ MORE: Fraudulent CERB applications could land Canadians with $5K fine, jail time

Rodriguez had said earlier in the day that the Liberals were holding out hope for a deal with opposition parties but acknowledged the chances were getting slim.

“I don’t feel that we’re heading to unanimous consent, but maybe things can change,” Rodriguez told journalists in Ottawa on Wednesday morning.

“I’m an optimist. I remember one night we got a deal at 3 a.m.”

Pablo Rodriguez on prospect of CERB bill being passed: ‘I’m an optimist’
Pablo Rodriguez on prospect of CERB bill being passed: ‘I’m an optimist’

While a spirit of non-partisanship among the parties has allowed for the swift passage of several rounds of emergency legislation in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, that goodwill appears to have run out, and that means several promised measures will effectively be in limbo.

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READ MORE: Trudeau loses NDP support for CERB reform bill that would punish fraudsters

Among them are a one-time payment to Canadians with disabilities and a proposal to impose penalties on those who fraudulently claim the CERB or those who claim it after refusing to go back to work.

The legislation states that the penalties for fraudulently claiming the benefit would be either a fine of up to $5,000 along with up to double the amount of the benefit that was fraudulently received, or a fine of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail.

Claimants would also face a penalty if they “fail to return to work when it is reasonable to do so and the employer makes a request for their return; fail to resume self-employment when it is reasonable to do so; or decline a reasonable job offer when they are able to work.”

That penalty for claiming the benefit while refusing to work would be up to triple the amount improperly claimed once the individual was able to return to work.

But while the minority Liberals need the support of only one party to pass the legislation, they need unanimous consent from all parties to achieve the first step of actually being able to debate the bill in the House of Commons on the accelerated timeline being used for pandemic-related bills.

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Normally, bills can take months of study and debate, but by getting unanimous consent for a much quicker time frame — usually just several hours of debate — legislation can be passed through the House of Commons in a single day.

However, all three main opposition parties have laid out major concerns or conditions for their support that the government appears unlikely to yield to at this point.

The NDP has expressed fears that the penalties could force vulnerable workers back into unsafe conditions, while the Conservatives want a full resumption of House of Commons business.

The Bloc Québécois wants a fiscal update, a first ministers meeting on health care before September and for the government to ban political parties from using the wage subsidy program.

Federal government to crack down on CERB cheaters
Federal government to crack down on CERB cheaters

Government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Canadian Press because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the government will, if necessary, find other ways to deliver on some of the measures that are included in the bill, although that could entail delays.

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In particular, they said the government will follow through on the promised one-time tax-free payment of up to $600 for Canadians with disabilities announced by Trudeau last week.

The bill includes a provision to allow Revenue Canada to share information so that the benefit can be delivered to Canadians who are eligible for the disability tax credit.

Officials said a different delivery mechanism can be found if necessary.

— With files from the Canadian Press