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BC law to deny welfare to some; wording too loose says NDP

British Columbia housing and social development minister Rich Coleman today introduced legislation he says will prevent people with outstanding warrants for serious crimes from receiving welfare. But New Democratic Party critic Shane Simpson says the legislation will also affect people who have committed only minor crimes.

“The minister has issued a press release that says one thing and a piece of legislation that says something very different,” said Simpson. “They have a blank cheque on who they can capture with this and that's inappropriate.”

Simpson said he would support a law that targets serious offences, but the legislation as written would also capture crimes like shop lifting. A single mother who steals groceries in desperation should not be treated the same as someone accused of a violent crime, he said.

“If the minister really wants this to be about serious offences, then make it about that,” he said. “Otherwise this looks like a government that has statutory obligations around income assistance looking for ways to tighten their eligibility requirements up and using this as a tool to do that.”

The legislation will require welfare applicants to volunteer whether they have outstanding warrants for their arrests, Simpson said. “It's a bit absurd. Does anybody believe that somebody who has a serious offence in front of them is going to go into their welfare office and say, 'Oh, by the way, I'm wanted for sexual assault in Ontario, can I have welfare?' That's not going to happen.”

Simpson is misinformed about the difference between indictable and other types of offences, said Coleman. “I've heard some of his comments,” he said. “The reality is this is about serious offences, the Canada type wide warrants for offences of violence, sexual assault, those types of things.

“The thing about the shop lifter is a bit of a mug's game,” he said. Indictments for minor crimes like shop lifting rarely proceed, he said. “In the debates in the legislature when we get to committee we'll straighten that out for Shane.”

Asking applicants if they have outstanding warrants makes sense, Coleman said. “If they choose to lie about that and we find out about that, that's welfare fraud and we can proceed with regards to welfare fraud in addition to the other things.”

Applicants will be asked to authorize a criminal background check when they apply for welfare, a ministry official said in an e-mail. If they refuse, they will be denied help. People already receiving welfare or disability assistance will also be required to say each month whether they have outstanding warrants, he said.

The new law will help police with what's sometimes called Con Air, where people wanted in other provinces can be sent back to face charges, Coleman said.

“It allows us to help them with some funding as well,” he said. “It would come out of the social services budget in that case if someone chose to take that option. It's a $2 billion budget and we're pretty comfortable to handle those types of expenses within the budget.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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