10/29/2014 10:51 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST

Nova Scotia pension monitor warns against broadening rules to unlock funds

HALIFAX - Allowing people easier access to their pensions for hardship reasons before they reach retirement age could create long-term financial problems for many with meagre benefits, warns Nova Scotia's superintendent of pensions.

Nancy MacNeill Smith told a legislature committee Wednesday that the province has a significant number of low-income pensioners and unlocking plans while people are still of working age could create financial hardship in their retirement years.

"I would hate to see an increase in the number of pensioners who are in extreme poverty," she told the standing committee on public accounts.

MacNeill Smith said the primary causes of people asking for early help are unemployment and under-employment.

A recent report said her office dealt with 3,000 hardship applications between 2007 and 2013.

MacNeill Smith said there were 559 applications last year and about 60 per cent were approved for expenses such as medical bills to treat illnesses or disabilities and help for those facing eviction for mortgage or rental arrears.

She said the numbers of applications have remained stable, although there are spikes when there are layoffs at major employers.

While there are always going to be unique circumstances and people in need, MacNeill Smith said the question is whether other government programs should be dealing with specific needs that are being addressed by early access to pensions.

"If you broaden it to the point where individuals can unlock it for a multitude of reasons, you are losing the focus of what those funds are intended for," MacNeill Smith said.

But acting NDP leader Maureen MacDonald said the program's criteria is too rigid and should be broadened to help people when government programs can't.

MacDonald said people don't face the same restrictions when they want to access RRSPs and it should be no different for pensions.

"They are considered adult enough to be able to make those decisions that they need that money now," said MacDonald. "We don't say no they can't do that but we do with these pension funds."

Premier Stephen McNeil said his government is constantly assessing the pension hardship program and could consider future changes, although he said MacNeill Smith's point is well-taken.

"I think she is striking at the heart of this and we have to strike a balance," said McNeil.

He said if there are changes that can free up money for people experiencing immediate hardship with long-term consequences, the government should consider them.

Progressive Conservative member Tim Houston has introduced a bill calling for unlocking to be extended for home renovations in the case of medical needs or when homes are structurally damaged to the point that they could become uninhabitable.