12/08/2014 06:07 EST | Updated 02/07/2015 05:59 EST

Debate over veterans marked by duelling job descriptions in Commons

OTTAWA - The debate over staff reductions at Veterans Affairs descended into duelling job descriptions Monday as the Conservatives insisted that the disability and health-care roles that were cut were back-room bureaucratic positions.

Departmental performance reports going back to 2009 show that the number of employees in the part of the department that decides and manages pension eligibility for ex-soldiers was reduced by 33 per cent.

The section that oversees the delivery of health care and helps soldiers return to civilian life was cut 19.5 per cent; staff levels at the commemoration branch were reduced by 17 per cent.

Internal services, the principal administrative and support arm of the department, was reduced by just 10 per cent over four years.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino told the House of Commons

There are back-office staff "in all of the program areas," Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said Monday as he endured another day of sustained opposition fire in the House of Commons.

The government "make no apologies whatsoever for reducing bureaucratic expenses," he said.

Fantino went on to list a number of positions that have been either eliminated or made redundant by technology. The Opposition NDP and Liberals didn't buy it, saying the lopsided cuts went too deep in areas that couldn't spare the jobs.

The government was able to eliminate 100 jobs when the veterans independence program stopped asking elderly ex-soldiers for paperwork like receipts for snow-clearing services, Fantino said.

A further 12 photocopying positions were axed when medical records were digitized, he said; another 30 jobs followed the streamlining of health-related travel claims.

Fantino also alluded to the government's often-hyped red-tape reduction initiative, which was championed by previous ministers, and suggested veterans were the ones demanding the changes.

"There are back-office positions in almost every segment of Veterans Affairs, and that is what veterans have been saying that we should, in fact, reduce," he said.

But both opposition parties said the government's definition of backroom bureaucracy seems to hinge on whether the employee had face-to-face contact with a veteran.

Liberal veterans critic Frank Valeriote said the staff in those "front-line" sections helped shepherd claims through the system, whether they laid eyes on a veteran or not.

"These are front-line services that help veterans recover, find jobs and assist them at home," Valeriote said. "The Conservatives can no longer deny the link between their cuts, which is mental health wait times and billions in lapsed money."

Last month, it was revealed that the department was unable to spend $1.13 billion of its budget since 2006. Two weeks ago, the auditor general's latest report said one in five ex-soldiers seeking mental health care had to wait up to eight months for their application to be reviewed.

NDP MP David Christopherson said vets have "faced a decade of darkness under the Conservatives," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the government's characterization of military spending under the Liberals.

"Conservatives focused their cuts on regional veterans offices, caseworkers and front-line staff," Christopherson said during question period.

"To add insult to injury, while they were firing front-line workers, they were handing out generous bonuses to senior managers to do it."

The Liberals called for an emergency debate on whether the cuts are preventing veterans affairs from carrying out its mandate, but the demand was rejected by Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer.