OTTAWA — Federal Liberals ducked repeated questions from Conservatives Wednesday on how many potentially fraudulent claims for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) have already been approved.
Citing an unnamed source, the National Post reported Monday that 200,000 CERB applications have been “red-flagged” as potentially fraudulent.
During an in-person meeting of the House of Commons special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic, ministers sidestepped questions asking for confirmation if “compliance and enforcement” checks have been suspended related to employment insurance (EI) benefits programs, including the CERB, as reported by the Post.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accused the federal government of advising the department of Employment and Social Development Canada to “ignore” fraud. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeated much of what he said the previous day when asked the same question during a virtual sitting.
“Instruction to government officials was to get money out to those who needed it as quickly as possible,” Trudeau said. “We have put measures in place to detect fraud. People who got this money fraudulently will have to repay.”
Watch: Trudeau launches regional relief recovery fund. Story continues below video.
The prime minister called the situations “unprecedented” and pledged to “work very hard to fill gaps to people who should get money who haven’t been able.”
Employment and Social Development Canada did not respond to HuffPost Canada’s request for comment before publication.
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough later told CBC News’ “Power & Politics” that her department hasn’t “red-flagged” 200,000 CERB claims as potentially fraudulent.
“That is coming from the top, so you can take that to the bank,” Qualtrough said, two days after the National Post’s original story. Explaining a difference in semantics, she confirmed “guidance was definitely given” to help staff triage claims.
“In bureaucratic lingo, a memo is a certain thing, and a guidance is a different thing — so this was done in the form of guidance,” she said.
Canadians are currently eligible for the CERB if they are at least 15 years old; have lost their job because of the pandemic; and have earned at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the last 12 months since the date of their application.
The benefit is taxable. Approved applicants earn $2,000 during a four-week period. Recipients become ineligible for the emergency benefit if they earn more than $1,000 in income, over 14 consecutive days, within that four-week benefit period.
More than 11.2 million CERB claims have been processed since applications opened last month, according to the federal government. Nearly $30.5 billion has been paid out through the emergency benefit as of Sunday.
Trudeau notes future ‘clean up’ necessary
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre later asked the government how many CERB payments have been sent to applicants whose claims have been tagged as potentially fraudulent.
Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos responded by saying 7.7 million people have received CERB payments. He said in French that only a “little trickle of information” is available about the emergency benefit program.
“How many?” Poilievre asked.
“We’re working very hard on this,” Duclos responded
“How many?” Poilievre asked, again.
“To guarantee the integrity of our system, we are going to provide support for Canadians,” Duclos said.
Since the government began rolling out new emergency financial measures to help individuals and businesses bridge financial losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the prime minister has repeatedly said the priority is on getting the money out quickly.
Trudeau told MPs in a virtual meeting of the special COVID-19 committee on Tuesday that fraudsters will be held accountable — eventually.
“When we made the determination that we needed to move quickly to help Canadians we knew that there would be a need to clean up after the fact, to go after fraudulent cases, and we will do that.”
Watch: Trudeau promises CERB ‘clean up’ of fraudulent cases. Story continues below video.
Canadians who no longer meet eligibility requirements for the CERB can return or repay payments through online banking or mail.
Details about the anti-abuse measures related to government emergency benefits have yet to be announced.
Canada’s unemployment rate hit 13 per cent in April, according to Statistics Canada, bringing the number of employed workers to 2005 levels.
Economic impacts, accentuated by physical-distancing measures, are expected to continue until a viable COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available for the novel respiratory disease.
Opposition parties have been calling on the government to make the CERB more flexible in the face of the crisis.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wants the CERB to be universal. Conservatives, however, are concerned the $1,000 income cutoff for CERB recipients will deter people from returning to the workforce.
The party wants the CERB to be expanded to allow people who earn more than $1,000 to continue receiving the benefit, but at a scaled down rate as they earn more money.
It’s an argument shared with guaranteed basic income advocates.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet told reporters Wednesday that he’s not against the idea of a guaranteed income. He said in French that the timing, during a pandemic, doesn’t feel right for that level of debate.
“It’s going to monopolize a great deal of attention when we really should be focusing all our attention on managing this crisis,” he said.