British Columbians convicted of criminal welfare fraud are no longer banned for life from applying for income or disability assistance.
But anti-poverty groups worry that people are continuing to suffer under the bans, because the government has done little to publicize its significant shift in policy.
“There are people that believe that they are under a lifetime ban and, therefore, ineligible for income assistance,” said Stephen Portman, advocacy lead at the Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria.
“In order for those people to once again get that income support, they need to know.”
Portman said TAPS hopes to get the word out by sending posters to other front-line agencies that work with the poor.
“But it’s another case of ‘government should be doing this,’ ” he said.
The Liberal government, which introduced the bans in 2002, got rid of them under an omnibus bill passed last spring.
The changes took effect Aug. 1.
“During the Accessibility 2024 consultations, stakeholders asked us to repeal the lifetime ban,” Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell said in a statement. “We listened, and feel these changes strike an appropriate balance.
“Instead of a ban, regulations will require minimum repayments — holding people accountable, while ensuring help is available for those who need it the most.”
The ministry said it sent notification letters to about 70 banned clients who are still receiving hardship grants. They are now eligible to apply for assistance, but will have to make mandatory payments of up to $100 a month on any outstanding debts.
The ministry also notified front-line agencies of the change by email or through regular meetings, the government said. “Several groups, including TAPS, were informed of the change in early August.”
The ministry said 185 people have been convicted of criminal welfare fraud since 2002, but security and privacy concerns prevent the ministry from contacting those clients whose addresses may be out of date.
Zoë Macmillan, a legal advocate at TAPS, said the government’s low-key approach stands in contrast to the way it introduced the lifetime ban in 2002.
“It came in with a bang and out with a whisper,” she said.
“Considering the impact that [the change] could have on somebody and their life, you’d think it would be a little more widely known.”
She noted that Murray Coell, the human resources minister who introduced the ban, said at the time that the rules would give government a new tool to fight welfare fraud.
“A lifetime ban will be for the most serious cases of fraud,” Coell told the legislature in April 2002. “There will be lesser penalties for lesser offences. Again, there’s a message here: That government is determined to protect the integrity of the income assistance system.”
Anti-poverty groups, however, complained that the bans imposed undue hardship on people who faced homelessness and serious health consequences as a result.
Ontario’s provincial government eliminated lifetime bans in 2004 after a 40-year-old woman, who was eight months pregnant, died from an overdose of anti-depressants while serving a six-month sentence of house arrest for welfare fraud.
A coroner’s jury reviewing her case called for an end to the bans in order to “prevent the deaths of impoverished individuals.”