Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

poverty-reduction-strategy-final Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

The Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction will be addressing poverty in BC with a Poverty Reduction Strategy

And we’re thrilled! Now is the time to tackle the serious (and worsening) issues with service delivery at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, and raise BC’s shamefully low social assistance rates.

Honourable Shane Simpson
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
PO Box 9290 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9J7

Dear Minister Simpson:

RE: Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. We are thrilled about your strong mandate to improve life for people on welfare and reduce poverty in British Columbia.

We are writing to you to set out some longstanding and worsening problems that low income people have when trying to access income assistance through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (“MSDPR”), and also to propose a number of solutions to these problems.

Accessibility problems

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (“BCPIAC”) is mandated to address systemic issues affecting low income people across the province. Based on consultations with members of the anti-poverty community, we have recently focused our efforts on improving accessibility at your ministry. We are concerned that there is a growing number of British Columbians who are in need of income assistance and disability assistance (often collectively called “welfare”), and are in fact legally eligible for it, but are struggling to survive without it simply because they cannot navigate the welfare system.

As you know, over the past several years, the recently renamed MSDPR has transitioned from delivering services primarily in person to delivering services primarily through an online portal and over a centralized 1-866 phone line. Wait times on the phone line are extremely long – regularly averaging over 45 minutes – and workers are pressured to keep calls within short, arbitrary time limits whether or not the caller’s issue is resolved. Meanwhile, there have been massive reductions in in-person services, including office closures across the province and removal of discretion for frontline workers. Increasingly, those who go into a Ministry office for help are told to leave and use the online portal or phone line instead. This is the case despite the fact that the Assistant Deputy Minister of Service Delivery has repeatedly told advocates that people who require in-person service can go to the front desk of an MSDPR office for intake.

As a result, in order to meaningfully access MSDPR’s services, most welfare applicants and recipients now require:

  • Generous access to a phone, computer, and internet;
  • Computer and internet proficiency; and
  • Ability to effectively communicate and receive information online and over the phone, through a call centre.

We frequently hear advocates and individuals comment that “a person practically has to be middle class to be on welfare these days.” The assumptions underlying this service delivery model do not reflect the lived experiences of many welfare applicants and recipients. First, social assistance in BC is described by the Ministry itself as “income of last resort”, meaning that applicants must exhaust almost all other income and assets before they are even eligible to apply. Welfare applicants and recipients are very poor and most cannot afford their own phones, computers, and internet access. Second, welfare applicants and recipients disproportionately have characteristics that heighten the need for accessible services and accommodation, including:

  • Physical and/or mental disabilities (including mental illness);
  • Limited ability to express themselves or be understood in English;
  • Status as a recent immigrant to Canada, an Indigenous person, and/or as a member of a racialized group;
  • Limited education; and/or
  • Rural isolation.

In its policy manual, MSDPR recognizes that it has a duty to accommodate its clients, and states that it will accommodate individuals who require in-person services. However, members of the anti-poverty community report to us that in practice, MSDPR rarely provides in-person services to individuals who require them. Instead, it has become common practice in MSDPR offices for staff to refer those that need help navigating MSDPR services to community organizations. The reality to which MSDPR must answer is that many, if not most, welfare applicants and recipients require in-person services as a matter of accommodation. Further, those individuals with the highest accessibility needs also tend to be the most entrenched in poverty, meaning that when they are denied access to welfare, they must survive on little to no money.

We (and many others) have repeatedly raised these problems, and a solution is long overdue. In a systemic complaint to the BC Ombudsperson in May 2015 filed on behalf of nine community organizations across the province, we described these problems in detail, and provided a large body of evidence to demonstrate how MSDPR’s service delivery model is effectively shutting vulnerable people out. A copy of that complaint is attached to this letter as Appendix A. We also made submissions about these issues to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services in 2015 and 2016; our submission from October 2016 is attached to this letter as Appendix B.

Despite our work and the vocal opposition to MSDPR’s service delivery changes by those who regularly interact with the welfare system, MSDPR has continued to forge ahead with its move to an increasingly complex, impersonal, and tech-based model of service delivery. In the meantime, vulnerable people are left without critical supports simply because they cannot navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth.

A recent change by MSDPR is illustrative of the incongruence between MSDPR’s service delivery and the people MSDPR serves. For several years, MSDPR has had an online component to its income assistance application, which applicants must complete before proceeding to the next stages of the application process. The online component was inaccessible to many applicants because it was only offered online in English and was complex and time-consuming. In February 2017, despite widespread criticism about the accessibility of the online component, MSDPR moved its entire income assistance application online. Further, the online application now requires applicants to complete the following steps before they can even apply for assistance:

  • Register for an online account on MSDPR’s “MySelfServe” portal, which in turn requires that applicants:
    • Have access to or create a personal email account; and
    • Create a BCelD username and password.

Since its introduction in February, the latest version of the application process has prompted a flood of calls and emails to our office from advocates and individuals confounded by these new requirements. While MSDPR says that it provides remote-based phone support to applicants who require accommodation in completing the online application, this does not respond to the anti-poverty community’s concerns about the online application. First, asking applicants to complete the application over the phone raises many of the same accessibility issues as asking them to complete the application online. It does not at all accommodate applicants who require in-person assistance in order to complete the application. Second, members of the anti-poverty community report to us that in practice, MSDPR refuses to provide phone support to those who request it.

In May 2017, BCPIAC sent an open letter to all candidates in the provincial election outlining the issues with the new online application process, and calling for candidates to commit to addressing them; that letter is attached here as Appendix C.

Recommendations for change

We are so pleased to have a new government that has committed to creating a province “where no one is left behind.” In service of that commitment, we ask that you take steps immediately to ensure that the most vulnerable people in the province can access the supports they need – supports to which they are legally entitled.

Specifically, we recommend the following:

  1. Providing timely in-person individualized assistance to those that need it;
  2. Providing computers and Ministry staff at every Ministry office for the purposes of helping applicants through the application process for income assistance and other supports;
  3. Modifying the online application for income assistance so that it is not mandatory to create an email address and BCelD;
  4. Institute a review of MSDPR’s accessibility as part of the broader poverty reduction strategy; and
  5. Implement accountability and performance measures based on that review.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this letter with you further. We would also be very pleased to work with you in a collaborative manner to improve access to MSDPR services.

Sincerely,

Kate Feeney          Erin Pritchard
Staff Lawyer          Staff Lawyer

cc:
Mable Elmore, Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction &
MLA (Vancouver-Kensington)

Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

Honourable Shane Simpson
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
PO Box 9290 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9J7

Dear Minister Simpson:

RE: Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. We are thrilled about your strong mandate to improve life for people in need of welfare and to reduce poverty in British Columbia.

We work closely with the anti-poverty community in British Columbia to address systemic issues affecting people with low incomes across the province. Based on our experience, an important concern for people with low incomes is access to administrative justice, as administrative tribunals are tasked with determining matters that go to the heart of their social and economic security, including housing, social assistance, and supports for people with disabilities. As such, ensuring access to administrative justice must be part of any poverty reduction strategy.

The purpose of this letter is to highlight the anti-poverty community’s pressing concerns about the effectiveness and credibility of the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal (“the EAAT”), and offer recommendations about how to restore public confidence in the EAAT. As you know, the EAAT determines appeals of decisions by the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (“MSDPR”), including decisions that result in the refusal, discontinuance, or reduction of income assistance, disability assistance, or a supplement to either (collectively, “welfare”). Access to these critical supports – and the decisions the EAAT makes concerning them – has a direct impact on the alleviation (or entrenchment) of poverty for many British Columbians.

Our predominant concern is whether the EAAT is providing appellants with an effective and fair review process, in light of the dramatic decline in the EAAT’s appeal success rate over 10 years, as illustrated in the table and graphs below.1

Fiscal year Appeals heard Decisions rescinded Success rate
2015/2016 614 47 7.6%
2014/2015 564 30 5.3%
2013/2014 690 45 6.5%
2012/2013 747 87 11.6%
2011/2012 841 125 14.9%
2010/2011 945 216 22.9%
2009/2010 955 322 33.7%
2008/2009 830 246 29.6%
2007/2008 581 157 27%
2006/2007 840 292 34.7%
2005/2006 1120 426 38%
EAAT_graph_001 Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

The data also shows a decline in the overall number of appeals heard by the EAAT, which corresponds to the declining success rate. In our view, a reasonable reading of the decline in the number of appeals heard is that the low success rate is discouraging people from pursuing their statutory right to appeal. This view is supported by anecdotal evidence from our conversations with anti-poverty advocates and affected individuals. We are alarmed by the common refrain from anti-poverty advocates that assisting their clients with appeals is a “waste of time and resources,” and that many advise their clients not to bother with appeals at all.

An important aspect of the appeal success rate is that, pursuant to the Employment and Assistance Act, the EAAT applies a reasonableness standard of review to decisions under appeal. According to a Freedom of Information request by BCPIAC to the EAAT, the EAAT’s standard of review conforms to the reasonableness standard applied by the courts. EAAT members are told that:

“On a proper application of the ‘reasonableness’ standard, the Ministry’s decision must be confirmed as long as there is a logical basis for it on the law and the evidence. The panel may interpret the legislation and view the evidence somewhat differently but as long as there is a logical and rational basis for the Ministry’s decision, the panel cannot properly rescind it. A reasonableness standard recognizes that there are times when legislation can be rationally interpreted and applied in more than one way.”

We say that the level of deference represented by the reasonableness standard cannot be reconciled with the EAAT’s purpose and the social and economic interests at stake. However, a deferential standard of review does not explain what amounts to a nosedive in EAAT’s appeal success rate, nor an appeal success rate that has sat below 10% since 2013/2014.

We are not aware of any publically available review of the EAAT’s declining appeal success rate. In November 2016, after consulting with anti-poverty advocates, we wrote a letter to the Chair of the EAAT, Marilyn McNamara, to identify the same concerns set out in this letter and to request more information about the EAAT’s practices and procedures. Ms. McNamara did not respond to our letter, which we have attached as Appendix A to this letter for your review.

EAAT_Rates_Final Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

The gravity of this issue is underscored by the EAAT’s insulation from effective judicial review. First, pursuant to the Administrative Tribunals Act, courts apply a standard of review of “patent unreasonableness” to decisions by the EAAT, which itself applies a “reasonableness” standard to MSDPR decisions. In our view, the combined effect of these highly deferential standards of review, which anti-poverty advocates commonly refer to as “reasonableness squared,” may be unconstitutional in that it is virtually impossible to overcome. Second, in the absence of poverty law legal aid, most individuals cannot access the judicial review process at all.  These issues heighten the importance of the EAAT providing a meaningful opportunity to appeal MSDPR decisions, and getting those decisions right.

Recommendations

In sum, people in need of welfare have the right to an effective and respectful review of MSDPR decisions. The declining appeal success rate raises important questions about whether the EAAT is providing such access, resulting in a loss of public confidence in the administrative tribunal tasked with deciding the rights of highly vulnerable members of our society. In order to restore public confidence in the EAAT, we offer the recommendations set out below:

  1. Initiate an audit or review of the EAAT’s practices and procedures to determine whether the EAAT is accurately applying its legislation and meeting its procedural fairness obligations, with a mind to the particular barriers EAAT appellants may face in accessing justice (e.g. mental and physical disabilities, mental health issues, language barriers, low literacy and/or limited education).
  2. Consult with anti-poverty organizations and affected individuals about the structure, process, and terms of reference for the audit or review.
  3. Institute performance and accountability measures for the EAAT as recommended by the audit or review.
  4. Amend the Employment and Assistance Act to change the standard of review for the EAAT from reasonableness to correctness and to allow for broadened opportunities to submit new evidence.
  5. Remove the privative clauses from the Employment and Assistance Act (ss. 24(6) & (7)) such that courts are not required to apply a patent unreasonableness standard to EAAT decisions.
  6. Work with the Attorney General to provide legal aid funding for EAAT hearings and judicial reviews of EAAT decisions.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this letter with you further.

Sincerely,

Kate Feeney          Erin Pritchard
Staff Lawyer          Staff Lawyer

cc:
Hon. David Eby, Attorney General
Mable Elmore, Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction &
MLA (Vancouver-Kensington)

1 Data has been taken from the EAAT’s Annual Reports, found at http://www.eaat.ca/the-tribunal/annual-report.

Link to original letter including appendices.

Evicted for smudging, First Nations woman files human rights complaint

June 15, 2017 | Josh K. Elliott | CTV News

Link to original article

A First Nations woman from Burnaby, B.C. has filed a human rights complaint after she was evicted for holding a traditional smudging ceremony indoors.

The ceremony, which involves burning sage in a dish and sweeping the smoke around one’s head and body, is a traditional practice among many of Canada’s indigenous peoples.

But Crystal Smith says her landlord, Parminder Mohan, won’t let her do it in the apartment she’s renting.

“I’m being forced to move because my landlord is not allowing me to practice my spiritual ceremonies,” Smith, a single mother from Burnaby, told CTV Vancouver.

So Smith says she’s filing a complaint with the province’s Human Rights Tribunal, in hopes that this does not happen to others.

“The human rights complaint will create grounds for indigenous tenants to say, ‘You can’t evict me because there is this case,'” she said.

Smith’s landlord, Mohan, first noticed her activities from the house’s upstairs apartment in March, and mistook her activities for smoking drugs.

“He smelled it and I got a text message saying that I smell marijuana,” she said.

Smith invited Mohan into her apartment to explain what she was doing, but that didn’t change his mind.

“My upstairs suite is totally full with all the smoke,” Mohan told CTV Vancouver. “I almost passed out. I actually had to stumble out.” He added that he had fans running “24-7” at the house, and that the smell “doesn’t go away.”

Smith received a letter two days after her encounter with Mohan, informing her that she had breached the conditions of her tenancy contract.

An arbitrator at the city’s residential tenancy branch ultimately ruled in favour of Smith. However, Mohan continued to pressure her, issuing three eviction notices after the ruling was made.

“I naively thought that, after the RTB decision, that he would abide by their decision, and he hasn’t,” Smith said.

Smith is now turning her attention to her human rights complaint.

“I’m moving, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up,” she said.

With files from CTV Vancouver

Woman evicted over smudging ceremonies files human rights complaint

June 14, 2017 | Andrew Weichel | CTV Vancouver

Link to original article

An aboriginal woman who claims her landlord tried to evict her for performing traditional smudging ceremonies in her Burnaby, B.C. home has filed a human rights complaint.

Crystal Smith of the Tsimshian and Haisla First Nations said she’s had problems with her landlord, Parminder Mohan, ever since he noticed her smudging at home with her children in March.

The ceremony involves burning herbs to cleanse the body and spirit; to perform it inside, Smith burns sage in a shell and uses a feather to waft the smoke.

“My landlord happened to be in the upstairs unit and he smelled it,” Smith said. “I got a text message maybe 10 minutes after we’d finished smudging saying that ‘I smelled marijuana.'”

Smith, who told CTV News she doesn’t smoke drugs or even cigarettes, assured Mohan that wasn’t the case, and even offered to demonstrate how smudging works. The landlord wasn’t satisfied, and allegedly told her to stop.

Smith said she has since been served three eviction notices, and faces continued pressure to leave despite a Residential Tenancy Branch ruling in her favour.

“Basically I’m being forced to move because my landlord doesn’t allow me to practice my spiritual ceremonies and practices,” she said.

For Smith, smudging is a crucial part of keeping her son and daughter in tune with their heritage.

Having lost her grandparents when she was a young teenager, Smith said she missed out on learning about aspects of her culture at a young age, and she doesn’t want her children to be deprived in the same way.

“I need my children to grow up in culture so they could love who they are, so that they can grow up and be proud,” Smith said.

She’s given up on remaining in their Burnaby home, however. She intends to move out this week, though she’s disappointed at having to upend her family again so soon.

They have only been living in the apartment for a few months, and previously had a brief stay at a safe house where they moved after she left an abusive relationship.

“It’s frustrating,” Smith said. “We were supposed to be in this home until December at least, and I was even hoping to stay a little longer because me and my children have been through so much.”

Mohan sees things differently. He spoke to CTV News by phone Wednesday, and said he’s actually an accommodating landlord who has become the victim of an unappreciative tenant.

Mohan said he reduced Smith’s rent and gave her a dishwasher when she moved in, but he’s concerned about how smudging might impact the property and her neighbours.

He claims the smudging ceremony he witnessed in March sent smoke wafting in the upstairs suite.

“I almost passed out. I actually had to stumble out,” he said. “I had fans running 24/7 trying to get rid of the smell, the smell doesn’t go away.”

Smith said the ceremony does create a smell, but it fades after a day or two. When their dispute was heard by the Residential Tenancy Branch, the arbitrator ruled Mohan hadn’t provided sufficient evidence the smudging had disturbed or adversely affected other tenants.

Most importantly, though, Smith feels smudging is a religious right that shouldn’t open up aboriginal people to evictions or any other form of pressure at home, which is why she has filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

“The reason I’m fighting, the reason why I’m pushing this forward is so that my children, my great grandchildren, will not have to do this,” she said.

With files from CTV Vancouver’s Shannon Paterson 

Tenant fights eviction for smudging, takes case to B.C. Human Rights Tribunal

June 7, 2017 | Tereza Verenca | Burnaby Now

Link to original article

A Burnaby woman has filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal alleging her landlord is denying her the right to smudge.

Crystal Smith of the Tsimshian Haisla First Nation has smudged – the indigenous practice of burning herbs like sage for prayer or cleansing – for about 15 years.

“It’s been on and off because I really had to find my way,” says the mother of two and UBC master’s student.

Smith’s maternal grandparents died before she was born, and as she puts it, she “didn’t grow up in culture.”

“This is something I had to do on my own. Now that I have children, it’s very important to me to pass on these cultures and these spiritual practices so they can grow up and be proud of who they are.”

At the last home she rented, Smith says she had a unit on the top floor and the landlord had no issues with her smudging.

“They understood the spiritual practice, that it was meant to support me, in my growth and in my culture,” she tells the NOW, noting she received her entire damage deposit back when she left.

Smith moved into a duplex, an address she did not want to disclose for privacy reasons, on Jan. 1, 2017, and signed a one-year lease. But her landlord, Parminder Mohan, was not as understanding, she says.

Since January, Smith has been given three eviction notices, including one to end tenancy early and another one for renovation purposes.

“It’s actually really gross. He’s actually trying to say I’m smoking marijuana and that I’m covering it up with the sage,” she says. “I don’t smoke at all. I’m not doing any damage to the place. It produces white smoke, which does no damage to surrounding walls. The smell does dissipate after maybe a couple days.”

Smith adds Mohan promised her she could move from the basement to the upstairs unit on April 1.

“He won’t let me move upstairs unless I sign an agreement saying I won’t smudge,” she says.

Smith took her eviction notices to the Residential Tenancy Branch for dispute resolution. In the first meeting, the arbitrator found there was “insufficient evidence to conclude that the tenant has unreasonably disturbed or adversely affected the other tenants.”

The arbitrator dismissed Mohan’s application for an early end to tenancy.

In the meantime, Smith was referred to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre for free legal counsel.

After hearing her case, lawyers Kate Feeney and Erin Pritchard advised Smith to submit a complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

“From a legal perspective, smudging’s a spiritual practice, so it’s protected under the Human Rights Code. … The landlord must justify his conduct,” says Feeney.

As far as Feeney knows, Smith’s case is the first of its kind to come before the tribunal.

“There’s been some cases that touch on similar issues in the prison context, like the right for prisoners to smudge, but not in the residential tenancy context,” she says.

When reached for comment, Mohan didn’t shy away from saying why he wants Smith out.

“What she does is she smokes up the whole place. We agreed there was no smoking or anything like that in the unit,” he tells the NOW, reiterating that he thinks Smith is smoking weed.

The first time Mohan realized Smith was smudging, he says he had to “stagger out” of the house.

“I was absolutely going to go unconscious. That’s how much smoke there was. … All of our air circulates and that’s how unaccommodating she’s trying to be. She doesn’t care. She says, ‘It’s my right,’ but she doesn’t care about anybody else,” says Mohan.

The property owner, who owns both sides of the duplex but lives with his parents down the road, notes he’s a “very, very good, fair landlord,” and has been very accommodating to Smith. He says he put a dishwasher in her two-bedroom suite and reduced her rent from $1,350 to $1,200.

“I thought I was helping her. … I try to do my best, but when tenants try to take control and be vindictive like this, it’s unacceptable,” says Mohan, adding he’ll likely file a fourth eviction notice. “I have cultural and religious practices as well, and they require a lot of incense and burning things, but we have fans; we make sure that our practices don’t disturb other people.”

© 2017 Burnaby Now

Open Letter Regarding Access Barriers to Applying for Income Assistance

To All Candidates in the 2017 BC Provincial Election:

Re:     Access Barriers to Applying for Income Assistance

We are writing to you as a candidate in the provincial election on behalf of more than sixty undersigned organizations to collectively express our concerns regarding chronic and serious barriers British Columbians face when attempting to apply for income assistance. It is our hope that you will pursue this issue, as it affects British Columbians in all corners of the province.

Barriers to accessing income assistance have been steadily worsening over the past several years as the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation (the “Ministry”) has increasingly moved to online application processes. This has been coupled with a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministry staff available to provide in person or over the phone assistance to those citizens applying for income assistance. By way of example, fourteen Ministry offices have closed across the province since 2005, while other offices have reduced hours or have been replaced by generic ServiceBC offices. This under resourcing of the Ministry coupled with its insistence on an increasingly technological interaction with the public has led to the entirely foreseeable consequence of downloading much of the responsibility to provide accessible services onto community agencies, such as those signing this letter.

The latest iteration of the online application process creates new and substantial barriers for those who either do not have access to a computer or lack the computer literacy necessary to navigate the online processes. Now, before someone can even apply for assistance, they must complete the following steps:

  • Create an email address (if applicant does not have one, which is the case for many older and/or more vulnerable applicants);
  • Create a My Self Serve account, and wait for an email confirmation link;
  • Create a 4-digit PIN;
  • Create a BCeID user ID and password to log into My Self Serve account;

Since its introduction in February, the latest version of the application process has prompted a flood of calls and emails to our office from advocates and individuals confounded by these new requirements. With permission from the authors, we share the following excerpts:

“The new application process simply doesn’t work for many that need to access income assistance. I recently met with a client who is homeless and does not have a computer – the Ministry told him he was ineligible for in-person intake because our organization could assist him instead.  This is despite the fact that our organization does not generally assist with the application process because we view it as the Ministry’s job to assist, and because it is so cumbersome and time-consuming.  My client nearly gave up applying for income assistance at multiple points, despite being eligible, and I know there are many people who, because they cannot navigate the bureaucratic and technological hurdles, simply give up on the meager support available. In-person assistance is the only method that actually works for the majority of people who need these services.”

-Daniel Jackson, Legal Advocate, Together Against Poverty Society, Victoria

 

“…[I] had a horrible experience with the new on-line system. I was assisting a client a day or 2 after the new system was launched.  Trying to register the client and set up her [My Self Serve] account was a nightmare.  Her appointment ended up being a 2-part appointment b/c we had to wait for her registration number.  The 2nd appointment we completed the on-line application which in my opinion was not ‘streamlined’, efficient or ‘more user-friendly’.  At that time we were unable to download the documents for the application and the client had to physically take them into the office.

-Christine Dunlop, Legal Advocate, Quesnel Tillicum Society, Native Friendship Centre, Quesnel

Our overarching message is that many applicants require in person assistance with the application process – and this help is simply not being provided. Despite repeated assurances that there is now a “supported application” whereby applicants unable to use the online application can contact the Ministry to request telephone intake, there is a complete disconnect between these assurances and the actual experiences of British Columbians attempting to access direct help from the Ministry. In person services are not being provided and wait times on the Ministry’s centralized phone line have averaged over 45 minutes over the past six months.

We ask that all candidates commit to speaking out in favour of making income assistance accessible to those that need it by:

  • Providing timely in person individualized assistance to those that need it
  • Providing computers and Ministry staff at every Ministry office for the purposes of helping applicants through the application process
  • Modifying the online application to eliminate the requirement for an email address and BCeID

We are calling for action in the form of fully resourcing the Ministry to fulfill its duty to the citizens of British Columbia.

Sincerely,

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Erin Pritchard & Michael Seaborn
Staff Lawyers

c.  Jay Chalke, BC Ombudsperson

Signatories:

  1. Abbotsford Community Services (Abbotsford)
  2. Action Committee of People with Disabilities (Victoria)
  3. Active Support Against Poverty (Prince George)
  4. Africa Great Lakes Networking Foundation (Vancouver)
  5. The Anglican Diocese of New Westminster Eco-Justice Unit (New Westminster)
  6. Atira Women’s Resource Society (Vancouver)
  7. Battered Women’s Support Services (Vancouver)
  8. BC Government and Service Employees’ Union
  9. BC Health Coalition
  10. BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
  11. Burnaby Community Services (Burnaby)
  12. Canadian Mental Health Association (Port Alberni)
  13. Carnegie Community Action Project (Vancouver)
  14. Carnegie Community Centre Association (Vancouver)
  15. Chimo Community Services (Richmond)
  16. Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods (Vancouver)
  17. Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC
  18. Community Legal Assistance Society (Vancouver)
  19. Council of Senior Citizen Organizations in British Columbia
  20. Dawson Creek Native Housing Society (Dawson Creek)
  21. Disability Alliance BC
  22. Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House (Vancouver)
  23. Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative (Vancouver)
  24. Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (Vancouver)
  25. Family Tree Family Centre (Kamloops)
  26. First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition
  27. First United Church Community Ministry Society (Vancouver)
  28. Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society (Fort St. John)
  29. Golden Family Center (Golden)
  30. Golden Women’s Resource Centre (Golden)
  31. Gordon Neighbourhood House (Vancouver)
  32. Greater Vancouver Food Bank (Vancouver)
  33. Interior Community Services (Kamloops)
  34. Kamloops and District Elizabeth Fry Society (Kamloops)
  35. Kamloops YMCA-YWCA, Violence Against Women Intervention and Support Services (Kamloops)
  36. The Kettle Society Advocacy Service (Vancouver)
  37. Megaphone Magazine (Vancouver)
  38. MS Society of Canada, BC & Yukon Division (Burnaby)
  39. Nelson CARES – The Advocacy Centre (Nelson)
  40. The Nelson Committee on Homelessness (Nelson)
  41. New Westminster & District Labour Council (New Westminster)
  42. Nicola Valley Advocacy Centre (Merritt)
  43. North Shore Community Resources (North Vancouver)
  44. North Shore Homelessness Task Force (North Shore)
  45. Okanagan Advocacy and Resource Society (Vernon)
  46. Opportunities Advocacy Services (Campbell River)
  47. Penticton and Area Access Society (Penticton)
  48. Phoenix Centre (Kamloops)
  49. Pivot Legal Society (Vancouver)
  50. Prince Rupert Unemployed Action Centre (Prince Rupert)
  51. Quesnel Tillicum Society, Native Friendship Centre (Quesnel)
  52. Raise the Rates (Vancouver)
  53. The Realistic Success Recovery Society (Surrey)
  54. Sheila Nelson (Kamloops)
  55. South Peace Community Resources Society (Dawson Creek)
  56. STEPS Forward – Inclusive Post-Secondary Education Society (Vancouver)
  57. Paul’s Advocacy Office at St. Paul’s Anglican Church (Vancouver)
  58. Terrace and District Community Services Society (Terrace)
  59. Together Against Poverty Society (Victoria)
  60. 59. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter (Vancouver)
  61. Vancouver South Presbytery Community Advocacy Programme (United Church of Canada) (Vancouver)
  62. Wachiay Friendship Centre (Courtenay)
  63. West Coast LEAF (Vancouver)
  64. Vancouver District Labour Council (Vancouver)
  65. Vancouver Island Human Rights Coalition (Victoria)
  66. Victoria Disability Resource Centre (Victoria)

Retail Action Network intervenes in Schrenk v BCHRT at Supreme Court

ran-logo-circle-150x150 Retail Action Network intervenes in Schrenk v BCHRT at Supreme CourtThe Retail Action Network (RAN) is intervening in the appeal of a human rights case in the Supreme Court of Canada. Schrenk v. British Columbia (Human Rights Tribunal) is about the extent to which the BC Human Rights Code (“the Code”) applies to discriminatory harassment in the workplace.  BCPIAC has teamed up with Catherine Boies-Parker and Robin Gage, from Underhill, Boies-Parker, Gage and Latimer LLP, to represent RAN in this intervention.

In the decision on appeal, the BC Court of Appeal held that the Code only applies to situations of harassment where the harasser is the victim’s workplace superior. Further, the Court of Appeal appeared to roll back the liability of employers for the harassment of their employees while at work.

As an organization that is made up of retail, food service and hospitality workers, RAN brings the perspective of workers who are particularly vulnerable to discriminatory harassment by workplace superiors, as well as co-workers and customers, due to their insecure and precarious working conditions. RAN says that in order for the Code to fulfil its essential purpose of identifying and preventing workplace harassment, it must apply to situations of harassment regardless of the harasser’s position in the workplace’s organizational chart, including where the harasser is a customer. Further, RAN says that employers must be liable for the harassment of their employees because of their overarching responsibility for maintaining a discrimination-free workplace.

Read RAN’s factum here.

Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to “step up for Women’s equality”

West Coast LEAF, a BC organization dedicated to promoting women’s equality through the law, along with a long list of endorsing BC organizations, have called on the BC government and the official opposition to step up for Women’s equality and “commit to implementing – fully and without delay – the UN’s recommendations to demonstrably improve the lives of women in our province”

Read the letter to the BC government and official opposition here. (text below)

West Coast LEAF’s campaign page can be found here.

Read the UN’s recommendations here.

Dear Premier Clark and Mr. Horgan,

WCL-legal-aid-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"We write to ask you to commit to implement, fully and without delay, the enclosed recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The recommendations were issued on November 18, 2016 after the Committee’s review of Canada’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at its 65th session.

We cannot stress enough the importance of implementing these recommendations. Women’s equality in Canada has regressed over the last two decades. In 1995, Canada held 1st place on the United Nations Gender Equality Index; Canada is now at 25th. Recently, the World Economic Forum ranked Canada 35th on gender equality out of 144 countries. To make matters worse, equality for women in BC is lagging behind the rest of Canada on multiple measures. For example:

  • BC consistently has among the highest poverty rates in Canada, and poverty rates for single women, and particularly single women caring for children, are shockingly high. Further, BC is the only province in Canada without a poverty reduction plan.
  • Families led by women parenting alone experience the highest rates of food insecurity in BC, and the rate is higher than the Canadian average for comparable households.
  • The average earnings of women in BC are well below the Canadian average female earnings and the pay gap between male and female workers in British Columbia is larger than the national average.
  • At BC’s current minimum wage, the earnings of a full time, full year worker are below the poverty line and the majority of minimum wage earners are women. In addition, BC maintains a lower liquor server wage despite research showing that dependency on gratuities increases the risk that these mostly female workers will be subject to sexual harassment.
  • Mothers’ workforce participation rates in BC, access to regulated child care spaces in BC, and provincial public investment per space are all below the Canadian average. Meanwhile, parent fees for regulated child care are higher than the national average.
  • Front line services for women and children harmed by violence have been chronically underfunded, despite the fact that BC has a growing rate of domestic violence-related homicides.
  • BC remains the only province without a human rights commission, which means there is little to no systemic education and monitoring related to gender discrimination in key areas such as employment, housing and public services.
  • British Columbia’s per capita spending on legal aid, services that are crucial to enable women to enforce their legal rights and leave violent relationships, is far lower than the national average.

We know that Canada and British Columbia can do better.

WCL-over-incarceration-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"However, Canada, and in particular British Columbia, has a serious implementation gap. For years, Canada and British Columbia have ignored UN treaty body advice and recommendations, to the detriment of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable residents and to the detriment of British Columbia as a whole. Canada has no national mechanism for monitoring and facilitating implementation of treaty body recommendations, and British Columbia has no provincial mechanism for implementation of recommendations within its jurisdiction. Further, there is no mechanism for co-operation between federal and provincial governments on implementation in areas where co-ordination among all levels of government is critical. Because of this, treaty body recommendations tend to be ignored rather than realized in a substantive way through government planning, policy, and programs.

The Canadian and British Columbia governments can take a huge step forward for women and for human rights by immediately beginning to plan for implementation of the CEDAW Committee’s most recent recommendations. The CEDAW recommendations cover a wide range of issues crucial to women’s advancement, many of which are all or partly within provincial jurisdiction: access to legal aid; the gender wage gap and pay equity; housing and poverty reduction; child care; political participation; violence; the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous women; the needs of women with disabilities; detention of racialized women and women with mental health issues; access to abortion; harm reduction strategies; and much more.

Given the legal responsibility and leadership role of the Government of Canada, we have called on the federal government to establish an accountability mechanism and to, in cooperation with the provinces and territories, develop a national gender equality plan so that we can move forward in a coordinated and strategic way to fully implement women’s human rights and advance women’s equality. British Columbia’s commitment and cooperation will be crucial to ensure that implementation is meaningful for women in our province.

The CEDAW Committee recommends two mechanisms for implementation of the Convention rights and treaty body recommendations:

  • WCL-MMIW-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"an effective mechanism for ensuring accountability and the transparent, coherent and consistent implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women throughout all jurisdictions (at para 11); and
  • a comprehensive national gender strategy, policy and action plan that addresses the structural factors causing persistent inequalities for women and girls, including those who are Indigenous, Afro-Canadian, racialized, disabled, immigrant, refugee and LGBTQ (at para 21).

Coordinated, robust work to advance women’s equality is particularly timely in light of burgeoning attacks on women’s rights and dignity globally. We urge you to publicly commit to take a leadership role and lead British Columbia to provide a model for other provinces by working with the federal government to take progressive, determined action to implement the CEDAW Committee’s concrete and detailed recommendations. We need action now that demonstrates British Columbia’s genuine commitment to fulfilling women’s human rights.

We look forward to your response and to working with you on a new plan for women’s equality in British Columbia and for the realization of women’s human rights.

Sincerely,

The BC CEDAW Group*

This letter is endorsed by:

Battered Women’s Support Services
BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre
BC Society of Transition Houses
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office
Canadian Federation of University Women BC Council
Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC
Disability Alliance BC
Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre
Hospital Employees’ Union
Ending Violence Association of BC
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition
Isabel Grant, Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Feminist Legal Studies, Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia
Justice for Girls
Living Wage for Families Campaign
Lynne Kent, Chair, Learning Disabilities Association of BC
Margot Young, Professor of Law, Allard Hall Law School, University of British Columbia Poverty and Human Rights Centre
Single Mothers’ Alliance BC
Susan Boyd, Professor Emerita, Peter A. Allard Law School, University of British Columbia
Together Against Poverty Society
University Women’s Club of Vancouver
Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter
Vancouver Women’s Health Collective
West Coast LEAF
Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre
Women Transforming Cities

*The BC CEDAW Group is a coalition individuals and organizations committed to advancing the rights of women and girls in British Columbia. Formed in 2002, the Group has participated in United Nations periodic reviews before a variety of treaty bodies, reporting to the UN on BC’s progress. The 2017 BC CEDAW Group includes the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, Hospital Employees Union, Justice for Girls, Poverty and Human Rights Centre, Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, West Coast LEAF, Single Mothers’ Alliance BC, and the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective.

BC Hydro regulator to issue decision on rates for BC’s poor

Media Advisory

The BC Utilities Commission, which regulates the province’s electricity rates, has announced it will issue its decision in BC Hydro’s rate review process on Friday, January 20, 2017.

In its decision, the Commission will determine rate structures and conditions of service for BC Hydro’s residential, business and industrial customers.

The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is seeking an order that BC Hydro implement programs for low income residential customers including a discounted rate for electricity, low income customer rules, and a crisis intervention fund.

BCPIAC is seeking these programs because low income customers are struggling to pay BC Hydro’s continuously increasing electricity rates, with over 30,000 ratepayers facing disconnection every year.

BC Hydro rates have risen 51 per cent over the last 11 years and are on track to rise an additional 30 per cent over the next eight years.

Following release of the decision, BCPIAC staff lawyer Erin Pritchard can be reached for comment: 604-687-3063.

LNG plants get special deal on Hydro, not the people who need it

December 21,2016 | Erin Pritchard & Seth Klein |  The Province
Link to original article

It’s always telling to see who in our province is able to win special treatment from the B.C. government.

The B.C. Utilities Commission is currently reviewing residential B.C. Hydro rates, something they do periodically. As part of that process, the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, on behalf of numerous organizations representing low-income British Columbians and seniors on fixed incomes, has spent the last two years trying to win a special discounted B.C. Hydro rate for low-income people. In the face of steeply rising electricity rates, many low-income people have been finding it increasingly hard to pay their bills.

It’s been a painstaking process, a slow and expensive endeavour. B.C. Hydro has actively argued against such a discounted rate for low-income people despite the relatively modest cost of what is being sought. The minister of energy and mines has been dismissive of low-income bill affordability measures, stating simply that the rates are already affordable.

It turns out, however, that the provincial government is more than willing to direct B.C. Hydro to offer special discounted rates — as long as the discounts are for the liquefied natural gas industry.

On Nov. 4, the Woodfibre LNG project in Squamish became the first LNG proposal to move forward to a final investment decision. At the same time, the government and B.C. Hydro announced that in order to entice a final investment decision from Woodfibre LNG, a reduced electricity rate — called the “eDrive rate” — would be provided to LNG proponents who use B.C. Hydro electricity to power their liquefaction.

This creates a significant subsidy for these businesses – estimated at $34 million per year for the Woodfibre plant, and up to $860 million over the life of the facility. And if other larger LNG plants move forward, the cost of this subsidized LNG Hydro rate will be even greater. Notably, this special discount has been exempt from review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

This decision speaks volumes about the government’s priorities. They are more than willing to offer a reduced electricity rate to the LNG industry but have resisted giving a break to the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Residential electricity rates in B.C. have risen 51 per cent over the last 11 years and are on track to rise an additional 30 per cent over the next eight years. And rates will continue to rise sharply after that if B.C. Hydro proceeds with multi-billion-dollar projects like the Site C dam, which the government has also conveniently exempted from full public review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

Over this same period, social-assistance rates have remained virtually stagnant and minimum wages and average earnings have not increased by nearly the same amount as electricity rates. Low-income residents have no spare money to pay for continually rising electricity costs and, increasingly, have to make impossible choices between basic necessities like electricity, food and medicine.

During the recent review of B.C. Hydro’s rate design, the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre advanced proposals designed to offset the impact of electricity rate increases on the poorest people in the province. These proposals include a discounted electricity rate, a crisis intervention fund and more flexible payment arrangements for people facing disconnection.

These proposals are modest and would offer relief to many who are struggling to keep the heat and lights on in their homes while having a negligible impact on other ratepayers. For example, if every eligible low-income resident applied for and received the discounted rate, which is unlikely, the cost would be roughly $27 million annually — less than the annual subsidy just extended to Woodfibre LNG. If the cost were spread out over all other residential customers, the impact on monthly bills would be in the range of 50 cents each.

Over the past several years, Premier Christy Clark has sought to hang her hard hat on the promised economic benefits of the LNG industry, but it is unfair to ask low-income British Columbians to pay to realize this goal.

Erin Pritchard is a staff lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Seth Klein is B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Anti-poverty advocates call for BC Hydro to implement an electricity affordability program for BC’s poor

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

August 15, 2016 (Vancouver) Starting on August 16, 2016, the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) will hold a public hearing to review BC Hydro’s Rate Design Application (RDA). In this process, the BCUC will hear evidence and submissions from BC Hydro and intervener groups and determine rate structures and terms and conditions of service for residential, business and industrial customers.

The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is intervening on behalf of seven organizations in this rare opportunity to ask the BCUC to order BC Hydro to implement programs for low income residential ratepayers including a discounted rate for electricity, low income customer rules, and a crisis intervention fund.

BCPIAC is seeking these programs because low income customers are struggling to pay BC Hydro’s endlessly increasing electricity rates. In support of these proposals, BCPIAC has presented evidence from two expert witnesses, and a number of advocates and low income ratepayers.

RDA-social-Final-300x300 Anti-poverty advocates call for BC Hydro to implement an electricity affordability program for BC’s poorBC Hydro has increased residential electricity rates by 50% in the last 10 years, and is on track to increase them by over 30% in the next eight years. Rates are projected to continue to rise significantly in future years as BC Hydro proceeds with multi-billion dollar projects such as the Site C dam which have been exempted from a full public review by the BCUC, and is currently estimated to cost over $9 billion.

BC Hydro’s rate increases have grossly outpaced increases in income for low income British Columbians. For example, BC social assistance rates have been frozen since 2007 at $610 per month for basic assistance and $906 for disability assistance, and in the last 10 years the BC general minimum wage has only increased by $2.45 an hour.

Keith Simmonds, a Minister with Duncan United Church in Duncan BC, who provided evidence in support of BCPIAC’s proposals, has seen an increasing number of people who are either facing disconnection or have already been cut off because they cannot afford to pay their BC Hydro bills. “Inability to pay rising Hydro costs has a huge impact on low income people, especially seniors on fixed pensions and people who rely on the very low social assistance rates that have been frozen since 2007” Simmonds said.  “Many people have to choose between paying rent, purchasing food, and paying their electricity bill.”

“About 10% of BC Hydro residential customers live below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-off, which translates to about 170,000 customers”, said Sarah Khan, one of the lawyers at BCPIAC who is bringing this issue to the BCUC.  Khan added that “BC Hydro’s rates are increasing much faster than incomes for low income people, and our proposals will help to mitigate the impact of BC Hydro’s never-ending rate increases”.

BC Hydro offers no rates or terms and conditions that specifically apply to low income customers. The only programs available to these customers are energy saving kits and in more limited cases, energy efficiency audits and certain home upgrades. While these programs are important, they are not offsetting BC Hydro’s rate increases.

BCPIAC’s low income proposals were developed by Roger Colton, an expert in low income rate design from the United States, who will testify as an expert witness during the public hearing. Mr. Colton will testify that measures such as a discounted electricity rate can simultaneously address affordability concerns, improve cost reflectivity in rates, and improve the efficiency of BC Hydro’s operations.

BCPIAC will also be calling Seth Klein, Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office, to testify about the extent and profile of poverty in BC and the difficulties low income people in BC have paying for the basic necessities of life including residential electricity. Mr. Klein’s evidence will provide context for the need for mitigating measures like BCPIAC’s proposed bill affordability programs.

BCPIAC is representing the following groups in this proceeding: Active Support Against Poverty, BC Old Age Pensioners’ Organization, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of BC, Disability Alliance BC, Together Against Poverty Society, and Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre.

The hearing will take place on August 16-18 and 23-24, 2016 in downtown Vancouver.

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FULL Press Release

Background Information

Poverty advocates criticize Hydro for number of service disconnections

June 10, 2016 | Frank Stanford | CFAX 1070

Link to original article

The Together Against Poverty Society is outraged by the sharp growth in number of households being disconnected by B-C Hydro for non payment of bills.

TAPS representative Tony Pullman was speaking on C-FAX (with Frank Stanford) this morning…

“They disconnected… in the year ended March 31st 2016…B-C Hydro disconnected 30, 283 customers. Residential customers”

Pullman says the numbers have grown dramatically since the introduction of smart metres made it possible to disconnect remotely.

Pullman admits that Hydro has since reduced the fee it charges for re-connecting, but he argues the corporation was slow in doing so, and thousands of people who could ill afford it were charged an unnecessarily high price.

BC Hydro Disconnections Spiked Significantly after Smart Meters Installed

Meters made it possible for utility to unplug power remotely, says spokesperson.

June 9, 2016 | Andrew MacLeod | TheTyee

Link to original article

In the years following the introduction of smart meters, BC Hydro disconnected about six times as many customers for not paying their electricity bills as it had previously in British Columbia.

“What we’re seeing reflected is Liberal energy policy, which is making things way harder for people,” said Adrian Dix, the NDP critic for BC Hydro. “It’s because inequality is growing, people are struggling, and hydro rates because of Liberal energy policies have gone up a significant amount.”

A table that BC Hydro submitted to the British Columbia Utilities Commission as part of the ongoing rate design process shows that in fiscal 2013, the publicly owned utility issued nearly 12,000 disconnection orders and completed 4,995 of those disconnections.

Two years later in fiscal 2015, BC Hydro issued 38,781 disconnection orders, a three-fold increase, and followed through on a much higher proportion of them. That year, 32,564 households were disconnected, 6.5 times as many as in 2013.

The figures for 2016 — 36,827 disconnections ordered and 30,283 completed — are similar.

“The number of disconnections completed has increased because we are now able to do them remotely without having to send out a crew,” BC Hydro spokesperson Simi Heer said in an email.

“Disconnection is always a last resort and the threshold for sending collection notices or disconnecting power has not changed. We have just been able complete the disconnections more efficiently.”

‘It’s a different ballgame’

Former BCUC commissioner Tony Pullman, now the treasurer at the Together Against Poverty Society, said the change coincided with the introduction of smart meters. BC Hydro spent $1 billion to install 1.8 million smart meters starting in 2012.

“As soon as the smart meters came in, bang, it’s a different ballgame,” he said.

Records the utility released to the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre in response to a freedom of information request support that analysis. In 2012, when disconnections had to be done manually, the most made in a month was 714.

The first remote disconnections were recorded in March 2013, and by October that year the utility remotely cut the power to 2,873 families.

Before smart meters, disconnections may have been a low priority, especially in the winter, Pullman said. “Most service men didn’t want to go out and disconnect people who couldn’t pay for their power.”

Installing smart meters made it possible for an employee in an office somewhere to cut a household’s power with the click of a mouse and none of the human interaction that was previously necessary, he said.

More disconnections isn’t what most people expected the smart meter program to deliver, he added.

BC Hydro’s Heer said the change has also made it easier for customers to get reconnected and allowed BC Hydro in December to drop the reconnection fee from $125 to $30.

It also saves the utility money by reducing the expense for bad debt and the cost to borrow money to cover delayed payments, she said.

“We do not take disconnection lightly,” she said. “Even though disconnections are done remotely, every account undergoes a manual review by a credit agent before a disconnection order is issued.”

People struggling, Dix says

The NDP’s Dix said the increase in the number of disconnection orders is an indication that more people are having a difficult time paying their bills.

“The incremental difference clearly reflects what’s happening in the economy,” he said. “The [disconnections] don’t reflect changes in people’s priorities. They represent the challenge of difficult economic times.”

That people are struggling is also shown in the numbers for reconnections that BC Hydro included in its BCUC submission, Dix said. While about half of households in 2015 were reconnected the same day they are disconnected, about 15.3 per cent were still without power a week after the disconnection.

That’s one out of six people who are unable to respond to have their power reconnected within a week, he said. “You’re talking about 6,000 people,” he said. “What that tells you is people are really struggling when this happens.”

Energy Minister Bill Bennett announced in February that to help B.C. mining companies through tough economic times, firms can defer paying up to 75 per cent of their BC Hydro bills for up to two years.

Dix said the government has failed to make similar allowance for individual ratepayers and noted that NDP leader John Horgan has proposed a “lifeline rate” to help people with low incomes afford their BC Hydro bills as rates rise.

BC Lags in Making Hydro Affordable for Poor: Expert

Many places in North America already reduce rates for strapped low-income users.

June 6, 2016 | Andrew MacLeod |  TheTyee
Link to original article

Adopting measures to make BC Hydro bills more affordable for people with low incomes would make good business sense for the utility, according to testimony to the British Columbia Utilities Commission from a prominent expert on North American utility pricing.

“My objective in B.C. was to look for some ways to what I call ‘rationalize’ the way BC Hydro works with and treats its low-income customers,” said economist Roger Colton in a telephone interview. That would be good for those customers as well as for the Crown corporation, he said.

Based in Belmont, Massachusetts, Colton is a principal with the firm Fisher, Sheehan & Colton and has consulted on utility issues in several American states and Canadian provinces.

Ontario, New York, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maine are among the jurisdictions that had introduced a variety of measures to make electricity more affordable for customers with low incomes

“Increasingly in the United States electricity utilities are adopting affordability programs for low-income customers,” Colton said. “I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 or 30 years now. There was a lull, but just in the last few years there have been either states or provinces that have moved to introduce low-income affordability programs.”

He cited Ontario, New York, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maine among the jurisdictions that had introduced a variety of measures to make electricity more affordable for customers with low incomes. More than 30 of the 50 states have some form of affordability program in place, he said.

Affordability, not rank, matters: Colton

Colton’s B.C. testimony was part of a 341-page document the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre filed May 9 with the BCUC on behalf of seven anti-poverty and seniors’ groups.

The recommendations are designed to help 170,000 families in B.C. who live below the low-income cut-offs set by Statistics Canada, around $32,000 a year for a family of four depending on what size community they live in.

The utilities commission is reviewing the design of BC Hydro’s rates with a mandate from the provincial government that includes evaluating the current rate structures to ensure they are fair and is hearing from many interveners as part of that process.

Whether it’s the third lowest or the third highest, there are people in British Columbia who can’t afford to pay their electricity bills

The minister responsible, Bill Bennett, told The Tyee in February that BC Hydro rates are already affordable since they are the third lowest in North America, even after recent rate increases.

“The fact that it’s less expensive, [that] rates are less expensive than elsewhere, doesn’t say anything about affordability,” Colton cautioned. The question is whether people with low incomes are able to pay their hydro bills, he said. “Whether it’s the third lowest or the third highest, there are people in British Columbia who can’t afford to pay their electricity bills.”

The Tyee previously reported on testimony to the BCUC from individual ratepayers, some of whom said they faced a choice between paying their utility bills and being able to afford food, and from advocates who said it is common throughout the province for people to struggle to afford their utility bills.

Three ideas for low-income help

Colton makes three main proposals to make BC Hydro rates more affordable for people with low incomes.

He recommends introducing an essential services block that would give customers who qualify a discount of four cents per kilowatt hour on the first 400 kilowatt hours of electricity they use each month. Doing so would better reflect what it costs to serve low-income customers, who BC Hydro has acknowledged are cheaper to serve than other customers, he said.

The reduction would knock $16 a month off the bill for a low-income BC Hydro customer.

Colton also recommends creating a crisis intervention account funded with a 25 cent per month charge to all BC Hydro accounts. The estimated $5.4 million a year that would be collected could be distributed to customers who are about to have their power disconnected due to nonpayment or who owe amounts they are unlikely ever to be able to pay, he said.

Finally, he suggests various changes in the terms and conditions of service, including preventing BC Hydro from disconnecting people’s power between November and the end of March. “The termination of service during British Columbia’s cold weather months is an inherently dangerous activity,” Colton testified, noting the health impacts are well known. “The standard utility practice in cold weather jurisdictions is to provide shutoff protections during these cold weather months.”

He also recommends waiving security deposits, making more flexible payment arrangements, eliminating late-payment fees, and excusing reconnection fees for low-income customers.

Colton said on the phone that of the programs in place elsewhere, the best are ones that cap the utility rate at an affordable level based on a household’s income. The guideline is usually to cap the cost for gas and electric combined at no more than six per cent of a household’s income, he said.

His recommendations for B.C. are ones that can be made within the existing service model and are designed to be clearly within the utility commission’s jurisdiction, he said. “They all work independently, but they all work better if they work together.”

Tony Pullman is the treasurer at the Together Against Poverty Society and a former BCUC commissioner. BC Hydro rates have been steadily rising while minimum wage and social assistance rates have seen little or no increase, he said.

The proposed changes would make a difference for the many people who are surviving on shockingly low incomes in the province, he said. “It’s probably a couple hundred dollars a year, which is a lot, believe you me.”

BC Hydro’s rebuttal evidence is due in early July and oral hearings are set for August.

Power Bills Rising, ‘My Clients Are Panicking’

Hydro costs push many low-income British Columbians to edge, say support experts.

June 1, 2016 | Andrew MacLeod | TheTyee
Link to original

Advocates who work closely with people surviving on low incomes have testified to the British Columbia Utilities Commission that it is increasingly common for their clients to struggle to pay the rising cost of electricity, often with severe consequences.

My clients are aware of the recent and upcoming rate increases, and they are panicking

“My clients are aware of the recent and upcoming rate increases, and they are panicking,” said Stacey Tyers, the manager of counselling support services at the Terrace and District Community Services Society.

Throughout 12 years of anti-poverty work Tyers has seen clients with trouble paying their electricity bills, she said. “It is definitely getting worse though,” said Tyers, who also is a Terrace city councillor. “We are now seeing a much larger number of people with BC Hydro issues.”

Keith Simmonds, the co-ordinating minister at the Duncan United Church, said that over the past 18 months more people have sought help from the church because they can’t afford to pay their BC Hydro bills. “Inability to pay rising hydro costs has a huge impact on low-income people. Many people have to choose between paying rent, purchasing food and paying their BC Hydro bill.”

“Contacts about BC Hydro issues have definitely increased in recent years,” said Audrey Schwartz, the executive director of Active Support Against Poverty in Prince George. About 79 per cent of the people who turn to the agency for help with tenancy and housing are First Nations, she said.

“Our office saw a significant spike in contacts about BC Hydro issues in 2014,” said Stephen Portman, the advocacy lead at the Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria. “The increasing unaffordability of BC Hydro rates for our clients means that people are unable to pay their bills, and are more often disconnected.”

The statements from six advocates from throughout B.C. are part of a 341-page document the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre filed May 9 with the BCUC on behalf of seven anti-poverty and seniors’ groups.

The Tyee reported this week on testimony the submission included from three people who were themselves struggling on low incomes to pay their BC Hydro bills. The document also includes statements from experts on poverty and utility pricing.

The utilities commission is reviewing the design of BC Hydro’s rates and has a mandate from the provincial government that includes evaluating the current rate structures to ensure they are fair.

Losing power bad for health

According to the testimony from the advocates, high BC Hydro rates contribute to poor health, families losing custody of their children, and difficult choices. One advocate described providing candles to a disabled senior so that he would have light after BC Hydro disconnected his electricity.

Emma Gauvin is the social work team lead for the STOP HIV/AIDS program at Vancouver Coastal Health, which provides services to “Aboriginal people, LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and two-spirited) communities, youth, immigrant and refugee communities, and people with mental health and/or addiction issues.”

“We work with people who are HIV positive, and the majority of our clients struggle with addictions and mental health issues and have low incomes and live in unstable housing,” her testimony said.

Trouble paying BC Hydro bills is a frequent problem, Gauvin said. “BC Hydro issues relate to the social determinants of health, and interfere with our ability to provide services to our clients,” she said. “If someone is cut off by BC Hydro, then their lack of electricity becomes a priority. If our clients do not have electricity, this can derail treatment plans for other health issues.”

Clients who lose electricity in their homes risk having refrigerated and frozen food spoil, she said. “Many of our clients are prone to opportunistic infections, so not having access to proper nutrition can affect their health.” Also, she said, two common drugs for HIV need to be refrigerated.

Skipping medicine to pay bills

“When it comes to low-income communities, every time there is a rate increase, you are taking food out of someone’s mouth,” said Tyers in Terrace.

When it comes to low-income communities, every time there is a rate increase, you are taking food out of someone’s mouth

She described one client who lived in a trailer and faced a monthly BC Hydro bill of $300, a significant part of her budget. “She got to the point where she stopped buying her blood pressure medication so that she could keep up with her bills.”

Others avoid using power, Tyres said. “I know of many people that keep their heat well below where it should be in order to reduce costs,” she said. “It is not healthy or safe for those people or their families. No one else would keep their heat that low.”

BC Hydro says it’s not the Crown agencies problem when families have their electricity disconnected and no longer have heat, light or hot water, Tyers said. “However, I have seen the Ministry of Children and Family Development remove children from a home, citing lack of electricity along with other reasons for removal of the children.”

People often get behind on their bills in the winter when they are higher, she said. “If someone is heating their house with electricity in the winter in a northern community, the bills can be enormous. It is much darker and colder here in the winter than in other parts of the province, and people use light and heat a lot more.”

Simmonds, the minister in Duncan, said many of the families his church works with worry that their children will be taken into government care if they can’t afford to pay for electricity for heat or to refrigerate food.

“In the region where I live and work, a particularly high number of kids are apprehended by the Ministry of Children and Family Development,” he said. “I understand that lack of electricity could lead [the ministry] to consider removing children from a home if the weather is cold for a longer period of time and the children’s parents or guardians could not afford to pay their electricity bill.”

Stagnant incomes, rising rates

People with stagnant incomes struggle to pay their BC Hydro bills, Simmonds said. “Seniors with pensions that seemed adequate in the past cannot afford current BC Hydro rates, nor can those living on provincial and on reserve welfare rates that have been frozen since 2007.”

Already the available assistance isn’t enough to cover bills, including those for utilities, he said. “Low-income people we see will absolutely be unable to cope with increases in BC Hydro rates without receiving a discount on their electricity bills or a corresponding increase in income (income assistance and disability assistance, and minimum wage).”

The high cost of electricity is a problem for people with low incomes, said Schwartz in Prince George. “Low-income people do not have a financial cushion that allows them to pay huge bills in a way that will actually make the problem go away,” she said. “Even if they manage to avoid disconnection one month, the rates mean they could be in the same place with the next bill.”

In Prince George, in the winter, it is impossible to survive without heat, she said. “For our clients with electric heating, this is a life and death crisis.”

Many of the cheaper places to rent in the northern city are electrically heated, she said. “This creates problems because low-income people move in because the rent is cheaper, and they don’t realize until they move in that electricity costs can be $300 per month.”

Often it is low-income, single-parent families in that situation, Schwartz said. “Facing large bills and disconnection because you cannot pay your bills is so stressful for people,” she said. “Our clients are people who are stressed to begin with, given their lack of financial stability. Every penny counts.”

Worrying about making ends meet is all consuming for many people, Schwartz said. “I cannot imagine how single parents deal with figuring out how to pay for these increasing costs, and still manage to sit down and help their children with their schoolwork.”

Choosing between food and electricity

“The impact of not having electricity should be obvious, but is particularly problematic when someone has a disability, or has small children and due to a lack of electricity is unable to cook,” said Portman at Together Against Poverty Society, a non-profit in Victoria that helps more than 5,000 low-income people per year.

“Being unable to afford electricity means not being able to clean laundry, shower and prepare for work, and heat your home in the middle of the winter — especially since a lot of low-income housing in the Victoria area has electric baseboard heating,” he said. “Getting cut off has a big impact very quickly.”

Many low-income clients are unaware that BC Hydro is planning further rate increases, Portman said. “The people we serve will clearly be unable to cope with additional rate increases. Most clients that present with BC Hydro issues are already using their food money to pay for BC Hydro — further increases mean less food in the cupboard. Keeping the power on is a tradeoff with feeding themselves and their families.”

He noted that there have been no increases to income assistance rates in B.C. since 2007. “Each year people become more desperate trying to cope with increasing pressures on their income. This amplifies the impact of BC Hydro rate increases and the resulting competition with meeting basic needs.”

Patty Edwards is the constituency assistant for Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser and has been helping people with tenancy problems for 25 years in Port Alberni. In the past decade more of the issues have been related to BC Hydro she said.

“These problems seem to be coming up more and more now,” she said. “A lot of people just cannot afford the big BC Hydro bills they are receiving. Many of my clients are making their monthly payments and just getting by, and when BC Hydro rates go up, they can’t keep up.”

Lighting with candles

Many people with low-income renters move frequently and don’t realize how big their BC Hydro bills will be in a new home, Edwards said. “I often see clients that have moved into a new place and did not realize it was poorly insulated. There are lots of pre-war houses in this area that are poorly insulated and hard to heat — people move in because the rent is cheaper, and are blindsided when they get a massive bill.”

She testified she recently helped an elderly person with mental and physical disabilities who depends on disability benefits from the province. “The client is on an equal payment plan with BC Hydro, and the ministry pays the BC Hydro bill directly,” she said. “The client arranged to have the ministry pay the BC Hydro bills directly as the client is unable to cope with bills.”

But when BC Hydro reconciled the client’s actual usage with what he’d paid, the utility found he owed them money. “He was hit with a very large bill, which my client was unable to pay,” Edwards said. “His electricity was disconnected, and he didn’t understand why…. Even though the client had never missed a payment, he was cut off.”

for those that end up getting disconnected, living without electricity has huge health impacts

The power stayed off for him for about six months. “He had no light or heat,” she said. “I took him candles to use for lighting at one point, and a neighbour gave him an extension cord to their house so he could use his oven and fridge.”

Eventually someone in the community paid his bill so he could get reconnected, she said.

“Those who cannot afford their BC Hydro bills get so beaten down and disheartened,” Edwards said. “The stress can exacerbate their disabilities, and for those that end up getting disconnected, living without electricity has huge health impacts.”

Both the minister responsible, Bill Bennett, and BC Hydro president and CEO Jessica McDonald have told The Tyee that when it comes to affordability B.C. already has the third lowest rates for electricity in North America.

“Our view is the rates being the third lowest in North America are already affordable,” Bennett said in a February interview. “How low do they need to be before someone says they’re affordable? If you factor in inflation, people are paying the same thing for electricity in 2016 that they were paying in the 1990s. That sounds affordable to me.”

PIAC is proposing a suite of measures that would make electricity more affordable for some 170,000 families in B.C. who live below the low-income cutoffs set by Statistics Canada, around $32,000 a year for a family of four depending on what size community they live in.