Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts
Integrity of the Social Insurance Number
17 February 2003
Maria Barrados, PhD
Assistant Auditor General
Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to present the results of our audit on the integrity of the social insurance number (SIN). With me today are Peter Simeoni and Suzanne Therrien, who are responsible for this audit work.
We carried out this audit to determine whether the government was safeguarding and strengthening the integrity of the SIN. We followed up on the concerns we had raised in our 1998 report on SIN management and also based our work on reports to the House of Commons on the SIN by the standing committees on Public Accounts and on Human Resources Development. These reports were very useful to us in the course of our work.
What we found
When we began we expected to find that the problems reported in the past would have been largely resolved. Instead, we found that while there had been progress on certain issues since 1998, many others had not been addressed.
On one hand, the government has reaffirmed its policy that the SIN is to be used only as an account number for authorized federal programs. To help protect personal information (including the SIN) outside the federal government, it is implementing the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.
On the other hand, we again found serious weaknesses in the control and issuing of SINs, which lead us to conclude that HRDC has not done enough to safeguard and strengthen the integrity of the SIN.
In our view, HRDC is not meeting the intent of the Employment Insurance Act and Regulations in issuing SINs, because it asks applicants for only one document as proof of both identity and citizenship. Since a single document is usually insufficient to check both, we are concerned that in the majority of SINs issued since 1998, the applicant's identity and citizenship status were not checked properly.
We question the reliability of some of the documents that HRDC has accepted as proof of eligibility for a SIN. For example, we found that it accepted expired passports, baptismal certificates, and photocopies of these and other documents.
We found that there is inadequate control over SINs issued to people who are not Canadians or permanent residents—the 900 series. We noted that for these SINs, like regular SINs, HRDC did not take adequate steps to establish the identity of applicants. Nor did the Department ask these applicants to show why they needed a SIN, even though it is required to by regulation.
The reliability and completeness of information in the Social Insurance Register, the database of all SIN records, also remains a problem. While HRDC made some improvements after 1998, we found that it still has not dealt adequately with several issues. For example, as part of improving the integrity of the register, the Department should determine why the number of usable SINs for people over 20 years old exceeds the census figure by five million.
Issues the Committee may wish to pursue
Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to note that the Department accepted all of our recommendations and has produced an action plan for dealing with them. I believe that this plan has been provided to the Committee.
While the plan is a step in the right direction, the next order of business is making sure that the government has committed the necessary resources to this effort. The Committee may wish to ask the officials from HRDC how much the action plan will cost, whether it is fully funded, and if it is not, what the consequences are.
There may be some confusion about what the department means when it says that 2.6 million SINs were deactivated in October of last year. It is our understanding that these SINs can still be used to access federal benefit programs except Employment Insurance, without triggering an investigation. The Committee may wish to ask the officials from HRDC to clarify the status of these SINs.
In addition, the Committee may wish to ask the officials from HRDC:
- what assurance they can provide that other departments will fulfil their responsibilities under the action plan;
- when they expect to have fully carried out the plan;
- how and when they plan to comply with the Employment Insurance Act and Regulations in determining the citizenship and identity of SIN applicants; and
- what plans they have to assess the reliability of documents they accept in support of SIN applications and to check the validity of the documents with the authorities that issued them.
Finally, the Committee may consider asking the Department to provide regular progress reports showing whether the elements of the plan are on time and on budget.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer the Committee's questions. Thank you.