Evidence of meeting #5 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was million.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you, Minister.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Chong Wellington—Halton Hills, ON

Minister, I have a question about employment insurance. Over the last while we often have had to deal with employment insurance bills that come in front of this committee as private member's bills. There seem to be a lot of private member's bills that have been proposed and are presently on the order paper that propose to use the employment insurance fund as a solution to all sorts of problems. For example, for the problem of worker shortage, it has been proposed to use the EI fund as a way to enhance worker training. For the problem of those families with a mother, father, or family member who is ill, there's been a proposal to enhance leave benefits for the other family member.

In my view, the problem is that these bills that propose to use employment insurance as a solution leave out a whole swath of Canadians who are not eligible to participate in the employment insurance fund--many self-employed Canadians, many Canadians working on contract, often those living in the country's largest cities like Toronto, often new Canadians, often those Canadians who are in poverty. I wonder if you concur with my viewpoint on this, that the employment insurance fund is not of universal import and is not necessarily the best way to deal with some of these problems.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Minister, could you answer in just about 30 seconds?

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

Sure.

One of the things we've done--and I already touched on this--is announce these new labour market agreements, $3 billion over six years, and they are targeted toward some of the people you've talked about, such as recent immigrants who've never had a job and therefore aren't EI-eligible. They can get the training they need to step right into a job. Hopefully it will be on-the-job training. That seems to be some of the best training.

Also with respect to people working from contract to contract, the flexibility in these labour market agreements is broad enough so that those people can get the training they need to potentially step into a full-time job if that's their wish. It also helps people get the language and literacy skills they need, the basic general skills they need to step into a job. It has been a huge gap in our training up until now, and combined with the very hot job market, it is the ideal time to get a lot of people engaged in the job market who never would be otherwise.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

Mr. Martin, for five minutes, sir.

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Tony Martin Sault Ste. Marie, ON

Thank you very much.

I've heard you say a couple of times this afternoon that the most effective response to poverty, as you quoted the minister from Manitoba, is employment. Anybody who has tried to put together a plan to actually reduce employment, whether that be Britain, Ireland, Newfoundland and Labrador now, or Quebec, will tell you that it's not as simple as that. They wish it were, but it's not. It requires a comprehensive, integrated approach that includes a lot of things.

I know that your government in the last budget brought forward an initiative that was targeted at the large group of people who are actually out there trying to take advantage of some jobs that are available. And people will work given that opportunity. That has always been my experience. More and more they're finding themselves, even with that, not being able to pay the bills. They're working full-time. They're working year-round. They can't feed their kids. They can't pay the rent.

You had introduced the WITB. Where is that? What's happening with it? How is that working? I explained to you the last time you were in front of us that it doesn't work for a whole lot of people. A single person working full-time year-round doesn't qualify, nor does a family, given the low threshold you had in there.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

That's an important issue. The working income tax benefit is an attempt to make sure we reduce the marginal effective tax rates for people who are transitioning from a lot of benefit programs and those kinds of things and into more lucrative jobs. Of course, the way it works now, 60¢ of every dollar you earn as you cross that threshold might be clawed back through the loss of benefits and through taxes. The idea is to reduce that.

Can we do more? Perhaps we can, but that will be something Mr. Flaherty has to decide. It's very true that we put a lot of emphasis on helping people get into the labour market, but it's not a panacea, I agree with you. However, the data we've seen has indicated that as jobs have increased, poverty has gone down. At some point, though, you get to a point where that is not going to happen as much because people's needs are too great or because people can't work in some cases. Obviously we do have to provide income support—and adequate income support—for people in those positions.

Just to wrap up, it's not simple. These things are complicated, and the government always has limited resources and unlimited demands. It's a challenge to try to meet them all.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Tony Martin Sault Ste. Marie, ON

What is the status of the WITB at the moment?

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

WITB is in place. And with respect to the WITB and a number of tax measures that we put in place, I would just say that they will actually have the effect of helping a lot of people make ends meet when they're actually working but are still not earning a lot of income. You have the working income tax benefit and the EI changes that lift 385,000 people off the tax rolls, and even the GST cut will make a difference of several hundred dollars for people. The new child tax credit will make a difference for a lot of people as well. And there's the universal child care benefit, of course. All of these things contribute and make it easier for working families.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Tony Martin Sault Ste. Marie, ON

I haven't seen it in the estimates, but are you looking at any kind of substantial investment in housing across the country? Again, getting back to the some of the difficulties that people who actually have found work are having, I may have told you this before too. I was in Calgary a year ago, and I looked at the very terrible circumstance there for folks who have gone to Calgary looking for work, have gotten work, but then can't find a place to live. That's happening not just in Calgary but in many communities.

I know my own community has experienced a little bit of a turnaround and is below 1% in terms of its vacancy rate. We're also beginning to find that some of the affordable housing that is available is now deteriorating to a point where it's no longer going to be available.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

This is a very complicated problem, as you know. We've invested a lot of money into this so far. We're 22 months in and we've put a lot of money in, but I think it does require our best thinking.

In my speech, I talked about a residential rehabilitation assistance program, which is helpful to ensure that housing doesn't become dilapidated. We put money into the housing trust and the affordable housing initiative. I could give you a long list, but I guess I would simply say we're going to work very hard with our provincial partners and others to try to come up with some solutions to address these problems.

There are no easy answers. On the one hand, you'll have communities where you have high levels of poverty and they have problems with housing. On the other hand, you'll have communities that are very prosperous and, for opposite reasons, they have problems with housing. Calgary is a good example.

I hope you don't think it's a cliché to say it really requires all levels of government, the private sector, and not-for-profits to try to come up with some creative solutions to help people get over this hump. At the same time, we should be conscious of the fact that Canada is in a pretty enviable position compared to many countries in the world.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you very much, Mr. Martin.

We're now going to move to Mr. Silva for five minutes, please.

December 3rd, 2007 / 4:45 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Davenport, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister. I'm going to try to be very brief, given that my colleague also has questions to ask during my time.

When I was going through the estimates, I found one of the things that concern me on page 90. There is an issue of, I think, about an additional $5 million that's going to be spent to litigate and for legal services to go after students who have loans to be paid.

A great amount of concern has been raised by a lot of students about the fact that the government has not made any announcement about the millennium scholarships that are in place. As you know, those scholarships end in 2009, and there's great uncertainly. Now they're raising the issue of whether or not there are in fact additional moneys now going to be used to get after students, as opposed to contributing to their better education and to their higher education.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

We are doing a review of the student loans program. We're conscious of the millennium scholarship fund. We've been meeting with a number of stakeholders to talk about these things.

Of course, all governments put money into collecting bad debts caused by people who are unable to repay their student loans. But I also point out that there is legislation coming through the Senate now that would make it easier for people who have large student loans and are unable to repay them to escape from underneath that burden—Bill C-12, I think it is.

I would also point out that we have invested very heavily in education. Yes, there may be $5 million in there to help collect bad debts, but there's $800 million going in this year to boost the system, and a number of other measures we put in place to help students.

4:50 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Davenport, ON

I do believe in the old adage that all politics is local, so if I may, I'll ask a question also about the Canada summer jobs program. This is an issue that even predates you and this government.

I've mentioned this before in this committee. Many agencies and organizations for years have been talking about the fact that by the time they actually find out they qualify and get the moneys, it is too late for them sometimes to hire students, and it becomes very difficult. I've asked whether there is any way they could be given a month earlier so that it makes it easier for people to in fact get good students to work for them.