Evidence of meeting #19 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was ei.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Ed Komarnicki

I call this meeting to order.

There are a couple of things I want to mention before we hear from Mr. Harris. The bells will ring at 5:15 today, so we're likely to adjourn a bit early. There's also an adoption of a budget for Bill C-316, and that information will be circulated by the clerk. We may get to it today, and if we don't, we'll get to it at the next meeting.

I also want you to think about a request from the Canadian Nuclear Association, which said they would like to appear before the committee when it studies employment and skills issues in rural and remote communities. They want to appear on February 29. If we look at our schedule, we will be dealing with skills development in remote, rural communities on February 27 and 29. We'll be dealing with drafting instructions on those. It would probably mean testimony of five or ten minutes, with some questions and answers. Whether we want to allow them to appear before us or not, you might think about that and I'll come back to it at a later meeting.

Today, we will be dealing with Bill C-316, an Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. It essentially will deal with an enactment that would repeal provisions of the Employment Insurance Act that allow for qualifying and benefit periods to be extended as a result of the time spent by a claimant in a jail, penitentiary, or other similar institution. The bill is proposed by Mr. Richard M. Harris, who is here with us today. The procedure will be that he will make a brief presentation to us, and then members of the committee will get an opportunity to question Mr. Harris or to comment. We'll go through our normal routine with regard to that.

Mr. Harris, if you're ready, you can proceed.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I'm kind of getting to like this seat down here. I'm usually here, and I spent some time over there. I guess it takes 19 years to get to this end of the table.

Members of the committee, I don't suppose that many Canadians spend a lot of time reading the EI Act to become familiar with it. I certainly didn't until I had an incident in my riding that sent me there. It involved a young lady who had worked for a period of time, 15 years, paid EI premiums, and decided to take some time off to upgrade her skills at her own expense and by her own decision.

She took 12 or 13 months off. She acquired her certificate to ensure she would have a better chance of keeping employment and be in a more steady job. She got a job. She went back to work for two months and started feeling not too well. She went to the doctor, and, sadly, it was discovered after some tests that she had cancer. It was a nasty type, and she had to leave her job and became bedridden at home. Her husband had to take time off his job to look after her as well as he could at home, when he could, so his earnings were reduced.

She was told that maybe she should apply for EI and get some benefits from it. She did, and because she had taken a year off by her own choice and hadn't worked in that period, she was not eligible, of course, because the way the EI Act reads, you have to work in that 52-week qualifying period. Unfortunately, she simply wasn't eligible to receive benefits.

That's the situation that brought my attention to this. I said it was unfair, and I wanted to find out why she wasn't eligible. I looked into it and read the act, and according to the act, that was right. I thought maybe a mistake was made. However, when I looked at the act, I found that you could make application for extensions in some circumstances. I read under subsection 8(2) of the Employment Insurance Act that an extension of the qualifying period—which would have helped this young lady—might be granted provided that during the weeks for which the extension was requested the claimant was not in receipt of unemployment benefits and was prevented from working while insurable for one of the following reasons:

(a) incapable of work because of...illness, injury, quarantine or pregnancy;

(c) receiving assistance under employment benefits;

And from the “Digest of Benefit Entitlement Principles”, section 1.3.1:

3. attendance at a course or other employment...following referral by the Commission or designated third party;

—or paragraph 1.5.1 of those principles—

[receiving] payments under a provincial law for...preventative withdrawal.

Those are all legitimate reasons. In the case of this young lady, she voluntarily took a year off to upgrade her skills. She wasn't sick or anything in that period. She wasn't receiving any benefits, and she wasn't receiving any provincial payments. But thrown into that, there is a fourth one, which says you can apply for an extension to the qualifying period or the benefit period if you are

(b) confined in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution.

In other words, if you work for a number of years, make a voluntary decision to commit a crime, get caught, go to court, and get convicted for that crime and get sentenced to eight months in jail, when you come out you can apply for an extension. There is a part in the act that says, “Well, sure, we'll just pretend that never happened, and we'll give you an extension for the time you were in jail—eight months of your qualifying period”.

Now, when I started passing that around to constituents in my riding, the most popular response was, “You've got to be kidding—that's not fair.” And it isn't fair. Who can find any fairness in a regulation that grants favouritism under the EI Act to someone who commits a crime and goes to jail, as opposed to a hard-working individual who, in this case, took some time off to upgrade her skills? She then found herself in a position where she was suddenly unemployed after being back at work for a short period of time. Lo and behold, under the EI Act, because she wasn't working in the prior 52 weeks, she didn't qualify.

There is nothing wrong with the EI Act as it stands. It works very well for hard-working Canadians. Qualifying is one of the criteria, and there is a benefit period when you can collect, but I was just astounded to see that if you went to jail you could get a free pass on the extensions and the qualifying period. I said, “Well, that's not fair.” A reporter asked me today what this bill was all about and asked if my colleagues and the public as a whole support it. I said, “Well, this bill is about fairness, and what's not to support when it's something about fairness?”

I could tell you about a lot of other situations. In a situation in Quebec recently, a young mother was denied employment insurance after her place of employment went out of business. Because she had just returned from maternity leave and had not worked enough in the past year, she wasn't allowed to apply for an extension. But guess what? Had she gone to jail, she would have been. It's not fair. It's not fair to treat a convicted felon as being in a favoured position as opposed to a hard-working Canadian individual who makes a decision to take time off.

That's the basis of the bill. We want to ensure that convicted felons are under the same regulations as people who obey the law, work hard, and try to contribute to society, people who don't make decisions to break the law and then end up in the courts and possibly in jail.

I think that pretty well capsulizes the bill. I've nicknamed it “the fairness bill”. It's not a bill that's going to change the world. It's not going to change the entire EI Act. But it's going to take out that one portion that gives a convicted felon a privileged position over someone who is law abiding and just seeks to do the right thing.

Mr. Chair, I'm willing to take questions on my bill.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Ed Komarnicki

Thank you.

I'd certainly like to thank the member for Caribou—Prince George for making his points very well. I'm sure some questions will be put to him by the various members. We'll start with Mr. Patry.

Monsieur Patry, go ahead.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Claude Patry Jonquière—Alma, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Harris, I understand it is unfair. However, I would like us to understand that there is a difference between these two things. As you know, hardened criminals have sentences that are longer than two years less a day. Those people will never be entitled to this and will never be able to claim the 104 weeks of benefits. It only applies to those serving a sentence of two years less a day.

Mr. Harris, I would like you to understand one thing through my comments and my question. The people that end up in jail are not necessarily hardened criminals. Some of them may have failed to pay their speeding tickets. Because they have no money to pay for the tickets, they spend time in jail; it could be two or three months. You have to think about those people.

Individuals serving a sentence of two years less a day are not all hardened criminals. There are many single mothers who are jailed for shoplifting. Often, they steal food. We need to be careful.

The system was established in 1959 by Progressive Conservatives. Why do away with it? Do we not want to maintain some avenue for rehabilitation?

If people fail to pay their tickets and get out of jail after three months, they may file an EI claim to get back on their feet. If you take that away from them, these people will only have social assistance benefits. Having done jail time does not look good on a CV, even if a person was incarcerated for not having paid a ticket or for having shoplifted.

I would like to know what the government gets out of this. What is the percentage? How much money is involved? How much will you save? That is what I would like to know.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Thanks for the question.

First of all, certainly I'm not suggesting that this bill would apply to hardened criminals, as you put it, who are incarcerated for a longer period of time. You talk about someone who receives a sentence of two years less a day, which would in some sense make them eligible for this preferred treatment. The fact is that they wouldn't have gone to jail and be in jail if they hadn't broken the law. It's all about choices.

If you choose to live a law-abiding life, work hard, contribute to society, and raise your family and your kids and give them good advice, you don't have to worry about things like this. But if you make a choice that you want to break the law, whether it's a small break or a bigger break, you've made a choice. The EI Act right now gives preferential treatment to people who make a choice to break the law and who then receive a prison sentence. That's simply not fair, because those special privileges are not available to someone who chooses not to break the law.

As far as how much money the bill will save is concerned, this bill wasn't started by me because of money. I don't know how much: $3 million, $4 million, or $5 million...it's not earth shattering. It's about fairness. That's the genesis of the bill.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Claude Patry Jonquière—Alma, QC

In this case, Mr. Harris, what do you do with people who are incarcerated while awaiting their trial and end up being acquitted? How will we treat these people when they want to get back into the labour force? They will not be entitled to EI benefits, they will be entitled to nothing and will be penalized. Can you explain this to me?

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

No. This change will apply only to people who are convicted. Someone who's awaiting jail, who spends time...will still be allowed and be able to get the extension. There's a friendly amendment that's attached. It's one of two friendly amendments. If you're not convicted of a crime, this doesn't affect you, but if you are, it does.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Claude Patry Jonquière—Alma, QC

When you tabled your bill in the House of Commons, I raised the issue of the 104 weeks for women who are on maternity leave and lose their jobs. There is a problem in this respect.

In several cases, regardless of the collective agreement, when workers are absent for over five days, they are laid off and lose their seniority. These people, even if they are incarcerated, may have committed a simple mistake. It is possible that people may not be acting in bad faith. Several people simply place their ticket in a basket on top of the refrigerator and forget about it. One fine day, police officers show up, but because the individual does not have enough money to pay, he or she will be jailed for two or three days. We will be penalizing these people. When they lose their jobs, their only recourse is employment insurance. This is not widespread, it is really quite specific. This is what worries me. People will be jailed for one or two weeks over simple things.

We need to come to some agreement on the word “criminal”. According to me, someone who has not paid off a ticket is not a criminal. However, some people are negligent and do not pay, which leads to problems. These people will be penalized. We are going to be creating another class of people who will be punished. It's six of one, a half-dozen of the other.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Well, I understand the point you're trying to make, but in all honesty, I doubt very much if someone is going to get thrown in jail for forgetting to pay some parking tickets or speeding tickets. I've never seen a case like that in many years of watching how the courts operate.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Ed Komarnicki

Thank you.

Your time is up, Mr. Patry.

I might just remind questioners to slow up a bit, because the translators are having a bit of a difficult time to keep up in the translation. Just keep that in mind.

Thank you for that. Your time is up.

We will move now to Mr. Rathgeber.

Go ahead.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Brent Rathgeber Edmonton—St. Albert, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Harris.

Let me premise my remarks by saying that I certainly support the bill. I voted in favour of it at second reading in the House, but I do have a couple of questions. One of them is fairly technical.

I have a copy of your bill, which is very short, as you know, but I do not have a copy of the Employment Insurance Act or regulations. Do you know if the act actually refers to an extension period when the person is serving time in a penitentiary? Does it actually use the word “penitentiary”?

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Yes. Subsection 8(2) of the Employment Insurance Act says that an extension to the qualifying period may be granted during the weeks, etc., that the claimant is “confined in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution”.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Brent Rathgeber Edmonton—St. Albert, AB

For that reason alone, I think we should all support your bill, because a penitentiary, as you know, is for convicted individuals who are serving periods of two years and greater. It would appear to me that anybody who's serving that amount of time is quite outside the normal 52-week eligibility period. So for that reason alone, I think your bill is well intentioned.

Now, in response to a question from Mr. Patry about the dollars saved, I don't know that you had a specific answer for him. Do you know what number of people take advantage of this provision in the Employment Insurance Act whereby they extend their weeks of eligibility by virtue of time spent in a correctional facility?

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

It's not a big number. I think those who spend under two months...it's somewhere in the neighbourhood of 4% or something. The dollar amount isn't big either. The closest estimate I can get is that it would be maybe in the neighbourhood of $3 million to $4 million.

But here again, as I've said to Mr. Patry, the bill isn't about saving money. In the grand scale of things, $3 million or $4 million in a multi-billion dollar budget is not a lot. It's nice to save it, but it's more about the fact that there is a preferred position extended to a convicted felon that's not extended to a good, honest working person.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Brent Rathgeber Edmonton—St. Albert, AB

Sure, and I agree with you, but how do you respond to critics or individuals who are opposed to your bill, who feel that you're picking on the vulnerable or somehow not granting people a second chance that they might otherwise be entitled to? How do you respond to your critics, Mr. Harris?