House of Commons Hansard #56 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was crime.

Topics

Report Stage
Safe Streets and Communites Act
Government Orders

5:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

Before I recognize the hon. member for Halifax, I will have to let her know that we only have three to four minutes remaining. We will get started just the same and I will give her an indication when there is one minute remaining. Then we will have to go to the next order of business.

The hon. member for Halifax.

Report Stage
Safe Streets and Communites Act
Government Orders

5:25 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am disappointed by that timing but I will be back tomorrow, hopefully, to finish my speech because it is really important for me to get on the record about this bill.

I have been thinking about the omnibus crime bill a lot. It comes to mind whenever I have a moment to think, like on the plane from Ottawa to Halifax, or on the walk to the office. In fact, it came to mind last week in church, because last Sunday, November 20, at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. Together with community members and descendants, Reverend Rhonda Britton and Dalhousie president Tom Traves, we celebrated not only the life but the legacy of James Robinson Johnston, the legacy that he left for Nova Scotia and for all of Canada. It was at this commemorative service that I started to think differently about Bill C-10. I will explain that.

James Robinson Johnston enrolled in Dalhousie University at the age of 16. He received his Bachelor of Letters degree in 1896 and his Bachelor of Law in 1898. He was the first member of Nova Scotia's black community to graduate from university and then, also, from law. He blazed a path for many to follow. His work in the African Nova Scotian community made a profound impact on the progress of African Nova Scotian communities today.

In 1991, a James Robinson Johnston chair in Black Canadian Studies was established at Dalhousie University to commemorate and deepen the link between the African Nova Scotia community and the academic study that takes place at universities.

Last Sunday, at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in my community, we not only remembered James Robinson Johnston, but we also had the opportunity to welcome the new JRJ chair in Black Canadian Studies, Dr. Afua Cooper. In her address, Dr. Cooper noted that James Robinson Johnston, along with many members of our African Nova Scotian communities, was a descendant of the 2,000 black refugees who fled the United States after the War of 1812 and settled in Nova Scotia.

The War of 1812 caught my attention and it made me stop to think about the government's recent decision to commemorate the War of 1812, and spending millions of dollars to do so. It also made stop to think about how our government is spending millions of dollars to commemorate a moment in history when free slaves came to Canada and how we are, at the same time, debating a bill in the House that would see thousands more Canadians in our jails, added to a prison population that is already disproportionately African Canadian.

I was sitting there thinking about this and trying to figure out if it was ironic or if it was just plain shameful, and a young woman named El Jones stood and took the stage. She is an amazing spoken word artist. I have seen perform many pieces about the realities of our community. Her performances are always thoughtful, provocative and truthful. In her piece about James Robinson Johnston, she said one line that crystallized what I was thinking about. In describing some of the needs of the black communities in Canada, she said, ”Because we need black lawyers and judges to advocate for us Reforming the courts where we are disproportionately jailed”.

That is it. We have failed to apply a racial lens to these bills. My NDP colleague from Edmonton—Strathcona eloquently spelled out the potential impacts of this bill on first nations, Inuit and Métis people earlier this afternoon. She was exactly right. Who is our system failing? All we need to do is look in our prisons and we will see who our system fails.

I look forward to the next opportunity in this House to finish my speech.

Report Stage
Safe Streets and Communites Act
Government Orders

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

The hon. member for Halifax will have six minutes remaining and five minutes for questions and comments when the House next returns to debate on this motion.

It now being 5:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

November 29th, 2011 / 5:30 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

moved that Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to move Bill C-316, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration).

Simply put, the bill would ensure that a convicted criminal would not have preferential access to EI benefits compared to law-abiding Canadians. The bill would remove the extension to the qualifying period and the benefit period under the employment insurance program that is currently equal to a time a convict spends in prison.

As we speak, convicted felons have the ability to extend their qualifying and benefit periods up to a maximum period of 104 weeks as opposed to 52 weeks for a law-abiding citizen who is out of work. People out there do not know this. It is a section of the Employment Insurance Act that must be changed. Given these extensions are not available to law-abiding claimants who are actively looking for work, this is simply not fair. Bill C-316 would remove the extension of the qualification and benefit period for the time someone spends in jail.

The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development has indicated that the government would like to move two friendly amendments, and I certainly support these amendments.

The first amendment would ensure that my bill would only remove the extension of qualification and the benefit periods for individuals who have actually been convicted of a crime and are in jail. This would ensure that individuals held in pre-trial custody but who are subsequently found innocent would not be affected by this bill.

The second amendment would have the bill coming into force on a Sunday. This would align the implementation date of the bill with the employment insurance calendar, which works in two week increments starting on a Sunday.

I will quickly reflect on how the current employment insurance system works and what motivated me to move the bill.

Currently, when an individual applies for employment insurance they are evaluated as to whether they have worked enough hours in the qualifying period to receive benefits. The standard qualifying period is 52 weeks in length. The qualifying period can only be extended under four circumstances under the act and can only be extended only to a maximum of 104 weeks. I will read them to give some context as to why I feel the exemption related to prison must be removed.

The first extension for being incapable of work is because of prescribed illness, injury, quarantine or pregnancy. The second extension is being confined in jail, a penitentiary or a similar institution. The third applies if one receives some assistance under employment benefits, such as a plan from one's previous employer. The fourth relates to receiving payments under a provincial law on the basis of having ceased to work because continuing to work could result in danger to an unborn child or a child for whom a woman might be breastfeeding.

It is the second provision related to jail that I am seeking to amend because it relates to circumstances under the control of the individual. I will provide an example of how the exemption works.

Under our current legislation, a convicted criminal could be in jail for one year, come out of jail, apply for EI and the hours worked in the last two years would be considered qualified for employment insurance. A law-abiding citizen who applied at the same time would only be able to count the hours worked in the last year. In other words, a convicted criminal who spent a year in jail would have 104 weeks to apply for a 52-week qualification period. It is as if the prison time simply did not count. However, a person who took a year off for family reasons or to pursue some other interest would only have a 52-week period. This is not fair.

A similar situation could occur with the benefits period. Typically, an individual can only receive regular employment insurance benefits for 52 weeks after the date of applying. There is an exemption if someone has been in jail or prison, like I just mentioned. Someone coming out of prison would be allowed an extension of 104 weeks in which he or she could take employment benefits. It would be as if the 52 weeks spent in jail did not happen and he or she would start on 52 weeks. That is not fair.

It is particularly unfair because any regular EI benefits that a law-abiding citizen applies for but does not take within 52 weeks of filing disappears once that 52 week period expires. This is in contrast to a convicted felon who could collect benefits for up to 104 weeks after making a claim, depending on the time spent in prison.

This is all in contrast to the law-abiding citizen who started receiving the same length of benefits as the convicted criminal. The law-abiding citizen would lose his or her benefits, while the convicted criminal would retain his or her benefits because of being in prison. It is just not fair.

Someone convicted of a crime should not receive preferential access to employment insurance benefits. Individuals choose to commit crimes. Why should those individuals receive preferential treatment over law-abiding citizens who choose to take time off and as a result would lose the benefit period? It is simply not fair.

It is one thing if someone is unable to work because of sickness. It is another matter entirely if someone convicted of a crime has greater access. That is the basis of my bill. That individual chose to break the law.

To be clear, this is not about punishing criminals further. Our justice legislation is clear about what the punishment for crime should be and thanks to a strong, stable, national Conservative majority government what the punishment will be.

The bill is about ensuring that convicted felons are forced to live by the same rules as law-abiding citizens. What Canadian would agree that a convicted felon should receive preferential treatment with regard to employment insurance benefits? No right-thinking Canadian would support that for a second.

People who choose to break the law and lose their jobs because of it is no different than people being fired for just cause. Those individuals made a choice to act in some way that ended the employment, whether they committed a crime and went to jail, or whether they committed some other offence on the job that caused them to be fired. They made a choice and they should not receive preferential EI benefits over a hard-working, law-abiding Canadians who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. It should not happen, and that is the purpose of my bill.

The bill is about fundamental fairness when it comes to accessing employment insurance benefits. Canada probably has the most generous and most helpful employment insurance programs than any other country in the world. We only have to look at the last couple of years when we were going through the recession. One only has to look at the bills our government brought in, such as the extended work benefits and job sharing. We have done everything we can, something unheard of in most other countries. This government believes in fairness. We are being fair to the law-abiding people who work our country. As I said before, the issue is fairness.

Should a convicted felon found guilty of wilfully committing a criminal act be given preferential access to employment insurance benefits simply for being confined to a jail? Members on this side of the House say a resounding no, that this should not happen. As I said, any clear-thinking Canadian would come up with the same response, no.

Therefore, I ask my colleagues in this place to support the bill in principle and pass it at second reading because it is the right thing to do. Who in the House can successfully argue that someone who has wilfully committed a crime and gone to jail should all of a sudden be eligible for preferential treatment under the EI program? I suggest no one can. I am afraid, given the NDP's soft on crime ideology, that there will be some arguments, but it is beyond me how it will be able to justify that.

I am sure that people watching this at home tonight never knew that people who went to jail because they had committed crimes would have preferential treatment. They are probably wondering how that could possibly happen. It happened years ago when the Employment Insurance Act was written. I do not know what government it was under, but somehow the provision was put in that allowed for this.

I ask my colleagues in this place to support this bill at second reading. It is a good bill. It is a bill that needs to be passed to clean up that portion of the act that is simply not fair.

Our government has clearly shown that it cares about people who go through hard times because they lose their jobs. We have expanded the access to Canadians who have found themselves in that position. It is only right for a caring government to do that. This government cares about working Canadians and their ability to provide for their families through their jobs. We will always be there for Canadians, but we must not allow people who wilfully put themselves in positions where they are convicted of crimes and go to jail or who wilfully get fired from their jobs to have preferential treatment over people who are hard working and lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

NDP

Claude Patry Jonquière—Alma, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like the hon. member to explain how they are going to manage this when we know that a person can be incarcerated, in remand, for up to a year and a half before his trial takes place and he is acquitted. According to the bill, we would no longer be talking about 104 weeks but only 52 weeks. Thus, the person would not be entitled to any benefits at all. How will they manage this?

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Madam Speaker, I thought I was quite clear about who this bill would target. It targets individuals who have committed crimes, are convicted and sent to jail. People in preventive custody are not the same. That is the difference. If people are arrested for committing crimes, detained until trial, subsequently go to court and are found innocent, it does not affect them. It does not apply to people in institutions for health reasons, which are not jails or prisons.

I thought I was quite clear about that, but I can assure the hon. member that this is specifically targeted at convicted felons who are in jail and who receive preferential EI treatment because they went to jail.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Madam Speaker, I would like to get a little more clarity on that issue. Maybe the best way to do that is to give a tangible example.

If John Doe collects employment benefits today and for whatever reason is remanded into custody and it takes two or three months to ultimately go to trial, what specifically happens to his cheques? Does he continue to receive the cheques until he goes to trial and a determination is made?

There might be other financial responsibilities for that individual who is, for all intents and purposes, innocent until proven guilty. Those financial responsibilities could include children, spouse, parents or whatever it might be.

Could the hon. member provide 100% clarity? Does the person continue to receive employment benefits if he is held in custody?

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Madam Speaker, I thought I just dealt with a situation like that. If people are being held in custody pending trial, they are not yet a convicted felon, therefore it would not apply to them. That is why the government put these friendly amendments forward, which I support. It was to take care of a situation like that.

It want to be clear that getting rid of this extension, this preferential treatment, applies only to someone who is a convicted felon who goes to jail.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

Joy Smith Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

Madam Speaker, I applaud my colleague for this very important bill. Could he please tell the House why he is so passionate about this bill?

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Madam Speaker, it is not hard to get passionate about fairness or passionate about correcting an unfairness, which is the case now.

As I pointed out earlier, this is about people who wilfully commit crimes, go to court, are convicted, are sent to jail and have preferential EI benefit treatment, as opposed to people who work very hard providing for their family, are law-abiding Canadians and for reasons of their own they want to take some time off to spend with their families or pursue other interests. They do not get the same treatment as someone who has been in jail. They would lose their benefits for that period. For someone who is in jail, it is like a period in time that never happened. That person is eligible immediately.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

NDP

Claude Patry Jonquière—Alma, QC

Madam Speaker, today, I would like to express my indignation about Bill C-316. I strongly recommend that members of all parties vote against this absurd and completely useless bill.

Hon. members are aware that the public's cynicism about the political work that we are trying to do is growing every day, and this bill simply adds to it. According to the Conservatives' twisted logic, if inmates are entitled to a privilege to which pregnant women are not, then the government should take that privilege away from inmates rather acting in a logical manner and helping pregnant women get access to it. We need to keep in mind that the people in our ridings are not stupid and that they will harshly judge any politicians who cultivate this cynicism by voting in favour of Bill C-316.

I would like to take a moment to explain why Canadians who spend less than one year in prison are entitled to an extension of their qualifying period, which is defined as the period in which a worker qualifies to receive employment insurance benefits. This is the period preceding the loss of employment, during which a person must have worked a certain number of hours in order to qualify for benefits. That number varies depending on the regional rate of unemployment. The qualifying period is usually 52 weeks.

When a worker files a claim and has worked a sufficient number of hours during his qualifying period, the benefits to which he is entitled can be paid over a maximum period of 52 weeks. That does not mean that the person will receive 52 weeks of benefits; it means that he has 52 weeks after losing his employment to receive employment insurance benefits.

The Conservative member is simplifying the facts and distorting the truth. He is giving the impression that prisoners receive benefits while they are in prison, which is not the case. The people who benefit from this special measure are those who have worked enough to qualify for benefits and, as contributors to the EI program, deserve to get those benefits when they get out of prison. This applies only to people serving a one-year prison sentence. Those serving more than a one-year sentence do not receive EI benefits.

Bill C-316 amends the Employment Insurance Act in order to repeal the provisions that allow for qualifying periods and benefit periods to be extended as the result of time spent by the claimant in a prison, detox centre or other similar institution. The Conservatives are trying to eliminate an exception that helps former inmates return to the workforce, regain some self-confidence and access paid job training. Unfortunately, the Conservatives have not proposed any solutions to help pregnant women who are being treated unfairly in this file.

The Conservatives and anyone who plans to support this useless bill should be ashamed of themselves. The question here is not about the equality of Canadians within the EI system or the supposed preferential treatment of prisoners in the EI system. Rather, it is a question of making the necessary changes to a law that is unfair and correcting a situation that is biased against women on maternity leave. I feel it is my duty to point out the Conservative government's incompetence in this area, even though it claims to stand up for family values.

The Conservatives are blinded by their obsession with law and order, and we absolutely must prevent them from casting a shadow on the future of thousands of people who could use a second chance.

Recently, the Conservatives have been trying to score political points on the backs of offenders by introducing bills that seem increasingly arbitrary, making no distinction between types of crime, leaving no room for rehabilitation and proposing nothing but imprisonment to prevent recidivism. In Canada, however, all the numbers show that our social reintegration model is working and that crime rates are dropping steadily in most provinces.

Despite what the hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George might say, helping inmates break the cycle of crime has always worked well in Canada and we are now reaping the benefits. It is thanks to these often exceptional measures—like the one we are debating today—that we have built this solid, yet imperfect, but well-meaning system that is a little like us.

Many former inmates have a great deal of difficulty finding work once they leave prison. Incarceration has a lasting negative impact on an individual's income, to say the least. Generally speaking, a person is sentenced to less than one year in prison because it is his first offence and he deserves a second chance. What is more, former inmates are more likely to be unemployed or hold low-paying jobs than before going to prison.

Extending the qualifying period and the benefit period for workers who spend less than one year in prison helps support the former inmate and his family when he is looking for employment after leaving prison.

However, a person incarcerated for more than one year cannot receive benefits until he has accumulated enough hours of insurable employment after leaving prison, while a person incarcerated for less than one year could qualify for employment insurance with the hours worked during the extended qualifying period.

Employment insurance also provides access to job training and officers who can assist in the job search. In many cases, the employment insurance program changes lives for the better.

It is also interesting to note that a person suspected of committing a crime can be detained pending the outcome of his trial. This means that an innocent person might be incarcerated while awaiting a verdict that would clear his name. Under Bill C-316, a person charged with a crime he did not commit who is imprisoned could not receive employment insurance benefits upon his release. Repealing the provisions that allow for qualifying periods and benefit periods to be extended does not just concern criminals; it concerns the innocent as well.

The solution to the inequalities in the employment insurance program is not to abolish an exceptional measure that helps inmates, but to make a clear change to the legislation as to the maximum number of weeks of regular and special benefits. The Employment Insurance Act has to allow new mothers and workers who lose their jobs to use sick leave benefits when they need them. It has to allow a mother on parental leave to have the same extended qualifying period and benefit period as an individual who has been incarcerated, and not the reverse.

Instead of eliminating this exceptional measure, why not extend it to others? I would like to add that in our 2011 election platform, the NDP made a commitment to guarantee that parents who take maternity leave or parental leave would not be penalized in terms of benefits once they return to work. The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development recognized that there was a problem interpreting the Employment Insurance Act in the case of women on maternity leave and access to special illness benefits and regular benefits. She must now undertake to rectify a situation that is unfair to Canadian working women, rather than seeking out senseless solutions just to please the Conservative hard-liners on crime.

I am asking my fellow members to not pass this absurd and mean-spirited bill, which is not in keeping with the values of the Canadians who elected us. Why harm rather than help? Why penalize rather than support? Let us concentrate on the real priorities of Canadian families: employment, health care, quality of life and workers' rights. Logic dictates that we vote against Bill C-316.

I would like to close by speaking about something that I feel is very important. A person who is incarcerated for more than one year is not entitled to employment insurance. Eighty-eight percent of female inmates are incarcerated for committing economic crimes, most of which are motivated by poverty.

The NDP will be voting against Bill C-316.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Madam Speaker, I look forward to joining this debate. I was a little late and did not hear the entire speech of the presenter. He made reference to a couple of friendly amendments being proposed by the government. I have not had an opportunity to see those amendments, but I will see what kind of impact they would have on the legislation.

I come here with some skepticism. This bill would have an impact in very few instances. It would not have a far-reaching impact in the broader scheme of things. Certainly for the individuals on which it would have an impact, it would be a negative impact.

My friend is a long-time member of Parliament and is a very eloquent orator. During his speech he said that he did not think people would support prisoners receiving EI benefits. Members should know full well that prisoners currently do not receive EI benefits. That is not what this legislation is about. It is about eligibility. I want to ensure that we are debating exactly what is being put forward.

The jurisdictional split occurs at two years. If someone is going to prison for longer than two years, the sentence will be served in a federal institution, whereas a sentence of under two years will be served in a provincial institution. The current EI extension clause only benefits individuals who serve less than two years in jail. For those serving time in federal institutions, the legislation would not have an impact. The current EI extension clause for the most part only deals with individuals who are being released from non-federal prisons, those who are serving time in provincial institutions.

With respect to the suggestion that the two opposition parties are soft on crime, I think there is probably a little more in the messaging. That may be the skeptic in me thinking that way, but there is a bit more in the messaging in this piece of private member's legislation than what is fact.

According to the numbers for 2008-09, which are the numbers we had access to, there were 37,000 inmates in federal prisons. Of course, that number will go up considerably in the next number of years, even with the decrease in the crime rates in the country. There were 24,000 in the various provincial institutions across the country. Of those, 56% were on remand. They were not convicted criminals; they were on remand, waiting for trial or sentencing.

In many cases charges were dropped or persons were found to be innocent. We see variations of this. The vast majority were people waiting for trial. Of course, under the laws of this nation, those people would be considered innocent until proven guilty. This bill would disadvantage the people who are waiting for trial.

Three out of 10 cases were resolved by being stayed, withdrawn or dismissed. Another 3% of the cases resulted in acquittal of the accused, and 1% of the cases had other decisions. Thirty-three per cent of those cases would not result in a guilty verdict.

Some individuals charged with an offence can make bail, some cannot. Some are remanded because they cannot make bail. They may be innocent and waiting for an opportunity to prove their innocence, but because of their socio-economic situation, they are unable to post bail, so they find themselves incarcerated. This bill disadvantages those particular people.

In the omnibus justice bill that has been put through the House, the approach to justice issues is a step back for our nation. Although there has been a decrease in crime rates in this country, we are seeing a government propensity to grow the number of prison cells and to put people behind bars for longer periods of time.

We have seen that model unfold in Texas and in California. For the most part, California is bankrupt right now because of its approach to these justice issues. Some of the leading judicial minds in Texas are saying to Canada, “Do not do that; we have been there, done that and gotten the T-shirt, and we have the state debt to prove that it is not the way to go”.

The rates of recidivism have certainly not gone down. We see that repeat offenders become professional criminals once they are put into institutions and behind bars. That is the experience south of the border. That is what we have learned from that approach to dealing with crime south of the border.

A lot of these people come from fractured homes and are dealing with mental health issues and addiction issues. If they are behind bars, it is in our best interest as law-abiding citizens to try to help them. We need to try to help through education and by allowing them to grow as persons in understanding where they went wrong.

When these people are released, the single best thing that could happen is for them to come out as better and more understanding people, with a willingness and a desire to be better citizens. If we throw them out of jail and put them on their own without any great hope for employment or an income, we are doing them a huge disadvantage.

I like the way the law works now. The way the law works now makes sense. Simply, if someone opens up an EI claim and is eligible for 48 weeks of employment insurance, and then two weeks into that claim, when there are 46 weeks left, the person goes to jail, that person does not receive benefits while in jail. It may be a single mom who is trying to care for her kids and who perhaps has a delinquent husband who does not provide for them, and she gets caught stealing. We can name the scenario.

When she comes out of that institution, she is going to be cast back into poverty, but if, after that six months in jail, she is able to pick up those next 46 weeks of employment insurance, then as a nation and as Canadians we have done her a great service. It is not like winning the 6/49. I know that EI benefits have been referred to as very generous, but they are not very generous.

The scope of this bill is not large, and the number of people it impacts is not a huge number. After these people come out of incarceration, we can give them a chance so that they do not return to a life of crime and their families do not have to live in poverty.

I think the way the laws stand now makes sense and works. I will look at the friendly amendments being put forward by the government, but right now I think the rules as they stand serve all Canadians well.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey
Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Madam Speaker, I rise before the House today to support Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration), presented by my colleague from the riding of Cariboo—Prince George. I want to commend this member for all his hard work on this bill.

I can also indicate that our caucus will be supporting Bill C-316 with two friendly amendments. The first amendment would narrow the scope of the bill to remove the extended qualifications and benefits period for those convicted of a crime. The second amendment would create a coming into force date on a Sunday to synchronize the bill with the typical administration of employment insurance benefits. As previously mentioned by the member for Cariboo—Prince George, he supports these amendments.

I am pleased to support Bill C-316 because the bill addresses something that is fundamentally unfair, namely that convicted criminals currently have preferential access to employment insurance benefits over law-abiding citizens.

To properly understand the inequity addressed by Bill C-316, we need to look at the context. Under the Employment Insurance Act, prisoners cannot collect EI benefits while incarcerated. Therefore, this bill only addresses employment insurance benefits granted after an individual leaves prison.

The purpose of the employment insurance program is to provide temporary income to replace lost employment income while claimants are looking for work.

The system also provides assistance to workers who are sick, pregnant women, parents taking care of a newborn or adopted child, and family members taking care of loved ones who are seriously ill.

This second group of benefits can largely be summed up as being unavailable for work because of circumstances beyond the individual's control.

When an individual applies for benefits, there are two key time periods: the qualifying period and the benefits period. The qualifying period is a period in which an individual must have worked a minimum number of hours in order to qualify for a benefit under the program. The benefit period is the period of time during which claimants may collect the benefits for which they have qualified. No benefits can be received after the end of the benefits period. Simply put, the benefits period can be thought of as a cut-off date; all benefits must be taken before this date or else be lost.

In most cases, both the qualifying and benefit periods are set at 52 weeks. There are, however, exceptions to the 52-week limit. These allow for the extension of the qualifying period and the benefits period for up to 104 weeks if an individual is on sickness leave or workers compensation. Currently there are also extensions to both periods for the time an individual spends in prison or jail or a similar institution.

The member for Cariboo—Prince George has already gone into some depth about those exemptions and has demonstrated how these benefits predominantly are related to situations out of the control of the individual. This bill deals only with the extensions of the qualifying period and the benefits period for individuals in a prison, jail or similar institution.

Currently the existing extensions ensure that convicted criminals who serve less than 52 weeks in jail merely have their full 52-week qualifying and benefits period interrupted, with no repercussions because of their jail sentence. This potentially allows them twice the period of time available to a law-abiding citizen to collect benefits or to count hours of work to qualify for benefits.

The provisions of the law that set out such measures have been in place for some time, but they are creating a rift. They favour some people, at the expense of the majority.

Convicted felons should not receive preferential access over law-abiding citizens and as a result increase the cost of the program to hard-working Canadians. To be clear, we are all in agreement on the extensions individuals should be granted for life circumstances beyond their control, such as illness or injury. However, this is not the case with crime. To be convicted of a crime, an individual made a choice to commit that criminal act. This choice is within the control of the individual.

Why should inmates have privileges that the rest of the population cannot have? To us and to all hard-working, law-abiding Canadians, this does not make sense.

As a government, we understand the importance of providing former inmates with every opportunity to reintegrate into society. Correctional Service Canada already offers a number of programs to inmates during their incarcerations that are aimed at helping them reintegrate into society by providing them with employment training and helping them to acquire the skills they need to improve their employability. Correctional Service Canada also offers employment services that help prisoners find a job once they are released. Finally, Correctional Service Canada works in partnership with community colleges and industrial organizations to offer a large array of certification programs and works with recognized employers and industry associations.

These measures do not reward crime. They help people get back on the right track.

Canadians have a right to expect that their government is just and fair when defining and adopting laws that govern our lives. It is a fundamental principle of democracy. This bill would ensure that convicted criminals have to play by the same rules as law-abiding citizens. If their EI benefits lapse because they are in jail, that is not the responsibility of Canadian taxpayers to fix; it is the responsibility of the guilty party for making the choice to commit a criminal offence.

It is a matter of justice and fairness.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Denise Savoie

Resuming debate.

Seeing no one rise, the hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George for his right of reply.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Madam Speaker, as I mentioned earlier, this bill is about fairness. It is about removing a preferential benefit that is supplied under the EI act now to people who spend a year or less in prison. It allows people who have been released from prison to have an extended benefit that is not offered to law-abiding citizens who, through no fault of their own, lose their jobs or make a choice to take time off work.

There was some concern by my hon. colleague across the way about people being released from incarceration losing the money that EI would provide under this preferential treatment. In fact, as my colleague pointed out, a myriad of benefits are offered through the federal corrections system, halfway houses and organizations that help previously incarcerated people get jobs and get back into society.

Those things are available, but this bill is not about them. It is about removing a preferential EI benefit provision that applies to people who have committed crimes and are incarcerated for a year or less. That does not apply to average, hard-working Canadians who take time off their jobs to pursue other interests. They lose that benefit period, but people who go to jail do not. That is unfair, and we want it removed from the act.

I ask my colleagues across the way to gain a real understanding of this bill and the unfairness of that EI provision.