Mr. Speaker, I had an opportunity to listen to the debate when it commenced and a couple of items did strike my attention.
We are dealing, as we know, with Bill C-56. I believe this bill in principle has the support of the House, being passed at second reading and because it provides special benefits on an opt-in basis under the employment insurance system to self-employed persons.
I listened to the minister introduce the bill and I thought that the minister carefully framed the issue before us when she said that Canadians should not have to choose between the family and their business responsibilities. We all know that many people choose self-employment because it gives them the flexibility to take care of family responsibilities. Some are self-employed because they have lost their jobs but still have to work, and they have to scramble to make ends meet. There are a variety of other circumstances that may put people in situations where they must be self-employed.
The employment insurance system provides benefits for employed persons who, for a variety of reasons, may have to leave their jobs to get benefits. In addition to those, though, there are a number of special benefits that are attached. I have a particular interest in this act, because one of those benefits has to do with maternity leave under EI. Some years ago I was very pleased to be able, through one of my private member's bills, to get maternity and parental leave benefits extended to a full year from the then six months. I believe that particular change to the EI Act was very well received by Canadians. I would note that in France now, maternity and parental leave benefits are for a full two years, recognizing the research and studies done on head starts for children and how important it is that parents have the opportunity to determine when is the right time for their child to access day care or child care, or when the child needs their parents to be home. The bill will go part way in that regard for self-employed persons. However, I fear it will probably not be enough and I hope that we will be pursuing this area of benefits for families with children. For me, it is so very, very important for families with children.
The minister also wanted to advise the House that self-employed workers in Canada are often the innovators in our economy. They are people who contribute their creativity, courage and capital in pursuit of a better life. They strengthen our communities, and it is the communities that make a strong country.
The minister also wanted to inform us that there are 2.6 million Canadians who are self-employed, and they account for about 15% of the working population. It is clear that this segment of our population faces circumstances that many people do not, or will never in their lifetimes, but it provides specific challenges. The difference for the self-employed is the fact that if they do not go to work or do the work, they do not get paid. There is a lot of work involved, but people make this sacrifice because it provides them with the flexibility to, among other things, make sure that the needs of their family, particularly their children, are taken care of.
Self-employed workers have been asking for these benefits for a very, very long period of time. The case has been well made, and self-employed Canadians do come from a broad range of situations and incomes. Some are professionals, scientists or technicians. They could be tradespeople or retailers, or they could simply be involved in a very small business where they are taking advantage of certain skill sets or abilities they have to provide goods and services. Thus it is an important segment of our economy that we really need to address.
About one-third of all self-employed women are also of child-bearing age, and many of them are choosing self-employment because it does provide the flexibility to combine a career with the responsibilities of raising a family. Obviously in these tough economic times, self-employment does offer a way for laid-off workers to stay active in the labour market and do their share in our economic recovery and, of course, to provide for their families.
Finally, with regard to the minister's comments, I thought that overall, the special benefits for the self-employed would mirror those of salaried employees. Under the EI program, the contributions and benefits for the self-employed would be comparable whether earnings came from self-employment, salaried employment, or a mix of the two; but clearly the overall goal was to make these special benefits for the self-employed the same as those for salaried employees, recognizing that some adjustments might be necessary. Those in fact have come to light in some of the statements made this morning and by the member for Laval—Les Îles, who raised the issue at the commencement of third reading.
In looking at the bill, I found it difficult to go through it because it has consequential amendments to a number of acts. There are also a number of exceptions. For instance, if one is self-employed and ill and wants to receive benefits, there is going to be a test whether one would be classified as self-employed without that illness. That is as simply as I can state it, but if we look at that in the act, it is not as clear as it would seem to indicate.
From the various conditions and exceptions, it looks as if there will be cases where it is going to subject to interpretation, and I only wish that this had been a little simpler. I wish the bill had been more focused on the requirements of people accessing these benefits and that it had relied more heavily on regulations, which allow a government the flexibility to make modifications by using formulas and regulations or by listing the certain kinds of things that would be there.
When we start to put everything in the bill and try to craft editorial remarks or prose around what our intent is, there is a risk of missing something. As I indicated earlier in response to the question by the previous speaker, we are at third reading now. This bill has received approval in principle and it cannot be changed in its macro sense. We can tweak it, but the only way to tweak it at third reading is either to refer it back to committee, or to pass it at third reading and let it go to the Senate and maybe it can help to clarify the bill or, if necessary, correct a problem.
Since these benefits subject to a voluntary opt-in will not kick in for a year, I guess there is time to deal with it in an amending piece of legislation, if we could do that. However, I have to say that when I looked at the minutes of the committee meeting, I appreciated what members had been saying about rushing through proposed amendments. As I read this last night, I see that it took a long time for the committee members to grasp the points that were being made in some of the amendments. There seemed to be a little too much pressure to deal with it quickly and get it out of committee.
That is a risk committees take when they simply take things on their face value. I say this with regard to the issue the previous speaker raised in the House, and also the member for Laval—Les Îles, because there seems to be a problem with the benefits and the premiums proposed for residents of Quebec.
Bill C-56 would amend the act to establish a mechanism to provide payment of special benefits, not the labour-related EI benefits that one can get as a salaried employee if one loses a job. There are other things, including maternity benefits, sickness benefits, compassionate care benefits, and parental or adoptive benefits. These are important to Canadians. We have a system that I believe provides adequately for those who are salaried, but not for self-employed persons.
In all provinces other than Quebec, these kinds of special benefits are not provided by provincial governments. Someone who wishes to have such coverage would have to get it through private insurance.
The Province of Quebec is different. The Province of Quebec already provides some of these benefits, which are included in the provincial tax on residents of Quebec. These benefits are extended to Quebec residents, but they have a real cost for the people in Quebec.
However, in looking at the discussion in committee and also at the representations of previous speakers, there seems to be something wrong. If we compare what benefits someone would get in another province of Canada if he or she opted into this plan with the ones that he or she would need, the differential in the premium a self-employed individual in Quebec would pay and someone in any other province does not seem to match up clearly with what one would reasonably expect in terms of a pro rata cost per $100 of earnings. That is an issue that some members have raised.
We have a situation where the standard of fairness and equity does not seem to have been met for all persons in all regions. Ensuring so is one of our critical responsibilities.
I am not going to go into the mechanics of the premiums, but just so that members are aware, I will say that self-employed workers in Quebec already have access to Government of Quebec benefits for parental leave, sick leave and compassionate leave to care for family. This means that self-employed workers in Quebec should not have to pay the same premiums as Canadians in other provinces, because they already receive some of these benefits, not from the Government of Canada but from the Government of Quebec. Therefore, it seems clear to us that the calculations have to reflect that.
I do not have the precise numbers, but let me give the House a broad indication of them. Since Quebec already has a parental insurance program, all regular employees and self-employed Quebeckers pay into that plan. In recognition of that fact, the general employee EI premium is $1.38 per $100 of income in Quebec versus $1.73 in the rest of Canada. Because Quebec has a provincial plan that overlaps what is otherwise available in EI and the residents of Quebec are already paying for these benefits, the current EI premium structure reflects that reality. Thus we can see the differential in premiums, taking into account the cost of programs that Quebeckers already have.
Under this new bill, self-employed Quebeckers would pay the same $1.38 in premiums. That just does not make sense. If they already have some of the special benefits, why would they pay the same premium after this bill passes as they pay now before it is passed?
Apparently the government has not taken into account in the bill the fact that there is this exception. It is a clear exception. It is not debatable; it is a fact.
Something needs to be done. I asked a government member where the government got the numbers. I think it was the parliamentary secretary who responded that the premium that is going to be charged to Quebeckers is going to be lower than the charge from private insurers. That may be true.
It depends, however, on what assumptions we make about the group which has been covered under a private insurer. It depends on the size, stability and all other good things. I have been involved a little in employee benefits. I am pretty sure I could go to different areas of the insurance system and find a range of premiums based on what one must take or cannot take or cannot opt in, and maybe a plan will not even be customized.
I am not sure it is good enough to say that it is generally lower than what private insurers charge. We need to be more specific. It has to recognize how much it costs for the benefits they already get, and if the premium is going to be adjusted, the cost should probably be deducted. We know what the cost is. There is another way to come at it, from the reverse side rather than to try to build it up.
I wanted to raise that because I do not like to see us get into these situations where a bill is at third reading and it is very awkward, cumbersome and maybe unacceptable for the government to move in one of the directions to make a change now. It would appear to me that there is time, because this program is voluntary, people can opt in, and benefits cannot be claimed until they have been in the program for a full year.
I urge the Minister of Human Resources and the parliamentary secretary to go back and look at what the experts and the witnesses have said. People have expressed a sincere concern. It is about fairness and equity for all Canadians in all regions. In the case of this bill, it would appear that is not the case.
I want to thank the hon. members who have raised this issue. It gave me an opportunity to look at it. I agree with them wholeheartedly that there have to be some changes here, simply from the standpoint of fairness and equity.