This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

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

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you very much.

We're now going to move back to the Conservatives. Mr. Gourde and Mr. Chong are going to split their time.

Go ahead, Mr. Gourde.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

More generally, Minister, could you tell us about the current labour market statistics? What is the employment rate? How many jobs were created this month and this year? Lastly, how many jobs have been created since your government was elected, that is in the past 23 months?

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Conservative Medicine Hat, AB

I appreciate that. The job market is hot: 652,000 new jobs have been created in the last 22 months, which is an astounding number. As demographics continue to work against us and people continue to retire, there's no reason to believe that we won't see a tremendous demand for workers. That's obviously good news for a lot of folks. In Quebec we see the hottest labour markets in 33 years. The gap between Quebec's labour market and Ontario's is really starting to narrow, so it's very good.

That said, there are challenges, but there are also opportunities. In the forestry sector there are big challenges; on the other hand, the mining sector is demanding new workers, and they've shown a real desire to work with forestry workers to provide them with the training they need to get into that sector, and that's great news.

I'm conscious of the criticism that a lot of the new jobs being created are low-paying service sector jobs, but that's really not the case. In the construction sector and in sectors like trucking and utilities, there has been tremendous job growth across the country, so there really are opportunities today that a generation ago we probably couldn't have imagined.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Minister, could you summarize for us the announcement you made today and its importance for workers?

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Conservative Medicine Hat, AB

It is good news. Obviously the 21 employment insurance regions that are affected are parts of the country where, despite their best efforts, many workers can't find year-round, full-time employment. This will ensure there are enough weeks of support through this extended benefits pilot so they'll be able to complete their entire earnings year. It will be very helpful to a lot of people, but it will also be helpful to the department, which can take the data that we collect over the three years that this particular pilot has been in place and use it to figure out the best possible way to support people going forward. As I said in the House today, the best way, in my judgment, is to continue to provide people with skills so that they can step into better jobs, and also that results, of course, in incomes going up.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Minister.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Chong Conservative 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 Conservative Dean Allison

Minister, could you answer in just about 30 seconds?

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Conservative 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 Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

Mr. Martin, for five minutes, sir.

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Tony Martin NDP 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 Conservative 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 NDP Sault Ste. Marie, ON

What is the status of the WITB at the moment?

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Conservative 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 NDP 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 Conservative 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 Conservative 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 Liberal 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 Conservative 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 Liberal 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.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Conservative Medicine Hat, AB

I think that's an important point. We're conscious of that. Again, this has been raised with us.

We're going to do our level best to get the information out as soon as we can for those reasons. Of course, you also make the point that students are finding it easier to get jobs in many places today, which is good news. That said, this program is also about supporting important not-for-profits that do good work. We want to make sure that we help them as much as we can. So I take that point.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

You have two minutes.

4:50 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Thank you, Minister.

My colleague Mr. Cuzner mentioned he had chatted with you about a local issue in his riding that I have in my riding as well. I want to thank you for your attention to that, and Alison, as well, in your office, who's been very kind in getting back to me.

It is an issue that requires monitoring, and I'm going to ask you to consider, please, staying on top of that on behalf of the 500-plus Moirs workers in my area, who are out of work now this month. It's a very serious situation that involves employer-sponsored training. I'm going to ask you to take care of that.

I want to make one comment about the millennium scholarship. There had been concerns over the last five years or so about the millennium scholarship, but those concerns have been answered. It is an accountable organization. Even the Auditor General, who had concerns halfway through the program, indicates it an accountable organization. A very high percentage of the money is going to the students. A very high percentage of it is needs-based. It works across Canada in all the provinces and territories. It's providing $350 million in funding for students.

I urge you...the government has a habit of taking programs that work and changing them and then they don't work. We've been talking about the Canada summer jobs program, so I have an idea. If you want to change it, take it, change the name, keep the same initials. Instead of calling it the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, call it the Monte Solberg Foundation, but leave the program as it is because it works. It works for Canadian students.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Conservative Medicine Hat, AB

I was going to say the Mike Savage Foundation, actually.

4:50 p.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!