I thought I was ready, Madam Chair, but I realized that I did not have the right file with me. That is what happens when you have to come here from the House of Commons in so little time.
Madam Chair, I would like to thank you for your welcome. Appearing as a witness before you is something quite new to me, as I was a witness on only one brief occasion in the past. I have been a member of this committee for the past six years and have considered all aspects and components of human resources and social development programs, and especially the issue of employment insurance.
This year, we have again tabled a bill intended to reform the employment insurance system. I believe this is the third bill, since we had previously introduced Bills C-280 and C-269. The latter is perhaps fresher in people's minds, because three opposition parties had agreed on a platform to move the planned reform as far forward as possible.
Madam Chair, you might wonder why we are so persistent in wanting to affect such far-reaching changes to the employment insurance system. The reason why is because the system is so terribly unfair to part of our society, i.e., the people who lose their jobs.
Before addressing the substance of the bill, I think that it is appropriate to remind ourselves of our shared motivation. I see colleagues here who, with myself and others, put forward changes to the employment insurance system in the past. That is extremely hard to achieve. Which brings us to the question: Why is it so hard to improve the lives of our country's most underprivileged people and yet so easy to feed or support the rich? We see that with the banks, the oil companies and the military industry. Madam Chair, $1.2 billion in funding was cut from social programs in September 2007, whereas close to $9 billion had been announced for the military sector in the summer, without any debate in the House of Commons. Why are things so easy for the rich and the military? We do not object to supporting the forces themselves, because they play a crucial role in our society, but the amounts that are committed to wage war, Madam Chair, are a matter of social choice—a choice that we do not share and call into question once again today.
Madam Chair, it is sometimes necessary to speak bluntly. I think that employment insurance represents a serious economic crime against workers, and particularly the unemployed, their families, regions and affected provinces. Why do I say that? I say that because money is being diverted from its stated purpose, i.e., to support the needs of people who have lost their income, people who have contributed to the fund along with their employers.That money is taken and used for other purposes. Over the past 14 years, $57 billion have been diverted.
Madam Chair, I am talking about an economic crime and asking my fellow parliamentarians whether we have not become white-collar criminals.
It is the same as when the people we entrust our money to to invest for our retirement use the funds for their personal benefit.
You might say that the difference here is that the government is doing so for collective purposes. That is the only difference because the harm is the same: it is attacking the less fortunate even though they had taken the precaution of contributing to an insurance fund in order to collect benefits in the event of job loss.
I wanted to begin by saying that because I believe that is something we need to think about each time we deal with this issue.
In 2004-2005, we produced the report I have here and completed it in February. Bill C-308 contains the thrust of the recommendations that we made.
Some of our recommendations are also contained in the committee's employability report that was presented in the House no later than April 2008. That report called on the government to take action in order to improve and broaden access to employment insurance.
I have these documents here. Is our work all done in vain? That would be most unfortunate because my colleagues and I believe in the work we do. We believe in restoring the important status of the EI system. How should we go about doing that? We must begin by putting forward a number of measures that I will set out. I will end with that in order to give my colleagues time to ask questions.
Needless to say, the bill includes a measure to improve accessibility through a reduction to a minimum of 360 hours of work, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment. We will see later how to calibrate access.
We now see that the government has tried to make some improvements to the system with partial measures, but they are temporary measures and have nothing to do with what is contained in Bill C-308.
We need to increase the benefit period from 45 to 50 weeks. The government has done so temporarily. In our view, that should be a permanent measure. By doing so temporarily, the government is confirming that there is a real need.
The rate of weekly benefits needs to be increased from 55% to 60% of insurable earnings. A 5% increase is not much, and I will show later that such an increase will not encourage people to remain unemployed.
We have to eliminate the distinctions between a new entrant and a re-entrant to the labour force. That is a measure that leads to some discrimination, which is also something I would like to touch on later.
We have to eliminate the presumption that persons related to each other do not form an employer-employee relationship. That concerns family situations where it is presumed that a person does not deal with a relative at arm's length. As a result, when that person claims employment insurance benefits, he or she is considered to be committing fraud. I would also like to come back to that issue.
I would like to welcome our colleague Diane Finley who has just joined us. Earlier, I spoke about those who contributed to reforming the system. Mr. Godin is one of them.
We also need to increase the maximum yearly insurable earnings to $42,500. We had debated that amount in 2005. We had agreed on setting that amount at $41,000, although we had considered a gradual increase. The government has taken the initiative of setting the amount at $43,200. We find that that is a suitable amount and would be willing to make a consequential amendment to Bill C-308.