Mr. Speaker, I think we should remind the viewers of what motion we are debating. It is Motion No. 15 which says that this House take note of the progress made to date on the government's forthcoming reform of social security programs and of the views expressed by Canadians with regard to this reform.
Last week when the House was not sitting I had a townhall meeting with an excellent attendance. I would like to share some of the views from my constituents in Toronto.
At that townhall meeting almost everyone in the audience agreed that a strong economy is the essence of a strong society. They also agreed with the government's two priorities, jobs and economic growth. The Government of Canada will meet those priorities by building a healthy fiscal climate, by getting the federal deficit down and eventually eliminating the public debt as some people have already stressed in this debate.
It will strengthen Canada's economic performance through investment, innovation and trade; review government programs and priorities, making sure that as a government we are concentrating our energy on the right things in the most effective way possible. Finally, it has the priority of reforming social security.
Why is reforming social security part of this agenda for growth? Because good social programs will put people and jobs together. The programs we have now do not do that well enough. It is time to rebuild and modernize our social security programs to build a system that will help people get back to work, help people get off welfare and build a better life for their families.
In education, prior to being a politician, I met families that were second and third generation on welfare. This has to stop. Our system will have to look squarely at the problem of child poverty and do something about it.
It is up to all Canadians to decide how we can build a system that works, that is fair, affordable and effective, with programs that open doors, not close them, to opportunity for people across our great country. The federal government has presented Canadians with some options for discussion. Now it is inviting all Canadians to consider how we can build such a system. How must our social programs change to stay in touch with the needs
people face today? What kind of programs make sense as Canada prepares for the 21st century?
At the town hall meeting I was asked why do we need reform? Because our social programs have not kept pace with the needs of Canadians. For too many people the system does not work any more. At this town hall meeting there was a qualified doctor who is on welfare. Because he got his training in another country he cannot work in Canada.
Canadian taxpayers are spending more than $38 billion a year on employment programs, UI, welfare, post-secondary education, child tax benefits and programs for disabled persons. Yet too many people are unemployed or find themselves caught in a revolving door going from UI to short term jobs and back to UI.
Too many children are living in poverty. Too many people are stuck on social assistance. They want to work, but under our present system they cannot afford to go to work. They are better off financially staying on social assistance.
Too many young people cannot get started in a career. It breaks my heart when I get a PhD graduate or a Master's graduate coming to my constituency office begging: "Mr. Flis, can you help me find work?"
In many ways the system keeps people on a treadmill instead of helping to solve their problems. Too many Canadians fall through the cracks. Too many Canadians find the rules stacked against them when they try to build better lives for themselves and for their children.
People here in Ontario know firsthand how urgent the need for reform is. Ontario today is at a crossroads. The recession and the effects of international competition have taken jobs we thought were secure. It has helped push unprecedented numbers of people on to unemployment insurance and social assistance rolls. Now that things are beginning to improve, our social programs do not do enough to help people to get back into the workforce.
We have been forced to recognize that our social programs were designed in an era that has passed into the history books. In 1993 the average unemployed worker in Ontario between the ages of 45 and 64 had been looking for work for 34 weeks. That figure masks the number who were facing much longer unemployment because of their limited skills and as a result of industrial change. For too many of them a plant shutdown meant a career shutdown. We can no longer afford that.
Ontario recognizes the need for reform as do all governments. Now is the time to work together. We need a system that works for people, that brings hope, that rewards initiative, that supports efforts to regain independence and the dignity of work. We need a system that Canadians can afford. All governments have to get spending under control if we are to take control of the future.
In my region we contend with four levels of government: federal, provincial, metro Toronto, Toronto and a lot of unnecessary duplication. We must do a better job in putting people and jobs together. Employment programs, things like job counselling, training, labour market information, work experience projects are a good investment if they help people get off UI or welfare and back to work. But existing programs do not work well enough.
We need to invest more in people, focusing on better tools to help people get jobs and better management to make sure those tools get results.
The green paper suggests a healthy debate around possible directions for reform, making progress more accessible to those who need help, especially people on social assistance and persons with disabilities. We must pay more attention to individual needs, with more assessment and counselling to help each person develop a practical action plan for getting a job.
People come to my constituency office complaining that they have to wait six months before they can see a counsellor, and as a result miss many opportunities.
We should consider giving communities, local business, labour, education and service groups more control over what kinds of programs are used and how they are used.
Another possible direction suggested in the green paper is encouraging more employers to provide training on the job. Why not? We can ensure that institutional training is relevant and effective. We can help people get work experience, for example by offering to supplement their wages if they are hired, or finding opportunities for community work, something we have not stressed enough. We can reduce duplication and waste in programs, with better co-ordination between the federal, provincial and local governments. We must pay more attention to results and help people get jobs and less attention to following rigid bureaucratic rules.
I mentioned as an example someone who came to my office wanting a course which was to begin in a couple of weeks. That course would have led to full time employment. So I said, great, why don't you take it, why don't you apply? He could not because he had to see a counsellor first. I asked him why don't you see the counsellor? The counsellor cannot see this person for six months because of the workload. Another opportunity is lost where someone could have taken a course which would have led to full time employment.
We must have unemployment insurance that makes sense. For too many people the UI program does not work any more. It does not help them get the skills they need for new jobs. It does not help people solve their employment problems. Too often it just makes those problems worse because there is no incentive or support for people to change. Canadians want a better UI program, one that is fair and affordable and helps unemployed people get good long term jobs.
Another constituent complained because she has been working for six years with the same company but it has always been on a part time basis. The employer saves all of the fringe benefits, et cetera. This has to stop.
One way to adjust the system is to make people work longer to qualify for UI or reduce the amount they receive. Or we could shorten the time people could collect UI. That might help but we need more than that. We should look at an entirely new employment insurance program, one that really helps people deal with employment problems. The hon. member mentions a newly-formed party in the past that led to unemployment instead of employment.
The discussion paper outlines one possible approach, a program that targets special help to people who have trouble getting a job. It would have two components; basic insurance and adjustment insurance. Occasional UI claimants, people who face temporary, occasional unemployment would get basic insurance benefits. This would give them income support while they looked for work, much as at the present time. The frequent UI claimants, people who keep having employment problems, would get adjustment insurance benefits. They would get much better help finding a job than they do now through things like better job counselling, training, or opportunities for community work.
Adjustment insurance benefits could depend on a person's willingness to take part in programs that would help them find work. Reformed programs will open more doors through learning. More than ever before the key to security for Canadians is learning. Education, training, skills are the only ticket to a good job.
More Canadians need opportunities for training and education throughout their lives. We all know now that learning is a lifetime process. While the provinces are responsible for education, the federal government plays an important role. But education and training cost money. How can we make sure that individual Canadians can afford the learning they need?
Some options outlined in the green paper include: making more loans and grants available for students; exploring a new form of income contingent repayment of student loans. These loans would be repayable only after a student graduates and enters the workforce. At that point a repayment schedule would be based on the borrower's ability to repay, given his or her income levels.
I am sure many of the members here receive students at their offices who are at a breaking point mentally because the previous government sent out collection agencies to collect the loans that they did not repay. How can they repay the loans if they cannot get a job? That has to change.
Another option is allowing more flexibility in registered retirement savings plans so that people could draw on those savings for lifelong learning. Our goal must be to preserve and broaden access to post-secondary education. A reformed program must provide a fair chance for all Canadians. This is a basic commitment at the heart of our social security reform, to protect those most in need. It is the same policy that we have in our foreign policy, to help those most in need.
That commitment will remain firm but we have got to do a better job. The system is not working despite the fact that spending on welfare and social services has jumped from $2.6 billion to more than $8 billion annually since 1981. Too many Canadian children live in poverty, more children proportionately than any other industrialized country except the U.S.A. Too many parents of those children spend years on welfare even though with the right kind of help they could find work. The problem is we do not give them the help they need.
The source of the problem is the outdated rules of the Canada assistance plan know as CAP. The rules place strict limits on how federal funding through CAP can be used. We have got to start looking at new ideas to help all Canadians get a better chance in life.
For example, how can we make the rules more flexible and put people first, giving the provinces more leeway to design programs that work? How can we start focusing more of our attention on long term solutions like preventing child poverty instead of just tinkering around with short term cures? Should we take some of the money we spend now and use it for special priorities like increasing the child tax benefit for low income families, or giving people on welfare more training and more help finding jobs, or providing more opportunities for people with disabilities so we do not have the incidents such as we saw yesterday on the news?
Many of the ideas behind social security reform are already being put into action here in Ontario through creative partnership agreements between the Ontario and federal governments.
The first of these will create a series of local labour force development boards across the province. The boards will give communities a real voice in training and employment development priority setting. It will give them the chance to put federal and provincial dollars to work on the needs they see around them. Real grassroots planning and action will mean that money is spent where it has the best chance to create results.
Another joint project, Joblink Ontario, will create about a dozen resource centres in communities across the province on a pilot basis. The $25 million that the federal government will contribute this year will match Ontario's contribution. These resource centres will help people on social assistance prepare for and find jobs. It will give them one-stop shopping for training and employment programs for all levels of government and community agencies. It will offer real support to people who can work and who want to work. Through counselling, labour market information and Canada employment centre job listings these people will gain the self-sufficiency they need to escape the welfare trap.
By working together the ideas behind social security reform are already becoming a reality in Ontario, but we cannot stop here. In the past generations of Canadians have risen to the challenge of building a society that cares, that has compassion for the disadvantaged, that supports those in need. This is a challenge each generation must face in turn.
It is now our turn, and I include every member in this Chamber. It is our turn to shape a system that works here on the eve of a new century. We should face this challenge with confidence. We can face this challenge knowing that as a nation our prospects for the future are good.
The federal government is putting in place a comprehensive agenda for economic growth and jobs for Canadians. We can make social security reform an integral part of that agenda. As demonstrated in my town hall meeting of last week Canadians want a better system. By working together we will build a better system.