Mr. Speaker, I start by thanking the hon. member from Saint-Hubert for bringing to light what she perceives to be a serious problem facing Canadian women. We respect that the hon. member is very knowledgeable about women's issues and is sensitive to the various forms of bias from which they suffer.
This country is founded on the firm conviction that each and every citizen, regardless of gender, age, race or abilities has a right to receive a wide variety of health and social assisted services. It is our practice and not just our policy to ensure equitable access and respectful treatment in all our dealings with the citizens of this country. It is a part of our social heritage, an affirmation of Canada's commitment to human dignity. It is an expression of our dedication to the ideals of social justice, equality and personal security.
I also want to make it crystal clear to the House and the hon. member that this government is open to reviewing any aspect of all our social programs, including the Unemployment Insurance Act. The obvious need to re-evaluate the efficacy of our social safety system is at the very heart of social security reform.
This government was elected on a platform of creating opportunities for Canadians. In our view the social security review is crucial if we are to achieve that goal because ultimately, reform is nothing less than a response to a desire for change. It offers us a rare chance to redefine the values, the assumptions and working principles with which to deal with the questions of opportunities for all Canadians. Through this renewal process we will reach a consensus about what our priorities should be and how we can achieve them, given the money and tools available.
I assure the hon. member there will be ample opportunity to carefully consider her concerns for the plight of economically disadvantaged women within this overall debate.
Imposing conditions on the basis of gender would indeed be discriminatory, as would imposing restrictions on the basis of family status, but the current law does not do that. I think it would be helpful to look at just what section 3(2)(c) says. This provision of the Unemployment Insurance Act stipulates that all employees, regardless of gender or marital status, are assured the same protection. The law simply defines the kind of business relationship people must have before they can receive UI benefits.
Every working citizen of this country, whether male or female, be they employed by a spouse, a sibling, a parent or a child, is eligible to pay premiums and to receive benefits so long as there is an employer-employee relationship. It is what the act calls an arm's length relationship.
Unemployment insurance relies on Revenue Canada to determine what constitutes an arm's length relationship between employers and family members in their employ regardless of gender. More than four times out of five, Revenue Canada rules that a true business association does exist and payments are made accordingly. The record shows that people in need employed in family firms are obtaining their rightful benefits.
In 1992-93 for example workers of family businesses filed tens of thousands of claims for unemployment insurance. Of those, 15,000 cases were reviewed and more than 75 per cent were accepted at face value with no questions asked. Of the remainder, a further three-quarters were eventually accepted. Only 10 per cent of claimants were unable to satisfy the criteria.
I do not want to appear to downplay the possibility of discrimination in our legislation. Canadians justifiably demand dignity, respect and equality for all, an obligation this government is committed to fulfil.
I should point out however that the provision being examined by Bill C-218 was included in the act precisely to remove objectionable regulations which did discriminate against married couples working in family businesses. Previously, employed spouses were automatically disqualified from receiving unemployment insurance benefits because of their family status. Paragraph 3(2)(c) has reversed that regulation and made the system more equitable. That is in keeping with the new reality in the workforce.
As members of this House are well aware, women today play a crucial role in our economy, especially in the burgeoning small business sector. As the engine of national growth, women are clearly in the driver's seat. We know that more women than men start small businesses today in Canada and that those companies now provide more jobs than the large corporations.
For more than a decade over 150,000 small businesses have been started each year. They account for some 90 per cent of all new jobs created annually in this country. We also know that women enjoy a very high success rate in keeping their companies running. Between 1975 and 1990 the ranks of self-employed women in Canada grew by a phenomenal 172 per cent compared with 50 per cent for self-employed men during that period. It is also a fact that a large number of these small companies are owned and operated by families, often employing spouses or other members of the immediate family. We want to do everything we can to ensure such progress continues.
One of the objectives of our social security reform is to assure our social spending supports and nurtures women in business as they blaze a trail to the next century. If that means the Unemployment Insurance Act needs to be modified, so be it. When we make those changes, we will have to preserve the delicate balance between managing the program responsibly and ensuring that benefits go to those who need and are entitled to them.
Taxpayers are counting on us to ensure the fair and equitable provisions of UI benefits. They expect that our social security supports should be flexible enough to accommodate workers' changing needs.
Canadians want assurances that any changes to the system are implemented on the same principles of fairness and integrity, which have been the cornerstones of our society and system of government. That is precisely what we have been working to achieve.
The hon. member is correct in pointing out that many women in our society are still in a position of economic disadvantage. It is certainly one of the primary issues which has prompted this government to want to undertake the social security review. However we will not sit idly by awaiting the outcome of that process. Work is already under way and we will continue to address some of these inequalities.
In fact, we recently made adjustments to the Unemployment Insurance Act to increase UI benefits for low income parents. I am referring specifically to the dependency benefit rate. It is a provision that provides extra benefits to people who earn a low income and who support a dependant, or whose spouse supports a dependant.
People qualifying under this category, most frequently women, are now eligible to receive 60 percent instead of the 55 per cent benefit rate. This measure respects the important role women play within our families and supports them in that task. It recognizes that the person providing care for a dependant is contributing to the social and economic health of Canada and should be compensated accordingly.
It is just one example of the ways we are attempting to better manage the social security system to make it more responsive to the realities facing Canadians. It is also proof of this government's commitment to a thorough review of all our social programs. We want to see where all of them should be updated and improved to prepare for the future.
That is why the bill before us should not be considered in isolation. Rather, it has to be looked at in the context of the global process of recommendations and options being developed as part of the overall renewal of our social security system.
That does not mean the hon. member should abandon her passion for the plight of economically disadvantaged women. I suggest she should instead take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the social security review to represent the interests of women.
Members on the government side of the House are convinced that we can put our energies to the best use by working together to confront the full range of the very real and pressing problems that must be addressed. We invite the member for Saint-Hubert to join us in that process of reform.