Madam Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to address the Bloc motion on the subject of unemployment insurance reform. I can only begin by saying how astounded I am that such a motion could have been drafted, let alone introduced at this time.
What is the source of the motion? What unemployment insurance reforms are the hon. members of the opposition thinking about? I presume it is not the same reform that was introduced by the Minister of Human Resources Development last Friday.
I heard the Prime Minister's announcement a little over a week ago. I read the documents. What I and millions of Canadians heard was a statement from the Prime Minister that the federal government respects and recognizes the jurisdiction of the provinces in education and training. Millions of us heard him say that the federal government is therefore withdrawing from the direct purchase of training, from apprenticeship training, co-operative education programs, and workplace-based training. We heard him announce that agreements with the provinces will be sought on the design and delivery of proposed employment benefits in order to harmonize them with provincial programs. We heard him explain that in some cases the provincial government or a provincial agency could be responsible for delivering these federal measures. Indeed, he was at pains to point out that in other cases provincial programs could be used instead of the proposed federal measures.
He made it perfectly clear to millions of us that funding for training will only be provided by the federal government with the consent of the province concerned. Depending on the agreement reached, it could be provided to individuals, to the provincial government, or to a third party. He stated clearly and ultimately that this arrangement can allow a province, if it wishes, to assume full responsibility for these employment measures, subject only to the proviso that the federal government's responsibilities to ensure the needs of the unemployed are addressed and that the measures that allow them to return quickly to the workforce are met.
The employment insurance reforms specifically and deliberately seek to eliminate overlap and duplication. The reforms will mean that even more than ever a province will be able to develop a comprehensive labour market strategy and policy. It is surely a distortion to maintain otherwise.
It is always difficult to bring about true reform. In the case of a program as well ingrained in the economic and social fabric of Canada as the unemployment insurance program, it is doubly difficult. I am concerned that factual distortion of the sort presented by this motion will damage public understanding of the reform package, especially in Atlantic Canada, where a sound understanding of the new system is of paramount importance.
I believe it is important for Atlantic Canadians to know the facts so they can be aware that the reforms provide much needed structural adjustments, which are absolutely necessary and which over the long term will be good for Canada and for Atlantic Canada.
The opposition members should also take note of the fact that these reforms will help high unemployment regions like Atlantic Canada. In fact this reform package will create 100,000 to 150,000 new jobs, and 45,000 part-time workers in Atlantic Canada who are now not eligible for benefits will qualify under these reforms.
Unemployment insurance was never a solution to the Atlantic regional unemployment, nor was it meant to be. We are now facing the fact that it has actually become a cause of unemployment. In other words, it is part of the problem and not the solution. Many
people are better off collecting UI than accepting the work that is available. In a recent survey of small businesses in Atlantic Canada, 45 per cent of respondents said they want to hire but cannot compete for workers with the social programs, particularly UI.
The new employment insurance legislation is a balanced package that improves work incentives, reduces dependency, and increases fairness while helping Canadians get back to work.
Specifically what does this mean for the Atlantic provinces? It is true that we are cutting overall spending. There will be impacts on Atlantic Canada. We should remember that when reinvestment is taken into account the overall reduction in the region will be no more than 7 per cent. On the whole each of the four Atlantic provinces currently receives more in benefits than it pays in premiums. Although the ratio will be lower they will still be net recipients after reform.
Another important impact for Atlantic Canada is that during the transitional period regions with high unemployment will receive more in terms of job support programs. About $800 million in savings from the new system would be reinvested in proven job support programs to create opportunities and to help more people get into the job market.
By fiscal year 2000-01, $214 million or 27 per cent of that amount will go to Atlantic Canada. Further, to stimulate the economy in high unemployment areas transitional job funds will provide $300 million for job creation over a three-year period. This is in addition to the $800 million being invested in job support programs.
On the benefit side, people in high unemployment areas will need fewer hours of work to qualify for benefits and will be able to receive benefits for a longer period.
There are other provisions affecting seasonal workers and as we all know Atlantic Canada has more than its share. Under the new system, although some seasonal workers in industries like fishing, forestry and agriculture will receive lower benefits, they will nonetheless get more out of the program than they pay in premiums. They will have more incentive to work outside the peak season because additional work will now not only increase earned income but provide increased benefits as well.
Workers, employers and communities have to be able to cope with the substantial change the employment insurance scheme will bring to the Atlantic region, so the new system will be introduced gradually over several years.
The new employment insurance system will bring essential change to the Atlantic region. We believe the employment insurance active employment measures will lead to stronger labour markets and a more skilled workforce, which in turn will attract investment and jobs.
In the Atlantic region the federal government already works in partnership with the provinces, municipalities, community organizations and the private sector to design and deliver re-employment programs. There are education and training initiatives, personal and business counselling, wage subsidies, self-employment assistance and special programs for women, youth, aboriginal people, individuals with disabilities and members of racial minorities.
Whenever possible both individuals and local communities are encouraged to take responsibility for their own development.
The old UI system trapped people in a cycle of dependence. The new system is designed to help people help themselves. I want Atlantic Canadians to understand that fact and not be distracted by the naysayers. This is why I say the motion before us should be viewed in Atlantic Canada and across the country as the distortion it truly represents.