Mr. Speaker, as a western Canadian, I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on the motion of the opposition party concerning our government's plans to reform the old system of unemployment insurance in Canada.
So far most of the discussion that has taken place since the Minister of Human Resources Development introduced the new act on Friday last has focused on the impact in the eastern parts of the country, in Quebec and Atlantic Canada in particular. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these reforms will impact in all parts of Canada. Canadians in every province will be potentially better off because of them.
A number of respected and knowledgeable Canadians, including several from western Canada, have already spoken publicly in support of the new legislation. There is indeed broad support for the new program all across the country.
It is important that members of the House should assess the new employment insurance act in terms of what it will do for unemployed Canadians, not on how it fits with one political ideology or the other. It is also essential that we use this opportunity to help Canadians to better understand the new act, and especially to clarify some of the misconceptions that have arisen in some of the public discussion in the past few days.
The first thing that needs to be clarified is the question of the reserve, how in fact the reserve that is expected to accumulate in the insurance fund will be used. I raise this because there has been concern expressed that any surpluses that may accumulate will be used to pay down the government's debt or reduce the operating deficit.
Let me be perfectly clear on this. Surpluses in the insurance fund will not be used to reduce the government's debt or deficit. The unemployment insurance fund has operated under a separate set of accounts in the past, and that will not change with the new law. The federal government acts as a lender of last resort for the account when it is in deficit, which by the way must be repaid with interest. Alternatively, when the account accumulates a surplus it will earn interest.
Since 1986, following the recommendation of the auditor general of the day, the unemployment insurance account has been part of the government's consolidated account. This is simply to provide an integrated report of the government's financial operations.
As with the unemployment insurance account, the employment insurance account will be separate from the government's consolidated revenue fund. It cannot be used for purposes other than those designated in the legislation. Thus, should there be any surpluses in the employment insurance fund, which is self-financed out of employer and employee contributions, it will stay in the EI account. To make it abundantly clear, EI premiums will not be used to pay down the debt.
It is true that the unemployment insurance fund is currently in a small surplus position. It is true that the minister has said it is the government's intention to increase the reserve in the account. The reason for this is quite apart from issues of deficit and debt reduction. The reason for this is to ensure the stability and long-term sustainability of the EI program itself.
Members of the House may remember that during the last recession the unemployment insurance program was in serious financial difficulty. Benefit claims were climbing sharply, contributions were not covering the increased payouts, and the unemployment fund operating deficit was growing at an alarming rate. As everyone knows, for an insurance program a growing deficit between claims and premiums spells disaster.
The government of the day, in reaction to this impending disaster, was forced to raise premiums and then to raise them again. In a two-year period premiums increased by about 25 per cent. In fact over a five-year period premiums rose by 36 per cent, from $2.25 to $3.07.
The bad news is that these hefty increases in premiums, which I would remind hon. members are paid by the employers and the employees, were not enough to balance the account. At the end of the day, the fund eventually ran up a cumulative deficit of $6 billion.
People are tired of these big numbers. They are getting very used to them. I would like to put this in perspective. The impact of a $6 billion deficit on a fund like this means hardship for the employers and the employees. In the first place, employers were faced with higher payroll taxes at a time in the economic cycle when they could least afford it. In effect, this served as a drag on job creation. Some estimates suggested that the premium increases killed as many as 40,000 jobs.
As for the workers, they too were faced with paying higher premiums, which meant they had less money in their pockets after deductions. The increased premiums in fact reduced their after-tax income at a time when the economy needed stimulation in the form of more consumer spending.
Fortunately, the system is now back in equilibrium. As I said earlier, we have a small but positive surplus in the account. The financial disaster in the UI fund was averted. No one wants that kind of situation to happen again. That is why it is extremely important that we build a surplus in the EI fund.
Should we get into a position where the reserve is judged to be sufficient, it will allow us to consider whether further premium
reductions may be possible. The review of the adjustment to the reforms, which the legislation itself requires must take place by December 1998, will provide us with an opportunity to reassess the financial stability of the fund and contemplate any such changes.
Where did the suggestions for these changes come from? As it turns out, the proposal to accumulate a reserve in the UI account came from the House of Commons committee which studied this issue and whose members recognized the necessity of maintaining a stable account through the economic cycle. They recognized the need to have money set aside in case of a downturn in the business cycle and the consequent need for higher UI payouts should this occur. For this reason they made a recommendation to keep a reserve against that possibility. This is what the term insurance reserve is all about. It is a matter of prudent fiscal management and has nothing whatsoever to do with deficit reduction.
This is not to say that our government has lost any of its firm resolve to deal with the deficit and debt situation we inherited. We remain firmly committed to the objective set out by the Minister of Finance. We are meeting our deficit reduction targets through operating efficiencies and other spending cuts. In fact, we expect to make significant savings with the new employment insurance act. How can this be? There are some very practical ways this could occur.
The first is that we are reducing the cost of premiums for both employers and workers. We are restructuring the system of benefits as we come to grips with a program whose costs have doubled from around $8 billion in 1982 to over $16 billion this year. We are introducing a number of new administrative efficiencies which will reduce the overhead costs of operating the unemployment program and will result in a more decentralized program delivery system.
These are important measures for western Canadians and in fact for all Canadians. Reducing premiums means that western Canadians will pay less for the benefit program and will receive more back for every dollar they contribute. This will reduce the amount of cross-subsidization of the program by western Canadians.
These are big changes. Of course sometimes big changes need a time of transition. For this reason, government is committed to ensuring that in special needs areas, for example, where unemployment rates are higher than 12 per cent, those areas will receive transitional assistance during adjustment to the reforms.
In addition, the family income supplement will mean that low income parents on unemployment insurance could collect up to 80 per cent of their previous earnings. An important aspect of this new measure is that it treats the family as a unit for unemployment insurance purposes and not as a set of individuals.
We know that the best way to reduce costs in the unemployment program is to get people working again. It is not for nothing that the new program is called employment insurance. The new employment insurance program introduced last Friday contains a set of employment benefits that have been described as pro work. Some $800 million of the savings from unemployment reforms will be reinvested in these measures which are designed to help unemployed workers re-enter the workforce.
Western Canadian provinces will also have full access to the employment benefit measures. The objective of these employment benefits is to improve incentives to work and to reduce dependency on the EI system.
The new employment benefits include well targeted, results oriented measures such as wage subsidies, earning supplements, self-employment assistance, job creation partnerships and loans and grants to help workers improve their skills. Use of these employment measures will be tailored to meet specific labour market needs and priorities as determined within a decentralized context. The emphasis will be on flexibility, common sense and practical experience.
In addition, the future service delivery and decision making will take place as close to the local level as possible. Local skills and expertise will be used working in partnership with other levels of government, community groups, educators and others from the business community and labour organizations.
This new approach to unemployment assistance is based on the idea that effective programs can be designed and delivered in the region that will use them. Ottawa does not have to make all the decisions. It is based on our belief that people want to work. They do not want to draw UI time after time. With the new employment insurance program, we are giving them the tools to get back to work.
Other sceptics may ask: Will this innovative approach work in western Canada? The answer is, it already is. The human resources development department has undertaken a number of pilot projects in western Canada which are based on this model.
There is a job creation partnership project in the area of tourism in Medicine Hat. Twenty-six seasonal or displaced workers became involved in a project jointly funded by the federal department and the city of Medicine Hat to help the city plan for an expansion of its tourism industry.
In the area of business start ups, in my home city of Saskatoon there is a self-employment assistance project which has helped 17 entrepreneurs start new businesses. A number of these people have in turn hired new workers.
Another example is in that very important area of making the transition from welfare to work. There is a self-sufficiency project in the lower mainland of British Columbia, a co-operative venture which provides earnings supplements to help single parents get off welfare and get back to work.
These are all practical working examples, not just airy-fairy hopes and dreams. This is why we know it will work in western Canada just as its works in all parts of the country. The door is open for the development of co-operative ventures with each and every province.
With the new employment insurance act this government has opened the way for individual provinces to work with the federal government to develop unique labour market programs which meet the needs of individual governments, regions and people. Because of this, I must disagree with the motion put forward by the hon. member for Mercier. It is my belief that contrary to that motion this government is doing everything-