Mr. Speaker, the 1996 Liberal government changes to UIC did three things. They made it harder to qualify for benefits, they reduced benefits so there was less money per week, and they shortened the period of time that benefits could be collected. The predictable result of all this is now the EI fund shows a surplus of $600 million a month, not per year, per month. Some $7.2 billion per year is being taken out of the employment insurance fund and being denied as benefits to the people who need it most, the most vulnerable, to be used for whatever the Liberal government likes.
What does that mean in my riding of Winnipeg Centre, the third poorest riding in the country? It takes $20.8 million a year out of my riding. It is sucked right out of there down to Ottawa. Money that used to be transferred to Winnipeg for the use of income maintenance for desperately unemployed and poor people no longer comes to my riding. Imagine the impact that has on a relatively small community like my riding. Imagine what we would do if we could attract a business that had a payroll of $20.8 million. We could pave the streets with gold to attract them to our riding. The inverse is also true. The impact is the same in reverse when it gets pulled out. And that is just Winnipeg Centre.
In St. John's, Newfoundland, $75 million a year is pulled out just by the 1996 changes. I wish my colleague from Montreal were still here. There is $512 million a year less in income maintenance for the unemployed in the city of Montreal alone. This was by design of the Liberal government so that it could use the employment insurance fund as a cash cow, as a revenue generator, so that it could use the money for whatever it wanted to and certainly for anything but income maintenance for unemployed people.
These changes have left some staggering statistics. Less than 40% of unemployed workers now qualify for any EI benefits. What kind of insurance fund is that if people have a less than 40% chance of ever collecting? Less than 25% of women, as verified in a recent report, qualify for any benefits. Less than 11% of young women qualify for any benefits. What kind of a program could possibly survive such a failure to achieve its mandate for what it was set out to do? Less than 15% of youth qualify for any benefits.
The point I am trying to make is this system is broken. It is busted. The wheels have fallen off it and Canadians know that. Therefore the motion of the member for Acadie—Bathurst is absolutely appropriate, timely, practical and necessary. Every member in the House should enthusiastically support it so we can all take a look at the employment insurance system and see what is wrong with it and hopefully put it back on track.
As I have said in the past, if money is taken off a person's paycheque for a specific purpose and then is used for something completely different, at best it is a breach of trust. In the worst case scenario it is out and out fraud to tell workers that money will be deducted from their cheques so that if they happen to become unemployed they will qualify for a benefit and when that worst case scenario happens and they find themselves unemployed, we say “Sorry, the rules have changed. There is no money, no income maintenance. Your family does without”. I believe it is a breach of trust.
To add insult to injury, to take that money off workers' paycheques, deny the benefits to the unemployed and then use the money out of general revenues to give the wealthy a tax cut is some perverted form of Robin Hood that robs from the poor and gives to the rich. It is fundamentally wrong and Canadians will not tolerate it.
Here are the changes we would like to see when the review comes forward. At least 70% of all unemployed workers should be receiving EI, at least 70%. Then we would know the program works somewhat. Weekly benefits should be maintained at 60% of a claimant's weekly pay. That is a basic. The divisor rule, the intensity rule and the benefit clawbacks all have to be eliminated. Those are the changes that were made which suck the level of benefits down to such a ridiculously low level. The EI fund must be separated from general revenues. It should be its own independent, stand alone fund that is there for a specific and dedicated purpose, which is to provide income maintenance and possibly training for unemployed workers to help get them back into the workforce.
EI must not be used as a federal debt reduction instrument. It must not be used for tax cuts. It must not be used for spending on government programs. It is a dedicated insurance fund, nothing more, nothing less. To use it for anything else is fraudulent and a breach of trust.
The employment insurance system is in an emergency situation right now. It does not work. It is broken and the wheels have fallen off. Canadian workers know this. This is the second and third year now that seasonal workers have had to deal with this inadequate system. This is the second or third year in a row that they have had to deal with reduced benefits.
I used to run the carpenters union and I know the people in that union very well. There are examples of guys who entered the system this year who are getting $120 a week as their benefit, whereas two or three years ago they were receiving $425 a week. That is the difference the intensity rule, the divisor rule and the clawback rule make to seasonal construction workers who pay into the fund.
I remember when I was a carpenter we would be paying $45 or $50 from every paycheque into the fund which was matched by our employer so we would receive benefits when we happened to find ourselves seasonally unemployed. That does not happen anymore.
Perhaps the most cynical thing the government did when it came to the building trades was to no longer fund the apprenticeship programs through EI. The government used to buy blocks of seats at the community college so the apprentices could go to school without having to pay tuition because they and their employers were already paying every hour that they worked in the industry. The government stopped that.
Today a first year carpenter's apprentice has to pay a $600 to $800 tuition fee. He does not get his first two week waiting period paid for anymore. There are no allowances for travel or child care. All those have been eliminated. The government now says that we need a national training strategy. Well it just gutted a damn good national apprenticeship training strategy by pulling the rug out from under it when it made these changes to UIC in 1996.
All of these things combined add up to gross failure and all the more reason why this motion is entirely appropriate, timely and necessary.