Mr. Speaker, thank you for this opportunity to explain how women feel about February's budget.
The federal budget, we believe, does not respond to the needs and concerns of women. Furthermore, it is far from recognizing the fundamental connection between social policy and economic policy, despite what the Minister of Finance says.
This budget and this government have ignored women and will continue to do so.
In October 2000, during the World March of Women, women demanded that the federal government take steps to end poverty and violence. Three years later, these demands have not been taken into consideration, and nothing has been done to help women cope with the poverty they, in particular, face because they are more vulnerable.
Usually, poverty is measured in terms of income. However, poverty also results from other factors and from a lack of access to various resources.
Housing is the first such factor. It plays an extremely important structural role. A roof over one's head, safe adequate accommodation, a place to raise our kids and be self-employed is essential.
Currently, 25,000 low income households in Quebec are battling the shortage of rental units, and over 300,000 other households are grappling with unaffordable housing.
This situation would not exist if Ottawa had not unilaterally stopped all participation in the construction of social housing since 1994, and if it had invested in this area as women and Quebec organizations advocating for renters had asked.
Unfortunately, the federal government insists on investing in affordable housing for, apparently, young persons and self-sufficient seniors. Under the affordability and choice today program, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is granting home builders subsidies of up to $20,000 each to build this type of housing that will encourage urban areas to become more dense.
Since the owners set the rent, this type of housing has proven inaccessible to the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. As a result, homelessness is increasing, a problem now affecting women and their families on a longterm basis. At the same time, discrimination against those seeking housing is increasing.
If this government truly wants to support a socio-economic program, it must consider social housing as an investment that ensures a community's long-term interest, which this budget does not do.
Women also suffer a great deal from a lack of access to employment insurance benefits. Since women hold the majority of part time jobs, since their status is often precarious, since they make up the greatest share of the self-employed, and since these jobs do not allow them to accumulate the 600 hours required to qualify for parental leave, sick leave and maternity leave, women are often forced to turn to social assistance to meet their needs.
By making the rules of eligibility for employment insurance more flexible, this government could truly demonstrate that it recognizes the fundamental relationship between social and economic policy.
Women had called for “the surplus in the employment insurance fund to be used to increase benefit payments, extend the benefits period, increase access and improve maternity and parental leave”.
Also, women need true maternity or parental leave. Nothing in this budget mentions the federal government's intention to negotiate with Quebec to reach an agreement for the transfer of employment insurance premiums to Quebec so that it can create a parental insurance plan.
Quebec's parental insurance plan is a new income replacement program designed to replace and strengthen maternity leave and parental leave under the federal government's employment insurance program. With improved eligibility—because self-employed and seasonal workers would qualify—and greater benefits, such as an income replacement rate of up to 75%, women could have children under much better and easier conditions.
A fourth factor that causes poverty is that, right now, old age security does not provide enough to live reasonably. The majority of seniors are women who live alone.
The budget contains nothing in terms of tax measures or other measures for seniors. There are no increases for pensions or old age pensions. Yet, income levels for this segment of the population have been declining steadily. Since women make up more than half of this group, they are the ones, for the most part, that are paying the price.
Safety is also an issue. For many women and children, poverty is often directly linked to family violence. The women taking part in the World March demanded that the federal government allocate “$50 million to front-line, independent, feminist,women-controlled groups committed to ending violence against women, such aswomen’s centres, rape crisis centres and women’s shelters”.
Yet there is no mention of this in the 2003 budget. Judging by the statistics on this phenomenon, which show clearly that it is increasing, what conclusion can one reach about a federal government that has nothing to say about it.
Now for the six weeks of compassionate leave mentioned in the federal budget. Taking care of a disabled person or a person requiring long term care implies that women, who are generally the ones to assume these responsibilities, will quickly become more impoverished, because they have fewer hours available to work for pay.
As a result, any pretence that allowing six weeks of employment insurance on compassionate grounds to those looking after a sick parent, child or spouse will compensate for lost earnings is a kind of “magical thinking”. When people are on EI, they are not making money. On the contrary, they are losing it. On employment insurance people merely exist, period. One might well ask how much money the government makes from the role of natural caregiver.
In closing, I will touch on the fact that the government also announced in its budget a higher ceiling for RRSPs. Even at the present level of $13,500 for this year, I hardly need point out that there are very few women to whom this measure applies.
We could also discuss inadequate health measures. The response I will get is that improvements have been made to the national child benefit and access to child care. In actual fact, however, these actions are so tentative that they will have only minimal impact on women's struggle against poverty.
In Quebec, the Landry government has already put measures in place that meet women's needs, but it is hampered by the fiscal imbalance, which the federal government does not acknowledge.
If the money invested by the federal government in useless programs, in waste and in insufficient transfer payments could go to women, surely their living conditions would be improved.