Madam Speaker, some claim, and they might be right, that the House of Commons is a place where serious debates on issues of national interest take place. At times technocratic and at times emotional, our speeches raise questions and, if we are lucky, may contribute to making a difference.
Today, I thought I would tell you a tale, a sad one that might have a happy ending if the publisher put out a new version. We will call this tale “The employment insurance fund and the 40 calamities”.
Once upon a time, there was a tiny little insurance employment fund that was supposed to provide an income to jobless workers. It worked like this: The workers agreed to turn over part of their earnings to the tiny little employment insurance fund and, in turn, it promised to help them through hard times when jobs were scarce. Every worker very happily agreed: permanent workers, temporary workers, contract workers, seasonal workers, even employers.
For this agreement to work, they needed a manager. Big mistake: the government chose and imposed the manager, namely itself.
And this is how the federal government took over the poor little fund, when its management could have been handed over to the workers and the employers. Moreover, a further mistake, as the sly fox that he was, the super manager made quite sure that the fund was not independent. As a result, any money put into the fund, as well as surpluses of course, are scattered to the four winds and used for just about everything, and very little goes to help the unemployed, for whom it was set up in the first place.
As it has been receiving more and more and giving less and less, the little fund has grown bigger and bigger, gorging on certain classes of workers, especially seasonal ones, and making them poor. Now the tiny little fund has grown chubby and it is showing signs of failing, but it is not failing the government, which is getting richer. In the name of budget cuts and budgetary restraint due to the need to clean up the public finances, the Liberal government, we will name it, using nice technocratic buzzwords, is making it legitimate to rob the most vulnerable members of society and is tightening up the employment insurance eligibility criteria.
Instead of putting the fund on a quite reasonable diet by redistributing the wealth, the government has decided to make the workers wear a corset, and has tightened the stays so much that these workers cannot breathe. In the meantime, while the fund grows and grows, like the rock that Sisyphus was pushing endlessly, and the workers are being crushed under its weight, some Robin Hoods, like the member for Acadie—Bathurst, are trying to restore some justice through constructive actions.
Let us say that the fund is now, once again, at a crossroads that could change the lives of thousands of workers. Indeed, a member of this Parliament, the member for Acadie—Bathurst, whom I commend, has introduced Bill C-406, the purpose of which is to relax the EI eligibility rules and to improve worker's benefits.
This is not the first time that such an initiative is before the House. There are precedents, and the Bloc Quebecois is part of the characters in our tale. In December 1997, we introduced a series of six bills to correct the injustices committed through the various reforms.
More specifically, we wanted the eligibility rules to be relaxed, the duration of benefits extended, the intensity rule—which penalizes frequent users—abolished and, finally, a separate EI fund set up. As the purpose of Bill C-406 is essentially the same, it will come as no surprise that the Bloc Quebecois warmly supports the initiative of the member for Acadie—Bathurst.
Bill C-406 would create a separate employment insurance trust fund to replace the account, which is a part of the consolidated revenue fund, to ensure transparent management of money in the EI fund, particularly with regard to the use of the surplus. Moreover, an independent commission would replace the present commission and would act as the fund's trustee.
Members of the independent commission would be appointed by the Governor in Council, from a list of persons nominated by the labour organizations and employer organizations and then selected by the minister.
Although the bill is not as detailed as what we have proposed in the past, and even with the unanswered questions about the trust fund aspect and its actual application to management of the surplus and how these will be credited, we are in agreement with its purpose.
As far as the method of appointing the members of the independent commission is concerned, once again there are some unanswered questions. The fact that they are appointed by the Governor in Council means that the whole problem of the commission's independence remains unsolved. Perhaps thought ought to be given to a more democratic and less discretionary process.
There are studies to clearly demonstrate—and medical specialists and other health care providers will back me up on this—that obesity is a bad thing and can have serious effects. This applies to the fund as well. It has not been able to see its own feet for a long time. The wily fox would be at risk of indigestion if he decided to make a meal of it. A lot of the fat needs to be trimmed.
The hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst has thought of that. Bill C-406 proposes a goodly number of prescriptions to slim down the chubby little fund.
Here is the proposed diet: benefits calculated at 66% of insurable earnings, based on the ten weeks of highest earnings; one week of benefits, to a maximum of 52, for each week in which there were at least 15 hours of insurable earnings; and finally a requirement of 350 hours, or 20 weeks of insurable employment of not less than 15 hours a week to qualify for EI.
These measures will remedy the problem of the infamous spring gap. The way things are at present, it is a bit like Cinderella's coach turning back into a pumpkin. EI recipients bump along until spring in a coach that is falling apart, but then the nightmare starts. The coach has vanished, but work has not started back up. So thousands of workers end up with no income for up to two months.
The Bloc Quebecois has been speaking out since 1996 against the tightening of EI eligibility criteria, and the length of the benefit period. These new measures will help a good number of workers, and we support these efforts.
We regret that self-employed workers were overlooked in this bill. It might be a good idea if the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst considered including a provision to correct this significant oversight for these workers who account for a large part of our economy.
In addition, the proposed five weeks of training per year, without the consent of the provinces, is a problem. This is a provincial jurisdiction, and Quebec has jurisdiction over manpower training. There is no way the federal government should be allowed, under cover of employment insurance, to encroach once again on one of Quebec's areas of jurisdiction.
In closing, I want to reiterate our support for Bill C-406 and its objectives. As far as my little tale is concerned, we can only hope that Ms. Chubby will follow the advice given to her and heed the well known saying, a healthy mind in a healthy body . And in time-honoured tradition, I will conclude my tale as follows, “C-406 married Ms. Chubby and the workers lived happily ever after and had many little children”. This way, the tale's title can be changed to “The Employment Insurance Fund and the 40 Blessings”.