Mr. Speaker, you will soon be calling me by another name, given that my riding will be named Saint-Maurice--Champlain following the election. For the time being, it is still Champlain.
I am pleased to speak today on the motion tabled by the Bloc Québécois, which I consider to be of the highest importance. Let me read the motion:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should propose, before the dissolution of the House, an employment insurance reform along the lines of the 17 recommendations contained in the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities [...]
The unanimous report, now three years old, called for EI to be improved so that more workers and contributors to the plan could benefit.
There is also one thing which shocked people then and shocks them even more today. EI is anything but a scheme to ensure employment for workers. We have known for quite some time that the government has made off with the EI fund, which had a surplus of some $45 billion.
A worker who makes $39,000 or less contributes his full share of premiums to the EI plan. When he pays into the fund, it is simply to ensure he has help when he loses his job. His contribution to the EI plan is for him security that will allow him to get through tough times after losing his job, for whatever reason.
In my view and in the mind of the majority of people, the EI fund, which has a $45 billion surplus, must belong to the workers. Today we see a situation where fewer workers can enjoy EI benefits simply because it has been used for other purposes than that for which it was originally intended.
People who contribute to the EI fund, as I said earlier, are workers making $39,000 or less, and their employers. The fund is not intended to pay down the national debt. That is understandable.
I am convinced that it is not the workers who make less than $39,000 a year who put the country in debt. In my view, the national debt belongs to people who are a lot richer than that, to people who, often, do not contribute to the EI fund.
Taking that money and using it as a tax to pay down the national debt is totally unfair to the poorest members of society. Nowadays, in view of the cost of living, if you make between 0 and $39,000 a year, you are not among the richest. With the way the cost of living is today, a salary of under $39,000 is barely adequate.
I have trouble explaining to people in my riding and in my area, since everybody is talking about it, how its is that the government's moral standards permit the poorest and the smallest members of society, those who earn the least, to pay the national debt.
The government is very proud to say that not only has it eliminated the deficit over the past few years, but it has paid back about $50 billion of the old national debt.
This $50 billion is made up of $45 to $47 billion from the EI account and $3 billion from seniors, who were literally robbed, the government having failed to provide them with the information necessary to receive the guaranteed income supplement.
They should be ashamed to boast about their performance and their good management when they are in fact taking money away from the little guy and the disadvantaged to pay down the debt.
I do not know if the Liberals hear about this, but I can say that, in my riding and my region—and I assume it is the same throughout Quebec—at every opportunity people bring up the EI account and the fact that seniors have been deprived of $3 billion in benefits under the guaranteed income supplement. They are wondering where public morals, that is, government morals, have gone.
In this debate, this morning, a Liberal speaker suggested that our numbers were wrong. This person also stated that 88% of workers are eligible for employment insurance benefits if they lose their jobs. While 88% of those who qualify for EI may receive benefits, what she failed to mention was that only 39% of those who contribute to the plan are eligible for benefits.
People who say to us that our numbers do not tell the truth should be mindful of the examples they choose. Certainly, the 88% who qualify may receive EI some day. However, of those who contribute to this insurance scheme, only 39% will have the benefit--or rather the inconvenience, since losing one's job is never beneficial--of drawing EI when in trouble.
This means that 61% of those who pay into EI will never benefit. If this is not robbery or embezzlement, then what is it? I would sure like to know.
I will give the example of the former POWA program, which was designed to help older workers having contributed to the EI fund throughout their active life who had the misfortune to lose their job after the age of 55. You find that in all of our municipalities where old industries or old plants close or are converted. We have seen that happening in Trois-Rivières and elsewhere in recent years. Some workers who had spent a good part of their life, if not all of their life, in a plant and found themselves without a job at the age of 55, could get benefits from the POWA because they had insurance to protect them and help them keep an active life.
The prime minister had promised in 2000 to improve the POWA. However, when he took office, he abandoned this program. The POWA has virtually disappeared. This means that some older workers who had paid in the EI and were entitled to those services cannot benefit from them anymore and were deceived by a government that had promised to improve the program, not to abolish it.
The way the government is treating the workers is a real scandal. It can do all sorts of things. It can say just about anything and often things that are far from the truth. When it says for example that in Quebec people get more from the employment insurance that what they pay into the plan, it is distorting the facts.
There are all sorts of contradictions about the employment insurance plan.
The Bloc Quebecois motion is quite simple, and the discussion could be over quickly. We would just need to make it votable, because it is based on unanimous recommendations by an all-party committee of the House. This committee unanimously requested the government to implement its recommendations.
If we want to move things forward instead of making election promises, since a general election is probably just around the corner, this Bloc Quebecois motion should be made votable. The employment insurance plan would be improved immediately. Many workers to whom promises were made during the 2000 election could then get benefits they still do not have.
The Liberal government is managing public money as if it were private and as if the country belonged to it. It is taking money from those most in need. It cut funding for health care in Quebec and other provinces. It is cutting funding for education not only in Quebec, but in other provinces as well.
The Liberal government has made the EI plan less and less accessible, under the pretense that many of the unemployed were not exactly honest and were collecting undeserved benefits for various reasons.
Our workers throughout Quebec and the whole country are much more honest than these people opposite who are the government. I can tell you that the percentage of those who were cheating the EI system, as was said this morning, to get undeserved benefits is certainly not higher than in other areas. Workers should be trusted. We should make sure they get the coverage that should be provided by the plan they contribute to.
If somebody takes out insurance on his house and a fire breaks out, and if he learns that the money has been used for something else and he cannot get money to repair the damage, I think he would be really upset and would take action against the company which has managed the insurance plan that way.
However, this is how the employment insurance fund is managed in the case of workers. They just grab the cash. They pay the debt of the country and they tell workers it is for their own good. They say that employment insurance conditions have improved when it is not the case. They have deteriorated.
For example, they say that many more workers are now eligible. However, they fail to say that many more workers are now paying premiums. The percentage of workers receiving benefits is lower and it is not because the economy is booming, it is because they structured the system in such a way that it is much less accessible to young people, women and those who do not have a secure and steady job.
Young people are among those who have the most problems with employment insurance. For example, in 2001, 39% of jobless youth received benefits; 61% of them had paid in for nothing, they just fattened up the treasury so that the government would pay off the debt. As regards women, only 33% of working women were eligible and received benefits.
For those 25 years old or less, it was only 16%. In total, 30% of those who paid into EI are entitled to benefits when they need them.
We do not know how to describe what the government has done. There is one sure thing though. As far as I am concerned, I am sure that whenever somebody takes money that does not belong to him, even if that person is in charge of managing the fund, it is called theft.
Besides, the Fund should be managed jointly by the workers and the employers. The government should not be in charge of managing it since it is not contributing a cent to it. Those who contribute to it should manage it. It would be safer.
I can tell you that the $45 billion or $47 billion taken from the EI fund could have helped a lot of people who are now struggling, people who, as the NDP member was saying before question period, have a hard time, especially the seasonal workers. These people could benefit more from the plan they have paid into.
The electoral campaign will certainly give us the opportunity to judge the government on the money that was taken away from the workers through the EI fund and on the $3 billion that older people did not get in guaranteed income supplements because they were not given the information they needed to get what they were entitled to. I am convinced that this government will be judged harshly.