Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak on this important issue: the creation of a new department called the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development. Obviously, the legislation creating this new department will ultimately split the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development into two departments. One of them will be called the Department of Social Development.
In the coming weeks, this new legislation to create a new department will be discussed and debated, as will the legislation before us today, called the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development Act, minus a portion of its budget and some of its responsibilities, which have been transferred to the Development of Human Resources and Skills Development.
The Bloc Québécois believes that the creation of this department will result in greater infringements in other areas of jurisdiction, not because of the creation of this department but because of the second part, which will be called the Department of Social Development Act.
That department will truly interfere in areas under provincial jurisdiction relating to social affairs. Also, the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development has failed to respond to criticism from Bloc Québécois about issues such as the power of the employment insurance commission. Furthermore, the Bloc's calls for changes to employment insurance have been ignored.
This department will continue to administer the employment insurance fund. It is well known that this fund has a $46 billion surplus, which the government used to eliminate its deficit. So, instead of going to the unemployed, this fund went to fattening up the government, which is now flush. It is flush for other reasons too. I am referring to the fiscal imbalance. There is more than one surplus in the Liberal government's coffers.
For all these reasons, we do not believe in the spectacle we are seeing today. I know this department wants to project the image of a government concerned with the quality of life of its citizens and interested in helping them more on a daily basis.
I will explain why the government wants to pass this new Human Resources and Skills Development legislation.
On December 12, 2003, when the Prime Minister was being sworn in and introducing his new cabinet, he divided the former Human Resources Development Canada into two departments—as I was saying earlier—the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development and the Department of Social Development.
As my colleague from the Conservative Party was saying earlier, these departments already exist and today's bill is merely a formality. These departments have been operating for a year now.
The press release issued by the PMO on December 12, 2003, included reasons justifying this division, the purpose of which, according to the government, was to strengthen our social foundations.
In support of the government’s social goals, a number of changes are being made. A stronger focus on social policy through:
Splitting the former department of Human Resources Development Canada into two separate organizations in order to facilitate better policy results and improved administration.
Creating a new Human Resources and Skills Development department whose mandate will be promoting well-functioning labour market and lifelong learning systems, including student assistance, and which will work with Citizenship and Immigration Canada on the critical issue of foreign credentials accreditation.
Mandating the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development to engage the private sector, non-governmental organizations—
—persons with disabilities, families, and children, and which will provide integrated policy development and program delivery.
That same day, December 12, 2003, with the announcement of the creation of these two new departments, the office of the leader of the official opposition in Quebec issued a press release stating that the official opposition was unreservedly opposed to the establishment of a new Department of Human Resources and Skills Development, a Department of Social Development and a cities secretariat. These structures are useless to Quebec. They reflect the federal government's interference in Quebec's jurisdictions.
This new department created by the Prime Minister on December 12, 2003, includes more than 14,000 public servants responsible for managing $20 billion to strengthen the social foundations of Canada, build a 21st century economy and ensure Canada's role in the world.
The Department of Human Resources and Skills Development no longer comes under the former Human Resources Development Canada, but is its own department, which also coordinates the activities of the Minister of Labour and Housing, and the Minister of State Human Resources Development.
From this, it is clear to us that the government intends, in fact, to manage all social development issues, to better manage our social foundations and better support the population. Finally, in the last election, this government did not understand the impact of its interfering attitude and encroachment in fields of jurisdiction. Quebec elected a strong majority of Bloc Québécois members in the latest election. Since 1993, this government has still not understood that the time has come to stop its practice of strangling the provinces as they try to cope with serious responsibilities for providing people with services they are entitled to expect.
In Quebec, students recently went on strike. They were demanding the right to continue receiving bursaries. We can easily see that Quebec's educational institutions are under-financed as well and that, since 1993-94, the federal government has been totally stingy in its transfer payments to provinces. It cut off funding to the provinces and solved the deficit problem here, in the federal government. However, it reaped the surpluses from the employment insurance fund, with the fiscal imbalance and the propensity to grab funds that rightfully should go to the provinces.
The Department of Human Resources and Skills Development says that:
HRSDC's vision is a country where individuals have the opportunity to learn and to contribute to Canada's success by participating fully in a well-functioning and efficient labour market.
Once again we see that, if the government really knew what the labour market needed, it would not be writing such hollow phrases that mean nothing, with goals that will not be met.
We are now studying the EI employment programs. We are well aware that there are serious shortcomings in the implementation of these programs in Ontario and British Columbia. They are not suited to the needs of those who want to return to the labour market. We are well aware that the funding is often inadequate. There is no continuity in the federal government's commitment.
We therefore have serious questions to raise. We know that all kinds of dirty tricks are being used to get us to understand better suited strategies, but still, they must meet the needs of the institutions and agencies working to get people back into the labour force.
With this bill, it is clear that the federal government's attitude is contrary to what has been requested. Very early on, in 1993, we could see that the Bloc Québécois was the one demanding that provincial jurisdictions be respected, so that the provinces could better provide for their people. Now, public discontent is high in the other provinces.
With respect to the federal government's arrogance and how it distributes this money, it is as if it owned the money, as if the government were generating and printing it. One would think the government was doing the people favours. Instead, it should respect the fact that, through their taxes, the taxpayers are allowing it to redistribute the money among the people.
We will therefore oppose this bill because it falls short of our expectations in terms of improvements to the overall EI system. Again, it is clear that the quotes I read, which are from the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development, are nothing but hollow words.
The Bloc Québécois asked that $1.9 billion be reinvested in support for workers who lose their jobs, to improve employment insurance fund eligibility coverage. This would allow coverage to rise from 55% to 60% of salary, at an increased cost of $1.2 billion to the EI fund. Everyone is affected. There is only 55% coverage, and it has dwindled over the years. That is how this extravagant $46 billion surplus came to be.
We would have liked the eligibility threshold to be brought down to 360 hours, from the current 910 or 700 hours. We would have liked a return to a threshold that is much more flexible and suited to the reality of the labour market in certain regions. It is clear that, unless confronted with job loss, there is no feeling of sensitivity from this government. We are talking about 90,000 unemployed people who are affected by the high threshold for eligibility to benefits.
We would have liked the benefit rates to be based on the 12 best weeks. Again, improved EI benefits could have been provided to 470,000 unemployed persons, at a cost of $320 million to the fund.
In addition, we would have asked for a maximum of 45 to 50 weeks of total EI benefit coverage, amounting to $11 million, and an increase in the maximum insurable amount from $39,000 to $41,000. That is an additional $245 million.
I have added these amounts up for a total of $1.9 million. Did the government have the means to pay this money out to those who had lost their jobs, to provide insurance for these people who had contributed to the employment insurance fund, in order to get better benefits for a longer period?
Clearly these expectations were not met, because the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development proposed a mere $360 million in reforms, below the expectations of the Bloc Québécois. We know full well that $46 billion is there. This money accumulates year after year in the employment insurance fund. The government puts billions of dollars annually back into the employment insurance fund.
This is the federal government's little stash.
Rather than meet these expectations, the government could have repaid the debt to those who have contributed to the employment insurance fund. The federal Liberal government seems to have forgotten that this debt is outstanding.
It could have begun repayment gradually. Of course, no one expects the government to put the $46 billion back in the employment insurance fund and to increase benefits overnight. Still, the return of $10 billion in annual payments of $1 billion might have been a possibility, employment insurance benefits might have been improved.
The rate of contribution to the employment insurance fund currently at $1.95 could be increased by 3 cents. That way half of the $1 million could have been used to meet expectations.
The Bloc has not proposed all these improvements to the employment insurance fund to improve its image. We have been in touch with the people. We have tabled 12 bills on this in the House. Since 1993, the Bloc Québécois has been calling on the government to improve the employment insurance fund, which is a public disgrace. People are now much more aware of the impact of an arrogant federal government.
The provinces are on their knees before the federal government to get more in transfer payments. The same thing happened with equalization payments. We are waiting for the government to move. It moves at its own pace, but arrogantly. For example, when a province is on its knees begging from the federal government, often some slight concessions are made to ease things.
What they want is to create a new department, a department with a social mandate, but such a department will not meet the expectations of the most disadvantaged members of society, the most vulnerable, the ones who are losing their jobs. It is not true that there is a job for everyone today. It is time to stop playing ostrich; some regions do not have economic activity 52 weeks a year. Adjustments have to be made.
There is mention of the desire to adapt to the labour market. Employment insurance must be properly administered. It is a program paid into by its contributors, with not one cent in the EI fund coming from the federal government. We know there is a surplus. I can understand that they want to keep some money in reserve in case there is a deficit in the EI fund. That is understandable.
However, considering that the employment insurance fund generated surpluses in excess of $46 billion, one wonders about the federal government's will to adequately support workers. They are the ones who need this insurance money to meet the needs of their families.
This also has a huge impact on regional economies. Indeed, these people and their families spend increasingly less in their communities, because they do not have the money to meet all their needs, whether it is food or housing needs.
Affordable housing is another issue which I did not raise. During the election campaign, the federal government promised to invest an additional $1.5 billion to help those who cannot find adequate and safe housing. There again, the Liberal government did not meet expectations.
So, the government is creating a social development department. We will discuss this at some other time. Today, I wanted to deal strictly with the employment insurance account. However, I am aware that there are other areas where the government boasts about wanting to meet public needs. But in fact, it does just the opposite. The government would rather use that money to increase its visibility in the provinces. The federal government also wants to establish contacts with community networks to show that it is the one, and not the provinces, that has the money. This raises the whole issue of fiscal imbalance.
The federal government denies the following.
In fact, 71% of Quebeckers and 65% of Canadians now understand what the fiscal imbalance is all about. The fiscal imbalance is created by a situation where the federal government has too much money in terms of its responsibilities, while the provinces have less money because their taxation rate is greater than their responsibilities.
I thank hon. members for listening to my comments. I will get back to the establishment of the new department of social development.