Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise here today to speak to Bill C-357, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. First of all, I would like to congratulate and thank my colleague, the hon. member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, for having introduced and so rigorously defended this bill. He can always be counted on to defend the citizens of his riding. The Bloc Québécois is equally committed to defending the interests of all Quebeckers.
With this bill, we are defending those citizens who are struggling with employment insurance problems. People need employment insurance for all kinds of reasons: because they are facing company closures, because they work in seasonal jobs or because a factory might eliminate certain jobs, for example. People can thus turn to employment insurance. However, for the past several years, this assistance has been reduced. Access to the program has been limited for many men and women in Quebec and throughout Canada. It is shameful. As we all know, the employment insurance fund has accumulated more than $50 billion. Today, we hear it might be as high as $55 billion. This bill is important, because it aims to establish two fundamental principles to meet the needs of workers who must receive employment insurance.
Since I was elected in 2004, the subject of creating an independent employment insurance fund has come up regularly in this House. We have also talked about an independent commission made up of workers to oversee it.
In their speech, the Conservatives said that they supported the idea of an independent employment insurance fund. A short time ago, when they were in opposition, they not only supported the idea of implementing an employment insurance fund, they wanted to create such a fund. Now they support the idea, but nothing is for sure. The Speech from the Throne mentioned a few things about this, but only one thing is clear: the surplus in the employment insurance fund has grown since the Conservatives came to power. They are doing exactly what the former Liberal government did. They should be ashamed.
Even though the employment insurance fund now has a $55 billion surplus, the government is restricting access to it and reducing the eligibility of citizens who work very hard and sometimes under difficult conditions. These people are under a lot of pressure, just as we all are. We are under pressure because of our families, our financial obligations, responsibility for our children's education, and obligations with respect to access to health services that, like it or not, cost money. But we are not helping these workers. We strangle them and bleed them dry, and then we tell them that we cannot help them, we can no longer support them despite the $55 billion surplus made up of their own contributions and those of their employers. That is shameful.
I have been here since 2004, and I have always found it surprising to observe the political games that go on here between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Now that the Conservatives are in power, we are seeing their true colours. They are doing the same thing. They do not care about the less fortunate or people in need in our society.
I listened to the Conservative members talk. The Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities made 22 recommendations to improve the employment insurance system. A number of measures were recommended. My Conservative colleague said that all these measures would cost about $1 billion. Still, investing in people is better than investing in the military. We are talking about a program of military spending. The government plans to invest $17 billion in the military, in arms and submarines, over the next five years. But it has difficulty investing in people in need.
Not only does the federal government have a $55 billion surplus in the employment insurance fund, but it also has a $14 billion budget surplus.
This $14 billion surplus is tax revenue from individuals and companies. What is the government doing? It is saying that it cannot help the unemployed, it is slashing funding for literacy groups and women's programs, it is cutting the court challenges program and it is making it more difficult for people to qualify for employment insurance. Sometimes, seasonal workers need only a few more weeks to qualify for employment insurance, and they have to go on welfare to make ends meet at month-end and year-end. It is shameful. These governments seem insensitive.
What is the purpose of government? To redistribute the taxes and other moneys it collects. The government must be fairer and more just. It must invest in economic sectors that need help. It must invest in people and support their professional development. It must support workers. But that is not happening. We wonder what this government is supporting, exactly. People do not seem to matter to the government. The independent employment insurance fund is proof of that. I hope that this bill will pass at first reading, second reading and third reading and that it will come into law once and for all. If this government has any self-respect at all, it will pass this bill. The Conservatives promised this in their election campaign. They promised to resolve the independent employment insurance fund issue.
It is outrageous that some workers who do not have access to the independent employment insurance fund are also paying too much into it.
It does not make sense that working people who suddenly fall ill—with cancer, for example—can collect only 15 weeks of employment insurance benefits. When people get sick, they have to apply for social assistance because the system cannot meet their needs. That does not make sense.
It does not make sense that someone who works for 10 consecutive months and leaves their job is not entitled to employment insurance, even if they have found a new job and work there for one month. That person is not entitled to employment insurance, even though they have paid into it for a full year. Instead of staying home and relying on employment insurance, they go out and find another job, but the system penalizes them.
There are all kinds of glitches and problems within the employment insurance system. Creating an independent employment insurance fund is crucial, and so is improving the employment insurance system. It is our duty, as elected representatives, to support our workers, especially when the independent employment insurance fund has a surplus of some $50 billion or $55 billion and when the government is predicting a surplus of $14 billion this year. The less fortunate in our society deserve fairness and equality.