Mr. Speaker, I am excited to get up and talk about Bill C-269 today, not so much for what the bill says, but just to talk about some of the things our government is doing and why we believe that Bill C-269 is not required at this time.
I am thankful for the opportunity to speak today at the third reading of Bill C-269, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. I would also like to thank all my hon. colleagues in this House for their contributions on this very important issue.
I want to start by saying that this government is committed to providing opportunities for all Canadians to participate and succeed in Canada's growing economy.
The economy is booming. Canada's new government and the Minister of Finance have created the winning conditions so that more jobs, better wages and a brighter future can be delivered to all Canadians.
I want to point out for the sponsor of this bill, the member for Laurentides—Labelle, who I know feels this is a very important issue for her, her riding and Quebec, that in Quebec alone the employment growth so far this year has been above the national average at 2%, with the unemployment rate at its lowest point in 33 years at 6.9% in Quebec.
The figures for Canada on a whole are equally optimistic. During the first quarter of 2007, employment grew by an estimated 158,000 new jobs, more than 500,000 jobs since this government took power. Canada's unemployment rate fell to only 5.8% in October. The great news is that these new jobs are paying more. The average hourly wage rose by 6% between August 2006 and August 2007.
Despite these record employment statistics, the opposition has proposed fundamental and sweeping changes to the EI program. These changes include lower entrance requirements, large increases in the duration of benefits and increased benefit rates, changes that are simply not justified by these numbers.
It is estimated that these changes would have a combined cost to the EI program of $3.7 billion annually. The opposition has done this without providing the House or the HUMA committee any evidence to show that these changes are actually required or warranted.
The opposition spent a mere one hour studying this bill, an absolutely shocking amount of time to spend on a bill that proposes this level of spending of taxpayers' dollars. That amounts to more than $1 million per second of study for this bill. Although shocking, it is not surprising considering the opposition's record of proposing bills with billions of dollars in new spending with little or no study.
In addition, the opposition members on the HUMA committee refused to consult with business leaders and other stakeholders who will be affected most by these changes.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon, the president of the Conseil du patronat du Québec, stated that this additional $3.7 billion expenditure would return the EI system to a deficit and may result in higher premiums for both workers and employers. He further stated in no uncertain terms that these higher premiums are good for neither the working family nor business owners.
Certainly, one of the things I have heard as I have talked to business owners in my riding is that they would like to find a way for us to be able to cut EI premiums, not only for businesses but for individuals as well, so this bill would have us going in the opposite direction.
One would have thought that Mr. Kelly-Gagnon's opinion would have been of interest to the committee. However, the opposition decided that no employers should be consulted in the drafting, the debate or even the study of the bill. In fact, the opposition decided not to hear from any witnesses before committing to billions of dollars in new annual expenditures.
There are currently 19 bills at various stages before this House that propose changes to the EI program. The cost of these bills is expected to be well in excess of $11 billion annually. I think it is fair to say that some opposition members have proposed bills or advocate for changes to programs for political purposes without examining what the ramifications are for the taxpayer, without thorough study, and without an idea of what the true cost would be.
Another good example of this would be Bill C-257, which was handled in the same sort of fashion when we had the Bloc propose this bill as a private member's bill to issue sweeping changes to federal jurisdiction and federal legislation when it came to anti-replacement workers, when the Bloc suddenly had an interest in federal issues. I found it remarkably interesting that suddenly the Bloc had a new love for federal issues.
Once again, this was another bill that they tried to ram through committee. I can assure the House that if there had not been the time for thoughtful study on the bill and a chance to hear from witnesses, there would have been a problem that would have cost taxpayers millions in time as well as, probably, lost services.
Thankfully, we have a labour market in which more Canadians and certainly more Quebeckers are working than ever before, and the demand for labour is strong. We are at a great place in the economy. Opportunities are certainly abundant. We are currently experiencing labour shortages across the country. Certainly as we look to B.C., Alberta and Ontario, they are having a hard time not only with skilled labour but with unskilled labour as well.
Coupled with this strong labour market is evidence that the EI program is working well. It is meeting its objectives to help Canadian workers adjust to labour market changes.
I stated earlier that the evidence to support the proposed changes that Bill C-269 proposes was not presented at the HUMA committee. It was not presented because, I would have to say, it does not exist.
The evidence that does exist, though, indicates that the current EI program is meeting the needs of the unemployed Canadians for whom the program was intended. Eighty-three per cent of those who pay into the program and have a qualified job separation are eligible for benefits. This figure increases to over 90% in areas of high unemployment. Let me just repeat that fact again for those who may not be aware. For those who are in qualified job separations who are eligible for benefits, that figure is over 90% in areas of high unemployment. Those people are able to receive their EI benefits.
The evidence also indicates that both the amount and duration of EI benefits is meeting the needs of Canadians. On average, individuals use less than two-thirds of their EI entitlement before finding employment. Even in high unemployment regions, claimants rarely used more than 70% of their entitlement.
If all this evidence suggests that the current EI program is meeting the needs of individuals who use the program, why has the opposition proposed such wide, sweeping changes?
One of the EI program's chief goals is to encourage a return to the labour market. In other words, the program is designed to provide temporary income support while encouraging Canadians to seek and retain employment. We cannot and will not go back to the problems that existed with the EI under previous governments.
Our approach to EI reform will continue to be based on building on the strengths of Canada's economy and the growth in our labour market. That being said, Canada's new government has acted to make changes to the EI program where the evidence supports the need for change.
For example, our government has expanded the eligibility for compassionate care benefits, which is certainly something we heard about during the last campaign. It is something we have been able to put into place.
We have launched a pilot project to examine the effects of providing additional weeks of benefits for those in areas of high unemployment.