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House of Commons Hansard #150 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was loans.

Topics

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Vote #182

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

I declare the motion carried.

(Bill read the second time and referred to a committee)

The House resumed from May 3 consideration of the motion.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

The House will now proceed to the taking of the deferred recorded division on the motion at report stage of Bill C-269 under private members' business.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Vote #183

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

I declare the motion carried.

The House resumed from May 4 consideration of the motion.

Immigration and Refugee Protection ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

The House will now proceed to the taking of the deferred recorded division on the motion at report stage of Bill C-280 under private members' business.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Vote #184

Immigration and Refugee Protection ActPrivate Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

I declare the motion carried.

It being 6:25 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Bloc

Raynald Blais Bloc Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

moved that Bill C-357, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Account and premium rate setting) and another Act in consequence, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I am very proud and honoured to rise today to present my first bill, which deals with a very important issue for my community of the Gaspé and Magdalen Islands.

I suppose that my bill is also important for all the communities that want to be treated with dignity and honour, and for those people who, at some point in their lives, find themselves in a bind, strictly for geographical reasons. For example, people cannot fish all year round, even if they wanted to. In the case of tourism, certain considerations also come into play. And the same goes for natural resources, and particularly the forestry sector.

These people not only need social support, they also need economic support. Now, we are talking about establishing an independent employment insurance fund.

I am in politics primarily because of this issue. I have had the opportunity to work with people to whom I paid tribute on several occasions, but today I want to pay tribute again to Gaétan Cousineau, of the Mouvement action-chômage Pabok, who has, for a number of years already, been leading a great battle for justice, for fairness in the employment insurance system.

At the time, we were experiencing problems in my region. Unfortunately, these problems have not necessarily disappeared over time. Other issues have surfaced because of, among other reasons, what is going on with natural resources and fisheries. Problems and crises have erupted, particularly in the shrimp sector.

So, there are people who want justice, no more and no less, because the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the minister are not meeting their demands. These people are stuck and they have been in the streets for three days already. They are currently occupying offices and marching in the streets. They are expressing their distress, they are sounding the alarm regarding their plight.

We experienced a historic moment this evening when a bill was voted on and concurred in at second reading so that the EI system could be changed and improved.

The bill I have introduced is designed to tighten things up. Unfortunately, governments, past and present, have taken advantage of the fact that those really paying into the EI fund are employees and employers, while the government did not, and that has been going on for years.

As it happens, this fund started to run not a profit, but a surplus that kept growing year after year. In fact, we have even seen record amounts between $7 billion and $8 billion. With all this money available, a rather huge chunk of money, the government of the day decided to deal with another problem, namely the deficit, instead of giving the money to the people in the regions, the unemployed who were having a very hard time qualifying or with issues of fairness and equity.

If I am not mistaken, over the years, from the early or mid 1990s until now, some $50,000 million accumulated in that EI fund has been diverted from its intended purpose. This money was used to combat the deficit.

The hon. member for LaSalle—Émard and former finance minister dared to puff out his chest and boast about helping put Canada's fiscal house in order. He failed, however, to add that this was done at the expense of the unemployed.

The purpose of the bill is to prevent any government from being tempted—and from giving in to the temptation—to take this money and use it for other reasons, as was the case in tackling the deficit at one point. These days we could talk about tackling the debt.

The unemployed, the people in regions like the one I represent and those from other regions are the ones helping to pay down the debt.

That is why it is important to have legislation to stop people with designs on the surplus, which is currently between $1.5 billion and $2 billion a year. Let us not forget to whom we owe this surplus and how it came to be.

Let us not forget that there is a surplus because a certain amount of money is being taken directly out of the pockets of employers and workers.

There is a surplus and there are needs. It is only fair that this money be used to meet these needs. However, that is not what is happening. The needs are far from being met, which is causing a growing gap. Not so long ago, the surplus was $8 billion and the gap was quite large. Now we are talking about a surplus between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

This evening, members of this House passed a bill at second reading stage. In my opinion, this is a good step in seeking justice, but the battle is far from over.

We have to prevent every government, even a minority government, from dipping into this fund. We are told it is a virtual fund, but that is not so. Workers pay a premium to the employer, which makes this far from being virtual. This money goes directly to the government's coffers. Unfortunately, under the current conditions, we cannot fully trust the government, even though it is a minority, because we see that this money is being used for completely different purposes.

I would like to talk about what is called the summary of the bill, a bill that amends the method for setting the premium rate in the Employment Insurance Act. It also amends a number of provisions in that act with respect to the Employment Insurance Account. The summary is divided into four parts, including one dealing with setting the premium rate.

The bill provides that every year the Canada Employment Insurance Commission will set the premium rate and cause a report to be sent to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development. The annual report shall contain, among other things, the reasons behind the chosen premium rate.

The report shall also include any recommendations that the commission considers necessary for the improvement of the employment insurance system. The bill provides also that the Employment Insurance Account will no longer form part of the accounts of Canada. This is where we will stop the injustices from occurring. The amounts paid into the Employment Insurance Account will become part of the assets of the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, and the commission will manage them in the best interests of the contributors and beneficiaries under the employment insurance system. In other words, this money will truly serve the interests and needs of the people who pay into the system.

The bill provides that the commissioners who will represent employees and employers shall be appointed from a list of nominees provided by associations representing employees and employers in Canada.

The bill also provides that the government shall pay back, over a period deemed appropriate, the amounts owed to the system, including those used by the government for purposes that did not serve the system.

I would just like to remind this House that the Canada Employment Insurance Commission will be composed of 17 commissioners: a chairperson, two vice-chairpersons, seven employee representatives and seven employer representatives.

The bill provides that the governor in council shall appoint the commissioners who will represent employees and employers from a list of nominees provided by associations representing employees and employers in Canada. The governor in council appoints the vice-chairpersons from among the deputy ministers or the associate deputy ministers of the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development. The chairperson shall be appointed by the House of Commons on the recommendation of the minister following consultation of the commissioners representing employees and employers. The chairperson shall not vote, but shall cast a deciding vote in case of an equal division.

This gives a bit more background on this bill and some context for our debate.

History is such that we may eventually solve the problem. Speaking as a maritimer, I could say that this bill will be a drop of justice in a sea of injustices. That is how I see it.

It is horrible to see how the employment insurance system has been managed in recent years. It is horrible because, in a way, people's needs have been completely ignored. Entire regions, including the region where I live, have been completely forgotten, ignored and abandoned, as have people who, with the sweat of their brow, have helped money build up over the years. This is referred to as a virtual account, but it is anything but virtual. The employment insurance account worked in such a way that it generated a surplus worth billions of dollars, money that was used for other purposes. I am talking about money that belongs to the unemployed, employers' money. Ordinarily, it should have gone to regions like mine to make the social safety net an economic net as well, but it was used for fighting the deficit and other purposes.

To get back to the facts, various inquiries have been conducted in recent years. The Gomery commission revealed the dark, shameful side of government. I would even venture to say that some of this money, which was stolen out of workers' pockets, was used for disgraceful purposes.

Having said that, it is very important to see that what we are ultimately trying to do is to eliminate temptation, this definite temptation that arises to use a pot of money for other purposes and not for what it was intended.

In all of this, we have the unemployed worker who has his back against the wall because he is a seasonal worker. We should not forget, it is not the worker but the employment that is seasonal . All too often we forget this. We have the impression that people are unemployed because they want to be. Let me tell you that it is not pleasant surviving on 55% of one's wages.

You can be unemployed for different reasons. In the region I represent, there are those who work in agriculture, natural resources such as forestry and fisheries, or tourism. These individuals do not apply for unemployment benefits because they want to. There simply are no more jobs. These people are proud. They have dignity and they would like to have a job for 12 months of the year. That is their goal.

The objective behind tabling this bill today is to seek justice for these men and women who work hard and who, unfortunately, at times, have jobs that are not well paid. Therefore, I urge members of all the political parties to support my bill.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:40 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to start by congratulating my colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine on introducing this most relevant piece of legislation and by commending the effort he puts into standing up for the people of his riding.

Having visited his riding on a few occasions, I have had the opportunity to meet with workers who had lost their jobs, and seasonal workers in particular. I have seen how committed my colleague is to defending them, and he is doing a great job representing them.

I would like my colleague to elaborate, something he did not have the time to do earlier, on the situation facing these men and women with seasonal jobs, particularly in the fishing industry. They have been working for years, often in wet working conditions. For example, I have met women who were in their fifties. Their work had worn them out, and they were no longer receiving benefits. When these workers lose their jobs, they have no means of support; they have no choice but to go on employment insurance. I would like the hon. member to comment on that, here, in the House.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:40 p.m.

Bloc

Raynald Blais Bloc Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas, who is also working hard to bring justice to those who deserve it, who are entitled to being treated with dignity and who are proud of the work they do.

I have had a chance to meet with these people a number of times and I continue to see, in their eyes and in their attitude, the pride of a job well done.

These people have worked for 30 or 40 years, primarily in the fishing industry. They may have started part time and ended up with a permanent job. The conditions are extremely harsh. There is intense humidity. Here in the Ottawa area it is humid, but at least it is a humidity that invites us to bask in the sun. But these people work for an industry, in a steel building that does not necessarily have much ventilation and they stand in water to do a routine job. This goes on for many years. They do this with sweat on their brow and not necessarily for a high salary.

After 30 or 35 years, not only do they have tendinitis or other ailments, but they find themselves in much more serious situations. These people look us straight in the eye and tell us with pride and honesty that they would like to be treated with dignity for what they have done.

We will have an opportunity to talk about that, but I think one way to bring them justice is to offer them an early retirement program. This is part of the other battles we are waging. We have to take action on a number of levels, but we must not forget that these people have worked for 30 or 35 years. They are now 55 or 60. Some are called Madeleine and others Yvonne. They are from the area, from the community, from Rivière-au-Renard or the Magdalen Islands. They are the ones we often see in pictures, the person full of pride and hard work, showing off the fruit of their labour. They say they would like to be treated with dignity one day. I think one way to treat them with dignity, after 30, 35 or 40 years of work, would be to offer them an early retirement program.

Nonetheless, we first have to stop the EI fund from being drained.

I will close by saying that, if we stop this drain, we may obtain one little drop of justice in an ocean of injustice.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join the debate on Bill C-357, a Bloc Québécois proposal to amend the Employment Insurance Act.

The part of the bill that interests me is the one that calls for a separate account for EI. Conservatives have long supported the principle of a separate account. In our policy declaration of the Conservative Party, we stated our commitment to:

...the establishment of an independent employment insurance system, with a self-accounting fund administered by employees and employers, the surplus of which being used to increase workers’ benefits or reduce contributions.

In this House, the Prime Minister has confirmed that our government is looking for solutions to meet those objectives.

I too support the principle of the creation of a separate EI account. I also support the tremendous new direction of this government in making changes to the EI system. Canadians are seeing their new government take a very different approach to the old Liberal one. The old Liberals resisted change and did not listen. They stood in the way of returning contributions to the pockets of employers and employees who pay into EI.

Canadians see that their new government is different from the Liberals. They chose a new government because Canadians are different from the Liberals. The Liberals simply would not listen to Canadians and what they wanted to see in a responsible and sustainable EI system.

The new government is listening and we are getting things done based on what we are hearing. In a little over one year since forming government, we have taken action by bringing in measured but meaningful changes. We have heard the concerns of older workers, particularly in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, who were struggling in the face of changes to the labour situations in their regions. They told us that they needed something to help them with retraining and taking their experiences to a new situation.

We listened to their concerns and we responded to their needs with the targeted initiative for older workers. The targeted initiative designs projects for older workers in communities facing ongoing high unemployment or a single industry dealing with downsizing and it helps them. We have also taken action for workers who face work disruptions in regions with high unemployment.

Canadians found that their fortunes in most areas of the country improved once the new government took over. They are enjoying one of the most prosperous periods of economic growth and record employment in Canadian history.

Many sweeping changes to the EI program at a time of unprecedented labour strength would, at best, be difficult to reconcile with the realities of our thriving national economy and, at worst, it would have a cooling effect. Therefore, a major change is not and was not called for.

However, Canada's new government recognizes that change is required. We appreciate that not all regions are seeing the same growth. We understand the need to make changes to meet these regional realities but we need a measured and effective change.

We introduced a pilot project to extend the coverage for five additional weeks in regions with high unemployment. We heard from seasonal workers and others who told us about the income gap. We wanted to maintain an incentive to work and yet recognize the labour market realities they face.

We have also moved to extend a pilot project that calculates benefits on the best 14 weeks of wages during the last 52. We heard from Canadians who had sporadic employment and were losing out on having their weeks of full time work benefit them. More than 200,000 people in regions of high unemployment benefit from us getting things done for them.

Listening to Canadians is what this new government does and what good government does.

When Canadians came forward with concerns about the limits of their compassionate care benefits, we listened. They told us that there were incidents where benefits ended before the needs they were meant to address were resolved.

Again, it was this government which showed Canadians that their government was listening and ready to make the changes to EI that were needed, for which they asked. Our record, the record of Canada's new government, is one of which Canadians can be proud. Why? Because the changes we are making come from them.

Finally, they have a government that is listening to them. Finally, they have a government that is here for them.

As I return my remarks to the bill, Canadians need only to look at their government's record to see the proof of our commitment to making changes to EI to improve the system for workers and all Canadians. As I said at the outset, I and the new government are firmly committed the principle of a separate EI account. Canadians are satisfied that their new government is interested in solutions, and we will achieve just that.

What Canadians are wondering, though, is where the opposition really sits on EI reform. With 19 EI bills in the works, the other opposition parties have been heaping one EI bill after another onto the order paper, voting for implementation of all, but not prioritizing one of them: $3.7 billion for Bill C-269; $1.1 billion for Bill C-278; $1.4 billion for Bill C-265. There are 16 more EI bills to come, nine of which, including this one, are too complicated to cost. It will cost $4.7 billion to implement the seven which we were able to cost. That is over $11 billion in new annual spending.

With all these proposals for one-off changes to EI, adding up to billions annually in new costs, Canadians are looking for someone to stand up for them and think about the EI as a system. Canadians do not believe a system should be stitched together in little bits and pieces. Canadians are looking to their new government to stand up for them. They are hoping to maintain the EI as a system and protect it from the patchwork proposals made by the opposition.

Canadians will be disappointed in their new government if it did not stand up for them and insist on accountability for the use of their money. They would be disappointed if it did not stand up for them and ensure that the policy for which they have asked, and we have committed to pursuing, is also put together not in a piecemeal fashion as we have in front of us today.

In comparison to our record of taking clear action to getting things done with EI reform for Canadians, the record of the opposition member has been all but clear. Canadians have no idea what its priorities really are. Opposition members have not made it clear when it comes to how they plan their legislation. More often than not, they have not made their intentions clear when one looks at the legislation they put forward.

I take my responsibility to my constituents and all Canadians seriously. I take our commitment to a separate account seriously. I will continue to work for that objective.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Liberal

John Cannis Liberal Scarborough Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the Liberal Party, I take this opportunity to speak to Bill C-357. The bill proposes some changes to the Employment Insurance Act as it relates to the setting of the premiums charged to employers and employees.

First, employment insurance is a very important program, a program that plays, in my view and I am sure in the view of all members in this honourable House, a very vital role in assisting workers in Canada when they find themselves either unemployed or underemployed. It is a program that supports workers while going from job A to job B.

Allow me to provide a little history to the employment insurance program for the benefit of all Canadians.

In 1934 the Government of Canada established a program that would provide Canadians with a partial income if they found themselves out of work. The Great Depression, as we all know, resulted in millions of Canadians losing their jobs and going through some very difficult times. As a result, the government took action to provide some income security.

The Employment and Social Insurance Act of 1935 paid minimum weekly wages based on earnings to certain unemployed people. It was in 1940 that Parliament passed the Unemployment Insurance Act, during a period when income security was not an issue. For example, we will recall that the war created well over a million jobs in our country at that time.

The program back then was meant to support, on a short term basis, individuals who were in between jobs and was primarily targeted the so-called blue workers. Since that period, employment insurance has become one of the major foundations of Canada's social safety net.

Two major changes occurred in the system, once in 1971 and again in the mid 1990s. In 1971 the program became more universal, with a wide range of occupations falling under its legislative scope. For example, further maternity, sickness and retirement benefits were added to the program. Premiums were reduced and benefits were increased. Prerequisite qualifiers were also raised, while benefit levels were to some degree restrained. At that time, the government placed restrictions on benefits for workers who had quit or had been fired. They were deemed ineligible, except for certain exceptions.

During 1971, the government shifted employment services and benefit costs from its consolidated revenue fund to what was then called the UI account. Although there were some efforts to make further changes to the act during the 1970s and 1980s, it was not until the 1990s that major reform to the act took place.

For example, in 1996 unemployment insurance became known as employment insurance or EI, “employment” meaning let us move forward to get people back into the workforce. Of course there were major changes in eligibility, including an “intensity rule” that reduced benefits for repeat claimants, and adjustments to that clause were made in 2001.

I know, Mr. Speaker, you were here at that time. When I was first elected in 1993, the government inherited a very difficult situation of high unemployment. I am sure you recall that it was close to 12%. EI premiums had been rising consistently. I remember at that time it was pegged at $3.05 per $100. Our country was described as unofficially bankrupt, so we had very little manoeuvring ability.

Later on as the economy got better, as we had eliminated the deficit much faster than we anticipated, economic growth occurred, employment started to unfold and more revenue started coming in because people were working as opposed to us paying out. We were able to look at adjustments as we removed that intensity rule in 2001.

I believe those changes were necessary at the time because of the difficulties that the country had. One was the $48 billion deficit and a $600 billion plus debt that we incurred, inherited from the Mulroney government, the Conservatives.

Earlier today the member for Burlington said that the government was listening to the people. He said, “a government that listens to them”. I think he said that about three times. I always get shivers the moment that someone says to me more than once, “Trust me, trust me”. I do not trust that person. Therefore, when the member for Burlington said on a several of occasions “a government that listens”, it just confirms that it has not listened. Income trusts is one example that I will use.

A short while ago Bill C-269 was before the House, on which we voted, to make some changes to help seasonal workers and to increase benefits in general. We supported that bill, as amended, at committee. I believe that in the current situation we can afford to take a look at EI in general and to see how we can better support all workers.

The comments we are hearing from our constituents, especially our seniors, our veterans and workers in general are as follows. If today our country has been blessed with such high surpluses, close to $14 billion, thanks to the good work that the previous Liberal governments did, it is today that we can take that extra step. It is not a risk. It is today that we have these surpluses and we can look at adjusting these programs.

We have workers in the Maritimes, in the north, in the mining industry who unfortunately and for whatever reasons do not have an opportunity, as some would say in downtown Toronto, to have steady employment throughout the year. This is where these programs must exercise some flexibility. I believe these are the times, when the economy is good, when there are surpluses, we can do that.

As often is the case with members from the Bloc, and I say this respectfully, they always attempt to maintain some kind of feigning sense of relevancy to the House by introducing certain private members' initiatives so they can send them in their householders to their constituents and say, “This is how relevant we are”. That is great. I cannot negatively comment on that. That is their privilege, but it is unfortunate because constituents depend on hearing from their members of Parliament a certain message that has relevancy. In a case like this, they are getting someone's goat going. They are getting them excited, and it is unfortunate.

Let me just point out why I made that statement. The member will know that what he seeks to accomplish already exists, thanks to the efforts and the hard work of the former Liberal finance minister, the member for Wascana, and the former Liberal minister of human resources, the member for Newmarket—Aurora. These changes were made.

What we did was formalize the EI rate setting process with an external process run by a chief actuary, something the member for Burlington said “We are going to do as a government”. We have already done it, as a Liberal government.

The member for Burlington should, as should all members, read up on what has been done before they stand up, for the benefit of all Canadians. It is up to the chief actuary to analyze the labour trends, the employment levels, the expected payments to be made and make recommendations to Parliament as to the setting of the EI rate. It is set in such a way which we put in place that it becomes revenue neutral, if I may describe it as such.

Let me repeat again for the benefit of the member for Burlington and all other members, that the EI--

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. member.

Resuming debate. The hon. member for Parkdale—High Park.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

NDP

Peggy Nash NDP Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-357 which is the Bloc Québécois bill to amend the Employment Insurance Act.

Employment insurance is fundamentally important to working people in Canada. Work is central to our lives. It is not only about the money that we get to support ourselves and our families, it is about our self-worth, it is about who we are as people.

My experience in talking to many working people over the years is that job loss is absolutely devastating to a worker. Any support or any help that workers can get to ease that transition from unemployment back into a paying job is money well spent.

We have been through massive changes in our economy over the last decade or more. We have seen tremendous transitions in new technology, changes in manufacturing, and many thousands and thousands of workers have been through this period of unemployment and had to scramble and find their way back into a job.

Unemployment insurance, as it was originally structured, is designed to help cushion that transition, so that workers can make their way from the job they just lost and get into a new job. Any insurance plan, whether it is for a house, or a car or anything else, is a plan where we pay a premium and then get a benefit. When we pay the premium, we know exactly what the rules are and know we are going to be able to get that benefit.

However, that is not how it works with employment insurance. It is an anomaly to call this insurance because it actually provides very little insurance. In the 1990s of course deficit cutting was the order of the day. There were many cuts to all kinds of programs more aggressive than needed to happen in order to eliminate the deficit, and many people suffered.

The previous government under finance minister Martin made major cuts to many social programs and--

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

The hon. member should not refer to the member for LaSalle—Émard in the way that she did.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

NDP

Peggy Nash NDP Parkdale—High Park, ON

Excuse me, Mr. Speaker.

Under the previous government and under the then finance minister from the riding of LaSalle--Émard, there were massive cuts to social programs and major cuts to employment insurance.

Just to give an example, in 1990 about 87% of unemployed workers received employment insurance benefits. Today only about 40% of workers receive benefits. In my province of Ontario, that number drops to about 30%. In my city of Toronto, only about 20% of unemployed workers receive benefits.

These attacks on employment insurance were not just about balancing the books. They were about creating a flexible labour market and about creating insecurity among working people as part of a cheap labour market strategy. Many workers had the rug yanked out from underneath them.

The message was that when workers lost their job, they had to immediately grab any job. Many people ended up taking huge cuts to their income and this created incredible distress. Yes, today we have lower unemployment today, but we also have greater poverty and a growing gap between the wealthy and people at the lower end of the spectrum.

As a result of the rule changes that were made to EI by the previous government, fewer workers qualified for EI benefits so the fund built up substantially. Rather than improving or restoring those insurance benefits to help working people during a changing economy, the money that had been paid into the fund by working people and employers built up and the previous government dipped in with both hands and over $50 billion was used as general revenue. What other insurance plan would we pay premiums into where those premiums go not for insurance benefits, but for something completely different?

It is really quite ridiculous that this fund has been plundered the way it has. It is more than ridiculous; it is fundamentally unjust. That money was designed to help the people who paid into the plan and is being used for other purposes. As EI is currently structured it is failing many unemployed adults who pay in and simply cannot get the benefits.

As a result of the cuts of the previous decade many of our social programs, and especially this important workplace adjustment program of EI, have been eroded. This is of national importance not only for the individuals affected but because it tends to cut the ties that bind Canadians.

People saw our government as being responsible for programs like medicare and unemployment insurance, and increasingly these have been frayed at the edges or downloaded to other levels of government that I think it really does fray the ties that bind our country together. That is another consideration for us at the national level.

Sometimes people wonder what government is good for when they are in distress, lose their job, and have trouble putting food on the table. What they thought was there as a support for them in their time of need is not available for them.

Unemployment is low. Personal debt is high. Many people are working harder than ever, and the gap is growing between the rich and the poor. Most people just work paycheque to paycheque. We need governments to stop plundering EI funds. That has to stop.

I support the goal of forcing the government's hand out of the EI fund. What government does need to do is improve the benefits of EI and improve the access to EI to ensure that the principle of the fund, which is to provide the best possible adjustment for unemployed workers, becomes a reality once again in Canada.

It can only become a reality if working people who need the fund get access to the fund. The premiums that are paid for employment insurance must be used for that purpose and be available to working Canadians when they need it.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this important bill, Bill C-357. The bill seeks to give workers and employers, the sole contributors to employment insurance fund, control over their fund.

I would like to congratulate my NDP colleague, the member for Parkdale—High Park, for her excellent speech, which, in my opinion, summarizes this deplorable situation.

As I begin my speech, I am thinking of people—people who have lost their jobs and have no income and no recourse to employment insurance benefits. They should receive these benefits because they contributed to the employment insurance fund. For example, I am thinking of the people who worked at the Régence plant in Saint-Émile in the riding of Charlesbourg. The Conservative member who represents that riding did nothing to help those people. That is just one example. I could mention other ridings represented by our Conservative colleagues. The Conservatives are misleading people by telling them that they have set up a program to assist older workers—the targeted initiative for older workers, or TIOW. This program is designed to get these workers back into the labour market—those who can still work, that is. That makes sense, because these people want to work.

However, in many cases, people over 55 cannot find jobs because there are none available in the region or elsewhere or because employers do not want to hire them because of their age. These people have no options, even though they contributed to employment insurance for their whole lives. What happened? Take, for example, Whirlpool in Montmagny, or the textile industry in Huntingdon, Sherbrooke, Estrie or Drummondville. Similar situations exist in all of these regions. People did not receive employment insurance or were unable to take advantage of POWA. Why? Because the former Liberal government cut employment insurance programs so deeply that over 60% of workers who lose their jobs cannot collect benefits even though they contributed to employment insurance.

Mr. Speaker, you are someone I know a little bit, and I know that you are cautious. I am sure you have insurance to protect you in the unfortunate event of a car accident, an injury or a house fire. What would happen if your house burned down? You would contact you insurance broker to be compensated, since you pay premiums. How would you react if your broker told you that he is sorry, but you are no longer covered, because the rules changed at some point. He might tell you that your insurance only covered a fire that would have started in the living room, and that if it started in the kitchen, then you are not covered. It is that bad. You would say that this insurer is not honest, that he cheated, that he used the money for other purposes, and you would initiate legal proceedings against him.

The unemployed do not have the option of initiating legal proceedings. Yet, so far, the government has misappropriated over $54 billion. This is money that belongs to these people.

I have here a memo dated yesterday, which indicates that, according to data released by the government in February and March, employment insurance surpluses stood at $50.4 billion on March 31, 2007, instead of the projected $50.8 billion. So, this misappropriation is still taking place.

Yet, when the Conservatives were in opposition, they pledged to put a stop to this misappropriation of funds. They even said that they agreed with the establishment of an independent employment insurance fund, to allow those who contribute to this fund—the employees and employers—to regain control of their fund, so that it could be used for the purposes for which it was created. However, that is not happening, because the Conservatives are doing exactly like the Liberals. This is a serious economic crime that adversely affects workers who lose their jobs.

Mr. Speaker, you are the most senior member of this House, and you have been representing your riding here for a long time. You are highly esteemed in your riding, and I know that you also care about protecting the interests of your constituents. However, it must be realized that, in each of our ridings, this situation creates an annual shortfall of between $30 million and $60 million in the economy, and that families are also adversely affected. Indeed, if the person who loses his job is also the breadwinner, the whole family is affected. It also means less money in the economy of your region, your riding, and your province.

What happens when a person no longer has an income? They turn to social assistance. I do not know how it works in your province, Mr. Speaker, but in Quebec, social assistance was designed for people who have nowhere else to turn. It seems that the money is staying in Ottawa and the responsibilities that should have been taken on by Ottawa are being transferred to the provinces and to Quebec. This further worsens the fiscal imbalance. It is a very serious economic crime and we must take notice. In other sectors, under other circumstances, and even here in this House, people would be up in arms.

It is hard to understand why, once in government, people's only concerns seem to be debt and political priorities. Military equipment and weapons are good examples. Last August, in the space of a week, $17.5 billion was taken from the consolidated revenue fund for military commitments. Year after year, no less than $2 billion or $2.5 billion is taken out. Some years, it is up to $7 billion. This money does not belong to the country's consolidated revenue fund. It is a straight out misappropriation of funds. How is it done? As I said earlier, by giving fewer benefits to workers, who are losing their jobs and who are entitled to these benefits.

Anyone who is reasonable, sensible and concerned about properly representing their constituents would vote in favour of this bill. Such members would not say what I heard from a Liberal Party member, when he suggested that people do some reading to understand what good things the Liberals did. People do not need to read up on what the Liberals did right, because they are suffering from what the Liberals did wrong. That is what Canadians must live with—with nothing, because of the Liberals. In fact, the Liberals left them with less than nothing. The problem is, once the Conservatives came into power, they seemed to forget everything they had done in opposition. They took on all the Liberals' bad habits.

It is urgent that we establish an independent fund that will not be administered by the government alone, but rather by a commission made up primarily of employees and employers. Money must also be returned to the fund and there must be reciprocal loans. If the government wants to borrow money, it must make the same commitments it would to a bank. It could pay interest to the fund, which could then distribute it.

This is the nature of the bill and anyone who claims to defend the interests of his or her constituents will vote in favour of the bill. Indeed, I urge all members to do so.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

Resuming debate for a few minutes, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan

Conservative

Lynne Yelich ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to discuss Bill C-357, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. I would like to thank hon. colleagues from all parties for their contributions on the bill. All of the opinions put forward on the bill are valuable and provide great input into possible reforms to the EI program.

From the outset, let me state that this government supports the principles behind the creation of a separate EI account. I see other proposals put forward in this bill as well. I note the opposition has proposed several program changes during the course of this Parliament, often without supporting evidence for clear program objectives.

It is important to get these things right. Canadians depend on us and particularly their new government to ensure that the EI system remains a system that is effective, sustainable and reflects their needs.

There is a reason we need to have this debate today. The reason is simple: Liberal mismanagement. The previous Liberal government allowed over a period of 10 years a $51 billion surplus to accumulate in what many in the House have called the EI account.

During a study of a previous incarnation of this bill, Bill C-280, during the last Parliament the hon. member for Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock stated during committee study that the Auditor General surely did not foresee that the government would continuously and deliberately overcharge employers and workers and allow a massive surplus to build up, but it did. It allowed the surplus to grow and it became addicted to it.

Liberal mismanagement comes as no surprise. We have seen a billion dollar HRSDC boondoggle under the Liberals' watch. We have seen a $2 million gun registry turn into a $2 billion gun registry. They ran a rule-breaking sponsorship program. Now we have seen the accumulation of $51 billion in workers' and employers' money with no explanation and certainly no apologies. This should come as no surprise to the party of adscam and sponsorgate, but nonetheless, it is no less insulting to every Canadian.

Mr. Speaker--

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:25 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

Order.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:25 p.m.

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux Conservative Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

She was just getting started, Mr. Speaker.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:25 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

I am sorry, I am trying to tell the hon. member that when the Speaker stands up, the hon. member should sit down.