Mr. Speaker, I am indeed the member for Chambly—Borduas, and I am proud to represent the voters and everyone in that riding who is paying attention to this motion here today.
I must first congratulate our colleague from Sault Ste. Marie and thank the NDP for moving this motion here today, which gives us the opportunity to debate an issue that is too often ignored, but that is nonetheless extremely important, especially for the people living in poverty. I would have liked to be able to ask our colleague from Markham—Unionville a question earlier, but I will save it for another time. I will touch on it during my presentation.
The motion is especially important because it links the issue of the gap between the rich and the poor with factors that cause poverty among our citizens. The program most butchered by the Liberals was the employment insurance program. The Conservatives continued the butchering, so much so that people were literally deprived of money owing to them in the form of EI benefits, just so the government could build up the kitty and increase the surplus to pay down the debt or meet other government obligations. Who knows? The Conservatives are probably even using part of the $54 billion diverted from the employment insurance fund for national defence and utterly questionable expenses.
This motion is even more interesting because it reminds us of what our society values and makes us think about the real role we play here in the House of Commons. Above all, we are here to represent the people, and not to represent economic interests that serve to benefit groups, consortiums or, as is currently the case, oil companies, or that would finance the war. That is not it. Our primary concern and focus should be the well-being of the public.
Therefore, the motion before us today is completely appropriate, and we will support it. We will vote in favour of this motion and we urge our colleagues in the House to do the same.
If the member for Markham—Unionville wanted to be credible in this House, he should have said that the Liberals were also going to vote in favour of the motion. Announcing a plan will not convince the House that the Liberal Party is sincere in its desire to eradicate poverty, since in the last 13 or 14 years, more than any other party, it has contributed to the impoverishment of working class people.
I remind members that in 1997—and I am referring to issues raised by the Liberal member for Markham—Unionville—the Liberals eliminated the assistance program for older workers, which was not all that expensive. Workers over the age of 55 were forced into poverty if they could not be retrained. They no longer had any recourse other than social assistance in their respective provinces. This party, along with the Conservatives, also ensured that seniors were not informed that they were entitled to the guaranteed income supplement.
The people who are the most isolated, the people who are the most vulnerable because they are unaware of their rights, were deprived of $3.5 billion.
If the hon. member who spoke earlier had wanted to be credible, he should have apologized, acknowledged that he and his party had not done their homework and had been irresponsible, and announced that they were going to vote in favour of the motion before us today. If he had wanted to be credible, our Liberal colleague would have refused to jump on the Conservative bandwagon, he would have acknowledged that the cuts he and his party had made to employment insurance were a bad decision and were unfair to unemployed workers, and he would have announced that the Liberals were going to vote in favour of this motion in order to correct the injustice done to all people who lose their jobs.
By reducing access to employment insurance, the previous government succeeded in excluding nearly 60% of unemployed workers. Barely 40% of all people who lose their jobs qualify. Not only is this an injustice, but it is a very serious economic crime against the unemployed, their families, the regions concerned and the provincial governments.
People who would have been entitled to employment insurance benefits but do not receive them go on welfare, placing a double burden on the provinces. They contributed to the national fund, just like their employers. But over the past 12 years, the federal government has siphoned off the $54 billion surplus to use for other purposes. No, the ministers have not pocketed this money. It has been put to use elsewhere. But it was not tax money to begin with. It consisted of contributions for insurance in case workers lost their jobs. This is totally unfair.
The current Minister of Human Resources and Social Development has admitted that funds were diverted and that it should never have happened. After he admitted funds were diverted and that it was unfair, we expected an announcement saying that they would right this wrong and accept the unanimous recommendation of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities from 2005, which stated that all of the diverted money, the $46 billion that has now become $54 billion, should be refunded to the fund at a rate of $1.5 billion a year. To be sure it is done legally and, above all, legitimately, the funds should be considered a loan just as if the government had borrowed from financial markets.
That was a unanimous recommendation from the committee. We expected the Liberals to accept it, but they turned a deaf ear and continued to loot the fund for other purposes.
The Conservatives have been doing the same thing for two-and-a-half years. They admit now that they should not have. And what have they done to fix it? Nothing. They are just as guilty as the Liberals. There is a saying that the person holding the bag is just as guilty as the one filling it. Right now, it is the Conservatives who are holding the bag. Why are they not putting the cash back into the fund?
We would then find ourselves in a position where the two parties—of course we would urge the Liberals to support the action—would become more credible. But, neither of them has the credibility to do it. When plans or strategies are announced to eliminate poverty, neither party—neither the one in power nor the one forming the official opposition—has any credibility.
The current government, for its part, has added to the burden on the poorest individuals and families. For example, the first thing it did was to eliminate a national child care program. Quebec's national child care program, which is paid for in part by the government and in part by parents, has resulted in a decline of roughly 3% in the poverty level. This is huge.
When the federal government eliminates the program for the rest of Canada, people slip into poverty. In addition, when the government deprives women's groups of the means to defend their rights, it is depriving a segment of our society that has difficulty obtaining recognition of its rights, especially labour rights. The employment insurance policy is a wrong-headed policy, because only 33% of all women who lose their jobs can hope to receive employment insurance.
Anyone who is looking for factors that exacerbate poverty does not have to look any farther than the government, which is continuing to make cuts to measures designed to eliminate poverty. For 18 years, since 1990, the federal government has promised repeatedly to eliminate poverty, yet it has done just the opposite.
Just a week ago, I believe, Statistics Canada announced that the gap between Canada's rich and poor had widened since 1980. The rich have gotten 16% richer, while the poor have gotten 20% poorer. This is no big deal, apparently, because Canada's decision makers, who were elected on the promise that they would do better than the previous government, are supporting the previous government's decisions and adding insult to injury by eliminating existing measures.
Regarding employment insurance benefits, the solution is not very complicated, because measures are available to us. They existed in the past. In terms of a social safety net, one of the most effective ways our society has to prevent poverty from worsening is the employment insurance system. With employment insurance, workers who lose their jobs and have no income have enough money to support their families. Employment insurance is not a gift from the government, because only employers and employees contribute to it.
The purpose of the fund is to insure against unemployment. The previous government changed the name to employment insurance. That change had an impact. It might have seemed as though it was just a name change—maybe it sounded better or something. But there was more to it than that. As soon as the name of the fund was changed, the government started meddling with the fund and using it for other purposes.
That is quite disturbing, so we suggest that the government go back to the main reason for the fund's existence and dedicate it to supporting people who have lost their jobs. What needs to be done? The government has to relax the eligibility criteria. For example, someone who has worked 360 hours should be eligible for employment insurance benefits. Benefits should be calculated based on the 12 best weeks, and people should be able to collect benefits for 50 weeks, not just 45 weeks.
Benefits should also be increased to 60% of an individual's income rather than the current 55%. Some people might say that 60% is a lot, but that is not true. We have to remember that most of the people who lose their jobs are low income earners. Even high income earners living on 60% of their previous income have to change their lifestyle. It is very difficult for people who lose their jobs to lose 45% of their income. People should not have to lose more than 40%. That would at least help them a little.
Here is the situation. We introduced Bill C-269, which covered all of these measures, here in the House. All of these measures were recommended by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, which is a House committee whose mandate is to advise and counsel the House and ministers. The committee approved all of the measures I mentioned, measures that are included in Bill C-269.
What happened? The Conservatives said the bill required royal recommendation and that they would not give it. Imagine that. That money does not belong to the public treasury. It belongs to workers and employers. The Conservatives have decided to prevent this House from studying a Bloc Québécois bill that would lead to measures that are a little more humane and fair and have been paid for by those who contribute to the EI fund, namely workers and employers. The Conservative government has refused to give royal recommendation. In a letter, the Leader of the Bloc Québécois and the Leader of the NDP officially asked the Prime Minister to give royal recommendation. The leader of the official opposition refused to sign the letter. Imagine that.
The Canadian government, the Conservatives and Liberals together—those Liberals who literally destroyed the employment insurance system—now is saying we have to trust it because it has a plan. When it announces a plan, there is cause for concern because people end up even more disadvantaged. The government's past plans are an example of what they are capable of and that is cause for concern. We have to be concerned about both the government and the Liberals. The government wants us to trust it, but we do not.
The interesting thing about the NDP motion is that it expresses the public's general lack of confidence. Why this lost confidence? Because the Liberals and the Conservatives have not lived up to their responsibilities when it comes to protecting the social safety net, in order to ensure a balance between creating wealth and distributing that wealth. They do not care about the working class and the most vulnerable in our society. Not only did they not care, but they have managed to make the situation even worse.
If the Liberals want to gain some credibility today, then they have to vote in favour of this motion. All their fine speeches have nothing to do with their true intention. Their true intention will only be known when they vote. My concern is that they will support the Conservatives' disastrous policy and uphold measures that are totally unfair to the working class and to those who are the most vulnerable in our society.
This government is only interested in war, oil companies and nuclear power and not in humanity. I will close there. I invite all my colleagues who truly want to represent their ridings to vote in favour of this motion.