Employment insurance is a very important part of the social infrastructure of Canada. That is a core belief. It has changed over the years. Today fewer Canadian workers have access to EI in general. Canadian employers and employees have seen a surplus of premiums over benefits paid in the last decade. I think it is time to make some changes to EI. We know that other people believe this. A number of private members' bills have been introduced in the House and have gone through committee, for example Bill C-269, this bill, Bill C-265 and Bill C-278 by the member for Sydney—Victoria, which is a very important bill that would have seen the EI sickness benefit period raised from 15 to 50 weeks. It is an active file. Also, the government recently introduced a proposal to set up an EI crown corporation.
Let us start with a few facts to set the context.
Between 1994 and today there has been a surplus each year in the EI account. From 1990 to 1994 there was a deficit each year, the last time the economy had a serious slowdown. We have seen over the past decade or so premium rates drop significantly. In 1993 employees paid $3 per $100 of insurable earnings and employers paid $4.20. Those have dropped on the employee side from $3 to $1.73 and on the employer side from $4.20 to $2.42.
We saw some changes as well in 2000 and 2004. In 2000 we saw the extension of parental benefits from six months to a year. In 2004 the compassionate care benefit was added. Several pilot projects were introduced in 2005 for things such as going to the best 14 weeks. There were some other changes that were very positive as well, including an additional five weeks for areas of high unemployment. These pilot projects were set up to provide more benefit coverage in areas that specifically needed that assistance. In 2005 a new process was introduced in the rate setting mechanism, whereby rate stability was to be achieved by restricting the rate change to .15, in other words 15¢ per $100 of insurable earnings.
In 2004 the House subcommittee on EI made recommendations, one of which was for a more independent EI board, a commission, with a fund that would operate outside the consolidated revenue fund. It did not recommend total independence but it recommended that step. Many workers and employees felt that would be a good idea.
The EI surplus is a very contentious issue. It is a surplus or a no show surplus, depending on to whom one talks. One thing we know is that it is not theft, as some people would characterize it. The money was kept track of and allocated every year. In fact, interest has been allocated. On the $54 billion, the EI alleged surplus, some $11 billion of that is in fact allocated interest.
It is a contentious issue and I understand that. The money went primarily to pay down debt and perhaps to other services as well but most of that money went to pay down debt. One can agree or disagree with that decision, but that was a policy decision that was made by the Government of Canada.
There are many aspects of EI that need to be addressed: those who are excluded, self-employed people, creators, part time workers who are often women. I believe there is a need to re-evaluate benefits paid to those who already qualify. What we need is a serious debate. We do not need allegations of theft.
We do not need the leader of the New Democratic Party going to a CLC meeting and saying that nobody in the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party cares because they only had five minutes at the finance committee hearing and totally neglected the fact that a Liberal-led motion in the human resources committee evaluated this new EI corporation. If it was not for that, there would be no discussion of this. The government's response was to set up a crown corporation, but how do we know if it is a solution when there is no information available? We have been provided nothing.
We introduced a motion at the human resources committee. We heard from employees, employers, actuaries, labour organizations and business groups, many of whom said that it might be a good idea, but they just do not know and they need more information. That report will be tabled in the House this week. I hope that the government looks at the recommendations of workers as well as employers.
These meetings were public. They asked questions about things such as the size of the reserve, the accountability and how this would affect benefits.
I, like almost all Liberals, feel that EI reform is necessary. We particularly need to look at it at a time when many Canadians are worried about the economy.
Liberals are part of a group which included the NDP member for Acadie—Bathurst, the Bloc and labour groups that looked at a previous bill, Bill C-269, and came to some common ground on it. The common ground was negotiated in good faith and every Liberal in this House supported Bill C-269 when it came for a vote. Bill C-265 shifts that ground considerably.
As an example of what it takes to reform EI, this is a serious business. One proposed amendment to increase the rate of benefit from 55% to 60% would cost $1.2 billion every year. That was an estimate done in 2004. Reform is costly but it must be done. It cannot be done on an ad hoc basis. It is simply too important for that. It must be done by a government that accepts the fact that EI is a fundamental part of the social fabric of Canada that strengthens our communities and our people.
Reform cannot be done by running around and making allegations. We all play the constituencies. That is why it is called politics: to tell disingenuous stories about what is happening in this place when we visit with labour organizations or business groups, or to make allegations of theft and other issues about what happened before.
Changes to EI are needed, but what are those changes and what is the cost? What about the two week waiting period? We think something should be done about that. There is the five week black hole. Should it be the 14 best weeks or the 12 best weeks? What is the solution? Do we go from 55% to 60%? How are part time workers and self-employed workers covered? How is sickness covered? People have said to me that we should extend maternity leave to two years. There is no shortage of ideas. Those ideas will only be turned into action by a government that is serious about EI reform.
The Conservative government is not serious about EI reform. Reform will only be done by a government that accepts EI as a key part of the social infrastructure of Canada that strengthens not only the people and our communities, but all of Canada. It is time for a proactive and positive change to EI for employers and particularly for hard-working Canadian employees.