Mr. Speaker, we are here today discussing Bill C-50, which has now come back from committee.
The position of the Liberal Party has not changed on the bill. We think that there are numerous problems with this bill in terms of what it does to impact people who were the victims of a very difficult recession in this country.
It was a very interesting process at committee. Normally, at a committee, when somebody comes with a bill, particularly a government bill, we have a number of witnesses who say, “I like it. Go ahead”, and others who say, “I do not like it. Stop it”. What we had this time, and I am sure the member for Chambly—Borduas would concur with this as well as other members of the HR committee, were largely two groups of people who came to the committee.
We had people who came and said, “This is not a good bill. This is a discriminatory bill. It does not help enough people. It does not go back far enough. It does not do enough to cushion the blow of this recession. You should vote it down”.
We had others who came to the committee and said, “We do not like it. It is not our priority for employment insurance. We know that there are further changes that are necessary, but with these guys, we better take what we can get. In light of that, perhaps you should support it and try to get something else”.
We have been talking about employment insurance in this House, as Canadians have in the country, for the better part of the last year. Before that, it was an issue, but particularly in the last year with this recession, people have been very concerned. What have people been asking about? What have people called for in terms of EI?
For a number of years, we have had public sector unions, policy think tanks and a host of people who have looked at this issue. They have said that there are ways in which we can adjust EI. I think we can all understand that. They have said, “There were changes made in the 1990s as a result of the economic circumstance that this country was in. Maybe we should look at what we did then. Maybe it is time to have some new reforms. What would you do?”
There are people who have been talking for a long time about changes: a national standard of 360 hours or some such variation on that national standard; eliminating the two week waiting period, as our colleague from Brome—Missisquoi has in a private member's bill that will be coming back to this House; increasing the rate of benefits from 55% to 60%; looking at the divisor rule; and looking at how we calculate benefits and perhaps going to the best 12 weeks.
There are all kinds of ways that we can change employment insurance. I would not say that we should do all of those things. I am an advocate for employment insurance reform. I do not know exactly what I would do, but I know I would not let it go the way it is now. I know that I would invest in employment insurance so that people who need the benefit can get it.
I do not think people are fully aware in Canada that our EI system is not as robust as most nations to which we want to compare ourselves. We think we are very generous in terms of employment insurance. We should keep in mind that this is the money that employers and employees have put aside for difficult times, but our system does not fare well compared to some others.
In the 1990s, when the economy was good and it was strong and we had surpluses, we reduced EI premiums for both the employers and employees for 12 years in a row. That was one period of time. We could argue about what should have been done then, but in a recession, in a difficult time, this is when we should invest in EI.
We have had the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Caledon Institute, the CLC and the CAW telling us what things they would like to see, but it is not just them. TD Economics is urging the government to immediately ease the VER and extend EI. VER is the variable entrance requirements. We need to ensure that people get access to EI across the board.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce gave advice to the government last year, when it suggested that the federal government could consider temporary measures to ease access to EI during the recession, reducing the number of weeks required to qualify for benefits and suspending the two week waiting period.
That was the Chamber of Commerce in December saying we should look at the two week waiting period. The CSN referred to the waiting period, the universal entitlement of 360 hours, and increasing the benefit level.
The wife of the Minister of Finance gave him very good advice earlier this year when she suggested, in her complaints:
--many people who lose a job cannot qualify for EI under current rules. Ideally, the federal government will quickly reform EI to better meet Ontario's needs.
She was talking about a standard for employment insurance that would better meet the needs of Canadians, and in her case, of Ontarians.
We had all the premiers, it seems, in the country, all the western premiers, suggesting that we needed to do something about a national standard. We had the premier of B.C. saying that if people fell off EI, then they were going to go onto the provincial welfare rolls.
We had premier after premier saying that something needed to be done to reform EI but Bill C-50 does not do that. It is clearly not enough.
Members of the House have put forward private member's bills. In March, the New Democrats put forward an opposition day that called for the elimination of the two week waiting period, a national standard of 360 hours going to 60% of insurable earnings, going to a best 12 weeks divisor and referring to some kind of a self-employment piece. Those are the priorities of the New Democrats, which I think reflect the priorities of many Canadians. Bill C-50 is woefully short on that measure.
The head of the CAW, in referring to Bill C-50, said that Canadians “need a full loaf of bread”. He suggested that it was just crumbs.
Armine Yalnizyan of CCPA indicated that the program's restrictions act against the nature of much of Canada's industry.
Laurell Ritchie of the CAW said that it was only handfuls.
The bill has not received any kind of universal enthusiastic support. Some people have said that perhaps we need to take what we can get and move on, but we need to look at this seriously and ask whether this is good legislation and whether we can seriously adopt a piece of social infrastructure that discriminates against so many Canadians.
The government's own estimates are that 190,000 people will benefit. I do not know if that is true. I asked people at committee if it was true but they could not tell me because they did not have access to the kind of information that HRSDC does. What does the government do with that information?
In the summer, I remember the Conservatives suggesting that a 360 hour national standard would cost $4.4 billion. The next week they apologized and said that it would be $2.5 billion. It turns out that it would be less than $1.3 billion. Therefore, we do not have a lot to work with on this.
Pierre Céré came to committee on Bill C-50 and said:
First, we disagree with the approach taken. The government has chosen to use legislation to play a political trick...when [on September 14] it could simply have announced a pilot project....
He suggested that it did not even have to be in legislation. He also said “the problems with the employment insurance system have not been addressed at all, including the pressing problem of eligibility”.
At the end of July this past summer, the 10 premiers of the 10 provinces called on the Prime Minister to resolve this problem. Most Quebec municipalities signed a declaration demanding that the eligibility question be solved at the federal level. The FCM, as well as many economists, observers, associations, unions and even the churches called on the government to resolve the eligibility problem.
We have a bill that is a discriminatory. As I referenced earlier in a question for my colleague, the chair of our committee, the minister herself, in touting the five week extension, said that extending five extra weeks of benefits which was then only available in some regions to all Canadians. So she is saying that what we are doing is giving a benefit that some Canadians have to pilot projects and we are giving it to all Canadians. What could be more fair?
Now we have a circumstance where the government has introduced a bill that picks winners and losers. It does not cushion the blow of what is called the early shock troops of the recession, those who lost their jobs a year ago now and are not eligible for any of the benefit no matter how long they have been on EI. We do not think that is fair.
The conundrum that we have as a party is what to do in this circumstance. We do not want to see people further disenfranchised. For example, when the bill came to committee it would have come into force in a way that meant if we gave it suitable study it would mean people who were laid off after January 4 might not get benefits. We indicated at committee that while we did not support the bill, one of the reasons we did not support it was that it did not affect enough workers. We certainly did not want to disenfranchise any more.
In our view, Bill C-50 is not a suitable response to the recession. It decides that some people are worthy of employment insurance and some are not. We do not think that is the way Canadians look at our social infrastructure system. We do not think that would be done with medicare or with any other social infrastructure. We think it is the wrong way to go about it. It is not a suitable response and we will be voting against the bill when it comes back.