Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-56, the fairness for the self-employed act.
The Liberals will support the bill in principle. We want to get it to committee to have a look at it. It might take some considerable review because a lot of people have opinions on it, some favourable and some perhaps not. I think people, more than anything else, will have questions about it.
It strikes me that there is a bit of regret in that one of two things has occurred in the bill. The government and its departments, including human resources, have looked at this for some time, along with models and proposals. If that is the case, it was not shared with the EI working group in the summer, of which I was a part. That was part of the mandate of the group. However, there was no serious proposal made to the group.
In spite of consistent questions, particularly from my colleague, the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, who asked whether the government had any information, the response was no. She said that there must be something as it was in the platform of the Conservative Party. If there was any information, it belonged to the Conservative Party and it would not share it. It was a dichotomous situation. Either the department was working on things that were not shared with us or the bill was rushed through and had some flaws in it. We will decide which one of those it is as it goes forward.
However, this is a good step forward for Canadians who are self-employed, a modest one albeit but a step forward. It looks at certain benefits for people who are self-employed and would like to be part of the employment insurance system.
Another question is one that I just asked the minister. I will quote from page 100 of the budget book of January 27. It states:
The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development will be asked to establish an Expert Panel that will consult Canadians on how to best provide self-employed Canadians with access to EI maternity and parental benefits.
The minister indicated that the expert the panel intended to consult was me and that the EI working group was supposed to do this work, which clearly was not the intent back when the budget came forward.
On Tuesday night, during a bill briefing, I asked officials this question. What about the commitment in the budget to have an expert group? They had no idea what I was even talking about. It was never seriously considered, unless they can prove the opposite. Even the parliamentary secretary was confused as to whether there had actually been a commitment.
Clearly, not many Canadians were consulted. We have not heard from the minister that she has consulted a lot of Canadians. She quoted some people after the fact, indicating that some may like the direction of the bill, and why not?
I am sure there is some merit to the bill and we hope this might be an opportunity for Parliament to work. We can look at the bill in a serious way in committee, me and my colleagues on the Liberal side, along with the member for Chambly—Borduas, who works and lives this file, and I suspect the member for Acadie—Bathurst, who steps in for the New Democrats on the human resources committee.
There are people who can seriously look at this and identify the flaws and opportunities to make the bill better. I hope that happens and that in the spirit of co-operation, perhaps even the spirit of Christmas, as the bill works its way through committee that might in fact occur.
We do have some concerns about premiums. There has not been any estimate as to what the cost to the government would be. We have heard there is a premium rate and that it will be differentiated for the province of Quebec. The province of Quebec already has certain benefits, maternal and parental, and people can opt in. Will the rate people in Quebec pay be suitable for the level of benefits they would have and will there be a cost to the government?
One could assume that in the first year there will be a spike in premiums as people enter the program. They will have to be in it for at least a year before they can draw benefits, so there will be any outlay in benefits. However, as the benefits start to catch up to the premium, what will be the cost and who will pay that cost? Will it be the consolidated revenue fund of the Government of Canada, as the government did with the extra five weeks in January, or will it be the EI fund where the money for Bill C-50 will come out of?
That is a big difference because, as we know, the government has set up a separate EI financing board, which only has $2 billion to work with. We have already heard from the Chief Actuary of Canada that the $2 billion is nowhere near enough to fund the programs that exist without adding new programs. That is one question we will ask.
However, I want to take a second and talk about a group of people in Parliament who have done some magnificent work. Over the last few years, the National Liberal Women's Caucus has established three pink books. These pink books came out in 2006, 2007 and 2009. In each of those pink books, the National Liberal Women's Caucus has addressed this issue of self-employment and the importance that it has for Canadian women.
In the one that was released recently, I will quote from page 16. It states:
Another significant group in the labour force are self-employed women. The latest statistics reveal that more than 1 in 10 employed women in Canada are self-employed. In 2004, almost 840 000 women were self-employed. Women entrepreneurs face many challenges, including difficulty in accessing capital and benefits. The majority of women small-business owners earn $30 000 per year or less and have no access to low-cost health care, no protection for disability, no employment insurance or maternity benefits, and cannot afford private sector insurance and pension plans.
Following that, it has a recommendation, which states:
Permit self-employed workers to participate in the special benefits programs under the EI program as recommended by the Standing Commons Committee on the Status of Women in its June 2007 report, “Improving the Economic Security of Women: Time to Act.” This change would give self-employed workers access to maternity and parental benefits and the Compassionate Care Benefit.
I congratulate the government on adopting one of the recommendations from the pink book. I would encourage it to go further and adopt all of the recommendations in that book. If the pink book, which coincidentally is pink, were adopted in full by the Government of Canada, I would not have to be a member of Parliament. A lot of the work would be done. I want to commend members of our women's caucus for the outstanding work they do, particularly on the social side, but also on the economic and environmental sides.
The recommendations the caucus have made have been very important. People such as the member for Beaches—East York and the member for Winnipeg South Centre have been champions of this issue. We have new members of the national women's caucus, such as the member for Brossard—La Prairie, who has done some fabulous work on this issue as well. The Liberal caucus has been looking at this for a long while.
I also want to refer to a report that came out in June of 2009. This is a report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women entitled, “Towards Improving Access to EI Benefits for Women in Canada”. Again, with the House's indulgence, I would like to quote from that. It states:
A measure which can be taken to limit the problem of moral hazard would be to extend exclusively EI special benefits to self-employed individuals. The Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) has extended its coverage to self-employed individuals for maternity and parental benefits. The Committee heard from several witnesses that QPIP can serve as a possible model for a federal program.
There are many good recommendations in the report. Recommendation 14 states:
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada make maternity and parental benefits as flexible and equal as the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan by expanding eligibility, benefit levels and duration of EI benefits.
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada extend benefits to the self-employed using the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan as its model.
That also was a very good report and one of the things that our human resources committee would do.
I will ask for the indulgence of my colleagues from Chambly—Borduas, Acadie—Bathurst and my colleagues on the government side. We should have a joint committee study, at least one meeting where we bring in the status of women committee and look at this together, because of the specific implications it has for women's issues. There may be other committees that would be affected as well, such as finance or other committees.
This is a very broad bill, a long bill, a technical bill and a detailed bill. We have to do a bit of serious evaluation of it.
There are models and we have had significant groups, such as the National Liberal Women's Caucus and the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, that have given us recommendations. We do not have to start from zero. We can take what the minister has given us. Again, I think there is a very real possibility that we can make this bill better for more Canadians.
However, we are discussing Bill C-56 and there are certain things that it would do.
The proposed legislation will provide the same number of weeks of benefit as paid employees have under their EI program. To recap, that is 15 weeks of maternity benefits, 35 weeks of parental and adoption benefits, 15 weeks of sickness and 6 weeks of compassionate care benefits.
I want to address the issue of Quebec. Quebec has a far more advanced social infrastructure than most provinces in Canada. It has made it a purpose to provide a solid social infrastructure system in the province of Quebec. It has a plan for parental and maternal benefits in Quebec. People in Quebec will still have the option to partake in the other plan as well, and they will pay a lower premium rate. Off the top of my head that the rate is 1.73%. It goes down to 1.37%. Is that a fair and accurate reduction for the amount of services to be provided?
We need to look at the entrance requirements. Normally for special benefits it would be an hours-based entrance requirement of 600 hours. Because we are talking about the self-employed, the determination is that it would be a threshold of $6,000 in pre-tax income. We need to have a look at that. The weekly benefits will be calculated by taking the claimant's income from the previous tax year and dividing it by 52. When this gets to committee and people come forward saying they would like to participate in this or they represent a group that would like to participate in it but they have a certain question, we should hear them. This is where the committee can do some work.
The minister has indicated that when we look at EI for the self-employed and special benefits, the questions we have to ask are these. What is the pre-attachment and the post-attachment to the labour force? What is the pre-attachment and the post-attachment to premiums? It has been determined that people have to pay in advance for a year before they can claim benefits. However, once they have claimed a benefit, they have to pay premiums for the rest of their life as long as they are self-employed. We have to look at that. We have to look at the numbers both for the individual and for the EI fund, which will be financing this at the end of day, and determine if that makes sense.
Will people take part in the program if they know they have to pay premiums years after they finished drawing benefits? I do not think we know that yet and I am not sure we will know that until we have a chance to look at it in a very serious way.
We believe this is a plan that has merit. We think self-employed people are looking for this. I can recall talking with a gentleman by the name of Chris Hopkins from Montague, Prince Edward Island. He has long campaigned for EI for self-employed. An article in July quotes him as follows:
It's too late for me, it's not going to benefit me, but it could benefit a lot of people, especially in these recessionary times that we have...I'm no longer self-employed, I'm just plain out there, an unknown statistic, not classed as unemployed because I was never employed, I was self-employed. So I'm a non-entity in the eyes of the government.
People who have been on websites, making appearances and rallying troops to this issue are the kind of folks we should probably listen to at this point in time. We have an opportunity to make this a good bill to do what they have asked us, which is to extend benefits to self-employed. Folks like that deserve some credit on a day like this and they deserve to be listened to as we move through the committee process.
As I have indicated, we are generally in support of this and we hope the bill is as good as the minister says. If it is not as good as she says, which is very possible, we hope we can make it better with her and her government's co-operation, working together with the opposition. However, we are going to ask questions.
One of the first questions will be why the bill came forward without the input of the promised expert panel. In the budget the Conservatives specifically said that an expert panel would consult and then determine what would be an appropriate way to provide EI to the self-employed.
In June, when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition determined that there would be an EI working group, the Prime Minister indicated that for the self-employed the government would consider looking beyond maternal parental sickness and compassionate care. He said that anything was on the table. He said that the EI working group would have a look at this.
We did not get the information that we needed. We never got a serious proposal. But to suggest that this group became the expert panel that the Prime Minister had indicated is just a smokescreen. The government did not appoint that expert panel. Why not? Why were the ministerial officials who briefed us the other day totally unaware that that commitment had even been made?
It is a highly technical bill. There may be flaws. There may be exclusions. What is the cost to government? That is a key point.
I want to go back to the fact that last year the government set up the CEIFB, the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board, which is supposed to be an arm's-length organization from government that will look at EI, that will determine premium rates, and that would invest moneys that are in the account. The problem is the government only put in $2 billion.
Liberals, at the human resources committee, supported by opposition members, said we have to have a look at this and we studied this. One of the people that we brought in was Mr. Bruno Gagnon, from the Canadian Institute of Actuaries, and he spoke to the fact that a $10 billion to $15 billion reserve was sufficient. He stated:
Let's assume that a recession hits Canada and unemployment levels rise to 8%. The payment to out-of-work Canadians increases by approximately $3 billion. So the $2 billion reserve of the board is depleted and the EI account has to borrow $1 billion from the government. In this situation we might have to raise the premiums above the legislated limit of 0.15%. Consideration of applying the 0.15% would fall to ministers. It would not be a very easy decision, because if you applied the 0.15% ceiling you would run a deficit and the deficit would accumulate. The impact on Canadian businesses, which pay nearly 60% of the cost of employment insurance, would be huge...Workers would have to pay 40% of the cost when they were already at risk of losing their jobs,--
He was talking, at this point in time, suggesting what would happen if employment went to 8%. Well, it has gone to 8%. The demands on the system are much higher than they were then. The demands on the system are much higher than the government would acknowledge. The demands on the system are possibly going to be made more robust by this bill. So, we just need to have a look at the financing side of it.
Who exactly is defined as self-employed? There is a whole range of people who would consider themselves self-employed. Who all is included in the definitions under this bill? We need to have a full understanding of that.
Another question is, why not full EI benefits? If we are extending EI benefits from maternal, parental, compassionate care, sickness, then would why we not look at EI benefits to all self-employed people on some kind of basis? What is the model for that?
So, this is a limited-scope bill in that it targets specific measures. Maybe that is the safest thing to do. Maybe that is what Canadians want. However, maybe Canadians would rather have the full meal deal when it comes to accessing employment insurance.
Is the $6,000 pre-tax earnings threshold appropriate?
The issue of Quebec and how this plan will interact with QPIP in Quebec is important as well.
There is significant work that has to be done on this bill. I think, as I said before, that this is an opportunity for all members of this House, and particularly the members of the human resources committee, a committee that generally works very well together, a committee that is well chaired by the member for Niagara West—Glanbrook, a committee that has a lot on its plate already.
We are doing a study on poverty that will see us going out to western Canada the week after we get back from the break week to hear further testimony and hear witnesses about poverty and how do we actually do something about this in Canada. So, we have a lot on our plate. But this bill is important. I think we can give it the consideration that it deserves. I think we should see what people like Chris Hopkins and others around the country who have fought on this issue for a long time. I have not been in contact with Chris Hopkins recently, but if he is around, I encourage him to contact members of the committee and let us know what he thinks of this bill.
So, hopefully, as we head toward Christmas in this Parliament, we will have a sense of co-operation on this that will allow us to take a bill, perhaps improve it at committee, determine its strengths, understand its weaknesses, and work together to bring forward a bill that truly does provide an opportunity for the self-employed in Canada.