Madam Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Vancouver Kingsway.
Let me thank the hon. member for Niagara West—Glanbrook for his comments earlier. My party on this side of the House and I agree with one of the comments he made during his speech. We want to see those folks who are unemployed today back at work. I think we are unequivocal about that as New Democrats. We are interested in making sure that people who are unemployed are able to return to work at the earliest opportunity to support their families. That is what we ultimately want to see. So I join with my colleague for Niagara West—Glanbrook when I say, yes, indeed, we want to see them go back to work.
However, let me make comments around this about his colleague who had made suggestions about the variability of the employment insurance program in the sense that, as unemployment goes up, the benefits go up, and one gets a longer period of benefits but not actually more money. One would hope that would be the truth. One would hate to think one gets less benefits in an area of extremely high unemployment.
That is not how the system used to work. Years ago, the system was level across the country, for all intents and purposes. When a worker got laid off and had paid into the insurance program, that worker was entitled to collect from that insurance program, because it was an insurance program.
To extrapolate to the end of the logic of that hon. member's suggestion, it would seem that if someone paid his or her car insurance at one end of the country where there were fewer traffic accidents, that person would get less money for the car in the case of a car crash than someone at the other end of the country where there were more accidents, who would get more money. That is not why we pay insurance.
I think the government has lost track of what this program truly is. It is an employment insurance program. It is not a tax paid to the government through income taxes. It is a tax, or at least an insurance premium, paid by employers and employees to insure employees against being unemployed. So one would suggest that the nature of the name is to say employees should get their benefits when indeed they become unemployed.
This is not new. The changes to employment insurance have been happening for over 10 years. In fact, they go back about 15 years. With those changes we saw an absolute treasure trove of money accumulated under both governments to the tune of almost $54 billion. Some would say $57 billion, but when we start talking about billions of dollars, whether it is $54 billion or $57 billion, it is a lot of money.
The people who did not see that money were the unemployed. There was no increase in benefits until the year before last. There was no increase in the number of weeks. In fact, we saw a decrease in the number of weeks over those years. Very few programs were introduced during that period as pilot programs.
One of the few introduced was in regard to maternity benefits, when we finally extended those to 50 weeks. It is a good program indeed, but far short of what it should be and what it is around this world in developed countries.
What we saw was the hoarding of money, taken by the Liberal and Conservative governments and put into general revenue, and then spent. The whole idea of collecting that money was to wait for the time it was needed, which is now. Of course, now that it is needed, the cupboard is bare and we cannot do things such as make sure that there are more people qualifying for employment insurance at this moment in time when they are in desperate need of it.
Those are the forgotten ones in the unemployment rate because they do not come up as a statistic. However, as my hon. colleague said earlier, if one goes to the social assistance offices in the major cities and small towns throughout this country, they can tell you the statistics, because when people fails to qualify for employment insurance benefits, they end up on social assistance somewhere in this country.
According to all experts, when one ends up in that system, it is the hardest place to remove oneself from. Why would we not have developed a system? Indeed, we have a system. Why not apply the system to ensure that those folks do not end up in that trap from which they may never return? It seems to me that since we collected their money to make sure they were being protected, the least we should have done for them was to protect them. However, that seems not to have been the case over the last number of years.
Let me draw some attention to a few things that I do not think I have heard here today, and perhaps not even earlier in some of the debates on employment insurance.
There is another group of workers who do not receive the same type of protection as the others. They are called “new entrants” under the regulations. A new entrant is a worker who went to work, albeit maybe a young person, or it may not be a person who is so young, because it may have been someone who entered the workforce for the first time after a long period of doing something else, whatever that happened to be in that person's life. They have to serve almost twice the number of hours as anyone else in the same region—not across the country—to collect employment insurance.
In my case, my wife and I have three lovely children who are young adults today. We have twins. Just imagine if one twin had been working for the last five years and the other twin had not, and they both worked at the same place but one was a new entrant and one was not. If both were to get laid off on the same day, one would get employment insurance and one would not.
One wonders why that sort of system exists today. We cannot imagine doing that in other forms of discrimination against folks, whether it be gender specific, whether it be age specific, yet we do it to those who faithfully paid their premium, but because they are new entrants we disqualify them. That is patently unfair.
When we look at stimulus in the economy, we talk about “shovel ready”. Shovel ready takes a bit of time. Don Drummond, a renowned economist in this country, says, pure and simple, that if we waive the two-week waiting period and pay immediately, that is one of the fastest ways to stimulate this economy.
It seems to me we ought to have done that. It seems to me that is a way to get money into people's pockets who paid for the insurance in the first place and who ultimately say it is their money and deserves to come back to them in a time of need. We ought to carry on with that.
It seems to me that the opportunity was here and was lost in the budget. Now the opportunity has come back to this place, where all of us can say we can correct it. We can take this opportunity to make sure that those who are suffering get the protection they are entitled to, make sure they indeed get the rights and benefits they are entitled to and paid for.
That is all they are asking. They are not asking for anything extra. They are simply saying, “I paid for this. It is my insurance plan. I paid the premium, and now I am laid off. All I am asking from government is, just simply give me my money back. That seems fair, at least until I get back on my feet and get back to work.”
As I said at the beginning, that is really what those who are unemployed want to do. Quite often I have heard the comments from across the way and I read the article that suggested the government does not want to be too lucrative with the system because people will stay on it for a long period of time.
The only reason they are on that system is because they had a job. They may have had many jobs, because lots of hours are needed to actually get on the system in the first place. People have to be working. These are not folks who were not working; they were. Clearly they want to get back to that place, to make sure they are working again. That is what they really need.
Let me talk a little bit about the wait times to get a claim approved. The previous Liberal government introduced, and this government has continued, this whole sense of computerizing the system and making it better. The reverse has happened. It is not just a question of more people applying. It is taking longer to apply for a claim, going back a number of years to when going to a computer was introduced.
What we have seen across this country, and I know in my riding and from my personal experience of being an unemployment insurance representative for many years, is that they have depopulated the offices of HRSDC. What has ultimately happened is that the service that folks really need today is not available to them because there are not enough people. The minister, by her own admission today, is saying her department is going out to bring back the folks who retired.
From my own experience in working with those folks in those offices in the Niagara region, the majority of them retired early because of the workload they had in the first place. So just to get them back to where they were has them overloaded, never mind the number of people who have gone on employment insurance in the last little while or who are applying currently. They do not have anywhere near enough people, even if they brought everyone back who had retired. They will not have enough people in the office.
What they have done is basically put people in front a kiosk and said to them, “Do it yourself with a computer”. If the claimant does not have a computer, the patent answer from the ministry as direction to the front-line workers is to say, “Go to your library, because it is free; you can do it there online”. That is how it works.
I would urge all hon. members' to think long and to look into their hearts, because as the hon. member said, everyone has unemployed people in their ridings. I would urge members to look long and hard at this bill, and hopefully they can support it.