Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Burlington.
Our government recognizes that many Canadians are facing difficult and uncertain times right now. We understand that it affects many of them personally and that they are going through a stressful and difficult time, which is why the government is responding.
Over the last few months, the global economic situation has worsened faster than anyone predicted. While we are in better shape than most countries, Canadian families are feeling the effects of the global recession and they are concerned. They are worried about making ends meet and worried about keeping their jobs. We are listening to them, concerned about them and taking action.
To address the most pressing needs of workers affected by the current economic downturn, our economic action plan is investing $8.3 billion for the Canada skills and transition strategy. That is a lot of money. Part of our plan is to build on the recognition that the EI program is the first line of defence for many who lose their jobs.
That is why, through our economic action plan, for the next two years we will make available, nationally, the five weeks of extended EI benefits that were previously available through a pilot project only in regions with the highest unemployment rate. We are also increasing the maximum duration of benefits to 50 weeks, up from 45 weeks. Some 400,000 Canadians could benefit from these changes. It is against these measures and this measure that the NDP has voted against time and time again.
This measure will provide financial support for a longer period to unemployed Canadians who otherwise would have exhausted their benefits. This means unemployed workers will have more time to seek employment while still receiving EI.
Before going any further, the opposition would like to make an issue of the lack of accessibility of the employment insurance program. I would like to take a moment to address this issue.
The EI program has important features that automatically respond to changing economic conditions. Currently, the EI program divides the country into 58 regions based on their similar labour market conditions. As unemployment rates increase in a given region, the number of insured hours required to access the EI program is automatically reduced and the duration of benefits increases. These requirements are adjusted on a monthly basis to reflect the latest regional unemployment rates. That is what it is meant to do. In fact, since October 2009, 19 regions have seen their entrance requirements decrease and their benefit duration increase.
With respect to access to employment insurance rates, according to Statistics Canada, EI access is high. In 2007, over 82% of the unemployed who had paid into the program and lost their job or quit with just cause were eligible to receive benefits.
The opposition likes to quote a number closer to 40% of Canadians being able to access EI benefits. This figure is known as the beneficiary to unemployment ratio or BU ratio. It is not a good measure of EI access. First, this statistic includes many unemployed who have not paid premiums, such as those who have never worked, have not worked in the past year or have been self-employed.
Second, this statistic includes individuals who paid premiums but are ineligible for EI benefits because they have voluntarily quit their jobs or they returned to school.
I would also like to point out that the current entrance requirements do not appear to impede access to the employment insurance program. Only about 7% of EI regular claims have qualified with less than 700 hours, which represents the highest current requirement.
Our government recognizes the challenges faced by those who do not currently qualify for employment insurance benefits. That is why in our economic action plan we committed to a $500 million strategic training and transition fund over two years to support the particular needs of individuals, including those who do not qualify for EI. This measure could benefit 50,000 people.
Our government also recognizes the need to support longer term training for long-tenured workers, which is why we are extending income support for the duration of the retraining. This will benefit an estimated 40,000 workers. We are also granting earlier access to EI for workers purchasing their own training with their earnings resulting from a layoff, such as severance pay.
We will protect jobs. Just this morning, the minister announced the implementation of a significant expansion to the work sharing program. We are extending the duration of work sharing agreements by 14 weeks to a maximum of 52 weeks. This will enable Canadians to continue working through this slowdown. These changes to the work sharing program are available immediately. It is those measures that the hon. member and others in that party voted against.
To complement this measure, we are substantially increasing access to work sharing agreements through greater flexibility in the qualifying criteria. This will help Canadians continue working. These enhancements are available starting today. These are concrete actions to help Canadians and their families.
Our government also recognizes that EI maternity and parental benefits play a critical role in supporting Canadian families by providing income replacement for working new parents. That is why in our economic action plan we are committed to establishing an expert panel that will consult Canadians on how to best provide the self-employed with access to EI maternity and parental benefits.
In terms of processing EI claims, which was referenced earlier, our priority is to ensure that workers and their families receive EI benefits as quickly as possible. We have already made significant efforts and investments to process the increasing EI claims. We are hiring additional staff, redistributing workloads across the country and recalling recent retirees. We are also increasing overtime and hours, opening EI call centres on Saturdays and increasing automation of claims processing.
I just heard the hon. member say that some of the extra people being hired are not trained. He tries to blow hot and cold. We are doing all of this, adding more people and resources, but he says that he does not like that. What does he like? We will continue to improve and increase our ability to process claims and help Canadians receive their benefits as quickly as possible.
As part of our economic action plan, we are also increasing supports so that more Canadians can have access to the training and skills they need to land a new job. We are working in partnership with the provinces and territories to help Canadians. We know they have the pulse of the local labour markets and we will help them meet the needs of Canadians by investing $1 billion over two years through the employment insurance program under existing agreements. This will enable provinces and territories to train workers in hard hit sectors and regions of our economy, helping an additional 100,000 EI eligible Canadians.
It is through measures like this, which we are helping Canadians, that the opposition and NDP vote against. Funds will flow quickly to provinces and territories through the existing agreements.
We are also improving the targeted initiative for older workers program. This initiative provides employment assistance, skills upgrading and work experience for older workers, helping them find new jobs. We are increasing the program's budget with an additional $60 million over three years and expending its reach to help more Canadians. Over 250 additional communities will be eligible for this program through this expansion.
It is important that today's debate be put in context. The NDP members like to talk about helping the unemployed but let us take a look at their actual record in this regard.
Yesterday, they voted against helping over 400,000 unemployed Canadians benefit from an additional five weeks of EI benefits. They voted against helping 50,000 unemployed Canadians, who normally do not qualify for EI benefits, to get the training and skills they need to find a new job and to provide for their families. They voted against 100,000 people getting additional funding and training to find new jobs and put food on the table for their families.
While the NDP members pretend to care about the most vulnerable, they vote against the very measures that are put in place to help them. I find that regrettable.
While the NDP would like to propose solutions that are not costed and unaffordable in the current economic crisis, our government is actually getting the work done following the most extensive prebudget consultations our country has ever seen. We have heard from Canadians and we are delivering for them through our economic action plan.
Our plan will stimulate the economy and help create and maintain jobs for Canadians and their families. It is unfortunate that the NDP and the Bloc refuse to help their constituents in this regard by supporting those measures and the budget, the kinds of things that are needed at this precise time.
Notwithstanding this, we will continue to stand up for Canadians and those workers who find themselves in a difficult challenging time. Together, we will see it through.