Mr. Speaker, I am happy to have this opportunity to speak today on the bill which proposes to remove the two week waiting period required presently by the employment insurance program.
The EI program is a key element of Canada's social safety net. It enables Canadian workers to better adjust to labour market challenges and changes, and it acts as an economic stabilizer for our country. That being the case, we need to give some fairly careful and deliberate thought to any changes to the program so that we do not rush into it. We want to avoid rash moves that we might later regret.
One of the best ways of doing this is by basing changes to the EI program on hard empirical evidence and by conducting a pretty sound analysis of that evidence which takes into account the likely labour market impacts and the costs of the measures under consideration. It is only then that we can be sure that the changes will improve the program, not harm it or make it less efficient or less helpful than other alternatives. Such a disciplined, fact based approach is especially important during the current economic downturn where it is essential to avoid those kinds of missteps that might lead to a bad situation and make things worse.
I mentioned the matter of cost. The bill does have a significant cost associated with it, over $1 billion per year in fact. Mr. Speaker, you just made a ruling with respect to the issue of the $1 billion. During the first hour of debate, even the Bloc member for Gatineau agreed that implementing this legislation would cost huge sums of money.
Given that we are talking about substantial sums of money, it is critical that we ensure that any future changes to the employment insurance program are properly costed and assessed versus other options or possibilities.
That being said, I believe that this proposal before us today is not where we should be focusing our efforts. This government has in fact been very busy from the very first day in office helping Canadians and working to improve the EI program and its ability to help Canadians.
For example, we increased eligibility for EI compassionate care benefits by expanding the definition of ”family member” to include a wider range of individuals. I had a number of calls from constituents asking for that in advance of making that change, and affirming and commending us for having so done after that change was made.
We are improving the management and the governance of the EI account through the establishment of the Canada employment insurance financing board, a federal crown corporation that will report to Parliament through the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and be responsible for EI financing.
We are testing new approaches along the way through a number of ongoing pilot projects which seek new and better ways to help Canadians and respond to the changing economic conditions.
We are also doing many things to ensure that Canadians are getting their EI benefits as soon as possible. We have allocated an additional $60 million for faster EI processing which includes hiring additional staff.
Beyond this we have taken many steps to meet the increased demand and serve Canadians better. These steps include hiring or recalling additional employees and retirees across the country, redistributing the workload to increase speed and efficiency and to help maintain consistent service levels all across the regions of Canada, increasing overtime, increasing the level of automation of claims processing, and opening EI call centres on Saturdays.
Through these measures the department has processed significantly more claims nationally this year than over the same period of time last year. We continue to take action to meet the increasing demand. All of this brings me to the bill before us today.
To begin with, this is just one of a number of private members' bills relating to the EI program currently on the order paper, each with its own different recommendations for changing this or that feature of the program, most without any reference to the larger labour market issues or the other proposals put forward by opposition members. Such an ad hoc approach is not an efficient way of addressing such a large and complex program as the EI program is. It is not wise to consider many different recommendations separately without looking at the combined impact on workers and employers who pay the EI premiums and rely on the program.
That is why the government is pursuing a broader based approach aimed at doing three things: creating jobs, preserving jobs and helping those who have been unfortunate enough to lose their jobs and are trying to re-enter the workforce. That broader based three-pronged approach involves several components, including helping Canadians participate in the labour market by investing in skills upgrading and injecting a significant stimulus into our economy.
That approach is outlined in the very good document, our economic action plan, which seeks to protect Canadians during the global recession and invest in Canada's long-term growth through the investment of an unprecedented $8.3 billion in the Canada skills and transition strategy, aimed at supporting workers and their families. It increases funding for training delivered through the employment insurance program by $1 billion over two years under the existing labour market development agreement so that provinces and territories can train an additional 100,000 EI eligible individuals, and to help workers while they are looking for work, we are providing nationally the advantages of an extra five weeks of benefits currently offered as part of a pilot project that until now have only been provided in specific regions with high unemployment.
The maximum duration of benefits available under the EI program has been increased by five weeks, from 45 to 50 weeks, which is significant. It is estimated that this extension alone will benefit 400,000 Canadians in the first year alone. In my opinion, this is money very well spent.
To my mind, we should be investing in those who need it the most, namely, those Canadians who have been out of work for an extended period of time who are coming up against the end of their benefits. An extra five weeks will go a long way to help Canadians who otherwise would be facing further uncertainty.
Requiring a two week waiting period is prudent, and it keeps resources focused on those in greater need of support.
On this point, Mr. David Dodge, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, had some interesting comments. On December 18, Mr. Dodge appeared on the CTV Newsnet program, Mike Duffy Live. When asked whether eliminating the two-week waiting period for EI was an expenditure worth making, Mr. Dodge responded forcefully. He said, “The answer is no. That would probably be the worst waste of money we could make...because there's a lot of churn in the labour market”. Mr. Dodge also said, “That two weeks is there for a very good reason...the real issue is that some of these people are going to be off work for a rather long period of time”.
We agree with the comments of the former governor of the Bank of Canada. The fact is that during these somewhat uncertain times, many people will be off work for longer periods of time. That is where our EI needs to be targeted, and that is where we have targeted it.
Our government shares the concern of the member for Brome—Missisquoi for the challenges facing unemployed Canadians. However, in our efforts to make a real difference in the lives of Canadians, we need to ensure that the policy decisions we make are well thought through and are in the best interests of those we are trying to help.
Just as an aside more than anything, I should comment on the remarks made by the Liberal member for Cape Breton—Canso in respect of Mr. Dodge's statements. The member said that it was something that Mr. Dodge probably has not had to experience, at least not for some time.
I am not certain that we should be dismissing the judgments of wise people like that, with great amounts of experience with our economy, highly respected voices, simply because they have not recently experienced the precise matter under discussion. I would venture to guess a lot of members around this House have not had to experience directly some of the things that we discuss in this House and their contributions are no less important for that particular reason.
The approaches we take must be guided by hard facts and sound analysis. As a responsible government, that is what we are doing.
In closing, we all know that in the challenges that Canadians face in these uncertain economic times, particularly as unemployment rises, our government has already taken unprecedented steps to help Canadians by extending EI by an extra five weeks, by increasing the maximum benefit period to 50 weeks, and by expanding the work sharing program, for example. I could mention other things as well. That said, we will continue to monitor the current EI system to ensure that the program is working and responding effectively to our ever-changing economic circumstances.