House of Commons Hansard #53 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was spam.


Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.


Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, I like the member's idea that we should try to focus and limit the bill as much as possible to deal specifically with the problem and involve police powers wherever possible. However, it is a good idea to have an opt-in approach rather than the approach before, the do-not-call list, which was basically negative option offers which is something that has been tried before and the public does not like it.

The question really becomes, if we go with an opting-in approach, then what do we do with all the businesses in Canada who have their existing customer base? Are we going to make them pay this added cost for them to contact and get permission from say, a thousand customers, to be able to communicate with them? Would we put in some sort of grandfathering provisions that say for existing customers, businesses could still carry on an existing relationship with them and contact them, but then for any new customers they would have to get permission?

I think that is actually being done, certainly on a provincial basis in Canada now by provincial regulated organizations which are over time getting the permission from customers to allow contact with them for various reasons. I would ask the member to comment on that because I really think he is onto something here. This is a very good idea he has just brought up.

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.


Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Madam Speaker, one of the things that the bill actually identifies is that if there is a prior business relationship there is no requirement to get that kind of prior consent. So that is an element that is a very common sense approach.

Where it becomes difficult is where people who do not want to receive it say, “I bought a hard drive from this company three years ago and they're still emailing me three and four years after. That is spam”. Then it becomes a question, are we starting to go after businesses that legitimately have a customer base? They email customers and that is how we get around it. If people then start to make complaints against them, saying they are spammers and want to be protected because prior consent was not given, nowhere did it say they were going to get emails. That is the problem.

We do not have a bill where we are tying up legitimate businesses who get big server lists. Every politician here has a big server list they email. Many people who get their email may think it is spam. If they do not like it, erase it, but it is still a legitimate process. The issue becomes what if we get a cumbersome law where businesses are going to get tied up as potential spammers. We need to isolate the kind of nefarious activity, namely spam, that is clearly useless, stupid, idiotic, and fraudulent. It is clogging up our networks and sometimes causing much more damage, and we have to be able to go after the spammers.

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.


Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Madam Speaker, I want to thank the member for Timmins—James Bay for highlighting some of the good things in this piece of legislation but also some of the concerns.

I want to return to section 86 which repeals sections 41.1 to 41.7 of the act. Here it is in black and white.

The government may say it is in here, but it will enact it at some point in time. We recently had some experience in the House with the government embedding critical items in other pieces of legislation. I just need to point to the budget bill, Bill C-10. In that bill we saw the embedding of the Navigable Waters Protection Act with significant changes to it that impact on our environment, pay equity legislation where women can no longer in this country file a human rights complaint for equal pay for work of equal value, and significant changes to the student loans program.

Canadians will have to forgive New Democrats when the Conservatives say “trust me. It is okay. This is here but we don't really mean it”. What is that saying about deny, delay, and then go to jail.

What we have here is that it says “repeal”. It relates to the do-not-call registry.

My question for the member is this. Why does he think it was hidden in section 86 of the legislation, almost near the very end on page 56 out of 69 pages.? Why is it buried at the end of the legislation? Why was it not included in the government briefing documents?

I think it is an important piece to have a legitimate discussion.

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.


Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Madam Speaker, the one thing we have begun to find with Conservative government bills is that we get neo-con spamming. It buries these Trojans. It is just like when they warn us about the emails, we have to be very careful what we agree to because there is something buried in it that will affect our computers. With Conservative government legislation, there is always something buried in the bills that will affect the fabric of what has been a great country.

For example, the Conservatives buried the attack on pay equity in its so-called budget stimulation package and an attack on environmental protection for riverways. What that had to do with an economic stimulus is still beyond me.

Here we have buried in the bill the provision to kill the do-not-call registry. I think it is buried in there because the Conservatives have a hard time admitting when they absolutely blew it, and they blew it on the do-not-call registry.

Rather than come out and say, “Yes, we blew it”, they hid it in the legislation. However, what is disturbing is when we asked them about it, we could not get a straight answer. First we were told no, we did not read the bill. We said, yes we did. Then they looked at it and said, that does not mean what it means. We said, yes it does. Sections 41.1 to 41.7 of the act are repealed. That is the act that represents the do-not-call registry. Then they said “Pass it. That does not mean that it is repealed. It will be repealed when we decide that it is repealed”.

Again, here is a government that allows itself leeway on legislation that it wants powers to be able to strike things, start things, stop things, and then bury them in other pieces of legislation.

The concern here is that this should be a bill that is focused on dealing with fraud artists and spammers. Let us do that, but if we are going to deal with the do-not-call registry and the debacle around that, either fix the do-not-call registry or say, “This bill is going to supersede the do-not-call registry because the do-not-call registry was a failure”.

I have not seen in the bill how it would actually become enforceable or actually utilized in terms of opting-in and opting-out clauses for commercial activity. I do not think the government has thought it through and that is very disturbing.

I would finally say in response to my colleague that perhaps I read too much into the Conservatives response. Perhaps they have not read the bill thoroughly. Therefore, we need to get it to committee so that all the members of the House, especially those on the government side, will actually know what is in their own legislation

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

4:55 p.m.


Derek Lee Liberal Scarborough—Rouge River, ON

Madam Speaker, as I begin my remarks, I want to say that I am just as curious as the last member who spoke in relation to the revocation of the do-not-call list framework in this bill. A summary is a written piece customarily found within the leaf of the bill in a statutory document like this. There is no reference to it in the summary, at least in any way that one could identify it. I may not be quite so accusatory, but I am just as curious. Perhaps we could get something on the record here in this debate from the government's side about that.

In any event, I am very supportive of the bill. Certainly, my party also is in principle and we are quite desirous that this bill move through second reading and go to committee. Having said that, this bill, as I pointed out earlier in a comment, is going to have some problems at committee on a technical basis. In my view, it should have. There are some brand new concepts. As everyone knows, when we try to legislate something new in a brand new field in our Canadian society, and this is a relatively brand new field, there are huge problems in codifying concepts and getting them written down in law. I think there will be huge problems with this and I have outlined a few that I would like to cover in my remarks here this afternoon.

I am just flying randomly here, but I do want to go to subsection 2(4) of the bill which, as I read it, is defective. It is absolutely not ready for prime time. There is a verb missing. It is not a full sentence. Subsection 2(4) of the bill stands alone and it just says:

An electronic message described in subsection (2) or (3) that is sent for the purposes of law enforcement, public safety, the protection of Canada, the conduct of international affairs or the defence of Canada.

Somebody forgot to complete the sentence. That does not happen very often in a bill. I did not read the French version. That may contain some of the answer, but in the English version, this section is totally incomplete and needs to be fixed. There may be other sections in the bill that have the same problem.

I wanted to go through a similar list of things where I think special attention has to be paid. First, the definition of spam. Of course, the bill itself does not use the word spam. That might be a breach of somebody's copyright or something on their commercial product. Who knows? However, it does refer to the concept of a commercial electronic message. That is the commodity that is being restricted here. It is not messages; it is commercial electronic messages. It is okay to use whatever terms we want in a bill like this, but we are going to have to make sure that every commercial electronic message that is carried out there and is going to be subject to this restriction is legitimately restricted.

I am sure that the people who have drafted the bill have thought it through, but this is why we send things through Parliament. This is why we send it to committee. It is just to make sure that we have not gone too far and have not included things inadvertently that we really do not want to include.

The second thing I want to point out has to do with subsection 6(1). At the core of subsection 6(1), it attempts to restrict or regulate the unconsented electronic commercial message. I mentioned this earlier, but I do want to re-document it here in my remarks. It says:

No person shall send or cause or permit to be sent to an electronic address a commercial electronic message--

The place to which the message is being sent is an electronic address. It is not being sent to a person.

Just below that in the same section it says that commercial electronic messages cannot be sent unless “the person to whom the message is sent has consented to receiving it...”.

If the message is being sent to an address and not a person, how can there be a person to whom the message is sent? The message is being sent to an electronic address. Therefore, it is not clear who the person is who controls the giving or not giving of consent. A person, of course, can be a corporation. However, it is just not clear.

If someone is alleged to have broken this law, it is quite possible that the person will say that he or she did not send it to a person but to an electronic address. Nobody in the world could possibly know who is associated with that electronic address. The person might know or might not know. It might be the person registered to the email address but we do not know. It is left unclear. I see this as a problem, not in trying to understand the clause, but in trying to prosecute or enforce the law.

The third thing I want to mention concerns the business of consent. The statute is worded in a way that says that a person cannot send a commercial electronic message to an address unless that non-defined person gives consent. If there is to be enforcement and if there is to be a prosecution, the difficulty I see right now is proving the non-consent. It is easy in court to prove consent but it is more difficult non-consent because one must potentially prove a negative. I am not sure the courts are ready for this. Some prosecutors out there may have said, yes, that they can handle this, that they can prove a negative, but I know how difficult it is to prove a negative. As I read this, any prosecution would need to involve evidence of non-consent, which means proving that negative.

In the initial instance, the message is not from a person but from an electronic address and electronic addresses do not have personal identities. They cannot talk, they cannot communicate and they cannot give an address. It is not clear which person is the person empowered to give or withhold consent.

I see some members in the House are dozing off as I walk through this conundrum, but this is something the committee will need to deal with. I know, Mr. Speaker, you are listening intently and that you have question marks in there too.

I have suggested that it is tough to prove a negative, and we all know it is, but it is a very tough thing to prove in a courtroom.

On the next issue concerning defining what a commercial electronic message is, it refers to a message that has a commercial character. It does not go much deeper than that. Many different types of messages are out there, billions of messages moving around the globe, and if there is to be enforcement, the trick will be trying to figure out which have the commercial character. Some spams will be clearly commercial but some spam will not. Some messaging will be clearly not commercial but personal, and then there is the other stuff that falls right in the middle, a little bit of both, and that will be extremely difficult, in view of our charter and the way courts will handle quasi-criminal prosecutions, to actually nail down what is commercial and what is not, and what is a little bit commercial and what is a little bit personal. This will be a problem but I will leave that there. It is a matter that I hope the committee will look at.

I want to mention clause 47 of the bill, which I will describe as brilliant. From my perspective, this is the best part of this bill because it purports to create a private right of enforcement. This would allow a person to make an application to a court where the person believes that he or she has been harmed in some way by this unauthorized, non-consented to, commercial electronic message, or some other offence described in the statute. By creating that, it frees up all of that enforcement mechanism that the state would otherwise need to create. It gives a citizen the ability to initiate something, go to court and get a response from the court without dragging all the federal or provincial prosecutors along.

Of course, that enforcement action would be freed up from a lot of the additional baggage that is sometimes imposed on our enforcement authorities by application of the charter. Sometimes in our system of governance, the charter, as interpreted by the courts, places obligations on governments to do or not do things as it enforces the law. Be that as it may, this creation of the private right of enforcement will allow the enforcement to be borne at the instance of an informed citizen, who has a grievance with respect to some of the things prohibited here, to take that to a court and, hopefully, get a fairly decent response.

I must say that, given the issues I raised earlier about definitions and procedures, a citizen might encounter the same kinds of problems in terms of definition and enforcement, but we all must acknowledge that this is a new area of law and we will need to deal with these new concepts and new definitions.

I am pleased to see the private right of enforcement. Who knows where it will all end up but so much of the electronic universe is taken up with individuals and individual initiatives. It is kind of like the wild west. When it comes to enforcement, the individual will become the enforcer. Who knows if some individual out there will actually go into the business of being the enforcer? “Show me your illegal spam and I will take it to court and get the judgment”. Some enterprising citizen out there is quite likely to take on that task. We may have created a new industry here with this private right of enforcement.

In terms of these points, I want to go to subclause 2(3) because I have a concern about it. This clause is part of the clause that describes what a commercial or electronic message is. For greater certainty, it states:

An electronic message that contains a request for consent to send a message described in subsection (2) is also considered to be a commercial electronic message.

That means that a party that wishes to send a commercial message is not even allowed to ask for consent to send a commercial message. If I interpret that clause properly, an electronic message that contains a request for consent to send a message is also a commercial electronic message.

That, unfortunately, raises what I would call a catch 22. No one can send a message without getting consent and no one can send a message asking for consent because that would be a commercial message.

I have a feeling that might be a problem when it comes to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It might not be but if the government is firm on this, if the people who have drafted these laws have come to the conclusion that must be in the bill, then I suggest that the provision may need to be buttressed by some additional wording or with a preamble in the bill that would give some weight to defend against a charter-based challenge that would say that this is a catch 22 provision.

There would hardly ever be a commercial message again on the Internet because no one could even ask for consent. We need to be able to ask for consent, otherwise we would never be able to send a commercial message. It says pretty clearly that an electronic message that contains a request for consent is a commercial electronic message, which the statute prohibits.

I really would like to hear from some of the government members or from the parliamentary secretary, if not today, then later, as to why the do-not-call list provisions, clause 86, are now being prepared for revocation. I would not even mind knowing why it was kind of buried in the statute and not referred to in the summary. I am sure there is a reasonable explanation for that. The record will show the questions I have raised on these small, picky, but real issues.

I will just confirm that, notwithstanding all of these minor points that I have raised, there is a great deal of support for legislation of this nature and my party will support it to get it to committee.

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.


Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I enjoyed the member's comments and observations. I, too, would like to hear from some government members and to ask them questions for more clarity.

The question, what is commercial and what is not, is a very interesting question. If a broker asks a person to go for lunch, is it a personal question or is it a business question, because clearly the broker is trying to ask the potential customer out to discuss business?

The question also is: Who decides whether it is spam or not? In a lot of cases, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. I see big problems here for small businesses and the opt-in approach. What is a business supposed to do, wait until the customers come in because the business person is fearful that he or she cannot contact his or her customers without a consent form being signed?

We have a potential here for huge costs unless we have a grandfather clause saying that if a business has 1,000 customers, it is allowed to contact those customers. The customer list would be grandfathered in as of the proclamation date of the bill. Otherwise, we will have huge costs for small businesses that need to contact each one of their customers as they come in to get them to sign permission forms so they can contact them in the routine business relationship that many of them have had with a company for many years.

What happens if one of those customers gets mad at the company for whatever reason? The previous member talked about buying a hard drive three years ago. What happens if a business sends the customer a message and he or she takes offence? Has the business done something wrong?

Those are a lot of interesting questions and I would ask the member to give us a fuller explanation on some of his concerns about this very important question.

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.


Derek Lee Liberal Scarborough—Rouge River, ON

Mr. Speaker, the electronic messaging business is not an area in which I normally spend a lot of quality time, but I rely on electronic messages throughout the day. I just checked my BlackBerry and there are seven emails waiting for me. I should check to see if any of them are spam.

As I try to answer the question, or at least address the comment, I read the French version of subclause 2(4) and it is properly written. There is a verb in the French section, but the English version has to be corrected.

I acknowledge the member's comments that the bringing into place of this statute and its execution could create some huge costs for people who are recognized as being in the business now, large commercial organizations. I am pretty sure they will find a way to communicate with parliamentarians at the committee level as this thing goes forward.

Most of Canada's large commercial entities and SMEs are organized into groupings. I am pretty sure they will be able to outline potential costs to them and there may be an adaptation that can be made to accommodate the serious concerns consistent with the goals of the bill.

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.


Lise Zarac Liberal LaSalle—Émard, QC

Mr. Speaker, my colleague raised a good point, which is that an address is not a person. Even if the address from which the message was sent is available, how can we find out who was responsible for sending it? That is an address too. Of course, if it is an advertisement, there will be a name, but we must not forget that, much like the problems we had with fax machines a while back, large telecommunications or communications companies often send messages on behalf of insurance companies or other companies. So who should be held responsible? Such companies often have several numbers and addresses. How are we supposed to trace it?

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.


Derek Lee Liberal Scarborough—Rouge River, ON

Mr. Speaker, I suspect in the big picture that those whose job it is to enforce the anti-spam provisions will look for the large offenders first. The large offenders have probably already crossed the line a billion times. Locating those egregious, manifest, massive breaches of the statute, as it may come to be in force, will be fairly easy to find in the big picture. It is a question of dealing with it first in Canada and then abroad, with co-operation internationally.

My gut tells me the bill is not ready for prime time, it will have difficulties. However, I am pleased that we are taking steps to move it in that direction. Let us hope that when we make the move, we will not spend $25 million in a prosecution and then lose it. Let us move carefully toward enforcement. We should discourage the government from seeking quick, expedited passage of the bill. We should take our time and try to do it right so the product is what we need.

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.


Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, several of the members today, including members of the Liberal Party, have brought up concern about the whole issue of whether the government is capable or will be capable of enforcing this act, given what happened with the do-not-call legislation and given that it was brought forward just before the last election. There was a lot of good press on the issue. Now we find out a year later that it is really not very viable as a bill.

There should be some concern. We can pass the best legislation in the world, but if the free enterprise government has no real interest in executing and being tough on enforcing the law, then what have we gained in the process?

Are there things we could do to the bill to make it tougher for the government to get out of enforcing it in a tough way? It was suggested by the member for Timmins—James Bay that maybe we should be looking at a police influence as opposed to letting the CRTC and other government bodies deal with the issue.

Could the member deal with that question?

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.


Derek Lee Liberal Scarborough—Rouge River, ON

Mr. Speaker, let us not forget that the bill contains a private prosecution mechanism. There is an alternative, where a citizen might just succeed in doing what the government would find very expensive and difficult to do. Let us all keep in mind this statute is not going to be handed over for enforcement to municipal police forces or provincial police forces. Under the bill, as I understand it, this could only be investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It would be a federal prosecution, as I understand it.

To get something going here, we are going to have a complaint and we are going to have an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. We are going to have take police officers and get them onto the Internet and start gathering all of this data. It can be very expensive. Fortunately, they can probably do it from behind their computer, but they may need a few warrants. However, it will be a federal prosecution.

Then we have to get a federal prosecutor to take something from a brand new law. It could take a year or two to develop. I think there is a statutory limitation on prosecutions, as well. They would have to do it within that limit.

It is going to be tough, but let us get something in the hopper and start working on it. I have a feeling it will be the private prosecution piece that will be the secret weapon, that some individual will take this and run with it and we will have an evolution of enforcement on the private side that will beat the government by a country mile. That is why I do congratulate inclusion of this in the bill.

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.


Thierry St-Cyr Bloc Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to rise today on this issue.

It was said that email is becoming more and more common in our societies. I am an enthusiast myself. It has the advantage of enabling us to do several things at once. While listening to the debate, for instance, I had my computer open in front of me. It makes it possible to communicate with people sometimes at the far ends of the earth, whom I have not seen for a long time. It is also possible to communicate with people who are very close by, such as colleagues in the House or even the lobby coordinator, Marie-Ève. I want to salute her on behalf of all Bloc Québécois members because she does a fantastic job, like all the people who work around us and support us in our tasks.

When viewers watch us on television, they see us proceeding efficiently and think we are all very good and know what to do. The reality is that we would often be lost without the coordinators in the lobby and all the parliamentary personnel who help us. I want to thank them very much for the work they do.

Having made this aside, I want to comment on BillC-27, Electronic Commerce Protection Act. Spam is of ever greater concern in our economies and that is due in large part to the fact that email is free. I want to assure the House right away that I would not dream of changing that. However, individuals who want to send unsolicited documents, mail or advertising can easily do so. They can send them to very large numbers of people at no additional cost. Spam is not very interesting and just a tiny proportion of people pay any attention to it. The volume is so immense, though, that only a small percentage is enough to get some potentially attractive customers, while the user would have to pay for traditional methods of promotion.

If someone wants to send an advertisement to every house by regular mail, there are no laws against it, apart from certain municipal regulations. This is not a problem, though, because people rarely take advantage of the situation to send millions of people in North America a letter announcing some scheme to get millions of dollars out of a particular country, thereby making everyone rich. There is no critical mass to justify doing this by traditional mail.

But in the case of email, there is that sort of critical mass. We have to sort through our email to separate the wheat from the chaff. We also have to have software with anti-spam and anti-phishing systems to identify such messages. These automated systems sometimes make mistakes, with the result that we sometimes do not receive legitimate email messages. They drown in a sea of spam.

The Bloc Québécois believes it is high time we had anti-spam legislation. The task force on spam, which was created in 2004, has been calling for legislation for more than four years.

Four years is an eternity when it comes to computer technology. Most western countries have already passed anti-spam legislation. Canada has unfortunately not yet done so, and we are happy to be able to study this bill. A number of members have pointed out that it is not perfect and that they still have concerns. We share the view that this bill can certainly be improved, but we will support it in principle so that it is referred to committee.

When the issue of prevention and punishment on the Internet comes up, in connection with spam, we often hear the argument that, because the Internet is involved, there is no control—

Electronic Commerce Protection ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

I am sorry to have to interrupt the hon. member for Jeanne-Le Ber. He will have another 14 minutes the next time this bill is debated in the House.

It being 5:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

May 7th, 2009 / 5:30 p.m.


Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

moved that Bill C-280, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand here today and deliver a piece of legislation in my name that will have a great effect on the lives of hard-working Canadians who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves unemployed. It is people like them who define some of the most difficult challenges we are facing in Canada given the current difficult economic times.

My bill attempts to set right parts of Canada's employment insurance system so that people will be eligible to collect benefits and those benefits will better suit their needs.

Bill C-280 is a relatively simple piece of legislation with two major objectives. It seeks to create a uniform level of entry for a person to make a claim of EI benefits by lowering the threshold to 360 hours for people in every region of Canada. And it seeks to award people benefits based on their best 12 weeks of earnings in the year prior to their claim instead of the current 14 weeks that are considered to set a benefit amount.

This week I had to pinch myself to see if I was actually dreaming when I heard the Liberals say over and over again that they are now interested in reforming employment insurance. We actually welcome their attention to this issue. They are uniquely positioned in this debate, since much of what we are attempting to repair is the damage that they inflicted on the system during their string of three majority governments in the 1990s.

That period is when their finance minister turned off the tap on employment insurance and turned EI into a tax on working people that fed their surplus budgets and helped them implement corporate tax cuts, a passion which is shared by their soulmates, the Conservatives.

I must say that I am overjoyed, as I am certain many unemployed workers are, that the Liberals have done a 180 degree turn and apparently now share our goal to see the threshold for entry lowered to 360 hours. This would end the regional distinction in the qualifying period and help EI flow to more Canadians who truly need it right now.

At present there are nine different sets of criteria in terms of hours worked for nine different ranges of regional unemployment rates. Workers in Canada may require anywhere from 420 to 700 hours of eligible work to be able to become a claimant of this benefit. This inequity is not suited for the kind of job losses we are seeing in Canada today. Regional unemployment rates are in flux and shift from day to day and week to week. EI needs to be able to better respond to this challenge.

We are hearing from groups as diverse as the TD Bank and the Caledon Institute that lowering the number of hours needed to qualify for employment insurance is the right thing to do to help us combat the global recession. They understand that employment insurance does not only serve the individual but the community and the country as well. They understand that there is more to an economy than balance sheets and mathematical equations. They know that the economy is in fact the people who make up our nation, our communities and our households. They view the economy in both the long and the short term, and they have come to recognize that the economic measure that will help support our goals and dreams for a better future is an employment insurance system that catches more people in its safety net, not less.

There will be those less enlightened perhaps, but not actually malicious who will contend that we cannot afford to make employment insurance more accessible. Of course we know this is not true. EI is actually running a big surplus which should be used to improve the program and ensure people have access to benefits. It is not meant to be used and should not be used to pay off the government's debts or deficits, contrary to the Conservatives' and the Liberals' beliefs.

There will be those who will argue that the government has already expanded the number of weeks a person can remain as a claimant in a direct response to these challenging economic issues. We know that these extra weeks that the Conservative government continues to trumpet have been put in place as a temporary stopgap and have been added to the end of the benefit period, where they are less likely to be collected. We have said in other debates that it would be better to remove the two week waiting period for new claimants and use two of those five weeks right away, but that is for another debate. What is clear is that we cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

There are plenty of left-wing supporters for this motion that we are debating today, but I am also interested in those who would not be considered of the left who are calling for the expansion of employment insurance as a means of stimulating the economy.

When the chief economist for Moody's credit rating service testified before the U.S. house committee on small business last July, he showed that apart from food stamps, the best bang for a government's buck was to ensure that unemployed workers had access to employment insurance benefits. To determine the effectiveness of differing stimulus measures, he compared their multipliers, an equation that gives a dollar amount for the economic activity created by government spending to stimulate the economy. His conclusion was shocking.

Typical right-wing solutions such as permanent tax cuts came in as losses, negative equations that saw the dollars spent fizzle in half or more. They were in fact drains on the economy. Infrastructure spending was quite good, with a multiplier of $1.59 for every dollar spent. The problem with infrastructure is the amount of time it takes to have the money flow through the economy.

The best way to get money into the economy immediately was through increased spending on employment insurance, believe it or not. With a multiplier of $1.64, it is a measure that performs well and what is more, it is an efficient stimulus. It flows directly to those in need and to the communities most affected by job losses.

New Democrats could not agree more. What we are saying here in Canada is similar. Our government is not hearing anything new from us today and we know that as a fact. The government received a prebudget submission which outlined these very points. It was not from the Canadian Labour Congress or some like-minded group that the government is accustomed to dismissing out of hand either. It was from the director of the MBA program of the Sprott School of Business.

This shows that the government is hearing calls for improvements to employment insurance from all sides of the debate. It is, interestingly enough, a unifying concept. Apart from increasing the number of people who are eligible to receive EI, this bill also hopes to improve the benefits received by people, such as seasonal workers, by reducing the number of weeks used to calculate the level of benefit from their best 14 weeks to their best 12.

This is a small change that will really help people who make most of their money in short periods of time. Seasonal workers are especially vulnerable to longer sampling periods to set their EI rates. Often they have short, intense periods of work during which they make the majority of their money. They may, however, work many more weeks at their jobs doing the maintenance work that is required to be able to engage in the short but lucrative periods that make these jobs worth doing.

This measure sets out to help recognize the special needs of the workers who do these types of jobs. It will help smaller and rural communities keep in place a workforce that allows them to employ people during their boom periods and weather the lean periods in between.

I have mentioned that I am pleased to see that the Liberals are now calling for the same entry threshold as I have set out in this bill and for which the New Democrats have been championing for many years now.

I can only hope they are not playing games with those who find themselves in hard times and that they actually will support this very legislation that reduces the qualifying hours to 360 and removes regional differences. However, I remain leery of commitments from that party, given the fact that I originate from the labour movement and I remember the Conservatives' about-face on anti-scab legislation. This very issue still resonates not only with me but with the thousands of brothers and sisters in the labour movement.

As for the Conservatives, it is hoped that we can hold them to their word when they made the commitment to make necessary changes to address the economic crisis as things evolve.

Given the number of job losses, sadly a number that keeps growing, is it not time that, contrary to the beliefs of the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, the government needs to recognize that EI benefits are not lucrative and that it needs to take immediate action to rectify the problems the system has in terms of access to benefits for those who pay into it?

There is something fundamentally wrong when 1.4 million people are out of work and only 43% of them are able to receive benefits. Shame!

Given the way our manufacturing, forestry and mining sectors have been brutalized, surely the time to revisit our response to these challenges is upon us. It is time to recognize the need for fundamental change that will ensure those who have paid their premiums can actually access EI benefits when they fall on hard times.

I hope all parties in the House get behind the bill, as it will set about repairing a very worthwhile social program that has the potential to serve all Canadians at a time when all of us in this place are being looked upon for leadership and solutions to a unique crisis that will define this Parliament.

I would like to add a few of the comments that I have come across since the budget was implemented and the issues about the problems with EI.

I could quote Ken Georgetti, from the Canadian Labour Congress, who said:

People desperately need their government's help to protect and create jobs and to support the unemployed.

Mayor Miller of Toronto said:

We're quite concerned. The fact that the most vulnerable haven't been protected with appropriate changes to the E.I. program is very problematic for all cities.

The mayors and the reeves of these communities have all raised their concerns with regard to the changes to EI that need to occur. They have indicated that currently the fact that only 43% of people can actually have access to EI has been causing grave concern to them with regard to their welfare rolls. If people cannot access EI, they have to access welfare. With the two-week waiting period, those who can access EI actually end up on the welfare rolls anyhow because they are waiting for their cheques to come in.

The government seems to think it is okay to do that, that we can make people suffer at the beginning and just try to increase their rates at the end. However, at the end of the day, normally people will find work within 20 weeks and never have a chance to access those benefits.

I would like to quote a CanWest article, which reports:

Economists at TD Bank said Thursday that the federal government should make it easier for newly unemployed workers to receive benefits and should reverse changes it made to the formula that sets the premiums to be paid by employees and employers.

What is even more interesting is the comment that the article attributes to John McCallum on this very issue:

These are things we've been saying for a long, long time....

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

I would like to remind the member not to refer to hon. members by their given name.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, I apologize.

The fact of the matter is that the Liberals say that changes have been needed for a long, long time. They certainly had not moved on them when they were in power, which leads us to wonder whether they will come through on the 360 hours.

Just on that note, I think it is extremely important to recognize that we actually do need the changes to EI and that this is a perfect time to debate the issue and to bring it forward so that we can make sure that people are able to support themselves during these tough economic times.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, this is a very important initiative, of course, and I applaud the member for bringing it forward.

My riding is largely a forestry dependent community, and I know the member's riding has similar issues.

In my riding, the unemployment rate is actually tied to Vancouver's. I live on Vancouver Island. Talk about western alienation. Anybody west of the Rockies understands that Vancouver is very different from Vancouver Island.

The workers in my riding are expected to work far more hours than is realistic, because our unemployment rate is tied to the Vancouver labour market. I would like the member to comment on how the reduction in these hours would actually benefit forestry workers from coast to coast to coast.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, there is a double whammy on this that will actually benefit the workers. The 360 hours would be across the board. No matter where one lives in the country, all one would need is 360 hours to qualify for employment insurance. Reducing it and making sure that it is the best 12 weeks as opposed to the best 14 weeks will actually enhance their premiums.

On that note, I want to thank the member. I understand the problem with forestry, because the government has failed to act on forestry. I have a lot of forestry in my area. They have been calling for access to reasonable credit for quite some time. I can say that most of those people are now trying to access employment insurance.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Souris—Moose Mountain Saskatchewan


Ed Komarnicki ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, I have a question for the hon. member. I know she is talking about her bill, but I would ask her if she supports the expansion of the work-sharing agreement by 14 weeks. It would help 80,000 to 90,000 people. I would ask her if she supports the extension of benefits by five weeks and the maximum benefits.

Does she support the enhanced training that would help approximately 170,000 to 190,000 people or more? Does she support those benefits that have been enhanced specifically in training and upgrading?

If she does support those measures, why did she vote against each and every one of them? Why did her party not support any one of them?

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, let us look at this. Certainly we support initiatives that actually enhance employment insurance. The only thing is that the initiatives have to be very worthwhile. My understanding is that the five weeks the government has put in has been done as a stipulation. It hopes that not very many people will access those five weeks because they are at the end.

As I mentioned before, most people will actually use up maybe about 20 weeks of employment insurance before they find a job. It would have been much better if the government would have taken some of that five weeks and put it at the beginning and put an extra three weeks at the end, but it refused to do that.

With respect to the fact that we voted against the budget, the Conservatives are going to say that we voted against all the measures. It was not all the measures that we voted against; it was all the underlying stipulations they put in that they were trying to get us to vote for, such as removing pay equity for women or the fact that they have actually attacked workers by not allowing them their raises.

I want to thank the member for the question, but that is exactly why we did not vote for their budget.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

Souris—Moose Mountain Saskatchewan


Ed Komarnicki ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to take part in this debate. First, let me say that I do appreciate the intention behind this bill. All members of this House share concern for unemployed Canadians and their families. Losing a job is hard on workers and on their families. Unfortunately, too many Canadians have had to endure this.

When we are discussing changes to the employment insurance system, what Canadians need is a plan that suits the changing economic circumstances and that complements what this government is doing to help Canadians and their families get through this difficult economic time.

Our government has taken action to improve the employment insurance system to help Canadian families. Let me remind the members opposite about some of the good things we have done for Canadians so far.

Through our economic action plan, we have invested an unprecedented $8.3 billion in the Canada skills and transition strategy. This strategy will strengthen benefits for Canadian workers through the EI system. It will enhance and increase the availability of training. It will also keep EI premiums frozen, ensuring that both workers and employers do not face increased job-killing payroll taxes during this time of economic uncertainty. This keeps that money in the economy and helps protect jobs.

We are taking other actions to protect Canadian jobs. Right now, over 93,000 Canadian workers are benefiting from our expanded work-sharing program. We have improved the work-sharing program by extending the duration of the work-sharing agreements by 14 weeks, to a maximum of 52 weeks, for the next two years.

In addition, we are making it easier to qualify for the program. Ultimately, more Canadians will be able to continue working while their company is experiencing a temporary slowdown.

Furthermore, this government's economic action plan includes a new initiative to extend EI benefits to long-tenured workers while they pursue longer-term training in a new profession or sector. This initiative, implemented with the provinces and territories, will allow workers who have worked in a single industry for a long time and have been permanently laid off to receive EI benefits to a maximum of 104 weeks while they pursue training to prepare them for the jobs of the future. This measure specifically helps Canadians who have paid into the EI system for many years and who have not had to use it until now. These workers deserve help that respects their abilities and experience, and that is what the government is delivering.

In addition to this support, we will also allow earlier access to EI benefits for eligible workers who have received severance packages, if they use some or all of that severance to purchase skills upgrading or training for themselves.

We are also acting to support unemployed individuals who are unable to qualify for EI benefits. To that end, we are investing $500 million in the strategic training and transition fund. This fund will benefit some 50,000 Canadians and their families.

The reality is that our government is taking unprecedented steps to help Canadians who have lost jobs through no fault of their own.

Through the economic action plan, we will help over 400,000 people benefit from an additional five weeks of EI benefits in the first year alone. Those extra five weeks will help those workers and their families who are hardest hit, who have not been able to find work, at a time when they otherwise would be facing exhaustion of their benefits.

We have also increased the maximum duration of EI benefits available under the EI program from 45 weeks to 50 weeks, again helping those Canadians who are out of work for a longer period of time. And it is not insignificant; it is 400,000 people.

These measures, I might add, are on top of the automatic adjustments in the EI program that respond to changes in economic conditions.

As members can see, our government is committed to helping Canadians through this economic downturn and is taking unprecedented steps to help Canadians get back to work. Never before has there been such a concerted effort to reach out and help Canadians, and that help is coming from this Conservative government.

We recognize the challenges faced by those who have lost their jobs in these difficult times. That said, we want to ensure that any action we take is effective in both the short term and the longer term. That is why we are monitoring the effectiveness of our measures to ensure that the EI system is working and responding effectively to the evolving economic circumstances.

Our economic action plan is providing additional support over the short term, which makes more sense than costly and permanent changes to the EI program, changes that could have unintended consequences on the labour market and the viability of the system over the long term.

While we do not question the good intentions behind this proposed legislation, the NDP's proposal is uncosted and does not take into account the greater long-term impact on the labour market. These proposals need to be considered within the context of who will pay for all of this. Consideration must also be given to how this proposal will impact on helping Canadians get back to work so they can get jobs to put food on the table and to provide for their families.

The Liberals do not have a plan either and that is obvious. The newly crowned Liberal leader decided over the weekend, at the Liberal Party policy conference, to adopt an NDP policy. Is that not most remarkable? The problem with the Liberals is they do not have any credibility on this issue. Let us take a look at the Liberal record on employment insurance.

On May 4, the Winnipeg Free Press said, “The Liberals were the architects of the distortions in the EI programs”.

On April 29, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a study that said, “The Liberals gutted EI in the 1990s”.

Two senior figures at the Caledon Institute, a think tank the Liberal critic often likes to cite, had this to say in the April 21 edition of the Toronto Star. They said that during the Liberal years:

—Employees had to work longer to qualify for benefits; payments were lowered; and the maximum duration of benefits was reduced. Many more of the unemployed could not work enough hours to qualify.

Those change were made when the country was still slowly recovering from an economic slowdown and when there were still many Canadians out of work. That is the Liberal record.

The reality is that during the Liberal time in government, unemployed Canadians were hit hard by both the economy and the Liberal government. The reality is the Liberals have previously voted against all the EI changes they say they support today. That is hypocritical.

During this economic downturn, among other things, this government has increased the duration of benefits, increased the maximum benefit period and expanded work-sharing and training programs. We are making improvements to the system to help Canadians and Canadians see that.

As I said earlier, our government is monitoring the situation closely. We are monitoring the effectiveness of the actions we have taken to improve the EI system. We want to ensure that the EI system is working and responding effectively to the evolving economic circumstances. As the economic circumstances are continually changing, we continue to consider how best to help Canadians in ways that are responsible, sound and affordable.

There is a good read on the CFRB radio station website, a popular radio station in Toronto, the city that both the Liberal and NDP leaders call home. The piece brought up a quotation attributed to G.K. Chesterton and John F. Kennedy. It says, “Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up”.

The opposition members simply want to tear down the fence posts without consideration of why those posts are there. We see this constantly. If they see a post they do not like, they propose to tear it down, just like that. The Liberals especially should know better, since they put in many of the posts themselves, particularly the ones they seem to dislike most just now.

This government will not simply decide over the weekend to adopt this or that policy, to knock out this post or that post. We have taken responsible action already. We are considering all of our options carefully to ensure that any actions we take to help Canadians will be responsible and done for the right reasons.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.


Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-280. I want to congratulate my colleague for introducing it.

I have a few things I want to say, but I cannot let go unchallenged what the parliamentary secretary has read from his speaking notes, provided by some un-named person in the lobby, which he picked up on the way in here.

He talked about the cuts that were made in the 1990s. He is older than I am, so he is old enough to recall the circumstance of Canada back in 1993, when his former Conservative government skulked out of town with its tail between its legs, leaving a $48 billion annual deficit, a debt that it had built up. When Mr. Trudeau left, that debt was $200 billion. By the time that government was finished, it was $500 billion.

Maybe the people in the lobby are not as good as I thought they were at putting these notes out. He should know that the cuts began with Mr. Mulroney in 1990. It was in 1990 when the federal government walked away from EI and said that employers and employees could carry the whole weight. That government did not want any part of it. That was when those people were building up the deficit.

There are a lot of history books that can tell us the difference between 1995 and 2008, but I will tell the members the difference. Back then we were coming out of a Conservative recession into a Liberal recovery. We are now coming out of a Liberal recovery and into a Conservative recession. Back then there was not one person in the country talking about stimulus. People were talking about debt. We were being called a third world economy because we were so far in debt.

Changes were made. Some of us liked them and some of us did not. The fact is we had a lot of problems in the country that we had to be dealt with and that is what we did back in 1995-96.

Members of his party, his ancestors, including the current Prime Minister, did not think we went far enough. They wanted further cuts. The predecessor to the current Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said the cuts were not deep enough.

Let me come back to today. Instead of people talking about paying down the debt, as they did in the 1990s, they are now talking about stimulus. My colleague from Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing mentioned stimulus and Ian Lee from the Sprott School of Business. There are three major ways of stimulating the economy.

I see my colleague from Niagara West—Glanbrook, the very learned chair of the HRSD committee, is nodding in agreement with what I am saying. He is amazed at what the parliamentary secretary said. He cannot believe it.

If we look at the three major ways to stimulate an economy, one is to provide tax breaks. However, tax breaks stimulate the people who do not need the stimulus. According to the Caledon Institute, tax breaks in the last budget will go to people making $150,000, including my colleagues. We will get $483 in tax breaks. A single income person with two kids receives nothing. Is that stimulus? Most MPs do not even know what they pay in taxes except for the very month when they have to file. They are not going to spend the money.

The people who need the money are the people who have nothing else on which to live. They get the money and they spend it, and it is a 1.6 turnover in the economy. That is how an economy is stimulated. It is helpful to the people who need the money as well. It is way better than tax breaks and a much better return than infrastructure.

The parliamentary secretary talked about our leader adopting a new position. From January 29 on, our leader was not even officially the leader, but he was already talking about EI. He said, and I am quoting from the paper now, “If the government fails on these accountability tests, including employment insurance, a confidence vote could trigger an election”. He said that on January 29, some time ago. Now he has called upon the Prime Minister to implement a national standard for employment insurance with a temporary 360 hour threshold for eligibility.

A letter appeared this week in La Presse in Montreal, written by Pierre Céré, who is a champion of workers in Quebec. I will just quote a bit. He said, “The EI system must become a program that provides economic security and thus the dignity of workers who lose their jobs and who are temporarily unemployed. The only partisanship, as we know it, is in that fight. That is why we do not hesitate to acknowledge the position of Mr. Ignatieff and encourage him in this direction”. However. it is not only—

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The member is a veteran of the House and he knows not to refer to other members by their given names.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.


Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I thought the Leader of the Opposition was an exception. He is such an elevated person. I apologize, it will not happen again.

The Canadian Labour Congress is calling for changes to EI. Armine Yalnizyan, from the CCPA, most recently indicated, “There is a widespread consensus across the political spectrum that the Employment Insurance Act should be changed to make the entrance requirements uniform across the country and reduce the eligibility threshold to 360 hours”.

The C.D. Howe Institute, the great champion of Liberal thought, said it was surprised the government did not do more to enhance access.

Susan Riley, of the Ottawa Citizen, said, “If the government was serious about helping the hardest hit, it would have opened access to employment insurance, along with extending benefits to those who were already covered”.

There are some amazing people who one would not normally think would support a change to EI. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which one would not think would be championing EI, indicated in its prebudget report to the finance committee that the access issue needed to be addressed. It even suggested that we needed to look at, perhaps temporarily, the two-week waiting period. The response from the government was, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it”. Who said that? The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said that on January 28.

Harris/Decima, which recently had the Liberals in the lead, indicated in a poll, dated March 30, that in every region of the country, across all regions, people believed the scope of employment insurance should be expanded in terms of coverage and length. It is not just what one might think of as the usual suspects.

Some people who have done a lot of work on this. The alternative federal budget had suggested a number of changes and had put some costing on it.

It seems like everybody believes that we have to change the system, that there needs to be access by people who need it. The only ones who seem not to believe it are members of the government, not their spouses though. We heard recently that the wife of the Minister of Finance had some issues with him, that EI should be improved, that EI was punitive to the province of Ontario.

The government, which prides itself on dividing Canadians, is now breaking up families. It is dividing families among themselves. The Minister of Finance is clinging vainly to the hope that nothing will be changed. His wife is usually right, in my experience. She is saying that it should be opened up, that it is not fair to Ontario.

It is very clear that something has to happen. This is not a light subject; it is a very serious one.

I will read an email I received, which I got a kick out of. It states, “I heard you on TV talking about EI (employment insurance) and I was impressed with your arguments. I have never been a person who believes in a lot of what you refer to as social infrastructure, whatever that is, but to me EI should be opened up, at least for now. Why won't the government do anything without being forced into it?”

That is a very good question. Last week the TD Bank made recommendations, The Chamber of Commerce, the C.D. Howe Institute, the CCPA, the CLC, the CAW, the Canadian Council on Social Development, the Conference Board of Canada, everybody who has looked at this are saying people are hurting. One would not think the government would be as blind to that as it is.

Canadians are hurting. People are living paycheque to paycheque, even when they are employed. Now they do not have jobs and they do not have savings. They have not had the benefit of a member of Parliament's salary or a big business salary. A lot of working people are going paycheque to paycheque. When they are put out of work, it is hard enough to have to wait two weeks, but then to be told they will not get EI at all is really shameful.

On top of that, we have heard about delays across the country. All my colleagues have heard about people who have had to wait longer than 28 days, in some cases 40, 50 or 60 days. The member from Madawaska—Restigouche, the member for Cape Breton—Canso and a number of Liberals in the House have raised this issue. It is a serious subject.

EI needs to be opened up. If we are not going to open it up now, when are we going to open it up? People have paid into it for years and they have the right to collect it. It is the very least that the government should for them. Instead of giving them access, it is giving them arrogance and that is no longer good enough. We need better.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.


Josée Beaudin Bloc Saint-Lambert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am particularly pleased to be able to have an opportunity to speak today on C-280, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act.

As you know, the Bloc Québécois defends the rights of workers who have lost their jobs with unequalled determination here in this House. Our desire to see a thorough reform of the employment insurance system is not, therefore, dictated by circumstances, such as a looming election, but is instead a constant. Since the founding of our party it has been our concern 365 days a year.

The employment insurance program is inadequate. We are not the only ones to say so. The OECD, the C.D. Howe Institute, the TD Bank, all of the labour congresses and workers' coalitions, and many others, are unanimous on the need to reform this program of worker protection, particularly in a period of economic crisis.

By beefing up this anemic program, the government would be killing two birds with one stone. First, it would be helping the hundreds of thousands of men and women who lose their jobs and find themselves ineligible for benefits and are therefore forced into the untenable position of having to find a new job in tough economic times. Second, as if the first point were not sufficient, we need to realize that EI benefits constitute one of the best ways to stimulate the economy, twice as much as any tax reductions, of course. Yet all that would be needed to significantly improve the employment insurance program is a mere fraction of the amount the government has distributed as income tax reductions.

I should make it clear from the start that I am absolutely in favour of the principle of this bill, as my opening remarks ought to have made clear. It contains a number of measures that we in the Bloc Québécois have been proposing for some time. I would, however, like to express at least some of the reservations I have about the bill.

Unlike the motion introduced in this House by the NDP on one of their opposition days, this bill does not include any measures to increase the rate of benefits to 60%, but rather maintains it at 55%. For the Bloc Québécois, such an increase is absolutely crucial and that is why we are suggesting that the committee take a closer look specifically at this matter and that the rate be adjusted to 60%.

In addition, concerning subclause 7.1, the bill refers to a relaxing of the eligibility criteria for people who have violated the rules of the EI system. We are in favour of such a measure, but the new criteria appear rather arbitrary. At the very least, clarifications are needed concerning how thresholds are established in the bill.

Apart from those two reservations, as I was saying, we fully support the principle of this bill. I would like to discuss the measures it proposes one by one.

First, setting the minimum eligibility threshold of 360 hours to qualify for regular or special benefits will be particularly beneficial to the workers who are currently unable to exercise their rights, even though they have paid into the system, day after day and week after week. At this time, that threshold varies between 420 and 910 hours. That is much too high, and that is the main reason why so many unemployed workers are excluded from the coverage offered by the system.

These rules penalize seasonal workers in particular, who experience the spring gap that some call a “black hole”, that is, that time of the year when they find themselves with no income, while they wait for their work season to return. The rules also penalize those who hold unstable jobs or work in non-standard employment. Many such workers are women, including single mothers who already have difficulty making ends meet, and who increasingly bear the brunt of these misguided policies.

With the number of hours set at 360, which the Bloc has long called for, an estimated 70% to 80% of unemployed workers could collect benefits, and the level of coverage would be returned to what it was 20 years ago. It has to be said, the most urgent difficulty with the employment insurance system is the coverage it provides to workers. In fact, in 1989, or 20 years ago, the claimant/unemployed ratio, used by everyone except perhaps the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, was 84%. Today, according to the most recent estimates from the chief actuary of the Employment Insurance Commission, it is 46%. What is the reason for such a dramatic drop?

We have no choice but to lay the blame at the feet of the Liberals who, in the 1990s, literally cut off access to the system by making the eligibility criteria so stringent that almost 40% of workers were excluded. In many cases, it was the same Liberals who today denounce the unfairness and express outrage after finally opening their eyes to the reality that they created. But as the saying goes, only a fool does not change his mind. Popular wisdom will now suggest that the fools have been joined by the Conservatives who, on the surface, despite the combined efforts of the opposition parties, do not seem to see the obvious: the employment insurance system is inadequate.

There are so many problems with the system, and that is why the member for Chambly—Borduas introduced Bill C-308, which would make major changes to the system to turn it back into what it is meant to be: a real insurance plan rather than a tax by some other name, as it was under the Liberals, or a way to punish the unemployed, as it is under the Conservative government.

One of the punitive elements in the system is the waiting period, which is absolutely unjustifiable because it is based on the idea that claimants are all potential fraudsters.

I want to make it clear that eliminating the waiting period would not mean paying out two extra weeks. It absolutely does not conflict with adding five weeks to the maximum benefit period. It would just eliminate the very long and very unnecessary two-week delay before people receive their benefits.

Imagine a worker who suddenly loses his or her job—that is not hard to do—and who has to wait 60 days for the claim to be processed—which happens all too often—and who then has to wait another two weeks before collecting his or her first employment insurance cheque.

The statements made this afternoon in oral question period by the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development are totally incorrect. It is not true that 82% of contributors to the plan can receive employment insurance. In the latest report on employment insurance coverage, the department's figures were much gloomier. In fact, barely 68% of contributors had access to EI benefits. That is completely unacceptable.

The minister compared the employment insurance system to a private system, which is rather cynical because she reduced the state's role to that of a corporation motivated solely by financial gain.

Following that logic, it would mean that an insurer could decide not to compensate 32% of its clients. Nobody would stand for that kind of attitude. Such a company would be accused of scandal, fraud, theft and mean-spiritedness, and with good reason.

As a member of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, I can also add that all the witnesses we have heard since I have been sitting on that committee—all of them, without exception—have called for EI reform and a complete overhaul of the system, so that it will actually help them, especially in these tough economic times.

In closing, I would remind the House that the Bloc Québécois has once again proposed an economic recovery plan. Our plan is costed, realistic and pragmatic. It would fix the holes in the social safety net, restore confidence, stimulate employment and investment, support Quebec and the provinces and stimulate strategic spending on things like measures to reduce oil dependency.

I invite all parliamentarians to read it. Unlike others, members of the Bloc Québécois do not hide when it is time to take a stand on ways to get Quebec and Canada through the economic crisis.

Our plan will reassure workers who lose their jobs by providing them with a more accessible and generous employment insurance program, and it will stimulate household spending by enabling workers who have lost their jobs to get the benefits they need to keep the economy going.

I believe that the measures in Bill C-280 will help achieve those same goals, so it is my great pleasure to support this bill.