Madam Speaker, today, I would like to express my indignation about Bill C-316. I strongly recommend that members of all parties vote against this absurd and completely useless bill.
Hon. members are aware that the public's cynicism about the political work that we are trying to do is growing every day, and this bill simply adds to it. According to the Conservatives' twisted logic, if inmates are entitled to a privilege to which pregnant women are not, then the government should take that privilege away from inmates rather acting in a logical manner and helping pregnant women get access to it. We need to keep in mind that the people in our ridings are not stupid and that they will harshly judge any politicians who cultivate this cynicism by voting in favour of Bill C-316.
I would like to take a moment to explain why Canadians who spend less than one year in prison are entitled to an extension of their qualifying period, which is defined as the period in which a worker qualifies to receive employment insurance benefits. This is the period preceding the loss of employment, during which a person must have worked a certain number of hours in order to qualify for benefits. That number varies depending on the regional rate of unemployment. The qualifying period is usually 52 weeks.
When a worker files a claim and has worked a sufficient number of hours during his qualifying period, the benefits to which he is entitled can be paid over a maximum period of 52 weeks. That does not mean that the person will receive 52 weeks of benefits; it means that he has 52 weeks after losing his employment to receive employment insurance benefits.
The Conservative member is simplifying the facts and distorting the truth. He is giving the impression that prisoners receive benefits while they are in prison, which is not the case. The people who benefit from this special measure are those who have worked enough to qualify for benefits and, as contributors to the EI program, deserve to get those benefits when they get out of prison. This applies only to people serving a one-year prison sentence. Those serving more than a one-year sentence do not receive EI benefits.
Bill C-316 amends the Employment Insurance Act in order to repeal the provisions that allow for qualifying periods and benefit periods to be extended as the result of time spent by the claimant in a prison, detox centre or other similar institution. The Conservatives are trying to eliminate an exception that helps former inmates return to the workforce, regain some self-confidence and access paid job training. Unfortunately, the Conservatives have not proposed any solutions to help pregnant women who are being treated unfairly in this file.
The Conservatives and anyone who plans to support this useless bill should be ashamed of themselves. The question here is not about the equality of Canadians within the EI system or the supposed preferential treatment of prisoners in the EI system. Rather, it is a question of making the necessary changes to a law that is unfair and correcting a situation that is biased against women on maternity leave. I feel it is my duty to point out the Conservative government's incompetence in this area, even though it claims to stand up for family values.
The Conservatives are blinded by their obsession with law and order, and we absolutely must prevent them from casting a shadow on the future of thousands of people who could use a second chance.
Recently, the Conservatives have been trying to score political points on the backs of offenders by introducing bills that seem increasingly arbitrary, making no distinction between types of crime, leaving no room for rehabilitation and proposing nothing but imprisonment to prevent recidivism. In Canada, however, all the numbers show that our social reintegration model is working and that crime rates are dropping steadily in most provinces.
Despite what the hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George might say, helping inmates break the cycle of crime has always worked well in Canada and we are now reaping the benefits. It is thanks to these often exceptional measures—like the one we are debating today—that we have built this solid, yet imperfect, but well-meaning system that is a little like us.
Many former inmates have a great deal of difficulty finding work once they leave prison. Incarceration has a lasting negative impact on an individual's income, to say the least. Generally speaking, a person is sentenced to less than one year in prison because it is his first offence and he deserves a second chance. What is more, former inmates are more likely to be unemployed or hold low-paying jobs than before going to prison.
Extending the qualifying period and the benefit period for workers who spend less than one year in prison helps support the former inmate and his family when he is looking for employment after leaving prison.
However, a person incarcerated for more than one year cannot receive benefits until he has accumulated enough hours of insurable employment after leaving prison, while a person incarcerated for less than one year could qualify for employment insurance with the hours worked during the extended qualifying period.
Employment insurance also provides access to job training and officers who can assist in the job search. In many cases, the employment insurance program changes lives for the better.
It is also interesting to note that a person suspected of committing a crime can be detained pending the outcome of his trial. This means that an innocent person might be incarcerated while awaiting a verdict that would clear his name. Under Bill C-316, a person charged with a crime he did not commit who is imprisoned could not receive employment insurance benefits upon his release. Repealing the provisions that allow for qualifying periods and benefit periods to be extended does not just concern criminals; it concerns the innocent as well.
The solution to the inequalities in the employment insurance program is not to abolish an exceptional measure that helps inmates, but to make a clear change to the legislation as to the maximum number of weeks of regular and special benefits. The Employment Insurance Act has to allow new mothers and workers who lose their jobs to use sick leave benefits when they need them. It has to allow a mother on parental leave to have the same extended qualifying period and benefit period as an individual who has been incarcerated, and not the reverse.
Instead of eliminating this exceptional measure, why not extend it to others? I would like to add that in our 2011 election platform, the NDP made a commitment to guarantee that parents who take maternity leave or parental leave would not be penalized in terms of benefits once they return to work. The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development recognized that there was a problem interpreting the Employment Insurance Act in the case of women on maternity leave and access to special illness benefits and regular benefits. She must now undertake to rectify a situation that is unfair to Canadian working women, rather than seeking out senseless solutions just to please the Conservative hard-liners on crime.
I am asking my fellow members to not pass this absurd and mean-spirited bill, which is not in keeping with the values of the Canadians who elected us. Why harm rather than help? Why penalize rather than support? Let us concentrate on the real priorities of Canadian families: employment, health care, quality of life and workers' rights. Logic dictates that we vote against Bill C-316.
I would like to close by speaking about something that I feel is very important. A person who is incarcerated for more than one year is not entitled to employment insurance. Eighty-eight percent of female inmates are incarcerated for committing economic crimes, most of which are motivated by poverty.
The NDP will be voting against Bill C-316.