moved that Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to move Bill C-316, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration).
Simply put, the bill would ensure that a convicted criminal would not have preferential access to EI benefits compared to law-abiding Canadians. The bill would remove the extension to the qualifying period and the benefit period under the employment insurance program that is currently equal to a time a convict spends in prison.
As we speak, convicted felons have the ability to extend their qualifying and benefit periods up to a maximum period of 104 weeks as opposed to 52 weeks for a law-abiding citizen who is out of work. People out there do not know this. It is a section of the Employment Insurance Act that must be changed. Given these extensions are not available to law-abiding claimants who are actively looking for work, this is simply not fair. Bill C-316 would remove the extension of the qualification and benefit period for the time someone spends in jail.
The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development has indicated that the government would like to move two friendly amendments, and I certainly support these amendments.
The first amendment would ensure that my bill would only remove the extension of qualification and the benefit periods for individuals who have actually been convicted of a crime and are in jail. This would ensure that individuals held in pre-trial custody but who are subsequently found innocent would not be affected by this bill.
The second amendment would have the bill coming into force on a Sunday. This would align the implementation date of the bill with the employment insurance calendar, which works in two week increments starting on a Sunday.
I will quickly reflect on how the current employment insurance system works and what motivated me to move the bill.
Currently, when an individual applies for employment insurance they are evaluated as to whether they have worked enough hours in the qualifying period to receive benefits. The standard qualifying period is 52 weeks in length. The qualifying period can only be extended under four circumstances under the act and can only be extended only to a maximum of 104 weeks. I will read them to give some context as to why I feel the exemption related to prison must be removed.
The first extension for being incapable of work is because of prescribed illness, injury, quarantine or pregnancy. The second extension is being confined in jail, a penitentiary or a similar institution. The third applies if one receives some assistance under employment benefits, such as a plan from one's previous employer. The fourth relates to receiving payments under a provincial law on the basis of having ceased to work because continuing to work could result in danger to an unborn child or a child for whom a woman might be breastfeeding.
It is the second provision related to jail that I am seeking to amend because it relates to circumstances under the control of the individual. I will provide an example of how the exemption works.
Under our current legislation, a convicted criminal could be in jail for one year, come out of jail, apply for EI and the hours worked in the last two years would be considered qualified for employment insurance. A law-abiding citizen who applied at the same time would only be able to count the hours worked in the last year. In other words, a convicted criminal who spent a year in jail would have 104 weeks to apply for a 52-week qualification period. It is as if the prison time simply did not count. However, a person who took a year off for family reasons or to pursue some other interest would only have a 52-week period. This is not fair.
A similar situation could occur with the benefits period. Typically, an individual can only receive regular employment insurance benefits for 52 weeks after the date of applying. There is an exemption if someone has been in jail or prison, like I just mentioned. Someone coming out of prison would be allowed an extension of 104 weeks in which he or she could take employment benefits. It would be as if the 52 weeks spent in jail did not happen and he or she would start on 52 weeks. That is not fair.
It is particularly unfair because any regular EI benefits that a law-abiding citizen applies for but does not take within 52 weeks of filing disappears once that 52 week period expires. This is in contrast to a convicted felon who could collect benefits for up to 104 weeks after making a claim, depending on the time spent in prison.
This is all in contrast to the law-abiding citizen who started receiving the same length of benefits as the convicted criminal. The law-abiding citizen would lose his or her benefits, while the convicted criminal would retain his or her benefits because of being in prison. It is just not fair.
Someone convicted of a crime should not receive preferential access to employment insurance benefits. Individuals choose to commit crimes. Why should those individuals receive preferential treatment over law-abiding citizens who choose to take time off and as a result would lose the benefit period? It is simply not fair.
It is one thing if someone is unable to work because of sickness. It is another matter entirely if someone convicted of a crime has greater access. That is the basis of my bill. That individual chose to break the law.
To be clear, this is not about punishing criminals further. Our justice legislation is clear about what the punishment for crime should be and thanks to a strong, stable, national Conservative majority government what the punishment will be.
The bill is about ensuring that convicted felons are forced to live by the same rules as law-abiding citizens. What Canadian would agree that a convicted felon should receive preferential treatment with regard to employment insurance benefits? No right-thinking Canadian would support that for a second.
People who choose to break the law and lose their jobs because of it is no different than people being fired for just cause. Those individuals made a choice to act in some way that ended the employment, whether they committed a crime and went to jail, or whether they committed some other offence on the job that caused them to be fired. They made a choice and they should not receive preferential EI benefits over a hard-working, law-abiding Canadians who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. It should not happen, and that is the purpose of my bill.
The bill is about fundamental fairness when it comes to accessing employment insurance benefits. Canada probably has the most generous and most helpful employment insurance programs than any other country in the world. We only have to look at the last couple of years when we were going through the recession. One only has to look at the bills our government brought in, such as the extended work benefits and job sharing. We have done everything we can, something unheard of in most other countries. This government believes in fairness. We are being fair to the law-abiding people who work our country. As I said before, the issue is fairness.
Should a convicted felon found guilty of wilfully committing a criminal act be given preferential access to employment insurance benefits simply for being confined to a jail? Members on this side of the House say a resounding no, that this should not happen. As I said, any clear-thinking Canadian would come up with the same response, no.
Therefore, I ask my colleagues in this place to support the bill in principle and pass it at second reading because it is the right thing to do. Who in the House can successfully argue that someone who has wilfully committed a crime and gone to jail should all of a sudden be eligible for preferential treatment under the EI program? I suggest no one can. I am afraid, given the NDP's soft on crime ideology, that there will be some arguments, but it is beyond me how it will be able to justify that.
I am sure that people watching this at home tonight never knew that people who went to jail because they had committed crimes would have preferential treatment. They are probably wondering how that could possibly happen. It happened years ago when the Employment Insurance Act was written. I do not know what government it was under, but somehow the provision was put in that allowed for this.
I ask my colleagues in this place to support this bill at second reading. It is a good bill. It is a bill that needs to be passed to clean up that portion of the act that is simply not fair.
Our government has clearly shown that it cares about people who go through hard times because they lose their jobs. We have expanded the access to Canadians who have found themselves in that position. It is only right for a caring government to do that. This government cares about working Canadians and their ability to provide for their families through their jobs. We will always be there for Canadians, but we must not allow people who wilfully put themselves in positions where they are convicted of crimes and go to jail or who wilfully get fired from their jobs to have preferential treatment over people who are hard working and lose their jobs through no fault of their own.