Mr. Speaker, I would like to rise today to say, on behalf of the NDP, that we completely refuse to support Bill C-316.
It is not favourable treatment, as the hon. member said. A prisoner who is serving a sentence of less than 52 weeks is there because of a minor crime. He is not there because he killed someone or committed a major crime. He is in prison for a minor offence.
Suppose the person worked for 15 years and was then sentenced to less than 52 weeks in prison for committing a minor crime. Under the current legislation, that person can claim employment insurance benefits when he gets out of prison because he has to return to society. Suppose that person served a sentence of 30 weeks in prison. He has to return to society.
How would such a person reintegrate into society? How would he go about looking for employment? How would he approach different workers in a small or large business, depending on his occupation and training? This person was in prison for a certain period of time and therefore has to reintegrate into society. In all likelihood, he will have a lot of difficulty doing so because people do not want to have anything to do with former inmates.
Someone getting out of prison receives EI benefits in exactly the same way as everyone else who is entitled to receive EI benefits after having worked for a certain amount of time, and this period during which he receives benefits will allow him to find a job and return to society.
If this person is not given this time to reintegrate into society, he will not be able to earn a living and there is a good chance he will return to petty crime, which would only send him back to prison. This person, therefore, has a right to a period of EI benefits.
This bill would repeal the provisions that extend the EI qualifying period and the payment of EI benefits to a claimant who has been in jail or prison or any establishment of that sort. This is completely discriminatory and does nothing to address the real flaws in the Employment Insurance Act.
To understand the negative impact of these amendments to the Employment Insurance Act, we have to look at the facts.
Currently, the legislation stipulates that where a person proves that the person was not employed in insurable employment for one or more weeks during the qualifying period because the person was confined in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution, that qualifying period is extended by the same number of weeks during which he or she was detained and was thus unavailable for work, to a maximum extension of 52 weeks. The maximum qualifying period, as we know, is 104 weeks.
Having spent 52 weeks in prison, a person applies and is entitled to 52 weeks. All the other measures are applied as well, but it depends on the unemployment rate in the region and the number of weeks worked before going to prison. This measure does not, of course, apply to inmates who are detained for more than a year.
I want to come back to the story of the woman who prompted the hon. member to introduce this bill. She went to the member's riding office and told him her story. She told him that she went back to school after having worked for 15 years. Then, when she was looking for work, she became sick and was diagnosed with cancer. She went back to see her MP to find out whether she could get employment insurance benefits.
Two wrongs do not make a right.
Instead of dealing with the woman's request properly and helping her find a solution, and instead of introducing a bill to amend employment insurance, the member combed through the bill for something else he did not like. He discovered that a prisoner can have spent time in jail, be released, claim employment insurance and be entitled to receive it. The member figured that was not fair, but the two scenarios have nothing to do with each other. As I said, two wrongs do not make a right. The two have nothing to do with each other. He is mixing up two completely different issues.
What the member should have done was introduce an amendment to the bill to enable the woman to collect sickness benefits during her cancer treatment, then, once she recovers, to collect employment insurance benefits so that she can reintegrate into society because she is unable to work.
It is abundantly clear that this bill is a badly disguised attempt to further restrict access to employment insurance for people who have paid into the system, and this at a time when fewer Canadians than ever before are eligible.
Furthermore, if these former inmates are denied employment insurance to help them get out of the cycle of poverty and petty crime, they will be forced to turn to social assistance.
This downloads the cost onto the provinces, and the provinces will have to foot the bill when these people are released, if they are not given access to employment insurance.
When I first became aware of Bill C-316, my first thought was this: who on this planet could possibly oppose the rehabilitation of our most vulnerable citizens? Who could possibly oppose the rapid reintegration of people into the labour market?
When he appeared before the committee, the member for Cariboo—Prince George explained what led him to create his bill. During his testimony, the member said he had been informed of an unfortunate situation facing one of his constituents, as I said earlier.
As he was reading the legislation to try to help his constituent, the member for Cariboo—Prince George learned of the measures that are available to inmates and he was outraged.
It should come as no surprise that I do not believe that this way of doing things serves any purpose or is constructive in any way. A society makes progress by constantly improving its legislation and not by regressing and bullying more and more people.
The Employment Insurance Act does have shortcomings that this government should hasten to address in order to make the system more accessible and fair for everyone, particularly for unfortunate people such as the one we just spoke about or for women who lose their jobs when they return from maternity leave.
What is even worse is not that the government is doing absolutely nothing to resolve the shortcomings in this legislation and to help Canadians; the worst thing is that this government prefers inflict more pain on other people who have certain rights.
Why not find positive solutions and introduce a bill that would extend the qualifying period and the benefit period for people who are not covered under the current legislation, such as the woman who wanted to upgrade her skills but fell ill?
In the end, we must simply conclude that, when people go to a Conservative office to ask for help, they come away empty-handed. I am certain that the woman who, one day, asked for help from her Conservative member was not thrilled to see that this government has done nothing to resolve her problem and that it now wants to do away with the special provision for inmates—in the interest of fairness, or so it claims.
In his testimony in committee, again to explain the merits of his bill, the hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George said that it was completely unfair to grant favouritism to someone who has committed a crime but not to someone who has gone back to school to upgrade her skills.
I would like to remind the House that this information is false and borders dangerously on misinformation. Inmates are not granted any favouritism when they receive employment insurance benefits. They are simply on standby to receive their benefits because they worked before going to prison.
If the inmate is eligible for benefits, it is because he—out of his own pocket—and his employer contributed enough to the employment insurance plan for a specified period of weeks.
If a person who wants to upgrade his skills or go back to school in order to enter the labour market falls ill, then that person does not have access to employment insurance benefits because he did not contribute to the plan for the number of weeks or hours required. It has nothing to do with the fact that the person was an inmate but everything to do with whether that person worked the number of weeks required to be eligible.
It is important to remember that when a law is amended it must be amended for the better.