Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise as the sponsor of this private member's bill, C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration).
The opposition members have tried to go a lot of different ways to take the focus off the real purpose of the bill. They have tried to make their presentations a little more believable or palatable as they oppose it. They are getting away from the fundamental purpose of the bill, that is, to take away the favourable treatment under the Employment Insurance Act that a convicted felon has over hard-working Canadians who would find themselves in the same circumstances having to apply for EI.
Let me give an example. We will take person A. Person A has been working for a couple of years and makes a decision to break the law, goes to court, gets convicted, and spends a year in jail. I know that some of the members over there do not understand this. Person A spends 12 months in jail, comes out, goes to work for a couple of months, maybe gets laid off and applies for EI. Under EI, he or she would have had to have worked in the previous 12 months, but in reality he or she only worked for two months.
This is where it is unfair. The year that person A spent in prison is as if it had never existed. It never existed that he or she went to jail for a year because the EI Act says that the period from the time person A was convicted until his or her time of release is wiped out. Whatever he or she did after getting out of prison is just added on to the period he or she had worked before. Therefore, that convicted felon could apply for EI and get it because he or she has had that extension.
Here is person B. This is a true story. This is a young lady who has been working for four or five years and paying EI premiums. She finds that her skill levels put in jeopardy her ability to continue working without fear of being laid off. She makes a personal decision to leave her job and go into a year's training to get an upgraded certification, which she pays for herself. She completes that training. With her certificate she gets a new job that pays better money and has more opportunity. She works for two months. The company she works for has some financial problems and she gets laid off. She goes to EI to collect employment insurance and is told that she does not qualify because she did not work in the previous 12 months.
That is not fair at all. That is what this bill is all about. It is not about penalizing. It is about bringing a sense of fairness to the act. That is the essence of this bill.
If this bill is passed it will change the provision which allows convicted offenders to receive extensions in their EI qualification period and their EI benefit collection period. They can add a year on either side. The average Canadian cannot do that.
Our government believes, and I support, that the right to an extension should be provided only to Canadians who deserve it. It should not be available to convicted felons who become incarcerated. Members must remember that nobody just breaks the law by accident. The culpability lies with the person who commits the act. There are penalties to pay. They pay the penalty. That is fine. They come out and they have paid their penalty to society.
However, they should not be rewarded under the EI Act and given more favourable treatment than ordinary working Canadians who may find themselves in a similar set of circumstances, except for the prison.
As well, convicted felons can double the qualifying period when hours are counted to determine benefits or they can double the period for which benefits are taken. The average hard-working Canadian simply cannot do that.
As the act now stands, these conditions are certainly more favourable to the released offender than they are to a majority of EI claimants, and that is most unfair. That is what the bill is all about. We could nickname the bill the EI fairness bill to bring fairness to the EI system.
Under the standard system of EI rules, for law-abiding citizens to be eligible for EI benefits they must have paid premiums while they were working, they must be available for work and they must have accumulated a certain number of hours work within the qualifying period. I want to go over this again just so folks get it. People must have worked within the qualifying period, which is normally 52 weeks, before they lost their job through no fault of their own. That means, generally speaking, if they have been out of work for more than 52 weeks they are not eligible to receive EI benefits. Those are regular hard-working Canadians who lose their job through no fault of their own.
These same rules do not apply to someone who has been working, commits a crime and goes to jail. The rules are much better for them than they are for the first person I described.
The EI program does make exception for people who are not able to accumulate the required number of hours within the 52 week qualifying period because of circumstances beyond their control, not because they committed a crime and went to jail. That was within their control. These are circumstances beyond their control. The EI program will extend the qualifying period for up to two years for people who cannot work because of special circumstances beyond their control, such as pregnancy, illness, injury or quarantine.
After an EI claim is established, a person normally has 52 weeks to collect the benefits. This is referred to as the “benefit period” and may be extended to deserving people up to 104 weeks for similar reasons that I have just mentioned.
Qualifying and benefit extensions apply to both regular and specific benefits, which are maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits.
Under the current act, claimants may also have their qualifying or benefit period extended beyond the usual 52 weeks for each week they are confined in a jail, in a penitentiary or a similar situation. The EI Act puts in the same box people who have had circumstances beyond their control, such as pregnancy, illness, injury or quarantine, in the same category, the EI Act unfairly puts them in with a convicted felon who goes to jail. Now that just does not seem right.
Do members know what? Since the bill was introduced, I have had so many calls asking what the bill is all about. When I explain the bill to folks and tell them about the favouritism that a convicted felon gets over a hard-working Canadian, the most common response is, “You've got to be kidding. I could not imagine that provision exists for someone who commits a crime and goes to jail”. They say, “Well, good for you. Get your bill through and we'll take that out of there”.
What we are trying to do with Bill C-316 is get rid of the favouritism that is extended to convicted felons and we want to bring some fairness back to the way people qualify and receive benefits if they are unable to work.
It is very simple and I ask all members in the House to support the bill because it is really important.