Mr. Speaker, I cannot help but want to comment just one more time on the hon. member's dissertation following my question and his resolve that it is just up to the House of Commons committee to make a decision to pursue what it is the government has concerns about.
That is the way democracy works. The hon. member for the Bloc knows full well that there is a process by which we do things around here. He asked to be at the committee. It was the human resources and skills development committee. A committee is the master of its own destiny. He brings that idea forward to committee. Then the committee makes a decision on its priorities on the issues that it wants to deal with as a committee. It has nothing to do with this House or votes or the government's moving in on a committee.
The first thing the member would do if the government or the House of Commons started intruding on the business of independent committees would be to get on his feet in a second and say, “How dare they intrude on the business of the committee. The committee is the master of its own destiny and we shall choose whether or not we discuss this issue or that issue at committee”. The hon. member has to be completely open and honest with the House and his constituents back home.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to join in on the debate on the member's motion to review further proposals to reform employment insurance.
I would like to begin by saying that the government is committed to ensuring that EI is there for Canadians. It is our commitment to make changes to the EI program when the need for change is clearly demonstrated.
Ever since the new employment insurance program was introduced back in 1996, the government has shown a willingness to listen to Canadians. We have made adjustments to the system based on sound evidence in order to ensure that EI is there for Canadians when they need it and that the program continues to be responsive to changing circumstances in the labour market.
Moreover, the record shows that we are working diligently to make sure the EI system is responsive to the needs of all Canadians, including those living in Quebec.
When the government brought in a new employment insurance system in 1996, we were determined to ensure the long term viability of Canada's employment insurance system. We also committed to monitoring and assessing the program to see how individuals and communities were adjusting. Where evidence has shown that adjustments are needed, changes have been made. These objectives have guided our approach to EI reform in the past and they will continue to guide us today.
By most accounts, this approach to EI is serving Canadians well. Today we have a program that is financially stable. Premiums have declined from their historic high levels of $3.07 in 1994 to a low of $1.98 this year. An estimated 88% of Canadian workers would be potentially eligible for EI if they lost their jobs today.
We also have a program that is evolving to respond to changing needs. The government recognizes that some regions and groups of workers, such as workers in certain seasonal industries, can face particular challenges as they seek to adapt to changing labour market realities and the new economy.
The EI system is responding to special circumstances like these in appropriate ways. Indeed, a look at the records shows how the government has already made program changes to reflect the changing needs of Canadians since 1996, including the needs of seasonal workers.
Bill C-2 that was passed by the House in 2001 is a good example. It included a number of significant changes that are relevant to today's debate. There is the elimination of the intensity rule so that frequent claimants would not be penalized; a better targeting of the clawback to ensure that first time claimants, claimants collecting special benefits, and claimants in lower and middle income families would no longer have to repay their benefits; an adjustment to ensure parents re-entering the labour market could qualify for benefits on the same basis as other workers.
Since Bill C-2 was passed, the government has also improved the EI system in other ways, such as through changes to the small weeks provisions. Originally introduced as a pilot program in 1998, the small weeks provisions are designed to help seasonal and part time workers maintain their attachment to the labour force and therefore their eligibility for EI by encouraging them to accept work with lower earnings without reducing potential EI benefits.
Now a permanent part of EI, the small weeks provisions have allowed over 185,000 individuals to earn both higher incomes while working and an average of $12 more in weekly EI benefits than would have been otherwise done.
Another good example relates to the economic regions set up under the EI program in the year 2000 to take into account the higher unemployment rates that exist in some parts of our great country. We know that some workers in some areas, particularly seasonal workers, need more time to adjust to the changes made in 2000 and we have shown flexibility in our response to regional concerns.
For example, in the Bas-St-Laurent-Côte Nord region in Quebec and the Madawaska-Charlotte region in western New Brunswick, a special transitional period has been put in place. This means claimants in these regions require fewer hours to qualify for EI benefits and can receive benefits for a longer period than they would have without the transitional period.
In addition, we have changed the way that undeclared earnings are calculated to make it easier for employers and fairer for claimants. Apprentices are now only required to serve one two-week waiting period during the duration of their training. Quality of service continues to be the focus of significant ongoing work and we have taken concrete steps to prevent and respond to fraud and abuse.
The government is continuing to work with local committees in the regions and others to monitor the situation. It is prepared to make other changes where evidence indicates that it is appropriate.
To sum up, a careful look at the government's record on EI illustrates that the government is listening and is willing to make changes that are in the best interests of Canadians and the long term sustainability of the EI program.
One of the strengths of our EI system is its adaptability. It means that we can adapt to the evolving needs of Canada's workers and changing labour market conditions, but it does not mean accepting every change that is proposed.
The government is clearly committed to ensuring EI remains financially viable for the long term. It is equally committed to ensuring that the system is responsive to legitimate needs that do arise.
The record shows we have done the right thing in the past with EI. I know that we will continue to do the right thing in the future.