Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to stand today in the House and address this most important topic, the motion dealing with our employment insurance benefit program, a program that I believe is one of the cornerstones of our social safety net within the country.
Before I go into detail on all the great things the program does and some of the challenges it will face and some of the changes that may be required, I would like to spend a couple of minutes to deal with process.
When I talk about process, I would like to lend some clarity, some rational discussion and rational positions on the process surrounding the report that came out of HRSD, how that report was addressed and how that report will be addressed in the House by the minister and cabinet.
Through you, Mr. Speaker, for those at home, the committee process is an incredibly invigorating and focused process. As parliamentary secretary, I happen to be a member of the human resource development committee. The committees that meet, whether it be HRSD, or Canadian heritage, defence, health, foreign affairs, whatever that committee might be, have a very specific focus. Whether they be members of the Liberal caucus, or the NDP, or the Bloc, generally speaking I believe committee people put forward their best effort to try to focus with a very specific mandate on the solutions they think are important. Committees work tremendously well, Mr. Speaker, as you well know. You sat on them. When committees have a very specific focus, they produce very clear recommendations.
Through you, Mr. Speaker, the people at home must understand the process is such that once those recommendations are made, they are brought forward to the House and debated in a more generalized context. They are debated taking into consideration many more things than simply the narrow focus of that committee, as does cabinet. Cabinet must view things in a very horizontal fashion, not in a very vertical fashion.
Therefore, it is not uncommon for Canadian heritage for that matter or HRSD to sometimes bring forward recommendations that are focused in a very linear fashion that can not always be adopted in the most timely fashion possible. That does not mean they are not being considered. That does not mean that parts of those recommendations are not being implemented. That does not mean it does not provide us with the opportunity to raise the level of debate in the House on a particular topic.
However, let us not buy into the rhetoric coming from Bloc, that just because a recommendation comes from committee, it must automatically become. That is irresponsible for the Bloc to even make that accusation or statement.
Once people have a clear understanding of how the process works, how actively engaged members of Parliament are in this process, I think they will have a higher level of comfort in some of the decisions that come from the House and some of the decisions that come from cabinet.
Specifically, on the employment insurance fund itself and the employment insurance program, this program has had an impact on Canadian society like few others have. We have a number of different occupations in my riding of Simcoe—Grey that from time to time have to rely on the EI program. We have a number of seasonal workers within my riding. They are seasonal workers not simply because they are forced into seasonal employment, but rather they are in seasonal employment by choice.
In some cases the EI program addresses the needs of those people who quite clearly cannot be gainfully employed 12 months of the year. In some cases it does not address some of the challenges of part time students. If we deal with part time students, we have to understand that some of these seasonal employment opportunities are stepping stones, as is fortunately the case in my riding.
I have a tremendous number of young people who come back to my riding every summer to explore career opportunities. They work for a specific period of time and then they go back to university. Those people are clearly seasonal employees and it is clear that they are using seasonal employment as a stepping stone, as do many.
However, let us go beyond that and talk about some of the other incredible things that this EI account has done in the past. I would suggest that over the last 60 years of this program it has been a flagship of the fine Canadian social fabric and the fine Canadian social safety net that we have in this country. It is one of the flagships. Throughout the OECD and, for that matter, around the world, this program would be the envy of most countries.
Does that mean it is doing everything it should? Clearly not. This government has been incredibly responsive to the needs and the challenges as they have come forward on an ongoing basis, and certainly over the past 9 or 10 years as changes have been required, changes have been brought forward. We have seen the EI rates reduced on a number of different occasions. I might add that for many these EI reforms we have brought forward, we unfortunately have not been able to get the support of our Bloc colleagues.
We make positive changes to the employment insurance program and the Bloc votes against us. I think there is a certain amount of hypocrisy when those members say in one breath they think there needs to be change, this government responds, and then they vote against it. I am not sure what kind of language we would choose for that, but it is certainly contradictory at best.
Let me talk about some of the things that this program has done in my riding and about some of the people and some of the families it has supported. Let me say that I am very, very proud of some of the things this program has accomplished. I know that due to circumstances beyond employees' control, from time to time they have to rely on this employment insurance account. We have to put this into dollars: Over $11 billion was paid out last year to families like those in Simcoe—Grey, families that have had an unfortunate situation arise with plant closures, plant layoffs or seasonal work. Any number of different things will impact this, but the program has been there for them.
For those who have paid in, those who qualify, over 83% actually achieve the benefit of the program. That is a staggering number, so we cannot deal simply with the rhetoric coming from the Bloc.
As the Parliamentary Secretary for Human Resources and Skills Development, I can stand here in the House without any trepidation whatsoever and tell members that the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and the Liberal members of caucus, and certainly those from Quebec, have put forward the strongest arguments possible to make sure that the changes we make, the changes that need to be addressed to meet the needs of the people, are done in the most timely fashion possible. I sit in on briefing after briefing. We sit in on strategy meetings with some of the most senior officials within the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development and this is one of the number one priorities. The minister is fully engaged.
But we also have to recognize that we do look at things in a very horizontal fashion on this side of the House, and on that side of the House they should as well. In doing so in that horizontal fashion, if we are going to make changes we have to understand what the implications are of those changes. That does take a little time. As we have done in the past, we want to make sure that when we make decisions and make changes we get it right the first time. That is the process that is under way right now.
I will take this opportunity to talk about some of the incredible changes that have taken place in the EI program. When we were raising our children and my wife or I had to take time off work after the birth of our children, it was a very specific period of time that we were allowed to take, the reason being that we were a young family and we needed the income. We had to get back into the workforce in order to generate income to support our family. That was unfortunate.
I say it was unfortunate because our children lost out on something that this generation is not going to lose out on. There can be no more important time in a child's life than those first few months after being born. And what better quality time, what better motivating force, what greater impact can a parent have than being at home with that newborn child? I was incredibly proud to stand in the House and vote for the women having babies in this country today so that they qualify for EI and are able to stay home for a full year to spend that kind of quality time with and give that kind of commitment to their children. At the end of the day, as has been said time and time again in this House, there is no more valuable resource in this country than our children.
I was very proud to see that kind of change within the EI account and to see that kind of change come forward from this side of the House, from my Liberal colleagues. I know some of the moms and dads who have benefited as a result. Gratefully, I know some of the children who are going to benefit from that. How well-rounded a child can become with that kind of interaction with their parents in that first year. What a tremendous opportunity. What an incredibly civil approach to society in addressing the needs of our children to make those kinds of changes to address those challenges.
We must not let it be said that changes have not been brought forward by this government, because clearly there have been, and those changes were the right changes. Those changes have had lasting positive consequences and there are Canadians from coast to coast to coast who would stand up and say they were the right things to do.
We must also recognize, of course, that as we make these changes in the House we are not simply talking about one EI recipient. We are talking about decisions that quite clearly could have an impact to the tune of billions of dollars. Canadians rightfully expect and deserve and receive from this government an approach that says we must mind this money carefully.
So when I say we have to make sure that we weigh out all the options, that is exactly what I mean. The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development stands in the House and says that he is waiting to get all the facts, that he is waiting to get all the information. One very important piece of information is the report that came out of HRSD, but it is one piece of information. There are other areas we have to collect information from.
And I know this is time sensitive. I did not get involved in politics and voted in to see people do without. I did not dedicate a good part of my life to this and then come to the House to see people do without. Liberal members of Parliament in this House did not get into politics to see people do without.
We are compassionate, caring people. We want to help. We want to do things that will raise the quality of life, not only in Quebec but all across the country, but I am also here to say that we have an obligation to those very same people to make sure that any of the changes we bring forward are done in a proper fashion, to make sure we have a clear appreciation of the consequences of those decisions, positive and negative. To suggest that we rush into things, to suggest that we simply look at a sliver of evidence and base conclusions and, in turn, decisions on that sliver of evidence, is irresponsible.
It is easy in opposition. I am not criticizing those members for it, but it is easy in opposition to say the government should do this or should do that. They do not have to live with the consequences. They do not have to look at things in a horizontal fashion. They do not have to make sure that things are done in a balanced fashion.
We hear the rhetoric about softwood lumber. We heard the member who stood up and said the government has done nothing for those who have been hurt by this softwood lumber dispute between Canada and the U.S. That is not true. I cannot be any clearer than that. It is simply not true. This government has responded. It has responded in a number of ways. If the hon. member truly believes that a quarter of a billion dollars, $250 million focused in on this particular challenge in a very short period of time, is nothing, perhaps he should go back to his riding and explain to the taxpayers that a quarter of a billion dollars means nothing.
I will stand here and tell the member today that there has been a massive investment within the softwood lumber industry since the challenges by the United States took place, and we are making progress. The most recent progress, of course, was the decision that clearly sided with the Government of Canada. That did not happen by itself. The Minister of International Trade, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister himself have been fully engaged in this file. To simply say that we are doing nothing is not accurate.
I know the hon. member wants to do what is right for his constituents, as do I. We are caring, compassionate people. We are trying to accommodate the needs of Canadians, but we have to do so in a balanced fashion.
It is this kind of balance that people require of government. There is no balance coming from the opposition members because they do not have to look at these things in a horizontal manner. They do not have to understand. They do not have to appreciate the fact that there are significant consequences. We have to make sure we understand them. In short, the opposition is not responsible for delivering the important services that the people in this country require.
It is clear that changes are required. There are gaps within our society and challenges within our economy. There are regional problems, not the very least of which are in my riding from time to time. We have to be sensitive to them and we are. Nobody in the House will fight more viciously or more aggressively than I if I have a problem in my riding and I think the government can respond to it in a timely fashion. Of course, I also respect the fact that in responding to that we have to understand what the impacts are, both from a revenue standpoint and from a societal standpoint.
As for the Bloc members, let us drop the rhetoric. We have to work in a collegial, cooperative fashion. Enough talk about elections. Let us try to resolve the problem. Let us try to resolve it as a team. That is what the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development has been saying. He is saying that there is no time to try to score political points on the backs of the unemployed. The opportunity is there to work together to address the needs.
I fully expect members from the Bloc, if I have challenges in my riding, to support me in helping me try to address them. That is what we are supposed to do in the House. We are here to help. We are here to build a better Canada. For members of the opposition to suggest otherwise is just untrue and quite frankly slights the House and slights individuals like me, individuals who truly believe that when we work together, when we work in a collective, we can accomplish some great things.
But I come back to the responsibilities of government. Nobody in the House takes this issue more seriously than the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development. He has dedicated enormous amounts of time to this. He is making sure that no rock is left unturned with respect to what the potential consequences of various changes will be. He is looking at countless scenarios and he is doing so because he wants to get it right. He wants to make sure that whether it is a seasonal worker in Quebec or a seasonal worker in Alliston the program is there to support them in the most appropriate way possible.
I have to conclude by simply saying this. The time is now to drop the political rhetoric. We have Liberal colleagues from Quebec, from New Brunswick and from British Columbia who are uniting and saying we must make sure these issues get resolved. We need the opposition to join us. We need the opposition to recognize that the only way to address the needs of Canadians, the only way, is to do so in a collective approach: to have a good debate, to find the right solution, and to support it, not as in the past to vote against some of the changes we made, but to support the recommendations that will be coming forward.
I am sure that at some point in the not too distant future the minister is going to come forward with some changes, whatever they might be. When he comes forward with those changes it is certainly my hope that the Bloc members, who are saying here today that change is necessary, will stand there as they have today and say, “Good work, Mr. Minister”. I hope they will say that he made the changes that Canadians required. I hope they will say, “We are here to support that change. We are here to make sure the money is delivered to those who need it most”.
A number of different things have come out of the EI account that have had incredibly positive impacts within my very own riding. Let us think about the unemployment rate at the present time being somewhere around 7.5%. Even better news than this is the fact that the unemployment rate for women in Canada is now about 5.8%. This is astonishing and this is positive.
That did not simply happen by itself. That happened as a result of a collective approach. This is how Canada works. We stand shoulder to shoulder when we recognize challenges and we overcome them. That is what happened.
When we took office in 1993, unemployment rates in my riding were close to 15% and now they are down below 5% because of our collective approach to addressing these things.
Some of the money from the EI account was used to help train people in Collingwood, Wasaga Beach and Clearview. These moneys were spent to upgrade the skills that those people possess and, in turn, it created a better standard of living for them.
The answer is simple. I ask all members to please work with us to make sure that we get the right solutions in the right time.