Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this important debate on the motion brought forward by the hon. member for Madawaska—Restigouche.
As the Minister of Human Resources Development and other colleagues have already noted, the government is assessing the viability of the small weeks concept and we are closer to making a decision on how these projects can best serve the employment needs of Canadians.
It is important to stress that employment insurance is the most comprehensive reform of income support in 25 years. It should be quite evident that a reform of this magnitude would require certain adjustments.
Members opposite have also expressed concern regarding the benefits to unemployment ratio, commonly referred to as the BU ratio.
In this regard the government has conducted a study on the BU ratio. The study indicated that the ratio was not a good indicator of how well the employment insurance system is doing. The problem is that the ratio does not distinguish between those workers for whom the program was designed and those for whom the program was never intended.
What the study showed is that the decline in BU ratio over the past 10 years is the result of a 50:50 split between the changes to the employment insurance program and changes in the labour market. The study showed 78% of unemployed workers who lost their jobs or quit with just cause were eligible for EI.
I remind hon. members that the purpose of EI is to provide temporary benefits to unemployed Canadians who have an attachment to the labour force. In that regard, the evidence strongly suggests that EI is meeting its objective.
We have not forgotten the Canadians who do not qualify for income benefits under the new EI system. We are addressing the needs of those individuals through a number of EI related initiatives. I am thinking of initiatives such as the active employment measures under EI, the transitional jobs fund, the youth employment strategy, the Canadian opportunities strategy and the new hires program.
At the same time let us be realistic. EI alone will not be able to address the needs of all unemployed Canadians. EI is not a panacea. It is simply one of several tools that Canadian workers can use to help return to the labour market.
As members opposite are aware, the EI act calls for five annual monitoring and assessment reports to determine how well individuals and communities are adjusting to the new system.
The 1997 report is the first, and naturally it gives us a general indication of the impact EI is having. This is to be expected with a new system as it encounters the real needs of Canadians. We know, for example, that some people are finding extra weeks of work before applying for unemployment insurance. It is terrific to see that in areas with strong economic growth people are finding jobs rather than having to apply for EI benefits.
Speaking of jobs, over the past five years 1.3 million Canadians have found employment. The International Monetary Fund and the OECD predict that this year Canada's job growth rate will be the fastest among the major industrialized nations.
While we acknowledge that the unemployment rate remains a challenge, although it is now at the lowest level in eight years, no one can say we are not making progress.
That is the real measure of success for this new income support system, fewer unemployed, not more EI beneficiaries. The goal after all is to help unemployed Canadians get back to work.
The government recognizes that monitoring and assessment reports are a crucial part of EI reform. It is important to inform Canadians on the impact that reform of the income support system is having on individuals and their communities. Given its magnitude and the limited time the EI system has been in place, I believe this first of five annual reports indicates that we are moving in the right direction.
I said EI cannot be expected to address the needs of all unemployed Canadians. That is why we have other measures that I have mentioned.
Our goal is inclusive. We are committed to helping Canadians move into the economic mainstream and become self-reliant, contributing members of their communities.
I am sure hon. members will agree that nothing fights poverty better than a rewarding job.
That is the thrust behind the transitional jobs fund which has helped to create 31,000 jobs in high unemployment regions.
We also have the family income supplement which helps low income EI claimants with children. We have contributed $190 million to a new federal-provincial initiative that helps people with disabilities to gain better access to the workforce.
As well, we have taken steps that directly address child poverty. We increased the Canada child tax benefit by $850 million in July and we will further increase it by another $850 million in the next two years.
These initial investments which will benefit low income families will increase our total investment for children to about $6.8 billion by the year 2000.
I remind the hon. member for Madawaska—Restigouche that Canadians told us in no uncertain terms that the old unemployment insurance system was out of date and badly in need of reform. It was a passive system that did not encourage unemployed workers to return to the labour force. EI on the other hand encourages workers to take all available work before applying for funds.
We do not want to return to the days where the UI system was regularly used to supplement incomes. The government is monitoring the system carefully. I encourage members opposite to join with us in helping Canadians find work. For these reasons I cannot vote in favour of the hon. member's motion.