moved that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
She said: Mr. Speaker, today I am very pleased to introduce Bill . Our government knows that self-employed Canadians should not have to choose between their family and their business responsibilities. Extending access to employment insurance special benefits to the self-employed is the fair and the right thing to do.
Our government knows that families are the foundation of this great country and this bill is yet another example of how our government is providing support and choice for Canadian families. It is good family policy and it represents one of the most significant enhancements to the EI program in the last decade.
Self-employed workers in Canada are often the innovators in our economy. These are people who contribute their creativity, their courage and their capital in pursuit of a better life. Their dynamism strengthens our communities, and that, in turn, makes Canada a stronger country.
Some 2.6 million Canadians are self-employed. They account for more than 15% of the working population.
It is very important to note that the self-employed have been asking for these benefits for quite some time and for 13 years, the former Liberal government completely ignored them and their families, but our Conservative government is responding by taking action.
Self-employed Canadians come from a broad range of situations and their incomes vary widely. There are professionals, scientists, technicians, tradespeople and retailers. Their work ranges from agriculture and construction to real estate and the performing arts.
It is important to note that about one-third of all self-employed women are of child-bearing age and many of them are choosing self-employment because it provides the flexibility of combining a career with raising a family. In tough economic times like these, self-employment also offers a way for many laid-off workers to stay active in the labour market.
Our government believes that the supports available to people who choose this path are insufficient today and that is why we are talking about supports that many salaried employees consider a given. Salaried employees who pay EI premiums have access, through the EI program, to a number of special benefits: maternity leave, parental leave, sickness and injury leave, and compassionate care leave. The self-employed, sadly, do not, and our government believes this is unfair.
A year ago, the said:
Self-employed Canadians, and those who one day hope to be, shouldn’t have to choose between starting a family and starting a business because of government policy. It should allow them to pursue their dreams, both as entrepreneurs and as parents.
At the time, we planned to offer maternity and parental benefits to self-employed workers. Our Conservative government keeps its promises. This bill delivers even more than we promised. Our government plans to offer all special employment insurance benefits, including maternity benefits, parental benefits, sickness benefits and compassionate care benefits, to self-employed workers
This bill will have a major impact on the lives of Canadian self-employed workers. Self-employed mothers and fathers will now be able to take a break to take care of their newborns for a year. They will not miss their child's first steps or first words because now, they can collect maternity and parental benefits.
We know that increasing numbers of adults are becoming part of what is known as the sandwich generation and are taking care of an elderly parent. With access to compassionate care benefits, self-employed Canadians will be able to take time away from work to care for a terminally ill parent or other relative. Every Canadian knows how important it is to be able to spend time with and to care for family, and this bill will give self-employed Canadians the same opportunity.
Overall, special benefits for the self-employed would mirror those available to salaried employees under the EI program. Contributions and benefits for the self-employed would be comparable whether earnings came from self-employment, salaried employment, or a mix of the two.
While our overall goal is to make these special benefits for the self-employed the same as those for salaried employees, some adjustments are needed to reflect the unique nature of this type of employment. Specifically, participation in the program will be voluntary. Qualification will be based on earnings, not on hours worked. The self-employed will have to contribute to the program for at least one year prior to claiming benefits, and once they have made a claim, they will need to continue contributions on future self-employed income.
The self-employed would pay the same premium rate as salaried employees and they would not be required to pay the employer's portion of the premium rate. This is quite simply to recognize the fact that the self-employed will not have access to EI regular benefits, the ones that people collect when they have been laid off.
We expect that between 300,000 and 500,000 Canadians will apply for this coverage over the next three years.
I would like to clarify that self-employed workers in Quebec will continue to receive maternity and parental benefits under the Quebec parental insurance plan. Now they can also receive the sickness and compassionate care benefits that the Government of Canada is offering through the employment insurance system.
The changes that we are making to create fairness for the self-employed go well beyond the commitments in the Speech from the Throne and budget 2009. This is one of the most significant enhancements to the EI program in the last decade, and it is just the latest in a whole series of timely enhancements that we have made to ensure that EI remains responsive to the needs of Canadians.
Our economic action plan is geared toward helping Canadian workers and their families get through the global economic downturn. By helping Canadian workers in all walks of life, we are helping families and communities in our overall economy. We believe that these individual Canadian entrepreneurs will play a leading role in our economic recovery. We need their skills, we need their experience and we need their energy to meet the challenges to come. That is why our government believes that these Canadians deserve to have access to EI special benefits, because it is the fair and right thing to do.
Our government knows that self-employed Canadians should not have to choose between their family and their business responsibilities. Members do not have to take my word for it; there has been a chorus of positive response across a broad range of employment sectors to the tabling earlier this week of Bill .
We heard from the agricultural community. Richard Phillips, the director of Grain Growers of Canada said Tuesday on CTV News that for a lot of young farm families, this could be the difference between whether they stay on the farm or leave the farm. He added in a news release that this legislation is very welcome. He said that this has huge potential for quality of life in rural Canada.
From the small business community, Catherine Swift, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said in yesterday's Montreal Gazette that the initiative fills a “glaring gap” for people running their own business, especially women. She said, “We have a lot of women members. They would like to have a child, and yet abandoning your business is not an option”.
Next, from a town which forms part of my beautiful riding of Haldimand—Norfolk, Shane Curtis, president of the Tillsonburg Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday in the Tillsonburg News:
I think it's a fantastic thing from a couple different perspectives. It promotes women to be in business and to be self-employed. It will promote self-employed women to have children.
From one end of the country to the other, people have been getting behind this legislation. John Winter, the chair of the Coalition of B.C. Businesses, said in a release on Tuesday:
It is only fair.... British Columbians who hang their own shingle should not have to choose between raising a family and raising a business.
I could not agree with him more.
The contractors have waded in as well. In a media release on Tuesday, Phil Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association said:
Many independent contractors work as owner operators, from truckers to drywallers to painters, and with these challenging economic times, the extra security offered with extending EI special benefits is welcome.
And it continues. Dale Ripplinger, president of the Canadian Real Estate Association is quoted in a news release on Tuesday, saying:
This is an important step to level the benefits playing field for self-employed Canadians.... We look forward to working with the government to ensure access to EI benefits for REALTORS(R), which can help balance career and family life.
I would suggest that the opposition listen not just to me but to Canadians, who are demanding that this legislation be passed, people like Stephen Waddell, national executive director of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, better known to many as ACTRA, which represents creative people across the country. In a news release he said:
This legislation is a question of basic fairness and equal treatment for Canadian workers. We're calling on the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc to avoid an election and get this initiative passed into law.
The previous Liberal government ignored these Canadians for 13 long years. Self-employed Canadians want the bill to pass. They are trusting us to deliver for them, but they also know that the Liberals and the Bloc let down other Canadians. Hundreds of thousands of long-tenured workers were let down by the Liberals and the Bloc through their opposition to Bill earlier this week. Surely, when many of their own members have been calling for this bill, I would hope they would get behind the fairness to the self-employed bill.
On March 5 of this year, the himself said in the Toronto Star, that the self-employed are the largest category of Canadians without EI protection and that he thinks if we are going to be a compassionate society and if we want to get stimulus in, that would be a good place to go.
Even the Bloc has expressed support. The member for said in this House on the same day, “I think offering self-employed workers the opportunity to contribute to employment insurance on a voluntary basis is long overdue”.
Finally, on Tuesday night on CTV's Power Play, the Liberal member for said that the Liberals support this bill in principle.
I encourage them all to support this bill in reality by voting for it.
The Liberals and the Bloc let down long-tenured workers. Will they let down the millions of self-employed Canadians as well? Self-employed Canadians want to know if they will be let down too. Canadians want this bill to pass.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill , the fairness for the self-employed act.
The Liberals will support the bill in principle. We want to get it to committee to have a look at it. It might take some considerable review because a lot of people have opinions on it, some favourable and some perhaps not. I think people, more than anything else, will have questions about it.
It strikes me that there is a bit of regret in that one of two things has occurred in the bill. The government and its departments, including human resources, have looked at this for some time, along with models and proposals. If that is the case, it was not shared with the EI working group in the summer, of which I was a part. That was part of the mandate of the group. However, there was no serious proposal made to the group.
In spite of consistent questions, particularly from my colleague, the member for , who asked whether the government had any information, the response was no. She said that there must be something as it was in the platform of the Conservative Party. If there was any information, it belonged to the Conservative Party and it would not share it. It was a dichotomous situation. Either the department was working on things that were not shared with us or the bill was rushed through and had some flaws in it. We will decide which one of those it is as it goes forward.
However, this is a good step forward for Canadians who are self-employed, a modest one albeit but a step forward. It looks at certain benefits for people who are self-employed and would like to be part of the employment insurance system.
Another question is one that I just asked the minister. I will quote from page 100 of the budget book of January 27. It states:
The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development will be asked to establish an Expert Panel that will consult Canadians on how to best provide self-employed Canadians with access to EI maternity and parental benefits.
The minister indicated that the expert the panel intended to consult was me and that the EI working group was supposed to do this work, which clearly was not the intent back when the budget came forward.
On Tuesday night, during a bill briefing, I asked officials this question. What about the commitment in the budget to have an expert group? They had no idea what I was even talking about. It was never seriously considered, unless they can prove the opposite. Even the parliamentary secretary was confused as to whether there had actually been a commitment.
Clearly, not many Canadians were consulted. We have not heard from the minister that she has consulted a lot of Canadians. She quoted some people after the fact, indicating that some may like the direction of the bill, and why not?
I am sure there is some merit to the bill and we hope this might be an opportunity for Parliament to work. We can look at the bill in a serious way in committee, me and my colleagues on the Liberal side, along with the member for , who works and lives this file, and I suspect the member for , who steps in for the New Democrats on the human resources committee.
There are people who can seriously look at this and identify the flaws and opportunities to make the bill better. I hope that happens and that in the spirit of co-operation, perhaps even the spirit of Christmas, as the bill works its way through committee that might in fact occur.
We do have some concerns about premiums. There has not been any estimate as to what the cost to the government would be. We have heard there is a premium rate and that it will be differentiated for the province of Quebec. The province of Quebec already has certain benefits, maternal and parental, and people can opt in. Will the rate people in Quebec pay be suitable for the level of benefits they would have and will there be a cost to the government?
One could assume that in the first year there will be a spike in premiums as people enter the program. They will have to be in it for at least a year before they can draw benefits, so there will be any outlay in benefits. However, as the benefits start to catch up to the premium, what will be the cost and who will pay that cost? Will it be the consolidated revenue fund of the Government of Canada, as the government did with the extra five weeks in January, or will it be the EI fund where the money for Bill will come out of?
That is a big difference because, as we know, the government has set up a separate EI financing board, which only has $2 billion to work with. We have already heard from the Chief Actuary of Canada that the $2 billion is nowhere near enough to fund the programs that exist without adding new programs. That is one question we will ask.
However, I want to take a second and talk about a group of people in Parliament who have done some magnificent work. Over the last few years, the National Liberal Women's Caucus has established three pink books. These pink books came out in 2006, 2007 and 2009. In each of those pink books, the National Liberal Women's Caucus has addressed this issue of self-employment and the importance that it has for Canadian women.
In the one that was released recently, I will quote from page 16. It states:
Another significant group in the labour force are self-employed women. The latest statistics reveal that more than 1 in 10 employed women in Canada are self-employed. In 2004, almost 840 000 women were self-employed. Women entrepreneurs face many challenges, including difficulty in accessing capital and benefits. The majority of women small-business owners earn $30 000 per year or less and have no access to low-cost health care, no protection for disability, no employment insurance or maternity benefits, and cannot afford private sector insurance and pension plans.
Following that, it has a recommendation, which states:
Permit self-employed workers to participate in the special benefits programs under the EI program as recommended by the Standing Commons Committee on the Status of Women in its June 2007 report, “Improving the Economic Security of Women: Time to Act.” This change would give self-employed workers access to maternity and parental benefits and the Compassionate Care Benefit.
I congratulate the government on adopting one of the recommendations from the pink book. I would encourage it to go further and adopt all of the recommendations in that book. If the pink book, which coincidentally is pink, were adopted in full by the Government of Canada, I would not have to be a member of Parliament. A lot of the work would be done. I want to commend members of our women's caucus for the outstanding work they do, particularly on the social side, but also on the economic and environmental sides.
The recommendations the caucus have made have been very important. People such as the member for and the member for have been champions of this issue. We have new members of the national women's caucus, such as the member for , who has done some fabulous work on this issue as well. The Liberal caucus has been looking at this for a long while.
I also want to refer to a report that came out in June of 2009. This is a report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women entitled, “Towards Improving Access to EI Benefits for Women in Canada”. Again, with the House's indulgence, I would like to quote from that. It states:
A measure which can be taken to limit the problem of moral hazard would be to extend exclusively EI special benefits to self-employed individuals. The Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) has extended its coverage to self-employed individuals for maternity and parental benefits. The Committee heard from several witnesses that QPIP can serve as a possible model for a federal program.
There are many good recommendations in the report. Recommendation 14 states:
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada make maternity and parental benefits as flexible and equal as the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan by expanding eligibility, benefit levels and duration of EI benefits.
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada extend benefits to the self-employed using the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan as its model.
That also was a very good report and one of the things that our human resources committee would do.
I will ask for the indulgence of my colleagues from , and my colleagues on the government side. We should have a joint committee study, at least one meeting where we bring in the status of women committee and look at this together, because of the specific implications it has for women's issues. There may be other committees that would be affected as well, such as finance or other committees.
This is a very broad bill, a long bill, a technical bill and a detailed bill. We have to do a bit of serious evaluation of it.
There are models and we have had significant groups, such as the National Liberal Women's Caucus and the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, that have given us recommendations. We do not have to start from zero. We can take what the minister has given us. Again, I think there is a very real possibility that we can make this bill better for more Canadians.
However, we are discussing Bill and there are certain things that it would do.
The proposed legislation will provide the same number of weeks of benefit as paid employees have under their EI program. To recap, that is 15 weeks of maternity benefits, 35 weeks of parental and adoption benefits, 15 weeks of sickness and 6 weeks of compassionate care benefits.
I want to address the issue of Quebec. Quebec has a far more advanced social infrastructure than most provinces in Canada. It has made it a purpose to provide a solid social infrastructure system in the province of Quebec. It has a plan for parental and maternal benefits in Quebec. People in Quebec will still have the option to partake in the other plan as well, and they will pay a lower premium rate. Off the top of my head that the rate is 1.73%. It goes down to 1.37%. Is that a fair and accurate reduction for the amount of services to be provided?
We need to look at the entrance requirements. Normally for special benefits it would be an hours-based entrance requirement of 600 hours. Because we are talking about the self-employed, the determination is that it would be a threshold of $6,000 in pre-tax income. We need to have a look at that. The weekly benefits will be calculated by taking the claimant's income from the previous tax year and dividing it by 52. When this gets to committee and people come forward saying they would like to participate in this or they represent a group that would like to participate in it but they have a certain question, we should hear them. This is where the committee can do some work.
The minister has indicated that when we look at EI for the self-employed and special benefits, the questions we have to ask are these. What is the pre-attachment and the post-attachment to the labour force? What is the pre-attachment and the post-attachment to premiums? It has been determined that people have to pay in advance for a year before they can claim benefits. However, once they have claimed a benefit, they have to pay premiums for the rest of their life as long as they are self-employed. We have to look at that. We have to look at the numbers both for the individual and for the EI fund, which will be financing this at the end of day, and determine if that makes sense.
Will people take part in the program if they know they have to pay premiums years after they finished drawing benefits? I do not think we know that yet and I am not sure we will know that until we have a chance to look at it in a very serious way.
We believe this is a plan that has merit. We think self-employed people are looking for this. I can recall talking with a gentleman by the name of Chris Hopkins from Montague, Prince Edward Island. He has long campaigned for EI for self-employed. An article in July quotes him as follows:
It's too late for me, it's not going to benefit me, but it could benefit a lot of people, especially in these recessionary times that we have...I'm no longer self-employed, I'm just plain out there, an unknown statistic, not classed as unemployed because I was never employed, I was self-employed. So I'm a non-entity in the eyes of the government.
People who have been on websites, making appearances and rallying troops to this issue are the kind of folks we should probably listen to at this point in time. We have an opportunity to make this a good bill to do what they have asked us, which is to extend benefits to self-employed. Folks like that deserve some credit on a day like this and they deserve to be listened to as we move through the committee process.
As I have indicated, we are generally in support of this and we hope the bill is as good as the minister says. If it is not as good as she says, which is very possible, we hope we can make it better with her and her government's co-operation, working together with the opposition. However, we are going to ask questions.
One of the first questions will be why the bill came forward without the input of the promised expert panel. In the budget the Conservatives specifically said that an expert panel would consult and then determine what would be an appropriate way to provide EI to the self-employed.
In June, when the and the determined that there would be an EI working group, the Prime Minister indicated that for the self-employed the government would consider looking beyond maternal parental sickness and compassionate care. He said that anything was on the table. He said that the EI working group would have a look at this.
We did not get the information that we needed. We never got a serious proposal. But to suggest that this group became the expert panel that the had indicated is just a smokescreen. The government did not appoint that expert panel. Why not? Why were the ministerial officials who briefed us the other day totally unaware that that commitment had even been made?
It is a highly technical bill. There may be flaws. There may be exclusions. What is the cost to government? That is a key point.
I want to go back to the fact that last year the government set up the CEIFB, the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board, which is supposed to be an arm's-length organization from government that will look at EI, that will determine premium rates, and that would invest moneys that are in the account. The problem is the government only put in $2 billion.
Liberals, at the human resources committee, supported by opposition members, said we have to have a look at this and we studied this. One of the people that we brought in was Mr. Bruno Gagnon, from the Canadian Institute of Actuaries, and he spoke to the fact that a $10 billion to $15 billion reserve was sufficient. He stated:
Let's assume that a recession hits Canada and unemployment levels rise to 8%. The payment to out-of-work Canadians increases by approximately $3 billion. So the $2 billion reserve of the board is depleted and the EI account has to borrow $1 billion from the government. In this situation we might have to raise the premiums above the legislated limit of 0.15%. Consideration of applying the 0.15% would fall to ministers. It would not be a very easy decision, because if you applied the 0.15% ceiling you would run a deficit and the deficit would accumulate. The impact on Canadian businesses, which pay nearly 60% of the cost of employment insurance, would be huge...Workers would have to pay 40% of the cost when they were already at risk of losing their jobs,--
He was talking, at this point in time, suggesting what would happen if employment went to 8%. Well, it has gone to 8%. The demands on the system are much higher than they were then. The demands on the system are much higher than the government would acknowledge. The demands on the system are possibly going to be made more robust by this bill. So, we just need to have a look at the financing side of it.
Who exactly is defined as self-employed? There is a whole range of people who would consider themselves self-employed. Who all is included in the definitions under this bill? We need to have a full understanding of that.
Another question is, why not full EI benefits? If we are extending EI benefits from maternal, parental, compassionate care, sickness, then would why we not look at EI benefits to all self-employed people on some kind of basis? What is the model for that?
So, this is a limited-scope bill in that it targets specific measures. Maybe that is the safest thing to do. Maybe that is what Canadians want. However, maybe Canadians would rather have the full meal deal when it comes to accessing employment insurance.
Is the $6,000 pre-tax earnings threshold appropriate?
The issue of Quebec and how this plan will interact with QPIP in Quebec is important as well.
There is significant work that has to be done on this bill. I think, as I said before, that this is an opportunity for all members of this House, and particularly the members of the human resources committee, a committee that generally works very well together, a committee that is well chaired by the member for , a committee that has a lot on its plate already.
We are doing a study on poverty that will see us going out to western Canada the week after we get back from the break week to hear further testimony and hear witnesses about poverty and how do we actually do something about this in Canada. So, we have a lot on our plate. But this bill is important. I think we can give it the consideration that it deserves. I think we should see what people like Chris Hopkins and others around the country who have fought on this issue for a long time. I have not been in contact with Chris Hopkins recently, but if he is around, I encourage him to contact members of the committee and let us know what he thinks of this bill.
So, hopefully, as we head toward Christmas in this Parliament, we will have a sense of co-operation on this that will allow us to take a bill, perhaps improve it at committee, determine its strengths, understand its weaknesses, and work together to bring forward a bill that truly does provide an opportunity for the self-employed in Canada.