In Debate: Real Changes Needed to Employment Insurance

Irene Mathyssen, London—Fanshawe, ON: Mr. Speaker, back in May, I asked the minister about the changes in the budget implementation act that impacted employment insurance. As we now know, these changes have not worked. The minister has already been forced to retract some of those changes.

Sadly, many people are still struggling. I want to ask the minister when she will start improving employment insurance to ensure that those who need it can access it, instead of making it more difficult for those who are out of work to access the funds they have paid into during all of their working years. Hard-working Canadians deserve this much from the government. We need investments in our families struggling to make ends meet.

I had also asked the minister about the gutting of the appeals tribunal for employment insurance. Instead of separate tribunals with dedicated staff, we now have one big tribunal with a fraction of the staff. Asking 70 staff to review over 30,000 appeals will not make the system efficient. It will grind to a halt and the government knows that. The minister shrugged off my question by reiterating that having few people reviewing more cases at the appeals tribunal would be more efficient. Reduced staff cannot review more cases. It is simple math. People now have to wait longer to have their appeals heard. The people asking for appeals have legitimate complaints and are in desperate need.

The facts are clear. The Conservatives have replaced the tripartite system that had appeals judged by a local three-person panel with one representative appointed by the minister, one appointed by the EI commissioner for workers and one appointed by the EI commissioner for employees. This has been replaced with a centralized system in which a small number of full-time referees will review the appeals individually. These changes will result in a loss of sensitivity to local labour market conditions and cultural context. The appellant and his or her legal counsel or representative will no longer have the opportunity to appear in person to present a case. A person behind a desk will review the case and make a decision without ever interacting with the appellant.

With this new system of appeals, the interpersonal face-to-face meeting at which judges can ask specific questions in order to understand the challenges and suffering of an appellant is now eliminated. This will not create better decisions. It will make it more difficult for those making the decisions. They will not have the ability to assess an appellant in person and there will be no opportunity to truly understand the merits of the appeal.

I want to know who the minister consulted on these changes, changes no one thinks are efficient. I want to know why the government thinks creating a backlog is an acceptable cost-saving measure. I also want to know why the government thinks that it is acceptable to leave vulnerable people waiting to hear whether they can receive benefits that they desperately need.

I want to know why it is yet again the poorest and the most vulnerable Canadians who must bear the brunt of the government's poorly thought out budget cuts.

Kellie Leitch Simcoe—Grey, Conservative, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour: Mr. Speaker, I will address the issue of how appeals will be made on decisions regarding employment insurance, the Canada pension plan and OAS.

Changes to the appeals process should be easy to understand, because the system as it now exists is simply too costly and confusing. We are not against people appealing decisions. What we are against is costly red tape that prevents them from getting timely replies to their appeals.

Beginning in April of next year, the four existing appeal tribunals will be merged into one single decision-making body called the social security tribunal. This means a simple, more efficient single window for Canadians to access appeals and appeals processes, something Canadians are looking for. This will be a single access point for all Canadians wishing to appeal their decisions on any of these three national programs.

The 70 tribunal members will be full-time governor in council appointees solely dedicated to hearing and deciding EI, CPP and OAS appeals. Single-member panels will replace these three previous member panels, significantly reducing costs. This is a significant improvement over the many part-time appointments that previously existed under the old cumbersome tribunal process. The tribunal will use technology to reduce the current paper burden and to speed up the appeals process by using video conferencing instead of in-person appearances, reducing travel costs and costly administrative expenses.

At the end of the day, a savings of $25 million per year will be realized by this new system. The right to appeal any decision is important but the savings are exceptionally important. We want to save Canadians funds, unlike the NDP which would unnecessarily tax Canadians $21 billion for a carbon tax if it were given the opportunity.

The social security tribunal will improve the way we do business and ensure good service at the lowest possible cost.

The new tribunal will be more accessible, reduce administrative burden and provide greater consistency in decision-making. It will continue to provide a fair and accessible appeals process for all Canadians.

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON : Mr. Speaker, I see the parliamentary assistant is more interested in perpetuating untruths than listening to what is being said. The government continues to make financial cuts that have the deepest impact on the poor and those on the razor's edge of poverty. It amazes me that the government is balancing the books on the backs of the poor, when it is very clear that the impact on people is horrendous. It can mean the difference between putting supper on the table, having money for medication or paying utility bills.

The changes to EI and the tribunal are kicking people who are already down. It is neither morally responsible nor fiscally responsible. In the end, people living in poverty will cost the economy more in social services, the justice system and the health care system.

All of Canada would benefit by improving EI and having fair and expedient appeals processes. It is about time the government did something that would benefit Canadians rather than constantly berating them and undermining their social good.