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Human Resources Minister Diane Finley speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on May 2, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on May 2, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Budget bill gives Conservatives broad power over EI rules Add to ...

The Conservative cabinet is giving itself sweeping powers to rewrite the rules on whether Canadians on EI can turn down certain jobs without losing their benefits.

The measure is contained inside the budget implementation bill and would give cabinet the power to change employment insurance rules later through regulation without the approval of Parliament.

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Yet, even though the provision is currently before MPs, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley is refusing to explain its purpose other than to say further details will be announced over the coming months.

Under the existing Employment Insurance Act, the government already has the power to terminate EI benefits if a claimant refuses to take “suitable employment.” That’s a term that isn’t explicitly defined in the law, but numerous court rulings have said personal considerations must be taken into account, such as geography and experience. Essentially, an out-of-work scientist can’t be denied EI for refusing to dig ditches or pick fruit.

The budget bill contains a small section that allows cabinet through regulation to define “suitable employment.” Ottawa isn’t saying what it has in mind, but Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently expressed his frustration that Prince Edward Island was bringing in temporary foreign workers to fill fish plant jobs even though many Canadians in the area are unemployed.

Although the reference to “suitable employment” in the budget bill is vague, EI experts who cross-referenced the section with existing legislation say the government is clearly planning to give itself more power.

“I strongly suspect that they plan on writing regulations that will increase their authority to require people – or at least penalize them under EI – to take jobs for which the government thinks they’re suited. That’s clearly the direction they’re going,” said McMaster economics professor Arthur Sweetman.

Jon Medow, a policy associate with the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, said this and other EI changes in the budget bill – which also include replacing existing appeals bodies with a single “Social Security Tribunal” – are of such significance that they should be studied independently.

“Treating it in the context of a standalone bill would provide a much better framework to discuss any changes that are happening to the program,” he said.

Neil Cohen, who has worked with unemployed Canadians for more than 25 years and is executive director of Winnipeg’s Community Unemployed Help Centre, said he’s deeply concerned by the extent of the EI changes in the budget bill.

“It’s always been up to the courts to determine what constitutes suitable employment,” he said. “This government is determined to reverse the course of 70 years of history … They’re really giving themselves broad, sweeping powers.”

Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for the Human Resources Minister, repeated that further explanation of the EI changes will come over time. “We will be further connecting Canadians with available jobs. That aspect of the EI improvements will be forthcoming in the coming weeks and months. We’re still working on it.”

NDP MP Jean Crowder said the budget bill should be divided and studied independently by committees with the related expertise. “You don’t know the repercussions when you ram through stuff like this.”

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