OTTAWA - The federal government has been setting annual targets — with dollar totals — for investigators looking into improper Employment Insurance payments since 1993, say officials with the Human Resources Department.
And door-knocking by Service Canada officials, currently taking place at the homes of 1,200 EI recipients across the country, has been done regularly in the past.
Opposition claims that the Conservative government is on a "witch hunt" against the unemployed have dominated the House of Commons this week.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has responded by claiming that, "sadly, the New Democrats are only worried about people who are trying to cheat the system, people they call victims."
The truth is that all sides are playing politics, to some extent.
Finley's office arranged a background briefing Wednesday with officials from her Human Resources and Skills Development Department in an effort to defuse the roiling controversy.
And while the record proves that annual dollar targets — the opposition NDP calls them "quotas" — for rooting out improper EI claims are old hat, the record also calls into question claims of hundreds of millions of dollars in Employment Insurance fraud each year.
Last year, Service Canada's "integrity" program saved or recovered $381 million in ineligible EI payments.
"The savings are not just fraud," explained a senior departmental official, speaking on background. "We're talking about error, abuse, but also future incorrect payment."
"The most common type of error that we see and address through the integrity intervention, for example, are when clients make honest mistakes," said the official.
The department subsequently claimed that out of the $381 million total saved in 2011-12, some $128.7 million involved "fraudulent claims."
But the department did not make clear where mistakes end and the legal definition of fraud begins.
"We don't track the number of individuals who have been charged with fraud," said the official. "We track the number of dollars that were not eligible to be paid to clients because of their misrepresentation for benefits."
All parties contend they want to see EI fraudsters caught.
The government, which has made significant changes to the employment insurance eligibility rules, is casting complaints about enforcement as tantamount to the protection of cheaters.
"They're vastly overstating the extent to which there is a systemic issue in the system," countered Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader.
"I do not see fraudsters and cheats," NDP critic Chris Charlton told the Commons, after calling EI enforcement a "witch hunt."
"I see honest, hard-working seasonal workers who want the minister to explain why she is coming after them."
The government response could best be summarized as follows: "Checks are run to ensure the integrity of the system, since the best guarantee for the future of a system is its integrity."
That's not Finley speaking. It's a quote in the House of Commons by former Liberal minister Pierre Pettigrew in February 1999.
The Liberal government of the day was under attack after Human Resources documents surfaced that showed a $612 million "national savings objective" that year for the EI program.
Opposition MPs of the day, including Progressive Conservative Jean Dube, called the target a "quota" — a characterization the Liberals hotly denied.
However, documents at the time showed a thinly veiled threat to the EI office on Prince Edward Island, which was well behind on its target.
The Human Resources Department was "well positioned to avoid the 150 (full-time jobs) reduction to be imposed by Treasury Board if the target is not met," said the July 1998 memo.
Today, there are new opposition allegations of "quotas" that Finley flatly denies.
"Service Canada does not have quotas that would carry negative consequences for staff who fail to meet them," the minister said in an email message Wednesday.
"They do however have performance targets to help protect the benefits of the unemployed from fraud."
Officials in the department did concede that top managers in the department do receive bonuses — known as "at risk" pay in the public service because it is withheld if targets aren't met — based on the EI savings targets established each year.
Regional managers and field workers do not receive any bonuses, said the officials.
And as for those 1,200 house calls, officials are delivering letters requesting interviews.
An official said the home visit "Provides Service Canada officials with the opportunity to have a better understanding of the client's personal circumstances."
The department said in an email that it does not track every house call, but said "every year, including 2012, integrity officers across the country conduct home visits for specific cases on a regular basis."