OTTAWA -- Service Canada investigators have been given annual "performance objectives" to find $485,000 each in fraudulent or ineligible Employment Insurance claims per year, the Conservative government confirmed Monday.
However, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley vigorously denied the targets amount to quotas -- something Finley assured the House of Commons earlier this month do not exist.
"There were no quotas for individuals," Finley maintained Monday after Montreal newspaper Le Devoir published government documents that showed the annual $485,000 figure for EI investigators.
"There are objectives, targets, to be sure. There's a big difference between the two when it comes to motivating and managing staff," said Finley.
Speaking in French, Finley noted employees who don't reach their targets do not face "negative consequences."
The Harper government is under opposition fire amid a crackdown on EI claimants that includes sending government inspectors to people's homes and establishing annual dollar targets for EI investigators.
The practices were not announced by the government but came to light as a result of media investigations.
The crackdown comes at a politically awkward time for the government as it fends off a series of spending controversies in its own backyard, the Conservative-dominated Senate.
Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy said Friday he'll pay back tens of thousands of dollars in housing allowance he received after claiming a cottage in Cavendish, P.E.I., was his principal residence. Duffy has lived in Ottawa since the 1970s.
Some senators' expenses are being audited and others are being questioned on their housing claims.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the Conservatives are treating the unemployed like criminals while circling the wagons on their well-paid Senate appointments.
Conservatives, Mulcair told the House, "don't shy away from gratuitously accusing EI claimants of fraud but they don't prevent their own senators from committing fraud."
NDP whip Nycole Turmel suggested the government's efforts are misplaced.
"Rather than saving $485,000 on the backs of these poor sods, why don't they start sending inspectors to senators' homes?"
Finley said Service Canada stopped $500 million in ineligible EI payments last year but maintains the system "still lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to fraud."
"The only people to lose if the opposition stops us from rooting out Employment Insurance fraud, are Canadians who follow the rules," Finley repeated at least three times during question period in the House of Commons.
It was not clear how the NDP or Liberals could possibly stop the EI crackdown, but a public backlash could influence Conservative MPs.
Gerald Keddy, a veteran Nova Scotia Tory MP and parliamentary secretary for international trade, said the debate over quotas versus targets reflected reporters "working too hard on semantics."
"The whole issue with EI is simply to attempt to prevent abuse," Keddy said outside the Commons.
"And the idea that people who are on EI that could take a job should take a job, I think is agreed to by most Canadians."
Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader, said whatever you call it, setting dollar targets for enforcement officers leads to trouble.
"I think the worry all the way through is when you have a quota -- whether it's for a parking-ticket enforcement officer or whether it's for somebody working on employment insurance -- is that the target becomes the quota and that you find reasons and ways in which to find people and catch people that might in fact be very, very unfair," said Rae.
-- The Canadian Press