Committee on Finance. - Social Welfare Bill, 1959—Second Stage.

Tuesday, 2 June 1959

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 175 No. 7

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Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. Kennedy): Information on Michael Joseph Kennedy  Zoom on Michael Joseph Kennedy  I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.

The object of this Bill is to implement the decision of the Government, as announced by the Minister for Finance in his Budget Statement on the 15th April, 1959, to increase certain Social Assistance payments. It provides for increases of 2/6d. a week to all old age pensioners, to Unemployment Assistance recipients with an adult dependent, and to widows in receipt of a non-contributory pension, all, or part, of which consists of an allowance in respect of the widow. It is proposed that the Bill will come into operation on the 1st August, 1959.

The proposed increases will cost the Exchequer £1,313,000 in a full year. Of this amount, Old Age Pensioners will receive £1,062,000, Unemployment Assistance recipients £85,000 and Widows (Non-Contributory) Pensioners £166,000. With these increases the total expenditure on Social Assistance services administered by my Department will come to some £21,794,000 annually, of which sum old age pensioners will receive £11,462,000.

Mr. Corish: Information on Brendan Corish  Zoom on Brendan Corish  Most of what could be said on this Bill was said on the Budget so I do not propose to detain the House. We welcome the increase that is given, small though it may be, especially in view of the fact that the people catered for by this Bill have been hit so hard in recent years by the [735] reduction in the food subsidies and various other increases in the price of foodstuffs over the last two years. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary or the Minister to get the co-operation of the local authorities in respect of the increases that are now given to these people. It has been the practice of many local authorities, where old age pensioners, widows or people on unemployment assistance are also in receipt of home assistance, to deduct the half crown given by the Minister for Social Welfare by way of an increase in the old age pension, widow's pension or unemployment assistance.

The Parliamentary Secretary has expressed his sentiments in connection with that sort of behaviour by local authorities in concluding the debate on the Estimate for the Department. I should like to know from him if he can do anything by way of regulation to prevent this 2/6d. being filched, so to speak, by the local authorities. He may not have any statutory power to do anything. He may say when winding up this Bill, as he said ten minutes ago, that he would deplore a reduction in home assistance by the amount of the increase that is now given. That statement may or may not get publicity in the daily papers. I think the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary should send a circular to each local authority telling them that this 2/6d. is given specifically to these people to compensate them to some extent for the increase in the cost of living and that he would deplore any reduction in either home assistance or disabled person's maintenance allowance.

I know one branch of local government that will certainly get their hands on this 2/6d., namely, the county home section of local authorities. It seems to be the invariable practice of county homes to take, if not all, the major part of an increase that is given to old age pensioners who are inmates of county homes.

The notable thing about this Bill is that, as far as unemployment assistance is concerned, single people will [736] not get any increase and it is only the principals in a family who will get the benefit of the 2/6d. per week. The practice has been in Acts of Parliament that when unemployment assistance has been increased, allowances to dependents have been proportionately increased. In the last Social Welfare Bill that provided an increase of 25 per cent. in sickness benefit, unemployment benefit and widows' and orphans' contributory pensions, increases were also given to the various dependents. An increase was given to the wife of a recipient and to the two children of a recipient. It is bad that the Minister and the Government did not decide on this occasion to give dependents of persons in receipt of unemployment assistance some increase also.

We welcome the small increase that has been given but 2/6d. does not compensate these people for the withdrawal of the food subsidies and the general increase in the cost of living. It may be said that the cost of living has gone up by so many points since they last got an increase but the cost of living index figure does not reflect properly the cost of living as it affects an old age pensioner. The cost of living index figure includes items which are of no concern to an old age pensioner. It includes newspapers, tobacco, possibly cinemas, clothes. The old age pensioner has to clothe himself but cannot afford to purchase as frequently or to buy the type of clothing that would be bought by a person under 50 years of age. The fact remains that since the last increase in old age pensions was given in 1957 the cost of foodstuffs has increased by 17 per cent. That is the main item with which the old age pensioner is concerned.

The pattern has been to give an increase of 2/6d. over the years. On this occasion, the Government that boasted that the economy of the country was on the upgrade could have afforded to give a little more than 2/6d. to the old age pensioner and should have considered the question of giving proportionate increases to dependents of persons in receipt of widows' non-contributory pensions and unemployment assistance.

[737]Mr. Dillon: Information on James Matthew Dillon  Zoom on James Matthew Dillon  Deputy Corish says that he hopes the local authorities will not filch the 2/6d. They certainly cannot filch this 2/6d. because it has been filched already. It was filched in anticipation the day they put 7d. on the lb. of butter, £1 on the bag of flour and 4d. on the 21b. loaf. That operation saved the treasury £9,000,000 and a great deal of the burden fell on the old age pensioners of this country. They got 1/6d. to compensate them for it. Everybody else in the community got 10/- a week but the old age pensioners got 1/6d. and the small farmers got nothing and now the old age pensioners are to get a further 2/6d. which I do not think is very exciting in the case of old people who have lived substantially on bread, butter and tea and who have now got to pay more for all.

I want now, for it is relevant to the Second Stage of this Bill, to return in somewhat greater detail to a question that I asked the Parliamentary Secretary when he was concluding the debate on his Estimate. This Bill is primarily designed to make adequate provision for old age pensioners. I want to draw the attention of the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary to the fact that it has been publicly stated in Dublin by somebody who professed to be in a position to know that the hospitals of the City are filled with old people who are in fact suffering from malnutrition as a result of their inability to purchase the minimum necessary diet from the resources available to them. I confess that that statement rather shocked me and it occurred to me to ask the question which I did put to the Parliamentary Secretary largely for the purpose of directing public attention to the facts.

As I understand the position, if there is an old person living alone with no family assistance to fall back upon, if he or she has nothing but the old age pension, the local authority has a statutory duty to provide home assistance sufficient to bring that pension up to a level which will enable him or her to live in frugal comfort. If that is not so, I put it to Deputies that we should not sleep abed of night in [738] peace. It would be a shocking thing in a society such as ours, where apparently everybody has a motorcar, that there should be old, destitute people living in our midst hungry because they have not the wherewithal to buy the minimum necessary food and I do not believe there are Deputies on any side of this House who would desire that situation to continue.

I remember pressing the view on a previous occasion that if I were Minister for Social Services I could not rest easy if I did not know the reason for any family in this City being destitute. I do not believe that there is room in our society for a hungry person, hungry through no fault of his or her own. I do not think it is enough to say that, if people are hungry, they ought to forage about until they find the food necessary to assuage their hunger.

When one is dealing with old people, many of whom are perhaps a little mentally afficted or bewildered by the adversity which has come upon them, I think it would be the desire of all of us to go a step further than merely saying that, if they avail of the services that are there, their difficulty can be overcome. I think we would all want to feel that we brought these services effectively within their reach. I do not know how one can do that if one has not got some machinery to find out the answer to why an individual, or a family, in a two-pair back in a street like Dominick Street, is destitute while an individual, or a family, in apparently identical circumstances in a similar two-pair back in another street may be poor but is certainly neither destitute nor hungry.

I certainly cannot rest easy if it be true that there is a constant stream of old people into the hospitals of this city who are brought there as a result of malnutrition arising from destitution. There is no use making high-falutin speeches deploring that such things should be, if one is not prepared to offer some practical suggestion for meeting the problem. I want to suggest now that either through the agency of voluntary bodies, such as the St. Vincent de [739] Paul Society, the Legion of Mary, the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers' Society, or, if needs be, through the agency of the Civil Service itself, some system of almoners should be established, so that, if somebody comes to me and says: “I declare that in such-and-such a street in Dublin there are families and old age pensioners destitute, and it is a great scandal”, I may be in a position to say: “Now, listen. It is no use standing in the street flapping and saying it is a great scandal and something ought to be done. There is an almoner into whose district that street falls and, if this deplorable state of affairs is a fact, write in to the Department of Social Welfare, or to whatever is the appropriate authority—possibly the Department of Health—and state your problem; they will hand your allegation to the almoner in charge of that district and he will go and visit.”

It may be true that there are families here in our midst who, through the ill-health of the parents, because of feeblemindedness or through some other unanticipated complication, are enduring destitution. If that is so, the machinery of the social services will be brought to bear upon their problem and we shall resolve it in that way, and they will not be left in destitution simply because they are not able to fend for themselves.

I remember one time going to the length of persuading the then Minister for Social Welfare to meet a deputation from the Legion of Mary. We would concoct a scheme for a pilot scheme to be instituted in respect of one street, and all we would ask the Department of Social Welfare to do was to provide one room, preferably in the area to be serviced, and a member of the Legion of Mary would undertake the duty of almoner in that area. Then, if I had any problem, if it was reported to me or came to my knowledge that there was a family or an old age pensioner destitute in any room or cottage in that street, I could refer it to the Department of Health, who would refer it to the almoner, who would investigate the case promptly for the purpose of finding out what should be done.

[740] I should like to believe that our social services, costing up to £20,000,000 per annum now, are of a character sufficient to guarantee that destitution will not be suffered to continue in our society. I do not think anybody on any side of this House would calmly accept the proposition that our financial resources are not sufficient to protect our people from destitution. We have all about us the evidence of a prosperous society. I put it to the Minister: can anything be done in the cities? I do not think anything is necessary in rural Ireland. The problem is very much more manageable in rural Ireland. If there are old people or destitute families, neighbours have much more access to them; they know their circumstances and can help them in a way that may not be practicable in urban conditions. Can we take a few areas in Dublin—areas like Meath Street, Marlborough Street —I think Dominick Street is largely pulled down now so the problem is not there any longer—and possibly some of the new housing estates, like Crumlin or West Cabra, and experimentally introduce an almoner into each of these areas, so that, if allegations of this kind are made in future, they can be checked upon promptly?

It is true that cases of destitution do exist. I have had no recent experience in St. Vincent de Paul work in the city of Dublin. I have lived now for a long time in rural Ireland. Some years ago, when I was younger, I was a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and I remember that one would find cases in tenement rooms where destitution was very largely due to some familial difficulty, such as simplemindedness on the part of the breadwinner, an incapacity on his part to keep a job, or sometimes some delicacy in a mother which made her, through no real fault of her own, a bad provider. Sometimes you found that there was insobriety which absorbed the family income to the great detriment of the children.

I remember one case I found in which there was real destitution in face of industry and diligence of an admirable kind. She was a widow-woman. Her house was spotless. She was, one might almost say, literally living on the smell of an oil rag. In [741] those days, social services were not as good as they are now and it was very difficult to meet the problem there, though the St. Vincent de Paul Society did their part. But what struck me then was the immense difference that a capacity to meet adversity could make in the circumstances of the family afflicted. And that goes for a family just as it does for the individual old age pensioner.

Where that incapacity to meet adversity results in destitution, then we ought as a society have a duty to come to the aid of those afflicted. If they are not able to help themselves, there should be some sympathetic person who would go to them and say: “Look; your circumstances are such that you ought to sit down now and we will prepare an application to the home assistance officer, or invoke the assistance of the Department of Health or the Department of Social Welfare, and, between all the various resources at our disposal, we shall be able to build up an economic structure for you which will at least ensure that you will not go hungry or cold and that you will have a decent room to live in.”

It may be that the suggestion I am making of a district almoner is not the best suggestion. I am simply putting it forward so as not to be in the ridiculous position of saying that something will have to be done, without making any proposal as to what might be done. It might be that my plan would work if given a chance. There may be some other plans which are better, but unless somebody else has a better plan, may I put it to the Minister that this is a problem we ought to face, and that we ought to be able to say with perfectly clear consciences to anyone who professes to know that there is a steady stream of old people into the city hospitals as a result of malnutrition consequent on destitution: “That is not so, or if it is so, it is because social services are not being properly availed of. That constitutes the real problem. We will provide the machinery which will ensure that that failure to avail of social services will not continue any longer.”

Mr. Kennedy: Information on Michael Joseph Kennedy  Zoom on Michael Joseph Kennedy  Destitution is primarily a matter for the public assistance authorities.

[742]Mr. Dillon: Information on James Matthew Dillon  Zoom on James Matthew Dillon  Primarily a matter for us, here, is it not? We can authorise the public assistance authorities to do certain things, but the primary responsibility is ours.

Mr. Kennedy: Information on Michael Joseph Kennedy  Zoom on Michael Joseph Kennedy  We have no statutory power to direct the public assistance authorities to take no cognisance of these increases, but they know the feelings of the House and, by and large, in nearly all cases, they have not taken them into account.

Deputy Corish reffered to the deductions by local authorities for maintenance from the old age pensions received by the old age pensioners in institutions. So far as I know, the local authorities in the Midlands, anyway, give a substantial portion of the old age pension back to the recipients to spend as they like. I do not think that after any old age pension increase in recent years they took the full sum, anyway, given to the pensioner, whether it was 1/6 or 1/- or whatever it was, immediately it became the possession of the old age pensioner. I do not believe from what I know of the local authorities—and what applies to the Midlands probably applies all over —that they will do that with the 2/6 which people will get under this Bill.

The big problem to which Deputy Dillon referred is one of people living alone. You cannot compel them to go into suitable homes. Apart from the county homes and the country institutions, there are many charitable homes which would take them in, but in many cases they will not leave the room which they occupy, and that is where the difficulty lies. The Dublin Board of Assistance, which is the authority in Dublin who deal with these cases of destitution, are dealing with 1,200 of them. They supplement the old age pensions in 1,200 cases. There may be cases which do not come to light—the appointment of an almoner is the duty of the local authority—but it would be very helpful if the voluntary societies to which Deputy Dillon referred would help individuals. We have been in touch with at least two of them in the past two years and they are very helpful, not in the direction to which Deputy Dillon referred, but in a general [743] direction. I cannot go into detail here, but certainly if they could be knit together, if their efforts all over the city could be co-ordinated, it would be very helpful.

The Deputy referred to cases of people who are partially mentally afflicted. Apart from the provision of the necessaries of life for these individuals who are living alone, there is the preparation of food and many other things which would lead to very prolonged debate. I shall bear the Deputy's representations in mind. It is a very complex problem, and, as I said a moment ago, I am in touch with at least two associations in Dublin with regard to this matter, and I shall discuss the whole problem with them.

I do not think there is anything else either Deputy Corish or Deputy Dillon said in the debate which calls for a further reply from me.

Question put and agreed to.

Agreed to take remaining Stages today.

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