Tuesday, 25 June 1974
Dáil Eireann Debate
That a sum not exceeding £112,475,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the period commencing on the 1st day of April, 1974, and ending on the 31st day of December, 1974, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Social Welfare, for certain services administered by that Office, for payments to the Social Insurance Fund, and for sundry grants.
Mr. Gallagher: First of all, I want to say I am disappointed with the efforts of the Parliamentary Secretary to improve our social welfare standards. We find the theme through his Estimate speech is that he agrees there are so many things that need to be done but when we examine the actual Estimate we find there is very little expansion on what was done by the Fianna Fáil Government while in office. We have had in the House on many occasions suggestions made to the Parliamentary Secretary regarding various aspects of social welfare which are in need of improvement.
About a year ago I put down a question to him regarding home assistance. He stated that he agreed there was great need for revision and that he was having the matter examined. He said he hoped to be able to inform the House that steps would be taken to improve the present situation. I am disappointed that in his  Estimate speech last week he repeated almost verbatim what he said in his reply to me on that occasion. No positive steps are being taken to improve the situation. It is a shame that this system is being continued. In most rural areas the home assistance officer is described as the relief officer. It is about time we got away from the stigma of relief and everything that goes with it. We accept that home assistance is necessary to bring relief to families who are in distress, but as it is being administered at the moment it should be changed. In fairness to the Parliamentary Secretary he referred to this in his speech but something more positive is necessary. I cannot see that there is any great progress being made.
The Parliamentary Secretary referred to the problem of the self-employed; this matter is being examined. We should take a good hard look at the self-employed. Small business people and shopkeepers in the smaller towns are being hit because of competition from supermarkets and so on. If they go out of business they have nowhere to turn for assistance. They are not entitled to social welfare. I know a butcher who had to give up working because of arthritis. Over a period of 18 months to two years his business went steadily down and eventually he found himself in an impossible position. He had a wife and five children to support. In the last resort he qualified for disability benefit. This covers him. There is no allowance made for his dependants. I raised this by way of parliamentary question and the answer I got was that this Government were conscious of the need to improve social welfare services. This man had to avail of home assistance. People have their pride. Here was a man who had been carrying on a fairly successful business reaching the stage at which he had to go to the home assistance officer for help. The Parliamentary Secretary should take immediate steps to ensure something positive is done instead of giving us a list of problems which, he says, require solution and then doing nothing either to change or improve the position.
 A good deal has been said about informing people of their rights in regard to the benefits available. I accept that this is a good thing; it is right that people should be made aware of what benefits they can get. However, recently in the post office those who applied for application forms found that the forms were not available. The sub-postmaster was in trouble immediately because the insinuation was that he was not prepared to co-operate with the people. He was accused of trying to sabotage the Government. It was unfortunate that an advertisement should have been inserted and the public misinformed. When the sub-postmaster went to check with the postmaster from whom these forms should come he was told the forms were not available for distribution; they had not come in. That sort of situation should not be allowed to occur. It was unfortunate that this should have happened because many inferences can be taken from this kind of thing. In a small community it can lead to things being said about people, things which can cause embarrassment; it can lead to neighbours falling out.
The Parliamentary Secretary also said he had taken steps to improve the efficiency of his Department in regard to the payment of pensions and so on. Frankly, I am dissatisfied with the way in which people are catered for; it should not be necessary for an applicant for an old age pension to have to make representations to his Deputy to ensure he gets payment. Then one finds that the applicant may have to wait three, four and sometimes six months before he is paid. That could hardly be described as efficiency. It should be a fairly straightforward matter. A person receiving unemployment assistance is cut off when he reaches 70 years of age and one would imagine there should be no great problem about having him transferred to the old age pension without any further delay, provided he has made the ordinary application.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. Cluskey): The Deputy is a little out  of touch. It is 68 years of age now. He does not have to wait until 70. He had to wait until 70 when the Deputy's party were in office.
Mr. Gallagher: If he qualified at 68 years he will be 70 years by the time the Parliamentary Secretary and his efficient Department pay him his pension. It is no pleasure to me, Parliamentary Secretary, to come in here and——
Mr. Gallagher: I apologise. It is no pleasure to me to come in here and criticise the Parliamentary Secretary or his Department. I am quoting instances which I have come across in my work as a Deputy. I can give the Parliamentary Secretary all the particulars if he wishes to have them.
This situation should not be allowed to continue. My experience is that when I write to the Parliamentary Secretary's office about problems, I receive an acknowledgement but I may have to wait seven, eight or ten weeks before I am told the outcome of the representations and the results of the queries raised on behalf of pensioners or other people who are trying to get assistance from the Department of Social Welfare.
The Parliamentary Secretary said that increases have been provided for necessitous families, for free travel facilities for those over pensionable age, for free television licences and for school needs. Reading that there has been an increase from £3.69 million to £5.15 million, one would imagine that something special had happened, or that some extra benefits were being made available to people in those  categories. In actual fact, there is no expansion of those facilities. The increases arise because of the fact that costs have increased. For all practical purposes this £5.15 million does not give any increased benefits in any way.
The fuel services are not at all satisfactory. One wonders why the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department find it necessary to discriminate against rural dwellers as opposed to urban dwellers with regard to the provision of fuel. If a person living in the country wants to buy a trailer of turf it will cost him in the region of £30. It is as costly for the person living in the rural area as it is for the person living in the urban area. I find it very hard to understand why an old age pensioner living in the country should be expected to buy fuel while the people in urban areas are facilitated under the scheme. The scheme should be expanded to cover necessitous cases irrespective of whether they are rural or urban dwellers. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to take a serious look at this question.
With regard to the provision of school meals I speak from my experience in rural areas. Perhaps in the cities and towns a more efficient service is provided; but, as school meals are handled at the moment in the rural areas, they can hardly be described as meals. Bread is delivered to the school twice per week. In many instances there is no storage for it. There are no cooking facilities in the school and there is no room in which the meals can be properly served to the children. The Parliamentary Secretary should take a look at this problem, and if the service cannot be improved it should be scrapped entirely. There are many areas where meals— again if they can be described as such—are necessary and where poorer people are glad of this assistance. I would suggest that the whole position should be reviewed and improved.
To my knowledge the free book service has never worked satisfactorily. People find themselves going to the home assistance officer with the béal bocht trying to make a case for themselves. This is not satisfactory. I  appreciate that there are problems. I know the Parliamentary Secretary cannot be expected to improve every minute detail of schemes of this nature overnight. Many of these schemes have been there for quite a long time and the set up has not changed over the years. They are administered in the same way and the methods are outmoded and outdated and in need of review.
The self employed find it hardest of all to get along at present. It is necessary to do something positive about changing the set-up here. I welcome the added benefits given in this year's budget, the help which is to be provided for the dependant of a non-contributory old age pensioner, and the pensions for spinsters over 58 years of age. In many instances people, through pride, shun the idea of going to a home assistance officer for help but now they will receive this benefit. I feel sure this will be welcomed by all, but particularly by those in rural areas.
Where a brother and sister of advanced years are living alone and the male is drawing unemployment assistance he could not claim for the dependant but, as a result of the changes in the budget, such a person will now be entitled to benefit with the result that they will be able to enjoy a better standard of living. The same applies in the case of married pensioners. Up to now a married man when he was drawing unemployment benefit could claim for his wife but when he reached 70 years of age he found himself worse off because he only received benefit in respect of himself. This situation has now been changed. We welcome the idea of making it possible for a non-contributory pensioner to claim for his dependent wife.
In my view many of the increases fall short of what the people need at present. There is not much point in giving an increase of £1 to a pensioner because it is what that £1 can buy which counts. The cost of living is increasing daily and at such a rate that pensioners and those in receipt of home assistance are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.  On many occasions I have received representations from people who are drawing home assistance only and they have pointed out to me the difficulty they are having in keeping the wolf from the door. They have told me of their struggle to purchase food and that they find it almost impossible to purchase clothing and footwear. People preparing children for Holy Communion and Confirmation, because of the huge increase in prices are finding it impossible to clothe them properly.
It is hard for Members of this House who have received an increase in salary to justify that increase when we compare it with what will be paid to recipients of social welfare benefits. The two do not tally and we should remember that those in the lower income bracket have to live like everybody else. It is necessary to have some minimum standard set so that those who are depending entirely on the State for help can have a proper standard of living.
I accept that this is not an easy problem for any Minister for Social Welfare to solve because he is depending on the economy in general in order to be able to give a fair distribution of the wealth of the country to those in the lower income bracket but the situation is becoming more serious. It is sad to see the way we are treating those who are depending entirely on social welfare and those living on small farms.
I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will find it possible to implement many of the suggestions he put forward and that he will be able to do something positive about many of the comments he made. I doubt if we are going to see the benefits which are necessary in order to give people a reasonable standard of living but people are despondent and losing confidence in the whole structure of society. When employment is not provided people must turn to the State for help and it is the duty of the State to do everything possible to give these people a fair share of the cake.
The Parliamentary Secretary can be assured of the full co-operation of this  side of the House in ensuring that this is so. Down through the years Fianna Fáil laid the foundation for social welfare services but the Coalition have not expanded these services to any great extent although they had available to them a large sum of money to devote to social welfare services as a result of our membership of the EEC. However, there are many people who have not benefited as a result of the availability of this money to the extent to which we would have liked them to benefit.
Sin a bhfuil le rá agam ach ba mhaith liom iarraidh ar an Rúnaí Parlaiminte a dhícheall a dhéanamh chun cuidiú leis na daoine bochta, siad is mó a bhfuil gá le cuidiú a fháil agus ba cheart gan faillí a dhéanamh iontu agus nach bhfágfaí chun deiridh iad.
Mr. Wyse: Two weeks ago we had a debate here on the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill and now we have this Estimate before us. In the debate on the Bill certain suggestions were put forward from this side of the House in an effort to improve many areas of social welfare but it would appear that the Parliamentary Secretary gave little or no consideration to those submissions and that the Estimate must have been prepared at the time the debate on the Bill was taking place.
This practice conflicts with all principles of democracy. I have been studying the Minister's brief but I have been unable to find in it any comment on any area that was mentioned by us as being in need of improvement. The Government have set up a commission to investigate areas of poverty. Would it not have been reasonable for the Department to have waited for whatever information might emanate from this commission before going ahead with the preparation of the Estimate?
Perhaps it is difficult to define poverty but everybody must be aware of the obvious areas of poverty. From my experience the poverty I have witnessed has been in the homes of people who are in receipt of social welfare payments. I defy anyone to say that the position is otherwise.
 A debate on social welfare is a very important occasion. No doubt many members of this party will be criticised for making certain submissions to the Government but I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that our criticism is made on behalf of thousands of unfortunate people in our community. We have a right, as public representatives, to highlight defects in the social welfare field. I do not think that the Government would wish to deny us that right but neither would I wish the Parliamentary Secretary to give the impression that we are not being constructive in our contributions in this sphere. We are expressing our views with all sincerity and in the light of the experience we have had down through the years.
Nobody in Fianna Fáil has ever been satisfied with the moneys that we were able to allocate to social welfare but, unfortunately, we had not available to us the £30 million which was available to the Coalition as a result of savings in agricultural subsidies. A couple of weeks ago I reminded the Parliamentary Secretary that the availability of this extra money gave to the Government the first opportunity an Irish Government have ever had of doing something worthwhile for the less fortunate in our society.
I am aware that the Government are endeavouring to broaden the scope of the social welfare services but they should have concentrated mainly on those who are most in need rather than try to spread £30 million across the entire community, thus satisfying nobody. That is what happened in relation to the first budget. Unfortunately, the Government failed to take advantage of that first real opportunity. Again, we can see now the effects that their second budget has had on many families. We know, for instance, that married women with families are now forced to take up employment so as to supplement the household incomes. An extraordinary situation in this regard is that should such a woman become unemployed she is not entitled to unemployment benefit although, during her period of  employment she had contributed to social welfare. To my mind she is entitled legally to benefit in those circumstances.
I do not know any reason for this. Nobody in the Department has clarified it for me. If a woman is employed but becomes unemployed she is informed by the Department that she is not entitled to unemployment benefit because she is not available for work. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would have this matter examined. Great injustice is being done to such an unfortunate woman who was forced to take up employment in order to help to maintain her family and who is refused unemployment benefit.
I have personal views concerning the lowering of the age for old age pension. The Department are saving money by reducing the age. A man who retires at 65 years if he had remained on disability benefit would have had more money than he will get in retirement pension. Likewise if a man continues on disability pension until he is 69 years his income will be greater than if he was on old age pension at age 68. The Department of Social Welfare are saving money by lowering the age. Usually the Department say that a man who remains on disability pension may receive more money. We should not be told we are doing a service to people by paying them pensions at the earlier age.
Mr. Wyse: I am saying no such thing. I do not like people telling someone that they will benefit when they know in their hearts and souls they themselves will also benefit because of the saving of money. I am not referring to the lower age.
Mr. Kelly: I listened to the Deputy with interest. There is an answer to his points. I would like to know whether the Deputy would be in favour of replacing the age limit with a limit of 70 years again?
Mr. Wyse: With all due respect to Deputy Kelly, I want to say here what I said a fortnight ago regarding people who retire at 65. Many people are not ready to retire at 65. The Parliamentary Secretary, Deputy Cluskey, is a member of the Labour Party and he must be aware of this from his dealings with people. A fortnight ago I asked him to consider the question of people who retire at 65 taking up part-time employment so as to subsidise their incomes. I agree that there might be certain difficulties. The main difficulty would be that concerned with insurance and occupational injuries. There are many elderly people employed at petrol pumps and in caretaking jobs. These people should be allowed to take up part-time employment without depriving them of their retirement pensions. Such employment would help to keep them active. Many of our institutions are overcrowded. When people retire they often get into a rut and lose their interest in life. The Parliamentary Secretary is aware of this. Many societies concerned with the elderly have been advocating part-time employment for them. I questioned the Minister for Social Welfare some months ago in the Dáil about this matter. He told me he would be prepared to consider the whole question. Nothing has been done so far.
I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary, Deputy Cluskey, is now back in the House. I made certain suggestions to him a fortnight ago but no reference has been made now to my submissions. There is much hardship in regard to unemployment benefit. Sometimes in the heat of the moment because of a dispute with an employer an employee may lose his job. The extraordinary thing is that the Department of Social Welfare regard that worker as guilty. As soon as he claims unemployment benefit he is refused it until such time as a referee sits to consider his case. I have seen cases where married men with large families had to wait six or eight weeks before a referee could decide who was right and who was wrong. I have written hundreds of letters to the Department of Social  Welfare asking them to expedite hearings or to have money paid to a particular man who was awaiting the hearing of his case.
Mr. Wyse: With all respect to the Parliamentary Secretary, let me say that the time has come when this Government can at all times ask what we did when we were in power and what were we advocating down through the years. The Government have the opportunity now.
Mr. Wyse: The Parliamentary Secretary has not stated the time or the date. I suggest that he look up his records. There is no point in any member of the Government saying : “Why did you not do this or why did you not do that?”
Mr. Wyse: I am asking the Parliamentary Secretary to do what he said he would do if he were in Government. Those in receipt of social welfare and disability benefits are now looking to him to carry out the promises he made during the last general election. I mention this in good faith because this can create hardship and poverty. There is a need for adjustment here.
A man on sick leave is paid disability benefit. After a certain period he is brought before the medical referee. If the referee thinks he is capable of working he is ordered  back although the family doctor may differ. People under the family doctor should carry out his orders. Disability benefit ceases until somebody steps in between the two doctors to decide who is right. During this time the unfortunate applicant must wait although he may have a wife and family to keep. Payment should continue until the referee reaches a decision. That will avoid hardship. I have no doubt that the commission set up to investigate areas of poverty will come across many cases such as I have mentioned. For a man with a wife and family to be without income for six weeks is, to my mind, a hardship.
I mentioned here the long delays in the payment of non-contributory old age pensions. I will not place all the blame for this at the Parliamentary Secretary's door because a lot of it must be attributed to old age pension committees. The day for such committees has gone. Committees of this type should meet once a month. An unfortunate applicant may have to wait two months for payment of his non-contributory old age pension if the committee fails to meet. There is hardship here. The Parliamentary Secretary should consider some other system for payment of non-contributory old age pensions. Old age pension committees serve no purpose. They meet regularly and, I am sure, are not even questioned about their findings. There is an unnecessary delay in the payment of these pensions because some committees may not meet for one, two or three months. There are adjustments which can be made very easily. The Parliamentary Secretary should give very serious consideration to this very important matter.
It is about time that the words “home assistance” were removed. They give the impression of begging. Only those who are entitled to home assistance get it but it should not be given under that heading. On this subject the Parliamentary Secretary should consider the co-ordination of a number of Departments because one hinges on the other—Social Welfare, Local Government and Health. Home assistance  comes under the Department of Health. The time has come when home assistance should be reviewed.
Who claims home assistance? Many of the people I have already mentioned : those who are refused unemployment benefit until such time as their cases go before the appeal board and those who are refused disability benefit until the doctors decide who is right. They are the people who must go cap in hand to the home assistance officer until such time as the Department of Social Welfare decide on their appeal.
Deserted wives start with home assistance. A wife is not considered “deserted” for three months. She may have spent many years in employment and contributed to the Department of Social Welfare during that time but she cannot be considered as a deserted wife for three months. Then she must go to the officer in charge of home assistance and beg. Why? The most important thing for an unfortunate girl who has been deserted is immediate assistance to help her avoid the frustrations she must suffer.
We know that many a deserted wife had to desert her family in a matter of hours of being herself deserted by her husband. Immediate action should be taken to avoid further hardship in cases of that kind. I do not know why deserted wives with a genuine claim should have to wait for three months. I appreciate that the waiting period was six months and that it has been reduced to three months, but I implore the Parliamentary Secretary to ensure that immediate payment will be made to wives in that predicament.
For heavens sake, let us get rid of the words “home assistance” and “social welfare”. Let us call them “entitlements”. All who receive social welfare benefits have contributed to them in the same way as they would to insurance. Many people are reluctant, for instance, to divulge their age, and consequently, many refuse to apply for old age pensions. It is psychological. We should call the different benefits by names such as “Entitlement 1”, “Entitlement 2” and so on to cover the entire field of  social benefits. In England they are called “social security”.
I should like to say a few words about free electricity. The cost of fuel has gone beyond the capacity of old age pensioners and others and I feel there should be unlimited supplies of free electricity available to them. There is no promise of any such benefit in the Parliamentary Secretary's brief.
Deputy Faulkner a fortnight ago spoke for some hours and mentioned Fianna Fáil's contributions towards improving the social services. The Parliamentary Secretary made no mention of that or to our other submissions. His brief was prepared more than a fortnight ago and I was hoping that this year, because of the report of the advisory committee on poverty, some effort would have been made to include some of the recommendations in this Estimate. Though the information was in the hands of the Minister, no such action was taken. It is difficult to define poverty and I am concerned about obvious cases in which the Minister might have altered entitlements in regard to many of the benefits.
The Parliamentary Secretary made a comparison between the amounts allocated by the Fianna Fáil Government in their last year of office and that provided in 1973-74 but he did not make any comparison in regard to the rate of the cost of living increases in the two periods. This year, because of inflationary trends, new severe hardships will be imposed on the social welfare classes. Everybody knows that unless drastic action is taken immediately the increases given this year will have been completely eroded and those concerned will have no compensation. Fianna Fáil exempted from rates non-contributory old age pensioners and I suggest now that this should be broadened to include the contributory class, particularly old couples living on their own.
I should like to know if the House in the near future will be given an opportunity to discuss the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Pilot Schemes to Combat Poverty so that we shall all know  the exact areas of poverty. Great efforts are being made throughout the country by community social service councils to alleviate poverty. The Parliamentary Secretary should give all the assistance he can to those people who devote their time and energy to voluntary work. I have no doubt that the greatest source of information where poverty is concerned is the organised social service councils, because they are the people who are now directly involved in fighting poverty, among other things. I recall questioning the Minister for Social Welfare regarding this effort because it comes directly under the Department of Health as well as under the Department of Social Welfare. I made the plea that they should consider at least exempting from rates the buildings of these groups administering to the needy. This is of vital importance to the people I am talking about. I trust the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Welfare will use his influence with his colleague in the Department of Local Government so that every possible encouragement will be given to these voluntary workers in their efforts on behalf of the needy. Some contribution must come from the Government, be it through the Department of Health or the Department of Local Government, to alleviate the cost of rates on buildings.
Finally I want to compliment the Parliamentary Secretary on his speech. I have no doubt that his effort is a sincere one. We are all anxious to try to reach perfection where the Department of Social Welfare is concerned. Therefore, when Deputies make suggestions in regard to that Department they should be listened to and at least some comment should be made by the Parliamentary Secretary when he is replying to this debate.
Mr. Callanan: Coming from a constituency where there are a great number of people to whom social welfare means a great deal, I wish to make some comments on this Estimate, which I consider to be one of the most important Estimates to come before the House. Like the previous  speaker I would like to compliment the Minister on his speech. I was not here when it was being delivered but I have read through it; I have also read Deputy Faulkner's speech, and there is no difference between them. They are both trying to help.
I believe the Parliamentary Secretary's heart is in the right place and that he has concern for the people for whom I have been fighting all my life. It is a pity when two men have so much in common that a little compliment would not be paid to the people of the past. A great deal has been done for social welfare down through the years. I am not the youngest man in this House and I can remember when we were fighting for increased social welfare payments for the downtrodden.
When we write to the Parliamentary Secretary about cases that come to our attention he does his best to get things done as quickly as possible. However, as Deputy Wyse has pointed out, there is great delay in coming to decisions in the Department. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will rectify that situation.
I believe the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department are responsible for keeping the people from being very angry with the Government. Of course what is being done would be done no matter what Government were in power. The only difference in regard to Fianna Fáil is that we did not have the £30 million from the EEC to distribute among social welfare recipients. When I was fighting in the general election last February 12 months I was asked about the cost of living. I said we could not do anything about the cost of living but that with the money we saved on agricultural subsidies we would improve social welfare benefits. To be fair to the Minister for Social Welfare he has done that, but it is hardly enough to keep in line with inflation.
The Minister has tried to get as much as he could from the Government, but the cost of living is very high and guidelines have been set  which are all wrong. When most people think of social welfare benefits they think only of the urban areas but there are also people in the rural areas who need social welfare, unemployment assistance and so on. I spoke previously on the question of taxation on valuation. Some of the valuations on land are unjust. I have a case before me which is going on appeal. The land has a valuation of £17.50p. According to the present way of assessing an income that man is supposed to have an income of £6.73p per week. All he has on it are two cows, three calves, ten ewes and 15 lambs. Anybody who knows anything about farming would realise that that man could not possibly have an income of £6.73p. The case has been appealed, but I do not think the Minister can do an awful lot under the law as it obtains at present.
However, it is ridiculous to assess a man's income on a valuation basis because the valuations vary so much. I pointed this out before, but I want to emphasise again that these valuations, the Griffith Valuations, have existed for a long time and are extremely unjust. In the old days in certain estates in this country, where the land was bad and valuations were low, if the old landlords wanted to get on the Grand Jury they could not qualify unless they had a certain valuation. They applied and had those valuations increased. Consequently when the tenant got that land it was with the increased valuation. I have it all around me in my constituency; it is called landlord's land, where some good land would be valued at perhaps 75p per acre and some even as high as a £ an acre. Those people are assessed on that valuation for everything, which seems to me to be most unjust. The Parliamentary Secretary, being a Dublin man, may not be conversant with this but I am. I understand it and I feel it is damnable so far as social welfare benefits are concerned. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to examine this to see if there could not be devised some other way of assessing a man's income apart from the valuation of his land, which is completely  outdated. I believe his heart is in the right place and he will do something about it. But unless the law is changed I do not know really what he can do to improve the situation.
Another matter mentioned in the Minister's speech, which is of vital importance and I am glad that he has taken cognisance of it, is the simplification of application forms. Something should be done in this respect so that people applying for social assistance will not be bothering others for help in the filling up of these forms. There should be devised some kind of simple application form and let whoever processes it do the explanation, home assistance officer or whoever it may be. But the form itself should be simplified so that anybody with ordinary schoolboy intelligence would be able to fill it in without running to the local priest or anybody else for help. There are so many ways in which social assistance is granted at the moment that even a public representative would find it difficult, after much scrutiny, to establish the category into which a particular applicant may fall. There should be in every town some agency or office where every kind of social assistance would be available, with people there to advise applicants on the type of assistance for which they might qualify.
I come now to old age pensioners who may have a small pension from some other source. I have a case in mind of a person, over 90 years of age, who had a small pension which increased gradually, but, as it increased, the ceiling for qualification for the old age pension did not rise correspondingly. The result was that that person was drawing a pension to which he was not entitled. This is very important because the Department will then be chasing such people for back money. The person I have in mind had £500 levelled against him for having overdrawn his pension. That serves to  prove that the guidelines and the means test did not keep in line with pensions and other benefits. Imagine persons of over 90 years of age, when they get a small increase in pension, being expected to report the fact to the Department and that the Department should therefore reduce the pension. This happens all over the country. In the case I have in mind, I know very well the money will not be recouped because the individual concerned has not got the money. The amount involved was £500 overdrawn in pension over the years because the ceiling had not gone up correspondingly.
There was very little difference between Deputy Faulkner's speech and the Minister's on this subject. Both of them have their hearts in the right place. I think everybody, on all sides of the House, wants to see the best being done for these people because they are the backbone of the country. It is a pity that we have, and will have, people who need this type of assistance. I am against giving anything across the board. I have always said that the only reason for taxation in any country should be to bring the income of the lower group up to a reasonable standard. I do not believe in taxing people to make the rich richer. I would like to see the standard of living of ordinary people raised so that they can enjoy themselves and mix with others, as the Parliamentary Secretary has said. But certain things need to be examined and revised. I have no doubt but that the present Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary will do so. It is a pity that we politicians do not admit across the floor to one another: “The man before me did a damn good job; I am continuing it”. That is exactly what the Parliamentary Secretary is doing. There was a standard set. There were all the things brought in by Fianna Fáil which should be admitted as being good. I would always be big enough to admit that the other fellow was doing a good job. Likewise, the same should obtain vice versa—that the other fellow should admit that a fair job was done, with limited resources, by the people who preceded him.
I wish the Parliamentary Secretary  well. I thank him for his courtesy in replying to various queries addressed to him on behalf of my constituents from time to time. No man has occasion to write to the Department of Social Welfare more than I have because of the people I represent and whom I am proud to represent.
I am glad to have had the opportunity of pointing out the injustices existing, particularly in respect of the small farmer who is assessed on a valuation basis. I would ask the Miniter immediately to consider changing that and have some other type of assessment of a man's income.
Mr. Geoghegan: Ní mian liom aon mhoill a chur ar an Rúnaí Párlaiminte ach teastaíonn uaim cúpla pointí a chur os a chomhair. Tá a fhios agam go maith agus go rí-mhaith an trioblóid atá sa Roinn faoi chuile shórt a íoctar amach do chuile dhream ar fud na tíre uilig agus tá a fhios agam go maith an brú ata ar na daoine atá ag obair san oifig ó ceann na Roinne go dtí an duine is ísle sa Roinn. Chaith mé cúpla bliain san oifig agus tareís an méid a chonaic mé fad a bhí mé ann ba cheart don Rúnaí Párlaiminte—agus iarraim air na cúrsaí seo a scrúdú — féachaint chuige cuid den Roinn a scaipeadh ar fud na tíre. Ní gá chuile rud a chur tríd an oifig anseo i mBaile Átha Cliath. D'fhéadfaí cuid mhaith d'obair na Roinne a dhéanamh ar fud na tíre uilig.
Tógaimís cás an tsean-phinsinéara. Nuair a chuireann sé isteach ar an sean-phinsean rachaidh an t-iarratas go Baile Átha Cliath. Rachaidh sé thar n-ais arís go dtí an oifig i nGaillimh nó áit ar bith eile ar fud na tíre. Cuirtear amach é ansin go dtí an t-iarrthóir agus téann séar ais ansin go dtí coiste an tsean-phinsin. Tagann cuid de na coistí sin le chéile chuile mhí ach tá cuid eile acu nach dtagann le chéile ach uair gach dara mí nó gach tríú mí. Cuireann sé sin moill ar na cúrsaí agus cuirtear cuid mhaith den mhilleán ar na hoifigí i mBaile Átha Cliath. Ní ceart an milleán sin a chur ar an oifig i mBaile Átha Cliath ná ar na hoifigí.
 Maidir leis an airgead a gheibheann na daoine tinn ba cheart é sin a shocrú faoin tír freisin. Níl contae i nÉirinn nach bhfuil foireann ag obair ann agus dá gcuirfí an rud atá á mholadh agam i bhfeidhm laghadódh sé an obair atá le déanamh anseo i mBaile Átha Cliath agus bheadh níos mó deifir leis na cásanna feictear dom.
I did not intend to intervene in this debate but there are one or two points I should like to bring to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Welfare. Nobody appreciates more than I do the work of that Department and I have sympathy for every official from the secretary down to the humblest employee. It is a Department employing between 1,000 and 1,500 people and no matter how we look at it there will be delays. Some of these may eventually be overcome but in other cases it will take a very long time. I do not blame the people who work there. There is one thing which, if it could be done, should be done as soon as possible. When an application for an old age pension, for instance, is made it goes to the pensions officer and he goes to the applicant and examines the case. He reports back and then the matter comes to Dublin for recommendation. If the applicant does not agree it must go before an appeals board to have the case decided, but I am talking of the straightforward cases with no appeals or anything of that kind. There must be a certain amount of delay because —I am sorry to say—the Department is top-heavy. We have labour exchanges. I think in all 26 counties, and if an officer investigates an old age pension application he knows when reporting whether that person is entitled to the full pension or otherwise. Where a person is entitled to the full pension I think it could be paid straight away, that the report should go to the local labour exchange and that he could then contact Dublin saying: “Pay so-and-so; the file is on its way”. That would avoid a hold-up.
There is a terrible headache in regard to unemployment benefit and nobody feels it more than the officials  of the Department. Certificates come in with wrong numbers thus causing confusion. I believe this work could be done locally in the labour exchanges and by decentralising some of the work the Department's work would be made lighter in Dublin and that would speed up a certain number of cases.
People applying for unemployment assistance for the first time—I have dealt with some of them myself— are often held up for two or three months. I do not blame social welfare officers or the people in the Department but if the social welfare officer made a report to the local exchange manager on the following day saying: “I have visited so-and-so. He is entitled to £3 or £4 or £5” as the case might be, this could be paid the following week and the papers could be supplied afterwards. The man who makes the investigation is a trained and experienced officer and can make a decision there and then. He knows exactly what the person is entitled to. If that were done it would speed up cases and reduce headaches in the Department.
People should be continually reminded, whether through the labour exchange or by enclosures with payments, of the importance of using their correct numbers at all times. A stencil to this effect could be included every month or two with the payments. That would avoid wrong numbering and consequent delay. The Department are blamed. I do not blame them: I know what has been happening and I have the greatest respect for the officials who have a very difficult job to do. They have my sympathy when they are blamed, as they are being blamed in the wrong, when somebody puts in a “5” instead of a “6” or misplaces figures. Where the official dealing with the case knows exactly what a person is entitled to get, I believe that on his report to the local labour exchange manager, that person could be paid the following week or at least within two weeks. The file could be sent on to Dublin with a statement to the effect that the case had been examined, that the person  was entitled to so much and that payment could be made right away. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to see if this suggestion can be implemented through the labour exchanges. It would remove some heavy work from the Department and the Parliamentary Secretary would be doing a good day's work for himself and the officials if this idea could be put into effect.
Mr. Hussey: I shall be very brief. I did not have time to read in full the introductory speech of the Parliamentary Secretary on this Estimate which is one of the most important to come before the House because it deals particularly with the less well-off section of the community, the people we all want to look after and for whom we want to ensure a fair deal, old age pensioners, widows and orphans, deserted wives and children and so on. They have no trade unions or organisations to speak for them.
Even though the Estimate has been increased substantially to the figure of £112 million, when you take the rising cost of food and everything else into account there is very little to spare for people who are living on fixed incomes and depending on pensions to keep body and soul together. There is room for improvement here. I had hoped that the schemes could be expanded or developed. We have not had any new schemes introduced by this Government. Those operating are schemes introduced by successive Fianna Fáil Governments and they have not been extended. I am referring to the free electricity and free travel introduced by our party some years ago, which have been a considerable help to old age pensioners. There are many other things which could be done to help those people and to make their burden lighter and I should like to see the Government doing those things.
In every constituency we hear about the delay in paying benefit to people who are entitled to it. The situation does not seem to be improving. I cannot understand why people who are entitled to benefit should have to wait up to six months to get it. This  happens particularly in the case of old age pensioners. A claim is lodged. The social welfare officer, due to pressure of work perhaps, cannot investigate the claim for two or three months. Even when he does so and submits the application to the Department it is often two or three months more before it is processed and the pension paid. This should not be the case in this day and age when we have so many computers and so many excellent workers. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would devote some of his time to finding a solution to this problem. It is very disheartening for a person who has reached the pension age and has, perhaps, in order to qualify for that pension, signed over his holding of land or his business, as the case may be, to a son or daughter, to be left penniless for a few months while his claim is being processed. If this could be done on a regional basis it might cut out some of the delays. I realise that certain claims require a lot of investigation but the vast majority of old age pension claims are fairly straight forward. I see no reason why those people should have to wait such a long time for payment.
The same applies to other benefits, such as unemployment assistance. Here again there is a considerable delay. I notice that when younger men apply for qualification certificates for unemployment assistance the fact that they are living in their parents' home is taken as means and assessed against them. This is very wrong because in most cases those young men, not of their own choice but because of their obligations to their parents, have stayed at home to look after their parents. When they apply for unemployment assistance because they are living in their parents' home their means are assessed at £3 or £3.50 per week and their unemployment assistance is reduced accordingly. Some change should be made in that. The fact that they have free board and lodgings in their parents' homes should not militate against them. The same applies to applicants for unemployment benefit. In the case of a  small farmer if his means from the farm exceed 50 pence per day unless he has more than 78 stamps for the preceding three years his claim is disallowed. With costs as they are today it is well time that figure was changed. The Parliamentary Secretary should look into this urgently because it does not seem to be a realistic figure.
I believe that not enough assistance is being given by the Department of Social Welfare to voluntary organisations. Those organisations are doing a very good job. They are bringing meals to old people who are unable to provide them for themselves and they are doing lots of other good work for people in need of help who are unable to get that help from the Department or from any State agency. The Department should come to their assistance more. They should be given financial assistance to train people. This would help the many people who are unable to do anything for themselves.
The Department is a very big one and it is scattered very much around the city. I can well understand the frustration of an old age pensioner or an applicant for some benefit trying to locate a particular section. It is a pity there could not be some central place a person could get in touch with to make inquiries about applications. When one rings a particular number he is told that an application is being dealt with by some other section. This presents difficulties for people who are dealing with these things every day, never mind people who are applying for benefit. We, the TDs, find it difficult at times to get through to the appropriate section and I am sure the general public have the same problem.
There are many things we would like to see done. I hope the Government will ensure that people who are in receipt of assistance, old age pensions and widows' pensions, will be looked after and that their rates of pension or benefit will keep in line with rising costs. The unfortunate thing at the moment is that, due to the inflation which is sweeping the world, people on fixed incomes find  that the benefits given to them are almost eroded before they get them. Even though the Parliamentary Secretary or the Government may boast about the large sum of money made available for these people they still find it very hard to live. People who have to live on social welfare pensions are not well off. They are not getting enough money. I hope in the years ahead the Government will be able to provide more money and will be able to extend the scope of these schemes which were introduced by Fianna Fáil.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. Cluskey): I would like to thank the House for the way in which they have contributed, in the main, to the debate on the Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare. It is, as I pointed out in my opening statement to the House, the first opportunity we have had of discussing the Estimate for that Department since the change of Government. I tried, in presenting the Estimate, to range over many aspects of social welfare and to try to envisage what the development of the Department of Social Welfare should be in the best interests of the people who finance the Department, as they do every other Government Department.
The Department of Social Welfare, as I said in my opening remarks, without exception, deal directly with more of our citizens than any other Department and, therefore, their development, effectiveness and efficiency mean more to the ordinary people than some other Departments. I said I was going to throw out certain thoughts about the development of the Department. I mentioned that in doing that I would be taking something of a political risk. At least one political correspondent misunderstood that. He thought I was getting into an ideological argument. I had not that in mind when I mentioned the question of political risk. I meant by political risk that I was raising issues; that, even with the full agreement of the House and the financial resources immediately available, all these developments could not take  place over-night. They would have to evolve and a very considerable amount of planning, discussion and consultation would be required before the development of the Department which I envisaged could take place. If those things were now a reality, before they could be brought into being a considerable amount of time would have to pass. The risk I referred to was one of being told on next year's Estimate, or possibly long before that, that I had committed myself to doing certain things and they had not as yet been achieved.
I was reminded very much tonight, listening to Deputy Wyse, of the risk I was taking in raising some of these issues. He was very forceful in his condemnation of the Department, of me and of the Government in general for not having achieved all the reforms possible in social welfare over the last 15 months although the social injustices that remain in the country took quite a considerable time to build up. That was the risk I was referring to and I suppose that is a risk I will have to run.
In general I thought it was quite a good discussion. I would like to pay tribute to Deputy Faulkner in particular for his contribution to the discussion. One of the areas I dealt with in my opening remarks was the question of poverty. When we speak of this subject we sometimes wonder why we should speak about it so forcefully. Why should we speak about it so often and why should we devote so much of our time and attention to this problem? I think it is necessary to spend so much time on it and to repeat the statements I have made in the past—and will make in the future—on the subject because the vast majority of people, not only the Members of the House but the general public, have not got the insight into this problem that Deputy Faulkner obviously has. I was somewhat surprised at the insight he showed in his contribution on that particular aspect of my speech.
Although it has been claimed that between 20 to 24 per cent of our people are living in poverty, that figure is not believed by the vast  majority of the people. I do not think it is believed by a number of Deputies. People have a mental blockage; the facts are so unpleasant and the charges against the rest of us in this society are so serious that I am afraid a lot of us do not want to acknowledge that this problem is of the magnitude it is.
I was both pleased and encouraged by Deputy Faulkner's contribution. He was concerned that in the programme to discover and combat poverty those involved in the committee set up for the purpose of investigating the problem would be investigating it at a remove. He said that in London social workers there had gone and lived in the circumtances surrounding poverty for a certain period in order to try to get a better appreciation of the difficulties experienced and the despair suffered by those born and bred and reared in poverty. He made the very telling point that it is not possible for us who are not condemned to live in these circumstances and see our children having to live in them, without any hope of relief, to fully understand the hopelessness and the despair these people must suffer. Deputy Faulkner made a very valid point and very properly brought this problem to the attention of the House.
When social workers go in with the best intention of doing good and getting a proper appreciation of the circumstances they know that they can walk out at any time they like. Any of us can do that. Living in such circumstances is for us a temporary experience. It is a voluntary exercise on our part and we simply cannot get, with the best will in the world, a proper insight into the real problem. I was very glad that Deputy Faulkner made this point. This is an aspect I am sure, that the committee will take into consideration in their investigation. Indeed, very early on in their deliberations the committee agreed that no solution could be imposed unless the people themselves were involved from the beginning right through in solving this problem. Otherwise no solution  would be successful. Again, I thank Deputy Faulkner for that particular part of his contribution.
A number of issues were raised in the course of the debate. Deputy Wyse spoke about the lack of democracy we were showing in that he made certain suggestions in regard to social welfare on the Bill discussed here some two weeks ago and they were totally disregarded by me in my introductory speech on the Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare. There may be some confusion in Deputy Wyse's mind on this because the Social Welfare Bill was designed simply to make provision for the implementation of the budget and the Estimate before the House does not take into account moneys provided in that Bill.
Deputy Wyse also said he was quite convinced that the Estimate speech was ready some two or three weeks ago and that we knew all these things at that time. In fact the Estimate speech was not finished until quite late the night before I delivered it here. Since Deputy Wyse has given me this opportunity I should like publicly now to express my sincere thanks to and appreciation of the staff of the Department who were required to work late into the night to ensure Deputies would have available to them copies of the speech while it was in fact being delivered here. I can assure Deputy Wyse it was not ready two or three weeks ago and I am also sure that many members of the staff in the Department only wish it had been because that would have saved them a great deal of trouble.
I do not know if many Deputies have a full appreciation of the difficulties experienced in the Department simply because members of the public will not give sufficient information when they make claims. I am not for one moment suggesting there are not delays. Deputy Geoghegan, a former Parliamentary Secretary in the Department, pointed out a short while ago, and rightly so, that the vast majority of the claims submitted—the volume is considerable—are dealt with quickly and efficiently. There are delays, but nobody goes to his local TD or councillor if his claim has been  dealt with properly and quickly. People only go when there is delay. The ones public representatives hear about are the ones that go wrong, not the vast majority that go right.
I have been concerned about this since I went into the Department and any time a complaint reaches my office, be it from a TD, a councillor or a member of the public, about what would seem to be undue delay I have asked for an investigation to be made and a report submitted to me as to why the delay occurred. I want to put it on the record now that, out of every ten complaints I receive, eight have been directly attributable to the claimants. Not only have we have been given wrong numbers, which is a very easy thing to do, but I have come across cases where people have submitted wrong names. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is true. People have applied giving a wrong name. I am not talking about “Mary Jane” or “Mary Anne”. I am talking about a wrong surname. If the claim does not go through in the normal time a Deputy is contacted. The only cases Deputies hear about are the ones that go wrong.
I am not saying that to indicate in any way that I and the officials in the Department are satisfied or happy with the present situation. Quite frankly, I am not happy about it. It is true, as has been stated here during the course of the debate, that, if something goes wrong with a claim for social welfare, it can inflict severe hardship on an individual or, indeed, on a whole family. So long as there is one delay which can inflict that kind of hardship, we would not be justified in allowing that situation to continue.
I have wondered about this for a considerable period of time and I am convinced that, unless a considerable amount of money is spent on modernising the Department of Social Welfare, it will not be possible to eliminate delays. The volume of new claims coming into the Department was estimated, approximately 12 months ago, at over 10,000 per week. With the introduction of new schemes such as the lowering of pension age,  or the lowering of the means test limit, the work of the Department is increased very substantially.
I pointed out in my opening remarks on this Estimate that I was far from satisfied with the working conditions of the staff of the Department of Social Welfare. They are far from ideal and with the advances made—and undoubtedly there have been considerable advances in the last two budgets—the situation is aggravated so far as the working conditions of the staff are concerned. If that goes on it must, inevitably, affect their efficiency. Unless we are prepared to spend a considerable amount of money in modernising our methods of handling claims, we will have to live with that problem for some time to come.
It might be in the best interests of recipients of social welfare to divert money, which possibly could be used to provide new benefits and new schemes, in order to ensure that this standard of efficiency is attained, a standard of efficiency to which our people who are depending on social welfare payments are entitled. I should like to hear a discussion on the merits or demerits of doing that.
A number of issues were raised by Deputies and unfortunately some of them were not too well informed about what actually has been going on in the field of social welfare over the past number of years. We had a statement here tonight by Deputy Hussey to the effect that no new schemes — a categorical statement: no new schemes—had been introduced in social welfare since the introduction of free travel and free electricity. How can we hope to have a discussion in the House on the whole range of social welfare administration and developments when we have an elected Member who is so far removed from the realities of the situation that he will make a statement like that?
I have no objection to Fianna Fáil Deputies pointing out, and rightly pointing out, that considerable advances in many areas were made over the period in which they were responsible for social welfare. Deputy Wyse had a whole litany of things  which had not been achieved over the past 15 months, as if these things had developed over the past 15 months only, and no one ever heard of these complaints before. Most of them were due, in fact, to a strict observance by the staff in the Department, and by deciding officers and appeals officers, of legislation framed, introduced and voted through this House by the Fianna Fáil Party with the help of Deputy Wyse.
I appreciate fully, as I have said on a number of occasions, that there is a tremendous amount of scope in the field of social welfare. Without wishing to score political points I think it will be generally acknowledged that over the past 16 years —maybe not that long but undoubtedly over the past eight or ten years —of Fianna Fáil Party Administration, social welfare was the Cinderella and, when the Minister for Finance was formulating his budget, social welfare requirements came very, very low on his list of priorities.
I am not saying that purely politically and I am not speculating on it because the figures are there. We know how much. It is a matter of public record how much money was allocated and it is not a question of no thought having been put into it or no work being done. The same people, exactly the same people, are in the Department of Social Welfare as were there under the Fianna Fáil Government. Therefore, it was not the skill that was lacking or the thought or the know-how. What was lacking was the political will to do these things. Something else that was lacking was the sense of urgency to tackle these problems.
As far as I can gather social welfare did not appear to be a very attractive proposition as far as vote catching was concerned to some Members, obviously the majority, of the Fianna Fáil Party. Everything else is the same in the Department of Social Welfare as it was when Fianna Fáil were in control and the only thing lacking was the political will to tackle these problems. That lack of political will, that  lack of activity in this area has built up a vast amount of work to be done in that whole field before we can approach what would be to my mind an acceptable social welfare system for this country.
I tried to outline to some extent what I saw the future holding in the field of social welfare, what I thought should be the developments in that area. I stated that in order to try and stimulate discussion on what are very vital matters to a very large section of our people. The number of our people who have absolutely no social security coverage is considerable. As far as the self-employed are concerned it runs somewhere in the neighbourhood of 31 per cent.
How our social security system is financed is a matter that will have to be looked at very critically. How we spend the money that is now available to us also has to be looked at very critically because when you have the problems that we have and the limited resources that we have we must ensure that those resources are used to relieve the people who are in real need. I was encouraged by the debate, particularly by the contribution of Deputy Faulkner, but I do not think the discussion in this area will end here tonight. Quite a considerable number of people, not Members of this House but people who have shown over the last number of years that they are vitally concerned about some of the social injustices in our society, people who have devoted a considerable amount of their time and undoubted talents with no compensation in a monetary way, will examine certain specific aspects of this whole area of social welfare and social security.
In my view these people have made a very considerable contribution towards whatever progress we have made up to now. I believe that the extent of their contribution has been no way exhausted or realised and that they will continue to contribute to the evolution of our social welfare system. In my view it is necessary not only that we debate these questions in the House but, as elected representatives, that we  stimulate discussion outside the House and create an awareness among all our people that this is our concern, our concern as a society, and that it will require our combined efforts to overcome some of the many social injustices which are present in our society. If they are ignored or are not properly tackled, they can do tremendous harm to our society as a whole. That type of discussion has started and it will continue. In my view it will make a very real contribution towards the eventual establishment of a truly comprehensive social security system that will cater for the needs of our people.
Mr. Faulkner: I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will keep in mind what I had to say particularly in regard to the very serious effect rampant inflation is having on the living standards of people dependent on social welfare.
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