Vote 49 : Social Welfare.

Thursday, 1 December 1977

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 302 No. 4

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[556]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I want to point out to the House that under Standing Orders there are time limits on the speakers in this debate. The opening speech of the Minister, no limit; first speaker of a group in Opposition—that is both groups in Opposition—one-and-a-half hours, if he wishes to use it. Other speakers during the debate, one hour, and the speech of the Minister or Deputy replying, one-and-a-half hours.

Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. Haughey): Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  I move.

That a supplementary sum not exceeding £21,700,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1977, 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.

This Supplementary Estimate is required to meet increased expenditure arising from the increases in rates of payment in April and October and the other improvements in social welfare schemes during the current year. The increases arise on two of the three sections of the Social Welfare Vote for the current year, namely social insurance and social assistance, while there is a small net saving on the section dealing with administration. The original Estimate, as shown in the Estimates Volume, which was passed by the House in July last, was for the sum of £257,758,000. The present Estimate is for an additional £21,700,000, which brings the total Exchequer spending on the services administered by my Department this year to £279,458,000.

Under the section for administration —subheads A to D—the net saving amounts to £108,200, which is the result of increases amounting to £138,000 on subheads A.1, B.1 and C offset by savings of £246,200 as shown at the foot of the Supplementary Estimate. The additional expenditure of social insurance—subheads E and F—amounts to £5,297,000, while the extra amount required for social assistance—subheads [557] G to L—is £16,334,000, making an overall increase on the three sections of £21,522,800. There is, however, a reduction of £177,200 in the receipts from Appropriations-in-Aid—subhead M—which amount falls to be added to the total of the three sections, thus increasing the additional requirement on the Vote to £21,700,000.

The sum of £5,297,000 required for social insurance is the additional amount payable by the Exchequer to the social insurance fund to meet the deficit on the working of the fund. The gross cost of the general increase in the rates of benefit granted in April and October last, and of the other improvements in social insurance schemes during the past year, is £23,648,000. The main constituents of this figure are £6,370,000 for disability benefit, £5,495,000 for old age contributory pensions, £4,400,000 for unemployment benefit, £4,098,000 for widows' and orphans' pensions and £2,120,000 for retirement pensions. There are, however, variations from the original estimates due to trends in claims during the year, such as an increase in the number of persons claiming disability benefit and a reduction in the numbers claiming unemployment benefit. The net result of these variations is a reduction of £1,311,000 leaving the increase in expenditure from the fund at £22,337,000.

On the income side there has been an increase of £15,000,000 in receipts from contributions payable by employers and employees while increased income from investments amounts to £54,000, making a total of £15,054,000, which reduces the deficit to £7,283,000. After making allowance for the sum of £2,000,000 which was overdrawn from the Exchequer at 31st December, 1976, the additional amount payable by the Exchequer this year to the social insurance fund is £5,283,000. As regards the overdraw at 31st December, 1976, the position is that final draws must be made each year on an estimated basis because actual figures of expenditure and income are not available until after the close of the year. The actual outturn on the fund for the financial year ended 31st December, 1976, indicated that the [558] sum of £2,000,000 had been overdrawn from the Exchequer at that date. Accordingly, the revised Exchequer contribution for the current year, as now estimated under subhead E, is being reduced by that amount.

The bulk of the additional expenditure required in the Supplementary Estimate relates to social assistance and amounts to £16,334,000. This additional expenditure has arisen mainly from the increases in assistance payments, including non-contributory pensions, granted in April and October, 1977, at a total cost of £18,631,000. In addition, extra amounts have to be provided for miscellaneous grants £484,000 and unemployment assistance, £120,000. These amounts are, however, offset by savings of £1,890,000 on old age non-contributory pensions, £500,000 on children's allowances, £305,000 on widows' and orphans' non-contributory pensions and £206,000 on social Assistance Allowances, totalling £2,901,000.

The reduction of £177,200 in Appropriations-in-Aid, arises mainly from a reduction in the amount of the administration costs on the social insurance and occupational injuries schemes which have to be refunded from the social insurance and occupational injuries funds.

As I have already stated, this Supplementary Estimate, for an additional sum of £21.7 million, is required mainly to meet the cost of the increases in the rates of social insurance and social assistance payments and other improvements in 1977. It was originally estimated that the increases in question would cost £30.6 million but due mainly to an improvement in the employment situation, particularly since June last, it has been possible to reduce the additional amount required by my Department by almost £9 million. In fact the reduction in the numbers unemployed has meant that the cost of the increases in the rates of unemployment benefit, amounting to £4.4 million, has been met out of the original estimate of £45.73 million for this service. In addition, income from contributions by employers and employees during the [559] year exceeded the estimate by almost £5.5 million.

At this stage, I think that it is relevant to point out that the overall expenditure by my Department on social insurance and social assistance services is at present running at an annual rate of £560 million and that the contribution by the Exchequer this year is almost £280 million.

Perhaps I should avail of the moving of this Supplementary Estimate to reiterate that it is my intention, in accordance with Government policy, to continue to compensate social welfare claimants for increases in the cost of living. In compliance with that policy the rates of all social insurance and social assistance payments were increased by 5 per cent from October last. It has also been decided to reduce as from January next the employee's share of the social insurance contribution for persons earning less than £50 a week and to introduce a scheme for waiving telephone rental charges for pensioners living alone early next year. The question of further social welfare improvements is, of course, a matter for consideration in connection with the forthcoming budget.

I think that I have now covered the principle matters affecting this Supplementary Estimate. I shall be glad to furnish any further information which Deputies may require.

Mr. Boland: Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  It is a real indication of the revolution that has taken place in the attitude of Government to social welfare and the enlightened expansion of the services that has taken place over the last few years that the Minister should be coming into the House at this stage of the financial year and be able to tell us that the expenditure of the Department of Social Welfare in the current year will amount to a sum of £560 million. I and my party hope that policy of enlightened expansion of the social welfare services to those who are unable, for whatever reason, properly to provide for themselves will be continued by the present Government.

In that context I am somewhat taken aback at the final part of the [560] Minister's remarks—I hope his speech was not worded as intentionally as it might appear—where it is indicated that it would be the intention of the Minister, in accordance with Government policy, to continue to compensate social welfare claimants for an increase in the cost of living.

All of us would agree that that, of course, is very necessary. In the recent past the Minister himself has from time to time often pointed out areas of anomaly, areas needing improvement and ones where no real benefit still obtained. But I would be taken aback to think that the policy of the Government in relation to social welfare would consist solely of deciding to compensate existing recipients for any loss they might suffer because of a rise in the cost of living. It is a much bigger job than that, and I know the Minister agrees with me. When he comes to reply I hope he will expand a little on Government policy, which is apparently to continue compensating social welfare claimants for increases in the cost of living.

This is just one aspect of a very complex job. It is an area in which there have been considerable improvements over the last number of years but it is an area needing constant attention and revision and, as I said, an enlightened expansion of the services. With that expansion there should be a proper index link so that we would no longer have the sort of hit and miss situation which prevails at the moment whereby recipients may get an increase commensurate with the rise in the cost of living—sometimes an increase that is a definite improvement in their position vis-à-vis others, while at other times they may discover they are falling behind.

The Government should endeavour to bring about a situation when satisfied that benefits are at a satisfactory level in which all benefits would be index linked so that people would not have to wait for the budget in the following January. Some effort in that direction was made this year. In the early part of the year it was announced that there would be an increase in the autumn to compensate for a rise in the [561] cost of living. It is a little ironic to have the Minister saying that, in compliance with the policy of his Government, social welfare payments were increased from October last. That undertaking was given earlier in the year, long before the unfortunate events of last June. It would have been only fair for the Minister to pay tribute to the person who introduced the concept of an additional increase halfway through the year to compensate for a fall in the real effect of these benefits.

We should also look at the code with a view to ensuring there is equality of treatment for all. We have all had experience of people who appear to be getting better benefits than others. There is need to examine the system. In the Fianna Fáil election manifesto there was a commitment that there would be a simplification of application forms as early as possible. The sort of person making a claim for benefit is generally the sort of person unable to cope with complicated forms. It may be due to educational difficulties, emotional stress or family circumstances. Very often the so called explanatory memoranda are anything but explanatory. Indeed, sometimes one would almost need a memorandum explaining the explanatory memorandum. Simplification would bring about an improvement in the system and cut down the mass of paper in the Department.

Again, every effort should be made to inform as wide a spectrum of the public as possible of the myriad different schemes available. Many people do not even know there are schemes in existence under which they would be entitled to benefit. We have all had experience of constituents coming to us asking if they are entitled to benefit, people quite clearly entitled, in some cases entitled for years back, to such benefits. A certain amount of education needs to be done. In the last few year benefits have been more widely publicised but some of the old schemes are not as well known as they should be. All schemes should be properly publicised.

There are many anomalies. There are all sorts of statutory instruments and ministerial orders and regulations as [562] well as legislation and it is difficult to identify all the anomalies. Recently I had a case brought to my attention where a woman in receipt of a widow's non-contributory pension discovered. when she reached 65 years, that she would receive less by way of old age pension than she did by way of widow's non-contributory pension. Apparently, there is some idea that a widow is more likely to have more expenses than an old age pensioner. I am not quite sure how anyone can justify that. It is very difficult to understand the thinking—perhaps, I should say lack of thinking—behind that. It is an anomaly. Perhaps this is something that will receive attention when new schemes are introduced. There are real discrepancies and they operate to discriminate against people and naturally these people feel very frustrated.

Again, there is the traditional discrimination against women right through the code. The Minister has given a commitment to end discrimination but in the light of his kicking-to-touch reply to a Parliamentary Question of mine yesterday, I am fearful that the commitment may take some time to implement.

As well as endeavouring to remove such anomalies, there should be a real effort to remove all other forms of discrimination against women. The simplest one is that between the employer's and employee's social welfare contributions in the case of men and women. In the case of male industrial workers the percentage deducted from employer and employee amounts to 10.1 per cent, but in the case of female industrial workers the average is 19.5 per cent. That is a glaring area of discrimination. It starts from there and runs right through the entire code. It must be tackled quickly and effectively.

In relation to the reduction in the rates of contributions for persons earning less than £50 per week. I accept that it will probably affect the percentage of weekly pay paid in contributions as between male and female workers because many female workers are earning less than £50 a week and therefore the difference in [563] the percentage contributions will not be as marked.

When that measure was being introduced some weeks ago I suggested that the Minister might have considered abolishing social welfare contributions by both employers and employees in respect of people under 21 years of age and people entering employment for the first time. I suggested that would have proved a real stimulus to employers to provide extra jobs and to young persons who at the moment are offered small weekly payments of which their social welfare contributions represent a big chunk. Perhaps because he ran out of time, the Minister did not reply to that suggestion. Now that we are discussing a Supplementary Estimate for Social Welfare, perhaps the Minister will give us the benefit of his thinking. If my suggestion were implemented it would give a stimulus to employers to create more jobs and to young people to take these jobs.

On the occasion of discussion on the Bill I also suggested that there is a real case to be made for introducing reduced rates of social welfare contributions by people who do not work a full week. At the moment, an employer and an employee must pay the full rate if the employee works more than two days in a week. That is not an incentive to an employer to give a few days' work in a week. We could cure the situation if we introduced a graded system of contribution in respect of numbers of hours worked per week. I hope the Minister will reply to these points when he is closing the debate. I am merely trying to be helpful to him, appreciating that budgetary strategy and policy are being discussed now, but if the Minister endeavours to introduce a better social welfare code the House will endeavour to help him to do so.

Another matter about which all of us receive complaints is in relation to delays in the processing of claims for benefits. In any endeavour to modernise our social welfare system attention should be paid to delays from the time claims are lodged until decision are made. The position has been improved in recent years but what [564] has not been improved is the position where an applicant who has had a decision made against him lodges an appeal. Sometimes appeals can drag on for as long as six months before determination. It is not fair or equitable that a person in receipt of unemployment assistance or benefit and about whom some neighbour, perhaps maliciously and anonymously, complains will have his benefit stopped and no further payments made until the complaint has been investigated. I appreciated that if it is found the person is still entitled to benefit he will get his back money, but that is scant consolation for a man who has been without money for a period up to six months.

There was a brief reference in the House yesterday, and it has been discussed in public, to the unfortunate situation that obtains when a man in receipt of unemployment or disability benefit, say, at the rate for a married man with two children, decides not to make a fair contribution towards the support of his wife and family. In such a case a very unsatisfactory situation can obtain. Apparently, and I was not aware of this until a month ago, the wife, after great difficulty, may get separate payment, but the first step she must take is either to go to the local employment exchange or to write to the Department to ask that -a separate payment be made to her of the difference between a single man's benefit and the rate at which her husband is being paid. The first thing the Department will do is to ask the husband whether he is agreeable that the separate payment should be made. It does not take too much imagination to think of a situation where a wife, who has been getting either too little or nothing, will be subjected to pressure, possibly even of a physical nature, by the aggrieved husband to ensure she does not follow up the claim. It is ironical that even if the husband disagrees about the separate payment being made, the Department are at liberty to dispense with his objection and pay the wife anyway. Another ridiculous situation is that when a wife claims for payment of the difference between a single man's benefit and the married rate, the husband gets paid [565] as a single man, she gets paid the wife's allowance and neither of them gets any payment in respect of the children.

This area is in need of attention. I admit to the House that I am not sure how best to deal with this problem. It would involve tremendous administrative costs and difficulties to suggest that in every case two separate cheques should issue, one to the husband on a single rate and the remainder to the wife in respect of the additional payment. Where a man claims in respect of married rate or married rate plus children, perhaps the cheque should issue in the joint names of husband and wife. As the House will recall, a change in legislation some years ago now requires that all private homes should be registered jointly in the names of husband and wife. That was a good move, and I digress for a moment to congratulate the local authority of which I am a member. They were the first public body to implement such a policy in the sale of council houses to tenants. We have insisted that all sales and tenancies should be in the joint names. Perhaps a way out of this problem would be to consider paying the married rate with children's allowances in the names of husband and wife. The present situation is definitely unsatisfactory and in need of change.

Another area about which I have had complaints concerns the 12 designated countries. Small farmers were assessed on a notional system based on the valuation of their land rather than assessed on the amount of their income. It has been suggested that during the past few weeks the officers investigating claims have been instructed by the Department to change from the notional basis of assessment to an assessment of the income of claimants. This is an area in which I am not involved but I believe the matter should be clarified for the House.

There are also complaints relating to payment in respect of home help where an aged or infirm person is living alone and someone, usually a neighbour, comes in and endeavours to assist that person. He or she may make a claim in respect of time put [566] in; but if the neighbour is good enough to stay overnight and to be in constant attendance on a sick person, he or she would no longer qualify for the home help allowance. This appears to be an anomaly.

We are talking merely about a Supplementary Estimate, and I appreciate that the major Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare will be debated within the next few months and a widespread discussion on the workings of the Department might be more appropriate then. I wanted to outline several areas of anomaly simply as examples; there are many more such areas.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Joseph Brennan  Zoom on Joseph Brennan  I am glad the Deputy corrected himself because this does not permit of a full-ranging debate.

Mr. Boland: Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  I accept the Chair's point of view. Part of the Supplementary Estimate refers to the sorts of benefit I have been talking about. One of the areas in which there has been a shortfall in the provision is in relation to the departmental grant equivalent to half the cost to certain local authorities of providing school meals. We did not have as wide-ranging a debate on this subject at Question Time yesterday as we might have liked. Perhaps today we could go a little further into this matter. I was somewhat taken aback yesterday to hear the Minister say that he was unhappy with the operation of the school meals system, that for the cost involved benefit was not forthcoming and that the money might well be better spent in some other way. I hope he was really saying that the money would be spent in providing better school meals and not that the system should be replaced.

There is a case to be made for the expansion of the system, not just in urban and certain Gaeltacht areas but throughout the remainder of the country also. This expansion is even more important now than it was a few years ago because of school transport facilities. Small children nowadays are often transported many miles to educational centres and are away from home from very early in the morning [567] until late in the evening. The State, in conjunction with local authorities, should become involved in providing adequate hot and nutritious meals half way through the day.

I was interested to hear Deputy Bruton mention this morning that he was anxious to raise on the adjournment the failure of the Government to implement a policy of providing a diet of milk and milk products for school children. Generous contributions are available from the EEC to member states to provide milk, cheese and dairy products generally for school children. I further understand that the IFA are tremendously interested and concerned that the Government should implement such a policy. Obviously we are all well aware of the nutritional value of milk and milk products. Since the Minister is unhappy with the existing system and since grants are available from the EEC, is this not an area which should be exercising the Minister's mind, together with the expansion of the school meals system throughout the whole country? I was disappointed that the Minister was merely unhappy and had no intention of expanding the system and I would ask him to reconsider.

Regarding the additional cost of grants to local authorities for the supply of fuel for necessitous families, there should be considered an expansion and a complete revision of that scheme. It was introduced as a wartime measure, apparently only in certain designated urban authority areas, for the provision of turf to necessitous persons. It did not apply in rural areas at all. The system has staggered along over the years and no one has endeavoured to update or improve it. In certain health board areas, the health boards, under a different heading, are giving vouchers or direct cash payments to certain people to provide adequate fuel for the winter. The Department of Social Welfare should investigate the possibility of operating this fuel scheme on a national basis.

A very unsatisfactory situation obtains in parts of Dublin. Fuel is delivered to a central depot and old people very often experience great [568] difficulties in collecting that fuel and have to pay high costs to have it delivered. Instead of that system they should be issued with a voucher which would be exchangeable for certain types of fuel or other heating costs. Yesterday, Deputy Dr. Browne made the case to the Minister that many people live in old people's homes which have not open fires and that, while they are eligible for the existing scheme, it was not of benefit to them. There is no point in giving half a hundredweight of turf to a man who has not got a fireplace. It was suggested that these people should be given vouchers so that they could use an electric fire or some other form of heating.

An additional grant of £203,000 is required for a scheme which does not operate as it should and which is limited to certain areas. In some areas only the scheme is being supplemented by the health boards and from that point there is a need for standardisation.

If the wife of a man who is eligible for free travel accompanies him, she should also be allowed to travel free. If his wife has not reached the qualifying age and her husband does not accompany her, she is not entitled to free travel. This is a ridiculous situation and it should be investigated. What sort of a situation would we have if the free travel permit holder does not accompany his wife? If he is in hospital and his wife wants to visit him, he cannot accompany her. I accept that free travel is given to all persons, irrespective of income, when they have reached the qualifying age. From that point of view the wife of a free travel permit holder may not need free travel. In the case of people with low incomes, it is ridiculous that wives are not entitled to free travel unless they are accompanying their husbands.

In relation to free electricity, the case can be made for giving that benefit to people who do not live alone. People who would be eligible for the scheme are sometimes living with others whose incomes are restricted. There is no point in refusing the electricity allowance to an old person who is living with another old person of [569] slender means. The whole area needs attention.

In his speech the Minister said that the Government have decided to introduce a scheme early next year for waiving telephone rental charges for pensioners living alone. I am sure he knows that there is great confusion in regard to this scheme. My understanding of the scheme is that it is the intention of the Government to meet the telephone rental charges of elderly people living alone but not to meet the cost of calls or installation charges. This is a worth-while scheme and I am sorry we did not think of it. It seems extraordinary to suggest that pensioners who live alone can have their telephone rental charges met but that husband and wife pensioners cannot have their telephone charges met. It appears that pensioners who receive an extra £1 per week for living alone will benefit from the scheme. The best estimate is that we have 30,000 pensioners living alone and that only 6,000 of them have telephones. What about the others who live alone and who would dearly love to have that benefit, They may apply for a telephone but they will not be able to pay the installation charge, which is approximately £60 at present. What about husband and wife pensioners who live together. They ought to have their telephone rental charges met.

It might be interesting to finish by quoting from the information bulletin of the NSSC in which patterns of inequality are defined. They may exercise the Minister's mind in relation to future social welfare policy reviews. Five patterns of inequality are listed as follows:

...differences in income; differences in status between people, usually referred to as class differences; urban, rural and regional inequalities; inter-urban inequalities, these would be inequalities between wards and neighbourhoods in large towns and cities; and finally, discrimination in work, pay and status against different categories of people.

The Department are involved in all those areas. Great strides were made in the last three or four years and it would be disappointing if similar [570] policies were not implemented. The inference in the Minister's speech is that existing benefits will only be kept in line with increases in the cost of living. It has been suggested that one of the reasons we lost the election is that we went too far to improve the lot of those who were not able to help themselves. It has been suggested that we lost votes through our efforts to introduce fair play in respect of social welfare. I do not accept that that is true; but, if it is, it is an honourable cause for losing an election. The Minister need not fear a similar fate if he continues to adopt the enlightened approach of his predecessor.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  This Supplementary Estimate gives us the opportunity to review some aspects of the social welfare policy pursued and enables us to evaluate the whole range of benefits, the allowances, pensions and the assistance which comprises the system of social welfare here. It gives us an opportunity also to expose areas of injustice in society and in the whole social welfare code and to highlight the need for specific Government action and reform. Unfortunately, too often we become bogged down in specifics. While specifics such as discrimination in social welfare benefits, the erosion of social welfare payments due in inflation and the lack of public information and advice are all key issues in their own right, we fail to link them together and address ourselves to the overall question of what exactly we are trying to achieve with our social welfare system.

I propose to cover specific areas where reforms are badly needed and I hope to do this within the context of an overall philosophy on what a social service system should be all about. I take as the fundamental base of this philosophy my party's objective of securing for each person a basic standard of living in terms of income and services thereby eliminating once and for all the scourge of poverty from our society. I accept that this is the goal to which every political party adheres, on paper at least, but to be specific when I speak of an overall philosophy guiding our efforts in social welfare I am thinking in terms of four [571] basic principles, planning for social development, the rights of social welfare recipients, State responsibility in financing and administering a social welfare system and the principle of equality of the law for all social welfare recipients.

When speaking about planning for social development I must state that there has been a lot of attention of late devoted to the whole question of economic planning with promises of new job production and the institution of a new Department. The Government have seen fit, and justifiably so, to nail their political flag to the mast of economic planning which is vital for the country. On it the hopes of those who put them in office must rest but in all the hullabaloo about economic planning and development there has been too little discussion about social planning and development. We must ensure that economic planning and development does not take place in isolation. It must occur in conjunction with the establishment of goals and targets for our social services and the allocation of finance to help them meet their goals.

For too long the approach to social welfare has been to throw money when it is available piecemeal into existing services without questioning whether they are complementing one another or whether they are orientated towards any specific policy or objective. For too long that has been the policy. In the past the aim has been merely to keep the benefits as close as possible to the cost of living as far as it was politically practicable and convenient. This is a policy of papering over the cracks and that kind of philosophy is most unsatisfactory for our country. To throw a bit of money into poverty and deny that it exists in society and hope that everything will go away is a very short-sighted approach. This cosmetic approach has left us with an ineffective system of social welfare here and it certainly has been unable to close the poverty gap in Irish society. Not only was there never a consistent effort over a long period of time to link the different services provided by our social welfare system [572] but there was also a lack of planning and co-ordination in linking the social welfare service with the health, education, housing and justice services. They are inextricably entwined with these services and this is what has been wrong.

There is a battery of practical arguments for planning the social dimension with all the same energy, authority and ingenuity that is presently being devoted to the planning of the economic dimension. The very size of our social welfare services makes planning over a long time absolutely mandatory in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness. Expenditure must be tied to immediate and future goals and it should be monitored to ensure that theory and practice are in absolute harmony. There is also the fact that financial resources are scarce when compared with the needs that exist. Because of that planning is essential in that it establishes priorities so that the available resources are given to the greatest needs.

There is also the fact that nearly all Government activity and expenditure has a redistributing effect—that is the whole purpose of it—but planning is necessary to direct redistribution towards defined social welfare goals and objectives. I do not think equality in society is the logical consequence of the capitalist system. If we want greater equality and less social injustice, we have to plan for it; it does not automatically come. We have to make it a target and consciously give it the priority in our scheme of social values. I do not think we should talk about social planning in the abstract alone. We should put some flesh on this theoretical thing. There should be two dimensions to the whole question of expansion of social welfare. There should be regular increases to keep pace with inflation and there should be regular increases geared to expanding existing services to meet specific long-range targets. Doing one without the other means that we are back where we started, merely keeping pace with inflation.

In the past most social welfare benefits introduced in the various budgets dealt mainly with money increases [573] to keep pace with inflation. I am sure the Minister, and Members, will agree that we were lucky to achieve that on many occasions. I am sure the Minister will agree also that in the last four years, for various reasons—I am not considering one party as against another or one government as against another—increases went some way beyond inflation and extra expenditure was aimed at to expand the services which might be considered good but because the social welfare services were so bad and poor the increases were seen as a tremendous breakthrough. In fact, it was not. A lot of this was identified and associated with our entry into the EEC and was demanded of us.

As part of an overall social plan there are two things necessary in relation to social welfare expenditure, statutory linkage of all social welfare benefits to the cost of living and agreement on a percentage of growth of the GNP which would be allocated automatically to the reorganisation and expansion of social welfare benefits. Both of those should be key components of a five-year plan for social development. It would ensure that the existing level would automatically rise with inflation and that, as a matter of policy at which we should aim in economic planning, there would be an expansion in social welfare. A start was made in the last four years to raise it to civilised standards and we all know that that took place in a period of acute inflation and recession but benefits were raised by 24 per cent. That was a significant achievement but I am cynical about the factors that created it. After much thought I believe a great deal of that was dictated by our membership of the EEC.

Pilot schemes specifically dealing with the problem of poverty were established, and a research and development section was set up within the Department of Social Welfare to formulate long-range policies. A few of those were initiatives from the Labour Party. Those initiatives are indicative of our commitment to the two dimensions in social welfare, increasing benefits in line with inflation [574] and expanding and extending them. Much more remains to be done. Social planning should not be constrained by conventional ideas and existing services. It must reach out for new, fresh thinking on the part of the Minister on the whole subject and there must be an examination of the viability of a completely different approach to it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I am sure the Deputy agrees that this is a very limited debate. The speech he is making would be more appropriate to the Estimate when it comes before the House. I do not like to interrupt the Deputy but the debate on this Supplementary Estimate is very limited.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will admit that, after the budget is announced, it is too late to talk about changes. We want to talk about them in preparation for the budget. If I succeed in directing the Minister's attention——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I accept what the Deputy says, but the debate is confined to what is in the Supplementary Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I will not digress very much from the headings and sub-headings of the Supplementary Estimate, but it is important for me to direct the Minister's attention to certain aspects of the Department of Social Welfare. If we direct his thinking along these lines, his will be a very persuasive voice in the Cabinet for more money for the extension of his Department.

We must ask ourselves whether the myriads of unrelated benefits and allowances which comprise our social welfare system could ever stamp out poverty regardless of the level of finance we provide for them. I do not think social injustice can be stamped out or eradicated in the context of a bits-and-pieces approach. I am asking for some new thinking on that. A proper research section in the Department of Social Welfare has been left in abeyance for too long. As a result, there is no cohesive policy in that Department. There is no evidence, as a result of the policies of the Department over the years, of a proper redistribution [575] of moneys to ensure social equality and the elimination of social injustice.

I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will agree that the whole purpose and planning of the social welfare system should be the elimination of poverty. I do not think we have gone very far along the road towards the elimination of poverty in our society. We must talk about a guaranteed minimum income. We should get away from the poor law mentality which exists in our social welfare services at the moment. Rather than piecemeal handouts, we should move towards something like a guaranteed minimum income related to the cost of living. This should be done for every household in the nation as of right. This is important.

The administrative corollary to that is negative income tax. The Minister should consider the whole question of negative income tax, where the individual becomes either a net beneficiary of or a net contributor to the Exchequer. It is wrong for the State to hand out money with one hand, and to take it back in direct taxation with the other. The administrative burden of that is enormous. We should be talking seriously about deciding that those in need will get the money and it will not be taken back from them, and those who are not in need will pay. If we could rationalise this it would be to the advantage of the nation.

Mr. Haughey: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  The Deputy is thinking about negative income tax.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Yes, as part of our social welfare plan. I know the Minister is thinking along the same lines, and sees advantage in it. A guaranteed minimum income is essential if we are to take any positive steps towards eliminating poverty in our society.

Perhaps the Minister would listen to one suggestion of mine. I know that setting up committees can become a habit if we are not careful. The Minister might consider an all-party Dáil committee on the social services to seek areas in which we could link together services which are so disjointed at the moment. We are doing [576] this in an effort to rationalise our health services, and we might consider it in relation to the whole question of social objectives, social problems and social policies. It might be an ideal mechanism for hammering out a five year plan for the social services. We might consider how such a committee could be given assistance from the research section of the Department.

I should like to discuss now the rights of social welfare recipients. This arises under unemployment benefit, unemployment assistance, information, appeals on unemployment benefit and supplementary allowance schemes. Therefore, it is important that I should discuss this principle. Under our social welfare system in Ireland, benefits are supposed to be given as of right. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has had long experience in his constituency and I am sure he will agree that the system has been stigmatised as a system of charitable handouts from a benevolent State. Unfortunately our people have been brought up in this tradition.

I say this without fear of contradiction. I have known people to practically starve rather than apply for social welfare benefits because they thought they were charitable handouts. Unfortunately, we have nurtured this type of thinking in our society. That is what is wrong with our whole social welfare system at the moment. Our treatment of social welfare applicants is demeaning and unjust. It is my firm belief that social injustice will never be eradicated so long as that type of thinking is conceptualised as it is at the moment.

We should be talking about the rights of social welfare applicants, their right to the services, their right to appeal, their right to information, their right to complain about the system and their right to the maintenance of their dignity as human beings. We as TDs have a major role to perform in reforming the whole public conception of what the social welfare system is all about. If I may say so without being too derogatory about Members of the House, over the years, unfortunately, TDs have perpetuated the notion that their efforts [577] were indispenable towards securing what was basically a right to social welfare benefit. We have done this. We have done nothing to remove the poor law stigma from social welfare recipients. Our whole political system runs on the fact that people believe social welfare entitlements are political entitlements.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  A discussion on the whole system of social welfare benefits would not be in order on this very limited Supplementary Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I accept that. I want to refer now to something I saw recently in a Sunday newspaper. Within the context of changes in the social welfare system, an ombudsman is important. It is important that people should have redress against what they think is an injustice. If we do not provide an ombudsman, We should have a public campaign giving information on all the social welfare benefits. I am not talking about a passive approach and a willingness to provide information if you are badgered and hounded persistently. I am talking about an active, dynamic approach by the Depeartment. The media should be utilised in full to inform the people of their rights and entitlements under the social welfare code. This is vital.

Only a massive publicity campaign carried out over a long period of time will suffice. Thousands of people to-day are not claiming social welfare benefits because they do not know they are entitled to them. We must act on that without delay. A few weeks ago the Minister promised a journalist on a Sunday newspaper that he would personally investigate the individual cases of deprivation she was highlighting each week. I know the Minister is genuinely concerned. With due respect to him, he would not have had to do this if information about people's rights to social welfare were readily available.

In addition, his action might be misread as perpetuating the belief that social welfare entitlements are really political entitlements, benefits to be gained only by intercession of those [578] high up in the political system. I am not attempting to score a political point. Indeed, I must confess that, if I were in the Minister's place, my instinct would have been to do exactly the same thing. I would have taken quick action and cut through the red tape. I am not blaming the Minister personally for what he did, but the thinking behind it would be wrong.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I must remind the Deputy that we are not having a debate on the whole social welfare system now. We are dealing with a Supplementary Estimate for £21 million out of £280 million and all the points the Deputy is making would be very appropriate to the debate on the main Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  But they come up under unemployment assistance, unemployment benefit, information, the right of appeal—it is all embodied in this Estimate which I examined very closely. What I say is in order because of the headings and sub-headings under which this Supplementary Estimate is introduced. All I am seeking is to insist on people's right to information about their claims. Many a social welfare applicant has met with a sort of aggressive, suspicious and belligerent attitude, unfortunately, from social welfare staff. The attitude still prevails that the person seeking social welfare benefits is hoodwinking the Department. It is important to realise that there is this negative and unhelpful attitude at the first point of contact.

Yesterday, I made a phone call to the Department of Social Welfare about unemployment assistance because even as a legislator I am all at sea as to the general breakdown of what constitutes the means test for unemployment assistance. It was a case of a single person in his late teens applying for unemployment assistance He is told that because his means exceed a certain figure he is not entitled to it but no explanation is given as to how the means is calculated. I phoned the information section of the Department and they told me they did not know, that I should get in touch with somebody else. That is an information [579] section concerned with unemployment assistance for which we are voting money——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  These are all policy matters and do not arise on a Supplementary Estimate. They are very relevant to the main Estimate when it comes before the House.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  There is no point in talking about voting £21 million under the headings set out here unless we discuss how we can improve the services. I am not asking the Minister to spend one penny on this aspect of the matter but to ensure that the information is available and that perhaps we would have seminars for those officials of the Department of Social Welfare who are in the first line of contact with the public. We would not expect them to know everything but if we set up an information section we should have the officers there really knowledgeable on the various aspects of the social services. Seminars at regular intervals are essential in this regard. People are directed from one place to another, from Phibsborough Tower to Store Street, to Pearse Street to D'Olier Street. This is frustrating. These people deserve to be treated properly; they are people in need and we should go out of our way to help them.

The social welfare supplementary allowances were brought in last year and constituted a long overdue legislative reform. Under it every person in the State whose means are insufficient to meet his needs and those of his dependants is entitled to a supplementary welfare allowance. This allowance is provided as a right and it is a supplementation of the standard allowance and other social welfare payments where these are insufficient to meet special needs. The Act also confers a right of appeal against a refusal of the allowance. This scheme was introduced to replace the old home assistance poor law scheme established, I think, under the 1939 Public Assistance Act. Home Assistance was given to a person unable by his own industry and lawful means to provide [580] the necessities of life for himself and his dependants. He had no right to it. It depended on the arbitrary decision of a home assistance officer and there was no right to appeal. It was administered by public assistance authorities or health boards acting on their behalf.

The scheme contained major inequalities in relation to the standard of eligibility and the amount of assistance as between one health board and another. It was a demeaning and very embarrassing experience for anybody who had to claim it. The social welfare supplementary allowance in theory made enormous progress in this regard. It is a milestone in social welfare legislation because it talks about the rights of the applicant to assistance and it provides appeals machinery for the first time. Unfortunately, in practice there is a big gap between what we as legislators intended and what actually happens. There is more to social reform than passing legislation through the Dáil: there must be the political will and moral conviction there to ensure the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

It is a mind boggling exercise to try to see how the supplementary allowance scheme operates. The old application forms are still being used in some cases. Social workers and all involved in the scheme say that it creates enormous problems. First, it has not been sufficiently publicised and too few people are aware of their rights under it. I estimate that over 30,000 people are potentially eligible for supplementary social allowance. If we do not publicise the scheme and explain it in full detail we are reneging on the whole spirit of the legislation. Applicants are not given a full explanation regarding the means test or the grounds on which they are given reduced benefits. If the spirit of the Act were being observed, applicants receiving reduced benefit would get written notices setting out the details of their means and so on in full. This is not being done, so that there is in effect a return to the old system and the attitude of the old home assistance days: “They will take what they get.”

[581] The supplementary allowance scheme was intended to redress the anomalies in payments in different health board areas. That is not happening due to lack of training of community welfare officers. There is confusion about the handling of claim forms by the health boards and people experience unexpected delays in payments. Even more important, the right of a claimant to appeal is being subverted by bureaucratic confusion, departmental intrigue and the resurrection of the spirit of the old home assistance scheme. It seems that the poor law mentality refuses to die. I know that recently community care programme managers have been appointed to handle appeals for the time being but there are still reports that claimants are not being told of their rights. I know this is a fact. No standard form is issued by the health boards. Only two health boards to my knowledge supply applicants with written notice indicating why they did not get the allowance. I also think there is some move afoot within the Department of Social Welfare to dilute the right of claimants to appeal by instituting an informal appeals procedure when the community care programme managers end their appointed terms——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I may not understand the position here. Does this come under the Minister's jurisdiction at all?

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Yes, it does. Supplementary social welfare allowances come within the ambit of the Department of Social Welfare. In this House we provide the money for them. The Chair is quite entitled to ask that question because we are all confused about it. This is what is wrong, because there is not enough publicity given.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  It is being administered by the health boards, is that correct?

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  No. Unfortunately this is what is wrong with the system. We do not know to whom we may pass over the operation of this scheme and we are passing it over to the health board community care programme managers.

[582]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I am satisfied.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  We as legislators never intended it to work as it does. Every Minister had the best intentions but there is a big gap between what we pass in the House and its implementation. The Minister should take immediate measures to ensure that the supplementary welfare allowance is implemented as originally envisaged in this House and that nothing is done to subvert the rights of social welfare recipients as set down in the Act. I am aware that there are abuses of the social welfare services and that there will always be abuses. An extreme right-wing Minister for the Department of Health and Social Welfare Services in England, Sir Keith Joseph when at a conservative party conference in Blackpool there was a cry for a tightening up of the services, said that the Department could not be closed down just because of a few abuses. There is a lot of logic there.

Mr. Haughey: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  I never thought I would hear the Deputy quoting him.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Even though we would be poles apart politically, I concede that there is logic in his thinking there. I know that the Department has stepped up its efforts to combat fraud in relation to penalties and convictions and I know there has been an increase in the numbers of cases brought to justice. By defrauding the Department these people are depriving others and are not behaving as honourable citizens.

Too much has been said about people on the dole living in the lap of luxury and it took a report by Mr. Jim Murray of the National Social Services Council to dispel the myth. He said that over 14,000 people on the live register were receiving no payments and that 126,000 people were living off unemployment assistance of £25 a week for a family of four including 62,000 dependent children. These stark facts will give some idea of the level of poverty. We are in Cloud-CuckooLand if we think that people on social welfare benefits are living in the lap of [583] luxury. They are living in abject poverty. More must be done at government level to counteract the flow of misinformation about social welfare recipients. If the social welfare system is to operate as a genuine redistributive mechanism of wealth in society it is incumbent on any Government to ensure that it is equitably financed. The reduced contribution of the Exchequer to the social insurance fund is a matter of considerable concern. The Minister for Finance in the last Government said that it was the intention of the Government to reduce its contribution to the social welfare fund and that they aimed to follow the example of the other EEC countries in asking employers and employees to contribute more. The shifting of this burden onto employers will act as a disincentive to the employer to increase his work force. To shift the burden to the employee in the present form of flat rate contributions is a regressive step. This decision will mean that instead of taking an active role in extending the funds of the Department into the proper centres the Government will assume less and less of a role in eliminating poverty in our society. Enough consideration has not been given to the ramifications of this fall in the level of Government contribution to the insurance fund. A review of this is necessary at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Minister recently referred to the provision of a national income related pension scheme. A discussion document on this was published and I thought that it was intended to introduce a programme of legislation for a national pension scheme.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  One of the things we cannot do is advocate legislation on Estimates of any kind. The Deputy is well aware of that.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  It should be borne in mind that there are 840,000 people employed in the public and private sectors and that roughly 45 per cent of them are not covered by an adequate pension scheme. They are only covered for the social welfare [584] flat rate of pension. We are leaving these workers and their families to face financial hardship on retirement. The Minister will admit that the present system is bedevilled by many anomalies. There is no social welfare pension scheme for the self-employed and there are other areas where anomalies exist. The Minister will know of cases in the Government services where people were paying stamps, their salaries were increased, they went out of benefit and did not have to pay stamps. Many of these people are now without retirement pensions. This is a very serious injustice. No attempt has been made to help them in their retirement even though they had contributed in social welfare stamps.

The Minister should give urgent consideration to the aspect of the pension scheme. The whole future of 400,000 workers is at stake and action is needed. The present scrappy system is not adequate to meet the needs. I hope that the Minister will also consider social insurance for the self-employed. I noticed that the Minister has not been dragging his feet. I saw in The Irish Press on 30th November that a draft discussion document on the provision of social insurance for the self-employed was put before the Government by the Minister, and that it is to be published as a preliminary to the introduction of legislation to enable the self-employed to provide cover for themselves and their families in the case of illness or loss of life. I congratulate the Minister on this. We all know that this has been left in abeyance for too long and people have suffered hardship. This is certainly a very good move and I pay tribute to the Minister for this.

There was an outlay of nearly £50 million a year on children's allowances. There are 423,000 families in receipt of children's allowances. It is now time to talk seriously about introducing a means test for children's allowances. The main purpose of children's allowances is to make some attempt to provide extra benefit for children. We should seriously consider introducing a means test in respect of this and those who do not need it would not seek it [585] and more money would be left for those who need it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  This would require legislation.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I agree. All I want to do is to implant in the Minister's mind some matters to which he might give consideration.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  We cannot advocate legislation in an Estimate of any kind. This is our difficulty. We can neither criticise nor advocate legislation.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I do not want to criticise too much. We should be more constructive than that.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  We cannot advocate legislation even if it is constructive. Once legislation is involved we cannot discuss it.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  The Minister, without introducing legislation, could present a discussion document on this matter. If we talk about introducing a means test many people will be ruffled. How much further could the extra money being provided go towards relieving poverty in our society.

I want to say something now about the discrimination against women in regard to social welfare entitlement. There is discrimination against girl school-leavers in regard to unemployment assistance. There is discrimination against married women in relation to disability benefit and unemployment benefit in respect of the levels of benefit. We all know that when a married woman who has a child applies for unemployment benefit she is automatically disqualified because it is stated that she is not available for work. I have examined the 1952 Social Welfare Act and I find that the deciding officer's decision is too final and conclusive and there is no appeal against it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  We cannot criticise this, unfortunately, on this Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Why is that?

[586]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  We cannot criticise legislation on an Estimate. We cannot advocate it and we cannot criticise it. We cannot criticise existing legislation or advocate new legislation on any Estimate. That is a long standing rule of the House. I did not make it.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I know you did not and that you are not trying to be destructive. I know you are getting your orders.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I hope I know the rules reasonably well.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I can put down a parliamentary question about this. I can ask if the Minister is aware that married applicants for unemployment benefit who have a child are disqualified and ask what can be done. I am told that nothing can be done, that the deciding officer's decision is final and conclusive and there is no appeal. I want to know, as a legislator in this House, what I can do to redress this terrible injustice against married women with children. Those people have made arrangements for the care of their children while they are working.

We live in a modern society where the right of women to work is accepted. We are saying that women with children are entitled to go out to work. We know that there is provision for creches for their children and people mind their children. When those people seek unemployment benefit when they are not working we are denying them the right to that benefit. A deciding officer decides this and his decision is final and conclusive. I have a duty to say that this is wrong. I want to know what we can do to have an appeal to the High Court against his decision? Everybody in the House knows about this injustice but we are hamstrung on this.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  All I am saying to the Deputy is that he cannot discuss this on an Estimate. He can get some other suitable occasion to raise it, on Questions or debates.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  You are the most tolerant person in the House.

[587]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I am very tolerant indeed.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  At Question Time we are allowed one supplementary question and the matter is passed over. What can we do?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  The Deputy will have to find some other occasion to raise it. That is all I can say to him. I cannot help him further than that.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  The question never arises. It goes on and on. I have been frustrated over the years trying to raise this at Question Time. It is a very bad Parliament that will not allow us discuss this in greater detail.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  The Deputy has got it in reasonably well now despite the fact that he was not in order, but what harm.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  There is descrimination against women also in respect of the deserted wives allowance. There are many areas which call for review. The wife must be deserted by her husband. What if the wife were harassed so much by her husband that she had to leave or else she would end up being certified and admitted to a psychiatric hospital? What can she do?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  That is a policy matter. We cannot discuss policy matters on a Supplementary Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Can we do anything? I have brought cases to the Department of Social Welfare and I was told nothing could be done in respect of those people. There is something wrong when we cannot deal with those matters. It is not asking too much to appeal to the Minister to examine those cases to see what can be done to facilitate the applicants for allowances like the married woman with the child or the deserted wife who had to leave? We also have the case of the widow who receives a pension as a result of her husband's contributions when alive. We should be allowed discuss those matters on an Estimate.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  On the major Estimate we can discuss all [588] policy matters such as the Deputy has been discussing on this one.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  On a point of clarification, if the headings are there can I not discuss those matters under the headings?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  The Deputy can discuss matters under the various headings, but not policy matters.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Can I discuss the widow's pension provided by the late husband's contributions? Can I discuss the terrible injustice to widows who are in receipt of disability benefit who only receive half benefit?

Mr. Haughey: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  As I understand it the Deputy can discuss the administration of the schemes.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  Policy and administration do not arise on a Supplementary Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Can I ask that sympathetic consideration be given to the injustice to widows? I know that some effort was made by telling them that they need not pay for the stamp any more. This went some way towards redressing that injustice but did not go all the way. There is also discrimination in relation to the split benefit. The Minister has given a promise that he will have action taken in relation to this.

There is the question of split benefit where husband and wife are separated and he is in receipt of social welfare allowance for himself and the children, even though the children are not staying with him, and the Minister is acting on that. The barrier to the wife getting the benefit due to her in respect of that is another area of discrimination against women. On the unmarried mother's allowance, we do not have to bring in legislation to call it the single parent family allowance. Surely that can be done without bringing in legislation.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I doubt if it can without legislation.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  All these anomalies are out of place in any modern system [589] of social benefits. There must be equality in social welfare. The Minister should assure us that action is going to be taken in each of the areas I have outlined. He did promise that he would move on the split payments and that he would take action in respect of the unmarried mother's allowance. Whether we like it or not, in our society there is a stigma on that unmarried mother's allowance.

The question of free fuel has been mentioned, and whilst this is not administered by the Department, it is paid for by the Department, and it is giving rise to a number of problems and a great deal of abuse of the system. Those in need are not obtaining the necessary vouchers which are being sold around the place to people who are exploiting the scheme. I ask the Minister if his Department could have an inquiry into this with a view to introducing a more equitable system which would benefit those most in need.

We have, at 24 per cent, the highest poverty rate in the western world, or at least in the EEC. Of the OECD countries we devote the smallest proportion of GNP to supplementary benefits. The Minister should review the question of the information services. He should see to it that there is proper publicity and enlightened information from the Department and that the officers coming in first contact with those applicants are fully informed on the various complex matters of this Department. Those officers should treat the people as human beings and should not adopt a belligerent, aggressive or suspicious attitude towards them, regarding them rather as people with a need which prompted them to seek the benefit in the first place. I believe there are men in that Department who want change. I have heard that a lot of the changes in this Department have come from the officials in the Department who had initiative. This is a wonderful thing to hear. I do not wish to knock this Department all the time. This would be demoralising to the officials of the Department who work in very difficult conditions. In many cases they deal with people who are ignorant of their rights and of the [590] fact that the system may not work their way. Some of these people are frustrated and have frayed nerves. That is why the officials should be really calm, patient and tolerant and at the same time be able to say with authority, “We cannot help you this way but we can help you that way”. I have been amazed to see in British newspapers the very big advertisement saying, “Do you know you may be entitled to....”

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  Deputy, this is all general administration and you will get an opportunity on the main Estimate to discuss the whole lot of it for an hour and a half.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Sir, you will admit——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  My problem is that if I allow the Deputy to continue on policy and administration every other Deputy in the House will want to do the same, and then I will be in trouble with everybody.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  This is a matter that cannot wait until the main Estimate on the Department of Health is discussed. The Minister is moving so fast in so many areas that he is doing wonders. In the Department of Health he is a human dynamo.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  You cannot say it on this Estimate.

Mr. Begley: Information on Michael Begley  Zoom on Michael Begley  The Minister likes to hear it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  He may like to hear it, but it is not in order on this Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  If the Minister is told that certain improvements are necessary in his Department and that he can without spending one penny have his officials trained at seminars so that they will be more knowledgeable, I think he will act with all haste. Why should we wait until the Estimate comes up next year?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  Unfortunately, that is in the rules of the House.

[591]Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I hope the message has gone home to the Minister that it should be done without the least delay and I hope he will consider doing this.

Mr. Haughey: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  I am no great advertisement for my own policy at the moment.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I am afraid we are not dealing with health even if we have great sympathy for the Minister.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I am wondering whether the Minister could claim social welfare benefit.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I doubt whether that comes under the rules of the House either.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  If he did he would not be the first Member of the House to draw disability benefit. We have had Members of the House who were drawing old age pensions and social welfare benefits.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I presume they were entitled to them.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  That is right, they were contributory pensions. When I said that to him I was not being facetious. He might be entitled to disability benefit, in which case I hope the information section of his Department would give him the necessary information. It is not too much to ask him to examine that aspect of it.

Another matter which I do not think would call for a change in legislation is where women are in receipt of the widow's pension and they transfer to the old age pension. Would they have a right to continue receiving the widow's pension instead because there are various entitlements under it? It comes under this because we are providing £4 million for widows' and orphans' pensions, and I might discuss it under that and ask questions about it, despite what officials of the House might think.

I notice for the first time that there is serious constraint on Deputies talking and the rules of the House are perhaps being applied too rigidly at [592] present. It was not intended when we laid down Standing Orders that we should be rigidly prevented from voicing our views on major injustices.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  I would like the Deputy to have a look at the decisions of the Ceann Comhairle and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle down through the years. I have read them and they are in front of me and everything that I am saying to the Deputy now is covered for years back.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I would like to refer to a matter in the Minister's speech, since I am so constrained. He has decided to reduce as from January next the employee's share of the insurance contribution for persons earning less than £50 per week. This decision is a good one, but I am wondering where the Minister, in making it, arrived at the figure of £50 per week. With inflation at such a high level at the moment, is £50 a realistic figure? What proportion of our total work force earns less than £50 a week?

Mr. Haughey: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  I gave that figure.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  The Minister will be replying.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Could I hear it now?

Mr. Haughey: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  Three hundred and three thousand.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Out of a total workforce of 1.2 million.

Mr. Haughey: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  Of insured employees about 900,000. I am just giving these figures off the top of my head. Anyway the number who qualify for the £1 reduction is 303,000.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Might I ask the Minister for how long will the ceiling remain at £50. When we talk about new national wage agreements for how long will this £50 remain in operation as the ceiling?

Mr. Haughey: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  It will be very much an interim arrangement because, as the Deputy will appreciate, the whole thing will have to be changed when we bring in the new system in April, 1979.

[593]Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I would hope that the £50 ceiling would not remain for long.

The Minister's decision to introduce a scheme waiving telephone rental charges for pensioners living alone is an admirable one, is to be welcomed, and we should give credit where it is due when a Minister takes action like this. It is important to those living alone of whom I know there are so many. I can well understand that the Department could not pay for every telephone call. I realise that that could lead to tremendous abuse of the scheme. The whole concept behind it is a good one and will constitute a tremendous boon to those who are compelled to live alone, whether it be in city or rural areas.

The other decision on which I should like to comment is that to compensate social welfare claimants in respect of the rise in the cost of living. I am now forced to speak only on the matters raised in the Minister's introductory speech, which makes it very difficult for me. That is not sufficient because, again we are perpetuating the whole poverty situation, keeping people down, by merely paying them increases in line with the rise in the cost of living. Certainly it is not an imaginative approach on the part of the Department of Social Welfare. I hope the Minister might break out of that straitjacket and have more imaginative thinking in this respect. The whole aim should be to bring people above the level of poverty and the figures I quoted a while ago are ample evidence that there is considerable poverty in this country. Merely linking them to the cost of living is not doing anything to relieve that poverty.

I wonder if the Minister could at any convenient time give us some details of the Committee on Poverty set up within his Department. It would be advantageous to hear about the progress being made on the projects they have undertaken and if they are succeeding in them. I know they have had teething problems. It is very relevant to the whole area of social welfare benefits and policy to know how that committee is progressing in its work. Certainly it would not appear [594] to have done anything like that for which it was set up. The Minister should seriously consider reviewing their work to ascertain whether or not they are justifying the purpose for which they were established; neither would he be remiss in seeking that information.

I wonder if the Minister has any plans in mind for the information offices of the Department of Social Welfare. This does not call for legislation; it comes under this heading.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  No. Again, Deputy, it is a policy matter. Policy, administration and all such matters are for the general Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Even the operation of these social welfare centres that we shall call employment exchanges? Has the Minister considered their rationalisation, their role, that perhaps they might be taken over by some other Department? Might I ask the Minister even that? He might consider giving us some such information because I know he has paid a visit to all these centres in Dublin. I wondered if he has any changes in mind, or rationalisation plans. Perhaps he would answer me in that regard.

Because I am so constrained I shall conclude by saying that the Minister's task as Minister for Social Welfare in the next year is enormous. He will be looking for very large sums in his general Estimate after the budget. I wish him well in his efforts to do so. It will not be money badly spent if he directs his energies towards ensuring that the money he aims at getting is directed into the right channels. I wish him luck as well as success in obtaining the necessary moneys to expand the services. I know he is a persuasive person and will do his very best in this direction. His dual role as Minister for Health and Social Welfare, which he is taking so seriously, is an indication that social welfare of itself cannot be considered in isolation. I would have thought that perhaps it might might even be considered in conjunction with another Government Department, that there would be an [595] effort made to link them together, because to consider one Department in isolation is wrong. There is so much overlapping of Departments and their functions. Health is only one aspect of it. I would have thought that perhaps even education came within that sphere —health, education and welfare under one Department, as they have in the United States where they found that the functions overlapped so much. The Minister must always remember that he is the Minister for Health and Social Welfare. I wonder if it is his intention to merge these two Departments as in Britain. He has given us no indication as to whether he intends so doing and I should like to hear his comments in this respect.

There is a need to consider rationalising the policy of both Departments, merging them, when we could ensure that the services appropriate to the Department of Health, perhaps by linking them with those of the Department of Social Welfare, would be better utilised.

I suggested earlier this morning on this debate that perhaps the health boards might operate some of the services of the Department of Social Welfare. I was told this could not be done because it is proper to the Department of Health, despite the fact that it is the one Minister who deals with both. It is a rather incongruous situation that we do not know whether a particular function of the Department of Social Welfare, delegated to a health board, can be discussed here. It limits our role as legislators when we are told it is proper to one Department or another, but not to both. It makes it very difficult for us to consider the whole question of the role of the Department of Social Welfare. It is regressive, and is detrimental to the functions of the Department. We should be able to streamline our services, such as the supplementary welfare allowances, so that they might be operated by the Department of Social Welfare and not delegated to the health boards, because that only perpetuates the role of the poor law assistance and the charity associated with it.

Debate adjourned.

[596]Dr. Browne: Information on Noel C. Browne  Zoom on Noel C. Browne  On Questions, I wonder, with the permission of the Chair, if I might raise the subject matter of Question No. 25 of the 29th November, 1977, on the adjournment?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Joseph Brennan  Zoom on Joseph Brennan  I will communicate with the Deputy.


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