Tuesday, 11 March 1980
Dáil Eireann Debate
I am particularly pleased that this, the first Bill which it is my privilege to introduce as Minister for Social Welfare, is one which will make significant improvements in our social welfare services and be of particular help to those genuinely in need of them.
Before I go on to speak about the contents of the Bill, perhaps it might be as well if I were to explain to the House why this particular Social Welfare Bill may have an unfamiliar look. It is bigger than usual and it contains some rather complex sections of a very technical nature. The main reason for this is that the Bill has been designed to facilitate the consolidation of all social welfare legislation. As Deputies are aware, the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill, 1976, is with the Standing Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills but four further statutes have been enacted since it was introduced in 1976. Arrangements to have these Acts and the present Bill incorporated into the consolidating legislation are well advanced. As soon as the revised text becomes available, I propose to withdraw the present consolidation Bill and to introduce the revised measure. This should help the Standing Joint Committee to complete their work more quickly.
 The principal technical changes are concerned with the creation of a new Schedule—the Eighth Schedule—to the Social Welfare Act, 1952. This Schedule will set out the rates of social assistance payments on the same lines as the rates of social insurance payments are set out in the Third Schedule to that Act by section 15 of the Bill. Future changes in rates of assistance will thus be possible by amending the Schedule without making changes in the main text of the Act. Before I leave this point, I should mention that none of the technical or structural changes in itself affects entitlements to payments under the social welfare code.
Now to the new provisions of the Bill, the main purpose of which is to give effect to the increases in the rates of social welfare payments and other changes in the social welfare schemes announced in the budget. The explanatory memorandum which accompanies the Bill sets these out clearly and includes tables which in previous years were incorporated in the text of the Bill itself. I trust Deputies will have found the memorandum a help in their consideration of this legislation.
The increases in rates of payment provided during last year were such that the Government's commitment to keep social welfare payments in line with increases in the cost of living was fulfilled and, in addition, real improvements were brought about in the value of these payments. The increases provided for in this Bill, 25 per cent on the long-term payments and 20 per cent on the short-term payments will continue this process.
People on long-term payments, such as retirement pensioners, old age pensioners and widow pensioners, are generally regarded as requiring special attention in the social welfare context and the desirability of higher increases in their case will be readily conceded by all.
These percentage increases are additional to the temporary increases provided in October of last year. Under the terms of the national understanding, increases of the order of 6 per cent were  awarded for the period 1 October 1979 to 31 March 1980. It has been decided to continue these increases so that the annual rate of increase over the rates provided from April 1979 under last year's budget exceeds 31 per cent for long-term and 26 per cent for short-term payments.
I should now like to deal with the effect of the increases on individual payments. The maximum weekly personal rate of non-contributory old age pension is being raised by £4.20 to £21 for persons aged under 80 years. It will go up to £22.50 for persons aged 80 years or over. The reduced rates of pension payable where weekly means exceed £6 are also being increased. Steps are again being taken to ease an anomaly which is due to the application, up to last year, of uniform percentage increases to all reduced rates of pension. This resulted in a scale of means and pensions under which weekly pensions were reduced by £1.40 for every increase of £1 in means. Last year, the amount of the reduction for each £1 increase in means was lowered from £1.40 to £1.30. The present Bill provides that, as a further step towards achieving a scale where pensions will not be reduced by more than £1 a week for each £1 increase in means, the stages between rates will be lowered to £1.20. As a result the scale of means and pensions will be stretched to cover six additional rates of pension and reduced rates of pension will be payable up to a means limit of £23. For a pensioner with qualified children of course, the means limit will be greater than £23.
The maximum rate of payment in respect of an adult dependant under 66 years of age is being increased by £2.10 to £10.55. The overall maximum payment for a pensioner with a dependant spouse will, therefore, go up to £31.55 and, where the pensioner is 80 years of age or over, to £33.05. The allowance payable in respect of a prescribed relative giving full-time care and attention to an incapacitated pensioner is being raised to £11.75 and in the case of a pensioner living alone, the additional allowance is being increased to £1.65.
I am well aware that statistics and percentages may not be very meaningful to the pensioner who reckons his or her increases in pounds rather than in percentage points. I am confident, however, that pensioners will consider the cash increases to be significant. For example, in the case of a married old age pensioner under 80 years of age, the overall increase in pension will be £6.30 per week or £8.40 if his wife has attained age 66. It will be even greater if the pensioner is over 80 years of age.
This year, in addition to the significant general increases in rates of payment and the adjustments on the scale of means and rates of pension, considerable progress has also been made in removing other anomalies in the social welfare system. Two improvements being made affect the operation of the Old Age Pensions Acts as they relate to blind persons.
Section 4 of the Bill provides for the reduction of the qualifying age from 21 to 18 years. Generally speaking, children's allowances and increases of any basic pension, benefit, assistance or allowance for which the parents of blind children would qualify under the Acts, are payable only for children under the age of 18. The reduction in the qualifying age will enable blind pension to be paid to blind persons between the ages of 18 and 21 thereby bridging the gap of three years during which no payment under the social welfare code was available for these persons. As a corollary, these blind persons will not be treated as qualified children for any of the other schemes.
There is also provision in Section 5 which will increase the amount of blind person's earnings which may be disregarded in assessing his or her means for pension purposes. The concession is given in recognition of the special problems which blind persons face in the employment field.
 Section 6 of the Bill provides for the increases in the general rates of unemployment assistance. The increase in the personal weekly rate of assistance will bring the maximum to £17 in urban areas and to £16.45 in rural areas. The rates for adult dependants are being increased to £12.25 and £11.95 respectively and the rates for dependent children to £5.30 for each of the first two and £4.10 for others. Thus the rate of assistance for a married couple with two children is being increased to £39.85 in an urban area and to £39.00 in a rural area.
In the case of smallholders in certain disadvantaged areas, means for unemployment assistance purposes may be assessed notionally by reference to land valuation, where the valuation is £20 or less. In these cases, special rates of unemployment assistance are payable. This is a concession having regard both to the present levels of farm incomes and the means test for unemployment assistance generally.
Under the Bill, the special rates payable to smallholders who continue to avail of notional assessment will be maintained at the level payable from October 1979, pursuant to the national understanding. The additional increase of 20 per cent will apply only to those smallholders on factual assessment. Any smallholder whose means are assessed on a notional basis may have his means assessed on a factual basis if he thinks that this would be to his advantage. There are, in fact, some 3,000 smallholders whose means are assessed on a factual basis and who are receiving unemployment assistance at the rates generally applicable, which from April next will include the 20 per cent increase provided in the Bill.
There is an anomaly as regards entitlement to an increase for an adult dependant which affects beneficiaries under the schemes of unemployment benefit and assistance, disability benefit, invalidity pension, injury benefit and supplementary welfare allowance. This is being removed by sections 6, 14, 19 and 23 of this Bill.
 A beneficiary under these schemes who is single or widowed, or receiving deserted wife's benefit or allowance, may be paid an increase—known as a “housekeeper's allowance”—in respect of a woman who is wholly or mainly maintained by the beneficiary to have the care of at least one child. A married man who is separated from his wife cannot receive the allowance, neither can a married woman who is separated from her husband and who, for one reason or another, is not in receipt of deserted wife's benefit or allowance. The amendments provide for the payment of the “housekeeper's allowance” to married persons in such circumstances, under the same conditions as apply to any other person entitled to it.
Section 7 increases the amount of yearly earnings from seasonal fishing which may be disregarded in assessing the means of persons for unemployment assistance purposes. At present, one-half of the income which does not exceed £80 plus one-third of the income which exceeds £80 but does not exceed £200 is disregarded. It is now proposed to increase these amounts by 50 per cent, making the maximum disregard £120 as against £80 at present. Persons who are engaged in seasonal fishing earn most of their income in a relatively short period. In the nature of things, this income would largely be spent as it is earned and, accordingly, it is considered unfair to reckon it in full over the year for unemployment assistance purposes.
The six months' continuous residence requirement for unemployment assistance purposes is being removed by section 8. At present, an applicant who does not satisfy this residence test must rely on supplementary welfare allowance which is payable only at the rural rate of unemployment assistance.
Sections 9 and 11 of the Bill provide for increases in all rates of non-contributory widows' and orphans' pensions.  The maximum weekly personal rate of widows' (non-contributory) pension is being increased from £16.80 to £21.00 and the amount for each qualified child to £6.90 instead of £5.50. As in the case of non-contributory old age pension, provision is being made for uniform reductions of £1.20 in pension for each £1 increase in means and for additional rates of pension. Increases in the prescribed relative allowance, “living alone” allowance, and “over 80” allowance in line with those payable with non-contributory old age pensions are also provided. The improvements in widows' pensions will automatically apply to the social assistance allowances for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and prisoners' wives.
The parity between the rates of supplementary welfare allowance and the rural rate of unemployment assistance is being maintained by a 20 per cent increase in the rates of supplementary welfare allowance which is dealt with in section 14.
Section 10 will enable a woman qualified for a deserted wife's allowance who becomes widowed to qualify automatically for widow's non-contributory pension at the same rate as the deserted wife's allowance which was in payment to her. Under present procedure, a woman in receipt of a deserted wife's allowance whose husband dies must, if she wishes to obtain a widow's non-contributory pension, apply specifically for it. This means that her application must go to a social welfare officer for an investigation of means. As the means test and the rates of payment are the same in both schemes, I consider that title to widow's non-contributory pension should immediately be conferred on such an applicant at the same rate as the deserted wife's allowance which was in payment to her. While this conveys no monetary advantage, I know that the simplification of procedure will be  welcomed. If the widow considers that she is entitled to a higher rate of pension, it will, of course, be open to her to apply for it.
At present, the definition of orphan for social welfare purposes includes a child whose parents are dead and who does not reside with a step-parent. It also includes a child whose mother dies while deserted wife's allowance or deserted wife's benefit was payable to her and whose father does not wholly or mainly maintain him. Cases have arisen where a woman who was deserted by her husband dies but, prior to her death, had not applied for, or had not qualified for, either deserted wife's allowance or deserted wife's benefit, leaving her children, as a result, with no rights to benefit. A similar situation has arisen where it was the husband who was deserted by the wife and, on the husband's death, the children were left without rights to benefits. To relieve hardship in such cases, it is proposed to expand the definition of “orphan” to include the child of a deceased parent, who had been deserted prior to death, where the other parent has abandoned the child. This will enable orphan's non-contributory pension, orphan's contributory allowance or orphan's pension under the occupational injuries scheme to be paid in respect of any such child. The necessary provisions are contained in sections 12 and 22 of the Bill.
I now come to the increases in the rates of contributory benefits and pensions under the social insurance system which are set out in section 15 of the Bill. The personal rate of disability and unemployment benefit is increased from £17.05 to £20.45 and a married couple will now receive £33.70 instead of £28.10. Allowances for children with these benefits are being increased to £5.95 for each of the first two children and to £4.90 for each other child. Maternity allowance is also being increased to £20.45.
 The personal rates of contributory old age and retirement pensions for persons under age 80 go up to £24.50 and, for those over 80, to £26.25. The addition to pension for an adult dependant is being raised to £15.65 where the adult dependant is under pensionable age and to £18.30 where the adult dependant is aged 66 or over. Accordingly, a married couple both over pensionable age will get £42.80 as compared with £34.25 at present and, if the pensioner is aged 80, the new rate will be £44.55, an increase of £8.90 per week.
The new personal rate of widow's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit, will be £22.50 and for those aged 80 or over £24.05. The additions to widow's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit for qualified children are being raised to £7.50 for each child. A widow or deserted wife with three qualified children will now get £45.00, an increase of £9.00 per week.
All the personal rates I have mentioned in connection with social insurance payments are the maximum rates, payable where the contribution conditions for the benefit concerned are fully satisfied. Most people qualify for the maximum rates, but for those whose insurance records are deficient, reduced personal rates are payable. As is normal, these rates will be increased by regulations. Of course, while the personal rates of benefit are reduced where there is a deficient record, the allowances for a dependant wife and children are not reduced.
Criticisms are frequently directed at abuses of the social welfare system. Any person who receives a social welfare payment to which he is not entitled creates an additional drain on the funds available and makes it that much more difficult for me as Minister for Social Welfare to meet my obligations to the needy. In the control of the system, therefore, it is necessary for me from  time to time, to take measures to ensure that the money allocated to social welfare goes only to those entitled to it.
The disability benefit scheme has recently come in for some criticism on the grounds that it acts as an inducement to malingering. In the year 1979 there were some 286,000 claims to disability benefit and the average number of persons paid each week was close to 71,000. These persons received a total of almost £96 million made up of £82 million in disability benefit and £14 million in pay-related benefit. Expenditure of this magnitude must be strictly controlled and all measures taken to eliminate the possibility of abuse.
One of the abuses alleged in relation to disability benefit is that some workers claim benefit in respect of unnecessarily frequent short absences from work. At present, a person is disqualified for payment of benefit for the first three days of illness unless those days fall within 13 weeks of a previous period of illness or unemployment. A person can thus receive disability benefit from the first day of a sick absence occurring within three months of the end of the previous claim even though the second absence may be as short as three days. In order to tighten control in this area, section 17 of the Bill will apply the three waiting days to every claim to disability benefit except in the case of a person who becomes ill while unemployed or who suffers a relapse within three days of returning to work. The position in regard to waiting days for the purpose of unemployment benefit and injury benefit under the occupational injuries benefit scheme is not being changed.
Under section 20, all rates of periodic benefit under the Social Welfare (Occupational Injuries) Act, 1966, including increases of benefit in respect of adult and child dependants, are being increased in line with the increases being applied under the general social insurance scheme. Preferential rates of personal benefit under the occupational injuries scheme are thus being maintained. Moreover, this year for the first  time disablement benefit is being treated as a long-term benefit and the 25 per cent increase is being applied to it.
Section 21 provides for an increase of 25 per cent in the living alone allowance payable with death benefit pensions under the occupational injuries benefit scheme in line with the living alone increase under the general social insurance scheme.
This year again the rates of children's allowances are being substantially increased. Section 24 provides that the monthly allowance for the first child will be increased by £1 to £4.50 and by £1.50 to £7.00 for each subsequent child. This will bring the monthly payment for families of three children up by £4 to £18.50 and up by £5.50 to £25.50 for families of four children.
Children's allowances are an important source of income not only to lower income but also to middle income families and are paid directly to the mother. The adjustment in the child income tax allowance announced in the budget statement will ensure that the full value of the increase in children's allowance is directed mainly towards families in the lower and middle income groups. The increased rates will be effective from 1 of July 1980.
Section 25 provides for increases in the grants paid in respect of multiple births. At present, these grants are of £100 in respect of triplets and £150 on the birth of quadruplets or any higher number. It is proposed to increase these amounts to £300 and £400 respectively. The operative date will be 1 April 1980.
Section 26 raises the earnings ceiling from £5,500 to £7,000 and the rates of pay-related social insurance contributions which will be required to meet the employer's and employee's share of the cost of the proposals under the social insurance schemes. The overall increase in the current rate of contributions, 11.2 per cent, applicable to persons eligible for all benefits, will be 0.8 per cent of which the employer will bear 0.7 per cent and the employee 0.1 per cent. Consequently, the new standard rate of contributions will be 12 per cent of which  employers will pay 8.5 per cent and employees will pay 3.5 per cent. Proportionate increases are being provided in the rates of voluntary contributions. The increases will be effective from 6 April 1980. The new rates and the increased earnings limit are expected to yield about £380 million in the current year, which includes £44 million additional contribution income.
Deputies will see that the section provides for the new rates of contribution by the substitution of “3.5 per cent” for “3.2 per cent” and “8.5 per cent” for “7.5 per cent” in section 6 (1) of the Social Welfare Act, 1952. This would seem to indicate that the present rates of contributions are 3.2 per cent for employees and 7.5 per cent for employers which is not so. These rates were, in fact, temporarily increased to 3.4 per cent and 7.8 per cent respectively by virtue of section 5 (2) of the Social Welfare (Amendment) Act, 1978, for the 12 months ending 5 April 1980. This provision will then lapse leaving the original rates in section 6 (1) to be increased from 6 April 1980, by this Bill. Various special or `modified' rates of contributions are payable in respect of certain employments, for example civil service, certain share fishermen and so on, which are not covered for all benefits of the social insurance system. Any necessary increases to those modified rates will be made by regulation.
The overall cost in 1980 of the rates increases and other changes being provided for in this Bill is £90.2 million. Of this amount, social assistance accounts for £57.3 million, all of which is borne by the Exchequer. On the social insurance side, the total increase in cost is expected to be £77 million and this must be met out of the social insurance fund which is financed by contributions from employers and employees with an annual subvention from the Exchequer. The pay-related contributions for employers and employees will meet an estimated £44 million of this extra cost leaving £33 million to be borne by the Exchequer.
The changes in the Bill which I have  outlined can be summarised as the increase of long-term payments such as pensions, both contributory and non-contributory, by 25 per cent; the increase of short-term payments such as disability and unemployment benefit, unemployment assistance and supplementary welfare allowance by 20 per cent; the increase of children's allowances by an average of about 28 per cent; provisions to improve entitlements for various categories, for example blind persons, widows, orphans, seasonal fisherman and measures to prevent abuse of the disability benefit scheme. I am satisfied that the provisions of the Bill will bring about a real improvement in the social welfare system, and I, therefore, recommend it to Dáil Éireann for speedy and favourable consideration.
Mr. McMahon: I welcome the provisions of this Bill as they are long awaited by those who will benefit. The Minister and most other public representatives have been under more and more pressure from the less well off sections who are finding it increasingly more difficult to exist at their political clinics and advice centres. It was fortunate for most of those people, particularly those living in built-up areas, that we had a milder winter than that which we experienced last year. Despite what appeared to be substantial increases in their allowances, social welfare recipients are finding it more difficult to exist. There was a certain amount of gloating from the Fianna Fáil benches during budget week about these massive increases in social welfare allowances. There was a lot of pressure from people finding it hard to live on allowances which were whittled away by budgets week after week. Practically every day commodities needed just to live were increasing in price.
The 25 per cent increases in allowances looked well when announced. It would be good if recipients received this increase during the month in which it was announced, but unfortunately they will have to wait until April and in some instances until 1 July before they actually receive the money. The increases  are continually being whittled away by soaring price increases. For instance, in January 1978 an ordinary two pound sliced loaf cost 19½p and the non-contributory old age pension amounted to £10.75 while the contributory old age pension amounted to £12.75. Two years later, in January, 1980, the same loaf costs 46½p whereas the increase in the contributory pension is from £12.75 to £19.60 and the non-contributory pension increased from £10.75 to £16.80. Taking that example alone, apart from all the other commodities such as butter, tea and gas which have also increased in price, it is clear that social welfare recipients have a lot to bear. Most of them cannot switch foods or heating systems readily and must continue to use the same commodities. The price increases are catching up on the comforts of social welfare recipients and many of them must seek the help of relatives or some other source to maintain their standard of living or else they have to cut back on what they are eating or on the fuel for heating or cooking.
The increases when announced got great publicity and raised the expectations of many people. However by the time they get their allowances the benefits will be whittled away. The increases announced in the budget should be given certainly within a month of the announcement, although even that is too long. The system should be geared to give effect to the increases without delay. The increases in the price of cigarettes, beer, petrol and tobacco were given effect to within a few days. The increase in the price of beer and petrol took effect overnight.
I cannot see any reason why increases in social welfare benefits are not paid a lot sooner than is the position. This time lag has existed for many years but in olden days it did not matter very much. At least those who were promised an increase of 4s. or 5s. per week felt the benefit of it when it was paid, but because of the time lag to-day an increase of £4 or £5 is eroded by price increases before it is paid. The Minister should speed up the payment of increases  creases granted in budgets. I do not believe he will be responsible for this matter when the budget is introduced in 1981, but he should make every effort to shorten the period between the announcement of the increases and the date of payment.
Many people who do not have medical cards but qualify for medical assistance towards the cost of medicines are finding it very difficult to pay for medicines because of the decision to insist on them paying the first £8 per month. It is a crippling burden on such people.
Mr. McMahon: I accept that it is a matter for the Department of Health but the decision to amend the scheme is hitting social welfare recipients rather hard. I am concerned about pensioners who are disqualified from holding a medical card because they have a small income. They are eligible for assistance where medicines exceed £8 per month but that is providing a heavy burden on them. The Minister should make an effort to help those people.
Social welfare recipients have had to meet huge bills for heating this winter. The Minister has not been long in office but there was an opportunity in the budget to ease the situation in regard to fuel for those people. The Minister for Finance could have made provision to increase the free fuel subsidy. The Minister's predecessor, within weeks of taking office, undertook to apply that scheme to the country as a whole rather than to the 17 built-up areas as heretofore. He undertook on a number of occasions to introduce a new scheme under which pensioners, irrespective of the area they lived in, would qualify in some way for assistance towards the cost of heating their homes, but he left office without doing anything. He made a feeble attempt to change that scheme by way of transferring the voucher for 1 cwt. of turf to a cash voucher for £1.50  to be used to purchase fuel of any description. If the Minister does not alter this scheme the recipients will be worse off getting the £1.50 per week than they were when they were entitled to 1 cwt. of turf, because it will not be long until £1.50 will only purchase a half cwt. of turf. The price of 1 cwt. of turf has changed drastically in one year and will increase next year also. It was wrong to alter the scheme. It was a stop gap measure.
There are many anomalies attached to the existing scheme. For instance, a pensioner living in County Dublin who decides to draw his or her pension at the local post office loses out on the free fuel scheme because post offices in the county do not issue the vouchers. However, a pensioner living next door who decides to opt to draw his or her pension in a city post office can collect the £1.50 voucher at that post office. I mentioned this matter on many occasions. The Minister should re-organise that scheme and put it on a sound footing so that all pensioners have the same entitlements. It costs the same amount of money to heat a home in County Dublin or in rural areas of any other part of the country as it costs to heat a home in any city. It is time all the talk in relation to the scheme ceased and the Minister put his mind to introducing a country wide scheme. I welcome the provisions of the Bill and the sooner the money is given to those entitled to it the better.
I welcome also the increase in the pension for blind persons. This improvement is long overdue and while it is not a great improvement, at least it is a step in the right direction. However, I trust that the Minister will continue to pay attention to the anomalies that exist so far as pensions for the blind are concerned in order that those among us who are unfortunate enough to be sightless will be helped in every way possible. We have not done nearly enough for these people, Indeed, we are way behind many of our EEC partners in so far as helping blind people is concerned. I welcome generally the increases in social welfare payments.
Mr. Bermingham: I, too, welcome the increases in social welfare benefits. Having regard to our present circumstances we would be less than fair if we did not consider the proposed increases to be reasonable, though I am not sure that they are sufficient to enable the recipients to live in any sort of comfort. However, the Bill is an effort to bring the increases in line at least with the cost of living increases.
Having said that there are some points I must make but these concern more what I consider should be in the Bill rather than what is contained in the Bill. Our first priority should be to provide for people who are not in a position to provide for themselves and there should not be any room for a niggardly attitude in this regard. These lesser well-off sections of the community should be able to enjoy a standard of living that is equal to what is accepted as being the average standard of living of our people but we are a long way from achieving that situation.
Without wishing to detract in any way from the increases being granted, I should point out that at this time people in receipt of social welfare benefits are receiving the same amounts as they were receiving in October last though we all know the huge price increases that have been imposed on foodstuffs and on fuel since then. For instance, bread has increased by 5p a loaf, both milk and cheese have increased in price by 5 per cent while there have been massive increases in the price of gas, coal, turf and briquettes. It is well known that proportionately people in the lower-income bracket spend much more on foodstuffs and on fuel than is the case where other groups are concerned. Successive Governments have failed to ensure a standard of living for social welfare recipients that is in keeping with the standard of living generally, with the result that these people must continue to tolerate a standard of living that is lower than the average. Instead of being ashamed of that situation we seem to be clapping ourselves on the back for the little we are doing.
 It is not my intention to delay for longer than is necessary the implementation of this legislation but there are some points that must be made in regard to it. One category of people who are being discriminated against in terms of social welfare are people who are never likely to work again and who are in receipt of monthly medical certificates. In their case the social welfare payment is £5 per week less than is paid to a person in receipt of a disability pension. I consider this situation to be a criminal injustice.
Another category of people for whom not nearly enough has been done down through the years is widows. Perhaps my childhood circumstances left me with much sympathy for widows because my mother was among that category and had to rear three of us at a time when there was little, if any, help from the State. A widow who is rearing a family and who has no income other than what she may receive from the State must have great difficulty in providing the necessities of life for herself and her family. Consequently, I see no reason for there not being extended to her the free electricity and travel schemes. Such a person would be in greater need of this additional help than would a person who qualified for benefit in terms of these schemes on the basis of having reached the age of 66. We seem to be afraid as a society to make it possible for such categories of persons to enjoy a decent standard of living. Even if a widow with young children could find work she would not be able to avail of it in most cases because of having to look after her children.
The situation in regard to unmarried mothers is not anything to boast about either. If a person in this category were to take up any work she would disqualify in terms of her social welfare allowance of £18 per week. That is a miserable income, These people find themselves often in the unfortunate position of being looked down on by society. That is bad enough without their being discriminated against in terms of the social welfare code.
A major source of disappointment in  regard to this Bill is the failure on the part of the Government to reduce the old age pension qualifying age by the one year that would bring it into line with the rest of Europe where these pensions are paid at 65. But Fianna Fáil have a very bad record in this regard, because not once under a Fianna Fáil Government has the qualifying age been reduced. The qualifying age for a retirement pension has not been reduced in years. It is still 65 years. That is to the discredit of the Minister, of the Minister for Finance and of this House. If this were done it would encourage people to retire and make jobs available for younger people.
I do not know what it would cost but we boast about being good Europeans and the first thing we should do is to bring the qualifying ages for old age pension and retirement pension into line with the rest of Europe. When Fianna Fáil came into office the qualifying age for the old age pension was 66 years and they had to reduce it by only one year to bring it into line with the rest of Europe. During their long years in office they neglected this very important area. When the old age pension was introduced in the early part of the century under a British Act the qualifying age was 70 and when Fianna Fáil left office a few years ago it was still 70. As I said, when the Coalition were in office it was reduced to 66 years. Surely it would not break the coffers of this State to reduce the age to 65 years?
The Minister referred in glowing terms to the supplementary welfare allowances. These allowances are operated in my area by the health board, and I want to say something about that. A criminally Victorian attitude is being taken in connection with the operation of these allowances. I said that at local meetings where the superintendent was present and I will say it anywhere in the country. The Minister introduced a free fuel scheme, administered by the health boards. When the county council administered a similar scheme in my area, old age pensioners living alone received an extra £1 a week. Under the Minister's  scheme they get £1.50 a week but the friendly social welfare officer took back the £1——
Mr. Bermingham: I attacked the operation of the supplementary allowance scheme in my constituency. We seem to have a Victorian attitude to the people in receipt of social welfare benefits. We seem to think they are not entitled to the same standard of living as those who are working. That is not my attitude. It is wrong, unchristian and unjust.
Before these people get the increases, and even before the budget was introduced, most of the increase was eroded by increases in the cost of bread, butter, cheese, gas, coal, turf, briquettes and so on. Increases in these items do not affect ordinary working people as much as those in receipt of social welfare allowances, but many of these people are hungry because they are not getting corresponding increases in their allowances. If Members understood the problems facing these people they would do something about them.
If people in receipt of social welfare benefits approach the welfare officers they are told they cannot get any extra money because they are given what the Department allow. That is my experience of the way the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is administered. That scheme was introduced  by the previous Government but it was not operated in the spirit intended. It was introduced to provide for supplementary benefit recipients a cushion against these kinds of increases, but it is not being administered that way today. If the Minister looks at this area he will discover that what I am saying is true.
I want to tell the House that the administration of the Department has broken down completely. I said that many times before and was given many reasons for the break down. Up to recently the postal strike was given as the main reason, but that has been settled almost 12 months now. Over the past 12 months the Department, like the Revenue Commissioners, might as well have closed down because nobody, even public representatives, can get an answer to any query within a reasonable period. People sending in certificates for disability benefits have to wait six, seven, eight and 12 weeks, even though they never claimed before and have years of contributions behind them. I cannot understand this. The administration of the Department has deteriorated rapidly over the last six months. People entitled to social welfare beenfits do not seem to be getting them. Against that background I say that many people who are entitled to increases will not receive them in June.
The staff in the Department of Social Welfare will not answer telephones. On the occasions when they do so, they go to check files and never come back. The Department may be understaffed. I find it an impossible Department with which to deal. I feel particularly sorry for a person who is refused benefit and has to appeal because it takes such a long time for the appeal to be heard.
I will now refer to the non-contributory old age pension. A farmer may transfer land by deed to a son or daughter and when the deed has been examined by the Department of Social Welfare the farmer will invariably receive a non-contributory old age pension. If none of the sons or daughters wants to continue farming because the holding is uneconomic or for other  reasons, the farmer may sell the farm and help to provide housing for his or her sons and daughters, but this is not accepted by the Department. The Minister should examine this matter. By transferring a farm by deed a farmer may qualify for the non-contributory old age pension but will not qualify if a farm is sold and the money divided. That is most unjust. I know of a case where a man was anxious that his son should come home and work on the farm but his son refused. The farmer had no option but to sell the farm because he could not carry on himself. He provided houses for two of his sons but he did not qualify for the old age pension and received only £4 or £5 per week.
There are many other areas about which I could talk. Many improvements could be made at very little cost, but the Department and the Government have a Victorian attitude, as also have the health authorities. For this reason we are not making all the progress possible even within the limits of the money available. I have mentioned several areas where improvements could be made at minimal cost.
The greater proportion of the income of the unfortunate people on social welfare is spent on food and in recent times increases in food prices have been particularly high. This is my experience, though it may not be admitted by all. First, there was the removal of food subsidies and this was followed by huge price increases which will be particularly heavy in rural areas because of the increase in the cost of petrol. This will affect people in receipt of social welfare payments of all kinds.
I do not hold the view that some people should have a great deal more than others or that a certain section of society should have a great deal less than those who enjoy the normal standard of living. How can people be expected to live on a disability benefit of £16 per week? They almost need a sworn inquiry to establish their right to it in the first place. Recipients of social welfare payments in general have not enough to provide them  with the normal standard of living in our society. If we were the Christian society which we claim to be, this should be our aim. It is within our capacity to produce enough to give people in receipt of social welfare payments sufficient to provide them with a normal standard of living without discriminating between various categories. If we are not prepared to do that, then we do not want social justice and a Christian society. I do not think anyone ever attempted to do this. I have been asked what I did when in Government, but I want to make it quite clear that I have never been in Government. I would ask Fianna Fáil not to ask what was done by people on this side of the House when in Government because they have been in power for about 34 of the last 40 years. I want them to give the same standard of living to all our people and I believe that the present Bill will not bring that about.
Mr. Nolan: I wish to congratulate the Minister on introducing his first Bill as Minister for Social Welfare, particularly because of the increases which have been granted to social welfare recipients in the recent budget. Never before in the history of the State were increases of such magnitude given in a budget. The increases given to single or married persons who qualify for benefit have equalled the level of pensions of a few years ago. For that reason I wish to record my sincere congratulations to the Minister.
I welcome these increases particularly because we are dealing with people in the community who are not organised and have not the muscle we usually associate with other sectors. They have to depend on the generosity of the Government if they are non-contributory, and if they are contributory they must depend on the contributions they made during their working lives and the amount the Exchequer can give by way of supplement.
Most people did not expect the level of the increases granted this year, even though they badly needed more. In their manifesto Fianna Fáil committed themselves to social welfare increases at least equal to and possibly more than increases  in the cost of living index; but, as the Minister has said, if we take into account the increases given last October the total percentage increase this year has been 31. In other words, the Minister this year has trebled what his predecessor gave in 1979, and the bigger increases have been given to the most needy, who have been given 25 per cent more in this Budget. The most needy are, of course, those on long-term benefits, pensioners and so on. The less needy, generally, have been given increases of 20 per cent.
I bring to the Minister's notice especially the situation of widows. I should like to see widows' pensions brought into line with those of single persons who are on contributory retirement and old age pensions. Single people on contributory retirement pensions at the moment are in receipt of £24.05 but a contributory widow's pension is £22.50.
Deputy Bermingham drew attention to some of the problems we come across when dealing with constituents' complaints in regard to delays in paying social welfare benefits. In this respect I do not blame the Department's officers. Indeed, I compliment them, because at a time when income tax offices and housing grant offices in the Department of the Environment were shut down so as to enable staff to deal with a back-log of queries and complaints, the Department of Social Welfare offices were open throughout the country. However, there have been delays and naturally these cause hardship. People sometimes have to wait six to eight weeks to have their certificates considered in disability cases and to have their claims processed in regard to unemployment benefits. These delays naturally cause hardships and the Minister should have a look at the system to ensure that the position will be improved.
As I have said, people who suffer from delays in the payment of their just rights under the Social Welfare Acts can get supplementary allowances through the health boards. But, as most of us are aware, they do not like to approach the welfare officers, who in the past used to  be known as home assistance officers. If people are eligible for social welfare benefits they should not have to suffer from delays.
I will not delay the House longer because I know the Minister is anxious to have the Bill passed as soon as possible to enable people entitled to the increased benefits to get them. I wish again to congratulate the Minister and the Government for their concern for those people in receipt of social welfare benefits who are not organised to march or to demand their just rights.
Mr. F. O'Brien: I wish the Minister success in his two Departments. He has an onerous job and I wish him well. He will need all the assistance he can get. In the social welfare area I hope he will show more social commitment than his predecessor, who in my opinion did not show much commitment.
I welcome any increases in social welfare benefits that will alleviate the hardships of the elderly, the disabled, the generally less well off, but I question the Government's concern in this whole area. It is not enough at budget time to introduce across the board increases. Although this is important from the point of view of the recipients, it does not show any real social policy or philosophy. This Bill does not introduce any innovation in the matter of looking after the old, the sick and the poor. Deputy McMahon spoke about the free fuel scheme and about the alteration in the scheme under which the fuel vouchers which could be used only for turf can now be used to buy all types of fuel.
I submit that this fuel scheme should be written into the Bill every year so that all elderly people, irrespective of where they live, will qualify by right and not by chance. Though this has been a very mild winter, a number of people have been found dead in their homes from the cold. The trouble is that people do not know their entitlements in this respect—they must see a social welfare officer to find out. I do not think that is good enough in this day and age. If the  Government are concerned about the elderly they must ensure that the necessary finance will be made available to provide heat for them.
I am very disappointed that the Bill has not a section written into it that such people should receive extra money towards fuel. Deputy McMahon made a very valid point when he said that when those people received a bag of turf and the price of it went up to £2, £3 or £4 they got it. Now, with the cost of fuel fluctuating, they do not even get that. Two weeks ago the price of bottled gas increased dramatically. I awaited an announcement from the Department of Social Welfare saying that the pensions of those people would be increased or that the value of their vouchers would be substantially increased. A lot of elderly people use bottled gas. Those people have to suffer with inadequate heating in the winter weather.
With regard to the supplementary rent benefits, elderly people who live in local authority housing or own their houses are reasonably well off. If they live in local authority housing they have subsidised rents and if they own their own houses, apart from repairs, they are not too badly off. People who have to depend on uncontrolled lettings for accommodation are exposed to the harsh wind of commercialism. Sooner or later the Government will have to ensure that enderly people are insulated against this in a positive way and that they have not to go cap in hand looking for supplementary benefits.
The home assistance payment was not very satisfactory and changes were made. It was then called the supplementary welfare benefit scheme. Everybody hoped that the whole attitude of the Department would change but the name is the only thing which has changed. Deputy Bermingham said that a Victorian attitude still looms over this social welfare allowance. I urge the Minister to examine this matter and ensure that it is compassionate and that people have not literally to crawl to get it.
 Children's allowances have risen. Deputy Bermingham mentioned the big increases which have taken place. In the few years the Coalition Government were in power the increases given amounted to 148 per cent. I do not like quoting percentages because they tend very often to hide the facts. The Minister pointed out that children's allowances go to the wife. It is very important that she should get this money. When will we get a social commitment from the Government in relation to a supplementary welfare allowance for the wife who wants to stay at home and rear a family? If married women want to work it is their right to go to work. Many women want to stay at home and rear their families but for economic reasons they cannot do this.
We talk about the place of the family in the Constitution but I believe that this is only lip service. The sooner we have a positive policy in relation to the married woman who wants to stay at home and rear a family, without having to worry about economic considerations, the sooner we will solve a lot of social problems which can arise when women are not around to look after their families. I want to see in any Social Welfare Bill some concept in relation to updating our social welfare code.
The Coalition Government brought in the allowance for the single woman, which was an excellent innovation. The age at which a woman could then get the allowance was 58 years, which has now been reduced to 57 years. There is no real effort in this Bill to bring the age down. A single person of 51 years or 52 years of age who has remained at home will not be able to get employment. Those people should be looked after in our social welfare code. A person who has gone over 40 years of age is too old in many jobs. We should be realistic in regard to the age for the single woman's allowance.
The Government have no social commitment whatsoever. I hope this Minister will see things in a different light. During the past 12 months there were long queues of people outside social welfare  offices. Some of those were disabled and had to queue in inclement weather for their allowances. There is no excuse for that. I do not care what they say about the people in social welfare offices working around the clock. I am not blaming them. The blame lies with the Minister and not with the staff. We hear about the computers and the way everything can be churned out without any problems. Yet we see the problems. That is the problem with this Government. They would be just as happy not to have to deal with social welfare problems at all. That is the kind of commitment they have. A typical example is not reducing the qualifying age for the old age pension to 65 years. This is their third opportunity to do so but they have made no effort to do it. When the Coalition took office in 1973 the age was 70 years. We brought it down by four years, to 66 years, during the time we were in office. Now the Government are on their third budget and it is still 66 years. That is the lack of commitment that I am talking about.
As I said last year, they just think of a figure and throw it out and that is their social welfare policy. But that is not a policy. I am critical, not of the increases which I welcome because in many ways they are generous, but that they are only keeping up with the very high cost of living. Furthermore, people will have to wait to get them so that they will feel the very severe and savage increases particularly on food and fuel. In most households that is only a small percentage of the total income but, in the case of the elderly, it is a great percentage of their income. People are nearly punch drunk from reading about the savage increases which have become as commonplace now and they will not receive their allowances for some time so it is a question of live horse and get grass. That is not what this House should be about so far as the welfare, particularly of the elderly, is concerned.
On the question of poverty, it seems to be a dirty word, not to be used. We seem to be letting the side down if we use that word. But poverty is with us, particularly  urban poverty, whether it is the result of lack of finance or because of the social conditions which people are condemned to live in. If the Government are serious about their welfare policy the whole question of poverty must be uppermost in their minds. The word must not be eradicated from our minds but poverty, as we see it around us, must be eradicated as soon as possible. Funds are made available for combating poverty. But there is now a cloud hanging over those funds. The committees that were set up to do projects on poverty in various areas may not be able to operate and this is very serious.
I am not advocating any one committee. What I am advocating is that the Government commit themselves to ensuring that where poverty exists it is eradicated. Many things are responsible for it but it is the responsibility of the Department of Social Welfare to take this problem on. It is left in glorious suspended animation as far as I can see. Possibly the Government would like to believe that it does not exist because they are in government and when they are in government there could not be poverty. That is a myth and they know it and the country knows it. I would ask the Minister to make this his priority so that in future social welfare Bills positive steps will be taken to ensure that the eradication of poverty is the key note. It is bland to say “the poor we will always have with us”. That is a philosophy that should not be entertained or countenanced. That is a lazy man's approach to a problem. I hope the present Minister will tackle this problem in a serious way.
Another area related to the question of social welfare that should be looked at is unemployment benefit and unemployment generally. There seems to be a shared responsibility here between the Department of Labour and the Department of Social Welfare. I am not sure that in that type of situation anybody takes responsibility. I would like to see this whole question, particularly in relation to labour exchanges in large urban areas, tackled. The whole concept of labour exchanges in urban areas should  be changed. We talk about unemployment benefit increases but that is not enough although they are welcome. We should have manpower development offices where people who are not at present employed——
Mr. F. O'Brien: If one has to talk about some sort of social welfare policy one may have to stray slightly away from the area. What I am trying to say is that it is not good enough to herd people into labour exchanges and pay them social welfare benefits. We should try to take positive steps to help them. If somebody is unemployed for a long period he may become unemployable. This is a welfare problem because such a person will have to receive welfare benefit for a long time, perhaps forever. If we are serious about helping in this area, we should try to remove the stigma of labour exchanges and change the image. We may have to define who is employable and unemployable. In the case of people who are unemployable, we should decide that they be put on social welfare benefits while the employable people should be transferred to the Department of Labour. That would be a wise step because it would give the dignity of work to those who are employable.
 Lack of information with regard to social welfare benefits is a matter of concern to many of us. I should like to see the situation exist where people would be fully aware of their entitlements. I know that the Department issue booklets on the matter but information does not seem to filter through to the public. Perhaps people from the Minister's Department would consider coming on television or on radio in order to give information and facts to the public. When people do not know their entitlements they cannot claim them from the Department and that is not desirable. It is all very well for the Department to issue glossy booklets on the matter—we get them every year—but if the public are not informed about their entitlements not much good is achieved. Many people do not read much but if information with regard to social welfare benefits were publicised on television or on radio it would be of considerable help. Perhaps the Minister would give some thought to this matter.
While the allowances given in the budget are reasonable good, the severe and savage price increases are eroding them rapidly. The Government may clap themselves on the back but really they have not done much for the less well off in our society. That has been borne out even now. There was much talk in the budget about discretionary spending—new phraseology introduced to cover the increases in the price of drink and cigarettes. Many old age pensioners like to drink or smoke—they are entitled to when they reach that age—and they will not agree with the phrasology of the Minister foince. In my view, a small whiskey for an old age pensioner could be regarded as medicine. If the Minister puts on his other hat——
Mr. F. O'Brien: No. Many old age pensionsers think they need a small whiskey to keep body and soul together and that might be regarded as a matter of health. Similarly, many old age pensioners would not regard the purchase of  plug tobacco as discretionary spending. It is like saying to people if the price of a loaf of bread gets too expensive they can eat cake. That is a kind of discretionary spending. The phraseology is woolly and is typical of the thinking of the Government. When I talk about welfare, I think especially of the elderly and disabled who are very vulnerable. Percentages do not mean anything to such people. It is our job to ensure that they have the money to pay for the necessities of life. They have not got that. The increase of 25 per cent announced in the budget appears generous but on examination of the facts it is obvious that we are not giving enough to the elderly. I ask the Minister to examine this matter and to give them a generous increase during the year.
I wish the Minister well in the Department of Social Welfare. He is a capable man and I am sure he will make a name for himself in his office. I hope he will be moved by compassion and a sense of social justice to ensure that the areas I have talked about will be looked after in a proper way.
Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: (Cavan-Monaghan): This Bill will implement the provisions of the budget in so far as increases in social welfare benefits and allowances are concerned. I welcome the increases granted and on that account I welcome the Bill but, at the same time, I do not think the allowances are any cause for jubilation or celebration. The social welfare classes have fallen far behind and Deputies who have been dealing in the past 12 months with social welfare recipients must be conscious of how far the standard of living of these people has dropped.
The increases in the budget are a measure of the extent to which it is recognised that the standard of living of the social welfare people has dropped. We know that the Taoiseach estimates an inflation rate of 20 per cent this year and that other authorities put it higher. With that sort of inflation rate forecast we know that the end result is usually worse rather than better. I do not know if the Minister has any provision in mind  or in the Bill for a second increase in social welfare this year. If he has not I believe that by the end of the year these people will again have fallen behind seriously.
On the Committee Stage of the Bill I shall avail of the opportunity, if possible, to raise a number of points. Very recently it came to my attention that the living alone allowance payable to old age pensioners is not paid if the pensioner has even an invalid, a handicapped, or a totally disabled person living in the house. That is wrong. An old person or a person in need of care is worse off really than if that pensioner had nobody with him or her, I urge the Minister to reconsider this.
Very recently I applied for an allowance for a person over 70 who is in receipt of a qualified pension from the Department of Justice I do not want to identify the person but the Minister will know what I mean. This person has been refused a living alone allowance although the only other person living in the house has been on long-term disability benefit for several years. That is wrong.
I must shortly leave the House to keep another appointment but I want to raise one other matter, the question of marreid couples who qualify for the old age pension. In the case where one spouse, usually the man, is in receipt of an income and the other spouse has no income whatever, that spouse is deprived of the old age pension because half the means of the other spouse is assessed against him or her. That is fundamentally wrong. Over the years women in this country have been treated badly—not all of them. Many married women are given only enough by their husbands to keep body and soul together. Yet, these women are deprived of the old age pension when they reach pensionable age because the husband's income is halved and half of the income assessed against the wife so that she gets no old age pension. Many such women have lived many years of their lives in hardship and they are deprived and discriminated against in this way.
 Has the Minister considered what effect the recent Supreme Court decision on the taxation code in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Murphy will have on this regulation of the social welfare code? In the Supreme Court it was held that for taxation purposes the income of the husband and the income of the wife must be treated separately, that it was unconstitutional to aggregrate the incomes of husband and wife and tax them as one. I have little doubt that following that reasoning the Supreme Court would hold, if asked to consider the position under the Social Welfare Acts, that in deciding whether the wife is entitled to an old age pension regard can he had to her income only and that it is not right or fair or constitutional or in accordance with natural justice that the husband's income should be divided and half of it notionally transferred to the wife in order to debar her from an old age pension.
If those two people were living in the same house as two single people and not as husband and wife no matter what amount of income the man had, so long as the applicant for the pension had no income in her own right she would be entitled to receive the old age pension. Just because they are married and not two single people the Minister and his regulations state that such an applicant who has no income is to be discriminated against and deprived of the pension.
I make that case because in the past month I was approached by a woman whose husband is disabled, having suffered a stroke. Apparently, he never heard of inflation, does not appreciate that the cost of living has increased substantially, and gives her a miserable sum on which to run the house. She is not entitled to the old age pension because half of his income is being taken into account although she does not receive enough to keep him properly let alone herself. That is the state of the law administered by the Minister's Department. I believe the Supreme Court decision in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Murphy will have farreaching results in many Departments of State and I believe the first result is that  the entitlement of a woman—or a man because many men are old and married to rich women who do not treat them very well—to a pension in the circumstances I have described will be established.
As a result of the Murphy decision the entitlement of a spouse to the old age pension should be based on the income of that spouse and not on the income of the other spouse. I want to know if the Minister has given any serious thought to that and, if he has, what he proposes to do. At first sight this might be thought to be an argument just for the purpose of extending the decision in the Murphy case in order to entitle some people to old age pensions who are not now so entitled. I do not intend it that way. In this decision I see an opportunity of doing away with discrimination against a spouse. I see, in the Murphy decision, an opportunity of not penalising the people who live together as married couples rather than as single couples. When replying I should like the Minister to deal with this in a serious manner.
Mr. Bruton: I, too, welcome the Minister. I should like to ask if he would consider something his predecessor did not find his way to doing something about, that is, to avail of the assistance available to this country from the EEC for the introduction of a scheme for the provision of free milk for schools. As the Minister may be aware, 50 per cent of the cost of the provision of milk or milk products, either at free or at subsidised rates, is available to this country from the EEC. I should have thought that most other Community countries had availed of this scheme, thereby not only assisting their children but also their balance of payments, in that they are in receipt of a net addition of money. Ireland has availed of this scheme to a very limited extent only, in that where a school meals scheme was already in operation, where milk was being  provided already, the Department of Social Welfare used this scheme to reduce their expenditure but did not expand the scheme or indeed pass on to our children any of the benefits that they, as a Department, were obtaining by virtue of the fact that they were participating to that very limited extent in the scheme as it applies to certain city schools.
I made some inquiries at the time the scheme was introduced which indicated to me that there were significant numbers of pupils—somewhere in the region of 4 per cent to 5 per cent; perhaps less in some schools and more in others—who, primarily because of family problems rather than absolute poverty, were coming to school in the morning without having had a breakfast. Obviously this meant that they were unable to concentrate on their lessons throughout the day. It meant also that in many cases, having come to school without breakfast, they did not get anything to eat until perhaps 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon when they eventually went home. If a school milk scheme was implemented—and we all know that milk is a balanced, nutritious food—those children would receive nutrition, putting them at a significant advantage in school, in that they would then be able to concentrate better, in turn deriving more benefit from their lessons.
There are many children who fall behind significantly in school, well behind their intellectual capacity. I would argue that in some of these cases it is because they simply have not had sufficient to eat before going to school, when their blood sugar is at such a low level they are unable to concentrate. It is very disturbing that that should be the case. Any scheme which would have the effect of allowing these children to be properly nourished should be availed of, and should probably be done on its merits anyway. However, when somebody outside this country, namely the EEC, is prepared to pay 50 per cent of the milk costs involved in providing free or subsidised milk to our children, it  is a matter of grave concern that we, as a country, have not seen our way to availing of it. In a year in which very good increases have been given in social welfare benefits it is appropriate that sufficient money be found by the new Minister to provide for the introduction of a schools milk scheme.
I should also like to have some information from the Minister on the position of pensioners. I would ask him to take a special look at the problem of people receiving pensions from the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Security. These pensioners receive their cheques drawn on Northern Ireland banks. There is at present an industrial dispute in the Northern and Ulster Banks, resulting in these pensioners being unable to get any money for the cheques they receive from the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Security, a matter of great seriousness for them. I shall read an excerpt from a letter I received from a constituent of mine. I will not give the name and address of the person concerned. The letter says:
I was getting my retirement pension from Northern Ireland but since 17 December I got the cheques as usual but cannot get them changed anywhere. Out of desperation I thought of you. Could you tell me what to do? I really have two cheques; they are monthly at £63.44 each. I was so happy to get them but now I cannot cash them.
That lady, since the middle of December last—because she cannot cash her cheques —has had nothing on which to live. I estimate that there are approximately 2,000 pensioners resident in the Republic drawing pensions from Northern Ireland. I would urge the Minister to do two things about this problem: firstly, to ensure that, through the health boards, sufficient money is made available to ensure that no Northern Ireland pensioner—those now unable to cash their cheques—is placed in a position of hardship, of having insufficient money on which to live.
 I appeal to the Minister to intervene with the Irish Banks' Standing Committee which represents the banks here and those in Northern Ireland which are in dispute with their employees to ensure that pensioners, such as those in Northern Ireland, no matter what industrial dispute exists, are not deprived of the income they must have in order to survive. It is a matter of great concern that old people should suffer in this way as a result of an industrial dispute. I hope the Minister will be able to ensure by joint agreement with the pension authorities in Britain that where cheques are sent from one authority to clients resident in the other jurisdiction where the banking system, for one reason or another, is not able to provide the money, the Department step in and pay the money with a view to recouping it later.
Mr. Bruton: I appreciate the Chair's indulgence. I should now like to deal with a matter which I regard as being of considerable importance, the decision by the Government not to allow any increase in the rates of unemployment assistance payable to people in the west of Ireland who are on a notional system of assessment. In effect, that amounts to a freezing of farmers' dole which was announced in the budget. There are a number of reasons why that decision is questionable. Very few of the farmers concerned would be in a position to provide the type of evidence in the form of accounts which would be necessary to satisfy the authorities that their income is above or below the qualifying limit. It is not an easy matter to ask them to transfer to an actual system of assessment. The notional system was introduced by the Government because it was more convenient to assess incomes of such farmers on an notional basis rather than on an actual basis. Admittedly, the multiplier used did not keep  pace with inflation but the principle that it should be open to people to have their income assessed on a notional basis, such as small farmers in the west of Ireland, is a sound one. It is odd that, regardless of the circumstances of such people, they will not be paid any increase in their pension simply because they opt to have their means assessed on a notional basis rather than by the provision of actual accounts.
That system of unemployment assistance is justifiable on the grounds that it is a payment to people to live in the west of Ireland. The EEC are at present moving in the direction of paying money to farmers and others who live in remote parts of the Community to encourage them to continue to live there. That is being done on the grounds that if those people were to move to live in central regions of the Community they would cost the Exchequer more money because of the need to provide services and so on than they would cost if they remained in remote areas. The Community are also preparing to give money to such people on the grounds that they are necessary for the regional distribution of population, for an evenly balanced population throughout the Community which is considered a valuable objective. It is felt that people are needed in those areas for the protection of the environment.
It is odd that at a time when the EEC are moving in the direction of direct income supports for farmers living in remote areas our Government, who have been providing such support, should now decide to restrict that aid by freezing the rates of unemployment assistance paid to farmers in the west of Ireland who draw what is known as the farmer's dole. When a change in this scheme was proposed in 1972—the present occupant of the Chair was involved in his capacity as Minister for Social Welfare—a number of Fianna Fáil backbenchers refused to vote with their Government—Deputy Chubb O'Connor was one of those Members. It is odd that we have not heard any voice of condemnation this time from those who were so eloquent  then, if not in words at least in deed, in condemnation of a similar measure. If something had to be done about this scheme I would have thought that the appropriate way to do it was to alter the multiplier to make it more realistically reflect actual incomes. To say to people that, regardless of their circumstances, once they opt for the notional system of assessment they will not get any increase is being indiscriminate in the way this proposal is being approached.
Farmers in the west of Ireland who draw unemployment assistance will have to pay the extra costs brought about by the budget, whether it is for the various commodities which will be subject to an increase in VAT or the other inflationary consequences that will stem from it. Other social welfare beneficiaries will be allowed to recoup those increases by getting 20 or 25 per cent increases in their benefits. That is a decision the Government may well have reason to regret as a most unwise one. It is one which has not been given the publicity it deserved. In fact, a commentator in one of our national newspapers congratulated the Government on giving an increase to farmers living in the west. That commentator was not aware that an increase had not been given, that this social welfare benefit had been singled out to be frozen. That should be explained more fully.
I should like to make inquiries about the eligibility for free television licences and free electricity for pensioners living alone. I understand that extensions were made to this scheme recently but I should like to know if pensioners who are receiving pensions from outside Ireland and have an income of equivalent size will qualify for free electricity and free television licences. The guiding criteria should not be the type of pension a person gets but the actual amount of income. If a person is receiving a pension from the Government of Brazil and comes back to live here and his income from that pension is no greater than the income of an old age pensioner here, he or she should get exactly the same benefit in the form of free  television, free light and free travel, as the Irish pensioner. The Minister should ensure that in all such cases this principle applies.
I raise, finally, a question in relation to the rates of increase in benefit. The giving of a 25 per cent increase to people on long-term benefits is a very wise and creditable move, on which I congratulate the Minister. It is a very good increase. It is to be hoped, however, that the rate of inflation will not overtake this increase during the year. There are some grounds for fear that this may be so. Indeed, the Government's own budget has in some measure contributed to creating a situation in which this is possible. Would the Minister therefore consider later on in the year whether a second increase in social welfare benefits should be considered in the event that the rate of inflation appears to be running at a level as high as the rates of increase already given, so that the intention of the Government to ensure that a real increase in living standards for pensioners is allowed to take effect without being eroded by inflation?
Mr. Cluskey: In the Bill and the Minister's Second Reading speech one thing leaps out of every line and every page and that is the perpetuation by Fianna Fáil as far as social welfare recipients are concerned of the hand-out philosophy. They want to try to stamp on the recipients of social welfare—whether contributory or noncontributory—the idea that it is largesse of the Fianna Fáil Party, something which these people are receiving out of the goodness of the hearts of the Taoiseach and his Ministers. Fianna Fáil have always had the same philosophy regarding social welfare recipients. They want them to believe that it is a hand-out, that they are dependent, not upon the Government of this country, but on a political party for their payments. The whole emphasis in any speech that has been made, and particularly any speech or utterance by the present Minister for Social Welfare, has been designed to reinforce that philosophy pursued by  Fianna Fáil over the years. It would be worth while to look at the proper role of a Department of Social Welfare in a parliamentary democracy. First of all, it should be to continuously and constantly reinforce in people's minds that what they are receiving is as of right. It is their right and they should be beholden to nobody—no Government, no political party—for receiving what is theirs as of right. Also, their role should be not just to give obligatory increases at budget time but in between budgets, and indeed during a period of Government there should be a course of action, a planned programme to try to improve the existing social services available to our people and also to expand those services.
No one would deny that there is a great deal of scope for both improvement and expansion as far as our social services are concerned. A great deal of improvement is desirable in the field of social welfare. It is only fair not to take this budget in isolation, but to look at what has happened in the Department of Social Welfare since June 1977, when the present Government took office and when the present Taoiseach was put in charge of that Department. With one exception regarding availability of telephones, there has been no improvement and no extension in the services which existed there prior to June 1977. Not only has there been no extension or improvement in the services to social welfare recipients, but the Department almost came to a full stop. Casting one's mind back to last September, October, November it was normal, not unusual, for people who had applied for pensions—old age pensions, widows' pensions and so on—to find that a period of seven to eight months had elapsed from the time of their application to the time, if they were fortunate, when they finally came in receipt of that pension. The issue became so commonplace that one of the major points raised during the Cork by-election concerned the number of people in Cork city who were approaching the various candidates in the various parties participating in that election with detailed cases, with dates, of  people who had applied for old age pensions, widows' pensions and so on and periods of months had elapsed before they could get what they were entitled to. Not only had there been no expansion or progress in the Department, but it had deteriorated rapidly over a two to two-and-a-half year period. There is now some indication that at least people's pensions are being paid, not as speedily as one might like, but at least in a somewhat improved manner since last October, November.
I want to compare what happened in that Department over approximately the last three years to what happened in the previous four years. As I said, there has been no expansion of the services, no detailed assessment of the needs of that Department, no plan put forward, no indication given that any serious attempt is to be made to try to expand those services. To give a few instances of what happened, under the whole period of Fianna Fáil Government here the old age pension eligibility age here has never been reduced by one hour, one day, one week, one year. In a four and a half year period of the last administeration the old age pension eligibility age was reduced from 70 to 66 years of age and it was quite clear that, had another budget been introduced by the last administration, it would have been down to 65 years of age, which would have been in line with most European countries.
Under that administration a number of other developments and structural changes took place in the system and I am sure that the present Government did not welcome them and do not enjoy having to tolerate them now. They are stuck with them, because in the area of social welfare once a progressive move is made, no matter how distasteful it may be to the people who inherit the changes, the political reality is that the clock cannot be turned back except in some marginal cases. There is one case where you can turn back the clock and to which I will come back in a few minutes. The children's allowance being made payable to the mother, the supplementary  welfare allowance—although the way it is being administered under the orders of the Minister would leave a lot to be desired, at least the principle is there and it can be improved—allowances for deserted wives, prisoners' dependants and unmarried mothers and pay-related benefits were changes introduced over those four and a half years. It is difficult to recall all of them off the top of one's head but the record and progress are there.
On a number of things there has been no progress although the work was done and was left on the desk of the incoming Minister. An instance is the question of pay-related pensions. A great deal of excellent, detailed work was produced by the staff of the Department. One would have expected that a considerable amount of progress would have been made in respect of pay-related pensions over a three-year period, particularly when all the groundwork was there sitting on the desk of the incoming Minister. Nobody has heard a word about pay-related pensions in that time and no serious attempt has been made to bring that concept into reality. One wonders if it has been brushed aside or whether it is being held in order to be used, not for social advance and improvement but for electoral or political reasons.
The one instance in which the clock has been turned back is the question of the National Committee to Combat Povety. That committee were brought into being in 1974 and were sponsored and set up by the Government of the day. In addition to the national input, proposals were put forward by the Irish delegation to the EEC Social Ministers which would elevate the scheme into an EEC project. Apart from the financial gain of that, it also ensured that in each of the nine member states poverty committees were set up and various projects were undertaken by the national committees in the various states. They benefited from our experience and endeavours here and we could get knowledge from their undertakings, experience and projects. When this committee  were set up there was ony one criteria for membership: that individual members required a reputation in the field of poverty and had to be people of independent mind. No consideration whatsoever was given to what their political allegiance may have been. They were given almost a totally free hand, and by that I mean that they had to submit expenditure over and above a certain figure to the Department for approval. That approval was invariably forthcoming very speedily because it was recognised that any holdup of the work of the committee would be detrimental to their progress.
From the time that the present Taoiseach, the then Minister for Health and Social Welfare, went into that office the relationship between the Department and the committee deteriorated very rapidly. As I said here in my speech on his nomination, to the office of Taoiseach, he impeded the work of that committee in every way possible short of coming into open conflict with them. The only reason he was not prepared to come into conflict with them was that it would damage his personal political career and advancement, but the whole philosophy and purpose of that committee were anathema to the Taoiseach and to his Government. I predicted then, and unfortunately have been proved correct, that at the first possible opportunity the Taoiseach and his Government would undermine seriously the work of that committee. That has been done by a cutback of £140,000 approximately in the Government allocation and in the context of the money available to the committee that is a very serious cutback.
I would like to ask one question of the Minister and the Government with regard to priorities and the concept of what the Department of Social Welfare are about in the whole area of social welfare. What is their priority? I sat here on budget day and I saw the Minister for Finance stand up and make his budget speech. Somewhere in the course of that speech the Minister changed from English to Irish and in the course of speaking in Irish for seven or eight  minutes he announced that the Government were making available to the GAA £100,000 to compensate them for VAT on hurley sticks. I recognise the work of the GAA, who are a great national organisation. Apart from the glory of Croke Park and the bigger matches, they do a considerable amount of work for young boys and girls, boys particularly, throughout the country and a lot of these boys come from deprived families. I know personally some of the people engaged in that work and what time and effort they give to it. Also they give some of their own money, which is spent in the furtherance of that work. Taking all that for granted, I wonder how many members of the GAA, if they were asked which is their priority in a society which has 20 per cent to 25 per cent of its people recognised as living in poverty, would say that their priority would be to leave that £100,000 with the national committee engaged in the work of trying to find ways not only to alleviate poverty but to eradicate it. Would they want that £100,000 to be given to them in order that they could be free from paying VAT on the purchase of hurling sticks? I am confident that if this was put to the members of the GAA in those terms, they would undoubtedly opt for the money being left with the committee to combat poverty. This Government recognised an unfortunate reality, that the Minister, speaking in Irish for seven or eight minutes on budget day and giving £100,000 to the GAA for hurling sticks, would get votes for Fianna Fáil and would reinforce the image of the great national party, the great republicans, the great commitment to our national games. That was the only criterion that counted. Once it gets across to the members of the GAA who are trying to promote our national games where the £100,000 came from, that it was transferred from the Committee to Combat Poverty to pay VAT on hurling sticks, they will feel the same sense of revulsion that I feel for a Government with that type of priority. Once people recognise what was done, why it was done and how it was done, as far as vote catching is concerned, it will be counter-productive.  The budget in its approach to social welfare is totally consistent with the whole political and life's philosophy of the Taoiseach and the Government. They have their values, but a growing number of people, particularly young people, have fortunately a different sense of values.
Deputy McMahon welcomed the Bill and pointed out we had had a milder winter this year and said that he was concerned about a number of questions, one of which was the whole question of home heating in relation to the future development of the free fuel allowance scheme. The Deputy commented on the need for a national free fuel allowance scheme and the fact that my predecessor did not actually complete the work he undertook and into which he put a lot of effort. My predecessor introduced a new principle in that he introduced a change in the scheme and introduced the principle of the voucher. I hope to be able to build on this in going into the review for next autumn. I will undertake a review so that next year's scheme will be suitable and improved. There are of course anomalies because the scheme covers only certain designated areas, and I will be most concerned with this aspect. Any revisions are subject to the limitation of the financial resources, but I would assure the Deputy that we will review the situation, working from the principle established by my predecessor over last winter. Deputy McMahon also referred to the refund scheme for drugs and referred particularly to pensioners on social assistance. In relation to such people I will certainly consider the Deputy' point.
Deputy McMahon suggested that the social welfare increases should come into force within a month. All increases other than the children's allowances will come  in in early April next, that is within a month, presuming that we get this Bill through the Dáil. Deputy McMahon's contribution led to some confusion on Deputy Bermingham's part and I would inform him that all the increases will come in by 7 April, except for the children's allowance which as is normally the case will come in on 1 July. Deputy Bermingham welcomed the increases and mentioned the case of a widow with three children. As an example Deputy Bermingham referred to his mother and the situation which arose in her case, she being a widow with three children. It is to be welcomed that, in this budget, the weekly income of a widow with three children goes up by £9 to £45. In relation to old age pensions Deputy Bermingham raised the question of the qualifying age and it was subsequently taken up by other Deputies. It was suggested that the age be reduced from 66 to 65 years. As Minister for Social Welfare I would be glad in any year to do all the things listed by Deputies and by myself, but we have to make arrangements having regard to the resources available. To reduce the age from 66 to 65 would cost a further £12.8 million. I hope this can be looked at in future budgets.
Deputy Bermingham raised the question of supplementary welfare allowance, as did a number of other Deputies. Deputy Bermingham said that there was a Victorian attitude towards the allowance and suggested that we seem to think that people are not as entitled to this supplementary income as people are to normal incomes. One of the pleasing features of the budget is the fact that people benefiting from supplementary welfare allowances are fully recognised in terms of their right to an income level and their position is more than maintained in present circumstances. This aspect will be monitored as it goes ahead. In relation to the Victorian attitude, our instructions to the health boards, are to be as helpful as possible in the operation of the scheme. I accept that the Deputy would like to see the scheme operated in a better way and I  will give consideration to this. Having been previously tied, as another Deputy mentioned, to the schemes and the home assistance concept, that attitude and concept tend to carry on. I can assure the Deputy and also Deputy Cluskey that our instructions are that this scheme should be operated in a generous way accepting the fact that people in those circumstances are in temporary difficulty and therefore outside normal schemes for a temporary period.
Deputy Bermingham referred to the administration of social welfare and questioned the payment of disability benefits. He also said he could not get an answer to phone calls. If he has any specific cases he can cite to me I will be only too glad to hear of them.
Dr. Woods: Cases other than disability benefit often involve investigation of means. There are usually delays in that instance as is the case with transfers of land and so on. However, I accept the point that there are difficulties. I visited some of the centres, for example, Oisín House, operating the information service to ensure that the people who come in are treated in a cordial and helpful way. I have had meetings with the staff who meet the people and we discussed the delays and the attitude which we want to see in such centres.
Deputy Nolan raised a number of questions and also welcomed the increases. He asked that the widow's contributory pension should be kept in line with the single person's retirement pension. This will be considered in connection with the national income-related pension scheme which is being reviewed and to which I am giving any urgency I can. He also complimented the staff in the Department of Social Welfare, and in that differed from the attitude of other Deputies.
Dr. Woods: Perhaps the Deputy is wise. The staff kept their offices open during a very difficult period and made extra arrangements for the payment of benefits during that time. There are delays but we will do our best with them. In some areas there are no delays.
The postal dispute caused tremendous difficulties for the staff. They had to do a great deal of overtime and made alternative arrangements to get money out to people. For this they were criticised. My predecessor put a lot of effort into ensuring that as far as possible the money went out.
Dr. Woods: Deputy O'Brien stated that he found no social welfare philosophy in the Bill. Deputy Cluskey saw nothing big in the Bill. As far as philosophy is concerned, the first one is a commitment of £90.2 million to people in that sector as a right. It is there for them. It is part of keeping them in touch with developments and an effort to keep ahead of the rate of inflation and the consumer price index in this area. There is a good deal of money philosophy in the first instance. I welcome that and it is important.
Dr. Woods: I will have a discussion with the Deputy anywhere or any time about any of these aspects. There have been numerous structural changes in applying this philosophy. There were 14 changes which improved various aspects of the scheme. For example, blind persons will receive benefits from 18 years of age instead of 21 years of age. These changes are in the Bill and Deputies should be aware of them.
Deputy O'Brien also referred to people dying of cold and to the elderly found dead in their homes. I know of one case which was highlighted in the media. It is unfair in relation to local agencies, both voluntary and health boards, to be critical of the situation. A great deal is done in these cases and it is not always the fault of the Government or the agencies if people do not accept the assistance given. If one goes into the detail of cases one will often find that certain parts of the assistance are accepted but that people value their own privacy and insist on it. There are more to the headlines than reach the newspapers.
As regards the fuel scheme I shall be reviewing it before the autumn. Deputy O'Brien mentioned having to go cap in hand for supplementary welfare. One should not have to do this and I should like to see the allowances there as a right. He also mentioned children's allowances and the increases that occurred during the Coalition period. There are 1.2 million children who benefit under this scheme. I have a table which shows the real increases during the Coalition period. In 1974 the real increase in children's allowances was — 7.4 per cent; in 1975 —15.27 per cent; in 1976 —6.19 per cent; in 1977 —10.46 per cent; in 1978 —7.12 per cent; in 1979 +11.95 per cent. There has now been a further very substantial real increase during the period of Fianna Fáil. We ought to stick to the factual situation when we are talking about the relevant periods.
 Deputy O'Brien also raised the question of the postal dispute and the difficulties in the payment of social welfare during that time. He made an interesting point about the manpower service but he is not aware of what has been done to date. He tried to point out that Labour and Social Welfare are involved in this area of unemployment and that consequently there should be some relationship between the two. The position is that there is now a manpower officer at each of the major employment exchanges and it is the intention to extend this service to all employment exchanges. The idea is good and the Deputy's point is very relevant.
The second point raised by Deputy O'Brien concerned the general question of information and publicity. In this regard there are in the course of preparation some additional booklets which I trust will be of benefit especially to widows and to the elderly. These booklets will give details of all the benefits and the rights for these people, but this will be done by way of a separate booklet for each category instead of having merely the one booklet dealing with all the services. For instance, there will be one booklet in respect of benefits for the elderly, one in respect of benefits for the unmarried mother and so on. We are hoping to have some output soon from this exercise.
In regard to making use of the media to give publicity to the various benefits and rights, all I can say to the Deputy is that we shall do our best. The Deputy spoke about the benefit of the small whiskey so far as old age pensioners are concerned. Without wishing to become involved in the health aspect of that argument. I assure the Deputy that in general my observations would tend to agree with those expressed by him.
Deputy Fitzpatrick raised a number of points and asked whether there may be further increases in October. We will monitor the situation as the year progresses and shall see what may be necessary at that time.
 The same Deputy raised the question of living-alone allowances. As my time is very limited this evening I may have to communicate with him directly on this matter. There are allowances in respect of incapacitated persons but the case of the handicapped person cited by the Deputy may not be coming within the definition of the code. However, we shall examine the position.
Deputy Fitzpatrick raised also the question of old age pensions as they relate to married couples. While he was talking about people who are on assistance, perhaps the best way to deal with the question is, if at all possible, by way of a national income-related pension scheme. I will be pressing on with such a scheme because it would be of great benefit to the people concerned.
Deputy Bruton raised the question of the EEC-subsidised free milk scheme which is operated by local authorities. The scheme is a matter for them and for the schools, but from our point of view we should be happy to recover 50 per cent of the cost where possible. I am aware that some of the schools are not very keen to operate the scheme but I accept the point that if money is available for milk we should make use of that money where possible.
Mr. Bruton: Is the Minister not aware that only urban local authorities have the statutory authority to operate the scheme and that, in addition, local authorities are being constrained this year by the 10 per cent limit in funds with the result that the funds to operate the free milk scheme are not available to them? Consequently any initiative in this regard would have to come from the Department.
Dr. Woods: On the question of smallholders' assistance, there is not any need for accounts. They are not required in respect of those whose valuations are more than £20. For the purposes of social welfare the returns from the marts and creameries are sufficient for such people. The increased rates will apply to those on a factual basis and there will not be any difficulty for people transferring to factual assessment.
Deputy Cluskey talked about the hand-out situation and referred to the system of supplementary welfare allowances. He had a good deal to say about the Poverty Committee and referred in this context to a cutback of £140,000 in the estimate. I do not think there is a cutback of that amount. That figure would be against what was sought and in effect the rate is being maintained at last year's level. Like other bodies, this committee sought considerable additional funds, but I assure the Deputy that the funds are being retained at last year's level.
The same Deputy referred also to the GAA vis-à-vis the Poverty Committee and put one against the other, so to speak. That is really putting the children and sport against the committee. The Deputy said that we will get our answer in the ballot box next time around. It is unworthy of Deputy Cluskey to single out children in relation to this measure of £100,000.
Dr. Woods: The budget has gone a long way towards meeting the needs of the moment. Obviously, there are other measures which Deputies on both sides would like to see being introduced by way of improvement and I assure the  House that I shall be very keen to effect any such improvements in future where possible.
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