Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill, 1980: Second Stage .

Wednesday, 29 October 1980

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 323 No. 6

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Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  : I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.” The purpose of this Bill is to consolidate into a single measure the enactments governing the social welfare schemes administered by my Department. The Bill embraces the live provisions of more than 60 Acts spanning over 70 years. The provisions of subsidiary legislation—statutory instruments and statutory rules and orders—which amend or modify the statute law have been included where appropriate.

Being solely a consolidation measure, the Bill cannot effect any change in the law as it stands at present and the Attorney General has issued a certificate to the effect that the Bill conforms with the Standing Orders of this House and does not promote any new law.

A brief general explanatory memorandum has been issued with the Bill. In addition, a memorandum prepared by the Attorney General has been prefixed to the Bill. This memorandum, which is required by Standing Order No. 107, shows the Acts which it is proposed to repeal and the provisions of the Bill in which the provisions of those Acts are [1028] reproduced.

As Deputies are aware, consolidation permits the grouping together, in a logical and orderly fashion, of the live provisions of existing legislation dealing with each topic. Consolidation also includes the rewording of old and archaic constructions and the repeal of those provisions which in the course of time have become obsolete and no longer have any validity.

When this Bill was introduced on 16 October reference was made to the rapidity with which the first Consolidation Bill introduced in 1976 was overtaken by subsequent legislation. The measure now under consideration has been restyled so that variables such as rates of benefit and pensions, which are revised frequently, are now contained in Schedules. Deputies will recall that in this year's Social Welfare Act the rates of assistance payments were provided in a new assistance schedule to parallel the existing insurance schedule. In the Consolidation Bill the process has been completed and the rates of occupational injuries benefit payments as well as “wet-time” contribution and benefit rates are also provided in schedules.

The task of removing the variables from the body of the Bill required extensive redrafting and involved detailed and lengthy examination of the adaptations made to ensure that no accidental changes in the law occurred. As a consequence of these adaptations, it will be possible in future to provide for changes in rates of payment by amending the Schedules without making any changes in the body of the text.

The Bill contains 313 sections and five Schedules containing substantive provisions. Its size alone illustrates the scope and the complexity of the developing social welfare system. The Bill embraces the scheme of social insurance provided by the Social Welfare Act, 1952, and subsequent Acts. It also covers schemes of social assistance provided by those Acts and the Old Age Pensions Acts, the Unemployment Assistance Acts, the [1029] Widows' and Orphans' Pensions Acts and the Social Welfare (Supplementary Welfare Allowances) Acts. The Bill also contains the provisions relating to the children's allowance scheme, the intermittent unemployment or wet-time insurance scheme and the school meals and fuel schemes. In addition, it deals with the administration of the various insurance and assistance schemes as well as the decisions and appeals procedures, financing, legal proceedings and so on. It was proposed when the 1976 Bill was debated to issue the consolidated legislation in a loose-leaf form. While the reliance now placed on schedules makes this requirement less compelling, I feel that the suggestion was worthwhile and it is something I will be considering in due course. The task of consolidation was undertaken because of the continuing expansion of the social welfare system. The volume of legislation dealing with the various social welfare schemes is now so extensive and complex that it is extremely difficult, and time-consuming, to ascertain and collate the provisions relating to any particular scheme. The Consolidation Bill will streamline all of this law and make for ease of access and greater clarity and, ultimately, for the most effective and efficient development of the total system.

Not only will this Bill be of great benefit to the officials of my Department, but I know it will also be an invaluable aid to Deputies, social and community workers and other persons and organisations involved in advising and assisting the public on social welfare matters.

Following its Second Reading here I will be seeking the permission of the House to have this Bill referred to the Standing Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills. I hope that the Committee will find it possible to deal speedily with the Bill so that it may be enacted before any further amending legislation is introduced. I can assure the members of the Committee of my fullest co-operation and that of my Department in their work.

I have pleasure in commending this [1030] Bill to the House.

Dr. FitzGerald: Information on Garrett Fitzgerald  Zoom on Garrett Fitzgerald  : As Deputy Boland remarked on our behalf when this matter was first raised in the House by way of motion there has been a good deal of delay since this Consolidation Bill was first prepared. Some justification for this has now been given by the Minister in terms of the way in which current and variable material has been extracted and put into schedules which can then be amended more easily. Certainly, as a form of presentation, it is much to be preferred to what would otherwise have been the case.

What must concern anyone looking at this Consolidation Bill is simply its size and complexity. We are dealing in this Bill with ways in which underprivileged people in our community are helped with their difficulties by the rest of the community through the intermediacy of the State and its agencies. Basically this Bill is a recital of the rights of the underprivileged. That it should be, when consolidated, so huge in size and so complex in its verbiage that no underprivileged person could reasonably be expected to know his or her rights is a reflection on the way in which our social welfare system has grown up in a very higgledy-piggledy fashion. For example, I cannot recall the number of different means tests we have. I remember a figure, whether accurate or not, being mentioned at one stage by somebody. This Bill simply consolidates what is here already. It is clear from its size that our social welfare code needs to be reformed as well as consolidated. I accept that the first step to reform is consolidation. At least it will be a lot easier to reform it now, all in one piece, after this effort than would have been the case up to now with the many complex provisions in different Acts that have to be considered.

The onus rests on us in this House to do two things and to do them fairly speedily. Apart from passing this Consolidation Bill, examining it carefully in accordance with the custom of the House to ensure that it does what it says it does—consolidates the law and no [1031] more—we must attempt to reform the code so as to simplify it and to eliminate from it the many anomalies arising not merely in areas like means tests and elsewhere, which cumulatively add up to a considerable amount of what one could only describe as distributive injustice as between different groups. No doubt, in respect of these different means tests, these different provisions, each had their rationale at the time they originated.

I do not think anybody looking at the sum total of our social welfare legislation could really feel that what we have got reflects a balanced assessment of the relative needs of different groups. Therefore, there is a need for reform.

Secondly, there is a need for simplification. Because no amount of simplification would really make the rights of the underprivileged readily accessible to them individually, through their own knowledge, there is a need to provide far more assistance to them in securing their rights. This is something we have never succeeded in doing. It remains the case today that, despite the improvements that have taken place in the approach to social welfare among the officials who are involved in administering the various codes, nonetheless the code is administered in individual instances harshly and in a manner which would not be the case perhaps if the same officials were dealing with people in a different—to use an old-fashioned word—station in life. It is necessary that we do much more than we have done to ensure that people get their rights. There is no doubt that the State saves millions because people do not know their rights. The burden placed on Members of this House and of the other House in seeking to ensure that people do get their rights—given the complexity of the legislation we are here consolidating—itself distracts us from what should be our primary task.

It is doubtful as to whether we—almost all of us amateurs in this area—are the best qualified to offer assistance to people in getting their rights. We need a situation in which the underprivileged can [1032] turn to someone whose duty it is to get for them what they are entitled to and whose duty is not to protect the Exchequer against legitimate demands of these groups. I do not think that we have achieved that here. We have much to do before we can be satisfied with the administration of the code as here consolidated. That feeling must be general in this House. This, therefore, can be seen only as a first technical step in the process of reform, simplification and the provision of new means of access to their rights for the people whom the Acts listed here are intended to help and make provision for.

In reading through the list of Acts which are consolidated we cannot but be impressed by the way in which over the years, before and after the foundation of the State, there has been a growing recognition by successive Governments, starting with the Lloyd George Government in 1908 and successive native Governments, of the need to make adequate provision for the various social needs. Yet, even today, one continually comes across individual cases which fall through the net and are not catered for by this very complex system which we have built up, a system which is not integrated with the income tax system but which, together with the income tax system, represents an attempt to redistribute wealth in an equitable way. Because they are not integrated and they underlap, they do not, in fact, have this effect but leave many people at low level of income in a position where they can gain no benefit from income tax concessions, because their income is too low for income tax, nor can they obtain benefit from social welfare because they are in employment. In at least some cases, this leads to the anomaly where people who are unemployed may even be better off than people who are at work, an anomaly which we did our best to alleviate and remove when in Government on 21 June 1976 but which remains in various forms today and which is a blot on the system.

Until such time as this consolidated Act can be itself brought together with and consolidated with income tax legislation into a single system for redistribution [1033] of wealth, without the gap in the middle and without the anomalies which mar it, we cannot rest content with our work. That leaves on one side completely the issue, which is not relevant to this debate, of the adequacy of the provisions made, which I cannot go into because it is not my job to do it here. So much remains to be done. This can only be seen as a starting point, a basis from which we can proceed along this road. I hope there does exist in the House and in the country a willingness to proceed along this road and to ensure that anomalies and injustices which persist and gaps which continue to mar our system of social welfare, will be eliminated, using this consolidated Act as the basis for this reforming activity.

I wish to make one technical point. The Minister referred to a memorandum prepared by the Attorney General prefixed to the Bill. May I take it that what he means is the list of earlier enactments set beside the prefix to this Bill in a kind of concordance ... I see nothing which could be described as a memorandum. What I see is a schedule, but I take it that this, in fact, is what he has referred to. It is very useful, indeed, to have the various earlier Acts listed but there is no clear indication as to where they find themselves in this Bill or where they have been repealed or where they have become obsolete. As there is no text other than the reference on the front page, to call it a memorandum may mislead people who might look for the Attorney General's memorandum without actually seeing it. However, I may be using the word “memorandum” in a different sense from the sense in which the Minister or his officials use it.

We certainly shall co-operate in getting this consolidated measure through as quickly as possible. Whether the time scale suggested by the Minister, which would require this to be done by Christmas, is feasible or not I do not know, because I lack experience on the consolidation of Bills. The sheer immensity of the volume would intimidate me if I had to tackle it, but I am sure that with the skilled guidance of the officials of the Minister's Department it will be possible [1034] to proceed at a fair speed through this consolidated legislation. We shall do our best to co-operate in getting it on the Statute Book as soon as possible in the hope that it will provide the basis for further serious reforms of the system and the basis for an attempt to ensure that those who have rights—and they are rights, they are not charity—under these Acts become aware of them and can be made aware of them easily and are encouraged to seek them when they are entitled to them and that the present system, which in a sense seems designed primarily to protect the public purse rather than assist those in need, will be reformed in the manner in which all of us in the carrying out of our duties as TDs with regard to our constituents would like to see happen.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  : This new Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill is to be welcomed in that it attempts to update our present patchwork of social welfare Acts into one more comprehensive piece of legislation. Our present system is a patchwork of 64 parliamentary Acts, which date back to British rule. There is a staggeringly complex muddle, spanning over 200 pages of legislation. The result of all this has been a confusing and bureaucratic system of benefits which are the least progressive and comprehensive of all the countries in the European Community. Our thinking on social welfare benefits reflects the historical evolution of that system, which is a reluctant, half-hearted State taking over various services which were previously financed by charity and administered on a voluntary basis. This reluctant, piecemeal approach to social welfare is best exemplified in the present administration of our social welfare system.

Social welfare is a social right and social welfare recipients must be afforded the dignity and respect which they deserve. They are also entitled to services which are smoothly and efficiently administered. The main problem in this area is the complete lack of information available to social welfare recipients on all the benefits to which they are entitled. The result has been a total confusion among social welfare recipients concerning [1035] who is entitled to what. This new Bill attempts to dispel this confusion but, again, it is essentially complex and confusing itself. Those most in need are at a disadvantage in regard to being able to understand this legislation. I find it very difficult to understand what social welfare recipients are entitled to in many cases, so one can imagine how much harder deprived people will find it.

This new Bill will have little real impact unless social welfare recipients receive much more adequate information on their entitlements. It is not enough for the Department to say that they provide full information on request. The Department should be more actively involved in informing people of their entitlements through television, radio and the press and there should be a general simplified information leaflet available in the Department. The Department handle over 40,000 inquiries each month and these are handled by 56 people employed there. This is inadequate and more people should be employed. This would be a positive approach towards informing people of their rights and such a policy is crucial to the whole concept of welfare as a social right. The system is not operating in the interests of social welfare recipients. I do not blame the personnel in the Department for this. Many errors occur where people are claiming benefits because the system is so complex and is not easily explained. We should have a commitment to massive reform of the system and there should be a rights charter for social welfare recipients. Social welfare recipients should receive full information, prompt delivery of payments, have an appropriate appeals system, receive courteous treatment and have a basic standard of living. These are the priority areas. We should adopt a positive policy of discrimination in favour of these people. Social welfare is a right and recipients should be afforded the dignity and respect they deserve.

I welcome this Bill in its attempt to update the system but it will be of little avail unless simplified information about its operation is provided to the public. I perused the documents at present available [1036] to the public and I must admit that they are hard to understand. The public do not understand about the variations in the social welfare benefit year nor about the number of contributions which would qualify them for benefit. When they are told that they have insufficient contributions they get no explanation of what would entitle them to get benefit. This information should be available in a simplified form by means of leaflets in the Department. I have no idea how the means test for various benefits operates nor am I sure do other Members of the House. I have tried to get this information from the Department to no avail. The information should be available directly to the public through information centres set up in the Department.

This Bill is very nice in that it attempts to update and organise a patchwork complex of social welfare legislation. The Minister said that it will be of great benefit and of invaluable aid to Deputies, social and community workers and other persons involved in advising the public on social welfare matters. That is an overstatement of what this attempts to do. It does not provide the information in a simple form that will entitle a person to know his entitlements. It will be inadequate unless it is accompanied by more information. This could be done at no great cost to the Department. In fact it would ease the tremendous burden on this Department. I understand their problem. They are constantly being phoned and written to in relation to benefits. If the Department operated a more comprehensive information service the work in the Department would be greatly reduced and everyone would benefit. I appeal to the Minister to give priority to this area as it would be in the interests of everybody.

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Mr. Moore): Information on Seán Moore  Zoom on Seán Moore  : It would be a pity to let the Bill pass without a welcome from us. I compliment the Minister on this legislation. The Minister said that when this Bill was introduced on 6 October reference was made to the rapidity with which the first consolidation Bill introduced in 1976 was overtaken by subsequent [1037] legislation. That is a tribute to successive Governments who have given thought to social welfare problems and have introduced legislation to better the less well-off people. While we often criticise the system it is fairly accurate. It is not perfect, but by taking such actions now we can perfect it so that any person in need can receive benefits. We should not consider that this is a benevolent State doling out help; we should show that the State is not unaware of the needs of the people. Social welfare is a distribution of national wealth as a right to people in need. The State acts wisely by ensuring that we have a good social welfare system. The State should recognise the dignity of the person and maintain that dignity. This attitude would encourage a better community than if social welfare was considered just as a State expense. Most of the people who receive benefit have created the wealth. We will have a far more humane social welfare system if we look at it in that light.

In future legislation we will have to look at the need of long-staying patients in hospitals. Because people now live longer we will have a greater aged population. Many of them will be in long-stay institutions or homes if we do not ensure that they can be maintained at home. When the Minister is planning to improve the social welfare code I hope he will bear this in mind. The young people also have their social welfare needs. We must expand the system so that old people can be maintained at home—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  : The Deputy is now getting into the field of future legislation and we cannot do that now.

Mr. Moore: Information on Seán Moore  Zoom on Seán Moore  : I am trying to help the Minister.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  : The Deputy can do that at some future stage.

Mr. Moore: Information on Seán Moore  Zoom on Seán Moore  : I put it to the Minister that this is a big aspect of future planning needs. Deputy O'Connell said that it is hard to understand some of the social welfare Acts. Most active Deputies, [1038] including Deputy O'Connell, will have a fairly good grasp of the whole thing. I admit that if we had a simplified booklet issued by the Department people would be able to learn of their entitlements rather than have to approach politicians. The system should be simple so that people can ascertain what they are entitled to. I wish the Minister well and I should like to compliment him on introducing this necessary piece of legislation.

Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  : I welcome the comments of Deputies in relation to this consolidation Bill. Deputy FitzGerald commented about the delay over the years in getting this measure through the House. I am sure all Members are aware of the difficulty and complexity of this task of consolidation. An effort was made on two previous occasions to deal with the matter, the most recent of which was delayed by the introduction of the pay-related social insurance scheme which created a further series of amendments to be built into the consolidation measure. There were some 250 amendments, and that is why we decided to introduce a new Bill rather than try to modify the one which was before the House previously. As Deputy FitzGerald stated, the necessary legislation is complex and big. It is not intended that an underprivileged person should have to deal in detail with such legislation. Deputy O'Connell referred to this and suggested that more information on the schemes available was desirable. I shall deal with that point later. This measure brings all the existing legislation into one comprehensive document, and obviously that will prove of benefit to those anxious to study social welfare legislation and its application.

I agree with Deputy FitzGerald that there is need for reform in the whole code of social welfare legislation. I also agree that the conditions in relation to means tests should be simplified. One of the best ways of doing so is not to have any. In this respect the benefit schemes flow more smoothly. With that in mind I have been working on a new national income-related pension scheme which will be a benefit scheme. This will eliminate a big [1039] number of means tests. That is one of the best ways of attacking means tests. That measure, which has involved a great deal of work and consideration, should prove of great benefit to our people. I hope to be in a position to introduce a White Paper on the subject shortly.

The Bill before the House will assist in identifying anomalies. I agree with what Deputy FitzGerald said in relation to social welfare recipients having a right to whatever benefits or assistance which applies to them and I accept what he said about this Bill being an important starting point. It is important because if we do not get this through now we will have to go back and start again next year and, because of further legislation, we may have more delay.

Deputy FitzGerald raised a technical point about the memorandum. He referred to the fact that the front page of the memorandum merely cited the enactments proposed to be repealed. I should like to point out to the Deputy that it is called a memorandum because it is required by Standing Orders to be so called. I accept that in the general sense of a memorandum it is not what one usually associates with one. Standing Order No. 107 states:

(3) Every Consolidation Bill shall have prefixed to it a Memorandum prepared by the Attorney General in which shall be specified the enactments repealed by the Bill, the sections of the Bill in which the repealed enactments are reproduced, together with the remarks of the Attorney General on any textual amendments made.

The title “Memorandum” is included because Standing Orders require that. I am sure the Deputy appreciates that that is a technical point.

Dr. FitzGerald: Information on Garrett Fitzgerald  Zoom on Garrett Fitzgerald  : A few words of explanation at the top of the page might have made the position clearer. It is not an important point.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  : I agree with Deputy O'Connell that as much information as possible should be made available. During [1040] the year we took several steps to improve the information available on social welfare, assistance and benefit schemes. The Deputy spoke of the need to make greater use of the media and I should like to tell him that extensive advertisements of any changes in our schemes are placed in newspapers. There is a general difficulty in relation to information. No matter how simple the information is, unless there is somebody to help to get that information across it is impossible to do so. It is in this regard that voluntary groups, social and community workers have a vital part to play. A great deal of information is got across through those channels. With the planned reorganisation of the National Social Services Council, I hope to strengthen the back-up of such voluntary workers at community level to ensure that the job of giving information is done more effectively.

Deputy O'Connell spoke about the different benefit years for men and women. I am happy to be able to tell the Deputy that they will be the same from January. That anomaly will go from 1 January and both will be working on the calendar year from that time. In terms of bringing all the legislation together this measure will be invaluable and in terms of communicating the information to people it is a help, but that will have to be dealt with later. The method of calculating means is set out comprehensively in the Bill.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  : Would it be possible to simplify that for applicants?

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  : I will take that suggestion into consideration. It may be possible to extract some of this information for Deputies to ensure that they have it in a convenient form.

Deputy Moore welcomed the consolidation measure and referred to the question of the dignity of the individuals concerned. We all subscribe to that. The Deputy felt it was desirable that people should not have to go to politicians to have benefits explained to them. In regard to what I have said already I think it will always be necessary for some people to go to community workers, social [1041] welfare workers and perhaps even politicians to have some aspects of the provisions explained to them because the schemes are so vast and complex and because in some instances comprehension fades a little as time goes on. Nevertheless the spirit of what the Deputy says is one I share.

In conclusion I thank Deputies for their contributions and particularly for the welcome they have given to this consolidation Bill and for their promise to assist the Bill in going through as quickly as possible. We all appreciate that if this cannot be done the Bill will go back into another cycle. I very much appreciate the promised co-operation.

Question put and agreed to.

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