Tuesday, 18 November 1980
Dáil Eireann Debate
The purpose of this Bill is to provide for a double week's payment in December 1980 in weekly social welfare payments to long-term recipients. It is the Government's policy to improve and extend whenever possible social welfare schemes and payments.
For example, recently it has been my privilege, as Minister for Social Welfare, to improve the winter fuel scheme and to extend it nationwide and also to remove some of the restrictions on the free travel facilities for old people. We are particularly concerned to ensure that long-term social welfare recipients — those who are affected by advancing years, chronic ill-health or the exceptional pressures of widowhood — can meet the additional expenses which affect us all at this time of year. Accordingly, I am very pleased that the Government, in the context of the Second National Understanding for Economic and Social Development,  undertook to provide these additional payments this year.
I should also like to mention, although it is not strictly relevant to this Bill, that a double week's payment is also being provided in the case of persons in receipt of disabled person's maintenance allowance, infectious diseases maintenance allowance, blind welfare allowance and domiciliary care allowance for handicapped children, all of which are administered by the Department of Health.
The categories who, under this Bill, are being given the extra week's payment are persons receiving old age pension, contributory and non-contributory, blind pension, widow's and orphans' pensions, contributory and non-contributory, retirement pension, invalidity pension, deserted wife's benefit and allowance, social assistance allowances for unmarried mothers, prisoners' wives and single women, and occupational injuries disablement pension and death benefit by way of pension.
Apart from occupational injuries benefit payments, the double payment will be made at post offices on the appropriate day of payment of pensions and allowances in the second week of December 1980. Old age, blind, widows' and orphans' pensioners will be due payment on Friday, December 12, the other categories on Thursday, December 11.
The additional sum to be paid will be equal to the face value of the weekly pension or allowance order and will include all increases in respect of adult and child dependants and any supplements which form part of the regular weekly payment. Certain long-term recipients of occupational injuries benefit by way of pension are paid by cheque monthly in advance. These will be issued with cheques for December at the equivalent of five weeks payment instead of four.
The numbers of payees who will benefit as a result of this Bill total 345,000. These are made up of 196,000 old age and blind pensioners, 81,000 widows, 1,000 orphans, 32,000 retirement pensioners, 16,000 invalidity pensioners, 6,000 deserted wives, 8,000 social assistance  recipients and 5,000 occupational injuries pensioners.
In addition, the increase payable in respect of a further 117,000 persons will also be doubled for that week. These are 50,000 adult dependants, 3,000 prescribed relatives and 64,000 child dependants. The overall total of persons covered by the extra payment will therefore be 462,000.
Mr. Boland: On behalf of my party I welcome the provisions in this Bill which seek to give effect to part of the second national understanding whereby persons in receipt of long-term social welfare benefits and assistance will be given an additional week's payment during the Christmas period. This is a worthwhile move and, I suggest, one that should not be implemented in the form of a Bill which will apply only to the end of 1980.
I should have thought that once the principle of paying additional moneys at Christmas to pensioners and social welfare recipients had been established, it would be on a permanent basis. This legislation, rather than just authorising the Minister to make payments in respect of the December 1980 period, should authorise him and his successors to make a second week's payment available every Christmas from now on.
I fear that under the terms of a further understanding, or in the absence of a national understanding, this provision might not recur. This legislation is an indication on the part of all the partners to the national understanding that there is a need for social welfare recipients, especially elderly people, to have additional money to tide them over the Christmas period. Bearing all this in mind, it would have been better if this had been enshrined in legislation on a permanent basis. If, in future, times are hard or a national understanding is not achieved, this legislation might not be  reintroduced and therefore it would not take effect in any other year. This would be regrettable and would probably have the effect of making long-term social welfare recipients and pensioners resentful that they had been paid a double week one year and not in subsequent years. I would like the Minister to explain why this Bill applies only to this year.
I accept the Bill does not deal specifically with the payment of certain allowances which are referred to in the Minister's statement. I take it that these allowances will be funded from the general Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare and I assume we will be discussing a Supplementary Estimate to give effect to those provisions before Christmas. In my view, the Minister has not been fair in his recent comments in relation to having half-yearly reviews of payments to social welfare recipients and his suggestion that the present Government introduced that situation last year. It is well known that when the last Government were in office and inflation was at a certain level, there were twice yearly reviews of Social Welfare payments.
Mr. Boland: The Minister is quoted in the press as having suggested that this was the first time this had been done, but that is not correct. I suggest that when inflation is at the levels we see today and when the cost of living is producing hardship for those in receipt of reasonable incomes, it should be an acceptable principle that the level of payments to social welfare recipients would be kept at least in line with increases in the cost of living. That is not unreasonable——
Mr. Boland: I thought one of the reasons for introducing this Bill was to give social welfare recipients additional payments at Christmas time because of the  high cost of living. I suggest that these people should be given additional payments to keep the real value of their payments in line with the cost of living. I am not suggesting any more than was contained in the Fianna Fáil manifesto of 1977.
Mr. Boland: ——because I am sure we will have an opportunity to do that before Christmas. This is one of the Government's attempts at keeping social welfare payments in line with the cost of living. I do not think this measure together with budgetary increases would have had the effect over the last few years of keeping social welfare payments in real terms in line with the cost of living.
I suggest that, rather than have the option situation or a situation where in any one year a particular Minister for Finance or Minister for social Welfare can represent himself or be regarded as a marvellous fellow because he gave a particular percentage increase as opposed to what his predecessor had given, the House should accept that there must be a provision where social welfare payments to long-term recipients move in line with the cost of living. If this Bill is a small move in that direction, it is to be welcomed but I am worried because it applies only to Christmas 1980. It should have been enshrined in this legislation as a permanent measure.
In fairness to social welfare recipients this point should be raised: on the last three or four occasions it was necessary to issue new books to social welfare recipients, there were numerous complaints, unrest and dismay on the part not only of the recipients but of those involved in voluntary organisations who worked with the elderly and the disadvantaged. It appears that, whether the fault lies with  the Department of Social Welfare, the Department of the Public Service, who did not provide sufficient staff, or the Department of Posts and Telegraphs for their inability to deliver letters at the rate at which our Victorian grandfathers——
Mr. Boland: I am afraid that if the Minister represents himself as Santa Claus, between himself and the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Deputy Reynolds, the additional payments may arrive in time for the New Year. That is not much good to somebody looking for extra money for Christmas. The Minister said old age, blind, widows and orphans pensions will be due for payment on Friday, 12 December and the other categories on Thursday, 11 December. He also said that recipients of “occupational injuries benefit by way of pension are paid by cheque monthly in advance. These will be issued with cheques for December at the equivalent of five weeks' payment instead of four”. I am delighted with that but I want an assurance that these people will get the money they are supposed to get to tide them over the Christmas period in time to spend it during Christmas 1980.
Past experience can only lead us to suspect that there may be a considerable number of pensioners who will not receive this extra money before Christmas. The Minister has not explained what the procedure is to be; whether it will be by way of a simple notification to post offices to pay two weeks payment on foot of the December 12 chit or whether his Department are to issue automatically five weeks payment in respect of the ordinary December monthly payment. This is very important because, having regard to the delays that can occure, the issuing of additional chits could result, because of delays, in the money not being paid in time for Christmas. During the past couple of years such delays were very marked. This situation arose not  only because of the postal dispute and the continued effects of that dispute but also because of a shortage of staff in the Department due to a lack of authorisation on the part of the Department of the Public Service in that regard.
Since the partners to the national understanding have said that social welfare recipients should receive additional money to help them at Christmas time, it is our duty to ensure that that extra money reaches them in time for spending for Christmas. One cannot think of anything worse than Santa Claus arriving after Christmas.
Again, I welcome the provisions of the Bill though I would have preferred them to have been enshrined in permanent legislation rather than on a once-off basis. It is only reasonable to point out that there has been a high rate of failure in having money reach eligible persons in time in the recent past. In these circumstances the Minister should be in a position to assure us that there will not be any such delay on this occasion. The easiest way of dealing with the provision would be to notify the paying agencies to pay a double week's money on foot of the chit in question. The Minister has not dealt with that point but I suggest that the method I am putting forward would be the neatest and perhaps the best administrative way of having this money paid. I hope that at an early stage this provision will become a permanent part of the social welfare code.
Dr. O'Connell: I, too, wish to commend the Minister for bringing in this Bill. It is a measure that we welcome very much because it represents a gesture, albeit a small one, towards the weaker section of our community. It is important that in the context of any national wage understanding, provision is made for social welfare recipients.
In common with Deputy Boland, I should like to see this provision being enshrined as a permanent part of legislation,  being brought in for each year as happens in Britain. If we could afford that it would be a marvellous gesture towards the less-well off sections.
A point that my party have asked me to bring to the attention of the House is that quite a number of people who will be on long-term benefits will be deprived of this special payment. This arises from the stipulation of payment being in respect only of the week commencing 12 December. I understand that the trade union movement have been in contact with the Department in this regard because, within the terms of the national understanding, anyone who is a long-term recipient in December should qualify. There was no reference to 12 December. Though the Minister wishes to have the Bill passed today, I would ask him to postpone it for 24 hours so that the ICTU might be consulted with a view to having this point clarified. Also, persons due to retire in the latter weeks of December will not qualify for the extra payment.
Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Mr. Moore): I, too, commend the Minister for bringing in this provision. The Bill indicates that even in times of recession the Government have their priorities right and are doing a little extra to help the weaker sections. However, in saying that I am not being complacent because I should like to see much more being done for the weaker sections.
In our society there is a growing evidence of the strongest sections using their strength in order to have their various demands met. Their demands are often backed either by very strong action or by threats of such action. At times one is inclined to despair because of these trends and is led to ask the question of whether we are building a society in which the weaker sections must suffer because of the ability of the stronger sections to impose their will on us. It must cause each of us some concern to think that the blind or the old or some other such group may be deprived in some way because of the approach of the stronger sections. But I am glad that the weaker sections are in a position to say that the  Government are the voice to speak for them.
This Bill will have the effect of helping the weaker sections during the Christmas period. Deputy Boland referred to Santa Claus. It would be my hope that we could have a visit from Santa Claus every week so far as social welfare recipients are concerned but that is not possible. However, the Bill is an indication of the good intention of the Government so far as these people are concerned. I am glad that the Opposition speakers have seen fit to commend the Minister for bringing in the Bill.
Mr. Ahern: This Bill will be the means of bringing considerable relief to social welfare recipients at Christmas time. While not wishing to delay the House it may be only fair to reflect on a number of improvements that have been made in this area during the year. There were the large percentage increases and the various amendments in social welfare payments by way of the budget and now there is to be this double week's payment.
This extra payment is to be made on foot of the production of the relevant document and I cannot foresee circumstances in which there will be any delay in payment. On the last occasion any delay that arose was minimal but I understand that steps are being taken to ensure that there will be no delay on this occasion. Therefore, I do not think there are any grounds for the anxiety expressed by Deputy Boland.
Looking at the list of social welfare recipients, both short-term and long-term, who come within the ambit of this Bill, one realises the considerable progress that has been made in the area of social welfare down through the years by successive Governments. I note that there is to be consolidating legislation in respect of social welfare. That will give us an opportunity of clarifying the whole situation in so far as this area is concerned. I know the Minister is deeply concerned and has at all times said that  his priority is for the less priviliged members of the community. The Government have, since 1977, pledged to protect the needy——
Mr. Ahern: The fact that they pledged themselves to assist the needy is not getting away from the Bill, because that is what the Bill is trying to do. I congratulate the Minister on this legislation and perhaps in future the payment will be on an annual basis. It is only fair to add that it was this Government, the first Government of the State to do so, which allowed matters, other than pay and conditions, to form part of the national understanding. The fact that we are discussing it today and that it has been praised on all sides is a tribute to the Government's approach to the national understanding.
Mr. Enright: This is a Bill that has all-party agreement with the exception of one matter, the date, 12 December. Apart from that, there is all-party agreement. The Minister spoke about improvements which have been made, some of which could be even further extended. The Minister deals here with the position in regard to the free fuel scheme. Would the Minister say if there will be any extensions made in this matter under the Bill? From my reading the Minister does not intend increasing the number of people to which free fuel will be given. Perhaps the Minister would comment on this. It is important that this should be included in the Bill. While the Minister has increased the money value in regard to the free fuel scheme——
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Chair feels we should not debate the free fuel scheme on this Bill. I know the Minister mentioned it in passing and the Deputy has done the same but we should get away from it; the Bill has nothing to do with free fuel.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: It is a minor Bill dealing with one specific point and we will have to keep to that. There will be other opportunities to deal with the free fuel scheme and all the other schemes.
Mr. Enright: I do not wish to be difficult and I do not wish to argue. The provisions in the Bill are minor but they are of importance. The Minister should have extended this to include the free fuel scheme. In regard to the free fuel scheme, there has been a change whereby people are receiving vouchers. I ask the Minister to reconsider the situation because elderly people are having problems in carrying briquettes and coal from shops——
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Chair is asking the Deputy to get away from that matter. If he is allowed to continue, every other Deputy could deal with every item under the social welfare code and ask that they should all be doubled. We are only dealing with one specific matter.
Mr. Enright: The Minister should refer to the supply of fuel, where possible, because it has proved unsatisfactory for a lot of elderly people. These payments are welcome. With regard to old age pensions and social welfare payments, the delays in processing claims and making  the payments need to be considered also. However, I welcome the Bill.
Mr. Leyden: I wish to compliment the Minister and the Government on this very useful legislation. It is a tremendous boost to the many recipients who will be getting a double pension for the week commencing 12 December 1980. It is badly needed by those people who are on social welfare. It is a humane gesture by the Government. Fianna Faéil will be regarded as the real socialist party of Ireland because we have always been anxious to bring in innovations to help the elderly, the disabled and the widows. People on social welfare generally have always benefited under a Fianna Faéil Government more than under any other Government in the history of the State——
Mr. Leyden: I am well aware of the difficulties many people on social welfare have and the doubling of the social welfare for the week beginning 12 December is something which I welcome. I know that the Minister, the Government and the Taoiseach are very anxious to increase further the social welfare payments right throughout the year. I feel confident that in the coming budget there will be further increases in the social welfare code. I am referring specifically to the increase here——
Mr. Leyden: The increases which have been proposed. In fairness, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I do not want to dispute it with you but I wonder are you restricting us a bit too much on this legislation?
Mr. Leyden: It is not a very long Bill and if I keep referring to the increase on 12 December I could not contribute much. I would like to suggest to the Minister that he bring in legislation that would give the full colour television licence free to elderly people.
Mr. Leyden: Deputy Enright was allowed to make some comment on the free fuel scheme for the elderly and the Minister mentioned it also. I would like to thank the Minister publicly for agreeing with the proposals from the Western Health Board to allow the health board to give fuel vouchers for fuel delivered in bulk. We had this in previous years and the Minister allowed us to continue with that scheme for the coming winter period. I welcome the increase, which will be a great boon to all the elderly and the other recipients throughout the country. It is only right that we should publicly thank the Minister and the Government for this marvellous increase given in the tough times we are experiencing. The people who deserve it most are getting it. This is in direct contrast with other times when Fine Gael took one shilling off the old age pensioners.
Minister for Health (Dr. Woods): I would like to thank the Deputies for the welcome they have given to this Bill. I am very anxious to have this measure passed speedily and I am very glad that the Government have allotted me the resources to enable me to bring this Bill before the House.
Deputy Boland raised some points and I shall reply to them. He said he would like to see this as a permanent feature rather than a single measure. This Bill, however, is to be considered in relation to this year and has been put to the House in that context. It was part of the debates  which took place on the second national understanding and follows the very substantial increase of 25 per cent given earlier this year to long-term beneficiaries. It will, in that sense, top up this year the benefits which are already being provided.
The Deputy brought up the question of the health allowance. These will be provided by regulation and there will also be an opportunity to discuss these matters, as the Deputy suggested, when the Supplementary Estimate for that Department comes before the House. With regard to the comment he made about the newspaper statement that I had suggested that this was the first time there was an autumn allowance or half-yearly review, I am sure the Deputy appreciated that that is not true. It is certainly the first time that such an arrangement as this double week prior to Christmas was agreed in a national understanding and it is only in that context that I stated that this is the first time this has happened. I would not like to convey anything other than that to the House or outside it. I am sure the Deputy appreciates that I have laid the case very fairly and clearly before the House without trying to have any form of undue upmanship involved in it.
With regard to the question raised by the Deputy about the delivery of new books and of the recent difficulties which arose in relation to extra books, I would like to say a few words about that. There is and there will continue to be a difficulty in relation to the Department of Social Welfare, no matter who is the incumbent at the time. If, for example, as occurred earlier this year, the budget date is later than normal, this creates special problems for the Department of Social Welfare in issuing a very large number of books with a very large number of different denominations. It is not possible in that regard to say that there will not be difficulties in future. If we had approached this measure by attempting to issue additional vouchers of any kind, we would, because of the protracted time involved in the national understanding debates and the time scale left to us to implement the measure, have had difficulties because of the necessary printing  of the voucher books in all the various denominations. It was for this reason that another approach was introduced this time, that is, to pay double on the face value of the particular book for the appropriate date.
I would like to thank the Department of Posts and Telegraphs for co-operating in this regard because it involves the staff in that Department in the task of paying double on the particular day on the face value of the pension books. We felt this was the most efficient way we could approach the matter. Deputy Boland suggested that it might be done that way. That was what was intended to be conveyed in my opening remarks when I said:
The additional sum to be paid will be equal to the face value of the weekly pension or allowance order and will include all increases in respect of adult and child dependants and any supplements which form part of the regular weekly payment.
Dr. Woods: If the Members of the House suggested it three years ago, I am also greatful to them. I would also like to point out in relation to the system which is operating in respect of this particular payment that if the pensioners, the widows and other beneficiaries call for the benefits on the dates specified, they will certainly be paid on those dates. I know that in some cases other people collect on their behalf and that will also be covered. We hope there will not be too many people who will not call on the particular date because that could cause difficulties for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, but if there are some they will have to be paid later. The mechanism in this particular case should meet the  requirements put forward by the Deputies. We are advertising widely to make sure that people understand the nature of the payments and the dates on which they will be made. The date chosen is one to provide the moneys in advance of Christmas, which Deputy Boland was anxious to see happening.
Deputy O'Connell welcomed the Bill. He considered that each national understanding should also cover social welfare and he welcomed this aspect of the present national understanding. He would like to see this happening each year. However, he was concerned about what he described as many people who would not get the benefit. No matter what date one chooses the people who come after that date will not be included. The measure before the House is specifically in line with paragraph 28 of the national understanding which stated that, as a specific measure, the Government would provide double payment for one week in December 1980 to long-term social welfare recipients.
Certainly, I will consider the matter raised by the Deputy but he must appreciate that considerable administrative difficulties are encountered when one departs from a specific date. I suppose it would be fair to say that the people who have been on benefit for some time should be the principal people to benefit. In fact, all people currently covered will benefit. I do not see it as a good enough reason to delay this Bill for any time because we must proceed with it urgently to ensure that the necessary administrative measures are taken and completed before the date of implementation. In respect of some monthly payments the date of implementation will be towards the end of November. These payments are broken into a number of different cycles and they will commence as early as the end of November. Consequently, we will have to proceed with the measure. However, I will look at the point the Deputy raised to see if measures might be taken to alleviate the position in relation to people who come into the category subsequently during December.
Deputy Moore and Deputy B. Ahern also welcomed the Bill. They would like  to see this measure introduced in future years. Deputy Moore was particularly glad to see that the social welfare beneficiaries are being looked after at this time.
Deputy Enright raised the question of the free fuel scheme and asked if any extension of the scheme was being included. I wish people would come down to reality in this House as well as elsewhere in the country and recognise that this year I have included an additional 26,000 people in the free fuel scheme. It is now a national scheme. We have increased payment on the voucher scheme by 33½ per cent——
Dr. Woods: I only wish to make a brief mention of that. I have tried to avoid confusion about this matter. The people who are getting free fuel will also benefit under the terms of the Bill before us. The combination of the two schemes will mean that the position of these people will improve considerably this year. Deputy Leyden welcomed the commitment of the Government. He gave some clarification to Deputy Enright in relation to the free fuel scheme which was quite correct, namely, that where solid fuel was delivered previously we have made an allowance for that to continue——
Dr. Woods: In general I welcome the comments made by Deputies. I know that they genuinely welcome the Bill and I trust they will assist me in getting it through the House quickly. I am glad that in introducing this novel approach I have met one of the points that Deputies raised three years ago.
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