Wednesday, 22 July 1981
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Miss Flaherty): The person concerned claimed disability benefit in respect of an incapacity which commenced on 27 April 1981. All payment due from 30 April, fourth day of incapacity, to 11 July 1981 has now issued. The question of her entitlement to pay-related benefit is being examined and any benefit due will issue as soon as possible. The delay in payment, which is regretted, was due to an administrative error.
Miss Flaherty: Despite an exhaustive search, it has not been possible to trace medical evidence submitted by the person concerned in respect of his current illness. However, an outdoor officer of my Department called on him recently and ascertained the date of commencement of his illness and other relevant details. As a result, payment of all disability benefit and pay-related benefit due to him for the period 23 May to 11 July 1981 has issued.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned was paid disability benefit to 10 February 1981 after which date payment was refused on the grounds that he was considered not incapable of work by a medical referee of the Department.
He appealed against the disallowance of benefit and was examined on 14 May 1981 by a different medical referee who also expressed the opinion that he was not incapable of work. The case has been referred to an appeals officer for determination and arrangements are being made to have an oral hearing of his claim at an early date. When the result of the appeal is received his claim will be reviewed.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned had been in receipt of disability benefit from 14 May 1980. Payment was made at regular weekly intervals but she was only required to furnish certificates at monthly intervals. As no medical certificates were received from her after 21 January 1981 payment ceased from 16 May 1981.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned did not qualify for unemployment benefit on the basis of his Irish contribution record. He was, however, employed for many years in the United Kingdom and in accordance with the provisions of the EEC regulations, particulars of his contribution record were requested from the  Department of Health and Social Security, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to enable his entitlement to be determined.
Because of industrial action by staff at the Department of Health and Social Security, the relevant contribution record was not furnished until recently. The claim has been authorised and the claimant has been advised to call to the local office at Dungarvan to collect the arrears due to him.
Mr. Haughey: Would the Minister tell us if all the information being sought in Questions Nos. 9 to 23 in the name of Deputy Deasy could have been assertained easily from the Minister's office or from the Department?
Mr. Haughey: That is not the question I asked. I asked the Minister if she will state whether all this information could have been readily available from the Minister's office or by means of a direct inquiry to the Department of Social Welfare?
Miss Flaherty: I would make every effort to assist a Deputy to secure information through either method of approach. Seeking information is quite acceptable and I do not think it is my role as a Minister of State to suggest to Deputies how they should seek information. I suggest Deputies are capable of choosing from the methods open to them how best they can get the information.
Mr. Haughey: Therefore the Minister would not agree with me that this is rather an obvious waste of parliamentary time by the Deputy concerned, since the information would be readily and easily available to him from the Minister's office or from the Department.
Mr. Deasy: I am touched by Deputy Haughey's concern, but I had the same difficulty when he was Minister for Social  Welfare and when his successor, Deputy Woods, was Minister. There seems to be great difficulty in the Department, which has been plagued by problems during the past couple of years. I am asking the Minister what attempts have been made to solve these problems and if any success have been achieved.
Miss Flaherty: A number of matters relate to that problem. There has been a great deal of progress. The initial problem was mainly due to the change over to computer and the connection with the Department of Finance when we moved over to pay-related benefits. Most of the problems have been ironed out. The difficulty which caused the Deputy's first question was an administrative error. Many of these difficulties have been looked into and have been ironed out. By the end of June all records were practically up to date but then a new industrial dispute caused further problems. In relation to the problem about replies, obviously in the past Deputies found it necessary to seek urgent information or action in this way. I would hope that, with increased efficiency in the Department, that need will not continue for much longer.
Mr. Deasy: I reject the assertion by Deputy Haughey that people should write letters and not ask questions. This is our democratic right. If my constituents can get results within three days by having a Dáil question asked instead of in three months, which is the normal waiting time after writing a letter, I will ask a question and so should everybody else.
Mr. Haughey: Could I ask the Minister of State if the putting down by a Deputy of a number of questions in detail of this sort takes up a great deal of administrative time and effort in the Department and, in fact, contributes to the delay and the problems to which she has adverted?
Miss Flaherty: The question related to one person. I would imagine that the same administrative attention would be given to the problem whether it arose in a letter to my Department or in the form of a Dáil question. Ultimately the same amount of investigation would go into it. It is regrettable that in the past Deputies found this necessary, and that this tradition has built up. I would hope that a more efficient service will emerge over the next 12 months or so as the new Ministers begin to make an impact on the Department. The problems with the changeover which caused the original delays have been cleared up and should not recur. If we come back to this problem in ten or 12 months perhaps the need to put down this type of question will not exist.
Mr. McMahon: Is the Minister of State assuring the House that she is taking steps to ensure that Deputies will get information much more freely from the Department of Social Welfare than has been the practice over the past two, three or four years? Will she assure the House that she will take steps to ensure that Deputies and members of the public will be able to get through to the Department on the telephone within a reasonable time? I suggest that a reasonable time would be within half-a-day because very often it takes up to half-a-week to get through on the telephone to the Department.
Mr. M. Noonan: (Limerick-East): Can the Minister guarantee that if any other sections of the Department of Social Welfare are computerised in the future, she will run a parallel system until the bugs are taken out of the computer? This is normal procedure when one changes over to a computer. If she did that we would not have the silly situation which appertained over the past 12 months. The computer programme failed and people were left without disability benefit.
Miss Flaherty: I welcome the Deputy's comments. The procedure he recommends would be much more desirable than the one which existed in the past. In reply to Deputy McMahon, the Minister is committed to making the system more efficient. Apart from replies to inquiries by Deputies, the service to the public should be more efficient and more speedy. I hope that the problems about letters to the Department and questions in the House will become less urgent.
Dr. Woods: Does the Minister agree that parliamentary questions for written reply will have the same effect as parliamentary questions for oral answer and that there is no need to put down a question for oral reply in the interest of constituents?
Dr. Woods: There was a parallel system. I should like to thank the Minister of State for making it clear that the problems in the Department were dealt with by the end of June. It was very gracious of the Minister to make that point clear. I wish her every success.
Mr. R. Ryan: While I have been fascinated  by the exchange of views between Deputies, I should like to point out that Question No. 24 tabled for today some time ago by a Deputy with great foresight asks all these questions and may not be reached today because of the impulsive conduct of some Members of the House who ask irrelevant questions. With the greatest of respect I suggest that in future Members of the House should read their Order Paper before entering the House so that we can have an orderly processing of questions and answers.
Miss Flaherty: There was a question about written and oral answers. I should imagine that the written answer, while giving information, takes up less of the time of the House but there is no possibility of asking supplementary questions which everybody here seems to enjoy so much.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned was paid disability benefit from 26 January 1981, fourth day of incapacity, to 31 March 1981, after which date she was certified fit to resume work. She was paid initially at the rate appropriate to a married woman without a dependant. On review of her claim, however, an adjusting payment issued in respect of the difference between the rate appropriate to a married woman with one child dependant who is separated from her husband and the amount already received by her.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned  is not entitled to pay-related benefit because entitlement to this benefit is subject to the condition that the sum of weekly unemployment benefit and pay-related benefit may not exceed 85 per cent of a claimant's average net weekly earnings. As the person concerned is receiving unemployment benefit at the weekly rate of £64.25 and as this sum exceeds 85 per cent of his earnings, namely £62.28, pay-related benefit is not payable in his case.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned is not entitled to pay-related benefit as he has no reckonable earnings during the income tax year governing his entitlement to pay-related benefit. The person concerned has been in receipt of unemployment benefit since 22 November 1980 and his entitlement to pay-related benefit falls to be governed by reckonable earnings during the income tax year April 1978 to April 1979. According to the records of my Department he was not insurably employed during this period
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned claimed disability benefit and submitted medical evidence of incapacity from 10 June 1981. He was paid at the personal rate from 13 June to 20 June, after which date he was certified fit to resume work. As no first certificate or claim form was received from him it was necessary to make further inquiries as to the full period of his incapacity. It was ascertained from his employer that he had in fact been absent from work due to illness from 27 May and an adjustment cheque paying the balance of benefit due has issued to him.
Mr. Deasy: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if she will arrange to have the circumstances of a family (details supplied) in County Waterford examined in order to ascertain whether unemployment assistance at an increased rate can be allowed.
Miss Flaherty: One member of the family referred to in the Deputy's question claimed unemployment assistance and in the assessment of means the circumstances of his family were fully investigated after which a deciding officer assessed means at the rate of £17.50 weekly derived from the value of board and lodging in his parents' household.
The claimant was dissatisfied with the assessment of means and his case was referred to an appeals officer for determination. The appeals officer, whose decision is final and conclusive, upheld the decision of the deciding officer assessing means at £17.50 weekly.
In the circumstances the rate of unemployment assistance presently being paid is the correct amount payable under the regulations, namely, £2.25 weekly, being the maximum rate of £19.75 less means of £17.50.
Miss Flaherty: The amount is based on the general method of assessment. There is a general question coming up later. Obviously this is a very small amount but it is what is left over when the normal adjustments are made, taking into account the whole income coming into a family. In the case of unemployment assistance all means are taken into account. The quality of board and lodgings is assessed and valued and taken into account as an item of means before assessing an individual for unemployment assistance. The entitlement is £2.25. In this case had the full value of the board and lodging been taken into account and had there been no limiting factor of 12½ per cent of the family income  being the maximum, this person would have received no money. He benefited from one of the limitations in the scheme.
Miss Flaherty: The investigation revealed that the applicant resided with his parents, five sisters and one brother. His father is employed by Waterford Co-op. and his certified net earnings in the past 12 months were £7,805.39. His brother and two sisters were also in employment. Three other children are school going. Since the initial report one of the girls who was in employment left work of her own accord. She claimed unemployment benefit in June 1981 but, having signed one day, did not pursue her claim. Inquiries also revealed that the applicant's married sister, her husband and child occassionally visit the family home but do not reside there. They have their own home in Waterford. There has been an appeal in the case but there could be a further application and reconsideration of the case.
Mr. Sherlock: Does the Minister agree that the system of applying the means test, as in the case outlined, is unjust and will she do something to rectify the situation because of the fact that a situation can arise where there is only one person earning in a household and there is not sufficient income to meet family needs?
Miss Flaherty: Obviously one would have great sympathy with an adult person who is incapable of getting employment and trying to live on an income of £2. It could even have been less in some cases. It would be desirable to extend the benefit as far as possible. This would be the general intention. As things operate at present the system is constantly examined.  The appeals officer constantly reviews the situation and makes recommendations on the question of assessing board and lodgings as a genuine element in means. In considering it in future I will take into account the fears and obvious points of value raised by Deputies.
Miss Flaherty: Early in June 1981 the person concerned submitted a completed claim form to my Department claiming disability benefit. On 12 June he was requested to furnish medical evidence of incapacity in respect of the period of his illness but so far no such evidence has been received.
It has, however, been ascertained from his employers that he was absent from work due to illness from 7 May 1981 and has not yet resumed. A cheque paying all benefit due at the maximum appropriate rate for the period 11 May, fourth day of incapacity, to 11 July 1981 issued on 10 July.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned claimed disability benefit as follows: (a) from 27 April 1981 to 3 June 1981, when he was certified by his doctor as fit to resume work, and, (b) from 15 June 1981 to date.
Payment on the first claim was delayed as an earlier claim, which terminated on 4 April 1981, was shown as still current on the Department's computer. When the previous claim was eventually cleared from the computer the claim from 27 April could not be authorised due to industrial action taken by the staff. The matter has however since been rectified and payment at the appropriate rate has been made on both claims.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned claimed unemployment benefit on 15 June 1981 and, following normal inquiries to establish her eligibility, a deciding officer of my Department has allowed her claim. She is a postal claimant and an order paying all arrears due has been issued to her for encashment at her local post office.
Miss Flaherty: The unemployment benefit claim of the person concerned was disallowed for a period of six weeks by a deciding officer of my Department on the grounds that the claimant left her employment without good cause. The person concerned expressed dissatisfaction with this decision and her case has been referred to an appeals officer for determination. Arrangements have been made to have her case dealt with as expeditiously as possible. In the meantime, as the period of disqualification has expired, her claim to unemployment benefit, with effect from 1 July 1981, has been allowed and all unemployment benefit due has been paid.
Mr. R. Ryan: asked the Minister for Social Welfare the steps she is taking to clear the large backlog of arrears in payments left by the previous administration; how soon she expects payments from her Department to beneficiaries to be brought generally up to date; and if she will make a statement on the matter.
Miss Flaherty: The only area in which there were arrears of social welfare payments was that relating to payment of disability benefit and associated benefits. During recent months considerable progress had been made in reducing these arrears and it had been hoped that the situation would now have been reached  where such payments would be made as they became due. However, since 29 June 1981, staff who are members of the Civil & Public Services' Staff Association have, in pursuance of a grade claim, placed a ban on overtime working and have refused to operate certain items of computer equipment. The effect of this action is that, while payment of disability benefit to existing claimants continues to be made reasonably promptly, new claims cannot be dealt with due to inability to obtain from the computer details of the contribution records on which entitlement is based.
It is regretted that while the present impasse exists there is no prospect of an improvement in the position regarding disability benefit payments. In fact, as already indicated, the processing of new claims is seriously affected and is likely to deteriorate if the industrial action by the staff continues.
Mr. R. Ryan: Will the Minister of State accept my compliments to her and the Minister on the speed with which they have improved matters and our hopes that the payments will not again deteriorate to the scandalous level of delay which occurred under the previous administration? Is the Minister in a position to say what savings resulted to the Department on a monthly basis over the last year or so as a consequence of delay on the part of that Department in paying out benefits and whether, in relation to the recent calculation of the State's deficit, account is taken of the volume of arrears and considerable payments which still have to be made to those long suffering people who have not yet received payment? Can the Minister explain how in the case of an industrial accident which occured in early May the family have not yet received any payments and have had difficulty in obtaining supplementary benefit from the local authority?
Miss Flaherty: I do not have the figures of costings. In the Supplementary Estimate produced by the Department account was taken of the outstanding debts of the Department or commitments in relation to increases which had not  been foreseen of unemployment and so on. If the Deputy would like to give me details of the case he cited I will have the matter examined.
Dr. Woods: Would the Minister agree that following special measures which were taken the position within the Department was normal at the time when the Government took office despite the fact that industrial action was still in progress? Would she further agree from her experience that the staff of the Department have done an incredible job in the light of that situation and despite the difficulties presented by the industrial action?
Miss Flaherty: Industrial action began on 29 June and by that stage the position was almost back to normal. Delays had been brought up to date by the staff working overtime and weekends for a number of weeks prior to the period before industrial action began. All credit is due to the staff involved for their efforts to improve the situation and all thanks must go to them. The situation was a long-standing one. The problems began in January 1981 and from then until June there was serious disruption. We hope such disruption will never again occur.
Miss Flaherty: I expect that is a separate question and one that was dealt with on the occasion of a recent sitting of the House. There is a commitment to decentralisation. Obviously, the problems are arising in the centralised areas, in the area of disability and associate benefits rather than in the area of unemployment benefit. An extension of the decentralisation programme of the previous Government is part of the commitment of this Government and I agree that that should  be the ultimate direction of all advances in this area.
Mr. G. Mitchell: Is the Minister aware that the backlog referred to in the question created great hardship and that for some applicants it was a question of being able to survive? Some applicants found it necessary to call at social service centres, convents and such places in order to be able to eat while that dispute was going on. Is the Minister prepared to devise contingency plans in order to ensure that there is no recurrence of that sort of situation in the event of further problems arising in these days of precarious industrial relations?
Miss Flaherty: I assure the Deputy that consideration is being given to this matter. It is a matter of great concern that persons can be deprived of their only source of income, especially people who are so vulnerable. We are considering contingency plans in order to be prepared for any deterioration in the situation as a result of the industrial dispute.
Dr. Woods: The Minister has told us that no new claims can be dealt with and that has been the position since 29 June. That was the time at which the industrial action was escalated, but I should like to inform the House that industrial action existed for some time before then. It is apparent from what the Minister has said that no new claims for disability benefit have been dealt with since 29 June. This will result in a very serious situation. Is the same position applying also to unemployment claims? I ask the question because a number of people have expressed to me their concern about not being able to get unemployment benefit. This week there was a very alarming situation to the extent that a large notice appeared at one of the health centres in Dublin to the effect that those being refused unemployment benefit would not be able to get supplementary welfare. Apparently, this is related to the industrial action. In these circumstances what special measures are to be taken to deal with the situation, a situation which is extremely alarming at this stage?
Miss Flaherty: The potential gravity of the situation is understood equally by everybody on this side of the House and particularly by the Minister and the Department. Because of this we are going ahead with contingency plans, but obviously we are not in a position to specify such plans at this stage. As yet there is no full extension of the dispute to the unemployment exchanges. A situation in which claims can not be dealt with is obviously very serious. The supplementary welfare scheme was intended to cover emergency situations only, but that scheme is under stress. However I assure the Deputy that the whole situation is under consideration and that plans will be ready in the event of any further breakdown to deal with cases of hardship arising out of the present circumstances.
Mr. Walsh: asked the Minister for Social Welfare the reason disability benefit was refused to a person (details supplied) in County Dublin: and if she will have the case fully investigated with a view to having benefit paid.
Miss Flaherty: The person concerned claimed disability benefit for the period 10 March 1980 to 10 May 1980, after which date he was certified fit to resume work. When he first claimed benefit he was not entitled to payment as, according to the records of my Department, he was not qualified on his insurance record. It was necessary to make inquiries regarding his employment in the contribution year 1978, the year on which his entitlement to benefit was based. As a result of these inquiries it was established that he had sufficient weeks of insurable employment in that year to qualify him for payment  on his claim. Arrears of contributions due were paid by the employers but owing to an oversight the section responsible for paying benefits was not notified. All benefit due from 13 March 1980, fourth day of incapacity, to 10 May 1980 has, however, now been issued.
Mr. R. Ryan: Would the Minister care to consider the extreme bias displayed by Deputy Haughey in addressing pointed questions in relation to Deputy Deasy for asking questions similar to the question tabled by Deputy Walsh while by his silence, Deputy Haughey was prepared to suffer similar conduct on the part of Deputy Walsh?
Mr. D. Gallagher: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if she has any proposals to extend the following free benefits, which are now available to pensioners, to widows: electricity, television licences and travel.
Mr. D. Gallagher: I dispute that reply. Is the Minister aware that, in a case in which the widow of a pensioner who dies has not herself reached pension age, she does not qualify for the benefits to which her husband had been entitled? This situation constitutes an injustice and should be considered.
Miss Flaherty: The benefits to which the Deputy is referring relate to free electricity, free television licence and free travel. These facilities are available to pensioners either living alone or with certain specified categories of persons. In relation to these allowances, widows are dealt with on the same basis as are all others who are entitled to such facilities — usually old age type pensioners. I  appreciate that the concern of the Deputy relates to the standard of living of widows and I expect that the matter can be looked at immediately but in a wider context than in the specific context of the extension of these facilities to widows in the case the Deputy mentions where they are younger.
Mr. D. Gallagher: Would the Minister of State agree that when free television, free travelling when accompanying her husband and the other perks which are available to pensioners are lost by a widow as a result of the death of her husband, this is an injustice which should be rectified immediately if it is not the intention of the Minister to extend the benefits I mentioned to all widows?
Miss Flaherty: That is very specific and the matter raised by the Deputy was not raised in such a specific fashion. I can investigate that matter further and give the Deputy a comment on it if he wishes.
Mrs. Lemass: Would the Minister of State consider the position of elderly widows whose children have left home and probably are married and live a distance away? That type of person is old and lonely and probably cannot afford to go any distance to visit the family. Would the Minister of State give this matter consideration even at some future time?
Miss Flaherty: While everybody would see these benefits as desirable, the cost of extending the free electricity allowance to all widows under 66 years would be £1.9 million, the cost of the free television extension would be £633,000 and the cost of the free travel would be approximately £1.7 million. The Deputy raised rather specific matters and our Government's commitment in that matter will be clear in my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the area of poverty. We will be looking into those areas. A lot of these extensions are piecemeal and do not examine the roots of the problem. I would see my brief as examining the problems of poverty groups and I would consider the aged and widows to be quite often in that category, but widows  are far from inevitably in that category. In that area I will be looking into the whole question of their way of living and improving their standard of living.
Mr. D. Gallagher: Would the Minister of State accept that in the case I stated there is no actual extra expense involved to the State or to her Department? The Department are making a saving inasmuch as they are depriving a widow of something which was available while her husband lived in taking away free television, radio and travel. In that instance is there not something which could be looked at immediately and dealt with?
Miss Flaherty: The situation of the younger widow being deprived of such things is something we had not considered in the context of this question. We considered it in the wider context of all widows under 66 years. This specific matter certainly would seem to be an injustice which could be examined, and I will do so.
Mr. Wilson: Yesterday, Sir, you gave me permission to raise on the Adjournment the subject matter of Questions Nos. 97 and 98 on yesterday's Order Paper. The House ran out of time, so I am mentioning it again.
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