Estimates 1985. - Vote 46: Social Welfare (Revised Estimate).

Friday, 31 May 1985

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 359 No. 2

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Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  I move:

That a sum not exceeding £1,323,149,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1985, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Social Welfare, for certain services administered by that [186] Office, for payments to the Social Insurance Fund, and for sundry grants.

The Social Welfare Estimate which I present to the House today for approval is for £1,323.149 million. The Estimate is £112.4 million higher than the out-turn for last year and includes provision for the improvements announced in the 1985 budget, together with the carry-over costs of last year's rate increases.

My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Pattison, and I who have been dealing with the detailed issues arising from the Estimate will deal jointly with the presentation of the Estimate.

The Estimate represents the net Exchequer commitment to social welfare in 1985. In fact, gross expenditure on all social insurance and assistance schemes will be of the order of £2.3 billion this year, of which this Exchequer commitment represents about 58 per cent. Employees and employers together contribute about £924 million, or 40 per cent, to the gross expenditure. The small remaining balance comes from local authorities, investments and various other receipts.

The massive scale of social welfare spending shown by these huge figures indicates the vital role of social support in our modern community. Social Welfare will account for one-seventh of our gross national product in 1985, and nearly a quarter of current Government spending. Through the network of social welfare services resources are now being redistributed at the rate of £44 million each week to over 1¼ million people.

The very scale of this redistribution means that three important criteria must be uppermost in our minds. First, is the support reaching the people most in need and giving them enough to maintain at least a basic living standard? Second, are the people who depend on social welfare getting a sufficient quality of service? Third, are the various schemes giving value for money and making the best use of the resources available? I and the Minister of State, Deputy Pattison hope to deal with these basic issues in the course of what we have to say today.

[187] On the question of the review and evaluation of schemes the past two years have seen some very significant — and at times unpalatable — changes made in social welfare schemes. These changes were all made with the criteria I mentioned firmly in mind, to make sure that the maximum possible resources were available to maintain and improve the living standards of social welfare recipients. At the same time schemes have been, and will continue to be, critically reviewed to see that they are still justified in the light of modern needs for income support.

An example of the result of this reevaluation process is the restructuring of the pay-related benefit scheme from 1983. Likewise, the wet-time scheme was reviewed and found to have outlived its usefulness. It was abolished with effect from the beginning of January 1985.

I quote these examples to make the point that there is an obligation on Governments to continuously review schemes in order to manage and develop the social welfare system responsibly. This requirement exists always, but is particularly pressing when demographic and social pressures are high and when resources for social welfare are especially limited. It is important to keep in mind that the review process, and the changes that flow from it, has the improvement of social welfare as its central purpose. In no way does it involve a dismantling of the system so comprehensively built up during this century.

The Commission on Social Welfare was established by the Government as a key part of the development of social welfare into the next century. The commission is now well advanced in its detailed examination of the social welfare system. It is my hope that the commission's recommendations in due course will give a strong and balanced impetus to the review and development process I have described.

However, let no one doubt the Government's continuing commitment to social welfare recipients. In spite of the structural changes to schemes I have [188] mentioned, total spending on social welfare will have increased by a massive £650 million, or 40 per cent in the three years since 1982. General prices have increased by about 20 per cent since the beginning of 1983. On this basis, therefore, there has been a significant real increase in social welfare spending during this time.

Right through this period, the value of weekly social payments has at least been kept in line with prices, and in many cases — such as long-term unemployment assistance — there have been some real gains in levels of income support. This process is being continued in 1985. The increases in weekly payments being given from the beginning of July next will protect all long-term payments against likely price increases into the middle of 1986. Likewise, the value of short term payments, such as disability and unemployment benefits, will be kept at least in line with movements in take-home pay in the period.

Deputies will be aware of the other improvements in social welfare schemes being implemented this year——they were contained in the Social Welfare Act, 1985, approved by this House last March. The main improvements were increases of 6.5 per cent and 6 per cent for long and short term payments, respectively. The net cost of these measures is included in this Estimate. It totals £59.9 million in 1985. With cost of this magnitude involved in increasing rates of benefit, improvements in services cannot be undertaken without the sort of careful analysis I referred to earlier. Nonetheless, this year's improvements maintain the Government's commitment to social welfare recipients in the face of very strong adverse financial circumstances.

The full year cost of this year's budget improvements is over £125 million. This cost will have to be provided for next year before any further improvements are given. This scale of commitment was provided for in the national plan, and the Government will make every effort to ensure that the level of social welfare protection and development is maintained.

[189] I have already referred to the largescale increase in overall social welfare spending in recent years. One of the major influences on this expenditure has of course been the sustained and disturbing growth in unemployment in this period. The live register has increased by 18 per cent from an average of 193,000 in 1983 to its latest level of just under 228,000 at the end of April last. However, total expenditure on unemployment income support has more than kept pace with this increase, rising by 27 per cent from £453 million in 1983 to an estimated £577 million in 1985.

While there are signs that the underlying upward trend in unemployment is easing, it would be naive to assume that the most pressing problem of unemployment is going to diminish greatly, even in the medium term. This reality was recognised by the Government in the national plan, where some of the most explicit policy decisions related to the introduction of special employment measures, in conjunction with concerted economic action.

The statistics showing the growth in unemployment mask two significant and related issues. The first is that there are very large flows in and out of the live register every month, showing that the labour market is far from static. There are continuing and significant numbers of jobs available. The task of the Government and the various agencies concerned is to ensure as far as possible that these jobs are sustainable and that the workforce is trained and made aware of the opportunities.

The second issue and, indeed, one of the main causes of the growth in the live register, is the large and growing number of people who are unemployed for long durations. It is estimated that there will be a weekly average of about 78,000 people in 1985 who have been continuously unemployed for 15 months or longer and who receive unemployment assistance. Taking account of their families, a total of over 200,000 people are affected by long term unemployment, with all the financial hardship and personal stress that can entail.

[190] An Cheann Comhairle, my colleague Deputy Pattison will deal with the question of the social employment and alternance schemes announced by the Minister for Labour. I have put on record some of the criteria and the Minister of State in my Department will elaborate on that issue.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  On a point of information, is the Minister reading his own speech, a copy of which I have not got, or is he reading Deputy Pattison's speech?

Mr. B. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  As the Deputy should be aware from his long experience in the House, only a Minister can introduce a full Estimate. When Ministers of State are present, a reasonable opportunity should be given to them to contribute as well.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I take it that the Minister is reading Deputy Pattison's speech.

Mr. B. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  No. I am reading my own speech.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I have not got a copy. Could I have a copy of the Minister's speech?

Mr. B. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  The cover page is irrelevant. I have introduced the Estimate.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  So the Minister is reading Deputy Pattison's speech.

Mr. B. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  I am not. I am reading my own speech as I am well used to doing.

I would like at this stage to mention two specific items relating to the Estimate format. Two services which are not normally contained in the Estimate for Social Welfare are the occupational injuries fund and the supplementary unemployment —“wet-time”— fund. Expenditure on these schemes is normally fully funded from contributions and investments and does not involve any Exchequer commitment.

Deputies will note that, for the first time, the details of the occupational [191] injuries fund for 1985 are supplied as an appendix to the published Estimates. This fund is financed entirely by contributions from employers. This is in recognition of their obligation to provide on a collective basis for income maintenance needs arising from injury or death through occupational accidents or diseases. The details of this fund are shown because the schemes involve fairly significant expenditure of £28 million; it also helps to give a more comprehensive picture of gross social welfare spending, even though there is no direct Exchequer commitment involved.

Regarding the wet-time scheme, as I have already mentioned, Deputies will recall that it was abolished in the Social Welfare (Amendment) Act, 1984, with effect from 7 January 1985. There are still outstanding liabilities, arising from late claims under the scheme, which require Exchequer provision because contributions are no longer being made. A special subhead R. to the Vote has been created for this purpose with a provision of £600,000 this year. It is expected that this, together with the remaining assets of the fund, will be sufficient to meet all outstanding claims.

I want to refer briefly to international comparisons because a great deal of change has occurred among our European neighbours. Comparisons are made from time to time but there is enormous difficulty in trying to compare like with like and superficial comparisons are often made. I and my colleague will refer to some aspects of that situation. No two countries have exactly the same social welfare structure or the same income maintenance needs but allowing for these natural differences we can still attempt to have some comparisons made. Looking at some of the major social welfare programmes, the progress of development of services in Ireland compares very favourably with the rest of the EC since 1981. Allowing for differences in inflation, expenditure on old age and survivor benefits has grown by an annual average of 3.5 per cent in Ireland, more than twice the EC average of 1.4 per [192] cent. The position is even more marked in the case of maternity and family benefits, which have increased by an annual average of 8 per cent in Ireland, compared to an actual real decrease of 1.7 per cent on average in the Community. That is the central point.

Unemployment has posed grave difficulties for all EC countries and their social welfare support. However, while the EC as a whole has increased its expenditure on unemployment support by an annual 5 per cent on average since 1981, Ireland has had to provide average real increases of 11.8 per cent each year. This is an indication of the extra commitment by Ireland because of our high unemployment trend. It also indicates a determination to provide real improvements in rates of benefit and assistance during this period.

In relation to the share of gross domestic product devoted to social expenditure, Ireland emerges close to the EC average. The Irish share, including expenditure on health and State housing assistance, was 23.8 per cent in 1981 compared to an EC average of 27.2 per cent of GDP. It is estimated that, by 1986, Ireland's social expenditure will have increased to 25.4 per cent of GDP, compared to the likely EC average of 28.8 per cent then. Bearing in mind that the amount of GDP per capita in this country is well below the EC average, it is clear that the priority given to social spending in Ireland continues to be substantially greater than in the case of our European partners.

There are two major constraints to undertaking any extra commitment, compared to our EC partners. The first constraint is that two-thirds of all social spending here is financed by the Exchequer, compared to only one-third on average in all other EC countries. There is an enormous impact on our national budget.

The second major constraint facing expansion of social services to EC levels is the demographic situation in Ireland. Both in age structure and in unemployment levels, Ireland differs significantly from the rest of Europe. At a recent [193] seminar organised by the ESRI, a researcher from the OECD estimated that the growing demographic pressures on services over the decade to 1990 would be such that there would have to average real cuts in benefits of 1 per cent each year, if Ireland wanted to keep its share of GDP devoted to social welfare spending at the same level as in 1981. That is a stark analysis of the situation but we are not necessarily following that recipe.

I will now deal with financing and the role of the self-employed. We have a very narrow tax base on which social welfare is financed and a disproportionately large share of expenditure is met by the Exchequer in comparison to most other European countries. The main reason for this is the fact that the social insurance system does not yet extend in full to the self-employed. As a result, the income maintenance needs of the self-employed have to be met either by non-contributory means-tested assistance or by private insurance arrangements made by individuals themselves.

Many Deputies share the view that this situation is highly unsatisfactory but there is always a reluctance to become embroiled in the remedy. The range of State protection available to the self-employed for risks such as illness or widowhood is very inadequate compared with the social insurance benefits available to employed persons in terms of coverage and the level of support. Secondly, the assistance services available to the self-employed are financed entirely by the Exchequer and this means in effect that the employees in the PAYE sector are paying for self-employed social protection through income taxes, in addition to their own substantial contribution to social insurance through PRSI. This is clearly inequitable and a source of considerable concern to me.

Fianna Fáil come into the House saying that they will abolish the farm tax, a rather minor contribution by one section of the community. It would not be uttered on the doorsteps of urban Dublin but throughout Munster. The farming section of The Cork Examiner is littered [194] with such statements. No doubt Deputy McCarthy has told the farmers in his constituency that Fianna Fáil will abolish the farm tax.

Dr. McCarthy: Information on Seán McCarthy  Zoom on Seán McCarthy  We believe all farmers should be taxed and we are on record as saying that.

Mr. B. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  That kind of thing makes a debate like this almost impossible in terms of bringing the self-employed, including the farming community, into the insurance net on a rational basis. It makes it almost impossible but the opportunism being displayed on this issue, as was displayed in relation to, for example, other and more current issues, leads one to despair at times of politicians acting responsibly in facing up to very difficult issues. These difficult issues must be tackled head on if we are to have a proper system of social insurance and if we are to effect the necessary reforms. I appeal especially to the self-employed in this regard. By coming within the social insurance framework they, together with all others covered by social insurance, would be entitled in their own right to benefits. This would eliminate the need for means investigation which very often is a basic part of the difficulties that arise but which is part of the general social assistance support system. If the self-employed join the full social insurance system they will gain immeasurably in the quality of service, in the range of risks covered and in the level of income support received. In addition they would save a good deal of money in terms of the heavy cost of private insurance arrangements.

We in Social Welfare frequently can deliver to the people a system of social insurance which in terms of administration would be almost one-third of what private insurance might cost.

In a paper by Dr. Gerard Hughes which was published in February last by the ESRI, he concluded that:

... the average contributor to the State pension schemes would find it extremely difficult to get a rate of [195] return approaching the yield on State pension contributions and if the structure of the scheme is unchanged it will give very good value for money to insured workers...

He was examining the particular position of employees who were insured for old age (contributory) pension from its inception in 1961, but in my view the general value-for-money point remains for all contributors to the social welfare system.

The Government will be giving serious consideration to the establishment of effective monitoring and regulation of the occupational pensions sector. There have been a number of worrying cases recently of company pension funds being diverted to prop up ailing businesses, often leaving workers without any pension entitlement if the firm collapses; this adds further trauma to the prospect of redundancy. More generally, there is a need to develop safer funding methods, give greater provision to workers in small firms, to provide for transfer of pension rights if workers change jobs and to give better guarantees of occupational pension indexation in the future.

It is clear that the occupational pensions industry, while generally giving very responsible guidance to companies, is not equipped exclusively to deal with the sort of problem issues which I have raised. This suggests the need for a greater overseeing role by the State, possibly in the form of a joint regulatory body representative of the Government, the pensions industry, employer and trade union interests.

The question of effective action against poverty will be elaborated on later on by my colleague. I do not wish to intrude unduly on such a short debate.

One of the key criteria in social welfare is the issue of whether the support is reaching the people most in need. It is a fundamental requirement of social welfare that it should be able to identify, reach and support people in poverty. The redistribution of resources involved in this process should then help to remove relative poverty from our society.

[196] In my view no one is in a position to say that our system of social welfare today is fully meeting this basic poverty-oriented objective. The system is providing for many income support needs, but either because of incomplete take-up of schemes or because the administrative structures are not sufficiently flexible, many people in our community still live in poverty. The Commission on Social Welfare will, I hope, produce criteria for identifying and meeting subsistence needs. In parallel with the commission's work, the Government has moved to reorganise some of its services to deal with particular low-income needs.

The family income supplement was implemented and there are now fewer than 6,000 families receiving support by way of this scheme. We did estimate that more families would be applying for participation in the scheme. To date there have been more than 10,000 applications. The question of whether there are families who either are not aware of the scheme or who have not bothered to apply is one that we have difficulty in assessing. A sum of £7 million has been provided for the scheme in 1985. So far as the Department are concerned, the scheme is fully available to all families who think they may qualify. It has been advertised extensively in the media.

We are going ahead with the introduction of the child benefit scheme and hope to introduce that scheme next year. It will help to neutralise the relative positions of families at work and unemployed by giving a much larger monthly payment for children regardless of the employment status of the family.

The strongest influences on the “poverty trap” are the arbitrary cut-off points for medical card eligibility and the income tax thresholds. The Commission on Social Welfare has been asked specifically to look at the interaction between the tax and welfare codes. However, the solutions proposed by NESC, involving the tapering of medical card entitlement and income levies, would lead us down the road to an even more complex system, in an attempt to solve [197] what may be a theoretical rather than a real problem in that regard.

As regards direct action on poverty, the Government are moving to establish a new poverty agency, and as Deputies are probably aware, the Bill to implement this is now at the Committee Stage in the Seanad. Once the legislation is approved by the Oireachtas, the Government will set up the new agency quickly. A sum of £1 million has been provided in this year's Estimates for their work. I hope to have the Bill from the Seanad before the summer recess.

The moneys for the voluntary agencies are being distributed. A large number of applications have been received. There is a substantial increase in this area — from £500,000 last year to £650,000 this year.

There have been many complaints particularly in recent times about delays in processing social welfare claims and appeals and in replying to inquiries and representations.

I would point out that in any given week the Department make payment to 1.25 million clients and deal with about 25,000 new claimants. In the disability benefit section alone, more than 70,000 payments per week are made and once a claim is set up which mainly for statutory reasons takes two weeks on average, payments are made on about 90 per cent of medical certificates on the day they arrive in the Department. When one considers the complexities of the various social welfare schemes, the various conditions which have to be satisfied to become entitled to payment and the various inquiries and investigations which have to be made to ensure that all these conditions are satisfied in each individual case, the times taken by the Department in putting benefit into payment in most cases are not unreasonable.

My colleague and I are actually aware that many claimants are entirely or almost entirely dependent on social welfare benefit for their means of support and that any delay no matter how short can be a cause of concern and indeed hardship. In this regard where there are protracted delays, claimants have [198] recourse to local community welfare officers and I should like to pay a particular tribute to these officers for the magnificent work they are doing in coping with their difficult task.

There is an obligation to ensure that each individual case is dealt with in strict accordance with the legislation and its many requirements. Allegations are from time to time made against the Department that through leniency or other shortcomings, it allows payments to be made in cases where entitlement does not arise. The much over-rated incidence of some persons who improperly claim unemployment payments while working is an obvious example but there are many others particularly in relation to meanstested schemes where the amount of social welfare assistance is directly related to the persons income, a matter which is often not easily measured and which in all cases requires detailed examination. It is sometimes conveniently overlooked that while claimants have a statutory right to payment, which the Department is most anxious to meet, there are corresponding statutory duties on the Department to ensure the proper administration of its schemes.

In recent years there has been a tremendous growth in the volume of the Department's workload. In the areas of unemployment payments the numbers have increased by over 50 per cent since mid-1981: over the whole range of departmental services the volume of claims in payment has increased by almost one-fifth since then.

Deputies are familiar with the problems arising from the public service embargo on the staffing side and great reliance has been placed on improving the overall management of the various schemes and services and by pushing ahead at all possible speed with a large programme of computerisation which is designed greatly to increase the efficiency of operations while at the same time easing the heavy workload on the staff.

As regards media comment and the way things are reported superficially at times I have been accused of spending £500,000 a year on consultancies. A great [199] deal of consultancy work is done in instituting various schemes in the Department. The Department have the resources for doing the consultancy work necessary for the introduction of the various programmes of computerisation. We have an outstanding computer staff and they have worked miracles in terms of easing the very heavy workload of the staff while at the same time coping with the public service embargo.

There has been an enormous amount of superficial comment made in regard to decentralisation. It was suggested that if the Department were split up or regionalised — all fashionable parlance — we would do away with the problems being experienced by claimants who have difficulty in having their claims or inquiries processed as quickly as they would wish. These are very attractive solutions but in reality they ignore the fact that the Department discharge an enormous amount of work directly to the people at close level. For example, children's allowances, all pensions and about one third of all unemployment payments are paid out in local post offices. In a small country with a population of 3.5 million the suggestion that we should have a number of offices all over the country, making local decisions, would make for organisation mayhem. No unemployed person has need to travel more than six miles to collect his or her payment. In a country where the population is widely dispersed, particularly in rural areas, our network of offices works with considerable effect.

The rapid growth in the Department's computer system will, in the future, give a greater degree of flexibility in this regard and will allow more cases to be handled at local level. As regards computerisation we can only go as fast as resources permit but central records, disability benefits and children's allowances are on computer as well as several pension schemes. The facilities are being extended as fast as resources and management will allow. In many respects it is now possible for people to go into a local employment exchange or pension office and give their [200] RSI number. There is an immediate print-out on the visual display unit to indicate when the last payment was paid and when the next payment is due. The money can be monitored effectively in that way.

As regards disability benefit, in an effort to further improve the service I have with the co-operation of the staff recently introduced a new centralised telephone query service for disability benefit claimants at our headquarter's office in Aras Mhic Dhiarmada. Up to now all telephone queries were routed to the staff in the section dealing with the claim under inquiry. A special team of 14 staff has now been assembled and assigned the task of dealing with all the telephone queries, including following up and ringing back the claimant in relation to inquiries which need the attention of other officers and cannot be dealt with on the spot. As Deputies know from experience there were individual lines to the sections. The interruption of work and the duplication of activity posed considerable difficulty on an already overstretched staff. The call back service has an important new dimension. Staff have been especially assigned, with no other duty, to follow up and ring back claimants who cannot be fully dealt with during their initial call. Special arrangements have been made to write immediately to persons without telephones.

Seven income telephone extensions from the main switchboard at Aras Mhic Dhiarmada have been made available to these staff together with eight video terminals connected directly to the benefits computer system. Three direct telephone lines have been provided for ringing back claimants in relation to matters which are not cleared on the spot.

The new system has been in operation for the past three weeks and 500 to 600 queries have been received a day. I thank the trade unions concerned particularly the Civil Service and Public Service staff unions for their exceptional co-operation in dealing with the running of this system. The experience has been that about 80 per cent of the queries have been dealt with immediately and a call-back has [201] been necessary in only about 20 per cent of the cases. The system has already achieved a significant reduction in the time taken to service calls from the persons ringing up with queries about their benefit claims.

As Deputies are aware this type of service has been available to them in two special direct telephone lines for some time now. Two further lines have been in use for calls from community information centres and the National Social Service Board. About 100 calls a week in all are dealt with on these four lines. I understand that this service has proved satisfactory and useful to Deputies and others and, based on this experience, I am pleased that we have been able to extend the arrangement at this stage to the whole of the disability benefit area.

The Department of Social Welfare, in common with many public service bodies nowadays, are finding themselves under increasing pressure to meet higher standards at a time when there has been a huge increase in the sheer volume of their business, more management and control demands are being made on them and their resources are limited. Some of their problems arise from the number and complexity of their schemes and services the terms and conditions for which are in most cases laid down by statute and are not open to any real flexibility of interpretation. I expect that the Commission of Social Welfare will have some useful pointers in this regard.

The very complex problems of achieving and maintaining a reasonable standard of service in the circumstances I have been describing are often underestimated. Much has been said in that context about the piecemeal nature of the present system and the need for simplification. I agree in general terms with those sentiments, but I would make two points. The first is that rationalisation and simplification are not necessarily the same thing. The second is that simplification is not a costless exercise. Any substantial simplification of the conditions applied for qualification for social welfare payments will change the difficult balance which must be struck between meeting [202] real need expeditiously and ensuring that the system is not so loose that significant amounts of money are not wasted on those who do not have a genuine need or right to income maintenance. It will, for that reason, be difficult to bring about a major simplification of the social welfare services without either dis-entitling some of those who at present qualify for payments or, alternatively, bringing in many people who do not at present qualify.

Those remarks are not intended as objections to simplification, far from it. I am simply saying that simplification must be approached seriously and not regarded as a simple and uncomplicated panacea for present problems.

I have resisted making general promises in relation to social welfare. We stayed within our budgets for 1982-83, 1984-85 and we provided in the national plan for increases in our budget provisions for 1986-87. I met a group of trade union members the other day and they wanted all redundancy payments disregarded for assessment for unemployment assistance. They said that Fianna Fáil Deputies had told them there would be no problem in that regard. I do not know if they believed them but I do not make promises like that as I see no point in it.

With regard to the recent manifesto issued by my party, I did not say I would give medical cards to all old age pensioners. For instance, a bank manager in receipt of a pension from the bank and also a contributory old age pension would not have an automatic entitlement to a medical card. Fianna Fáil have made promises in this regard despite the fact that in October 1982 they decided to change all that but sat on it during the course of the general election because they were terrified of antagonising the electorate.

This year, we have to find a sum of £580 million for unemployment related expenditure and the money is provided from income tax and excise duty and a very substantial portion is borrowed abroad and domestically to pay for it. We have delivered more than any other European country in spite of the recession which has lasted far longer and bitten much deeper than any Member could [203] have anticipated. I regularly meet my colleagues, Ministers for Health and Social Security, and when I see what they are obliged to do in the context of their national budgets and provision for social security, we can hold our heads up high and say that, despite the recession, we have indexed our social welfare payments and, in terms of long term payments, have gone above the rate of inflation. In the UK and Northern Ireland, pay-related benefits have been abolished and in much wealthier countries pensions have been reduced. When one realises that for every 1,000 people on the live register, we must provide about £2.5 million, we see how important this Estimate is. I shall conclude now as it is appropriate that as many Members as possible should have an opportunity to contribute to this debate. Accordingly, I commend the Estimate to the House and the Minister of State, Deputy Pattison, who has specific responsibility for social welfare will deal with the issues raised.

Dr. McCarthy: Information on Seán McCarthy  Zoom on Seán McCarthy  During most of the Minister's speech I was a little worried as he seemed deflated and slightly down. However, towards the end he reassumed his usual arrogant, aggressive style. A detailed and fully comprehensive social policy is of paramount importance in the performance of any Government. However, this Government failed to honour their pre-election promises and commitments to the electorate. They have been in office since December 1982 and have introduced three budgets. They have had an opportunity of facing up to the problems of the less privileged sections of our society, the old, the sick, the poor, the unemployed and the disabled but they have shown scant regard for them.

Prior to the last election Fine Gael and Labour clearly and unequivocally promised to produce a social policy which would ensure that the living standards of those on social welfare payments would at least be maintained in line with the increasing cost of living. They clearly stated that social welfare recipients would be cared for by the so-called social [204] partners of Fine Gael and Labour but, unfortunately, this inhuman Government have reneged on all those promises. They turned their backs on those who supported them in the past. They have implemented policies which have severely eroded the standard of living of the less well off. Those people deserve better but they have been treated with complete contempt and disdain by a mean and uncaring Government.

The old, the sick, the unemployed and the poor are being treated as social outcasts by the Minister for Social Welfare and the Government. It does not give me any great pleasure to criticise the Minister, or the Government, but since the Coalition took office there has been a major deterioration in the amount of disposable income available to social welfare recipients. I hope that before they leave office — with a bit of luck that will not be too long — and if they have another opportunity to introduce a budget, they will show more humanity than they displayed in the past. The Taoiseach, and the Ministers for Finance and Social Welfare, have displayed a degree of arrogance towards the electorate which is comtemptible. The Minister for Finance had the appalling audacity in his budget in January to attempt to make a big play of the Government's performance in regard to social welfare increases from 1983 to 1985. He implied that adding the two increases granted during 1983 and 1984 an aggregate increase in the long term rate of social welfare benefits of approximately 19 per cent had been achieved and that that over two years met the Government's commitment to match the rate of inflation. He said that their promise on this had been more than honoured.

A similar statement was made by the Minister for Social Welfare when introducing the Social Welfare Bill, 1985. It is unfortunate that the two Ministers conveniently omitted to inform the public that the increases granted in those two years related to nine months of each year, 18 months in all. That amounts to deceptive, dishonest and fiddling politics at its lowest. Again this year the Minister for [205] Social Welfare granted derisory increases of 6½ per cent and 6 per cent in social welfare payments which will not be paid until the first week of July.

The Minister, and his advisers, must recognise that the so-called increases of 6½ per cent and 6 per cent, respectively, accorded to social welfare recipients which are supposed to keep in line with inflation are not real. The increases relate to eight and a half months of the year and will mean an increase of approximately 4 per cent. That will be lower than the inflation rate for the year. It is obvious that those people will have less of a disposable income this year than they had last year. In the meantime those unfortunate people who deserve the greatest possible support must pay the increases in VAT rates on clothes and on footwear, from 8 per cent to 10 per cent, from 5 per cent to 10 per cent and from zero to 10 per cent, imposed by the Minister for Finance this year. The Government have not made any attempt to cushion decent social welfare beneficiaries against the effects of VAT increases.

I do not know how anybody with an iota of honesty could maintain that social welfare beneficiaries will be as well off this year as they have been in previous years. Since the Coalition took office there has been a continuous slide in the incomes of social welfare recipients. Many of them now live in poverty. I am appalled at the programme adopted by the Government of extending the date from which increased payments are to be made outwards. I do not have to remind the House that Fianna Fáil's record on social welfare payments has been consistent and that we made increases applicable each year from April to cushion those people against increased costs that might arise as a result of budgetary policies.

I appeal to the Minister, if he has an opportunity of presenting another Social Welfare Bill, to return to our style and make the increases applicable from April. In that way he will be ensuring that the beneficiaries will not be less well off during the period from April to July, or until the increases are granted. I hope [206] the Minister takes note of that and, if he is sitting on the Government side of the House next year, he will bear it in mind.

This year the Government granted a pittance of 6½ per cent and 6 per cent, respectively, from 11 July. Last year they granted an increase of 8 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively, applicable from the first week in July. In 1983 the increases amounted to 12 per cent and 10 per cent from the end of June. It is only fair to contrast that with Fianna Fáil's record. In 1980 Fianna Fáil granted a 25 per cent increase from April and in 1981 they granted a similar increase from April. In 1982 Fianna Fáil granted a 25 per cent increase from April. We did not wait until almost half of the year had expired before granting those increases. The increases more than cushioned those recipients against any increase in the cost of living. We are proud of that record. The Government have displayed a peculiar policy towards such people. It amounts to an anti-family policy.

The Government have decided not to grant any increase in children's allowances, another indication of the consistency of the attitude towards families. The House will be aware that the children's allowance scheme was first introduced in 1944 as a support for the larger families. Initially, it applied only where there were three or more children in a family. Since 1963 the scheme has been extended to cover all children and now applies to all children up to 16 and, in the case of 18 year olds, to those who are engaged in full time education or are incapacitated. It has become a traditional income supplement and, in general, has been used conscientiously by mothers to supplement the essential family needs from time to time. It amounts to a hidden reservoir to draw off at crucial times. Almost 500,000 families benefit from the scheme but they were not granted any increase this year.

Last year the allowance was increased by 7 per cent but it only applied from 7 August. In 1983 this Coalition did not give an increase in children's allowances. I regard this as a particular indictment of their social policies. In three years they [207] will have granted just one increase of 7 per cent implemented from 7 August 1984. That policy alone cries out for vengeance from the electorate. There are 453,000 families in receipt of children's allowance payments and they must realise that this Government have failed them badly. The Government have not forgotten about families and children's allowances in their plan of unreality because the Minister for Social Welfare has assured us that they intend to rationalise the system of payments and in 1986 children's allowance payments will be taxed.

This Government have attempted to explain away their failures to provide adequate increases in social welfare payments by pointing out the huge cost of these payments. They have admitted that the fastest growing elements in terms of costing within the Social Welfare Estimate are the payments for unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance. They have conceded that these payments have increased from approximately £345 million in 1982 to £565 million at the end of 1984, or by £10 million a week. Until the problem of unemployment is dealt with, ever-increasing charges will be placed on the Exchequer. As the Minister admitted, for every 1,000 people who become unemployed it costs the Exchequer £2.6 million per year in terms of State benefit.

I ask the Government to do something to ease this growing illness of unemployment. The onus is on them to try at least to arrest the huge rise of those joining the queues at employment exchanges all over the country. This is the biggest problem facing the country and the Government must face facts. They must not run away from this problem or cloud the issue by producing gimmicky Bills which tend to obscure the real issues, which they tend to do when we appear to be getting at the real economic tragedies facing the country.

The Government must try to create an economic climate which is attractive for investment in industry and employment [208] in general. They must improve the incentive to work for both workers and employers and this can only be done by real changes in our system of taxation which is crippling our community.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  The Deputy may make only a passing reference.

Dr. McCarthy: Information on Seán McCarthy  Zoom on Seán McCarthy  The Minister referred to unemployment and I am trying to help him to see if he will do something about it rather than just talking about it. We all know that increased unemployment has imposed a great strain on the finances of the State. Unemployment related expenditure accounts for 27 per cent of the total budget for the Department of Social Welfare and is the biggest overall element of social welfare expenditure, and the Minister has done a fair amount of crying about these increased costs. I accept that we cannot get rid of unemployment overnight but the Government have adopted a defeatist attitude in their plan of unreality. They have accepted that there will be no dimunition of unemployment between now and 1987. The plan gave a figure of 240,000 people unemployed by the end of last year whereas the figure was 234,000.

I ask the Minister to use his influence at Cabinet level so that instead of closing down factories and creating liquidations, this Government will try to create an economic climate in which people will be once again interested in investing, working and employing.

The basic structure of our economy is such that it virtually assures that all people, whether employees or employers, are tax ridden by the State. There is no incentive to work and little or no incentive to employ. The penny must have dropped and the Government must realise that we have reached the stage of diminishing returns as far as taxation is concerned. The Government would be better employed in the interests of the State and of the people if they sat down and made a serious effort to give confidence to the people, especially to young people.

[209] It is particularly saddening to hear members of this Government saying it might not be a bad thing for young people to emigrate — they have been doing that in recent times. I suppose it is so that the live register will look better and there will appear to be fewer people unemployed. Approximately 30,000 young people leave our shores every year. If they were given the right opportunity at home they could be usefully employed and help build the economy and the infrastructure of the country. It is shameful for any Member of this House to advocate the policy of reintroducing emigration which had been the scourge of this country for many years.

We are all aware of the enormous cost to the Department of the funding of the social welfare benefits to which people are entitled. This Government must not forget that people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own are entitled to have a reasonable, decent standard of living for themselves and their families. They cannot be allowed to exist under conditions of penury.

Like everybody else, they are entitled to the essentials of life, including proper medical care, food, clothing and so on. The Minister spoke of the strains being imposed on the Department because of the number of claims being made and the difficulties this caused at times. He also spoke of attempts to improve the servicing. I hope that what he promised there will be implemented.

There seems to be an almost total breakdown, in terms of efficiency, within the Department of Social Welfare. It takes an unbelievable time for applications to be processed, and applicants for old age, widow's and disability pensions and unemployment assistance very often must wait an interminable length of time before payment is made. The Minister has stated in the past that some Members of this House may have contributed to these delays because of the number of queries being sent to his Department. However, Members on all sides have sent in many queries. Members do not very lightly put down questions for written reply about social welfare payments. It is [210] only done because the applicants have not been able to obtain any satisfaction from the Department in trying to have their claims processed. Many have written to and telephoned the Department and three or four months may elapse before any decision is taken.

Four or five weeks ago, there was a type of go slow strike in the disability section of the Minister's Department and to my knowledge no telephone calls were being answered during that time. I am led to believe that this action resulted directly from the Government's embargo on employment within the public sector, with resulting cutbacks in personnel and the officials were finding it very hard to cope.

It is sad and regrettable when a Government adopt such a policy of economic scroogery, one of the cornerstones of that policy being a major cutback in the public sector. That embargo should not apply to the Department of Social Welfare if it creates problems for the sick, the unemployed and the poor who would have to wait longer for their payments.

At the beginning of March of this year, the Government had 360 external people operating as social welfare officers. These included 69 social welfare supervisors, 282 social welfare officers, eight inspectors of agents and one senior inspector of agents. I am quite appalled that these officers take so long to process claims. With respect, a period of three to four months is far too long.

I am also appalled at the investigative methods being used by some of these officers, particularly in regard to means tested benefits. I respectfully suggest that Gestapo-style tactics are being practised on unfortunate old and poor people, with the authority of the Minister and his Government. Strong-arm tactics are being used and poor people have been intimidated by these methods. This is resented, particularly by the old and the Minister is being blamed for those tactics. Unfortunately, he is not present now but I would ask him in a friendly way to change his methods. The present mood throughout the country would result, if [211] there were a contest for the most hated little man in Ireland, in the Minister for Social Welfare winning it hands down.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  He certainly would.

Dr. McCarthy: Information on Seán McCarthy  Zoom on Seán McCarthy  He has abandoned all the philosophies which he espoused in the past. He was supposed to be the socialist par excellence, but has turned his back on the very needy and on those he pretended to support and they now despise him. I have even heard members of the Minister's own party, the Labour Party, down the country describe him as the nastiest little man to have ever been put in charge of the Department of Social Welfare. He has taken a very severe overdose of fiscal rectitude and appears to have succumbed to that disease. He is now attempting to pass it on to the public at large, I hope he will heed my advice.

There are 17 medical referees operating throughout the country. I concede that these are essential because, on occasions, it can be difficult for the patient's own doctor to convince the patient that he or she is fit for work. However, one must have an impartial, objective medical viewpoint which will lead to the proper decision being made in each case. That is particularly important when State finances are involved. It would be wrong for somebody to continue to obtain disability benefit while fit for work and for that reason medical referees are essential.

In 1984, 13,372 people were deemed by medical referees, to be capable of work, as against 8,446 in 1981, when there were 15 medical referees. That is a huge discrepancy.

From my personal observation of some cases, I have to question either the competence of, or the instructions given to, these medical referees. Some of the decisions made by them have been quite appalling. Are these decisions made on the Minister's instructions? I shall briefly mention one case of a man who had formerly been a coalminer and had, as a result, developed the occupational disease of pneumoconiosis, which is one of [212] the natural hazards of that occupation. This man subsequently, probably as a result of the primary condition, developed bronchial asthma and emphysema. He now uses two inhalers on a regular and continuing basis. He is on 12 tablets a day which are broncho-dilators. He has been certified also by a Professor of Medicine in University College, Dublin as having this condition. He has also recently suffered from osteo-arthritis of his right hip joint and has had a total hip joint replacement. He suffers from chronic osteo-arthritis of his neck and he has to wear a cervical collar. This man was seen and examined by one of the Department's medical referees and was deemed to be capable of work. Subsequently he was examined by another medical referee who also thought he was fit to work. He appealed the decision and the appeals officer, who has no medical knowledge, decided he was fit for work.

I question seriously the judgment of those three officers. In relation to the diseases I have described, no responsible person whether medical or a lay person, could have made such a decision. The applicant's medical condition has been certified by Professor FitzGerald, Professor of Medicine in UCD and in St. Vincent's Hospital, Dublin. I do not know how any medical referee could decide that the person was fit for work. Just because this unfortunate man had the civility to dress well and to come before the medical referee in a clean condition instead of in a unkempt fashion he is deemed to be fit for work despite his medical condition. I find it impossible to understand. Perhaps the Minister of State will investigate the operations of some of those officials in his Department.

All of us are aware of the low incomes of smallholders and small farmers in the western counties. Until 1982 these people were paid unemployment assistance on a notional assessment. This Government, as a result of a High Court case that deemed the PLV system to be unconstitutional, used that decision to remove unemployment assistance from these smallholders and small farmers in the [213] western counties. These people are now subjected to the aggressive attentions of social welfare officers who investigate them.

One of the main purposes of the scheme, as well as supplementing the income of small farmers, was to allow the families a sufficient income to remain on the land. One would not have to be an investigating officer to realise that the income on these small farms is meagre indeed. It is very hard to make any money on them. A person will never be in a millionaire's paradise if he lives on rocks and on bog as is the case in respect of many farms in Donegal and in counties along the western seaboard. There is nothing wrong in paying a direct supplement to small farmers who live in uneconomic conditions in disadvantaged areas. I should like to point out to the Minister that the EC believe farmers in such areas should be paid an income supplement. In the interests of humanity and of keeping these people on the land in the western counties, the Government should decide to give them the necessary help. The people concerned feel aggrieved that the Government turned their back on them in 1982 and sold them out. I should like the Government to have another look at this problem and perhaps they might even improve their popularity in those areas. I am not making the case for that reason but because I am worried about the low income of these people.

A few months ago the Government introduced the social employment scheme. At that time we were very responsible in supporting the scheme but we were badly let down because although we were promised that details of the scheme would be given to us in this House that did not happen. The Minister for Labour, the person responsible, was gallivanting in Brussels and the Minister of State was somewhere else. At that time we wanted to help the Government in whatever way possible to tease out the details for young people and particularly for those on long term unemployment payments. I do not mean any disrespect to the Minister of State here present because at that time it was the Minister [214] for Labour who was supposed to spell out the details of the scheme. Now the scheme has broken down.

At the time of its introduction we were worried that if all the details were not spelled out the scheme would not work. The Federated Workers' Union of Ireland are responsible for many employees in county councils, corporations and urban councils. We know they have serious objections to the scheme because they have not been given any assurances that people employed on the scheme on a part time basis — two and a half days work for a payment of £70 — would not be used to replace permanent employees of local authorities. If the Minister could give a guarantee to the union perhaps the scheme could get off the ground. This scheme was introduced with a fanfare of trumpets by the Government. They promised it would employ 10,000 people but, to my knowledge, not one person has been employed as a result. Certainly in my county the scheme has failed. As I did not have an opportunity of doing so when the scheme was introduced, I am now telling the Minister how it might work if the necessary assurances were given to the union concerned. If that should happen there might be co-operation.

Last November — and the Minister flew through it when he spoke — he introduced the family income supplement which was supposed to improve the living standards of lowly paid workers, introduced with great triumphalism by the Government. Prior to its implementation the Government stated quite equivocally that up to 35,000 families would qualify and benefit from it. The Government made enormous play out of the fact that the scheme would be backdated to 1 September 1984. It was done at a particularly difficult time for the social partners in Government, to accommodate some of the more reluctant elements within the Labour Party who were finding the reduction in food subsidies by 50 per cent to be almost totally unpalatable at that time.

We know that this family income supplement, supposed to benefit 35,000 families, has failed almost totally. We [215] know that up to 7 February last there were 9,300 applications of whom only 4,400 were granted the supplement. We know also that up to 21 May 1985 the total number of family income supplements paid was 5,698, the number of awards backdated to 6 September 1984 being 4,966. Therefore 5,698 were paid against a promised 35,000 last November. One could divide this Government's promises by seven; they tell one-seventh of the truth.

We know that the Government, in their revised Estimates for 1985, have been able to drop £2.5 million from estimated spendings on the family income supplement. We know also that the average pay of those in receipt of the family income supplement is approximately £5 or £6 per week which in no way compenstates them for the reduction of food subsidies by 50 per cent or for increased VAT on clothes, fuel and shoes. It is obvious that the scheme has been a tragic failure. It is a classic attempt on the part of the Government to parade their wares in a shameful fashion, pretending to be doing what they are not, a Government attempting to pretend to provide what they were not providing. It is a classic example of this Government's continuing policy of deception of the people.

We are still awaiting the implementation of the European Equality Directive. This Government were supposed to be terribly concerned about women's affairs and their rights. Let me state clearly and unequivocally that we in Fianna Fáil do not in any way oppose the principle of the rights of women to obtain equality. We would be totally supportive of that principle in every way. The Minister is afraid now to introduce the Bill he circulated because some of the dying socialists within the Labour Party — if there are any of them still socialists, and I begin to wonder — might create some noise. Yet the Bill has been circulated since Christmas 1984. We are concerned about this directive and the relevant legislation. It would appear that when the Government introduce this legislation it will be done in such a way that husbands who [216] are in receipt of social welfare payments will no longer be able to claim dependency allowance for their wives. It is also proposed to reduce the dependency allowance for half their children, a reduction of 50 per cent, if the wife is working in a part-time capacity or otherwise, which will savagely reduce the income of many families. Many families will lose between £30 and £45 per week in social welfare payments as a result of the implementation of this directive unless the Government take steps to ensure that no family in receipt of social welfare payments will suffer any loss of income as a result of its implementation.

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Mrs. Fennell): Information on Nuala Fennell  Zoom on Nuala Fennell  One is either for equality or one is not. The Deputy had better explain.

Dr. McCarthy: Information on Seán McCarthy  Zoom on Seán McCarthy  We are absolutely for equality. We stated so in a Private Members' motion. I repeat here that we are for equality but we do not wish equality created——

Mrs. Fennell: Information on Nuala Fennell  Zoom on Nuala Fennell  Then it is nonsense.

Dr. McCarthy: Information on Seán McCarthy  Zoom on Seán McCarthy  ——at the expense of the family. We believe that equality should be implemented but equally we believe that no family on social welfare payments should lose any income as a result of its implementation. That is where we stand and we will not change. We have tried to ensure that the government would move in the right direction, that they would see the light of day, ensuring that families would not lose social welfare payments to the extent it would appear they will. I am convinced that, as in most other areas, this Government are so obsessed with bookkeeping and economic “scroogery” of all kinds that they are unwilling and unlikely to take heed of any advice given them by us or anybody else.

I can assure the House that we shall continue to oppose any measures introduced to reduce the miserly incomes of social welfare recipients. We shall also try to ensure that the Minister brings this [217] directive before the House and grants women the equality to which they are entitled.

Mrs. Fennell: Information on Nuala Fennell  Zoom on Nuala Fennell  The Deputy is talking nonsense.

Dr. McCarthy: Information on Seán McCarthy  Zoom on Seán McCarthy  I am not talking nonsense.

Mrs. Fennell: Information on Nuala Fennell  Zoom on Nuala Fennell  The Deputy is.

Dr. McCarthy: Information on Seán McCarthy  Zoom on Seán McCarthy  It is quite wrong that women should not be entitled to unemployment assistance. It is quite wrong that they should have to suffer reduced payments and benefits. It is quite wrong that the duration of payments to women should be less than that for men.

We hear a great deal nowadays about unemployment and poverty traps. The unemployment trap describes the position of an unemployed person who would be no better off by becoming employed because the level of unemployment payments is so close to net income from working. Some people assess the unemployment trap in Ireland as being largely due to the fact that, unlike income from work, unemployment payments are linked to the number of children a claimant has. As a consequence, their earnings from unemployment payments would be on a par with their earnings as if they were lowly paid, ordinary workers. The family income supplement was designed specifically to boost the income of low paid workers to remedy that anomaly. As we know, the family income supplement has failed miserably to achieve that aim. I have no doubt that the real cause of the unemployment trap as it obtains is the cruel, insensitive and savage system of taxation being imposed on PAYE workers. Until that is remedied the so-called unemployment trap will continue to exist and even grow.

In the early seventies that term “poverty trap” was used to describe the situation in which persons at work could find themselves unable to increase their net income after tax even if their gross earnings before tax increased on an annual basis. In other words, their net [218] income would fail to rise despite increases in earnings. We are all aware that families could lose benefits even though wages had increased. This is as a consequence of increased taxation, the withdrawal of certain entitlements which they held under their original earnings, such as general medical card eligibility. Also local authority rents are based on the differential rent system and when earnings are increased the rent automatically rises. There is something radically wrong with a system where this can happen. When one is supposed to have an increase in income one finds oneself worse off and caught in the poverty trap. A grave responsibility lies with the Government who must make every possible effort to eliminate the more obvious causes of the poverty trap.

I compliment the secretary of the Department of Social Welfare, Mr. Jim Downey, on the excellent job he is doing in most difficult circumstances. I also compliment the members of the indoor staff of the various sections who, despite the embargo on employment which imposes a big strain, have proved so cooperative with the many Deputies. They have coped with a very difficult situation during the past year.

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach and at the Department of Justice (Mrs. Fennell): Information on Nuala Fennell  Zoom on Nuala Fennell  I know it is normal procedure for people on Opposition benches to be fairly critical of Ministers on policies and on action taken, but the last speaker got a little bit carried away and did not accept the reality. Deputy Barry Desmond, as Minister, is a man of grit, courage and integrity. He does not shrink from the responsibilities of his job. Contrary to the comments the Deputy made and the kinds of things the Deputy said people are saying about the Minister, the taxpayer knows and appreciates that the Minister has an obligation to ensure that the best use is made of financial resources supplied by the PAYE workers. This Minister is a refreshingly welcome change from the cloying and obsequious style of Minister we had from Fianna Fáil in Government. Deputy Barry Desmond [219] did not run away from his responsibility in office whether in relation to accounting for spending or changing the family planning laws.

While the Estimate before us is in excess of £1.3 billion, this does not take into account the income element such as pay-related social insurance contributions. The actual expenditure on social welfare for the year will be in the region of £2.3 billion. This is about 14 per cent of GNP and compares very favourably with the position in former years, as the percentage has grown from under 7 per cent in 1972 and in 1973. This increased expenditure in the social welfare area reflects the concern of the Government to ensure that scarce resources are allocated to the area of greatest need.

This morning when I was coming into town I listened to a letter from an oldaged pensioner being read on “The Gay Byrne Hour”. It brought refreshing new thinking to a programme which very often just airs gripes. This old aged pensioner expressed herself well contented that she had her pension, free electricity, free fuel subsidy, free television licence and so on. This lady suggested that, because the free travel was so wonderful and she felt she would be able to pay a little for it, the free travel need not be as free as it is and the Government should bring in a scheme whereby an old aged pensioner would pay 10p for any journey. If the Government did that the £20 million subsidy to CIE could be reduced and it would ensure that funds would be made available for others more needy. I found that kind of generosity and unselfishness very refreshing. It puts into stark contrast a minority group of people who do not appear to realise the need to keep these scarce resources for the people in the greatest need.

We often come across individuals who feel they should get a benefit just because somebody else has it and they do not think about any qualifications for the benefit. Other people will say that they have never had anything free from the State. They speak as if they should get a life insurance payment from the State. [220] One has to explain very patiently that social welfare is only paid to those in need. Politicians should press home that we should keep the resources for old age pensioners, widows, deserted wives, unmarried mothers and people who are ill and unemployed. We cannot justify giving money or other resources to people who do not need them. People have got the idea that they are entitled to receive money. Perhaps Fianna Fáil Governments in the past have tended to buy votes with taxpayers' money and they gave the people the idea that this could go on indefinitely. It cannot, because there is no such a thing as a free allowance. Somebody has to pay for it and inevitably it is the taxpayer.

As the Minister for Health and Social Welfare pointed out at the inaugural meeting of the Commission on Social Welfare in September 1983, the fact that funds allocated to social welfare have doubled as a percentage of GNP does not mean that recipients are twice as well off now as they were then. For example, the biggest and fastest-growing element is the cost of unemployment payments which accounted, at the time the national plan was published, for some 27 per cent of total.

The massive unemployment problem exacerbates the acute difficulties in the public finances. There is a constant necessity for economies over the whole spectrum of public expenditure and this is a severe constraint on further major improvements in social provision. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that there has been a sizeable increase in public financial provision in Ireland for health, education and welfare services. This is essentially a question of fact. But the policy question which arises as a result is whether we are getting the best return from this money or making the most use of these resources and, if not, what steps should be taken to remedy the defects.

Historically, the Irish social security system, in common with the experience in other countries, has evolved from the poor laws of an earlier age. Those laws were simple and arbitrary. Their introduction meant a relief for some where [221] hitherto relief was unknown and not a factor to be taken into account by the ruling powers. The services provided by the Department of Social Welfare have been established over a long number of years to meet growing demands. In the early part of this century non-contributory old age pensions were provided followed by sickness and unemployment benefit schemes. From these beginnings the comprehensive system of the present time encompassing social insurance, social assistance and health care, stems; but, in fact, most of the refinements of the system have taken place since the end of the Second World War. Successive Government have, overall, demonstrated a commendable ability to react to the process of rapid social change over the period. But, because the needs as they were identified were dealt with largely on an individual class basis and because they have selective rather than universal application, the distinctions become blurred at the edges between the various schemes giving rise to anomalies and inequities — and with over 30 social welfare schemes in operation at present the anomalies are many.

There is a close relationship between taxation and social welfare. One is the primary source of funding of the other. In the first report of the Commission on Taxation the commission said that a system of taxation should ideally be equitable, simple and efficient. The same criteria should exist in the social welfare area. The system should be equitable: it should be horizontally equitable in that all people in a similar position should be entitled to the same benefits and vertically equitable in that the greatest provision should be made for those with the greatest need.

The system should also be simple. At present there is a bewildering criteria for eligibility for the various schemes and it takes time, energy and acumen to steer a course through the maze. Finally, the system should be efficient, requiring minimal administration. Unfortunately, the very real necessity to exercise strict [222] control in ensuring that claims are legitimate involves maintaining a superintending hierarchy and the expense of maintaining this structure is a nugatory one as far as the bona fide claimant is concerned.

When the Minister for Health and Social Welfare addressed the inaugural meeting of the commission on Social Welfare he gave some indication of the size of the problem which the commission would be tackling. He indicated that the numbers at present dependent on social welfare payments of one sort or another are of record proportions. At that time, in September 1983, the Department of Social Welfare were paying out benefits to about 635,000 people. To these could be added a further 530,000 dependants, so that the total number benefiting in one way or another from weekly social welfare payments was of the order of 1,165,000 — a mammoth total. If children's allowances payments are taken into account, the overall total of people benefiting would be in excess of two million. I am mindful of the fact that the commission are due to report some time this year and that their terms of reference are deliberately broad and include the question of analysing the interaction of policies in various fields such as social welfare, taxation, health, education and housing in relation to the redistribution of resources. It is to be hoped that their recommendations will be both comprehensive and wide ranging enough to facilitate the formulation of future policies which will result in a more integrated social welfare system with none of the existing anomalies. I look forward to the publication of this report as many of the anomalies which exist at present are the cause of particular hardship to women.

As the House is aware, I chaired a working party on Women's Affairs and Family Law Reform for the past two years, and on Thursday, 16 May we published our report: Irish Women: Agenda for Practical Action. The report is the result of an in-depth examination of the position of women in our society and, in identifying comprehensively the range of [223] issues affecting women today and in putting forward recommendations for change in key areas, it should prove an important base for future policy on areas relating to women, family and family law reform. Many of the recommendations concern the social welfare area and I would like to mention some of these.

One of the major discriminations remaining for women is undoubtedly the area of social security. At present married women receive lower rates in benefit than men in the schemes of disability benefit, unemployment benefit, invalidity pension and occupational injuries benefit. They can receive unemployment benefit for a maximum of only 312 days as against 390 days generally. They are effectively debarred from the unemployment assistance scheme because of the dependency criterion and they have conditions applied to them in the matter of adult and child dependants which are considerably less favourable than those applying to married men. The implementation of the EC Directive on Equal Treatment for Men and Women in Matters of Social Security will eliminate these discriminatory features. Arrangements are in train to introduce the necessary legislation and I would urge the Minister for Social Welfare to ensure that the introduction of this legislation is given full priority as it is estimated that over 40,000 married women will benefit as a result.

There are at present draft EC proposals for directives in the areas of parental leave, temporary work, part-time work and the principle of equal treatment for men and women in occupational social security schemes. The adoption of any of these draft directives by the EC would go a long way towards dealing with the disadvantages encountered by women with home responsibilities, many of whom find no alternative but to break their employment. The fact that women frequently break their employment throughout their working lives, mainly due to child care obligations, is the main stumbling block to women building up entitlements to social welfare benefits. [224] The working party particularly recommend that there should be an urgent national response to the draft EC proposal for a directive on the occupational social security schemes as the position which pertains at present in Ireland represents an important remaining discrimination against women which can have a particularly deleterious effect on their financial position in old age.

The working party also feel that the question of protection for home responsibilities should be addressed within the framework for a national pension plan which the Government intend to publish. We recommend that the framework should, in calculating the length of qualifying service in the case of women, examine the possibility of giving special recognition to periods spent outside employment looking after a family or an incapacitated older relative.

The plight of elderly single women who were never able to work because of commitments to care for a relative in the home was of particular concern to the working party. As the Commission on Social Welfare have been assigned the task of reviewing the social welfare code, we would hope that any recommendations emanating from the commission would recognise the social value of work carried out in caring for relatives at home and that they would take into account the high cost which would otherwise be involved in institutional care.

Despite the lack of basic data and research, it is evident that single parent families, which are mostly headed by women, are greatly over-represented at the bottom of the economic scale. The outstanding feature of these families, when headed by a woman, as reported by OECD member countries, is their low income and very high risk of poverty. Present services for single parents in this country are now examined under the headings of income support, housing, support services generally, tax reliefs and child care services. State income support consists mainly of the social welfare benefits and allowances for widows, deserted wives, unmarried mothers and prisoners' wives. There are anomalies [225] between the schemes. For instance, the insurance based deserted wife's benefit, which was introduced in 1973, was modelled on the widow's contributory pension scheme. However, while there are no age or dependency restrictions on widow's receiving widow's pension, these do apply to deserted wives. Also, the deserted wife who cannot get a job, does not qualify for unemployment benefit either, unless she has been paying social insurance contributions for a minimum period.

There are basic problems attached to establishing desertion in the first place. Unlike widowhood, where marriage and death certificates are available, establishing the fact of desertion is more difficult. Difficulty arises particularly in establishing whether the husband leaves of his own volition. At present, when a wife is deserted, she must make what are called reasonable efforts to trace her husband and get maintenance. To do this, she must often take District Court proceedings against her husband before these reasonable efforts are established. The woman must also be deserted for at least three months and must not be receiving financial assistance from her husband either for herself or for her children. These provisions impose considerable hardship on women at a time when they could do with every help possible.

At least when a deserted wife establishes her case the benefit she receives is an insurance entitlement. This is not the case for unmarried mothers, who merely receive an allowance. The official view on this has always been that there is a fundamental difference between the two categories. However, because these are all selective measures it is not difficult to contemplate a situation where two people are in identical financial circumstances, one an unmarried mother and the other a deserted wife. In this situation the unmarried mother surely has a justifiable grievance.

In our report we recommend that there should be a more generous disregard of earnings from employment for single parent families which would allow them [226] supplement the State payment by earnings and so help them to improve their own living standards. Deciding officers should be permitted a wider range of discretion in cases of assistance payments so that a wife can be paid a significant proportion of the assistance on her own application. Many separated wives have difficulty in securing maintenance from their husbands and a number of submissions were received by the working party recommending that the Department of Social Welfare seek recovery of maintenance from husbands. Even though this is a very complex area, it is clear that the present situation is unsatisfactory and it is to be hoped that the commission will put forward recommendations in this area.

Ideally, there should be a one-parent family benefit and allowance to encompass widows, widowers, deserted wives, deserted husbands, unmarried mothers and prisoners' spouses. The cost implications are certainly prohibitive at the present time. But if the various anomalies between the schemes are to be eliminated, this must be our ultimate aim and I fervently hope that the commission will address this problem and make recommendations in regard to it. Such proposals would facilitate the departure from the term of `deserted wife' which is derogatory. In the meantime, I would ask the Minister for Social Welfare to review the existing administrative arrangements which make deserted wives too easily identifiable. I am sure that improvements can be made here without waiting for the commission's findings.

Before concluding, I would like to commend the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Social Welfare on the increased social welfare benefits which are reflected in the Estimates before us today. In particular I welcome the provisions relating to dental, optical and aural benefits under the social insurance treatment benefit scheme for pregnant women whose husbands are fully insured. This is a first step in the extension of these benefits to all non-working wives of fullyinsured persons and I will be pressing for [227] the implementation of the full scheme as soon as can be.

Mr. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  The most vulnerable sections of the community are affected by the manner in which the Department of Social Welfare carry out their work. There is much trauma for people making application for the first time for disability benefit when they realise the amount of red tape involved before they can receive benefit. That is unacceptable in 1985. The Minister made a very long contribution this morning. If he talks long enough he convinces himself, but nobody else. That relates to his comments on the Department of Health also. We heard so much from the Minister about health benefits that one would think there was no problem.

Hardly any public representative does not have to make representations every week to the Department of Social Welfare on behalf of constituents because of delays in social welfare payments. That too is unacceptable in 1985. We were told computers and modern equipment in the Department would eliminate delays, and yet the problem continues. In the first 12 weeks of this year the community welfare officers in the Cork north city area dealt with 750 supplementary welfare claims because of non-payment of benefit and delays. During the weekend of the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Cork there was no claim for a supplementary welfare allowance. If the problem could be solved for one week, why could it not be solved for the other 51 weeks?

People ask me why payments are suddenly stopped even after they have submitted certificates. People claiming supplementary welfare benefit naturally submit certificates each week. When we inquire from the Department we are informed that no certificate has been received. We have got to the stage in Cork where doctors are refusing to issue duplicate certificates. Patients come back to them continually asking them for duplicate certificates. This is the advice we have been given by the Department. It is very unsatisfactory and something [228] must be done about it. The onus is being put back on the individual to prove that he sent on a medical certificate to the Department. This creates trauma and social problems and financial problems for thousands of families. The present administration of the disability benefit scheme is disgraceful. The Minister should look at this area. There was comment recently about moneylenders taking advantage of people who have no money. Many people who are entitled to social welfare benefit have availed of the services of moneylenders because of delays in making payments. Their backs are to the wall in trying to meet their financial commitments.

Because of the problems I encountered in Cork in the local employment exchange where many of the certificates are submitted, I visited the office. I sympathise with the staff in the Cork office. I went behind the counter and saw that they had to handle queues of people lined up to inquire why they were not receiving their benefit. The Minister must make some effort to improve the position.

As a result of that visit I came to Dublin and I visited the headquarters in D'Olier House. I spent two and a half hours in the disability benefit section examining the system with the officials who were very helpful. I am at a loss to know why there are so many problems in the Cork area which I represent. Week in and week out people come to public representatives and plead with them to make phone calls to the Department to find out whether the cheque is on the way or what has happened to it. They have computers and equipment which were supposed to eliminate the problem and yet it continues.

When the computer was first used in the Department we were told it would solve all the problems. There was a big problem when they were changing from the old insurance number to the new SI number. We were assured that when that problem was solved everything would be all right, and yet the problem continues. We are not concerned enough about the people affected, the most vulnerable section of the community who are unemployed or are applying for disability [229] benefit. Nobody seems to care. The Minister is a great man for talking but, at the end of the day, there is very little to be seen. I appeal to the Minister to tackle this problem and give it priority.

The Minister referred to the cost involved. I am calling for the decentralisation of the Department of Social Welfare. When I visited the Department I thought a vast improvement could be made on behalf of the recipients of disability benefit and social welfare benefit. I suggested that all certificates submitted in Cork should be processed in Cork and the information transmitted to Dublin on the telex machine. This is the only way to deal with the problem in the short term. We must have decentralisation. There is a great deal of talk in the public service about decentralisation. Real progress could be made in this area. We talk about local government reform. It is bad enough to be out of work but many people who were working for 20 or 30 years have had to go to a supplementary welfare officer in Cork to get benefit. That is an indictment and something must be done about it. It cannot continue.

I understand that dealing with supplementary welfare allowances is only a secondary part of the job of the local community welfare officers, yet most of their time is now spent dealing with those claims. The Minister mentioned this morning the cost of regionalisation. I should like someone to calculate the cost of dealing between Cork and Dublin and the time involved for the officials. I know the cost of my own telephone calls and letters from Cork to Dublin. I should like to know how much it costs the Southern Health Board officials and the unemployment exchanges in Cork to deal with matters through Dublin. I have no doubt that it runs into millions. The Minister feels we do not recognise that the central Department are dealing efficiently with most of the claims but the main area causing concern is disability payments. I ask him to give serious consideration to regionalisation as the only answer to this problem in the long term. In the short term I would ask him to improve the situation in Cork.

[230] There are major problems in Cork whenever there is a long weekend. By this time next week I will have made many more representations to the Department because of the bank holiday on Monday. It is not good enough to say we cannot do anything because we cannot fit five days' work into four. The Minister frequently referred to the computers used in the Department. People must be facilitated by the Department but this is not happening. Every long weekend we have the same problem and public representatives are up in arms, appealing to the Minister to do something about the situation. We are not concerned enough about the most vulnerable section of society. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that everything possible is done to minimise their problems.

Recently I had a case where ten medical certificates were submitted to the Department. A woman was waiting ten weeks for payment when her husband was hospitalised in Cork following a serious accident. She made repeated attempts to get in touch with the Department. They informed her after a week that one of the numbers she submitted was wrong and she replied within a few days, yet it took ten weeks for her case to be dealt with and sorted out. There is no justification for that kind of carry on, if we have the sophisticated machinery to which the Minister refers. There are many other such cases. The system is not working and people are suffering as a result.

The Minister mentioned the telephones which have been made available and I hope this will improve the situation. I compliment the staff who have been answering the telephones for us. They assist us in every possible way. They may not always have the answers we want but they are available and provide an excellent, friendly service.

I now refer to the matter of medical referees. I know of cases in Cork where people have been sent to medical referees and been deemed fit for work. In one case a man who was in hospital for an operation was called before the referee. In another case a man who was deemed [231] by the medical referee to be fit for work was taken into the regional hospital the following week for an operation on his back. On numerous occasions I have had to get in touch with the medical section of the Department. I am at a loss to know how a man sitting down and looking at a person can know whether he is fit for work. The complaint we get is that people are not even being examined by the medical referees yet they are being deemed fit for work. This is happening and cannot be allowed to continue. I do not condone people codding the system and if a person is found fit for work then he should go back. However, I know of many cases which have involved people who were genuinely ill. I am very annoyed about the way people are being found fit for work by the medical referees. If a consultant or a specialist decides that a person is unfit for work and the medical evidence is available to the medical referee, whose advice should be taken? Whose advice would the Minister take? I would take the consultant's or specialist's advice but not the advice of some of the medical referees in Cork. I am glad of the opportunity to state this and I hope it will be investigated. People have come to us whose own doctors will not allow them to go back to work but who have been deemed fit for work by the medical referees. They are in a “catch 22” situation and do not know where to turn. Surely people are entitled to better than that. Consultants have the most modern equipment available to them while medical referees are sitting behind desks with their hands folded and will not even examine patients.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  That is a very serious charge the Deputy is making. It certainly should not be made lightly because taken literally it is a charge of something amounting to fraud.

Mr. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  People have come to me and stated what I have said here.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  I am confining my words to the part of the Deputy's [232] speech which implies that the medical doctors are issuing opinions without examining a person. That is the only part I am objecting to. We can differ with their views but I would not make that particular charge lightly.

Mr. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  I was conveying what people conveyed to me. In reply to a parliamentary question by me on 30 April this year regarding the family income supplement, the Minister stated that the number of applications received at 31 December 1984 was 8,880, the number of supplements awarded at that date was 1,326 and the value of those supplements in respect of the period 6 September to 31 December 1984 was approximately £148,000. In the 1983 budget when the Minister for Finance announced that he intended bringing in or making provision for a family income supplement he said that the Government were conscious of the financial difficulties of working people who had very low incomes. He said the Government would endeavour as quickly as possible to provide assistance in the form of a family income supplement for these people. That was in 1983 but we did not hear of the supplement again until 1984 when the Minister stated that unfortunately because of unforeseen difficulties the scheme could not be implemented in 1983. He then informed us that he was making provision for £9.4 million for 1984 and that the scheme would come into operation in November 1984. On April 30 I was informed by the Minister that 1,326 applicants had received assistance from the scheme. Would the Minister not agree that the scheme has been a total failure? He has stated that 35,000 families would benefit from the family income supplement but more than two years later only 1,326 families have benefited.

In reply to a supplementary from me on 1 May the Minister stated that the scheme would need to be publicised more in order to encourage people to avail of it. Obviously there was a total lack of research leading up to the introduction of the scheme and this led to the Minister, [233] 12 months after its introduction, telling us that unforeseen difficulties had arisen in regard to it. Clearly, the scheme will not work in its present form. Therefore, I urge the Minister to reconsider the whole matter especially if he is concerned about those 35,000 families whom he expected to benefit from it. I know of families who applied for the scheme but who were informed that they did not qualify for inclusion in it and I would regard these as being in need of assistance.

One might well compare this scheme with the infamous £9.60 supplement that every housewife was to receive by post every Friday morning. In the case of the family income supplement more money has been spent on publicity than on research. It is a fallacy for the Government to continue to operate the scheme in its present form. It will not become a success as a result of receiving more publicity. The Minister must ascertain where the flaws are. The Government have spent enough money on publicity in promoting themselves individually and in promoting schemes that have been a total disaster. They should not spend any more money on the scheme in question without first engaging in much more research in this area.

There is a reduction in the Estimate of £1.7 million in respect of children's allowances. Is there a fall in the population or is there some other reason for this decreased allocation? Again, it is an indictment of the Government that at a time when the unemployment level is at its highest there is no increase in children's allowances and that in addition the food subsidies have been halved. These measures have created very severe hardship for thousands of families. The 35,000 families referred to by the Minister last year are not only to receive no increase in children's allowances but have to bear the brunt of reduced food subsidies and of the imposition of VAT on clothing. Yet, only very few of them are benefiting from the family income supplement. There is greater poverty today than has ever been the case before and [234] that, too, is an indictment of this Government. By their policies they have indicated that they are not concerned for the less well off. The Minister and his colleagues in Labour must be ashamed of that situation. Labour claim to represent the workers and the less well off but there has been no evidence of this since their coming into office.

Time and again we hear representatives of the Minister's party speak as if that party were in Opposition whereas they are in a situation where they can do something about the problems of the less well off. Though only in office for two and a half years, the Labour members of this administration will be remembered for a long time for their inaction.

Social welfare is a vital area. Many thousands of people rely on the social welfare system for their survival. These are people who through no fault of their own are sick or unemployed or who for some other reason are not able to provide for themselves. Many of them are on the poverty line. Having canvassed in Cork during the past couple of weekends I can say without fear of contradiction that we here cannot be fully aware of the extent of the problem. If something is not done for those people who are depending on the State all of us here will have to pay the price shortly. These hard pressed people are aware of the inequality in the whole system. They realise the manner in which social welfare is being distributed but I trust that as a result of my contribution the Minister will take some action that will allow people have confidence in the administration of social welfare. If he is not prepared to take any such measure, he and his colleagues in Government should step aside and make way for us. Then, the whole matter of social welfare could be dealt with properly.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The Minister would not need to take seriously the offer of the last speaker because a return to office of the Opposition would not be in the interest of those who are in need and who are the subject matter of this Estimate.

[235]Mr. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  I would not expect the Deputy to agree with me.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  That is how democracy works.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  The Deputy is stuck with the label, too.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  One can recall that in about 1979 there was a very big backlog in the Department.

Mr. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  The backlog was cleared after the weekend of the Fine Gael Ard Fheis.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  I do not recall the same level of anxiety emanating then from the party opposite. I do not deny that there may have been genuine reasons for the backlog and for the long delays in payment.

The magnitude of this Estimate is an indication of the massive input into social welfare. We are talking about a figure of £2.3 billion in the overall cost of social welfare and £1,323.149 million of that is made up by the Exchequer. I should like to address my remarks to the vast extent of the social welfare area. Payments such as old age pensions, children's allowances, sick benefit and so on have to be provided for in every country but what I regard as a very doubtful development is the diversion of the greater proportion of social welfare spending towards the alleviation of the unemployment problem. The unemployed are entitled to help. They must be catered for. Having to meet such a vast unemployment problem is undesirable.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  Hear, hear.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  I am glad to note that the Deputy opposite is in agreement. It behoves us to look at the problem objectively and without making political capital out of it. We are talking in terms of spending £44 million per week to over 1.25 million people. We are heading for a situation where almost half the population will be in receipt of social welfare of [236] one kind or another. The only conclusion discerning people can come to is that the burden will increase on those who are fortunate enough to be at work.

We must look at other ways to change the system and to combat unemployment. The cost of social welfare spending is one seventh of GNP and almost 25 per cent of current Government spending. Despite the fact that the Opposition will call for increases in Government spending, which is understandable as elections are around the corner——

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  It is how it is spent and where it is spent.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The Opposition will always call for the spending of money they were not able to find when they were in Government and had an opportunity to do something themselves. However, that is democracy. We accept that it happens but we do not always agree with it. I welcome the increases that have been given this year. Despite what members of the Opposition have said and will say, they are in line with inflation and will compensate the underprivileged for increases in living costs. No one will quibble with that. It is the responsibility of the rest of the community to ensure that those who are not as well off as the rest have at least a basic living standard and sufficient to exist on.

The Minister mentioned the growing development of long term unemployment. This was mentioned during the debate on the Estimate for the Department of Labour. If this development is allowed to continue unchecked the morale of the people will be severely shaken and those who are long term unemployed will be equally demoralised. Apart from making a political issue out of the matter it is something we in the House must try to do something about.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  On a point of order, I want to be clear on something the Deputy said.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  That is not a point of order.

[237]Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  The Chair did not listen to my question. I am asking on a point of order about the role of the House. Is it the role of this House to do something about it or is it the role of the Government?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  The Deputy can deal with that in his contribution. That is only childish.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  It is not. We hear the plea: “Let us do something about it”. We are not the Government, they are.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  I was anticipating your contribution and have no doubt that in your contribution you will see fit to point out——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  The Deputy should address the Chair.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  ——that Governments are responsible for all that is ill and Oppositions have all the answers.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  That is not the case. The Government have responsibilities.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  That has been the tenor of Opposition speeches for the last few weeks and I do not expect it to change, especially between now and 20 June.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  Let us change places if you want us to do it.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The reason I would not wish the Opposition to do it is that when they had an opportunity to do it they failed miserably. I do not expect that in the last two years in Opposition they have found the wherewithal that they did not have then. Even if they spend another two and a half years in Opposition they will still not find it.

The point I was making before I was interrupted was that apart from the political issue which no doubt the Opposition will make of the long term unemployed we must change our attitudes in the House and in society in relation to our [238] way of dealing with unemployment. Perhaps we could create a new system whereby the long term unemployment system would no longer operate but would be replaced by a national minimum wage and training schemes or temporary employment could be offered on environmental projects or on ancillary services provided by health boards. Something along those lines must be considered as a means of dealing with this problem. I know from dealing with constituents' queries and from looking at the problem that unless we do — Deputy O'Kennedy might not agree with this — all parties will equally share the blame for not dealing with the problem that needs to be faced up to.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  Why should we be blamed for what you failed to do?

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Simply because in all your offerings which I have heard since coming into the House you have not offered anything except a political solution.

I know that there is an embargo on public service recruitment but it might not be a bad idea to examine again the question of recruitment to the Army. I recall being told in reply to a parliamentary question that the benefits to the State would be much greater if a person enlisted in the forces rather than being in receipt of long term unemployment assistance. Indeed, if he had a family he would probably also have to get assistance from the health board by way of supplementary welfare benefits and so on. This is what I mean when I talk about changing our attitude in relation to unemployment and it is necessary to do so in the short term.

Deputy Wallace referred to the question of medical referees. People on sick benefit are often summoned to appear before a medical referee for examination. In many cases, they are deemed fit for work and their sick benefit is terminated. They then have to revert to unemployment assistance or a supplementary welfare allowance from the health board. A great amount of administrative time is [239] lost when the person is cut off sick or disability benefit. Representations and telephone calls are made from the individual concerned and the amount of queries generally which have to be raised by virtue of a decision like that is abominable. The system should be streamlined and a means found whereby the individual concerned could have his appeal processed quickly as in some cases it can take up to six months and there is then a backlog of entitlements in regard to the health board. In 1979, when there was a postal strike it took about a year and a half before things were finally sorted out. The whole process must be rationalised and even if an individual is found fit for work there should be no change in his or her circumstances until the appeal is heard. Money is lost in administrative time by delays and the duplication process and the situation should be rectified.

I wish also to refer to the question of examination of cases by the health boards through community welfare officers. In times of economic recession, greater pressure is put on all support services and, obviously, any weaknesses will be shown up. Social welfare and other officers, by virtue of their increased workloads, find it difficult to give the time they would like to give to deal with cases. However, in recent years people are coming on to the unemployment register who were never unemployed before. They are very reluctant to register for unemployment benefit or assistance and, indeed, in many cases, they do not qualify for any benefits. They find it difficult to pluck up the courage to appeal for assistance and it is a traumatic experience, especially when it happens to people that you know personally. I know people who have gone along to health centres and sat for days watching before they plucked up courage to approach the official. In fairness, the great majority of people working in those centres treat people fairly and assistance is given promptly but there is a minority of cases where, for one reason or another, the applicants may not get what is statutorily theirs and may very well go away feeling aggrieved [240] at their reception. In examining the cases of individuals in such circumstances, it should be borne in mind that those people have been working all their lives, are proud, dignified and very conscious of the fact that their circumstances have changed. They do not like begging for assistance; it is a traumatic experience which should not be added to, unwittingly or otherwise, and it is imperative that all officers in the social welfare system are aware of this.

We should also examine employment exchanges and the kind of accommodation which is available there. While substandard accommodation was acceptable in days gone by when the numbers were much smaller and the amounts of money handled was not so great, we now have different requirements and there is a need to update many employment exchanges and to preserve some kind of privacy. There is a great need to preserve some kind of privacy at local employment exchanges for those who call to collect their payments or discuss their problems. Accommodation should be such that people do not have to discuss in public their problems with officials.

Constituents in Kildare have problems in regard to local exchanges. In the biggest town in the county, Leixlip, there is not an employment exchange. There is an exchange in the town where I live, Maynooth, but there is not one in Celbridge nor is there a bus service from that town. There is a need for such an exchange in Celbridge to ensure that people do not have to travel half way to Dublin to get a bus to go to a labour exchange which is only a couple of miles from their home. There is a great need to improve accommodation at local exchanges. The accommodation must be adequate to deal with the people who call weekly. It is also necessary to provide greater security. A number of robberies have occurred in employment exchanges in recent times. They seem to be a soft target. We must protect the staff and those who call to collect their benefits. The Maynooth exchange has been robbed on three occasions and it is obvious that there is a need for greater [241] security there. The problem should be tackled immediately.

I should like to emphasise the need to speed up the processing of claims for social welfare benefits. Deputy Wallace dealt with that issue at great length and I do not wish to go over the same ground but suffice it to say that there is a need to speed up the process. If there is a shortage of staff it should be possible to redeploy people to ensure that the least well off in society are given a reasonable service. An improvement in that service would mean a saving in the long run because it would eliminate the need for representations and the duplication of applications.

I should like to compliment the Minister on his Estimate and I hope some of the points I have mentioned will be acted on. I have no doubt that some of the matters to be mentioned in a few moments by the Deputy sitting opposite will be taken into account. I hope that Deputy will be realistic about the matter and be conscious of the fact that people outside expect us not to be so political and to be more inclined to address ourselves to the urgent problems in our society.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  The atmosphere in the House for the debate demonstrates the problem. We are discussing what has become a crisis of major proportion and Deputy Durkan has acknowledged that. Here are the comfortable representatives from our various constituencies, from Dún Laoghaire, Kildare, Carlow-Kilkenny and Tipperary, discussing these problems when the reality outside is something very different from what one would gather from the atmosphere in the House. I will try, as Deputy Durkan has suggested, to make a positive contribution. I will try not to be too political although we are, in the proper sense of the word, in a political assembly. Our role is to take political action but it is time that we all woke up to the terrible reality, one that should have us expressing not just concern but determination to take action, that if we do not do something about the obvious signs around [242] Dublin and elsewhere we will become rather irrelevant.

It is fine for Deputy Durkan to say that we are all responsible but it is the sole and exclusive responsibility of the Government to deal with the problem. It has never been the practice in democracy, here or elsewhere, for the Opposition to be given the opportunity when in Opposition to deal with a problem. I agree we all have a certain amount of responsibility but it is up to the Government to do something better. They must accept responsibility for the terrible problem that exists. It is time that certain things were said clearly. So often we have ignored the signs and when the explosion came we all went for tinkering reactions, reacting this and that way, more police, more of this and that. The signs are so clear now that it is time we did something effective about the problem.

I should like to refer to what the Government are proposing to do about this crushing problem that will envelop all of us if we do not give better hope and prospects to our people. The Government's programme Building on Reality presumes that we will have an average of 210,000 people unemployed and on the live register. Already it has been demonstrated that that is an unreal projection. For the first six months of this year the average has been running at more than 230,000 on the live register. We must remember that there are many people who are not on that register for many reasons. Some are ashamed. Some would not qualify. Some professional people — would Members believe that they include architects? — who do not have jobs are not on the register. Government projections in their estimates are totally inadequate because of the unreal provision in Building on Reality and the Estimate before us.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Now tell us Fianna Fáil's proposals.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  The people are looking to the Government to do what they [243] asked to be allowed to do. That is what I have to deal with in the first instance.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  I meant proposals.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  It is clear that the provisions in the revised Estimates for the Public Service were very different from the original Estimates. For example, in the revised Estimates old age pensions were increased by £7 million and subsequently reduced; between the original and the final Estimate there is a difference of £10 million in unemployment assistance — from £306 million to £316 million. What kind of planning projection is that? The fact is that even the final Estimates cannot be relied upon. They are totally inadequate and by the end of the year it will emerge that the amount of money provided for unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance in the revised Estimate is totally inadequate. If you estimate for 210,000 people who are unemployed and the average is later found to be 230,000, then the money has to be found for the extra 20,000. The Government are presenting figures that do not stand up, and they know it. As unemployment patterns continue, the amount of money required for unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit will be much higher than is provided in this Estimate.

If we look at the pattern which is emerging, particularly for the long term unemployed we note that most of these people go on unemployment assistance when their stamps are finished. Anyone in contact with reality knows that the numbers claiming unemployment assistance are growing very quickly because people rendered unemployed six months or 12 months ago find that their stamps have run out and they claim unemployment assistance. The only hope is that this will not happen if emigration continues, and at present that is running at 30,000 per annum. That could reduce the numbers of those claiming unemployment assistance.

The number of people dependent on unemployment assistance is growing but [244] what do we find in this Estimate? Last year the amount provided was £293 million and this year the figure will be £316 million — this is in line with inflation, something over 7 per cent. That is totally and utterly inadequate to meet the claims for unemployment assistance which will be made this year. That is the harsh reality which the Government wish to ignore.

I want to emphasise that the Government's projections cannot and should not be relied upon. They should take back these figures and revise them yet again and put in figures that are not in line with the fiction in Building on Reality of 210,000 unemployed, but in line with the reality of over 230,000 unemployed. These trends can be seen wherever one looks. I want to look at the burden on the State of meeting these enormous extra costs in relation to PRSI. It now emerges that because of the growing numbers of unemployed claiming PRSI, this year the difference between the contributions and the payments out of that fund will be, on the Government's projections, at least £310 million. That figure was as low as £100 million in 1981 and £310 million has to be found to fund the growing demand on the PRSI fund this year.

Now we come back to reality. I have pointed out that the figures provided are enormous although they are totally inadequate. How does one begin to ensure that we can reduce not just the burden on the Exchequer but, more important, create conditions for those who are being subjected to this terrible morale-sapping experience of unemployment to find a better way of life?

A number of reports issued recently of which we will have to take note— people talking about the effects of unemployment on mental health, marital problems and so on. If we imagine that a married couple, with children, on unemployment assistance is anything like a meaningful, dignified experience, then we are ignoring reality. The fact that people who have been employed for many years now find themselves on unemployment assistance with totally inadequate resources, never [245] mind the lack of respect which is perhaps an even bigger burden, is giving rise to all kinds of acute and chronic social problems. I do not suppose anybody can disagree with that.

There are two ways to approach this problem. The first is to ask what we are going to do when there are terrible tensions in families in receipt of low social welfare payments, which can lead to marriages falling apart. One way is to say we will allow divorce, freedom of choice — let us react that way, because we find more and more that that call is being made. The second and much better way would be to ensure adequate pensions, particularly in low income families. The lack of dignity and the tensions which arise among members of the family, husband and wife, parents and childern and also between neighbour and neighbour must be avoided through a new and better way. There certainly must be a better way than the present. We have a Labour Minister present at the moment and are the Government seriously telling us that this is what they are prepared to preside over? Families breaking up, unprecedented human misery. Crime, reaction, rejection. Are we not going to get some real plans based on employment opportunity?

I do not know if it is appropriate on this debate to make proposals in relation to better plans.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  A passing reference.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  We are dealing with unemployment in that sense and with the consequences, which are horrific. Could I focus for a few moments——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  Very briefly. You are not dealing with economic matters.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  We are, you know. We will have neither an economy nor a nation left if this goes on.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  You know very well the parameters of the [246] debate on the 1985 Estimate for Social Welfare. I cannot allow you to continue——

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I have not even started yet.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  You indicated it yourself. I am anticipating you.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I did, quite so.

Mrs. Barnes: Information on Monica Barnes  Zoom on Monica Barnes  The Deputy should have been here for the Estimate on Labour last Friday.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  If I was not here for the Estimate on Labour, let me say this much——

Mrs. Barnes: Information on Monica Barnes  Zoom on Monica Barnes  The Deputy should have been.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  Let me tell the House what I would have said then. I want to have it on the record here, for about the twentieth time, despite the fact that the Minister for Finance regularly misrepresents me, that if they shipped off millions of pounds from the Department of Labour and the schemes——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  Deputy, please.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  ——and agencies and short term programmes and palliatives and put it into real planning——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  If you had been here last week, you could have said all that.

Mrs. Barnes: Information on Monica Barnes  Zoom on Monica Barnes  Last Friday.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  You were not here and you are not entitled to say this now.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  You are telling me that I must deal with the consequences. I shall deal with the consequences. Let no one complain from the Government side that the Opposition are not prepared [247] to put up the alternatives, if that is the case. If you bind me, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I am bound. I must be. We can change places and all we do is shell out the money, if that is what we are confined to here. It does not make much sense, but I shall confine myself on that basis, nonetheless. With current economic policies — and that is about as far as I can go, apparently — we are undermining the social order, particularly in our major cities and towns. It is too late if we complain about joy-riding, car stealing and so on. We are going to have a Minister for Justice with a very sympathetic sensitive approach saying how he will deal with the thugs. It is time we thought about what creates “thugs”— I do not choose to use that word — in our society. It is time we started to think about the conditions which have bred the rejections from the young people of today. If we are not prepared to do that we will be condemned, and properly so. For that reason, let me focus particularly on unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit and the consequences of being forced to live on these. Dependence on these benefits is growing at an enormous rate under this Government and is undermining our society, undermining all that we would like to respect in this nation.

I hope I am not misrepresenting Deputy Durkan as believing that we are paying out too much. We are, because of the lack of employment opportunities — far too much. However, we are not paying out too much in the sense of those who need this assistance and are somehow going to have to do with less. We are not providing nearly enough for the unemployed, particularly those on unemployment assistance. We have had reports recently about mental breakdown, which is all around us. There are very severe mental tensions among the families of the unemployed caused by a lack of dignity. The whole basis on which the order of our society is built — the family — is being undermined before our eyes. Institutions are full of people trying to escape from the tensions of normal [248] life, as distinct from being helped to cope with the realities of life and to exploit its opportunities. We find a reaction among the rest of us, the comfortable ones, to those who reject us, sometimes in violent ways.

We talk in Dublin 4 or Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown about urban vandalism and the growth of the misuse of drugs. Is there not a hope that, instead of always talking about the problems, we might begin to renew the spirit of this nation in a sense of cohesion, purpose and, particularly, development of our resources in the economy? The only role of political action is to create a climate in which the doers will do, the goers will go, the creators will create so that those who are dependent, sick, old and young — and some few unemployed because there always will be those — will be cared for and secure. That is what gives a society the right to be called a society. The original derivation of the word is the old latin term socio, friends associated together. That is why it is called society. We work together, care together, provide for each other together. We are failing to do that now. When we get the symptoms and reaction we then, and this Government particularly, predictably say that we are going to deal with it, to put these people away. Of course, they must be put away, if you want to put it that way. We are not even going to educate them when they are in prison. Did one ever see such a deplorably narrow attitude? I do not mind saying it is an ultra right wing——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  You are not to get into a debate on the Estimate for the Department of Justice.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  An ultra right wing approach to social concerns. Let us not pretend that all these matters are not interlinked.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  Be very factual.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I know that. I am supposed to confine myself.

[249]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  You are long enough in the House to know that this cannot be allowed on this debate.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  One is entitled to make references, at least by way of demonstration. I am just 20 years in the House. Any attempt to ignore the inter-linkage is unreal. I would not like to see this House being demeaned by our pretending that these matters are not interlinked. We will not even provide education for these people when they are in prison. We send them back out again——

Mrs. Barnes: Information on Monica Barnes  Zoom on Monica Barnes  May I remind the Deputy that there was a year's debate on the Criminal Justice Bill and I failed to see the Deputy there. He had that opportunity.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  Deputy Barnes is tempting a response.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I have been more diligent in my attendance in this House at debates in every area — I am not going to boast about it — than any Deputy, including Deputy Barnes. I have particular responsibility for Finance, where one must give considerable time to debates. The Deputy need not make a point of my not being here for the debate on the Estimate for Justice or on the Criminal Justice Bill. I did make contributions, such as were appropriate — not many, but some limited ones. Had I that responsibility, I would make a lot more.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  You were doing fine, Deputy.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I want to look at how the Government apparently react to the problems of unemployment. There are a number of ways of doing this. First, one cuts back on the provisions for old age pensioners, which has happened here. Will somebody tell us that we will have fewer old age pensioners this year than last year? With the increasing numbers, the actual provision is only 3 per cent up on last year. So much for keeping in line [250] with inflation, which is the continual cry we hear from this Government. We have many thousands more old age pensioners in 1985 than we had in 1984 and there will be many more in 1986 because of the demographic pattern. I am sure the Minister can get from his officials statistics showing that the growth in the over-65 age group is very considerable. However, the Government have provided for an increase of only 3 per cent in gross terms over last year, which does not match inflation.

The Government have a way of dealing with the old. In March last they produced a list showing how savings amounting to £28 million could be achieved. Among the items was a saving of £1,500,000 in respect of old age non-contributory pensions. Is that not clearly evidence of lack of concern for the old? That kind of saving cannot be made by pretending that there is no growth in the number of old people. It can be done by ensuring that those who are entitled to qualify do not qualify or that if they do they get much less than their entitlement.

All Members of this House must be conscious of the fact that many old age pensioners are being deprived of their full entitlement and some are being deprived of any entitlement. This is because the Government have decided that they will provide much less than what is necessary for people who will always be dependent on the State, namely, the old. We could do something about the unemployed if we had the right policy. The old people cannot be brushed aside, we cannot pretend they do not exist. Members of this House are well aware of the problems they suffer and how they are being deprived of their rights. The Minister and the Government are using the old age pensioners as a means of cutting back a few million pounds to help to finance the huge amount of unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance payments that are the direct and inevitable consequences of this Government's economic policy. Is it not a terrible reflection on us that we are making the old pay for this? The old people are finding that [251] their means are being revised all the time and many of them are not allowed to qualify for benefit at all.

That is the way this Government make savings, by reducing the entitlement of those who are most dependent. The PRSI demand grows by £300 million because of unemployment. Unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance is growing to the point where, as Deputy Durkan has acknowledged, more than 25 per cent of total public expenditure is going on social welfare. However, this enlightened Government have a way of dealing with the matter, namely, by cutting the provision for the old people. That is a horrible disgrace. If we want to generate respect for the old in our society we are going about it in the worst possible way. They have no pressure group to represent them. They are timid, kind and generous of heart, but that is the way they are being treated. We could not even increase the tax exemptions for old age pensioners.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  This is the sixth time I have had to call on the Deputy to stay with this Estimate.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I heard the Minister of State for Women's Affairs this morning lecturing us here about marriage and so on but that seemed to be relevant.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  I am not lecturing the Deputy. I am indicating the parameters of the debate and I am telling him that I have brought this to his attention five or six times.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  May I refer the Chair to the statement this morning of the Minister of State for Women's Affairs.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  I have no interest in what the Minister of State said.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  The Chair allowed that speech.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  I am in the Chair at the moment.

[252]Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  The Chair is permanent. The Chair is the Chair.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  We are dealing with the 1985 Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare. I realise the Deputy is endeavouring to make points regarding pensions for the old. This is part of the debate, but when the Deputy starts to deal with tax bands and allowances that is entering another area.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  If the term “social welfare” means anything it should mean providing for the needs of people in that category and lessening the burden on them.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  The Deputy is talking about the Department?

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  We could end this debate by giving the Department another £50 million from somewhere and let them shell out the money for more unemployed people, for the old, the sick and the disabled. Let us give them that money. Is that what the Chair wants me to talk about?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  The Deputy knows well what I am indicating. He is not naive.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I am not. I know what the Chair is trying to indicate.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  I am trying to indicate that the debate deals with the Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare. The Deputy was doing well while he remained on that matter but he moved away from it.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I thank the Chair for that commendation. I must put it in print in the local paper. I suppose I can talk about items such as poverty programmes and so on? I have seen some of the reports on poverty. I am saying that the Government should not impose tax on old people particularly if the cost——

[253]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  The Deputy is moving away from the Bill.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  You should read the reports of the Combat Poverty group.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  The Deputy knows well what I am trying to indicate.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  The Chair is trying to confine the debate so much as to make it unreal.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  That is a ridiculous statement.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  It is not ridiculous. You are going to get it now, each and every section dealing with old age pensions, children's allowances, unemployment benefit——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  As long as the Deputy is relevant he can stay here until tomorrow evening as far as the Chair is concerned.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I will deal with children's allowances. What has been done in this area has helped to undermine family stability. The provision here is exactly the same in money terms as last year, not one penny increase. We have a growing population. The number of young people who could qualify is the same at least as last year, or are we getting to the stage that we will get rid of them as well? Do we really care for family stability or will we just deal with the consequences of family breakdown? We hear a lot about this from Minister and from Deputies on the other side, giving us new ideas that will change everything. Their attitude is that when there is a breakdown in family life they will let people break up, they will ensure they have the right to break up irrespective of the effect on children who were not in existence when the original contract was made but who will be affected by the break-up of the contract. However they do not talk about the children. The reality is that the Government have cut back on allowances for [254] children. Is the Minister aware that in France and in other European countries they are increasing children's allowances because they recognise that the pattern of diminishing families is bad for society? It is recognised that Europe is going through a period of great social decline. When people look back on the seventies and eighties in Europe in terms of the family and society it will be seen as a period of the greatest social decline, apart from the terrible problems of the war years. Instead of recognising what they now recognise and increasing children's allowances for low income families, we are going in the opposite direction, pinning it back, decreasing it and decreasing all kinds of income support for families which is adding to the social tensions so obvious throughout our community at present.

We are developing here a new culture of social rejection. It is a terrible thing to have to acknowledge but we here are responsible for it, the Government of the day who want to ignore the need for family stability, family income support, for adequate unemployment payments but, much more importantly, for adequate job opportunities about which I am not allowed to speak. This Government are bringing about — not exclusively, let me acknowledge that; it is not deliberate nor is it exclusively through them — and presiding over a breakdown of our social order. In that context I might say that the indignity of people who want to hide from others is something we should begin to remember — the sense of repression, of anger is something that those of us sitting in this nice quiet House today should be conscious of. Out there in this city, in many homes at this moment, there is social breakdown of a horrific order. The Government particularly are those who are charged with doing something about it and are failing utterly. It is unjust, wrong and dangerous.

In terms of unemployment assistance, in the chronic unemployment areas, when you get people mingling only with other people who are unemployed, almost all of them in their communities, [255] the salt of the earth, the finest people one could find in this grand old city, the real old Dubs, when one finds them mingling with others in the same condition, unemployed, no hope, no respect, with family problems, pressure all the time, then it will be seen that there is created an unemployment culture with all its consequences. It is time we faced up to this reality. We cannot confine ourselves to talking about urban vandalism in Dublin 4 when it breaks out of the ghettoes where we might comfortably think it belongs and only talk about it when it hits Dublin 4 or Dún Laoghaire. What about caring about it where it is all the time, in the inner city, in our other cities, Cork, Limerick and regrettably, in our own towns? If we do not face it — and we are not facing it at all now — we will pay the price and this Government will have to answer for it. That is why I wish, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I was allowed to advance the better way you refused to allow me to do. It is too bad to be talking just about symptoms and not being able to cope.

Might I give some topical examples, of symptoms which have been shameful, horrific and tragic in the extreme. Last week I was over in the North of England, in the cities of Manchester and Liverpool, on a brief visit. Anyone who visits those cities, who visits our own inner city, will become conscious of the hopelessness, helplessness and rejection that is felt there. Then when we see horrible scenes like those in Brussels this week about which we are all so concerned — and I am sure all of us would want to express our deepest sympathy with the families affected — what do we hear: Why not more police? Where were they? Blame somebody else's police. Why not have segregation? Did you know that you would be dealing with almost half rational beings that you could not even allow communicate with other human beings? That is the consequence of unemployment, that is what is happening there and elsewhere. When I hear some people say, and a British Minister particularly, on television that he had advised them [256] against having them near, taking precautions, that kind of thing, if that is an expression of the real awareness of the problem then it is a deadly sign of lack of concern.

The only way in which one can cope with these things is to give people real dignity, employment, make them feel part of a total society and not one that merely doles out money to them and shows them no respect, with their only outing being every Saturday. Then we wonder why it is that this has become part of crime, almost of culture, these days. When jobs are not there violence is the only thing that can be there and it should be remembered that the same can happen in our beloved nation. It is time we recognised that the consequences of certain policies, the cold detached way of checking on the figures, launching schemes creating no dynamism at all, will have to be dealt with. The consequences are all round us and it is time we did something about it.

I might say particularly to you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and your party — I hope I am not going to be partisan any more about this — that your party had a fair old record in the past, in its roots, in its foundation and the people it was intended to serve. But can any of them now seriously pretend that they are serving the interests of the old, sick or the unemployed, although each of them would want to personally?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  I think the Chair should be left out of the debate.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I know that. I do not mean you personally, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I know every member of the Labour Party personally is well disposed; I know they are there to serve the right interest. But, as a group, they must recognise, must now know that the very opposite interest is being served at this moment and that the plight of those about whom we are supposed to be concerned in this Estimate — the old, the sick and the unemployed — is getting much worse.

I might advance two precise proposals [257] which I hope are in order and I would go much further, in broad economic policy, to advance real suggestions as to how to deal with the unemployment problem——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  Another deviation.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  Yes, but I might stress that there are a number of dual income families. We must now begin to examine some means of giving incentive to one or other of the partners, male or female, in those dual income families to work half a week for half pay in certain circumstances. I happen to know some married women, married teachers, who are anxious to work half the week so that they will give place to other young unemployed teachers, taking half the salary for half the week.

Mrs. Barnes: Information on Monica Barnes  Zoom on Monica Barnes  And married men——

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I did say dual income families. The Deputy should not be so God damned sensitive about this all the time.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  The Deputy is moving away from the subject of the debate again. I can smell it immediately.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I am quite happy to see married men doing it as well. As it happens married women have come to me saying that they wished, if they could, because of what they see all round them. If Deputy Barnes wants me to ignore that, I am not going to do so.

Mrs. Barnes: Information on Monica Barnes  Zoom on Monica Barnes  That is exactly the point I was making, that married women only are prepared to make that sacrifice.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  I am not saying that married men should not as well. But what I am saying——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  What I am saying is that we stay with item No. [258] 9, and get away from the married men and women.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  Where there are people, be they married women or married men in dual income families, whether they be teachers, nurses or whoever, who are interested in reducing their working hours for a commensurate reduction in pay — and there are many such — the Government should begin to consider ways of meeting their needs and providing job opportunities. I see that as a necessary proposal for consideration, in the absence of overall economic opportunity which is much more important. The unions concerned should do all in their power to help married people to avail of that option rather than refusing to consider such proposals.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  That is supposed to be a brief, passing reference.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Information on Michael O'Kennedy  Zoom on Michael O'Kennedy  We are still dealing with employment. One other area to which Deputy Durkan referred with more than a passing reference relates to service to the nation. This could be something for people without jobs but all of us should spend some time in national community service. People from Dún Laoghaire to Seán McDermott Street should mingle together in discipline and cohesion and give some meaningful national service — and I am not referring to military service. At the moment the two types of community are living in isolation from each other and we each put our terms on the experience of the other. Out in comfortable Dublin 4 we refer to urban vandalism and people in these areas refer to the Dublin 4 people as “nuts” and other terms. It is time we tried to promote something national in the terms of effective community service for all young people who are leaving school. Discipline, organisation, cohesion and social contact would follow from such a development and it is worth looking at.

Hopefully on another day I will be allowed to further develop the most [259] important answer to this terrible problem, namely a new dimension in economics which would build up pride and respect for ourselves. Unfortunately today we are being confined to commenting on the symptoms and the consequences. I hope that what I have said will be of some consequence. The Government and everybody else must face the reality. If we do not, we will be like people crying after the explosion and rushing around saying we could have done this, that or the other to prevent it but we ignored the signs. I hope after this debate we will begin to take issue with the real problems.

Mrs. Barnes: Information on Monica Barnes  Zoom on Monica Barnes  I look forward to other occasions which will allow Deputy O'Kennedy to enlarge on some of the areas on which he wished to enlarge today. If the same amount of energy and commitment had been given to the planning of our society and of our social welfare system over the years we would not be listening to cries of gloom and doom from Deputy O'Kennedy. It is quite extraordinary that it is only now that the fabric of society, or family life is coming under a microscope and that people are deploring the fact that the fabric of Irish society is falling apart, that the scared institution of marriage which has been upheld and protected up to now has only in the last couple of years, under this Government, because of the utterances of some TDs about the need for divorce legislation, produced this mad aberration from long happy fulfilled developed marriage — Irish style. The ignoring of the factors which lead to marriage breakdown in Deputy O'Kennedy's speech is so frightening that I am depressed by it. On behalf of the women who are the partners in these glorious marriages, I emphasise that we have had divorce Irish style for many years and the victims have been women and children.

The victims of our unplanned social welfare system have been women and children and the victims of the poverty trap have been women and children. The victims of poverty traps are always [260] women and children. It is hollow to have to listen to the Deputy deploring the bad planning and the mish-mash of our social welfare system which most affected women and children, as if it was something that happened haphazardly in the last six months or two years. Deputy O'Kennedy said that there were angry people outside of this House but this is one angry person here. That type of cant and hypocrisy makes it difficult for me to control my emotions and to be rational. It does not go down well. I came to this House to try to do something to change the social welfare system and eliminate the areas of inequity. I am anticipating the report of the Commission on Social Welfare and we must expect a fundamental change with regard to social welfare. I compliment the Minister for setting up this commission. The social welfare system grew in a totally unplanned way, as did our economic system. If we had had more social planning within the concept of what our social welfare system should be attempting, along with economic planning, we would not have the complexity, the anomalies and even the waste, not to speak of the discrimination and inequalities which still exist in our economic and social welfare system. I hope the Commission on Social Welfare will report soon and will tackle the fundamental inequalities contained in the social welfare systems.

As a nation we are not isolated. We are not exceptional in experiencing terrible problems. These problems have occurred not just because we did not plan ahead. Even if we had planned ahead, technological changes have so overtaken us that we need a whole new perception of work and taxation. We should also change our perception of the human value, the value we put on work and on people. We must examine our great, glorified work ethic. We have many unemployed people among our young population and among our older population — people who have been made redundant because traditional industrial jobs are being phased out rapidly because of new technology. Our social welfare system must now address itself to ensuring that in every practical [261] way possible people who are not in gainful employment will, through social welfare, be on as high a level of basic income as possible.

We must ensure that the stigma, embarrassment and humiliation that was attached, and which a large number of the public still attach, to social welfare will be removed. It is not, as Deputy O'Kennedy has said, a case of a short period of sharing jobs and then we are into full time jobs again. We are into a changing pattern of employment and of coping with people who are not in gainful employment through a social welfare system that will recognise their dignity and their need for a basic income.

In reforming social welfare all the anomalies of the different administrative practices in regard to the categories that have been created to address the need of particular groups must be examined in the context and concept of a basic family income. Each family should be sure of at least a basic income that would not be below the poverty line. Thought has been given to that here, but other countries have set up study groups to evaluate it. It would allow people the security of sharing jobs and not having to work as long and as hard to ensure job security as is the case now. Also it would get rid of much of the black economy in so far as the basic income would be there and people would be free to use their skills and make their contribution in work sharing. The payments that would ensure through tax and PRSI would increase tremendously if we removed the disincentive that exists at the moment to people declaring themselves as working. That is due to the insecurity of not having a basic income. I hope that the Commission on Social Welfare, as well as Departments involved in creating a climate for employment and for industry, will explore and investigate that.

Nobody in this House on any side would argue with giving the highest amount possible in payment to people who find themselves in need of social welfare aid. It is absolutely negative and insulting to the intelligence to hold that anybody in [262] this House would not wish people in receipt of social welfare to live as comfortably as possible and to get the highest amount that society and the economy can afford to give them. To say otherwise is similar to suggesting that only certain people are for good weather or against killer whales. The contention that this Government would attempt to decrease payments or in some way punish or penalise people who depend on the social welfare system is highly insulting, not just to the Government but the people who suggest it insult themselves.

Introducing this Estimate here this morning the Minister said that employees and employers together contribute about £924 million of the £1,323,149 million that we need. That works out at about 40 per cent of the gross expenditure and the other 60 per cent must be raised also. We must all in this House think seriously about that. It comes back to the relationship of tax being paid and employment generating wealth and all sections of the community bearing their fair share of that taxation in order to ensure that all sections within the social welfare system get a fair share also. We have a great deal to do in working out a more equitable tax system that will ensure that social welfare payments can be operated on a much more equitable level. Real attempts have been made to keep social welfare payments in line with prices. There has been a real effort and commitment to ensure that wealth creating jobs are promoted and that therefore more tax is paid, so that the situation can improve. Otherwise we will be setting up agencies or trying to continue with agencies referred to as poverty agencies to cope with a great many people who, as the names attached to the agencies suggest, are living below the poverty line.

We must consider the type of support we give, not just financial but also psychological, to the long term unemployed, and special consideration must be given to people in their forties or fifties who find themselves on social welfare and are depressed by the belief that that social welfare may be long term. Initiatives such as the social employment scheme must [263] be explored, and we hope they will succeed in their objectives. They could do much to help to move people out of the black economy into an economy where they are willing to contribute not alone their work but also the tax on their payments.

The social employment scheme was set up and structured to help people on long term unemployment if they are over 25 years of age, but it seems to exclude a large number of married women who wish to avail of it. I hope that the Minister and the Commission on Social Welfare will be looking at that area. Women are the most numerous category of social welfare recipients, and that is a direct result of our inability through lack of justice to allow women to operate economically within the community. This is borne out in the acceptance of the fact that married women as single parents, usually within a family, will be the most numerous of recipients of social welfare, but let them try to get extra training, to move out into the workforce to be taxpayers and assertive, economically minded people in their own right, and there is a backlash of criticism against them that I find not only depressing but quite questionable with regard to our sense of justice in respect of not only certain minorities but half the population. If we have the lack of morality to castigate married women who seek the right to go out to work and get outside the social welfare net, where are we going with regard to the rights of minority interests and vulnerable sections in our community? We will have no fundamental reform of society as long as that is the attitude. People feel they can justify that attitude.

The self-employed are seen to be very vulnerable on one level and, on another level, perhaps, they are not paying as much as other people into the Exchequer to finance social welfare. Because the social insurance scheme does not extend to them, the self-employed feel very vulnerable. They face huge risks such as illness or widowhood and they cannot cope on the same level as they would if [264] the social insurance scheme were available to them. When we have a full national social insurance scheme covering the self-employed, this will be an advantage to the Exchequer. The provision of such a scheme is quite complicated. A national pension plan has been suggested for some years. The Minister referred to it in his speech. We will have to work towards providing a system under which people will have pensions irrespective of the work they do, so that people will have an income on which they can live in dignity in their old age. That is a huge need. I hope we will concentrate on it with all urgency.

The Minister said that in the context of the pension plan framework, the Government will be giving serious consideration to the establishment of effective monitoring and regulation of the occupational pensions sector because of the number of worrying cases recently of company pension funds being diverted to prop up ailing businesses and with tax and PRSI not being paid for employees. People are in the worst possible position when they become unemployed and find that their pension rights have gone as well. We cannot talk about employment in a constructive way unless we ensure that the rights and entitlements of workers are protected. The whole thrust of reforming legislation should be concentrated on that.

In trying to ensure that protection will be given to people and their pensions the Minister has suggested that a joint regulatory body should be set up which would be representative of the Government, employer, the pensions industry and trade union interests. It is very important that workers should be fully represented on such a body so that they could have an input into the protection of their own rights and pensions. In attempting to reform and rationalise the social welfare system there will always be victims of the poverty trap. The Minister said:

There has been considerable debate at various times about a “poverty trap” where people on fairly low incomes can

[265] find that additional income can leave them worse off through loss of some other entitlement.

Let us hope that the poverty agency will concentrate on that area and concentrate particularly on ensuring that the whole motivation will be to give people a sense of their own independence, their own assertiveness and their own entitlements. One of the most demoralising aspects of social welfare would then be removed. People on social welfare should not feel dependent and humiliated.

When the social welfare system was being set up women were not recognised as anything other than dependants. This has caused financial discrimination against women down through the years, particularly married working women. What is the psychological effect of declaring that under the social welfare system they are literally dependants? This removes any sense of integrity or pride from people. I must express my disappointment that, in this whole area of the dependency of women, women workers who paid social welfare contributions at the same level as all other workers found that there was a very marked discrimination against them even at European level. A directive was drawn up and six years were given to each member state to introduce legislation removing that discrimination. The deadline for the implementation of that directive on equal treatment for social security was 24 December 1984. With regard to directives from Europe on legislation affecting women, will we ever anticipate and introduce the legislation before the deadline and not after it, as is happening in this case?

There are problems with regard to low income workers and families living on social welfare payments alone. In no way would women workers seeking equality attempt to have that directive implemented by making poor families poorer. If the Government parties are motivated towards achieving fairness and justice, we should interpret the spirit of the directive in such a way that that will not occur. We should not continue to delay a Bill [266] which is long overdue and which would not give women any advantage but just equal rights to social security. As workers, women have contributed at an equal level with other workers.

I have described what has happened to women under this system as fraud. Women have been defrauded under the social welfare system of their rightful entitlements and what they have paid for by their contributions, although their income level is 60 per cent of a man's level of payment. The enormity of the injustice hits one. As I have already said with regard to other discriminations and attitudes towards women as workers, there seems to be an acceptance of this which would not be allowed for any other group of workers. I welcome the fact that computerisation has helped to remove some of the long delays and anomalies. People entitled to social welfare have been victims of a lack of information in the past.

I have always deplored the acceptance by public representatives and Deputies that part of their job is coping with people at their clinics who, for whatever reason, have been denied their rightful entitlements under social welfare. Deputies come in here week after week, evidently with large handfuls of these complaints, continuing the clientism of that kind of exercise without doing something to change the system so that people are not denied their rights or made to feel that they are being handed a privilege by a public representative. This is happening after 60 years of what is supposed to be independence. All it is doing is merely prolonging the sense of dependency we have already given through the wording and the working of the social welfare system. That the very legislators who should be doing something about it are colluding with the system to their own political advantage is something which must be examined very closely. I hope the Commission on Social Welfare will not alone look at it but will have something to say about the legislators, who have allowed it to continue for so long. Computerisation and rationalisation will perhaps remove it. Many voluntary [267] groups are willing to assist in changing the system. Instead of this clientism which is tied in with the dependency which is part of our social welfare system we should have citizens advice bureaux and a straightforward method of information dissemination and communication which would enable people to sort out their social welfare problems themselves without any intermediary. This would give them a sense that what they are receiving is their entitlement, not some kind of privilege.

There would seem to be tremendous pressure on the staff in the offices dealing with social welfare. Because of the higher numbers of people now on social welfare the staff administering the system and the recipients should get every support and help to ensure that an efficient and fully informed system can operate.

We must remember that people who are dependent on social welfare are usually demoralised. Very many of them have been cast in an attitude of dependency for ever. Others find themselves in a totally unacceptable world because of redundancy or unemployment. Instead of the kind of attitude we have been exhibiting to such people over the years we should have been building an affirmative programme that would compensate for and understand the psychological pressures on these people, their power-lessness and sense of frustration. I would hope that the Commission on Social Welfare would try to draw up some kind of system that would go far beyond the ordinary administration and give some kind of training to the staff so that we could compensate for these pressures. If we are talking about a healthy society, we are talking about the dignity of our people.

There are many anomalies within the system which it would not cost the Exchequer very much to rectify. I will not go into detail because there will probably be another opportunity to do so, but I must mention the objectionable way in which a deserted wife has to prove that she is eligible for an allowance at a traumatic time in her life. Even if she has [268] achieved that after a time when she is on the breadline, dependent on charity, to have her payments given in an envelope marked “DW” reminds her constantly of the category to which she belongs and the stigma that society attaches to a wife who cannot hold her husband, who has walked off and left her. The stigma of being deserted and the public indication of the fact must come to an end. It has been suggested that the evidence of a social worker should be accepted in these cases rather that putting the responsibility on a deserted wife to prove that she has been deserted or to reach her husband, of whom she may be physically afraid. We must not put people through this kind of suffering, trauma and humiliation.

The Minister said that a great deal of the reform will have to come about as a result of a more effective and efficient way of using the system. Social welfare must not be looked at in isolation. It may even be less costly to remove some of the obstacles which now exist than to continue them in operation. There must be a great emphasis on community caring. Not only would it be more satisfactory in human terms but it should also be more cost-effective. Some anomalies in the system are a disincentive to cost-effectiveness. For instance, the prescribed relative's allowance is paid to the elderly person, following a means test, not to the person caring for him or her. There is no acknowledgement of the work done by the person who is caring for the elderly relative. If we changed this system far more elderly people would be cared for within the community rather than institutionalised. We would be acknowledging the valuable community work of the person doing the caring.

There are other crazy anomalies. A married person or the spouse of an incapacitated relative cannot qualify for any kind of an allowance. The living alone allowance can be stopped if it is discovered that somebody is staying overnight with an elderly person. Many elderly people are frightened because of attacks or fear of attacks. Surely we should not [269] penalise a person if a grandchild volunteers to stay at night. That is the kind of humanising factor we must include in our social welfare system. It would be far more effective to transfer people into the care of a relative then to operate the present system.

The Ombudsman reported in March last and his report included the information that almost half the complaints he had received in his first year in operation dealt with social welfare or with breakdowns in the working of the social welfare system. One can only hope that when we are debating the Estimate for this Department next year there will have been a positive, constructive and total reform of the system and that next year the Ombudsman will be able to report that the legislative reform necessary to deal with some of the complaints he receives in this area has been implemented and that the administrative areas that are causing complaints have been sorted out. If he can make such a report there will be no need for us to have the kind of debate we are having on this occasion.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  I share the wish expressed by Deputy Barnes regarding there not being a necessity next year to have the same kind of debate as we are having this year but this wish may not necessarily be fulfilled. Unfortunately much of what is said during these debates, whether from the Government or the Opposition side, appears to fall on deaf ears. I say that because there are very many anomalies in the system but ones which could be resolved at very little cost. The removal of these anomalies would help very much in terms of the dignity of those who must seek social welfare payments.

Deputy Barnes tells us that the Government do not set about deliberately demeaning people or taking from them benefit to which they are entitled. I agree totally. No human being would deliberately impose that kind of cruelty on another. The problem lies in the approach to social welfare, an approach [270] that regards social welfare in terms of global statistics. For example, if a specific area of social welfare is being dealt with to the extent of 90 per cent effectiveness, the system is said to be working quite well. I use that figure because it was the one used by the Minister this morning when he told us that 90 per cent of all disability benefit claims are paid on receipt of the medical certificates. However, that leaves 10 per cent or a fairly substantial number of people without benefit and in many cases those are the ones who are worst off. The staff of the Department are doing a very good job but quite a large number of people still experience difficulty in respect of their claims. Even 2, or 3 per cent of a total of 1.2 million people who are depending on social welfare represents a large number who are caught between their needs and the ability of the Department to deal with their claims.

The Minister's speech was remarkable in that he concentrated to a large extent on justifying what is being done and telling us how effective his Department are given the circumstances in which they are operating. I have no great complaint regarding any Minister defending his position and defending his staff. By and large the staff of the Department are extremely helpful and courteous but there are obvious exceptions. However, I am not prepared to judge the Department on the basis of those exceptions. There is a persistency in regard to complaints of rudeness and incivility which leads me to believe that perhaps there is some fault in the area of the training of staff in regard to dealing with the public. I do not know whether the Department conduct training for staff who are dealing with the public by way of community welfare clinics or labour exchanges but the question of training in this regard might well be worth considering.

In some instances one might be forgiven for getting the impression that some staff are selected on the basis of their ability to be abrupt and in that way to deter people from pursuing claims. I have [271] known of some people who were practically reduced to tears because of the attitude adopted towards them on what was their first visit to a labour exchange or to a health clinic. These people reacted angerily as any normal person would be expected to do. They had been reared to be independent but when they were in a position where in effect they were begging, they were disposed to being angry before attending at one of those places. That is why I submit that staff should be properly trained before they assume duties which involve dealing with the public, with people who are at a very vulnerable point in their lives.

The Minister failed to refer to the legislation on equality for women in the social welfare code. Neither did he give any indication of when the Commission on Social Welfare will report. Perhaps the Minister of State will rectify those omissions because it is important that we know at this stage when the commission will report and when the legislation I have referred to will be dealt with.

Obviously there is a problem in respect of the supplementary welfare assistance scheme. It is a scheme that on the one hand is discretionary and flexible while at the same time having a uniformity of application. I recognise that is the problem but there is unease among community welfare officers in that in some circumstances at least they are not given the kind of guidance they need to ensure that there is a basic fundamental degree of uniformity in the way they discharge their duties. One area that has been brought to my attention recently relates to people who are experiencing problems in respect of paying their mortgages and who seek the assistance of community welfare officers. While the circumstances are similar in these cases the level of assistance varies widely. I have come across a number of these cases recently. They vary between one community welfare officer and another in different parts of Dublin city, never mind varying from county to county. That area must be looked at.

There is very little new that one can [272] say about what is needed as regards social welfare. We had a debate on the Social Welfare Bill last March and most of what needed to be said was said then. The system deals with poverty on a fire brigade basis. It does not even pretend to tackle the basic underlying causes of poverty. My party made a detailed submission to the Commission on Social Welfare. We stated that research both here and elsewhere had demonstrated significant links between, for example, unemployment and poverty, unemployment and ill health, poor housing and ill health, deprivation and crime, poor education and reduced employment opportunities,—in effect, a high unemployment society facing major problems arising from economic failures. That would be accepted by most people in the House, but the social welfare system does not recognise it. Hopefully the commission will accept that and will bring forward proposals which will integrate the approach of this and future Governments in tackling the fundamental problems of poverty in society.

We have a society which on the one hand has what can only be described as obscene wealth and on the other we have abject poverty. Our social welfare system does not attempt to deal with that injustice, but hopefully the commission will bring in proposals in that regard. Is there a time limit?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  I will call the Minister of State to conclude at 3.30 p.m.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  Are there other speakers?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  I understand Deputy Walsh wants to contribute.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  I dealt with the question of clothing grants on previous occasions. I understand from questions I put to the Minister of State that the same conditions will apply to these grants as applied last year. I am sure the Minister knows that if this is the situation many hundreds if not thousands of people who have children going back to school in [273] September will be faced with the choice of either buying clothes for their children or paying bills or rent. I plead with the Minister to review the guidelines which have been issued by the Eastern Health Board in relation to applications for clothing grants so as to ensure that the people who need them get them. I do not propose to go into the details of what happened last year but it was a disgrace and I appeal to the Minister to rectify the position this year.

I mentioned before in the House the question of young people who are disabled. The parents of a young person living at home who is disabled and under the age of 16 years gets an allowance. After the age of 16 if they remain at school they receive nothing. They are not entitled to DPMA or to the allowance their parents received. The Minister promised me in writing that he would look at this and see what could be done about it. I am sure it is an anomaly which, if corrected, would cost practically nothing in terms of the overall budget of £2,000 million which the State spends on social welfare. However, it would add immensely to the dignity of young people who are disabled and are surely entitled to some benefit. There is the wider question of young people between the ages of 16 and 18 years who are not entitled to anything once they leave school. They are not entitled to children's allowance or to unemployment assistance.

As regard unemployment assistance and people who are single and living at home, regardless of age, the pittance they receive in unemployment assistance is a disgrace. We sought time and again to have a debate on the regulations which the Minister introduced regarding fuel vouchers, but we failed because Standing Orders prevented us from moving a motion. I understand there was a debate in the Seanad and the Minister gave a commitment to look at what he was doing in this regard. The effect of what he has done is that those on unemployment benefit and assistance and disability benefit will not be entitled to fuel vouchers. That is hitting at those who are most in need. The Dáil will go into recess in [274] July and will return in October which will be coming into winter time. It is important that decisions be made now to rectify that piece of heartlessness. I do not see it in terms of the Minister being heartless, but the approach to social welfare of judging things on the basis of the statistical effect does not take into account the human element.

The Minister said that no one is more than six miles from a labour exchange. I am sure that is true. I do not agree with calls for building more labour exchanges. It would be better to spend the money creating jobs. It is quite popular, even among sections of the Left, to demand that more labour exchanges be provided so that it would be more convenient for the unemployed to collect their dole money. I would approach it from a different angle and argue that we should be reducing the frequency with which the unemployed have to sign on. In cases where people have to travel more than a mile or so, they should get travel vouchers to the nearest employment exchange. I understand there is an experiment being carried on at present in relation to a certain category receiving unemployment assistance who are paid by cheque. This should be extended to all unemployed and the notion that an unemployed person has to present himself once a week — sometimes twice — to the labour exchange in order to prove that he is available for work is no longer acceptable or valid.

There seems to be a general instruction to all State agencies in the social welfare, corporation and local authority areas in relation to differential rents to use any and every device to reduce the amount of money paid out. One of the curious things I have come across recently in the Dublin area in relation to rents is that the corporation have been carrying out a heavy-handed review of rents right across the board. If a person who recently lost his job has a car outside the door, the corporation insist that the rent must be raised because he can afford a car. The extraordinary thing is that the labour exchange will insist that to remain eligible for unemployment benefit or assistance, [275] a person must prove that he or she is looking for work. On the other hand, if an inspector calls to the home of an unemployed person who is not in, the corporation insist that he or she is out working. In other words, if they are looking for work they are not entitled to a reduction in their rent and if they are sitting at home waiting for the differential rent man to call they are not entitled to unemployment benefit. There is an anomaly there which cannot be overcome by law, but there seems to be a general instruction to reduce the amount of money paid out in every possible way, although obviously within the law.

I asked questions in relation to women who are denied unemployment assistance and benefits simply on the basis that they are women and, therefore, automatically not available for work, particularly if they have children. I ask the Minister to give careful consideration to my remarks and perhaps next year we will have no complaints in that regard.

Mr. S. Walsh: Information on Seán Walsh  Zoom on Seán Walsh  I was somewhat disappointed that the Minister did not mention the free fuel scheme. I represent the constituency of Dublin South-West which includes Tallaght and part of Clondalkin which borders on the city area. People have been refused free fuel and have been told that if they lived across the road they would be entitled to it. It is very difficult to explain to people that if they are on unemployment assistance they do not qualify for the free fuel scheme. There is a very high rate of unemployment in the Tallaght-Clondalkin area and something should be done about this anomaly.

Many points were made by previous speakers concerning delays in the payment of social welfare. I do not wish to dwell on this and, as a person who had made numerous representations to the Department of Social Welfare, I wish to thank the officials there and to express my appreciation of their co-operation. The Department of Social Welfare play a very important role in my constituency. Many people there are merely existing [276] and delays or a breakdown in the system causes undue hardship to many families.

During the debate, many tributes were paid to the Minister for his work. I do not wish to engage in any criticism of the Minister, personal or otherwise, but there are still many problems to be solved. However, I should like the Minister, the Minister of State and officials from the Department to visit Tallaght and they will see for themselves the poverty and problems which exist. I do not want to score political points but I want to emphasise that it is very important that there should be no breakdown in the system of social welfare. Anything that can be done should be done to help these people. If you take a cluster of ten houses on one side of the road very often in seven of those houses nobody is employed. If you took another ten, there might be eight families with nobody working and it is very difficult to explain to these people that they do not qualify for free fuel.

I wish also to refer to the situation where about 1,850 females in the Dublin 12 area who were signing on in the labour exchange in Victoria Street have been transferred to the new labour exchange in Apollo House, Tara Street. Does the Minister realise the inconvenience being caused to these people? Why is it that other areas have not changed? Why is it that it was the people of Walkinstown who were made travel such a distance? Even if the change had been made, why is it that proper arrangements were not made to facilitate the people involved in Tallaght to which there is a direct bus service? Is any consideration given to such people? Were the people notified beforehand? The Minister should have another look at this matter. Many people have approached me about this. It is one of the many problems that people face today. The time has come for all of us, irrespective of our party allegiance, to discuss such matters. It is all very well making changes if they do not affect us, but we should take into consideration the people involved.

Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Mr. Pattison): Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  The [277] debate on this very important Estimate has to some extent brought home to me, particularly having listened to Fianna Fáil speakers that although they expressed disappointment with the Estimate, it was not for the reasons they put forward. They have been putting forward reasons which are not in accordance with the facts. When Fianna Fáil speaker after speaker put forward reasons which are not in accordance with the facts, one can only come to the conclusion that they do not have a good reason to put forward. The Fianna Fáil spokesman, Deputy McCarthy, again made a claim that the incomes of social welfare recipients have not been cushioned against increases in the cost of living. Every time he makes that statement he choses to ignore the facts. He compared increases given by Fianna Fáil with increases given by the Coalition, as if inflation rates under the two Governments were the same. I should like to remind the Deputy that prices were rising at an annual rate of more than 20 per cent when Fianna Fáil gave the last increases to social welfare recipients. They are now rising at an annual rate of about 6 per cent. I am aware that what I have said will fall on deaf ears as far as Deputy McCarthy is concerned because he is not in any way influenced by the facts. He does not appear to want to know the facts. The facts I have quoted come from the Central Statistics Office.

Based on the facts I have given, it is clear that the value of all social welfare payments has been maintained by the Government. The increases effective from July will protect their real value until the middle of 1986. For instance, since 1983 unemployment assistance rates, the long term rates, have shown a real increase of almost 6 per cent. Those rates have also increased at a much faster rate than take-home pay in the same period. Countless allegations were made by some Fianna Fáil Members but two major ones were totally unfounded. They were an indication of the poverty of argument and their lack of attention to and study of social welfare developments in general. Fianna Fáil look very superficially [278] on the whole area. A serious allegation was made by Deputy McCarthy to the effect that the Government were attacking the family unit. He used the smear tactic that the Government's only solution to family breakdown was in pressing for divorce legislation When the debate is being reduced to such a smear tactic one wonders if it is worth replying to the points raised by him.

Deputy O'Kennedy made an allegation in regard to children's allowances. He wanted to speak about everything other than what was contained in the Estimate. In spite of his 20 years' experience in the House it appeared that he was not aware that last week he had an opportunity to speak on many of the matters he sought to raise today. He did not seem to realise that there will be other opportunities in the coming weeks to express the views he wanted to express today. When he was not allowed to express those views today he felt he was being hard done by. With regard to children's allowances I should like to point out that the estimate was reduced by £4,400,000 to allow for an adjustment in respect of allowances due for payment in January 1985. The first Tuesday in that month fell on a public holiday and the allowances were paid in December 1984. Were it not for that payment in advance the outturn for the 1984 year would have been £167.79 million or £4.4 million less and the 1985 figure would have been £176.7 million. There is, therefore, a real increase of £8,910,000 in 1985 over 1984. That increase is due to the carryover costs of the 1984 budget improvements of £6,740,000 and to an expected increase of about 15,000 in the number of children qualifying for payments. That would account for about £2,170,000. That is an indication that Deputy O'Kennedy's allegation was totally unfounded.

Deputies will be aware that the Government intend introducing a major child benefit scheme next year. It is not the solution in the present scheme to increase indiscriminately the rates of children's allowances if account is not taken [279] of family circumstances in each case. We had another scandalous suggestion that the Government, or the Department of Social Welfare, were using old age pensions to reduce social welfare expenditure. That is totally untrue. Any reductions made in the Estimates published last November arise solely from estimating revisions based on the latest data available with regard to trends in expenditure and numbers of recipients. They do not in any way entail any changes in policy which would affect entitlement to social welfare benefits.

Previous Coalition Governments were the only Governments ever to reduce the qualifying age for old age pensions. The crocodile tears split here this evening on behalf of old age pensioners were on the false basis that the Government were reducing their entitlement. That is totally wrong. Our record shows that during 1973-77 at every opportunity the Coalition increased entitlements and eased substantially the qualifying means test conditions for non-contributory pensions and enabled thousands of people to qualify for old age pensions. Since 1977 Fianna Fáil were in office for almost five years but they never reduced the old age pension age by even one year. The Coalition reduced it over a four year period.

Some Members referred to the attitude of social welfare officers. I have to take to task the comments made by Deputy McCarthy. He made very serious and as usual unsubstantiated statements about the way social welfare officers carry out their duties. He used terms like “Gestapo-type” and “strong-arm tactics”. These are very serious allegations which he made, not for the first time, but as I said, he has never yet substantiated any of those statements. Were he to repeat these statements outside the House he could land himself in a series of libel actions very quickly. These allegations are the lowest form of political point scoring. Again I invite him to send me or the Minister any evidence he has to support those serious allegations. I have invited him to do this previously but he has not yet done so. Again I extend the invitation [280] to him this evening and I hope he will let us have the details. My Department have said time and time again that if any of the officials go beyond the bounds of courtesy and propriety in the discharge of their duties we are more than willing — in fact we are very anxious — to carry out a full investigation.

Deputy De Rossa raised a question about the staff training in the Department. The staff development unit of the Department run a wide range of training courses, including courses for branch exchange and inspection staffs. The information staff in the Department's offices also receive special training. We would dearly like to have more resources available to devote to staff development courses and to give some leeway in manning levels which sometimes are interconnected. Because of the problems of manning levels, social welfare staff may have to conduct their business at a speed that may be misinterpreted. Some people think if you deal with them fairly quickly that you are abrupt and do not want to listen, but that is not necessarily the case. The staff training to which Deputy De Rossa referred is ongoing. A social welfare officer deals with people in difficult circumstances and tries to maintain a balance between the various elements of his task. It is more difficult for a social welfare officer to speak to these claimants than it is for Members of the House speaking to the same people, because it is his or her duty to exercise statutory controls. That demands special skills. We will continue to do what we can and I can assure the Deputy we will be putting as many resources into that area as possible because it is very important to prevent problems arising.

Many Deputies refered to delays in deciding claims. This is not true in the majority of cases. Where there are long delays it is often because the information required under statute has not been supplied to the Department or because further inquiries are necessary. The main cause of delay in disability benefit payments is medical certificates going astray. If one medical certificate is missing the practice is that the next one will be sent [281] by registered mail. There is also the problem of an incorrect or no signature on medical certificates. These too are a cause of delay. In the small number of what might be called genuine delays the causes are outside the control of the Department.

We listened to Deputy McCarthy going through the various schemes, the allegations of inadequate payments, late payments, the inadequacy of the budget increases and so on. He introduced into the same argument the disincentives to employment of high taxation, high PRSI and so on. Most people are amazed at the ability of this Government to meet all the social welfare expenditure which is necessary at present, particularly in view of the unfortunate queues of people at various labour exchanges and the payments to which they are entitled and which they must get. Bearing in mind that PRSI contributions have not been increased and that a very determined effort is being made to keep down taxation, one wonders at the criticisms made today about the necessity for paying social welfare increases. By innuendo, Deputy McCarthy suggested that there should have been a 25 per cent increase in 1983, 1984 and 1985 and that payment should have been from April of each of these years. That would tot up to between £700 million and £800 million. The Deputy does not follow up by saying where that kind of money will come from. We know from statements issued by his party that it certainly cannot come from capital taxation or from many other sources.

References were made to representations from Deputies and to parliamentary questions. I would point out that one in every seven parliamentary questions and one in every five written representations is sent in to the Department at the same time as the application is received there. That is a significant number. In fact, at Question Time I have experienced on at least one occasion a parliamentary question being put down before the application was received. One cannot take it that for every parliamentary question and every written representation there has [282] been a delay. Fifty per cent of these parliamentary questions seek to reopen decisions which have been made already and refer to appeals on decisions made earlier. The vast bulk of parliamentary questions are not about cases of delay at all. Only one in ten of social welfare cases referred to the Ombudsman had anything to do with delays. but the opposite impression has been given. One cannot help thinking that the overwhelming evidence is that this has more to do with competition between Deputies within certain constituencies than it has to do with delay in payment, or anything of that sort.

Deputy McCarthy made an outlandish promise this morning which should not be passed over too lightly, that he would have full equality treatment introduced and that no claimant or dependant of a claimant would lose anything. He may not have realised what he was saying. A man on sickness benefit or unemployed can claim full dependant rate for his wife and family even though the wife could be in very well paid employment. There is no limit on the income of the wife. Deputy McCarthy wants to give that same right to the unemployed wife whose husband could be in well paid employment. Under his equality legislation all those wives, irrespective of the income of the husbands would get a dependency rate for the husband and the family. The costing for that — but then costings do not seem to worry Fianna Fáil when they are making promises — is over £100 million per annum. Those are the kind of promises being thrown out in this debate.

Deputy De Rossa asked when the Bill dealing with equality legislation would be put before the House. The Minister hopes to put through all stages of the Bill before the summer recess. That is the intention. To revert to Fianna Fáil's concern about equality treatment, this directive has been around since 1977 or 1978 and Fianna Fáil showed absolutely no concern whatsoever. They did absolutely nothing about the equality proposals during their four years in office from 1978 to 1982, for half of which their present [283] leader was Minister for Social Welfare. I will agree that this legislation is long overdue. As Deputies Barnes and De Rossa have said, it is a scandal that we should have had to wait until now to have equal treatment.

The deserted wife's payment was referred to. That payment is made by means of an allowance order called a [284] social assistance order. The letters DW are part of the identifying number, but it is proposed to make a change when the service is being computerised.

Vote put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at 4 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 5 June 1985.


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