Combat Poverty Agency Bill, 1985: [Seanad] Second Stage (Resumed).

Thursday, 24 April 1986

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 365 No. 9

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  Deputy Michael Barrett was in possession.

[1865]Mr. Barrett: Information on Michael Barrett  Zoom on Michael Barrett  (Dublin North-West): On the last occasion I was expressing my concern about how unemployment is affecting many people. Many who a year or two ago had good jobs which could be described as permanent, with perhaps a number of pay packets coming into the same house, have found themselves made redundant. After the 14 or 15 months of PRSI contributions had run out, they found themselves on the poverty line. I was visited today by a man who told me he had been unemployed for the last five years. He was confused and depressed because he found it impossible to get any type of job whatsoever and he was not selective. He was bewildered by the bureaucracy. He was advised to go to the National Manpower Service but said that he was tired going there and getting nowhere. There were lists of names as long as his arm, but there were no jobs available for them. He is in receipt of social welfare assistance which he says is not sufficient for himself and his wife to live on. They have a mere existence. It is important that the Government should consider people in that position. I am sure the Minister across the floor is as aware of these problems as I am. The majority of people who attend TD's clinics are unemployed and cannot find work anywhere. Every man and woman has a right to work and not have to experience the frustration of going regularly to their local labour exchange.

One man who approached me recently outlined his case as follows: he had worked with a company for 39 years during which time he had given good and honest service but he had been made redundant and had received a lump sum. Subsequently when his PRSI entitlement had expired he sought to claim social welfare assistance for himself and his wife. After the Department had assessed his means he was granted assistance of £11.50 per week. That was nothing short of an insult. The redundancy payment in his case had been a lump sum of £5,000. At the time he applied for social welfare assistance, £2,000 was all he had left from [1866] that lump sum but he did not have receipts for every penny he spent and consequently the Department assessed him as being entitled only to £11.50 per week for himself and his wife. There are many people in a similar position. Unless they can produce receipts accounting for every penny spent, the Department seem to assess them on the basis that they have more money than is the case.

It is difficult to reconcile what is happening in the area of social welfare with the promises made by the Taoiseach before the last election when he said that, if elected, the Government would be a caring one and would put particular emphasis on caring for the poor, the under privileged and the unemployed. It is disgraceful that people who have given long service are treated so badly in their middle years. Another case brought to my attention recently was of a man who had been granted social welfare assistance of £5.85 per week. He, too, had received a lump sum payment by way of redundancy but was not able to produce receipts for whatever proportion of the lump sum he had spent. One of his commitments was a repayment of £12 per week to Dublin Corporation in respect of the purchase of his house and of course he also had to buy food, clothing and so on. His appeal to the Department was rejected because he was not able to give a full account of the lump sum payment.

The full extent of the problems of families who are dependent on social welfare assistance may not be realised. Some of the families concerned are confused about the financial deprivation they must endure. Many people in this category have spent many years in good employment during which time they were able to run cars and live reasonably well but suddenly they found themselves redundant.

This high level of unemployment and dependency on social assistance leads to frustration which is manifested sometimes in aggressive behaviour towards society. We need only have regard to the incidence of vandalism in our towns and cities to realise the extent of the problem. Many of our citizens are attacked on the [1867] streets or in their homes. My wife has been attacked. Very often these attacks are perpetrated by people who are well dressed but their aggression stems from longterm unemployment and in some cases from their being treated with contempt and subjected to the red tape that operates within our bureaucratic system. It is almost impossible for any family depending on longterm unemployment assistance to maintain an ordinary standard of living.

Of the 240,000 people who are unemployed, at least 165,000 are trying to exist on social welfare assistance. In my constituency of Dublin North-West I calculate that about 50 per cent of my constituents are unemployed. This is a degrading state of affairs. Many of these people find it necessary to have recourse to the local health centres where they queue for hours to speak with a community welfare officer and, literally, to beg money from him, in some cases merely to buy food. Many of those community welfare officers have little sympathy for those people.

I am receiving complaints constantly about the manner in which they treat those who must have recourse to them. In some cases these people are being subjected to abuse by the officers concerned. I have details of some of those incidents of abuse and of the names of the officers concerned. I had experience of accompanying one woman to one of these centres. She had come to my clinic seeking help. She had been told that her electricity supply was being cut off and she was due a back payment from the Department of Social Welfare. When I went with her to the centre I spoke first to the porter on duty and I told him that I wished to speak briefly with the community welfare officer. The porter came back and told me that the community welfare officer would not see me. Is this the way community welfare officers should treat people and elected representatives who have no wish or desire to go with a constituent to a community welfare officer? The person I accompanied was in great difficulty as she [1868] needed a cheque to give to the ESB so that her electricity would not be cut off. I thought when I went with her to explain to the community welfare officer it would be only a matter of issuing the cheque and arrangements could be made to transfer the amount back to the relevant Department. This was not so.

I wrote to the Eastern Health Board complaining about my experience. I can say I got no satisfaction whatsoever. I was informed that if I wanted to see a community welfare officer, I would have to queue up like the rest of society. I am sure the Minister will realise that no Dáil Deputy can go in and sit down at the end of a queue for a couple of hours to meet a community welfare officer. I can well understand that the complaints which constituents make are justified. I hope the Minister will issue a letter to community welfare officers advising them to treat these unfortunate people properly. I can understand the frustration of these people. Without the Minister's intervention community welfare officers should have sympathy for these unfortunate people who have come for help.

I have mentioned several times in this House the lack of sympathy for these people. The Government have a lack of sympathy for the unemployed. I happened to listen to the budget debate on the monitor in my room and heard one Government speaker to say that in order to reduce unemployment the Government should introduce conscription. This means the unfortunate people I have made reference to would be conscripted into the Army. Reference was made in particular to young people having to serve a number of years in the Defence Forces. This might be a good thing but it is not a proper answer to the question of youth unemployment.

Another member of the Government in making his contribution to the budget stated that he thought people in this country were exceptionally well off. He said he remembers the time when children went to school in their bare feet. I remember that too, but that was in 1936. We are now in 1986. The Deputy was right when he said at that time parents [1869] did not have the money to buy shoes for their children. The same Deputy, who is also a member of the European Parliament, spoke of the number of private cars in this country at present. In saying that he was suggesting that if there are so many cars about, people are exaggerating, that they are not as badly off as they think they are or should be. This Deputy should have visited, as I did, the Motor Show which was held in Dublin this year. One could look around the whole show and see billboards displaying the amount of tax the unfortunate motorist in Ireland has to pay. I was amazed to see one billboard stating that when a motorist pulls up at a station and buys £10 worth of petrol, £7 goes in tax. This is one of the main reasons why we have such high unemployment. As I have stated, when there is unemployment, one must expect poverty.

I am aware that Government Deputies have to try to make a case for the Minister's budget in relation to income tax and unemployment. I have no doubt Government backbench Deputies are in the same position when speaking on this year's budget as a barrister would be in court when defending a client whom he knows has committed a crime. The barrister tries to tell the judge that this man did not commit the crime. Government backbenchers behave in the same way. I understand they have no option in accordance with parliamentary rules and the rules of political parties. They have to give their support; otherwise many unfortunate Deputies would be suspended from their party.

I understand their difficulty in making a case for this year's budget which has created more unemployment and more poverty. The Deputy who stated that things are not as bad as they are or should be, must not have much idea of the plight of the unemployed or of the poor. It would seem that some of the wealthier members of our society have no idea of the plight of the poor. The Deputy who stated that he remembers when children went to school in their bare feet and that children are fortunate to have shoes now is living in cloud cuckooland. I have no [1870] doubt that, if this Government remain much longer in office, not alone will children be going to school in their bare feet but the parents will be walking around in their bare feet as well.

The vast majority of the unemployed take no pleasure in walking down to the labour exchange each week irrespective of what they get, and I am aware that they get little. Many of them feel humiliated at having to go to the labour exchange each week. They have no hope of finding employment and they see no light at the end of the tunnel. Social welfare benefit for these people merely enables them to exist. For that reason, the whole area of social welfare must be fully examined.

We receive reports daily on the abuses in social welfare, cases where people are working full time while, at the same time, drawing social welfare. I am informed that this is going on especially in the building trade where builders are employing people they know are drawing social welfare. Many of these builders, some of whom are subcontractors, do not pay tax. This is why they employ these people. I urge the Minister to take immediate action in relation to the abuses in social welfare.

Debate adjourned.

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