Thursday, 2 April 1987
Dáil Eireann Debate
The purpose of the Bill is essentially to implement the measures affecting social welfare services which were announced in Tuesday's Budget Statement. In view  of the fact that the budget is late this year and that measures affecting social welfare must come into operation on 6 April, it is essential to have this legislation enacted this week. In the normal course it would not be necessary to enact this legislation for some time after the budget and there would be an opportunity for Members of the House to consider the Bill at greater length.
However, Deputies will be familiar with many of the provisions of the Bill since they have already been the subject of much debate in the context of the recent general election. Deputies will know that further delay will result in a deterioration of the income and financial position of the Department of Social Welfare with adverse consequences for welfare recipients. I hope the Bill will be accepted on this basis and I would like to thank the Opposition for facilitating me in having the legislation introduced today. We all know that difficult decisions must be taken in the interests of stimulating employment and creating a new base from which we can further improve our social services. Even in this difficult context I have succeeded in protecting the interests of those most in need and in maintaining the real value of basic payments. I look forward to constructive and favourable consideration of the Bill.
The general parameters of this Bill were already more or less fixed prior to the election. Implicit in the Abridged Book of Estimates published by the previous Government and now before the House and which were included in their proposed budget are the following measures aimed at reducing the level of expenditure on social welfare:—
The previous Government were taking all of the above measures to reduce expenditure on social welfare. The abridged Estimates have taken credit for all these savings in 1987. The present Fianna Fáil Government, while accepting the need to contain the growth of social welfare expenditure, could not accept the reduction in unemployment benefit from 15 months to 12 months, or the increase in waiting days for sick PRSI contributors from three to six days. We considered that the increase to five years in the contributions required to qualify for disability benefit beyond 12 months and for invalidity pension was too severe and we decided to increase this requirement from three to four year instead.
In keeping with our commitments during the general election we decided that the withholding of the 3 per cent cost of living increase until November would involve undue hardship for widows, old age pensioners, the sick, disadvantaged and the unemployed. Accordingly, we have brought this increase forward to July. Before I discuss these measures in detail together with the improvements in the family income supplement and the extension in treatment benefits to dependent spouses of insured workers, I would like to refer to the Jobsearch programme.
The Government have decided to  launch a major new Jobsearch programme to assist the long-term unemployed in their efforts to seek training and employment. This programme will be spearheaded by my Department in cooperation with the National Manpower Service and AnCO. Pilot studies have already been completed in Letterkenny, Limerick, and Tallaght. The Government are now making the necessary resources available to me to launch an immediate national job search programme. This will involve the interviewing of some 150,000 unemployed persons this year, commencing this month. Over 40,000 National Manpower Service scheme opportunities have been earmarked for unemployed people this year. In addition, some 12,000 Jobsearch places will be made available during the rest of the year.
Already an additional Assistant Secretary has been appointed since Tuesday's budget to head up a strong management team which I am establishing in my Department to operate and control the Jobsearch programme. Additional senior staff have also been nominated from other Departments to this team. Other support staff are being appointed. I have made arrangements for the Jobsearch programme to start immediately. Interviews will commence next week. This speedy implementation of the scheme could not have been achieved without the wholehearted support of the Government, my Department, the Department of Labour, Manpower and AnCO. I publicly thank those public servants for their very effective and immediate response.
The Jobsearch process is intended to assist in finding jobs for those who are unemployed. It involves a major programme of advising and assisting the long-term unemployed to find employment by assessing their skills, their retraining needs, their potential to take part in social employment schemes, and giving direction about participation in various manpower schemes.
This programme gives groups of people  intensive coaching in job seeking techniques. It makes available to them extensive facilities to put this training into practice in trying to place themselves in jobs. It is a feature of the process of selection for Jobsearch that participants receive an intensive counselling interview with a National Manpower Service placement officer. At the interview the participant's skills and strengths are assessed and a range of possibilities is discussed with the interviewee. Among the possibilities considered are any suitable jobs which may be available, the chance of starting work on the enterprise allowance scheme, the possibility of a place on the social employment scheme, or on a suitable AnCO training scheme or, finally a place on the Jobsearch programme. The Jobsearch programme itself takes three to four weeks and has two elements. The first element involves intensive training in job-seeking skills and the second element involves the provision of assistance and facilities to participants in the practical application of these skills in actually seeking jobs.
To date Jobsearch courses have been run under the auspices of the Department of Social Welfare in each of three pilot locations. Results show that these were successful in helping the long-term unemployed. I have no doubt that participation in these programmes will pay dividends in the future. The Jobsearch programme can also have an indirect impact in helping to identify people who are not genuinely seeking employment.
The benefits to be derived from participation in Jobsearch by an unemployed person are considerable. It is well known that the most damaging psychological effects of unemployment are, apart from loss of a sense of identity. The Jobsearch one's day, the loss of self-respect and the loss of a sense of identity. The job search course is designed to help unemployed persons take a more active and better supported part in seeking employment and new skills. The Jobsearch programme, in a new and unique way, brings the resources of the State together and places them at the disposal of the long  term unemployed. It deserves and will receive our fullest support and commitment.
Turning now to the present Bill, the general thrust of my approach is to ensure that, in the context of the difficult budget which the Government have had to introduce, the position of people dependent on social welfare payments and schemes is protected and maintained to the greatest possible extent. As Deputies know, the budget of the previous Government contained provision for deferring the 3 per cent cost of living increase in social welfare payments to November 1987, rather than July as has been the practice in recent years. This postponement would have imposed a burden on social welfare recipients and, as announced before the general election, Fianna Fáil could not agree to this measure. I am glad to be able to bring forward these increases to July. The additional cost of this step is £18.4 million over and above the previous Government's proposal. Including the increase in health allowances, the total additional cost is £19 million in 1987.
The previous Government had also made a number of proposals for restricting or cutting back on social welfare schemes. In this context, having examined the various restrictions proposed by the previous Government there were a number of them which could be regarded as justified in that as well as achieving a needed saving they also bring about a greater streamlining of the system.
A number of these measures have, therefore, been adopted either wholly or partially and I will be outlining these in greater detail later in this speech. There were a number of other restrictions, however, which in the Government's view would have involved severe reductions in entitlements to groups in need. I refer in particular to the proposal to reduce the period of entitlement to unemployment benefit from 15 months to 12 months. This was, in the Government's view, a retrograde step which runs counter to most current thinking and one to which we could not subscribe given present levels of unemployment. The  duration of unemployment benefit was, in fact, increased from 12 to 15 months in 1976. Given current circumstances, there is an even stronger case for maintaining the duration of payment of this benefit. In fact the Commission on Social Welfare recommended that the duration of unemployment benefit be extended for certain categories.
Also, we are not proceeding with the proposal to increase from three to six the waiting days for disability benefit. This proposal would be in breach of ILO and Council of Europe conventions which this country has ratified. It would also have resulted in very serious hardship for the many thousands of employees who form a majority of the workforce in the private sector and who are not covered by occupational pension schemes. It could also have been counterproductive in that many of these people would have become entitled to supplementary welfare allowance.
I would like now, to discuss the individual items of this Bill in some detail. The Bill provides for a 3 per cent increase in the weekly personal, adult and child dependant rates of social insurance and assistance payments effective from July, 1987. This increase will apply to 700,000 social welfare recipients. A November increase, as proposed by the previous Government, would have meant — in the period from July 1987 to July 1988 — an average annual increase of 2 per cent. The revised date ensures that the increase in social welfare payments will match the increase in inflation over this period. This increase will maintain the real value of social welfare payments and meets our election commitment. I accept that 3 per cent is a modest increase and that it is not of great comfort to people living on very low incomes to be told that they are not falling behind in terms of the cost of living index. It would always be the Government's wish to provide an additional increase over and above the cost of living where this is possible and indeed Fianna Fáil's record in this regard is a proud one. Given the current very difficult situation, I am glad it has been  possible to bring the general increases forward in the way we have.
In providing for the general increase in rates, I have taken the opportunity in this Bill to make provision for the rounding to the nearest 10p of each of the weekly social insurance and assistance personal rates and increases for adult and child dependants. This measure is designed to simplify the large number of payments now being made.
The Bill provides for the imposition of stricter conditions for entitlement to certain social welfare benefits. A person will now be required to have a total of 39 weeks contributions paid at any time instead of 26 as at present for entitlement to unemployment, disability and maternity benefits. The additional requirement for 26 contributions to be paid or credited in a particular year prior to the claim is also being raised to 39. This, however, will be done by regulation. These measures were among those proposed in the budget of the previous Government and we are accepting them in present circumstances.
The Bill also provides for a change in the contribution conditions for long-duration disability benefit and invalidity pension. In this context I should point out that the situation currently exists whereby a person with three years paid social insurance can be entitled to disability benefit or, indeed, invalidity pension, effectively for the duration of their lives. The Bill, therefore, contains provision for an increase in the contribution conditions for this area also. The former Government had proposed a change from 156 paid contributions to 260 — effectively a change from three years of paid contributions to five. The Bill introduces a condition which raises the three years to four so that 156 contributions becomes 208, instead of 260 as was proposed by the previous Government. This requirement will affect qualification for both long-dur-ation disability benefit and invalidity pension.
 Section 7 provides for an increase from £58 to £62 in the earnings disregard, or “floor” for pay-related benefit purposes. This change will affect only new claims from 6 April, where entitlement to pay-related benefit is involved.
Another change I am proposing in relation to the pay-related benefit scheme will save £13 million this year and some £28 million in a full year. At present the rates of PRB are 25 per cent for the first six months and 20 per cent for the following nine months approximately. It is now proposed that a single rate of 12 per cent be introduced. This measure was also included in the budget of the previous Government. Examples of the effect on families of this reduction in pay-related benefit are given in the following table:
|Earnings||Family Circumstances||Average Payment at present||New Payment (PRB 12%)|
|£120||Married Couple & 2 Children||87.60*||87.60*|
|Married Couple & 4 Children||105.00*||105.00*|
|(Average earnings)||Married Couple & 2 Children||116.80||103.50|
|Married Couple & 4 Children||131.20*||120.90|
|£300||Married Couple & 2 Children||122.40||106.60|
|Married Couple & 4 Children||139.80||124.00|
*Wage stop applies at this point (85 per cent of take-home pay). This is how the lowest levels are not affected by the change in pay-related benefit. The average payment is the average of the period of 15 months.
Section 4 of the Bill provides for a more favourable method of calculating the amount of the family income supplement. Under these new arrangements the supplement is being increased to half of the difference between the family income and the prescribed upper limit instead of one third as heretofore. The general effect of the proposal will be to increase supplements by 50 per cent.  Section 4 also provides for an increase in the prescribed upper income limits up to which family income supplements are payable. These changes will take effect from next July.
Family income supplement is a weekly cash allowance to help families on low incomes and to maintain the incentive to work for the breadwinners of those families. In some cases there was little or no difference between the take-home pay of a family breadwinner and the amount received on social welfare benefits. The supplement is intended to redress this imbalance in favour of lower paid workers. It is specifically designed to help families of workers who are only marginally better off in employment.
The upper family income limit for eligibility for family income supplement is being increased to £104 for a family with one child. For a family with five children the upper income limit will be £192. The maximum weekly supplement is being increased from £10 to £16 in the case of a family with one child and from £26 to £44 in the case of a family with five or more children. This represents a real and practical increase in the level of assistance given to low income families.
In our Programme for National Recovery we stated that we would review the workings of the family income supplement, which is availed of by only a limited number of people at present. When this scheme was introduced in 1984, it was anticipated that up to 35,000 people might avail of it. Nothing like this number did so, presumably because the terms of the scheme were too restrictive. These new measures may serve to broaden the scope of the scheme somewhat, but I will still be anxious to press ahead with an examination of this scheme which might yield some clearer definitions as to the relevant target group and their particular income needs.
In addition to these positive developments in our social welfare system, I am pleased to announce another measure which will be introduced by regulation from next October. This is the extension of the treatment benefits scheme — that is free dental, optical and aural care — to the dependent spouses of insured workers. October is the earliest date possible for the introduction of this measure given the necessary preparations which have to be made in advance of its commencement. I have been very conscious of the need for this measure for some years and I was very pleased when Fianna Fáil included it in our policy programme.
It has often been put forward that women who work in the home had specific needs in this area given that, in many cases, they had no significant income of their own and that, where the family income was limited, the priority for treatment in these areas usually went to the children or to the major earner. This inclusion of the dependent spouse of the PRSI insured worker in this scheme will  mark a major advance for Irish families. This measure should, then, be of considerable benefit to all dependent spouses who are without significant income or who are in low paid employment, and it opens up access to the social insurance system for these groups who, hitherto, have been excluded. This measure is a bonus to the PRSI full rate contributor.
With regard to pilot schemes for the unemployed, section 11 of the Bill provides that participants in the part time job allowance scheme or the educational opportunities scheme will be able to resume their previous entitlement to unemployment payments without serving the usual waiting days in cases where the part time job does not work out or where they find themselves in a position that they have to go back on to full time unemployment payments after a spell in the educational opportunities scheme. These are two of three schemes aimed at helping the long term unemployed in their efforts to re-enter the workforce. I have already referred to the third scheme, namely, the Jobsearch programme.
The part time job allowance scheme allows people who have been long term unemployed to take up part time work for up to 24 hours a week and to receive a flat rate allowance of £25 for a single person or £40 for a married person while doing so. Earnings from the job will not affect the allowance. The scheme originally operated in five pilot locations and was extended to a further 12 locations before Christmas. While the numbers participating in it are as yet still small — some 50 persons — I am hopeful that as knowledge of the scheme spreads the numbers will increase.
The educational opportunities scheme is operating in Limerick and Tallaght. This scheme allows long term unemployed persons who are over 25 years of age to attend a leaving certificate type of course organised by the local VEC. Three classes have been organised and there are some 50 participants in this scheme. An independent evaluation of the scheme is being carried out and I will be looking at the results of the scheme in all its aspects  with a view to seeing whether an extension is worthwhile and feasible.
Another initiative in the job creation area provided for in this Bill is the employer's PRSI exemption scheme. Under this scheme employers in the private sector who took on additional employees on a full time basis between mid-December 1986 and the end of January 1987, resulting in a net increase in their workforce are exempt from their portion of the PRSI contribution for those employees for each week in the 1987-88 income tax year in which an increase in the workforce is maintained. Section 6 of this Bill makes the necessary provision to enable this to be done.
I would like to say a few words at this point about social welfare fraud. This subject as Deputies will know, has received much publicity in recent times. However, it is important to keep the issue of fraud in perspective in relation to the hundreds of thousands of families and individuals throughout the country who are in genuine need of the services of the Department. At the same time, it is essential to strike a balance between providing a speedy and accessible service on the one hand and ensuring that the service is not open to abuse on the other. That balance will have to be constantly adjusted in the light of ongoing experience.
The only quantifiable indicators currently available of the extent of social welfare fraud relate to the actual statistics of fraud uncovered and recorded in my Department. In 1985, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, overpayments of benefit and assistance made by my Department amounted to £5.7 million out of a total expenditure of £2,291 million in that year. Of that amount, £4.07 million of total expenditure is attributed to fraud on the part of recipients. The balance is accounted for by overpayments where there was no fraudulent intent and by departmental errors. I have no doubt that many people believe this does not represent the true extent of fraud in the  system. However, any other figures put forward must be viewed as speculative.
To obtain an independent assessment of the extent of fraud in the social welfare system a firm of international consultants has been engaged to carry out a security review of my Department's payment systems and the level of fraud. Additional staff have been assigned specifically to anti-fraud work, new control procedures have been introduced, legislative changes have been effected and new improved computer facilities have been developed. I am determined to do everything possible to improve the system of control on social welfare payments to ensure that the possibilities of fraud are minimised and I will be taking whatever measures are necessary arising from the work of the consultants and my own examination of the problem.
Apart from fraud arising in unemployment and disability payments, I am examining the question of fraud in its broadest sense in other areas, starting with deserted wife's payment. The State is paying out about £40 million in 1987 in respect of benefits and allowances for deserted wives. I propose to examine the extent to which some of this cost could be offset by pursuing husbands who might be in a position to make some payments to meet their obligations. The reality for many women who are receiving maintenance under a separation agreement or a court order is that payment of maintenance is often irregular and uncertain. The NESC have recommended that the State should have power in such cases to award a deserted wife's benefit or allowance and itself pursue outstanding maintenance claims. The Commission on Social Welfare endorsed this recommendation. I am having my Department examine at present how arrangements can be made to pursue deserting husbands for the maintenance they should have been paying to their wives. This would help to offset at least in part the high cost to the taxpayer under the present system.
I would like to refer to an area in which I will be taking a special interest over the next few years. This is the work of the  Combat Poverty Agency which was established in September 1986. The new agency has now submitted to me a strategic plan of its activities over the next three years, as it was required to do under the terms of the Act. I will be discussing this plan in detail with the agency in due course. From my examination, however, it is clear that the agency sees itself primarily as promoting community development as an approach to tackling poverty. I support this general approach which is in line with my own views on the best way to make progress in this area. I will also be discussing with the agency the other functions which have been conferred on it but I emphasise the community development aspect of its work which I regard as being of prime importance at this time.
The provision which we are making for the anti-poverty programme in 1987 is £1.3 million. I will be concerned to ensure that these funds are spent in the best and most effective way. I am pleased to see that the agency is approaching its task in an orderly and logical fashion by setting out in its strategic plan the areas in which it intends to concentrate its efforts over the next three years.
I would also like to refer to the provision for grants to voluntary organisations in the social services area for once-off projects. This scheme has been in operation since 1983 and provides very worthwhile assistance to many voluntary organisations in the valuable work which they do with deprived and disadvantaged groups. Up to the end of 1986 grants totalling some £2.5 million had been paid to some 470 voluntary organisations. The sum of £750,000 has been made available for the scheme this year. This is entirely separate from the allocation of £1.3 million for the Anti-Poverty Agency which will also be providing support and assistance to local groups and organisations.
Social welfare currently involves expenditure of some £2.6 billion which represents 27 per cent of total current Government expenditure and 15 per cent of GNP. Social welfare services are provided to over one million persons and up to 3,800 are employed in the delivery  of such services. These statistics clearly demonstrate the need for careful planning of the reform and future development of the whole social welfare system which directly affects the lives of so many of our people.
The report of the Commission on Social Welfare, since its publication in August 1986, has been the subject of considerable discussion and analysis. I have the considered views on the report of many organisations and individuals who have a direct interest in social welfare. I will be taking the report of the commission and all the views I have received on it fully into account in planning the reform and development of the social welfare system.
I will be giving particular attention in this regard to the views of the social partners as expressed in the report of the NESC entitled A Strategy for Development 1986-1990. The financial constraints on future social welfare developments in the period up to 1990 are clearly spelled out in that report. These show that given the projected demographic changes an increase in expenditure of at least 14.3 per cent will be required in the next four years just to maintain real social welfare payment levels. This increase, however, could be as high as 24.9 per cent if what the NESC terms the pessimistic scenario regarding increased unemployment levels comes about. This Government have given a clear commitment in their Programme for National Recovery to maintain social welfare payments in real terms and, therefore, the degree of progress that can be made in relation to further general improvements in social welfare payment levels will to a great extent be determined by our success in generating real economic growth and, in particular, reducing the levels of unemployment. The effect of the creation of every 1,000 jobs is to reduce the cost of social welfare by an estimated £2.65 million and to increase PRSI contributions by an estimated £1.2 million.
However, this does not mean that real social welfare reform will have to be tied exclusively to extra revenue becoming available from the benefits of economic  growth. Serious deficiencies in the present social welfare system have been identified and the process of remedying these can begin without necessarily incurring significant extra expenditure. A series of changes in the payment structure have been recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare with the aim over time of simplifying the present structure and, in particular, equalising the rates payable to the various categories of social welfare recipients. This aim has been endorsed by the NESC and while it will not be possible to implement in the immediate future the more costly recommendations of the commission in this regard, I will be looking at ways of achieving some convergence of social welfare rates in the coming years.
I consider that a review of all social welfare schemes is necessary to see how effective these schemes are in meeting their objectives. In such a review schemes will not just be looked at in isolation but also as to how they interact with other social welfare schemes and with schemes administered by other State agencies. There is a danger that in focusing on schemes the overall needs of the individuals and families who are in receipt of benefits of one kind or another under various schemes is lost sight of. I want the focus to shift with the various schemes being assessed to see how the benefits they provide and the administration of these benefits can be tailored to meet the real needs of the people they are designed to serve. Also, I expect such reviews to highlight where the conditions for entitlement give rise to anomalies or where these conditions can lead to abuse. In particular, the reviews will be focusing on the various schemes for those incapable of work, for the unemployed, for one parent families and for children. The overall outcome will be proposals for changes in the coming years that will make social welfare schemes as a whole more effective in meeting their objectives.
In addition to the more effective use of existing resources, there will also be a need to look at ways of generating extra  revenue that will not have a negative impact on the potential for economic growth. The NESC laid particular emphasis in this regard on broadening the social insurance base. The Commission on Social Welfare also considered this to be a priority. I will, therefore, be examining the implications of extending social insurance not just with the aim of generating extra revenue but also to bring Ireland into line with other developed countries, where all persons engaged in economic activity are covered by social insurance. Such a development should lead in time to a decline in the numbers requiring means-tested social assistance payments. Reliance on such payments as a form of social security can have the negative effect of penalising enterprise and thrift.
There is also considerable scope for reforms in the administration and delivery of social welfare services that will not have significant cost implications but will, at the same time, be of considerable benefit to social welfare beneficiaries. There is a clear commitment in our Programme for National Recovery to make the administration of the social welfare system more fair and more efficient.
I am determined to break down bureaucratic barriers and to simplify the delivery of our welfare services. This will involve a major overhaul of existing procedures designed to improve the quality and effectiveness of the supports and advice given to social welfare recipients and to the public in general.
The major computerisation programme which is currently underway in my Department will be of central importance in achieving this aim and I intend to ensure that sufficient resources are provided to enable this programme to proceed as quickly as possible. The computerisation of the local offices is taking place at present. By the end of 1987 it is planned to have all unemployment claims in the Dublin region computerised, with local offices throughout the country being fully computerised in the next two to three years.
Dr. Woods: I intend to introduce and develop “one stop shops” for social welfare services so that as far as possible all the social welfare needs of clients can be met in one centre at local level. This would include current information and advice on jobs, placements and courses which are available through the manpower services together with social welfare information. It would also include on the spot assessment for qualification certificates for unemployment assistance. Computerisation will make this feasible. This approach will be of enormous benefit to clients and will at the same time reduce significantly the costs of administering the social welfare services.
In this connection I would like to mention a project that has been in operation in my Department for some time now and one which I intend to develop and expand in the future. Last year a project was initiated in Nenagh where the work of the various people involved at local level in putting unemployment assistance entitlements into payment was brought together in a more integrated manner. The exchange manager who is responsible for making payments, the social welfare officer who investigates means and the community welfare officer who may have to decide on entitlements to supplementary welfare allowance in the interim, all operate as a team with the consequence that the average time taken to put unemployment assistance into payment has been reduced from weeks to days and, of course, this has reduced the cost of delivering the service. It has also resulted in savings in payments of supplementary welfare allowance where  these would be paid pending the processing of a claim.
In view of the short time at my disposal I will refer briefly to the question of appeals. We also made a commitment in our election programme to simplifying the appeals machinery. The commission in their report made a number of recommendations in this regard including the setting up of a separate executive office for appeals. I am having these considered at present and I hope to be in a position to bring forward proposals for an improved appeals system which will overcome concerns that have already been expressed regarding a preceived lack of independence of the appeals system and which will provide more detailed information on why claims and subsequent appeals have been rejected.
In conclusion I would like to say that in planning the major social welfare reforms to be introduced over the coming years the emphasis will be on maintaining in real terms the level of social welfare benefits while at the same time reviewing all social welfare schemes with a view to ensuring that the enormous resources both in terms of money and staff devoted to these schemes are used as effectively and efficiently as possible. I look forward to commencing these reforms of the system and I am confident that the end result will be a social welfare system that will cater in a fair, efficient, and, above all, sensitive and caring way for the one million plus persons who have recourse to social welfare services.
I have outlined what I see as the main priorities facing me as Minister for Social Welfare. So far as the provisions in the Bill are concerned I believe that they demonstrate clearly the Government's commitment to people on social welfare. They represent a considerable improvement on the previous Government's proposal and are designed to ensure that the weaker sectors of the community are protected even in the present very difficult budgetary situation. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. J. Mitchell: I want to say that while we in Fine Gael are facilitating the speedy passage of this Bill, that should not be taken to mean that we are happy with the proposals before the House. I am distinctly unhappy with the partisan and ungracious nature of the Minister's speech in which he seeks to highlight as Fianna Fáil achievements early improvement proposed in this Bill and to downgrade and discredit the achievements and innovations of the previous Government. Where these are referred to in his speech, he has failed to give us the credit for them.
I am depressed also by the Minister's lack of sensitivity in singling out those who are really poor and in need of urgent help. He made a passing reference to the fact that he has dropped the living alone allowance for those aged 45 and over living on unemployment assistance. The proposed increase from July provided for by the outgoing Government has been dropped for this most needy of groups. This highlights the total lack of concern in the Minister's speech for the needy. He ended his speech by saying that the Government's proposals are designed to ensure that the weaker sectors of the community are protected even in the present very difficult budgetary situation.
The most important aspect of the provisions before the House is that the Minister has taken away from the weakest section the living alone allowance which was provided for by the outgoing Government from July. What is more, he does it in breach of one of the clearest recommendations of the Commission on Social Welfare which highlighted the need to increase the minimum payment to people in this category. The Minister has made the mistake of assuming — and this is an assumption that seems to have predominated thinking in the Department of Social Welfare for many years, which permeates the report of the Commission on Social Welfare as well as being responsible for some comments from very worthy organisations such as the Catholic Social Services Conference — that everybody on social welfare is disadvantaged. The first thing we must do is to distinguish  between those who really need assistance and those who do not.
I intend during the course of my contribution to highlight some of the anomalies where we as a country in grave financial difficulties are paying out across-the-board percentage increases to different categories of social welfare recipients without regard to need. For example, we pay a Christmas bonus across the board to long term recipients and others despite the fact that in certain categories, for example, old age pensioners, there may be some who have a second or a third pension. A retired director of one of the banks with a £30,000 a year pension may, because of his contributions be entitled to an old age pension from the State and therefore entitled to a Christmas bonus. They are globally described as being the needy sections of our community. We must get it across that everybody in receipt of social welfare does not necessarily fall into the category of being needy. We must passionately pursue the interests of the truly needy and ensure that the increases for them are much greater than those to the less needy or those who are not needy at all.
We should start this debate by asking what is the mission of the Department of Social Welfare. Their mission is principally to combat poverty. They are a combat poverty agency. Alas, they do not fulfil that role, at least not with any precision or finesse. They do not exude, as they should, a burning passion to serve the poor with efficiency and, above all else, dignity. Instead, the Department of Social Welfare have grown into the biggest money dispensing machine in Ireland and have time and again opted for administrative convenience, some would say lethargy, rather than any desire to identify the most needy and to positively discriminate in their favour. Instead during the years across the board percentage increases have been granted without any selectivity. Christmas bonuses are granted to those living alone who are on £34 per week and to those with two or three pensions and, perhaps, very substantial sums in banks. The distressing thing is that the Minister has  again fallen into that trap, a willing fall guy. He has to be commended for being able to bring forward this year's social welfare increases to July although it will be from mid-July and not the beginning of July as he promised, and the amount of the increase will be 3 per cent and not 7 per cent as he promised. However, the Minister has dropped a provision made by the previous Government to provide a living alone allowance for those over 45.
This debate at the outset of the 25th Dáil should be concerned with the role, organisation and performance of the Department of Social Welfare. From my experience in Government I am aware of the commitment and ability of public servants. I am sure that is also true of the officials in the Department of Social Welfare. In so far as there are deficiencies, I believe they are deficiencies of political will over the years. According to the Minister, a computerisation programme has been embarked upon to improve the delivery of service within the Department of Social Welfare. That programme needs to be stepped up. It should be extended to social welfare offices and health centres throughout the country. The deficiencies in the delivery of service, in the treatment of social welfare recipients, often in an undignified way, arise principally because of a breakdown in communication. Very often claims take weeks to assess — in some cases they drag on for months — and in the meantime social welfare applicants are forced to go through up to seven means tests.
I will give the House some examples of what applicants for social welfare can be put through due to a lack of a modern communication system between the offices and agencies assigned to deliver social welfare benefits. When Mr. X applies for unemployment assistance his means are investigated by the Department of Social Welfare. That can take many weeks. In the meantime Mr. X is sent to the local health centre to discuss his position with the community welfare officer. Before he is paid any supplementary welfare he is subjected to another means test, means test No. 2. If  he is a local authority tenant and he applies to the local authority for a reduction in his differential rent he is put through a separate means test, means test No. 3. When Mr. X applies for a medical card to the health board, to whom he has already applied for supplementary benefit, he is put through another means test, means test No. 4. Following his application for assistance under the fuel scheme he is put through the fifth means test. When he applies for assistance under the footwear scheme he is put through another means test, means test No. 6.
I accept that the Minister has been in office for only three weeks but he was the Minister responsible for the Department of Social Welfare on two previous occasions. I did not detect in his speech any burning desire to stop this abuse of the poor and needy, to stop this inconvenience to those people and put an end to this runabout to which poor people are subjected. Why is it that one means test is not accepted for all applications for assistance? Is it not possible for one officer to issue a certificate that will be accepted by the local authority, the health board and the Department of Social Welfare? I wonder why that problem has not been addressed by the Department. Is there no understanding in the Department of the distress this causes many people?
I can give details of people in areas like Clondalkin and Blanchardstown who have been obliged to go to many different centres, and pay bus fares they cannot afford, to meet different officials. Many people have to make phone calls they cannot afford — if they can get kiosk telephones in working order — to inquire about progress in the processing of their applications. I wonder why those anomalies are allowed to continue. The picture I have painted in regard to the means test fiasco highlights the administrative lethargy, the lack of a will to ensure that the poor are treated with efficiency and dignity. I was disappointed that none of that came across in the Minister's speech. In my view his contribution amounted to nothing more than a political speech telling us how great Fianna Fáil were for  this, that and the other and highlighting the improvements announced in the budget. However, the Minister played down the many improvements that were brought about before he took office.
Will the Minister give me a guarantee that within months applicants for social welfare benefits will be subjected to one means test only and that the poor will not be asked to run around jumping through seven and eight hoops to get their entitlements? I appeal to him to act immediately to stop this. If he does that he will be doing a great service to the poor and will save a lot of money for the Department. It does not take much imagination to realise that this quadruplication in administration costs a fortune. There is no reason why the changes I have suggested cannot be implemented within a matter of months. In the meantime the Minister must pursue energetically the computerisation of the system, not just to the outer offices of the Department of Social Welfare but to the health centres throughout the country.
We have very modern telecommunications and computer systems and highly qualified computer technicians and there is no reason why we should not have a modern computer system linking all health centres. If that work is carried out it will be possible for a community welfare officer, when he receives an application for assistance, to tap into the system on his terminal and get all the information he requires in regard to contribution record, entitlements and the amount of supplementary welfare being paid. In calculating the entitlement of applicants to welfare benefits, account should be taken of any supplementary allowances paid so that applicants are not presented with a huge bill later because of over-payments. Again, this is due to a great deal of administrative inefficiency.
They are the two most urgent reforms which are necessary to improve the level and delivery of services to the needy in society but over and above those the most important issue to be tackled is the targeting of the real poor. We must distinguish between one group and another  rather than opting for across the board increases. I would have much preferred the Minister to say he was granting a 10 per cent increase to some categories and no increase to others. Anyone who is concerned with poverty knows there is a burning need to direct our limited resources towards those who really need them.
Take, for example, the Christmas bonus. This is given across the board. It is given to a person with £34 a week and to a person with £600 a week. I am not exaggerating when I say that. I know a retired director of a bank who has a £30,000 pension. He has a State pension and also a third pension. Yet, the Department of Social Welfare give him a Christmas bonus in the same way as they give it to a man on £34 a week. Does the Minister or anyone in the House consider that is tackling the problem of poverty? The 3 per cent increase is given to those who have two and three pensions in the same way as it is given to those with £34 a week. Is the Minister not ashamed that no distinction is made between those who are really needy and those who are not in any need? Is he not ashamed to say he is not giving a living alone allowance to those on long-term unemployment assistance who are over 45 years of age? It all comes back to administrative convenience and a lack of burning passion for the poor which should be the hallmark of the Department of Social Welfare.
The Department of Social Welfare should be renamed the Department of Social Justice in order to impress on those who work there that their mission should be to serve the poor and to combat poverty and not to dispense largesse to those who do not really need it. I hope there will be agreement in the House to inject into the administrative system a sense of urgency to relieve poverty and distinguish between those who are in need and those who are not.
Who are those who are not in need and those who are most in need? There are several vulnerable groups but the two which spring to mind most readily are the long-term unemployed, especially those living alone, and those living alone under  66 years of age, in particular single women who in many cases do not have sufficient stamps to qualify them for contributory pensions. Very often they have spent much of their lives looking after their parents and now in the autumn of their own lives they are living on a pittance.
The supplementary welfare system has become a system of first resort rather than a system of last resort. My heart goes out to the community welfare officers who are in the front line. They meet people by the minute who are in desperate need. Very often they are emotionally upset. The officers are often abused by the people who are understandably distressed and under pressure as a result of continuous poverty. Sometimes the welfare officers become a little immune to the distress of the poor and under the pressure of abuse return like for like, further adding to the indignity suffered by the poor.
The system is overloaded. It was never designed to be one of first resort. The overloading is caused mainly by the Department referring cases to it unnecessarily. The system was designed to deal with urgent and special cases. I wonder if the Minister or any of his officials have ever sat in a health centre in some of the working-class suburbs of Dublin. Did they ever see the long queues or witness the people's distress. In many cases not even a cup of tea is available for people who may have to wait for many hours. The system is inefficient and is in need of modernisation. When people go to the Department they should not have to be referred to health centres.
According to the Principal Features of the Budget as circulated, there is an additional sum of £6.5 million allocated for social welfare. During the election campaign the Minister spoke on TV about an increase of 7 per cent. In his speech the Minister gave a figure of £2.6 billion. We are talking about a minuscule increase, less than 1 per cent, in the provision for social welfare. We have been told about the establishment of the Jobsearch programme and that 150,000 people are to be interviewed, but by  whom? Where are the staff to do this? What is the purpose? Is it to hound the unemployed? Is it to find jobs or is it to further humiliate those who feel distressed and depressed by finding themselves unemployed? Why have we a saving of £11.5 million? Where are the Jobsearch places referred to by the Minister? Where are the additional AnCO places which the Minister referred to? Where is the provision in the budget for those places? I believe this is where we get into spoof figures. I do not believe there is any substance to those provisions. Even though the Minister has only ten minutes to reply, I challenge him to tell us where the savings will be made. Where is the provision for the extra staff required to carry out 150,000 interviews, to grill people, to motivate them and train them to look for jobs.
Where is the provision in the Book of Estimates for the Jobsearch places in the Minister's Department or anywhere else? Where is the provision in the Department of Labour Estimate for the increased AnCO places? Where will the savings of £11.5 million come from? Will the Minister admit that these figures are a ready up, a spoof, and will not bear examination in the fullness of time? Figures have been pulled out of the air. There is no doubt that there is abuse of the social welfare system. This has irritated and burned me up for a long time. People who abuse the social welfare system are robbing those who are really poor. They are diverting resources into their own pockets and away from those in desperate need. That is not to say there are 150,000 people on the unemployment register abusing the social welfare system. That is manifestly not so. The Minister fails to be selective and target those who are abusing the system rather than to humiliate and degrade all those who are unlucky enough to be unemployed.
I am sorry that time has run out in this debate which in the nature of things is short. I would like to refer to the Ombudsman's report for 1986. The Ombudsman tells us he has secured an ad hoc arrangement with the Department of Social Welfare to compensate people  who, through departmental error or inefficiency has been left waiting for their social welfare payments and that this ad hoc arrangement is to be reinforced by a statutory provision at an early date. Where is the statutory provision in this Bill? Why is it not included in the Bill if the Department agreed to it last year?
There are many other points I would like to raise but obviously we cannot deal with them here today. I hope it will be possible to have a full debate on the report of the Commission on Social Welfare before too many weeks elapse. It is vitally important that in the very near future this House has more time than we have today to examine in detail the problems and difficulties of the most needy groups in our society.
Mr. Wyse: I have been in this House a long time and every time we discuss social welfare we accuse one another of anomalies in the whole structure of social welfare. All the parties who accuse one another had their opportunity to rectify the anomalies they are now talking about. The time has come for the Minister, with all parties in this House, to sit down and look at the whole structure of social welfare. We have an ideal opportunity at present because of the abundance of information in the two reports — the report of the Commission on Social Welfare and the NESC report — to come together and try to establish an equitable social welfare system.
I welcome the 3 per cent increase in social welfare benefits and especially the fact that it is being introduced in July rather than in November. I compliment the Minister and the Government on this initiative. It is vitally important that any concessions given in the budget should be introduced as quickly as possible, especially where social welfare is concerned. It is important also that we should have a caring approach to the needy. Any effort towards cost cutting or rationalisation of the social welfare system must not result in making the deprived even more deprived. Our social welfare system must be designed to create social equity  and to raise the living standards of the needy sector in our society.
Following the recent removal of food subsidies by the previous Government I assume that social welfare is now just in line with inflation. However, that is a matter we will have to deal with later. A social welfare system is concerned primarily with income maintenance issues. It should solve or at least help to ease many problems caused by insufficient income. It should not be seen as a tool to solve major social problems. The system of payment should secure social welfare equity and should not facilitate misuse of the system, nor should it create a disincentive to employment or investment. I welcome the Jobsearch programme and the objective to interview 150,000 unemployed people and to offer them a minimum of 40,000 manpower scheme opportunities. I assume this is the Government's strategy to attack the black economy and the abuses of social welfare.
I have to question the interviews. I agree with some points outlined by the last speaker about duplication of work within the Departments of Social Welfare, Health and Labour. What have Manpower been doing over the years? I understand that when people register for employment with them they are interviewed and assessed for suitable employment. Why does that happen when there is an authority specifically for the purpose of interviewing and placing people in employment? The Government must look at all Departments to see where money can be saved and how more efficient services can be achieved. When Manpower interview and assess people they are sent on to AnCO and the same procedure is adopted. I must assume that, between Manpower and AnCO, we know the people who are genuinely seeking employment. I must question the procedure in regard to interviewing 150,000 people — many a person will be hungry before the end of such a system is reached.
A number of sections in the principal  Act now being amended relate to contribution conditions for disability, unemployment and maternity benefits. At present, an applicant needs to have at least 26 weekly contributions in the 1985-86 tax year to qualify and, from Monday next, payments for 39 weeks will be required. This means thousands of people will not qualify for benefit this year and will have to seek means tested payments which is a costly and unsatisfactory system. I do not have to inform the Minister of the unnecessary delays in carrying out means tests on applicants for unemployment assistance and non-contributory pensions. Such delays cause financial hardship to health boards who are obliged to pay social assistance while awaiting decisions from the Department of Social Welfare on a person's claim. A sum of £1.85 million was paid in social assistance by the Southern Health Board from April 1984 to March 1985 mainly because of unnecessary delays in the Department of Social Welfare in making decisions on claims. This is a cause of great concern, especially to the health boards, who must provide this money from their limited resources until such time as they are reimbursed by the Department of Social Welfare, which could take anything from five months to two years. We should also take into account that bank interest must be paid on overdrafts.
I have been saying in the House for a long time that there is an urgent need to overhaul the social welfare system because it is too complex and unwieldy. We have too many schemes and regulations governing them. There are 19 social insurance payments and 12 social assistance payments which do not include children's allowances, prescribed relative's allowances and many others. The Progressive Democrats feel that these schemes could be easily reduced and more effectively operated locally. I am glad the Minister mentioned this point in his speech. As he has previous experience in this office, I will expect him to look at the whole structure of social welfare and also at the Department of Health which play a part in his administration.
 I now wish to comment on the savings announced by the Minister for Finance in the budget. We are inclined to push people receiving benefits onto social assistance which the Department seem to think will effect tremendous savings. That is far removed from the truth and I hope next year the Minister will see that the savings we are now talking about in relation to contributions have not been achieved. For example, a married man with a wife and two children on unemployment benefit receives £87.60 per week. If he is still unemployed after 12 months he reverts to unemployment assistance and his income drops by approximately £11.50 per week. However, that man is then entitled to a medical card under which he can receive free footwear, a clothing grant, a mortgage allowance and so on. The Departments of Social Welfare and Health seem to be miles apart in their operations. It is obvious that a man on unemployment benefit would be far better off on unemployment assistance when he is entitled to a medical card with all the benefits to which I referred. Where are the savings? Indeed, some people are far better off under these benefits than they would be if they were working. Let us look at the two services, the contributory or benefit and the assistance. I hope the Minister will give information on this point in his reply.
The Minister dealt briefly with the abuse of social welfare. Of course there are abuses of social welfare and we would be running away from reality if we were not prepared to admit that. Those who indulge in this kind of abuse must remember that they are depriving the really genuine people of their rights under social welfare. I am glad the Minister is looking at the deserted wife's allowance. Of course a husband must face up to his responsibility and make some contribution to the maintenance of his wife and children, but I have heard stories of cases — I do not know whether there is any foundation for them — where a husband can go to Great Britain or to some other part of the world, take up employment there and then tell his wife  to apply for assistance or deserted wife's allowance. Has that come to the notice of the Department of Social Welfare? I know that the officials of the Department and the Minister will say that it is utterly impossible to prevent such abuses, that to deal with the problem would mean employing more people to go out and search out the offenders. However, when one considers the whole area of the Civil Service, surely we can move people from other Departments to the Department of Social Welfare and to Revenue. Abuses will continue until those employed in the Civil Service are prepared to stand up and make the sacrifice involved in moving to other Departments where their services are most needed.
The matter of the long delays in payment has been mentioned here this morning. These delays cause untold hardship in homes. Imagine this morning a man or a woman going to the local social welfare office and applying for unemployment assistance: it will take at least three to four months before that unfortunate person is assessed by that service. Then there is the question of the extra work involved in terms of administration in that the local community welfare officer has to make an assessment of the applicant's means before assistance is paid. The Minister will know from previous experience exactly the anomalies and defects that lie within the social welfare service.
I ask the Minister of State to convey to the Minister the fact that there is a dispute in the Limerick social welfare office at the moment. I understand that the officials there are not prepared to handle cases of people coming to them for benefits and allowances. There is some trouble there due, I understand, to lack of sufficient accommodation for those administering social welfare. I ask the Minister to look at this because a good deal of hardship is being inflicted on people in the Limerick areas at the moment.
Let me refer to the educational opportunities here. Anything that helps a  person to further his or her education or to become involved in educational activities is welcome. However, in the last discussion here on social welfare I highlighted the fact that if a boy or girl who had suffered a long term of unemployment during which they were receiving unemployment assistance should take up a part-time educational course, they would be told by their local social welfare officer that they were no longer available for work. Surely it is far better for a young person to pursue some educational courses to prepare himself or herself to take up a job of his or her choice. It is far better to see such people sitting in some lecture hall or college than walking the streets aimlessly. I had asked the former Minister for Social Welfare to give this matter very careful consideration. Where a young person is prepared to try to advance his educational standard by attending part-time educational courses he should be entitled to unemployment assistance. Many such people are taking up these courses for only a limited period until they are called for employment. I plead with the Minister again this morning to look at that aspect. I said to his predecessor that he should allow assistance to people who have the initiative to go ahead and promote their educational standard.
I welcome the extention of treatment benefit to spouses of employed people. This is good and it is timely. I can well understand the Minister's reason for postponing this until October. The dental treatment structure at the moment is in complete disarray and there is no point in offering a service to a person if that person cannot be facilitated through the health boards or through private enterprise. In the health board areas no additional work can be taken on in that respect.
I also applaud the community financial assistance given to the voluntary bodies. We are not placing enough emphasis on this area. We have what we call the day centres catering for the elderly, supplying meals on wheels and things of that kind — all done by voluntary effort. These people are dedicated to helping their  neighbours. We talk much about and applaud generosity, but when it comes to the financial assistance needed to promote such activity, we seem to turn our backs on it. As I have mentioned recently, many elderly persons are sitting in their own homes this very day because of the work and dedication of the voluntary community associations. I ask the Minister to place more emphasis on this kind of activity and to encourage it. Never more than today has this kind of work been needed of getting together and working together for the benefit of all.
Mr. Bell: I should like to support Deputy Wyse's remarks in relation to a number of areas of abuse in social welfare. I agree with him that there are quite a number of abuses in the deserted wives area. Most Members of this House would accept that. There was a time when these allowances were very necessary and genuine but I am becoming increasingly concerned about the number of cases I can see around the country where, effectively, the deserted wife's husband is living down the road, cohabiting with somebody else. The deserted wife's benefit was not designed for that type of situation.
One must consider that the ordinary PAYE worker has to foot the bill in the main for these cases and we should be looking at ways and means of tightening up the procedure, to ensure that only the genuine cases benefit. I am not saying that most cases are not genuine, but abuse of the system has grown. This is a very serious matter. It means that a husband can be in receipt of full earnings or full benefit on social welfare under another heading and his wife drawing benefit in full for herself and the children. I suggest to the Minister of State that the length of time it takes to process deserted wives' claims is abnormal and the method by which the research and investigations are carried out is totally inadequate for the number of cases on which claims are made.
It must be said that when the people had an opportunity to deal with this problem in a more orderly fashion, in other  words, by the introduction of divorce into the country, they turned that down very strongly. Those who voted against divorce are now complaining and moaning about abuses of the system. The whole question of the deserted wife's allowance needs to be looked into, updated and more efficiently dealt with. It would be a good idea for the Government to consider the whole are of social welfare being looked into by a special committee of the House. The matter has grown out of all proportion and is now at a stage where even experienced officials of the Department would have difficulty in understanding all the ramifications of the system. The Commission on Social Welfare attempted to come to grips with the main problems in this area but that was from the point of view of strengthening and improving the system. It would require a committee of the House to deal with the administration of social welfare. A committee of this sort would be much more valuable than some of the committees we have had during the term of the previous Government.
I support the sentiments expressed by Deputy Wyse in welcoming treatment benefit for wives of social welfare contributors. This has been on the books for a long time. The two items referred to, rightly, by the Deputy exclude one very important sector, that of the husbands. For example, there are many deserted husbands in this country who, for one reason or another, are left to look after large families because their wives have gone abroad, simply deserted, or disappeared. These unfortunate men are unable to go out to work because they must look after the family. They are in exactly the same position as deserted wives and yet no account is taken of this. Many find great difficulty in getting any form of social welfare. They should be treated in the same way as deserted wives, though fortunately I think there are not so many deserted husbands.
If the wife of a man who is covered by social welfare is entitled to treatment benefit, I see no reason why the husband of a woman who is insured and who is himself unemployed should not equally  be entitled to treatment benefit. In the majority of cases where men are unemployed and their wives are working, once they lose unemployment benefit and go onto unemployment assistance because of the means test, generally speaking they are not entitled to benefit. Therefore, they have no income in their own right and have no benefit entitlement either. I ask the Minister to consider that aspect. If we are talking about EC equality, this would be equality for men in the same way as women have got equality in many aspects of the social welfare code.
I was giving this whole question some consideration and was tempted to write a speech taking up the half hour allocated. However, I was looking through a document of the Catholic Social Service Conference and one or two paragraphs summed up the matter. For example, one paragraph said that from a social policy perspective the main effects of the budget would seem to be inequitable and divisive. A budget increase of 3 per cent for social welfare recipients has failed to take account of the total inadequacy of welfare payments in relation to the current cost of living. The 3 per cent increase granted has already been eaten up by the removal of food subsidies and recent rent increases. By increasing the length of time for which a person must contribute before claiming benefit, a further division is created between the employed and unemployed. Increasing the contribution time has a punitive effect and serves to reinforce the notion that the unemployed are work-shy and are personally responsible for their unemployment. I thought that summed up the whole position and might very well replace a five, six or ten page document on the whole subject.
Let us consider the case of a single person existing on social welfare. Taking ordinary commodities such as soap, shampoos, a few cigarettes, outgoings such as rent, light and heat, provision for clothing, shoes, bus fares and a very small amount for recreational purposes, it effectively means that a single person on social welfare receiving £36.70 per week, living alone, would be left with £15 with  which to feed themselves. All Members would agree it would be impossible for anybody to feed themselves on £15 a week. Therefore, when we talk about an increase of 3 per cent, 4 per cent or even 10 per cent, in percentage terms it may sound all right, that is if one were talking about 3 per cent of, say, £20,000 per annum but when one is talking about 3 per cent of £36.70 it makes no difference whatsoever; it hardly amounts to the price of a packet of 20 cigarettes. I doubt if one could buy a packet of some cigarettes for that amount. All the talk about giving social welfare recipients an increase of 3 per cent and bringing forward their entitlement from November to July sounds all right on the surface but when we realise we are really talking about the price of a packet of cigarettes, we should all be ashamed of ourselves to say the least. That applies whether it be a Coalition Government, a Fianna Fáil Government or any other.
The Commission on Social Welfare highlighted that position forcibly when they advocated a basic level of social welfare benefit on which people could at least survive. There is no doubt that abuses do occur, that there is the black economy with all sorts of fraud and fiddling going on but, by and large, people have been forced into that position. To ask a person living alone to pay rent and undertake any of the normal outgoings that arise on £36.70 per week is incredible. There is no way such a person could survive if they are honest. The same can be said in respect of widows. A widow in receipt of a contributory widow's pension of £48 a week, paying rent on her house, endeavouring to provide herself with normal living requirements, is living in severe poverty. It is not possible for such a person to lead any kind of normal life. Were it not for the fact that the community at large is generally a caring one, with families tending to rally round their mother, half of the widows of this country would starve to death and die very lonely. Many of their husbands had effectively carried the social welfare system and had worked perhaps 40, 50 or 60 years. The widows are now left alone, their husbands  having worked themselves to death in some miserable workplace. Those widows are then given the measly amount of £48 a week, while 95 per cent of them do not qualify for any pension whatsoever based on their husbands' contributions in their lifetime.
We hear about State and semi-State pensions. What about the many thousands of industrial workers who receive no pension at all? When such people die their widows are left with virtually nothing except the widow's pension. I have said this in the House every time we discuss the subject and I repeat it in the hope that some day some Minister will introduce a national pay-related pension scheme about which we have been talking for the past 20 years. Five or six successive Ministers have issued White Papers, green papers, blue papers, papers of all colours. They have updated and revised them, they have promised to implement such a scheme, then withdrawn their proposals, which have never seen the light of day. On this occasion the Minister did not even refer to the matter in the course of his introductory remarks. I assume the proposal has been transferred from a Coalition cold storage into a Fianna Fáil cold storage. Those of us fortunate enough to be here, in say, ten, 15 or 20 years time will still be talking about it. From a trade union point of view I shall continue to highlight this issue.
If there was in operation a national pay-related pension scheme people would then be in receipt of decent retirement benefits. In the event of their dying and leaving families, those families would be catered for and, if they leave no family except a widow, then she would be catered for financially. Such a scheme would cater for a large percentage of the poverty-stricken people in our social welfare system. When we discussed this matter before in the House some Ministers and indeed Members said to me it would be too expensive for employers to implement such a scheme while we are in the midst of a general recession. However, we must remember that same scheme operates in the State and semi-State  sectors, in the more lucrative or higher profit end of the market, in jobs such as Guinness and others. Effectively it is the PAYE sector, comprised of those people who do not enjoy pensions, who must pay for that scheme by way of their contributions. If ever one could cite a constitutional claim of inequity surely that is it? That applies equally to Members of this House and Ministers who are paid pensions when they retire. They are paid for by people in employment in the commercial and industrial sector, the very people who do not enjoy the benefit of any pension other than a miserable widow's or old age pension for which they have paid anyway.
Like Deputy Wyse I should like to refer to what I believe to be a major area of abuse of the social welfare system, moneys that could be better utilised to cater for say, widows and single persons living alone. I am talking about substantial businessmen and large farmers who transfer their business or farm to a son, daughter, brother or whoever, thus automatically qualifying for a non-contributory pension, having paid absolutely nothing into the system. I know of a man who had £1 million worth of property and transferred that property to members of his family and is now in receipt of a non-contributory pension. I know dozens of men who worked 30 or 40 years who do not now qualify for a pension because they have to average their social welfare contributions over a period of 53 years. The same section of the community, those who work and pay social welfare and tax, suffer and the people with money, with the assistance of clever accountants or legal advisers, can benefit from the social welfare syustem. A person who does not contribute to the system should not benefit from it.
This is one of the biggest single abuses of social welfare and I have raised it year after year but nothing has been done. These people are laughing all the way to the bank. I see people who transferred properties in receipt of the full social welfare non-contributory pension and working from 9 o'clock to 5 o'clock in  their own businesses. The social welfare system should be decentralised because people working in Dublin offices are not aware of what is happening on the ground. I asked the former Minister and his predecessor to introduce a number of pilot schemes to decentralise the social welfare system and I was promised they would be implemented so that the system could be administered at local level. That promise like many other promises was not fulfilled.
I agree with my colleagues who said it is a shame that we do not have sufficient time to debate all aspects of this Bill. Social welfare above all other aspects of Government is one of the most complex, and the proposals contained in this Bill will have very far-reaching effects. The general public are not aware of the implications of what is contained in this Bill as they were unaware of what was contained in the 1982 Social Welfare Act which restricted social welfare severely in a number of areas.
The 3 per cent increase is totally inadequate. For a sum of £19 million the Government brought forward the payment of the increase from November to July, and that is supposed to compensate for the fact that 3 per cent is totally inadequate. We had proposed to Fine Gael that it should be a figure of at least 4 per cent to compensate for the removal of food subsidies and I understood that would be delivered. When one takes into account that the remaining half of the food subsidies has been removed, and that rent increases have taken place, the 3 per cent is gone before it is granted. So it does not matter whether one talks about giving it in July or November.
The Coalition Government came into power in similar circumstances at the same time of the year and this seems to necessitate the implementation of a rushed budget. Effectively what happens is that Governments come into power and adopt a Civil Service budget provision. Not one proposal contained in this Bill came from Fianna Fáil. The bulk of it came from the outgoing Government and the bulk of that was put together by  civil servants. We are getting to the stage where we will have a system which will not be worth a curse. Under four headings the savings in social welfare will amount to £26.5 million and the Government talk about spending an additional £19 million. The saving there is at the expense of people who are working and paying under the PAYE system.
I remember Fianna Fáil creating an uproar in this House in February 1983 when it was proposed to reduce the level of pay-related benefit to 25 per cent and 20 per cent. Now four and a half years later when we should be increasing the benefit to those paying into the system, we are reducing it from 25 per cent and 20 per cent to 12 per cent. The bulk of the people agreeing to this and putting it before the House were walking through the other lobbies four and a half years ago. I fail to understand this hypocrisy. Maybe I have been in the trade union movement too long, and maybe I should have stayed there, but I cannot understand that hypocrisy. It is not true that social welfare benefits are being increased from the Exchequer, from the farmers, or from business. The social welfare increase of 3 per cent is paid on the backs of the people who are paying PRSI who will receive a reduction in benefit. It would have been better had the Government eliminated the PRSI system, increased the flat rate benefit payment and been honest with the people. It would have saved a lot of money in administering a system which is not worth a curse, because it has been pared down to the stage where it is now useless for compensating workers who are unemployed or sick.
In many cases, particularly at higher pay levels, the rates of benefit are not sufficiently high to enable insured persons to maintain anything approaching their accustomed standard of living during longer periods of sickness or unemployment.
The purpose of this Bill to improve the position in this respect by relating both benefit and contributions to earnings to some degree and to provide rates of benefit which will better enable persons to maintain, during sickness and unemployment, a standard of living reasonably close to that to which they have been accustomed.
In 1987, 15 years later, another Fianna Fáil Minister is virtually tearing the system asunder. Time will tell. It is only when workers go on unemployment benefit, whether they are short time temporary lay-offs, redundancies or whatever, that they will discover the PRSI they have been paying since 1972 is not worth a curse to them and that the money they are paying in is being used to subsidise, on a political basis, other aspects of social welfare. There would be nothing wrong with that sentiment if is were not for the fact that the Minister, in introducing the system of pay-related benefit in 1972, did so on the basis that it would be compensation which would help people when they were unemployed to maintain, on a temporary basis, a standard of living they were accustomed to. The proposals the Government are introducing are taking away those benefits on a permanent basis. I will conclude by asking the Minister to give special consideration to widows and single people living alone.
Mr. Wallace: I compliment the Minister on the introduction of this Bill which meets the commitment the Fianna Fáil Party made during the recent general election to maintain the real value of social welfare payments. I was surprised  at the final comments made by Deputy Bell because he seems to have had a lapse of memory regarding what happened during the period 1982 to 1987. During divisions Deputy Bell kept this House in suspense until the last minute on several occasions and he did not do what people thought he might do.
Mr. Wallace: Some of the points made by Deputy Mitchell were very relevant but I was surprised at the remark he made that the Department of Social Welfare are there to combat poverty. While there is an element of truth in that I would hate to be unemployed for 30 or 40 years and to think that the only reason I was getting benefit from the Department of Social Welfare was to combat poverty.
Mr. Wallace: The Government are faced with an extremely difficult task in trying to rectify the serious imbalance  in the public finances. Strong measures must be taken and, as was demonstrated by the Budget Statement of the Minister for Finance on Tuesday last, this Government are prepared to take the necessary action to tackle this problem. The Minister for Finance and the Government have clearly signalled their intention as to how the problem will be solved. Even though unpopular decisions are necessary and have been taken, we are fully behind the Government in their efforts to improve the economic situation and to tackle the major problem of unemployment.
The Social Welfare Bill provides for a 3 per cent increase in the value of social welfare payments. This means that 700,000 social welfare recipients are getting an increase which will compensate them for the effects of inflation during the year.
I would like to remind Deputies and, in particular, those on the Labour benches, that that was the objective of the last Government in awarding increases during the past few years. When Deputy Desmond was Minister for Social Welfare he seemed pleased that he was able to achieve that rate of increase in social welfare payments. As the Minister pointed out, the previous Government were giving only a 2 per cent increase during the period July 1987 to July 1988. This would have represented a real decrease in the value of social welfare payments during that period. The fact that what Deputy Desmond did in 1986 turned out to be a real increase was due more to good fortune, in that inflation was lower than expected, than any intention and deliberate plan on his part to increase payments in real terms.
I want to refer to the situation in Cork. I am pleased the Minister has referred to his commitment to improve the quality of the service given to social welfare recipients. Deputy Wyse covered many important points. For many years I have been pressing for a major overhaul in the way services are provided at local level in the Cork area. I went to the trouble of visiting an employment exchange in Cork  and the social welfare headquarters at Abbey Court House to see how the system operates. I also visited the headquarters of the disability benefit section in Dublin to see how that system operated. I found these visits very beneficial in that I got an insight into how things are run. I compliment the staff in these offices because they have a very difficult job and have to deal with vast numbers of people. I think decentralisation of the service is the only answer to these problems. With decentralisation many issues could be tackled which could greatly improve the quality of the service provided to the public.
We need to emphasise that the public service exist to provide a service to the public. There is a need to decentralise the service given and to provide a wider and more comprehensive level of service to the public. For many years there has been a steady stream of complaints about delays in receiving payment. This was due to the fact that medical certificates had to be sent to Dublin. Even though certificates have still to be sent to Dublin a provision has now been made whereby certificates will be retained in Cork and will be dealt with in the Cork office. Hopefully this will eliminate many of the problems that have existed as a result of certificates being lost and duplicate certificates being requested by the Department.
While I welcome the fact that the Department have gone this far we should go much further. The service in the Cork area can be improved only if it is provided on a local basis. Given modern communications systems and modern technology, there is no reason why a greater decentralisation of services could not be introduced. I will be pressing the Minister for improvements in this area in the coming months. Due to pressure from my own colleagues and from Deputies in the Opposition parties, certificates will now be accepted in Cork. There is no doubt that people are frustrated because of such factors as the delays in making payments, the time they have to wait for a reply when they telephone Dublin, often up to 20 minutes, and so on. All  these problems would be eliminated if the Minister had these matters dealt with locally.
Another matter I would like to discuss is the means test. The operation in Nenagh sets the headline for other places and I ask the Minister to extend that project to the Cork area. It is essential that applicants for social welfare services should be able to receive all the services at one centre, including means assessment. We can all speak about the social welfare system. I know a number of cases where the applicants have been waiting more than three months for a social welfare officer to call. I believe this assessment should be carried out at a central point. Because of the increased number of people looking for social welfare payments, the social welfare officers cannot cope. This is causing severe hardship. Another drawback is that these people must stay at home in case the social welfare officer calls to carry out an investigation to establish eligibility for social assistance. The applicant might not be at home when the officer calls, with the result that the officer must pay a second visit. People should not be expected to stay at home on the offchance that the social welfare officer will call. Besides calling to establish a person's eligibility, the social welfare officer may also be ensuring that the applicant is not working. I appreciate there are problems in this area but there is no way the present outdated system can continue.
There should be a central point where people can make application, give the necessary information and sign that the information they are giving is true. If spot checks are necessary to ensure that these people are not working, well and good, but as of now, the system must be changed because thousands of people must stay at home until the welfare officers call to establish if they are entitled to payments. I am confident the Minister will give every consideration to these matters.
Mention was made to fraud in the social welfare system. I was glad the Minister said the majority of people in receipt of disability benefit are entitled to it and  that action will be taken against the few who abuse the system, but we must not go overboard. I would like the Minister to tighten up the system so that such abuses will not take place. A central office would be a help in this direction. At present people in Cork looking for social welfare payments have to go to the South Mall, Washington Street, the Southern Health Board, the employment exchanges and various agencies. I hope the Minister seriously considers the establishment of a central office because, as he said this morning, it is his intention to give the best service possible.
The family income supplement is a very worthwhile scheme. It was not a success when it was introduced in 1984 because there was not a great deal of talk about it. I have no doubt that the Minister at the time brought it in with the best of intentions but the numbers who availed of it were very low. While the numbers have increased in the meantime, this scheme should be more widely publicised so that many who could benefit from it would do so. This would eliminate many problems for people in the lower income group.
Social welfare is such a wide area that we could speak about it all day. It is relevant to outline the general context in which the social welfare provisions in the budget must be considered. First, the need to address the economic problems the country now faces is a priority for this Government. There is a broad consensus on the strategy which must be adopted to tackle these problems.
The National Economic and Social Council in their report entitled A Strategy for Development, 1986-1990 identified four important elements of strategy which will be required. First is the correction of the imbalances in the public finances; second is a fundamental reform of the tax structure; third is the need to address the structural deficiencies in the productive base of the economy and, fourth is the progressive removal of the major inequities in society. The promotion in a positive and vigorous way of this strategy and the balancing of these different elements is a crucial issue to be  faced by the Government. I am confident the Government will face up to their responsibilities.
The achievement of the country's economic objectives in the years ahead will undoubtedly require sacrifices from all sectors of society. The Government have to look very closely at all elements of Government expenditure to ensure that the resources available are directed in the most effective way. At the same time we must ensure that the burden of attaining our economic objectives is not borne by disadvantaged groups in our society. We must be vigilant to ensure that this does not happen. The recent EC food subsidy and beef subsidy showed very clearly the vast numbers of people in the Community who are living below the poverty line. The fact that thousands availed of that scheme is a clear indication of how people are trying to manage. We must always bear this in mind.
Mr. Power: I am glad to get the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Bill, 1987. This is my first time to speak in this new Dáil and I compliment the Minister for doing a good job in very difficult circumstances. He did not have four years to prepare for this measure. As a matter of fact, we have only four days to get it passed before 6 April. In three weeks we prepared a budget from which the discredited Coalition walked away after four years of fiscal rectitude, which turned out to be four years of economic ineptitude. No wonder the people looked on the Coalition Government as a group who could not face up to their responsibilities. Imagine the gall of Deputy Jim Mitchell today asking our Minister if he was not ashamed. If anyone should feel ashamed it is Deputy Mitchell.
A popular song a few years ago gave  advice to a young man —“Walk away from trouble if you can”. The Coalition partners did just that. The title of the song was “The Coward of the County”. The redeeming feature of the original coward was that when the real test came he faced up to it. In the final test the cowardly Coalition partners counted their ministerial pensions, folded their tents and slipped away. It is no wonder the managing director of the firm had to resign shortly after that.
Mr. Power: The Deputy is hardly likely to add to it, I can assure him of that. It is no wonder the director general of the firm involved resigned at the first opportunity and that his co-director won in a photo finish, having been lucky to hold his seat.
This budget is a benchmark in illustrating the quality the present Taoiseach and the present Minister have always shown in plenty — care for the underprivileged and the less well off. Comparisons will be helpful to illustrate this. After four years the Coalition planned to reduce the payment of unemployment benefit from 15 months to one year. We scrapped that because it is obviously unfair to the long term unemployed. I commend the Minister for doing so. The Coalition were also going to make the disabled wait for six days instead of the normal three days.
Mr. Power: A new mother moving from maternity allowance to disability benefit would have faced the same prospect. Deputy Mitchell used the words “humiliating” and “degrading” and his were the party who talked about the dignity of the disabled and, in another context, the magnificence of motherhood. They are empty cliches. A wait of one week would be a distinct hardship for many people. It is not enough to say what you would like to do; we believe actions speak louder than words.
Deputy Bell deplored the axing of the living alone allowance for those over the age of 45 years on unemployment assistance. They were to get £3.55 extra a week. That was a crumb that was thrown to Deputy Joe Bermingham when he kicked up a row late last year. It was a “sop in áit na scuaibe”.
Why should anyone pick out those over the age of 45 and place them in a new category? I am well over the age of 45 and I do not consider that I should be placed in any special category. Old age pensioners over the age of 66 need special consideration, but why should someone 21 years younger be placed in a special category? I realise that the age of 45 is supposed to be a dangerous age but to give £3.55 extra to a person over the age of 45 living alone and to confirmed bachelors is an incentive to them to retain their bachelorhood. I am glad Fianna Fáil are not imposing that artificial step into our social welfare system.
We need to simplify the system. We do not need to make it more complicated. We brought forward the 3 per cent increase from November to July. I compliment the Minister for doing so. I am not sure how he managed to find the £19 million, but Deputy Bell said that makes no difference. A social welfare recipient going to get the increase in his pension in sunny July rather than in the fogs of November will consider that it makes a difference. That is the hallmark of a caring and conscientious social welfare policy. We recognised and identified the areas of hardship and found the money. I am glad that was done and it is one of the nicest features of the budget.
 How are we to improve the lot of social welfare recipients in the present climate? There is only one way to do that and that is to put more people to work and lessen the huge burden of social welfare payments.
Mr. Power: That task is to be tackled by all Government Departments. Our number one priority is jobs; our number two priority is jobs; and if we continue our preferences in order of our choice our priority will still be jobs. I am glad that social welfare is playing its part in this campaign. I commend those who introduced the social employment scheme. It was an imaginative scheme and I am sorry it was not taken up by the county councils to a greater extent. I would like to see the scheme expanded as much as possible. It is a good idea and it is capable of being expanded. We should utilise it to its maximum.
The job search programme is an imaginative one and it presents us with a challenge. I am sure that when we discuss this programme there will be many a Doubting Thomas and many who will play to the gallery but I want to see this programme carried out thoroughly and vigorously. It will be a big task to interview the 150,000 people who are to be assessed and guided. I hope we will reach the target we have set ourselves and that one in every three of them will have job opportunities put in their way.
Abuse of the social welfare system is rampant. This country cannot carry the parasites any longer. The hard pressed, decent PRSI workers and taxpayers in every walk of life can no longer be asked to subsidise the black economy. I commend every effort to stamp out these abuses and to bring back the work ethos. Tá tús maith déanta ag an Aire. Deirim leis leanúint ar aghaidh leis an obair agus gan é a thógaint bog go dtí go mbeidh an job críochnaithe aige.
One of the most important sentences in the Minister's speech was that the Jobsearch programme can also have an indirect impact in helping to identify  people who are not genuinely seeking employment. Bravo, Minister, for speaking out and speaking straight. I am sure we will hear criticisms of that statement from Deputies who would like to pander to the lowest common human factor, that is, laziness. There are enough decent people in Ireland to back the Minister in his view. I hope he will continue to pursue and maintain this view.
I know a 3 per cent increase is a modest one and barely in line with the increase in the cost of living. We would like to do more and everyone would like us to do more but the present position constrains us. We have embarked on a long term policy to safeguard the future of all our people, not just the pensioners who have borne the burden and the heat of the day. We wish to help them in every way we can, but we also have to think about those who have come in at the eleventh hour, our young people who have no jobs or prospects.
We have to take harsh decisions not just in the Department of Social Welfare but in every other Department to provide a future for our young people. The Minister had a dreadful task in compiling a budget and carrying out a programme which his immediate predecessor found it impossible to carry out. I believe he has done a good job. I would like to commend it and I can certainly defend it.
Proinsias De Rossa: I hope to make my contribution in less than 30 minutes allowed in order to facilitate other speakers. I should like to open my remarks by referring to something which has not been referred to so far in this debate, that is, the fact that we are debating a Bill which is providing what can only be described as a miserly increase of 3 per cent for those on social welfare and who effectively are living in poverty at a time when there are extremes of wealth and poverty existing side by side in our society. I have to say also that the budget of which this Bill is part and parcel does not make any attempt to tackle that inequality.
We can continue until Tib's eve  increasing social welfare benefits in line with inflation and it will not solve the problem of the poverty of the one million people in our society who are dependent on social welfare. The fundamental fact is that the level of social welfare is too low even if it is kept in line with inflation. The Commission on Social Welfare indicated in their report that unemployment benefit provides in the region of 77 per cent only of what they would regard as a basic income capable of meeting day to day needs. The unemployment assistance rates are much worse. The sad fact is that in our society, both North and South, if capital has no use for your labour then you are in trouble and you will live in poverty. Until such time as parties like the Workers' Party and the Labour Party can convince the working class that that is the case we will have to put up with tinkering around with the system, as is happening in the Bill before us.
The social welfare system does not provide adequate income for all those in need. I have heard Members say that the Government will be working towards the creation of jobs but I cannot see anything in the Bill that will lead to that. We are presented with two programmes, the first, referred to by the Minister today, is the job search programme and the second is what is euphemistically called, creating the right climate for investment. The job search programme seems to me to be intended to be a witchhunt against the mythological thousands we are told are constantly defrauding the social welfare system and who lack the work ethic — referred to by Deputy Power — or are lazy. However, it would be pointless to put all the unemployed, the 250,000 people, on the register, through the job search programme unless there will be 250,000 jobs for those people.
We have been told that some employers cannot get people to work for them. That may be true but the reason is that it is not worth their while getting out of bed in the morning for the pittance they are being offered. Some employers accept the diktats of the political view that a worker should be glad to work for whatever he gets and that the dignity of  work is everything. The dignity of work is not everything. It must be sufficient to put food on the table, to provide clothes for one's back and shelter over one's head. It should provide some balance to enable a person to have some life other than a work or domestic life. The Minister has told us that the job search programme will locate those who do not wish to work or who are genuinely seeking work but I hope he can explain how he proposes to do this. How will it be possible for any of the 250,000 unemployed to prove that they are genuinely seeking work if there are not jobs available? I am concerned about this Jobsearch programme.
There are many discriminatory aspects in the social welfare system against women and men and I will deal with that matter in detail when the House is debating the Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare. However, although the equality legislation in relation to women was introduced last year — it caused severe hardship for thousands of families — many people are still being discriminated against under the social welfare code. There is discrimination of those engaged in part-time work, particularly women who for domestic reasons or otherwise can only take on part-time jobs. If they work less than 18 hours per week they will be at a substantial loss in regard to social welfare benefits. Deserted husbands, not an unknown quanity in the State, cannot obtain a deserted spouse's allowance. Young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are discriminated against if they leave school in that they are not entitled to any social welfare benefit. Those over 18 living at home find that if one of their parents is working they will not receive any unemployment benefit.
Another anomaly has been brought to my attention in regard to young people who reach 18 before they leave school. Those young people may turn 18 years in December or January before they sit for the leaving certificate in June but the parents, if they are on social welfare, lose the dependant's allowance as a result. Those young people, because they are  still at school, do not qualify for any supplementary welfare allowance or unemployment benefit after they turn 18. Very few are involved and the Minister should try to eliminate that anomaly. It would be a tragedy, given the problems that young people face in their efforts to seek employment and the qualifications they need, if parents were forced to take young people out of school before they completed the leaving certificate course in order to get a few extra pounds on their supplementary welfare allowance. I do not think it would cost very much to rectify that.
The report of the Commission on Social Welfare represents a milestone in regard to the social welfare system. It indicated that there was a big gap between the income of those on social welfare and what they estimated they should receive if they were to be able to buy the necessities of life. I should like to refer to the survey carried out by the Society of St. Vincent De Paul in 1984. The sample interview of those on social welfare carried out by that organisation is significant because it showed that 57 per cent of the income of those on social welfare was spent on food. That represents a higher proportion of income spent on food than we, or any other category would have to spend. According to the report 60 per cent of those interviewed had at one stage or other to go to the clinic to get supplementary welfare allowances either to pay the ESB, their rent or some other bill. It states that 60 per cent of those interviewed had not in the previous two years spent any money on clothes for themselves; virtually all the money, other than that spent on food, was spent on their children. The report states that in the case of 70 per cent of those interviewed it had been two years since they had gone on one day's outing. It is important to keep in mind that one in ten of those interviewed were in the hands of moneylenders. Of the larger families in that group one in six were in the hands of moneylenders, one-third of them had arrears to pay to the ESB and one-fifth of them had arrears of rent. Since 1984, all social welfare legislation  has attempted to maintain payments in line with inflation but, effectively, that does not provide any real increase for the people. It means that those interviewed in that survey, and those who have since found themselves in the social welfare net, are no better off. That level of poverty still exists and this Bill does nothing to come to terms with it.
I do not accept that we do not have the money. The budget makes provision for a task force to collect £700 million in unpaid tax. This year they will collect £10 million. When we see in the financial pages of newspapers massive increases in profits and incomes to shareholders and the huge outflows of profits out of the State I do not accept that we do not have the resources to provide a decent income for the poor or to create structures which would end poverty. The most effective way to do that is through job creation. That should not be done by way of encouraging private enterprise to invest by pushing wages down and deregulating labour so as to make it cheap. A totally new approach is needed to develop our vast resources. Financial institutions must be controlled and investment must take place in areas where wealth creating jobs can be provided.
The Minister referred to a “one stop shop”. I made a proposal to the previous Government that they should introduce a system of self-assessment for those seeking unemployment assistance. I said that whatever administrative procedures were used at present in assessing individuals for unemployment assistance could be used to carry out a spot check on those who submitted self-assessments. I do not see any reason why this cannot be done. It is already done in the tax area. There are proposals at present to introduce it on a wider scale in that area. One objection to it is that it would involve breaching the confidentiality attached to the bank accounts of the self-employed and professional people. The poor have no privacy. Everything they do and everything they own is looked at by social welfare officers, rent assessment officers  and so on. Their bank accounts or building society accounts are looked at and there is no problem about that. There is no reason the procedure of self-assessment for those applying for unemployment assistance should not be experimented with to see how it would work. It would eliminate the agony of people who are refused and who must wait for months before their case is sorted out. They then have to go to clinics and look for supplementary welfare allowances. It is a totally degrading process which could be eliminated.
The Minister referred to the Combat Poverty Agency. He said that they had submitted a strategic plan to him and that he would discuss it in detail with them. I hope the discussion will take days rather than weeks or months. I know, and I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows also, of the Ballymun Together Group which comprise three organisations. They provide an excellent community service in the Ballymun area. The SUSS centre provides information and assistance: the youth action project plays a very effective part in combating the drug problem and deals with drug addicts and the Base-10 Arts Group provide an excellent service for young people in relation to developing their artistic potential and so on. These groups made a submission to the Department which was passed on to the Combat Poverty Agency. They are awaiting a response and I have no doubt that a response will not be forthcoming until the Minister has completed his discussions on the plan. I urge that they be completed as quickly as possible. These groups are on the point of folding up and closing their doors unless they get agreement on the submission they have made.
The Minister referred to the deserted wife's allowance and made an interesting proposal which is worth pursuing. Where a spouse defaults on maintenance the Department would pay the wife — I hope also the husband if it is a case of a deserted husband — and pursue the other spouse for the money. Something should be done about the own volition rule. As things stand the deserted wife has to  prove the husband left of his own accord, in other words that she did not tell him to feck off, that she was not going to put up with him any more, that she had enough beatings and enough of his alcoholism or whatever.
Proinsias De Rossa: Perhaps the Chair is right. I do not know. I take the Chair's word for it. It is not what I have heard expressed. In fact I have expressed it very mildly. The question of own volition should be looked at. If the Minister pursues his proposal this rule would be eliminated.
The question of fraud has been brought up from time to time. Some months ago one could rarely lift a newspaper without seeing a headline stating that people on social welfare were engaged in massive fraud. I am glad that has died down and that the fear it created among social welfare recipients has died away. The figures provided by the Minister show that, at most, one-fifth of 1 per cent of the money paid out by the Department can be attributed to fraud. It has been implied that those who are engaged in fraud are in some way not genuinely in need.
While it is not true in all cases, it is true in many of the cases I have come across that people have more or less fallen into a position of having to claim payments of money on the basis that they simply could not survive without it and there was a natural reluctance to give it up. If they gave it up their whole existence would deteriorate to such an extent that they would not be able to survive. We should not look at these things in a black and white situation. Obviously, we would be anxious to eliminate fraud but perhaps the way to eliminate it is to ensure that people have an adequate income to live on. We should look also at the position of people who are claiming benefits, their rights, how they are  informed of their rights and their entitlements, and how best they should go about making claims and appeals. I wonder if it would be worthwhile considering some kind of a claimants' bureau or agency to which people who are not satisfied that they are getting proper information or do not understand the system fully could go and consult with the supervisor or the community welfare officer to clarify what they are entitled to get.
More and more I meet people who are simply told: “No. You are not entitled to the benefit”. Unless the person has a very strong and aggressive disposition he will simply walk away and take that as a fact. Perhaps a month or six months later he comes to me, or some other public representative and when inquiries are made it is found that, while he may not have been entitled to the benefit for which he applied, there were other benefits he should have got and which he had been deprived of because of his own timidity or his unwillingness to be seen to be an argumentative person. I know there are information offices and information booklets available but they are not necessarily co-ordinated in the way they should be. In many cases the officials involved are very humane in their approach but it has to be said that, in some cases, the attitude to claimants is not very helpful. From the point of view of having dealt with hundreds of persons in any one day I understand that nerves can become frayed. It is necessary to ensure that people get the benefits they are entitled to and are treated in a fair and humane way.
There is only one thing in the Bill I welcome today, that is, the extension of the dental, aural and optical care to dependent spouses. That is a worthwhile extension. Unless we tackle the fundamental inequalities in our society and the structural poverty that exists, tinkering around with the system will not improve the lives of the poor.
Mr. M. Higgins: I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Bill. I appreciate the importance of it, given the short amount of time we have had to discuss it on this occasion compared to other occasions. I should like to stress a few fundamental points. Let me say straight away that, like the previous speaker, I welcome the extension of optical and dental benefits. I welcome also the undoing of the postponement of social welfare benefits, however inadequate. The Government have managed to bring them forward from November to July. My contribution, however, will be brief because my view is on the record of this House and of the other House, of which I was a Member until recently, and needs no further repetition.
To my great sorrow there is something which has not changed since the early days of the seventies when I became a Member of the Oireachtas. There has been no commitment to examining or publishing what might be the guidelines to social policy in Ireland. I can put this very bluntly. Those who have looked at social policy, including social welfare in most European countries, have perhaps rather crudely usually divided social policy approaches into three areas. You can approach it in terms of giving in social benefit whatever the economy can afford —a kind of residual model. At the centre of this first model is the basic notion that the marketplace functions fairly perfectly and that the family can be relied upon to provide for most people and, therefore, the State should only provide for the most deserving poor.
I have described this approach elsewhere: it is only when the screams are coming from behind the door, the blood is flowing out into the streets and the people are collapsing in the street that you should express concern. The notion of “the deserving poor” is built into this model. You go along with your parcel. If you get the smell of drink from the person who opens the door, you move on to a more deserving person. It is a residual model, as it has been called technically. It is the model prevailing in Britain. This model has been assisted principally by  the intellectual work of Professor Hayek and was made popular in economics by Professor Friedman and others. It argues that to give anything more than that is to dislocate the marketplace and dislocate the family.
There is a second approach which to some extent has been described as an insurance or merit approach in which you allow people who work to pay forms of insurance in anticipation that in later life they can look forward to a certain minimum level of service. Finally — and it arises in the NESC document which has been quoted briefly by the Minister — there is the argument that social policy should be redistributive. That acknowledges something fundamental. It acknowledges that the way our economy and social policy work is to redistribute chances unfairly to certain groups in the population and, therefore, the Government should intervene consciously to redistribute chances to people to have normal lives. It is within that redistributive model that people say, for example, that you must make sure that people have housing even though the market would not allow them to have an adequate house, that people should have an adequate education, a health service and food, even though the marketplace would not make it possible to have all of these things. It recognises also something absolutely fundamental — a point made extremely well in all of the writing on social welfare policy — in the distinction between poverty, which has been spoken about so much this afternoon, and inequality. The redistribution model argues that to the end of the day you will be running after the bus until you address the character of inequality in society. That is the rock.
I turn straight to the Minister's speech because I must be even more disciplined than usual. The Minister refers to the Combat Poverty Agency which is to continue in existence. Combat poverty floundered on that rock. It tackled inequality and it ran up against the vested interests, and there were very many. It ran up against vested interests in the Departments themselves. It was opposed  from day one by senior people within the Department of Social Welfare who felt that another layer of people were criticising the operation of what they felt were benefits, in their own minds equitably distributed. It was opposed by politicians who felt the extension of the concept of rights would undo all the brokerage which had gone on and become the central part of Irish politics. It was opposed by the Church who felt that people in rural parishes who had the temerity to ask who owned the local national school should not be encouraged to ask such questions in case they might consider that the people and not the diocese owned it. It touched the power points of society and the Combat Poverty Agency bit the dust.
It is now making a fitful return from the grave in the from of the community development agency Bill. The speech introducing the Bill simply said that now that all this nonsense was out of the way about giving people power and knowledge about their welfare rights, putting co-operatives together to bid against the local wealthy farmer for land and encouraging people to ask questions as to why they were treated in a certain way, let us get on with the people who are really helping the poor. They picked an appropriate set of favoured voluntary agencies and directed the money towards them because they were safely dealing not just with the poor but with the most deserving poor. That is why there is still inequality in income and in other areas.
We have an income profile which is exactly the equivalent of Bangladesh. I mean by that — I am relying on Nolan's work based on household budget figures published about 12 years ago — that the top one-fifth in Bangladesh have the same proportion of income as the top one-fifth in Ireland. The bottom one-fifth in Bangladesh have the same proportion of income as the bottom one-fifth here. The proportions are the same and an unequal society in terms of participation consumes more of the State services in relation to education and so on. We have a profoundly unequal society reproducing itself and — what is quite immoral — reproducing itself by gathering general taxation from among the poor. After all, the poor pay VAT and even those among the poor who are employed at the lowest levels of income are paying direct taxation. Direct and indirect taxation are used to subsidise privilege and to reproduce a positively unequal society.
In regard to social welfare, there is a deep commitment to refuse to publish a White Paper on social policy options. A NESC document, A Strategy for Development 1986-90 refers to the NESC report No. 8 to which there was a major contribution by Professor Donnison which stated effectively that there was a need for a social policy debate in Ireland. However, that has not happened and it will not happen as long as people want to draw a screen over the unequal lives of our people. I may be accused of being ideological. I am like hell. When I went into the maternity ward to see my children being born, I saw all the other babies and I realised that every one of them would have a different opportunity in life. In a so-called Republic there was never a commitment to egalitarianism or equal chance. The inequalities are powerfully protected by vested interests and we are discussing an approach towards poverty rather than inequality. We are not even approaching the problem of poverty adequately; we are talking about giving, within the lowest form of social policy, the crumbs to which we feel they are entitled.
There has never been a study of the form of delivery of those services, however meagre, in terms of their efficiency. Do they serve the poorest people? Are they delivered efficiently? What about the form of delivery? Has there been a study of the experiences of people who consume the social services? The answer is “no”. There are three questions on today's Order Paper regarding social welfare fraud; in other words, the classic ignorant prejudice against the poor.
I have worked with the poor for nearly 20 years. I have discovered that most people are not well informed as to the facts in this regard. People move in and  out of poverty depending on their life cycle. Therefore, you are not talking about a category which has the same characteristics at all stages in their lives. For example, a young couple who get married may be briefly above the poverty line, then they have children and they fall below it. They stay there until the children leave home and they get out of the poverty trap until they have to live on inadequate pensions when they again fall into the poverty trap. This was adverted to by Professor Hannon of the ESRI, who is probably one of the few distinguished scholars in that area in Ireland who has a commitment to studies of that kind. There is an opposition to research of this kind in Government Departments; they have neither initiated nor facilitated it. We do not have even the shreds of a social policy. What does it mean when NESC in their conservative document No. 83 in November 1986 referred to document No. 8? That document suggests that in the sixties we began evolving some sort of a social policy because we were in the midst of economic growth and we could spare some for the most deserving poor without upsetting too many people. It meandered on in this vein.
These issues affect all administrations, Ministers and Departments. This Bill will attack the poor. I know about this scheme to send the unemployed scurrying for interviews, it is a tarted up, poor imitation of a scheme in the United States that failed many years ago. It is a profoundly ideological proposition, the idea is that you do not have unemployed people but labour mobility problems. It reminds me of Edwina Currie who seemed to think that if she could get the people in the north of England to give up their jam butties, to eat properly and go down to the south of England, their health would improve and they would have no trouble getting fine jobs. That is a twee, ideological ignorance which is involved in all attacks on the poor. This notion of 150,000 being interviewed is a poor imitation of schemes which have failed elsewhere. Behind it is the notion  that people are not making sufficient efforts to obtain work.
I urge the Minister to do something about the anomaly in the social welfare code which does not make provision for those between 16 and 18 years of age. I visited London two months ago and interviewed people for whom there is no provision in Ireland. They are living on the margins of society in Britain because they could take the boat, draw welfare in Britain and perhaps eventually draw it here. They are not just milking the system, they were driven to Britain by overcrowding, homelessness, lack of opportunities and so on. People who are now being interviewed for their first jobs are not included on the live register which has now been reduced by 10 per cent. They can now go to Britain instead. It will push people to emigrate. They know that what they earn in Britain can be tax free and they can come back. Therefore, the budget will have the effect of promoting emigration and subsidising it. Finally, will the Christmas bonus be paid this year and to whom will it be paid? I urge the Minister not to proceed with one thing indicated in his speech — the hiring of international consultants. Are there not people in this country who could have done the work described in his speech regarding fraud? Why did we need them? We needed them because they will be following on from their American and British prejudices against the poor.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): I will answer the last point first. The consultants, although international, are an Irish consultant group but operating internationally. They are a major group. They are not being taken on now. They have already been taken on and they are working at present.
Let me go back to some of the earlier questions. I am restricted by the time I have in replying to all the points raised by Deputies. I thank them for the views they have given on the Bill on Second Stage.
Deputy Mitchell raised the question of the over 45s. I had not time to read all my prepared speech but the script states  that the previous Government had proposed the payment of a living alone allowance to long term recipients of unemployment assistance over the age of 45. I said I appreciated fully the problems faced by people depending on unemployment assistance, not only those living alone but also, and perhaps more importantly, people with families. I pointed out the difficulty in terms of the current priorities in creating another anomaly like this. I indicated also that the Commission on Social Welfare were in favour of abolishing anomalies such as the one that would be created by this. For instance, why not start with people over 60 or 55 or 50 who are living alone? At any rate, my comment in relation to that is in the speech which I distributed and the only reason I did not refer to it was because of the time restriction.
Deputy Mitchell also spoke about the question of across the board increases. He said it was wrong for us to give across the board increases at this time. I appreciate that presumably he does not intend to take back some of the money from people who need it to maintain their present standard of living. At the same time I accept his interest in the importance of bringing selectivity into and focusing more on the target groups. When he puts it that way I agree with him, but he will appreciate that in two or three weeks the most I could do was to try to ensure that we brought forward the 3 per cent from the end of the year to July. That affects the 700,000 people who are dependent on these payments. In the longer term, as indicated in my speech I will be prepared to look at the questions he raised about the distribution of resources generally.
Deputy Mitchell talked about the need for means tests to be centralised and co-ordinated as well as possible. I thought that in my speech I had indicated the Department of Social Welfare had an initiative in that respect in the Nenagh project and in the one-stop-shop approach which I was suggesting. I appreciate the difficulty. It is not so simple to operate it absolutely uniformly, but in relation to the idea which he has  in mind I will do what I can to co-ordinate it.
He mentioned the local authority means test. The Deputy will be aware that the previous Government did away with the national centralised means test and that resulted in means tests being carried out by every local authority throughout the country. That causes further difficulties. As far as possible I will go along the road with him in trying to co-ordinate these services.
Dr. Woods: I will try to answer some of the questions from other people in the five minutes remaining. Deputy Mitchell also talked about the question of staff becoming immune to the needs of the poor. In fairness, he must appreciate that the staff in the Department of Social Welfare have been under enormous pressure. This matter will arise on a parliamentary question. The staff generally do a very good job but, of course, exceptions will be found. Naturally, we want to try to improve training and avoid those exceptions.
He and a number of other Deputies mentioned the job search programme and the opportunities which would arise as a result. The job search approach will be directing the resources of the State, Manpower, AnCO and the Department of Social Welfare to assist the people on long-term unemployment. That is the purpose of the programme. That is the way my Department will operate it, in co-operation with other Departments. I accept, and I indicated in my speech,  that there are people who will be double-jobbing and who might indirectly be found out. However, the purpose from my point of view is to direct those resources to the people who need them most of all. Over recent years there has been a good deal of separation of these different agencies, and this is an opportunity to bring them to the assistance and support of the people who need them most. That is how I will be approaching the programme.
Deputy Bell raised a number of questions. He spoke about deserted wives. When the Department of Social Welfare have given deserted wife's benefit to a wife who is deserted generally speaking they then forget about the whole situation in that they do not pursue the deserting husband. It is not our intention to pursue the deserted wife but a proportion of people who desert their wives are laughing at the State and the taxpayer. They are the people who should be pursued by the State for recoupment. This does not affect the deserted wife. A deserted wife has not the resources to pursue her husband in court or otherwise. The Commission on Social Welfare felt that this should be pursued.
Dr. Woods: Spouses, yes, It is the modern language. He raised the question of a committee of the Dáil to deal with social welfare. Deputy Wyse also raised that point. That is a matter for the Whips and the party leaders. I will raise it with them and ask them to consider it.
Deputy Wallace talked about the importance of having services at a local point. I agree with him entirely on that. We will direct our efforts to achieving that objective. Deputy Higgins raised the question of the Christmas bonus. That matter will have to be decided later in the year, as it has been in all other years. In the context of what is going on now, I  would love to be able to say as Minister for Social Welfare, that that has been achieved.
Given the circumstances, I think I have achieved a good deal in the situation facing us now. As I said one of the principal things was bringing forward to July the full 3 per cent social welfare increase. Deputy Bell mentioned the desirability of having an increase of 4 per cent but let us contrast that with the reality of being faced with 2 per cent in effect and bringing that back up to 3 per cent. I covered that point in the course of my contribution.
Dr. Woods: Certainly, I shall be working on the Commission report as soon as I have an opportunity after these couple of weeks. They have been very intense weeks for me, I can assure the Deputy, and I have to keep my eye on the ball. It is very important that I do.
Mr. Boland: Before Question Time starts, in view of the extreme hardship and inequity which would be caused to applicants who have applied for various categories of house improvement or housing grants and who have now been notified that their applications are being ruled invalid, I should like, with your permission, to raise this matter on the Adjournment.
Coughlan, Mary T.
Gibbons, Martin Patrick.
Haughey, Charles J.
Hilliard, Colm Michael.
|Kitt, Michael P.
McCoy, John S.
McDowell, Michael Alexander.
Noonan, Michael J.
O'Malley, Desmond J.
Wilson, John P.
De Rossa, Proinsias. Higgins, Michael D.
Mac Giolla, Tomás
Gregory, Tony. Pattison, Séamus.
|Last Updated: 13/09/2010 23:18:57||Page of 40|