Social Welfare Bill, 1991: Second Stage (Resumed).

Wednesday, 20 March 1991

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 406 No. 7

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

Mr. D. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  The continued commitment of the Government and the Minister to the less well off is very clear in the Bill. The fact that we have had eight new Acts — and that there are 64 sections in this Bill — is a very clear recognition of the Government's continued concern for the less well off in the community.

I have already referred to the major increases over the past three years. The special increases for people on unemployment and disability benefit mean that all long term social welfare payments reach — or exceed — the priority rate [1447] of the Commission on Social Welfare at 1991 levels. I again want to emphasise that there has been an increase of 45 per cent in the level of unemployment payments since Fianna Fáil returned to Government in 1987. The real value of that increase can be appreciated by realising that this huge percentage increase was achieved at a time when inflation was reduced to a low single figure for each of those years, indeed, it was reduced to less than 3 per cent last year and remains at that figure this year. The personal rate has increased from £38 to £55, which is real progress against an extremely difficult economic background. The Fine Gael-Labour Coalition of the mid-eighties did not take on the task of improving the position of people on social welfare. Their approach was to set the problem aside for a few years by establishing a commission to examine the needs of the people. However, Fianna Fáil had already identified the requirements of the people in relation to social welfare and we had started a process, when Deputy Woods was Minister for Social Welfare, in the early eighties which continued, as I said, over the past three years.

While the Government can do much to provide welfare services, there is always a need for voluntary bodies and organisations. I want to pay tribute to the Minister for setting aside £1 million this year to assist voluntary organisations; £500,000 has been made available to women's groups. At the beginning of last year the Minister recognised the need for support and assistance for the many voluntary groups which represented women's organisations through out the country. My constituency of Cork North-Central — and areas such as Farranree, Knocknaheeny, Mayfield and many others — have benefited in a very substantial way from these grants. Many organised women's groups now participate at local level; the husbands of many of these women are unemployed, the women are caring for young children and, until they joined these groups, they had no outlets or hope for the future. They are now coming together and the [1448] Minister's assistance is very welcome. The support groups in Knocknaheeny and Mayfield have benefited from those grants, it has given men who have been unemployed for many years an opportunity to come together and to support one another in projects in their local areas. I should particularly like to refer to the once-off capital grants which have been allocated to areas all over the country. I can say without hesitation that the sum of £1 million was value for money; £300,000 has been allocated for capital works and community associations and facilities for the elderly have benefited in a very substantial way.

I agree with the remarks of Deputy Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny) last Thursday in regard to medical referees because it is an area which has caused concern. The vast majority of people in receipt of social welfare are entitled to it. Unfortunately, many people attending hospitals, consultants and specialists are called before medical referees and told that they are capable of work. I have personally met people whose GP refused to sign medical certificates classing them as fit to resume work. Some of them are attending specialists; it is a catch-22 situation and very unsatisfactory. When people have been certified as unfit for work by a consultant or specialist there should be another system of referral instead of calling them before a medical referee. They should be referred to a hospital consultant; anything would be better than the present method of deciding. I heard of two cases in the past couple of months where people were waiting to get into hospital and yet the medical referee told them they were fit for work. They duly went into hospital and were in receipt of social welfare but when they left hospital benefit was cut off until they went before a medical referee. This is very unsatisfactory; I know that the new appeals system is working well but there is still a problem in this category.

I should also like to acknowledge the allowances given to widowers with dependants and the allowance should continue when the dependants get married or leave home. It is a fine scheme. [1449] This is the first time it has been recognised that widowers have the same problems and difficulties as widows. Until the present Minister took on board the decision to give allowances to widowers, they had no assistance from the State other than unemployment benefit or whatever other allowances they were entitled to. Widowers with no dependants feel they are being hard done by in this legislation, and maybe in future the Minister will consider this category.

A major breakthrough has been made in the provision for pro rata pensions. In Cork a group of blue collar CIE workers who became white collar workers found they were losing out because they had not sufficient contributions for full benefit. The Minister's provision in this regard is very welcome and those workers appreciate it. For years a lobby were pressing for this, uncertain that they would succeed. Now these workers will be brought into the contribution scheme and this will be taken into consideration when deciding their pensions. The Minister has taken a major step forward in ensuring part-time workers will be protected. Now 21,000 of them who are being brought into the social welfare system will be eligible for these benefits.

The decision to allow a minimum of £5 to all people on unemployment assistance who have means assessed against them because of other income into their home is welcome. No matter what criticism comes from across the floor, the fact is major changes are taking place here for the first time. This Minister has taken certain matters on board and we see the evidence of that now. However, no individual should have to depend on the income of his father or brother. While I welcome the £5 allowance I realise there can be major problems in a family because fathers are unwilling to maintain their sons and daughters. Young people are leaving home and going into flats to get the rent allowance from the health boards. We will have to go a long way to accommodate these people. The correct measures in this area should benefit society in the long term and they also should benefit the finances of the State.

[1450] The increase in the FIS is very welcome. The Minister showed great foresight when he introduced it. I know families where the bread-winner would not be working today but for the FIS and these people would get more on social welfare if they were not working. There are self-employed people all over the country now, for instance, taxi drivers or part-timers who get a certain amount of unemployment assistance. The Minister might consider extending the FIS to cover these people, thereby taking them off the register.

I welcome the provision in section 52 linking the periods in unemployment assistance claims. I am sure we have all met people who claim they have worked for a few weeks or months in the year and then find they are no longer classed as long term unemployed — although they have not worked full-time for five or six years — and lose their fuel allowance and the double week at Christmas.

Unemployment is a major problem today and there is no prospect of reducing it to tolerable levels in the immediate future. The Government must approach this problem in a co-ordinated way. Many parts of the country, including Knocknaheeny, Gurranebraher, the Glen, Mayfield and Farranree where I live are suffering from very high levels of unemployment. Many of these people are in despair, devoid of hope for themselves and their children.

The Government have a responsibility to tackle this problem resolutely. It is sufficiently serious to warrant a Minister with special responsibility for employment. We need a special co-ordinated effort at Government level to restore confidence and hope to the vast numbers who are out of work. A Minister with special responsibility for this area would be able to co-ordinate the activities to the various Government Departments, semi-State bodies and voluntary agencies who provide services for the unemployed. While we have achieved a great deal and there is a commitment to job creation, there is clear evidence of the need for co-ordination by the [1451] Government in this regard. I ask the Minister and his colleagues to consider what I am saying. Job creation in Ireland is lower than in any other EC country, yet our population is the only one of the Twelve that is set to increase over the coming years. In the areas of labour, education, social welfare and health tremendous work is being done, but a co-ordinated approach is very necessary.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Woods. He has taken on board the serious problems of the underprivileged. In the early eighties when he was Minister for Health and Social Welfare he was to the fore in ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society were always thought of, and the record is there to prove that. This legislation, with 64 sections, is clear evidence of his commitment and the support he is getting at Government level to tackle a very serious problem. I have no doubt that with his continued concern the less well off will continue to receive the benefits to which they are entitled. Even with all the economic constraints, the fact that we are spending over £3 billion on social welfare gives an indication of the magnitude of his commitment.

We are a caring society, a caring Government and the evidence is very clear in this Bill. I am not suggesting that we do not have problems; we have, and, I am aware of this more than any other Deputy because I come from the area in Cork which is identified as a black spot.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I compliment the Minister.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  The proposal before us is to spend £3 billion in 1991. The time seems to be shorter than usual to debate and deal with a measure which proposes to cater for about one million people who are living below the poverty line. This measure is suggested to deal with that problem. It surprises me that such a short time is being given to dealing with an amount of money so great and an issue so complex.

The issue before us is, how best to [1452] ensure that there is a fair distribution of the moneys and resources available. There is a massive budget at the Minister's disposal. Indeed, that budget has increased annually for a considerable period, but the problem to be addressed gets worse every year. At the end of 1991, on the admission of the Minister for Finance, there will be more poor people in Ireland than there were at the beginning of the year, more unemployed people, more single parents and more pensioners, and we will have spent £3 billion and achieved zero as far as the elimination of poverty is concerned.

When we are talking about the poor we are not talking about something like a satellite in isolation from our society but about human beings, fellow Christians who are forced into a demeaning existence, the victims of demoralising systems of means testing in buildings which symbolise our society's attitude to people who are not well off. They are subjected to gross invasions of privacy. I witnessed people signing on for the dole whose hands were publicly examined by the inspectors — because the system says that if they are not idle they are not entitled to payment. The inspector had to ensure that they were idle.

At the end of the year we will still have a system where men and women are in enforced idleness as one of the conditions of payment, where they will be told that they must actively seek work and where the nonsense of getting numbers of letters from employers who have no vacancies will continue. In relation to people who are permanently ill — and this was referred to by a Government speaker — we have the farce of tormenting, repetitive examinations. I have known cases similar to that about which the Government Deputy spoke where people have been cut off benefit while waiting for a heart operation, the inspector having said that they were fit for work. All the inspector did was look at them. Many heart patients look quite healthy, but more than looking is required in such circumstances. The Minister should not ask for details of a specific case and say that [1453] he will deal with it. I have given the Department details of the case. It is nearly impossible to get results in such cases because a medical referee seems to think he is obliged to support his predecessor in the matter no matter how wrong his predecessor was.

We are continuing a system, and spending £3 billion, that will force people out of their homes. A Government Deputy referred to this as well, so it is a well-recognised problem. We are means testing people against the income of others. I will give an example of a homeless couple whose caravan burned down and they moved in with relatives who had a farm. They were immediately means tested against the relatives' income and their dole was cut off. The relatives had to put them out because they could not pay for their food. That sort of stupidity goes on all the time. The system instructs inspectors to do this sort of thing and it is wrong. The most usual cases relate to people between 18 and 25 who are forced out of the family home because there is no recognition of the reality of present day society where if one cannot pay one's way at home one does not stay at home. The norm nowadays is that one either pays up or gets out. Large numbers of young people have been forced to get out into flats in some instances where the health board have to pay a subsidy for the rent, and the Government have to pay full unemployment assistance rates. That should be changed and the Bill before us does not propose to do so.

Most people are anxious to work, to contribute to society and to be useful members of society. We deny large numbers of people an opportunity to participate in society. This Bill and previous legislation treat people as being near criminals, who are guilty until they can prove themselves innocent without the benefit of any help. Those of us who know a little about the social welfare system realise that it is extremely complex and that many of the people drawing benefits and assistance are illiterate. We have figures from the Department of Education to show the numbers of people [1454] in that category. As a public representative I deal with the victims of the system, a constant stream of people who are abused by our social welfare system. I do not suggest that the Minister is not a caring person. The Minister has repeatedly demonstrated that he is and that he is attempting to make some changes. I do not suggest that the officers or the employees of the Department of Social Welfare are not caring people, but the system instructs them on how to act. The system we operate is wrong.

In my experience, large numbers of people cannot get what they are entitled to because they do not know how to go about it. The regular cry from the Department and the Minister is about measures to combat fraud, not measures to ensure that everyone gets his entitlements. Measures to combat fraud make it harder for the vast majority of honest people who require welfare payments to get their entitlements. Any fraud that exists is dwarfed by the amount of money saved in the Department which is not dispensed to people who are entitled to it. Like other Deputies I have a very busy clinic, and the bulk of the people that come to me are people who cannot get what they are entitled to. I am very busy dealing with the director and others in the Department of Social Welfare to get them their rights. I should not have to go to the director. People should be able to get their entitlements without coming to me, but they cannot get them without coming to me or somebody like me. There are huge savings in the Department arising from that lack of information to people with entitlements. The rules are constantly changed and they are not explained. Ministerial orders changing the rules are made not necessarily in the House, and that makes the system more complex and makes it more difficult for people to get their rights.

I am not suggesting that there is no fraud in the system. In some areas organised fraud is rampant. Ruthless employers tell prospective employees that they will not be given a job unless they keep signing on. Everybody knows about this. It is widespread in areas of the [1455] public sector which have been privatised. Forestry is a prime example.

The Minister has had some success in combating abuses in this area which have been highlighted. It is well known that the contractors who have taken over in the State forests are operating scams of all sorts. The Minister should concentrate his efforts on catching them. In the newly privatised refuse service which has been taken over from the local authorities at least two-thirds of the operatives are not registered by their employers. The new proposals for Bord na Móna are a charter for this type of abuse. It cannot be said that our tourism industry is clean in this matter. Is every casual waitress or lounge boy registered? Is every temporary barman registered? We know, as do the Minister and the inspectors, that they are not on the books. The employees are not to blame. If they complain they are shown the door. They are not organised in trade unions and they are thrown out on the street.

I have no inspectorate and I am aware of the problem. I see it all around me and, occasionally, I report specific cases to the Department. In the village where I live there was a case of a builder who would not legitimately employ anybody on a council scheme. I had to raise the matter at a public meeting of the county council before the Department acted. There was a similar case in my area involving a very plush project where it will cost a lot of money to play golf when it is finished. Local people were told that if they wanted jobs they had to stay on the dole. They did not get the jobs and people were bussed from elsewhere who were prepared to keep signing on. I have no inspectorate but I am aware of these cases. I meet the victims of this fraud, young workers who when they are let go have no rights. Those rights have been removed by unscrupulous and ruthless employers. The Minister has an inspectorate. Why does he not act decisively in the areas which the dogs in the street are barking about, never mind politicians and inspectors in the Department of Social [1456] Welfare? I am asking the Minister to end the charter for the gombeen men.

The present system has failed to do the essential job of eliminating poverty. Despite the spending of £3 billion per year, there are one million people below the poverty line. People are debased, dehumanised and degraded by that system. The poverty line has been set out by the Commission on Social Welfare who say that a minimum adequate payment is required. That does not give anybody any luxuries. It is basically enough for food, clothing and shelter. All the recipients of social welfare are below that level because the system has failed to provide even a minimum adequate level of payment. According to the NESC report, families and children in one third of households are below the poverty line.

It is time for a new look at the system. People should have rights rather than privileges and those rights should have a full statutory basis, as opposed to the temporary conditional means-tested privileges which can be withdrawn at the whim of the Minister or the Department. Rights give dignity, self-confidence and status to people. Annual increments in a failed and expensive system simply create new poverty traps and continue the degradation of all involved, including the people who have to operate the system.

A system of universal payments should now be seriously examined. It is not a new or unique concept and it is in operation in some areas. For example, child benefit is payable to everybody. The children of such public figures as Michael Smurfit would be entitled to payment in the same way as the children of the poorest person in the land. National schools are funded by the State and are available to rich and poor alike. In other countries every adult gets a universal housing benefit. There are many varieties of such systems and there can be many stages in their introduction. A system of this kind would begin to rectify the anomalies. It would begin to remove the poverty traps, give universal rights rather than privileges which can be removed and begin to restore human dignity. A basic universal income would bury the last remnants of [1457] the poor law system, end the exploitation of cheap labour, mainly by women and young people, and end forever the hated and loathed means-tested system and the gross invasions of privacy involved. It would end the dependency status, mostly of women, and give equal rights to women thereby. Women are the main sufferers of the dependency status. It would certainly end the snoopers' charter in regard to couples who are living together and stop the intolerable invasion of their privacy which is proposed and strengthened in this Bill.

A system of basic universal income would establish a connection, a common interest, between the haves, the have nots, and the have lots in society. The strength of the rich would then be on the side of the poor. No Government can touch the child benefit system because all sectors of society have a common interest in maintaining it. I notice a new question on the application forms for child benefit. The applicant is asked to provide the PRSI number of the spouse. Why would the Minister or the Department want that information? There is only one reason — he is planning to tax child benefit.

Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I am not the Minister for Finance. I would not do it anyway.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  The Government, who operate a system of collective responsibility, want to collect this information for some reason. I will be proposing at a later stage that child benefit be doubled and taxed and that other allowances such as the FIS which do not reach their targets be abolished. Social welfare payments, child benefit, tax exemptions and family income supplement should be amalgamated into one single standard payment for all. We should direct that money to where it is needed through the tax system. That would be a much better use of the resources available than at present. I am complaining about the present use of resources and I will give an example, £800 million was given in tax reliefs to the PAYE sector in recent years and it was hailed as a great reform. Where did [1458] the money go? Most of it went to people who were already well off. It did not do anything to alleviate poverty. Of course, some of it trickled down to the large numbers at the bottom as well. That is a bad use of resources. It would take £300 million — about one-third of what had been given in tax relief — to increase child benefit to £16 per week for all children and to give children over 12 years of age an extra £6, if we used the clawback system to take money from the well off.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  The Chair appreciates the relationship involved, but the Deputy will appreciate that matters appertaining to taxation and tax relief are matters for another Minister.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I am arguing for an infinitely better use of our limited resources. It is by using a combination of social welfare and taxation measures that we will be able to direct the resources we have to where they are most needed.

There will be arguments against the concept of a basic income. People who oppose the idea of a basic income argue that workers are lazy. What never ceases to amaze me are the double standards in our society on this issue. The argument is put forward that we must punish workers to make them work, and the best way of punishing them is, of course, to reduce their income. I am surprised that the Minister makes that type of argument in his speech. He demonstrates quite clearly that a person would be a lot worse off on social welfare than working. He was very selective in the cases he picked out, although I am not saying he should not have been trying to make the best case possible.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  The case was made in the media recently and I was referring to that.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  I appreciate that. The theory is that workers must be punished to make them work but that the owners of capital and those with enterprise [1459] should be encouraged and not have their income reduced to make them use their capital to create jobs. They get tax breaks, incentives and direct payments from the taxpayer. I have heard of the carrot and stick approach but this is a case of the carrot for one and the stick for the other, the stick being used quite exclusively on one. Those who are against the proposal of a basic income for all are continuing to argue for the exploitation of cheap labour, and that involves mostly women and young people; for continued dependency status for women; for coninued means testing of young people against the income of others; and for the continuation of the snoopers' charter against couples living together. That gives us the present failed system which causes rather than eliminates poverty.

The concept of long term unemployed was not envisaged in terms of the welfare state. However, long term unemployment is now widespread. It must be seen that social insurance is no longer capable of dealing with the failure of our capitalist society to provide jobs for people. In our society one million people are below the poverty line — these are not my figures, they are the figures published by a Government agency. This is a socially explosive situation which, if it is to be dealt with, requires new thinking and combined action.

On Committee Stage I will make suggestions by way of attempting to redirect resources to where they could be better used, but I will be hampered in this by the parliamentary procedures we are bound by. These procedures are designed — and I am not impugning the Chair in any sense — to protect the Government of the day.

I have tabled 41 amendments to the Social Welfare Bill, many of which are related but because of procedure they will be taken in isolation. However, we will do the best with the tools that are to hand. My amendments seek to limit the regressive measures in the Bill and to begin a movement towards a non-means tested basic income. Then I seek a declaration of an official poverty line as [1460] established by the Commission on Social Welfare and the bringing forward of payment dates to April rather than May each year. All the measures for additional take come into operation in April but all the additional give take effect in May. The two dates should coincide.

I will be seeking to amalgamate child benefit and family income supplement payments, which would be taxable, to redirect these payments, and, if that is not acceptable, the automatic payment of family income supplement. There is no longer any good reason that family income supplement cannot be paid automatically to everybody who qualifies for it. I will be asking also that net rather than gross income of applicants be taken into account. I will be seeking to amend the Bill to further extend payments to all children in full-time education regardless of the types of social welfare payments their parents are in receipt of.

I will be seeking also to abolish the means test for carers. Carers are a special group who save the State a huge sum of money every year. When I was on the health board in 1985, the cost of keeping a patient in St. Vincent's Hospital, Athy, was £250 per week. I am sure it is more than that now. I know numerous people, mostly women, who without payment, care for people who live in their own homes, the new carer's allowance may as well not have been introduced as far as they are concerned. They are excluded from the health board payments for those who assist old people in their homes because they are related to the old person, and because the Minister has a £2 income limit on the carer's allowance they are excluded from that payment also. I have extensive contact with the public through my clinic system and I have not yet met one person who qualified for the carer's allowance. I cannot imagine how anybody would qualify, because if they had only £2, they would die of hunger. The Minister said that 2,000 or was it 4,000, who were found somewhere in the country, are in receipt of this allowance. The idea of a carer's allowance is excellent but the means test kills the idea. Get rid of that or bring the [1461] figure up to £58 so that people can get a top up payment for doing this excellent work for the whole of society. This work not alone saves the Government and health boards money but the carers provide a higher standard of care than could be provided in any institution — old people get loving care in their own homes where they should be. The Minister should take this on board. He should try to twist the arm of his colleague to provide more money for this good scheme and to expand it.

We will also be moving an amendment to stop means testing of individuals against the means of others. What the Minister has done puts me in mind of a game called giant steps and baby steps. The Minister has taken a tiny baby step in this regard — I grant he is breaking the barrier by allowing £5 per week to people who are living at home because they are means-tested against the income of others. I am sure if such people had the resources to take a constitutional case it would be found to be unconstitutional that somebody should be judged against the income of somebody else. I instanced cases of this earlier.

We will also be moving an amendment to remove the ceiling on the PRSI payments. There is no reason in the world why a person on £19,000 per annum should not pay any more PRSI. There is every reason in the world why one should have to pay on all one's income above that. It is a gross insult to the people at the bottom of the ladder that people at the top of the ladder are told they do not have to pay. The Minister has now expanded care for people who will not have to pay. We will now have a situation where somebody on £40 a week will pay a much higher percentage of his income — and he will actually pay on £40 a week — than a consultant.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  He does not pay at all under £60.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  I must be reading the Bill wrong. I saw that a person on £40 pays the full rate.

[1462]Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  But separately — there is an exemption under £60. He will not pay anything.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  It is not an exemption. It is another poverty trap because when he goes over that level, even £1 over it, he pays on it all. We have argued that case before.

We will be arguing for the establishment and acceptance by the Government of a minimum adequate payment as established by the Commission on Social Welfare. For a single person in 1991 terms, that is £62.

We will also be proposing an amendment to provide that the entitlement at present enjoyed by widows and other women will not exclude them from entitlements they would have by virtue of their contributions to the Department of Social Welfare when they were employed. We certainly will not be agreeing with the proposal being made by the Minister that part-time workers will only get part-time social welfare benefits if they are unemployed or sick. That is simply not acceptable.

We will not support the proposal that money will be recovered from recipients who, through no fault of their own, received an over-payment. I give the example of somebody who got £1 extra by mistake from the Department over a period of years and accumulated a couple of hundred pounds and suddenly there is a demand for a payment. If the Department make a mistake of that nature they will have to carry the loss as far as I am concerned.

We will also be asking for an increase in the amount an adult dependant can earn. At present a wife is allowed to earn £55 and we are asking that that be increased to £75. We also want to get rid of the anomaly in the scheme whereby a part-time worker in this House, for example, would simply be means tested on that week's pay slip. The dependent spouses of the self-employed are averaged over a period of a year. I do not see why the same privilege should not be granted to PAYE workers.

We will not support the proposal the [1463] Minister is making in regard to the deduction of rents to county councils, to private landlords, the ESB or the telephone company from social welfare cheques. The experience in Britain and elsewhere where such a system was brought in was that unscrupulous people put pressure on recipients of social welfare to have deductions made which they could not afford.

Likewise, we will not support the Minister's proposal in the Bill to grant rights to his inspectors to literally enter the bedrooms of couples living together to establish whether they are cohabiting. I have been trying to get a definition of cohabitation from the Department and the guidelines inspectors operate under — I have failed to do it — so that I would at least be instructed by the guidelines that are being used. Imagine the difficulties in establishing whether somebody was cohabiting in a block of flats with a common hall entrance or in adjoining bedsitters. I think we can afford to do without that type of intrusion of privacy.

The long term goal of the Labour Party is the elimination of poverty and dependency through a fair distribution of wealth and resources. We believe that a minimum adequate payment is the bottom line in all of this, and a distribution through a system of universal payments and taxation would remove all of the anomalies I know of and most of the poverty traps in the present system. It would also restore dignity, self-assurance and status to the recipients and to the operatives who have to carry out the work.

Mr. Ellis: Information on John Ellis  Zoom on John Ellis  I welcome this opportunity to make a small contribution to this very important Bill. The Social Welfare Bill is of enormous importance as far as the less privileged people in our society are concerned. This country has one of the best records in Europe with regard to its social welfare system. We have made major strides in the past 20 years in this area.

Much of the legislation over that period has been progressive. That is the sort of [1464] legislation we are all glad to be associated with because of the contribution it has made to making the lives of the less well off in our society that little bit better. If we look at our rates of payments in comparison with those of our nearest neighbours we will see that the benefits we have are much greater. We have the benefit of electricity allowances, telephone allowances and travel. These are things which our nearest neighbour does not have. We are the envy of many of our European partners in regard to some of the fringe benefits we provide.

In caring for the under-privileged the Government have a responsibility and those of us who are lucky enough to be in employment have to be prepared to make a contribution towards those who are not as well of. Anybody who begrudges social welfare to those receiving it is not understanding or caring.

The record of the Government is unquestionable so far as social welfare improvements are concerned. The Minister's record is one of the best of any Minister for Social Welfare. Nonetheless we must examine the social welfare system in its entirety. We must ascertain where it is going, who it is helping and who will be its beneficiaries in the future. We must remember that we have now a new type of society in which the welfare sector is being catered for reasonably well. There is an in between category of people who are unable to make ends meet and to whom the social welfare system is unable to contribute in terms of their needs. These are people who have become unemployed through no fault of theirs, whose needs are not being met by the social welfare system.

We should examine the possibility of introducing a second tier system to which such people could contribute, that is people outside the PRSI category who would be willing to contribute to the provision of a safety net for their future needs. We have now a new category of poor to help to get over the hump in times of severe financial pressure brought about by unemployment or other unforeseen circumstances. The only organisation that can help such people is the [1465] Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Rather than the resources of that society being directed to helping members of the middle class in our society who are experiencing difficulty occasioned by unemployment or other circumstances they should be directed to people in the main poverty trap, those who have been in receipt of long term social welfare assistance, with a background of unemployment and under-privilege.

There are many people in built-up areas in our larger cities and towns whose address can determine whether they succeed in getting a job rather than their qualifications or abilities. That is sad. Indeed, it is a reflection on our society. I appeal to employers not to look first at an applicant's address but rather at their abilities and qualifications to undertake the task for which they are being recruited.

We must also examine unemployment assistance and benefits, the beneficiaries of which do not receive the necessary recognition. I say that for two reasons. The present method of assessment does not work to the benefit of the State or of those in receipt of unemployment assistance. Many smallholders are having their means assessed not at all in line with their actual income or profit. Some years ago farmers were assessed under the PLV system which was abolished. While some of us might not have been wholly in agreement with it at least it did not take away people's incentive to better their lot. At present farmers in disadvantaged areas who increase their incomes and productivity, will discover that their social welfare payments will be reduced, thereby maintaining them within the poverty trap, unable to become self-sufficient. Somewhat more encouragement and flexibility on the part of the Department and their officers in the assessment of such people's means might well be of greater benefit to the community and the country as a whole. There is a dire necessity to examine the assessment of means in such cases because, in the case of many smallholders, it is not possible to arrive at a wholly factual assessment. This is brought about because many such [1466] smallholders will purchase items used on their farms, not classified as being for farm use, and do not retain the necessary documents to enable them claim such expenses.

A fairer system to be applied to such people would be the striking of a rate agreed by Teagasc in regard to the profitability of each livestock unit on a farm rather than adhering to the present unit which is inconsistent and, in many instances, dependent on the humour of the social welfare officer investigating the means of such smallholders. Very often three or four visits are necessitated by a social welfare officer, sometimes even a senior inspector, to assess the means of somebody who may have two cows on his farm. That happens, leading to unnecessary expense and hassle on the part of the State in that such smallholders are subjected to enormous pressure they are often unable to withstand. We should request the Department to seriously examine the system of investigating means, to examine the possibility of rendering it a one-stop, once-off investigation rather than the system that obtains at present.

Another source of annoyance is that on occasion social welfare offices will inform people that they will receive benefit in the future and three or four weeks later they receive a letter from the Department informing them that they do not qualify. People's hopes should not be built up in this manner. It should be possible for the social welfare officer investigating such cases to assess a person's means there and then if the full facts are put before him. It is a simple matter of adding and subtracting and all social welfare officers are capable of that. More of their time could be devoted to being helpful to people. Many people are unaware of their full entitlements and/or expenses.

It is regrettable that so many young people living at home apply for social welfare assistance. We have all heard of cases assessed with means as high as £25 and £30 per week, the children of people in receipt of social welfare benefits. Often they are assessed with a brother's income, their mother's income — if she has a small [1467] job — or with their father's income whereas, in all such cases, they are not the beneficiaries of such income. This is some thing that must be examined. Perhaps a better method of assessing such means would be to put a nominal value on a bed in a household. In many such cases a young person may be a burden on other members of the household being further reduced. We must seriously examine the means of assessing young people's incomes. I contend that young people find no joy in applying for unemployment assistance but do so rather because it is necessary to supplement the household income. For example, it is very hard on any young person in receipt of unemployment assistance to be told by parents that there is insufficient money available for them to go to, say, a disco with their friends at weekends. As a society we must address the situation.

Delays in regard to investigation of claims for all types of benefit should be looked at. Because of the investment by the Department of Social Welfare over the past number of years in equipment and computers they should be in a position to carry out the necessary investigations much quicker. It is terrible for a person who has applied for benefit to be told that he may have to wait six to eight weeks before their case is fully investigated and a decision given. The background information should now be in the computer system and this should help to shorten the waiting period.

In view of the fact that this is the second year in which we have had the benefit of the carer's allowance, it should be looked at in general. The carer's allowance would be of tremendous benefit if the system was properly developed, and it could save enormous expenditure on health. It is very difficult to become eligible for the allowance. It is only the income of the person who is providing the full-time care and attention that should be taken into account. It is not fair to assess the husband's income. Some type of tax credit should be provided for families who do not qualify on means grounds for the carer's allowance. This system provides [1468] a much needed social service. Many of our people who are at present in long term hospital care would not be there if adequate allowances were available. The carer's allowance is the first attempt that has been made to have a system put in place. I know the Minister is totally committed to making it more widely available. I hope the Government will provide for people who would like to keep their relatives at home but who could not face the burden which taking those relatives out of long term hospital care would impose on them. This system could also create jobs because many people would be prepared to give up their jobs to look after elderly relatives if they were not debarred from payments because of their spouse's income.

There is a need to further publicise the social welfare system and the benefits which are available. Many people are ignorant of their social welfare entitlements. A major publicity campaign, by means of the postal service or otherwise, should be engaged in so that people are made fully aware of their social welfare entitlements. Many people do not claim social welfare benefits and live in poverty and ignorance of their entitlements.

The family income supplement is a new idea and should be further expanded to get people who are tempted between staying on social welfare and going into low paid employment to go into employment. Whatever hope they have of living a normal life in regard to their own respect, they have a much better chance if they are in employment. The family income supplement is the only means by which some of these people will be able to get back into employment and it should be expanded if at all possible.

The appeals system must be looked at. People who appeal cases in regard to disability benefit, unemployment assistance, non contributory old age pensions are being harassed in many cases. We all know of people, who are in poor health and perhaps awaiting major surgery or hospitalisation, and who have been debarred from disability benefit when they are fully entitled to it. Medical referees are known to have refused people [1469] without ever looking at them except perhaps looking at them as they entered the examination centre and forming the opinion, having read their file, that they were capable of work. This is not a proper examination. In many cases the general practitioners have stated that they would not even issue the certificates to allow them to resume work or to go on to unemployment benefit. These are the types of problems that do not help so far as the image of the Department of Social Welfare are concerned. The Department of Social Welfare has an uncaring image whereas the opposite is the case. The Department of Social Welfare, in many cases, do their utmost to help people. The appeals system, as now in place, can become much more beneficial to the claimants than was the old system.

It is regrettable that many people have to go to the Ombudsman to receive their fair entitlements rather than the Department admitting to mistakes that have been made. When that type of difficulty arises it does not do anything for the politicians or for this House. People have been forced to go to the Ombudsman, who decided in their favour, despite the fact that there had been overwhelming evidence to support the people's case in the Department of Social Welfare. Perhaps the Minister would examine that issue if he gets an opportunity.

There is a need to look at some system for funding people who find themselves in the limbo of waiting for appeals to be dealt with by the Department of Social Welfare. People who have been disqualified by appeals officers are not entitled to receive any allowance from the health board.

There have been abuses of the social welfare system, as mentioned in this House. It is time to change the system in this regard as people may, through ignorance, be abusing it. People sign a week in advance for unemployment assistance. If they get some type of part-time work and if for some reason they forget to sign off for a day they will find themselves in trouble at a later stage. If a reduction was to be made in benefits over a period in [1470] respect of people found guilty of abuses to recoup the amount lost by the Department and if there was a penalty on top of that, this would be much more beneficial than dragging people into courts, to have them prosecuted, and then to find that because of the Social Welfare Acts they are debarred but they are entitled to go to the health board and claim the full rates of benefit. So far as the crime they have committed is concerned, they do not suffer very much. The only thing that is appreciated by those found guilty of abuse is if it hurts them in their pocket. I would ask the Minister to consider a system whereby people found guilty of abuses would not lose their benefit because in being taken off the social welfare recipients list they automatically qualify for benefit from the health board and there is little or no financial loss to them. Unless there is major abuse, no action should be taken against people, who through ignorance, abuse the system.

Consideration should also be given to the position of returned emigrants. Over the past few months many people who were unemployed in the United Kingdom have returned to this country. The first questions these people are asked by social welfare officers are: how did you get home? Who maintained you when you came home? How have you been maintained over this period? Even though many of these people were not employed in the UK, social welfare officers do not believe them. These people have to endure untold turmoil trying to prove to social welfare officers that they do not have any income. The present system where people have to prove that their income is less than the qualifying limit for unemployment is not the proper way of showing that we have a caring social welfare system.

When one looks at this Social Welfare Bill and the way our social welfare system has operated over the past 20 years, one can see that major strides have been made in this area. We have gone a long way down the road all of us would like to see our social welfare system go. Our social welfare system assists those in [1471] need, and we do not want anybody to be left in need. Despite the tight financial constraints under which they had to operate over the past number of years, the Government have made enormous strides in the social welfare area. This is one area which has not suffered as a result of Government cutbacks.

Our rates of social welfare payments are well in line with those of other countries, and ahead of many of our EC partners. Nevertheless, improvements can always be made. The Government are trying to eliminate the anomalies in the social welfare system one by one and the Government and the Department of Social Welfare must be seen to be doing this work. The present Minister is one of the most caring Ministers for Social Welfare in the history of this State. The Government have made major strides in the social welfare area and the Social Welfare Bill, 1991, will be a major contributor in bringing about further improvements in our social welfare system. However, we will not be happy until we have a social welfare system which is not operated on the basis of means testing, as at present. We need to make further improvements so that our social welfare system is not abused. The improvements being made at present must be continued in the years ahead.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I agree wholeheartedly with the comments made by my constituency colleague in regard to the problems in our social welfare system. A number of these problems will have to be taken into consideration by the Government. I welcome the increases provided for in the Bill. We all recognise the grave problems in our social welfare system. Even though £3 billion will be spent in this area this year, many people still fall into the poverty trap. It is essential that this money is spent properly so that the underprivileged are looked after.

The carer's allowance has received a great deal of publicity and was heralded as a great move for those who look after the old, infirm and sick in our society. However, as many Deputies on all sides [1472] have pointed out, because of the way it is assessed the carer's allowance does not get to the heart of the problem and many people who are entitled to this allowance do not receive it. The current system of assessment militates against rural communities, and especially against small farmers. If a farmer has more than eight cattle his spouse is not entitled to receive a carer's allowance. I ask the Minister to look again at the system of assessment for this allowance.

The system of assessment for unemployment assistance is causing consternation, for people living in rural Ireland. For example, the prices farmers received for cattle in 1986 and 1987 are taken into consideration in assessing their eligibility for unemployment assistance. As most people know, the price of cattle has decreased since 1986 and 1987 when prices were inflated. This anomaly needs to be rectified. If a farmer has ten cows social welfare officers automatically assume each cow will have a calf. Every farmer would be delighted if each cow had a calf but account must be taken of the possibility of an outbreak of TB; this means herds have to be locked up. This is causing great difficulties for many farmers. These issues are not taken into account by the Department of Social Welfare and I ask the Minister to look further at them.

A number of Deputies referred to the appeals system. The appeals system is a source of great alarm for Deputies and other public representatives. A person who appeals a decision may have to wait for up to six months for a reply. I know this may only happen in extreme cases but, on average, people have to wait three or four months for a reply. There is no logical reason a person who is entitled to social welfare benefit should have to wait that length of time before a decision is made on his appeal. I do not know what reasons are given for the delays, but the Department must look again at the present appeals system. When Deputies, who are in a privileged position, put down parliamentary questions, action is taken and decisions are made more quickly. This is not fair on [1473] society in general. Everybody should be dealt with as fairly as possible and people should have to wait three or four weeks at the most for a decision on their appeals.

Like other speakers, I want to refer to the position of young people who when they apply for unemployment assistance have the income of the entire household taken into consideration. This system flies in the face of giving independence to individuals and needs to be changed. The vast majority of young people who apply for social welfare benefits do so out of necessity. It is essential that they be allowed some money as it must be soul destroying for any boy or girl unemployed since leaving school to have to go to their parents for money. Perhaps their parents may not have money to give them. This is a serious anomaly in the social welfare system and it will have to be addressed as a matter of urgency in the House.

Medical referees have come in for some abuse in this debate. What happens is that after the local GP has decided a person is unfit to work, they go to a centre where they are assessed by a medical referee who, perhaps after looking at them coming through the door, decides that the person is able to walk and talk and inevitably is able to work. The system is wrong. Deputy Stagg was correct when he said that even if the decision is appealed on numerous occasions, because of the way the system works medical referees do not want to let their counterparts down with the result that the person who is entitled to receive a social welfare benefit does not receive any payment. It is a vicious circle and there is no way out. Unfortunately, I have no bright ideas as to how we could improve it but there is room for improvement in relation to the kind of person used as a medical referee.

My main reason for speaking on the Bill is that I want to deal with Part V of the Bill which deals with the measures to combat fraud and control abuse. I think everyone will agree there is fraud and abuse but — Deputy Stagg beat me to the punch — it seems from the guidelines laid down by the Department of Social [1474] Welfare that one is guilty until proven innocent. This flies in the face of the principle applied in all civilised societies. It would appear that the social welfare officer or whoever deals with the case expects an applicant for a social welfare payment to be on the make. The applicant has to prove he or she is entitled to the payment. There are great anomalies in the system. As a society, we should adopt a more caring attitude to applicants for social welfare payments.

There is one matter which is a source of great concern for me and I thought long and hard about it before coming into the House this morning to bring it up with the Minister. I have listened to most of the debate and nobody has said anything about it. I have received many complaints in my constituency about the external control unit of the Department of Social Welfare who turn up with a list of names in an area every few months. They bring the people named on the list into a local hall where, from the information I have been given, they are harassed and intimidated. From the stories I have heard, the only thing one can compare them with is the Gestapo or the Stasi in East Germany——

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I would like the Deputy to withdraw that remark as it is untrue.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I have thought very hard about this matter and the information I have been given leads me to believe that is what is going on. They do not identify themselves——

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  Is it first-hand information?

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  It is. They do not identify themselves——

Acting Chairman (Mr. Sherlock): Information on Joe Sherlock  Zoom on Joe Sherlock  Comments should be made through the Chair.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  The Deputy should withdraw the remark. It was unworthy of him.

[1475]Acting Chairman:  Deputy Reynolds to continue without interruption.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I asked you to ask the Deputy to withdraw the remark.

Mr. G. Mitchell: Information on Gay Mitchell  Zoom on Gay Mitchell  Withdraw what?

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I will not withdraw it because the information I have been given——

Acting Chairman:  The Deputy has made reference to officials. I would ask him not to do so again. That is my ruling.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I ask the Minister——

Acting Chairman:  I ask the Deputy not to refer to officials in that fashion.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  ——to investigate the external control unit immediately because it is my information they are doing great injustices and harassing——

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I want to object in the strongest possible terms to the allegation made by the Deputy.

Acting Chairman:  If the Minister wishes to raise a point of order, he will get a chance to reply later on to the debate.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I want to object at this point.

Acting Chairman:  The Minister will get the chance to reply to the debate later on.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I note the Minister's objections——

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I am addressing you as Acting Chairman and I asked you to request the Deputy to withdraw the remark but he has said he is not prepared to do this. I want to register a formal and very strong objection here and now.

[1476]Acting Chairman:  I have asked the Deputy not to refer to the officials in that manner again. I think that should suffice.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  He has put it on the record of the House that he will not withdraw it. I want to object.

Acting Chairman:  The Minister is being disorderly at the moment.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  When an investigation takes place I will withdraw it but it is my information that these people do not identify themselves. It is my understanding that under the Public Service Act——

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  The Deputy is demeaning himself.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I am not——

Acting Chairman:  Deputy Reynolds to continue without interruption.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  ——but rather representing my constituents.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  A reference to Romania is hardly appropriate in this situation.

Acting Chairman:  I must ask that Deputy Reynolds be allowed to continue without interruption.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I ask the Minister, as I have done on numerous occasions, to investigate this unit and, if I am proved wrong, I will then come into the House to apologise.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  It will be too late.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  It will not. I am highlighting a problem which exists and the Minister cannot dismiss it just like that.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  The reference is scandalous.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I will be grateful to the Minister if he carries out such an [1477] investigation. Let me give the example — I could give more than one — of an individual in my constituency who was brought into a hall where he was told by one of these people that he was working whereas the person had been laid off work three to four weeks before. However, they said it was their information that he was working. This went on for 15 to 20 minutes. The young chap said he could not work as two weeks before he had hurt his leg playing in a football game.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  He was disqualified.

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  They made him sign a form which stated he was unable to work because of an injury. To me that is intimidation and harassment and I will do everything to highlight it in this public place if my constituents are harassed in that way. These people do not have to identify themselves or say where they get their information. It is my understanding they do not even make contact with social welfare officers. It would seem, therefore, that they operate on their own and turn up in an area every few months where they create a lot of hassle and annoyance for people who, in my view, are genuinely entitled to receive social welfare payments. I do not know what their record is or what amount of money they save for the Department of Social Welfare but they are certainly causing many problems throughout the country. A public investigation, if not a ministerial investigation, should be carried out immediately.

Miss de Valera: Information on Síle de Valera  Zoom on Síle de Valera  This Bill provides for the increases from July in the rates of social welfare payments announced in the budget. In that budget measures to protect and improve living standards for those who depend on social welfare were outlined. The 1991 budget is the first step in implementing the Programme for Economic and Social Progress which will lead to greater social equity and welfare improvements. The increases announced and outlined in the Bill bring the gross expenditure on social welfare schemes [1478] and services to over £3 billion in a full year. This is the first time the £3 billion barrier has been broken.

I am very pleased to support the 4 per cent increase in all social welfare and health board payments. Increases of up to 11 per cent are being given to those on the lowest payments. This is the fourth year in succession the Government have given special increases to the lowest paid. The child income support has been significantly improved for families dependent on social welfare and those in low paid jobs. The family income supplement has also been substantially improved. Four years ago there was a very complex system with regard to child income support, with 36 different rates of child dependant allowance. The Government have now simplified and streamlined this procedure to three different rates.

I very much welcome the raising to 21 years the age to which child dependant allowance is paid to the long term unemployed, old age pensioners and invalidity pensioners where the child is in full time education. The Government have thus recognised the important emphasis laid by Irish parents and guardians on education and in so doing have enhanced educational opportunities in a very practical way. In this Bill the Government once again demonstrate the very positive and practical way in which they wish to support and care for the vulnerable sections of society. In recognition of the emotional trauma which parents have to endure following the sad loss of a child the Minister for Social Welfare will continue payment of child dependant allowance for six weeks after the death of a child.

The Government, in this Bill, have provided for increases in weekly personal rates of widow's pensions, deserted wife's allowance, prisoner's wife's allowance, lone parent's allowance and single women's allowance. The carer's allowance introduced by the Government last November is a most innovative scheme and was an important development in our social structure. I am very pleased to note the increase in the maximum personal rate to £50 per week from July next. I am [1479] also pleased that the scheme has been extended to cover carers of recipients of disabled person's maintenance allowance and persons in receipt of a pension from another member state of the EC or from a country with whom Ireland has a bilateral social security agreement.

I would however ask the Minister to once again examine the means test for carer's allowance. The means test at present is very strict, and by relaxing it we would be able to keep our older people within the community structure for a longer period, thus giving them the best quality of life in the heart of the family where they wish to remain. By doing so we would be freeing many geriatric beds for which we all know there is a great need, particularly in my own constituency of County Clare where there is perhaps a greater number of old people than in other areas. There is an increasing need for geriatric beds. If more people were in receipt of carer's allowance more elderly people could be looked after in their homes where they wish to stay, thereby freeing more geriatric beds for those who need particular medical care and attention.

I support the Deputies who have said it is unfair that the carer's allowance is based in many cases on the spouse's income. It is usually the woman of the household who looks after the elderly relatives, and it is unjust that many of these women are not entitled to the allowance because it is based on their husband's income. Perhaps the Minister will reconsider the means test for carer's allowance with a view to creating a more healthy community environment where older people would be able to stay at home thereby freeing much needed geriatric beds in many of our hospitals.

On the means test I support Deputy Ellis who suggested flexibility in assessing social welfare benefits, particularly for small farmers. I am sure all Members have heard time and time again through clinic work in our respective constituencies of the difficulties experienced by constituents when being assessed for social welfare payments. I am aware of [1480] cases where recipients have had their hopes raised by the Department of Social Welfare who lead them to believe they may receive social welfare benefit, but once the assessment was carried out and the paper work completed those people were ineligible either for any benefit or for increases in their benefit. I appeal to the Minister to review means tests generally. Perhaps the Department would be more flexible when assessing individuals, particularly small farmers and people in rural areas, for social welfare payments.

I also agree with Deputy Ellis when he said the appeals system needed to be looked at. There are delays in the system of which we are all aware. We know there are difficulties for the staff but perhaps something could be done to ensure the delays are shortened.

I very much welcome the pro rata pensions for pensioners who fail to qualify for a contributory old age pension and retirement pensions because they have mixed insurance records. This arises because of gaps in their social insurance records for periods in their working career when they were in public service type employment. Many people who found themselves in this position have come to public representatives such as myself, and I am glad this provision will help these individuals.

Another very important and positive step in this Bill is the provision whereby the long term unemployed person will be able to sign off the live register and take up short term employment or seasonal work for up to 52 weeks without losing his long term status on returning to the system. At present a person is allowed stay out of the system for only 20 weeks without losing his long term status. The new provision is a further incentive to people to take up short time work, I support it and I thank the Minister for introducing it.

I want to make particular reference to sections 18, 19 and 20 which provide social welfare protection for 21,000 part-time workers. This is a very innovative measure which will help the 21,000 people who are at present in part-time [1481] work. The statistics show that at least 80 per cent of those people are women, 30 per cent of whom are under the age of 25. In helping these part-time workers we will be helping very many who traditionally have had to take up part-time work to supplement their spouse's income and keep the family going financially. They have done this on a consistent basis without the protection of social welfare payments. Under sections 18, 19 and 20 their position will be safeguarded, and I welcome that.

I have noticed in the last few days that there seems to be controversy with regard to this part of the Bill. I happily refer to the Minister's speech on Thursday, 14 March, when introducing the Bill to the House. When referring to the section on part-time workers he said:

I want to assure the House that I will not hesitate to review the threshold if employers reduce hours or wages to exclude these vulnerable employees who are mainly women.

I thank the Minister for that unequivocal statement and I am sure the Government will stand firm on this matter.

The Government have shown consistently over many many years — even as we as a nation undergo very difficult economic circumstances — that they are steadfastly behind those in most need in our community; even though we have experienced financial difficulties for some years now, time and time again, in every single budget, the Department of Social Welfare have been in receipt of increases on a consistent basis. I am glad that this year has been no exception; there has been a great advance in the area of social welfare as already outlined by my colleagues on this side of the House and indeed by some of the more gracious Members opposite. I take this opportunity of congratulating the Minister for the work he has done on behalf of the Government in this sphere so that the Department of Social Welfare have become more efficient and wish to help their recipients in every way they possibly can. As in any Department, there is always room for improvement and I know [1482] the officials within the Department are always very glad to try to bring about any possible improvements.

I am proud the Government have ensured, right through these financially difficult times, that the people in most need in our community, those on social welfare, people trying to keep their heads above water on a low wage and trying to look after their families, are being looked after, supported and assisted in every way possible — as they should be — by the Government and the Minister.

Mr. G. Mitchell: Information on Gay Mitchell  Zoom on Gay Mitchell  I wish to inform the House that I am putting down an amendment on Committee Stage to require the Department of Social Welfare to provide counselling services for persons who have suffered bereavement so that they will benefit from advice on the cost of funerals, particularly in the Dublin region.

It is appropriate that such a provision be made in the Social Welfare Bill because persons who have suffered bereavement are — in Dublin city — being taken advantage of to an enormous extent which means that they pay twice and sometimes three times the cost of what an average funeral should be.

I raised this matter with the Dublin city funeral directors who style themselves the Irish Association of Funeral Directors, they refused to debate this matter publicly with me on “Liveline” some months ago and refused to meet me. I am specifically talking about the cost of Dublin funerals as I do not have experience of their cost outside Dublin. I want to quote from a letter received from the Honorary Secretary of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors, 54 Aungier Street, Dublin 2:

Dear Mr. Mitchell,

Thank you for your letter of 27th February 1991. Having discussed the matter with the members of our Association in the Dublin area, the consensus of opinion is that the statement issued to the Fine Gael Press Office and the media on Monday, 14 January 1991, by the undersigned was [1483] most comprehensive and requires little, if any, further clarification. Furthermore, the response to your question in Dáil Éireann given by the Minister of State in the Department of Industry and Trade was acceptable to our members and indeed to the general public. Thus it is, we feel, unnecessary for us to meet you but should the “number of people concerned about the cost of funerals in Dublin” wish to contact the undersigned we will be happy to meet them and clarify any points that they may wish to discuss with us.

Yours sincerely,

Honorary Secretary of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors.

It is very clear that the funeral directors wrote the reply to the Adjournment Debate which I raised in this House some months ago. Indeed they were sitting in the public gallery gloating while the point which I fairly raised in this House was being dismissed by a member of the Government. I accused the Irish Association of Funeral Directors of arrogance, disdain, secretiveness, smugness, indifference and offensiveness. It is wholly unacceptable that a group which have, if you like, cornered, the market in Dublin city and who are dealing with people at their most vulnerable, people who have often been suddenly bereaved and who only want to do the best for their loved ones who have departed, do not explain how they manage to charge twice and three times the cost for funerals in Dublin city over and above the cost on the periphery of Dublin and in adjoining counties.

It has been made clear to me by reputable funeral undertakers that an average funeral should cost between £600 to £800, including a hearse, coffin, and one mourning car. A minimum of £1,710 and a maximum of £3,260 is being charged for one hearse and one mourning car in Dublin city; indeed, many people will have two mourning cars. Those figures are an absolute disgrace. I can give a [1484] breakdown as they were supplied to me by a member of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors. No wonder they do not want to meet me, no wonder they do not want their charges to be held up to any sort of examination. It is a matter for this House if there are monopolies in this city in relation to people who are vulnerable after a bereavement. They are being taken advantage of when they are at their lowest ebb. We now know what RIP stands for, it is not “rest in peace”, it is “rip -off.” That is what is happening in this city and these arrogant people, led by the Honorary Secretary of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors refused to meet me to debate the matter or to give any account of their actions although they are taking advantage of vulnerable people. It is a disgrace which deserves the attention of this House. It is the performance of a vulture to behave in this way. That association is a closed, tightly knit group and are making a fortune, the morgue millionaires. I regret to tell the House that I have given them every opportunity to debate the matter but they have refused to do so.

The problem is — this is why I am tabling an amendment on Committee Stage — that often old people pay insurance contributions for a number of years to cover the eventuality of their death. However, when that happens very often their families have to pay for the funerals because the amount the old people paid only comes to a few hundred pounds. Mind you, a few hundred pounds would go a long way towards burying a person if they had access to people who operate on the periphery of the city, such as in Swords or Sallynoggin, who are quite capable of performing funerals in Dublin. However, a few hundred pounds will not cover the cost if you go to a Dublin city funeral director.

The second problem is where youngsters die. Legislation provides that children under the age of 12 can only be insured for “reasonable funeral expenses”; a sum of £2,000 or £3,000 is not a reasonable funeral expense. If a youngster dies in Dublin and if his people are in poor circumstances, they often [1485] have to depend on collections by their neighbours to pay for the funeral. The funeral directors often charge £50 for church costs. It has been made clear to me by one priest that he gets £15 for receiving the remains, saying the Mass — the remains are kept in the church overnight — and going to the funeral next day, yet the funeral directors say £50 is a reasonable charge. That is the figure they gave me before they realised I was inquiring into this matter. For dressing the corpse they charge £30. This is usually done as a nixer by the hospital porter at certain Dublin hospitals. By doing this the hospital porter is ensuring the monopoly of undertakers so that you cannot break into the market. As I said, there should be a counselling system in the Department of Social Welfare to advise people who are bereaved, to caution them and tell them where they can get a funeral for £600 to £800 — it can be done with very little inconvenience — and not have to pay £2,000 or £3,000. At the rate of 7,000 funerals per year in Dublin at an average cost of £2,000 per funeral — I do not think everybody pays £3,260——

Acting Chairman:  On Committee Stage I am quite sure the detail you are now referring to will be debated. Provision ought to be made for that and I am sure you will be seeking to raise it on Committee Stage.

Mr. G. Mitchell: Information on Gay Mitchell  Zoom on Gay Mitchell  I will. I want to finish this general point in my Second Stage contribution. I will go into that detail on Committee Stage.

Seven thousand funerals at about £2,000 a funeral is £14 million among a handful of undertakers in Dublin. Is it any wonder they do not want to debate with me, they do not want to account to this House, they do not want to answer questions or face an examination? I ask the Minister to look into the matter before Committee Stage to find out for himself whether I am right. Let it be examined in detail. Why will they not answer questions? These morgue millionaires will not answer questions because they know they are making lots of money [1486] from people who are at their most vulnerable. I find that a disgusting performance, particularly that they are not prepared to enter into discussions or to give an account of their dealings and that they behave in such an arrogant way. I will pursue it and, if necessary. I will introduce a Private Members' Bill to deal with it.

They are charging £250 for a hearse and £170 for one mourning car, that is, £420. In Dublin city, unlike the country, it is a short journey from, say, Crumlin to Mount Jerome, a taxi ride. Imagine being charged £420 for a taxi ride. If you got into a taxi and were asked for £420 or £170 to run down the road you would think the driver was mad, but because people are vulnerable and at their weakest, they do not want to know the details and they are charged a minimum of £420, and with the two mourning cars £590. It is a disgrace.

I have here a receipt for a Dublin city funeral carried out by one of these funeral directors in December 1965 and the cost was £74. 7s., that is, £74.35p in new money. Using the CPI that equated to £736 in 1991. Nowadays a person in Dublin city cannot get a funeral with one mourning car, coffin and hearse for £736, unless he goes to the undertaker in Swords, Sallynoggin, Kildare or Blessington, but that is what the undertakers were charging. What has happened since then that they have to charge £1,700, £2,000 and £3,000?

The people of Dublin should strike back against these undertakers and boycott them until they explain why they are imposing these charges on the bereaved of Dublin. Bereavement will visit every family. Death is the only sure thing, and when it happens people will have to pay these charges because if they try to beat the system they will find the people who hire the limousines would be boycotted by these monopolists in the Irish Association of Funeral Directors. If they dare to hire the limousines to anybody who is not part of the association they will not be hired by the members of the association again.

Section 10 of the monopoly provisions [1487] Act provides that the Fair Trade Commission may carry out an inquiry into an apparent monopoly on the recommendation of the Director of Consumer Affairs and Fair Trade or at the specific request of the Minister. Two months ago I raised a question on the Adjournment and the Minister for Industry and Commerce, this great reforming Minister who stands by the Republic, sent his Minister of State in here to read a reply which was drafted by the funeral directors who sat in the Gallery sneering while he read it. Since this great reforming Minister has taken no action, I will ask the Director of Consumer Affairs and Fair Trade to act. I am going to introduce that amendment and I will be seeking the support of the House for my amendment. I tried to raise this matter with the association and to debate it with them; I tried to meet them, but since they behaved in such an arrogant way I feel I have to seek other means of remedy. I am looking to this House to highlight and deal with the situation and to pursue those who behave in such a disdainful and arrogant manner and take upon themselves this attitude because they feel they have a safe, secure monopoly in Dublin and nobody can do anything about it. I ask the Minister to consider my amendment and support it. I will be returning to this matter on Committee Stage.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Wexford): I welcome the Social Welfare Bill and the fact that the Minister for Social Welfare has again shown himself to be a very caring and considerate Minister in providing for substantial increases to people in different categories of social welfare. Under the Programme for National Recovery the Government started the process of systematically giving special increases in social welfare to bring those on the lowest level of social welfare into line with the recommendations of the Commission on Social Welfare. This year people on lower income rates of social welfare payments will receive an 11 per cent increase. In 1986, for example, the personal rate of long term unemployment assistance was [1488] £36 per week. This July it will be £55, an increase of approximately 50 per cent. That shows this Government are committed to increasing the social welfare payments for those people. We hear a great deal of talk from the far side about what should and should not be done. They had an opportunity from 1982 to 1987 to implement such increases, but nothing happened. I compliment the Minister for ensuring that the less well off, the lower paid and those on social welfare received substantial increases and were brought into line with what is needed to survive today.

I would like to make a few suggestions that would alleviate problems for people on social welfare benefit, particularly those on unemployment assistance, unemployment benefit and disability benefit. I ask him to consider the introduction of a freefone system in the Department of Social Welfare. Every little company in the country at the moment operate a freefone 1800 system. It is important that the Minister for Social Welfare consider the introduction of a freefone system in his Department. There are social welfare offices in Letterkenny, Sligo and Dublin but if a person from Wexford wants to inquire about benefits he must spend a considerable time on the phone seeking information. I had a case recently where a lady had to ring Letterkenny about children's allowance. She spent £5.60 on the phone call and at the end still had not the answers she required, but had to give up because she had no more money. The Minister should seriously consider introducing a freefone system in the Department as soon as possible.

Decentralisation is an important part of Government policy but it is wrong to decentralise all the social welfare offices to the west. The Minister should look at the possibility of setting up regional offices to cater for people in their local areas.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the women of Ireland. I would say a few words about one group of “mná na hÉireann,” the widows who are not getting proper social welfare payments. I [1489] know their benefit has increased substantially over the last number of years, but it is not enough. It is traumatic to lose a husband but for a widow to find herself trying to maintain two to four children on basic social welfare is very hard. It causes major hardship. The Minister should introduce a special payment for a widow with two or more children to help pay for such things as first communion clothes, school uniforms, confirmation clothes and so on.

If a man on invalidity or old age pension whose wife is not yet 66 dies, the widow automatically loses free telephone, free travel, free television licence and other benefits. Widows who are 60 or over should be allowed retain those entitlements on the death of a husband. The present system creates hardship. To accede to my request in this area would be the first step to ensure that people in this category are allowed to continue with the standard of living to which they had become accustomed while the husband was alive. If the Minister acceded to this request it would be a gesture which would be welcomed by widows throughout the country.

Deputies on all sides have expressed concern for people claiming unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit and attending medical referees. The Minister set up an independent appeals tribunal to deal with this and I hope it will alleviate some of the problems. As a person without medical experience I sometimes wonder if medical referees are fully qualified having regard to decisions they make in relation to people who come before them. I know of cases where people waiting to go into hospital, who had their appointment cards with them when they attended the medical referee, were cut off from disability benefit a week later. Surely if a person has an appointment to go into hospital a week, two weeks or three weeks ahead, he should not be cut off from benefit by a medical referee. The Minister should investigate why this is happening. If there is no genuine reason for this, the medical referee should be struck off the panel straightaway. These [1490] decisions are not right. This problem has been raised not alone by me here today but by me last year and by other Deputies in the House. I cannot understand why medical referees take such action when dealing with sick people.

Since I came into the House in 1982, every year I have raised the attitude of social welfare officers to those on unemployment assistance. Two years ago I suggested that the Minister for Social Welfare should introduce courses in courtesy and manners for social welfare officers dealing with the public. If the complaints I have received as to the attitude of social welfare officers in dealing with people are true, the situation is appalling.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  It is true.

Mrs. Fennell: Information on Nuala Fennell  Zoom on Nuala Fennell  They are true.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Wexford): I do not think people would come to me or to other politicians complaining about this attitude if it was not true. Unemployed people are being treated as second class citizens. We all know that unemployment is a serious problem and that it is difficult to get jobs. Social welfare officers should treat unemployed people with courtesy and respect because it is not their fault they do not have jobs. I do not have sympathy for those who are working and signing on, but young people who for the first time go to make a claim for unemployment assistance are put through a dreadful system. This treatment is not warranted. When social welfare officers go to a house to see a person they take it on themselves to look into cupboards, wardrobes and presses; they look into everything in the house. That is not right. I have a case before the Minister at the moment where a woman on unmarried mother's allowance had to undergo this sort of treatment. A social welfare officer came to reassess her entitlement, went through the house, found a pair of football boots in the wardrobe and on that basis decided she was cohabiting and cut off the unmarried mother's allowance. That is a very serious [1491] matter for that person who, genuinely, is not cohabiting. The social welfare officer went too far.

Some Deputies have referred to the taking into account of the income of family members when assessing the means of a young person. This is unfair because in many cases these family members are recipients of unemployment benefit or assistance or are receiving very low wages. Parents often have to give the unemployed person extra money to keep going throughout the week. The stopping of £20 or £25 is not very fair in these circumstances. I appreciate that it is difficult to design a fair system of assessment but I am confident the Minister will consider this matter carefully.

I welcome the setting up of the independent appeals tribunal. People will now be assured of a fair hearing in the quickest possible time. In the past there have been delays of months while people tried to get their benefits. These delays were rather excessive and I would hope that the Minister would place a limit of three or four weeks on the giving of a decision and that this tribunal will generally speed up the process.

The Minister has shown himself to be very concerned about people in receipt of social welfare payments. Despite the difficult economic circumstances prevailing during the past few years he has managed to protect the amount of money provided for social welfare recipients. The sum of £3 billion is a lot of money. There must be flexibility in the disbursement of this money, as well as a caring attitude. The changes and improvements introduced by the Minister in the social welfare code have shown that his heart is in the right place.

The family income supplement is a very important assistance for people on low incomes and I welcome the increase in the threshold. I also welcome the fact that people receiving the FIS will not lose their entitlement to a medical card, although in some health board areas there is still some difficulty in obtaining [1492] one. The Minister is not to blame for the fact that many people are not claiming the FIS since he has made every effort through the media to inform people about it. The increase in the benefit should also be well publicised. I hope that as many people as possible will take advantage of this payment because it can mean the difference between living on the breadline and having a reasonable standard of living.

The carer's allowance is in many respects a bone of contention. Many people who expected to benefit were refused the allowance. Every scheme has its teething problems and I would ask the Minister to look again at the means testing system, which may be too rigid. I welcome the Minister's decision to extend the carer's allowance to people on DPMA. Many Deputies put this suggestion to the Minister. The Minister might also consider enabling more people to avail of this allowance. If this were done a substantial amount of money could be saved in hospital maintenance costs. It now costs about £500 a week to maintain a person in hospital. If the carer's allowance were available, carers would be prepared to look after old people at home. Possibly the Department of Health could make money available to the Department of Social Welfare by working hand in hand on this issue.

Social insurance for part-time workers is a welcome breakthrough which will ensure that social welfare benefits and pensions will be available to part-time workers. Most of these workers are women, many of whom have been working less than 18 hours per week and have thus been unable to claim maternity benefit, sick pay and so on. I welcome the inclusion of such people in the social welfare system. I also commend the Minister for Labour on the introduction of protective legislation for part-time workers. I hope employers will not try to find some way around the system. Already some of the major supermarkets are said to be considering ways to avoid the provisions of the legislation. I would ask the Minister for Social Welfare, and the Minister for Labour, to ensure that [1493] major multi-nationals are not permitted to abuse part-time workers in that way.

I thank the Minister for his continued commitment to social welfare recipients and I would ask him to take on board some of the suggestions I have made. The Minister has in the past listened to Deputies from all sides in the interests of helping people on social welfare. I hope that people who are entitled to adequate rates of payment will benefit greatly this year and in the years ahead.

Mr. Moynihan: Information on Michael Moynihan  Zoom on Michael Moynihan  The Social Welfare Bill which gives effect to the provisions of the 1991 budget contains nothing constructive to deal with the continuing crisis of poverty. The Labour Party believe that the social welfare provisions in the budget represent a failed opportunity and are totally inadequate in content to assist the thousands who are already living on low and inadequate incomes.

During the past four years the Government have reduced Exchequer spending on social welfare by over 15 per cent in real terms. This has resulted in a situation where over 30 per cent of households live below the poverty line. All social welfare payments are below the Commission on Social Welfare's recommended minimum adequate income. Thirty per cent of all employees receive a gross weekly income of less than £130 and nearly 35,000 children live in households on the poverty line. This is a grim record of our social welfare policy.

Social welfare increases are poor having regard to the low base on which they are calculated and also taking into account the Government's alleged commitment to the report of the Commission on Social Welfare. The increases may appear to be slightly above the rate of inflation but they will not take effect until the last week in July; by then the increased VAT rates, and increases in ESB and telephone bills will have begun to bite——

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern  Zoom on Michael Ahern  There has been a reduction in the VAT rates.

Mr. Moynihan: Information on Michael Moynihan  Zoom on Michael Moynihan  ——and they will bite [1494] at the lower end of the income spectrum. The increase in local authority rents will nullify any increase in benefit for many thousands of householders.

In every year that Fianna Fáil have been in office, except one, child benefit has been frozen so that its purchasing power today is less than it was in 1986. This year the Government did nothing more than apply the higher rate of child benefit, at present applicable to the fifth child and beyond, to the fourth child. This represents on average an increase of 40p per child per week. This is only for mothers with four children and mothers with three children will get no increase in child benefit. The larger the family, the smaller the average increase. In the case of a family with six children the increase will be as low as 27p per child per week. The Government have done nothing for mothers and children in this context and because of the Government's lack of response, these changes will do little to end the poverty trap about which the Government talk so much.

The Government are acting dishonestly in one area of the Bill. In the Hyland case in 1988, the Supreme Court held that married couples were entitled to the same level of benefit as co-habiting couples but the Government's response has been to achieve equality by reducing the benefit available to co-habiting couples rather than increasing the benefit for married couples.

No other country in the European Communities is experiencing the persistent high levels of unemployment that affect Ireland. Of the numbers on the live register, half of the men and one third of the women have now been out of work for more than 12 months. The unemployment figures to date for 1991 indicate clearly that unemployment is set to rise by at least 12,000 on the figures for last year. This level of increase in the number out of work over the past few months represents the emergence of a major crisis. It also illustrates the total inadequacy of Government policy. The Government's response has been rigid and narrow. There has been a small increase in unemployment benefit and [1495] assistance. Recent surveys have indicated that the 100,000 people on long term unemployment are five times more likely to suffer from high levels of psychological stress than those at work. The mental and physical wellbeing of the long term unemployed must be taken into account by the Government. However, the Government have been particularly unimaginative in their programme to assist the unemployed to return to work.

The social employment scheme, with all its anomalies, does not appear an attractive proposition for those out of work. The original intention of the scheme was to offer the long term unemployed an opportunity to retrain with a view to re-entering the workforce. The current treatment of workers on this scheme, who are not entitled to the family income supplement, rent allowance, fuel allowance or pay income must act as a disincentive to people considering participating in the scheme. Workers on the SES scheme find themselves in the impossible position of being classified as neither employees nor social welfare recipients. They do not enjoy the benefits of employees such as entitlement to sick leave, paid holiday or maternity leave or the entitlements of the long term unemployed. The Labour Party in their pre-budget submission stated there should be a major reform of the employment incentive schemes, increasing subsidies to employers who take on long term unemployed people. In addition employers and trade unions, through the national agreement, should reserve one in every five vacancies for people who are long term unemployed. In the first six months training assistance would be provided for every person hired and at the end of a three year period a £2,000 cash grant would be paid to an employer in respect of each participant in the scheme who is still at work. The scheme would apply to full-time jobs only and would positively discriminate in favour of the long term unemployed. Ultimately this scheme would be self-financing as the number of people in long term unemployment fell and began to contribute [1496] again to the Exchequer on their return to work. I strongly urge the Government and the social partners through the Central Review Committee of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress to take these proposals on board as part of a comprehensive attack on long term unemployment. The social partners must be deeply disappointed that instead of radical reforms we have pilot projects involving no more than £500,000 in net revenue.

The Labour Party believe that the Bill is totally removed from the very people it is supposed to help. We believe in the establishment of a basic minimum annual income for all citizens regardless of sex, marital status, income or employment circumstances. This is part of our long term goal of guaranteeing every citizen an income. We did not expect the Government with their appalling record to set about establishing a minimum income for all but we had hoped that this Bill would start to conquer the divisions entrenched in our society.

I will now deal briefly with some of the major problems in the Social Welfare Bill. Many thousands of applicants for the carer's allowance have been disillusioned. During the passage of the Social Welfare Bill in 1990 I strongly urged the Minister at that time to seriously consider introducing that scheme on a non-means tested basis, the same as the child benefit scheme. It has to be recognised that the scheme itself is excellent but it is disappointing that there are niggardly means tests. Many speakers from the Government side and from the Minister's own party have commented on that over the past two days. The Minister must be quite well aware that only a very small proportion of the total number of applicants have benefited from the scheme over the past 12 months. It is widely known that the married women of Ireland are carrying the burden of caring for spouses and relatives for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. The lack of recognition by any Government up to this of that work has left many old people in long term institutions. Because of the cost of institutional care, the aim of the [1497] Government and the Minister must be to make every effort to have people cared for in their own homes, where they are happiest. Secondly, the saving by keeping them at home would contribute very substantially to the additional cost of abolishing the means test and operating the scheme on a basis similar to that for child benefit. Because of the onerous and humanitarian nature of the work carried out it certainly deserves a very serious review. As of now the scheme has caused massive frustration and disappointment on the part of many married women who looked forward to getting not only financial help but a recognition of the magnificent work they are doing contributing to the health and wellbeing of their spouses and relatives and, at the same time, saving the Exchequer many millions of pounds by keeping such people out of institutions.

There has been much criticism throughout the community of investigations relating to unemployment assistance. Applicants are intimidated by the investigation, and the degree of suspicion on the part of the official carrying out the investigation means that the applicant is not forthcoming. People have great difficulty completing the questionnaires submitted to them. This also applies to old age non-contributory pensioners. I came across a case this week of a widow who after losing her husband sold off a few cattle on a very small holding that carried a milk quota of 2,500 gallons. People will recognise that there is little chance today of selling a milk quota. The investigating officer in this case called three times to this applicant who was finally told that if she did not sell her quota 25p a gallon would be taken into account in the financial assessment relating to her pension. I had hoped that there would have been more sympathy and sensitivity on the part of the Department. A milk quota lying idle is of no financial benefit to an unfortunate woman of 67 years of age living on her own having lost her husband and having disposed of what stock she had. Yet she was told that an invisible income of 25p per gallon is being held against her.

[1498] I believed the Department of Social Welfare operated on the basis of taking into account only the actual financial income. Anticipating income and using that to reduce the pension of a widow is neither just nor realistic and I am confident the Minister will not support it. If an applicant gets an income through the sale of a milk quota or any other way he or she is bound, under the conditions of the scheme, to advise the Department of that and the Department can then make the necessary adjustments. However, I do not believe an applicant for a pension or unemployment assistance should be handicapped on the basis of anticipated income.

I would like to make a point about the standard of office accommodation. While substantial progress has been made in many cities and towns towards the provision of proper offices where applicants will be sheltered from inclement weather and have privacy when making their submissions and demands, in Killarney, where there are over 1,500 people signing, conditions are still deplorable. This is of great concern to those who are unfortunate enough to be on the live register. People in rural Ireland trying to contact the Department in regard to various benefits are severely handicapped. I heard a member of the Minister's party clamouring for free telephone services for such people because of the expense of getting from the west to Castlebar or any of the other offices within the time limit laid down. Frequently the outcome of attempts at contact is not satisfactory because the particular office does not have the expertise to deal with the problem.

When the Bill is finalised and the increases are paid incomes and allowances will still be inadequate. We have the basic problem of redistributing the wealth of the country to ensure that the least well off have the benefit of a realistic income. I will conclude by saying that we will be submitting a substantial number of amendments to the Bill and pressing the Minister to make some changes to alleviate the continuing hardship of those on social welfare.

[1499]Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern  Zoom on Michael Ahern  I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on this very important issue. The hallmark of a caring society and, dare I say it in these days of liberalism and laissez-faire, of a Christian society is how it treats its underprivileged, the less well off members of that society. We in Ireland can hold our heads high when we compare how we treat our less well off and our elderly with how the less well off are treated in any other country of the developed world. It would be foolish to say we are doing enough because where there is need and people are in difficulty there is room for improvement. Unfortunately, there are constraints; we have finite resources. The funds are not available to the Government in the amounts that everybody would like. Any caring Government or Minister would like to give more to those who are not in a position to provide for themselves by providing housing, schooling and anything else that is necessary. If we look at our resources and at what is being provided we will see that the Government are doing a very fine job.

There are many positive aspects to the social welfare system in operation. Improvements over the last number of years have been enormous.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.


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