Thursday, 23 July 1970
Seanad Eireann Debate
Dr. Belton: I am rather loth to let this pass without making this comment: this is an old man who has a daughter or a niece or somebody looking after him, or it could be a male relative, which could happen in some circumstances. This is the section which provides for £2 15s being paid in respect of a person who has attained the age of 17 years, and it is going to be paid to the old person. The person really involved in this is the person who looks after the old person. I would much prefer to see it being  paid to the person who looks after the old person rather than to the old person himself because the old person, either a man or a woman, may die and the person who has been looking after him may get no benefit out of this whatever. In my view this should be paid directly to the person who looks after the old person, in other words to the family relative of charitable instinct who looks after the old man or woman for some years and can finally get no benefit out of this at all. This benefit is given to the old person and not to the person caring for him. The female relative has no way of knowing whether she will receive any benefit from the £2 15s. I do not know whether it is right that this money should be paid in this way.
Mr. Colley: It is important to realise that this allowance is paid to the incapacitated person because his incapacity is basic to entitlement to the allowance and the prescribed female relative will not acquire entitlement to an allowance in her own right. This is the legal reason behind the benefit being paid in this way but I think that in practice the female relative would get the allowance. When I say that I mean that she would get it from the recipient.
Dr. Belton: I see the point the Minister is making. He is making the case that this benefit should be paid directly to the incapacitated person but it is my opinion that the benefit of the contribution should go eventually to the person who was caring for the incapacitated person or that at least she should be notified that the benefit was being paid to the old or incapacitated person.
Mr. Colley: As I have said, in the vast majority of cases the person looking after the old or incapacitated person would get the benefit in practical terms. In most cases, also, I am sure that the relative would be aware that the allowance is being paid although, of course, she would not have to sign for it. Details concerning these relatives must be entered on the form when an application is being made. While it seems to me to  be unlikely that the female relative would not be aware that the person for whom she was caring was receiving an allowance, I shall have the Department look at it to see if we can ensure by modification or otherwise that the person in respect of whom the benefit is being paid is notified accordingly.
Mr. McDonald: I would like to support Senator Belton on this because the entire section is left in mid-air and so much is left to regulations. I did refer briefly on Second Reading to the fact that there is a saving to the Government when elderly people are cared for at home because to keep them in a hospital or an institution would cost between £10 and £20 a week.
The Minister should have told us whether the prescribed female relative could also have an income either by way of insurance benefit or from doing part-time work. This is important. Does the Minister consider seriously that such a person who would probably be in her mid-forties and who should be earning a reasonable salary ought to forego that salary and go home to look after her parents for a miserable £2 15s per week? I presume the Minister would smoke cigars that would cost more than that in one day.
Mr. A. O'Brien: There may be certain cases in which a female relative is not immediately available but where a male relative would be available. This male relative might have had some training to enable him to carry out this work. For instance, he might have worked as a male nurse but for some reason or another had retired or he might have done an intensive Red Cross course so that he would be capable of looking after his parents. I  want to ensure that such a person would not be precluded from these provisions.
Mr. Colley: Not in this Bill. There are certain difficulties in relation to extending this to cover male relatives which I shall not go into at this stage. All I can say in general about these new schemes that are being introduced are that I visualise they will be expanded in due course and one possible form of expansion of this scheme would be to include male relatives. However, if that is done—as I say, it is possible that it may be done—there would have to be stringent safeguards or it would be open to abuse and collusion. I am not ruling out the possibility but what I am saying is that if it is done it will be subject to fairly stringent safeguards.
With regard to another point raised I should say the income of the person who is giving the care and attention is not relevant at all; it does not matter what income she may have; it does not count towards this payment.
Mr. Colley: That is correct. There are circumstances in which it might appear that it counts but it is on other grounds. If the person giving the care and attention were to claim unemployment benefit on the grounds that she was seeking work this could not be accepted because she is already engaged in looking after an old person. Similarly, if she was in receipt of a disability benefit the question of her ability to look after the old person would arise. This does not arise in relation to the payment of the allowance to the old age pensioner. As far as that is concerned the income of the person giving the care and attention is relevant.
Mr. Alexis FitzGerald: I have stayed out of this debate because I am in complete  ignorance of the code. I wonder if there is any validity in this point. As I read it the person who would be entitled to receive the £2 15s a week can have an income of £299 15s a year but not more than that. If she has an income of £299 15s and gets this £2 15s a week she will have a total income of £442 15s per annum. If by any misfortune someone adds to this income by £1 a year she will lose £142 a year. I know the Minister knows well that in another code there is provision for what is called marginal relief. Is this sort of machinery impossible to operate in relation to social welfare? This seems to me to be something that could be very unjust.
Mr. Colley: The kind of marginal relief which the Senator has in mind does not operate in this scheme at present but it is one of the improvements in the scheme which will be almost inevitable. This is quite a recent scheme. It was introduced two years ago and amended last year to extend the range of people who could give the care and attention and we are extending the scheme further this year, but it is still relatively new. I expect this is an area which would be improved in due course but as of now the position described by Senator FitzGerald is correct; there is no marginal relief.
Mr. J. Boland: Far be it for me to interest the legal minds in the first subsection of section 23 but it does seem to me to give the Minister extraordinary powers. Under this subsection the Minister can alter the provisions of the enactment if he so desires. Is this type of section usual in social welfare legislation?
Mr. Colley: I did explain earlier when dealing with the Senator's objection to so much being possible by regulation that the implementation of social welfare schemes is quite complex and requires a great deal of flexibility. The effort to spell the whole thing out in a Bill not only makes it inflexible but makes an enormously complicated Bill. This provision has been introduced in the past and is in here too, to deal with the nature of the operation of the social welfare scale which necessitates flexibility. I am not aware that any complaints have been made in relation to the operation of this power under previous Bills.
Mr. J. Boland: These are the sort of means figures I was referring to when I suggested earlier that an amount of flexibility should be allowed to inquiry officers. There is a table in the Bill setting out the rate of pensions relating to increased old age pensions contained in section 24. Where the yearly means of a pensioner is nil and he has no qualifying child he will receive an increase of 4s 5d but if he gets £26 5s from anywhere he will get an increase of only 4s. There is no point in going through the whole table but throughout it units such as 5s are used. Obviously a social welfare officer not approaching an investigation with an open mind could operate in what would be a very harsh way against the pensioner. I remember hearing from a colleague about an inquiry officer investigating the means of an old age pensioner. As the pensioner lived in a local authority vested cottage and had a large garden plot he suggested she use that plot for growing garden produce. When she pointed out that she was unable to do this he suggested she rent it out to somebody else. This meant that she had a source of income which was not being utilised and he assessed an income on this which prevented her from receiving any pension increase that year. I am sure neither the Minister nor his officials intend that the means tests should be operated in this way. Very occasionally this happens and that is why I am taking the opportunity of the discussion on this section to suggest to the Minister that there should be a deliberate and definite instruction given to officers to realise that they are dealing with old and infirm people and that they should approach the matter of assessing means with an open mind and heart and in the spirit of charity rather than in strict application of Civil Service rules.
Mr. Honan: I am in agreement with Senator Boland in this matter. I have knowledge of people who had a minimal income—perhaps not amounting to more than 1s per week—and on this account they lost £25 yearly from the pension. I do not know if it is possible to do anything at this stage, but  I would suggest that a sum of £26 5s might be regarded as the minimum.
I could mention a case of an investigating officer who visited an applicant. When he asked this lady if she had any money she replied that she had £85 saved to cover the cost of burial of her husband and herself. The investigating officer did some calculations and reckoned that if this money was invested at 10 per cent it would mean an income of £5 or 6 a year and he disqualified her from the higher pension. This decision meant that this woman and her husband lost 10s per week.
The “nil” classification is too harsh because even if a person possesses only 1s he is excluded and if the investigating officer wishes to adopt a very strict line the applicant can be the victim of a harsh decision. In the case of a person in occupation of a labourer's cottage the investigating officers evaluate the plot as being lettable and they disqualify the husband and wife from receiving the full pension. While I do not want to overstress this point I think if the sum of £26 5s was regarded as the minimum it would help many people.
Mr. McDonald: The fact that the last two speakers who come from different parts of the country commented on the same point makes it obvious that the investigating officers are far too conscientious in the performance of their duties. I should like to support Senator Honan's plea that the “nil” qualification be excluded.
I mentioned earlier today that investigating officers must be getting some bonus for the number of people they deprive of the non-contributory old age pension. In my own area up to last year a pensions officer went so far as to count the number of hens scratching around the cottage and assessed what value he could put on them. This kind of practice is deplorable when we should be trying to help these old people and give them some comfort in their declining years.
The Minister appears to have wide powers in this Bill and I would appeal to him to direct the investigating officers to adopt a more lenient attitude  and to err on the side of the applicant rather than on the side of the Department. They should give the benefit of the doubt to the applicant in each case. In this matter we are dealing with people who have very little and the pity is that where an applicant has been diligent and has saved for the rainy day this reacts against him. On the other hand, the person who spent every shilling he earned has no difficulty in qualifying for pension. The thrifty person who may have accumulated £50 or £60 is penalised for his thrift at a time when the Government are encouraging people to acquire the habit of thrift. We should get some ruling from the Minister on this very vexed problem.
Mr. Alexis FitzGerald: Would the Minister not consider taking power to specify by regulation assets and incomes that could be disregarded for purposes of computing the yearly means of people? I cite the example of the bonus saving incentive scheme: surely it would be an attraction if people could put their savings into that and the income returning from such investment not included in the yearly means of the applicant.
Mr. Colley: The question raised by Deputy McDonald about thrifty people being penalised is a very old and wide question. The same argument was made in relation to income tax and death duties; in fact, the same principle applies. People who have been thrifty and who have accumulated some money suffer deduction on tax in the way people who have spent all their money do not. As I have said it is a very old and wide problem and I could not go into it in detail in relation to this section. However, we should be clear on some aspects.
First, objection has been taken to the “nil” category as regards means. I can understand the objection to it but so far as we are dealing with actual cash there is no doubt that the “nil” category is absolutely defensible in theoretical terms in that those people have absolutely nothing. To the extent that they are not treated somewhat better than people who have very little  you are reducing the amount available to them: in other words if you put them into the same category as the people in the next category it will cost that much more and so much less will be paid to them. This is the theoretical basis for the “nil” category.
It is obvious that in regard to categories one must draw the line somewhere. However, a different consideration arises when you come to the question of a person having a plot attached to a labourer's cottage, whether the owner has a few hens or whether he has some potatoes growing on the land. In practice, certain allowances are made in the assessment of means of this kind— what I might call means in kind rather than in cash. I should like to make it clear that, contrary to what some Senators appear to think, the mere fact of ownership or occupation of the plot attached to the labourer's cottage does not of itself constitute means—it is not counted as part of the means of the applicant. However, the use of the plot can and does count. It is here that some discretion is exercised and where there is a very limited amount of use it will not be counted. Senators can perhaps think of this as if all the applicants having a plot attached to a labourer's cottage have a half-a-dozen hens running round, but there are other places where people are running market gardens on these plots and making a reasonable amount of money. This raises the whole question as to whether this can be ignored. Do we drop the idea of trying to gear the social welfare scheme so as to give most to those who need the most? I want to make it clear that mere occupation or ownership of a plot attached to a labourer's cottage does not of itself constitute means.
I also want to refer to a case which was mentioned by Senator Boland and to tell him that if a social welfare officer to whom he referred said what Senator Boland said he said, then he was wrong in what he said. I would further say that it is not the social welfare officer who decides. He merely investigates and the assessment is looked at by the deciding officer or the pension committee, who can question  any part of the means assessed. The deciding officer's decision is subject to appeal. If any social welfare officer said that, he was wrong.
Something was said by Senator McDonald, to which I should like to refer. I believe that within the past year or so there has been what Senators would regard as an improvement in the attitude of the approach to this problem by social welfare officers. I have been told this and I hope it is true. I said earlier, when concluding on the Second Reading of the Bill, that the difficulties of getting the right approach when dealing with different people interpreting the same thing, are many. I mentioned the steps being taken to ensure that the views of Deputies and Senators are being conveyed to social welfare officers.
Mr. J. Boland: The Minister made a remark which could open up a discussion which could keep us here for a long time. The Minister spoke about the real powers of old age pension committees. The powers of these committees are strictly limited and curtailed. Decisions are made by the social welfare officer and his recommendation is almost mandatory on the old age pension committees.
Mr. J. Boland: I should like to refer to something which I think Senator Honan said. I am sure a Minister for Finance must wonder how much money is expended in investigations as to whether somebody has a yearly means of £26 5s or of £52 10s and whether if there was no scale and the maximum figure of £25 was given as the figure without the scaling and without the consequent investigation and elaborate searching into whether or not a vested cottage plot was being worked, I wonder how much would be saved through this lack of investigation, which would go to offset the additional pension payments which would have to be made. Perhaps we might get an opportunity of talking about things like that some time. It  would be interesting to know how many of the non-contributory pensioners fall into each of the categories set out. In other words, how much would be saved by pushing 5,000 pensioners down from category 3 into the lower category 4? This is something which might concern the Minister and the officials of the Department. There must be an elaborate system in operation into which pensioners can be slotted. This would also apply to widows and to other people in the various categories. The most economic thing to do might be to abandon investigation altogether.
Let us consider for a moment the non-contributory old age pensioner who is living with his wife, who is also a non-contributory old age pensioner. Incidentally, I am quite sure that we will be told all over the country that we are paying people to die now. Supposing a husband is bereaved during the year by the death of his wife, would the social welfare investigating officer be entitled to take £25 death grant as part of the assessable income?
Mr. J. Boland: These are the sort of things which social welfare officers conclude it is right for them to regard in assessing income. It might be a very worthwhile exercise for the appropriate Minister to set out a list of things which should not be taken into account by the social welfare officers.
Mr. McDonald: I should like to say that the Minister drew an analogy between the cottage plot and the market garden which I think was unfair. In practice, I think it is unjust to assess the value of the plot when it comes to the people in the lower categories for these non-contributory pensions. A person who has no  property, or who had a substantial property but signed it over to his son or daughter and continues to reside with them, may draw the full pension, less 5s, and still live in reasonable luxury at home with his family, whereas down the road one can have an unfortunate person in a cottage penalised for this cottage plot which is not much more than a nuisance in this day and age. Fewer and fewer of these plots are being tilled. It is not an economic proposition to till a small area. Some of these plots are bad land. A good case has been made to allow these people the maximum pension, and to exclude the “nil” category.
Mr. Colley: I think that I have dealt with this point before and I do not think it will help the House if I go back over that again, but there are two things I want to mention. First there is the question that was mentioned about the death grant being counted as means. This in fact could not arise because it would be a contributory pension that would be involved. I also want to say that the question about the cost of this kind of investigation obviously occurs to everybody from time to time but there are some figures available from the Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare which I think might surprise people when they look at them. The total cost of the outdoor staff concerned with these various investigations of means tests, who have many other duties to perform as well, is £399,000. If we were to abolish the means test in relation to old age and widows pensions this would cost £7 million a year, so there is a fairly simple sum involved in that.
Question proposed: “That section 28 stand part of the Bill.”
Mr. J. Boland: Does the figure of £7 million which the Minister mentioned in relation to the discussion of section 24 include the abolition of the means test for widows?
Mr. Colley: Old age pensioners and widows.
Mr. J. Boland: The Minister has not a simple figure available for the amount if it were abolished in the case of widows?
Mr. Colley: I do not have it off-hand, I am afraid.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 29 to 35, inclusive, agreed to.
In page 18, line 45, to delete “(excluding any plot provided therewith).”
Mr. Colley: This is a matter which, in fact, has arisen on our earlier discussion relating to the plots attached to labourer's cottages generally. The view was expressed in Dáil Éireann by certain Deputies that the mere ownership or occupation of the plot would be assessed as means. As I have assured the House earlier, this is not so, but in order to reassure the Deputies concerned I undertook to introduce this amendment in the Seanad. I do not think that any Senator will object to the change. Acceptance of it will of course mean that the Bill will have to be brought back to Dáil Éireann but I believe, that there would be no difficulty in securing the agreement of Dáil Éireann to this amendment.
Mr. J. Boland: This in fact means that if the amendment is agreed to the mere occupation of a plot will no longer be taken into account?
Mr. Colley: No. I want to be precise about this. In my view the position will be no different whether we accept the amendment or not, but in the opinion of certain Deputies in Dáil Éireann it does make a difference, and in deference to that view I undertook to have this amendment brought to Seanad Éireann.
Mr. J. Boland: The section reads:
The Seventh Schedule to the Act of 1952 is hereby amended by the addition to Rule 1 (111) of “but for the purposes of this Rule, a cottage (excluding any plot provided therewith) provided under the Labourers Acts 1833 to 1962, and vested in the person or the spouse of that person pursuant to those Acts or pursuant to the Housing Act 1966 (No. 21 of 1966), shall not be treated as property which is personally used or enjoyed by that person or the spouse of that person so long as payment of the purchase annuity has not been completed”.
In other words as long as the person who is in benefit, or the husband or wife, is still paying the annuity on the cottage the occupation of the cottage shall not be taken into account. Is this the effect of the section?
Mr. Colley: As regards the effect of the section unamended I would have to go back a little bit. In the case of labourers' cottages where they are being rented the annual value of the house is offset by the rent being paid. Therefore the house is not counted in assessment of means. Where the cottage has been vested the value of it was being taken into account, but not everybody took in the method under which this calculation of the value was taken. The effect of the section is to ensure that in a case of a vested cottage subject to annuities the value of the cottage is not counted as means. Now in regard to the plot, as I have said, the view that I take, and which I am advised is correct, was that the same position was given and it does not count as means. However, in order to make it absolutely clear to anybody who has any doubt I think that this amendment will do that, though I say that I do not think it makes any difference, but some people think that it does and all will therefore agree that the result is the same if it is passed.
Mr. J. Fitzgerald: In the case of a tenant of a vested cottage I think that in 1966 the old age pension was increased by 5s but because a person was a tenant of a vested cottage he  was deprived of that sum. Does the acceptance of this amendment mean that these people will now qualify for the 5s a week?
Mr. Colley: The section has that effect. The amendment relates only to the plot and in my view makes no difference.
Mr. J. Fitzgerald: But it does mean that the tenant of the vested cottage on a continuing annuity now qualifies for the extra 5s?
Mr. Colley: Yes.
Mr. Nash: Supposing that the annuity has been redeemed is the tenant still in the same position in regard to this 5s?
Mr. Colley: No.
Mr. Nash: So he loses the benefit of the 5s a week?
Mr. Colley: There is a value placed which is included in the assessment of means when he has redeemed the annuity.
Mr. J. Boland: If he is diligent, industrious and sober enough to fulfil his obligations and has made all the payments so that he owns the cottage he will not get the increase because there will be a value placed on it?
Mr. J. Fitzgerald: I think that Senator Boland and I are at cross purposes on this. No matter how diligent you are you cannot redeem an annuity. The term of redemption continues over a number of years, and when the number of years has expired the cottage becomes freehold.
Mr. J. Boland: He can buy it out if he is diligent, industrious and sober enough.
Mr. J. Fitzgerald: It is very hard to do that.
Mr. J. Boland: If you make representations in the right quarters it can be done.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 36, as amended, agreed to.
 Schedule agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported with amendment, received for final consideration and passed.
Ordered that the Bill be returned to the Dáil with amendment.
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