Thursday, 19 November 1981
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Lanigan: The Bill gives us an opportunity to discuss the social welfare system as it is. Among the things that have come out of it is that the Minister has expressed her concern for people on social welfare benefits. Everybody in this House would agree with her sentiments on that. Her remarks about the poverty programme and about poverty in our society disturbed me a little in the sense that it seems there is an emphasis being placed on the transfer from the family to the State of the job of caring for people in need.
I agree that the State has a major part to play in the helping of the under-privileged in our society whether they are under-privileged because of mental handicap, physical handicap or social handicap. I do not think that we should get too far away from the extended family situation where in the past the young people looked after the elderly and the elderly looked to the young people as a resource for the future. I do not think that we should become totally State-oriented in the social welfare system. We must look at society and at people within  society and not look to the State and ask it to look after people. I sincerely hope — and I am glad my parents are still alive — that I would be capable of trying to help my parents when they might get into trouble. At present there is too much emphasis on transfer from the family-oriented society to a State-oriented society, and that worries me.
I am sure the Minister has seen the newspaper in which it is stated that there was a poverty conference in Kilkenny, my home city, and a certain lady passed by and when she saw all the Mercedes and the Volvos and BMWs parked outside the conference hall she said: “I wonder what would be here if it was a celibacy conference”.
Mr. Lanigan: What would be parked outside if it was a wealth conference? To get back to personalisation, I have absolutely nothing to say about the people in Kilkenny and around the country who deal with social welfare problems. They do the very best they can, but they are not helped. I will take a particular case.
You are hereby informed that it has been decided by a Deciding Officer that assistance is not payable on the ground that disability was paid to the applicant in respect of the period 11.4.81 to 25.4.81 (Section 1 (1) (10) (v) of the Unemployment Assistance Amendment Act 1935).
A 72-year-old man got that. I decided to check out what these three letters meant. I have 152 pages of enabling Bills to help me to decide what exactly the Social Welfare Department were telling this man. The man is in limbo. The community welfare officer in Kilkenny is looking after this person, and the community welfare officers all over the country are looking after people who get rubbish like that. It is not English. It is jargon that means nothing. If I go into the Oireachtas Library and I get an answer which takes 135 pages, what about the poor man who is trying to read that? Unfortunately, that is part of the social welfare system. I suggest that somebody in the Department of Social Welfare should have a look at the letters that are being sent out to people who are in need. What does section 9 (1) (d) (v) of the Amendment Act, 1935, mean to a person who possibly never went further than primary school? That is what we are sending to people who are in need of benefit.
The Minister mentioned one-parent families. It is a bit outside the orbit of the Bill but the Minister did mention one-parent families. A deserted wife gets a letter back from the Department of Social Welfare saying she has not gone through every means at her disposal to try to contact her missing husband, or in the case of a man, his missing wife. With two children, she has £34 a week. Is she supposed to travel to Australia or America — or is he supposed to travel to Australia or America — to find the missing spouse? The letter states quite categorically that she has not gone through every means at her disposal to find her spouse. How can she do it on £34?
Mr. S. O'Leary: Could I ask the Minister to ensure that in future when welcome payments of this nature are made, they are not brought in by enabling legislation introduced less than a month before the payment is due? In section 1 of the Bill the dates of payment are 10 December and 11 December respectively. This is 19 November. These plans should be made well in advance. I do not want to go into any recriminations as to who should have made the decision on that. If we are going to pay a double week at Christmas, which is a good idea, we should include it in our figures at the start of the year and we should tell everybody what it will be, rather than trying to run the country on an ad hoc basis, day by day, making up our minds as we go along and introducing enabling legislation a very short period of time before the actual payment is made. I would ask the Minister to use her influence in the Cabinet to ensure that these decisions are made well in advance in future, and that the need for enabling legislation like this to be brought in such a short period of time before the actual payment is made will not arise in future.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mrs. E. Desmond): I have already covered most of the points Senator Lanigan raised. I know the replies which Senator Lanigan produced here this morning are not the  type of response that should emanate from the Department to a claimant for any of these benefits. They are not very enlightening to people who want to know simply whether they are entitled to a claim or not and, if not, why not. This system has grown up through the years. There is a massive maze of social welfare legislation which has resulted in responses such as these going out to people. The Department of Social Welfare deal with an enormous volume of work. It is not easy to turn around a system which has built up over very many years. I assure the Senator that we are working on that and are very mindful of the fact that some of the replies which emanate from our Department do not make sense to applicants or the recipients of benefits. People should be told precisely why they are not entitled to their claims, in plain English. This would probably eliminate quite a number of appeals because they would know in the first instance why they were not entitled to benefit. They would not be hoping that something would show up in the re-examination of their cases. They would know why their cases were turned down in the first place. As I said, it is a very big ship to turn about in a very short time, but I assure the Senator we will do our best to do so.
I was at the Kilkenny conference and I should like to vouch for the total sincerity and credibility of everybody who attended that conference. I do not think it matters if you come in a Mercedes or a Mini Minor, or what you come in, as long as you are concerned for the uneven distribution of wealth and the lack of opportunity for many people. This was manifested at that conference. You can be well-intentioned whatever level of society you happen to find yourself in as a result of your own personal fortune at birth, or whatever else.
Senator O'Leary mentioned the question of amending legislation. This legislation is going through the Houses on precisely the same date as it went through last year. There is adequate time for the implementation of the legislation and I am assured that payments will be made on time. No provision was made in  the Estimates for a double payment this Christmas, so it was necessary to have this repeat of amending legislation. I will certainly look into the Senator's point and see if it can be included as a regular feature. If that is the case and if provision can be made in the Estimates, obviously such enabling legislation will not be necessary in future.
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