National Social Service Board Bill, 1983: Second Stage (Resumed).

Wednesday, 22 February 1984

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 103 No. 2

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

Mr. Robb: Information on John DA Robb  Zoom on John DA Robb  To pursue the problem at local community level, the Minister did allude in his speech to the need for bringing together the voluntary and statutory agencies. I would endorse that very fully indeed.

With regard to that need, let me give one example. I can recollect shortly after moving from Belfast to north Antrim that there was a great problem with regard to the chronically ill, not those designated as geriatrics who can be rehabilitated by definition, but people who could not after medical assessment expect to be rehabilitated to return to their own homes. These people were being nursed in a Nissen hut and this hut caused a great deal of trouble. Everyone seemed to focus on the Nissen hut rather than on the problems of the two nurses trying to look after 20 chronically ill patients who were unable to move themselves and who were catheterised and have very little control [130] over their own systems. I remember a minister of religion coming to see me and he was most outraged that this was occurring in a hospital to which I was attached. I said there was far too much focus on the building and not anything like enough focus on the need to mobilise the community to deal with the problem. I said “If you were to go back to all the churches in your town and get them all to come together and to provide one volunteer from the lot to attend that Nissen hut nightly, then if you were to go around all the tenants' associations and community groups and ask for a volunteer from the lot to come to that Nissen hut nightly, then if you were to go to the families of those people in the Nissen hut and to ask them to come together to provide one volunteer each night, each person would be on a rota working perhaps for one night in 60 or perhaps one night in every two or three years, if all the resources available to the community were mobilised, and you would have increased the staff four-fold.” The problem is only beginning at that point, because as soon as volunteers arrive at the gate of that hospital the first thing you will find is members of my profession and the nursing profession and perhaps even the legal profession standing aghast that people who are not certified are going to do a job which has traditionally been done by those who are certificated.

There are all sorts of novel ways in which we could start to deal with the problem and to increase the potential of our hidden economy. The Minister was coming close to that. It is interesting that the title of this Bill is the National Social Services Board Bill. For a number of years I have felt that there is a great need in Ireland for national social service, not as a means of trying to get cheap labour, not as a means of denying other people employment, but as a means of raising awareness among the school-leavers of the great social problems which confront us and which have been alluded to in the Minister's speech this afternoon. A period of national social service, where the period was obligatory but where the options were entirely voluntary, could [131] provide an enormous increase of awareness of the problems.

We have children from Northern Ireland going to Holland and America. Would it not be much better if we were to organise children to move in the North-South direction, children to move across the sectarian divide, rural youngsters to work in urban settings or urban youngsters in rural settings? You could have service in the area of rehabilitation, the rehabilitation of those who have had problems with drugs, alcohol, problems of mental health. There are all sorts of imaginative ways in which we could mobilise our youth and make them more aware. In time they would come in the adaptable way to respond to need and would be much more aware than their predecessors have been and they would, because of their awareness, break down the class barriers which are alluded in this document and would promote a much more healthy new Ireland for the future.

I mentioned the word “health” on a number of occasions, and in his speech the Minister said:

Because the realities of poverty and inequality are so inextricably linked into the structures and effects of the social welfare system and its interaction with policies in areas such as taxation, health, education and housing I considered it appropriate to seek the advice——

Let us just look at these things. In the context of the problems we now face, is our education system about development? Is it about integration of the person in the community? Is it about leading out, education — I lead out, educo— or is it indication which is something which leads us in, refines talents, differentiates talent? It is about health and wholeness or is it about the super-refinement of a small area or our talents? We need to look at education.

Let us look at health. The so-called health professions are at present terribly obsessed with curing disease. They pay lip service to its prevention but they have barely started to consider the very radical political implications of promoting [132] health. When you talk about promoting health, particularly at community level, you are talking about the system of education that exists, the opportunity that exists locally. It is much harder to face these problems locally and to bring people together to have a debate of this sort locally because you are facing yourself in your own community. In terms of health we must ask what are the resources and how we should develop them.

There is mention of taxation. At the last meeting of the Seanad I put forward an idea that we should look at the whole system of taxation to see if it could be greatly simplified and to see if a fairly high proportion of our taxes could be clearly seen to be collected at local level so that people would take responsibility at local level for what was happening, decide their own priorities and have the power — that would overcome the powerlessness — to have decision making which is effective where they live. That has to be balanced with the need for a regional and national strategy and that is where this fine point of balance comes in.

I am glad that housing was mentioned. It seems that one side of society is only too glad to have a house that does not leak and the other side of society looks upon a house as a form of currency rather than a home. In Ireland we talk in all sorts of grandiose ways about violence in the macro sense. Violence starts from within ourselves and within the home we create around the hearth. Unless we get back to this concept of a home rather than a house as a form of currency, which it has become certainly across the class divide, then we are missing out on something that is very central to health and wholeness in Irish society.

I welcome the Minister's proposals for community information centres. I presume that is a euphemism for citizens advice bureaux. I was not quite clear if there was a distinction to be made. Well staffed, properly equipped community information centres which are readily available to all the people could become one means of getting over the appalling problem of clientelism which faces Irish politicians today. A tremendous amount of energy and time is taken up in dealing [133] with people who are entitled by law to what they want; if they are not entitled to it, if the law does not allow it, then they should not have it. If they still feel that they need it then it is up to the legislators to change the law.

I have spoken about this before on many occasions, not only here but elsewhere, and I support the community information centres as a means to starting to cope with that great problem. It is true to say that anyone who is in the rather privileged position in which I find myself in this House cannot fail to be impressed by the vast amount of work done by politicians and the enormous demands that are made on them. The only question I would sometimes ask is whether it is the right work and whether their energies could not be more effectively used in the area of creative thought to meet the challenge of the social problems which we now confront in this high technology age that we are entering.

I would like to suggest to the Minister that at some stage someone should look into what has been done in Northern Ireland in the area of social development. There is the Northern Ireland Council for Social Services who have the monthly magazine Scope which deals with many of the areas that he has dealt with this afternoon and provides a means of communication between the networks that already exist at local community level. There is the North West Foundation for Human Development which is located in Derry and which was linked with the Irish Foundation for Human Development that was inaugurated in Dublin some years ago. There is the Ulster People's College. All of these are run by and involve people who are very concerned with the issues of poverty and the need to provide a social service which balances community involvement on the one hand and the reallocation of resources to meet special needs on the other.

As we face the challenges of Irish society we must look upon ourselves as trustees for the future generations. We must look at our rivers, our land, our afforestation and our coastline and we should ask ourselves whether we are good trustees of them. I suggest that the answer is at [134] present open to debate. What are we going to do about the pollution of our resources? What are we going to do about the litter which, in spite of the Litter Bill which was passed here last year, pollutes the countryside? How are we going to use our resources sensibly? We have more than enough of them. We must look at the land and the possibility of using it for vegetable protein as much as for animal protein. There are opportunities for developing afforestation, which has already been done to a considerable degree. There should be better protection of the maritime potential of our coastline from the effects of pollution and exploitation. We have a lot going for us.

I do not believe it will be possible to mobilise our resources if we see it all as a matter of central control and do not open up the debate locally. This National Social Services Board will help in that process. When we look at our talent we have to ask ourselves whether we are finding, developing and liberating the talent that is unique to each member of our younger generation. Are we giving them a free enough society to live in and yet not so free that they are not aware of their obligations to others.

I would say that the slogan in relation to national social service of all forms might be share today, conserve for tomorrow.

Professor Hillery: Information on Brian J. Hillery  Zoom on Brian J. Hillery  In the course of this brief contribution I want to make a few general comments relating to the Bill and to make a couple of practical suggestions for the Minister's attention.

The Bill constitutes a very limited concept of what we should be doing to tackle social need in Irish society. The National Community Development Agency Act which is now being repealed was both broader in scope and more radical in its approach than the Bill before us. Having said that, we need quick decisive action to deal with the problems of social need. This type of action is all the more urgent against the background of the present cutbacks.

The Minister has correctly stressed the vital contribution made by the voluntary sector to social services. I share this view. [135] Local voluntary activities are highly desirable and should be actively encouraged. I would not like to think, however, that the Minister would actually abuse these voluntary efforts by inadequate provision of funds to voluntary agencies. They should not be used simply to save money for the Exchequer or to provide cheap or free labour. Resources are critical, especially for community information centres.

On the question of dissemination of information, leaflets are rather antiquated when we consider the possibilities of new information technology. As we know we can get comprehensive information about our bank accounts in a matter of a few seconds from a computer terminal. Why not apply the same technology to getting, for example, social insurance information? Successful computer companies, of which there are many in this country, are providing computers to Irish schools at greatly reduced prices. This brings me to my first practical suggestion for the Minister's attention. I think the Minister should induce these successful computer companies to make their contribution to voluntary social service agencies by providing computer equipment at minimal or no cost. In any case, there is an urgent need to plan for the dissemination of increasing volumes of information through new information technology.

At the outset, I stressed that the board as proposed in this Bill is very limited in concept. The community development approach contained in the Act now being repealed is concerned not alone with the provision of information on rights and entitlements but also, with the conditions and circumstances that give rise to deficiencies in our society. I would like an assurance from the Minister that local groups will have a large measure of independence to meet local needs. I recognise that when local groups receive public funds there must be accountability. My concern, however, is that there may be excessive control over these local voluntary organisations.

Reference has been made by previous speakers to modern technology. We live [136] in an era of rapid technological change. The Department of Social Welfare must keep abreast of developments in information technology since this Department deals with such a massive number of payments to relatively disadvantaged people. Prompt payment of these benefits is essential and clearly new technology can facilitate such prompt payment.

Developments in micro-electronics have dominated the past decade but bio-technology, which will have huge implications for health and social services, will dominate the next decade. The changes in Irish society in the immediate years ahead will be profound, not least in the area of employment. We need to anticipate and to plan for these social and technological changes rather than wait for the changes to occur and then try to patch up the consequential problems.

My final point is a practical suggestion for the Minister's attention. It relates to the tax benefits, approved by the Revenue Commissioners, which apply to covenants. Both the donor and the recipient of funds for health and social research enjoy substantial tax benefits which clearly benefit research work. I would urge the Minister to speak to his Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Finance, with a view to extending the same tax benefits to individuals or organisations who wish to contribute financially to local initiatives in the social service field.

Mr. Loughrey: Information on Joachim A Loughrey  Zoom on Joachim A Loughrey  Senator Robb referred to people wishing to have a home without a leak; indeed, in my part of the country there are many persons who would like to have a home in which to have the said leak.

I would like to bring up a number of items that are not specifically related to the Minister's Department but about which he in his capacity as Minister setting up this board would have an ear. I refer first of all to the free books scheme in national primary schools. I, as principal of a small primary school, found it difficult, if not impossible, to administer the free books scheme without inferring poverty where it might not lie or discriminating in some other way. The teacher or principal teacher in a small school was [137] asked to apply the scheme. If he applied it where he thought poverty lay, he could infer poverty where it did not lie and could also insult.

The itinerant problem was raised recently in Dublin and I do not wish to comment on the decision of Dublin County Council or Dublin Corporation, whichever body it was. The itinerant problem is with us and it is not going away. Despite the best efforts in my own county, the setting up of voluntary committees and the setting up within the county council of a statutory committee to co-ordinate with the voluntary committees, that problem is not going away but is on the increase. The Minister should seek advice as to how the itinerant problem might be solved. I want to pose one problem to this Minister or whichever Minister might be concerned. Should an itinerant family apply for tenancy of a local authority house and that family's need be greater than that of a settled family, I believe that the itinerant settlement association or some individual itinerant family would take a case under the Constitution and find unconstitutional whatever reasons the manager of the said local authority gave for not housing that itinerant family.

I wish to refer to the house building programme. While I welcome this Government's commitment and the extension of £1 million extra this year to Donegal for local authority housing, the villages of caravans are growing in our county. The Minister could seek advice as to how he could utilise the training that has been given to some of our young people in apprentice trades. Some funds could be made available for groups of young people under supervision to use the training they have got in building, plastering, electricity, plumbing and carpentry to build houses for some people within our community.

I refer specifically to one scheme that is being built at present. There are numerous people coming to me to apply for housing in it. There are 14 applicants for four old persons' homes in the town of Milford. I know most of them. One person comes in daily to my office with a bar of chocolate, a bag of crisps and at [138] one stage with a £5 note as a good will present on the opening of my new office. I knew precisely what that person was doing; she was not bribing but she was trying to get on the right side of me because she felt so desperately in need of housing. That person has already left a rural community from ten miles away from that village to come to reside in what she describes as a very damp flat. She now is applying to get into better conditions. That lady should never have had to move from her rural community. No matter what the family's circumstances might have been, she should not have had to move to this town in the first instance and she now may not get a house in this new housing scheme.

The same training I mentioned earlier might be applied to the building of old persons' communal homes. That might sound to be somewhat against what I have already mentioned about people staying in their own environment. There could be something between the community welfare home and the old persons' homes as we now know them. A number of old people could reside together, having their own individual bedrooms, sharing bathrooms and having communal sittingroom, diningroom and kitchen facilities. The Minister should seek advice on this and should utilise the training that some of our young people got in the trades in the building of the community homes.

I want to go on to something that has been on my mind for the last number of months, and that is the smallholders' assistance that has now been removed because of the court case that was brought by some farmers with regard to the poor law valuation scheme. There are a number of things that I want to say to the Minister in his capacity as Minister for Social Welfare. The first is I believe that the application now, as a result of the court case, is rendering some of our small farmers less productive than they might be. They are afraid to admit that they have had certain crops, that they own certain animals. The thing is anti-production. Secondly, and I apologise for saying this, I believe the application of the reassessment is, in fact, selective. I [139] would even go as far as to say it is politically selective. In my own area when I see the people who are being assessed first and those who have been left till last I firmly believe this to be the case. I have written to the Minister, I have no proof of it and it is very hard to establish where proof lies. I have written to the managers of the employment exchanges but unfortunately in my area there is more unemployment than employment. I have asked them for lists of persons who have been assessed to date. I am told that this information is confidential because of the nature of the social welfare and that that list cannot be given. I have written to the Minister. The Minister says that unless I can provide concrete evidence of my allegation he cannot act on it. I am tied between the two. The Minister should consider that since the production of this new method of assessment certain farmers on very low income initially are being deprived of an income that they were heretofore budgeting with and budgeting for, and now without that money coming into the house they simply do not know where to turn. If production is to continue on the small farms these people will have to get a fair deal. This form of social welfare should be removed and there should be some other scheme or subsidy to replace it. Those are a few random thoughts that I would like the Minister to consider.

Mr. Fitzsimons: Information on Jack Fitzsimons  Zoom on Jack Fitzsimons  This is an important Bill. Even though it is a short Bill I feel it is somewhat confusing for people who are not familiar with all the background. As the Minister aptly said, the service in one form or another has been in existence since 1971. The National Social Service Council was established in that year and in 1981 the National Social Service Board was established. In 1982 we had the National Community Development Agency. This National Social Service Board Bill, 1983, provides for re-establishment of the National Social Service Board and repeal of the National Community Development Act, 1982. The National Community Development Agency was established in December, [140] 1982 but it never actually functioned as such. Through this Bill we are reverting back to the National Social Service Board on a statutory basis, which everybody agrees is most important.

I understand that there are 75 community information centres throughout the country with total grant aiding amounting to £30,000 or less than £450 per centre per year, which seems to me to be totally inadequate to give a proper service. I also believe that in 1979 the number of queries dealt with was 39,000, in 1980 this increased to 49,500, in 1981 to 59,500, in 1982 to 85,000 and last year to 90,000. I would like to ask the Minister what is the ultimate number of community information centres that he envisages will be necessary to cater for the country as a whole. I see from the leaflet handed out at various centres that the community information centre provides free and confidential information on such subjects as taxation, health, housing, consumer affairs, social welfare and redundancy as well as information on local organisations and services. The centres are financed by local funds and by Government grants, administered by the National Social Service Council, which also provides the up to date reference files used in the centres. Each centre is run by voluntary community groups and operated by trained volunteers. As I said, there are 75 information centres throughout the country and they deal with inquiries by callers through letters and phone calls.

The information bulletin of the National Social Service Board, Relate, which has been referred to before, in a number of its issues, gives a fairly detailed history of the service from 1971. Very briefly, it seems that the National Social Service Council was established in October 1971. The terms of reference of the original council were:

(i) To stimulate and encourage the formation of new voluntary social service councils and the expansion of existing councils without participation in the actual administration of such councils.

(ii) To provide an advisory and information service to voluntary bodies [141] engaged in community social service.

(iii) To co-ordinate and to give advice on the work of governmental, local governmental and voluntary bodies engaged in the provision of community social services.

(iv) To promote liaison between central and local authorities and voluntary social service organisations.

It was envisaged that the council would become the focal point of voluntary social work activity in the country and would be a source of encouragement, assistance and advice to existing social work agencies. The National Social Service Council was re-constituted in March 1975. The aims of the new council were broadly similar to the terms of reference of the original council but there were some changes in emphasis. There were drawn up in the light of the council's experience since its formation. The aims of the 1975 National Social Service Council were:

1. To promote co-operation between voluntary social service organisations at local and regional levels by encouraging the formation and development of Social Service Councils or similar bodies and by other means.

2. To promote co-operation between statutory and voluntary social services.

3. To provide information and advice on the social services and related fields.

4. To offer advice on policy and services to Government and to statutory and voluntary bodies engaged in the provision of social services.

5. To encourage the development of social services as an integral part of community development.

The National Community Development Agency seems to have had many functions which the Minister has not included in this Bill, and I will refer to some of them. I quote from Relate, June 1982:

(a) To advise the Minister for Health [142] and make recommendations to him regarding community development policies and community development programmes, in relation to self-help, poverty and social services;

(b) to promote and co-ordinate programmes in relation to self-help, poverty and social deprivation,...

(c) to ascertain and specify communities in which there is a high degree of poverty and social deprivation;

(d) to foster and assist, including by financial or material aid, projects of community involvement and activity, and to facilitate the mobilisation of community self-help;

(e) to advise the Minister on the social aspects of economic and social planning;

(g) to draw on and evaluate research on self-help, poverty and social deprivation by third level educational and other bodies, and to promote such research from time to time on specific projects;

(i) to collect and disseminate information on community development, self-help, poverty and social deprivation;

(j) to promote greater public understanding of the nature, causes and extent of poverty and social deprivation and the measures required to alleviate them.

All of these have been eliminated from this Bill. So it seems to me that it does not have the bite of the National Community Development Agency.

In the Bill before us functions of the board as I see them, will be to advise and inform the Minister for Health regarding the social services, to provide information and the spreading of information about the social services; to do whatever is possible to promote voluntary social services for local communities; to organise co-operation between all social service groups, and to be concerned with the work in relation to social services of such bodies as the Minister may specify. Also, the Minister may add or withdraw [143] any function as he thinks proper from time to time.

I believe there are particular problems regarding local funds, Government grants and personnel in many areas. I would like the Minister to give some information with regard to these local funds, how they are obtained; whether there is any intention of improving or increasing the grants and whether there is a problem in getting suitable personnel. If possible, it would be desirable to increase the number of hours these centres are open. Will that be possible?

The Minister stated that there will be no overlapping of services. I would like to ask him what is the difference between a community information centre, the work they do and their responsibilities, and the information centres which are about to be set up by the North Western Health Board. Will there not be an overlapping of activities here? I understand the functions of the health board to include providing information on health matters but I see that in the address by the Minister at the opening of the information and advisory centre at Cleveragh Road, Sligo, on Monday, 13 February this year, he said that:

Basic, straightforward information about services and entitlements is an absolute necessity. Indeed, there is little point in providing a sophisticated range of services and benefits if people in need are not aware of them or do not know how to apply for them.

Later on, he said:

In conclusion, I would like to congratulate the health board and all those who have worked to bring this public information and advisory service to fruition. I hope that other health boards will take their cue from the North Western Health Board and begin to develop similar services.

All of us would be in favour of providing information in various ways and extending this service but it seems to me that clearly here there is an overlapping because, in my view, this is the work [144] which will be carried out by the board as envisaged under this Bill.

I would like to refer, as Senator McGuinness did, to the publications of the National Social Service Board, particularly Entitlements for the Elderly and Entitlements for the Disabled, which have been very helpful. Also, the monthly information bulletin Relate. I would like to pay tribute to the present chairman, Mr. Joe McGough, to Mr. Noel O'Sullivan, head of information since 1979, who has been so helpful to all of us, and indeed all the staff. They have been impressive on radio and television. I would like to pay tribute to Mr. John Curry, Director, who was also chairman of the Commission for Social Welfare which is trying to tease out the existing labyrinth in the social welfare code and recommend a new one. I want to extend my thanks to all the volunteers with the board and in other capacities throughout the country.

With regard to the combating of poverty, perhaps the Minister feels rightly that between two stools we might come to the ground. He states that the Government commitment to combat poverty is being and will be pursued in the context of a single-minded approach to the issue by an organisation unencumbered by other responsibilities or functions. Of course, we would all support and be completely in favour of this. With regard to combating poverty, I would agree with the Minister that it is important to identify the causes. There would be a big input required in many ways, and I would agree with other Senators when they say not least will be information and education. Could I ask the Minister to take into consideration the important role which is being played by the adult education programme throughout the country, in Meath, in particular, with which I am most familiar. The adult education services have helped the travelling community by providing courses without charge. They also help the unemployed. They have special terms for them. To do this properly they would need more funds, and we can only provide these services at the expense of something else. I would ask the Minister to look sympathetically [145] at the vocational education committees and adult education.

I want to make one final point to the Minister. It is an important one. The two big problems at present are unemployment and housing. I believe that to solve them a radical approach will be necessary. I have stated this before and I want to restate it here, I believe that to marry them both will go a long way towards solving both problems. I have said before that it should be possible to channel labour from the huge unemployed pool into productive areas. Housing with a very high percentage of labour content is one area where this is possible. To give an example of what I mean, if the Government are committed, with regard to the payment of social benefits, to a certain amount of money and the existing grant system as we understand it for housing is abolished, but if people building houses were empowered statutorily to go to the labour exchange and engage workers who are receiving unemployment assistance and suppose the Government continued to pay the amount of unemployment assistance, the person building the house could pay a small additional amount, say £10 per week per person. If we take a situation where the total cost of providing a house would be £30,000 and we assume that the labour/materials ratio of cost would be 60 to 40 per cent, that would mean that the labour cost would be £18,000 and materials £12,000.

In many instances it would be people drawing unemployment benefits who would be building the house. If that person had to contribute an additional £2,000 total for the additional incentive of £10 per week per person, then it would cost the person building the house £14,000. That house would be provided at a total cost to the individual of £14,000. Taking other factors into consideration, the house which now would cost £30,000 could be built for less than £14,000. This could be covered by a 100 per cent long-term loan. The Government would be paying no more money than if the payments had been made continuously of the unemployment benefit. This would need the co-operation of the trade unions and the employers' representatives. But there [146] is scope for progress here and I would ask the Minister to consider this as a means of dealing positively with both problems.

Minister for Health (Mr. B. Desmond): Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  May I thank my fellow Members of the Oireachtas for their general support and understanding in relation to the Bill? Senator Mallon, or Senator Fallon ——

Mr. Fallon: Information on Sean Fallon  Zoom on Sean Fallon  Mallon is on the mind.

Mr. B. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  Excuse my Freudian slip. Senator Fallon made the point that it would be preferable to amend the existing Act. I have considered that approach but I strongly thought that the original agency, the National Community Development Agency, lacked a very clear and sustainable workable mandate and that, therefore, simply to amend the Act would only, to an extent, compound the original error, however will intentioned it was on the part of those who brought in that Bill. Apart from that, the changes which would be required would be of a major nature in terms of reference and to that extent the amending legislation would be inappropriate. It is better to start afresh and finish the job for all time and to put the National Social Service Board on a firm, definite and permanent footing so that this saga can be brought to an end. I agree with Senator Fallon that poverty is the most important issue in our community. It has to be singled out for very particular and positive attention. For that reason the Government's view is that we should establish a separate agency with a separate budget. That is part of the Joint Programme for Government.

Senator Fallon was critical of the former Combat Poverty Agency. While it achieved a good deal and its final report was extremely interesting it had its drawbacks. As the Senator pointed out, setting up projects and various schemes on an ad hoc basis, without due consideration for local community needs, is likely to lead to a lack of any lasting benefit and indeed could lead to a lot of local confusion. There was an element of that in relation to the work of the Combat Poverty [147] Agency. However, I am confident that if we get the new organisation established on a definite and straightforward basis and learn from the mistakes of the past, then we will have an opportunity to establish a worth while agency. I may set up the board on an ad hoc basis initially, on an interim basis and then it can come forward with a final structure. However, I am anxious to get it off the ground as quickly as possible.

Senator Fallon also indicated, regarding the membership of the Social Services Board, that the representation on the board should be as wide as possible. I share that view. We, in this country, have a habit of putting too many people on such boards. I would think that in the region of eight, ten or eleven people at most would be most appropriate. I agree with the Senator that it would be inadvisable to select members purely on the basis of their being from the major urban areas. Admittedly, the areas of great deprivation are in the urban areas but nevertheless I think we need a geographical spread. I am conscious of the need to select members who have established particularly good records in the field of voluntary social services. I hope to get the board off the ground in the next few months on the assumption that the Bill will be given general approval.

I thank Senator Andy O'Brien for his support of the work of the voluntary bodies. That is much appreciated. As a member of a health board he knows the particular need to develop a close working relationship between the voluntary bodies and the health boards. Co-operation throughout the country is a patchwork quilt. In some boards it is outstanding, in others it is non-existent. I share Senator O'Brien's view that there is a need to develop a closer working relationship. I fully support his view that we need to express our appreciation of the work being done by many people in the voluntary bodies.

Senator McGuinness brought a nostalgic note, one might say, to my particular role in relation to the Bill. I would share her view that from 1973 to 1984 the [148] board has languished without a statutory base. Now it is going to have a formal statutory base. As chairman from 1973 onwards, Senator McGuinness bore her scars of endeavour with a rare degree of tolerance. Her trenchant criticisms of the past are merited and are put on record. The staff of the old National Social Service Board have been treated rather shoddily by politicians, and not by the Department of Health. The Department had a good working relationship with the board but politicians could not make up their minds what they wanted to do, and they dilly dallied unduly.

I share her view that the staff of this board and the chief executive officer, Mr. John Curry, deserved better treatment. They will, at long last, have formal statutory security in relation to their terms of reference and their future work. I want to thank Joe McGough, the current chairman of the National Community Development Agency and the members of that agency who stood by patiently during 1983 knowing that this change was coming. I want to thank them for their forebearance.

I should like to refer to two or three other aspects mentioned by Senator McGuinness. She made a point about the need for statutory and voluntary co-operation. I appreciate that the former board were active in this area but I believe that, by giving the new board statutory authority, it will greatly facilitate their work. That is a valid point. We will ensure that special care is given to that role. Regarding a possible charter for voluntary bodies, I agree with the Senator's views and I will be asking the re-established board to advise me on the matter. I would see this as a priority for the new board. As a Member of the Oireachtas for the past 14 or 15 years I have met many voluntary bodies, what strikes me most frequently is the wide disparity of skills, of commitment and of resources. Very often these bodies start with a great flourish and establish a great track record. Suddenly the chief motivator behind them dies, or an internal row develops, or suddenly they run out of resources and pile up debts inadvertently, and the whole thing falls apart.

[149] There is a need for greater coherent guidance and assistance to voluntary bodies than we have been giving in the past. One of the big problems is the capacity in this country. People of enormous goodwill, dedication, sincerity and energy want to run their own voluntary body, and do not want to share it with a health board, or another organisation or, indeed, with persons at church level or with anybody else. It becomes part of their lives. While that is perfectly understandable, very frequently life and problems and new dimensions of poverty pass them by. They find themselves treating a symptom which in fact has long gone in terms of a need being perceived. Therefore, there is a great need for a charter for the voluntary bodies.

I again want to assure Senator McGuinness that I will do my utmost to assist the National Council for the Aged. Their publications and the great work done by Michael Killeen as chairman of the council are a rare aspect of dedicated public service on a voluntary basis. The kind of work done by John Curry, the Chief Officer of the National Social Service Board in servicing the National Council for the Aged merits particular mention.

I have a problem in concurring with Senator McGuinness on the question of membership of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I have considered it over the years, I often felt that our exclusion was due to some mandarin in the parliamentary draftsman's office busily trying to prevent Members of the Oireachtas from participating on various national bodies.

On reflection I have come to the conclusion over the years — perhaps it is because I am getting old; and I am not yet 50 — that the problem is that Members of the Oireachtas have so much to do in terms of enacting legislation, that we must resist the temptation to get deeply personally involved in the bodies themselves, whether they are on a paid basis or on a voluntary basis. The dual mandate in that context is reasonable. There are arguments for and against but, on balance, I would not entirely share the Senator's view that Members of the Oireachtas should be permitted to be [150] included in the membership of the National Social Service Board. On balance it is best that, having established a statutory base, we disengage ourselves and go on to other work as Members of the Oireachtas.

Senator Fallon and Senator McGuinness raised the question of the financing of the agency. The budget this year is about £475,000. It is sufficient as of 1984 to enable them to discharge their functions. When the board are re-established the provisions for financing can be reexamined in relation to the revised functions and the revised powers. I share the view of Senator Hillery — I regret that I was not able to be here when he contributed to the debate due to the Dáil being recalled — that the prompt payment of social welfare benefits would alleviate much of the criticism and many of the problems which faced the National Social Service Board because of the perennial number of inquiries which this board get.

The publications of the board are very good, particularly Relate and the comprehensive document on services for the aged, for example. Very often when an elderly person has a sudden recall of a pension book, or a prolonged delay in obtaining a benefit, that can cause enormous deprivation and distress to such a person. We all experience this in our daily work at constituency level. I share his view that there is a need for prompt payment. When we have a public service staff embargo and 220,000 on the live register, and a growing number of dependants, there are enormous pressures on our public servants, particularly on the staff of the Department of Social Welfare. I can assure the Deputy that I marvel at the fact that at exchange level they manage to deliver what they deliver in the present setting. I very much bear in mind the points he made in that regard.

Senator Fitzsimons needs a reply in relation to the community information centres. He asked in particular about the difference between the National Social Service Board's community information centres and the North-Western Health Board's information centres. The community information centres, by and large, [151] cover all the public information services, taxes, social services, housing, and they are open on a part-time basis only. Some of them in the North-Western Health Board area — and there is outstanding work being done in that health board area — are full-time because they are based at health centres, but many are part-time. They tend to be confined to the health and welfare services.

On the other hand the National Social Service Board services tend to be of a broader, more comprehensive nature. I was in Sligo last Monday week and I was enormously impressed, as were the officers of my Department who attended, by the outstanding work being done in Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo. Every health board could take an object lesson from the massive spread of community information centres which they have virtually in every health centre, in every hospital, in every local community office. There is, for example, a range of leaflets, a range of information available to the local community which very frequently does not exist in other major areas. In the Eastern Health Board — to draw a direct comparison where one is dealing with the best part of one-third of the population — there is an example to be followed in that regard.

These are my comments on the general aspects of the Bill. I am sure many Members of this House share the view that Senator Robb's contributions on such matters show rare, continued and radical imagination. When he talks about the need to ask serious questions on education, on health and taxation matters and on the need to liberate resources and to liberate power so that the people who need those services can get them, I think we all share his views. I am conscious that, in the Department of Social Welfare we are spending £1,000 million a year, and in the Department of Health we are spending another £1,000 million a year. A total of 40 per cent of all the State's Exchequer moneys goes through my two Departments. I would hazard a guess, having looked at that expenditure over the past 15 months, that about 20 per cent of it, or about £400 million of it, [152] does not really get to the people it was intended for.

The real poor in our community, the really deprived people, and the really disabled people, the really handicapped people, and those on really low incomes do not get the transfer payments within those resources. The question asked by Senator John Robb must be answered. So conservative are we as politicians, so conservative are the power groups within our community, and so inately conservative are we in terms of radical transfer of resources, that the strictures of Senator Robb are merited and should be carefully considered. His contribution lays down a major marker for all of us to work more effectively in that direction.

I conclude by thanking Senators for their detailed observations on this Bill over the past three hours. I look forward to continuing, if possible, with the remaining stages of the Bill this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

Agreed to take remaining Stages today.


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