Thursday, 6 March 1986
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Fitzsimons: I made a rather lengthy contribution last Thursday and my contribution will be brief today. I made the lengthy contribution, not because I felt I had anything special to contribute or any special insight but because it was the only tangible way in which I could show my concern in this area, particularly as I was a member of  that hardworking committee. I pointed out that in this report the committee dealt with areas brought to their notice. There were notices in the papers at the start. In response to an appeal for submissions 132 submissions were made, which was quite a considerable number. But, as I pointed out on the last occasion, unfortunately some missed out. This was rather a pity because in that kind of situation, where appeals are made through the media, only the best organised groups will respond.
For many groups to make a submission involves considerable time and considerable expense and I suppose they have to come to some decision about whether it is worth while. I would hope all of them, when the matter is brought to their attention, would feel it is important and well worthwhile making a submission to this committee.
When I attended the meeting yesterday of the Joint Committee on Women's Rights I made the case that, in looking for submissions in this way, perhaps some people are missed out and I thought it would be a good idea to write to all the organisations which the committee felt would be interested. I am glad to say the committee agreed to my request.
One of the areas I felt was missed out on the last occasion was that of the unmarried parent. This was unfortunate. Two of the organisations which are concerned — I am sure there are others — are the Federation of Services for the Unmarried Parents and their Children and Cherish. These are two organisations which do very important work. It was a great pity we had no submission from them particularly having regard to the negative comments in the media over the past few weeks. These comments were unfortunate and ill-founded. While we all agree that there are social problems in this area, we would be better to concern ourselves with the elimination of these problems. Certainly, mud-slinging is no way to address the problem — I should like to refer briefly to the situation as I see it as the Minister is here and will be replying. I feel the unmarried parent situation is a transient state and it is  unfortunate that no statistics are available either to prove or disprove this. It seems the unmarried parent is not a switched-on state of women alone — men are involved. While I do realise that many people have made the claim that the unmarried mother situation may be a way of life nevertheless, I do not believe that love has lost all its meaning. I do not believe that behind most of those situations there are not broken hearts. That would be my great concern, the individuals who are involved.
We have been told on a number of occasions that it is a way of life for some people. I agree that the numbers are sufficient to cause concern regarding teenagers who see this as the only way of getting an identity. I believe that at present this is the only way to qualify for an independent State allowance under 18 years of age. There is no other entitlement. There are many people, I believe, who would get married but are better off in the unmarried status. Certainly they are far better off than if they get married to unemployed husbands.
I gave figures on the last occasion for illegitimate births. Some people would prefer to use some other word rather than “illegitimate” and I would agree with them. However, under that heading from 1973 to 1984 there were 40,297 illegitimate births. The adoption orders for that period amounted to 14,578 which left a balance of 25,719. Of that number only 10,307 are now getting the allowance — only 40 per cent. It seems that number of those categorised under “unmarried parent” may be broken up roughly into three categories; those who get married after the birth of the child; a significant number who are working and cannot claim the unmarried parent's allowance because their income would be over £64 per week. We know that to qualify for this allowance the income should be under £12 and that above that figure the applicant losses out, pound for pound. Then we have those cohabiting who would not qualify.
The statistics may also show that in that category there would be many concerned  people who would be living up to their responsibility and who for one reason or another, either because of the commitment to marriage being for life or for some other reasons may not want to undertake to get married. The hard facts for 1983 prove that the unmarried mothers were cohabiting for at least a year or more before the birth of their child.
We heard a lot recently regarding the unmarried mothers who were evicted. This got considerable media coverage. I believe that the evictions had nothing whatever to do with being an unmarried mother. I made a plea on the last occasion regarding suitable housing for one-parent families and small families and this is something that should be looked at. In any event, I do not see in this any threat to the traditional family. I also hear on the radio and read in the papers the emotive term “milking the system”. I believe people who are entitled to a benefit of one kind or another, many of them with children, should make sure they get everything they are entitled to. The majority of them are unemployed for the simple reason that work is not available. It is very wrong to use that emotive term “milking the system”.
The report states that people who are entitled to benefit should get information from a booklet of one kind or another. Perhaps the social welfare booklets which are very comprehensive would be considered suitable and perhaps the Minister would make arrangements so that everybody who might apply for benefit would get one of those booklets. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the very many voluntary organisations whose members give their time freely without pay of any kind. Perhaps if copies of those booklets were forwarded to those organisations they could be distributed where they are most required.
On the last day I apologised for my record of attendance at the meetings. I found it very difficult to take part in the affairs of this House and to attend the meetings as most of them were held on Wednesdays. I have to pay a great tribute  to all the members who attended so many meetings and did such a thorough job.
I mentioned already the EC equality legislation and that is covered in the report. I hope the Minister will take some action in this regard because it is not good enough simply to say that the staff is not available. If we are obliged by equality legislation to do something specific, it is no excuse to say we cannot do so because of a staff shortage.
There is a specific section on means testing. This is a very sensitive area for many people, people for whom a small amount may mean the difference between starvation and life. The Minister should act in this regard. A suggestion was made that means testing should be carried out in a uniform manner. This is of critical importance. At present we are told different criteria are laid down for different payments. The members decided that the Department of Social Welfare should consider training a corps of people to become expert in means testing, with a view to introducing a uniform system of means testing.
The report referred to the term “deserted wife” and suggested that it was not the best description; it suggested that perhaps the term “abandoned spouse” would be better. Senator O'Brien questioned whether there would be any improvement with that term and I am afraid I would have to agree with him. It does, I suppose, get away from the description of a female as a “deserted wife”; the “abandoned spouse” could mean either a man or a woman. I do not think it is very much of an improvement. Certainly, I would agree with the suggestion that the letters “DW” should not be used on the correspondence from the Department.
Ministers should be exhorted to seek out and appoint at least one, and preferably more, women to boards under their aegis each time vacancies arise. Each Minister should set a target for  an increased proportion of women to be appointed to the public bodies for which they are responsible. Nominating bodies should be encouraged by Ministers to include women nominees. A Public Appointments Unit should be considered.
Finally, I would like to mention again this suggestion of affirmative action where the Minister or his Department would go through the code looking for areas where it is possible to legislate positively in favour of women. This should be ongoing. The Minister, being a woman, recognises the problems in this whole area, perhaps in a better way than men. I am hopeful that something positive will be done in all the suggested areas in the future.
Once again I want to congratulate the committee on a fine report and on the hard work that went into it. I look forward to the Minister's response and also I look forward to future reports from this committee.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mrs. Hussey): Let me say, first of all that I am glad to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. The subject matter of the report is an extremely important one. The report has raised a number of very important and difficult issues and I want to pay tribute to the work of the committee. I assure the House that the views expressed in the report and the contributions made during the course of the present debate will be taken fully into account in the context of the ongoing development of the social welfare system. I was most impressed with the work of the committee on education, the first area it tackled. It strikes me that the joint committee appear to be following me around Ministeries and I am wondering what I and they will be doing next.
I see this discussion as being particularly opportune in that the Report of the Commission on Social Welfare which was  established to examine and report on the social welfare system as a whole, is expected to be completed in the near future. That report will set the scene for the future development of the system and many of the issues raised in the joint committee's report have been addressed by the commission. The joint committee's report, in so far as it represents the views of people who, as public representatives, are in close and frequent contact with social welfare recipients must form an important input to the general debate on the future of the system which will take place following the commission's report.
As far as the general situation of Women vis-a-vis the social welfare system is concerned, there is no doubt that there are many aspects of the system which require review. The system was devised in an era when the place of women in society was regarded much differently from today and where the place of married women was to be the homemaker dependent on her husband who was the breadwinner. Many of the rules and conventions underlying the system are a reflection of this basic attitude and that is, perhaps, understandable.
Another feature of the system as far as women specifically are concerned is the number of schemes which apply to women in different categories of need. Apart from the obvious case of widow's pensions there are schemes for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and prisoners' wives under which the rates and conditions of payment are, as for widows' pensions, more favourable than for other categories of social welfare recipients. These schemes have grown up in a fairly piecemeal way in response to needs as perceived at different times.
One of the problems which arises, however, and it is a problem which is illustrated in a number of the joint committee's recommendations, is that when you have a number of schemes catering for specific categories of persons, there may be other persons who do not fall into one of these specific categories and are, therefore, not covered by these schemes  even though their needs might be similar. The joint committee referred in particular to deserted husbands. This general question also arises in relation to the various “free schemes” as they are called — free electricity allowance and so on — where entitlement depends on receipt of certain types of payments and where persons who are not on those payments are not covered. The argument can, in fact, be made that what is needed is one overall system of social security provision covering all persons in need on the same basis, rather than a large number of different schemes for different categories. This general question is one which will no doubt be addressed by the commission in its report. I am very much looking forward to hearing what they have to say about it.
Apart altogether from the changes which will arise out of the commission's report there are a number of major changes in the system which are due to come into operation in the near future and which will change the system significantly as it affects women. As a number of these changes are also referred to in the report of the joint committee I would like to refer to them in some detail here.
I want to refer to the implementation of the EC directive on equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security. This was mentioned by many speakers, most recently by Senator Fitzsimons. The joint committee's report refers to the delay in implementing the EC Directive and this was referred to also by Senator Mary Robinson in her contribution to this debate. The Act giving effect to equal treatment was passed last July but it has not been possible to implement its provisions. Senators will be aware of the circumstances underlying this delay. Essentially the view taken by one of the staff unions concerned, that the implementation of the equality provisions cannot go ahead until certain staffing issues are resolved. I am glad to say now, however, that agreement has been reached on the implementation of those aspects of equal treatment which are not dependent on additional staffing. These are the abolition of the special  reduced rates of certain benefits which apply to married women and secondly the extension of the maximum benefit from 312 days to 390 days, thus bringing it into line with the arrangements for applicants generally. The legislation to give effect to these changes will be included in the forthcoming Social Welfare Bill which was published today.
The implementation of the remaining aspects of equal treatment, namely the abolition of the restrictions on married women in regard to applying for unemployment assistance and the revision of the conditions for entitlement to increases in payments for dependants, depends on additional staff being allocated, new work procedures being devised and staff training. I can assure the House that I will be doing my utmost to see that the problems in this area are resolved so that the equal treatment provisions can be implemented at an early date. The full implementation of the equal treatment legislation will eradicate the forms of discrimination which existed in regard to women and will treat them as individuals in their own right than as dependants and as such will be a major development in the system as it affects women.
The joint committee noted in their report that the EC directive on equal treatment was due to be implemented by December 1984 and the question of retrospective payments going back to December 1984 was raised. As the House will know, legal proceedings have been instituted in the High Court in regard to this question and the legal issues raised have been referred to the European Court of Justice for an interpretation. Obviously I cannot say at this point what the judgment of the court will be on this matter. However, as the House will know, the equal treatment package as embodied in the legislation contains elements which involve reduced entitlements in certain cases arising from the redefinition of the adult dependancy concept and the ending of the existing presumption  that any married woman living with her husband is automatically a dependant. The equal treatment package therefore must be seen as a whole and as retrospection cannot arise in the case of those elements of the package which involve reduced entitlement, providing it on the other elements would not appear to be justified. Unwelcome as this aspect may be to any or all of us, it is nevertheless highly relevant.
The joint committee were also concerned that the implementation of the equal treatment legislation to which I have already referred would not cause any family on low income to suffer undue hardship. The new concept of adult dependant as provided for in the Social Welfare (No. 2) Act, 1985 is based on a spouse being wholly or mainly maintained by the beneficiary. This will cause some families to suffer a drop in household income as a spouse in employment or on benefit will no longer be deemed an adult dependant. Some 170,000 payments made each week include increases for adult dependants and about 20,000 of these will be affected by the new concept of adult dependant. Some 12,000 of these dependants are in employment and the remainder are in receipt of a social welfare payment. In recognition of the hardship that would result in these families where the spouses income is low, the Act contained provision for alleviating measures to be drawn up. The first measure provides for a £10 bonus to be paid each week for a transitional period where both spouses are in receipt of social welfare payments. The second measure will allow a spouse who is earning less than £50 per week to continue to be regarded as an adult dependant.
Another matter raised in the report which is also relevant in the context of equal treatment is the matter of discriminatory questioning of applicants for unemployment benefit or assistance to ascertain whether they are available for and seeking work. The report alleges discrimination against women in this area particularly in questioning them about the care of their children in the event of  their obtaining work. Any such discrimination would of course be contrary to the EC directive and I am particularly concerned that any discrimination of this kind which may exist should be done away with.
The availability for work condition is, of course, fundamental to our unemployment payment schemes. Furthermore child care responsibilities can and do affect availability for work in individual cases and questions must be asked in each case. I do not think anybody denies this. The objection which has been made concerns the manner of questioning and the drawing of different conclusions depending on whether the applicant is a man or a woman.
In the course of the discussion of the legislation to introduce equality of treatment into the social welfare code, the previous Minister gave commitments that the necessary steps would be taken to ensure that in the future all conditions relating to entitlement to unemployment benefit, and all inquiries made in connection with these conditions, are applied impartially as to sex. I would like to renew this commitment. New guidelines are at present being prepared for the staff administering the unemployment payment schemes explaining clearly the requirements of the EC directive that no discrimination either in laws or administrative provisions is permissible and that in applying availability for work criteria there must be no discrimination on the basis of sex, either directly or by reference to marital status, in questions asked or conclusions drawn.
Another major development in the social welfare system as it affects women in particular will be the introduction of the child benefit scheme. The intention of this scheme is to draw together the various different forms of financial support for children—children's allowances, child tax allowances, increases for children  under the various social welfare schemes and the family income supplement scheme. The new scheme will unify State support towards the cost of rearing children so that each family will get one single payment per child per month and one of the main effects of the scheme will be to put substantially more money into the hands of mothers whose work is in the home. When fully implemented the scheme will be of the greatest benefit to families on the lowest income because of its redistributive effect.
The redistributive impact of the scheme will be achieved essentially through making the child benefit itself taxable. However, for administrative and technical reasons it is not possible to introduce a full taxable scheme in 1986. As a first step, therefore, the Government have decided to introduce a nontaxable scheme from April 1986. Under this scheme a benefit of £12.05 per month will be paid for each of the first five children. This rate will be increased to £21.75 per month for each subsequent child. These payments will not be taxable.
The child benefit scheme now being introduced is a first step in the direction of achieving a redistribution of resources to families most in need. Three-quarters of all families in the State will be at least as well off under the new scheme as under the existing schemes and many thousands, including families depending on social welfare payments, will in fact be better off.
These are the main developments which will be taking place over the coming months affecting the position of women in the social welfare system. There are, of course, many other areas which require review and the joint committees' report highlights a number of them.
In the section on women in the home the report discusses the question of single women living alone or caring for an aged relative and refers in particular in this regard to the single woman's allowance scheme, which is payable at present subject to a means test to single women aged between 58 and 66 who are not in receipt of any other social welfare  payment, and to the prescribed relative allowance scheme. I agree that this whole area is one which needs to be looked at to ensure in particular that adequate arrangements are made for women who are looking after aged relatives and who are dependent on the social welfare system for their own means of support. Whether it would be possible to go as far as recommended by the joint committee would depend on the resources available to us.
The single woman's allowance scheme when introduced in 1974 was intended to provide a basic income to women who had no other source of income but at the same time did not have the minimum number of social insurance contributions which were then required to qualify them for unemployment assistance. The scheme is, therefore, based closely on the conditions of the unemployment assistance scheme. The rate of single woman's allowance was originally linked to the rate of unemployment assistance. However, over the years the allowance has been treated as a long term payment and has benefited from the higher level of budget increases applied in recent years to such payments.
The current maximum weekly rate of single woman's allowance is £37.65—£39.15 from July 1986—which is higher than the maximum weekly long term unemployment assistance rate of £34.95—£36.70 from July 1986. There are approximately 2,500 women in receipt of the allowance and a significant proportion of these would be women who are looking after aged relatives.
The prescribed relatives allowance is an increase in pension payable to certain categories of pensioners under very specific conditions. To qualify for the allowance the pensioner must be so incapacitated as to require full time care and attention and have a prescribed relative living with him or her solely for the purpose of providing that full time care and attention. Apart from the prescribed relative the pensioner must be living alone or only with a child or an incapacitated person.
When the scheme was introduced in  January 1969 it was confined to cases where a qualified pensioner was being cared for on a full time basis by a daughter or step-daughter who actually gave up longstanding insurable employment for that purpose. The scheme has been expanded over the years by widening the categories of pensioners covered and by extending the definition of prescribed relative. Nevertheless, the purpose of the scheme is still a limited one, and the conditions applying to the scheme effectively restrict payment to cases where the relative providing the care and attention has no independent means of support. There are about 2,300 allowances in payment.
There have been a number of suggestions to the effect that the PRA should be paid direct to the person providing the care and attention to the pensioner rather than as an increase of pension to the pensioner i.e., that the payment would become a payment for the provision of a service. This is also the joint committee's view and I would have a great deal of sympathy with it. It is undoubtedly the case that the persons concerned are providing a very important service and in many cases obviating the need for institutional care of the pensioners concerned.
I would hope that the question of payments for persons looking after aged relations, including the PRA scheme and the single women's allowance scheme which is also relevant to this question will receive particular attention in the report of the Social Welfare Commission. The restrictive conditions underlying the PRA scheme would also be examined in that context. If the PRA were to become a payment for a service and as such payable direct to the carer rather than an increase in pension the question of abolishing the other restrictive provisions of the scheme, including the requirement to have no other adult in the house, would also arise. There would be significant financial implications in any proposals of this nature but it is an area that I would like to have examined in the light of the commission's report.
A number of recommendations are made in the report in relation to the  deserted wife's scheme, seeking in particular the abolition of the three months waiting period, the payment of maintenance on foot of court orders to be made through the Department of Social Welfare and the abolition of the use of the term deserted wife in official documents. Perhaps I might say a few words first of all about the reasons underlying the three months waiting period before deserted wives become entitled to payment.
One of the criteria by which it is established that the wife is in fact deserted is that the husband has wilfully refused or neglected to support his family and that the wife has made reasonable efforts to trace him and — or obtain support from him. It is very difficult in many cases, as I am sure the House will appreciate, to establish whether desertion has actually occurred and detailed investigations are often required to establish the facts. There is also the consideration that a certain time should be allowed to enable the family to get back together again, if possible. It was felt, therefore, when the scheme was introduced that there should be a waiting period before the situation was accepted as being irrevocable bearing in mind that, during the waiting period, it would be open to the wife to claim supplementary welfare allowance in any case where she is in need.
These are the sorts of considerations which underlie the scheme as it now exists. The committee make a number of proposals for liberalising the conditions under which payments are made under the scheme. As the House will know — and there has been reference here to it — this scheme and also the unmarried mother's allowance scheme have come under a considerable amount of attention in recent times, mainly, I may say, directed at the alleged abuse of the scheme by women who, for example, are said to be in receipt of deserted wife's benefit or allowance though not in fact deserted but able to arrange their affairs so that they appear to be so.
The question of social welfare fraud was mentioned specifically by Senator M. Higgins in his contribution to the debate.  He referred in particular to an article in the Irish Independent where highly speculative estimates were made of the extent of this problem.
It is clear of course to anybody reading the article closely that the figures quoted are speculative. However, the problem is, as Senator Higgins says, that articles of this kind may contribute to an anti-welfare mentality and this is something which I, too, strongly deprecate, and which was deprecated by Senator Fitzsimons earlier this afternoon.
Various figures are being bandied about in recent times which are, I emphasise again, pure speculation. The only factual information which I can give is that, of the various individual cases which were investigated during 1985 over the Department's services as a whole, it is estimated that some 4,000 of them involved an element of intended fraud and that the total amount of overpayments involved in these cases is in the region of £3 million. Investigations are still under way in many of these cases and a number have been or are being prosecuted.
These are the only factual figures available. The Department are very conscious of the need to combat fraud in the social welfare system, subject to the resources available and to the need to strike a balance between fraud prevention and making sure that procedures are not such as to cause undue delay in making payment to genuine cases.
It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to estimate what is the level of fraud at any time and any attempt to do so must be based largely on conjecture. Many social welfare schemes are, of course, open to manipulation and every effort must be made to eradicate fraud where it exists in the system. This should not, however, lead us to abandon basic elements of the system or to make the system a less caring one for people in genuine need.
I have taken note of the proposals made by the Joint Committee for improvements in the deserted wife's schemes. As far as the proposal to abolish the term “deserted wife” in official documents is concerned, a number of Senators  expressed doubts about the suitability of the alternative term suggested in the report, namely “abandoned spouse” and I must say I would share these doubts. The term “deserted wife” is one which has been legally defined and is used throughout the legislation. However, while the legislation refers to deserted wives, the term “social assistance allowance” is used on the order books and vouchers for the schemes of deserted wives payments, unmarried mothers' allowance, prisoners' wives allowance and single women's allowance. The Joint Committee recommended the ending of the practice of using the letters DW on official envelopes. This has now been done and the letters are also being discontinued in the numbering system so that they will no longer appear on payment vouchers.
The joint committee also recommend that payment of maintenance on foot of court orders should be made through the Department of Social Welfare. In this connection I should mention that, in the normal course of events, where a maintenance order is made, the court will direct that all payments under the order be made through the District Court clerk except where the maintenance creditor, normally the wife, requests otherwise and the court so consents. The latest information available to me indicates that roughly half of all maintenance orders are paid through the District Court clerk and that in most of these cases payments are made regularly.
Undoubtedly difficulties do arise in certain cases and while it is by no means certain that defaulting husbands would be any less likely to default on payments to the Department of Social Welfare the suggestion made by the Oireachtas joint committee is being examined within the Department to see if some form of arrangement might be possible to ease the problem. There is a further reason which prompts action in this area and that is that there is, I believe, a general consensus that deserting husbands should not be allowed to evade their responsibilities  to their wives and families as many of them may succeed in doing at present.
The whole area of social assistance allowances which include deserted wife's payments, is a matter which will have to receive detailed attention in the report of the Commission on Social Welfare and I am looking forward to having the commission's recommendations in this area.
There are, as Senators will be aware, two maternity allowance schemes. The general scheme provides an allowance for 12 weeks, the weekly rate of which goes up to £41.10 from July and with which pay-related benefit is also payable. Entitlement depends on the woman having at least 26 weeks of paid insurance since entry into employment and 26 contributions paid or credited in the previous contribution year.
A new maternity allowance scheme was introduced in 1981. It arose from the Maternity (Protection of Employees) Act, 1981. That Act provides 14 weeks maternity leave for women in full time employment and also provides for women to resume work with the same employer at the end of the maternity leave. The maternity allowance for women in employment is designed to ensure that women in employment who are on maternity leave are fully compensated for loss of earnings after all deductions are taken into account.
The formula devised when the new scheme was introduced, taking account of tax and other deducations at that time, was for payment of an allowance of 80 per cent of gross reckonable earnings. This was calculated to be equivalent to net take-home pay. This percentage was reduced in 1984 to 70 per cent and this reduction comes in for critical comment in the committee's report. Therefore it is necessary to explain the background to it.
It became evident that because of changes which had occurred after 1981 in tax and other deductions, the original  formula could provide levels of benefit which were very much higher than was intended. In fact the continued use of the 80 per cent factor in 1983 meant an effective replacement rate of 110 per cent of take-home pay. This was the reason for the reduction from 80 per cent to 70 per cent. It did not involve a change in the original basis of the scheme as the application of the 70 per cent factor from April 1984 meant that women would still receive the equivalent of their normal take-home pay.
The maternity allowance schemes were intended to cover working women for the period that they were unable to work and were therefore at a financial loss around the time of childbirth. They only apply therefore to women who have a recent record of insurable employment. I sympathise with the committee's view that maternity payments should be extended to all women regardless of their insured or uninsured status. An extension of this kind would, however cost around £16 million a year.
In the section on older women the joint committee called for an increase in the rates of payment of contributory and non-contributory old age and widows pensions together with a progressive reduction in the qualifying age for old age pension to 60. The Government have already given a firm commitment that, despite the gravity of the recession and its impact on social welfare expenditure, they will endeavour to maintain the living standards of all people who depend on social welfare for their needs. The national plan, Building on Reality 1985-1987 reiterated the Government's commitment to keep long term payments at least in line with inflation and short term unemployment and disability payments in line with take-home pay. Since mid-1983, including this year's budget increases, long term social welfare recipients have received a compound increase of 32.7 per cent while the estimated increase in the consumer price index for the period mid-1983 to mid-1987 is 23.3 per cent. This represents an increase in real terms of 7.6 per cent and very clearly  demonstrates the Government's concern for the financial position of pensioners. The general question of a reduction in the qualifying age for old age pensions is being reviewed in the context of the proposals for a national pension plan which are currently being drawn up in my Department.
The report also proposes that married women over age 66 who remained at home should be entitled to receive a non-contributory pension in their own right and should not be regarded as dependants of their spouses. Married women over 66 years of age are already, of course, entitled to apply in their own right for the non-contributory old age pension. This pension is means tested and the married woman's means are deemed to be half of the joint means of the couple. The question of payment of the dependants' portion of a pension direct to dependants of pensionable age by way of a pension in their own right is also a matter which is being considered in the context of the proposals for a national pension plan.
The report of the joint committee also drew attention to the fact that widows under 66 years of age whose husbands died over that age cannot retain the free electricity allowance to which their husbands were entitled. The free electricity allowance, as with the various other free schemes operated by the Department, is designed essentially to cover the aged and the permanently incapacitated. There are anomalies in these schemes and there is considerable pressure to extend entitlements to groups not covered at present. The extension of free electricity to widows under 66 whose husbands died over this age would obviously raise the question of extending the scheme to cover all widows as otherwise we would have the further anomaly that widows of equal means would have different entitlements. Aside from these considerations there is also the question of cost. Extension of the free schemes to widows would cost in the region of £6.7 million annually at current costs.
A further recommendation of the Oireachtas joint committee was that the  interpretation of the term “living alone” would not preclude old people from having a friend or relative stay with them at night time. The living alone allowance was introduced in 1977 in recognition of the additional costs which pensioners living on their own have to meet when compared with the shared costs of a couple on such living expenses as rent, heating, lighting, cooking and so on. There is no qualification of the term living alone in the Social Welfare Acts or regulations. In general, however, payment of the allowance would not be affected if the pensioner is aged and infirm and has a relative stay for company only at night time, or where relatives come to stay at weekends. Other instances in which the allowance would be paid include pensioners who reside alone during the day and go to stay with relatives at night time, or pensioners living in self-contained apartments within a main house.
The joint committee recommend an improvement in administration procedures in the Department including the acceleration of the process of computerisation to ensure a more speedy and efficient service to the public and I would like to make a number of comments in this regard.
Each week the Department of Social Welfare make some 1.4 million payments and process some 25,000 new claims. There has been a huge growth in the workload due to the effects of the recession at a time when the Government's policy on civil service manning levels has been and continues to be very restrictive. However, the Department's computerisation programme is resulting in significant administrative savings and substantially higher productivity.
Computerisation was introduced in the Department of Social Welfare initially to deal with records and payments in relation to pay-related benefit and has been extended to handle all records arising under the PRSI system and all disability benefit payments. Other areas of the Department's operations which have been computerised include the bulk issue  of children's allowance books and allowance books for recipients of old age non-contributory pensions as well as the calculation of payments under the family income supplement scheme.
The Department's computer development programme, over the coming years, will make a major contribution to more effective and efficient day-to-day administration, including better retrieval and communication of information in individual cases. Computer terminals have been installed in a number of public offices of the Department. Since the beginning of 1983 visual display terminals connected to the Department's computers have been installed in 23 offices of the Department around the country. This computer system enables information regarding disability benefit, maternity allowance, occupational injury benefit and associated pay-related benefit claims and payments to be available on the visual display units at the local offices of the Department. This enables staff to establish the most up-to-date position regarding claims in response to queries from members of the public. Over the coming years computing facilities will be extended to other areas to assist with the increasing workload and to replace obsolete systems.
The recent reorganisation of the Department through the setting up of the social welfare services office is intended to improve the quality of delivery of services to the Department's clients. By having the office solely concerned with the operation of the various social welfare schemes and separating it from the Department, it will enable those who are responsible for the delivery of services to concentrate more fully on effective management and the provision of the efficient and speedy delivery of services.
In conclusion, I am grateful to the joint committee for this report and for the opportunity of coming here to discuss at least some of the main recommendations made in the report. While I have not specifically addressed all of the recommendations, I would like to say that I have read them with great interest and will consider them further. The extent to  which individual recommendations can be implemented depends of course on a number of factors, not least the financial implications. We must face the fact that the additional resources which would be required to bring about the changes in the social welfare system which many of us might like to see, in terms of removing all of the anomalies and providing adequate protection for all categories of people in need, would be very substantial.
Increasing population levels alone will put enormous strain on the social welfare system in the coming decades. The only realistic approach may involve looking at the system as a whole, eliminating dual payments where they exist and redirecting resources within the system from groups or categories of lesser need in order to ensure that everybody in genuine need is adequately catered for. This will undoubtedly involve difficult choices but these choices will have to be made if we are to have a social welfare system which is adequate to the needs of the 21st century. The process of debate on these issues will begin following the report of the Commission on Social Welfare and I am looking forward to that debate with interest. I would like again to express my appreciation for the committee's efforts and to say that their recommendations will be taken fully into account in the context of the forthcoming review of the social welfare system.
Professor Dooge: In concluding the debate on this motion there is very little need for me to say anything since the Minister has thoroughly reviewed, in her intervention, the main issues that have been raised. As I indicated in my contribution, and as has been echoed by the Minister in her contribution, there will be an opportunity for a full scale debate on this and other topics when the report of the Commission on Social Welfare is available. Nevertheless, it has been extremely useful to have this debate which has run over three sitting days so that we could focus on the specific problems that have arisen in the area  of particular entitlements of women. As the Minister said, I think we have been fortunate that some of the main problems have been highlighted by the committee and have been dealt with in what I think we can all agree has been a most useful debate.
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