Tuesday, 25 March 1986
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. J. Higgins: Prior to the Adjournment, I remarked that there was a great deal of validity in the points raised by Senator Jack Harte in relation to the need to speed up decisions in the first place and the appeals process in the second place. I agree that something will have to be done in order to expedite the awarding of unemployment assistance to married women. I also agree with much of what Senator Michael Smith said. He made a number of points about the huge ageing population who are about to come on stream. I would not agree with one point because the demographic patterns show that the under 25 year olds and people who are already within the entitlement rate for pensions are the two problem areas. The middle age structures are quite small.
I agree with Senator Smith that the social welfare system is a whole jumble of bits and pieces that needs radical overhaul and restructuring. Bits and pieces have been added here and there with the result that to the common man the system has become largely unintelligible. It needs to be overhauled and made more intelligible and rational.
I also agree with Senator Smith that a ridiculous amount of time in terms of manpower hours and finance in terms of travelling, additional correspondence and the appeals process etc. are utilised in assessing the relatively small number of people who come within the scope of the small farmer's dole scheme. It is ridiculous to spend hours carrying out a detailed examination and surveillance of the entitlements of these people who live in small, substandard, uneconomic holdings in the west.
Senator Fitzsimons made a number of points about the plight of the unemployed. We all share his concern in that regard. However, he seemed to deride the introduction of temporary employment schemes such as the teamwork  scheme, the youth employment scheme, the social employment scheme and implied that they tended to cloak the real figure which, in fact, rather than being in the area of 238,000 is in the region of 300,000. I submit that the real figure for unemployed people is far less in real terms than 238,000. Many people — I am not talking about small farmers in the west — are drawing benefit while at the same time working. It remains to be seen if a thorough assessment of who gets what entitlement will unearth the truth in that area.
Senator Fitzsimons said it is tragic that emigration seems to be on the increase. We share his concern in that regard. Emigration is not a new phenomenon. Even though it has increased somewhat it is nothing in comparison with the emigration figures of yesteryear. As I said before in this House I come from an area in the west which is served by a train service. In the thirties, forties and fifties there were four trains per day in an easterly direction. As they used to say at home we had two engines, one pushing and the other pulling its human consignment to its cross-channel destination.
Mr. J. Higgins: It does not. At least when we send them abroad now we send them better equipped, better educated and with a certain confidence in the knowledge that they have a right to seek employment and that they can hold their heads high by virtue of their level of education attainment among their peers anywhere in the world. It does not make it right. I concede that point.
Senator Fitzsimons made a very valid point in his call for a relaxation of the regulations. People signing for unemployment benefit or assistance should be allowed to attend day classes. There is little point in having people brooding in a flat or a house, in front of the television set or in a pub, when they could be employing their time usefully, updating their antiquated education, or equipping  themselves for some further job opportunities that could come their way. In Britain special courses are provided for such people. That is the type of feature we should look at with a view to introducing it and integrating it into our social welfare system.
I welcome the Minister's remarks on the updating of technology within the Department of Social Welfare. I welcome the information that there is increased computerisation and that it is intended to go further down that road in the future. The Minister makes the point that there are 20 offices with visual display units where a local advice officer, with the switch of a button or the turning of a dial, can find out immediately what a person's problem is and expedite its rectification. I am not sure whether there are any in our county, but that is the type of development which should be extended on a wide scale throughout the country.
I welcome the child benefit scheme. I see it as providing some measure of equilibrium for people whose incomes are below the norm. I also welcome another feature of the Social Welfare Bill which is that there is no increase in the level of employees' PRSI contributions. Like other people who have spoken so far and like the Minister in her opening address, I look forward to the report of the Commission on Social Welfare. There are many areas which require radical overhauling. We hope that our expectations in this regard will not be disappointed. There are a number of anomalies. They have already been well addressed by Senator Smith, Senator Fitzsimons and Senator A. O'Brien. One anomaly which I hope will be addressed by the social welfare commission is the fact that UK citizens who are drawing invalidity pension here are deemed ineligible for free ESB, free telephone etc. This should be tackled because people who qualify for invalidity pension within the social welfare code in this country have such entitlements.
I welcome the appointment of Deputy Hussey to the post of Minister for Social  Welfare. She has the necessary courage, foresight, vision and determination to undertake the necessary overhaul in the area. It is a challenging Department. It is a massive Department. She has the necessary qualifications to do the job.
Some features about the various entitlements this year are very encouraging. They were encouraging when the Bill was published and when they were announced in the budget by the Minister for Finance in January because not alone did they underpin the standard of living of social welfare beneficiaries but they more than kept pace with inflation. Recent developments, particularly the cost of oil imports and predictions in relation to inflation further underlined the real benefit of these increases. The 4 per cent increase which seemed relatively generous in the budget will be far more generous when seen in the light of the fact that it is generally predicted inflation will be at a sub-zero rate this year. I welcome the commitment to a 5 per cent increase in unemployment assistance which, as the Minister stated, is a recognition by the Government of the special consideration required for the long term unemployed.
I suggest that the Minister should consider the possibility of mobilising the massive labour force in the unemployed lists at present. We are talking about 238,000 people who every week voluntarily sign on and classify themselves as being ready, able and willing to work, Indeed most of them are in active pursuit of jobs. There is a massive untapped resource there and we need many more schemes like the social employment scheme to try to tap the latent energy, unutilised, that is there. Many people now signing for unemployment assistance and benefit, just as they did in the social employment scheme, would welcome the opportunity of being given the dignity of work, taking spades in their hands to do a day's work, provided the Department could see their way to topping up the allowance.
For those reasons, I sometimes think there are division within Departments in regard to flexibility or mobility of resources between different Departments. There is much work to be done in this  regard. I should like to see a monitoring or a cost benefit analysis of some social employment schemes, particularly large ones, to try to determine the net gain to the economy of people being given £10, £20 or £30 extra to do a day's work or a couple of day's work or a week's work whatever the scale of the operation might be.
I welcome section 8 which provides for the taking on of additional employees, and employers will no longer have the burden of PRSI payments, redundancy, health or other contributions thrust on them for the first 12 months. The Minister has spelled out in economic terms the net gain to the employer in this case. That is a type of initiative that is long overdue.
I will digress to refer to an item the Minister referred to in her speech which I do not agree with. She said: “All too often we hear about the delays in social welfare cases, and we as public representatives frequently are asked to intervene on behalf of particular individuals. There is a tendency to generalise on the basis of specific cases.” To me there is an implied criticism in that, that public representatives very often hold up the process by making the system more cumbersome and causing delays through their representations on behalf of client constituents.
We do not go soliciting our clients about particular grouses or gripes they have in relation to the working of the social welfare system. People come to us because of the unintelligible nature of the social welfare system and we are compelled, and obliged, we have the onus thrust on us, to try to unravel the morass of the social welfare system. This seems to reecho a disquieting statement I saw recently in one of the daily newspapers in relation to the role of the Ombudsman. There was criticism from the Department of Social Welfare that the Ombudsman was taking up the cudgels on behalf of people unnecessarily. The defence I have made today in relation to my position and that of other public representatives should be re-echoed by the Ombudsman in his own defence.
The major anomaly I see in the social  welfare system is in relation to the whole area, dealt with very often both here and in the Dáil, of smallholders' assistance. There were approximatley 30,700 of those people in 1982. As a result of a High Court decision in relation to a person's liability for rates on land taken by the IFA on behalf of farmers in County Wexford this system, which was notional, based on the PLV, was deemed to be unconstitutional. Having been struck down, it was replaced by a system known as “factual assessment”. I have no objection to the factual assessment provided it is factual, but when you are going after people on meagre holdings and wasting resources and manpower which could be better used uncovering fraudulent activities in more lucrative areas, the whole matter requires reappraisal.
The factual system takes into consideration every penny and pound that is earned, without any exemption whatever — as far as I am aware this is the only kind of social welfare that has not got some form of exemption. There is something seriously wrong there. It is demoralising and a gross disincentive to introduce such a system. I feel genuinely concerned for people in the west of Ireland who find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. It would be different if in tandem with withdrawing the social welfare entitlement from them the Minister was to introduce eligibility for them for the farm modernisation scheme, farm improvement scheme, etc. This has not happened and I notice that the long-awaited establishment of grants for people who wish to transfer land from father to son and in which they can get a lump sum of £5,000 to be put towards cheap borrowing facilities for another £5,600, applies only if the farm has only one MWU. I did not know whether MWU meant Manchester United or something else when I saw it first, but the Minister of State informed me that it stands for a one man working unit, which in real terms means that in order to qualify for this type of grant aid a person must have between 50 and 60 cows.
Therefore, I plead with the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department  to look again at the small farmers' dole. People are being cut out. It is a total disincentive and at the same time they are being cut out from grant aid. It is a misnomer to call those people unemployment assistance applicants or recipients. They are not unemployed by any stretch of the imagination. They are more than fully employed, living on sub-standard holdings trying to eke out an existence, but because of the poor quality of the land the amount of effort and energy that has to be expended on it is much greater than on larger, more economic, richer types of pasture.
Mr. J. Higgins: I would agree entirely. The whole theory of this type of benefit is that it is an income supplement to maintain the population and social fabric of the west, of rural and disadvantaged areas. I am pleading with the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department to see it as such, to restore it to those people from whom it has been taken and restructure the scheme completely. I would suggest the following areas that warrant investigation. First, it should be removed from the Department of Social Welfare and be operated by the Department of Agriculture. Second, there should be no signing on at the local Garda barracks. Third, it should have a new, dignified name. Rather than small farmers' dole call it a small farm development farm, or small farm incentive scheme. Furthermore, there is scope for its radical overhaul, drawing parallels with schemes introduced by the Department of Labour last year. For example, the thinking behind the enterprise allowance scheme is that somebody can draw a full year's dole in advance for investment purposes, to provide the necessary capital to get an enterprise off the ground. If the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Social Welfare could see their way to giving individual small farmers two or three  years' dole as a lump sum, in advance, it would lift them out of the quagmire once and for all.
I might reiterate that, despite instructions having been given to social welfare officers to notify people in advance, this is not being done in all cases. There are still unannounced visits by social welfare officers. Instructions were issued to social welfare officers to carry out a detailed, in-depth, meticulous analysis of the A, B and C of farm income and, more importantly as far as we are concerned, farm expenditure. On any small farm there are 38, 39, possibly 40 areas of expenditure components in the making up of that farm income, some small, some major. They are not being taken into consideration at present. For example, when one examines the report that comes back from the Department of Social Welfare one finds a figure in relation to tractor diesel. But one will find no allowance having been made in respect of tractor tax, servicing, maintenance or insurance. Anybody who has any knowledge of farming, in the west or elsewhere, will know — particularly where there are fragmented holdings that a car is an absolute necessity in order to carry on one's occupation, particularly so where there is gross fragmentation, as we have in the west.
Though there was a certain amount of flexibility in this regard when the scheme was restructured, I notice an increasing tendency toward non-recognition of the car element. Even where there is no fragmentation a car has to be used for going to town, to the creamery and for the ordinary routine procedures that are part and parcel of farming activity. I should like to know why the concession in relation to a car seems to have been withdrawn. Again, in relation to car costs, I submit that not alone should petrol be taken into consideration but tax, insurance and servicing also. I am not advocating 100 per cent but an element proportionate to the degree of usage of the car. Items such as farm clothing, ESB bills and many of the other items that constitute farm costs are not being taken into consideration. The result is that we have in the west a population that feel  deprived, are brooding, feel restenful and feel genuinely hard done by. If the small farmers' dole scheme is withdrawn in toto, then unless it is replaced by a rational system — and I am asking for a dignified, sensible system to replace it — we will see the annihilation of western communities, when, I would submit, we can close down half of many of our rural towns in the west.
I am not exaggerating when I say that people are bitter and bewildered. I emphasise that there is ample scope here to re-deploy the system's provisions and moneys. The Department of Agriculture should then introduce a modest farm development scheme, in consultation with ACOT advisers, social welfare officers, reverting to some form of notional income or assessment. While the PLV has been turned down in terms of determining people's liability I do not see that there can be any objection to using it for determining people's entitlements pro tem. Eventually, if one wants to readjust it on the basis of the adjusted acre, whenever that is introduced — and it will be a long time before they get to the west in that regard — it would constitute a new notional basis on which to base the small farmer's dole.
I welcome the Bill. I believe the level of increase is good, and is considerably enhanced by recent economic announcements in relation to inflation and oil prices. Indeed, it offers the Minister a considerable challenge and one with which I hope she will grapple.
Mrs. Robinson: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill which implements the budget changes in social welfare services. I note that in her speech the Minister opened up quite a far-ranging debate. She appeared to wish to have the House reflect on the general underlying issues of our approach to social welfare. In that context she referred to the forthcoming report of the Commission on Social Welfare. I should like to make a number of comments on the Minister's speech in this regard.
First, I felt there was a lack of urgency  in the way in which she referred to the broader issues and to the forthcoming report of the Commission on Social Welfare. As has been noted, her speech is not paginated but, in referring to the commission she simply stated:
I may be unfair to the Minister in seeing in that a lack of a sense of urgency and importance. But one of the difficulties in establishing a commission such as the commission which has been studying this matter for a couple of years now, is the time lag that can ensue once the commission has reported. The report will undoubtedly be of great importance and significance, but will require urgent, immediate attention at Government level. I would have preferred if the Minister had indicated an urgent anticipation that the Government are waiting, not just to receive and then ponder on the report of the commission, but to take it and run with it with a view to implementing — in the lifetime of this Government — the broad range of proposals, presumably on the basis that they would be acceptable to the Government. In other words, that it will not be like the Committee on Marriage Breakdown.
That committee reported this time last year, and we have seen what happened — a very desultory debate in both Houses of the Oireachtas, better in the Seanad than in the Dáil. Nonetheless, it was a slow debate on such an urgent and important area. There is not a sign of any draft legislation yet on the very many broad recommendations for reform of family law that were contained in that report. Are we going to see legislation in the lifetime of this Government in that area and, more directly and immediately, are we going to see an urgent response to the report of the Commission on Social Welfare?
First, it would be useful if the Minister of State in replying to this debate could  indicate when the report will be due. We have heard quite a bit in recent months in various debates, including the debate on the report of the women's committee on social welfare, that the report is due shortly, but at this stage it would be desirable that we know specifically when the report will be due. That is my first broad comment. I would like to see more urgency. I would like to know when the commission are going to report, and I would like to have a sense that the Government intend, during their remaining span, to introduce broad ranging, radical reforms of our social welfare code.
This brings me to my second general comment on the Minister's speech on introducing the Bill. She raised some issues in relation to apparent consensus on social welfare but there was an ambivalence in that consensus. As I read and reflected on the Minister's remarks I was struck by their rather narrow focus. It does not seem possible to have a radical reform of our approach if it is narrowly within the confines of the existing values that underlie our social welfare code. Let me point to an example in the contribution of Senator Higgins. He is looking for a very different approach to the whole issue of farmers' dole. He wants to transfer it to a different Department. He wants to give it dignity. He wants it to be looked at as part of a development programme. That is a very interesting suggestion which is worthy of further attention but it should not be confined to farmers' dole. There is no reason to forget the other components of the 238,000 unemployed whose profile is so low, whose sense of their own worth and potential for self-development is undermined and negatived by the approach which we adopt to unemployment benefit and assistance, disability and the whole range of welfare benefits. It is time that as a country we looked at the way in which the code impacts on our society and at the moment further divides and stratifies our society. I hope that there will be a substantial element of that in the report of the Commission on Social Welfare. That report is overdue at this  stage. I hope it will be forthcoming in the very near future, that it will be debated in both Houses at least within a month of when it emerges with a view to making progress on the necessary proposals for legislation and that then we will have the legislation which will have to follow on it.
I come to another issue which the Minister touched on briefly and which was raised by other contributors to the debate. That is specific problems in the administration of social welfare and in particular the problem of delay in relation to appeals under the social welfare code. It is worth looking at the “Annual Report of the Ombudsman Ireland 1985” just published because that is one way of monitoring complaints about social welfare. Any public representative is deeply aware of dissatisfaction on the ground and of complaints about delay, but here we have an office and a public official established to monitor complaints against various Department of the Civil Service. It is worth noting that in his report the Ombudsman makes it clear that the reports filed against the Department of Social Welfare comprised by far the largest number of complaints. On page 11 of his report he points out that the total number of complaints to the Ombudsman against the whole range of the Civil Service was 2,881 and of those 1,677 were complaints about the Department of Social Welfare. The next in this league, so to speak, were the Revenue Commissioners at 529 and other Departments had at most a couple of hundred complaints lodged. Therefore, almost half the complaints were against the Department of Social Welfare.
There are two areas selected by the Ombudsman that I want to consider. One is the delay in appeals as being a very serious component of the complaints. He points out some of the reasons for these delays on page 23 of his report, and we should bear these reasons in mind. He says:
During the past year I received a number of complaints about delays in the hearing of oral appeals by Appeals  Officers of the Department of Social Welfare. The hearings themselves take, on average, approximately an hour and the decisions involved are usually notified to claimants soon after the hearings. The main delay is in actually setting up the hearings, particularly in cases occurring outside Dublin. Appeals Officers go “on circuit” on a 3 to 4 week cycle and on each occasion they attempt to fit in as many cases as possible. However, if a case is not taken on a particular “circuit” it has to be put back for the next suitable occasion. In some cases delays can be as long as six months between the date of appeal and the hearing.
He goes on to say that it is not part of his function to look into the operation of the staffing of the appeals branch but he wishes to draw attention to it. It is a matter of concern to this House and we should urge it as being a priority for consideration. It affects a significant number of people. I would like to add something that is not referred to expressly by the Ombudsman. It is the absence of any proper appeals structure at all in relation to supplementary welfare. That is a very serious reflection on our sense of both priorities and how we deal with the most vulnerable section. The 1975 Act which brought in the supplementary welfare system, which is now consolidated in the 1981 Act, provided that the Minister could make regulations establishing an appeals structure. That has never been done. Ten years later there is no appeals system and the matter is dealt with internally administratively. Something very important for lawyers, principles of natural justice, simply do not appear to apply. A person does not know the basis on which his or her appeal is being considered, who is considering it or when it will be considered. Such persons get a one line letter one way or the other or are informed orally of the outcome of the appeal. That is not a satisfactory basis on which to have appeals.
Therefore, there are two areas of concern. One is the fact that the Ombudsman in his report has highlighted the incidence  of delay in relation to social welfare appeals, and the other is the fact that we still have not a proper system. We have no regulations providing for an appeals structure in relation to supplementary welfare which, after all, concerns those who are most vulnerable and whose cases, therefore, should get priority and the best attention. Certainly they should get a proper structure so that they would know where they stand.
The other issue highlighted by the Ombudsman to which I would like to draw attention is the problem of the averaging of pension contributions for old age pensioners. Any public representative is aware of the harsh anomaly and unfairness of this system, and I commend a brief description of it in the report of the Ombudsman. It highlights the nature of the problem. It is unintended, but it is a very harsh problem which affects old age pensioners on contributory pension. They simply do not understand why, as in many cases, where they have contributed more over a longer number of years they disentitle themselves whereas if they contributed only from 1974 onwards rather than in the period before the break between 1953 and 1974, they would be entitled to a contribution. Two people could have worked side by side one of whom was contributing from 1974 on and who will get his contributory pension, the other who had worked longer and had contributed up to 1953 and then came out of the contribution system under the legislation between 1953 and 1974, continued contributing right up to retirement in, say, 1984, and would not be entitled because of the system of averaging contributions. That is well described by the Ombudsman on page 21 of his report where he says:
Under the “averaging” rule in the social welfare system anybody who has paid contributions, or has been awarded credited contributions, between 1953 and 1974 and subsequently applies for a pension, has their total number of contributions “averaged”. The average is arrived at by dividing the total contributions by the  number of years between the date of first contribution and the date of last contribution. If they do not average at least 20 contributions per year they do not qualify for a contributory pension.
This means, of course, that the system favours those who were on higher salaries in the years between 1953 and 1974 and did not as a result pay any contributions. For the purposes of “averaging”, their records would only go back as far as 1974. In effect those who paid less contributions could qualify whereas those who paid more might not.
One of the most remarkable examples of the “averaging” problem was brought to my attention during the year. It concerned a man who failed to obtain a contributory old age pension because he had one stamp in 1953 and had no stamps again until 1976. Yet, the 23 intervening years were used in calculating his average number of contributions per year.
I am aware of similar anomalous harsh cases, cases of blatant unfairness where old age pensioners, or what should be old age pensioners entitled to contribution pensions, are deprived because of this system of averaging.
I do not think that could have been the intention of the Oireachtas in 1953, or in the carry-over provisions which are now consolidated in the 1981 Act. It has been challenged in the courts unsuccessfully and it is back now to the Legislature. Unless this harsh anomaly is redressed, then we will see the very sad and bitter experience of old age applicants being excluded from pensions because of what I believe is an unforeseen harsh anomaly in the law which requires to be changed. I hope that will be changed in the near future.
This brings me to a matter I spoke about recently in the Seanad — I cannot resist an opportunity of referring to it again—and that is the provision in section 2 and Schedule A which will introduce as of 15 May 1986 an equality in relation to unemployment benefit for married  women. I cannot really rejoice or compliment the Government on this. They are 18 months late in their legal obligation and the Bill does not provide for retrospection. What about all the married women who were denied unemployment benefit since December 1984, who have their period of unemployment benefit cut off at 312 days, while all other categories, married men, single men and single women, continue to receive for a period of 390 days? Those women have been deprived of money to which they are legally entitled and I see no evidence of a willingness on the part of the Government to redress that injustice.
In her speech the Minister said she would be introducing a regulation in relation to extending the period of receipt of unemployment benefit to the full 390 days. May we have a specific indication from the Minister as to when that regulation will be adopted? The Directive that we are required to implement was passed in 1978, which means that we had six years before it was legally due to be implemented, December 1984, and we are now in the spring of 1986. I do not see any reason why the Minister has not the regulation ready. I would welcome some indication of when it is to be brought into force and effect.
I would welcome a specific indication of when the other illegal discrimination will be redressed, namely the discrimination against married women on social assistance, and when the provisions of the Social Welfare (No. 2) Act, 1975, will be brought into effect. When will that discrimination be redressed, late and all as that may be? I have already spoken at length in the Seanad on this subject but it is an appalling blight on any claim we might have to be committed to equality and equal treatment that we have not dealt with those issues. Although there is some measures of redress in the Bill, it is, in effect, very little.
I should like to refer to the nature of the legislation before us and the broader debate the Minister seeks to raise. I do so in the context of a recognition which is beginning to emerge, particularly in the  law schools and even among practitioners, of the importance of social welfare law. For a long time—this is reflected in our social welfare code—this was not real law at all. It certainly was not lawyer's law and, therefore, one could have the system operating without a proper penal structure, a lack of regulations and the open commitment to the principles of natural justice and fair procedures. Now there is a much greater recognition of the importance as law of social welfare law, of the extent to which it affects people very deeply in all aspects of their lives. It affects them all the more if they are vulnerable as is very often the case for people for whom social welfare law is the most important law affecting their daily lives.
It is to be welcomed that in the law schools increasing attention has been paid to social welfare law, that there are courses on social welfare law and that there are summer programmes being mounted by the law schools which are receiving very welcome attention from other disciplines such as social workers and administrators in health boards and so on. They welcome this concentration from the academic community. It is also a subject of increasing interest to law students and, perhaps most important of all, it is a subject of increasing interest to practitioners who are realising, perhaps late in the day, the importance of social welfare law.
To some extent this may reflect the fact that there is at least some opportunity, though still too little, of having access to advice through the law centres or through the role of FLAC in drawing attention to rights under the social welfare code and ensuring that people have access where necessary to legal advice and remedies in this area. It has been slow to receive full recognition but now that there has been greater recognition, in its own way this will act as a further monitoring of the social welfare code. I hope it will be a useful contribution to the debate on the Report of the Commission on Social Welfare. To the best of my recollection there was no lawyer on that commission but I hope when the report of the commission  emerges it will receive, apart from other inputs and considerations, close attention from lawyers who have interested themselves in this important area of law.
I welcome the Bill. It is one of the important measures we pass during the year. There are a number of other aspects to it that I have not dwelt on because other Members concentrated on them, but I hope the Minister will be back before the House shortly in the context of a debate on the report of the Commission on Social Welfare. I hope we will be able to consider in a more radical context the importance of reform in this area and the urgency with which it is needed.
Mr. Ferris: I should like to say a few words about the Bill which we are debating with a reasonable amount of speed because of the importance of the legislation and the date when its provisions come into operation. All Members want to make the Minister, and the Minister of State, aware of our experiences in regard to certain areas of the social welfare code. It is because of the importance of the Department of Social Welfare, and its involvement almost daily with many people, that most of us are anxious to outline our experiences in this area to the Minister. Those of us who provide a public service in our constituencies are confronted weekly by many complaints in regard to social welfare. We must recognise that the total amount of money paid out in social welfare is £2½ billion towards which the Exchequer contributes £1.6 billion. We must accept that social welfare plays a large part in the maintenance of a reasonable standard of living for those who for economic and other reasons must seek assistance. For that reason I want to put on the record of the House some of my reservations about the implementation of the social welfare code, as we have come to understand it.
We have had social welfare legislation every year arising from the budget. We have had a consolidation of Social Welfare Acts. We have tried to interpret how the Act will work on the ground. I must  commend the Department for interpreting the regulations to a minute detail when it comes to dealing with applications. It is because of that specific dedication of this Department that many complaints come to us.
Indeed, as previous speakers have said, complaints are also channelled through to the Ombudsman. It is co-incidental that his annual report published last night, is before us today, which points to the area of social welfare in which he has had many complaints, but much success. As a public representative, I have been confronted with problems and regulations which I could not overcome in spite of my first hand knowledge of the genuineness of the cases and it was only through the intervention of the Ombudsman that satisfaction could be achieved. For that reason I commend the Ombudsman for his work in this area. Through his vigilance on our behalf and that of the ordinary people there has been resolution of some of the anomalies surrounding the administration of social welfare, whether it be contributory or non-contributory aspects, or in the area of supplementary welfare.
In the latter case, discretionary power conferred on certain officers results in differential treatment for people in similar categories. You get social welfare officers giving different interpretations in the area of the granting of supplementary welfare, pending determination of a claim under the social welfare code. Because it is such a complicated area and because there are some abuses, the Department and the Government must be vigilant. Where we are dealing with people at the lowest level of maintenance within the community, if we are to err at all we should err on the side of generosity. The budget improvements are significant, certainly comparable with what is being granted by any other Government within the European Community. We have to a large extent kept pace with, if not in front of, inflation over the past five or six years in this whole area and the Government are to be complimented on that. In spite of that, there are anomalies  and there are many problems in trying to sort them out for people.
We have unemployment benefit, unemployment assistance, disability benefit, invalidity pension and the whole area of determination of supplementary welfare allowances pending decision by the Department. The Ombudsman has referred to delays in decision making. The anomaly of some recipients not being entitled to payment from their date of claim has now been, to a large extent, overcome because of his intervention.
Senator Higgins has raised the fundamental point about the non contributory entitlements of certain categories of people, whether it be in the west of Ireland or in any other part. He dealt specifically with the west. Unless there is a national contributory pension scheme for every section of the community, for self-employed, for farmers and otherwise, there will always be anomalies when you are trying to determine a person's eligibility for a non-contributory pension. Non-contributory means that the beneficiaries have contributed nothing to the State apart from their lifetime's work on their farm, which they have then handed on to their successors. Because of that process, they automatically become entitled, in legal terms, to being considered as having no other means and thus qualifying for non-contributory pensions.
There are anomalies in the area of smallholders' assistance schemes. Certainly, small holders resent being considered to be dole recipients. It would be a good thing if we treated that section of social welfare as an income support scheme. We should have a similar set of regulations, which determines the income under that heading to what we have for all other categories within the social welfare code.
If non-contributory people feel discriminated against, many contributory people feel discriminated against under the social welfare code. A person who has worked for 40 or 50 years, who has been made redundant before qualification date for a retirement pension or for an old age pension, in spite of having made contributions all their life, after 15  months their eligibility to unemployment assistance is means tested. This means that any savings that they may have made during their working years, or any other income into the house either of the wife or other members of the family, are considered by the Department of Social Welfare to be reckonable income in the case of unemployment assistance, or dole as we know it. That discriminates against the whole philosophy of people who have contributed to the State and, indeed, contributed in tough old days, when they worked long hours for many days every week, some of them for seven days. They contributed flat rate stamps and then pay-related contributions. After 15 months all that is totally disregarded and a person is then subjected to the odium of a means test.
If that was not bad enough, married women who have lost their jobs and have benefited from contributions under unemployment benefit, when they come to sign on for unemployment assistance are almost dissuaded by officers on the basis that a married woman could not possibly get unemployment assistance. Their mothers or mothers-in-law may have assisted them to mind their children and they would have facilities for going to work if they could get work; but, because they are married women, somehow or another there is suspicion of their eligibility for unemployment assistance. This is in spite of having made contributions for long numbers of years as married women who were at work.
This offends against ordinary common justice. One would expect that married women would be treated the same as married men for any purpose, particularly in this area. In spite of producing evidence that they have made efforts to get work and written declarations from employers confirming that they had applied for work and sworn affidavits that their mothers and mothers-in-law are available to mind the children, Department officials say that in their opinion these women are not available for work and are not genuinely seeking employment. That is discrimination. I welcome the fact that the measure before  us brings into force for the first time equal treatment of married women in the area of social welfare, both in the number of qualifying days and in the level of their entitlement.
I am disappointed that, despite the fact we passed the legislation, the necessary ministerial order has not been introduced to bring it into effect. I hope that the difficulties experienced in this regard have been overcome, that the legislation and the order bringing it into force can be dealt with very quickly and that any anomalies will also be eliminated.
I wish to make a few brief comments on disability benefit. It has recently come to my knowledge that people who are on invalidity pension for a number of years have suddenly been re-examined and, in spite of the fact that they are physically and visibly incapable of working, they have been considered by an investigating inspector, doctor or medical referee to be capable of working. One can be subjected to another assessment and find that another officer in the same category does not want to change the decision of his predecessor, although medical evidence is available to prove the investigating doctor incorrect. There is more than one opinion on any matter and the only way in which justice can be seen to be done at this level is if proper recourse is had by the investigating officer to the medical evidence available. An investigating officer of the Department of Social Welfare dealing with disability benefit can say that in his opinion a person is capable of work without having carried out a medical examination, which in certain circumstances would need radiology, orthopaedic evidence and all sorts of other levels of consultant opinion to confirm the person's eligibility. Until regard is had to the medical evidence available, I cannot be satisfied that proper decisions are given.
The Ombudsman knows that there are certain cases that I referred to him which we proved afterwards were genuine. I have no time for people who play the system or who purport to be sick, I would be the first to condemn such a practice. But when you get a genuine case backed  by medical opinion, which you can prove, there should be no argument. It is extraordinarily difficult to get those decisions changed. I ask the Minister of State to ensure instead of having these examinations carried out in old-fashioned and dilapidated health clinics throughout the country with a total lack of privacy, that in special cases the local hospital should be used by the investigating officer, particularly the hospital which has a record of the applicant. People at that level should be examined in hospitals by the Department of Social Welfare if they need to arrive at a conclusive decision. We should use that system rather than bringing people in groups to small rooms where they test your heartbeat to determine whether you have had a major operation, a broken leg, an orthopaedic complaint, and so on. I contend that decisions of that nature cannot be made in that way. We are doing an injustice to genuinely ill people and we have to involve the Ombudsman to overcome the problem because of the regulations.
There are approximately 20,000-25,000 new claims per week in the Department. It is an important Department because it touches the lives of a million people every week in some way or another. It sends out money to people who have no other income and we must be careful in that regard. We should also be careful in administering the system, particularly in regard to medical inspectors and medical referees. They should treat people with humanity and respect and recognise their problems. I have had to produce certificates from consultants who said that the investigating officer either did not understand or did not take into account medical evidence that had been submitted. These are fairly damning words from consultants in hospitals, who do not lightly use such words. People are told that they are fit for work when the reverse is the case. Some people would be delighted to be told that they are fit to work, particularly if they are suffering from an incurable disease. Yet, decisions of that nature have been made. I ask the Department  to take account of these views, which I do not lightly put on the record of the House, but I do so because I am unhappy about many decisions made. I have made representations to a Minister and a Minister of State of my own party who have also been confronted with the regulations and who cannot change them — and possibly rightly so. But we have to be careful when making regulations to ensure that they are interpreted correctly by officers on the ground that injustices would not be done to applicants.
Generally speaking, the provision of the Bill bring into effect the improvements announced in the budget as well as some new schemes, and we welcome them. We hope that, when this report on social welfare is published, it will receive widespread comment and consideration and that legislation which will be necessary arising out of it will be introduced quickly so that anomalies will be rectified in such a way that people will not feel discriminated against by officers of the Department of Social Welfare.
Mrs. McGuinness: Like other Senators, I welcome this Bill because it brings into effect the increases announced in the budget and it is obviously of practical use. I also welcome the fact that the Minister began by dealing, as Senator Robinson said, with general issues in regard to the social welfare system. It is important that we should look at them on Second Stage as well as on the more detailed parts of the Bill. Many Senators dealt very effectively with the more detailed aspects and I will confine myself to making a few brief comments on some of the more general things the Minister said.
Like Senator Robinson, I am concerned that the report of the Commission on Social Welfare should appear as quickly as possible and I am glad that the Minister referred to that. I would also like to see a sense of urgency about this and about dealing with whatever recommendations the commission may make as soon as their report appears. The social welfare system was set up in the late forties under the aegis of Mr. William  Norton, the first Minister for Social Welfare. Since then we have been consolidating legislation. Various pieces have been added to it. It is a system which has grown like Topsy rather than been planned. The commission's report will give us an opportunity to look at the whole system anew to see if we need radical restructuring of the system in order to provide a proper level of support for the more deprived sections of the community. I hope this report will appear quickly and that, when it does, it will be quickly debated and quickly acted upon.
The Minister referred to the traditional bulwark of the extended family and the principle of mutual support. This is a very important aspect of the whole social welfare system. It is one in which I have a particular interest. Having been chairman of the National Social Services Board for some years I was involved in the effort to try to get some co-operation and working together of the statutory social services and voluntary contributions towards social services through voluntary societies and bodies. This is extremely important and is something in which we can make progress. It is equally important that this should be done on a properly planned basis. While we suggest that the community can play a part in social welfare care or in health care, if we are going to hand over responsibilities of this kind to ordinary members of the community or expect voluntary bodies to take part in them we should do so with very careful planning and thought and with full support from the statutory bodies. Too often it happens that deprived or sick members of the community who should be cared for within the community will end up by just having a mother to look after them without much support from other services. If we are going to put forward the idea of co-operation and blending between the community, those in need and the statutory and voluntary bodies, it should be done in such a way that the system will not be left to decay because the statutory services are being phased out.
The Minister spoke about the misuse  of social welfare and the growing antisocial welfare attitude of people. This is allied to people's feelings on the high level of taxation. People who are worried about high levels of taxation are inclined to say, what are we paying for? We are paying for all those idlers who are on social welfare and who are probably better off than we are. It is at our peril that we do not take any notice of this. There is a dangerous tendency in society for people to say that we must cut back on social welfare services in order to reduce taxation. We do not want to have to pay for people that we see as spongers on the system. This lay behind much of the serious cutbacks in social welfare in various states of the United States. It has meant a very grave deprivation of the less well off people in American society. That we should see this kind of viewpoint arising here is very dangerous. Naturally, none of us want to see people fraudulently drawing social welfare benefits. Many people who are highly critical of a person who is drawing unemployment assistance and doing nixers in the evening are quite happy to employ every imaginable sort of device in order to avoid paying income tax. They would regard the evasion of taxation as being something that anybody with a head on them is quite virtuous in doing rather than seeing those who do not pay their taxes as defrauding the State just as much as those who draw social welfare benefits to which they are not entitled. It is the same kind of criminal attitude. We need to guard against the view that people who are on social welfare are in some way sponging on society and that their payments should be cut back so that we can avoid paying extra taxation.
The Minister spoke about computerisation in the Department. She showed an awareness of the dangers of the right to privacy and security in computerisation. I am pleased to see that she has drawn attention to this danger. Recently there has been a very interesting study on the right to privacy published by the human rights section of the Irish Council of Churches. There was quite a considerable  discussion of the dangers of the interlocking of computers. It is not so much in relation to computerisation in the Department of Social Welfare. These computers can be joined together. For example, as many Senators know, when a person is stopped at the Border he has to produce his driving licence. The military person will read the number of the driving licence into a walkie-talkie. The motor tax computer system is connected to the police computer system so that if a person has a criminal record it will be brought to light. As soon as it is discovered that a person is free from any criminal record they are let through. This is an example of how computer systems can be tied up together. We need to be very careful that our social welfare computer systems will not be used in this way so as to be an invasion of the privacy and security of the individual.
The Minister dealt with the child benefit system which replaces the children's allowance system. It has considerable benefits. There is one difficulty in the old system which, I assume, also exists in the new one. These allowances continue until the child is 16 years of age or, if he is in full time education, up to 18 years of age. In many cases children continue to be in full time education long after the age of 18 and certainly up to the age of 21. It is interesting to note that in the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, the cut-off age for maintenance of a child in full time education is 21. That was specifically retained in the Age of Majority Act. When the age of majority was reduced from 21 to 18 for many other purposes it was specifically retained at 21 for the purposes of maintenance. Some consideration should be given in future to allowing some benefit to parents who are continuing their children in full time education over the age of 18 years.
A related topic to this, which perhaps is not so much the bailiwick of this Minister, but the bailiwick of the Minister for Finance is tax allowances. With the high level of unemployment, particularly among young children, we have the  phenomenon of the adult dependent child. We have children over 21 who may have finished their university or other third level education but who are not employed. If the parents retain a sense of responsibility for these children — keep them at home, feed them, clothe them, generally look after them and provide for them — neither the parents nor the child get any tax allowance or social welfare benefit; but if the child is “thrown out” by the parents, the child will be able to draw a social welfare allowance and in addition probably get other benefits through the community welfare officer for rent or electricity. This is my experience with people of this age. If they are living on £32 a week they can get their situation ameliorated through the community welfare officer. All this is costing the social welfare system a considerable amount of money. Would it not be more effective to allow some kind of tax allowance where the adult dependent child is looked after by the parents? In this way we would help the parents and we would not have to spend so much money on social welfare allowances for the child who is forced to leave home because the parents cannot support him.
I would echo some of the things Senator Ferris had to say about the system of appeals and re-examination of people who are ill or in receipt of benefits related to illness. I cannot resist telling the story of a letter I saw in a newspaper recently. To be fair I cannot remember whether it was referring to the British system or to our system. But a gentleman wrote to the newspaper saying that both his legs had been amputated at the knees some time ago and that recently he had received a notice from the relevant Department of Social Welfare to come in to be checked to see if he still suffered from this disability. He wondered whether they expected his legs to have grown back again in the meantime. As I said, I cannot remember whether it was our Department of Social Welfare or the British system that was being castigated.
I congratulate the Ombudsman on his report. I very much deprecate the idea put forward in recent statements by certain civil servants that the Ombudsman was a waste of public money and time. They said he was taking up the time of other people in the public service investigating complaints and that he appeared to accept all complaints on face value. This is untrue. I know not only the Ombudsman but certain people who work in his office. There is no way they accept complaints on their face value. They do a lot of investigation before they pass on the complaints. The office of the Ombudsman has been of very great benefit to the public. I object very strongly to it being castigated as being a waste of time or money because it made civil servants look into instances where there may have been malpractice within their own Departments, or where there may have been unfair treatment of people having to deal with their Departments.
The Bill is very much to be welcomed and, even more, I welcome the Minister's idea of introducing a generalised discussion of the social welfare system. I hope this will set a precedent for other social welfare legislation — that there will be an opportunity for general discussion of the principles of the legislation as well as the detailed matters contained in it.
Mr. Durcan: I welcome the Minister to this House. This is her first occasion here as Minister for Social Welfare and I congratulate her on her appointment. She comes to this office with tremendous experience which could be very valuable to her in understanding the problems we, as politicians, understand and, above all,  which she as Minister will have to tackle in this vital area.
The Bill is welcome in so far as it increases social welfare payments, introduces the child benefit scheme, improves the family income supplement and makes certain other technical amendments to the social welfare code. I found the Minister's speech interesting in certain respects. I was particularly interested to note the extent of the social welfare system. Living in Ireland today one cannot but be aware of the extent of the social welfare system but I did not realise until I listened to the Minister's speech that 37 per cent of the population benefit in some way from the social welfare system, that it affects 1.3 million people and that it is costing in the region of £7 million per day. I found these figures interesting and distressing.
We have to ask ourselves a question in relation to the extent of the system — the Minister used that phrase: should the system be as extensive as we believe it to be? There are certain categories which come within the ambit of the social welfare system which should not be there. I refer to one particular group who deserve very careful and very critical examination, that is the small farmers in receipt of unemployment assistance or what is more frequently called the small farmers' dole. I believe this category deserve the payments they receive; in many instances they deserve more than they receive, but I do not think they should come within the social welfare system. The title we use “small farmers' dole” should be replaced by the title “grant in aid of agriculture”. All too frequently people who are working very hard to develop bad holdings in under-developed parts of this country are faced with the added problem of having to deal with a social welfare system when what they should have to deal with is an aspect of the Department of Agriculture. The payments which our small farmers receive are in many instances inadequate and should be increased, but they should be administered by the Department of Agriculture on the basis of a grant in aid of agriculture.
I see no difference between the small  farmer who develops his holding with the aid of small farmers' dole and the small industrialist who receives an IDA or an Údarás grant, who receives rates and other reliefs in relation to the employment of first time employees. The category of small farmers should be removed from the social welfare system and they should be placed within the ambit of the Department of Agriculture. If that were done it would ease the social welfare burden and, I believe would be of greater benefit to the small holders. If they were brought within the ambit of the Department of Agriculture, and if their payments were seen as agricultural grants their true problems would be appreciated and they would not be faced with their present difficulties, which I will spell out in a few months.
Another area I would like to mention in relation to the extent of the system and to which I should like to see the Minister direct her attention is the 27 per cent which is expended on the old. It is the duty of the Government to ensure that the senior levels of our population receive the utmost consideration. I would like an examination to be made of the means testing which is necessary in relation to non-contributory old age pensions. I welcome the introduction of the child benefit allowance but the non-contributory old age pension system should be similarly based.
Irrespective of means, on achieving the age of 65 or 66 years, every person should automatically receive an old age pension. If that were done, the cost to the Exchequer would possibly be substantial in immediate terms, but above a certain income level the amount paid would be taken back by way of taxation. In other words, the system could be administered on the same basis as the child benefit scheme. I make that point bearing in mind the vast sums which are spent on administration. The cost of administering the non-contributory old age pension system and checking out people's means is quite enormous. It is interesting to look at the abridged version of the Estimates  for the Public Service for this year, which indicates under the heading “administration” that there will be a substantial increase in administration costs in 1986. If the type of system I mentioned was introduced it would certainly reduce that increase.
I welcome the Minister's comment that our social welfare system should be increasingly family supportive. For far too long, both our health and social welfare systems have not been family or community orientated, but institutional. Any changes in that direction are welcome. The Minister made the point that all too often public representatives are asked to intervene and that this can clog up the system. Of course, public representatives are asked to intervene. One of the reasons why they are all too frequently asked to intervene is that the social welfare code is extremely difficult to understand. Despite the consolidating Act the system is difficult to understand. It is extremely difficult to grasp for those who have to deal with it directly. I refer to the 37 per cent of the population who are directly affected by the system.
Some attempt should be made to spell out in a fairer and easier way to our population how the social welfare system operates. We have failed abysmally in selling the system, if I may use that phrase, and efforts should be made to make all sections of our society aware of what the system offers and how it operates. This is something which our school children should learn something about at second level.
Another reason why the system becomes clogged up is that a small minority of social welfare officers — I stress a small minority — tend not to be helpful to people who approach them. This has applied particularly in relation to small farmers' dole. It still applies in relation to that area, but it also applies right across the board. That small minority who do not help do an immense amount of damage. We welcome the various initiatives taken by the Minister for the Public Service over the past three years in terms of making public servants more accountable for their approach to the public. In  the Department of Social Welfare much more needs to be done about the manner in which officers approach the public. I say that in relation to a small minority but that small minority is sufficient to do a lot of damage in terms of the public's perception of how the system operates.
I want to speak in particular about the small farmers' dole. I mentioned it earlier from one point of view but I want to mention the administration of the system. As the Minister may be aware, western Deputies and Senators had many meetings with her predecessor and with the Ministers of State to express our concern at the way in which the system operates. Certain improvements were introduced but I am not satisfied that they have been implemented in all cases. I am not satisfied that the guideline of advance notification of a call by a social welfare officer is being applied and adhered to.
I can cite examples where social welfare officers called on people without advance notification. I ask the Minister to ensure that that guideline is strictly adhered to. I am not satisfied that there is yet clarity on the items of income and expenditure which are allowable when a particular case is being considered. Certain items of expenditure are not receiving the consideration they deserve. For instance, the use of the family car by a small farmer is not receiving any consideration in many cases. That, of course, is a vital element in the operation of the small family farm for many people.
I do not think the whole question of farm machinery depreciation is dealt with adequately. I can quote to the Minister many instances where it has not been taken into account at all in calculating the expenses of small farmers. The other item I would like to mention is the question of farmers' ESB costs. I do not think-sufficient allowance is made in considering that item. The factual system of assessment is reasonable but if it is to operate properly it must operate within strict guidelines.
Social welfare officers who deal with small farmers' dole should have some understanding of the rural situation. There is nothing as abysmal or as pathetic  as having people with no rural background coming into rural Ireland in taxis to try to assess small farmers for unemployment assistance. That is absolutely unacceptable but it continues to happen. On completion of the assessment every small farmer should receive a detailed breakdown of the items of income and expenditure which have been accepted in determining his eligibility. That does not happen in all cases. When it does happen the details of income and expenditure should be clearly signed by the person who calculated them. It seems that very little needs to be done to perfect and make reasonably acceptable the factual system of assessment. These few things which are not being done are causing concern and are bringing the entire system into contempt in the eyes of many people. I ask the Minister very specially to examine that system.
Widows are a category who have been neglected within our social welfare code. Widows often find themselves in a situation very suddenly and very unexpectedly. When they come within the social welfare system they suffer from considerable mental anguish. They have suffered the real and psychological wrench of losing a partner and find themselves in a situation where the protections which should be available to them are insufficient. A free ESB allowance, free telephone rental and free travel should be available to our widows. Many women under the age of 66 and married to old age pensioners find themselves suddenly given the status of widowhood and being deprived of benefit which previously they enjoyed because of their deceased spouses' entitlement to benefit. There seems to me to be complete inequity if the social welfare code has the effect of depriving widows of benefits which they received as married women. I ask the Minister to look very hard and very fast at that inequity.
Tremendous succour and support are offered to our widows by the many widows' associations, and I hope due recognition will be given to the widows' associations by the Department. I should like to see the associations circularised  and advised fully by the Department on a regular basis on the rights and entitlements of their members. This category of lonely people should receive continuing communicative support from the Department. That is why I suggest that regular newsletters be sent to them to let them know that the Department care about them.
The Bill increases penalties for abuses of the system. I welcome the Minister's statement that every effort will be made to clamp down on abuses. I hope those efforts will be directed principally at the more glaring abuses rather than at the very minor ones. As somebody who practises law in the District Court in the west, I notice that most of the prosecutions are in respect of very minor abuses. I see people being prosecuted for very minor abuses but not for the very major abuses. It may be because I live in a community of people who are inherently honest and no serious abuses occur there. I understand that there are serious abuses widespread in the country and I think it is unfair that the minor abuses are dragged into court to suffer the consequential effects of convictions, not merely the fines but because their eligibility to receive benefit is suspended for six months. Those minor abuses should be dealt with in a more realistic way and the more serious offenders prosecuted to the utmost.
Section 22 worries me a little. I will be addressing the Minister on it on Committee Stage tomorrow. The note in the margin reads: “Restriction of provisions requiring laying of draft regulations before Houses of Oireachtas”. I will not go into it in any great detail now though I see it as another erosion of parliamentary democracy. I see behind it the mandarins of the Department of Social Welfare, the bureaucrats whom we all admire and who help all of us——
Mr. Durcan: I respect most of the officials in the Department, the Senator  may not. I thank them for the help they have given me over the years, and I pay a tribute to them for that. I do not like section 22 because I see it as a further attempt to legislate in a peculiar way. We complained here on the Valuation Bill about Ministers legislating by order, and the Minister of State in charge of the office of Public Works responded that the orders in question had to be laid before the Houses by way of positive resolutions. Here we have a more sinister idea whereby the Minister may change an order in a minor way. I have no worry about the Minister now present making changes, but unfortunately Ministers change and I worry about the future operation of this provision.
Senator McGuinness referred to appeals in regard to various aspects of the social welfare system. I find the system difficult to understand, including the slowness of appeals. Once a case is within the system it should be possible to dispose of it reasonably speedily whether an appeal is filed or not. I welcome the Bill and the substantial increases which it introduces. The child benefit scheme will be of substantial advantage and it will be very welcome. I welcome the work done in relation to the Commission on Social Welfare. I look forward to their report. I believe that under this Minister we will see developments emerging very rapidly.
Mr. Lanigan: I welcome the Minister back to the Chamber in her capacity as Minister for Social Welfare. On this occasion I will not go into details, except to generalise on a number of items that are of concern to me because they are of grave concern to social welfare beneficiaries.
I suggest the Department needs a major overhaul. The Department is inadequate for the numbers of people whom it supports. The Minister suggested that about 37 per cent of the population are in receipt of benefit in one sector or the other of the Department. That 37 per cent get the worst service, the most inadequate, impersonal of any group in our society. This morning I found out suddenly that people looking for benefit who  have been sending medical certificates to Box No. 1650, Dublin, have been told that the box number is inadequate and that there should be a change back to the old address at the Department of Health and Social Welfare.
Box No. 1650 has created enormous problems for recipients in the past three weeks. There are people throughout the country who are not getting social welfare benefits because of a slip-up somewhere. Whether it is between the Department of Social Welfare and the box number to which they have asked people to send their medical certificates I do not know. There are many people not getting their social welfare benefits this week and they did not get them last week because of the inadequacy of the system in the Department. It was bad enough to have a person not getting cheques on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Thursdays and having to borrow 50p to ring up 786444 and ask for Benefit Section No. 7, No. 8, No. 9 or No. 10 and the being told: “I am sorry, that line is engaged”. Having borrowed 50p the person was not able to get through to the Department. Now people are being told that the box number on the medical certificates is not adequate and that they should revert to the old system. I am referring to the fact that whatever box number was quoted — I think it was 1650 — has not been in operation. People are being told that their certificates may have gone astray because that box number is not operating properly, that they should obtain copies of their certificates and send them to the old number.
The provisions of this Bill and the changes they will implement are important. Postal receipt of medical certificates is of the utmost importance. If they are not received people will not get the cheques to which they are entitled. When I telephone the Department and am advised that people should obtain copies of medical certificates, inevitably those applicants find that the doctor asks: why do you want a copy, are you trying to fiddle the system? That is what is happening because of the change in the system of transmission of medical certificates.  The number of people involved in the social welfare system is growing continuously because of the inadequate provision for jobs, bearing in mind the large birth rate and the fact that people are living longer.
We must be specific in our complaints. For example a lady came to my clinic this morning who had not received a penny from the Department for the last two and a half weeks because of the problems occasioned by that box number to which I have referred. I telephoned the Department this morning. Two cheques for £107.54 each were sent out today. Why should I have to telephone the Department to establish the whereabouts of those cheques? Why did that applicant not receive those cheques in the post? Indeed why should she have had to seek credit from her local small shop to the extent that the £107 overdue a fortnight has been expended as has the £107 due for this week. Hopefully the cheque for the same amount due this week will arrive tomorrow morning because, if it does not, there will be chaos in that family. The next thing that happens is that the applicant will request me to telephone the Department again. I will do so but it still does not get the applicant out of her trouble. I see Senator Durcan smiling. Neither Senator Durcan nor I have experienced the trauma of seeing the postman pass our door without delivering a cheque, having borrowed against last week's and this week's cheques which have not arrived. We read from the Minister's remarks that the Department has been computerised, that there are locations from which people can feed information into the central computer. I should like to know of the whereabouts of such locations because I have not found any. For example in Kilkenny why can the local social welfare officer not feed in information by telephone or by computer terminal into the central computer in Dublin ascertaining exactly what is the position with regard to any particular case? There is no reason that cannot be done.
In this age of high technology, when one is dealing with so many people, there  is no reason a person in, say, Kilkenny, Waterford, Cork, Clonmel, Limerick, Ballina or whereever there is a Department of Labour office or a social welfare officer cannot tap into the central computer to ascertain the up-to-date position of a particular applicant. Were that possible applicants could go to their local community welfare officer who would give them £Xs towards the cheque they would receive in two days' time, that amount being deducted on receipt of the cheque. The Department of Social Welfare is the most uncaring Department I have ever had dealings with. I phone the Department on a daily basis when always the computer is blamed for the failure to issue cheques. Probably I will have a constituent sitting beside me who has not got a solitary pound in their pocket, who will have had to borrow to put bread on the table. Regardless of what the Minister says about the improvements implemented, they are not sufficient and are not being implemented fast enough.
We read much about abuses of the social welfare system. There are very few of us who do not realise that there are abuses but, that being the case, why should so many of the Department's facilities be deployed in ascertaining where those abuses take place when the same facilities are not deployed in ensuring that the people who have not got bread on their tables receive their entitlements. As has been pointed out by the Minister, there is a growing number of people dependent on social welfare benefits of one kind or another. For example, a social welfare applicant in Kilkenny would have to go to the local labour exchange, stand outside the door of that dilapidated building owned by the Department of Defence. That applicant would be told to queue outside in the rain. Once inside the same applicant could not have a private conversation regarding his or her claim. Everybody can listen to their story because there is no privacy. Why should not people be afforded privacy when discussing their claims for benefit, indeed benefits for which they have paid?
 There is no consensus on social welfare. Some people feel that social welfare beneficiaries get too much. Various people think that they would be better off giving up their jobs and getting into the social welfare system. That is a problem. The Minister mentioned the Commission on Social Welfare and said that they would produce a report in the near future. God between us and all harm and commissions and early reports. The early reports come only when it suits a Government. They have never helped social welfare beneficiaries.
Organisational changes in the system in the Department have been mentioned. These may be operational in the Dublin area, but definitely they are not operational down the country. We have an archaic system there, a system which is anti-person. Unfortunately, because of the system there, because of the physical conditions under which people in the Department have to work, they become de-humanised towards people who are looking for benefits. They are under pressure because they are working in atrocious conditions under which the people in the Minister's Department in Dublin would not work. They would be on strike in the morning if they had to do so. People down the country are trying to do a reasonable job in diabolical conditions.
The Minister said: “Social welfare spending has increased to its present level due to a combination of factors including increased numbers of claimants generally, high unemployment and the various improvements made in the schemes over the years.” It worries me that in that sentence is a combination which suggests that people are claiming more because more people have been put out of work. The reason for the bigger claims is a combination of a number of factors. We have a birth rate which is higher than average. We have people living longer. We must accept that people are living longer but we should not suggest that the combination of factors in the life cycles in Ireland should be accepted with the various improvements in the schemes. Various improvements there may be.  However, a deserted wife whose husband disappeared six months ago and who cannot be found is told, “Go and find him”. She gets a letter from the Department of Social Welfare saying: “We admit your claim but we want further evidence and you have to write to the DHSS in Newcastle-on-Tyne to ask them if your husband is claiming benefit.” She goes up every week to the community welfare officer and she is not getting the full rate of benefit. She is not allowed her full rate of benefit because she has not proved her claim. The DHSS in Newcastle-on-Tyne do not give two hoots about whether she is claiming deserted wife's allowance. Probably they will send her a letter after four months saying, “We cannot find your husband; he is not on our list.” She waits four or five months extra. That is not an improvement of the system that we have.
I am not suggesting for a moment that there are not abuses of the deserted wife's scheme, but I am saying that where there are genuine cases — these genuine cases are known by the social welfare officers and community welfare officers in every region — and it should not be up to the wife to trace her husband and it should not be up to the DHSS in Newcastle-on-Tyne to trace him either. It should not be, as in some cases, that the various religious groups in England or wherever should be asked to try to trace the husband. If the husband is gone he is gone and if the social welfare officer or community welfare officer is aware of that, why should somebody come down from Dublin asking the wife to get a certificate from the DHSS in Newcastle-on-Tyne so that the claim will be paid?
The plight of widows in this country is disgraceful. We are not looking after widows. In no way does a widow get the support from the State that she should get and there is no improvement in the status of women in this society.
There has been an increase in the employer's contribution towards PRSI from 12.2 to 12.33 per cent. That might not seem much, but many businesses cannot afford the tax on employing people that they have to pay at present  and that small increase could put them out of business or remove the incentive to employ. A large number of industries in Ireland cannot afford to pay increases in their PRSI contribution.
I am extremely critical of the manner in which the Department of Social Welfare run their affairs. They run their affairs by computer with a minor human element. Why should anybody have to come to a politician to get benefit to which he or she is entitled, except for the fact that down the country the cost of the telephone call is borne by the politician? Sometimes the politician must use a great many pennies and pounds in order to get a reply which is favourable to somebody who is entitled to benefit. We have a new Minister in this area. I am not saying that women are any better than men or more humane or more human. They are an element in our society, but they have a name for being humane.
I am not too sure whether the Minister is more humane than her predecessor, but I suggest to her that she look at the Department from the point of view of a mother and maybe as a potential recipient of some form of social welfare benefit. Let her put herself in the situation of a person with five or six kids down the country who has no money in the house, who cannot pay the rent, who has borrowed against the cheque which should have arrived and who has no access to information except to ring 786444 or go to a public representative to find out what is going on about her legitimate rights. I have no time for people who do not have legitimate rights. I am talking about people who have legitimate rights, and I want to see an improvement in the manner in which people who have legitimate rights are treated in the Minister's Department. They are being treated very inhumanely as if they are not entitled to the benefits. They are not getting the benefits they should get on time and as a result there is an antipathy towards the Government.
There is no point in going through the various elements that make up the Minister's speech because we are not going to change what she has in that statement.  We are of the opinion that all benefits should rise as and from 1 April. There should be no delay in giving the increased benefits. If a percentage increase is given for a half year it means that the recipient only gets half the benefit. I am not very interested in the way the Minister presents figures but I appeal to her to ask the officials in her Department to be humane in their treatment of people who are looking for benefits. When people go to any official in the Department they should be treated as citizens who are looking for their rights and not as people who are trying to milk the system.
A doctor or an assessor from the Department who goes down the country should at least be courteous to the women and men he has to check. A person who is complaining of a lower back pain should be examined by a person qualified to deal with such complaints. Some medical assessors assessing people who are supposed to have upper or lower back pains, or people who have cancer have not got a clue what they are supposed to be doing. Their general attitude is I am assessing this person who is trying to screw the system. They are not dealing with the matter on a person to person basis, or in a humane manner. In many cases they have no medical expertise in the areas they are asked to investigate. I have personal knowledge of this. Some medical assessors who come to Killarney do not have a clue about the complaints they are asked to investigate. People who have been assessed as having critical diseases or critical medical problems by very highly qualified specialists and surgeons are being turned down by medical referees who have no qualifications in these fields. That should be changed and I sincerely hope the Minister will address herself to that problem.
It might seem that I am over critical of the system but unfortunately I know more people who are at the butt end of the system than I do people who are abusing it. I suggest that, instead of trying to eliminate the problems of abuse, the Department should try to make certain that those who are entitled to the benefits  get the maximum amount. After that the Department should ensure that those who are abusing the system are dealt with according to the law.
Mr. Browne: I will not delay the House because it is getting late but I want to make a few points in relation to social welfare. Like everybody else in the Seanad, I am a self conferred expert having dealt with so many problems. I should like to come to the defence to a certain extent of the people who administer the social welfare system. We are dealing with an expenditure of £2.5 billion which the Minister has broken down to £7 million per day. That is a lot of money and a lot of schemes are being looked after. When we have a certain amount of problems in our clinics we feel to an extent that they represent all that is going wrong in the social welfare system. We should be realistic and accept that as a percentage of the overall work that is going on those problems represent a drop in the ocean. So many payments are made on a regular basis that we should give credit to the officers who find themselves in the one area of Government where work has kept increasing. In 95 per cent of cases they get the payments out on time. When we ring up the Department we find the officials courteous even though they are under pressure. I understand that things can go wrong.
I should like to make one suggestion. The sending of medical certificates from all over the country to Dublin should be examined. If local employment exchanges are given medical certificates and they are all put into one envelope, none of them should be lost. Once one arrives in Dublin they should all arrive. The Minister should look at this question of having medical certificates supplied and confirmed in the local area. If it means putting an extra official into the rural office then so be it. We could do with an extra official working for us. It would take one extra out of an over crowded city and would help immensely if local people who know the local officers could give in their certificate at the local  exchange. Those officials would know beyond question that the medical certificate was handed in.
All of us have examples of delays. I know of one person who was waiting five weeks even though the certificate had been sent on. It could not be found. I also had a case of a person who was honest enough to tell the local employment exchange that because he was going to paint a house — he was a painter — he did not want to sign on. He did not sign on while he was painting that house. He got another house to paint later that summer and he did not sign on for so many days. That was grand until the following year when he was assessed as self employed and was started off with an income of £20 per week because of what he had done the previous year. If we want to encourage honesty we have to do away with that sort of thing. People who were working last year are assessed as having an income of so much this year, based on the previous year's work. If employment was available they would not be unemployed. That is the second matter I would like the Minister to look after.
The question of widows has arisen already but I would like to add my voice to the matter. On one occasion a husband's payments should have been allowed for six weeks but within two weeks his book was taken and the widow found herself literally with no money. I do not know if it was a mistake, but it is appalling to have women who have recently been widowed worrying about money. They are not in a great position to figure out anything. In six weeks that woman's widow's pension should have been ready for her.
I have spoken about medical referees before. I agree with Senator Lanigan that very often they sit opposite applicants and in their opinion can X-ray them and diagnose them better than a specialist in hospital. I know of a case where a person had lung cancer and died within a few months of being declared fit. In highlighting that, I do not expect that the Minister can really solve the problem. There are people milking the system and it is our own fault. We are asking her, on one  hand, to cut out those who are undeservedly getting money and at the same time we are saying that medical referees are declaring people fit for work, when they are not in a position to do so. Could she get expert advice as to how to get over the situation of a specialist's opinion of a person who has left hospital being overruled by a medical referee?
Mr. Browne: The Government have looked after social welfare payments extremely well. When people were in trouble with rising inflation, those payments were above inflation. This year, with 4 per cent and 5 per cent increases, and inflation being predicted as 2 per cent or zero even, there is a definite improvement. We can be very proud of the fact that we have looked after those on social welfare, the people who need looking after.
Mr. Browne: Senator Lanigan has read many fairy tales and he cannot stop repeating them. That is his problem. As I was about to say, there is nobody that I know who will tackle the problems of social welfare as she is capable of doing. She has not much time, but I certainly look forward in 12 months' time to seeing some of the present problems being solved. It is an extremely difficult role because we are all experts; we all know the few things that go wrong, but none of us is probably good enough to come up with solutions to the problems. I want to wish the Minister well in this Ministry and I have the utmost confidence that she will deal with the problems we have highlighted for her.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mrs. Hussey): I thank the Senators who have contributed to the Second Stage debate  on the Social Welfare Bill, 1986 and I appreciate the various good wishes which were expressed to me. I am grateful to the Senators for those.
I found the contributions useful and informative and for the most part very constructive. I appreciate the response the Seanad has given to a Social Welfare Bill of which I believe we can, as a society in general, be quite proud. The Senators here, as public representatives in this House, have shown themselves on these issues to be both expert and concerned. I will finish my introductory remark by saying that I hope that the expectations which some Senators have expressed about what I might manage to do in this Department will see some fulfilment. I have no doubt about the difficulty of the post I find myself in now.
I will now talk about some of the points made by Senators. I hope Senators will forgive me if I cannot possibly cover every single aspect that was raised by them. There were difficulties of a specific kind mentioned and some individual cases. Senators will understand when I say that I could not respond now to each of those specific cases. However, I will have each of them examined in the Department to see what appropriate action can be taken to deal with specific instances of problems that were brought up.
I turn now to some of the points which were made in the debate. Senator Fallon complained about the level of the increases and, indeed, that was echoed by some other Opposition Senators. We had some juxtaposition of figures from Senator Fallon describing 4 per cent as 2.7 per cent and 5 per cent as 3.4 per cent. That was very reminiscent of the debate in the other House, in fact almost similar to what was put forward there. It is not exactly what you might call a straight, fair attack on the increases which are being given. We have to look at what has been done in terms of the amount of money which the people on social welfare will get each week arising from the Bill, as against what they were getting before. The actual amount will be  4 per cent or 5 per cent higher than what they are getting now. I was very surprised that Senator Fallon should imagine that the increases in some cases would not match the rate of inflation this year. All the projections for the rate of inflation this year are for it to be on the way down, that it will be much lower than originally predicted. Since the Government came into office, each year including this year there have been very significant real increases in the value of payments, increases which not only compensate for the increase in inflation but also provide significant additional increases over and above. That is the simple fact.
At the end of the day, you have to look at what any Government have in terms of resources. They have certain resources available for improvements in social welfare services. Perhaps we would all like them to be more. I do not think however, that it would be very appropriate to describe the approach of the Government on the question of social welfare recipients as fiscal rectitude. A very responsible approach has been adopted to the problem. We have approached in a very responsible way the problem of the financial situation of this country. If we had not done so, we certainly would not have been able to be as generous as we have been in terms of social welfare payments and of the increases that have been given, increases that stand as better than those in most European countries over the last few years. I would have to reject criticisms of the size of the increases.
When we talk about the date of implementation of the increase, you have choices, obviously, between lower levels of increase from an earlier date or perhaps a higher level of increase from a later date. The second approach puts more actual money in the pockets of social welfare recipients. The Government made a good decision and a more equitable one. What we would like to do—and, indeed, all Governments would like to do—would be to give the high increase from the early date.
Very often Fianna Fáil do not like us to talk about what things might cost,  because then they might have to say where they would find the money. It is, however, important to point out that the cost of the increases which we propose now from July will be £35 million. The cost of bringing them in from April, mentioned by Senator Lanigan, would have been about £22 million more. It was mentioned also that they should be brought in earlier every year. To have introduced the 1985 increases in April would have cost an extra £32 million and in 1984 would have cost an extra £34 million. In 1983 it would have cost an extra £39 million. We are talking about huge figures, well over £100 million over the last few years, which presumably Fianna Fáil would have raised from the taxpayer.
One has to make these balances and judgments and a responsible Opposition party have to decide from where they are going to provide these resources. It is perhaps understandable that they are reluctant to do that. It is difficult, however, for a Government to have it both ways unlike an Opposition. It is very tempting to knock the level of social welfare increases and at the same time criticise the high level of taxation. Some speakers today fell into the trap of doing so, including Senator Lanigan, who criticised the amount of PRSI which employers and employees pay and at the same time said we were treating everybody very badly.
Mrs. Hussey: Senator O'Brien put his finger on one of the problems. He said that we all agree that the burden of taxation on the PAYE sector is very high. The point I am making is that we cannot honestly call for a saving of public funds and a reduction of taxation on the one hand and then argue for higher or earlier increases in social welfare on the other because you have to talk about where those additional sums will come from.  Are we talking about additional borrowing or increased taxation, because they are the only ways of raising the money? Therefore, the Government have to make these decisions, which may be difficult, but they are made in full possession of the facts. Far from making any apology for the level of increases which we are providing we can be proud of what we have achieved for social welfare recipients over the recent difficult years. I believe that the real increases have been very well understood and appreciated.
Senator Fallon referred to the increases in child benefit payments provided in the Bill. He criticised the last increase in children's allowances, 7 per cent from August 1984, which in Senator Fallon's terms is 4 per cent. He then went on to criticise the increase of 75p per week per child which is now being provided for under the child benefit scheme. The increase of £3 per month for each of the first five children is equivalent to a 25 per cent increase in payments for those families under the new scheme, a very significant increase by any standards. It represents a major improvement in the overall system of financial support towards the rearing of children. The £3 per month increase also applies to the sixth and subsequent children in families and is equivalent to a 16 per cent increase. About 1.2 million children in 475,000 families will benefit from this increase and next Tuesday, when mothers collect their children's allowances, using the same books they have now, without the new figures written in, they will be in receipt of the new amount of money, the £3 extra per child. That is a very real benefit and help to families.
The child benefit scheme involves the abolition of child tax allowances from April and when fully implemented it will involve the child benefit itself being taxable. The whole purpose of that is to bring about a redistribution of resources from families in higher tax brackets to those at the lower end of the scale. That has been talked about for many years — the question of children's allowances and the fact that the very well off were getting the same amount of children's allowances  as people who were in great need. We believe that this is the right thing to do and it is generally agreed that the new scheme will represent a major improvement and development in the system.
The direct payments to families are the best form of child support to all families in need, including those on social welfare payments, those working and those on low earnings, but it is an essential feature of the full child benefit scheme that the benefit will be taxable. We did not introduce the taxable scheme this year because it took some time to work out technically. We have introduced, therefore, the limited form of this scheme by abolishing child tax allowances, freezing the child dependant increases and making available a significant increase in children's allowance rates. We have put aside £18 million by the abolition of the child tax allowance, £4.2 million which would have been used for increasing social welfare child dependant rates and an additional £11.1 million from the Exchequer to achieve this improvement.
In referring to the family income supplement scheme Senator Fallon was critical of the improvements which are being introduced now and he saw it as an attempt to somehow dress up the scheme. It is important to state that the family income supplement scheme was a genuine attempt to provide assistance to low earning working families and to reduce what was seen as an anomaly in regard to the actual level of resources available to those families as against what people get while receiving unemployment benefits. Of course, the level of take up under the scheme has been disappointing and Senator Fallon referred to the original estimate of 35,000 persons being eligible for the supplement.
This was certainly a tentative estimate because, unfortunately, the income distribution figures available, particularly in relation to low earning families, are in many respects very inadequate. It is obvious now that there was certainly an over estimate and it is also clear that many people who might have had an  entitlement to the family income supplement are not applying for it despite the fact that there has been extensive advertising of the scheme since it was introduced. We are not the only country which has experienced difficulty with schemes of this nature and the UK authorities have had the problem with a somewhat similar family income supplement scheme since its introduction. It may well be that a scheme of this kind which requires people to provide detailed evidence of their current earnings in order to qualify for the supplement is not the most appropriate way to assist families.
The whole basis of the family income supplement scheme will fall to be reviewed in the context of the introduction of the full child benefit scheme to which I referred earlier. Because the Government are concerned to provide adequate and effective support for families, particularly low income families, whether they are in employment or not. The child benefit scheme will achieve this by providing automatic payment to families in place of the variety of different forms of support which now exist.
Having said all that, I hope that the improvements which are being provided in the scheme in this Bill will result in a significantly improved level of take up under this scheme. We are estimating now that there may be around 6,500 families in receipt of family income supplement by the end of 1986.
Senator O'Brien referred to absenteeism from work and said this country had the highest level of absenteeism in the EC. I agree with him when he says this is very wasteful and leads to a loss of production. It also has the effect of reducing the country's competitiveness. It is vitally important that we reduce absenteeism and eliminate it where we can. To this end over the last few years the Government have taken a number of steps with a view to ensuring that the social welfare system does not act as an incentive to people to stay out of work. The pay-related benefit system has been restructured so that the amount a person receives by way of social welfare payments bears a more realistic relationship  to the person's income when at work. These changes have substantially reduced the incentive to stay out of work for people depending on social welfare payments alone.
In the area of disability benefit the most effective method of control is by means of the Department's medical referee system. Indeed, Senators have remarked on the problems, on the one hand, of people complaining bitterly that all the schemes are being abused while, on the other hand, complaining when people are struck off by the medical referees. There are very serious problems of balance to be maintained. As Senators are probably aware, selected claimants are referred to the referees for a second medical opinion. We have recently increased the number of medical referees in the Department to 25.
I would like to refer Senators to the fact that last October the Taoiseach indicated in his statement on employment and tax reform in the Dáil that the Government were considering proposals to overhaul the disability benefit scheme in order to reduce the cost of absenteeism. A significant number of claims for benefit come from employees whose companies have sick pay schemes. Arrangements are made by employers to ensure that employees are not paid on the double. In fact, employers take account of disability benefit and sick pay schemes within their company in different ways. There is a definite need to streamline the relationship between the company's sick pay schemes and the disability scheme. As a first step in this area, the Government requested the observations of NESC — the National Economic and Social Council — before entering into discussions with employer organisations and trade unions to see what improvements could be made, they include the possibility of transferring to employers part of the responsibility for the payment of benefit to employees for short term illnesses. The views of NESC have now been received and I hope, with goodwill on all sides, that we will be able to develop a system which will be adequate and effective.
Mr. Lanigan: On a point of information, before we reach Committee or Report Stage, would it be possible for the Minister to give us an indication of the qualifications of the medical referees who are employed by the Department? It is essential that we should know whether they are qualified to adjudicate in medical matters.
On the question of the PRSI ceiling, some Senators referred to the fact that we are increasing the ceiling on PRSI from £13,800 to £14,700, which is stated in section 6 of the Bill. I mentioned that for the fourth year in succession the Government are not increasing the level of social insurance contributions paid by an employee. As Senators are aware, the 1 per cent income levy is being abolished with effect from 6 April. With the increase of £900 in the PRSI ceiling, an increase of 6.5 per cent, together with a total reduction in PRSI payable from April next, a person earning £14,700 per annum will pay £1.68 a week less in 1986 than he did in 1985. For a person earning £10,000 a year it will represent a reduction of nearly £2 a week in the amount of PRSI contribution paid. When the two factors are taken together, it would not be fair to suggest that the increase in the PRSI ceiling will impose a burden on employees. In fact, it reduces it. The additional moneys which will be received as a result of the increase are necessary to assist with the payment of all the general increases which are provided in the Social Welfare Bill.
A number of Senators were critical of the social welfare appeals system and particularly with delays in processing appeals. The point was made that the  appeals system should be independent of the Department of Social Welfare or, in the case of a supplementary welfare allowance, the health board. As far as the social welfare appeals system is concerned, the legislation is specifically designed to ensure that appeals officers are independent of the normal decisionmaking process of the Department. Legislation puts a duty on appeals officers to be independent. This is stated explicitly by the courts. It is essential, too, that in the appeals system decisions should be made quickly. It is intended to achieve this in the present system.
There are 14 appeals officers at present who deal with around 12,500 appeals each year. In many cases appeals can be decided upon. In those cases decisions can be given reasonably quickly. Many cases, however, go for oral hearing. It is up to the appeals officer to decide whether an oral hearing is necessary. In practice no reasonable request by an applicant for an oral hearing is refused. At an oral hearing the person has the opportunity to prove his case in person. Hearings are kept as informal as possible in order to put the claimant at his ease in so far as this can be done. This is the basis on which the system is designed to operate. I take the point made by some Senators that it is necessary that the system should not only be independent but be seen to be so. This is something which I have no doubt will be commented upon by the Commission on Social Welfare in its report because it is a matter which is widely spoken about. I would be concerned, however, that any change in the system which is designed to more formally establish its independence should not have the result of slowing up the system of processing appeals.
Senator Robinson referred to the long delays which can occur in hearing appeals and the comments made by the Ombudsman in this respect. In considering the general question of social welfare appeals I would also like to say that the office of the Ombudsman provides an important recourse to claimants who may be dissatisfied with the handling of their case.  While this does not in any way reduce the need for the appeals system to be fair and just it serves as a mechanism to highlight any defects that might arise in the system. I would agree with remarks made in particular by Senator McGuinness welcoming the role of the Ombudsman in this respect.
A number of Senators were very concerned about the question of the scheme known as the smallholders' dole. I know that the scheme has been the subject of a great deal of controversy in recent years. A change from the notional to the factual system of means assessment undoubtedly created a great many problems, both for the smallholders who have to have their entitlements reinvestigated and also for the Department of Social Welfare. Senator Higgins referred to the fact that so much resources have to be devoted to the carrying out of assessments in these cases. This is something which is a matter of concern, particularly when the administration of the Department is under so much pressure to deal with social welfare schemes generally.
Senator Smith raised the question as to whether the smallholders scheme as we know it should be abolished. Senators O'Brien and Higgins, and perhaps Senator Durcan, referred to the possible disincentives involved in the scheme where increases in farm income lead to a reduction in unemployment assistance payable. It seems that they are genuine concerns and genuine problems which we must face up to. I believe that the whole system of assistance to smallholders should be reviewed. The income maintenance needs of smallholders and their dependants are clearly a matter of concern to the social welfare system; but these needs are also, and perhaps more fundamentally, a problem of farm productivity. Senators Higgins and Durcan argued that the whole scheme should be removed from the Department of Social Welfare and administered by the Department of Agriculture as a scheme of small farm development. I am not in a position at this stage to express definite views on this matter, but I have carefully  noted the points which have been made by Senators in this regard. I can assure the House that they have been carefully noted as very important and detailed points which have been raised about the administration of the system.
Senators Robinson and Lanigan referred to a perception of a lack of urgency in my opening remarks about the report of the Social Welfare Commission. I am sorry they should have that impression. I feel no lack of urgency whatsoever about it. I cannot force the Commission on Social Welfare to hand me their report before they are ready, but they are very well aware that we are most anxious to have this report at the first possible moment. I understand the report is nearing completion and will be finalised in the next few weeks. That is all I can say in that regard. I am waiting impatiently for the report and I want to see it as soon as possible. However, I have to ensure that, when they present their report, the commission will be happy that it is complete and comprehensive, and my information is that they are doing everything possible to achieve that. In terms of responding to Senator Robinson's idea that one should give a commitment to the implementation of the commission's report within the lifetime of this Government, I do not think anybody could expect the Government to commit themselves in advance of getting the report, and say that they are going to implement it. I have no idea what the report will contain. The Government have to examine the report before they can make decisions; that is the way Government must operate. Despite the fact that I do not have any idea what will be in the report, judging by the people sitting on that commission, I think radical changes will be recommended. I am sure some of these changes will have considerable financial and other implications which will have to be considered very carefully by the Government before we can make decisions on them. This House might object if Senators did not have an opportunity to put forward their views on the report of the commission. Senator Robinson said she looked forward to having a  very detailed debate in this House and she would not like a detailed debate to have been pre-empted by Government decisions. We must try to be logical about this.
There will be no delay in dealing with the commission's report. We have made that commitment quite clear and the Taoiseach has reiterated it. The commission's recommendations will affect everyone one way or another; and one of my main tasks will be to ensure that the report will result in significant developments in the social welfare system within the shortest possible time.
Senator Robinson referred to the provisions in the Bill to introduce the first phase of equal treatment for men and women in social security matters. As I said in my speech, there was an unavoidable delay in implementing the provisions of the EC directive, but the Bill provides for the implementation from mid-May of various aspects which do not require additional staffing, that is, the very positive aspect which means the abolition of the reduced rate of unemployment or disability benefit for married women and extending the duration of unemployment benefit for married women to 390 days.
Senator Robinson wanted to know when the other aspects of equal treatment would be implemented, but some of these other aspects are not so welcome. First, the same conditions will be applied to men and women on the matter of increases for adult and child dependants, and that will affect some people adversely. Second, married women will be admitted to the unemployment assistance scheme. Both areas are connected. To deal with them involves major staffing implications for the Department and that staffing issue has to be dealt with. It is an area of considerable concern to myself and to the House. I will be making every effort to get this issue resolved and to get the final phases of the equal treatment directive into operation. It is a difficult issue and I cannot give a definite date, but I will be working very hard to get it done at the first possible moment.
Senator McGuinness, in commenting on the proposed child benefit scheme,  referred to the fact that there are anomalies in relation to dealing with children under the social welfare code. Under the present children's allowance system and the proposed child benefit scheme, all children up to 16 years of age are qualified children, and in the case of children continuing in full time education, the age limit is 18. Eighteen is the general age limit for the payment of child dependant increases under most of the other social welfare schemes — I say “most” because there is an exception in the case of child dependant increases paid to widows and deserted wives. The general age limit here is 18, but where the child is in full time education the upper age limit is 21. As we can see, there is a need to streamline all these different State child support schemes. As I mentioned already, the first step along this road is being taken with the introduction of the child benefit system. I expect the Social Welfare Commission will cover all the different child benefits in their report. Undoubtedly there will be financial implications in improving the situation and one cannot lose sight of that. There are so many demands on the public finances that we will not be able to solve all of these issues immediately. We have to set priorities and we have to make choices. I can assure Senators that we will make every effort to remove the anomalies as soon as possible within the constraints we face.
Senator Lanigan referred to the box number system. He said that there had been severe problems over the last few weeks, with people not getting cheques as a result of some problem with the box number system. I am not aware of the problems the Senator is referring to. I have been trying to establish the facts but I have not been able to establish that this is a problem. The vast majority of medical certificates received in the Department come through the box number system, and my information is that it is working satisfactorily. It has considerably speeded up the processing of certificates and that was the intention in introducing that system.
Mr. Lanigan: I have come across particular problems. The information from officers in the Department is that people should stop sending in certificates, or if certificates have gone into the box number they should be sent again in duplicate to the Department's old number.
Mrs. Hussey: I have said all I have to say on that point. If the Senator has specific cases in mind he should bring them to the attention of my Department. I was giving the House the information I have been able to ascertain in response to what he said earlier.
On the question of information on claims, Senator Lanigan asked about the locations around the country where one could get information through computer links. As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, 20 offices of the Department throughout the country have VDUs where information officers locally can get details on people's claims to benefits, pensions and allowances. These, as the Senator mentioned, can be obtained at the push of a button. It represents a big advance. I do not have a complete list of the offices where VDUs are installed but, I understand, we have them in Cork, Limerick, Galway, Athlone, Sligo, Dundalk and Tralee, among others, and we are proceeding as fast as possible to instal these systems around the country.
Senator Lanigan will be interested to know that we have made arrangements  with the appropriate health board for Kilkenny to give access to the health board community welfare officer to get details and benefit payments through my Department's computer. This should be of great help to both the health board and the Department in dealing with the problems they are experiencing. This is a good development as part of the cooperation and extension of the computerisation process. It will be extended to other areas as soon as possible.
A very interesting problem was raised by Senator Durcan about free electricity and other allowances for widows of pensioners who before they died had been entitled to these allowances. A proposal in regard to this was made by the Joint Committee on Women's Rights. Senator Fitzsimons referred to the large number of recommendations in the joint committee's report. As far as this proposal is concerned, there are a number of implications to which one has to draw attention. The free electricity allowance scheme was designed essentially to cover aged and incapacitated people. I recognise the problem which arises when the free electricity allowance is withdrawn from a widow in the circumstances referred to. The basic problem in extending the schemes is one of finance. There are undoubtedly anomalies and extension of the schemes often create further anomalies. For example, if the scheme was extended to the group of widows referred to, how could one not extend it to all widows? Otherwise you would have two widows with the same means living beside each other and yet having different entitlements. There is a genuine difficulty there with enormous implications. I accept the point which was made but I need to draw the attention of the House to the undoubted difficulties that arise when one tries to iron out a particular problem facing a particular group.
Senator Lanigan referred to the deserted wife schemes and in particular to the requirement for deserted wives to make efforts to trace their husbands before desertion is established. One of the criteria by which desertion is established  is that the husband has wilfully refused or neglected to support his wife and family, and that the wife has made reasonable efforts to trace him and obtain support from him. For this reason, there is a three month waiting period before the allowance is payable. I am sure Senators will accept that it can be difficult in many cases to establish whether or not desertion has occurred.
Senators will be aware of the recent and continuing debate about misuse of the social welfare system and the allegations which have come from various quarters that certain social welfare schemes, including the deserted wife's scheme, are being abused. I have made known my own views on these allegations. We do have to have adequate controls and embody them in our schemes while at the same time trying to ensure that we are administering them in a caring way. I have noted the points made in relation to their scheme, both today and during debate in this House on the report of the Joint Committee on Women's Rights. I will have those proposals considered fully.
I have covered as far as possible the points made by Senators on Second Stage. As I reflect on the debate so far, I can see that Senators were right to be wishing me the best of luck in this very wide area for which I would need special constitutional powers to be in office for ten years to deal with. Senators can be assured that I have learned most extensively from what they have had to say and I will be taking all their points into consideration as I also consider the Commission on Social Welfare report. I look forward to a constructive debate on Committee Stage and I commend the Second Stage to the House.
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