Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill, 1987: Second Stage (Resumed).

Thursday, 17 December 1987

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 118 No. 2

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

Mr. B. Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  Any Bill relating to social welfare needs to be seen in the context of poverty in this country. I thought one of the most astonishing and distressing poverty-related statistics published in recent times was the information from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that they would need an increase of approximately 40 per cent in their income for next year to provide service at the level they were accustomed to providing in the last 12 months. That is evidence from a dispassionate and unchallengeable source about what is happening in our society. The St. Vincent de Paul Society is beginning to find that some of its conferences are running out of money because poverty is becoming so extensive, particularly in the larger urban areas.

The increasing evidence of deepseated and endemic poverty particularly amongst large families on long-term unemployment assistance, suggests that [258] the commitment made by the Government to maintain the standards of living of people on social welfare is not only not being met but is a mockery of the truth. What we are seeing is the sacrificing of the poor in our society in order to meet a set of what are not absolute economic objectives but are ideological imperatives imposed on this Government by what I described in an earlier debate as the Doheny-Nesbitt school of economics which is based far more on people's experiences outside this country — I am talking about the economists in this case — than on the experience of the people of this country.

I note too that in Cork the Simon Community, with whom I have some association, had to stop giving away food at the door of the night shelter because what had been one or two families a week became ten or 15 families a day and the very limited resources of the Simon Community could not sustain that sort of thing.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society said that children are going to school hungry. I have a number of friends who are national teachers and they said that it took them about six months to figure out why it was that some of the children in their classes were less than fully alert and involved. Then they realised it was hunger which was the problem and that the children were either having no breakfast or virtually none because there was no money in their homes to provide food. In the context of deterministic economic models of how this country must operate, this sort of human story cannot be allowed to be put on the back burner because the economists do not want to face them. I will talk about some more of them later on when I talk of some of the things that some of my colleagues spoke about. In the context of poverty in our society and its remedy, we should not allow ourselves to be persuaded that there is some sort of immutable ceiling of expenditure beyond which we cannot go without some sort of unquestionable consequence resulting from it.

It needs to be said here, in the light of [259] the fact that we spent the last two or three hours on the Science and Technology Bill, that the economic models which have decided that we can only afford a certain level of social welfare are no more than the products of human imaginations. They are not scientific rules in which a particular sequence of events can produce an always predictable consequence. They are the assumptions of human beings about the way people live. Consequently, in terms of any analysis of social welfare expenditure it is not good enough to say that we cannot afford to pay any more. To make that assumption begs the question of a number of other more fundamental assumptions about taxation, about public opinion, about the perceptions of people in our society and the needs of the poor. Therefore, as I said at the beginning, in the context of a society where poverty is now endemic and increasing, a presumption that we cannot extend and increase levels of social welfare payments is both arguable in principle and also challengeable in so far as it is an extension of a particular economic ideology and one that I find both intellectually unacceptable and humanly revolting.

I am somewhat distressed that from what I heard of the debate — and if I am making a mistake I am happy to be corrected — but I did not hear a single speaker in the House, including the Minister, refer even once to the Commission on Social Welfare. I may have missed it and I am open to correction and the Minister is free to correct me. Just to put it on the record, there was a Commission on Social Welfare and it did produce a report. I am not in a position to dramatically wave the report because the copy I got from the Library is one of the early copies that were leaked in a most peculiar way in June 1986. Therefore, it is not something that I want to wave around.

Whatever the arguments about the pace of change on the issue of the report of the Commission on Social Welfare and its conclusions, whatever the argument about the recommendations themselves or whether they are realistic, or correct [260] or proper, we should not allow the report of the Commission simply to slip off the political agenda. As long as I am in this House and Social Welfare Bills come through this House, I hope I will be allowed to attempt to restore it to where it should be which is at the centre of all of our debate on the social welfare system. It is a most comprehensive document. Like everybody, I could find aspects of it that I would disagree with but since it has not been referred to and since this Bill is about improving the social welfare system, I feel it imperative that somebody should refer at least in passing to the fundamental principles recommended or identified by that commission for reform of the social welfare system.

In my view the report is quite well written in the sense that it is relatively easy to identify the guiding principles which they say should motivate the social welfare system. They identify four guiding principles that ought to characterise a good social welfare system. The four are: adequacy, comprehensiveness, consistency and simplicity. Without delaying the House too long, on the question of adequacy there is one firm conclusion through the entirely of that report which I have not yet heard challenged by anybody and that is that the levels of payment are fundamentally inadequate. I do not believe any economist — whether he be from the far Right or the far Left, and there are very few on the far Left and far too many, in my view, on the far Right — has challenged that fundamental assumption.

Let us remember who the members were. Apart from the obvious trade unionists and other people there was Eugene McCarthy from the Federated Union of Employers and Frank Masterson who is now a member of the Progressive Democrats and was a candidate in the last election who represented the Irish Farmers Association. So, a consensus did emerge among people with very different political and economic ideologies or philosophies, depending on how you want to describe them, that the levels of social welfare [261] payments in our society are of themselves inadequate to meet any sort of a minimalist definition of what is an adequate standard of living. What we actually are saying is that we recognise that people on social welfare are poor and apparently, given the oblivion to which this report is now being consigned, we propose to perpetuate that poverty in the interests of some ideology or other which is only beginning to emerge in the present new Right economic consensus.

Let us again have it on the record that the commission recommended a payment of between £55 and £60 a week as a basic level for a single adult. Just to keep the record straight because there has been considerable talk in recent times about levels of payment and one would have the impression that people were living in a glorious world of high living on social welfare, I repeat the basic rate of unemployment assistance for a single person is £35.40 a week. We are talking about levels of payment which are 60 per cent of what the social welfare commission regard as the appropriate level.

That, of course, is the most fundamental reform that is needed in our social welfare system. There is far too much woolly-headed fuzziness about welfare which says that poverty is not all about money, it is about environment and a whole lot of things. Of course it is true it is about a lot of things other than money but it is also true that without a proper money income you can do all you like but people will still stay poor. I want to put that on the record.

Even more inadequate are the rates of payment for child dependants. I think that in a society that has made such a fuss out of its commitment to the family — though the evidence in terms of legislation and expenditure is not there to support that fuss — and in a society which touts its Christianity as something that is supposed to distinguish it from what are described as the pagan states of Europe, it is extraordinary that we have the most inadequate levels of child support payments in the developed world. The recommendation of the Commission on Social Welfare that the levels of child [262] benefit that should be available to a family on social welfare should be sufficient to guarantee an adequate standard of living for the children is one that we have not even begun to address.

The OECD proposal on the taxation of social welfare would be a far more reasonable consideration if levels of welfare were at what could be described as adequate levels of payment. In other words, if people on social welfare were approaching the sort of levels of income that we would regard as the minimum acceptable in a civilised society, then one could say that the question of taxation could begin to be addressed.

The other three criteria the commission used were comprehensiveness, consistency and simplicity. They identified major gaps in the coverage of our society, particularly in terms of social insurance. Some steps have been made in that direction under the national Programme for Economic Recovery and I welcome them. I am very glad that PRSI has been extended. My own view is that everybody in our society ought to pay the same rate of social insurance on their incomes irrespective of whether they are in the public service, in the private sector or self-employed. I also think that their incomes ought to be assessable in a way which ensures that my income for taxation purposes is similar to that of a farmer, or indeed — at the risk of incurring Senator Farrell's wrath yet again — a self-employed person. I do not think anybody in our society believes that all sectors in our society are evenly or fairly or adequately taxed. We may have made some progress there.

I could not find the reference to consistency but I know the commission somewhere identified a vast number of different levels of payment of child benefit. The commission were not able to find any single reason to justify the vast range of payments made for adult social welfare recipients, why it should be one level, for instance, on supplementary welfare of £34 per week; on urban unemployment assistance, £35.10; on non-urban unemployment assistance, £34; on the widows' non-contributory pension, £46.20 for a beneficiary under 66 years of age. There [263] is a whole panoply of different rates of payment.

I would still like to hear from some Minister or some Government what is the rationale behind that huge set of variations in rates of payment. Nobody has yet been able to explain them. Senator Cregan mentioned that it was possible, for instance, that an old age pensioner could have less demands for expenditure than a single, unemployed person and, indeed, that argument could be made. If there is a philosophical basis to these variations let us hear it; if there is not, let us at least hear a set of policy objectives set before us even if the timescale is ten years for eliminating all these inconsistencies and all this confusion.

Finally, the commission chose to evaluate the social welfare systems in terms of its simplicity. The one thing that I can say, that the Minister, I am sure, can say, and that every Member of this House who has to do clinics can say — something that I do not and am fortunate not to have to do; although I suppose it would be a useful and worthwhile learning experience — is that the social welfare system is not simple. It is, in fact, quite the opposite of simple; it is daunting in its complexity. I do not accept any more that that is entirely accidental because there are policy decisions being stated and implemented which all seem to push us in one direction, that is, to make social welfare less accessible and more difficult for people (a) to know what they are entitled to and (b) to gain access to it.

Therefore, in any discussion on any Bill to deal with or change the social welfare system, the commission's report ought to be stitched into the record. While I do not propose to take the remainder of the night to read the whole of the report of the Commission on Social Welfare into the record, although I may yet be compelled to do it if nobody else is prepared to talk about it, some of what I would regard — and it is a selective list — as the more important recommendations of the commission ought to be put on the record.

It is important that the provisions [264] under which people lose social welfare entitlements because of benefit in kind resulting from board and lodgings should be dealt with and disposed of. In the summary of the commission's report they recommend that the means assessment for adults over 25 years should not include any assessment of general household living standards; for example, benefit and privilege should be excluded from the means test. It is a minimal requirement that the dignity of an adult over 25 years of age should not be taken away from him or her by endeavouring to pretend that he or she is a dependant of the people with whom they happen to share a home. That is clearly a pressure on people to leave the home they live in, to move into independent accommodation and, in my view, quite likely to move one step closer to homelessness. Nobody can argue that on present rates of social welfare assistance or social welfare benefit anybody could adequately pay for private rented accommodation and we do not have a lot of public accommodation available to single people. That problem should be addressed and should be addressed quickly. I would like to hear people address the realities of Irish economics instead of telling us we simply cannot afford to pay because I do not believe that.

I do not propose to read all the recommendations on the issue of the payment structure onto the record of the House. Suffice it to say that in the summary alone there are 15 recommendations on the payment structure, not all of which, incidentally, are enormously costly. Many of them have to do with reorganisation as much as with the scale of payments. There are other areas where the commission makes recommendations which would not necessarily cost anything but could, if they were implemented, transform the experience of people who are compelled to depend on the social welfare system. In particular, the simplification or the standardisation of the whole area of social assistance would make a considerable contribution.

In our society, given the values we espouse, the most promising, the most [265] challenging and the most important recommendations of the Commission on Social Welfare are on the whole issue of child income support. I am not by any means academically qualified in the area of studies on poverty, but there seems to be an increasing international consensus that the single most effective income support to ameliorate poverty is in the area of child income support, of child benefit at the maximum possible level paid directly to whichever spouse is responsible for bringing up the children. We cannot justify in our society measures that are being threatened, not just to not increase that but to actually cut back on the level of child benefit. There is an increasing hypocrisy in Irish politics between the touting of our values as a family-orientated society and the continuous grinding down of families by inadequate payments and humiliating processes of evaluation.

There is much in this report on the treatment of the unemployed. I think it will not be too long before we will require people who are unemployed to wear a white star on their coats to segregate them from the rest of society. Our society seems to be, and seems to be encouraged to be a society which is more and more making it obligatory on unemployed people to prove that they are entitled to something and to justify it in an increasingly rigorous way in the interests of dealing with what we are told is widespread abuse — and I will return to that later on. The process of treating unemployed people as it is presently organised — I have to say this — seems to be deliberately degrading and deliberately intended to keep them under control. As Michael Smurfit said in Galway “the level of social assistance we must have is the one which prevents the risk of social disorder”.

That is what we are at: it is an instrument of control. The way people are treated in a labour exchange is indicative of that control philosophy. People are regulated and controlled. The fact that people in our society, with 250,000 unemployed, have to humiliate themselves by knocking on the doors of employers they know have no jobs and have had no jobs, [266] for two years just to prove that they are actually looking for work, is a systematic exercise in human degradation and should be ended.

That is not a justification for any abuse; it is a justification of the right of any citizen in our society to have his or her dignity not just preserved but advanced. The fact that one is dependent on welfare excuses no reduction in one's rights or dignity. The whole process of the labour exchange is degrading and humiliating. The new — what I would call — Woods rangers, who are being set up to hound, analyse, programme, query and challenge the unemployed is a further burden on the backs of people who are already humiliated by the process of signing on and what has to go with it.

I am not blaming the officials of the Department of Social Welfare who work in labour exchanges. They must have the most appalling job that anybody in our society now has, given the numbers of people involved, the complexity of the system, the pressures on them to prevent this “large scale abuse”. I am always fascinated that the greater the constraints on Government expenditure, the greater the level of abuse that suddenly becomes apparent. Abuse is one of the great excuses for frightening people off welfare. If in the process people who have no reason to be frightened are lost, it is just too bad because it reduces the expenditure.

The commission have much to say on the delivery process. On the issue of the delivery of social welfare payments there is ample room for radical reform without much in the line of increased expenditure. Is it too much to expect that claimants, as in recommendation 55 of the summary, should be given a choice of having their payments made by means of electronic fund transfer to a named account at a bank, post office or other financial institution? Is it too much to expect that that should be done comprehensively, not on a small pilot scheme but universally? Is it too much to expect that the premises should as far as possible be upgraded and that standards of amenity [267] and privacy should be on a par with those in other service premises?

Is it too much to expect that anybody who is going to be asked intimate questions about family circumstances should be guaranteed privacy? I do not think it is too much to expect but given the present dominant right-wing ideology we will not make much progress on it because the economists would not approve. They have convinced our society that most of the unemployed are chancers and dossers who will rip off the system if they are not firmly tied down and controlled.

With regard to the appeals system, the commission are excessively gentle. They make certain recommendations. They would not cost a lot of money and they would, in my view, remedy what is a substantial defect in the area of social welfare appeals. We had, after some huffing and puffing, an interesting debate in the dying days of the last Seanad on the whole issue of social welfare appeals.

I found it extraordinarily interesting how extensive was the consensus in this House that there was something wrong with the social welfare appeals system. I introduced a Bill on the subject and every Member of this House who spoke on it agreed that the appeals system needed root and branch reform. They did not necessarily, and understandably, agree with the proposals I had made but they did believe there was a need for a fundamental restructuring and reorganising of the appeals system.

I know the Minister has announced that something like this will be coming but one can only comment with a certain degree of scepticism that the reforms which involve reductions or withdrawals or impositions or coercions or investigations seem to be able to be introduced quickly. Those that might involve improving the lot of social welfare recipients, those that might involve enhancing their dignity, seem to require an awful lot more consideration and seem to take an awful lot more time to be implemented.

On the issue of the commission, I would remind the House again of the [268] priority recommendations of the commission. The first was that the basic payments should be increased. No amount of talk and no amount of posturing can get away from the fact that that is what the commission identified as the first priority of reform in the social welfare system — a fundamental and dramatic increase in the levels of basic payments. The second one and I quote:

Our recommendation for improved child income support should be included in the first steps towards the reformed social welfare system.

The third is the broadening of the social insurance base. On that immediate action has been taken, but it is dishonest to pretend that an extension of the social insurance base exclusively to raise more revenue, which is done without the implementation of the other priority recommendations is anything other than a sham. The four priorities should be implemented together.

The fourth is the delivery of the service and they recommend the accelerated development of computerisation. I am pleased that we seem to be making considerable progress in that regard. One hopes that the day when people in Cork are told they cannot be given information because their file is in Dublin is rapidly coming to an end and that the administrative procedures and the legislative base on which social welfare is operated will be consistent with the possibilities that exist with computerisation. It would be most regrettable if we could not make full use of computerisation simply because of old-fashioned regulations or old-fashioned procedures.

There are, of course, things that have happened in social welfare in recent times which do not augur well for the implementation of the report of the Commission on Social Welfare. The rather extraordinary shift in thinking that has masqueraded as a reform of the fuel scheme is one that needs to be commented on. The extraordinary phrase used by the Minister's press officer — in this case I am attributing responsibility to the Minister, I do not want to get [269] involved in criticising officials — when she said they had managed to reduce the heating season forced me into a rather ironic reply. I accept that we are in a remarkably mild December week but I do not accept that the Department of Social Welfare had anything to do with it.

The idea that you can reduce the heating season and not leave people cold for part of the year when they would otherwise have had heating is nothing other than a redistribution of misery between the poor. You reduce the misery of some by increasing the misery of others: that is not what I call redistribution in our society. It is not what I would identify as the sort of redistribution we should be dealing with. May I say that I have very good legal advice to suggest that this scheme will also be disposed of by the Supreme Court and may I also say that I have been informed that the Supreme Court have shown an increased willingness to award damages to people who are the victims of improper use of social welfare legislation.

Perhaps the Minister ought to be careful that he does not walk the whole of the Department of Social Welfare into something far bigger than he intends. I have no doubt but that these regulations will be challenged in the courts. I have no doubt that they will be disposed of by the courts in the way that previous attempts to restrict access to free fuel were disposed of. I found, in particular, the reference in the circular to the exclusion of persons of no fixed abode living in shelters or hostels a particularly mean-minded bit of penny pinching at the expense of some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Going on the issue of what the commission recommended and what we are actually seeing and watching the fundamental contradictions that are beginning to develop, we have a number of decisions by the Government which fly in the face of everything the commission wished for. The penny pinching, meanminded way in which the budget of the Combat Poverty Agency has been cut back, cut back and cut back. Those who [270] might encourage poor people to speak for themselves, those who might encourage them to demand proper delivery of services, those who might encourage them to know and to fight back and to answer back have been so hamstrung that they will not be able to engage in any extra work next year. Even the miserable £40,000 that was taken from them towards the end of this year is a disgrace and the Minister ought to be ashamed of himself for that sort of a concerted attack on what is one of the most worth while initiatives in the area of combating poverty this society has seen. It is a disgrace and he ought to be ashamed of himself. In my view a man with any concern for the poor would have resigned rather than allow himself to do something like that. He cannot claim any justification or any right to speak as a defender of the poor when he allows that sort of concerted assault on the poor and those who defend them to be carried out in his name.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  I appreciate how strongly you might feel about this but, as Cathaoirleach, I would prefer if we did not have that tone coming into debates. I am quite sure the Minister present will be well able to defend himself but it is not like Senator Ryan to go that far in a personal attack. I do not like strong personal attacks made on anybody, whether it is on the floor of the House to each other, to me or to a Minister sitting beside me.

Mr. B. Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  You are always right. On this occasion I defer to your obvious correctness and I will refrain from such attacks and keep them to myself. There are, of course, other areas in which one can only attribute — I presume I can criticise the Government?

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  You can. Until I decide——

Mr. B. Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  You would not give me a bit of advance warning, a Chathaoirligh, so that I would know when I was going to come to a sudden halt? Without going too much further on the issue of the commission, two other areas have [271] guaranteed that the complexity of the present social welfare system will become an even greater inhibition or inhibitor on claimants.

First of all there was the abolition of the National Social Service Board and that guarantee of independent information. I emphasise the independence as much as the information. Knowledge is power and if you do not have independent access to the knowledge underlying a social welfare system, you will not be in a position to make use of that system. Secondly, there is the hamstringing of the Ombudsman which has forced the Ombudsman to make, for the first time in the history of the office, a special report to the Oireachtas which, to my knowledge, has not yet been debated in either House explaining why he will not be able to carry out his functions because of the restrictions on his office. It seems again to be part of a strategy to ensure a reduced accountability, reduced capacity of people to fight back and, in consequence, reduced uptake of welfare payments.

May I say that I could not conclude on the whole issue of welfare generally, before I begin to talk about the Bill and some of the Minister's remarks, without saying that the obnoxious Jobsearch scheme has proven to be precisely what everybody thought it would be and, if the Minister does not believe me, he should talk to those in the unemployment centres in Cork and Waterford and Galway about their experience of the Jobsearch scheme. It is a systematic harassment of people. I will not go on any longer on it but the Minister quotes figures for people leaving the register. It is time that people leaving the register include people who died and were taken off the register? Is that part of his statistics of people leaving the register? It does, perhaps, suggest a slight distortion of the figures. Does the fact that people emigrate and therefore leave the register, count? In other words, how many people left the register in a normal month before Jobsearch and how many have left the register in a normal month since Jobsearch in all categories?

[272] That is the only thing that is important, the numbers who leave, and of the numbers who leave how many of those were fiddling? There are difficulties for people on short term training courses who would be quite prepared, for instance, to pay a child minder if they got a job because the job pays £60, £70, £90, or £120 a week and who are then asked to go on an AnCO training scheme for six months on £35 a week. Because they have to pay a child minder they go off the scheme. That is not of benefit. That is squeezing people out because they happen to have children and it is discriminatory on that basis and that is not something that anybody should boast about. Those people are not abusing the system. They are available for work. They will find child minders if they get a job but the idea that you must be able to pay for child minding on £34 a week or else be taken off the register is a downright disgrace and constitutes nothing less than an assault on people who happen to be unemployed.

On the issue of abuse and the fact that this Bill has got away with masquerading as an anti-abuse measure when, in fact, the major abuse is the abuse of social welfare recipients contained in the sections beginning in section 8 and continuing almost to the end, that is the biggest single abuse we are talking about, not the abuse of welfare by recipients or their employers but the abuse of people on disability benefit, on maternity allowance etc. are contained in this, the astronomically long number of contributions people are being required to make. That is the real abuse, the abuse of the poor by this Government in the interests of financial rectitude. The earlier sections are nothing more than a very sophisticated deception which have lead the media into a position where they have ignored the assaults on the poor contained in the tailend of this Bill.

It is a quite disgraceful performance by the media that the Minister was allowed on RTE last Sunday to go on at length about the most welcome proposals at the beginning of the Bill to deal with rogue employers but was not even asked a question about the assault on pregnant women [273] contained in the proposals on maternity allowance and the other proposals contained in the Bill. I do not think the Minister should be allowed to get away with it and, since we will happily have a full Committee Stage in this House, unlike the guillotined Committee Stage in the other House, we will perhaps at least find out a little bit more about the rationale behind some of these offensive proposals.

On the issue of abuse of State services, since people are getting so excited about social welfare abuse, one small statistic ought to be put on the record of this House just to show that there are other areas of abuse which need considerably greater attention but because those involved are more influential, or more powerful, or better politically organised, do not get attention. There is a report in this morning's Irish Times referring to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General who says he has discovered there are 400,000 more ewes for which headage payments are being claimed than the Central Statistics Office has counted in the country. There is a difference of 400,000 in the number of ewes for which headage payments are being paid and the numbers that the Central Statistics Office has claimed.

We have about 400,000 mythical sheep floating around the country for which people are getting paid £11 per year. That works out at almost £5 million a year from the budget of the Department of Agriculture and Food. I suggest there will not be armies of inspectors touring the country trying to trap that down because the IFA are a very effective and vocal lobby which can protect their members when they are involved in that sort of abuse. Perhaps there are 400,000 sheep hidden away that the Central Statistics Office never found. It is meant to be slightly flippant but it does attempt to suggest that there are certain areas of abuse to which a blind eye will be turned and there are other areas of abuse where no such blind eye will be turned.

I have to ask the economists outside this House, the Government and, indeed, the members of the previous [274] Government as well, what did the poor and the unemployed do to you to deserve the assault that is being made on them? There is no evidence to suggest abuse on the scale that is now being floated about. I do not know because nobody will say what the estimates of the figures are. Some people say it is estimated at 5 per cent; some people say it is estimated at 10 per cent; and some people say it is estimated at 2 per cent. While he is prepared to assert in his script that he is deeply concerned about abuse the Minister will not put a figure on it, will not tell us. I do not know how you can ever solve a problem if you do not know how big the problem is. I find it extraordinary that we are solving a problem that we have never defined. To the extent that I have any professional qualification and, after Senator Farrell's remarks I am not sure what my qualifications are——

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  I think you asked for that.

Mr. B. Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  I was very moderate. Considering the appalling assault he made on the decency of unemployed people I think I was very restrained. I simply pointed out to him that the St. Vincent de Paul Society were more charitable than he was about these things. I did not think that was particularly offensive but, nevertheless, to the extent that I am professionally qualified my professional qualification is as an engineer. To the extent that I work I endeavour to teach, or to train, or to educate — you can choose which word yo wish — young engineers to work and in terms of what they do, a large part of their work is dealing with the solving of problems in real life. The first thing they have to do is to define the problem, to define the scale of the problem. Once they have the problem defined and the scale of the problem analysed, they begin to propose solutions.

What we have in the area of social welfare abuse is an undefined problem which goes up and down depending on the extent to which right wing views have infiltrated the thinking of a particular [275] politician or economist but which nobody has ever quantified and nobody will quantify. Why cannot we have one independent, properly funded study of the extent of social welfare abuse based on information which will be published, based on studies which will be published. If somebody can produce documentary evidence on the scale of social welfare abuse I will quite happily support measures to deal with it proportionate to the scale of the abuse. If the level of social welfare abuse is of the order of 1 per cent, the scale of the response in terms of what is done to average ordinary people on the dole is obviously quite different from what would need to be done if the scale was of the order of 25 per cent.

If 1 per cent is a sort of level of abuse you would have to tolerate to ensure that people were not excessively abused 25 per cent obviously suggests grand scale abuse. Therefore, the obvious first thing to do, and it is self evidently so, is to define the scale of the problem and nobody will do it. Either the Minister knows or has a good idea of the level of welfare abuse and the areas in which there is endemic abuse, or else he is simply jumping onto the bandwagon which is so fashionable in this country and charging off into the wild blue yonder in a crusade against an abuse he has never quantified. For all I know he may be charging off in the wrong direction, if he does not know how big the problem is.

Nevertheless, I am perfectly happy to support the porposals in this Bill. I would say that most people ought to be astonished that it has taken so long to introduce some of these proposals into our social welfare legislation. The idea that employers could obstruct inspectors of the Department of Social Welfare in some of these areas with apparent impunity and the idea that they could get away with all these sort of things is very wrong. It seems to be a dreadful reflection of the philospohical base of our whole social welfare system that all of the measures of enforcement, all of the powers were all to do with recipients and apparently very little to do with those [276] who would have employed those recipients and obviously would have been in cahoots with them. I agree with the Minister on this. Where there is abuse of social welfare the largest areas are where there is collaboration between employer and employee. I am satisfied about that from contacts in the trade union movement and people like that and they are satisfied, too.

I was very glad to see the Minister make reference to public sector people who got involved in this. It was a permanent complaint of people in the building industry that State building contracts were often given to employers who were involved in fiddling, in cahoots with their employees social welfare while those who did not involve in those practices and had to tender higher prices as a result lost out. I am very glad these penalties are being introduced. I will await with interest the first evidence that an employer ends up in jail because of the provisions of this Bill. I was interested to see there are people serving prison sentences for social welfare abuse.

In the Minister's script there were some interesting figures. I referred already to what I described as Woods's rangers, who are the people who seem to be riding around the countryside swooping on unfortunate recipients of social welfare just to prove to the economists who are now our masters that we are doing our best to eliminate social welfare abuse. Having heard the Minister talk about the external control unit, then about the special investigation unit and the internal audit unit I really would hate to be on social welfare because you would probably just get away from one when the next one catches up on you. I want to quote from the Minister's speech. He is talking about the external control unit and says:

Because of the very close liaison between this unit and other divisions of my Department, claimants are interviewed where, in the light of specific information obtained, there is reason to believe that the person may not have a legitimate entitlement. In this way, [277] legitimate claimants are not affected and at the same time the activities of the unit are much more productive.

It sounds like a grand idea. Where there is good reason to believe people are fiddling, this unit descends on them and does a very thorough check as it should do if peope are fiddling social welfare. The Minister continues:

Of 8,329 claimants called for interview by this unit in the current year to review their entitlement to unemployment payments 1,255 ceased claiming. The overall savings arriving from the activities of this unit are estimated at £2.7 million.

It sounds like a great boast. Let us remember that for the 1,200 who ceased claiming there were 7,000 innocent people who had to go through whatever procedures this particular unit puts them through and who presumably did not cease signing on and who were found to be entitled to the benefits they were getting. I cannot reconcile that sort of 6 to 1 ratio of innocent to guilty with the assertion by the Minister that legitimate claimants are not affected by these activities. If you are talking about a 6 to 1 innocence to guilt ratio there are an awful lot of innocent people who are being put through the hoops by this external control unit. It seems to be a less than happy figure to use to justify their activities. An awful lot of innocent people are being put through unfair and unnecessary inquiries on the basis of what is called “specific information obtained”. Either they are being had on a grand scale about specific information or else this is not nearly as refined an instrument as the Minister would have us believe.

Secondly, on the question of the special investigation unit, the Minister says:

Of 4,558 claims to unemployment payments investigated by the unit up to August of this year, 1,227 were disallowed.

He says that this special investigation unit was assigned the specific task of the investigation [278] of allegations of concurrent working and signing. Again in this case there were 4,558 claims and 1,227 were disallowed but let us remember that 3,200 were allowed. It was a two and a half to one ratio of innocence to guilt. If we are going to harass the unemployed on the basis of what we are told is specific information obtained we ought to be entitled to expect a somewhat better performance than that. What you are talking about is systematic harassment of large numbers of people in the interest of satisfying a number of rather hysterical critics of the social welfare system, one of whom is a constituency colleague of Senator Mulroy who makes a particular speciality of insulting and offending the unemployed — not Senator Mulroy, his constituency colleague from another party.

I want to refer to this mysterious consultant's report on welfare abuse, bits of which I am told have been leaked, other bits of which have been denied etc. Has anybody contemplated the irony of an international firm of consultants, whom I shall not name because I am not supposed to, who among other things offer financial advice and tax advice and specialise in advising some of their clientele on how to avoid paying taxes — that is one of the major areas of activity of all international accountancy firms, advising on how to minimise tax or avoid paying tax — being employed suddenly to investigate the poorest in our society. Has anybody contemplated the appalling irony of that, that the specialists in tax evasion become the specialists in social welfare abuse? What sort of an ideological and philosophical perspective will they bring to bear on that? I find their activities extremely sinister, the fact that they are secretive, that their report apparently will never be published, that they are basing their conclusions, whatever they are, on information that nobody will ever challenge and that they are doing investigations that none of us will ever be able to query or quibble with.

It is a most appalling policy decision introduced by the previous Minister and sadly carried on by this Minister that that sort of a group on the basis of the sort of [279] policy options they advocate, who would be anti-welfare in principle, will be used now as a source of advice to the Government on the levels of social welfare abuse. I would appeal again to the Minister to publish the report, at least in summary if he cannot publish it in its entirety — some of it we were told would be based on confidential information — so that we can make a judgment as to the quality of the advice, the quality of the judgments and above all the quality of the information and the basis on which the recommendations are being made, the recommendations which will become presumably the basis for action. The Minister made considerable reference to that consultancy firm in his speech.

On the issue of the proposals to ensure that employers do not collaborate or conspire with their employees to defraud the social welfare system one or two speakers have talked about the disincentive to employ, as the consequences of these regulations and their part of the deregulation school of economics which is also fashionable in this country, the idea that if you got this burden of State regulation off the backs of these wonderful entrepreneurs employment would blossom all over the place and that we would all be much better off if we could get this nasty Government off our backs. This is the sort of classic stuff The Sunday Tribune and many of the other organs give us every week and to which RTE contribute too, in their own way.

It is a load of rubbish to suggest that levels of regulation determine levels of employment or that somehow we would be better off if these regulations did not exist. The most regulated society in Europe is Sweden, and it also has the highest level of employment, the lowest level of unemployment, the best economic growth record amongst the European members of the OECD and any other index you wish to choose; they have done better than virtually any other country in Europe and they have done it with a well regulated, efficiently run economy. [280] There is no reason to believe that regulations of themselves are either a disincentive or their absence is an incentive to employment. It is a much more complex issue than that.

May I say that many of those here who were talking about the disincentives to employers to employ people seem to have a very different perspective of what is an acceptable income for everybody else as distinct from the income that they would regard as acceptable for themselves. I include myself in this. I heard a number of people talk about £100 a week take home wages as a reasonable expectation for people in employment. Let me refer to SW 19, rates of payment: I will refer to short term unemployment assistance because that is the one I calculated: a person with four children would be in receipt of £94 per week social welfare payments. If £94 a week is provenly an inadequate level of social welfare payment, I find it astonishing that Senators would suggest that £100 is a reasonable take home wage for someone in employment and that there are all these benevolent and benign employers queuing up to pay people £100 a week, only the State will not let them.

The problem is that that is an appallingly low level of wages and we should forget the idea that £100 a week is a reasonable level of take home wages. It is woefully and pitifully inadequate and the sort of poor law, low wages mentality will keep us with the countries that have a low wage mentality, that is the countries of the Third World, the Koreas and the Taiwans with their record of exploitation, long hours, poor wages and poor health. I do not think that we should allow ourselves to be led into that. I do not think that any employer should be allowed to employ people if he or she is not prepared to act responsibly towards them and pay them adequately. Given that we are competing with countries with levels of wages that are two or three times ours, there is no reason to believe that we have to pay people these sorts of wages.

The Minister should not pay any attention to those who would whinge about [281] the apparent disincentive value of these things. I will pursue the Minister——

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  I am sorry to interrupt Senator Ryan but there is a vote in the other House. The Senator may continue.

Mr. B. Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  I will be concluding, I need not delay the House. There are a number of proposals in the Bill on the very specific items and we can discuss them at length. What we are talking about here in terms of abuse ought not to be allowed to be carried out of perspective. One of my colleagues here — I think it was Senator Cregan — asked the very fundamental and important question: if there is large scale abuse of disability benefit why has there never been a single doctor taken off the register by the medical council for obviously improper certification?

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  I am interrupting the Senator again. I have to put it to the House that we adjourn for an hour. It has been suggested that when the Senator ends his contribution we might then adjourn until 6.15 p.m.

Mr. B. Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  On the issue of disability benefit, I almost missed this point but it needs to be said, that there is an extraordinarily widespread campaign of assault on recipients of disability benefit going on at present. I would believe there was widespread abuse of disability benefit if I saw a few doctors having their right to practise withdrawn. It is a very serious offence for a medical practitioner to sign a medical certificate saying that a person is unfit to work when that person is clearly fit to work. That is not a minor matter. It is a serious abuse of his position by any medical practitioner which I am satisfied the medical council would take a very dim view of.

The previous Minister confirmed that the Department of Social Welfare have never reported a single medical practitioner to the medical council. That may have changed, I do not know, but the previous Minister, Deputy G. Hussev [282] informed myself and Senator Ferris in this House some years ago that not a single doctor has ever been reported to the medical council. If the level of abuse of disability benefit is of the scale that we are being told it is — and I do not believe that — then the truth is that there are doctors involved, not just in an occasional minor fiddle but in large scale collusion to certify people as unfit for work. I find that quite astonishing. My conclusion is that it is not nearly as extensive.

The figures that have been quoted and the Minister also quoted them on the number of people on disability benefits being called in for examination by medical referees are like all statistics, are capable of a large number of interpretations. It is much easier for a medical referee to suggest that somebody is fit to go back to work. I would welcome clarification from the Minister on this. I do not know if a medical referee would be in a position to be sued for negligence if that person turned out not to be fit to go back to work and went back because of the insistence of a medical referee, whereas I do know that if a general practitioner were to certify somebody as fit for work and that person was not so fit and then suffered because of that, then the general practitioner would definitely be actionable and would perhaps have a claim before the medical defence union for substantial damages. That makes it easier for medical referees to be perhaps harsher in their assessments of fitness for work. I know of cases where somebody who works in the building industry and cannot go back to work there is told by the medical referee that he is fit to work as long as he works at something else other than building.

The fact that medical referees rarely if ever communicate directly with the general practitioner of the person in receipt of disability benefit does not say much for proper professional standards in the whole area of medical referees. I understand the average period of claim for disability benefit is less than two weeks and it is usually seven or eight weeks before somebody is called to attend before a medical referee. This suggests [283] that a large number of the people who do not turn up, do not turn up quite simply because they are back at work. It does not represent a large level of abusers being caught, it represents a large number of people who do not bother turning up because they are back at work and do not expect to have to make another claim; therefore the nine weeks disqualification that results from not turning up does not trouble them. There are a whole lot of things that should be gone through.

If, at the end of all that there is a residue of abuse in which medical practitioners are signing medical certificates saying that people are sick when they are not, then there are two things to be done, the people who are not sick should be dealt with and those doctors who collude with them to sign certs which are untrue should be penalised. I will not believe we are really talking about disability benefit abuse being dealt with until I see some doctors being dealt with with the same severity as we are now proposing to deal with employers and as we have consistently dealt with employees.

The Minister, referring to prosecutions in the course of his script, said:

Of the 45 cases finalised in court this year, there were 12 suspended prison sentences and 17 prison sentences in total. In one case a sentence of 12 months was imposed and in the other cases the sentences ranged from three to seven months.

Therefore, 17 people were sentenced to prison this year for social welfare abuse. I do not know whether they deserve to be in prison, but I know, to the best of my knowledge, there is nobody in jail in this country for tax abuse and I find that quite an extraordinary statement of our society's priorities. A person goes to jail for fiddling social welfare but you do not go to jail for fiddling either your own taxes or your employee's taxes.

I will believe we have an equitable society aimed at eliminating all forms of abuse when I find that there are the same numbers of people in jail for tax evasion [284] and tax abuse as there are in jail for social welfare abuse and social welfare misuse. Until I see those sort of statistics I can only conclude what I know to be the case, that this alleged attempt to eliminate endemic abuse is nothing more than a campaign of intimidation to frighten people off the register, to frighten people off disability, to reduce the level of expenditure. It is an endeavour to force people out of the marginalised poverty of welfare onto the absolute poverty of no income. It is a disgrace to our society that we should further humiliate and penalise those who have suffered enough both from the system and the levels of payment. Whatever my views on some of the penalties for employers, I will be opposing this Bill at this Stage and on Committee and Final Stages.

Sitting suspended at 5.10 p.m. and resumed at 6:15 p.m.

Mr. Mulroy: Information on Jimmy Mulroy  Zoom on Jimmy Mulroy  I should like to compliment the Minister on the progress he has made and the great efficiency he has managed to achieve in the Department of Social Welfare since he took over this very difficult portfolio. It impresses me that if you make a telephone call to the Department and quote a PRSI number, due to computerisation in the Dublin area, it is possible to get an immediate response. You will get a detailed record of the person you are inquiring about. I see a need to extend computerisation to other areas throughout the country where there are high levels of unemployment such as my own town of Drogheda. I will come back to that later on.

Section 2 of the Bill is designed to discourage collusion between employers and employees in case of suspected fraud by enabling the Minister to require employers to notify him of the commencement of employment of each employee. I listened with interest today to some of the contributions by Senators which were wide and varied. One speaker made a strong reference to the fact that we should give more consideration to the employer and make it easier for him to employ people.

[285] There is a part time jobs scheme in operation in some parts of the country, where a married man can sign off at the employment exchange and work for up to 18 hours a week getting £40 on social welfare and working for an employer, and a single man would receive £25. If an employer employs somebody on a part time basis, will it be necessary for the employer to notify the Department?

I listened with interest to the contribution made by Senator Brendan Ryan who spoke at some length about various aspects. He said — and I agree — that the levels of social welfare payments are not adequate to meet the needs of people who are existing on them. However, in making that statement you have to look at the other side of the coin and realise that levels of payment must be related to ability to meet these costs. The Minister said we are paying out something like £2.6 billion per year on social welfare. I should like that figure to be £5 billion provided we could afford it but we have a national debt in excess of £25 billion which must be taken into consideration.

There is a very fine balance between people on social welfare and the take-home pay of the average worker. There does not seem to be very much of a differential. Some Senators mentioned a take-home pay of £100 as being reasonable. I would not consider that reasonable and PRSI contributions and PAYE payments are much too high. The country needs a more equitable tax system. I listened with interest to Senator Ryan — a very able speaker — and while he said a lot about what was wrong with the system he did not make any suggestions as to how it could be improved.

The big problem for employers and employees is that the employer is endeavouring to be competitive to win orders on a competitive market. I travel to far distant lands and to areas in the Middle East and bring back orders but the problem is that there is no incentive for the employee to be productive. A commitment is made that the order will be fulfilled within a certain agreed time but when you tell the employees that you want them to work a certain amount of [286] overtime, including Saturday and Sunday, and that their jobs are guaranteed for the next six months provided they meet their commitments the reaction is, it is not worth their while because the tax and PRSI payments are too high.

I know the levels of taxation must be reduced and I am pleased that the Government are committed to that. It is one of their aims in the coming session. There is a necessity, as detailed in this Bill, to tackle the area of rogue employers and collusion between employers and employees to stamp out fraud. Many people are working in the black economy, which the Minister highlighted in his address, and they are putting legitimate firms out of business. It is a very fine balance and this Bill will go some way to make the legitimate employer more competitive by stamping out the black economy. Why is there a black economy? It is because the taxation system is inequitable and it must be addressed.

There are certain areas where it is very hard to police where cash is paid. It could be somebody doing a job on your car, a decorating job in your house or — dare I say it — in relation to medical attention or other types of professional advice. Is there a case for the Government to issue a serialised receipt book whereby any person requiring such a service — the service industry represents a very large part of our economy — should get a receipt? That would have to be linked with some incentive on the part of the person who is paying for the service. Should we bring in legislation in that regard? If the Minister for Finance made some allowance in the tax free allowances for services which are paid for, this would ensure that a person who pays for a service would insist on a receipt and it would ensure also that there would be a record which the officials in the relevant Department could check. This is an area that might be worth considering.

Around this time last year there was a lot of controversy regarding the EC Directive on equality because many people on social welfare would lose up to £40 per week. A regulation was brought [287] in by the Coalition Government to extend these payments to 17 November. The Minister was able to make savings in this area and I am pleased that he was able to extend these payments to the end of December and earlier this week he promised to bring in a regulation to extend them to the end of March. If these payments have to be eliminated I ask the Minister to do it on a gradual basis because there is genuine hardship in this area.

I would like to refer to local issues and to draw the Minister's attention to the high unemployment levels in Drogheda. There is a workforce in Drogheda and the surrounding areas of approximately 12,000 people and 3,860 of those people are unemployed. If there is a suggestion or a plan for decentralisation of this computerised social welfare system Drogheda should be given priority in this area. Unfortunately added to that the employment exchange which was built many years ago to cater for 1,500 people is now endeavouring to cope with 3,800 people. The Office of Public Works recognised that work had to be done on that exchange and an extension added to it. This work was undertaken in September with a promise that it would be completed by December. To my knowledge this work does not seem to be on schedule. At present the employment exchange is operating from an old factory. I do not think I can pull any punches in relation to this but it is nothing short of a disgrace the way the people of Drogheda have to queue up in a very undignified way in all types of weather week in week out, for hours on end, to collect what they are entitled to. I earnestly request the Minister to look into this and to liaise with the Office of Public Works to bring about the early completion of the works on the permanent building and also to carry out a survey to ensure that when that building is completed people will not have to queue in the rain and snow to collect their social welfare payments. I hope the Minister will take time off from his busy schedule and come to Drogheda early [288] next year to see the building at first hand. This cannot continue. I am not sure if this is the situation throughout the country but it is something we cannot and should not accept.

Section 18 of the Bill provides that moneys received by way of mobility allowance payable under the Health Acts shall be disregarded in the assessment of means for non-contributory old age pension. I welcome this provision because it was unfair that this money was taken into account in the means test. The sum of £320 was included in the means test and I am glad that the Minister has recognised that this needed to be corrected.

The Bill seeks to close off the defects and loopholes in the system and this is necessary. Some of the other Senators criticised the various people investigating the different cases. One senator said that 4,558 people were investigated and 1,127 disallowed while 3,200 subjected to systematic harassement. I was disappointed that the Senator who made this statement did not make some constructive statement on how these people could be investigated. I do not accept that people are being harassed and I do not think anybody in this day and age would accept that. If Senators make adverse comments they should at least offer a constructive alternative.

I compliment the Minister and thank him for extending these alleviation payments. I look forward to hearing his reply to the debate and maybe he could give the situation in Drogheda some consideration. I am happy to support the Bill.

Mr. O'Shea: Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  The Labour Party welcome the provisions of this Bill which provide for fines and jail sentences for employers who are found to be involved in what unfortunately in some instances seems to be organised rackets to defraud the Department of Social Welfare. The Minister quite rightly said that those who defraud the Department of Social Welfare are defrauding all of us because the Department use State money. The Labour Party hold that the levels of social [289] welfare payments are not adequate but we would in no way condone abuse.

Many Senators referred to disability benefit and certification for disability benefit. If an employer is found to be employing someone who is in receipt of disability benefit it raises a question regarding certification. We hear criticisms about over-prescribing for medical cards and so on in the health area. This Bill should include penalties for doctors who fail in their duty and in terms of their ethics and certify as incapable of working a person who obviously is capable of working. The Labour Party will oppose later sections of this Bill.

In 1987 the number of contributions required to qualify for disability benefit was raised from 156 to 208. We consider this to be very harsh but to raise that again to 260 contributions is exceedingly harsh. In the main this will hit young people very badly.

One matter I would like to bring to the Minister's attention is where a person avails of injury benefit because of an injury sustained at work. This benefit is paid without any restrictive contribution conditions but it is paid for six months only. A person who could have been very seriously injured during working hours by an accident at work or by an industrially induced disease would at the end of six months no longer have any claim to disability benefit or, in the long-term, to invalidity pension and the various other concessions that are related to it. The necessity to have five years contributions in order to qualify for disability benefit is a very harsh condition in cases where the people applying for disability benefit has just received six months injury benefit.

In regard to maternity allowance, I would like to have seen a measure in the Bill which was recommended earlier this year by the Commission of the European Communities and that is that maternity benefit should be paid to all women irrespective of their type of employment. The most relevant category would be those on part time employment. Unfortunately, many women are forced by economic circumstances to become involved in very menial employment, for example, cleaning [290] work and the like, and they do not have the required 18 hours work a week in order to qualify for this benefit. The income which they bring home can be absolutely vital to any kind of a decent lifestyle for the family. Pregnancy, birth and the period thereafter are very stressful times for any family's budget. I ask the Minister to consider extending maternity benefit to all those who pay social welfare contributions. People who work less than 18 hours a week do not pay a class A contribution. In terms of equity, this is a glaring inequality in the system and I ask the Minister to consider it.

Points have been made about low paid work. All low paid workers are not working in the private sector. For instance, local authority employees take home in the region of £118 a week. I am not suggesting that the levels of social welfare are near adequate; in fact, I am saying something different. There is the problem that the low paid in society are far too low paid. The local authority workers will benefit this year to the tune of 2.5 per cent under the Programme for National Recovery.

Another point in regard to disability benefit which I would like to bring to the Minister's attention is where people can claim disability benefit for five, six, seven or eight years and at no stage are they put on to invalidity pension. In many of these cases the people regularly go before medical referees and are found to be capable of work. For instance, in terms of the free fuel scheme they are looked upon as short term social welfare recipients. I heard of a case recently where a person was on disability benefit for seven years.

I do not envy the Minister in his work because the whole social welfare scheme is too complex. There is also overlapping in the health area. Recently I came across an anomaly regarding the national free fuel scheme where a deserted wife had a daughter living at home who was in receipt of unemployment assistance and they did not qualify under the free fuel scheme. Subsequently the daughter became ill and had to avail of supplementary [291] welfare allowance which is paid at the same rate as unemployment assistance and in that case they qualified for free fuel.

I welcome the Minister's progress in the matter of computerisation and in terms of the pilot schemes to date regarding regionalisation. Like Senator Mulroy, I would like to refer briefly to my own area and to ask the Minister if he intends extending regionalisation to Waterford and, if so, at what stage he intends doing so.

Referring back to disability benefit, one matter which is brought to my notice quite frequently is that it takes about a fortnight from the time of the submission of the first certificate until a claimant is paid. This can often mean that an applicant for disability benefit will have to apply to the health board for supplementary welfare allowance. When that allowance is paid it further delays the payment of disability benefit by the Department because the health board must claim, and be paid, the money due to them before the client gets his disability benefit payment. There should be a more efficient service for people applying for disability benefit. I would like to hear the Minister's views on cost efficiency and streamlining in terms of the programme of regionalisation about which we hear many rumours.

On Committee Stage the Labour Party will be putting down amendments to sections 8 and 9 and I referred earlier to our reasons for this. The Labour Party believe that the 156 contributions which are required in terms of eligibility for disability benefit and for invalidity pension are quite adequate. The proposal to increase this figure to 260 contributions means that a person will have to work for five years before he will be eligible for this benefit and in the present climate not many young people can get five years' work in their early years. We will be opposing sections 10 and 16.

In general I welcome some of the provisions of the Bill. Obviously it is difficult to please everybody across the board. The Labour Party will have to oppose [292] any changes in a system of payments that we already consider inadequate and a system in which we feel the contribution conditions are already more than adequate. It is to be very much welcomed that employers and employees who are taking part in organised rackets to defraud the system will be heavily fined and jailed.

Nicolás Ó Conchubhair: Information on Nicholas OConnor  Zoom on Nicholas OConnor  First, I congratulate the Minister on the provisions he has brought before us today regarding fraud and abuse of the social welfare system. He has saved the taxpayers millions of pounds by the clamp down on fraud in the past few months and has brought to light what has been happening with regard to the system. He and his staff should be congratulated for the efficient manner in which they have carried out this work. I come from a Gaeltacht area and many strange things have happened there in recent times according to local reports. I brought one of those matters to the Minister's attention. In my ignorance, I do not know the ruling on it. A young man was repairing his house and according to him an official from the Department called to ask him what he was doing. The man told him that he was repairing his house and the official told him that he could not repair his own house, if he was on social welfare. That sort of thing is like a red rag to a bull. If officials go that far, they are killing any initiative a man might have to keep his lot in order. In my area, 80 per cent of the people are unemployed. Up to 5,000 or 6,000 people have gone to America or to England in the past five or six years. I would like a short response to that.

Another complaint is that in this Gaeltacht area, it appears that some of the officials from the Department cannot, according to local people, converse properly in Irish with the people. Either that or they have a different dialect. In a poor area people are quite nervous when a welfare officer calls. The people should be helped rather than being frightened.

It is very hard for a single man to live on £36 a week. I know a man receiving £36 a week but because he had two cattle [293] that amount was cut by £10. That is sad. That man was not abusing the system, he was only keeping two cows for his own use, in order to have a few gallons of milk per week.

I welcome the clamp down on abuses, but those specific items in my area are worrying me and I would like the Minister's response to them.

Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I thank Senators for their contributions. I particularly thank Senator O'Shea for his very measured and worthwhile contribution. I appreciate his feelings about these matters. He certainly presented them in a very calm and rational way.

Senator O'Connor raised a number of fairly isolated incidents relating to the Gaeltacht. The Senator is right about how nervous people become when the departmental official calls. So far as I know, the case he instanced was not as he outlined. A person is entitled to work on his own house as long as he is available for work. If a job comes up, one cannot refuse the job because of working on one's house. Obviously there would be conflict there. Leaving that aside, one can work on one's own house. In connection with that, if a departmental officer stops somewhere to ask the way to a place, the word goes around straight away that an investigation is in progress. In fact the officer might only be trying to find the way back out of the area. There is a certain nervousness about officers going in there, and I appreciate the point made by the Senator. That is one of the things causing some of the difficulties. When we followed up cases which got banner headlines in the newspapers in the Gaeltacht there was no substance in them, yet there can be misunderstandings.

I have noted and agreed with what the Senator said about the single rate. We will have to see what we can do about it in the context of the budget. Everybody will want a little increment; and it is a question of what we can do in addition to that. It will be very little, because the current rate of inflation is relevantly small, and the percentages we are talking about these days are relatively small in so [294] far as global percentages are concerned.

Various speakers mentioned the Jobsearch scheme. The latest results from the Jobsearch scheme came in for the week ended 11 December. They show that to date we interviewed 138,370 people. Senators will remember that the target for the year was 150,000 people. The number of people placed directly in jobs from the initial Jobsearch interviews is 4,159. More people were placed in jobs following courses or following the Jobsearch course, or in the middle of the Jobsearch course or in the middle of the other courses. They are not counted in that. These figures relate to the ones who went directly to jobs. A total of 29,506 people were placed on social employment and training schemes and programmes. In a survey they did the planning unit of the Department found that 79 per cent of almost 30,000 people who were on long term unemployment had never had an offer of a scheme or programme before. What was going on? They just were not offered schemes or programmes before. That is the reality. Senator Ryan has not been talking realistically in his contribution here. I know that people objected to the Jobsearch programme from the beginning and many still object to it. From experience we know that it has been very positive and helpful to many people. We intend to develop the positive side of it. Out of 138,000 claims, 1,841 were disallowed by the Department, and 11,639 people left the register voluntarily. The total who left the register was 13,480 people. That was an indirect consequence of the Jobsearch programme. The savings to date are £17.56 million, an increase over the previous week of £1.24 million. The estimated savings on the buget at the beginning of the year was £11.5 million. When the Estimates went through the Dáil just recently, the revised Estimates were given as £18 million. It is now clear that the savings figure will be close to £20 million by the end of December. They are the actual savings. I notice that the Senator is nodding his head saying, no, it is not accurate. We have to account for beginning [295] of year and end of year. We have to do things during the year to try to reach a balance in the course of the year. We have to see what can we do that will give us that balance. Do we find more taxation? Do we do something about abuses? How do we get money for the people that Senator Ryan and others are talking about? That is the kind of thing one has to consider in the budget. In the course of those arrangements, this is the outcome for this year at this point.

Senator Mulroy raised the question of computerisation. Computerisation has been and will be very helpful in delivering much more efficiently many of the services we talked about. I noted the points he raised generally and the fact that he would like to see more computerisation in Drogheda. The Senator mentioned the question of the part time job allowance scheme. Under the scheme the person employed is supposed to hand in regular statements from the employer of the hours worked. We will be looking for that scheme again for next year because I believe there is much more potential for providing positive and constructive opportunities for people. We will be examining the scheme at the beginning of next year to see if we can make more use of it and improve it.

The question of Drogheda was raised and the officials tell me there is a particular problem there. I accept the invitation to go there early in the New Year. There has been a problem, according to my officials, in that people keep insisting on coming along at opening time as distinct from the different times during the day which are set for them. That is what my officials tell me and this adds considerably to the problem the Senator mentioned about queuing. However, I have noted what was said and I will certainly be happy to go along, see what is taking place there and give every assistance in having that sorted out as quickly as possible.

Senator Ryan's contribution covered a very wide area and he talked at considerable length about the various aspects [296] of the commission's report. We will be using the commission's report as a framework against which to work. I cannot say I accept every finding of the commission because that would not be the case. However, we are using it as our framework. How fast we can progress along the lines indicated and how many of the targets can be achieved remain to be seen. As I think the Senator recognised, we have taken a number of major steps. Extending PRSI to the self-employed is a very big step. You do not say it one day and then talk about something else the next day. That is what happens in the Dáil and Seanad. People ask what are we doing next. Nobody has ever undertaken that before. It has major political and administrative implications. If we are to make a success of it, my officials and I must concentrate our efforts and our work to make sure that happens.

We are also undertaking the statutory pay scheme which is another major administrative task. In addition, we are doing various other things in so far as we can in the time available. I assure the Senator that major steps are being taken. Senator Ryan talked about things like adequacy, comprehensiveness, simplicity and whatever.

I would have to reject in general the statement that the way people are treated in Social Welfare is degrading and humiliating. I could not accept that at all. Independent surveys of the staff in Social Welfare show that they have been particularly helpful and careful and that they are under enormous pressure. Having said that, I accept that it is particularly humiliating to have to go to look for the dole and to be means tested and whatever else. I accept that side of it and where there are any aberrations on the side of Social Welfare we will certainly pursue those. If the Senator is aware of any particular case, then I will be very happy to pursue it.

Senator Ryan also raised the question of electronic fund transfers to bank accounts. On the one hand the Senator was telling me that people are not in the big league, that they do not have bank accounts and these sort of arrangements. [297] On the other hand he is talking about transferring by automatic electronic transfers. We know all about electronic transfer. We are very much up to date with it and we have some of the most sophisticated equipment. There are other questions to be met here. How many clients want it? That is the first question. To date not many of the clients involved want that kind of service but presumably that will change in time. We are putting into place the machinery which will meet those requirements and will make it possible for us to deliver services in that way. There are many aspects to be considered. This forms part of our current considerations in relation to the whole administration of schemes.

Senator Ryan criticised the extension of the fuel scheme. Of course there were other options in relation to the Supreme Court decisions. There are options like giving fewer people money and getting down to a very grass roots situation. We did not do that. We tried to preserve what we could, then at somewhat extra cost we extended it to 30,000 people on long term unemployment assistance. There is the question of practicality. What is practical at present? People tell me that we should not be giving these benefits to certain people, that they should not be going to some of the people who get benefit under the urban schemes.

I have taken on this year a very major administrative undertaking in introducing one national scheme. I introduced the first national scheme and now I am trying to integrate the two into one scheme. It is only by such means that we will get a scheme based on real need where the resources will be directed towards the people in greatest need. In the short term in any changes we make, we want to preserve the benefits for existing claimants as far as we can. When we go to do that we find that the authorities involved do not even know the claimants. That is my problem as Minister. When I try to find out who exactly is getting this benefit at present so that we can preserve it for them, they do not know. They know in some cases but not in others. I have to sit back and let it roll on for a time as it [298] is until we can take note of all those people and then carry on with our rationalisation on the broader scale. These are the practical problems we face. If we want to preserve people's position and try not to hurt people in the process we have to appear to be slower or more comprehensive in what we are doing. It certainly is a different task in practice from the ones that are so often talked about in theory.

I will not pay any attention to the personal attack on me in relation to the Combat Poverty Agency. The bulk of the money to combat poverty has been given out to voluntary groups this year. It did not go into research. The fact that it went into voluntary groups means in effect duplicating the work our voluntary grant scheme is there for. I do not mind that this year. It is fine because they are not geared up to do the work, as yet. They are doing a certain amount but they will be in a position to do more next year. That is where the bulk of that money went this year. It amounts to £1 million in total. There are research projects under way and they will be increasing. They will be able next year to target their own resources towards the priority areas as they would see them.

I have mentioned Jobsearch, which was raised also by Senator Ryan. Of course everybody uses consultancy. Everybody uses engineers. We use engineers for the poor, for all sorts of people. Consultants are not only for the rich. We want consultants, management consultants and engineers and other people to work for the poor as well as the rich. It is a bit ridiculous to suggest that we should not have consultants who do basic consultancy work to look at systems and schemes we have in operation. When we go to instal computer systems we have to get people who are specialised. These are people who are advising banks and industries and they are in the world market in that area. Therefore, they are the kind of people we naturally turn to for advice in relation to mechanical systems. We are doing very well in that area.

In relation to the level of abuse, the consultants advised on a survey which [299] was done in the Dublin area. In the case of unemployment assistance, unemployment benefit and disability benefit, the level of abuse was found to be approximately 2 per cent with a further 7 per cent of suspect cases. That was basically what they came out with. That is reasonable enough in relation to my experience of the different areas.

Senators must remember that these refer to claims being abused at some time in the period of claim, not necessarily for the whole year. One must be careful in comparing these figures for the whole year. One must be careful in comparing these figures against global figures because it does not quite mean the same thing as taking a percentage of the total. It is dependent on the length of time it took to process the claim. Another interesting point in that period is the external control unit which was mentioned. It is a relatively small unit. These are Irish people who work and serve the poor day in day out. Their fulltime profession is serving these people; that is the business they are in. They feel that the extent of abuse is greater in the rural areas. I do not know whether that is true but that is their belief. What we have learned in more recent times seems to bear out that belief. That is all I will say about it at present. There is no more substantive information on it. Nor do I really need a lot more information on it. We want to ensure the systems are working properly. We do not want to dwell too much on that. We want to ensure that we have good control systems and get on with the job.

The question of prosecutions was raised by several Senators. The House may be interested to know that in 1986 there were six prosecutions of employers and that in 1987 to date there were 24 such cases. That is before these new powers become operative. It is from our experience in that area that we have found there are loopholes we want to plug. In a number of those cases fines were imposed. Therefore, the House will be aware that there are prosecutions of employers. I would hope that employers [300] will now get into line, that we will not have as many to chase next year. But certainly we are determined to root out this collusion, this defrauding of taxpayers, this cheating on the part of individuals and their competitors because, at the end of the day, we must ensure that the available resources go to those who really need them. The resources are scarce and we must ensure they go to the people who genuinely need them.

On the question of the external control unit and the special investigation unit, the Senator should have continued to read the commission's report. The Senator described these units as my rangers. They are in existence and are being used efficiently at present, using the head and the computer which achieves results. The commission expressed concern at the existence and the perception of fraud in the social welfare system. They found that people were somewhat ambivalent about fraud and abuse. They were concerned about its existence. They recognised its existence. They said that while they welcomed recent developments, such as the establishment of the special investigation unit, there was scope for further improvement. They continued to express the view that the primary purpose should be to ensure that, as far as possible the administrative systems are such that the scope for fraud is eliminated. They went on to recommend a number of further measures in that direction. The Commission on Social Welfare also talked about the desirability of more random checks, interviews of clients and so on. We are doing that sort of thing at present.

Early in the New Year I hope to make available a summary of the consultants' report. It refers in detail to our existing security systems; that formed a large part of their investigations. That report deals with internal as well as external possibilities. Nevertheless the broad summary of conclusions will be made available.

Senator O'Shea talked about penalties for doctors. Indeed, in some recent cases, those questions have been raised. Where cases of abuse by claimants come to light [301] it may well be that the relevant doctors who provided the medical certificates may have been instrumental inadvertently in that abuse in that they issued certificates without applying the necessary degree of care. Where cases of abuse come to light I will be looking particularly closely at the role of the doctors who certified the illnesses. I would appeal to doctors to apply the correct rules and procedure in all cases. Doctors' contracts with my Department incorporate a provision for a fine to be imposed where a doctor is found to be guilty of incorrect or careless practice. Where cases come to light, the doctors are cautioned. If that does not achieve the desired result they are fined. Ultimately, it may be necessary to refer the matter to the Irish Medical Council. Where there are cases of carelessness in that regard I would have no hesitation in taking the actions required of me in that respect.

Senator O'Shea also raised the question of wider cover for women in part-time work. I appreciate the point he made here. The problem is the constraints on available resources. I have noted what the Senator had to say.

On the question of disability benefit and people being eligible for such for years, I should say that whole area is one we will have to examine. In September last I attended the United Nations Conference of Ministers for Social Welfare. It was very revealing to me. I met quite a few counterparts over a few days in Vienna. It afforded us an opportunity to observe what was happening and the sorts of things they were doing. I found that my counterparts in other countries very often approached the matter in a different way from our traditional approach. We will have to examine that whole area and ascertain what is the best way to handle it in the future. As the Senator was saying people can be an awfully long time on disability benefit and yet not qualify for invalidity benefit. Obviously that poses questions as to whether they should have gone back to work, in the first instance, or — if they are going to continue that way — should they not [302] be in receipt of some form of invalidity benefit.

Regarding regionalisation and computerisation I should say that the Department are working on a target of a localised computer service for every town in the country. The kind of impression Senators may have gleaned somewhere is that there may be what might be described as crossroads in that computer terminals framework. In that sense one could regard those terminal points as regional points. They have not been determined nationally as yet. We are experimenting to some extent with some developments but those regional points will be determined fairly soon, so that we will have a localised service nationwide. Senators can be quite certain that, for example, Waterford will have the localised service.

Disability benefit was mentioned. On the subject of computerisation I should inform Senators we began in September last keying in disability certificates locally in Cork which is going particularly well. That reduces delays in payment and postage costs, and so on. Most of all it reduces the volume of telephone inquiries. The Department had had an enormous telephone bill. I accelerated this new process, being conscious of the cost of telephone bills and so on in order to effect savings. That process is working very well there. Probably it will provide a model on which we can proceed further around the country. Of course that would involve the regions taking their own decisions about disability claims in that sense. That is the direction in which we are going. That is our aim. We want to get those decisions delegated to local level as far as possible. However one still has to ensure the overall security of the system.

Senator Cregan mentioned the importance of incentives for employers. He talked about the job cards system and so on. I appreciate the point he made. It is possible to have a break in one's unemployment assistance, come back and still continue to be eligible as long as that break is not longer than 20 weeks in the case of unemployment assistance and 13 [303] weeks in the case of unemployment benefit. The detailed operation of this system in the shorter term is something I will be examining. Other Senators also spoke of it applying particularly to rural areas. That would be very important. All I can say at this stage is that it certainly is something we will look at.

Senator Cregan also felt we should be letting people know more about the part time job schemes and other schemes we have and that our publicity in that respect was not up to scratch. When we revise those schemes early in the New Year we will bear that in mind and make sure they are delivered through to people on the ground, both at the local branch level as far as our own Department is concerned and also to employers. Senator Cregan was quite right when he said that using the computers may make it possible to adjust means on a new basis and to be much more flexible. We have just completed the computerisation of the employment exchanges in Dublin to deal with unemployment assistance. We are now working on Cork in regard to unemployment assistance and we plan also throughout the country to deal with unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit. Over the next couple of years we will have a totally new system throughout the whole country which will make it much more flexible and will offer other opportunities and possibilities to us.

Senator Wallace talked about the need for improvement in buildings. I entirely agree. Senator Wallace also saw problems with queuing. I do not know if I will have to visit Navan as well but I will take the Senator's word for that. Senator Wallace also stressed the need for decentralisation. Some of the buildings are very fine. The building in Sligo is really a beauty; it has very nice accommodation, is well furnished and is a lovely place. That is what we want.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  I would expect that.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  It just happened that way. We want to have those kinds of facilities. I will certainly be pressing to get the [304] programme there advanced as much as possible. Senator Ferris talked about the Jobsearch programme and the need for Manpower agencies to be redirected towards getting people to work. I would agree with the Senator on that. The coordination that occurred under the Jobsearch programme was quite an advance in that respect.

In regard to disability benefit for the sick and those who are unable to work, it is interesting that out of 88,000 people called to medical referees only 1,800 were medically certified as unfit to attend; in other words, they were in bed or were not able to go for an interview with the medical referee. A good deal of the sickness involved is sickness that is on and off. In relation to people who are sick and unable to work and their long-term care, this raises the question of disability allowance as distinct from disability benefit. That is something that will have to be looked at in future.

Senator Ferris raised some questions about the free fuel scheme. The only thing I could say about that is that the extension did not actually create this situation, it was there already and it is one we can look at in future. It is just that the extension tended to accentuate it in that one ended up with two people qualifying in the one house. It was not the extension which caused the problem there; that problem was already there. We will look at it in future.

Senator Farrell had some very relevant things to say. It is very important, no matter how sophisticated we become, that we keep in mind some of the old systems. The whole matter of the Jobsearch programme tied in with Manpower, AnCO and social welfare. They had been separate for a long time and the Jobsearch programme brought them back together. It redirected those resources towards the long-term unemployed. In the old system the employment exchange was an employment exchange and when a person went there there was somebody to offer him a job if there was one available. Likewise, some of the other systems which the Senator [305] talked about are certainly worth looking at.

The Senator mentioned particularly casual rural employment. This is an area where there is a good deal of difficulty and, consequently, there is a good deal of abuse or unwarranted claims or overlapping or whatever you might like to call it. Perhaps if there was a simple system to deal with those situations then it might be a good deal more effective. That is something that we can look at. The Senator felt that would facilitate rural employment.

Senator Farrell also said we should educate people on how to get the most out of their money. This is one of the things that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are particularly interested in: they carry out home management courses and courses of various kinds like that to help people to manage, to handle problems and be able to face difficulties. The voluntary grant scheme has been used in part to assist in some of that work and it is certainly something that I would like to see assisted further in the coming year because I believe it is real, practical and down to earth. As Senator Ryan said, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are not represented on the Combat Poverty Agency and I cannot really understand why. He quite rightly said they are the people who do a great deal of the work on the ground. I have had discussions with the society recently and I will be giving attention to their very practical suggestions. I hope I have covered most of the points that were raised.

Question put.

Senators:  Vótáil.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  The question is: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time”. On that question a division has been challenged. Will those Senators calling for a division please rise in their places?

Senators B. Ryan, Ross and O'Shea stood.

Question declared carried.

[306]An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  The names of the Senators dissenting will be recorded in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Seanad.

Agreed to take the remaining Stages today.


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