Dáil Éireann - Volume 256 - 11 November, 1971
Committee on Finance. - Vote 47: Social Welfare (Resumed).
Debate resumed on the following motion:
That the Vote be referred back for reconsideration.
—(Deputy R. Barry.)
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. J. Brennan) Joseph Brennan
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. J. Brennan): When I reported progress on Thursday last I was dealing with some of the points raised in the course of the debate. I dealt, I think, with most of the major matters raised in relation to the Estimates. Many speakers referred to the scheme relating to deserted wives and quite a few expressed the hope that the Minister would look into the question of the age limit in the case of deserted wives with dependants.
When the Bill was going through the House I pointed out that the age limit of 50 was not sacrosanct as far as I was concerned and, if it is thought that it is too high, I will be prepared to bring it down. The scheme is under review at the moment. The scheme came into effect in October of last year and the review now taking place may reveal that certain changes are necessary for the purpose of greater latitude. It is not a scheme easy to administer since the essential information is difficult to procure and one cannot always accept just any kind of evidence. A great deal of latitude has been exercised so far in the operation of the scheme but I will be prepared to go as far as possible towards further relaxation of the regulations should this make it easier for genuine cases to benefit. Amending legislation may be necessary as a result of the review—possibly amending regulations will suffice—in order to make the necessary changes. This I will gladly consider in the New Year. The scheme has been welcomed by those who benefit under it. The same means test is applied as in the case of widows' pensions.
One of the arguments advanced during the debate was that increases  in social welfare were eroded by rising prices. Deputies made this assertion apparently without regard to what the actual figures are. I have had the figures taken out over two important periods. From August, 1969, to August, 1971, the increase in social welfare expenditure amounted to 39 per cent and the increase in the cost of living over the same period was 18 per cent. From 1957 to 1971—these are significant figures—the increase in social welfare expenditure was 298 per cent and the increase in the cost of living over the same period was 80 per cent, admittedly a steep rise but nothing like the significant rise in social welfare benefits over the same period.
In that 298 per cent lies the whole story of the progress made in social welfare. I doubt if any other country could show the same steep rise. We are rapidly moving towards the point at which we hope to achieve parity with those countries with which adverse comparisons are made. I have dealt with the comparison with the EEC countries, so far as it is possible to do that, and I have pointed out that harmonisation of social welfare codes will not necessarily mean that we will have to change anything in our scheme. The code we have is acceptable. It is comprehensive. That is not to say that the Government are satisfied we should now call a halt to the progress we have been making.
On the other hand, I visualise acceleration in the years immediately ahead of the progress indicated in the figures I have given for the period from 1957 to 1971 when we had a 298 per cent rise. I must insist, as Minister for Social Welfare, as far as lies in my power, that any increased cost as a result of membership of the EEC— many assert that this is inevitable— must be countered by bringing our social welfare figures up to maintain the weaker sections in relative security. I hope membership will enable us to do that and generally improve our rates as well as the scope of the schemes we have been operating. I shall deal with comprehensive reforms of the scheme later on.
Complaints were made about the difficulty of contacting the Department  by telephone. Since a section of the Department moved to Phibsboro' we got new numbers and these have been published in the daily newspapers in conspicuous positions. When the available telephone facilities were found inadequate the Department of Posts and Telegraphs installed extra lines. As I said in the debate this only indicates how busy the Department is and the big number of calls being made. This is understandable when dealing with thousands of people daily.
Somebody suggested the Department should be known as the Department of Social Security. That could easily be done without legislation under the Ministers and Secretaries Act by making an Order. The Department of External Affairs recently changed its name to the Department of Foreign Affairs. I am not sure that there will be any great demand for a change of name but if there was good reason to change, it would be a very simple matter and could easily be done.
I have already pointed out the scope of social welfare in this country in so far as it gives cover from the cradle to the grave. At the same time we had the usual demands from the Opposition that a new social welfare code should be produced. This demand is repeated each year. As Deputies must be aware we are at present engaged in a review in depth of the whole social welfare system with a view to making improvements. There is no real need for a new code. I gave a litany of the benefits and the persons covered and listed those benefiting under assistance schemes as well as under social insurance schemes. This is a fairly comprehensive list which would all be embodied in any comprehensive social welfare code. Asking for a new code would imply that there was not sufficient cover given under the present code and that would be completely untrue. There are some weak spots but these are very few and, naturally, they will be included in the improvements—I hope.
In recent times we have provided invalidity pensions, retirement pensions, death grants and deserted wives' allowances and extended to old age pensioners care by female relatives.  These were some additions to the code which is being filled in by bringing in such benefits rather than by introducing a new code. Looking over the code and comparing it with those operating in other countries I find no need for a new code but a section of my Department is at present engaged on and will, I hope produce some positive scheme in the near future in relation to the payments on the assistance side.
The need for this became very obvious with the reintroduction of the Employment Period Orders last year. I was very interested in the number of people appealing on behalf of those who were deprived of unemployment assistance as a result of the reintroduction of Employment Period Orders which had been a common feature of unemployment assistance schemes since they first came into operation in 1934. I thought this was good because the appeals came mostly from people who never failed to sneer at the scheme and speak cynically about it; people who accused the Fianna Fáil Government, which was responsible for the scheme in the first instance, of using it for the purpose of ingratiating themselves with the electorate. Because of the unanimous appeal we had for its restoration we gained, for the first time, acceptance of what is commonly known as “the dole”.
In the examination of cases which were inconvenienced or suffered hardship as a result of the scheme one was forced to conclude that a total revision of that scheme was overdue. In other words, we had been making payments under the guise of unemployment assistance to persons who, on a strict interpretation of the statutory regulations, were not entitled to that money but who were entitled to some welfare assistance. One had to come to that conclusion after examining the scheme following the reintroduction of the Employment Period Order. I found many people who could not qualify under the requirements of being capable of, available for and genuinely seeking work, and yet they were people who had been in receipt of unemployment assistance and could easily demonstrate  that without it serious hardship would be caused.
This is the type of people I wish to include in my new scheme but not necessarily under the heading of unemployment assistance. The other part of the new scheme will deal with what is commonly known as “home assistance”, a term which is not very acceptable at present but which can be one of our most useful schemes. It is particularly useful in that it can get benefit quickly to cases of hardship.
I hope that when this scheme is nationalised and operated by local persons as it is at present it will be a most useful scheme in giving supplementary assistance to people who suffer undue privation for short or long periods and will mete out assistance to those who do not qualify for any of the other schemes operated by the Department.
The other category which the Government have given me authority to have examined and which is now undergoing examination for presentation to the Government is the small farmer category. Many of these people have long since come to look on their weekly payments as merely a supplement to their uneconomic holdings. I am afraid very few people come to regard them as unemployment assistance cases, and, indeed, many of them do not relate these payments in any way to the unemployment position. It was quite openly demonstrated when the Unemployment Period Order was brought in that any employment that could be provided would not meet the requirements of these people in regard to supplementing the income of their holdings at all. Many of them were not prepared to take up work except on a rather temporary basis, perhaps during the winter months. This is another category that must figure in the new scheme in that assistance is very definitely needed, but I am afraid, if we are to continue to call it unemployment assistance requiring the weekly certification of these people, we will be continuing to apply a scheme which is not appropriate to the section that needs the assistance at all.
These are some of the matters that  are under review and I would hope to have a scheme to present to the Government in the not far distant future. I believe it is one that will be welcomed by everybody. That scheme must, of course, be directly associated with but does not necessarily involve an undertaking I have given the House before now that pay-related social insurance benefits will be brought in as soon as it would be possible to operate them. This is something which will mean a rather important change and a considerable amount of extra work in the Department. The insurable limit was raised recently from £1,200 to £1,600 and when that limit is abolished altogether and social insurance extended to other categories who do not come under the scheme at present, such as self-employed people, then with related benefits I think we will have embarked on a rather comprehensive scheme which will require a considerable amount of extra work in the Department.
Recently when I went across to sign the reciprocal agreement in London we took the opportunity of bringing some of the officials over and we went up to Newcastle-on-Tyne with the very kind co-operation of the officials of the Social Security Department over there. We were given a good insight into the working of the computer system there where over 10,000 people look after the claims of 26 million people on a computer system which operates quite efficiently. This was of tremendous benefit to the officials of my Department. We spent a few days examining the whole system with, I am very glad to say, the complete co-operation and assistance of the officials of the Department over there. They could not have been more helpful and gave us every possible facility to study the computerised methods used in administering their scheme. This is by way of preparing ourselves for the more comprehensive and completely extended work we will have when social insurance is extended to other categories and when the insurable limit is abolished and pay-related benefits introduced. It will be absolutely essential to have automation,  to have the computerised system in operation in order to carry out these schemes effectively.
I should like if more members of the House would give serious consideration to the amount of work involved in the Department of Social Welfare. It was for that reason that I gave a list of the huge numbers for which the Department have to cater daily, weekly, monthly, round the year. Inevitable delays occur from time to time when it is not possible to get the necessary information and I should like if some members of the House particularly would not make capital out of these delays. I was very pleased with those Deputies who paid tribute to the courtesy and efficiency of the officials. Sometimes the attacks that are made on the Department would lead one to believe that for some reason or other it is less efficient than any other Department.
I am deeply concerned about the elimination of avoidable delays and we have recently gone to the trouble of appointing some extra officers in exchanges throughout the country for the purpose of giving information to people at these employment exchanges. We have appointed quite a number of officers already for that purpose alone and I hope that more will be appointed in future so that, at these different points where employment exchanges are established, there will be people to give anybody who seeks it the necessary information.
I wish that many of those seeking benefits and finding difficulty in getting the necessary attention would go and discuss the matter with the managers of the exchanges or, in cases where we have these officers appointed, with them rather than writing letters to the newspaper. It is quite understandable that newspapers have all sorts of gimmicks to increase their readership and maintain their circulation. One of their most important gimmicks is that they have somebody purporting to give a service on different matters. You write in to Angela MacNamara if you want to know what is going to happen in your romantic life. This is an understandable thing for the increasing of their readership. When the Department  of Social Welfare are being lashed by these people who purport to give a service I should like to point out that when these cases are brought to my attention almost unfailingly they are cases where the people cannot succeed in getting benefit anyway. It is as simple as this: if one requires 156 stamps to qualify for something and one has only 155 one just does not.
One has a grouse about it and one writes to the press saying that it took the Department months to find it out. Officials go to every possible extreme before a person is rejected to see if, as a result of illness which was not certified at the time or as the result of an employer who failed to stamp, that person may qualify. If it is a marginal case the person concerned is quite sour and annoyed. We shall, for all time, have these complaints irrespective of which Minister is administering the Department of Social Welfare, but that is not to say that we do not do everything possible to eliminate the avoidable delays or errors that might occur.
I want to finish with a reference to the question of failure to stamp cards. Some Deputies spoke as if we had done nothing about this. Failure to stamp cards has been a sore point for many years but we have taken the necessary steps through regulations in the last Social Welfare Act to eliminate the cause for complaint where people have failed to pay the necessary contributions for an employee or employees. Where we can show that there has been no collusion between an employer and an employee and where failure to stamp has occurred to the extent that it deprives the employee of the benefits to which he might be entitled the Department have power to credit the contributor in question with the necessary contributions. That should put an end for all time to the complaints about our not taking proper action against persons who fail to stamp their employees' cards.
In that respect I would like to say that quite frequently we prosecute employers who do not stamp cards. In most of the cases when prosecution is pending Deputies from different sides of the House come to me asking  that the case should be adjourned or deferred until the person has a chance to pay up. We exercise the greatest possible leniency with regard to prosecution if they show signs of paying up. In many cases prosecution is the only way. We have to be seen to be concerned about this and for that reason quite a number of prosecutions take place and quite a number of fines are imposed each year. It has been necessary for the Department to have a stricter watch over this matter, since the Department now has the right to credit the contributions. We consequently suffer the loss and for that reason it is necessary that we keep a careful watch on the stamping of cards for employees.
I have covered most of the points raised and I do not think it is necessary to delay the House any further other than to say that, in spite of some criticism, we are very grateful to those Deputies who have given co-operation, who have shown an understanding for the problems involved and who have been helpful in the role of an ombudsman in securing the necessary assistance and co-operation in the operation and administration of the many schemes throughout the country.
We are for ever grateful to and conscious of the great work that the voluntary organisations do particularly in the geriatric field. I have time and again stressed the value of these voluntary local organisations which are operating in co-operation with us in many cases in local schemes for the assistance of the aged or other weaker sections. We regard these voluntary organisations as being necessary at all times irrespective of what standard we may bring our welfare payments to because they are doing a type of work which no Department could possibly do due to their local contacts and intimate knowledge of the cases concerned. No compliment I could pay would be too great about the worthy causes that are pursued and the work done by these people throughout the country.
The important progress, as revealed by the figures I have given in reply to this debate, will be continued and accelerated in the years immediately ahead. One has only to look at the rate  of progress to appreciate that the day is not far distant when we will not be adversely compared with any of our neighbouring States in the matter of social welfare.
Mr. Murphy Mr. Murphy
Mr. Murphy: I want to ask the Minister a question relative to the extension of that part of the County Cork area which is within the 12 western counties for the purposes of qualifying for unemployment assistance on a land valuation basis. The Minister appreciates that not more than 50 per cent of that part of the county which is deemed to be within the 12 western counties is included. I would ask the Minister to deal with that question expeditiously.
I have submitted a map to his Department indicating the areas concerned. When is a decision likely to be made on my representations? It is completely unfair to a section of the people of South West Cork Constituency who are entitled to the same kind of facilities if they qualify for this assistance, as are obtainable by those people living in the remainder of the 12 western counties
Mr. J. Brennan Mr. J. Brennan
Mr. J. Brennan: Deputy Murphy has raised this matter on a number of occasions. It is being examined by the Department. I was not aware that he had presented a map and I am glad to hear he has. I am sure we shall be able to give a decision on it soon.
Motion to refer back, by leave, withdrawn.
Vote put and agreed to.
Dáil Éireann 256 Committee on Finance. Vote 47: Social Welfare (Resumed).