Dáil Éireann - Volume 262 - 28 June, 1972
Social Welfare Bill, 1972: Second Stage (Resumed).
 Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. J. Brennan) Joseph Brennan
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. J. Brennan): When the debate was adjourned, I was outlining the inevitability of delays in many cases and the efforts we were making to eliminate them as far as possible and I was seeking to point out that we need the co-operation of the applicant as much as that of the officials on the administrative side to achieve this. The local old age pensions sub-committee is a sub-committee which I have always held should be there. I had particular regard for their position in so far as they may act as a buffer between the officials and the applicants and I was always slow to advocate their abolition but if I feel, as I do in some cases, that they do not meet sufficiently frequently and by that means delay some applicants' claims for pensions, then I will take a serious look at the question of retaining them unless they pull up their socks and do a better job of work for us. Like any other Deputy, I get personal complaints from my constituency. I make inquiries and find that the claim has not yet gone before the old age pensions sub-committee or if it has they have not yet met to clear it. If they act as a delaying agency, then they are not performing their function as I would like them to. I would be very slow to abolish them.
I always felt they did act as a buffer between the officials and claimants but there is a vast difference between the manner in which they perform their duty as from one sub-committee to another. I was a member of a sub-committee for many years. We met on the last Saturday of every month religiously and disposed of all the claims before us in a manner which was in accordance with our best interpretation of the regulations. Some committees do not meet sufficiently frequently and they hold a few claims waiting until they have a number, seemingly not appreciating that delays may be occurring for which we eventually have to take the blame. This is a matter to which I must give some  serious consideration in the time immediately ahead as part of any effort we make to cut out any avoidable delays.
Many Deputies made favourable reference to the prescribed relatives scheme which has now been extended to males. Some Deputies made the comment which is frequently made with regard to old people detained in homes. I have had informal discussions with the Minister for Health time and again regarding this matter. It is natural that one should ask, if it is costing £17 or £20 to keep an old person in a home, would there not be some relatives who might be prepared to take the old person out and look after him for, perhaps, half that figure or something less. This is a matter for the Department of Health rather than Social Welfare but it concerns all of us and is of considerable interest and worth pursuing. I would point out though to Deputies who seem to think that this would be a simple thing to do that it is not quite so simple because if a scheme of this type operated between Health and Social Welfare one can visualise everybody eventually seeking to claim for this type of benefit by simply going into a home for a week and then being claimed out by relatives. These are obstacles which it may be possible to overcome. Any deep examination of our welfare system must have regard to this as something for consideration in the immediate future.
I am trying to cover the points raised without mentioning Deputies specifically. Most Deputies advocated the lowering of the qualifying age for old age pensions. We have done that in relation to contributory pensions. The retirement pension is now payable in full at the age of 65 for persons qualified to receive it. It is inevitable that we will be faced with reducing the age on the non-contributory side too. Sometimes it is pointed out that there has been no reduction in the qualifying age for old age pensions since they were first introduced. It is forgotten that the average expectation of life has been considerably extended since 1908. When we bring the pension age to 65 I would say it will be equivalent  to paying it at 55 when pensions first came into being. I have not got the exact figure but there has been a marked advance in life expectancy due to the better medical facilities available now. Nevertheless, it is true that Norway was the last country in Western Europe paying pensions at 70 and they recently reduced the age to 67 or 68. We have now reduced it so far as contributory pensions are concerned and we will inevitably be faced with bringing down the age in the near future to a lower qualifying age than that which it is at present.
Deputy Begley referred to applicants being held up when a transfer of land is involved. I thought we were reasonably generous in this. We usually accept proof from the solicitor putting through the grant of administration that it is being done and we do not as a rule have to wait for deeds to be produced. There is not any real delay in this respect on our part.
Deputy O'Connell asked why these payments were not made immediately, why August and October? As the House knows, the dates used to be October and January. We have brought the dates forward considerably and it is not possible to do any better if we are to make provision for the work that has to be done in the way of preparing new schemes, preparing and printing new books, having new insurance stamps prepared and all the necessary preparatory work which must be carried out before payments can be made. This is an administrative problem for my Department. It is a gigantic one. Every year all the books have to be re-printed. There has to be a complete set of instructions, a complete new set of regulations. The entire work has to be repeated every year for the thousands and thousands of cases involved. It is a very big job when one is dealing with several hundred thousand cases. It would not be possible to have it in operation next day with any degree of efficiency. Deputy O'Connell again made reference to our approach to the scheme of deserted wives allowances and appealed for a more humane approach which, he said, I promised all along. We have been as liberal and as humane—to use his own word—as one could possibly be in this  respect. We are dealing here with a rather sensitive and difficult area where one must not be prepared to take qualification for granted; proof must be produced. The officials of the Department have been dealing with this matter admirably and the complaints reaching me are practically nil.
The question was asked also by Deputy O'Connell, whether, now that we are taking power to have the dependant's allowance paid separately in cases where the breadwinner may not be fulfilling his responsibility to the dependants, this could be brought into the reciprocal agreement with the United Kingdom in cases where the breadwinner is drawing his allowance in England and not contributing to the family at home. I would only point out that on our accession to the EEC these matters of reciprocity and common payments in the various countries can easily be worked out as part of the whole welfare scheme. Deputies are aware that contributions paid in various countries can be aggregated for the purpose of qualifying for benefits and the benefits are payable in whatever member State an applicant may be living at a particular time. With regard to reciprocity in the matter of the payments to which Deputy O'Connell referred, the procedure will be simplified by our entry to the EEC.
On the question of persons taking care of their old folk losing their title to unemployment benefit or other insurance benefit, this matter has been raised by a number of Deputies, sometimes privately with me and, in other cases, in the debate in the House. We are looking into this matter. Deputy O'Connell advocated that contributions could be paid in respect of the years spent in taking care of the old folk. I would remind him that it would be sufficient to give them credit for contributions in order to maintain the validity of the contributions they have already made or to maintain the continuity of their right to payment, so that if there is a long lapse represented by the time in which they were engaged in taking care of the old folk, when the old folk have passed on and the persons concerned are again available for employment and apply for benefits, the  continuity of their benefits will not be broken by reason of their not having continued as contributors over a long period.
In cases where persons have not had their contributions brought up to date, in the case of companies going into liquidation, this is a matter we have dealt with already. Some Deputies did not seem to remember that that was already done. We took power last year to make provision for cases where persons would otherwise have lost their title to benefit as a result of the firm or company where they worked not bringing the contributions up to date. We would exercise that power only when we are certain that there is no possibility of recovering the contributions from the employer.
Deputy Fitzpatrick made an appeal on behalf of old people going abroad and losing their non-contributory pensions. This is a problem which confronts me frequently in my constituency. I know all about it. Many of our emigrants who marry and settle down abroad bring their parents out for a holiday. This does not involve any problem in so far as the pensioners are entitled to be absent for 13 weeks and still draw the pension in respect of that period. There is discretion as far as the Minister is concerned where, for good reason, the pensioner is unable to return within the 13 weeks. If it is due to sickness or some other good reason, it is possible to extend the period. It is a matter requiring the greatest possible vigilance because it is not unknown to the officers of the Department or, indeed, to Deputies, that many people are inclined to shuttle back and forth and only come to draw their pensions. In these cases residence is not established and it is not permissible under the regulations. The 13 weeks give ample scope if the matter is approached in the proper manner.
Appeals have been made for the extension to disabled persons of the benefits available to certain old age pensioners by way of free electricity, television licences and travel. When I suggest bringing in a new scheme on a limited scale it is invariably pointed out to me, and rightly so, that once a scheme is introduced there is an immediate  demand for its extension to other sections. When we introduced free travel for a particular section there were demands from all other sections for its extension to them. One cannot yield to every demand that is made. I can assure those who made the case for certain disabled persons, particularly wheelchair cases, that it is one of the many things we have under consideration from time to time. As I have already said, there are priorities and one has to take cases in the order in which they are regarded as of the greatest importance.
I may be overlooking some of the questions raised by Deputies. If so, I am not doing it intentionally. The same points were raised by many Deputies. I would only like to say in a general way that the suggested improvements that have been recommended and the anomalies that have been pointed out are frequently brought to our attention. As Deputies must be aware, advantage is taken of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill every year to tidy up matters that have been shown over the previous year or longer to need attention. Very often, some of these things can be done without legislation. In any event, we do take the opportunity when the Bill comes before the House to write into it provisions that have been shown to be necessary.
The reduction of the qualifying age for old age pensions to 65 years of age would, at the best estimate we have, cost about £13 million. It is a huge sum——
Mr. Murphy Mr. Murphy
Mr. Murphy: A sizeable sum will flow back to the Exchequer.
Mr. J. Brennan Mr. J. Brennan
Mr. J. Brennan: Deputy Murphy is doing a cost/benefit analysis in his own mind and he is pointing out that the State would not lose. I agree that any money we pay in benefit goes into circulation immediately. It is never stagnant capital and is always available to stimulate purchasing power. In so far as it goes towards the purchase of taxable goods it goes back to the Exchequer. However, that is not the only basis on which one must examine the need or otherwise to give certain benefits.
 The important point with regard to the social welfare code is that a social conscience alone is not sufficient. It is not what is involved in deciding on a certain payment to any individual. Any Minister for Social Welfare must be confronted with the limitations which present themselves to him when he is considering the payment of benefits to the less well-off section in our community. He must have regard to the amount he can take from the public purse at a given time. He is not dealing with his own money, neither is he taking money out of a bottomless pool. He must take money from the people in order to give to those who are not able to provide for themselves. The redistribution of the national wealth and the extent to which the Minister will go at a given time must be limited by the regard he must have to leave in the pool a sufficient amount to sustain the effort towards national economic expansion which is the mainspring in providing the resources necessary to maintain the benefits.
Any Minister must work within these limitations. It is not a matter only of conscience. As has been pointed out, the public conscience has been so shocked into a sense of its public duty in recent years that everyone is demanding better payments for the welfare classes. I should like to take up a point made by Deputy Murphy with which I agree. Although the public conscience has been aroused to a sense of its responsibility, I wonder if the individual's sense of responsibility has not been lulled a little so far as relatives and friends are concerned. Of all the things the State can do for people, particularly for the aged, the loving care of their own families and relatives is of greater importance than anything any Government can do. I hope we have not reached a stage when that sense of responsibility, that conscience which made it necessary for people years ago to look after their parents when there was no benefit provided, has not been completely lulled into a sense of irresponsibility. Irrespective of what we do here, I hope that important and indispensable part of the care of the aged by their relatives will always be  part of the public conscience which will accept its responsibility and do its share.
Dr. O'Connell Dr. O'Connell
Dr. O'Connell: The Minister will agree that this constitutes a big burden in many cases?
Mr. Creed Mr. Creed
Mr. Creed: For economic reasons it is not always possible to do this.
Mr. J. Brennan Mr. J. Brennan
Mr. J. Brennan: It is a sacrifice people should undertake cheerfully. There are cases where different circumstances prevail. We try to make a distinction between some of the less well-off of our old people and others. For that reason we have been discriminating in bringing in benefits which are available to some and not available to others. In this connection I am thinking of the home care scheme, the allowance for prescribed relatives, the provision of electricity, the concessions regarding free travel and free licences for television and radio. These benefits were calculated to reach that section of the older people who have few friends to take care of them and who are in a worse position than those people who have relatives to care for them.
For that reason I am anxious to have the new scheme of home assistance finalised—it is now at a fairly advanced stage. When it is completed we will be able to have home assistance paid on a national basis in a uniform manner and it will enable us to give supplementary benefits in cases where the flat rate benefits available are not sufficient. That is recognising that there is a vast difference between people who enjoy the benefits of social welfare——
Dr. O'Connell Dr. O'Connell
Dr. O'Connell: I am sure the Minister will agree that a considerable number of people are below the poverty level.
Mr. J. Brenan Mr. J. Brenan
Mr. J. Brenan: A considerable number of people can hardly survive on the amounts we pay them, while others can enjoy a reasonably normal life because of their circumstances. This will give us an opportunity to deal with this problem in a humane and expeditious way. A close examination of our social welfare code does not reveal that there is anything seriously  wrong with the structure of social welfare. Our benefits cover a wide and comprehensive range of cases. One of the most important improvements for the future is the extension of social insurance to cover a wider range, to get more people under the contributory umbrella rather than the non-contributory so that means tests eventually will disappear as part of the social welfare code.
So long as our resources compel us to have means tests they must be carried out. They are distasteful and they will give rise to a good deal of unnecessary accusations regarding the manner in which the administrative section of the Department must carry out this work. None of us appreciates that. How often have we heard it said that the man who leads a prudent life and makes the necessary provision for himself and his family and, perhaps, accumulates a little extra capital, is victimised because he finds on reaching the age of 70 that he does not qualify for the old age pension whereas his neighbour who may have made no effort during his lifetime to provide for himself finds that he is entitled to an old age pension. This accusation is often made in regard to the means test but that is not the basis on which the means test is applied. We must deal with circumstances as we find them at a given time. I hope that with the extension of the social insurance scheme we can look forward to the time when more contributory cases will be the order of the day and that means tests will be few. In replying to a question here the other day I gave figures regarding the numbers of widows in receipt of contributory and non-contributory pensions. Some Deputies doubted these figures but I can assure them that they were correct. Each year the number of widows receiving contributory pensions becomes greater because more people are now in insurable employment and fewer people are claiming non-contributory widows pensions. This is not as evident at the old age pension stage as it is in respect of widows' pensions but it is becoming more evident in respect of old age pensions, too.
Dr. O'Connell Dr. O'Connell
 Dr. O'Connell: There is a greater insistence now on insurance.
Mr. J. Brennan Mr. J. Brennan
Mr. J. Brennan: I would like to see the stage being reached where we could extend the social insurance scheme to all our people so that the burden could be spread more evenly and where benefits could be considerably better. This is the target towards which any Minister should work and now that we are on the brink of accession to the EEC I hope we will move more rapidly towards that objective.
I thank the House for its constructive approach to this important Bill. There were many suggestions made by Deputies. I may not have referred to all of them but I assure Deputies that we read the Official Reports so as to ascertain what are the points that are harped on most and we try to act on them where possible.
Mr. Coogan Mr. Coogan
Mr. Coogan: The Minister has not replied to the point I raised regarding members of the Garda Síochána who resigned during the past ten years and who had contributed to the contributory pension scheme. Will the Minister write to me on that?
Mr. J. Brennan Mr. J. Brennan
Mr. J. Brennan: I will.
Mr. Murphy Mr. Murphy
Mr. Murphy: Would the Minister mind if I presented him with a map, a copy of which I sent him some time ago? This relates to the part of Cork county that is deemed to be within the 12 western counties and to where I have asked the Minister to extend the operation of the unemployment scheme to farmers.
Mr. J. Brennan Mr. J. Brennan
Mr. J. Brennan: I will accept the map from the Deputy.
Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.
Dáil Éireann 262 Social Welfare Bill, 1972: Second Stage (Resumed).