Dáil Éireann - Volume 319 - 25 April, 1980

Estimates, 1980. - Vote 49: Social Welfare.

Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): I move:

That a sum not exceeding £353,685,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December 1980, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Social Welfare, for certain services administered by that Office, for payments to the Social Insurance Fund, and for sundry grants.

The net Estimate for Social Welfare for 1980 as set out in the Estimates Volume [2140] is £353,685,000. The amounts shown in the Estimates Volume under the various subheads for 1979 include the additional amounts provided in the two Supplementary Estimates which were taken in that year. The 1979 figures, therefore reflect the effects of the prolonged postal dispute in that year which resulted in increased expenditure under certain subheads and a shortfall in contribution income leading to a higher than normal subvention from the Exchequer to the Social Insurance Fund. For these reasons the 1979 figures are not directly comparable with this year's figures.

The 1980 Estimate was of course prepared before the 1980 budget and accordingly does not include provision for the costs of the rate increases and other improvements announced at that time. Neither does it include provision for the cost of the temporary increases granted as part of the national understanding at October 1979 for any period after the end of March 1980. It will be necessary to provide for the cost of these items in a Supplementary Estimate to be introduced later this year.

Thus, the published figures do not give a complete picture of the annual expenditure on social welfare services or an adequate comparison of the growth in the cost of such services from year to year. Substantial changes were effected by the 1980 budget and I do not think that any useful purpose would be served by comparing the figures for individual subheads of the Vote with the corresponding figures for last year. However, if any Deputy requires information on any specific provision I will be happy to supply it.

The Social Welfare Act, 1980, recently before the House, contains the necessary provision for the improvements in social welfare services announced in the budget. These improvements include significant increases in the rates of social insurance and social assistance payments with effect from April 1980 and in children's allowances with effect from July 1980; removal of an anomaly in means tests; increased disregard from the earnings of blind pensioners and [2141] seasonal fishermen; reduction of qualifying age for blind pension from 21 years to 18 years; provision for automatic title to widows' non-contributory pensions in certain cases; extension of the orphans' pensions schemes to certain abandoned children; removal of residence qualification for unemployment assistance; increased grants for multiple births; increased death grants; easing of the contribution conditions for receipt of treatment benefits for young people; granting of additional credited contributions to persons taking up employment for the first time after leaving school and extension of the provisions for payment of adult dependants' allowances in certain cases. It is expected that all these improvements will cost the Exchequer an additional £90.2 million in the current year.

The estimate of £353,685,000 before the House, as Deputies are aware, only represents the amount which the Exchequer is called upon to provide for social welfare services in 1980. In order to arrive at total expenditure on social welfare services, account has to be taken of the expenditure from the Social Insurance Fund, the Occupational Injuries Fund and the Wet-Time Fund which is financed by contributions from employers and employees.

Perhaps the most useful indication which can be given of the cost of the services administered by my Department is the estimate of total expenditure for a full 12 months based on the new rates of payment and other improvements announced in this year's budget. On this basis it is estimated that total expenditure from April 1980 will be running at an annual rate of £889 million. This compares with a figure of around £703 million per annum based on expenditure in the twelve months after April 1979 and represents an increase of approximately 26.5 per cent.

Deputies are sometimes confused when looking at the Exchequer contribution to the Social Insurance Fund under subhead E of the published Estimates. I [2142] should mention that this is a residual figure which can alter considerably by the end of the calendar year. As shown in the published Estimate for 1979 the figure was £49.50 million but, as this year's published Estimate indicates, that figure had increased to £80.48 million by the end of 1979. The figure shown in this year's estimate for the income of the Social Insurance Fund is the amount which was calculated to be raised from the existing main pay-related social insurance contribution rate of 11.2 per cent with an income ceiling of £5,500 per annum and also includes estimated amounts to be received in 1980 by way of arrears due from 1979 and from higher average earnings in 1980. As already announced, the main pay-related social insurance contributions rate has been increased to 12 per cent with an income ceiling of £7,000 per annum with effect from April 1980. It is the income from these levels, together with the experience of actual expenditure on the various insurance benefits throughout the year, which will finally determine the Exchequer contribution to the Social Insurance Fund for 1980.

As I mentioned earlier, the new social welfare rates of payment and other improvements have been covered in the debates on the budget and on the Social Welfare Bill, 1980. Accordingly, it is hardly necessary for me to comment in detail on them, save to emphasise that provision for the cost of these items is not included in the Estimate now before the House. Suffice it to say that long-term benefits were increased by 25 per cent with effect from the beginning of April 1980 with the result that a single old age contributory pensioner got an increase of £4.90 a week bringing his pension rate to £24.50 a week. In the case of a married couple there was an increase of £8.55 a week, bringing the rate to £42.80 a week. For a contributory widow with three dependent children the increase was £9 a week, bringing her rate of pension to £45 a week.

As was the case in 1979, a higher rate of increase was given to recipients of long-term benefits than to recipients of [2143] short-term payments whose need might not be as great and whose payments in any event attracted pay-related supplements in many cases. However, all short-term payments were increased by more than sufficient to compensate for the expected increase in the cost of living index. The increase of 20 per cent for a man out of work, for instance, meant an increase of £3.40 a week in his basic rate of benefit while if he had a wife and two dependent children, the increase was £7.60 a week bringing his basic rate of benefit to £45.60 a week. Under the budget also, the rates of children's allowances are being increased by approximately 28 per cent with effect from the beginning of July 1980. This Government can claim to have more than fulfilled their commitment to maintain the living standards of social welfare recipients.

All of the budget improvements have been fully advertised, so that recipients may be aware of their rights. Advertisements outlining the increased rates of payment and the other improvements have appeared in all the newspapers and this year, for the first time, poster copies of the newspaper advertisement are being circulated to health centres, community information centres, homes for the elderly, voluntary organisations and, of course, to all of my Department's information centres and local offices. As I have said, this is an innovation introduced this year, and I hope it will be a useful one.

It is hoped that these advertisements and posters which have incorporated a new layout to convey a clear picture of the budget changes will assist community workers and others in explaining the budget improvements to pensioners and other Social Welfare recipients.

I have already mentioned in public the difficulty which faced my Department arising out of the short interval between the date of this year's budget and the operative dates of the increased rates of payment announced in the budget. It would not have been possible to have pension order books incorporating the new rates printed and issued to pensioners [2144] before their existing books expired at the end of March. For this reason, it was necessary to arrange two issues of books to the 330,000 pensioners in the country. The first issue was in hands prior to the budget and was completed in March. It contained the basic rates of pension payable and enabled pensioners to continue to receive payment from the first week of April. The second issue provides for the increases announced in the Budget and is being made available as fast as the new books are received from the printers. So far approximately two-thirds of all pensioners have received their supplementary pension books and I expect that the balance of the books will be issued within the next three or four weeks. I regret the delay in issuing the supplementary pension books due to the late date of the budget, but I can assure Deputies that every effort is being made by my Department to ensure that the remainder of the pension books will be issued as quickly as possible. As the new books contain orders payable from the first week in April in all cases, no pensioner will suffer loss arising from the delay in their issue. All other social welfare payments which are made by cheque or by cash have been paid at the new increased rates as from the operative dates in each case.

Provision for the cost of all these increases will of course be made in a supplementary estimate for which the approval of the House will be sought later in the year.

I would like at this stage to refer to the position regarding the payment of unemployment assistance to smallholders. As Deputies are aware, smallholders with land valuations of £20 or under in specified western areas who are drawing unemployment assistance have the option of having their means assessed either on a factual basis or on a notional basis related to their land valuations. The bulk of smallholders have opted for a notional basis of assessment which in effect is concessionary, both by reference to present levels of farm income and to the means test applied to [2145] other applicants for unemployment assistance. The Government decided accordingly that the 20 per cent rate increases provided in the budget would not apply to smallholders on notional assessments. They will continue to be paid at their pre-budget rates. However, smallholders whose means are factually assessed are receiving the budget increases.

At present there are 18,000 smallholders whose means from land are assessed on a notional basis. On holdings up to £10 rateable valuation the assessment is £30 per £1 valuation; on holdings between £10 and £15 rateable valuation the assessment is £50 per £1 and on holdings between £15 and £20 rateable valuation the assessment is £60 per £1 valuation. All of these small holders have the right to opt for factual assessment of their means if they feel that the notional system is to their disadvantage. In that event their means would be factually assessed and they would be entitled to the appropriate rates of unemployment assistance including the 20 per cent budget increase. The option is entirely at the discretion of the smallholder. If, having opted for factual assessment, the smallholder finds that this method would not be to his advantage he will be allowed to continue on the notional assessment.

The cost of the increased rates of insurance benefits and the other improvements in insurance schemes will amount to approximately £77 million in the current year. Notwithstanding this, the increase in the pay-related social insurance contribution has been kept to a minimum, particularly for employees, who are only being asked to contribute an additional 0.1 per cent on earnings up to £7,000. For the average industrial worker this means an additional charge of less than £5 in a year. Employers pay an additional 0.7 per cent for each employee up to the new limit of £7,000.

Criticism of the social welfare system is directed from time to time at abuses of the system. These abuses included nondisclosure of means by applicants; [2146] fraudulent receipt of unemployment benefit or assistance by persons who are working or otherwise not entitled; persons claiming disability benefit when they are capable of work or perhaps actually working, and failure of employers to pay employment contributions or to keep proper records as required. Officers of my Department have to be alert always to detect any instances of such abuses. To this end five additional permanent medical referees were appointed since mid-1979 and two more are due to take up duty shortly. In addition a Special Investigation Unit consisting mainly of social welfare officers was strengthened substantially in 1978. These anti-fraud activities of the Department are not designed to harass. They are a necessary control of the schemes and a reassurance that public money devoted to social welfare is well spent.

While it is difficult to obtain the degree of evidence of fraud which is necessary to sustain court proceedings, due to the reluctance of people generally to give evidence regarding offences because of a mistaken sense of loyalty towards persons who are quilty of such offences, the officers of my Department have nevertheless been able to substantiate abuses in over 1,000 cases in the past year and payment was disallowed. Of those fraudulently claiming unemployment benefit or assistance, 46 have been prosecuted in the courts in the past year and some 300 other cases are being considered for prosecution. These actions are necessary to prevent a drain on funds which should be available for those genuinely entitled to benefits.

Another area of criticism directed at my Department is in relation to delays in payment. In making such criticisms people tend naturally to highlight the cases in which delay may occur but to overlook the fact that payments are made regularly without delay in the case of the vast majority of social welfare claims. My Department make weekly payments to more than 522,000 beneficiaries and monthly payments of children's allowances to some 420,000 families. In relation to this volume of [2147] payments the incidence of delays is relatively low. In the past 12 months my Department have had to cope with an exceptional situation arising out of the prolonged postal dispute in 1979. That dispute seriously affected the services administered by my Department who depend largely on the postal system for most of their transactions. It made it difficult to deal with claims or to arrange payment of benefits to which people were entitled, all of which led to a build-up of arrears of work in the Department.

This build-up continued long after the postal dispute had ended and it was clearly impossible to clear this back-log immediately. The inevitable delays caused anxiety for many persons and this in turn led to a heavy increase in the volume of inquiries and representations on behalf of claimants. Coping with these inquiries delayed further the clearing of the back-log of work on hands. However, I am glad to say that due mainly to the devoted efforts of the staff of my Department who worked continuous overtime including Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays in an effort to clear the massive accumulation of work, the 1979 arrears situation was overcome and conditions returned to normal by the end of that year. This is not to say that delays do not still occur. In an organisation which deals with the volume of work which my Department have to undertake it is only natural that there will be cases involving special difficulties, some created by claimants themselves, which will lead to delay. I can assure Deputies, however, that every effort is made and will continue to be made to ensure that recipients of social welfare benefits get all the payments to which they are entitled with the minimum of delay.

I myself have made personal visits to the various sections in my Department dealing with payments and have had discussions with the staff concerned. I have also asked my Minister of State to make a special investigation into the causes of delays in payment and to make appropriate recommendations for remedying any shortcoming in procedures [2148] which he may find. The staff of my Department are concerned to see that all social welfare recipients get their rights. Unfortunately the public do not always realise the service which these public servants provide. While my officials must be vigilant to ensure that those who are receiving social welfare payments continue to satisfy the required conditions, they are equally vigilant to see that any needy person who is not receiving a benefit to which he is entitled is advised as to his rights and assisted in making a claim.

I know from my own experience as a public representative just how difficult it can be to deal with people who are worried, disturbed or agitated. It is sometimes difficult even to get from such people the information which is essential for the determination of their claims. Nevertheless, all of the staff in my Department understand the importance of being helpful, courteous and considerate in dealing with applicants.

Some difficulties were experienced following the break in parity between the British and Irish currencies. As neither the British nor the Irish Post Offices operate a currency conversion service it was necessary to discontinue the payment of pensions through the respective post office systems for pensioners of one country residing in the other. Payment of pensions through the post office system in Britain and Ireland was a unique administrative arrangement which depended upon a common currency or at least on the acceptability of face value encashments. Accordingly, alternative arrangements had to be made for the payment of Irish pensions in Britain and British pensions in Ireland by means of payable orders encashable at banks. Some further difficulties in this regard have arisen from the action of bank officials in refusing to handle cheques drawn on Northern Ireland banks as part of a wage dispute. Although not many complaints of failure to obtain payment of their cheques have been received arrangements have been made for payment of supplementary welfare allowance in this country and of supplementary [2149] benefits in Northern Ireland in cases affected by the dispute. I was in touch with the health boards and asked them to treat any applications for supplementary welfare payments from Northern Ireland pensioners as liberally as possible. Very few applications were, in fact, received and I am hopeful that the dispute may be resolved in the near future.

I would like to draw the attention of Deputies to the altered situation which has resulted from the change over to a fully pay-related system of social insurance. The stamped insurance card ceased to operate from 6 April 1979. This removed the basic source of information on individual insurance records which was one of the good points of the stamped card system. With the abolition of the card the main source of information available to my Department for the purpose of maintaining insured persons' records will be the data which employers are required to submit to the Revenue Commissioners at the end of the year. Employers are obliged to keep records of their employees' earnings and duration of employment and these records are open to inspection. The collection of the information on these records will be vital for the determination of claims to benefit and will be as important a task for the Revenue Commissioners as the collection of contributions. For these reasons I cannot stress sufficiently how essential it is that employers make the returns of all persons employed by them, with details of their earnings and the length of their employment, at the earliest possible date. The changeover from a weekly stamped card system necessitated changes in relation to contribution conditions for receipt of benefits. In place of numbers of contributions paid the conditions now refer to numbers of weeks of insurable employment and it is in this area that information from employers is most vital. Changes have also been made in relation to benefit years and contribution years. During the interim period from April 1979 to the end of 1980 the distinction between benefit and contribution years [2150] for men and women is being phased out and with effect from 4 January 1981 both men and women will have the same benefit year and the same contribution year. The benefit year, that is the year in which benefit is paid, will commence in January each year and the governing contribution year will be altered to coincide with the income tax year ending in the previous April. Fuller details of these changes will be published in due course and both employers and employees will be kept informed of the actions which they must take to ensure that all the requirements of the pay-related social insurance system are met.

The position of the National Committee on Pilot Schemes to Combat Poverty has been raised recently. The programme of pilot schemes and studies to combat poverty in the EEC was originally due to end in 1977 but was extended for three further years. This pilot phase now ends this year. An evaluation of the whole programme will then be carried out and when this is completed consideration will be given to the implementation of further measures to combat poverty in the Community. It is not expected that such measures can be put into effect for at least two years. To bridge this period the EEC Commission have submitted a proposal for an interim programme which will be considered by the Council of Ministers later this year. With regard to the Irish aspect of the programme, the National Committee on Pilot Schemes to Combat Poverty are to submit reports and assessments to me on the various projects which have been carried out here. I would hope that the lessons learned will prove to be useful aids in the consideration of further Government policy to combat poverty. I have already met the committee and hope to meet them again shortly to discuss the future position.

The fuel scheme operated by my Department was revised before coming into operation for the 1979-80 season. Formerly one voucher per week was issued to necessitous families in certain cities and towns. The voucher could only be exchanged for one cwt, of turf. Under [2151] the revised arrangements the vouchers are valued at £1.50 and can be used to purchase any type of fuel. The current fuel season is ending and in the light of our experience with the new system consideration will be given over the next few months to the most appropriate form which the scheme will take for next winter.

Before closing I would like to refer to the level of benefits paid here following the recent budget as compared with those at present payable in the United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland. The basic rate of retirement pension payable in the North is £23.30 for a single person and £37.30 for a person with an adult dependant. The corresponding rate for an old age contributory pensioner here is now £24.50 for a single person and £42.80 for a person with an adult dependant. The basic rate of unemployment or sickness benefit payable in Northern Ireland is £18.50 for a single person and £29.95 for a person with an adult dependant. Here the corresponding rates are £20.45 and £33.70. A widow in Northern Ireland gets £23.30 plus £7.10 for each child. Our rate is now £22.50 for the widow and £7.50 for each child. I mention these facts so that Deputies may be aware that our rates of benefit now compare more favourably with those paid elsewhere than was the case in the past.

Finally I would like to mention some other matters. Consideration of the pensions area in the light of the Green Paper “A National Income-Related Pension Scheme” is well advanced. Consultations with interested parties concerning the issues raised in the Green Paper have been completed. The financial implications of changes in the pensions area will be an important factor, and the services of an actuary have been engaged to deal with questions of costings.

As Deputies will be aware, my Department also published a discussion paper on the specific issue of social insurance for the self-employed and the question of providing social insurance pensions for them is being examined [2152] within the context of the consideration being given to pensions generally which I have just mentioned.

Deputies will be aware that during the past year a new scheme of dental services for medical card holders was introduced. The fees paid were similar to those applicable to the social welfare dental benefit scheme. The Irish Dental Association have been pressing for two main improvements in the structure of the schemes, namely the introduction of a fee for examination and general consultation and changes in the scale of fees for extractions. I have informed the association that I have obtained Government agreement in principle to these two improvements.

As I said earlier, I will be happy to give Deputies any additional information they require on the provisions in this Estimate and I recommend it for the approval of the House.

Mr. Boland: This last year cannot have been described in anyone's estimation as a good year in the history of the Department of Social Welfare because, largely through the combination of the prolonged postal dispute together with the unfortunate and increasing tendency on the part of the Department to over-centralise all their records and their administration in one headquarters in Dublin, we had a situation where in many parts of the country, but especially in rural Ireland, very many eligible recipients were left for lengthy periods without payments to which they were entitled. While there could be some excuse attributed to the delays and difficulties because of the postal strike while that strike was in operation the fact that those delays and non-payments from the Department could continue for periods of up to four, five and even six months afterwards was, to my mind, absolutely intolerable and a reflection on the entire bureaucratic set-up of the Department, the way in which they are structured and the way in which they have over-centralised and over emphasised their activities in the Dublin headquarters.

Persons ringing or endeavouring to [2153] contact the Department even today, will be told as an excuse for difficulties or delays in payments that the Department are still suffering from the effects of the postal dispute, a dispute which ended as far as I remember in the late summer or early autumn of last year. All these complaints and criticisms that from time to time over the years have been voiced about the Department of Social Welfare were reiterated and re-emphasised last year. The Department were described as autocratic, bureaucratic, impersonal, over-centralised and inefficient. While I would accept that those descriptions were not always necessarily correct there was too much of an element of truth in them, too much justification in many of the complaints from many individuals and many of the voluntary and statutory organisations dealing with the underprivileged for us to say that 1979 was a good year for the Department.

If any one thing can have come out of the unhappy record of the Department during 1979 it is the absolute justification for my calls here over the past few years for the establishment of a greater number of regional—indeed, I would venture to say county—offices being established where the affairs, benefits, entitlements and activities of the Department in that region should be conducted.

Very many of the difficulties, delays and disputes that occurred during so much of 1979 could have been eliminated if there had been a realistic number of properly staffed and equipped offices in various rural centres instead of the ludicrous situation where everything had to come up to Dublin before anything could go back down again. We are a very small country and sometimes I think that we are going to over burden it so much along the eastern seaboard that there is a danger of the whole country tilting and sliding everything on it into the Irish Sea. We are sucking in people, commodities and information and endeavouring to store everything in Dublin to such an extent that the structures in Dublin now are unable to carry it or to re-dispense the information to the rest of the country. We had the [2154] ridiculous situation where the few social welfare officers who operate outside Dublin were unable, at the height of the postal dispute with the unfortunate system that masquerades as a telephone service in this country, to give any information whatsoever to the public or to public representatives for lengthy periods in centres such as Limerick in relation to the complaints or entitlements of individuals. Everything was stored in Dublin and nothing could get out of Dublin. Dublin headquarters appeared to be hide-bound and lost entirely because of the flood of complaints, queries and demands being placed upon them because the postal service had broken down.

Over past years I said to the Minister's predecessor that another of the inherent weaknesses in the entire social welfare system was its over-reliance on the postal system which was showing itself rapidly becoming more and more inefficient and unable to maintain the level of service that we would have expected even ten years ago. I want to emphasise to the Minister that none of the complaints being made today can in any way be suggested as being his responsibility except in so far as he bears the collective responsibility of the Government. All the activities that we are talking about now happened during the time of his predecessor. The complaints being made now are fair because they were forecast. Complaints about over-centralisation have been made over the last few years and the Minister's speech today confirms what I have been complaining about over those years. The Department of Social Welfare in their system of dispensing payments and handling queries about entitlements over-relied on the postal system, and that system cannot cope with the job of distributing efficiently the entitlements to social welfare beneficiaries. I made various suggestions to the Minister of the day as to how he might move towards different methods of distributing payments and away from that over-reliance on the postal system. Not one move has been made in that direction.

[2155] However, perhaps all of that is symptomatic also of the fact that there appears not to be any realisation on the part of the Government of what the real role of the Department of Social Welfare ought to be. We have yet the situation as it has blown up over the years where this Department merely collect contributions from various quarters through an increasingly cumbersome system and, together with a massive amount of Exchequer funding, those moneys are dispensed in various systems to persons who are entitled to them in a bureaucratic, creaking system that becomes increasingly inefficient when the services upon which it relies cannot be provided.

There is still the need within Government for some Department of State to take on the role of being the social conscience of the Government and to act as a social stimulator in helping to see that Government participate in an active way in the weaving of the social fabric. There is a need for a highly trained staff in the Department of Social Welfare who would stimulate a series of interdepartmental committees all designed to strike at the roots and causes of poverty on a long-term basis on behalf of the people who ultimately come to rely on assistance schemes rather than on benefits, in other words, those who do not work, have not worked, are unable to work or are unable to find work. On a long-term basis, through a combination of Departments such as Education, Local Government, Health, Finance and Labour and the stimulatory efforts of the Department of Social Welfare representing the social conscience of the Government, an effort must be made to bring about a real change that will reduce the number who are described as living below subsistence level. It is sad to have to say that, despite any of the advances that we appear to make as a society or the claims which we make here from time to time, there are even now various and varying statistics, all of them chilling and all relating to the suggested levels or numbers of people in this country who still live below [2156] subsistence level, below the breadline, and are still poor in real terms. At the end of 1979 and the beginning of 1980 we cannot feel proud that over the past few years there has been any real improvement in the proportion of people living below the poverty level. There have been increases in payments to those on benefit and on assistance. I am not sure that that makes them materially better off in any real terms or raises them substantially from the subsistence level.

Have we satisfied our conscience by merely giving cash payments or is there also another role for the Department to play, the role which I have outlined, of being the social conscience, of being the Department who would prod other institutions of State into devising a long-term plan to combat poverty in a real way? Perhaps I hope for too much in that regard when the decision of the Government is seen in their allocation to the National Committee to Combat Poverty for this coming year.

The Minister referred to this committee in his speech. In reply to a parliamentary question during the week he told me he intended to have discussions with the committee on the future of their programme. But the fact of the matter is that the 1978 allocation to the National Committee to Combat Poverty was £520,000. The 1979 allocation was £550,000 and in terms of inflation during 1979 that did not represent any real increase whatsoever. The 1980 allocation is £500,000, a decrease in simple money terms of £50,000 and in real terms when one takes into account an anticipated inflation rate of approximately 21 per cent, a very real decrease in the allocations being made to that committee. Presumably the Minister can attempt to justify this by saying, as he did in reply to the parliamentary question, that the work of this committee is due to be finished at the end of November 1980. That means that the allocation is for an 11 month period rather than a 12 month one. Even allowing for that fact, an allocation of £500,000 as against £550,000 in 1979, taking anticipated inflation into account, means that in real terms the National Committee [2157] to Combat Poverty has received quite a severe cutback in income from the Government for the financial year 1980.

Perhaps I am tilting at windmills when I suggest that the Minister should endeavour to persuade the Government to assign to his Department the role of the social stimulator, the social conscience of the Government, when we see their approach in this financial allocation to the National Committee to Combat Poverty. Indeed, perhaps I am also tilting at windmills when one hears the Minister say in his introductory remarks:

However, all short-term payments were increased by more than sufficient to compensate for the expected increase in the cost of living index.

The Minister is referring there to the increases granted in this year's budget. The increases granted in this year's budget to short-term beneficiaries were of the order of 20 per cent; the long-term increases were of the order of 25 per cent. I do not know how much longer the Cabinet can continue to live in the cloud cuckoo land of deceiving themselves, or in endeavouring to mislead the rest of the country in the belief that inflation will not be at least 20 per cent during 1980, thanks largely to the effect of that same budget on the economic situation. All reliable forecasters are now talking about an inflation rate of from 20 per cent upwards. Some are forecasting a rate as high as 25 per cent. Others in the lower band are forecasting a rate nearer to 20 per cent. But all sides—those who might normally be considered to be qualified and dispassionate in their assessments—are now suggesting an inflation rate of at least 20 per cent in 1980. I suggested a moment ago that it might be of the order of 21 per cent. In that context how can the Minister suggest that all short-term payments were increased by more than sufficient to compensate for the expected increase in the cost of living index. Indeed, in that context, how real will be the much [2158] heralded, much spoken about 25 per cent increase granted to long-term beneficiaries before the year 1980 is out bearing in mind that, as the Minister has alluded to in his speech, quite a number of them will experience delays in receiving those increases—again due to the administrative difficulties of having additional payment books printed and distributed through the postal system.

I venture to suggest that the net effect for long-term beneficiaries at the end of December 1980, having had a 25 per cent increase payable from 1 April 1980, which in some cases will not actually reach them until some time during May 1980 when they will receive the back money, will mean that in real terms they will not be any better off than they were at 31 December 1979. Incidentally those same beneficiaries, because of having to wait because of the postal dispute in some cases quite a long time before receiving their 1979 pension budget increases found that when they were paid those increases backdated the real spending power of the accumulated funds they received was not the same as if they had been received earlier in the year on a weekly basis because they had been affected by the build-up in inflation during 1979. No account of that was taken by the Minister or his Department. There was no attempt made to introduce any supplementary payment, as was suggested might be done at Christmas time, to compensate them for those difficulties.

Let us look at the real effect of even the 25 per cent increase granted to long-term beneficiaries in the budget. The Minister says that a single person in receipt of a contributory old age pension will now receive £24.50 per week, that is, £3.70 per day, about the cost of lunch in the restaurant in this House. That is what is being given to a single person who has contributed sufficiently by way of insurance contributions during his or her working life to receive a contributory old age pension at the end of that period. I do not think we can feel particularly proud of having achieved even that level. I do not think we should feel that this or [2159] indeed any Government that might have given a 25 per cent increase, with inflation running at between 20 per cent and 25 per cent, should be able to wave flags and banners proclaiming their commitment to social equality. Indeed, in that context what we really ought to be doing and talking about is moving towards a situation in which all of these benefits, pensions and schemes are index-linked, when the increases would be granted automatically and would ensure that in real terms beneficiaries keep pace with the increases granted other sections of the population who are working and who have organised groups and unions to represent them and fight their cause. The day that index-linking system can be introduced into the social welfare code will mark the beginning of a very considerable step forward in the evolution of social welfare policy in this country.

Even within the present schemes there are many other areas it is incumbent on the Minister to examine and to endeavour either to introduce new systems or improve existing ones. I have spoken about some of them before in this House, but it is no harm to repeat it. We are talking now to a new Minister. I would hope we are talking to a Minister who will devote more real attention to the Department of Social Welfare than was done by his predecessor. The burden of having to cater for two large Departments is an extremely onerous one. Having to perform that job without the assistance of even one Minister of State—about which we can all conjecture, perhaps arriving at different conclusions—meant that the last occupant in the Departments of Health and Social Welfare concentrated his activities very much on the Department of Health, which has not helped either in the improvement of the operations of the Department of Social Welfare or in the evolution of new policy in that Department. It is to be hoped that with this new Minister and his Minister of State we will see greater concentration, greater awareness of the needs of the entire social welfare field, the need for change, reform and improvement within that [2160] Department, the need to put a more human face on that Department within which, as the Minister accepted in his speech, there are very many fine officials who work extremely hard, who are themselves very often frustrated by the cumbersome system, difficulties and over-centralisation to which I have referred.

I trust that this debate will help the new Minister to appreciate the way in which the House would like to see the Department evolving and changing. Something that ought to be considered is the possibility of making certain payments, especially payments over a long period, such as unemployment assistance and disability benefit, payable to the family rather that to the individual. We all know that in many cases of payment of this kind the benefit, though payable in respect of a husband, wife and two or three children, can be taken by the husband and spent almost exclusively on himself to the detriment of the family. This, in due course places also an increased strain on the supplementary welfare allowance system. It is difficult to know how this problem can be approached best in order to ensure that the benefit goes directly into the family for which it was intended. However, the problem must be tackled.

It is time also that we got decisions in relation to the Green Paper discussions on the national income-related pension scheme and on the social insurance scheme for the self-employed, both of which were the subject of discussion documents commissioned by the former Government. The latter was published in 1976. It would be reasonable for us now to demand decisions from the Government in regard to each of those discussion documents. They relate to extremely important areas.

It might be helpful to the House if the Minister were to give us a breakdown of the proportion of the sources of income to the Social Insurance Fund for the latest year for which statistics are available. For instance, what proportion of the fund is met by the Government? What proportion is met by the employer and what proportion is met by the employee [2161] with, I think, some very marginal contributions from ill-defined investments?

The Minister referred to the new fuel scheme which came into operation during the past winter. Perhaps in an attempt to head off any criticism of that scheme, he suggested that an examination of it is required for the coming winter. Again, I wish to emphasise what I said here yesterday. That was that the £1.50 voucher scheme which was in operation this winter but which proved to be so inadequate was promised for the winter of 1978-79. It would be unacceptable to the House that any revision or reformation of this scheme should be delayed until the winter of 1981-82. The House is demanding what has been called for repeatedly by the various social and voluntary groups operating in this field, that is, for a realistic and comprehensive home-heating service for the under-privileged. In that context I would remind the Minister again that since the budget there has been an extraordinary increase in the price of bottled gas, a source of heating that is relied on by very many pensioners, especially in rural Ireland. In these circumstances we shall be expecting to hear from the Minister before the coming winter regarding a much reformed scheme that will operate on a uniform basis throughout the country and which will ensure that there is proper assistance for those who cannot otherwise keep themselves warm adequately. That is necessary if we are not to hear more of those dreadful stories of people dying from hypothermia.

On a previous occasion I called for consideration of the possibility of exempting those under 21 from having to make contributions to the Social Insurance Fund. This change would be both an aid to employment and would be an incentive to young people and to employers in that it would encourage employers to engage young people thereby giving them the opportunity of gaining work experience. It would also result in making available a certain amount of additional money by way of wage payments to those young people. Apparently, [2162] though, there has not been anything done in that regard. Neither has there been any further information on the Department's plans to provide for the transferability of pension contributions on change of employment. I am sure the Minister will recall that that was one of the points in the election manifesto that helped to elect Fianna Fáil in 1977 but nothing further has been heard about that proposal despite various requests to the Minister's predecessor in that regard. We expect now to hear from the Minister as to the Government's proposals to implement such a laudable scheme.

There is a need, not only on the part of the Government but on the part of all of us in public life, for a more sympathetic approach to the needs and the demands of the blind. Again, this is an aspect of the social welfare services that is not referred to often. I trust that the Minister will pay special attention to the needs of this group.

I wish to emphasise again my belief that the operation of the Department should be headed not towards the collection of all information centrally in Dublin. This information must be sent to the Dublin computer through the postal service and, in a cumbersome way, reissued through that service to the rest of the country. One would have thought in this modern age of electronics that if the Department decided on a worthwhile basis to become involved in the computer era, they would realise that there are computer terminals and that the method of redispensing information through that system into the various parts of the country would by-pass the postal system and would provide up-todate information at the end of computer terminal links in various parts of the country. However, one problem is that there are not social welfare offices in the various parts of the country. Nevertheless, the system I have outlined should be the one used for the collection and collation of information. Applications should be brought to regional offices and, if necessary, fed into the computer system from there.

Applications should be made to [2163] regional offices, the paperwork should be handled there and payments should be made from those offices. Until the Department move in that regard we will continue to hear justifiable complaints and criticisms, especially from rural Ireland, about delays in paying people their entitlements. There will have to be a system of paying people by some method other than cheques sent through the post.

I have spoken in this House during the past few years about the need to give special consideration to making additional benefits available in a real way to two categories, widows and the elderly. I suggested that we should endeavour as much as possible to provide benefits of such a nature to a widow with a school-going family to make it possible and attractive for her to remain at home in the family setting if she so chooses and to rear her family. The vast majority of widows who go back to employment do so not from choice but from financial necessity. Certainly some opt from choice to go back to employment, and that option is always open to them. However, it is in the interests of the State to make it attractive for widows with young families to remain in the home environment. There is the additional benefit that every time a widow takes this option another job is left open in the marketplace.

There is a need to examine whether it is of more benefit to the elderly to have their pension contributions tax exempt during their working life or whether it would be more beneficial to them to have their pensions exempt from tax during their pensionable life. Even if it cannot be done for other categories, there should be a six-monthly revision of the level of benefits they are receiving. I do not believe that any other category or section of the community would begrudge special provisions to ensure that the elderly had every possible State benefit available to them and, if necessary, additional payments to ensure that they were never allowed to fall further behind in real terms relative to the rest of the community.

[2164] I referred earlier to two discussion documents on social insurance for the self-employed and the national income-related pension scheme. The document on social insurance for the self-employed was published in a departmental paper early in 1978 as a result of moves which had been taken by the previous Government. It emerged in that document that, apart from 30 per cent in Italy, this country has the highest proportion of self-employed people within the EEC. It was estimated that 25 per cent of the working population 1976 were self-employed. The same paper shows that Britain had the lowest percentage of self-employed within the Community at only 7 per cent, which strikes me as being rather strange in the context of the traditional belief that Britain is a nation of small shopkeepers.

There is an urgent need for the Government to decide whether they will be financially able to introduce a system of social insurance for the self-employed and to indicate what level or degree of benefits ought to be made available in return for social insurance. There is a need for a political decision on whether a social insurance scheme is to be a compulsory or an optional one. We must decide not just on social insurance for the individual who is self-employed but also for his dependants. Many of us know of cases where a self-employed person died unexpectedly and his wife and family discovered that there was no insurance and no benefits or entitlements available to them. There is an urgent need for political decision in regard to that category.

My party look forward with great interest to the Government's proposals. We are interested to know whether the Government see themselves in a position to introduce such an insurance scheme for the community at large or whether they envisage two different schemes, one for the agricultural community and the unusual group known as “relatives assisting”, and another for the rest of the community. We need information from the Government as to their thinking in this matter. I would welcome a debate on [2165] the matter, even prior to final decisions being made by the Government. There is a lack of social policy in this area. The Green Paper was published two years ago and political decisions must be made.

The Minister referred in his speech to the fact that, apart from the publication this year of advertisements notifying people of the changes subsequent to the budget, posters showing the changes have been circulated to health centres, homes for the elderly, voluntary organisations and all the Department's information centres and local offices. That is a good idea and one which we have been pressing. I welcome the change and it is one which we should consider not only in relation to the Department of Social Welfare but in relation to the institutions of the State generally. There are very many benefits and entitlements for which people might be eligible but of which they are not aware. All of us in political life are contacted by many people making inquiries about possible entitlements which are very often of such a simple nature that we are surprised the general public do not appear to be properly educated as to their entitlements. The idea of displaying information is one which I hope will be developed by this and other Departments.

I ought to have mentioned, especially in view of the remark the Minister made to me yesterday, the rather anomalous position in which Members of the Dáil and Seanad find themselves. We are the only people working in Leinster House who do not have to pay pay-related social insurance because, according to the Department, we are neither employer nor employee. Those of us who are in employment outside the House, but who are full-time representatives, are debarred from contributing to the social insurance fund and, consequently, we and our dependants are deprived of any entitlement under that fund. One would think that, at some stage, some Minister would have examined that position and possibly amended that situation.

The Minister referred to the dental [2166] aspect of the social welfare service and to the fact that he has now secured Government approval, in principle, for two of the demands being made by the dentists who participate in that service. The Minister knows, and we all know, that the public dental service is not operating satisfactorily, that the scheme whereby private dentists carry out work for the Department of Social Welfare has broken down in many parts of the country. There are two reasons for this. One is the poor level of payments referred to by the Minister and the other is the amount of paper work which dentists have to perform in order to get what they regard as inadequate payment.

Quite often when we complain about inadequate dental services, or inadequate medical services, the easiest thing to do is to blame the doctor or the dentist. The dental profession are quite prepared to work a scheme on behalf of the Department of Social Welfare, or on behalf of the Department of Health, and are quite prepared to receive smaller payments per patient as compared with what they would receive from private patients. They feel they have some obligation to participate in that manner. What frustrates them is that, while they are getting a smaller payment per capita than they would from their private patients, they also have ten times as much paper work in relation to that smaller payment. I suggest to the Minister that, if he streamlined the contact between his Department and those dentists, he would see a far greater willingness on their part to participate in providing the social welfare dental service.

I referred previously in the House to another aspect in relation to children, that is, that there ought to be a mid-day meal service available for school children in most areas, but especially for children in rural areas who travel on the school transport system. Deputies who represent rural constituencies know that quite small children can be away from home for up to ten hours per day and are very often without an adequate meal during that period. Deputy Bruton said several times in this House that the EEC had [2167] made special finance available towards the cost of the milk and milk products element of school meals but, for some extraordinary reason, the Minister's predecessor set his face against the concept of utilising that EEC money.

He also set his face against the existing school meal system that operates in the urban areas and, instead of trying to improve it and extend it into other areas, it appears to me that the former Minister was in favour of the total abolition of the concept of school meals. I urge the Minister to examine the situation and see the real merit in providing nutritious meals for children, especially those who are away from home for many hours, those who have to travel many miles on the school transport system.

The supplementary welfare benefit scheme has been the subject of quite frequent criticism by me. I am afraid I still have to reiterate my complaint that, in many respects, it is only the old home assistance scheme operating under a new mantle with a new title. Too often there seems to be harshness on the part of the supplementary welfare allowance officers in their approach to individuals and in the method whereby they make decisions in relation to payments and the making available of benefits. On the other hand, there are officers who operate the scheme with a great deal of sympathy and courtesy.

A scheme under which people have to queue up in public and discuss their affairs with an officer in front of other members of the public before they can be paid supplementary welfare allowance is not tolerable in any circumstances. I ask the Minister to ensure that adequate accommodation is made available for these officers in their operations in various parts of the country so that, if people want to apply for a supplementary welfare allowance, to which they are entitled under the law, they can give the information to the officer in private and not to the embarrassment of themselves and their fellow applicants who are waiting to speak to the officer. Once we [2168] get back to that situation we are in an area where applicants feel as if they are supplicants for charity. That is intolerable and must be stopped.

I want to give an example to the House of how in their operations the Department of Social Welfare still appear to be affected by the postal dispute and adopt a hidebound strict approach to compartmentalising affairs which does not lead to efficiency. Recently I had a client who on 23 January of this year notified the Department that she would be 66 years of age on 25 March and consequently would be entitled to certain additional benefits, and an old age pension rather than a widow's pension. She was sent a form which entitled her to the electricity allowance scheme and that meant automatically that her television licence fee was reduced.

When she applied for the telephone rental allowance she was told she could not get it because she was not living alone. When she inquired why she was not being paid a living alone allowance she was told the Department had not record of any application for a living alone allowance, although the Department had sent out the notification in relation to the free electricity allowance. Neither did she receive a free travel pass and when she contacted the Department about that she was told: “That is very simple. The reason you did not get any travel pass is that all the free travel passes issued by the Department of Social Welfare for February and March were lost in the post”.

Could I give any better example of the inefficiency of the Department of Social Welfare and their over-reliance on the postal system than that current example outlined to me during this week? This person had the foresight in January to notify the Department of her pending eligibility for additional benefit in March. The Department took cognisance of that notification and issued the form giving her the additional electricity allowance but did not do anything in relation to the living alone allowance which she applied for and which in turn meant the person [2169] was not eligible for the television rental allowance. After some pressure during the month of April the Department admitted that all the travel passes issued for February and March had been lost in the post. One would have thought it would have been a good idea to re-issue them.

That is the kind of over-bureaucracy I am talking about. If an elderly person has the foresight to notify the Department of changes in standards and degree of eligibility there should be enough people within a sufficently efficient Department to ensure all the benefits involved automatically issue. In that case the person involved had a number of telephone calls and is still without a lot of the benefits to which she is entitled. In some circumstances I might feel some of the blame rested with the applicants. In this case, however, I am certain that it did not because the applicant involved helped to operate one of the local social services information centre and was consequently quite well aware of the benefits to which she was entitled. That was the reason why she notified the Department in advance. That is an example of someone who is reasonably intelligent, has all her wits about her and had training in a social services centre and who since January has tried to arrange to get from 25 March certain benefits and has not got them yet. Compart that person to an elderly man living on the side of a mountain in Kerry. What hope has he? Perhaps the Minister can explain the hope for that man.

As this is the first time I have been in the House when the Minister presented a social welfare matter, I wish him well in his task. The position of Minister for Social Welfare is at least as important—I emphasise the phrase “at least as important”—as the position of the Minister for Health. It may not be a position that provides as regular and widespread publicity or opportunity to attend official openings but it is a position that provides the opportunity to change the social fabric of society and as such is very important.

[2170] Dr. O'Connell: I wish the new Minister every success in his Department. He has a social commitment in this field and I hope he will make his mark and imprint his social thinking on this Department.

In the opportunity presented to us by the Social Welfare Estimate we can examine in depth the social welfare services and take an overall comprehensive view of what they are doing for the people, what they are failing to do and what they should be doing. Behind all the figures we are investigating and discussing are human beings many of who are living in a state of poverty. Reliable estimates, including those of the Irish Bishops, put the figure at over 20 per cent of the population, which means over half a million people are deprived of the necessary food, clothing, housing and heat.

Without indicating anyone, we have never seen a genuine social welfare policy from any Government. There have been generous increases in the recent budget, but money increases for social welfare recipients which only cover or are slightly in excess of the cost of living increases do not constitute a social welfare policy. They are merely an ad hoc attempt to paper over the cracks of social injustice in our society. The massive redistribution of wealth which must be undertaken if we are serious in our attempts to confront the scandal of poverty has yet to be done. The present social welfare system has not been an effective mechanism for redistributing wealth.

The social welfare system is a patchwork of 64 parliamentary Acts many of which date back to British rule. There is a staggeringly complex muddle spanning over 200 pages of legislation. The result has been a confusing and bureaucratic system of benefits which are the least progressive and least comprehensive of any country in the European Community. Our thinking on social welfare reflects the historical evolution of the system—a reluctant half-hearted State taking over various services previously financed by charity and administered on a voluntary basis.

[2171] Social Welfare benefits are ostensibly given as a right but they are stigmatised as the charitable handouts of a benevolent State. The state has continued to exploit voluntary agencies in order to avoid its own responsibility in this area. There is need for a commitment to massive reform of the social welfare system and a quantum leap in our thinking on this subject. We should have a principle of positive discrimination and a principle of social right should dominate our thinking. Social progress must never be seen as secondary or totally dependent on economic progress. That philosophy is very wrong. Investment in meeting the needs of the poor, the deprived, the elderly and disabled must not be seen as unproductive expenditure but as the greatest challenge facing the country today. It is a fight against the poverty and deprivation which is condemning hundreds of thousands of our people to lives of desperation and despair.

Social Welfare benefits do not represent a genuine attempt to control poverty or to redistributing wealth. The State contribution to social welfare benefits is decreasing every year. We find the burden on two sections, the employers and employees. There is one large section of the community being excluded from their obligation to contribute to these services and that is the farmers. Unless we can involve them and have them pay their contribution the same as others there will not be a proper and equitable social welfare service. The level of State contribution to the social fund must be examined. If we are to have and equitable system of income tax and if the Exchequer contribution were increased we would have a taxation and social welfare system working to redistribute wealth. This must be undertaken if social justice is to prevail.

The Social Welfare Estimate provides us with an opportunity not only to discuss the financing of our social welfare system but also its administration. I hope anything I say will be accepted in the spirit in which it is intended, not as any criticism of any personnel [2172] in the Department. In the context of the administration of the social welfare system the issue of the rights of social welfare recipients must be highlighted.

Social welfare is a social right and social welfare recipients must be afforded the dignity and respect they deserve. They are also entitled to services which are smoothly and efficiently administered. The Department of Social Welfare should implement a charter of basic rights for social welfare recipients. Their first right is to complete information on all the benefits to which they are entitled. It is not enough for the Department to state that they provide full information on request. They should actively inform recipients of their entitlements on television, on radio, in the newspapers and in leaflets. I had a look at the book on social welfare entitlements. I agree it is comprehensive, but it is complex and confusing and those most in need are at a disadvantage in regard to being able to understand the book. I find it hard to understand what is available to these recipients having referred to this book and if I find it hard how much harder will deprived people find it? This book fails in its function and I am not satisfied that social welfare recipients are receiving adequate information.

The Department of Social Welfare receive an average of 40,000 inquiries each month and a total of 56 people are employed in the information section to deal with those inquiries. Having regard to sick leave and holiday leave there is not a sufficient number of civil servants in this vital area. The Department should assign more civil servants to this area in the light of the need for a new positive policy of informing people of their rights. Such a policy is crucial to the concept of social welfare as a social right.

The second basic right of social for a State-funded legal aid scheme was a administration of claims and delivery of benefits. Social welfare recipients are least able to cope with delays in the payment of benefits. Severe hardship is being caused by excessive delays in the Department. I do not blame the personnel [2173] there but the system that operates. A major effort is required to streamline the Department. I toured the Department and had great sympathy for the officials working there under very bad conditions. I have great admiration for the work they are doing under those conditions. The Minister's predecessor in reply to parliamentary question put down by me in relation to delays indicated the following periods of time to process applications for social welfare benefits and assistance: six to eight weeks for unemployment assistance where means must be assessed, six weeks for free electricity, two-and-a-half weeks for free travel, six weeks for the telephone, two weeks for free fuel, four weeks for the long-term contributory benefits such as widow's pension, old age pension and invalidity pension, and six to eight weeks for the long-term non-contributory benefits, the old age pension, and widow's pension and the deserted wife's benefit, which is subject to even lengthier delays.

These are the official estimates of the delays. These are unacceptable as we must keep in mind that social welfare applicants, particularly those on assistance, are in need and four to six weeks delay is keenly felt. It is not like a comfortable middle class person awaiting a rebate. These delays can and do cause real deprivation. There are many complaints from social welfare recipients which go far beyond the official estimates of delays. Disability benefit is a problem as people are finding their cheques stopped for three or four weeks and then resumed without any explanation. When people appeal against disqualification for disability benefit and when the referee finds that they are ill and incapable of work, the benefit is not backdated, it only applies from the date on which they were examined. This is a great injustice to these people.

Pensioners, too, are suffering as they must wait a long time to get their pension books and then they have great difficulty in recovering arrears. Redundant employees in some cases find themselves paying the price for employers who failed to deduct their social welfare conanother [2174] sore point. Many people complain of lengthy delays despite having paid the requisite number of contributions. There is also a problem in relation to the transfer of benefit from disability to retirement benefit, as this is subject to excessive confusion, red tape and inordinate delays. Similar confusion and delays occur in relation to the transfer of the old age pension and the widow's pension. I could go on and on giving examples but it is enough to say that the social welfare recipient's right to speedy delivery of payments is not being respected and hardship is being caused in many cases.

The third basic right of social welfare recipients is an impartial appeals system if they are rejected for a social welfare benefit. A man rejected for benefit on appeal would have to approach the person who rejected him or his colleague in the same office. That is unjustifiable and is not impartial. It is important to have an appeals system independent of the Department. In reply to a parliamentary question recently the Minister stated that a review of the appeals system is presently under way. I hope the Minister will introduce a streamlined independent appeals system which will go a long way towards establishing the rights of social welfare recipients.

The failure to include social welfare recipients in the Government's proposal for a State-funded legal aid scheme was a major step backwards in relation to social welfare rights. I hope this Minister will use his influence in the Cabinet to force a reconsideration of this decision.

The fourth basic right of social welfare recipients is the right to courtesy and respectful treatment at all times from social welfare officials. There is an attitude still prevalent in some quarters where any social welfare benefit applicant is considered to be trying to hoodwink the Department. This leads in many cases to an aggressive, suspicious and belligerent attitude on the part of social welfare officials. Many people would rather starve than face this sort of abuse. I know that it is not the official [2175] policy of the Department to be unhelpful but some officials simply have not been trained to deal with the public. On-going seminars and training courses are necessary to eliminate this vestige of the poor law mentality. If this were done by the Department it would be a major step forward.

The fifth right of social welfare recipients is the right to a basic standard of living in terms of income and services which will ensure that the most vulnerable sections are not condemned to lives of poverty and despair. I refer specifically to pensioners and supplementary welfare recipients and to special groups in the social welfare system. In regard to pensions I recognise the generous percentage increase allocated in the recent budget. I was the first to state this because it was a good increase. Even accepting that, Ireland has the worst scheme of State pensions in the EEC. Apart from Holland it is the only country where pensions are flat rate and even in Holland State pensions are about £60 per week. The appallingly low level of pension cover in Ireland has meant poverty, malnutrition and isolation for a depressingly large section of Ireland's 350,000 citizens over the age of 65 years. Given the soaring cost of food and fuel it is grossly irresponsible to assume that our elderly people can survive on £21 a week which is the maximum payable to a single person under the non-contributory pension scheme and there are 132,000 people receiving this. Even the contributory pension at £24.50, which I accept as a great increase, is really not much better. We must realise how bad our social services have been and still are. Given the ravaging effects of inflation we are not spending a sufficient amount on pensions. Over 400,000 workers at present lack any form of occupational pension cover and the introduction of an income-related pension is essential if this cycle of poverty upon retirement brought about by the flat rate pension is to be brought to an end.

The Green Paper on income-related pensions was published four years ago. [2176] All the interested groups have had ample time to submit their ideas on the different options proposed. I would favour a scheme along the lines of model A in the Green Paper where a basic pension with supplements for dependants would give the recipient roughly two-thirds of his previous earnings as calculated for pension purposes. Such a scheme would give a worker on the current average male industrial wage approximately £60 a week when full entitlement has been built up. That is the one that is in that Green Paper. That is the one we should be talking about bringing into the Dáil and implementing.

The qualifying age for the old age pensions must be lowered. Ireland and Denmark are the only two countries above the EEC norm which is 65.

In relation to supplementary welfare allowances there is a need for a serious re-examination of it as it exists at present. I know the combat poverty group are completing a study of it at this time. My hope is that the Minister will heed the results of this study because I have no doubt that it will show him that the supplementary welfare allowance scheme has failed to act as a final stop gap to poverty in Irish society. It has not been implemented in the spirit of the Act which was passed by the Dáil.

There is a dearth of information on how this scheme is operating on the ground. What we do know is that it is not much better than the home assistance scheme. The Department are unable to say how many applications were made for supplementary welfare allowances in the last year and what percentage of these was rejected. They did say that there were 14,767 claims in payment on 31 December 1978, but they are unable to say how many recipients are receiving the present maximum sum of £16.45 a week. They are able to say that in the week of 26 August 1978 the average payment was approximately £6.60. It appears to me that this scheme, which was once termed the fire brigade of our social welfare service, has failed to provide a safety net for those on the [2177] poverty line. It appears to be subject to the same arbitrary administration which was such an appalling feature of the old home assistance scheme. The health boards have yet to establish formal appeals procedures for those refused benefits despite provisions in the Act for such procedures. This is not a minor technical point because the Supplementary Welfare Allowance Act was meant to be a milestone in establishing the right of social welfare applicants to this payment, and the establishment of a proper appeals system is critical in this regard.

I would like to discuss the needs of special categories because the right of social welfare recipients to a basic standard of living immediately brings to mind the special groups in the social welfare system, such as widows. There are 80,000 women at present receiving a widow's pension. These widows have over 30,000 dependants in receipt of allowance. But despite the increases in the budget the widows receiving the contributory widow's pension at £22.50 and the non-contributory widow's pension at £21.00 are simply incapable of maintaining a proper standard of living. Pensions need to be pay-related. Special schemes should be developed to cater for specially vulnerable groups such as widows. In addition to this there should be a special weekly allowance for widows for a period of three months after the death of the husband. Such an allowance would help widows adjust to the new situation following the death of the breadwinner. There should be tax concessions for widows so that they can supplement their small pensions with part-time employment.

On the question of the disabled, though some of their benefits fall under the Department of Health these are a group who require special attention. Many are living below the poverty line due to the failure of benefits like the disabled person's maintenance allowance, the invalidity pension and schemes like the free fuel and free electricity schemes. They are also deprived, in some cases, of a basic weekly sum to spend in institutions. While the Minister is trying to [2178] regularise the situation in institutions, I would appeal to him to make this a special priority. The dignity and the self-respect of disabled persons in institutions are at stake. When I brought this to the attention of the Dáil some years ago I was called a liar. I said that I knew of a person in an institution who was totally disabled and without even a penny to pay for one thing. She had no husband; he had gone. He had never paid social welfare and she got nothing. I was called a liar for saying that such a case existed until the Minister himself investigated and found that there was no provision for such cases. I would therefore ask the Minister to give priority to this area of social welfare. Disabled people are also among those suffering from the red tape which prevents Irish people in receipt of a British invalidity pension from qualifying for free travel and the subsidised electricity allowance. One would think that the Department of Social Welfare had never heard that we were a member of the EEC.

The deserted wife and the unmarried mother are in a similar plight to that of widows struggling to cope in a society which makes little allowance for situations outside the two-parent family. The restrictions placed on the deserted wife's benefits and assistance should be relaxed. What constitutes desertion? A wife may have to leave because she is harassed so much. This is why we have to be more flexible in relation to the qualifications for this benefit.

I have spoken of the five basic rights of social welfare recipients, that is, the right to full information, prompt delivery of payments, a proper appeals system, courteous treatment and a basic standard of living. Besides these there are other more specific areas of the social welfare service which are not as they should be and they need to be highlighted. I recognise that the recent budget went some way in coming to grips with these anomalies; the qualifying age for the blind pension has been reduced and the definition of orphan in the case of desertion was extended; women having the care of children of [2179] persons receiving sickness or unemployment benefit will receive an adult dependant's allowance. These and other measures were taken to improve the system. I accept that and feel it was a good step.

However, there are other areas of serious concern. The question of the free fuel subsidy must be highlighted. It has been left at £1.50 despite the fact that there has been an 18 per cent increase in fuel and a 30 per cent increase in electricity since last October. We are very fortunate in having had a mild winter. But the chaos surrounding this scheme must be ended and a comprehensive scheme implemented as quickly as possible. Since 1942 the scheme has only applied to people living in non-turf areas, 17 towns and cities mainly along the east coast. This means that people living in most parts of the country have no automatic right to a free fuel voucher no matter how deprived their circumstances might be. In addition, the deserted wives and the unmarried mothers are excluded from the scheme despite the financial pressure which so many women in these categories are forced to bear. Well before the onset of the 1981 budget, and the 1981 winter, the Minister must sit down with his officials and regularise the situation to ensure that we will have a proper fuel subsidy scheme operating nationwide.

Another point relates to free travel. These are anomalies that arise: the husband and wife must travel together to avail of the system. What happens if the husband is in hospital? The wife cannot avail of the free travel scheme to visit her husband in hospital and to visit him costs her money which she can ill afford. The Minister should give serious attention to this area. Another problem is that of people receiving pensions from the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Security. Those pensioners receive cheques drawn on Northern banks and we must all be aware of the fact that the present dispute is posing serious problems for those people. As many as 2,000 people are affected. I would have thought that the Department [2180] and the Minister would have been willing to step in immediately with payments to those people and not tell them to go to the community welfare officers where there is too much arbitration.

Another issue relates to the ramifications of the recent Supreme Court case where it was held that for taxation purposes the income of husband and wife could not be aggregated. The Minister should consider the position with regard to social welfare and the Supreme Court decision. When deciding whether the wife is entitled to the old age pension should regard be had to her income only and not her husband's? I believe the Supreme Court decision has serious ramifications for the social welfare recipient especially in the area of pension. Is the situation at present constitutional where half the husband's income is considered the wife's income for pension purposes? This must be looked at as a matter of urgency.

Children's allowances are another issue. It seems absurd that with a Constitution which claims to value the family so highly that Ireland should have the lowest family benefits of any country in the EEC. With the way the children's allowance scheme is operated vis-à-vis our partners in Europe we do not need any family planning laws here. In Belgium, for example, children's allowances—for the first three children combined—are nearly eight times the amount paid in Ireland. In Luxembourg the figure is over six times the amount paid in Ireland and even British children's allowances are three times the amount paid in Ireland. I maintain that children's allowances are a proven help in the fight against child poverty here and something must be done to bring them up to the European standard.

I have attempted to place my remarks on this Estimate in the context of a charter of five basic rights for social welfare recipients. Those five basic rights are, to my mind, the cornerstone of a social welfare policy. There are other elements of that social welfare policy which I would like to touch upon briefly. The recent budget increases were welcomed by [2181] all, as they should have been. However, the debate about the real benefits of these increases will continue as different figures for inflation are jostled about. The debate concerning real increases as opposed to increases just to keep in line with or slightly ahead of inflation must be brought to an end. That can only be done by a policy of automatically adjusting social welfare benefits in line with price increases at six-monthly intervals. That is the minimum any self-respecting Government should do and there should be no political kudos for doing that. It should take place irrespective of the Government in power. Those benefits should be increased automatically in line with the cost of living.

With this statutory linkage between the consumer price index and social welfare benefits it could clearly be seen whether a Government were granting real social welfare increases or increases in addition to the cost of living. We have heard all sorts of impressive-sounding figures for social welfare benefit increases over the last eight years but we must remember that in the last eight years the cost of living has increased by over 186 per cent, a figure which substantially reduced the value of money increases paid to social welfare recipients. As well as the linking of social welfare benefits to the cost of living increases I believe that they should be linked to increased growth in GNP. A set percentage of growth in GNP in 1980 should be set aside for increases in social welfare benefits over and above those necessary to compensate for inflation in 1981. Such a policy would form a solid link between economic progress and social progress, a link which must be established if a credible social welfare policy is to exist. I believe the social partners would react positively if a proportion of economic growth was set aside to finance a substantial real increase in social welfare benefits each year.

The objectives of a social welfare policy must not end with the fight for increased rates of payment and administrative reform. There remains [2182] another important battle to be won, the battle for the minds and hearts of the Irish people. Unfortunately, the public's attitude towards the social welfare recipient is often marred by myths and misconceptions. Take the issue of welfare fraud. In 1978 such fraud amounted to only 0.2 per cent of total social welfare spending and yet the view has been propagated that welfare fraud is occurring on a massive scale constituting a justification for a Scrooge-like attitude to social welfare recipients. Take the argument about work incentive and the claim that social welfare benefits are making people work-shy. I say that the disincentive argument is much more relevant to our tax system. If people are looking for reasons why people will not work I suggest that they examine the disincentives built into our inequitable tax system. They should not use the argument as a stick with which to beat all social welfare recipients. I condemn, unequivocally, social welfare fraud and I believe that those who are engaged in it are parasites upon society, especially on those who are in need of such benefits, but this does not in any way justify a callous, negative attitude towards social welfare recipients in general. Why should so many be penalised for the sins of a few?

The Irish bishops in their pastoral on social justice said that we should not be too ready to believe stories about widespread abuses of unemployment benefit. They told us that abuses of our social welfare system are relatively rare and that there was machinery for their detection and elimination. The attitude of people will be the key in making the fundamental changes so necessary in our society of social welfare. We must move away from the present bits and pieces approach and towards the concept of a guaranteed minimum income for each household as of right. The EEC are presently completing a series of studies on minimum income and minimum wages but we should not have to wait for the results of those studies to goad us into action. We could set the pace and example by looking seriously at this.

[2183] Our philosophy on social welfare must be one of positive discrimination in favour of the poor in Irish society, a philosophy admirably expressed by the bishops in their pastoral letter on social justice. The bishops stated that if we are to assure basic human rights to everyone we will have quite deliberately to begin to discriminate in favour of the poor. They told us that a real transfer of money and of opportunity must be made by the better-off sections of society to the poorer groups if the latter are to be raised to minimum standards of human dignity and if we are to lay claim to being a just and Christian society.

Dr. O'Hanlon: This is the first occasion that I have had an opportunity in public of congratulating the Minister on his appointment and I should like to compliment him on his work to date. He is a hard-working and industrious Minister and I wish him success in his term of office. I should like to compliment the Minister and the Government on the improvements announced this year. Those improvements amount to 25 per cent for long-term benefits and 28 per cent in children's allowances. Deputy O'Connell told us that we had the worst social pension system in Europe but it is important that we recognise the improvements that have been made in the last few years. The contributory old age pension in 1977 was £13.90 for a pensioner without a dependant and a pensioner with a dependant under 67 years of age received £22.75. There has been an 80 per cent increase on that figure since. At present the rate for a pensioner without a dependant is £24.50 and for a pensioner with a dependant under 67 years of age it is £40.15. This is a very real increase over a three-year period. I believe the Government are to be complimented for such an increase.

There were other improvements in the recent social welfare legislation—the qualifying age for a blind pension was changed, the definition of a child who has been deserted by his parents was spelled out, additional credit contributions were granted to persons taking up [2184] employment for the first time after leaving school and there was an easing of the contribution conditions for treatment benefits for young people. These were all very valuable improvements.

There has been concern that the increases granted in the budget were not given with the new pension books. The Minister explained that the supplementary pension books will follow, and within the next few weeks everybody will have his supplementary pension book. Many old age pensioners, particularly non-contributory, were concerned when they did not receive their pension books at the usual time but, as the Minister explained, as the budget was somewhat later this year, there was a delay.

We are all aware of delays in the payment of benefits and assistance. It is important for us as public representatives to get the situation in its proper perspective. We hear about these delays from our constituents but we do not hear about all the benefits that are paid out on time. The Minister said there were 522,000 weekly payments plus 420,000 monthly payments of children's allowances. The majority of these arrive on time and it is only right that we should compliment the officials for their very good work. Nevertheless, delays can be very frustrating for those involved. Is there any way we can further cut these delays?

The abolition of the post of welfare agent is not in the best interests of the community. He collected disability certificates, checked to make sure that the numbers and names were correct and the recipients could identify with him. He played a useful role in society.

Since pay-related social insurance was introduced workers have two numbers—their original social welfare number and their pay-related social insurance number. This causes some confusion. Some of them may be using their pay-related social insurance number rather their social welfare number when submitting their claims.

There were problems during the post office strike and when we broke with sterling. The situation has improved considerably since the recipients are paid by [2185] banker's order rather than through the post office. The Minister's figures on social welfare benefits in the Republic, compared with those paid in the North, are important. A single old age pensioner gets £24.50 per week and with a dependant he gets £42.80; in the North a single person gets £23.30 and £37.30 with an adult dependant. Our unemployment and disability benefits for a single person are £20.45 and £33.70 with an adult dependant; in Northern Ireland a single person gets £18.50 and £29.95 with an adult dependant. These figures are important because we hope to see a reunification of our country. One of the areas in which we can help to bring that about is by having our social welfare benefits higher than those in the North.

There are other indications which show that we in the Republic are making great advances in our standard of living. The average weekly wage of an industrial worker in the Republic is higher than that of his counterpart in the North. It was often said in the past that many people in the North would not want to join with the Republic because their social welfare benefits were higher than those paid in the Republic. It is very encouraging to see from the Minister's figures that this is not the case.

There are a few suggestions I want to make where existing schemes might be improved without involving too much expenditure. One has to recognise that this year's figure of £889 million is very generous and is up on the 1979 figure of £703 million. One area is the assessment of widows for a non-contributory old age pension. When a husband dies—and that might happen suddenly—the widow applies for a pension and is obliged to produce marriage and birth certificates. When the husband's application for an old age pension is being investigated these certificates might be produced. If the matter were investigated at the time it would cut down delay in paying the pension to the widow. Generally, when the man applies for his old age pension he will have had notice of when he will reach pension age to enable him to apply [2186] at least three months in advance. Therefore it is unlikely that payment of the pension would be delayed. However, the wife must produce birth and marriage certificates and this can take time if the woman is far away from where she was born or married.

Another area which should be looked into is in relation to unemployment benefit. At present if a contributor has had fewer than 78 contributions in the previous three years and is earning more than £1 a day he is not entitled to unemployment benefit. I know a constituent who had been on disability benefit for four years and because he did not have contributions paid and because he had a small holding he was not eligible for benefit. On the face of it this discriminates against ill people. Had he been working during the previous three years his means of £1 a day would not be taken into account.

I should like to deal briefly with the deserted wife's allowance. It is a useful allowance. It can be open to abuse sometimes, but in rural Ireland generally it is easy enough to prove that a case is bona fide. Occasionally, when a deserted wife looks for supplementary welfare allowance as well as the deserted wife's allowance she must be capable of suing the husband for maintenance. My experience is that most women who look for the deserted wife's allowance are not in a position to sue their husbands and I suggest some agency in this Department or some other Department might take the necessary legal action. We all agree husbands should pay maintenance to their deserted wives and it is unreasonable in many cases to ask the woman who has no support to take action.

In the social welfare system there are unemployment benefit, unemployment assistance and disability benefit but there is not provision for disability assistance. It is an area that should be looked at. The disabled person's maintenance allowance administered by the health boards could fill that gap, but this has two defects. One is that the person must have been suffering from an illness for [2187] 12 months—it must be certified that the illness will last for at least 12 months. The other is that there is not a dependant's allowance. This should be looked at with a view to providing disability assistance for a short-term illness.

The free electricity and free television licence schemes are of great benefit to old age pensioners and invalids, particularly the former who in the winter suffer greatly from cold. The free electricity gives them the opportunity to have a safe form of heating and better quality lighting for reading, a necessary facility for old people. However, when a male old age pensioner dies the free electricity facility is not extended to the widow. There is severe hardship in cases where the husband and wife are living together without anyone else in the house. My suggestion is that if the scheme cannot be extended to the widow, at least she should have the benefit of free electricity for a period after the husband's death.

Deputy O'Connell referred to the free travel scheme and he spoke about the anomaly of the wife not being given free travel without her husband. There is a difficulty also in this scheme in relation to a mentally handicapped adult. He is in receipt of the disabled person's maintenance allowance and is entitled to free travel but sometimes he is not able to travel alone and it would be of great benefit if an adult were allowed to travel free with him.

Another matter that should be looked at is in regard to insurance contributions credits. An old age pensioner may be receiving an allowance in respect of a relative, possibly an insured son or daughter who must take time off from work to look after the person. That son or daughter may have to take leave of absence from work and I suggest that he or she should be given credit in respect of contributions lost while looking after the person, the prescribed relative. I should like this to be extended also in the case of persons suffering from terminal illnesses who need relatives to look after them. It is important that people suffering from terminal illnesses, particularly [2188] young people, should be allowed to remain in their homes, but often they are not able to remain in their homes because they do not have relatives to look after them or if relatives can look after them they must get leave of absence from their employment with a consequent break in the continuity of their insurance contributions. Not alone would a scheme of credits be of benefit to ill persons but it would help the relatives. It would also relieve the health services because of the high cost of hospital beds.

There has been an improvement in the dental service in the last year with a free choice of dentist for medical card holders. A person applying for health benefit is asked if he is entitled to benefit under the Social Welfare Act and this can cause delay. The same applies to optical benefit. Anyone having a general medical services card should be covered, should come under the health services and not have to work out under which service he or she should claim, the Department of Social Welfare or the Department of Health.

I want to say a word about the abuses under the services. Obviously, a lot of the social welfare services are open to abuse —unemployment benefit, unemployment assistance. A person can be working and drawing benefit at the same time. There are approximately 70,000 persons in receipt of disability benefit in any week, which in 1979 cost £96 million. It is not unusual for the medical profession to be blamed, in fact to be made the scapegoat for absenteeism from work. It is my view that this simplifies the issue too much. Certainly, one would admit that there are a very small minority of doctors who are perhaps more liberal than they should be in the issuing of medical certificates, but the vast majority of the medical profession have a conscientious approach in regard particularly to their obligations to their patients and then their obligation to the State.

One of the difficulties from the doctor's point of view is that very often they [2189] are issuing certificates on the basis of subjective complaints such as pain in the chest or pain in the back. There should be some in-depth work done by all concerned, employers, trade unions and the various Government Departments, into the reasons why people want to be absent from work. There are statistics to show that some groups are absent more often than others—younger males are more often absent than middle-aged males and married women are more often absent than single women. There should be an in-depth study done into the reasons why a person wants to be absent from the place of employment. Perhaps it is the size of their place of employment or inter-personal relationships within that place of employment that cause the absenteeism. There are many issues that one could study, with benefit to the community as a whole.

These are just a few suggestions for possible improvements in the existing services, which services I believe are very good. While I have made suggestions for improvements, I in no way wish to take from the excellent work which the Minister and his officials are doing. There have been, as I already said, tremendous improvements, particularly this year and, indeed, over the last three years, and I compliment the Minister and his officials.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. Connolly): It gives me great pleasure to say a few words on this very important Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare which looks after a great number of our people.

First, I compliment the Minister on the improvements he has brought about, especially for the aged. It can be said that the improvements made may be eroded and this would have to be looked into and I have no doubt that it will be looked into. There are some matters on which I have always had strong views, one of which is the matter of abuses that take place and of people victimised by a [2190] small minority who take advantage of this system to the detriment of others. I am talking especially about the unemployment situation. We have a situation all over the country where a few are exploiting the system to the last and in my opinion it has annoyed other workers working from Monday to Friday, week-in week-out. There is not a Member in this House who has not been told “Why should we work when others are using the system to the last and working as well?”, as we call it in the country and as it is known everywhere, on a nixer. That is wrong. It has created a lot of dissension among the workers all over the country, male and female, but it happens especially with male workers. The Department should have a look into this in such a way that it will not affect the people who are genuinely ill and unemployed.

In regard to health benefit, I want to clarify the position. Overall, it can be said to be satisfactory. However, in regard to unemployment assistance, better known in the country as farmers' dole, I am not happy about some areas. Perhaps a closer eye should be kept on these.

It has also come to my notice in my constituency that those on unemployment are being offered employment and have refused it saying that the job does not suit them. This will have to be looked into also. Some of the jobs may not suit them, but generally they do. In some areas last Christmas temporary postmen could not be got and, goodness knows— and do not let anyone take me out of context on this—this job, generally speaking, in my opinion involves national school standard education. It is certainly not intermediate or leaving certificate standard. People could not be got to fill the jobs and yet we are supposed to have many people unemployed.

Deputy O'Connell referred to an income-related pension scheme. I am glad to see that progress is being made but I should like to see the matter expedited. Implementation by the health boards of the disabled person's maintenance allowance is sometimes very [2191] slow. An effort should be made to improve the scheme and to make it more liberal in its application. Cases should be reviewed more quickly and payments made as soon as possible.

I should like to wish the Minister every success in his office. I hope he will be in a position to adopt a more radical approach to the Department of Social Welfare. We are now in the eighties and a more radical approach must be taken on many matters.

Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): I should like to thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate and to thank them particularly for their good wishes. I hope I may be able to fulfil the tasks and duties they have given to me today. I appreciate in particular the contributions of Opposition Deputies. They were constructive, wide-ranging and interesting views on the whole area of social welfare schemes.

It is only fair to emphasise on my part the positive side of the schemes and of the work of the Department. It was generally accepted by the Deputies who spoke that the increases in the social welfare area granted in the budget were the biggest ever awarded. That was done at a time when necessary economies were applied to all Departments. It was an especially good feature of the budget that the area of social welfare was given reasonable treatment in the current year; in the context of current circumstances the increases were substantial. Notwithstanding that, I accept the point made by Deputies that all of us want to see a much improved situation in the future.

Deputies raised the question of a national income-related pension scheme and were quite anxious to see progress in this area. In the past few years we have had substantial and extensive submissions from the interested groups, and Deputies are aware of this. Of course, at times the submissions conflict. There are differences of opinion and there are opposing views and some of them are in conflict with the main body of demand. [2192] I should like to assure Deputies that the matter of a national income-related pension scheme is being treated as urgent by me in my position as Minister and I am giving it a high degree of priority. As I mentioned in the House recently, the actuarial consideration is one of the more intricate aspects of the schemes and, of course, the overall total cost is a further consideration. The Deputies mentioned their concern about the inclusion of the total population if at all possible, including the farming sector. I think they are aware of some of the problems that exist in that respect. I am hopeful that fairly shortly we will have proposals to put before the Government and the House. Certainly we are treating this as a matter of priority. I am very anxious to see something positive done in the context of the recommendations that have been made.

Deputy Boland expressed concern about the over-centralisation of the social welfare services in one head office in Dublin. I know the Deputy appreciates there are a number of head offices in Dublin but I should like to make clear that there are 120 local offices throughout the country and certain local facilities are available in that respect. Nevertheless, I am concerned about this area in general and I am examining the overall organisation with a view to making it as effective as possible. I am not going to make any commitments at this stage. Like the Deputy, I would be interested in the principle of subsidiary function, which is getting out as much as possible from the centre to local areas. I am having the matter examined to see the feasibility of this aspect.

I should like to point out there are two major factors that will affect these arrangements. The first is the question of the computer systems. Currently we are having an examination of the computer facilities available. The second is the matter of the telecommunications system which will also affect any computer arrangements made. As these two aspects develop they will present us with new opportunities and possibilities. I am trying to hurry these up with a view to [2193] getting as clear a picture as we can of the future structure of the services. I accept the general point made by Deputy Boland and later by Deputy O'Connell. The matter requires considerable study and investigation. Technical changes will be necessary to ensure that whatever can be done by way of decentralisation will work satisfactorily and will provide a better service than is available at present.

Deputy Boland made some unwarranted attacks, although he clarified them later, on the system as being autocratic, bureaucratic and inefficient. Later in his contribution he pointed out that he had found it working very well and some of the people in it working very happily and helpfully. So, I take his critical remarks to refer to the problems that exist rather than to the total service. He was concerned that the postal dispute had such long-term effects on the Department services. Unfortunately, once such a backlog built up, large volumes of claims and correspondence were held up in the post and did not become available until after the dispute. In conjunction with that, the position was worsened by innumerable representations relating to claims and problems, which compounded the problem ultimately. These may solve individual problems but they compound the main problem because of the time and effort that they involve.

A factor that may not be so obvious to Deputies is that since staff in the Department gave up so much of their free time in order to overcome difficulties they were due some free time at the end of the year, over the Christmas period and early January. They had to have that time. In itself that meant a further carry-over. Nevertheless, I accept that there is great need to ensure that there is no delay in the provision of services.

Deputy Boland also raised the question of the real function of the Department of Social Welfare. I am glad he raised this specifically as he did in relation to the combat poverty committee. I accept his point that the Department have a specific responsibility for social affairs and to bring before the Government [2194] the need for and possibilities of change and improvement in this area. I also accept that we need staff within the Department well trained to strike at sources of poverty. I am quite anxious to do this. I have had preliminary discussions in connection with poverty relating to our responsibilities in this area and I hope to be doing something in that regard as time goes on.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I wish to remind the Minister that according to the Order of the House, as I interpret it and as it can be interpreted, I think the Minister would have only 45 minutes to conclude. He has another 35.

Dr. Woods: At the same time I must point out that in terms of the work of the Department, I think Deputies will agree, the immediate priorities are those we have being dealing with, raising the long-term benefits by 25 per cent, short-term benefits by 20 per cent, the children support system immediately by 28 per cent and then go on to work on the overall structure and provisions of the services. A good deal of my time was taken up in the early part of this year with the Estimates and with the possibilities in the context of the budget. I hope Deputies will realise that in that period the Minister was particularly concerned and must be particularly active and interested to ensure the Government's understanding of the needs and their support for the kind of improvements which a Minister for Social Welfare would like to see.

Having got over that there is an onus on us to attack and develop broader aspects. The combat poverty committee was mentioned by both Opposition spokesmen and without going into details the allocations, as Deputy Boland said, refer to an 11-months' period this year. From memory, that on a whole year basis would mean £2,250 more than last year's allocation which, as the Deputy said, might not cover inflation but which on an annualised basis means a very small increase this year. I set out in my speech the position in relation to that committee and I want to emphasise [2195] the point which Deputies, particularly Deputy Boland, made of the personal responsibility of the Minister to deal effectively with the area of combating poverty. Deputy O'Connell brought this up in a variety of other ways. I accept that responsibility and I assure the Deputies that I shall give time and attention to it.

Deputy Boland said he could not see how the rates of increase would meet the needs for 1980 and expressed his concern on this basis that they may be inadequate. The normal approach is to take the most recent cost of living index figure and as Deputies know these show an increase marginally under 16 per cent. On this basis the increases are calculated annually and subsequent events may entail that they be reviewed as the year progresses. Taking the normal standard approach, the rates are greater than the consumer price index would require. I also wish to make clear that while last year Deputy Boland claimed the benefits were eroded by the end of the year and that nothing was done to offset them, he must have forgotten that an overall increase was given last October as a means of partially overcoming changes which occurred later in the year. He also raised the question of payments going specifically to the family as distinct from the husband and in relation to family support systems and in any consideration we are giving to such systems we will bear in mind the Deputy's suggestions in that respect.

The Deputy also asked for the breakdown of the percentages in the Social Insurance Fund, the percentage contributions by the employers and the employees and the Government. Taking the 1979 figure the total income of the Social Insurance Fund was £377.135 million. The Exchequer contributed £81.88 million or 21.7 per cent. Employers and employees contributed £294.4 million or 78.1 per cent. Other sources such as investment income and other minor sources provided the balance which was £.855 or .2 per cent. Normally, the proportion contributed by the Exchequer varies between 18 and 20 [2196] per cent. Last year we had some exceptional demands on the Social Insurance Fund. I trust that is the information the Deputy sought.

Mr. Boland: Yes, thank you very much.

Dr. Woods: There will be a full review of the fuel scheme well in advance of next winter and it is my intention to have this review undertaken shortly. We will also have to take into consideration the increases which may come in fuel prices mid-year or whenever they come. I promise the Deputies that we will undertake a very full review and it will be my objective to have this as broad and wide-ranging as possible with a view to having effective proposals which will improve the position this year.

The question of doing something to improve the lot of the blind was raised by Deputy Boland but was answered partly by Deputy O'Connell in that he recognised that the elegibility for the blind pension had been extended from 21 years down to 18 years and the qualifying age is now 18. Therefore we have taken a fairly substantial step in the recent budget to improve that situation. Nevertheless, I accept what the Deputy said, that the needs of the blind must be considered and kept in the forefront.

The Deputy was concerned also about widows and the elderly as two special categories and he would like to have special assistance given to them for the future. Certainly we will be examining the needs and will endeavour to improve the lot of these two categories. As far as a widow with three children is concerned, this year we did achieve an increase of £9 per week, bringing the total pension in that case to £45 per week.

There was some comment on taxation for the elderly. Again it is important to stray into the area of the Minister for Finance and to recognise the fact that a major innovation this year introduced by the Minister for Finance was the exclusion from tax of elderly couples earning up to £4,000. This was a substantial improvement which has been welcomed [2197] very much by people concerned with the elderly. It is important to recognise such an improvement when it has been made by the Minister for Finance.

The dental services were mentioned, again by Deputy Boland. He felt that the private service was not working particularly well, that there was too much paperwork and that the service needs streamlining to improve contact. Some streamlining was done in relatively recent times and as a result of this the payments are made fairly quickly now. They are made monthly on the 10th of each month. The documentation has been reduced and in most cases—about 75 per cent of them if my memory is correct—the documentation is absolutely minimal. In some cases where major work is involved there is a requirement for documentation because this is more expensive. The dentists merely have to submit a chart indicating the treatment carried out and the cost, and the payments to dentists issue regularly on the 10th of the month in respect of claims issued during the previous month. That aspect of it is going fairly well. The Deputy may have had referred to him some of the more major claims for more substantial work which would require greater justification, but the bulk of the scheme works effectively and smoothly at this stage.

Several Deputies raised the question of the supplementary welfare officers and were inclined to feel that at times the system was too harsh, that people may have to queue and that this is an intolerable situation. Here again I find myself very much in sympathy with the views expressed by the Deputies, particularly because of my own experience as a public representative, and I am very concerned that this system should be effective and should be private. I will do all I can to ensure that both the facilities and the approach are such that this can be done. I am quite concerned that people may not want to make use of the system if this kind of privacy is not available. Some of the problems derive from the fact that with improving and [2198] developing schemes—and there has been a considerable amount of development in recent years—the facilities might not be available especially when you go out to the various offices throughout the country. There is a major programme of improvement of facilities in health board areas in particular in current progress and this will give much better facilities. However, I agree with the Deputies and I will be very concerned to try to overcome this problem as early as possible. I believe that if these facilities are not available as a right to people and if they cannot use them privately, then they are not the facilities which this House intended.

Deputy Boland raised the question of a client and gave some details about this client. I know that he was using this to illustrate some of the complications and problems which can arise, but if he likes to give me the details afterwards I will pursue that case further. He said that it is not completely solved as yet.

Mr. Boland: The important point is that surely if a person gets in touch with a Department to say that he or she is going to be 66 and therefore entitled to more benefits the assistants in the Department should take up the matter and automatically issue all of those.

Dr. Woods: I appreciate the point that the Deputy is making which is that while it worked on one or two occasions it did not go across the board. I will pursue that and investigate the case.

In relation to the computer services, a computer review body on which the Department are represented at present are studying the total needs of the service. We are particularly interested in that review because it is vital to the operation of our work and to any re-organisation or improvement in the service which we would like to give. We are not expecting the results of this study to be available until next year. Meanwhile I will be endeavouring to see what can be done within our Department in relation to general re-organisation to meet the requirements voiced by the Deputies and [2199] of the service as a whole. As I mentioned in my speech, I have asked the Minister of State to give particular attention to this area and he has been doing that already.

Deputy Boland raised the question of transfer of pension rights when a worker changes his job. This is one of the issues raised in the Green Paper on the national income-related pensions scheme. I hope to have proposals on this later this year.

Deputy O'Connell welcomed the improvements in the budget and went on to say how he saw the needs for the future if the massive redistribution of wealth which he has sought was to be achieved. I thank him for accepting that the budget increases were generous in the context of the present circumstances, but he pointed to the structure and said that he wanted to see this major redistribution of wealth. The point I want to make on that is that one of the Government's main areas of attack in this respect has been the one of job creation. It is one of the major factors in redistribution of wealth. I admit that, having tackled and achieved that, one is still left with a variety of other problems and areas to be dealt with. Nevertheless, this was seen to be a priority—and I hope the Deputies will agree that it is a priority—in the distribution of wealth and it is being tackled.

I was concerned about something which Deputy O'Connell said in relation to the voluntary agencies and the fact that the State still uses the voluntary agencies to do its own job, so to speak. Because of my own experience I am very anxious to see the voluntary agencies involved in the system. They have a particularly important function in the delivery of services and the identification of needs in the improvement of the standard and quality of services generally, and there is not any way in which one can form an alternative massive bureaucratic system which would be better. I do not believe that it would be better. The voluntary agencies, the local community groups and other local voluntary groups play a very major part in that respect and I hope that in any [2200] development which takes place their function and their part will be highlighted, and not only maintained but increased and improved.

Dr. O'Connell: The State has always depended on those. Indeed if we had a guaranteed minimum income there would be no need for the Vincent de Paul.

Dr. Woods: This is just the point I am trying to get to. I accept that in this country voluntary agencies and people who give their services voluntarily have made a major contribution. I accept that the State has a function and increasingly over the years has been taking on that function through various governments. What I do not accept—and I may differ with the Deputy in this respect—is that a totally State-run and controlled system is preferable to one in which there is voluntary participation. I am anxious to see the strengthening of voluntary groups. This is where the real quality of service ultimately emerges. If one goes around the country and sees what voluntary groups are doing, one can see that the service they give, in conjunction with the State support services, is of a very high quality. This is particularly so in some of the health services, the services for the disabled and the elderly in particular. I would be very keen to ensure that in whatever systems we develop this very valuable aspect be preserved.

Deputy O'Connell then raised some points which he regarded as being more or less a charter of rights for people generally who would be using social welfare services. The first one he raised was the question of full information. I agree entirely with him in this respect. He mentioned that the present book is complex. I did not think it would be too complex for him but he says that he finds it confusing at times. I accept that it is complex, particularly for the elderly or others who may have difficulty sorting out the various details. While it is complex it is necessarily so because there are complex schemes available. It has been made very nearly as simple as [2201] one could make such a comprehensive book. Some improvements have been effected in the book; there are some even in this year's book. But the way to approach that is to take the more specialised groups out of it. One of the first things I did in the Department was to set up a study on the elderly, and widows in particular. I believe we could take out all of the requirements for, say, the elderly and have one booklet on them.

Dr. O'Connell: Or even if there were leaflets issued on particular things.

Dr. Woods: Yes, this is something we are doing at present and we hope to have some results shortly.

On the question of having adequate information available, of course there is a question of staffing. I have had discussions with the staff in relation to that and we hope to do what we can to improve that area.

In regard to the prompt attention to and delivery on claims, we are all completely agreed. This is something we must keep before us constantly. There are so many factors which can lead to delay in the system it is important that it be kept before us as a priority. Sometimes, of course, the delays are occasioned by employers, as I think the Deputy mentioned. This is something about which we are particularly concerned in the new system—that we are dependent on reasonably early and timely returns so that the system can operate satisfactorily. That is why I made that appeal to employers in my speech.

The Deputy also sought an impartial appeals system. Here I should like to stress that, within the Department, the officers who deal with appeals are particularly impartial in the sense that they value their contribution and integrity within the public service particularly highly. Nevertheless the Deputy was seeking some system outside the Department of Social Welfare. I do not know [2202] whether or not such would be feasible but we will examine the possibility.

Dr. O'Connell: The Minister's predecessor promised me that, having examined it, that would be done.

Dr. Woods: Yes, that examination is under way. I hope shortly to have the documents available and to consider that review. I want to make the point that from any experience within the Department the officers concerned are particularly anxious to maintain their integrity in arriving at decisions just in case——

Dr. O'Connell: Not alone must the system be impartial but it must be seen to be impartial.

Dr. Woods: I accept that but we must see our public servants to be impartial also. That is the point I want to make clear while accepting the general need for a review of the system. I do not accept any implication which may exist in relation to the public servants involved.

Courteous and respectful treatment, the basic standard of living and services were other aspects the Deputy raised. Deputy O'Connell raised another point in relation to disability benefit. He said that a person who is regarded as capable of work by a medical referee ceases to receive payment. If he continues to submit medical evidence of incapacity or appeals and, if on the second medical referee examination, he is considered incapable of work payment of benefit is reinstated retrospectively.

Dr. O'Connell: No, it is not; I have to tell the Minister it is not—only from the date of the second examination. I have disputed it. I have written in about it and I am now arguing very strongly in that respect.

Dr. Woods: I shall take that up for the Deputy. As I understand it, it is retrospective but I shall have it examined.

Deputy O'Connell also raised the [2203] question of widows. One improvement was effected through a previous budget, that is that if a husband has been in receipt of a social welfare payment at the date of death this payment, which includes the husband's rate of benefit, plus increases for a wife and children, if any, continues now for six weeks after his death. I accept that the Deputy is seeking further improvements but that is one which has been effected in the context of a previous budget.

In regard to the overall standard of living and services in relation to pensions the Deputy emphasised the urgent need for a national income-related pension scheme. We are pursuing that matter as urgently as we can.

Deputy O'Connell also raised the question of the free fuel scheme with which I have dealt, and the question of further improving children's allowances. We will be looking at this in the context of family support systems generally. The Deputy pointed out—and I am glad he did—that fraud, as a percentage, is quite small. I made this point on a number of occasions. Nevertheless we have a duty to ensure that the system for detecting fraud operates satisfactorily because there is nothing more disheartening to workers and beneficiaries generally.

Dr. O'Connell: I should tell the Minister that there are employers in collusion on this who actually give incentives; they are equally culpable, if not more so, because, by offering low wages, they are inviting employees to collect benefit as well. They are responsible in a great number of cases.

Dr. Woods: As Minister for Social Welfare I frequently make that point because at times people get it somewhat out of context. Nevertheless it is important that the system be seen to be operating fairly and that fraud and abuse be removed, where possible.

Deputy O'Hanlon made a number of points. I should like to thank him for his good wishes and congratulations. He mentioned the question of credits for persons who take time to look after [2204] elderly people, who receive special credits which preserve entitlement to social welfare benefits. The Deputy has suggested similar-type credits for persons who take time off work to look after persons suffering from terminal illnesses. I agree with the Deputy that if this can be properly defined it would be very desirable and it is something I shall pursue and investigate. Deputy O'Hanlon said also that the free electricity scheme was particularly beneficial to elderly people and that he would like to see this continue for a widow after the husband had died instead of her having to wait until she reaches pension age. This could be considered also in the context of future developments. The same Deputy expressed his anxiety regarding an improvement in the position about delays. He must be aware from his own experience that some claimants are not using their social welfare numbers but are using their tax numbers instead. This causes some confusion and, in turn, leads to delays in identifying the claimant's insurance record. As I have said in relation to the points made by the Opposition Deputies, the points made by Deputy O'Hanlon, too, were constructive and I think him for them.

The Minister of State, Deputy Connolly, expressed concern also about disabled persons' maintenance and about the need to ensure quick payments in such cases. He expressed concern also about fraud and abuse. Throughout the whole debate we have had a reasonable discussion on this question.

There was raised also the point about entitlement to benefit following the Supreme Court decision. I am having this matter considered both within the legal section of the Department and by the Attorney General. At this stage I would merely point out that the Seventh Schedule to the Social Welfare Act, 1952, requires that in calculating the means of a person who is one of a married couple living together, the means should be taken as one half of the total means of that couple. This procedure is known as moiety treatment and is intended to be of benefit to the generality of married couples who are [2205] likely to apply for non-contributory old age pensions since it applies equally to both partners. Perhaps the advantage is illustrated best by an example. Let us take applicant A as being a married farmer aged 66 and whose wife is aged 65. If the farm income is assessed at £1,250 per annum, the moiety is simply a division by two which is £625 and this divided by 52 gives a weekly sum of £12.02. This means that the applicant is entitled to a weekly pension of £12.60 plus £6.35 for his wife. When the applicant's wife reaches 66 she will be assessed in exactly the same way and receive a pension of £12.60. The adult dependant increase ceases to be payable after pension age.

If we take applicant B as being a single farmer aged 66 with an annual farm income of £1,250, that sum is divided by 52 to give a weekly means of £24. As this amount is greater than the amount specified in the means limit, there would not be any pension payable in that case.

It can be seen clearly, then, that the moiety system which has stood the test of time does not attack the institution of marriage. If anything, it could be said to [2206] be a discrimination in favour of marriage. However, I have asked that the system be considered both within the Department's legal section and also by the Attorney General in relation to the court decision.

I thank Deputies for their contributions and for their goods wishes. I accept that in the Department of Social Welfare there is a heavy onus on the Minister, not only to deal with the annual budgetary aspects of the Department but also to try to develop and promote in a positive way the work of the Department. I will consider very seriously the suggestions that have been made in a most constructive fashion by the Deputies and as the months go by I hope to be able to show the Deputies that we have taken seriously the proposals and suggestions they have made. In every way possible we will attempt to make the service a more effective, a more valuable and a more suitable one for the beneficiaries.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at 2 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 29 April 1980.