Dáil Éireann - Volume 463 - 27 March, 1996

Social Welfare Bill, 1996: Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage.

Debate resumed on amendment No. 4a:

In page 36, before line 1, to insert the following:

“PART X

44.—(1) The Minister shall, following consultation with representative bodies, including representatives of claimants, establish a ‘Charter of Rights’ for claimants.

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the Charter of Rights shall contain provisions in relation to—

[1150] (a) the right to have all personal dealings conducted in a manner and place which is conducive to privacy and is easily accessible;

(b) the right to be treated with courtesy and respect;

(c) the right to be presumed honest;

(d) the right to full access to services and fair treatment irrespective of political, religious, cultural or sexual orientation;

(e) the right to confidentiality and to have access to all relevant information contained on his or her computer file;

(f) the right to an explicit and transparent system for making complaints and the right to a speedy response to such complaints;

(g) the right to an oral hearing in the event of an appeal;

(h) the right to full and total information including eligibility criteria at the time of application;

(i) the right to be advised within a period of not more than four working days of the lodgment of an application within the meaning of this section, to be advised of the identity of the person empowered with the task of determining the application.”.'

—Deputy J. Walsh.

Mr. J. Walsh: There is no reason the Minister should not accede to the establishment of a charter of rights for social welfare recipients. A claimant service advisory group and a permanent social welfare advisory council, representative of contributors, beneficiaries and administrators which would publish an annual report, should also be established.

Minister for Social Welfare (Proinsias De Rossa): I wish to refer to a number [1151] of questions raised by the Deputy during his discussion on the amendment. In the Bill as initiated, Schedule I deletes obsolete references to the Land Commission in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1993. The Report Stage amendments which provide for disregarding awards by the hepatitis C tribunal for social assistance payments are being made by way of an amendment to Schedule I. This approach was taken to avoid having to make a series of technical consequential amendments to other provisions of the Bill. The existing references referred to land leased under a lease certified by the Irish Land Commission. As the Land Commission no longer exists, it does not issue such certificates.

Amendments put and declared lost.

Mr. J. Walsh: I move amendment No. 4b.:

In page 36, before line 1, to insert the following:

“45.—All general guidelines issued by the Minister in relation to the operation of the social welfare system shall be published.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Mr. J. Walsh: I move amendment No. 4c:

In page 36, before line 1, to insert the following:

“46.—Whenever a Deciding Officer decides to refuse a person a benefit, assistance or allowance or part thereof, he or she shall forward to the said person within four working days of such decision a comprehensive statement in writing of the grounds of such refusal and the facts relied on in the decision and such statement shall include the following information:

(a) the right of appeal to an Appeals Officer;

[1152] (b) the procedures of an Appeals Officer and the means of lodging an appeal;

(c) the right to have an appeal determined within two months of lodgement; and

(d) the right to be advised within a period of four working days of lodging an appeal within the meaning of this section, to be advised of the identity of the person empowered with the task of determining the appeal.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Mr. J. Walsh: I move amendment No. 4d:

In page 36, before line 1, to insert the following:

“47.—Whenever an Appeals Officer decides to refuse a person a benefit, assistance or allowance or part thereof, he or she shall forward to the said person within four working days of such decision a comprehensive statement in writing of the grounds of such refusal and the facts relied on in the decision and such statement shall include the following information:

(a) the right to have the decision reviewed in the light of new evidence or new facts in accordance with section 262 of the Principal Act;

the right to have the decision reviewed by the Chief Appeals Officer in accordance with section 263 of the Principal Act; and

(c) the right of appeal to the High Court in accordance with section 271 of the Principal Act.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Mr. J. Walsh: I move amendment No. 4e:

In page 36, before line 1, to insert the following:

[1153] “48. — (1) The Minister shall establish claimant service advisory groups at appropriate levels in consultation with the social partners and organisations representing claimants.

(2) These groups shall enable representatives of claimants and providers of social welfare services to exchange views on the quality of service delivery.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Mr. J. Walsh: I move amendment No. 4f:

In page 36, before line 1, to insert the following:

“49. —The Minister shall establish a permanent Social Welfare Advisory Council representative of contributors, beneficiaries and administrators. The Council should publish an annual report.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Mr. J. Walsh: I move amendment No. 4g:

In page 36, line 8, after “6 months” to insert “in total”.

Section 44 provides that: “Notwithstanding subsection (2), the Minister may, where he considers that the circumstances so warrant, extend, by not more than 6 months, the period within which the Agency is required to draw up and submit for the Minister's approval a strategic plan”. The Combat Poverty Agency has been allocated increased resources in recent years and a substantial amount of its work is now farmed out to consultants. These consultants have done well, whatever about the people whom the agency is supposed to help. If consultants are well remunerated and in receipt of substantial amounts of taxpayers' money then they should be required to draw up and publish a report within the shortest [1154] possible period. There is little point in spending an inordinate length of time drawing up reports when people need to have their situation alleviated or improved. By the time many reports are published and debated the problem has moved on, so to speak. If reports are to be of any value they must be published with a certain degree of urgency. The report on the elderly was published within a few weeks and a considerable amount of money was allocated to deal with a particularly acute problem. The publication of reports within a certain period is of value. Six months is a considerable time.

I have outlined the way in which I would like to see business being done. It is as easy to identify a problem in the short-term as it is in the long-term. Consideration should be given to the expeditious publication of reports, particularly those of the Combat Poverty Agency which is not short of money and gives good remuneration to the consultancy agencies employed by it.

Proinsias De Rossa: The Bill proposes to give the Minister of the day the power to extend the period by six months if he or she deems it necessary to enable the Combat Poverty Agency to produce its three-year strategic plan. It is not a report in the sense of identifying a particular issue. Rather, it is a plan developed by the agency every three years based on the outcome and effectiveness of the previous three-year strategic plan and it is used to make projections for the following three years and to develop the work of the agency and the various people with whom it works.

When I took up office I initiated a review of the agency, as provided for in the legislation, and I expect to receive the results shortly. In addition, the terms of service of most members of the board has expired and new members have to be appointed. The obligation on the board to produce a strategic plan on 1 January this year was unreasonable given that a review of the agency was being carried out and new board [1155] members would be appointed. It made sense to enable the new board to find its feet and to take into account the outcome of the previous three-year strategic plan and the review before finalising the next three-year strategic plan.

That is the reason it is proposed to extend the period by six months. This is not a permanent extension; it is an option which the Minister of the day may use if he or she sees fit at the time. The Deputy's amendment would effectively kill this provision as it would no longer be capable of being used after the first time — it could not be extended beyond that. If the Minister of the day needed the extension at some stage in the future he or she would have to come back into the House to amend the legislation. In all the circumstances it is reasonable to enable the Minister of the day to use his or her judgment as to whether an extension of this kind should be provided. As the extension may be not more than six months it is limited.

I understand the thinking behind the amendment but do not necessarily accept the points made by Deputy Walsh about the agency. My experience is that the agency has carried out all its work expeditiously. It is involved to a greater degree than ever with a range of Departments, not just the Department of Social Welfare. It is actively involved in the national anti-poverty strategy, the European Union peace package, in which my Department also has a role, and a range of other networks and research. My proposal is reasonable and as the amendment would effectively wipe it out I do not intend to accept it.

Dr. Woods: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining his proposal as I had taken a different meaning from his refusal to accept Deputy Walsh's amendment in the first instance. The amendment proposes to insert the words “in total” after the words “6 months” in section 44. Section 44 (4) would then read:

[1156] “(4) Notwithstanding subsection (2), the Minister may, where he considers that the circumstances so warrant, extend, by not more than 6 months in total, the period within which the agency is required to draw up and submit for the Minister's approval a strategic plan.”.

Deputy Walsh's intention is to ensure that the period within which the agency will be required to draw up and submit a strategic plan for the Minister's approval will not be extended by more than six months, but the Minister wants to have this option for use at any time in the future. It seems strange to include in a Bill a provision whereby the time scale for completing a strategic plan can be extended at any time in the future. I understand that the Minister feels he should give the new board more time and that it might be desirable to make this arrangement to allow for that. However, that is not what the Minister is proposing. He wants to have this arrangement in place for use by future Ministers.

I was at first inclined to go along with the Minister's thinking. However, Deputy Walsh's amendment would limit the extension of the time to six months in total. That would mean that the Minister's objective of having this arrangement in place for use on further occasions would not be achieved. We would be happy to go along with the Minister if he wanted to deal with a particular problem but not create an openended situation for the future. What the Minister suggests is a formula for procrastination, for not achieving targets within the time set down. That is not a good thing to do generally, and it is not something we should write into legislation. Legislating to allow a Minister to take an extra six months any time he feels like it is not a good principle to follow. It is not a good precedent. Where a Minister has a problem and cannot meet targets he should come forward, explain the difficulty and ask for the opportunity to extend the time. On that basis, I am sure the House would [1157] give the Minister the authority he needed. This would only rarely occur and if, in accordance with the Taoiseach's statement, everything is to become much more efficient under the strategic management initiative, these things should be done not after the due date but before it. There is no reason they could not be done before the due date. Once the system is in place the officials will know exactly what they have to deal with and how to go about it in an efficient way. That is our objective.

It might be argued that we should build this option into the legislation and let the Minister go his way. However, Deputy Walsh tabled this amendment because he believed in dealing with a situation whereby either the Minister or an agency under his aegis is embarrassed by not being able to meet targets. I am sure the Minister would have the support of the House in doing that, but to build into legislation on ongoing possibility of delay does not seem a good idea. It would mean building into the next social welfare consolidation Act that one does not have to meet targets or get work done in time.

Deputy Walsh's amendment is an appropriate and correct amendment which we should make to the Bill. If the Minister should find in future that he is not sufficiently in touch with his agency or not sufficiently on top of the work, or that the planning unit is not in touch with what is happening, that is a problem which should be dealt with. It will probably not arise because there is a good unit in existence. My experience in the Department tells me that its officials would be looking for the report.

This brings us back to what the Minister had to say about the issue. He said a great deal about it which was revealing and interesting.

Proinsias De Rossa: That is openness and transparency.

Dr. Woods: It came out now, but not on Committee Stage.

[1158] Proinsias De Rossa: It was not asked for on Committee Stage because we were in such a hurry to get our tea.

Dr. Woods: The Minister has revealed the thinking behind his objection to Deputy Walsh's amendment which is that he wants the arrangement to be in existence for the future and to build it in as a means of dealing with delays, when principally it is a question of dealing with a situation as it arises. The Minister has given us some insight into the present problem. He congratulated the outgoing board which he said was efficient and had its work up to date. If that is the case, it must have had its strategic plan ready at least in draft form. The Minister has been in office since December 1994. It is now 1996 and, presumably, this did not recently come out of the blue. I expect that the board would have had a plan prepared, would have had its homework done and have negotiated with the Department. The board is used to producing reports. As Deputy Walsh said, the one thing the Combat Poverty Agency is particularly good at is producing reports. There are so many reports that we should perhaps stop and instead do something for a while. The reports have analysed nearly every situation, and that is valuable. It is particularly important to have a good analysis of all the problems and the board has been particularly efficient in preparing reports. It is very hard to believe the board would not have had its homework done leading up to the time when the legislation required it to have a strategic action plan ready. I am quite certain the board must have had the plan ready but the Minister did not tell us that. He indicated his reasons for providing this extension at this time. If it was ready why was it set aside? What is really happening? Has there been a change in policy or in the orientation of the board? The plan presumably was ready because the board would have the report in good time. What happened? Having recognised and thanked the members of the board for their work, which presumably involved a strategic [1159] action plan, the Minister then appointed a new board. Did the new board want a new plan? From what the Minister has indicated that seems to be the case. Does this amendment reveal the political change that has taken place? One might accept there will be delays in preparing a strategic action plan. The Minister has indicated quite clearly that the new board will be producing a new plan. What is really happening? Is the board changing its direction? The Minister has not told us anything about that or why he wants it. Perhaps he is changing the direction of the board. I am not clear on that.

We were given notes on the sections and the note on section 44 states:

On section 44, amend section 5 (2) of the Combat Poverty Agency Act, 1986 to provide that the Minister may extend by not more than six months the period within which the agency is required to draw up and submit to strategic plan for its approval.

That is a straightforward technical statement on the Minister's proposed amendment. The notes, however, do not tell us the reason this is being done. Deputy Joe Walsh is seeking to amend that amendment.

This issue becomes much more important because the question is whether this is a Democratic Left plan and that is the reason for the additional six months. The former board was working under the legislative requirements of this House on the preparation and report of the strategic action plan. If what has happened is that the Minister has appointed a number of people, including a new Democratic Left chairperson.

Proinsias De Rossa: On a point of order, Sir, I do not think it appropriate to apply a political label to a chairperson, regardless of who appoints him.

Dr. Woods: I do not want to dwell unduly on the question of chairpersons but we have to ask ourselves what is [1160] happening behind the scenes. We are concerned if a particular drift——

Proinsias De Rossa: There is provision in the precedents of this House that we do not apply political labels to people who have agreed to take on a public role on behalf of the Minister of the day. The Deputy is misapplying a political label to the person concerned and I ask him to withdraw it.

Dr. Woods: A Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I have to address this issue.

Proinsias De Rossa: The Deputy is applying a political label to the person and I ask him to withdraw it.

Dr. Woods: Let us say the Minister has appointed a person to the board who is very close to the Minister and to his party.

Proinsias De Rossa: On a point of order, Sir, what basis does the Deputy have to draw this conclusion? How can he assume the political affiliations of a person on the basis of their closeness, personally or otherwise, to a Member of this House? That is inappropriate. There are thousands of people who are close to the Deputy and to me who have nothing to do with the Fianna Fáil or Democratic Left parties.

Dr. Woods: I am concerned about this issue because of the drift that can take place.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There is a general understanding and precedent that persons outside the House are not referred to by name or in a manner by which they are identifiable. We should follow that precedent.

Proinsias De Rossa: I am concerned that the Deputy has labelled the person I appointed as chairperson of the Combat Poverty Agency as a Democratic Left chairperson. Will the Deputy withdraw that label from the person? The Deputy has no basis for assuming that [1161] the person is associated with Democratic Left as a party unless he presumes in an old fashioned way that because a person is married to somebody else they automatically have their policies. That is a very old fashioned view.

Dr. Woods: I do not want to extend this debate unduly. The Minister has talked about family relations — the Minister's press officer, I presume, is the person to whom he is referring in that connection. The Minister introduced that and I did not introduce it.

Proinsias De Rossa: I must insist that he withdraw the allegation that the person whom I appointed as a chairperson of the Combat Poverty Agency is a Democratic Left chairperson and that is inappropriate. The Deputy must withdraw that remark.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Chair has already said that persons outside the House should not be referred to by name or in a manner by which they are identifiable.

Proinsias De Rossa: That is McCarthyism.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The matter has been withdrawn.

Dr. Woods: I would be concerned if the policy of the Combat Poverty Agency were to change. I am also concerned that the purpose of the Minister's amendment is to give new appointees to that agency an opportunity to change its policy. Given that the Minister said he wants to allow the agency time to review its programme, the question is whether Deputy Walsh's simple amendment almost inadvertently unlocked something that is happening behind the scenes when legislation requiring the agency to submit its plan within a specified time is to be set aside so that it can introduce a different policy. Such a policy would be more to the liking of the Democratic Left Party and would be more left-wing. That is a [1162] serious question which the Minister can answer by stating the direction being taken by the agency now and in the future.

Proinsias De Rossa: On a point of order, is it appropriate for the Deputy to seek to debate the Combat Poverty Agency, its policy and strategic plan on the basis of this amendment?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: We should stick strictly to the amendment. The debate on this amendment has continued for some time. The Deputy should address the amendment proper.

Dr. Woods: This issue is directly related to the amendment and not raising it would suppress what is happening behind the scenes and the objective of this amendment.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Nothing relevant should be suppressed in this House.

Dr. Woods: In introducing his amendment the Minister said it deals with a simple matter of the Government wishing to extend by six months the period within which the agency is required to submit its plan. It appeared reasonable that the agency should be granted more time if it is unable to submit its plan within the time specified. The Opposition spokesperson questioned why that provision should apply every year and if it should not apply only on a once off basis, hence Deputy Walsh's amendment which provided that the period for submitting the plan should be extended by not more than six months in total. A problem may arise in that six months may represent six consecutive months or be broken down over a number of years, but that puts a limit on the time by which the plan must be submitted. Deputy Walsh, perhaps inadvertently, was very wise to table his amendment for a number of reasons. It will ensure that in future the Combat Poverty Agency will comply with the wishes of this House and will submit its plan [1163] within the period required. It has been able to do that until now and should continue to do that in the future. If the agency were to put forward a good reason for being unable to do that, it can inform the House that it is inefficient and would be able to submit the plan if it were given more time.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Chair considers the Deputy is dealing with the amendment, but there appears to be an element of repetition and the matter has been discussed for some time.

Dr. Woods: I thank the Chair for its advice, but I am trying to address what is behind the Minister's amendment. If we cannot, we are wasting our time in the House. We have addressed it to some extent because the Minister said the real reason for the time extension is that he appointed a new board and wishes its members to draw up a new plan. We know the board's composition and Minister's appointees.

Proinsias De Rossa: The Deputy does not know that.

Dr. Woods: They were mentioned publicly.

Proinsias De Rossa: The Deputy is a waffler.

Dr. Woods: It is our job to tease out what is behind an amendment.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Let us hear the Deputy without interruption.

Dr. Woods: The Minister is getting very upset.

Proinsias De Rossa: If the Deputy was given enough rope, he would hang himself.

Dr. Woods: The more upset he gets the more he shows his hand. That is the problem and the reason he is upset.

Proinsias De Rossa: I am not upset.

[1164] Dr. Woods: One always knows that when a Minister gets excited like this he has shown his hand.

Proinsias De Rossa: I only get upset when the Deputy waffles.

Dr. Woods: He is behaving like he did when he sat on the Opposition benches.

Proinsias De Rossa: The Deputy is in Opposition now and he will be there for a long time.

Dr. Woods: I am familiar with both sides of the House.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Let us stick to the amendment without interruption.

Dr. Woods: What is the reason behind the Minister's amendment? Will there be a major shift in the agency's policy? Has the strategic plan that was presumably ready in time been torn up or set aside?

Proinsias De Rossa: This is not appropriate to the amendment.

Dr. Woods: Does the Minister intend to use the extension of this time to introduce a new plan? Given that he said he wanted to introduce a new plan, why is he hiding from it? Why will he not accept Deputy Walsh's amendment which states that the provision should be made on a once off basis?

Proinsias De Rossa: The Deputy is despicable in Government or in Opposition.

Dr. Woods: The Minister should not get upset.

Proinsias De Rossa: I am not upset. The Deputy is as despicable as ever.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Let us [1165] not have such language across the floor of the House.

Dr. Woods: We recognise that he wishes to make this provision now. In that case why does he not honestly state that he wishes to change the agency's plan, to introduce another one and that this matter will not arise in the future? Why will he not state that he is pleased the agency will operate efficiently in the future, will have its plan ready within the required time, that he does not wish to lead people astray by indicating this provision will be required in the future and that the legislation should be adhered to? It appears Deputy Walsh has exposed what was happening by tabling his simple amendment.

Proinsias De Rossa: The only thing the Deputy has exposed is that he is a waffler.

Dr. Woods: Deputy Walsh's amendment in appropriate and relates to what the Minister said he wishes to do. He wants to change the agency's policy and to introduce a Democratic Left orientation into it. As he has talked of openness and transparency, he should state that is what he wishes to do.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Let us address the amendment.

Dr. Woods: This is relevant to the amendment.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: At this stage let us keep relevance to the fore. We are having repetition.

Dr. Woods: The Minister should accept Deputy Walsh's amendment.

Proinsias De Rossa: If I had even let the thought of accepting the amendment stay in mind for a second, I would no longer entertain it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: We should not have this interaction across the floor of the House.

[1166] Dr. Woods: The Minister should accept Deputy Walsh's amendment and admit that he wishes to resolve a current problem and that this matter should not pose a problem in the future. This amendment is a once-off and should be accepted as such.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: This is repetition.

Dr. Woods: Deputy Walsh's amendment is a good one. I appeal to the Minister to be straightforward and say the difficulty with the amendment is that it uncovers the fact that he wants to change policy. I am sure Deputy Walsh will consider changes in policy in the future.

Proinsias De Rossa: The Deputy would not recognise them.

Dr. Woods: I support Deputy Walsh's amendment which, while it looks very simple on paper, has been very effective in uncovering what is happening behind the scenes.

Miss M. Wallace: What we are talking about here is deferral of the Combat Poverty Agency strategic plan. The issue of delays, reports and plans has been raised time and again in the Bill, as if there are not already enough plans and reports in the Department of Social Welfare. I am surprised that yet again we are enshrining in legislation a further deferral, particularly in view of the position outlined by my colleague, Deputy Woods that the outgoing Combat Poverty Agency board has its affairs up to date and its report in order.

Proinsias De Rossa: I would not believe everything Deputy Woods said.

Miss M. Wallace: The amendment has uncovered the Minister's concern that a new board appointed by him should produce a different report — he said it is an opportunity to review the plan. Every reasonable person must ask why he is causing a further delay by seeking [1167] another plan. Since the Minister took office there have been problems in making progress on a number of issues because time and again there have been deferrals and delays.

On the issue of poverty which was discussed earlier, we endeavoured to enshrine in the Bill a basic principle which was advocated by the Minister when in Opposition. At that time he was very concerned about poverty, yet now that he is in a position to do something about it he fails to accept an amendment in that regard. Similarly, the Minister believed when in Opposition that it would be useful to implement the recommendation of the Commission on Social Welfare relating to the official poverty line, but he now refuses to accept such a recommendation. In his view the establishment of an official poverty line is no longer useful.

We are talking here about the Combat Poverty Agency, and the Minister who was so concerned about poverty when in Opposition is deliberately creating a further delay by deferring production by the Combat Poverty Agency of the strategic plan. Any reasonable person who reads this debate will agree it is extraordinary that the Minister refuses to take on board the plan completed by the outgoing Combat Poverty Agency board. He is creating a deliberate delay so as to have an opportunity to review the strategic plan. Everybody knows there are too many reports, plans and delays in this area, and I cannot believe we are contemplating yet another deferral of this plan.

We debated the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and we await with bated breath its recommendations. It is very disappointing that in the past year every time we questioned the Minister on the issue of disability he used that report as a reason to delay matters. I do not know why the Minister is so interested in delays.

He spoke about the report of the Commission on the Family and said it [1168] would be published in June 1997, but by that time this Government will have gone out of office. It is extraordinary that, as with the reports of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and the Commission on the Family, even though it is enshrined in legislation that the report of the Combat Poverty Agency must be published at a certain time, the Minister is deliberately causing its deferral. There is something amiss here. A new board will be appointed by the Minister and extra time will be needed for that board to produce a different report. Why has no real explanation been given of what is happening in this regard?

Mr. J. Walsh: I am not satisfied with the reason given by the Minister for not accepting this amendment, which would be useful not only to the Combat Poverty Agency and those who benefit from its work but also to the Department of Social Welfare under whose aegis that agency operates. What we have here is a charter for procrastination, vacillation and delay, whereby people given a job to do, if it is not all right on the day will get another six months. I am not satisfied with that nor am I satisfied the Combat Poverty Agency should get that concession. It was established to do a job and it should get on with it. I have not been impressed with its recent performance. An example is the failure of the organisation to highlight the scandal of the Minister's inability to get the Poverty 4 programme through the Council of Ministers. The agency implemented measures under the Poverty 4 programme, yet all I read in its publications are soft articles and excuses for the Minister and his Department. I do not agree with giving it additional time to draw up strategic plans.

Like my local newspaper The Skibbereen Eagle which is famous for keeping its eye on Russia, I will keep my eye on the Combat Poverty Agency's performance and the cosy new board, some of whose members have been appointed. I will press this amendment [1169] because it is reasonable and should be accepted.

Proinsias De Rossa: On a point of order, I draw attention to the fact that because of the nature of the debate I am not in a position to reply to the Deputy's figments of imagination.

An Ceann Comhairle: This is the Report Stage of the Bill and Members may speak once only.

Proinsias De Rossa: The Deputy says he will not provide for an extension for the Combat Poverty Agency but his amendment provides for an extension of up to six months. I want to explain that in case anybody might be misled.

An Ceann Comhairle: I cannot facilitate a second speech. We are on Report Stage and Members may speak once only, except the proposer of an amendment who has the right of reply. We have heard Deputy Joe Walsh's reply.

Amendment put and declared lost.

An Ceann Comhairle: Amendment No. 5 has already been discussed with amendment No. 1.

Proinsias De Rossa: I move amendment No. 5:

In page 36, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following:

“(2) Section 11 (1) (b) of the Health Contributions Act, 1979, is hereby amended by the insertion after ‘Act of 1970’ of ‘or Council Regulation (EEC) No. 1408/71(1) of 14 June 1971’.”.

Amendment No. 1 provides that the earnings of people who work in Northern Ireland will not be liable to the health and employment training levies. The benefit to a cross-Border worker with yearly earnings of £15,000 will be in the region of £337.50.

This measure arises from a committee which Deputy Wallace criticised. An interdepartmental committee was established by the Minister for Finance last [1170] year and this measure is one of the fruits of that report. This is another example of action by this Government, not procrastination or delay.

Miss M. Wallace: I welcome the amendment as a positive step. I have followed with great interest the Commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on People with Disabilities. The commissions and reports are important but the problem is that they are used by the Minister as a vehicle for delay.

The Minister referred to the Commission on the Family this morning saying it would report in 12 months and that we should wait for that report. That is an excuse for delaying. A Government or a Minister should not excuse themselves from taking action or delay taking action because research on an issue is in progress and a report awaited. It is important to have proper research and reports but they should not be used by a Minister as an excuse for doing nothing. It is not acceptable.

We welcome the amendment. It arose because a worker in Donegal highlighted the issue prior to the budget. This is a big issue for people in Donegal and other Border areas as many will benefit from this change. It keeps people in work and maintains the value of their employment.

Mr. J. Walsh: I welcome this amendment because it will benefit a large number of people.

Proinsias De Rossa: It is extraordinary that Deputy Wallace can, on the one hand, welcome the recommendations of a committee and the action taken by the Government, yet, at the same time, continue with her waffle about using committees as a means of delay. She mentioned my reference this morning to the Commission on the Family. Deputy Wallace and others opposite do not listen when I give an explanation of my position on an [1171] amendment. They chat among themselves and discuss the weather or whatever else concerns them, but they do not listen to the debate.

My reference to the Commission on the Family related to an amendment the Opposition tabled to insert in the Bill a 1985 based poverty line. I indicated that it was ten years out of date and the ESRI had been requested to provide an up to date report on the adequacy of social welfare income and how it might be indexed. We expect a report from the ESRI in the middle of this year. As an example of the concrete action I was taking in relation to poverty, as distinct from including a poverty line in the Social Welfare Bill, I instanced the increases in child benefit etc. as concrete examples of how the Government is acting on its own initiatives and programme and on the recommendations of various reports. I also instanced the report of the task force on security for the elderly, which was submitted within [1172] four weeks, following which Government decisions were made.

I appeal to Deputy Wallace to stop wasting her time talking about commissions and committees being used to delay and procrastinate. The evidence is that the Government acts on recommendations. It does not defer action, as was the case with previous administrations.

Amendment agreed to.

Proinsias De Rossa: I move amendment No. 6:

In page 36, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:

“(2) Section 22 (1) (b) of the Youth Employment Agency Act, 1981, is hereby amended by the insertion after ‘Act of 1970’ of ‘or Council Regulation (EEC) No. 1408/71(1) of 14 June 1971’.”.

Amendment agreed to.

Proinsias De Rossa: I move amendment No. 7:

In page 46, to delete lines 8 to 19 and substitute the following:

“SCHEDULE I

Provision of Principal Act Amended

Nature of Amendment

(1)

(2)

Paragraph 2 (as amended by section 23 of this Act) of Rule 1 of Part I of the Third Schedule.

The insertion after subparagraph (t) of the following subparagraph:

‘(u) such other income received by a person or his or her spouse as may be prescribed.’.

Paragraph 4 (as amended by section 17 of this Act) of Rule 1 of Part II of the Third Schedule.

The insertion after subparagraph (t) of the following subparagraph:

‘(u) such other income received by a person or his or her spouse as may be prescribed.’.

Paragraph 1 (as amended by section 37 of this Act) of Rule 1 of Part III of the Third Schedule.

The insertion after subparagraph (n) of the following subparagraph:

‘(o) such other income received by a person or his or her spouse as may be prescribed.’.

Paragraphs (1) (as amended by section 23 of the Act of 1995) and (3) (b) of Rule 1 of Part I, paragraphs (1) (as amended by section 23 of the Act of 1995), (4) (a) and (5) (b) of Rule 1 of Part II and paragraphs (1) (e), (2) and (3) (b) of Rule 1 of Part III of the Third Schedule.

The deletion of ‘under a lease which was certified by the Irish Land Commission to be bona fide and in accordance with sound land use practice’.

[1173] Amendment agreed to.

Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.

Question proposed: “That the Bill do now pass.”

Mr. J. Walsh: We asked a number of questions on the different stages of the Bill and were advised we would receive answers. When will the REPS come into effect? Have consultations taken place with the workers of Telecom Éireann regarding the amendment to section 12? It is important they know the precise implications of the amendment before a decision is made regarding them.

Is the deserted wife's allowance permanently abolished? If so, does this not represent a disimprovement for those affected from 1 January 1997? Is it possible for a pro rata system of pension to be made payable to the self-employed who are eligible for contributions from 1988?

Dr. Woods: I welcome the Bill. It has had a good discussion on Committee Stage and on Report Stage. It is very important legislation, especially because it affects so many people — approximately 1.5 million, with the entire population affected in an overall sense.

The Minister has begun to deal with a number of smaller measures, which is to be welcomed. These are very important to individuals and to groups of people, even though they may be small enough in themselves. In this respect the Bill is more extensive than last year.

The major provisions in the Bill deal with the rates' increases. These are disappointing, providing for only a 3 per cent increase this year. While they at least bring the rates back to a more reasonable level following the 2.5 per cent increase last year, which was a big setback, they should have been associated with special increases in specific areas. For example, in these times of plenty the Minister should have awarded more to the pensioners. Even [1174] an increase of 3.5 per cent would not fully make up the ground lost last year.

The increases only maintain the situation while generally providing a mere 1 per cent increase in the main rates of social welfare benefits as recommended by the commission. This is a minimal improvement, which is confirmed by the Minister's advice that the total social assistance payment provided for in the Bill amounts to £56.9 million. That is less, in real terms, than the payment in 1994. It represents an increase on last year only because the increase awarded then was especially low. The Bill does not do much for those pensioners, widows and others looking to the House for improvements. It has disappointed, especially at a time of plenty.

The Bill is historic in that it abolishes the deserted wife's allowance while preserving the entitlements of existing claimants and beneficiaries from the end of this year. This represents a setback for women. Various options could have been taken. It is necessary to provide for equal treatment for men and women with regard to benefit. This has not been done through amendment of this benefit but by expanding the assistance scheme. The lone parent's allowance scheme is now to become the one parent family payment.

An Ceann Comhairle: I have allowed the Deputy some latitude. As he is aware, speeches should be brief and refer only to what is contained in the Bill. I cannot permit what could be construed as Second Stage speeches. I ask the Deputy to conclude his remarks and refer to what is in the Bill, not what he may wish to have in it. That was for Second Stage.

Dr. Woods: I am addressing what is in the Bill, the one parent family payment.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy should note carefully what I have said.

Dr. Woods: The Bill introduces a new scheme, the one parent payment. This is [1175] an important and historic development. There will be a means test under this scheme which will apply to everybody and it is a major change. Deserted women who do not have children will no longer be covered for benefit. This introduces a change to the social insurance fund in that approximately £75 million will be transferred from it to the new scheme. It will be some years before this transfer is completed but at present women have a right to this money. The Minister has absorbed the scheme which was introduced in 1974 into the new scheme.

The scheme does not cover women whose incomes exceed £12,000 per annum, which represents 85 per cent of average industrial earnings. It excludes women on average industrial earnings who pay PRSI. Some 30 per cent of the 13,600 women receiving deserted wife's benefit do not have children and as a result will not be entitled to payments from the end of the year. The 7 per cent of women whose incomes exceed £12,000 per annum will not be entitled to payments under the new scheme. The assistance side will receive an extra £10 million because of improvements in the means test, which is welcome, but it is regrettable that so many people will be excluded.

We welcome the disability allowance for which the Bill provides. This covers the administrative arrangements which were set in train in the Estimates at the end of 1994. The scheme which the Minister introduced puts this on a legislative footing. We also welcome the new homemaker's scheme which put the arrangements which were made on an administrative basis on a statutory footing. There is considerable scope in this scheme for development, improvement and expansion and I hope this will be achieved.

Unlike last year's Bill, this provides for increases in family income supplement which should result in more people benefiting from the scheme. Lest the Minister suggests we do not welcome the positive aspects of the Bill, I [1176] want to make it clear that we do. The overall increases for beneficiaries are the barest minimum which would be acceptable and this is unfortunate when the economy is experiencing strong growth. Pensioners, widows and those receiving disability and invalidity payments need to keep pace with events in the community and need more than the Government has given them. This is our greatest reservation about the increases provided for in the Bill.

Miss M. Wallace: We were promised that on Report Stage we would be given details of how many people would benefit from the proposals on disability allowance. Perhaps the Minister will give these details in his reply?

A number of the Bill's provisions are welcome. I strongly welcome section 24, which deals with homemakers. There was a major debate on the section on Committee Stage and we discovered that the Department does not seem to be well prepared for it. There are no great plans with regard to introducing regulations and we eventually elicited from the Minister that this will be done after the Bill has been passed. Section 24 is positive because of its identification of homemakers for pensions purposes. The years spent by a person as a homemaker may be disregarded from the point of view of pensions. There has been little detail of how homemakers would be identified. What should homemakers, who may apply for pensions in 15 years' time, now do to identify themselves? I hope this will be made clear by the Department following the extensive debate on the issue.

With regard to section 4, it is extraordinary that the Department and the Minister continue to disregard the fact that twins are a multiple birth. In Opposition the Minister held that they were but he has not provided for this in the Bill. Important improvements are provided for twins but they only scratch the surface in terms of what is being sought by the group representing the parents of twins.

[1177] Responsibility for disability allowance is being transferred to the Department of Social Welfare. We welcome this administrative change but my concern is that people in receipt of this allowance should see an improvement. Section 13 provides for the insertion of a new chapter in the Principal Act. We discussed an amendment on Committee Stage which proposed to delete paragraph 191C of this chapter which would have helped to identify the real cost of disability as distinct from applying a means test to people in receipt of disability allowance.

An Ceann Comhairle: I hesitate to interrupt the Deputy but she must remember that this is the Fifth Stage of the Bill on which she may mention only what is contained in it. It would have been more appropriate to raise during Second, Committee and Report Stages the many questions now being raised by Members. It is not proper for the Deputy to raise a series of questions which were dealt with on earlier Stages.

Mr. J. Walsh: On a point of order, we are discussing an important Bill. In excess of £4 billion is being provided for social welfare, which is one of the main items of Government expenditure. I note there is not a quorum in the House.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

Miss Wallace: As my colleague Deputy Woods said, there are positive changes for many lone parents. However, these changes do not benefit women in receipt of deserted wife's benefit or those who may be deserted after 1 January 1997 as this benefit will be abolished after that date. It must be borne in mind that one third of women who claim deserted wife's benefit do not have children. This section, while positive for many lone parents in terms of the allowance does away with benefits for many women since the benefit will be stringently means tested from now on. It does away with the deserted wife's [1178] benefit for many women who have been deserted but who work and continue to claim that benefit. Under this section one third of these women who do not have children will be ineligible for this allowance.

An Ceann Comhairle: I wished to dissuade Members from making what could be regarded as Second Stage speeches. Second Stage of this Bill has long since passed and we are now about to conclude. I ask Members to remember what is appropriate on Fifth Stage — only that which is in the Bill. Members know that speeches are usually brief at this stage.

Miss M. Wallace: Section 41 deals with the change from two to six years in the period within which the Department of Social Welfare can follow up a deceased person's estate. It is good that the State should recover money which belongs to it within an appropriate time. I hope this change will not lead to any undue delays in the finalising of estates. The Minister seems to think it will not.

I am concerned about the self employed. Section 9 introduces changes——

An Ceann Comhairle: It is inappropriate to raise these matters now.

Miss M. Wallace: They are in the Bill.

An Ceann Comhairle: That may be so. We are on Fifth Stage and the Deputy may only refer to what is in the Bill, not what she would desire to be in it. This Bill has been deliberated upon in great detail.

Miss M. Wallace: The provision which increases from two to six years the period within which a deceased person's estate can be followed up is in the Bill. The disability allowance and home-maker's pension entitlements are also provided for in the Bill.

An Ceann Comhairle: I know that.

[1179] Miss M. Wallace: I am endeavouring to follow your guidance. The Minister welcomed the changes for the self employed under section 9. Anything to assist the self employed and farmers is welcome, but we must bear in mind that section 9 brings them in line with other social insurance contributions covered by the provisions in sections 8 and 10. It is disappointing that the self employed and farmers are not included in the family income supplement scheme and that those who were over 56 years of age in 1988 are still not included. We hoped this Social Welfare Bill would include these people who are approaching retirement age, and allow them their pension entitlements.

Miss Quill: My party and I welcome this Bill which effects improvements in rates of payment for a number of categories. It puts in place improved procedures and more streamlined administrative measures. This Bill is a step in the direction.

My party spokesperson, Deputy Clohessy, was unable to be present on Committee Stage as he is ill. I already explained this to the Minister and the Ceann Comhairle was informed by letter.

Overall, this is a good Bill which effects improvements in a number of key areas. I look forward to seeing the benefits during the course of its implementation.

Proinsias De Rossa: I wish Deputy Clohessy a speedy recovery and I hope to see him back in the House soon. Leaving aside party political views, any objective consideration of the Bill would suggest that it is an innovative and important one. I do not want to exaggerate but it contains many significant changes which will benefit many people.

Before I make points about the Bill I will answer some of the questions raised. The measure connected with the rural environmental protection scheme will come into effect as soon as the Bill is signed by the President. As to the [1180] maintenance of the modified rate of PRSI for Telecom workers, I have been in touch with the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications and been assured the workforce were consulted through their trade unions. My advice is that staff interests indicated that any change in PRSI status as proposed by the Deputies opposite would in their view represent a loss of the employee status enshrined in the 1983 Act, which established the company and would, accordingly, have the most serious implications for their view of any such proposal. The proposal to maintain the modified PRSI status for existing Telecom Éireann staff has been welcomed by them and by the company. It should ensure a successful conclusion to the strategic alliance proposals the Minister is currently pursuing.

A number of other points were made and, as the Ceann Comhairle suggests, I will not go through the Bill section by section. Significant changes have been made. We are abolishing the concept of desertion, that is, of a woman having to prove she was deserted by her spouse in order to qualify for support for herself and her children. That important advance in our social welfare code should not be underestimated. For the individuals who find themselves in those circumstances, desertion can be upsetting in terms of human and personal relationship. To then have go through the process of proving desertion can make the feeling of loss of self-esteem and confidence even worse. I am pleased to be the Minister who introduced the one parent family payment, which abolishes the need to prove desertion and provides enhanced support for parents rearing children on their own, regardless of whether they are alone because of desertion, separation, divorce or for any other reason.

The Department is taking charge of the disabled person's maintenance allowance and is creating a new scheme called the disability allowance. There are changes in the rules for assessing unemployment assistance for part-time workers, which will simplify the system, [1181] make it more comprehensible to the person offered part-time work and, in the vast majority of cases, will enhance the amount of income the person will be able to retain. The home makers scheme has been extended to cover caring for children up to 12 years of age and has been brought into the main legislation. We have extended old age pensioners' rights to secondary benefits to those in receipt of occupational pensions; that includes people in receipt of pensions from other EU countries.

In addition, we have introduced a new and enhanced grant scheme for twins. I am quite proud of this also because it fully implements the commitment I made about twins as an Opposition Deputy. I felt there was a case for assisting parents with twins so I have increased the grant at birth from £200 to £500 and have introduced new grants at ages four and five of £500 on each occasion. That is a significant improvement for parents of twins.

In the course of the debate on twins I mentioned a person by name, which was inappropriate. I intended no criticism of the person I named, who is outside this House, and in no way did I wish to embarrass the person by doing so. I was trying to explain a position but I should not have done so in that way and I apologise.

Deputy Woods made comments about the Combat Poverty Agency. It is because I believe in openness and transparency I offered the House a full explanation of why I sought an extention of the time the agency would need to prepare its strategic plan for the next three years. Deputies Woods and Mary Wallace weaved a totally false story around this simple, innocent proposal. It was highly inappropriate to draw in the chairperson of the Combat Poverty Agency in this attempt to score political points off me. I am able to defend myself in this House and can bat with the best in terms of political attack but it is unfair to apply inappropriate labels to people outside this House who are willing to take on, for no recompense, public service in the interests of [1182] the worst off in our society. It was ungracious of Deputy Woods to do that. The amendment I introduced to the Bill was simply to provide the new board of the agency with an opportunity to ensure the strategic plan was a good one and so that the review of the agency which is currently under way would be taken into account in the production of the strategic plan. That is a reasonable position and nothing Machiavellian is involved. The approach adopted by Deputy Woods was unkind to a person who has given many years of personal service on behalf of the poor of our society.

This Bill will shortly go before the Seanad and become law. It supports families and enables people to move more easily into employment. As Minister for Social Welfare and Leader of Democratic Left. I am particularly proud of this Bill and have no hesitation in recommending it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. J. Walsh: I would like to make one further point.

An Ceann Comhairle: The debate has concluded.

Mr. J. Walsh: My point does not relate to the Bill and if it is ruled out of order I will immediately resume my seat. With regard to general procedure, Members did not have adequate time for consideration between Stages of the Bill. This problem was made worse by the fact that there is an ongoing industrial dispute in operation throughout the Houses of the Oireachtas. Inordinate constraints were placed on the ordinary passage of the Bill because amendments were not received in time. Perhaps future Social Welfare Bills could be introduced at an earlier date to facilitate a complete debate.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Office of the Ceann Comhairle is most glad to co-operate in that regard. The Deputy is aware, however, that problems occurred [1183] because of an industrial dispute. The matter of time allocation for the overall debate is usually resolved through consultation among the Whips and I am sure if the matter had been raised with them, a suitable arrangement could have been reached.