Seanad Éireann - Volume 111 - 25 March, 1986
Social Welfare Bill, 1986: Second Stage.
 Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Minister for Social Welfare (Mrs. Hussey) Gemma Hussey
Minister for Social Welfare (Mrs. Hussey): First of all, I want to thank the House for its co-operation in having this Bill, to implement the budget changes in the social welfare services, debated at short notice. As the House will know, a number of the provisions in the Bill are due to come into effect from the beginning of April and this explains the urgency which is attached to the Bill.
The principal purpose of this Bill, as I have said, is to give effect to the various budgetary changes in social welfare payments which were announced last January. In addition to the increases in weekly social welfare payments the Bill contains provisions for the introduction of the child benefit scheme and for improvements in the family income supplement scheme. A number of other changes in social welfare schemes are also proposed. I will be dealing with some of the details of the Bill later but, first, I would like to deal with some important general points of interest arising in the social welfare area.
These are: the extent of the state social welfare system; consensus on social welfare; the Commission on Social Welfare; misuse of the social welfare system and organisational changes in the Department of Social Welfare.
The size of the social welfare budget is enormous. The total number of people and their dependants who receive each week social welfare payments of one kind or another, is about 1.3 million or 37 per cent of our total population. Overall spending this year, taking account of the new rates of payments in the Bill, will amount to almost £2.5 billion of which the Exchequer will contribute £1.6 billion. This overall level of spending is equivalent to expenditure of about £7 million per day for each day of the year. It represents the largest single bloc of current Government expenditure. Over the last ten years an increasing share of the country's output has been devoted to  social welfare services and these services now represent almost 15 per cent of gross national product. Social welfare spending has increased to its present level due to a combination of factors, including increased numbers of claimants generally, high unemployment and the various improvements made in the schemes over the years. The overall expenditure may be broken down into five main programmes as follows: 28 per cent for the unemployed; 27 per cent for the old; 23 per cent for family income support; 14 per cent for the sick and 4 per cent for miscellaneous services and benefits. About 4 per cent of expenditure goes on administration. These facts clearly illustrate the extent and importance of the services provided to our community by the Department of Social Welfare.
Of course, this is not the full extent of the social welfare system. When considering the totality of the social welfare system in society one must also take into account the activities of community organisations which are voluntary and also the various occupational pension and sick pay schemes. This country has a fairly well developed system of occupational social security which provides protection to workers in the form of company sick pay and pension schemes. In recognition of the importance of occupational pensions the Government set up the National Pensions Board who will be starting their work shortly. The board have been given the task of advising on how best to regulate pension schemes operated by employers. They will concentrate on such matters as funding and financial security, transferability of pension rights, disclosure of information and the monitoring of company schemes' performance.
In this country a high degree of social consensus has emerged over the years that certain human needs — health care, income maintenance, education and housing — are so important that the State must ensure that they are satisfied for each citizen. This has led to a continuing claim on resources from generation to generation to provide pensions, to help  the sick and unemployed, to support and educate our children and to assist single parent families. This inter-generational ‘contract’ continues irrespective of how numbers grow. Indeed, as Senators are aware, the Government, despite the rise in numbers, have continued to provide resources to assist those who are unable to obtain employment. Special attention has been paid and additional resources have been made available, again despite the constraints on public finances, to alleviate, as far as possible, the plight of those who are unemployed for protracted periods. Notwithstanding this, I think it is true to say that there tends to be a certain ambivalence towards those who are in need of State assistance not only in this country but also in others. On the one hand, there is a greater awareness of the needs of the poorer or less well off sections of the community and the necessity to support those who are not able to maintain their income for whatever reason. However, there is also the contrary attitude which views persons in receipt of State assistance with suspicion; that people on social welfare payments are doing well and that many are in fact only too glad to be on the system and to avail of the benefits it provides. Thankfully, in this country we have a caring community which is prepared to devote resources to assist those who are unable to support themselves and as a nation we can be proud of our achievements over the years in that regard. On the face of it, the huge amount of money raised by PRSI contributions and from general taxation would indicate that our society is committed to protecting the weaker sections of our community. Community attitudes to the social welfare system are very important and community involvement in social welfare provision has always been an essential feature of the system.
Before the social welfare system as we know it today came into being, the traditional bulwark against poverty was the support of the family with each generation accepting responsibility for the elderly and others in need. This pattern of support through the extended family  weakened with the growth in industrialisation and urbanisation but there is no reason why the underlying principle of mutual support could not be revitalised in these often more demanding times. The State can provide the basic infrastructure of income maintenance services but it is also vital that local communities take a responsibility for people in need and give them the continuing assurance that they are full members of the community.
As I have said, there are many voluntary organisations and local groups doing invaluable work in communities and my Department in the administration of the provision for once-off grants to voluntary organisations since 1983 and more recently in the preparation for the EC poverty programme have had considerable experience of the valuable contribution made by such groups.
I think that over the coming years there will be a need for continuing involvement and development of this aspect of social provision and for closer links between the activities of such groups and the statutory social welfare services in order to ensure that there are adequate mechanisms for identifying areas of need and tackling them in an effective way. Since 1983, £1.68 million has been provided for these various voluntary organisations. The grants are mainly for once-off projects and are payable in addition to any grants made by health boards. This year, I am glad to say, an increased sum of £750,000 is being made available.
Because of demographic factors and our high level of unemployment, expenditure on social welfare will continue to increase inexorably in real terms over the coming years, although its rate of growth will fall as inflation and unemployment are contained and reduced. The difficulties in the public finances and the necessity for economies over the whole area of public expenditure will be severe constraints on efforts to provide additional resources for these services. Basic social welfare commitments will continue to be met but there are important questions that need to be resolved. It is relevant to  consider whether the amalgam of programmes that has evolved down through the years in response to specific needs is still appropriate in present circumstances.
Two basic mechanisms have been used for years to transfer resources from producers to dependent groups. These are the means test system and the compulsory social insurance system. These systems have evolved incrementally over the years — the means test system was first introduced for low income elderly persons, later extended to low income unemployed and widows; in more recent years it has been extended to other groups such as deserted wives and unmarried mothers. The social insurance system originally catered for certain groups of people under an income ceiling for sickness and unemployment. The income limit was raised on numerous occasions and eventually abolished. The range of contingencies covered was also extended over the years so that people in insurable employment are now covered for loss of income in most instances that arise.
The existing system has served the country well over the years but nobody would claim that it is perfect. There is no doubt that we need to have a fundamental look at not only what is required for society today but also for the Ireland of the future. Society is changing, attitudes and values are different today than they were when many of the schemes were first introduced. Allied to this is the need to review all expenditure programmes and concentrate resources where they are most needed so as to achieve the optimum allocation. It was in recognition of this that the Government decided to establish a Commission on Social Welfare to carry out a fundamental review of and make recommendations on the social welfare code and related social welfare services. The commission is due to report shortly and I expect that its report will provide a valuable positive contribution to the debate on this complex area of national importance.
I would now like to turn to a topic that has been the subject of much media  coverage and speculation in recent times and that is the question of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system. I have already referred to this when I spoke to Senators recently on the debate on the report of the Joint Committee on Women's Rights, so I do not intend to dwell to any great extent on the subject again. It is important when discussing this topic that the matter be put into proper perspective. We must guard against contributing to an anti-welfare mentality which effectively stigmatises genuine individuals who are entitled, as of right, to social welfare benefits or assistance.
I have already given some indication of the size and scale of our social welfare services. The amount of money spent each day is huge and the number of people who benefit is enormous. There are over 3,500 staff in my Department responsible for the administration of the various schemes and for the delivery of service to the needy. As I said before when I spoke to you various figures have been bandied about in relation to the extent of fraud and those are pure speculation. I would like to assure Senators that both myself and my Department are very conscious of the need to combat fraud and abuse in the social welfare system. Of that there can be no doubt. This is all the more important because of the pressures on the public finances; any leakage from the system no matter how small is a lost opportunity in terms of providing a better service for the disadvantaged in our society.
There is of course a dilemma here. On the one hand procedures need to be such as to prevent fraud, while on the other we must make sure that these are not such as to cause undue delay in making payment to genuine cases. As in many other activities of human life a balance must be reached between these two aspects. All too often we hear about delays in social welfare cases and we as public representatives are frequently, too frequently perhaps, asked to intervene on behalf of a particular individual. There is a tendency to generalise on the basis of specific cases. Certainly, mistakes occur  and delays do arise as a result but the volume of work that is processed through my Department each week is colossal and there is consequently every prospect that certain cases will get delayed.
Saying this does not mean that we are not tackling the problem. This is something that my Department are very much alive to and it is monitored constantly and carefully and remedial action taken whenever necessary. While we highlight the delayed cases we tend to forget the many thousands of claims that are processed speedily and accurately each week through the Department. To give an example, about 25,000 new claims for benefit and assistance are received in my Department each week. All of these have to be examined in detail to establish whether the person has statutory entitlement and this can vary depending on the type of claim and the circumstances of the case. Therefore when one talks about fraud and efforts to counteract fraud one must bear in mind the context in which it arises and the scale of activity in which it is occurring.
By its very nature it would be impossible to estimate the level of fraud at any time and any attempt to do so must be based on conjecture. Many social welfare schemes are open to manipulation and every effort must be made to detect and eradicate fraud where it exists. This should not, however, lead us to abandon basic elements of the system or to make the system a less caring one for people in genuine need. I would like to say that persons who have genuine claims to social welfare benefits or assistance need not be in any way concerned or worried. However, I can assure Senators that my Department will continue to seek out persons who defraud or attempt to defraud or abuse the system and that the full rigour of the law will be applied.
As I have said, we must not abandon basic elements of the system or make the system a less caring one for people in genuine need. No matter what action we take we must ensure that we do not cause any undue delay or hardship to the genuine cases. This is of paramount importance. We must at all times ensure that  proper regard is had to the needs and dignity of the individual claimant and not make the innocent suffer for the sins of the few.
Towards the end of last year my Department was reorganised by the setting up of the Social Welfare Services Office. By having the office solely concerned with the operations of the various social welfare schemes and separating it from the Department it will enable those who are responsible for the delivery of services to concentrate more fully on effective management and the provision of a speedy and efficient delivery of services. This was one of the areas identified in the Government's White Paper “Serving the Country Better” that had sufficient volume of executive work to make it feasible to set up separate organisations for its performance.
Further progress has been made in my Department on the extension of computerisation. Most areas of the Department now have computerised facilities to assist with the payment of benefits and allowances. The fundamental aim is to have an integrated telecommunications and computer network embracing all the Department's administrative systems. Much progress has already been made in this regard but because of the size and scale of the operations of the Department there is still a lot of work to be done. As a first priority computing facilities have been provided for all administrative systems to assist them with payments and also to replace obsolete systems.
Developments now under way are designed to ensure that these systems are capable of being integrated so that the benefits of information technology can be fully realised. To give an idea of the extent of the work done so far, there are at present about 600 visual display units installed in the various offices of the Department in Dublin and throughout the country. Twenty offices outside Dublin have visual display units where local information officers of the Department can obtain access to computer details of a person's claim to certain social welfare benefits, pensions or allowances. This enables them to answer  routine inquiries from members of the public without having to contact the head office of the Department in Dublin. This is a major benefit and improvement in service to the public and it will be extended and expanded on a progressive basis in the coming years.
In addition to exploiting information technology for the processing of claims and for the payment of benefits, pensions and allowances my Department now has extensive office automation facilities including word processing and electronic mail. These facilities are constantly being developed and expanded and have proved to be of immense benefit. In the past computers were the preserve of the computer professionals. However, as we know, today computers are everywhere. In most activities nowadays computers have a role to play. For example in our schools our young people are being taught the value and power of computers. It is vitally important that they become literate not only in the normal sense of the word but also in terms of information technology.
It is incumbent on us therefore to exploit the technology to the maximum extent possible. With the increasing volume of work arising in the social welfare area and with the limited scope for recruitment in the public sector it is all the more important that we use technology to assist us with the more routine aspects of the work. There are of course certain dangers here and due regard must be had to such issues as the right to privacy and security. Increased awareness of computer power has made these issues more visible than ever. These and other issues in the vast area of information technology are all taken into account in the process of modernising the procedures and processes of my Department.
I would now like to turn to some of the details in the Bill. I hope that Senators will have found the explanatory memorandum, circulated with the Bill, helpful in their consideration of the text.
Senators will be aware that there has been an unavoidable delay in the introduction of the provisions for equal treatment for men and women in social  security matters as provided under the EEC Directive. I am glad to be able to say that agreement has been reached with the staff union in question to implement, on a phased basis from mid-May next, those measures which are not dependent on additional staffing.
Section 2 of the Bill provides for the abolition of reduced rates of benefit at present payable to married women. Married women will also become entitled to unemployment benefit for the full 390 days under regulations which I will be making separately. I am proposing to abolish the reduced rates of benefit that are payable to persons under 18 years of age. Hitherto, the reduced rates applied to married women and also to persons aged under 18.
The question of implementing the remaining equal treatment measures, which were provided for in the Social Welfare (No. 2) Act, 1985, is dependent on additional staff being allocated, the devising of new work procedures and the training of staff in those procedures. I am making every effort to resolve these problems so that a date can be fixed for implementing the remaining phases.
General increases in social insurance and occupational injuries benefits are also provided for in section 2 of the Bill. This Government have shown a genuine concern over the last four years to improve the living standards of people on social welfare. An increase of 4 per cent in the weekly personal and adult dependent rates of social insurance from the third week in July next is provided for. These increases and the increases in social assistance provided for in section 3 reflect the continuing commitment of this Government, as outlined in the National Plan Building on Reality 1985-87, to ensure that long term payments are at least maintained in line with inflation and short term unemployment and disability payments in line with take home pay. But we have gone a step further. The real value of pensions, benefits and allowances have been increased and this will be maintained into 1987. Since the Government came into office and including the  increases in the Bill, short term payments have been increased by 30 per cent compound, long term payments by 33 per cent and the long term unemployed received the highest increase of all, 40 per cent. In the period mid 1983-87 the increase in the consumer price index is expected to be of the order of some 23 per cent. Indeed, latest information on the annual level of inflation indicates that it is now down to its lowest level in nearly twenty years and that this downward trend will continue for some time yet. Economists and commentators are now predicting that the year to year rate of inflation could be between zero and one per cent by the end of the year. It is evident, therefore, that the purchasing power of social welfare recipients has been more than maintained by this Government despite the severe constraints on the public finances generally.
A contributory old age pensioner under 80 years of age will receive an additional £2.05 a week from 18 July bringing his rate of payment to £53.45 a week. If he is married with a wife under age 66 he will get a total increase of £3.35 bringing the pension to £87.55 a week. A married couple both over pensionable age will get £93.35 compared to £89.75 at present. Higher increases are paid for pensioners over 80. An additional payment of £3.55 per week is also made to persons living alone.
The personal rate of widow's contributory pension is being increased by £1.85 a week to £48.10. Widows over 66 and over 80 receive higher payments.
The personal rate of invalidity pension goes up from £45.30 to £47.10 for a person under pensionable age and a married couple will receive £77.70, an increase of £3.00.
A person in receipt of disability or unemployment benefit will have a new personal rate of £41.10 a week, an increase of £1.60. Senators will be aware that this new rate was shown incorrectly in the first version of the explanatory memorandum on the Bill. Where the recipient is married the increase will be £2.60 a week. Maternity allowance is also being increased to £41.10. In all some  390,000 recipients will benefit from these increases at an additional cost of £20 million this year.
The new rates of social assistance payments are provided for in section 3 of the Bill. The maximum personal rate of non-contributory old age pension for a pensioner under 80 years of age goes from £44.00 a week at present to £45.75 a week. It will go up from £47.20 to £49.10 for persons aged 80 or over. The overall maximum payment for a pensioner under 80 with a dependent spouse under 66 will increase by £2.65 to £68.75. The allowance payable in respect of a prescribed relative giving full-time care and attention to an incapacitated pensioner is being raised to £25.60 per week.
Widows receiving non-contributory widow's pensions at the present rate of £43.15 will get an increase of £1.75 a week. Similar increases will apply to deserted wives, unmarried mothers and prisoners' wives.
Those receiving short-duration unemployment assistance in urban areas will get an increase of £1.30 a week in their maximum personal rate. In rural areas the increase will be £1.25 a week. A married applicant in an urban area will get an increase of £2.25 a week in the present rate of £56.40.
The rates of unemployment assistance for long-duration recipients of unemployment assistance are being increased by 5 per cent that is 1 per cent more than the standard 4 per cent increase in payments generally. This is further evidence of the Government's concern for the plight of the long term unemployed. Long term rates of unemployment assistance are higher than short term rates. For example, a married man in an urban area will get £63.15 which is £4.50 more than the corresponding short duration rate. The maximum rate of supplementary welfare allowance for a married couple goes from £54.80 to £56.95.
Section 17 provides for the introduction of the new monthly child benefit scheme from April 1986. The purpose of the scheme will be to provide as much cash support to mothers as possible in  one single payment. The new scheme will ultimately unify State support towards the cost of rearing children. However, it will not be possible for administrative and technical reasons to introduce, as originally intended, a fully taxable scheme in 1986. As a first step, therefore, the Government have decided to introduced a non-taxable scheme of child benefit with effect from April 1986. Under this scheme a child benefit of £15.05 per month will be paid for each of the first five children. This rate will be increased to £21.75 per month for each subsequent child. These payments will not be taxable. This represents an increase of £3 per month per child over the existing rates of payment under the children's allowances scheme.
The new scheme replaces the present children's allowance scheme and also involves the abolition of the child tax allowance of £100 per child under the income tax code. Furthermore, child dependant increases for social welfare recipients will remain at their present levels. The new scheme, therefore, involves a redirection of child support. Families paying tax at the higher rates will suffer some net loss arising from the abolition of child tax allowances but the intention of the scheme is to achieve a redistribution of resources in the direction of families most in need. Three-quarters of all families in the State will be at least as well off under the new arrangement as under the existing schemes and many thousands, including families depending on social welfare payments will, in fact, be better off.
Section 4 provides for improvements in the family income supplement scheme. The rate of the supplement is being increased from 25 per cent to one-third of the difference between gross family income and a prescribed upper limit. The income limits up to which family income supplement is payable and the maximum amounts of supplement payable are also being increased. The levels of weekly income up to which a supplement is payable will be scaled up from £100 for a family with one child by £20 per week for each additional child, up to and including  the fifth child. The income levels at which the maximum supplement is payable are also being adjusted, for example, from £68 to £70 per week for a one child family. The maximum weekly amount of supplement payable to families with one child will be increased by £2, from £8 to £10. For larger families the maximum amount of supplement payable for each additional child up to and including the fifth child is being increased from £2.50 to £4 per week. These changes will take effect from 10 April 1986.
Section 5 provides for an increase from £49 to £58 in the earnings disregard, or “floor”, for pay-related benefit purposes. This change will affect new claims only from the beginning of April next where entitlement to pay-related benefit is involved. This latest increase in the floor continues the policy that has been adopted in recent years of progressively raising its level. I might add here that if the floor had been maintained at the same level in relation to the flat rate benefit as it was in April 1974, it would now be about £84 instead of the £58 proposed in this Bill.
Section 6 of the Bill provides that the earnings ceiling for PRSI contribution purposes be raised from £13,800 to £14,700 with effect from 6 April 1986. For the fourth successive year there is no increase in the actual rates of social insurance contributions. Section 7 provides that the rate of contribution to the occupational injuries fund payable for employers be increased from 0.4 per cent to 0.43 per cent. There will also be an increase of 0.1 per cent in employers contributions to the Department of Labour's Redundancy and Employers' Insolvency Fund. As a result of both of these changes, the standard rate of employers' PRSI contributions goes up from 12.20 per cent to 12.33 per cent.
There is, as I have said, no increase in the employee's social insurance contribution. However, there will be a reduction of 1 per cent in the total PRSI contribution payable by employees as a result of the abolition of the income levy, as announced in the Budget Statement. Section 8 makes provision for the PRSI  exemption scheme for employers announced by the Taoiseach last October. Under this scheme employers in the private sector who take on additional employees on a full time basis between 23 October 1985 and 31 March 1986, resulting in a net increase in their workforce, will be exempt from their portion of the PRSI contribution for those employees for each week in the income tax year 1986-87 in which the increase in the workforce is maintained. Employers participating in the scheme will also be exempt from the redundancy contribution and, where applicable, the health contribution and the youth employment levy and this is provided for in section 8.
To give further encouragement to employers to participate in the scheme the Government decided to relax some of the conditions of the scheme as originally announced. Employers who have received assistance by way of State grants in the past 12 months are now eligible. Also the length of time an employee should be on the live register has been reduced from six months to 13 weeks. An employer participating under the scheme will benefit to the extent of about £962 for the year for each additional employee taken on, assuming the employee is earning £150 a week.
Sections 9 and 10 provide for changes in the disability benefit scheme. Section 9 increases the period of disqualification for disability benefit and injury benefit from six weeks to nine weeks where a person fails to turn up for a medical examination by one of the Department's medical referees or where the person has become incapable of work through his own misconduct. In 1985, over 75,000 disability benefit claimants were called for medical examination. Six thousand people did not attend for examination and were disqualified for the six week period allowed under present legislation. Because of the extent of non-attendance the Government considered that the penalty for such non-attendance should be increased.
Section 10 provides that disability benefit will not be paid while a claimant  is on paid holiday leave from his employment. There is some evidence that certain persons claim disability benefit as a matter of course while on paid holiday leave and this amounts, of course, to misuse of the disability benefit scheme. This measure is designed to end this potential misuse.
I have already indicated that I am abolishing the reduced rates of disability, unemployment and injury benefit payable to persons under 18 years of age. Section 21 abolishes the reduced rate of disablement benefit for persons who are under 18 years. In future person under 18 years of age will receive the same rate of benefit as all other persons.
Section 23 removes the restriction on a claimant appealing against a provisional assessment of disablement within two years of the initial assessment. It also repeals the provision whereby a person who is receiving disablement benefit is assessed as being 100 per cent disabled while he is in hospital. At present a person who is assessed at less than 100 per cent disability and is hospitalised receives an increase to give him the full rate of benefit. I consider that this arrangement can no longer be justified and propose that the person continue to receive the same rate as prior to hospitalisation.
The provision whereby payments of injury benefit or disablement benefit, including any increases, are limited to the amount of the beneficiary's earning at the time of the accident is also being repealed. It is considered that this limit is no longer necessary given the fact that payments of injury benefit are subjected to a pay-related benefit “wage stop” in any event.
Section 11 rationalises the method of calculating entitlements under the maternity allowance scheme for women in employment. The section provides that entitlement will be calculated as 70 per cent of a woman's earnings in the relevant tax year or 70 per cent of a specified weekly amount, instead of a combination of flat rate, pay-related and additional pay-related benefit as at present. This is a technical measure and there will be no change in the amount of benefit payable.
 Sections 12, 13, 14, 21 and 23 provide for changes to the occupational injuries benefit scheme. Section 12 extends entitlement to benefit to persons travelling to and from work subject to such circumstances as may be prescribed by regulations. Sections 13 and 14 provide that injury benefit will be paid from the first day of incapacity for work where the incapacity lasts for more than three days. I consider this to be more equitable than the present arrangement where the incapacity must last for 12 days before payment can be made from the first day. Section 13 also provides that injury benefit will not be paid while a person is on paid holiday leave from his employment — this is in line with the amendment to the disability benefit scheme in section 10.
Section 15 increases the fines for offences involving the obstruction of an inspector of the Department in the exercise of his duties prescribed in section 114 (4) of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1981. At present a maximum fine of £500 or 12 months imprisonment or both can be imposed on summary conviction and a maximum fine of £2,000 or up to two years imprisonment on conviction on indictment under this section. This section increases the maximum fines to £1,000 and £3,000 respectively and brings them into line with other penalties under the Social Welfare Acts which were increased last year.
Section 18 provides that the full cost of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, including administration, will be borne by the Exchequer by way of the Social Welfare Vote as and from 1 January 1986. The present arrangements for financing the supplementary welfare allowance scheme involve a sharing of the cost between the Exchequer and the local authorities. This system has not worked satisfactorily and the Government have decided that in future the full cost will be borne by the Exchequer. This represents a major improvement in the situation for the health boards who administer the supplementary welfare allowance scheme.
Section 16 extends the authority of  social welfare officers to inspect the premises of self-employed persons on the same basis as for employers for the purposes of combating abuse. The section extends the powers given in last year's Act to inspect premises where a social welfare officer has reasonable grounds for believing that persons are employed or that there are documents relating to employment being kept.
Section 19 provides that where unemployed persons, who have participated in certain employment-training schemes sponsored by the Department of Labour for up to one year's duration, resume claiming unemployment benefit the two periods of unemployment will be regarded as one for the purpose of subsequent entitlement to benefit. At present attendance at a training course of over 13 weeks breaks the link with the pre-course claim for benefit.
Section 19 also provides that to be eligible to receive unemployment benefit a person must not only be available for employment but also be genuinely seeking employment. This will bring the condition for receipt of unemployment benefit into line with the corresponding condition for the receipt of unemployment assistance.
Section 20 is designed to overcome some difficulties in relation to the authorisation of legal proceedings. It provides for the acceptance in court, of a certificate of authorisation of legal proceedings in relation to social welfare offences, without proof of the person purporting to sign the certificate, unless this is challenged.
Section 22 provides for a technical amendment to section 3 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1981 to facilitate work on the consolidation of the Social Welfare Regulations which is at present in progress. This section was amended on Committee Stage in the Dáil. The amendment was necessary following further consideration by the parliamentary draftsman of his earlier draft.
Social Welfare is a vast and complex area and its impact on the daily lives of the community may well have been  underestimated in the past. I certainly do not underestimate my job of re-shaping social welfare policy to meet the country's needs as we approach the end of the twentieth century.
In the context of this Bill I have tried to give an indication of some of the more important issues in this area. The review of the social welfare system being carried out by the commission is likely to lead to a call for a fundamental restructuring of the various services. Some services will, undoubtedly, need to be improved and extended and these will be welcomed by all.
What about proposals to abolish or curtail other services? These will not be as acceptable or as popular. But I think it is important for us to remember that no public expenditure programme has an absolute or unconditional claim on public resources. Equally no public expenditure programme should be immune from change as economic and social conditions may and do create the need for change.
What sort of reaction, therefore, can we expect to the report of the Commission on Social Welfare? The policy choices to be made for social welfare are important choices for society. To make these choices is to decide on the distribution of scarce resources. I believe the priority must be to secure a greater degree of equity in the distribution of the resources at our disposal.
This Bill is further tangible evidence of this Government's commitment in this regard.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Fallon Mr. Fallon
Mr. Fallon: At the outset I should like to take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate her on her new portfolio, Social Welfare. It is a very difficult and important area in the lives of the community. It is an area of tremendous expenditure by the State, with £2.5 billion being spent each year on social welfare benefits. It is worth noting that 40 per cent of our population are in receipt of social welfare and that £7 million per day is being spent on it. I accept that the Minister has a real task  on her hands. The budget for social welfare this year is staggering for a nation the size of ours and we all have a duty to see that the money is spent in the best possible way. I am sure that is what the Minister will be endeavouring to do.
Having said that, there can always be improvements. There can be amendments and changes which would further add to and improve the whole system. This debate will, I hope, give some new ideas to the Minister who, I am sure, is at all times prepared to listen to ideas which may help curtail the budget and give equity to those who, unfortunately, are in receipt of social welfare.
The increase in the social welfare budget is an indication that poverty is an established feature of our life. More and more people have fallen into what is known as the poverty trap. The recession has hit all of us, none more so than those known as the middle income groups. Many of those families were in comfortable positions in factories and firms and were happy with their lives but now they find themselves unable to pay their ESB and telephone bills, or meet their mortgage commitments. For them social welfare was unknown in the past but it is now a vital part of their everyday lives.
Many of our social welfare recipients live in abject poverty. That is very regrettable but it is true. I am mindful at all times of the huge bill for social welfare but many people say that the evidence is there to prove that the Government have sadly attacked the lower sections of the community in what has been suggested as the interests of fiscal rectitude. In many cases they have shown a degree of contempt for the old, the sick, the widows and the unemployed. The unemployed are being treated as if they were in some way an encumbrance on the State. That should not be the position; we should not look on them in that way.
Most people would agree — this has been accepted by the Minister in her speech — that the level of unemployment means an increased burden on the State. It is not the fault of many people that they are out of jobs. Government Ministers, over the past three years, have talked of  the huge cost of social welfare. They point to the fact, as I have done today, that it now costs £2.5 billion a year; but by far the major cost factor there is growing unemployment. One could tell the Government that it is their fault, that the unemployment figures are there as a result of failed economic policies. Surely if jobs were created we would have a smaller social welfare bill and the scene would certainly be a lot better. We know that for every 1,000 people who have to go on to the unemployment queue, it costs the State £2.7 million per year. The Government cannot blame the unemployed for that; it is an unfortunate feature of life. We on this side of the House, members of Fianna Fáil, cannot be blamed. We cannot blame other outside sources, oil crises or whatever. The fault must lie with the policies of the Government. It is up to them to solve this problem.
The Labour-Fine Gael Programme for Government three years ago or more suggested, very strongly, particularly from the Labour Party, that even though we were in a recession it was important that the way of life and finances of the less well off should not be damaged in any way. I do not think that has happened. Many of the most vulnerable people and the least well off sections of the community are worse off now than ever before. They are being treated with a degree of disdain and of inhumanity in many cases. I sincerely hope the Government will realise that they are going too far in the wrong direction in this regard and that there will be a different type of attitude and progress is a different direction. Unfortunately, that is not the present use and there is no indication of improvement.
In the meantime the old, the sick, the unemployed and many of the poor families that we know are present in our communities are being treated as social outcasts. It is not something that has happened overnight; it happened this year, last year and the previous year. While mindful of the huge bill for social welfare I would hope for a greater awareness of the real problems which exist for so many  poor families. This matter could be solved to some extent if a general election were called. As in the famous Ernest Blythe episode of the thirties, the people will decide and history might repeat itself because of failure to look after our very real poor.
In fairness to Fianna Fáil, if they gave an increase in social welfare payments, they gave it as quickly as possible, usually from 1 April or thereabouts. When you examine this and past Coalition Social Welfare Bills, you find that payments tend to start in later months. Rather than having 12 months, you have an eight month payment period. The real increase for social welfare recipients for that eight month period would be of the order of about 2.7 per cent, instead of the 4 per cent suggested in the Bill. For the long term unemployed the increase will not be 5 per cent, but in the region of 3.4 per cent. This will be lower than the inflation rate at the moment. What does this mean? For the period in question it means that the increased costs which came into effect on budget day — increases on VAT, on excise duties and so on — are costing the social welfare recipient more.
As a result of the fact that social welfare recipients are not getting their increases until later in the year and the increases in VAT and so on take place immediately, those in receipt of social welfare will have less money in their pockets this year then they had the previous year. That is the stark reality of what happens at the end of the day. No matter how we try to dress up the story, the fact is that those in receipt of social welfare benefits will have less disposable money this year than the previous year. I hope this continuing saga will stop. It is a fact of life that the Government have, solidly and consistently, operated this unfair little scheme from the time they brought in their Social Welfare Bill and budget three years ago.
Section 2 makes provision, under the equal treatment legislation, for the abolition of reduced rates of benefit at present payable to married women. I welcome  this late attempt to implement the European equality directive. The Minister referred to that aspect.
The element of PRSI payment mentioned in the Bill is something that most people will take an interest in. We have all been saying that one way to reduce the unemployment figures and to get more people into employment would be to reduce PRSI payments, at least for the employers. This year, unfortunately, the Government have again increased PRSI payments, although they seem to be very much aware of the heavy burden these payments are placing on the small wages of PAYE taxpayers. These PRSI payments are, in fact, another form of taxation. Under section 4 of the Social Welfare Act of three years ago the ceiling was £9,000 and is now £14,700, a massive increase in that period. If one adds the 1 per cent levy for health and youth employment one realises that additional taxation has to be borne by the unfortunate workers. This year the increase in the ceiling in respect of payments is £900. Last week in this House the Minister for Health dealt with the health contribution levy, which has also been increased from £13,000 to £14,000. The taxpayer is being fleeced but is receiving less by way of return for payments, whether the return is in terms of social welfare payments or health care. It is accepted that the PAYE employer is getting a much worse deal now than was the case four years ago.
Last year the Government failed to increase the children's allowance payments. In 1984 they gave an increase of 7 per cent from 7 August and there was no increase in 1983. This was part of the suggested package of the Government when they came into office over three years ago and illustrates the fact that the Government are disregarding the financial needs of many families. In the period of three and a half years they granted one increase of 7 per cent which was implemented on 7 August 1984 and which in real terms, amounted to 4 per cent for that year. Since they came into office in December 1982 the Government increased children's allowances by a mere 4 per cent. This year, in implementing the  child welfare scheme, they are granting a low figure of 75p per child per week. The families entitled to children's allowances who will benefit from the new child scheme know that the Government have not been doing their work in this regard. Was the Minister suggesting in her speech that in future we can assume that children's allowances will be taxed?
The Minister referred specifically to the family income benefit scheme and I cannot help feeling that this is an attempt to dress up this scheme. The scheme was introduced originally in an attempt to combat poverty and to help poor people in difficult economic times. If one reflects on the introduction of the scheme, in October 1984 the Coalition Government appeared to have noticeable cracks. Fine Gael and Labour were struggling and it was known that they had problems. The family income benefit scheme was announced and it was estimated that 35,000 families would benefit and would rush to avail of it. When the food subsidy reduction was introduced, I think it was Deputy Mervyn Taylor who suggested that it should not be introduced in November but brought forward to September. This was done in the belief that it was the be all and the end all for the poor. It has now become a disaster and reminds me of the famous £9.60 per week for the housewife.
No one believes that the family income benefit scheme has been successful. At the time, if the Government were concerned about the income of poor families, it would have been better to have introduced a minimum wage system rather than the family income benefit which obviously has failed miserably. The comparatively few families who are availing of it are an indication that there has been an element of failure. The families availing of the scheme receive an average of £7 per week per family. The suggested improvements intended to make the scheme more attractive will not have any major impact; the proposed increase in the family income supplement for a family with two eligible children would be £3.50 a week which is insufficient at present when costs are at such a high  level. Despite these increases, there will not be a massive influx of applications wishing to participate in the scheme because it is not regarded as sufficiently important. When the scheme was first introduced it was supposed to cushion the poor from the effects of the removal of the food subsidies in 1984.
The estimated savings on milk and butter in 1985 as a result of the 50 per cent reduction on subsidies was £24 million and the estimated savings on having the subsidies reduced on bread in 1985 was £20.4 million, a total of £45 million. Although the Government made a huge saving they have paid out less than £11 million on the family income supplement which was supposed to compensate for the removal of the subsidy and to benefit poor families who are most affected.
The Minister referred to fraud. I agree that every effort must be made to reduce the level of fraud because any leakage will have effects. I am convinced that there is some element of fraud. Given the size of the budget it is inevitable that there is some fraud as 1.3 million people are in receipt of social welfare benefits. When I talk about fraud I am not talking about the unfortunate who might dig a person's garden for a couple of hours for £5 or a man who might do casual temporary work such as painting. I am talking about the organised system where people travel from social welfare office to social welfare office. While the Minister mentioned a sum of £3 million, other people talk about £25 million. I cannot put a figure on it but I accept there is some fraud.
The Minister said in her statement that when one talks about fraud and efforts to counteract it one must bear in mind the context in which it arises and the scale of activity in which it is occurring. By its very nature it would be impossible to estimate the level of fraud at any time. Any attempt to do so must be based on conjecture. I would certainly have to agree with those sentiments. Whatever the level of fraud, every effort, I am sure, will be made to stamp it out. The figures for social welfare are astronomical. Any attempt to cause leakage from it by unfair  means or by fraud should obviously be stamped out.
We have to look at the other side of the coin. I certainly am convinced that there are large numbers of people losing out. I am talking about old people in particular who might be afraid of bureaucracy, who might be afraid to come into offices and who might be afraid to fill in forms. Many people are not claiming their rightful social welfare entitlements whether it is because they are afraid of bureaucracy, a level of ignorance or whatever. There is also the problem of the complexity of social welfare forms. For most of us that would present no problem. For many people, and particularly for the unfortunate people who receive social welfare benefits, this can present real problems. Every effort should be made in the future to have the social welfare forms as simple and as easy to understand as possible for those who have to complete them.
The Minister referred to organised changes. Certainly, organisational changes are necessary in such a huge, complex organisation like the Department of Social Welfare. We have been hearing of computerisation for a long time. Computerisation at that level is necessary. I suggest to the Minister that a greater decentralisation is perhaps appropriate where so many people are employed on the spot who can watch things and can give a better service generally to the public at large and to those in receipt of social welfare. The Commission on Social Welfare has been mentioned for years. Their report will be awaited with more than the usual amount of interest. Indeed, the Minister asked a correct and valid question: what kind of reaction can we expect on the findings of the commission? I am sure that reaction will be varied and I hope it will be a reaction that will please as many people as possible.
The question of social welfare payments has always been raised in this context. It is inevitable that there should be delays. Because of the fact that there have been frequent complaints regarding  the delay in the processing of social welfare payments many claimants regrettably have to turn to the various voluntary charitable agencies to tide them over at least until they receive their payments. It is worth noting that in the first report of the Ombudsman, which was issued in March 1985, he indicated that almost half of the complaints against Government Departments and Government offices generally were related to the Department of Social Welfare.
The report also indicated the hardships suffered by people because of the delays by the Department in paying their lawful entitlements. These long delays are adding to the hardships of the various recipients of social welfare. They are totally unacceptable. It has been acknowledged that there has been a steep increase in the number of claims in recent years for the reasons I have given and for the reasons we all know. I would be the first to accept that this has put a lot of pressure on the staff of the Department of Social Welfare at a time when Government restrictions on the recruitment of staff are in operation. Because we are dealing with the very poorest people a case should be made to lift the embargo in the Department of Social Welfare. It would be appropriate until such time as there is a full computerised system. In the meantime the main sufferers are those people who depend on social welfare payments to meet their day-to-day needs. This should be examined in the future.
I referred briefly to the fact that where there were delays in social welfare payments, many people turned to the various charitable and voluntary agencies. That is right and proper. I support the view that, given the magnitude of the social welfare bill, there is a complementary role between the State and the various charitable and voluntary organisations to which I have referred. The increasing number of people who are availing of charitable and voluntary organisations to supplement their income is proof of the fact that there is an element of inadequacy in the level of social welfare payments. We all agree that with the present high climate of unemployment and high  prices, social welfare is hardly sufficient to meet the basic needs of the family.
Last Saturday night I had the pleasure, as chairman of the Urban District Council in Athlone, of attending the 21st chartered birthday of the Athlone Round Table. These are a group of young business people who came together to discuss various aspects of business. Their attitude is that not alone should they talk about the various trades and businesses that they are in but that they should do work in the community area. They are doing that in a big way right across the country. These people in the Athlone Round Table raised a total of £22,000 on one event alone which was given over to the various charitable organisations in the town to help the poor and the sick. I pay tribute to all such groups who involve themselves in work of that type. As a matter of interest to the Minister, present at that function was Deputy P. Cooney, Minister for Education, who was there enjoying himself not as a Minister but as a person who is a past chairman of that organisation. Thousands of groups around the country are doing important voluntary work and I hope it continues.
The appeal system is always causing problems and from time to time it gives rise to complaints. As we all know, the appeals are adjudicated fairly. The general view is that not alone should justice be done but it should be seen to be done. The fact that an appeal is before a deciding officer, an employee of the Department of Social Welfare, places the appellant at a disadvantage. There is a very strong case to be made for an independent appeals officer, if only to allay the fears and worries that exist for many of those who are appealing. An independent adjudicator in the area of supplementary welfare allowance might be necessary also.
The Minister referred to offices and accommodation generally. The facilities provided in the majority of social welfare offices and social employment exchanges are quite appalling. They are depressing buildings and have a depressing effect on those who use them — the public and the staff. Many of these buildings are  substandard and the staff find it impossible to provide an efficient service for the public. It is necessary to provide modern accommodation and a more pleasant atmosphere for the public and the staff.
There are numerous social welfare schemes — I am not sure of the exact number, but there must be up to 35 or 40 schemes — most of which involve a degree of complexity. They give rise to anomalies and problems which take time to overcome. The Department of Social Welfare are aware that many claimants are not genuine. Because of their accountability for the public finances, the officers of the Department must exercise strict control over the huge expenditure at their disposal. The public recognise that strict accountability and control are necessary. The human element may, unwittingly, be lost sight of in the maze of facts and figures which surrounds the administration of the social welfare system. The public fear that in those circumstances, too great an emphasis might be placed on control which would be to the detriment of the service provided. This is an important element of an aspect of administration that should not be lost sight of by the Department of Social Welfare.
As the Minister said, we have a huge social welfare bill — £2.5 billion. This is huge by any standards. These are staggeringly high figures for a country as small as ours and they place a very heavy burden of taxation on those who are fortunate enough to have permanent employment. It is in the interests of all — Government, employers, employees and the unemployed — to ensure as far as possible that this vast amount of money is well spent and it is very important to ensure that it is going to the people who need it.
As the Minister has said, she has a very difficult task. While some criticism can, and should, be levelled against her, I accept that she has a huge task before her. Because of the size of the budget and the number of people in receipt of social welfare benefits, the Minister and her Department must be careful to ensure that money is spent wisely and  that those who are most in need will get financial help.
Mr. A. O'Brien Mr. A. O'Brien
Mr. A. O'Brien: I welcome the Minister and wish her every success in the Department of Social Welfare. For some time I believed that the Department of Health and the Department of Social Welfare — two very big spending Departments — imposed an unfair burden on one Minister. While I admire greatly the work done by the Minister, Deputy Desmond, in the Departments of Health and Social Welfare, because of the enormous amount of work done by each Department, I think it was right that the Departments should have been given to two Ministers.
At the outset, one has to take into account the £7 million a day social welfare payments. There are many caring people who say we are not doing enough for social welfare recipients. They point out examples of great poverty and perhaps even destitution, but we have to look at the other side of the picture and see how much more expenditure the taxpayer can bear. When we take into account the enormous amount of money required to service national debt, the huge sum required to pay the public service — the highest percentage in any country in western Europe — and the huge cost of security because of subversive activities, we have to realise that even with the very best will in the world, the Government of the day and the Minister for Social Welfare and the Minister for Health, in particular, are greatly constrained as to what they can do. We must ask ourselves if we think £7 million a day is a reasonable amount of money to be paid by a certain percentage of the people to help those who are worse off. If we think it is not enough we have to ask what extra taxation could those who pay income tax or other forms of taxation bear? The general consensus is that the taxpayer is bearing a load that is at crushing point. We cannot hope for any more money from that sector.
The next point we have to take into account is whether we are getting the  very best value for the £7 million a day that we are spending on social welfare. The Minister has gone to great lengths to break down expenditure — a certain percentage for the old, unemployed, the sick and so on — so that we have a clear understanding of what each section of the community is costing. We take into account allowances made to certain sections whether for unemployment benefit or assistance, the provisions made for differential rent, for free footwear and so on. There is a genuine effort on the part of the Government to assist the less well off sections of the community as much as possible.
For example, when we think of increasing unemployment benefit, it is a balancing job as to whether or not it is a good thing to increase it to such a degree that it is less likely that that person will find employment from an employer whose wages will compete with the benefit he can receive when he is idle. There is a lot of that going on at present. People with a certain number of children get so much from unemployment that it is the most unlikeliest thing in the world that an employer could take them on. That is another of the balancing businesses which the Minister for Social Welfare has to bear in mind. No matter how generous or how caring her approach is in dealing with this problem, in the long run there must be a limit as to what amount of money the State can dish out with absolutely no return by way of productivity.
I want to make it abundantly clear that I am wholeheartedly in favour of the Minister, the Government, whatever Government are in power, giving maximum support to the old, the infirm and the incapacitated but when it comes to the question of how much can be given to able bodied people, there must be an incentive for them to go to work rather than lie back and draw unemployment benefit. That is, as I stated before, a case of judgment where the Minister at the time must strike a balance as to what is right and what is good for the productivity of the State.
There was a change with regard to unemployment assistance, or what is  better known as the “farmers dole”, when the PLV system of assessing claims had to be dropped. Now an assessment is made as to what the productivity of the farm is. A danger in that system is that it becomes obvious to a person after some time that the less he produces the better the chances he has of getting unemployment assistance. I cannot easily think of what is the best way around it. There is no question that there is a danger there. In the long run, the standard of living in a country must to some degree depend on the productivity of the nation. If we subsidise inactivity or a lower scale of production than could be attained otherwise, we are on the wrong line.
I am not presumptuous enough to think I have the remedy for these ills but it is certainly something that has to be thought about.
We have the case — and I am glad the Minister dealt with it extensively — where people sit in a moral judgment and make wild, generalised statements about abuses in the Department of Social Welfare. Often articles appear in newspapers which draw attention to these and which are not sufficiently researched and well enough examined before these wild headlines appear. Recently I was glad to read a statement from the Minister pointing out that wild claims of fraud in the social welfare system in the Border counties could not be backed up. The Minister pointed out that the article dealing with this had not been properly researched and bore no relation to fact.
An annoying aspect of this publicity is that if people believe it is going on, then the taxpayer is less happy with demands from the Revenue Commissioners. It would be a good thing if there was a general understanding among people of what social welfare is costing at present. I would be glad to see it clearly established that every effort is being made to eliminate fraud and cheating of all the different kinds. As long as people believe there is fraud and overexpenditure they are less than happy to make the contributions they are called on to make because they believe their hard-earned money is put to  bad use. If you have that idea prevailing, there will be growing discontent.
Without making generalisations, I would like to draw attention to the fact that our rate of absenteeism from work, according to a publication from the Confederation of Irish Industry, is 13 per cent, which is the highest in the EC. If we engage in that kind of activity we are not going to generate the kind of wealth that will, in itself, increase the standard of living. It does not have to be said that the standard of living that a country enjoys must be related to the productivity of its people. We should have developed sufficiently to know that we cannot continue to borrow money and have an artificial standard of living. Unfortunately, there are people who believe this. People who are in permanent positions enunciated that it is the proper way of running the State. We have come to realise that we cannot enjoy a high standard of living indefinitely on borrowed money and that the standard of living we attain is dependent on what we produce as a people. This will mean a total elimination of waste, a determination to give a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, a determination to produce goods which would be competitive the world over, and a determination to prove our own status as a people by our own effort.
Until we develop that to a higher degree we will continue to have high rates of absenteeism from work and we will continue to be in difficulty. In one urban area that I know well there is a business with seven manual staff and the total days missed from work through illness or supposed illness in 1985 was 464. Taking one day with another, it meant that only five turned up for work. The remarkable thing about it is that worker A was out sick for 13 weeks — because of a review such people can be off on sick leave for 13 weeks: they now believe it is their right. When he felt well enough to go back after 13 weeks, worker B became suddenly ill and he took his 13 weeks. When B went back on the job again, worker C developed the same kind of sickness and took his 13 weeks off. That is fact — I can give details to the Minister.  That sort of approach is wrong. It will have to be eliminated. The country does not owe us a living and neither do the EC. We must work and make an effort to give a fair day's return. Ultimately, as a people, we must learn that.
The Minister drew attention to delays in processing claims. This is understandable but I am afraid some delays are unduly long and the Minister would generate much public satisfaction if she could speed up the process. It would enhance the image of the Department, for one thing, and it might help to get rid of the fraud and abuse. We must try to prove that these things have not reached the stage that the media would have us believe. The length of time it takes to process claims must be cut down significantly. I know of many cases that have gone on for more than a year. I cannot understand why the claims have not been processed and either rejected or the money paid out to the claimants so that unfortunate people will not be in a state of limbo for 12 months or more.
I was happy to hear the Minister's tribute to the work done in the field by the voluntary organisations. A number of those organisations do a remarkable amount of good work and they deserve our thanks. It is unfortunate that so many organisations are competing for public support through collections and events. It is a pity none of them can get as much help from the Department as they would like to but it was good to hear the Minister expressing gratitude to those people for the work they do. They are on the spot and they know the different circumstances in different homes and how some people cannot get as much value for their pound as others, which is one of the contributory causes for people being in poor circumstances. Through lack of home training, when some people are mature they are not as well able to make money go as far as their next door neighbour. Though they have reasonable amounts of money going into their houses they enjoy a low standard of living. Some of the voluntary groups whom I know are doing great work to help those people.
 I compliment the Minister for her comprehensive statement. In my opinion, in difficult circumstances the Government have been generous to the social welfare classes. The difficulties the Government had to face from the point of view of the national debt and so forth have been aggravated by the freak strength of the US dollar. With an improvement in the world economy, I hope the Minister will be in a position to do most of the things she would like to do for social welfare beneficiaries. As things are, the Minister could not have gone much further now.
Mr. Fitzsimons Mr. Fitzsimons
Mr. Fitzsimons: My contribution will be relatively short. I welcome the Minister and wish her well in her new role. It is a very difficult one. She has to deal with a complex intricate code involving enormous sums of money and many people on the poverty line. It is a daunting task and I wish her well in her attempts to achieve her objectives and to put her stamp on the Department.
There is no difficulty in identifying our greatest problem. No matter to which party we belong we are all agreed that unemployment is our big problem. We have spoken about it so often here that I do not want to repeat what I and others have said on this subject. We have about 250,000 people unemployed and if we take those in conjunction with beneficiaries of various schemes which give short term employment I suppose the real figure must be closer to 300,000. I do not want to knock those schemes — it is very easy to be a knocker, it has become a popular pastime in Ireland — they are of some help and I welcome them. However, in many cases they give hope at the start followed by despair when they end with nothing further forthcoming from them.
Unemployment brings many other problems. We have an increased crime rate, stress has increased among that section of the population, drugs and drink have become major problems, and I heard a radio programme this morning referring to a TV film to be shown tonight on “video nasties”. As we said in the old days, the devil finds some mischief for  idle hands to do. So many of our difficulties stem from unemployment that something must be done to produce an imaginative plan. It will not be easy. I have made many suggestions — I do not want to repeat them — but everybody is agreed that something radical is needed. We are in a crisis of change. There are many anomalies obtaining in the system referred to already by Senator O'Brien. In a town not very far from me in County Meath there are two factories located side by side, one operating a three-day week and the other full-time. I am given to understand that the employees on the three day week are better off than those working full-time. Also people take periods off work because of the income tax structure as was referred to also by Senator O'Brien. Overtime where available is no advantage to them. There is general belief that those not working are better off. That is not good for the country generally. In my area many fine young men and women have gone abroad and I know of many more preparing to go. That is a tragedy.
The Minister referred to the falling inflation rate. Some time ago the former Minister for Finance, Deputy Dukes, dealt in some detail with the significance of a falling inflation rate. He said in a vague way, which he did not define, that it would help employment and also give encouragement to people with money to invest in this country. To take the first assertion that a falling inflation rate will boost employment, if we look back over recent months — and here the Government may rightly claim some credit for the falling inflation rate — employment has not risen. In fact it has continued to worsen. I would not be too optimistic that a falling inflation rate would work miracles where employment is concerned. Senator O'Brien said, with regard to people who are not employed finding it difficult to get work, that the rest of the country does not owe them a living. I believe it does. I firmly believe that the country owes everyone a decent living.
In 1978 the Government received an  EC directive compelling them to introduce legislation removing discrimination and ensuring equal treatment of men and women — from certain aspects of the social welfare code. The Minister in his Budget Statement promised that this would be started within the first half of this year. The Minister referred to part of that process taking place in May next. I hear generally now that certain payments are being equalised; phase one it is called. This is another piecemeal measure. There is to be no change in the dependency laws where the real problem lies. This is an area that should be tackled. Many people ask when, if ever, will we see the EC directive implemented in totality.
The Government contend that they have problems with the country's finances, extra employment, with the structure. The Minister did say that some progress had been made in that regard. That is not sufficient. There were eight years in which to do so. There is no point in telling people with entitlements that there is a need for additional staff, new work procedures, training and so on. There is no excuse for the long delay in implementing that EC directive.
As the Minister has said, the provisions of the Bill raise the floor for pay-related benefits from £49 to £58. This has the effect, on new claims, of reducing pay-related benefit for the poorer or lower income people; some are excluded completely but the richer claimants are protected. This is why the Minister did refer to it. The Minister did not go into any detail in that regard, but it is the lower income category who will suffer as a consequence.
If the deposit interest retention tax — DIRT — is allowed to go through in the Finance Bill without change it will spell disaster for many old age pensioners and widows who are dependent on a little interest from their life savings. They call it funeral money, on which I elaborated before. They are depending on a non-contributory social welfare pension which is means-tested and often reduced. Such means test takes account of the sum of money invested only and not the interest  thereon. Therefore, since the capital remains the same, the social welfare pension remains the same. But the interest on their capital is reduced by the 35 per cent DIRT. Though such people are exempt from tax, they have to pay it. This will push many such pensioners from a subsistence level into the poverty bracket. The means test must be changed. This Bill is the vehicle for that, if we are genuinely concerned about our old people, not just their meagre comforts but their pride, dignity, their value as human beings. We must remove their worries and anxieties now or we shall have missed another opportunity to help them.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Women's Rights. Already that committee have produced three reports, two of which have been discussed in this House. The first interim report was on education and the second on social welfare. I know this is an area dear to the Minister's heart. We discussed it in great length not long ago. I do not intend to go into it in detail now. However, I would like to mention some of the recommendations of that lengthy and very timely report. For example, one such recommendation was that an increase should be effected in the single woman's allowance, at present payable between 58 and 66 years of age, and a lowering of the qualifying age to 55 years. Payment should be made to the carer under the prescribed relative allowance scheme and the requirement that there should be no other adult in the house should be abolished.
The term prescribed relative should be widened to include the spouse of an incapacitated pensioner. The three months waiting period before payment of the deserted wife's allowance should be abolished or at least shortened. Payment of maintenance on foot of court orders should be made if possible to the Department of Social Welfare. Payment of an allowance should be made to a deserted husband. The abolition of the term ‘deserted wife’ was recommended, possibly being replaced by a term such as  “abandoned spouse”. Furthermore the practice of printing the letters “DW”, for deserted wife on the front of envelopes by the Department of Social Welfare should be discontinued. That would not cost the Department any extra finance, and should be done immediately.
An improvement was recommended in the existing maternity benefit and the extension of maternity benefit to cover other than insured workers. The provision of child minding facilities in maternity hospitals was recommended. The introduction of maternity leave was suggested.
A case was made for an increase in old age contributory and non-contributory and widow's pensions and the lowering of the qualifying age for the payment of old age pensions. The joint committee asked that widows under 66 years of age whose husbands died over 66 years of age be allowed to avail of the free electricity scheme for the minimum period of two years. It was felt that married women over 66 years of age who remained at home should be entitled to receive a non-contributory old age pension in their own right. The committee felt strongly that the interpretation of term “living alone” would not preclude old people from having a friend or relative stay with them at night time.
Recommended strongly was the introduction of regulations by the Department of Social Welfare to prohibit discriminatory questioning and guidelines to ensure the effective questioning of applicants by examining officers and appeals officers. The introduction of a system of credits for women and men who leave the work force temporarily was suggested. An improvement in administration procedures by the Department of Social Welfare is overdue, according to the views of the joint committee, including the acceleration of the process of computerisation — referred to by the Minister — to ensure a more speedy and efficient service to the public. Extension of decision making powers should be given to local officers in order to eradicate delays in the social welfare system. The provision of new and better equipped offices for use by both  staff and general public is an urgent necessity.
The improvement of the appeals system to allow for independent membership is highly desirable. The joint committee felt strongly that the new legislation, which I have referred to, to implement the proposals of Directive 79/7 of the EC would contain safeguards to ensure that no family on low income would suffer undue hardship as a result of its enactment. The Joint Committee also agreed that retrospective payments be made under the new legislation to those women who were entitled to benefit at 22 December 1984. Everybody would agree that that is the most important part regarding the payments. About two weeks ago this House passed the Employment Equality (Employment of Women) Order, 1986, which really made some very minimal changes in the Employment Equality Act, 1977, changes which, I felt, were of no great importance in regard to this question of equality. Nevertheless, it was welcome at the time and I welcomed it at the start; but the important area is benefit, particularly where people are struggling hard to survive. All those aspects should be looked at.
Other important areas were mentioned which are appropriate to refer to in this debate. Three areas which came up as of most concern for the Joint Committee were regarding women in the home, children's allowances and the family income supplement scheme. Some start was made last year with regard to dental and optical benefit. In the 1985 budget benefits were extended to pregnant women on their husbands' PRSI contributions, but this is very restricted, and it is very important that it be extended. Even though more expense is involved, in the long term, because of the better health of the people who benefit, I see no reason why it should not be implemented and extended.
It was suggested that children's allowance could be increased appreciably. I know that there is some increase in this area, but it was pointed out that the rates in this country for children's allowances are the lowest in the EC.
 Therefore, many areas in that report referred directly to social welfare and the Minister should take them into account.
A previous report which we had on education referred to adult education and its importance particularly with regard to the high unemployment rate in this country. Let me read a short paragraph from Lifelong Learning. Report of the Commission on Adult Education, page 144:
3. The Department of Social Welfare should take steps to remove, in so far as is consistent with avoiding abuse, the restrictions in the unemployment benefit system on participation in education by the unemployed. To facilitate it in this, it should study precedents in other countries through which such revision has been achieved.
I know that many people are signing for unemployment benefit who would want to attend day classes and I understand that because they are not or would not be available for work in that situation they cannot undertake the day classes. Previously in this House I gave the case of a councillor whose wife was a nurse who could not get employment and she started to do a secretarial course while she was drawing unemployment benefit. When it was discovered that she was doing so she lost her benefit. That is wrong and we cannot condone it. This young lady could not get employment in her own field. She set about training in another area where she could get employment and where it would cost the State less in the long term when she did so, yet she is forbidden to do so. I have no doubt that that is wrong.
With regard to adult education for people on unemployment benefit, I believe that the local office has some discretion, how much I am not sure. I understand also that members of this Government claimed that there is no problem in this area, and I hope that that is so; but I know one individual who was unemployed and wanted to do a course and could not because if he did so he  could not sign as unemployed. It is a major barrier. A few years ago I did a course, which was finalised in England, for part time teachers. I saw that the UK and I know that the North of Ireland have special courses for people who are unemployed. Not alone is it not a question of blocking them and putting an impediment in their way, there are special courses to facilitate them. This is only proper, and I do not see why we cannot do the same here and perhaps benefit from the Social Fund or some other EC Fund for that purpose. In another case that I know of a young lady was able to get an exemption from the Department of Social Welfare, I was told the internal affairs section. She had tried several times before that and was refused. Of course, it is always stipulated that there is no payment to a person during this course. In fact, the people who participate must pay for the courses.
This is a big problem in rural areas but it is a much greater one in the city where there is a greater concentration of unemployed people. One of the big problems with adult education courses is that they have to be self-financing. That rule is laid down by the Department.
Adult education should be specifically looked at. When unemployed people spend money on adult education somewhere else suffers. There should be reduced fees for the disadvantaged. I spoke before about providing creche facilities in such places. The fees for such courses are prohibitive for the unemployed. The fee for a leaving certificate subject is £40. That should be looked at specifically in relation to the Bill.
One very important question I should like to ask is when will married women be allowed draw unemployment assistance. That matter has come up time and again. I do not see why women should be discriminated against in that way. In our reports we dealt specifically with this problem. We made recommendations and other recommendations were made. One would have thought that, with the passage of time, this would have been taken under control but nothing has been  done about it so far. The Minister referred to the fact that section 19 provides that to be eligible to receive unemployment benefit a person must not only be available for employment but also be genuinely seeking employment. That seems somewhat ironic. Were the matter not so serious I would consider that a bit laughable. With such a high unemployment rate how can one ever say that somebody is not genuinely seeking employment? It is very hard to understand the nuances of that requirement.
There is no question but that this is a very complicated area. I marvel at any individual who can file away all these details in his or her head. There are anomalies and it is inevitable that there will be some. I know of wealthy people, or people I would regard as wealthy, who have with the stroke of a pen signed over their homes, their fortunes or their wealth to relatives or others and became eligible to be housed by a local authority and for State benefits such as pensions and so on. I am not one to criticise them for that; they are keeping strictly within the law. I have great sympathy with elderly people waiting for a long time for a flatlet. Those people would be entitled to be housed by a local authority but somebody who, as far as I am concerned, was wealthy and had given away that wealth, would also qualify. Is there an anomaly there? Is that unfair? I could go into that for a long time and Senators could draw different conclusions.
I should like to mention the difference in the amounts of payment in urban and rural areas. I do not think that makes much sense. I developed that point on a previous occasion. It costs as much to live in a rural area as in an urban area. The payments should be the same. We also have unemployment assistance and unemployment insurance and the case has been made elsewhere that these should be unified in that it costs the same to live whatever income one may have. Somebody who may not have been fortunate enough to get employment will qualify for insurance. A completely new simplified code should be drawn up.
Recently I made a special plea for the  single parent and in passing I should like to do so again. I will not go over the ground that was covered then. This is a particularly vulnerable section of the community. Houses with two and three rooms should be provided for them. I look forward to the report of the Commision on Social Welfare which I believe will be issued in the next few months. I hope it will make a radical departure and simplify and extend the code in a way that will benefit the weaker section of the community.
Like Senator O'Brien, as I have done on a number of occasions, I should like to pay tribute to the voluntary organisations. Without them many people could not exist. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, and others, have done great work. In so far as the Bill brings help to those involved in this area I welcome it. I wish the increases were bigger and, like other Members, that the payments were made sooner rather than later. It always sems to me that the increased payment is deferred too long. As the House has no function with regard to increasing the payments or bringing them forward I like other Members, welcome the Bill.
Mr. Harte Mr. Harte
Mr. Harte: Everybody will agree that in life we have to deal with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The Minister, and the Government, because of existing circumstances could only go a certain distance to satisfy people on social welfare. It would be nice to think that the whole question of redistribution could be considered in a much more effective way but one deals with the matter according to the circumstances.
I welcome the Bill. One of my great worries is that the social welfare code is riddled with anomalies. If the Minister has time to go through all the documents she will realise this. It will not be necessary to highlight these issues in this debate because it will not be too long before she realises that there are 36 separate rates of child dependant's allowances under the social welfare code. The Minister will also realise that there has been consolidating legislation and amending legislation. It would take a very  bright senior counsel to understand all the complexities involved. I would make the plea that the anomalies in the Bill be examined and that the whole complexity of the Social Welfare Bill should be looked at because of the problem it presents to the ordinary citizen.
Another area in which problems are created for the public is in regard to appeals. It may say on forms that you can appeal, but many people do not comprehend the language in which these forms are set out. They do not understand that there are time limits. People are not made sufficiently aware of their right to appeal, and not just before appeal officers. When they have to go in to an appeal unassisted and unaided, as many must, it presents many problems and they are put at an enormous disadvantage. Generally those who receive social welfare benefits in the lower categories cannot articulate easily their points of view. The Department of Social Welfare must deal with this situation. The Department may have to think about the number of officials needed to give advice and guidance in appeals. We are not talking about charity: we are talking about rights.
Senator O'Brien mentioned that we do not owe anybody a living while Senator Fitzsimons said that we do owe them a living. The distinction probably is that the world does not owe us a living. These are our people and are entitled to a share of the redistribution of wealth. They are entitled to know that they are getting it not as a charity but as a right. They are also entitled to know how to appeal and to look for the necessary degree of expertise to be put at their disposal. They are not trained lawyers. A puzzling situation arises in that the payment is £3.80 per week from the second to the fifth child in the case of a widow's contributory pension, but £5.18 for the sixth and later children. It costs no less to rear the child of a family on unemployment assistance than anyone else's child and that is an anomaly which must be examined.
Anomalies have built up. I have no doubt that the new Minister will do her best to tackle these problems. It is not  going to be an easy job; I do not envy her her task. It must be drawn to the Minister's attention that the public are concerned about this area. A satisfactory appeals procedure has to be looked at also. For those who are not entitled to social welfare benefit and who go to a supplementary welfare officer for help, it is serious if they cannot understand their position and finish up sending many bitter complaints into the various political clinics throughout the city and towns.
Supplementary welfare benefit is probably the most complex issue. Nobody knows the criteria. I mentioned this last week when speaking to the health amendment. It appears on the surface that it is the welfare officers who are giving the money. It looks as if they resort to a person for money rather than a system. In the final analysis it looks as if that person has the discretion of giving money rather than having to work to criteria. This is the way it comes across to many people and consequently people are worried as to whether they are begging. They are not begging, they are looking for something from the State which has an obligation to look after their interests and give them assistance which is not charity.
The welfare of the elderly is giving increasing concern. The number of senior citizens is growing and the demand for care services outstrips the available facilities. Social contact has to be improved. Neighbourhood self-help groups must be encouraged. Giving more support to local services by voluntary organisations might be another approach that the social welfare officers might consider. Short term residential care facilities could be looked at. Special facilities for the elderly with free access to public transport should be improved. The burden on people providing care needs attention, primarily care in the home. The former Minister considered that they should move in that direction.
Most of us will agree that our elderly people too often have low incomes. They suffer from poor housing, increasing loneliness and isolation. We would like to see those citizens get a chance to have  full, dignified independent lives free from want. To do that you have to look at procedures, codes of practice, the behavioural patterns of people who are there to administer the system. Those who are on a one-to-one basis with people will have to learn that they are not giving something away at their own discretion, but are following the system and the criteria laid down in it.
The whole area of women living wholly on social welfare payments must be considered. The majority of these women are pensioners or widows. Some are separated or unmarried; some are bringing up a family on their own and some are unemployed or invalids. The ideal would be for these women to be given a substantial increase in the level of payments, but that cannot yet be provided. It is not something to be forgotten. We should think in terms of a commitment, in the sense that we are giving justice to all women. We should show this in our concern to raise the living standards of those women and others whose income comes solely from State benefit. At the moment we manage to give them a bare subsistence, a bare standard of living. The question of hardship for separated families should be looked at again. The State provides benefits and allowances to deserted wives but some of the conditions are very restrictive. In some cases the woman has to go to court and prove that the person who is supposed to be looking after the family is not available to do so and cannot be traced.
In regard to the child benefit scheme it seems a little peculiar that in the case of a person with one child for whom children's allowance is claimed. If you take away the £100 tax free allowance and give an increase of £3 on the present child allowance of just over £12, then no benefit derives to the person with one child. If they are liable for income tax they will pay £35 anyway and the most they will get from the increase is £36 in one year. That is an anomaly. There is no point in talking about the inadequacy of the allowance. You have to deal with the situation as you find it. However, we  should take steps to protect the allowance while working towards improving it.
State welfare benefits for people caring for elderly relatives are extremely low. Up to 1983 no allowance was payable to a person who was looking after a disabled relative full time. The prescribed relative's allowance was paid to the disabled person and the prescribed relative's income often consisted of a social assistance allowance. We have come some way in making improvements but more need to be made and extended to the other areas.
I will not go into the whole question of child allowance again. I have already mentioned it. I welcome the Bill. The major problems in the social welfare code are the anomalies contained in it. The complexity of the supplementary welfare allowances is another major concern. It should be borne in mind that we are dealing with ordinary citizens who cannot act in the same way as those in the legal profession. Indeed I would go so far as to say that some of those in the legal profession might even find difficulty in testing the criteria laid down in relation to getting supplementary welfare allowances. When appeals are on a one-to-one basis people must be treated with consideration. I welcome the Bill.
Mr. Smith Mr. Smith
Mr. Smith: I also welcome this opportunity to say a few brief words on the Social Welfare Bill. A number of the contribution here and in the Dáil tended to isolate the unemployment cost factor from the main thrust of what Social Welfare Bill should be doing. We have to take into account that we will have an increasing ageing population and that a huge proportion of national resources will be required, independent of the unemployment problem, to cater for a variety of social needs. It will be extremely difficult to make adequate provision for these ever increasing demands. Therefore, it is necessary to try to incorporate and develop better community facilities. I know that a voluntary organisation throughout the country do Trojan  work and without their efforts the situation for many people would be considerably more difficult. I believe we have tended to move away from the family and extended family where were all concerned for each other. Right across the community we have seen a kind of selfishness develop, which is difficult to comprehend and to cope with.
The media and others talked about fraud in the Department of Social Welfare. Although it is probably quite small, the facilities should be there to follow it up to ensure that those who are in need are catered for adequately. Those who want to deprive others of legitimate payments by their dishonesty should be followed up in an orderly and compassionate way.
To deal with the unemployment figure which is now reaching astronomical proportions, we require to develop new thinking in our approach to the social welfare code. The Minister says it is costing £7 million a day but that is only the net pay out by the State. If you take into account that the bulk of those people also qualify for free medical services and low differential rents in local authority houses, the total quantifiable cost of the payment of social welfare to the unemployed is approximately double the figure quoted by the Minister, taking into account also the loss of PRSI and income tax.
That is just the financial cost to the State, but there is a greater cost, the human degradation and associated problems which follow down that road. Therefore, applying an absolute condition to payment of this benefit on the basis that you do not work needs some kind of radical change. That is not to say that a person can be fully employed and qualify for the benefit.
I will give an example. A couple of weeks ago I made representations on behalf of a constituent who had an opportunity to get a job provided he got involved in a particular training scheme. Unfortunately for him, he was unemployed since 1982 but succeeded last year in getting 12 weeks' employment. As a result of those 12 weeks, out of a four  year span, he did not qualify for the scheme because he was not unemployed for 12 months. Therefore, he lost the opportunity to be trained and to get a job. His efforts to get work over the last four years, unsuccessful though they were, in that he got a mere 12 weeks work meant that he was deprived of a permanent job. I am not picking out a social welfare official, the Government or any Minister because we have a plethora of schemes, inherited over a long time which have been developed and changed. There were piecemeal changes and the family increment supplement scheme, designed to cater for 35,000 people ended up catering for 5,000 people. Political decisions were taken at random and a complexity of schemes was built up, unintelligible to the public, full of bureaucracy and requiring considerable effort and skill on the part of those who apply for them from time to time. Is there a simpler way of breaking through this network and having a social welfare system which is employment orientated rather than disemployment orientated?
Perhaps farmers' dole should be scrapped. Farmers with very small holdings should qualify in the normal way and should not have to be re-assessed. In the west and in many parts of the country their meagre holdings are ridiculously small and are incapable of generating a reasonable income. They are compelled to apply every year and are subject to investigation by social welfare officers who would be better employed up the scale. That should be forgotten about and public time and money should not be wasted in this way. Social welfare payments should be orientated to incentivebased schemes. Schemes which are operated by the Department of Agriculture should be integrated so that we could be more enterprising in these areas instead of adding to the national dependency which is creeping into society. If we are to solve some of the economic problems it will take a lot of goodwill and inspiration and a different approach by people. Governments can do so much,  but the will of the people, and how it can be cultivated and nursed, is essential.
When I read figures from the Department of Justice about the incidence of crime and the numbers drawn from the unemployed, I do not blame those people. I am not legitimising what they do, but I understand what it is like to have nothing to do today and nothing to look forward to tomorrow. If we were in the same boat we would rise up against society too. Old people are threatened in their homes. Last year we fought to get the Minister for Social Welfare to increase the allowances whereby people could invest their meagre savings over the years. After getting a concession last year we now have the introduction of another tax. Those who were foolish enough to take our advice come to us a year later and say “We were stupid to follow that advice. We were not in the income tax bracket in the first instance”. At a stroke of the pen that scheme was changed. The efforts made by everybody in the community to try to help old people and encourage them to invest their meagre savings so that they would not be threatened in their homes by vultures, have been eradicated.
I want to emphasise that, in any reassessment of the social welfare code, the question of orientating the scheme towards employment and the question of seeing in what way we can reduce the number and variety of schemes should be looked at. It should be possible to make the same payments, or more, without having a plethora of different schemes, one interlinking with the other, and not getting down to the base of the problem. I should like to ask the Minister also to try to do something about processing claims more speedily. It is the bane of many a politician's life that there are so many people entitled to benefits but there are delays in processing, in assessing and in appeals. I know the suggestion has been made many times about decentralisation. With the advent and development of computer services they can help considerable provided there is some fall-back position where bottlenecks occur and  where people are waiting for claims which should be met more readily.
I should like to ask the Minister to what degree are our schemes anti-family? The Minister reacted in the Dáil in her own inimitable way to this charge. I am concerned for larger families in particular. Nobody in this House could convince me that, whatever payments are made for unemployment, disability or under any heading, are sufficient for a family who depend on them for their weekly income. For most of them it is an extremely difficult problem. There are very few Members of this House or the other House who would like to be faced with the same situation. The larger the family the more difficult it is. Increases granted in this year's budget, which do not take account of these family needs, are unfair, anti-family and should be changed at the first opportunity to assist families.
While there are some fraudulent claims in relation to applications for deserted wife's allowance—I am familiar with a number of cases—people should not be subjected to any unnecessary questioning and should be assisted in every way possible. There are a great number of very deserving cases where people face up to very considerable trauma. The Department of Social Welfare should be compassionate and understanding and should not look for matters to be established in court before a genuine applicant for deserted wife's allowance can succeed with her claim.
I should like to ask the Minister to do something about an anomaly which I discovered recently in relation to a comparison between payments of unemployment assistance at the single rate and unemployment assistance and benefit. In order to qualify for full unemployment benefit for the full period of 390 days a person is required to have 280 contributions over the previous seven years. If that person succeeds in meeting that criterion he or she qualifies for the full benefit. If not, the amount is reduced after 156 days. The single rate benefit is £32.75 and the rate for single assistance is £34.95. The difference is £2. The point  I want to make is that here we have a disincentive to employment. A person could legitimately ask why he bothered making social welfare contributions, insufficient though they were, over the last number of years if somebody who never bothered, or who had no opportunity to contribute, was going to be paid more? In such instances, we find in the core of these schemes something to which I object fundamentally and which many people would like to see changed. I ask the Minister to have a brief look at that and many other anomalies with which many Members are familiar.
Since a number of the hospitals in the country are going to close, I am faced with a dilemma in my own constituency. The Minister for Health who, at one time had the laborious job of managing the Departments of Social Welfare and Health, faced many difficulties in those ministries but the Taoiseach has taken one ministry from him. In my younger days in the GAA when you were playing badly someone from the sidelines would come and tell you to lie down so that you could be taken off quietly and people might think you were injured. I do not think the Minister is injured, but those he is serving might be slightly injured.
If you want to foster community services in the health area—and I believe in that—we have to remove some of the anomalies with regard to the prescribed relative allowance. We should try to encourage families who can afford it to keep their aged relatives in their homes without making any charge on the State because I do not think one is morally entitled to receive benefit for looking after one's aged relatives. But there are instances where it is not possible to do that, where they have not the resources. In these instances the prescribed relative allowance should be renamed and changed to cater more comprehensively for a need which is there. We should have a community based health scheme but it can never be effectively operated unless we are able to provide better back-up schemes. It is costing a fortune to keep people in some of our hospitals today, and it would far cheaper for the State  to encourage those kind of community services, but there is no point in only paying lip service to this idea. There is no point in saying we are going to close our hospitals and develop community services when those of us who are on health boards know that the money being provided for those services is being curtailed. You cannot have it both ways. The new Minister, whom I welcome to this office, and her colleague, who had responsibility for that Department heretofore, should combine their resources and look at this problem more compassionately and comprehensively in the light of changing health policies.
That is briefly what I want to say about this Bill. I hope that most of the contributions in this House will be concerned with trying to improve the lot of those who are unemployed, ill or old, as much as possible. We should be open to change and try to tailor these schemes to meet the changing needs in society. Above all, with the massive cost of unemployment and the ancillary costs which I mentioned earlier, it behoves us to find some new road to try to orientate the massive amounts of money which the taxpayer has to pay every year towards employment-generating opportunities and not have the killing disincentive which very often pervades many of our schemes.
Mr. J. Higgins Mr. J. Higgins
Mr. J. Higgins: Like other speakers I welcome this Bill. As has been pointed out by the Minister in the preamble to her speech, this is a vast area of expenditure, the largest in the Exchequer, with a total annual bill of £2.5 billion, which, when quantified in daily terms, works out at £7 million per day, a staggering sum by any standards. As Senator Smith rightly pointed out, this is but the net payment. When one quantifies it in terms of the other contributions—ancillary payments and the other services provided by virtue of the fact that people had social welfare entitlements, such as medical costs, housing, supplements, grants and various schemes — the real figure is far higher on a daily and on an annual basis.
I agree with a lot of what Senator Harte  said. I would like to see the appeals process considerably speeded up. In relation to the area of unemployment assistance, the introduction of a new facet UB 35 — that is, the oral appeal in relation to giving satisfactory resolution to the dole problems of small farmer's — has been a considerable success. This is something I commend strongly and should be extended into other areas of social welfare activity because it has tended very often to put a human face on something which, in the past, was looked upon with a certain amount of fright and trepidation.
I believe the whole social welfare system needs to be radically restructured. Part and parcel of that streamlining would be that whenever a person's eligibility or entitlement to social welfare benefit comes into play advance notice should be given by the social welfare officer of his intention to call. It is only fair that people should receive this notification particularly in relation to the determination of small farming dole cases. We are talking about a vast array of components which have be assessed, their merits analysed, and so on, to determine people's eligibility.
Seanad Éireann 111 Social Welfare Bill, 1986: Second Stage.