Seanad Éireann - Volume 129 - 10 July, 1991

Adjournment Matter. - Unemployment Payments Signing Arrangements.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I have received notice from Senator Brendan Ryan that on the motion of the Adjournment of the House today he proposes to raise the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Social Welfare to discontinue the requirement that all travellers not living in permanent housing must sign on at labour exchanges at 11.30 a.m. on Thursdays.

Mr. B. Ryan: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá brón orm nach é an tAire Leasa Shóisialaigh atá in ár dteannta anocht mar tá ceisteanna faoi leith le freagairt agus in ainneoin dea-thola an Aire atá in ár láthair, níl an taithí aige as an Roinn [1583] nó an t-údarás aige i gceannas ar an Roinn chun, b'fhéidir, ina ceisteanna nó an fhealsúnacht atá taobh thiar de chuid de na moltaí atá agam a phlé. Ach tá súil agam go mbeidh freagra de shaghas aige agus gur freagra ar a bhfuil á rá agam a thabharfaidh sé in ionad freagra ar a bhfuil an Roinn ag súil a déarfaidh mé. Ní thógfaidh mé morán ama an cheist seo a phlé ach tá sé tábhachtach.

Ten years ago a most unfortunate decision was taken by the then Minister for Social Welfare. In order to dispose of a few red herrings to coin a phrase, that have been dragged across this issue, I know it was a member of the Labour Party who was Minister for Social Welfare in 1981 when the decision was taken. Successive Ministers for Social Welfare in Governments in which the Labour Party were not a part — I am not a member of the Labour Party — seem to feel that it is important to point this out to me whenever the issue comes up. I also know why it was said the regulations were introduced. I also know the procedures and requirements for signing on. The last occasion on which the extraordinary requirement that members of the travelling community must sign on at labour exchanges all round the country at 11.30 a.m. on Thursday mornings was raised, I was given a long account of the obligations under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, 1981 that people must meet in order to qualify for unemployment assistance. About six lines in the Minister's reply were devoted to the issue.

Since 1981 the travelling community's perception of itself has changed out of all recognition. There are within the travelling community a considerable number of people who are very assertive and proud of their existence as an ethnic minority with their own culture, lifestyle and, to a considerable degree, their own language. They are not just a raggle taggle collection of unfortunates who happen to be outside society. They are a most [1584] significant ethnic minority perhaps 20,000 people. That minority has increasingly sought not charity but rights for itself. It has sought the right not to be discriminated against, in particular, the right not to be stigmatised in any discriminatory way. In 1981 when this extraordinary requirement was introduced neither the travelling community nor those who attempted to look after their welfare had this sense of ethnic identity. I quote from column 791 of the Official Report of the Seanad, 22 October 1986. The then Minister of State, Deputy Pattison said:

Following a review within my Department of the position it became apparent that there was a need for special signing arrangements for all claimants of no fixed abode which, of course, includes members of the travelling community in order to close off the possibility of such claimants signing on and receiving payments under two different names at two or more local offices in one week.

Nobody ever produced evidence to support this. Nobody ever attempted to show the travelling community the basis on which they were being stigmatised as chronic dole fiddlers. A review was carried out in secret. Statistics were looked at in secret. Proposals and decisions were made in secret and at the end of the process, the result was made public.

The situation now is that in every village, town and city where there is a labour exchange you can stand at 11.30 a.m. on Thursday and point out the travellers. This was done because somebody decided there was widespread abuse, even though there was no evidence to support that claim. A significant number of people have not been prosecuted. We do not know the basis for doing this, perhaps it was hearsay or prejudice, we do not know.

The present Minister for Social Welfare attempted to defend the position as late as December. He said in what I can [1585] only describe as the wondrous style all Ministers have, and I quote from the debate of that day:

There is no question of discrimination in having all people of no fixed abode sign at one time.

I love that. Because he says there is no discrimination, therefore there is no discrimination. The Stormont regime of past years said there was no question of discrimination against Catholics because of their religion, it was because of their politics, lack of loyalty or whatever else. They said because we do not call it discrimination, it is not discrimination. That was not a monopoly of the Stormont Parliament; it happens in many places. The Minister took us away from the misnomer “persons of no fixed abode” because in 1990 he went on to say:

Following a meeting between officials of my Department and the monitoring committee for travelling people, a review of the arrangements was carried out at two Dublin exchanges. The purpose was to identify settled travellers with permanent addresses with a view to integrating them into the normal signing arrangements. Following the examination of approximately 500 applications at the two exchanges, 67 people were identified as being settled travellers.

It intrigues me that two different Ministers from two different Governments insisted that this was not discriminating against travellers. How did they suddenly identify 67 people as being of no fixed abode when they were living in settled accommodation? Clearly they did not qualify as being of no fixed abode. They identified them because they were culturally, racially and in terms of their family names and family associations members of the travelling community. They were made to sign on at 11.30 a.m. on Thursdays not because they were of no fixed abode, because manifestly they were not, but because they were [1586] members of an ethnic minority and that is nothing short of racist discrimination against an ethnic minority in this State. What we got out of that was that after ten years a Minister finally conceded by implication if not fact that this discrimination was directed against the travelling community. It was always obvious because the Department of Social Welfare will not give social welfare payments to one without an address. How can you be of no fixed abode and at the same time qualify for social welfare? If one has an address one cannot be of no fixed abode.

We all know from dealing with homeless people that they were not subjected to this requirement. There was a flutter of words to cover up the fact that this was directed exclusively at the travelling community. The Minister unfortunately having showed a small moment of enlightenment in recognising the absurdity of settled travellers being treated as persons of no fixed abode, said that the Senator — that was me he was talking about — would be interested to hear that some of the travellers deemed as settled did not wish to change their signing arrangements as they regarded the Thursday morning gathering as something of a social occasion. I said, when the Minister said that and he got very cross with me, that it reminded me of statements made in South Africa by white South Africans to the effect that their black servants would not really like liberation but would prefer the old system in which they felt secure. Neither statement is right and both statements about different people of different cultural backgrounds are profoundly offensive. The Minister may think that it was a nice thing to say but it was profoundly patronising to the travelling community.

Since then there has been a change. The rhetoric about travellers is now very different. As far as I recall, the Taoiseach was very eloquent about the rights of the travelling community during his address to the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis. On his vision of the new and caring Ireland he [1587] was hoping to lead us into he elaborated at some length on the rights of travellers. He opened the new centre for the Dublin Travellers' Education and Development Group with some panache and I compliment him for it because those gestures are extremely important for the assertion of the right of this cultural minority to its own identity.

The Minister for Social Welfare has also given considerable stature, support and financial assistance to the Dublin Travellers' Education and Development Group. I am aware of all that and for what has been done I have no reason to be other than complimentary, but little gestures like that, however significant, are no substitute for a deliberate policy of abolishing stigma and the knowledge that every community can pick out the travellers on a Thursday at 11.30 a.m. demolishes all the other good work. It puts travellers in a sub-group and places them under suspicion, when they are pointed out as a suspect group incapable of behaving like the rest of us and needing to be tied down and visibly profiled as a suspect group. How can you expect communities to accept as full participants people of whom the State says: “Look at them. They are the people we have to watch every week, otherwise they would fiddle the system”.

As I have said often, if we did this to people who were black, or members of the Jewish or the gay community this country would rise in outrage and the liberal media in Dublin would fulminate. If the Government of the United Kingdom said that because of the large influx of unemployed Irish people, many of whom are not in permanent accommodation, were going to require every Irish person in Britain to sign on at a labour exchange at 11.30 a.m. on a Thursday, who would be the quickest to rightly scream discrimination? The Irish Government would scream loud and long about discrimination against the Irish and stigmatisation of the Irish. I could write [1588] the script. They would say “We do not know the evidence, we have not seen the case, we do not know any of those things, but it is wrong”. We do not know the evidence on which this measure was introduced, nor have we seen the case on which it was introduced. We only see the consequence, which is, a group of people paraded in front of the rest of the community en bloc at the same time all over the country while signing on. One could not stigmatise people more effectively by forcing them to wear a yellow star which would say “These are the outcasts, they are outside our society, you must be wary of them.”

When one considers the enormous prejudice prevailing already against the travelling community and their difficulty getting children into schools how can people accept travellers as neighbours when the State says they cannot be trusted? The implication is that they are up to fiddling and to theft. What will this measure do but compound the prejudice against them?

We have had ten years of racist experiment drafted by a Minister of the Government other than this one. Therefore, the present Minister has no obligation to a measure which has been operated cruelly and dressed up for a long time in language that covered up its racist basis by talking about persons of no fixed abode, as a result of which travellers living in houses were told that, for the purposes of the Department of Social Welfare, they were persons of no fixed abode until, as the Minister said, some time in 1990 when they finally caught up on that particularly extreme form of discrimination. For the rest of the travelling community not in settled accommodation the situation continues. I put it to this Minister that it is time it ended. It is nothing less than institutionalised racial discrimination, stereotyping and stigmatisation; it is wrong and it should end.

Minister of State at the Department of the Gaeltacht (Mr. Gallagher): Ba mhaith [1589] liom leithscéal a ghabháil thar ceann an Aire Leasa Shóisialaigh, os rud é nach bhfuil sé ábhalta a bheith anseo anocht. D'iarr sé ormsa ionadaíocht a dhéanamh ar a shon. Ní masla é sin don Seanadóir Ryan ná don Teach. Is cinnte gur mhaith leis a bheith anseo chun freagra a thabhairt ar an gceist tábhachtach seo.

Mr. B. Ryan: Glacaim leis sin.

Mr. Gallagher: It is provided in the social welfare legislation that to be entitled to unemployment payments a person must be unemployed, available for and genuinely seeking work. Until recently the rules govening signing were related to the distance a person lived from the local office and could require attendance several times a week. The Minister has made significant improvements for clients in the signing arrangements. He has reduced signing frequency. Most claimants now only sign once a week and are paid in cash at the same time. The Department are currently examining, in conjunction with the development of alternative payment methods, the possibility of further reductions in signing frequency.

The payment arrangements for those who do not have a fixed address as the Senator pointed out were introduced in 1981. There was clear evidence at that time that the practice of a sizeable number of claimants signing on and receiving payments under different names at two or more local offices in the one week was a significant and growing problem. It was decided to introduce special arrangements for claimants with no fixed address. The same arrangements apply in Northern Ireland where similar problems occurred.

The Department of Social Welfare would be failing in their responsibilities if they did not ensure that measures were in operation to meet the special situation of claimants with no fixed address. Members of the travelling community who are settled have the same signing [1590] arrangements as other members of the settled community.

Mr. B. Ryan: Since last year.

Mr. Gallagher: Last year, following a meeting between officials of the Department and the Monitoring Committee for Travelling People, a review of the arrangements was carried out at two Dublin exchanges. The purpose of the review was to identify settled travellers with permanent addresses with a view to extending the usual signing arrangements to them. Arising from this review new signing arrangements were introduced for, as Senator Ryan mentioned, some 67 settled travellers. Some members of the travelling community who had settled did not wish to change their signing on arrangements; others did not wish to change as they had arrangements made for the payment of bills, such as rent to coincide with their unemployment payment day.

I can assure Senator Ryan who has a very special interest in this debate that there is no question of the Minister for Social Welfare or the Government trying to discriminate against or stigmatise the travelling people as the ethnic minority he referred to. I want to assure the Senator on behalf of the Minister for Social Welfare that the Minister is reviewing signing on arrangements generally and will give particular consideration to the requirements of members of the travelling community. I will bring to the attention of the Minister the various points raised by the Senator and, again, I want to assure him that there is no question but that the Minister would want to be, and I would not want to be, a party to discrimination or stigmatisation against an ethnic minority, and every effort will be made to try to ensure that there is integration but the practical problems that arise from time to time must be taken into consideration.

Mar fhocal scoir, gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an [1591] deis seo a thabhairt dom, thar ceann an Aire Leasa Shóisialaigh, freagra agus geallúint a thabhairt dó go ndéanfar athbhreithniú ginearálta agus, go dtabharfar na pointi éagsúla a d'árdaigh sé tráthnóna isteach san áireamh. Tá súil agam go mbeidh an tAire ábalta an fhadhb seo, más fadhb atá ann, a réiteach le linn a athbhreithniú ar na rialacha atá ann i láthair na huaire.

Mr. B. Ryan: That is the worst reply I have ever received from a Minister in my [1592] period in this House. The Minister of State regurgitated the facts I had already stated and there was nothing new in his reply. It is an absolutely disgraceful reply.

Mr. Gallagher: Facts are facts. The Senator had no opinions to offer.

Mr. B. Ryan: The opinion is that the Government are picking on a racial minority.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 17 July 1991.