Seanad Éireann - Volume 137 - 28 October, 1993

Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill, 1993: Report and Final Stages.

Bill received for final consideration.

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

[1659] Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): I wish to thank the Senators who participated in the Committee Stage debate of the Bill. This is important legislation as it brings together all social welfare legislation passed since the first consolidation Bill in 1981 which I had the privilege of introducing in the Dáil and Seanad. At that time I proposed that there should be a further consolidation Bill within at least ten years. We are somewhat later than that.

The Acts passed since 1981 are brought together with the previous Acts. Therefore, approximately 83 years of social welfare legislation is embodied in this Bill in simplified form so that it is more easily understood. Social welfare legislation is complicated as the interests and entitlements of so many people in many different circumstances must be covered. The best we can do to simplify the legislation is to combine it in this consolidation Bill and break it down into the different sectors. It covers the two sides of social welfare: the social insurance fund and the assistance schemes. It is almost an encyclopaedia of social welfare legislation.

It is particularly important that the Bill be passed now because further social welfare legislation will be passed in the future which could upset the content of this Bill. When this Bill is passed any future Acts will stand alone until there is a further consolidation Bill, perhaps in another ten years. The officials and civil servants involved put a great deal of time into the preparation of this Bill. It is painstaking work that is not often properly recognised. It is valuable work to people involved in the social welfare area: Senators, Deputies, social workers and legal practitioners who are involved in all matters relating to a person's social welfare entitlements.

It is particularly helpful to have the legislation together under simplified headings. The different chapters have been standardised and simplified and it will be easier than even the last consolidation [1660] Bill to use. Recognising the complexity of this Bill we are issuing a guide that will be helpful to anyone who wishes to use the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill. It will describe the provisions in a simple and straightforward way and will be available in a matter of weeks. A great deal of work has gone into that and I thank the officials who were involved. I also thank the chairman, Senator Roche, and the Members of the Standing Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills who went through this Bill in detail. It was painstaking work and I am grateful to all those who participated.

All the insurability provisions relating to employees, the self employed, the voluntary contributors and the PRSI fund are brought together and simplified. There is a common set of administrative and other provisions which now apply to all the social insurance and assistance schemes. I hope that will be helpful to everybody involved. It is important legislation which makes the law more accessible and easier to understand. It will be of great benefit to Members and those involved in social welfare.

I thank all concerned for the speedy way with which they dealt with this Bill. Without their help it would be overtaken by other legislation in which case we would have to reconsider it. That would take more time and we might not be able to tidy up everything.

Mr. Roche: It was my privilege to be chairman of the Standing Joint Committee on Consolidation Bill. It was a pleasant task because the Minister, and his officials have, as the Minister said, codified 83 years of law into one Bill. It is legislation which is written as close as possible in non legal phraseology. It is in laypersons language and is good legislation.

Social welfare which by its nature is complex, as every public representative knows, has been put into a framework which is accessible to public representatives, [1661] to professionals and to the general public. In the past 50 years the State has changed role from that of a night watchman to one where it now intervenes in the lives and livelihoods of every member of the community. It is important that the law as enacted by the State is fully comprehended and comprehensible. The Minister, Dr. Woods has made this a life's ambition and a lifetime's passion. As he said, he was involved in the introduction of the 1981 Act, the original consolidation legislation.

As a lecturer in public administration who for about 20 years has argued for making Government accessible to the people, I consider this to be model legislation. I am pleased the Minister said that a guide in common language and accessible to everybody in the community will be published. Under Dr. Woods's Ministry, the Department of Social Welfare has made remarkable advances in the past few years. We all know that it was a deep, dark and impenetrable part of public administration and it is now a shining example to everybody. Appropriately, it has adopted a logo with an open door and that is the attitude that now exists in that Department. Not an attitude of withholding, but an attitude of welcoming, of involving people and making them aware of their entitlements. This legislation is most welcome because in addition to codifying and simplifying law it will make people more aware of those rights which both Houses of the Oireachtas have given them.

It has always struck me as fundamentally wrong and perverse that after we as public representatives enact legislation, people then need to go to political intermediaries or intermediaries of one form or another to find out their entitlements. I realise that I am trying the patience of the Acting Chairman but it is important to mark this work which has been so well done in the Department that there will not be overlong speeches here and it would be inappropriate that there [1662] should be. It is appropriate to mark what has been completed. I compliment the Minister as I have done on many occasions before because he brings energy, enthusiasm and enlightenment to his portfolio. I compliment his staff for being extraordinarily helpful to the joint committee and, more important, fulfilling to the nth degree the role of the public servant, making public administration available to the people. This is good legislation which has the support of all sides in the House and I hope that the model in it will be looked at by other areas of public administration. I look forward to other Ministers consolidating legislation in their Departments and making the law accessible to those it is meant to serve.

Mr. Cregan: I also congratulate the Minister, his staff and the committee under Senator Roche on this Bill. There have been great improvements in the Department over the past few years and the Minister, Dr. Woods, more than anybody else, deserves credit for that. I remember being involved in many arguments here about the amounts and forms of benefit that were due to people. There were 32 different benefits paid in respect of children in the past the and number has been reduced. I have always seen the logic in everybody getting the same amount.

Consolidating all the social welfare Acts, particularly when more than £11 million per day is being spent on social welfare benefits, is a big responsibility for the Minister and his officials. In the three budgets 1987 to 1989 I was baffled how the Minister for Social Welfare was able to get money when no other Minister could. At that time the Minister for Finance would not give any extra money to any other Minister. However, the position is far from satisfactory and the Minister is aware of that. There are, unfortunately, anomalies in the system which cannot be allowed to continue.

[1663] We still receive many complaints from people who are not well off. We have not solved the problem. There are people receiving benefits who should not be on welfare while others, unfortunately, need more assistance and cannot get it.

I do not see the logic in the difference between an invalidity pension of £60.80 and a disability and injury benefit of £55.60. We must always ensure that everybody is treated equally and receives the same amount. That can be done. The number of children's benefits was reduced from 32 to 16 and it may be less now.

Dr. Woods: It is six.

Mr. Cregan: That is good. We are improving every year. However, can anybody explain how a person on disability and injury benefit can receive £55.60 and the adult dependant will get £35.50 making a total of £91.10 but a person on long term unemployment assistance receives £59.20 and £35.50 for an adult dependant £35.50 making a total of £94.70? Why should a person on invalidity benefit get less than somebody who is on long term unemployment benefit? I do not see the logic in that particularly for the person who is not an invalid, the adult dependant. I am not saying that they should not get the benefit but there should be equality.

We must continue to question such anomalies. We are far from right yet. If the general public knew that £11 million pounds a day — about £4 billion pounds per year — is spent on social welfare and there were still people without assistance and benefits they would ask questions. If we asked ten people from urban areas and five people from rural areas to distribute the money would they do a better job? Perhaps they would because they would see to it that the right people got it. We must always question whether there are people who are without the basics. That is happening at a time when [1664] we spend £11 million pounds per day on social welfare. Sadly there are situations where people are without the basics, despite our spending £11 million a day on social welfare.

I congratulate the Minister on what he is doing but there is one final issue I must put to him. This is a matter I raised on the Adjournment but it is relevant to the consolidation of all the Acts, including the equality legislation under which were made all those claims by women who believe they were discriminated against in terms of payments vis-a-vis male claimants and who are waiting for the matter to be redressed. This is a serious problem and one that will have to be resolved. Unfortunately the vast majority of those making money out of the impasse are those on the legal side, the lawyers who are processing the case on behalf of the claimants. The whole episode is a sad reflection on us. We should be addressing the issue so that those concerned can be paid the moneys they are claiming. We are in breach of EC regulations by not having this matter finalised. If it is a question that the payments cannot be made within a year, that should be said and the burden spread over two or three years. It is not right that solicitors representing claimants are receiving 10 per cent, 20 per cent or 30 per cent of the total amount paid by the Department of Social Welfare into the claimants' accounts. If it is the case that claims cannot be met in full even within a three year period, it may be necessary to extend to four years the final date by which the matter is to be finalised but it is imperative that, in any event, we make the applicants aware of what is happening. Otherwise, they will incur unnecessary expense in consulting their solicitors.

The booklet issued by the Department of Social Welfare setting out entitlements is excellent. There is no need for any Member of the Oireachtas to be apprehensive about ensuring that every constituent receives a copy. While containing much detailed information, the booklet [1665] succeeds in simplifying the social welfare code. It illustrates though that there is not a fair disbursement of payments.

I thank the Minister and I congratulate him, his staff, the committee and the chairman.

Mr. Wall: I congratulate the Minister and his Department as well as the committee and the chairman on the legislation before the House today, legislation that is badly needed since, unfortunately, many thousands of people depend on the social welfare system. Such people will benefit greatly from the passing of this legislation. It will be of much benefit, too, to social welfare officers and to the professionals who need to determine the legislation required in any given set of circumstances. The Bill consolidates, as the Minister has said, 81 to 83 years of legislation in this Department and gives us the opportunity of trying to improve on what is proposed.

I agree with Senator Cregan that this is not the final day for improvements to be made to the social welfare system, that rather the Bill is a yardstick of what improvements might be made. It also enables Senators and other public representatives to check without difficulty on any particular item in the Department of Social Welfare.

The Minister is also to be congratulated on the guide he has promised in this House today. It will be a bonus to what has gone before and will certainly be to the betterment of the unfortunate people who have to claim social welfare assistance.

I agree again with Senator Cregan that the issue of equality of payments for men and women will not go away. There are many more claims arising and certainly in any given week at the clinics we hold there is always a woman asking how the matter is going to be dealt with and for details of their claim entitlements. I ask the Minister to make a statement in this regard because the problem is causing grave concern to many people involved [1666] in social welfare including Senators and Deputies who go from clinic to clinic and try and explain the reasons why payments are not being made and the Department of Social Welfare is not acting upon what would be viewed as a legitimate claim.

Again, I congratulate the Minister and his Department and the committee upon an improvement in the social welfare system.

Dr. Henry: I congratulate the Minister and his staff and also Senator Roche and the committee on this consolidation Bill. The total change in the attitude among all those in the Department of Social Welfare over the nearly 25 years that I have been dealing with the Department cannot but be welcomed. Far from people now feeling that their benefits are grudgingly given to them, in general most people feel that they get a good reception from officials and that they are dealt with equitably.

I support Senator Cregan's remarks on equity as being important, and where only small amounts of money are involved between benefits, I hope the Minister and his staff will keep examining this area because it often creates feelings of injustice for the sake of a few pounds. In the argument over which benefit a person should be receiving, time is wasted, the expense of which could have been used to pay out the benefit to the person.

The Department of Social Welfare has improved so much that I continue to be disappointed that it has not taken over the disabled person's maintenance allowance. The Minister will be aware that this is the only benefit that is issued from the Department of Health through the health boards. Even in the ninth annual report of the Ombudsman, which this House discussed on 17 June, 1993, this is one issue in the area covering all of the benefits where there were many complaints. There are two conferences on disability which will be convening in the next ten days and which I will be attending where [1667] I have promised the people involved in those conferences that I would bring up this issue again. It is a compliment to the Minister's Department in that people who are on the disabled person's maintenance allowance believe that they will be more equitably dealt with through the Minister's Department. Therefore, I hope that this allowance will be well in before we have to have the next consolidation Bill.

Apart from this issue, I believe that excellent efforts have been made on this legislation. especially the emphasis by Senator Roche on clarity of language. There appeared to be so many ways of describing a child in the past that a “person under 16” or some such description is to be welcomed. All of this is a good step forward and the Department is to be congratulated.

Ms Honan: I congratulate the Minister on presenting this Bill and I also congratulate Senator Roche and the committee, together with the officials in the Department, for the enormous amount of work done. I welcome the fact that all the legislation relating to social welfare has now been consolidated and I believe that this will make life easier for recipients of social welfare as well as those who administer the system and for members of the public or Senators who frequently need to refer to the Social Welfare Acts. I urge the Minister to continue the reforms that he has started. It is true, as Senator Roche has remarked, that we are fortunate that we have a committed, enthusiastic and enlightened Minister for Social Welfare. At one point I believed that in order to understand the social welfare system one required a doctorate in social welfare. I am aware that the Minister has not got his doctorate in that subject but sometimes one feels that he has, as he appears to know the system so well, which I believe is of great consolation to us in this House. I congratulate the Minister on many of the [1668] reforms he has introduced. One that comes to mind is allowing single parents to participate in third level education without losing benefits, which is particularly useful to young single mothers. Another reform worthy of compliment is the deductions from social welfare which have been introduced in on a pilot basis. This is useful because women whose husbands are unemployed and are living on social welfare run into problems with debts to the ESB and in rent. The system the Minister has introduced enables them to manage their small resources. They must find it difficult but this scheme removes some of the stress from them.

While the Minister was criticised by many during the summer for introducing the work scheme for students I welcome the idea. Perhaps some of the criticism was because the scheme seemed to have been introduced rather quickly. However by next year more thought will have been put into it. We have to accept that the numbers unemployed here will not be significantly reduced by current policies. When we debated the national plan last week it was said that although we were going to create 200,000 jobs over the next number of years, the number of unemployed would remain the same. We cannot afford to lose the efforts of 300,000 people on a permanent basis. Some have described this as being a policy of human set aside and we cannot afford that.

Our response to long-term unemployment needs radical change. We must offer economic participation. Up to now we have only offered economic exclusion to many of these people. Many on the dole want to participate. Our party published proposals for a national community employment scheme in the last general election campaign. The recent contribution of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors to this problem is to be welcomed.

I ask the Minister to look closely at this and start building a country where the community offers participation to [1669] those who have had no chance of work. There is despair among these people and we must offer them dignity, hope and a bridge to economic participation. We must confront this issue urgently and time is not on our side. The Minister is well aware of these problems and to date he has acted to reform all aspects of social welfare but this one must be examined.

Only one third of our population is working and the dependency ratio is increasing. Although the number of births may be declining there has been a huge increase in the number of single parents and, with people living longer, there will be a huge increase in the number of pensioners. As Senator Cregan said, we pay out a large amount of money every week and we need to spend it wisely. The people dependent on the State for their income must be looked after in as efficient a manner as possible. They should be allowed to participate in society.

I also welcome the allocations to women's groups and I urge the Minister, as Senator Cregan asked, to look after women who have not been given their entitlements under the equality legislation. I also welcome the allocation by the Department to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. As Senator Cregan said, when money is given to local groups they spend it wisely. The Minister's measures in this regard are enlightening and I compliment him on them and congratulate him on this Bill.

Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): I wish to thank Senators for their comments on the Bill and the work of the joint committee. I will deal briefly with some points raised. Senator Cregan spoke about the amount of money involved. This Bill concerns the expenditure of £3.7 billion, not spread over a number of years but in one year. Therefore, it is important. In case Senators are worried, that figure includes pensions to which people have contributed over their lifetimes. It includes also all payments under the social [1670] insurance and social assistance schemes. The Senator was right in saying it is a substantial amount of money.

He was also concerned about the difference between long and short term payments. The historical reason for that difference is that those on long-term payments would have their resources depleted and would virtually be receiving a pension. There are standards we hope to achieve by the next budget. For instance, we wish to bring everyone up to at least the priority rates suggested by the Commission on Social Welfare. I expect we will be able to do that. Reaching the long-term rates is a further objective and some payments have reached that level.

Senator Cregan also raised the question of equal treatment payments. This is complex because the court cases go back to 1985. Those cases were taken to establish the equal treatment provisions and tease out what they would mean in practice. That process has continued to date. I assure Senators the legislation passed by the Houses and the regulations arising from that are being implemented in full.

People will get their full entitlements. Some were paid last year, the bulk paid this year and more will be paid next year. The majority of people know this is how it is being paid and if they do not they can be reassured. We are trying to pay as many as possible this year and we appreciate the urgency of this. However, the total cost was so large it was necessary for the Government to spread it over a number of years.

Other people are making claims separately and we cannot do anything about that. We can only make clear that my Department's interpretation is that we have met the requirements in the clarifications. That concludes the matter as far as we are concerned. We will be opposing any further claims that will be made. Some 85,000 people have submitted claims which are all being processed rapidly.

[1671] Senator Wall said we are setting standards for ourselves which, in effect, we are. We are outlining the current standards and we can work from that base. In a way it suits a Minister to have a confused situation. Social welfare is very confusing. We are setting out our baseline and that will be helpful.

Senator Henry spoke about the disabled person's maintenance allowance. That is one of my priorities and we are working on it urgently. The Senator will not have to wait until the next consolidation Bill for news on that issue. I hope we will have that dealt with quickly. There are interdepartmental and industrial relations considerations, among others, but we are tackling the issue as a matter of urgency. We are also concerned about the supplementary welfare allowance scheme but we are giving priority to the disabled person's maintenance allowance while simultaneously working on the other scheme.

Senator Honan mentioned the new developments. The power to make deductions is in the Bill. The second chance education for single parents is going well and there has been a good response. We expect to accommodate a substantial number this year. For budgetary reasons the Government must put some limits on my activity in that area but we will be able to accommodate everyone this year. Nevertheless, we will be able to accommodate everyone who comes along this year, at least numerically. There can be some regional difficulties because people may want a scheme in an area in which one cannot be provided, but that is a separate question.

Senator Honan also mentioned the students' summer scheme. We talked about the fact that it had to be brought in quite hurriedly this year because unemployment assistance, the dole, for the summer was gone. I could not wait until next year to take action so I had to act immediately or there would have been nothing available this year. It has [1672] been very successful. There were 9,000 jobs put forward and we have received many letters from parents, students and sponsors who were delighted with the scheme and who found it very worthwhile and helpful.

As Senators may know, I mentioned earlier that I had received Government approval for a new school leavers' job scheme. Many school leavers go on to third level education or to jobs or to training with FÁS but there are up to 6,000 who go straight from school on to the dole. I do not want that situation and I want to try to break that cycle. I know all Senators want to see it ended if it can be done, so I got the approval of the Government to go ahead with the scheme. It will operate somewhat on the lines of the summer jobs scheme because many of the sponsors had jobs going on into the winter in the voluntary and community areas.

The other aspect is that we had discussions with FÁS regarding its relationship with us in that scheme, because the money will come entirely from the Department of Social Welfare. In effect it is the money that would have been given out in social welfare. We have reached the stage with FÁS that there will be a FÁS training component added to that scheme which is excellent. I am delighted that FÁS has come forward with that component. The scheme will be starting very shortly and again it arises particularly from the experience of the summer jobs scheme.

Senator Honan also mentioned the money to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It reminds me of something that was very much in the media during the week — the book launches in Tallaght on the developments there and the fact that people are developing local community enterprises. I wish to make it very clear that that started between the Minister for Social Welfare, who happened to be me at the time, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. From savings we made I got the Government [1673] to make £500,000 available, which was given to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It was involved and had groups in different places all over the country. In fact Tallaght was one of its most successful.

I have heard it said that the State did nothing and that everybody stands away, but that is nonsense. We put money into ideas at the very start and got it off the ground. However, that is one of those things to which one gets used. Senators know when we discuss these things that we have tried to be innovative, particularly in the development of community resources. We started the community development projects, of which there are now 41 around the country, developing community enterprise and other facilities. They are grant aided by the Department of Social Welfare and they led to the Programme for Economic and Social Progress special areas which are leading now to the back to work schemes and the other schemes.

All of that is part of the total effort which comes from the type of discussions we have with Senator Cregan. He said we almost had rows here, but we must be seeing them in a different way. I regard them as constructive, healthy, vibrant, informative and useful debates. While I might not be able to say much at the time, I note what is said and we try to fit those things in later when an opportunity arises.

Finally, the consolidation of the regulations is coming up shortly. As Senators know, the legislation is here and all the regulations that flow from the legislation are separate. If the legislation is complex the regulations can be even more complex when one goes to examine them.

Mr. Cregan: When the Minister does that, will he simplify them?

Dr. Woods: We will shortly have all the regulations in relation to the assistance schemes completely consolidated and we will be able to make those available also.

[1674] I did not want to conclude without making some reference to the points made by the Senators, which are very relevant to the current position. I thank the Senators, the members and the Chairman of the standing committee for their work and assistance in getting this Bill through. It will be signed next week and brought into law. It will be a great relief for us because we can go on then with new Bills. If we brought in a new Bill now it would upset everything at this stage. That is why it is so important to have it concluded and fixed so that we can have a base from which to work forward.

Mr. Cregan: May I ask a supplementary question, and I promise I will not hold up the House? The Minister made one disturbing point regarding equal rights for female claimants. He said that there are opposing claims being made——

Acting Chairman (Mr. Fitzgerald): Senator, we are on the Final Stage. Rules are rules and I have to adhere to them.

Mr. Cregan: The Department should have another look at this matter because many of the opposing claims are being lost.

Question put and agreed to.

Acting Chairman: When is it proposed to sit again?

Mr. Mullooly: It is proposed to sit again at 2.30 p.m. next Wednesday, 3 November 1993.