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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 6 Nov 1940

Vol. 81 No. 3

Public Business. - Widows' and Orphans' Pensions (Amendment) Bill, 1940—Second Stage.

I move: That the Bill be now read a Second Time. This is a Bill to amend the Widows' and Orphans' Pensions Act, 1935, in so far as its contributory provisions affect persons engaged in agricultural employment.

Under the Act of 1935, which is the Principal Act, the normal contributions were fixed at 8d. per week for a man and 4d. per week for a woman, the employer paying half the contribution in respect of males and the whole of the contribution in respect of females. In return for these contributions, contributory pensions are payable at the rate of 10/- a week for a widow, 5/- a week for the eldest dependent child of a widow, 3/- a week in respect of each other dependent child of a widow and 7/6 a week in respect of each orphan child.

The Principal Act, however, also provides that during the five years beginning on the second appointed day (which was the 6th January, 1936), these rates of contribution and benefit should be modified in their application to persons and the widows and orphans of persons engaged in agricultural employment. Instead of the full contribution of 8d. for a man and 4d. for a woman the contributions for agricultural workers' were fixed at 4d. per week for a man, of which half is payable by the employer and 2d. a week for a woman, paid in full by the employer. This provision is contained in Section 38 (1) (b) and Part II of the Sncond Schedule of the 1935 Act. The effect of this provision is to require from persons employed in agriculture only half the rate of contributions applicable to persons engaged in nonagricultural employments. The contributory pensions payable in return for these contributions are 8/- a week for a widow, 4/- a week for the eldest dependent child of a widow, 2/6 a week for each other dependent child of a widow and 6/- a week for an orphan child. These provisions are contained in Section 10 (2) and 12 (2) of the 1935 Act. It will be seen that whereas the agricultural rate of contribution is only half of the non-agricultural rats, the contributory pensions payable to the widows and orphans of insured persons engaged in agriculture are approximately 80 per cent. of those payable to the widows and orphans of other insured workers.

These reduced rates of contribution and benefit were to remain in force only for a period of five years from 6th January, 1936, and under the law as it stands at present, the position is that on 6th January next, the full contributions of 8d. and 4d. will be payable in respect of all insured workers, including insured workers in agriculture. On the other hand, the rates of contributory pension now applicable to the widows and orphans of insured persons employed in agriculture will become the rates at present applicable to the widows and orphans of insured persons who were not engaged in agricultural employment. In other words, if those sections of the 1935 Act which provide for reduced rates of contribution and contributory pension in respect of agricultural employment, are allowd to lapse, the contributions of insured persons employed in agriculture will be doubled while the corresponding rates of contributory pension will be increased only by one-quarter approximately. The Government is of the opinion that, this is not desirable and the present Bill now before the House is designed to provide that these provisions will not lapse on the 6th January next. In effect the Bill will merely preserve in the future the present position.

On this proposal there are two matters which I wish to raise. It is true to say that, in the way in which the Parliamentary Secretary states the case, it appears at first glance as if the agricultural labourer has an advantage, but it is also right to bear in mind that the industrial worker, whose widow gets a contributory pension, is normally a person who has been working all his life under the Conditions of Employment Act which provides for him an eight-hour day, a weekly half-holiday and trade union rates of wages. The agricultural labourer receives 30/- a week and works a 54-hour week with no half-day, and, at the end of a long life of hard work, when he comes to die, this House proclaims that the stomachs of his children can be filled on 4/- and on 2/6, whereas the stomachs of the children of the industrial worker require 5/- and 3/- to fill them. Now, it is this House that, fixes the agricultural rate of wages, and God knows they did not break their hearts when they were doing it. They did not break their hearts because, as we all know—I do not propose to go into the matter in detail now—this House had wrought such havoc on the agricultural industry that it was not able to pay more than 30/-, and hardly able to pay that.

This House did not fixe the wages of agricultural labourers. The Agricultural Wages Board did that.

But we in this House empowered them to do it, and if we were fixing it we could not increase it because of the havoc we had wrought in the agricultural industry, in which Deputy Pattison had a full part. We ourselves created a situation in which the agricultural labourer is unable to get more than 30/- a week. Let us not run away from that—that we can burn a house down and then pretend that we have no matches in our pockets, it was this House that did the job. Now we announce that we are going to make it a permanent feature of Irish social life, that the widow of anyone who works on the land must do with less during her widowhood than the widow of anyone who works in a town.

We have an inquiry set up to see why there is a flight from the land. To live on the land in this country is to mark yourself out as a social pariah. You get less wages, less social service, more burdens to carry, more insolence and more codology than any other section of the community, and then, to add insult to injury, you are told that you are better off than anybody else. Senator O Buachalla tells us, in one direction, that we are all thriving and prosperous, while the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government tells us that 2/6 is better than 3/-, if we look at it in the right way, and that no man would be so foolish as to take a pension of 10/- a week for his widow if he could get 8/-, and thinks that the House is proposing to confer an extraordinary benefit on the agricultural worker by the amendment here proposed. I think that any such representation is fantastic. I suggest to the House that, in view of the fact that we here in Dáil Eireann, have wrecked the agricultural industry and have constrained the labourers in that industry to accept 30/- a week, we should be prepared to give the widows of those men the same allowances as townspeople of 10/- for a widow, 5/- for the first child and 3/- for each succeeding child without increasing the weekly contributions of those labourers. Is that an excessive claim to make on the Treasury? I have not got actuarial calculations before me to guide me as to what that would cost, but I know it could not be a substantial sum. The number of widows of agricultural labourers who are in this country is comparatively small. The number of orphans of agricultural labourers in this country is certainly very small. Consequently, the burden of such a remission as I suggest would be trifling. Is it unreasonable to ask it? I think not.

I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that we should repeal the section which would automatically raise the contribution of the agricultural labourer to 8d. and 4d., and that we should allow to stand the section which brings the rate of benefit up to 10/-, 5/- and 3/-, because we are satisfied that the weekly wage of the agricultural labourer during his active period of life is manifestly insufficient to permit of his laying by any savings to meet the catastrophe of early death, at a time when his widow and children were solely dependent on his earnings. The second point I want to make is one which was raised by question and answer to-day at an earlier stage. This Bill applies to agricultural workers. That term has a variety of interpretations in the several statutes passed by this House. Sometimes it is taken to mean one class of person. Then comes another Bill and the term "agricultural worker" for the purpose of that Bill means another class of person. In the Holidays (Employees) Act, 1939, the term "agricultural worker" is deemed to exclude horticultural workers—the people who work in market gardens. That exclusion was, apparently, decided upon because it was thought that, although agricultural and horticultural workers labour on the land, the circumstances surrounding the work they normally do are fundamentally different. The horticultural workers largely work in market gardens and other sorts of gardens in and around urban areas. Their general circumstances are more closely analogous to those of the industrial worker than they are to those of the rural worker living in the country with the amenities of the country available to him. I want, that principle to be carried into the Widows' and Orphans' Pension Bill. I want the term "agricultural labourer" in the Holidays (Employees) Act to be accepted for the purpose of the Principal Art in this case and the amending Bill.

In justification of that, I should like to give the House particulars of a case which recently came under my notice. A widow whose husband had been employed in a city nursery received 19/6 per week when her husband died because her husband was deemed to have been an agricultural labourer. In the room next to her in the same tenement house was the widow of a man who was engaged in employment quite close to where her husband worked. Her family circumstances were similar, and she was getting 24/- per week. That is an obvious anachronism which ought to be corrected. I think that the definition in the Holidays (Employees) Act is the better one. However, if my original suggestion is accepted—that we grant to the agricultural labourer the benefit of the industrial worker's contributory pension without increasing his contribution—my second point will not arise. Lest my bona fides in mentioning it be questioned, I think it would be quite legitimate to require the horticultural worker to be ranked as an industrial worker and to pay the industrial worker's contribution. I think that he is living under industrial workers' conditions and that he is getting rates of pay approximating to those which industrial workers are getting.

Some of them are, hut a large number of them are not.

I am talking of the fellows working in nurseries and of gardeners and gardeners' helpers.

Mr. Morrissey

They may be.

I think that those persons ought to pay the industrial contribution and get the industrial benefit, but I think the agricultural worker ought to continue to pay the reduced contribution and get the full benefit. That is the least contribution the Exchequer could make to redress the ridiculous disparity which at present exists between the wage of the agricultural labourer and the wage enjoyed by any industrial employee whether in the city or country.

On a point of information, would the Minister say if, under the Widows' and Orphans' Pension Act, if a man becomes ill and is ill for about two years before he dies, his wife is not entitled to the contributory pension? He is not allowed to stamp his cards during illness and, if he is ill a certain length of time, I understand his wife is not entitled to a contributory pension. If that is so, it is most-unfair and the Act should be amended.

Would he not be in receipt of sickness benefit?

Then his wife is entitled to the pension.

I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary has brought in this Bill. I do not agree with Deputy Dillon, that the agricultural worker should be asked to contribute the same amount as the industrial worker——

I have spoken for 20 minutes in an endeavour to make perfectly clear that my proposal was that the agricultural worker should pay no extra contribution but should receive the same benefit as the industrial worker. Has Deputy Allen got hold of that? If he has not, I shall give it up.

I did not understand the Deputy to say that.

Everybody knows that I said it sufficiently often.

The contribution of the agricultural workers is, in my opinion, the biggest portion of that fund. There are fewer widows of agricultural workers than there are of industrial workers. I do not agree with Deputy Dillon about this House and this Government being responsible for the low standard of agricultural workers' wages at present. I do not remember any time in the last 20 years when the agricultural workers were receiving higher wages. I do not say that they are high enough or anything like it, but I do not remember a time when the rate of wages was higher than that at present in operation.

That is not a boast.

There may have been a short period during the last war when wages were higher, but that is over 20 years ago.

Are you in favour of giving them the 10/-, 5/- and 3/-?

Absolutely. I wish they could get l5/-.

I am supporting the case Deputy Dillon has made. I differ from him when he says that the harsh treatment of agricultural labourers began in the last few years. In fact, native government has done nothing for the agricultural labourers since it was established. Looking back over the years before 1922, the only achievement on behalf of the agricultural labourers must be credited to the British Government, who provided for the building of labourers' cottages. Many of the people who then manned the local authorities decided they would put the labourers' cottages in the most backward and most remote places. The agricultural labourer has not only been an outcast during the past few years, but as long as any of us remember, and there is a very good case for doing something for him in connection with this Bill. I heartily support the proposal that the benefits to the widows of agricultural labourers should be increased without a corresponding increase in the contribution. I hope it is permissible to say that, within the limited framework of the Act and with the manifold defects contained in it, those responsible for administering it have, to the knowledge of those of us who come in contact with that Department, done their work very satisfactorily.

Hear, hear.

They have shown a very commendable spirit, indeed. Some tribute is, I thihk, required from us for the manner in which the officials of the Widows' and Orphans' Pension Branch have handled the difficulties that confronted them and for the sympathy which they showed in interpreting the narrow provisions of the Act. The present proposal, if adopted, would be a great improvement and would be some measure of recognition of the value of the most neglected class in our community.

I am not clear as to whether the point I wish to raise is relevant, but it is a matter which would seem to have been overlooked in the previous Act, that is, where a husband who has been in insurable occupation for a number of years dies before the Act qualifies his widow for a contributory pension and the widow goes to work in insurable occupation and continues in such occupation up to and, in some cases, after the time the Act came into operation, the widow is debarred from a contributory pension. We have experience of cases of extreme hardship where these women, even though they were in insurable occupation after the death of the husband who had been in insurable occupation previous to the qualifying date set out in the original Act, are debarred from the benefits of contributory pensions, and I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to consider whether, at this stage, that matter could be dealt with in conjunction with these proposals, or, if not, that, at some future date, the whole matter could be reviewed in a manner which would enable the House to do justice to these people. I admit that every case could not be covered, but these are outstanding cases. There are very few of them in the country, so far as I am aware, but they are cases of extreme hardship. It is strange that simply because a husband dies a short time prior to the date specified and his widow subsequently goes into insurable employment, she should lose out on both occasions.

I should like to express my disappointment with the action of the Government in bringing in this amending Bill, because if there is anything long overdue, it is an improvement in the position of the widows and orphans in this country. Not alone is the amount they receive inadequate, but the means test which is applied is unworthy of the country. I think the point which Deputy Flynn had in mind is that a man could be in insurable occupation for the last 20 years and, because he is unemployed for the past two years and dies at the end of that period, his widow and orphans will not receive the contributory pension. To he honest with myself and with the members opposite, I say that this amending Bill is unworthy and is not the occasion for paying tributes to anybody, because the whole thing is so meagre and insufficient. If there is one section in this country who require treatment and looking after, it is the widows and orphans. I know widows who go out at 7 o'clock in the morning to wash offices, and the moment it is discovered that they are doing that, a certain amount is taken off their non-contributory as well as their contributory pensions. It is time the means test was ended, and I think the introduction of an amending Bill of this character for the purpose of continuing the present benefits, unworthy of any Government.

Is the Deputy sure that there is a means test in regard to the contributory pension? I never heard of it.

I am speaking of non-contributory pensions.

Did I understand the Deputy to say that he knew of women who went out to work and, as a result of the wage they earned, had their contributory pension reduced?

The non-contributory pension.

I beg the Deputy's pardon. I understood him to refer to contributory pensions as well.

Could the Parliamentary Secretary say whether an actuarial inquiry has been made into the finances of the Act as provided by Section 45? It is now five years since the Act was passed. In this particular case, we are changing the Act as originally constituted and it would be worth while knowing how far the agricultural part of it has balanced.

The actuarial inquiry has not yet taken place. Of course, the five-years' period has not yet completely expired, but, when it has expired, steps will be taken to have the actuarial investigation carried out. The question of non-contributory pensions raised by Deputy Hickey can scarcely arise on this Bill.

I know it does not.

The Bill deals entirely with the particular scheme. It seems to me that, under the present arrangement, which will lapse on 6th January next, if this Bill is not passed, the agricultural industry is faring rather well within the framework of the finances of the scheme. Half contributions are paid in respect of persons engaged in agricultural employment— half the contribution paid in respect of industrial workers—and for that half contribution the widow becomes entitled to a pension of 8/- per week as compared with a pension of 10/- per week if the full contribution were paid. Most of the agricultural workers, as Deputies appreciate, live in rural Ireland, and I think it could reasonably be argued that 8/- per week in rural Ireland has as high a purchasing value as 10/- per week in cities or towns.

That is not saying much for it.

If the Deputy's case is that the entire contributory pension scheme is inadequate, that is a diferent case altogether, but we are not dealing with that matter in this Bill. It is quite proper for the Deputy to draw the attention of the House and the Government to the desirability of making more generous provision for our widows and orphans as a whole, but that is a bigger question with which I do not propose to deal at present. I do submit, however, that, within the financial structure of the present Bill, the widows of agricultural workers are faring rather well. I submit that 8/- per week in rural Ireland is as valuable as 10/- per week in a city, and perhaps a little more so, and for that 8/- they pay half of the contribution which the worker in industrial occupation pays.

Deputy Dillon suggests that the extra money necessary to bring the rate of pension of the agricultural worker up to 10/- per week should be borne by the Exchequer. I suppose that line of argument would be popular in certain circles. The agricultural labourers would probably like it; but would it be fair? Would we not have other sections of industry putting forward a similar claim? Assuming for the sake of argument that the agricultural industry is at present in a depressed condition—and there are people who do not agree that it is—the Government will be called upon to subsidise the pension scheme to the extent of £60,000 per annum in order that the benefit should be increased from 8/- to 10/-.

Where does the Parliamentary Secretary get that figure of £60,000?

That is the figure which it is estimated that the increase in the contribution would bring in; that is, if the agricultural workers went on to the normal contribution of 8d. and 4d. instead of 4d. and 2d., it would involve a sum of £60,000 per annum.

That does not actuarially correspond with the proposal to increase the agricultural labourer's widow's benefit. That is not the same proposition at all.

It amounts to a subsidy of £60,000 to the agricultural industry. If, in fact, other industries are depressed or become depressed, will the case be made that the Government should come along and pay the contributions towards the widows' and orphans' pensions fund? If you do it for the agricultural industry, I see no logical reason why you should not do it for any industry which gets into a depressed condition.

You are doing it to a certain extent already. Have you not already admitted the principle in the Bill?

We are not doing it to the extent of giving special subsidies of £60,000 a year in order to equalise the contribution from agricultural employees. Deputy Dillon's proposal is that we find £60,000 now——

Nonsense. The Parliamentary Secretary does not understand the proposal. The proposal is that you should give the agricultural labourer's widow the urban rate of benefit. What the Parliamentary Secretary is talking about is recouping the fund the difference between the agricultural labourer's contribution and the industrial worker's contribution. Actuarially, that is not the same thing.

Does not Deputy Dillon see that, if we were to increase the rural worker's pension from 8/- to 10/-, we must increase the contribution?

That depends entirely on the actuarial results of your investigation of the working of the Act during the past five years, which you yourself say you have not made.

Does not the Parliamentary Secretary agree—he has already stated it himself; the principle has been admitted—that the fund pays 80 per cent. benefit for a 50 per cent. contribution? Is not that the position?

That is a special concession to agriculture.

Deputy Dillon's proposal, as I understand it, is that instead of paying 80 per cent. benefit you should pay 100 per cent.

That is precisely it.

A special concession has already been made in the framework of the Act. Deputy Dillon wants a further concession.

No; he wants an extension of the principle.

And that is not a further concession?

But it is on the same principle, precisely.

Would the Parliamentary Secretary think that this is a reasonable thins to suggest—that a widow whose husband was in insurable occupation for 20 years, but was unemployed for two years prior to his death, and consequently was not insured during that period, should come into the same rate of benefit as the widow of a man who had been in insurable occupation up to the time of his death? I think the greatest hardship of all is involved there?

It may be a hardship, but it does not arise under this Bill.

Or under any of the others.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage fixed for Wednesday, 27th November.