If you want to abolish the means test, yes. I am trying to explain that, having a means test, we ought to be slow to stigmatise too harshly public servants who appear to be unduly harsh, but who are merely forced into what is to them extremely disagreeable work. They are merely carrying out what we stipulated for them. I have no doubt that the Minister and his Department would sooner go open-handedly to the assistance of persons whom Deputy Hickey describes, and to whose assistance all of us would wish to go. It is pitiable that a man, who through no fault of his own is unemployed, has to see his children hungry. But public servants are not heartless bloodhounds. I have no doubt that, to them, the task of declining assistance in these cases of apparent hardship is a nightmare, and that it would be much easier for them to administer these eleemosynary schemes if no means test were annexed to them.
I want to make this concrete suggestion for the equitable amendment of the existing means test. The means test applies to a great deal of legislation, to old age pensions, blind persons, widows and orphans pensions, unemployment assistance, and a variety of other eleemosynary schemes of that kind. The Minister is responsible only for the application of the means test in regard to unemployment assistance. But there is a common rule accepted by all parties that they assess whatever income the beneficiary actually has without adverting carefully to the source from which he gets it, and the circumstances under which he gets it. I suggest to the Minister that a correct application of the means test, and still as equitable an application of the means test as is possible, would be to say that only those means to which the beneficiary has a legal right should be taken into consideration. I think it is entirely wrong, if a man has a family of children, some of whom go abroad and send home to the parents £1 this week, £5 next week, and 10/- the following week, that that should be taken into consideration for the purpose of assessing the beneficiary's means. Far from barring children or relatives from supporting their own people or families we ought to encourage them to send home as much as possible to help their parents to maintain their younger brothers and sisters, and say that it will not interfere with their rights under the social services here. We ought to encourage neighbours or friends who are in a position to help voluntarily other people, by telling them that, no matter what they send, we will not concern ourselves with it, that the right of the beneficiary to receive statutory benefit will continue. But, if you have a means test and it emerges that a person has become a beneficiary under a will or an irrevocable deed under which he is entitled to claim by law a weekly income of 10/-or 15/-, how can you ignore that, if we of Oireachtas Eireann have imposed a means test?
Personally, I would be in favour of abolishing all means tests. I admit that that would give rise to inequalities. But, bearing in mind the disadvantages of abolishing all means tests in connection with social services and the disadvantages and the inevitable hardships that must arise in border-line cases if you are to administer any means test, I would prefer to endure the inconveniences and even the evils which might arise as a result of there being no means test. We have to debate this Estimate on the assumption that there is a means test and, therefore. I suggest an equitable amendment of the present system of administration. I would urge that you should ignore the fortuitous income of a claimant under the social services, and that you should withhold benefit only where it was clearly brought home to the mind of the Minister that the person had a claim enforceable by law to the income in respect of which he was credited for the purpose of abating the sum which he would otherwise receive under the social service under review.
There are two other matters which I want to raise. They are related, not to unemployment assistance, but to the administration of the Employment Office. In doing that I want to speak of things as I know them. I want to pay a tribute to the Minister and his Department for the courteous forbearance with which they examine every individual case brought to their notice. It has often been a source of amazement to me how the Minister, with the immense number of communications which he must receive in connection with these cases, can find time to give attention to individual representations made on behalf of individuals desiring to get away to Great Britain for work. Any case I have ever brought to the Department has been fully investigated, and I felt that the man got a fair run for his money. But, I do not think it is right that those individuals who get in touch with T.D.'s should, in fact, get a better run for their money than the average run of the mill. Therefore, I press upon the Minister the necessity for simplifying the ritual which has to be gone through if a man wants to go to Great Britain.
I find that the strangest inequalities arise, in which a boy living in a house on the side of the road will be released to go to England without any trouble, while his neighbour in exactly similar circumstances is prevented on the ground that he is an agricultural labourer and that the Minister will not give permission to agricultural labourers to go to England. That arises from the attempt of the Department to administer the Minister's regulation relating to the export of agricultural labour and it seems to me that the thing has broken down absurdly. Any boy who can produce a national health insurance card, or who can manufacture evidence that he has been working in a job here, gets away on the ground that he is not an agricultural labourer, while some fellow who has not the cuteness to do that finds himself irrevocably prevented from going. Note this well, that if his name once gets on the record, if a file is once opened for him in the Department in which he has been found to be an agricultural labourer, all the King's horses and all the King's men will not get him going.
I have made several efforts to understand what the exact nature of the regulations is, but I cannot get clear in my mind what the conditions are. I recently had a case of a man from Inniskeen, in the Dundalk area, who said he had spent the greater part of his life as a docker on the Liverpool quays. He came home and worked for a while on his brother's place, knocking around and giving a helping hand here and there. He wanted to go back to Liverpool and resume his career as a docker, but he was informed that as he was an agricultural labourer he would not be allowed go. I have seen other cases of boys and girls going to the labour exchanges to which a letter, secured from an employer in England and stamped in the labour exchange in England, had been forwarded. I am thinking of one case in the Castlerea Labour Exchange in County Roscommon. When the persons who wanted to go to England went to Castlerea, they were told the letter was there, but that the exchange would not stamp it and that they ought to get a letter from a T.D. What the meaning of that was I could not make out.
I thought the first person who said that to me had invented it and I rather discounted it, but shortly afterwards other boys and girls came to me who had been told that they ought to get a letter from a T.D. What effect a letter from a T.D. could have in changing their status I cannot imagine. I gave one girl a letter setting out her circumstances as I knew them. It was the case of a girl under 22 whose father was in England. I was in a position to say that the father had come to me before he went and said that he desired the girl to go and that he would look after her there. I do not know what the issue of that case was, but why on earth should they have to get a letter from a T.D.? Deputy Mícheál Cleary, who has an office in Ballaghaderreen, Deputy O'Rourke, a representative of County Roscommon living near that area, and I, who reside in Ballaghaderreen, were the only three people to whom any person attending Castlerea Exchange could reasonably have access, although of course they might have written to the Minister for Justice or Deputy Brennan, but what a T.D. was supposed to say in the letter, I could not find out, and none of them could tell me, so that in connection with this whole business of getting away to England if you want to work there, I am obliged to say that the regulations seem to be extremely confusing, more especially when you bear in mind that having succeeded in getting a travel permit from the authorities in Eire, the person in question has then to get a visa from the visa authorities in Great Britain.
I understand that this business about the letter coming from the labour exchange in England to the exchange in Eire is really not anything of our doing, but that it is imposed on us by the British authorities. They require that regulation because they will not allow anybody in to work in England who has not got authority to go there from the British labour exchanges, but the regulations relating to refusal to allow certain classes of persons to go to England is a matter purely of our own doing. I have also had cases of boys who were 21½ years who will not be allowed to go on the ground that they are under 22. I recognise that, no matter what age is fixed, there will be that difficulty of the border-line case, but why did we light on the age of 22? Any one who lives in the West of Ireland and is familiar with conditions of migratory labour well knows that boys going to labour in England, particularly if they are going to farms on which their fathers used to labour in the past, normally began going when they were 18 or 19 years. What is the point of imposing this restriction on boys of 20, 21 and 22 going to work there?
It is true that a good many fellows will go to England attracted by the high wages, but might it not be a reasonable qualification of the regulations that nobody under 22 would be allowed to go without his or her parents' consent? Personally, I think it is an unreasonable restriction to prohibit a man of over 21 from going to Great Britain, if he wants to. Might I suggest to the Minister that a more reasonable system would be to provide that no person under 16 would be allowed to go at all; that no person between 16 and 21 would be allowed to go without the written consent of his or her parents; and that, all other things being equal, anybody over 21 would be allowed to go? In regard to this business of the necessity for conserving agricultural labour, I recognise the difficulty, but, in all conscience, I ask the House, if the community wants to keep a man here at home to do essential work, are we entitled to impose upon him a minimum wage of 36/-per week, when by crossing the Irish Sea or the Border into Northern Ireland he could readily earn up to £5 per week? What equity or justice is there in that? If we are going to force people to stay in this country to do essential work for the community, the community ought to take steps to subsidise their wages to bring them into closer conformity with the rate of pay they could earn if they were allowed to go abroad.
Lastly, I want to put this case to the Minister. I have had letters from men who appeared to have exceptional tradesmen's qualifications and who could not get work. Are we to assume that if a man who has that kind of qualification writes to the Department of Industry and Commerce, that Department will undertake to help him to get work in this country? I have known cases where men were not anxious to get away; they preferred to work at home, but they could not get a job at home. These people were living in country towns and there was no demand for their services, no work of the kind they were capable of doing. Does the Department of Industry and Commerce undertake, in cases of that kind, to find suitable employment for these men, albeit in another part of the country, and, if so, what is the procedure to be pursued by persons in those circumstances?
I have made two or three concrete suggestions and I have made one complaint—that is, the allegation that the manager of the Castlerea Labour Exchange asked individuals to get a letter from a T.D. Maybe there is nothing in that; maybe what the labour exchange manager said was "Get a letter from a responsible person in order to certify as to your circumstances". If that was the nature of the request, then there could be no objection to it; that would be a perfectly legitimate form of inquiry to help in the administration of the Act and there is nothing to be criticised or condemned. But if, on the other hand, there was any implication that without the influence of a certain political Party an individual would not get the same consideration as he would get if he had such influence, then that is quite another cup of tea and it is a matter that would require very close examination.
I am not quite satisfied that, in the area to which I refer, that interpretation was not put on the advice that was given. I am not satisfied that a great many young persons did not interpret that counsel to mean that they would be well advised to get a letter from this or that T.D. I know that at the time in question some Government T.D.'s were saying on public platforms that they would be glad to help all and sundry to get away to England if they wanted to go. It may have been the purest coincidence.