On the Money Resolution I wish to take the opportunity to discuss a matter which I had hoped to raise on the Committee Stage but because of a ruling made by the Chair on an amendment of mine, and which, of course, I accept, I now wish to discuss on this Money Resolution.
I had suggested an amendment to this Bill in the following terms:
That an increase under this Act of a pension to a widow or orphans shall not be taken into account in assessing the means of a person for the purpose of the payment of a widows' non-contributory pension or an orphans' non-contributory pension scheme.
The Chair has communicated with me and informed me that this is out of order because it would have the effect of imposing a charge on State funds. Whilst accepting, of course, the ruling, it does appear to me that the effect of my amendment is not so much to impose a charge on State funds as to stop a reduction in State expenditure and there is, I think, a difference involved but, as the amendment has been ruled out of order, I wish to take the opportunity of referring to it now on the Money Resolution.
This House should know what is being done in this Bill with regard to the rights of persons in receipt of widows' non-contributory pensions. As I understand the position, the only class of persons whom my amendment would affect would be the widows of retired members of the Garda Síochána. As I understand the position, the members of the Garda Síochána are not entitled to contribute to a contributory pension, a right which other State servants have, and as a result, if they die, their widows are not entitled to a contributory widows' pension and have to fall back on the meagre allowance given to widows who fall into the non-contributory class.
As is known by Deputies, there are rigid controls on the income which such a person is entitled to before she is entitled to a pension and I do not know whether or not it is generally realised what is happening. If it were realised I would hope that Deputies would try to see that the Bill was amended in order to ensure that what is happening would be stopped.
These widows have been getting a pension, a very inadequate pension, but some pension, to help them to live. In addition, they have been getting the non-contributory widow's pension. The recent increases which have been given to them to assist them because of the increase in the cost of living and to compensate them for this increase amount to 5/- a week. With the increase of 5/- a week in their Garda widow's pension has come about a decline of 5/- a week in their widow's non-contributory pension. So that, one of the poorest sections in the community are being deprived of the increase which it is admitted they are entitled to because of the rise in the cost of living and the State is giving 5/- with one hand and taking it back with the other. This seems to me to be an extraordinary situation. I find it hard to understand how it can be justified.
It is to be borne in mind that long before this State was founded it was recognised that persons who served in a police force were subject to certain special responsibilities and were entitled to special treatment on retirement. In 1925, after the State was founded, this special position was recognised and serving members of the police force were treated not very handsomely on their retirement but nonetheless were given special treatment in that it was recognised that the State should pay them some gratuity and this gratuity also went to the benefit of their widows. This gratuity has been increased over the years as a result of the cost of living index figure increasing. In 1956 it went to £51 10s.; in 1959 it increased by a little over £7 a year; there was another increase in 1962 to £98 per annum and in 1963 to £111 per annum.
What has happened is this. The public assistance authorities have taken into account the increase given last year when deciding the means of an applicant for a widow's non-contributory pension. Because they have received an increase in their Garda widow's pension they are being decreased correspondingly in the amount they may obtain from the public assistance authorities. I have a letter here. I shall not give the name of the person by whom it was written, but I think it is of relevance because it indicates what is happening. This lady writes:
I became a widow last July and, as my late husband was a member of the Garda, I received a pension of £98 a year, which increased to £111 last November. I received a non-contributory pension of 16/- a week which rose to 18/6 per week last November. Early last week I received a letter requesting the return of my allowance book for reassessment. This morning Social Welfare informed me they had decided to reduce my allowance by 5/- per week, stating that my Garda pension was now £113 12s., which is incorrect. Their decision means that I, in fact, will receive no increase whatsoever. They are also in possession of my allowance book which means I am unable to obtain my weekly allowance.
I am quite sure I am not the only one who has received letters similar to that.
I should like to know from the Minister—he must have these figures—how many people are involved in this. I do not suppose there are a couple of hundred in the whole country. What great loss to the Exchequer would there be if we allowed the widows to keep their 5/- a week non-contributory pensions and gave them also the 5/- increase in their Garda pensions? It is obvious that the State is not going to collapse under the burden of this beneficence. What great principle would be involved if he were to do this? Is it going to mean that a whole lot of other increases will come about, that a chain reaction will set in, that it will end up with retired servants getting further increases, with existing servants getting further increases, going up to Ministers, judges and even the President? Do we anticipate some sort of chain reaction like that if we allow these widows to keep their 5/- increase? I do not think so.
This is a special category—a small category. It was deemed desirable and necessary to compensate these people for the very great hardships they have to contend with by giving them what could not be considered an overgenerous increase in their pensions to compensate for the rise in the cost of living. It seems to me to be extraordinary that we should, in fact, decide to take it away when they apply for their non-contributory pension. It may be argued that the amendment I put down may involve a charge on the Exchequer. As I said, I think there are arguments against it. But whether or not it does, I would suggest it should not be ruled out of order on a technicality like this. If the Minister accepts these arguments, he can bring in a suitable amendment.
We have had pension increases before. In each of these Acts, in section 10, subsection (5), there is a provision that says:
An increase under this Act of a pension shall, for the purpose of Clause (e) of paragraph (II) of Rule 1 of the Rules contained in the Seventh Schedule to the Social Welfare Act, 1952, be regarded as a voluntary or gratuitous payment.
The Schedule there referred to was the Schedule dealing with the means which are to be taken into account to ascertain the eligibility for a widow's non-contributory pension.
That section is not in this Act. The amendment which I drafted was in wider terms and was designed to make it perfectly clear that the public assistance authorities in taking into account a widow's means would not take into account these increases. The letter I have read out indicates what has happened throughout the country. I understand it has happened in several other places. The recipients of these social welfare benefits were told or read in the Press that they were getting a 5/- increase in their Garda pensions. They are grateful even for small mercies. Last November, a circular went out from the Department of Social Welfare informing all the branches of the Department that this increase was to be taken into account in deciding the eligibility for widows' non-contributory pensions. The result is now, I hope, clear.
I do not see that anything will be upset unduly in our public finances if the ideas contained in this amendment are accepted. I would urge the Minister to accept them. I think the only point that can be made is that now the Garda widows are getting a pension equivalent to the widows' contributory pension and that they should be satisfied with that. The proper answer to such a suggestion is the one I gave earlier, namely, that this society of ours has recognised that we owe a special obligation to the members of the police force and that we have fulfilled that obligation, not very magnificently but to some extent, by giving gratuities on retirement payable to their widows. This is a matter entirely separate from the level of contributory widows' pensions. It is something that has arisen as of right. I do not think we should determine the level of payments to widows of retired guards by reference to this standard. We have given them pensions in the past. We have increased those pensions because of the rise in the cost of living, and we should not take away that benefit now because of the failure to put in an amendment such as I have suggested.