I am aware that the Minister is anxious to get through this debate fairly quickly but even though the amount involved is reasonably small, £3,970,000 is still quite a sizeable sum and there are some comments I should like to make on this Supplementary Estimate. First, I should like to say, as I have done on previous occasions, that I think the Department is well run. The Minister and most of those employed there are very courteous in their dealings with the general public and with Members of the House. Usually it requires only a call, a phone message or a letter to get the problems straightened out. But those problems arise fairly often. Recently, when reading where an eminent churchman spoke about public representatives tending to claim credit for getting things for people to which they were entitled, I wished he would take the place of one of us for a while. He would realise that quite a lot of our time is spent in contacting the Department and similar institutions where somebody who just does not know the job has, for one reason or other, not given the correct information or had not the correct information to make a claim. These people are left without benefit for a considerable time and I can assure anybody who is interested that, far from claiming credit for getting things which people should be able to get for themselves, most public representatives do not want to spend their time getting things for people to which they are entitled but do not know how to claim.
There are a number of things which bear comment here. First of all the Minister slid over the fact that last week there were 3,000 more persons registered as unemployed than there were 12 months ago. This of course is part of the reason why the extra money is needed. It is too bad that unemployment seems to be growing despite all the promises we get of improved job opportunities.
Again and again we have raised with the Minister and his predecessor the question of the widow who must go out to work and if she falls ill or is unemployed has her benefit reduced because she has a widow's pension. She is paying the same amount as if she were a single girl and if she is paying at the same rate she should be paid at the same rate. If the Department's idea is followed to its rational conclusion when she is working she should get only half as much as a single girl gets, which would be absolutely ludicrous. The time has come when somebody who has a widow's pension and is entitled to unemployment or sickness benefit and becomes unemployed or ill should be entitled to draw the same benefit as her sister who is single. Often her need is very much greater.
Another thing which must be changed is the system whereby somebody who has the number of stamps to qualify for unemployment benefit is debarred because it is estimated by some inspector of the Department that he has an income or could have an income of more than 10s per day from his farm or from some other source. The Minister must understand that at the present time 10s per day is a very small sum. Recently I had a case of a man who had been working all his life. He was obliged for a short period to work a farm which he had acquired from a relative. One of his sons took over the farm and the man resumed work again. When he became unemployed, although he qualified under every other heading he was adjudged as being not entitled to unemployment benefit because he might be able to make 10s a day from the farm which was in his name. The fact that his son was operating the farm apparently had nothing to do with it. This man had two or three children. I had a case of another man with 15 children who was put in the very same position. In each case the amount was the same—10s per day. I do not know how that figure was fixed but it is due for review and I would ask the Minister to reduce it or wipe it out altogether.
The Minister should try to do something about the man—or woman— who is working and becomes unemployed or ill and has dependent relatives living with him. Even if they are adults, surely if they are dependent on the wage which the person brings in to live, when that person starts to draw social welfare benefit he should be entitled to some extra benefit for those dependants?
There is the question of the person who returns home from insurable employment to look after an aged parent. It appears that if a person returns from England this does not apply to him. A case was brought to my notice of a daughter who came home and was told she was not entitled to benefit. She then drew benefit for the 26 days to which she was entitled under the reciprocal agreement with Britain. She was told again she was not entitled to the benefit for looking after her father. She then applied for unemployment assistance but was told that as her stamps were in England she was not entitled to unemployment assistance either. Was she supposed to stay here and look after her father and live on his old age pension? The thing is just too ridiculous for words. Let us not give the impression we are doing something for people if in fact we have it ringed round with so many clauses that it is absolutely no use to them. Many people who should in fact be drawing this benefit are not getting it. We all know the necessity to have particularly a daughter at home to look after aged parents. It would save the State and the local authority a lot of money to have old people living at home and not going into old folks' homes. This should be taken into consideration. It would be a saving to the State and the local authority.
Another case I came across recently was where somebody who was ill was drawing sickness benefit. He had previously been working in England and as a result of his English stamps he qualified for disability benefit here. He had to go to England for a couple of weeks and did not draw disability benefit there. He was disqualified from drawing benefit here and the only way he could go back on benefit was if he could succeed in getting disability benefit for the period he was in England. It is too ridiculous for words. Benefit should be paid to people who are entitled to it and who need it. Otherwise they would not ask for it.
Reference has been made to the failure to stamp cards. I had three cases where employers stated they had stamped cards and the Department said they did not receive them. In two of the cases it was found that the cards had been stamped and in the third case the employer was obviously not telling the truth. One of the things I cannot understand is why, if somebody applies for benefit and is adjudged not entitled to benefit because the employer did not stamp the card, it is necessary to wait months before the matter is dealt with. Why should the Department not immediately inform the person concerned, not in some stereotyped form which he may find it difficult to understand, but in a simple letter: "Your insurance card has not been received here. You should approach your employer" or words to that effect? Sending them a circular which to many people does not mean a darn thing is not the way to deal with this. It is something which has probably been handed down from one set off officials to the next.
I said last year and I repeat now that a review of the type of circulars being issued from the Department of Social Welfare is long overdue. Possibly they got a couple of million of them printed some years ago and are waiting to use up the last of them. The sooner they are used up the better because the Minister will admit that these circulars, even though we know what they are supposed to mean, are often extraordinarily difficult to understand. A man came to me recently in a terrible panic about his occupational injuries. He had made a settlement with his employer. He was being paid £4 10s a week. He got a circular to say he was not entitled to any more disability benefit though in fact he was entitled to disability benefit all the time. However, he did get his £4 12s 6d eventually and I suppose that is what matters.
With regard to unemployment assistance, unemployment benefit and disability benefit the three days' waiting period has gone beyond a joke. The Minister must admit that at the present time if a person falls ill, particularly a person who has been working all his life and for the first time becomes a charge on the State for a short period, it is a great hardship to be told he cannot get any benefit for three days. For those who are living on low wages and who require their social welfare benefit fairly quickly, to find they get only a half week's money for the first week means in many cases that not only the person who applies but his family will have to go on short rations until such time as the benefit is received and they are able to pay their way.
There is one matter I wish to bring to the Minister's notice. I have great respect for the Department for the manner in which they deal with many matters but I resent very much something which I could never understand until it was explained to me recently by a retired official of the Department. This relates not to my constituency but to another constituency in which there was a Minister of State. Any time I have made representations which have proved successful I have said to the Department not to bother getting in touch with me unless there was something wrong. What I complain of is that if there is a Minister of State in a constituency he has to be notified before the Deputy who made the representation and before notice is sent out to the person concerned. A case arose some weeks ago which concerned the return of a pension book to an old age pensioner. The old age pensioner had to wait for many weeks because the Minister could not get around to looking at the case. It was in his constituency and therefore he felt he had the right to be the first to be notified although he had done nothing at all for the person concerned.
That is something that should not continue. I am not making an issue of this; it does not happen in my constituency; it happened some years ago but it does not happen now. I have no complaint in the matter although one of my colleagues is a Minister. It is wrong that somebody should be left waiting so long for a pension book because some Minister wanted to know about it. I asked that the matter should not be confirmed to me, and it was only when the poor old man wrote to me several weeks afterwards to say that he had not got his pension that the matter came up again and, as I said, a retired official of the Department informed me of exactly what happened.
Occasionally it happens that when a pension book is being changed the arrears due to a person may not be paid. Sometimes it may be only a matter of shillings but other times it may be £10 or £20 that is due. Would the Minister say if this is due to shortage of staff? Is it true that the Department, like all Civil Service offices, are recruiting very young people who have just passed the leaving certificate examination, because the rates being paid are very low? Is it because they cannot get staff who could deal with these matters as they were dealt with a few years ago?
Another thing which rather annoys many of us is that if we phone the Department of Social Welfare we find it hard to get through to them. I know they are very busy and it is not the fault of the telephonists, but the number is engaged for about three-quarters of the time. If one wants an answer to a query in a hurry this is not very satisfactory. Is there a shortage of telephonists or phones? Is there some reason why the position has deteriorated badly over the past few years? As I said at the outset, the officials of the Department are courtesy itself, but if one cannot get through to them on the phone it can cause great inconvenience.
With regard to free transport and free electricity, I do not agree with Deputy Harte in some of what he said. We should give credit to anybody who is responsible for thinking up this idea. However, I do agree with him in what he said about the book-keeping transaction. The old age pensioners may not use the buses at peak periods, so at other times if one or two old age pensioners use the transport service it will not make any difference to the cost of providing it. If CIE insist on getting £25,000 extra, it simply means a switch of the subsidy that is given to CIE anyway, and in putting it down under this heading somebody is just taking a chance.
The figure for free electricity is a figure which can be calculated, although £35,000 does appear to be a very large amount. This service is very much appreciated by the old people, and many of them scraped together the few pounds necessary to get their homes wired for electricity when they found they could get a certain supply without paying for it.
Again I am astonished at the figure of £74,000 for TV and radio licences. It does not seem possible that there are so many old age pensioners who have nobody living with them who would qualify for this. Again it seems as if somebody conjured up a figure and said: "OK. This is the figure we shall give." It must be something like that, because if there are £74,000 worth of licences issued to old age pensioners living on their own, then there must be a colossal sum received for radio and television licences all over the country.
I have asked the Minister on a number of occasions to have unemployment assistance substituted for unemployment benefit when the latter is no longer payable. At the moment when the disability benefit is no longer payable the person concerned can go anywhere he likes; there is no benefit being paid from Social Welfare. Could the Department of Social Welfare not introduce a disability assistance section which would give the same kind of assistance as Deputy Harte referred to as the dole, to the limited number of persons who have less than 156 stamps, who are drawing disability benefit and who because of the shortage of stamps are ineligible for further benefit? Would the Minister consider having a look at this? He told me before that he would. He must have forgotten about it because I have not heard anything further about it.
One final point I want to raise is as to the way investigations are carried out in respect of old age pension applicants and people like that. If somebody applies for a non-contributory pension, whether he is eligible or not, there should be a direct query made to find out whether or not he is entitled to a full contributory old age pension. I have found many cases where people who for years were drawing non-contributory pensions were in fact entitled to contributory pensions. Nobody took the trouble to inform them, and so they were left without the money to which they were entitled.
The SW4 booklet which is brought up to date pretty often does a very good job. It is a pity it is not publicised more or made available to more people. It would save public representatives a lot of trouble, because many of the questions we are asked are answered in SW4.