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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Mar 1969

Vol. 239 No. 7

Committee on Finance. - Vote 47: Social Welfare.

I move:

That a supplementary sum not exceeding £3,907,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1969, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of the Minister for Social Welfare, for certain Services administered by that Office, for payments to the Social Insurance Fund, and for Sundry Grants.

This Supplementary Estimate is necessary to meet the cost of the increases in rates of payment and the other improvements in social welfare services announced in the 1968 Budget statement. When introducing the Estimate for my Department in July last, I explained that the 1968-69 Estimate did not make provision for this expenditure, and that a Supplementary Estimate for this purpose would be required later. The additional amount required is £3,907,000 which will bring the Exchequer expenditure on social welfare for the current financial year to £49,193,000.

Under Subhead E, which provides for payment by the Exchequer of the deficit on the Social Insurance Fund, an additional £341,000 is being sought. The gross additional expenditure from this fund—arising almost entirely from improvements in the social insurance schemes—is expected to amount to £1,315,000. This will be met to the extent of £865,000, by way of anticipated savings on the original provision and increased income from higher contribution rates. The difference— namely £450,000—between the estimated net additional expenditure and income of the fund, accordingly falls to be recouped. There is, however, a sum of £109,000 in the fund which was overdrawn from the Exchequer in previous years, and when this is offset against the revised deficit of £450,000, there remains the supplementary sum of £341,000 to be provided.

Under the heading "Social Assistance" substantial additional amounts are required in respect of old age pensions, unemployment assistance, widows' and orphans' pensions and miscellaneous grants. In the case of non-contributory old age pensions the improvements effected by the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1968, are expected to cost £1,510,000 in the current financial year. A saving of £300,000 is, however, anticipated on the original estimate so that the net additional requirement is £1,210,000. The extra £2,025,000 required for unemployment assistance is partly attributable to the cost of the increased rates of payment, and partly to an increase in the number of claims over the level on which the original estimate was based. The excess of £260,000 on widows' and orphans' pensions is due to the increased rates of payment in operation since last August.

With regard to Subhead K—Miscellaneous Grants—the additional sum of £130,000 now being sought arises as to £21,000 on the free travel concession, £35,000 on the free electricity allowances and the remaining £74,000 on the new scheme of free radio and television licences for certain pensioners which was introduced last year.

I am confident that Deputies will readily agree to provide the additional moneys I am seeking in this Supplementary Estimate.

Needless to say, we in Fine Gael are only too happy to vote the increased money for social welfare. Our persistent complaint is that the Government's share of welfare expenditure at a time of increasing national prosperity has been falling and that compared with ten years ago the State is now paying out of total gross national expenditure only nine-tenths of what was paid one decade ago. This is a terrible reflection on those now in power—that at a time of increasing national wealth, at a time when resources have been multiplied, instead of using those increased means for the relief of people in need, they have been dissipated on luxurious current expenditure.

The most alarming figure in the Supplementary Estimate is one of more than £2 million for unemployment assistance. This is clear evidence of the collapse of the Government's economic programme. It is a frightening indication of the degree to which the Government's efforts, miserable as they are, have gone off target that within nine months the Government should have to seek another £2 million for unemployment assistance. Accepting that some of the increase is attributable to an increase in the amount of assistance granted, an appalling amount of it is due to the increased amount of unemployment and, associated with the increased amount of unemployment, the increased periods of unemployment for those unlucky enough to find themselves unemployed.

This is a reflection of the Government's expenditure on unemployment assistance but it does not reflect, directly in any event, the increased expenditure on unemployment which has to be made from the rates in urban areas; but it is obviously an indication that if the national Exchequer is paying so much extra in the form of unemployment assistance, ratepayers in urban areas similarly are providing an increasing amount under this head because of the failure of the Government's employment policies—perhaps not the failure of their policies but the absence of them.

As I have said, the amount paid by the State has dropped by one-tenth in the last decade. As the State's share of the expenditure has dropped, the contribution to the preservation of life among the poor people in our community has had to be increased from local rates. Year after year, in all areas, the local rates have been called on to pay increasing sums to subsidise the inadequate payments from the national Exchequer. In the Dublin region alone, some 25,000 people must, week after week, receive subventions from the local rates because of the gross inadequacy of State welfare payments, not only social assistance payments to old age pensioners and unemployed people, to widows and orphans and so forth, but also to those in receipt of social insurance benefits. This will continue as long as the present Government, or any Government, fail to accept the need for wage-related social insurance schemes which would ensure that while people had income and property they would contribute a reasonable amount to ensure that when they are unemployed due to illness, accident or loss of employment, the income and consequently their standard of living would not be depressed. This can be done by wage-related insurance schemes.

It is appropriate at this stage that we should complain of the large amount, proportionately, which the smaller wage earners are required to pay towards social insurance. There are cases in which people are required to pay anything up to 10 per cent of their gross earnings for social insurance contributions. This is wrong and some people skilled in this discipline recommend that the highest contribution towards social insurance should be 5 per cent. We in Fine Gael regard this as a valid figure. It certainly ought to be possible to have 5 per cent as the maximum for all sections of the community and to provide a much smaller percentage contribution from people who are regarded as being in the lower income group.

We were very disappointed, indeed, that in the Government's first programme for social development, which was tucked away in a few pages of the larger programme for so-called economic development, practically all the Minister for Social Welfare could promise us was to examine this, that and the other thing. One would think that he and his partners had not been in power for the past 12 years. One would think they had not available to them the resources of the Department of Social Welfare, the Department of Health and the other agencies which distribute social welfare benefits throughout the country. We think it is an appalling admission of neglect, of indifference, of failure, after promising for years to produce a social programme, to say that all the Government are doing is carrying out examinations, making feasibility studies, and engaging in that kind of ineffective phraseology as a substitute for a social policy.

We need a social policy to ensure that no one in the country is suffering through lack of food or clothing or shelter or medical care. The truth is that we have in our midst tens of thousands of our people who are doing just that, who are suffering day in and day out because of the gross inadequacy of our social welfare services. The Minister has failed completely to look after the needs of our less well off citizens. You do not answer their requirements, you do not answer the requirements of society today, and you certainly do not match the concern of our people, by simply increasing by a small percentage the amount of payments made under antiquated social welfare schemes.

That our social welfare system works at all is due far less to the skill of the manipulators of it than to the goodness of God. It is utterly inadequate. The relic of 19th century Victorian charity which now passes as social policy will not meet the requirements of this day and age. We believe our society is very concerned. We believe that our people are prepared to pay the taxes necessary, that our people are only too willing to pay the insurance contributions necessary to rid this country of the social evils which are eating away at our very national soul.

We regret that the Minister and the Government have failed completely to meet the requirements of our times and to meet the obligations which they owe to their fellow men and women. With those words we in Fine Gael give the Minister the £3,900,000 which he requires, expressing a regret that he is not looking for a great deal more to look after all the people in our community who seek but little, and who frequently get nothing at all and who, if they do get anything, are receiving far too little.

My contribution will be rather brief. The Minister mentioned that it was necessary to introduce this Supplementary Estimate because of the increase in benefits to the recipients of the various classes of social welfare, and that this was not included in the Budget last year. It is a very bad practice to introduce a Budget and allow the Minister for Finance to claim all the increases which were just around the corner, post-dating them of course to a particular time of the year, and not include the estimate. I do not understand that type of book keeping. Possibly it is politically motivated.

Some of the faults which I find in the present system are possibly more remarkable to me as a Deputy representing a Border constituency. Very many of my constituents spend their lives working in the North of Ireland or, indeed, in Great Britain and, on retirement, they come back to this country to live. Very often they find that the insurance contributions which have been credited to them over a lifetime of employment, do not come up to the standard required by the Department of Social Welfare here in the Republic.

One of the matters which I feel must be protested against is the situation where the husband must emigrate to find employment or might be lucky enough to obtain employment in the North of Ireland. That man may meet an early death. His widow is credited with a widow's and orphans' pension because of the British credits obtained by her late husband's employment. We have the ridiculous situation that if the pension allowance is below the present statutory limits of non-contributory pension rights in this country, a nominal non-contributory pension will be granted to that lady. However, if the British Government see fit to increase the pension allowance, and it then exceeds the statutory limits of the non-contributory pension rights in this country, her non-contributory pension will be withdrawn. This is a slick way by which the Department of Social Welfare can withdraw a non-contributory pension in circumstances that, to my mind, are mean and despicable.

No one will challenge the claim that people in this category are in need of financial help. Very often people in this category are not fully aware of their democratic rights and, indeed, they are prepared to criticise the investigation officer when that individual is merely carrying out orders which he is statutorily bound to abide by.

The whole trouble is Departmental or Ministerial. I know the Minister for Social Welfare is a fair-minded man. I should like to think that we are on reasonably good talking terms. I should like to think that he would appreciate injustices in the same way and from the same point of view as I assess them. Using whatever limitations God has given me to sort out right from wrong, I think it is wrong that this country cannot provide employment for a person and that he is forced to emigrate and, if the country to which he went considers that, because of the contribution he has made to that country, he is entitled to a pension, and if that man is called to his reward very early in life, that we, in this country, should take full advantage of the situation and withdraw the non-contributory pensions which, in very many cases, if not in all cases, are really only nominal, from the widow and family of that man. I hesitate to say that the actions are criminal but they are tending to be in that direction.

One of the ways this problem could be overcome would be to increase the statutory limits of the present non-contributory pensions schemes. Deputy Ryan has just pointed out that the value of social welfare benefits at the moment is 10 per cent less than it was 12 years ago. This would indicate to me that people in these categories are really receiving less pensions, in terms of purchasing power, than they were getting 12 years ago. The reasons for this, in my opinion, are that the statutory limits are much too rigid and too mean to allow a reasonable, generous allowance to be made to the people in these categories and, for this reason, very many investigating officers find themselves in the class of being the big bad wolf. Very many of them are most unwelcome when it is their duty to call to investigate the income of a family.

I have had ventilated in this Chamber many complaints with the present Minister for Social Welfare and, indeed, with his predecessors— complaints that, to me, were petty in many ways, particularly when we would take into consideration the poor law valuation of properties which nobody wanted to own. I have in mind now one particular case in my own home town of Raphoe where a family, in terrible living conditions, were on a very low, mean income. Because that lady paid 20/- per year rates—the poor law valuation was something like 5/-which gives an indication as to the type of the property—her widow's pension was reduced by 2/6 or 4/- a week; I just cannot recall which at the moment.

In point of fact, the lady did not own the property. She merely honoured her rights to Donegal County Council. Because she lived in what I would describe as a pig-sty and because the rate collector was saddled with the responsibility of collecting rates on the properties in his collection area—I suppose she felt it was her responsibility to pay this money. Because of this, the Department of Social Welfare reduced her widow's pension. I am thankful that the good lady sought refuge and mentioned the case to me. I subsequently discovered that the owner of the properties did not even care or want to know that he owned them. When I tried to persuade the Department of Social Welfare that this was an injustice, nobody seemed to care; nobody seemed to listen; nobody seemed to bother whether this lady was entitled to her rights and if she was getting them or not. This was the subtle difference—I only state this case to bring out this point—between the attitude of the Department of Social Welfare in Ireland and the type of attitude or the approach that social welfare officers and officials have in other parts of the world and, indeed, in other parts of this country.

The concept of social welfare in which I believe is that the attitude of the Department of Social Welfare should be to help and not to deprive. In this case to which I have referred, we have the attitude that, because this lady paid 20s per year on a poor law valuation of a dwelling which was nothing short of a pig-sty and which a newspaper reporter and photographer refused to enter to take a photograph when I called upon him to expose the injustice, her widow's pension was reduced. A young man who was employed by what I can describe as a Fianna Fáil news organ refused to go inside the door of that dwelling because he felt the roof would fall in. Needless to say, the county manager and everybody concerned were interested in getting this lady a house and the old house collapsed within a month of her leaving it. This is the type of injustice I protest against. It is just one on which we have caught out the Department and the Minister. It is the duty of the Minister for Social Welfare to correct these situations. This case spotlights the approach the officials of the Department of Social Welfare are forced to adopt. Because of conditions foisted on them, they must think in terms of what we must take rather than in terms of our duties in respect of providing welfare for classes entitled to it and to whom society is prepared to give it.

I believe that the present Government system as we know it in social welfare has tended away from the real purpose which it should have served and continue to serve. There is no longer interest in social welfare problems. It has developed into a Department doling out money for the purchase of votes. Basically, this is what the Department of Social Welfare is doing at the moment. There are many injustices in our society and there are many classes of people who have to be cared for. Basically the thinking behind it all was that these people must be helped but somewhere along the line politicians' minds became active inasmuch as they began to consider "What can we salvage from this huge amount which the Government are paying out to unemployment benefit recipients?" Far too much money is being doled out to people who do not want to work. Very often the cry is "If you vote Fine Gael or for anyone other than Fianna Fáil they will take it from you".

I do not know whether it is good politics or not to say this but at least it is honest politics and if anyone wishes to misinterpret what I am saying at least I would ask him to give me credit for being honest. Too many people are getting unemployment assistance and being bribed into voting for the Government Party, being intimidated at election times by Fianna Fáil Party workers and canvassers. They go to the gullible people and tell them "If you vote for anyone other than Fianna Fáil they will withdraw widows' and orphans' pensions and unemployment assistance. Fine Gael are against them." Fine Gael are against none of these things; they are in favour of a just social welfare policy. We issued our policy and gave in it comprehensive details of what we propose to do, but we would rather substitute employment than pay unemployment assistance.

The Deputy is getting away from the Supplementary Estimate before the House. The question of policy is not before the House but a Vote.

But it deals with unemployment. It says that an extra £2 million odd is required for unemployment assistance and that this is partly attributable to the increase in the rates of payment and an increase in the number of grants over the original Estimate. Am I not therefore entitled to make this point?

On the question of payments but not on the question of policy.

I do not wish to come into conflict with the Chair but am I not entitled to develop the argument that these things are being abused?

We are confined on the Supplementary Estimate to the headings with which it deals and cannot discuss the broad outlines of policy.

I will accept the Chair's ruling but perhaps the Chair will just let me finish on this point. I should like to put it on record that the attitude of this Party is that we would much rather offer employment to unemployed people than purchase their voting power by using State funds to pay them the dole. The Minister indicated that under the heading of social assistance a saving of £300,000 was anticipated on the original estimate. I should like the Minister to explain this. Is this saving caused because other countries have increased widows' and orphans' pensions, that is in cases where the husbands of the widows worked in these countries, and the Department of Social Welfare are withdrawing the non-contributory pension?

Another matter in which I have been involved recently and about which I tabled a question is that sometimes it happens—and if it happens once cognisance should be taken of it—that firms for one reason or another fail to make their social welfare contributions in respect of employees, possibly for financial reasons. A firm may go bankrupt or may seek the protection of the courts and if employees are laid off they may discover that they have no claim for unemployment benefit or sickness benefit and the Department will not recognise that for reasons beyond their control these people find themselves in serious financial difficulty. I do not know what powers are necessary but certainly in the case of one company, about which the Minister knows, which finds itself in this difficulty, the former employees cannot now avail of sickness benefit. One particular person has not received one penny disability or sickness benefit from the Department since the beginning of December. It is a shame that a man who works for 18 months or two years with a firm which goes bankrupt should find himself unemployed and without unemployment benefit or sickness benefit. In this connection, sickness benefit is more important. If he finds himself unemployed he can hope to get alternative employment but if he is unable to avail of work then he will be in real trouble. Therefore the Minister should introduce legislation governing situations like this. They are few and far between and would not add that much to his Department's burden.

Another point which I should like to make is that the three-day waiting period should be abolished. This is unnecessary and I can see no reason why if a person becomes unemployed the Department cannot make his just rights available to him towards the end of that week. It has to be done in a fortnight's time or in three weeks' time anyway. If there are any difficulties and if he was not entitled to the money then the amount paid out can be offset by the withdrawal of unemployment assistance rights. I have spoken to officials in the Department of Social Welfare who feel that a streamlining of present regulations could remove this anomaly which exists in the Department's administration. I do not want to go into this in detail but just to mention it as something which I feel should be attended to. It would not take much imagination to devise regulations which would be more acceptable and would meet the situation fairly.

I join with Deputy Ryan in saying that we in Fine Gael accept this Supplementary Estimate and sincerely hope that the Minister will deal with some of the difficulties we have mentioned.

Before concluding, I should like to say that quite recently we have given people in certain categories allowances now classified as free electricity, free transport and free travel. Under Subhead K the Minister refers to £35,000 being spent on free electricity allowances, £74,000 on free radio and television licences and £21,000 on free travel. I think we have reached a stage in civilisation where we should not take credit for providing services such as those. We have a national transport system. I have never seen a CIE bus going along a country road full to capacity but I have noticed buses on a wet day with one or two people on board going along a country road while an old age pensioner was walking perhaps two miles to the nearest post office to collect his pension. In such circumstances no society should take credit for giving free transport. It costs nothing. In fact, it is an injection of £21,000 into the coffers of CIE. With respect, I would ask the Minister not to take credit for giving anyone—to use a country expression—a drink out of his own bottle. These people are paying rates and taxes and CIE is being subsidised. We had the ludicrous situation in rural Ireland of a person who wanted to obtain a contributory or a non-contributory pension having to walk a half-mile, a mile or up to three miles weekly to the local post office to collect the pension. Usually, these people were waiting for that day so that they could avail of the allowances due to them. They were working on a budget counted in pennies.

In this Estimate we have £21,000 being transferred from the Department of Social Welfare to CIE. We take credit for that because this bus which passed with two people aboard can now take four people aboard. The two old age pensioners who were walking can now travel on the bus. The Minister should not take credit for that. The bus was travelling there because these people and others like them contributed a fair share of taxes and rates to provide a State transport service.

Next there is a sum of £35,000 provided for free electricity allowances. The cheapest thing we can produce is electricity. It cost a substantial amount to get the service going but it costs nothing extra to produce more electricity. Here, again, we have the Minister taking credit for transferring from social welfare to the ESB this £35,000, the cost of providing electricity to those in need. The most ridiculous figure, however, is the £74,000 for radio and television licences which cost nothing whatever to issue. I suppose this amount would be more than covered if pirates, paying no licence fees, were made to pay them. How ridiculous can we become? Our sense of proportion is completely upset. It is not good enough that a State Department should take credit for spending £130,000 under those three headings.

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.

I move to report progress.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.