In regard to the death grant, the Minister said it was not intended to be a funeral benefit, that it was not big enough to be such. Surely the whole object of the grant is that it will assist those who are really in trouble. Over the years I have been receiving requests from people who have had deaths in the family and who have been asked to pay fantastic sums for funerals. Local authorities will supply what somebody said had disappeared out of this country, a pauper's coffin, for about £9 10s. What I cannot understand is that the coffin appears to be exactly the same as the one for which the ordinary person pays £40 or £45. Either the people who supply the coffins charge far too much or this grant is far too small. There is a change in the amount of the grant given according to the size of the child. As far as adults are concerned the expense will be the same regardless of the size of the coffin. The grant of £5 even for a very small coffin does not meet the requirements at all. When it is said it is not a grant for the purpose of paying for a funeral, I think it should be or the nearest thing to it.
Social Welfare Bill, 1970: Committee and Final Stages.
I suspect there is something in what Deputy Tully has said. I must confess it is purely suspicion. I have no facts on which to base it. Deputy Tully may be correct.
What I say is always correct. The Minister knows that for a long time.
I am afraid I do not, but in this respect in regard to the differences in the price of coffins what he says may have some substance. It may well be that far more is charged for a coffin in the circumstances of an ordinary funeral than is charged in the case of one provided for a pauper's funeral. However, in case I am doing an injustice to the people concerned I must make it clear I have no facts on which to base this. It is merely a suspicion.
I am not quite sure what can be done but certainly nothing can be done under the Social Welfare Bill as regards the amount of grant provided for here. We are making a start and we do not claim it is the end of the road. The whole scheme has been worked out and I cannot undertake at this stage to do anything to step up the grant.
This is a provision about which the Minister should do something. If I read the section correctly it means that a person who qualifies for an invalidity pension must have either 47 stamps or credits in the last year or 47 stamps or credit on average for his insured life. I assume that that dates back to 1953 when the change took place. For instance, take somebody who was involved in the recent cement strike and who for 12, 13 or 14 weeks was not allowed to draw unemployment benefit, and was not entitled to any benefit, and for that reason did not sign on at the labour exchange. Maybe it was stupid of such a person not to sign on; he might not have been allowed on the grounds that he was on strike when in fact he was not. Take also the people who were on strike. Both sections would be debarred from this grant, if my interpretation is correct, within the next 12 months. The number 47 is too high and the Minister should have gone back to the qualification for old age pension and disability benefit and made it 26 with a sliding scale up to 47 or 48. The other arrangement is far too harsh. I can imagine somebody saying "We are doing something good now and we will just put it in as it is" without realising what the effect might be. There is also the problem of people who go to England or who may have been employed on a "lump" job, about which we heard so much. Both of these sections could find themselves ineligible for this grant if they wanted to take advantage of it.
The same procedure applies in regard to all benefits and persons who are in the position described by Deputy Tully can, at a later date, qualify. The number of persons who would be precluded from qualifying in the circumstances he described must be quite small. He is assuming that the persons concerned have, say, been involved in the cement strike and within quite a short time become otherwise entitled to an invalidity pension, but the number of persons in that situation would be small.
I am saying that if any of the persons involved were applying within 12 months they would be ruled out. Things like this do happen, not every year but every couple of years. There are strikes; there are reasons why men take a few weeks extra holidays, or they will do some work for themselves and they will not have 47 stamps or credit. These people will or can come outside this particularly stringent provision. The Minister says that this is the same qualification but he knows that it is not. Twenty-six is the normal qualification and why should 47 be written in here? It is a new departure. The Minister should have another look at it.
We are dealing here with long-term illness and they get credit for that and will eventually come into this.
This is a principle which if we accept it then the Minister will say to me when we come to another section "We have already accepted that principle". If the Minister is persuaded of the validity of my argument will he try to do something about it before it goes to the Seanad? The Minister should not say that he is going to look at it when he is not going to do anything about it. The Minister said that several times already today.
I was about to say that I will ask the Minister for Social Welfare to have a look at it.
Here again we have the same argument and here it has even more force because this section applies to somebody who would be retiring. The reason which the Minister gave me would not apply in this case. A person is entitled to draw certain benefit but would not be entitled to draw this new benefit unless he had the new qualification. When we are talking about improving social welfare we should do something which will improve it rather than take a retrograde step.
The Deputy can hardly contend it is a retrograde step when it is a new benefit but I know what he means. He means that the conditions being applied are retrograde.
I am using the word "benefit" because it is the Minister's word. I know that the reason for this is to take people off the unemployment register and I commented on this on the Second Reading. There will be a substantial reduction in the unemployment numbers when this comes in but I do not want to go into that again.
Neither do I want to follow the Deputy up that road because we might spend a long time on it and we would not agree. In any case I will ask the Minister for Social Welfare to have a look at this before the Bill goes to the Seanad.
I should like the Minister to explain this. When the Minister was introducing the Bill he said it was bringing in something which would allow people who did not apply for a non-contributory old age pension to apply for this benefit and I said that if they did not apply for a non-contributory old age pension I was sure they would not apply for benefit for somebody who was looking after them. The Minister changed that and in his Second Reading speech he referred to the fact that it was intended for people who were over the limit for non-contributory pension and their being 70 years of age the people looking after them would qualify. Is that the situation? Will persons who because of a means test are ineligible for the non-contributory pension be entitled to this allowance in respect of somebody who is looking after them?
I think the Deputy may be talking about another section.
No, section 10.
I think it is section 21.
I am sorry. I was looking at the explanatory memorandum which gave it as section 10. It refers to the original and it must have been altered.
Amendment No. 1 in the names of Deputy O'Connell and Deputy Tully has been ruled out of order.
It has been the case that payment can only be made when there is proof that the person is dead. It occurred recently in my constituency that a person was drowned and there was no proof of death for a considerable period. As a result, social welfare benefit could not be obtained by the people affected. Eventually, an arrangment was made. However, if something were written into the Bill it would be possible to pay the money in cases where it is reasonable to assume that the person is dead. Would the Minister consider looking into this matter?
What the Deputy had in mind in his amendment involved more than we could contemplate. The House might be interested to know that there are some cases, with which the Department have dealt, in which the husband was missing for more than 25 years.
At one time Deputy James Dillon mentioned the case of a husband who had been missing for 37 years.
We know that the day after the wife got the pension the husband returned. In circumstances in which death may reasonably be presumed, the Department does presume death. In the circumstances described by Deputy Tully I think the benefit would be paid in a matter of perhaps weeks, or certainly months. Provided the other conditions are complied with, the Department in following the usual procedure in cases of presumption of death would follow that practice in this case and benefit would be payable.
It is stated in section 19:
Regulations shall provide for the return, subject to any conditions, restrictions and deductions specified in the regulations, of so much of any contribution paid by an employed contributor or a voluntary contributor who entered into insurance for the purposes of paragraph 9 of the Fourth Schedule to this Act after he had attained the age of fifty-five years as is determined in accordance with the regulations to have been paid in respect of retirement pension.
Perhaps the Minister would like to elaborate on this?
One of the contributions conditions proposed in the Bill for retirement pension is that the claimant must have entered insurance before reaching the age of 55 years. A person who enters insurance after the age of 55 years will be precluded from deriving any benefit from the element for retirement pension in any employment contribution or voluntary contribution paid by him or on his behalf. The purpose of this section is to provide for regulations to allow the refund to an insured person who enters insurance after the age of 55 years of his share of the element for retirement pension in any contribution paid by or in respect of him. The amount of the element attributable to retirement pension will be determined under regulations.
Would it not be more convenient to arrange that there should be a second stamp involved so that the person over 55 years entering insurance would not be required to stamp and thereby eliminate this rather ponderous business of refund? It is only a matter of pence that is involved so far as the retirement pension is concerned.
I am advised that it would not be practical to do it that way. A similar provision was made in the Social Welfare (Amendment) Act, 1960, which introduced the Old Age (Contributory) Pension Scheme.
Regarding the question of the voluntary contributor aged 55 getting a stamp each week, what is included in that stamp as a voluntary contributor?
I do not know the amount as it has not yet been determined. However, it will be small.
I should imagine it would be merely a matter of pence.
It will certainly be lenient.
Amendment No. 2 in the names of Deputy Tully and Deputy O'Connell has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 3 in the names of Deputy Tully and Deputy O'Connell has been ruled out of order.
(Cavan): I should like to avail of this opportunity to clarify some points. At present I understand that if an old person is living in his or her own house and a female relative undertakes to care for the aged person a sum of £2 5s per week is paid and under this section the amount is £2 15s. However, if an old person is living alone in an isolated district and a neighbour undertakes to care for that old person, does the woman of the house who takes in the old person qualify for an allowance under the present Act or will she qualify under this section?
In order to qualify the person who cares for the aged man or woman must be a relative. I take it the case the Deputy had in mind did not concern a relative?
(Cavan): I shall be satisfied if a relative who takes in the person can qualify.
That is the position if she fulfils the other conditions.
(Cavan): The case I have in mind does not concern a relative of the old person. However, would the Minister not think it might be a good idea to extend the section to cover such a case? Part of west Cavan is very isolated and there might be cases of an old person living on his own in a very remote area with no relatives nearby. The only alternatives open to the old person is to go to St. Phelim's Hospital or to live with somebody else. If a neighbour would be prepared to take in the old person and care for him would the Minister not consider it might be worthwhile to extend this section to cover this category? Conceivably, it could lead to abuses but I am sure that regulations could be worked out. I think the old people would probably be happier living with some people in their own locality than they would be living in an institution 40 or 50 miles away. At any rate, the Minister assures me that if a relative takes them in the relative will get the allowance. I should like him to tell us what he thinks about the person who may not be a relative.
That is a qualified relative?
Yes. The qualification is pretty wide, I think: sisters, half-sisters, daughters, stepdaughters, granddaughters, daughters-in-law and nieces.
Why is "wife" not included? Would the Minister not agree that the wife who is looking after an elderly husband should receive something?
The reasoning behind this allowance is in respect of someone who has to give up a job.
That was changed last year.
(Cavan): It just did not work at all under that regulation.
It is either someone who had to give up a job or who did not follow an occupation because of this situation.
The Minister has named the qualified female relatives. Why has he left out "wife"? There must be some reason why the wife is not considered to be a qualified female relative. In most cases it is the wife who looks after the aged husband.
It is to compensate for a situation that does not normally arise. The case of a husband and wife is a normal situation.
But they can be just as hungry. This is for the purpose of giving people something on which to live. This allowance is given so that an old person who has an approved female relative looking after him or her will have enough to live on but, if that old person happens to have his wife living with him, she is not covered. We cannot force the Minister to change his mind but I think he should have another look at this.
(Cavan): The object of this section—it is a very laudable section—is to encourage relatives to look after aged relatives at home instead of sending them into institutions. If the section is flexible enough it will encourage relatives to look after aged relatives and the old people will be happier among their own. Secondly, it will effect a considerable saving to the ratepayers and taxpayers because I am sure it must cost £10 or £12 a week at least to keep an old person in an institution. In the case of a relative taking an old person to live in her house there should be no means test so far as the former is concerned because she is effecting a saving for both taxpayers and ratepayers.
I strongly urge that the section should be made even more flexible. The whole idea is to encourage people to look after aged relatives. There should be no means test when the person being looked after is in receipt of a pension. In the case of an old person with means I would be in favour of a modest means test. An old person with means can afford to pay someone to look after him or her; but in the case of a person in poor circumstances, the means of the relative who is prepared to look after the old person should not be taken into account.
I am 100 per cent in favour of the principle behind this section. As things stood, this just did not operate. The number who benefited, as was stated in reply to a Parliamentary question, was negligible. There was a considerable improvement last year. I expect there will be a further improvement this year. The means of the relative should not be taken into consideration if the relative is looking after a person in receipt of an old age pension in the relative's own house.
I am concerned about this question of a female relative. In many cases a son looks after the aged person or, perhaps, a younger brother. Why should it be confined to a female relative? Why not a male relative? The whole purpose is to keep people out of the county homes and institutions. The saving would be tremendous. We should encourage relatives, male or female, to provide this care and attention for the elderly. In the case of those who give up employment to look after aged relatives, what happens about resumption of employment benefit? Do they lose that benefit? I should like the Minister to clarify these points. Sometimes a neighbour looks after an old person. Why should the neighbour not qualify? This must be made as flexible as possible in order to keep these old people out of institutions.
(Cavan): Sometimes a male relative comes home from England to look after the old people. The farm is just above the level that would entitle him to a small farmer's dole. He really considers he is wasting his time. If he got this small allowance it would be an incentive to him. I support the point made by Deputy Dr. O'Connell.
I agree with Deputy Fitzpatrick. It is an admirable approach. Introduced only two years ago, it has since been improved and improved again and, in all likelihood, will be further improved. I cannot undertake now to extend the improvement beyond what is contained in the Bill for this year. The means test applies to the pensioner—not to the recipient. In the case Deputy Fitzpatrick had in mind, a case where the benefit was not given, it probably arose not from a means test, because there is not one, but because the other person involved—possibly the husband of the niece, in the case he mentioned —was capable of giving the care and attention required, though I am not sure, in the circumstances he described. The pensioner is treated as living alone, even though he may not be living alone, if the people with whom he is living are not capable of giving the care and attention required.
(Cavan): A form is sent out refusing this application. I think it is under the small figures “3” or “4” of that. The person in respect of whom the allowance is claimed is being looked after by her husband or her husband is capable of providing for her or something like that.
I am afraid I cannot throw any light on that particular case.
(Cavan): I should be better briefed on it. I am sure the officials of the Department know the case I am talking about.
With regard to the point raised by Deputy O'Connell, as to the extension of this to male relatives, I am sure he can visualise some of the problems of abuse of benefit involved. I cannot promise anything on this. According as experience is gained of the operation of this scheme, the likely development is that it will be found possible to extend it—very possibly on the lines he suggests—but with adequate safeguards.
The benefit is actually paid to the old person?
That is correct.
What about people who provide this care and give up employment to do so?
If a person gives up employment, in the circumstances described by the Deputy, and thereby ceases to make social welfare contributions, such person loses the benefit of that, as a result.
It is very unfair that such people would be thrown on the scrap heap.
They would have to go in under assistance schemes instead of insurance schemes. They are not completely bereft as a result. I admit they are in a somewhat worse position than if they had been working. When the scheme was confined to those who had given up employment, very few people were involved.
In giving up employment, these people forfeit pension rights, service promotions, and so on. Would it be possible for those who give up employment to be credited with stamps, and so on, during the time they are providing this care? In the event of death of the person they are caring for, can they resume and qualify for all the other benefits that go, in later life, to people contributing to the social welfare fund? It would seem only fair.
I could not contemplate that kind of extension at this stage of the Bill. I shall draw the attention of the Minister for Social Welfare to this point so that, in the almost inevitable extension of the scheme, it will be taken into account.
Amendments Nos. 4 and 5, in the names of Deputies O'Connell and Tully, have been ruled out of order.
(Cavan): Let us be gracious and welcome this section. It is something we have advocated for some time. It is long overdue. I want to repeat what I said on the Second Reading that this should be worked in a flexible manner. I was rather perturbed to hear the Minister for Social Welfare state that it would be necessary for wives who claim to be deserted to pursue as far as possible their legal remedies to claim maintenance from their husbands. If this is pursued any distance at all, it will render this section valueless. Very few husbands who desert their wives in this country stay around. They usually emigrate to Britain or to some other country. It is impossible for the deserted wives to contact them. Even if they did so, or knew their addresses, it would be unreasonable to compel them to take court proceedings. Litigation in Britain is quite expensive and almost invariably involves advance payment of fees and expenses. The regulations should be very flexible this year and, if it appears that there are obvious abuses, they can be dealt with by amending the regulations.
I support Deputy Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately, perhaps, for some of these wives, Britain is very close at hand and the husbands go abroad and the wives never hear from them. I have made representations on behalf of a few hundred of these women who have been deserted. They have their husband's British insurance number. If they write to the British national insurance authorities about it the British authorities will not give the address but say that, if they write to them, they will forward the letter. These husbands draw social welfare benefit in Britain in respect of their wives in Ireland. The husband in Britain may send £1 now and then. Even if they remain here, they very commonly send only £1. In many of these cases it may be claimed by the Department that the husband is contributing. If he contributes £1 every month or every two months, or very infrequently, I would still say the wife has been deserted by her husband. Perhaps the Minister might like to comment on this point.
It is not intended to interpret this absolutely rigidly. First of all, in the case where there are some contributions, if they are very infrequent, the Department would be prepared to accept that this amounts to desertion. Secondly, it is a relatively simple matter for a wife in these circumstances to obtain a maintenance order in the district court here, but the difficulty is in the enforcement.
That is right.
The Minister for Justice is looking into this question of enforcement in conjunction with the British. If a maintenance order is obtained in the district court, and if it is not possible to execute it, the Department of Social Welfare would accept this.
They would not insist that you go ahead and bring proceedings in Britain as well. In the normal case with which we are all familiar, if you get a maintenance order here and you cannot enforce it in Britain, in those circumstances, the Department will accept that as constituting desertion.
(Cavan): Will they insist on court proceedings here?
I think this is reasonable. Let us put the obverse, that the Department would not insist on this. It would be wide open to abuse and collusion if you did not have some effort made to have the wife at least try to make the husband contribute. It is only if you cannot do that that the Department should step in, I think.
(Cavan): I know of a case where a woman was deserted by her husband over 20 years ago. He left her with one child. He went to England and she has never heard from him from that good day to this. She does not know where he is. She reared the child in very difficult circumstances and made a good job of it. He is in employment now. The world and his wife in the district know that she was deserted. The husband has never been seen around there. She has been in receipt of assistance of one sort or another from the local authority on the grounds that she was destitute, or practically destitute, or in need of assistance. I do not know whether she could now take proceedings. I suppose she could but, without looking up the Act, I do not know. Probably the court where she is living has jurisdiction.
Surely a certificate from the local authority or the home assistance officer of the home assistance department of the local authority who have been looking after this woman for the past 20 years should be sufficient to satisfy the Department that she was, in fact, deserted. Local authorities are not too soft about paying out home assistance.
As I said, the Department do not intend to be rigid about this and, in the kind of circumstances described by Deputy Fitzpatrick, they would not insist on a maintenance order being obtained.
(Cavan): So long as there is flexibility.
This is what is intended. If there is satisfactory evidence available, such as that described by Deputy Fitzpatrick, it would be accepted, but the cases I am describing are——
Yes, and they are relatively frequent. As Deputies will appreciate, there is a danger of collusion in these cases. In such cases I think it would not be unreasonable that the Department should insist that the wife should obtain a maintenance order and see if it could be enforced. If it cannot, the Department should step in. Where it is quite clear that this would be a useless exercise the Department would not insist on that.
It is a very difficult problem, indeed, as everybody recognises, and there is a danger of collusion and even a danger of promoting this tendency, on the part of people who want to break up their homes, to go away and feel that the local authority and the State will look after them. Those dangers exist without a doubt. The proposal about the maintenance order is obviously a good one and Deputy Fitzpatrick's suggestion is also a good one. We all appreciate that if we were in the position of a local authority officer attempting to make a decision we would find it very difficult indeed.
I wonder could the Minister go into all the different kinds of situation that arise in order to give some guidelines to the local authority officers so that people in this very difficult position would be given some support by defining these situations, not so much for our benefit, but for the benefit of the local authority officers, which would help them in turn not to promote abuses but to feel that we have not circumscribed their right to allocate grants.
It is extremely vague at the moment. This is not a criticism of the Minister or the Department because I have nothing very helpful to offer myself. Those two proposals would appear to me to be the kind of proposal which would be of great help to local authority officers in their attempt to administer this valuable piece of legislation.
(Cavan): There is another society which have done much good work in this area over very difficult years, that is, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Minister's Department would be quite safe in accepting a certificate from one of the officers of that society who for years have been trying to trace these men in England and could not do so.
They have been able to find them in the majority of cases.
(Cavan): They have not got any money out of most of them.
Very rarely did they get money out of any of them.
(Cavan): With respect, I think the Minister is on the right lines if he accepts a certificate from the local health authority, or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or some reasonable evidence like that.
This is what we have in mind. I do not think I mentioned local authority officials. This came up in some discussion.
(Cavan): I mentioned them.
In fact, there would be a local social welfare officer who would make the inquiries and who would be briefed as to what he was to look for. A certificate from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children would be satisfactory in some circumstances, or, perhaps, even a certificate from a local clergyman. It is intended to be quite flexible. It is not intended to adhere rigidly to either one form of evidence or a maintenance order. The guiding line has to be that, in the absence of an application for a maintenance order, the evidence available is reasonable and sufficient to ensure that there is no danger of collusion. It is intended to be flexible in approaching that.
(Cavan): I can never be accused of being in favour of giving blank cheques to Ministers or Departments but, in this instance, I would be inclined to give them a cheque for a limited amount. In the past hardship has been caused under Social Welfare Acts by laying down regulations for the protection of Revenue or the protection of the fund which is the word used in the Department. They could not go beyond those regulations. I would be in favour of writing into this that where reasonable evidence is available—and let some appeals officer decide it if necessary—that the woman has been deserted and has not been supported by her husband, and that she cannot reasonably enforce a claim for maintenance against him, it should be accepted.
Has the Minister any rough idea as to how many such people there are in the country at present?
Would it be of any help to find out the kind of case put forward by those 1,000 people?
It would be difficult to do that, probably, until this is operating. I would suggest to the House that the situation as I have described it is about as flexible as we could make it, and that the wisest thing would be to see how it operates. If it is thought that it is being administered inflexibly the matter could be raised here but I am assured that it is intended to operate it flexibly as I have described consonant with the obligation to ensure that it is not used as a form of racket.
It is only fair to say that the Minister for Social Welfare said the very same thing.
The Minister says that there are approximately one thousand who would qualify under this section for an allowance. This provision is very much welcomed because up to now these people have been dependent on the local authorities for home assistance. It might be said of local authorities and those who approve estimates and strike rates that they are not very generous either with this group or with any other people who have not sufficient to keep themselves and in many cases their families. I am sure that all these people—whether they are more or less than one thousand makes no difference—are looking forward to the payment of this allowance from approximately, the first week in October. I am sure they will expect to have a decision made very quickly, in a month at the outside. I want to ask the Minister if he has sufficient outdoor staff to deal with not only these cases but with the various other changes this measure will bring about.
I know many social welfare agents and I think it would be no exaggeration to say that they are very much overworked. Their job is supposed to entail a five-day week but the Minister and his officials must know that they are constantly engaged after normal working hours in their own houses still working for the Department of Social Welfare. They do this work also on Saturdays and Sundays. If they are to investigate circumstances and establish that wives have been deserted it will mean much more work. I am concerned about both parties, the social welfare agents and the deserted wives who expect to get this allowance reasonably soon. There have been complaints—and possibly in this House also—about the work of social welfare agents. I suppose many Deputies can particularise, but I think it can be said in respect of all of them and, at least, of those with whom I have contact that they are very hardworking. They are deemed unpopular with certain people merely because they must carry out the law as decided by this House and the regulations as decided by the Minister.
The Minister should have a serious look at the new work that will be imposed on social welfare agents, particularly in the period when desertion must be established. I suggest the Minister should, if possible, try to recruit personnel from his Department to ensure that deserted wives will get their allowances in good time if they qualify. Failing that, the Minister should give the agents some compensation for the overtime they do every weekday and on Saturdays and Sundays.
The officers who would be involved would be social welfare officers, not the agents the Deputy mentioned.
I beg the Minister's pardon: it was social welfare officers I meant.
I understand the Department anticipates that they will be able to handle these cases reasonably expeditiously. I would anticipate that in a number of cases there will be no great problem. For instance in some cases maintenance orders must have been obtained and found to be unenforceable. There would be very little difficulty in these cases.
They would be very much a minority.
These are some cases. Others will fall into the category described by Deputy Fitzpatrick where the local knowledge forthcoming will be conclusive and there will be no problem. The number of applicants who will present a problem will, I hope, be relatively small. I cannot speak with any certainty about it at this stage but I do not think that the Department of Social Welfare has any reason to anticipate that the number concerned or the problems will be so great as to cause undue delay in payment.
The Minister does not like hypothetical questions but if it appears to him after a few weeks that these applications will, of necessity, have to wait another month or two, will he have the position examined and, if necessary, give compensation for overtime, say, at weekends or employ more staff? Does he intend to get social welfare officers to consult, as has been suggested here, with the ISPCC? I know they have their fingers on practically all these cases in a majority of, but not in all the counties of Ireland?
Yes, this is intended.
I can see great difficulties in the administration of this scheme. Once the pension is issued how often will it need renewal? Will there be spies to see if the husband is home or anything like that? We want to be assured that the deserted wife is not humiliated by these activities on the part of officials. Will there be many problems about the administration of this scheme?
The deserted wife in this case will be treated in the same way as the widow is treated. I admit that in the widow's case there is no risk of the husband turning up but there is the possibility that she may marry again. There are periodic checks in the case of widows but I do not think this is found onerous.
Will they be more frequent in the case of deserted wives?
No. It is intended that they will be on the same basis as in the case of widows.
Perhaps I was wrong when I said that this and nearly every measure that has been introduced for a long time by the Department of Social Welfare have meant more work for the social welfare officers. Could the Minister say if, in respect of the whole Bill, an undue amount of work will be placed on these officers?
We cannot say positively at this stage but if there is, steps will be taken to deal with it. There are over 200 of them.
(Cavan): As this is a new section it is no harm to throw out all possible suggestions. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to children has been mentioned. It has done great work and I am glad the Minister will refer to that Society. Another society that has done good work in its own way is the St. Vincent de Paul Society. In many cases they have been doing their best to contribute to the support of deserted wives for years. It might be no harm to have it on record that it was suggested that an assurance from that society that, to the best of their knowledge, a wife was deserted should carry considerable weight in convincing the Department she was, in fact, deserted.
I should like to add to what Deputy Corish said about social welfare officers because I believe they are concerned about the amount of work this Bill will place on them. I am not sorry that it will place additional work on them because that means that more benefits will be brought to people who need them but if the officers are to have considerable extra work thrust on them they should be adequately compensated. I understand they are looking into the matter at the moment——
The Deputy will appreciate that we are moving away, and have been for quite some time, from what is in the section.
We want to make sure that the deserted wives will get their allowances in time and this is related to the number of officers who will do the investigating.
The section is concerned with the payment of benefit.
(Cavan): With respect, Sir, this was a very worthwhile discussion on this section, and it is a new section. I shall not delay the House very much longer, but I do appeal to the Minister to see to it that the social welfare officers are looked after and compensated for any additional work they do or time which they will have to spend in operating this Bill when enacted.
I wish to ask the Minister a couple of questions. If a lady had paid an insurance contributed of an amount which would have made her eligible for a contributory pension, could she get the contributory pension as a lady who had been deserted?
Could she get a contributory widow's pension?
A contributory-level pension.
No, unless she can establish she is a widow she cannot get a widow's pension.
The Minister does not think that if she had paid contributions she would be eligible for the contributory widow's pension?
Not unless she establishes she is a widow.
Supposing she was deemed to be a widow under legislation some time ago?
That is different.
Wait a moment. Will there be a means test and will the pension of which she is now in receipt be regarded as means for the purpose of assessing the allowance she will get as a deserted wife?
Would the Deputy be more specific. I am not quite clear what he means. Is he talking about a pension?
Married women have been deemed to be widows by reason of the fact that they have not heard of or could not trace their husbands for a certain number of years. They may qualify for a widows non-contributory pension. What I want to know is this: in deciding as to whether or not there would be a deserted wife's allowance paid, would this widow's pension be deemed to be means?
If she is qualified for a widow's pension she would not be qualified for the deserted wife's allowance. It would be one or the other.
No, but she is deemed to be a widow because her husband has deserted her.
I do not think there is any such case. It is only where the husband is deemed to be dead; then she is treated as a widow. If he has deserted her she comes under this.
(Cavan): It takes a lot of evidence to have him deemed to be dead.
We had the case earlier this afternoon of the man missing for 35 years who reappeared the week after his wife got the widow's pension.
The day after, I believe.
Sorry, the day after. I hope she took appropriate action to qualify. There is a qualification here that she must be between 50 and 70 if she has no children. This could limit the number of people who would qualify and the amount of money which will be paid out. Can any provision be made for the person who has no children to look after, who has been married for a number of years, whose husband has deserted her, who is unable to work due to illness and who has no entitlement to sickness benefit? There are quite a number of these people.
The woman in that situation would be in the same boat as the single woman who was unable to work, ill and so on.
The Minister is very kind to make that point. I was hoping he would, and I intended to ask why some provision could not be made for these people. People over 50 are in the very same situation as the single people, as the Minister says, but under 50 if they are ill there is a difference. Many of them would be suffering from mental strain and so on. A single person has this advantage. She may possibly at that age get married, whereas the married woman whose husband has deserted her, being under 50, cannot hope to. If she is unable to work due to illness she is in a very poor way, depending on the charity of the local authorities, and local authorities look with a very jaundiced eye on these people before they give them any benefit. They are really hardship cases.
I agree that the situation of such a woman is a difficult one, and a single woman in these circumstances has to depend on public assistance, and this would be the position of a deserted wife under 50. Fifty was chosen because from that age on it becomes increasingly difficult to get a job anyway, but Deputies will appreciate this is new and it is experimental. It certainly is conceivable that the qualifying age would be lowered in the future, but at this experimental stage we do not consider it prudent to put it any lower than that.
Could a small subsection not be added that they would be entitled to benefit on production of a certificate showing they were ill and would be permanently ill? There is just one other matter. In regard to the woman who is drawing a widow's pension, if my memory serves me rightly the age has been reduced from 50. If it was 50, and if it has been reduced, what is it now?
There is none now, I believe.
The Minister will agree that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
There are certain overriding considerations. First, there is no reason why a deserted wife should be treated better than a widow. That would be accepted, I think.
She should be treated as well.
I agree, and I hope this will be so. There are a couple of snags to it but I would hope she would be treated in the same way as a widow if it is accepted that she is a deserted wife.
Not this year.
In view of the uncertainty of the definition of the word "deserted" and the Minister's own problems and our problems, would it be any help to his Department to introduce draft regulations and have them discussed here so that they could be amended when the Minister is bringing in regulations under subsection (5)?
There is a problem about this. We should not get the scheme going by October. I see no possibility of getting them before the House between now and then. However, they will come before the House, so that Deputies will have an opportunity, if they wish, of expressing views but, as I say, we could not get the scheme going by October if we were to adopt the Deputy's suggestion.
There is one final question in relation to the payment of allowances. It says here:
...has been paid in excess of the rate determined by that decision to have been payable shall be recoverable as a debt due to the State.
Would this be from a local social security official? If he had overpaid somebody, is this an attempt to recover money from him?
No, from the recipient.
If the recipient had misled the official then I see the case for taking it back but if the officer had not been able to make up his mind, like most of us here today, about what constituted a deserted wife, would he be liable for any error he was considered to have made?
No, not the officer.
Who would recover? The local authority?
As far as the officer is concerned if he makes a mistake, suppose he makes a blatant error, then this is a matter for discipline within the Department and the question of recovering money does not arise. The money is recovered from the recipient only where there was a fraudulent application.
That is not clear in the subsection. There is no saver.
It might frighten the officers and they might be afraid to make any decision.
I would be a bit afraid of that. There is a remote case where we might attempt to recover the money from the recipient in the absence of fraud, say if the recipient won the Sweep.
Does the Minister not think that it will frighten the officers?
Normally the attempt to recover would not be made except in the case of fraud.
There is no mention of fraud. It is very specific. I know that the Department does not operate that way but we should see it in the legislation.
I think it would be in the regulations. It is necessary to have a slight saver in the Bill.
If the Minister gives us an assurance that it will be in the regulations——
It does not mention anybody, the recipient or——
I think it is implied that it is recovered from the person who receives it. However, I will undertake that it will be in the regulations.
In the case of an annulment of a Roman Catholic marriage in which the State does not recognise the annulment would the lady be eligible as a deserted wife?
This will have to be considered as we go along. The decision in such cases will amount to whether or not the husband has deserted the wife.
If they are separated.
But if he has deserted her, in other words, they could be separated and he could be contributing to her maintenance. If he has deserted her then this would apply.
The marriage is annulled by the Catholic Church.
An annulment either in the church or in the courts does not absolve him from the obligation to contribute.
But in the particular case which I have mentioned will she be considered——
If he has deserted her then she would come in under this.
(Cavan): Surely if the marriage has been annulled and the husband has gone off, that would be the best possible evidence legally that he had deserted her. He would not have deserted her for the purposes of what we are trying to deal with here, failure to support. You would have excellent evidence that he had in fact deserted her.
We are getting on to theoretical ground now. You could have an annulment by the church without the husband being relieved of his obligation to contribute to the maintenance of his former wife. You could have, but in the circumstances described by the Deputy I agree that the evidence would be pretty strong.
Is this the section which refers to the cottage and not the plot?
It is an increase of rates of old age pensions.
But substituting the means test.
I think section 36 is the section to which the Deputy is referring.
I will wait for that section.
Amendment No. 6 in the names of Deputy O'Connell and Deputy Tully has been ruled out of order.
The amendment stated that "a woman whose husband is missing in circumstances in which, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, he may reasonably be presumed dead, shall be deemed to be a widow". Is there any way in which this can be dealt with? Again there is the matter of the man who returns after a long number of years. Such cases can arise. Men have disappeared and have not returned and the wives have been treated as grass widows—I think that is the term. Can there not be a limit to the number of years? It seems ridiculous that if a person is missing for four, five or ten years, he should not be presumed dead.
As I said on another section, in practice the Department operates what the Deputy had in mind in his amendment. There can be cases of 35 years where there is no presumption of death but on the other hand death can be presumed in a matter of weeks. What is involved is really the strength of the evidence which is available and not the length of time.
Would the Minister consider advising investigating officers, who I understand investigate also for the Department of Defence, that it is not necessary to count the number of apples on a tree or to find out if hens are laying eggs? I know of such cases although I do not know of any in the last 12 months. This matter should be dealt with in a Christian way. It may be that they consider that if they do not do this strictly the Department may feel that they are not doing their jobs and they could be done without. They are a group of people for whom I am sorry because many people dislike them and feel that they are overstepping their duties. These officials should be told that they do not have to go into all the details. Apparently they start off with the idea that they must prove that people are not entitled to the benefit. I would suggest to the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, who has a very soft heart, that the objective should be to see that deserving cases are considered and not to disqualify people, which appears to be the attitude of mind at the moment.
That does not happen weeks more.
A case like this occurred two weeks ago.
The Deputy will appreciate that this is a difficult problem because each person has a different idea of what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. There are divergent views on the question of shirking of duty by the officer and what is being unchristian. I know the attitude of the Minister for Social Welfare on this point because I have discussed it with him and I may add that my own attitude is the same. I do not go quite as far as Deputy Tully, to say that the attitude should be to see how these people can be fitted in——
Within the regulations.
However, one would hope that they would act as a normal conscientious person would act. Different people will adopt different aproaches but what is outlined by Deputy Tully seems to be going too far. I do not think it is common or widespread and I do not think the Minister for Social Welfare would want it to be widespread. That is not to say that the officers are to ignore the regulations and means but I think a reasonable approach is possible and, by and large, this is being achieved. In any case in which the bounds are overstepped, if this is brought to the attention of the Minister it will be made clear to the officer concerned where he should draw the line.
I think it would meet the wishes of all Members of this House if it went from the Minister to his most senior officers who are at present here down to the investigating officers in the country that they should have a more open and flexible attitude. If this is done I am convinced everything will be all right.
In this case it appears the operative phrase is "protect the fund". Apparently the officers work on this principle and I shall quote the following case to illustrate my point. An old man who had formerly been a tailor being self-employed had no stamps, and he had been getting food from people in return for patching clothes. An officer went so far as to visit all the people concerned in an effort to find out exactly what the old man had received. Eventually he got the old man disqualified not from a social welfare benefit but from an allowance he had from the Department of Defence. After some time the whole business was straightened out but it caused much distress. In cases such as this many of the officials are under the impression if they do not succeed in proving that an applicant is not entitled to benefit the Department will think they are not doing their job. I realise that the officers are doing a good job and if they get the same advice from the Minister which he has just given to this House there would be better relations all round.
Quite apart from the worry it may cause recipients and the unsatisfactory personal relations that may exist, I do not think an excessive amount of time should be spent on this aspect. On the other hand, it is not possible simply to ignore the fact that there are many people who try to defraud the Department of Social Welfare——
And vice versa.
What has been said here on this matter can be brought to the attention of the people concerned and perhaps it would help to clarify the situation.
Some instructions must be issued to investigating officers.
It is not the instructions but their interpretation that is the problem. This is not peculiar to the Department of Social Welfare but it exists in any large organisation. Instructions designed to meet both sides can be given but you will always find people putting their own interpretation on them. I am convinced that written instructions are not the answer; it is a question of attitude of mind.
Are there periodic conferences between departmental officials and investigating officers and how often do they take place?
I understand there are conferences about once a year and in addition they receive circulars from time to time.
There should be uniformity.
Yes, as far as this is attainable but it is not always possible.
There is one point about the number of people employed to which I should like to advert. It is said that there are not sufficient officers to go around and perhaps this may be partly responsible for the present rather unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is conceivable that if an officer has to do too much work he may be in a rather bad mood when he meets the applicant. I have been the subject of criticism from these officers because of the fact that they claim I have attacked them in the House. I want to make it clear that as long as they administer the system in the manner in which it is administered I shall attack the system and the person who, in my opinion, is guilty of maladministration. If there are not sufficient officers to do the job effectively, more people should be appointed; but they should be told that it is not their business to bend over backwards to deprive somebody of their just entitlement. Perhaps it is merely a matter of interpretation but if the officers think they are advised in a certain way very severe hardship can be inflicted on the poor.
I appreciate that point. However, steps will be taken to circulate this portion of the debate to the people concerned.
They buy the report. I am told they are very interested in the debate on social welfare.
I might add that a number of new posts were recently sanctioned by the Minister for Finance. They have been filled and the people have been trained.
I understand that amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are related and may be taken together.
I move amendment No. 7:
In subsection (1), page 14, lines 35 and 36, to delete all words after Part I in line 35 and substitute:—
"and Part II of the parts annexed to this subsection".
This is mainly for the purpose of putting down in tabular form what the benefits are. They are scattered all over the Bill as it stands. There is no easy reference. If someone wants to find out to what benefit he is entitled or what the regulations are he has to go from one page to another. I suggest it would be the easiest thing in the world to put them all together so that what is required could be easily seen at a glance.
I am in sympathy with Deputy Tully's aspiration in this but I am afraid I shall have to disappoint both himself and myself. First of all, the Minister on Second Reading referred to the fact that, because of the way this is done, it is difficult to know precisely what the position is but he went on to say that, specifically because of this, the explanatory memorandum had been designed to make the position clear. Despite my sympathy with the Deputy's aim, and I am very sympathetic to it not only in relation to this Bill but also in relation to other Bills, my problem is that I am advised that to do this would entail making other amendments in other parts of the Bill.
I have dealt with that actually.
It arises even more so out of the other part the Deputy mentioned.
I have dealt with it in other amendments.
Unfortunately, the Deputy has not yet come to that bit. This would, in fact, mean almost a recasting of the Bill by the Parliamentary draftsman. So I am advised and I must accept the advice.
I am always prepared to accept expert advice but, while I must accept the Minister's explanation, I am not happy with it.
I am not happy myself.
I do not believe it is as difficult as the Minister suggests. Why it has not been done has not been explained. I left out the death grant because it might have unfortunate complications. It would probably not be discussed. I imagine it would have put the whole thing out of order. Therefore, I had to do it this way. I honestly believe this is something which should not be thrown out immediately by the Minister. If the changes I suggest are made I cannot see how they could affect the drafting of the Bill. The Minister has his experts to advise him and I will have to accept what he says. If he says it cannot be done there is no point in trying to force the issue. All I ask is that someone will have a look at it. The Seanad will have to deal with this Bill and there should be no problem at all. It could come back here and we could agree to it. Usually, indeed, there is no debate on amendments from the Seanad. Because of the value of this I think it should be done. The Minister should consider it or recommend it to his colleague, the Minister for Social Welfare.
I would be misleading the Deputy if I undertook to do this. From what I am told it would entail so much recasting by the draftsman that it just would not be practicable to do this between now and the Seanad debate.
If there was a month to spare instead of a couple of hours I would have this out with the Minister. There is no time so I will concede it to him.
(Cavan): I should like to avail of this opportunity to ventilate a grievance a constituent has. She is a widow. She was married on 14th September, 1933, and she became a widow on 13th November, 1945. Her insurable employment record is as follows: she was in insurable employment with the Great Southern Railways from March, 1927, to August, 1933, prior to her marriage. She again entered into insurable employment on 12th December, 1949, and she remained in that employment until January, 1953. She entered the employment of CIE in January, 1953, and she remained there until 30th November, 1967, when she reached 60 years of age and retired. I understand CIE pay widows' and orphans' contributions for employees and, if that is so, this woman had a total of 24 years and four months insurable employment. Her application for a contributory pension was refused in 1968 under section 4 of the 1966 Social Welfare Act. Admittedly, the bulk of this woman's contributions would appear to have been paid after she became a widow. This is a case which would not arise very often and I would ask the Minister to look into the case on the facts I have given him. All her employment was with the railways, either the Great Southern or CIE. She was in insurable employment for six years prior to her marriage and 18 years subsequent to her widowhood. I ask the Minister and his experts to examine the case. It appears to me to have great merit. If the Minister agrees with me I would ask him to bring in an amendment on Report Stage to qualify this widow for a pension. I believe the Parliamentary Secretary knows the case.
Section 31 deals with the rate of benefit.
(Cavan): I am sorry.
I will have a look at the case but, as a preliminary, I should say that it would appear as if the position is that there were no contributions to widow's pension before 1936 and, therefore, this woman did not make any contributions until after she became a widow. The Deputy will appreciate that one cannot really start contributing to an insurance fund after the risk has occurred.
(Cavan): The contributions were accepted.
But not only for widow's pension; for other purposes, too. If she were to marry again and become a widow, that would be different. That is what she would be insuring against. On that basis, I am not very hopeful.
Perhaps we could get a section on which this would be relevant?
Amendments Nos. 9 and 10, in the names of Deputy O'Connell and Deputy Tully, have been ruled out of order as irrelevant.
The Chair is entitled to rule an amendment out of order if its acceptance would involve a charge on the Exchequer and certain things. This is the first time I have heard of an amendment ruled out of order as irrelevant without the argument in its favour having been heard.
The Ceann Comhairle is sorry to have to rule out so many amendments on this Bill on the grounds of irrelevancy. I must follow the long-established rule that amendments to an amending Bill must deal with matters relevant to some provision in the Bill as read a Second Time. The whole social welfare code is not thrown open to discussion on an amending Bill such as this.
I know—but I am not convinced. It is utterly ridiculous that social welfare benefit is not paid to entitled persons who have been stamping cards for a long number of years if, due to default by the employer, the card is not stamped. We incorporated a proposal in the amendment that there would be an extra 1d on the stamp to pay for the loss: therefore, nobody could say it would involve a charge on the Exchequer. I raised this point on the Second Reading. The Minister for Social Welfare expressed sympathy for the people concerned. He said it was difficult to recover from employers who went bankrupt. A great many wealthy employers fail to stamp insurance cards and brazenly refuse to pay the benefit due to workers even though they stopped the employee's share of the insurance stamp. Under the occupational injuries scheme the State pay the benefit and recover it from the employer. We suggest this as a way to deal with the problem. If the Minister for Social Welfare has not considered this aspect, or if it is not intended to do it immediately, would he and his advisers look into this matter and put an end to the grave hardship that arises due to the failure of an employer to stamp the insurance card for his employee. Frequently, such workers have been a long time with their employer.
The Minister for Social Welfare has been very concerned about this problem. He has been working on it. He believes he has a solution in sight that should be reasonably satisfactory to all parties concerned and that it can be done without legislation by way of regulation. He hopes to make such regulations in the fairly near future.
I wish it were done quickly. I am general secretary of a trade union which supplies legal aid to members. It is amazing the number of times we have to employ a solicitor to recover from employers money due to unfortunate people who are unemployed or ill and who may have been so for lengthy periods before coming to us with a complaint. Either the Department should recover it immediately or pay it and then recover it. They are in a much better position to do so. If there is a charge for the purpose of having it paid, I do not think there would be any complaint. Most people know that it could be their turn next time.
Amendment No. 11 stands in the names of Deputy O'Connell and Deputy Tully. I understand that amendments Nos. 12 and 13 are related and might be taken with it.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 16—
(i) in line 18, to add "(Injury Benefit)";
(ii) in line 21, to add "(Injury Benefit)";
(iii) in line 24, to add "(Maximum Disablement Gratuity)".
Either these amendments will be accepted or rejected. They are matters which should have been included in the Bill. If the Minister wants to have them withdrawn and agrees to bring them to the Seanad that will meet me and my colleagues.
I think the Deputy's point is that they should clearly be visible in the Bill. He agrees that the benefits are provided for.
It is very difficult for people not used to reading Bills——
What I said last time about recasting the Bill applies with even greater force on this occasion. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendments.
I am not casting reflections on the parliamentary draftsmen who must experience extreme difficulty in finding all the awkward and big words used in any Bill coming before us, but how is it that they can find words which the ordinary person finds it almost impossible to understand and yet will not use words which would clarify the whole Bill? Maybe there is a legal reason for it that I do not understand. The late Deputy Seán Dunne always referred to Bills of this kind as "gobbledegook". There is a lot of gobbledegook in this. Perhaps, in next year's Bill, plain English might be used to describe what the sections mean.
Is this the section which prevents those in receipt of one type of pension from switching to the higher rate of pension for a short period?
This is a rather mean section. To those who drafted the Bill, and possibly to ourselves in this House, the amount of money involved may appear very small. I travel among many people with limited means. The amount of loss sustained, even for short periods, is quite substantial to those people. They should not have been included. I am afraid I possibly tempted them to do it because I suspected something like this might happen and I put down a question to the Minister for Social Welfare a few months ago, shortly after the Budget, asking if this was happening this year.
I see it is being copperfastened by a section in this Bill. Normally they hoped no one would notice that, for a short period, they were entitled to a higher amount. It used to be August to the following January, or October to the following January. This time because it is a relatively short period and I am quite sure it was felt that the loss of £1 or £2 would not matter very much, but the loss of £1 or £2 to people who are depending on another few pounds per week to live represents luxury. This section should not have been put into the Bill.
The money aspect of this is, in fact, the least important from the point of view of the Department of Social Welfare. First of all, I should say that this section really underlines the policy decision taken by the Government that the increases should commence from the beginning of August. I should also say that, in a situation where a person would be entitled to the advantage envisaged here on a permanent basis, there is no restriction. It is only on the temporary one.
I know that.
A massive number of applications on a temporary basis would really strain the resources of the Department beyond endurance and would operate to the detriment of many other people who may, perhaps, be just as necessitous as these people.
Could the Minister not have considered putting in a small section saying that a bonus of £1 would be paid to certain pensioners who qualified? That would save all the massive correspondence to which the Minister has referred. In view of the fact that the Budget usually operated from 1st April——
Usually, but not this year.
The Minister will agree that this was an unusual year.
Not as far as the Budget was concerned.
In many ways.
Would the Minister not agree that the time is coming when all payments should be made from the beginning of the new financial year? There is no use in saying that the amount of arrears would cause chaos in the Department. I know it would be difficult to make them up. The new prices these people had to pay operated from the day of the operation of the Budget and they should get compensation from the same date. If the will were there the way would be there all right.
If the Deputy is not careful we will not be able to pay them on time on the date announced.
We will manage.
It could be written up.
At least I know my social welfare legislation. I hope they are learning something.
Amendments Nos. 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 in the names of Deputy O'Connor and Deputy Tully have been ruled out of order as irrelevant.
I consider that suggestion from the people who ruled on those amendments, without explaining the ruling an insult to this House. Those amendments were put in pretty late and the people dealing with them were obviously in a hurry and the easiest way was to rule them out of order. I want to protest at the fact that this was done. I am not casting a slur on the Chair, who had very little to do with it except to send me a polite note saying they were out of order. That is as much as he had to do with it. It is too bad that this was done and I want to register a protest.
Would the Deputy like me to repeat the reason why they are out of order?
This is the section I wanted to deal with earlier. A number of years ago a change was made. For a long time a person could have an income of £26 per year without non-contributory benefits being affected. Then it was decided that there should be a change and the amount was reduced to nil. If a person had any income that could be assessed, the pension was reduced by 5s per week. This applied to non-contributory old age pensions and non-contributory widows' pensions.
When the question of income arose, many of us were surprised to find that a cottage or house occupied by an old person, no matter what condition it was in, was considered to be income. A vested cottage was considered to be income. A person who was unfortunate, or fortunate, enough to be living in a vested county council cottage, for which some of them were paying only 6½d per week, lost 5s per week to the State so the rent of the cottage was 5s 6½d and not 6½d. The same thing applied where somebody was living with a friend. A value was put on the bed and 5s per week was deducted because of the fact that the person had accommodation, even though he or she had to buy food, clothing and fuel.
The Minister for Labour tried to correct me here the other day. He said that so far as houses were concerned exceptions were made. I knew there was an exception and I said to him that the exception he was talking about was a tumble-down old thatched house in County Donegal. Deputy Paddy Harte had kicked up such a row that the house was eventually taken as not being means and that old lady got her extra 5s. I am aware of no other case in which the house has been exempted.
An exemption has now been put in for a county council vested cottage on which the annuity is not completed. For those who do not know what the situation is, let me explain that, when a cottage is vested, the amount of vesting may be from 6½d per week to 10s or 12s per week over a period of anything between ten and 44 years. The cottage and plot are one entity. Somebody put in a section here which precludes the house from being counted as income but not the plot. What did they think they were playing at? The two are paid for together and go together. In what way could the cottage be precluded without precluding the plot as well? Was the person who put it in not aware of this, or is there some special reason why it was done in this way? If it was put in with the full knowledge of the person who put this section into the Bill of what he was doing all I can say is, thanks for nothing. The people concerned get nothing out of it. They are living in the cottage and the plot is beside it. Can they dig up the cottage and move it away from the plot? Otherwise they are stuck.
When vesting is completed, all it means to the ordinary people is that they do not have to continue paying the small annuity of 6d or 9d or 11d per week, or whatever it is. If this went through as it is, the cottage and plot would be included and they would be back in the same position and would lose 5s a week as soon as they became full owners of the vested cottages. The Minister might have an explanation which may have escaped me and, if he has, I should be glad to hear it.
We have to go back a little to get the background to this. Some time ago the regulations were changed to bring the figure from £26 per year down to nil but in the case of unvested labourers' cottages the rent which was paid was deemed to account for the annual value of the House and, therefore, having the house did not count while you were paying the rent. Once you entered into the purchase scheme the value of the cottage was taken into account. The effect of this section is to take the value of the cottage out so that it is not true to say that people will not get any benefit. When Deputy Tully said: "Thanks for nothing; this does nothing for them" that is not correct. At least it takes the value of the cottage out of assessment where heretofore it was in.
Secondly, in the case of the plot, some plots may be completely unproductive and some quite lucratively productive and in practice there can be a considerable difference in the means derived from a plot. It is on that basis the distinction is made here. Even some people who have means in addition to the cottage and plot may benefit from a higher rate under this provision even though it may be a small improvement. To say this is not of benefit is quite inaccurate. It may not go as far as Deputy Tully would like but it operates as a relieving section and should benefit virtually all envisaged in this context and some who have a cottage and plot and some means in addition.
Does the Minister agree that the industry of the tenant in this case is being taxed, so to speak?
This is coming to the root of the whole question of means tests. One could argue—in fact, we have often heard it argued—that somebody who has been very industrious all his life and accumulated something for his old age, is penalised. This is a very old argument into which I do not think I should enter now.
I hope the Minister will not think me rude but what he has just said shows that he does not understand the position. If the plot were productive and producing an income that income would automatically be counted whether or not the cottage and plot were put out of assessment. That income could be easily assessed and would normally be counted. If the plot produced only £26 a year, which would be the next step, it would not be very productive so that hare, as I said before, will not run.
The position, from what the Minister said, is that somebody was trying to be too clever and took out the cottage but did not take out the plot. Unfortunately, most of the vested cottages in which you find old people living have a plot either untilled or badly tilled because the old folk are unable to do it or it does not pay them. They do not use much of the produce and do not sell it. They are not in the market garden business. What the Minister has done by excluding the cottage and not excluding the plot is to leave them in the very same position as they were previously, and this applies to the whole class of vested cottiers.
I grant it may have been done in error by people who may not have known what the situation was. It is very easy to make a mistake. One can do something with the best intentions and it may still turn out wrong. I ask the Minister and his advisers to look again at this matter. The Bill will not have to be redrafted. It will simply mean taking out three or four words to rectify the position.
What Deputy Tully has said has reinforced what I said.
He always seems to be making the Minister's arguments for him.
I think it is unintentional on his part. He said that if the plot were very productive what was produced on it was taken into account and that there is no change as regards the plot. He is right in that but the point I made was that up to the operation of this section, which we hope will operate shortly, the vested cottage was taken into account in assessing means.
May I interrupt the Minister in order to save discussion? Even if the vested cottage is not taken into account the fact that the lowest level of the means test is nil means that even one penny income, which is the very least that could be put on the plot, will exclude the person from the highest category. There is no point in arguing.
They take off 5s a week.
That person loses 5s a week over one penny.
I should point out that it is the use that is made of the plot that counts. The ownership of the plot in itself does not constitute means.
If the ownership of the plot does not count, let it be taken out. There is no point in putting it in.
No, because that could get you into difficulty: there could be a substantial income from the plot in some cases.
But if the old age pensioner has a substantial income from the plot that will be assessed against him whether this section is here or not. We do not have to say to a farmer: "We are assessing you on what you are getting from your market garden and on the value of the land." Here we are saying: "If you have a market garden out of which you are not getting even a shilling we are still putting a value on it which will knock you out."
No, we are not saying that. Let me go back and point out to the Deputy that he has was wrong in what he said originally. We are, under this, taking out of assessment the value of the cottage. That is a change. Will the Deputy admit that?
Not unless the cottage and plot are taken out because they are the one entity, a point the Minister seems to miss completely.
May I repeat that the ownership of the plot by itself does not constitute means?
The use of the plot, the income derived from the plot is assessed.
It has not obtained up to now. If you had a cottage and plot it meant you did not get the maximum.
But that is for the reason I have been mentioning. Before it was vested the value did not operate because the rent was deemed to cancel it out. When it became vested it was calculated because there was no rent to set off against it. This section is restoring that position. You do not assess the cottage.
Suppose an old age pensioner has a small shop in a vested cottage, what happens? You assess what he is making whether this section is there or not. You assess what he is making out of his house and it will deprive him of the pension. What the Minister is saying here is that the land of the cottage, for which he is paying in his annuity just as he is paying for the cottage itself, is not taken into account but if he plants cabbage or potatoes in the garden, even for his own use, they are counted against him and this will deprive him of benefit. We are wasting too much time. The Minister either accepts it or he does not.
That would be the same as using the house for a shop, the same principle. Does the Deputy object to this?
I object to an effort being made to tell old people that they will get away with the full pension in future if they have vested a council cottage on which they are paying an annuity when this is not true.
They may well do so and what is more, as I pointed out to the Deputy, even in the case of people who have means other than the cottage and the plot, some of them will benefit under this section and get an increased pension.
The value of the cottage and plot is as low as 6½d per week. If the Minister would only realise that he would know that what he is saying is just not possible.
It is a fact.
In 999 cases out of 1,000 the plot is used to sow a few potatoes and a bit of cabbage.
That would deprive them of 5s.
It would appear we have become very mean and niggardly when we are paying out in the name of the taxpayers the smallest allowances that are paid by any Government Department. We have proposals and legislation here to pay grants to industrialists and to farmers. There are certain conditions but they are certainly not as strict as the qualifications in our legislation and regulations to provide a few pounds per week for an old age pensioner, a widow, an orphan and the various other social welfare classes. Here we are talking about a quarter of an acre or half an acre.
Or an acre.
Or two acres.
No, not two acres. That proves what I said earlier, that the Minister is not sure of his facts.
I am sure of this, that this section will benefit people. It will cost money, and the Deputies started on the basis that it was of no benefit to anyone.
It is of little benefit to anyone.
Oh, a little. Let us be accurate.
It will benefit about ten cases out of the thousands there will be.
We can count two thousand cases.
We are very careful in this House when it comes to the application of a means test for the payment of allowances to the poorest people in the country. There was strong objection here from all sides of the House when there was a provision proposed to the effect that a vested cottage would constitute means for the purpose of qualifying for an old age or a non-contributory old age pension, meaning that they would not get the maximum amount. Practically every housing authority in the rural areas has encouraged people to buy their cottages so as to relieve the ratepayers in the various areas of a certain amount of expense, particularly in regard to the repair of cottages. The Minister talks about the value of a cottage; as far as I can gather—I may be wrong in this—as soon as the payments are completed, the value of the cottage may be assessed as means.
Will be assessed as means. Therefore, the Minister and the Government regard this little labourer's cottage as constituting value to old age pensioners of 75 or 80 years of age as if they intended to convert it or make some money out of it. As far as the cottage is concerned, it is a home for them for the remaining years of their lives. It is scandalous that it should constitute means for the purpose of deciding whether or not a person should get the maximum non-contributory old age or widow's pension. It is of no value to the pensioner where it is bought out only as a home. Surely we are not going to assess a home as means for the purpose of depriving these people of the maximum pension. We are merely talking about a plot of a quarter of an acer or half an acre. The Minister should know also that in the majority of these cases the plots are not used at all by the old age pensioner or by the widow. How does the Minister intend to assess the value of that plot to the applicant for the maximum rate?
They will not be assessed if they are not used.
What does non-use mean?
If they have six hens picking the grass, is that use?
What will be use of the plot? If an old age pensioner decides to get a nephew or somebody else to till the plot and put down a few drills of potatoes and a few heads of cabbage, what will that mean? Because they are industrious they will lose some money per week.
Twelve pounds per year.
The Minister should consider this. Anyone in the country can get £300, or maybe more in some cases, as a grant from the local authority for building a house of 1,249 square feet. Any farmer—and I do not begrudge it to him—can get grants for various purposes without any means test. Anyone who wants to start an industry here or to expand one can get money. There are no qualifications like those that are applied to the poorest people in the land who are getting £4 or £4 5s per week and who would be deprived of 5s per week merely because they had a quarter of an acre or because they had a few hens or a few apple trees.
This is a very bad provision and this was said on both sides of the House when it was first introduced. The Minister, in consultation with his colleague, the Minister for Social Welfare, should do as Deputy Tully suggests— and this would be limited—exclude the plot of land with the cottage and do not let us here in this House keep badgering and plaguing these unfortunate people.
Is the Deputy suggesting we should exclude the plot no matter what use is made of it or what income is derived from it?
I propose that the Minister should accept Deputy Tully's proposal.
Is that not what it amounts to?
No, it is not, and I shall spell it out in words of two syllables if the Minister cannot understand it. If the land is being used for market gardening and the produce is being sold, then the Department are entitled to and will put a value on what comes off it. If it is simply being tilled or half-tilled or not tilled at all by the people who live in the house, it should not have a value put on it. The question was asked a while ago, what is "use"? If a county council plot is vested and you do not go near it at all it will grow grass and one of two things will happen: a neighbour may put a cow or a calf in it for a couple of weeks, or someone will cut the hay and give back a bag of potatoes to the old person instead of it; he may give nothing at all or he may give him a few drinks, if the old person is fond of a drink, at the weekend. That is all the value that is involved in this, a quarter of an acre or half an acre, or a maximum of one acre. We are not asking too much. In view of the fact that the Minister—and I give him credit for this—thought of the idea of excluding the vested cottage, surely he should now be prepared to go a little further and exclude the plot as well?
I think we are at cross purposes. I do not disagree with the Deputy. I would be prepared to accept that the use of the plot just for the household should not count as means, but excluding the plot, as the Deputy says, does not meet the situation.
Excluding the house does not exclude them if people start a shop in the house?
Therefore, excluding the plot, if they start a market garden does not exclude them either? The Minister is a legal man and he knows this better than I do.
The point I am making is that in any use of the plot where it might appear that it was being used for purposes——
—commercial in the sense other than use by the household, in any such case some inquiries would have to be made as to which is which.
I do not mind the Minister's officer making the inquiry but what I do mind is an investigating officer looking at a plot, as has happened where there was a ridge of potatoes for about 50 yards and about 50 cabbage plants planted by a widow and a value of 4s per week was put by the investigating officer on that produce in order to deprive that widow of the amount which she would get in one category as against another. This sort of thing can happen again and if this is left in we will be plaguing the Department's officials to have cases investigated. I suggest that cottage and plot be left out completely. Just omit the words which the Minister put in saying "excluding any plot". If the Minister takes those words out I am satisfied he can still catch the person concerned if he has a market garden or he is selling valuable produce off the plot. The Minister can catch that person just as if the person started a shop in his house. It is not a question of the Minister having to back down; we have had a good argument and we should have convinced him.
We could all agree here if we can say that where the plot is not being used commercially it will not be taken into account.
I would not go quite that far because I can see pitfalls. I will go as far as I went when I said that if the plot is being used only for the production of whatever it is producing for consumption in the house to which the plot is attached, we would exclude that. I can visualise that if you just say "commercially" it would open the door to other things. There are circumstances in which the plot is not attached to the house.
Somebody has led the Minister up the garden path.
The Deputy is thinking of the vast majority of——
The fact that the plot is not beside the house does not mean that the plot is not attached to the house. The plot might be beside the house or it might be a mile away, although it seldom is; it might be a couple hundred of yards away; it is still the one——
I think we are splitting hairs.
I think so.
I think we can agree with what the Minister said already.
I have a practical difficulty about this and how it should be dealt with.
The Minister knows what we have suggested and if he puts it through in the Seanad and if we object to it we can get somebody there to raise a row——
But if it goes through the Seanad the Dáil will have to get it again.
Surely an amendment can be circulated between now and the Report Stage?
I thought the Report Stage was today and that the Bill would go to the Seanad tomorrow.
Will there not be an interval after this?
Amendments can be circulated at short notice.
The Ceann Comhairle assures us that amendments can be circulated at short notice.
It is a matter for the Government and not for the Chair. I am just stating the position.
The way the words are put in draws attention to the matter. If the words were taken out it would be the very same position as if there were a five acre, ten acre or 50 acre farm attached and you would take cognisance of that. The fact that there is nothing written in here to say that that should be taken account of would not affect the position. There is no danger at all if the Minister just takes out the words he has here, "excluding any plot".
Excluding the plot has no reference whatever to what we have been discussing, the use of the produce commercially or just for the house itself; it does not cover that point.
That has been already covered in social welfare legislation a dozen times.
If it is covered what is the Deputy arguing about?
I am arguing that the Minister is excluding the plot and by excluding the plot he is saying that although the house will not be counted any longer the plot will continue to be counted.
Of course it is.
No, let me——
The Minister is changing feet now. I get tired when I hear this sort of argument being put up after a two-hour argument.
Just listen to me. I get a bit tired too when I find this kind of changing of feet going on and I am accused of changing feet. I have said on a number of occasions, and the Deputy has not disagreed with me, that the effect of this section is to exclude the cottage from the computation of means. Secondly, that in so far as the plot is concerned the mere ownership of the plot does not and will not count for means; it is the use which is made of the plot that counts for means. The area of difficulty that arises is in the use which is made of the plot. The deletion of the words here does not affect the use which is made of the plot and how that is assessed. I said that I would be prepared to accept in so far as the use is concerned that the use of the plot for the production of vegetables and so on for consumption in the house would not count as means, but excluding the words here does not solve the problem and is not relevant to the problem.
It is quite easy: exclusive of the plot where it is used for the production of vegetables for the home only. It is as simple as that. There is no drafting problem.
If the vested cottage and plot had a farm attached the Minister would not have to say in this amendment that the cottage is excluded, or "excluding the plot and the farm", but he would take the farm into consideration and anything coming off the farm would be valued. I am prepared to take the Minister's word that he believes he can deal with this in the way he said he could but he is not the Minister dealing with social welfare and the interpreation put on it in this House is very often not the interpretation given by people outside. If the Minister can say how he can convey to those who will be administering this that they are not to take the plot into consideration if it is only being used for the purpose of the house I am prepared to let the matter drop.
I have never said that can be done without an amendment. This has been my problem. When the Deputy suggested that it could be dealt with simply by excluding——
So it can.
Does the Deputy think that that would solve the problem?
Of course it will.
I cannot see how just excluding the words about the plot would solve the problem.
We all appear to agree about what should be done. Would the Minister suggest an amendment?
I was about to say that all I can do is have it looked at very quickly. I will have to have regard to how long it is likely to take to go through the Seanad and whether the Dáil will still be in session and so on. I must get the opportunity to get it so worded as to cover only what I have been saying and nothing else.
The Minister could bring it in here tomorrow and we will pass it.
I except that the Bill will be before the Seanad tomorrow.
It can be before this House tomorrow, the first business.
I will have to ask the House to allow me to see what I can work out.
The Minister will discuss this matter with his officials and will make up his mind. However, on Report Stage unless there is an amendment the House will not have an opportunity of even mentioning it.
The Minister has given a guarantee there will be an amendment.
As far as I know there would have to be an amendment to achieve what we are talking about.
Can we recommit the section to make sure that we can refer to it. Can we trust the Minister?
The Deputy will have to trust me.