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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Mar 1971

Vol. 252 No. 10

Committee on Finance. - Vote 47 : Social Welfare (Resumed).

Debate resumed on the following motion:
That a supplementary sum not exceeding £8,730,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1971, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Social Welfare, for certain services administered by that Office, for payments to the Social Insurance Fund, and for sundry grants.
—(Minister for Social Welfare).

Before I reported progress I mentioned that while it is true that the social welfare recipients got increases in their allowances last August or October it is also unfortunately true that those increases have been eroded largely by the spiralling increase in the cost of living. I know that all these Supplementary Estimates must be passed by tomorrow so I shall just ask the Minister a few questions in a friendly way.

The Minister said that most of the claims made by deserted wives were attended to. When the Social Welfare Bill was going through this House some months ago it was pointed out that the definition of deserted wife would take some time to settle satisfactorily. I wonder if this has been done. I wonder too whether the Minister's fear and mine that the allowances to deserted wives might prevent reconciliations has any foundation.

I said before and it has been borne out that our social welfare priorities here have been upside down for many years. We all admit there has been an increase in wealth in this country over a number of years and when there is an increase in wealth it should be equitably distributed between the haves and the have-nots. I wonder what the position of this country will be if and when we join the EEC because according to my knowledge of social welfare conditions in the EEC countries our social welfare code here will need drastic revision and improvement.

Children's allowances are much lower here than in other countries. I have always claimed that in this country where the families by and large are much bigger than in other countries we have been very niggardly in our payment of children's allowances. I have been looking at a document in regard to family allowances in the EEC countries and I have discovered that in Belgium for the first child there is 80s paid; in France 99s 8d; in Italy 65s 4d; in Luxembourg 77s 9d; in the Netherlands 59s 6d; in the UK nothing is paid for the first child, for the second 34s 8d and for the third 43s 4d. We all know what it is in Ireland. The average living standards in Italy are not much higher than in Ireland but family allowances are 2½ to 6½ times greater than ours. I believe our whole social welfare code should be revised forthwith. If the present Minister or any Minister for Social Welfare brings a Bill to this House with that end in view I have no doubt it will be debated sensibly.

The Deputy may not advocate legislation.

The Minister understands my feelings. In about a month's time the Budget will be presented here and I hope there will be something in it that will give us reason to congratulate the Minister for Social Welfare on having such an influence with the Minister for Finance.

With regard to free travel for certain categories I think the exclusion of widows of IRA pensioners was absurd and indefensible. I would ask him at the first opportunity to make an order —that is all it requires—to include a small section of people.

In regard to unemployment assistance I have only one thing to say. The Minister may be annoyed at my mentioning this again but he will be no more annoyed than the people who have to wait seven, eight and nine weeks for the payment of unemployment benefit. It is my experience that those delays still take place, happily not as much as formerly but they still take place and I am asking him to see to it if at all possible that this annoying irregularity will be eliminated.

Insurance contributions to social welfare workers is something that has been advocated in the House. In my view the contributions and the benefits should be on a graded system and the sooner that system is introduced the better. While the money provided for the benefits is welcome it is unfortunate that inflation has taken such a toll of it. I hope that in the context of the Budget social welfare recipients will be thought of more kindly by the Government and the Minister.

I want to start off by saying that I consider the civil servants in the Department of Social Welfare the most humane group of civil servants in this country. Over the years I have always found them very anxious to co-operate and to ensure that benefits, where due, were paid. Unfortunately, over the past 12 months I am afraid the position has deteriorated very much not through any fault of the officials concerned but apparently because of the fact that for one reason or another the number of civil servants available for this type of work is dwindling. It may be because of the fact that particularly girls now are not prepared to accept the amount of money which they are offered as juniors in the Civil Service because they have to pay practically all of it for digs. Those of us who travel around the country know of this because we find them attempting to thumb lifts home at the week-ends because they have not got the bus fare. This is one of the reasons, I understand, why the number of junior civil servants has been reduced and this has resulted in a very indifferent service being given now by the Department of Social Welfare. We find such cases as people sending in certificates over a number of weeks and if there is anything wrong with the certificates instead of being returned with a request that they be put in order, they are simply put in a tray pending attention. Only today I found seven such certificates were wandering around. Everybody seemed to have the wrong number except one person in Social Welfare; even the insured man himself had given the wrong number. This was the reason given for his not being paid but the number in the index in Social Welfare was the same number as this man was using. Yet he could not be paid.

There was the case of an old man who was drawing unemployment assistance. Last October he realised he would be 70 on 30th December. He wrote in asking if he would be entitled to a non-contributory old age pension. It was assumed—I do not know who is responsible for this— that it was a retirement pension he wanted and it was decided he was not entitled to such a pension. A week after Christmas his unemployment assistance, on which he and his wife lived, ceased. I tried to find out why he had not got the pension and I was told that the social welfare officer in the district had got the case two months ago but apparently had not time to check up on it. I do not know what the man has lived on but these things should not happen. If the Minister has not sufficient staff, he should get them. There is no use telling people waiting for benefit that the staff are not adequate to deal with their claims; they cannot understand that. I know that the senior officers down the line to those a long time in the service and still on a fairly low grade are doing everything possible but if they have not sufficient help they cannot meet the demands. Something must be done to improve the service at that level.

What does the Minister propose to do in regard to persons who fail to stamp insurance cards for employees? On 8th March this year the Minister made an order as a result of which the waiting period for benefit was eliminated and, provided the card was stamped, the applicant got credit for the previous year. But where somebody has not stamped a card for two or three years and there is an application for benefit, the failure to stamp is discovered, particularly when a number of people are involved, and the employer is compelled to stamp the card at that stage. Three or four years later somebody else becomes sick and it is discovered that no card was stamped in the meantime. When that happens those responsible in the Department of Social Welfare should ensure that a person who has defaulted once will not get away with it a second time. I have come across in the past couple of weeks a number of instances where this has happened. It is very hard luck on the person who believes he is stamping a card and paying the contributions for the stamps over this period to find that the stamps have not been put on.

The Minister says the fact that he has changed the law in regard to the waiting period will help; apparently, it does not help in every case because I know a number of cases where so far the insured person has not received the benefit due. Something has arisen to prevent him getting it. I ask that the necessary attention be given to this matter so that everybody who, through no fault of his own, fails to stamp his insurance card will get benefit as in the case of an occupational injury claim.

In the case of occupational injuries I think it is wrong that if somebody meets with an accident on the job, applies for benefit and a form DB 5 has to be sent to the employer to determine if the accident occurred at work, and if the employer does not return the form the person may wait a considerable time before benefit is paid. Usually such a person can be paid disability benefit but I found recently a number of cases where disability benefit was not paid and insured persons who were out ill got nothing. This is not good enough. I know there is a good reason —the shortage of staff—but it is little use to the employee whose wife goes to buy something in the shop because if she has not the money she will not get the goods. The onus is on the Department to ensure that applicants are paid promptly.

The Minister should be prepared to admit, in view of the fact that we now have over 70,000 people unemployed and a further 3,000 that he says are put on retirement pension—otherwise there would be 73,000 unemployed—that is part of the reason why extra money is required. Apart from what Deputy Barrett said about making provision for improved payments in the coming Budget, the Minister should try to impress on his Cabinet colleagues that they have never attempted to introduce full employment. Every man or woman out of work costs the State money through benefits, if they get benefits, or through not stamping cards and not paying income tax. I had a discussion on this issue with the Minister for Lands the other evening and even forestry workers who had been employed for years and are now laid off will, in fact, in some cases get almost as much as if they were working. The State loses; the taxpayers lose. The State's right hand does not know what its left hand is doing. People who would prefer to do a full week's work for the benefit they are getting are told there is no money available. It is not available in the Department of Lands; it is available in the Department of Social Welfare. This is cockeyed thinking and the Minister should use his influence on his Cabinet colleagues to have it rectified before the next Budget.

A rather clever trick was used in the last Budget in regard to the increase for the unemployed insured person without a corresponding increase for the wife. The Minister would be amazed —or perhaps not—at the number who were taken in. They felt that as the rule had been an increase for the insured person and the wife that if they had got 10s—to use the old term—it would mean 10s for the insured and 10s for the wife, £1. When they found they were getting 17s 6d they thought it meant 17s 6d each but they found afterwards it was less because it was 17s 6d which, although the Department did not say so, had to be divided between the two people; it takes as much to keep one as the other. The amount given last year was rather miserly because, even added to the amount of benefit these people get, it is a very small sum.

The Government especially talk a good deal about Common Market conditions and what they propose to do when we enter the Community. Have they given any thought to what they must do in regard to Social Welfare benefits when we go into the Common Market? The crunch will come then and they will have to find money somewhere. It is extraordinary, but if money is required it will be found. If a war were declared tomorrow the defence budget could be multiplied by ten overnight and the money would be found. During the world wars we know that defence budgets of other states increased tremendously and the money, apparently, came from nowhere. It was said that after the war these countries would never rise again but they are all doing nicely now while we are still dragging along although we were not involved in either world war. We do not seem to be able to get enough money to pay our sick, our unemployed, our widows or our old aged enough to keep body and soul together.

I know other Deputies are anxious to speak but I wish to add to the appeal that Deputy Barrett made on the question of travelling. The wife should be allowed to travel free if her husband has got a free travel voucher. Why could it not be issued in such a way that the wife also could use the voucher? It is rather awkward if the husband is sick and his wife has to travel a distance to collect something for him, whether it is a bottle of stout or an ounce of tobacco and she finds she has to pay her way whereas if he was able to get up and travel with her it would be all right. Those are little things which might be changed.

I would ask the Minister to take a look at the question of old folk living alone. One of the old people dies and the other is living alone and has to bring in a married daughter or a son's wife to look after her. Whether that person stays in the house or not she should not disqualify the old person from getting whatever benefit she is entitled to nor should she be debarred from getting whatever is allowed for looking after the old person. As it stands at the present time the mere fact that the daughter or daughter-in-law has a husband to support her is considered to be good reason why she should not be entitled to get any benefit. I am quite sure this is as true in the Minister's own county as it is in mine and he must know that where there is nobody to look after the old people they finish up in the county home where it costs about four or five times as much to keep them as it would if they got the small allowance which they could get and which it would not break the State to give them. This is something which should be considered when the new Budget is being framed. It would have the effect of relieving a lot of distress and allowing those unfortunate old people to have a little comfort at the end of their days.

I referred in the debate on the widows earlier to the question of the inspection carried out by the officers of the Department. The Minister assured me on more than one occasion there were no specific instructions issued to officers that they were to be very strict. My opinion is they are very stringent and since they all seem to be branded with the one stick it would appear they must all have received the same instructions. They are doing a job and while they are paid to do this job they feel the onus is on them to do it properly but in doing it properly they investigate everything that has to be investigated. Somebody who takes extreme measures to try to prove that some unfortunate old person is not entitled to something which he or she is entitled to is going outside the bounds of what he is expected to do. I would ask the Minister to ensure that those people will not lose their jobs if they do not bring home a few scalps attached to their belts every time they go out, if they do not succeed in disqualifying half a dozen people on their tour of duty to ensure that the State will not have to pay some benefit which those people have applied for.

I know the Parliamentary Secretary is as interested as I am in the question of payment to the girl who has been working in insurable employment, who gets married, who subsequently has a baby and who signs for unemployment benefit afterwards but is refused. There has been a consistent refusal by the appeals officer to grant the appeal of that person, no matter who the person is. One of the funny things about it is that the usual stock question is: "Who will look after the baby?" There was a period when if a mother or mother-in-law was brought in and was prepared to do that job it was sufficient for benefit to be paid but that is no longer so. The mere fact that the question is asked is quite sufficient to debar the person from drawing benefit, whether the mother or mother-in-law is available or not.

This is a disgraceful situation. I had a case last week—the appeal came up the other day—where a person had not alone been working until she got married but was working after she was married. When the baby was born her mother looked after the child and she went back to work but when slackness occurred in the employment she was laid off. She was debarred from getting employment on the grounds, I assume, that there was no one to look after the baby. The Minister assured me that there were no specific instructions issued that this was to be done. Perhaps he would tell me when he is replying, if specific instructions have not been issued, why have they consistently carried out this particular policy that when a girl gets married she should stay at home whether or not enough money is coming into the house to pay the outgoings.

With regard to the non-contributory widow's pension would the Minister try to arrange that the widow who is working and who is sick or unemployed either gets the full rate of benefit or else the payment for stamps in her case is reduced by half? The Minister cannot have it both ways and he has had it both ways for a number of years. This is a reasonable thing to ask the Minister.

I have brought those points to the Minister this evening because I feel it is necessary occasionally to jog his memory. I would like the Minister to comment on whether he still considers that the 73,000 persons he now admits are unemployed in this country are unemployable. He may remember some months ago when I asked him why he did not train some of the then 60,000 who were unemployed, his reply to me was they were mostly unemployable. I would like to know if he still considers those people are unemployable and unfit to train for any type of skilled work.

Mr. J. Lenehan

In view of the fact that we have to try to get the Supplementary Estimates through as fast as we can I will not spend much time on this Supplementary Estimate. I am sorry Deputy Tully has gone because he said many things which I would have said myself. I agree with him that old age pensions and all the other benefits should be increased as fast as possible but there are cases where even the question of increasing them would be of little significance because the position would be that the local reporters would take all possible steps to ensure that the person seeking the increase would not get it. Unfortunately, at everyone's back door there is always a neighbour who is prepared to prevent a man or a woman from getting something to which he or she is entitled according to departmental regulations.

I have brought up the question of deserted wives at our own party meetings. In all the cases that have come to my attention the position has been that the neighbours have told the pension officers that these women would not let their husbands back. I know many of these husbands and certainly, if I were a wife, I would not go within hundreds of miles of them. I have asked the Minister to accept a certificate from the parish priest or the home assistance officer to the effect that a woman is deserted. Such certificates should serve as ample proof that a woman has been deserted.

A woman can be employed for 20 years and can have paid full rates of insurance all that time but, unless she buys 26 stamps when she gets married, she cannot draw any benefit. This is about the most stupid rule that was ever made. Is it a disgrace to get married? Is there anything wrong with getting married? Why should a woman be penalised because she gets married? No one in his right senses would accept that rule as being either sane or reasonable. I am sure Deputy Tully will agree that it must be one of the most stupid regulations ever introduced. Even Pontius Pilate, daft as he was, would not have had anything to do with such a regulation.

It is a disgrace to get married, is it? At one time in Ballycroy couples had to get married at night because it was not thought proper to get married during the day. If a woman does not get married she can send in fake certificates for the next 40 years but if she gets married she must put up 26 stamps after she is married in order to receive benefit. Is that right?

The Deputy is right.

She must put up 26 stamps.

Mr. J. Lenehan

An unmarried woman can send in fake certificates for years and get all the benefits she wants. The Minister knows the set up in all areas, especially the western areas, and I would ask him here and now to change this stupid regulation. It is quite possible that he has not been asked to do this up till now. It is, in fact, extraordinary that the Labour Party have not come in here long ago to raise this problem. In fact I do not know why I have not raised it before, but it has only just occurred to me. How can any sane person— there are not many in this House at the moment—tolerate this? I am sure no one will agree with me quicker than the Minister in this. I am sure Deputy Corish will agree that I am right in this. I am sure the Opposition generally will agree that married women should be treated in the same way as single women.

There are many old age pensioners who have no near relative to look after them and they are looked after by local girls or women. These girls or women should get the allowance of 55s a week just as the relative gets the allowance. I do not see any sense in the present position. If necessary, there could be a certificate from the parish priest or the home assistance officer to prove that the girl or woman is looking after an old age pensioner.

It seems grossly unfair that a woman can be deprived of an allowance because a neighbour sends in a false report or something like that. That has happened. It is still happening. This was discussed at one of our party meetings. Again a statement from the parish priest or the home assistance officer should be accepted. It is grossly unfair that those entitled to an allowance cannot get it because of the interference of a neighbour. I knew one lady who said she was divorced because she thought that she would get the allowance more easily. Of course, we have no divorce laws here but she thought this was a quick way out. She lost her allowance because of this statement.

The Minister should examine all these anomalies. Where an old age pensioner is entitled to free travel his wife should be allowed to travel free also. It is ridiculous that, if a woman wants to travel free, she must bring her husband with her. These wives should be given entitlement to free travel on their own. Those over 70 and the wives of IRA men get free travel. All wives of old age pensioners should get free travel. I ask the Minister to have a look at this and to ensure that this small relief is granted.

The people who are the concern of the Minister for Social Welfare are not people who are able to mount a massive political pressure campaign in the way many other groups can who are seeking improvements in their conditions. This is the reason why social welfare payments have to some extent fallen behind in the race. I notice here—and I am working from rather out-of-date figures —that during the '60s the proportion of our total current public expenditure which was devoted to social welfare was falling steadily : In 1958, it was 23.7 per cent of total current public expenditure; in 1968 this was down to 21.4 per cent. This is indicative. I am sorry that I do not have figures for 1970. I am fairly confident that they are probably somewhat better than those figures, but I would like to have the comparison all the same from the Minister when he is replying. I would remind the House that Fine Gael projected from 1972 that 25.6 per cent of our total current public expenditure would be devoted to social welfare.

The reason for the reduction, as I say, is that the people concerned are essentially unorganised; they are the forgotten people, people who do not know one another; they do not work together; they do not have occasion to meet one another. Hence they are not able to organise and are not able to mount pressure to get action. I am not saying the Minister or any of the parties in this House are unsympathetic to the needs of these people. However, I think the same is true of politicians as of everybody else, that their social conscience will get them so far but a certain element of pressure is also required to bring about what is really needed.

Having made these general remarks I would like to ask a few specific questions. I asked a question some time ago, of which I have not got the record with me now, about understaffing among the junior staff in various sections of the Department of Social Welfare. I remember being told of quite a large number of vacancies which were unfilled at that time. I would be grateful if the Minister, when replying, could give the House some indication whether the trend has improved since then and if these vacancies have been filled. It is important to realise that if there are vacancies in the Department of Social Welfare there are fewer people to get the job done and therefore there will be greater delays. Every Deputy will have some complaints about delays in this Department. They will also know from talking to officials that it is certainly not because of lack of willingness on the part of officials that these delays take place but rather, as was demonstrated by the reply I received, because of lack of staff. I hope the Minister will take the necessary steps to make the terms of employment in the Department sufficiently attractive to ensure that adequate staff are available to eliminate all delay in the processing of claims.

I also asked a question some time ago, of which again I do not have the record with me, about the introduction of computers in the Department of Social Welfare to deal with some of the routine work which at present has to be done by members of the staff. I know people will hold up their hands in horror at the thought of computers deciding whether a person is eligible for a certain benefit. That is not what I have in mind. There is certain routine work which could be done more quickly by computers. The introduction of these computers was mooted some time in the early '60s. I may be wrong but in my recollection there was a recommendation that this should be done but I do not believe that as yet these computers have been introduced. I would be grateful if the Minister would let me know what progress has been made in this area, because again this is something which would mitigate the delays which are a frequent source of complaint in this House.

I would draw the Minister's attention to the Budget in Britain which has given substantial increases of £1 across the board for widows' pensions, old age pensions and so on. The British economy is linked very closely to ours and if standards of living and increases in inflation in Britain require such an increase it is fair to say that a similar increase is required here, and I hope the Minister will try even to better it when our Budget is introduced.

I would like also to ask the Minister about a question I had down today in relation to the special hardship allowance in the industrial injuries code. The Minister has told me that this is something they have in Britain and which we do not have here. As a result of this an Englishman who came to live here was unable to receive this special hardship allowance because it was not included in the reciprocal agreement on industrial injuries. We do not have this provision here and if any Irishman went to Britain he would not be paid. I would ask the Minister to let me know when he is replying whether he proposes to follow Britain in this regard so that people will not be left without this special hardship allowance. I do not claim to know very much about the background to this allowance but as Britain has it, and apparently has it for some time, it is something we should contemplate here, too.

Another matter to which I have frequently drawn the Minister's attention is retrospective payment for people who may be out of work through disability for over 12 days in respect of the three waiting days for which they are not paid at the moment. I understood from replies I received from the former Minister for Social Welfare, Mr. Kevin Boland, that his thinking just before he vacated office was definitely tending in favour of such a scheme but, judging from the replies I have heard from the present Minister, I think he is moving against it. This is something he should reconsider. This approach of not paying people for the first three waiting days when they have been out of work for a very long time can only be described as niggardly.

I would like to echo the point made by other Members of the House that a wife should be allowed to avail of free travel which is granted to her husband if he is an old age pensioner. This is in the interest of promoting family unity. Possibly financial considerations are a bar but I cannot see that the amount involved would be very great because very often the places are available on the buses anyway. It is probable that the wife would want to travel to do shopping in the middle of the day when there would not be a great rush and there would not be a large number of people on the bus.

Some time ago the Parliamentary Secretary had quite a large coverage in the Irish Press in talking about the initiation of a pay-related system of benefits and contributions under the social welfare code, that this was in line with European practice and something we intended to introduce here. In fact I think it is in line with practice all over the world and I would like to know what progress has been made in regard to its introduction. I cannot imagine the homework involved would be all that great prior to the introduction of the scheme once it has been accepted as Government policy, because there has been so much experience in other countries in operating such a scheme that we are not exactly pioneering and I cannot see there is justification for the delay which is apparently taking place.

In relation to the old age care allowance, as the House is aware, this benefit is not payable in respect of a female relative who is partly supported by her husband. So far as I know—I am subject to correction on this—the means of the husband are not taken into consideration so that even if his means are very scant, she is not entitled to any benefit while looking after an old age pensioner. Is that correct?

This allowance should be extended to cover such people. We should encourage, through our social welfare code, that families remain together in so far as possible instead of people having to go to county homes. The present scheme whereby an allowance is paid to a female relative while she is looking after an old age pensioner is a good scheme but, as I have suggested, might be extended to include women whose husbands are still living but who are not in receipt of very much income.

Again, I should like to support Deputy Lenehan in relation to what he said regarding married women having to have 26 stamps after marriage before qualifying for benefit.

Of course, they get a marriage gratuity.

This prevents them from getting benefit of any sort.

I am sure that most wives would be glad to forgo the marriage gratuity if they could become eligible for benefit without having to have 26 stamps after marriage.

Since this is a Supplementary Estimate, I do not intend speaking on it at any great length. In the two opening paragraphs of his speech the Minister appeared to be trying to give the impression that we were spending a formidable amount of money on social welfare. I suppose it does appear to be formidable especially when the Minister mentions that in the year 1970-71, the total expenditure, excluding anything paid into the Social Welfare Fund or the Wet Time Fund, is in the region of £73 million. Of course, this figure is impressive but it is not an indication of the living standards of those people who find it necessary to have recourse to the various benefits and forms of assistance administered by the Department of Social Welfare.

We only have to look at this very useful little booklet which is distributed generally and, particularly to Deputies, to know that there are persons who are living on very low incomes. It will be seen that a widow receives £4 5s a week provided she has no other income. There is also the idea that was introduced by Mr. Kevin Boland whereby where one owned one's house, it was regarded that that person had means and the weekly allowance was reduced to £4. I have no wish to delve into all these matters but it is only necessary for anyone to read through this book to see that amounts of £4, £4 5s, and £4 10s are given to different people who are dependent on those benefits. Therefore, it will be seen that the £73 million that is being expended this year is no indication of the appallingly low standard of living of some of these people. I am not saying that in all cases the standard of living is very low because some of them are members of a family and draw from the family income by way of food and clothing. However, there are widows who live on their own and according to the regulations of the Department of Social Welfare, the widow who is eligible for £4 5s per week benefit will find that that amount will be cut immediately by 5s if she goes to work and earns even only £1 in any week.

I do not believe that the ratepayers of this country are facing up to the responsibilities that have been placed on them by this parliament—particularly, the responsibilities placed on them by the Public Assistance Act of 1939—of ensuring that people who need additional moneys in order to allow for a minimum standard of living, should get that money. There is the appalling situation throughout the country in which the local authorities have fixed a certain amount of money beyond which they will not go regardless of how many children there may be in a family. I had the case the other day of a woman whose husband was unfortunate enough to be sent to jail for some offence he had committed. That woman had five children but the maximum amount that she could receive from her local authority is £5 a week. That is why I have advocated here and still advocate that, pending any other changes that may have to be made within the foreseeable future, we should have a form of State or public assistance administered by the Department of Social Welfare and contributed to by the ratepayers and the taxpayers in order to ensure that a woman such as the one I have mentioned will be able to get more than £5 per week for herself and five or six children. May I reiterate our broad idea of a social welfare code in so far as payments and contributions are concerned? We agree, and it is part of our policy, that there should be a scale of rates for contributions and a graduated scale for benefits. This would be the fairest system and it would be more equitable than the present system.

I believe also that we should think in terms of a separate Budget, not necessarily for the social welfare services but for the health services also. There should be a Budget contribution to this fund. A system could be devised whereby health and social welfare would be merged and paid for out of a separate fund. This could be designed as a scheme to relieve rates, a big portion of which go to the health services at present. As most speakers have said, if the taxpayers were aware that additional taxation on particular items was going to benefits for widows, orphans, old age pensioners and deserted wives, we would not have nearly as much cribs or criticism in relation to taxation that we now have because these people would be aware that their money was being devoted to those who were less well off than they themselves.

I have the utmost sympathy with the Department of Social Welfare. Perhaps this stems from the fact that I had something to do with that Department for almost three years. I am aware of the criticisms that are levelled at the Department. Perhaps it is one of the most vulnerable Departments because it is the Department which, above all, is dealing with individuals. A Department such as Industry and Commerce or Agriculture deals with big matters while the Department of Health deals with the general financing of health but I have the greatest sympathy with the Department of Social Welfare in the type of administration in which it engages. However, I do not think we should leave it at that and condone any errors that may be made by the Department of Social Welfare. I suppose I am typical of other Deputies when I say that of all the approaches made to me during the weekend in my constituency and of all the letters I receive, the greatest number of individual complaints relate to social welfare.

There is no week I come to Dublin on a Tuesday morning or a Monday night that I do not have a couple of dozen queries for the Department of Social Welfare. I must say in fairness to them that any time I approach or have somebody approach the Department of Social Welfare on my behalf, whether it is in connection with a sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, widow's pension or old age pension, they are as helpful as they can be and they do their job as quickly as they can. I suppose the biggest number of complaints would be in regard to the payment or the non-payment of sickness benefit. I fully appreciate the difficulties that there are because applicants make lots of mistakes. Only today I had two cases where the wrong number was quoted and I suppose there were one or two officials of the Department racing around and spending a half hour or an hour trying to trace these people who had given wrong numbers. However, I think there has to be an effort by the Minister to ensure that there will not be as many of these complaints and there will have to be an effort locally also. There should be some assistance locally, in some office attached to the Minister's Department, to ensure that forms are filled in. It amazes and appals me to hear on inquiry from the Department of Social Welfare that a person who had applied for sickness benefit forgot—and mind you the form is pretty big and he could not miss it —to mention that he has a wife and six children. He approaches somebody like me and he says: "I only got £4 10s last week and I have a wife and so many children." He is not at all surprised when I write back to him and tell him that he forgot to claim for his wife and his other dependants.

Mr. J. Lenehan

How could he forget?

He could not forget but he forgot to tell the Department of Social Welfare that he had them. Eventually he gets his money but there is a lot of work and a lot of hardship in between.

May I say this and perhaps the Minister would comment on it: no ordinary individual or few ordinary individuals seem to get a reply from certain sections of the Department of Social Welfare. It would be far better to make an announcement to the effect that some sections of the Department will not answer letters or there should be an attempt to answer them. Many people tell me: "I wrote to the Minister. I wrote to the Department. I wrote to the Secretary three times and never got a reply." I wonder what happens to these letters.

The waste paper basket.

I do not know what happens to them but any citizen of this State who writes to a Department is at least entitled to a reply. The Parliamentary Secretary will not mind my saying that I mentioned this to him in private a few times. Maybe the same thing happened in my time, I do not know, but people should not be treated like that.

I must confess I have not the same experience entirely as Deputy Tully with regard to referees or the chairman of the courts of appeal. I find them humane and understanding and most helpful towards any of the appellants with whom I ever appear in my constituency. I find that most of them bend over backwards in order to help. Social Welfare Officers have a very unpleasant task in that there is so much there for non-contributory, old age and widows' pensions and unemployment assistance and I suppose there must be somebody who must direct them into some sort of arrangement to ensure that there will not be overspending. If this is the case I do not think it is right. I believe they should be as liberal as they possibly can and if there is underestimation the Minister I am sure need have no fear in coming into this House looking for a supplementary sum.

I do not know what sort of liaison the Minister has with his counterpart in Great Britain. I merely know that the British Minister for Pensions and National Insurance visits this country once or twice a year and has certain discussions with the Minister—it is mainly a social occasion—but his permanent secretary has official discussions with the officers of the permanent secretary of our Department of Social Welfare. I wonder if there is any possibility of the Minister and his Department trying to induce his counterpart in Britain to transfer insurance records to this country. There is an extremely long delay in the matter of the transfer of insurance records from Great Britain. I appreciate that the post office strike was the main cause of this but I do not think they are too speedy in getting the information that is so urgently required not so much by the Department of Social Welfare as by the people who come back here from Britain and who want to claim for sickness or unemployment benefit.

I am glad that the Minister is considering the question of the qualifying age limit of the deserted wife without a dependent child. I trust that when the Budget proposals are announced or in some social welfare legislation he will correct the situation whereby there is an age limit below which a deserted wife without a dependent child cannot claim for that allowance.

I think it was Deputy Bruton who raised questions with the Minister in regard to the last paragraph of his speech where he tells us that we have ratified the European Code of Social Security which was adopted in 1954. I suppose we ratify dozens of things from the ILO, the Council of Europe and the United Nations and a particularly interesting one from the United Nations which we may be referring to at some future time. Deputy Bruton asked and I should like to ask also how do we rate in the matter of social welfare as far as these other countries are concerned and particularly the EEC countries are concerned. I note with interest that of the six members of the EEC two do not seem to have ratified this European Code of Social Security. France and Italy are not included. Perhaps the Minister would tell us what our obligations might be or what sort of codal standards might the people of this country expect if we become a member of the EEC?

I should like to express my appreciation of the Minister's Department from which I have always had the fullest satisfaction.

Hear, hear.

I should like to advise my colleagues that if they want to get results from the Department of Social Welfare it is much more advantageous for them to write in rather than to go down personally unless they have a very complicated case. I find the Department of Social Welfare do everything possible for Deputies. What makes it very difficult in making a written requisition to them as I often do is when one has not got the number of the insured person concerned. In Wexford anyway quite a number of national health insurance officers—there was one in Gorey up to a few years ago—were available. An insured person writes to a Deputy and of course he hardly ever gives his number. Prior to this one was able to go to the local office and get the number and send that to the Department of Social Welfare. This more than halved the work of the officials tracing the case. I have asked the Minister questions on this subject on several occasions and he has assured me that there are more social welfare officers in the country than there ever were before. That is perfectly true. There is more social welfare work now. With 70,000 unemployed it is natural that there would be a good deal more work. There may be more social welfare officers but they are not as convenient to the insured persons; they are not as national health insurance officers in the different centres. As they retire or go to other jobs they are not replaced. It would be financially desirable that the Minister should replace them in that it would impose far less work when the local Deputy or those concerned would be able to get the necessary data from the office which they cannot get very often from the individual. We get, perhaps, a half dozen letters about social welfare daily. We have not the full facts and we have not time to go to each individual. If you write back more than likely you get no reply; it is as much as the man can do to write one letter, perhaps, but if there was a local officer you could get the information by telephone with tremendous saving to the Department and the Deputy concerned.

I want to mention the reciprocal arrangement with Britain. Many of our people are working in England. Others work there for some years then return and find insurable employment here. You often find a case where a man has been insured up to, say, the middle 50s, then must go to England until he is 65 and then return to Ireland. There appears to be no collective arrangement under which the two periods of insurance can be covered for all available benefits in whichever country he ends up. Many Irish people return here out of benefit. They had to emigrate through no fault of their own and they had to insure in England and even where they are entitled to benefit I understand they only get, on British insurance stamps, six months benefit which is not very much good.

Only 26 days on unemployment benefit.

Sickness benefit is six months and unemployment 26 days. It is not a satisfactory reciprocal arrangement and the Minister should go to Britain to see his opposite number, Sir Keith Jones I think, at present, the Minister for Social Service and discuss this matter with him with a view to working out a better scheme.

I think the section dealing with the reciprocal arrangement between the UK and Ireland is in Newcastle and that everything goes through that office. The delays are almost interminable; I have known delays of three to six months and the fault was not on this side. It took long enough to get a reciprocal agreement between the two countries and it should be re-examined now. I might point out that unless there is a big improvement in economic and social conditions here it is likely that there will be a far greater volume of reciprocal work to be done between the two countries. We are now carrying about 70,000 unemployed and as far as I can judge, unless there is a great change, the figure could go still higher which would mean that many more people would emigrate and that emigration which has been falling would increase. Consequently, there would be a great escalation in the number of people insured in Britain and here. The whole code needs clarification. The Minister should take steps as soon as possible to get this work accelerated.

I have four and a half minutes.

The Minister can resume after Industry and Commerce. He is not limited.

I did not expect the debate to range over such a wide field on a Supplementary Estimate related mainly to increased rates and new services provided in the last Budget. I see no harm in accepting the motion which is completely in accordance with everybody's desires. It is really part of what we have pledged ourselves in the past to bring about. I do not see a need for a comprehensive social welfare code for widows and their families since such provision could be brought in under the general code and any improvements arising from time to time in regard to the position could be incorporated.

The Supplementary Estimate for £8,730,000 covers mainly deserted wives, retirement pensions and invalidity pensions. By and large, the debate referred very little to these things, apart from complaints about the general social welfare code. The fact that 1,150 deserted wives who did not come under the social welfare code before are today receiving allowances and the fact that there are 3,000 retirement pensions being paid and 12,000 invalidity allowances is something worthwhile. I am not here to make propaganda out of these things. Deputy Byrne, I think, said these people were unable to exert pressure and this was one reason why they were not better paid. This is certainly not correct because every Deputy is forever advocating better pensions and an extension of the code because this is a sensitive area which is emotive. People are all the time saying: "That was not bad, but it should be better." Every time we introduce a new scheme there is an immediate demand for its expansion. The free travel scheme was a complete innovation when brought in and we have extended it twice. In fact, virtually all pensioners over 70 now benefit as well as Old IRA medal holders. We are now being pressed to allow wives who may not have reached 70 to travel free alone. While I shall definitely give sympathetic consideration to these claims, originally free travel was not intended for wives of pensioners under 70 who wanted to go shopping: the intention was to allow the pensioner to travel. It was later extended to allow his wife to accompany him because it was pointed out that in some cases he might be feeble and only able to travel when accompanied by his wife.

No matter what scheme is introduced there is a natural demand for its extension. The prescribed female relatives scheme which I brought in some years ago was rather limited in scope at the outset, applying only to persons who left insured employment. It was then extended to persons who were not in insured employment. It was originally intended to cover the case of a girl who had to remain at home to care for parents who would otherwise be alone. We are being pressed to cover every conceivable situation now and it would virtually amount to granting 55s per week extra to all old age pensioners. One must consider priorities. We would like to do a great many things in social welfare. There are a great many things we must and will do but we must get our priorities right and take the section to which we can apply additional resources and bring them into the scheme and improve rates and extend the scope of the scheme as time goes on. My time is up but if I am allowed a few minutes it would not be necessary to come back again.

As far as we are concerned if the House is agreeable we will let the Minister conclude.

Yes, if the House agrees.

I am quite happy.

I will need only a few minutes.

The Minister and I have formed a marvellous mutual arrangement. We have been nice to each other.

The debate was allowed to spread over a wide field, in fact the whole scope of the social welfare code. As this is a Supplementary Estimate and as the main Estimate will be coming before the House which will give a further opportunity for a full-dress debate, I expected the scope would not be as wide. It extended from the payment of unemployment assistance up to the Common Market arrangements. I do not propose going into all those questions here tonight.

It was the Minister in his speech who brought Europe into it.

My speech was rather confined.

The Minister will not tell us anything about children's allowances in his reply.

I will say in a general reference to the Common Market and the social welfare code in so far as it relates to the different countries that this is something which any Deputies who do their homework must have found out for themselves that no two of them has anything like the harmony which is mentioned in the Treaty of Rome. There may be a tendency towards harmonisation but certainly there is not much harmony there as yet. The amount of harmonisation we can bring with us on our entry into the Common Market will be as close to anything they have got as yet. I have not any real worries on that score.

We are frequently asked for percentages and given misleading figures in comparison with other countries with regard to the total amount we are spending on social welfare. Whatever figure suits the particular speaker at the time is usually the one which is quoted as percentage of gross national product spent on social welfare, the percentage of tax revenue spent on social welfare, the percentage of the total public estimate. One may quote the figure which, at the particular time, is most advantageous for whatever purpose one has in mind. If anybody looks back on the upsurge in the Estimates, in the appropriation of money towards social welfare in the last ten years, if he is honest, he must admit it is, percentagewise, the most spectacular increase in any Estimate in this or any other country over that period.

Those who advocate better rates and extension of the scope must be satisfied to look back on that rate of progress and to glean from it the fact that if that rate is maintained in the years ahead we will have caught up very significantly and will have arrived at a very significant claim in the matter of our social welfare payments. We have payments in this country which compare favourably with those in the United Kingdom. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that but it is no harm for those people who are always denigrating the efforts we make in that respect to know that.

I do not think I am called on to deal specifically with many of the points raised but I will answer a few of them. Deputy Tully says that the Minister would be better employed getting his colleagues to devote more money towards full employment and thus obviate the necessity for paying many of the increased benefits. That is a naive statement. It is not as simple as that for any Government to tackle the problem of a rapid advance towards full employment. It is just not something that could be done overnight. I believe we are devoting as much money to the provision of employment in this country, as a percentage again of our total revenue, as any country in the world.

We had the usual complaints about investigations. Deputy Tully and Deputy Corish did not quite agree there. Deputy Corish was referring to one particular type and Deputy Tully to another. I get those complaints too I may tell you. I get many complaints about investigation officers. Deputy Corish referred to deciding officers and appeals officers who handle cases very well. The one complaint I get most frequently is that our investigation officers are so quick to find out when some recipient of pension or some other benefit, has got some emigrant's remittance in her own name sent home by her family, or that she has got some improvement in her means, whereas they are so slow to get out to investigate a claim when it is made.

Those are complaints which are put to me quite frequently. I want to say in reply to that that there are no instructions to that effect given to investigation officers. I want investigation officers to regard themselves as people who have benefits to distribute to the community and that their approach should be accordingly. There should not be any sort of harsh demanding questionnaires. They have a duty to perform, as prescribed in law and as prescribed in statutory regulations. I would hope they perform that duty in such a way that they convey to the claimants that they are there to help them to make a claim rather than to harass them. That is the only message at any time we have a desire to get across and there are no instructions to the contrary sent out to those officers.

I was asked by Deputy Corish what our relations were with the UK. I can assure him they are perfectly cordial. We have yearly contacts and officials have them more frequently. We get nothing but the best of attention whenever we have occasion to discuss matters in relation to reciprocity. We have no reason to complain on that score. I admit the transfer of papers from Newcastle-on-Tyne to here may incur some delay because very often the information which is given on the original application is inadequate. This was borne out by an ex-Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Corish. This can very often be the cause of many delays which provide a great deal of fodder for persons writing to newspapers and otherwise ostensibly as doing a job for what they regard as the harassed public. Our Social Welfare Department gets an undue share of those complaints. There is not a single case for which there is not an adequate explanation. I would need to set up a new section, and indeed will have to provide some sort of public relations section, to keep explaining the reason for delays for which in the main we are blamed. I am not taking the part of the Department at all but I had occasion to investigate many complaints which had been blown up publicly, and sometimes in the House here, and have found from the word "go" the Department had dealt with them as quickly as the information at their disposal would permit them to do.

I may be delaying the Minister for Industry and Commerce but I am glad of the opportunity of winding up this debate although I am not dealing with points in the same detail as if I were dealing with the main Estimate. I am conscious of the fact that I will have an opportunity to go into this matter fully when the main Estimate comes before the House. I thoroughly agree with Deputy Corish in what he said about the matter of public assistance. This is one of the fire brigade services that we have under the code. It is the one which is always capable of providing on-the-spot relief and without delay. We are rather concerned about the control of that service and about making it into a more efficient and ready to use service within the social welfare code itself.

Deputy Esmonde asked about the number of investigation officers. He was confusing national health insurance agents with investigation officers and social welfare officers throughout the country. It is well known to the House that what was formerly known as the national health agent has continued working for the Department but when he dies, retires or resigns we do not replace him and payments are made direct from the office instead of being sent through the agent. I honestly think that it has not caused any great upset. It has tended towards a more rationalised system than before.

I would assure Deputies that I am conscious of the spirit of the motion, whether it is intended as a piece of timely propaganda or not. We are on the eve of a Budget and every year when the Budget takes place I suggest to the Government what further steps I think we should take in going further forward in the social welfare code. I make my case and have to accept what the Government collectively agree is in keeping with the resources available to us at a particular time. I am fully in agreement with the spirit of that motion and I could have that motion related to every other section of the social welfare code as well.

Is there severe under-staffing in certain grades in the Department of Social Welfare and is this causing delays?

In common with most other Departments the Department of Social Welfare is understaffed although we have added some 50 or more during the year, mostly in the junior grades. These may not have had the effect of getting more expeditiously down to planning for the future but we have a rather large section devoted to planning and research and the future projection of the social welfare code. The intake at ground floor level, so to speak, is not always of the greatest advantage, but it does provide some excellent people for the future.

Will the Minister look after the children in the big families of the lower paid workers?

Increased children's allowances?

Would the Deputy favour a means test?

I would not mind it at all. As I have said before I see no reason for giving children's allowance for the first child.

The Deputy never knows what can happen these days.

Vote put and agreed to.