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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Mar 1979

Vol. 312 No. 9

Social Welfare Bill, 1979: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The main purpose of the Bill is to give effect to the increases in the rates of social welfare payments announced in the budget and other changes in social welfare schemes. The detailed provisions of the Bill are explained in some detail in the explanatory memorandum which has been circulated to Deputies with the text of the Bill but I would like to comment on them briefly here.

The Government are committed to maintaining the value of social welfare payments by increasing them regularly and bringing about, whenever possible, real improvements in the living standards of social welfare recipients. This is evident in the level of increases in rates of payment provided in the Bill.

This year sees a departure from the pattern of a uniform percentage increase in all weekly rates of benefits. People on long-term payments, such as retirement pensioners and old age pensioners, are generally regarded as requiring special attention in the social welfare context and the desirability of higher increases in their case will be readily conceded. For that reason long-term payments are being increased by 16 per cent and short-term payments by 12 per cent.

When related to the projected increase in the cost of living this year, the increases provided stand up fairly well. The increase in the consumer price index is probably running at present at around 8 to 9 per cent but it is projected in the budget statement to fall to 5 per cent towards the end of the year. If this target is realised, the 12 per cent increase in short-term payments will provide a substantial real increase in the living standards of social welfare recipients while the 16 per cent increase in long-term payments will give a very worthwhile increase to the categories involved.

Turning to the increases provided in individual payments, the maximum weekly personal rate of non-contributory old age pension is being raised to £15.80 for persons aged under 80 years. It will go up to £17 for persons aged 80 years or over. The reduced rates of pension payable where weekly means exceed £6 are also being increased. On this occasion, steps are being taken to ease an anomaly which is due to the application in recent years of uniform percentage increases to all reduced rates of pension. This has resulted in a scale of pensions under which weekly pensions are reduced by £1.40 for every increase of £1 in means. The Bill provides that, as a step towards achieving a scale where pensions will not be reduced by more than £1 a week for each £1 increase in means, the stages between rates will be reduced to £1.30 as from April. As a result there will be two additional rates of pension in the table of rates, so that reduced rates of pension will be payable up to a means limit of £17. For a pensioner with qualified children, of course, the means limit will be greater than £17.

The maximum rate of payment in respect of an adult dependant under pensionable age is being increased to £7.85. Therefore, the overall maximum payment for a pensioner with a dependent spouse will be increased to £23.65 and where the pensioner is 80 years of age or over, to £24.85. The allowance payable in respect of a prescribed relative giving full-time care and attention to an incapacitated pensioner is being increased to £8.80 and the addition to pension for a pensioner living alone will be raised to £1.30.

The additions to pension payable to pensioners with qualified children are being raised to £4.25 a week for each of the first two children and to £3.20 a week for each other child.

The new scale of weekly means and rates of pension is set out in Table A in section 2 of the Bill.

Section 3 of the Bill provides for the increases in the rates of unemployment assistance. The increase in the personal weekly rate of assistance will bring the maximum to £13.15 in urban areas and to £12.70 in rural areas. The rates for adult dependants are being increased to £9.60 and £9.35 respectively and the rates for dependent children to £4.10 for each of the first two and £3.10 for others. Thus, the rate of assistance for a married couple with two children is being increased to £30.95 in an urban area and to £30.25 in a rural area.

Means for unemployment assistance purposes are, in the case of smallholders in certain areas, assessed notionally by reference to rateable land valuation. Where the valuation is £10 or less, the new rates of assistance will be as I have just outlined. Those smallholders with valuations between £10 and £15 are currently in receipt of assistance at lower rates which are also being increased by 12 per cent. Smallholders on the notional system of assessment whose valuations are between £15 and £20 did not benefit from budget increases in recent years and are currently in receipt of assistance at rates established in 1976. These rates, however, are also being increased by 12 per cent on this occasion and this involves the creation of an additional schedule of rates in section 3. Smallholders with valuations over £20 are, since 1977, not eligible to have their means assessed on the notional basis.

Section 4 of the Bill provides for a revision of the notional method of calculating farm means for unemployment assistance purposes in the case of smallholders resident in certain specified areas. The White Paper "Programme for National Development 1978-1981" indicated the Government's intention to introduce revisions of the scheme this year to take account of the increase in agricultural incomes since the scheme was last revised. I believe that the changes provided in the Bill are reasonable in present circumstances, particularly as the increase of 12 per cent in unemployment assistance rates will, as I have said, affect all smallholder applicants for assistance. At present, the national multipliers used to assess the annual income of smallholders covered by the scheme are £20 per £ land valuation where the valuation is £15 or less, and £30 per £1 valuation where the valuation is over £15 and up to £20. The £20 multiplier has not been changed since its introduction in 1966 and the £30 multiplier is unchanged since 1976. Section 4 provides for the following increases in the multipliers from the beginning of April next. For those with valuations of £10 or under, who number almost 13,000 of the 20,000 smallholders on notional assessment, the multiplier will be increased from £20 to £30. For those with valuations over £10 and up to £15, of whom there are almost 5,000, the multiplier will be increased to £50 and for those with valuations over £15 the multiplier will be increased to £60 per £1 land valuation.

Any smallholder covered by these provisions, who feels it would be to his advantage, may have his means assessed on the factual basis which applies to smallholders with valuations over £20 and to applicants generally. In that case he would be eligible to receive the current rate of payment appropriate to his means as factually assessed. The provisions of section 5 of the Bill will give the option of factual assessment in these cases.

Increases in all rates of non-contributory widows' and orphans' pensions are provided in sections 6 and 9 of the Bill, the maximum weekly personal rate of widows' non-contributory pension being increased to £15.80 and the amount for each qualified child to £5.20. As in the case of non-contributory old age pension, provision is being made for uniform reductions of £1.30 in pension for each £1 increase in means which will mean that reduced rates of pension will be payable where weekly means do not exceed £17. Where the widow has qualified children higher means limits apply. The changes in widows' pensions automatically apply to the social assistance allowances for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and prisoners' wives.

The allowances for single women aged between 58 and 66 are being increased by 16 per cent in section 10 of the Bill, bringing the maximum to £13.65.

Under section 11 the rates of supplementary welfare allowances are being increased to maintain the parity between the rates of supplementary welfare allowance and the rural rate of unemployment assistance.

Substantial increases in children's allowances are provided in section 19 of the Bill. The monthly allowance for the first child is increased by 52 per cent to £3.50, for the second child by 34 per cent to £5.50, and for the third and each subsequent child by 13.4 per cent to £5.50. For a two child family the overall increase will thus be 41 per cent, a four child family will gain 24 per cent and a six child family 20 per cent.

When the Government decided to reduce the food subsidies, they recognised that this step would seriously affect the household budgets of social welfare recipients and lower paid workers. We were anxious that the effect on this section of the community should be cushioned to the greatest extent possible. As an interim measure, compensation was given to persons in receipt of assistance payments by an adjustment in the value of the EEC butter scheme vouchers. Children's allowances, however, offer the best mechanism to offset the effects of the reduction in subsidies for the majority of families with lower incomes. These allowances have not been increased for some time and were in need of adjustment anyway. The increases now provided should help to ease the burden of increasing costs for social welfare recipients and lower income families.

Because the reduction in food subsidies took effect from 1 January, the Government were anxious to bring these increases in children's allowances into operation from the earliest possible date. The increases will, therefore, take effect from 1 April, not 1 July as has been the practice on previous occasions.

I now come to the increases in the rates of contributory benefits and pensions under the social insurance system which are set out in section 20 of the Bill. The increase in disability and unemployment benefit is to £16.05 in the personal rate and to £10.45 in the rate for an adult dependant. Allowances for children with these benefits are being increased to £4.65 for each of the first two children and to £3.80 for each other child. Maternity allowance is also being increased to £16.05.

The personal rate of invalidity pension, which is a long-term payment, is being increased to £16.65 with an addition of £10.85 for an adult dependant.

The personal rates of contributory old age and retirement pensions for persons under age 80 go up to £18.60 and, for those over 80, to £20.00. The addition to pension for an adult dependant is being raised to £11.90 where the adult dependant is under pensionable age and to £14.05 where the adult dependant is aged 66 or over. Therefore, a married couple both over pensionable age will get £32.65 as compared with £28.15 at present and, if the pensioner is aged 80 or over, £34.05 as compared with £29.15 at present.

In the case of widow's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit, the new personal rate will be £17.00 for those under age 80. This amount is raised to £18.25 for those aged 80 or over.

The additions to widow's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit for qualified children are being raised to £5.70 for each child. A widow or deserted wife with four qualified children will now get £39.80 as compared with £34.20 at present. In the case of other social insurance pensions, the new additions for child dependants will be £4.80 for each of the first two children and £3.95 for each other child.

In line with the improvements in the general social insurance system the Bill provides in section 25 and 26 for corresponding increases in the rates of benefit payable under the occupational injuries scheme.

Again this year the Government are availing of this legislation to effect a number of improvements generally in the standard of the social welfare services. Improvements of this nature, while they do not attract the same degree of attention as the general increase in rates of payments, are, nevertheless, well worth while because of the benefit or alleviation they bring to individuals or small groups of persons. The most significant of these, in terms of the cost involved, is the provision in section 22 extending to 312 days the maximum period of payment of unemployment benefit to married women who are now limited to 156 days. In 1978, provision was made for the removal of the special conditions for receipt of unemployment assistance by single women and widows. The present provision represents a considerable further step towards the elimination of discrimination against women and the progressive achievement of equality of treatment between men and women in the social security field to which the Government are committed.

In keeping the system under continual review, the need for improvements comes to light from time to time. Two further improvements in social insurance schemes which appear to me desirable and which were announced in the budget are included in this Bill. The first of these involves an improvement in the maternity allowance scheme and is provided for in section 23. Maternity Allowance is payable at present to a women for six weeks prior to the expected date of confinement and for six weeks thereafter. Where the birth of a child occurs prematurely, the mother loses the unexpired portion of the six weeks' payment prior to the expected date of confinement. Section 23 provides that the allowance will in future be paid in all cases for a minimum period of 12 weeks.

The second improvement concerns the position of a deserted wife who becomes widowed while in receipt of deserted wife's benefit. While the contribution conditions for widow's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit are the same, the dates on which these conditions must be satisfied are different—the date of desertion in one case and the date of the husband's death in the other. It is possible, therefore, that a deserted wife, though in receipt of deserted wife's benefit, would fail to qualify for widow's contributory pension on her husband's death, if his insurance diminished after he deserted her. Section 24 of the Bill provides that such a woman will automatically be entitled to widow's (contributory) pension, whether or not the contribution conditions are satisfied in her case.

On the social assistance side the Bill provides for a considerable number of improvements in addition to the increases in rates. The need for many of these changes has been shown by the examination carried out into the possibility of removing anomalies and inequities in the means test and by analysis of complaints received during the year. I have already referred to the steps being taken to remove the anomaly whereby social assistance payments are reduced by more than £1 for every £1 increase in means over a certain limit.

Another change is in section 7 of the Bill. This deals with the unsatisfactory situation which exists at present in that widows with non-contributory pensions may have their pensions reduced when they reach old age pension age. This is due to the fact that there is more favourable treatment of income from capital in the case of a widow's pension than for old age pension and a widow with savings may thus suffer a reduction when she transfers to the old age pension. This is an obvious source of hardship to any widow so affected. The position is now being rectified by allowing a widow to continue to retain her widow's non-contributory pension after she reaches 66 years of age.

Other changes are in sections 13 and 14. These provide for an increase to £200 in the amount to be disregarded in assessing income from capital for means test purposes. The present amounts which may be disregarded are £25 in the case of old age pensions and £100 in the case of widows' pensions and equivalent allowances.

Again, section 15 will ensure that any unearned income of a child, such as income from a trust, a portion of which is at present assessed in determining a widow's means, will no longer be so assessed.

Under section 16 the amount of a person's earnings which is disregarded as means where there are qualified children will be increased to a uniform £104 for each child from £39 in the case of an old age pensioner and £78 in the case of a widow. The section also provides for the adoption of a uniform definition of earnings for this purpose.

There is a provision, at present, whereby old age and widow pensioners do not suffer an overall reduction of income when other statutory pensions to which they are entitled are increased. This provision, which applies only to pensions payable under statute or by another Government, is being extended by section 17 of the Bill to embrace any occupational pension to which the pensioner is entitled.

In assessing means in future, dwelling houses and farm buildings, which are at present assessable, will be disregarded, by virtue of section 18 of the Bill.

Apart from these improvements related to means tests, there are also certain other provisions relating to the social assistance schemes in the Bill. The main one of these relates to the scheme of prisoner's wife's allowance. Under present legislation the allowance ceases to be payable immediately the husband is released from prison. Released prisoners often find it difficult enough to adjust to freedom and normal living without having the added problem of an immediate financial crisis in the home. I think it desirable to help the prisoner to rehabilitate himself in a stable home environment by easing this immediate problem. I am providing in section 8 of this Bill, therefore, that prisoner's wife's allowance will continue to be paid for four weeks after the prisoner's release.

Finally, section 27 of the Bill is designed to alleviate the effects of an existing provision which can be a source of considerable hardship to old age pensioners in certain instances. This is the provision affecting old age pensioners only which requires a pensioner to repay any pension overpaid as a result of a failure on his part to notify in due time an increase in his means. Such failure may be due to oversight or lack of knowledge on the part of the pensioner and the requirement to repay, which is mandatory, can cause hardship. Section 27 will enable the Minister for Social Welfare to exercise discretion in dealing with the question of overpayment of pension in such cases.

The overall cost in 1979 of the rates increases and other improvements being provided for following the budget is £65.7 million. Of this, social assistance accounts for £33.7 million, all of which is borne by the Exchequer. The total cost on the social insurance side is £32 million and this must be met out of the Social Insurance Fund which is financed by contributions from employers and employees with an annual subvention from the Exchequer. The Exchequer will meet an estimated £6.4 million of this extra cost leaving £25.6 million to be borne by contributions. A new system of fully pay-related contributions will, under the Social Welfare (Amendment) Act, 1978, commence in April next and the cost to contributors of the social insurance improvements in this Bill will be met from these contributions.

I have now outlined the areas of improvements provided for in this Bill. I am satisfied that the provisions of the Bill represent an improvement in the position of social welfare recipients and a further advance in the development of the social welfare services. I, therefore, commend the Bill to Dáil Éireann for speedy and favourable consideration.

The most depressing aspect of the Government's policy since their return to power has been the consistent departure from the concept of trying to achieve social justice and towards the notion that the strongest do best. Recently at Question Time the present Minister wondered why virtually everybody was on strike or in dispute with the Government. He asked if the House knew of anybody who was not on strike and it was difficult to answer that question. The trend towards encouraging the idea that the strongest do best has been central to the thinking of the Government since they published their manifesto in 1977. The manifesto can only be described as being designed to foster the notion that money was to be had from the State provided one was big enough, vocal enough and exerted enough electoral muscle. From that time that trend has been evident and is embodied in the White Paper with its extraordinarily defensive paragraphs on social matters, its paranoiac obsession with clamping down on social welfare offenders and its suggestion in relation to taxing social welfare recipients.

That lack of understanding has also been carried through into both the publication of the Estimates for the Department of Social Welfare for 1979 and the approach adopted in the budget to the entire social field. The Estimates published by the Minister's Department envisaged a cut-back in the total amount of unemployment assistance during 1979 on the debatable claim that so many more people would be employed that the total number of persons in receipt of unemployment assistance in the course of the full year would mean that a lesser amount would need to be paid by way of unemployment assistance. It could equally be argued that the cut-back was there, leaving a total budget to be spent following the most rigorous examination of claims for unemployment assistance in an effort to force people off the live register. Many of us have been given first-hand examples of officers of the Minister's Department carrying out the most stringent examination of an applicant's means in a manner which has not been carried out for many years. I can only suggest that the concept of cutting back on the weakest section of the community is one that has been consistent in the thinking of the Government since they came to power.

In their first budget, the Government adopted the uncaring lazy approach of merely giving a 10 per cent increase to all social welfare recipients. At the time that increase was criticised by my party as being inadequate and destined to ensure that the elderly, the infirm and the sick fell further behind in their struggle against poverty. That approach was then compounded by the refusal of the Government to introduce an autumn increase in social welfare allowances, as had been the custom of the previous Government. In the context of that mere 10 per cent increase to social welfare recipients in 1978, it should also be remembered that they are the very class of people who were not destined or intended to benefit from the cash handouts provided for in the Government's election manifesto. It was highly unlikely they could have benefited from the abolition of car tax, domestic rates or from the now obviously illusory increase in grants for new houses. They were not that class of people. They did not own cars or houses and they were not in a position to buy houses. Any sort of short-term benefits by way of cash in their pockets that the election promises held out for other sections of the community did not apply to social welfare or social assistance beneficiaries. There was an inadequate increase for them in the 1978 budget but more important there was a refusal to carry out a review of real standards of living by comparison with the situation in June 1977.

Consequently, from mid-1977 Fianna Fáil have been sowing the seeds and fostering the concept of class division, of encouraging the strong, the organised, to exert their muscle at the expense of the weak, the elderly, the poor. Now in our society a very regrettable trend is being developed, the casting of the rural dweller against the urban dweller. Can the Minister fairly say that the policies in the manifesto and the attitude of his Government since assuming office have not helped to nurture that concept?

The Deputy is getting away from social welfare. The Bill deals entirely with social welfare and nothing else.

I am dealing with the approach of the Government to the different sections in our society.

Industrial relations and divisions between rural and urban dwellers have not got anything to do with this Bill. They can be raised on another occasion.

I am sorry if what I am saying is upsetting the Chair.

The Deputy should not take that attitude. It is not upsetting the Chair—not a thing upsets the present occupant of the Chair. All the Chair is interested in is that the rules of the House are obeyed.

I think that between us we have made the point. It is regrettable that the Irish values of neighbourliness, care of the aged, caring for and assisting the less well off, should be eroded by no less an agency than the Government, to such an extent that the 1978 Green Paper could refer to the health, education and social welfare areas as being non-productive and therefore not only to be denied any substantial improvements but to be reduced in priority, to be subject to regular financial scrutiny and restriction.

There is a simple electoral lesson to be learned from this, and it has been followed in the most callous way by the Government: the poor are unorganised; they are not a powerful electoral lobby, they do not possess any real bargaining power and being the weakest section, they are the easiest to ignore. If difficult options have to be faced, they are the section to be discriminated against. That is why I have referred to the organised sections, those who have electoral muscle, who have bargaining power, who can force Governments to back down from stated budgetary policy. It is unlikely that the recipients of old age non-contributory pensions, that the widow with her mite, the deserted wife or the prisoner's wife, will band together and be successful in achieving the débâcle we have seen since the budget. The weaker have not the ability to force a frightened Government to mend their hand.

Perhaps it was too much to expect that the party who held out golden carrots to those who already had the silver spoons in their mouths during the 1977 election campaign and who subsequently set about dismantling the taxation structure designed to spread the tax load more evenly, would place the improvement of the lot of the underprivileged as a priority, but the frightening part is the manner in which the Government have neglected to maintain existing services. I have spoken of the position of social welfare beneficiaries during 1978, of the fact that their position has been disimproved radically vis-à-vis other sections of the community, particularly in the second half of 1977 and throughout 1978.

However, apparently our criticism of the across-the-board 10 per cent increase of 1978 has been heeded and the Government, in an effort to head off further criticism, have decided to introduce two separate rates of increase, 12 per cent for short-term beneficiaries and 16 per cent for pensioners. That may sound fairly good, and indeed the Minister said early in his speech:

When related to the projected increase in the cost of living this year, the increases provided stand up fairly well.

I do not think the Minister for Social Welfare can have felt very proud of his achievement in this Bill, or that of the Government, when the best he can say is that they stand up fairly well.

The amount payable in unemployment assistance or in single women's allowances comes to less than £2 per day. I made the point here some months ago that lunch here costs £2.50, and dinner costs more. The increases given in this Bill "stand up fairly well" when they give an elderly woman less than £2 per day for food, clothing, lighting, heating and rent. The non-contributory old age pensioner will get £2.25 per day, less than the price of a single lunch here. Of course if such a beneficiary has a child she will be paid 74p per day to pay for total outgoings in respect of that child.

Therefore, it is quite clear that the increases of 12 and 16 per cent are hopelessly inadequate, that they will not be sufficient to match the rise in the cost of living between 1978 and 1979. Figures published recently showed that the increase granted to the average industrial worker in the private sector in 1978 was between 16 and 18 per cent. Social welfare beneficiaries got 10 per cent, and what happened at the end of 1978? The Government decided to remove food subsidies, which is to the detriment of all sections but militates most against the weakest and the poorest.

It is extraordinary that changes in the method of assessing eligibility for unemployment assistance—changes which do not stand up fairly well especially in the designated counties—were not outlined at all in the budget but are outlined now with the publication of this Bill and in a speech which the Minister made recently in this House. In those designated counties smallholders who have a valuation under £10 for their total property—who are not men of means, we all agree—are going to have the method of assessment of their means, the multiplier, increased by £10 from £20 per £1 valuation to £30. The smallholder with property between £10 and £15 valuation is going to have his multiplier increased by £20 from £30 to £50, and the smallholder on valuation between £15 and £20 will also see an increase of £20 in his multiplier from £40 to £60. On Thursday, 1 March the Minister revealed that that will mean that 2,000 people in those designated counties—and the only reason why they are so designated is that in living standards they are by far the poorest counties—are going to lose the smallholders' assistance completely.

No, they are going to go off notional assessment.

I quote from the Official Report of 1 March 1979, column 611, Volume 312. The Minister said:

It is estimated that some 2,000 smallholders with valuations over £10 on unemployment assistance will lose entitlement. In the case of a further 6,500 there will be some reduction in their entitlement.

On the basis of notional assesment.

I am quoting from the Official Report the Minister's own words: That represents a saving in smallholders' assistance of £2.5 million a year which will be taken from people who by any standard must be regarded as the poorest in the land, the men of no property.

Before the Deputy's crocodile tears flow too freely, let him remember what the Coalition did.

By no standard can these people in those areas be described as anything but poor, yet they are the people who have had the greatest amount of attention in respect of investigation by officers, according to my colleagues in those constituencies, and now in respect of the sweeping changes being introduced in the percentage increase of the multiplier being applied to the valuation of their property. Also it is not at all clear yet that they will not end up on 1 May being asked to pay the 2 per cent levy as well. Yet the Minister says that the provisions stand up fairly well.

Let us look at the situation in relation to the increases in children's allowances which the Minister dealt with at some length. He said that substantial increases in children's allowances are provided in section 19 of the Bill, and he went on to set out what they were in cash terms. Because the Social Welfare Bill can be introduced in the House separately from the Finance Bill the House is invited to speak in the unreality of the cash increase for children's allowances while apparently being invited to forget that there is also a rejigging of the taxation allowance given to the ordinary worker. What is the real effect of the increase in children's allowances on the ordinary worker paying tax? The real effect is an increase of 13p per week for the first child, not 52 per cent as the Minister said. There is an increase of 17.5p per week in respect of the second child and—the Minister failed to mention this—an increase of one new farthing per week in respect of the third and subsequent children. This year of 1979 has been designated the International Year of the Child. It is a year that this Government choose to introduce the farthing per week on children's allowances.

I welcome certain small items in the Bill, particularly in those areas where changes have been brought about on foot of matters raised by us here constantly over the last two years. The system whereby a widow's pension could be reduced because she had arrived at qualifying age for old age pension purposes and there was a different method of assessment of capital employed was clearly iniquitous and in need of change. That that change is being brought about by sections 6 and 7 of the Bill is certainly welcome, as is the provision whereby prisoners' wives will be paid their allowance for four weeks after the release of their husbands. There are also worthwhile provisions in sections 13 to 17 of the Bill in relation to minor amendments. We have been constantly complaining that married women are paid unemployment benefit for a total maximum period of only 156 days, or half the period that it is paid to other persons. That inequity has at last been acknowledged and section 22 of the Bill has brought about the desired change. The provision in section 23 for the payment of the 12-week maternity allowance to women irrespective of the time of their confinement is well worth while, but I have a question to ask about this. This came to light because of various complaints voiced by me and other Deputies. Is there now to be an adjustment in regard to the relatively small number of women who have been discriminated against over the course of the last year or so, and will they now be paid in respect of the weeks for which they were previously refused payment?

The matters that have been attended to are of a minor nature, annoying and unfair to the people involved, with the possible exception of the increase in the period of eligibility for married women. There are a great deal of other major items in the social welfare field which still have not been attended to or have not received the attention that they deserve. On the day that the Minister quoted the figures in relation to those who would be removed from the smallholders' assistance allowance he told the House that there was a total of over 100,000 people eligible for dental treatment on the waiting list at present. I quote from the Official Report, column 595, Volume 312:

. . . . 58,343 national school and preschool children awaiting routine dental treatment and 10,159 awaiting orthodontic treatment. . . . The number of other patients awaiting dental treatment on that date was 35,675.

These figures relate to people with present entitlement irrespective of the dependence of insured persons who have no entitlement at present. There has been no attempt to improve that situation in this Bill.

There has been no attempt to recast or rejig the creaking, inefficient and unfair cheap fuel scheme that has operated—or, like so many of the public services in the last year, not operated or operated merely in an intermittent fashion—to the detriment of so many elderly and poor people who are entitled to cheap fuel. Despite all the promises there is no change in that situation. There was not in 1978 the introduction of a uniform scheme for the country in anticipation of the winter of 1978-79, which turned out to be the harshest for many years. There is no attempt in this Bill to do anything about that situation for next year.

The people who fare best under the social welfare code are, as the Minister was at pains to point out, the contributory old age pension couple who will now receive £32.65 a week. We know from other figures that the average industrial worker is now earning between £80 and £90 a week and he is destined to get increases of an undefinable amount during 1979. It is becoming more and more evident that there is very little point in different Governments coming in here and praising themselves for giving 35p extra a week to one class and 47½p extra a week to another class when the total amount of payment which those people get still bears very little relationship to the average working wage or the average cost of living of a family.

There is a real need by whatever Government are in power to relate the amount of pensions, assistance and benefit payable to the cost of living of the average family. This would mean that as that cost of living and that average industrial wage moves as the consumer price index moves so also should the level of benefits move. There is no evidence that there is any thinking along those lines by the Government. There is evidence that they are prepared to concede to those who are strongest, most vocal and best organised. They are only prepared to give the minimum possible, as grudgingly as possible, to those who are least organised, are not vocal, who have not muscle but who need it most. Nobody in the House can put any other interpretation on it. The people who most need increases of an unusual nature are the people who have suffered through the Government's policy.

When I looked at this situation recently I felt that it was as if the Catholic bishops had never published their pastoral on social justice, as if the statements of bodies like the Association of Social Workers, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Alone organisation, the rather lonely voice of a man like Bishop Cathal Daly, had never been heard, when one relates all of those things said on behalf of people who cannot speak for themselves to the approach which the Government adopted to the entire social welfare field, cutting back on the total amounts available for unemployment assistance, re-jigging in a savage way the multiplier and the size of the valuation for the smallholders in the designated areas.

The other political parties in the House have a special duty to defend the rights and to speak up in favour of the underprivileged. I give notice to the Minister, the Government and all others who may have an interest that the Fine Gael Party will assume the task, as an organised group within parliament, on behalf of those who have no pressure group to put their case or no union to represent them, who have no powerful lobbying voice to convince Fianna Fáil that they are electorally a desirable group to woo. We assume the task of speaking on behalf of those who have not the voice to speak for themselves. It is important for the evolution of our society that there should be a strong and constant parliamentary watchdog on behalf of the poor.

I outlined at the beginning of my contribution how social welfare beneficiaries fell behind during 1978 as a result of their treatment in last year's budget. That worsening of their position, combined with the abolition of the food subsidies and the need to adequately compensate them against whatever rise in the cost of living occurs during 1979 would have meant that there should have been a radical change, an increase of an unusual nature for 1979 in the budgetary policy if social welfare beneficiaries were merely to return to the relative position they held in 1977. If the Government had a real commitment to social justice there should have been as well a desire to improve in real terms the lot of those people. I see no evidence of that in the thinking of the Government.

There is no evidence, when we look at the Green Paper, the White Paper, the Minister's speech on the budget, the various flights of fancy of the Minister for Economic Planning and Development, that the Government have any real desire to improve the lot of the social welfare recipients. We are not prepared to stand by and see the face of Irish society change to an unheeding one, through the lack of concern on the part of the Government. I believe there is a need to develop this country as a caring society, that the policy of trickle economics, so often enunciated by the Minister for Economic Planning and Development, a policy which was dear to the heart of the Minister for Social Welfare when he occupied other portfolios, will not work when that trickle has dried up long before it reaches as far as the less well off. The old theory that a rising tide will lift all boats is not true. It certainly is not true if some of those boats are already damaged, neglected and uncared for.

I am always the first to pay tribute when I see substantial improvements in social welfare benefits. When I gave a cursory glance at the benefits announced in the budget I was deluded into thinking that at last we were making some headway on the road to ending inequality in our society. When I examined the benefits given very closely, I came to the conclusion that we are trying to delude this section of the community that we are providing for them and caring for them. I have no hesitation in saying that the emphasis now is all on economic growth and we are paying lip service to helping the underprivileged sections of the community.

The benefits announced in the budget and in this Bill are farcical because one major section, the underprivileged, those on social welfare, have been dealt a very serious blow by the removal of the food subsidies and there was no provision made to compensate them in the vital three months before the social welfare increases come into effect.

There was.

They come into effect on 1 April.

We increased the butter voucher.

Those people have been very shabbily treated in those months by the very substantial increase in the cost of living and because they were not compensated in time. The budget and this Bill have failed to narrow the ever-widening gap in living standards between social welfare recipients and the rest of the community. We must rid ourselves of the notion that social welfare recipients are parasites who are evading their obligations to society. Are old age pensioners, widows, deserted wives, the people who cannot find work, the handicapped and the disabled defrauding the State? These people and their families are the lower income groups and the underprivileged and they are being put under the stigma of being parasites. About 40 per cent of social welfare spending goes out in pensions. The people receiving this money are entitled to their share; they are not parasites.

The Government policy places all the emphasis on economic growth but there is no commitment to the underprivileged and the social welfare recipients sharing in this economic growth. There is an economic plan, but no social plan. There is no evidence that social welfare benefits have kept in line with the cost of living. The increased benefits are not the great leap forward claimed by the Government. Inflation for 1979, as estimated by the ESRI, is 11 per cent and it may go higher during the period April 1979 to April 1980. In that case, the short-term recipients of social welfare benefits will incur a drop in their living standards and there will be little or no change in the living standards of long-term recipients. In the year ending April 1979 social welfare benefits will have increased by 10 per cent, which is likely to be less than the rate of inflation for the year, indicating a further drop in living standards in the past year for social welfare recipients.

For some inexplicable reason when we talk about social welfare recipients we think of the unemployed who do not bother to work. We should think of the pensioners, the widows, the deserted wives, the disabled and the handicapped who have also suffered a drop in their incomes in 1979. While they suffered a drop in their living standards wage increases of 17 per cent occurred, so that the social welfare recipients dropped further behind. Social welfare recipients are being stigmatised as being parasites. We are being encouraged because of this stigma to believe that we should not only maintain the gap in living standards but that we should widen it. I condemn this attitude.

The social welfare policy of the Government is a policy of benign neglect. They pay lip-service to meeting the needs of the social welfare classes but refuse to bring their living standards into line with the rest of the community. If the Government had a serious commitment to the underprivileged they would link the social welfare increases to the rises in the average industrial earnings. If the Government did that we could not argue against it. It would be obvious that the underprivileged were getting their fair share of the rise in GNP and the Government would be making a serious attempt to eliminate poverty. No matter what the Minister says about increases in children's allowances or in unemployment benefit and so on, it is of no use unless the increases are linked to the increases in the average industrial earnings. If this is not done it shows that the Government do not give a damn about the poorer sections.

The previous Government did not do it.

Any Government should do it. This is the one thing that would prove a sincere commitment to these people. It would earn the respect and admiration of all concerned citizens.

In relation to equality for women, this Bill just doubles the duration of unemployment benefit to married women but that is its only contribution to equality in the social services. An EEC Directive makes it mandatory on us to eliminate inequality in our social services.

Over six years.

It is a damning indictment of the Irish Government that they lobbied to get this extended over six years.

That is wrong. The Deputy is making a misstatement of fact.

The Irish Government sought to delay this to prevent the implementation of equality for women in our social services.

The Deputy should not make misstatements of fact.

What the Government have done now is a paltry contribution in the battle for equality for women in social welfare. Discrimination against women is still rampant in the social welfare code. What will the Minister do about their lower rate of unemployment benefit, disability benefit, invalidity pension, occupational injuries benefit and so on? The Irish Government were responsible for the six-year period. Why did the Irish Government not take a lead in this?

It was not the Irish Government.

It is more difficult for a married woman than for a married man to qualify for unemployment assistance. It is also more difficult for married women to qualify for increases in benefits in respect of dependants in the case of all benefits. In addition, married women with children are being automatically disqualified for unemployment benefit. What measures has the Minister taken since he gave me an assurance that he would introduce what I suggested in the appeals system to ensure that there was no discrimination against women? The EEC directive will cost £30 million or £35 million to implement, so where is the commitment in the budget to ending discrimination against women? Why should it take six years? Are women's social rights——

Why twist the situation?

——such a non-issue?

Why mislead the House and the people?

I am not trying to mislead them.

The Deputy is making constant misstatements.

All I am saying is——

On a point of information——

I do not think there can be any point of information. I will yield to a point of order.

The Minister will have the right to reply. If the Deputy is making misstatements as the Minister suggested, the Minister will have the right to deal with them in his reply.

I apologise, but it is difficult to have to sit here and listen to positive misstatements.

There is nothing personal against the Minister in what I am saying, and I want him to be assured of that. I realise his limitations. He is not able to implement everything he would like. I am conscious of that. It is a damning indictment of the Government that they have not given priority to social growth. The emphasis is on economic growth. Where is the social policy? It is not evident in this Social Welfare Bill. This is not a personal reflection on the Minister. Please believe me. Perhaps the Minister has not fought hard enough, but there is no social commitment on the part of the Government. That is what I am denouncing and attacking.

A six year period for the implementation of the EEC directive is an indication of the low priority given by the Government to equal rights for women, not only in the matter of social welfare but in every other sphere as well. If the Government said they would ensure that this will be implemented by 1980 or 1981, it would be some evidence of their sincerity in that field. It costs £30 million to £35 million to do this. They spent £28 million on the abolition of car tax. That is an indication of their priorities in the social sphere. It took one year to abolish car tax and it takes six years to give equal social welfare rights to women. I would give a much higher priority to implementing equality for women than to abolishing car tax.

I am the first to pay tribute where I see real benefits. Irrespective of party, I will always pay tribute to good positive measures. There is an apparent neglect and disregard in the Government's treatment of the aged. If I may say so, there is contempt for this growing section of our community, the least vociferous section, those without political muscle. We are able to capitulate to some sections of the community, but we ignore the weaker sections who have no voice. That is a tragic lesson in our democracy. Those with the strongest muscle get everything. Therefore more and more groups are encouraged to lobby and to force the Government to capitulate, or to bring about the downfall of the Government. It seems apparent to me that that will happen in our society. The underprivileged will be trampled on in the mad rush for the rights of others in our society.

There was no lowering of the pension qualifying age. The 16 per cent increase for the aged is not likely to wear well with inflation. Pension levels remain massively out of line with earnings in the rest of the community. The non-contributory old age pension is a mere 16 per cent of average industrial earnings. That is very serious, and the budget is unlikely to change it. Average industrial earnings will continue to go up while the non-contributory pension goes up by only 16 per cent. It has become apparent that the gap between the living standard of those on social welfare benefits and that of the community at large is growing wider and wider. We are expecting our aged to exist on incomes which are less than one-fifth of the average industrial wage. That is a measure of our concern for the aged. We say to them: "You can exist on that. What matter? We are taking care of those with the muscle." That is showing a disregard for those people. We are not even allowing them to retire with dignity or with any comfort.

The policy is one of benign neglect, of paying lip-service to meeting the needs of the elderly, but failing to deliver the goods where they count. There was no mention by the Minister of financing a proper retirement pension scheme. What happened since the Green Paper was issued in 1976? Income-related pensions are now the norm in all the other EEC countries. We stand out as the country with the worst social service system in the Nine. We hold the record as having the worst social services in the Nine. I will show more and more evidence of that.

We have over 400,000 workers who have no pension cover other than the social welfare pension. That is a damning indictment of any Government who profess to be concerned about the plight of the people. How can they be expected to live on less than one-third of their income if they qualify for a contributory old age pension, or less than one-fifth of their income if they qualify for a non-contributory pension? That is what they are expected to live on. The fact that we are not bothered about them is evident in this Bill and in the budget.

The present pension system is institutionalising poverty in our society, especially among the aged. There is not even a whisper from the Minister or the Government about a well-financed pay-related pension scheme under which minimum pension levels would be fixed far above those in the existing social welfare code. We cannot talk with pride about what we are doing in the social sphere unless we produce a proper pay-related, income-related retirement pension scheme. The only people covered by such a scheme are public servants and people in white-collar employment. That is a very serious indication of our lack of concern. Outside the public service, few pension schemes have been able to cope with inflation with the result that many people have suffered hardship and have received nominal sums.

If the Minister were sincere and committed, if he wanted a social policy in line with our economic policy, he would introduce immediately a national income-related pension scheme covering all workers, including the self-employed. A basic pension with supplements for dependants, topped up to give the recipient about two-thirds of his previous earnings, would be an indication of the Minister's commitment to social reform.

We have seen evidence of growing poverty in our society. We know what happened during this very severe winter. People in the cities accumulated their fuel dockets by the score. They were unable to get fuel. Where was the Minister's commitment to helping those people? Why did he not provide an emergency relief fund for them with contingency moneys from his Department? What did he do about it? These people had to stay in bed all day to keep warm. Where was the Minister's social concern? Where was his policy of concern for those people? Was it evident?

Could not the moneys have been provided? Could he not have issued a directive to health boards to ensure that these people were provided with electric blankets? Could he not have mobilised the forces of the Red Cross and the health boards? Did he issue a statement? His silence on this issue was deafening. Could they not have been issued with electric fires, other heating appliances, electric blankets? Did he know these people had fuel dockets only to keep them warm? They could not get the turf. Some of them stood and waited in queues but could not get turf. Did the Minister move in with a national emergency relief campaign to help those people? No. There was no concern for them.

This is the Minister who comes in here and talks about the wonderful improvements in the social welfare scheme, the massive improvements and the massive increases. There is no evidence of them, I am sorry to say. People have been living in poverty and some people have died as a result. One person is to blame: the Minister for Health and Social Welfare. The buck stops on his desk, but he remained silent. One word from the Minister would have mobilised all the forces of the health boards and Red Cross to help those people, but he was silent on that issue. I issued a plea to him to move in on that issue, but he never responded. His silence was deafening. He could have asked for a contingency fund from health boards and so on. Instead, we were told it could not be done. I was inundated with requests for any sort of fuel to save these people, but there was nothing done about it. I indict the Minister because of his lack of concern. From what I see anyway, there is no evidence that he is concerned. So many of these people lost their lives—indeed there are so many about whom we know nothing, who just disappeared from the face of the earth because no concern was shown for them—it is near criminal negligence that we allowed that to happen and ignored he responsibility to get the scheme working properly.

There has been a voluntary lobby for the reform of the free fuel scheme. Suggestions have been made for a comprehensive scheme allowing for all forms of heating. Where is the concern or the reaction of the Minister in relation to such a scheme? Nothing was done. There was no reaction. It has been ignored. Seemingly there are other matters engaging the attention of the Minister for Social Welfare. I believe that is wrong. From what I understand the affairs of his Department are not the concern of the Minister at present and that constitutes a sorry state of affairs.

Why does the Deputy just tell lies?

I am not telling lies. If I could see evidence of the Minister's concern I would be the first to stand up in this House and pay tribute to him. In recent months I have observed a complete disregard for the affairs of his Department. I am sorry to say that but——

The Deputy is trafficking in human misery.

The Minister will have the right to reply. The Deputy should not make personal charges against the Minister.

What I see evidence of, and I can be objective about it and attack both Governments——

On a point of order, while I appreciate the Chair's remark about personal remarks, I did not believe it was in order for any Member to accuse another of telling lies.

It is not in order for any Member to accuse another of telling lies and the Minister has, I understand——

It is in order, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle——

It is not in order for the Deputy to make personal charges against the Minister. It is not in order for the Minister to suggest that the Deputy is telling lies. Therefore, both sides will withdraw.

My apologies to the Minister. I do not mean it in a personal way at all.

I know. The Deputy has been making charges of neglect against the Minister——

I want to ask if it is in order for the Deputy to suggest that I have been guilty of personal criminal neglect, criminal negligence.

I did not say the Minister was guilty of criminal neglect.

The Deputy should withdraw that charge. The Minister should withdraw the charge of the Deputy telling lies. That will finish the matter.

I would not like the Minister to think I was hurling abuse at him in any way. Unfortunately, the buck stops on the Minister's desk. What I have seen in recent months has been the direct responsibility of the Department of Social Welfare because it is they who allocate the funds. The Minister is the Minister in charge of that Department and, unfortunately, he is the man who must accept the blame. There is nothing personal directed against the Minister in this. We have had a very severe winter. We had people who died. We had a Department with direct responsibility. The Minister may contend it is the responsibility of the health boards but they can only act in response to a directive from the Minister. I issued an appeal to the Minister to initiate an emergency relief campaign with contingency funds. I do not want to labour this point but I am now on this issue and——

I agree. The Deputy can deal with the free fuel scheme and suggest an alternative that should be in the Bill to deal with it. But to get into administration on legislation is not in order and we are getting into the administration of this scheme now.

I am talking about this so-called policy of social concern. It is not evident to me. The Minister has said: we have done this, that and the other as evidence of our concern for the lower income group and the underprivileged in our society. All I am saying is that the evidence is not there. I believe that what happened is evidence of criminal neglect on the part of a Department, and a Minister is responsible because it is with him the buck stops. That is the only reason that I am saying the Minister as a Minister and not as a person.

The Chair would suggest that the word "criminal" should not be used in this context. It is all right to accuse the Department of neglect, to refer to the Minister's responsibility and so on, but the word "criminal" is a different matter.

If I refuse to call to a patient in dire need and that patient dies, I must be held accountable. To my mind that is criminal neglect.

The Chair would suggest to the Deputy not to use words in the House that could not be used outside the House without creating very serious legal and libel problems.

They are words that I would use outside the House. In view of what happened this winter, I contend that we bear a measure of responsibility for not speaking up about it. It will continue from year to year. People will die of hypothermia. We have had a very severe winter and I feel obliged to speak on this issue because I contend that, if I do not, I am responsible also.

The Deputy is quite entitled to speak on this matter. It is the use of particular words the Chair does not like. They are not in order.

If I do not speak up, I am guilty of criminal negligence. I am guilty of criminal negligence if I do not speak up about it and demand that action be taken. That is how I feel about that.

The aged have not got their share and are not being given the priority they deserve in our society, people who have given years of service to the country and to whom the country has an obligation. The country has not honoured that obligation and the Government in power are responsible. The Government have not honoured their obligation to the aged and the Minister for Health and Social Welfare is not meeting his obligation to them. There is no evidence of efforts being made to bring their standard of living anywhere near the level required in the final years of their lives. From what I can see, retirement appears to bring penury. That is a serious matter and one that must be of deep concern to the Minister for Social Welfare. I do not see any policy evident to ensure that all of the needs of the aged are met in an organised fashion by the State, aided by organised groups. One in every 12 of our people over the age of 65 lives in an institution. What is being done to ensure that their basic human rights are protected? There is no evidence of any action. Surveys have shown that 75 per cent of people over the age of 65 have died lacking nutrition. That is a very serious matter and demonstrates the measure of serious poverty in our society. Three-quarters of people over the age of 65 have inadequate diets. Therefore there is malnutrition among three-quarters of our aged people. Where is this policy of commitment to improving the standard of living of the underprivileged and aged in our society? There is no evidence of it there. Thirty thousand old people are living alone, very often in substandard accommodation. It is a very serious matter. There is no indication of any concern for them. What I want to do is explode the myth that this Bill is providing for these people in our society. It is not. A quarter of our elderly are widows. Where is the evidence of concern for these? What are we doing for them? There is no evidence; it is conspicuous by its absence.

There is a specific provision for widows in this Bill. Can the Deputy be at least reasonably fair?

I would be the first to pay tribute to the Minister. I am not attacking the Minister personally. I am saying that the Minister is just one person in this Government.

The Deputy should have a conscience. It is not honourable to get up there and make wild statements which are not true. The Deputy has a responsibility to this House and to the people as well as to the Minister. An enormous amount is being done.

I am delighted the Minister said that.

Deputy O'Connell is in possession and the Minister has the right to reply. I would suggest that Deputy O'Connell move away from the type of personal attack that is creating the problems.

I would feel very upset if the Minister thought I was launching a personal attack on him. It is not my intention to do that. I recognise that he is only one person in that Government and that he has to fight his corner at the Cabinet table and he can only fight so hard. All I am saying is that by attacking the Minister as a Minister, not as a person, I am attacking the Government. I would be the first to walk behind him and vote with him if I got this promise of a social commitment. The Minister knows that I can be objective and attack all Governments. What I am saying is that we have not given a proper commitment to the underprivileged, the poor and the aged in our society. None of us has done it. I am not just shedding crocodile tears; there is no question of that. But these people do not have a voice; they do not have this powerful lobby that the farmers have that they can come in and force the Government to withdraw something. That was a very serious matter in this democracy of ours that a Government could make a conscious policy decision affecting this country and be forced to reverse it by virtue of this powerful political muscle in our society.

Here we have the weakest section in our society without a voice speaking on their behalf. We have an obligation in this House to speak up. I was never in the position where I could actively introduce any particular policy as the Minister can. If I had been in that position maybe I might not have been able to fulfil some of the great ideas I have. I do not know. But I feel that we should keep highlighting the injustices towards this section of our community. Unless we develop a social conscience nothing will be done for this section of our community. Adding £1 here and 50p there is not doing anything; the only way we can help them is to link the social welfare benefits and the pensions and so on to the average rise in industrial earnings. If that is done then it is an immediate positive measure to eliminate poverty from our society because then they will not fall behind. No Government and no political party should be trying to make political capital out of this. If social welfare benefits are linked to industrial earnings automatically then there will be a situation where a positive measure has been taken. That is all I am asking. But this business of a Government giving £1 here and £1 there and taking all the credit for it is all wrong. No Government has the right to take the credit for it. This should be done positively in the way that the national wage agreements are drawn up so that the average industrial wage goes up in line with production. If we were to do this then we would have a proper social services system here. We have not got that at present. Nothing has been done for the aged. Nothing has been done about a national income-related pension scheme. We have done nothing in that sphere and we should be doing something about it.

An enormous amount of work has been done.

I would be the first to yield on these things if I thought positive measures were being taken but I see no evidence of it at all. If work is being done behind closed doors I will congratulate the Minister. I am delighted to hear him say that something is being done because we are very far behind in this field. We have been doing nothing for years and action is long overdue.

On the question of the food subsidies because it relates to the social welfare benefits, as I see it, food costs rise faster than the consumer price index. In 12 months food prices have increased by 13 to 15 per cent. Again this section of the community have suffered; their standard of living has been greatly worsened as a result of the removal of the food subsidies. The removal of the food subsidies has added 8p to the price of a pound of butter, 2p on milk and 3p on bread. Many of these people cannot afford that. Surveys have shown that social welfare families spend 50 to 75 per cent of their total income on food and that is a very high percentage of the social welfare allowances. They have suffered three months of food price increases and this is a gross injustice for which budget measures have not compensated. If we had a situation here where there would be a statutory linkage of all social welfare benefits to the consumer price index or to average industrial earnings it would take this whole issue out of the realm of statistical arguments and party political posing. Any Government who would do this would get credit then for the real increase in the living standards of social welfare recipients.

The Minister should make every effort to get back from his colleague in the Department of Finance the October increase to take account of movements of the consumer price index. It was a retrograde step not to have these increases implemented on a regular basis. A Government which is concerned about this problem should agree on a percentage of the increase in the gross national product which would go to reform and expand social welfare services. This is the only way it can be done; a slice of the gross national product must be devoted to eliminating poverty in our society, to narrowing the ever-widening gap between social welfare recipients and the rest of the community.

I would like to get a commitment from the Minister that there will be a lowering of the pension age. This is overdue. Again there has been a retrograde move by the present Government in not continuing this reduction in the qualifying age for the old age pension and that is deplorable.

There is a feeling abroad, encouraged by public representatives, that social welfare benefits are a charitable handout of the State. We must get rid of this notion in our society. We must understand that these are rights that the social welfare recipients have. They and the employers pay most of this money into the social fund and when they apply for this they must be treated in the same way as insurance beneficiaries making a claim. Unfortunately there is evidence of a lack of concern for these people and the denial of their rights by the social welfare department.

I was passing Oisin House just a few weeks ago and it was raining very heavily and there were people queuing outside for their benefits. I could not understand why they could not queue inside. I accept that they have to queue but why were they forced to remain outside in the rain? I would like the Minister to say why this is allowed to happen? Why can he not issue directives to each Department that these people be brought in. They are not beggars queuing for soup at one of these kitchens; they are people seeking their entitlements. On that subject, during the recent difficulty over payment of social welfare benefits, there were serious problems in the outlying areas of Dublin because social welfare beneficiaries were unable to collect their money.

I got in touch with the Department of Social Welfare and was told that the supplementary welfare allowance could be paid. However, the problem was that the community welfare officer only called twice weekly and as this was a Friday there was no money for them. I was referred to the health board and they told me they did not know what they could do about it. The supplementary welfare allowance was supposed to act in cases of emergency but despite all the assurances given by the health board the people went without their money at the weekend.

In view of the present circumstances I allowed the Deputy to mention this matter but he should not deal with it at length. It is completely a matter of administration and does not arise on this legislation.

I think we might pay tribute to the social welfare staff who are working day and night to put the arrangements into operation.

Yes, I would like to do that but if we can go that far why cannot we go further? Why cannot we treat these people like human beings? Social Welfare recipients have rights——

The Deputy might look at the other side of the coin. People are working 24 hours a day trying to get out the cheques and benefits.

This is a matter of administration and we must move away from it.

The Minister might consider drafting a code of rights for social welfare recipients and publicising it. There should be a proper appeals system with access to an independent appeals tribunal. The Minister could include this without extra cost. More attention should be given to publicising the benefits available. The book published by the Department of Social Welfare is a maze of confusion and it does not give adequate information.

The Department might consider issuing leaflets setting out the rights of social welfare recipients. These people should be treated as though they were consumers. It is important that social welfare recipients be treated properly by officials and that information be given to them. They should not be treated as though they were trying to evade their responsibilities. All of this is part of the Bill. Besides providing money in order to improve the living standards of social welfare recipients, we should make sure that they are aware of their rights and that they get them. More information should be available in information centres. We should emphasise that it is their statutory entitlement to get benefits and we should get rid of the notion that it is a charitable hand-out from the State.

The benefits of economic growth are not filtering down to this section of the community. Social justice must be planned for and targets must be set. Unless we do this we will continue to have 20 per cent to 23 per cent of our population suffering from poverty. We must ensure that the benefits for these people are on a par with the benefits for industrial workers. There is no evidence from the Minister, his Department or the Government of a social welfare policy to eliminate poverty from our society. The Minister's and the Government's philosophy is that the poor will be with us forever. That need not be the case if we are determined in our efforts to help the poor. It need not be the case, it should not be and if there is a proper policy it will not be the case.

Poverty affects 20 per cent to 23 per cent of our population and this is a high figure. We are doing nothing about it. The Minister has boasted that we have increased children's allowances. The amount being given would not even feed a child. It is a paltry sum to provide for a child in this age of serious inflation. There is no evidence there of a philosophy to improve the lot of the poor. No effort has been made in this Bill or in the budget to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots. There is no evidence that we are a caring nation. The evidence of poverty among the older section is due to the lack of a proper retirement pension scheme. If the Minister tells us that this will be his priority something might be done. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme is not operating as it should. The growing evidence of rejection of applications is another indication that somewhere along the line there has been a curb on this scheme.

The work of the committee dealing with poverty is not meriting the attention it deserves. By my thinking the Minister has not given it his full support. If he has given the committee his full support it has not been made known. As far as I can see, it is in a veritable limbo and I should like to know what the Minister is going to do about the matter. Have the Government a social commitment to the elimination of poverty or have they succumbed to the view that poverty will be with us forever? Unless they have a positive policy to eliminate poverty we will have a serious problem affecting thousands of aged people, widows, deserted wives and handicapped and disabled people. When I speak of a positive policy I mean a guaranteed minimum income related to the number in the household and linked to the cost of living. This would be a positive alternative to the supplementary welfare allowance.

If the Government were serious in their concern for the underprivileged they would be positively discriminating in their favour. I should like to quote again the Bishops' statement:

If we are to ensure basic human rights for everyone we will have, quite deliberately, to begin to discriminate in favour of the poor. A real transfer of money and of opportunity must be made by the better-off sections of society to the poorer group if the latter are to be raised to minimum standards of human dignity and if we are to lay claim to be a just and Christian society.

I have read in detail the submissions from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. They have shown very clearly that we are not as a State or as a Government making a serious attempt to help this underprivileged section. They say that substantial increases in childrens' allowances are needed first for the lower income group. I examined the tables they prepared and they are very interesting. In Appendix 4 they say that where the consumer price index base was 100 in November 1969 it went up to 290 in 1978 but the allowances for, say, three children was only £118 in 1978. This shows a very serious fall in childrens' allowances with people getting less than half what they were getting in 1969. Even the increases proposed in this Bill and in the budget do not come near meeting the increase in the consumer price index. This is a serious fall in allowances for children especially for people in the lower income group.

The removal of food subsidies caused a very serious drop in the standard of living of the very people who spend up to 75 per cent of their incomes on food. They are the people worst hit. The non-contributory old age pension is now only 16 per cent of average industrial earnings. That is very serious and it looks as if it will become worse. If industrial earnings increase further, it will not even reach that level and will drop below 16 per cent. These are areas in which the Minister and the Government have failed to meet their obligations to the poor and the underprivileged. In the light of that I do not see how the Minister can say here: "We have done so much; we are really taking care of them; we are producing a positive plan to eliminate poverty." I say that is farcical; it is a shame; they are not meeting their commitments; they are concerned with one thing. They talk about economic growth but if we are a concerned society we must match economic growth with social growth and that it not evident in this Bill or in the budget.

The whole social welfare area has become so complex and complicated in recent years that the vast majority of people do not know their entitlements. They do not understand the various schemes operating and the overlapping that occurs within these schemes.

In the case of children's allowances the increase of one new farthing extra per week for the third, fourth and each subsequent child is farcical. I taught in a school where the children of two families easily passed the retention figure for keeping on a second teacher. The Minister in his increase in this area has not taken account of the productivity rate, so to speak, of Irish people, particularly in the western area. There should be a substantial increase in the amount allocated for the children's allowance scheme.

In regard to women's unemployment benefit, the number of cases that I have to attend to where these people are refused benefit through being considered as not eligible for work is all the time increasing. Even though many of them produce evidence from employers that they are able and willing and available for work they still seem to be refused benefit. I ask the Minister to examine that matter. The number of disability benefit appeals outstanding is increasing and the period of waiting for assessment by the Department's medical referees is inordinately long. Many applicants who would qualify have to wait very long periods before being assessed. I should like the Minister to look into that matter also.

People in receipt of contributory pensions from Britain or the US, particularly in western areas, find it very difficult to understand why each increase in their pensions reduces the Irish pension. These are people who, forty or fifty years ago, either through Government action or their own will, left the country to work abroad to support themselves, their families and relations at home. I raised this matter with the Minister previously and I know there are difficulties involved in it but as a rural Deputy I find it hard to explain to these people why, having got nothing from this country while they worked abroad, they should, due to budgetary increases in pensions in other countries, have their Irish pensions, minimal though they are, phased out or decreased drastically. Despite the legal complications I would ask the Minister to look into this matter to see if anything can be done to improve the position. In many cases I know the pensions they receive from abroad are higher than the Irish pensions but it is hard to explain the position to them.

I do not believe that widows' pensions should be taxed. Many of them are living on the poverty line and find it difficult to make ends meet. The Minister should review the limits set for taxation of widows' pensions. I would also ask the Minister to consider the position of widowers who are left to look after a fairly large family. They get a minimal housekeeper allowance through the taxation system but this is not enough.

Taxation is a matter for another Minister.

It also affects the social welfare area.

But it is another Minister who must deal with it.

Finally I want to refer to the much-maligned farmers' dole which is payable in the counties of the province of Connacht, Cavan, Clare, Donegal, Kerry, Longford, Monaghan, and the congested districts of West Cork and Limerick. From the beginning, this system has been maligned and has given those who received it a bad name, as it were. I have not heard many Deputies refer to small farmers' unemployment assistance in the House. As a rural Deputy from the county which selected the Minister concerned as the Man of the Year—fair play to him for that—I find it strange that the relevant section of this Bill should affect the vast majority of small farmers in that county. Directly the number of farmers involved will be between 24,000 and 25,000 while the saving on the part of the Government, £2 million in a full year, is very small in terms of the national budget.

I would not wish to give the impression that I am attacking the Minister on this issue. This system of unemployment assistance for small farmers has been abused and is being abused but this is only by a minority. It is unfortunate that the cases of abuse are always highlighted to the extreme thereby giving rise to a general impression that the whole system is being abused. We know this is not the position. The common agricultural policy is very important to us. It guarantees prices for about 8 million people within the Community and it has stabilised prices in some areas to the benefit of about 200 million people. But there are disparities in incomes in the various regions. There are differences, for instance, in the incomes of farmers in the congested districts of the counties I mentioned compared with the incomes of farmers in other areas. The income from beef in the western counties compared with the rest of the country is of the order of about three-to-one. In addition the physical barriers with which many of the farmers who are in receipt of unemployment assistance have to contend would not appear to be taken into account by the Department of Social Welfare. Many of the holdings concerned are very small and fragmented and there are also disadvantages as poor quality soil, poor drainage and so on and these disadvantages as well as the price increases in the basic necessities of life make life very difficult for the people concerned.

There are four categories involved in this legislation. The single farmer with a valuation of £10 would be deemed notionally to have an income of £3.85 a week. His benefit would amount to £7.50 per week. The social welfare benefit has been increased to £12.70 but the multiplier has been raised from 20 to 30. This change would mean a payment to the farmer of £6.90 but this amount would represent a reduction on the 12 per cent increase in social welfare payments. There are about 13,000 farmers in this category, many of whom are living in the county I represent. There is much time and effort involved in trying to make a living from holdings that are small and fragmented. This whole problem is one that will take many years to solve but it should have been considered by the Department of Social Welfare in relation to these proposed changes.

The second category of farmers affected are the 5,000 farmers whose valuations are between £10 and £15. The multiplier in their case is being increased to 50. Consequently, all single persons within that category will lose their entitlement to social welfare assistance while many of those who have families will experience reduced payments.

The third category includes about 2,500 farmers who are in the £15- to £20-valuation group. When the Griffith valuation was undertaken in western counties those areas in which, for instance, there were a lot of hazel trees—a very valuable commodity at that time—were valued more highly than were other areas in the vicinity. That timber has long since disappeared and there remains only barren and rocky soil or at least soil of very poor quality. That is not a situation for which the Minister is responsible but it is something that the Department should have considered in relation to this legislation.

The fourth category, those in the £20 and more valuation group, will lose all entitlement to social welfare assistance. The saving to the Exchequer of the total removal of the dole from 2,000 farmers and the reductions in the payments to about 5,500 farmers will be a paltry £160,000.

We hear a lot these days from the PAYE people but they are able to look after themselves for the most part. In recent weeks it would appear that the Government have been able to facilitate pressure groups. These same pressure groups are the ones who can be seen frequently coming from the various Departments where they have been making their case. But I am here today representing many PAYE people who do not have the strong voice that some of their more organised colleagues have and I am speaking also for the small farmers who do not have a platform and who, consequently, are not heard complain of what is being done to them. However, in June these people may make their resentment known in a different way. Many of these people will suffer as a result of the changes proposed here.

In recent years the Department have been gradually and successfully cutting down on whatever abuse was taking place in relation to unemployment assistance to small farmers. Some of the abuse related to cases of farmers who had three or four holdings, perhaps as a result of legacies, with the result that their real valuation was much higher than the valuation on which they were assessed but because of the follow-through methods used by officials of the Department in recent years much of this type of abuse has been eliminated.

I doubt if the Minister realises fully the extent to which the standard of living of most of those people who will suffer as a result of this legislation will be affected. Unfortunately, these are the people who are not in a position to exercise their influence on the Government not to interfere with the system of unemployment assistance. The action taken by the Minister will influence them to an unnecessary degree. I believe the number of abuses within the system was decreasing and eventually would have been eliminated. Therefore it could have been left as it was.

People on small holdings in the west will not get any unemployment assistance. The soil on these fragmented holdings is of very poor quality. This is a point the Department have missed and they should look at it again. That is why I am making the case here.

We are engaged today in the annual exercise of debating the Social Welfare Bill designed to give legislative effect to the adjustments made in the rates and schemes of social welfare under the recent budget. The adjustments in income that this Bill is designed to bring about are of a dimension that would not be tolerated by any other section of the community. We are dealing with a section of the people who are relegated to a standard of living which would not be acceptable to the rest of us. I am talking about the old, the ill and the disadvantaged generally. Down through the years what the Social Welfare Acts have done for them has always compared badly with the adjustments in income for the rest of the population. This year it is in starker contrast when compared with the treatment that has been meted out by the Government to the very wealthy in our community. That is why today speeches have been more loudly stated and expressed with greater emphasis than in the past. This is something we all feel strongly about.

In the first paragraph of the memorandum we talk about percentage increases of 12 and 16 per cent. Percentages mean nothing to the people in the lower income group. To a very large extent we are dealing here with the elderly people, of 65 years and over, who form 11 per cent of our population—240,000 people. Of these 85 per cent are dependent on state pensions of one kind or another. Half of that 85 per cent have a means test pension which means that they will be expected to survive on £15.80 per week.

Deputy Boland mentioned the cost of a lunch in this House. It might be dramatic to say that that £15.80 is the price of one meal in some of our costlier eating establishments. Admittedly, these meals can be written off on expense accounts. This matter needs to be mentioned to highlight the vast differences in wealth and means that society continues to tolerate. Some people without any thought spend on one meal what we expect another human being to survive on, to pay for all the expenses of home, food and so on, in a week.

The recent survey by the National Prices Commission showed that three-quarters of the people surveyed were over 65 years of age whose diets were deficient in energy in one or more respect. As Deputy O'Connell stated, a number of them suffer from hypothermia because of lack of heating and the money to pay for heating. One in five old age pensioners lives alone. These people need all the comforts society can provide more than the rest of us, yet the majority of them do not have any comforts. As the majority of the old age pensioners living alone do not possess a fridge to store their food, they are compelled to buy their food in small quantities and this can be much more expensive. They do not have washing machines. They are the people who, because of their years and their inability to cope as the younger people can, need such comforts. They do not have private transport. In recent years they have been given free public transport but they might benefit more from private transport. In rural areas many of them do not even have running water and have no way of providing that facility for themselves.

Debate adjourned.
Business suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.