Social Welfare (Amendment) Bill, 1981: Second Stage.

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

It gives me pleasure to introduce again this year a Social Welfare Bill which provides for substantial increases in payments to pensioners, the sick and disabled and the unemployed. This Bill shows clearly the Government's determination, even in the face of economic difficulties, to look after the weak, the deprived and the underprivileged in our society. The increases provided in the Bill go well beyond our commitment to keep social welfare payments in line with the cost of living and once more increases in real terms are being made in the value of social welfare payments.

Over the last number of years, in addition to the primary consideration of improving the living standards of social welfare recipients and of providing substantial extensions of schemes, attention has been given to consolidating the statutory provisions relating to the social welfare code including the various schemes in that code. Under the Acts passed each year anomalies have been removed, qualifying conditions have been eased and additional allowances have been made available to those not previously entitled to them. All these changes have been embodied in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1981. This process is being continued in the current Bill inasmuch as certain anomalies and minor discrepancies which came to light during the preparation and passage of the Consolidation Act are now being put right. Some of these were recommended by members of the Standing Joint Committee who considered the consolidation measure and I am now honouring my promises to legislate for these matters.

The main purpose of the present Bill is, of course, to provide for the implementation of the proposals for increases in payments announced in the budget and for major changes in the pay-related benefit scheme and in the maternity allowance scheme.

The provisions of interest to the majority of social welfare recipients are contained in Part II of the Bill, sections 3 to 8, which deal with increases in payments. The new rates of payment being provided represent increases of 25 per cent in the adult long-term rates of payment. Generally, these will give increases ranging from £5.25 to £6.15 a week in the personal rate of payments to old age pensioners, widowed pensioners and those in receipt of payments such as the deserted wife's allowance. The single woman's allowance is being increased by £4.60 a week. Pensioners under the occupational injuries benefit scheme will receive increases of up to £7.40 a week. Where appropriate the amounts paid in respect of adult dependants are also being increased by 25 per cent, as are the "living alone" and "over 80" allowances.

Short-term payments, disability benefit, unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance as well as injury benefit and supplementary welfare allowance are being increased by 20 per cent. I should point out here that all smallholders, both factual and notional, qualifying for unemployment assistance will receive this increase. The amounts paid for dependent children under all insurance and assistance schemes, both long and short-term, are going up by approximately 10 per cent in addition to the 30 per cent increase in children's allowances.

The explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill sets out a number of examples showing the increases being granted. I would like to deal with some of these in more detail.

In the case of a married person receiving a non-contributory old age pension there is an increase of almost £8 per week — £7.90 to be exact — to a new maximum rate of £39.45. Where the spouse has also attained pensionable age the combined pensions go up from £42.00 to £52.50, an increase of more than £10 per week. A factor which must not be lost sight of is that the value of these pensions is in fact considerably enhanced by the various additional services available to these pensioners. They are entitled to free travel and frequently also to fuel vouchers. In addition, any pensioner living alone receives an additional £2.05 per week and is eligible to receive free electricity allowance, free TV licence and assistance towards the cost of having a telephone.

Even if we do not count the value of the TV or telephone rental concessions, a married couple both of whom are over pensionable age could receive additional services to the value of about £5 a week based on very conservative estimates of the use of free travel and free electricity facilities. For the purpose of determining this figure the annual value was taken to comprise free travel, £104: free electricity, £78 and free fuel, £90. The full value of the pensions, therefore, to such a married couple is £57.50 a week or about half the average pre-tax industrial earnings figure.

The increases in the case of contributory pensioners are also significant; for example an old age contributory pensioner will receive an increase of £6.15 per week in his pension bringing his personal rate to £30.65. If he is married and his wife is over pensionable age, the increase will be £10.75 giving a new rate of £53.55.

In addition to the "living alone" allowance, the "over 80" allowance and the prescribed relative allowance, all of which are increased by 25 per cent and which are paid as an integral part of the pension, contributory pensioners may also qualify for free electricity, free travel and other concessions and many of them also receive assistance towards heating. Here again, therefore, the value of the pension is well above the monetary amount payable each week.

A further substantial increase in the monthly amounts of children's allowance is being provided this year. The new rates will be £6.00 for the first child and £9.00 for the second and each subsequent child. Accordingly, the allowance for a family with three children will increase from £18.50 a month to £24 a month, an increase of almost 30 per cent.

As a consequence of the increased rates of payment the means limits for the assistance payments are again being raised from £23 to £27 per week in the case of long-term payments such as old age pension and blind pension.

A further change in relation to old age pension, which I am pleased to announce, is the total removal of the condition which requires that in order to qualify for pension a person must have had at least 15 years' residence in the state. This type of condition has already been eliminated for widow's pension and unemployment assistance purposes. The improvement will be of general application but it will be of particular and immediate benefit in the case of refugees recently settled in this country. While the total number of beneficiaries is likely to be small, I am confident that the abolition of this residence condition, which in one form or another has existed since 1908, will be welcomed.

Two changes are being made in the pay-related benefit scheme. At present pay-related benefit is payable only from the 13th day of incapacity for work in a period of interruption of employment. In other words there are 12 `waiting days' for pay-related benefit purposes. Where two periods of incapacity are not separated by more than 13 weeks, `waiting days' are not imposed on the second claim.

The change proposed in section 6 means that 12 `waiting days' will be imposed for pay-related benefit purposes for each distinct spell of incapacity. Where however a person has a relapse within a few days of resuming work or his incapacity occurs during a period of unemployment, the present conditions will generally continue to apply. Additional `waiting days' will not be imposed in maternity allowance cases.

The pay-related benefit supplement was never intended to be paid for very short interruptions of employment due to illness or unemployment; this was the philosophy underlining the original waiting-days provision when the scheme was introduced in 1974. In the case of unemployment, tax refunds are taken into account in determining the rate of pay-related benefit payable as a supplement to unemployment benefit. For a variety of technical reasons, it would not be possible to take tax refunds into account in disability benefit cases without causing unacceptable delays in the making of payments. The measure now proposed can be seen as an alternative way of ensuring that the objectives of the pay-related scheme will be generally and equitably met in the cases of short absences from work.

Section 7 proposes the second change. The rate of pay-related benefit is calculated by deducting £14 from the reckonable weekly earnings and by taking a percentage of the balance of those earnings up to the ceiling of £140 in weekly terms. The disregard was fixed at £14 in 1973 and came into operation when the maximum rate of disability benefit was £6.55 and the earnings ceiling was £50. It has not been revised since, despite the increase in the ceiling and in the rate of flat rate benefit. The ceiling is being raised to £8.500 in this Bill, that is £170 in weekly terms and the flat rate of benefit goes up to £24.55. While the provision in section 7 will not restore the old relativity it will in future link the amount disregarded to the maximum personal rate of short-term benefit payable at the beginning of the benefit year. The new disregard will, accordingly, be £20 in the present year and will apply to fresh claims commencing after 6 April.

A new pay-related maternity allowance scheme for women in employment is being introduced to relate with the provisions for paid maternity leave in the Maternity Protection of Employees Bill, 1981, recently passed by this House. Under the new scheme the allowance will be payable to women on maternity leave for 14 weeks. The level of payment is designed to correspond to take home pay when tax refunds are taken into account. The actual payment will be 80 per cent of the earnings which are reckonable for pay-related benefit purposes.

A significant feature of the scheme is the provision of a minimum weekly payment of £45.75 as compared with the maximum of £20.45 payable at present. The new minimum level is based on the average earnings of female workers in employments which are insurable for pay-related benefit purposes. A further feature I should mention is that the contribution conditions for maternity allowance are being eased under the new scheme, so as to cater for women who re-enter the workforce after an absence of some years.

The new scheme will subsume the existing 12 weeks scheme in the case of women entitled to maternity leave and the additional cost will be met in full by an addition of 0.15 per cent in the employer's pay-related social insurance contribution, which is included in the overall increase of 0.25 per cent in the PRSI rate. The existing 12 week maternity allowance scheme will continue to apply to women who do not qualify for maternity leave under the Maternity Protection of Employees Bill, 1981.

Part IV of the Bill, sections 12 to 20, contains a number of miscellaneous amendments designed to achieve uniformity in the social welfare code. With one or two exceptions, these items arose from the preparation of the Consolidation Act and were debated in the private sessions of the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills. As mentioned earlier, I undertook to provide for some of these items at the first suitable opportunity; I refer especially to the provision in section 18 which makes directors and officers personally liable for certain offences connected with unemployment assistance where companies are involved as employers and also to section 19, relating to the Debtors Act, which extends to recipients of unemployment assistance and old age pension the protection of that Act in actions for non-payment of debt.

With the exception of the increases in rates of children's allowance, which are due to come into effect on 1 July 1981, the increased rates of payment provided under the Bill will be due from the beginning of April next.

The overall cost in 1981 of all the rates increases and other changes being provided by this Bill is estimated at £137 million. An additional £7 million is being provided for improvements in the fuel voucher and telephone rental schemes which do not come under the scope of this Bill, giving a gross cost of £144 million. It is expected that the increases in the rates of pay-related social insurance contributions from 6 April 1981 provided for in the Bill will yield £33 million; this will leave £111 million to be borne by the Exchequer.

The new rates of social insurance contributions which are being provided under section 5 of this Bill will be 9.55 per cent for employers and 3.75 per cent for employees as compared with 8.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent respectively at present. The rates of voluntary contributions are being correspondingly increased. The new employer's contribution of 9.55 per cent includes an element of 0.15 per cent to meet the cost of the new maternity allowance scheme. The occupational injuries contribution which is payable in full by employers is being reduced from 0.45 per cent to 0.3 per cent as the yield from the current rate has proved to be more than is required to meet the fund's outgoings. The earnings ceiling up to which contributions are payable is being raised from £7,000 to £8,500. All these changes will take effect from 6 April next.

The new overall PRSI contribution will be 14.8 per cent as compared with 14.3 per cent at present. Employers will pay 10.05 per cent and employees 4.75 per cent, the net increase in each case being 0.25 per cent.

The effect of the changes on an employee earning £8,500, or more, will be an increase of £88.75 per annum—or £1.71 per week—in pay-related social insurance. These persons will, of course, be entitled to the new rates of payment. In addition, the increased ceiling will enable them to receive as much as £12 more a week in pay-related benefit in the event of sickness or unemployment. I should also mention that persons earning between £7,000 and £8,500 a year will become eligible to Health Act benefits from June next.

For someone receiving average industrial earnings, say £104 a week, the immediate increase will be 26 pence, from £4.68 to £4.94 per week. Let us, however, compare the average weekly pay-related social insurance contributions in each of the two years 1980-81 and 1981-82. If the average earnings figure increases to £121 per week, the amount of weekly PRSI will go up from £4.68 to £5.75, an additional £1.07 per week, of which about 77 pence will be attributable to the increase in earnings. In these cases also, the pay-related benefit entitlement will, generally, be based on higher earnings giving an extra £4 to £5 in the weekly rate.

There has been a certain amount of comment about increases in contributions arising from wage rises. The contributions are a fixed percentage of earnings and pay for benefits such as disability benefit, unemployment benefit, contributory pensions for widows and the retired as well as Health Act entitlements.

Social welfare benefits, generally, have been raised well beyond the increases in both the cost of living and the levels of wages. In other words, the cost of social welfare benefits has decreased in real terms as far as employees are concerned. I think it is necessary to restate that social insurance contributions are not a tax in the usual sense of the word; all the money paid in by employees and employers, including a very large Exchequer subvention, is used to pay out benefits and pensions.

The improvements in the fuel voucher scheme and the telephone rental scheme do not require any legislative changes. The value of the fuel vouchers issued under the recently established national fuel scheme has already been increased from £2 to £3. This change took effect from 30 January last. The number of beneficiaries has increased from 89,000 in 1979 to 115,000 at present and expenditure on this service has increased from £4 million in that year to £8.4 million in the current year.

In summary this Bill

—provides for further substantial increases in rates of social welfare payments;

—establishes a new maternity allowance scheme;

—brings the pay-related benefit system into line with new levels of payment;

—tidies up aspects of the social welfare code which the consolidation committee would like to have tackled but could not do so because of Standing Orders.

I commend the Bill to Dáil Éireann and ask for its speedy and favourable consideration.

We welcome the increases in social welfare payments but we do not regard the Bill as going far enough to meet the needs of the socially deprived — the unemployed, the sick, the disabled and so on. During my 20 years here I have been listening to successive Fianna Fáil Ministers for Social Welfare promise to update the Department of Social Welfare to the extent to which there would be no delays in payments. One of the most recent to make such a promise was the Taoiseach after he had been brought into the Shadow Cabinet in the seventies and again as Minister for Social Welfare after the 1977 general election. He pledged to end the delays in the payments of all benefits and assistance but never before in the history of the State have people had to wait so long for payments than is the case now. We are talking here about payments to which people are entitled and which they must have if they and their families are to be able to survive.

The explanation being offered for these delays is the change-over from the social insurance system to the PRSI system. It is difficult to understand the reasoning behind a system in which the job of keeping the books clear takes precedence over every other consideration especially when the only reason for administering social welfare is the recognition that there are people in our society who are in need. Apparently, it is beyond the imagination of those at the higher levels in the Department to devise a system of cross-checking in order to avoid these long delays. Applicants in my constituency or anywhere in the west of Ireland or even in this city do not place much importance on whether the number involved is a PRSI or any other number. Such people are interested only in being able to obtain the means by which to keep themselves warm and from starving.

I am not speaking in the wilderness in regard to this matter. Practically every organised group are criticising the Department. In the Evening Herald of March 4 the situation of which I speak was described as the worst scandal in the history of Irish social welfare.

The Minister tells us that the six main elements in the budget in regard to social welfare were very substantial increases in the rates payable to all social welfare beneficiaries, a major increase in children's allowances, a special package for the disabled to mark the year of the disabled, a fundamental development of maternity benefit schemes, further substantial development of the national fuel scheme and the extension of the free telephone rental scheme to include the recipients of disabled persons' maintenance allowances. These are the high ideals which are being presented to the House in the form of this Bill, but what is the point of increasing allowances and talking in these grandiose terms about improvements if the position remains that the people cannot get the payments to which they are entitled? People in this city are queueing at Department of Social Welfare offices for the purpose of inquiring about delays in their payments.

The Chair would ask the Deputy to deal with the Bill before the House.

That is what I am doing.

The Deputy is dealing with something that is not relevant to the Bill. He may not deal with the question of administration during this debate.

Since we being asked about money for the Department, surely we are entitled to criticise.

The Chair would remind the Deputy that there are numerous other opportunities of raising matters of administration, the Estimate in particular, but we are dealing here only with what is in the Bill or with what could be regarded as being relevant to it.

I am only asking what is the point of talking about increases to contributory old age pensioners, for instance, if these people must wait six months before receiving their pension in the first place? The same applies so far as the disabled are concerned. We find that on today's Order Paper there were 67 questions relating to social welfare. This represents one in every seven of the questions on the Order Paper.

I am aware that the Minister is a man of compassion and of understanding. We must give him credit for his attitude in this sphere of social welfare but the whole system is wrong and, consequently, a totally new approach in this area is required. I would prefer to see increases being linked to inflation so that social welfare beneficiaries would be compensated automatically for increases in the cost of living as happens in the case of Dáil Deputies, judges, county managers, chief executives of health boards and the civil servants who administer social welfare.

I do not find anything in the Bill that can be regarded as being praiseworthy. Despite all we hear from the Government about the disabled, the only change for that group is by way of the removal of VAT from wheelchairs. Can that be regarded as a contribution to the disabled?

There is much more that I could say in regard to the administration of the Department. On this whole question of delays in payments it is not good enough that either the Minister or his Minister of State would use the change-over to the PRSI system as a reason for the situation. Such reasoning means very little to the young woman who comes to my office and tells me that she must go begging to the social welfare officer for the purpose of borrowing some money under the supplementary payments scheme because her husband who has been working for years finds there is a delay in the payment of benefit to him now when he is out of work because of illness or because of unemployment. Therefore, instead of telling us by way of a well-prepared script about the various increases in social welfare payments, I would prefer to hear the Minister say that the system was being changed. Year after year we have a repeat of much the same speech instead of having a whole new look at the situation of the deprived with a view to ascertaining what is the best way of our contributing to a totally new society.

I believe and I say with a certain amount of guilt, that we are not the caring society we purport to be — far from it. In my constituency I know people who virtually go to bed early in the evenings because they are warmer there or do not have to eat as much if they lie in bed. I thought these were rather the exceptions than the rules, something that happened occasionally, but when one starts looking, it is amazing how many people are living in conditions that should make us all blush with shame.

Reading from a report on a survey of old people living alone, "Old and Alone in Ireland" by Brian Power of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, we find he has this to say:

About 80,000 elderly people of pensionable age live alone in Ireland. They constitute one-sixth of the total population of elderly Irish people of pensionable age.

We have 80,000 people living alone in this Christian society which we boast of, where money is being handed out generously to people who are not in need, to people who could with a little effort do without the major increases which they get. But there are not many to speak for the old, the infirm and the lonely. When it comes to election time I suppose my party are as guilty as any other party: they give them a run in a motor car to the local polling booth. It is with no great pride I say that.

Mr. Power gives a good deal of information here which all of us would do well to read. He said that 25 per cent of all those interviewed are without standard water amenities of any kind in their accommodation. This means that 20,000 old people — perhaps a little more or a little fewer — are living alone in conditions which succeeding generations of Irish people would regard as primitive and deprived. Is that not a terrible indictment of a Government, of a society, of this Parliament? Are we talking of Irish generations that came immediately after the Famine and saying they would have considered the standard at which people are now living in this society primitive and deprived? I would not argue with that because there are people living in deprived conditions, in primitive conditions and there are people being deprived of what they are justly entitled to who are not living alone. There are fathers of young families queueing day after day outside labour exchanges begging for their cheques, to be told for some reason, some lame excuse that there is an investigation taking place and when it has been completed they will be paid what they are entitled to.

Is this the caring society of the Minister and the Taoiseach in this dynamic Government that has taken over from the former Taoiseach, Deputy Jack Lynch? Is this the new Ireland they aspire to? I see no evidence in the present increases or the present Bill on which we should applaud the Minister and give him three cheers or even one-and-a-half cheers.

In the budget debate I told the Minister that some of the claims he made were blatantly dishonest. He talks about 25 per cent increases in certain categories but these are not real increases because the 25 per cent increases are post-dated to 1 April. Recipients lose two months of the year and when the ten months is taken as a calculation in the increase and when you consider the inflation rate of 19 per cent it is a matter of being as you were, and there is no achievement. In some instances people are expected to live on less. The Minister gives examples of a mother, father and three children and how they can live but if one takes a mother, father and four children and makes the calculation, one finds they are expected to live on £1 per week less. I do not know who does the arithmetic in the Minister's Department but I would request him to be a little more particular when calculating the figures and increases that are necessary.

I am not sure that the Minister's present proposals in any way attempt to solve the problem. They are not even pricking the surface of the problems modern society must face. No matter what Government are in power, whether the present Government are re-elected after the next election or a Government comprised of different parties are elected, we must recognise that for a number of years unemployment will be a major problem. That is not to say that we should not seek ways and means to create more jobs but we must admit the naked reality of the position that countries with larger and stronger economies than ours are also experiencing this curse of modern society. As technical aids develop fewer jobs are available and young people are unemployed. Young people are unemployed today to an extent that is nothing short of frightening. "Frightening" is the word we must use because young people will not remain very long without being terribly frustrated. One cannot blame them. I can see highly-educated young people in my own locality who cannot find employment. While it does not happen in my own society, I hope — I have no knowledge of it — when the youth of today find themselves frustrated, with no job opportunities, almost in despair and in dread of finding themselves on the scrapheap they turn to drugs, violence and subversion. Then we wonder what went wrong. Why did a chap from such a very good family background get into trouble? Why is he before the courts charged with a crime? At the same time no one in our society seems to give a damn about changing society in order to provide opportunities for young people.

I am not asking the Minister to scrap the present system. I doubt if we have the money to do so and venture to say that we do not have the money to change our present social welfare system. I am telling the Minister, loudly and clearly, that the present system is inadequate. It does not take into consideration the needs of the present generation or what is required in a modern society to deal with young people and make life easier for the unemployed. If we cannot radically change this system, we should at least modify it. There is no reason why, in a society where so many old and so many sick people are living alone and so many families have mentally or physically handicapped, or senile relatives, these could not be helped. Today's newspaper tells us that we have 127,000 unemployed. We do not think for a second how we could channel all that energy into helping these families with social problems and the elderly living alone or mentally handicapped child or adult. According to Mr. Power's report, in spite of all the voluntary organisations these people seldom have a visit unless from a grandchild, a relation, a lifelong friend or neighbour.

Have we reached the stage where we cannot look objectively at the social welfare payments, particularly unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance? There are many good people who find themselves unemployed, some being paid benefits and some being paid assistance. Could we not say to these people "Would you volunteer to do social work in your own society or community for a number of hours per week? If you do, a special rate of allowance or benefit will be made available to you". In other words, there would be a two-tier system of payments, the upper tier for those volunteering to do social work. I know many unemployed who if shown what they had to do or were expected to do — in other words, if they were given leadership, because that is what public life is all about — would allow their energies to be channelled in the right direction. In that state of affairs we would not have the ideal society, but we would have an improved society. The Minister should take serious note of what I am saying because it is not outside the realms of possibility. A man without a job is entitled to payments from his social welfare contribution and a person who has never had a job and never had the opportunity of paying for stamps or contributing to the social welfare system is entitled to unemployment assistance to support himself, his wife and his children.

I do not want anyone to misunderstand me. I do not want the unemployed to do something that they do not want to do. My appeal to the Minister is to examine the possibility of inviting people in these categories to make themselves available for a number of hours' work a week at any time of the day which suits them providing the services which I have mentioned. If that were done these people might find a new vocation in life.

As far as the youth are concerned, here is excellent potential for becoming involved. I am thinking of many people whom I know in Donegal. I have talked to some of them along these lines who were rather excited at the idea of this type of structure being organised in their parish or community. There is a lot of goodwill in society, even among the disappointed people who have not jobs and the young people who have not yet been able to find a job. They want to express their talents and find something to do. They want job fulfilment. If we cannot provide them with a job, here is a way in which we might be able to channel their energies in the right direction.

If there is a change of Government I will play my part in no small way in an effort to achieve this type of society, because I believe that adult education programmes could enlighten the general public as to the ills which very often exist in society. We pass them by every day of the week and never notice them. I had one personal experience in my first venture into public life when I was taken into a cottage in County Donegal by a local person canvassing the area for the county council election. I was a bright know-all of 29 years of age who thought that there was not a story, gossip or otherwise, within ten miles of where I lived that I did not know about. My experience in that house showed me that there was a thing called mental handicap. I was unaware that such a problem existed in our society. That is an awful admission to make. I considered myself to be an ordinary person and I told myself that, if I did not know of such things in our society, how many other people did not know of it also? This must be brought to the attention of everyone so that something will be done about the matters in our society which need attention.

I would rather the Minister scrapped the address he delivered to this House today, thought afresh and attempted to change society, because there is a great deal of energy walking the streets of Dublin and other towns throughout the country — the unemployed man, woman and child who is available to work — and it should be guided in the right direction. This could make a major contribution to society. What we want is leadership from the Minister and the Government.

If we get our youth and voluntary organisations to work along the lines I mentioned, in return, we might be able to provide them with better amenities, such as swimming pools, football pitches and things like that. They could be given the opportunity to participate in sports. I hope the Minister listened to my plea before he left the House.

If we ignore much longer the needs of the unemployed, the youth, the disabled, and the socially deprived, other people might find ways of tackling the problem. That happened in other countries which were stronger than Ireland and it could happen here. If I were a teenager or a young man in my early twenties coming out of university, qualified for anything and everything but with nothing to do, I wonder what my attitude to society would be. As frustration built up, I wonder in what direction it would go. Those human thoughts must be in the minds of some people in that age group.

The Minister mentioned the free fuel scheme and boastfully said Fianna Fáil had increased it from £2 to £3 a week. He does not recognise the fact that before the Department took over this scheme most of the recipients were getting a bag of coal per week delivered by voluntary organisations and committees. Now we are told the fuel voucher has been increased from £2 to £3 and everybody on the Government benches shouts "three cheers". To buy a bag of coal today costs £4.50.

No, £4.70.

Instead of giving them a bag of coal worth £4.70, we increase the voucher from £2 to £3 and Government Deputies clap their hands and shout "Hear, hear".

That is not quite right.

Deputy Moore is one of the small band of Fianna Fáil Deputies with whom I have a very personal relationship and for whom I have a very high regard, but he can contradict what I say in his own contribution. I am saying that, since the Department of Social Welfare, through the community welfare offices, took over the fuel scheme, we have never seen such a disaster. I do not know how it works in other constituencies, but in County Donegal some people are being paid twice while others are not paid at all. Cheques are being sent to people who went to their just rewards six months ago. When we ring up to make inquiries we are told "it has been processed".

The Deputy is discussing administration and that does not come under the Bill.

With respect, I do not know what we are entitled to debate on this Bill.

I have given the Deputy every latitude. I said we should debate what is in the Bill and what is relevant to it. Administration is a matter for the Estimates or some other debate.

I do not wish to argue with you, but if the Minister makes proposals for a free fuel scheme I am entitled to point out the inadequacies of such a scheme.

Certainly. There is no question about that but the Deputy is going into detail about how the scheme is administered in Donegal and that is not relevant to the Bill.

I am simply saying the free fuel scheme now being administered by the Department of Social Welfare was better organised before the Department took over. I am merely pointing out that under the old scheme the local committees were able to deliver a bag of coal which I thought cost £4.50 — that may have been the price last week — but Deputy Tully tells me it cost £4.70 this week. The Minister told the House he was increasing the payment from £2 to £3 and I am saying that is very inadequate.

The many people who received this free fuel last year, and who should have automatically received it on 1 October 1980, have not yet received payment. This raises another point. Why should we have a free fuel scheme operating from October to 31 March? Why is there no flexibility about this scheme so that whoever operates it can start paying out if it is cold during the second week of September? True to form, the Government will say, "You cannot do that". Why? "Because the scheme does not start until 1 October". If Maggie Murphy is cold in her home during the second week of September she will have to wait until 1 October to qualify for this free fuel. Is that not as lamentable position?

There is a standard heating period.

We have the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach telling us there is a standard heating period. This is where I take issue with the Government.

The spirit of any scheme is to assist the people, to identify a need and to provide the answer. If a community welfare officer, who is probably more directly concerned in this than anyone else, feels a family need free fuel a fortnight before the official starting date, is it not better that that officer be allowed to use his own discretion and say if that family's needs are more important than the standard heating period? In every Department there is an attitude that the books must be kept clean and the answers must be ready for the person who inquires, but anyone who makes a telephone inquiry even one minute past 5 o'clock will be told that the problem must wait until the following day. The whole approach is wrong. Surely we are here to serve people who are in need and that should take precedence over everything else. If the regulation says "No" and commonsense says "Yes", then commonsense should prevail.

I do not want to interrupt the Deputy again but they could get a supplementary allowance outside that period.

The Minister of State should not enter into it.

Deputy Moore mentions the supplementary allowance. He would ignore the dignity of a family and tell them to knock on the door of the social welfare officer and ask for a few pounds.

We cannot win.

Keep one half on the payroll and bribe the other half and Fianna Fáil will stay in office. That is what they have been doing for 50 years

I hope in the next few months that the Taoiseach will do what most of us expect and call a general election. This Government are tired. The Minister came into office with trumpets blaring and, while he may have intended to do good things, he is also tired. Those people in the civil service who require the political leadership that fresh thinking will provide would give a better account of their stewardship and their services to society under a new government.

Fianna Fáil decried this party for taking a shilling off the old age pension and they hung that around our neck for 50 years. At the same time they refused to give any increase in the old age pension between 1932 and 1947 and they never reduced the old age pension qualifying age by even one year during their many years in office. Such a Government have forfeited the right to talk seriously about changing society. When the old age pension was introduced it was said that it was too long in coming, that the amount given was too little and that the qualifying age was too high. This Government could have reduced the age to 65 years. The National Coalition Government had made such a commitment and would have fulfilled it had they been re-elected in 1977. It must be pointed out that the shilling which was removed from the old age pension was given back again, making the pension ten shillings and it seems to have escaped the minds of the present generation that Fianna Fáil allowed the level of pension to remain unchanged until 1947 when the first Inter-Party Government took office.

During his contribution to the budget debate the Taoiseach said:

This budget faces up to our problems and opportunities. It gives assistance where assistance is needed, it maintains a careful balance between prudent financial management and economic growth, it restrains current expenditure while expanding productive investment.

I wonder how many people in receipt of unemployment and other benefits from the Department of Social Welfare really take the Taoiseach seriously when he says that the budget maintains a careful balance between prudent financial management and economic growth. I do not believe it, nor do I believe that the increases which have been given by the Government will in any way compensate people due to the high rate of inflation. The budget is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I hope the Minister will ask some of his civil servants to examine the possibility of putting some of my suggestions into effect. We will never change society if we believe that it cannot be done because the book says so. We will never change society unless we have the commitment and will to do so. I am sure there are many well-intentioned and able men in the Department of Social Welfare who are anxious and willing to bring about the necessary changes in society.

What we require now is political leadership. In the few months remaining to the Minister will he at least have preliminary investigations into what I have suggested? If the Minister gets back into government he will have the co-operation of this party in moving along those lines. If this party get into Government we will in a serious way attempt to restructure and change the social welfare position. The hand out, dole out attitude, where we hand out the money and say that we have fulfilled our commitment must end. If a person's dignity is respected, when he becomes unemployed there is a greater obligation on us to find a way in which we can gainfully channel his energies.

Only a few years before I came into this House in 1954 were old age pensions increased for the first time, the old age pensioners having survived on ten shillings a week which was the equivalent of the farm worker's wage — from 1908. The old age pensioners received ten shillings a week through a decade of Cumann na nGaedheal Government and through almost two decades of Fianna Fáil Government and it was changed upwards for the first time under the Coalition Government. Since then we have seen only grudging increases. I refer to old age pensioners because they are a forgotten people. I am sure the Minister wishes to do as much for social welfare recipients as anybody else. The Minister bragged that in certain circumstances a married couple can get up to £52 per week. In view of the fact that a farm worker's minimum wage is now about £70 a week one can realise how much they have lost over the years. For years we have never appreciated that a loaf of bread costs the same for an old age pensioner as it does for a worker. We have now reached the stage, a stage which we had in the early thirties and which I thought I would never see again, where many people are living on what we used to describe as bread and spread, simply a cup of tea and bread fried in dripping. That has become the standard food of the poor in this year. How many people over the last few years have not been able to buy any meat including such things as rashers and sausages? They just cannot afford to. A man with a large family receives a children's allowance of £9 a month, per child, and a man with one child receives £6 per month. In view of the fact that a pair of shoes for a toddler now cost approximately £12 what is the use of talking? It means that all the children's allowances for the year will not keep them in shoes apart from anything else. How many people have never been able to have a new suit, coat or a dress? All they have is what has been given to them by charitable organisations. Many people are too proud to accept these things and they wear their clothes until they are threadbare. Those are facts of life. Let us not delude ourselves that grandiose proposals for increased percentages will improve the situation. They will not. So long as we have a capitalist system where the profit motive is the only thing that counts we will have this situation.

I agree with the Chair's ruling that this is not the time in which to discuss social welfare payments and nobody in the House has more respect for the departmental officials than I. I have always found them, with few exceptions, extremely courteous and anxious to be of assistance. However, over the last 12 months there has been a slight change. Letters written to the Department making complaints were acknowledged but were not replied to until a month after the person in question had received the money he was entitled to as a result of the representations. This became obvious when the date was rubbed out on a number of occasions and a new date put in.

I had a recent very annoying experience which proves my point. A social welfare benefit is worth more to a person if it is paid when due. Otherwise he has to get credit and when the benefit arrives it is already owed. It is not easy to budget or to be comfortable in illness or in old age with money that is spent before it is received. I wrote to the secretary of the Department and pointed out that on a number of letters I had received the date had been deliberately changed from January to February showing that the letters were due a month earlier but had not been sent to me until the person involved had nearly forgotten that the payment had been made. One person receiving disability benefit has not been paid. I wrote to the Department pointing out that he should have been paid and I received a letter from the Department referring to a period before the period under consideration. That sort of thing did not happen before. Most departmental officials go out of their way to be helpful to public representatives and that is the way social welfare recipients should be treated. We should not have to interfere. A person entitled to a social welfare payment should get it automatically and he should get the same service that we as Members of the House get. Unfortunately things have changed in the Department and I hope that it is not because of a policy change.

I assure the Deputy that there is no policy change.

I will accept the Minister's word but would he also pass it along——

I have given every Deputy an opportunity to spend a minute or two on the delays but as Deputy Tully knows we are discussing administration. We will have plenty of opportunity to deal with them elsewhere.

I thank the Minister for his comment and I would ask him to pass it along to the people in charge of the Department so that it will not happen again.

When people are employed they get a wage round when it comes along. Nowadays that wage round is fairly substantial. Is there any point in the Minister or the Government offering to old age pensioners, widows, recipients of unemployment benefit or assistance, or to disabled people, approximately half the percentage increase they would get if they were working? Giving a percentage increase of a low income is the cause of the problem. When people in employment receive increases of 10 or 12 per cent and social welfare recipients receive increases in their benefit of the same amount the sums of money involved are very different. Those dependent on social welfare pay the same amount for goods they buy as do those who have more money.

The Government which will follow this one, quickly I believe, will have to make the necessary changes because the present Government evidently are not prepared to do so. Before the last general election Fianna Fáil said they would do away with the dole queues. We would like to reduce them. There are 34,000 more people unemployed this month than there were this time last year. If the money paid to them was made available to us it would go a long way towards remedying the situation.

On the question of free travel, an old age pensioner and his wife can travel together and go places they would never have dreamed of. That is great. However, if the holder of the pension is ill the other person has to stay at home. That is ironic. Arrangements should be made to enable such people to travel free. I know a case where the holder of the voucher was ill and his wife wished to visit her brother who was in a mental hospital. However, she was unable to do so because she could not travel free on her own. Something should be done about this situation.

As regards the free telephone system, is the Minister aware that the cost of installing a telephone is being increased to £145 with effect from April? There is no point in saying one can have a free telephone if one does not have the money to pay for the installation. This will have to be dealt with otherwise the whole scheme will become a joke. Another factor in this scheme is that the person must be living alone. I know three old ladies who live together, one is 90 years of age and confined to bed; another is 86 years of age and is confined to the house and the other is able to go out and potter around. They applied for a phone but did not get it because they were not living alone. This is the kind of thing that makes the scheme ridiculous and the Minister should do something about it.

I know the Minister is anxious to get the Bill through the House quickly and I shall not detain it. As regards waiting days, the trade union movement have attempted to have them wiped out. It has always been held that if one introduced a system which did not include waiting days a person who took a few drinks over a weekend would stay out on Monday and Tuesday and be paid. Reluctantly the trade unions accepted waiting days. I should like the Minister to define what is meant by "a short period". In relation to pay-related benefit there are 12 waiting days and if a person drawing pay-related benefit resumes work and within a relatively short time becomes ill again he is paid on a continuing basis. However, it is now proposed to have a second waiting period. The Minister said:

Where however a person has a relapse within a few days of resuming work or his incapacity occurs during a period of unemployment, the present conditions will generally continue to apply.

What is meant by "a few days" and "generally continues to apply"? In social welfare specific rules should be laid down. We have enough trouble arguing about whether it is under the PRSI or insurance number that people should apply without adding such niceties which will make the matter a thousand times worse. The Minister should tighten up the language used. I do not know what he meant.

There is no use in the Department introducing improvements if it is done in a backhanded way. Certain proposals are being introduced to improve the conditions of those who are sick or unemployed but employers or employees are being asked to pay a considerable amount extra. In the present situation where wages are chasing prices more than ever before every shilling paid out of a worker's pocket counts. The Minister should be careful about the way he deals with these matters.

The old age pension introduced in 1908 was not increased until 1947 when there was a change to a Coalition Government. Percentage increases have been quoted at us and by us over the years but they are not adequate to cover the amount of money required by people who have to live on pensions. Deputy Harte dealt very well with the problems of young people, particularly school leavers, who find it impossible to get employment. People over 40 are losing their jobs and realise they will never again find constant employment. This is appalling. I agree with the statement made by Fianna Fáil when in Opposition that any Government with over 100,000 people unemployed are not fit to govern. That was one of the main reasons why we were put out of office. I would put the present figure very much higher than the figure published last night. We know that the three-day weekers who were unemployed until 12 months ago are not considered to be unemployed now. Under Fianna Fáil, they are now considered to be working full-time. That is a little bit of a twist. I suppose you can get away with these things if you try them in the right way. Many people have despaired of the possibility of getting any money through the labour exchanges and have stopped signing on. If you add all those together you will find that the number of unemployed is very much higher than the official figure.

In their budget the Government fell down badly because they made no effort to reduce the unemployment figure. I should like to be very clear on this. Certain elements seem to have the idea that the working class in Ireland would prefer to draw unemployment benefit than to work. As a person who had to work for his living over the years, I am perfectly satisfied that the workers of Ireland would be only too delighted to work if the work was there for them. It is very hurtful to them and embarrassing for all of us that they have to go to a Garda barracks or a labour exchange and sign on. These are decent people who want to work and earn a decent living. They have to hang around and wait for the barracks or the exchange to open.

Some time ago I asked a question about unemployment in the town of Navan. This was about two years ago, before the Minister took office. I was told: "There should not be any trouble about that. After all, the biggest mine in Europe is in Navan"— as if everybody could take a pick and shovel, go down the mine and start working. It has now been revealed that one of our black spots for unemployment is the town of Navan. In areas where formerly there were not big numbers of unemployed, we now have people who cannot get a day's work, to put it in their own words. The Government should have been able to think up some way of dealing with this problem. A committee should be working full-time devising systems to put people on the dole queues back to work. The only way in which money can be saved is by taking them off the unemployment register.

The question of those who are sick is another matter. In the Department they are trying to process around 60,000 or 70,000 applications for sickness benefit every week. One wonders how they are able to get through them all. I suppose they have got into a rhythm and are dealing with them in a fairly reasonable way. I will not go back on this theme again, but because of messing in the Department it appears as if somebody got the files and threw them into the middle of the floor, and then got down on their knees and tried to find out whose certificate was here and whose certificate was there.

I have a particular case in mind of a man who was employed in the gypsum industry in Kingscourt for 38 years. He told me proudly that he had lost only three weeks through illness in 1947. He got something in his eyes and had to go to hospital. He was operated on in Navan and his eyes are now improving. He has six children. He applied for social welfare benefit on 27 November and he got half of what was due last week. I was told that it might be several months before he would be paid. I had another case to do with a widow's pension.

We are getting back to administration.

I am just slipping one in here and there.

I know, but that does not mean the Deputy is in order.

A widow telephoned me the other night. She has a non-contributory widow's pension. Her husband was a professional man. He died leaving her with six small children. Between assistance from the North-Eastern Health Board and social welfare, she has an income of £72 a week. Last week she got an ESB bill covering the Christmas period for £73. She wanted to know if I could tell her how she could pay an ESB bill for £73 with a cheque for £72 and at the same time feed and clothe herself and six children. She asked would the Department of Social Welfare be prepared to subsidise her in some way and perhaps give her free electricity as is given to old age pensioners. There is no way.

Deputy Harte talked about free fuel. That is not the correct name, because the amount given does not meet anything like the requirements of people buying coal, for instance. He said the price of coal was £4.50 a bag and I corrected him. In my own area the price of coal is £4.70 a bag outside the town and £4.60 in the town of Drogheda. This may have nothing to do with the Minister, but perhaps one of his colleagues might take note of it. On three occasions recently I discovered that a bag of coal alleged to weigh eight stone for which £4.70 was paid was found wanting on being weighed. The weight was seven stone and a quarter, or less than seven stone and a quarter, or six stone and a quarter.

Old people have to buy coal in small quantities. An amount of money which might be sufficient for them, if they were more active and agile, is not sufficient to supply them with fuel for a week. First, they get an allowance which does not meet their requirements. Secondly, they run the risk of getting short weight. Thirdly, if they buy two bags of coal they will not be able to buy food for the week. The Minister and perhaps the senior officials in the Department may be under the impression that the amounts given are generous, but those of us who travel around among the ordinary people, among the poor and the very poor, appreciate more than others that if you have not got the money you cannot buy the goods. It is the old story; if you buy in large quantities you can buy cheaper. People who have to buy in small quantities must pay more.

I should like to read two paragraphs from the Minister's speech. He said:

A factor which must not be lost sight of is that the value of these pensions is in fact considerably enhanced by the various additional services available to these pensioners. They are entitled to free travel and frequently also to fuel vouchers. In addition, any pensioner living alone receives an additional £2.05 per week and is eligible to receive free electricity allowance, free TV licence and assistance towards the cost of having a telephone.

Even if we do not count the value of the TV or telephone rental concessions, a married couple both of whom are over pensionable age could receive additional services to the value of about £5 a week based on very conservative estimates of the use of free travel and free electricity facilities. For the purpose of determining this figure the annual value was taken to comprise free travel, £104; free electricity, £78 and free fuel £90. The full value of the pensions, therefore, to such a married couple is £57.50 a week or about half the average pre-tax industrial earnings figure.

I wonder does the Minister think that all old age pensioners dash out each morning waiting for the first bus or train to make its appearance so that they can spend the day travelling on buses and trains. If he does he is wrong. Most old age pensioners have never been in a bus or a train and have no intention of using them. Therefore it is wrong to value facilities used by very few pensioners and apply them to all and therefore to give the full value of the pension as £57.50 per week, half the average pre-tax wage.

Why is it considered that old age pensioners, who have given the best years of their lives in the service of their country, should cheer because they are given by the State an amount estimated at half what they would earn in industrial employment? This is the kernel of the trouble. Every Government since the foundation of the State have regarded old age pensioners as people who do not count, who should be able to live on a lot less than they get. I have met many people who have told me they have not eaten meat for a long time.

I am a pioneer and I do not smoke but I do not suggest that others should do without a drink or a smoke. However, pensioners now cannot afford to buy tobacco, cigarettes or drink, even occasionally. Old people would much prefer to be living at home but they are moved into institutions where the average cost of keeping them is three times if not more what they are being given to live on at home.

It is not an adjustment of the amount of money being given to beneficiaries we should be considering. We should be thinking about attempting to change the whole system. This is only a stop-gap Bill. Many pensioners who thought they were being given something in the budget have realised in the meantime that these increases will leave them in the same position as they were six months ago, if not worse. That has been overlooked by all but the social welfare recipients themselves. We have also forgotten that in the last three budgets these increases have been to cover an entire year whereas during the Coalition period the situation was reviewed in October in the light of increases in living costs between April and the end of September.

Most people on social welfare benefits now find it possible to buy only the bare necessities of life. All of them who can go to supermarkets hoping to find things cheaper there but they are confronted with English goods at sterling prices and they find their púnt represents very little. Even vegetables being sold in Irish supermarkets are imported and stamped "Packed in Ireland". The Minister may think he is doing well for the social welfare classes but they have to run forever faster to keep pace with inflation. They are now worse than they were when Fianna Fáil took office nearly four years ago. With the best will in the world, the sort of thinking behind this Bill, coupled with all the other problems in the Department, means that as long as Fianna Fáil are over there social welfare beneficiaries, if one should call them that, are in for a lean time.

I welcome the Bill as far as it goes, which is not very far as the two previous speakers emphasised. It is only a paltry effort to catch up with inflation, but I am afraid inflation has already caught up with the provisions in the Bill. We would need a Bill of this kind once a month. As Deputy Tully said, when the announcement of these increases was made originally people thought the percentages meant something, that they might have a better winter. Now they realise that it is the old story again, and the old people are the worst victims of inflation particularly where it affects food, clothing and fuel. Food prices are going up day by day, the cost of warm clothing has gone out of reach of old people and it is impossible for them to heat their badly constructed, badly insulated cottages. All this has been pointed out by Deputy Tully, who said that we expect our old people to survive on less than 50 per cent of the average worker's wage. We must begin to look seriously at the whole problem of old people.

It is frightening to realise the large numbers of old people in welfare homes and in hospitals. Many of them need not be there. This is something peculiar to our society. In the old days when people had much less money more was done for our old people. They were treated with respect and ended their days in this own homes. Nowadays the tendency is for young people to build new houses for themselves and leave the old people alone.

I think the problem goes back to the large numbers of married women who, through necessity, have to go out to work. Many of them are not able to look after their own children. In 99 cases out of 100 those married women have no choice in the matter but to work. We will have to give consideration to a system that will give substantial tax concessions to married women who are prepared to stay at home and look after their families and their old relatives. We must make it worth their while to do so. Most women would prefer to stay in their own homes. Any couple who would undertake to look after an old person, whether that person was a relative or not, should get a further tax concession. Many old people who are in hospitals and in welfare homes feel lonely and unwanted. They would be much happier living with their families and caring for their grandchildren. When one realises the prohibitive cost of keeping an old person in a welfare home, it is obvious that the cost of any tax concessions to encourage people to look after the elderly would not be great. The provisions in this piecemeal legislation will not keep up with inflation.

Reference has been made to delay in payment of various benefits. It is a sad matter that in this House Deputies have to resort to parliamentary questions to obtain information from the Department of Social Welfare. Although we make repeated representations, we do not get any response from the Department until we ask questions in the House. People submit medical certificates to the Department and they should be given their benefits immediately. How does the Minister or his Department expect people to exist for up to nine weeks without money? They can go to the local social welfare officer for money but often it is easier to get blood from a turnip. In the old days the small shopkeeper or the family grocer gave credit to people for a few weeks but in this modern society many people have to shop in supermarkets. This is not a laughing matter. It is not funny when old people, the disabled, or parents of young families who are struck down in the course of their employment, are reduced to appealing to their public representatives to get some benefits to save them from starvation. That is the greatest indictment of the Department of Social Welfare. I hope the Minister will find solutions in the near future.

In his speech the Minister referred to "economic difficulties". They are largely of the Government's making and go back to the infamous manifesto. He stated also that "We are keeping in line with the cost of living". That is a joke. Payments are not in line with the cost of living. As Deputy Tully pointed out, social welfare recipients do not buy meat any more. They can afford only the bare essentials. The Minister should see the pathetic way some of their homes are heated — one bar of an electric fire. Their clothing is inadequate in many instances.

As was stated by the previous speaker. the frightening length of our dole queues is largely the responsibility of the Government, not the result of an international situation. The textile industry and food processing plants throughout Europe are going ahead full steam but in my area even our distillers are on a three-day week. People over the age of 40 years who are unemployed are frightened that they will never get employment again. People in the textile industry who have unique skills are out of work; they are getting PRSI at the moment and are reasonably all right but they have a very bleak future. I appeal to the Minister to get his other colleagues in the Government to do something about unemployment.

We are moving away from the Bill. The Deputy may discuss what is in the Bill or what he would like to see in it.

Much of the drain on social welfare benefits is unnecessary. It is caused by unnecessary unemployment. The free telephone is very important for old people especially those living in rural areas. All the good has been taken out of this recently because a very hefty installation fee has been clamped on. The Minister has shown himself to be a man who is concerned about those people. If he would like to see that scheme fully implemented those telephones should be installed free of charge. It would not add very much to the present rate of spending by the Government if that small concession was made to old people.

We have butter vouchers but I would like to see food vouchers generally given to old people so that they would be able to buy a decent supply of food. Fuel vouchers are very important. The heating of houses is very important but we should look at the European system where there are specially designed houses for elderly people and they are centrally heated by the municipal authority. This should be done here if possible especially in rural towns. We should also look at the question of using the surplus heat of industries to heat houses for elderly people. There is a very useful disabled person's grant but all old people should qualify for 100 per cent renovation grants to make their houses habitable.

We will have to think in terms of keeping our old people in their own homes, as happened down through the centuries. Old people were the princes and princesses of families. A considerable tax-free allowance should be given to anybody who looks after an elderly person whether or not that person is a relative. This would release substantial sums of money to do a lot more for them.

I would like to see disability benefits paid out week by week as they become due. It would help to solve the problem if in all our major centres regional offices, properly staffed, were established where people could go in and get paid. I would like to see some privacy given to applicants for medical cards and social welfare benefits. They should not be compelled to queue up in front of a counter and have to tell their stories in front of a lot of other people. Such offices should allow the staff to deal with those people like human beings.

Deputy Harte stated that all the money paid out to social welfare recipients is their own money and is not a hand-out from the State or anybody else. The money they receive is made up out of their own contributions and their employers' contributions. That is all the more reason why unemployment, pay-related benefit and redundancy payments should be made without delay. We will be doing a good day's work if the Minister tells us when he is replying: "We know there is a build-up and we know there is no point in dialling 786444 because it is either engaged or there is nobody there and, even if they can be got, there are no results. From tomorrow morning we will guarantee that those payments will be made week by week as they fall due." I hope he will also be able to tell us that the Government will do something about unemployment. Fianna Fáil said during the 1977 election campaign that any Government who allowed the unemployment figure to rise over 100,000 should get out of office. The figure is almost double that now. Will Fianna Fáil get out and give us an opportunity to put the matter right?

The Department of Social Welfare have a lot of contact with the people. It is very necessary in all Government Departments, but in the Department of Social Welfare particularly, to have a public relations section whose job is not to boost the Minister but to deal with the public. I have often been approached by constituents who have a social welfare problem and have written to the Department up to four times but got no reply. It is part of my job to deal with the problems of my constituents but if a member of the public refers a problem to the Department of Social Welfare that person should receive a reply. When we talk about our public servants it is no harm to remind them that their first duty is to the public. I have always found the officials of the Department of Social Welfare very helpful and co-operative when I have contacted them. One can put forward a case on behalf of one constituent or a number of them and get a satisfactory response. I want a special section established to deal with those matters on a broad basis and not have the social welfare recipient or the person who is applying for social welfare bewildered and confused and not knowing where to turn for many weeks when such a person should be entitled to the payment of benefit. It is all very well for the Minister to talk about insurance and RSI numbers but how many people know what the letters RSI stand for? I have some doubt and the ordinary individual in that situation does not understand.

The Minister should ensure that that problem is dealt with immediately. I suggest that he set up a special section in the Department to ensure that correspondence and telephone queries are responded to immediately. I am sure the Minister in the last week has had his fill of complaints about delays in the Department. I appreciate that with the change-over in the system there have been problems.

I am sure the Deputy will agree that I have given him considerable latitude on this topic, which relates to administration and is more appropriate to the Estimate. The Deputy should return to the provisions of the Bill.

I accept the point made by the Chair and I will not labour this topic. However, a Bill which the Minister suggests will be of considerable advantage to our people in the payment of social welfare is not of much use if recipients do not receive their benefits. It is in that context that I am anxious to add my voice to those who are complaining about delays. I have heard people down the country refer to the Minister as being the Minister for Hunger because people cannot get their money from his Department.

I have given the Deputy considerable latitude and he should now return to the provisions of the Bill.

I will not go against the ruling of the Chair on this matter, but I should like to urge the Minister to take all necessary steps to ensure that the delays are eliminated. It is not fair that some people are helpless and bewildered waiting for their cheques and, in many cases, are hungry.

An important point in relation to the provisions of the Bill is the position of employees under our social welfare system. Last week I asked the Minister to tell me who protects employees and he did not give me a positive response. He should give a positive response when replying to this debate. There have been many cases where employers deducted social welfare contributions from employees and did not account to the Department for those deductions. It is only when such people make a claim for disability or other benefits that they find themselves in trouble because their employer did not do his duty. I suggest to the Minister that he adopt a more stringent approach to ensure that employees are protected. I suggest that the Minister is the person who should protect employees. He is the guardian of the public purse, and, ultimately, the public purse will disburse, after due delay, the amount due to the person in question. I am making this point as a person who has every consideration for that purse, but I must also have consideration for recipients. We must pay greater attention to employers who are diddling the State. In case their conscience is being salved by the modern notion that it is in order to diddle the State I should like to remind them that in addition to that they are causing a considerable hardship on their own employees. The Minister should tell us what is being done in this area and the further measures he proposes to protect employees in such situations.

Problems have arisen in the context of the change-over from the old system of insurance stamp books to the new one. Under the old system the books were collected each April and they provided a reasonable check; but under the new system, because of difficulty on the part of many employees in obtaining a certificate of tax-free allowances, employers have problems in making the necessary returns to the Department. The Minister should tell us if he is satisfied with the new system and his proposals to improve it. I am aware that there is difficulty in obtaining the appropriate certificates of tax-free allowances but that will have to be overcome.

I should now like to deal with the question of fishermen under the social welfare code. As I understand it, share fishermen may now be covered by the provisions of the social welfare legislation. I also understand that up to the change-over from the stamp system owner-skippers were able to obtain cover. However, they are not able to obtain that cover now, presumably because they are classified as employers. If that is the problem, the Minister should amend the Bill to cover all fishermen who genuinely wish to obtain cover under the social welfare code. They are in a hazardous occupation, which is unpredictable from the point of view of income, and is dangerous. It has a high accident rate. Many of those fishermen may technically own their boats but they are in a weak situation in times of bad weather. They may be unable to work for weeks and they may find themselves out of work for a considerable time as a result of an accident. Recently I met an unfortunate man who lost his leg aboard a fishing boat.

There should be a special provision to cater for fishermen anxious to obtain cover under the social welfare code. They could be catered for as voluntary contributors, as happened under the old system. Some years ago the Irish Fishermen's Organisation made a case in this regard but I do not think they were successful. The Minister should consider the situation of such people and, if possible, extend the social welfare code to cover them if they wish to have it.

Unemployment payments and the question of unemployment generally have been mentioned. Here there is one point I want to make to the Minister. I know there is a very big draw on the social welfare fund from the point of view of paying unemployment assistance at present. I would suggest that the Minister have discussions with his Cabinet colleagues as to whether it is meritorious to endeavour to retain people in jobs rather than allowing them to join the dole queues. I make this point in the context of a particular recommendation of the Joint Oireachtas Committee, when that all-party committee recommended strongly that where an industry or factory was in trouble it would be in the interests of the Government, of the public purse and of the employees involved to have a subvention from the State to keep such industry or factory going until an alternative became available. I know that such a decision is not within the hands of the Minister for Social Welfare himself but, as a Member of the present Cabinet — however long it will last — I would suggest that he raise this point with them

The cost of creating new IDA-assisted jobs at present is of the order of £14,000 per job. Surely there must be some merit in looking at the overall situation, at the cost to the public purse of paying social welfare, at the cost of replacement jobs and of having more protection for people in employment rather than allowing them willy-nilly to join the dole queues without a solid effort having been made to retain that employment. I am straying somewhat from social welfare here but it is an aspect and we cannot compartmentalise our thinking on this over much; it is an aspect of unemployment. Prevention of unemployment is very important and it is in that context that I raise it. I shall not labour the point.

There is one other aspect that needs to be mentioned. This is whether there is sufficient control of abuses of social welfare. Where social welfare is drawn improperly it is clear that there is then a lesser sum available to those really in need. No matter what system one has one will always find there will be the occasional person who will abuse that system but there are some indications that the social welfare system is being abused to a considerable degree. I mention this not in the context of sympathy for the public purse but in the context that if there is such a draw on the social welfare fund there is then less available with which to increase the amount available to those who really need it. I would ask the Minister to outline not merely the bare details of the prosecutions that have taken place over the last 12 months but to give us an honest, realistic assessment, as far as he is aware, of the extent to which abuse has taken place and of the measures which he feels can be taken to prevent such abuse. I do not raise this in any political sense. I accept that, no matter what system one may have, there will be some abuses. But the Minister has a duty, not merely from the point of view of guarding public moneys but of ensuring that, as far as possible, there is more money available to those who really need it.

That brings me to my last point. It is a measure of the real Christianity of our society how we treat our old people and under-privileged. While I am glad to see some increases under this Bill we must stand back and look at the situation in a broader context. If the Minister trumpets about increases of 25 per cent, or whatever they are, one must consider the base on which that 25 per cent is granted. Therefore a Bill such as this should require us to take a real look at how we treat our old people, our sick and the under-privileged sector of our society. When one talks about an increase I do not think one can stand up, beat one's breast and proclaim loudly how good one is to the weaker sectors of our community. One must look at the final result, the moneys that will be available to such people to face life over the next 12 months and whether we consider that to be adequate.

Travelling around one's constitutency, meeting people living in very bad conditions one wonders and, having wondered for a while, one is driven to the firm conclusion that there are certainly many people in our society living below the poverty line. Sometimes this may be because they are unable to husband their meagre resources: sometimes there may be other reasons. But I do not think we can be satisfied — as people who should have a Christian approach — with having people living in those conditions in our society. It would be very easy for me to say to the Minister, "Well, instead of increasing something by 20 per cent, increase it by 40 per cent or 100 per cent." I known the financial constraints there are at present.

Having mentioned that, I suppose I could say that is as a result of the economic mess created by the Government but I will not get into that area. If there are financial constraints, for whatever cause, we must ask ourselves are we doing sufficient to isolate the cases of real need? Is there sufficient selectivity in our social welfare system? That is the type of question I would pose to the Minister and with which I would genuinely like to see him deal in his reply. Are we searching out those areas where there are old people living alone in deplorable conditions, in some cases hungry, in many cases cold and, in very many cases, lonely? I do not pretend to have the complete answer but, from my knowledge of the social welfare system. I feel there is room for greater selectivity. There is room for isolating those in greatest need, for trying within the resources of the State to improve the lot of such people. Perhaps there should be a greater emphasis also on community involvement in trying to help such people. Here I believe there is considerable unexploited potential that could be tapped.

In the old days before any social welfare system evolved the really underprivileged and the needy were in general looked after, after a fashion, by their own communities. Since the system has developed over the last century the attitude has developed that, if the underprivileged and the needy are being looked after by the State, that ends the function of the community. I suggest to the Minister that, in so far as this attitude is there, it should be changed and that it can be changed by an approach by the Minister and his Department in stimulating, by financial measures and otherwise, our local communities to greater involvement in care for social welfare recipients.

Having said all that. I am glad to see that there are some increases for people on social welfare. I would very much like to see considerably greater increases particularly in the area of greatest need. But a little has been done and I suppose the rest will have to remain until we change the Government.

First. I should like to congratulate the Minister on the Bill and on the increases in social welfare payments to the weaker sections of the community. Each year we have the annual discussion — I will not call it a battle — and the Opposition always imply that they could do things better. I would not concede that any party in this House has a monopoly of concern for the weaker sections of the people. In each party there are men and women who are deeply concerned and who try to improve things. It may be that we are better on this side of the House. We seem to have that expertise perhaps which ensures that the old age pensioner, the widow and the orphan will have better social services. This is recognised and it has become very much a part of our party.

The State has shown concern and has come forward with some worthwhile increases even beyond the limits of inflation. We must examine our whole attitude to the underprivileged, because we seem to be developing a State cheque book conscience whereby we pay our taxes and say that out of that the Government look after the orphan, the widow and the old age pensioner. This is disastrous. In recent years I have seen pensions being badly hit as a result of industrial disputes like the postal dispute when this House had to pass legislation to pay people their pensions. This dispute caused suffering on the part of old people. I remember walking down Townsend Street past the offices of the Department of Social Welfare and seeing people on a very long queue indeed.

There is something wrong in society when people are forced to undergo the indignity of having to queue up to get something from the State. I wonder if the Government, the employers, the trade unions and this House could get together and pool their resources to ensure that if there is any kind of dispute old people will not suffer because of a strike in which they have no part and have no power to end. Deputy O'Keeffe touched on this point in his speech. We should inquire into where our responsibility towards the weaker sections of the community ends. There are very few people who would revolt against being taxed if they knew the money was going to pensioners. But we cannot just stop there. If our sincerity and concern for the weaker sections are to be effective in the war against want, then we have to go further. We cannot legislate to stop some of the abuses and some of the hardships inflicted on people. but we can initiate a campaign to stir the consciences of each one of us by ensuring that our social welfare legislation will be a headline for all the people of the State in regard to the old, the maimed and the handicapped. Everybody should ensure that, if there is an industrial dispute, these will not be affected.

Unemployment has been mentioned, too, and while it may not relate to this Estimate I will say that it is ridiculous for Opposition Deputies to say that the Government should get out because of the unemployment figures.

That is one good reason.

I cannot think of a better reason.

We must realise that there is a world recession. That is not just an excuse. It is there and it will not go away because we want it to go away.

The Minister is not quoting the manifesto now.

Please, Deputy.

The point is that we could take measures to reduce unemployment and to prevent more job losses. But the Government cannot do that on their own. The Government cannot legislate against unemployment. But by tapping all the resources of the trade unions and the employers and the Government we could create a better social order and unemployment could be reduced.

I allowed some latitude on the other side of the House in relation to that matter but I would prefer if the Minister did not proceed on it.

The Opposition need a lot of help over there. Naturally, I accept the ruling of the Chair.

One point I want to make which I have not heard mentioned yet is the significance of the scheme in relation to minimum weekly payments of £45.75, which is one of the maternity benefits, as opposed to the minimum of £20.45 at present. The new minimum level is based on the average earnings of female workers in employment which are insurable for pay-related benefit purposes. A further feature is that the contribution additions for maternity allowance are being eased under the new scheme to cater for women who re-enter the workforce after an absence of some years. It takes away another burden from the people who are affected and again it shows the wisdom of the Government and of the Minister for Social Welfare. The Government have drawn up a charter for the handicapped, the disabled and the weaker sections. Next year, when the Minister is speaking on this Bill, he will be able to announce further increases.

I hope that all section of society will show concern for the pensioners as long as this world recession lasts, and it will not last for ever. We can contrast our attitude here with that of a country not so far away. Because of the recession the Government increased social welfare payments for pensioners. I notice that nearby countries, because of the recession, have cut back on the old age pensioners. Therefore, I think that we have here the basis of a really just society and I believe that the Government will continue on that line. We can see at the end of the term that we have tried to create a system of social justice which protects the very weakest section of our people. Therefore, I have no doubt whatever as to how the people would react in an election.

(Cavan-Monaghan): Naturally any increase in benefits or allowances payable to social welfare classes is always welcome. We always like to see people who cannot fend for themselves or support themselves getting an increase and this Bill gives them an increase. However, it would be quite wrong of us to clap ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves and feel that we have been generous to the old age pensioners and other social welfare classes. It is simply not the case. The Minister says that he has not alone kept up with inflation but done something more. Before we start to congratulate ourselves on having kept up with inflation we must assume that last year and the year before the social welfare classes were well enough off and that all we have to do is to keep up with inflation and with the increase in the cost of living. But it is wrong to say that they were treated generously and it should be our ambition to increase the standard of living of these people who cannot look after themselves. I am satisfied that many of them are simply keeping body and soul together. I am satisfied that many of them are suffering from cold from the want of the type of foods suitable to their age and their state of health. They are suffering from inadequate and unsuitable houses and, as has been said, they are suffering from loneliness — although I do not suppose that the Minister can do much with money to remedy loneliness.

One section of the social welfare classes who have not been adequately treated in this Bill or in previous Bills are old people, or married couples living alone. There is something like £2 extra for an old person living alone but that £2 is inadequate. There should be a difference not only in regard to a person living alone but also in regard to a married couple living alone, both of them in receipt of an old age pension and, therefore, elderly, in that they should get considerably more generous treatment than pensioners who are living with families. That has not yet been attended to on a scale generous enough. Also, relatives and neighbours should be encouraged to look after elderly relatives and elderly neighbours living in their own houses. I know that there is the prescribed relative's allowance scheme and that there is also a scheme under which a neighbour can get an allowance for looking after somebody, but these old people can fall between two stools and there are some very extraordinary stools. If the old person and the person who is looking after him are in the old person's house but they are not related they cannot get that allowance. If a person is looking after an old person outside his own house and they are related they cannot get an allowance. This scheme needs to be updated and the red tape badly wants to be cut. Old people should be encouraged to live at home as long as they are able to do so and as long as some person is prepared to look after them properly. Such a person should get an allowance from the State for so doing for two reasons. Firstly, it is in the interest of the old person that he or she should continue to live for as long as possible in his or her own home and his or her own neighbourhood. That is desirable. Secondly, it is infinitely cheaper and more economic to keep an old person at home than to keep an old person in an institution.

On the cost of maintaining old age pensioners I think that there is discrimination — that is a word I hate and I do not like to use it — there is a disparity between the cost of keeping a person in a health board home and in a private home run by, we will say, a religious order. I know from questions that I have put down that it costs something like £60 per week to maintain an old person in what I would call a health board home, yet I know of a couple of communities of nuns who are keeping old people and all they are being allowed by the Minister of Social Welfare is about £30 per week. Maybe my figures are not absolutely correct, but I did go into and check up on this and I do know that the allowance to a community of nuns is considerably less than the cost of maintaining a person in a health board home. For one reason or another these old people want to avail of the institutions run by the nuns or the religious orders.

The Minister should encourage the religious orders to continue the excellent work which they are doing and they should be paid at least as much as it costs to maintain a person in the other type of home. I do not mind mentioning that I had this out with the Minister, in regard to an institution in Clones, County Monaghan. Perhaps the position has changed, perhaps it has improved. Certainly at that time the dice was loaded against voluntary institutions. I am all in favour of encouraging old people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. To enable them to do this, the red tape should be cut and the excellent schemes which provide payment for others to look after old people should be updated. Commonsense should be applied. If the Minister looks at the regulations governing the allowances payable to relatives and non-relatives, he will see that they are absurd.

I am disappointed that the Minister did not reduce the old age pension qualifying age to at least 65, which is the recognised retirement age here and has been for many years. If the Minister did not see fit to reduce the qualifying age to 65 in case he would be accused of endorsing National Coalition Government policy, that is small-minded in the extreme. When we came to power we found that the old age pension qualifying age had never been reduced since it was first introduced in 1907. We reduced it to 69, 68, 67 and, finally, to 66. It is a pity that the Minister and the Government were not big enough to reduce it further.

Another excellent allowance which was introduced to cover an Irish situation was the single woman's allowance, which met a particular situation where a single woman remained at home to look after a relative. As a result, she never married and found herself with no income and nothing except the clothes she wore and the food she got from relatives. These were second-class citizens. The allowance is payable to them at 58 years of age. That was the age which was fixed when it was introduced and I do not think it has been reduced since. I think the qualifying age should be reduced to 55. The Minister should look at this.

Deputy Seán Moore introduced the topic of unemployment. I do not intend to develop this theme, but I do not know whether he was excusing himself or what particular exercise he was indulging in. He seemed to think that the Government should not be accused or criticised for having 126,000 people unemployed. The former Taoiseach said, since the change of Government, that if unemployment went over 100,000 the Government should be turned out of office. He said that without qualification. There is always wrangling about how many people are unemployed. Nobody ever accepts anyone else's figures. We know that, if the same method of counting unemployed people was in force now as was in force in 1977, the number of people unemployed would not be 126,000 — it would be 136,000 because the present Government do not recognise people who are unemployed for three days a week. We did.

There have been other changes, too——

Will the Minister please allow the Deputy to continue?

(Cavan-Monaghan): I will leave it at that.

I would like to emphasise that it is wrong to say that we have been overgenerous to the poorest people. The poorest people are those who are living alone. It does not matter what age group they belong to, if they are living alone and depending entirely on social welfare they are not well off. I urge the Minister even at this stage to increase the allowance to single and married old age pensioners. I also urge the Minister to change the regulations in regard to paying an allowance for looking after elderly people. The Minister should give the same allowance to approved voluntary institutions who look after elderly people as the health boards got.

I welcome the Bill, which should be endorsed by all sides of the House. Its provisions are very much as we expected. They are not over-generous, they just about match the rate of inflation. I am not handing out any bouquets for the generosity of the measures. It is the very least we expected. Nevertheless, we welcome it.

I would like more information on the cost of administering the pensions and allowances in question. What does it cost to run the Department of Social Welfare? It must be an enormous figure. It is not money well spent. Last week the Minister announced, as a result of the barrage of questions, that he was setting up a task force to examine the breakdown in the payment of social welfare allowances, particularly in the payment of disability benefits. I will tell the Minister how he can improve the system.

What is needed most in this Department is decentralisation. This is a word that has been bandied about both by politicians and by members of the general public for many years. There can hardly be a Department in which decentralisation would be more apt than in the Department of Social Welfare. The necessary infrastructure is to be found throughout the country for the administration of the social welfare payments that we are talking about in this Bill but despite this the task is carried out in Dublin in what is a highly impersonal manner and with very long and unnecessary delays in payments. Apart from these considerations the cost of running the Department must be colossal. There must be thousands of people employed under the aegis of the Department and I expect that there are some hundreds in the Dublin offices. The renting of the accommodation must be colossal also.

Health board offices are located throughout the country and the personnel in these offices are aware of the circumstances of those people who are dealt with by the Department of Social Welfare. In addition to health board personnel and in particular community welfare officers visiting people and deciding on whether certain persons are entitled to medical cards or to supplementary welfare allowances, for instance, there are local social welfare officers who report back to Dublin on the question of the entitlement of applicants for these and other benefits. There is also an employment exchange in many provincial towns and unemployment benefit and assistance are paid out through those offices. The point I am making is that there is available the infrastructure that is necessary for dealing with claims for the various benefits and allowances.

I have allowed considerable latitude on this aspect but the Deputy is dealing with administration and that is not appropriate to the Bill. It would be more appropriate to the Estimate. Therefore, I would ask him to return to the Bill.

In referring to the payment of benefits which are referred to in the Bill and also in the Minister's Second Reading speech, I did not realise that I was straying from the subject matter of the Bill but I must comply with the wishes of the Chair. I am particularly anxious to hear from the Minister about the task force being set up to investigate the chaos in the Department and to find out what has gone wrong with the system of payments. What is the composition of this task force and what directions are they being given by the Minister? It is necessary for us to have this information if we are to attempt to offer constructive suggestions. Obviously, there is a serious breakdown in the payment of social welfare allowances. This situation must not be allowed to continue. As a number of Members stated last week, people have been left hungry in recent times because of these delays.

A major factor in the breakdown situation is the disappearance, wherever possible, of local agents. These are the people who process claims, particularly in respect of unemployment benefit. This action on the part of the Minister is a retrograde step and I urge him to reestablish these local agents in all the urban centres in which those who have retired in recent years have not been replaced. These agents formed a vital link between the applicants and the Department and that link should be restored.

In reply to some questions last week on the non-payment of social welfare benefits the Minister said that his Department are doing everything possible to bring payment up to date and to cut through the red tape in order that the system might work more efficiently. Sadly, this is not our experience as public representatives.

Again, the Deputy is dealing with the question of administration.

I do not believe that the system is working efficiently and the very fact that a task force has been formed is an admission that there is a lack of efficiency. Some changes that might have been expected in the budget have not been made. These are changes that should be made in the future. One group who consider themselves not to have been treated fairly in successive budgets are widows. They are of the opinion that they should be entitled to the fringe benefits that are available to old age pensioners and to recipients of long-term disability benefit, of infirmity benefit and of disabled persons maintenance allowances. The benefits the widows are seeking include an electricity allowance, free television licence and free travel passes. Is there any hope that these concessions might be granted to them in the coming months or at some stage in the coming year? They would seem to be discriminated against to a very considerable degree. The situation may be all right for a widow who has a grown up family and who is in a position to go to work but it is very different for a woman who must be at home to look after a young family. Her situation is very difficult because of her extremely low income.

I am very disappointed, too, that the non-contributory old age pension qualifying age has not been reduced to 65. Such a change would not have cost very much money but would have meant a lot to those who would have benefited. The National Coalition reduced the pension age year by year from 70 to 66. Surely it is not too much to ask that it be reduced now to 65.

Because of the under-financing of local authorities, they have to raise increasing amounts of money to provide the essential services that come within their responsibility. In this process they are extracting money from social welfare recipients, but this should not happen. In particular we see water rates going up year after year and while the Minister talks of the benefit to pensioners of the free fuel scheme and the travel scheme there is no reference to alleviating the hardships caused by water rates. These vary from county to county and are a considerable strain on pensioners, especially non-contributory pensioners. There are schemes in some counties to alleviate that strain but there is no uniformity. The Minister should try to ease the burden. In some counties the water rate can be as much as £30 per house and to gather that sum can be a considerable hardship for an old age pensioner. In conjunction with the free fuel scheme there should also be relief for water rates for these people. Local authorities are having to charge water rates in order to operate their water schemes effectively. Electricity charges have risen so much in recent years that the cost of operating these schemes is enormous and local authorities are inclined to drain the last drop of blood out of consumers, including pensioners.

There is a danger in raising the limits of social welfare benefits. We all applaud the raising of the benefits particularly where young families or elderly people are concerned, but there has been and there still is abuse of the social welfare system. It is quite widespread although perhaps not as widespread as one would be led to believe by certain people. It is quite common to find people drawing social welfare and working at the same time. That is not healthy for the country as a whole. First, it is basically dishonest and I should like the Minister to say what measures he is taking to increase surveillance in this area, what measures he is taking to have this malpractice stamped out. It is most annoying for a conscientious worker who has to work five or six days a week to find that there are people who are drawing benefit and also working and therefore getting considerably more money than the man who is just doing his job fairly. Such practices must be eliminated. The abuse is far too widespread.

Advantage is also taken of increased benefits by people who wish to dodge a day's work every so often or who wish to go out sick for some spurious reason. I am completely in favour of the increased benefits for people in need and who deserve them and are genuinely sick or out of work but people are taking sick leave and are not really unfit to work. It is an abuse and it is damaging to industry. One can call it absenteeism or dodging but it is downright dishonesty. It would be a sad state of affairs if people found it more rewarding not to work than to work when employment is available. The Minister should take every possible precaution to ensure that the system is not abused because such abuse breaks down the moral fibre of the genuine working man or woman. If people are found to be definitely breaking the law in this regard they should be prosecuted and if possible the practice should be eliminated.

One of the shortcomings of the social welfare system is the time lag between application for benefit and the actual payment of benefit. There is often an inordinate delay whether it is an old age pension or a disability pension that is involved or even children's allowances or maternity benefits. I found considerable delays recently in this area. There is a significant time lag between application and the decision whether to grant an allowance or not. These delays, if possible, should be eliminated.

As the Minister himself said, Deputies are inclined to put down more and more questions relating to social welfare problems. Whereas previously we wrote or phoned the Department we must now resort to questions because the delay in getting a reply generally runs into months, not days. You will get an initial reply within a few days but the ultimate decision takes an average of two or three months. That is not a reasonable period and something should be done to speed up the process between application and ultimate decision. I do not know if the Minister's office is understaffed; perhaps it is, but it is unreasonable to have to wait three months from application to the granting of an old age pension. One would imagine a decision could be made within a week or two when all the documentation is in order. In my experience that is not the case and the matter can drag on for months.

I should like the Minister to take up this point with the Minister for Labour. It deals with the payment of benefits and it has to do——

The Deputy is delaying payment of old age pensions by dragging out the debate at this stage.

We are not in order in dealing with administration in any case. That ruling has been given several times already.

I would refer the Minister to employment and to the payment or non-payment of benefit in the case of people who work with AnCO, the industrial training organisation. Apparently, such people are not given insurance stamps in respect of their AnCO employment. They have been told that they are only training really. That is true in the case of young people, apprentices. But where there are labourers of 50 or 60 years of age working with AnCO, surely their cards should be stamped. In recent debates and in reply to Dáil questions the Minister has been saying that much of the delay in payment of benefits is due to the fact that cards are not stamped by employers. Would the Minister give the House his views on the fact that people who work on AnCO schemes do not have their cards stamped? It seems most irregular that people working for a semi-State body should not have their cards stamped just as any other employee has.

Debate adjourned.