The Minister is not resuming. Deputy Harte has 25 minutes.
Private Members' Business. - Administration of Department of Social Welfare: Motion (Resumed)
Never, since the foundation of this State, has the Department of Social Welfare been in such disarray. Virtually every Deputy — and I speak from conversations I have had — whether that Deputy be a member of the Labour Party, of Fine Gael or, indeed, a backbench member of Fianna Fáil, is unanimous in criticism of the manner in which payments are being made to recipients of social welfare benefits, but particularly disability benefits. It is not without significance that on 8 December last the then Junior Minister in the Department of Social Welfare, Deputy Nolan, felt it necessary to write to Deputies and Senators and I quote from his letter:
With reference to your representation regarding delays in the payment of social welfare benefits, including disability benefits, I wish to let you know that I have again, at the request of the Minister, personally inspected the work of the section of the Department dealing with these benefits, in order to ascertain the cause of any delays. I examined the post coming into the section and studied the manner in which medical certificates, claims, etc. were being handled. As a result of my examination, I am satisfied that the very large backlog of work resulting from last year's postal dispute——
There, we had the Minister telling us that the delay was caused by the postal dispute.
——and its aftermath has been cleared. Consequently, the staff are now in a position to deal with all claims immediately on arrival in this Department.
I emphasise that on 8 December 1980 the Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare felt it necessary, as a result of all the complaints which were made — I suppose mostly by members of his own party, because he has paid little attention to any representations from me or from any Member on this side of the House, — but he wished to allay the fears and anxiety on the part of Fianna Fáil Deputies — to send a circular letter to all Members of this House. I will not quote the letter completely, because it is out of Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, but the Minister did say in the first page:
Consequently, the staff are now in a position to deal with all claims immediately on arrival in this Department.
How wrong he was. The crisis did not start until January. I have had the experience of going to the public offices in this city and talking to people queueing outside these offices waiting for sickness benefit. I have in my pocket a letter from one young woman whom I met on such a visit complaining that from the month of November her husband has not been paid sickness benefit, despite the fact that this is the first time he has ever been unemployed. It so happens that that young woman was brought up in England, of Irish parents, married to an Irish husband. She compares the system, and cannot help but do so, as it operates in the United Kingdom with the system here in what she would term the country of her parents. There is no defence for the present situation. The Minister for Social Welfare stands indicted. He is a very friendly type of person and I am not saying anything against him personally, but he has his priorities all wrong. He believes that being in public life is a matter of publicity, of getting one's photograph in the front page or even on the inside page of the national newspapers, that public relations is 85 or 90 per cent of public life. Those are the priorities which I see in the present Minister for Social Welfare and this reflects in his performance as Minister.
Never before, in the 20 years I have been in this House, have I had so many consistent complaints from people appealing to me, asking how they are expected to provide for their wives and children or their sick husbands. It is an appalling disgrace. Words fail me in my criticism. I have had the frustration of trying to communicate with the Department of Social Welfare and being told by civil servants, who are acting in good faith and are trying to be helpful, that they are unable to tell when a payment will be made. These applicants are not paupers, they are not going with cap in hand or begging bowl. These are people in long-term employment whose cards have been stamped, who have been paying their PRSI and who are entitled to these benefits. They should not have to go cap in hand to a public representative or anyone else, begging. There is no reason in this modern age why, in the week in which a person becomes sick and sends in a medical certificate to that effect, the disability benefit or sickness benefit could not be paid and it is inexcusable if it has not been paid within a fortnight. I will not accept any explanation from the Government that because of the switch-over from the old system of insurance to PRSI delays have been caused and that these delays have now been overcome. The Junior Minister in the Department of Social Welfare had not though of that excuse before Christmas. His explanation was that the delays were a result of the postal strike.
There should be enough initiative on the part of the Government and the Cabinet, if it was necessary to switch to the new PRSI system, to have had a cross-check from one number to another. The excuse being offered by the Department that claims cannot be processed unless both numbers are given with the medical certificate is lame and unacceptable. It may have some bearing on the situation in some cases, but Deputy Tully told us last night of certificates being sent with both numbers and of the applicants being told a week or two later that there would be a delay because the numbers had not been given.
I do not wish to appear to be too critical of officials of the Department. I know they are labouring under great stress. I have deliberately refrained from making inquiries in the public offices in County Donegal because to do so would be to embarrass friends who do not wish to become involved in a political row. However, if they were asked to give an honest explanation for the situation, I am sure they would agree with what I am saying. Their difficulty is the problem of communicating with head office in Dublin by reason of the telephones at head office not being answered. Instead of going to my local offices I go to head office here on behalf of those who are seeking the payments to which they are entitled. The staff at head office are very apologetic and say that all they can do is to take in medical certificates and give receipts for them. I might add that these receipts consist of plain pieces of paper with a note to the effect that the medical certificate has been received and bearing the names and addresses of the applicants and the date of which the certificate was received.
There is no excuse for this situation other than the incompetence on the part of the Minister, but this incompetence did not start with him. His predecessor, the Taoiseach, while in opposition promised that the delays in social welfare payments would be reduced on Fianna Fáil's return to office and at that time he criticised the then Parliamentary Secretary, Deputy Cluskey, for delays of two and three weeks. Now there are delays of up to six months. People living on the breadline are not able to get the moneys to which they are entitled. If I were in that category I would be out on the streets protesting and bringing with me as many people as possible, because when the elected representatives fail to listen to the voice of reason, fail to listen to the voice of those who are in need, the only resort is to street politics. The sooner the Government understand that they are playing with dynamite, the better for all concerned. When people become very angry they can express that anger in a manner that may not be orthodox but in a manner which may have to be listened to, as has been the case in other parts of the world and, indeed, in other parts of this country.
Because the Minister is such a pleasant and likeable person I am reluctant to be too critical of him, but he stands condemned in the light of the situation in the Department because never before has there been such failure in that area as is the case now. In response to the Labour Party motion last evening the Minister tabled an amendment which, paraphrased, might have read: "Look what I have done. I have given increases of 25 per cent to the long-term social welfare beneficiaries and a 20 per cent increase to those in receipt of short-term payments". He could be compared to the little boy on television who invites us to see how many Smarties he has. However, what the Minister did not say was that at a time of an inflation rate of 21 per cent, while social welfare recipients may have more money in their pockets, the value of that money has decreased and that families are finding it much more difficult to live on social welfare payments this year than was the case last year. What, then, is the real value of the increases in terms of purchasing power?
Apart from that aspect there is this problem of long delays in payments. Last week a man in Buncrana told me that, despite my having been notified to the effect that the old age pension he had applied for in November last had been paid — information that was given to me also in reply to a parliamentary question — he has not yet been issued with his pension book. What kind of administration is this? It is inexcusable and the only remedy is for the Minister to resign. Apparently he is interested only in the health side of his responsibility. Most of us believed that, although some delay would result from the switch to PRSI numbers, those delays would be minimal, but we cannot be expected to go on accepting this change as an excuse for these continuous and lengthy delays.
If these delays have been caused is it the fault of the civil servants in the Department of Social Welfare, the people now almost at the point of resigning, who found it necessary to tell their colleagues in other sections of the Department: we will not answer the telephone because you are annoying us; we cannot get this system operating correctly because we are being annoyed. What do they do? They pull down the shutters, lock the doors and remain inside and will only answer mail, or, in response to an inquiry from the Minister's office, give some information. Whenever before did civil servants seal themselves off from the general public particularly in the Department of Social Welfare? Whenever before did people in the public service — a service recognised as being a social necessity in a modern society in which those earning can help those who are not, those who are healthy can help the sick, whereby a whole system is built up within society catering for the needs of the weaker sections — whenever before did ordinary people who have dedicated their lives to the service of the public in the Department of Social Welfare seal themselves off? It was not for a simple reason they took such extreme measures. We know the reasons. We know there is far too much political meddling in that Department. We know that the Minister in his constituency forces decisions, forces results, at the expense of the people living in County Donegal. And we know that there is bickering in the backbenches of the Fianna Fáil Party from rural Deputies who experience the same frustrations I do. But they can go to their Minister who can lay down the red carpet so that all stations go. Even at that the results are not forthcoming.
I want to protest in the strongest possible manner at this attitude of the Government. They are more concerned about keeping files clean, about keeping the desks clear, keeping the books right than they are about paying pensions and benefits to people in great need. Those are their priorities — keep the books right, balance the sheets, but do not pay out more money than is necessary; slow it down. And this is not happening only in the Department of Social Welfare. I met an official of the Department of Agriculture in County Donegal in the last week who is known to be a Fianna Fáil Party supporter, an honourable man, even though he has never given me a vote in his life. He told me he was disgusted with the senior officers in the Department of Agriculture whom he could not now trust on their word on the telephone. If he speaks to them one day about an issue he is told one story and the following day is told another. He concluded that the only reason for it is that there is no money available out of which to pay grants, which is why they are stalling. The same thing is happening in the Department of Social Welfare. Would it not be an honourable thing for them to admit that? Would it not be an honourable thing for them to say: "We have failed. Let us go to the country. Let us get a new mandate. Let us ask the people for their adjudication on our performance over the last four years." I know that, if some of the people who have approached me in their anger could express that in votes the present Fianna Fáil Government would not receive many votes from them.
The Minister contends that the change in the system from the insurance number to the RSI number is the cause of the delay. I categorically refute that claim. It is just total incompetence on the one hand and lack of proper planning on the other. I am told that the staff in the Department of Social Welfare cannot cope with the work, that they cannot cope with the rate at which applications are coming in. I am told there are a number of files missing, that they are somewhere in the Department, they are not lost. But that is like the young lad on the ship whom the captain sent for a bucket of water. When he was pulling the bucket out of the water the rope broke. He came back and the captain asked him: "Did you lose the bucket?""No, sir," he said, "it is overboard." To which the captain replied: "You lost it?""No," he said, "it is not lost when you know where it is." That amounts to the same explanation being advanced in the Department of Social Welfare. When one asks for a file they will say: "No, it is not lost, it is here in the Department in the office somewhere." But they cannot put their finger on it and that is the cause of the delay.
In the 20 years in which I have been a Member of this House never before have I encountered the criticism being meted out to the present Minister for Social Welfare from constituents. Never before have I witnessed such downright indifference on the part of a Minister to the payments necessary to keep people alive. It is grossly unfair. The Minister may contend that it happened before he assumed that office. If it did, what he is saying then is that it is not his fault but that of his predecessor, the present Taoiseach — and I do not rule that out either because the previous Minister for Social Welfare, before he became Taoiseach, promised to do away with the delays in the Department of Social Welfare. That is one of the other promises not being kept. The present Minister is responsible and the bucks stops there. It is of no consolation to me or to the people who come to my home or telephone or write to me seeking payments months overdue to be told that this is all occasioned by the change of system. They are not interested. All they are interested in is receiving their payments punctually each week, payments to which they are justly entitled. It is unjust and unfair on the part of the Minister and the Government not to make these benefits payable.
I listened to the Minister last evening. I thought it a very weak performance on his part not to reject the charges made by Deputy Tully, not to explain that Deputy Tully was wrong, but more or less to accept the criticism Deputy Tully was making as being valid and fair. His only answer was: look at the increases we gave in the budget. Those increases were necessary. It was a sign of weakness on the part of the Minister that the only comment he had in defence of himself was to point to the increases in the budget.
Deputy Harte and, yesterday evening, Deputy Tully, have been loud in their criticism of the way social welfare payments are being made. I have a very clear recollection, as a Deputy in this House during the period 1973 to 1977, when Fine Gael and Labour were in Government, of the many delays that obtained at that time, delays which to my mind were far greater than they are today.
I cannot understand the attack being made on the Minister for Social Welfare. I have a feeling that the main reason for this motion is an effort by the Opposition to make cheap political capital out of the plight of the weaker sections of our community. But the people who are in receipt of social welfare benefits need have no fear whatsoever of a Fianna Fáil Government because our record in this area is impeccable. Any benefits to which those people are entitled will be paid and paid in full. I can guarantee the Opposition that.
Before proceeding to the main part of my reply I should like to refute the charge made by Deputy Harte that the Minister forces results in his constituency at the expense of others. I should like to refute this on behalf of the Minister because I know it is not true. Deputy Harte should not have made that charge because nobody knows better than he that the Minister for Social Welfare administers all these schemes in a fair and honest way and would not stoop to that kind of activity.
If his constituency is as bad as mine he has little chance of being reelected to this House.
I refute that charge. Indeed, I think the Deputy should withdraw those remarks. Last evening before the Minister moved the adjournment, he had set out in some detail the record of his achievements since he became Minister for Social Welfare. The charge being made in the original motion before the House is that the Minister has not been discharging his responsibilities in relation to the administration of his Department. The Minister refuted this charge by showing conclusively that the Department have been and are functioning well and providing a high level of service to the public.
It is important to realise that the overall amount of money being spent by the Department this year will be about £1,100 million and this includes for the second year in succession increases of 20 per cent in short-term benefits and 25 per cent in long-term benefits — the highest increases ever given in the history of the State. Some 540,000 people each week benefit from these payments and in addition about 440,000 families each month are paid children's allowances.
The most frequent complaints being made related to the disability benefit scheme. When we look closely at what is happening in relation to this scheme and in particular at the number of persons being paid and at the amounts being paid we can clearly see that the position is not what it has been made out to be.
Let us look once more at the figures of disability benefit payments. The total amounts of flat-rate and pay-related benefits made by the Department in a recent six week period were of the following order:
Week ending 27 February — £2.3 million involving approx. 72,000 persons; Week ending 6 March — £2.4 million involving approx. 72,000 persons; Week ending 14 March — £2.7 million involving approx. 71,000 persons; Week ending 21 March — £2.5 million involving approx. 72,000 persons; Week ending 28 March — £2.6 million involving approx. 72,000 persons; Week ending 4 April — £2.8 million involving approx. 73,000 persons.
I am quoting these figures so that the House may see clearly that persons claiming sickness benefit are in fact being paid the moneys to which they are entitled. The figures of expenditure prove conclusively that the Department are neither holding back payments nor is there a shortage of money — a charge made by Deputy Tully.
The new schemes and improvements to existing schemes mentioned by the Minister speak for themselves. They resulted in worthwhile benefits for the most deserving sections of our society. Among those benefiting were old age and blind pensioners, disabled persons, orphans, working mothers, the unemployed both young and old. These people not alone benefited from improvements in direct payments but also from various other measures introduced to meet their particular needs. Examples are the national fuel scheme, the special Christmas bonus and the extension to the free travel and free telephone rental schemes.
The Minister also mentioned last evening some of the plans that he has undertaken for further development of the Department and their services. These include proposals for the National Pension Plan and for removing discriminations which still remain against women in the social welfare code. He also mentioned developments which would improve the administrative capacity of the Department to deal with the expansion of their services in the time ahead.
If the accusations in the original motion before this House were true it would not have been possible for the Minister to put before us the record of achievements which he has accomplished in the short space of time since becoming Minister for Social Welfare. If account is taken of the dependent spouses and children of beneficiaries, many thousands of people benefit on a regular basis from the services provided by the Department. These are large numbers of witnesses who can testify to the fact that the Department are actively fulfilling their role.
Admittedly there have been problems in the disability benefit area, but despite these problems the incontrovertible fact is that we have been paying more than 70,000 people this benefit each week and the payments represent more than £2½ million each week on average. In the present year total expenditure on disability benefit is expected to be about £132 million. These are large amounts of money indeed paid out regularly in respect of one benefit only. Factors such as these simply cannot be ignored.
The details I have given of the huge amount of money being regularly paid out by the Department must surely satisfy the House that the allegations made by Deputy Harte that there was a shortage of money are completely without any foundation whatever.
In the short time available to me I would also like to refer to some of the problems raised in the debate. In relation to the changeover to the new system of numbering from January 1981, judging by the contributions which have been made concerning the change made in the Department at the beginning of the year there still appears to be a degree of misunderstanding of what happened. It would, therefore, be useful if I were to explain in somewhat more detail exactly what the changes were, the problems which have arisen and how the situation is being dealt with.
I would like straightaway to dispel the notion which Deputy Tully appears to have that the Department suddenly opted at the beginning of this year for a new system of calculating entitlements and that this system was brought in without adequate consideration on the spur of the moment. In fact what happened at the beginning of this year was simply the final stage of a process which had begun much earlier.
A computer system was first introduced in the Department in 1973 for the payment of flat-rate disability benefits. This system was extended from April 1974 to cater for the payment also of the new pay-related benefit. This began the process of relating benefit entitlements to earnings. The next step was the relating of social insurance contributions to earnings. From the social point of view this is a much fairer system. The lower paid worker pays less than he would have to pay under a flat-rate system and the higher paid worker paid according to his earnings. Such a system would also be essential to form a basis for further developments, such as the proposed National Pension Scheme.
In April 1979 the old system of collection by means of stamped insurance cards ceased and contributions have since then been collected by the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in conjunction with PAYE income tax. As a result of the operation of this system men and women now have the same contribution year which is in fact the income tax year which, when it becomes familiar, will make the whole system more readily understandable. As a result both men and women now also have the same benefit year which practically coincides with the calendar year. To put it more simply, in general a person, man or woman, claiming benefit in a particular calendar year — say, for example, this year of 1981 — knows that his or her contributions in the last complete income tax year before 1981, namely, 1979-80, determines the level of entitlement to benefit and that the earnings in that income tax year determine the level of pay-related benefits.
The changes that took place from January last were therefore not something decided on the spur of the moment but rather the final step in a chain of events. From January entitlement to benefits arose for the first time from the first year of the new PRSI contributions collected during the first year of that system in the tax year 1979-80. As the PRSI system was computerised at the Revenue end it was essential that it be dealt with by a compatible computer system at the Department of Social Welfare end. The computer system in the Department of Social Welfare was therefore expanded to accept the insurance records from Revenue and in fact the insurance records for the insured population in 1979-80 are now fully computerised.
One of the consequences of this operation was that both the social insurance number and the PAYE number, or RSI number as it is now called, is needed to fully identify a person's insurance record. New entrants to social insurance are being given an RSI number only so that the need for two numbers does not arise in their case and the need will accordingly gradually diminish. However, for the remainder both numbers are required at present.
As the Minister explained last night, certain problems arose in that a large number of claims and medical certificates were received in the Department at the beginning of this year that did not contain both insurance numbers despite large scale publicity requesting all the Department's claimants to quote both numbers. In fact at that time as many as 25 per cent to 30 per cent of claims were not properly completed. This led to delays in a number of cases as the staff had to link the claims with the correct insurance records or to link second and subsequent medical certificates to the original claims. Cross-index facilities on the computer system linking the old and the new insurance numbers was a considerable help in identifying most claims but nevertheless any extra work involved leads to delays which, if they occur in a sufficiently large number of claims, will have adverse effects throughout the whole disability benefit system.
Due to the publicity campaign the number of claims being received without the correct numbers has been reduced to the region of 10 per cent and this improvement has had a marked effect on the speed of processing claims. As there will always be persons who for one reason or another will not quote their numbers correctly, it will not be possible to do away with this problem entirely, but I am hopeful of even further improvements in the situation.
As regards the control of payments, prosecutions and legal proceedings it should not be forgotten that in administering the many schemes for which they are responsible the Department of Social Welfare have very definite legal responsibilities to ensure that adequate control procedures are effectively implemented. Unfortunately we will always have a certain number of fraudulent claims and claims from persons who are wrongly convinced that they are entitled to benefits when in fact they are not. This means that each individual claim must be carefully scrutinised and where there are doubts inquiries must be made whether they be directed at the claimant, his employer or other relevant source. Sometimes the need for these inquiries and the consequent delays which they bring about in dealing with the claims in question are not appreciated. Because of this it may help if I were to explain at least in outline what can be involved in these inquiries and the reasons behind them.
Entitlement to benefit under the various schemes operated by the Department is not left to the discretion of the staff of the Department or even to the discretion of the Minister. It is based on statutory conditions laid down by the Houses of the Oireachtas and they can be found in the recent Consolidated Social Welfare Act. The staff of the Department are legally obliged to ensure in each case of a claim for benefit that those statutory conditions are properly fulfilled. For example, has the claimant the required number of social insurance contributions; is he genuinely incapacitated if claiming disability benefit; is he genuinely unemployed and seeking work if claiming unemployment payments.
If there are doubts about any of these matters they must be investigated and claims where the conditions are not satisfied must be rejected. Furthermore in many instances the claims of persons currently receiving payments have to be reviewed to ensure that they continue to be entitled. To ensure this certain claimants are sent for examination by the Department's medical referees. Others are sometimes asked to show what efforts they have made to get work.
Cases where fraudulent claiming is suspected are, of course, vigorously pursued both to recover moneys overpaid and, where there is sufficient evidence of a criminal offence, to bring the person to court. The vast majority of overpayment cases do not necessarily call for prosecution but it is of interest to note that last year, for example, over 100 cases of fraudulent claiming were prosecuted in the courts. Many more are in course of preparation.
The Department are also involved in ensuring that employers, too, are meeting their obligation in recording and paying social insurance contributions. The Department's inspectorate carry out regular and systematic surveys of employers to ensure that they are deducting and paying over the correct amount of contributions. Since April 1979 the necessary follow-up action against employers who do not comply with the regulations governing the collection of contributions is taken by the Revenue Commissioners. Up to mid-April of this year proceedings had been ordered by the Commissioners against 816 employers who had failed to submit their end-of-year returns for 1979-80, the year which governs entitlement to benefit since 5 January 1981. I understand, too, that at present there are over 300 similar prosecutions against employers awaiting hearing.
I mention these matters for two reasons. My primary motive is to bring home the fact that the staff of the Department have a wide range of duties to perform in addition to simply making out payments. This, as I mentioned, is a factor which is often not appreciated, particularly when the control procedures inevitably give rise to delays. The second reason is to answer the question raised by Deputy Tully yesterday evening regarding what is being done about employers who do not comply with the requirements of the PRSI system. As can be gathered from what I have said, both my Department and the Revenue Commissioners undertake continuous action in this area and action of a very vigorous nature up to prosecuting large numbers of persons in court.
Over and above all this I would also like to mention that, even if a minority of employers fail to pay the contributions due and even if we fail ever to recover the amounts involved, the worker will not be at a loss. There is power in social welfare legislation to deem such contributions to have been paid provided we are satisfied they are properly due and no blame can be attributed to the worker. This power is frequently exercised but, first of all, inquiries must be made so that the Department can be satisfied about the bona fides of each particular case. All this takes time and the Department are often blamed for delays for which they are not responsible. In cases where contributions are deemed to have been paid and as a result benefit is also paid, the responsibility still rests with the employer to pay the contributions and all possible action is taken to recover the amount due, including legal proceedings if this becomes necessary.
With regard to the facilities, accommodation and staff numbers, this was mentioned. We know that as the services of the Department have expanded, additional facilities have also been provided. Additional accommodation has been acquired over the years in modern buildings such as those in D'Olier House, Oisin House, Marlboro House, Town-send Street and Gandon House. The extra space in these buildings was acquired to provide for the accommodation of extra staff required to implement-new schemes or expansions of existing schemes and to improve the accommodation available for the staff generally. Additional accommodation has been acquired in Gandon House and will shortly be available. This extra space will be used specifically to facilitate the assignment of extra staff to the sections dealing with disability benefit claims. In addition, part of Gandon House has already been fitted out as a public office which will increase considerably the facilities available to the public to make inquiries about the various schemes operated by my Department.
With a view to improving still further the facilities available to the public to deal with their claims for unemployment benefit payments, new employment exchanges are being provided in the Dublin area in Dún Laoghaire, Navan Road and Thomas Street. Plans are already being made for the provision of extra exchanges in Ballyfermot, Blanchardstown, Coolock, Finglas and Tallaght which will considerably ease the burden on claimants who must at present travel to centre-city exchanges.
I have set out the position in the Department of Social Welfare quite clearly and have shown that progress is being made there. In spite of the huge increase in the number of claims being made, the Minister, the staff and myself are actively pursuing those claims which are being paid with the least possible delay. As I said, inevitably delays will take place for which neither the officials nor the Minister can be blamed. Over the past few months Opposition Deputies in particular have been very vocal in their criticism. They have been working hard, maybe because there is an election in the air, canvassing for those problems.
In some cases Deputies are even more irresponsible than the general public when submitting their inquiries because they fail to quote the numbers which are so necessary to deal expeditiously with the claims. Today I had 28 representations from a Deputy and he did not give any number. This is the type of thing that is going on.
Was he a Government or Opposition Deputy?
An Opposition Deputy of course. I have dealt with the major issues raised in the debate in so far as I could do so in the time allowed to me. The information which both the Minister and I have given in our contributions to the debate, in my opinion, clearly shows that the accusations made in the original motion cannot be sustained. I confidently appeal to the House for its support by accepting the amendment to the motion which the Minister tabled last evening.
I totally reject this amendment. I want to say a few words in support of the motion. This motion is about people who have not been paid, not about those who were paid. We seem to hear more about the people who are being paid. There can be no excuse for the volume of chaos that exists in the Department over the past five months. It appears that every effort is being made to perfect a system of collecting workers' contributions and to perfect a system to avoid abuse—I am not against perfecting that system — but it appears no effort has been made to perfect the system of paying benefits. The contributions by the Minister and his Minister of State indicate that this is the case. Last night the Minister spoke about the steps that have been taken since the chaos was created. He spoke about the former employees of the disability benefit section who were brought back to the Department. It is obvious that this motion which condemns the Minister is correct because he did not take the necessary steps to ensure that this confusion, with the resulting hardship suffered by thousands of people, did not happen.
I would go so far as to look for an inquiry into the circumstances of the changeover to the computer system. In no way should this changeover have caused, directly of indirectly, such hardship. I have been 20 years in this House and have been dealing with social welfare problems. During that time never have I had to deal with the volume of social welfare problems I have received over the last five months. It was never necessary for me to put down parliamentary questions.
I can assure the Minister of State that I did not go canvassing for these problems; they came to me at all hours of the day and night. Those unfortunate people had to pay for phone calls, stamps and petrol when they came to see me and other TDs. These people were out of pocket trying to get someone to help them get what they were entitled to. It is only when every effort fails that I put down a parliamentary question. At present I must have 20 to 30 cases of nonpayment in the Department and if I do not get some results within the next few days I will have to convert them to parliamentary questions.
I do not send in queries without insurance or RSI numbers. Admittedly I sent in a few cases without RSI numbers because the people concerned did not get their RSI numbers from the Department, but all had insurance numbers. The Minister should not generalise.
We are dealing with the most needy section of the community. These people are usually out of work because of illness. Illness can create a sudden crisis and these people save to cover themselves during their illnesses through contributions to our social welfare system. This is money saved for the proverbial rainy day. When that rainy day comes, by way of sickness or unemployment, all kinds of obstacles are put in their way before they can get their money.
Some of the people I am talking about fill in many forms and get the same forms each week. Some of them have filled in these forms five or six times but they do not get any cheques. I tell them I made representations to the Department on their behalf and they tell me they got more forms. I get in touch with the Department again, and they get another form but no cheque.
It appears that records have been lost in the Department. The Minister will have to make a clear statement on this position. Have the Department got the record of the people who have paid insurance down the years? When filling in their forms some people have to go to their employers and former employers to get their insurance record, but when they fill in forms and send them to the Department, they are likely to get the same form back within a week or two asking for the same information.
I will cite a case to illustrate the chaos that exists. A person has not sent in a certificate for weeks but still gets his payment cheques from the Department. That is unusual — it is usually the other way around. This disorder in the department has put an extra burden on the health boards. Were it not for the supplementary welfare scheme administered by them I hate to think of the degree of suffering of the many unfortunate people waiting for their just benefits. We can thank Deputy Cluskey, the Parliamentary Secretary in the National Coalition, and the then Minister, Deputy Corish, for that scheme.
If the Minister has any doubt about the work being done by the health board superintendent community officers and the community officers he should check with those officers, who will give him a clear picture of the hardship and near starvation inflicted on people because of the Minister's failure to operate the Department as it should be operated. Health board staffs have been diverted from the work they should be doing. Some health boards are owed hundreds of thousands of pounds by the Department who have failed to pay benefits, particularly disability and unemployment benefits. Community welfare officers, who have heavy responsibilities to the underprivileged, are being diverted from their important work while doing all sorts of accounts. There has been massive loss of money by the health boards arising from the chaotic conditions in the Department.
I know cases of persons called for examination by a medical referee months after they had sent in the final certificates, on the basis that they were still getting benefits. When people who have not got medical cards go to their doctors it costs them £4 to get certificates. In many cases they have to repeat their visits in order to get the benefits to which they are entitled.
Last night the Minister devoted much of his speech to a description of his achievements since he took office and said "actions speak louder than words". Indeed they do. His achievements are very small compared with those of the man he tried to criticise, Deputy Cluskey. During Deputy Cluskey's term in office the extent and value of new schemes introduced are too numerous to give here. The Minister tried to take credit for some of those schemes.
For instance, the Minister said the Government were paying social welfare increases in April from the January budget. It was the National Coalition who introduced that. Up to then social welfare recipients had to wait until July, and sometimes later, before getting increases given in the budget. The Minister spoke of the 25 per cent and the 20 per cent increases in this year's budget and boasted about the double week Christmas bonus. Does he not remember that all this was part of the National Understanding, squeezed out of the Government by the ICTU in negotiations, sometimes lasting far into the night? The Government did not want to concede these increases: they came after protracted ICTU pressure in the negotiations. Unfortunately the ICTU did not foresee the terrible upward trend in inflation and consequently in the cost of living. If congress had foreseen this trend, widows would not be depending on a mere ten per cent in allowances for their children. Because of the 20 per cent increase in the cost of living social welfare recipients are much worse off than last year.
It is true to say that people in rural areas suffer most from the chaos in the Department. Claimants for unemployment benefit must send their files to the Department and have to wait for weeks. In Kilkenny and the surrounding area there is a population of about 20,000. When the social welfare agent there retired he was not replaced and the people are at a severe disadvantage. When people with only 52 stamps run out of benefit they are kept waiting for three or four weeks. Then they get a letter from the Department telling them why they are out of benefit.
Last night the Minister failed to mention that in the Finance Bill last year the Government tried vigorously to bring social welfare payments into the income tax net.
I hope that as a result of the motion some action will be taken by the Department to relieve the hardships being suffered by the social welfare classes. If not, I will be tabling 20 or 30 parliamentary questions next week. I will do it only as a last resort, only if the Minister, even at this late stage, fails to take immediate action to ensure that people who are entitled to benefits will get them when they apply for them. The present situation cannot be tolerated any longer.
This is my seventh time in the last 18 months speaking here on delays in social welfare payments. The Minister has heard these complaints but has chosen to ignore them. On 8 December 1980 Deputies and Senators were informed by circular that there would not be problems any longer, that the postal strike had been settled and the backlog had been cleared. We were told the staff were in a position to deal with all claims on arrival in the Department. The truth is that the problem is still with us to a very large extent. People are waiting weeks and weeks for money for their bread and butter and they are not getting it. Last week I met a man with 11 children who had not received payment for six weeks. I would like a Minister to live on nothing and to feed 11 children for six weeks with no money. Surely this is an inefficient system. The Minister, Deputy Hussey, said there were no complaints in County Galway. That is hard to believe.
I have received only a few complaints.
There were very few complaints in County Galway and it is not a problem there. It is a problem in County Cork.
I said Opposition Deputies are going around canvassing for the problems.
When people are coming to your door every day with social welfare problems, the least you can do is raise your voice in Dáil Éireann. Voices are raised every week but the Minister chooses to ignore them. I spoke in Irish on the subject last time, hoping the Minister might understand Irish as he did not seem to understand English. It made no difference. This social welfare problem is a national disgrace. We live in what is supposedly a Christian country. When you see people all around you getting nothing every week it is hard to believe it is a Christian country.
Mr. Hussey went on to explain the PRSI system. We are all aware of that system and the contributions which people make, without choice, to pay for the system. He said that £22.8 million was spent on disability benefit for 73,000 people. We are here to talk about the people who got nothing. I appeal to the Minister to do something about this serious and sad problem. I hope this question will never have to be raised in the Dáil again. One only has to look at the Order Paper to realise that the problem has not been solved. Yesterday I got an answer to Question No. 15. I would not put down a Dáil question except as a last resort. I have to put down a Dáil question when I cannot get satisfaction anywhere. When the Dáil adjourned for Easter, I rang the Department of Social Welfare and lodged complaints. Last week people told me they still had not received payments. It appears the only way that Deputies can get a satisfactory reply is through a Dáil question. I appeal to the Minister and to all the members of his party to see that the problem is solved once and for all. It is a sad state of affairs which has not improved at all in the last year and a half.
Unemployment benefit is slow in being paid. It is totally unjust that young people under 18 cannot receive unemployment benefit. It is also unjust that people over 18 are assessed on the means of the household, with their parents, brothers and sisters. I would like the Minister for Social Welfare to introduce legislation to ensure that young people will get unemployment benefit as individuals and will not be assessed on their parents' income.
It is regrettable that the Minister is not here for this debate in so far as it calls for his resignation. The motion tabled by the Parliamentary Labour Party calls on the Minister for Social Welfare to resign forthwith in view of his failure, despite repeated requests, to manage his Department efficiently. As a last resort the Minister has been called upon in this House to resign because all other means at the disposal of Members of this House have been tried to no avail. He said:
I have given the House some indication of my achievements during the short time since I took office as Minister for Social Welfare. I have outlined the on-going activities of the Department as well as some of my plans for the future. I am sure the House will agree that this is an impressive record and bears a more than favourable comparison with anything that can be put forward by occupants of the benches opposite. I confidently appeal to the House to give me its support and confidence so that I can carry on with the good work.
One of the Members of the House is a psychiatrist. I am sure he would, without hesitation, in his professional capacity clearly state that the man who stood up in the House in the face of the record of that Department since he took office is an egomaniac. There is no other explanation for it. He is also Minister for Health. There must be a medical term for someone who cannot resist a camera, who, when he sees a camera, must jump towards it. That supersedes any other consideration.
I do not know what it is——
It is very negative.
He seems to be far more reluctant to come into this House when his Department and his competence to run that Department is being questioned by the members of this House than he is to leap in front of a television camera or any other sort of camera.
The question that brought about the tabling of this motion was the failure of the Minister to ensure that people got their lawful rights and were paid what they were legally entitled to. What does the Minister do in reply? Not only does he engage in megalomania by giving us his alleged achievements, but he misleads the House. He claims credit for things he did not do. He did not acknowledge what he did. In fairness to him, he should get full credit for those. Amongst his alleged achievements was the Consolidation Bill. I left the Consolidation Bill on his desk in 1977. Of course he probably had not been in his office until last year. That is why he did not find it there and put it to the House. That was done by a special committee. It took the Minister or his predecessor three years to even discover it was there. The Minister claims credit for a double week. Deputy Pattison has already pointed out that the double week was part of the negotiations of the national understanding. He did not tell us that his Government abolished the twice-yearly payments which were established under the previous Government and continued by them until Fianna Fáil came into office and abolished it. He did not tell us about the annihiliation of the poverty committee to which he paid more attention than any other aspect of the work in his Department. He did not get around to telling us those things. What he did tell us was the number of people who were paid social welfare — a figure of one million payments per week was given. Of course, that is the case. The figures have not substantially increased during the years although I agree there have been some fluctuations. We are talking about normal payments.
The Minister implied the the postal strike was a factor in the breakdown of payments. We all know that strike was disastrous but how long ago was that? He claims also that people do not give their correct numbers. That has always been a problem to some extent but it does not in any way explain the total collapse of payment of disability benefits.
The Minister referred to staff difficulties. Is there any precedent for a Minister, as the political head of a Department, as the person elected and then appointed by this House to be responsible for the administration of the Department, to stand up in this House and try to shift his responsibility onto the staff? I know the staff of that Department. I had the honour of working with them. They are not responsible for what has happened. The workings of the Department did not collapse when I was there. The same people administered the schemes. The only thing different about the staff in the present situation and the staff when I was there is that they are demoralised by the Minister. As I said, he is a person who is more interested in his photograph than in his work. He has no interest in the Department. He has the staff driven up the wall by making opportunist statements about alleged schemes to be introduced even though people in the Department have never heard of them. He is a political opportunist and that has been his first priority since he occupied his ministerial post.
That may be fair enough but not when the result is that literally tens of thousands of people have gone without an income for months. As we are debating the incompetence and the unsuitability of the Minister to hold office, there are still tens of thousands of families who are not getting their legal entitlements because of lack of interest on the part of the Minister. He is too busy making political capital and he is totally uninterested in the responsibilities placed on him.
No one comes into this House and lightly makes these charges against any other Member or against any Minister. I should like to make the following point. I do not know when Deputy Kenneally came into the House — at any rate it was a very short while ago. There has not been any Fianna Fáil backbencher in the House to try to defend the Minister. Last night the Minister made a feeble attempt at it; he attempted a "snow" job. The Minister of State was sent into the House this evening to speak in this debate. I asked Deputy Pattison if the Minister of State was using the same script as was used here last night by the Minister because it was almost verbatim. There were a few minor changes but one would have to search for them. The same "snow" job was attempted. Where are the Fianna Fáil backbenchers? Are they in this House to show their solidarity and support for the amendment put down in the Minister's name? We know they will have to troop through the lobby to vote for the amendment but they have signalled quite clearly what they think of the Minister for Social Welfare and who can blame them.
The Deputy could muster only 35 votes yesterday evening.
The Fianna Fáil backbenchers are not coming into this House willingly to support the following amendment which was put down by the Minister. The amendment reads:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute:
"Dáil Éireann affirms its confidence in the Minister for Social Welfare, expresses appreciation of the improvements he has made by way of substantial increases in social welfare payments as well as the extension and improvement of existing services, the introduction of new schemes and the action he has taken to modernise the administration of his Department."
Is it any wonder they have not come into the House to support that nonsense? Like us, they are meeting their constituents every day and they are hearing heartrending stories of how people have to wait 14 weeks even though they have submitted certificates and yet have not received even one payment. Because of cutbacks in the health boards, these people do not get even the supplementary welfare allowance to help them keep body and soul together. That is what we have got from the political opportunist who occupies the position of Minister for Social Welfare.
I was in the Department of Social Welfare when computerisation was introduced. Switching to a computer system is a very tricky business. For months prior to its introduction — and the officials sitting beside the Minister know this to be true — I had the Secretary of the Department and senior officials in my office almost daily to ensure there would be no disruption in payment of benefits and I had a guarantee there would be no disruption during the transition. The Minister did not meet the officials every day to find out the situation. It is indisputable that the Minister is very seldom in his office. One of the difficulties the staff have is to find the Minister to get him to sign important letters and to make important decisions that have been postponed and postponed and postponed again because they cannot find the Minister. He is too busy being photographed or singing songs.
Is it not a fact that one of the discs on the computer system was lost and before the system was put into operation the original files were destroyed? Is that not the real reason why people have not been paid — even though it did not figure in the Minister's statement. Further, is it not true that over a period of years people's records were put on micro-film and that because it was neglected and stored in a damp room they cannot be used? Is not the real reason that, due to the gross incompetence of the Minister, tens of thousands of families have not been paid over a period of months? Is that not the real reason?
The Deputy should conclude now.
So should the Minister.
He has finished his character assassination in this House.
I do not want to turn my sights on the Minister of State. The Taoiseach had a good shot at him.
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