I thank Deputies for their interest in this complex measure, a measure that has posed considerable difficulty for the Department. As the files in the Department indicate, this issue has caused much difficulty for successive Ministers for Social Welfare.
There is an impression that I am engaging in a sleight of hand exericse in clawing back money here or there and that at the end of the day we will be simply availing of the existing resources of the Department. That is not the case. The implementation of equal treatment of men and women within the social welfare framework will cost additional moneys, many additional millions of pounds. In a situation in which our resources are very severely stretched, I had to go to the Government last year and say that within the context of the Estimates for the years 1985 to 1987 I needed money to implement the directive to which this legislation relates.
Deputy Cowen said he did not know where the money would come from to pay for the increases in benefit to married women and he asked who would loss out following the implementation of the legislation. As I said during previous debates on this issue, there is a special provision of more than £13 million in this year's Estimate for the Department of Social Welfare in respect of the implementation of equal treatment for men and women. The money required in this respect is not being taken from any other area of my Department's budget. That has been established beyond controversy and without qualification. What is involved is a net increase in the Estimate for this year to provide for the introduction of equal treatment. Therefore, the question of off-setting savings does not arise. The package will cost an additional and substantial number of millions of pounds.
I have not delayed the introduction of the legislation. It required complex drafting and that task has been in process in the Department for the best part of two years. It has necessitated a series of Government decisions. With respect to Deputy Cowen's party, not a great deal of work was done in this respect by his colleagues when in Government. The cost of the implementation of this legislation is not being met by way of a reallocation of resources. Interestingly, enough, Deputy De Rossa asked whether the family income supplement might be used to alleviate the losses involved. Theoretically it is possible that where one spouse is in employment and earning just over the limit for that relief and where the other spouse is on a flat rate, there might be a small family income supplement entitlement but this would arise only in a very small number of cases. However, it is an interesting point and one which I shall go into.
I shall deal in a general way with a number of other points that were raised. Deputies O'Leary, McCarthy, De Rossa and others, too, raised the question of the dependency arrangements. I was glad to hear that the Deputies welcomed the elimination of discrimination in the social welfare area but Deputies gave the impression that perhaps equal treatment could be implemented without there being a reduction in any respect and that is not possible. There must be some realignment of benefits. Perhaps the Deputies could produce some magic formula that has eluded us. It is clear that any such formula eluded Deputy Haughey when he was Minister for Social Welfare. He would lead us to believe that very little eluded him but he did not find the magic formula in terms of adjusting the system. Without a massive injection of financial resources — and most of any such money would not go in the right direction — it would be impossible to introduce equal treatment without some beneficiaries suffering a reduction and a realignment in their treatment.
Only a small number will be involved in any such change. This arises because all married women are now treated automatically as their husbands' dependants, based not on income but on one criterion only, the fact that they happen to be living with their husbands. There can be no other criterion. If I may put it in a capsule, we are getting away from a sex-differentiated basis to an income-differentiated basis. Equal treatment demands, the directive demands — and I must remain within the framework of the directive; otherwise we would be sent off to the European Court for further investigation — that whatever conditions apply to men must apply equally to women. If no married men are to suffer a reduction in their entitlement — and the only reductions are in respect of a small number of married men — then all wives would have to be entitled to increases for their husbands simply because they are living with them. On that basis equal treatment would cost an extra £100 million. There is no way, in the context of the implementation of equal treatment, that resources of that nature are available to the State. In any event if we were to apply it on that basis in the vast majority of cases such husbands — because they are in full time employment, by no reasonable standard could be deemed to be their wives' dependants. Equal treatment must therefore involve a revision of the present dependency conditions.
With regard to the earnings rule and the transitional measures proposed, I am proposing in the Bill an enabling power which will mitigate the effects of the equal treatment provisions to a large extent. We could not enact a Bill which would continue to regard spouses with substantial earnings as dependants of spouses whose social welfare payments were much lower than their actual earnings.
The question of retrospection of the implementation date was raised by Deputies Yates, De Rossa and others. A problem would arise there. To put it in a capsule: do we retrospectively claw back money we have given people? I do not think that would be very popular in this House because what is sauce for the equality goose must be sauce for the equality gander if I may use a rather sexist analogy, if there is one. Far from clawing back money, or docking money on a retrospective basis, it is best that we have a forward date for implementation.
The package as a whole constitutes a reasonably balanced and equitable approach to providing equal treatment, involving the removal of the automatic presumption of dependency of married women and conferring on them, in consequence, full entitlement to social welfare rights. Clearly retrospection cannot arise in the case of the elements of the package which involve reduced entitlement. There is then no case in principle for allowing it in regard to the other elements because there would be very considerable costs and other implications. Even with approval of the Bill I shall have considerable difficulty implementing its provisions because of the tightness of staff resources, the amount of work to be done in ascertaining a lot of information which will have to be married into payments. As the House is aware at present anybody with an RSI number is paid the particular benefit entitlement and then only when one applies for dependency is one allocated that. Of course the question of ensuring full cross reference is a major one.
I must emphasise that there will be a major volume of work involved in my Department in implementing the provisions of the Bill. For example, 46,000 married women's claims will have to be re-rated and the dependency position of some 200,000 cases of social welfare will have to be examined by means of the issue of questionnaires and their processing which will be a complex procedure. For every 1,000 questionnaires one will have 100 people who will be affected much less. Of course there the prospects of political exploitation by those who want to exploit it. But then I have become used to that and somewhat pragmatic about the way the system is exploited, in particular for political purposes.
At present my Department are also in the process of a major re-design of our computer system which must be completed before the equal treatment provisions can be accommodated within that system. I shall be going ahead with all expedition on that computer work and we shall not delay in that regard.
Deputies Yates and Cowen also referred to the position of deserted husbands and widowers and the provisions of the directive. The directive is quite specific in the areas it covers. It extends to schemes of unemployment, of sickness, of invalidity, old age and accidents at work. Survivor benefits and family benefits are specifically excluded from the directive. The Community farming the directive recognised that there would have been great difficulty is most member states in implementing equal treatment under such schemes because there is no great uniformity in that area. In view of the multiplicity of such schemes there would be enormous difficulty encountered in endeavouring to bring a degree of uniformity into that area. That is the framework within which this directive is being introduced.
Deputies Barnes, Yates, McCarthy and Prendergast raised the issue of the questioning of married women who apply for unemployment benefit. I referred to that matter in my opening remarks. I want to say initially that the files in my Department show that a large number of married women, with children, already qualify for unemployment benefit. A great variety of formal and informal child-minding arrangements are accepted by deciding officers in these cases. Deputies — I suffered from this myself over the years — tend to regard the cases they encounter frequently as being the generality of complaints and very many of us are not objective in our analysis of the situation. It is true that in determining claims for unemployment benefit or assistance deciding officers must satisfy themselves that the claimant concerned is available for work. To so satisfy themselves they must try to ascertain all of the facts of the case. If there is any element of doubt in the matter deciding officers are obliged to query the position by asking the claimant any questions they feel may be relevant to the case. Information about the applicants on their efforts to obtain employment and whether he or she is registered with manpower and the type of work the claimant is seeking and whether or not there are factors which would prevent the claimant taking up work if work were offered, must be recorded. There is no doubt that, where a claimant is in charge of minors, this can affect either his or her availability for employment. Some married women with young children can be quite readily seen to be unavailable for employment from the information they give about their circumstances and others will be seen not only as being available for employment but as making every effort to get employment. In other cases there will be some doubt and it is in relation to that category of claimant that questions relating to family circumstances are still pertinent because they may help to show whether or not the claimant is available for work.
I accept that it is a highly subjective area but it is an area where the deciding officer or the appeals officer has statutory powers. Questions relating to child care and maintenance are designed to try to establish these facts and the deciding officer or the appeals officer is concerned only with the claimant's circumstances in so far as he needs to be satisfied that the claimant is free and willing to take up employment. It is not the case that claimants are rejected merely because they have young children. That impression is frequently abroad but it is not the position. I will take all necessary steps to ensure that there is no discrimination in that regard.
In view of the concern expressed by Deputies here, I will be taking the necessary steps to ensure that in future all conditions relating to entitlement to unemployment benefit and all inquiries made in connection with these conditions are applied impartially as to the sex of the applicants, and new guidelines will be prepared bringing to the attention of the deciding officers and other staffs in the Department the requirement of the EC directive that no discrimination either in our laws or in our administrative provisions is permissable and that any applied availability for work criteria must not discriminate on the basis of sex directly or by reference to martial status in questions asked or in conclusions drawn. I cannot be more specific than that. Yesterday afternoon I met a delegation from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. This matter was raised in discussing the Bill and I gave a clear assurance to them on that issue.
A number of Deputies referred to alleviating measures I propose to introduce under the enabling powers of the Bill. There were calls for a higher level of earnings to be disregarded. Deputies Yates and De Rossa suggested that I might consider a graduated earnings rule, but that could not be contemplated. I explained in my speech why a graduated earnings rule is not operationally possible at present. I discussed this matter with the congress delegation as well and with other interested parties. We have no objection in principle to the question of graduated earnings. If there were graduated structures it would reduce the scope for a poverty trap situation developing but its implementation would place enormous strain on the employment exchanges.
I do not want to go at great length into the difficulties which any sort of complicated dependency rules would bring about but the introduction of an earnings floor would undoubtedly complicate the payment delivery system. It would affect the overall level of service which the Department give the public and this is a crucial issue at a time when there are staffing restrictions and a massive increase in claim load which are already combining to put the system under enormous pressure. For this reason the rule must be simple and straightforward so that it will be easy for claimants to understand and will not increase significantly the amount of time needed to process applications and make payments which would disimprove the service to social welfare beneficiaries. There are difficulties in that area.
In relation to a high earnings floor, it is not just an administrative problem but there is a degree of substantial objection in principle to an exceptionally high earnings floor. We must keep in mind a number of aspects in setting a level on the earnings floor. It should not be set at a level effectively breaching the proposed statutory dependency principle which terms a spouse as an adult dependant only if he or she is wholly or mainly maintained by the other spouse so that the higher the earnings floor the more one breaches the dependency rule and then one is coming up to the wire in terms of the directive itself. It should not be set at a level which would create a particular benefit for some families to have one spouse in employment and the other spouse on social welfare benefit rather than having both of them in employment.
I will give an example of two families. Where a family have three children and are living on social welfare payments with no other income they would have £88.35 per week. This would create a serious anomaly and there would be a degree of inequity arising. Therefore I have pitched a level of an earnings floor. I have indicated to the House that I considered £50 to be a basic level and £10 on the outer mitigating transitional arrangements. I have discussed the matter the Irish Congress of Trade Unions who made strenuous representations to me on the matter. I have agreed to consider those representations and have taken careful note of the points made by the Deputies on this measure. I will conclude by thanking Deputies for their contributions to the Second Stage debate and I assure them that the points made will be carefully considered on Committee Stage.
I did not get an opportunity to deal with a number of points raised by Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn. She expressed her concern about facilities for women in employment exchanges, and a large number of women will be going in. I have indicated that 46,000 married women are going into employment exchanges which need to have their whole edifice improved substantially. As she indicated, rightly, many of our employment exchanges, including that in Galway which is deplorably bad, are wholly inadequate where young children come in with their mothers who may be claiming. I assure the Deputy that I will make every effort in that regard throughout the country. Very substantial improvements have taken place in many of the exchanges but the work is progressing painfully slowly. I am bringing considerable pressure to bear on the OPW in that regard and in some instances they have responded while in others they are painfully slow. Nevertheless, I assure Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn that I will endeavour to remedy that situation.
In many other parts of the country, particularly in areas like Ballybough where the employment exchange will be up and coming shortly, Clondalkin and the outer conurbation suburbs of Dublin where we should have employment exchanges sited. I have been working on that also and I am quite determined that the facilities should be of outstanding quality, as good as, for example the new employment exchange at Tara Street and the first floor of Apollo House where staff can meet fellow Irishmen and women in conditions where they are able to do their work and where people are treated with the respect, concern and care which we are all entitled to in our applications within the system. I assure Deputies that I am working in that regard and the work will be ongoing. Accordingly, I thank Deputies for their contributions and look forward to further discussion in due course on Committee Stage.