Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Nov 1986

Vol. 370 No. 2

Private Members' Business. - Social Welfare Christmas Bonus: Motion.

By agreement and notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, Members shall be called in Private Members' time this evening as follows: 7 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. Opposition speaker; 7.30 p.m. to 7.40 p.m. Opposition speaker; 7.40 p.m. to 8.10 p.m. Government speaker; 8.10 p.m. to 8.20 p.m. Opposition speaker; 8.20 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. Opposition speaker.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann requests the Government to arrange to have the Christmas bonus payment to Social Welfare recipients made this year on the same basis and at the same rate as it was in 1985.

In recent weeks the Government, by their actions in the social welfare arena, have let slip the mask of social concern which certain of their members, not least the Leader of the Government, have worn so piously and lightly during the past four years. They have also exposed a bewildering degree of ineptitude. By their attitudes shall you know them. The actions of the Government have demonstrated an arrogant and uncaring attitude to the dilemma of social welfare recipients and show that they have no comprehension of what it means to have to exist on social welfare payments.

The decision to cut the Christmas bonus, which Fianna Fáil seek to reverse here this evening, is just one more instance, another example of Government apathy towards the poor in our society of which we have had so much evidence in the lifetime of the present administration. The decision to cut the Christmas bonus from 75 per cent of a full week's allowance to 64 per cent is further evidence of Government lack of concern and of ignorance of what it means to rely for one's existence on social welfare payments. This decision saves the Government a mere £3 million. It reduces the cost of the Christmas bonus scheme, introduced by Fianna Fáil in 1980, from £21 million to £18 million, a mere drop in the ocean when overall Government spending is taken into account. Yet to individual welfare families it is vital, allowing some little extras during the Christmas period, helping to bring some little cheer into what is a grinding existence for them at the best of times. Of course Government expenditure must be controlled but not at the expense of the poor, and not at the expense of those who are unfortunate enough to have to rely on social welfare payments for their meagre existence.

The Government decision to cut the Christmas bonus reflects their apathy towards social welfare recipients. They are completely out of touch with reality. They have ensured that this Christmas will be even more of an ordeal than usual for people on social welfare payments. Their heartless and bungling approach to the equality legislation has meant a fall in the living standards of some 20,000 families over the Christmas period. Their last minute and reluctant decision, in the face of intense pressure from their backbench supporters, to review the implementation of the EC Social Welfare Equality Directive will not do anything to help these families over the Christmas period. There is no real commitment in this review, nothing more than an almost half empty promise to quieten and suppress a growing revolt from Labour and Fine Gael backbenchers who had been assailed by their constituents for their actions. This half-baked attempt to push away the problem, to kick it under the counter, is little more than political deception of the lowest kind. It will not solve the problem of those 20,000 families who last week, this week, every week between now and Christmas and into the New Year, will be short of up to £60 a week in their social welfare payments. The Government's performance is a national scandal.

The manner in which the equality directive legislation was introduced has caused dreadful confusion. The Minister failed to clarify precisely how it would affect the different categories of social welfare claimants — the old, the unemployed, the disabled and deserted people all of whom have suffered as a result of the Minister's incompetence. It is appalling to reflect what this Scrooge-like attitude of the Coalition will mean to thousands of families. First, some 20,000 are to lose from £20 to £60 a week. Then the Government slash the Christmas bonus — heaven knows it is small enough — from 75 per cent to 64 per cent of a full week's benefit. This will cause a further loss of between £5 and £10 in the Christmas bonus for some 500,000 social welfare recipients. The old, the sick and the unemployed are being crucified at every angle by this Government. In the space of a week the Government have created a huge category of double victims — some 20,000 low income families — who this Christmas will see their incomes slashed by the Coalition's decisions on the equality directive and the Christmas bonus, a double blow to those families.

This Government seem intent on penalising social welfare recipients, as if their plight was of their own making. The recent NESC report —A Strategy for Development 1986-1990— points to the causes of the growth in our social welfare population. The central reason for increased expenditure on social welfare is spiralling unemployment. In the past four years, under the present administration, more than 70,000 people have joined the ranks of the unemployed. When one considers that some 50 per cent of social welfare recipients have families this represents a growth in want, deprivation and poverty of awesome proportions. In the past four years too, the cost which growing unemployment made on the total cost of social welfare expenditure is difficult to overstate. It has escalated out of all proportions. Therein lies the kernel of the problem of the huge costs which Minister after Minister and the Taoiseach in this heartless and ruthless Government complain so bitterly about. But the real truth is that the problem lies with themselves. The problem has been Government created. They and they alone must take responsibility for it. The growth in unemployment related social welfare payments contributed over 31.4 per cent of the total change in social welfare expenditure costs, an increase of almost £460 million.

A further appreciation of the role of unemployment in determining expenditure growth can be observed in the fact that, whereas the respective shares of old age pensions and unemployment in total social welfare expenditure were 35.8 per cent and 19.8 per cent respectively in 1980, the respective shares in 1985 were 29.3 per cent and 26.6 per cent.

In 1982 there were 145,500 unemployed persons. By 1985 that number had increased to 219,200, and in the first three years of the lifetime of the present Government. The unemployment figure, which is rising continuously, now stands at 233,000, not to mention the 50,000 people on short time employment schemes and some 100,000 of our young people who have emigrated in the last four years. The pattern of social welfare expenditure growth in the past four years shows that unemployment features very strongly in terms of its overall share of expenditure growth — 43.8 per cent — and in items of the impact on unemployment expenditure of an increased number of recipients. In the case of unemployment benefit over 90 per cent of increased expenditure is attributed to a growth in recipient numbers, while the figure for the assistance scheme is 81 per cent.

The Government prefer to ignore the contribution their disasterous economic policies have made to the growth in unemployment over the past four years and, consequently, to the plight of the social welfare population. This Government have depressed confidence. Their bungling approach to investment policy has led to the flight of Irish capital to create jobs abroad rather than at home and to a slump in investment in manufacturing industry at home. Their ineptitude has led to crippling high interest rates which depress economic activity. In a word, the failure of Government economic policies has increased inevitably social welfare spending. Yet this Government have tried persistently to claw back increases in social welfare payments while claiming to protect the unemployed and the poor. That is a charade. The increases in social welfare payments granted by the present Government in 1983 and 1984 were effective for a mere nine months in each of those two years.

In 1985 and 1986 it was the same story. Let us remember that these increases were totally inadequate compensation for the 50 per cent reduction in food subsidies and the increase in VAT on clothes, fuel and footwear. In sharp contrast Fianna Fáil have always displayed a practical concern for the vulnerable sections of Irish society. This Government, overloaded with pseudo intellectuals, always claimed to be expert on statistics and figures. This has been their main claim to fame since they have no knowledge of the human realities of life. Sadly, they are no good at figures either. They have consistently fiddled the figures in relation to budgetary costs of unemployment payments, in relation to projected budget deficits, and in relation to reducing the national debt. These fiddled figures have long since been exposed for their worthlessness. Recently they again fiddled the figures in relation to the cost of implementing the equality directive.

The Ministers, Deputy Hussey, Deputy J. Bruton and Deputy Deasy have now taken up a new battle on more fiddled figures. They have applauded themselves for granting social welfare increases of 40 per cent over the past four years which they say far exceeded inflation. They stated that social welfare recipients were never better treated than under their regime. The so-called 40 per cent which they are now singing about is a fallacious and untrue figure. It is another political deception. They are stating this figure loud and clear because they say that is the reason they cannot pay the extra £3 million as a bonus to unfortunate people at Christmas.

Normally I would not bore this House with a series of statistics but unfortunately someone has to tell the truth and bury the deceptions about these false figures. In 1979 inflation was 13.2 per cent and Fianna Fáil granted short term social welfare increases of 12 per cent and 16 per cent for long term recipients from April. There was a further increase of 6 per cent across the board in October 1979. In 1980, inflation was 18.2 per cent and Fianna Fáil granted short term increases of 20 per cent and long term increases of 25 per cent from April with a 3 per cent increase across the board in October of 1980. In 1981, inflation was 20.4 per cent and Fianna Fáil granted short term increases of 20 per cent and long term increases of 25 per cent from April of that year. In 1982, inflation was 12.1 per cent and Fianna Fáil gave a 25 per cent increase across the board in April of that year.

In 1983, we had the beginnings of the statistics which this Scrooge-like Government inflicted on the people. Inflation was 10.4 per cent and they gave increases of 10 per cent short term and 12 per cent long term from July of that year with a 5 per cent increase for the long term unemployed in October of that year. In 1984, inflation was 8.6 per cent and they gave short term 7 per cent and long term increases of 8 per cent from July of that year. In 1985, inflation was 5.4 per cent and the Coalition gave increases of 6 per cent for short term and 6.5 per cent for long term from July of that year. In 1986, our present inflation rate is 4.03 per cent and the Coalition have given increases for short term of 4 per cent and long term of 5 per cent from July of this year with no increase at all for child dependants. How could any responsible person state on examination of these figures that this Government have granted an increase of 40 per cent over a four year period? The dishonesty of their statements on these statistics is clear and obvious. Even though our present inflation rate is relatively low, it far exceeds that of most of our contemporaries in Europe and one-third of it is again Government created.

While the Government have presided over increasing the divide in the social standards of huge numbers of families, they have turned away from the consequences of such deprivation such as poverty, violence, emigration and many related health problems. They have failed in their self-appointed task to create self-sustaining jobs. They have failed to attempt to come to terms with our very complex and anomalous social welfare system which was simply not designed to cope with the present level of social welfare recipients and is buckling under the strain.

They have dodged and ducked away from responding to the priorities in the report of the Commission on Social Welfare. Yet they used the commission's report for three years as an effective curtain to protect them from answering questions in relation to various problems in the social welfare area.

The decisions on the implementation of the equality directive and the Christmas bonus are part of a long litany of failures by the Government on social and economic matters, reflecting their inability to appreciate the condition of the huge proportion of our population who have fallen within the poverty trap.

The cuts in the Christmas bonus will gravely affect social welfare families with children, a particularly vulnerable group in society. Christmas for the parents of such families is a nightmare. The paraphernalia of materialism which now surrounds Christmas in this country exposes mercilessly the bleakness of their existence. They cannot afford shoes for their children, never mind toys. The way they are forced to exist testifies to the gross inequalities in our community and, indeed, undermines the bonds of the community itself.

The situation of these, the poorest in our society, is never more apparent than it is at Christmas time, a time when everyone, no matter what they do in life, no matter what their social status is, feels that this is a time of joy and happiness.

The Christmas bonus introduced by Fianna Fáil in 1980 provided a double payment for recipients of long term payments from the Departments of Health and Social Welfare, comprising some 378,000 persons and their 120,000 dependants, 498,000 persons in all. It was introduced to provide such people with little extras during the season of goodwill. It can hardly be claimed as a major redistributionist step. However, it provides a little extra money to certain recipients which enables them to provide a little momentary relief from their ordinary low and very basic standards of living. Their's is not a very exciting standard of living although some members of this callous Government would wish us to believe otherwise.

Yet the Coalition seem unable to appreciate what this relatively minor measure can mean for half a million people. They are now told they will receive just over half a payment as a bonus, instead of the 75 per cent which they received last year and the double payment which was available up to last year.

Fianna Fáil, in this Private Members' motion, is giving the Government a chance to reverse their decision and give such families some little comfort at Christmas which most people feel they are entitled to. If they fail to rescind this decision, enormous hardships will result for the old, for widows, the chronically ill, the long term unemployed and the disabled. At the very least, the payment should be set at last year's level.

On the question of the Government's ability to pay, it has been claimed that the reason for their decision to reduce the Christmas social welfare bonus was that the Cabinet were able to gather only 18 million in savings in other areas. The Coalition should look again; the Minister should look within her own Department.

The Dáil Committee of Public Accounts were informed last week, following the review of the 1984 accounts of the Minister's Department by the Comptroller and Auditor General, that savings of £130 million were made in her Department. The committee learned that checks by the Department on disability benefit claimants had, because of the introduction of extra medical referees succeeded in saving taxpayers more than £2.5 million per week. It is reasonable to ask, therefore, why the Minister did not look within her own Department when searching for the money for the Christmas bonus. If savings within her Department are anywhere near the figures reported to the Committee of Public Accounts, they would more than cover spending under the Christmas bonus scheme, not to mention the resources needed to aid families which are to lose out under the equality ruling.

I would like the Minister therefore, to rescind immediately her decision and to utilise that fraction of the reported savings within her Department which is necessary to restore the Christmas bonus to last year's level. She should also give an undertaking to examine as a matter of urgency how savings within her Department might alleviate the hardships which is now affecting 20,000 low income families as a result of the equality legislation.

It is not too late for the Minister to retrieve the dreadful situation she has created. I accept the Minister is not alone in the creation of this dilemma and is not the only person responsible for what has been decided. I accept that this has been a collective Cabinet decision and that the Minister is purely the mouthpiece for her colleagues who seem to have no interest in the old, the poor and the sick. Has the Minister, or her colleagues, any knowledge of the needs of poor families at Christmas time? Can they compare the standard of living of such families with the standard enjoyed by those who have jobs and are fortunate enough not to be sick or old? Those people are fortunate to be able to buy the few extra benefits that help to make a happier Christmas. The Government seem to have lost touch with the reality that Christmas time is something different. The Government have an obligation to provide for the most needy at Christmas. The Government have coldly and callously failed to provide this extra money. I appeal to the Minister to retrieve the situation created by herself and the Government.

It is possible for the Minister to use her position to ensure that no needy family suffers during the Christmas period. The Minister has the power to decide whether it will be a happy or miserable period for thousands of welfare families and individuals. I ask the Minister to cast off the cold callous cloak of monetarism and act in the spirit of Christmas to ensure that the poorest section in our society does not suffer during the season of goodwill. I hope the Minister accepts the advice I have given her. I recognise, following consultations with people in my constituency and with my colleagues in Fianna Fáil, that this is a matter of grave concern. I have no doubt that the Minister is human, like the rest of us, and I accept she will respond to the advice given to her by this side of the House.

Ba mhaith liomsa cur leis an rún atá síos ag Príomh Aoire Fhianna Fáil thar ceann ár bpáirtí chun an bónas céanna a thabhairt agus a tugadh anuraidh, is é sin 75 faoin gcéad den teacht isteach atá acu ón Roinn Leasa Shóisialaigh.

Is scannalach an rud é nach bhfuil an Rialtas seo sásta an méid céanna a thabhairt do na daoine seo agus a bhfuair siad anuraidh, na daoine seo nach bhfuil faic de theacht isteach acu ach an méid sin atá siad ag fáil ón Roinn Leasa Sho ísialaigh. Níl i gceist anseo ach tuairim is £2.75 mhilliún. Tugadh go leor milliún don ICC—£200 milliún; bhí £130 milliún le fáil le haghaidh Dublin Gas ach níl £2.75 mhilliún le fáil le haghaidh na daoine nach bhfuil faic de theacht isteach acu. Tá deis ag an Aire anocht nó oíche amárach glacadh le leasú atá síos ag Fianna Fáil agus an 75 faoin gcéad sin a thabhairt dóibh.

The Government have on numerous occasions suggested the need for cutbacks in public expenditure and the curtailment of expenditure but I cannot understand how a Government who have described themselves as a caring one can commence their cutbacks against the weakest, the most deprived and defenceless sections of our community. They are hitting at the 500,000 we have been told would benefit from this measure. Many of those people live in my constituency. It is worth noting that in my constituency 12,000 people are unemployed, an increase of 3,000 in the past four years. Those people do not have any trade unions to defend them but at least they have the Fianna Fáil Party to fight on their behalf. We will do our utmost to ensure that they get their rights and what they have been accustomed to since Fianna Fáil introduced the Christmas bonus.

There was sufficient money for the ICC and Dublin Gas. I have no doubt that if one picked up the loose change from the millions involved in those rescues one would find the £2.75 million needed to pay the less well off sections of the community the full bonus at Christmas time. Those people have been accustomed to getting that bonus and, like any other section of the community, cannot afford to take such a cut. It must be remembered that the cut will be between 13 per cent and 14 per cent, an average of almost £5 per week. The figure may not seem significant to those on the Government benches but it is significant to the poor people whose only income is a social welfare benefit. A figure of £5 per week could change a hungry and lonely Christmas into a happy one for many families. The Government should have learned from the mistake they made some weeks ago when the did not accept our amendment on the European directive.

The people who will suffer as a result of the European directive are having their Christmas bonus reduced by the Government. How can families on an income of £120 per week be expected to exist on a reduction to £80 or £85 per week? Would the Taoiseach or a Minister accept a reduction of 30 per cent in income? There is no doubt they would not. Why is it that the poorer sections of our community are being asked to accept a reduction of that size because of the European directive? I have not met one person at my constituency clinics who will benefit under that directive and many of my constituents will take a drop of between £32 and £35 per week. I wonder what the repercussions of this will be?

The reduction in the Christmas bonus and the introduction of the European directive are nothing short of piracy, daylight robbery. It amounts to robbing the poorer sections of our community to rectify some imbalances. These cuts will hit hardest those sections who are weakest in the community. Families have been horrified at this reduction. Their lives have been changed from meagre subsistence to destitution. I cannot understand how rural Deputies on the Government side can accept a reduction of 30 per cent in incomes because of the directives and a 14 per cent cut in the Christmas bonus. If the teachers, the Garda and the Civil Service in general were faced with such reductions there would be a public outcry, and rightly so. The community at large would be outraged and there would be open rebellion and revolt.

These reductions are being made because the people affected are not in a position to protest. Over the years, the Government have selected the poor, the weakest section of the community, for the hardest hit because they are not in a position to mount campaigns. Those of us in the House who are in touch with reality and with our constituents who are looking forward to a sad Christmas this year will do our utmost to defend the poor and, we hope that those on the Government benches who have some humanity left in them will support the Fianna Fáil motion.

This would have been severe enough if there had been a warning, but there has been no forewarning. If the Government had forewarned when they were setting out budgetary strategy people might have been able to cushion the blow somehow, but this dastardly reduction in the run-up to Christmas is nothing short of contemptible. This is the action of a Scrooge mentality by an uncaring Government. This Government took over the mantle of a caring Government and now we see them in their true colours. Could they not have selected a better time of the year to reduce the meagre incomes of the poor? At any time it would not have been acceptable, but the Government chose the worst time for the needy. They stand indicated for their action.

The Government imposed many severe measures in the past four years but this is the most heartless, the most inhumane. Obviously, they are out of touch with reality. Many of their backbenchers are in touch with reality but apparently they do not have an open door to Ministers to impress on them the necessity to provide sufficient assistance for the persons affected by these cuts — unmarried mothers, deserted wives, old age pensioners, pensioners on retirement, invalidity pensioners and long term unemployed. They have suffered cutbacks in the past few years and cannot take any more. At this time of year they must pay their water rates whether there is a waiver scheme in operation or not. They have suffered health cuts. I can give examples of the effects of those cuts in south west Donegal. They have no transport available and even if there was transport to take them out of the county to clinics in Derry, Sligo or Dublin they would have to pay for it. They cannot do that and the result is that their health suffers. They have suffered the effects of the VAT on clothes, increased VAT on fuel, the phasing out of the food subsidies, and though there was a saving of £10 million on the Estimate for Social Welfare last year, the Government could not find £2.7 million for those people.

Where is the Government's social conscience? Where is the caring Government of which we have heard during the past four years? In their dying days they are taking this terrible action. They can find money for other purposes but not for those whom we have a duty to provide for. Public representatives will be judged by the concern they show to those who need assistance. Does the Minister feel that the repercussions of these cuts will go away, that there will not be political effects? Every household in the country will be affected.

Those people want a change of Government, and on polling day we and the Government will be judged by our concern for the old, the sick, the needy and the unemployed. The electorate expected more from this reputed caring Government, not alone from the conservative Fine Gael element but from Labour. How can the Labour Junior Ministers go back to their constituents and say they represented this most defenceless sector in the community?

Those people expected more from the Taoiseach who, when he accepted the reins of office, set out on a crusade to rid the country of hatred and bigotry. We are now experiencing crucifixion at the hands of the Government at this most unfortunate time of the year when they are driving the final nail into the neediest people in the country.

Impím ar an Aire a hintinn a athrú agus gan cur i gcoinne an mholta seo. Tá dualgas uirthí agus ar an Rialtas an méid seo airgid a fháil agus a chur ar fáil. Ba cheart don Roinn Leasa Shóisialaigh an t-airgead seo a íoc do na daoine nach bhfuil ioncam ar bith acu ach an méid atá le fáil acu ón Roinn. Níl ag an Aire ach 24 uair san oifig sin: beidh na daoine amuigh ansin ag glaoigh uirthí muna ndéanfaidh sí sin.

I announced last week that the Government had made available £18 million to pay in December this year a bonus to social welfare and health benefit recipients. This is a considerable sum of money by any standards and particularly so given the great problems that Ireland faces on the public finances. We all know about these pressures and the burden they are imposing on all the community.

Let me make one thing clear at the outset — the bonus is not an item of expenditure that is provided for at the beginning of the year; it never has been. The Government, following a review of expenditure has been able to find, within the overall spending targets some £18 million to give a Christmas bonus to the more needy sections of our community. As Minister for Social Welfare I was most anxious, as are the Government, to do the best we could for the weaker sections of the community.

Let there be no doubt about it, the Government would like to have made more available but the economic facts are that the money is simply not there and these are facts that people have to be prepared to face up to. Consequently, I believe firmly that it is incumbent on anyone who calls for additional resources to say where the resources should come from.

Deputy McCarthy referred to discussions at the committee on public accounts where reference was made to savings arising as a result of increased medical control on the disability scheme. This Government have increased the number of medical referees in the disability benefits area and have taken measures to improve the controls which operate in that scheme. These measures are bearing fruit and we can be satisfied with that fact. However, it is not true that the savings which these measures are bringing about are available for expenditure on the Christmas bonus. These savings were taken into account and built into the Estimate for disability benefit at the outset of the year. Deputy McCarthy should check his facts before making such statements.

It is easy to say that such and such should be done at a cost of so much — it has popular appeal. However, when it comes to financing these measures either by reducing expenditure in other areas or by increasing taxation or borrowing, which in itself, it must be recognised, is just another form of taxation, there always seems to be a deafening silence. This Government have the courage to face up to these challenges and not to shirk their duties or obligations. Our responsibility entails the control of spending. To spend further beyond our capacity would have a negative impact on those already in employment and paying taxes, and ultimately on those dependent on social welfare. The populist strategy of more spending is a short-sighted one which erodes the very foundations on which we have to build.

When considering any additional expenditure on social welfare, account must be taken of the enormous budget and the demographic and economic pressures that have driven the expenditure up over the last number of years. These factors will remain with us for the foreseeable future. The total number of people and their dependants receiving social welfare payments of various kinds each week is now about 1.3 million or about 38 per cent of the total population. This year the Government have had to find £2.5 billion to finance the social welfare services and this is now the largest single bloc of Government expenditure, and is running at about 27 per cent of total gross current expenditure. The overall annual spending is equivalent to almost £7 million per day for each day of the year. There has been an increase of 50 per cent in total social welfare expenditure in the four years since the Government took office.

The economic and financial pressures within which we are operating are very relevant to these calls for further expenditure. It has been said before, and we must continue to emphasise it, that we are, as a country, at a crossroads. It is not always recognised that all public expenditure is funded at the margin by borrowing. Due to events of the past, we are carrying on our back a huge legacy of debt. This legacy has had, and will continue to have, for many years serious adverse effects on our ability to generate economic growth and employment.

It is an inescapable fact that the increase in public expenditure generally in the last ten to 15 years — far beyond our national resources to finance it — has been a major cause of our present economic and unemployment problems. This year, interest on debt will absorb £9 out of every £10 paid in PAYE taxation.

If, in the past four years, we had not had to pay interest on accumulated debt our taxes would not merely have provided enough to cover current spending, but would have left us with the best part of £2,000 million available with which to fight unemployment, to cut taxes, to build up our country, and to tackle the many problems of disadvantage that remain unresolved. To stop this self imposed burden growing further we must control public expenditure. This we have done, but much more is required of us now.

Each year since this Government came into office we have kept our budgets on or close to target, with the aim of ensuring that, despite the unpredictability of the external economic environment, the ultimate budget deficit would not deviate significantly from the planned level. This we achieved, in each of the last few years, with considerable difficulty, in stark contrast to Fianna Fáil's lazy and cowardly laxity. Fianna Fáil gave bonuses, without any budgetary provision for them, and instead of finding savings to finance them they slapped more burdens on the taxpayer, increased the deficit and increased the burden on the taxpayer. This year, in controlling our expenditure, we have had unforeseeable problems which have thrown us slightly off course, including international financial movements which were beyond our control, and two disastrous summers for the crucial agricultural sector. I would like to take up a point that Deputy Gallagher made about ICI. Deputy Gallagher should know that ICI have received no taxpayers' money. The administration is being supported by the banking sector and the Central Bank, and the taxpayer and the social welfare recipient have reason to thank the Government for finding a way of dealing with this problem that does not affect their weekly income.


In spite of all those pressures the Government have still managed to find those resources to pay a Christmas bonus to the same increased categories of social welfare recipients this year as last year and because of the seriousness of the budgetary situation and the Government's concern not to contribute any further to the debt burden it was necessary for us to look for savings across the various Departmental Votes in order to be able to give a high level of Christmas bonus to those people who are in most need and who, on the basis of practice in previous years would naturally have been expecting it.

One category which was always excluded for the Christmas bonus was the long term unemployed and last year, for the first time, the Government decided to include them. This meant obviously a very big increase in the numbers of people who would get the bonus and it was decided to pay 75 per cent of the normal weekly payment across the board with the resources that were then available. This decision was motivated by a desire to extend some additional financial help to the long term unemployed, a group which this Government have already helped through the introduction of regular special increases in their rates of unemployment assistance since October 1983.

Again last year we had statements from people saying that the bonus was being reduced but they ignored the fact that about 112,000 extra people were included. Last year if a full week's payment had been made it would have cost £7 million in addition to the over £20 million that was made available.

This year the cost of providing the bonus is £18 million. To make a bonus payment on the same basis as last year would cost over £3 million extra. I have certainly no desire to exclude any category previously included in order to provide a higher bonus for some categories. The only course open to us is to distribute the amount available as fairly as possible and I am particularly concerned that the long term unemployed should still be included in the categories eligible for the bonus payment. We should look at some examples of what this would mean to the recipients. Take the case of an elderly couple who are getting £87.55 a week. During the first week in December they will get a total payment of £144.45. Last year in respect of the same week this couple would have received a total payment of £147.35. In other words, their total payment this year, including the Christmas bonus, is almost the same as last year's total. In fact, this year's Christmas bonus of £56.90 for them is about 90 per cent of the bonus they received last year.

A couple without children living on long term unemployment assistance will receive a total payment of £104.20 during the first week in December. Their normal weekly rate would be £63.15. This represents a bonus of £41.05. Their total payment for the first week in December will be almost the same as they received in the same week last year.

These examples illustrate the extent of this year's bonus in absolute terms and it can be seen that quite significant additional sums will be paid to some people. Obviously, people with families — these are mentioned by Deputy McCarthy — will receive a bigger bonus — the size of bonus will depend on the size of the family. For example, a couple living on invalidity pension and with three children will receive a bonus of £71 on the basic payment of £109.20 per week. An unemployed person, married with two children, will receive a bonus of £53.15 on a basic payment of £81.75 per week. Of course, the bonus is payable in respect of dependants and they number more than 330,000. Therefore, a total of half a million recipients will be receiving the bonus payment. The amounts are substantial and I am sure they will help greatly towards the inevitable costs associated with Christmas. It is quite clear from the example I have given that they are by no means the drastic diminutions decried by the Opposition. The bottom line is that recipients will have very nearly the same amount of bonus in cash terms this year as last year. I believe that the bonus is meeting the objectives of giving families who are dependent on social welfare a cash injection at a time of traditionally high expenditure.

As I said, naturally I would like to have announced a higher level of bonus. I do not believe that anybody in this House would not, but there is no point in deluding ourselves. Any rational person must realise that we cannot spend what is not there.

When we are talking about increases like this we must take into account the increases in social welfare payments over the last few years. Obviously, social welfare recipients who live in what is a relatively affluent society have very special needs at a time like Christmas. All of us Deputies are very active, I am sure, at our constituency clinics and we all deal greatly with a great many social welfare recipients. I make no apology for this Government's record, which I believe is a proud one, since 1982 in redressing some of the difficulties that these people, as we all know, have suffered.

In the 1984 and 1985 budgets the special position of the long term unemployed was again recognised by the provision of higher increases than those granted to social welfare recipients generally. Again, in July 1986 when the rates were increased by 4 per cent generally the long term unemployed got an increase of 5 per cent. These increases are ahead of the estimated inflation rate over the relevant period from July 1986 to July 1987, and this represents a real increase in payments again this year.

In the period from June 1983 to July 1986 social welfare benefits have increased by 30 per cent for short term recipients, 33 per cent for long term recipients and 40 per cent for the long term unemployed. These increases represent very considerable real improvements in benefit levels for that period. Those real increases are of the order of 6.5 per cent for short term payments, nearly 9 per cent for long term payments and 14.5 per cent for the most hard pressed group, the long term unemployed.

I have no time for the type of claims made here last week and again today about Fianna Fáil Government's increases in social welfare. When viewed in the light of the very high levels of inflation at that time those rates and increases were not at all as spectacular as has been implied. However, I think that all Governments have tried year in and year out to do the very best they can for social welfare recipients.

I will turn to the question which has been raised also in this House during this debate, the question of the equality Directive and the difficulties in its implementation, difficulties caused not least by the complexities of the Irish social welfare system. On Wednesday last, as all Deputies will be aware, the Government announced that they intended to review the provisions for implementing equal treatment in the course of the current discussions of the 1987 Estimates. As people generally will be aware, the Cabinet met over the weekend to discuss those Estimates and a considerable amount of time was spent in discussing the difficulties relating to equal treatment and the best approach to deal with the problems, while conscious of the obligation on us to stay within the terms of the EC Directive which is very specific. Perhaps it would be as well if I reiterated some fundamental principles relationg to this matter.

The question of equal treatment became an issue in the first instance because women were being treated less favourably than men under the social welfare code. The inevitable consequence of equalising treatment was that most would gain, whereas a much smaller number would lose. Obviously, our concern is for those who have suffered loss because in the nature of things there are no complaints from those 46,000 families who have gained. Having discussed the matter at length, I can inform the House that the Government have decided to provide significant reliefs for those who have lost from the implementation of the equal treatment provision. Payments will be made before Christmas and the cost will be borne from further savings which have been identified.

Briefly, the following are the measures being taken. The first situation relates to a married couple with the husband on social welfare benefit and his wife working and earning more than £50 per week. Under the equal treatment provisions the husband would lose the adult dependant allowance for his wife plus half the child dependency increases. The new measures will provide for the restoration of full child dependency increases and in addition a weekly allowance of £10 will be paid.

The second broad category involved is where both husband and wife are receiving social welfare payments. This group numbers about 8,000. In consequence of the equal treatment provisions, the husband would lose the adult dependant allowance for his wife. Provision has already been made for a compensatory payment of £10 in these cases and a further £10 a week will now be paid for these people. We all have been concerned about families who stood to lose significant amounts, particularly where a spouse is in low paid employment. These measures will reduce these considerably, especially for those with larger families. I will be issuing full details of the new measures tomorrow.


In closing, let me revert to the discussion which is the kernel of this debate, the question of control of Government spending. Unless we face up to the difficult decisions across the whole spectrum of Government expenditure, then — let me emphasise what all Deputies, particularly Deputies on the other side of the House should recognise — we will do the severest harm to the very people we all have the greatest concern for.

A Deputy

You have done it.

We will harm them because our debt will soak up even more of the money that we need to support the thousands of families who are dependent on social welfare each week, week in and week out, the money we need to pay public servants, the money we need to develop this country's industry, roads, employment possibilities, to educate our very large population and to embark particularly on the kind of growth policies which the country needs and which when wearing other hats the Opposition are very quick to espouse. Every move to control spending or to make reductions in any area at all in spending is opposed vehemently by Fianna Fáil and The Workers' Party. It is however a job for Government, the job we were elected to do and will be elected to do again in 1987.


We are elected to decide what is right and fair. The issue of the Christmas bonus is a case in point where in the context of enormous real increases in social welfare expenditure by the taxpayer we must make a decision which does not diminish in any substantial way the position of the social welfare recipient. No one suggests that these choices are easy but the seriousness of the situation is such that they have to be made. They are always difficult. Is it too much to hope that Fianna Fáil could for a moment be honest on the subject and recognise the strides that have been made and take a responsible attitude in the national interest? We hear the Opposition, particularly the leader of the Opposition, expounding to businessmen about his serious view of the national finances and his determination that we deal with them. For as long as I have been a Minister in this Government the Opposition leader has led the cause for more and more spending.


In a year of considerable financial difficulties when we saw over £200 million more being spent on social welfare than in 1985, our decision to find a further £18 million for a Christmas bonus was the maximum that could be done. The Dáil should acknowledge this by accepting the Government amendment.


I am calling Deputy Walsh; he should be allowed to speak without interruption, please.


Ministers and Deputies, please. Order, please.

A short term front bench and a long term Opposition.


I support the motion proposed by Deputy Seán McCarthy——


I call on the Minister to rescind her decision to grant the Christmas bonus at a reduced rate.


On a point of order, the Minister has made some announcements about expenditure. Would it be possible for us to get a copy of the text of the speech?

I am sorry, Deputy, I was reading from notes. I have not got a script.

This is most unusual. The Chair will agree that it is most unusual for a Minister to announce additional expenditure but not have a copy of the script for the Dáil.

There are a lot of notes you signed on the equality directive. I have them in the office if you want a copy.

You have everything in the office.

Deputy Seán Walsh, please.

You signed them in 1979.

George Colley forced you to climb down on it.

If the Minister is not in a position to give the Dáil the script of her remarks particularly about Government expenditure, it is a very last minute and hurried decision with which we are dealing.

Deputy Seán Walsh.

On a point of order——

As I was saying——

On a point of order——

Deputy Walsh, please allow the Minister in on a point of order.

Am I correct in thinking that a person other than a Minister introducing a Bill is not entitled to read from a script and is confined to speaking from notes?

That is not a point of order. Deputy Seán Walsh, please.


Order, please. Will the Deputies allow Deputy Walsh to continue.

I have pleasure in supporting this motion proposed by Deputy McCarthy and I call on the Minister to rescind her decision in relation to the payment of the Christmas bonus at a reduced rate. I was amazed to hear the Minister announce that they were increasing the benefits in the EC directive by another £10 per week. It is obvious the Minister had to pay heed to the appeals of our Deputies and Deputies supporting the Government. I am satisfied that the Minister came under a great deal of pressure as a result of the meeting in Tallaght last night. During her contribution, the Minister said that it is important to check the facts. Had the Minister been in Tallaght last night the facts would have been made known to her. I represent the people of Tallaght and of Clondalkin among whom there are large numbers of unemployed in receipt of social welfare benefit. The meeting last night was attended by about 400 people who made known their frustrations and disenchantment with the Government and the Minister for Social Welfare. During the discussion here on the EC directive some of the Deputies opposite said that no one would quibble about losing a few pounds from their weekly allowances. The people of Tallaght and Clondalkin and throughout the country will quibble when it is made known that they could lose up to £50 a week. I am satisfied that the Minister's announcement tonight is as a result of pressure brought about by the Government Deputies who attended the meeting last night.

Fianna Fáil introduced the Christmas bonus. The present Government reduced the payment of the bonus last year and have decided to reduce it further this year. Is this not an indication of the policy pursued by Fine Gael in the past when they reduced the old age pension? We are reaching that stage again. This is the second year in which the Christmas bonus has been reduced. I call on the Minister to change her mind. If she was able to change her mind about the EC directive it is possible to change her mind about the Christmas bonus. As Deputy McCarthy said, people should be in a position to enjoy Christmas and they should be in a position to enjoy the benefit afforded them since 1983 by the Fianna Fáil Government.

During a number of visits by the Taoiseach to the Tallaght area he spoke about his and his Government's care for the people of Tallaght. Are the decisions of the past few weeks an indication of how the Government and the Taoiseach care for the people of Tallaght? Some few weeks ago as a result of a directive issued by the Minister for the Environment the people living in local authority houses had their weekly rents increased by a considerable sum. There are many local authority houses in Tallaght and Clondalkin. Last week their social welfare benefits were reduced by £30 to £50. Now, as a result of the Government decision and the decision of the Minister, the Christmas bonus will be reduced this year. We are told that in the new year repayments on loans will be increased again. Does this indicate the Government's concern for the people of Tallaght and Clondalkin?

The Minister mentioned the £7 million per day spent on social welfare benefits. There is one way of reducing that amount and that is by making some effort to create more employment. Lack of employment is the cause of so many people being in receipt of social welfare benefits. Week after week the Government's policies have resulted in more people on the dole. The Government are largely responsible for the plight of the people of Tallaght and Clondalkin because they have made no effort to develop employment in those areas. The numbers on the unemployment register are increasing in spite of the fact the the Taoiseach said he cared about the people in Tallaght and Clondalkin. Is it any wonder that we had such numbers at the meeting in Tallaght last night. They came to air their views and to vent their feelings in relation to the policies pursued by the Government and the Minister for Social Welfare.

I am quite satisfied that, as a result of the views aired last night, the Minister decided to increase social welfare benefit by a further £10. As a result of the decisions over the past few weeks in regard to rent increases, the reduction in social welfare benefits and the Christmas bonus, it will be a sad and lonely festive season for many people. How would the Minister and members of the Government feel if their weekly salaries were reduced by £30, £40 or £50? Someone on the Government side asked who would quibble with the reduction of a few pounds but there is a very big difference between a few pounds and £40 or £50.

I asked the Minister, even at this late stage, to rescind her decision in so far as the Christmas bonus is concerned. She should do this before the debate ends and, if possible, she should pay a double week which was introduced by the Fianna Fáil Government in 1980 and paid again in 1981.

What will the Minister's amendment cost to implement? The Minister's policies are causing further confusion as it is her fourth attempt in relation to the EC Directive. Will these changes be substantial? When they come into effect? It is very difficult to debate these issues when the Minister keeps changing her line.

In his excellent speech, Deputy McCarthy detailed very clearly the effect of what has happened over a long period. The Minister made a number of conflicting statements. Deputy McCarthy has done good work in recent days explaining the changes in social welfare although it is the Minister's job to do so. Today, as Lord Mayor, I had the pleasure of turning on the Christmas lights. People showed me letters they had received from the Department outlining devastating cuts in their welfare benefits. Members of this House have heard how their constituents spend the small sums of money they receive and it is unbelievable to hear how they manage. I should like to know on what these figures are based because the lowest paid seem to be hit harder than those on higher benefits. I met two people today in almost the exact same financial circumstances and one had been cut by £38 while the other had suffered a loss of £28. The Minister has failed to explain what is happening and it would be in everybody's interest to know the truth. From a speech made by the Minister a few weeks ago it appears that the money is not available from cutbacks in other Departments but the Committee on Public Expenditure pointed out last week that departmental inspectors had saved money on disability benefits.

The Deputy missed my speech earlier on tonight.

I accept that but a few months ago the Minister announced that she was investigating a number of areas which would yield substantial savings. The equality Act seems to be hitting the wrong people. Possibly some people could take a slight cut in social welfare but widows, unemployed and those who are ill will be devastated. I know inflation is low but extra expenses at this time of the year put a great strain on the household budget. I have just come from a meeting of the Lord Mayor's coal fund and even the most hardhearted person would be depressed by reading the letters sent in. It is quite obvious that some of them are genuine and when you go through them you quickly see which are genuine and which are not.

There are other schemes where money has not been spent. To give one example, the Department of the Environment introduced a scheme of grants last April. One of the conditions of that scheme was that the money had to be spent by 31 December. About £500,000 to £600,000 worth of projects, that I know of from Dublin Corporation, have not even started. Did that money go back to the Department of the Environment? No, it did not. They chased around looking for other schemes which had no chance of being finished by Christmas, never mind by Christmas of next year. They reallocated the money with letters of good news going here, there and everywhere. That is happening every day of the week in Government Departments. We have one Minister sitting at the Cabinet table saying he is not going to pay out that money but is going to redirect it here, there and everywhere, while the Minister for Social Welfare asks if she can have £3 million——

They received £18 million.

——to help out the needy at Christmas. That is totally heartless and unfair. Some of the Minister's own colleagues seem to be totally unfair to her. If the Government are sincere and have any concern for the unemployed, the poor, the disabled and widows they would find that £3 million. Perhaps there is some other reason they cannot do it but I do not accept that they are concerned about U-turns at this stage. The Minister must feel she is in about twentieth place because in recent days she has changed her mind so many times. It takes us all our time on this side to keep up with her latest statements.

It is very hard work.

I have a series of questions about equality but not having heard all of the Minister's speech I will not go into them. It was quite clear from the Budget Statement that in 1986 the Government would maintain social welfare at the same levels which applied in 1985 with small adjustments. If that is so, was provision made in the Estimates to pay 75 per cent as against 64 per cent? If not, why was it not pointed out at that stage?

We dealt with that earlier.

I still think the point should be made. If the budget figures are worked out on an annual basis it is unreasonable——

Fianna Fáil never put the figures in either.

People did not have to be concerned about us because we introduced and paid them.

Fianna Fáil put them on the taxpayer.

The public knew when Fianna Fáil were in office that whatever else we did, we did not hit the poorer sections of society. We had to do unpopular things in our day. I recall in 1982, at this time of the year, when we were being thrown out of office we were maintaining the living standards of the poor. The reason we lost the Private Members' vote at that time was that the Opposition wanted us to nationalise a towel factory. They were trying for force us to put about £30 million into nationalising a high quality towel factory.

Ardmore Studios.

We looked after them too.

During that confidence debate our policy——


During that confidence debate we gave commitments to maintain the rates of benefit and the bonuses for people at Christmas. The Opposition said that was nothing; there was no benefit at all in that; they would do far better. That was four years ago. Deputy McCarthy has pointed out very clearly what has been done since. There has been no improvement in either budget's or benefits since 1982. It can be argued from the figures in the Minister's statement that there has been a cutback in real terms.

The Deputy is talking about two different things.

The Minister should analyse very carefully the correct assumptions and assessments in Deputy McCarthy's speech. They are the factual figures for every year back to 1979. They are taken from the Departmental reports. The Minister may not like them but they are the factual figures. Hardship has been inflicted on an annual basis by the Government and now they are taking £3 million out of the Christmas bonus on the basis that the money cannot be found anywhere else.

I continually meet organisations and groups involved in raising money for Christmas, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and numerous other charities. One of the nicest things about this city is the——

We were the first Government to have a special fund for them. My Department introduced a special fund for all those people.


People involved in trying to raise money for Christmas are running campaigns for very good and excellent causes to raise £15,000 here, £20,000 there and £30,000 elsewhere. This is extremely hard to do because of the high levels of unemployment in the country and the bad business climate. For the organisations who are doing so much work in the voluntary field the Christmas bonus is a major incentive because it takes some pressure off families who have to come back to them on an annual basis. It allows the organisations to spend more money on toys.

That is why we extended the categories of those in receipt of the Christmas bonus.

In spite of what some people say, the Minister is a humane person and realises it is a good cause. Around the Cabinet table some of her colleagues are being totally unfair and unreasonable. Far more than £3 million could be obtained at the stroke of a few pens or by a few letters being withdrawn. Today at Question Time there were questions to the Department of Education about the money which was flowing on Teamwork schemes all over the place. The Minister is only dealing with a tiny amount of money.

That is what Fianna Fáil always say. Fianna Fáil say that day in and day out.

It is not what we always say.

It is what Fianna Fáil always say.

The Minister's Department spend over £1 billion. It is not what we always say. It is a matter of £3 million spread right across the country.

What is £3 million here, £6 million there and £20 million somewhere else? Go out and borrow it and get the taxpayer to pay for it.

I know the Minister is upset but she is only upset because it is the truth. It is only £3 million which she has failed to get and which would help so many people.

The Deputy should not be so patronising.

I do not accept or believe the Minister cannot get her colleagues to switch the subheads to help the many people who are in need at this time of the year when some subheads are under spent.

And if one cannot borrow it?

Crocodile tears.

Debate adjourned.