Estimates, 1987. - Vote 46: Social Welfare (Revised Estimate).

I move:

That a sum not exceeding £1,595,945,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1987, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Social Welfare, for certain services administered by that Office, for payments to the Social Insurance Fund, and for sundry grants.

The Social Welfare Estimate for the year ending 31 December 1987 is for a net sum of one thousand, five hundred and ninety-five million, nine hundred and forty-five thousand pounds (£1,595,945,000) pounds. The Government are providing £49.6 million pounds or 3 per cent more than on last year's outturn. This Estimate is the general taxpayers' contribution to financing social welfare expenditure this year. It is equivalent to some 62 per cent of the total. Of the remaining expenditure, 26 per cent or £670 million is met by employers and 12 per cent or £310 million by employees through PRSI contributions. When account is taken of this and various other minor sources of income, the total social welfare bill comes to £2,600 million.

Who pays for social welfare? I would like to illustrate the contributions made by the different contributors to social welfare expenditure because I think that it is important to be clear about what money is coming in and where it is going. The situation can be illustrated as follows:

£ million

£ million

Social Insurance Fund

Contributions of Employers

649

Contributions of Employees

310

Contributions by General Taxation

417

Other

2

1,368

Occupational Injuries

Contribution by Employers

31

Other

1

32

Social Assistance

Financed by General Taxation

1,200

Total Expenditure

2,600

The level of contribution to the social insurance fund which is made by employers is 11.3 per cent and by employees 5.5 per cent on earnings up to a ceiling of £15,500. Where does the money go? It goes essentially towards paying for expenditure on the benefits and pensions payable out of the social insurance fund to PRSI contributors. The main items of expenditure are:

£ million

Old age contributory and retirement pensions

394

Widows' and orphans' contributory pensions

222

Unemployment benefit (including pay-related benefit)

282

Disability benefit (including pay-related benefit)

248

Other benefits, including deserted wife's and invalidity

222

Total

1,368

With regard to using resources effectively, the magnitude of this existing expenditure has to be borne in mind when considering improvements in social welfare. This specific point was made by the NESC ("A Strategy for Development"), which commented that the sheer scale of the social programmes is such that modest developments in social policies can have significant budgetary implications.

Given the level of this expenditure, it is more important now than ever before that every social welfare programme without exception be examined to ensure that the resources involved are directed to those in greater need. I am also concerned that all administrative costs are examined in detail and that areas where savings in administration can be made without affecting efficiency of the service are identified.

With regard to broadening the social insurance base, expenditure is, however, only one side of the coin, the other being the income or revenue side. Additional expenditure on social welfare can be financed only through additional contributions or through extra taxation. I am examining the question of broadening the social insurance base to bring about a greater degree of equity in the financing of social security as a whole. At present, the self-employed rely on means-tested social assistance pensions and on whatever private pension arrangements they may make. This leaves many of the self-employed and their dependants without adequate insurance cover and having to rely on means tested old age and other payments. The cost to the general taxpayer of non-contributory old age pensions this year is £286 million.

Both the Commission on Social Welfare and the NESC referred to the need for broadening the social insurance base. The National Pensions Board are also at present examining this issue in the context of a report they are preparing for me on the provision of pensions related to earnings. There are practical difficulties in this area but I am examining this area to try to overcome these difficulties.

As regards the economic climate, this year's budget was the first step in ourProgramme for National Recovery. We had to take tough decisions to ensure that a stable course was charted for the future. We have to accept the need to contain the overall level of public expenditure. This level depends on the performance of the economy and clearly our present levels of expenditure and debt could not be afforded and demanded corrective action.

Total current Government expenditure has risen from less than 30 per cent in the early seventies to over 41 per cent in 1980 and to nearly 50 per cent in 1986. This resulted in an increase in the current budget deficit from less than 1 per cent of GNP in 1970 to 8.5 per cent in 1986. The decisive action taken in the budget will reduce this budget deficit to an estimated 6.9 per cent of GNP this year. This action was essential to ensure the firm financial base which is a prerequisite for ourProgramme for National Recovery.

The Exchequer borrowing requirement will be reduced from 13 per cent of GNP in 1986 to 10.7 per cent this year. Our approach is the only way when one considers that our national debt now stands at £25 billion and costs the State nearly £2 billion annually to service.

The main purpose of the Government's strategy is to achieve growth in the economy and provide employment. The fiscal measures taken in the budget to bring spending under control are inter-linked with development measures which will lead to faster economic growth. There are already very definite positive signs of a response in the economy. Exchequer borrowing is being reduced. There are signs of increasing business confidence which will lead to a pick-up in investment. Inflation has slowed to around 3 per cent and interest rates have responded to the measures taken in the budget. In addition, further improvements are expected in the level of our exports.

I am glad to say that there is now a general level of awareness of what needs to be done. We have set the scene for recovery and we are now vigorously implementing ourProgramme for National Recovery which will benefit the whole community.

On the 3 per cent general increase, the major provision in the budget was for a 3 per cent increase in all weekly payments from July, at a cost of some £30 million this year. In the present financial climate the scope for increases in expenditure is very limited. Deputies will remember that the Coalition were not prepared to give a general increase until November with consequent hardship for the lower income groups.

Our 3 per cent increase will maintain the real level of payments of over 700,000 social welfare recipients as it is in line with the expected rate of inflation in the year ahead. It also maintains the significant increase in the level of payments which has been achieved over the last ten years. Over that period there has been an increase of over 44 per cent in real terms in payments to the long term unemployed. Other long term payments have increased by over 50 per cent and short term payments by about 34 per cent. All these are real increases and I might add that it was the increases given by previous Fianna Fáil administrations which contributed most significantly to the general level of real increase which has been achieved over the last decade. It is my intention that adjustments in the social welfare area in the coming period will provide greater scope for improving the position of those on the lowest levels of payment.

The second main improvement which I am making is in the family income supplement scheme, at a cost of some £1.5 million. This scheme provides cash support for workers with families who have low incomes and who are only marginally better off working than if they were claiming social welfare benefits. I am concerned to ensure that workers who are married with children and for whom the extra income from employment over and above social welfare payments is marginal, have every incentive to take up work by availing of the benefits under this scheme. Having such workers productively employed is beneficial for the workers themselves, their families and for the country as a whole.

In ourProgramme for National Recovery we expressed our commitment to this scheme. I will be closely reviewing its operation, particularly with regard to the poor take-up on the scheme. Only some 5,600 families availed of the FIS during last year despite the extensive advertising. To encourage wider use of this supplement I have substantially increased the amount payable from mid-July.

The rate of supplement is being raised from a third to 50 per cent and there are also increases in the prescribed income limits for qualifying for FIS. As an example of the effect of the improvements which I am introducing, a married man with five children on a weekly gross income of £135 and a take-home pay of about £114 will be entitled to £28.50 per week as a supplement from mid-July as compared with £15 at present. This is clearly a major benefit to workers on low income who have a family to provide for.

Another major improvement in the social welfare system which I am bringing into operation from October next is the extension of the treatment benefits scheme to dependent spouses of insured persons. Under this scheme insured persons qualify for dental treatment, optical treatment and the provision of hearing aids. The scheme is of tremendous practical benefit to insured people and provides a very visible return for the contributions which they pay. I believe that the benefits of the scheme should also be available to dependent spouses, particularly women in the home and I am delighted to have been able to make provision for it this year. I regard this step as a major and historic breakthrough especially for women in the home. About 300,000 dependent spouses will be eligible for treatment as a result of the extension at a cost of £1.5 million to the social insurance fund this year. Those who will benefit will include not only the dependent spouses of people who are actually at work but also the dependent spouses of unemployed people who were in insurance and of pensioners. The wives of the unemployed and of contributory old age, retirement and invalidity pensioners will all become eligible for dental and other treatment benefits.

This is a very positive move by the Government and there is widespread support for it in the Oireachtas and in the community in general. There have been consistent requests for this extension from many groups, particularly those representing women who are working in the home. Many thousands of these women have suffered too long because they have been deprived of access to State-funded services in the past, especially dental services.

The implementation of the extension of benefit to spouses will involve the revision of the formal agreements under which dentists and opticians contract to provide these services to eligible persons. New agreements, providing for the extended eligibility, are being prepared at present and will be sent shortly for signature to the dentists and opticians on the Department's panels. Other dentists and opticians who are not on the Department's present panels may, of course, also apply to enter these agreements and thereby become members of the relevant panels.

This year's budget provided for significant improvements in the social welfare area — when viewed against the current economic climate. Our record in this regard is consistent with the priority Fianna Fáil have given down through the years in good times and bad to safeguarding and whenever possible improving the position of the poorer sections of the community.

As well as improving the level and quality of our services it is very important that we try to ensure that people who are forced to have recourse to the social welfare system are not locked into a situation of permanent dependence on social welfare payments. People must be able to look with confidence to the future. The new Jobsearch scheme is a major initiative designed to help people who have become long term dependent on unemployment payments.

Up to now the attitude adopted by the State towards the unemployed was, generally speaking, a paternalistic and passive one. It ensured that they had a certain basic income and it provided guidance and training services through the National Manpower Service and AnCO. It was left largely to the initiative of the unemployed themselves to seek employment and to avail of the various facilities provided by the State. These agencies are now giving a priority to the long term unemployed to enhance their capacities and prospects in an increasingly competitive jobs market.

The concept behind the new national Jobsearch programme is that the resources in the State agencies dealing with the unemployed — my Department, the National Manpower Service and AnCO — should be used directly and actively, rather than passively, to help those out of work, especially those unemployed for some time, in their search for jobs. This is the first time that the various agencies involved have come together in this way to help those who need them most. The aim is that by the end of December next 150,000 of those on the live register, especially the long term unemployed will have been referred by my Department for interview by the National Manpower Service. This interview will help each one to assess his or her qualities as a potential employee and assist in the search for work.

To cater for those for whom it is not possible to find employment immediately, the programme provides that 40,000 manpower scheme opportunities will be made available for those interviewed together with 12,000 places on the new Jobsearch courses. The Jobsearch course involves a four week programme of practical instruction on how to look for a job backed up by career advice, interview skills and assistance in self-presentation. There is free access to newspapers, telephones, typing and photocopying facilities, postage and travel allowance.

This course was introduced on a pilot basis in three centres — Letterkenny, Tallaght and Limerick. A survey of those who participated showed that they regarded the courses as helpful. Over 80 per cent believed that they were worthwhile while 76 per cent stated that they got greater confidence in looking for a job. These pilot schemes provided a basis for the design of the new scheme with 12,000 places now being made available as part of a national programme.

The programme is fully operational and 26,000 people had been interviewed up to 5 June. Almost 7,000 of these have been referred to job vacancies or to placements in social employment schemes or training programmes. A further 1,538 have entered Jobsearch courses. Over 3,000 have been referred back to social welfare for review and decision on their entitlements.

The purpose of the Jobsearch programme is to be of positive and practical benefit to unemployed people. I accept, however, that there are some persons who are not genuinely available for work or genuinely seeking work and yet they continue to draw their unemployment payments each week. Such persons will, of course, come to my Department's attention through refusing to attend the Jobsearch interview or to accept a job or a place on a Jobsearch course, or a manpower programme. Those who put themselves in that position will have their claims reviewed by a statutorily appointed deciding officer who will examine each case in the light of the individual circumstances.

I must emphasise that this is the normal practice followed by my Department in all cases of that nature. There is no way in which anyone can deprive a person of what he or she is statutorily entitled to under the Social Welfare Acts. Where the deciding officer is satisfied that the statutory conditions as regards availability and "genuinely seeking work" are not being fulfilled, unemployment payments will be withdrawn. However, as in the case of all deciding officer decisions, the normal right of appeal is available to the claimant. I want to stress that Jobsearch is a positive help to those who are genuinely unemployed and seeking work. They have a lot to gain and nothing to fear from it.

As well as making whatever improvements are possible in the quality of the services I am also very conscious of the need to examine closely the way in which the services are actually delivered to people. This is important for a number of reasons. First it is essential that the services my Department provide should be available to people in the simplest and most accessible manner possible. People should be able to feel that the service is there for them and not the other way around. Secondly, from the viewpoint of efficiency it is very important that the social welfare system should operate in a streamlined way and that any inefficiency in the way services are delivered should be identified and put right.

The way ahead as I see it is to provide as much as possible of the services on a local basis in a comprehensive and integrated way. I will shortly present my plan for the streamlining and regionalisation of the social welfare services.

Deputies will be aware that many of the services of my Department are already provided locally to a considerable extent. There is a countrywide network of 130 local offices whose main function has been to administer the schemes of unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance. Means testing for the non-contributory payments is carried out by Social Welfare officers who are located at a total of 93 centres around the country. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is also means-tested, is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards through an extensive network of offices throughout the health board regions.

While there is a good network of offices throughout the country the problem facing people seeking social welfare benefits is the number of different centres they may have to deal with. Take, for example, a person who is claiming unemployment assistance. He or she makes a claim at the local employment exchange which must be referred to the local social welfare officer to carry out a means test in the applicant's home. This can take a number of weeks. In the meantime, the applicant may be referred to the local community welfare officer of the health board with a view to payment of supplementary welfare allowance while waiting for the unemployment assistance claim to come through. The community welfare officer generally carries out an on-the-spot means test and payment is made immediately. I see a clear need to rationalise this situation where the client is in effect subjected to two different means tests in order to secure unemployment assistance.

Discussions have already begun between officials of my Department, the Department of Health and the health boards with a view to rationalising this whole area. The means tests will be examined in detail with a view to ensuring consistency in their application so that all groups are treated equally. This examination will also identify the scope that exists for simplifying the criteria and the procedures in use. This would make for ease of administration and at the same time make the application of the means tests more easily understandable to claimants. It would in turn reduce the relatively high number of queries and appeals against decisions on means. These discussions will, in particular, cover the ways in which the duplication in means testing carried out by officials of my Department and the health boards can be progressively reduced.

In a number of centres the local employment exchange manager, the social welfare officer and the health board official now work closely together and they have reduced the time taken to process unemployment assistance claims from several weeks to a few days. This has dramatically reduced the "interim payment" role of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme operated by the health boards in these areas. Another advantage of this local co-operation is that it provides better control across the various schemes in dealing with fraudulent claims. I propose to extend this arrangement to other offices around the country as soon as the necessary accommodation and computer facilities become available.

I am also conscious of the need to provide as much information as possible in relation to the services through a nationwide network of information offices based at employment exchanges. I will be anxious to extend the computerised inquiry service which is already in operation. My intention is to increase the number of points throughout the country at which individuals can receive comprehensive information about their claims and entitlements generally, including claims for persons and disability benefit which are processed centrally in Dublin.

Developments in computerisation provide us with opportunities to improve the delivery of services. Computerisation of the employment exchanges is a priority area. We are also developing computer links to provide closer working arrangements with community welfare officers of the health boards who are often the first point of contact with claimants. Ready computer access to up to the minute data on social welfare claims enables the community welfare officer to take the appropriate action. Access has already been provided to the South Eastern Health Board and to some community welfare officers in five other health boards. It is my intention that access will be available to all eight health boards before the end of the year. The level of computerisation and of the development of telecommunication networks within the health boards themselves are key factors here.

It is my intention to develop an integrated approach to the delivery of social welfare services generally through the introduction of "One-stop-shops".

I must interrupt to advise the Deputy that of the time allotted to him five minutes now remain.

I thought I had two minutes beyond that.

I will grant the Minister that.

What I have in mind is that, in addition to the normal employment exchange services, clients would have access to current information on social welfare claims, general information on the full range of schemes and services provided by my Department, onthe-spot means assessments for unemployment assistance together with current information on job opportunities, placements and on the courses which are available through the National Manpower Service. My objective is that, operating as a co-ordinated team, the various personnel involved would meet the needs of the client quickly and in a more co-ordinated manner at the one location. A localised disability service where medical certificates could be keyed in locally has also been under consideration and I have made arrangements to introduce this on a pilot basis in Cork later this year.

The ideal arrangement for the delivery of services at local level is to have under the one roof the employment exchange service including an information officer, the social welfare officer, the community welfare officer and the placement officer of the National Manpower Service. This could be done fairly easily in areas such as Athlone, Dún Laoghaire and Newcastle West where all services with the exception of the community welfare officer are housed in the employment exchange. We have identified some fourteen other towns where "one-stop-shops" could be introduced on a progressive basis. These are: Ballina, Dundalk, Galway, Letterkenny, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, Carlow, Thurles, Sligo, Mullingar, Longford, Cavan and Drogheda.

The introduction of a more co-ordinated service in the Dublin area presents particular difficulties because of the severe accommodation problems affecting almost all Dublin offices, the much larger numbers attending the offices, the widespread dispersal of community welfare officers around the city and the fact that the majority of clients have to travel to the city centre to avail of the services. However, I am introducing pilot schemes in a number of Dublin locations to provide the public with a much more integrated and speedy local response to their social welfare needs.

I have already spoken of the need to ensure that all expenditure is efficiently used. I am particularly concerned that advantage is being taken of these schemes by certain husbands who are in a position to support and maintain their families, or at least to contribute to their support and maintenance. Once the benefit or allowance is awarded these husbands leave it entirely to the State — in other words to the ordinary taxpayers — to fully assume responsibility for the maintenance of their families.

My Department do not have the power to pursue such husbands with a view to ensuring that they meet their lawful obligations. Under the legislation as it stands it remains the responsibility of the wife after the payment has been awarded to seek maintenance from her husband. In practice wives have not been very successful in obtaining such maintenance. My Department have experienced great difficulty in getting wives to make greater efforts in this regard because of the effects this would have on the wife and her family who very often have more than enough to cope with living from day to day without a husband and father. Our examination of the current situation has revealed that some deserting husbands have taken advantage of this situation to evade their responsibilities.

Discussions have been taking place between officials of my Department and the Department of Justice with a view to bringing forward proposals for legislative changes which will give my Department the necessary powers to directly pursue the deserting husbands through the courts, if necessary, to ensure that they make an adequate contribution to the maintenance of their families. Care will be taken to ensure that any legislative change introduced will not in any way impinge on the rights which the wife would have to pursue the husband for maintenance. I hope to bring forward legislation in this complex area later this year.

I failed to have regard to the time taken up in dealing with the last measure. The Minister has four minutes left.

In April last I launched the first report of the National Pensions Board on the regulation of occupational pension schemes. The board in their report made wide-ranging proposals for regulating pension schemes in the area of funding and financial security of pension schemes. There are 520,000 persons or 61 per cent of employees covered by occupational pension schemes. I am planning to bring in legislation in this area in the autumn and I have asked the various bodies involved to give their views to me by mid June, which is a fairly short time, but since there has been widespread discussion on this beforehand that should not be too difficult, and we should be able to bring legislation before the Government in the autumn.

I would like to say a few words about the Combat Poverty Agency. As Deputies will be aware, on Monday last I launched the agency's strategic plan which sets out a programme of work for the agency for the three years to the end of 1989. I welcome the emphasis the agency are giving to community development as a means of combating poverty. This is something I have always believed in and I think that the agency can play a very important part in fostering and supporting the work of groups and organisations working in local areas throughout the country. The agency are already deeply involved in this area through their involvement with the nine EC projects. In relation to the other aspects of their operations the agency are only getting into a position to begin to work. I am particularly interested in the role of the agency in relation to research and in particular in the production of well thought out, practical and realistic proposals for action based on sound and authoritative research findings. The agency will be undertaking or commissioning research in a number of important areas in the immediate future and I am glad to be in a position to announce that I am sanctioning the appointment of a head of research to be responsible for the research functions of the agency. I am appointing also a research assistant.

I have dealt at length in my speech with my aim to ensure that social welfare services are delivered as efficiently as possible. However, I would like to assure the House that efficiency in the delivery of services will not be at the expense of claimants who must receive their legitimate entitlement under the Social Welfare Acts. One aspect we have to bear in mind is the question of the appeals system and I am undertaking work at the moment to bring new proposals on the appeal system before the House in the near future. Certainly I will bring my proposals to the Government at a fairly early stage.

My Department are the largest spending Department in the State and cater for a vast number of clients. I have outlined some of the main areas but in the short time available it is not possible to cover all of the issues that arise. I am revising the free fuel schemes with a view to rationalising the present system and removing anomalies. I am also reviewing the disability benefit scheme and in particular the question of transferring part of the responsibility for the sickness benefit payments to employers. These matters along with many others are under active consideration. I look forward to the contributions from Deputies to this debate and commend the Estimate to the House.

I commend the Minister for a very readable speech — readable but ungenerous. The civil servants who wrote it for him deserve to be commended, for they did not write into it the ungenerous political egocentricity which claims all the credit for Fianna Fáil of any good that was ever done in the social welfare area. It gives no credit where credit is due to the Minister's predecessors. That is something the Minister will learn about and which it will do him no harm to recognise. He finished his speech by referring to the national Combat Poverty Agency and before that the National Pensions Board, two very important agencies. He did not say that they were not set up by him. He did not give credit for the fact that they were set up by his Coalition predecessor. He talked about the Jobsearch programme, pilot schemes in Letterkenny, etc. He did not say that they had been initiated by his predecessor. He said that most of the growth in real terms in social welfare payments during the past few years was to the credit of Fianna Fáil. That is not true. There has been on the part of every Government in the past ten years a very strong commitment to social welfare which has resulted in very major increases in social welfare payments, as the Minister indicated in his speech.

Having said those few words of criticism I want to get on to a more even, generous and co-operative tack. The way the statistics are set out in the Minister's speech is helpful and readable and I congratulate him and his officials for presenting them in that way. I am dissatisfied that we in this House late on Thursday evening for two and a half hours will look in a fleeting way at the Estimate of the biggest spending Department in the State and we will approve it on the nod. I am very concerned about this procedure. It is just not good enough that I as the major Opposition spokesman am allowed 20 minutes to comment on expenditure of £2.6 billion of which £1.6 billion is provided by the taxpayer. It raises the question as to whether the procedures we follow in this House — or fail to follow — have contributed significantly to the growth in public expenditure and in the budget deficit which is such an affliction now and will be for some years to come.

I ask the Minister to consider, as I will, whether we should be proposing to our parliamentary colleagues different ways of vetting such an important and extensive Estimate. I said in the debate on the Social Welfare Bill not so long ago that the Department of Social Welfare should be the Combat Poverty Agency. Some people may not agree with me on that. Some people think it is right that the Department of Social Welfare should be a money dispensing machine to all and sundry, which is what they are. Certainly the impression one gets is that they do not see a combat poverty agency as their prime, principal and overwhelming role, but their role is to dispense money to some who need and some who do not need. The Minister illustrates the point about the social insurance fund, a huge percentage of which is paid by the general taxpayer and not by contribution. Therefore, the Minister comes in here and claims credit — he is entitled to a certain amount of credit — for bringing forward the 3 per cent increase in social welfare payments from November to July. In that he is following the example and pattern of the last decade where on almost every occasion, with minor exceptions, Ministers for Social Welfare have come in here with across the board increases for all people entitled to one social welfare payment or another. It is administratively convenient to have one across the board increase, I understand the administrative difficulties in doing anything else. There were times when there was very little between long and short term benefits, a half per cent here or there. The Minister is giving the same 3 per cent to those living on £36 a week unemployment assistance — as I said in the debate on the Social Welfare Bill, people who are in dire poverty — as to a person drawing three and four pensions. I can give plenty of illustrations of that type of person. It is not fair, it is not just. Administrative convenience predominates over a burning concern for the poor and for the relief of poverty which should flow daily from the Department of Social Welfare. None of that came across in the course of the Minister's remarks.

There is no mention of the fact that the Minister has dropped what was in the Fine Gael budget, the special £3.50 living alone allowance for those on unemployment assistance aged over 45, the poorest of the poor. When I raised this question in the course of the debate on the Social Welfare Bill the Minister dismissed it because, he said, it was conceded for political purposes to former Deputy Joe Bermingham. Certainly the then Deputy Joe Bermingham highlighted this matter but he was no longer a Member of this House. It was known he would not be a Member of this House even when the general election was called.

And since he is no longer a Member of this House it might be better not to refer to him at all.

It is well known that former Deputy Joe Bermingham raised this issue and it is to his credit that he did. I raise these matters to emphasise the Minister's central challenge, that is the need for greater selectivity in his Department. As he and I have said, his Department is the biggest spending Department in the State. It is self-evident that spending of that level, given the constraints on the Exchequer, cannot continue and it is also self-evident that we must do more for the poor notwithstanding those constraints on the Exchequer. Therefore, it follows there must be greater selectivity. That means extra and sometimes difficult administrative procedures but they must be undertaken. Undoubtedly such will be facilitated by the continued computerisation of the Department and its agencies. The quicker a comprehensive network of computers is in place the better so that there can be greater selectivity in targeting the truly poor and needy for even greater help than they receive now and for ceasing to pay across the board increases to those who do not need them.

I will not be popular with my wife for mentioning one matter which I regard as scandalous, that is children's allowances. We, a country in such dire financial straits, pay out children's allowances to what the late Deputy George Colley once described as well-heeled, articulate ladies, who drive to their local post offices every three or six months to collect their children's allowance to put into their bank accounts. I know the arguments in favour of paying all mothers children's allowance. I know well that most mothers view this as a very precious allowance, especially the majority who have no independent income. On the other hand we must think of the greater good, the greater need. It does not make sense. Certainly it is not socially just for us to pay social welfare each month to those who do not need it while simultaneously allowing those in dire poverty to go on needing in desperation. That is no exaggeration. In my constituency — and I am sure in the vast bulk of constituencies — there are many people eking out a living on £35 or £36 a week.

The inevitable constraints which will be imposed on social welfare spending, just as on all other spending in the State, require that there be greater selectivity. It should be remembered that much of the contributory part of the fund, in fact 11 per cent, emanates from employers. At a time when we have the highest ever unemployment figures, over 250,000, we continue to tax employment at 11 per cent. That is not the only tax we impose on employment. It really does not make sense, when we should be taking any and every step to make it easier and less costly to employ people. It is one of the contributory factors leading to the black economy; it pushes employers into the black economy, to employ people nett of PRSI and tax while the same people draw the dole. It adds to the bills, to evasion, to the theft and robbery going on and it subtracts from the amount of money available for those genuinely in need.

Unfortunately we are restricted in time this afternoon and therefore, I cannot develop in the detail I would like my views on many aspects of the Department's operations. I spoke on the Social Welfare Bill about means testing. I described the different sorts of hoops through which the poor have to jump to get their rights, often subjected to as many as six, seven or eight means tests in a matter of weeks. The Minister described one or two in his remarks today. I welcome what he had to say about the current examination of the whole means test area being undertaken by him in conjunction with his colleague, the Minister for Health, and the health boards. I subsequently tabled a question to the Taoiseach on this matter, asking if he would designate one Minister responsible for means testing, having one means test in respect of eligibility for all benefits. The Taoiseach referred the question to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Finance requested me to table the question in another month. This I have done and it is due for answer in a week or two. I raise the matter here today because I welcome the movement evident from what the Minister has said.

He does not, for instance, mention the Department of the Environment. One area in which people are subjected to a means test is in respect of differential rents. When a person becomes unemployed he must await notification from the Department of Social Welfare saying whether he is eligible for unemployment benefit or assistance. He is subjected to a means test in the case of unemployment assistance. He then goes to the community welfare officer in his local health centre when there is a means test conducted on the spot; sometimes it takes a couple of weeks to determine eligibility or otherwise if the relevant community welfare officer is unsure. If the person applies for a differential rent reduction he is subjected to another means test by Dublin Corporation or the relevant local authority and is given another set of forms to complete. If, say, he applies for free fuel or any other assistance, he will then be subjected to further means tests which means he can be subjected to as many as seven different means tests within a short period.

Apart from the run-around which this means for those on social welfare and apart from the indignity which it implies it also must mean that a huge amount of bureaucratic time will be taken up in the health boards, in the Department of Health, in the Department of Social Welfare, in the local authorities, perhaps in the Department of the Environment and God knows where else. I ask the Minister to consider extending his consultations beyond the Department of Health and the health boards and to at least include the Department of the Environment and the local authorities. I see no reason why there cannot be one means test certificate issued by some agency, perhaps the health board, which should be sufficient for the corporation or the county council and which would hold good for a certain period of time.

There is one other area which I want to address in the short time available to me and that is a dilemma which I frequently encounter in my constituency and which affects the unmarried mother's allowance and the deserted wife's benefit or allowance. Very frequently we come across cases where young girls who have had a child or children would like to marry but marriage will mean for them losing their benefit or their allowance. Similarly, there are deserted wives who would like to make up with their husbands or sometimes, less happily, meet up with another man and start again but if they are found out it means they will lose their entitlement. There is a big inhibition on them to make their lives happier. The alternative is not to marry in the case of an unmarried mother who wishes to do so or not to make up with her husband in the case of a deserted wife who wishes to do so. It is either that or forego their entitlements or, alternatively, to defraud the system. I have not got a solution to the problem but it is a problem and a bigger one than we might like to pretend. These are areas of sensitivity and people who raise these matters can sometimes be liable to misrepresentation as having a lack of social concern whereas very frequently — it is certainly true in my case — it comes from a burning concern to do what is socially just and right not only for the individuals concerned but for the country as a whole.

I wish the Minister every success in many of the things he is setting out to do, as expressed in his speech. I hope he will take heed of the criticism which I have made and I also hope he will take encouragement from the fact that I broadly support the efforts which he said he is making. I wish him every success in those endeavours.

I agree with Deputy Mitchell that it is difficult for Members of this House to express their views on the whole structure of social welfare within 20 minutes and therefore I will confine my comments to a few points which I hope the Minister will answer and give a commitment to in his reply. When the Dáil goes into recess Governments seem to avail of opportunities to make certain decisions knowing they are not answerable to the Dáil at the time and thus depriving Members of this House of expressing their views and reservations on some very important matters.

I would like to know if it is the Minister's intention to extend the national free fuel scheme from 1 October next. Will the people who are at present in receipt of this service be guaranteed its continuation from October? Any move to withdraw this service would be directed mainly at the most poverty-stricken people in our community and therefore I hope the Minister will give me some assurance on that matter.

I would also like to ask the Minister if he intends to continue the £20 per week transitional payment arising from the EC equality directive after November next when the transitional period ends. If not, what action does he intend to take to cushion those people against the impact of a loss of £20 per week income? In a reply to a question which I put down in the Dáil on 6 May last in connection with this matter the Minister informed me that temporary measures introduced in November 1986 to assist persons who suffer reductions in payment as a consequence of the dependency arrangements brought into force at that time are due to expire in mid-November 1987. No provision was made in the 1987 Estimate for the continuation beyond that time. The Minister said he was reviewing the operation of the present arrangement and would advise the Government on this review and that the question of extending these arrangements would be a matter of consideration in that context. We should have some information now as to the Minister's views on what action he intends taking before next November. We all recall the confusion in this House last year on that topic. In fairness to everybody concerned and to relieve or remove any anxiety which people may have, the Minister should now make some statement on that matter.

I would like to comment briefly on the Combat Poverty Agency which recently announced details of a three year strategic plan aimed at combating poverty and promoting community development throughout Ireland. I understand this strategic plan applied to the period up to the end of 1989. I hope a copy of the agency's submission to the Minister will be available to all Deputies in the House so that we too can play our part in ensuring the implementation of the plan. I agree totally with the statement of the agency's director, Hugh Frazer, published in the CorkEvening Echo on Monday, 8 June in which he stated:

The elimination of poverty in Ireland is an urgent task and must be the concern of everyone in society. In spite of our current economic difficulties, Ireland remains a relatively wealthy country and the challenge for all of us is to ensure that the wealth is shared fairly throughout society.

There is something worthwhile in that statement and it should be followed up by the Minister, by the officials of his Department and by everybody concerned with the less fortunate in our community.

I compliment the Minister on his announcement that disability benefit to those in the Cork regional area will be administered locally from next September putting an end to the long delays experienced by many people in getting their cheques. This should be the practice throughout the whole country and I have been advocating this for quite some time. What I fail to understand is why all benefits, non-contributory, old age, windows, and unemployment assistance, cannot be administered locally. This is a very sensitive area. The delay in payments has caused hardship to people awaiting decisions. I cannot understand why this applies to disability benefit only, as stated by the Minister in Cork recently. The Minister should have all non-contributory pensions administered locally.

I am concerned about some employers delaying payments of PRSI contributions. I know this is a matter for the Revenue Commissioners, but it is important that inspectors from the Department are fully aware of this abuse and that a co-ordinated effort by the inspectors and the Revenue Commissioners be made to eliminate it. Many people are paying contributions but the employers are not submitting them to the Revenue Commissioners. I hope the Minister, as he promised some time ago, will take the necessary action to bring this practice to an end.

Any effort to change the present social welfare structures which are outdated and riddled with anomalies is to be welcomed. I believe this Minister should address himself to bringing about a very great improvement in the administration of the social welfare services. There is an urgent need to overhaul our existing social welfare system because it is too complex and unwieldy. We have too many schemes and too many regulations governing those schemes. We have 19 social welfare payments and 12 social assistance payments. I often wonder how the officials can administer such a variety of services.

A possible approach to creating employment could be early retirement. I am sure the Minister is aware of my views on this. No worker will consider early retirement without some very worthwhile incentives being provided. The Minister should examine the prospect of introducing special national insurance for early retirement. I am asking the Minister to help those who might like to retire by giving them an incentive and providing worthwhile compensation so that such people can keep themselves and their families. If we are to tackle our unemployment problem, we will have to look at early retirement. I know the Minister is studying the pensions report at present but it will take some time to adopt my suggestion because of the many implications in the introduction of national insurance. Providing an early retirement pension with the co-operation of the insurance companies would be a very worthwhile exercise.

I want to discuss Jobsearch. Like every other Deputy I welcome the introduction of any scheme which will create employment but I am afraid this scheme is being administered the wrong way. If a person goes to a labour exchange, especially a married man with a young family, he is told that because he did not look for a job within the last few weeks his benefits are cut, without notice. This is wrong. This is inflicting unnecessary hardship on a number of people. Everybody is entitled to notice but what are we doing? We are degrading such a person. He must then go to the social community welfare officer and plead with him to do something for him and his family. What gains have the Government envisaged here? One section stops the money and another section is compelled to give him money, otherwise we would be inflicting unnecessary hardship on a married man and his family.

I ask the Minister to look at the procedures being adopted. I suggest that when a person goes to collect his social welfare benefit he might produce, weekly, fortnightly or monthly, evidence that he has tried to find employment. It is wrong to tell a man when he goes to collect his unemployment benefit that from then on his benefits are cut. I ask the Minister to give this matter his urgent attention and to give a direction to those administering this scheme.

A streamlining of the social welfare service is long overdue. I have stood here and contributed to many debates on social welfare and on the Estimates in an effort to impress on Ministers the necessity to look at the social welfare structure. As I said at the outset, it is riddled with anomalies. It is confusing and there is no point in directives being issued to the local labour exchanges and to the public, because nobody understands the social welfare service. Many people have been deprived of their rights because they were not fully aware of their entitlements. There is a statutory regulation under which a person is entitled to an old age pension but because an old age pensioner was not aware of her entitlements, she is fortunate if she gets three months payments, when she was entitled to payments for two years. If we continue to complicate the social welfare system, this is what we can expect. Nobody will understand it.

Public representatives meet people at their clinics who ask if they are entitled to this or that. In every budget something is added and something else is deleted. This leads to confusion and the officials in the Department have my sympathy in trying to administer this system efficiently.

I welcome the introduction of dental treatment for dependent spouses. Is the Minister ready to provide that service? Our present dental service is almost nonexistent. No old age pensioner could hope to get dental treatment. There are thousands of children waiting for dental treatment, and now we are putting an added backlog of applicants on this service. I know many private dentists will be involved but I hope the Department are geared to provide this essential service. I compliment the Minister who assured us that this service would be provided next October. It is worthwhile and long overdue.

I would like to have had an opportunity to review all aspects of social welfare but it is not possible because of the time limit on the debate. I appeal to the Minister when he is embarking on any study in connection with social welfare to keep the spokespersons from the other political parties informed. Social welfare is the concern of all and none of us has a right to boast about what we may achieve. We should be concerned about the welfare of people and ensure that those entitled to benefits get them on time.

We all oppose abuse of the social welfare system because it deprives those in need of a fair income. I appreciate the Minister's dedication to improving the system. I appeal to him to outline his views on my suggestion for the introduction of an early retirement scheme. I have no doubt that the officials in his Department have the ability to prepare a comprehensive scheme. In my view it would present a tremendous opportunity to create jobs for young people.

I welcome a number of matters outlined by the Minister in his speech. The Labour Party are pleased to note that the free dental service has been extended to the spouse of insured persons, something that is long overdue. However, I am disappointed that Members have not been given any information on how the scheme will operate. I understand it is intended to commence the scheme in October but those involved in the dental service have grave doubts that it will be possible to adhere to that deadline. They do not think there will be sufficient staff to provide an efficient service. In my view virtually all married women whose husbands are insured will seek benefit under it. I hope the Minister will tell the House how the scheme will operate. I can foresee long waiting lists because I cannot see how the service, as at present constructed, will be able to cope.

Little thought has been given to many social welfare schemes. The system is complicated and very few of us have much knowledge of it. The more schemes that are introduced the more complicated the social welfare system will become. Many of the decisions in regard to the system are not properly thought out and insufficient information is given about new schemes in advance of their introduction. Trade union officials and those in industry get little opportunity to express an opinion on them.

While I welcome any move to create employment, I must question the Jobsearch programme. In my view the only successful scheme to emerge was the social employment scheme. However, through lack of planning and manpower in the Department that scheme did not succeed. Many local authorities have financial problems because they must wait to be paid for jobs already completed. That scheme helped those on long term benefit and I was glad to hear the Minister for Labour say he had increased the number of officials administering it. The lack of co-ordination between the Departments of Labour and Social Welfare was very evident in that scheme.

The Jobsearch scheme is taking us down the same road. Looking for jobs in County Louth at the moment is like trying to find hens' teeth. Interviewing people and sending them out in search of a job in a county like Louth is no more than a practical joke. The only thing people are getting out if it is a good laugh at the employment exchange when they are signing on or drawing their money. The officials administering the scheme are more frustrated than those they are interviewing. We must bear in mind that there are 5,000 unemployed in Dundalk and 4,500 unemployed in Drogheda and I wonder how one can expect to find a job in those towns. I have not seen six jobs advertised in any issue of theDundalk Argus or the Drogheda Independent in the past 12 months and I do not see how an official from Dublin will find jobs in those towns for the people who are unemployed. The scheme is a laugh, a waste of public money.

If we reduced the retirement age from 65 to 60 years we would create employment. We should transfer the payment of unemployment benefit to the payment of a retirement pension for a person who volunteers for early retirement. If we do that we will be giving people who may have worked for 40 years an opportunity to retire and, at the same time, creating a job for young people. Trade unions have been calling for such a scheme for many years but successive Governments have squandered money on schemes like Jobsearch. That is nothing more than a waste of money. The Minister, in the course of his speech, mentioned the figure of 26,000 people in connection with the Jobsearch scheme. Who are these 26,000 people? He said that 3,000 people had been "referred". I assume that means that 3,000 have been referred to deciding officers for reassessment. Very often deciding officers are faceless people who are difficult to identify and they will obviously knock these people off unemployment benefit and assistance. The person concerned may then appeal. He must then get a letter from the unemployment exchange and he has to go to the other end of the town to the Department of Health. He has to wait in another long queue to see a community welfare officer who is grossly overworked trying to cope with various categories of people. He decides by a means test on the spot how much money the person will receive; it could be £20 or £80, there are no criteria laid down in this regard. A community officer on one side of the town with, supposedly, the same set of rules may make an entirely different decision from the one made by his counterpart at the other end. People are utterly frustrated by the system.

Serious consideration should be given to the amalgamation of those two services. I do not see any logic in refusing benefit to a man, allowing him to appeal and then sending him to another Department where he gets benefit eventually. It would not happen in the wilds of Africa. Who thinks up these schemes?

PRSI used to be of great value to those who were made redundant or unemployed for a period of time. The Minister knows it has been cut by 15 per cent and, unfortunately, people do not understand that until they apply for benefits. Then they now have to wait for five weeks to receive payment. It would be much better and would reduce the Minister's headaches if that benefit was eliminated and incorporated in the basic payment. If a person is unemployed for ten weeks, he or she is not paid for the first five weeks. They are paid for the second five weeks which means that not alone has the benefit been reduced by 15 per cent but it is further reduced by 50 per cent because they only receive it for 50 per cent of the period. The net result is that a worker is paying 8.8 per cent in PRSI and is coming out on an average of £2 per week, particularly those in the low income groups.

If I still held the office of a senior trade union official, I would challenge PRSI in the courts because the system has, effectively, become part of the PAYE system. It is barefaced, deliberate robbery of workers because it is another deduction scheme which is easy to collect. The contribution has continued to go up while the benefit has come down. That goes back to the first Social Welfare Bill, 1982: it is robbing people who work hard for their living.

The self-employed are paid £286 million at present in non-contributory pensions. The vast majority of them never paid into the system while workers who pay PRSI receive no benefits in real terms. Some of the self-employed can simply transfer their businesses or farms to their sons, daughters or other relatives and after six months can collect a non-contributory old age pension in full even though they have paid nothing into the system. I cannot understand why that has not been put right. People in those categories should be brought into the system if, by using a loophole in the Act, they can receive old age pensions. However, it is much easier to get at the PAYE workers.

Another obvious change could be made and from an administrative point of view it would reduce expenses. I refer to the area of retirement and old age pensions. The idea of having a retirement benefit at 65 and an old age pension at 66 is ludicrous. The system has been in operation for 20 years and no attempt has been made to change it. When people come to the age of 65 they have to make an application and to go through a whole rigmarole to get a pension. Then, three months before they reach their 66th birthday they have to do the same thing all over again to receive a benefit of a similar nature. All that should be necessary in this case is to pay the old age pension at the age of 65 which would release staff who have to administer this scheme into other areas where they are badly needed.

The same applies to invalidity pensions, disability benefit and disablement benefit. There is no real difference between them as they all cater for people who are ill. Some of the illnesses may be long term while others are short term but there is no basic difference between the three benefits. Yet people have to transfer from disability benefit to disablement benefit to invalidity benefit. After a certain time all payment of social welfare should apply on a continuous basis. It is ludicrous that people have to continue to queue outside doctors' surgeries where little girls hand out their certificates signed by the doctor. Many of them never see a doctor on a continuous basis and some of them have been on disability benefit for up to 15 years. It is a huge waste of money and resources. If people are on benefit for ten or 15 years they are permanently incapable of working. There should be no need to certify people every week as being unfit for work.

There is also gross waste of time and effort in the administration of unemployment assistance on a rural and urban basis. It always amuses me because I cannot understand how there can be a difference between a person living two miles outside Drogheda getting a rural rate and someone living in the town getting the urban rate. I have been trying to figure out for the past 20 years what the difference is between the urban and rural areas. Two pages of the social welfare booklet are taken up with an explanation but I still do not understand it. There should be one rate of benefit for unemployment assistance irrespective of where you live. If anything, the people living in the country should be getting more because they might need a bicycle, car or wheelbarrow allowance. One end of the Department of Social Welfare does not know what the other is doing. It has got so big with so many different sections that there is no co-ordination. We as TDs and local authority members could tell the Minister all about it.

I hope progress will be made in regard to the suggestion about transferring some of the responsibility for payment of disability benefit to employers, particularly short-term benefit. I have seen it in operation in a number of areas. Employers are better geared for this and many people on short term benefit would prefer to go to their employers. If they were on disability benefit they could send their wives or sons to collect the benefit from the employer. That would be much less degrading than having to queue outside unemployment offices. These officers are no longer capable of dealing with the numbers of people they have to cater for: they have not the staff to pay out three, four or five days a week. People have to queue in the streets of Drogheda and Dundalk and other towns because the staff are not able to cope with them. As many as possible of those payments should be transferred to employers, thereby giving relief to the people queueing outside in the rain.

Much work could be done to try to improve and reform the social welfare code. The Commission on Social Welfare made many wide-ranging recommendations but there is no evidence of any real movement towards implementing many of those recommendations.

I will refer briefly to the system of appeals. This is the most outrageous section of all in the Department. One doctor certifies that a person is not incapable of work, but his own doctor locally tells him: "I will not give you your final certificate to go back to work because you are not fit to go back to work". You would not see the likes of it in the wilds of Africa. Then a person goes for the first appeal. One doctor says he is not incapable of work. At the second appeal another doctor says he is not capable of work. Then the person goes to an appeals officer, a layman, who is expected to tell the two doctors that they were wrong in the first place in telling the person that he was not incapable of work. That takes nine months. Everybody knows that the person concerned could apply for unemployment benefit and get paid.

Because the time is short I do not intend to take the full 20 minutes. There are a few matters I should like to refer to, particularly the speech of Deputy Woods this evening. Deputy Mitchell spoke about the Minister taking credit for schemes. As far as I am concerned the Minister has not taken half enough credit in his speech. His speech shows that the Minister is prepared to look at the structures as they are and try to do something to change them. All previous speakers have suggested changes and reforms in the social welfare system and I go along with them.

The Minister deserves credit, in a time of such financial stringency, for securing such a large budget. This is one of the few Departments that have not suffered and that is a credit to the Minister himself. Deputy Mitchell seems to have forgotten some of the things his Government proposed before they left office. The budget has been criticised as being very severe. The major difference between our budget and that prepared by Fine Gael is that it catered for those who are dependent on social welfare. The proposals in the Fine Gael budget would have caused severe hardships if implemented. The previous budget proposed to pay the social welfare increases from November instead of July. Fine Gael's proposal on unemployment benefit was to cut the period to 12 months. We have retained it at 15 months. There is now no increase in the waiting period from three to six days as was proposed in the Fine Gael budget.

The Minister was able to find money for a number of changes that will benefit recipients. I welcome those, particularly in the stringent budgetary situation he was faced with. I welcome the Jobsearch programme which has been subject to comments here and outside. People outside have made attempts to undermine the scheme and have suggested that there are sinister motives in it. It is very unfair that people have taken this attitude. The main thrust of the scheme is to try to help those who are unemployed, to try to give them some confidence to go back looking for work, to face interviews again. We are all aware that the longer a person is unemployed the longer and the more difficult it is for him to go looking for work. It gets more difficult, as the person goes along, actively to seek employment, being so long out of the system. I know from people who are operating the system in places that people who have undertaken the four-week course and other courses have nothing but the height of praise for them because it allows them to get back into the system, to seeking employment actively. Therefore that scheme is very beneficial.

Although I have said that the main thrust of the scheme is to help people to seek employment, one of its side effects will be the identification of people fraudulently seeking unemployment assistance and benefit. I welcome that side effect. For too long successive Governments have shirked responsibility in this matter. I hope this Government will tackle that in a serious and determined way. People working full time and drawing unemployment benefit are committing a crime. First of all they are robbing the hard pressed taxpayer, and worse they are putting their hands into the pockets of the old and the poor and needy. For too long we have cast a benign eye on those robbers. We have encouraged them by our silence and by looking the other way. It has meant that we have been slapping them on the back and congratulating them for fooling the system when they are doing nothing but robbing. The sooner we as a nation recognise that and try to do something about it the better it will be for all of us. It is time that we as legislators took our responsibility seriously and did something about it.

I would refer briefly also to the family income supplement and commend the Minister for his improvement to this scheme. I have no hesitation in acknowledging that the measure was introduced by the last Government; it was one of the best schemes introduced by them. It is to be commended. It has been excellent and is a scheme that should be promoted strongly by the Department. Unfortunately, for one reason or other, the uptake on it seems to be very low. The Minister mentioned that he intended to try to promote this more rigorously and I for one would welcome that. It is a scandal that people would appear to be better off in many cases by being unemployed than by being out working. The family income supplement was introduced to try to assist people and encourage them to go to work.

The Minister's remarks with regard to the rationalising of the whole social welfare scheme are very welcome and very refreshing. All the Deputies who have spoken so far have talked about the need to rationalise, to try to make this huge giant of a system of social welfare more locally based, to provide the services that are more local or on a regional level. The Minister's reference to the one-stop-shop concept and the extension of that scheme is to be welcomed. Other Deputies have made some very valid points in relation to the necessity to have the schemes localised. I am sure the Minister will take that into consideration.

I should like to refer briefly to the Minister's statement in relation to deserted wife's benefit and the pursuit of husbands, through the courts or otherwise. Again, this is something that every Deputy has faced at one time or other, where a husband has been barred from the family home because of violence to the wife or children and the wife then claims, after a period of time, deserted wife's benefit, but the Department tell her that she is not entitled to it because she has not tried to get maintenance from her husband through the courts. When somebody has gone through the trauma of violence to herself and to her children and has succeeded in getting the husband barred from the house, the last thing she wants to do is become involved again with that husband, whether in a court of law or anywhere else. The Minister is moving in the right direction in introducing legislation where the Department would be able to pursue the husband and get some maintenance. The idea put forward by Deputy Mitchell in relation to a national means test certainly looks very attractive. If it could be worked out it could be very good for local authorities, as he said, and indeed for the various Departments. However, I see one problem. This could only be done on a limited basis and probably once per year but circumstances can change very rapidly and that would cause tremendous problems.

A number of other speakers have mentioned the appeals system. As has been said by the previous Deputies, the system is very cumbersome. It is certainly not seen as being independent and my major criticism of it is the difficulty that even we, as public representatives, have in getting some kind of definitive information as to why appeals are dismissed or disallowed. It seems that the only person who can get this information at the moment is the Ombudsman. There must be something wrong with the system. I notice that the Minister intends to try to do something about it. I would point out to the House that in the Ombudsman's report of this year there were 2,788 complaints about the civil service and 1,717 of these were the responsibility of the Department of Social Welfare. That is an inordinately high number of cases dealt with by the Ombudsman. There must be something wrong with the system, as I understand that under the Ombudsman's Act all avenues of appeal have to be finalised before the Ombudsman will take on a case. If there were 1,717 dissatisfied people who took their cases to the Ombudsman, there is something wrong with the system.

One case I would highlight in relation to personal experience is of a lady who had her claim for unemployment benefit disallowed on 3 March 1986 on the grounds of not being available for work. She appealed and the appeal was turned down. When I contacted the Department I was told the reason was because she was not available for work. I rang the Department on a number of occasions to find out on what basis this decision was reached because the lady told me that she was available for work and had said so at the appeal.

I wrote in August looking for a review of the case and again asking how the decision was reached, the reasons for the decision and a justification of it. The following month I got a standard reply that the Department had particular appeals procedures, that an appeals officer's decision was final and that a deciding officer's decision was final. There was again no explanation. No matter what I did by way of writing, including writing to the Minister, all I got was the same standard reply. That is bad enough for me as a public representative — I was a councillor at that time — but you can imagine the frustration, anger and rejection that that person felt. She was genuinely available for work, ready for work and could not get any kind of reason from the Department as to why she was turned down except that she was not available for work.

Hear, hear.

It was mentioned in the course of some of the replies that there was a review procedure if fresh evidence could be given. How can one give fresh evidence when one does not know on what evidence the original decision was based? I have had several experiences like that but I felt because of the circumstances of that case that it was like banging one's head off a stone wall trying to get replies from the Department. I am very pleased to see that the Minister is going to review the appeals system, that it will be independent of the Department and will be seen to be independent of it — and I hope independent of everybody.

I noticed over the past seven or eight years that it was most difficult, in our country anyway, for women to get unemployment benefit, especially if they had children. The usual reason given was that they were not available for work. I wonder if the structures of the appeal section in the Department have anything to do with that? I understand that there are 13 appeals officers working in the appeals section of the Department: one chief appeals officer, one deputy chief appeals officer and 11 ordinary appeals officers. There is one woman only among those. I cannot help but think that a certain amount of the attitudes we as males have may be manifested in the appeals system in the Department of Social Welfare.

I commend the Minister not alone for the Estimate but for the fresh approach he has taken to reform the system. He deserves the support of all sides of this House in his efforts.

Deputy Dempsey's eulogising of that nice man, Deputy Michael Woods, was apparently based on the belief that our thanks are due to the Minister for not cutting the £2.5 billion available in the budget for social welfare. I fear the time when this heartless Government turn their attention to the social welfare payments. They have been callous in introducing horrific and horrendous health cuts. They have been callous also in their dire proposal to charge the new poor — I do not mean medical card holders but the people in poorly paid jobs — who are now living in terror that some day they may have to go to hospital and pay for being sick. When will the axe fall? Will it be in this year's mini-budget which the Government will undoubtedly bring in or will it be next year? It is only a matter of time until that happens. Therefore, Deputy Dempsey's eulogy to the Minister is somewhat premature.

During the past few years I have raised, both in this Chamber and on the Committee of Public Accounts, the thorny problem of social welfare fraud. In doing so I left myself open to the charge of misrepresentation. I have been misrepresented by some of the trendy lefties of the Labour Party. I exclude my friend and county colleague, Deputy Michael Bell, from that assertion. These people have seized on my criticism of the fraud in the system to attack me on a very emotive issue. However, that has not deterred me and I wish to reiterate some of the claims I have made during the past few years.

My criticism about the level of fraud in the social welfare system has been supported by Deputy Dempsey who also expressed concern about this problem. As a Deputy from a Border county I am particularly concerned about the scale of operations of fraudulent signing on by people from the Six Counties who are also working. I can only describe these people as hustlers and bandits who have come over the Border in large numbers during the past few years and taken significant sums of money from the backs of the PAYE workers in the South. These unfortunate PAYE workers who are burdened to the floor, are carrying these people on their backs. The time has come for Deputies to face the reality that there is widespread abuse of the social welfare system.

In 1984 a survey was commissioned by the Department of Social Welfare into fraud in the Dundalk region. This survey was undertaken by the special investigation unit attached to the Department. They issued a report which categorically asserted that fraud in the region of £250,000 had been perpetrated in the Dundalk area. The unit put much work into that report and identified the people who perpetrated that fraud. These had County Louth addresses as well as addresses in the Six Counties. That survey has been on the shelves of the Department for the past few years. The then Minister, Deputy Desmond, seems to have been unaware that the survey, which had been commissioned by his own Department, was completed. For whatever reason no action was taken until very belatedly when, due to a series of articles in theSunday Independent and the Evening Herald particularly which clearly demonstrated the way in which social welfare fraud was perpetrated, a group of consultants were commissioned to produce a report on the extent of that abuse. That report has not been published yet. My mole suggests that the consultants found abuses of the order I had claimed and which the investigation unit found when they carried out their survey. I look forward to the publication of that report. I hope that instead, of charging poor working people who lie sick in hospital beds for health services, the Government will close the door on these hustlers and bandits whether they are from the Six Counties or from the South. They are to be found in every county.

I am conscious of the need to look after people who are genuinely unemployed or disabled or who have lost their jobs due to redundancies or to the collapse of industries. I know all about that because I come from Dundalk, a town with the highest unemployment in Ireland. The national average for unemployment is 17 to 18 per cent but in Dundalk the figure is approaching 30 per cent. The requirement regarding genuinely seeking work should be relaxed in the Dundalk area. As Deputy Bell said this is an area where unemployment is a fact of life. Charlie Haughey would not be able to find employment there in the morning if he needed it.

Is the Deputy referring to the Taoiseach?

Sorry, the Taoiseach. I would like to refer to the anomalies which are prevalent in the social welfare system. Another anomaly is where a widower is worse off and is treated much more unfairly than a widow. I had a case in 1984 in Dundalk, when a widower with four children came into my clinic and asked me if he could apply for a sex change operation. I asked why and he said that he was £21 worse off than a widow in a similar situation. So much for women's emancipation. They seem to have outstripped the men. I would ask the Minister to address himself to that problem.

Another area that is given undue prominence relates to unmarried mother's allowance. This is the only growth industry in the country. I can understand any girl making one mistake or possibly two, but what about four, five and six mistakes paid for by the hapless PAYE worker? The time has come when payment in that area stops at the second child. People in receipt of unmarried mother's allowance have in many cases more money than deserted wives who are genuinely deserted and living on very little money.

Another problem relates to the national lottery. Up to last week £35 million was spent in the vain pursuit of winning a prize in that ill-conceived lottery. The chance of winning the star prize is in the region of 20,000 to one. As a self-confessed gambler I am gravely concerned about the State embarking on this kind of lottery. Apart from the fact that it encourages gambling which is a frightful disease on a par with our national problem of alcohol consumption, the people who are being attracted to this lottery are the poorest in our country. That is evident every Friday morning in the post offices in Dundalk. I have deep reservations about this form of gambling. A sum of £35 million in five weeks certainly belies the suggestion that we have extreme poverty although one would not find the members of luxury clubs or golf clubs buying lottery tickets. They are bought by the most vulnerable people, the people who have to go on a regular basis to the home assistance officers. The home assistance officers in the North Eastern Health Board region are people to whom I pay tribute. I have constant dealings with them and I find them very humane. I have listened to criticism of the appeals system. It is not unfair. When representations are made and the facts are laid before the deciding officers they use their discretion and they are fair. That is one area where the Department can hold up their heads.

Children's allowances were touched on here today. The payment of children's allowances to many of the upmarket families in this country is ludicrous. Why should the Smurfit family, for instance, be in receipt of children's allowances?

I would like to dissuade the Deputy from mentioning names of persons outside of this House. This is a privileged assembly and outsiders have no redress in regard to derogatory remarks made about them.

In deference to the Chair I withdrew that remark, although I would make it outside of the House if I got the opportunity. There is nothing derogatory in what I said. Well off people should not be paid children's allowances. I include myself in that. A large saving could be made in that area and more money could be paid out to the people who are most in need; to the people who rely on that as their little nest egg. The time has come for all parties to agree on that and to introduce a means test there.

I have reservations about the extent of social welfare fraud. Every Deputy must know of the activities of people who are working and signing on. It is indicative of the ambivalence in this country towards social welfare deceit that the problem has not been tackled in an honest straightforward way. People who put their hands into their neighbour's pocket, the guy who is working down the road, who in many cases extracts large sums of money from his neighbour's pocket should be charged in a court of law and made repay the money. We must introduce some deterrent, otherwise that will continue. My remarks about the social welfare fraud that undoubtedly exists are made because of my concern for the needy. The people who have lost jobs through no fault of their own and who genuinely seek social welfare payments are being robbed by social welfare hustlers. I would exhort the Minister to spare no effort to close down those doors. In doing so he would be helping the real poor the genuine social welfare recipient.

I note that the last number of speakers all came from the north east region. I wonder has it anything to do with the social welfare system up there. Deputy McGahon, Deputy Bell and Deputy Dempsey have spoken. We are here to discuss the Estimate and just looking through the book one notes that nearly all of the headings have been increased this year. When the Minister is concluding, would he let us know what the second heading, Consultancy Services, includes and why has it been increased by 56 per cent? Under the heading, Postal and Telecommunications Services, the figure has been decreased by 1 per cent. I note in the local exchanges in Louth the conclusion of the installation of a very efficient telephone system there recently. It has helped contact with the local exchanges. On numerous occasions I have been unable to get through to the local exchanges but because of this new system and because there are more direct lines into it, we have been able to make more contact with them. I compliment the people who man the exchange offices in Dundalk and Drogheda. They give excellent service and are very courteous and any time the general public, I or other politicians contact them we get a good response.

Other speakers have mentioned the overall level of spending on social welfare which has been increased this year. Not only has it been increased by 3 per cent, but the increase has been brought forward from November to July. Therefore, the people in receipt of social welfare benefits will get that increase slightly earlier than was proposed by Fine Gael. We have heard in the past few years about the extension of dental and optical treatment benefits. This Government have taken upon themselves, as promised, to bring this in and it will be implemented in November. It will be of tremendous benefit. I have canvassed during the past few years and at every door people ask when we are going to bring this in and they had got to the stage where they did not believe that we would do so. Now we are putting our money where our mouth is and I congratulate the Minister on bringing this measure forward.

The family income supplement, judging by the figures which the Minister has provided in the past few days, is not being taken up by the general public, partly, I suppose, because it has not been advertised properly. Perhaps as a result of this debate people will become aware that it was increased substantially in the last budget. I and other Deputies have had representations from many people about it. I am told by soldiers in Dundalk who are earning a reasonable wage that many people living in the same estate receiving social welfare benefits are better off than they are. This supplement will help people such as these soldiers and other low income people. I ask the Minister to publicise the scheme more. He has in the Estimate increased it by 57 per cent, obviously in anticipation of an increased demand.

The Jobsearch scheme was brought in by the previous Government and it has been extended throughout the country. As every Deputy knows, this scheme has been set up in various centres. It has been set up in Dundalk and I would like to inform Deputy Bell that it will be extended to Drogheda in September. I was surprised to hear Deputy Bell complaining about the scheme. It is a genuine attempt to help people to get jobs. If he saw what was being done in Dundalk in the CRV premises and the training the people are getting he might have a different view. Obviously this will have a side effect and Deputy Dempsey referred to it. He stated that perhaps people who are working and claiming dole at the same time will be caught out. Quite rightly, they should be found out. For too long politicians in general and even the public have stated that it is a disgrace, but nothing has been done about it. This is one way of finding these people out. In my town quite a number of people have not turned up for the Jobsearch course and that leads us to ask why they did not turn up. We all have our ideas about it. Most likely if they go on this scheme they will not be available to do the work they should not be doing while claiming the dole.

The Minister said he is introducing one-stop shops. These are a good idea and should be encouraged. The idea is to have the dole office no longer just a place for people to go to for their weekly payment. It will be a place where people will go and, we hope, be provided with a job or some idea of where they can get a job.

Let me advise the Deputy that I am obliged in accordance with the revised Order of Business to call the Minister at 7.20 p.m. to conclude. The Deputy has four minutes left.

The whole idea of the one-stop shop is to get away from what I call a hand-out office where people every week went for a hand-out. The Minister envisages that in the same building people may be diverted over to someone from AnCO or Manpower where something might be found for them.

Deputy McGahon referred to children's allowances and I must agree with what he has said. A number of people who are reasonably well off have asked me why we cannot take away children's allowances from them, that it was a nonsense and they should not be getting them. I must agree with them. I have spoken with the Minister about this and I would like him to make people aware of the difficulties of taking away this allowance.

Deputy Bell referred to doctors' certificates, and again I agree with what he said. This is an abuse. Some suggestion has been made of another scheme whereby people could sign on or whatever rather than having to go to the doctor and get a certificate from the receptionist, as Deputy Bell said. However, his Government were in power for four and a half years and did nothing about it. We have only been in power for so many weeks——

You said the same thing to him.

Perhaps we will try to change that system. Perhaps I misheard Deputy McGahon but I think he referred to people from Northern Ireland who came down to the Border counties as hustlers and bandits. As usual he is on a hobbyhorse. People living in my town, in Deputy Bell's town and every town on the Border find it necessary to cross the Border for one reason or another. The vast majority of them are genuine and decent. Deputy McGahon is not here at the moment, but he was in the House for only about a week and he was complaining about social welfare fraud. Deputy Barry Desmond — who interrupted the Minister incidentally — said that Deputy McGahon had stated in this House and in other places that fraud was going on left, right and centre in the Border constituencies. However, he said Deputy McGahon had produced not one shred of evidence of that either to him or to the Fine Gael Minister for Social Welfare at that time to prove his point and they are still awaiting evidence from him. We all know there is social welfare fraud, but the Government can only do so much to prevent that. Anybody who condones social welfare fraud should not be heard.

I should like to thank Deputies for their wide-ranging contributions. I appreciate the point made by a number of speakers that it is difficult to cover all of the areas involved in the Vote in the short time available. It is difficult for me to cover them in that time also. Consequently, I can only highlight some of my principal plans. Needless to say, I re-echo much of what has been said by Deputies here. I will endeavour to deal with some of the questions raised.

As far as the Combat Poverty Agency is concerned Deputy J. Mitchell said I should not claim any credit for it because I did not set it up. In fact I did set up the agency for the first time four and a half years ago when they were allotted a fairly substantial budget of £2.5 million. We called it then the National Community Development Agency but the incoming Government decided to abolish it and the relevant legislation was set aside. Eventually, after a long interval, the new Combat Poverty Agency came into being last September. They were asked to prepare a plan and strategy for the next three years; that formed part of their brief. They did so and presented it to me in the past week. This agency, of course, will advise the Minister.

Several Deputies contended that the Department should be the agency to tackle poverty. I can assure the House I share that view. I believe this House should be the agency to tackle poverty and I will listen very carefully to what Deputies have to say in that regard. I believe the direction in which the agency are proceeding is the correct one, has been well considered and will result in a worthwhile contribution. They are planning to engage in some research which will be helpful to me, as Minister, and to Members of the House. I hope the results of such research will provide the criteria for the steps that need to be taken. Sometimes we are a little afraid of taking such steps because we may not be sure of the factual position as it is such a complex area.

Deputy J. Mitchell thought there should be greater selectivity in the allocation of resources. I agree with him there. We will do whatever we can to identify and help those in greatest need. I made reference to this recently in a speech. Deputy Mitchell recognised that such remarks can be taken up wrongly. The report which appeared in the papers and in respect of which I see there is a letter again this evening was about no more money for the needy, which, of course, was not what I said. I was saying we had £2.5 million, a lot of money, and we must ensure that it was directed at those in greatest need. Some sub-editor decided to put the caption on that "No more money for the needy". If one reads theEvening Herald this evening and probably for some time to come one will see many letters responding to that report which is entirely off the mark. In fact, I was endeavouring to say what Deputy Mitchell was endeavouring to say here — and about which I am sure all Deputies would be concerned — that we do not have unlimited resources.

Deputy J. Mitchell also mentioned children's allowance and spoke about well-off people receiving such allowances. Several other Deputies, including Deputies Ahern and McGahon, mentioned the children's allowance scheme and the problems inherent in its proper administration. First and foremost, I should say that people with high incomes do not have to apply for children's allowance; possibly some do not. It should be remembered that the number in that high category is very small. I would advise Deputies to be careful about that concept because there are some people who are very glad to climb on that band wagon. Invariably one finds that those who are supposed to be wealthy are those in the middle bracket because there will be not much revenue yield unless one digs deeper than the very small band on top. There is the problem that if children's allowances are taxed then all the people who do not pay tax are laughing again because they reap the benefit but are not liable to PRSI contributions or tax. Therefore, that must be borne in mind. Any time one endeavours to adjust children's allowances one finds it is the people in the middle bracket, who are paying a high rate of income tax and PRSI contributions, who end up being caught. I will be very careful to ensure that does not happen but I will take note of Deputies' comments.

Several Deputies, including Deputy Wyse, talked about the Combat Poverty Agency. Deputy Wyse may be glad to know that even before he finished speaking I had sent a message to the Combat Poverty Agency asking them to let us have copies here tomorrow of their strategic plan. I trust they will arrive in good time. I also took note of what the Deputy said about keeping spokespersons informed, ensuring that they are furnished with information about various happenings at any time. I will follow it up.

Deputy Wyse also mentioned early retirement and its importance. That was mentioned afterwards in relation to retirement benefits and the difference between retirement and old age benefits. Of course one is required to retire to reap the retirement pension. The old age pension also carries benefits; it renders one eligible for various kinds of assistance. There is a cash problem in that area. Deputy Bell raised that question also. It is something that will have to be borne in mind in planning future developments.

While several Deputies welcomed the extension of the dental benefit scheme they were concerned, as was Deputy Bell, that in practice it might be difficult to implement. The Deputy will be aware that some dentists will not be very anxious to implement it but I should like to reassure the Deputy that notwithstanding any difficulties that may be encountered I am committed to its implementation. Difficulties will be encountered but they will be surmounted. I know that Deputies on all sides of the House are anxious that the scheme should go ahead. We will implement it as from 1 October next.

Deputy Bell spoke about pay-related benefit and was concerned about it. As the Deputy will know, for some time past pay-related benefit is not payable for the first 18 days — not the first five weeks as the Deputy said — and it continues for 15 months. There was a proposal to reduce it in the previous budget but it has continued for 15 months. I regard it as important to maintain both the unemployment benefit and pay-related benefit right through for the 15 months rather than reduce it to 12 months.

On the question of disability benefit and appeals, I agree with what Deputies said. First a private doctor is involved, then a Department doctor, then a second Department doctor, an appeals officer thereafter and there can be specialists involved. I will be examining that as a matter of urgency. There must be some standard in relation to this area and the standard should be a technical one. I accept what the Deputy said, that the matter should be fairly clear in that respect.

I have noted the various points made by the Deputies and I will keep them in mind. The question of computer consultancy for personalised old age pension orders was raised. That will be dealt with later in the year. I assure Deputies that that money is being well spent. It is my intention to ensure that the resources at my disposal will be directed towards those in greatest need. In the current circumstances I recognise it will be difficult to give great increases in this area and consequently we will have to direct the resources to those who need them most.

I wish to ask the Minister two specific questions and if he cannot reply now will he give it to me in writing? I wish to ask him about the free fuel scheme and the EC equality directive.

The free fuel scheme is provided for in the Estimates. There is of course a requirement to revise the administration of the scheme, as the Deputy will be aware, and I referred to that in my speech. As far as the EC equality directive is concerned the position will become clearer later in the year as to the amount of money required for an extension of that payment. As the Deputy knows it is, to some extent, winding up.

Vote put and agreed to.