Generally speaking, the bulk of this comprehensive section is a tidying up exercise but I have a number of doubts in relation to it which I will ask the Minister to resolve. The legal conditions of the property sale should be taken into consideration in means testing — it is not covered in the Bill or the explanatory memorandum — because there could be conditions within the terms of the sale of property which would be relevant at a future date in relation to conditions for benefits. For example, a person could acquire a property and could have already been means tested. They could be left a house by their mother or father and it would be unfair to again means test such a person. It would be a very cumbersome process and very difficult to deal with because if it was a local authority house it would take a considerable time to dispose of it. It would have to be dealt with by way of a transfer order from the county manager and would have to be registered in the Land Registry. As those of us who deal with local authorities know, it could take 12 months or longer if there was a dispute in the family.
In the final paragraph of the explanatory memorandum there is a reference to "increases in another pension". Does that mean industrial pensions, UK pensions from social welfare sources, invalidity pensions and EC pensions? Somebody drawing a UK invalidity or disability pension could find if they returned to live here that because our pension rates are higher they would be means tested and paid the difference between the UK and the Irish pension. Will anything in the section interfere with that? Trying to clarify that situation in Newcastle-on-Tyne via the EC section of the Department created very long delays. When the Minister is bringing in regulations because the difference between the UK pension and the non-contributory pension entitlement here is small, it might be worth considering giving the person the full pension until the matter is processed. There would be no great difference between that and giving a payment, for example, from a community welfare officer through the health board to the individual concerned. If over-payments had been made they could be deducted and, if there had been an underpayment, the matter could be rectified by way of a lump sum. This is an opportunity to make provision for something which causes many problems for Members of the House and local authorities.
There was a lot of discussion on the previous method of means testing. It is totally unacceptable for many reasons, all of which I will not repeat. How is means testing carried out? When regulations are made for the purpose of calculating or carrying out means testing we should try to achieve uniformity because deciding and appeals officers are interpreting the regulations in a variety of ways. The Department will say that there is a uniform interpretation but that is not the case. Members of the House should be given a simplified document stating how means testing is carried out which would save the Department, officials and Members of the Oireachtas an enormous amount of time.
The main objection to this section is that the Minister is introducing, for the first time, means testing on contributory benefits. Last year I represented a person in a very important case, which I cannot refer to here, but I will tell the Minister about it privately. The reason I cannot refer to it is that it subsequently went to the High Court. The learned judge has not yet delivered his judgment so the sub judice rule applies. The same thinking appears to be in this section and in the explanatory memorandum, which was virtually quoted by the appeals officer in the case. This happened over a year ago and I said at the appeal that it was an attempt to introduce by the backdoor a means test to a contributory pension or benefit. I should like to have the Minister's assurance that that is not the case because it would be highly dangerous to introduce means testing for a contributory pension. It is akin to saying that you would introduce a means test after you had paid car insurance and had an accident; that the insurance company would note what you had in your house or how much money you had in the bank before they would pay for the damage caused by the accident.
In general terms I welcome the section, but if it means that we are introducing a means test for contributory pensions — I would like the Minister to reassure me on this point — we will be in trouble and in my opinion it will be a sad day for this House.