Deputy Flanagan was in possession. The Deputy has some 13 minutes remaining.
Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill, 1995: Second Stage (Resumed).
Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. That is a welcome change from last night when I was refused an opportunity to contribute on a matter of great importance because of favouritism shown by the Chair.
I reject that totally and I refer the Deputy to the record. I will not debate this matter with the Deputy now.
A rota has been agreed between the Whips of all parties of this House——
I reject the allegation and I will ask for a withdrawal in due course. I will send the record in writing to the Deputy to substantiate what I have said. The Chair is always fair and impartial towards all Deputies. I reject the allegation out of hand. It is a disgraceful comment.
The Chair refused to invite the previous speaker to bring his comments to a conclusion in the knowledge that I had five minutes remaining to me.
I will not debate the matter with the Deputy now. I will give the Deputy the full record of that entire debate. I assure him it was impeccably dealt with——
I know the record. I was here and I was not afforded an opportunity to make a contribution.
I am calling the Deputy for the matter in hand. If the Deputy wishes to make a contribution on the Social Welfare Bill, I invite him to do so.
Thank you. I wish to make one further point on this important legislation. We must provide the public with the appropriate information on all aspects of the changes envisaged consequent on the successful passage of a divorce referendum. We suffered in this regard in 1986. The people did not have sufficient information and they voted accordingly. Unless an appropriate level of detailed information is provided, the request to the people to lift the constitutional ban on divorce will be rejected. In this regard I am pleased with the progress to date. The Minister and the Minister of State have given a lead by ensuring that full and detailed information will be provided to the public. The seminars arranged by the Minister for Equality and Law Reform are to be welcomed and I hope they continue on a widespread basis.
I draw attention to the complexity of the social welfare code. In a small State of 3.5 million people, we have succeeded in building up a complex system of social welfare despite attempts at consolidation. It will come as no surprise when I draw attention to the complexity of our social welfare code. We have succeeded in building up a most complex system of social welfare in spite of attempts to consolidate it. The most frequent issues people raise at my constituency clinics are social welfare matters. People are not looking for benefits to which they are not entitled but are seeking information to ensure they can avail of various schemes. I was not surprised that the Ombudsman in his report drew the attention of the Government to the complexity of our social welfare code. He states:
Because of the complexity and inaccessibility of some of this legislation, it is not surprising that complainants are frequently not in a position to articulate a reasoned legal argument in support of their complaints.
The appendix lists the numbers of complaints by way of query on the social welfare code. There were 677 queries over the spectrum of social welfare from unemployment assistance to pre-retirement allowance, carer's allowance and maternity benefit. Compare this to the 79 complaints on education, 24 complaints about the Department of the Environment and 145 complaints about the Revenue Commissioners. By and large — without having read the 82 page report — one can see that complaints about social welfare matters exceed those in any other area. That tallies with what I am hearing at clinics and how I represent my constituents in the course of my duties as a public representative. Far too much of my time is taken up dealing with queries on behalf of people who should have an alternative source of information.
I compliment the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, and his Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, who have taken it upon themselves to provide a proper information service by setting up the citizens advice bureaux; at this stage there is one in almost every county town and there is a programme in place to develop that service. This is a very worthwhile service to the community. The National Social Services Board, through its good offices, has embarked upon a programme of providing information throughout the community. Publications by the Department of Social Welfare in the form of information leaflets has improved substantially in recent times and credit should be given to the public relations section in the Department which has begun the process of providing easily read, concise and detailed information. That is extremely important and should continue. Until we have a proper and adequate system of citizens advice bureaux throughout the country the public representatives will carry the burden of dealing with day-to-day social welfare queries many of which should be dealt with other than by public representatives.
This is worthwhile legislation. Deputy Tom Kitt asked to whom the children's allowance will be paid. I do not wish to pre-empt the Minister's reply but I am sure he will confirm that the children's allowance will be paid to the guardian of the child in the residence where the child or children are living. It would be preposterous to think otherwise. I do not know the point Deputy Kitt is making in that regard. The paying of maintenance by a divorced person to his former wife and children is always going to be difficult. The basis of maintenance payments is to ensure that his former wife and family are adequately looked after but the reality in a western industrialised society is that the remuneration for employment does not allow for the upkeep and maintenance of a second home. That is the difficulty and it will be extremely hard to address it in the context of our support systems. The State will have a responsibility to ensure the security of the former wife and children, however, the primary responsibility in my view will rest with the person who has entered into a maintenance agreement. It will be extremely difficult for any individual to make adequate payments to keep two families. I am pleased to see that the family income supplement scheme has been extended. I look forward to teasing out many of the complex issues on Committee Stage.
This Bill has the support of my party. However, it strikes me that it was hastily put together. Many of its provisions, particularly the wording, are insulting to women. The last thing a modern woman needs to be told is that she is a dependant but throughout this Bill there are references to this. Women need and demand to be independent and we should ensure there is provision for this in our legislation. The archaic mechanism for putting Bills through the House often does not take cognisance of this. In this instance several phrases are in need of fine-tooth combing.
Women need to be independent, not categorised as dependent. That is important for the well being and emotional stability of the individual. In this Bill entitlements are discussed as against the rights of the individual, particularly the rights of the women. There are conditions attached to entitlements, and I am certain the Minister did not have that in mind when framing this Bill. A woman is dependent for her rights on her relationship to a man. In section 7, for example, a divorced woman whose former husband is imprisoned is entitled to apply for a prisoner's wife's allowance. The word "spouse" not only covers a husband or wife but also a party to a marriage which has been dissolved. There are myriad ambiguities in the Bill which requires closer attention. The word "husband" is defined in different ways. The word "family" seems to be getting a new definition, and the word "couple" gets a new definition in this Bill. In regard to family, one must ask if the definition in this Bill is in line with the definition in the Constitution which deals with the preservation of the family.
I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, because I recognise him as an able and hardworking Minister, but this Bill is of such fundamental importance that the Minister responsible in this area should have presented himself before the Dáil today irrespective of any other committee meeting in the House. It is an insult to the House that he has not done so.
In 1991, 55,000 people were declared separated and this figure is rising. Recent estimates indicate it is now about 75,000 people. Under the Constitution we must do everything possible to preserve the family as a unit in our society, and we must ensure that mechanisms are in place to help, exhort and encourage people to continue in stable relationships. That must be emphasised before dealing with this Bill. However, we cannot ignore the 75,000 people separated and experiencing difficulties in their marriage and we must legislate for it because it seems this phenomenon will increase in the next few years. Marriage breakdown is a reality and, in putting legislation together, we must take into account the upheaval and trauma that results for the affected parties and their children. We must also be careful not to leave threats hanging over people —in the run up to the last divorce referendum it was the uncertainty that upset people and prevented that referendum from being carried. I welcome this Bill in that it removes some of the threats, but I am not certain it provides for the financial well being of the individuals who will be involved in divorce proceedings, particularly the spouse who is left to care for the children.
I am particularly perturbed by the Minister's costings which he estimates at about £1 million over five years. If divorce is introduced that will not be nearly enough. When I speak of removing threats and alleviating fears I remember the Minister, Deputy De Rossa, in Opposition when everything seemed rosy to him, making promises as to the well being of the marginalised in our society. However, in this Government's first budget the Minister for Social Welfare gave only a 2.5 per cent increase to widows and others and, as we have already seen, inflation will far outstrip that. Costs in many areas have increased alarmingly, but pensioners and others are getting 20p a day to see them through the rise in inflation and other costs.
If I was separated or contemplating separation I would have to seriously question the intentions of this Minister and his powers to produce the type of revenue that will be needed to meet the costs entailed in this Bill, because there will be major problems in getting funding from the State. A vital question is what the State must pay. What happens in the case of people who are already legally separated for five or ten years? If the referendum is carried, can they be deemed to have served the sentence of separation specified in the divorce legislation? Will we have to continue to pay people who have been divorced not once but twice or three times?
The Minister should indicate if there will be a limit on State spending. He should examine the accommodation facilities which exist for lone parents and separated persons. In future it will probably be impossible to provide sufficient housing as, by and large, two houses will be needed to house members of the same family. That is another cost the State must bear. Many people are happy to live in private rented accommodation and receive a weekly supplementary welfare allowance. The Minister should look at the economics of leaving them in such accommodation instead of transferring them, against their will, to local authority housing. The housing list could be cut as a result.
I mentioned the responsibility on house owners who receive supplementary payments from health boards to declare them for tax purposes. If the State were to receive the tax returns due to it from such payments it might make good economic sense to allow people remain in private rented accommodation. The Minister should consider that proposal seriously.
Is léir go bhfuil gá leis an mBille seo. Tá sé i bhfad níos fearr ná an chéad Bhille Leasa Shóisialaigh a bhí againn i mbliana. Aontaím leis an Teachtaí a bhí ag gearán faoin Aire. Tuigim an deacracht atá aige mar tá gnó eile ar siúl aige. Is mór an trua nach féidir leis an Rialtas a chuid ghnó a eagrú níos fearr i dtreo is go mbeadh deis ag an Aire a bheith i láthair don Bhille seo. Tuigim gur chóir dó a bheith ann nuair a bhíonn cúrsaí airgeadais na Roinne faoi chaibidil ach ní cóir go dtarlódh a leithéid seo.
I do not have any difficulty with the general thrust of the Bill. It is right to clarify the position concerning social welfare entitlements in advance of the referendum. I was very surprised at the relatively low cost outlined by the Minister. There were concern that, as a result of the introduction of divorce, there would be a substantial increase in the cost of social welfare payments but if the Minister's figures are correct that will not be the case.
This Bill is better than the previous social welfare Bill which drew the ire of many people. Social welfare recipients were disappointed with the level of increase given to them by the Minister. Political cynics say the matter will be redressed in 1996 or 1997 in advance of a general election and social welfare recipients can look forward to an increase of 6 per cent or Democratic Left leaving office.
Hope springs eternal.
Unfortunately that serves to reinforce the poor image of politicians. The parties in Government try to paint Fianna Fáil as demons. Efforts were made by Government speakers to misrepresent what was said by my party colleagues. Those whose image of Fianna Fáil was formed by the ever efficient and busy spin doctors must have been surprised. It reflects poorly on the speakers and on the house to misrepresent what was said on an issue on which there is broad agreement and co-operation.
The Minister said the last referendum threw up a number of disquieting issues. Irrespective of the right to remarry there are many issues which need to be addressed legislatively. One of these relates to private pensions. We are famous for paying lip-service to the family. We must face up to the fact that divorce will not alleviate the pain and loss suffered by the family as a result of marital breakdown. However, the State has a role to play in easing that pain and many issues need to be teased out in advance of the referendum.
I welcome section 9 which deals with the family income supplement which has been extended to include the former spouse. The Minister said it also includes a former family, if it exists, but that is not written in the Bill. We all know of cases of marital breakdown where a huge financial burden is placed on the second family as a result of the spouse maintaining the first family. An attempt was made in this Bill to address the social welfare area. However, there are many other areas which also need to be addressed.
The Minister said the cost of the benefit paid by the State to widows, widowers, lone parents and deserted wives is £630 million. The Government must ensure it is in a position to meet its obligations in this regard. I am disappointed at the signals given by Ministers in recent days. The Government signalled its welcome for foreign investors but some Ministers indicated their opposition to them. The Government must get its act together as regards wealth creation and speak with one voice on this matter.
I call the Minister of State.
I will be replying to the debate.
In that event I call Deputy Callely.
When the Minister of State was on this side of the House he contributed to many debates and after a quorum was called he would reiterate the points he had made for the benefit of the Deputies who came into the Chamber.
I never called a quorum.
The Minister might call one yet.
I will if the Deputy runs out of words.
I support the points made by Deputies Joe Walsh and Woods, recognised as an authority on social welfare issues. Most of the relevant points have already been made but nevertheless it is important to put down a number of markers.
I am glad to note that the Government is dealing with the issue of social welfare benefits before the referendum on divorce and the likely implications of a "yes" vote on social welfare recipients. I am glad it intends to eliminate the uncertainty which prevailed during the last divorce referendum campaign by putting in place the proper structures to ensure that any such uncertainty is removed.
The main areas of the social welfare code where protection is being provided are in regard to widows' and widowers' pensions, the lone parent and deserted wife's schemes, occupational injury benefits, the family income supplement and the prisoner's wife's allowance. The Minister clearly indicated that there will be no loss of rights under the social welfare system arising from a change in legal status from married to separated, deserted or divorced. People whose spouses have obtained a divorce in another country will find themselves in the divorced category. Will the Minister outline the timescale for the implementation of the structures proposed in the Bill and the implications for people in that category?
The Minister said that on the death of a divorced person his or her former spouse will be able to qualify for a contributory pension either on their own insurance record or that of the deceased, even if the deceased had remarried, and that where the deceased had remarried their second spouse may also qualify for a widow's-widower's pension. If a person has had a number of spouses will multiple payments be made out of his or her contributions? The Minister referred to the second spouse and I would like to know the position where there are two or more spouses and a number of dependants. The Minister said the cost of the provisions in the Bill is likely to rise to £1 million over the next five years. Taking into account the points I made, will the Minister say how this figure was calculated?
I welcome the extension of the benefits to the former spouse of a divorced person who has not remarried as well as to the existing spouse. It is also proposed that a woman in receipt of the deserted wife's benefit or allowance who becomes divorced may continue to be regarded as deserted for the purposes of the deserted wife's allowance schemes.
During question time on Tuesday I asked the Minister what innovative, radical or wide-ranging measures he intends to introduce in the social welfare system. I am disappointed that he does not appear to have any proposals in this area. It is appropriate in a Bill which deals with changes in the social welfare code to provide for a likely change in the Constitution. Total spending on widows, widowers, lone parents and deserted wives is £630 million and the Minister expects that sum to increase by only £1 million.
There is potential for further development in other areas of the social welfare code. I was disappointed in the Minister's reply to my question regarding wide-ranging and radical measures and innovative schemes. There has been no flexibility in certain conditions regarding free travel. The Minister of State will be aware that free travel could be extended by one hour morning and evening with little or no financial burden on the Government, yet whenever I have raised this issue he has always said it must be examined in a budgetary context. The Minister has no innovative measures, policies or proposals. Is he waiting for a prompt from Fianna Fáil?
What a horrible thought.
We have put a good social welfare structure in place. The rainbow Government is only prepared to baby sit the social welfare system. Today there is a dark cloud over 241,332 people in receipt of State pensions because for the first time in 30 years they will receive a miserable increase of only 2.5 per cent. As the Minister is not listening I call for a quorum.
The Deputy always liked an audience.
It is now 4.45 p.m. and it is time to proceed to the Adjournment debate.
On a point of order, I am concerned that we do not have a quorum when a quorum has been called.
A quorum is not necessary now.
It is regrettable. There are only ten Members present. The Government cannot make up a quorum.
On a point of order, the normal time for a quorum has elapsed but obviously the Deputy is not in possession of that knowledge.
I must now proceed to——
There are only ten Members present.
Last week during a debate there was not one member of the Opposition present.
Jim will fix it.
I ask Deputy Callely to take his seat as the House is in session.
They all ran for cover when they heard the quorum bells.
I will not hear any more from Deputy Callely or Deputy Flanagan.