Adjournment Debate. - Social Welfare Benefits.

As a public representative, I do not condone people claiming social welfare benefits while working. However, I have raised this matter because last week a 52 year old man with two young children came into my clinic and cried. He had received a letter from the local social welfare office inviting him to attend the office. He was told that there was plenty of work out there and that he must obtain employment. However, he cannot read or write. The man is a manual worker and there is less of that work available now. The recent census highlighted that 23% of the population has difficulty reading and writing.

A new directive has issued from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to disallow people social welfare benefits, allow them to appeal and then decide on their entitlement. That is a disgrace and it is arrogant but that arrogance emanates from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance. Last week the Minister for Finance told us that we should be joyous, cel ebrate and have a party. Did he include the 52 year old man with two young children who cannot read or write and will never obtain employment?

There is another section of society, about which all of us are aware. Many people left the education system in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in order to look after the family farm and their parents and, therefore, they did not get the education they needed. They are now in receipt of social welfare benefits but the Government and the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs are trying to remove them from the live register. It is a crying shame. These people are not fully educated but want to work. We live in a high technology world. New jobs are announced on a daily basis but if people want to take them up they must have the leaving certificate at least or a degree in most cases. However, we do not have enough qualified people and highly qualified foreigners are being recruited.

There is no point pretending that work is available for those who are not fully educated and there is no point asking people of a nervous disposition or those who are not able to take up employment but are not entitled to disability benefit to get work. A new category should be established by the Department to cover these people because they are caught in a trap. Why is the Government attacking the weak in society, people who are unable to fend for themselves? I am disappointed the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs is not present but I can see where the arrogance is coming from. I call on him to issue a directive to his officials to stop them telling people that work is available and they must take it up.

I would not mind if an appeals mechanism was in place which could deal with individual cases within two weeks. It sometimes takes between six and ten months before the appeals are heard and the people involved must seek financial assistance from the health board. It is no wonder that the health service is in disarray and that health boards do not have the money to address other problems. It is wrong that we are attacking the weak in society, including people who cannot read or write. Such people are expected to take up IT jobs.

Departmental officials recently appeared before an Oireachtas committee and I was disappointed that I was not informed that they were coming in. I will write to the chairman of the committee requesting that the officials appear again because I want to attend the next meeting. I am sure many Members receive the same complaints I do, whereby people are told that work is available and they should go and get it. I would be ashamed to be a member of a Government which attacked the weak in society, including people who cannot read or write.

I reject any allegations of arrogance on the part of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, any other Minister or the Taoiseach. The Deputy will accept that persons who are in receipt of unemployment payments must show that they fulfil the statutory conditions of being available for and genuinely seeking work. There are also specific provisions in the Social Welfare Acts which provide for the disallowance of an unemployment payment for up to nine weeks where a person refuses an offer of suitable employment. The onus is on the claimant to demonstrate that he or she satisfies the conditions on an ongoing basis.

Claims are reviewed on a routine, systematic basis. During such reviews claimants are required to demonstrate that they meet the statutory requirements. In this regard they are asked to outline that they have taken reasonable steps to secure suitable employment. Detailed guidelines have issued to deciding officers and training has been provided. The guidelines set out the steps that an unemployed person is reasonably expected to take to find employment. Regard is taken of the person's age, physique, normal trade or profession, skills, family circumstances and any other relevant factor. This answers the Deputy's point regarding the skills of people who are attempting to obtain specific employment.

The regulations and guidelines were drawn up following wide consultation with interested parties including, ICTU and INOU. Each case is examined on its merits and the deciding officer will have regard to what is reasonable in that case. Where a claim is disallowed by a deciding officer the person can appeal to the social welfare appeals office which acts independently.

Where does the person live until then?

Information on disallowance is not maintained on a county by county basis. The geographical areas covered by social welfare local offices overlap county boundaries in some instances. The total number of persons who have been disallowed unemployment benefit for the first three months of 2000 on the grounds that they were not genuinely seeking work is as follows: January, 156; February, 183; and March, 272.

What about the 8,000 people who were disallowed in the six months prior to that?

The corresponding figures in regard to unemployment assistance are as follows: January, 244; February, 304; and March, 367. In addition, a further 694 were disallowed unemployment benefit during this period on the grounds that they were not available for work, and 1,304 were disallowed unemployment assistance.

If the Deputy is interested in data in respect of any specific social welfare local office it can be made available to him. The improvements in the economy in recent years have meant that more job opportunities are available to the unemployed and it is important that persons in receipt of unemployment payments show that they are making efforts to obtain suitable employment. The Department is satisfied that the regulations are applied in a fair and reasonable manner.