The Unemployment Assistance Bill embodies provisions designed to secure that assistance will be given to able-bodied workers who are involuntarily unemployed and, consequently, unable to provide for the maintenance of themselves or their families. This measure is one of a series of steps taken by the Government in order to deal with the unemployment situation existing in this country. The Government came into office with a mandate to deal with unemployment and, to that end, adopt any course, no matter how original or drastic, which might be required. When we acquired office in March of last year we were hampered by the considerable difficulty that no reliable information as to unemployment existed. For reasons not necessary to go into at this stage no attempt had been made prior to that to gauge the size of the problem or to procure information as to its nature, by which I mean classes of workers who were most affected by unemployment, their location, or other facts about them.
The Government took steps early in 1932 to establish a reliable register of the unemployed by various administrative measures. In the first place, facilities for registration were extended and, secondly, inducements to register were extended and, particularly, it was made conditional in respect of all work financed wholly or partly out of State funds that only persons registered as unemployed at employment exchanges could be considered. The result of these measures meant that we established for the first time in the Saorstát a register of all the persons in the country who were seeking employment, a register which, although it was unreliable and inaccurate in certain respects, nevertheless gave us an opportunity of examining the unemployment problem in detail. I say that the register was unreliable and inaccurate because, of course, it contained not merely the names of those in hardship because of unemployment but of all persons, no matter what their means, who were willing to take employment if offered to them. It was also inaccurate because of certain administrative breakdowns which occurred in consequence of the greatly increased pressure of work upon outlying parts of the industry and commerce organisation— a breakdown which was, however, very quickly rectified. When the information relating to unemployment had been secured and analysed a Committee of experts was established from the different Departments of State likely to be in a position to advise on the matter, to examine in detail proposals which, in broad principle, were similar to those now embodied in this Bill. That Committee met through last winter and reported to the Government. On receipt of its report the Government decided upon the outline of the measure now before the Seanad. The drafting of the Bill was then proceeded with and it was introduced in the Dáil at the end of the summer recess.
The Bill is, of course, one of major importance. It will bring about changes in the economic organisation of this country more than those which the Bill will directly effect. On that account, it deserves very careful consideration. It got careful consideration from the Government before introduction and it will, I am sure, get equally careful consideration from the members of this House. I give that account of the history of the measure in order to prevent, at the beginning of the discussion, any member of the Seanad from making the same mistake that other members of the Oireachtas appear to have made and which certain people, not yet in the Oireachtas, have also made.
It has been asserted that this Bill represents the failure of the Government policy to provide employment through industrial development or otherwise. I stated in the Dáil that, on the contrary, it represents the fulfilment of the Government's policy for dealing with unemployment. When the Dáil met after the General Election of February, 1932, one of the first matters discussed was a motion moved by a member of the former Cumann na nGaedheal Party asking the Dáil to accept the principle that the obligation rested upon the State to ensure that work or maintenance be provided for all those who were unable to provide for themselves. That motion was adopted unanimously by the Dáil and, in the discussion on it, the Government's policy was made clear. It was stated that our preference was to provide work, that we were proposing to carry out a certain industrial reorganisation which we expected would increase employment and, at the same time, that we were organising State schemes of work to deal with those who had to be provided for while industrialisation was taking place. We realised, however, and pointed out that no scheme for providing work which human wit could devise would be so elastic as to deal with the unemployment problem in every part of the country with equal fairness; in other words, that it was not possible to build up an organisation which would provide in each district the exact amount of employment required at the time it was required; that, consequently, it was necessary to have as a background to all our schemes for providing work some measure of this kind, the operation of which would ensure that while the organisation for provision of work was coming into effect, the hardship occasioned by involuntary unemployment would be alleviated. Once the principle of providing for those who are deprived of the opportunity of providing for themselves is accepted, the scheme of the Bill before the House must also be accepted. It is, I think, certain that any body of persons who accepted that principle and were given the task of devising a scheme for putting it into effect would produce a measure almost identical with that before the Seanad. If we were starting de novo, if we had in this country no measures for dealing with unemployment at all, a somewhat different scheme would be suggested. But, having regard to the fact that there is in existence an organisation, built up with great care, extending throughout the whole country and staffed by a highly trained personnel, for dealing with unemployment, it naturally follows that we must try to graft the new scheme on to the old organisation to get efficient and speedy operation.
The organisation to which I refer is that of the employment exchanges, through which the Unemployment Insurance Acts are administered. Members of the House are, I am sure, fully conversant with the general provisions of the unemployment insurance code and have some knowledge of the manner in which the employment exchanges work. These exchanges are situated at all the principal centres of employment and are surrounded by branch offices extending into the rural towns. These branch offices themselves maintain contact with the rural areas by a system of communication through the post office, so that even workers in remote parts of the country can, without trouble, register for employment and be notified where to present themselves when employment offers. These employment exchanges have, of course, a special function to perform, apart altogether from the matters concerning the Unemployment Insurance Acts which affect them. Their original function, when brought into existence, was to provide an easy means by which employers seeking workmen could be put into touch with workmen seeking work. To a large extent they are fulfilling that function. That is certainly the case for the last 12 months. For some time earlier than 1932 that particular function of the employment exchanges was falling into abeyance and, on the average, only about 15,000 or 16,000 persons were placed in employment through the exchanges in each year—1931, 1930 and earlier. In consequence of the changes effected by the present Government, that number increased last year to just 100,000. The figure will be almost as large for the present year. Through these exchanges the Unemployment Insurance Acts are administered.
These Acts provide for the payment of contributions in respect of persons in insurable employment by employers and employed in equal measure, with an additional contribution by the State in respect of all such persons for each week of employment. These payments go into the Unemployment Insurance Fund, from which insured workmen, when unemployed, become entitled to receive benefits at certain fixed rates. It is clear that these Acts do not adequately provide for our unemployment problem any more than they were found to provide for the unemployment problem of Great Britain, or the unemployment problem of other countries where similar schemes exist.
There are two very distinct limitations upon the operation of the Acts. In the first place, no worker can secure more benefit than one day for each week in which he had been in employment. A stamp was affixed to his unemployment insurance card for each week he had worked and in respect of that stamp he got a day's benefit when unemployed. The second limitation was that no matter how many stamps he had accumulated during his period of employment he could not receive benefit for more than 26 weeks in any one year. In order to secure efficiency of administration and to take full advantage of the training in a very intricate code which a number of officers of the Department of Industry and Commerce have acquired, we have designed this Bill so as to make the method of administration as similar as possible to that of the Unemployment Insurance Acts. We have provided that every worker who complies with certain conditions will be entitled to get, on demand, a qualification certificate. That qualification certificate can be secured by the worker at any time whether he is employed or unemployed and it corresponds to his insurance card under the existing Acts. When he is employed, the qualification certificate is in his possession, but when he wants to claim assistance under this measure he lodges his certificate with the appropriate exchange or branch exchange and, subject to conforming with certain other conditions, he becomes entitled to assistance.
The qualifications for securing a qualification certificate are set out in Section 10. There is the usual qualification that the person must be of Saorstát nationality and must be over 18 and under 70 years of age. The main qualification, however, is that contained in paragraph (c) of subsection (3) of that section, which provides that the means of the person must not exceed £52 per year, if the person is resident in a country borough or the borough of Dun Laoghaire, or £39 if he is resident elsewhere. There is, therefore, a means test. A person who is the owner of land or property or has any other means exceeding the amount set out is disqualified from receiving assistance. A person with means less than the maximum fixed there can only secure the scheduled rates of assistance less the amount of means which that person possesses, as calculated under this measure. There are other qualifications which we can discuss in more detail on the Committee Stage. My concern at the moment is merely to give you a general picture of the scheme of the measure.
A person, having secured his qualification certificate, holds that certificate until he becomes unemployed. If he has been engaged in an insurable occupation, an occupation insurable under the Unemployment Insurance Acts, he claims unemployment insurance benefit. A person cannot secure unemployment assistance while he is entitled to receive unemployment insurance benefit. Having secured unemployment insurance benefit for the period to which he is entitled to it, a person then makes a claim for unemployment assistance. If a person has not been engaged in insurable employment such as, for example, an agricultural labourer, he applies forthwith, on becoming unemployed, for unemployment assistance. At that stage he has to comply with certain other conditions which are set out in Section 15.
The main provision is that the person has been continuously unemployed for a period of six days. In order to protect the casual worker and to prevent any person who has lost his job refusing a day's work if offered to him, we provide for a qualification of the term "continuously unemployed" by defining it to mean any period of unemployment of not less than two days followed by two days' employment and a further two days of unemployment being regarded as a period of continuous unemployment. He must, however—and this is the principal condition—prove that he is capable of working. In other words, he must be physically fit for work. If he has lost employment through ill-health or any physical or mental infirmity, then he is not entitled to unemployment assistance. His claim for assistance to enable him to live must be directed to some other authority than the authorities administering this measure. This is designed to assist only those whose unemployment is involuntary, such as persons who are able to work but who are unable to obtain it. A man must show that he is genuinely seeking work but is unable to obtain suitable work, having regard to age, sex, physique, education, normal occupation, place of residence and family circumstances.
He must also comply with one condition of considerable importance. If he applies for assistance in an urban district, a county borough or the borough of Dun Laoghaire, he must prove that he has been resident in that urban district or county borough for not less than one year, or has had three months' employment there. The main reason for that provision is to prevent the measure operating so as to induce into the larger towns or cities unemployed persons from rural areas, an inducement which might be aggravated by this measure, having regard to the fact that a higher rate of assistance is payable in the towns and cities in contrast with rural areas.
In connection with that part of the Bill there is one other section of considerable importance to which I wish to draw attention. It is provided that the Minister may at any time make an order in respect to any part of the country or any class of persons, declaring a particular period of the year to be an employment period. When such an order is made no person in the area or of the class concerned will be entitled to receive unemployment assistance for that period. As Senators are no doubt aware, one of the main difficulties in the administration of the Unemployment Insurance Acts has been that of determining that certain classes of people are unemployed. A person who is a small landholder and takes work on roads or does other public works that are offered to him frequently claims unemployment benefit at the end of his period of road work and is disqualified from getting it. The insurance officer or the court of referees holds he is not unemployed. That person is usually very indignant and he writes to the local T.D., but it does not get him any further because at certain times of the year these small landholders must be regarded as being employed on their own land and therefore not unemployed and available for work, if offered. In order to prevent that difficulty arising in the administration of this measure, it is proposed to declare in respect of landholders and certain other classes of workers, possibly fishermen, and other classes of workers that cannot be enumerated at the moment, that certain periods of the year will be regarded for them as employment periods and while these periods exist they will not be entitled to unemployment assistance. In other parts of the year they will of course be entitled to unemployment assistance if they demonstrate to the satisfaction of the home assistance officer that they are unemployed and if they comply with the other conditions. The necessity for that provision is, I think, obvious. Not merely will it simplify the administration but it will also prevent the possibility of fraud and keep down the costs of the measure. There is no doubt, of course, that in certain cases the operation of a provision of that kind will mean hardship and injustice. An individual in a particular district may be affected by the order who should not be. In any general scheme of this kind it is necessary to operate on general rules regardless of the effect on individual cases. Then the individual must be carried by the board of assistance in the area if the members of the board consider that destitution is likely to result.
The next question that undoubtedly arises in relation to this Bill is the measure of assistance which it is proposed to give. The rates are set out in the Schedule to the Bill and I think most members of the Seanad will admit that they are not over-generous. They are, however, the most that we can afford to provide having regard to our present estimate of the number of persons likely to claim unemployment assistance.
The unemployment situation in this country is improving. It is improving to this extent that there are so far as our statistics show, a greater number of people employed now than previously. These statistics relate to persons who ordinarily follow insurable occupations. But as the majority of those who are ordinarily to be regarded as workers take these insurable occupations, if we are to regard the statistics as not being accurate in respect of the totals, they are fairly reliable in so far as they indicate the trends. They show that employment has been considerably increased during the past year. The figures to which I refer are the figures relating to the number of insurance stamps sold. There are also the figures relating to the number of insurance books exchanged during the year. The figures themselves do not give us a reliable index of the number of persons in employment, but they do give an indication of what is happening and they show a considerable increase in the number of persons employed.
You must bear in mind that within the past couple of years the population of our country has increased by 30,000 and is still increasing. Emigration has stopped and, in fact, it is now a case of our getting returning emigrants so that a much more rapid increase in the number of persons in employment is necessary now in order to deal with the position than would have been necessary, say, in 1929 or 1930. The number of persons unemployed, while undoubtedly less than at this time last year, is still very substantial. It is, of course, impossible to say with any certainty in respect of that number the proportion which would represent those who are definitely in urgent need of work in order to maintain life. A substantial number of them would be persons owning land and with pensions, persons owning small shops or being maintained by relatives or persons owning boats and having some other means of livelihood. These persons register at the exchanges because they are willing to take any work that offers, particularly public work on the roads and the like.
In determining in a scheme of this kind the amount of money we can afford to spend we must take a most conservative estimate in relation to the number of persons and the cost per head. No definite figure can be given. I told the Dáil when we were trying to estimate the cost of this scheme on the basis of our unemployment experience of last year, we had in that calculation 15 figures which were only estimates. Any of these might be grossly inaccurate. It was on the basis of a calculation of that kind that the figure was arrived at. In the first instance when we determined upon the scheme we had in mind a figure of £1,000,000 a year as a maximum payment and as the payment which we could afford. The scheme before the Dáil, while based on last year's experience, will cost more than that. In so far as the employment situation may improve or change or any changes in the nature of the unemployment problem may take place the cost will be diminished or otherwise.
Any increase over the year in the number of unemployed to the extent of 5,000 will increase the cost of the scheme by about £30,000. On that figure, therefore, you can estimate what is likely to be the position. On our estimate on the basis of last year's experience this scheme is going to cost more than £1,000,000. It is quite obvious that we cannot contemplate any increase in the rates of payment set out in the Schedule. When the depression is passed and the reorganisation of our own economic system has been completed and when the employment position here improves it may be possible to revise these figures and to put this scheme upon a somewhat different basis. That is a problem for the future. At present we must plan in the light of our existing knowledge. On that basis this Schedule was prepared.
The fact that I want to emphasise is that in 95 per cent. of the cases that are likely to be affected by this Bill the payment which will be made under it to unemployed persons will be very considerably in excess of what they are entitled to get from the home assistance authorities. In the majority of cases those who are likely to be benefited by this Bill may not be getting assistance from the home authorities at all. In other cases they are getting home assistance at rates varying from 5/- to 6/- or 7/- a week. There will of course be this difference that whereas a person gets home assistance at the absolute discretion of the board of assistance and only on establishing destitution to the satisfaction of the officer of the board, under this Bill when it becomes law a person will get unemployment assistance as a right. He is given a statutory right to it, a right of which he cannot be deprived by administrative action subject of course to the conditions laid down in the statute. He is as much entitled to that payment as any servant of the State is entitled to payment for services.
The manner in which it is proposed to finance the scheme is, I think, also fairly clear from the measure. In the first place, the Unemployment Insurance Bill, which is the next measure on the Order Paper, provides for an increase in the contributions in respect of people in employment under the Unemployment Insurance Acts. The rates of contributions from people under these Acts were reduced in 1931. In that year the debt which had accumulated on the Unemployment Insurance Fund was being rapidly liquidated because of the surplus income which had arisen since 1926 when payment of the extended benefits ceased. The rate of contribution was cut in 1931 and it was cut too fine. Those who were responsible for determining the amount by which the rate should be reduced erred to the extent that they overdid it and with the reduction of the contribution, the debt again began to accumulate and one of the first administrative acts that I undertook on becoming a Minister was to sanction the borrowing of money to make good the deficiency in that fund. Apart from that, however, the raising of the rate of contribution to the old level will bring in a sum probably slightly in excess of £250,000 a year and we propose to take from the Unemployment Insurance Fund that sum of £250,000 for the purpose of financing this scheme. Senators will understand that the raising of the rate which is propose by the Unemployment Insurance Bill merely restores it to the level which existed up to 1931, a level which is lower than the existing rate in Great Britain or Northern Ireland.
In addition to that quarter of a million pounds, it is proposed to levy on the four county boroughs and the borough of Dún Laoghaire, a rate of 1/6 in the £, on the towns other than the county boroughs and Dún Laoghaire, the population of which at the latest census exceeds 7,000, a rate of 9d. in the £, and nothing on the rest of the country. The total amount which will come in from these two rates will be, roughly speaking, £200,000. That gives us a sum of £450,000 or perhaps a little more and the balance it is proposed to make up from the Exchequer. The balance would, of course, be a variable sum fluctuating from year to year with the total amount paid out. It is hoped that when normal conditions have been restored in the country, the scheme will be able to finance itself with little or no contribution from the Exchequer but I have no doubt that if we ever get to that stage it will be deemed more advisable to recast this system of unemployment assistance so as to link it up with other forms of State insurance. These are the main provisions of the measure. There are certain other matters which aroused some discussion in the Dáil and appeared to have caused some controversy elsewhere but they are not really matters of principle and can be discussed more properly in Committee.
The Bill itself is one which, I think, should commend itself to everybody because it provides for the stopping of a very definite gap in our various schemes for the relief of distress in the country. We have provided for destitution and hardship occasioned by old age, blindness or infirmity. Up to the present, we have not adequately provided for destitution or hardship occasioned by involuntary unemployment. That is, I think, due to the fact that it was not until post-war years that unemployment in its present form made itself apparent. It is true that there always has been a large number unemployed but those persons were not unemployed for long periods at a time. They were in work and out of work in varying periods. It is only since the war that in this country and in other countries we have had the phenomenon of persons being unemployed through no fault of their own for years at a time. These persons are in all cases able to work and genuinely and anxiously seeking work but because of the defects in our social organisation, for which the whole community must accept the blame, they have been unable to obtain work.
It is quite clear that if the State takes the line that it is going to entrust its resources in land and its instruments for working the land to a limited number of private owners and its resources in industrial equipment and technical skill to a limited number of private owners and these groups of private owners between them cannot find work for everybody seeking work, then the State must step in to prevent hardship arising, if we are determined to continue making work a condition of livelihood. At the present time, we say to our people that in order to live they must work. We have not contemplated the possibility of people, that is, the broad mass of the people, living without work. So long, therefore, as we take that attitude, there is on us an obligation either to provide work or if we are unable to do that, to ensure that hardship will not follow on our own inability to do so.
This Bill is a step in that direction. I grant you it is not a complete step. It is undoubtedly open to criticism on the ground of its inadequacy, but the only answer that can be made to criticism of that kind is to point to the figures available at the present time to support a measure of this kind. If the financial position should improve, the measure can be improved but not otherwise. In so far, however, as the principle is sound and as an effective scheme of bringing that principle into operation is enshrined in this Bill, I am sure it will get here, as it got in the Dáil, the unanimous support of all Parties.