The object of this Bill is to substitute for the code of laws known as the Poor Relief Acts new legal provisions to enable local authorities to assist the poor, and to appreciate the difficult situation which the Bill is designed to remedy a short outline of the main events leading up to the present position of the law may be of assistance.
The Poor Relief Code started with the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1838, which introduced a system for the relief of the poor modelled on that which had been in existence in England. The Act provided for the division of the country into districts, which were called Unions. In each Union the relief of the poor was entrusted to an elected body called a board of guardians and a workhouse was to be established in which the guardians could relieve destitute poor persons.
The system grew and developed under subsequent Acts, one of which provided for the establishment of an infirmary in connection with each workhouse and under a later Act a fever hospital was provided at each workhouse. An Act passed in the year 1847 authorised guardians for the first time to grant relief outside the workhouse but only to certain specified classes of poor persons. An Act passed in the year 1851 provided for the establishment of the dispensary service under which medicines, medical advice and treatment were provided for poor persons. Further enactments gave powers to the boards of guardians to send inmates of workhouses to extern hospitals and to send afflicted persons such as blind, deaf and dumb to suitable institutions. Extensive powers were given in relation to children under which they could be boarded out in suitable homes, sent to special schools and placed in suitable trades.
The Poor Relief Code remained in full force until the years 1920 to 1922. In those years the councils of several counties in conjunction with the Minister for Local Government of Dáil Eireann, believing that the existing poor law system was not suited to this country, took steps to reorganise the administration of the relief of the poor by means of schemes for the various counties. The main features of these schemes were:
(a) the abolition of the existing system under which the poor were relieved in workhouses established in each poor law union;
(b) the centralisation of administration under one authority in each county;
(c) the establishment in each county of central institutions in which the poor of the county could be assisted; and
(d) the provision of power to enable poor persons to be assisted either in or out of the central institutions as might be thought desirable.
The Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1923, legalised those schemes and gave power to the council of a county to which no existing scheme related to prepare a scheme and submit it to the Minister for Local Government. The Minister had power to confirm such scheme either without alteration or with such amendments, omissions, and additions as he deemed necessary, or to reject the scheme. The Minister was also empowered under the Act to amend and modify any county scheme. The Act also contained a provision under which the council of a county and the council of an adjoining county borough, instead of preparing separate schemes might prepare a joint scheme for the county and the county borough. Only two such schemes were prepared, one for Cork County and County Borough and the other for Waterford County and County Borough. The Cork scheme provided for the division of the county into three areas with separate administration for each area. The southern area of the county is administered jointly with the Cork County Borough by one administrative authority. Limerick County and County Borough Councils did not adopt a joint scheme. The two areas had separate schemes.
The councils of Dublin County and the county borough did not prepare either a joint scheme or separate schemes, and in those two areas the Poor Relief Acts have remained in full operation subject to two amending Acts, one of which removed the restrictions which limited outdoor relief to certain classes of poor persons and empowered the local authorities at their discretion to relieve destitute poor persons either in or out of the workhouse, and the other provided for the establishment of three boards of assistance in the area instead of the three boards of guardians. The boards of assistance, instead of being elected directly by the local government electors, are appointed by the county council in the case of two of the boards whose functional areas are wholly within the county, and by the county and county borough councils in the case of the third board, whose area is partly in the county and partly in the county borough.
It can be readily understood that, with all the various changes and alterations which have been made in the Poor Relief Acts since the year 1838, the code has grown very involved. On many points it is often difficult to determine what is the law, not alone in view of various amendments, but having regard to the fact that the county schemes have to be taken as implying modifications of the law. From the point of view of administration it is a matter of great importance that this position should be remedied, and that the law should be set out clearly and without ambiguity.
Another reason for bringing forward this Bill is that the powers given by the Act of 1923 were temporary. The Act was intended to give legal authority for the county schemes pending provision for more permanent legislation. The Act has since been renewed from year to year, and it is very desirable that this position should be terminated.
It may be well at this stage to refer to a further complication in the existing law which arises from the fact that the Poor Relief Acts, besides providing for the relief of the poor, contain provisions which have now become part of the general law of local government. This complex position is due to the manner in which local government has developed in this country. The boards of guardians were the first elected bodies to administer any form of local government in rural districts, and when it was later decided to establish local services not relating to the relief of the poor, the administration of them was assigned to the boards of guardians. The guardians, for example, became rural sanitary authorities. Subsequently, when county and district councils were established, provisions in the existing law relating to boards of guardians were utilised and applied to these councils. As a consequence, the different codes of local government law have become intermingled to an extent that does not make for clarity or simplify administration.
The main purposes of the Bill under consideration are:
(a) where the law is at present temporary, to place it on a permanent basis;
(b) to consolidate such provisions of the law as it is considered desirable to retain;
(c) to repeal any provisions considered obsolete or inapplicable to existing circumstances; and
(d) to introduce any amendments necessary to meet present conditions.
The Bill will include all the law relating solely to the administration of public assistance, but it will not include provisions which apply generally to all local administration. Such matters as borrowing powers, local inquiries, duties of inspectors, audit of accounts, appointment of officers, although essential to the administration of public assistance, relate generally to all the local government services. These will be dealt with in a Local Government Bill, and it will not be possible to bring the present Bill into force before the Local Government Bill is also in force, or some other provisions are made for these matters.
I do not think that the general scheme of the Bill calls for any explanation as all its provisions are clear and self-explanatory, but a few comments on the more important provisions may be necessary.
The Bill provides that the administration of the law relating to public assistance (which term is to replace the term "poor relief") shall be subject to the general direction and control of the Minister for Local Government and Public Health. For the purpose of administration the Bill states that the State is to be divided into public assistance districts. In this matter the Bill makes no change as the districts provided for are those already in existence. Each public assistance district is to be administered by a public assistance authority. In Dublin City and County the public assistance authorities are to be the existing boards of assistance. Where a public assistance district consists of a county borough the public assistance authority is to be the Corporation of the County Borough. Where the district consists of a county borough and a county, or part of a county, the public assistance authority is to be a board of public assistance elected by the Corporation of the County Borough and the Council of the County. In other cases the public assistance authority is to be the County Council. This latter is the only change proposed as regards local administrative authorities and it is included in anticipation of proposed legislation to give counties the benefit of the manager system which operates in county boroughs.
The definition of the classes of persons who will be eligible for assistance in pursuance of the Bill is similar to that contained in the county schemes but somewhat more detailed. It is specifically laid down as the duty of the public assistance authority to give public assistance to every person in their district eligible therefor, but in this matter they are allowed a discretion, in that they may give such assistance as may appear to them to be necessary or proper in each particular case.
Under the Bill the public assistance authority may provide for persons eligible for assistance maintenance, training, education and treatment in institutions, which institutions may be institutions maintained by the public assistance authority or institutions not so maintained. In this respect their powers will largely resemble those at present possessed by them. Provision is made in the Bill for assistance outside institutions which include home assistance and medical assistance.
The public assistance authorities will be required to provide institutions and to carry out improvements thereto as directed by the Minister.
I would like to draw attention to some of the powers proposed to be given by the Bill to public assistance authorities namely:—
(a) the power given in Section 20 to assist societies for relieving poor persons by contributing to their expenses, by supplying fuel, light, food, water or other commodity, by providing premises with furniture and fittings, and executing alterations and repairs to such premises;
(b) the power given in Section 21 to provide land for any public hospital or infirmary where satisfied that the treatment given in such hospital or infirmary renders useful aid in the administration of public assistance.
(c) the provisions of Section 22 as regards the payment of expenses of removal of a person eligible for assistance (with or without dependents), where such removal is likely to enable the person to support himself and his dependents by his own industry or other lawful means, and is generally for their benefit;
(d) the provision contained in Section 49 which enables a public assistance authority to contribute to the support, maintenance and education in an approved institution of any child who is deaf, dumb, blind, imbecile, idiot, epileptic or crippled, and whose parents are unable by reason of poverty to provide adequately for the training of the child;
(e) the power given in Section 63 to enable a public assistance authority to have land inspected for the purpose of ascertaining whether it is suitable for acquisition.
Special powers conferred on the Minister to which I might draw attention are those contained in Section 11 as regards the establishment of committees for two or more public assistance authorities for any purpose connected with the administration of public assistance where it appears to the Minister that joint administration would tend to reduce expense or be otherwise of public or local advantage.
Section 25 empowers the Minister to prescribe methods for determining the cost of different kinds of public assistance. This will simplify proceedings in a court dealing with an application for the recovery of the cost of assistance.
Section 35 will empower the Minister to direct that institutional assistance to a particular class of persons shall only be given in a special institution for that class where such is available.
As regards Section 38 I might point out that hitherto the Minister when altering or rearranging dispensary districts could not divide a district electoral division. When the Bill becomes law that restriction will no longer operate.
Section 41 gives the Minister power to require a public assistance authority to keep a dispensary in proper condition and repair. Hitherto he has not possessed this power. The Minister is also given a new power by Section 42, under which he may direct a public assistance authority to provide a residence for a dispensary officer.
Section 85 will empower the Minister to abolish any of the remaining county infirmaries. Hitherto the Minister could abolish a county infirmary by amending a county scheme. Seven such institutions still remain, and it may at some future time be considered desirable to have power to abolish a county infirmary in the interests of better hospital organisation.
The extensive provisions of the Bill for the protection of children are largely taken from the existing law. One important change is that the age up to which a child is a dependent for the purposes of the Bill has been raised from 15 to 16 years. Another provision prohibits the placing of a child under the age of 14 years at service or in a trade, calling or business.
The powers given in connection with the burial of the remains of poor persons are more extended than those already possessed. A public assistance authority will, under the Bill, be able to bring home for burial the body of a poor person who died outside their district.
As regards finance, the moneys required by a public assistance authority are to be raised equally over the whole of the public assistance district. Beyond fixing the borrowing limit, the Bill contains no provisions as regards borrowing, as this matter will be dealt with in the general Local Government Bill. The borrowing limit fixed is the same as that hitherto in force, namely, one-fourth of the valuation.
The powers to be given to the public assistance authority to acquire land are the same as those contained in the Public Assistance (Acquisition of Land) Act, 1934, which the Bill proposes to re-enact.
I might conclude by saying that the need for this Bill has long been felt by persons engaged in public administration. More than one public commission has given recommendation to some of the Provisions contained in the Bill. I think that the Bill has at least one point to recommend it in that it contains none of the rigidity which characterised the Poor Relief Acts. It is much more elastic, particularly as regards the provision of institutions in relation to which it does not tie down the responsible authorities to the provision of one or two institutions of a particular class, but leaves the position open so as to afford every opportunity for the growth and development of improved ideas for the institutional assistance of the poor.