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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jul 1939

Vol. 23 No. 6

Public Assistance Bill, 1939—Fifth Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass".

This is a Bill that more or less reached this distance without my being able to say what I should have liked to say about it on Second Reading debate, so I will deal very briefly with the points of general interest which I think should be considered before the Bill is finally allowed to pass. I may say, to begin with, that I am not opposed to this Bill. On the contrary, it is a Bill which, at all events, in the legislation it implies, commands my general assent, and my chief ground of criticism of it is that it is inopportune in the sense that it would come more logically after the foreshadowed reform of public administration. At all events, in the counties, it might be said by the Minister that no revolutionary change in local government is proposed. We will continue to have county councils, and, if I remember rightly, the chief reform of local administration in the counties will be the establishment of a county manager system of administration analogous to that which we already have in Dublin. I may say that I heartily approve of the extension of the principle of county manager administration to the counties, but, even if no revolutionary change is contemplated with reference to the counties, I think we are on the eve of substantial changes in the local administration of the City and County of Dublin. We should like to know what those changes are going to be, and in particular what area will be under the jurisdiction of greater Dublin when the Government has finally made up its mind upon this question, because I think a knowledge of that fact is germane not only to this Public Assistance Bill but to the whole subject matter of public assistance, of which this Bill is only a small part.

One of the forms of public assistance is the assistance by the State and by the ratepayers towards the provision of houses for the less well-to-do classes at less than economic rents. In fact, that assistance goes so far as to account for some two-thirds of the annual costs of such houses once they are built. That is a valuable and important form of public assistance which has reference to the general problem of public assistance to which this Bill also refers.

Now it is a matter of common knowledge that it would be much less expensive to build houses for the workers on virgin sites some distance away from the present congested city area. But these sites are not now under the jurisdiction of the municipal authority, and the Housing Committee at present in session cannot take into account the desirability of such sites, because it does not know what the future territorial limits of its jurisdiction will be. It is also a matter of common knowledge that one of the difficulties about housing poorer citizens some distance from the city is the cost of travel to and from their work. Another tribunal is at present investigating the problem of transport in general and, doubtless, the particular problem of suburban transport, and I suggest that the problem of transport, especially suburban transport, is related to the problem of housing, and the problem of housing, in fact, is part and parcel of the general problem of public assistance.

It would be desirable, I think, if only the territory in the City of Dublin were wide enough, to establish one or two satellite towns, preferably some distance out along the old Great Southern and the old Great Western Railways and to connect those satellite towns with Dublin by a local suburban rail service, which at present is practically non-existent on those two lines. Everyone familiar with the matter is aware that rail transport, especially suburban transport, for season ticket holders is the cheapest of all forms of suburban transport, and the problem of housing workers in healthy surroundings some distance away from the city would be much less difficult and expensive from the point of view of the people, as well as the point of view of public authorities, if some scheme of this kind could be contemplated by the municipal council. But at present it cannot contemplate any such thing, because it does not know what will be the future limits of its jurisdiction.

Further, there is also, I think, a general problem of public administration which might be adverted to in this Bill, because this Bill is, by implication, related to the general problem of public administration. There is, I think, a certain lack of co-ordination between the various social services on which the taxpayers' money is being spent. At the moment I think it is true to say that old age pensions are administered under the auspices of the Department of Finance and that the persons concerned primarily are pensions officers who are customs and excise officials. National health payments are, I believe, under the Department of Local Government. Unemployment assistance is administered by the Department of Industry and Commerce. If I am wrong in any of these points, doubtless the Parliamentary Secretary will correct me. Military pensions are administered by the Department of Defence. Poor law relief, or public assistance in the narrow and technical sense of the term, is administered by the local authorities under the supervision of the Department of Local Government. Now all this chaotic departmental administration of the various beneficent activities of the State is bound to cause a lot of waste and loss and greater expenditure to the taxpayers in general than would be the case if the whole matter were better co-ordinated and better arranged.

But, besides the taxpayers' point of view, there is also the point of view of the individual citizen. Under the present system, there is no guarantee that individual citizens are getting all their rights in the matter of social services. Some families may, by excessive cuteness, what they call wangling, get more than their rights; but other families are probably getting less than their rights. The trouble is that the ordinary citizen does not know to whom to apply for information covering the general scope of all the social services of the State. A case came before my notice lately of a widow who may or may not be eligible for a widow's pension. I dare say that if I undertook laborious legalistic research I could ascertain whether that person is eligible for a widow's pension or not. But the point is that she is typical of perhaps thousands of cases. For such people there ought to be some common central office where all the information would be coded and co-ordinated and where they would apply as a matter of course for information governing their cases. It is impossible for the individual citizen to know all about our existing chaotic system of social services. The problem then is one not only of reforming a bit of local administration, but of co-ordinating the whole of our central administration in the matter of social services, with some reorganised form of local administration in which the local county manager would play a central and what one might call a focal part.

If I might conclude by making a few recommendations, which ought to be kept in mind when the whole problem of public administration in relation to public assistance is being considered, they are these: I should like to see the county manager under the future county council system having an office, of which he would be the supervisor, and that office should be a kind of local focus in every county for all the beneficent activities of the State, whether they take the form of so-called public assistance or of so-called social services. I should like to see associated with the county manager, though not necessarily under his departmental control, certain civil servants belonging to the Central Government, but seconded at a certain period of their service for this local duty in connection with the administration of the services in the county. I think one advantage that would result from such local concentration of knowledge of all the social services and their effect on citizens would be that the State would have a single central office in each county which would have all the knowledge of all the effects of all the social services on the citizens generally and would have, and be ready to produce at a moment's notice, a complete picture of the social and economic condition of the people in the locality.

Another advantage that would result from this temporary association in the case of individual civil servants, but permanent so far as the system is concerned, with local activities would be that we would teach our civil servants to know something about the real conditions of life in the country. At present civil servants are too much concentrated in Dublin, and the only Central Government civil servants who have a local office in the country that I can think of at the moment are the people who are charged with relieving us of our surplus salaries, in other words, inspectors of taxes. It would be a good thing if some of the other departmental officials had to spend part of their official life down in the country. It might help to counteract that excessively urban point of view which dominates government not only in legislation, but also in public administration. May I illustrate what I mean? I have felt for some time that my somewhat lurid picture of the effect of the agricultural depression on agriculture in general——

May I ask what relation this has to the Public Assistance Bill? It looks as if the Senator is making a speech about the economic war.

I do not think the Senator is referring to the economic war.

I am not talking of the economic war.

The Senator may proceed.

Thank you. If my remarks are not relevant to the Bill, the Chair will tell me so, and I do not require any interruption from other Senators. I have felt for some time that the picture of agricultural depression requires certain qualifications, because I did not know to what extent the real hardships suffered by the small farming section of the community were, in effect, alleviated by the fact that many of them obtained work in connection with relief works, in connection with road work, and that many were qualified to obtain unemployment assistance. In the Gaeltacht areas many were able to obtain State money in connection with various services for the development of the Gaeltacht. To get a complete social picture of the condition of agriculture, one would need to know how these beneficent activities of the State alleviated the condition of a section of the farmers which, as far as agricultural records are concerned, was very distressful indeed. If we had a system of public administration in relation to public assistance of the kind I recommend, there would be an easy way to acquire that picture in the future.

Senator Johnston has covered a very wide field, and he introduced many matters, concerning our social services in general, that could only be remotely related to the terms of the Bill, if at all. I have no complaint to make on that score. The Senator is entitled to make whatever speech the Cathaoirleach considers he is entitled to make, but I am not prepared to follow him over the entire social field on the Fifth Stage of the Public Assistance Bill. A considerable portion of his speech was based on an entirely false premise. He seemed to form the impression that housing grants under the Housing Acts are a form of public assistance. I suppose it might be argued that they are a form of public financial assistance for people desiring to live under better housing conditions, but housing grants are not public assistance.

Does not the Minister for Finance call them public services?

And I presume they are a form of public assistance for housing.

On the last occasion the Bill was before the House the Senator said that, so far as the Dublin area was concerned—and I think that is what he is mainly concerned about to-day—we were putting the cart before the horse. I reminded him that we had a similar phrase a short time before in a leading article in one of the Dublin daily papers. The horse, apparently, is to arise out of future legislation based on the report of the Greater Dublin Tribunal. Why that possibility should be looked upon as the horse is something that I cannot understand. It seems to me that in this piece of legislation dealing with public assistance we have provided not only the horse but the cart and the harness —the complete machine ready to start.

And the load.

We inherited the load, as the Senator knows.

You increased the load immensely.

We increased the load as far as this particular type of legislation is concerned and, as far as the relief of the poor is concerned, we will continue to increase it, if necessary.

We are only helping you.

I suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary should be allowed to proceed without interruption.

The Senator's idea is not a bad one at all. If the Senator had taken the same line at an early stage of the Bill we might have had a more lively discussion, and perhaps something useful might result. An occasional interruption like that is helpful to me, particularly, because I am inclined to take it rather easy until forced into action. Senator Johnston said that this particular legislation is inopportune. I presume he was referring to the application of it to the Dublin area. To me it appears that it is long overdue. Why did we not apply it to Dublin in the first instance? That is really what is worrying the Senator. He appears to have convinced himself of the fact that we excluded Dublin City and County from the Bill as it originally appeared, and that the exclusion was possibly with a view to future legislation regarding the area of Dublin City and County. That had nothing whatever to do with it. The Senator probably knows, if he has been following the development of the social services in Dublin City and County, and throughout the rest of the country, that Dublin City and County failed to adopt a county scheme. Perhaps if he was listening to the Second Reading debate in the House, or if he read it, he will remember that during the years 1920-22 the Local Government Department of Dáil Eireann decided to reform the public assistance code, and to bring it more into accordance with the sentiments of our people, and that in 1923, when the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act gave the necessary statutory sanction to the county schemes that were formulated by the various local authorities, Dublin City and County declined to adopt a county scheme. Over a long period of years efforts have been made from time to time to get Dublin City and County to fall into line, as far as public assistance is concerned, with the rest of the country. So far, we have been unsuccessful. The old poor law code continued to operate in the City and County of Dublin, and will continue to operate, until this Bill becomes law. Not only the present Government, but the previous Minister for Local Government, tried unsuccessfully to get Dublin to come into line.

Is Dublin City and County outside the jurisdiction of the Oireachtas?

No, they are inside it, and inside the jurisdiction of this Bill now. I am explaining to the Senator how that came about. When the Bill reached the Second Stage in the Dáil representatives of Dublin City and County discovered that there were many attractive features in the new code of legislation, and they expressed a desire to have some 20 sections of the Bill grafted on to the old poor law code as far as Dublin City and County were concerned. I pointed out on the Second Reading that that was not possible, and that if they wanted to have some 20 desirable sections in the Bill, they would have to take the whole Bill, and fall into line with the rest of the country. I put this question to the House, and to the Dublin representatives particularly: Were there any objectionable features in the Bill that the representatives of Dublin City and County thought should not apply, or did the attractive features outweigh the objectionable features? I expressed willingness on the Second Reading to reconsider the whole position if there was any general desire expressed to have the Bill applied to Dublin.

In the interval between Second Reading and the Committee Stage in the Dáil, representations were made to my Department that it would be desirable to apply the Bill to Dublin. These representations came from responsible quarters and were made by representative people. On Committee Stage, I stated in the Dáil that the principle of applying the Bill to the Dublin area had been agreed upon and that the necessary amendments would be moved on the Report Stage. The necessary amendments were moved on Report Stage and, though Dublin City and County are very fully represented in the Dáil, a single word of protest or criticism of the extension of the terms of this Bill to Dublin City and County was not uttered.

I do not object to the extension to Dublin City and County, either.

I hope the Senator now understands why Dublin was excluded in the first instance, and why the Bill was applied to Dublin at a subsequent stage, during the discussion on it in the Dáil, and that it had not any relation to the possibility of future legislation arising out of the Greater Dublin Tribunal Report. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that legislation is introduced that will alter the geographical area that now constitutes Dublin City. That will not in any way interfere with the operation of this Bill. A consequential clause in such a Bill, if it ever saw the light of day, would provide for any geographical alteration that such a Bill might make in the existing public assistance areas in Dublin City and County.

Senator Johnston suggested that we should co-ordinate all our social services. We could have a very interesting discussion on that matter. It is quite possible that such a line of development is well worthy of consideration. But I put it to Senator Johnston that we must make a beginning somewhere and that we have made a definite beginning here when we co-ordinate our public assistance legislation, dating back fully 100 years and embodying some 36 Acts of Parliament. I suggest to the Senator that that is no little task, that it is a very big work in itself, and the fact that we have taken that step is a very considerable advance towards the co-ordination of our social services.

We have further legislation in contemplation. I dare say that there is some of it that the Senator would like to know more about, but I am not in a position to give him any further information upon it now. The coming Public Health Bill, the coming Local Government Bill and the Managerial Bill will, I think, all be clearing the way and leading towards the better co-ordination of our social services anyhow; but we must take one Bill at a time. We cannot present this House or the Dáil with half-a-dozen Bills of first-rate importance, at the same time.

It would not be the first time it happened.

From the same Department?

I cannot remember whether they were from the same Department.

The Senator's memory is conveniently faulty, I am afraid. I do not know whether Senator Johnston has got, in my reply, altogether the type of information for which he was looking. I believe what is really exercising him is to try to extract on the Fifth Stage of this Bill some intimation of Ministerial policy in relation to a matter that has not yet been decided. However, I cannot give him any further information on that save to say that when the more urgent matters that the Department are at present concerned with are dealt with, the report of the Greater Dublin Tribunal will then be dealt with.

Question agreed to.

Ordered: That the Bill, as amended, be returned to the Dáil.