I wish to inform the House that amendments Nos. 1 to 9 inclusive, 11, 12, 14, 16 and 23 to 27, inclusive, have been ruled out of order as they involve a potential charge on the revenue.
Social Welfare Bill, 1992: Committee and Final Stages.
I put it to the Minister that the new rates in respect of disability benefit, maternity allowance, injury benefit, disablement gratuity, disablement pension, unemployment benefit, deserted wife's benefit, invalidity pension, retirement pension, death benefit, old age contributory pensions, survivor's benefit, widow's contributory pension and orphan's contributory pensions, should come into operation as and from April of the governing year. That was the purpose of the three amendments I tabled and which have been ruled out of order. Perhaps starting next year, these benefits could come into effect from April of the appropriate year. As I said yesterday, many of these people are totally dependent on social security benefits as their only source of income and they should receive better treatment from the State. I appeal to the Minister to consider April as the governing month, rather than July, for the future.
Senator Kennedy well knows I cannot accept his objections to section 3. This argument has come up on a number of occasions in the Dáil, whoever was Minister for Social Welfare. The purpose of section 3 is to provide for increases in the weekly rates as announced in the budget. The argument put forward by Senator Kennedy and others in and outside the House does not logically stand up. If we were to do that this year or any year it would effectively give an extra backdated payment. It is really a political argument. What causes confusion is that on the day of the budget when the Minister for Finance announces increases in social welfare payments many people feel they are going to apply immediately or at least from 6 April. If the Government decided, for example this year, not to give these increases until September or October, that would be unfair and unjust. That would, effectively, be a kind of sleight-of-hand in order to save the State some money.
The increases will come into effect from July, at various dates, as they have done in previous years. People expect their increase at that time of the year. We are not doing social welfare recipients out of any extra money. If you are negotiating on behalf of your fellow workers and you get your wage increase every year on the same date, that is fair. I accept that it causes confusion to some people when it is announced in the budget and people expect an increase in benefit will come into effect earlier. If they think about it they will realise they get their increase on the same date every year; it is an annual increase.
I cannot accept the proposition put forward by the Senator because to so do would be to say the increases announced last year would only last for seven or eight months, a backdated payment would be made and there would be a charge to the Exchequer. If we did that on this occasion, to bring in the increases from 6 April it would in effect mean an extra cost to the State of £30 million. Therefore, I cannot accept the justification put forward by Senator Kennedy.
To put the record straight a Leas-Chathaoirligh, since the Minister will obviously on all these issues put a heavy emphasis on cost, total State expenditure on social welfare as distinct from expenditure from the social insurance fund, and I include the Government's topping up of insurance funds, is estimated for 1992 at about £1.85 billion. Total State expenditure on social welfare at the end of 1988 was £1.53 billion. A 16 per cent increase took place between the end of 1988 and the end of 1992. Unless I am wrong, that equals the cumulative rate of inflation over the four years and incorporates into it a large compulsory element because of increased numbers of unemployed. The result is a reduction in real terms in expenditure on the poor through social welfare.
The Minister may say and we all accept that it is not easy to pay for these things but the underlying statement is that payment is so difficult that we must sacrifice the poor to provide these funds because overall expenditure on social welfare is not even keeping pace — given the massive increase in the numbers of unemployed — and we are giving less to the poor than four years ago. I invite the Minister to explain why the Government have adopted the priority of decreasing expenditure on the poor in real terms.
I do not accept that contention. I remember doing some figures in this regard going back as far as 1983 and in 1992 total social welfare expenditure as a percentage of gross national product will be 13.4 per cent; in 1988 it was 13.8 per cent. The Senator must remember that increasing levels of unemployment mean that people, through no fault of their own, end up in the social insurance or social assistance categories. They have to be paid and what the Government have done since 1987 — I know Senator Ryan and others will make the case that we have not done enough — is to draw near the priority rate levels in the majority of cases as set by the Commission on Social Welfare.
To reach the total rates set by the Commission on Social Welfare would impose an enormous cost on the State. The answer to all these problems goes like this: there were only 180,000 people unemployed as against 280,000 people unemployed then it is self-evident that the State — if they were to keep the percentage anywhere near 13.4 per cent of welfare expenditure to GNP — would be able to implement the rates recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare. As an interim step the Government, since 1987, have reached in the majority of long term cases the priority rate set by the Commission on Social Welfare and in 1993 we will achieve it in all rates. That is a significant step.
There is an ever increasing demand on Exchequer resources by the Department of Social Welfare which will not diminish in the short or medium term. We have kept the amounts of money paid to different categories of social welfare higher than many people would have thought possible. I do not claim that people living on the basic social welfare rate are living in the lap of luxury. That is not true, but we have provided a reasonable level of assistance and, as Senator Ryan pointed out, the cost to the Exchequer of the Department of Social Welfare this year as provided for in the Estimates will be £1,853 million, a substantial amount of money. Since 1987 we have done a good job given the ever increasing demands on State expenditure arising from the high numbers of unemployed.
We are not on the same wavelength. I can find only a small number of rates of payment here which are in excess of £62 a week, the minimum rate set down by the Commission on Social Welfare. I do not think the Minister is playing a game with me by using 1985 figures in 1992 but the figures now should be between £62 and £69 a week for an individual. I can only find a small number of rates in excess of £62 a week and an even smaller number in excess of £69 for an individual. The Minister uses the term "long term".
Is a widow's non-contributory pension not a long term payment? I do not know what other payment a widow without insurance is going to have other than a widow's non-contributory payment. From July 1992 that payment will be £57.20, which is at least £5 a week below what the Commission on Social Welfare recommended. I do not want to be begrudging; I accept that we are moving in the right direction a little faster than we are moving towards other targets, but many of the rates are still substantially below recommended levels.
The rate for disability benefit, unemployment benefit and injury benefit is £53 a week while the Commission on Social Welfare suggest that insurance based rates should be around £69 a week. I do not want to spend the whole day at this but I cannot let even this most plausible of Ministers away with that. We are a long way from the rates set down by the Commission on Social Welfare. There have been considerable improvements but they have been at the expense of the slightly less poor in the interest of the somewhat poorer. Could the Minister tell me what he thinks are the rates recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare? Do we agree about the range of figures?
Where we are getting confused is between the recommended commission rates and the recommended commission priority rates. Senator Ryan is not mixing them up deliberately but he is talking about commission rates and I am talking about commission priority rates. In 1985 terms, we have achieved the priority rates recommended by the commission in most cases. For example, there are 266,000 person receiving social insurance payments at a higher level than the commission priority rates, that is, 266,000 out of a total of 397,000 or 67 per cent of persons in receipt of social insurance payments fall into this category. Out of 770,000 social welfare recipients, over 587,000, or 75 per cent, are receiving social assistance payments at a higher level than the commission's priority rates.
The Commission on Social Welfare recommended that we reach the priority rates in 1985. By the end of 1993, we will have achieved in 1992 terms, the priority rates in all of those areas; we are not trying to fool people by saying we have achieved priority rates in 1985 terms and we have it indexed for inflation. By next year we will have reached priority rate levels in all areas of social welfare; we will not have reached the rates set by the Commission on Social Welfare because to implement their rates of payments in 1992 terms would cost the State an extra £340 million this year. We may be talking at cross purposes about it. The rates recommended by the commission should improve the standard of living for social welfare recipients to the proper level. As an interim step the commission asked us to achieve the priority rates which we have done in the figures outlined in the majority of cases, and by next year in all cases — we cannot have figures for next year's budget — it is the Government's stated intention in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress that in 1993 we will achieve priority rates in all categories of social expenditure.
The Minister has the figures but what are his views? What are the priority rates? He says that considerable numbers of people have exceeded them. What is the weekly priority rate people have exceeded? I would like this information for comparative purposes.
In social welfare payments section the priority rates recommended by the Commission of Social Welfare have already been achieved in the case of the old age contributory, retirement, invalidity and widows' contributory pension schemes, deserted wife's benefit, the maternity allowance scheme for women in employment and the occupational injury benefit schemes. The disability benefit and unemployment benefit schemes are the only social insurance payments which are not yet at the commission's priority level. I have given the figures regarding percentage terms of the total.
In the social assistance payments categories the following is the position. The priority rates recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare have been achieved in the case of all long term social assistance payments — long term unemployment assistance, pre-retirement allowance, old age and blind pensions, women's non-contributory pensions, deserted wife's allowance, prisoner's wife's allowance, single woman's allowance and lone parent's allowance. The rates of short term social assistance payments are £3.50 below the priority rates recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare and the Government have given a firm commitment to increase these rates to the commission's priority rates by 1993. This year has seen a major step in this direction with an increase of £3 or 6 per cent in the weekly rate of short term social assistance payments, that is, short term unemployment assistance, carer's allowance and supplementary welfare allowance. I have given the percentage figures of the total number of people in those categories. Now the Senator has all the information he needs to hang me next year if we do not achieve the priority rates in all cases.
I have every intention of doing so.
I do not wish to keep the House on this but I do not agree with section 4.
I wish to record my party's objection to this section as well. I submit that the new rates should apply from April of the relevant year.
I have already given the answers, and like Senator Kennedy and Senator Ryan I agree that section 4 provides for increases in the weekly rates of social assistance payments announced in the budget. I have given the reasons in my reply to section 3 I believe we are going in the right direction.
I would like to refer to the Government's decision not to increase child benefit. The Minister readily acknowledged yesterday that this benefit is one of the best ways to eliminate family poverty. I raise this issue at this stage because I do not know of any more appropriate place where I can raise it.
Forty per cent of Irish children are now living in households below the minimum income level identified by the Commission on Social Welfare. Many children live in very serious deprivation and this situation has been referred to as a major scandal by the Justice Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors. The current indication from the Government is that it will take ten years to solve the problem. I do not have to remind the Minister of the reports of the ESRI, the Combat Poverty Agency and all other agencies involved in this area who have pointed out that huge numbers of children now live in dire poverty, and that is the purpose of amendment No. 8 which I tabled.
The Minister might like briefly, as he did yesterday, to indicate where he stands on this criticial area of support for mothers, families and children in this country. He might indicate what the future holds for them as he moves into a more permanent situation in his portfolio.
Section 5 has nothing to do with child benefit allowances as the Senator knows but I will refer to what he was speaking about. Section 5 provides for the payment of an additional weekly allowance to recipients of the invalidity pension who are aged 80 yeas and over. This extension of the over 80 allowance brings invalidity pension into line with other social welfare payments. I know the Senators will not be opposing section 5.
Yesterday evening when replying to parts of the debate on Second Stage we argued about child benefit. Our views on that area are as follows. I have no hesitation in saying that of all the allowance money paid out by the Department of Social Welfare, the one area where one may be assured that the best value is got for money, where there is no waste, and everything is done perfectly is the child benefit area. The payments claimed by mothers are the greatest response the State gets in the whole social welfare area. There may be abuses and anomalies in other parts of the system but I and experts in this area are agreed that the child benefit system works well.
My predecessor over a number of years reduced the number of child dependent allowances from 36 different rates to three rates. Some Senator pointed out yesterday that there was no increase this year in child benefit or in what is usually known as childrens' allowance. That is not the first occasion this has happened; not every budget introduced to Dáil Éireann has increased childrens' allowance. There is no point in Members of the Dáil or Seanad asking me to do it now because it would have to have been provided for in the budget announced by the Minister for Finance. Child dependent allowances of people on social insurance payments or social assistance payments have been increased in this budget. There are a number of anomalies and I remember a dispute last year — maybe that is not the appropriate word — between the Department of Finance and the Department of Social Welfare regarding incentives. Some group were able to prove that people with X number of children in certain situations were not better off working. It is a fact that for people with certain numbers of children in the present social welfare system, other people would have to earn a considerable amount of money before they would be in the same financial position.
If everyone could agree that child benefit was the best way to give resources to the poor we would have to examine a few fundamentals. I am convinced that mothers whether in a poor part of County Kildare or in the most expensive part of Dublin 4, all wish to receive their child benefit allowance. Some people who live in Dublin 4 with incomes perhaps of a couple of hundred thousand pounds may say in a pub or shop they should not be receiving that money but I know in my heart of hearts that women regard that money as their own, as recognition of their work in the home or whatever. As sure as I am standing here, if a Minister for Social Welfare or Finance said they were going to take money from those earning in excess of X amount, as has been suggested by Ministers over the past 20 years, we would have a sure recipe for political disaster. Women feel that no matter what category they are in or what their husband's incomes are the childrens' allowance is their money.
Senator Jackman made a good point when she said that many people living in posh estates in Dublin, Kildare, Cork, Limerick and Clare have husbands on excellent incomes compared to the low rates of payment a person on basic social welfare gets but may not be allowed to use even their own phones as their husbands lock them when they go out. Those people may have a second car outside the door but there may be no petrol in it because the husband will not provide it. This may apply to a small minority of people but taking all those categories into consideration, it would be better to retain the allowance for everyone.
A long time ago I said it was ridiculous that the wives of certain wealthy people should be getting children's allowance in the same way as a person living in a poor part of Newbridge or Naas. Having thought about the matter for a long time before I came to the Department of Social Welfare I arrived at the conclusion contained in this Bill. If we want to restrict children's allowances we may have to concede that we cannot justify giving allowances to the wealthy people of Dublin 4. I cannot justify that except on the political basis that women want recognition. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that women, as long as they are guaranteed child benefit allowances will not be too concerned about mechanisms introduced to tax their husband's income. This measure may be for a future Government to consider and it is recommended in various reports that we grasp that nettle.
Some Government will have to consider the question of taxing child benefit allowances because that would allow more money into the system; there would be an increase in the value of child benefit allowances going to people who really need it with no clawback.
Yesterday Senator Ryan spoke about decreasing tax rates. The higher the tax rates the less benefit wealthy people receive from child benefit allowances. As tax rates come down the point cannot be made which used to be made heretofore that we claw back the children's allowance. I do not think the previous Government or this Government have ever considered implementing that proposal. Everyone may be in favour of this in principle but it means grasping the political nettle and I do not know whether this Government will ever grapple with it. If we want to target resources to those in greatest need, the best way to do it is to tax child benefit allowances. If we want to free up both resources we may have to adopt that measure.
A former Minister for Finance, Deputy Richie Ryan, in 1977 talked about removing children's allowance from people above a certain income unit and brought the country down on top of him. The debate has gone on long enough about that and I do not think women will accept that proposal. If we are serious about targeting resources in the child benefit area taxation is one option which will have to be considered but the decision will be for some future Government to take. We have gone a long way from section 5 but since Senator Kennedy was outraged I thought I had better respond to him.
Amendment No. 9, in the name of Senator Kennedy is out of order. Amendments Nos. 10 and 15 are related and may be discussed together.
One of the most fundamental weaknesses of this Bill is the process of multiple means-testing based on gross incomes rather than net incomes. The purpose of my amendment No. 9 was that assessment of weekly family income should be based on the net weekly income of a family less any income in respect of a child. That would be much fairer.
The Senator may discuss that issue on the section but amendment No. 9 has been ruled out of order.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 8, before subsection (2), to insert the following subsection:
"(2) The Minister shall arrange, in association with the Revenue Commissioners, for the issue of an information notice in relation to the family income supplement scheme and which shall be enclosed with each P60 form issued by the Revenue Commissioners.".
In natural constitutional justice reasons should always be given where applicants are unsuccessful. In tabling these amendments I wanted to give the Minister an opportunity of making a comment.
I am a little confused about amendment No. 10 and its relation to Senator Kennedy's amendment to section 10, amendment No. 15. We are taking the amendments together.
That is correct.
The wording of both refers to the supply of information by the Department of Social Welfare. Does this request refer to specific information being put in a certain envelope? I find extraordinary co-operation is provided to everybody by the Department of Social Welfare which people did not always receive in the past. I have no trouble supporting Senator Kennedy's proposals but the Department of Social Welfare give information freely. Is the Senator asking for information to be put in a specific envelope?
Senator Kennedy's amendment is a constructive suggestion and one I enthusiastically support. There appears to be a problem about the take-up of the family income supplement. When this concept was introduced by the 1983-87 Government there was an expectation of a larger take-up than materialised. I wonder how many people at work do not consider themselves entitled to claim anything from the social welfare system or are not aware of the existence of family income supplement. The one authoritive document everybody at work receives is a P60 and it would not require an enormous amount of work by the Department of Social Welfare or an employer's computer to identify those working for a particular employer whose income, linked to the number of children they have, would entitle them to a family income supplement. There was a time when I believed the Department of Social Welfare did not want to tell people about entitlements because they wanted to save money but I have moved beyond that at this stage. I believe Senator Kennedy's amendment should be accepted. People do read their P60s, particularly with regard to the amount of tax they have paid and if you flag what they read, then you will draw their attention to the fact that family income supplement exists. It should not be difficult to include with that information notes on how to apply for the various benefits. This would encourage people to apply for such benefits as family income supplement.
I support amendment No. 10 and I doubt if anyone could argue with amendment No. 15, although I suspect the Minister will say that what is being proposed has been effected already. There has been some improvement in regard to information on the appeals process but I have tabled an amendment about specific issues. These are two constructive amendments, but I am sure they will not be accepted simply because the Dáil cannot be reconvened tomorrow to approve them.
It is unrealistic that in this House, we deal regularly with Committee Stages of Bills knowing that the Dáil has adjourned and that by the time it reassembles the Bill will have had to be passed. That is what renders this kind of exercise a little meaningless. Perhaps both amendments could be taken on board by a Minister who wants to make progress, without altering legislation.
I think everybody would agree in principle with amendment No. 15 but in my experience what is being proposed has been the practice of late. It is a matter of ensuring that at local level full information is available regarding benefits. I use the relevant information booklet as a sort of bible. It is important that both the leaflets and the general booklet be available to as many people as possible.
In regard to amendment No. 10, a P60 is issued by an employer to each employee so I do not think that would be the appropriate mechanism to use in the case we are talking of. I recall that two years ago a leaflet regarding exemption limits was attached to the tax free allowance certificates. That was of great assistance to those concerned. Likewise an information leaflet on the family income supplement could be issued in the same way. I hope that the problem I raised yesterday will be addressed, otherwise certain anomalies will become apparent.
I do not agree with Senator Ó Cuív. The P60, as distinct from the tax free allowance certificate, is a statement of how much one has earned and unless one is working in the black economy a P60 will indicate one's total income. Unless they get that document many people may not know what exactly their total income is. The P60 should indicate to a person who has a family and whose income is below a certain figure how they might claim family income supplement. It should be clear from the section of the form in which their total income is listed as to what they are entitled to. It is also possible that there might be a greater impetus from the point of view of the other partner in a marriage. As the Minister has said, women appear to be the more efficient users of money in these situations which is the reason child benefit is such a good idea. Therefore, there is a very strong case for using the P60 rather than the tax free allowance certificate to make available the kind of information we are talking of.
We had a worthwhile debate in the Dáil in which sentiments similar to those expressed here in relation to amendment No. 10 were expressed. Senator O Cuív is correct when he says that a P60 is issued by your employer after 5 April showing gross pay and tax and which one can use to claim other allowances. Therefore, the information in question should be included with each tax free allowance certificate. The Revenue Commissioners send tax free allowance certificates to everybody each year. This year they included an explanatory leaflet, detailing exemption limits and information regarding the family income supplement. Perhaps Senators and Deputies did not get the document giving that information but it was included generally. We passed this document around in the Dáil during the debate and Deputy Bell suggested an amendment to the document which would put greater emphasis on the family income supplement. We agreed to take that on board. As the Revenue Commissioners have sent out all the tax free allowance certificates this year it would be impossible to do this now but the family income supplement provision is mentioned in the document that was circulated. We will discuss the matter with the Revenue Commissioners so that the information may be set out more clearly next year.
In principle, I do not oppose amendments Nos. 10 and 15 but it would not be appropriate to include them in the Bill. I compliment Senators for raising the point about making available more information regarding benefits. We have taken this idea on board already but we will ask the Revenue Commissioners to make further adjustments in order to simplify the explanatory material relating to the family income supplement.
Perhaps the Department of Social Welfare give out more information than any other Department. They use the Aertel system on television. They have a large information service and use many resources to dispense information. When an application for benefit under any of the schemes is unsuccessful we give the reasons.
It is not lack of information that is the cause of the low take up of the income supplement scheme. The Department of Social Welfare have gone out of their way in the past couple of years to emphasise this scheme, yet independent surveys have shown that the take-up level is not what might have been expected. At the end of 1991, approximately 7,200 people availed of the family income supplement. An independent consultants' report carried out some years ago suggested that the number of applicants under that scheme could amount to 12,000. In the Department, in the Dáil and in this House the question of the low take up of the scheme has been discussed. We have done everything in our power to make the information available to the public. The level of take up does concern us but we have done our best in this instance. I urge people to consider the family income supplement and ascertain whether they qualify within its terms. Perhaps there is the feeling that this supplement relates only to people who are not in employment, that it is more or less a social welfare scheme. It is a scheme for people in employment but on low incomes. We must give this scheme greater publicity.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. Obviously he is in broad sympathy with the sentiments in the two amendments. Rather than push the amendments today, I would be happy if the Minister looked at the issue again and, perhaps, deal with it by way of ministerial regulation. However, the debate has been constructive.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 8, before subsection (2), to insert the following subsection:
"(2) Notwithstanding anything to the contrary provided elsewhere, the provisions of the Principal Act shall not be so construed or applied so as to exclude from entitlement to dental benefits under that Act persons whose income is equal to, or exceeds, the earnings ceiling for pay-related social insurance contributions, and who would otherwise qualify for such benefit.".
I refer again to what I regard as a fundamental weakness in this Bill, that is the decision by the Minister and, indeed, the Government to axe dental and optical benefits in respect of those earning more than £25,000 a year and, indeed, to withdraw deserted wife's benefit from women earning £12,000 or more a year. It seems that, approximately, 40,000 earners, most of them in the PAYE sector, will lose those benefits from this month even though they are paying full PRSI contributions.
Deputy McCreevy is an honest and reasonable Minister but surely he does not believe that people earning £25,000 per year gross will not be hurt by this measure.
The Minister, his Department and the Government are out of touch with reality if they suggest otherwise. This sort of thinking ignores the many deductions, in respect of tax, PRSI and so on, that are made from salaries. A deserted wife, for instance, earning £12,000 a year is not living in luxury on that account. She has many commitments to meet, including having her children taken care of while she is out working.
I suggest to the Minister and, indeed, to the Minister for Finance that this whole area be examined. This proposal is regrettable and should not be enshrined in legislation.
It is well for people who are on a salary of £25,000 a year. In my 20 years of work I have never reached a salary anywhere near £25,000. We should make up our minds as to whether resources are to be directed to the poor. Over the past few years tax rates, etc. for the relatively better off have been reduced substantially. We cannot have it every way. There is only a limited amount of money in the pot and I have no qualms with the limit of £25,000. My view is that you either take from people in that earning bracket or from people who are much worse off. As I stated yesterday, I accept that some people might be short of money on a salary of £25,000 a year, but if people generally are short of money on the level of salary, I hope they appreciate the problems of a married couple living on £88 a week. That is where the dilemma arises. We must direct resources to the less well off. If ever I reach a salary scale of £25,000 a year, I will be happy to pay for both dental and optical benefits, and, as you see, I do need glasses.
As one whose income is in excess of £25,000 and who is in the public sector, the form of PRSI I pay does not entitle me to either of the benefits in question. I have no problem with means tests on a cut-off point of £25,000, but I would like to know how much in net terms does the Minister think he will save from the £25,000, taking into account administration costs and so on? The £12,000 salary provision is a different matter. It is a figure which may well be adjusted downwards quite rapidly.
My understanding of this means test is that all applicants will have to submit a statement of means to prove their income. Such applications will have to be processed by some official. The argument about means tests has always been that at the level at which you begin to make substantial savings which justify the paperwork involved, you begin to penalise people who should be in receipt of the benefit. Medical expenses are an enormous burden for many people on low incomes, but in order to make the medical card system work and, indeed, in order to keep the doctors happy, the income requirement has to be kept at a certain level. This is true of all means tests. Therefore to ensure a means test generates significant savings you have to operate it at a level of income which penalises people on relatively low incomes. If the eligibility figure is high, the savings will not be significant.
I think that a little deal has been done between the Department of Social Welfare and dentists. This is the first opportunity I have had to say this because, by way of an anecdote, until recently, the president of the Irish Dental Union was my dentist. I heard all about the IDU campaign on this issue during times when I felt extremely vulnerable and, therefore, not in a position to record my dissent from their campaign. I favour the extension of dental benefits and I suspect this means test is designed for that purpose also. As a classic example of the way different categories are treated in our society, when we introduced the income-related property tax, we built into the Finance Acts indexation of income and the property values and this is the first year a Minister has adjusted those indices downwards. Up to this, people were copperfastened against inflation. I predict that the £25,000 income level in respect of dental and optical benefits will not last very long. If it remains stagnant inflation will do the job for the Minister. Alternatively it will gradually be reduced and in ten years time the figure will be closer to £12,000 than £25,000. This always happens with means tests. In real terms, the means test for the higher education grants scheme is way behind what it would have been 20 years ago. Means testing in the case in question will not justify the paperwork involved if it is not made to cut much deeper than £25,000.
Will the Minister, as an accountant, say if he believes there are only 4,000 self-employed people in the county earning in excess of £25,000 a year? One of the problems about this measure is that because of the patent injustice in the system, PAYE workers will be the ones to be penalised. According to the Revenue Commissioners there are only 4,000 self employed people earning in excess of £25,000 a year.
Before I deal with treatment benefits, I can say that we have a photo copy of the Revenue Commissioners's information leaflet in which the family income supplement is mentioned. We will strengthen that and supply an application form in the future.
In relation to treatment benefits and the amendment put down by Senator Kennedy, this is not means tested. I agree with much of what has been said about means tests, the administrative cost involved and so on, but this is not a means test. This scheme for treatment benefits is for insured workers and, details relating to them are in the central records system of th Revenue Commissioners so that is only a matter of pushing a button to find out if a person's P60 shows gross earnings in excess of £25,000 a year. I know Senator Brendan Ryan has been in academia all his life, but I have spent part of my life in another profession. As the Senator is aware, at the end of the year, each employer has to submit P35s which show gross earnings, tax and social welfare deductions, etc. of employees. That is why the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Welfare, by way of TV news bulletins, advertisments etc. ask people to return their P35s by a certain date.
The points raised yesterday about the self-employed will not come into this at all because they are not covered by these treatment benefits schemes. Less well off people are covered for optical and dental benefits under the medical card system of the Department of Health, whereas the benefits we are talking of here relate to the Department of Social Welfare and apply to insured workers. Therefore, there will not be a cost for the means test——
——and the saving from the £25,000 income limit will be, approximately, £1 million per year. The income limit for treatment benefit is not mentioned in the Bill and many commentators referred to this when the Bill was published. Last December it was announced that there would be a cut-off limit but this is done by regulation and does not need to be inserted in the Social Welfare Bill, 1992.
The dental dispute is a classic pyrrhic victory situation. In 1987 following hard fought battles by many people in Ireland, including Members of the Dáil and Seanad — particularly women Deputies and the Congress of Trade Unions — the wives of insured workers were given the right to avail of dental benefits. That meant that, approximately, another 300,000 people were covered under the treatment benefit scheme. That was a great victory for the wives of insured workers who were going to be entitled to free dental benefit. However, only a few dentists were prepared to operate the scheme as it then existed. The dispute has been going on for many years and despite efforts by various Ministers it has not been resolved. As a result, very few of those 300,000 people could avail of dental benefit, regardless of whether they were in the £20,000 or £25,000 a year income bracket. Dentists refused to operate the scheme.
Following long negotiations with officials of my Department and the Irish Dental Association I am hopeful the dispute will soon be resolved. I understand the Irish Dental Association are at present holding a ballot among their members. However, in fairness to the Irish Dental Association, it would be incorrect to say that the question of income limits, etc., was negotiated with me; it was not. If the dispute is not resolved the new dental agreement between my Department and the Irish Dental Association will apply from July and people will then be able to receive this treatment. It has been decided to impose an income limit at this stage because we do not anticipate a couple of hundred thousand women running into every dentist who is in the scheme in the next few months, but there will be ongoing costs in this regard.
We must protect the Exchequer from an increasing demand on funds in this area, given that the dental dispute is resolved. For that reason an income limit had to be decided on and £25,000 was the figure we set. The regulations have not yet been drafted, but we are considering how to deal with certain anomalies which will arise if a strict income limit of £25,000 is imposed. It has been stated in the papers, and by Senator Kennedy, that 40,000 people will be affected by the imposition of this income limit, but the Department of Social Welfare estimate that not more than 18,000 people will be affected this year. There are, approximately, 450,000 applications every year and we reckon that roughly 4 per cent of those people — 18,000 — will be affected by this measure. However, we must wait and see what will happen in this dental dispute.
Let me take the case raised by some Senators yesterday. If, for example, Senator Brendan Ryan had only an income as a Seanadóir, which is less than £25,000 a year, and his wife's income was also less than £25,000 a year, bringing their total income to £40,000 and assumming they paid their insurance contributions, under this scheme, they would both be entitled to dental treatment benefit. If we take the case of a Dáil Deputy — not a Minister — whose salary is slightly less than £29,000 a year, leaving aside the fact that he does not pay the full contribution rate, etc, the spouse of that Deputy would not be entitled to treatment benefit if a strict income limit of £25,000 is imposed. In drafting regulations I am endeavouring to get over this problem. As Senators are aware, under equal treatment legislation if a wife has paid her PRSI contributions and her income is £24,950 and her husband's income is £24,950 both will be entitled to treatment benefit under a strict £25,000 limit. Some recognition will be given to this in the regulations. We are working on this at the moment and we hope to come up with a satisfactory solution soon.
We are back to the question of cohabitation.
That is another problem. We will try not to impose a strict income limit, a differentiation will have to made between single income and double income families. If I impose a limit in a certain way I believe fewer than 18,000 people will be affected by it. To answer the question as Charles McCreevy, accountant, in regard to the number of self-employed people earning more than £25,000, I saw that report and find it difficult to accept. Many people classified as self-employed set up limited companies and, technically are directors and PAYE employees of limited companies. Perhaps, that is where the anomaly lies in that regard. I have not studied the report but I have heard people refer to it.
- Cosgrave, Liam
- Howard, Michael.
- Jackman, Mary.
- Kennedy, Patrick.
- Manning, Maurice.
- Ross, Shane P.N.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Bennett, Olga.
- Byrne, Hugh.
- Byrne, Seán.
- Conroy, Richard.
- Dardis, John.
- Foley, Denis.
- Haughey, Seán F.
- Honan, Tras.
- Hussey, Thomas.
- Keogh, Helen.
- Kiely, Dan.
- Kiely, Rory.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Mullooly, Brian.
- O'Brien, Francis.
- Ó Cuív, Éamon.
- Ormonde, Donal.
- Ryan, Eoin David.
- Wright, G.V.
I notice that Senator Honan is in a particularly agreeable mood this morning. May I express a certain scepticism? Since pay-related benefit is close to being abolished at this stage, is this a slightly meaningless ritual? It is one of the Government's considerable achievements of the last four or five years that they have virtually abolished pay related benefit. What is the significance of this?
The purpose of section 9 is to increase the floor in regard to the reckonability of pay-related benefit. On the general question which the Senator raised regarding pay related benefit, yes, it is true that since 1981 pay related benefit has been reduced steadily over the years by this Government, the last Government and the Coalition Government. It is a cost saving measure. The purpose of section 9 is just to increase the floor. It has been self-evident over the past decade that the significance of pay-related benefit has been reduced.
Amendment No. 14 is out of order as it involves a charge on the revenue. Amendment No. 15 has already been discussed with amendment No. 10. Is amendment No. 15 being pressed?
It is very difficult to give a precise reference because this involves the insertion of a new section into the Principal Act. I am referring to page 11, section 13 (1) and the first subsection which reads:
1A. (1) Notwithstanding the provisions of this Schedule, ...
(a) to such limit,
(b) to such conditions,
(c) in such circumstances, and
(d) for such periods,
That seems to be an enormous amount of power for a Minister to have. Would the Minister like to elaborate? Is this different from previous legislation and what, in principle, does it mean? It is an enormous amount of influence or power.
The purpose of section 13 is to replace powers under section 35 of the Social Welfare Act, 1990, for the exemption from the assessment of means for a pension for a person aged 66 or over of the proceeds derived from the sale of the person's principal residence. I will read for the Senator the purpose of section 13.
Section 35 of the Social Welfare Act, 1990, provided for regulatory powers to exempt the proceeds derived from the sale of a pensioner's principal residence from the assessment of means in certain circumstances. The necessary regulatory provisions are contained in the Social Welfare (Old Age and Blind Pensions) Regulations, 1991, in the case of old age pensioners and in the Social Welfare (Lone Parent's Allowance and other Analogous Payments) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 1991, in the case of widow's pensions, deserted wife's, prisoners' wives and recipients of lone parent's allowance. These regulations provide that where a non-contributory pensioner sells her home the money received from the sale of that house up to a maximum of £75,000 will not be taken into account as means. It is considered that certain provisions contained in these regulations are more appropriate to primary legislation and section 13 of the Bill provides for this. We found that it was more appropriate to have the regulations we made under the 1990 Act in the form of legislation. The legal eagles informed us that was the best way of doing it.
In other words, it should not have been done that way.
Yes, there is no change there. Had we put the regulations in the form of the Bill in 1990, we would not have to do this. That is the purpose of this section.
I have a couple more questions on the section. I appreciate that these questions might have been more appropriately dealt with under regulations but we probably did not discuss them. Section 13 (4) of the Bill reads:
Paragraphs (1) and (2) shall not apply to any sums arising from the investment or profitable use of the gross proceeds derived from the sale of the principal residence.
The previous situation was that any capital, whether from savings, the sale of the house or otherwise, was assessed as means and a slightly arbitrary formula was used to attribute income from the capital. One usually runs into these things in family circumstances first; it was somebody connected with me. I would like to know what the difference, in real terms, will be to an old age pensioner between the previous position, where an attributed income from the capital was used for means and the present situation? Essentially, it seems the only way they will avoid paying a penalty for selling their house is if they keep the money in the mattress which is not, I am sure, the Minister's intention.
Would I be right in thinking that if, for example, somebody sold a house for £30,000 that £30,000 would be exempt from means but if somebody made another £30,000 by investing the original £30,000 the first £30,000 would be exempt but the profit made would be means testable? If it is, I think it is reasonable. The idea was to keep the lump sum free from the means test but if somebody very cleverly used the money to make a lot more money, it would be unfair if other people who had savings from their pensions of £350 or £500 were means tested and somebody who was making money out of money was not.
Under the section, up to a maximum of £75,000 received from the sale of a private residence will be taken out of the means assessment. With the notional way of doing things, a person could be worse off whereas under the new section up to a maximum of £75,000 would be exempt. If an old person sells their private residence up to a maximum of £75,000 will be taken out of the means assessment; it will not be taken into the account in calculating the income either in the notional way or what the actuary would arrive at. Therefore, it should benefit people rather than make them suffer. Perhaps I have not taken the point made by Senator Ryan but this section is an alleviating measure rather than a penalty measure.
I appreciate that but I just do not know how it will work. I think it is perfectly right to do both from the point of view of the old people and perhaps to encourage a little mobility in the housing market where people would move to smaller houses. I am aware of one elderly person, for instance, in the Minister's own home territory who, when she moved into sheltered housing, was advised that if she sold her house her non-contributory old age pension would be reduced accordingly. That is a fact; that is what she was told. I am not trying to cause consternation, but that is what happened. There used to be a rule of thumb about income. People were not assumed to have an income of £30,000 a year if they had saved £30,000.
Ten per cent.
What is the difference now? If someone sells a house, gets £30,000 and puts it into a building society and the interest rate is slightly less, is the difference only between the interest rate and the 10 per cent or is it a real saving? Is it simply a saving of two or three per cent?
The actual interest would be assessed there, Senator Ryan.
There is no guarantee that if the German mark goes the wrong way they might not end up worse off than under the current situation; in other words, if the German currency goes the wrong way, our interest rates rise and people could be paid more than that.
The purpose of this is as I have outlined but I and my Department will certainly look at this again. We are trying to encourage old people to sell their homes and maybe move into sheltered accommodation.
And put their money into a bank, not keep it at home.
Certainly. We believe the way the section has been drafted will achieve our objective, but if we find it does not, we will change it. That is the underlying principle here.
Two brief further points with your indulgence. If somebody wins the Lotto, it is not taxable but if an old person wins the Lotto that is the end of their social welfare. I do not think that is fair. Second, if an old person gets compensation for a road accident, which is supposed to be a payment to cover damage that was done to them, to restore them to the position they were prior to the damage; that is treated as means for old age pensions under the Social Welfare Act. I do not care so much about the Lotto but the fact that an old person — this happened to somebody I know — gets damages which are supposed to be simply restoring their position——
I think the Senator is straying a little.
I am talking about the assessment of means.
No, we are talking about a specific matter.
May I briefly clarify a point? My understanding is that there will be no means test, factual or otherwise, on the basic sale price of the house; maybe the Minister could confirm that simple core matter. In other words, if you sell a house for £30,000, that £30,000 will never be subject to a means test as long as you do not go over that threshold by using the money to make money. Would that be right?
The purpose here is to encourage the old person to sell up their house. My intention would be, whatever about the section, that that sum, up to a maximum of £75,000, would be forgotten. We believe the section, as drafted, will achieve our objective but, if it does not, but I will undertake to do something about it. The cost to the Exchequer must be minimal. That is the intention. I agree with Senator Ó Cuív and Senator Ryan. We should say that that sum should not be taken into account in means assessment and the seller can do what he likes with it — go to Cheltenham, Aintree or anywhere else.
Amendment No. 16 is out of order. It involves a charge on the Revenue.
Amendment No. 17; amendments Nos. 18, 21 and 22 are consequential on amendment No. 17 and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 17:
In page 13, to delete all words from and including "a man" in line 40 down to and including "wife" in line 41 and substitute "any two people who are not married to each other but are cohabiting in a manner similar to a husband and wife".
Successive Governments have been in a bit of a quandary since the requirement to treat people equally. In order to avoid the obvious solution, which would be to give people, whether they were married, single, cohabiting or otherwise, equal entitlements, they have put together this concept of cohabition which does not apply incidentally to tax free allowances — you get the same tax free allowances whether you are single or cohabiting — but it does apply to social welfare recipients. If I, as a taxpayer, choose to get married or to cohabit or to share a flat with somebody of either a different sex or the same sex as myself, then the tax person is no longer interested, but if I choose to do any of those things then the other person's entitlements to social welfare and mine are affected. I am not talking about dependent spouses, we are talking about people who would, if they were treated as individuals, have entitlements in their own right.
What we have here is the definition of cohabition. The first thing to be said about it is that it purports to redefine in the section the word "spouse" to mean either on half of a married couple, which is what everybody assumed the word "spouse" meant or to mean one half of any couple, a man and woman who are not married and are cohabiting as man and wife. Apart from my perpetual objection to the use of the law to turn the normal meaning of language on its head — the classic example was a Bill which defined a cross bow as a fire arm — this whole concept of extending the word "spouse" gets itself tied up in knots.
Suppose a married couple are living apart but cannot do anything about it under the Irish Constitution, and one half of that marriage decides to take up with someone else, the social welfare law says that the second partner is the spouse of that person for the purposes of social welfare whereas she is, or he is, in fact the spouse of the person from whom they are separated.
We are getting into complicated language. I made a point yesterday, and I have no problem raising it again today, that what it actually does is say that any kind of a heterosexual relationship is going to be called a marriage and treated as one form of a relationship, but any other kind of relationship is going to be treated as two single people.
What I have suggested in amendment No. 17 and I admit to it being a little tongue in cheek — is to define a "spouse" as each person of "any two people who are not married to each other but are cohabiting in a manner similar to a husband and wife". My view is that that is probably unconstitutional and I will not press the amendment, but I want to invite this very plausible Minister to explain to me why he thinks it is desirable in Irish law, first, to redefine a spouse in a way which is at variance with successive court interpretations of marriage, and, second, to redefine those entitled to equal payments under the law in such a way as to discriminate against heterosexual relationships in favour of homosexual or celibate relationships. When this has been extended into what the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed call "a clamp down on cohab grannies" which introduces the concept of attempting to discover if elderly people are cohabiting, this language is quite meaningless.
This matter is all about money. We are trying to find a way of ensuring that people are treated equally and of eliminating discrimination between different kinds of couples. If a couple who were unmarried were to get their full entitlement as single people, you could not treat married couples differently. That would be in breach of any concept of equality.
We have now told heterosexual couples that they are all the same as each other but any other kind of couple is different. Because there are so many other relationships and because it turns the meaning of language on its head, I believe that section is unconstitutional. I simply introduced the amendment to illustrate the degree to which it is meaningless. I have suggested that all sexual relationships should be treated in the same way. The Minister who preceded this Minister said he had difficulty in even suggesting that cohabitation had anything to do with sex. This amendment would not solve the problem, but I would invite the Minister to consider that this provision ignores the fact that certain couples who will, as far as they are concerned, have the same relationship as a heterosexual couple will be treated differently.
I would also invite him, not necessarily this year but as soon as possible, to get rid of the dreadful concept of "man and wife". We should say either "man and woman" or "husband and wife" but not "man and wife". One is a statement of an entity, the other is the statement of an appendage. You either have two equal words for the relationship such as "man and woman" or "husband and wife" but "man and wife" is a clear form of sexist language which puts women in a specific sub-category beneath men, excusing the unfortunate implications of that phrase. It should be either "husband and wife", which defines them in terms of the relationship, or "man and woman" which defines it in terms of their sex.
I will take the last point when we are considering bringing in the Consolidation Act because I accept Deputy Ryan's point that the phraseology "man and wife" should be removed. I am not a great expert on feminist issues but I accept the point.
Senator Ryan raised many interesting questions about cohabiting couples etc., and I have no difficulty with that. In another amendment he has put down amendment No. 20, he wants to delete the word "sex". I was very much afraid that he was going to abolish sex totally and I would not be in favour of that proposal at any rate.
We are at one on that point.
Regarding the whole question of cohabiting couples it is always fair to declare your personal interest in that regard and I suppose I would be regarded as a cohabitee. Anything I have to say might be influenced by my own situation. It is a very complex area, as Senator Ryan has pointed out. I am not pre-judging what a future Government or the Houses of the Oireachtas might do, but many of the anomalies in the taxation code and in the social welfare code in this area of cohabiting, separation, lone parents allowances, deserted wives' allowances and all the definition are a result of the will of the majority of Irish people as expressed quite recently, that they do not wish to have divorce legislation. That was their will in the eighties and whether that will be their will in a future referendum no one can prejudge. The social welfare legislation is complicated enough but it is made more complex still because people are separated, people are living in other relationships, and yet the Constitution does not recognise that situation. However, as someone who has been a supreme democrat all his political life — I have been on the losing side of more political arguments than any one in the House — I have always accepted it.
I am ahead of the Minister in that respect.
Within my own party I have always accepted the democratic decision. Even if I did not like it at the time I had no trouble, when the democratic decision was made, in accepting it. I did not like the decision in 1986 but I accepted it as I would any other decision.
Senator Ryan has raised many interesting questions which are not really applicable to me as Minister for Social Welfare except for the reasons I have raised. He is talking about cohabiting couples and why we have this phraseology in this section. I have tried to give him the background to all of this. If one looks over the last 15 years in Irish legal history I do not know how many constitutional cases have been fought which have been lost by the State, and cost an enormous amount of money. I would say there have been 100 to 200 cases over the past 20 years.
We have to recognise de facto situations which, constitutionally, are not supposed to exist. These amendments to sections 17, 18 and 27 provide that in the old age non-contributory pension and unemployment assistance schemes cohabiting couples will be treated in the same way as married couples. The amendments provide for the application of similar treatment in the case of “any two people who are not married to each other but are cohabiting in a manner similar to a husband and wife.” The treatment of married couples vis-á-vis cohabiting couples under the social welfare code was first highlighted in the Supreme Court decision some years ago which found a provision contained in the Social Welfare (No. 2) Act, 1985, to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it resulted in cohabiting couples being treated more favourably than married couples. That was the Hyland case, which Senator Ryan probably knows about. The provision in question was that a married couple one of whom was claiming unemployment assistance while the other was in receipt of a social insurance payment could not receive more than the married rate of the appropriate payment.
Following on the Supreme Court decision the Government remedied the defect in the 1985 Act by extending the provisions applied to married couples to cohabiting couples. "Couple" is defined as a married couple who are living together or a man and women who are not married to each other but are cohabiting as man and wife. At the same time the Government established an independent review group to examine the treatment of households generally in the social welfare code, which was chaired by Mr. John Curry, formerly chairman of the Commission on Social Welfare. The report of the review group makes interesting reading because it highlights the complex legal and administrative issues involved in this area. Under existing provisions married and cohabiting couples are limited to the appropriate married rate of payment. The principle underlying this approach is that it can be automatically assumed that claimants in this situation achieve economies by virtue of living together. While other categories of claimants living with other people may also achieve economies, this cannot, as the household review group pointed out, automatically be assumed. Furthermore, the extent of economies achieved by people in this situation may be considerably less than those achieved by married and cohabiting couples. The review group put forward a number of proposals for dealing with different household situations. We have invited interested parties and organisations to provide their views on the options put forward by the review group. Last January we published an advertisment in the newspapers inviting submissions. I hope all interested parties will put forward their views in this matter.
Inevitably it will be necessary to make certain changes in the existing arrangements but until such time as we receive views from interested parties and, in the light of the views put forward, have had the opportunity of determining the best approach to this very complex issue I do not propose to make any changes in the existing arrangements. The issues involved are not as clear cut as the Senator suggests. I have indicated to the House that social welfare legislation is one of the most complex of all legislation but the treatment of different categories of households is, in my view, the most complex area of the code. This is illustrated by the fact that this was one of the few, if not the only aspect of the code which was not addressed by the Commission on Social Welfare.
This matter also raises complex issues regarding the link between the social welfare and taxation codes. I spoke earlier about my desire to bring about closer integration of these two codes. The appropriate unit of assessment under both codes will be one of the important areas to be addressed in this context.
Despite my short time as Minister for Social Welfare I am well aware of the complex nature of the issues involved in relation to the treatment of different household situations and for this reason I cannot accept the simplistic nature of the amendments proposed by the Senator. I appreciate the intent behind his amendments but, nonetheless, until such time as we have had the opportunity of determining the best approach to dealing with this complex issue I am not prepared to make any changes in the existing arrangements. For this reason I am opposing the amendments.
I do not propose to attempt to compound a mess by making an even bigger mess, by simply trying to rewrite the law. Is the Minister satisfied that these provisions are constitutional? Has he received advice to that effect? The Minister has access to advice of a quality that we would never be able to obtain. As I quoted on Second Stage, in the case of Nicolau v. An Bord Uchtála in 1965, Mr. Justice Murnaghan in the High Court said: “the Constitution recognises only the family founded on the institution of marriage”. The court's view is that of a reasonable person. To define a spouse as anything other than one half of a family recognised under marriage in our Constitution, seems to me to be flying in the face of the Constitution. Other cases, for example, Murphy v. The Attorney General suggest the same thing. The additional fact that the law treats couples differently under the tax code from the way it treats couples under the social welfare code adds to the impression that there will be a constitutional problem about this provision. In addition there are couples who each get the full individual payment and who will have significant reductions in their income. They were threatened with them last year. I am aware of one such case under S.I. 200 of 1991. It will not apply just to new applicants. An attempt was made to reduce the payments to existing couples.
If there has to be some saving under this, there might be a case for reducing payments to future claimants but it is profoundly unfair to tell people who have, perhaps, lived for ten years on a certain level of income that there is to be a significant drop in their household income because of this definition. That will act as an incentive to people to contest this provision in the courts. I know it is expensive and difficult but the only long term solution is to treat people as full equal citizens. The fact that this will worsen the dependent status of women is beside the point.
I cannot understand how the Minister can suggest that when two people share accommodation, whether they share a bed or not, will have a profound effect on the whole economic status of the household. As a student I lived in accommodation with four or five others. No couple in their right mind would make the economies we made, given the number of people who were squeezed into a bedroom or who slept on the floor of a sittingroom. We cannot suddenly say that because couples are cohabiting there are necessarily and generally savings to the household. We cannot say it, moreover, when we do not insist on the same thing under the tax code. Under the tax code, we say they are equal, there are no economies but under the social welfare code we say the opposite. The real reason is that to pay people full payments would cost a considerable sum of money. I am not suggesting it is easy. The present wording is a constitutional minefield and is also quite unjust.
Regarding the constitutional matter, this Bill was submitted to the Attorney General, like all Bills, and he found nothing incorrect in this section. There is a presumption that any section of any Bill is constitutional unless proved otherwise.
On economies of scale referred to by Senator Ryan, I dealt with the view of the household review group. I am no expert in this regard, as someone who is known not to be a great person around the House but I can safely say in regard to heating, for example, there should be some saving for good reasons.
The Senator is correct that there are anomalies between the tax and social welfare codes. We do not recognise, constitutionally, the de facto situation regarding many couples. Speaking as a non-lawyer, the Senator is probably right. I know how the Supreme Court has interpreted the family. Politicians of various parties, over the years, have referred to the “family” as meaning the “married family”. I found that quite offensive. Many people, including myself, were in good relationships forming families as good as those of people who have been recognised by the laws of the Church and the State. I am afraid I am not yet in a position to change our Constitution. Perhaps in this decade— although I would not wager on it — the de facto situation that exists in Ireland in this area will be recognised. I would not like to say that this is the majority view either in the Houses of the Oireachtas or among the people. Like Senator Ryan, we will keep doing our best to bring others around to our view point.
May I express my amusement at the capacity of the Department of Social Welfare to think of all possibilities when they put in, at the top of page 14, "subject to the restriction that the pensioner shall not be entitled for the same period to an increase of pension under this paragraph in respect of more than one person". We mentioned cohabiting grannies, and, apparently, we are now worried about bigamous grannies. The Department must have a reason for that. Will the Minister say how the Department satisfy themselves that a couple are cohabiting?
The Department of Social Welfare are usually faced with people trying to prove they are not cohabiting. We do not have the problem of people trying to prove they are living together. As the Senator pointed out, it is more beneficial to them to prove they are not cohabiting. If people say they are cohabiting we accept that. That is not a problem.
How do they prove they are not cohabiting? What evidence do the Department require? It is such a delicate and sensitive area. I am not criticising officials from the Department but there are stories from Britain of inspectors climbing trees to see what is happening in a house. There are some awesome powers contained in this Bill. Section 48 inserts a table which states:
For the purposes of controlling and investigating entitlement.... the Minister may require such persons as may be prescribed to provide him with such information in relation to such persons or classes of persons as the Minister may determine and any person so prescribed shall be required to provide such information as may be required.
That is a fair amount of power. What are the powers of the Department in this regard? Can they cross-question third parties to find out if people are cohabiting?
When we get to that section I will endeavour to deal with that matter. Section 17 will confer a benefit on people who are cohabiting, and I am sure the Senator will not oppose it on those grounds. The purpose of section 17 is to give relief and more money to these people. Under the existing provisions, depending on the couple's means, an increase in old age pension and blind pension will be paid to a husband or wife where the pensioner is living with or is wholly or mainly maintaining his spouse provided the spouse is not in receipt of a social welfare payment in his or her own right. Section 17 of this Bill extends these provisions to cohabiting couples.
The effect of this amendment is that in the old age and blind pension schemes one of the cohabiting couple may receive an increase in respect of his or her partner in the same way as an increase is currently payable to one of a married couple in respect of a spouse. Similarly one of a cohabiting couple will now qualify for an increase for dependent children on the same basis as one of a married couple. Subsection (a) provides for this change by defining a spouse as one of a married or cohabiting couple. Subsection (b) is a technical amendment which provides that only one increase in pension will be payable for a spouse or partner in respect of the same period. Senator Ryan should be pleased with this section, irrespective of his doubts about the definition as it relates to cohabiting couples.
I move amendment No. 19:
In page 18, line 40, to delete "duties" and substitute "activities".
This amendment has to do with the use of language. The Bill says that regulations may provide for disqualifying a woman for receiving maternity allowance if "she engages in any occupation other than domestic duties in her own household,". This is antiquated language. It is extremely important for many women that the language be rewritten so that it include assumptions. I suggest that the word "duties" should be replaced by "activities". I would be perfectly happy with an undertaking that this will be done in the consolidation legislation. My wife does not believe she has any more domestic duties than I have. The word "activities" is more neutral.
I accept what Senator Ryan says. I cannot change it now because it would have to go back to the Dáil but I will change it at a future date. It may not be possible to do it under the consolidation legislation because that means what it says; consolidating existing law. I take the point the Senator made and I will do that in the future. It is old fashioned phraseology, from the days Senator Ryan and I were growing up.
The Minister is younger than I am.
The section will mean that a woman in part-time work earning a very low income will be covered for 14 weeks at a minimum of £60 per week. I have no objection to this whatsoever but I feel that is a generous and excellent advance. I would like to clarify that any woman part-time worker, once she is so defined, if she becomes pregnant will be entitled to the full period of 14 weeks at a minimum of £60 per week.
Senator Conroy is correct. Under the maternity allowance scheme for women in employment an allowance representing 70 per cent of the woman's reckonable weekly earnings, subject to a minimum amount of £60, will be paid. Since 6 April 1991, part-time workers have been brought within the full code. Some women part-time workers whose earnings are in the area of £25 to £50 will get more on maternity allowance, which is quite good.
On this section may I appeal to the Minister and the Department to look for new language and no longer to refer to the "confinement of a women".
Is that in the Bill?
It is. It refers to her being "confined" during the weeks specified and says "‘confinement' means labour resulting in the issue of a living child...." This language is at least 100 years out of date. Could the Minister look for wording that will not describe childbirth in language that has an implication of locking people up and of keeping unstable women under control?
There are reasons for drafting Bills in legal language. I will endeavour to ensure that in all Bills drafted in my Department we work towards more modern phraseology and get rid of that type of language if at all possible. I am sure the officials in the Parliamentary Draftsman's Office love this language, but it is archaic nowadays.
I would like to ask the Minister to explain the significance of subsection (1) (b) which states:
(b) the substitution for subsection (2) of the following subsection:
"(2) The circumstances in which a woman is to be regarded for the purposes of this section as having been deserted by her husband shall be specified in regulations.".
What is the purpose of this subsection? It is a rewriting of a section of the principal Act.
This section deals with deserted wife's benefit. Subsection (2) provides for a technical amendment to section 100 (2) of the 1981 Act which deals with the circumstances in which a woman is regarded as having been deserted for the purposes of entitlement to deserted wife's benefit. Under existing provisions the circumstances under which a woman is regarded as having been deserted for the purposes of deserted wife's benefit are determined in accordance with regulations made under section 195 (4) (a) which relates to the deserted wife's allowance scheme. This arrangement was appropriate when the two deserted wife's payment schemes were introduced. Following the introduction of the lone parent's allowance scheme in 1990, however, the residual deserted wife's allowance scheme now only caters for deserted wives aged 40 years or over who do not have child dependants. Because of this change in deserted wife's allowance scheme a woman entitled to deserted wife's benefit is technically, although not in practice, regarded as receiving reasonable maintenance from her husband when she is receiving maintenance equal to or greater than the maximum personal rate of deserted wife's allowance.
Section 25 (1) (b) remedies this technical defect by providing for separate regulations to be made in relation to the deserted wife's benefit scheme specifying the circumstances in which a woman is to be regarded as having been deserted by her husband. The regulations will provide that a woman is regarded as having been deserted where the maintenance, if any, which she receives is less than the rate of deserted wife's benefit appropriate to her family circumstances.
Paragraph (2) provides that this provision will come into operation by way of a commencement order. Senator Ryan need not be worried about this purely technical matter.
I have a number of questions I wish to put about this section. I would like to know where the figure of £12,000 which I understand the Minister is proposing as the income limit for deserted wife's benefit comes from? Is it widely used? How does it relate to other means tests? To enable us to talk about the principle of this means test I would like the Minister if he can to give us some idea of the thinking behind the figure of £12,000 which I gather, is the rough figure he has in mind.
Some figure had to be decided upon and £12,000 was chosen. The reason £12,000 was chosen was that it is about equivalent to average industrial earnings.
Average male industrial earnings.
Senator Ryan is probably right, without looking up the precise figures. Without pre-empting what might happen, there is a deserted wife's scheme but no deserted husband's scheme. With the advent of equality measures there may be a scheme for them as well. I am not introducing one in the Bill. Of course, "deserted husbands" qualify under the lone parent's scheme in certain circumstances.
I am waiting for the Minister to explain why he thinks a person should not be required to insure themselves against deserting their partner, to use a current word. It is perfectly reasonable to accept that people should take responsibility in every instance for their actions. It is reasonable to have in our social insurance scheme a requirement that all of us, not just married people but cohabiting people accept responsibilities and consequences that go with that.
The figure £12,0000 is about the average male industrial wage; the average national wage is probably slightly greater because people in services tend to get paid somewhat more, but it a good index of an income. However, it is a great deal less than £25,000 and that aspect intrigues me. We have talked about marginal benefits such as dental and optical benefits. If people have a run of back luck such treatment can be very expensive but for most people there are marginal benefits. On the other hand, a deserted wife's benefit could well be the difference for a woman between being able to live reasonably well with a little surplus and being very close to poverty. Deserted wife's benefit, as it is currently paid will probably be taxed if a woman earns £12,000 a year irrespective of the number of children she has. She will probably pay tax close to the top rate, so she is not being deprived of all her benefit, but of the taxed part of that benefit.
I am not sure that the savings that will accrue to the State, whatever about the Department of Social Welfare, from this measure will justify its imposition. The problem is that this is an insurance based scheme subject to a severe means test which is why the suggestion that the Minister is beginning to dismantle the whole concept of insurance based social welfare has some validity. He is the most plausible of men and it is very hard to make this stick on him. However, a £12,0000 per year means test for an individual — he made it clear that the £25,0000 limit for the other benefits was for an individual — will begin to apply to many other areas if one moves it across the spectrum of people's entitlements under social welfare legisaltion. It could arise in the future for people with good occupational retirement pensions, people who have contributed to a private pension fund and are getting perhaps two-third of their pre-retirement income. If the Minister decides to extend this ceiling to contributory old age pensions many old age pensioners will suffer a significant drop in their pension. That is why it is valid to say to the Minister that this can be reasonably interpreted as the beginning of means-testing on insurance-related benefits.
I regret I was not able to take part in the Second Stage debate. This is one of the sections I had marked for particular comment. The Minister said, for example, that the deserted wife's benefit scheme is somewhat unusual and unique in a social insurance context. It is unusual to be able to insure oneself against deserting one's spouse. I think the emphasis is incorrect, because the person who is at the cutting edge is not the deserting husband but the deserted wife. It is she who will be disadvantaged by the introduction of this measure. This is a regrettable and parsimonious cut.
With regard to the question of the £12,000 limit now proposed to restrict entitlement benefit, I am always rather suspicious of these things. I know that this Minister, like all Government Ministers, at the moment is under pressure to cut expenditure, but perhaps the Minister could give an indication of the estimated saving to the Exchequer from this measure. I do not believe the saving will be significant, particularly taking into account the administration expenses of a scheme like this with a means test. Means tests are expensive to administer and I am not convinced that there will be great saving here. What concerns me is that the victim here is not the culpable party, the deserting husband, but the deserted wife.
I agree with the Minister when he points out an apparent sex discrimination there, that this scheme exists only for women, but these things are all being tidied up. My colleague, Senator Ryan, made a passionate speech for equality yesterday to which I would like to have had the opportunity to respond where he pointed out that — to use an American grammatical phrase — homosexual couples are being advantaged under certain sections of this Bill. I understand the Minister is committed to equalisation but I do not regard this as equalisation, my principal point is that somebody already vulnerable is being further targeted in this.
Twelve thousand pounds a year sounds like a lot of money, particularly to people who are unemployed or disadvantaged, but if you are deserted, have a mortgage to keep up and children to educate, in addition to the trauma of having been deserted, then you have a serious problem, and in terms of social welfare it is the responsibility of the State to assist these people as far as possible.
I agree that it is the responsibility of the State to assist the people that Senator Norris referred to, but there are a few misconceptions I would like to clear up. This section relates to deserted wife's benefit and not deserted wife's allowance and lone parents allowance. I said in my Second Stage speech and in reply to questions in the Dáil on Committee Stage and here yesterday that it is an unusual scheme to find in a social insurance context, in that one can insure oneself against deserting one's own spouse as one can insure oneself against house fire or losing a valuable greyhound or horse, but it is stretching the social insurance concept a bit far that there should be automatic entitlement for people who desert a spouse. I have asked my officials since I took up office in the Department of Social Welfare to find a social insurance system anywhere in the world where one can do this and up until last week such a scheme has not been found. This has nothing at all to do with deserted wife's allowance, which in cases involving children is called the lone parent's allowance scheme. Only people claiming benefit either on foot of the husband's or the wife's contributions, will be affected.
This provision will affect new claimants only. Anyone receiving deserted wife's benefit at present will not be affected whether she earns £150,000 or £20,000 a year.
I would like to tell Senator Norris that there will be very small savings with this measure because the number of applications for deserted wife's benefits is small and the people in that group who earn £12,000 a year or more will be smaller again. I said in the Dáil that this decision was made in the context of the 1992 Estimates and I told some women colleagues on the Opposition Benches who were presssing me in this regard that it would not be as constrained in ending deserted wife's benefit for new claimants. I have to be straighforward about that. I have never understood the theory behind this provision which we have had since the middle seventies. I find the concept difficult to understand.
May I point out to Senator Norris that the provision will not be means tested; it will be simple to operate and there will be no administrative costs. The information will be on P35 records or available from the central records office. It will not apply to self-employed people. Savings will be small and there are small numbers of people involved.
Senator Brendan Ryan is right to say that deserted wife's benefit is taxable. I understand that the Revenue Commissioners do not tax it for the first year or so but it comes under total income after that.
The change I have made here has been used to accuse me of attacking the principle of social insurance. I went to considerable pains yesterday on Second Stage to explain my idea of a social welfare system. I have no doubt in my mind that in order to be able to give State support to people in need at the lower end of the scale and to the old and the sick, we must consider the question of automatic entitlement in other areas. This has to be examined regardless of who is Minister for Social Welfare. The State welfare support operates at such enormous cost to the State that it must be examined and we might as well do it in 1992 as find out in the year 2002 that we cannot pay some of the old age pensions, etc.
May I say to Senator Ryan that the changes I have made to the social insurance system in this Social Welfare Bill are quite small but I am not afraid to put down a marker to indicate the way things will go in the future. The gross cost of social welfare and the net cost to the Exchequer are growing enormously. I said in the Dáil that the people I do not intend to affect are those in receipt of old age pensions and widows, whom the State should be looking after, but if we do not put the brakes on in some other areas, with the demographic trends and current debts the State will have difficulty in years ahead meeting the Social Welfare Bill. It is in that context, which I stated in greater detail yesterday, that this small measure can be readily justified.
I am glad that the Minister acknowledges that the saving is going to be small; when the Minister says that he certainly means it. I wonder, given the fact that there will be some administration costs, if it is theoretically possible that there might be no saving and that there actually could be a loss. I accept that the Minister drew a distinction between deserted wife's benefit and deserted wife's allowance. Second, because the Minister is not attacking existing privileges, which it may be illegal for him to do, he is creating a greater inequity. In other words, there would be people still receiving deserted wife's benefit under the existing scheme but new people will not be able to, even though both groups are in the same position.
Finally, there is some shadow of misunderstanding on one point. The Minister has explained his attitude but apparently I have not explained my feelings adequately. The Minister keeps coming back to his idea that it is highly unusual for an insurer to insure himself against deserting his own wife. That is a very human story but I put it to the Minister that the insurer is not the beneficiary. It is not that the insurer is doing himself any good — and I am not being sexist in using the male pronoun here because I understand this scheme operates for the deserting husband — he is not the beneficiary. The beneficiary is the wife, so there is a passive partner in this. The person reaping the benefit is not doing anything unusual but reaping the reward of the insurance; it is not as if, for example, the wife were insuring herself against the possibility of being deserted by her husband. In other words, she is placed in a vulnerable position.
I suppose it is the unfortunate reality of the Minister's life that because he is prepared to express opinions he invites coals of fire on his head. The alternative to deserted wife's benefit being paid through the social insurance scheme is for the taxpayer to be left with the consequences of some person walking out on their partner.
What are the choices? We all accept that deserted wives need to be supported and there are two ways of doing that. The general taxpayer may pay through the deserted wife's allowance or all people who work — men in particular — may be required to pay a contribution into the social insurance fund which, if it were working correctly — which I know it is not — would not require topping up every year. This would mean the benefit would be paid for out of the general levy of social insurance paid by all insured workers. I do not see why that is worse than requiring taxpayers to foot the bill when a person deserts their partner.
Senator Norris asked what the savings here are likely to be. This year it will depend on what date I apply it from. It is estimated that in 1993 we will save £500,000 in this regard. The majority of deserted wives do not earn in excess of £12,000 which is the reason for the small saving.
The reason I have difficulty with the concept is that it is a husband's decision to desert his wife. We are allowing him to insure against the possibility that he may leave and make no contribution at all. If the social insurance fund were self-financing, I would not be adopting these measures. The subvention to the social insurance fund will be of the order of at least £145 million this year; that is the figure provided for in the Estimate. This matter boils down to the question I raised earlier about targeting resources. This saving is not going to make or break the Exchequer and it is only for new claimants.
Senator Norris spoke about inequality. I could do away with this scheme but it has been the general principle for a long time in the Department that one does not regress like that but I am tempted to think about it. I have made it clear in the Dáil that this is one scheme in the Department that this Minister is not in love with and he is unlikely to love it any better this time next year.
I was raising a theoretical point. While I have been rebuffed by the Minister I would not wish to encourage him to withdraw existing benefits. That could place people in situations in real hardship. I accept the Minister has not followed his own inclination in going the whole hog here.
The temptation would always be there to scrap the scheme but whether one is on a large or small income, one gets so much per week or per month and one makes provision for it. When income is cut off at a certain level one does not know what to do. A general principle I tried to adopt in the Department of Social Welfare is "Give a thing and take it back. God will ask you, "Where is that?" This is a fair principle to operate on in politics. There is also a political self-saving in it — when you give something and then take it back you will suffer politically, if you never had something it cannot be missed. That applies to all of us, politicians or not, and this is a general principle I would like to follow. The reason I did not pick up on what Senator Norris said — it would not take much to make me go that road — is that on this principle I would not do that.
In the question of insurance there is a notion of intentionality. The Minister is making great play with the idea of insuring against something and allowing oneself to walk away from a wife with a clear conscience. I do not believe that someone insures with the intention of doing that. I had a life insurance policy but I did not buy anticipating with any glee the profitability of my own death. I have just cashed it in because I do not propose to die at all and I thought I could use it to pay off some of my bank balance.
People insure against the remote possibility of regrettable occurrences and there is no intention indicated by their insurance that they actively propose to embark on a particular course of action. I oppose what I take to be the Minister's sentiments that one insures oneself so that one can then have room to manoeuvre and to leave one's wife high and dry. In the same way nobody takes out death benefit saying I might have a bit of fun next week, die for the good of it and cost the insurance company X amount of money.
- Bennett, Olga.
- Byrne, Hugh.
- Byrne, Sean.
- Conroy, Richard.
- Dardis, John.
- Finneran, Michael.
- Haughey, Seán F.
- Honan, Tras.
- Hussey, Thomas.
- Kiely, Dan.
- Kiely, Rory.
- Lanigan, Michael.
- Lydon, Don.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Mullooly, Brian.
- O'Brien, Francis.
- Ó Cuív, Éamon.
- Ormonde, Donal.
- Ryan, Eoin David.
- Wright, G.V.
- Cosgrave, Liam.
- Howard, Michael.
- Jackman, Mary.
- Kennedy, Patrick.
- McDonald, Charlie.
- Norris, David.
- Ross, Shane P.N.
- Ryan, Brendan.
Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 are out of order as they involve a charge on the revenue.
I move amendment No. 20:
In page 31, line 19, to delete "sex".
I had better explain that for the sake of both the Minister and myself because we both expressed a predilection not to have such an embargo.
This is the Social Welfare Bill, we do not want to know about your private life.
My private life is above suspicion, like Caesar's wife.
I am intrigued at the use of the phraseology on page 31, line 20 of the Bill. Paragraph (f) deals with conditions and entitlement to unemployment assistance. The paragraph reads:
he is genuinely seeking, but is unable to obtain, employment suitable for him having regard to his age, sex, physique, education, normal occupation, place of residence and family circumstances, and
When we come to the section we can talk about that. I thought we had very stringent laws in this country about equality of access to employment, which said that you could not discriminate between people for work except in very limited and specific circumstances; that you could not discriminate between them on the grounds of sex. I know the armed forces still operate a shameful restriction on the access and rights of women. I am aware that there may well be certain other categories of work where physiological susceptibility may arise, but they are covered by the employment legislation. I am not sure that the Department of Social Welfare have any need to use the word "sex" to categorise people or to use that sort of phraseology. To talk about suitability of jobs in terms of a gender distinction is, like some of the language in this Bill, quaint and seems to me to originate in another era. There are some categories of work where, by law, equality does not exist but given that the appointment pages of all our newspapers carry, I presume by obligation, a statement that all these vacancies are available to both men and women, it seems that the Department of Social Welfare are either operating a separate independent empire of their own, or more likely, they just forgot.
I support Senator Ryan's amendment. I think he has discovered quite an important matter. It is possible, of course, to be humorous about it. I hardly thought I would find myself supporting the deletion of "sex" but perhaps it is because I am something of an extinct volcano these days.
It is not the abolition of sex, it is just the deletion of the word.
Deletion. Sex deleted rather than expletive deleted. Would the Minister give an example of a job that would be suitable for one sex only? It would be very interesting if we could have such an illustration because that would——
——and which would be legal.
——open up a situation where one would have to inquire into the legality of sex discrimination in employment. The whole context here is of interest particularly to this House because, as Senator Ryan said, throughout the section, and indeed throughout the Bill, we have the use of the masculine pronoun, "he", "him", "his" and so on; and, this is taken to include the female. This difficulty would be obviated if the Government were prepared to take item No. 14 on today's Order Paper — the Interpretation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 1989, which Deputy Haughey over a year ago indicated in the Dáil was necessary and would cover this situation.
I would like to make one other observation with regard to paragraph (f). It speaks about genuinely seeking, but is unable to obtain, employment suitable for him having regard to various things including place of residence. I seem to recall a recent controversy where there was some irritation on the part of Government that people who could not find employment in the metropolitan areas were moving to rural areas. There seems to be a conflict here between the irritation that was expressed by Government at that point and this notional suitability with regard to place of residence. I presume it also covers suitability if somebody moves to west Cork, for example — they are then entitled to various benefits if they cannot obtain employment suitable to their residence of choice.
I would like to return to the question of suitability with regard to "sex". Unless the Minister——
I think the Senator is moving from the amendment. Please confine yourself to the amendment.
I realise that. In case the Minister has, in my ramblings, lost where I was, the significant question is would he be prepared to lay an example before the House of a particular occupation for which one sex or the other was deemed under this legislation to be unsuitable?
Senator Ryan spoke about this kind of phraseology of another generation. In fact, this provision was first included in the 1933 Act which introduced unemployment assistance and I spoke earlier about hoping to introduce the Consolidation Bill before the end of this year. However I intend to bring another Bill before the House in the near future to streamline a number of existing provisions, and in that context I will accept the Senator's amendment. I will delete the reference because it is not appropriate in the present day. In framing the Consolidation Bill I am certain many Acts over the years will be found to have references like this. As I said to Senator Ryan earlier, we try to eliminate that type of archaic language but I cannot accept his specific amendment now because the Bill would have to go back to the Dáil. However, in the second Bill that will be introduced to streamline measures in anticipation of the Consolidation Bill, that phrase will certainly go out.
Is the amendment being pressed?
There is no question of that, because the Minister recognises the point and we are not going to spend the whole day here fighting about something that he and I agree about.
Section 27 is actually 17 pages long, and while I am not trying to throw a whole lot of landmines at the Minister, it is really impossible to deal with the whole of this section in one contribution. I am not trying to be troublesome, so I have a number of questions and I want to ask them in some sort of logical order. The first is the whole question of genuinely seeking work. I could not propose an amendment to delete this provision because it would be out of order. It would have been argued that it might be a charge on the revenue. Can the Minister — and I do not want to keep us here all day — explain to me how it is possible to sustain the concept of being required to genuinely seek work in a country with 270,000 pushing to 300,000 people unemployed?
There are aspects of this section later on which are new and are bad for all that. This is a well worn chestnut which had relevance 25 years ago when people who did not go to work often had opportunities to do so and, therefore, there was a justification for a clause like this. Nowadays, how do you assess somebody is genuinely seeking work other than by putting them through rituals that have no meaning? If you have some idea that there are jobs around the area where a person is signing on that are unfilled, then you are perfectly entitled — and I would emphasise that — to require people to do something about it. That is not unreasonable and I have no desire to get involved in a situation where there is work available to be done which is reasonably well paid and which meets the reasonable conditions there. But how can you prove without all sorts of humiliations, and humiliations in the sense that people cannot see the point of it, that they are genuinely seeking work? The answer I get on this all the time is that the officials operate according to guidelines that are meant to give them reasonable latitude. Of course the Minister or at least his predecessor would not publish the guidelines, so he may be happy, but the unemployed who are at the receiving end of these guidelines are most assuredly unhappy.
I told the Minister on another occasion I have a long report coming out on this matter and he would be more than welcome to come along and launch it for me if he wants to but it might not be the most appropriate position for him to be in. I would like to know, rationally speaking — and not theoretically speaking, because we know theoretically what it is about — in the present-day context of our society, with no vacancies that anybody has found anywhere and with 300,000 people, which is one in five of the workforce, accepted by the Department of Social Welfare as being unemployed and probably another 50,000 who would claim that they are genuinely unemployed but are not eligible under one category or another, how does this Minister explain to those people what it means to be genuinely seeking work? If there is work around let them go and look for it but there is no work around.
I believe that on page 34 there is a drafting error because it does not make any kind of grammatical sense at all. It is the section dealing with the question raised by Senator Ryan about the definition of couple as being man and wife or man and woman cohabiting as if they were a married couple and on page 34, between line 36 and 40 it states:
For the purposes of paragraph (e) of subsection (1) of section 146, when applied to subsection (3) of this section, "spouse" means each person of a couple in relation the other.
The word "to" has been left out. It makes complete grammatical nonsense of it. I am not sure whether you can just simply add that word in or whether it requires an amendment.
That omission was discovered and it was cleared up by the acceptance of a ministerial amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil.
That is fine. That difficulty has been obviated, but it is rather a pity because if the provision did require an amendment the whole thing would be open season. That is what I was actually fishing for because then we might have had some other things put in. I completely accept, of course——
My officials are not paid to have heart attacks.
You might be insured, without anticipating the heart attack. I would just like to invite the Minister to comment, as he indicated he would on this question of "suitable" with regard to place of residence. I would take the view particularly that people for whom there is virtually no prospect of a job in a metropolitan area have a legitimate entitlement to move to a place where there may, in fact, be an equally poor opportunity for them to obtain employment but the circumstances for their living and for the education of their family are better and there is a better environment. Unfortunately many of my neighbours would not, through economic circumstances, have the opportunity to move to west Cork, Connemara or wherever it is, but I live in an area where there is 80 per cent unemployment in the north inner city of Dublin. I do not know how somebody living in the ward area of north inner Dublin, where I live, can genuinely seek employment because there does not appear to be employment available to them. In my opinion if they make a decision to move to another area, that area is probably actually more suitable for their development as human beings and if they continue to draw unemployment assistance, then I think that is fair enough.
The Senator's colleague, Senator Ryan, raised the matter on the adjournment of the west Cork experience on my first time to come to this House. As I then said to Senator Ryan, I know that he was trying to raise it here on the Adjournment for some time before it was raised by a Member of either House. It was a pity, as things turned out, that it was not accepted at the time because a reply I had to make in the Dáil caused a lot of confusion, so probably in that particular instance, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have been better off in the Seanad replying to him on the Adjournment when he first sought to raise the matter. Eventually, replying to Senator Ryan on the Adjournment I went over that particular area and dealt with the reasons for debarring people from unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance. Senator Ryan monitored the interesting point of place of residence. There are a number of requirements one must satisfy in order to quality for unemployment benefit or assistance. The changing of a place of residence is not, in itself, a sufficient reason for cutting a person off, there are many reasons a deciding officer may debar a person from obtaining unemployment assistance. In the course of that debate which arose from the west Cork experience, I was at pains to point out, both inside and outside the House, that I and officials in my Department, are anxious that people would avail of advice from the Jim Connolly group in Clare, the rural resettlement people. It is self-evident that an unemployed person would have a better lifestyle in Clare or Connemara than in Dublin. It is not the intention to debar those who move to west Clare or Connemara from unemployment assistance just because they move. Mr. Connolly and others have been encouraging people who are unemployed in the cities and towns to move to rural areas where, they will have a better life style. I encourage this. It was never my intention, or that of my Department to debar those people from obtaining unemployment assistance.
As regards the west Cork experience about which Senator Ryan knows, there was a great deal of public comment but only a small percentage of those investigated at that time were debarred from receiving social welfare payments.
Senator Ryan spoke today, yesterday and on the Adjournment about the question of genuinely seeking work. Social welfare officials are given guidelines and it is then a matter of common sense. There is a significant turnover of people on the live register. This proves that people are moving in and out of employment. We ask people to register with FÁS but if they do not, we must assume they are too busy doing something else. If an unemployed person does not register with FÁS, a social welfare officer is justified in thinking that he or she is not interested in getting employment. I do not know, and neither does anybody else, despite our estimates, what percentage of those on the unemployed register are abusing the system or not interested in work. I accept what Senator Ryan said that in the sixties in the town where he comes from, a small number of people had never any intention of working; I do not know the percentage of people on the live register today who have a similar intention. This is not unique to Ireland, in every country there is a percentage of people who are probably not employable rather than not seeking work. Deciding officers use their common sense in this regard. Those officers usually know the area and if there are no jobs available they will not insist on people seeking work 50 miles away.
I am sure in a vast system like ours, with 3,900 direct employees, some officers may apply different rules, but that is true of any large organisation and not just the Department of Social Welfare. Officers of a higher rank than the local officer make the final decisions. If the case is not sorted out at that stage, representations will be made to a Deputy or Senator who will contact the Minister and it will be sorted out that way. I believe that people should have to genuinely seek work and that provision should be inserted in social welfare legislation.
I am aware that a considerable number of the people move on and off the live register which, of course, is as good an argument for me as it is for the Minister because it proves that many of the unemployed are genuinely seeking work and that when the opportunity arises they take it. That is the other side of that argument. I would not be too worried if unemployed people knew precisely what was required of them to satisfy that condition, but nobody will tell them what the conditions are. They will be told they are not genuinely seeking work, but they will not be told what they must do. They are never told to visit employers who might have vacancies in the following few months. The first they hear they are not genuinely seeking employment is when they are told they are in trouble because they are not. They are not told the conditions they must meet.
I know what I must do to qualify for various welfare, taxation benefits etc. It is written down and I know when I am in breach of the rules. An unemployed person is entitled to the same information. This is a big issue, some may argue about whether we will ever again have full employment, but that is a different issue. I am not arguing about that. I am arguing about the principle that people should be seeking work and available for work, although in a modem society the difference between being available for work and seeking work is more academic than real having regard to the scale of unemployment here. The people should know what they have to do to meet that condition.
The Minister has guidelines that his officials operate, but he will not give them to the unemployed who have to meet those conditions. Why not? What is wrong with telling people the conditions they have to meet? I accept there is always the possibility that some people will learn how to get round all the rules. I think it was Coopers and Lybrand, or one of the other big consultancy firms, who carried out a major study on fraud in the Department of Social Welfare, particularly in the Dublin area. The result of that study showed that, perhaps, 1.5 per cent of social welfare expenditure in Dublin was fraudulently used. That is a huge sum of money, approximately, £25 million, but it does not justify making life impossible for thousands of people.
What this comes back to is the perpetual experience of anybody in politics, including the Minister, of the shock to the system that people go through when they visit a labour exchange. I do not believe it is the fault of the staff in the Department of Social Welfare. I want to make that clear because some comments attributed to me on various issues give the impression that I believe there is something nasty about officials in the Department of Social Welfare. That is not true; they are over-worked, doing a lousy job in the labour exchange system.
The sense of having half your dignity taken away when you go to a labour exchange is a big shock to the system. I have talked to articulate, educated middle class people who know their rights off by heart and they have told me that half their dignity is already gone after one visit to a labour exchange. If people know what is expected of them and what they have to do they can get away from that. People who work in centres for the unemployed tell me it is usually first time applicants who get caught because they do not know the answers. Of course, that can be interpreted in two ways. You could interpret that either by saying that many people are fiddling the system or that there is a whole ritual to be gone through and if you know what to say you will get through the hoops. That should not be the case.
Some of what Senator Ryan has said is true and some is not. For example, I do not suppose anybody in the new and excellent social welfare office in Ennis would say the staff were overworked but they go to a great deal of trouble to assist people. The Senator is speaking of a different period and a different type of office. We would all like all of these jobs to be available, but they are not. The efforts of the staff in the Ennis office to assist the unemployed has been conveyed to me by people in the streets. It is not true that thousands of people complaining about the atmosphere in that office. I am talking about an office I know of, but I presume it is an example of social welfare offices throughout the country. It is fine to get up here and speak in general, but we must acknowledge what has been done by the Department of Social Welfare. As the Minister has said he intends to introduce a consolidation Act we should not go through what he has said here today line by line. There is no point in slamming the services that are already in place.
As Senator Honan stated, there is a number of modern and up-to-date employment exchanges in the country. One is in Ennis and there is another in Newbridge——
That is in Kildare.
I want to record my regret.
That opened in the past year, so I cannot take any credit for it.
Such consideration has not stopped politicians before.
We want to be open and honest in regard to regulations and we have been telling people why they are disqualified in terms of various benefits.
Senator Brendan Ryan asked how we will know if somebody is genuinely seeking work. We both live in the real world and know that there is nobody better than the Irish man or woman at finding ways of getting around the system. It is not necessary to have those regulations set in tablets of stone. To have that inflexibility in the system would cause more trouble than it was worth. Social welfare officers use their initiative in deciding if a person is really seeking work.
It is a huge shock for people who have worked for 20 or 30 years to suddenly have to traipse to their local Garda station on a weekly basis to sign on. Those people may have worked hard to save some money and their families may be grown up. Social Welfare officers usually treat them with great courtesy. Nevertheless, it is degrading for them to have to queue outside a Garda station every week. Some would prefer not to draw unemployment benefit than go through that ordeal. This year I hope to change the concept of having to turn up at the Garda station and sign on because that is a total waste of time. It may be said that the system will be abused to a greater extent as a result of this change but social welfare officers' time will be better spent in endeavouring to find those who are abusing the system than stamping forms, etc. Gardaí will also have more time to deal with other important matters. In this age of technology it should be possible to eliminate much of this paperwork. Some may abuse the system to a greater extent but we will also catch more people who abuse it and this will give a sense of dignity to those who are genuinely unemployed and seeking work. I want to make the system more humane and I will endeavour to do that in my period in office. I am already working on some of the mechanics of this and hope to make some progress this year.
I welcome what the Minister has said about signing on. His is a humane approach with regard to the psychological impact on people in having to perform this childish task of turning up at Garda stations. It can be humiliating in various ways. A couple of years ago I knew a prison officer who had to claim a disability benefit and had to turn up at a station where all his previous charges used to turn up and abuse him. That was rather awkward for him.
I would like to give the Minister an illustration of the difficulties that occur with regard to the question of "genuinely seeking work". This has come to my notice in the past couple of weeks and it might be borne in mind by the Minister. It is the case of somebody who has been known to me for some years and who has been unemployed for a considerable time. A couple of weeks ago he strained his back and was told at the hospital that if he wanted his back to improve within a couple of days he would have to rest and walk with the assistance of a crutch. When he arrived to collect his benefit he was told that he could not be genuinely seeking work as he was on a crutch. This man had been receiving unemployment assistance for a considerable time and because he had to use a crutch for a couple of days he was told he did not qualify for that assistance. It was suggested to him that he go elsewhere and claim disability allowance but when he did that he was told that, under no circumstances, would he get a disability allowance because he was not permanently disabled, only suffering from a pain in his back. He was shuttled between the two places and he needed the money in order to pay his rent. That sort of thing is a complete waste of time. He was going to be unfit for about a week but because he had the physical evidence of a crutch he was denied unemployment assistance. If he had been skipping around like a lamb there still would not have been a job for him on the statistical evidence of the previous couple of years. That is an area where the "genuinely seeking work" clause causes difficulty.
I know we are all anxious to move on but I would like to address one other matter very briefly and that is the the definition of couples. Senator Ryan referred to the fact that a same sex couple would, unwittingly be advantaged under this legislation. I would not like to see them disadvantaged although, paradoxically, I would be very happy to have some degree of legislative recognition of the rights of spouses in a same sex relationship. I very much doubt if the machinery of this Bill will give recognition to homosexual relationships. However, far from being a frivolous point it is an important and significant one but I do not believe it is directly relevant to this Bill. It is relevant with regard to visiting rights in hospitals, inheritance and so on. However, Senator Brendan Ryan has exposed an anomaly, but the principle I would look to — I have spoken on this before — is that the individual should be cherished, not the couple. I object strenuously to this notion of recognising specific entitlements of a couple.
I would like to remind Senator Norris that we had a long discussion on that matter on earlier sections.
I wish to finish with this because it contains the core of my argument. This notion is almost universally employed to disadvantage the two people; in other words, if they were treated as individuals they would get slightly more than if they were treated as a couple. That has been regarded as — the phrase was used in another Bill — evening down, equalising down. I would prefer either to stabilise or to equalise up. If we recognise the entitlements of individuals as citizens of the State, we will not get into this anomalous problem that has been successfully exposed by Senator Brendan Ryan.
On the question of availability for employment, the universal complaint I hear is that this is being used against women in particular. Although I have been told by successive Ministers for Social Welfare that guidelines, which, incidentally they will not let me see, specifically tell officials of the Department of Social Welfare that questions about minding children should never be asked in a way which particularly discriminates against women. All the information I have from unemployment centres around the country is to the contrary, that it is continuously women who are asked the question. In regard to the requirement to avail oneself of any reasonable opportunity of receiving training from FÁS, which is contained in this section, how does that apply, given that the rates of payment by FÁS are not that generous? If a husband is working and his wife is at home they cannot afford to pay somebody to mind their children out of the rates FÁS pay them.
It is difficult to give a reference for this in the Bill because there is reference to subsections of subsections of the Principal Act and so on and it gets somewhat confusing. Without good cause people will be penalised for refusing or failing to avail of a FÁS training scheme and I would not argue too much with that. Women do not have a problem about minding children if they are in work because they will be paid a reasonable wage. However, if they go from signing on once a week at the labour exchange — where they can bring their children — to attending a five day week FÁS training course for an allowance that is not enormously more than the dole, they have a genuine problem in regard to their children. That is not an availability for work problem; they will be available for work if they are paid sufficient. The Department of Social Welfare take exception to people saying they are available for part-time work and disqualify those who say they only want part-time work. People will be available for full time work which pays them properly but the Department now say that people have to do FÁS schemes. I am glad that provision is in the legislation because the Department were a little wobbly on the law when they, effectively, insisted on people accepting offers of FÁS schemes.
On that topic, the Bill makes provision that Sunday shall not be treated as a day of unemployment in terms of working out consecutive days. Does that mean that if somebody refused a job on the grounds that it involves Sunday work, they will not be regarded as turning down a reasonable offer of a job?
No, that is in relation to calculations.
Sunday is not regarded as a day of work for one purpose, but people are expected to work on Sundays. It cannot be both ways.
This section contains a whole chapter, much of which is tidying up legislation in anticipation of the wonderful Consolidation Act we hope to introduce this year. I readily understand why Senators get confused with the various sections. I have been reading this Bill over the past couple of weeks and, as a result, it is fairly clear to me.
From my experience, I accept what Senator Brendan Ryan said about the availability of work clause and married women. Married women are asked some of the questions the Senator outlined. I have been a Dáil Deputy for longer than a Minister and I doubt if all the Senator said is correct but there is a clear implication here. It is difficult for married women to prove they are genuinely seeking work, but we must also be conscious that a reasonable attitude is adopted. From my experience as a Deputy over the years, if a married woman is genuinely seeking work and is available for work, she will receive payment from the Department. Some women may have had to go to extreme lengths to prove they were genuinely looking for work, but they were the exception. With regard to married women taking up FÁS courses the Department of Social Welfare regulations do not compel people to go on them. The inclusion of Sunday has to do with the calculation of days and does not mean that people have to be available for Sunday work. That is my understanding of this clause and Senators need not worry about that.
There is a change in this section and I know it is with a view to consolidation. Section 137 (2) of the Principal Act deals with the weekly means of the applicant or recipient of unemployment assistance. By any definition, this represents a 100 per cent tax rate. It means that for every £1 an unemployed person earns £1 will be deducted from their unemployment assistance. This is extraordinary. The Irish National Organisation Of The Unemployed believe the Bill will deepen the poverty trap. Instead of dividing unemployment assistance on a daily basis, where people lose one-fifth for each day they work, and extending that to encourage people to do some work, not just for financial reasons but for good social reasons, we are now telling people that for every £1 they earn in a week £1 will be deducted from their dole. That means that people have to be sure of earning more than £53 per week before they will make £1 out of it and I heard Senator Ó Cuív talking at great length about this. We are not standing still here but going rapidly in the wrong direction by introducing a pound by pound means test on part-time work for unemployed people.
Senator Ryan may have drifted on to another section because this is not included under section 27. The section he referred to yesterday, and is making some reference to now, is section 28 and we will come to that in a minute. The situation on unemployement assistance means testing is the same as it was except that a few things have been streamlined. There is nothing new or exciting in this issue he is talking about. The general point he is making about pound for pound reduction is what we will be coming to under section 28.
Page 34 has assessment of means for unemployment assistance.
The assessment of means for unemployment assistance is the same as it was. Means are taken into account in assessing unemployment assistance claims, I know the points Senator Ryan and others have made. Senator Ó Cuív also made this point yesterday and had spoken to me when I became Minister for Social Welfare in the corridors on the means testing process. He gave great examples yesterday and I took note of what he said. We will not use the word "disincentive" because Senator Ryan does not like that phrase.
Senator Ó Cuív made the point that unemployed people who do anything extra, such as doing the garden a bit better, achieving greater production with cattle or sheep or whatever, are pernalised and I will take that into account. I accept Senator Ó Cuív's point that people may get into a psychosis, if that is the right word, thinking there is no use in improving one's situation because any effort at all will leave one worse off when the payment comes from the Department of Social Welfare. If people adopt that attitude who will do anything? This matter was mentioned also by Senator Ryan and I accept the criticism there. The question of incentive is a broad one. What we have been trying to do in these sections is to balance existing inequalities in the system and eliminate some of them, every time we remove one anomaly we seem to introduce a set of new ones.
I am prepared to look at this question raised especially by Senator Ó Cuív. I know it is a significant factor. I cannot do anything at this stage, but the matter needs fresh thinking not alone by the Department of Social Welfare but by Government.
I am under a misunderstanding. The INOU says that under the previous scheme people could sign off for a day, lose one-fifth of their unemployment assistance, work for that day and money earned that day would not be assessed as means for entitlement to unemployment assistance for the other four days. Maybe the INOU are wrong but it appears to me that we are now saying that if people get £40 for one day's work, that £40 will be deducted from the £53 they would be entitled to. That is the change.
The Senator is referring to section 146 and I take his point in that regard. This is something I am not happy about justifying.
This goes back to Senator Ó Cuív's point as well. Section 146 provides that current earnings on insurable employment and insurable self-employment will now be assessed as means.
Under existing legislation there is no provision where the occasional earnings of an applicant for unemployment assistance from employment under a contract of service can be taken into account in assessing his means. In practice, an applicant is paid for each day of unemployment and no account is taken of earnings from current employment. This could arise, for example, in the case of persons who are available for employment during the day but who engage in part-time employment in the evening.
Section 146 (1) (f) provides that income received by an applicant for unemployment assistance from insurable employment and insurable self-employment will be counted as means. That answers the question the Senator asked about the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed. This area, which we spoke about both yesterday and today, will have to be addressed by Government. I recognise some of the anomalies.
Some of the powers of social welfare officers to enter premises bother me. On page 38, section 141 (3) (c) of the Principal Act mentions the power "to examine either alone or in the presence of any other person". What does it mean "to examine somebody either alone or in the presence of any other person"? It could be intended to give the person being examined some support or it could be used to intimidate people. These are sweeping phrases. If they appeared in a Criminal Justice Bill about powers for the Garda a huge number of people — not just me but the liberal establishment which ignores the unemployed most of the time — would descend quickly on the head of a Minister for Justice who said a garda could interrogate somebody either alone or in the presence of somebody else.
Related to that, on the next page of the Bill it states that a person shall not be required under subsection (5) to answer any question or to give any evidence tending to incriminate himself. First, will the person be warned in advance that they do not have to give any evidence that would incriminate them? Second, how does one say to an official of the Department of Social Welfare that one will not give any information that would incriminate oneself in such a way that one does not reveal that precise information? If I say I will not answer a question that might incriminate me, I am giving that official with considerable arbitrary powers reason to believe I am up to something which disqualifies me from unemployment assistance in the first place. This is a grand phrase and is consistent with natural justice, but given that this is not a court of law where evidence has to be proven, I would like to know how somebody is supposed to employ it. Finally if this ends up in court and a person refuses to give evidence on the grounds that he or she might incriminate themselves, will the court be entitled to draw any inference from the refusal to answer a question?
There are a succession of issues here relating to people's rights. If these things were done in criminal law the liberal establishment would be down on the Minister's head but because they are done only to the poor, most people ignore them most of the time.
The provisions of this section apply to somebody trying not to give information the Department is entitled to. I envisage the provisions of the Bill being used in the case of purposeful evasion of questioning. In the extreme case of somebody trying to avoid giving information, provisions have to be made but the biggest problem from talking to social welfare officers who are generally reasonable people and to social welfare recipients who are also reasonable people, is the gap in perception.
Rather than argue about technical powers that have to be there for the odd case, I would be more in favour of tackling this problem by information on two fronts. I suggest to the Minister that in looking at this section two things could be done. First, a small leaflet explaining to a person how social welfare officers assess means, how they work out the profit from the farm for example, might be circulated. It would indicate the information which should be available on the day the inspector calls. That should be sent out with notification of the means test and people should be encouraged to keep receipts.
Second, it would be beneficial if, as happened lately in the tax field where the inspector of taxes came to public meetings, a series of meetings could be organised where social welfare officers could reasonably explain to people what they are looking for and how they do their calculations.
The most common misconception is that if one has £10,000 in the bank, the whole £10,000 is set against one's means. A great proportion of people think that. I do a lot of constituency work in this field and many social welfare recipients who come to me with problems are very surprised that in front of them I pick up the phone, get the social welfare office on the line and have a friendly chat about what the recipient has previously been very shy about. Where they may have been refused social welfare for non-disclosure of means, I disclose everything and get a huge rise in their social welfare payment. In not disclosing means, the worst has been presumed which is much worse than the actuality. There is tension there and by sitting down together at meetings people might be shown how the system operates and it would mean that many people would get their entitlements much faster than under the present system. Talk often generates fear to the detriment rather than the benefit of social welfare recipients.
Senator Ó Cuív's suggestion is a good one. Some problems could be alleviated if local welfare officers gave information or came to meetings and said X, Y and Z are things to be taken into account while B, C and D are not going to be taken into account. I will ask my Department to consider that approach in certain parts of the country; I can see it working in rural areas especially. It would have a beneficial effect because if people knew those things we would not have many of the problems now encountered in the west of which both Senators on my left would be conscious.
Regarding the matters raised by Senator Ryan, all I can say is that section 141 corresponds exactly to section 143 (a) of the Consolidation Act, 1981. Perhaps there will be another occasion to discuss the wrongs and rights of these provisions; I am sure that in 1981 this matter was thrashed out. We will have a look at it again when we are on the new Consolidation Bill. Most of these provisions have been there for some time and relate to the powers of social welfare officer on employer's premises. They do not relate to employees. That is the purpose of section 141 and other technical matters will have to be left for another occasion.
There is a provision on page 40 of the Bill — referring to section 142 (3) of the Principal Act — for disqualification from benefit of people who are convicted of an offence. I did not realise this did not exist before. I have no problems with disqualification of someone abusing unemployment assistance but I am anxious about their dependants. Suppose a couple are on split payments and the wife and children are in receipt of their, unfair, share of it — the idea of split payments where the man gets £57 and the wife gets £34 does not seem fair, but that is a separate issue — if the man is then convicted of an offence and loses his entitlements, his wife, a totally innocent party who may be living apart from him but still dependent on him, will be penalised. She will have to go to the community welfare officer and look for supplementary welfare. It ought to be possible to devise a scheme where only the guilty party is penalised.
We could look at that area again. In that case the spouse would have to be given a supplementary welfare allowance; that is the only option open to her. In no social welfare legislation can one think of all possible exceptions and circumstances that may arise. Social Welfare Acts are large enough and if all the regulations were published as well we would fill books. We will see what we can do with the cases that have been mentioned but it may be against the objective outlined at the outset of my term as Minister for Social Welfare, which is to simplify the system rather than create more exceptions and anomalies arising from the exceptions.
I oppose this section because it proposes to stop paying pay-related benefits to people working short-time on a week-on/week-off basis. In my view, it will force people to make a choice between short-time working and redundancy. This would add to the numbers unemployed.
I appreciate the Minister's view on this but I cannot appreciate how his view's led him to this conclusion. This measure will make it more difficult to achieve voluntary redundancies. I do not like redundancies any more than anybody else, but the only option to voluntary redundancies is compulsory redundancies. There is nothing that generates serious industrial disputes quicker than the threat of compulsory redundancy. If we impose this sort of restriction on entitlements to unemployment benefit, we are moving in that direction.
I heard a spokeswoman for the Danish Government on one occasion say that people could move out of work relatively easily because of their generous level of income support for people out of work. This gives rise to great labour market flexibility during various parts of the business cycle. What we are doing here is saying to people that they would want to be careful about accepting voluntary redundancy. The financial advantage, apparent if not real, of accepting voluntary redundancy is being reduced; the sum of money one can be paid will depend upon how many weeks one has to do without unemployment benefit. I understand the cash argument. Has the Minister seriously thought about the possible industrial relations consequences of increasing numbers of people resisting redundancy and redundancies having to be made compulsory?
I have considered those matters as well as the matter raised by Senator Kennedy. I gave a fair amount of time in my Second Stage speech to this matter and it comes back to the requirement to target resources in certain areas. I think it is reasonable that some account be taken of redundancy payments to determine how long a person should be entitled to unemployment benefit. There is no doubt that over the past number of years the automatic right to unemployment benefit has been regarded by many firms throughout the country as part of the redundancy package in the first place; I and the Department know of firms who advertise the Department of Social Welfare schemes as part of the package. The social insurance system was never meant to be — whatever it has turned out to be — part of employer redundancy packages. Surely the social insurance system should be there for people who through no fault of their own find themselves in A, B or C situation, and C situation may be involuntary unemployment. The system is not there as part of some grandiose package that employers and trade unions dickie up among themselves.
The approach taken in the Bill is reasonable. I have deliberately not prescribed the amount above which disqualification will take place, because since this announcement by my predecessor last December I received representations from the Federation of Irish Employers and ICTU in relation to this matter. In the Bill I do not mention the amount to be prescribed by regulations; that amount has not yet been decided. I know that employers and trade unions are going to demand a high amount as a cut-off point. Account should be taken of some substantial redundancy and severance packages which have been negotiated. The Bill does not refer to either voluntary or involuntary redundancy but about a sum above a certain amount whether by way of a severance package or some other package. We are trying to guard against phraseology where employers and employees will collude and, as will the income tax code, call it something else. I do not think the disentitlement period is too onerous and I hope in the coming weeks we will be able to hear the views of the ICTU and the employers and then we will establish by regulation the amount above which people will be disqualified.
I would like the Minister to explain to me what happens under this section to a person who has been unemployed for more than 12 months and then gets sick. Currently an unemployed person who would have credits as well as contributions would be entitled to disability benefit. Under this section they need 13 qualifying contributions in the previous 12 months. If somebody is unemployed for more than 12 months it appears to me they would no longer qualify for disability benefit. What will they qualify for?
I have studied this because it was raised a number of times inside and outside the Oireachtas. I will read part of what it is intended to do here. Senator Ryan is right when he says there is a change in the contribution conditions here, which we think reasonable and I will set out the reasons for it. Everyone knows that a certain number of people remain on disability benefit for a long time. They go back into the workforce, then go back on disability benefit, and it goes on ad infinitum. To qualify for disability benefit under the present rules before the passing of this Bill one must have paid at least 39 PRSI contributions over a lifetime and at least 39 paid or credit contributions in the last complete contribution year before the beginning of the year in which the benefit is claimed; this is referred to as the governing contribution year.
We made certain changes in this provision because people had been getting credited contributions for a long time while staying on disability benefit and having long since lost their attachment to the workforce. Disability benefit was introduced for people who suffered illness over a short period. If they are permanently ill they eventually move on to invalidity pension. Disability benefit is a short term sickness payment for people out of work due to illness; it was never meant to be a permanent, ad infinitum payment which it has become for certain people. It is a reasonable condition that a recipient of disability benefit should have recent experience in the workforce. That is the reason why the 13 paid contributions condition is coming in, but I am aware of some of the cases the Senator has in mind. What is intended in section 32 (1) is to change these conditions by requiring claimants to have at least 13 paid contributions in a governing contribution year.
Paragraph 1 provides that of the 39 paid or credited contributions required in the governing contribution year 13 must be paid. Paragraph (1) also provides for regulatory powers to entitle to disability benefit people who would otherwise qualify but for the fact that they do not meet the requirement of having 13 paid contributions. These powers will be used to entitle to disability benefit people who immediately before making the claim had been in receipt of some other social welfare payment but who nevertheless have an attachment to the labour force in recent years. Section 32 (3) provides that the new contribution requirements will only apply to claims commencing on or after the commencment of this subsection. We are conscious of some of the anomalies that will arise and it is not our intention to penalise the people you mention. The underlying principle behind section 32 is that disability benefit be reserved for people in short term illness who have had a recent attachment to the workforce; it is not available, ad infinitum. We are conscious of problems that may arise, and regulations will provide for the cases which Senator Ryan has spoken about.
I accept that certain people remain for years and years on disability benefit. One of the problems I have come up against is a reluctance to transfer people to invalidity pension unless it can be proven that they will never be fit again to re-enter the labour force. In addressing this situation we need greater willingness to put people who have been more than a year on disability benefit on invalidity pension if they will not be fit to re-enter the labour force for maybe two or three years. I know of one case where a mechanic was on disability benefit for years while he waited for two hip replacements. In the case of hip replacements there is, first, a long wait but, second, the person will never be fit to do mechanical work again. I could instance hundreds of cases like that where there should be an automatic transfer of invalidity pension. If that became part of the operation of this section it would help to resolve any difficulties that might arise.
With regard to the other side of this section, where people, are means tested for dole, often they can do better by transferring to disability benefit, even after 15 years out of the workforce. That too is being dealt with but there has to be a counterbalancing and more willingness to put people who are gunuinely incapable of doing the work they are qualified for on invalidity pension. Otherwise they are stuck on short term payments.
I have some other ideas for the Department of Social Welfare relating to the whole growth of information technology and the use of the unique RSI number. If I accept what Senator Ó Cuív says — and other people before me must have had this idea — when people are on disability benefit for some time surely the easiest thing to do is to transfer them after X number of weeks to invalidity pension. There is a great reluctance to do that because that becomes a permanent payment. However, if we reverse thinking it need not be that way. I could see that avenue opening up at a later stage under a new system. When you get the invalidity pension now, you are entitled to it forever. Under a new system there could be an automatic transfer after a fixed period, but there would also have to be an investigation procedure by which you could be removed from that system. That kind of thinking is not in the present social welfare legislation. That is the way I would like to see the thinking going in the future. Maybe further down the road we could proceed that way. That would be common sense. We are not doing away with long term disability benefit or anything else, but the people mentioned are signing on for credits and are long gone from the workforce and eventually they are back on disability benefit. There will be no change to the system. People who qualify for disability benefit will continue to get it. This is the new idea.
Is the section agreed?
All I would say to Senator Ryan is that we have 30 more sections to do and I would ask for brevity.
I am acutely conscious of the time and I am not trying to waste it. I understand the problem. I do not agree with the Minister or with anybody who thinks many people are fiddling disability benefit. I will believe there are loads of people fiddling disability benefit when I see the Department of Social Welfare having the courage to bring a doctor before the medical council for improperly certifying people as being sick. Everybody on disability benefit has a medical certificate signed by a registered medical practitioner every week to say the person is sick. If the Department are convinced that people are fiddling, then they are effectively saying there are doctors signing certificates without any basis. If that is so, they should be either brought to court, if it is a criminal offence, or brought before the Medical Council and dealt with. That is fundamental. It is not all on one side. I will believe this abuse exists when I see the Department of Social Welfare take on the more powerful side of this equation instead of picking on sick people all the time.
We have all heard stories this has happened. I know about a man who was hauled in for a medical examination in Cork, he fainted from pain outside the door after the examination and when he got home he got a letter saying he had been certified by the medical examiner as fit for work. We all know cases like that. I do not understand why a phone call cannot be made in each case to the person's GP to discuss the person's illness. It would have the desirable effect of forcing GPs to justify many things they do without thinking. If a person has been seeing a consultant or a specialist, why cannot medical examiners discuss that with the person's consultant? I have no desire to see one person getting disability benefit who should not. I have a considerable concern that, because of the allegation that there are large numbers of people fiddling the system, many very sick people are being put through unnecessary hardship.
On the provisions for regulations to provide for entitlement to disability benefit, the Minister is going a long way towards what I wish to see. I am concerned about the increasing number of long term unemployed — 40 per cent of those on the lists of unemployment are classified as long term unemployed, and some of them will have been unemployed for a year or two. Am I to be assured that some provision will be made, other than supplementary welfare, for anybody who is long term unemployed who gets sick? I am not referring to people who would be entitled to invalidity pension, because I share some of the Minister's reservations about invalidity pension. When people are disabled, which means they cannot do their previous job, we should offer them the chance of serious retraining in another area rather than simply offering them invalidity pensions for the rest of their lives. We should use the same resources to do different things. That is another issue.
I would like to be sure that somebody who is unemployed will never have to resort to supplementary welfare because they are sick. There is a contradiction here: if they are sick they should not have to go to community welfare officers — I am sure we are not asking the supplementary welfare officers to make home visits. I would like to be sure that whatever entitlement or income support they have under these changes they will not have to rely on supplementary welfare.
Senator Ryan wants to know if people who are ill will have to go to the community welfare offices for a supplementary allowance. The section allows some discretion regarding the regulatory powers in this regard. We will see if we can get over that problem. I accept what Senator Ryan says. I have come across confusion in farm constituencies regarding medical referees. People are referred and they appeal and reappeal; it is an never ending circle. Every public representative has had this experience. What the Senator says is self-evident. I do not know what the procedure is, whether the departmental medical referees ring the doctors or the specialist, but to me it is the common sense thing to do. If this is not done it should be, particularly if the case is being made that some doctors are signing certificates for people who are not sick. I am sure that is true in a limited number of cases, but I am also sure the majority of the medical profession do not do that. I know there is a doctor in the House but it reminds me——
We have a doctor in the House. I am well aware of the risks I am taking.
Some of my colleagues have been here long enough to remember a certain TD who was also a doctor from an area a Senator here represents. I made a comment at a party meeting one day about disability benefit. He said it was all right for us to report a fellow in receipt of sick benefit who is walking around, because all we would lose is a vote; but if he did it he would lose a patient and a vote.
That TD won four seats in four different areas.
Most of us know the man to whom we are referring — Lord have mercy on him.
I will take up Senator Ryan's point about medical referees. I do not know of any case being taken against a doctor by the Department. Like the people on social welfare who abuse the system, I am sure there are doctors who abuse it also.
Why end pay-related benefit? I appreciate we are talking about a scheme which involves the employers paying the first three days of sickness benefit and then being reimbursed. What will the difference be? Will it save money for the State or is it simply a different method of passing on the same amount of money?
Section 34 deals with the abolition of pay-related benefit in regard to disability or occupational injury benefits. The obvious reason is one of saving but the more important reason, in the long term, is that, after it had been discussed for a number of years, last year the Government announced that we intend to have a statutory sick pay scheme. That is the second good reason to do away with pay-related benefit. Negotiations will have to take place between myself, the employers and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions regarding a statutory sick pay scheme. As far back as 1987-88 the idea was mooted but it has not come about. I am hopeful we will get down to making progress in 1992.
A satisfactory sick pay scheme would mean when a person goes sick the employers would pay the employee for a specific period and then the employee would go on to the State support system. The scheme will be the subject of a separate Bill and I would not like to be held to introducing it in 1992. It is, however, our intention to get moving on it this year. It would be impossible for employers to operate such a scheme if it contained a pay-related benefit element. It must be simpler.
I sincerely hope I misunderstood the Minister. At present employers are paying 12.2 per cent of the gross salaries of their employees in PRSI. From what I gathered from the Minister, under a statutory sick pay scheme the employer will have to pay more than 12.2 per cent of the gross pay bill. If the gross pay bill of employers is increased, as a small employer I would see that as a most retrograde step. It would lead to more unemployment. If there is any suggestion of an increase on the 12.2 per cent I will have to go against the Minister.
No one knows what is going to happen in that regard. At the moment when a person goes sick from employment, the State, on the basis of a certificate from a doctor, will eventually begin to pay disability benefit. In other countries a person does not automatically go on to the State system immediately. The employer continues paying the person at a rate that is not the full wage rate the person was getting when employed. That will be the basis of a statutory sick pay scheme. How long that will continue is a matter for negotiation. Under the United Kingdom system it is paid for a number of weeks and we will be putting forward proposals in that regard. The negotiations stalled and there was no agreement with the employers. One suggestion was that there should be a reduction in the employers' PRSI contribution and another was that the amount paid out by employers should be deducted from the multi PRSI/PAYE return. Negotiations are a matter for another day.
Hopefully we will reach agreement with the employers and the trade unions this year regarding the method of operation. If that is achieved I will bring a Bill before the Houses of the Oireachtas to establish the scheme. The Senator will have many opportunities through employers' organisations and in the Seanad to discuss the matter. If employers have to take up the sick pay element for some time, some compensatory mechanism will have to be included in the PRSI system upon the monthly returns.
That is a long way down the road. We have not stated negotiations yet but this idea was mooted by some Ministers as far back as 1987. I hope to do something about it. The reason for taking out the pay-related benefit is to streamline the system and, as I said, we will save some money. There are two elements in this.
The reason I am worried about this is it appears the employer will have to pay more. One of the problems about short time is that even though the PAYE element of gross pay decreases the gross element of PRSI stays the same. While a person may be on low wages the PRSI element will be on the gross and there will be no reduction for the employer.
I have operated as an employer for a long time and I considered it very cumbersome for both the employer and the employee that after three days they had to apply to the State system. Any investigation of illness will show that most illnesses do not last for, say, longer than two weeks. The average flu normally lasts longer than three days, but many illnesses will last less than two weeks. In the present system I see two huge disadvantages. The first is that if a person is absent from work for three days it might be three weeks before the claim is cleared by which time the person is back at work and waiting for the cheques. If there is a good employer/employee relationship the employer gives the employee the money to keep him or her going. If not they may have to go to the community welfare officer.
If there was a system wherby the employer was compensated for paying the two weeks by a lower rate of RSI contribution or otherwise, the simple mechanics of not having people claiming for maybe two, three or four day's illnesses would make sense. I have always favoured such a scheme as an employer because I always paid the employees if they were out for two weeks and ask them to hand up their cheques when they received them from the Department of Social Welfare. Many employers gave a contribution out of the cash box and waited for the cheques. If the employer pays for the first two weeks and the Department are willing to compensate the employer that would cut down unnecessary bureaucracy, something we all want to do.
Having been an employer for a long time I can assure Senator Lanigan when we get to statutory sick pay negotiations I will be more conscious of the points he has brought to my attention. A statutory sick pay scheme has been discussed for so long I hope to get some negotiations going this year. this Bill has nothing to do with it but that scheme is one of the reasons I am doing away with pay-related benefit and disability benefit. It is the obvious thing to do because it would be impossible to operate a statutory sick pay scheme without doing this first. Senator Ó Cuív is correct. From the statistical information on the social welfare service for 1990 I note that up to 37.2 per cent of people who received benefit had claims for two weeks while 58 per cent had claims for four weeks. We have a long way to go before we get an agreement with the employers and the unions. It has not been done in four or five years but I hope to make some progress on it. I am sure we will have more talks before we ever agree.
There must be some extraordinary symbolism in one of the few rates of payment under social welfare that were in excess of the priority rates being actually reduced. I know it does not affect many people but one could not lose the symbolism of cutting something from £65 to £50 per week. The Minister could argue that it was anomalous but that was because other rates were too low, not because this was too high. If it is his intention in twelve months or two years time to raise all the rates up above the priority rates, what is the point of reducing one now, simply in order to bring it back again next year?
I think it was very strange that occupational injury benefit was at a higher rate than disability benefit. First of all, injury benefit only lasts for six months and then the person goes on to disability benefit. I saw no reason for this from my simple way of looking at things. When a person is not working it is because (a) he has no job or (b) he is sick. If he is sick, whether it is due to an injury at work, a football match or a kick from the wife when she was not pleased with him, whatever the case may be, he is not working. It could not be explained to me by people in my Department, so I decided to reduce it to the same level as disability benefit and I take sole resonsibility for that. May I emphasise that it is only for new claimants commencing on or after the 6 April 1992. It will not affect very many people. It will last for only a limited period. I am prepared to stand over this principle, as I do over other areas in this legislation.
Nevertheless it is true now that for somebody who is at work, whether they are injured at work or by the other colourful circumstances the Minister outlined, they will be worse off after the Minister has finished with them. They will not be entitled to pay-related disability benefit. There is no replacement yet, although the Minister hopes to have a replacement. Furthermore, if they are injured at work they will be entitled not to £66.60 but to about £53. The consequences of the Minister's changes here are to make people who are ill worse off than they were before. That is not something that he should be proud of.
Whatever about them becoming ill, I do not think there are many people in the country who are deliberately going to work to get injured. The occupational injuries scheme is a strange type of scheme in this era of social welfare legislation. I can see the benefits it had many years ago but it is strange nowadays. It is only reasonable to assume that when you are sick, you should get the same amount as the person who is injured. If Senator Lanigan is working for me and he goes home sick because he has the flu and Senator Donie Ormonde has to go home from work because the ruler in my office falls on his big toe, I do not see why he should get a higher rate of payment for six months simply because it was an occupational injury whereas Senator Lanigan will not. I feel that is anomalous and it should have been seen before.
Employer's have to have occupational injury insurance. Anybody who is injured in my premises and who is employed by me is covered by my insurance. Why should they get more than somebody who is sick. They will get paid by the insurance company and receive huge amounts for small occupational injuries.
No. The Minister misunderstood me. I love the way he said "in my own simple way". If he is talking about being a Minister in his own simple way, then I can accept that, but when I hear Charlie McCreevy talking about "my own simple way" I get very wary. People who are at work and get sick will now be entitled to a lower level of disability benefit. There will be no pay-related element. Therefore, anyone who from now on, gets sick will be worse off than people would have been before this. Secondly, anybody who is injured at work will now be entitled only to the same level of payment as disability benefit. Whatever the logic of the position, the consequence is that people who get sick at work will be worse off under these proposals than they were before. That is not something the Minister should be proud of.
This section deals with what I believe is quite an important scheme, the carer's scheme. As I said on Second Stage, I believe that the scheme needs to be revamped generously and better funded. I think we would all agree that the family has provided the strongest and most reliable source of care for elderly and incapacitated people down through the years. The Minister and his Department should show more commitment to this scheme because it relieves the State of huge financial obligations that would otherwise have to be met. I suggest he should also make provision, in association with the health boards, for the establishment of a scheme from within existing resources to afford respite care so as to enable carers to take time off. That was in the amendment which I tabled and which had been ruled out of order for technical reasons. The Minister has come a long way with us on certain aspects of this Bill today. I would exhort him to consider the introduction of this respite scheme in conjunction with the carers' scheme.
I would ask the Minister, in the months ahead, with all the change that he intends to bring in, to look at the carer's allowance for mentally handicapped children, young adults and other persons. I have a long association with this field and I understand that people get the carer's allowance if they are on the DPMA. But there are families who get no assistance with mentally handicapped young adults who were taken into schools at four years of age and are now 18 and 20. I would be deeply grateful if the Minister could provide for them under some section. Senator Paddy Kennedy of the health board would know all too well what I am talking about. I have no problem as regards money going into any home but in my area I have seen it going into some homes while I was trying to pacify parents of mentally handicapped young adults who were getting nothing. I would ask the Minister to consider this matter because it is within his ambit now.
I will certainly do so, because in my own constituency if we did not have an organisation known as KARE which started in 1967 or 1968 I do not know what the mentally handicapped people of County Kildare would have done. I know they get some funding in this regard from the Department of Health. It is an organisation which grew from nothing in the middle sixties, recognising the problem to do with mentally handicapped. It is something I would be very conscious of. I will certainly look at that area because I cannot understand why that could not be the case. As I said yesterday on Second Stage in relation to the carer's allowance, I am committed to looking to the whole concept of carer's allowance in the context of the total State expenditure. It will not be done this year but I hope that, in consultation with my colleague, the Minister for Health, we could initiate discussions about the whole concept of caring and what will be involved in years to come. This is not something that should be left solely to the Minister for Social Welfare. Once we have established the principle of carer's allowance we must get it across to people what it really means. When it was first introduced it replaced the prescribed relative allowance but it raised expectations. As I said in the Dáil on many occasions and at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis the principle is excellent but it caused a lot of trouble for public representatives than the initial idea was worth because it is called the carer's allowance. With the way the dependency ratio is going, the State will not have the resources to put into hospitals to care for old people. Why not give a small amount of money to those who are caring for people at home? That is the way to go. I am not sure whether it should have been called a carer's allowance but it is a good principle to develop. I would like to see it develop in the area we spoke about yesterday, but it will not be done in 1992 or 1993. It is something on which the Departments of Health, Social Welfare, Finance and other organs of the State must come together.
The question of respite allowance was raised in the Dáil too and I will see what can be done there. As regards the point Senator Honan mentioned, I do not know why such people cannot qualify; it is probably on the means test which bedevils this principle. Now that it is called the carer's allowance it does not operate in the way we would all like. It gives some recognition but I have a different view of it; it is too restrictive. If it were to be a proper carer's allowance, I would not be vexed if it were transferred to the Minister for Health.
I thank the Minister for his comments because this is a very big problem. Mentally and physically handicapped children become mentally and physically handicapped adults. At present, there are schemes to help mentally and physically handicapped children but, unfortunately, when they leave the school system there is no place for them to go except back home or into psychiatric hospitals. In the psychiatric system we are heading away from the big psychiatric hospitals into having a psychiatric unit attached to a general hospital but that will not cater for the severely mentally and physically handicapped people. I am delighted the Minister is taking this on board. I hope that he, with the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Health, will also take on board the problems that are associated with this. Advances in medicine mean that mentally and physically handicapped people who, 20 years ago, would have died at 16 years of age are now living to adulthood and they must be catered for. The home is possibly the best place for them, but their carers must get some sustenance from the State.
I move amendment No. 28:
In page 54, between lines 34 and 35, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) The Principal Act is hereby amended by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection 10 of section 2:
‘(11) All guidelines and interpretations supplied to deciding officers appointed under this Act shall be published unless the Minister affirms that such publication would seriously inhibit the detection and prevention of fraud.'.".
I move amendment No. 28 more in hope than in confidence because, although the practicalities of the amendment have been accepted, it seems to be extremely difficult to get this commitment from successive Ministers for Social Welfare. This is me at my most reasonable actually accepting the problem of fraud in the social welfare system.
It would be a useful exercise for the Department of Social Welfare to sort out the guidelines, circulars, memos and various interpretations. I have seen some of them and they are very good. The guidelines that were sent out to community welfare officers about the operation of things like supplementary welfare rent allowance are models of their kind which, unfortunately, very often were not implemented as they should have been by community welfare officers. These are the things you get your hands on illegally. It was probably a breach of the Official Secrets Act that I had it at all, but there is a great deal of this information that would be of enormous help to many people if it were made public. It would be useful to begin sorting out what precisely you need to keep secret because of the problems of fraud and make sure that everything else, as a matter of principle, is published and that in the future all of these documents would be drafted with a view to publication. People are entitled to know not just the law but the official interpretation supplied to those who carry out these laws. Very often it is information that will get rid of uncertainties, clear up people's doubts and help the work, not just of those who receive benefits but those who have to administer them.
I would be opposed to the attitude taken by Senator Ryan. People come to my office who go to the community welfare office where they are dealt with on the basis of need. These officers deal with the question of need and I do not think the recipients of this benefit would appreciate their cases being published. The community welfare officers do an excellent job. They deal with cases on their merits and publicity should not come into it. It would be detrimental to the scheme if they had to give reasons.
Going back to what I said previously on this subject, the last thing people want is more unnecessary Civil Service bureaucracy. The people I deal with do not normally read the guidelines. Therefore, the Minister's undertaking to look at the communication gap and to correct it, particularly by personal explanation of how decisions are arrived at, is much more important. I have a lot of dealings with the Department of Social Welfare and there are so many different regulations that, by the time you had read them, you would be addled. The reality is that it is much handier if somebody can ring up and get an explanation of the interpretation and how it works. I would urge the Minister to look at what I suggested earlier. It would be much better than printing further regulations which would wind up not being read because of the complications involved.
I consider this a very reasonable amendment. I see no reason this information should not be published. The social welfare process is a maze; it is bewildering. One would need to study it for ten years to understand it and be able to come to grips with it. I cannot see any reason, except where the publication of the material would inhibit the detection and prevention of fraud, the Minister should not make this information available. It is a perfectly reasonable and good proposal from Senator Ryan.
I support this amendment. Perhaps Senator Lanigan has misconstrued its purpose. It is a reasonable amendment. It proposes that all guidelines and interpretations supplied to deciding officers appointed under the Social Welfare Acts be made available. This is in the public interest. I can see a situation arising where, if somebody takes a particular case to court and the Department or various officials refuse to make these documents and guidelines available, the court will decide that these documents should be discovered and it will make them available. I have seen health boards and various Departments who are reluctant to make all guidelines available, give their reasons and so on. This is the proper approach to these matters, where natural justice and constitutional justice are involved. I cannot see how any Act in regard to State secrets or whatever would be breached. It is most desirable that important guidelines are published and available as comprehensively as possible. I certainly do not go along at all with Senator Ó Cuív. I believe the public are entitled to know and so are public representatives. Unless we do it, the courts will tell us we must do it and I would certainly urge anybody who is refused that type of information to seek the discovery of documents from the courts and they will get it.
I wish to support the amendment put down by Senator Brendan Ryan. There might have been a little misunderstanding by Senator Lanigan on what is required here. I believe it is totally unsatisfactory if a body of documents composed of either guidelines or interpretations is in existence somewhere and shrouded in mystery. Social welfare should be operated in the simplest possible manner, but I have reason to know that that does not always happen. What is totally unacceptable is that advice, guidelines or whatever, are available to certain people administering the scheme but not available to the public representatives or to the general public. That is in conflict with the Minister's approach which I found to be quite open. That attitude to the existence of such information must be objected to at any level within the public service.
I totally disagree with the arguments of the Senators. The community welfare officers should be allowed to deal with cases on their merits without having strict guidelines. If they had strict guidelines they would have to abide by them and 90 per cent of the people who are getting support from the community welfare officers at present would not get it. These officers know the people involved, they know when to give the assistance and when not to give it. They do a fantastic job and I would not like to see them hidebound.
I have to oppose this amendment but this gives me great tribulation because I am a member of this new open Government and we have to be very open. I cannot accept this amendment at this Stage because it would have to go back to the Dáil, but I would like to say for the benefit of the House that my predecessor, Deputy Woods, did give a commitment nearly a year ago that he would publish the guidelines issued to the health boards for the purposes of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. We are in the process of doing that. In fact, it has been done on a phased basis so that before publication the guidelines can be reviewed and simplified for the benefit of claimants. I understand the principle underlying this amendment and I have no great problem with it, except having regard to such rules and regulations, we will need a professor of social welfare and a faculty from Trinity College to deal with the subject. If we could make the system a little simpler we would not need all the rules and regulations.
There is a complexity in the social welfare system in Ireland with its numerous schemes, regulations and means tests. If we were starting out again with social welfare, we certainly would not have it the way it is now. It is so complicated that we have created a kind of industry in this area. I am sure the officials of the Department of Social Welfare are wondering if I am going to abolish the whole lot of them. I do not intend to do that but if social welfare was simpler the legislation and the regulations would not be so complicated. It is just becoming a minefield. Publishing guidelines and regulations and incorporating them in an Act, is a mammoth task. As Senator Ryan pointed out, there might be occasions when such publication would seriously inhibit the detection and prevention of fraud. He can take it for granted that my predecessor went down this particular road. Every day of the week you see a case for judicial review. We have become such legal experts in Ireland, that if a horse is disqualified from a race, there are fellows going to the turf clubs and to the courts for a judicial review. The whole country is gone legal mad. I am not sorry that I am a politician but I am sorry that instead of being a chartered accountant I did not become a successful barrister. I am sure many people sitting around here feel the same way.
I do not see the situation getting any better. My predecessor gave a commitment to publish the guidelines to the health boards, for the purposes of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. This is being done on a phased basis to enable the guidelines to be reviewed and simplified for the benefit of claimants before publication. I see no reason why a similar approach cannot be adopted in relation to guidelines to deciding officers generally but there may be certain aspects of the guidelines which could, as Senator Ryan has said, inhibit the detection or prevention of fraud. Apart from this issue, I am perfectly in favour of making the fullest possible information available to claimants if for no other reason than that people can see it themselves and to prevent them from bringing us to court. If Senator Ryan or some other Senator sponsors somebody to go to court we will have hundreds of officials and we will clock up thousands of millions of pounds in the Four Courts and then we will have to bring in a new Act, and that will go on and on. I honestly feel that we might as well publish every single regulation if at all possible and that is the direction the Department of Social Welfare are going in any event. That is the way not alone the Department of Social Welfare but all other branches of the State will have to go, and rightly so. Just because it was not done 30 years ago is no reason to believe it cannot be done now. I will go down this road but I cannot include it in the Bill. I am very sorry about that.
In case the country goes into a state of panic, let me say that I am not going to call a division. I want to take issue with just one thing. I would have thought that almost in Senator Ó Cuív's genes there would be an appreciation of the nuances of language. With his background the nuances of the English and Irish languages should be second nature to him, but that is not the same thing as saying that it is somehow a bad thing to publish material because it confuses people, which is what he said. I am not saying that we should make it compulsory on social welfare applicants to read all this material, but it should be available and I am totally at one with the Minister. I have no intention of pressing the amendment but I will hold him to it. We will have another Social Welfare Bill in 12 months' time. I wanted to test out the open Government. It has come over the first hurdle anyway. We will try it out again on freedom of information generally, but it is no threat to anybody to have freedom of information. Incidentally, the Association of Higher Civil Servants are on record as being in favour of freedom of information and the evidence in most countries is that the resistance to freedom of information does not come from public servants but from the politicians, I am very happy to hear this politician, in this case, say he is in favour of such freedom.
I would like to explain myself again because perhaps I am failing to explain points clearly. For example, the Law Reform Commission publish a report and they give the summary and we all read the summary. In my office I had the little leaflet on the Redundancy Act and it covered my requirements in 98 per cent of the cases. I always maintained as a manager that if I wanted to inform my staff I could confuse them with too much information or too little. I am not against publishing all the regulations but what is happening in this country is that we have to have much more concentration on getting the information to the person.
If I had resources the first thing I would do is draw up simple summaries and make sure that the recipients got them. When I had that done, I would direct my attention towards the very onerous task — which I have no objection to in principle but I am taking about pure practicalities — of making that information generally available, particularly to the legal profession because they are going to have to get it anyway. The one thing people want is readable documentation that gives a reasonable explanation of what they are entitled to. I would like that to go on record because I would not like anybody to think that I, above all people, would like to leave any social welfare recipient any way short of useful information. I would not say there is anybody in this House that has put more time into trying to understand, on behalf of my constituents, the complexity of this whole situation.
I have to rise to respond again to Senator Ó Cuív. I think he has missed the point of this amendment which is that guidelines and interpretations which are made available and supplied to deciding officers should be made public. They should be available to public representatives. Why should only deciding officers have them? May I suggest to the Senator and to the Minister that if the Department and the Minister do not do their duty the legal profession, whether solicitors, barristers or otherwise have a duty to the public to act in the public interest to make sure that these guidelines are made available publicly.
All I want to say is that I welcome the attitude adopted by the Minister. I regret that he is unable to concede to what is being asked today but I very much welcome his approach. I can see no difficulty with these guidelines being made available. They are already typed up and printed. All that is being asked is that members of the public and public representatives should be able to get them if they ask for them. It is only a matter of making a few more copies of them. That is how I would see it.
Can the Minister tell me what difference this section will make? I read the explanatory memorandum but I am not clear as to whether the section is going to loosen up or to tighten up the position and I would like to know which.
It is going to do what it says it is supposed to do. The explanatory memorandum says that it replaces the existing provision for payment of weekly and monthly supplement for rent, diet etc., under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. It empowers the Minister to make regulations specifying the class or class as of persons and the conditions and circumstances in which supplements are to be paid, and the amount of such supplements.
I had some discussion in the Lower House on this section but not to any great extent. The section is to give the Minister for Social Welfare power to make regulations under the supplementary welfare scheme. The base of it is this: section 209 of the 1981 Act provides for the payment of supplements to people dependent on social welfare or health board payments. The bulk of the payments under this section are to assist people in meeting the costs of rented accommodation and mortgage interest repayments. Under the existing provisions a person whose means fall below the rate of supplementary welfare allowance appropriate to their family size is entitled to a supplement. These provisions are supplemented by way of administrative guidelines and this has given rise to a certain lack of uniformity in the treatment of individual claimants. Section 47 is designed to resolve this problem by providing powers to specify in regulations the categories of people to whom supplements are payable and the conditions and circumstances under which supplements are made. The purpose of it is nothing too exciting.
I move amendment No. 29:
In page 6, line 5, to delete "AND EXTEND" and substitute ", EXTEND AND LIMIT".
I simply wanted to underline the point that the Title understates what the Bill does. It talks about amending the extending. The Bill, in fact, also limits a considerable number of provisions under the social welfare code and I therefore, felt the Bill would be more correctly titled as I suggested in the amendment. Given the time of the day and the lateness of the hour and the insignificance of the amendment I would like permission to withdraw it.
May I say it was a pleasure — even though I did not agree with the Minister — to have somebody who is prepared to stand up and argue their position and not simply sit behind a brief and repeat the same thing six times when you have an argument with them. I look forward literally to tangling with the Minister. There is also a certain nostalgia in dealing with the Kildare accent for most of the day.
May the Minister say that he hopes Kildare wins the All-Ireland this year.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Aire. Is dóigh gur thug sé an-léargas don tuairmíocht. Tá go leor ráite aige inniu a thabharfadh an-dóchas dúinn as a bhfuil i gceist aige a dhéanamh mar Aire Leasa Shóisialaigh leis an gcóras ar fad a fheabhsú go mór mhór do na daoine sin atá ag brath air. Guím rath ar an obair atá le déanamh aige. Tá súil agam go mbeimid ar ais ag deireadh na bliana le Consolidation Bill le gur féidir linn eagar níos fearr a chur ar a bhfuil sna Billí seo ar fad agus go mbeidh an t-eolas ar fáil ar bhealach níos cuimsítheach agus níos cruinne.
I would like to be associated with the well deserved tribute to the Minister here. Everyone of us appreciates the open and refreshing approach of the Minister and, may I say, the non-party, non-political approach. The Minister has the best interests of the social security system and the recipients of social security at heart. I wish him well in his portfolio and I look forward to his coming back with new ideas.
I would like to be associated with the remarks of my colleagues. It is no secret that I am delighted to see Deputy McCreevy in the Government and Minister for Social Welfare. I want to thank him for his example of this new open Government which the nation badly needs at this time. I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, and I agree with Senator Pat Kennedy about the lovely atmosphere here today, when, without party politics entering into it, we were able to deal with such an important piece of legislation. That is the difference Minister McCreevy may have seen between here and the other House.
I, too, would like to be associated with the complimentary remarks to the Minister particularly in relation to his openness and his capacity to still think for himself, despite the fact that he has become a Minister.
I would like to thank Senators. This is my first time in this House. There is a more intimate atmosphere here and, therefore, probably a greater flow of ideas. It was a pleasure to be here and I have enjoyed it. Thank you very much.
May I add my words to what the Minister has said. As part of a new regime here in the House we would welcome the Minister back with any innovative legislation that has to be initiated.