I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. This Bill proposes to consolidate the existing law relating to the relief of the poor by local authorities, amending it to suit present conditions, and repealing provisions considered obsolete or inapplicable in existing circumstances. The Bill contains very little that is new in principle.
To realise the necessity for this Bill, reference may be made to the condition of the law as it exists at present. Outside the City and County of Dublin, the relief of the poor by local authorities is administered in pursuance of county schemes adopted or approved under the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1923. That Act was a temporary one passed, as stated in the Preamble, to make provision to remedy more serious defects in the law and to legalise the county schemes until such time as a comprehensive reorganisation of the law could be prepared and submitted to the Oireachtas. The Act of 1923 has been continued from year to year and it is very desirable that this position should be terminated and that the law should be placed on a permanent basis.
Another strong reason for proceeding with this Bill is the great difficulty of interpreting the law under the present complicated code of enactments. A person wishing to ascertain the law on a particular point must first refer to and study the county scheme relating to the area with which he is concerned and then study the Poor Relief Acts. This latter code is based on the old system of workhouse and outdoor relief. It has become very involved by reason of many amendments and alterations. The extent of the code of Poor Relief Acts is indicated by the First Schedule to the Bill under consideration where provision is made for the repeal or partial repeal of 34 enactments. The ascertainment of the law under existing circumstances often requires considerable research. In addition it involves the solution of many difficult questions of interpretation arising from modifications impliedly made in the Poor Relief Acts by the county schemes. It is obviously desirable that for the guidance of local authorities and of officers engaged in administration, the law should be set out in a clear intelligible form to which reference may easily be made.
Before entering into an explanation of the provisions of this Bill, I would like to explain that it is proposed to accompany this Bill with a Local Government Bill which will deal with matters not considered suitable for inclusion in this Bill, or which relate to subjects of wider or more general application than public assistance matters.
The Bill proposes to continue the present system of supervision by the central authority. No change is proposed as regards the local administrative areas which the Bill proposes to continue. Those areas will be called public assistance districts. As regards the local authorities for the purposes of administration, the position will be that—
(a) where a public assistance district consists only of a county borough the public assistance authority will be the corporation of the county borough.
(b) where the district consists of a county borough together with a county or part of a county the public assistance authority will be a board of public assistance elected by the corporation of the county borough and the council of the county, and
(c) in all other cases the public assistance authority will be the county council.
The proposal to make the county council the public assistance authority has the advantage that it puts responsibility for expenditure on the rating authority. If any particular county council feels that the administration of this measure involves a too onerous addition to its duties it will be open to the council to exercise the power given in Section 11 to appoint a committee or committees. Another point in favour of the county council as the public assistance authority is that, as already intimated to the Dáil, a Bill is contemplated to provide for counties the system of local management which at present operates in county boroughs, and should that measure be passed by the Oireachtas, its implementation will be greatly facilitated by the unification of local government control which the present Bill proposes. As before mentioned, each local authority is to have power to appoint committees, and there is provision for the appointment of joint committees by two or more authorities for any particular purpose.
The Bill will define more clearly than has hitherto been done in any Act the persons who are eligible for public assistance. The definitions are contained in Section 17, and they follow the lines of those given in the county schemes. A poor person who is unable by his own industry or other lawful means to provide the necessaries of life (other than medical, surgical or dental treatment or medicines, and medical, surgical or dental appliances) for himself and the persons whom he is liable under the Act to maintain, shall be eligible for general assistance, which means the provision of the necessaries of life. A poor person who is unable to provide by his own industry or other lawful means the medical, surgical or dental treatment or medicine, or medical, surgical or dental appliances necessary for himself and the persons whom he is liable under the Act to maintain shall be eligible for medical assistance.
It will be laid down as a duty of the local authority to provide public assistance, which includes both medical and general assistance for every person in their district who is eligible therefor. The assistance which the local authority will be empowered to provide may be broadly classified as indoor and outdoor. The indoor assistance will consist of maintenance and treatment in hospitals and other institutions which may be directly under the control of the local authority or hospitals and institutions not maintained by the local authority. The outdoor assistance will consist of home assistance or what was hitherto referred to as outdoor relief, and dispensary assistance or medical treatment, advice and medicines supplied through dispensary officers.
The local authority will be required to provide such homes, hospitals and other institutions as the Minister shall direct and they will be required to restore, alter or enlarge these institutions to provide and improve their drainage and ventilation, and provide fixtures, fittings, furniture and appliances as directed by the Minister. Provision is also to be made for the discontinuance of an institution whenever the Minister thinks proper. Similar provisions are included in relation to the provision of dispensaries and their maintenance.
The Bill will provide extensively for the protection of children assisted by local authorities. The circumstances under which the public assistance authority will be given or may assume the rights of parents over children in their charge will be set out, and also the powers of the local authorities to place out children at nurse, to board out children, to send them to special schools, and to place children at service or in a trade, calling or business.
It will be observed that in the Bill the age up to which a child is regarded as a dependent is 16 years. Under the existing Poor Relief Acts it is 15 years.
The provisions of the Bill as regards finance scarcely call for comment. No change is being made as regards the areas of charge or the method of raising the funds required by the public assistance authorities. The moneys required will be raised equally over each public assistance district. It is not proposed in this Bill to deal with borrowing powers as this matter will be dealt with in a general Bill applicable to all local authorities. The borrowing limit for purposes of expenditure by public assistance authorities is, however, fixed in this Bill at one-fourth of the valuation. This is the limit hitherto in operation.
The powers of the public assistance authorities under the existing law to acquire land are to be continued. It is proposed to re-enact the provisions of the Public Assistance (Acquisition of Land) Act, 1934, which empowers public assistance authorities to acquire land for the purposes of their powers and duties either by agreement or compulsorily. In all the matters above referred to the Bill diverges little in principle from the law as at present in operation. It might be well at this stage to refer in more detail to some of the proposals in the Bill, particularly those which are new or which may be of interest.
Section 12 proposes to provide for the establishment of joint committees for two or more public assistance districts for any purpose connected with the administration of public assistance where it appears to the Minister that joint administration would tend to reduce expense or be otherwise of public or local advantage. It might for instance be desirable in the opinion of the Minister to establish a hospital which would cater for two or more public assistance districts or to establish for the accommodation of some special class of poor persons an institution which would be available for several public assistance districts. Section 12 would enable such an arrangement to be made and a committee to be set up for the management of the joint institution. The principle in this clause is not new as the Poor Relief Acts empowered boards of guardians to combine for the purpose of establishing joint schools for the education of children from their workhouses, and a special Act provided for the establishment of a central hospital in Galway managed by a committee appointed by the boards of guardians in the county.
From Section 20, it will be observed that it is proposed to continue the power given to public assistance authorities by the Public Assistance Act, 1937, to assist societies for relieving poor persons. That Act it will be remembered was passed to legalise an experiment by the Dublin Board of Assistance by which they provided financial and other assistance to aid a charitable organisation which did remarkably useful work in assisting and reforming certain classes of destitute persons. If a public assistance authority was satisfied that a society for relieving poor persons afforded or proposed to afford relief to such persons by providing food or lodging in premises under the control of the society within the public assistance district, the public assistance authority with the consent of the Minister and subject to any limitations or conditions which he might impose, could give assistance to the society by contributing to the expense incurred by the society in affording such relief, by supplying the society with fuel, light, food, water or other commodity for use in affording such relief, by permitting the society to use premises by executing alterations and repairs and supplying furniture and fittings for such premises, and by providing premises with all requisite furniture and fittings for use by the society in so affording relief to poor persons.
Section 21 of the Bill under consideration embodies a new proposal by which a public assistance authority will be empowered to provide land for any public hospital or infirmary within their district. Before the public assistance authority can provide the land there must be a request from the governing body of the hospital or infirmary, the public assistance authority must be satisfied that useful aid is being or will be rendered to the administration of public assistance in the district by the treatment given in the hospital or infirmary to persons eligible for medical assistance, and the governing body must show to the satisfaction of the public assistance authority that the land is required for the efficient performance of the functions of the hospital or infirmary. The public assistance authority may as a condition precedent to providing the land require the governing body to undertake to defray the whole or a specified part of the cost.
Section 22 of the Bill proposes to empower a public assistance authority, on the application of a person eligible for assistance, to pay the reasonable expenses of the removal of such person from their district to some other place if satisfied that the removal is likely to enable the person to support himself and his dependants by his own industry or other lawful means and is generally for the benefit of such person and his dependants. There might be circumstances in which it would be very useful for the public assistance authority to have this power. By sending a poor person to a place where he would be able to get employment they would confer a great benefit on him and his dependants. A similar power was given to local assistance authorities in Dublin City and County by the Poor Relief (Dublin) Act, 1929, but it could not be exercised in the case of a person who was resident in Dublin City or County or both for a period extending beyond two years. Outside Dublin City and County, no such power has hitherto existed.
Sub-section (2) of Section 23 enables a public assistance authority where a person eligible for assistance from them dies outside their district to bury him outside the district or bring the body into the district and bury it. Although public assistance authorities have often brought the bodies of poor persons who died in extern hospitals home to their district for burial they have hitherto had no legal power to do so.
Section 25 contains a new proposal to empower the Minister to prescribe methods of determining the cost of different kinds of public assistance. This is intended to simplify proceedings when steps are being taken to recover the cost of assistance. Hitherto there was no such provision and when proceedings were taken to recover the cost of relief the question as to what was the actual cost had to be argued out in court. This would be much more inconvenient in future when there will be so many different kinds of assistance. It is very desirable that the methods of calculating the cost of the various kinds of assistance should be prescribed and set out in regulations.
Section 29 sets out the circumstances under which a public assistance authority may appropriate money, securities for money and property for the purpose of reimbursing themselves the cost of public assistance. Though the provisions of this section are new in this country it might be mentioned that it is customary with some public assistance authorities to reimburse themselves the cost of assistance out of moneys which they may find in possession of persons who may enter institutions such as workhouses or county homes, and the section will therefore legalise a practice which to an extent already exists.
It will be noted from Section 30 that the proposals as regards the provision of institutions are more elastic than those in the Poor Relief Acts, which bound the authorities concerned to provide a limited class of institutions. They had no power to provide institutions other than those authorised. Section 30 will permit of more freedom, and it will not restrict the growth of any ideas which may develop in future as to the most suitable institutions for the accommodation of poor persons. As regards Section 38 which deals with the formation and alteration of dispensary districts, I might point out that, under existing law, there is no power to divide a district electoral division when altering or rearranging dispensary districts. That limitation will not exist when this Bill becomes law.
There are some new proposals in Section 40 which relate to the provision of dispensaries. A public assistance authority is to be required to provide at least one dispensary for every dispensary district and they shall provide in every district such and so many other dispensaries as the Minister shall direct. Under the existing law they are not required to provide more than one dispensary in each district though in fact they do so. The public assistance authority is required to keep every dispensary in proper condition and repair to the satisfaction of the Minister. At present the Minister has no power to require a public assistance authority to keep a dispensary in repair. The provision in the section as regards the use of a dispensary for two adjoining districts is intended to legalise an arrangement which is already in existence in several places.
By sub-section (1) of Section 41, the Minister will be empowered to direct a public assistance authority to provide a residence for a dispensary doctor. This power will be new; as will also be the power contained in sub-section (2) of this section. Under this sub-section, the public assistance authority may, with the consent of the Minister and shall, if he so directs, provide and maintain in connection with or as part of a dispensary a residence for a midwife or other officer. Hitherto there has been no direct power to provide such accommodation for midwives. A midwife could only be so provided for if she were a caretaker of a dispensary. In that case she could be given the apartments of a caretaker in the dispensary building.
The proposals contained in Section 42 of the Bill are new. The section provides that where an orphan or a deserted child is maintained by a public assistance authority and has not attained the age of 16 years all the rights and powers of the parents of the child shall vest in the public assistance authority. The parent, however, may claim the child for the purpose of maintaining it, and in such a case the public assistance authority have no power to detain the child. Under the existing law if a public assistance authority desired to have the rights and powers of a parent over an orphan or deserted child they had had to follow the procedure set out in the next subsequent section (Section 43) and assume those rights and powers by resolution. The public assistance authority had power to rescind that resolution and a court of summary jurisdiction could determine it. The law in force hitherto also provided that a child under the age of 15 years without a parent relieved in a workhouse was subject to the authority of the board of guardians in the same way as it would be subject to its parents if living with them except that the guardians could not interfere with the religion of the child.
Under Section 43, if a public assistance authority assume by resolution, the rights and powers of the parent of a child belonging to one of the classes referred to in the section, they retain those rights until the child reaches the age of 16 years, except they previously rescind their resolution or the resolution is terminated by the District Court. Hitherto the parental rights and powers vested in the public assistance authority until the child reached the age of 18 years.
Section 45, which relates to certified schools, contains a slight change in the matter of inspection. Under the existing law, the public assistance authority may appoint any one of their body to visit and inspect a certified school. Paragraph (c) of sub-section (3) of Section 45 will empower the authority to appoint any suitable person to visit and inspect any such school to which they have sent a child.
Another new provision is that proposed by Section 48 which will empower a public assistance authority with the consent of the Minister to contribute to the support, maintenance and education in an approved institution of any child who is deaf, dumb, blind, imbecile, idiot, epileptic or crippled and whose parents are unable by reason of poverty to provide adequately for the training of the child. Numerous cases have come to the notice of my Department where parents who could not ordinarily be regarded as eligible for assistance were unable to provide the cost of the education of defective children in suitable institutions. The local authorities, though willing to assist, were not legally empowered to do so.
Another section containing an entirely new provision is Section 62 which will give power to a public assistance authority to authorise an officer or agent to enter on land for the purpose of ascertaining whether it is suitable for acquisition. The officer or agent will be empowered to survey the land, make plans, take levels, make excavations and examine the depth and nature of the sub-soil. Consent must be obtained from the owner or occupier who if he objects to the entry on the land may appeal to the District Court. There are provisions for compensation for damage. I consider that this is a very useful and essential provision.
Perhaps the only other section to which I need now refer is Section 84 which will enable the Minister to abolish any of the remaining county infirmaries. This power is not new. The Minister could abolish a county infirmary committee by amending a county scheme under the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1923. Only seven such institutions remain, and in at least two cases it is understood that the local authorities desire their abolition in the interests of better hospital organisation. It is considered desirable to retain the power to abolish county infirmaries, so that the necessary machinery may be available in any case where the improved coordination of hospital services renders it necessary.
It will be observed that the Bill contains very little about the appointment and duties of officers and nothing at all about the powers and duties of inspectors. These matters will be dealt with in the general Local Government Bill which is to accompany this Bill. All through the Bill an effort has been made to avoid the use of the obnoxious words and phrases which were a feature of the Poor Relief Acts. In this respect, the new Act will be more in keeping with the sentiments of our people and the dignity of the poor.