I want to start off by saying that I consider the civil servants in the Department of Social Welfare the most humane group of civil servants in this country. Over the years I have always found them very anxious to co-operate and to ensure that benefits, where due, were paid. Unfortunately, over the past 12 months I am afraid the position has deteriorated very much not through any fault of the officials concerned but apparently because of the fact that for one reason or another the number of civil servants available for this type of work is dwindling. It may be because of the fact that particularly girls now are not prepared to accept the amount of money which they are offered as juniors in the Civil Service because they have to pay practically all of it for digs. Those of us who travel around the country know of this because we find them attempting to thumb lifts home at the week-ends because they have not got the bus fare. This is one of the reasons, I understand, why the number of junior civil servants has been reduced and this has resulted in a very indifferent service being given now by the Department of Social Welfare. We find such cases as people sending in certificates over a number of weeks and if there is anything wrong with the certificates instead of being returned with a request that they be put in order, they are simply put in a tray pending attention. Only today I found seven such certificates were wandering around. Everybody seemed to have the wrong number except one person in Social Welfare; even the insured man himself had given the wrong number. This was the reason given for his not being paid but the number in the index in Social Welfare was the same number as this man was using. Yet he could not be paid.
There was the case of an old man who was drawing unemployment assistance. Last October he realised he would be 70 on 30th December. He wrote in asking if he would be entitled to a non-contributory old age pension. It was assumed—I do not know who is responsible for this— that it was a retirement pension he wanted and it was decided he was not entitled to such a pension. A week after Christmas his unemployment assistance, on which he and his wife lived, ceased. I tried to find out why he had not got the pension and I was told that the social welfare officer in the district had got the case two months ago but apparently had not time to check up on it. I do not know what the man has lived on but these things should not happen. If the Minister has not sufficient staff, he should get them. There is no use telling people waiting for benefit that the staff are not adequate to deal with their claims; they cannot understand that. I know that the senior officers down the line to those a long time in the service and still on a fairly low grade are doing everything possible but if they have not sufficient help they cannot meet the demands. Something must be done to improve the service at that level.
What does the Minister propose to do in regard to persons who fail to stamp insurance cards for employees? On 8th March this year the Minister made an order as a result of which the waiting period for benefit was eliminated and, provided the card was stamped, the applicant got credit for the previous year. But where somebody has not stamped a card for two or three years and there is an application for benefit, the failure to stamp is discovered, particularly when a number of people are involved, and the employer is compelled to stamp the card at that stage. Three or four years later somebody else becomes sick and it is discovered that no card was stamped in the meantime. When that happens those responsible in the Department of Social Welfare should ensure that a person who has defaulted once will not get away with it a second time. I have come across in the past couple of weeks a number of instances where this has happened. It is very hard luck on the person who believes he is stamping a card and paying the contributions for the stamps over this period to find that the stamps have not been put on.
The Minister says the fact that he has changed the law in regard to the waiting period will help; apparently, it does not help in every case because I know a number of cases where so far the insured person has not received the benefit due. Something has arisen to prevent him getting it. I ask that the necessary attention be given to this matter so that everybody who, through no fault of his own, fails to stamp his insurance card will get benefit as in the case of an occupational injury claim.
In the case of occupational injuries I think it is wrong that if somebody meets with an accident on the job, applies for benefit and a form DB 5 has to be sent to the employer to determine if the accident occurred at work, and if the employer does not return the form the person may wait a considerable time before benefit is paid. Usually such a person can be paid disability benefit but I found recently a number of cases where disability benefit was not paid and insured persons who were out ill got nothing. This is not good enough. I know there is a good reason —the shortage of staff—but it is little use to the employee whose wife goes to buy something in the shop because if she has not the money she will not get the goods. The onus is on the Department to ensure that applicants are paid promptly.
The Minister should be prepared to admit, in view of the fact that we now have over 70,000 people unemployed and a further 3,000 that he says are put on retirement pension—otherwise there would be 73,000 unemployed—that is part of the reason why extra money is required. Apart from what Deputy Barrett said about making provision for improved payments in the coming Budget, the Minister should try to impress on his Cabinet colleagues that they have never attempted to introduce full employment. Every man or woman out of work costs the State money through benefits, if they get benefits, or through not stamping cards and not paying income tax. I had a discussion on this issue with the Minister for Lands the other evening and even forestry workers who had been employed for years and are now laid off will, in fact, in some cases get almost as much as if they were working. The State loses; the taxpayers lose. The State's right hand does not know what its left hand is doing. People who would prefer to do a full week's work for the benefit they are getting are told there is no money available. It is not available in the Department of Lands; it is available in the Department of Social Welfare. This is cockeyed thinking and the Minister should use his influence on his Cabinet colleagues to have it rectified before the next Budget.
A rather clever trick was used in the last Budget in regard to the increase for the unemployed insured person without a corresponding increase for the wife. The Minister would be amazed —or perhaps not—at the number who were taken in. They felt that as the rule had been an increase for the insured person and the wife that if they had got 10s—to use the old term—it would mean 10s for the insured and 10s for the wife, £1. When they found they were getting 17s 6d they thought it meant 17s 6d each but they found afterwards it was less because it was 17s 6d which, although the Department did not say so, had to be divided between the two people; it takes as much to keep one as the other. The amount given last year was rather miserly because, even added to the amount of benefit these people get, it is a very small sum.
The Government especially talk a good deal about Common Market conditions and what they propose to do when we enter the Community. Have they given any thought to what they must do in regard to Social Welfare benefits when we go into the Common Market? The crunch will come then and they will have to find money somewhere. It is extraordinary, but if money is required it will be found. If a war were declared tomorrow the defence budget could be multiplied by ten overnight and the money would be found. During the world wars we know that defence budgets of other states increased tremendously and the money, apparently, came from nowhere. It was said that after the war these countries would never rise again but they are all doing nicely now while we are still dragging along although we were not involved in either world war. We do not seem to be able to get enough money to pay our sick, our unemployed, our widows or our old aged enough to keep body and soul together.
I know other Deputies are anxious to speak but I wish to add to the appeal that Deputy Barrett made on the question of travelling. The wife should be allowed to travel free if her husband has got a free travel voucher. Why could it not be issued in such a way that the wife also could use the voucher? It is rather awkward if the husband is sick and his wife has to travel a distance to collect something for him, whether it is a bottle of stout or an ounce of tobacco and she finds she has to pay her way whereas if he was able to get up and travel with her it would be all right. Those are little things which might be changed.
I would ask the Minister to take a look at the question of old folk living alone. One of the old people dies and the other is living alone and has to bring in a married daughter or a son's wife to look after her. Whether that person stays in the house or not she should not disqualify the old person from getting whatever benefit she is entitled to nor should she be debarred from getting whatever is allowed for looking after the old person. As it stands at the present time the mere fact that the daughter or daughter-in-law has a husband to support her is considered to be good reason why she should not be entitled to get any benefit. I am quite sure this is as true in the Minister's own county as it is in mine and he must know that where there is nobody to look after the old people they finish up in the county home where it costs about four or five times as much to keep them as it would if they got the small allowance which they could get and which it would not break the State to give them. This is something which should be considered when the new Budget is being framed. It would have the effect of relieving a lot of distress and allowing those unfortunate old people to have a little comfort at the end of their days.
I referred in the debate on the widows earlier to the question of the inspection carried out by the officers of the Department. The Minister assured me on more than one occasion there were no specific instructions issued to officers that they were to be very strict. My opinion is they are very stringent and since they all seem to be branded with the one stick it would appear they must all have received the same instructions. They are doing a job and while they are paid to do this job they feel the onus is on them to do it properly but in doing it properly they investigate everything that has to be investigated. Somebody who takes extreme measures to try to prove that some unfortunate old person is not entitled to something which he or she is entitled to is going outside the bounds of what he is expected to do. I would ask the Minister to ensure that those people will not lose their jobs if they do not bring home a few scalps attached to their belts every time they go out, if they do not succeed in disqualifying half a dozen people on their tour of duty to ensure that the State will not have to pay some benefit which those people have applied for.
I know the Parliamentary Secretary is as interested as I am in the question of payment to the girl who has been working in insurable employment, who gets married, who subsequently has a baby and who signs for unemployment benefit afterwards but is refused. There has been a consistent refusal by the appeals officer to grant the appeal of that person, no matter who the person is. One of the funny things about it is that the usual stock question is: "Who will look after the baby?" There was a period when if a mother or mother-in-law was brought in and was prepared to do that job it was sufficient for benefit to be paid but that is no longer so. The mere fact that the question is asked is quite sufficient to debar the person from drawing benefit, whether the mother or mother-in-law is available or not.
This is a disgraceful situation. I had a case last week—the appeal came up the other day—where a person had not alone been working until she got married but was working after she was married. When the baby was born her mother looked after the child and she went back to work but when slackness occurred in the employment she was laid off. She was debarred from getting employment on the grounds, I assume, that there was no one to look after the baby. The Minister assured me that there were no specific instructions issued that this was to be done. Perhaps he would tell me when he is replying, if specific instructions have not been issued, why have they consistently carried out this particular policy that when a girl gets married she should stay at home whether or not enough money is coming into the house to pay the outgoings.
With regard to the non-contributory widow's pension would the Minister try to arrange that the widow who is working and who is sick or unemployed either gets the full rate of benefit or else the payment for stamps in her case is reduced by half? The Minister cannot have it both ways and he has had it both ways for a number of years. This is a reasonable thing to ask the Minister.
I have brought those points to the Minister this evening because I feel it is necessary occasionally to jog his memory. I would like the Minister to comment on whether he still considers that the 73,000 persons he now admits are unemployed in this country are unemployable. He may remember some months ago when I asked him why he did not train some of the then 60,000 who were unemployed, his reply to me was they were mostly unemployable. I would like to know if he still considers those people are unemployable and unfit to train for any type of skilled work.