In the time at my disposal I may not be able to cover all the points raised during the debate which was rather a mixed one. There were many different approaches and perhaps this is understandable but I was amazed at the variety of references to the Department and, indeed, to the officials of the Department. At the outset I must say that I was disappointed that in some cases these references reached even a vulgar level. Some Deputies suggested putting a bomb in the Department while others paid high tribute to the courtesy and attention accorded to them by officials of the Department. In one case we had two completely conflicting references to them from the same party. I shall come back to that point later.
Before dealing in a general way with the question of social welfare and social welfare vis-á-vis the Six Counties, vis-á-vis the EEC which, incidentally, I visited recently, and in relation to the reciprocal arrangements that we have by agreement with the United Kingdom, I shall deal with some of the specific points raised.
The question of old age pensioners usually gives rise to a good deal of discussion and, very often, sensible discussion. During the time that Deputy Esmonde was speaking about old people's care committees I remembered a story that I heard a long time ago. This told of a local doctor attending an old man and when the old man asked the doctor if he was very ill, the doctor said: "You are geriatric," to which the man replied: "Is that curable?"
I want to pay tribute to the many committees who are dealing with the care of the aged throughout the country. We owe to these people a great debt of gratitude. Because of their intimate association with the people concerned, they are doing work that no Department or Minister could possibly do. I am aware that the Minister for Health, too, is very conscious of the work being done by these committees. His Department, of necessity, have greater contact with them than we do because much of the work they do comes within the ambit of that Department.
Regarding the scheme whereby an allowance is paid in respect of a specified relative who looks after an old person, I would remind the House that when I introduced this scheme there was no provision for it in the Budget. It could be extended only to those who could prove that they gave up insurable employment so as to care for their aged parents who, otherwise, would be left alone. This category did not embrace a very large section of the community. In fact, the number of persons who qualified under that original scheme was quite few but like every other social welfare scheme it was perfectly obvious that once it was introduced there would be an immediate clamour to have it extended to other people. It was obvious that it would be extended as time went on. The following year the scheme was extended to include uninsured persons if they were relatives in the particular category. It was further extended last year to include some more relatives who were not in the previous category. I have been under pressure from my own party, among others, to extend this scheme to male relatives. This is something which I would like to do because sometimes a male relative who looks after old parents who would otherwise be alone, or old uncles or relatives, has to undergo the same difficult experience as the female would in similar circumstances. If I could afford it I should like to have the benefit extended to such category of persons in the near future.
Many people who come with claims regarding this female relative care scheme for the aged do not appreciate what the scheme is all about. The scheme was originally introduced to make some recompense to persons who, by looking after their parents, obviate the necessity of having them sent to a home. If a family are living in the house, even though the wife may be a daughter of the old parents, she does not qualify. The married couple have to live somewhere and they cannot show that they have been seriously inconvenienced by having the use of the house of the parents. Usually it is quite a different case. This is not a case which will come in for priority treatment in any future extension of the scheme. I would be very much in favour of considering extending the scheme to the single male relative living with parents who would otherwise be alone if he was not there. Whenever this scheme is being discussed it is always pointed out, with a great deal of justification, that these people would be in a home where the costs of their upkeep would be considerable, if it were not for the fact of having somebody at home to care for them there.
An old person is happier at his own fireside than anywhere else. However well the homes for the aged have improved in recent years, their own homes are the places in which old people can be happiest. I should hope in spite of any social welfare scheme or anything we are committed to give to our aged that the family affection which binds families together until death will not be lacking in our homes yet. When most of us were young our parents received no social welfare benefits. We were happy to see them in their own homes until the end and to see that they wanted for nothing. They would get anything that was available in preference to anyone else in the house. I hope that that spirit is not dead in this welfare age in which we are living.
When we are complaining about the different categories of old people, we should remember that those of them who live in their own homes with their own families are better off than the lone pensioner who may not have friends or relatives. A special case was made for this type of person in this House many times. We have tried to help in many ways. It is frequently asked now why we do not give the benefits we have given to such lone people to all pensioners. Many Deputies have pointed out that there is a vast difference between various categories of aged persons. There are those who live alone in rented houses. They differ from those who are fortunate enough to have some of their own family living with them in the family home, and to have their immediate relatives to take care of them. Everyone has agreed that there are two different categories here and that the destitute category merits special attention. They have been given the extra five shillings, the free electricity the free radio and television licences. People sometimes forget that these arrangements were made to help this particular category. It was frequently suggested that these benefits should be extended to all the aged.
I am dealing now with the little extras which were granted to old people and I would like to refer to the free coal scheme. I was never enamoured of that particular scheme. It applies only in a few large towns. It was a product of the war when the case was made that the old could not easily find turf and that their position was difficult. It was said that the city aged were in a more difficulty position than those in the country and that free coal should be made available to them. We still have this scheme and it has been extended to coal supplies. Originally turf was involved and I think there was a suggestion of a monetary payment at the time. This scheme has continued to be operative long after the war. Free fuel was given in cities and the scheme does not extend to the rest of the country.
Free travel was given to pensioners. It costs quite a bit, but it was given to help people, as was the free electricity. Some people have asked why we have not given old people extra money instead. Very often old people do not utilise money in a way that would benefit themselves. We believe if they are encouraged to go out and use the free travel concession that this will benefit them more than anything else one could do for them. The same applies to the free electricity scheme. More old people die of cold than from anything else. One has only to read the death notices in July as compared with the death notices in February or March to see that this is so. The death notice columns in the papers in the winter months are four times as long as they are in the summer. This proves that old people are killed by the cold. It hastens their deaths. That is why we were concerned about electricity. They can use it for their own comfort. A male pensioner might buy some other type of "anti-freeze" with money if it was given to him. The aged are the first to have any claim to social welfare benefits. We always say they are not getting enough and that we will increase their pensions as soon as possible. It has been said that it costs £10 to £15 per week to keep old people in what has been referred to as geriatric homes. It is frequently asked why we do not give them some extra money for a home care service rather than spend so much on keeping them in these homes. My answer has always been that the local authorities, on whom the cost for the home falls in most cases, might usefully consider a scheme whereby they would pay something to those who look after old people at home. I mentioned this to the Minister for Local Government recently and I think he was interested, as also is the Minister for Health. It would be more their business than mine but I would not like a scheme whereby everybody could send a father or mother for a week to a home and then have them brought back and get money for taking them out again.
From the tone of some speeches it would appear that it is necessary to mention the question of abuses of different schemes which abuses make it necessary to have regulations, ultimately referred to as "red tape", and for which we in the Department are criticised. I was at a number of social welfare conferences and recently at one where most of the social welfare or family affairs Ministers in Europe were present and in conversation outside conference business we discussed this emotive subject of social welfare. I can assure the House that it does not differ from one country to another. Everywhere there is a Parliament when there is a discussion on social welfare, everybody cries for the weaker sections and blames the Government for not doing enough for them. The same type of criticism is made in every Parliament on the same subject, so far as I can gather in discussions with Ministers I have met from Europe time and again and even only a few weeks ago in Stockholm.
That is understandable. But we must take credit. Perhaps I have been too much on the defensive on this Estimate at times. When I consider what all of us do, because this is something which the country pays for, which comes out of your pocket and mine, I think there is no need to be on the defensive about our schemes, either their scope or rates of payment. It is quite a new code and not many years ago we had nothing except a ten-shilling old age pension, a scheme handed over by the British. Our social welfare code has been built up in the past 35 years. Its rise is dramatic and shows a rate of expansion that compares favourably with countries that were pursuing this idea long before we had started.
We have a relatively small Department carrying out a huge task. Were it not for the repetitive element it would not be possible for them to cope with the volume of work involved. This should be considered when people are making "smart alec" criticism of mistakes or delays which inevitably occur from time to time. I take nobody's part where avoidable mistakes are made; but one must deal with a code set out in an index of regulations and qualifying requirements, which must be examined. As Deputy Coogan said, the officials do not make these regulations but are handed a book of rules which they must keep. This House makes the rules; it enacts legislation and naturally it has its limitations. We have not reached the day of instant social welfare when somebody can walk in off the street and say: "I am entitled to social welfare: give me a £5 note", and walk out with it. That would be pretty simple but they must prove they have certain qualifications, which we lay down. While that is so we must have investigation before paying out anything.
It is not fair for Deputies like Deputy O'Hara to go to extremes in talking of the "scandalous system" of social welfare and "miserable pittances" and "lack of regard and respect". That might be all right in Bangor Erris or when it appears in the Mayo News or some local paper; it may have some desired effect there but it does not do any good to anybody else. A relatively small Department, taking current active insurance cases, is dealing with some 796,164 cases. If somebody wants his insurance record without the number one can see what a task is imposed on some official with a figure approaching 1,000,000 registered for insurance. I did not extract these figures until I had listened to some of the discussion. I think it was Deputy O'Hara who said that the Minister was bluffing with figures. He did not use the word “bluff” but he implied that I was using figures that had no relevance to social welfare but sounded good without meaning anything.
We pay non-contributory old age pensions to 112,500 and contributory old age pensions to 48,000, a figure which tends to grow. We pay widows' pensions, non-contributory, to 17,400 and contributory pensions which now exceed the non-contributory, to 53,000 persons. We pay retirement pensions, a new scheme for those aged 65 to 70, to 4,600 persons. We pay unemployment assistance to 35,000; unemployment benefit to 37,000. Invalidity pensions, which are comparatively new, are paid to 12,000 persons and disability benefit to 61,000, on a weekly average over the year. Orphans' contributory and non-contributory pensions, which is always a small figure, is upwards of 1,000. We have almost 1,000,000 children's allowances for 340,000 families. Dependent children of widows, contributory and non-contributory, number over 28,000. Maternity benefits average 28,500. Deserted wives' allowances recently introduced are now paid to 1,500 persons.