Committee on Finance. - Vote 47 : Social Welfare (Resumed).

Debate resumed on the following motion:
That the Vote be referred back for reconsideration.
—(Deputy R. Barry).

Before Questions I was speaking about working widows and their problems as a result of their State pensions being taxed as well as their earnings from whatever work they do. I was suggesting to the Minister that perhaps this is an area he could look at in order to give some relief to these widows.

People in receipt of sickness benefit do not pay tax on that benefit, and yet it is quite likely that as a result of an accident people could be in receipt of a considerable amount of interest on compensation or moneys coming from that source. The income from disability benefit would not be added to the interest from investments in making their returns for tax purposes. That I believe is as it should be, and I suggest that the Minister should ensure that widows' earnings would be put in the same category and would not be considered for tax purposes. I believe that very few of these widows are earning all that much when they go out to work for a short time in the week. Many of them have young families and their work is of a part-time nature. Any of us coming in and out of the House over the past few years will have noticed one lady who has kept up a one-woman protest at the main gate against the plight of widows, working and otherwise. Widows are one section of the community who are badly treated under the social welfare code, and it is one area into which the Minister could bring a little more cheer and a little more hope. These women, be they young or more elderly, live in genteel poverty, and in order to make life a little more bearable some of them, who are in a position to do so, go out to work. Those earnings should be ignored for tax purposes.

Turning briefly to children's allowances it is worth while to mention a suggestion made by Deputy O'Donovan. He made this suggestion to the Minister previously and it was received perhaps a little jocosely on occasions. He suggested that the first child in a family, or people with one child, should not be given any children's allowances and that the money saved be given to families with six or seven children. The amount saved, since every family has to have a first child, would go to the benefit of the five, six or seven children in families. I think it is not a bad idea; it is one worth looking at. The amount saved would be considerable and would bring a greater amount of revenue to the larger families and help them to cope with the problems with which large families are faced.

I would like to deal with two small problems I have come across. One of these relates to the term used in relation to a man seeking unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit as a result of being sacked. This man is sometimes turned down because of what is described as "misconduct". Misconduct is really the boss saying that the man has been sacked because he did not work, that he tried to get himself sacked, that he was not serious in his work, that he was not trying when he was in the job, that he really did not want the job and that he sacked him. This excuse is often given when a man makes an application. The official in the employment exchange rings up the employer and as it may sometimes happen that they have parted on bad terms and the employer feels that the employee has not treated him well, he does not give him the best of references when the exchange rings up. The reason for turning down the application is given as misconduct. The man may lose up to six weeks unemployment benefit as a result. I know he has a right of appeal, and in many cases the appeal is upheld, but it is time-consuming and there is no income for that individual, be he married or single. He has still to eat and to pay his way, and while he waits for the decision of the appeal board, he has no income in the world. This term "misconduct" can often be misrepresented and it is one of the problems I find cropping up. It is one the Minister should look at to see whether, in every circumstance, the exchange gets the right information. The method by which this information is sought, perhaps mostly over the telephone, is just not fair. A written explanation from the employer should be obtained before his word is taken and before a man is turned down and referred to an appeal board.

There is then the plight of the deserted wife. The Minister has said that 1,500 people in this class have received help as a result of the Budget changes last year. This is good to know. There were complaints about the method by which a questionnaire was sent out and about some of the questions that had to be answered. I believe that in order to ensure that the officials of the Department are adequately covered when paying out public finance, they have to ask a great number of personal questions, and I think they handle it with tact in all cases I am aware of, but there is one aspect of it which I would like to mention. I had the case of a lady in my constituency who complained that she would have had to swear a warrant for her husband's arrest for desertion in order to receive the deserted wife allowance. This is what she told me. I have a letter which I got from the Department and the answer was that they felt that the husband was somewhere in the country and was contributing to her, and inorder to flush out, if you like, the information, they put this kind of pressure on her. I do not know whether he was or was not—I cannot say. I know that the woman was in a desperate plight when she came to me. I disagreed with the method being used and told the Department so. I certainly think that this is not the way to do things— it is a very extreme way of getting information. If it is the only way it can be done, I disagree with it and I hope that some other method can be adopted.

My experience over a long number of years is that people who apply for a blind pension get a very rigid examination and it is one allowance that is really hard to get. The application goes before perhaps two local doctors and then before the Department doctor, if the Department are satisfied, but my experience is that it is a very hard pension to qualify for. In the case of a person, who is probably advanced in years, who may have to work hard to get a living from a farm and who loses an eye, which means that he is 50 per cent blind, there should be no question about the granting of the pension. Only recently I had such a query. A man whom I knew called on me. He had to work hard to make a living. He lost his eye but still he was turned down when he applied for the blind pension. Such a person should have no problem. There should be no hard and fast rule by which such a person is deprived of a pension.

The conditions to qualify for maternity cash grants are too stringent. To qualify one must belong to the lower income group. I meet quite a number of people who have a low valuation but when the home assistance officer reports on their stock and their home they are told that they do not belong to the lower income group. This rule should not be applied to people living on small holdings or on a wage.

An increase in the allowance of deserted wives should be considered. There are about 1,500 deserted wives in the country and it was a great encouragement to them when they were given the allowance. The Department did a great job there. However, the deserted wife finds it hard to fit in, she is just not in the same position as her neighbour and she needs more money. Many of these women have families to look after and have many demands on them so they should be given an increase.

One problem we meet in rural areas is the £20 to the £ of valuation. One often meets a person who is very anxious to get unemployment assistance. He may have a valuation of £10. He may live in a mountainy part of the country and have a small stock, but because his income is based on the valuation of £10 which brings him up to 20 times ten the Department will tell him he does not qualify. There might be no such income from this small mountainy farm and he may be rearing a family. This has applied for quite some time and with costs rising speedily each year the Department should seriously consider this question.

We meet cases of people laid off work and queries are raised about the lay-off, perhaps about the length of time they have been employed, the size of their family or something like that. These people only come to elected representatives after eight or nine weeks when they are getting into serious trouble for the want of money. I am sure that often the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary do not know about these things. When I contact the Parliamentary Secretary I always get an immediate reply and he checks cases for me but there are people who never make contact with their elected representatives and they find it hard to get replies.

There is often a long delay in the payment of old age pensions to people whose property is in the course of transfer. Until the transfer is complete the Department take no chances and the full pension is not paid. If an applicant had comfortable means before the application went in he is judged on that and he may get no pension for 12 or 18 months because, knowing solicitors as we all know them, it takes that length of time to get the documents out of their offices. These Carlow County Councilpeople are very annoyed because they are deprived of their pension while the profits of the farm, business or premises are going to some member of the family. When it has reached a certain stage the Department should be satisfied that it is a genuine transfer; and they should be able to get local information that a person is transferring his place to his son and should pay him his full old age pension. I have one such case on my books at the moment. It is a genuine application and the pension should be paid to this honest publican who worked hard and built up a good business. Having signed over there should be no delay in paying him his pension.

I wrote recently to the Parliamentary Secretary about a pensioner who applied eight to 12 months ago for a widow's pension. Whatever went wrong this lady has got no information from the Department. I know the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with it in due course. Occasionally long delays are experienced by people and often by people who are very much in need of money. When the breadwinner dies the woman is usually left in dire straits if her family have grown up and left her.

I had understood that reciprocal arrangements had been made between the Department of Social Welfare and the British Department of Social Security but recently I learned that this is not so. A young man and his wife who returned from England to Sligo to look for work discovered that they could only draw benefit for 26 days despite the fact that they have been working in Britain for the last 14 years. From the information I have got about Mr. O'Hagan I am anxious to know if the same rule will apply to another couple who want to return to Leitrim within the next few months, having spent 20 years in England. If this is the case it is very sad that people have to live in England in order to get benefits or forfeit those benefits if they want to come home. It should be remembered that these people were forced to seek employment in England, they were glad to get employment there, they did well, they looked after their families and gave them a good home but at all times it was their wish to come back and settle down here amongst their own people. There are a number of problems as far as medical cards are concerned.

This is a matter for another Minister.

I thought the Department of Social Welfare would cover medical cards. I shall not dwell on that point. What I wanted to say was that medical cards should be given to all old age pensioners.

If it were made clear that they were entitled to them they would apply for them but some query arises and that puts many people off applying. We were all satisfied with the increase in the old age pension bringing it up to £4.50 but with the ever-rising costs old age pensions are as small now as they ever were. When Budget time comes around again—we do not know who will be here—I hope whoever is here will give old age pensioners an increase which will keep abreast with the ever-increasing cost of living. I was talking to a coalman recently who said that coal was costing £1 a cwt. An old age pensioner would not keep very warm on a cwt. of coal.

I am always being asked about free fuel but it is very difficult for people to understand why the free fuel scheme applies only to places like Dublin, Cork and Limerick. There are people deserving of free fuel all over the country. The Minister should consider making the free fuel scheme available in many more centres. If it were not for the voluntary organisations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society many people would find it difficult to keep warm during the winter months.

In the Social Welfare Acts it is stated that free radio licences and free ESB current can only be given if the aged person is living alone or with another aged person. It is a pity this restriction has to apply. People do not understand that the scheme is limited and they often make representations to county councillors and TDs to see if they can avail of those facilities but if they live with a son or daughter they cannot qualify. These facilities should be available to the aged no matter with whom they live.

There is a good deal of talk about and a number of meetings have been held in connection with the aged. We are trying to get away from the name "county home" but it is very difficult. Those hospitals are of a high standard and credit should be given to the Minister for the help he has given. Despite the fact that the patients are living in comfortable surroundings many of them are anxious to live at home. When they are first sent to hospital people visit them every week, later on they visit them once a month and eventually their friends forget they are in hospital.

The allowance of 55s given to a female relative to care for an aged person was of great benefit but the scheme was not wide enough in scope. It costs between £12 to £14 weekly to keep a person in St. Patrick's Home, Carrick-on-Shannon, or in St. John's Hospital, Sligo. If the allowance of 55s were paid to a son, to his wife or some other relative it would mean that far fewer people would enter the homes. With the pension of £4 15s and the allowance of 55s the home could be run comfortably and the younger people could care for the aged person at home. If the Minister would extend the application of this scheme he would discover many more aged people could be looked after in their homes.

The treatment in the hospitals is good, as is the attention of the doctors, and this has prolonged the life of aged people. It is my experience in my constituency that during the winter months it is almost impossible to get a patient into those homes. There would be far less demand on the Nazareth Home in Sligo if this scheme were extended to include three or four more categories of persons. It would be money well spent in that there would be happier homes. The aged person would be happier in his own home and the allowance of 55s would help in the expenses of the household.

Hospital patients who receive old age pensions are given £1 per week towards their expenses. I would ask that this amount be increased. The last meal of the day in many hospitals is at 6 p.m. but some patients would like to obtain a light meal at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. If those patients were allowed £1.50p instead of the £1 now given they could buy some extra foodstuffs. This would improve their lot considerably.

I hope that next year the Minister will not take the unemployment assistance from the small group of people as happened this year. None of us realised this allowance meant so much until it was taken away. We often criticised the dole but it was only when the weaker section of the community were deprived of it—people who could not obtain work—that we realised it was the wrong course of action to take. I realise it did not give the Minister any pleasure to deprive these people of this assistance and I am sure he will consider the matter sympathetically.

Special consideration should be given to the western counties with regard to unemployment assistance. Around the Dublin area this form of assistance does not mean much and it is not availed of to a great extent. People in rural areas around Dublin live on good farms or they are near towns where they can obtain employment; but in the Western areas, such as Counties Donegal and Sligo and around the western coast, employment is not available. Were it not for unemployment benefit many more homes in the western counties would be closed. I passed through some of those areas on my way to Dublin yesterday and it was surprising to see the numbers who were signing for benefit. Because of the lack of employment this benefit is a necessity for the people. If employment were available the people would be only too willing to work.

I particularly want to emphasise the problem of people coming from England who are not in receipt of any benefits. I often travelled with elderly people on the train from Sligo and found they were returning to England after coming here from the homes of their sons or daughters in order to collect their three months due old age pension. If the Minister has not done so I would ask him to change this regulation. Many young people who have found a livelihood in England have comfortable homes and they bring their parents over to live with them. When these elderly people come back here to collect their pension by the time they go back after paying their boat and train fare and calling on some of their friends most of their pension is spent.

We also have a section of people who have become disabled, some of them by reason of working on the land in all weathers and some of them through some other cause. Many of them have no stamps so they find themselves without any means of support. There should be some scheme to cover those people. Despite the fact they are not able to earn any money, they are told that because their land valuation is over £20 they are not entitled to anything. All those people should qualify for some allowance. This would pay us in the long run because it would save those people being sent to hospital.

Most of us find ourselves in continuous correspondence with the Department of Social Welfare, and it is only natural, when it is laid down whether payments take place or not, that one is largely dependent on the officials of that Department. I should like to express my gratitude for the co-operation they have given me in the enormous correspondence I carry out with them and for the interviews they give me from time to time.

Several Deputies have referred to the fact that the Minister made no statement regarding the possibility of a united Ireland in which there would have to be some equation of social welfare benefits. I should like to go further than that and say that at the moment this country is supposed to be negotiating entry to the European Economic Community and that it is, therefore, very surprising that the Minister did not make a statement relative to our position for the future in our relations with the European Economic Community and in our relations regarding a possible settlement for a united Ireland.

I should like, first of all, to deal with the social benefits relevant to a united Ireland. It is quite obvious that in this country we are not able to pay the same benefits to our people that the United Kingdom are able to pay to their people, and it seems to me a rational line of thought that if we come to any type of settlement there must be a phase-out of our social welfare payments to bring them into line with those in the United Kingdom. Some discussion should be taking place between our Minister for Social Welfare and the Minister for Social Services, or whatever his title is, in the United Kingdom, with regard to the balancing and the equating of such payments. It would have been, therefore, extremely informative for the House if the Minister had given us some idea what sum of money would be necessary to bring those payments into alignment. I gather that some of the Deputies have asked questions on this line but have received no information whatsoever. It should not be very difficult for the Minister and his very efficient Parliamentary Secretary to produce these facts. A little information is better than nothing. It seems entirely germane to this debate but we have absolutely nothing whatsoever to go on.

With regard to the social benefits in the European Economic Community there is no doubt that the Minister for Social Welfare knows that there is a social fund and that fund is one of the great advantages of full membership of the EEC. That fund is for the purpose of dealing with countries who are unable to live up to the high standards and the full payments of social welfare in other countries. There has not been a word from the Minister on this subject. It is a known fact that in EEC negotiations anything that has to deal with a particular problem, whether it is social welfare, health, or industry and commerce is dealt with by the particular Minister concerned. I, therefore, take it that in any discussions or negotiations that have been going on between this country and the Six there should have been some discussions relative to social welfare benefits, but we have no indication whatever that there has been any discussion on those lines. We have no indication whatsoever that the Minister for Social Welfare has studied the social fund or has studied the issues relative to our social welfare benefits if we become members of the European Economic Community.

Therefore I am asking the Minister to relate to the House any information he has on that point because up to date he has given us no information whatsoever. It may well be that before we have another discussion on social welfare these matters will have become very live issues. It is this lack of communication and information which is contributing so much not only to the political instability of the Government outside but within the Government as well. I therefore ask the Minister to deal with this question of paramount importance not only to every political representative but to the nation as a whole.

Having said that, I shall come back to the social welfare problems of the country. I think it was in the last Budget that a provision was made for payments to deserted wives. Although I congratulate the Minister and the Government for even considering those people, I must point to one flaw in the provision. It is that unless a deserted wife is 50 years of age she cannot get benefits. Now, let us be reasonable and discuss this in a reasonable way. Normally speaking, a woman of 45 who may have seven or eight children may be deserted and she is not entitled to get benefit. She is not entitled to a widow's non-contributory or contributory pension because she is not a widow. Therefore all she has to live on are children's allowances. Apart from that she has no means of livelihood. If she is less than 50 years of age I suppose she is assumed to be able to go out to work. How can a woman with half a dozen children go out to work?

The age limit applies only to those without dependants.

By dependants the Minister means children under 16 years The Minister must appreciate that with the extension of education and so on, very often children of more than 16 are still dependent on the home. They may have started their higher education before the husband, who had spent the best years of his life in the home, walked off leaving the wife deserted. How can she go out to work? It is a very small matter which would not cost very much. I do not know why the age of 50 is chosen. It was probably somebody who did the thinking or who had stopped doing the thinking in the Department who advised the Minister. With all the free-thinking on divorce laws and so on, the thought here should have been that this mainly happens in working class families.

Another matter I want to deal with is that of overpayment. There are quite a few cases of, shall we say, payments that have not been justified. It is very often an administrative error. These cases mainly occur in the matter of old age pensions. I have several in my constituency and indeed there is one case with the Department at the moment. A dispute generally arises as to whether an individual has certain assets. In most farming communities in this country it is very unusual for a will to be made. It often happens that there is a farm of 50, 70 or 100 acres and which, because of the means test, renders the person ineligible for an old age pension. Now the individual concerned does not own the farm—it is, perhaps, owned by half a dozen people. In bygone days there may have been as many as ten people depending on a farm. I mentioned a specific case under examination in the Department at the moment. How a farm on which ten people are living can be assessed as being owned by one person is difficult to understand. That person has absolutely no right to dispose of the farm or of the proceeds of the farm. If ten people are living on the farm it simply means that the person seeking a pension has ten acres of land.

"Beneficial occupier" is not much different from "owner".

The Minister may remember this specific case. When I first wrote to him he refused, but the matter is being reconsidered. The man has been asked for a refund of something in the neighbourhood of £1,000. This man is 85 years of age and there is a sister aged 92 years. They own a one-tenth share of the farm and they have been asked to pay back to the Department a sum of £1,000. The Minister says they are presumed to be taking the profits from the farm. Surely a man of 85 and a woman of 92 are not likely to get much profit from a farm. They are not in a position to sell an acre of land to pay the Department what is owing. They are honourable people and if they could sell the land they would do so and pay the Minister in the morning. In one case, as far as I remember, they gave all the money they had available in the bank to the Department of Social Welfare. I sent the money in on their behalf and I asked the Minister for Social Welfare to accept it in final settlement. He acknowledged my letter, but they got a letter back to say that unless they paid the balance of the money due within 48 days or something like that they would be "jugged." They came to me and I said: "You need not worry about that. You will not be ‘jugged' as long as I can put the letters TD after my name." However, it is still embarrassing for such people.

I have referred on several occasions to the question of the removal of social welfare officers from local districts. I have asked parliamentary questions about it, and the reply I have got from the Minister is that they have not been removed, that there are social welfare officers available, that more social welfare officers have been made available in County Wexford. That is absolutely untrue. The position is, briefly, that when there was a social welfare officer in the area concerned and where there was a claim made on the Department of Social Welfare the people could go to the local officer and discuss the the matter with him. Now what they do is they send in the national health insurance certificate in a free franked envelope which they get for the purpose. What happens if the money does not arrive and there is no local social welfare officer? I can tell the Minister what happens: they do not get their money. They then have to write to the Deputy concerned. Probably with their lack of knowledge of the official procedure they omit to send the insurance number. The Deputy either has to write back to them to get the insurance number or go to see them if they are within striking distance. That is a further delay and they do not get their money. An investigation has to take place in the Department of Social Welfare. Letters have to be written. A great deal of time is spent by paid officials looking up matters, which would be quite unnecessary if there was a local social welfare officer.

Is this an example of the Government spending a shilling to save a halfpenny? They have done away with local social welfare officers. They probably have not done it in the west—I do not really know—but they certainly have done it in County Wexford. The purpose is to save money, whereas it is costing more money because it takes three or four letters, which means time, research and so forth. I would suggest to the Minister that every fairly large-size centre where there is a population of around 1,000 people should have a social welfare officer. Far from this costing the State more it will save money.

Deputy McLaughlin referred to the allowance for dependent people. That is something on which the Department of Social Welfare could be really generous. If they were, again they would save a lot of money. It now costs a minimum of £12 a week for institutional treatment, and costs are escalating the whole time, with problems with regard to nurses, the difficulty of obtaining staff and so on. I think it is true to say that next year, when perhaps we are all here with a different government, we shall find that the minimum for institutional treatment will be at least £14 a week.

The question of whether an old age pensioner is entitled to somebody to mind him or not is one on which the conditions are very rigidly applied by an Act which was passed here. One has to make sure that the State is safeguarded by legislation, but greater consideration could be given to old people. I am happy to say that everywhere in the country more geriatric associations are being formed. They exist in practically every built-up centre. They are carried on entirely by voluntary contributions and they could play a very good part in association with the Department of Social Welfare. If they got semi-official recognition from the Minister, they would be in a position to indicate the particular cases that are eligible for benefit.

In order to be eligible for the allowance the old age pensioner has to be able to prove that he is keeping somebody home from work. That is possibly necessary for the purpose of making it look as if the Minister for Social Welfare is defending the taxpayer; in actual fact what he is doing is imposing an extra burden on the taxpayer by enforcing this inflexible type of legislation. I would suggest that the Minister would co-operate as far as possible with these geriatric associations and give them the right to advise him just as he has pension committees to advise him in regard to old age pensions, whether people are eligible to have a relation to mind them or not. I think the amount is £2.75 per week, which is not an over-generous sum seeing that the minimum pay in any employment is about £10 per week. Although a person may stay at home to mind an old age pensioner that allowance is not paid unless the person who is brought out of work is an insured person. If that is not idiotic, muddled, bureaucratic thinking I do not know what is. If the Minister was liberal in that regard he would save many people from having to leave their homes and go into an institution. This costs the State more money as well as causing unnecessary misery and suffering to the person concerned and furthermore causing odium to be thrown on the relation by other people who would say he was not prepared to look after his kith and kin. Perhaps the Minister would consider that point.

I do not see why appeals should be heard only about every three or four months. Is there any reason why there could not be, say, six officers who would go to different parts of the country to hear appeals?

What kind of appeals?

Disability or any national health insurance appeals.

There are two types—the appeal could be in respect of unemployment benefit or assistance or in relation to medical benefit.

I am including appeals of all kinds. Why should it be the case that one is told at, say, the end of August that the next appeal will be on 5th December? There are delays of three and four months. We must consider the human side of these problems. The people concerned are left without any money and they cannot go back to work because to do so would mean the loss of the appeal. In that case the appeals officer would say that there must be nothing wrong with the man. In some cases a person may be due 12 or 14 weeks' money. Surely the Minister can set up a particular section within his Department to deal with appeals. Why should there be such delays while officials are sent from the Department to hear appeals?

Of course, it is a doctor who must go out on those cases.

Are there not plenty of doctors falling over each other in the Department who have nothing to do and who are prepared to work but will not be allowed to do so because they are under the jurisdiction of the executive officials? The Minister must break through the system. He must be aware of the hardships that are caused because of delays. I understand that in those parts of the country from which the Minister and Parliamentary Secretary come, there are many people dependent on social welfare benefits. Therefore, they must be aware of the position.

The only other matter I wish to deal with is that of personal insurance. In the brochure issued by the Department of Social Welfare there is much information that is of great help to all of us but this brochure does not deal with the question of personal insurance. In this respect I am thinking of fishermen and other people too, such as teachers and those in the higher income bracket. The introduction of the contributory pension scheme has brought many other people within the ambit of personal insurance. These people like to be able to look forward to a pension when they reach the autumn of their lives. Apart from ordinary working people there are many people in what we might call the white collar class who are not eligible for a pension from their employment and they, in particular, like to have a personal insurance. I am often asked for advice on that matter and when I go to this booklet that I referred to there is nothing in it to help me. Therefore, I ask the Minister to arrange for the production of some information on this matter.

I can see that the Minister is very anxious to reply and, no doubt, he will be telling us about what he is doing in the Department. I hope that in his reply he will remember that we are living in an international age and that he will not deal only with parish pump problems. As an internationalist, as it were, I would like him to give some indication as to what will be the pattern in the future for social welfare in terms of the EEC and what I believe will come after our accession to the EEC, that is, a united Ireland.

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.

How many applications were there?

I am told the figure was 2,200. We have free electricity for 52,000; free travel for 184,000. Death grants were also recently introduced and we have paid 850 already. In addition we have marriage grants paid at intervals and maternity grants which we pay to some 39,000; we pay maternity allowances to 8,000 people. I am not mentioning all of the persons to whom our system reaches out. This does not include occupational injuries, redundancy payments and many of the benefits to sick persons. I mention those figures—and I think it is good to put them on the record—for the benefit of those who say we do nothing. That is a stupid statement. The scope of our code gives cover virtually from the cradle to the grave and beyond it.

The rates we are paying are by no means small. I am not being smug or complacent about our schemes as they stand at the moment. For a country with a population of less than three million we are paying £134 million currently in social welfare. That does not take into account what other countries include in their social welfare figures. It does not include redundancy payments. Deputy Esmonde accused me of not giving some figures for the EEC countries. When you make comparisons with those countries, as we have to do frequently, it is a pretty formidable task taking them country for country and item for item. They include in their social welfare code many things which we do not.

In some cases they include the salaries of the army and the police force and pensions for civil servants. We would be justified in including in the social services side the cost of education and free travel, and the building of houses for labouring classes. This would all come under the social services but we adhere strictly to the payments side of the Social Welfare Department without throwing in any medical costs. I think that the figure of £134 million is a reasonable figure. I do not care how you take it as a percentage of GNP, or as a percentage of total revenue, or as a percentage of the total amount in the Book of Estimates each year. You can take whichever figure can be argued most advantageously or most disadvantageously as the case may be. It is a reasonably decent sum. It shows that we have well and truly laid the foundation of a decent welfare code about which we have very little to worry.

Very recently I had discussions in Brussels with the commissioner directly in charge of this. The officials of my Department were over there a number of times dealing with the technical adaptations which necessarily arise in relation to our application for membership. We talked in a general way about principles and about the question of harmonisation and standardisation about which a lot of tommyrot is talked. I would hope that membership of the EEC would be the lever which would impel us and compel us to have better social welfare payments. For that reason I am in favour of it.

The six current members of the EEC have different systems. It is not easy to compare them item for item. Actually it is impossible. Basically one can see at a glance that there is so much more employer participation in their schemes. Indeed, many of their schemes are almost entirely financed by the employers and practically all their schemes are related to wages. In France a widow's pension is related to what the husband's pension would have been had he survived, and his pension would be based on the salary or wages he would have had, had he lived to retire. In other countries they have totally different systems. Family allowances are based on different premises. Disability, unemployment and other payments are quite different. In most cases they are quite generous. I am quite prepared to admit that they are generous.

There is no compulsion—whether that is considered fortunate or unfortunate—on a new member state to harmonise with anything. They expect you to have a certain minimum code of payments and, so long as it does not interfere with the competitiveness of the countries in their economic relationships, they do not worry. They expect you to be working towards a code and now, through the International Labour Office in Geneva, it is very easy to know what country has what. We are reasonably happy that our social welfare code is quite respectable in comparison even with the best. I do not say that to justify our remaining at these rates when we become a member of the EEC. I would rather hope that membership of the EEC would be the raison d'etre for better payments.

Will it cost more because a higher percentage of our population are dependent on wage earners? We have a higher rate of dependants to wage earners than European countries. Is this not so?

The reason social welfare costs us more in relation to our population is that on the assistance side the payments are 100 per cent financed from the Exchequer and there is no contribution from anybody. This is a type of assistance that is not found everywhere, not even in the United Kingdom if you take away the supplementary benefits. I want to deal with that later.

Our children's allowances, pensions for the blind, non-contributory old age pensions, non-contributory widows' pensions and unemployment assistance are financed directly from the Ex-Exchequer without requiring any contribution whatever from qualified persons.

Progress reported: Committee to sit again.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 9th November, 1971.