That Dáil Éireann, aware of the present most unsatisfactory system of appeals procedure to determine eligibility for benefits under social welfare legislation, calls on the Minister for Social Welfare to establish a system of independent appeals tribunals to determine all such appeals.
The amendment in the name of the Minister reads:
To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
"calls on the Minister for Social Welfare to examine the appeals procedure in relation to the determination of eligibility for benefits under the social welfare legislation with a view to effecting improvements therein."
In moving this motion I am endeavouring to highlight the unsatisfactory social welfare appeals system and I am asking the Minister to establish a system that will protect the rights of social welfare recipients by giving them access to an independent appeals tribunal when they consider that their entitlements have not been administered justly. In this context it is important not only that justice be done but that justice be seen to be done. I am calling on the Minister also to end the blatant discrimination against married women in respect of unemployment benefit in so far as the mere fact of a married woman having a child disqualifies her in practice from receiving unemployment benefit. I am calling on the Minister to bring increased pressure to bear on his colleagues in Government to speed up the implementation of the EEC directive on equal treatment of men and women in the area of social welfare. The rapid introduction of this directive would remove discrimination such as that practised blatantly against married women.
The present time span for the introduction of this directive is much too long in terms of establishing the rights of women in all spheres of Irish society. Surely the directive merits a much greater priority than the six-year limit would appear to indicate.
In putting forward this motion for an independent appeals tribunal I am not trying to open the floodgates in respect of social welfare, to create a situation in which those who are not entitled to social welfare payments might receive them. Neither is it the purpose of this motion to protect those who might be defrauding the social welfare system. The purpose of the motion is to protect the rights of social welfare recipients who are being denied a proper appeals system. These rights are referred to explicitly at paragraph 2.16, page 23 of the White Paper where it is stated that:
Finally, the Government are aware that in dealing with large bureaucracies, individuals can encounter difficulties in seeking to obtain their rights. The implementation of modern welfare legislation inevitably involves complicated administrative machinery. It is essential, therefore, to ensure that, in the administration of existing services and the design of new ones, the need is recognised for the greatest degree of simplicity consistent with proper management and control of the services and that the rights and dignity of the individual are protected.
Basically that is what I am trying to achieve in this motion.
Under the Social Welfare Act, 1952, the Minister appoints deciding officers. A married girl who has a baby and who applies for unemployment benefit finds that her application at her local social welfare exchange is rejected by virtue of the fact that she has a child. If she appeals the case it will be rejected. It is this type of case that all of us here hear of so often. The deciding officers are civil servants from the Department of Social Welfare. Therefore, the whole system of decisions and appeals regarding social welfare payments rests within the Department. It is not a good practice to have civil servants policing civil servants but that is the situation in relation to these appeals because civil servants as appeals officers are adjudicating on decisions that have been made by civil servants in the first place. In accordance with the provisions of the 1952 Act the decision of an appeals officer is final and conclusive.
One might say that any individual has the right to appeal a decision to the High Court and it may be said that the Minister has the right to refer a decision to the High Court at the request of the chief appeals officer. However, the 1952 Social Welfare Act contains a "catch 22" clause because it precludes appeals on the issues of disqualification for unemployment benefit and for social welfare benefit. These are the two issues we are talking about but they are the very ones that are precluded from appeal to the High Court. That is discriminating against people who are social welfare contributors. The questions that can be referred to the High Court have no relationship to these issues. They are merely minor technical details relating to matters of law. I have endeavoured to have a case challenged but I was precluded from doing so by virtue of the 1952 Act. The real substance of any appeal is disqualification or the period of disqualification in respect of benefit but since these questions cannot be referred to the High Court we are saying in effect that there is not an independent appeals procedure.
A large number of appeals are being rejected. In 1978 alone there were disallowed more than 4,000 appeals for unemployment benefit while the figure in respect of unemployment assistance was more than 1,500. In respect of disability benefit more than 1,000 appeals were disallowed. Therefore, in 1978 61 per cent of all appeals in respect of unemployment benefit were rejected. The corresponding figure in respect of disability benefit was 80 per cent while in respect of unemployment assistance the figure was 55 per cent. I am not saying that there may not have been justification for these rejections. It is not my intention to argue in favour of people who may be defrauding the system but we must provide the machinery for appeals to an outside body in respect of the decisions of a civil service Department.
The number of cases rejected in 1978 was very high. There is no provision for further appeal to a higher authority for these thousands of people. There is a total lack of appreciation of the rights of social welfare recipients. In many cases the appeals concern benefits that are financed largely by the workers. The Minister has admitted that the State's contribution to the social welfare scheme is decreasing. I suspect that the workers and employers are financing this scheme to the extent of about 90 per cent. Unfortunately the chances of an appeal being successful are increased considerably if a public representative attends on behalf of a constituent who is bringing an appeal. This perpetuates the myth that a TD is a necessary intermediary in the social welfare system. This is a dangerous situation. An independent appeals machinery should function as guarantor of the rights of social welfare recipients. It should not be a job for a TD since it perpetuates the belief that social welfare is not a social right or entitlement but rather something that can only be had through the intercession of somebody high up in the political field. If we had proper appeals machinery we would not find TDs in the role of string pullers. The public would not be under the impression that only a TD can secure someone's entitlement to social welfare.
The major flaw in the appeals system is in its treatment of women. The appeals machinery in the Department of Social Welfare enforces the discriminatory attitude that the only place for Irish women is in the home. This may have been true to a large extent in 1952 when this Act was passed; but this is 1979, 27 years later. Irish women are demanding their rights to participate fully and equally in Irish society. This means equal access to employment and social welfare while seeking employment. Unfortunately, the mentality of the Department of Social Welfare remains rooted in the old fashioned notion that a woman's place is in the home. Married women with children are being disqualified for unemployment benefit solely on the basis that they have children. The attitude is that if they have children they are unavailable for work despite the fact that they may have family and friends willing and able to care for the children during the day or that they may engage baby-sitters or have access to a creche. These are things the Department of Social Welfare apparently never heard of. They have not dragged themselves out of the dark ages when women had no rights. The Minister is perpetuating this by putting down this amendment which is sterile and means nothing.
Without reflecting personally on the Minister, he reminds me of Ron Moody in the film "Oliver" when he was constantly reviewing the situation. That should be the signature tune of the Minister for Social Welfare—I am reviewing the situation. This is another case of a review, a review. There is only one review: take the machinery away from the Department and set up an independent appeals tribunal. It is scandalous that this discrimination should exist against married women. It reflects the snail-like progress Ireland is making in the area of women's rights.
Equal pay remains a pious aspiration despite the EEC directive of 1976. Women are treated as second class citizens within the context of the taxation system. Ireland is the only country in the EEC without statutory provision for maternity leave. Our social system remains a showcase for discrimination against married women. They have been receiving a low rate of unemployment benefit, disability benefit, invalidity pension and occupational injuries benefit. The duration, up to the last budget, was limited to 156 days. It was more difficult for married women to qualify for unemployment assistance than it was for married men and more difficult for them to apply for increases in benefits in respect of dependants.
The EEC has been in the forefront of the battle for equal rights in Irish society. In December 1978 the EEC Council of Social Affairs passed a directive establishing the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security. This directive is a logical extension of the EEC's commitment to the principle of equal treatment as regards access to employment, vocational training, promotion, working conditions and rates of pay. The articles in the directive are of particular relevance to this motion. I quote article 4 from the Official Journel of the European Communities:
The principle of equal treatment means that there shall be no discrimination whatsoever on ground of sex either directly, or indirectly by reference in particular to martial or family status, in particular as concerns:
—the scope of the schemes and the conditions of access thereto,
—the obligation to contribute and the calculation of contributions,
—the calculation of benefits including increases due in respect of a spouse and for dependants and the conditions governing the duration and retention of entitlement to benefits.
We are not meeting this directive. The important point is that no discrimination is permissible in regard to martial or family status. The fact that having children disqualifies married women from receiving unemployment benefit is discriminatory. If we have not got access to the courts here there must be provision for access to the European Court of Human Rights.
Article 5 states:
Member States shall take the measures necessary to ensure that any laws, regulations and administrative provisions contrary to the principle of equal treatment are abolished.
Ireland is showing an obvious case of blatent discrimination against married women. Article 5 places a responsibility on the Government's shoulders to eliminate this discrimination.
Article 6 deals with appeals and states:
Member States shall introduce into their national legal systems such measures as are necessary to enable all persons who consider themselves wronged by failure to apply the principle of equal treatment to pursue their claims by judicial process, possibly after recourse to other competent authorities.
The Minister has an obligation to fulfil these articles but he is not doing so.
A married woman who feels that she is being discriminated against cannot take her appeal to either an independent tribunal or to the High Court even though the directives are there. The Minister for Social Welfare is ignoring them. This directive places a responsibility on the Government and the Minister to provide access to the court for women who feel they are being discriminated against by a deciding or appeals officer of the Department of Social Welfare.
The cost of implementing the full EEC directive has been estimated at £35 million. The member states decided on a term of six years for its implementation. This is excessively long. It would not cost money to set up an appeals tribunal. If we can afford £28 million to abolish car tax surely we can allocate £17 million for two years and implement the directive.
The Minister is eliminating the discrimination against married women regarding the length of certain social welfare payments. I pay tribute to him for his progressive thinking in this regard. It was a positive move on his part and must be commended. He has also removed the ban on girl school-leavers receiving unemployment assistance. This was a good move and I admire the Minister for it. The motion provides the Minister with a golden opportunity to remove a further major area of discrimination and to speed up the implementation of the EEC directive. Ensuring that married women who felt they were discriminated against had access to the High Court or to an appeal tribunal would meet his obligation under article 6 of the directive, at little or no cost to the Exchequer.
There are other examples of injustice under the present appeals system. Married women are not the only victims of our archaic appeals system which fails to protect the rights of social welfare recipients. There is the question of disputes over disability benefit. No doubt the Minister as a Deputy has come across such cases. A man has injured his back. The surgeon says the man has a bad back. The wording of medical referees is interesting. They say: "is adjudged as not unfit for work". The appeals officer always accept the decision of the medical referee. Where a social welfare contributor makes an appeal for disability benefit he must be entitled to appeal against the decision of the appeals officer or the medical referee. I knew of a case of a man employed by Dublin Corporation who injured his back. He was told by the medical referee of Dublin Corporation that he could not work with the corporation and he applied for disability benefit. However, he was declared fit for work even though the medical referee employed by Dublin Corporation, a professor, had declared him unfit for work. There was a vicious circle——