Before the adjournment, I was beginning to make the case that the response of successive Governments, but more particularly of the present Government, to the needs of social welfare recipients was in stark contrast to their response to the needs of all other sections of the community. I was making the case that this has applied down through the years but, because of the activities of this Government in other areas since they came into office, it stands out in greater relief this year. I was making the case that it is inappropriate to rely on percentages, whatever their magnitude might be, to redress the situation because we are talking about a percentage of what is a very small base indeed. £15.80 per week for an old age pensioner is, by any standards, totally inadequate. As I said earlier, these people to whom we donate £15.80 per week enjoy none of the conveniences that others regard as essential to their comfort and happiness in this life and, indeed, they are short of many of the necessities of life. This often results in undernourishment and the hypothermia to which Deputy Dr. O'Connell referred. It also results in a great deal of general hardship for these people.
Heating is a subject which is of very great relevance to the needs of old age pensioners. In particular I would say that all of us at local level, as members of health boards or advisory health boards, were made aware this year of the Minister's refusal to sanction a request by the Southern Health Board to increase the free fuel allowances to £12 per month. We were very disappointed indeed. The Minister chose instead to cut this allowance back to £7 per month. This is a gesture which was not at all worthy of the Minister and it indicated a penny-pinching attitude towards the members of the community who need help so much. I would appeal to the Minister even now to ensure that some greater relief is given, if not this year, next year to those who must rely on supplementary income of that kind to get the basic necessities of life.
It is estimated that some 4,000 elderly people are applying for supplementary welfare allowances and it is very difficult to qualify for this allowance. I do not quite know what the criteria are but cases have come to my notice which, in my estimation, were deserving cases indeed and yet they failed to qualify for the supplementary welfare allowance. I would like somebody to tell me what the criteria are. I believe that one would have to be absolutely destitute before one would qualify for this allowance. I understand that this is an area where a great deal of discretion is given. I would ask the Minister to impress on those to whom the discretion is given to be a little more lenient because obviously this allowance is not meeting at present the need for which it was intended.
People in that category rely to a great extent on supplementary benefits of that kind. They rely too on voluntary agencies to ease their discomfort. We have very good service run by people who are doing their utmost to bring relief to certain sections of the community by bring ing through schemes such as Meals on Wheels. But it is estimated that the reach only a very small proportion of the community who need that service. know that by providing the service and by giving their time they meet a need which otherwise would stand out as very great need indeed in this society and which probably would stand out a a greater indictment if the service was not available. But their service can only reach a very small proportion of the total need that exists. I was making a case for increasing the income of a these sections of the community.
To increase it by any percentage is not meeting the case. If the Minister said he was increasing the old age pension by 50 per cent it would sound very magnanimous but to increase the sum of £13.60 by 50 per cent would mean only £20.40. The rest of us would not regard that as sufficient to provide the necessities of life. If we take the £15.80 which this Bill will give to old age pensioners and if that were to be increased by 50 per cent it would still be only £23.70. Increasing by percentages might sound good but in terms of pounds and pence and of meeting the cost of living it is totally inadequate.
We must have a realistic assessment of the needs of the people to whom we pay social welfare benefits. We must relate it to the standard of living that applies to those in employment and which we consider appropriate for other sections of the community. As a previous speaker pointed out, it is not right that old age pensions and social welfare benefits should amount to at most about 20 per cent of the average male industrial wage.
There is a great lack of ancillary services for the aged. The major burden of caring for them falls on relatives. Possibly that would be a good thing if the relatives in question were supported by adequate State aids. This Bill proposes to increase the prescribed relative's allowance from £7.60 per week to £8.80 per week. A relative has to forego employment and all the benefits that go with it in order to look after an old person; yet we pay him or her less than we pay the unemployed. Usually it is a daughter who cares for the old person but in recent times I was glad to see that the allowance has been paid to a son. The least we can do is to pay such relatives the same rate as that paid in unemployment benefit.
In their post-budget submission in February 1979 the Society of St. Vincent de Paul expressed great concern about this and rightly so. They have great experience in these matters and they have a lot to do with the lower income families. They know their needs better than the rest of us. The society were primarily concerned with the position of low income families with children. They made the case that the income of such families goes on essentials only and there is nothing left for anything else. Of course, food is the first essential.
The society say that 75 per cent of the total income of low income families is spent on food and they call for an increase in children's allowances as the best way to sustain families against the increased cost of food. The Minister appreciated this and took their point in his speech today. In his contribution he talked about what he described as substantial increases in children's allowances, although many of us might differ from him in what he calls a substantial increase. He made the case that when the Government decided to remove food subsidies they recognised that the step would seriously affect the budgets of social welfare recipients. He said that the Government were anxious that the effect on this section of the community should be cushioned to the greatest extent possible and he referred to the EEC butter scheme and other matters. He told us that children's allowances offer the best mechanism to offset the effects of a reduction in subsidies for the majority of families with lower incomes.
In his statement the Minister pointed out the increases: £1.20 for the first child; £1.40 for the second child and 65p for the third child. This was to cushion families in receipt of social welfare benefits against the effects of the removal of food subsidies on 1 January. We can ask ourselves how the measure proposed by the Minister will help those families. On analysis we see that it does not compensate them for the increased food costs brought about by the removal of the food subsidies.
I suppose milk could be regarded as a primary and essential item in the diet of children and I do not think anyone would argue with me when I say that one pint of milk should be allotted to each child every day. As a result of the removal of the food subsidies milk was increased in price by 3½p per pint. If a person buys 30 pints of milk per month for a child he or she will pay an increased bill of £1.05 per month. Having regard to the increase allocated for the first child, there would be a balance of 15p to pay for the increased cost of bread and butter. In the case of the second child there would be 25p left to cover all the essentials but in the case of the third child the family is short 40p. I am not talking about the increased cost of bread or butter. In addition, there is a shortfall from January to April when none of the children gets any increase in respect of milk, bread and butter. This is not a compensation for the removal of food subsidies. We are not talking about cut-backs in the tax-free allowances because in the main they are not relevant in this context.
The attitude we have had towards children under the social welfare code does us no credit and this applies to successive Governments. I should like the Government to decide what it costs to keep a child. There is a plethora of rates in existence. We pay £4.65 if the parent or guardian is on disability benefit; we pay £4.25 in the case of an old age pensioner; we pay £5.20 to a non-contributory widow and we pay £5.70 to a contributory widow. I do not know how we arrived at these various rates of allowance in respect of dependent children but it strikes me as a ridiculous situation. They are a senseless set of figures worked out by somebody at some stage and increased by percentages from time to time. They have no relevance to what it costs to keep a child. It would cost much more than £4 or £5 to keep a child in elementary comfort.
This is the Year of the Child and there have been many groups set up to discuss the needs of children. Here we have a basic need. The Minister responsible for co-ordinating activities in the Year of the Child is present and I appeal to him to set out what it costs to maintain a child and to ask parents to realise that what his Government have done in removing the food subsidies is something that would set back the situation of children, particularly among the lower income groups.
That leads me to the position of widows who in the main in recent years have organised themselves so as to make known their plight. Once again most of their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. I concede that there have been marginal improvements for widows in this budget and others but we still have the situation where a widow with two children is asked to survive, sustain herself and the children on £26.50 a week. Widowhood brings about a very sudden drop in income but there is no drop in overheads or in the financial or other demands of running a home which might in fact be increased because there is now only one parent and only one adult perhaps in the house capable of doing things for which, if one were not able to do them, one has to pay.
This woman is asked to survive with her two children on perhaps half or very often one-third or a quarter of the income to which she was accustomed. Because of the means test, if this woman can find work—she has no facilities for child care; we have done nothing about providing child care facilities worth talking about except what voluntary organisations have tried to provide—despite lack of back-up facilities, perhaps by going out in unsocial hours and perhaps at great personal expense to get a job to buttress her income, if she earns more than about £20 a week, her pension ceases. If she is a widow of a husband who had stamps and if she goes out to work she is taxed on a very low margin.
As regards the special needs of widows there must be a realisation that all the overheads of running a home and maintaining a family are still there and very often increased. Many widows are trying to manage on an average of one third of the income available when both parents were living. We are doing grave injustice to widows at present and to their children for whom one must make a special plea.
Back in 1972 the Commission on the Status of Women recommended that the alleviate this problem of the sudden drop in income on the death of an earning partner the pension or allowance to the survivor should be doubled for six months after the death. The last Government went some way towards that in paying disability benefit if it was payable for six weeks after the death of the insured person. This at least tided the widow over the period between the death of her husband and the payment of widow's pension. It does not go all the way and it does not go at all towards meeting the particular needs of widowhood at that time. Therefore the recommendation of the commission on the Status of Women that the pension on allowance be doubled for a period of six months was a very good idea and one which I would appeal to some Government to implement in the very near future.
We measure in pennies what we give to social welfare recipients. There is an example of this in the present Social Welfare Bill where we increase the unemployment assistance rate. We have rounded it off for urban areas to the noble sum of £11, but we pay rural people £9.05. I do not know how we arrived at the 5p; perhaps it is now we have arrived at the 5p because there has been an increase of £1.05 in the rate of unemployment assistance payable to people in rural areas. The doling out of an additional 5p highlights the Government's whole attitude towards this section of the community. There is no question of rounding it off or reaching anything approximating the figures to which the rest of us aspire when we have wage adjustments to meet cost of living increases.
References have been made to the treatment of women under the social welfare code. I should like to begin with single women over 68 for whom a special allowance was introduced recently. That allowance still stands at £13.65 per week in 1979. We ask an adult who is getting on in years and who has given a life of service to either the home or the community or society generally to survive on that sum. If that woman has an income of between £1 and £2 we reduce her allowance to £12.35. We give her nothing at all if she has over £11. These figures give an idea of the standard of living to which we relegate these people and the complacency shown in the very minor adjustments in the rate of benefit, adjustments which have never kept pace with the cost of living.
In the context of women generally, there has been reference to the EEC directive giving the Government six years to eliminate remaining discrimination against women in the social welfare code. First, six years is far too long. I would point out that the directive did not say the Government must take six years but that it must be done in six years. I would appeal to them to do it in two years; I wish they could do it in one. Secondly, the terms are too restrictive as they apply only to women in the employment situation. We have here discrimination which will not be tolerated any longer and it should be eliminated as soon as possible. The Government should not bask in the knowledge that the EEC have given them six years. There will be a great deal of pressure within the country for earlier elimination of discrimination.
The decision to extend the period of payment for unemployment benefit from 156 to 212 days is a step in the right direction which I welcome. There are still many areas of discrimination against women which I hope will be eliminated on the next occasion that some Minister will get an opportunity to do so. For instance, a married woman in employment pays a full contribution but when unemployed, instead of getting the normal national rate of £16.05, she gets £14 because she is married. I say that £2.05 of such a person's entitlement is wrongfully kept by the State. If a case were brought—possibly it is the way of righting many wrongs nowadays—I cannot imagine the case of any woman whose £2.05 was kept by the State wrongfully would not succeed. We are dealing with a section of the community who are not likely to seek redress in that way.
Going very strongly through the whole welfare code there is the concept as a man as breadwinner and a woman as dependant. That thinking has resulted in a great deal of discrimination and a great deal of hardship for women. The demand for the elimination of what discrimination remains will grow very strongly in the near future. We have an outmoded and inadequate social welfare code generally.
In the areas of unemployment benefit and disability benefit there is bias against married women. By way of motion in the House not very long ago this party highlighted the situation in relation to married women obtaining unemployment benefit. Invariably, the argument was that a married woman was not available for work and that, consequently, she did not qualify for unemployment benefit. I know of many married women who live in the same homes as their mothers or mothers-in-law and these in the main are active middle-aged women who are quite prepared to look after their grandchildren while the mothers are at work. However, many married women have succeeded in their claims for unemployment benefit but in their efforts to this end they have been caused much inconvenience. Because the appeal's officers decision was final there was no redress for women who were refused benefit. That situation would not be tolerated today under any other code. From these benches we called for the setting up of an appeals tribunal and for the right of an applicant to know why she was being refused benefit. In any other circumstances this right would be considered as merely basic justice but the attitude is very different in respect of social welfare and its application to women. I am reiterating my plea to the Minister to rid our society as quickly as possible of these injustices.
I wish to make an appeal also on behalf of people in the voluntary contribution category and who up to recently appeared to have full health cover for themselves and their families. There is much concern among this group in relation to the scheme being introduced by the Minister. The situation is to be that if the income of a manual worker exceeds £5,500 his eligibility will cease. This is a step in the wrong direction and the people concerned will make known their resentment as strongly as possible.
There is a gap in the social welfare code in relation to the adult dependants of the people who have paid social insurance contributions in so far as dental and optical services are concerned. This is an old chestnut and one which is highlighted on each occasion on which either a Bill or an Estimate relating to the Department is before the House. From my 14 years experience of the needs of people I am aware that this is an area in which there is great hardship. Every adult, regardless of how healthy he may be, requires either dental or optical care at some stage in his life. Having regard to the large contributions made by workers and employers in respect of social welfare it is difficult to understand why the insured are not covered for these aspects of the health services. The same situation applies to children between the ages of 12 and 16. They are without cover for these benefits during this important period of their lives except in instances in which their families have medical cards. An entirely new approach to this whole question is required from the Department.
Basically what we should insist on is the provision for the sick, the aged and the unemployed of a standard of living which reflects the standard of living generally in the community. Up to now we have not been applying the same yardstick in this respect. Even allowing for the 12 per cent increase in social welfare payments this year, we are not providing an adequate standard of living for the people concerned. We must have regard to the question of what it costs to maintain a person, of what should be regarded as a minimum income and particularly in this Year of the Child we should pay special attention to the needs of children. Some children do not have enough to eat and there are many others who are deprived in other ways. For example, they are denied facilities that are available to other children in the form of extra-curricular activities which can only be availed of by children whose parents can afford them. We must do everything possible to provide the kind of environment that will enable our children to grow up to become healthy and balanced adults. There is need for immediate research in this area.
We need also a national pension scheme. For some time past there have been calls for a scheme for that 30 per cent of our population who are self-employed. While we continue to neglect this category there is no point in aspiring to the provision of adequate health and social welfare cover for all our people. The Minister has said that the provision of such a scheme is under active consideration.