Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 11 Mar 1981

Vol. 327 No. 8

Social Welfare (Amendment) Bill, 1981: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I wish to refer to the provision in the Bill which relates to refugees. The provision which gets rid of the 15-year residence clause is to be welcomed. I know it has not been brought in specifically to deal with Irish people who have returned from abroad but to give a proper chance of qualifying for a pension to those who come from other parts of the world. The Minister referred to the Vietnamese refugees specifically. Those living in the State who do not have means should be entitled to a pension. I should now like to refer to the EEC pensions which come within the ambit of the Bill. I appeal to the Minister to establish a better line of communication between his Department and the Department of Health and Social Security at Newcastle-on-Tyne because those waiting to have their EEC pension entitlement processed often have to wait for longer than six months. If there was a simple procedure the matter could be dealt with within a matter of weeks. A definite line should be established whether it is a personal one or a telephonic one — obviously, the latter would be most difficult because it is almost impossible to make telephone contact with the Department from any place in Ireland. If that link was established those claims could be processed within a reasonable time. The delay means that the people concerned are losing out heavily due to inflation.

I have had cases of people seeking EEC pensions having to wait between nine months and one year although there was no complication. There was a break-down in communication between the two Departments. Some consideration should be given in this legislation to the position of Irish people who return from abroad, particularly those who return from America, and whose means are limited. As far as I am aware there is no consideration for Irish people of pension age who return from the US, Australia or other countries. There should be some reciprocal arrangements, such as those obtaining between this country and other member states of the EEC to facilitate such people who have worked hard all their lives, who probably left this country at an early age but who at present are entitled to no benefit whatever on their return here. They lose out when it comes to the fringe benefits such as free electricity, free television licence, free fuel or any other such benefit. There are considerably more people in that category returning from America than there are from say, France, the Netherlands or Germany. It is quite a large problem. In my constitutency alone I would estimate that there are several hundred people who would be affected, people who have returned from the USA or Australia. The provisions of the Social Welfare Bill should be broadened in order to include people who return from the countries I have mentioned or indeed from some other country not within the EEC.

I should like the Minister to bear in mind the points I have raised.

We all welcome increases in social welfare payments. On these benches we have always been anxious to ensure that social welfare be seen as a genuine transfer of resources from the well-off to those whom our society and economic system have condemned to an economic twilight zone. However, the first thing that has to be said in relation to this is that the system simply does not operate in this way. There is, of course, a transfer of resources but it is a transfer of resources from the slightly better off to the worse off; the best off are left largely untouched.

It is not so long ago since on a trip down the country I was talking to a gentleman who supports the Minister's party whom I met by chance in a pub. It was just after the budget, so I asked him to comment on what he thought the budget had done and what he thought of its provisions. He said he would not say anything about the budget, but then in a couple of minutes' time he started to talk about the budget and he had many criticisms of it. His first criticism — and this might surprise the Minister — was that it gave too much to the idle. Those were his words, not mine. The Minister will know that there is on the back benches of his party and among the ranks of his party a somewhat similar sentiment. It is not a worthy sentiment, it is not one with which I agree, but in so far as it has any foundation at all, it springs from the perception by people, in the middle income brackets especially, that it is their income that is being reduced to pay the social welfare benefits and not the income of the rich and powerful in our society. In that at least they are not wrong.

The second point we must consider when we come to consider increases in social welfare is the rate of inflation. We must consider in particular the rate of inflation in food prices because it is now a patently obvious fact that increases in food prices hit hardest of all those people on low incomes, because in many cases they spend at least 40 per cent of their income on the basic necessities of life. The increase in the price of the basic necessities of life for these people has, if anything, been accelerated by the process of scaling down and taking out the food subsidies introduced by the last Government. We all have our little bit to say about food subsidies and the Government have made clear their commitment to abolishing them if they could get away with it politically. The fact is that there are still some of them there and, as they have been reduced, the burden on the social welfare recipient has increased. This must be taken into account when assessing the effect of any increase given in this Bill.

There is one major confidence trick in relation to the social welfare increases, that is, in relation to the percentage figures bandied about by the Minister and people on the Fianna Fáil benches — 20 per cent for short term recipients, 25 per cent for long term recipients. But has anybody looked at the figure for children? Has anybody looked at the figure for dependent children of recipients whether short or long term? If one looks at the figure for the increases for the children, child dependants of social welfare recipients, one will see that those increases are nowhere near the 20 per cent and 25 per cent much booted about by the Minister.

God help us, this is supposed to be a country in which we cherish all the children of the nation equally, at least to some degree. It is also a country in which there is an unmistakable correlation between family size and poverty and between family size and low income. But the surest possible way of transferring resources to low income families, whether or not in the social welfare bracket, is to increase payments made to children. The percentage increases in the payments for child dependants of social welfare recipients is less than half the lowest figure mentioned in the many speeches from the Government side, 9 per cent. Nobody, not even the most optimistic Government speaker, pretends that inflation will be as low as 9 per cent this year. At present it has all the signs of being double that figure, or close to double it. For the sake of argument, even at 15 per cent it means that the position of child dependants of social welfare recipients will be substantially disadvantaged during the coming year. The Minister knows it and I know it.

No, it is not true. The children's allowance is up 30 per cent. They get this also.

I am not talking about children's allowances. I am talking about the allowances for child dependants of social welfare recipients.

Everybody gets children's allowances.

Including the social welfare recipients.

I am glad to have stung the Minister into some kind of response. But the House will note the fact that he is trying to divert the argument to children's allowances and away from the key issue of the payment for child dependants of social welfare recipients.

No, the two must be taken together.

There are between 100,000 and 200,000 children who are the children of families dependent on social welfare. These children and their parents cannot escape the effects of what I have been talking about. In fact, in relation to what the Minister has been saying, I am sure he will not disagree with me that the increase in the child allowances — if he wants to take them into account with the increase for child dependants of social welfare recipients — becomes payable from July only. Therefore at the very least there would be a valley period during which child dependants of social welfare recipients will be substantially disadvantaged. It is one thing to say that they are disadvantaged, but there is disadvantage and disadvantage. The disadvantages suffered by children and families at this stage in their lives cannot be readily made up later in life. They start at a low place in the queue and as their life goes on they, if anything, fall further and further back in the queue. The expense of providing remedial, social, educational, occupational and employment opportunities to try to equalise to any degree the opportunity enjoyed by these families and by the children of these families goes up in geometric progression as they get older. It is far more sensible to put in whatever money one has right at the beginning. This is patently not happening in this case.

There is another distinction that I would like to bring to the Minister's attention and to ask him if he really can stand over it on any grounds other than the grounds that resources are short. That is the classification of some people as short-term recipients and other as long-term recipients. Unemployment assistance is regarded, as far as I know, as a short-term benefit. Therefore it goes up by 20 per cent as opposed to some of the other benefits which go up by 25 per cent. That is fair enough if one accepts the theory of the matter and the theory of the matter is that unemployment assistance, for somebody who has not got an adequate contribution record, is a payment which is designed to sustain a person and his or her family until such time as that person has found gainful employment.

We all know what happens to many people who go on unemployment assistance. I am not talking about school leavers or people who are temporarily out of employment. I am talking about people who are made redundant, possibly at the age of 45 or 50, who exhaust their pay-related benefit, who exhaust their unemployment benefit and who go on assistance. They will be on assistance for the rest of their lives until they come to the pension age. It is not unusual in this day and age that people should be on assistance for years and years, for longer than many people may be on some of the long-term benefits which are to be put up by 25 per cent. If the Minister were to be generous he would have to accept that at least somebody who has been on assistance for three years could be counted as a long-term recipient and might be given some kind of help by virtue of increasing his allowance by 25 per cent. I suspect that the hard core of long-term unemployed who have gone off unemployment benefit and on to unemployment assistance will slowly grow over the years and form a larger and larger part of the total number on unemployment assistance.

The question of not supplying certain increases in social welfare to people who are in receipt of certain kinds of disability payments should be looked at again. It is certainly true that people on certain disability payments need increases. But there seems to have been an arbitrary distinction made by the Minister in terms of disability pension and disability benefit which certainly does not make sense to the disabled people themselves. I would appeal to the Minister to look at this again and to do all that he can to equalise the benefits being paid to the various disabled people in this year of the disabled.

Finally I would urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to do anything else that can be done to step up the payment of outstanding social welfare payments from his Department. It is a sad reflection on us as a society, the caring society that I believe some Government Ministers are prone to describe is ours, that social welfare recipients or would-be recipients have to come before elected representatives of this House and the elected representatives have to hold up the business of the House for hours on end during Question Time on individual cases in an attempt to get for them what this or any other society would regard as their rights.

I wish to make three points in relation to this Bill. I want to protest very strongly about the current administrative system in operation in the Department following the change-over to the pay-related social insurance integrated computer system. I have been a life-long insured person and when I went out of social insurance I became a voluntary contributor and then I continued to pay the PRSI on the change-over in the system to that much more effective way of collecting contributions, including health contributions. I have studied the system in considerable detail over the years and had many a discussion with the former Parliamentary Secretary, Deputy Cluskey, who was responsible from 1973-77 for the administration of the system. Frankly, I am appalled that with the body of expertise available to us at computer level, from the Revenue Commissioners right across to the Department of Social Welfare, and with the tremendous sophistication of equipment available to us here and literally the millions of pounds of public and taxpayers' money which we have spent to introduce this system and to have it working, that we now have a system where some thousands of constituents of individual Deputies cannot get their normal statutory entitlements. Only last week I had a case where a young woman had put in, for six successive weeks, certificates of disability from her own doctor in an effort to get payment and it was only when I put down a Dáil question for written reply yesterday that I got the response that all payments had been made up to 7 March.

This is simply not good enough whether it is in the private sector, the public sector or the State-sponsored bodies sector. It is inexcusable that anybody should come in here and say that people forget to send in their reference numbers. Any effective system, whether it is a hire purchase company or a commercial bank or the ESB — and there are thousands of subscribers paying their ESB accounts — can trace, within a matter of seconds, their credits and debits and benefits due. Those of us in this House who hold credit cards — and a number of Members do — can ring up and, in a matter of three seconds, find out the balance in an account. There is no excuse in this day and age, with modern sophisticated computer technology available, for these delays to occur at ordinary branch office level, including the branch in George's Street, Dún Laoghaire, in my constituency. There is no reason why people should not be in a position to walk into a local employment exchange, simply give their number and, just like buying an airline ticket in Aer Lingus, have read back immediately the whole record of their social insurance, their last claim and the last input into the computer terminal.

I do not want to interrupt the Deputy but he will appreciate that we are dealing with administration.

I appreciate that fully. I am saying simply that as a public representative for the past 12 years, a period in which there has been an explosion in information sophistication where——

It has all been changed in January and February. It has not happened over the last few years.

The Minister is very strong on public relations. I do not know how strong he is on administration. I always go for the administator because it is the results that matter, not the image. I see no reason whatsoever why the programme of change-over could not be anticipated, could not have been provided for and could not have been administered effectively.

Will the Deputy please move off that point.

If the Deputy waits for my reply he might hear. I have said it several times in the House. Nobody listens. Everybody comes in and then goes out of the House and then comes back and says the same thing again. It is useless to talk to Deputies on that basis.

The Minister will have an opportunity——

The Deputy will please move on to another point. I have allowed him very considerable latitude on that matter.

The Minister will have ample opportunity of replying. I suggest to him that he get into his car, go down to Pearse Street and queue there and look for his birth certificate. That is a simple suggestion. I pass Pearse Street——

This is for the Eastern Health Board. The Deputy knows that.

I have given very considerable latitude to the Deputy on that.

I want to relate it to the Social Welfare Bill and I will relate it in a very simple way. There is no point in saying to an unemployed worker that he is entitled under the Social Welfare Acts to £58.30p. per week because of his basic social insurance if the unfortunate man is required by his employer and by the Department in relation to a disability benefit claim, say, to go and get his blasted birth certificate. If the man, as I know, has to queue down there in Dublin——

That is not true.

——in Pearse Street outside in the pouring rain for two or three hours looking for a birth certificate, that is disgraceful. This is 1981, not 1926.

The Deputy will please come back to the Bill.

I am raising this because the Minister will tell me that that is a matter for the Eastern Health Board. I do not care who is responsible. All I know is that Dublin people are queueing day after day outside in the public street. I have raised this matter over a period of three solid years. Women with prams are queueing out in the public street, in rain, cold and sleet, every single week, hanging around for hours on end, and it takes two or three hours to get their own birth certificates. In the name of God, we are not a nation of such population complexity, of such diversity, that we cannot regularise a thing like that. A fairly junior principal officer in the Greater Birmingham Council area, which has a population of 3.3 million, could and would sort it out while being paid half the money by Margaret Thatcher.

Will the Deputy please come back to the Bill? I have explained already that what he is discussing now would be much more appropriate to the Estimate.

I am finished on that note. I want to make a point to the Minister about what I regard as a very serious flaw in the Social Welfare Bill. I have four children, two of them still eligible for children's allowances. I get £13,000 a year as a Dáil Deputy. The Minister is giving the likes of me more children's allowances from 1 July. I think he is giving us an increase of 30 per cent on the children's allowances. Whether you have £50,000 or £500 a year you get children's allowances. At the same time the unfortunate unemployed worker down in Arklow being laid off by NET, supposing he is married with three children and his wife does not work, would have a basic unemployment benefit of £58 a week and a supplement of pay-related of, say, £15 a week, and he is going to get an increase of a lousy — to be crude, unparliamentary or otherwise — 9 per cent on the portion for his three dependent children in pay-related unemployment benefit.

This brings us to the point that the Minister as the newly-appointed acolyte of Deputy Haughey, the Taoiseach, who does what he is told, must surely have within his Department some basic family income data which would suggest clearly that about the most miserable way, in terms of the allocation of scarce resources, of allocating money relative to children is to give a universal increase of 30 per cent from 1 July right across the board and to give 9 per cent to the unemployed, to the unfortunate father or mother who is out sick on long-term or short-term disability and is claiming a dependent child allowance, or to the deserted wife. I find that incomprehensible as social expenditure priority. That serious anomaly is contained within the Social Welfare Bill. Why? Because the Taoiseach wants to go the country in mid-year and he wants to stand up on the goggle-box looking bland and manicured, look the nation straight in the eye and say, "I am giving every child in this country 30 per cent in children's allowances from next month", assuming that the election will be around 27 May or the middle of June. It is cosmetic budgetary designed to milk the greatest kudos from the greatest number of people without real relevance to the priorities of social welfare. That is why I think there is a serious deficiency in this Bill which is politically popular but does not cater for the purposes of social welfare for the deprived, disabled, unemployed, sick and aged.

Therefore, if I have come in and expressed myself forcibly this morning it is because I would like to see in the Department once again somebody who would be entirely his own man. Deputy Cluskey was his own man when he was in that Department. He may have been unpopular with some sections of the staff but he was his own man and when some other Government Ministers came down from their Departments, notably Finance, and started prowling around the Department deciding what they would wish to see in terms of social priority, they were given desperately short shrift in Store Street because he was his own man in his Department. It is great to see a Minister, no matter who, being his own boss in his Department and not bending to every whim of electoral pressure from, in particular, the presidential-style Taoiseach whom we have at the moment.

I say that as a matter of regret because everybody has a feeling of goodwill towards the new Minister in his initial work in the Department, but when one gets a Bill like this and sees the break-down in the system of administration one becomes very irate. The response which one gets at times from some politicians is that. "We appreciate fully that you pay 4.75 per cent of your salary into the social insurance fund, but do not cause any hassle, do not raise any row if, having got this money into the social insurance fund—-which is your money—you have the greatest difficulty in time of need in extricating the money to maintain your wife and family." This is a social attitude which is totally unacceptable to any responsible public representative. I urge the Minister to take a fresh look at the section of the Bill relating to the provision for children and to report at length in his reply on the breakdown of the administrative system which has occurred and which, hopefully, will be put right in the immediate future.

I also urge the House to take cognisance of the true cost of unemployment. It is not just a question of paying £3,000 a year in unemployment benefit to somebody who is out of work. In real economic terms it is about twice that amount, because an unemployed person does not have to pay PRSI, a medical card has to be provided, his differential rent has to be reduced, supplementary welfare payments have to be made in certain instances and, on top of all that, one has to add the economic cost with loss of production and loss of profits for the concerns where the unemployed person comes from. The true economic cost to the State in relation to a person who is unemployed is probably in the region of about £7,000 or £8,000 minimum per annum. If you multiply that by the extra 20,000 or 30,000 people who became unemployed since the Minister took office, the true cost is quite staggering. If one takes a conventional figure of £6,000 a year, £3,000 for benefits, £500 for pay-related social insurance and all the other additional costs, for every 5,000 unemployed people the extra cost to those who are employed is in the region of £35 million a year.

A question was asked in the House of Commons last October about unemployment. The Minister concerned said that the cost to the State in cash terms alone for one unemployed person in the UK was over £6,000 per annum. Today that would be about £6,500 or £7,000. The true economic cost of unemployment, as reflected in the Social Welfare Bill, is very often hidden and should be stressed with greater concern. Earlier the Minister rightly said, that Deputies tend to come into the House, make their points and then disappear. We are all busy people. I have a deputation at 11.30 so I cannot remain to hear the Minister's speech. I am sorry I cannot be here for his reply and no discourtesy is intended. Nevertheless, I ask the Minister to take cognisance of these points in his reply.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Like most Deputies. I hold public "clinics" in my constituency on a fairly regular basis. Two-thirds of the questions raised by my constituents relate to social welfare problems. It is an extremely poor reflection on the efficiency of the Department. Most of the questions raised relate to delays in payments or to ineligibility for benefits or assistance. It is most unfortunate that these people have to come to me at all, because the system is long established and there should be no difficulty in interpreting people's entitlements and sorting out their problems.

I had a case recently where a person applied for occupational injury benefit in relation to an accident which happened in the middle of January. Up to the first week in March he had not received any money. That is a disgraceful situation and a reflection on the Minister. He should take more interest in his Department and ensure that entitlements are paid on a regular basis.

The result of the representations I make on behalf of people leads me to the conclusion that far greater powers should be given to local offices. There is a need for a radical structural change in the administration of the Department of Social Welfare. We have well qualified civil servants in charge of the various social welfare offices throughout the country. They should know the system because they participate in its operation down through the years before they are promoted. Entitlements, conditions and regulations are set down in black and white and it should not be beyond the wit of a social welfare branch manager to come to a decision in respect of 80 per cent of cases. I accept that about 20 per cent of cases may need to be referred to Dublin, but 80 per cent of cases which are now referred from local offices to Dublin for decision could more easily and speedily be dealt with at local level. It would make the system much simpler and much more efficient. Yet, because of the manic attitude of the Department and civil servants in Dublin, they simply refuse to relinquish their little bit of power and transfer it to local level. It is endemic through the whole civil service. Nobody wants to relinquish power at civil service level because he or she thinks their jobs are in danger. They want their power, their desk and chair with a carpet underneath it. Nothing leaves the office because it is their little cabbage patch. People who are not getting their entitlements are suffering. That is a disgraceful situation. I am calling for a radical review of the functions and structures of the Department, and of the structure of the branches throughout the country.

The Deputy should speak on the Bill.

Another matter which arises quite frequently is the question of entitlement to EEC benefits. That has been raised in the Bill and the Minister has removed the 15 year residential condition. That is good and necessary because of our membership of the EEC.

Another matter which I think has been corrected in the budget is where people in receipt of British retirement pensions are not eligible for free telephone rental. That is something which should be rectified as it is an anomaly in the Act. In relation to people who are eligible for entitlements under British social welfare regulations, there should be far speedier consultation between the Department of Social Welfare and the Department of Health and Social Security in Newcastle-on-Tyne. When I have occasion to make an inquiry on behalf of somebody who may be entitled to extra benefit within EEC regulations as a result of his or her insurance record in Britain, the stock reply I receive is that contact is being made with the authorities in Newcastle-on-Tyne, that this will take some time and that I will be contacted again when a reply is received from them. There should be no need for this big time factor. Such delays could be eliminated by way of fairly close liaison between our Department and the Department of Health and Social Security in Newcastle-on-Tyne. The whole process could be completed by way of telex.

It is done by way of telex.

The question of administration is not relevant to the Bill.

If telex is used for this purpose, what is the reason for delays of up to three months before a Deputy receives a comprehensive reply to a simple application?

The investigations in such cases must be carried out on the English side. We can telex them very rapidly but very often delays are caused by applicants having moved many times from one building site to another, for instance.

Would it not be appropriate that a liaison officer be resident in the Department here in order to ensure that the plain people of Ireland are paid the benefits to which they are entitled within EEC regulations? There should be a system of determining quickly the British records in these cases but that is not happening with the result that there are long delays. This is extremely unsatisfactory. When I make an inquiry on behalf of an applicant to the Department here. I receive a first reply within a week but very often three months elapse before I get the final reply. An applicant might well be dead and buried within that time. This is a disgraceful state of affairs. People should be paid the benefits to which they are entitled without there being this tremendous civil service input to what should be a fairly quick and efficient decision.

There is chaos this year in the area of the payment of social welfare benefits. The Minister tells us that the reason for these delays is the installation of a computer in the Department. As I pointed out during Question Time yesterday, the highest levels of unemployment and of illness are registered during the winter months. Consequently, this is the time when the highest number of applications for benefit are received, but the whole system has been upset by a decision to instal a computer in the middle of winter. This is equivalent to a hotelier deciding to refurbish his hotel at the height of the summer season.

That is utter nonsense. If the Deputy waits for my reply. I shall explain the situation to him.

I would request the Deputy to move away from matters of administration and to return to the Bill. As I have pointed out already, questions of administration would be more appropriate to the Estimate. The Deputy will appreicate that I have given him very considerable latitude.

I would only make the point that the political decision to change over to a computer system in the middle of winter has proved to be disastrous.

The Deputy completely misunderstands the situation. It is a question of the governing contribution year which starts on the first day of January.

There is no misunderstanding. The people in my constituency are suffering as a result of the situation in the Department.

Deputy Collins. without interruption, but not on matters of administration.

I will conclude by saying that the decision to install the computer in winter was a disgrace.

That is rubbish but I shall explain the matter later.

The Minister is responsible for this disastrous state of affairs.

This is nonsense.

Will Deputy Collins please get back to the Bill?

The Department stand condemned in relation to what is a serious malpractice. Employees should be informed on a regular basis, either by their employers or by the Department, as to whether their PRSI contributions have been paid to the Department. This would be an improvement and would represent protection for the employees of many firms.

Under the new system they will have that information.

I am thinking in terms of a mandatory regulation whereby employees would have to be informed regarding the transfer of their contributions to the Department. One can only hope that the Act to provide for the office of an ombudsman will be brought into effect soon and the appointment made. I am convinced that the number of complaints with which he would have to deal in regard to the Department of Social Welfare alone would be sufficient to keep him very busy apart altogether from having to deal with matters relating to other Departments. This appointment is long overdue. I hope there will not be much further delay in this regard so that there will be an appointed person who will be in a position to rectify the many malpractices of administration in the State. I suppose that I am bordering on being ruled out of order.

The Deputy has gone much beyond the border.

It is disgraceful that ordinary people who find it necessary to write to the Department are not afforded the courtesy of a reply.

I should like to refer also to the position regarding married women who apply for unemployment benefit. We know that after a confinement many married women now wish to return to work. This is becoming an increasing practice in Ireland and it has been the practice in other European countries for some time. Usually a married woman applying for benefit fulfils the conditions of having someone — perhaps her mother or a sister — to care for the baby of being registered with the National Manpower Service and of being available for work. However, I am bewildered by the inconsistency of the initial refusal by whatever branch is concerned to grant the unemployment benefit applied for as a result of the woman not being able to find work and the decisions on appeal. I estimate that of these people who approach me in regard to this benefit, 50 per cent are found subsequently to be entitled to unemployment benefit while the other 50 per cent are found not to be so entitled.

There is no rationale in the decisions handed down. Take two women in exactly the same circumstances and the chances are that A will get unemployment benefit and B will be refused either at branch level or on appeal. Why that happens has never been satisfactorily explained to me. That is one of the new mysteries. The two women may be the best of friends, may be working in the same place in practically similar circumstances and one is allowed benefit and the other is not. It is beyond my comprehension why that should be the position.

The Deputy would accept that also relates to administration and would be much more appropriate on the Estimate. We are simply amending the law here to allow for changes in social welfare.

I want to refer to the maternity allowance.

We are trying to put through a Bill which would give old age pensioners an increase and we are having a lot of delay.

The Minister is not even meeting inflation.

Deputy Collins, please, on the Bill.

This is a House of Parliament. I was elected by the people in Waterford constituency to come here and represent them and I will not have that Minister or any other Minister making a snotty-nosed remark like that when I am speaking in this House. You listen to me Minister, when I speak in this House and you will listen in courtesy.

I have been listening to the Deputy and I have made notes of his remarks——


Will Deputy Collins please continue on the Bill?

The Minister will have more respect for Members of the House as long as I am on my feet and if he tries to make little of other Members he will certainly not do it with me.

I request the Deputy to address the Chair.

You respected the Members of the House since you took the Chair and indeed when you were Minister. I will not have any supposed whiz kid coming here trying to demean any Member of the House.

On the Bill. please, Deputy.

Bloody cheek. The maternity allowance, which again arises I imagine more from EEC regulations and from the national understanding than from any political will of the present Government, is an improvement which is necessary. I hope it will help many young married women with children who want to go back to work. For 14 weeks they will be entitled to maternity allowance. I hope the system will be improved so as to regularise interpretation of the social welfare code as it refers to them in their applications for unemployment benefit.

A matter which is not in the Bill is the State pension scheme to which the present Government referred early in their term of office and which has now apparently been sunk, like many other objectives in the manifesto. A State pension scheme is a sound social security concept. I am very sorry to see that the lack of commitment to improvement in the social welfare code under this Government is so evident that any move towards a comprehensive State pension scheme seems to have been forgotten and submerged. The Government are so divided in themselves that their thoughts are on things other than helping recipients of social welfare.

May I finally make an appeal regarding occupational injury benefit? The time it takes to examine a case indicates that there is need to have an automatic payment of a weekly sum perhaps equivalent to the occupational injury benefit so that the person suffering from such an injury would be automatically paid pending a decision on his claim. That is necessary. I am thinking of a specific case about which the Minister's civil servants spoke to me on the telephone in a very apologetic tone. The position certainly requires to be rectified. It is obvious that the whole administration structure in the Department is such as to demand that local offices be given far more power and that the bureaucracy we are experiencing in the operation of the system is extremely unfortunate and unnecessary. I hope it will be changed. It certainly will not be changed under that Minister: he does not even have respect for Members of the House.

I think it is true that rural representatives have a much greater problem in relation to social welfare inquiries than in the case of Dublin representatives in making representations for payments. There is nothing more annoying than to have some frustrated applicant tell you that he has not received his social welfare allowance. In his presence, in an effort to relieve the frustration and to do your job as a public representative, you take up the phone and ring 786444. I was referred to Newcastle-on-Tyne eight times a day to try to get that number. The other day I spent about an hour and a half trying to ring that number and I might as well be trying to call the local cemetery—I got the same reply. Having heard so much about the installation of telephones I cannot understand why the lines in the Department of Social Welfare are so inadequate. Somebody said they had 40 lines——

There are 40 lines.

Then the situation is an indication of the negligence there is in that office, if 40 lines are available and so many people are trying to telephone without success. People do not ring from anywhere in Munster just for fun. It is an expensive operation. When you find that so many people have already got the lines engaged, there must be something wrong. The matter has been raised on several occasions, including Question Time here, and I have never heard a satisfactory answer from any Minister about what is happening. If some irregularities occurred in any industry and the manager was telephoned on a couple of occasions and questioned about it. I am sure he would ascertain what was causing the problem. If there is reason for the present situation, we should know it.

I wonder why these matters could not be dealt with in the local offices. People down the country feel completely lost when the public representative tells them that it is not possible to make contact with the Department of Social Welfare. Some of them do not believe you. I would feel much the same myself. I would be doubtful in the same situation if the number had been tried at all. People in the country believe that a Deputy can at least get through to the Department. I suggest that the Minister should go to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and look for another 40 lines or find another way of securing efficiency. I do not know why claims cannot be dealt with in the local offices. The Minister is not very long in his present position and I shall not be critical. I think he will do his best but I hope that some day he will be able to tell us that he has rectified the problem we have been complaining about for a couple of years.

More than anything else I am worried about the case where an appeal is concerned and what is known as a board of referees comes down the country——

May I point out to the Deputy that he is speaking about administration here? I have already pointed out to a number of Deputies that it would be appropriate to raise this on the Estimate. I did allow the Deputy considerable latitude, but I would be glad if he would get back to the Bill.

I do not know what latitude the Chair allowed me in what I have spoken on.

The latitude I have allowed the Deputy was that he has not, as yet, spoken on the Bill.

I am coming to the Bill.

The Deputy has spoken entirely on administration, which is not permitted.

I am speaking about the difficulties in the Bill, which is a very narrow Bill as far as I am concerned. There is no point in speaking on it if I am not allowed to criticise what is causing the frustration of public representatives at the whole system. I could quote the amount of money involved and paid, the proposed new agreements and the new and old rates, but that would be silly.

When people make an initial application for social benefits, their application is assessed and a certain amount of money is granted for their keep or assistance. I have come across amounts of £12, and £11 in some cases, which is unreasonable. The prescribed resident's allowance is not administered as it should be. If it were not so rigidly administered, many people now in institutions would be looked after in homes. Many would be prepared to look after their own if they got a reasonable level of assistance.

I had hoped to see the pension age lowered to 65. The Minister and the Government speak about social conscience, but the present Government does not appear to have a social conscience because they left the ceiling at 70 years. The Coalition Government, in four seats brought the age down to 66 and the present Government have made no attempt to better that.

What I really came in to speak about was the telephone number which was always engaged. The public representatives down the country should have the means to make inquiries and gain information. This does not apply so much in the Dublin area, where people can walk across to the offices. Unfortunate people down the country are often left for five or six weeks without benefit.

I want to refer to a few points raised in the Bill in relation to increased payments. These increased payments are very welcome, and not alone welcome but very necessary. They barely keep up with present inflation. The Minister departed from the custom, when there were difficulties in an inflationary period, of two instalments of payments being brought in, in October and April or May. Over the last year we could have had three instalments because increases in basics were so vast that many people on welfare—whether old age pension, disability benefit, unemployment assistance, maternity benefit or what-ever—were certainly finding it very difficult to make ends meet—that is, when they could receive payment.

There is a valid case for re-examination of the whole social welfare system of payments and administration. Over the last three years, this Department have obviously given many people many difficulties, not the least of whom is the Minister. I am disappointed that the Minister has not been able to handle this Department. I hoped that when the present Minister attained his position, we had a young man who would understand the problems of the under-privileged and disadvantaged. Not alone that, that he would be able to attack the problems of late payments, of examinations of pay and all the other difficulties which these unfortunate people must go through before they receive payment. The Minister has failed miserably to deal with the situation. The problem is great not only since Christmas or in the last three or four months when we were told that a new computer system was being put into the Department, but it is ongoing and increasing all the time. In other words, the Minister is not operating his Department. He should make a resolution to get in there and do the job or resign from the Department of Social Welfare and let somebody else in who is able to tackle it. That is a serious thing to say about any Minister but it is very necessary.

Deputy O'Brien mentioned that the people in Dublin could go to an office. While I do not deal with people in the Dublin area, from what I have heard over the last couple of weeks they are in dire trouble in that they have to queue for long hours and perhaps at the end of it not even get an answer to their problem. If that happened down the country. I would create a hell of a row in this House. As it is, there are many problems around the country, a few of which I shall mention in the course of my contribution on this Bill. I agree with Deputy O'Brien that old age pensioners need special consideration. In the last couple of budgets no attempt has been made to reduce the qualifying age. I ask the Minister a direct question. Is he happy, or is it his feeling that a person should not get an old age pension until he or she is 66 years of age? I know that his party always felt that a person should not get an old age pension until he or she was 70, because in all the years they were in office they never reduced the age below that. We have reduced the age to 66 and it seems to have come to a standstill. It will not be further reduced until another party take office. The Minister is a caring man but I thought he might have brought some sanity to the qualifying age for an old age pension. We should aim at granting old age pensions at 60 years of age, not 66, and I was disappointed this Bill did not reduce the age.

The Minister should give serious consideration to the amount an applicant for a non-contributory old age pension can have and still qualify for full pension. The amount has been £6 since 1974-75 and it is high time the Minister looked seriously at this, taking into consideration inflation and the devaluation of money. The means allowed to an applicant for a non-contributory pension should be at least £20 a week. Even at this stage I would ask the Minister to write this into the Bill. It would not cost very much but it would give a great deal of comfort to many old people in their last years.

Disability benefit payments are causing a lot of problems. I want to know why the Department are not answering letters. At Question Time last week I gave an instance of one of my constituents who wrote 11 letters to the Department since October 1980 and did not receive any acknowledgement or reply. If the Minister wants evidence that this is happening I can give it to him daily. Many people do not want to come to politicians for help because they are able to handle their own affairs, but the Department are ignoring people who are prepared to take up their cases. Why are they not answering letters from ordinary citizens? I do not know if the Minister wants to answer now——

The Chair has given the Deputy an opportunity to raise this matter but it is not in order to discuss it in detail under this Bill. Administration matters may be dealt with during the Estimates debate.

I would like to assure the Deputy that the Department answer letters. There may be exceptions and if the Deputy knows of any I would be happy to hear from him.

All the exceptions must be in Kilkenny, because this happens there every day of every week.

Deputy, please discuss the Bill.

I must mention some of these matters because there is no point bringing in changes or trying to improve a Bill if the same system we have had over the last three years continues.

The Deputy will appreciate that it is not in order to deal with administration on a Bill. I have given every Deputy an opportunity to mention these delays in passing but we have to leave it there.

Disability benefits should be index-linked and paid by two or three increases over the year, not just one increase at the end of the year. The people who qualify for the disability benefit are at another disadvantage. When they qualify they cannot get payment. On many occasions the Minister gave explanations about the telephone situation in his Department. As late as last week he told me they are awaiting installation of a new telephone system. He mentioned 40 lines into the Department, but how many people are at the other end of those lines? One day I had four people in my office holding on to four lines, which were ringing. One was answered after 30 minutes. Last week I rang for 90 minutes and nobody answered. The Department's officers in the country, whether they are unemployment exchange officers, social welfare officers or supplementary welfare officers, are not prepared to ring the Department because they say it is a joke.

The Deputy has made his point. We are now dealing fully with administration which is not in order on a Bill. We cannot go further into this matter.

(Cavan-Monaghan): Surely a Deputy is entitled to make the point that there is no point granting increases if they are not going to be paid, or if they are to be paid irregularly——

Both the Ceann Comhairle and I have allowed Deputies to raise this matter in passing, but it is not in order to continue debating it. Administration is a matter for another debate or for the Estimates.

I grant that. I do not want to be at loggerheads with the Chair but this is a very serious matter. We are debating a Bill to bring in improvements which will benefit a certain section of the community, but if we cannot give them what they are entitled to now, we must refer to this. I do not think that is unreasonable. I am sure the Minister would like us to tell him the problems that exist so that he might be able to deal with them. This could strengthen his hand when raising these matters in his Department. From that point of view, it would be a good thing if we were given a little latitude.

The Deputy has been given a great deal of latitude.

Married women's benefits are causing a great many problems. Most girls who get married stay at work. When they have a baby they must take time off from work for six to 12 months, particularly after the first child because it takes them quite a while to readjust. When they get back into the mainstream of employment they often find it difficult to get jobs. They then apply for unemployment benefit. Most of them have years of stamps and they find it very difficult to get unemployment benefit payments.

I am aware of girls who have been refused unemployment benefit and who, on appeal, were asked to furnish certain evidence. They were required to show that there was a person available to look after their children and to furnish letters from people from whom they had sought employment. Even the production of this type of evidence was not sufficient for many of them to succeed in their appeal. Last week I met some people who had gone through this procedure and had put down their names with the National Manpower Service as being prepared to take up any type of employment, but in spite of this their application for unemployment benefit was refused. This is unreasonable and would appear to be a ploy to cut down social welfare expenditure. I hope the Minister will agree that such benefit should be paid to those who legitimately seek employment. I am not in favour of anyone receiving benefit who is not genuinely seeking work or in a position to take up employment.

There are long delays in making decisions regarding payment of unemployment benefit. People are put on unemployment assistance in the meantime. It is not right that a person whose card has been stamped for several years should have to wait a long time for a decision regarding payment of these benefits.

The pension books of old age pensioners should be available to them as soon as they become due. Last year many unfortunate old age pensioners found that their books were not available at the local post office and they were completely confused, not knowing where to go or what to do. This is another sign of the deterioration in the operation of this Department.

The Deputy is getting back to the subject of administration. When the Estimate comes before the House all these matters may be raised fully but they are not appropriate on a Bill of this nature.

The Chair must be very conscious of the problems of the old age pensioners in his own constituency.

The Chair has had problems with these matters but they cannot be discussed or debated on this Bill.

The Minister should consider increasing the living alone allowance payable to old age pensioners. The pension is of great benefit to people who live with their families and enables them to live a good life, but individuals or couples need more. Costs have increased dramatically and it is very difficult for such people to make ends meet. In my view we should differentiate fairly substantially in favour of those living alone.

People are no longer prepared to accept long delays in the payment of disability benefits and there is no point in the Minister saying that such delays are caused because people do not use correct reference numbers. I can furnish details of people who have used the correct numbers but yet received only intermittent payments. The problem is caused by gross inefficiency in the Department and this must be accepted by the Minister. All hell would break loose if any Member of this House did not receive his cheque at the end of the month. Why cannot the same organisation be available to these unfortunate people?

The Deputy is again dealing with administration.

Why cannot the same system be introduced for these people? Is it impossible to do so? Is the Minister unable to do it?

There are 954,000 beneficiaries and only 148 Deputies.

The Chair cannot allow the debate to continue on these lines. The Chair has given Deputy Crotty every opportunity to mention delays but would ask him now to deal with the Bill. It is definitely not in order to raise the matter of delays in administration.

There is no point in giving concessions if——

Deputy Crotty is in possession on the Bill.

In effect Deputies are delaying the passage of the Bill.

We are not delaying anything. We are trying to make the Minister conscious that there are many people who are not receiving benefits to which they are entitled.


The Minister is supposed to be a concerned person, yet he shows no concern.

Shame on the Minister. If the job is too big for him let him get out.

The Chair has given Deputies latitude to mention delays and matters of that kind in passing. If Deputies continue to ignore the Chair the Chair will have to adhere strictly to the rules concerning the debating of the Bill, I am now asking Deputy Crotty to deal with the Bill before the House.


Might I put something on the record?

The Deputy cannot.

I want to correct a statement the Minister made.

Deputy Crotty is in possession.

The Bill was only listed for this morning so there is really no delay. If there is a delay the Minister is responsible for it.

Deputy Harte has already spoken. Deputy Crotty is in possession.

In relation to the Minister's remark about 980,000 people, even if there were two million people the business still has to be run. People in private enterprise have to serve 1,000 or 2,000 people or else they will lose the business, and they get no thanks for it. That is the Minister's job and he should do it no matter how many people he has.

Deputy Crotty on the Bill, please.

The Minister should not come back here and tell us that he has so many thousands of people to deal with. We are all aware of it.


Go back and do your job. If you did that you would not have——

Through the Chair, please.

——all the letters unanswered and all the articles in newspapers making a mock of this House and of the institutions of the State.

Deputy Crotty should be addressing the Chair, Will he conclude on the Bill, please?

The children's allowances are utterly useless. These allowances were originally introduced to give people reasonable assistance in providing for their families but they have now dropped considerably. The Minister should seriously consider that.

Because food subsidies were withdrawn and because price increases have rocketed recently people are finding it difficult to feed and clothe their families. The Minister would agree that we should at least be able to feed and clothe our children. I could say a lot more but I do not wish to cross swords with the Chair. I will sit down before I am put out. I hope the Minister will take our criticism as being genuine and not personal. No matter what Minister was there we would say the same things.

The Chair has no intention of putting out a neighbour.

Discriminatioin in favour of a neighbour.

There are many changes in this Bill and there will be many problems when it becomes law. The Minister should have full responsibility for the Department of Social Welfare alone. There are many excellent points in this Bill and it will be worthwhile, but the Minister should give it his careful and full attention. I am not being personal about the Minister's capabilities. It would need the full attention of any Minister. The Department of Social Welfare is a huge Department, as was illustrated in exchanges across the House when the Minister said he was dealing with about 900,000 people. The changes in this bill will be very important to people contributing through the PRSI system and to people receiving benefits. I am confident that if the Minister had responsibility only for the Department of Social Welfare he would be capable of ensuring that the Department would be modernised and improved to meet the needs of society. The Government should have a rethink on this. As far as I am aware the Minister of State. Deputy Hussey, is responsible mainly for the health aspect of the Department but I would like the Minister to say who is actually responsible for this Bill and for the total working of the Department of Social Welfare.

I am in constant touch with the Minister's Department and when this Bill becomes law I am sure I will have to ring even more constantly. Mainly, I get a very courteous reception from the Department but there are times when, due to stresses and strains, people have not a lot of time to discuss problems and it is very difficult to track down a file. If I ring in relation to any benefit I can be left on the phone waiting for 20 minutes to half an hour. A lot of the time I am ringing long distance from an ordinary phone. Admittedly I am paid a relatively good salary, but those who ring the Department would need a pocketful of silver because of the delays on the other end and the danger of being cut off. The Minister will need to devote a great deal more time to the implementation of the Bill to ensure that those entitled to benefits under it get them. The Minister will have to devote more time to the Department of Social Welfare. I am concerned about the fact that you also have responsibility for the Department of Health.

The Deputy should refer to the Minister and not use the word "you". Every time he uses that word he is referring to me and I do not want to be blamed for those things.

The Chair could get a bad name. It is bad enough for me to have a bad name without the Chair getting one.

This matter should be given serious consideration. I have already raised these problems with the Department. I do not want to have to table questions in the House about these problems but they are occurring so often that it will be necessary. The problems arise so often that it will be necessary to give a Minister sole responsibility for the Department of Social Welfare. Once the provisions of the Bill are implemented further changes will be necessary and recipients will face further delays. That is not good enough.

The Deputy is dealing with administration. He should concern himself with the terms of the Bill.

The Minister should avail of the opportunity to change the provision in relation to the qualifying age for old age pensions. We can become complacent about this matter and adopt the attitude that everybody is all right. The qualifying age should have been reduced by one year. That change is desirable and necessary. The agricultural community would have benefited because there would have been more transfers of property from father to son. It would also have helped those who do not have sufficient stamps to qualify for a contributory pension, or those who have been out of work for a long time and were depending on health board benefits and supplementary allowances. In spite of the fact that we have been told we are going through a recession, the qualifying age should have been reduced. Such a move would have been a courageous one by the Minister and it would have been welcomed by many people.

I should like to compliment the Minister on deciding to pay old-age pensions from the date of the lodging of documents of title and the deed of transfer in the adjudication office. That was a worthwhile move.

It was a commonsense move.

It is common sense that was not recognised before. When the deeds are lodged in the adjudication office they are sent back and forth to other officers. As a result delays in the payment of pensions of up to 18 months occur. Many people who had signed over their property and did not receive their pensions suffered hardship. The decision of the Minister was one of the positive moves he made. I have been in constant communication with the Minister in relation to disability benefits. As I told the Minister previously, it is my view that a person who goes before a medical referee should be entitled to have his or her own doctor present and, if necessary, be legally represented at such examinations. It is with regret that I must tell the House that some social welfare beneficiaries are not treated with proper courtesy when they go before those medical referees. One lady who was late for an appointment through no fault of her own — the hired car she was travelling in was late — had to wait for four or five hours after which she was insulted by the medical referee.

The Deputy is returning to administration. He should deal with the provisions in the Bill.

We are dealing with the Department of Social Welfare and the payment of disability benefits.

Deputies may refer only to the provisions in the Bill. We are not dealing with the Department of Social Welfare as such and the Deputy can refer only to the provisions in the Bill or what he feels should be inserted in it. He may not deal with the administration of the Department of Social Welfare.

The Minister will have to include a provision to ensure that those who attend before medical referees are treated with respect and courtesy. It is because such a provision is not contained in it that I feel it is falling down in this respect. People are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.

The Deputy is getting around the ruling of the Chair and that is not in order. He must get away from administration, and the treatment of recipients is an administrative matter.

The Bill should contain guidelines and regulations in relation to this and they should be strictly adhered to. We are discussing the increases in PRSI which people will have to pay and the payments people are receiving. People have to attend before a medical referee or an appeals court and, if there are no standards in this Bill establishing their rights, the Bill is a failure. It should contain such regulations. If not, there is a fundamental weakness in it.

People go to their own doctors and are told they are sick and unfit for work. Then they go before another doctor who tells them they are fit to work. They are caught between two different medical viewpoints. Their rights should be set out in a Bill of this nature. A proper code will have to be drawn up and this Bill is an appropriate vehicle for it. This Bill is increasing people's right to disability benefit. They should be able to say: "Under the Social Welfare (Amendment) Bill, 1981, these are our rights." They should be treated with the dignity to which they are entitled.

I have felt strongly for a long time that many of these people are not being treated properly, especially when they go before medical referees. The Bill should be followed by a ministerial order showing people what their rights are, and also their obligations. There should be similar guidelines for the medical referees. This is desirable and necessary. I would ask the Minister to consider that point seriously. I am very unhappy about what is happening at present. I have tabled a number of questions to the Minister on this matter.

I want to discuss the situation in which an employee of a firm discovers that his card was not stamped and therefore his pay-related social insurance payments are not being made. This Bill does not tighten up that current unhappy situation. On a regular basis I see firms running into arrears with these contributions. The employee who has his PRSI deducted weekly from his wages should have some peace of mind. He should be happy in the knowledge that his contributions are going to the Department. There is no such safety measure in this Bill. I appreciate the problems of firms who find it difficult to pay the different contributions which they are obliged to pay by law.

Surely all these matters are covered by previous legislation. We are dealing with administration again.

I will not deal with the point at great length. I hope to table some amendments on Committee Stage to try to tighten up that situation. I want to explain that to the Minister.

The points being raised by the Deputy are covered in previous legislation and should not be raised on this Bill.

If we have legislation it is the Minister's fault for not enforcing it. If it is not tight enough, I would be willing to co-operate with the Minister in trying to tighten it up. A greater effort should be made to ensure the payment of these contributions.

The Chair has given the Deputy latitude but he is not dealing with the contents of the Bill before us. He is dealing with previous legislation and matters which should be raised on the Estimate.

The Minister's Department should take serious cognisance of the point I have made. If that problem is not dealt with, we are turning a blind eye to an existing problem and making an existing situation worse. I hope the Minister will consider some admendment to the Bill on Committee Stage. Some type of liaison is necessary between the Department of Social Welfare and the employers to ensure the provision of a smoother method of payment. Many of the problems experienced by the Department arise from this weakness in the legislation. I will not labour that point further.

The increases in old age pensions, disability and unemployment benefit, maternity allowances, invalidity pensions and unemployment assistance are very welcome. Despite the fact that some people are saying the increases are fantastic and that many people will be better off, especially the old age pensioners, the hard fact is that their standard of living is continuing to deteriorate. This Bill goes some way to help them but not sufficiently because the cost of living here is higher than in Britain. Therefore, the Minister and his higher officials will have to take a serious look at the whole social welfare set-up because the delays are scandalous and are causing serious concern. Even the national newspapers have taken this matter up and they are to be congratulated——

I have told the Deputy 20 times he may not proceed in this manner.

I am suggesting that all these payments should not come from headquarters in Dublin. The Department should seriously consider decentralising a major portion of the work and I hope we will have a Bill in the near future to arrange for this.

Deputies opposite have gone to great lengths to stress the administration difficulties and have thus sought to cloud the real point in the Bill which is to give increases of 25 per cent to old age pensioners and others and to give 20 per cent increases to other groups. The Bill gives increases in children's allowances which are very welcome. It is no harm to contrast our situation with that in the UK. We welcome the extension of the free telephone scheme to our citizens who are in receipt of UK pensions here. This is a big step forward and there had been a lot of lobbying for it in recent years.

I want to bring the real issues back to the House. Perhaps it suits the media at present to cloud the issue with the clamour about administrative delays and so on. Therefore it is important to have this put on record.

I cannot understand the point my colleague from Wicklow tried to get across in his short contribution. It might not be any harm for him to reflect that he may be at the church gates and in the towns and villages of his constituency in the coming few weeks——

This is the electionitis I spoke about yesterday.

If the Deputy will keep calm he might learn something. If he cannot he might follow the example of other Deputies not now in the House. I am wondering how he will be received in his constituency by social welfare recipients when he shouts as loudly at church gates as he has here today welcoming the social welfare allowance increases. Perhaps I should not blame the Deputy who has taken his cue from the fanfares in the dying days of January when it was hoped the social welfare increases would carry the day and the budget. However, social welfare beneficiaries are not much better off than they were 12 months ago. Of course they have not got these promised increases yet. Some of them will not be paid for another month, some for five weeks and some in July.

Some in two weeks.

I am sure the Deputy knows about the increases in the prices of bread, sugar, butter, tea, all in the daily shopping lists of social welfare recipients, and I am sure he is capable of comparing them with the effects of the percentage increases in these allowances and of concluding that social welfare recipients are worse off than they were this time last year. I have referred to these as "promised increases" because many people are disillusioned by promises and are wondering if these increases will be paid in April at all. Today many of them are without what they were entitled to a week, a fortnight and in many cases a month ago.

When we left office in 1977 these people were on a much higher standard of living. At that time we undertook to bring the old age pension qualifying age down to 65 years. I understood this was accepted across the political divide but despite the fact that Fianna Fáil have brought in four budgets in the meantime, they have not made the slightest effort to lower the qualifying age for old age pensions. I ask the Minister to make arrangements to reduce the qualifying age to 65 as has been undertaken by the National Coalition Government.

Let us consider the benefits paid in 1977 when we left office and compare them with the prices of commodities purchased by pensioners in that year. Let us also make a comparison with the percentage increase in allowances and the percentage increase in the cost of basic requirements of day-to-day living. The Minister would have less to boast about if he considered this matter. As far as I remember, the price of a loaf of bread in 1977 was 20p but now it is 44p. I do not have to go back to 1977 to draw attention to massive price increases. In the past 12 months we have had four increases in the price of coal, yet the Minister boasts of an increase in the free fuel allowance from £2 to £3 an increase long overdue.

There has been much comment in this House on the free fuel allowance but despite all of that and the fact that the Minister was told of the difficulties experienced by people who are entitled to this allowance, he has made very little alteration in the scheme. In his speech yesterday he said he had removed certain anomalies and minor discrepancies which came to light during the passage of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act and which are now being put right. There is a major anomaly with regard to the free fuel scheme and it affects my constituency. It must also affect the constituencies of many of the Minister's colleagues and I am surprised the Minister has not taken steps to remove it. There is the situation that a person entitled to the free fuel allowance who lives on one side of the street near the city boundary gets the appropriate voucher when she draws her pension but her neighbour on the opposite side of the street is not entitled to the voucher simply because she is living in the county. I have come across cases of people living next door to each other and on the same side of the street, where one person is entitled to the allowance and the other is not. I know of cases where people who live well into the county area are in receipt of the free fuel allowance but others living much nearer the city boundary are not receiving it. I understand the reason for this is the post office at which one is drawing a pension. In all honesty the Minister must accept that an anomaly exists here. I have drawn attention to this matter as have other speakers in this House.

The time has come for the Minister to allow the free fuel scheme to apply throughout the country, not just for one area. I think 17 areas were involved when the scheme was introduced in the 1940s. I suppose the reason then was that turf and other fuels were readily available in country areas. It was probably a good scheme in its day but it is not good enough in 1981 to rely on the bones of a scheme introduced in the 1940s. This matter has been brought to the attention of the Minister and his predecessor. I hope this will be the last time I shall have to mention it here. The Minister should introduce a Bill allowing the scheme to apply throughout the country. It is just as difficult, perhaps even more difficult, for a person to heat a house in a rural area as it is to heat a house in a built-up area. We need a uniform scheme for the entire country.

The Minister should take steps to ensure that people know what they are entitled to by way of social welfare benefits. I know there has been a certain amount of publicity about this matter but it is extremely difficult to get the information through to people. The Minister should ensure always that information is given by social workers, local committees and through press advertising. It appears that the letter is the Minister's main channel of conveying information regarding social welfare benefits. It should be his aim to improve on the methods of conveying information so that every citizen who is entitled to social welfare benefits at least knows about them. I accept that is as far as the Minister can go until the application is made to his Department. But the Minister can ensure that when applications are made to the Department they are processed far more quickly than they are today. There are considerable delays in the payment of social welfare benefits and in processing applications. The waiting period could be shortened.

I do not know the number of inspectors the Department now employ but we were told a few years ago that the number would be increased and that there would be a great saving following inspections. We understood the Minister knew of the abuses in the social welfare area. Most Deputies in the House are aware of them. There is a high percentage of abuses in my area and in County Dublin and I am sure it is the same all over the country. There is an increase in the number of travelling people who trade on the roadside. Many of those people are not only trading illegally and making handsome profits without paying rates or taxes but they are also receiving benefits from the Department of Social Welfare from two and even three locations. A greater effort must be made to track down those people and cut out this abuse. This is not an easy thing to prevent because many of those people do not have a name. They sign their forms as Mr. X although many of them can write their names and addresses as well as the Minister or I can. It is more difficult to track down two people called Mr. X than to track down two people called Mr. Murphy. Those people sign Mr. X at many locations on the same day.

A couple of years ago a person building a house for himself told me there was one day in the week when the staff were not available. He knew the reason and when I pointed out to him that this was quite wrong and he should do something about it he warned me not to do anything about it because if I did his house would not be built, that he could not get labour.

This is all administration.

I must refer to the delays taking place in the Department of Social Welfare because any Deputy who takes part in this debate and does not refer to the delays in the Department of Social Welfare is not taking heed of what is happening in his constituency.

That is not in order on this Bill. I have allowed every Deputy to mention it in passing but it is administration and is not in order on this Bill.

I accuse the Minister's predecessor, who is now Taoiseach, of completely neglecting the Department of Social Welfare. I praised the Minister when he was appointed and I also praised the Taoiseach for giving us a young energetic Minister for Social Welfare. I hoped then that the Minister would bring about great changes in the Department and that there would be an improvement. There was great room for improvement and the Minister had great scope. He is a good man in public and press relations. He almost surpasses his leader in this. He is an extremely pleasant man to meet on social occasions or at official openings of one kind or another.

All this has nothing to do with the Bill.

I am sorry to say that I am very disappointed and the Minister, like his predecessor, has failed in the Department of Social Welfare. I plead with his leader now to consider, as I asked before, appointing a Minister for Social Welfare with no other responsibility. This Department needs a great clean-up.

The Deputy has made his point and I ask him to leave it there. It has nothing to do with the Bill before the House. It is for the Estimate and the Deputy knows that.

I made this request before but obviously it fell on deaf ears. Surely the Taoiseach in December 1979, when he was reorganising the Cabinet, could have made a Minister responsible for Social Welfare alone. There are some junior Ministers who have been appointed to trivial jobs which any messenger boy could look after. We have this Minister looking after two important Departments. He may be looking after one, although not as well as we would like, but there is one Department he is certainly not looking after. I protest in the strongest possible terms at the Treatment given to social welfare recipients. We are told that this is a socially caring Government.

The Chair at this stage must ask the Deputy to desist. I have given him every latitude. He is not dealing with the Bill before the House.

Will the Minister spend more time in the Department of Social Welfare until the Taoiseach appoints a Minister for that Department without any other responsibilities? He will get ample publicity out of it. It can be every bit as glamorous as the Department of Health. The Minister should look at that and be concerned about those who are waiting. I have a case on my files of a father, mother and four children who have not received a social welfare cheque since Christmas.

I am asking the Deputy to leave it.

To leave it? To leave this family without bread and butter?

Give me details of the case and it will be dealt with tomorrow.

There are hundreds of cases.

Will the Minister deal with the other cases on my file?

With every one of them.

The Chair has pointed out time and again that administration is not in order on this Bill. I have given the Deputy an opportunity to raise this matter and he should leave it now. It is not fair to the Chair to continue to ignore it.

I do not wish to ignore the Chair but neither do I wish to ignore the plight of those in my constituency. I am also concerned about people in other constituencies, even those in the Minister's constituency. Perhaps he is looking after them but if they are suffering as others are then the Minister must be getting the complaints that we are. It is deplorable to think that a person in receipt of social welfare benefit has not received a cheque since last Christmas.

The Deputy is disobeying the Chair. I have asked him to leave it. These matters can be raised at another time.

Live horse and you will get grass.

I have given every Deputy an opportunity to raise the question of delays despite the fact that the matter is not in order under the Bill. We cannot deal with administration on a Bill. The Deputy has made his point and should now obey the Chair.

Prior to the debate on the Supplementary Estimate last November or December the junior Minister in the Department issued a statement. When I accused him of issuing that statement to quell the arguments that would come from Deputies the Minister assured me that that was not so and he said that while there were difficulties in the Department that was in the past. I could go back further than that.

The Chair is appealing to the Deputy not to continue.

Another four or five sentences and I will be finished.

The Chair must be obeyed. Both I and the Ceann Comhairle have allowed Deputies latitude that we should not have and the Deputy is now going to town on the leniency of the Chair.

Do not defend the Minister.

The Deputy should not make charges against the Chair.

I could go back to the previous November and the same charges were made then. They were all true. At that stage there were hundreds of people who did not receive their social welfare benefit.

The postal dispute period.

The Minister has got it finally.

The Deputy should resume his seat if he does not obey the Chair.

I will have to finish that.

The Deputy is not entitled to continue on those lines. I have told him not to a number of times and he has completely disobeyed the chair.

The Minister blamed the postal strike, not for the first time. It is lucky he thought of that.

It is a reality.

It must have been uncomfortable to sit there for the last two days and not be able to refer to it. I have now given him an opportunity to do so. There was another reason which was whispered at that time and that was that the then Minister did not want his party to win the by-election in Cork. We thought it was localised in the Cork area but it spread throughout the country.

The Deputy is not dealing with the Bill. Every other Deputy obeyed the Chair but the Deputy refuses to do so.

I know the Chair will be happy with my point when I have made it. There has been a failure in the Department since Fianna Fáil took office in 1977. We saw it two years ago and were assured that it would not continue. On three occasions in the last year the Minister said that it was over and yet there are constituents of mine who are ten weeks without their entitlement.

I will call the Minister if the Deputy continues on those lines.

There have been trumpets blowing about the 25 per cent increase in social welfare benefits. What good is that increase to anybody who is not getting his entitlement? What good is it to a person who was getting what he was entitled up to last Christmas but has not received a penny since?

The Deputy is dealing with administration and continues to disobey the Chair.

What good is this increase to a person who is not sure of receiving anything from the Department? I appeal to the Taoiseach to have a look at this Department. Something should be done about it. I know I am appealing to a man who refused to do anything about it when he was in charge of that Department. Appeals were made in the House to the former Taoiseach to split the portfolios of Social Welfare and Health. This Government are supposed to be a socially, caring Government. I fail to see that and I am sure many others do as well. If they were a caring Government those entitled to a cheque last Thursday or Friday would have received it. Those entitled to a cheque last Thursday of Friday month would have received it. Those entitled to a cheque on the first Thursday or Friday of January would have received it. They have not yet done so.

That is the situation obtaining in the Department of Social Welfare. That is the situation obtaining in this country in 1981. I hope I have got across my protest——

The Deputy has and he has deliberately disobeyed the Chair.

——at the treatment of the less well off people in our society.

The Deputy has deliberately disobeyed the Chair. It is not good enough. The Chair has shown a lot of generosity and kindness to the Deputy. Would the Deputy please now desist.

As long as this situation obtains I will avail of every opportunity I can to come into this House to voice my protest on behalf of these people, people who have no organisation to speak for them.

There are plenty of opportunities without doing it in a disorderly fashion and the Deputy knows that. The Deputy should obey the Chair some time or other. The Chair will not continue much longer to ask the Deputy to obey. The Chair will have to take action.

This is not unexpected. I am quite sure the Minister expected this. I am quite sure he got it earlier this morning; I am quite sure he got it yesterday. Reading some of this morning's papers——

The Chair has allowed latitude but the Deputy is disobeying the Chair completely. The Deputy has made his point and he should now desist.

There was reference to this yesterday even from the Minister's side of the House. It is not unexpected. The Minister expected it and I am quite sure you expected it, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

I would expect a little co-operation from the Deputy, a little more, please.

I want to put the Minister on notice — he might not be much longer there — that I will avail of every opportunity, and I hope in saying this he will not lessen the opportunities of our coming into this House to protest on behalf of those people who number many thousands, who are not organised like the farmers, grocers or many other sections of the community. Perhaps they should be; perhaps it is their own fault that they are not. Probably they saw no great need for it but I am damned sure they see a need for it now. If they were organised like the farmers, if they were out on the streets, if they were blocking Grafton Street one morning a week or even one half hour a week, then perhaps the Minister would take notice.

At this stage would the Deputy please resume his seat? He is not dealing with the Bill and he has not been for the last 20 minutes. There will be other opportunities to raise these matters and raise them relevantly.

In his reply I hope the Minister will tell us of the situation. I appealed to him here before, I think last November, to do this, to tell us exactly what is the situation in his Department, if this 25 per cent increase he has promised will come on the day it has been promised, that all the other people and all the other cheques will be paid forthwith. Many of these people were existing on the poverty line before these cheques stopped flowing. Can one imagine how they are living today?

Is the Deputy going to obey the Chair?

May I have an assurance from the Minister that we will have some forthright talk from him now when he gets up?

I will be forthright all right. The Deputy is looking around to see if there is anybody else there. They are not there — I am sorry — because he is trying to hold on until somebody else comes in——

No, I am not trying to hold on.

The Minister will be no more relevant than the Deputy if he deals with matters that do not arise on the Bill.

I was looking around, not for the purpose the Minister thinks, that somebody would come in after me — I was hoping there was not somebody there to come in after me; I was hoping that the Minister would get in and that we would hear some straight talk from him. Indeed we thought we heard that straight talk from him in November last, when he told us that all this was behind him, and us, that things were then straightened out in the Department. I think he even issued a document to that effect, to give us that impression anyway. It is fair proof that the Minister does not know what is happening in his Department. Again it is fair evidence in support of my plea to his political boss, the Taoiseach, to appoint a person with full responsibility for the Department of Social Welfare, so that the Minister would not have to run from one Department to another. We have here again something that probably will receive more publicity today and tomorrow. I am speaking of the increases — a carrot being held out to people who are in dire need to make some attempt to reinstate their standard of living to the level it was at even eight, ten or 12 months ago. If it does so it will be for a very brief period only. In so far as the Government are concerned we have a budget once a year. I am not sure about this year because we will probably have a second one. However, as far as the Government are concerned there, is, generally speaking, a budget once a year but as regards these people on social welfare allowances, in the month of January last alone, we had a budget twice a week. There were increases in the price of tea, bread, butter and all kinds of fuel, not once but twice in the month of January last. Yet the Minister boasts that he is giving a 20 per cent and 25 per cent increase to people existing below the poverty line, people who are in dire straits, certainly quite a number of them. I do not think the Minister realises this.

I am very familiar with the situation.

Well, the Minister is not doing much about it then.

There have been some fair increases in the rates in the last two years.

There have been some fair price increases on basic food commodities and fuels over the same period. Instead of boasting about increasing the free fuel allowance from £2 to £3, the Minister should compare that increase with the fuel price increases in the last year only — without going back over past years when the free fuel allowance was totally inadequate — when he would find that the free fuel allowance today should be no less than £6 a week. Anybody attempting to keep themselves and their house warm today must surely burn a bag of coal a week. Will that £3 buy that bag of coal? If the Minister thinks that that is what he is doing, buying a bag of coal with that £3, then it is a fair while since he bought a bag of coal or did his calculations.

I would ask the Minister — and he could do it without another budget — to increase the fuel allowance. We were lucky this year that we did not have a harsh winter. Today's weather could be compared with that of a May day except for the darkness. But the darkness of the day is nothing to that being suffered by social welfare recipients who have to wait so long for their rightful entitlement. Even at this late stage I appeal to the Minister to consider increasing the free fuel allowance to something worth while. Would he not examine the price of a bag of coal even when the free fuel allowance first came into operation this winter? Would he examine the price of coal in that week and compare it with the price today, indeed compare his 50 per cent increase — one about which I suppose one could feel justified in blowing trumpets — when he would ascertain that it does not go anywhere near meeting the increase in the price of fuels.

Would the Deputy please move the adjournment of the debate.

The Deputy's stunt has succeeded and he has now put off the implementation of the Bill.

Would the Deputy please move the adjournment of the debate.

The Minister's is a fair old stunt——

A cheap political stunt. The Deputy is prepared to jeopardise the payment of the new rates of social welfare payments——

Please, Deputy. Would the Deputy move the adjournment of the debate?

People are suffering while the Minister enjoys his comfort.

Would the Deputy please move the adjournment of the debate?

No, not until I get an assurance ——


Would Deputy McMahon obey the Chair some time or other.

Is the Deputy against granting increases to old age pensioners?

It is unfair of the Minister to make a charge like that.

Would Deputy McMahon please move the adjournment of the debate.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.