Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

16.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if she will arrange to pay the living alone allowance on widow's and invalidity pensions for those persons under 66 years of age.

The living alone allowance is payable to all pensioners, including widow and invalidity pensioners, aged 66 years and over who are living entirely on their own. It was designed to meet the special needs of elderly persons living alone which they have to provide out of a single income.

It was not the intention that the allowance would be payable to younger age groups and there are no plans for extending it to such groups at present.

Is the Minister aware that there are people in their fifties and especially those in their late fifties who should be just as entitled to this living alone allowance? These are people who are in receipt of invalidity pensions, widow's pensions and so on. In the interest of fair play and equity would the Minister reconsider reducing the qualifying age from 66 so that the small number of people who would be eligible for this allowance could be included in the scheme?

The living alone allowance was intended as an aid to elderly persons having regard to their special needs in terms of heating, cooking and lighting. I would be sympathetic to the case being made by the Deputy on behalf of other groups especially where the disabled are concerned but perhaps it would be better to direct attention towards examining the benefits concerned and considering the problems of the disabled as a group or of widows as a group. Extension of the scheme to one group in an ad hoc fashion would lead to demands from all others. Perhaps the case is for general increases in other pensions and this is something that is being considered in the run-up to the next budget.

17.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if she intends to follow the precedent set by the previous Government and pay a double week at Christmas to all long-term social welfare beneficiaries.

18.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if it is her intention to have an extra week's payment of social welfare moneys made this Christmas to long-term recipients.

With the permission of the Ceann Comhairle, I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 and 18 together.

It is proposed to pay a double payment to all recipients of long-term social welfare payments in the week ending 12 December 1981. The necessary Bill to give effect to these proposals will be introduced shortly.

Could I ask the Minister of State if the method to be used will be similar to the method used last year which was to double the face value, or what method is intended?

I gather that the method will be very similar to last year's and will involve a double payment in the same form.

Can we take it that the payment will be made in the week commencing 7 December?

As I said, in the week ending 12 December.

Will the payment be applicable to people in receipt of monthly as well as weekly payments? Such people were not considered last year.

It will be for all recipients of long-term benefits to include old age pensions, contributory and non-contributory, blind pensions, widow's and orphan's pension, contributory and non-contributory retirement pension, invalidity pension, deserted wife's benefit and allowance, social assistance allowance for unmarried mothers, pensioners, wives and single women, occupational injury benefit, disablement pension, death benefit pension, disabled person's maintenance allowance, infectious diseases maintenance allowance, blind welfare allowance——

Might I interrupt the Minister of State? That is not the question I asked. People paid on a monthly basis did not receive double payment last year.

The groups I mentioned are the groups who will be affected. I am not clear myself as to whether that involves the group of people the Deputy is asking about. If he wants to specify afterwards I will check it out for him.

By way of clarification might I ask the Minister of State if she understands that the monthly payments were, of course, paid last year on a weekly basis? In other words you could not have a double monthly payment but you could have a double of one week. That method was used last year, a double week was paid.

I have had cases where they did not receive any double payment. I would like the Minister to inquire into it.

Of those listed and intended if there are any who did not receive and should have received then clearly there is injustice. All those listed would be entitled to a double week's payment. I do not know if that is the information the Deputy is looking for.

When is the legislation likely to come before the House? The Minister of State has mentioned the legislation and naturally we on this side of the House welcome the legislation very much. I am glad that it is coming before the House.

We are equally glad it is coming before the House. A Bill to give effect to double social welfare will be introduced in the Dáil as soon as possible.

19.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if she considers that the 5p per week increase for dependants of blind pensioners, the 15p per week increase for dependants of workers on unemployment assistance and the 10p per week increase in the living alone allowance for old age pensioners from 1 October are adequate to meet the increased VAT, ESB and other charges imposed by the Government since 1 July.

20.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if she considers that the 3 per cent increase in pensions for widows, the unemployed, blind pensioners and the disabled from 1 October 1981 is adequate to meet the increased VAT, ESB and other charges imposed by the Government since 1 July.

21.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if she considers that the 5 per cent increase in old age pensions from 1 October 1981 is adequate to meet the increased VAT, ESB and other charges imposed by the Government since 1 July.

With the permission of the Ceann Comhairle, I propose to take Questions Nos. 19, 20 and 21 together.

Social welfare payments were increased in April last by the previous Government and there was no provision for further increases this year. The October increase of 5 per cent in all pensions to persons over age 66 and to retirement pensioners represented a real increase in these payments. The 3 per cent increase in all other social welfare payments was provided to compensate for the rises in indirect taxes.

With regard to the references to increases of 5p, 10p and 15p, I would like to point out that these increases are increases of supplements to other payments made to the beneficiaries concerned which were themselves also increased.

On a point of information, how can the Minister of State know that there was no intention to increase any of the benefits further later in the year? Secondly, is it not necessary for the Minister to come to the House to seek the authority of the House for a Supplementary Estimate to cover these increases now? Thirdly, will the Minister of State confirm that of the increases which are mentioned here, the increase for child dependants of widows, deserted wives and unmarried mothers of 25p is the total increase which the child gets and that it differs from the blind pension supplement? It is the only increase which the child of a widow gets. I would like the Minister of State to make that quite clear in case people would misunderstand the point made by her in her reply. I appreciate that that would apply to the blind pension as a supplementary allowance, but that is the only increase as far as the children are concerned in these cases. As far as the living alone allowance is concerned, 10p is the total increase which has been given in that allowance. I believe that the Minister of State is also very much aware that these increases are derisory in this respect.

The increases mentioned by the Deputy are not in any case at the level he was suggesting. In so far as they are a percentage of an existing payment they represent an increase which related to the cost of living increase that we planned in our budget which related to the level then. The level of benefits in general is not adequate and our Government are committed to reexamining that in the wider sense.

Would the Minister of State confirm that the increase of 15p per week for dependants of workers on unemployment assistance is the only increase which these dependants will get at this time?

Would the Deputy please repeat the question?

The dependants of those who are on unemployment assistance referred to in Question No. 19 will get only 10p per week increase. That is the only increase which dependants of workers on unemployment assistance will get at this time.

The 15p per week increase is the increase for a child dependant payable to a married man in receipt of unemployment assistance. The basic allowance is increased by 60p per week and the additional allowance for an adult dependant is increased by 45p per week. Once again, the implication that this was the only amount paid is not accurate.

On a point of factual information I want to make clear without pressing the matter any further that the only increase granted for a child is the 15p. Would the Minister of State agree that this is the case? I appreciate that it is quite embarrassing for the Government at this stage since it is so derisory. I accept that there is a 3 per cent increase for the beneficiary on the basis of the unemployed person but as far as the allowance for a child dependant is concerned that allowance is increased by 15p.

Has the Deputy's party's Estimate made any provision this year for any further increases?

I repeat the point that the increases obviously relate as a percentage increase to the existing level of the benefits. If the Deputy is so horrified at the amount of 5 per cent increase I hope that he is equally horrified at the level at which his own Government set those benefits. The question related to the increased cost of VAT and ESB charges, and it is fair to consider increases in a family situation in that context because it is in part of a family budget that a child is catered for.

(Interruptions.)

We go to the next question.

Three questions are being taken together. The Minister of State has mentioned ESB increases. Is she aware in respect of the ESB increase which has now taken place that bills are on the way out at the moment? Some people have received them already but the bulk will be coming out now over the next week or so. On the basis of a 25 per cent increase they will involve £3 to £4 a week increase for those people on unemployment assistance, and that is for ESB bills alone. In that event would the Minister of State agree that the increases generally are derisory?

That is the effect of having to recoup the losses which the Deputy's Government enforced on them.

Is the Deputy also in the propaganda campaign?

(Interruptions.)

The Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare.

I apologise, a Cheann Comhairle, but you do appreciate——

The cost of living increases in this country in the past year are very serious and worrying and the impact is on all particularly the poor. I regret that it is so, and when we have a chance of running the economy for one full year we will seek to make a significant improvement in both the rate of inflation and the level of benefits. The increases involved here covered increases which arose as a result of our budget. Further, there was an increase in the free fuel allowance.

22.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if the Government intend using the 6½ per cent pay increase guidelines of the Three Wise Men in relation to social welfare payments; and if she intends to limit increases to this figure in 1982.

The level of social welfare payments for next year is a matter for consideration in the context of the budget for that year. The Deputy can rest assured, however, that the Government will fulfil their commitment to those who depend on social welfare payments. The level of these payments will be such as to guarantee their recipients against loss of real income.

Would the Minister not agree that there is at present widespread concern about the level of payments which will be made in the coming year, particularly because of the implications of the report of the Three Wise Men? Would the Minister put people at ease by telling them that they will not be held down to a 6.5 per cent increase, as the Coalition wish wage earners to be, against a inflation rate in excess of 20 per cent?

There is a solid commitment in our programme of which the public are well aware. As well as a commitment to improve the tax situation generally, and especially for the lower paid, a specific commitment has been repeatedly given that payments to beneficiaries will be increased to guarantee no loss of real income and an actual improvement.

Is the Minister saying that the full increases required due to the plan to transfer from direct taxation to indirect taxation will be met and that the full effect of inflation will also be met for social welfare beneficiaries?

That has been the commitment of the Government prior to and since the election.

23.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare the steps being taken to decentralise the payment of social welfare allowances, such as disability benefit.

Short-term benefits such as unemployment benefit, unemployment assistance and supplementary welfare allowances are already paid on a local basis. Decentralisation of payments such as disability benefit, maternity benefit and occupational injury benefit which are at present paid from my Department's Headquarters Office in Dublin, depends on the expansion and development of computerisation in my Department.

Part of the existing computer system is at present being replaced by more modern computers. At the same time arrangements are also being made to develop this system to enable visual display units to be located in local offices outside Dublin which would enable detailed information to be given locally about disability, maternity and occupational injury benefit claims. When this stage of the decentralisation programme has been reached the possibility of paying these benefits on a local basis will then be considered.

Does the Minister believe that virtually all the problems will cease once this computer comes into operation?

This is a very desirable development to which this Government are committed, as were the previous Government. We are specifically committed to decentralisation. In relation to social welfare payments, it is most humane, sensitive and acceptable to have a system which relates speedily to the needs of people.

24.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare is she is satisfied wth the administration of the free fuel voucher scheme.

The free fuel schemes appear to be operating satisfactorily in their present form. I am, however, having the operation of the schemes as a whole reviewed with a view to assessing their overall adequacy and suitability for the persons for whom they are intended.

Would the Minister not regard it as anomalous that people living in technically rural areas which may be in the middle of urban conglomerations are deprived of free fuel vouchers? Would she consider taking steps to remedy that anomaly?

Such anomalies will be considered in the course of the review which is taking place. The national scheme is now in its second year of operation and the review possibly should have taken place this year. It certainly will take place before a new scheme comes into operation and the anomaly mentioned will be considered.

Would the Minister not agree that all persons in receipt of non-contributory pensions — old age pensions particularly — should be entitled to th free fuel allowance and not have people calling on them to ask questions?

The system of allocating this benefit was not decided upon by this Government and we are pledged to examine it. Anomalies such as this are rife throughout the system and I do not propose to take full responsibility for them. However, I do propose to take responsibility for an examination of the system in an attempt to smooth out difficulties. The scheme has been much improved and the help of Deputies would be greatly appreciated in eradicating anomalies.

Would the Minister agree that the introduction of a national scheme last year was a major step which involved a considerable increase in the cost of the scheme and paved the way for the removal in due course of further anomalies?

I agree that the national scheme was a significant improvement.

Would the Minister agree that since the Coalition came to power they have brought about such a degree of poverty that it is necessary to give this allowance to people in certain categories?

I would not say that.

Would the Minister agree that all the anomalies in the existing scheme arose out of the manner in which the previous administration introduced the scheme? Would the Minister confirm in addition that, contrary to what Deputy Woods stated, the national scheme which he alleged he introduced was not a new development but that the statutory powers for the scheme arose under the Social Welfare (Supplementary Welfare Allowances) Act, 1975 and that the national scheme introduced by the previous administration effectively saved them money and meant that the full powers under the 1975 Act were not operated by supplementary welfare allowance officers?

I would agree with the Deputy.

Would the Minister agree that the scheme brought 56,000 additional people into the national scheme and consequently involved considerable further allocations by the Government?

In 1978-79 approximately 15,000 beneficiaries were assisted at a cost of £0.5 million. In 1979 the Government approved the introduction of a new fuel scheme for the Eastern Health Board using the exchangeable voucher for urban schemes. In 1980 the national free fuel scheme was introduced to expand the scheme throughout the country and this led to a great increase in spending.

Can the Minister now confirm that it is part of her brief to do something to relieve the poverty brought about by the insane policies of this Government?

This Government have shown sensitivity and understanding and a level of commitment to planning to eradicate poverty. They have set up a Ministry and re-established the combat poverty programme. They are committed to serious planning and not merely to ad hoc reactions such as resulted in many schemes in the past.

They have shown no sensitivity to the needs of the deserving poor.

Would the Minister take the necessary steps to ensure that unscrupulous politicians such as we have in the west, attached to one particular party, do not get the names of the beneficiaries under this scheme and write to them, as they did last year, as if they themselves were providing the free fuel?

25.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if couples who are co-habiting and caring for children of their or other associations will, if qualified, be regarded as married for the purpose of qualifying for benefit or assistance from her Department.

There is no provision in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1981, to enable unmarried couples who are living together to be treated as married persons for the purposes of the Act. However, provision is made whereby a claimant for benefit or assistance may be paid an increase for a qualified child or qualified children who normally resides or reside with the claimant. Such a person, being a single person, widow, widower or a married person who is not maintained by his or her spouse, may also be paid the adult dependant's increase in respect of a female person over the age of 16 who has the care of such child or children. In such circumstances, the amount of the benefit or assistance payable would be the same as that payable to a married person who is entitled to an increase for a spouse and a qualified child or qualified children.

The remaining questions will appear on tomorrow's Order Paper.

Might I have a written reply to Question No. 279?

Might I have written replies to Questions Nos. 81 to 88, inclusive?