Social Welfare (Temporary Provisions) Bill, 1981: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The purpose of this Bill is to provide a double week's payment in December 1981 to recipients of long-term social welfare payments. The measure is a further earnest of the Government's commitment to those dependent on these payments. In the short time since the Government assumed office, provision has already been made for increases in all weekly social welfare payments as well as the value of the vouchers under the national and urban fuel schemes.

The provision for a double week's payment over and above the increase in payments in October is without precedent. Last year when a double payment was provided in December there was no provision for an October increase. Moreover, these double payments do not arise from any obligation such as that in the second national understanding which provided for the double payment last year. The Christmas bonus this year reflects the Government's appreciation that recipients of long-term benefits such as the elderly, chronic invalids and widows are in need of special consideration. For my own part I am well aware of the difficulties facing such persons and I hope that this double payment will help to make the Christmas period more comfortable for them.

The categories who are being given the extra week's payment under this Bill are persons receiving old age pension, contributory and non-contributory, blind pension, widows' and orphans' pensions, contributory and non-contributory, survivor's benefit, retirement pension, invalidity pension, deserted wife's benefit and allowance, social assistance allowances for unmarried mothers, prisoners' wives and single women, and occupational injuries disablement pension and death benefit by way of pension.

On a point of order, could the Minister's statement be circulated to all Deputies in the Chamber?

It is being circulated.

I have not got a copy and I am in the House.

I should also like to mention, although it is not strictly relevant to this Bill, that a double week's payment is also being provided in the case of persons in receipt of disabled person's maintenance allowance, infectious disease maintenance allowance, blind welfare allowance and domiciliary care allowance for handicapped children, all of which are administered by the Department of Health.

Apart from occupational injuries benefit payments, the double payment will be made at post offices on the appropriate day of payment of pensions and allowances in the second week of December 1981. Old age, blind, widows' and orphans' pensioners will be due payment on Friday, December 11, the other categories on Thursday, December 10.

The additional sums to be paid will be equal to the face value of the weekly pension or allowance order and will include all increases in respect of adult and child dependants and any supplements which form part of the regular weekly payment. Certain long-term recipients of occupational injuries benefit by way of pension are paid by cheque monthly in advance. These will be issued with cheques for December at the equivalent of five weeks' payment instead of four.

The number of payees who will benefit as a result of this Bill totals 348,000. These are made up of 195,000 old age and blind pensioners, 83,000 widows, 1,000 orphans, 33,000 retirement pensioners, 16,000 invalidity pensioners, 6,000 deserted wives, 9,000 social assistance recipients and 5,000 occupational injuries pensioners.

In addition, the increase payable in respect of a further 121,000 persons will also be doubled for that week. These are 50,000 adult dependants, 3,000 prescribed relatives and 68,000 child dependants. The overall total of persons covered by the extra payment provided for in this Bill will therefore be 469,000. When account is taken of the double payment in health allowances to which I have already referred, the total number who will benefit from the double payment will be 496,000.

The cost of the additional payment is estimated at £12.5 million, comprising £7.38 million for contributory and £5.12 million for non-contributory payments. A figure of £.75 million is included in respect of the double payment in health allowances which I will be providing for by regulations.

I feel confident that this Bill will commend itself to all Deputies, and I ask for its early passage so as to ensure that the additional sums will be paid in time.

I have pleasure in supporting this Bill and I can assure the Minister that its passage through the House will not be delayed by us.

It was my privilege to set the precedent last year of providing a double week at Christmas for all these worthy beneficiaries, old age pensioners, widows and indeed various other categories on long-term benefit. In her speech earlier and indeed also in other discussions in the House the Minister has expressed doubts about whether Fianna Fáil would have repeated that precedent set last year. I should like to set her mind at ease. I should like to place on record the fact that our pre-election programme very clearly stated our commitment to providing the double week, or bonus as it is known, for Christmas 1981. I was very glad that the previous Government were prepared to make that commitment before the last election, something which was not done by the present Coalition. Indeed it is the Coalition's commitment which must be in doubt in relation to the present double week for Christmas. They did not state in their programme that they would give it. Neither was it stated in either the Fine Gael or Labour programmes.

I raised the matter in the House on 5 November. Being concerned at that stage that the time was running out and was insufficient for all the necessary administrative arrangements — I raised the matter on the Order of Business on 5 November. It happened on that day that the Tánaiste was handling the Order of Business. I questioned him about the intention of this Government to introduce a Social Welfare (Temporary Provisions) Bill for 1981. Apart from the fact that he did not know what a Temporary Provisions Bill was — he turned to his Whip to ascertain if he happened to know what it might be and, mind you, we are talking about a time when the passage of such a Bill was very urgent — clearly he had no intention of introducing the double week nor had any preparations been made for it at Christmas. He said that the increases had been given from 1 October last, more or less contending that that was sufficient. Were not the Coalition giving the 1 October increases? Indeed that sentiment is repeated in the Minister's introductory remarks this morning when she said that the October increases were being given in addition to the double week at Christmas as if this were something very special, very unusual and totally unprecedented. Of course what she does not say is what the Minister for Finance tells us here in the House, that is that the October increases were intended only to offset the effects of the mid-summer budget. It is an insult to the House and to the intelligence of Members on the Opposition side to suggest now that the 5¾ per cent introduced here — clearly stated by the Minister for Finance as constituting a partial offset, because it did no more than that — would do any more than offset the direct effects of the July budget. That is all the October increase achieved. It did not advance the position of the old age pensioner, widow or any other beneficiary. As I have already pointed out the October increase led to a reduction in the real incomes of those beneficiaries. It is very easy to see why that is so because the 85 pence per week increase to widows in October was a derisory one. It was advanced as an increase to meet the additional costs arising from the 50 per cent increase in value-added tax, the absolutely ridiculous increase granted in ESB costs and indeed over the whole range of other costs introduced by this Government at that time as part of their package and for reasons very clearly stated. Whether or not we agree with these reasons the fact is that the 1 October increase was introduced only as a partial offset of the costs incurred by the elderly and other social welfare, long-term beneficiaries. It had no bearing on the double week at Christmas; its sole purpose was to offset inflationary effects. It is now being used as a sort of public relations attempt to divert attention from the real position of people on social welfare, people whose incomes are being systematically reduced. I shall be very interested to see whether or not that continues to be the case. Of course the massive shift towards indirect taxation is particularly discriminatory against those people on long-term social welfare benefits.

To return to the Tánaiste, not alone did he refer to the increases given on 1 October but he said also that no promise had been given. Indeed he was supported by the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry in making it clear that the Coalition had not promised and therefore did not have to live up to any promise. Certainly we did promise and would have lived up to that promise to repeat this double week at Christmas. I would refer Deputies to the Official Report of Thursday 5 November 1981 in which that little scenario can be clearly seen. I think it has been recorded clearly outside the House also. Indeed I should like to offer my congratulations to the press reporter who, following the discussions in the House that morning, went of his or her own volition, contacted the Department of Social Welfare and reported that evening that the Department had confirmed that no arrangements had been made to date, that in effect clearly there was no intention on the part of the Government to proceed with the provision of a double week at Christmas.

We must ask ourselves: Why did the Coalition not want to give a double week at Christmas? In all the circumstances we must recognise that rarely has there been a more difficult period for the elderly and those on long-term benefits than the present one, especially bearing in mind this massive shift to indirect taxation. Now that all the public relations are over, now that the package has been sold — and I congratulate the Minister on so doing — the record of the House will show and that will be the record which will stand. When that has blown over we shall revert to the essence, the real integrity of this Government. Certainly I would question it in relation to their position on this double week at Christmas. Why did they not want to give this double week at Christmas? There is a very simple answer. I know the Minister to be a very sympathetic and understanding person. I know her to be concerned and I would have not doubt about her approach in this respect. The reason the Coalition did not want to pay the double week at Christmas was purely a matter of cost.

We are being lectured repeatedly in this House by the Minister for Finance about the cost of anything and everything. He does so daily, continuing the process started by this Government the moment they assumed office, when they began these lectures claiming then to have had great knowledge of the country's finances. Indeed the Minister for Finance in the House yesterday, when taunted by the Leader of the Fianna Fáil Party about his approach in this respect, became particularly upset and obviously concerned about the cost.

I have here the social welfare figures because we have had the Estimate but I do not have those for health. Last year the double week cost approximately £.5 million. I presume here it is about £.8 million or thereabouts on the Health side. It does not show but it is given in the £12.5 million the Minister mentioned this morning. If we deduct from the figures given we find the double Christmas week on the social welfare side will cost £11.678 million. The first October increase cost £9.6 million. Straight away we see that the October increase of £9.6 million was £2 million lower than the double week at Christmas. That is simple mathematics. Now I sat on that side of the House and I know the arguments put by those who want to save pennies at the expense of the elderly, the infirm and widows. That is the reality but that will not appear in the PR because this is something that goes on behind closed doors between the Department of Finance and the Department of Social Welfare. Not only will there be a saving of £2 million but it is a very clever approach in the sense that this £9.6 million thrown to the Labour Party as part of the Gaiety Theatre document represents yet another sprat thrown to catch a salmon and accepted at the time because no one had done his figures. A widow would get 85p a week on the first of October increase and a child 25p per week.

Had the Labour Party considered the implications I am sure they would not have accepted that kind of sop but, relative to the deal made in the shift to indirect taxation, that is the reality of the situation. I was surprised at the Minister for Finance being so indignant and annoyed yesterday because he got good value from the 1 October increase. It was just a plank in the agreement and nothing more. It was designed to sell the package to the Labour Party and subsequently to some of the Independent Deputies. That was its purpose. It was designed partly to offset the increased costs. It had nothing to do with the budget and to use it as something supplementary to the double week at Christmas is quite wrong. It simply is not true. I want to make that quite clear. I do not accept it and I am sure the beneficiaries will not accept it. It was a confidence trick and it did not work. The Coalition were caught on the hop and now they have to pay the double amount. The total is £12.5 million.

We will have the 1 October increase when the Estimate comes in later this week but we can take it it is £9.6 million, about another £10 million to £10.5 million so the difference is £2 million in both cases. The saving to the Government would have been £2 million. Now they have to pay both. They tried to use the lower 1 October increase, which was a partial offset only for the Minister for Finance's budget, a savage budget affecting those on long-term benefits. I mentioned the £12.5 million because I saw in some paper a reference to £25 million, part of the PR again relative to the extra week. I warn people to watch what is being done. This increase is being used to suggest they are getting a double week. The double week is £12.5 million. That is the real figure. The beneficiaries will get the normal week as well and that constitutes another £12.5 million.

I come back to two proposals in particular in this Bill. Last year when I introduced this we discussed certain categories it was thought should be included. I am very pleased to see the domiciliary care allowance for handicapped children has been included in this measure. It was included last year also though it was not regarded technically as being strictly within the definitions. Had the present Government been looking at this in the proper way instead of rushing something through at the end of the day they would have put forward suggestions for further improvements in order to cover categories other than those covered in this Bill.

On the Estimate I raised the question of including those on unemployment assistance where these unfortunate people have been on this assistance for over a year. The Minister would have the figures available. The total unemployment assistance at the moment is £2.2 million per week and if you take that over a year you obviously reduce the figure considerably. Concern was voiced last year by those on the Government side of the House now about the non-inclusion of those on unemployment assistance. These were people who had gone through unemployment benefit and been out of work therefore for some considerable time. I accepted then there was some validity in the argument and I would have hoped that that aspect would have been pursued and examined in considerable detail this year to the extent of making some improvement in the worst cases. There are cases of real poverty among those on unemployment assistance and this is due mostly to the situation throughout the world in relation to unemployment. I do not throw this out to embarrass the Minister. It is something which should have been examined carefully to see at least what element of that list could have been included. It would at least suggest at first sight that those who are over a year on unemployment assistance should have been considered.

Since the whole Bill was agreed to at fairly short notice, I would like to suggest that the Minister should double the weekly pocket money allowance this Christmas for the physicially and mentally handicapped in residential care. We increased that at the beginning of the year from between £1.50 and £2 to £4 per week overall as a contribution towards the Year of the Disabled. It should have been included last year but it was not, perhaps because it was not a very rational thing at that time. In many cases people did not get it at all. We looked into it and at the beginning of this year we got it under way in a rational way. Now I hear Members on the other side of the House saying that this is a very mean amount. Yet I had to get this money from the Minister for Finance of the day who had his problems just as the present Minister for Finance has. Under the circumstances we achieved a considerable advance. It would not cost very much to double that for Christmas. As I said, we managed to get in the domiciliary care allowance the last time. That is the other side of the domiciliary allowance, the small allowance that goes to people who are in full-time residential care. These are normally the most severely physically and mentally handicapped. The Taoiseach has expressed enormous concern in public and in this House for the disabled. Therefore, I am convinced that, if the Minister sent a message to the Taoiseach, the small amount of money involved would be forthcoming without question. It will come up under the health side and there will be an opportunity to ensure that it could be done. I estimate that it would probably cost about £50,000, which is relatively small. For a very small cost a fine piece of additional kindness could be shown these people this Christmas.

We have heard a great deal during the Estimates debate and in Private Member's Time about the general commitment of the Government to action in the area of social welfare. The Government say they are committed to combating poverty and so on. It is easy to have the best intentions and goodwill towards people. But goodwill is not enough. It is not just a question of goodwill. Of course, with goodwill we can all live more happily together. But it is also a question of hard cash. That is the criterion on which we will judge this Government and not the oft-repeated statements about their commitment to the poor and the lower income groups. They will be judged on the rates of benefit which are given. These are relevant questions. It is very easy to say one supports the elderly and the various other people on these benefits, but it is another thing to put on the table the hard cash that is required. As the Minister stated the other day, the cost of social welfare benefits for a full year at present rates would be about £1,320 million. On can see straight away that this is a very substantial figure. Any real increase in that will certainly have to be hard fought for because it has to be paid for by direct or indirect taxation or by an increase in the pay-related social insurance and these are not very happy options for the Minister. They are options which will be opposed. That is why I say that the real test of this Government in relation to their work on poverty in particular will be in relation to the amounts of money which they transfer in real terms to the beneficiaries within the whole social welfare code.

Is that not a very limited view?

It is not. It is a very important view. The old age pensioner will tell the Deputy to give him the money in his pocket and then he will be able to have views of all sorts. If he does not have the money in his pocket he has very little real purchasing power. Over the last two years the position of the old age pensioner was significantly improved in real terms. I am sure they would confirm that for the Deputy. In parallel with that there is the whole task of improving the community structure and the delivery of services to people. I do not deny that for a moment. I revamped the National Social Services Council, set up a board and gave it a new director status and raised it to the level of a stronger semi-State body. I also did this with the National Rehabilitation Board. That took negotiation and I had to break through and create new posts in these areas. These are the organisations which can really effect change within society of the kind which I suspect the Deputy is referring to. For that same purpose I also set up the National Council for the Aged, headed by one of the most capable men in this country who will put tremendous management ability into the development of those services and the direction of them.

We do not have the opportunity here to discuss all those elements. We would be here for quite some time if we did. I would accept the view that community development in particular is vital to the long-term interests of these groups within the community. But in the short term the levels of payment here are so low and have been so low that only real increases can bring them to the position where they can benefit in any realistic way from the society which is around them. In that sense I would agree with the parallel developments which I presume the Deputy is referring to. But these improvements will only come from real shifts in money. I know that is a real headache for the Minister and the Government at this time because of the costs involved. That is the realism of today. We had to face it last year when we knew we were in a depression and were faced with an economic downturn and people were standing back from these services and saying that one had to bear in mind what resources would be available and what was possible in the present circumstances. Notwithstanding that, we showed a real commitment and I am proud that the previous Government made that commitment in hard cash terms. That has yet to be shown by the present Government.

This will be a very difficult Christmas for a variety of reasons. Unemployment is running at a record level, the shift to indirect taxation is making costs considerably higher and we are only now beginning to see the real impact of increased ESB charges. A record number of people will be turning to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for help to meet their bills. I warned about this in July when the Minister for Finance made a rash and unconsidered judgment by allowing an 80 per cent increase in the fuel variation surcharge. How could any Minister or Deputy on the other side of the House justify an 80 per cent increase when the input costs of oil have stabilised on the international market? It cannot be justified.

I note that the categories in the Bill are the same as last year. It has a simpler layout and this arises from the fact that at the beginning of the year we had the passage through this House of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1981. There is only one Act referred to, and I would like to thank the Members on both sides of the House who contributed to the debate on the Consolidation Bill and to the officials, for whom it meant a tremendous volume of work. The next task is to update some of the provisions within the legislation. This is a process which should be continued. The Consolidation Bill was a massive leap forward because of the time and work it took on the part of officials. The way is clear now for a continuation of the process of modernising legislation on social welfare. I hope the Minister will consider building in permanently this double week at Christmas. It is a precedent which was introduced and is now there for the second time. I am sure we would all like to see it continued in future years.

Although not strictly relevant to the Bill, the Minister said the double week is also being paid in respect of disabled persons' maintenance allowance, infectious diseases maintenance allowance, blind welfare allowance and the domiciliary care allowance. These are administered by the Department of Health and I thank the Minister for confirming they will also be paid. Would the Minister also consider, as a matter of considerable urgency, giving a double week's pocket money, the special £4 per week allowance, to those who are physically and mentally handicapped? It would not be an expensive measure and is well within the capacity of the Government's current finances. Would the Minister also consider — I appreciate this is a much bigger question — the question of those on unemployment assistance and whether any of those categories could be included?

I am very glad to have the Bill before the House. I know the Minister also welcomes it. It is very necessary at Christmas because of the high costs that are incurred. It spread real joy last Christmas and Members on both sides of the House were happy to see a double week being paid. Those now in Government welcomed the introduction of that measure last year. The money was badly needed by the people who received it. Some of us have an opportunity of earning a bonus at Christmas and it is nice to think that the elderly got that little extra last year. It made things a little bit easier for them at that time. I have great pleasure in supporting this Bill and I ask the Minister to consider the points I have raised.

I welcome the Bill, which provides a double week's payment for long term social welfare recipients at Christmas. Listening to Deputy Woods, I came to the conclusion that what he said is an indictment of the policies of his own Government over recent years, which have put us in such a dire financial position that we have difficulty in even meeting these very basic social welfare payments at times like this. If the country had been run in a proper, businesslike manner we could afford to give the poor and the underprivileged far more than they are getting at present. Even the very basic increases are difficult to grant nowadays because of the dreadful shortfall in the Estimates which were presented to this House earlier in the year.

Those Estimates included social welfare and health. As a result, every health board are financially embarrassed, unable to provide staff, equipment or heating for people in very poor circumstances and invariably in poor health. The present unhappy position can easily be traced back to the financial mismanagement which the country has endured for four years. This was highlighted two weeks ago by Sister Stanislaus at a seminar in Kilkenny. She told the audience quite clearly that there are now one million people in this country who are underprivileged and suffering from varying degrees of poverty. Sister Stanislaus and her associates are to be complimented for pin-pointing that sad situation which has been allowed to develop over a number of years and which is a reflection on us all.

We are becoming a nation of two societies — the rich and the very poor. The gap between the two sectors continues to grow. We must be very careful because that situation could undermine the very basis of our society. We are a country with a population of slightly over three million and if one million of these are seriously underprivileged, there is cause for considerable concern.

In this Bill we are told that the beneficiaries in various categories will total 348,000. I do not know if that number includes dependants, but I presume it does not. The total number of underprivileged is obviously far in excess of 348,000. Some people are not included under the terms of this Bill who, if included, would greatly swell that number. For instance, Deputy Woods has mentioned people on long-term unemployment assistance, many of whom are on the breadline, living in poverty. There is a case for including these people.

Last week at Question Time I brought to the notice of the Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare another class of social welfare recipient who is not covered by this Bill who might be borne in mind for inclusion. I am speaking about the long-term disability benefit recipients. There is a very fine line between a person who qualifies for an invalidity pension and one who qualifies for long-term disability benefit. Almost invariably, when I bring to the notice of the south-eastern region health authorities the problems of a long-term disability benefit recipient, they convert that benefit to an invalidity pension. There is, of course, allowance made in this Bill for invalidity pensioners. There is no provision for long-term disability benefit recipients who usually are men or women in the late fifties or sixties, who have worked hard for 30 or 40 years and fallen into bad health. This type of recipient gets a monthly rather than a weekly certificate because his or her doctor knows that there is only the very slightest likelihood that this person will ever work again. Probably the more correct thing would be to place this patient on an invalidity pension. Would the Minister consider including those long-term disability benefit recipients of a year or more in this scheme this Christmas? I have written to her Department regarding a few individual cases and had a few cases last year along the same lines. Thousands of people in this position around the country are just as necessitous as any of the categories included in the Bill. To long-term unemployment benefit cases, also, as well as unemployment assistance cases, this scheme would be very welcome.

We must remember, first and foremost, that we are giving with one hand but nowadays are taking away with the other, where many of these people are concerned. It has been stated that many of these 348,000 are being asked to pay very heavy financial items which did not arise previously, and for which in many cases, no allowance is being given. I refer to water rate charges. Five or ten years ago, in rural areas, the pensioner might have had to pay 50p a year water rate charge. Today he must pay £24 in my county and £30 in others. That is a very large amount for an old age pensioner, contributory or non-contributory, to pay at one go. The saving under this Bill for an individual pensioner ranges from about £25 to £35 per head, in my estimation, because of this new water rate charge.

The local authorities are supposed to alleviate cases of hardship and in some cases they do. However, the local authorities are virtually screwed into the ground financially to such an extent that they must narrow the basis of that relief scheme and many thousands who previously qualified for relief no longer do so.

The health boards mentioned in this Bill are likewise in extreme financial difficulty. Those of us who are members of a health board know that there has been a shortfall of millions of pounds in each health board area for 1981. Nobody should known that better than Deputy Woods, because it was his Government who are responsible for that. The result of this disgraceful shortfall is that health boards have had to make economies in every area, in some of which the money is most badly needed to alleviate the hardships of the very poor. I specifically refer to the free fuel scheme, the concept of which was excellent and which worked quite well last year. What do we find this year? The health boards have not the money and many people who received the benefit of this scheme last year have been told this year that they cannot get it. The sum last year was £60. That is more than double the relief provided under this Bill. If I made a survey I would find that hundreds of my constituents have been cut off from this scheme in 1981 who were in it in 1980. That is a double hardship because the present relief does not even half offset their loss. Again, the base of that scheme is becoming more and more narrow.

These people are the very ones who need free fuel. There is no turf bog in my constituency. As I have said here before, many schoolchildren there would not know what a sod of turf looked like. Occasionally we got some turf from Littleton in Tipperary. Since timber is only of use to those who are able-bodied and have the means of preparing it, the only logical alternative is coal but that is costing more than £100 per ton. The people I am talking about cannot afford that sort of money. Many of them are suffering from severe arthritis. They are old and should have constant heat. Instead of helping them in this regard the position this year is that they are not being allowed something for which they were eligible previously. I urge the Minister to take an overall view of the situation and to consider the situation in terms of what we might call the satellites who are supposed to serve the needs of so many of our population. I refer to the local authorities in terms of the water rates and to the health boards in terms of free fuel and in this instance in terms of the double week's payment to social welfare recipients. This provision does not cover those cases in which benefit has been withdrawn and that is why the payment should be made to long-term social welfare recipients, to the long-term disability benefit recipients who should really be in receipt of invalidity pensions. Consideration should be given also to the case of long-term unemployment assistance recipients in areas where employment is not available.

This week I have furnished the Minister's office with details of two cases of long-term disability recipients. In each case a husband, wife and two children are living on £55.10 per week. Recently Sister Stanislaus said that she throws her arms up in dismay when she reads about someone in the social circle complaining that he cannot get a decent dinner for two for £40. We are talking about a family of four living on £55.10 per week but not entitled to free fuel. In each of the cases to which I refer the South-Eastern Health Board have refused to grant the free fuel allowance. This is a disgrace. Both families are living in the urban area of Dungarvan but if they were living in a rural area they would not be entitled even to relief from water rates demands. They are not entitled to the double payment at Christmas. I hope that at a further Stage of this Bill the Minister will give some hope to those people who are in dire need by providing that they will not be disqualified from the extra payment as a result of red tape or of severe cutbacks in finances to the local authorities and to the health boards.

I endorse what Deputy Deasy has said concerning the double week's payment for long-term disabled benefit recipients. Many of those people would be entitled to invalidity pensions but qualification is not automatic. They must go through the normal process of application. Many of them are not aware of this and, consequently, are being deprived of this extra benefit at Christmas. I agree with Deputy Deasy that at a further Stage of this Bill, the Minister should consider introducing an amendment to alleviate this situation.

So far as the allowances generally are concerned, I compliment our spokesman, Deputy Woods, for highlighting the situation in the past fortnight. Old age pensioners and the various other social welfare recipients can be thankful to an active Opposition who have been responsible for ensuring that this double payment will be made at Christmas. This is something that the Department are not likely to inform those concerned of but the public, thanks to the media's attention in this area, are aware that if it had not been for the Fianna Fáil spokesman raising the matter, the double week's payment would not be made. The Government had not made any arrangements to grant the extra money but when the question was raised here they agreed to consider it.

However, I would go further and suggest that the double payment be retained throughout the year because social welfare payments are not at all adequate in the context of the cost of living. The people concerned, especially those on long-term social welfare, are on the bread line. They cannot cope with the massive increases in the prices of the various commodities and services such as ESB and so on.

Deputy Woods referred to long-term patients in welfare homes and psychiatric hospitals. There is no reason for those people not to be paid the extra money direct at Christmas. I would go even further than Deputy Woods's proposal and suggest that the full double week's payment go directly to those patients. I say this because what happens in this regard is that the double week goes directly into the coffers of the health boards. That is not right. There is no reference in the Bill to the question of repayment directly to the Department of Health. How much money will be paid back directly to the health boards and to the Department as a result of this double week's payment? As a working constituency Deputy the Minister will be aware that in these cases the books are held by the matron, that the payments are put into the accounts of the welfare homes or psychiatric hospitals concerned. An allowance of £1.50 used to be made to the individual but that paltry sum was a sheer injustice. We increased the amount and recently I asked the Minister to consider bringing it up to £10. The Minister said she would consider the matter. However, in the case we are talking of, the institutions concerned will benefit from the Minister's provision though I am sure that is not the intention of the Minister. Therefore, this Christmas long-term patients in these institutions will receive the normal payment of £4. What could one buy with such a small amount? Would it buy even a gift for a grandchild or an extra drink at Christmas? It would hardly cover the cost of two brandies.

This is an opportunity for the Minister to give a clear directive to the health boards to double the allowance, at a minimum, and possibly go beyond that by giving the double week's payment directly to long-term patients in welfare homes and psychiatric hospitals. I appeal to relatives and neighbours of long-term patients in these institutions to visit them at Christmas and I would ask the Minister to direct all health boards to allow the public to visit patients in psychiatric hospitals. I tried on many occasions to visit St. Brigid's Hospital in Ballinasloe and St. Patrick's Hospital in Castlerea but I was refused the privilege of seeing my constituents. Many of them do not vote but that does not mean that I do not represent them in this House. I was categorically refused this permission by the CEO of the Western Health Board. Deputy Woods was well aware of this matter but the Department were not in a position to direct the CEO to allow me to visit these psychiatric hospitals. I have always been welcome to visit the welfare homes and I appeal to the Minister to allow an open day in the psychiatric hospitals during the Christmas period. Many of the patients have not received a visit or a letter for 40 years, although perhaps they would not want to see their TD. My purpose was not to expose the deprivation of the patients.

Perhaps the Deputy would come back to the Bill before us.

I know that the Ceann Comhairle, being a doctor, is well aware of the situation. He encouraged me when I raised this matter in the House and told me to persevere and pursue the matter vigorously.

That you have done very adequately.

The increases are very welcome but I am concerned about those who have been omitted from the scope of this Bill, namely, those on unemployment benefit and assistance. Surely these people should be given a double allowance at Christmas. As a parent, the Minister is well aware of the many costs incurred at this time of year and how parents feel pressurised by television advertisements and displays of toys in supermarkets. How can the unemployed make Christmas happier for their children? How can they tell them that they cannot have gifts? In the debate on the 1980 Bill many Deputies now on the Government side made this point but they have somehow ceased to fight for the people they represent.

I am sorry that the Labour benches are so empty today. One of their best socialists now occupies the Chair and he had to leave them. Can they claim that they are happy with these increases, knowing that they have been forced on the Government by the Opposition? Where was the call from the Labour Party for these increases? They were silenced on this issue, as on many others. I hope some of their socialist Deputies will speak on the Bill and say whether they are satisfied with it. Where are Deputies Browne, Kemmy, Sherlock and Loftus? Deputy Kemmy, as joint Taoiseach, could direct the Minister to give the double payment to those on unemployment benefit and assistance, particularly in his constituency of Limerick where there are quite a number of unemployed. Surely he should fight for the many deprived people who elected him to this House, although they may not return him next time.

Many deserving people are not in receipt of the free electricity allowance. This scheme was introduced by Deputy Haughey, then Minister for Finance and the late Deputy Joe Brennan, then Minister for Social Welfare. It has been most beneficial and very few other countries have such a scheme. I would ask the Minister to increase the number of units allowed, especially during the winter months, and to extend the scheme to widows. They should have a tremendous champion in the Minister who is herself a widow and I hope she will ensure the extension of this scheme in the next Budget. A married couple in receipt of the old age pension will benefit twice from this double payment but this will not apply to the household of a widow who may have young children. She should be given as much assistance as possible.

We have had savage increases since last July. One of the worst is the increase in postal charges. The elderly love to send Christmas cards to their families in different parts of Ireland and throughout the world. A case could be made for giving a postal allowance to the elderly at Christmas. The cost of stamps should be reduced for them. I know this would be difficult to operate, but something should be done about it. When one thinks of a stamp costing 22p one realises it is very difficult for the elderly to send letters and postcards to their friends and relations throughout the country at Christmas-time, not to talk about the cost of sending them to their relations throughout the world.

During the term of office of the Fianna Fáil Government the allowances to social welfare recipients were increased by 25 per cent. This was a tremendous increase and was badly needed. We only have to compare that with the 3 per cent increase given in October. We have been told that this extra money given to those people at Christmas will compensate them for the increased price of goods. Deputy Woods has explained the position in this regard.

The elderly are allowed a free television licence for black and white sets. I have been advocating for some time that that allowance should be given for coloured sets as well as for black and white sets. Those people have to pay the difference between the cost of a black and white licence and that of a colour television licence. Black and white television sets are almost obsolete and this allowance should be extended to colour television sets. This would save a lot of red tape in relation to the administration of the scheme. The elderly feel they have a free television licence and are not aware that they have to pay the difference between the cost of a licence for a black and white set and that for a colour set. Something should be done about extending that in next year's budget. The cost would not be very great.

I would like to thank the Minister for bringing forward this provision. I know she has probably fought very hard in this particular Scrooge Cabinet we have at the moment. The Minister for Finance will probably be regarded as the modern day Scrooge. It must have been very hard for the Minister to get something out of Scrooge this Christmas. I know the Minister has a very hard fight on her hands when one considers the right wing policies of the present administration. I am sure she got some support from her socialist colleagues in the Cabinet. Fianna Fáil must also be complimented for putting the pressure on the Minister. I am sure she welcomed the pressure which Deputy Woods put on her some weeks ago so that she could go to the Cabinet and make the case for the double payment this year. I hope she will do everything in her power to ensure that the increases are extended to people receiving disability allowances and those receiving unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit.

It is very amusing to hear some of the remarks from the other side of the House this morning. Deputy Leyden is long enough in the House to know that when a back bench Government Deputy wants to get across a point to the Minister he does not have to expose it in the House. I do not remember Deputy Leyden contributing to the debate last year.

I did. That is the first inaccuracy.

I apologise. I am glad the Deputy contributed to the debate. It might be interesting to read his contribution. It is grossly unfair of the Deputy to be so critical of Government backbenchers for not showing their concern in the House for this payment. I am sure that if any backbencher on the Government side did that in the House Deputy Leyden and his colleagues would be very quick to say: "Are you not friendly with your Minister? Do you have to bring it into the House?" I am quite sure when he was concerned about something when his party were in power he did not show the concern in the House. There are other means of doing this.

I offer my heartiest congratulations to the Minister for Social Welfare for ensuring that this payment is made. I regret that the Minister cannot extend this payment to others this year. I look forward to future years when this can be done. There was no real obligation on the Government to introduce this Bill for a double payment such as there was on the previous Minister for Social Welfare, despite all the claims that have been made this morning. I do not believe the previous Minister for Social Welfare would have had to resign if the Bill granting the double payment was not introduced last year because it had already been provided for in the National Understanding. The Government were already committed to it, so no thanks are due to the previous Government for introducing it last year. This was introduced last year for the first time and it is being introduced this year without any such commitment. This really shows the social concern of the Government.

I could go back over a lot of things which the previous Minister for Social Welfare said and turn it right back on him. The difficulties the Government find themselves in now are because we had a Fianna Fáil Government for the previous four years and because the present Fianna Fáil spokesman on social welfare was the previous Minister for Social Welfare for some time before the change of Government. The man who was the former Taoiseach was Minister for Social Welfare before that. Deputy Woods and Deputy Haughey cannot afford to be critical of the present Minister for Social Welfare. The Government are paying the social welfare cheques in the week in which they are due. That is a great step forward compared to the last two years when Deputy Woods was the Minister responsible for that Department. However, I cannot put all the blame on the former Minister because his predecessor, for whatever reason, neglected the Department of Social Welfare and gave much more attention to the Department of Health. Deputy Haughey and Deputy Woods were dab hands at public relations.

It was interesting to hear Deputy Woods this morning telling us why there was an increase in social welfare payments in October. According to him, it was done to sell something to the Labour Party and because of that increase a public relations package was presented in the past two or three weeks. I did not understand what Deputy Woods was getting at, but in my time in the House I have not known any Minister who was better at public relations than Deputy Woods. I am not blaming him. He had a job to do and he had difficulty in doing it, but he was able to hide much of that difficulty through his public relations exercise.

I give my heartiest congratulations to the Minister, Deputy E. Desmond. It gives me great happiness to think that some 83,000 widows will have a happier Christmas principally because Deputy Desmond is Minister and also because we have a social, caring Government. There are 1,000 orphans, there are 33,000 retired pensioners as well as others on whom this Government are prepared to expend money. This Christmas the Government will spend £12,500,000 to ensure that the less well off will have a happier Christmas. These people have to watch the pounds and pennies but the Government have gone a long way this year to ensure that they will have a happier time. I hope in future years the Minister will be able to extend this payment to other categories to whom it is not possible to extend it on this occasion.

On a point of order, Deputy McMahon said I should have spoken on this Bill last year. I wish to say that I spoke in the debate in 1980.

That is not a point of order.

It is a point of information. The Deputy said I should have spoken on the same lines when we were discussing the Bill last year. I should like to refer him to the Official Report dated 18 November 1980 where he will see I made similar points to the then Minister, Deputy Woods. The backbenchers of the Government Parties and the Independents——

I am afraid that Standing Orders do not provide for all these sensitivities. Deputy McMahon to proceed with the debate.

Before the Leas-Cheann Comhairle came into the House I referred to Deputy Leyden's contribution and I queried if he had spoken last year. When he said he did, I accepted that and I am sure it is on the record. I do not see his intervention now as a point of order. I hope he is not setting a precedent whereby I can seek a right to speak a second time in this debate.

I remember many references of the former Minister and his predecessor to the social, caring Government we had when Fianna Fáil were in office. That same caring Government found it extremely difficult in the past three years to pay social welfare recipients. They saved many thousands of pounds in that many of the cheques arrived six or eight weeks later than the due date. Despite the public relations efforts of Deputy Woods when he was Minister for Social Welfare, Fianna Fáil should be ashamed of their efforts in this area. They left this Government with the enormous task of providing £12,500,000 to help needy people. Our Government were not obliged to expend this money but because they are a social, caring Government they decided to provide it for the less well off in our society.

There was more widespread and greater poverty in this country when Deputy Woods left office than there was when Fianna Fáil came into office in 1977. The task of providing a double weeks' allowance for those in need is greater this year than it was last year when Deputy Woods was Minister for Social Welfare. I do not put all the blame on him but his party must accept the responsibility. He just happens to be the person who took over a neglected Department.

I hope when the Minister leaves office in a few years' time that same statement will not be made about her. I know of her concern and that of the Government to combat poverty. Must I remind Deputies on the opposite side of the House of Fianna Fáil's efforts to combat poverty? They abolished the committee concerned when it got to the stage that it would cost them money.

If Deputy Woods has any doubt about the matter, I ask him to compare Fianna Fáil's record on social welfare with that of the National Coalition Government from 1973 to 1977. The present Government have not yet got into full stride mainly because they found an empty purse when they took office. Let him compare the record of social welfare increases from 1973 to 1977 when for the first time those who most needed it were given a respectable allowance in the budgets of 1974 and 1975. I share Deputy Wood's concern for those on unemployment assistance. I ask the Minister to consider this category when this comes before the House next year. I have the greatest sympathy for families where the main bread winner is unemployed for over 12 months. I spoke to one person yesterday who is keen to get work but unfortunately over the last 14 months has only got 14 weeks' work. I regret that it is not possible to give this double payment to such people this year but hopefully they will be included next year and perhaps we may be able to extend it to other categories.

I spoke last week on the Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs about a reduction in the cost of postage for Christmas cards. Deputy Leyden mentioned this but saw some difficulty in it. I ask the Minister to consider the case of people who are in homes or living alone and are recipients of social welfare payments. I am sure she could devise a system where they could be issued with franked envelopes. Many of these people only communicate once a year with friends of their own age. Their friends may be in different homes from the ones they are in. Even if they are in the same home there is something about receiving good wishes by post rather than by hand as many people are doing. I support Deputy Leyden in what he said in this regard and ask the Minister to consider issuing franked envelopes. It will not involve extra work for postmen because every house and home is visited over Christmas time. It would be a nice gesture. It may be too late to organise it for this year but it should be possible to issue half a dozen or a dozen franked envelopes to some of the categories I have mentioned.

I am glad we have a Government who were prepared to introduce this without being forced to do so by people inside or outside the House. It probably gives Deputy Woods pleasure to try and claim responsibility for the introduction of this measure. If that is what he wants let him have it. There was no obligation on the Government to do it. I am glad they did, as it is an indication that we have a caring Government prepared to assist the less well off without any great arm twisting.

In common with other speakers I welcome this Bill irrespective of how inadequate it may be. I share Deputy McMahon's view that it leaves out a lot of categories in spite of what he may feel. This measure has come as a complete turnabout by the Government who only a few weeks ago indicated through an official statement that there were no plans in the pipeline to introduce any measure to make a double weeks payment to social welfare recipients. Therefore it can be seen that the turnabout, welcome as it is, was due to pressure exerted by Fianna Fáil both inside and outside the House. Nobody wishes to be smallminded about a measure such as this in claiming credit but the record should be put straight and I am certain if Deputy McMahon reflects back he will agree with what I have said.

Recently the Taoiseach indicated that we would all have to face a 10 per cent drop in our standard of living. Events unfortunately not only underline that but would indicate that we are facing a greater percentage drop in living standards. While such a reduction affects us all, it hits the less well-off more so. We are all aware of the difficulties of old age pensioners, widows, the unemployed and so on in meeting the present cost of living and making ends meet from one week to the next. They are faced, as we all are, with daily increases in prices whether for foodstuffs or clothing — the main essentials of everyday life. They are faced with the same difficulties as anybody else but they are less well able to cope with the problems of over-coming these difficulties. Inflation at present officially is running at 22 per cent, therefore how can one relate the present rate of inflation to the recent miserable increase extended to social welfare recipients? The 3 per cent increase, even 5p a week in many cases, was a mere pittance which, rather than helping those people, I suggest damaged their morale very considerably. It was an open insult to old people and those on welfare benefits, people whom we should all be striving to help as much as possible.

The recent budget proposals are not part and parcel of this Bill, therefore, it is not my intention to delve into them. Nevertheless, the proposals have affected prices and, as a result, the people concerned and involved under this Bill. For example, VAT was doubled and this is affecting the ordinary, everyday essential services which old and needy people have to purchase as do any other section of the community.

The recent policies of the Government and their price increases, VAT increases and so on have caused serious disturbance to those less well off and also to the unemployed. We hear quite a lot nowadays about so many thousands being on the poverty line in the last few months. Many more thousands have been brought not merely closer to the poverty line but right on to it since the Government introduced their measures last July. The previous speaker spoke of social commitment and the special social concern of the Government in looking after the less well off section. It is all very well to talk about what one would like to do, but action is what counts. We all know that actions speak louder than words. There is no doubt whatever that the Fianna Fáil Government did more in the last few years for social welfare recipients than did any other Government in the history of this State. In successive years we have had increases of 25 per cent and again one must compare this with the paltry increases extended in recent times by the Coalition Government. Very little more need be said if one wishes to compare the social conscience of the present Government with that of the former Government.

As I have said, action counts. We know what actions were taken by the previous Government and we know also the miserable action that has been taken so far by the present Government. I am not being personally critical of the present Minister, whom, incidentally, I would like to congratulate on her appointment. We all realise that the Minister also has her difficulties in dealing with the Minister for Finance who was hell bent on pursuing a policy that must and undoubtedly will bring the living standards of every section of this community crashing to the ground, none more so than that of the social welfare recipients, the less well off and those not able to fend for themselves.

I am sorry that the present Bill does not extend to the long-term unemployed people. The number of people unemployed at present is a record in the history of this State and, unfortunately, that number is growing daily. Too many people have been unemployed here for a long time. Many among those numbers would give anything to have a job. They are genuinely anxious to work and are sincerely seeking employment. Many of them are men who have wives and children and homes to keep and they have to educate, clothe and feed their children. Consider a person who has been unemployed for a year-and-a-half and who has a wife, three children and a home, as I have mentioned, to keep on £50 per week when all the fringe benefits have run out. That person undoubtedly is in the poverty category and no-one will disagree with that statement. Therefore, it is sad that this Bill does not provide for that category. I am quite certain that nobody, least of all the taxpayer, would have objected to an additional amount of money being included in this measure to cover what would be accepted readily as a much-needed gesture on the part of the Minister.

Christmas is the season of goodwill and cheer. Everybody tries to make the very best possible feast of Christmas irrespective of means. We will, of course, witness many expensive parties at Christmas-time, cocktail parties and so on. We will witness increased expenditure on alcohol during Christmas. At present £1.5 million is spent daily on alcohol in this small country. I am not by any means an anti-drinker, far from it. Nevertheless I feel that in this area there is a tremendous amount of irresponsibility on the part of many of our people, particularly our young people, when it comes to spending money on alcohol. Unfortunately, Christmas will bring a number of tragedies such as road accidents, etc. On the other hand those poverty-stricken families whom I have described, those poor people, the unemployed, will be trying to make the best possible of Christmas for their families on a miserable £50 per week. If those people who are lavishily spending so much on alcohol and everything else were to think for one moment of the circumstances of such families I am quite sure that they would have no objection to any Government raising finance to cater for those families, particularly at Christmas. That lead must come from the Government. That lead must be given by the Minister responsible for social welfare. Whilst perhaps it is a bit late in the day to extend the Bill to cover such families I would like to think that the Minister will give some commitment that a much more widely based Bill will be considered and introduced in future years. It is not good enough that because it is Christmas, the time of goodwill, the time of good cheer, we should perhaps satisfy a personal charitable ego by throwing a crust to the less well-off. A defined programme which will improve the living standards of those who are not very fortunate is called for and we must try to ensure a more realistic and stable future for them.

We all hope the need for social welfare benefit will decrease because of economic development, more jobs, and so on, but we must face the stark and harsh reality that there will always be a percentage of the population who are unable to look after themselves or take up work, even if it were available. We will always have the disabled, the sick and people who are physically incapable of working and we must provide a better future for them.

I know the Minister is well meaning and dedicated to the position she occupies and I am realistic enough to accept that she will do everything in her power to help these people, but at the Cabinet table she might find herself in the minority and find it very difficult to deal with a Taoiseach and a Minister for Finance who are pursuing monetarist policies which have failed miserably in other countries.

In the past the Labour Party claimed to be the champions of the poor and the less well off. The Minister is a member of that party and she must find it disappointing that there have not been any Labour contributions to this debate. The absence of Labour Party Members since this Dáil commenced has been very obvious. Maybe there is not a specific reason for this, but it has been commented on by the media. One could be forgiven for thinking it could be due to difficulties within the Government and within the Labour Party itself.

Previous speakers referred to free Christmas postage for old age pensioners and social welfare receipients. Some measure should be introduced in this Bill to help these people. It should not be too difficult to administer. The previous speaker mentioned six franked envelopes being provided with each pension book. This figure could be extended. Some facilities should be extended to old age pensioners, perhaps they could send telegrams on presentation of their books at the local post office. This might be considered if it is too late to extend free postage to them.

Old people love to receive and send greetings to relatives and friends but because of the high cost of postage it is impossible for older people living on limited means to send Christmas greetings. This point has already been made by previous speakers and I will not labour it.

Deputy Woods covered all the details in this Bill very adequately and I will not delay the House by repeating what he said. I am very pleased this Bill was introduced today, although in my view it is inadequate. Perhaps the Minister in her reply will tell us if it is possible, even at this late stage, to bring in measures to help the people who have been left out, particularly the long-term unemployed.

Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá ar an mBille seo. Seo é an chéad ócáid atá agamsa chun mo chomhghairdeas a léiriu don Aire, ar a ceapachán mar Aire Sláinte agus Aire Leasa Shóisialaigh. Go háirithe, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leí as ucht an Bhille seo. Is maith an rud é go raibh na Teachtaí a bhí ag caint anseo inniú ag cur fáilte roimh an reachtaíocht seo. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, is é seo an chéad ócáid atáim ag labhairt anseo agus tusa sa Chathaoir. Ba mhaith liom mo mheas agus mo dheathoil a léiriú duitse chomh maith. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh tú taitneamh as an cheapachán atá agat faoi láthair.

Cosúil leis na Teachtaí eile a bhí ag labhairt anseo ar maidin, ba mhaith liom céad míle fáilte a chur roimh an mBille. Níl aon amhras ach go gcabhróidh sé go mór le beagnach 500,000 daoine agus go mbeidh siad in ann níos mó taitnimh a bhaint as an Nollaig atá ag teacht.

I do not intend delaying the House very long but because I represent a constituency which has a large number of social welfare recipients — the city of Limerick — I feel I should not let this occasion pass without saying a few words on this very significant and very welcome Bill. I congratulate the Minister on her generosity and initiative in making it possible for almost 500,000 underprivileged people to enjoy Christmas.

This Bill is being introduced at a time of very severe economic stringency, at a time when every western European country is concerned about national finances and major economic problems. This Government have found a significantly large sum of money to meet a very worthy need. This measure is a clear indication of the social concern of this Government and reflects the personal commitment of the Minister. Down the years she has been an advocate for the poor and underprivileged sections of our community. She is to be commended that so early in her term of office, and despite financial stringency and constraints, she has introduced this Bill which will help almost 500,000 people. This is very praiseworthy and I commend the Government and the Minister on it.

The Minister has shown recognition of the fact that in this country we have an inordinately large proportion of people in the social welfare category. As well, the serious problem of poverty has been referred to today. Various surveys have been carried out and we know that an appalling proportion of our people are on what might be called the poverty line. This Bill will make their lives at Christmas a little less miserable. The unfortunate thing is that these underprivileged people are the least organised, the least able to exercise muscle or to engage in agitation to demand increased benefits.

The effects of this Bill will be welcomed by everybody and by all parties, no matter which side of the House they occupy. One aspect worries me, and it is the main reason why I stood up, and that is whether the Minister can ensure that these payments will be available quickly. In her opening speech the Minister said that one category, old age pensioners would get their payments on Friday, 11 December and that the others would receive them on Thursday, 10 December. I hope it will be possible to ensure that all the beneficiaries will receive their payments in time for Christmas. We all know the appalling delays in the past two years in the matter of these payments and I hope the Minister is getting abreast of the job of easing these delays. The effect of this Bill will be nullified if the people entitled to these payments do not get them in time — the payments will be useless if they are kept waiting for weeks and months.

I am not talking politics when I comment on the appalling delays in social welfare payments in the past two years, delays which caused the enormous hardship and cruelty. I am sure most Deputies who live in large urban areas have had experience of constituency offices becoming virtual bureaux for social welfare. We have had strings of people looking for their rightful entitlements being subjected to enormous cruelty. I hope that because of the Minister's deep personal commitment to the poor and the underprivileged and her demonstrated sincerity she will tackle this problem as quickly as possible, that she will revamp and streamline the whole area of social welfare. This is a time of major high technology and computerisation, when office administration is becoming highly sophisticated, and I hope the Minister will find it possible to do such a major revamp that these delays will not recur, that people will be paid promptly what they are entitled to by right. Particularly I hope that people concerned will get their payments in time for Christmas.

I should like to thank the Deputies who contributed and to express my gratification because all contributors welcomed the measure. That is what I had expected. The debate has been on two main issues. The first is who should get the kudos for the introduction of this measure and two, whether this scheme should be extended to other categories. Almost all Deputies who spoke broadened the debate to include comments on the enormity of the poverty in this country and of the gap between the rich and the poor.

I do not want to dwell on who should get the kudos for the introduction of these double payments. I do not think it is a matter on which the time of the House should be expended. Some of the matters raised by Deputy Woods did not have anything to do with this double payment. I can tell him that there was pressure from backbenchers, from social welfare recipients and from the unions to have this double payment made this Christmas. I should emphasise, however, that at no time was a decision taken by the Government or any question of the Government considering not to make this double payment. Deputy Woods has experience of how Government work in these matters. The main thing is that we have the Bill before us, and it is on the same day as the Bill came before the House last year, 18 November.

I am assured by the officers in the Department that these payments will be made in time. A once-off payment like this inevitably involves extra work for staff, but I have been given that assurance.

I was asked about the possibility of extending these payments to other categories. I hasten to assure Deputies that I am aware there are other categories who will be in need this Christmas. There are people even outside the social welfare categories who will be in need. The Government gave this some consideration, as I have no doubt the Government did last year. We know that there are many people who have been in receipt of pay-related benefits for 15 months and go back to a flat rate. They can have many problems. If it is extended to them it must also be extended to those in receipt of disability and supplementary welfare benefits. The problem here is that one creates a new grey area. It is given for 12 months but there are also those on 11 months short-term benefit who are equally necessitous, maybe more so. Wherever the cut-off point is there will be a problem. Understandably, Deputies and others will point to those who are equally necessitous and are left outside the measure and in respect of whom a new anomaly is created. In the main it was agreed last year, and again this year, to confine this as far as possible to those categories who do not have the prospect of ending their dependence on social welfare. They are the categories that are included in the measure but this is not the last word on this and we can look at it again.

Problems will arise also with regard to those who have breaks in their claims. They may have a genuine grievance if they were not covered. However, whereever we draw the line we will have problems because people will be left outside the scheme. There are people who are completely outside the system and, in many instances, are equally necessitous. We do not put forward the claim that this will eliminate poverty for Christmas but we hope it will bring some comfort to the categories we are catering for. It is in line with our general concern for the standard of living of so many people in this unequal society and for that reason I am glad to be associated in some way with a measure that will bring comfort to a number of them. The total number of people involved is 496,000 which includes 121,000 additional dependants. I am grateful for the welcome extended to the Bill and I am mindful of the points raised by Deputies. A Deputy made the point that cost was not an issue but it is this year. The economy was never in a worse condition. When we took over, the state of the economy created an enormous problem for us. We deserve recognition of the fact that in spite of that we agreed to pay this double allowance although there was no obligation on us under the national understanding. The Government made a commitment to give a 5 per cent increase to old age pensioners and that was transferred into an increase plus 3 per cent which, I am aware, only compensated for budgetary increases. Listening to some Deputies one would have thought that cost of living increases were always granted up to now. For several years there were enormous increases in the cost of living but social welfare recipients were not compensated.

I do not contend that this is enough. We have a long way to go before we will have done enough in relation to social welfare payments. Such payments, however, are not the answer. Really, it is a fire brigade service, a mopping up of the effects of many other policies implemented by Governments down the years in relation to housing, education and so on. Many of the people we are dealing with did not have an opportunity in life and were condemned to a certain lifestyle and incapacity of one type or another which meant that they had to depend on social welfare benefits. Others are unfortunate in that they are sick or disabled. It is my intention to cater for that section of the community and I will never be satisfied I have done enough for them. I am grateful for the contributions and it is important that the legislation is passed quickly.

Mar fhocal scoir ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Tomás Ó Domhnaill ar son an chomhghairdis a thug sé dom agus an méid a bhi le rá aige mar gheall ar an mBille seo.

Has the Minister any comment about Christmas postage?

Many issues were raised in the course of the debate and it would be difficult to deal with them all now. It would be difficult to implement the Deputy's suggestion bearing in mind the time limit but I will try.

What would be the cost of doubling the £4 allowance for the mentally and physically handicapped?

I do not have that figure but I will inform the Deputy.

I am sure the Minister will agree that it will be a very small cost.

It would not be a lot.

Will the Minister give a directive to the health boards on increasing the allowance for long-term patients, as I requested?

That is not a matter for this Bill.

It would not cost the Minister any money because it would be included in the double week.

We will look into the matter.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.