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.