Adjournment Debate. - Social Welfare Equality Payments.

I wish to share my time with Deputy De Rossa.

Is that satisfactory and agreed? Agreed.

I applaud the fact that at long last the free legal aid centres have won justice for 1,800 women nationwide from the Minister and Department of Social Welfare but I deplore the fact that these centres had to threaten High Court action to win legitimate entitlements for these women. I allege that the Minister for Social Welfare misled the Dáil and the public over many months through his statements that all outstanding claims had been settled. The Minister only conceded to FLAC in the face of overwhelming legal evidence against his Department and I am prepared to stand over the allegation that the Minister misled the Dáil.

In response to questions put by me at the Select Committee on Social Affairs on 9 March 1994 in relation to equality payments, the Minister stated:

Retrospective legislation was introduced in 1992 which in general terms entitled married women to the payments which they would otherwise have received if the directive had been implemented on time. Deputies made reference to this legislation, especially regarding cases which were taken before the legislation was enacted. The cases which the Department is defending are cases taken after the legislation was introduced. These provisions addressed the problems arising from the delay in implementing the directive and they addressed it in a reasonable and equitable manner. All entitlements due under the retrospective payments have now been paid.

In making that statement the Minister attempted to seriously mislead the Members of Dáil Éireann because the case in the High Court yesterday involved 1,800 women who submitted cases prior to the introduction of retrospective legislation in 1992. The Minister conceded these cases yesterday in the face of overwhelming legal evidence against his Department. He has not conceded the cases submitted after 1992. The statements I have made about the Minister misleading the House can be verified by the records of the Select Committee on Social Affairs.

I am sorry to interrrupt the Deputy but he may not state that any Member of this House, let alone a Minister, deliberately misled the House; this is tantamount to stating that the Member is a liar. This is not in order. The Deputy may make a political charge against a Department but he may not personalise it.

The statements made by the Minister conflict with the truth. I will ask the chairman of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to investigate the matter.

I ask the Deputy to withdraw unreservedly the imputation that a Minister deliberately misled this House.

I cannot. I quoted the evidence.

The Deputy must desist.

The Ceann Comhairle should be fair. Charges of this kind are regularly made across the floor of the House.

While the Members may make a political charge they may not make a personal charge against a Member.

I quoted the evidence. The Minister's statements are in conflict with the facts. I will ask the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to judge——

I must ask you to accept my ruling in this matter. It is a long-standing rule of this House.

I will rephrase it and say it is in conflict with the facts.

I must ask that the Deputy unreservedly withdraw.

I will not because it is in conflict with the facts.

In that case I have no option but to ask you to leave the House, Deputy.

I have quoted the records.

A Cheann Comhairle, on a point of order——

I am dealing with disorder now. Deputy Allen, you know the rules. If you do not withdraw I must ask you to leave the House.

You are not dealing with disorder, a Cheann Comhairle, you are trying to force the Deputy to state an untruth.

I will withdraw the original statement and say that the Minister's statements were in conflict with the facts as I see them, and I will ask the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to judge the records of the Select Committee on Social Affairs.

I take it that you are withdrawing the allegation.

He just said so.

I just said so, but I will ask the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to investigate because I believe what the Minister said was in conflict with the facts, and no man can fly in the face of fact. I quoted the evidence, a Cheann Comhairle. I did not say it off the top of my head. The evidence is on record and I went to the trouble of getting the record.

You may not circumvent the ruling of the Chair in this matter.

If I stand up here and speak facts I should not be muzzled.

Deputy Allen, if a Member of this House wishes to make a serious charge of this kind against another Member, it can only be done by way of substantive motion. It cannot be done across the floor of the House. I must insist that you withdraw unreservedly.

In order to satisfy you a Cheann Comhairle, and your Office I will withdraw, but I am putting you on notice that I will be asking the Committee of Procedure and Privileges——

That is a matter for yourself, Deputy.

——to investigate the statements made by the Minister at an early meeting. In order to give Deputy De Rossa an opportunity to speak I will just say that the Minister has tried to skirt around this issue for 12 months now. If the Minister does not answer the questions that have been continuously raised in this House I will ask the Committee of Public Accounts to deal with him and his officials because sums amounting to £180 million are involved.

I am allowing some latitude to the Deputy because I was obliged to intervene in his remarks. I now call Deputy De Rossa.

The decision of the Department of Social Welfare to agree an out-of-court settlement in the cases taken by FLAC on behalf of 1,800 women who were claiming social welfare equality arrears represents a tremendous victory for Irish women and the Government should now sanction payment for tens of thousands of other women who have been similarly discriminated against. The settlement represents a humiliating climb down by Minister Woods and his junior Minister, Deputy Joan Burton who has consistently claimed that the women had no case. It is shocking that despite the settlement of this case Ministers are still denying that other women are also entitled to arrears and are threatening to contest any other cases.

Once again Irish women have had to resort to the threat of legal action to secure their entitlements. The manner in which the claims were resisted by the Department and the Ministers, and the way in which Minister Woods and Minister Burton have engaged in a virtual conspiracy of silence aimed at depriving women of their social welfare payments, to which the European Court has ruled they were entitled, is one of the most shameful episodes of our recent political history.

Clearly, by settling out of court, the Department was aiming to avoid a binding court judgment which would have created a legal precedent. However, I believe that the principle has now been clearly established and I urge all women who are in similar circumstances to claim without delay.

FLAC is to be commended for pursuing these cases and forcing the Department to concede. Credit is also due to people like Democratic Left Councillor Kathleen Lynch who was the first public representative to raise this issue and who has played a crucial role in helping women to organise to pursue their case. No more women should now have to resort to the courts and the potentially expensive legal actions necessary to secure justice. The Government must, even at this late stage, do the decent thing and pay up for all women who were discriminated against.

I will not spend much time on Deputy De Rossa's contribution because he has just made what is essentially a political statement delivered here for political purposes outside this House.

In regard to Deputy Allen's contribution, the issue is particularly complex and Deputy Allen seems confused about the technicalities and legalities of the position.

I can understand that with the European elections coming up both Deputies are anxious to raise any issues they can in the House, and they do so repeatedly without reference to the facts.

I am not involved in the European election.

As a Minister on this issue, you are a disgrace.

The Deputy is well aware that these and other court proceedings arise because of the failure of the Fine Gael Party while in Government——

Not the Labour Party?

——to implement the necessary measures to give effect to EC Directive 79/7 by the required deadline of December 1984.

The court cases arose because the Minister misled the House.

The Deputy is making that remark again. I must warn him that if he repeats that I shall have to deal with him.

You should deal with that man.

This problem stems from Fine Gael in office delaying the implementation of equal treatment for women.

Mr. Barry Desmond of the Labour Party, your partner in Government, was Minister at the time.

If the Minister is not going to be heard without interruption, I will adjourn the proceedings forthwith.

He is misleading the House again, a Cheann Comhairle.

You should protect us from these misleading statements, a Cheann Comhairle.

Deputy Allen, I ask you to desist. If I hear you again, I must insist on you leaving the House. If you find it difficult to listen to what the Minister is saying——

It is difficult to sit here listening to this nonsense.

You have a remedy. There are many exits from this Chamber and you may be obliged to take one if you continue.

Be fair to all sides.

Deputy Allen, I have taken a barracking from you too often and I resent it. It is totally disorderly of you and you know it.

It is the Minister's attitude that is leading to this.

Arising from this delay, a number of court proceedings were initiated, in some cases as far back as 1985. In three instances the Irish courts made references to the European Court of Justice. In the light of the clarification of the legal issues provided by the European Court, the Government introduced retrospective legislation in 1992 which provided for equal treatment during the period of delay. This legislation was provided for by way of statutory instrument under the European Communities Act, 1972, which was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas in June 1992. The retrospective legislation made good the default arising from the delay in implementing the directive——

Restrospective legislation is not legal.

——subject to certain provisions designed to avoid double payments——

What about the case of Emmetv. State?

Deputies, the Minister's time is limited.

The Deputy is confused. He will not listen to the explanation because he is not interested in hearing it.

The Minister is not interested in giving women fair play.

Why did he back down yesterday?

Please listen and let me answer the question: have some manners. Subject to certain provisions designed to avoid double payments, the measures brought into force in 1992 entitled married women to the payments they would otherwise have received if the directive had been implemented in December 1984. These provisions addressed the problem arising from the delay in a fair, reasonable and equitable manner. All the entitlements due under the retrospective legislation were paid to over 70,000 women by the end of last year.

The Department of Social Welfare agreed the settlement yesterday in three cases before the courts involving about 1,800 married women who had initiated legal proceedings in relation to the delay beyond the 1984 deadline for implementing the EC Directive on equal treatment. The women involved in these cases had initiated court proceedings before the Government introduced implementing measures in 1992——

That is the very point I made and in the select committee the Minister said it.

Deputy Allen, please desist. Allow the Minister to complete his statement.

——which provided for equal treatment covering the period of delay. I have stated clearly, most recently during the debate on this year's Social Welfare Bill, that my Department proposed to continue the process of reaching settlements in cases in which proceedings were initiated prior to the introduction of the retrospective legislation in 1992.

That is not what the Minister said.

That is not what the Minister said.

That is in the Social Welfare Bill, and that is what I have said repeatedly.

The Minister is on the record.

With respect, I quoted from the record.

The Deputies were heard without interruption. Please be courteous enough to listen to the reply. Deputy Allen, you are out of order. The Minister is in possession and he is entitled to utilise his time without interruption, as you were.

I did not get much time.

He was interrupted as well.

I did not interrupt.

I have also made it clear that all the legal entitlements which are provided for in the retrospective legislation have been paid in full. Since the introduction of this legislation in 1992 proceedings have been initiated in about 80 further cases involving some 7,300 married women. Those married women affected by the delay have already been paid the amounts which they otherwise would have received if the directive had been implemented on time. There appears to be an expectation in some quarters that those involved should have their entitlements in the period of delay determined on the basis of the rules previously in force. This was not the intention of the Oireachtas in enacting legislation providing for equal treatment generally.

That did not come before the Oireachtas.

It was a regulation.

Determining entitlements on the basis of the rules previously applied——

It never came before the Houses.

Since the Deputy will not listen he will never understand it.

We have listened to this ráiméis for the past three months.

It is customary to listen to a reply.

There is an election coming up and the two Deputies are deeply involved in that process.

I am not involved.

They dropped the Deputy: I am not surprised.

The Minister's time is up.

Deputy Allen, allow the Minister to complete his statement.

The Minister is rattled and is resorting to insults. They are catching up on him.

Deputy Allen is guilty of disgraceful tactics tonight.

I am not.

Determining entitlements on the basis——

What is the difference between the 1,800 women he settled with yesterday and the 7,300 he did not settle with?

The Deputy is adopting boot boy tactics.

Will the Minister take a question?

The Deputy is trying to be disruptive; he will not listen to an answer, he only interrupts. I know what he is at.

I know what the Minister is at. What is the difference between the 1,800 women with whom he settled yesterday and the 7,300 with whom he did not settle?

Deputy De Rossa does not have a right to intervene at this stage. The Minister is in possession and should be allowed to complete his statement without further interruption.

I guarantee they will catch up with the Minister on this one too.

Deputy Allen will have to leave the House if he insists on interrupting in this manner.

The Minister will not answer my question.

Determining entitlements on the basis of the rules previously applied would involve making payments in situations which cannot be justified by any reasonable criteria.

Why did the Minister make the settlement yesterday?

For example, where both of a couple were in receipt of a social welfare payment in the period of delay, it would mean paying——

Why did the Minister make the settlement yesterday? He is contradicting himself.

The Deputy is trying to prevent everybody else from hearing the reply.

The Minister is contradicting himself.

I am not.

I merely ask Deputies to be courteous.

The Minister should not have made the settlement yesterday if what he is saying is true.

Deputy De Rossa, please do not continue in that vein.

The Minister is contradicting himself.

For example, where both of a couple were in receipt of a social welfare payment in the period of delay, it would mean paying each of the couple an increase for their spouse as an adult dependant in addition to the personal rate of payment and paying each of the couple the full rate of increases for children. In effect, it would be necessary to make double payments to such couples. It would also mean paying people compensation for a loss they did not suffer. The payments made to those involved were increased on the implementation of the equal treatment provisions in 1986. They received a higher personal rate of payment and qualified for payment of dependency increases.

The legal position in the proceedings initiated after the law was amended in 1992 is different from cases in settlements which have been made by my Department. Since essentially what is involved in these proceedings is making payments, including double payments to the same families which cannot be justified and the cost to the taxpayer could be in the region of £300 million to £400 million — all proceedings initiated since the legislation was amended are being contested by my Department and the matter will, therefore, be determined by the courts. That is the position I outlined to the House on several previous occasions.

The Minister contradicted himself tonight and the record will show that.