I observe that amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are consequential on amendments Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, and I suggest that we take amendments Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6 together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Social Welfare Bill, 1996: Report Stage.
On a point of information, Sir, some difficulties have arisen because of an industrial dispute in the public service. I called to the Bills Office and was told that the amendments could not be printed because of this industrial dispute. I do not know precisely where I am in relation to amendments other than the three amendments which your office notified me were ruled out of order. I want to know if any of my amendments is in order and, if not, if it is in order to speak on the section.
There are two sets of amendments. The ministerial amendments are on the list printed on green paper and Deputies Joe Walsh and Mary Wallace's amendments are on the list printed on white paper, which I understand is being circulated now. I apologise for any delay in distributing the lists. It is due to an industrial problem in the House which I hope will soon be resolved. Are you happy, Deputy Walsh?
Thank you, Sir.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, line 6, to delete "SECTION 7A" and substitute "SECTIONS 7A and 11".
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 5, line 7, to delete "SECTION 18A" and substitute "SECTIONS 18A and 22".
I move amendment No. 2a:
In page 5, line 19, after "1993" to insert "and ‘qualified persons' shall be substituted for any references therein to ‘adult dependant'".
I know the dispute is outside the Chair's control but it has caused some difficulties. The idea behind this amendment is to remove derogatory dependency terms from this Bill. I was comforted when the Minister indicated on Committee Stage that in principle he did not have any difficulty with the matter and would introduce an amendment to remove the dependency terms.
Did the Minister have an opportunity to examine this and, if so, when will it be possible to amend the legislation and the literature emanating from his Department and all other Government Departments to delete all these derogatory terms?
On Committee Stage I indicated that I was supportive of the principle the Deputy was proposing. I believe that the terminology which defines people as "adult dependants" is unacceptable. The vast majority of so-called adult dependants are women and tend to be women who work in the home. It is a long-standing recommendation of the Commission on Social Welfare to replace that term. My understanding is that the alternative term proposed by the Commission on Social Welfare was "qualified partner" but when I considered whether we should use that term I found that in many respects the term partner would not be appropriate. In some cases the adult in receipt of a dependant's allowance may, in fact, be a former partner or a former spouse.
My preference is for the term "qualified adult". It appears to be a better term. On Committee Stage I undertook to consider the possibility of introducing an amendment on Report Stage which would have a general effect and suggested the term "adult dependant" could be construed to mean "qualified adult". However, the parliamentary draftsman advised that all references to "adult dependant" should be replaced with the proposed new term and pointed out that to do otherwise could have unintended effects as it may be necessary to make certain consequential textual amendments to sections of the Acts which refer to "adult dependant". As it is necessary that the Bill be enacted by 6 April next, Deputies will appreciate that it would not be possible to complete the detailed necessary work involved in trawling existing legislation and regulations in this regard. I regret, therefore, that it is not possible to bring forward the amendment I intended to introduce at this Stage, but I solemnly undertake to table a suitable amendment under the 1997 Social Welfare Bill to effect the measure all sides of the House wish to have implemented.
Fáiltím roimh an rud atá ráite ag an Aire. Nuair a bheidh sé ag déanamh scrúdaithe ar sin an bhféadfadh sé scrúdú a dhéanamh ar an gcúis nach n-íoctar dhá liúntas iomlán le cúplaí. Rud nach raibh mise in ann a thuiscint riamh ná cén caoi nach féidir le fear agus deartháir atá ina gcomhnaí le chéile dhá liúntas iomlán a fháil ach ní féidir le beirt phósta an dá liúntas iomlán a fháil. Tá go leor daoine nach dtuigeann é sin. Bheadh sé inmholta don Aire breathnú ar an gceist seo ar fad maidir leis an spleáchas seo atá i gceist go mór le rialacha Leasa Shóisialaigh agus an caoi a cheileann sé cearta ar dhaoine pósta, mar shampla, dul ar scéimeanna áirithe.
Tuigim go maith an moladh atá á chur chun cinn ag an Teachta ach caithfidh mé a rá gur athrú bunúsach a bheadh ann sa chóras leasa shoisialaigh dá ndéanfaí sin. Leis an disabled person's maintenance allowance a bheidh ag teacht isteach sa Roinn seo, beimíd ag tabhairt cearta do mhná agus d'fhir dhá liúntas iomlán a fháil. Ach i láthair na huaire níl an acmhainn againn sin a dhéanamh i ngach cás.
I thank the Minister for accepting the spirit of this amendment. I understand the position of the Bills office and the parliamentary draftsman's office that this amendment would involve changes to a tremendous body of legislation and regulations. In developing and maturing as a society it is important that we give effect to appropriate terms. Given that some of the terms in the legislation are derogatory and humiliating, it is incumbent on us, as legislators, to ensure that not only do we give effect to sentiments of equality and parity of esteem but that at every possible opportunity we ensure they are included in legislation and regulations. Derogatory terms have crept into various Department of Social Welfare documents, including explanatory leaflets and others, and the sooner they are eliminated the better. I commend the Minister for his acceptance of that position. I hope derogatory terms will be removed at the earliest opportunity and we can look forward to enlightened and mature legislation, regulations and terminology.
I move amendment No. 2b:
In page 8, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:
"7.—(1) The recommendation of the Commission on Social Welfare in relation to a common basic payment or minimally adequate payment shall be recognised as the official poverty line.
(2) The official poverty line rate shall be established at:
(a) for a single adult, £50.00 per week at 1985 prices,
(b) for a married couple, 1.6 times the weekly rate for a single person at 1985 prices,
(c) for each child under the age of 18 years, £10.00 per week at 1985 prices.
(3) The official poverty line rate shall be indexed annually in line with the Consumer Price Index.".
The purpose of this amendment is to improve the basis for planning and development of our social welfare services. This amendment does not impose a cost on the Exchequer and has been tabled to assist planners in developing a comprehensive social welfare system. The Minister when in Opposition supported the objective of this amendment and now that he is Minister for Social Welfare he is in an ideal position to implement measures to give effect to his sentiments in this regard. We must wait and see how he, as Minister, measures up in terms of implementing measures to give effect to some of his well worn sentiments regarding this area. The advantage to the Department of accepting this amendment is that it would provide a base line on which to develop policy. It is a recommendation of the Commission on Social Welfare which spent a great deal of time debating this issue and did not put forward this measure lightly.
An official poverty line rate for single adults of £50 per week at 1985 prices would compare to £68.50 at today's prices. That is not an exorbitant amount of money. It is a base line from which to operate. Given that many social welfare studies which use different base lines to measure proverty give rise to confusion, this poverty line rate is as good a benchmark as any. Having implemented the recommendations of the Commission on Social Welfare for the past ten years it is appropriate, now that we are making changes which will take effect in the latter part of this century and the beginning of the next one, that we should have something solid on which to base and build our policy. I strongly recommend that the Minister accepts this amendment.
The Deputy referred to the fact that I proposed an initiative when in Opposition, and that is true. He referred to it on Committee and Report Stages. It is a useful vehicle to debate the question of poverty in the House. I am doing something much more important than simply seeking to provide for a poverty line which would be significantly out of date. The Commission on Social Welfare, in a report ten years ago, made a recommendation on what is estimated as a poverty line in terms of adequate income. In negotiating the Programme for Government Democratic Left sought an updating of the recommendation of the Commission on Social Welfare. There is a commitment in the Programme for Government that the commission recommendation on the main rate will be examined by the ESRI and a report produced on what the rates ought to be. When I came to office one of the first things I did was ask the ESRI to consider this question, and I expect a report from it on income adequacy by the middle of this year.
That body will also consider how such a recommendation could be indexed. Various devices have been used for indexing. At times, depending on the economic position, various levels of social welfare payments fall behind the requirement. When the Commission on Social Welfare addressed income adequacy it found that a significant proportion of social welfare payments were way below what it considered to be even a minimally adequate income. It recommended an emergency approach to bring the rates up to a certain level and that efforts be made to reach the main rate over a period.
Another action I took with the agreement of Government, to deal with poverty was to establish the national anti-poverty strategy, involving a high level interdepartmental committee which is currently consulting widely with the voluntary and community sector whose members are actively engaged on a day to day basis in working with people affected by poverty. That strategy produced a summary of the submissions made by the voluntary and community sector and published a document on the broad themes identified. It also produced a document outlining the institutional reform that could be made to support such a strategy. The intention is that all Government Departments and agencies, in the formulation and implementation of policies, would be obliged to have regard to the question of poverty and consult those affected by it.
I also established a Commission on the Family which, in the next 15 months — it will report by June of next year — will consider how we can support families regardless of their status, whether single parent or two parent families, whether married or cohabiting. Families with large numbers of children are those most at risk of poverty. I am very proud as Minister for Social Welfare to have established this commission. The Government is determined to implement the recommendations of the national anti-poverty strategy and the Commission on the Family.
I also substantially increased child benefit by £9 per child, the largest increase ever in that benefit. That is a concrete step to deal with poverty. Research indicates — the Commission on Social Welfare made it clear this is its view — that poverty affects families with children to a greater extent, and the larger the family the more likely it is to be affected by poverty. Not only have I pursued the policies I advocated when in Opposition as Leader of Democratic Left but I am actively implementing those policies. I am not at all embarrassed by Deputy Walsh's proposal or my refusal to accept it because it is too late to do so. His party had the opportunity since 1986 to implement such a proposal, which might have been useful in the years since then, but failed to do so.
The Minister has a chance to accept the amendment, but he is occupying a different position now.
When a Minister is implementing concrete policies to deal with poverty we hear a charade of concern from Fianna Fáil about the poor.
The Minister is reneging on his commitment.
I have no qualms whatsoever in opposing this amendment.
This is a very important issue and it is extraordinary to hear the Minister say a measure that may have been useful in the years 1987 to 1994 is no longer useful.
We have gone beyond that and are now a stage ahead.
How can a Minister who, every year in Opposition, called for a measure such as that proposed in this amendment say it is no longer useful? Those who have followed this debate will be aware that it is not true that the Minister is actively implementing policies he pursued when in Opposition. All one has to do is look at the various sections dealt with on Committee Stage to see that is the case. For example, when the Minister was in Opposition he had very definite views on multiple births and believed people advocating that twins should constitute a multiple birth had a justifiable case. When he came to office those people wrote to congratulate him, believing that he would meet his commitment in that regard, but he failed to do so. Likewise in regard to poverty, those who heard the Minister speak about this matter when in Opposition are disappointed at his failure to implement the policies for which he made such a strong case at the time.
The third item is the disabled person's maintenance allowance. The Minister does not like to be reminded of it but, in Opposition, he said that disabled person's maintenance allowance should be £150 per week. Although this is the Minister's second Social Welfare Bill, the allowance is only 48 per cent of that amount. He has done nothing about this important issue in his time as Minister. It is wrong to make such strong calls in Opposition and then let people down when one is in a position of being able to do something for them.
The wording of amendment No. 2b is the same as that of an amendment tabled by the Minister two years ago——
They cannot think up their own amendments.
The Minister felt the provision appropriate when he was in Opposition and I cannot understand why he feels it is not useful when he has the power to accept it. It was useful from 1987 to 1994. If the Minister forgot the issue when drafting the Bill he should now be ready to admit it was what he called for over the past eight years, apologise for forgetting to include it and accept the amendment.
The amendment seeks to identify a standard for the official poverty line which can be indexed annually. It will not cost the State anything to accept the amendment. The public will not be convinced if the Minister decides that what was useful in the past is not useful now. It will not wash in the context of the Bill given the lack of action in relation to twins as multiple births and the disabled person's maintenance allowance provisions. The Minister has been in office for two years now and people expect to get more than 48 per cent of the amount the Minister called for in Opposition.
It is extraordinary that the Minister is not willing to accept this amendment. When one becomes Minister one's perspective changes, particularly the Minister for Social Welfare who gives the lowest percentage increase and realises one has hung oneself on a hook and cannot get off it.
The Minister has a point in saying that the commission's figures are out of date but if the Minister agreed with the principle of the amendment and inserted an updated poverty line figure, this side of the House would not object. The Minister's problem with the proposal is that if we agreed on a standard for the poverty line, every rise in payments he announces as Minister could be measured against an independent yardstick. In other words, the Minister knows because he proposed this that he has failed his own test. The 2.5 per cent increase only translates into a rise of £1.50 or £2 a week. If one were to factor in the inflation rate and the growth in the economy and the increase was measured against an independent measurement, it would be clear to people that they were not getting a rise.
To protect his own integrity the Minister should agree to establish a poverty line in the social welfare code — an independent measure which would be adjusted each year and indexed in line with the consumer price index. The Minister should also agree that the basic line would be reviewed every five years by an independent body based on the general growth in the economy. It is important that the rising tide lifts all boats.
The Minister was long on rhetoric. He talked about commissions and bodies but they do not impress the people. They want action. The people I represent will always ask what an increase means in monetary terms. They know that commissions are established and publish reports but it is action that counts. The Minister made great play of the rises in child benefit but such rises benefit everybody, including very high earners. When the Minister refers to child benefit he neglects to mention that 70,000 people come out of the system each year and only 48,000 go into it because the birth rate has dropped. The cost of giving generous increases in child benefit is nothing like the Minister makes out because the birth rate has dropped so dramatically. That is a simple demographic fact. The Minister knows that in time one can give more generous increases in child benefit at much less cost because of the drop in the birth rate.
This amendment is based on what the Minister previously proposed. The Minister might even propose to amend the amendment's subsection (2) (c) to cover each child under 21 years of age in full-time education, so that all dependent children, particularly those of people in receipt of social welfare allowances or benefits, are covered. We would thereby do something to ensure that the children of those dependent on social welfare can avail of grants to go to third level education.
The acid test by which the Minister's performance will be measured is how he has fulfilled the promises and proposals he made in Opposition. The public seems to have made up its mind already given that Democratic Left is at 1 per cent in the opinion polls. The consensus among the public is that there has been less improvement and reform in social welfare during the Minister's tenure than under any Fianna Fáil Minister. Fianna Fáil is proud that it created the system and developed it. The Minister is not willing to have an independent measure of his performance because he knows he would fail his own test.
The Minister has already spoken and may speak again.
It is a pity Deputy Ó Cuív is leaving because I wanted to correct a few comments he made.
The point has been well made that this is a straightforward amendment not entailing cost, to provide a means of improving the manner in which we conduct our business. I have already pointed out weaknesses within the Social Welfare system to help us in that planning.
On Second Stage, I drew the Minister's attention to the fact that basic information on the level of education of those on the live register, particularly the long-term unemployed was not available to us. I have been informed by his Department that it does not have that information, that the Central Statistics Office might be in a position to provide such. We need the best information available to enable us make proper decisions and help those most in need. This Minister is in a position to implement his proposal, if he is committed and serious about it. This amendment is what is required. I can only conclude he was not serious but was merely engaging in hypocritical cant about his concern for the poor and reneging on his declared commitment to them. In those circumstances I want to press this amendment.
Amendment No. 2c has been ruled out of order.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 11, to delete lines 27 to 33 and substitute the following:
"‘12. Employment under a scheme administered by An Foras Áiseanna Saothair and known as Community Employment or employment under a programme known as the Part Time Job Opportunities Programme administered by or on behalf the Conference of Religious of Ireland, where—
(a) the said employment commences on or after the 6th day of April, 1996, or
(b) in any other case, where, subject to such conditions and in such circumstances as may be prescribed, the person employed in either of the said employments, elects to be an employed contributor within the meaning of section 9 (1) (a).',".
Section 12 provides for the extension of Class A social insurance to people who take up community employment or who participate in the part-time job opportunities pilot programme sponsored by the Conference of Religious of Ireland — CORI — on or after 6 April 1996. Having considered the question of extending full social insurance to community employment and CORI workers and in the light of views recently expressed by interested groups, I have decided to provide such workers who commence employment prior to 6 April 1996 with the option of paying full social insurance, that is Class A, contributions.
The Minister of State indicated to Deputy Joe Walsh on Committee Stage that this issue was being examined with a view to tablng an amendment on Report Stage.
The conditions under which such workers may elect to pay Class A contributions will be set out in regulations. What I have in mind is that such workers who wish to pay full social insurance will notify their employers and, once a person has elected to pay Class A contributions, he or she will be required to continue to pay the full rate contribution for the duration of their employment in community employment schemes or participation in the CORI part-time job opportunities pilot programme.
I welcome this worthy scheme administered by FÁS under the aegis of CORI.
The amendment, which will allow people the option of paying the considerably higher Class A social insurance contributions, is also welcomed since such contributions will reap benefits well worth the additional cost involved and, ultimately, entitle people to a contributory pension. Where feasible, this option should be allowed in all cases.
Will the provisions of this amendment relate to people who participate in other progrmmes or schemes not run by CORI? Does the Minister consider it essential to confine that option to those schemes or can it be broadened to cater for, say, women in the home who would be anxious to participate if they could benefit?
I welcome the support for my amendment. The position with regard to community employment and the programme sponsored by CORI is those participants, who pay Class J social insurance contributions at present, are the only people to whom that class applies. That class is now being replaced by Class A contributions. From 6 April next all new entrants to community employment and the CORI part-time job opportunities pilot programme will be obliged to pay Class A contributions.
This amendment will afford those at present participating in community employment, the CORI pilot programme, or who take up such employment before 6 April next, to opt for the full Class A contribution but does not extend beyond those categories.
The point raised by Deputy Mary Wallace about women in the home simply does not apply unless they are participants in a community employment scheme or the CORI part-time job opportunities pilot programme.
Amendment No. 3a in the names of Deputies Joe Walsh and Mary Wallace has been ruled out of order.
I asked the Minister of State whether employees of Telecom Éireann were consulted on the matter and he said he would endeavour to obtain some information for me on Report Stage. Has that information been obtained?
We cannot debate an amendment ruled out of order.
I take it the commitment of the Minister of State to obtain that information has been reneged on, which is a grave disservice and demonstrates a lack of openness in dealing with Members of the Opposition.
We come now to amendment No. 3b.
I move amendment No. 3b:
In page 13, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following:
"(b) In all cases where a person's application for a disability allowance has been rejected, they shall be entitled to receive within ten days a written statement, in such form as shall be specified by regulation, of the reasons for this rejection.".
In the improvement of the quality of service provided to recipients of allowances — in this case we are talking about disability allowance — responsibility for which has now been transferred to the Department of Social Welfare, we expect such services to be delivered by Departments and their agencies in a friendly and helpful manner and that the greatest degree of information will be provided. As public representatives we see people ever week in our clinics who want us to obtain information for them on a particular problem or difficulty they have and in my experience the majority of those problems relate to social welfare issues. These problems result in additional stress and anxiety for claimants who make their applications in good faith. They are entitled to a written explanation or statement, within a reasonable length of time, if the application is rejected and ten days, as suggested in this amendment, is adequate. A great deal of pressure would be removed from the Department if it were to issue such explanations because every day on the Order Paper there are questions seeking information for constituents which should be given in the first instance by the Department. We all know the cost of putting down a Dáil question and the reply thereto is exorbitant. It is a cost to the taxpayer and results in additional work for officials in the Department. It is another layer of bureaucracy involving the claimant, the local Deputy, Department officials, the Secretary of the Department and, finally, the Minister. The paper generated in that process and the unnecessary time and administrative work involved is totally out of proportion to the problem which should be resolved at source. If a person's claim is rejected he or she should be given an adequate and comprehensive explanation in writing which would result in a considerable saving for the taxpayer. I ask the Minister to support the amendment.
As my colleague, Deputy Walsh, pointed out, we were advised on a number of occasions on Committee Stage that we would be given more detailed information on Report Stage. Will the Chair clarify the point at which we will be given this detailed information? Will it be given as we deal with the amendments or——
We are dealing with amendment No. 3b. We must confine ourselves to this amendment.
On a point of clarification, is the Chair in a position to indicate the stage at which we will get the more detailed information we were promised on this section?
I am not aware of the detailed information the Deputy is seeking.
We were promised information on Committee Stage on this section and on other sections. To avoid having to ask the question each time it arises——
Is the information relevant to amendment No. 3a?
It is relevant to No. 3b and to certain sections.
If it is relevant only to amendment No. 3a the Deputy may not have the information. If it is relevant to No. 3b I expect the Deputy is entitled to it but I do not know at what point it will be given to her.
Can the House be advised on this issue because both the Minister and the Minister of State told us on Committee Stage that certain information not available then would be given on Report Stage? I am anxious to know when we will be given that information. Questions arose with regard to section 3 and many other sections of the Bill.
On a point of information, the Deputy can ask the question and if I have the information I will give it to her.
Must I repeat all the questions asked on Committee Stage in order to obtain the information promised?
Perhaps the Deputy could ask the question now.
The Deputy does not remember all of the questions.
I am genuine about this matter. We accepted what the Minister said on Committee Stage about providing further information on Report Stage.
We are currently dealing with amendment No. 3b and any information being sought must relate to that amendment.
Do I have to specifically query each matter as we proceed?
The Minister said he will answer the Deputy's question if she asks it. It must be relevant to the amendment with which we are dealing.
What is the position if it is not proposed to amend the section even though a commitment was given on Committee Stage?
The Minister said he will provide the information if he has it.
Will we deal with the different sections when we have dealt with the amendments?
We should get on with the business of the House. This is a charade.
I am advised that can happen only on Committee Stage.
If that is the position, were we not given false promise on Committee Stage? We were satisfied with the Minister's assurances on Committee Stage that further information would be provided but it appears there is not any mechanism available to us through which we can obtain the promised information.
If the information sought pertains to amendment No. 3b the Minister said he will give the information if he has it.
I have some difficulty with that because I do not know at what point I can ask questions. On the issue of disability allowances referred to in amendment No. 3b, we were advised that when the administration aspect is sorted out, improvements will be made.
We were also advised that when the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities reports there will be further improvements. I am concerned about that. Earlier this morning Deputy Ó Cuív was informed that when the report from the Commission on the Family is concluded there will be progress in that area but it will not be available until June 1997. By then the Minister and the Government will be out of office. The report from the Commission on the family is being used as an excuse to do nothing. The reports are good and I am interested in many of them, especially the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and the report of the Commission on the Family but we should not delay a decision by a year and a half saying we cannot decide on anything until a report is available. It is somewhat like the stalling procedures on Committee Stage where we were told we would get answers on Report Stage. Now we are on Report Stage and there is no answer. I am concerned that while we are raising issues that are important to people whom we represent, we cannot get real answers. We are told it is not appropriate to ask such questions today but to ask them when the report is available, although the report will not be available for a year and a half. It is wrong to delay answering in this manner. I do not wish to take from the importance of the reports of these commissions which will be milestones in the history of the State. While we await these reports anxiously, they should not be an excuse for doing nothing in the meantime. I am concerned that there are repetitions of this throughout the Bill.
Deputy Wallace is an amazing person. She succeeds in confusing Report Stage with reports of commissions and in confusing genuine offers to provide information with lack of clarity and lack of commitment. She confuses a commitment to take on board the recommendations of various commissions with an unwillingness to act when we are here debating a Bill——
On a point of order——
——which is one of the most innovative social welfare Bills for many years.
I am not confused. It is just that every time I stand up here there is some excuse for not giving an answer. I understand quite well the difference between Report Stage of a Bill and a report that is due. I am not confused——
That is not a point of order.
——but I would like to hear the answers which are scarce nowadays.
The Minister to continue without interruption.
As I was explaining to the Deputy, this is one of the most innovative social welfare Bills for many years. We are debating sections all of which are positive, give new rights to people in receipt of social welfare, increase the amounts of money they will receive, and the protection of people on social welfare and those who are paying PRSI contributions. The amendment the Deputy tabled seeks to provide for a written reply or a written explanation of the refusal of an appeal. Section 31 provides regulatory powers to specify procedures to be followed on decisions by deciding officers and appeals officers on social welfare payments and on determinations by officers of health boards in relation to claims for supplementary welfare allowance. These powers will be used to provide that all such decisions and determinations will be given in writing and will set out the reason for an adverse decision.
By saying she is not getting answers and is not getting action, the Deputy only indicates that she has failed to read the Bill. She is wasting the time of the House by tabling an unnecessary amendment. She is requesting that replies be provided within ten days when the practice is that replies and written explanations are provided within three to four days. The attempt by the Deputy to imply that nothing is being done is wrong. She is confused, primarily because she has failed to read the Bill.
The Deputy is convinced I will be out of office by June 1997. She is wrong on two counts. First, the general election is not due until November 1997. I advise her not to go to the starting line just yet. Second, it is for the electorate to decide whether I will be in office or out of office whenever the general election takes place. She may have an opinion as to what will happen just as I have. I would be happy to go before the electorate on the basis of this social welfare Bill alone because of the range of improvements in it. I have no fear of the judgment of the electorate in this matter.
Deputy Wallace refers to reports and commissions. Reports and commissions are important. They help us to draw on the expertise of various people whom we might not otherwise have available to us to examine complex issues and questions to which there are more than one answer. It is important that we use them.
My record in this Department indicates that I do not sit on reports. When the report on child benefit was presented to me in January 1995 I acted on it within three weeks by implementing some of its recommendations and I continue to act on it. When I established the task force on security for the elderly at the beginning of February, I gave it a target date for presenting its report to me by the end of February. It did so and within a matter of two months we now have a Government decision on the recommendations of that task force already in place and already being acted upon.
This must be interesting to the Opposition benches. If Members listened to what I have been saying they might not repeat the mistakes they have repeated this morning. They are not interested in what the Minister has to say in response to the questions they have asked. There is no point in asking questions if they will not listen to the answers.
If the Minister tells me it is not correct——
I was trying to get the Deputy's attention. I am not seeking anything other than the Deputy's attention at this time.
I am sure the Minister is very concerned. Please allow him to answer without interruption.
It would expedite the business of the House if the Deputies would listen. It would prevent them repeating the mistakes they have made so far in this debate. The evidence is that when I receive a report I act on it. I have no doubt when the national anti-poverty strategy report is presented to Government it will be acted upon and when the report of the Commission on the Family, which is to be out by June 1997, is presented to Government it will be acted upon. I have no doubt either that it will be this Government which acts on it.
The Minister will be well gone.
I reject the amendment tabled. It is unnecessary. The Bill already provides the type of protections the Deputies are seeking to provide. If they read the Bill they would know that.
This is another case of the Minister's hypocrisy and, by now, his well established arrogance in this House with regard to Members and to the public. This is a mild amendment which seeks to give people clarification and full reasons for rejection of a disability allowance. However, the Minister decided to make a politically insulting contribution rather than address the matter.
It is in the Bill.
It is another case of the Minister failing to do something he had called for when in Opposition. The trappings of office are adequate to keep him going. He spoke arrogantly about not being afraid to face the electorate and so on but is this what he is doing? When I was in Dublin West I wondered where the Democratic Left members were. Why are they not out talking about the gaisce they are doing in Government and the difference they are making? They are afraid to face the electorate, to accept this golden opportunity, in a constituency which has all sections of society, from the deprived to the well-off. That party, huddled together in a smoke-filled room, decided it would be humiliated in this by-electon and funked the election to save its bacon.
Is this relevant to amendment 3b?
It is. If it was not relevant originally it was made relevant by the Minister introducing the matter. Taking everything into consideration I wish to press the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 4 and 7 form a composite proposal and may be taken together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 34, between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following:
"(5) Section 4 (4) (a) (as amended by section 11 of the No. 2 Act of 1995) of the Principal Act is hereby amended by the substitution for ‘rule 1 (2) (m) and 1 (6) of Part I of the Third Schedule, Rule 3 (3) of Part II of the Third Schedule and Rule 2 of Part III of the Third Schedule,' of ‘Rule 1 (2) (m), 1 (2) (u) and 1 (6) of Part I of the Third Schedule, Rule 1 (4) (u) and 3 (3) of Part II of the Third Schedule and Rule 1 (1) (o) and 2 of Part III of the Third Schedule,'.".
As I explained on Committee Stage, section 15 provides for regulatory powers to exempt awards made by the hepatitis C tribunal for the assessment of means for the new disability allowance. Amendment No. 7 provides for similar powers to exempt such awards for the assessment of means for all other social assistance payments. This exemption will apply not only to women to whom the awards are made but also to their spouse or partner in the event of their claiming or being in receipt of a social assistance payment.
Amendment No. 4 provides for a consequential amendment to the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1993, under which the regulations in question will require the sanction of the Minister for Finance. This is another example of the approach of the Government and myself to problems that arise — we look at how it can be solved and take action. I am sure this amendment will have the support of the Opposition Deputies in the interests of the women, and some men, who will go before the tribunal and may receive compensation for their claims.
As we said on Committee Stage, anything which can be put into legislation to assist the women involved is welcome and this is another positive step to ensure all social assistance payments are exempt, not just those awarded to the women but those to their spouses. No Member should pat himself or herself on the back for doing what we can in this case. We must bear in mind that these people were contaminated by blood which they had a right to assume would be perfect at the time they received it. As a result, it behoves us to bend over backwards to ensure there are no difficulties with regard to the compensation due to the infected women, which will be badly needed in the years ahead. These people did not ask to be infected in this way and if they could turn back the clock they would be delighted to do so. We agree with any statutory measure in this regard and we also called for the setting up of the tribunal on a specific basis but it has not been possible for the Government to agree. We agree with those amendments because we are glad to support anything which will help the infected women.
I also support these amendments, which are humane and take into account the plight of these women. It is only proper that they should have been introduced to ensure those infected by hepatitis C are not disadvantaged in any way in terms of payments made. Those people have suffered sufficient trauma already and are entitled to any payments they receive subject to these amendments.
Amendment No. 7 proposes to delete from the Principal Act the phrase, under a lease which was certified by the Irish Land Commission to be bona fide and in accordance with sound land use practice. The REPS scheme, which benefits people who use land in an environmentally friendly way, has not be covered in the Bill. When will a similar measure for REPS come into effect?
My understanding is that the Deputy's question does not relate to the amendments. My amendments relate to the disregard of compensation which people who go before the hepatitis C tribunal may receive in the assessment for assistance payment for themselves or their spouses or partners. If the Deputy wishes I can reply to his questions on Fifth Stage; I will seek the information for him.
May we have an explanation for amendment No. 7?
The Deputy's question relates to the rural environmental protection scheme but this amendment suggests exempting compensation for hepatitis C infection. Therefore, the Deputy's does not arise on this amendment. I will seek to obtain that information for Final Stage and answer any further questions the Deputy may wish to pose at that time.
In amendment No. 7, what is the connection between the deletion of "under a lease which was certified by the Irish Land Commission to be bona fide and in accordance with sound land use practice"——
We are not dealing with Committee Stage.
The Chair is, therefore, unable to be helpful?
Unfortunately that is correct.
Amendments Nos. 4a to 4f inclusive form a composite proposal and may be taken together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Why are the amendments being taken together?
The Ceann Comhairle decided that they would be taken together.
Is it correct that Members may speak only once on the entire set of amendments?
I move amendment No. 4a:
In page 36, before line 1, to insert the following:
44. —(1) The Minister shall, following consultation with representative bodies, including representatives of claimants, establish a ‘Charter of Rights' for claimants.
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the Charter of Rights shall contain provisions in relation to—
(a) the right to have all personal dealings conducted in a manner and place which is conducive to privacy and is easily accessible;
(b) the right to be treated with courtesy and respect;
(c) the right to be presumed honest;
(d) the right to full access to services and fair treatment irrespective of political, religious, cultural or sexual orientation;
(e) the right to confidentiality and to have access to all relevant information contained on his or her computer file;
(f) the right to an explicit and transparent system for making complaints and the right to a speedy response to such complaints;
(g) the right to an oral hearing in the event of an appeal;
(h) the right to full and total information including eligibility criteria at the time of application;
(i) the right to be advised within a period of not more than four working days of the lodgement of an application within the meaning of this section, to be advised of the identity of the person empowered with the task of determining the application.".
This issue involves the provision of services by the Department of Social Welfare which should grant courtesy and the greatest degree of civility to claimants as their claims are processed through to decision stage. In my opinion a charter of rights represents a very desirable innovation. Other Departments have shown a far more enlightened attitude to this matter than the current Minister for Social Welfare. I was disappointed that the Minister rejected this amendment on Committee Stage and voted against it.
The Minister's action is in direct contrast to the policy of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry which introduced a charter of rights for farmers some months ago. It was correct to do so because farmers making claims for payments at local Department offices complained that such offices were inadequate in terms of providing them with the privacy and courtesy necessary to attend to their business. They also complained that the regulations and guidelines issued by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry were inadequate and must be made more straightforward and that the application forms were complex and difficult to understand. A similar situation obtains in the Department of Social Welfare. In terms of agricultural and farming activities, applicants can obtain the information and services they require from a range of State agencies, consultancies and advisory services such as Teagasc. This is not the case with social welfare claimants.
Members of the most deprived sectors of Irish society are at a disadvantage when completing complex application forms, receiving information and applying for aid under the various services. On Committee Stage Members inquired about particular regulations and statutory instruments. The officials of the Department made available a particular statutory instrument which had not been available to Members, not to mention the general public. I appreciate the fact that we received the statutory instrument in question, but all guidelines should be published and made generally available.
On Committee Stage I also referred to a study carried out by the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed. The INOU has made some progress in regard to having itself accepted as a representative body, but not as much as it should because a substantial number of Irish people are unemployed. This organisation should be entitled to a full consultancy role in all relevant fora.
The report of the INOU inquired if reception areas are available at employment exchanges and offices throughout the country. It was discovered that, while such areas are available in 45 per cent of the offices in urban districts, they are available in only 18 per cent of rural districts. The entire study suggests that, in general, rural areas are more disadvantaged than urban areas. Surely claimants and poor people in rural areas are entitled to avail of the courtesy and facilities available to people in any other part of the country.
I wish to highlight the disadvantage experienced in an area I represent, namely Castletownbere. The Department of Social Welfare, and I assume the Minister, decided to close the social welfare office in Castletownbere, even though it is 60 miles to Bantry, the nearest town. The road along the peninsula on which Castletownbere is situated is in a state of disrepair and cannot even be described as a secondary road. A telephone answering machine was installed in the social welfare office and an official travels there once a week to monitor incoming calls. If a person cannot visit the office on the day in question, he or she is obliged to travel to Bantry or Caherciveen in County Kerry.
This represents a withdrawal of services to an isolated farming area which is quite poor and the lives of social welfare claimants in Castletownbere have disimproved as a result. Offices in certain areas of the country have been improved and upgraded to information offices. This is proper because people are entitled to the best information on which to base their claims. The INOU's report states that up to date, relevant information is only available in 29 per cent of cases in rural areas. The report also states that information can be obtained for "take away" purposes at 29 per cent of rural employment exchanges, while the figure for urban areas is 50 per cent. On average, 46 per cent of respondents stated that they obtained no information at their employment exchanges and 24 per cent made a similar claim in the case of health clinics. We must try to remedy that and improve the physical environment in which people make their claims. People should not have to queue on the street outside employment exchanges, particularly in inclement weather. There are inadequate facilities for the disabled and that is scandalous. There is access for those with disability in 70 per cent of urban exchanges but only in 43 per cent of rural ones, which is unacceptable.
Women are treated shabbily. In many cases they are homemakers and must mind their children. The report states there is a safe place for children to wait in 14 per cent of rural exchanges but there are no toilet or nappy changing facilities. We must improve the quality of the delivery of the services.
People are entitled to privacy. The humilitation of making a case, which involves giving personal details, within earshot of those in the queue is profound. I stated on Committee Stage I was pleased at the finding that staff are courteous, helpful and seek to facilitate claimants in every way. However, the report states that there is great need for extra staff, particularly in rural areas.
The National Economic and Social Forum, the Commission on Social Welfare, INOU and other concerned representative groups support this amendment which seeks to have guidelines, Statutory Instruments, regulations and supporting leaflets and documentation from the Department not only published but made generally available. Internal documents should also be made generally available.
On Committee Stage we debated the issue of the Department seeking to recover overpayments. We believe six years is too long. The executor of a will may not be financially well off. In some cases solicitors may not give the best possible advice and put an adequate amount of money aside to cover overpayment by the Department. They may advise their client to disburse the moneys and leave it to the executor to meet the liability. Solicitors and accountants whose clients are social welfare recipients should have all the relevant material made available to them.
I compliment the Department of Social Welfare, the only Department to use the electronic media in a useful way. It gives up-to-date information on Aertel and on popular programmes such as "Live at Three".
As regards appeals, people are often confused and are not aware of their entitlements or their right to an oral hearing. It is more effective if people make their own cases and have someone to support them. There should be a charter of rights for social welfare recipients. This group, who have drawn the short straw in society, are entitled to have the services delivered to them in a friendly, courteous and confidential way.
We do not intend to withdraw the amendment.
The Department of Social Welfare should draw up a charter of rights for social welfare recipients. The Departments of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and Health have such charters. On admission to hospital patients can receive a copy of the charter. This gives them a sense of security and raises the level of staff consciousness. While 99 per cent of staff are friendly and informative the other 1 per cent who may deal with telephone queries in a sharp manner often cause problems for the elderly. When I telephoned a particular office recently I was greeted with the response "Smith" and not by the name of the section. I could not believe I was answered in this manner. I accept it may have been an isolated incident and that the majority of staff are informative and courteous. I could tell "Smith" that is not the way to answer the telephone, that an elderly or sick person might be put off by such a response. The Minister for Health believed it was necessary to introduce a charter of rights for patients and I fail to understand why the Minister for Social Welfare does not do so.
The 1996 report on standard of service for welfare recipients shows a marked difference between services in urban and rural areas and between employment exchanges and health clinics. The Minister should examine this matter. It is interesting to note that only 1 per cent of people in urban areas compared with 71 per cent in rural areas said they have to queue outside employment exchanges. A 12 year old child who started post-primary school in Navan once told me about the great place in Navan where people get money for queuing on the footpath outside the building. She said that every day when the children are on their lunch break people queue on the street outside the building.
Was that in the last century?
It was three or four years ago. Fortunately, the position changed when the new offices were provided two years ago. This report, dated January 1996, states that 71 per cent of people in rural areas have to queue outside employment exchanges. I can understand the Minister asking if that child made those comments in the last century because only 1 per cent of people in Dublin said they had to queue outside employment exchanges. Therefore, the Minister may not be familiar with the problem. I am not criticising him, I am merely highlighting the report's findings.
A total of 50 per cent of people in urban areas compared with 7 per cent in rural areas said they had privacy when making their cases. There is also a marked difference between the operations of employment exchanges and health clinics. While only 7 per cent believed they had enough privacy when making their case in employment exchanges, a total of 80 per cent of those attending health clinics believed that to be the case. Perhaps this stems from the fact that there is a charter of rights in the Department of Health and not in the Department of Social Welfare.
The charter of rights gives a sense of security to patients, particularly public patients. They are aware that they have rights even though they are not paying large sums of money for their medical care. Social welfare recipients are entitled to a similar charter. The fact that they are getting benefits from the Department should not mean that they do not have rights.
Some old age pension applicants left school in the 1930s and the 1940s at 11 or 12 years of age and may not have excellent literacy skills. It may be difficult for them to complete the relevant application form. Amendment No. 4a states that the charter of rights should contain provisions on the right to have all personal dealings conducted in a manner and place which is conducive to privacy and easily accessible, the right to be treated with courtesy and respect and the right to be presumed honest. Is there a difficulty with enshrining that in a charter of rights? All employment exchanges should be accessible. I do not know if that is the case at present. Many people are unaware of their entitlements and do not understand how to apply for certain benefits. A charter of rights could be beneficial in that regard. I am not saying that staff are unhelpful but in the 1990s people may presume that everyone can read and write: that is an unsafe presumption. I am also concerned that people who work in nine to five jobs and deal with many files may simply regard an application as another case. People apply for an old age pension, disability benefit or invalidity pension once in their lives and it is a big issue for them. It is, therefore, essential that they are dealt with in a private, courteous and respectful manner. The vast majority of people treat applicants in this way and there is nothing wrong with the Department of Social Welfare setting out in a charter of rights for social welfare recipients. If it has nothing to hide or to be afraid of then the Department should introduce a charter of rights similar to the one introduced by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The Minister's refusal to accept this amendment gives rise to questions about his commitment to transparency and the protection of people's rights. A charter of rights is a basic right.
Paragraph (h) provides for the right to full and total information, including eligibility criteria, at the time of application. On Committee Stage we referred to elderly people in rural areas who keep their savings in their homes and are afraid of being robbed. It was pointed out that an applicant for a pension is entitled to have £2,000 in savings which is disregarded. How many elderly people know the first £2,000 in savings is disregarded? If this information was given in the application form elderly people would know that the Department would not take it into account in the assessment of eligibility. As Deputy Walsh correctly stated, one of the main concerns of elderly people is that they will have enough money for their burial which may cost £1,000-£2,000. The Department has told me that they are entitled to have this amount of money in savings and it will not be taken into account in the assessment of eligibility.
On Committee Stage we referredad infinitum to the application of a notional rather than an actual rate of interest to sums over £2,000 and I hope we got our message across. The Department might not be too anxious to tell people who receive a 0.25 per cent rate in the bank that they use a notional rate of 10 per cent and I hope it will change this practice following the debate on Committee Stage. If people knew that the first £2,000 was disregarded and every £1,000 after that treated in a certain way they would be able to calculate their entitlement. The Department should not be afraid to set out the criteria in the application form.
Paragraph (i) proposes that the charter of rights should contain provisions in relation to "the right to be advised within a period of not more than four working days of the lodgement of an application within the meaning of this section, to be advised of the identify of the person empowered with the task of determining the application". It is not too much to expect the Department of Social Welfare to acknowledge the receipt of application forms. For example, it should be possible for the Department to write to people informing them that their application for an old age pension has been received and is being dealt with by Margaret Smith who can be contacted at a certain number. This would mean people could telephone Margaret Smith and ask her when a decision would be made on their application.
I presume everyone, including the Minister, would agree to the inclusion of all these provisions in a charter of rights. It is extraordinary in the era of transparency that the Department is afraid to adopt a charter of rights similar to those adopted in other Departments. It is not too late for the Minister to say there is nothing to hide in the Department of Social Welfare that all applicants for funding, benefits and allowances are treated as valuable customers, presumed to be honest and always treated with courtesy and respect; their matters are dealt with in a private way and there is no problem providing information on the eligibility criteria. If this is the type of system the Minister would like to see operated in the Department then he should accept this amendment.
It is difficult to know where to begin. On the many allegations made by Deputies Wallace and Walsh about long queues in the rain, there are no reports in my Department of such cases. To give the impression that everyone who goes to a social welfare office faces a long queue in the rain is wrong and inaccurate. It is also unfair in terms of the progress made by the Department of Social Welfare in recent years in improving its office accommodation and facilities so that people can be dealt with in a private manner. I have visited a number of social welfare offices and much of the work done predated my appointment as Minister. The criticisms the Deputies opposite are laying at the door of the Department of Social Welfare are in effect criticisms of their party colleagues when they were in the Department.
The form is dated January 1996.
It is inaccurate criticism and I must defend Deputy Woods against the allegations being made against him by his party colleagues in relation to the services provided by the Department.
The rights a person has as a citizen can neither be limited nor enhanced by a charter which is simply a statement of rights. The absence of availability of a charter of rights should neither enhance nor restrict those rights. People have rights under the law. They have rights as citizens under the Constitution and they have a right to information. One of the innovations I introduced was the arrangement with the Department of Health whereby my Department would take responsibility for the National Social Service Board which runs 80 citizens' information centres around the country. Last year and this year I gave them significant additional resources to develop their information services, to put the voluntary information services they provide on a full-time and more professional basis to ensure that the information being provided is accurate and reliable.
The Department, through the National Social Service Board, also funds a range of independent information providers. The Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed is a case in point with centres for the unemployed.
There is a whole range of independent information providers which the Department currently funds in order to ensure that people who may be reluctant, for whatever reason, to come to a Department of Social Welfare office to seek information or clarification on some point will have an independent source from which they get information on which they can rely. They can then come to the Department with that information under their belt and discuss their problem or claim with a Department of Social Welfare official in an informed way.
We are encouraging access to independent information and are developing a comprehensive information service within the Department itself. It is my understanding that virtually every public office of the Department of Social Welfare has information leaflets available to the public. When an application form is posted to a person it is accompanied by an information leaflet on the payment they may be seeking. It is not always possible to ensure that a person who picks up an application form in an office will also pick up the relevant information leaflet, but we do our best to ensure that people have the information they need.
The vast majority of the population do not need information about social welfare. It is only when a person needs a particular payment, for example, unemployment assistance or disability, or when they come to the point of looking for an old age or retirement pension, child benefit etc., that they start looking for information. The most important matters the Department has to publicise are where people may access information and the schemes for which the Department of Social Welfare is responsible. It is not unusual for people to assume that the Department is responsible for a particular scheme for which the Department of Health, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Education or the Department of Agriculture may be responsible.
We are also trying to provide integrated services. There is an excellent example of this in Tallaght which is providing services in one building in an integrated way for the health board, the Department of Social Welfare and the Department of Enterprise and Employment through FÁS. There we have a building where a receptionist will direct people to the appropriate office. If they are looking for a rent supplement, they can be directed to the community welfare officer. If they are looking for unemployment assistance, they can be directed to the section of the building where unemployment assistance is dealt with. If they are looking for assistance in relation to community employment schemes they can be directed to the FÁS office. All this takes place in a bright, newly-constructed, purpose-built building. That is an example of the future in the provision of our social services. I would advise any Deputy interested in seeing what the future holds for the provision of social services to contact the Department which will be more than happy to provide a guided tour to any Deputy who cares to go and have a look. I think they will be impressed, as I have been, with the work that has been done.
I have no hesitation in saying that that building and the planning of it predated my coming into this Department. It was the foresight of previous occupants of this Department and the staff of the Department that resulted in that facility. It is not a question of the world starting on 15 December 1994 as far as the Department of Social Welfare is concerned. The Bill before this House and the changes and additions I have made since I came into office have enhanced the work that went on previously and I am quite proud of that fact.
I support the objectives underlying the amendments being proposed by Deputies Walsh and Wallace, but I do not agree with the approach they adopt. I do not believe we should set out to achieve a better quality of social services in a fragmented way in the manner proposed by the Deputies. We should take a more co-ordinated approach to social services generally, and the Government's strategic management initiative provides an ideal mechanism to enable this to be done. Considerable progress has already been made by my Department in improving the quality of service in the context of the strategic management initiative. This initiative has presented my Department with the opportunity to build on the various initiatives and developments of recent years. High priority within the SMI process has been given to the development over the past year of a customer service strategic action programme, the primary objective of which is to develop and build upon existing customer service culture across all activities of the Department.
This programme is now in place, and its principal objectives are as follows: to equip our staff to deliver quality customer service, specify and publish measurable customer service quality standards, and support action to ensure standards continue to be met; to identify new and improved methods for systematically measuring and responding to customer needs; to put in place participative structures for our customers, provide quality information and advice, provide reasonable choice for customers in relation to methods of service delivery, and promote an integrated approach with each other public service to the local delivery of social services and to develop the one-stop shop concept.
The objectives of this programme are very much in line with the recommendations of the National Economic and Social Forum report on quality delivery of services which was published in February 1995. My Department is giving priority attention to the implementation of the recommendations in the NESF report. Significant progress has already been made, a fact acknowledged in the NESF report. The following are some of the initiatives taken by my Department over the past few years: more services are now provided locally: there have been substantial improvements in the time taken to process claims; different methods of payment have been introduced; and new offices have been provided and older offices systematically refurbished with the provision of access for people with disabilities. Better access and more privacy are also being provided for. I visited last week an office in Drogheda refurbished in the past year, the front part of which has been redesigned to ensure that a person who wants a private conversation with an official can be facilitated in a private part of the reception area. Increasingly, private rooms are provided for interviews where an official wishes to have a private interview with a claimant.
Other improvements include the introduction of a regional management structure which has enabled a more focused and co-ordinated approach to the delivery of a quality service to customers at local level. This has in addition enabled better co-operation with local and community groups involved with social welfare customers. Experience elsewhere indicates that the publication of a charter will not of itself improve the quality of service. It is necessary in the first instance to involve those availing of the services and the front line staff in identifying how services can be improved in a realistic and meaningful way. The objective essentially is to seek to improve the quality of services, where feasible.
Charters, particularly those designed with a "top down" approach can, unfortunately, at times fail to make a real difference to the client and efforts tend to be directed at the exhaustive measurement and analysis it entails.
In addition to work being undertaken in the context of the SMI, I bring to the attention of Deputies the commitment in paragraph 71 of the Programme for Government to introduce, following consultation with the social partners, an administrative procedures Bill aimed at securing the maximum compliance with the tenets of good public administration. As set out in the Programme for Government, this Bill will vest in the office of the Ombudsman monitoring and regulatory functions and will incorporate requirements on a minimum response time to a citizen's case, the level of guidance to be given to the public, the form in which decisions are communicated, setting out for instance the basis of the decision, the right of appeal, the right of access to all relevant information in the case and the right of citizens to confer with officials making the decision concerning them. The Government programme also provides that legislation — including the administrative procedures Bill — will be introduced to extend the remit of the Ombudsman. Interdepartmental consultations are currently taking place with a view to finalising proposals for consideration by the Government in advance of the promised discussion with the social partners. The developments I have outlined represent a better and much more comprehensive approach than that proposed in the amendments for achieving the highest possible quality of social welfare service. Consequently, I cannot accept the amendments.
If I had been in any doubt about the desirability of and the need for a social charter, I am in no doubt now. The Minister has shown a degree of ignorance of the system, how it works and the lack of facilities that is very worrying. The evidence I used dates from January 1996. The Minister cannot be content to rest on the good work of his predecessor. We need some degree of imagination, innovation and good sense during his term. He has to deal with the question of queuing. I know the Minister has not been canvassing in the by-election and that he is cosseted in his Department with his apparatchiks who have a cosy arrangement. However, it does rain occasionally, during the winter the weather is inclement and it is often quite blustery and this is not conducive for people seeking information or claiming social welfare payments. In case the Minister is still unaware of the problem, the organisation for the unemployed conducted a survey on the numbers who have to queue for social welfare services and it found that this happens in 71 per cent of cases. To my certain knowledge that is the case in many towns throughout rural Ireland. There are provisions for disability access in only 43 per cent of places which rises to 70 per cent in urban areas. Is it right and proper to have disabled people further humiliated by being lifted into these buildings? That is not the way we should go about our business. When other Departments have a more enlightened approach I cannot understand the reason the Department of Social Welfare seeks to further humiliate the unfortunate people who depend on dole. We are not talking about a small number of people but up to 300.000. The Minister went on to say that perhaps people do not need so much information but of course they do.
I did not say that, Deputy.
If the Minister says he did not say it I accept it, but that was what I picked up. We need the maximum amount of information. I have examples and so do other Deputies every single week of people in difficulty because they did not have adequate information at the outset. Why can we not inform people on the threshold of eligibility when they are making their application so that they might make a more detailed application in the first place? One has to presume the claimant is honest before you do that and there is the underlying suspicion that people are not. When I raised the question of the assessment of people's savings in the past couple of days, saying I felt it was wrong to charge a notional interest rate which was higher than those available, the Minister made a comment — this is certainly on the record — that perhaps these people were avoiding tax. The presumption is that people are not honest and are in some way conniving to get something to which they are not entitled. People are entitled and should be entitled to be presumed honest——
On a point of information, a Cheann Comhairle, I do not want it to stand on the record that I stated or implied that people who apply for old age non-contributory pensions were seeking to avoid tax, the point clearly was that where a person does not divulge the fact that he or she has capital is indicated by the fact that we have been able to recover £3 million from the estates of those who died. The question arose as to why people do not divulge that they have capital. It is alleged by Opposition Members that it is because of the notional rates of interest we apply to capital and I indicated that there are perhaps other reasons that people do not disclose they have capital. One of the reasons may be that they are not prepared to pay tax on it.
My point is that people are entitled to be presumed honest.
If they were honest they would declare their capital.
The Minister should not be suspicious of people who, in good faith, make a claim for a social welfare payment whether it is non-contributory——
On a point of order it is important it does not go on record that the Department of Social Welfare presumes a person to be dishonest when he or she applies to it. I stated on Committee Stage yesterday that the values of the Department clearly imply that a person is presumed to be honest in making his applications but it must be assumed that if a person fails deliberately to disclose the fact that he has capital, when he is obliged to do so on the application form, it gives rise to the belief that he is not acting honestly.
We are making slow progress on this amendment and we are anxious to bring it to a conclusion. I am sure the Deputy will bear that in mind.
The Acting Chairman may not realise it was agreed that a number of amendments should be taken together.
There is a notion of a grudging acceptance that claimants are honest, but one never knows. That is not good enough. The Department has a responsibility to address the question from which this matter arose. I cited the not unusual case of a person who, having met the necessary criteria, qualifies for a non-contributory pension but makes savings from his or her pension, bringing his or her means over the income threshold for pension eligibility, while being in receipt of meals on wheels and various other services. That pensioner who is so concerned about the rainy day hardly dips into his or her pension. The Department of Social Welfare has a responsibility regularly to review the means of non-contributory claimants in receipt of assistance or pensions. While the administrator or the executor has a responsibility to make a repayment in some cases, the Department also has responsibility to carry out regular reviews. A claimant's means may have exceeded the income threshold for pension eligibility since he or she completed a pension application in a honest, careful and responsible manner. I do not know how often such reviews are carried out, but some order should apply to them.
Then the Deputy would accuse us of harassing elderly people.
The Department should ensure that it keeps up to date on these matters.
This issue relates to the provision of more information and openness. The Government has abused the term "openness, transparency and accountability". The Minister is not adhering to those principles in blocking an attempt to make a charter of rights available to social welfare claimants. This is another case of the Government paying lip service to openness, transparency and accountability, but not showing its commitment to those principles when it comes to implementing measures.
Last Saturday a constituent who recently buried her mother called to my clinic to inquire about her entitlements. She told me she was 49 years of age and for the past 25 years had looked after her mother. On inquiring if she was in receipt of a carer's allowance or an allowance from the health board or the Department of Social Welfare, she said she did not know she was entitled to any allowance. I told her that was regrettable as she would have been entitled to an allowance under some of the schemes and that I would seek to rectify the matter. This is a classic and not infrequent case of a person who did not have any idea of her entitlements. A charter of rights would go some way towards improving that position.
On contacting the invariably courteous staff in regional social welfare offices to follow up a case, we are told that they can only take the essential details of the case from the computer as the file is kept in the offices in Ballina or Sligo. I do not understand why such files cannot be kept in regional offices. That would allow claimants to have greater access to their files. Claimants are informed in writing of the reasons their applications were unsuccessful but are not given the full information. Such files may contain information which may not be credible. The full facts are elicited only in cases where there is an oral hearing. A charter of rights would ensure that claimants would have access to all the information on their files.
Sections of the Bill deal with social insurance and provide for improvements in that area. A provision improving the position of community employment scheme workers was discussed this morning. All contributors and those who may be potential contributors to social insurance should be made aware of their rights and entitlements under social insurance schemes. I asked a question in this regard on Committee Stage to which I was told I would be given an answer on Report Stage. I was told that inquiries would be made to establish if Telecom workers are aware of their pension and other rights in respect of modified and full social insurance. That type of information is elementary and should be made available. This amendment seeks the establishment of such rights. There is no point in the Minister replying that we have a Constitution, statutory instruments and legislation. I do not understand why a charter of rights, which other Departments and those availing of services from other Departments find useful, cannot be established by the Department of Social Welfare. The right to confidentiality, an explicit and transparent complaints system, speedy responses, an oral hearing in the event of an appeal and access to all information, including eligibility criteria, is elementary. It would be extremely helpful and go a long way towards demonstrating our maturity as a democracy if such information were available in a charter of rights.
Claimants are entitled to be informed of the identity of the departmental staff with whom they deal. A former Minister, Mr. John Boland, was a reforming Minister for the Public Service. He introduced some worthwhile advances in this regard, but we have slipped back since then. It is unsatisfactory that staff in various Departments do not state their Christian and surnames when dealing with the public. Deputy Wallace highlighted this point. Constituents who call to my clinic often indicate that they did not get the name of the departmental staff member with whom they were dealing. That is not good enough. This amendment goes some way towards addressing this problem and I intend to press it.