Last Friday I gave notice of my intention to raise the arbitrary and illegal removal or reduction of the Christmas bonus by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs from recipients of supplementary welfare allowance and the urgent need to countermand the circular to that effect issued on 27 November. I am very glad the Minister did that yesterday and my main objective in raising this matter has been achieved. The number of recipients involved was estimated at 10,000 by health board sources and they will receive their Christmas bonuses. They will have money to buy Christmas fare and put something under the tree for their children. I am delighted the approach I adopted has achieved its fundamental objective and that the result has been so satisfactory from that point of view.
However, there are still outstanding issues. Why was this circular issued? The amount of savings involved would have been £1 million in a week where there was a budget surplus of £1 billion. How could the Minister stand over a circular, which would have the effect of saving £1 million at most, by taking the Christmas bite of the mouths of the most needy people? There seemed to be an effort to talk about standardisation. Does the Minister accept that the basis of supplementary welfare is that there must be flexibility to enable officials to deal with the needs of the worst off in society? Does he further accept that under section 226 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1993, he does not have the ultimate power to direct what should be done? The deciding officer is the chief executive officer of the health board and on that basis the legality of the instruction that issued is doubtful.
I want the Minister to deal with the question of political responsibility. It appears the Minister now admits he was unaware of the circular. How could an official have authority to issue a circular with such devastating effects on the lives of people without the knowledge of the Minister? That issue needs to be resolved, if only to make sure it does not happen again. There is also the question of the reaction to this issue last Friday. When I drew the matter to public attention in an effort to have it resolved the reaction of the Minister was odd. He did not stand up and say he had made a mistake and would sort it out. I would have accepted that but he sent out an official to bat for him and justify the circular. The Minister sent out an official who issued a statement to the effect that the Department said that people would not receive double supplementary welfare cheques in the Eastern and Southern Health Board areas because they were out of step with practices elsewhere.
How can the Minister justify doing that when it was brought to his attention if only by the Opposition spokesperson? He followed up later by accusing me of "uncaring political opportunism" for raising the issue. Did he expect me to lie down and let these people do without their Christmas bonuses? Is he aware that on Thursday last in the health board office in Tralee there was a public disturbance to which the Garda had to be called, because supplementary welfare recipients were told that they were not getting their bonuses. They were handed a copy of the departmental circular. Does he accept that it was proper for an Opposition spokesperson to ensure that the issue was resolved?
How did it happen and how can it be ensured that it will not happen again? I can probably tell the Minister how it happened. Approximately ten years ago a previous Minister for Social Welfare set up a supplementary welfare allowance advisory committee and I want to challenged the Minister on this. This committee met monthly until 1997 and I am advised that it has not met for more than 12 months. The essence of good management is communication and when the Department and the health boards are involved it would be suitable to have a meeting to discuss and sort out these problems or at least to be aware of them. I am convinced the cause of the problem was that the committee was not meeting. Does the Minister know about this committee?
When we are dealing with supplementary welfare allowances we are not talking about buttons. We are talking about more than £200 million, which is twice the entire budget of the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation, much greater than that of the Department of Public Enterprise and more than twice that of the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources. The budget is greater than that of the Revenue Commissioners and ten times that of the Department of the Taoiseach, yet the Minister presides over a situation in which the advisory committee for that budget does not meet. I challenge him on this — is it correct that the committee has not met for 12 months? If that is so, he has a substantial case to answer and the problems he has had to date are as nothing compared to those which will emerge in the future unless he changes his approach and provides for proper management in his Department. It is his responsibility to ensure that.