Adjournment Debate. - Social Welfare Benefits.

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.

Every social welfare recipient due to receive a Christmas bonus will get that bonus. Not only are there no cutbacks, the position is better than in previous years. Deputy O'Keeffe knows full well that there is no removal or reduction of the Christmas bonus this year.

Christmas bonus payments are provided by my Department to people in receipt of certain long-term social welfare payments, such as old age pension, widow's pension, long-term unemployment assistance, one parent family payment, invalidity pension and certain other long-term payments. The amount paid is 70 per cent of the basic weekly payment, subject to a minimum payment of £20. The Christmas bonus is paid to people on these long-term payments regardless of the length of time they have been in receipt of the payment in question.

Some 715,000 people will automatically receive Christmas bonus payments this year, at a cost of about £40 million. These payments are not and never were affected by anything in the circular issued to the health boards, to which the Deputy refers. Health boards are empowered, and indeed obliged, to make once-off payments to people who are faced with an exceptional need, including the additional costs which arise at Christmas time. These exceptional needs payments, commonly known as ENPs, are made to people in need not just at Christmas time but at other times of the year as well. This year, the health boards will spend about £20 million on ENPs.

Health boards have responded over the years to the needs of people at Christmas time by making SWA exceptional needs payments. However, practice has evolved differently in the eight health boards, giving rise to anomalies, inequitable treatment of people in similar financial circumstances and a failure to make payments in some instances to people who were entitled to additional financial assistance. One feature adopted in seven of the eight health boards is the payment of a standard amount to certain categories of SWA recipients. This was done for administrative reasons. The standard amount paid differed from health board to health board, as did the criteria that applied as to who would get a payment. In one health board, there was inconsistency even within the region in how the scheme was administered.

The circular issued by my Department on 27 November related solely to the treatment of these standardised payments within the ENP system. I reject absolutely and completely the allegation that issuing the circular is in any way arbitrary or illegal, and dismiss the Deputy's blustering in this regard. There is specific legislative provision for giving general direction and control to the health boards in relation to the SWA scheme. The purpose of that instruction was to ensure that people receiving these standardised payments are treated in an equal, fair and consistent manner, in line with the operation of the Christmas bonus in schemes administered by the Department, regardless of which health board deals with their case. It is wrong that some people are denied payments because they happen to live in one particular area while people in exactly the same circumstances living elsewhere receive a payment. There is no justification for such anomalies in the welfare system. I expect Deputy O'Keeffe would wholeheartedly agree with our efforts to rid the system of these anomalies.

They should be standardised up, not down.

One consequence of the circular is that hundreds of people who are in receipt of SWA on an interim basis while awaiting a long-term payment such as one parent family payment or old age pension will now get an additional payment of SWA in time for Christmas which they would not have received under the arrangements that were previously in place. I am happy this is the case and expect Deputy O'Keeffe is as well. That would have been the position under the original circular.

In view of the misinformation surrounding this issue, further instructions were issued to the health boards on 7 December 1998 to clarify various points which had been made in the preceding days. The second circular made abundantly clear that, first, boards must be satisfied no person is left without an adequate SWA payment if his or her means are insufficient to meet his or her needs, including additional needs arising at this time of year; and second, boards are not limited to making standardised payments to meet the additional needs which people have at this time of year and were not included under the previous circular. All of this is perfectly clear to anybody who understands the operation of the exceptional needs system, unlike the Deputy.

It is clear I know a lot more than the Minister.

However, in order to ensure that no person loses out because of the manner in which these improvements in the system were introduced, I also instructed in this week's circular that in the event of boards not being in a position for administrative reasons to assess needs on an individual basis, standardised payments may be made by boards on the same basis as in previous years.

Some pensioners, long-term unemployed and disabled people were misled and upset by the misinformation generated on this issue, as they mistakenly believed that their entitlements were being reduced. Preying on the fears of vulnerable people is a cheap political stunt unworthy of even the laziest Opposition spokesman. It is no coincidence that Fine Gael resorted to this desperate attempt to drum up publicity for themselves on Thursday last, as they had nothing else to say following the successful budget introduced last Wednesday.

I put on record again that there is no reduction in the Christmas bonus this year. The only party which ever reduced the Christmas bonus was Fine Gael, which cut the bonus twice. I have no doubt Deputy O'Keeffe was a member of those Governments, which were led by the great social democrat himself, Dr. Garret FitzGerald. I have not reduced the Christmas bonus, nor have I or the Government any intention of reducing it. There are no cutbacks. The position is better under this Government.

Will the Minister answer the questions I raised, or will he run from those too?

The Dáil adjourned at 9.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 1998.