I feel, like several other Senators, that this Bill represents something quite considerably less than the minimum that we owe to the old people of our country. I would ask the Minister and the House to look back to the days when it was a main plank in the platform of the Republican Party that Cumann na nGaedheal were paying an old age pension of only 10/- a week. The modern equivalent of 10/- a week is almost exactly 27/6 a week. In those days, we were told of the extreme stinginess and grudging character of the Government, that expected old people to live, pay for food, clothe themselves decently, pay rent and pay for fuel at the wretched rate of 10/- a week. In those days, 10/- bought just about what it is possible to buy for 27/6 now—which represents the new total pension including these fresh increases.
I would ask members of the Government, in particular, to ask themselves, in these circumstances, in looking back, with the full knowledge of the facts they have now, whether they now consider that the Government of those days were perfectly right to pay only 10/- a week and could not do any better. I am aware, of course, that they cut 1/- off the pension and that there was a great amount of cheering when the 1/- went back on again in due course. But were Cumann na nGaedheal right at the time they were paying 10/-? Was that sufficient? Was that as much as we could afford to pay? If they were being mean, stingy, unimaginative and inhuman, can all those adjectives be applied now to the present Government? It seems to me they have either to say that the 10/- was right then, or admit that they themselves are doing precisely what their predecessors did in those days to the old people.
I would ask the House to consider what level of existence people can achieve on an income of 27/6. I suggest that their conditions are sub-human and that there are tens of thousands of people in this country today who are living in those sub-human conditions. I suggest that many of them are too meek, and indeed too weak physically, to make the kind of protest that all of us here should make if we examine our hearts and consciences.
Supposing an old person is paying for rent something like 5/- a week. That is not an enormous amount. Many of them are paying more, but let us suppose they are not paying more. Supposing that, for a considerable portion of the year, they are spending 4/- a week on fuel, which is absolutely essential for an old person, particularly an old person who is under-nourished. Supposing they spend something like 1/- or 2/- on an average a week on clothing—put it down at 1/-. Probably the most expensive item will be footwear. I would ask members of this House, when they see old age pensioners, to have a look at their footwear, which has to do them not just in these months but in the months from November through the winter to February, March, and so on. I do not think it excessive if we say they would have to spend an average of one shilling a week—surely that is not excessive on clothing, including footwear? Supposing they have to spend one shilling a week on transport, which is not improbable. We make no concessions in our semi-nationalised transport for old people.
How much of the 27/6d. is left for food? Something like 16/6d. A sum of 16/- in the week for food is a little over 2/- a day. I wonder how many members of this House, if they were to try to do it for a bet, could exist, say, for a fortnight without spending more than 2/6d. a day on food? I have a feeling that the weight of quite a number of individual members of this House might drop under those conditions. I may say that light-heartedly, but nevertheless the fact is that we all must recognise now that to try to exist, and try to live a human life, on such a level of food intake is virtually impossible.
Furthermore, we apply a means test to these people, a humiliating means test. If they have so much as £2 a week from any other source, they get no old age pension. I wonder why is it considered that £2 a week is enough to permit them to do without any old age pension? It is almost as if the Government were recognising that it takes £2 a week for them to keep fairly alive and that if they have that, they are all right. If that is the case, surely the minimum pension should be £2 a week?
I was asked on two occasions recently to make an appeal for the Mendicity Institute here in Dublin. Their main aim now is to provide very simple, very clean and adequate meals for old people or any people—for poor people—with no questions asked. I notice that in the preceding year as many as 87,000 of these meals were served, whereas last year 92,000 of these meals were served. They are as simple as can be. They consist of one dish. It is good and wholesome and plentiful. The fact that there is such a demand for such meals—the Mendicity Institute is only one of many such institutions — provides, I suggest, an indictment on our society, because we are not doing what we ought to do for our old people and our poor.
It has been said that we have not got the money, that taxation is already too high, and so on. I remember last year—I think on this very Bill —the Minister for Finance said that nobody apart from myself had mentioned where the money might come from. I had suggested a very considerable cut in the Defence Estimate. The Minister, while being content to say that nobody but myself had made any suggestion as to where the money could come from, paid no attention at all and did not even consider or comment on the suggestion that one might save something on the £6 million or £7 million a year we spend on the maintenance of our defence system. We could save quite a considerable sum on that Estimate alone. If the sub-human conditions in which our old people are forced to live to-day were to be considered by the Government as a national emergency, I suggest they would find the money. I am afraid we have a tendency to sleep light on other men's wounds. It is not regarded as a national emergency and so we make this absolutely minimal gesture of throwing them 2/6d. a week. I notice that in Britain it is possible to pay a couple of old age pensioners a joint pension in the neighbourhood of £250 a year, whereas our comparable pension, with this increase, will be something like £143 a year.
The United Kingdom is a much wealthier country than we are. However, I notice that in Denmark they succeed in paying to an old couple of that kind a joint pension of £200 a year. They pay it at the age of 65 and it is a non-contributory pension, though there is a means test which is applied at about the same level as ours —above £100 a year. In a small and even poorer country like Iceland, they pay a joint pension of £227 a year at the age of 65. It is contributory and there is also a means test.
Finland pays a joint pension of £287 to a pair of old age pensioners at 65. That is contributory, but there is no means test. Against those figures, I suggest that our joint pension of £143 a year for a pair of old age pensioners granted to them most grudgingly at the age of 70, with a means test, though admittedly it is non-contributory, is, in the light of those comparative figures from other countries—not all of them wealthy countries—an indictment of our failure to provide for our old people and for our blind pensioners and widows in the manner in which we ought.
It has been suggested that this 2/6d. a week is something like an absolute minimum, but it is far below what any decent minimum should be. If you ask at any of our institutions—the Government are well aware of the fact—how much it costs to keep an old person, they know well they cannot do it on 27/6d. a week. I do not want to stress that any further for the main reason that I think we all feel ashamed of the disgraceful manner in which we treat our old folk.
I appeal to the Government—and I put the appeal quite apart from any Party political considerations, because I have not noted any difference between this Government and the Coalition Government in this respect— to consider very seriously whether, before this time next year, they cannot find it absolutely necessary, as a matter of national emergency, to treat our old people and our dependent widows in a manner of which we need not feel ashamed, as I feel heartily ashamed of having to-day to support this wretched Bill.