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Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1966: Second Stage (Resumed).

Tuesday, 28 June 1966

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 223 No. 9

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Ryan: Information on Richie Ryan Zoom on Richie Ryan Lochtach agus atá an Bille Leasa Shóisialaigh i mbliana, fáiltíonn Fine Gael roimh gach feabhsachán atá ann. Nílimíd ar aon intinn leis an Aire atá sásta leis an mBille. Táimíd mí-shásta nach bhfuil a thuilleadh ann do na daoine mífhortúnacha atá ag íoc go nimhneach as míghníomhartha an Rialtais.

The confidence with which the Minister introduced this measure is not that which we in Fine Gael very much like because we regard the provisions of this Social Welfare Bill as totally inadequate and very far removed from the much publicised intention on the part of the Government to publicise a programme of social reform analogous to their programmes for so-called economic expansion. But, seeing the failure and collapse of their programmes for economic expansion, perhaps we should be grateful they did not try to propagate a programme of social improvement or expansion lest it should meet the same fate as their other programmes, because it does seem that the present administration are incapable of so ordering the economic affairs of this State as to make it possible for the less well-off members of the community to live any kind of decent existence much less to fully use their physical and mental capacities in the way in which society [1408] should arrange things, so that they can use them in the way which God ordained they should use them.

The truth is that there are tens of thousands of people in this country who are living on incomes which are far below what is necessary to give them a sufficient diet, much less give them clothes and the other amenities to which they are entitled. About a year ago, a valuable piece of research work was done by a group of sociologists and dieticians and their survey established that the minimum diet necessary to prevent malnutrition would cost, for a child between eight and 12 years of age, £1 10s to £2 per week, to provide food for a child of between 15 and 20 years of age would require between £3 and £3 10s per week, and to provide food for an adult, who had reached the point of complete growth, would require something in the region of £2 10s per week. Yet we are, through our totally inadequate social services, giving many people less than one-sixth or one-eighth of what the sociologists and dieticians inform us is necessary to maintain properly a diet which will prevent malnutrition. We are, in fact, giving to 15,000 people in this State 5/-a week. That is what we give to parents, who themselves are receiving insufficient amounts by way of public assistance to provide themselves with a nourishing diet for their children. Not only do we not give the fathers and mothers of children enough to keep themselves but we give them, for their hungry children, the totally inadequate amount of only 5/- a week in some cases.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that a society, like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, must spend annually a sum of over half a million pounds to bring some kind of relief and assistance to those tens of thousands of unfortunate people in our midst? Is it any wonder that in a city like Dublin annually one and a quarter million free dinners are distributed? Is it any wonder that we have so much despair, so much family ruin in a society which regards itself as doing enough by the standards which we operate here?

We do not make light of the tasks [1409] which any Minister for Social Welfare must face in endeavouring to persuade his colleague, the Minister for Finance, to make more money available for social welfare purposes but we say that a Government, if correctly inspired, if sufficiently conscious of their obligations to all section of the community, would devote more money to social welfare, social insurance and public assistance generally than we are giving in this country. We have the very sad boast that of the countries with which we may one day be associated in a greater Europe, the smallest proportion of our national income is spent on social security benefits. A country like Austria, which is somewhat equivalent to ourselves in economic potential, in wealth per capital, is able to spend one and a half times as much as we spend on social welfare. That is a country which orders its affairs better so that, perhaps, fewer people are in receipt of social welfare, but those who are receive a great deal more.

We regret also that, under the Bill, social welfare recipients who are getting the small increase of 5/- a week are obliged to wait for that additional benefit until the 1st November next although they, in common with everybody else in the community, have had to pay their share of those increased taxes since the beginning of this financial year last April. Not only that but, in addition to the taxes imposed by the Budget which gave the first indication of these changes in the social welfare provisions, we have had a second Budget which will tax not only what some people termed non-essentials like beer and petrol but will also impose an additional penal tax of five per cent on some of the essentials of life. It is idle to say that the social welfare recipients are not called upon to pay these taxes. There is no tax imposed in modern society, in a complex society, which does not percolate throughout the whole economic system right down to the most humble consumer. That is why every pound of taxation we impose is spread throughout the whole economic network down to the poorest of the people in the community. All those people have had to bear their share of the financial [1410] burden since last April and no benefit will come to them until the 1st November next, although the second Budget of this year imposes a five per cent additional tax on many of the essentials of life as and from the 1st October next.

It is quite clear, therefore, that the Minister for Social Welfare, when he was using pressure on the Minister for Finance earlier this year and considering his proposals in association with the Budget, did not take into consideration the additional £7 million in annual taxation which has already been forced upon us and will be confirmed as and from 1st October next so far as the wholesale tax is concerned. Even on the Minister's statement, it must be taken that those slight improvements are inadequate. The Minister felt they were inadequate, even in relation to the first Budget. they are grossly insufficient when related to the second Budget.

Some years ago Ministers were very apologetic in this House when they postponed improvements in social welfare benefits and assistance to 1st August. They had great difficulty in justifying the postponement at that time. It now appears that they have accepted that people will not criticise them for postponing social welfare benefits and they believe apparently they can get some political kudos from making promises for the future and that whatever good and political advantage comes to them will be increased over a period by promising better social welfare payments in the future. This is like people who say that the best thing about a holiday is looking forward to it and not the holiday itself or the recollection of the holiday afterwards. That is a very pleasant theory. Perhaps those who have time to think may enjoy looking forward to their holidays. It is a tragic thing when one pays for one's holidays and does not live to enjoy it. It is a tragic thing that many social welfare recipients, particularly those in receipt of old age pensions, will not live until 1st November next. It will be remembered by this House that we brought the taxes into operation in March of [1411] this year to pay for imporvements which are promised to people who will not be alive on 1st November next. If ever democracy has gone wrong and if ever an ironic situation was created, we certainly created it in this House when we tolerated a situation of that kind. It is difficult to see how much further we can go in this regard. It was, first of all, 1st August and now it is 1st November. If they keep this up, it will come to pass that some year there will be no social welfare improvement at all.

Social welfare policies on the part of the State should have a number of definite aims. I feel that in this country, we have not yet achieved the first and most important of these aims, that is, the relief of poverty itself. I have already indicated that the valuable research work done by expert sociologists and dieticians shows that our social welfare code does not provide everybody with a diet sufficient to prevent malnutrition. How can it be said that we relieve poverty when we provide only such small increases to social welfare recipients? The tragic situation also arises that, whenever small relief is given in social welfare benefits, local authorities operating a differential rent scheme take away one-sixth of the improvements provided in this House, so that of the 5/- being provided by the Minister to some recipients of social welfare benefits, 10d will go to local authorities who are operating a differential rent system.

The second aim of a social welfare policy should be to achieve social equality and social opportunity. Nobody can seriously suggest that the miserable pittance we make available to the poor amongst us had any significance whatever in establishing social equality and social opportunity. the third aim of a social welfare policy is a political one. The principal political aim which we have here is to secure the unity of all our country. Nobody can possibly suggest we are making any logical contribution to the unity of our country when we compare our social welfare benefits with those in the North. The Minister may argue that the benefits [1412] provided in the North are not alone paid for by the Exchequer in the North but that money is also provided by Westminster. That may or may not be so, but there is certainly a frightening gap in the social welfare code in both parts of our country. There is very little opportunity of having our country united when there is such a gap between the social welfare code in both parts of the country.

Those things are not words spoken on occasions of special ceremonial. They are things which will determine whether we will ever be united as a nation. Therefore, it behoves us not to be satisfied with our social welfare code. We have a tremendously long distance to run before we can catch up with the northern portion of our country. We will have to go further than we have already gone.

I have already mentioned that we have the worst record with regard to social welfare scales operating in Western Europe. It is proper that I should quote what they have in some of those countries. To social insurance here, we devote 4.3 per cent of the gross national product. Denmark, on the other hand, devotes 5 per cent, Belgium, 6.4 per cent, Austria, which is similar in economic circumstances to us, devotes 6.7 per cent and Western Germany, 9.1 per cent. With regard to family allowances, this is a country which probably has larger families and more children in relation to population than any of the other comparable countries. Yet we devote only 1.2 per cent of the gross national product to family allowances. The Netherlands devote 1.6 per cent, Italy, 2.6 per cent, France, 3.5 per cent and Austria, again comparable with us, 1.6 per cent.

With regard to public assistance, we devote only 5 of one per cent of the GNP for this purpose. Although we have probably more unemployment when compared with other comparable countries, we can devote only .5 of one per cent of the GNP to assistance to people who, by statutory definitions, are destitute, whereas Denmark devotes 1.4 per cent and Austria .9 of one per cent. With regard to social security payments, we devote 6 per cent of the [1413] GNP while Denmark devotes 6.8 per cent, Italy, 7.9 per cent, Belgium, 8.3 per cent and Austria, the most comparable country with us. 9.2 per cent.

I have left out of my statement West Germany. They are something of a financial and economical miracle and are well ahead of their neighbours and fellow-members of the EEC. West Germany has the highest rate of employment in Europe and because of that has less need for a substantial social welfare scheme. Despite this, they apply 9.1 per cent of the GNP to social welfare insurance. Family allowances are as low as .4 of one per cent of the gross national product but that is probably because of the very good wages available in Germany and because the social insurance payments are so high and their services are wage-related, something to which I shall return to later. To the field of public assistance, Germany devotes .9 of one per cent, though the number of people in receipt of public assistance is very small. In total social security payments, Germany can devote more than one-tenth of gross national product.

They are the targets which we shall have to strive for and to strike. One of the clear obligations imposed on us by the Treaty of Rome is to maintain social welfare standards similar to those of our fellow countries so that no country will have an economic advantage by avoiding its social obligations. We have so far to go in this field that it is pitiable to see the Minister doing nothing this year but dragging his feet along the tedious, tiresome road we have been treating for decades.

The result of several years of negotiation with British Governments came to fruition recently when it became possible to pay to people in this country in receipt of British Government pensions increases in those pensions to which they would be entitled if they were resident in Britain. Some of those pensions over the years have been the subject of agitation, prolonged and insistent, from all sides of the House. We are grateful to those who succeeded in bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion, but how tragic it is that this has been marred by the knowledge that the result is that [1414] £286,000 has been withdrawn by an Irish Government from those in receipt of social welfare pensions here.

The Minister for Finance in his second Budget speech this year gave as one justification for the increased taxes that various charges under the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill would add an estimated £1 million to the Exchequer bill. But if our mathematics are right, the net position is that the Minister will save this year £168,000 because when the original Budget was going through, no provision was made for the saving of more than £286,000.

Mr. Boland: Information on Kevin Boland Zoom on Kevin Boland £268,000.

Mr. Ryan: Information on Richie Ryan Zoom on Richie Ryan I apologise for the excess. It is the six figures that matter, not the last five. No provision was made in that regard. Possibly it was because it was not known fully what the consequences of the new agreement would be. It may be that they are not yet known. Many of those unfortunate people for years have had to rely on the comparatively inadequate Irish pension payments simply because they lived here. Had they lived in Britain, they would have been in receipt of incomes three or four times higher and it is tragic that in the end of that period of purgatory, when a little bit of heaven seemed to be ahead, our parsimonious State stepped in and said: “You are too well off; we shall withdraw the benefits you previously enjoyed.” It may be that a statutory obligation lies on the Minister to do so but we ask him to introduce an amendment to stop the ruthless hand of the State from falling on those unfortunate people.

We in Fine Gael are disappointed that we here are still relating our social welfare code to what is regarded as the largest amount which the poorest wage earner can pay. That is the basis of our pauper relief system —perhaps the most appropriate term to apply to our social welfare code. We determine what is the maximum amount the poorest paid person can pay and say that will be the amount of the social welfare payments and that our benefits will be related to [1415] that figure. The result is that people in reasonable employment who enjoy a reasonable standard of living because of having a reasonable income make certain commitments for themselves and their families and find themselves depressed to an appallingly low figure of income and standard of living when misfortune comes on them.

We think this is wrong. We think it is something which needs remedial action. We need here a wage-related, graduated welfare and pensions scheme and the sooner we introduce it the better. We believe people in reasonable employment and their employers will not grudge a system of pensions and social welfare contributions which will provide better pensions and better benefits when people cease to be employed. At present a large number of private employers make up for the State's want in this respect so that when their workers become unemployed through illness or otherwise, they add to whatever the State pays a sufficient amount to maintain their standard of living.

Employers are doing this in many cases out of their own generosity, but there are also in operation in various spheres of employment voluntary schemes operated by workers and trade unions—schemes of sickness and other welfare benefits. We do not take from the credit due to employers, employees, trade unions and others for this but we think these are indicative of the willingness of people to contribute to worthwhile schemes. That is why we press that as a matter of national urgency, we introduce a system of wage-related welfare and pension schemes. It is something our economy can carry, something we will have to bring into operation if we are to take our place in the wider European world into which some people would bring us.

To deal with some of the details of the Bill, may I express some disappointment that while the Minister has properly sought to improve the position of applicants for contributory widows' pensions, he has not gone far enough ? We know it will be very difficult for some widows to establish [1416] yearly averages of 48 contributions. Forty-eight contributions is a very high figure. It seems a person would have to be in constant employment during a very long period to be able to prove 48 contributions on average. I appreciate it is provided that reduced pensions may be paid where the average is less than 48. That is of some assistance but we feel the figure is still high and that the Minister should try to reduce this means test to 42 or 45 contributions.

The Minister has at long last opened the door for private domestic servants, providing a scheme of unemployment insurance for them. We regret the Minister has in mind, as he has stated, to limit entitlement to unemployment benefit to women with what he calls a good employment record during a minimum period of ten years. We believe the effect of that will be to deprive a large number of women of any benefit, for the reason that we think the marriage rate for domestic servants is as high as, if not higher than, that for other sections of the community. A large number of these girls marry at a younger age than in other sections. The result is that many of them will be paying the additional amount of unemployment benefit when they are married and not in a position to receive any benefit within a number of years of commencing to pay it.

In other words, a girl could easily start work in domestic service at 15 or 16, marry at 20 or 21 and have only six years' employment behind her and not be entitled to any unemployment benefit, even if she suffered during that period unemployment for as long as six or 12 months. The Minister's argument may be that the demand for domestic servants is such no person need be unemployed for anything more than a matter of days. That may or may not be so. I am satisfied there are parts of the country in which the demand for domestic servants does not outrun the supply.

Mr. James Tully: Information on James Tully Zoom on James Tully It is no function of the Minister to supply cheap labour.

[1417]Mr. Ryan: Information on Richie Ryan Zoom on Richie Ryan I trust the Minister is not exercising that function, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Now that the door has been opened, the Minister should bring in a more generous provision than the rather niggardly one proposed in the Bill.

Debate adjourned.

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