Dáil Éireann - Volume 370 - 04 December, 1986

Supplementary Estimates, 1986. - Vote 48: Social Welfare.

Minister for Social Welfare (Mrs. Hussey): I move:

That a supplementary sum not exceeding £22,000,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1986, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Social Welfare, for certain services administered by that office, for payments to the Social Insurance Fund, and for sundry grants.

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this, the second Supplementary Estimate for my Department for 1986. The original Estimate for my Department passed by Dáil Éireann on 20 June last was for £1,530,695,000. On the same day the House passed a Supplementary Estimate for a token £1,000 to provide for the pilot schemes for the unemployed, bringing the total provided for the Department in the current year to £1,530,696,000.

The second Supplementary Estimate which we are now discussing is for a further £22 million and is required principally to meet the extra costs resulting from the Christmas bonus payments to be made this week to recipients of long term benefits. Extra expenditure also arises from the special measures agreed by the Government to assist those who are affected by the implementation of the provisions of the EC equality directive. The Supplementary Estimate additionally provides for a number of other adjustments of the voted provisions to take account of emerging excesses and savings on various subheads and I will [1536] refer to them in more detail later in my speech.

Of the £22 million now being sought, the bulk — £18 million approximately — is required to finance the Christmas bonus which the Government are again providing this year. We have been over the ground on this subject already in the House and I do not intend repeating all that has been said before.

The Christmas bonus — an average payment of £36 to our claimants — is, under our difficult circumstances and at the end of a period of huge increases in spending on social welfare, a considerable achievement. Let us put it in context — a further £18 million is being put into the pockets of our claimants, on top of the extra money for the 46,000 families who have benefited under the equal treatment directive. Who would not, in this House, be happier if twice or three times that amount were given to those among the Christmas bonus recipients who are the genuinely needy but who in this House is unaware of the intense pressure our finances are under, pressures which if not controlled will threaten the welfare of those very people we most want to protect.

I am very glad that the Government were able to find £18 million for the bonus payment this year. I want to emphasise that this money was found from specific identified savings in the Votes of other Government Departments. It was not raised by borrowing. This may not mean very much to the people on the other side of the House who see absolutely no difficulty about borrowing more money if this means buying popularity. Of course, this Government would have liked to make money available for the Christmas bonus, but we decided to approach this in a responsible way and to finance the bonus without increasing the burden on the taxpayer.

By any standards £18 million is a very considerable sum of money. We have found this money and are happy to be able to use it in this way. I have said it before and I will say it again, those who propose a higher level of bonus should say where the money will come from, [1537] but they never do. As we all know, it is very easy to spend money when you are in Opposition and when you do not have the difficulty of finding it.

I also know from the debates we have had on this subject that the people on the far side of the House like to convey the impression that they are the guardians of the poor and to parade their concern for people on social welfare payments. It bears repeating, therefore, what this Government have achieved for social welfare recipients, though I know that the Opposition find it difficult to cope with this reality. We have succeeded in reducing the level of inflation and, as everybody knows, the people who suffer most from high levels of inflation are people on social welfare payments. Furthermore, we have increased social welfare payments generally by amounts well ahead of the rate of inflation. In the period from June 1983 to July 1986, social welfare benefits have increased by 30 per cent for short term recipients, 33 per cent for long term recipients and by 40 per cent for the long term unemployed. These increases represent very considerable real increases in benefit levels over this period — real increases of 6.5 per cent for short term payments, nearly 9 per cent for long term payments and 14.5 per cent for the long term unemployed.

Again, I have no doubt that everyone in this House would like to see double those increases at least, but a good step forward has been made. Taken together with the massive improvements in housing over those years, the help for disadvantaged areas in education and the establishment of modern health clinics and other support services, as well as the special fund for voluntary organisations dealing with the disadvantaged which this Government established and which has given almost £2.5 million to some 470 organisations, there has been an impressive leap forward in support for social welfare recipients of all kinds. In future, the Combat Poverty initiative — again, this Government's achievement — is relevant in the context of directing resources to where they are most needed.

[1538] I say all of this to refute absolutely any impression given by any Member of this House, or any other element whose methods of attention-seeking stoop as low as violence on the streets, that this Government have anything less than an outstanding record of concern for the disadvantaged in Ireland. This Government have never tried to conceal or minimise the difficult financial situation which faces all areas of Government expenditure and the need to direct our limited resources in the most effective and equitable way. Our achievements in operating within these constraints are there for all to see.

I should like to mention a few words about those initiatives on which I spoke earlier which all amount to support for the disadvantaged. One of the problems which we identified when we came into office was the very poor and disorganised state of buildings in the community care area. Significant progress has been made since then especially on the buildings front. Over 15 new health centres have been or are in the process of being developed. We constantly monitor this area because we give priority to the development of the whole area of community care.

An additional capital programme, which is called the small community care premises programme, was established in 1984. The aim here is to establish small-sized health centres equipped and staffed to high levels. On a larger scale, an action research programme has been set up in Waterford and this is now at the detailed planning stage. The objective here is to establish a large health centre suitable to the needs of a sizeable urban population. In the Dublin area negotiations are now nearly complete on the acquisition of a site for a major health centre in the Townsend Street area. This, as Deputies may be aware, was promised on foot of the closure of Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital. We have an impressive record in the area of establishing community health facilities which had been very much neglected in previous years.

Another area to which we have given considerable attention is public housing [1539] for the disadvantaged. It is important that the Dáil recognise that local authority housing has been virtually revolutionised. My colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Boland, gave very detailed figures when he was speaking on the Housing Bill. At one time it was said regularly that we had a housing crisis, but we now have adequate housing for those in need. I do not believe the present position could be described as a crisis. At the end of 1985 the number of those on the housing list for the Twenty-six Counties was 22,000 applicants which compares very favourably with the figure for one inner London borough of 26,000 applicants. This has been achieved through a combination of factors — the continuing high output of high quality local authority houses by the Government over a number of years, the introduction of the £5,000 grant scheme, the introduction of the Housing Finance Agency loans — and lately the restructuring of those loans — the increase in the income limits for SDA loans, the increase in the amount which can be borrowed under the SDA system and the introduction of a third type of loan. This means that many purchasers who might otherwise have been on local authority waiting lists now have the opportunity to purchase their own house. People are moving out of local authority houses and others can move into these vacant houses.

The combination of these incentives has meant that the target of making 9,000 dwellings annually available for letting, which was assessed in the national plan, Building on Reality, as being the target which should be striven for in order to adequately meet housing needs, has been exceeded comfortably in the last few years. Through a combination of the high output of new local authority dwellings completed and the impact of the £5,000 scheme, last year there were 11,500 dwellings made available for letting by the local authority which was considerably in excess of the target. The indications are that for this year we will [1540] again considerably exceed the target set out in the national plan.

The third area I mentioned was education. When I came into office as Minister for Education, one of the first things we did was to establish a special fund to help primary education in disadvantaged urban areas. This year we have allocated £750,000 to this project, 155 schools are benefiting, covering about 50,000 pupils. The fund is used mainly for the following purposes: purchasing books and materials, developing home and school community links, special grants to supplement the capitation grant to schools in disadvantaged areas, in-service training of teachers, and a special provision to some schools to enable them to purchase the necessary hardware to be associated with the project on computers in primary schools. That sort of initiative was positive discrimination in favour of the disadvantaged and, taken together with the Government's record on improving social welfare payments, is clear evidence of our concern for the disadvantaged.

This year more than 500,000 long term social welfare recipients will benefit from the Christmas bonus, including the long-term unemployed who were included in the Christmas bonus last year for the first time. Recipients will receive an additional 65 per cent of their normal weekly payments and arrangements have been made to pay the bonus this week so that families can plan their spending coming up to Christmas.

Two million pounds of the additional amount now being sought is required to meet the cost of the special measures which the Government have decided on to cushion the effects for some families of the implementation of the Equality Directive provisions. This question has also been debated a number of times in the House in recent weeks and Deputies will be aware of the issues involved.

Let me say first of all that I am very pleased at the long overdue arrival of equality in our social welfare system. For a long number of years women have been blatantly discriminated against in that [1541] system and I am proud that this Government grasped the nettle and that I personally have been able to see to it that the discrimination is ended for once and for all in 1986.

Nearly 50,000 people were treated as second class citizens until this measure was brought in this year. They were treated in a totally different way from married men, single men and single women. Why was that? Because of the old established and long out of date tradition that all married women were economically dependent on their husbands. Because of that, they got less money from the social welfare system if they were unemployed or sick and they got that lesser amount of money for a shorter time than anyone else. This was indefensible, and had to be put right, which it has been, at a cost of £18 million in a full year.

Another important area of discrimination in the social welfare code was that married women were effectively debarred from applying for unemployment assistance. This was based on the outmoded concept that married women are dependants and should be treated as such and not as independent persons with independent rights. The whole approach of the social welfare system was to treat married women in this way by treating them as dependants even where this was manifestly not the case and, on the other hand, to make it virtually impossible for a married man to be treated as a dependant. A husband could only be regarded as a dependant of his wife if he was incapable of self-support through mental or physical infirmity. And we had the ludicrous situation where, so long as a married woman was living with her husband, he was entitled to increases of social welfare payments for her, even though she might have substantial earnings of her own or might herself be getting a social welfare payment at the full personal rate. Quite obviously the whole system had to be changed as the entire approach was indefensible in a modern world and was bitterly resented by many people who were not so fortunate as to have two sources of income coming into the house. As has been mentioned in [1542] this House on previous occasions, that perception of injustice in our system was clearly seen in 1978 by the then Minister for Social Welfare, the present Leader of the Opposition. He made it quite clear that Ireland would be adopting the approach to remove this inequity between men and women in the system by not paying adult dependant increases to people who were not adult dependants.

The changes which have now been implemented have for the first time introduced a rational approach to the question of dependency in the social welfare system. This has been at a cost to some people and this was inevitable. We recognised from the outset that in applying the new concept of dependency losses would arise for some families. This is why we built into the legislation enabling powers to permit alleviating measures to be taken. Initially we provided for a £10 a week transitional payment in cases where both spouses were on benefit and where the application of the new dependency arrangements would have resulted in the loss to the household of the adult dependant increase. We have now doubled this payment to £20 a week.

The second type of case affected is where the spouse is in employment. The application of the legislation in such cases would mean that the husband would be at the loss of the adult dependant allowance and half the child dependant allowances. The initial alleviating measure exempted from this rule cases where the spouse is earning less than £50 per week. There is no loss whatsoever in such cases. Where the spouse is earning over £50 per week, the additional measure now proposed by the Government will provide for the restoration of half of the child dependant allowance plus a payment of £10 per week. This will considerably ease the application of the equality legislation in those cases also.

I am glad we have succeeded in having the equality legislation implemented and that we have, not without some difficulty, put in place a system of cushioning payments which will make the loss of income [1543] to some 20,000 married men less burdensome than full and immediate implementation of the directive of the EC. This Supplementary Estimate includes the cost of the extra help this year — some £2 million — on top of the £9 million which we have already provided by way of alleviating measures. I am very glad the Government could afford me the funds to do this.

Arrangements are being made to have payments made to all the relevant people, with any arrears due, well before Christmas and in the vast majority of cases by the end of next week. Advertisements have already appeared to this effect in the newspapers, and will continue to appear. As well as that, the offices of my Department are all fully aware of the situation and are informing people of it.

Let me now turn to another area of the Supplementary Estimate, that is, the pilot schemes for the unemployed which, I consider, are a very significant and farreaching initiative in providing active support for the unemployed. As I mentioned in my introductory remarks when the House passed the Estimate for my Department in June last, it also passed a Supplementary Estimate for a token £1,000 to enable me to introduce pilot schemes for the unemployed. The likely out-turn on these schemes during the current year is estimated at £27,000 and a further £26,000 is, accordingly, now being sought.

There are three schemes involved aimed at helping the long term unemployed get back into jobs. The overall level of unemployment continues to be the major social economic and political problem of our time, not just in this country but also in most other developed countries in the western world. It is not just the level of unemployment that has given rise to concern but the fact that the proportion of persons unemployed for a prolonged period has increased. We are all too well aware of the demoralising effect that long term unemployment can have and the implications that it can have on the financial circumstances of people [1544] and their families. Conscious of the needs of people in this category, the Government responded by introducing a new higher rate of unemployment assistance in 1983 for persons long term unemployed but while making better income maintenance provisions is essential it cannot be the only response and we must continue our search for other ways in which to help.

The pilot schemes which I introduced a few months ago are, I think, a worthwhile attempt to focus on the long term unemployed as a special target group. The schemes are attempting to tackle the problem by offsetting the difficulties which, perhaps, made some people unemployed in the first place and kept them in that state for so long. In a similar fashion, a special focus was placed some years ago on youth unemployment and a whole range of services was developed specially for them with very considerable success. In Ireland youth unemployment is now well below the level in the rest of the EC.

The pilot schemes have set out to tackle, head on, features of long term unemployment which keep some people out of the active labour force for months rather than weeks. In the first place, there is the well known fact that the longer people are unemployed the more rusty they are with regard to work habits and the less confident they become in their ability to compete for a job. They can also suffer from anxiety at failure to find jobs and this can result in depression and an acceptance that unemployment is their lot in life. The Jobsearch programme was specifically designed to tackle this problem. Under the programme, selected groups of persons, who have been long term unemployed, are given intensive coaching in jobseeking techniques and are given access to extensive facilities to put their training into practice. While participating in the course, which lasts for four weeks, a participant receives his or her normal unemployment payment entitlement.

The first Jobsearch programme got under way in three pilot locations, that is, Letterkenny, Limerick and Tallaght on [1545] 15 September 1986. The pilot programme will run for a period of six months. At this stage, two courses have been completed and a third is nearing completion. There is no doubt that the knowledge and skills imparted during the course were significant for the individuals concerned. However, feedback from the participants indicates that what was more important to them was the motivation they received from the course and the structure of the course itself which, in practice, helped them to carry out intensive job seeking activities. These skills will, undoubtedly, be of continuing benefit to them. I should say, also, that apart from those who have found employment as a result of the programme, quite a number of people who had the various options outlined to them have opted for places on suitable training courses with AnCO or have expressed an interest in the various other State schemes.

The second feature of long term unemployment that the pilot schemes were designed to tackle was the unemployment trap, that is, the fact that benefits can be withdrawn very sharply when a person finds even temporary and part time work and this, in itself, can be a disincentive to taking up such work. Of course, this is a reflection of one of the rigidities in the present system, rigidities which will have to be carefully examined and removed where possible to ensure that our welfare system is capable of responding to the changing needs of our society. It is important that our system offers as much encouragement and practical help as possible to people in these circumstances. Under the pilot part time allowance scheme a fixed allowance is paid to persons who are long term unemployed and who are able to secure regular part time work. Their earnings from the employment do not affect payment of the allowance which is paid instead of their unemployment payments. The allowance is payable so long as the person does not work for more than 24 hours per week.

This scheme also started in September and will run for a period of six months. It is in operation in Letterkenny, Limerick and Tallaght and in the catchment areas [1546] covered by Gardiner Street and Cork employment exchanges. The scheme has started slowly but I am confident that as knowledge of the scheme spreads it will prove to be attractive to a wide number of persons.

The third feature of unemployment we are aiming to do something about is the well known association between low levels of educational achievement and long term unemployment. This is an area I have a great interest in and one which I became even more conscious of while I was Minister for Education. I was, therefore, very pleased to be able to introduce the pilot educational opportunities programme which provides long term unemployed persons with the opportunity to attend full time education courses provided by the VEC. At the same time, they receive an allowance equivalent to their unemployment payment entitlement. The scheme will run to the end of the current academic year. We have managed to set up three classes with a total of 53 persons. One class has been set up in Tallaght and two in Limerick. Already we have received some very worthwhile feedback regarding the enthusiasm of the participants. It must be remembered that these people have been unemployed for some time and have made a great effort to overcome what I would consider understandable inhibitions in taking the decision to become students again. The level of interest expressed generally for this type of scheme is also very encouraging and is a recognition that there is a need for schemes on these lines. I hope that participants' aspirations will be met by the scheme.

As I have said previously, the three schemes will be professionally evaluated with a full report on their success at the end of the pilot period. While it is too early yet to form any definite conclusions about the outcome of the evaluation, the preliminary indications are that the schemes are proving to be a measure of real help to the long term unemployed. Of course, before we can take a decisions about extending these scheme to other areas we will have to await [1547] results of the evaluation that is currently being carried out. I would like to thank Deputy McCarthy for his co-operation when moving that Supplementary Estimate last June so that we could continue with these pilot schemes.

Another aspect of the Supplementary Estimate to which I would like to refer specifically is the provision in item 11 in subhead K — miscellaneous grants, a new division of the subhead — which is being opened to provide the necessary finances to continue with the national fuel scheme in the present season. A sum of £3.3 million is sought but this does not represent additional expenditure as there is an offsetting saving on item 10 of the subhead — supplementary welfare allowance — where the money for the national fuel scheme was initially provided.

The inclusion of this new item arises from the recent court decision holding the regulations made governing the scheme to be ultra vires and the resulting need to provide for the 113,000 persons who would otherwise lose their entitlement to fuel allowances. It is a short term measures to preserve the entitlements of the existing beneficiaries pending a fuller examination by my Department of the implications of the court decision.

I should like to explain to the House the background to this decision. The national fuel scheme was introduced in October, 1980 to rationalise and extend haphazard arrangements then being implemented by various health boards to assist needy persons with their heating needs in winter. The scheme catered, as had the previous arrangements referred to, mainly for the old and the incapacitated and also for widows, deserted wives and others. It did not, however, include recipients of short term payments such as unemployment benefit and assistance, and disability benefit.

As the national scheme was a development of the former home assistance arrangements it was reasonable that it should operate under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which had replaced home assistance and this is what [1548] happened. The health boards administered the scheme under guidelines conveyed annually to the boards by means of departmental circular.

In December, 1984, in a case taken by a recipient of unemployment benefit, the High Court ruled that the issue of a circular did not constitute the exercise by the Minister of his powers to make regulations under supplementary welfare allowance legislation and that the exclusion of persons of any particular category was void and of no effect. The opening up of the scheme to persons not originally included would have had serious financial and administrative implications. Some 200,000 additional persons could be eligible at a cost to the Exchequer in a full year of £30 million extra.

Accordingly my predecessor made regulations in February, 1985 under the supplementary welfare allowance legislation, authorising health boards to pay fuel allowances to persons receiving specified long-term social welfare payments provided certain other conditions were fulfilled, such as the claimant living alone or only with dependants or other specified people. However, these regulations were also challenged and on 23 July 1986 in the High Court in the case of McLoughlin v The Eastern Health Board the judge ruled that these regulations too were ultra vires in that they purported to limit entitlement to fuel allowances to certain categories of social welfare recipient.

The Supreme Court has now upheld the decision of the High Court but has further decided that the article in question is not severable from the rest of the regulations governing the scheme and that the regulations in question are ultra vires in their entirety. This means that from now there is no fuel scheme under the regulations.

In order to avert the situation in which the 113,000 persons eligible for allowances under the conditions in those regulations could no longer be paid the Government decided that for the present the national fuel scheme will be operated on an administrative, non-statutory [1549] basis. The scheme will not form part of the supplementary welfare allowances scheme and will not be subject to the legislative provisions underlying that scheme. The scheme will continue to be administered by the health boards with the same financial and other arrangements as heretofore.

I should like to point out that the urban scheme, which operates in 17 cities and towns, mainly in the east and south of the country is unaffected by the judgment and that the 70,000 beneficiaries under that scheme will continue to receive their fuel vouchers as heretofore. Obviously the present arrangements are in the nature of a holding operation until the scheme is reviewed in its entirety. I felt it necessary to mention those facts to the House.

Looking to the other main components of the Supplementary Estimate, Deputies will see a saving of £2.4 million on Subhead C. This, however, is more in the way of being an accounting adjustment as between the social insurance fund and the Vote in relation to the payments to An Post for the services which that body perform in the payment of pensions for the Department.

An additional £12 million is required for Subhead E — payment to the social insurance fund this year. The additional requirement is a net position taking account of likely savings and excesses in the expenditure of the various insurance scheme and a shortfall variation on the expected yield from contributions by employers and employees.

On Subhead G an additional £7.0 million is required for old age non-contributory pensions. Part of this arises because of the Christmas bonus and the remainder is by way of an adjustment with the old age contributory pension provision in Subhead E.

These are the main features of the Supplementary Estimate. This additional £22 million which we are devoting to the social welfare services at a time of continuing acute pressure on the public finances is an indication of the concern of the Government for those who are dependent on the social welfare system [1550] and highlights the efforts we are prepared to make, and will continue to make, to do the best we can for the weaker sections of the community.

It is necessary to emphasise once again the position in regard to calls for any additional expenditure on social welfare. There is an enormous budget for this area and there are various pressures that have driven that figure upwards each year. Some of these pressures are demographic and others are economic and those factors will be with us for the foreseeable future. I should like to put spending on social welfare into some context by reminding everybody that about 1.3 million people or about 30 per cent of the population, are in receipt of some form of social welfare each week. The total budget is £2.5 billion, the largest single block of Government expenditure and it runs at a staggering 27 per cent of total gross current expenditure. Another way of putting this is to say that we are spending £7 million for each day of the year. In the four years since we took office an increase of 50 per cent has been seen in the total expenditure on social welfare. Obviously, some of that comes from an increase in unemployment but a considerable amount comes from the real increases we have been able to give to those at the lowest level of social welfare payments.

We have had many calls for further expenditure in this area and I expect I will hear more today. It is time we realised we are at a financial crossroads. The debt we carry takes money away from the kind of provisions we would like to make in many areas of social expenditure but if we do not make strenuous efforts to reduce that debt there will be a squeeze on social expenditure that will make life for the people we most want to help even more difficult. Unfortunately, short term popularity can be bought by calls for more expenditure but that will be at the expense of the long term benefits of those on whose behalf the calls are being made. Interest on that debt is taking £9 out of every £10 paid by PAYE workers. If we did not have that type of debt not only would we be able to run the country with [1551] current taxation but we would have a surplus. We would have £2,000 million available to do all the things we want to do in regard to expansion and, in particular, job creation for our young people. That is the type of financial scenario we are facing.

It is necessary to make such points so that Members will be aware of the implication a further increase in that debt will have for the disadvantaged in our society. I expect that the matters covered in the Supplementary Estimate, the Christmas bonus, pilot schemes for the unemployed and the additional alleviating measures under the Equality Directive, will receive the support of the House. I commend the Estimate to the House.

Dr. McCarthy: This Supplementary Estimate for £22 million is further evidence of the Government's dismal failure; it is clear testimony of their failure in any way to relieve unemployment or create employment in the past four years. The proposed further expenditure on social welfare is bleak testimony of the Government's incapacity to take decisive economic action to create jobs. The result has been a tragic slide to near destitution in the living standards of thousands of individuals and families.

The October unemployment figures reveal a total of 232,691 persons on the Live Register. Since the Government came to office in 1982, 70,000 people have been put out of work and in the 1984 to 1986 period more than 51,000 have emigrated, including a large percentage of highly skilled young people, educated at great expense to the State. It is particularly sad that our young people, so well educated, many of whose parents have made enormous sacrifices, found little or no hope at home and reluctantly had to go to other countries. If you were to walk the streets of New York or Boston you would be as likely to meet somebody from your little village at home as an American. Most of those young people did not take that decision of their own volition: they were forced to do so by the [1552] stark reality of the options before them. They were without hope.

We have heard Ministers suggesting that emigration, per se, is not a bad thing. They have said it could be a good thing for young people. In specialised areas, of course, it can be beneficial for young people who wish to acquire particular specialist qualifications, especially if such expert knowledge is not available at home. Unfortunately, however, that is not why the vast majority of our young people now abroad emigrated. Most of them did so because they knew that if they had stayed at home they would have been forced to live with their parents without hopes of jobs and with little or no State support because of the peculiar condition about benefit in kind in the social welfare code which precludes young people from getting any decent payments. It is very degrading for young people who have no jobs to be living with their parents and to find themselves without money to go out and socialise, even in the smallest way, with their friends. One can note what is happening in the passport office day after day. The unending queues there clearly emphasise what has been happening. If the Government have specialised to any degree in anything, if they have succeeded in exporting anything, they have been very successful in exporting our young people. If we are to develop in the way we should——

An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair is wondering if a full debate on the economy is relevant.

Dr. McCarthy: The Minister did a fair amount of meandering.

An Ceann Comhairle: I do not want to interrupt the Deputy, and I will do it to the minimum, but the matter before us is the adequacy of the amounts being provided for people who are unemployed. I am satisfied that a debate on the economy is not in order.

Dr. McCarty: I defer to your judgment. The Government's policy towards [1553] job creation is the root cause of our problem. It is a far cry from the lofty sentiments in the “Joint Programme for Government” and that other aspirational document, Building on Reality. I was very surprised that the Minister even mentioned it because I thought it had been consigned to the dustbin long ago. A much better title for that document would be “Building on Unreality” because it is full of false projections.

Indeed it is more full of unreality than any document I have ever read. When we examine what has been achieved most of the Minister's colleagues would now wish to disown that document which is an indictment of the Government. Four years ago the “Joint Programme for Government” set as its main and over-riding priority “halting and reversing the growth of unemployment”. Firm and decisive action was promised in 1984. Building on Reality assured us that unemployment would peak at 220,000 at the end of 1984 and fall to 210,000 by the spring of 1987. We are now in December 1986 and we are led to believe that by the spring of next year, two or three months from now, unemployment will have fallen by 22,000.

An Ceann Comhairle: I will give the Deputy some data from the book of precedents. This is a ruling: unemployment and emigration are not relevant, improvement in benefits may not be advocated where legislation would be required. A Member may discuss administration of the Acts.

Dr. McCarthy: We are talking about a major extra cost in social welfare payments and the Minister was allowed to refer to it, for some peculiar reason.

An Ceann Comhairle: I know the Minister adverted to the facts. Deputy McCarthy, please believe me, I am not setting out to discriminate against you.

Dr. McCarthy: I feel I am being discriminated against.

An Ceann Comhairle: I want to make [1554] it absolutely clear that I am not picking on you. It is no pleasure to me to have to stop the Deputy. I did not take this out of the sky or dream it last night; it is here in the rulings of my predecessors and I ask you to fall in line with the Chair. You can make a passing reference but you cannot make a meal of it.

Dr. McCarthy: I have the greatest respect for the Chair. In fact, I am even terrified of you if you realised it. Between November 1982 and October 1986 employment increased by some 40 per cent or some 70,000 people. I wonder where were the economic policies which would have helped to fulfil the Government's pledge to create jobs and halt the spiral of unemployment? They were non-existent in my opinion. In spite of this Government's apparent large complement of economic wisdom, they have by their actions created prohibitively high interest rates which have depressed investment to an all-time low.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is now in the midst of an economic debate. The thing is crazy. This is a Department of Social Welfare Estimate.

Dr. McCarthy: The Minister alluded to the problems which were being created by our foreign borrowings and our national debt.

An Ceann Comhairle: I understand she may have made a passing reference to it.

Dr. McCarthy: She did refer to it and to servicing this debt and implied that the debt had been created by the Opposition.

Mrs. Hussey: It was doubled by the Opposition, not created.

Dr. McCarthy: The Minister seemed to have her figures confused. The facts are that when this Government came into office the national debt was £12 billion and this Government have increased it to £23 billion. Whether they like it or not, [1555] that increase was created by the Government and no one on this side of the House had any responsibility for it.

Mrs. Hussey: How much of it was paying back your debt?

Dr. McCarthy: These are the facts and the Government cannot run away from them. The Minister made considerable play of applauding herself and her Government on their achievements in relation to improving social welfare payments over a four year period. It is not true that social welfare recipients are better off now than they were four years ago. Successive Fianna Fáil Governments from 1979 to 1982 gave increases which far exceeded inflation at the time even though inflation was quite high and the amount of disposable income of social welfare recipients, short term and long term, far exceeded the increase in the consumer price index over that period.

Mrs. Hussey: I never said they did not.

Dr. McCarthy: The Minister seems to have quite a short memory. She is trying to tell herself what she and her predecessor achieved as if they had achieved something never achieved before. In the last four years this Government have granted increases which barely exceeded inflation at particular times and were payable from the end of June or early July, while the increased costs imposed at budget time were effective from budget time onwards. These are the stark realities. This Government has ensured that social welfare recipients — the old, the poor, the sick, the unemployed — have far less disposable income than had the same recipients under successive Fianna Fáil Governments.

The Minister referred to the cost of social welfare payments. Of course it costs a lot of money. No one would disagree with the concept of controlling public expenditure but this must not be done at the expense of the poorest section of our community, those on social welfare payments. Any attempt by the [1556] present Government to further reduce benefits to social welfare recipients will be opposed at every level by us on this side of the House.

I have great personal respect for the present Minister. She has not had this portfolio for very long and she is in a difficult job that she does not like, as was clearly implied in an interview which she gave to a certain newspaper not too long ago.

Mrs. Hussey: Which interview is that? Quote me.

Dr. McCarthy: I do not have the quotation.

Mrs. Hussey: The Deputy should not say things without having his facts.

Dr. McCarthy: Does the Minister like the job?

Mrs. Hussey: Give the quotation. The Deputy has just said that now.

Dr. McCarthy: Does the Minister feel a little bit downgraded?

An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister should not interrupt.

Mrs. Hussey: The Deputy should not make unfounded allegations.

Dr. McCarthy: I apologise. The Minister's own performance over the past number of weeks is clearly an object lesson in how not to run a Government Department. She has adopted an amazing zigzag approach to implementing the equality directive on social welfare and has succeeded in performing a bewildering series of U-turns. That clearly underlines yet again that this Government are totally adrift. The Government have all the poise and balance of a headless chicken and it is truly disconcerting to have to witness their bungling and pathetic performance. The Minister's performance in relation to the equality directive casts serious doubts on her veracity and her competence to deal with [1557] her own Cabinet colleagues. Today the Minister alluded to the equality directive and I will refer to it at a later stage.

We are asked under subhead E to sanction an extra £12 million of which we are told £8.6 million is going to fund the Christmas bonus which the Government in their magnanimity have reduced to 64 per cent of the weekly payment from last year's level of 75 per cent. I am puzzled about this allocation because the Minister has said repeatedly and said again today that the £18 million for this year's Christmas bonus was to be found through departmental savings in other areas. In Dáil Éireann on 20 November the Minister said that the reason underlying the decision to make the Christmas social welfare bonus 64 per cent of a week's allowance is that the Cabinet were able to gather only £18 million in savings in other areas.

During the debate on the Fianna Fáil Private Members' motion on the social welfare bonus on 25 November 1986 the Minister repeated the statement, “The Government, following a review of their expenditure have been able to find within the overall spending targets some £18 million to give a Christmas bonus to the more needy sections of our community”. I am puzzled. If this is the case, why does an extra £8.6 million have to be provided for the Christmas bonus in this Estimate under subhead E? Again today the Minister in her speech stated, “I am very glad that the Government were able to find £18 million for the bonus payment this year”. She might explain that to us before this debate ends.

The Minister stated in this House on 30 October that the supplementary welfare allowance scheme would act as a cushion for families who would lose out by the introduction of the new equality legislation on 17 November. On that occasion the Minister did not refer to any modification or expansion of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme which would enable it to bear the extra burden of coping with the consequences of the introduction of phase 2 of the equality treatment. A week later the [1558] board of the Eastern Health Board were informed that the EHB were not in a position to provide financial help for families who would lose out, and could not give any commitment to operate any new scheme for the Department of Social Welfare and that, furthermore, the Minister had been warned by letter on 23 October against expecting the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to cope, according to a report in The Irish Press of 17 November 1986. Yet the Minister went blindly ahead with her assurance to this House that the supplementary welfare allowance scheme would act as a cushion for families incurring losses without clarifying how this was to be done.

A further meeting was to take place on Monday, 10 November between the Minister's officials and the health board to discuss changes in the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to alleviate hardship. This was related to us in an article in The Irish Press of 17 November 1986 also.

The Minister's Department announced on Tuesday, 11 November 1986 that the social welfare changes — which were to see a fall in payments for nearly 20,000 families — were to go ahead despite objections by community welfare officers that the Minister's scheme to soften the impact of the cuts was “equally questionable and impracticable” as stated in The Irish Times of 12 November 1986.

All this activity culminated in the Minister's final political somersault on 25 November when belatedly she announced her last change in the operation of the directive which created enormous anxiety and doubt among thousands of individuals and families. I do not know whether the Minister and her colleagues in Government realise that those who live on the poverty line could have been spared this insensitive approach by the Government and by the Minister in particular. We should remind ourselves that the alleviating measures introduced by the Minister will operate for only one year and will not be applied to new social welfare recipients.

It is also important for us to realise [1559] that, despite the so-called alleviating measures, where both parents are on social welfare payments they will lose an average of £350 per annum and where the husband is on social welfare payment and his wife earns over £50 in income the family will lose over £800. I would like to ask the Minister if any other section of the community would accept an income diminished by those amounts. It is an appalling exercise in social obscenity to subject the poorest and most deprived sections of our society to losses of that great extent. It was particularly sad to see members of the Labour Party, a party who for many years in this House had performed in a typical and real fashion in accord with their political views and ideologies, now hell bent on ensuring that more and more suffering is imposed on those on the lower end of the income scale. Present members of the Labour Party seem to have forgotten that some four years ago these were the very people whom they said they would support and defend in this House, and every time they have had the opportunity to do so they have turned on them and ensured that their living standards were diminished more and more. I have no doubt that in the near future the wrath of the electorate will fall on those conscienceless people and that they will receive their due reward from that electorate.

The Minister went into a series of self-complimentary comments on how she had succeeded in implementing the Equality Directive and ensuring the rights of equality of women. Let me say that the Members on this side of the House are totally supportive of the concept of equality. We feel it is only right that the equality part of the directive should have been implemented to ensure that women were paid the same as men and that they could claim for as long as men could claim. That part of it was fine and we agreed with it wholly but we felt that equality should not now or in the future be achieved at the expense of families. There were two ways of achieving equality: moving people upwards or [1560] bringing people downwards as has happened in this case.

Another aspect of equality to which the Minister adverted was the right of married women to claim unemployment assistance from which hitherto they were virtually debarred. I had hoped that the Minister, who has always indicated her supportiveness of the rights of women, would have made some changes. I had hoped that when married women were being investigated in relation to unemployment assistance claims, a special addendum would be added to the conditions of the investigating officer to prohibit him from asking sexist questions. The Minister, I thought, would specifically ensure that questioning along those lines would be excluded so that a married woman seeking unemployment assistance would not be asked, for instance, who would mind her children if she worked. I put down an amendment to that effect but unfortunately it was voted down. I, as did other Members on this side of the House, felt that women's rights should be properly guaranteed. Perhaps the Minister will give an absolute assurance that this type of questioning will not take place in future.

There is still a large cloud of ambiguity hanging over the Department circular dealing with withdrawal of allowances and fringe benefits to pensioners. The Department stated on a number of occasions that old age pensioners affected by the new EC equality directive would not lose their free television allowance or licences but later a spokesman admitted that new applicants would probably be disqualified if the spouse had an income of over £50 a week. This was reported in The Irish Times of 12 November 1986. Will the Minister give the true position in relation to these fringe benefits?

It is disconcerting that the numbers on unemployment assistance have increased and continue to increase. That indicates that the numbers on long term unemployment are increasing. I hope the Minister and the Government are aware of the consequences of long term unemployment. Long term unemployment has [1561] a terrible psychological impact on the individual, on families and on society in general. There are now well documented medical comments on the psychological impact of the dole which creates so much unhappiness and despair and which eventually leads to psychosis.

I am concerned at the way in which small farmers are dealt with in their applications for unemployment assistance. During the past two years farmers have suffered a huge drop in income, in the region of 24 per cent. That is a shattering blow to anybody. Many small farmers whose crops have failed but who have some stock were put under enormous pressure from the banks although they had no income and many have had to sell out. People are led to believe that the assessment of small farmers for unemployment assistance is done on a factual basis directly related to gross income of the previous year, less gross costings and taking into account interest payments. Many farmers have proved that they had a bit of land and some stock but no income but in some cases the value of stock seems to be included as part of the income. It is very wrong that small farmers, most of them with families, owning a few acres of land and some little stock should have to sell their land and stock because of bad weather and the failure of the Department of Social Welfare to provide them with an income. Such a state of affairs will further break up the family farm unit.

Will the Minister give special consideration to the assessment methods being used for small farmers for unemployment assistance? At a time when the needy people in society have multiplied, with 50 per cent of social welfare recipients having dependants, it is incredible to note that the bulk of the combat poverty allocation for 1986 will not be spent and will probably be returned to the Exchequer for the second year in a row. Why has the Minister not approved allocations to the large number of worthy projects seeking funding? There has been a dramatic and distressing increase in the vulnerability of young and old people and [1562] the many excellent voluntary organisations concerned with alleviating poverty should be aided by the Government and have access to combat poverty funds to help them in their efforts to fight the debilitating effects of poverty and unemployment. The Government's failure to ensure full utilisation of the combat poverty allocation is in line with their shameful failure to maintain accommodation for homeless young children since last April.

Once again this year there have been political rumblings regarding the expected return to the Exchequer of most of the £1 million designated for anti-poverty work in 1986. The meagre and inadequate funds, roughly £1 per head per week for the poorer sections of the population, designated in the State's budget for anti-poverty work has not been spent despite the rising levels of poverty and need and the requirements of groups working among the poor and the working class. The Government have a tragic record in relation to combating poverty. They cut back on workers' pay-related benefit for which workers had already paid; they cut food subsidies and raised the price of milk, bread and butter. Ironically, a Labour Minister for Social Welfare denied the free fuel allowance of approximately £1 per week for 30 weeks to people on unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance. They are currently cutting the incomes of the lower paid unemployed, using the EC directive on equalisation as an excuse.

It is important that State resources for the support of the old should be increased as the number of elderly citizens increases. I know that the problems of the aged will get worse and they demand a very definite policy response from the Government. The findings of a report by Dublin's south inner city community development association revealed that over 50 per cent of elderly people in the area are living alone in bad health, loneliness and fear. That finding is applicable to many urban centres all over the country and I should like the Minister to closely study the report.

On the “Morning Ireland” programme [1563] on 18 September, the Taoiseach claimed that the Government are moving towards a greater level of social concern. Pious expressions of social justice have been constantly reiterated by the Taoiseach over the past four years. However, in early September the Taoiseach was contemplating social welfare cuts in the forthcoming budget. At a time when tens of thousands of families are barely existing on social welfare payments, any move towards eroding the position of such families is completely unacceptable and will not go unchallenged by Fianna Fáil. Further evidence that the Government intend to penalise social welfare recipients for their own economic failures was contained in a sinister and ambiguous statement by the Minister for Finance in early October when he said that social welfare spending would have to be reorientated into a form which increased the incentive to work and the creation of wealth. This unsubtle implication seems to indicate that social welfare recipients are in some way responsible for the paralysis of the economy. It was a pathetic attempt by the Minister for Finance to divert attention from the Government's responsibility for an extra 70,000 people being unemployed since 1982.

The former Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Desmond and the present Minister have continuously whined about the enormous demands placed on their Departments in relation to overall budget allocations. This is true because, since a growing and major part of the overall costings have now to be provided for unemployment benefit and assistance payments at an alarmingly increased rate since the Government came to office, it is patently obvious to anyone that therein lies the kernel of the problem.

The Government have allowed company after company and industry after industry to go to the wall over the last year. Approximately 1,000 businesses of all shapes and sizes have been forced to close with a consequent huge increase in unemployment. When one considers that for every 1,000 persons on the unemployment list——

[1564] An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: You have gone over your time.

Deputy McCarthy: ——the yearly cost to the State in providing social welfare is £2.8 million. Needless to say, this figure does not take into account the loss to the State in revenue from PAYE taxation and PRSI payments. The real cost of 1,000 people on the unemployment list is in the region of £6 million. The Government have created the problem and they are responsible for depleting the resources of the State.

Mr. Bell: I heard Deputy McCarthy speaking on a radio programme one morning recently and he said that if Fianna Fáil are returned to power they will restore the payments which existed before the EC directive on equality. That would involve paying £20 per week to one large category and £10 to another by way of subsidy. Assuming that the Opposition are in power next year and that Deputy McCarthy — fortunately or unfortunately — is Minister for Social Welfare, he will have to find about £50 million to continue funding that subsidy and to pay the full 100 per cent Christmas bonus which he also promised. Some of us will be fortunate enough to be returned to office and we can remind him of his promises from the Opposition benches.

Mr. S. Walsh: The Deputy is admitting defeat already.

Mr. Bell: I know that Deputy McCarthy is an honourable man, and, therefore, he will ensure that the money is paid. If not, he will be reminded very forcibly of what happened this year.

I received information from the Minister's Department that the Christmas bonus would be paid at the full rate. I estimated that that would cost about £18.5 million. However, this is not the case in relation to people on unemployment assistance and whose spouses may be receiving unemployment or disability benefit. I now understand that the Christmas bonus will be paid at the reduced rate and a positive explanation [1565] is required because it is contrary to the information given to me by the Department. I am not blaming the Minister because social welfare is a very complex area and one cannot have one's finger on the pulse all the time.

I know the equality measure has caused serious problems. I made that statement on foot of information I had received and I feel very sore about it. However, I feel twice as sore about other information which I received with regard to this category. Those on unemployment assistance whose spouses were on disability or unemployment benefit had been granted an additional £10 but we fought for a revised payment which was subsequently granted and that £10 was increased to £20 for men on unemployment assistance. Effectively, what has happened is that the unemployment assistance level has been reduced. In other words, the basic rate has been reduced from £36.70 to £22.75 in most cases and in some cases to £26. Today, I carried out exhaustive inquiries on those rates and I found that a ceiling has been applied. The Minister did not indicate that in her speech. I assume, therefore, that she was not aware of it and was not advised by her officials to that effect.

The loss to some unemployment assistance beneficiaries will be more than for other claimants because of the ceiling which has been built into the scheme since the introduction of equal treatment. This ceiling means that the total unemployment assistance paid to a family cannot exceed the amount which the family would receive if the spouse on benefit was receiving increases for a spouse and children. This effectively means that the information which was given to us on that category — at this stage I do not know how many other categories are involved — was incorrect. Looking at the details supplied in the Minister's speech, I am coming to the conclusion that she was misinformed in that respect. I am not saying the Minister was in any way responsible for misinforming the House but I am saying we were not aware that this important category of people who are on the lowest [1566] level of social welfare will lose £14.25 instead of the figure which was quoted in the national press of £1.60. Had it not been for the subsidy of £5 which applied on the equality measure to women, the loss would have been £19.25.

For example, the pre-equality rate for a man on unemployment assistance was £36.70, for an adult dependant £26.45 and children's allowances for three children were £26.30. At that stage his wife on disability benefit was receiving £41.10 which included £5 subsidy paid on equality, giving a combined total of £130.55. Following the equality directive, the personal rate has been reduced to £26.60, the adult dependant rate is now nil and children's allowance at half the rate based on unemployment assistance, is £14.30 plus the special payment of £10. This gives a total of £50.70. His wife on disability benefit receives £14.30 as her share of the children's allowances, with her personal rate of £41.10. This gives a total of £55.40. The combined total is £106.30 or a loss of £24.35. Subsequently, an extra £10 was added, giving a total of £116.30, a loss of £14.25. A loss of £14.25 may not seem significant to some people but considering that they received an extra payment of £20 the loss could have been £34.25. A sum of £14.25 to a family surviving on social welfare two weeks before Christmas is a substantial amount of money. It makes a difference between being able to make do and not being able to cover the normal running costs of the home and keeping three children.

That example arose as a result of the ceiling which was introduced without the knowledge of the Members of this House. I claim to know a little bit about social welfare, yet I knew nothing about it until a considerable number of people called to my office and to my home wanting to know why their social welfare payment was reduced from £36.70 to £27.25. I do not know who is responsible for this in the Minister's Department or whether she was advised, but I want to know in very positive terms what measures are going to be taken to redress that position. Those on unemployment assistance are in the very lowest category and in the [1567] most dire need. I will pursue that vigorously and I will ask the Minister to use her good offices to remove that ceiling.

How can a married man with three children have his unemployment assistance reduced from a figure of £36.70 to £27.75 while, at the same time, a single man will have a higher personal rate than his married counterpart? To add insult to injury, if a man left his wife and began to live with another woman he would have a higher personal rate than the man who stays at home and minds the family. I do not know how this ceiling came about but I have to say I am very sore about it. I made a statement in this House on behalf of my party and in support of the Government on the basis of incorrect information. In that category, the Christmas bonus was based on what is effectively a lower level of basic payment. I do not know how many other categories are involved and to what extent, but that will come to light very quickly. People are confused as the Christmas bonus and the arrears of benefit are being paid at the same time. Therefore, for the next two weeks there will be confusion regarding the total make-up of the moneys being paid by the employment exchanges.

Possibly, there will be a double payment at Christmas which, again, will add confusion but in the New Year when they get back to basics and when it is explained what has happened in this and other categories there will be very many angry people around. I have met quite a few already. What makes me mad is that I explained to the people that this obviously was an administrative error and was something which could be corrected if they saw the manager of the employment exchange when, in fact, it was introduced by a circular letter which was issued on behalf of the Minister to the managers of the employment exchanges throughout the country. I received a copy of that from two employment exchanges this morning. I take a very serious view of it. I was quite annoyed when I saw it. No one in my party was aware that this was happening. Someone said it would only affect a few thousand people. At this [1568] stage I do not know how many people are involved but the next time I talk about it I will know exactly what categories are involved.

Mr. V. Brady: On a point of order, this is a very limited debate. I regret to interrupt the Deputy. He is entitled to 20 minutes but there are other Members who wish to speak and I am sure we would all wish the Minister to reply.

Mr. Bell: I did not realise the time.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Have you concluded?

Mr. Bell: Yes.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There are 20 minutes remaining. Deputies Walsh and Tunney wish to contribute and perhaps they might allow the Minister in.

Mr. V. Brady: Thank you, Deputy Bell.

Mr. S. Walsh: We are happy to facilitate the Minister. I welcome some of the points made by Deputy Bell. He asked a number of questions which I had intended to put to the Minister. Had I made some of the points he made it might have been taken as criticism of the scheme. There are a number of points he made which are exactly the same kind of queries I receive every day from people in Tallaght and Clondalkin in relation to assistance.

Following the Private Members' Motion last week when Deputies Taylor, Cluskey and O'Leary threatened to withdraw their support from the Government, Deputy Taylor gave the impression in the constituency we represent that the Christmas bonus was to be paid out. I do not intend to be critical of my colleague as this is not something which I practise in this House.

When Deputy McCarthy spoke at the outset the Ceann Comhairle was in the Chair and there was a difference of opinion about whether the question of employment and so on could be raised in [1569] this debate. The Minister spoke about the Jobsearch programme and mentioned various areas, including Tallaght. Any measures that would help to create employment would be welcome. I am sorry to say that the schemes which have been introduced do not even scratch the surface of the problem. In so far as Tallaght is concerned nothing has been done by the Government to alleviate unemployment. The schemes which were introduced were unproductive. They may help people for a few weeks or months but not as regards long term employment. I invite the Minister and her officials to come and visit Tallaght and Clondalkin and then she will realise who is and who is not in touch with reality. I make that plea honestly and sincerely. If she comes to Tallaght she will see the position for herself and will then be in touch with reality.

The Minister referred to equal treatment and to the fact that 50,000 people were treated as second class citizens until this measure was introduced. I have been unable to find anyone who has benefited from this scheme in the area I represent or in the adjoining areas. Perhaps we do not understand the scheme properly.

At a meeting convened last week in Tallaght which Deputies Taylor and O'Leary attended, the people demonstrated in no uncertain fashion the way they felt about how the EC directive was introduced. Fianna Fáil did not convene that meeting but as a result of that and of the threat by Deputies Taylor and Cluskey not to support the Government the Minister decided to change her mind in relation to the scheme. Following last Wednesday night, Deputy Taylor made it clear to the people that there would be an increase in the Christmas bonus but now we hear something different. It is important to clarify the position.

I am quite happy to accommodate the Minister and also Deputy Tunney who wishes to ask some questions.

Mr. Tunney: In order that the Minister will have an opportunity to reply, I am not insisting that she should reply to my question. However, she will not be able [1570] to accuse me of having consumed the time which prevented her so doing. I am going to resist the temptation for any politician to say that the colossal amounts which she and the Minister for Health claim they pay in social welfare benefits are an indictment of the Government in respect of the absence of any real economic policy. I leave that aside. I have one question which I want to put to the Minister. I am accepting that she has an interest in what is called equality. This question does not refer to equality as between man and woman but as between woman and woman. I give the instances of two ladies, one of whom is working in the public service. If and when that lady is pregnant, she is entitled to 14 weeks' leave, part of which she must take before the baby is born and the rest afterwards. Normally that is divided, say, six : eight or seven : seven. The point I make is that the public service and the Government of which the Minister is a member require of that lady to be back at work seven weeks after the baby is born.

If the lady is not employed in the public service but is working in industry and if she has her baby, six months after the baby is born if she looks for unemployment benefit or assistance the officials of the Minister's Department will tell her that she is not entitled to it because she is not really available for work and they will say that she is not available for work because her baby is only six months old. This has even happened in cases where the baby was a year old. The question to the Minister is: does she accept that this is equality? Does she accept that that is the exercise of equality as between one lady and another? She cannot say yes, therefore I must ask her what is she doing about it?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minster has approximately eight minutes.

Minister for Social Welfare (Mrs. Hussey): I have many notes about all the questions raised and do not expect to be able to answer them all in that short time, but I shall do my best to make as much progress as I can.

[1571] Deputy McCarthy raised an important point with regard to the questions regarding care of children being asked of women who were applying for unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit. That has been a matter of considerable concern to a great many people for some time. This issue arises particularly now because of the fact that married women are now entitled under the equality of treatment provisions to claim unemployment assistance.

It is important to realise that there is no difference in relation to the availability for work condition as between unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance. Of course, as we are all aware, married women do claim and are getting unemployment benefit. Before unemployment payment can be made to any person, man or woman, it must be established that the person is available for and is genuinely seeking work. To determine whether a person is available for work a number of questions are asked of claimants. These questions are the same irrespective of whether the claimant is a man or a woman. There is no discriminatory questioning in this area.

I might add that if a special addendum was made to the rules governing the question of married women, that is if, we took up the suggestion and put an additional special aspect into what questions could be asked of married women as opposed to married men that in itself, in my view, would be unacceptable. I want to make it clear that there is no discriminatory question asked of married women as opposed to married men. It is done in exactly the same way. I have made considerable inquiries into that area and am satisfied that those arrangements we have made are not discriminatory. We have issued directives to the staff of the Department who deal with unemployment payments that there will be no question of any discriminatory treatment of applicants from the point of view of payments. That is important for everybody to realise.

[1572] Deputy McCarthy also sought clarification on the total amount of money which is allocated for the Christmas bonus. The £18 million allocated by the Government for the Christmas bnous is the total amount required and it is also towards the cost of paying the bonus to health benefit recipients. Of course, that is borne by the Health Vote. In relation to the Social Welfare Vote, the amount of Christmas bonus is £17.5 million. The Deputy referred to £8.6 million. That relates to the cost of the bonus that will be paid with social insurance benefits. Payments of this nature are made out of the social insurance fund and the Exchequer makes up the shortfall in this fund each year. That is the purpose of subhead E to which the Deputy referred at some length.

The cost of the bonus paid with assistance is borne direct by the Exchequer and is included in the revised Estimate under each relevant subhead. The Deputy seems to be concerned as to why that arose in the manner in which it did. He also referred to the question of the benefit and privilege assessment made for people living at home. I got a clear impression that he was suggesting that that should be abolished. The problem there is that we would be expending a further £30 million if we abolished that benefit and privilege condition and would therefore be giving full rates to people not involved in accommodation or food expenses and irrespective of the means of their parents or the people with whom they were living. He also seems, in reference to what I have said about the fuel scheme, to be asking for a change in that scheme, to spend yet a further £30 million on an extension of that widely. Perhaps he did not mean to do that, but that was the impression one got.

In reply to Deputy Bell's question, this arises because of the provision in the Act. He put the case where one spouse is on unemployment assistance and the other is on disability or unemployment benefit. The Act of July 1985 provided that in the situation as he outlined the household could not get more than they would if the spouse on benefit claimed the other as a [1573] dependant. The limitation to which he refers has nothing to do with the alleviating measures that are the result of the Act which was passed in July 1985. I understand that the reason behind this was that when the Bill was being passed, which it was without opposition and with this clause in it, a married couple where one spouse was engaged full time in home duties should not receive less than where both spouses were available for work. I understand that was the reason behind the question.

Mr. Bell: I am saying that that did not apply before 17 November.

Mrs. Hussey: On the question of the details of a particular situation and the questions which other Deputies put to me but which I did not have time to cover, I will be very glad to convey my answers to the Deputies as quickly as possible. I have answered only some of the many questions which have been put to me but I will be in touch with the Deputies about those I did not answer.

Question put and agreed to.