Revenue and Old Age Pensions in the 1920s and 1930s

The often-used phrase, “lies, damned lies and statistics” describes the persuasive power of statistics to bolster a weak argument. It comes to mind when reading contemporaneous newspaper reports about Old Age Pensions in the early 20th century. The Old Age Pension (OAP) scheme was launched on New Year’s Day 1909. The next day, The Irish Times reported that “With fewer inhabitants than Scotland by a quarter of a million, Ireland has established claims to nearly 74,000 more persons. This surely is a magnificent tribute to the longevity of our race and to the healthy character of our much-abused climate.”

The large proportion of pensionable persons in Ireland provoked comment in Parliament and in the UK and Irish press. There were concerns about financing the old age pension into perpetuity. There were allegations of widespread fraud in Ireland. In 1909, all claimants for the OAP were born before the night of the big wind (Oíche na Gaoithe Móire). This had occurred on 6 January 1839. It was argued that the pre-famine Irish population should be the baseline for the proportion of Irish claims. There were problems with the regulations, a dearth of data in Ireland and the unreliability of the data which was available. These problems compounded difficulties in administering the OAP scheme for several decades after its launch.

The old age pension was paid to persons over 70 years, subject to a means test and proof of age. The claimant picked up the claim form at the local post office. Once completed, it was sent to the Pensions Officer, who was a Customs Officer. The Pensions Officer visited the claimant at his or her home and made a recommendation for acceptance or rejection of the claim. The Pensions Officer’s recommendation was sent to a pension committee which decided on whether the claim should be allowed. There was an appeal mechanism available to claimants and pensions officers when claims and/or recommendations were rejected. In the UK, Customs and Inland Revenue operated under separate authorities. When the Free State was founded, Customs Officers and Revenue officials operated under the combined authority of the Revenue Commissioners.

The Revenue Commissioners assessed entitlement for the OAP on behalf of the Department of Local Government and Public Health. This continued until 1947, when the function was transferred to the newly established Department of Social Welfare. Pension Committees were set up in every county council and in boroughs and urban districts with populations greater than 10,000. In effect, the councils appointed themselves as local pension committees. Their function was to decide on all OAP claims. The pension committee appointed subcommittees and delegated its powers to them. In 1925 there were 27 county, 4 county borough, 11 urban district and 329 local pension subcommittees in Saorstát. Decisions of the pension committee were subject to appeal, by either the Pension Officer or the claimant. These appeals were made to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health.

The administration of the OAP scheme was dogged by delays and subject to complaints. On 1 January 1925, the Minister for Finance, Ernest Blythe, established the Old Age Pension Committee of Enquiry within the Civil Service. Its remit was to report on the administration of Old Age and Blind Pensions. Included in its terms of reference was “regard being had especially to the desirability of the just and expeditious treatment of all applications.” It reported back to the Minister for Finance on 8 December 1925. The report was published in 1926.

The Old Age Pension Committee of Enquiry clearly marked the cards of the local pension committees. It regarded the pension committees as being placed with the main responsibility for the working of the system. “The pension committee was intended to be, and should be, the pivot of the whole system”. While noting this, the OAP Committee of Enquiry found that “there can be little doubt that a very large number (of pension committees) throughout the country fail to realise the position that they were intended to occupy in the system”. It went on “It is not that there is any conscious neglect of their duties, it is rather a general apathy often finding its expression in irregular attendances and careless investigation of claims”. pension committee members interviewed by the OAP Committee of Enquiry seemed to express the powerlessness if not the pointlessness of their role. This was because of the extent to which Revenue Pension Officers successfully overturned their decisions.   

The OAP Committee of Enquiry found that Pension Officers and pension committees ultimately disagreed on about 40% of all claims processed. This represents the percentage of unresolved cases after settlement efforts between Pension Officers and pension committees. In all these cases the pension committees acted against the Pension Officers’ recommendations and allowed the pension claims. The Pension Officers in turn appealed the decision in these cases to the Department of Local Government and Public Health. The Department overturned the pension committees’ decisions in 85% of the appeals in 1924 and 73% in 1925. The report noted a “spirit of distrust and antagonism between pension committees and Pension Officers”.

There was also mistrust between the Pension Officers and the claimants. Frank Somers RIP, former C&E, told of being admitted to a Mayo farmhouse by a female old age pension applicant. Querying her means, he was told that she had no cattle, no sheep and no pigs. Enquiries complete, Frank left by the back door where he immediately fell over a pig. Returning to clarify one of her replies, he was told: ‘Ah that’s no pig you tripped over Sir, that’s a sow. And you asked me nothing about sows.‘ There was a cut of one shilling in the old age pension in 1924. Unfairly, perhaps, this may have added to the negative perception of Pension Officers by some of the general public.

There were several contributing factors that gave rise to the disagreements between Pension Officers and pension committees. The neglect by pension committees of their statutory obligations has already been noted. Proof of age was also problematic. The civil register of births, marriages and deaths did not commence in Ireland until 1864. This meant that first time OAP claimants could not provide civil birth certificates until the mid-1930s at the earliest. Until then, claimants relied on baptismal, marriage, vaccination, school records, affidavits etc to provide proof of age. But these were often missing or claimed to be inaccurate or inadequate.

The OAP Committee of Enquiry reported problems with reliance on marriage certificates “particularly when the contracting parties are over 25 years old”. It stated: “We are satisfied that the age on marriage is frequently understated, and we recommend that the Pension Authorities, more particularly in the case of women, should exercise great caution in placing reliance on such certificates, when there is anything pointing to the possibility of their being inaccurate”.

Means testing was also a contentious issue, particularly in the case of owners of small agricultural holdings. The OAP Committee of Enquiry reported on a holding worked to an optimal level by a thrifty individual. lt may give a good return, especially when compared to a similar holding that is not worked at all. “In the result, the thriftless man gets the full pension, and the thrifty man gets either no pension or a greatly reduced one.” It also stated: “Furthermore none of the witnesses who put forward this contention was able to formulate any concrete plan that would bear investigation, or that would assure uniformity.”

An obvious tool to test means was to look at claimants’ bank accounts. But the OAP Committee of Enquiry stepped back from that: 

“Both bankers and their customers regard with great jealousy any infringement on the confidence surrounding the customer's account, and the committee do not consider that it would be either wise or feasible to adopt any inquisitorial methods as regards bank accounts for the purpose of old age pensions.”

Denial of old age pension claims was probably an emotive issue for claimants and their families. For many, independent living may not have been possible without it. Of those that didn’t qualify for the old age pension, some ended their days in the local county home. The county home replaced the workhouse which was dreaded throughout Ireland during the 19th century. For those that remembered that association, the county home probably had an undeserved reputation that lasted for generations.

Revenue staff working as Pension Officers also carried out other Revenue duties. The work of the Pension Officers was transferred from Customs officers to other Revenue Investigation Officers in the 1930s. This is not surprising, as Customs officers increasingly focused on land frontier issues as the Economic War progressed. In some ways, the work of the Pension Officer may have been thankless and even stressful. But the officer operated within the four corners of the Acts and regulations when assessing entitlement to pensions. The Committee of Enquiry found that Revenue’s Pension Officers did their work with fairness, efficiency, and consideration.