Adjournment Debate. - National Fuel Scheme.

Thursday, 27 April 1995

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 452 No. 2

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Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  Good Friday, 14 April, saw the end of the national fuel scheme until mid-October. Good Friday was D-day for many thousands of elderly people who depend on additional fuel [436] to keep them warm. The guillotine was brought down on this scheme on Good Friday without any regard to the subzero temperatures during April, particularly at night. I have checked with the meteorological office who informed me it was one of the coldest Aprils for a considerable period.

On making representations to the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, who has masqueraded as a socialist for many years in this House, he said he had no intention of extending the fuel subsidy scheme. Deputy Kathleen Lynch in The Evening Echo of 19 April 1995 in an article by Helen Coughlan entitled “Elderly Left Out in the Cold” expressed surprise at her party Leader and the Minister for Social Welfare's adamant refusal to extend the scheme. This is more of the hypocrisy from Democratic Left. They say one thing to their constituents and something else behind the closed doors of the Cabinet. They do not have the backbone to stand up for the people they have used for so long in the various statements issued by them both inside and outside the House.

The Minister must recognise and acknowledge that during the cold nights elderly people had to remain beside the fire, the gas stove or whatever form of heating they had. The Minister has shown a callous disregard for these people. In fact the Minister, who was in the House for the vote a few minutes ago, did not think it worth his while to remain here to respond. Instead he left my colleague and good friend to stand in for him.

Individuals, mainly elderly citizens, in receipt of the national fuel allowance have proved to social welfare officers that they are in extremely needy circumstances. If they earn £5 more than their pension entitlement they are not eligible for the scheme. While a welcome increase was granted in the budget the level of income must be extremely low to qualify. The scheme is only £5 per week so it does not cost a great deal.

On top of the battering which these marginalised individuals got in the [437] budget and in the Social Welfare Bill with the record low increase of 2.5 per cent they are now affected by the suspension of this scheme. We are all aware that a bag of coal costs £8.70, that a bale of briquettes costs £1.50. I appeal to the Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare, Deputy Durkan, who has some heart, rather than the Minister to extend the scheme by one month for the very worthy recipients.

Priority can be given to the appointment of programme managers, special advisers and consultants. We even pass legislation to increase the number of Ministers of State. Yet to the unfortunate people who cannot speak for themselves the Minister says he has no intention of extending the duration of this scheme. I call on the Minister to extend the scheme to 14 May 1995. The needy and the elderly deserve an extension of the scheme. I am aware that I am whistling in the wind. My call, as in the case of the budget and the Social Welfare Bill, will again fall on deaf ears. The priorities of Democratic Left are different from mine.

Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Mr. Durkan): Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  My colleague the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, is well able to speak for himself. From my knowledge of working with him over the past few months he has shown himself to be an extremely caring and conscientious individual who is ever ready to respond to the needs of the people. I am surprised at Deputy Walsh's negative and pessimistic approach especially when the weather is fine.

The national fuel scheme assists householders who are on long term social welfare or health board payments and who are unable to provide for their own heating needs. A payment of £5 per week is paid to eligible households for 26 weeks, from mid-October to mid-April.

An additional smokeless fuel allowance of £3 per week was introduced in October 1990 to assist people living in [438] the built-up areas of Dublin to help meet the additional costs arising from the ban on the sale of bituminous coal in these areas. This allowance has been extended to cover the Cork city and adjacent areas to coincide with the ban on the sale of bituminous coal which came into effect there on 13 February 1995.

In recognition of the fact that it can be unpredictably cold in autumn and spring, the scheme is not confined to the winter months but runs for six months of the year, from mid-October to mid-April.

In 1994-95 the allowance was paid on a weekly basis to those eligible from 17 October 1994 to 12 April 1995. The scheme is a fixed scheme; it is not temperature related. As a result there may be a small number of occasions when the allowance is not paid even though temperatures are unseasonably cold. However, as the scheme extends over six months of the year, this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. Of course there will also be times when the allowance will be paid even though temperatures are above the seasonal norm.

Although the national fuel scheme is relatively inflexible and is only paid for a fixed period, there is a facility available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstance who have special heating needs. Under that scheme a person who may have exceptional heating costs due to ill health or infirmity may qualify for a heating allowance. An application for a heating allowance may be made by contacting a community welfare officer at a local health centre. There has been no change here and that is the most efficient and cost effective method of dealing with exceptional temperature changes that may occur.

Also under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme a health board may make a single payment to meet an exceptional need. This would cover situations where individual householders were having difficulty because of illness. These payments are made on a once-off basis for exceptional expenses such as [439] heating costs. Eligible people would normally be in receipt of a social welfare or health board payment; however, each case is decided on its merits by the health board. As before, an application for assistance may be made by contacting a local community welfare officer.

Paying the allowance on a temperature basis would mean introducing a system along the lines of the cold weather payments scheme in the UK and Northern Ireland. Although this may appear good on paper, the reality is that the scheme is quite stringent. Under this scheme payments are only made for each period of seven consecutive days where the average temperature in a local area is zero degrees Celsius or below and in the years 1988 to 1995 payments have only been made in one year, 1990-91.

Any extension of the duration of the scheme would have significant cost implications and could only be considered in a budgetary context. It is estimated that to extend the scheme for one month would cost £7 million. The Deputy opposite must be conscious of that plus the fact that we are considerably post-budget at present.

The way this issue has been hyped out [440] of all proportion does the Deputies opposite no credit. It may well have the effect of instilling fear and foreboding among the most vulnerable groups of society, the elderly and those living alone, and this is coming from a party which, when in Government, cut the duration of the national fuel scheme from 30 weeks to 26 weeks in October 1988 and has not since seen fit to extend the period. This is blatant political opportunism at its worst. It is sad that the party who introduced the cuts in the first place have forgotten that they were the culprits.

The Minister for Social Welfare and I are deeply conscious of the needs of the people to whom the Deputy refers. I do not know what the temperatures have been in the rest of the country but where I and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle live. Good Friday was the day that temperatures reached the highest level so far this year. A very comprehensive and caring scheme has been put in place. There is no reason the health boards cannot facilitate people who are in exceptional need. I ask the Deputy to bear that in mind and to convey it to his constituents.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 3 May 1995.

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