Wednesday, 3 March 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Briscoe: I tabled this motion because I was deeply concerned about a matter raised by one of my constituents. This constituent, having reached the age of 66, is entitled to a free television licence but cannot avail of it until the next renewal date of the licence, which is six months' hence.
There is an anomaly, where pensioners become entitled to a free television licence from their 66th birthday but do not benefit from the scheme until the next renewal date of the licence. Some pensioners are being considerably disadvantaged, especially if their 66th birthday is six to nine months before the licence is due for renewal.
The purpose of the scheme is to save our senior citizens the cost of a television licence from their 66th birthday onwards. We should not be penny pinching or miserly in our approach. All senior citizens should have the full benefit of the scheme. I suggest that the scheme either be amended to allow pensioners claim from the date of their 66th birthday and that they be refunded the difference if their licence has time to run to renewal, or that the licence they receive at the renewal date after their 65th birthday be only for the period up to their 66th birthday.
In these days of computers and information technology, it should not be beyond the ability of the Department to make such arrangements. The Department has already indicated in a reply to a letter which I wrote on behalf of this gentleman that this would be too difficult to administer. However, there is no reason, with the proper computers, they could not allow a person to purchase a licence for six months, for example, which would take him up to his 66th birthday.
It is not much but it is important to the people who feel they have paid for an extra six months. Many of the terrific changes we have brought into our welfare legislation over the years have not been very costly but they have meant a great deal to the elderly recipients. Our country is marked out by the way we look after elderly people, the sick and the young. We cannot do too much for our elderly people. Fianna Fáil has a wonderful record of looking after the elderly, better than any other party in this State. I congratulate the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs on the recent increases introduced in the Social Welfare Bill.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): On behalf of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, I thank Deputy Briscoe for raising this matter. The Minister has asked me to extend his deepest apologies to Deputy Briscoe and the House for his inability to be present.
The majority of the schemes operated by the Department have as their objective the direct income support of clients through cash payments. There are some schemes, however, where the benefit is delivered in kind rather than in cash payment. A number of these schemes, collectively referred to as the free schemes are free travel, free electricity and gas allowance, free television licence and free telephone rental allowance.
The free travel scheme is available to all people resident in Ireland aged 66 years or over, to all carers in receipt of carer's allowance and also to certain people with disabilities under that age who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments. From April 1999, the scheme will be available to carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative's allowance.
The other free schemes, such as free electricity allowance, free television licence and free telephone rental allowance are available to people living in the State, aged 66 years or over, who are in receipt of a social welfare type payment and to certain people with disabilities under the age of 66 who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments. From August 1999, the free telephone rental allowance will be available to all carers in receipt of carer's allowance and to carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative's allowance.
Widows and widowers aged from 60 to 65 whose late spouses had been in receipt of the free schemes retain that entitlement. This is to ensure that households do not suffer a loss of entitlements following the death of a spouse.
The free schemes are also available to low income pensioners who are not in receipt of a social welfare type pension and who satisfy a means test. The weekly means income limit fixed for this purpose is the maximum personal rate of the old age contributory pension, which is currently £83 for a recipient aged 66 to 79 years, and £88 for a recipient aged 80 years or over; plus £30;  plus any increases for dependants or for living alone.
To qualify for the free schemes, the person must be living alone or only with certain excepted people who satisfy this condition. This condition is not applied in the case of persons aged over 75 years who are in receipt of a qualifying payment.
The free television licence scheme was introduced in 1968 to enhance the quality of life of social welfare recipients and to assist those who might experience difficulty in meeting the one-off annual cost, currently £70, of their television licence. At the end of 1998 more than 218,000 people qualified for this scheme, at an annual cost of more than £15.3 million.
A person who is awarded a free electricity allowance, free natural gas allowance or free bottled gas refill allowance is entitled to a free television licence from the next due renewal date of his current television licence. To avail of the free licence, the applicant brings the letter of approval of one of the above allowances and the television licence renewal notice to his local post office which then issues the licence. Each subsequent free licence is then issued automatically by An Post.
As individual applicants would have a different length of time left on their current licence when they apply for a free television licence, there would be substantial administrative difficulties, both for the Department and An Post, in awarding a free television licence from the date the application was received in the Department. This problem only arises with a customer's first free television licence. Subsequent licences are automatically issued by An Post for a 12 month period.
Each case would have to be verified with An Post and either a refund, for the time remaining on the applicant's current licence, would have to be issued by the Department to the applicant or a partial free licence would have to be issued by An Post, the cost of which would ultimately be reclaimed from the Department.
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