Wednesday, 7 November 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
4. Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if his attention has been drawn to a recent report published by the UCD Department of Environmental Studies which suggested that up to 2,000 elderly people were dying prematurely each winter due to the fact that they cannot afford to heat their homes; if, in view of these figures, he will provide for an immediate increase in the fuel allowance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27068/01]
Mr. D. Ahern: The report to which the Deputy refers is a technical study that seeks to define and quantify the extent of fuel poverty in Ireland. The author concludes that about 11% of households experience fuel poverty using one measurement approach that takes account of factors such as the condition of the dwelling and fuel efficiency as well as the affordability of fuel. The report states that the eradication of fuel poverty requires investment in capital stock and the introduction of energy efficiency programmes.
The author's policy recommendation is that the State should introduce a programme targeted at certain groups with the aim of eradicating fuel poverty through domestic energy efficiency improvements. As the Deputy will appreciate, responsibility for such a programme does not come within my remit. However, fuel poverty is one of the aspects of poverty being considered as part of the review of the national anti-poverty strategy which is currently under way. I hope it may be possible to make progress along the lines suggested in the context of the NAPS review when it is finalised.
The report does not call for improvements in fuel allowances. The author refers in the report to future work he proposes to undertake. He states that the future work will show that fuel poverty is in no small part responsible for the high levels of excess winter deaths found in Ireland each year in which 2,000 mainly old and vulnerable people die prematurely from cold related causes. At no point does the report show justification for suggesting that 2,000 people die each year in Ireland because they cannot afford to adequately heat their houses during the winter months. The claim of inability to afford adequate heat in the home was the category which attracted the lowest percentage of blame for fuel poverty in the course of the study. I will examine closely any policy recommendations that might be suggested when this report becomes available, particularly in relation to the social welfare system.
Additional InformationIn the meantime, I recognise the importance of ensuring that people on low incomes can afford fuel and I accept that this is an important aspect of countering fuel poverty. The extent to which people on social welfare can afford fuel is kept under review in my Department. The objective is to ensure that the combined value of weekly social welfare payments and fuel allowances rises  in real terms, after compensating people for information, including fuel price inflation.
Giving people a real increase in their primary payment for 52 weeks of the year is a more expensive option than increasing the fuel allowance payment rate for part of the year. However, it is the correct approach to take as it gives people greater flexibility in meeting their needs. That, coupled with programmes to improve the fuel efficiency of the housing stock, will bring about the reduction in poverty levels, including fuel poverty levels, that I am working to achieve.
Mr. Broughan: Will the Minister agree this report is a damning indictment of his administration of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs for the past four and a half years? Members on the Opposition benches have pleaded with the Minister during the debates on the past five budgets to increase the fuel allowances. The most common request I have received from people around the country from Kilkenny to Donegal who write to me as Labour spokesperson on this area is that they want increased the fuel allowances, which are a miserable £5 and £8. They have not been increased since 1984. The premise that the Minister has no responsibility for all of this is totally inadequate.
Mr. Broughan: Does the Minister accept the fundamental bottom line conclusion of this report is that 2,000 elderly and vulnerable people should not die unnecessarily each year because of an inability to heat their homes properly due to their being on a low income? That is the fundamental point. Some 133,000 households are affected and one in ten pensioners who live alone are the most vulnerable group. More than a quarter of a million of homes, which do not have central heating or electric storage heating, are extremely vulnerable. The issue of fuel poverty should be a fundamental aspect of the National Anti-Poverty Strategy review. The groups on whom the Minister should have concentrated in relation to fuel poverty are those in receipt of social welfare income, pensioners, particularly those living alone, and local authority tenants, 20% of whom do not have central heating. Were those not groups on whom the Minister should have concentrated during the past four and a half years? When we go out to meet the people—
Mr. D. Ahern: Having been in Government for the past four years and delivered record increases in social welfare each year, particularly for old age pensioners, I have no fear in going before the people.
Mr. D. Ahern: Deputy Broughan will probably hide behind the fact that he was in Opposition and say this was an awful Government, but you will not remind the people of what you did when you were in Government, when you did not give old age pensioners any increase.
I have made the point several times in relation to my stewardship that the fuel allowance was delivered up until last year for 26 weeks of the year, a limited period of half the year, but it was increased to 29 weeks this year. I have expressed the view that—
5. Mr. B. Hayes asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the number of persons who will not receive an increase in their social welfare payment until February 2002 due to the problem of printing social welfare books; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26896/01]
Mr. D. Ahern: In 2002, for the first time, increases in social welfare payments provided for in the budget will come into effect from the beginning of January. This will be a major advance on the position which applied heretofore.
When the Government came into office in 1997, budget increases in weekly social welfare payments were payable for only 29 weeks from early June. Child Benefit increases were payable for three months from September. Over the past four years I have ensured that social welfare recipients receive their budget increases earlier. For example, this year's increases in weekly payments were payable for 39 weeks from the first week in April in line with changes in the tax code. Child benefit increases became effective three months earlier from June 2001.
 Due to the lead in time involved in the production of certain payments, it will not be possible for budget increases to be paid immediately in all cases from January 2002. Book based payment systems, which are the chosen payment option for the majority of pensioners and other long-term beneficiaries are less flexible than other payment methods and require longer lead in times to implement.
My Department has examined all possible options to ensure that the payment of the new rates is made as quickly as possible and as close as can be to the date on which they are due. In this regard a lump sum payment will be included in the first order in new books for 210,000 customers which will be issued in early February 2002. A further 393,000 people who are due to get new books in April 2002 will receive a special payment in mid-Feburary 2002 containing arrears for six weeks and an advance payment for seven weeks to bring them up to the date on which their new books arrive. Nobody will lose out as a result and everyone will get their arrears by mid-February 2002, six weeks earlier than the budget increases in 2001.
Additional informationThe essential point is that increases will be effective from the beginning of January in all cases, that is, earlier than ever before. Where the increases cannot be paid until mid-February there will be full retrospection to the effective date of the increase. My Department is undertaking a programme of information provision to ensure that all social welfare recipients are made aware of the arrangements which will apply in their case. My officials will outline the details of these arrangements to the Committee on Family, Community and Social Affairs shortly.
Mr. B. Hayes: Does the Minister not accept that this is further evidence of his incompetence and inability to deliver these small increases to people on social welfare? Is he admitting that half a million people will be unable to get their small increases in social welfare from 1 January because the Government did not introduce the budget earlier? If the budget had been introduced in late November these small payments could have been delivered to the poorest of the poor on 1 January.
The Minister will be aware of the 1996 legislation in respect of prompt payment. Why is it that there is one set of rules for suppliers to State companies but those rules can be disregarded in the context of poor people on low incomes? Why will the Minister not pay interest to those who will not get their payments until February? In effect, the payments will not be paid for six weeks. This is another example of the Minister's inability to deliver anything significant for those on low incomes.
Mr. D. Ahern: He was a supporter of the party that was in Government. It was the party that introduced the legislation on prompt payments. If one accepts the Deputy's logic, what did the Government do when it introduced its budget in 1997?
Mr. D. Ahern: We progressively brought back the payments from June to 1 January. The Deputy will be aware that people regularly cried that it was a disgrace it took so long from announcement of social welfare payments to their actual delivery. They asked why people could benefit from tax changes in April while social welfare recipients had to wait until June. We brought that date back. The Deputy is suggesting, and I am delighted to hear him say it, that we  should have introduced our budget in September and not delivered the increase until January. The Government took the view that there should be the shortest possible lapse—
Mr. B. Hayes: His Department has shown gross incompetence in delivering small increases to people on social welfare. Is he admitting, yet again, that he is unable to deliver small increases until February? Would he consider changing the prompt payment legislation to give the same powers and rights to people on social welfare as it gives to suppliers of State and semi-State companies?
Mr. D. Ahern: With respect, the Deputy does not know what he is talking about. I have invited his committee to examine this issue and to question my officials. At long last, that invitation has been accepted.
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