Ceisteanna–Questions. Priority Questions. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Wednesday, 7 November 2001

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 543 No. 3

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[863]

  4.  Mr. Broughan  Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan   asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs  Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern   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: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot 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 [864] in real terms, after compensating people for information, including fuel price inflation.

This is being done. The increases in primary payments of £8, 10.16 to £10, 12.70 per week that I brought into effect in April of this year are the largest ever implemented.

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: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. 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.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  The Deputy is making a statement. This is Question Time.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. 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—

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  The Deputy is making statements. This is Question Time.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  The Ceann Comhairle is in the lucky position that he will not have to go out with us in May or whenever.

[865]

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy should confine himself to questions.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  When we go out to meet the people in the run up to the election for the 29th Dáil the Minister will be judged extremely harshly.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  The Deputy continues to be disorderly. This is Question Time, but the Deputy is not asking questions, he is making statements.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  Are the findings of this report not a terrible indictment of the Minister's administration?

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot 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. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The people are so ungrateful.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot 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.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  People could afford to buy a house then.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  I am happy to go before the people.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  I ask the Minister to address the Chair.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  To come back to the report—

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The preamble is over.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  On a point of order—

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  The Deputy's party when in Government did not give old age pensioners any increase. That is the factual position.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  The Minister is not addressing the fundamental point about the fuel allowance.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  That is not a point of order.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  You expressed the view that you were afraid to go before the people. I certainly am not afraid to do so.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  I ask the Minister to address the Chair.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  I am happy to go before the people next week.

[866]Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister is clinging on to power.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  He is a desperate man.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  There is nothing in the report which justifies the claim that 2,000 people die each year because they cannot afford to heat their homes.

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—

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  We must proceed to Question No. 5.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  —it should be extended to 52 weeks of the year.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  The Chair has called Question No. 5 and we should proceed to it.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The people are so ungrateful.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  I have called Question No. 5. These are priority questions.

  5.  Mr. B. Hayes  Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes   asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs  Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern   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: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot 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.

From next year the tax year and calendar year will be the same, commencing on 1 January. Social welfare increases and tax changes will apply from the beginning of January.

Recipients of short-term payments such as unemployment and disability benefits will receive their increases from the first pay day in January – 13 weeks earlier than in 2001.

[867] 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: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian 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.

[868]Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  The Deputy has a short memory.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  So has the Minister.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  Was the Deputy a Member of the House in 1996?

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  No.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot 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. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): That old tune is worn out.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister has no view on the matter.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  It introduced its budget for 1997 in December and gave social welfare recipients their increases the following June.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  On a point of order, the history lesson is fascinating—

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  That is not a point of order.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  —but the Minister should be answering my questions.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  The Minister without interruption.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  What have we endeavoured to do since we came into office?

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  I put a straightforward question to the Minister. He should answer the question.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  The Minister without interruption.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  We have progressively brought back the payments from June—

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister should answer the question.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot 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 [869] 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. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne   (Carlow-Kilkenny): When the money was gone.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  —between announcement and delivery. That is what we are doing.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  Charlie knew the recession was coming.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  The Budget Statement will announce the increases on 5 December and people will be paid effectively from 1 January.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister has some neck if he expects us to believe that.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  A question for the Minister.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian 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: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot 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.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister is responsible for it. He should not dump on his officials again.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Time is up on priority questions. We must proceed to other questions.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister is dumping on his officials again.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  People on social welfare are much better off as a result of us backdating the payments.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Rubbish.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  The people can only be hoodwinked for so long, Deputy.

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  The Minister is being a little mean.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  The Deputy does not believe that.

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  Will there be increases?

[870]Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  The Deputy knows I have been the best Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs for a long time.


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