Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - National Fuel Scheme.

1.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare when proposals will be brought forward for the rationalisation of the national fuel scheme and the urban scheme following the Supreme Court ruling on 19 November 1986, declaring the regulations governing the national fuel scheme to be invalid.

14.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will introduce a national fuel scheme which would make fuel vouchers available to persons on the basis of income rather than social welfare category; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

29.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he intends to change the regulations governing the free fuel scheme following last year's Supreme Court decision concerning the constitutional right of people receiving unemployment assistance to free fuel; and if he intends to remove the anomalies in these regulations.

32.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare the plans, if any, he has to review or revise the various free fuel schemes operated by his Department and the health boards; his views on whether serious problems have occurred this year in the administration of the various schemes; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1, 14, 29 and 32 together.

Two fuel schemes are in operation at present. A nationwide scheme, administered by health boards throughout the country applies to persons on social welfare pensions or health board payments who have no other income and who satisfy a living alone condition.

An urban fuel scheme operates in 17 cities and towns mainly along the eastern and southern seaboards. These schemes are administered by the local authorities and the schemes give automatic entitlement to persons in receipt of certain pensions and to certain persons on unemployment assistance. Under both schemes the value of the fuel allowance is £5 per week and the period of operation is 30 weeks from October to April.

As a result of a Supreme Court judgment in November last declaring the regulations governing the national fuel scheme to be ultra vires, the scheme in effect ceased to exist from that date. Pending a review of the situation, however, arrangements were made to enable health boards to continue to pay fuel allowances for the remainder of the present heating season in the same manner and under the same conditions of eligibility to those persons who would have received allowances previously. The urban fuel scheme was not affected by the judgement.

I am not aware that there has been any serious problem in the administration of the free fuel schemes in the meantime. I am having the situation examined at present to see what arrangements can be made to put the fuel schemes on a more rational basis while at the same time having regard to present financial constraints.

In the course of the review which has been promised since last November, is it envisaged that a scheme will continue to be operated by health boards and that the anomaly which exists between the urban and health board schemes, whereby in urban areas people in receipt of unemployment assistance qualify whereas under the health board scheme there is no such qualification, will be rectified?

That is one of the questions to be considered in the review. The problem is that the extension of the scheme would involve considerable additional cost. The problems arose from the High Court and Supreme Court judgments and, as the Deputy would be aware, the health boards have facilitated the operation of the scheme since then on an administrative basis.

Is the Minister aware of the gross anomalies that exist between the various schemes both on a financial and a geographical basis? Is he aware that persons earning up to £12,000 per annum and widows in receipt of contributory pension may in one area qualify for the £5 a week fuel scheme, while in another area people on supplementary welfare allowance do not qualify? What does the Minister propose to do about such anomalies?

I am aware of the anomalies between the two schemes. The scheme to which the Deputy referred provides free fuel vouchers for widows and other categories on an automatic basis in 17 towns throughout the country. That is a scheme that was established in 1942. Since then there were various other forms of assistance and efforts were made in 1980, when I was Minister, to bring these schemes together and create a national scheme. That scheme does not provide that automatic entitlement. The Commission on Social Welfare looked at this general problem. I take it the Deputy is not suggesting that the widows in these 17 towns and cities should have their benefit removed?

Does the Minister intend to implement the recommendation of the Commission on Social Welfare regarding the fuel scheme——

That is a separate question.

——remove the anomalies and review the scheme upwards so that a scheme of equal benefit will exist for all categories, whether they live in Dublin, Kildare or elsewhere?

I wish to bring in Deputy Jim Mitchell.

As a questioner on the Order Paper may I have an opportunity to ask a question?

I concede the Deputy's point. As Deputy McCartan has a question down he is entitled to put a question now if he wishes.

In relation to the Minister's reply to Questions Nos. 1 and 14 and in clarification of the report issued by his Department in November following on the Supreme Court decision, does the review currently being undertaken involve both schemes and is it working towards a national unified scheme that will obliterate all the anomalies referred to by the previous questioner? When does the Minister anticipate that that review will be available to the House and when can the Minister act to assure those people currently in a position of uncertainty, that they will be entitled to fuel assistance over the winter months?

My predecessors in Government made a number of attempts to meet the legal requirements which arose under the national scheme and these were challenged further, creating considerable difficulty for this whole rationalisation process. At this stage, with the assistance of the health boards on an administrative basis, the scheme is being operated for the remainder of the year which is just now completed. I will certainly examine the possibilities in that regard as soon as possible and I will review both schemes. The problem which arises is that since 1942 there is a scheme under which, for example, widows and certain other categories receive these vouchers. I take it the Deputy is not suggesting that that scheme be discontinued for those people. I note that Deputy Spring appears to be upset.

I am, because you are evading giving a direct reply to a straight question.

There is nothing straight about this question. The Deputy's Government were into the courts a couple of times over it.

We want a straight answer to a straight question.

Let us hear the Minister out.

Deputy Stagg has asked that the schemes would all be reviewed upwards——

May I——

I presume Deputy Stagg is suggesting that the automatic entitlement would apply then all over the country?

That is correct.

The Deputy mentioned the report of the Commission on Social Welfare. The Commission recommended that the scheme should be retained for existing categories of recipients and extended to all long term social welfare recipients including those with families. The principal problem is the very large extra cost.

May I——

I am calling Deputy Jim Mitchell.

On a point of order, may I ask the Minister the question I——

That is not a point of order.

I did not get an answer.

Will the Minister categorically tell the House that anybody who is at present in receipt of free fuel benefit will not lose it in future? Will he have a new fuel scheme in place for next winter? Has any provision been made to meet the extra fuel costs in the new free fuel scheme in this year's Estimate?

I will have the scheme reviewed and in operation for next winter. Any additional cost which might arise in such a review would have to be considered at that time.

Would the Minister categorically say that anybody at present qualifying for free fuel benefits will not lose them?

A review is taking place at present and I will make my decisions when I have the results of that review.

Is the Minister aware that four successive reviews, and the current review, clearly indicate that if we are to have a national uniform scheme certain automatic entitlements on the basis of status would have to be removed and the money given to those on unemployment assistance and those in receipt of long term unemployment payments? It would not appear to be possible to bring any review, including the current review, into operation unless the Minister is prepared to do that.

The Deputy is making a statement and I will consider his view as well as the review before I make my decision.

Earlier I asked when the Minister envisaged the review, which has been running since November, will be available to the House for consideration.

As soon as I have considered the matter fully I will be happy to make it available to the House.

At what stage is the review? Has it reported to the Minister's office?

I do not have the review at this stage but I will be giving it my attention shortly.

At what stage is it?

I am passing to Question No. 2.

May I ask a question?

No, I am sorry Deputy. I am calling Question No. 2.