Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Austin Deasy

Question:

116 Mr. Deasy asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will have considerations made into granting an increase in the fuel allowance in the forthcoming budget; the cost to the Exchequer per pound increase covering the fuel allowance period of October to April; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20502/00]

Question:

117 Mr. Coveney asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will reassess the fuel allowance payments scheme in relation to the amount of payment and the times of year that payments are made. [20447/00]

Paul Connaughton

Question:

142 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the num bers currently receiving the fuel allowance; the annual cost for each of the years from 1995 to 2000; when the last increase in this allowance was made; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20278/00]

Jim Higgins

Question:

157 Mr. Higgins (Mayo) asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the year in which the free fuel allowance was introduced at £5 per week; the plans he has to increase the allowance in accordance with the inflation increases in the interim; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19997/00]

Michael Ring

Question:

731 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will increase the fuel allowance rate from October 2000. [19337/00]

Frances Fitzgerald

Question:

776 Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the numbers currently receiving the fuel allowance; the annual cost for the years 1995 to 2000; when the last increase in this allowance was made; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20308/00]

Frances Fitzgerald

Question:

789 Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will review the fuel allowance which is totally inadequate and, due to recent increases in fuel costs, has become even more inadequate to meet the needs of those who rely on it. [20430/00]

P. J. Sheehan

Question:

807 Mr. Sheehan asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will increase the winter fuel scheme from the present sum of £5 per week to a more realistic figure of £10 per week. [20725/00]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 116, 117, 142, 157, 731, 776, 789 and 807 together.

The aim of the national fuel scheme is to assist 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 regardless of the temperature. A sum of £8 per week is paid in smokeless zones.

In 1999-2000 approximately 288,000 people received a fuel allowance of £5 per week for the 26 weeks of the fuel season. In addition, approximately 114,000 people also received the smokeless fuel allowance of £3 per week for the 26 weeks of the fuel season. It is estimated that in 2000-2001 approximately 287,400 people will receive a fuel allowance of £5 and approximately 115,000 people will also receive the smokeless fuel allowance of £3 per week.

Expenditure on the national fuel scheme was £42.8 million in 1995, £44.3 million in 1996, £45 million in 1997, £44.9 million in 1998, and £44 million in 1999. This was an increase of approxi mately 2.8% in the five years from 1995 to 1999. This year a sum of £46.3 million has been provided in the Estimates for the scheme.
To increase the fuel allowance by £1 per week would cost approximately £7.1 million per fuel season. To double the allowance from £5 to £10 per week would cost an extra £35.5 million per fuel season. To extend the fuel season by one week would cost £1.7 million.
The national and smokeless fuel schemes were reviewed in 1998 as part of my Department's series of programme evaluations. The review group took the view that improvements in the national fuel scheme cannot be looked at in isolation from the improvements in the primary weekly payment rates.
With regard to the times of year that payments are made, the group concluded that the current 26 week heating season was generally correct, and the additional cost of extending the heating season on a general basis was not warranted. However, it recommended the duration of the allowance should be extended in the case of people over 80 years of age in view of their increased vulnerability.
The group also concluded that the present rates of payment should remain unchanged if improvements in primary payment rates fully compensated recipients for all price inflation, including fuel price inflation. Increasing primary payments gives people greater flexibility in meeting their needs and, of course, the increased rates are payable for all 52 weeks of the year.
In that regard, substantial increases in all the social welfare primary payments of either £3 or £6 per week were paid from June 1999, with further increases of either £4 or £7, which came into effect at the beginning of May 2000, a month earlier than last year. This is equivalent to increases ranging from 10% to 16% over the last two budgets.
In addition, the qualified adult allowance was increased by amounts ranging from £3.80 for people on disability benefit, £4.70 for old age contributory and retirement pensioners and £8.50 for invalidity pensioners where the qualified adult is aged 66 years or over.
The current rate of fuel allowance, £5 per week, was set in 1985. Since then, fuel price inflation was much lower than general price inflation up to last year, with an overall cumulative increase of less than 10% over the 14 years between 1985 and 1999. However an increase of almost 7.9% was recorded in the fuel and light component of the CPI in the 12 months up to last August.
I am concerned about the extent to which general price inflation, including fuel price inflation, is impacting on the significant improvements in social welfare payments I have mentioned. The Deputy will know that I cannot give specific details of the measures that will be contained in this year's budget but I want to assure him that improving the overall position of social welfare recipients will receive a very high priority in the budget.
In the meantime, I would point out that fuel allowances are not the sole mechanism through which assistance is provided to people with heating needs.
There is a facility available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs. An application for a heating supplement may be made by contacting the community welfare officer at the local health centre.
Where a person would not normally qualify for a heating supplement there is provision under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to pay an exceptional needs payment. Exceptional needs payments are payable at the discretion of the health board, taking into account the requirements of the legislation and all the relevant circumstances of the case.
Question No. 117 with Question No. 116.