I wish Deputy Fitzgerald all the best in her new position. These are her first oral parliamentary questions.
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. Some £8 per week is paid in smokeless zones.
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.
The group concluded that the current 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 the increased rates are payable for all 52 weeks of the year and not 26 weeks, as with the fuel allowance.
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.
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 last year. However, as the Deputy points out, an increase of almost 7.9% was recorded in the fuel and light component of the consumer price index in the 12 months up to last August.
The increase recorded for energy products was 13.4%, although that is not entirely relevant to the fuel allowance as it includes petrol, motor oil and other products. 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 assure the Deputy that improving the overall position of social welfare recipients will receive a very high priority in that 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.