Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.
467 Mr. Perry asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will review the free fuel allowance in view of the fact that it has not increased since 1982 and is not in line with inflation; if he will ensure that the entitlement is continued throughout the year as many recipients must provide heating all year round in their homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7997/01]
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 and £8 per week is paid in smokeless zones. The fuel season has been increased from 26 weeks to 29 weeks, as announced in this year's budget. The current fuel season will be extended by two weeks in April 2001 and the next fuel season will start one week earlier in October 2001.
The standard £5 per week rate of fuel allowances was set at its present level in 1985 and the smokeless fuel allowance was not increased since its introduction in 1990.
The national and smokeless fuel schemes were reviewed in 1998 as part of my Department's series of programme evaluation studies. The working group 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.
The fuel allowance payment rate cannot be looked at in isolation from primary payment rates as every person who gets a fuel allowance also gets a weekly primary social welfare payment, such an unemployment assistance or old age pension. It is important that the overall increase, taking primary payments and fuel allowances together, is sufficient to fully compensate for all inflation, including fuel price inflation.
Increases in overall weekly social welfare payment rates have compensated fully for inflation, including fuel price inflation, in the period from October 1985. For example, the total weekly payment for a single retirement pensioner with a fuel allowance rose by over 79%. This does not take into account the increases announced in this year's budget which were the largest ever provided.
To put this in perspective, fuel price inflation since October 1985, as tracked in the fuel and light component of the consumer price index was 22.8% in total. The overall consumer price index rose by 51.6% in that period.
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, I believe it is the correct approach to take as it gives people greater flexibility in meeting their needs.
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. These facilities are considered to be a more appropriate mechanism for meeting heating needs outside the fuel season.