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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 6

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Social Welfare Payments

Claire Kerrane

Question:

1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to an issue (details supplied) in relation to the legislation regarding the liable relatives unit and the significant challenges it presents to lone parents; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14850/22]

The Minister will be aware of the legislation that was debated on Second Stage in the House two weeks ago. I appreciate she was away at the time, but she will be aware that this legislation concerns her Department's liable relatives unit and how it treats the seeking of maintenance or a contribution from the non-custodial parent, when it comes to the one-parent family payment in comparison to the jobseeker's transitional payment. Is she aware of the challenges that currently presents?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. There is a legal responsibility on parents, whether married or unmarried, to maintain dependent children in accordance with their means. The legislation on liable relatives is not to be confused or conflated with the payment of maintenance. Under the liable relative provisions, the Department is not arranging maintenance but ensuring, where possible, that where a one-parent family payment is in place the other parent makes a financial contribution towards the cost to the State of providing that support.

This recoupment can be done in two ways. First, the liable relative can pay an amount to my Department directly. Alternatively, the liable relative can make the payment to the one-parent family payment recipient. Where this happens, it will be assessed as means and the level of the one-parent family payment may be adjusted as a result. The fact that the liable relative provisions do not extend to the jobseeker’s transitional payment has led some to suggest that the obligation on the non-resident parent to pay child maintenance ceases when the child turns seven and the other parent moves from the one-parent family payment to jobseeker’s transitional payment.

This is not the case and people are advised of this at the time. Furthermore the liability to maintain family provisions contained in social welfare legislation are separate to and do not negate or supersede parents' obligations under family law.

The Government established the child maintenance review group to review certain issues in respect of child maintenance. The group is chaired by former Circuit Court Judge Catherine Murphy and includes legal, policy and academic professionals as well as officials from the Departments of Social Protection and Justice. The group is examining the liable relative provisions under its terms of reference. I expect to receive its report before Easter and look forward to considering its conclusions and recommendations.

There is an issue where once the child turns seven years, the contribution that is sometimes made towards the one-parent family payment ceases. There is a cliff edge when the youngest child turns seven years and the parent moves onto the jobseeker's transitional payment. A letter is issued by the Department to the non-custodial parent telling them that the one-parent family payment has now ceased. In some cases, that means that people stop making the contribution. In order to receive jobseeker's transitional payment in the first place, a lone parent must prove that they have sought maintenance. In some instances, this forces lone parents into court. We know that this happens from the lone parent organisations SPARK and One Family, which have raised this issue many times. All I seek is that we would stop forcing lone parents into court by allowing the liable relatives unit to continue to seek that contribution when the lone parent moves on to jobseeker's transitional payment.

My understanding is that when a child reaches seven years, the jobseeker's transition payment kicks into effect. Then you no longer have that liability to the State. Therefore the parent who is not living with the child and whose income has been taken as means, in that they should be supporting the child, that the liability ceases to the State at that point. Until the child reaches the age of seven years, the one-parent family payment is made to the parent who is looking after the children. The other parent, therefore, should pay the State out of his or her income towards the support of the child. Such parents can do it in two ways, either by paying it directly to the State or to the parent who is looking after the child, whose one-parent family payment is reduced accordingly in order that he or she still receives the same amount.

It is complicated and I accept that. We are carrying out a full review of all the issues around child family maintenance and we are waiting on that report.

My point is that liability should not end when the youngest child turns seven years. The legislation would be to extend the liable relatives unit to seek that contribution beyond the child turning seven years which in some cases is a cliff edge because in some cases, the non-custodial parent does not continue making that contribution. They certainly do not continue making it to the State because it lapses. I do not see an issue with extending the legislation and allowing the non-custodial parent to keep making that contribution because in some cases they are making it to the State.

It is really important that the maintenance review group was established and I look forward to its findings. I hope that it will put forward something we have advocated for years, namely, the establishment of a statutory child maintenance service that will calculate and collect to guarantee that child maintenance is paid in the first place. I hope that the review group will make this suggestion. We need to stop sending lone parents into court. Courthouses are not the place to decide maintenance. It should not happen. It is not the right system. I hope that this legislation will be rectified once the review group comes forward with its report.

There are two separate issues here, namely, that of the liable relatives and of maintenance. They are completely separate. The purpose of the liable relative provision is to ensure that the parent who is not looking after the children pays the State towards the cost of the one-parent family payment. It is not an additional income stream for the one-parent allowance recipient.

We did not oppose the Deputy's Bill. It was a timed amendment. I think that Deputy Kerrane and I are on the one page on this because I want to see something done about this and she does too. I want to keep an open mind until I get the report. Judge Catherine Murphy is carrying out a review. She asked for extra time and is due to report by Easter. I will get the report in a couple of weeks. I will look at its findings. We have spoken about this before and the issue of child maintenance needs to be reviewed. I want to see that the parent who is looking after the child gets all the support that he or she can. However, I also want the other parent to take on his or her responsibilities too. Such parents have a duty to do that and to look after the child even though they are not living in the house.

Social Welfare Eligibility

Mick Barry

Question:

2. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Social Protection the measures that she will take to ensure that refugees from Ukraine will be able to have access to social protection entitlements; if her Department will adapt the usual rules that would require furnishing of documentation to prove eligibility for certain payments such as medical records or training and employment records given the difficulty to obtain them from Ukraine; if she will recognise the accrual of social insurance payments in Ukraine towards the eligibility to benefits here as is the case with those coming from elsewhere in the EU and EEA; if her Department will provide information and assistance including translated material and access to interpreters to allow Ukrainian people to access payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14200/22]

What measures will the Minister take to ensure that refugees from Ukraine will be able to have access to social protection entitlements? Will the Department adapt the usual rules that would require the furnishing of documentation to prove eligibility for certain payments such as medical records or training and employment records given the difficulty of obtaining them from Ukraine? Will she recognise the accrual of social insurance payments in Ukraine towards eligibility for benefits here as is the case with those coming from elsewhere in the EU? Will her Department provide information and assistance, including translated material and access to interpreters, to allow Ukrainians to access payments?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. On 4 March 2022, the Council of the European Union unanimously adopted the implementing decision regarding the temporary protection directive, due to the mass influx of persons fleeing Ukraine as a consequence of the war. This means that people arriving from Ukraine have been granted the status to avail of income supports from my Department. We have an excellent record in reacting quickly and appropriately to emergency situations.

Officials from my Department and the Department of Justice are in Dublin Airport to meet with people arriving from Ukraine to ensure that temporary residence certificates and personal public service, PPS, numbers are allocated quickly and that financial supports are provided. These supports include supplementary welfare allowance, child benefit and exceptional needs payments.

Although about 90% of people arriving from Ukraine transit Dublin Airport, people also arrive at other locations. Therefore the Department has also established a number of additional dedicated centres in Dublin and Cork cities and will open a further centre in Limerick tomorrow. Community welfare officers and interpreters are available at all of these centres. Department staff are also meeting people arriving on the ferry at Rosslare port and are reaching out to visit people accommodated in hotels provided by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. People fleeing the war in Ukraine can also look for support at any of the Department's Intreo centres nationwide and a number of these centres are operating extended hours including Saturday opening. Information and guidance on how people can access supports is available on the Department's website in English, Ukrainian and Russian languages.

In engaging with people arriving from Ukraine, the Department's initial priority is the allocation of PPS numbers and the provision of immediate financial supports. A fast-track approach in processing these supports includes a simplified decision-making process and quick processing of PPS numbers to allow access to public services. People are eligible for financial support initially under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme but arrangements will be made over time to transfer the person to the appropriate primary social welfare payment. As part of our initial engagement we are arranging for payments such as child benefit to be made within a very short period.

When Ukrainian refugees get work here, what happens if and when some of them lose their jobs and seek to make a regular claim for benefits and face understandable difficulties providing documentation etc.? Similarly, if they are around retirement age and wish to claim a pension, will the full State pension be provided or will their pension be based on their work record in the European Union, which would result in a very low pension despite their perhaps having worked their whole lives? The same question applies to maternity benefits. It is important that all people in the State have access to the same social welfare entitlements. We cannot have a situation where Ukrainians' status evolves into being second class in the welfare system. For that to happen would leave them more open to exploitation from unscrupulous employers etc.

I thank the Deputy. There is one thing none of us want to see and that is exploitation. I did not get a chance to answer on the EU social security co-ordination regulations the Deputy mentioned. Ukraine is not covered by those, nor does Ireland have a bilateral agreement with it on social security. However, social security contributions are not required to access social assistance payments such as supplementary welfare allowance. The first thing to say is we have the temporary protection directive, agreed at EU level, to deal with the mass influx of people fleeing Ukraine as a consequence of the war. That means people arriving from Ukraine have been granted the status to avail of income supports from my Department. They will have passed the habitual residency tests. We will assess their means at nil and we will not be looking for evidence of payslips or anything like that. We will assume they are coming here with nothing and indeed that is true of many of them. They are coming here with nothing. My Department is here to help them and we will do everything we can to ensure their transfer to Ireland is like going from home to home for them.

Last week we saw P&O Ferries sacking 800 workers and replacing them with migrant labour at £1.82 per hour. The Tánaiste has said that could not happen here within the law but the urge of unscrupulous employers to maximise profit by exploiting vulnerable workers does not know any borders. There are mushroom farms not too far from the Minister's own bailiwick that prove the case. The minimum wage is set at such a low rate that employers can exploit vulnerable workers to drive down wages while still acting within the law. I call on the trade union movement to be especially vigilant on this question and to make a special effort to unionise our new Ukrainian workers and ensure they are not exploited. That is in the interest of both the Ukrainian workers themselves and the working class as whole, which has a vested interest in maintaining and improving pay and conditions for all. If the Minister wished to comment on that I would be interested in her thoughts.

I thank the Deputy. I know many people who pick mushrooms and people who own the businesses and in fairness to the mushroom farmers of Monaghan, I have not come across any cases where people have been exploited.

Is the Minister saying she has never come across a case-----

------of a worker being exploited on a Monaghan mushroom farm?

The Deputy has had his say within Standing Orders. He must not interrupt.

That is incredible. It is an incredible statement.

The Minister is to continue, uninterrupted.

I will continue.

I said I have not come across a case. That is not to say it is not happening but I have not come across a case. There are opportunities for people to work in many different sectors when they come here. I have people from the IT sector and the engineering sector contacting me to say they will have work for many of the migrants who are coming. First of all, we need to help these people get settled here. Work is not the first priority - that is getting them settled. I was out at Dublin Airport and I saw how traumatised they are. I really did. We will give them the PPS number. That gives them the key. It gives them access to all the social welfare supports. The second step is we will get them on a basic supplementary payment and we will transition them then. That gives them time to decide and to think, because God knows they need that. I can assure the Deputy my Department of Social Protection is here to help the people.

We need to look ahead a little as well.

Social Welfare Eligibility

Claire Kerrane

Question:

3. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the 30-hour rule on eligibility for the exceptional needs payment; the supports that are available for those who are struggling with the cost of living and who work over 30 hours a week; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14851/22]

This question is about the 30-hour rule relating to the exceptional needs payment. The Government has encouraged people struggling with their energy costs at this time to go to their local community welfare officer and seek the exceptional needs payment, without saying those who work 30 hours or more per week cannot in fact access that payment. Will the Minister consider relaxing that rule on a temporary basis?

I thank the Deputy for raising this. To provide support for those facing challenges with the cost of living, the Government brought in a package of tax and social welfare measures worth over €1 billion last October in budget 2022. This was the largest social welfare package in 14 years. Last month, the Government agreed a further package of €505 million, including the €200 energy credit and a lump sum payment of €125 for those in receipt of the fuel allowance.

The supplementary welfare allowance is a demand-led scheme acting as a safety net within the overall social welfare system to help eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their needs and those of their dependents. The 30-hour rule regarding exceptional needs payments reflects the fact exceptional needs payments are primarily aimed at those who have limited income from employment. Those working at or above the 30-hour limit will have earnings above the basic supplementary welfare level of payment or may also be entitled to other in-work supports from my Department.

Where someone works above the 30-hour limit, the urgent needs payment is more appropriate, as it is not limited to those working less than full-time hours. As with the exceptional needs payment, urgent needs payments can be made on a flexible basis, taking into account all the relevant circumstances. Payments are made at the discretion of the officers administering the scheme, taking into account the requirements of the legislation and all the relevant circumstances of the case in order to ensure that the payments target those most in need of assistance. I encourage any person who considers that he or she may have an entitlement to an exceptional or urgent needs payment to contact the community welfare service at his or her local Intreo centre. There is a national income support helpline in place. It is available at 0818-800024. This will direct callers to the appropriate office.

I thank the Minister. She will know the social welfare increases in the budget last year, which are mentioned quite often, followed two years without any increase and she also knows every working age payment is currently set below the poverty line, and very well below it too.

On the exceptional needs payment, I ask that if the urgent needs payment does not have that 30-hour limitation, which is welcome, that it be promoted far more than it is and has been. Under exceptional needs, which is the one most people are directed to, as soon as you look at it, it says assistance with fuel costs very clearly and that is welcome but it is the one with the 30-hour limit, which is problematic. We know there are workers out there who cannot access the fuel allowance, the exceptional needs payment or any supports at all. As Government supports have not to date included anything on home heating in particular, they are not getting any support with heating their homes and that is the problem. I therefore ask that the Department promote the urgent needs payment to a far greater level if that is the case.

I thank the Deputy. We have been promoting both the exceptional needs payment and the urgent needs payment as part of the supplementary welfare allowance on our social media. I have asked my officials to ensure people are aware of that. The one thing we do not want it is for people to be in difficulty and not realise they can access these payments. The Department of the Social Protection is here to help, not to put barriers in people's way. One only has to look at what was done during the pandemic and how we are responding to the Ukrainian crisis. Helping people is exactly what we want to do.

On energy costs, the Government absolutely recognises the impact rising energy prices are having for people. That is why we have acted to try to assist families. We have brought forward a series of measures that cost over €1 billion to help ease the burden on people. We increased the fuel allowance payment to €33 per week. That was effective from budget night. Last week we issued a €125 top-up payment to all those in receipt of the fuel allowance. When this is coupled with the €5 per week increase in the fuel allowance that commenced last October, it represents a 41% increase in fuel allowance supports over last year. When you add in the €200 electricity credit, that brings it up to a 60% increase over this time last year.

The issue with most of that is of course is the fact the fuel allowance is very limited and an awful lot of people out there who are struggling cannot access the fuel allowance in the first instance. Going back, this is important because many people out there cannot get the fuel allowance, especially workers, and they are looking for support. The urgent needs payment is at the moment listed as an emergency payment and on the Citizens Information website, which most people use, it is stated that "in the case of a fire, flood or other disaster, you may get a payment".

Will the Minister clarify whether people can access help with their energy costs through the urgent needs payment, which does not have the 30-hour limitation? The exceptional needs payment specifically lists help with energy costs whereas the urgent needs payment does not. If it is the case that the urgent needs payment is the avenue to be taken, then that needs to be promoted.

I wish to discuss a matter that I have raised with the Minister previously. Given the amount of data her Department collects, I cannot understand why it does not collect data on the number of people seeking helping through the exceptional and urgent needs payments and, therefore, how many people are being refused. Those data are important and should be gathered.

Given that we have the exceptional needs payment as well as the urgent needs payment, we should be calling this just the needs payment. It does not matter how much someone works - if he or she has an urgent need, he or she can approach a community welfare officer and ask for assistance. The rule on 30 hours working is not stopping people from getting support. There are two strands - essential needs and urgent needs. The rule is not depriving people of support. The urgent needs payment has no cap. It is demand led and we have spent €42 million on it per annum in recent years. If more is needed, we will provide it. In recent weeks, we announced a package of support measures worth €1 billion to assist with energy costs.

The Deputy will agree, given that I am sure it is also her experience of dealing with community welfare officers, that if someone has a genuine need, officers look at matters in a sensible and practical way. We have told them to apply discretion. They have that discretion. I do not want to see a situation in this country where someone is in dire straits and needs help but does not get it. People will get it, and we are here to give them that help.

School Meals Programme

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

4. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of schools participating in the schools meals scheme in each of the years 2017 to 2021 and to date in 2022; and the total amount of funding made available for the scheme per year. [15139/22]

The amount of money being allocated to the school meals programme has been increasing year on year. That sounds like a good thing, but when one examines the situation, the number of schools availing of the programme has been reducing. This means that a small number of children are getting those school meals. It could be because of an increase in the cost of the programme, etc. What is happening? Is the amount of money being given to the programme increasing? Is the number of schools availing of it increasing? Is the number of children availing of it increasing?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to 1,506 schools and organisations, benefiting 230,000 children. The objective of the programme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to lack of good-quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them. The programme is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and educational achievement.

The programme provides funding towards food services for children in disadvantaged schools through two schemes, those being, the urban school meals scheme and the school meals local projects scheme. The urban school meals scheme for primary schools is operated and administered by local authorities and part financed by my Department. Some 311 schools were part financed in 2017, 307 in 2018, 305 in 2019, 301 in 2020 and 279 in 2021.

The school meals local projects scheme is financed by my Department. Some 1,463 schools and organisations received funding in 2017-18, 1,461 receiving funding in 2018-19, 1,466 received funding in 2019-20, 1,480 received funding in 2020-21 and 1,361 received funding to date for 2021-22. The total amount of funding made available for the scheme in 2017 was €47.5 million, €54 million in 2018, €57.6 million in 2019, €61.6 million in 2020 and €65.1 million in 2021. In 2022, €68.1 million is available.

I am committed to continuing the growth of the school meals programme, in particular the hot school meals element, and building further on the significant extension announced as part of budget 2022. In this regard, I have commissioned an evaluation of the school meals programme, to be undertaken in 2022, to inform future policy decisions on the scheme.

If I am correct, it is still the case that the amount of money being given to the programme is increasing but the number of children or, at least, schools receiving it is falling or remaining static, depending on which section of it one is looking at. We very properly debate in the House the cost of living increasing throughout the State. There is an issue with inflation in the inputs into school meals, meaning that more money goes less distance towards meeting the needs of young children in those schools.

We are seeing a greater need for this service now. Families are being squeezed by the cost of living. Throughout Ireland today, there are young children going to sleep hungry. This has a significant effect on many aspects of their lives, not just their physical growth, but also their mental health and their ability to participate in education. What we need is a commitment from the Government that not only will the amount of money invested in the programme increase, but the number of children and schools availing of it will also increase.

I am committed to the school meals programme, so much so that we have increased the hot school meals programme from a pilot of 37 schools to almost 300. This is a good thing. During the 2020-21 academic year, 804 DEIS schools participated in the school meals programme, benefiting 148,594 children. Those 804 schools represented 91% of the 887 DEIS schools in the country.

The Deputy asked about the criteria. All 3,239 primary schools were issued an invitation to submit an expression of interest about participating in the pilot. The school had to identify a supplier that would supply, prepare and deliver the hot meals in line with food safety regulations and in compliance with Healthy Ireland's nutrition standards for school meals. The schools chosen to participate in the pilot were selected randomly, having regard to geographical spread, numbers enrolled, the range of suppliers and the programme's overall budget.

I have continued to increase the programme every year. The number of children getting hot school meals continues to increase.

For more than a year, the Meath food bank was operating out of my office in Trim because it was without any other location from which to operate. It was shockingly sad to see young children and their parents queuing daily outside the Aontú office in Trim for food. The fact that food banks even exist in Ireland in today's world is incredible. Many of them sprung up during the previous economic crash. They did not go away and have been functioning ever since. In many cases, they will say that they are busier than ever.

We must deal with the cost of living crisis for everyone, but we need to prioritise certain sections of society, one of which must surely be children living in poverty. There are a significant number of children living in poverty. Judging from the numbers that the Minister just read out, it is clear that the money going into the programme is increasing. While that is welcome, the number of schools covered by its schemes has not increased to the same level. It is this level of reach that we need to get to in order to ensure that no child in this country goes to bed hungry anymore.

We are increasing it, but instead of increasing the numbers, I want to see there being more hot school meals. They are a little more expensive, but a hot school meal for a child in the middle of the day is worth its weight in gold. We all know from packing school lunch boxes with cold meals that children take a bite of them but are then away and gone.

Having spoken with teachers and parents, they value hot school meals. We cannot do everything in one day and must instead do it incrementally. I would love to see every child in this country, regardless of status, getting a hot dinner in the middle of the day. It is something of which we would be proud. The Deputy and I know what it is like putting stuff in lunch boxes and trying to get children to eat it.

Most of the time they leave them at the bottom of the school bag and by the time someone gets to them, it is a black banana and a smelly ham sandwich that is gone off and blue moulded. I want to see a hot school meal delivered to every child while seated at a table. I will work to continue to increase that provision. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, is supportive of that.

Social Welfare Eligibility

Michael Collins

Question:

5. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will reconsider the criteria for the fuel allowance and allow some latitude in the application criteria for the allowance whereby, for example, persons who apply for the jobseeker’s or supplementary welfare allowance should not have to wait for 12 months to be accepted for fuel allowance; if persons who are on illness benefit will be included; and if she will reconsider the application criteria for the fuel allowance and the latitude in same given the ongoing fuel crisis in Ireland. [15079/22]

I would like to ask the Minister if she will reconsider the criteria for the fuel allowance and allow some latitude in the application criteria for the allowance whereby, for example, persons who apply for the jobseeker’s or supplementary welfare allowance should not have to wait for 12 months to be accepted for fuel allowance; if persons who are on illness benefit will be included; and if she will reconsider the application criteria for the fuel allowance and the latitude in same given the ongoing fuel crisis in Ireland.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

Fuel allowance is paid to social welfare recipients such as pensioners, people with disabilities, lone parents and the long-term unemployed in recognition of the fact that they have a long-term financial dependence on a social welfare payment for all or most of their income.  It is not paid to people in receipt of illness benefit who have an attachment to the labour market and who are in receipt of short-term welfare supports. Fuel allowance can only be paid if the qualifying criteria as outlined in the scheme guidelines are met. It cannot be paid on a discretionary basis. 

As part of budget 2022, I announced a number of expansions to the eligibility criteria for the fuel allowance payment. The weekly means threshold for the fuel allowance scheme was increased by €20 to €120 above the appropriate rate of contributory State pension, representing a 20% increase in the threshold which enables more people to qualify for this support. The €120 allowable means limit is significantly more than the €33 weekly rate of fuel allowance. With effect from September 2022, the qualifying period for jobseeker's and supplementary welfare allowance recipients to be in a position to access the fuel allowance payment will be reduced from 15 to 12 months. The Government has, therefore, implemented significant expansions in the fuel allowance scheme through budget 2022. Any decision to further expand the qualifying criteria of the fuel allowance payment in the manner outlined by the Deputy would have significant cost implications for the scheme and could only be considered while taking account of the overall budgetary context and the availability of financial resources. 

Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, exceptional needs payments may be made to help meet an essential, one-off cost which customers are unable to meet out of their own resources and this may include exceptional heating costs.  Decisions on such payments are made on a case-by-case basis.

I thank the Minister. She said that the fuel allowance is paid to many pensioners. I know from my clinics - as I am sure does the Minister and every other Deputy present - that there are many pensioners to whom it is not paid because they are €1 or €2 above the eligibility criteria. That is unfair. In one case, a lady in west Cork who has cancer and is in receipt of illness benefit cannot afford to heat her home. It is hard to believe that in this day and age a woman who is on illness benefit because of her illness cannot heat her home. As I said, many of the pensioners who have visited me at my clinic are slightly above the threshold. Surely, there must be some latitude for those who as we speak are sitting in cold homes. Most of these people are elderly and some of them are very ill. Many of them are paying mortgages, rent and loans. Nothing is taken into account other than income. In many cases, their outgoings far exceed their income. I would appreciate it if there could be some understanding of that.

As I said, in this year's budget I increased the means threshold by €20 to €120 above the appropriate contributory State pension. That has benefited more people. More than 400,000 families benefit from the fuel allowance. There will always be people who, unfortunately, fall each side of the criteria. Those in need can seek assistance from their local community welfare officers. They are there to help people who are in difficulty by way of the essential needs payment or the urgent needs payment. People can seek that assistance. Anybody who is experiencing difficulty should seek the assistance of the local community welfare officer.

Everybody should welcome the increase in the threshold. I welcome it. It should be remembered that last week the cost of a bag of coal increased to €7. Most people can no longer afford it. The same applies in respect of home heating oil. We have a crisis in this country regarding the price of fuel. People are turning to the fuel allowance as the only option of being able to heat their homes. Sadly, it is not available to them. The criteria have to change and people's expenses have to be taken into account. I plead with the Minister to take a look at that.

While I have the floor, I would also like to raise with her, in her capacity as Minister with responsibility for rural affairs, the issue of Dursey Island. We are nine days away from no transport on that island. That is a sad situation for the people on the island, in particular the families who have had cattle there since 1969. I have been pleading on this issue with her. She has been pointing the finger at the council and the council has been pointing the finger at her. The people of Dursey Island are falling in the middle. It is scandalous. It is a big issue for us, in particular for me. While I will raise it next week in the House, I would appreciate it if the Minister could comment on the matter this evening.

We have increased the fuel allowance. Last year, the fuel allowance was €784. This year, it is €1,049. When one adds to that the €200 energy credit, there has been a 60% increase in the fuel allowance in comparison with last year. I understand that things are not easy for people. The Government is doing everything it can to try to assist, but it cannot cover all of these costs that are an issue not only in Ireland but across the globe. We know the challenges we are facing because of the war in Ukraine. It must be remembered that we have just come out of Brexit and a pandemic. These issues have been compounded. I know it is not easy for people. I encourage them to seek assistance from their local community welfare officers. The sum of €42 million was paid out by them last year. There is no cap on that assistance. There is money available.

With the indulgence of the Acting Chairman, I might respond to the Deputy's question on Dursey Island. I understand the difficulties around Dursey Island. I have not received one proposal from Cork County Council. I have written to the council, which ceased the cable car service to and from the island owing to difficulties with it, and asked that it come back to me with proposals. The ball is in the court of council. As I said, it has not come to me with one proposal. I have written to the council again seeking its proposals and its engagement with my officials. I hope it will do that.

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