I thank the committee. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is delighted by and welcomes the invitation to outline our proposals for budget 2019. I will begin by providing the context in which we suggest our priorities.
The negative social and economic costs arising from the recession are still apparent to members of the society throughout Ireland. As the pervasive impact of the housing and homeless crisis intensified over the past 12 months, our 11,000 members continued to provide support to thousands of families in need, including help with food, fuel and education costs. In 2017, one in three of the 130,000 calls for help to SVP were related to food poverty. Our experience shows that when times are tough, food is typically what families cut back on. Increasing housing and energy costs mean this is increasingly the case. In 2016, the society spent more than €30 million providing direct assistance to households in need. It is clear that the costs of childcare, housing, education, utilities, transport and healthcare are impacting dramatically on people's ability to get out and stay out of poverty. As such, our 2019 pre-budget submission focuses on five priority areas, namely housing and homelessness; education, including early years education; energy and utilities; income adequacy, which is of most interest to the committee today, and health care. Ireland must invest significantly in these critical areas if we want to tackle inequality and social exclusion. It is essential, therefore, that our policy priorities for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection are read in the context of our entire pre-budget submission which seeks to balance investment in public services with income supports and emphasises investment in public services and supports over reducing taxes.
I turn to income adequacy. Social welfare schemes are an essential form of support and are the last resort for those in difficult circumstances. It is vital, therefore, that all social welfare payments are adequate so that people do not continue to be trapped in poverty. First and foremost, we ask that social welfare rates be set at a level that is sufficient to lift people out of poverty and provide them with a minimum essential standard of living, or MESL. Reaching this target will require action over a number of budget years, but it must begin with incremental changes in budget 2019. Recent research published by our colleagues in the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice shows that budget 2018 increases in social welfare helped some households to move towards income adequacy and a minimum essential standard of living. Nevertheless, the partnership's analysis is that more than 70% of urban households do not have a sufficient income to meet an MESL. One-parent families, people living in rural areas, single working-age adults and households with older children are at the highest risk of income inadequacy. For example, social welfare income for a one-parent family with two children living in a rural area is €153 short of what that family requires to cover basic needs. The reality behind these figures is reflected in the work of SVP members who visit people in their homes every week. These families face the stress of having to choose between paying for electricity or food and the daily worry that a car may break down or that someone may get sick, which will require cutting back some other necessity.
Lone parents are at the greatest risk of income inadequacy and continue to be the largest group assisted by the society as children in these households are almost four times more likely to experience consistent poverty. Since 2012, SVP has been particularly critical of the decision to abolish the features of the one-parent family payment which supported lone parents to take up employment and education. Research published by the ESRI last week shows clearly that changes to the support resulted in income losses for employed lone parents.
That is why we are asking that the earning disregard is increased to €161 to restore the 2010 value in terms of hours worked at the national minimum wage. We also request that the working family payment be made payable with the jobseeker's transition payment and that the anomalies created by the reforms, which made it more difficult to access Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, maintenance, are addressed.
The rate for those under 26 is a potential driving factor in increased rates of poverty, deprivation, homelessness and emigration among this group. For example, between 2007 and 2015, the rate of severe deprivation among those aged between 18 to 24 increased twice as much as those in the general population. Age segregation in the social welfare system must end. We are requesting that the adult rate of jobseeker's allowance be restored to those aged under 26 on a phased basis over the next three budgets. We are also asking that the cost of education allowance is extended to all recipients of the back to education allowance, not just those with child dependants.
In terms of energy poverty, in the past six months almost all energy suppliers have increased their costs as a result of increasing wholesale prices and that is reflected in the work of our members who are seeing a rise in requests for support with utility costs. There has been an average increase of 7.6% in energy costs in the past 12 months up to May 2018.
Investing in more appropriate and tailored dissemination and outreach initiatives and campaigns towards those households in energy poverty and expanding schemes to improve energy efficiency, particularly in the private rented sector, are key asks in our budget submission to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Nevertheless, income supports are vital for energy poor households and that is why we ask that fuel allowance be increased to a value of €795 to restore purchasing power parity to 2010 levels. This can be achieved by increasing the rate to €24.85 and reintroducing the 32 weeks payment period.
In addition, with more unpredictable weather patterns, we are also requesting that a cold weather payment be introduced to ensure that energy poor households have some certainty in terms of energy costs during prolonged periods of cold weather. Increasing the living alone allowance by €3 can also provide additional protection to older people who are more vulnerable to energy poverty.
In terms of the exceptional needs payment, it is our experience that the reduction in Government spending on the programme by 60% between 2008 and 2017 and the restructuring of services, including the closure of local offices, has imposed further hardship on low-income people. It is the experience of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that this budget reduction is resulting in officers having to refuse payments they would have previously approved or approving payments for lower amounts. Delays and difficulties in accessing services create unnecessary stress and strain on people when they are vulnerable. It is critical that front-line services are adequately funded and that the total budget available for exceptional needs payments is increased by €20 million to meet exceptional and unexpected costs faced by low-income families.
SPV is asking that budget 2019 would reflect a real commitment to tackling poverty and deliver on the goals of a more fair and inclusive society. That will require a genuine whole-of-Government approach to budgetary decisions and assessing all public expenditure against its impact on poverty. When prioritising resources decisions should be equitable, fair and just, protect the vulnerable, address structural inequalities and promote the well-being of this and future generations.