I propose to take Questions Nos. 137 and 145 together.
My overall concern in this Budget has been to protect the primary social welfare rates. To allow us to protect these core payments, we have had to look very carefully at other additional payments such as the household benefits package, including the telephone allowance, which is currently €9.50 per month (about €2.20 per week). While we have cut the telephone allowance, there have been no cuts to the electricity/gas allowance, free travel, the free television licence, the fuel allowance or the living alone increase. I am not in a position to reverse the decision to abolish the telephone allowance.
The abolition of the allowance is expected to yield savings of €44 million in 2014 and €46 million in 2015. In December 2012, there were 394,671 people getting a telephone allowance from the Department and 218,188 or 55% were in receipt of State pension contributory, State pension non-contributory or State pension transition. In addition, a further 21,040 older people were in receipt of the allowance but not receiving a pension from my Department. The remaining 155,443 customers were in receipt of other schemes from the Department for example widow's pension, disability allowance, carer's allowance, or invalidity pension, some of whom may be over 65 years of age.
The cost of the telephone allowance scheme has risen each year and the number of eligible customers has increased very significantly. In 2007 there were some 316,000 people receiving the telephone allowance, today there are almost 400,000, an increase of 24%. Each year almost 10,000 extra customers become eligible for the allowance because of the increased number of pension recipients.
The telephone allowance was introduced at a time when telephone services were more expensive and fewer people had telephones. In recent years the nature of the telephone market has been transformed with deregulation, mobile services and bundled services including television, broadband and telephone. There is a wide variety of deals and great competition now available.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has responsibility for the Seniors Alert Scheme which provides grant support for the supply of equipment such as personal alarms, smoke detectors and security lighting to enable older people without sufficient means to continue to live securely in their homes. The grant assistance is made available through community and voluntary groups registered with the Department and the equipment supplied under the scheme remains the property of the community group. The budget allocation for 2013 was €2.35 million. While the equipment currently provided requires the use of a landline, there are other companies in the market providing similar services based on mobile technology.
Finally, if any person is in particular difficulty an application may be made for an exceptional needs payments (ENP) under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, to help meet an essential, once-off cost which an applicant is unable to meet out of his or her own resources. There is no automatic entitlement to this payment. Each application is determined by a Department based on the particular circumstances of the case.