The overall concern of the Government in recent budgets has been to protect the primary weekly social welfare rates. Maintaining the rate of the State pension and other core payments is critical in protecting people from poverty. To allow us to protect these core payments, we have had to look very carefully at other additional payments. The telephone allowance was abolished from 1 January 2014. I have no plans to introduce a new allowance to replace it.
I am keenly aware of the impact on the Department’s clients and particularly those who are living alone. In Budget 2014, I was able to maintain the rate of the living alone allowance at €7.70 per week. While the decision to abolish the telephone allowance was a difficult one, it allowed the Government to fully maintain the other elements of the household benefits package, such as the free electricity/gas allowance and the free television licence. These are very valuable supports for clients. We have also maintained the value of the fuel allowance and free travel.
The monthly allowances under the household benefits package are a contribution towards the cost of services; they are not intended to meet those costs in full. The telephone allowance was introduced at a time when telephones were expensive and uncommon, and a landline service was the only option available to the client. The market has changed enormously since the introduction of the allowance, with several companies providing a range of services and rates with bundled services including television, telephone, broadband and pay-as-you-go mobiles.
The Department currently provides both a landline and a lo-call option for customers for the main scheme areas. In addition the website also alerts the public to the fact that lo-call numbers can attract different tariffs depending on the operator of the phone service. The Department is currently reviewing the use of lo-call telephone services which may not be available on certain telephone plans, with a view to improving access for the public. The review is at an early stage.