Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Questions (96)

Claire Kerrane


96. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if she has considered extending the fuel allowance payment period for 2021 particularly in relation to the serious financial difficulties many households are experiencing regarding making utility payments during this winter season and in view of the allowance being extended in 2020; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26155/21]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Social)

Last year, the Minister extended the fuel allowance. That did not happen this year though I understand it was to be considered. Did the Minister consider extending it and, if so, why did she decide not to?

The fuel allowance is a payment of €28 per week for 28 weeks, a total of €784 each year, from October to April, incorporating the coldest periods of the year. It goes to over 370,000 low-income households at an estimated cost of €300 million in 2021. The purpose of the payment is to provide a contribution towards the energy costs of a household; it is not intended to meet those costs in full. The criteria for fuel allowance are framed to direct the limited resources available to my Department in as targeted a manner as possible so it is focused on long-term payments where an applicant satisfies a means test.

As this House knows, the Government has already allocated approximately €11.5 billion in a broad package of social protection measures to assist people impacted by Covid-19. This demonstrates the Government's absolute commitment to provide effective targeted supports during the Covid-19 pandemic. As part of that, and based on ESRI research, the Government targeted budget increases at the fuel allowance, the qualified child allowance and the living alone allowance to boost the incomes of the poorest in society. This resulted in the fuel allowance being increased from the start of this year by €3.50 per week to €28, thus ensuring recipients benefited during the coldest part of the year. The supports in place are kept under constant review and amended in keeping with changing circumstances. In that context it is worth noting we have a vaccination programme in full swing, restrictions are being eased, many people are returning to work, and people are able to enjoy meeting outside again.

My Department does provide support under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to people who may be having difficulty with their utility bills. Exceptional needs payments may be made to help meet an essential, once-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 understand all of that. Last year, because of Covid, the duration of the payment period for the fuel allowance was extended. When I questioned the Minister on the issue last year, including in the committee, I understood consideration would again be given to a possible extension this year. Many older people who had been cocooning for the best part of a year got no supports whatsoever, although they were expected to stay at home and the heating was on more. We should acknowledge it was an extremely difficult time for older people, who in many cases were very isolated. Was consideration given this year to extending the fuel allowance due to Covid, as was done last year? If it was determined there would not be an increase, what is the reason for that?

Deputy Kerrane will acknowledge the fuel allowance was increased on 1 January up to €28 per week. That was an important step and it would have helped in some way to assist people in meeting their fuel bills. The living alone allowance for older people was also increased. The Deputy is aware an exception was made last year for the fuel allowance, given that it is for a particular time period. This year, when you couple the fact of the increase in the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance, those are important considerations.

It is also important to point to the level of support we have paid out in the pandemic unemployment payment. I gave the Deputy the figures earlier. There have been a significant number of payments and a significant amount paid over the past year.

I acknowledged that support, which was vital for people, but I am really talking about older people who did not have any supports. I appreciate the budget increases and changes that were made last year and came in this year. That is fine, but I take it from the Minister's response that consideration was not given to extending the fuel allowance in the same way as last year. While the PUP is in place, that is not available to older people and that is the cohort to which I refer.

This is coming a bit out of left field, but in the context of financial difficulties a number of representations have been made to me with respect to the extra cost incurred by people having to use smokeless fuels. While this is the right thing to do anyway, due to the increased weight of the ash, an increased cost is incurred when you pay for refuse by weight. The Minister might not have an answer to that now, but could she look into the matter and come back to me with a response at another time?

It is important to say also that a lot of supports are available through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to assist people, in particular older people, to carry out improvements to their houses, which includes insulation, and thereby reduce their heating costs. I take Deputy Stanton's point. The cost is not something that has been raised with me previously but I will certainly look at it.

Questions Nos. 97 to 101, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 102 answered with Question No. 76.
Questions Nos. 103 to 110, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.