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.