I would like to welcome the Minister to the House — I have not had the pleasure of addressing him before — and to introduce the motion on the Adjournment, which is:
the need for the Minister for Social Welfare to make special provisions for grants and subsidies to prevent hardship to people in the north inner city who will find it impossible to implement the new regulations regarding the use of smokeless fuels in the autumn because of their inadequate means.
The background to this motion is well known to all of us. It is the issue of smog which has been bedevilling this city year after year. On a regular basis in the autumn, winter and sometimes in the spring, we have been in breach of EC smog limits in the city. There have been years of neglect. This problem should have been addressed two decades ago but it has become a major health and environmental problem in recent years, and the situation has been getting worse in the last few years.
Eventually Dublin Corporation were empowered to commence a process of conversion to cleaner fuels and started a pilot programme in Ballyfermot. They began a systematic process of working with householders and community groups advising on alternative fuels. They provided grants for the installation of new appliances and the conversion of old appliances to burn smokeless fuels. A sum of £4 million was made available for that purpose. The intention was that the scheme be introduced on an experimental basis in that community and then extended to a number of other areas.
That strategy has now been abandoned entirely in favour of what might be called a crisis programme which is to begin on 1 September this year when the sale of bituminous coal will be banned in the city of Dublin. By decree of the Department of the Environment we now have a ban on the sale of coal beginning in just over six weeks time. It is almost upon us. I consider it has been a panic move and not properly thought out, and all of a sudden we have this crash approach. We have been dealing with it on a gradual basis up to now and suddenly we find that, by decree, we are to abolish smog in the city overnight. This is an impossible timescale. There is a great deal of confusion about what is happening in terms of the supply of coal, the providers of coal, the bellmen who go around Dublin, and the loss of jobs. CDL, who have a vested interest, have estimated that 2,000 jobs will be lost, but certainly there will be a substantial loss of jobs in the area. This is likely to happen overnight when we implement the ban on the sale of bituminous coal.
The problem I am referring to relates to the north inner city but, of course, it is a problem in most areas of the city. In the north inner city we have probably the worst area of disadvantage and deprivation in the entire country. In this area there is a huge public housing sector, large flat complexes, all together and very high levels of unemployment. We have probably the highest level of social welfare recipients anywhere in Dublin, or in the country.
The response from the Minister for Social Welfare is to give a special allowance of £3 per week over and above the existing allowance to social welfare recipients who are entitled to it and to people who are in receipt of health board payments. That is too little, it is too late and it is for too short a time. It only covers six months of the year. In the context of our Irish climate, six months is very short for a fuel allowance that is supposed to be the sole means of bridging this gap from a bituminous fuel burning society to a smokeless fuel society.
Smokeless fuel is so expensive that people will not buy it unless there are proper incentives. In the context of the legislation which bans the sale of bituminous coal, I envisage a ring of depots operating illegally outside the city boundaries — in a sort of black market — where bituminous fuel may be available. I know there are fairly severe penalties for selling bituminous fuel, ranging from £1,000 to £10,000 or two years in jail, but there are no penalties on — and the ban does not cover this — the burning of bituminous coal. While there is a ban on the sale of bituminous coal within the restricted area, there is not a ban on the burning of such coal within the restricted area.
It boggles the mind to see how this scheme will operate. This is an ill-thought out and ill-conceived plan to ban the sale of coal and not to ban burning of coal — not that we want inspectors going around checking people's houses like the glimmermen of old. The area I live in is not very far from Swords or from Bray and people can easily bring in coal from depots that may well be operating illegally outside the city suburbs. I would like to see the Minister addressing that problem because I do not think there has been an adequate fuel allowance to help these people to take this drastic step from burning bituminous fuel to burning smokeless fuel.
The other area, which is not specifically the concern of the Minister for Social Welfare but of the Minister for the Environment, is grants for conversion of central heating in old houses from solid bituminous-based central heating to alternative forms, and, indeed, for houses built prior to 1987 so that they will be able to avail of the new smokeless fuels. I understand that Dublin Corporation are making no grants available for conversion of heating systems, except in new corporation homes. We know how many of those are being built at present so that does not solve the problem.
I understand that the Department of the Environment have no intention of making grants available for any conversion, so it will be very difficult for houses to transfer to smokeless fuel. We saw steps taken by the corporation in Ballyfermot and the intention was to proceed with conversions along that line, but no more such schemes are envisaged. I know, in a little flat complex beside me in Mary's Mansions, where a small block of flats is being refurbished and being converted at the same time. That is the only such work that is taking place in the inner city. There are no plans, there is no money for any further conversions or indeed for any further refurbishment of such flats. Virtually all of the people employed in those flats and other flats in the area cannot avail of the gas conversions that are available through Bord Gáis because of the cost.
We are dealing with a very large number of social welfare recipients here, a large number of unemployed people and I imagine the vast majority of the population in the areas I am referring to would be in that category. The allowance is inadequate to cover the need and the time allowed is inadequate. It has been too hastily introduced and people have not been given time to prepare for it. There is no reduction in the price of smokeless fuel to encourage people to avail of it. There is no reduction in the VAT on smokeless fuel to encourage people to buy it.
There is a ban on the sale but there is no ban on the burning of bituminous coal. I believe we will find abuses in the restricted area. There are no grants available for conversion. How are we going to deal with future problems if we do not take all relevant considerations into account? People simply cannot afford to pay for conversion themselves in the areas I am referring to. The level of allowance is too low and the Minister should introduce a higher level, certainly in areas where there are specific problems. The figure of £3 should at least be increased to £6. We are talking in the short term about encouraging people to use smokeless fuels. There is no sense in having legislation unless we give people an incentive. We must ensure the incentive is sufficiently strong to encourage people to act in this matter as the Minister and all of us would like. For our own sake and for the health of children, particularly those in that area who suffer a very high lead content level — surveys have shown it is very high compared to the national level — it is urgent that we address the problem.
The Minister should reduce the price of smokeless fuel. That would be another very desirable approach. We must make sure the corporation, whether through the Department of the Environment or otherwise, are provided with funding to ensure that the systems that need to be converted can be converted. A package is required, a further allowance, a reduction in the cost of smokeless fuel. In the long-term, unless we provide for the conversion of existing appliances and existing systems, we will get nowhere with the legislation. I urge the Minister to take that short-term view in the interim to ensure there is sufficient funding for smokeless fuels and, in the long-term, ensure that grants are made available for the systems to be converted so that the problem will be eliminated in the future. I am sharing my time with Senator Upton.