Adjournment Matter. - Smokeless Fuels Allowances.

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.

May I also thank the Minister for coming in at this late hour in the evening. It is the end of what, I am sure, has been a long day for him, I appreciate that.

I agree with my colleague, Senator Costello, in urging the Minister to increase the amount of additional money to people for fuel vouchers. We are facing a major problem here in trying to implement this type of ban all with the stroke of a pen. My view is that it originated essentially from a panic reaction. It is not illegal to burn coal, it will not be illegal to stockpile coal, it will not be illegal to travel out to places like Rathcoole and Newcastle, to purchase the coal and bring it in. I could go further and suggest there will be a financial incentive for people to make the journey to purchase a large supply of coal to take them over the winter season. In many ways there will be a financial incentive for people to circumvent what is proposed in regard to the banning of coal.

As Senator Costello said, there will be ample opportunities for those traders who want to behave illegally in relation to the sale of coal. I am not satisfied there will be adequate capacity to police the regulations. In addition to that, I have encountered a great communications problem in relation to this whole scheme. People are very confused and muddled, first, in relation to the law. Secondly, I believe people are very confused and puzzled as to the effects of the differing types of smokeless fuels on their heating systems. Many people are quite simply very worried that these smokeless fuels will burn out their heating systems and will damage and destroy solid fuel systems of heating, simply because the systems are not designed to cope with the type of heat which is generated by some of these low smoke fuels.

In addition to that, people are confused as to how these extra fuel subsidies will work. I am hearing a lot about it from people in the Drimnagh and Crumlin areas who are most concerned about the matter. They feel particularly badly done by in relation to all this because all the preliminary work had been done to give the go-ahead to allow these people to get dual conversion grants. They were under the impression that that would happen but at the last minute the plug was pulled on them. People in Drimnagh and Crumlin feel particularly aggrieved they were not given the same treatment as the people in the Ballyfermot D area, the lower end of Ballyfermot, who were in similar circumstances. The people in Ballyfermot were allowed to have the grants but the people in Crumlin and Drimnagh were not. It is a big bone of contention there and many people are very upset and disappointed by it.

Many people have held off making conversions to their central heating systems and so on in anticipation of those grants. They are still not fully sure what the situation is in relation to fuel conversion grants. I urge that those grants be given and if they are not to be given, that fact should be made perfectly clear to the public in these areas. They do not want to find two or three months later that they made a mistake and that they would have got a grant if they waited.

There is a good deal of confusion in relation to the incentives the Dublin Gas Company are giving. The Dublin Gas Company are not the responsibility of the Minister but certainly I strongly urge the company to ensure that the leaflets and the information they give are as clear as possible. I encountered a case today of an elderly man in Crumlin, aged 77 years, who was upset because of the scheme Dublin Gas were offering. He was not sure what it was. He was confused and reached conclusions which were not valid. When he subsequently discovered he would not be getting the offer he thought he was getting he was very upset. That is not desirable either for Dublin Gas or for the public. I urge that a proper adequate comprehensive information system is set in place.

There issues are particularly acute for elderly people, many of whom are in difficult circumstances. As they grow older they are unable to cope with solid fuel systems and they are very anxious to carry out conversion work to their existing system. I would urge the Minister to give a special consideration to elderly people who are suffering from some type of bone disorder which limits their mobility and their capacity to haul around these fuels in the way they would have 20 or 30 years earlier in their life.

Senators will recognise that I am not the Minister responsible for grants for conversions or for any of the other matters the two Senators tended to dwell on. In relation to the ESB, I have made arrangements that the ESB allowance, which applies to elderly people, can be converted into a gas allowance for those who may be converting to natural gas.

That is being taken up currently by a number of pensioners and they welcome it very much.

Senator Costello said the £3 allowance is too little. If we are talking about the extra cost of going from coal to union briquettes the extra cost there is £2.95 per week and the £3, obviously, covers that. Briquettes are only £2.22 extra and the £3 covers them. If they are going to Coalite that will be a little bit over the £3 and it is a question of the price that works out at afterwards. On any reasonable basis the £3 is very good to meet the increased cost for the people we are trying to provide for.

With regard to the period being to short, the period is related directly to the heating period over the winter which is related to the temperature over quite a number of years. This is the period from mid-October through to mid-April. There is a factual meteorological basis on which the whole scheme is based and that is the basis of the scheme for the elderly and the same basis was used in this case.

With regard to confusion and concern about people being puzzled, and the Department being too late in getting information to people, the health boards are involved to some extent, but I want to make it clear that the vast majority of these people are quite familiar with this, as Senator Costello said earlier, and they will be paid automatically. In fact, many of them already, in the books issued to them for the coming winter for their pensions, have that extra money added. It is there in the book, they have it in their hands already. Will the Senator please not accuse me of not making preparations in time?

I was given a sum of money and I was asked to do something about this. I believe my Department have done it very efficiently. There will be a small percentage who will come under the health boards, and the supplementary welfare allowance, and some other cases may arise afterwards. Those are some of the points been made by Senators. Many of the pensioners have got the allowance already in their books. I will not go through the whole list of people we cover because we cover a very wide range of people.

As part of the National Environment Action Plan, the Minister for the Environment has banned the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous coal in certain built up areas of Dublin with effect, as the Senator said, from September next. The areas covered by the ban include the whole of Dublin City and Dún Laoghaire, the built up areas of the county and adjacent areas.

I have already made a special provision to assist in meeting the additional cost on households arising from the need to use smokeless fuels so that these costs would be kept to a minimum for low income groups. In addition to the 1990 allocation of £28 million for the national fuel scheme the Government have allocated a further £3 million for the Dublin area in the current year. This means that an additional £6.3 million is being allocated by the Government over the coming heating season. The season goes from October through to April. The Government provided £6.3 million extra for Dublin to assist low income groups in meeting the additional costs which may arise from the ban on bituminous coal.

From these additional resources I am introducing a special extra fuel allowance of £3 per week for low income households. This additional allowance will apply for the period of the heating season under the national fuel scheme, that is, from mid-October to mid-April. It is additional to the £5 per week which many of those concerned already receive.

Senators will be aware that it has always been the policy of this Government to target resources towards those in greatest need. These are the people whom the Senators mentioned particularly tonight. This can be seen, for example, in the special additional increases provided in recent years to those on the lowest levels of payment, such as unemployment assistance and supplementary welfare allowance. At the same time, the position of families of low paid workers has been significantly improved through a combination of increases in the tax exemption limits, including a special child related tax exemption and major improvements of up to £77 per week for larger families in the family income supplement scheme. I announced those improvements last night.

I have taken a similar approach in relation to the new smokeless fuel allowance. Clearly there is a need to assist those currently in receipt of the weekly fuel allowance of £5 under the national fuel scheme. It was quite obvious that they would need assistance. This includes recipients of all long-term social welfare and health board pensions and other payments who are unable to provide for their own heating needs and who live alone or only with dependents or other people who also qualify for the allowance. Under the new special scheme, which I am now introducing, this payment will be increased by £3 to £8 per week.

There are, of course, other households which are not normally regarded as being long-term dependent on social welfare but which nonetheless, have been receiving social welfare payments for what might be regarded as a considerable time. In order to assist such households I have decided to pay the new allowance also to those who have been receiving short-term unemployment assistance, unemployment benefit or disability benefit for as little as three months. Anyone who has been receiving these for three months will be included, like the people who have been receiving benefits for a long time. I am also conscious of the need to assist families of low paid workers. I have decided, therefore, to extend the new allowance to all recipients of family income supplement who meet the other qualifying conditions for a fuel allowance under the national fuel scheme.

As Senators will appreciate, we have approached this issue in a very practical way. Clearly, the serious problem of smog in Dublin which we have experienced in recent years can only be solved by a complete ban on the burning of bituminous coal. We recognise that this will result in additional heating costs for certain households. We have identified categories of households which need assistance to meet these extra costs, long-term recipients of social welfare and health board payments, people getting short-term payments for over three months and low paid workers with families who meet the other qualifying conditions under the national fuel scheme.

Under the arrangements I have made 81,000 households in Dublin will receive an extra £3 per week at a cost of £6.3 million for the coming heating season. This is a substantial and practical response to the difficulties which would otherwise arise for the less well off in our community as a result of the urgent and very necessary measures being taken by the Minister for the Environment to improve the quality of the air we breathe.

I know Senators appreciate that it is an urgent problem, that it has a major impact on the health of the community and that those who live in the inner city, and in other densely populated areas of Dublin, will benefit considerably in their living environment by the ban on bituminous coal. The use to which I am putting the money provided by the Government is the best practical use that could be made of it. We are covering everybody who is on the fuel scheme and, in addition, we are providing for a category who have never been provided for before, people who have been only three months on unemployment benefit and who are only three months or more on disability benefit.

I assure Senators that the administrative difficulties involved are considerable. We can certainly overcome those because of the extent to which we are organised and we have gone down to three months on that basis. That is a very reasonable approach. We have included also those who are on family income supplement. It will be added automatically to the payments of all those groups.

Senators will be aware of all the groups, old age pensioners, retirement pensioners, widows pensioners, blind pensioners, invalidity pensioners, deserted wives, deserted husbands, unmarried mothers, prisoners' wives, single womens' allowances, those on long term unemployed assistance and, of course, those on short term unemployment assistance over three months and the same with supplementary welfare. We are making very reasonable provision. It is very practical and I hope the Senators, having had that aspect of the matter clarified, will be satisfied that it is a step taken urgently to meet an immediate need, that it is comprehensive and that it represents the right way to go at this time.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 12 noon on Tuesday, 17 July 1990.