Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 14 Oct 2021

Vol. 279 No. 6

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Hospital Staff

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, to the House.

The Minister of State is very welcome. I support the Neurological Alliance of Ireland with regard to the shortage of neurological nurses. I will speak specifically about University Hospital Limerick. The last time a neurological nursing post was advertised and filled was 2019 when a nurse was needed for multiple sclerosis. As we are aware, there are many neurological conditions. A report shows there is a shortage of up to eight nurses in University Hospital Limerick. There are three nurses there at present, along with a number of nurses who assist in the area.

Putting in place neurological specialist nurses helps to reduce waiting lists. It also helps people with their conditions. Sometimes people end up in hospital and taking up a bed. Being seen by a neurological nurse helps to keep people out of hospital and reduce waiting lists. Many specialist nurses are able to deal with these conditions. It also means the patients do not have to see the doctor or professor involved. It would be cost-effective if these positions were filled. As I said, the last time a post was filled was in April 2019. I tabled a Commencement matter on the issue at the time. At that stage, there was a shortage of three nurses. There is now a shortage of eight nurses. I support the national campaign. More than 800,000 people in Ireland have neurological health conditions. I look forward to hearing what the Minister of State has to say today.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue today, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I will read the statement but I have my own opinions, which I will add at the end if that is okay.

That is perfect.

I compliment the Senator on her understanding of the value of the nurses we are speaking about and the impact they have on patients. I know this is an issue close to her heart and one she has raised on previous occasions. I also understand how important it is to the people of the mid-west that such services are available when needed and that they are adequately resourced and staffed. In this regard, the Government and Department of Health are fully committed to improving patient services and having patient-centred care in Limerick and throughout the country. This commitment is reflected in the unprecedented level of funding being targeted at the health service in budget 2022. This funding will help build on the support that has been provided to University Hospital Limerick in the form of additional staffing, in particular in the development of increased bed capacity over recent years.

As is always the case, more can be done. University Limerick Hospitals Group, ULHG, fully recognises the need for additional resources in neurological services. This is why, in 2021, ULHG sought and received approval for two additional consultant neurologist posts to help address the deficit in the service. The recruitment process to fill these posts has commenced and interviews are scheduled to take place on 28 October. It is hoped that both of these posts will be filled from the campaign.

ULHG is committed to developing the service in line with population health and consistent with the model of care outlined by the national clinical programme for neurology. It has advised the Department of Health that there are two specialist nurses working in neurological services at University Hospital Limerick. It is important to note these specialist nurses are supported by a total of nine nursing staff providing services in a range of specialties, including services for Parkinson's disease, which has two clinical nurse specialists and one clinical nurse manager. Epilepsy services at the hospital have one clinical nurse specialist and one staff nurse. Multiple sclerosis services at University Hospital Limerick have one clinical nurse specialist. Stroke services operate with one advanced nurse practitioner, one clinical nurse specialist and one level 2 clinical nurse manager. In addition, the neurological services at ULHG work with the designated stroke and neurology ward in University Hospital Limerick, where all staff are trained to care for neurology patients with a multidisciplinary approach that also incorporates allied health services, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.

I am assured University Limerick Hospitals Group remains committed to the progressive development of neurology services within the group. It has noted that this is a core focus and has committed to improving the service for patients, given its importance.

What I have just read is the contribution prepared on behalf of the Minister. I too am aware of the shortage of an additional eight nurses the Senator mentioned. In Galway, there is a shortage of an additional nine nurses. There is a dearth and deficit, not just in the mid-west or Saolta University Health Care Group but throughout the country. In budget 2022, only 91 nurse specialists were sought for neurology services that support a wide range of patients. Not only do they provide a wide range of patient supports but they are invaluable in preventing emergency department admissions or admissions to beds. Where that specialist care is in place, it can serve a longer-term benefit for the patient by keeping him or her in the community. My ask of the Department of Health and the Minister, on foot of this debate, is that we will make this a priority following budget 2022 and that we will start advertising for posts. While it is fantastic that the consultant posts are being advertised, they will be only as good as the team around them.

I thank the Minister of State for her words on behalf of the Minister but also for her own words. I fully agree with her. While it is wonderful that two nursing posts are being advertised and filled, the Government should make this a priority. I thank her for saying she will take the issue back to the Department and put emphasis on it. If the positions were filled, fewer people would be in beds taking up trolleys. University Hospital Limerick is in the newspapers every day of the week regarding the numbers of people on trolleys and waiting lists. If these posts were filled, it would go a long way towards alleviating that. It would ultimately be value for money and would give relief to the patient, who has to be at the centre of this. Many people with neurological conditions undergo much pain and suffering and that would be somewhat relieved if these positions were filled.

I thank the Minister of State and look forward to working with her on the issue.

The Minister, in his prepared concluding statement, reiterates that the Government, along with the Department of Health, is fully committed to improving services and having patient-centred care in Limerick and throughout the country. This was reflected with the significant funding allocated to improving our health services in budget 2022. University Limerick Hospitals Group is fully cognisant of the need for additional resources within the neurological services. That is why it continues to develop the service and is recruiting two additional consultants in neurology services in 2021. This investment is vital to ensuring the ongoing operational and strategic development of neurological services for the people of Limerick and throughout the mid-west. As I said earlier, this should be a priority and I fully agree with the Senator. When we prioritise the recruitment of neurological nurse specialists, we support people to live a fuller life in their communities. At the same time, I acknowledge the hard work of the staff at University Hospital Limerick. We can prevent repeated admissions.

Departmental Funding

I welcome the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, to the House.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to deal with this issue. He will be aware of the history of sail training in Ireland. For many years, including during my childhood, although I was never a trainee on it, I was often on board the Asgard II, which many people throughout Ireland will fondly recall as a sail training vessel that worked for many years with people from non-sailing backgrounds, that is, people who would never ordinarily have had an opportunity to get on a sailing boat and to experience what it is to be at sea under the power of the wind alone. It brought together people from all kinds of communities and gave them an opportunity to experience the marine in a way very few of us get to do.

As the Minister will be aware, in 2008, the Asgard II was sailing to France for maintenance and, unfortunately, seemed to hit something. Ultimately, it took on water and sank in September of that year. It still lies at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. Although there was a campaign to raise and restore it, I think that, realistically, that moment has passed, even though we know where it is and it was not badly damaged in the sinking. The cost of bringing it back would be exorbitant. Moreover, we recognise that the Asgard II, although a fine vessel and one of which we all have fond memories, was a relatively small vessel in the context of the kinds of ships used for this kind of sail training and tall ship sailing.

While called the Asgard II, the vessel was named after the Asgard, which was used to smuggle guns to rebels in Ireland at the time of the fledgling status of this State and which is available to see at Collins Barracks. It is not actually connected to that ship, however, and I do not think there is a need for sail training vessels to have that historical connection. Their purpose is to provide a vehicle for people who want to get involved in or experience sailing. The importance of that is undisputable.

I pay tribute to the Atlantic Youth Trust, which has been at the forefront of pushing the idea that there would be, once again, a proper Irish sail training vessel that would allow many people from various backgrounds to get involved in sailing and to experience what it is to be in the marine industry. The Atlantic Youth Trust and Enda O'Coineen, to whom I have spoken about this and who lives in my constituency, is a committed philanthropist in this area, as well as being a former chairman of Coiste an Asgard, the governing body that managed the Asgard II, have identified a vessel that is afloat and available in Sweden and that could be purchased to become a new Irish sail training vessel. It is a model of a 1909 Danish schooner but it was only built in the early 1980s and is a solid steel ship of 164 ft. It is a significant vessel, much larger than the Asgard II, but a suitable vessel to replace it as the Irish sail training vessel.

The Minister already has been contacted about this but I raised this issue to encourage him to go down the path of allowing this vessel to be put in place and allowing us to put back on train a proper sail training programme for Ireland and the people on this island. I refer not just to the Republic; this is, I hope, an all-island venture. Ultimately, we are a marine community. We live on an island and are connected to the sea, yet many of our people do not get an opportunity to enjoy that connection to the sea. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us there is support for this project at Government level and we can progress it. I hope we can look forward once again to having a fine square-rigged, tall-ship sail training vessel available to people from throughout this island, from all backgrounds, and particularly young people who have never experienced sailing, that will allow them to get on the water, feel what it is like and, I hope, build a connection with the sea that lies all around this island.

As the Senator noted, the Asgard II sank in 2008. The Government subsequently decided that the national sail training scheme operated by Coiste an Asgard would be discontinued, as recommended in the report of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes. Significant capital and ongoing costs are associated with investing in a national sail training vessel and a detailed analysis would be required prior to any new Exchequer funding being committed.

The Department of Defence provides funding to Sail Training Ireland, a charity founded by individuals previously involved with Coiste an Asgard. A performance delivery agreement stipulates that €85,000 be used to provide a sail training experience for 50 trainees from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sail Training Ireland has an all-island focus, supporting trainees from both North and South, and charters vessels rather than owning and operating them. I am advised that no sail training took place in 2020 or 2021 due to Covid restrictions. It is anticipated that funding will be provided in 2022, subject to the resumption of a sail-training programme.

Separately, in 2015, as part of the Fresh Start agreement, the Government undertook to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to agree on a funding plan for the Atlantic Youth Trust project. A similar commitment was included in the 2016 programme for Government. The proposal was to build a new tall ship at an estimated cost of €15 million, with an ongoing funding requirement. Officials in my Department held meetings with the promoters and the Department for Communities in Belfast to explore the project. Progress was slow, in part due to political difficulties in the North. There is a commitment in the current programme for Government to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to build on plans to deliver a youth development sail training project to provide opportunities for interaction and engagement for young people both North and South.

The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media is also involved in fulfilling this commitment. On 24 September 2021, a new submission was received from the Atlantic Youth Trust. I believe this is the proposal the Senator is referring to. Officials from my Department and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media met with representatives of the Atlantic Youth Trust yesterday, 13 October, to discuss the submission and request further information on a number of matters. The trust has committed to revert on a number of the queries raised. Clear guidelines have been issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with regard to evaluating any such proposals.

The Government is currently engaged with two sail training organisations, and we remain supportive of the principles of the sail training programme. We would like to see this run on an all-island basis, where possible. I look forward to progressing in a positive way.

I thank the Minister. I am delighted to hear that there is that level of engagement. I really am grateful to the Minister for his commitment to this. It is obviously important that this goes through the right channels and is done in the right way to ensure a sustainable programme over a period of time but I really do hope that no political difficulties prevent this important scheme from going ahead. I say that as one who comes from the capital of sailing in Ireland, Dún Laoghaire - although the Minister, as someone from Cork, may not accept that contention - but this is something that will benefit the whole of Ireland and towns and cities around the coast from Dún Laoghaire to Waterford, Cork, Galway, Derry and Belfast. This is an asset for the people of Ireland. I welcome the fact that the Minister is engaging, the commitment from Government and the fact that there is obviously will for this to happen at Government level. I hope it will happen soon. This is an asset and it introduces people to a sport, a means of trade and a means of getting work and employment in our marine industry, which is absolutely invaluable. We cannot ignore the importance of sail training for bringing people into that and giving them an opportunity they otherwise might not have. I thank the Minister for coming in today.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and showing an interest in it. He appreciates the value of sail training and the opportunities it opens up for many young people who may otherwise not have the opportunity to benefit from it. I have spoken to many people, some of whom I know well, who say that their time on the Asgard changed the direction of their lives as a result of the people they met and the experiences they had. That is effectively what sail training is about. Looking at the models in other countries, I believe the best model is that of New Zealand, which is operated by the Spirit of New Zealand Trust. Through the schools in New Zealand, people are selected to be part of that sail training programme for set periods, which benefits them as individuals in terms of personal growth, confidence, teamwork and all of the other things that sail training can potentially uniquely provide for those who benefit from it. The Government acknowledges the significant benefits that sail training brings to the personal and social development of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities. The Government's support for sail training is evidenced by my Department's funding of Sail Training Ireland and our engagement with the Atlantic Youth Trust on its proposal for an additional sail training project in Ireland.

It is important to note that any funding of new sail training vessel, combined with an ongoing maintenance fund, would require a substantial financial commitment from the Government. Prior to any such commitment, it is essential that the proposal be assessed in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's guidelines and that it provides value for money. In other words, this needs robust assessment. A generous offer has been put to the Government and we are considering it. I hope we will be able to work with both the Atlantic Youth Trust and Sail Training Ireland to provide a project that is exciting and positive but that also provides value for money and is run in a fully transparent way. Most importantly, it must enable us to provide a platform for sail training in Ireland from which many young people can benefit.

Fire Stations

The Minister of State is very welcome. I thank him for taking time out of his schedule to be here. I appreciate it. This morning, I will raise the issue of the urgent need for a new fire station in Ballybay. Ballybay fire station provides cover not just to the town itself, but to the wider mid-Monaghan area. Back in 1977, a report was commissioned which determined that the fire station fell short of the minimum requirements of a modern fire station. That was in 1977 - many years ago. The current station, which is a single-storey structure, is located in the centre of Ballybay and has no parking facilities attached.

I pay tribute to the nine dedicated crew members attached to the fire station for their loyal and dedicated service, both in the past and at present. I pay tribute to all who have been attached to the station down through the years. They have given excellent service not just to the people of Ballybay, but to the people of the wider hinterland of mid-Monaghan.

The current crew and the people of Ballybay and the mid-Monaghan area deserve a new fire station. I hope the Minister of State will have positive news for me in that regard this morning. I pay tribute to local councillor, Séamus Coyle, who has worked tirelessly on this issue. Only last week, he put a motion before Monaghan County Council which highlighted the urgency of addressing this issue. I pay tribute to all members of Monaghan County Council and, indeed, Ballybay town commissioners down through the years who have worked and pushed tirelessly to get a new facility for the town. There is no doubt but that there is an urgent need for a new facility there. I would like the Minister of State to push the matter with his Cabinet colleagues in order to ensure that this facility is provided to the crew that currently works there and the people of Ballybay and the wider Monaghan area.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an gceist seo. The provision of fire services in a functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Act 1981 and 2003. My Department supports fire authorities by establishing policy, setting national standards for fire safety and service provision, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and related matters and providing capital funding for priority infrastructural projects.

My Department recently announced a new fire services capital programme for the period covering 2021 to 2025, with a funding allocation of €61 million. Following extensive engagement with the fire authorities, a number of proposals for station works and so on were received. The proposals were evaluated and prioritised on the basis of: the area risk categorisation of the fire station, which relates to population, fire risks and so on; established health and safety needs; the state of development of the project, which relates to whether a site has been acquired and so on; and the value for money offered by the proposal. The new programme will see six replacement fire stations built, continued support for the construction of a further 12 fire station projects, nine fire station refurbishments and the allocation of 35 new fire engines. In order to optimise the use of the available capital programme funding, my Department reassesses the status of projects in the programme annually. Some flexibility is normally available to advance projects that are ready and that offer best value for money, taking account of the state of readiness of projects more generally.

All requests for funding from my Department's fire services capital programme are considered promptly and have regard to local authorities' own priorities, consistency with national policy, the value for money offered by proposals and the totality of requests from fire authorities.

Project consideration stages in my Department include submission of preliminary and detailed appraisals, submission of design brief, selection of site, application for approval in principle, appointment of design consultants, submission of a preliminary design, planning application, submission of preliminary cost plan, detailed design and cost plans and tender process and construction stages. Each step is subject to approval from the Department.

Monaghan County Council has indicated that a new fire station at Ballybay is a priority and is included in the list of proposed new-build fire stations under the 2021 to 2025 capital programme. My Department received a detailed cost plan for this project on 24 September, outlining an estimated total build cost of €1.7 million. This proposal is currently under consideration and my Department will continue working with the council to progress this project.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter, along with Councillor Coyle and members of Monaghan County Council. We will certainly give it the highest priority and it is on the list for the capital programme. It will therefore be given due assessment in that regard.

I sincerely thank the Minister of State for his most comprehensive report. There is no doubt that the case has been well made that this is a priority. I welcome the comments this morning and I trust the Department will work with Monaghan County Council to ensure the facility is built without delay and as soon as possible.

I might digress when I have the Minister of State to raise the matter of peat in County Monaghan. Monaghan is well known for many things, one of which is mushrooms, and we have a serious problem there now because peat products are essential for that mushroom industry. I ask the Minister of State to take it upon himself to address the matter urgently because many jobs in County Monaghan depend on it.

As we have outlined, there is a clear commitment that this facility will be included in the capital plan and in that regard Monaghan County Council is following all due process to ensure it can be prioritised. Again, I thank the members of Monaghan County Council and the executive for advancing this. I join the Senator in paying tribute to fire service personnel, who do heroic work in the county and throughout the entire country.

On the peat question, I am expecting to receive a report on alternative materials from Dr. Munoo Prasad by 20 October. The Government is trying to address the matter but as I stated, we are caught in a legal bind over this. All efforts are being made to try to resolve this as a matter of urgency.

Social Welfare Schemes

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys. The premise of this matter is to call for the removal of the disablement benefit as a disqualifying payment for the winter fuel allowance for those persons who meet the income means test, which is currently set at €100 above the State contributory pension plus the living alone and dependant's allowance. This will rise to €120 from 1 January as a result of the decisions made in budget 2022 by the Government, and this is very welcome.

I admit I was not aware of the disablement benefit payment until this matter was brought to my attention by two separate constituents in County Waterford over the past 12 months. The payment is administered under the occupational injuries scheme and it can be paid if a person suffers a loss of physical or mental faculty because of an accident at work, an accident travelling directly to or from work or by getting a prescribed disease contracted at work. Payment is only made where the level of disablement following the accident or disease is at 15% or more. Where the level of disablement is assessed at 20% or more, a benefit is paid weekly or every four weeks.

My issue is that disablement benefit is classified as a disqualifying payment for the winter fuel allowance along with other social insurance payments like the jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit and maternity benefit. If a person is in receipt of a 40% weekly disablement payment of €93.60, which is below the €100 threshold for additional income, that person is still automatically excluded from the winter fuel allowance scheme. This is unjust and wrong, and it is probably on account of the payment being classified as a benefit instead of an allowance. The net result is we are saying that if a person has a small private pension of less than €100 per week on top of the contributory pension and living alone allowance, the State will support him or her with rising fuel costs to the tune of €924 per year via the winter fuel allowance. If a former worker, however, was unfortunate enough to be in a workplace accident or pick up a respiratory illness due to working with asbestos, for example, the State will not be in a position to support him or her with rising heating costs. This is an anomaly that must be addressed and I ask the Minister of State to raise this query with the Department so that it can be addressed without delay.

To be clear, I am not asking for those in receipt of disablement benefit who are above the means test limit to be included. I am merely asking that those in receipt of the payment who are below the income means test are factored in. Currently, this would mean that those in receipt of the 40%, 30% and or the 20% disablement benefit payment would qualify, and from January people in receipt of the 50% disablement benefit would also be able to avail of the fuel allowance. It is only right and proper that the Government consider this move. I certainly believe it to be a reasonable proposal and I would not bring it the floor of the Seanad if I did not see it as reasonable. I certainly hope it can be looked at favourably.

As the Senator knows, the Department of Social Protection pays a range of benefit and assisted income supports, including fuel allowance, which is available to long-term social welfare recipients. On 27 September 2021, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, announced the start of the national fuel scheme for the 2021-22 season. A budget of €292 million has been set aside for this season to pay an estimated 370,000 households. The purpose of the payment is to assist the households with their energy costs and the allowance represents a contribution towards the energy costs of a household. It is not intended to meet those costs in full and only one allowance is paid per household.

On Tuesday this week, in budget 2022, the fuel allowance was increased by €5 per week. The means threshold was increased and eligibility was extended for certain groups. As a result, it is now a payment of €33 per week for 28 weeks from October to April, giving a total of €924 per recipient in a full fuel season from now on.

Disablement benefit is a benefit under the occupational injuries scheme. It can be paid to a recipient who suffers a loss of physical or mental faculty because of an accident at work, an accident travelling directly to or from work or a prescribed disease contracted at work. The contribution requirements for the scheme are minimal when compared with other Department benefit schemes. Payment is only made when the level of disablement following an accident or disease is assessed at 15% or more. The rate of benefit depends on the degree of disablement. It is paid at a personal rate without increase for dependants.

In 2020, the estimated expenditure on the scheme was almost €70 million, with over 14,500 recipients supported through the scheme. People in receipt of disablement benefit without another payment may work full-time or part-time and continue to receive benefit payment. In other words, they are not prevented from generating additional income. In the alternative, it can be and is paid in conjunction with most social welfare payments, including the jobseeker's benefit, the jobseeker's allowance, disability allowance, the invalidity pension, the State pension and the one-parent family payment. It is not considered as means for most social welfare means-assessed schemes, except for fuel allowance, supplementary welfare allowance or the working family payment.

An incapacity supplement is an increase payable in addition to disablement benefit where a person is considered to be permanently incapable of work as a result of an occupational accident or disease and does not qualify for another social welfare benefit, such as illness benefit.

The incapacity supplement is a qualifying payment for fuel allowance. Therefore, while disablement benefit on its own is a disqualifying payment for fuel allowance, because a person may continue to take up work or may receive another social welfare payment in parallel, qualification for incapacity supplement in addition to disablement benefit qualifies that recipient for fuel allowance, subject to satisfying all other criteria.

The criteria for fuel allowance are framed in order to direct limited resources available to the Department of Social Protection in as targeted a manner as possible. In budget 2022, the Government has already made a significant commitment to extending the fuel allowance both in terms of the value of the payment for recipients and extending the means of threshold, and shortening the time limit required of all jobseeker allowance and basic supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, recipients across the access scheme. This additional investment will cost €60 million in 2022.

Disablement benefit can be paid to people in employment and in addition to most social welfare payments. Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, exceptional need payments may be made to help meet an essential once-off cost which customers are unable to meet from their own resources. This may include exceptional heating costs.

Removing disablement benefit as a disqualifying payment for fuel allowance would require careful consideration within the overall policy and budgetary context and I understand that the Department is examining this matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and, in particular, the last line of his response that that the Department is examining this matter, which is positive.

I will emphasise again some of the points I made earlier. I am not looking for this for everybody who is in receipt of disablement benefit, and the Minister of State said there were 14,500 recipients. I am asking about somebody who is in receipt of that payment and is below the means test. What percentage of those 14,500 recipients are in receipt of 50% or less? I would argue that it is a significantly lower figure.

The Minister of State's response stated that qualification for incapacity supplement in addition to disablement benefit qualifies the recipient for the fuel allowance. The issue here is with older people, in particular, who have transitioned on to the pension and will not be able to receive that supplement payment. These are the two constituents I am referring to here, that is, people who are long since out of work and are living on their own and are struggling with rising fuel costs. They are being excluded from support under the fuel allowance because in one case the person was unfortunate enough to have had a workplace accident while in the other case the person has a respiratory illness as a direct result of work. I do not think that that is right and proper.

I thank the Senator again for his comments. I reiterate the Government's commitment to providing income supports to the most vulnerable, in particular in the context of the fuel allowance. This was demonstrated in last Tuesday's budget with rate increases for both the fuel allowance and the living alone allowance as well as extended eligibility for the fuel allowance for certain cohorts of long-term welfare recipients and an increase in the means threshold.

Other supports are available in addition to the fuel allowance. The household benefits package consists of a set of allowances which help with the cost of running a household and include allowances towards covering electricity or gas costs. Recipients, the majority of whom are pensioners, are paid €35 a month. The Department of Social Protection will spend approximately €195 million this year on the household benefits package to almost half a million customers.

The targeted flexible support provided to those in need by the supplementary welfare allowance must also be emphasised. Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, exceptional needs payment 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 costs.

Of course, the best long-term approach is for Ireland to insulate customers from rising energy costs and that is to invest in energy-efficiency. Budget 2022 commits €202 million in carbon tax revenue to fund the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland residential and community retrofit schemes and a further €10 million from the Exchequer for the solar photovoltaic, PV, scheme. This investment will support more than 22,000 homes in energy upgrades, including more than 6,000 homes to building energy rating of B2. It will deliver warmer, healthier and more comfortable homes with lower energy bills.

Some €109 million under this €202 million allocation will be used to provide free energy efficiency upgrades to households that are in or at risk of energy poverty. more than 4,500 upgrades will be carried out under the SEAI scheme and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will invest a further €85 million as part of the local authority retrofit programme in 2022.

Having said all that, I accept that the issue the Senator has raised is a specific one. As he correctly said, it is an anomaly and I will certainly take that on board. I believe the Minister will provide a response on the specific issue the Senator quite rightly highlighted that could affect quite a large number of older and vulnerable people, in particular.

Sitting suspended at 11.14 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.