The report to which the Deputy refers is Fuel Poverty and Policy in Ireland and the European Union, which was published in 2003 by the policy institute at Trinity College, Dublin, and the Combat Poverty Agency. The aim of the research was to analyse key policy issues regarding fuel poverty in Ireland and across the European Union. The data used in the report refer to the period 1994-97.
In general, the number who die in winter in western countries is higher than during the rest of the year. Much of the difference is attributed to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. It is not possible to disaggregate definitively the contribution made by fuel povertyper se. The report does not show that 2,000 people die each year in Ireland because they cannot afford to adequately heat their homes during the winter months. Indeed, the claim of inability to afford adequate heat in the home was the category which attracted the lowest percentage of responsibility for fuel poverty in the course of the study. However, I recognise the importance of ensuring that people on low incomes can afford adequate fuel and I accept this is an important aspect of countering fuel poverty.
The extent to which people on social welfare can afford fuel is kept under review in my Department. The objective of social welfare provision in this regard is to ensure that the combined value of weekly social welfare payments and fuel allowances rises in real terms, after compensating people for inflation, including fuel price inflation. Giving people a real increase in their primary payment for 52 weeks of the year is a more expensive option than increasing the fuel allowance payment rate for part of the year. However, I believe it is the correct approach to take as it gives people greater flexibility in meeting their needs. That, coupled with programmes to improve the fuel efficiency of the housing stock, will bring about the reduction in poverty levels, including fuel poverty levels, that I am working to achieve.
The report does not call for improvements in fuel allowances. It states that fuel allowances are not a sufficient measure to combat fuel poverty in Ireland. Improvements in energy efficiency in dwelling houses are also necessary. The report contends that the eradication of fuel poverty requires investment in capital stock and the introduction of energy efficiency programmes. The report recommends that the State should introduce a programme targeted at certain groups with the aim of eradicating fuel poverty through domestic energy-efficiency improvements. As the Deputy will appreciate, responsibility for such a programme does not come solely within my remit.
Additional Information not given on the floor of the House
My Department is currently in discussion with Sustainable Energy Ireland with a view to planning a fuel poverty project. It is proposed to carry out an action research project in designated geographical areas where eligible persons will have an energy audit carried out in their homes. The audit will include energy advice to the household as well as minor remedial work such as the installation of roof space insulation, draft proofing, fitting of hot water cylinder lagging jackets and energy efficient light bulbs. The project proposes to target persons over 65 years and long-term disabled persons, who are in receipt of a fuel allowance from my Department. The project will evaluate the effects of the measures undertaken from the point of view of comfort levels, health effects as well as changes in fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions.