Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (23, 24)

Arthur Morgan

Ceist:

96 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the figure that there are 2,000 premature deaths every year as a result of fuel poverty. [7893/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

133 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her proposals to tackle fuel poverty in this State. [7891/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 96 and 133 together.

A report entitled, Fuel Poverty and Policy in Ireland and the European Union, was published in 2003 by the policy institute at Trinity College Dublin and the Combat Poverty Agency. The data used in the report refer to the period 1994 to 1997. The report suggests that as many as 2,000 excess winter deaths in Ireland are associated with fuel poverty and domestic energy inefficiency.

In general, the number of people who die in winter in western countries is significantly 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 what is known as fuel poverty.

As I stated earlier, the report does not show that 2,000 people die each year in Ireland because they cannot afford to adequately heat their homes during winter months. 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. I recognise the importance of ensuring that people on low incomes can afford fuel and I accept that this is an important aspect of countering fuel poverty. The fuel allowance scheme is important in that regard.

However, 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. That 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, that I am working to achieve.

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. The report does not call for improvements in fuel allowances. In fact, the report states that fuel allowances are not a sufficient measure to combat fuel poverty in Ireland. Improvements in energy efficiency in dwelling houses are necessary as well.

My Department is planning a fuel poverty project to be carried out in conjunction with Sustainable Energy Ireland. 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 and will receive energy advice and have minor remedial work carried out.

As far as social welfare provision is concerned, the commitments which the Government has given to increases in social welfare payments will further protect the position of vulnerable groups and improve their income situation in a substantial way.

Is the Minister aware fuel poverty most adversely affects people belonging to the lower socio-economic classes and that this State's record on the matter is one of the worst in Europe? Almost one in four employed persons, one in five tenants and one in five lone parents suffers from fuel poverty. The Minister referred to discussions between her Department and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the issue of sustainable energy and so on. About how many people is the Minister talking? Is there a timescale for the implementation of this work for people who are over 65? In what areas will this be implemented?

Is the Minister aware that, in 1985, the fuel allowance was £5, or €6.35? It has increased by €3 since. The price of fuel, ESB and everything else has also increased over those 20 years. I accept parties on all sides of the House have been in Government during that time. The situation has worsened and people on the fringes of society and who are most disadvantaged are suffering. The Minister said she is looking at the situation of those over 65, but there does not seem to be a plan. We have talked about joined-up Government.

New houses have heating but many houses in which people live are sub-standard and they are literally dying of the cold in their own homes. We have all gone into houses which are freezing and in which people experience poverty. Unfortunately, the days of people throwing the coat over the bed have not gone away and people still live in freezing conditions. We do not seem to have a plan to try to deal with it. The Minister spoke about the current response, which is timely, but is there a timescale for implementation? Are there figures?

I hope to finalise this shortly. We have been working with Sustainable Energy Ireland which has a track record. When we thought of this idea, we had to look at the best way to implement it. A number of other agencies should be involved such as the Combat Poverty Agency, the Economic and Social Research Institute, the money advice and budgeting service and the Institute of Public Health as well as the Department and Sustainable Energy Ireland. A few minor details need to be ironed out so that we can reach an agreement between both agencies. We discussed this recently and there are some modifications which are acceptable to my Department. We will be able to reach an agreement shortly.

The target group at which we are looking are those over 65 and people on long-term disability allowance as they are seen as the people who are most vulnerable. Housing aid for the elderly, the essential repairs grant and the disabled person's grant do not deal with the small important matters such as draught exclusion. They are not part of any of the other grant aid schemes. We will look at the energy efficiencies to fill in the gaps in those schemes.

I take the Minister's point about the 2,000 deaths referred to in the study. It is sober reading. Even if there were only one death, it would be an indictment on us as a society that we are wealthy in so many ways but so poor and bereft of compassion for others that somebody would die because he or she did not have enough money to heat his or her home.

The unemployed form the largest socio-economic group at risk of fuel poverty and are followed by tenants, lone parents, as referred to by Deputy Crowe, the separated, those living in large multi-unit dwellings and the elderly living alone. Are they not the people hardest hit by the savage 16 cuts? Those are the people who bore the brunt of some of those cuts.

The Minister introduced a pilot scheme and cold alert cards so that older people would know when their homes were too cold. That, however, misses the point. Realising one's home is too cold is not the problem; it is not having enough money to heat one's home sufficiently. That is the critical question. We can hold rhetoric. The provision of sufficient funds to ensure adequate heating is a basic right and must be treated as such by the Government. Will the Minister ensure the fuel allowance is increased and over an extended period as Deputy Ring has said? That is the way to combat this problem.

As the Minister knows, this is the only one of the free schemes that is means-tested. People who worked for the county council or for a semi-State company would have a small pension but are debarred from the fuel scheme because they exceed the income limit. That is something the Minister should examine. The fuel scheme should be given to pensioners even if they have a pension from the county council, the health board or State agency and for which they have paid. They may get €60 or €70 extra per week but they find they lose that as a result of not getting the free fuel. Will the Minister examine that when producing her report?

Has the Minister had any discussions with the Minister for Finance on his proposal in last year's budget on the introduction of a carbon tax? Is she aware of the proposals of the Economic and Social Research Institute that if, or when, such a tax is introduced, most of the money should be recycled into greatly increased social welfare payments and not into the Exchequer? Has she made any moves to make sure the Minister for Finance does not act other than in that direction?

On the review of the fuel allowance, what measures are being put in place to make sure the most effective use of the money can be made by the recipient? Solid and fossil fuel is largely used and most of the heat provided goes up chimney stacks rather than into the rooms where it is needed. Some houses are poorly insulated, damp and not well-designed. Surely capital expenditure is what is needed to make sure the fuel allowance has the greatest effect.

It is my intention that, not only will we provide advice, we will also provide for some capital remedial works. I agree with Deputy Boyle in this regard. The fuel card was initiated in County Mayo and seemed to be popular. The county development board worked under the social inclusion measures in which the county councils are not involved. That will link into the sustainable energy project. A project is taking place through some of the voluntary agencies, the partnerships and the Leader programmes. There are small programmes but we need to encompass them fairly rigorously within a proper fuel poverty initiative. I am getting a lot of co-operation on the matter, which I see as fundamental in addressing the issues of fuel poverty and fuel efficiencies.

With respect to the disregards and the means test, I did change the situation slightly this year. We would hope to change it every year and, in particular, we changed the disregards for fuel allowances under the income and capital disregard. Every year these are examined fully. We will examine the possibility of changing the eligibility criteria for a number of the schemes, but it is a means-tested scheme.

The other issue raised was whether I should increase the fuel allowance or whether it would be better to give a full €10 to pensioners. I considered that the €10 for pensioners was the best option because that is available to them 52 weeks per year, whereas the fuel allowance is specifically a winter scheme. It is an exciting proposal and a good initiative. I agree it is not solely a monetary issue, but also a minor capital works issue. As I told Deputy Crowe, I anticipate that we will have a roll-out fairly quickly on this matter.

What about the carbon tax?

I have had discussions about that matter. As the Deputy will appreciate, when the draft memorandum was circulated, Ministers forwarded their observations to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Finance. I assume I will have to battle for the other issue on my own. I can tell the Deputy that I will be doing my best on that one.