Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62)

Joan Burton

Ceist:

113 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the plans she has to monitor the changes that were introduced in the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, particularly to the rent supplement, and to assess their impact on recipients; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7799/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Trevor Sargent

Ceist:

119 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of refusals to date for supplementary welfare allowance for failure to meet criteria introduced by her Department with regard to accommodation needs. [7931/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

149 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the degree of discretion which remains with community welfare officers in making assessments of housing needs subsequent to the introduction of changes in the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, particularly in the rent supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7801/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ciarán Cuffe

Ceist:

154 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of refusals to date for supplementary welfare allowance for failure to meet new criteria introduced by her with regard to accommodation needs. [7923/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jim O'Keeffe

Ceist:

160 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on whether the changes introduced in rent supplements will cause real hardship for many applicants; and if she has proposals to deal with this. [7744/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

227 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will reverse the rent allowance restrictions imposed in the budget and thereby alleviate hardship; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8032/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 113, 119, 149, 154, 160 and 227 together.

Rent supplements are paid under the terms of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards. The main objective of the measures recently introduced is to refocus the rent supplement scheme on its original objective, which is to meet immediate short-term income maintenance needs as opposed to long-term housing needs. People applying for rent supplement will, in future, have their housing needs assessed by the local authorities in a systematic manner and this should increase their chances of getting social housing, where appropriate.

With certain important exceptions, it is no longer possible for a person to become a tenant in the private rented sector with the support of rent supplement unless the local authority is satisfied that the person has a housing need. However, if a person is assessed by a housing authority as having a housing need, they will qualify for rent supplement regardless of how long they have been renting, subject to the normal means and other qualifying criteria.

The impact of this and the other measures was fully assessed and the manner of their implementation was carefully designed to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, the elderly and disabled, are fully protected. The six months prior renting requirement, for example, does not apply in their case. My Department has been in regular contact with the community welfare staff of the health boards and has held two meetings with senior officials of the boards since the introduction of the measures in January at which the operation of the new measures was discussed. My Department has not been made aware of any cases of hardship arising from the application of the new measures.

Details of the number of refusals since 31 January on grounds of failure to meet the new criteria are not available. However, there have been some cases where applicants were initially refused rent supplement on the basis of not having been in rented accommodation for six months but who were subsequently granted rent supplement after having been assessed by the housing authority as having a housing need. Furthermore, the health boards have indicated that housing authorities are responding to requests for housing assessments without undue delay.

Nobody who was in receipt of a rent supplement at the end of January is affected by the rule requiring that people have been renting for six months before they can qualify for rent supplement. The only people who no longer qualify for rent supplement because of the six month rule are new applicants who, in the opinion of the housing authority, do not have a housing need. While it is the responsibility of the housing authorities to assess a person's housing needs, none of the measures which I have introduced affects the discretion of a health board to make a payment in cases where a board considers that the circumstances of the case so warrant.

In addition to the ongoing contacts between my Department and the health boards, I am setting up a working group under the social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, to facilitate engagement with the social partners about monitoring the impact of the recent changes to the scheme. Arrangements for the setting up of this group are currently under way.

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

114 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of cold alert cards distributed to the elderly or those on disability benefits in regard to her recent announcement; the current amount of the fuel allowance; when the allowance was last increased; if she has plans to extend the period during which the allowance is awarded, in view of the fact that low temperatures can be experienced outside of the October to March period; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7818/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul McGrath

Ceist:

143 Mr. P. McGrath asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has plans to remove the means test for the national fuel scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7862/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Dan Neville

Ceist:

152 Mr. Neville asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will review the fuel allowance (details supplied); and if she will increase the duration of the fuel season. [7870/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

I propose to take Questions Nos. 114, 143 and 152 together.

The temperature card initiative was undertaken by the Donegal Energy Action Team which is part of the community culture and enterprise division of Donegal County Council. I allocated funding of €10,000 towards the project. It is also being funded by Donegal County Council, €11,000, and the North Western Health Board, €1,500. The temperature cards were made available through a variety of outlets across the county. Donegal County Council does not have statistics regarding the number of temperature cards that have been obtained by people from these outlets.

The aim of the national fuel scheme is to assist householders who are in receipt of long-term social welfare or health board payments and who are unable to provide fully for their heating needs. The smokeless fuel allowance was introduced in October 1990 to assist people with the additional costs arising from the ban on the sale of bituminous coal in certain designated areas. At present, a fuel allowance payment of €9 per week is paid to eligible households while an additional €3.90 per week is paid in smokeless zones, bringing the total amount in those areas to €12.90 per week.

The fuel allowances represent a contribution towards a person's normal heating and lighting expenses. In addition, many households also qualify for electricity and gas allowances. There is also a facility available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs. The fuel allowance scheme has been improved in recent years. The means test has been eased and the duration of payment was increased from 26 weeks to 29 weeks. The most recent increase in the rate of fuel allowance was in January 2002.

The question of further improvements in the fuel allowance schemes, including changes to the means test and an extension of the period of payment, would have to be considered in a budgetary context. The significant increases in recent budgets in primary social welfare payment rates, such as the old age pension, have also improved the income position for people dependent on the social welfare system. Primary payment rates are payable for the full 52 weeks of the year and increases in these rates benefit a wider range of recipients.