Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (21)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

94 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the fact that according to a recent report by the Combat Poverty Agency, fuel poverty could be a factor in as many as 2,000 deaths per year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7967/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

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

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.

This report and its suggestion of 2,000 deaths per year because of fuel poverty is damning of the Government and society in general in that we cannot look after our pensioners. It is daft to have a fuel allowance for 29 weeks as there are 52 weeks in a year. The climate of this country means that the poor and old in poor accommodation need a fire every day of the year. There were not many days last summer when people did not need a fire. The Government has suggested it will introduce a carbon energy tax in the next budget. Has the Department of Social and Family Affairs made a submission to the Minister for Finance to protect those on low incomes? What proposals or recommendations has the Minister or her Department made? This proposal will create further fuel poverty, particularly for those on low incomes. The Minister should extend the fuel scheme for the full 52 weeks of the year. This would not cost a fortune and would go a long way towards helping those in fuel poverty.

I agree with the report that this issue is not simply concerned with giving people money to buy coal, gas or otherwise. Much of the problem is in regard to the condition of housing. The Minister should draw up a scheme for the elderly in conjunction with the health boards, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and her officials. This scheme would be to educate the elderly about the energy deficiencies in their homes, which is a big problem, and to allow health boards to assist those on low incomes to improve their homes. Elderly people always ask for safety and heat in their homes. The Minister should look into that.

It is very eye-catching to say 2,000 people died. That is factually incorrect.

I did not say it. It is in the report.

It is not. I went to the bother of reading the report because it was part-funded by my Department through the Combat Poverty Agency. There are 270,000 people receiving fuel allowance and I spent €83.7 million last year.

That is €9 per week.

It is €83.7 million.

It is means-tested.

I did not have the chance to read the entire answer but I can do so now. I am engaged in a fuel poverty project with Sustainable Energy Ireland which covers the issues raised by the Deputy. We are looking at energy advice to the householder as well as minor remedial works such as roof space insulation, draft-proofing, fitting hot water cylinder lagging jackets, energy efficient light bulbs and so on. Deputy Ring and I both agree those issues are important.

We are looking at targeting those over 65 years of age and the long-term disabled. We are participating in a fuel energy project with Sustainable Energy Ireland, which has been excellent in supporting people at a local, voluntary level. We are also looking at comfort levels and health effects as well as fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions. We have set up a project, we are carrying out an audit and we are looking at the best way to spend any resources we will have.

The Deputy will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt a Government decision on carbon tax, but I have been in consultation with my colleagues about discussions which are taking place at present.