Fuel Poverty.

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.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (25)

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

97 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the estimated additional cost to her Department of increases in telephone charges for pensioners and welfare recipients; when the telephone rental allowance will apply to mobile phones which qualifying applicants hold; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7808/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (15 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

My Department introduced a significant change to the telephone allowance scheme in October 2003. The structure of the allowance was changed to make it a cash credit on bills, not attributable to any particular component of the bill. This change makes it easier for additional service providers to participate in the scheme by applying a standardised allowance amount to bills irrespective of the tariff components.

In conjunction with this change, a special bundle rate — the Eircom social benefits scheme — was negotiated with Eircom, which provided telephone allowance customers with line and equipment rental, plus an enhanced call credit of up to €5.35 worth of free calls per two-month billing period. The cost of the bundle, which is €20.41 plus VAT per month, was at a substantial discount to the previous cost of these services.

The Commission for Telecommunications Regulation, ComReg, recently approved a price increase application from Eircom of 7.5% in line rental, effective from 4 February 2004. A lesser percentage increase is also being applied to telephone instrument rental where applicable. It is my understanding that these increases will be offset by reductions in call costs in order to limit the average private customer bill increase to the consumer price index rate.

Following detailed discussions between officials of my Department and Eircom, it was agreed that the increase in the Eircom social benefits scheme would be limited to the rate of the CPI, which is 1.9%. Some technical restructuring of the social benefits scheme was also agreed which removed some additional call unit value. To offset this, Eircom offered to give low-use customers up to €10 worth of free calls per two-month bill, by offering them its separate vulnerable users scheme, in addition to the social benefit scheme.

The revised package results in an increase to the social welfare customer of €0.94, including VAT, per two-month bill. The other revisions to call costs by Eircom should be broadly beneficial to social welfare customers.

There has not been a significant demand to date from social welfare customers to have the allowance transferred to mobile phones. This may be due to the fact that most customers who have a mobile phone also have a land line. I am committed, however, to the development of the telephone allowance scheme to respond to the expanding telecommunications market and to facilitate greater client choice of telephone services.

My Department has had discussions with the communications regulator, ComReg, to develop the necessary technical and administrative arrangements for mobile phone services. These arrangements are necessary to ensure that the allowance will be applied accurately to individual customer accounts through any licensed service provider interested in participating in the scheme. My Department and ComReg have identified suitable mechanisms to enable this for mobile phone services.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

On this basis, I announced in December last that my Department was willing to discuss arrangements with any interested mobile phone service provider. Since then, my Department has had initial discussions with one licensed company and has preliminary contact from two others. In the new environment telephone allowance customers would be entitled to select the participating telephone service provider of their choice to suit their particular circumstances. Allowance customers would be entitled to switch between provider companies within a reasonable period if they so wished. It would be up to the provider companies concerned to design suitable marketing packages to attract and retain these clients, as with any other group.

If the initial interest now being expressed by mobile telephone provider companies develops into active participation, then I would expect that the necessary technical arrangements could be finalised between my Department, the individual companies concerned and ComReg. On that basis, I would expect that the option of applying the telephone allowance to mobile telephone bills could be made available to social welfare customers before the end of this year.

What was the reaction of the mobile telephone network's licence providers to the Minister's attempts to ensure that they would accommodate this request? The problem with many of the schemes in many Departments, including the Minister's, is that they are not brought to public attention as widely as possible. I realise that some Ministers may be criticised for having their photographs taken, but it is important to propagate the news that the rental allowance will be available for mobile telephones. It is essential for that to be done because mobile telephones are of great value to elderly people who will be using them for their own safety. In addition, if they fall ill they can easily summon help without having to leave home.

Eircom seems to be making some concessions but, in view of the many elderly people who lost a lot of money after the company's flotation, I suggest that those poor unfortunate people should receive ten years' free rental for every telephone they have.

Double or nothing.

It would be some way of paying compensation and it would not be charity.

Exactly. It would be compensation.

It is what people deserve. I notice many people are now making money out of it, but the poor are not.

The Minister promoted this matter over the Christmas period and I have also been following it on Committee Stage of the Social Welfare Bill. It is a natural scheme to introduce because everybody has mobile telephones now. I presume that people will not be able to have both, so that the allowance will be either for a mobile or a fixed-line telephone?

Yes, that is right.

I received a query about the free schemes arising from an article in a newspaper last week. Is the Department currently reviewing the free schemes? People are worried that, given all the cutbacks, some of the free schemes will be lost. I received a telephone call from somebody in Dublin this morning asking me if the Department was getting rid of the free schemes. I replied: "No, not that I know of but I suppose we will be the last to be told."

Absolutely. It never changes.

It will probably be announced in the newspapers first and we will hear about it afterwards. Will the Minister confirm that her Department is reviewing the free schemes? Are they facing any danger?

I want to reassure people about that, because when there is a media frenzy, people start going off at a tangent and they pick up things incorrectly. There will be no change to the free schemes.

That is good.

Other than improvements.

Exactly. I agree with the Deputy that was the reason we wanted to include mobile telephones in the allowance scheme. Many people buy them for their parents who find them very handy. They provide security apart from being useful for normal calls. My Department has been in contact with one mobile provider and is meeting two other providers this week to negotiate with them. One of the issues arising from the opening up of the telecommunications market is that we must provide choice. We have always had an agreement with Eircom but ComReg has instructed my Department to invest in providing choice. Arising from that provision of choice for land line telephones, we will now be in a position to provide choice for mobile telephones also. When agreement has been reached on this matter, Members of the House will be informed of the decision.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Ceisteanna (26, 27)

Ruairí Quinn

Ceist:

98 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when it is intended to commence publishing annual reports of progress towards the achievement of anti-poverty indicators; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7822/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ruairí Quinn

Ceist:

100 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date with regard to achieving the target set in An Agreed Programme for Government of reducing consistent poverty to below 2%; the percentage in consistent poverty at the latest date for which figures are available; if the results of the national survey carried out in 2003 are available; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7821/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 98 and 100 together.

The most recent data on the levels of consistent poverty is contained in a report published recently by the Economic and Social Research Institute, entitled Monitoring Poverty Trends in Ireland: Results from the 2001 Living in Ireland Survey. The report shows that the steady downward trend in consistent poverty has been sustained with a rate of 5.2% being recorded in 2001 compared to 15% in 1994. Accordingly, we are continuing to make steady progress towards the achievement of the target set out in the revised national anti-poverty strategy, NAPS, of reducing the level of consistent poverty to below 2% by 2007 and, ideally, eliminating it altogether.

The 2001 Living in Ireland survey was the final such survey undertaken as part of the European Community household panel or ECHP. This statistical instrument is now being replaced with a new instrument, which is known as EU-SILC — the European survey of income and living conditions. The Central Statistics Office is responsible for EU-SILC, as it has a statutory basis in EU statistical law. The earlier ECHP had no formal legal basis. I understand that the Central Statistics Office expects to be in a position to publish the initial results from the 2003 survey by the end of this year, and that the latest information on consistent poverty will be included in these initial results.

The office for social inclusion within my Department has overall responsibility for monitoring progress towards the implementation of the targets set out in NAPS and in the national action plans against poverty and social exclusion. The current NAPS/inclusion covers the period from 2003 to 2005 and was submitted to the EU Commission on 31 July 2003. The plan provides for the following: an assessment of the major trends and challenges in the area of social inclusion; reviews the progress achieved in the previous two-year period; sets out the strategic approach to meeting the challenges; identifies the key targets and the measures in place to achieve those targets; sets out the institutional framework in place to address the issues of poverty and social exclusion; and identifies a number of examples of best practice.

The plan, together with similar plans submitted by the other member states, also provides the basis for a joint inclusion report which will be discussed at the forthcoming spring European Council. The joint inclusion report includes a synthesis report on the challenges facing all member states in tackling poverty and social exclusion, as well as a critique of the individual plans of each member state.

In order to provide continuity in the process, it is planned to publish the first annual report of the office for social inclusion in autumn 2004, covering the year to end July 2004. It is envisaged that this report will provide an analysis of progress towards the achievement of the targets set out in the NAPS and NAPS/inclusion. It will also provide an update on the range of other activities being undertaken by the office.

Is it not the case that amid all the wealth there is deep seated poverty, that a huge cohort of young and elderly people have been left behind by the Celtic tiger and have been forgotten? Is it not a fact that approximately 300,000 children live in relative poverty? This is not just a figure thought out by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul when they mentioned this in November. This is the figure of the Combat Poverty Agency who had to take issue with the Taoiseach regarding the figure because he did not seem to understand it.

Is the agency incorrect that 300,000 children live in relative poverty? Relative poverty is defined as a household where the income is less than 60% of the average industrial wage. Approximately, 70,000 children live in consistent poverty, which means they do not get basics such as a hot meal daily or necessary clothes. Is that not the position? Why do organisations say 25% of such children live in households with an income of less than €138 per week? Is that sustainable? Is that poverty?

Why does the National Economic and Social Council say child poverty is not being addressed? The Minister will argue but the NESC says poverty in the early years leads to low levels of educational attainment, no skills, vulnerable employment, low levels of participation in the work force and high dependence on the State. Is it not only morally right but economically right to intervene and invest adequate resources in this area? The benefit of such investment would permeate all stratas of society in the longer term. Has there been discussions with the social partners on Sustaining Progress? What has happened in regard to the other national agreements? Are they real, radical or redundant in terms of achieving the elimination of poverty, which must be the aim of everybody in this House?

There is no denying there is poverty. Nobody would be silly enough to fail to recognise that. Poverty trends have changed significantly and consistent poverty has reduced significantly, for example. Much of this can be attributed to the increase in social welfare rates and the provision of other health and education supports. I agree child poverty is a most disturbing issue. That is why a special initiative was agreed under Sustaining Progress. I hope to meet the social partners shortly, if I ever get away from debates in the Dáil and Seanad, to discuss the implementation of the initiative because I am interested in addressing that issue. That is why child benefit has been examined. The interaction of CDAs with FIS and how child poverty can be addressed properly is a hot potato.

A number of Government initiatives deserve great credit. The national anti-poverty strategy provides a holistic approach to tackling poverty, as it encompasses housing, education, health and income supports. None of those areas is exclusive of the other because a holistic, inclusive approach must be taken to address poverty.

Astronomical resources have been provided to my Department. It has been allocated €11.3 billion, which is the highest allocation to a Department. We will strive to address the issue of consistent poverty on an ongoing basis. I wish to eliminate such poverty and to at least, attain the targets outlined in NAPS. The Department has been commended by the European Commission on a number of its initiatives, such as the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, which is unique.

It is difficult to compare like with like. Ireland provides for pensioners, for example, whereas the British Government does not provide the same income support for pensioners. The Department provides income support and free schemes and these must be taken into consideration when comparing statistics within the EU.

Groups are often criticised for not being independent in their advisory roles.

That is good.

The Combat Poverty Agency, the ESRI and the NESC do their job and that is important. I meet the CPA on a regular basis to discuss these issues.

The Minister will be aware that more than 300,000 children live in households with a weekly income of less than €175. Is she concerned by the recent report by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that, over the past year, it has been inundated with requests from people in difficulty, many of whom are on low incomes? The Minister says she have provided welfare increases with one hand but the trouble is the Government takes them back with two hands. The cost of electricity has increased three times in the past year. The minute local authority tenants received their welfare increases on 1 January, the local authorities sent them income queries and part of the increase was taken away immediately. The councils have also introduced stealth taxes such as increases in refuse removal charges.

The Minister increased child benefit by €2 per week. It would not buy a loaf of bread in Mullingar or Navan. There is no point pretending——

We give good value.

Is the Minister worried about the increase in the number of people contacting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the increase in poverty? That is sad given that the racing industry gets away without paying a penny in tax. A total of €300 million goes out of the economy on a yearly basis in stud fees and so on while poor people on social welfare are targeted by the Government.

Over the past fortnight, one would think there was not a shortage of money in the State because the local elections are coming up in June. The Minister threw out €1 million yesterday. We should wait until the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs gets his hand on the slush fund relating to dormant accounts. All that money should be programmed and invested in people on low incomes who are suffering, particularly those with children who are experiencing difficulties because their social welfare payments do not sustain them.

The Minister and I regularly disagree about the value of consistent poverty as an indicator and the greater value of relative poverty. However, the ESRI has developed a third indicator, persistent poverty, which measures those who have lived in relative poverty for more than three years. The Minister must accept anyone who lives in such a household is living in poverty. The most recent ESRI report highlighted that the number of people experiencing persistent poverty had increased. The Government parties have been in power for seven years and the increasing disparity between wealth and disadvantage has been brought about largely by policies they have introduced. The Minister has a thankless job running, uphill backwards trying to counteract the effect of policies introduced by the Minister of Finance, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and other right-wing ideologues in the Cabinet.

I am delighted I am getting such great support from the Opposition benches.

We are doing our best.

I am running up hills at this stage.

I would like to run some of the right wingers out.

If only we had the opportunity to run up and down any hill, it would be good exercise for us.

Deputy Boyle and I are not going to agree on the issue between consistent and relative poverty. I agree that if relative poverty persists, one has to deal with it. Why is there relative poverty? During the past five year many people have taken up employment, which is very important when we had vulnerable people on unemployment assistance or benefit trying to seek work. I am not the only one to hold the view that being employed and having access to work and supporting people in work and upskilling is very important to the economic well-being of people. It not only gives people an income but it develops self-esteem. The issue of employment is very important in counteracting the issue of poverty. From an academic and policy of view, if relative poverty continues over a long period, it becomes an issue of persistent poverty. What we are dealing with is a consistent poverty level, that is where people are actually in poverty. In spite of all the indicators, my view is that one has to deal with those people first.

The Minister should see what the European indicators say.

Yes, the European indicators are for those at risk of poverty, but we are not comparing like with like. We are not comparing our taxation systems or the additionality within our income supports. They are not being taken into consideration. Many other issues are totally different. The Deputy is right. I have been very much involved in European issues and the "at risk" which is equivalent to "relative" poverty indicator would show that we are very low. That does not take into consideration the policy framework at this time in addressing the issue of consistent poverty, that is people who are in poverty. The "at risk" group may or may not find themselves in poverty. There are other issues in addressing the issue of "at risk" in trying to ensure that people do not fall into poverty and ensuring that people go beyond the level of "at risk" and move into an income median that supports families.

Deputy Boyle is right. Over the seven budgets Deputy McCreevy introduced, he allocated 6.3 times more resources to the top 30% in society than to the bottom 30 %. One does not have to be Einstein or a mathematical genius to realise that this widens the gap between the rich and the poor, between those who have plenty and those who are at the bottom and do not have enough. In that bottom group, we have 300,000 children who are stuck in a level of consistent poverty. The Minister may argue that consistent poverty has fallen. That is a point. However, as the Human Rights Commission and NESC show, child poverty is not being addressed. Resources are needed to deal with child poverty. We are not investing adequate resources and we will reap the whirlwind of our failure to do so in the not too distant future.

It is easy to have a go at the Minister for Finance and that is done in every parliament. If it changes, something will be wrong. Major investment has been made in supporting rates and changes in the social welfare benefit scheme

Including widows.

Members agree that the changes have been tremendous in providing additionality. We have established a number of schemes that have been expanded many times over. It is incumbent on us that we expand the schemes. The Government decided that a child poverty initiative was very important and that is why we are working with the social partners, the community groups and the NGOs to ensure that we address the issue of child poverty. The issue of indictors is irrelevant to the people we represent. They do not care what indicators are about.

They care if they are poor.

They care if the Minister has taken money out of their pockets.

Exactly. It is on that basis that we are supporting people who are in consistent poverty. We are trying to address their social needs and not only their income-related needs. We will continue that investment over the next number of years. The Minister for Finance, who is present, agrees with me.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.