Thursday, 27 October 2005

Ceisteanna (44, 45, 46)

Pat Rabbitte

Ceist:

26 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the hardship caused by his decision to withdraw the €9 per week fuel allowance that was previously paid to pensioners living in sheltered housing in inner city Dublin; the reason the decision was made; the total saving that will accrue to his Department as a result; if he will review the decision in view of the relatively small amounts involved and the potential hardship for those who will lose out; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30956/05]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The aim of the national fuel scheme is to assist householders who are in receipt of long-term social welfare or health service executive payments with the cost of their additional heating needs during the winter season. Fuel allowances are paid for 29 weeks from end-September to mid-April. Some 274,000 customers — 151,000 with basic fuel allowance and 123,000 with smokeless fuel supplement — benefit under the scheme at a cost of €85.4 million in 2005.

Under the scheme a fuel allowance of €9 per week is paid to eligible households during this 29-week winter heating period, with an additional €3.90 per week being paid in the designated urban smokeless fuel zones, bringing the total amount in those areas to €12.90 per week. In the course of a routine review of fuel allowance payments, it came to light that payments had been made in error to certain recipients who were in, or had moved to, local authority accommodation with subsidised or low-cost heating. The allowances in question, which should not have been put in payment in the first place, were withdrawn in these cases with effect from the start of this winter heating season. The allowance was not included in their new pension books or in EFT payments. My Department is not seeking repayment of the overpayment of the allowance which arose as a result of the error.

The main purpose of the review was to ensure that the allowance eligibility rules were being applied correctly and consistently. It is estimated that scheme expenditure savings resulting from this review are of the order of €90,000 in a full year.

As a long-standing policy within the scheme, fuel allowances are not payable in situations where a person has access to their own fuel supply or is benefiting from a subsidised or low-cost heating service, such as those provided by Dublin City Council at a number of its housing complexes.

The basis for this condition of the scheme is that the contribution that local authority tenants in communal heating situations make towards their heating costs is limited to a fixed and relatively small amount, typically around €6 per week, included as part of their overall rent charge. Unlike other tenants and social welfare clients generally, who must buy their own fuel at prevailing retail cost, these tenants are protected from increases in heating costs, the true cost of which is subsidised significantly by Dublin City Council and the other local authorities concerned.

It would be inequitable to retain the allowance in the case of the people concerned in this particular review when neighbouring tenants in very similar circumstances are not eligible and are managing their budgets accordingly. The fact is that these people either were awarded in error initially, or retained a previous legitimate allowance entitlement inadvertently when they moved to accommodation subsequently with subsidised heating.

More generally, I am keeping fuel allowances under review. However, any change to the scheme would have very significant cost implications and would have to be considered in the context of the budget, and in the light of the resources available to me for improvements in social welfare generally.

Seymour Crawford

Ceist:

27 Mr. Crawford asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his views on the fact that the lowest social welfare rate for a single person is €148.80 per week which falls €50.63 short of the estimated poverty line of €199.43 per week; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30840/05]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Following the social welfare increases awarded in last year's budget, the lowest rate of social welfare payment currently stands at €148.80 per week. Government policy as regards social welfare rates is guided by the commitment in the revised national anti-poverty strategy to increase the lowest social welfare rates to €150 per week — in 2002 terms — by 2007 and to set the appropriate equivalence level of child income support, child benefit and child dependant allowances combined, at 33 to 35% of the adult rates. We remain on target to achieve this objective.

The question refers to a poverty line of €199.43 per week for a single person. This figure has been estimated by the CORI justice commission as being the equivalent of the 60% median poverty line for a single person in 2005. It is based on data gathered by the EU SILC survey for 2003 updated to 2005 levels, using estimated increases in average industrial earnings. This is the so-called at risk of poverty indicator which is one of a range of measures used by the EU to measure poverty and social exclusion.

The relative income measure is essentially about inequality of incomes. It identifies those with an income below 60% of the median income for society as a whole, who as a result may be at risk of poverty. The poverty measure which underpins the revised NAPS is the consistent poverty measure which identifies those who are both at risk of poverty and who are also deprived of certain items, which Irish people consider are necessary to ensure a basic standard of living. I am committed to reforms that will improve the quality of life for all persons relying on social welfare payments.

Eamon Gilmore

Ceist:

28 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the communications he has received from the European Commission regarding the Governments implementation of the two year habitual residence requirement in relation to qualification for social welfare benefits; the response he has made to the Commission; if he will introduce changes to the requirement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30946/05]

Amharc ar fhreagra

The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes and child benefit with effect from 1 May 2004. It was introduced in the context of the Government's decision to open the Irish labour market to workers from the new EU member states without the limitations being imposed at that time by many of the other member states.

The effect of the condition is that a person whose habitual residence is elsewhere is not paid certain social welfare payments on arrival in Ireland, regardless of citizenship, nationality, immigration status or any other factor. The EU Commission wrote to the Government on 22 December 2004 raising a number of issues concerning its compliance with EU law in relation to workers and their families.

Officials from this Department and the Attorney General's office met Commission officials on 15 May last to discuss the issues raised and explained that the operation of the new condition was fully in line with the criteria set out in European Court of Justice case law. These are: the length and continuity of residence in a particular country; the length and purpose of absence from Ireland; the nature and pattern of the employment; the applicant's main centre of interest; the future intention of applicant concerned as it appears from all the circumstances.

In addition, full consideration is given in the decision making process to the requirements of EU legislation regarding free movement of workers. Rules which apply to migrant workers, that is, persons who have taken up employment in Ireland following their arrival here, are strictly observed.

A formal response by the EU Commission to the points made is still awaited. It is expected that the Commission's examination of the matter will be concluded to the satisfaction of both parties by the end of this year.

There are no plans to remove the habitual residence condition at this time. The operation of the habitual residence condition has been monitored constantly by my Department since its introduction. A comprehensive review of the operation of the condition is currently being carried out by my officials.

Account is being taken of the views received from various groups and organisations who have an interest in the area. If, following the review, I consider that it is necessary to make changes I will bring forward proposals to Cabinet. I expect the review to be completed by the end of the year.

Question No. 29 answered with QuestionNo. 11.