I propose to take Questions Nos. 41 and 62 together.
The Department of Social Protection already assists low income households with heating costs through their basic payments, through the fuel allowance scheme and through the household benefits package of electricity and gas allowances. These schemes have been improved significantly in recent years. Social welfare rates have increased at a significantly greater rate than price inflation in recent years. Social Welfare rates have increased by between 77% and 88% since 2001 while overall inflation has increased by over 20.2% in the same period.
The fuel allowance is paid for 32 weeks each year from end September to early May following an extension of the duration of the payment period by 2 weeks in Budget 2009. In the 2010/2011 heating season it is estimated that over 350,000 recipients will benefit from the allowance at a cost of over €239 million.
There are also 380,000 households, mainly older persons and persons with disabilities, in receipt of the household benefits package which provides up to 2,400 electricity units per annum (or the gas equivalent) over the year. It is estimated that 140,000 of these households are receiving both the fuel allowance and the electricity/gas allowance under the household benefits package to assist with heating and other energy requirements. The electricity and gas allowances under the household benefit package cost €184 million in 2009, with €225.8 million provided in 2010. In addition, I have recently announced that the electricity allowance has been increased with effect from 1 October 2010 to cover the cost of the Public Service Obligation levy on domestic electricity, which will increase the annual cost of the scheme by €12.6 million.
The Government is also committed to protecting vulnerable households from the impact of fuel poverty through investment in programmes to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock and energy efficiency awareness initiatives such as the Keep Well and Warm booklet and accompanying associated website. Some 150,000 copies of the booklet have been distributed to date in the last couple of years. The Warmer Homes Scheme administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), under the aegis of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, is the primary mechanism for alleviating the key underlying cause of energy poverty — that of thermal inefficiency of houses. Over 19,000 low-income houses were retrofitted in 2009 with a target of a further 22,500 in 2010.
In his Carbon Budget Statement, the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, outlined details of €130 million in funding for insulation, €76 million of which will be used to assist low income families.
The significant income support measures already in place and the Government's commitment to schemes such as the warmer homes scheme and the local authority insulation scheme are concrete actions currently being taken to address fuel poverty.
The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has overarching responsibility for the energy portfolio and has convened an Inter- Departmental/Agency Group on Affordable Energy to coordinate and drive Government policy in this area. They were tasked with devising an Energy Affordability Strategy. This strategy will set out existing and future approaches to addressing energy affordability.
Any increase in expenditure on the fuel allowance scheme must be considered in the context of current financial constraints.