The household benefits package (HHB) comprises the electricity or gas allowance, and the free television licence. My Department will spend approximately €248 million this year on HHB for over 443,000 customers.
The package is generally available to people living in the State aged 66 years or over who are in receipt of a social welfare type payment or who satisfy a means test. The package is also available to some people under the age of 66 who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments.
In Budget 2014, the decision was made to abolish the telephone allowance element of the HHB package. The savings arising from the initial reduction and subsequent discontinuance of the telephone allowance meant that my Department was able to retain the other valuable elements of the household benefits package such as the electricity and gas allowance and the television licence.
In Budget 2018 I announced a new scheme called the Telephone Support Allowance (TSA). The primary objective of the TSA payment is to allow the most vulnerable people access to personal alarms or phones for security by providing a contribution towards the cost. People in receipt of qualifying Social Protection payments and also in receipt of the living alone increase and fuel allowance automatically qualify for the TSA.
Unlike the previous telephone allowance element of the Household benefits package, the TSA does not require that a person have a telephone, or subscribe to any utility company, in order to receive payment, and I am not convinced that the introduction of a payment with such a criterion is the most effective way of using additional resources to support older people. Instead, the approach taken by the Government has been to increase general payments to all pensioners, and enhance additional targeted supports for those pensioners most at risk of poverty.
The criteria for the TSA are framed in order to direct the limited resources available to my Department in as targeted a manner as possible. Fuel Allowance is a means tested payment and these criteria will ensure that the TSA payment goes to those most at risk of social isolation.
Any decision to extend the TSA scheme to all pensioners regardless of their means or personal circumstances or to reinstate the telephone allowance element of the household benefits package would have significant budget implications and would have to be considered in the context of overall budgetary negotiations.
I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.