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Fuel Poverty

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 25 November 2021

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Ceisteanna (1)

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection her plans to support families who are struggling to meet energy costs during winter 2021 and who are locked out of the fuel allowance given many households are not eligible for the payment and are reporting challenges with the rising cost of living; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [58204/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Social)

I want to ask the Minister about supports for families given the rising cost of living, particularly the rising cost of energy specifically for those not in receipt of the fuel allowance.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government is committed to supporting households to control and meet energy costs through a combination of monetary supports, as well as investment to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock.

My Department provides a range of supports to assist people with their fuel costs. Fuel allowance is currently paid to over 369,000 at an estimated annual cost of €323 million in 2021. As part of the overall welfare budget package of €600 million in increases which I secured for 2022, I was pleased to be able to increase the fuel allowance payment by €5 per week effective from budget night. In addition, as part of the budget, I increased the weekly income threshold for fuel allowance by €20. This change to the means test was due to take effect from January 2022. However, cognisant of rising fuel costs, I asked my officials to prioritise the work required to IT systems to allow this to be implemented as soon as possible. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that this work will be completed at the end of this week, with the effective date for the implementation of the revised means test backdated to budget day. These two measures, which increase the value of the fuel allowance payment by €59 million, or 20%, on a full year basis, mean that the weekly payment has increased from €22.50 to €33 per since 2016. That is an increase of just under 50% over the period.

In addition to the fuel allowance, other important supports are also available. For example, the electricity and gas allowances are currently paid to over 460,000 recipients at an estimated annual cost in 2021 of €195 million. Other payments, such as increases for the qualified children and living alone allowances and the working family payment, are also shown to be effective in supporting those households that will be most challenged by increases in energy costs. Again, I was pleased to be able to bring forward increases in these payments as part of budget 2022, valued at €98 million in a full year.

I understand and acknowledge that the fuel allowance is there and that it helps many families but I am asking about families in low-income work in particular but also middle-income households given the crisis in regard to rising fuel costs. In the last year, there have been 35 price hikes by providers. On average, households will be paying between €500 and €600 more this winter. I acknowledge the changes that were made in the budget to the fuel allowance and to the eligibility. However, according to a recent reply to a parliamentary question, they will benefit only 7,800 households, which is not a lot in the grand scheme of things and the 369,000 recipients given the crisis we face when it comes to energy costs.

My question is in regard to those outside of the fuel allowance. I genuinely welcome that the Minister has made that move such that a particular cohort of people will not have to wait until January but I would welcome an update in respect of those outside of the fuel allowance.

For those outside of social welfare supports, the Government launched a comprehensive strategy in 2016 to combat energy poverty following extensive public consultation. This strategy was spearheaded by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who has responsibility in that area. The strategy sets out the Government's commitment to protecting vulnerable households from energy poverty through a combination of supports, investment in schemes to improve energy efficiency and energy efficiency awareness initiatives. A review of the implementation of the strategy to combat energy poverty will be completed this year. This will inform the next steps which the Government will take.

One of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty in the long term is to improve the energy efficiency of the dwelling through proper building and household insulation. The warmer homes scheme administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is designed to do that.

Once again, nothing the Minister stated will help the families who face huge increases in their energy bills this winter. The Minister mentioned energy efficiency. That is all well and good. The Minister also mentioned the SEAI and the warmer homes scheme, which is probably the most popular scheme, but to be eligible for that you have to be in receipt of the fuel allowance. That is fine, but that is not going to help families this winter. The Minister has not been able to point to any particular support that is there. She regularly mentions the exceptional needs payment. I would ask her to look at that because I was contacted last week by two constituents, from both ends of my constituency, who sought a payment for fuel from the local community welfare officer, CWO, under the exceptional needs payment and they were given €200. The local oil provider would not come out for any less than €300. There are discrepancies there. We do not know the figures in regard to the number of people seeking help from the CWO and the numbers being refused. I ask the Minister to look at all of that.

We are spending over €323 million on the fuel allowance and €195 million on the gas and electricity allowance. That is a considerable amount of money. For those who have problems, as I said, there is an exceptional needs payment available under the supplementary welfare allowance from the community welfare officer for heating costs. The fund is uncapped. As it is demand-led, it can run to €5 million, €10 million or €20 million. We pay where a need is identified. I cannot get into individual cases but that fund is there specifically for that purpose. If people run into difficulties, they can seek assistance from the community welfare officer.

On the number of people that has been assisted, we have changed the means test. We do not know whether 7,000, 10,000 or 20,000 people will benefit because we do not know how many are going to apply. If they qualify, my Department will make sure they get paid. I would encourage people to apply for the fuel allowance. They may be marginal and they may qualify for it.

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