Wednesday, 5 October 2005
Social Welfare Benefits.
Tim O'Malley (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Limerick East, Progressive Democrats)
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 towards meeting their additional heating needs during the winter season. Under the scheme a fuel allowance of €9 per week is paid to eligible households during a 29-week winter heating period from end-September to mid-April each year. An additional €3.90 per week is payable in designated urban smokeless fuel zones.
Approximately 274,000 households receive a fuel allowance, at an expected cost of €85.4 million this year. In addition to fuel allowance, over 300,000 pensioners and other households qualify for electricity or gas allowances through the household benefits package, payable towards their heating, light and cooking costs throughout the year, at an overall cost of €108.8 million in 2005.
There is also a facility available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs. To qualify for an allowance under the national fuel scheme, an applicant must be in receipt of a qualifying payment, live alone or only with a dependent spouse, partner or children or with other eligible recipients. As a long-standing policy within the scheme, fuel allowances are not payable in cases where a person is able to provide for their heating needs from their own resources through, for example, access to his or her own fuel supply or benefiting from subsidised heating services such as those provided by Dublin City Council at several of its housing complexes.
In Dublin City Council's communally heated dwellings, the cost to tenants for subsidised heating starts at €300 per year for a one roomed flat and increases pro rata depending on the number of rooms and the particular complex. The amount paid by tenants per week is on average €6 to €7. The subsidised heating is available from September to May inclusive, approximately ten weeks longer than the duration of the national fuel scheme which runs for 29 weeks from September to mid-April. To ease the burden on the tenant, payments to the corporation are spread over 52 weeks. In addition to heating each room in the flats, the local authority also provides hot water 24 hours a day, each day of the year, the charge for which is also included in the above costs. The central heating provided is not optional. Subsidised heating tends to be available mainly in the older flat-type complexes operated by the local authorities, rather than the new individual units being constructed which typically have their own individual heating systems.
As part of ongoing claim management by the Department, a project to identify customers in receipt of both subsidised heating and fuel allowance was carried out by certain departmental sections during 2005. A review of addresses at which heating is provided at low cost by Dublin City Council identified 237 customers at different local authority complexes who had been paid the fuel allowance in error. The allowance was terminated in all of these cases and as from 29-30 September 2005, the start of the new winter heating season. The non-payment of fuel allowance for these customers arises purely from the proper application of the existing long-standing conditions for the fuel allowance scheme.
Where customers have been in receipt of the fuel allowance in error on this basis, there is no question of any overpayments being assessed against them. Pensioners and other social welfare groups have received significant increases in their welfare payment rates in this and recent years. This has improved their income situation considerably in real terms relative to solid fuel cost increases and to price inflation generally. These higher rates of primary payments are payable for a full 52 weeks of the year. The issue of fuel allowance not being available to claimants with subsidised heating is under review in the Department.