Wednesday, 5 October 2005
Social Welfare Benefits.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. Earlier in the summer I began to receive telephone calls from a number of old age pensioners in local authority senior citizens complexes in my constituency. To say they were in a state of panic would be an understatement. One by one they had received notice that their fuel allowance was to be removed. The paltry sum of €12.90 per week for 29 weeks of the year which they had come to enjoy and which gave them a little comfort over the winter months was to be removed from them. This was totally unexpected and out of the blue. It would appear they are being picked off one by one — people who collectively have no voice because they are not able to organise themselves together to have a voice on this matter.
Senior citizens complexes in my constituency include Fr. Kitt Court, Rockmead and Lissadell. I have had queries from each of the complexes on the removal of this fuel allowance. It is about the meanest and sneakiest cut in social welfare that I have encountered. It is worse than those relating to the savage 16 last year. The amount of money involved is minuscule against the background of the debate we had last night and tonight. I appeal to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to reverse this decision. I have written to him specifically regarding a number of cases but I have no doubt many more people over the coming weeks will also find that they are in the net and that their little fuel allowance is to be removed from them. I appeal to the Minister of State to reverse this miserable decision and to return to them the fuel allowance for that part of the year when they so badly need that extra money.
This is one of the meanest and cruellest types of bookkeeping and accountancy. It is coming from the same administration that can manage to lose millions of euro elsewhere in the public budget but still has the energy and capacity to scrutinise the €6 weekly contribution on top of rent in special senior citizens accommodation as their contribution towards the heating bill. Somebody somewhere spotted they were making this contribution but that it was not the full cost and has reduced the heating allowance accordingly. It is mind-boggling in its meanness. It is astounding in its attention to detail at a time when the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources claimed on radio this morning that the loss of €170 million was chickenfeed in the context of an annual €40 billion budget.
The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children will realise the health contribution which secure and well-insulated heated accommodation provides for elderly people. Taking away this facility from pensioners to augment their heating could mean they get sick and present themselves to hospitals, meaning no overall saving to the health budget. This is meanness personified which represents all the characteristics of this Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Administration.
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.