Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Question 68: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her contribution to the Government strategy to address fuel poverty in light of the rising cost of fuel; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24896/08]
In the previous Question Time, I indicated that persons over the age of 75 years would not be required to use the social services card. However, I should have stated that they would not be obliged to use it in the first tranche this year. An information campaign will be launched to support them in this regard. Given the discussion on the economic downturn, I wish to reassure people that the Government is committed to ensuring support for everyone in a vulnerable position.
The first question relates to a relevant and important matter, namely, fuel poverty and the rising cost of fuel. Fuel poverty is an issue that involves the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Social and Family Affairs.
My Department's role is to assist social welfare recipients with heating costs, both through their basic payments and the household benefits package with fuel, electricity and gas allowances. These schemes have been improved significantly in recent years. For example, the fuel allowance is now payable for 30 weeks and benefits 290,000 people at an aggregate cost of €170 million this year. The payment rate has also increased to €18 per week or €21.90 for recipients living in designated smokeless areas. Electricity and gas allowances under the household benefits package are payable throughout the year to more than 355,000 pensioners, people with disabilities and carer households towards their heating, light and cooking costs at an estimated overall scheme cost of €159 million in 2008. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme can also be used to assist people in certain circumstances with specific heating needs due to infirmity or a particular medical condition.
The income maintenance needs of those on social welfare payments have also been met in recent years through significantly increased primary social welfare rates. Government policy is focused on increasing these rates to ensure that people can meet their basic living costs, including heating costs, throughout the year and also achieve an improvement in quality of life. Since December 2001, overall inflation has increased by 27% while energy product prices have increased by 65%. However, increases in social welfare payments have been between 71% and 88% in the same period.
A number of organisations, including Sustainable Energy Ireland, the Combat Poverty Agency and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, are engaged in action research projects on energy efficiency. My Department is co-operating with these projects, including providing funding for one project. Reports on these fuel research projects, which are expected by the third quarter of this year, will help to inform Government policy on fuel poverty.
Any changes to social welfare programmes to assist with heating costs will be considered in a budgetary context. However, the main focus of the Government will be on increasing social welfare payments in real terms to enable social welfare recipients to better meet heating and other needs.
While the Minister may have the results of the surveys by the third quarter, winter will have started by that time and people will be suffering. The Minister will be aware that the Institute of Public Health in Ireland believes fuel poverty levels are unacceptably high in the Republic. While the relevant statistics are old, she will also be aware that we have the highest incidence of winter mortality in Europe. While more people are bound to die during winter, the reasons include fuel poverty, according to the institute.
While the Minister mentioned that the Government cares about this issue, actions speak louder than words. A risk obtains in this situation. I assume the Minister is aware that the price of domestic heating oil increased by 47%, in excess of €1,200 or €1,300 per tank per year, between May 2007 and May 2008. How does she intend to address this matter? While I welcome Government focus on increasing social welfare rates, the fuel issue must be addressed specifically. Given the Minister's comments, I am concerned about whether she will really enter the rounds of negotiations to bat on this issue. Will she confirm to the House whether she intends to seek an increase? I am not asking for a token increase of an extra week to try to keep everyone happy or to prevent them from stating that they received nothing. I am asking for a real increase to reflect inflation in fuel prices.
Yesterday, Age Action Ireland put it to me that elderly people will need to make a choice between food and fuel this winter. This would be unacceptable in the Ireland of 2008. I want the Minister's commitment that she will ensure elderly people and lone parents need not make such a life or death decision.
I have discussed the important issue of fuel poverty with the Ministers for Finance, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Given that fuel price increases affect a considerable number, the Government is anxious to ensure that it does not further disadvantage the vulnerable. The Deputy is wrong in stating that the issue is not being addressed.
A primary contributor to fuel poverty is not the absence of money to pay for fuel, but the inefficiency of household heating systems. For this reason, the work being carried out by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on housing standards and energy issues is important. It should not just be a case of giving pensioners money to heat houses if that heat is going straight out the window. For this reason, it is important that Departments work together.
Deputy Enright referred to the Institute of Public Health in Ireland's figures on winter mortality rates, namely, excess deaths during winter over other months. Some 70% of those deaths are due to cardiovascular disease, 69% are due to respiratory illness and 40%——
Some 40% of those deaths relate to housing. Given that houses must be of a certain standard, it is important that the Government continue to support initiatives in this regard. Last year, we increased the fuel allowance by one week. Its amount has been increased over a number of years. An income disregard of €100 over the contributory pension was introduced for those who could avail of it.