Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Social Welfare Benefits.
Question 73: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the guidelines in place to advise community welfare officers on the way to act in the best interests of the tenant once the CWO receives a report from a local authority that the rented premises does not meet minimum housing standards. [24801/08]
The supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which includes rent supplement, is administered on behalf of the Department by the community welfare service of the Health Service Executive. The purpose of rent supplement is to provide short-term income support to eligible tenants living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. There are currently over 63,000 tenants benefiting from assistance under the rent supplement scheme.
Responsibility for setting and enforcing housing standards rests with the local authorities. The community welfare service of the HSE is not qualified to undertake this work. However, accommodation occupied by rent supplement tenants should at least meet minimum housing standards. Under legislative provisions introduced by the Department in 2006 and 2007, the HSE can decide that a rent supplement may not be payable where it has been notified by a housing authority regarding non-compliance with housing standards.
Where a notification of non-compliance with standards is received from a housing authority in respect of an existing tenant, guidelines recommend that a community welfare officer should discuss the situation with the tenant and take whatever action is necessary in the best interests of the tenant. The objective is to ensure that substandard accommodation does not come within rent supplementation. The HSE must be satisfied that accommodation funded under the rent supplement scheme is reasonably suited to the residential and other needs of the claimant. Where the HSE becomes aware of accommodation or blocks of accommodation which appears to it to be sub-standard, it notifies the local authority and it may advise prospective tenants at that premises that rent supplement will not be paid in respect of those tenancies.
A review of the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 1993 is being undertaken by the Minister for State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The guidelines will be reviewed in consultation with the community welfare service when the new regulations are published, with a view to supporting the implementation of any provisions that impact on the rent supplement scheme.
The Department is committed to working with and supporting the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government in meeting its responsibilities in relation to housing standards.
Will the Minister accept that as the scheme operates, community welfare officers are put in an invidious position, given that sometimes they have to decide between making a person homeless or allowing that person to continue living in substandard accommodation? Often these are the two choices available to a community welfare officer. The inspection of accommodation is very important and needs to be continued and supplemented as very few inspections take place at present. There is a need to drive standards up. As the system operates, that is the choice open to community welfare officers and it is a difficult position in which to put them. Will the Minister consider whether a different approach can be taken where community welfare officers would be empowered to suspend the payment pending the landlord getting his affairs in order and raising the standard of the accommodation? Alternatively, the Minister may wish to allow community welfare officers to take a case conference type approach to dealing with cases such as this so that there can be co-ordination between the community welfare officer and the other agencies involved.
One of the key issues for community welfare officers is that they have discretion. Discretion is paramount in this case as they are able to decide on the most appropriate action. However, they are asked to do so in consultation with the tenant and to ensure that whatever action is taken is in the best interest of the tenant.
No. The community welfare officers have the discretion to determine what is in the best interest of the tenant. The regulations which are in existence since 1993 are being reviewed. Once that happens, my Department will review the guidelines for the community welfare officers which will guide them in regard to decisions they may want to take. Given that there are 63,000 recipients of the rent supplement scheme, very few notifications have come forward in regard to substandard accommodation.
I certainly would not think the standard is improving. Threshold has said there are 4,500 bedsits in the State which are poor quality, damp and vermin-infested fire traps. That is not an improvement. Will the Minister empower community welfare officers, when a tenant gets local authority housing or moves on to RAS or whatever, to issue a notice to the landlord, through the other agencies, that he or she cannot rent that property to anyone else? I understand the predicament of community welfare officers that they do not want to make somebody homeless, but if they could prevent somebody else moving into the accommodation it would ensure the landlord could not continue to profit from substandard accommodation in which nobody should be asked to live.
I understand the HSE can notify the local authority and the tenant, or prospective tenants, that rent supplement will not be paid for any accommodation that is substandard.
The reason there are few notifications is that there are very few inspections. The level of inspections needs to be increased if standards in private rented accommodation are to be improved. Will the Minister accept that in many situations where a community welfare officer points out that the standard of the accommodation is inadequate, the alternative is that the person becomes homeless? It may be okay in certain parts of Dublin where a good deal of accommodation is available but in other areas that is not necessarily the case. Will the Minister accept that what is required is a far greater level of co-ordination between her Department, RAS, local authorities and the local authority housing officers? With proper expansion of RAS many of these difficulties could be overcome.
The two Departments meet regularly on the issue. Given that €392 million is being spent on a scheme I accept it needs to be fully co-ordinated between the different Departments.
Question 74: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the way the adequacy of social welfare payments has been determined; and if she will provide details of any analysis undertaken by or on behalf of her Department which relates the setting of rates to meeting the basic needs of low income households. [24768/08]
The appropriateness of benchmarking social welfare rates has been actively considered from time to time.
In 2001, the social welfare benchmarking and indexation group was established to examine the issues involved in developing a benchmark for adequacy of adult and child social welfare payments. The group published its final report in September 2001 but did not achieve a consensus position on the desirability of establishing a formal benchmark. The illustrative benchmark options examined in the report included 30% of gross average industrial earnings and 50% of average weekly household income. The group could not agree about which of these would be the better option as there were advantages and disadvantages associated with each.
The report provides a valuable resource for the assessment of the implications of adopting particular approaches to the up rating of social welfare payments and was considered by Government as part of the review of the national anti-poverty strategy in 2002. Recognising that the exact rate was a matter for Government, the strategy set a target of €150 per week, in 2002 terms, for the lowest social welfare payments to be met by 2007. This target was achieved in 2007. The National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016 includes a commitment to maintain the relative value of the lowest social welfare rate at least at €185.80, in 2007 terms, over the course of the plan, subject to available resources. This commitment is reiterated in the agreed programme for Government.
The value of the lowest rate of welfare payment was fully maintained in budget 2008 and stands at €197.80 per week following an increase of €12 per week or over 6%. In the last six budgets, the value of the lowest rate of payment has increased by a cumulative €79 per week or 67%. By any standards, the levels of increases in welfare payments generally over the period since 2002 have been exceptional and are a demonstration of our continuing commitment to all those who are less well off.
Nobody denies that welfare rates have increased fairly significantly in recent years. Will the Minister engage on this one issue? Does she accept that one cannot operate a one-size-fits-all approach in regard to social welfare payments? This is the fundamental point being made in the Vincentian Partnership research. For example, in regard to child rearing costs one cannot say it costs the same amount to rear a three year old as a 17 year old. What the Vincentian Partnership research has asked is that the Minister should consider introducing a new system of measuring the adequacy of social welfare payments which actually recognises the real costs involved for different types of families. Obviously there are significant costs when rearing teenagers in terms of clothing and food — similar to an adult in those respects — but also school costs. From her previous job, the Minister should be aware of the huge financial pressures on low income families with teenagers.
The other area is in respect of lone pensioners where the living alone allowance has not been increased for 12 years and is set at €7.70. One cannot possibly say that the overheads and expenses associated with day to day living are the same for one person as for two people. The Minister is not taking into consideration these particular costs in regard to those categories of families. Will the Minister consider taking the approach suggested in the Vincentian Partnership documents?
For many years people indicated that the greatest pressures of cost were on parents with child care costs for very young children. The Government introduced the early child care allowance to target that particular group. We also recognise that there are increased costs for people going back to school, which is why parents with children going to second level get more in the back-to-school allowance than parents with primary school children. There are different ways of supporting the various groups referred to by the Deputy.
The consistent poverty rate for couples has reduced to 2.2%, which is very encouraging. The decision was taken some years ago to increase the overall rates for everybody rather than just to examine the living alone allowance.
I would not use the early child care supplement as an example of a targeted approach considering millions of euro are going outside the country when it was supposed to be targeted at the cost of child care in this country.
It is beside the point how one calculates the living alone allowance or which group's figures are used. Does the Minister agree that the living costs for a pensioner living alone are approximately 73% of a couple's costs? A pensioner whose husband recently died informed me that her household costs are the same except for the fact that she buys a bit less food and only clothes for one person. She still has to pay car insurance, car tax, car repayments and her household running costs are all the exact same but now she has only one income. The lack of an increase in the living alone allowance is pushing that elderly lady into poverty. Similar examples can be found elsewhere in the country. Regardless of which figures one chooses, the reality on the ground is the same.
The Minister spoke about increasing the overall social welfare rates. The social welfare system has to target those who need help most. I urge her to give some consideration to the living alone allowance.
Question 75: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on paying the fuel allowance during the summer months to take into consideration both the nature of the summer here and the spiralling cost of fuel. [24615/08]
Question 128: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the action she will take on the fuel allowance, which in view of the substantial increase in fuel prices, is not adequate to help people avoid fuel poverty. [24613/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 75 and 128 together.
The national fuel allowance scheme assists householders on long-term social welfare or health service executive, HSE, payments to meet the cost of their heating needs during the winter season. Fuel allowance is paid for 30 weeks from end-September to end-April. The allowance represents a contribution towards a person's normal heating expenses. It is not intended to meet those costs in full. A total of 290,000 people, 170,000 with basic fuel allowance and 120,000 with smokeless fuel supplement, will benefit under the scheme at a cost of more than €170 million in 2008.
Fuel allowance is incorporated into a person's weekly social welfare payment. That reflects the objective that total weekly income, including the fuel allowance, is sufficient to meet all of a person's income needs, including heating costs. The main role of the social welfare system is to provide income supports. Government policy in recent years has focused on significantly increasing primary social welfare rates to ensure that people on social welfare can meet their basic living costs, including heating, throughout the year and to achieve an improvement in quality of life. That is a more costly approach than increasing fuel allowance, as the increase is paid for the full year and not just for the 30 weeks of the winter heating season. Social welfare rates have increased at a significantly greater rate than price inflation in recent years. Since December 2001, overall inflation has increased by over 27% while energy product prices have increased by 65%. However, increases in social welfare payments, including fuel allowance, have been between 71% and 88% in the same period.
In addition to primary payments and fuel allowance, 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. A special heating needs facility is also available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstances with specific heating needs due to infirmity or a particular medical condition.
Fuel poverty is the inability to afford adequate warmth in a home, or the inability to achieve adequate warmth because of the energy inefficiency of the home. The Department is working with all other Departments both in doing research and on various projects to see how the less well-off in society can be supported.
That is a pleasant change. There has been much talk in the media recently about the significant increase in fuel costs and its impact on business, rightly so. However, there has not been the same focus on the impact of rising fuel costs, especially on older people and families with lower incomes. Does the Minister accept that the impact of the increased fuel costs on those categories of people has been significant? If one looks at the weather today and for the past week, it is evident that the Irish summer has changed. Does the Minister accept that the poor summer weather strengthens the case for the extension of the scheme? There was no increase in the scheme in last year's budget. Does the Minister accept there is a need to increase the fuel allowance due to the significant impact on the health of older people? If additional fuel allowance is not provided then the Minister for Health and Children will have to expend more money to treat such people in hospital. Does the Minister accept in the first instance that there is a difficulty with people meeting their fuel bills? Perhaps I will ask a supplementary question following the Minister's reply.
It is obvious that the fuel prices are impacting on everybody; individuals at home, industry, community facilities and schools, and on the Irish economy, as it is on the world economy. The cost of fuel is to the forefront of the Government's discussions. I have had initial discussions with the Minister for Finance, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on the impact of the increase in fuel costs, especially on social welfare recipients. The best way to ensure adequate heat for people is not just through a funding mechanism, we want to ensure also that houses are efficient at conserving energy. Much work is going on between the various Departments and perhaps that should be better promoted so that people are aware of what is available to them.
The Government's approach in recent years has been to increase social welfare payments generally to ensure that people have enough money to meet their basic needs every week, including heating. Increases have featured in all of today's questions. I accept that the draw on that money for heating this year is probably greater than in any other year. We increased the fuel allowance payment by one week this year and that issue can continue to be examined, as can the amount. It is a costly scheme. It would cost approximately €9 million to increase it by €1. To increase it by a week would cost €5.6 million and to give the fuel allowance all year round would cost €123 million extra. As Deputy Morgan indicated, given the weather we currently have, people might need heat even during mid-summer.
A couple of points arise from the Minister's reply. Is her Department engaging with other Departments on house building, especially local authority housing, to ensure that the best insulation systems are in place to capture the maximum heat in the home? Does the Department have a role in that regard?
Regarding the €123 million extra it would cost to provide the fuel allowance all year round, does the Minister accept that if she does not do so that a significant amount of that sum will be expended by the Department of Health and Children to treat colds, pneumonia and other ailments that will result from a lack of heat, especially among older people? I agree with the Minister that the purpose of the allowance is to ensure people can meet their heating costs. However, they are clearly not meeting their costs. Given the significant increase in fuel prices, does the Minister accept that something needs to happen urgently?
The Department is co-operating with a number of organisations, including Sustainable Energy Ireland, the Combat Poverty Agency and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, on making homes warmer. We are funding one of the projects in that regard. It is an action research project which obviously will help to feed into future policy. I have already mentioned the fuel allowance which is available to people under general social welfare payments. The free units people get are not affected by the price of fuel because they get those units irrespective of the price. Some 350,000 pensioners get the household benefit and need not worry about the cost of that scheme.
The question always arises as to whether it is better to put the money into one scheme, like giving an extra week's fuel allowance payments, or to apply it to general rates across the board. All these issues need to be considered in the context of the budget, bearing in mind that there are particular pressures because of the price of fuel, which we recognise.
The 11% increase in the price of fuel in the past year impacts on everybody. However, it impacts disproportionately on people on low fixed incomes, who are the responsibility of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It is not good enough for the Minister to say she is talking to various Departments and agencies. Something much more concrete needs to happen. As we speak, representatives of the Institute of Public Health in Ireland are appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs making the case for an interdepartmental fuel poverty group as exists in Northern Ireland.
There is a need to formalise the relationship between the Departments of Social and Family Affairs, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, as well as the other agencies involved. Would the Minister consider taking the initiative to establish such a group? At the moment there is no strategy to deal with fuel poverty and we know that problem is likely to increase incrementally over the coming years. Given that the Department of Social and Family Affairs has responsibility for people on low incomes in ensuring that their income is adequate to meet their expenses — quite patently, it is not adequate with the kinds of fuel increases we have seen recently — will the Minister consider taking that initiative in setting up such an interdepartmental group?
The correct approach is to co-ordinate the various ongoing activities between our different Departments — the payments from my Department, energy efficiency in homes through the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and housing standards through the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government — along with Sustainable Energy Ireland and other bodies.
The strategy is clearly failing because people are suffering as a result of fuel poverty. There are 20 Ministers of State and half of us do not know what they do or even if they know themselves. Could one of them not take the lead in this regard? The Minister does not seem to accept that everyone is only taking responsibility for the small bit that relates to his or her Department. In answer to my earlier priority question, the Minister spoke about the inefficiency of heating and the need to deal with the amount of heat escaping from houses as a result of bad insulation etc., which is true. However, because it is not in her Department, the Minister might not be aware that in the past five years only 9,000 houses were able to benefit from improvements in that regard, whereas tens of thousands of houses have such problems.
Again, because it is not in her Department, the Minister might not be aware that the vast proportion of grants paid by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are to people building new houses or those who can afford to install green energy systems such as solar panels. The people most affected by fuel poverty, the single-income households and the elderly, have not been able to avail of these grants. Will the Minister co-ordinate with the other Departments — I do not mind whether it has a secretariat — to establish a strategy before the budget to ensure the issue is addressed rather than just discussed?