Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Tax and Social Welfare Codes.
The Government has announced its intention to introduce a carbon tax, which will come into effect on heating products from May 2010 and on solid fuels at a date to be set by commencement order. Before the tax is applied to fuels for home heating, arrangements are being made to assist those most at risk of fuel poverty. In his carbon budget statement, the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, outlined details of €130 million in funding for insulation, €76 million of which will be used to assist low income families.
The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has overarching responsibility for the energy portfolio and has convened an interdepartmental and inter-agency group on affordable energy to co-ordinate and drive Government policy in this area. The interdepartmental and inter-agency group has been asked to draw up an energy affordability strategy. This strategy will set out existing and future approaches to addressing energy affordability and will have regard both to the impact of the carbon tax on low income households and the range of supports outlined above in making its recommendations. The group will make recommendations on the precise package of measures, including in the area of income support, that should be put in place to assist those at risk of fuel poverty.
In the meantime, the Department of Social and Family Affairs will continue to assist social welfare recipients with heating costs both through their basic payments, through the fuel allowance and through the household benefits package of electricity and gas allowances. These schemes have been improved significantly in recent years. Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
Proper household insulation is absolutely vital in tackling fuel poverty. Initiatives such as the warmer homes scheme, operated by Sustainable Energy Ireland, under the aegis of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, have a very valuable role to play in that regard, as does funding from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to improve the quality of existing local authority housing and the housing adaptation grants for older people and for people with disabilities. Considerable progress has been made in this area in recent years.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and I wish him well. It is an important Department and I hope he has a successful tenure there.
My question was about a vouched fuel scheme that was promised in the budget. To which fuels will that scheme apply and when will it be announced? In ten days time, the 300,000 families living in fuel poverty will be hit with a double financial whammy. They will lose the fuel allowance at the end of April and will be at least €20 per week worse off because of that, but the carbon levy then kicks in the next day. When will the Minister come up with a new scheme to compensate for the increased cost of the carbon levy and to which fuels will it apply? Many families will be dependent on that new scheme to get them by and to ensure they have adequate heating.
As I said, a group is working on this issue and it is intended that it will come forward with recommendations. I am more than aware of the time constraints we face, and I will try to see if we can implement something fast for those who face challenges. However, I have not been given the proposals yet.
The fuel issue becomes much more critical during the cold winter months than it does just before summer, but I am aware of the challenge. For those us who have gone from house to house, a major problem is that of poor insulation, particularly in houses belonging to older people. Some houses are in poor condition, whether they are local authority houses or privately owned houses. The ultimate answer to this question is to look at the energy rating of these houses and at various schemes such as the warmer homes scheme. This goes back to whether we can activate people to do this work. Some very good work has been done in certain parts of the country through schemes that provide insulation. This cuts down on the amount of heating used and means that not only would the carbon levy not have any effect, but it also means a dramatic cut in the cost of heating by making the houses warmer.
Whatever about the long term, what will the Minister do in ten days when poor families lose the fuel allowance and are faced with a huge increase in the cost of home heating oil? It is cold comfort for those people when the Minister says he is aware of the challenge and that there is a group working on the issue. That is not acceptable. A scheme was announced by the Government in December's budget. The Minister knew then that the carbon levy was coming in on 1 May and that the fuel allowance was being cut at the end of April. What will he do for those families in ten days' time?
The Minister must come up with a scheme. Does he realise that the cost of home heating oil increased by 38% last year and by 5% in the last month alone? The Minister has prided himself on being the voice of rural Ireland. Many low income families in rural Ireland are particularly dependent on home heating oil. Given the huge increases in the cost of such oil in the last year and the fact that many low income families will be hit with this double whammy in ten days, will the Minister do anything to relieve their situation? If he will not do anything, then he is dreadfully out of touch with what is happening to poor families.
As I said, the interdepartmental agency group has been asked to draw up an energy affordability strategy. The strategy will set out existing and future approaches to addressing energy affordability, and will have regard both to the impact of the carbon tax on low-income households and the range of supports outlined above in making its recommendations.
As part of its work the group will make recommendations as to the precise package of measures, including in the area of income support, that should be put in place to assist those at risk of fuel poverty, in advance of the implementation of the carbon tax on home heating products.
I do not. I said that the group will make recommendations as to the precise package of measures, including in the area of income support, that should be put in place to assist those at risk of fuel poverty, in advance of the implementation of the carbon tax on home heating products.
The group will make recommendations as to the precise package of measures, including in the area of income support, that should be put in place to assist those at risk of fuel poverty, in advance of the implementation of the carbon tax.
The simple answer is that the recommendations are to be made available before the implementation of the carbon tax. Since I do not have the recommendations, I cannot go beyond that today.
There are 300,000 families who are in receipt of the fuel allowance. That will run out because they will have access to the allowance for only one more week. The following day the carbon levy will become operative. There will be an 8% to 9% increase in the cost of home heating oil. I am asking the Minister to give an undertaking that the new scheme to offset the additional financial burden that will be imposed on poor families will be in place by 1 May. Can the Minister give that guarantee now, as promised earlier?
The Deputy is going to learn one thing about me, that is, when I am ready to make a decision I will make it. Nobody will force me into making a decision before I am ready. As I said, I have not got the recommendations and therefore I cannot answer the question at this time. Therefore, the Deputy cannot say whether or not I am going to, because I have not said so. The Deputy will have to be patient. I am more than concerned, and not only about this. The big issue, as the Deputy has rightly pointed out, is not the carbon tax, because the price of home heating oil has gone up way beyond what the carbon tax would have done. There is a huge issue there, if the Deputy is really concerned about fuel poverty. Even if there was never a carbon tax - which the Deputy seems to think is the totality of this challenge - the real problem is lack of insulation in people's houses. If we are really concerned about the disadvantaged and about the people who are suffering from fuel poverty, the first and biggest thing to tackle is-----
With respect, the real problem will be obvious on 1 May when people will not be able to afford to heat their homes. I am asking the Minister, who has responsibility for social protection, if he has any plans to introduce a new scheme, as promised, which would be available before the carbon levy comes in on 1 May.
It increased by about 6% or 7%, and it will increase by a further 9% next week. I do not know why the Minister is asking me, however, because he is the Minister and should know the answers to these questions. He should be ready for the introduction of the carbon tax on 1 May.
The Deputy is incorrect. Just because I do not know something today does not mean that I will not know about it next week. The Deputy is presuming that I will not know it next week. As of now, however, since I do not have the proposals, I cannot make a decision on them.
Those who have dealt with me in the past will know that I am very concerned about these issues. The Labour Party thinks it has a monopoly on bleeding hearts, but I can assure the Deputy that I am as concerned about it as she is.
I am expecting him to keep the promises he made to low-income families that are dependent on him and his Department to provide some kind of assistance for them in offsetting the additional cost involved in the carbon levy. It is outrageous that he comes in here ten days before the new scheme is supposed to be in place and tells us that he does not know whether there will be a scheme, and that he has not got the working group's report. That is unacceptable.