Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Question 50: To ask the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources if the Department of Social Protection consulted him prior to making a decision to cut free electricity allowance from 2,400 units to 1,800 units per annum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37227/11]
The administration of the free electricity allowance is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection. The decision taken by the Minister, as referred to in the Deputy's question was, I understand, necessary to achieve savings in the household benefits scheme as budgeted for in the 2011 budget. The impact of the decision of the Minister for Social Protection was to restore the number of electricity units provided under the electricity allowance to 2007 levels. My responsibility in this general area encompasses the issue of energy affordability. I recognise the valuable role the fuel allowance and free electricity allowance play in the mitigation of energy poverty. These schemes are part of a variety of measures necessary to tackle the root causes of energy.
My focus is on implementing the 48 actions contained in the affordable energy strategy published last weekend. We have identified five central actions in the strategy. These include a commitment to review the national fuel allowance scheme in the context of examining the feasibility of aligning income supports with the energy efficiency and income of the home; the phased introduction of minimal thermal efficiency standards for rental accommodation; ensuring greater access to energy efficiency measures; reforming the eligibility criteria for energy efficiency schemes; and framing the work of the interdepartmental agency group on affordable energy on the five priority work packages.
It is my strong belief that enhancing the energy efficiency of low-income homes through permanent structural improvements is the most effective means of addressing energy affordability. To date, almost 76,000 homes have been improved under Better Energy: Warmer Homes. As the Deputy will know, splendid leading-edge innovative work has and is being done on this by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, with the assistance of officials in my Department who have devoted a great deal of time to the plan we announced on Sunday.
Did the Minister for Social Protection consult him on the decision to reduce the number of free electricity units from 2,400 to 1,800? The Minister is wrongly informed. The decision in the 2011 budget was quite clear, namely that there would be no change in the number of units and the saving was to be made through negotiation with utility companies, something the Minister belatedly announced this weekend she would do. If the Minister checks the budget documentation from this time last year he will find I am correct. Did the Minister have discussions with the Minister for Social Protection? Was he consulted? Did he agree that she was right to take away vital electricity units from people who badly need them?
I have had discussions with the Minister for Social Protection. She advised me this was one of the sides deals done between the former Ministers for Social Protection and Finance, but was not announced in the budget. She also advised me it was the conclusion, she believes, of both Ministers in the previous Government that they would not be around to answer for it, therefore they did not have to put it into the public domain. They made the decision and she inherited it in her Department. She has restored the position to 2007 levels.
I ask the Deputy to examine the affordable energy plan published at the weekend. We highlighted the fact that, believe it or not, over the past ten years some €2 billion has been spent on fuel support schemes but only €70 million on the improvement of the thermal efficiency of homes. We have to address that as the single biggest issue confronting us, and one which is likely to tackle the issue of energy poverty.
I do not wish to use unparliamentary language, but what the Minister said is totally and utterly incorrect. The saving we budgeted for was made by getting a better deal from the utility companies. What was specifically written into the budget, and is in the budget documentation and the leaflet we published on budget day, is that there would be no reduction in the number of units and that the saving would be made by going to the utility companies, mainly the ESB, which supply electricity to the customers in receipt of the free allowance and seeking a discount on the basis that the State is paying a huge amount of money, on time and all of the time. That was the whole basis of the decision made by the last Government. At no stage was it ever considered to reduce the number of units; that was specifically ruled out in the documentation on budget day.
The Minister is being barefaced in propagating incorrect information from the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. Will he correct the record? Second, will he acknowledge that, as Minister for Social Protection, I was the first to propose that terminal standards would be laid down for rental properties and that a comprehensive regime of energy efficiency would be operated between the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Department of Social Protection?
I do not want to get into the business of adjudicating between two honourable Members of the House. I am only telling the Deputy what the Minister, Deputy Burton, told me.