Thursday, 20 September 2012
Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)
Fuel Allowance Payments
This is an important matter that must be addressed urgently. I understand that thousands of families who are dependent on social welfare benefits received a letter last month, of which I have a copy to hand, informing them that due to a departmental error last April, they will not receive their fuel allowance payments for the week commencing on 8 October, that is, they will receive it a week later than everyone else who qualifies. This is not the Minister of State's brief and it is a pity the Minister responsible is not present because she appears to be determined to leave people in the cold. I will set out the context. As the fuel allowance is a means-tested payment, the Minister of State will understand the number of people who depend on it in rural areas in particular but also here in the city, where there is substandard housing that is cold, miserable and damp much of the time. Moreover, for quite a number of years we appear to have been breaking all records for dampness and cold.
Following the election, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, cut the fuel allowance for people in smokeless zone areas by 16% from €23.90 to €20. At the same time, she also cut the fuel components of the household benefits package and the Minister of State will have been lobbied in this regard. Electricity and gas allowances were cut by 25% and 20%, respectively, and while such cuts were the brainchild of the outgoing Fianna Fáil Administration, the present Government implemented them. As I noted, fuel allowance is means-tested but the Minister did not think she had gone far enough. She then introduced a reduction in the fuel allowance season by six full weeks, which represents a cut of €120. This might not be much to the Minister of State or to me but this is a huge cut to a pensioner who lives in poverty - the fact they are in receipt of fuel allowance means they have been means tested as living in poverty. Altogether, the Minister already has cut fuel allowance to the people who have received the aforementioned letter by 35%. This is a huge amount of money when one considers these people do not have the disposable income to make up the shortfall. Moreover, the Commission for Energy Regulation has also just approved a hike in the cost of electricity and gas, which comes on top of all the cuts the Minister has introduced.
I ask the Minister of State and the Minister for Social Protection in particular to reverse this cut. She should indicate to the Department that this cut in fuel allowance will not proceed. It is a mistake and the figures available to me indicate this will affect up to 60,000 people. The Minister of State should confirm the number of social welfare recipients who have received a letter similar to the one I have to hand, which indicates it was the Department that made the error. It has taken it this length of time to issue a letter to those people in receipt of the allowance. I ask the Minister of State to indicate that the Government will reverse this cut.
I thank the Deputy for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The national fuel scheme is intended to help households that depend on long-term social welfare benefits and are unable to provide fully for their own heating needs. The estimated provision for 2012 is €214.3 million. At the end of the fuel season last April, in excess of 400,000 customers were in receipt of the fuel allowance. It is important to note that all recipients of the fuel allowance will receive their correct number of payments during the 2012 calendar year, that is, for 26 weeks, and consequently no customer has been short-changed. However, an error in the timeframe for delivery did occur and I will now set out the details.
In budget 2012, the number of weeks in which the fuel allowance is payable was reduced from 32 to 26 weeks. Under these arrangements, the fuel season for 2011-12 was due to end in early April. However, due to an inadvertent error in the application of the changes to the cohort of customers paid from the Department's ISTS system, the original fuel season termination date remained in place for approximately 60,000 jobseeker customers for one week longer and a further payment issued in the week ending 6 April 2012. This resulted in an overpayment of €20 per client at an overall cost to the Exchequer of approximately €1.2 million. Under Government accounting procedures, the Department is obliged to recover all overpayments, in so far as is possible and feasible to so do, and of course the customer has had the additional benefit in this instance of the additional week's payment. The Department is doing this by delaying the commencement of the fuel payment season for those affected customers who still are in receipt of welfare payments by one week. For those customers who no longer are in receipt of scheme payments, this overpayment will be recorded against their account and in the event that in the future they again are in receipt of payments from the Department, the matter will be addressed with them at that point.
On behalf of the Minister, I apologise for this error, which is unfortunate. As stated however, it is important that it is explained to customers that all recipients of the free fuel allowance will receive the correct number of payments during 2012, that is, for 26 weeks, and no customer has been at a loss. I note some have been overpaid in that they received an additional week early on. While I accept the situation is not ideal for those customers affected, the manner of recovery proposed is considered to be the one that will have least impact on the customer. The systems have been reviewed fully in the Department and measures taken to try to ensure there will be no recurrence of this type of difficulty in the future.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply but as I noted earlier, it is a pity the Minister herself is not present. It is an appalling answer to state the Government accepts the situation is not ideal. The poorest people will not receive a payment fuel allowance on the correct date. It is getting colder and this is about pensioners who do not have the additional €20 that was paid to them. The allowance already has been cut because the Government cut back on the fuel allowance allocation in last year's budget by six weeks. I note that 120,000 gas and 83,000 electricity customers are in arrears.
That is the scale of fuel poverty and people's inability to pay. In addition, people would have planned on having that €20 from 1 October to pay for fuel. An increasing number of people are dependent on social welfare. They are the poorest in our society and this punishes them. The constituents who have contacted me will tell the Minister of State exactly where to shove his apology. It is not good enough for that type of mistake to happen resulting in them now being penalised by the withdrawal of a week's payment for a mistake noticed back in April.
The Minister has already conveyed her regrets that the mistake occurred. I again emphasise that any qualified recipient of the fuel allowance will receive the 26 week allowance for the current year and will not be short-changed. The only people affected are those who were inadvertently paid for an extra week last year. Everyone else - more than 400,000 people - will get what is provided for in legislation the 26 weeks fuel and no one will be short-changed.