Dáil debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Household Utility Bills Support: Motion [Private Members]


10:00 am

Claire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann: notes that:
— 475,364 people received the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) last week, an increase of 15,443 on the previous week;

— the society of St. Vincent de Paul estimates that energy poverty affects one in six households in Ireland, and is concerned that a significant proportion of households will be in energy debt as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic;

— a person who loses their job cannot access the Fuel Allowance until they are in receipt of a Jobseeker’s payment for more than 390 days (over 15 months);

— the Fuel Allowance is not available to recipients of the PUP;

— the PUP rates have not been adjusted to take into account increased heating costs during winter months and households currently have to make their weekly payments stretch even further to meet these costs; and

— many households on reduced income as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic are ineligible for the Fuel Allowance due to the limited qualifying criteria, which does not consider the financial impact of the pandemic and the urgent support these households need during difficult winter months; and
calls on the Government to:
— suspend the requirement that a person who loses their job must be in receipt of a Jobseeker’s payment for over 15 months before they can qualify for the Fuel Allowance, for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, and review the qualifying period thereafter;

— extend the Fuel Allowance of €28 per week to PUP recipients;

— establish a discretionary fund for Covid-19 utility debt, of an initial five million euro, to provide assistance to individuals and households struggling with Covid-19 related heating and electricity costs;

— ensure that the budget for the Exceptional Needs Payment is sufficient, as well as ensuring access to and flexibility from Community Welfare Officers; and

— make a double payment of the Fuel Allowance to all existing recipients for two weeks in February.

Almost 480,000 people received the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, yesterday. They have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. For every one of those workers, their outgoings and bills remain the same - indeed, some bills have increased because they are spending more time at home - but, in many cases, their income has been reduced. The only new message from the Government for those people on the PUP who have lost their jobs is that they will be receiving a tax bill. That is all they have heard from the Government. In some cases, that tax bill will be up to €1,400.

Last autumn, I carried out a survey relating to household debt. More than 300 respondents shared their stories with me. This is what some of them told me:

Lost all my work and struggled to pay the household bills. Had to borrow money to pay some bills.

Unable to manage the higher bills like electric and ... fuel costs now coming into the Winter. I’m on lower income with PUP ... Now looking at services that can be cut.

Shopping on a weekly basis is gone. We don't have it as bills come first ...

... I'm trying to keep things together for the sake of my family. I cry most nights going to bed, so my son and husband do not see how much of a toll it is taking on me. [Both of us are] out of work ...

The price of utility bills keeps rising. I had to take unpaid ... leave [from work] as crèches could not take my baby, so we are struggling now with just one income.

Other comments were as follows:

Shopping on a weekly basis is gone. We don't have it as bills come first ...

... I'm trying to keep things together for the sake of my family. I cry most nights going to bed, so my son and husband do not see how much of a toll it is taking on me. [Both of us are] out of work ...

The price of utility bills keeps rising. I had to take unpaid ... leave [from work] as crèches could not take my baby, so we are struggling now with just one income.

This is the real life reality for people on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, today. The Minister's response, in her amendment to this motion, refers to the PUP, the fuel allowance and the household benefits. These are the very payments that the people on the PUP are not getting, hence the entire purpose of this motion.

The Minister also refers to the North in the amendment. It reminds me of when I was in primary school, probably junior or senior infants, and arguing with a girl in my class about which of our fathers had more cattle and going through how many animals each of us had. I spoke last night to a friend who lives with her partner in the North of Ireland. They pay approximately £5 a week on electricity and they would not be skimping on it. Her car tax costs £20 a year. Fuel costs in the North of Ireland cannot be compared with those down here because there is no comparison. The cost of living down here is extortionate for families and those who have lost their jobs. It turns my stomach to see comparisons made to the North of Ireland where, last week, the Sinn Féin Minister for Communities introduced Covid-19-related heating payments, one-off payments of £200 to people struggling in fuel poverty in the North of Ireland. That is what we are doing. The Government down here is offering nothing new in its amendment to this motion.

We are asking for action from the Government, meaning a double payment for two weeks in February, as has been done before when we have had extremely cold weather. It is not impossible; it has been done. It will cost €20 million which will not break the bank. We are looking for a proper budget for the exceptional needs payment which the Minister constantly says is an option for people. We know, of course, that it is an awful lot harder to get to a community welfare officer. We also know that not everyone is comfortable going down that route. There is always discretion when it comes to the community welfare officer, so there is no guarantee of payment. I have asked the Minister several times about the 15-month rule. If I lose my job tomorrow, I get no fuel assistance for 15 months. The Minister has said twice that she has looked at that and I have got nothing back. I am asking for that rule to be suspended temporarily for people who are losing their jobs and, in some cases, losing everything they have ever had in relation to work.

I have asked the Minister to extend the fuel allowance to recipients of the PUP. There are a few weeks of the fuel allowance left, although it might be extended. It is a measure the Minister can implement tomorrow to help these workers and their families. I am asking her to introduce a discretionary fund of €5 million. This is not an ask from me or Sinn Féin, it is an ask from the National One Parent Family Alliance.

The Minister and her Government think they are doing enough. SPARK, One Family, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Focus Ireland and a total of ten organisations that are on the ground and helping people day in, day out beg to differ. They are saying what is there is not enough. That is the message I am getting across to the Minister today. It is not enough. Government is about choices and this Government chooses to increase the pay of super junior Ministers. It chooses to give the head of the Department of Health an increase. It should be choosing to help these families who are struggling in the midst of a global pandemic. The message in this amendment is nothing new. It is a tax bill and nothing more.

10:05 am

Mairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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I commend my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, on bringing this motion to the floor of the Dáil. It is a reasonable motion with practical solutions that would dramatically improve the lives of many. Fuel poverty means that people literally do not have the ability to afford to heat their homes for them and their families. Families choose between putting food on the table, heating their homes and paying bills. We have the fuel allowance but there is clear evidence that in its current form, it simply does not go far enough because despite this allowance, the reality is that many still cannot afford to meet their heating needs and in their absolute desperation, have to turn to charities, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, that will pay for deliveries of oil or coal, or pay their electricity bills. This should not be happening. The State should ensure its citizens do not experience cold due to affordability. Heating is a basic need and it is life critical.

I spoke to one carer in Galway city who assists many elderly people across the city. The very difficult and upsetting reality is that a lot of elderly people to whom she calls stay in one room in the house, usually the kitchen, for the entirety of the day until they go to bed because they simply cannot afford to heat the rest of the house. I am sure we can all think of elderly friends, neighbours and relatives who do this. Even more shockingly, she told me that some elderly people stay in bed until the afternoon when the afternoon carer comes because they do not have the ability to keep the fire going all day. Some of them even decline to have a shower because the house is so cold. How horrendous is that? This has a knock-on effect because when people stay in bed it reduces their mobility and increases the chance of them getting sores.

It is not just the elderly that this is affecting. Another woman told me that she can pay for only one bag of coal a week, which means that she can only light the fire in the afternoon. As a result, at a time when we are asking people to stay at home, she wakes up in a cold house and she must wait in the cold until she can heat the house simply because she is on a low income. Another woman told me that this winter, for the very first time, she had to go to a moneylender to pay to heat her home.

We can do something about this by accepting the motion. It makes sense to extend the fuel allowance to PUP recipients. It also makes sense to suspend the requirement of being in receipt of jobseeker's payments for 15 months. In addition, it makes sense to make a double payment of the fuel allowance to all existing recipients for two weeks in February. Let us all come together and support Deputy Kerrane's motion and improve the lives of people in communities.

10:15 am

Réada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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It says a lot about where we are when in one breath we are discussing an €80,000 salary top-up for a public service worker, and in the next we are talking about other workers in places such as north Kildare who cannot afford to light their home, cook a meal or turn on the heating. We have swapped the metaphorical cold house of the mother and baby homes for the literal cold house where working families and the elderly wear their coats indoors, or go to bed early, simply to keep warm.

Behind closed doors people are struggling with their emotional and mental health because of the extended lockdowns. We are in our fourth lockdown in County Kildare. We are hunkering down for the long haul, but too many of us are doing it in the cold. Let us imagine what it is like to watch one's children miserable, not able to get comfortable, because they are just too cold. Let us imagine being an older citizen isolating at home, who is unable to sit on the bus or train to keep warm in order to save a couple of hours worth of heating. Can we imagine how disempowering that is for parents and pensioners? This is not a tenement society of the previous century, this is a so-called successful society where luxury city pads lie empty while tent cities are full and working families in my constituency of Kildare North are grateful for the dark because nobody sees the Society of St. Vincent de Paul man coming. We have a so-called successful society where there is money to burn on State overruns, while people with asthma, COPD and bronchitis suffer exacerbation because of the cold of their home and still more suffer cold-induced stress, anxiety and depression.

Our plan would bring them in from the cold, literally, and in every way that matters. I commend my comrade, Deputy Kerrane, on her Private Members' motion. We believe in a shared human dignity. We believe we live in each other's shelter, not in each other's shadow. Let us just think of the 475,000 people who got the PUP last week, so many of them in my constituency. I know from them how impossible it is to heat and eat on that money in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic. We propose that anyone on the PUP would also get the fuel allowance and a double payment of the allowance for a fortnight in February. Crucially, we call on the Minister to set up an initial discretionary Covid fund of €5 million to help the thousands of households with utility debts and arrears. These debts are not just a social poison; they are a human degradation that social justice activists have long warned about. The Government's handling of Covid-19 is laying bare all the fault lines in society. It is stripping away the veneer of our compassion. We are quarantining people in the cold and we must do better. With this motion, we can.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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This motion seeks fair play. Time and again the Government says that the Opposition does not come forward with solutions. We do come forward with solutions, but the problem is that the Government does not like them. The Government does not listen and it does not act.

The Minister's party has no regard for what I would consider to be fair play; if it did, it would support this motion. There are two central requests in this motion which should be accepted and implemented by the Government. One is that the fuel allowance payment is doubled for the month of February and the other is that all of those in receipt of the PUP, the 480,000 workers who have lost their jobs, temporarily or in the longer term through no fault of their own, are given access to the fuel allowance payment. The Minister's answers to those requests is "No".

I have said to the Minister and her colleagues time and again in this Chamber that Fine Gael represents a cosseted, privileged class. The Minister does not like it when I say that but the reality is that it is true. The Minister does not like it because it is true and she does not have any defence to that argument. Three of the Minister's senior ministerial colleagues in the Government sat down a number of weeks ago and hatched a plan between them to increase the pay of one senior civil servant by €81,000, an amount that many people on the front line in hospitals will never see as a salary. This is not a salary for that one individual but a pay increase of €81,000. Three senior Government Ministers sat down, hatched that plan and as late as yesterday, were defending it with the L'Oréal-type defence that the individual is worth it. Yet, when it comes to giving ordinary workers and families a bit of a break by giving them access to the fuel allowance because they are staying at home longer, their children are not at school and they have to heat their homes but are struggling to pay their bills, what does the Minister say? She says "No". Again, it is "No" from this Government because it represents a cosseted, privileged class. Its priority is those in the upper echelons of society and not those who need support the most. It is a disgrace that on an issue as important as this, when we are trying to ensure people and families are given adequate support to pay for basics like heating their homes, the Government's response is "No". It is shameful.

10:25 am

Sorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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As of last week over 12,000 people in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath were in receipt of the PUP. The vast majority of those 12,000 workers and families have never needed social welfare support previously and need it now solely because of this pandemic. The struggle to keep a warm roof over their heads is very real and so is their growing energy debt as they try to meet the cost of keeping their homes warm.

I want to highlight the case of one family for the Minister. Dad is a tradesman and Mam works in the home, caring for their small children. They are an average, hard-working family who always managed to keep their heads above water until this pandemic struck and Dad was laid off. For the first time ever, they could not even pay their rent. This family and countless others have survived this winter by begging and borrowing from friends, family and charities. Initially their local community welfare officer refused their application for an exceptional needs payment but eventually they were given a one-off payment to provide heat for a single week. They found themselves in the unprecedented and deeply distressing position of having to choose between spending their last €10 on food or on electricity. That week, food won and they sat in their kitchen in front of the oven for heat while the food cooked. This is not an isolated case. It is a reflection of the wider, very real lived experiences of people who are in need of urgent support.

I call on the Minister not only to heed the concerns being expressed here today, concerns that are echoed by Barnardos, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Free Legal Aid Centres, FLAC, but also to act on them. I urge her to extend the fuel allowance to workers in receipt of the PUP, suspend the 15-month qualifying exclusion period for jobseekers and provide a double-week payment for two weeks in February. A properly funded scheme for exceptional needs payments will assist not only those on the PUP but others who are fighting fuel poverty on an ongoing basis this year.

This payment is called an exceptional needs payment. We are living in exceptional times and these measures are needed now.

10:30 am

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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Families have been hit very hard by this latest lockdown. It has been a very difficult year for families across the midlands and throughout the country. Many have lost their jobs and face significant drops in income through no fault of their own. In the case of Laois, Offaly and Kildare, this is actually the fourth lockdown. There are currently 475,000 people on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, 6,838 of whom are in Laois while 6,707 are in Offaly. The reality behind these figures is that families are struggling to pay bills, to put food on the table and to pay for daily essentials.

The Sinn Féin motion is aimed at providing some relief to these families. Our motion will amend the fuel allowance scheme to provide financial support for heating costs to all families on the pandemic unemployment payment. We are also calling for the double week payment of fuel allowance for two weeks to be paid to existing claimants and recipients of the PUP in February. This is really needed for the reasons that have been outlined this morning. It would mean that people who lost their jobs over the course of the pandemic and who are on the PUP would not be excluded from the fuel allowance scheme.

Households in the midlands must also contend with the cessation of peat harvesting. Many families would have bought turf plots. This is an issue right across Laois and Offaly but the Government has not addressed it. Many families who bought turf plots from Bord na Móna in previous years and who saved turf themselves now have no alternative source of fuel. They do not have any other means and now do not even have that. They must now buy much more costly solid fuel for heating and cooking and this is causing real problems. They also face an increase in the carbon tax for the second year running. This was pushed through by the Minister's Government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.

What we are asking for is very modest. It is interesting that, just a few weeks ago while the Christmas holidays were ongoing and just after, a pay rise of €81,000 on top of a salary of €211,000 was sanctioned for whoever is hired as the new Secretary General in the Department of Health. We need to try to address some of this imbalance. These families need an alternative source of fuel. Families throughout the State need some financial support.

The Minister must also confirm the situation regarding the moratorium on gas and electricity disconnections. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, announced in early January that a new moratorium until 31 January was to be introduced. The Minister must now ensure that moratorium remains in place and will not be discontinued until we are on the far side of the pandemic. Will the Minister revert to me in that regard? It is really important that people have food, heat and shelter. Many people this morning do not have a home. Many do not have heating for their home or enough to eat. People are trying to sustain a difficult juggling act but debts are coming due because some of the banks are not listening with regard to the so-called mortgage break. We are asking the Minister for financial relief to make sure that people can keep warm until we are on the far side of this pandemic.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following: “notes that:
— the Government is firmly committed to targeting supports to those who need them most and is also committed to combatting fuel poverty by a variety of measures and in supporting those on low incomes with their home heating costs through the Fuel Allowance scheme and other supports;

— the Government is constantly monitoring the supports it provides during this Covid-19 pandemic;

— the budget for the Supplementary Allowance Scheme is not capped and is operated in a discretionary and flexible manner by Community Welfare Officers in the Department of Social Protection;

— the use of targeted schemes such as the Supplementary Welfare Allowance ensures that resources are targeted where they are needed most;

— the Government is providing unprecedented support through the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme to those who have lost employment during the period of the pandemic;

— since last March over 14 million PUPs have been issued, with over 820,000 people receiving support under the scheme and the total cost of PUP to date is about €5.5 billion;

— approximately 443,000 people have benefited from the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme and Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme at a total cost of over €4.5 billion; and

— the rates of PUP are more than double the support available to impacted workers in Northern Ireland where payments are about £100 weekly; and
further notes that:
— over 372,000 households will be supported in the 2020/2021 fuel season starting October 2020 and concluding in the week of 9th April, 2021, at a cost of over €300 million;

— an estimated 465,000 households receive electricity or gas allowances through the Household Benefits Package throughout the full year at a cost of €265 million annually;

— the Fuel Allowance was increased by €3.50, from €24.50 per week to €28 per week, with effect from 4th January, 2021, the highest weekly rate ever, and other targeted increases to Qualified Child payments and the Living Alone Allowance also took effect in January;

— the total value of the fuel allowance in Ireland across a full free fuel season is €784 per household, which far exceeds the value of equivalent payments in neighbouring jurisdictions such as Northern Ireland where, for example, the Winter Fuel Payment ranges in value from £100 to £300;

— the fuel allowance season was extended in 2020 by four weeks at a cost of almost €37 million, and the Government will, as it does every year, consider if the 2021 fuel allowance season should be extended beyond 9th April depending on the economic circumstances and prevailing weather conditions;

— in addition to the Fuel Allowance, the Government provides targeted supports to people experiencing exceptional costs or financial difficulties through the Supplementary Welfare Allowance scheme, and payments can be, and are made, under this scheme in respect of exceptional heating costs;

— the Government is committed to supporting the retrofitting of the housing stock, which is the ultimate solution to fuel poverty;

— this year will see the largest budget for retrofitting in the history of the State, including over €100 million in capital funding to support lower income households to retrofit their homes through the Warmer Homes Scheme, representing a €47 million increase on the 2020 allocation; and

— in addition, funding of €65 million is being made available in 2021 through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to support the retrofitting of up to 2,400 social housing homes.”

I welcome the opportunity to have this discussion in the House on this very important matter. We are all concerned with protecting our people from the severe financial and economic consequences of the pandemic. I accept that this has been a very difficult time. Since Covid-19 first arrived on our shores last March, the Government has, at all times, sought to support workers and families. My Department mobilised quickly to introduce the pandemic unemployment payment and, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of staff throughout the country, we were able to get payments to more than 600,000 people in a matter of days at the onset of the pandemic last spring. The hard work of the staff in the Department of Social Protection continues. It is worth remembering that, when the PUP was introduced, it was originally intended to remain in place for a period of just six weeks.

As we know now, it has been in place for over a year and beyond. Over 14 million payments have issued to over 820,000 people under the PUP to date, at a total cost of over €5.5 billion. A further 443,000 people have been supported under the wage subsidy schemes at a cost of €4.5 billion. That is a total of €10 billion. These supports are unprecedented in scale from any Government in the history of the State but they were and remain the right thing to do to protect workers and families throughout the country. It is worth noting that independent research from the ESRI has shown that these supports have been particularly effective at protecting those on lower incomes.

I want to make it very clear today that the Government is absolutely committed to supporting those on low incomes with their home heating costs through the fuel allowance scheme and other supports. Over 372,000 households will be supported in the current fuel season which started at the end of last September. We will conclude in mid-April at a cost of over €300 million. In addition, 465,000 households receive an electricity or gas allowance of €420 per year through the household benefits package at a cost of €265 million annually. I want to build further on these supports and that is why in budget 2021 the fuel allowance was increased by €3.50 to €28, the highest ever weekly rate for fuel allowance. That measure took effect in January which means that the total value across a fuel season is now €784. By comparison, the winter fuel payment in Northern Ireland is between €100 and €300.

The Government will, of course, continue to keep all of our supports under review as we have done at all times throughout the pandemic. For example, the fuel allowance season last year was extended by four weeks at a cost of almost €37 million. I will continue to keep the need for a similar extension under review this year, taking account of the circumstances we are in and the prevailing weather conditions closer to the time.

I am aware that a point was raised here about women who have had to give up work to carry out childminding responsibilities. Women who have to do that and are unable to reach an arrangement with their employer can apply for the pandemic unemployment payment.

The main issue with the Sinn Féin proposal, while accepting the spirit in which it has been brought forward, is that it is not a targeted use of resources. For example, the fuel allowance has always been paid per household and not per individual, as suggested in this motion. If we were to accept the motion, there could be multiple fuel allowance payments going into the same house regardless of whether they are needed. The total cost of the proposal would be €227 million. Whether we like it or not, this would obviously have a knock-on impact on the ability of the Government to fund other critical programmes. Not one Sinn Féin Deputy has expressed any consideration of this.

For anyone who is expecting or experiencing genuine difficulty in heating their home, support is available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. My Department already provides targeted supports to people experiencing problems in heating their homes through this scheme, with over 2,000 payments made in 2020.

While I am aware that Sinn Féin mentions a €5 million fund, it is important to point out that the budget for the supplementary welfare scheme is not capped but is demand-led and is operated on a discretionary and flexible manner by community welfare officers. My Department actively promotes the availability of supplementary welfare allowance via its websites and social media channels, its network of Intreo offices, the citizens information services and MABS. That people know about the supplementary welfare allowance, and take it up as needed, is shown by the fact that we spend approximately €120 million on it each year. The scheme serves the purpose for which it was originally established by Frank Cluskey, which is to support people who are experiencing genuine hardship. In this way, it is targeted and provides support to those who most need it.

I believe the shared objective we have here today is to help people who do not have the wherewithal to cover extra fuel costs and to target resources at those who need them most. If individuals are experiencing genuine difficulties in heating their homes, I encourage Deputies to please direct them to my Department because we are here to help. I assure Deputies that my priority, and the fundamental objective of the Government, is to ensure that those most in need in our society are supported.

Any fair-minded analysis would find that the Government has not been found wanting in providing support to date. We only have to look at the Exchequer figures released yesterday to see that they show total spending by my Department is up 42%. I accept, however, that there will always be hard cases. I hear about them in my constituency office, and I do not doubt the sincerity of Deputies raising those cases today. My core message is that if people need additional support above and beyond what is already in place, I ask the Deputies to tell those people to contact my Department. Support is available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. I am sharing the rest of my time with Deputy Bruton.

10:45 am

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome this debate, but listening to the Sinn Féin speakers, one would not get any hint that energy poverty has halved in the past three years, that is, between 2016 and 2019. The key to tackling energy poverty lies in the energy systems that families have. A less energy efficient-rated home will have heating bills ten times those of a more energy efficient home. Using an open fire to heat a home is four times more costly compared with an efficient gas system.

I welcome the progress being made under the warmer homes and local authority schemes, where 215,000 homes of low-income families have had their energy rating upgraded. That has probably yielded about a 50% increase in what is available from the fuel scheme. It is a valuable increase, and it is not just for one year. It is an increase in energy efficiency that will continue forever for that home and for the families who live there. The scheme is 100% funded by the Government.

I also welcome the broadened access to the scheme. It is now available to those on carer's allowance, domiciliary care allowance, those jobseekers who have been out of work for more than six months, and those low-income families claiming what used to be called the family income supplement. I also welcome the extension of the community scheme, which is very innovative. It offers more flexibility, because instead of some families just above the threshold having to pay 75% of the cost, this scheme allows lower income families to be included in a flexible way at an affordable cost.

I believe, however, that we must show far greater ambition in this area. I want to see the rental sector, where many low-income families are living, targeted by these schemes. I also want to see an area-based scheme introduced. The reality is that homes built before 1950 typically have six times the energy use of the type of target which we have set for the long term. We must see those homes addressed on an area basis to ensure that every low-income family and others can participate in this upgrading scheme. A retrofitting wave, as it is described in the European Union, which would be modelled on our community scheme, is the answer. and in that way we can make even more progress regarding the important issue of energy poverty.

Paul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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I listened to what the Minister and Deputy Bruton said, but unfortunately neither addressed the current issue of the impact of the pandemic. Under the current regulations, people must be unemployed for more than 15 months before they are entitled to financial support with their heating costs. This means that workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic and who are on the PUP are excluded from these vital financial supports.

The National One Parent Family Alliance has highlighted pressing concerns about the ability of families to keep their homes as well as the issue of utility debt and arrears. The Government must change its policy. Thousands of workers in my constituency in Dublin West and beyond are out of work simply because of the pandemic. They are looking forward to going back to work.

If there was ever a time to take people out of fuel poverty and to stop people entering fuel poverty it is now. It is simple. We need to: suspend the requirement that a person who loses his or her job must be in receipt of a jobseeker's payment; extend the fuel allowance of €28 per week to people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP; establish a discretionary fund for a Covid-19 utility debt; and make a double payment for the fuel allowance to all existing recipients for two seeks in February, because we recognise the difficulty they are in. Let us do that for the people who are workers and who are struggling also.

The financial situation for many families and individuals in the pandemic has been extremely difficult. One family who contacted me are on a PUP and they have the heating on all day since Covid. They live in rented accommodation that desperately needs to be upgraded. The windows and doors are in poor condition, which I have seen. There is poor insulation and an old and unreliable heating system. The family has no control over that. Their bills have shot through the roof because they are now in their house all day having being told by the Government that we all need to stay at home.

Another citizen told me that she has worked all of her life. She has a 30-year-old home that is badly insulated. It is a corner house with three of its walls exposed to the elements. She told me she had worked since she was 16 years old, had never asked for a single penny from the Government, had never thought she would have to say she was struggling to pay her bills and she was dreading the heating bill coming in March.

I ask the House to support the motion and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to please not leave a single citizen behind.

10:50 am

Pauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I spoke with a woman last week who told me she dreads the really cold weather because she must sleep on a mattress on the floor in her sitting room with her children on mattresses also or on the sofa because she cannot afford to heat the house. She lights the fire in the sitting room and spends the really cold nights there. Another mother told me that her children are constantly getting colds and chest infections, and therefore missing time from school, because the house is so cold. People are being forced to choose between essential items as they cannot afford to pay for everything. They are wearing additional layers of clothing during the day and night and going to bed earlier than they need to just to stay warm. All of this has a detrimental effect on their physical and mental health.

The Covid-19 restrictions have a very negative impact on many households for numerous reasons, but they have had a disproportionate impact on certain families such as those of people with disabilities, older people, people with underlying health issues, and families with children. Since March of last year people have been told to stay at home as much as possible and those in the vulnerable categories have been advised to cocoon. This means they are spending more time at home and having to heat their homes on a constant basis. This may not have been a huge issue last spring and in the early summer when the weather was good, but it is certainly an issue since the autumn and winter when the colder weather came in. This is an ongoing issue for people with disabilities. Poverty is something that many experience since there is an additional cost of living for a person with a disability. Indeed, there is also a link between unemployment and poverty as people with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to the rest of the population and they are more likely to suffer poverty.

Families having to spend a longer time in their homes when they are normally in school, at work or at a day service means that the cost for heating has spiralled. This is heating that might normally have only been put on for a few hours in the evening but now needs to be on constantly throughout the day. This, however, is not happening because people cannot afford to do so. I echo the call of my party colleagues here: to double the fuel allowance for two weeks in February; to introduce the fuel allowance to those on the pandemic unemployment payment; to establish a discretionary fund of €5 million, as is done in other jurisdictions to meet the additional costs due to Covid restrictions; to make it easier to access the community welfare officers; and to ensure the exceptional needs payment is sufficiently financed.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I hope the Government answer to this motion is not just "Suck it up, we are doing enough". Many have stated already that at this point in time there are 475,364 people on the PUP. In my constituency of Louth this is 15,141, which is a huge number of people who are in a situation they had not anticipated. Many of these people had never been in this situation before. We have all heard the stories about fuel poverty over the years and it needs to be addressed. We need to act on this now.

We are in the middle of a serious pandemic. In the last week, Dr. David Nabarro of the World Health Organization, WHO, said that the states that do better are those that give supports to the people. This is a very small request and a small mitigation that can facilitate people on the PUP to gain the fuel allowance. Heat is an absolute necessity. We have asked people to work from home if they can and we have given people who cannot work the support of the pandemic unemployment payment. It is fair to ensure that they are able to stay in a properly heated home.

I wish to address what the Minister said. Sinn Féin has no difficulty. It believes the Department of Social Protection can work out household payments. I do not believe the Department will have a particular difficulty if the Minister wishes to change this. We must ensure that the 15-month exclusion for the PUP is removed, that there is a double payment in February and that households that are in fuel poverty can avail of the fuel allowance payment. If the Minister and the Department of Social Protection wish to work with Deputy Kerrane on this, we would be open to that because it is about delivery for people.

I also wish to briefly address Deputy Bruton's comments. We want to have a fit-for-purpose retrofitting system. With regard to local authority housing, the problem in Louth County Council is the fact that its maintenance budget is too low because there is insufficient money from the Government.

11:00 am

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I often wonder what type of mentality would allow a system that requires somebody to be unemployed and on jobseeker's payments for more than 15 months before qualifying for the fuel allowance to remain in place for so long. How petty is that? The fact that this provision has remained in place and is in place in the midst of a global pandemic speaks volumes.

This motion is very simple. It is about allowing people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic to get support for their heating bills. It is about giving them the fuel allowance and extending the fuel allowance to as many people who need it as possible. It is also about increasing the payments for two weeks in February for all people in receipt of the fuel allowance. It is very simple and just. It is a small token on the part of the State to recognise the difficulties that people are experiencing. Once again, this is about choices. Many people will look at the Government's response to this motion and at the choices it has made. The Government made a choice to increase the carbon tax again, a tax that will affect lower-income families and workers disproportionately. It made a choice to increase the salary of the Secretary General of the Department of Health by €81,000 and to appoint God knows how many additional special advisers at exorbitant rates of pay. It also made the choice to increase the pay of its Ministers of State, but it chose not to support our student nurses.

The Government has made the choice not to support this motion. The amendment from the Government is embarrassing. Essentially, it confirms that the Government is tone deaf when it comes to the reality for people who are facing the crisis of their lives as a result of losing their jobs during the pandemic. I commend Deputy Kerrane's motion to the House. I urge Deputies to reject the Government's amendment and to stand by the people who need a little support in this crisis in their lives.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I support Sinn Féin's motion. We strongly believe that the issue of fuel poverty and the current fuel allowance system require further interrogation. The Labour Party has carried out an analysis of this year's fuel allowance payments arising from budget 2021 and I would welcome the Minister's response to that analysis, if she can respond to it. It is our contention that in real terms there has been, in effect, a cut to the fuel allowance for 2020-21.

The reason we are saying that is because the fuel allowance is paid over 28 weeks from the end of September through to March. Due to Covid-19, the 2019-20 fuel allowance season was extended by an extra four weeks. This would have been worth €98 to recipients, because four weeks multiplied by €24.50 is €98. In 2021, the payment increased by €3.50 a week from January, which would be worth an additional €98 over a full 28 weeks. However, only 14 of the weeks in this year's fuel season will be paid at the higher rate, which means they will only get €49. That signals, in real terms, an actual cut in the fuel allowance. That is the Labour Party analysis. I would welcome a response from the Minister in respect of that analysis because if she agrees with it, and I mean this respectfully, that would blow the Government's argument regarding the policy roll-out on the fuel allowance for 2021 out of the water. It effectively means that people on fuel allowance this winter will be down €49 compared with the 2019-20 season, and next winter they will also face more expensive fuel due to the higher carbon tax. We are on record as saying we are not against the carbon tax but it means people will be worse off in 2021. The Government will say that there is no carbon tax increase by €7.50 per tonne until May, but thereafter that will hit.

The Minister also says it is for individuals to seek supplementary welfare allowance and that community welfare officers will not be found wanting when it comes to exceptional needs payments. That has been my experience in my constituency. The system that is set up to allow for payments for exceptional needs has, in my experience, continued to be a robust one and that level of discretion is, thankfully, there. We welcome that. However, the figures show that, in spite of the Minister's contention that supplementary welfare allowance can be paid and is available in exceptional circumstances, between January and December only 11,922 people received the fuel supplement or the heat supplement. In the context of the overall spend and the numbers that are in receipt of fuel allowance, one would have to contend that 11,922 is quite a small number of people to have benefited from that additional payment. That speaks volumes about the continuing level of fuel poverty that exists within this State.

I do not doubt the Minister's bona fides. When we are arguing these points in opposition, we all subscribe to rhetoric. There is no question about that. There is scope to look at the fuel allowance again, perhaps to look at the Labour Party analysis of the real-terms impact of the cut, and see whether the supplementary welfare allowance could be examined afresh with a view to ensuring that more people are notified and made aware of its existence.

The 11,922 people who availed of the payment in December and January is a small number relative to the 300,000 plus in receipt of the payment. That is our core point.

I want to speak to the element of the motion that deals with the PUP, and it not being a qualifying payment for the fuel allowance. We are seeing a growing phenomenon in our constituency offices of people who are feeling the effects of long Covid. I appreciate that the science in regard to measuring the effects of long Covid might not be up-to-date but the phenomenon of long Covid and its effect on people is widely accepted. There is a sufficient evidence base in that regard. The enhanced illness benefit is the current payment that meets the needs of those people, as I understand it. I ask the Minister to undertake a budgetary analysis of people who are suffering the effects of long Covid and to design a payment that would include provision for a fuel allowance to meet the needs of households with people who had been working but are no longer able to work because of the long-term physical effects of Covid. That would be a stringent exercise. I merely want to it put on the record of the Dáil today in relation to the Minister's agenda. I am asking her to look afresh at measuring the long-term impact of long Covid and to examine if additional supports can be put into that budgetary line, including a potential provision for fuel allowance payments where there is a fuel poverty marker in a given household.

I accept the points made by Deputy Bruton but the people I am meeting are not in a position to be able to avail of the supports that have been articulated by him. Whatever about local authority programmes and the progress in that regard, which I acknowledge, the people who have availed of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland grants in respect of the extensive work that needs to be carried out on the housing stock are people who do not have the means and cannot access loans to bring their houses up to the required standard such that fuel poverty is extinguished. There is still a significant gap in the housing stock that is plugged, by and large, by the fuel allowance. I understand and acknowledge that progress is being made but it needs to be accelerated. While that acceleration of enhancement of buildings and housing stock is under way, eligibility for the fuel allowance should be looked at again, if at all possible. I acknowledge that the number of people in receipt of the fuel allowance is significant, but if it could be looked at afresh, particularly in regard to those people in fuel impoverished houses, that would be widely welcomed.

11:10 am

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Whitmore. I commend Deputy Kerrane and Sinn Féin for bringing forth this motion. I acknowledge that across this Chamber there is nobody, be that in opposition or in government, who wants to see a scenario in this country where people are cold.

This motion seeks to address a very simple but cruel reality, namely, that in our Republic, people are cold. Often in this Chamber we can get lost in the adversarial nature of politics and it becomes a Punch and Judy show between the larger party of Opposition and the larger party of Government. If we step away from that, we will recognise that some of the organisations that have been advocating on behalf of the many people in our country who are cold have absolutely no agenda or axe to grind. They are not seeking to replace Government. They are standing for and advocating for people because of the reality that those people are cold. That is the very simple nature of this issue.

I want to mention some of the organisations that have written to the Minister and which have aligned themselves under the banner of the National One Parent Family Alliance. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul wrote to the Minister at the start of January asking for an increase in the fuel allowance payment for January and February because people are cold. That organisation is not doing so to be oppositional. Nor is Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids, SPARK, which advocates on behalf of one-parent families. Such families are consistently among the most vulnerable groups in this country. Nor are the National Women's Council of Ireland, Barnardos, Free Legal Advice Centres or the Children's Rights Alliance seeking to be oppositional. Those groups have organised themselves under a banner because of the fact that, in our Republic, people cannot meet their heating bills, as a consequence of which they are cold. To alleviate that discomfort, they are having to make cruel choices between heating their homes or feeding themselves.

We need to step away from the adversarial and get down to the nub of the issue, which is that in our country today, people are cold. We need to look at some of the measures we have been asked to implement to alleviate that suffering. Some of them are really reasonable. I do not doubt for a second the Minister's bona fides and the work her Department is doing. There are solutions that are being advocated, not just by Sinn Féin in its motion, but also by civil society groups that have no stake in terms of how we organise ourselves politically in this country.

The motion includes the simple proposal that the Minister extend the fuel allowance to recipients of the PUP. People have found themselves out of work who might otherwise never have experienced the need to seek welfare. They get cold just like anybody else. The requirement that a person who loses his or her job must be in receipt of a jobseeker's payment for more than 15 months before he or she qualifies for the fuel allowance makes no sense. Does the person who has lost his or her job not suffer from the cold for 15 months? That is an illogical practice which, when one breaks it down, seems somewhat cruel.

The motion proposes the establishment of a discretionary fund for Covid-19 utility debt, with an initial allocation of €5 million to assist people with heating and electricity costs. I accept the Minister's rebuttal on that point, namely, that the Department does not place any band on how much the State can give for this purpose. However, I would argue that a discretionary budget of €5 million seeks to rectify the fact that more people are spending more time in their homes than ever before, including children learning at home on their laptops, where those devices are available. Not everybody has them. People are not allowed to leave their homes. A discretionary budget would operate in the period of Covid, where increased utility costs are arising in a situation that is different from any other time.

The motion also proposes that the Minister would ensure that the budget for exceptional needs payments is sufficient and that there is access to, and flexibility from, community welfare officers. On this point, the Minister highlighted the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, of which 11,400 people are availing. In a report from 2019, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul highlighted that more than 400,000 people in this country are experiencing energy poverty. That only 11,400 are availing of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme suggests there is a problem. From talking to people, one of the problem is that having to go into a welfare office and justify one's poverty is difficult for many. Another problem is that people are not aware of the scheme. Many people who are suffering, whether from welfare poverty or poverty in general, which is all-encompassing, do not know such schemes exist because they are not being advertised and brought to their attention.

In the time remaining to me, I ask that we all take off our Opposition or Government hats and recognise that people are cold. If we need to get around a table collectively to seek to remedy that, let us do so. It is unbecoming for a republic to have a scenario where people are having to organise collectively in civil society to address these types of issues and that we are having to have these debates. Let us get on and address the issue.

11:15 am

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I thank and acknowledge Sinn Féin for bringing forward this important motion. We have heard a lot today about the current situation and how the Covid crisis and fuel poverty are impacting on people in a very real way. I would like to talk about our future in regard to fuel poverty. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic is going to be just one of the crises we face.

We are also going to be facing a climate crisis and fuel poverty, and how we address these will be key in meeting our obligations.

Two central tenets of any just transition model, which is exactly what we need now and in future, must be that climate action does not fall disproportionately on low-income households and that resources to mitigate climate change are equally shared across all sections of society in a sustainable manner. Those on low incomes at home and abroad are more likely to feel the impact of climate change such as flooding and drought and be exposed to air pollution, poor water quality and water contamination. We can prevent this by poverty-proofing climate action in the country and by establishing a just and fair transition model.

In 2018 the Society of St. Vincent de Paul commissioned a report on this issue and revealed that several factors contributed to energy poverty in the country. It noted that increases in energy prices disproportionately impacted on low incomes. It also found that there was a limited uptake of energy efficiency schemes among low-income households due to a lack of awareness or education and that energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector remained inadequate. I am pleased to acknowledge the comments of Deputy Bruton on tacking the rental sector. It is often the case that the subsidies are only taken up by those who can actually afford to make the necessary investments. We tend to leave out the working poor or people living in private rented accommodation facing current levels of high rents or those whose income has significantly reduced due to the impact of Covid-19 on the economy. While budget 2021 did increase the fuel allowance and allocated €100 million to residential and community energy efficiency, it really is not enough to address the persistent energy poverty that our communities face.

There is also an increased allocation to the warmer homes scheme and the national retrofitting programme, which is welcome. However, there have been growing calls for something more comprehensive.

To fund a larger programme, the Government could commit to reviewing the subsidisation by the State of fossil fuels and instead phase out those tax breaks and subsidies that are environmentally damaging. In its budget submission, Social Justice Ireland estimated that approximately €4 billion per year in taxation between 2012 and 2016 was foregone through potentially environmentally damaging subsidies. While such subsidies undermine much of the impact of our other environmental taxation measures, they are also unproductive and would be far more useful if the related funding was used to invest in the energy needs of people, households and communities, especially those most vulnerable during transition.

As part of a just transition model, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has called for protections for low-income households and vulnerable customers from energy price increases, an improvement in access to, and take-up of, energy efficient schemes, and an improvement in data and research on energy poverty so that supports can target the most vulnerable. Investing in support of financing schemes and the roll-out of trusted energy advisers at a community level will also be required to educate people about their energy options. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul notes that a review of subsidy schemes in other European countries identified energy consultants who can increase awareness and confidence of Government schemes. We need schemes with wider eligibility and we need to review how mechanisms from existing schemes, such as better energy homes, can support an increased uptake of schemes by low-income households.

Ultimately, what is being advocated by NGOs is that when we make the transition to a zero-carbon economy, which we absolutely must do, we make sure people on low income can afford their minimum energy needs. This can be achieved by ensuring people have an adequate income, controlling the cost of utilities for low-income households as we make the transition to renewables, expanding access to free energy efficient upgrades and investing in public transport and rural transport.

The impact of Covid-19 can be viewed as a test of the economic disruption that we want to avoid as a country as we transition to a zero-carbon economy. The motion reflects on the circumstances facing those most vulnerable during the pandemic and who we should continue to protect as we emerge from Covid-19. This is actually an opportunity for Government to establish a template or just transition model by addressing first and foremost energy poverty in the country.

11:25 am

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Dáil is debating the issue of fuel poverty. From time to time the Dáil has debates of this kind.

Usually, they do not generate much passion or many column inches in the newspapers, which is perhaps not surprising because very few Deputies and few enough journalists suffer from fuel poverty. That is not the case, however, for many people living in this State. It is a scandal that in 2021, in one of the richest countries on earth, one in six suffers from fuel poverty. The State does not take enough action to tackle this problem; in fact, in many respects the State worsens the problem. Let me give the House two examples.

The first example is of the State not doing enough to tackle the issue. If we were to take 157,000 houses across Cork city and county and raise their BER ratings to B2 or better, it would cost €380 million each year. The State spends €40 million annually on the warmer homes scheme. An initiative such as I have outlined would create 7,000 jobs and lift 25% of those households out of fuel poverty. That is the kind of initiative that is needed rather than the pitiful efforts in which the State is engaging.

I will give an example of how the State is worsening the position. The ESRI said on 19 June last year, and this is a direct quote, "Carbon taxation is found to be regressive, with poorer households spending a greater proportion of their income on the tax than more affluent households." What does the Government do? It proposes a carbon tax not just kicking in in May 2021 but year on year, every single year, for ten years. What effect will that have on fuel poverty in this country? What effect will it have in being what the ESRI described as a regressive tax? Will it take more people out of fuel poverty or push more people into fuel poverty? To ask the question is to answer it. We need bold policies to tackle the climate crisis in this country, but carbon taxes, which are ineffective and which alienate large numbers of people from a progressive green agenda, are not part of the solution, and those taxes should, in our view, be scrapped.

Particular issues have been raised by the pandemic. I wish to draw attention to the double whammy of individuals or households who have lost their jobs or who have maintained their jobs but lost some income and now work from home. The income is down, in some cases way down, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the heating bills, particularly in the winter months, go up in order for these individuals to be able to work from home in something other than freezing or Arctic conditions. I support all the positive proposals in the motion to address this issue but I would go further and say two things. First, there should be no cut-offs of electricity, gas, etc., for people who fall behind on their utility bills, especially in this situation of a double whammy in the pandemic. Second, there should be an audit of energy debt. What debts have people built up as a result of this double whammy of having their income slashed and having to work from home? There should be write-offs for people who are not wealthy: ordinary people, working people and middle-class people.

Those debts should be written off in this situation.

I make the point that utilities, including utilities that are not 100% in private ownership, are now operating to market mechanisms. They are operating to mechanisms which look at the maximisation of profits or the positive side of the balance sheet and without sufficient concern for social needs. In addition, there are fossil fuel companies that have a vested interest in acting against the climate agenda and extracting maximum profit from fossil fuels that can only damage society and the future of the human race. For these reasons, we need to break with the market model of for-profit utilities and fossil fuel companies that operate on the basis of maximising profit. In practice, that means taking these companies out of private hands and bringing them into public ownership on a democratic basis, under democratic control, workers' control and workers' management. The companies should operate in the interests of society and speeding up a genuine just transition in this country and internationally.

11:35 am

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important issue. I acknowledge the work that has been done in expanding the fuel allowance and the timeframe in which it has been allocated to people. The reality is that this winter has been particularly tough on many people who could not leave their homes to exercise and warm themselves up, especially older people who are cocooning. This winter has seen significant stress on many people because the fuel allowance they were being given was not enough to cover their costs.

The amendment tabled by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who is accompanied by the Minister of State, refers to better homes energy supports for people who are on the fuel allowance. I wish to concentrate my few words on where I see that creating difficulties. There is currently in excess of 18 months' waiting time for those who apply for the scheme. The scheme itself is very simple. The application form is two pages long and very simple, but it is sent to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, and nothing happens for up to two years. I got figures from the Department last week which show that there are probably in excess of 12,000 people who are still to have their homes inspected. There are several questions that arise in this regard. The homes of many people who applied in 2019 still have not even been inspected. We are talking about people coming out of fuel poverty by making their homes better equipped and more energy efficient. That is not happening in a timely fashion. We cannot blame Covid for this because the problem predates Covid and continues to be prolonged.

The scheme should be taken away from the SEAI and given to local authorities, which have the expertise to operate it. They are delivering disabled grants, housing aid for older people and mobility adaptation grants. They have that experience and they can deliver the scheme at a local level. They are currently delivering schemes without significant waiting times. That should be considered and addressed immediately.

As the anticipated number of houses were not improved last year or the year before, is that unspent money being carried over and added to the new announcements or is it just being lost and replaced by new money? It is very important to ensure that whatever money is allocated is spent. I have no faith that the money is being spent in a timely fashion at the moment.

Another issue with the scheme is the fact that people who were supported under a previous scheme to install attic insulation but who could not install cavity insulation because their homes have solid walls are now excluded from the additional grant aid now available in respect of external wall insulation. Those who benefitted previously cannot apply again. As such, their homes remain in the fuel poverty trap. If we are to have a just transition and bring in carbon tax, we need also to make sure that we keep up to speed with the retrofitting of such houses. They should be retrofitted in a manner and at a speed that keeps up to date with the issues that arise.

When giving out money or grants, it is very important that people are not told there is money available and given a big global figure. It is necessary to show how that money is being spent. We need to make sure it is getting to people as quickly as possible. I know the SEAI was reviewing the scheme to see how it could go be extended to applicants who had previously been successful but may not have availed of the full suite of measures required to increase one's building energy rating, BER. A BER should be done prior to the works being carried out and another should be carried out afterwards in order that we can see that there was an increase in the energy efficiency of the house. That is very important.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Last January was the coldest January in the past ten years. Sub-zero temperatures are again forecast for the coming weekend, which means the cold will be eating into many people's homes around the country. Right around Ireland, people are choosing whether to heat their homes or feed their families and whether to turn on the heating or purchase clothing for their families. It is incredible that such choices are still being made in this country in 2021, at a time when this is one of the richest countries in the world.

Through no fault of their own, the incomes of many people have collapsed. Many people, particularly those who are self-employed, have had their ability to earn an income deleted due to Government mismanagement of the Covid crisis. I know of a woman who stays in bed for a longer period each day in order that she will not have to turn on the heating in her house. With many people staying at home because they are working from home or have lost their jobs, there is far more pressure in this regard. Heating is a far bigger proportion of the weekly spend in family homes than it was previously. The Minister need not take my word for it. Recently released figures for CO2 show there has been a 6% decrease in CO2 overall, but in housing there was a 9% increase in the level of CO2 generated last year. That is proof positive that there has been an enormous increase in the level of heating of homes.

Even before Covid, Ireland had an extremely high level of fuel poverty. In 2019, EUROSTAT stated that Ireland had the highest increase in gas prices and the fifth-highest increase in electricity prices across the EU. Just before Covid, it was estimated that 8% of the population, or 393,417 people, were experiencing fuel poverty. That is incredible. The Minister should think about that. Some 393,417 people were in fuel poverty across the State just before Covid hit. That came about under the Governments in which she has been involved in one shape or another for the past ten years. It is absolutely ridiculous. It makes no logical sense that a person must be in receipt of jobseeker's allowance for in excess of 15 months before qualifying for fuel allowance. I ask the Minister to explain to me and to those 393,000 people the logic of that. Heating is an immediate issue. It is not something that can be postponed until a person qualifies under the Government's regime. During these unprecedented and extraordinary times, we in Aontú believe these rules have to be scrapped. Anybody who has been made unemployed as a result of the pandemic should have access to the fuel allowance.

I welcome the Sinn Féin motion. However, I will say that the rate of fuel poverty in the North of Ireland is estimated to be at 42% of the population, according to the Department for Communities in the North of Ireland. Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have one thing in common: none of them is doing enough to tackle the scourge of fuel poverty in the jurisdictions in which they have power.

There are three major influences on fuel poverty. First and foremost, there is income. Income has an immediate effect over the ability of a family to provide heating and that is why it is imperative that this Government addresses income in the form of fuel allowances and other supports to families.

The second influence on fuel poverty is the cost of energy and here, too, the Government is a complete laggard. I have raised this issue with the Minister for years now. All across Europe, people are reducing their energy costs with the microgeneration of energy. In the North of Ireland, roofs are festooned with solar panels. Each of those families is plugged into the grid, earning income for that electricity and, as a result, they save on energy costs at that moment and earn an income to offset energy costs for heating their homes in the winter time. Ireland, this jurisdiction, is the only jurisdiction in the EU that still has not one microgeneration project plugged into the national grid.

The third major influence on fuel poverty is the energy efficiency of homes. Ireland has been glacial in rolling out the deep retrofitting of the housing stock. It has been absolutely glacial. A Government with real ambition on fuel poverty and the environment would be significantly ramping up the insulation of homes across the country.

11:45 am

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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The carbon tax increases introduced in budget 2021 are punitive for the most vulnerable and anti-rural due to the hikes in the prices of petrol, diesel and oil. The measures included in budget 2021, such as the increase in carbon tax by €7.50 per tonne, will mean an extra €150 per year to fill a diesel car and €130 per year for a petrol car until 2030. I have a young lad below in west Cork. He told me the other day that his car insurance has gone up by 134%. How is this young man supposed to stay on the road with these huge increases in the cost of fuel and insurance? It is an extra burden on the people of rural Ireland.

The hike in carbon tax will also considerably impact the price of home heating oil until 2030. The Green Party, backed by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, is shoving these taxes down our throats. However, if one has to live in rural Ireland, one needs oil heating. One also, in all likelihood, needs fuel, coal, wood and turf. What does the Government expect us to use if we cannot use any of those products? The Green Party has wonderful dreams but it is giving families no alternative. Should we tell people to sit in their houses with their coats on? People do not have the money for extra taxes. We need an increase in the fuel allowance. Look at the people over 66 who were still working when Covid-19 hit. They were not working for the joy of it, they were doing it because they had no choice. There has been not one extra brown cent for those workers over 66. This Government would want to wake up and realise that these are the people who built Ireland. I wonder how many people woke up this morning wondering how they are going to pay their ESB bill. I wonder how many woke up cold. Has the Minister any idea what it is like to sit in a house week in, week out during a pandemic and not have enough money to heat the home?

Recipients of the PUP should receive the fuel allowance and we need an increase in all of those allowances. They should be more easily accessible. Data indicate that some 28% of householders in Ireland are in energy poverty and that some 400,000 people go without heating at some stage because of the cost. The available payments, such as the fuel allowance, do not cover many of those affected. The increases in costs associated with home heating oil will, therefore, make the situation worse and increase the issue of fuel poverty.

The Minister said this morning that we should redirect people to her Department. The red tape attached to this means it is not viable. I talk about warmer homes and Deputy Canney spoke about it previously and he is right. There is a two-year waiting list. It is outrageous that people who want an alternative and are willing to make the move are still finding the fences impossible to jump to get their homes. I know many people in west Cork, in places such as Bantry, Skibbereen, Clonakilty and Bandon, who come to me. We have been filling out these forms for the past two years. They contact me again and I ask "Are you codding me?" when they say nothing has happened. We cannot get our homes insulated and get the job done. I look at the warmer homes scheme that was being laid out in Bantry. When it was first made available, people like Finbarr O'Sullivan ran meticulous projects insulating elderly people's homes and so on. What did the Government do? It pulled those jobs. Those people have no jobs. Five jobs have been lost in the past few weeks.

The time for talking is over. The Green Party has dreams but I call on it to come up with a reality for the people on the ground.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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I fully support this motion on fuel poverty and am delighted to speak on the matter. It is particularly relevant to the midlands region from which I come. The Government does not seem to know or care about that region. That is the truth and that is the message that is coming through to my offices from constituents.

If we want to talk about poverty, then this Government needs to get real sooner rather than later. It needs to demand a total and complete reassessment of the so-called just transition process which is a grave injustice to the people of the midlands. This process is on the verge of driving hundreds of Bord na Móna workers and up to 17,000 people in our horticulture sector into unemployment because of the hare-brained ideas that this Government is standing over and willing to support to the detriment of people in the midlands who are on their knees.

The midlands is a region that has always suffered inequality. It has the second lowest rate of disposable income in this State and yet the Government is not waking up and seeing the harsh realities and struggles of the people, workers and communities who are being left behind. We have no alternative jobs or alternative fuel sources and it is absolutely ridiculous to have such an injustice imposed on people. That is what it is. This could be done in a much more gradual way when we have an alternative fuel source. This reassessment should be carried out by the Government but should also involve Bord na Móna going back to the drawing board and reapplying for a licence to recommence peat harvesting. We were all, including the workers, of the view that they had until 2030. These are people with mortgages who need to put food on the table. They are real people who are being sacrificed because of so-called Government policies. Does the Government realise that this country only accounts for 0.1% of the world's emissions? Yet it expects the midlands to save the planet. That is the ideology here and it is absolutely crazy.

I want to make it clear that these workers are being let go, left without jobs in the middle of a global pandemic, and there is no empathy for them. As I have said before in this Chamber, workers, enterprises and communities are being left behind. There needs to be alternative employment and alternative fuel. I call on all midlands Deputies here today to put their money where their mouths are because otherwise their statements will ring hollow. There needs to be an urgent reassessment of the just transition process.

It is ironic that the people who will lose their jobs as a result of the decision made by Bord na Móna will not be able to access the fuel allowance until they are in receipt of jobseeker's payment for over 15 months. It is unacceptable that people in receipt of the PUP cannot receive the fuel allowance. There is a complete inability to enter into the experiences of people who have little income and must worry about how they are going to heat their homes. I support the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, suggestion of a national policy review on energy.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Thank you, Deputy.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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I also want to say that it is an insult to the people of Offaly-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Thank you, Deputy.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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-----who are now going into shops and workers and families of workers-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Thank you, Deputy. I am going to go to the Deputy's colleague, Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad of the opportunity to talk on this important matter. I support the call for the increase in the fuel allowance and to allow others on social welfare to access the fuel allowance. As has already been mentioned, 15 months is too long for someone to wait if he or she cannot afford heating.

My real problem is with the Government and its policies that increase the cost of fuel, coal and briquettes and put them out of the reach of ordinary people who are on social welfare or the old age pension. Those people have to count every penny as they go. Briquettes were among the available forms of heating. Women, young and old people picked up a couple of bales of briquettes that were easy to handle and clean, and provided good heat.

We are being told by the Government that we will not have them any more in a couple of years. It is saying it will be four years before they are finished, but I think it will be a lot sooner than that. The Government is driving people to use electricity. It says electricity is the way to go and that we should have electric cars, but does the Government not realise that the cost of electricity has gone up? The Government is promoting electric cars, yet we are told it will cost €26,000 to put a kerbside charging point in a housing estate. Does the Government stand over that? Then the Government tells people they cannot cut turf. Where I come from, people went out into the countryside and they were proud to cut turf in the summer time and to dry it and bring it home. They were proud to cut timber and put it into a shed to dry before they used it. They were proud to sit in front of their fires, which kept them warm, going back decades and centuries. The Taoiseach is following the Green Party out the gap like a dog following a flock of sheep. He is doing everything it tells him. Last night we heard the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, boasting that we are going to lead the way. I remind him that we are a small country and if we were to turn out the lights and leave this wonderful country we are living in, it would only make 0.13 of 1% in the overall context of reducing carbon emissions. We are all under the one sky. Is this what the Government has done to rural Ireland?

11:55 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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If it is, the Taoiseach will never be heard of again. If he stops the people in Kerry-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Go raibh maith ag an Teachta.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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-----and rural areas from cutting turf-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We are eating into the time of other Deputies. We are moving on.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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The people of Ireland-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Deputy Healy-Rae is eating into other people's time. I call on Deputy Fitzmaurice of the Independent Group.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I support and welcome the motion. However, it should be made clear that, unfortunately, Governments do not listen often enough to motions in here. I assure Deputy Danny Healy-Rae that whether it is the Green Party, Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, given what is going on in this country at the moment it is like the Chihuahua pulling the Great Dane's tail. The Green Party is dictating the pace. I assure him that it tried once to stop us cutting turf and it failed, and it will not succeed a second time if it tries anything. I say that loud and clear to the Green Party. We know that the carbon tax has gone up and that people in rural Ireland are basically hit with double taxation at the moment. People do not realise that the Government is trying to bring in a Bill to stop exploration for oil and gas. We need to realise that the gas that is coming in from Europe goes through the UK and we know the situation that has developed there at the moment. Whether we like it or not, we have no security of fuel now in this country. Even if we have all the wind turbines in the world, we will still need the gas plants to run at 50%. We need to get real. No more than with electricity, we are now pushing the country to danger levels with energy supply. There is also a situation developing regarding peat. Bord na Móna has closed down bogs but private contractors used to rent land from it, which ensured that ordinary people in rural areas got enough turf for their own fire. Instead of hiding behind some of his staff who are lower down in Bord na Móna, Tom Donnellan needs to clarify what is going on there.

I got a phone call this morning in the constituency I share with Deputy Kerrane from a person who is living in a social house. The house is heated by electric heaters and with the PSO levies adding to the cost of electricity, it costs €75 per week to heat. The person wanted to know if there is any new type of heater that would help or if the council could do something. Retrofitting is important and we all support that. Every mechanism to reduce the consumption of energy is fully endorsed by everybody, but the reality is that it comes at a price.

In fairness to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, last year she extended the fuel allowance for an extra period. I acknowledge and welcome that. I hope that the same is done again. My concern is that if it is extended for the rest of the year, with the way the Green Party is pulling the tails of the other parties, we are going to be living in a country where people will be looking out a half door but they might not live too long because they will be perished or they might not have electricity. We are putting this country at risk at the moment and we must call for that to stop. Everyone believes in doing things better and in trying to be more efficient, but one cannot cut off one's nose to spite one's face just to dot the i's and cross the t's for one's parliamentary party and say one got this through because it was in the programme for Government.

The peat briquettes are available from Bord na Móna until 2024 or 2025. I have been told by about 20 people in the past week that loads of them are coming in from Germany. The Government can be proud of itself that that is happening at the moment. Loads of milled peat are coming in now from Estonia and some other countries for the horticulture sector. The Government can be proud of itself that there is a boat now bringing it across, even though we have it beside us. It is like telling the Arabs that we will sell them oil. This is the country that we are now shaping to be. We tell everyone that we are great. We are so clean and we are so green, but no more than the Mercosur deal that some of them are twisting and turning about voting for now, the reality is that in Europe and in Ireland we seem to be happy to import everything and say we only used it here, we did not dig it up out of the ground or we did not do this, that or the other. A bit of cop on is needed at the moment. This runaway train will be stopped. I assure the Green Party that the moment this pandemic is over-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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-----as soon as we can stand up, the people of rural Ireland will show the Government-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy. I call Deputy Pringle.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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-----in Dublin the anger they have over what it is doing.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important motion today. I have previously spoken about fuel poverty in Donegal and there have been many studies, reports and papers on the continuing issue of fuel poverty in Ireland. Five years ago, Unite the Union published a report entitled, A Cold Christmas, which examined the rate of fuel poverty on a county-by-county basis. It followed the release of results from the CSO survey of income and living conditions, SILC, on deprivation, poverty, and household income. One of the questions in the survey was: "Have you ever had to go without heating during the last 12 months through lack of money...have you had to go without a fire on a cold day, or go to bed to keep warm or light the fire late because of lack of coal-fuel?" At that time, more than 700,000 people across the Republic answered "Yes", and 30,700 of those respondents were in Donegal. The report found that Donegal had the highest level of fuel deprivation. Donegal also has the lowest level of household income across the country.

In 2019, Social Justice Ireland reported that almost 400,000 people in Ireland experienced fuel deprivation, while Ireland was also ranked among the top five in a EUROSTAT report for energy price increases. It seems that fuel deprivation and energy poverty have been a significant problem in Ireland forever. Detached houses in rural areas with inappropriate or no insulation and our cold climate have created an environment where people are cold and unwell due to insufficient heat in their homes. That was all before Covid-19 hit. Since this time last year, the world has been turned on its head, with economies, industries and countries closing down while a deadly, contagious pandemic spread across the globe. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on employment. In Ireland, in the middle of this third level 5 lockdown, almost 500,000 people are in receipt of the PUP, a newly introduced social welfare payment for those who lost their jobs, permanently or temporarily, due to Covid-19.

The motion states: "a person who loses their job cannot access the Fuel Allowance until they are in receipt of a Jobseeker's payment for more than 390 days (over 15 months)" and that "the Fuel Allowance is not available to recipients of the PUP."

Not only are more people unemployed now than ever, but more people are working from home. Those of us lucky enough to have a home have higher household costs due to work, home schooling, multiple tenants working from home and so on. This motion is timely and important.

The stress, anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic is not something that we can control, but the Government does hold the purse strings and can take certain measures to help residents across Ireland. It was a long, dark and cold January and granting the fuel allowance to people in receipt of PUP is one easy step which should have been taken immediately and would have alleviated it.

I commend Senator Lynn Boylan on the Living in Energy Poverty report which followed an online cost of energy survey at the end of last year. Almost 300 people responded to the survey and it is very important to hear their real-life experiences and personal stories. Too often public policy and legislation are discussed in a vacuum and we just look at costs and figures rather than the quality of life of residents around Ireland.

That said, it is important to collect, collate and analyse data to ensure that Government programmes are meeting their objectives. I have often said that I wish this Government was not reactive but proactive. In that vein, I was reading Spending Review 2020: Social Impact Assessment – SEAI Programmes Targeting Energy Poverty, published by the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, in October 2020. The paper looked at the SEAI’s Better Energy Homes and Better Energy Communities schemes but found that the level of data collected was insufficient to provide an assessment of the schemes’ impact on recipients. It was not possible to determine whether the schemes brought recipients out of energy poverty.It is hard to believe that we would spend money without trying to determine if it is having any effect. Then again, perhaps it is not so hard to believe when one considers what else this Government does not ask questions about.

Apparently, there is a CSO-led project to establish indicators for energy poverty in which the Department will be participating. This project is expected to provide an evidence base to improve the targeting of energy efficiency schemes and for a future, updated social impact assessment. The IGEES report also states that the Department and the ESRI are undertaking research which includes "an examination of the impact of retrofitting on alleviating energy poverty". This is happening after the event and after the work has been done. Unsurprisingly, the SEAI does not record the building energy rating, BER, of homes before works undertaken under the warmer homes scheme. This creates such a dearth of information on the extent of fuel deprivation and energy poverty throughout the country.

Why is the Government funding programmes but not having the impact of programmes properly assessed? Some charities, NGOs and other civil society groups would have their funding stripped if they were not providing an accurate impact analysis and evaluation of the outcome of expenditure. The IGEES report suggests that assessment information could be used to assess the schemes’ impact on taking recipients out of energy poverty and on the broader cohort who are considered to be at risk of, or experiencing, energy poverty. I suppose it is better late than never.

12:05 pm

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank Deputies for an engaging discussion on the very important issue of fuel poverty. As outlined by my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, we want to ensure that we provide the types of supports which offer help to the people who need it most. We want to avoid the use of untargeted measures which do not sufficiently prioritise and target those most in need of the relevant supports to ensure that expenditure on such measures provides the maximum benefit to those in specific need.

To date we have spent more than €10 billion on Covid-19-related income transfers, including in excess of €5.5 billion on the PUP scheme to more than 820,000 individuals and about the same again in payments in respect of wage subsidy schemes to in excess of 440,000 people. It is important to reiterate the findings of recent ESRI research which showed that the PUP and the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, have been effective in cushioning families at the lower end of the income distribution table from losses and have largely absorbed the impact of income losses for the bottom 40%. The Government has extended the PUP and the wage subsidy schemes until the end of March 2021 and will continue to monitor the position, ensuring that these schemes will remain in place as long as is necessary.

The Government is committed to supporting those on low incomes with their home heating costs through the fuel allowance scheme and other supports. Just four weeks ago on 4 January, the most recent increase to the fuel allowance payment took effect. The increase of €3.50 per week took the weekly payment to €28, the highest weekly rate ever for the fuel allowance, meaning that each qualifying household will receive €784 over the course of a year. This season more than 372,000 households will be supported with this allowance at a cost of more than €300 million. In 2020, taking account of the prevailing weather conditions and the Covid-19 crisis, the fuel allowance season was extended by four weeks to support qualifying households further. The current season is due to end on 9 April, but as in previous years, the Government will consider extending the season if prevailing economic and-or weather conditions necessitate it. An estimated 465,000 households receive support with their electricity and gas bills through the household benefits package throughout the full year at a cost of €265 million annually. The household benefits package is specifically targeted at those who are 70 years old and over and is a non-means-tested payment.

In budget 2021 the Government committed that one third of increased carbon tax revenues would go towards boosting the incomes of the poorest in society. There have been some incorrect comments made on this today and I want to make clear that specific targeted increases in social welfare payments, outlined by the ESRI, were implemented with a view to ensuring that the poorest in society would not be hit by increases in carbon tax. It is the case that those who are worst off are benefiting financially from the transfer of carbon tax increases to social welfare payments. The ESRI identified three key payments from the Department of Social Protection which could help to channel carbon tax revenues towards those most in need, namely, the fuel allowance, the living alone allowance and the qualified child allowance. These measures are ensuring that the carbon tax is working as an anti-poverty tool for those most in need. That might not be popular but that is the reality. From January the living alone allowance has been increased by €5 to €19 per week at a cost of €57.5 million, providing critical additional targeted support to more than 220,000 customers who live alone. Also from January this year, qualified child allowance payments have been increased by €2 per week, from €36 to €38, for children under 12 and by €5, from €40 to €45, for children aged 12 and over. It is estimated that this will benefit 419,000 children who are most in need.

In addition to the support schemes I have mentioned, the Government provides targeted supports to people facing exceptional costs or experiencing financial difficulties through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. Payments are made under this scheme in respect of exceptional heating costs, and in excess of 2,000 such payments were made in 2020. It is important to reiterate that the budget for the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is not capped and is operated in a discretionary and flexible manner by community welfare officers who can judge each case based on individual need. Schemes such as the supplementary welfare allowance facilitate specific targeting to ensure that resources are available to those most in need. The Department actively promotes the availability of supplementary welfare allowance payments via its web and social media channels, Intreo centres, citizens information centres and Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, offices. I would respectfully ask all Deputies and those listening to this debate to spread the word about the availability of the supplementary welfare allowance if they really want to support people who are having difficulties covering their fuel costs.

I have highlighted the range of other income supports by way of acknowledging that fuel poverty is not a stand-alone issue but rather a manifestation of income poverty. Thus, it is important to look holistically at the range of supports available to households to try to alleviate poverty in all of its forms. However, the focus at all times must be on tackling one of the root causes of fuel poverty, and it is imperative to acknowledge that if we are to achieve long-term sustainable reductions in household energy costs, we must improve the structural insulation issues impacting on the cost of heating homes to tackle fuel poverty in a meaningful way. This is why one of the Government's key commitments is to support the retrofitting of Ireland's housing stock, which ultimately reduces fuel and heating costs and is better for the environment in the long run. In line with programme for Government commitments, this year will see the largest budget for retrofitting in the history of the State. Our emphasis is on cutting energy costs over the medium to long term so that in the future there will be less need for reliance on short-term measures such as the fuel allowance. Our prioritising of retrofitting as a means of tackling fuel poverty is clear from the 82% increase in the budget available this year to the SEAI, with a total budget of €221 million in 2021.

Deputy Barry mentioned a figure of €40 million for the warmer homes scheme but that is not correct. The budget for this year is almost triple that, at €109 million. The warmer homes scheme is being ramped up very significantly this year. The scheme supports those on lower incomes to retrofit their homes to reduce their energy bills sustainably and permanently. In addition, through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, we have committed funding of €65 million in 2021 to support the retrofitting of up to 2,400 social housing homes. Providing funding for these types of initiatives is critical to ensuring that we reduce fuel poverty in the long term.

I also think it is an opportune time to mention a relevant initiative supported by the Minister's other Department, the Department of Rural and Community Development, which is of particular relevance to today's topic. I refer to the Community Call initiative. This was set up at the beginning of the pandemic last year as a collaboration between State agencies and the community and voluntary sector to ensure the most vulnerable and isolated got the support they needed. In every local authority area, there is a Community Call helpline which helps to connect people with local groups that can help with the collection and delivery of essential items, including fuel, for people who are particularly vulnerable and isolated. It also assists people who are feeling socially isolated or medically vulnerable. I mention this initiative because there may be people who are not accessing the fuel they need or, indeed, the payments they need due to difficulties caused by the pandemic or the associated restrictions. Again I say it is important that we, as public representatives, are aware of these helplines and that contributing organisations are still very much available for those who need them. Some of the earlier examples cited today with regard to isolated older people and, in particular, those living alone do not really recognise this aspect of poverty or the reality and complexity of poverty.

I acknowledge Deputy Whitmore's mention of a just transition. Other Deputies also mentioned it. This will be a key principle informing the work of the Department. I want to acknowledge that. It is incumbent on us all to work together to provide the necessary supports to those in our society who need them. In that spirit, I reiterate my request to all Deputies to promote the availability of the supplementary welfare allowance. There are 63 Intreo offices open across the country for people who are in financial need at this difficult time.

I want to pick up on a couple of other points. Deputy Sherlock asked about the two fuel allowance seasons and suggested the allowance was lower this year. He is comparing apples with oranges because this fuel season is not yet complete. Last year's was exceptionally long and this one may also be long. That is the difference; this fuel season is not yet complete. Deputy Tóibín mentioned the capacity of microgeneration to reduce fuel costs. He is absolutely correct. I am glad to announce that a public consultation on microgeneration is ongoing. The area has great capacity.

I acknowledge the passion for rural Ireland shown by Deputies Nolan, Fitzmaurice and Danny Healy-Rae. I only have 30 seconds and I need to say a couple of other things. I have heard the Deputies and we are listening to them. It might surprise them to learn that we are more approachable than they might think. I am of rural Ireland myself. I know they need to make some points today but I ask them also to talk to us. We are amenable and we understand the issues about which they are talking.

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, highlighted earlier the range of supports provided by the Department, which is working to alleviate poverty for those most in need and doing so in a targeted way to ensure supports are provided where they are most needed. The Government is committed to ensuring this remains the case. The Minister has committed to meeting the NGOs to which reference was made today with regard to their concerns about fuel poverty. I thank Deputies for their engagement this morning. It is important that we ensure these vital targeted supports are in place for those who most need them and, accordingly, I commend the Government's amendment to the House.

12:15 pm

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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An old Dublin saying from the tenement days - "first up, best dressed" - describes how those in a family who got up first thing in the morning had a better chance of being fed for the day. It is now a hundred years later and nothing has changed. Anyone who is on the PUP should be getting fuel allowance. They have been put out in the cold by Covid and they should not be cold at home. Our proposals will benefit not only those on the PUP, but also those who have lost their jobs, lone parents, carers, older persons, persons with a disability and widows. Many of them already receive fuel allowance but we are seeking a double payment for them in February to get them over the hump of this cold weather.

Last week, more than 475,000 people in this State received the pandemic unemployment payment. That is 475,000 people who have lost their jobs and their income from work. Many are now struggling to pay their bills, get food on the table and stay on top of paying for their daily needs. No one should be forced to choose between having a warm home and eating. That is the stark reality. In my own constituency of Dublin Mid-West, I have received countless calls from people who are struggling. These are families who have never experienced such hardships before and who cannot get a break from banks or mortgage providers without incurring unjust penalties.

One of the few positive things to emerge from this crisis is the rallying together of communities. The resilience of our communities has been pushed to its extremes but they have continued to support the most vulnerable among us. In my own community, the food bank has become a necessary and essential service for those who have to avail of it. A steering group has been set up by community groups in Clondalkin including Neart le Chéile, the Quarryvale Community and Youth Centre and youth services in Clondalkin and Ronanstown. This group currently supports the basic food needs of 350 adults and children per week without any Government intervention.

We urge every Deputy in the House to support this motion so that parents do not have to choose between feeding their kids and heating their homes. The Minister of State, who is a member of the Green Party, spoke about the carbon tax. This will only push people further into poverty and cause more problems down the road.

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I have listened to the Minister and many of the speakers this morning. There are more than 48,000 people on the PUP in Cork alone. I have heard the Government speakers talk about the living alone allowance, the exceptional needs payment - let us get it right, the exceptional needs payment is only a once-off payment - the other payments and the retrofitting scheme. These speakers are missing the point. This motion is about giving families and workers a bit of a break. We have an emergency and we are asking for emergency measures to be put in place to support the people of our country.

I heard some rhetoric a while ago. The Government is worrying about everybody else. It should stop trying to score political points. This is about public representation in the House. We are elected to represent the people outside the Houses. We hear this rhetoric and are told that the Government has spent A, B and C. That is taxpayers' money, the money of the people of the country. The Government should not try to fool people outside the House by saying this cannot be done. It was done for the banks. The Government did not have to make excuses but rather bailed them out. Who is bailing people out now? It is the taxpayer once again. The money the Government has borrowed to cover these payments will have to be paid back. Who is going to pay for that? It will be paid for by the same gang the Government is hitting with its tax on the PUP. It is not listening to the people outside the door who have lost their jobs. Banks are unfortunately not playing ball with mortgage holders. We hear this every day in our constituency offices.

People are poor. A friend of my family has a disability and has had a heart attack. He is lucky enough to live on his own. Every day he goes to a bus stop to sit and talk to people. He then gets on a bus to stay warm before getting off in the next town or village where he does the same thing again. He does this all day and all night until he gets home. That is the reality of what is happening in this country. We are talking about a temporary measure involving a minuscule €28 a week. Let us get our heads out of the sand and do the right thing. The Minister should listen to and support Deputy Kerrane's motion.

Claire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I am bitterly disappointed with the Government's response to this motion. There is nothing new at all in its amendment. I have read the real-life stories of people who are struggling to pay their bills. There is nothing for them in this amendment. I have repeatedly raised the issue of fuel costs with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. My first ask related to the 15-month rule. This means that if one loses one's job tomorrow, one will typically get €203 in jobseeker's allowance. This can represent a very great reduction in one's weekly income but one must wait 15 months for assistance with one's fuel costs. Neither Minister made reference to that issue. I have asked the Minister about this 15-month rule on two previous occasions and twice she has told me that she has looked at it. Despite this, she did not mention it today.

If the supplementary welfare allowance is available and is doing fine and if it is what we should be pushing, why are ten organisations on the ground, including lone-parent organisations, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Children's Rights Alliance and Barnardos, calling for more? They are saying that what the Minister is doing is not enough. I have just searched the allowance on Google, as many listening at home would if they were struggling, and there is no mention of help with fuel costs or utility bills. The first line of the article I have found says that one can apply if one has no income. Where is the Minister publicising this? She needs to publicise it more. Is it publicised in the offices? Most offices are closed so people cannot see that. I ask the Minister at least to roll out some information so that people know the allowance is available because people are not aware of it.

There is nothing new in the Minister's amendment. The only new announcement for PUP recipients is that they are going to face tax bills. That is it. I appreciate that the Minister has said there is a cost in what we are proposing. I know that, but what is the cost of taking no action? We know that this State is spending billions every year dealing with poverty but we are taking no action on this. The Minister has spoken about the fuel allowance and about household benefits packages, neither of which people on the PUP can access. Hence the whole point of this motion in the first place. The Minister has taken exception to the €5 million fund. That is an ask from those very ten organisations that I have met and that I welcome that the Minister has said she has met. That is their ask; it is not a Sinn Féin one. It is coming from those people on the ground who are saying that what is there is not enough.

In response to Deputy Bruton who spoke a great deal about the type of heating that houses are using, that is well and good, but the reality is that people cannot afford to change their type of heating. When the Government keeps increasing the carbon tax, which will be increased by €7.50 in a few weeks, that makes it even more out of reach for people. They cannot afford to change their heating systems. I take exception to what has been said on the carbon tax increases and the non-impact that these will have on people. The Minister has a report by her own Department that tells her that the incoming increases and future increases in the carbon tax will impact low-income households disproportionately. I will send the Minister that report, although I can see her shaking her head. It is there in black and white. This is an issue that has been raised over and over again.

Reference was made to the warmer homes scheme. Again, this is great, but there are more than 8,000 people on a waiting list for that. I was speaking to a lady the other day and she has an application in since July 2019. Yes, those schemes are great, but if people cannot access them and are waiting nearly two years just to hear back, then that is a problem.

I ask the Minister to reconsider the position on utility bills and costs. This is not just coming from us and, in fairness, the Opposition is totally united in telling the Minister that there is a problem here, that workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and the families of those workers are suffering. They are struggling with these bills and we need the Minister to take action on them. That is the ask.

The double payment of the fuel allowance in February has been done before. It will cost approximately €20 million and will help people who are already in receipt of the fuel allowance who are struggling to meet their heating bills because more people are spending more time at home to comply with the public health restrictions. This means that they are using more electricity and heat. We need to take action on that. What the Minister’s amendment is suggesting is that the Government is spending a great deal of money on the PUP and on the employment wage subsidy scheme, and that is fine. What we and the organisations on the ground are saying to the Minister is that this is not enough. The cost of doing nothing is far greater than the cost of €200 million to take action. I ask the Minister to look at what we have done in the North just last week. A one-off payment of £200 was made to recognise in some way at least how people are suffering in the midst of this global pandemic and to take some action to help those workers and families who the Minister has decided here today she is not going to help. That is a great shame.

Amendment agreed to.

12:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The amendment is agreed.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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It is not agreed.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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It has just been agreed. The amendment was put and nobody dissented.

Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."

Claire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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A division has been called and, in accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the scheduled weekly division time, which I understand will be organised later during the course of the Order of Business.