Thursday, 7 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Social Welfare Eligibility
One in four people in Ireland today cannot afford to heat or light their homes. Electricity prices are way ahead of what they were in 2019 as are gas and solid fuel prices. Families' heating bills have increased dramatically. This has been compounded by the increase in carbon taxes and the subsidisation of data centres. While we need to increase the fuel allowance we also need a longer term strategy to address fuel poverty.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. The fuel allowance is a payment of €28 per week for 28 weeks, a total of €784 each year, from October to April, to 370,000 low-income households at an estimated cost of €300 million in 2021. The purpose of this payment is to assist these households with their energy costs. The allowance represents a contribution towards the energy costs of a household. It is not intended to meet these costs in full. Only one allowance is paid per household.
The criteria for fuel allowance are framed in order to direct the limited resources available to my Department in as targeted a manner as possible. All recipients of non-contributory payments are accepted as satisfying the means test for fuel. People who are in receipt of a qualifying contributory payment must also satisfy a means test.
A fuel applicant and members of his or her household may have a combined assessable income of up to €100 a week above the appropriate rate of State pension contributory and qualify for a payment. This ensures that the fuel allowance payment goes to those who are more vulnerable to fuel poverty, including those reliant on social protection payments for longer periods and who are unlikely to have additional resources of their own. Any decision to amend the criteria would have to be considered in the overall policy and budgetary context.
This year, funds raised through the carbon tax will again support targeted social welfare and other initiatives to alleviate fuel poverty and ensure a just transition. In this regard, in the forthcoming budget the Government will consider how it can support people on low incomes and those on social welfare payments. The outcome of these considerations will be announced on budget day.
In Project Ireland 2040 I secured a budget of €4 billion to carry out deep retrofits and energy efficiency measures to take dirty fossil fuels out of our heating system by the middle of the next decade. The challenge is in physically achieving these targets. One of the main measures on fuel poverty is improving energy efficiency in our homes. There are 7,000 families in receipt of the fuel allowance who have been waiting 26 months to have these retrofits carried out. The Minister is aware that the Oireachtas joint committee, in its pre-budget recommendations, has asked the Minister to engage directly with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to fast-track the delivery of these projects and to introduce a half-rate fuel allowance for people who are just over the income threshold.
As the Deputy knows, my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communication, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has the role of reducing energy poverty by implementing measures to improve the energy efficiency of Irish homes. In 2016, the Government launched a comprehensive strategy to combat energy poverty following extensive publication. Deputy Naughten is very familiar with this as a former Minister who was involved in it. The strategy was spearheaded by the then Minister with responsibility for the environment. The strategy sets out the Government commitment to protecting vulnerable households from energy poverty through a combination of supports, investment in schemes to improve energy efficiency, and energy efficiency awareness initiatives. The Deputy is absolutely right that the best long-term approach is to make sure homes are warmer. We need to invest in energy efficiency. The Government is committed to supporting households with their energy costs through energy efficiency measures, with a total retrofit budget in excess of €280 million. The Deputy raised the issue of the delays. I expect that Covid has made the situation somewhat worse. This does not mean we should not be addressing it. I will raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, directly.
I am afraid the delays were also there at the time of the former Minister, Deputy Bruton. We need to increase the fuel allowance. We need to increase the rate and extend the period. This needs to happen in this budget. This will be a treadmill unless we take a long-term strategic approach to improving the energy efficiency of every home throughout the country. We need to target those who are fuel poor. We also need to develop clustered bungalow housing for older people in our towns and villages so they can sell up older large houses and move into far more energy-efficient homes closer to services. The Government needs to drive this. We also need to ensure those families over the income thresholds that cannot afford to put the capital investment along with the grant aid are able to access 0% loans to carry out the retrofits needed to their homes.
I thank the Deputy. He has raised a number of points that stretch over a number of Departments. He will appreciate I cannot announce the social protection budget here today. I can assure the Deputy that the Government is acutely aware of the recent energy price increases and their impact on households. It is also important to state we are doing a lot already to help people with their fuel costs.