Seanad debates

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

3:00 am

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Seanadóir as ucht na ceiste seo a ardú liom agus deis a thabhairt dom an fíor-scéal atá ann a chur ar an taifead. I thank the Senator for raising this issue. As she knows, immediately after the floods, the Government set up a fund. It is important, when disbursing public money, to make sure there is some process in place. At the end of the day, it is very easy subsequently to make allegations that people who were not entitled to funding received it.

The bulk of the overall cost of repairing the damage caused to individuals' homes by last November's flooding is being met through insurance policies held by those affected. The insurance industry is in the course of discharging its financial obligations to its policyholders. However, in recognition of the devastation suffered in many areas of the country as a result of the flooding from November onwards, the Government set up a humanitarian assistance scheme.

The scheme has two objectives. First, it provided financial and other forms of assistance, without a means test, in the immediate aftermath of the flooding. Second, it provides income-tested financial support for the replacement of essential household items and home repairs in cases not covered by insurance.

The HSE's community welfare staff in Galway and elsewhere have been providing support for households since the flooding occurred. Up to 12 March, they had made 2,657 payments to 1,242 individuals to the value of €1,040,000 throughout the country. The largest payment to an individual was in excess of €20,000. In Galway 747 payments have been made to 333 individuals to the value of almost €300,000. Most of these payments have been in respect of immediate needs such as clothing, food, bedding, heating, hire of dehumidifiers and emergency accommodation needs. The community welfare service will continue to make these payments as long as they are needed. Such emergency payments under the humanitarian assistance scheme are made without delay and without regard to household income, as the primary objective of that type of payment is to address a person's immediate needs.

Payments have also been made in respect of essential household items such as carpets, flooring, furniture and white goods. Payments in respect of longer term needs such as meeting the cost of repairing homes and making them habitable again take somewhat longer as homeowners must first establish the cost of repair. Homeowners and builders are not in a position to do this in the immediate aftermath of a flood for practical reasons. Consequently, very few large-scale claims have been made. However, with the passage of time individuals are now in a better position to assess the extent of the damage to their homes. Consequently, it is expected that more large-scale claims will be received in the coming weeks. As homeowners establish the cost of repair by securing builders' estimates, the extent of the loss is verified, usually by a loss assessor in cases where significant amounts are claimed. Details of the amounts that can be provided under the humanitarian assistance scheme are then sent to the homeowners in question.

While the timescale for determining applications for humanitarian assistance claims is dependent, among other things, on the availability of the required information, there is no backlog of undecided claims. According to the information available from the HSE, there are approximately 50 applications being assessed and only four claims have been refused.

The level of payment available under the aid scheme to any qualified individual depends on the severity of the damage to the person's home and the extent of the loss experienced, as well as household income and general family circumstances. The scheme provides for hardship alleviation, as opposed to full compensation. As on previous occasions, commercial or business losses are not covered by the scheme, nor are losses covered by household insurance.

Applications under the scheme are being income tested to ensure the available assistance is prioritised for those who are most vulnerable. The basic objective of the income test is to determine the household's capacity to meet the cost of restoring their home to a habitable condition, with an underlying principle that individuals and families with average levels of income will qualify for assistance. All household income is considered when determining entitlement to payment.

Detailed guidelines have been provided for the HSE for the income test. These guidelines also contain a list of the type of goods or appliances that are generally covered by the scheme and what replacement value should typically be attributable to each item. This list is not exhaustive and is intended as a guide only.

The community welfare service has full discretion to make payments at a higher level than a strict application of the income test would warrant in any individual case where it considers it appropriate to do so. This income test and guidelines simplify the assessment process and allow for the speedy processing of applications.

No claims have been refused because of household income. Under the scheme, a personal contribution may be sought in cases where household income is above average, having regard to household size, mortgage and other outgoings. In those cases, less than 100% of the allowable cost of repair may be provided under the scheme. In all cases so far finalised in Galway, 100% of the allowable cost of repair has been provided and no personal contribution has been sought. Elsewhere, a personal contribution in the range 2% to 11% has been sought in a relatively small number of claims.

People seeking assistance should contact their local community welfare office. Further information and application forms in respect of the humanitarian assistance scheme are available from the community welfare service in the affected areas and from the Department's website, www.welfare.ie, and the HSE's website, www.hse.ie.

Some of the people talking to the Senator were in contact with me a few weeks ago before I was given this new portfolio. I encouraged them to fill in the form. I know form-filling causes challenges for people. However, I think some of them were under the misguided belief that we were applying a kind of supplementary welfare test and that is not so. A much higher income is allowable and anyone with an ordinary modest average household income will get the compensation, subject to the submission of an insurance claim in the first instance. The wider issue of insurance is an issue for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. I am more than aware of this issue and I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister.

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