Seanad debates

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

3:00 am

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus chomhghairdeas dhó ar son a portfolio nua, social protection. The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, is very welcome and I am delighted to be addressing him because he is now the appropriate Minister for this Adjournment topic, namely, the need for the Minister for Social Protection, arising from the recent flooding crisis to ensure that humanitarian aid is provided to all flood victims so equity prevails.

The Minister is aware of this issue, because I am raising the case of the 26 families that have been displaced. The majority of them are still out of their homes as a result of the pre-Christmas flooding in areas such as Lisheenavalla, Caherlea, Claregalway, Moneymore and Carrowmore. The Minister is familiar with the fact that equity has not prevailed in the sense that it was seen as a very miserly act that a €10 million fund was set aside by the Government to provide humanitarian aid, yet a means test application form, eight pages long, was presented to these victims to ascertain whether they would qualify.

This matter was brought to my attention in two ways. First, in my own area the young children of the Maree Foróige club organised a cake sale and disco for the flood victims after hearing about the plight of one of the families. I began to receive calls from other families to say they were delighted that they were being treated equally. The children who are only 12 to 15 years old set out to raise €3,000. Although, when divided between 26 families, it amounts to little more than €100 each, it was a lot of money for the children to raise. In addition, the principle to be applied when the money was being disbursed was that each family would receive the same amount. I am glad to note the Red Cross did the same.

I am shocked to hear there has been inequity across the country with regard to the humanitarian fund. My colleague, Senator McFadden, has told me all flood victims in Athlone received humanitarian aid, while I was told by the Minster of State, Deputy Mansergh, that all flood victims in Clonmel, except for one hotel owner, had received aid. No one in Galway has yet received it. The problem is that some of the families affected were discouraged from applying for humanitarian aid on the basis that they would not qualify on income grounds. Of course, if one did not apply, one did not have a hope of receiving it. I make the point that every family should apply and that each one should receive some humanitarian aid, regardless of their income. They did not cause the flood problem but they have been totally displaced. One mother has told me that her life is worse now than it was immediately after the flood. She is paying for heating and electricity in the rented house in which she is living and has spent over €2,000 since November on heating bills in her other house. She is going back with absolutely no guarantee that this will not occur again.

I realise a survey is under way but there is no guarantee that this will not happen again. Reinsurance is a big issue. The families involved have not yet received their home insurance payments and the problem is that it is more than likely they will not be reinsured. Hibernian Aviva has already refused a home owner in Cloonarkin Drive in Oranmore, an area that was not flooded, house insurance cover on the basis that he lives on a flood plain. We could be in real trouble with insurance companies.

The families involved are very disappointed. They consider a means test would be extremely invasive on the basis that they have already been invaded by a flood. It was the Department of Social and Family Affairs which required this. Deputy Ó Cuív is the new Minister for Social Protection. I ask him, on behalf of victims in Galway and throughout the country, to create a precedent and ensure they will qualify for humanitarian aid without having to complete the ridiculously long form issued. The families were touched by the fact that the former Minister, Deputy O'Dea, received €100,000 in disappointment money on resigning his Cabinet seat. Their point to me was that they were very disappointed that they were getting no money.

I have made my point and look forward to the Minister's response. Humanitarian aid should be provided for all flood victims who have been displaced from their homes in the form of an ex gratia payment in order that they will not have to pour out the story of their entire lives. Many of the families involved are receiving counselling. I met them with a psychologist and know their children and mental health have also been affected.

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

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply and also for encouraging people to apply. I am disappointed the Minister said they must complete the form.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Any State payment requires the filling of a form. If an argument arose in time as to who got money and some millionaire was given money, we would ask why there was not a record if no form had been filled.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I wish to clarify that regardless of whether these people were millionaires, which they are not, they did not cause the flooding problem. They have been completely inconvenienced by it-----

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is over time. The issue is dealt with comprehensively in the reply.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I appeal in the interest of equity. The Irish Red Cross gave €2,000-----

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Please, Senator, you have made the point. This is a matter on the Adjournment and the Senator has no right to come back.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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It is only going to be a small payment in any case.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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As is obvious from the reply, people who are in any way on average incomes in ordinary households will be assisted. I often think we apply double standards. If by some bad fortune a Minister's house got flooded and he or she made an application for the scheme, it would be regarded as ridiculous that a Minister on a ministerial salary would be given compensation. We have to avoid that kind of equivalent situation arising. Therefore, I think it reasonable that a form should be filled in. This should not be unduly difficult, especially for the people whom the Senator fears are on higher incomes because they would be more than well capable of filling out forms. I will contact these people and encourage them to fill in the form. I have no doubt if they do so, they will be treated correctly.