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Household Utility Bills Support: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Sorca Clarke: Information on Sorca Clarke Zoom on Sorca Clarke] This payment is called an exceptional needs payment. We are living in exceptional times and these measures are needed now.

Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley 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.

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Heather Humphreys): Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys 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.


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