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

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Gary Gannon: Information on Gary Gannon Zoom on Gary Gannon] 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.

Deputy Jennifer Whitmore: Information on Jennifer  Whitmore Zoom on Jennifer  Whitmore 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.

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