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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 Mick Barry: Information on Mick Barry Zoom on Mick Barry] Those debts should be written off in this situation.

I make the point that utilities, including utilities that are not 100% in private ownership, are now operating to market mechanisms. They are operating to mechanisms which look at the maximisation of profits or the positive side of the balance sheet and without sufficient concern for social needs. In addition, there are fossil fuel companies that have a vested interest in acting against the climate agenda and extracting maximum profit from fossil fuels that can only damage society and the future of the human race. For these reasons, we need to break with the market model of for-profit utilities and fossil fuel companies that operate on the basis of maximising profit. In practice, that means taking these companies out of private hands and bringing them into public ownership on a democratic basis, under democratic control, workers' control and workers' management. The companies should operate in the interests of society and speeding up a genuine just transition in this country and internationally.

Deputy Seán Canney: Information on Seán Canney Zoom on Seán Canney I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important issue. I acknowledge the work that has been done in expanding the fuel allowance and the timeframe in which it has been allocated to people. The reality is that this winter has been particularly tough on many people who could not leave their homes to exercise and warm themselves up, especially older people who are cocooning. This winter has seen significant stress on many people because the fuel allowance they were being given was not enough to cover their costs.

The amendment tabled by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who is accompanied by the Minister of State, refers to better homes energy supports for people who are on the fuel allowance. I wish to concentrate my few words on where I see that creating difficulties. There is currently in excess of 18 months' waiting time for those who apply for the scheme. The scheme itself is very simple. The application form is two pages long and very simple, but it is sent to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, and nothing happens for up to two years. I got figures from the Department last week which show that there are probably in excess of 12,000 people who are still to have their homes inspected. There are several questions that arise in this regard. The homes of many people who applied in 2019 still have not even been inspected. We are talking about people coming out of fuel poverty by making their homes better equipped and more energy efficient. That is not happening in a timely fashion. We cannot blame Covid for this because the problem predates Covid and continues to be prolonged.

The scheme should be taken away from the SEAI and given to local authorities, which have the expertise to operate it. They are delivering disabled grants, housing aid for older people and mobility adaptation grants. They have that experience and they can deliver the scheme at a local level. They are currently delivering schemes without significant waiting times. That should be considered and addressed immediately.

As the anticipated number of houses were not improved last year or the year before, is that unspent money being carried over and added to the new announcements or is it just being lost and replaced by new money? It is very important to ensure that whatever money is allocated is spent. I have no faith that the money is being spent in a timely fashion at the moment.

Another issue with the scheme is the fact that people who were supported under a previous scheme to install attic insulation but who could not install cavity insulation because their homes have solid walls are now excluded from the additional grant aid now available in respect of external wall insulation. Those who benefitted previously cannot apply again. As such, their homes remain in the fuel poverty trap. If we are to have a just transition and bring in carbon tax, we need also to make sure that we keep up to speed with the retrofitting of such houses. They should be retrofitted in a manner and at a speed that keeps up to date with the issues that arise.

When giving out money or grants, it is very important that people are not told there is money available and given a big global figure. It is necessary to show how that money is being spent. We need to make sure it is getting to people as quickly as possible. I know the SEAI was reviewing the scheme to see how it could go be extended to applicants who had previously been successful but may not have availed of the full suite of measures required to increase one's building energy rating, BER. A BER should be done prior to the works being carried out and another should be carried out afterwards in order that we can see that there was an increase in the energy efficiency of the house. That is very important.

Deputy Peadar Tóibín: Information on Peadar Tóibín Zoom on Peadar Tóibín Last January was the coldest January in the past ten years. Sub-zero temperatures are again forecast for the coming weekend, which means the cold will be eating into many people's homes around the country. Right around Ireland, people are choosing whether to heat their homes or feed their families and whether to turn on the heating or purchase clothing for their families. It is incredible that such choices are still being made in this country in 2021, at a time when this is one of the richest countries in the world.

Through no fault of their own, the incomes of many people have collapsed. Many people, particularly those who are self-employed, have had their ability to earn an income deleted due to Government mismanagement of the Covid crisis. I know of a woman who stays in bed for a longer period each day in order that she will not have to turn on the heating in her house. With many people staying at home because they are working from home or have lost their jobs, there is far more pressure in this regard. Heating is a far bigger proportion of the weekly spend in family homes than it was previously. The Minister need not take my word for it. Recently released figures for CO2 show there has been a 6% decrease in CO2 overall, but in housing there was a 9% increase in the level of CO2 generated last year. That is proof positive that there has been an enormous increase in the level of heating of homes.

Even before Covid, Ireland had an extremely high level of fuel poverty. In 2019, EUROSTAT stated that Ireland had the highest increase in gas prices and the fifth-highest increase in electricity prices across the EU. Just before Covid, it was estimated that 8% of the population, or 393,417 people, were experiencing fuel poverty. That is incredible. The Minister should think about that. Some 393,417 people were in fuel poverty across the State just before Covid hit. That came about under the Governments in which she has been involved in one shape or another for the past ten years. It is absolutely ridiculous. It makes no logical sense that a person must be in receipt of jobseeker's allowance for in excess of 15 months before qualifying for fuel allowance. I ask the Minister to explain to me and to those 393,000 people the logic of that. Heating is an immediate issue. It is not something that can be postponed until a person qualifies under the Government's regime. During these unprecedented and extraordinary times, we in Aontú believe these rules have to be scrapped. Anybody who has been made unemployed as a result of the pandemic should have access to the fuel allowance.

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