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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 Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle] Not only are more people unemployed now than ever, but more people are working from home. Those of us lucky enough to have a home have higher household costs due to work, home schooling, multiple tenants working from home and so on. This motion is timely and important.

  The stress, anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic is not something that we can control, but the Government does hold the purse strings and can take certain measures to help residents across Ireland. It was a long, dark and cold January and granting the fuel allowance to people in receipt of PUP is one easy step which should have been taken immediately and would have alleviated it.

  I commend Senator Lynn Boylan on the Living in Energy Poverty report which followed an online cost of energy survey at the end of last year. Almost 300 people responded to the survey and it is very important to hear their real-life experiences and personal stories. Too often public policy and legislation are discussed in a vacuum and we just look at costs and figures rather than the quality of life of residents around Ireland.

  That said, it is important to collect, collate and analyse data to ensure that Government programmes are meeting their objectives. I have often said that I wish this Government was not reactive but proactive. In that vein, I was reading Spending Review 2020: Social Impact Assessment – SEAI Programmes Targeting Energy Poverty, published by the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, in October 2020. The paper looked at the SEAI’s Better Energy Homes and Better Energy Communities schemes but found that the level of data collected was insufficient to provide an assessment of the schemes’ impact on recipients. It was not possible to determine whether the schemes brought recipients out of energy poverty.  It is hard to believe that we would spend money without trying to determine if it is having any effect. Then again, perhaps it is not so hard to believe when one considers what else this Government does not ask questions about.

  Apparently, there is a CSO-led project to establish indicators for energy poverty in which the Department will be participating. This project is expected to provide an evidence base to improve the targeting of energy efficiency schemes and for a future, updated social impact assessment. The IGEES report also states that the Department and the ESRI are undertaking research which includes "an examination of the impact of retrofitting on alleviating energy poverty". This is happening after the event and after the work has been done. Unsurprisingly, the SEAI does not record the building energy rating, BER, of homes before works undertaken under the warmer homes scheme. This creates such a dearth of information on the extent of fuel deprivation and energy poverty throughout the country.

  Why is the Government funding programmes but not having the impact of programmes properly assessed? Some charities, NGOs and other civil society groups would have their funding stripped if they were not providing an accurate impact analysis and evaluation of the outcome of expenditure. The IGEES report suggests that assessment information could be used to assess the schemes’ impact on taking recipients out of energy poverty and on the broader cohort who are considered to be at risk of, or experiencing, energy poverty. I suppose it is better late than never.

Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection (Deputy Joe O'Brien): Information on Joe O'Brien Zoom on Joe O'Brien I thank Deputies for an engaging discussion on the very important issue of fuel poverty. As outlined by my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, we want to ensure that we provide the types of supports which offer help to the people who need it most. We want to avoid the use of untargeted measures which do not sufficiently prioritise and target those most in need of the relevant supports to ensure that expenditure on such measures provides the maximum benefit to those in specific need.

To date we have spent more than €10 billion on Covid-19-related income transfers, including in excess of €5.5 billion on the PUP scheme to more than 820,000 individuals and about the same again in payments in respect of wage subsidy schemes to in excess of 440,000 people. It is important to reiterate the findings of recent ESRI research which showed that the PUP and the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, have been effective in cushioning families at the lower end of the income distribution table from losses and have largely absorbed the impact of income losses for the bottom 40%. The Government has extended the PUP and the wage subsidy schemes until the end of March 2021 and will continue to monitor the position, ensuring that these schemes will remain in place as long as is necessary.

The Government is committed to supporting those on low incomes with their home heating costs through the fuel allowance scheme and other supports. Just four weeks ago on 4 January, the most recent increase to the fuel allowance payment took effect. The increase of €3.50 per week took the weekly payment to €28, the highest weekly rate ever for the fuel allowance, meaning that each qualifying household will receive €784 over the course of a year. This season more than 372,000 households will be supported with this allowance at a cost of more than €300 million. In 2020, taking account of the prevailing weather conditions and the Covid-19 crisis, the fuel allowance season was extended by four weeks to support qualifying households further. The current season is due to end on 9 April, but as in previous years, the Government will consider extending the season if prevailing economic and-or weather conditions necessitate it. An estimated 465,000 households receive support with their electricity and gas bills through the household benefits package throughout the full year at a cost of €265 million annually. The household benefits package is specifically targeted at those who are 70 years old and over and is a non-means-tested payment.

In budget 2021 the Government committed that one third of increased carbon tax revenues would go towards boosting the incomes of the poorest in society. There have been some incorrect comments made on this today and I want to make clear that specific targeted increases in social welfare payments, outlined by the ESRI, were implemented with a view to ensuring that the poorest in society would not be hit by increases in carbon tax. It is the case that those who are worst off are benefiting financially from the transfer of carbon tax increases to social welfare payments. The ESRI identified three key payments from the Department of Social Protection which could help to channel carbon tax revenues towards those most in need, namely, the fuel allowance, the living alone allowance and the qualified child allowance. These measures are ensuring that the carbon tax is working as an anti-poverty tool for those most in need. That might not be popular but that is the reality. From January the living alone allowance has been increased by €5 to €19 per week at a cost of €57.5 million, providing critical additional targeted support to more than 220,000 customers who live alone. Also from January this year, qualified child allowance payments have been increased by €2 per week, from €36 to €38, for children under 12 and by €5, from €40 to €45, for children aged 12 and over. It is estimated that this will benefit 419,000 children who are most in need.

In addition to the support schemes I have mentioned, the Government provides targeted supports to people facing exceptional costs or experiencing financial difficulties through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. Payments are made under this scheme in respect of exceptional heating costs, and in excess of 2,000 such payments were made in 2020. It is important to reiterate that the budget for the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is not capped and is operated in a discretionary and flexible manner by community welfare officers who can judge each case based on individual need. Schemes such as the supplementary welfare allowance facilitate specific targeting to ensure that resources are available to those most in need. The Department actively promotes the availability of supplementary welfare allowance payments via its web and social media channels, Intreo centres, citizens information centres and Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, offices. I would respectfully ask all Deputies and those listening to this debate to spread the word about the availability of the supplementary welfare allowance if they really want to support people who are having difficulties covering their fuel costs.

I have highlighted the range of other income supports by way of acknowledging that fuel poverty is not a stand-alone issue but rather a manifestation of income poverty. Thus, it is important to look holistically at the range of supports available to households to try to alleviate poverty in all of its forms. However, the focus at all times must be on tackling one of the root causes of fuel poverty, and it is imperative to acknowledge that if we are to achieve long-term sustainable reductions in household energy costs, we must improve the structural insulation issues impacting on the cost of heating homes to tackle fuel poverty in a meaningful way. This is why one of the Government's key commitments is to support the retrofitting of Ireland's housing stock, which ultimately reduces fuel and heating costs and is better for the environment in the long run. In line with programme for Government commitments, this year will see the largest budget for retrofitting in the history of the State. Our emphasis is on cutting energy costs over the medium to long term so that in the future there will be less need for reliance on short-term measures such as the fuel allowance. Our prioritising of retrofitting as a means of tackling fuel poverty is clear from the 82% increase in the budget available this year to the SEAI, with a total budget of €221 million in 2021.

Deputy Barry mentioned a figure of €40 million for the warmer homes scheme but that is not correct. The budget for this year is almost triple that, at €109 million. The warmer homes scheme is being ramped up very significantly this year. The scheme supports those on lower incomes to retrofit their homes to reduce their energy bills sustainably and permanently. In addition, through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, we have committed funding of €65 million in 2021 to support the retrofitting of up to 2,400 social housing homes. Providing funding for these types of initiatives is critical to ensuring that we reduce fuel poverty in the long term.


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