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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 Joe O'Brien: Information on Joe O'Brien Zoom on Joe O'Brien]  I also think it is an opportune time to mention a relevant initiative supported by the Minister's other Department, the Department of Rural and Community Development, which is of particular relevance to today's topic. I refer to the Community Call initiative. This was set up at the beginning of the pandemic last year as a collaboration between State agencies and the community and voluntary sector to ensure the most vulnerable and isolated got the support they needed. In every local authority area, there is a Community Call helpline which helps to connect people with local groups that can help with the collection and delivery of essential items, including fuel, for people who are particularly vulnerable and isolated. It also assists people who are feeling socially isolated or medically vulnerable. I mention this initiative because there may be people who are not accessing the fuel they need or, indeed, the payments they need due to difficulties caused by the pandemic or the associated restrictions. Again I say it is important that we, as public representatives, are aware of these helplines and that contributing organisations are still very much available for those who need them. Some of the earlier examples cited today with regard to isolated older people and, in particular, those living alone do not really recognise this aspect of poverty or the reality and complexity of poverty.

I acknowledge Deputy Whitmore's mention of a just transition. Other Deputies also mentioned it. This will be a key principle informing the work of the Department. I want to acknowledge that. It is incumbent on us all to work together to provide the necessary supports to those in our society who need them. In that spirit, I reiterate my request to all Deputies to promote the availability of the supplementary welfare allowance. There are 63 Intreo offices open across the country for people who are in financial need at this difficult time.

I want to pick up on a couple of other points. Deputy Sherlock asked about the two fuel allowance seasons and suggested the allowance was lower this year. He is comparing apples with oranges because this fuel season is not yet complete. Last year's was exceptionally long and this one may also be long. That is the difference; this fuel season is not yet complete. Deputy Tóibín mentioned the capacity of microgeneration to reduce fuel costs. He is absolutely correct. I am glad to announce that a public consultation on microgeneration is ongoing. The area has great capacity.

I acknowledge the passion for rural Ireland shown by Deputies Nolan, Fitzmaurice and Danny Healy-Rae. I only have 30 seconds and I need to say a couple of other things. I have heard the Deputies and we are listening to them. It might surprise them to learn that we are more approachable than they might think. I am of rural Ireland myself. I know they need to make some points today but I ask them also to talk to us. We are amenable and we understand the issues about which they are talking.

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, highlighted earlier the range of supports provided by the Department, which is working to alleviate poverty for those most in need and doing so in a targeted way to ensure supports are provided where they are most needed. The Government is committed to ensuring this remains the case. The Minister has committed to meeting the NGOs to which reference was made today with regard to their concerns about fuel poverty. I thank Deputies for their engagement this morning. It is important that we ensure these vital targeted supports are in place for those who most need them and, accordingly, I commend the Government's amendment to the House.

Deputy Mark Ward: Information on Mark Ward Zoom on Mark Ward An old Dublin saying from the tenement days - "first up, best dressed" - describes how those in a family who got up first thing in the morning had a better chance of being fed for the day. It is now a hundred years later and nothing has changed. Anyone who is on the PUP should be getting fuel allowance. They have been put out in the cold by Covid and they should not be cold at home. Our proposals will benefit not only those on the PUP, but also those who have lost their jobs, lone parents, carers, older persons, persons with a disability and widows. Many of them already receive fuel allowance but we are seeking a double payment for them in February to get them over the hump of this cold weather.

Last week, more than 475,000 people in this State received the pandemic unemployment payment. That is 475,000 people who have lost their jobs and their income from work. Many are now struggling to pay their bills, get food on the table and stay on top of paying for their daily needs. No one should be forced to choose between having a warm home and eating. That is the stark reality. In my own constituency of Dublin Mid-West, I have received countless calls from people who are struggling. These are families who have never experienced such hardships before and who cannot get a break from banks or mortgage providers without incurring unjust penalties.

One of the few positive things to emerge from this crisis is the rallying together of communities. The resilience of our communities has been pushed to its extremes but they have continued to support the most vulnerable among us. In my own community, the food bank has become a necessary and essential service for those who have to avail of it. A steering group has been set up by community groups in Clondalkin including Neart le Chéile, the Quarryvale Community and Youth Centre and youth services in Clondalkin and Ronanstown. This group currently supports the basic food needs of 350 adults and children per week without any Government intervention.

We urge every Deputy in the House to support this motion so that parents do not have to choose between feeding their kids and heating their homes. The Minister of State, who is a member of the Green Party, spoke about the carbon tax. This will only push people further into poverty and cause more problems down the road.

Deputy Pat Buckley: Information on Pat Buckley Zoom on Pat Buckley I have listened to the Minister and many of the speakers this morning. There are more than 48,000 people on the PUP in Cork alone. I have heard the Government speakers talk about the living alone allowance, the exceptional needs payment - let us get it right, the exceptional needs payment is only a once-off payment - the other payments and the retrofitting scheme. These speakers are missing the point. This motion is about giving families and workers a bit of a break. We have an emergency and we are asking for emergency measures to be put in place to support the people of our country.

I heard some rhetoric a while ago. The Government is worrying about everybody else. It should stop trying to score political points. This is about public representation in the House. We are elected to represent the people outside the Houses. We hear this rhetoric and are told that the Government has spent A, B and C. That is taxpayers' money, the money of the people of the country. The Government should not try to fool people outside the House by saying this cannot be done. It was done for the banks. The Government did not have to make excuses but rather bailed them out. Who is bailing people out now? It is the taxpayer once again. The money the Government has borrowed to cover these payments will have to be paid back. Who is going to pay for that? It will be paid for by the same gang the Government is hitting with its tax on the PUP. It is not listening to the people outside the door who have lost their jobs. Banks are unfortunately not playing ball with mortgage holders. We hear this every day in our constituency offices.

People are poor. A friend of my family has a disability and has had a heart attack. He is lucky enough to live on his own. Every day he goes to a bus stop to sit and talk to people. He then gets on a bus to stay warm before getting off in the next town or village where he does the same thing again. He does this all day and all night until he gets home. That is the reality of what is happening in this country. We are talking about a temporary measure involving a minuscule €28 a week. Let us get our heads out of the sand and do the right thing. The Minister should listen to and support Deputy Kerrane's motion.

Deputy Claire Kerrane: Information on Claire Kerrane Zoom on Claire Kerrane I am bitterly disappointed with the Government's response to this motion. There is nothing new at all in its amendment. I have read the real-life stories of people who are struggling to pay their bills. There is nothing for them in this amendment. I have repeatedly raised the issue of fuel costs with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. My first ask related to the 15-month rule. This means that if one loses one's job tomorrow, one will typically get €203 in jobseeker's allowance. This can represent a very great reduction in one's weekly income but one must wait 15 months for assistance with one's fuel costs. Neither Minister made reference to that issue. I have asked the Minister about this 15-month rule on two previous occasions and twice she has told me that she has looked at it. Despite this, she did not mention it today.

If the supplementary welfare allowance is available and is doing fine and if it is what we should be pushing, why are ten organisations on the ground, including lone-parent organisations, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Children's Rights Alliance and Barnardos, calling for more? They are saying that what the Minister is doing is not enough. I have just searched the allowance on Google, as many listening at home would if they were struggling, and there is no mention of help with fuel costs or utility bills. The first line of the article I have found says that one can apply if one has no income. Where is the Minister publicising this? She needs to publicise it more. Is it publicised in the offices? Most offices are closed so people cannot see that. I ask the Minister at least to roll out some information so that people know the allowance is available because people are not aware of it.

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