Working in the Community, Working for the Community

Seamus Healy TD raises the ongoing issue of Fuel Poverty during Leaders Questions today, highlighting its devastating effects.

Séamus Healy (Tipperary South, Independent)
The austerity policies introduced by the Fianna Fáil Party and continued by the current Government, despite a commitment given during the general election campaign not to do so, are hitting individuals and families on low and fixed incomes very hard. A survey on income and living conditions carried out by the Central Statistics Office in February 2013 found that one quarter of the population experienced two or more types of enforced deprivation in 2011, the Government’s first year in office. This figure was higher than the figure for 2010. Fuel poverty, which is one form of enforced deprivation, is having a particularly devastating effect on elderly people, the sick, those in poverty and individuals and families on fixed incomes. It has increased in the Government’s term of office, during which savage increases in energy prices have been permitted. I remind the Taoiseach that electricity prices increased by 14.8% in 2011 and 5.9% in 2012 and will increase again in October, while gas prices increased by 22% in 2011 and 8.5% in 2012 and are also due to be increased in October. According to the National Consumer Agency, it costs approximately €1,000 to fill a tank of home heating oil, with the cost increasing by 18% in 2012 alone. These increases could be described as indirect attacks on the living standards of ordinary people. They are condoned by the Government, which has deliberately increased fuel poverty by introducing direct cuts to living standards since taking office in 2011. These included a reduction in the number of free electricity units from 2,400 to 1,800, which was introduced when the Government was barely a wet week in office, and a cut in the duration of the free fuel allowances from 32 weeks to 26 weeks in the 2012 budget.

Seán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
The Deputy must ask a question.

Séamus Healy (Tipperary South, Independent)
The Government cut free electricity units in the 2013 budget and increased carbon tax on solid fuel, which will also double next year.
Elderly people and those on low incomes are caught in a pincer movement as they seek to deal with increased prices and taxes and Government cuts in benefits and allowances. As a result, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is spending €6 million per annum to help people keep their homes warm and lights on. Age Action Ireland, a national charity for elderly people, has stated that people must choose between heating their homes and buying food and elderly people are going to bed as early as 7 p.m. to stay warm or switching off their heating and heading for the nearest shopping centre where they can sit for hours in a warm atmosphere.

Seán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
The Deputy should put a question to the Taoiseach.

Séamus Healy (Tipperary South, Independent)
This is unacceptable. Government policies are damaging the fabric of society. Surely the Government must abandon its approach to the elderly and those on fixed incomes by reversing the cuts to fuel and energy allowances introduced since it took office in 2011.

Enda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
The Deputy did not ask a question. He made a number of observations for which I thank him.

Joe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
He asked whether the Government will reverse its cuts.

Enda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
He made a statement that we should reverse the cuts; he did not ask a question.
Deputy Healy, like other Deputies, is in contact with people in his constituency. The Government is not immune to the difficulties people have to face and has been cognisant of them as we have attempted to make decisions, difficult as they are, to sort out the economic situation. Only this morning, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, pointed to the need for the Government to reflect, in so far as it can, the difficulties and tribulations people are having. It is not the case that we are abandoning people who are in difficult circumstances to their lot. We have moved from a point where 250,000 jobs were lost in a three year period, Ireland’s access to international markets was blocked, interest rates for Government borrowing stood at 15% and the country had no strategy to deal with these matters to a point where the position has been reversed and 3,000 jobs per month are being created in the private sector.
Owing to the way in which the memorandum of understanding was framed, the Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Howlin, were able, in their early engagement with the troika, to negotiate to have the minimum wage reinstated. In addition, the Minister for Finance was able to remove 330,000 people from the universal social charge in the budget. There was no increase in income tax and no reductions in primary social welfare rates in budget 2012 and budget 2013, while mortgage interest was increased for those who purchased homes between 2004 and 2008.
While I understand the nature of the surveys to which the Deputy referred, a great deal of assistance is available. Community effort in helping people in difficulty has never been at a higher level.
Clearly the biggest debt that most families face is mortgage debt and the Government has resolved to help families that are struggling through a range of actions that are now in place and we expect them to be delivered on. These matters have been the focus of Government and will again be the focus of what we have to do in preparing the budget for 2014 as a stepping stone to emerging from the bailout, to send out that signal further enhanced, if one likes, by the outlook upgrade by the ratings agency, Moody’s, last week which had a direct impact on bond yield spreads. People may not realise these matters impact on the country. As its reputation as a location for investment improves, it impacts on the jobs situation, which is the ultimate goal, being the biggest catalyst to restoring the health of the economy. In that sense as the Minister, Deputy Noonan, pointed out in terms of the budget for this year, these matters are of concern to Government and hopefully can be reflected in the fairest way possible.

Seán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
I call Deputy Healy who has one minute.

Séamus Healy (Tipperary South, Independent)
In case the Taoiseach did not understand the question, I will ask it again. Will the Government reverse the cuts to the energy units and the free-fuel scheme that have been made by the Government since 2011? What I have heard suggests the Government has lost touch with reality completely. I am sure the Taoiseach is aware of very important research directed by Professor Goodman of the Dublin Institute of Technology, peer reviewed, publicly funded and launched by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte. That research has shocking findings. It found, for instance, that there was an excess of winter—–

Seán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
It is a supplementary question.

Séamus Healy (Tipperary South, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source
I am asking the question.

Seán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
The Deputy has only one minute.

Séamus Healy (Tipperary South, Independent)
There are 1,281 excess winter deaths and the majority of those deaths arise from cold-related conditions, such as respiratory illnesses. Crucially that research found that this death rate is among the highest in Europe and even higher than in Scandinavian countries which are much colder in winter than is Ireland. These are absolutely shocking findings that were researched and peer reviewed, and launched by a Minister.

Seán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
I thank the Deputy.

Séamus Healy (Tipperary South, Independent)
In view of those findings, will the Government now reverse the cuts to the fuel allowance, particularly its duration which was cut by six weeks? Will it reverse the cuts to the energy units of the household benefits package implemented by this Government?

Enda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
We have a general policy of attempting to make homes more comfortable, warmer and better insulated. Some time ago the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, announced the allocation of €50 million for that purpose.
I do not accept the Deputy’s assertion that we have lost touch with reality. Very much on the contrary, we engage with people on a very regular basis about the situation in which they find themselves. It is not a situation of their making, but it is a situation that arose because of how our country was allowed to drift. We need to correct that drift and that is what we are doing.
I cannot give a direct answer to the Deputy’s question about the reversal of changes in the free-fuel scheme or energy units in the household benefits package. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, referred to this in the energy area. The question the Deputy asked is a matter of budgetary policy and I will not answer it now. As the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, pointed out, the Government needs to be cognisant of the difficulties and hardship that many people experience. While we have a difficult job to do in presenting a budget for 2014, we intend to do that in the fairest way possible and to show in so far as can be done a degree of flexibility where it can be applied. However, I cannot answer any individual question about the budget. That is a matter for collective decision by the Cabinet over the coming weeks.


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