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Poverty and fuel poverty

Asked about the new government’s proposals on the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion by Charlie McConalogue (FF, Donegal NE), the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs Frances FitzGerald told the Dail that the elimination of poverty was an objective of the government and she reiterated the objectives of the plan and the draft National Reform Programme submitted to the European Commission in December 2010, outlining Ireland’s commitments to the poverty targets of the EU2020 strategy (Dail Eireann, Debates, 14th April 2011, 262-30.  There had been a rise in consistent poverty from 4.2% in 2008 to 5.5% in 2009 and child poverty was an especial concern for her.  The government decision to site the Family Support Agency under her remit would provide improved outcomes for the most vulnerable children.  Research across Europe had shown that Ireland’s system for social protection was one of the best at protecting against poverty, but the government was committed to identifying poverty traps, support people to move from welfare to work and counter fraud.  Pearse Doherty (SF, Dongal SW) questioned her on the numbers brought into poverty as a result of the introduction of the Universal Social Charge.  Mick Wallace (ind, Wexford) appealed to the Minister for Education & Skills to reconsider cuts in resource and learning support teachers.  Simon Harris (FG, Wicklow) appealed to the minister to discuss the problems of people in and out of work for short periods who experienced inordinate delays in sorting their social welfare payments.  Replying, the minister said that the government would examine, through the commission on taxation and social welfare which was being set up, the interaction between social welfare and taxation codes to ensure that work was worthwhile.  As for children, the issue of resource teachers was very much linked to the availability of therapy services from the health service and there was an interaction between these two issues.

Turning to fuel poverty, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, told Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) and Billy Kelleher (FF, Cork NC) that he was working to bring forward a policy on fuel poverty together with his colleagues the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Dail Eireann, Debates, 5th April 2011, 233-4).  He expected the Affordable Energy Group to finalize its work in the next weeks and its recommendations would form the basis of the strategy to be agreed with his colleagues and brought to government as soon as possible.

During an adjournment debate, Martin Ferris (SF, Kerry N) expressed the view that the reduction in electricity prices should be passed on to the 100,000 ESB customers currently in arrears (Dail Eireann, Debates, 5th April 2011, 230-2).  The vast majority was in arrears for genuine reasons.  Pressure on households now was so intense that people were being forced to make major decisions on what were quite small sums of money on a daily and weekly basis and the worst aspect of this was that it included many people who were in employment. Although people on social welfare and in arrears were entitled to a 6% discount, this did not apply to people not on welfare and he wanted this to be given immediate attention. He hoped that the regulator would refuse the proposal by Bord Gais to increase its gas charges.

Replying for the government, Minister of State at the Department of Education & Skills Ciaran Cannon told him that the minister had no function in setting energy prices, which were determined by the Commission for Energy Regulation.    He welcomed the 17% fall in electricity prices, which was a positive example of competition at work.  The minister had asked the ESB to distinguish between customers who would not pay and those in genuine trouble.  The ESB had a long experience of agreeing payment plans with customers to pay off arrears and 150,000 such plans were agreed yearly.  Token meters were offered to customers to help in budgeting.  Pay-as-you-go keypad meters would be rolled out by the ESB this winter and it was the ESB’s objective that disconnections no longer occur.  For those on social welfare, the ESB offered a household budget price plan, giving reductions for those who offer to pay a minimum of €15 deducted at source, a scheme strongly recommended by the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS and the Society of St Vincent de Paul.  The number experiencing difficulties in payment was a concern for the government and the key message was to avoid the point of disconnection.  Tackling the root causes of energy affordability or fuel poverty required action on a number of fronts.  Energy poverty was caused by the interaction between energy prices, thermal inefficiency of the home and income.  Considerable work had been undertaken by the inter-departmental group and it was expected to conclude its work in the coming weeks.

Asked about disconnections, the Minister for Energy, Communications and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte told Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) that the total number of disconnections by the ESB for non-payment were 804 in January 2011 and 753 in February 2011 (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th March 2011, 956).  The Commission for Energy Regulation was responsible for the collection of disconnection statistics.  It had issued guidelines on disconnections in November 2010.