€50m for free energy scheme ‘falls far short’

THE country’s largest charity has told the Government that the €50 million to be spent in offsetting the cost of energy prices fell far short of what was needed to ensure people did not suffer this winter.

St Vincent de Paul vice-president Prof John Monaghan said the spend on the free energy scheme would have to at least treble to meet the need.

“That would ensure that the scheme is made available to low-income families with children because very few of them qualify at the moment,” he said. “SVP spent €3.1m helping people to meet fuel costs last year before the huge energy increases were announced. God only knows what we will be spending next year.”

The €50m being spent by the Department of Social and Family Affairs is to meet the cost increase from January in the annual number of free units covered by the electricity allowance from 1,800 to 2,400. It also aims to meet an equivalent increase in gas allowances.

Prof Monaghan said it was mainly older people and a small category of social welfare recipients who would benefit from the increases. It would not help low-income families with children.

“In our experience that is where the real poverty is.”

The fuel allowances were announced last September just days after the energy regulator approved electricity price increases of almost 20%. The following month gas prices increased by 34%.

“We are very worried about this,” said Prof Monaghan. “That is why we asked in our pre-Budget submission that the Government introduce a new weekly fuel allowance of €25 or the equivalent in units of electricity or gas for social welfare and Family Income Supplement (FIS) recipients.”

Social Affairs Minister Seamus Brennan said the pre-Budget commitment to spending €14.07 billion in 2007 was the highest ever spend before the inclusion of Budget measures. He also stressed that the money being provided did not reflect the total amount they would be actually spending on social welfare benefits and supports next year.

He pointed out that the 2006 estimates provision was €12.49bn and this was boosted by an additional €1.12bn in the Budget.

He also announced that the number of people claiming weekly social welfare payments in 2007 would pass the one million mark for the first time and said the increase in the population was the single largest factor.

He said child benefit was paid to 600 non-national families who had children living abroad and a total of 15,000 such payments were being processed.

A total of 556,000 families in the country receive child benefit.

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