On Thursday October 13th, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton answered a question submitted by Mick seeking guarantees that state pensions and free travel passes for the elderly are safe in Budget 2012. Following up on this request, Mick suggests that the Minister look at a proposal from Viking Glass in Wexford to help increase insulation in homes at a fraction of the cost. This would be of great benefit to the elderly with some living in houses with inadequate glass in the frames leading to significant loss of heat. This would also create employment in Wexford. You can view the discussion here.
Question 5: To ask the Minister for Social Protection if, following the observation during the UN review of Ireland’s human rights record that austerity measures should not disproportionately impact the elderly, she will guarantee that the State pension and the free travel pass will be protected in Budget 2012; and if she will make a statement on the matter.
I am very conscious of the needs of people on social welfare and fully understand that a wide range of groups depend on the welfare budget for vital support. In the context of a very tough budgetary environment, I will do my utmost to protect the most vulnerable people in Irish society, including retired and older people in receipt of social welfare pensions and the free travel scheme. My Department will spend more than €77 million in 2011 on the free travel scheme. This will benefit more than 700,000 people, some 520,000 of whom are aged over 66.
Sustainable public finances are a prerequisite for maintaining an adequate system of social protection as well as for achieving future economic stability and growth. For these reasons, the State must pursue a determined deficit reduction strategy. Accordingly, there will be an ongoing requirement to curtail expenditure and prioritise resources in my Department and all other Departments in 2012 and in later years. In this regard, my Department has completed a comprehensive review of expenditure, the purpose of which is to assess the effectiveness and value for money of spending programmes across all Departments and agencies. All spending lines are being examined without exception, and possible ways of reducing spending are being considered in every area of expenditure. The fact that particular ways have been identified in which spending could potentially be reduced does not mean all of these approaches will be implemented.
The intention behind the methodology being followed is to provide the Government with a set of decision options to enable it to meet three objectives. These objectives are, first, to achieve overall fiscal consolidation outcomes, both as regards spending and numbers reduction targets; second, to re-align spending with programme for Government priorities; and, third, to consider new ways of implementing Government policy in the context of public sector reform.
In my discussions with my colleagues in Government I will have regard to any views expressed by the UN and by welfare representative organisations. In this regard, I held a pre-budget forum on 16 September which was attended by 34 organisations. I and my officials had the opportunity to listen carefully to their proposals relating to the next budget. I stress that no decisions have been made to date in regard to welfare expenditure next year. Those decisions will be made in due course after full consideration by the Government and will be announced on budget day.
There can be no doubt that the Government’s austerity measures have had the greatest impact on the more vulnerable members of society, including the elderly. A new report published by researchers at UCD and St. Mary’s Hospital in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, shows that more than 10,000 elderly people per year are subjected to some type of abuse, of which the most common is financial abuse. Funding must be ring-fenced to protect the vulnerable members of society. Such people, who include many of our older citizens, are already in extreme difficulty even before the inevitable further cutbacks are introduced. We discussed the challenges facing the community and voluntary sector during Private Members’ business this week. Older people must be protected in the context of cutbacks in State spending and support for community initiatives.
Will the Minister indicate whether there are there any plans to implement a fuel poverty strategy, as indicated in the programme for Government?
The most effective means of ensuring people’s homes are adequately heated is to install adequate insulation. The Deputy will be aware that older people tend to live in older houses which may be poorly insulated. It is important that we seek to have an active programme for insulating houses. In the case of local authority houses built in the 1970s, for example, the insulation standards are very low.
The Deputy should bear in mind that in the case of a pensioner couple where both people are aged over 66, the combined State contributory pension is €436, a significant increase since 2004. In addition, the couple are entitled to household benefits and free travel. That level of provision is the reason the ESRI found that elderly persons have for some years been at a lower risk of poverty, whether measured simply in terms of income or using measures of deprivation. We should also bear in mind that the pensions and other payments older people receive are spent largely in this country. It is important from an economic point of view that they should continue to have that level of purchasing power.
I agree that many older people have difficulty keeping their homes heated to a safe level. I recently received information from a company called Wexford Viking Glass which installs glass in window frames without taking the frames out, offering an increase in insulation levels of 60%. The company has proposed that the Government consider abolishing the VAT on its services in order to assist its business and promote efforts to improve insulation in older homes. Taking out the entire window involves a great deal of labour in terms of re-plastering, re-painting and so on. Replacing the glass only is a tidier job and much more cost effective.
The Deputy might send me a note with the details of the company’s proposal. A great deal of work is ongoing in terms of insulation initiatives, many of which are carried out under community programmes in different areas throughout the State and have been very successful. There is a challenge in that in the case of council houses built in the 1970s, for instance, some long-standing tenants still have their original windows. I would be very interested in any proposals similar to that to which the Deputy referred, as would my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte.