OVER €500m has been announced by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe to help mitigate the rising cost of living.
The Government said it is “acutely aware” of the increase in consumer prices in recent months, especially the increase in fuel and other energy prices.
The additional supports include energy credit for all households, extra funding for the Fuel Allowance payment, a reduction in the Drug Payment Scheme to €80, the font-loading of the working family payment, and a 20% reduction in public transport fees from end of April until the end of the year, and come on top of the measures already taken in Budget 2022 to support households.
St Vincent de Paul South West regional co-ordinator Gerry Garvey said that these supports could be vital to those struggling in Cork.
Speaking with The Echo, Mr Garvey said that the rising cost of living - particularly the price of utility bills - had been “frightening the life” out of people in the county in recent weeks.
“We’ve been flagging this since around November. We could see the increase in worries about utility bills and they were all starting to creep up. We could see a tsunami coming down the tracks,” Mr Garvey said.
“Around 61% of renters in local authority housing have cut back on essential heating and electricity. That’s not for the fun of it”.
While any additional measures are welcome, Mr Garvey said that the Government should be focusing more on targeted supports.
The results of a RED C poll for the Society of the St Vincent de Paul, which were released yesterday, showed that nearly 50% of renters were worried about how they were going to pay their rent in the next six months.
“The issue of rent and mortgage payments is a big one. There’s an increasing number of people telling us that they’re worried they could become homeless,” Mr Garvey said.
“When you see people saying that as a result of rent increases, they've cut down their heating and are putting on their coats and drinking hot cups of tea before bed - or are cutting down on food to keep a roof over their heads - that to me is the signal of a real crisis.”
The news has also been welcomed by the South Munster branch of MABS. According to Regional Manager Ursula Collins, the free budgeting service has seen a 10% increase in demand for its services over the past year.
“We have been seeing significant pressure on people in the past 12 months in terms of utilities and rent,” Ms Collins said.
“There would have been embargoes in place for disconnections during lockdown and many people may have put their utility bills on the backburner. Now that those embargoes are being lifted, people are worried about how they’re going to pay those bills before they're disconnected.
“So, the Government increasing support around utilities is very welcome. These are very positive measures which will hopefully give people some immediate relief.”
Ms Collins wishes to encourage anyone who is struggling to get in touch with MABS for free and confidential advice.
“We would have seen in our end-of-year review a significant increase in the number of people who are working but finding themselves in financial difficulty. Before, the majority of our clients would have been people relying on social welfare payments whereas now, about half of our clients are working,” she said.
“Inflation is a global issue. Get in touch with us, it’s a fully confidential service and we can help put a plan in place. I would also advise people to switch their utility provider on a regular basis, which is a significant cost saver.”
Commenting on the package, Cork North Central TD Mick Barry said that the measures “didn't come even close” to bridging the gap for hard-pressed households.
"The Government's Cost of Living package has all the signs of ending up as a pretty weak suite of measures which falls far short of what is really needed by hard-pressed households,” Mr Barry said.
“The Government should be taking far bolder measures here such as scrapping the Universal Social Charge.
“Crumbs off the table aren't going to cut it at this stage, people need real change now."
Commenting on the measures, Minister McGrath said that the additional expenditure measures of €290 million “will make a positive impact on the incomes of all households in our country”.
He said that the €125 payment to households in receipt of the fuel allowance will be made in March, with the credit of €200 including VAT for electricity being applied to electricity accounts in April.
The Minister said that a key concern in setting out these measures “is to ensure that timely support is provided to all households”.