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Taoiseach challenged over home heating payments

Taoiseach Brian Cowen was accused of lacking compassion for cash-strapped householders struggling to pay for heating today.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore hit out at the Taoiseach over a fuel allowance which has not yet been brought in, 10 months after it was first announced.

Mr Gilmore claimed the ESB was disconnecting up to 2500 households a month and Bord Gais 4,000 so far this year, while millions of euro were to be spent on re-branding both organisations.

"That €40m would be better spent providing some assistance to those families who can't meet their fuel bills, who are being switched off by the electricity suppliers, who are being charged €200 to be turned off and another €200 to be turned back on again," he said.

Mr Cowen claimed fuel subsidies would only come into effect when a €15 per tonne carbon tax was levied on coal and peat.

The Labour leader accused the Taoiseach of dodging the issue.

"That answer is a dodge and shows no appreciation whatever of the kind of difficulties that people have in meeting home heating costs," Mr Gilmore said.

The carbon tax, introduced in last December's budget, imposes a €15 per tonne charge on fossil fuels, including petrol, diesel, fuel oil and gas. It is expected to bring in €330m a year.

Mr Gilmore said the Energy Regulator had flagged up that ESB was disconnecting up to 2,500 struggling households a month, while 4,000 customers with Bord Gais had their gas switched off this year.

The Labour Party leader said home heating bills had soared 26pc in the last year, yet a vouched fuel allowance announced in last year's budget to off-set carbon taxes had not been introduced.

Mr Cowen said the scheme applied only to the carbon levy on solid fuels, which had not yet come into effect, and also claimed home heating oil prices were lower than they were in mid-2008.

"The fuel allowance rate remained static when home heating products reduced in price," Mr Cowen said.

And he said there was the exceptional needs payment for anyone in severe financial difficulties.

Earlier. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny questioned why a loan guarantee scheme for small businesses had not yet been introduced despite being promised by Tanaiste Mary Coughlan in January.

"As we talk in this house about consensus, as we move towards putting forward solutions for what is the greatest economic criss that your Government has led this country into ever, what has happened to the loan guarantee scheme?" Mr Kenny asked.

The Taoiseach said the scheme would have to be looked at carefully.

PA Media