Additional funding of €1.3 million to assist students in higher education who are struggling with the cost of living has been announced.
It comes as the Government considers further measures to combat the effects of inflation, and amid calls from the Opposition for greater subsidies for those facing higher bills.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said the funding for college students tops up the existing Student Assistance Fund, under which €17 million was being provided to help students with costs such as books and class materials, rent and utility bills, food, essential travel, childcare costs and medical costs.
The additional funding allows for a total of €18.5 million to be distributed in higher-education institutions that are funded through the Higher Education Authority across the country.
Mr Harris said students had “clearly articulated that Covid-19 and the increased cost of living is having a major impact on the financial situation of students and their families”.
Housing and healthcare are the two main areas the Government needs to focus on to help reduce the cost of living, a leading economist said, amid calls for further Government relief for households.
Robert Sweeney, economic policy analyst at Think-Tank for Action on Social Change, said there were "a number of factors that make Ireland more expensive that we can't do a whole lot about", such as being an island economy and requiring a lot of imports, and being a high-income country.
However, there were “things we’re well out of kilt with other European countries on”.
He said: “The two main issues are housing and healthcare. Housing comprises such a large share of household budgets and has been a long-standing issue now.”
The Government “needs to increase the [housing] supply through a mix of delivery modes including private market, cost rental and council housing, especially in urban areas to bring the cost down”.
Healthcare in Ireland was “unusual” because of the mix of private and public systems, Dr Sweeney told The Irish Times. “We possibly also have too many hospitals and may need community clinics.”
Social Justice Ireland said the Government should benchmark social welfare rates to 27.5 per cent of average weekly earnings and make tax credits refundable to reduce the cost of living.
“These policies would directly assist people on fixed incomes and people in low-paid employment who are most impacted by the rising cost of living,” chief executive Dr Seán Healy said.
Labour Party spokesman on finance Ged Nash sharply criticised the Government on Thursday for "failing to get to grips with the runaway cost of living".
“Last week, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste voted down Labour Party proposals to help working families with VAT cuts to energy bills, to introduce a carbon credit to help working families pay for heating and a three-year rent freeze, arguing that nothing could be done. However, this week we are expected to believe everything is on the table,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin's finance spokesman Pearse Doherty has called for additional payments for those who were most pressed as a result of increased energy costs.
As well as a doubling of the universal €100 energy payment, there should also be targeted measures for social welfare recipients, he said.
"The penny has finally dropped [for the Government]", he told RTÉ radio's Today with Claire Byrne show. "We've been calling for this for six months. This is a symptom of this Government: delay and delay."
Mr Doherty called for a rent freeze and money back into renters’ pockets. The carbon tax due on May 1st should not go ahead, he said, and additional payments should be made to those in distress.
On the same programme Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea called for a doubling of the energy payment. Mr O’Dea said it would require significant changes to the social welfare code and the fuel allowances did not apply to all social welfare recipients.
Mr O’Dea said he was completely in favour of the Government taking any actions to stop businesses gouging customers. Some businesses had passed increased costs to customers, but it was the hope that the current rise in inflation would taper out.
John Fitzgerald, adjunct professor at Trinity College Dublin, told Newstalk Breakfast the €100 electricity credit was "daft" because the Government gave it to "everybody".
“They should have concentrated that money and given it to those who were really badly affected and would have noticed 200 or 300 euro off their bill,” he said.
“It is peoples’ incomes the Government should be looking at, rather than relative prices. The price of energy has risen and there’s not much they can do about that.”
Speaking in the Dáil, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys said any decision to enhance the household benefits package would have "budgetary consequences and would have to be considered in the context of budget negotiations".
She said that “despite what some say, we are not removed from reality” and that the Government could see “what’s happening on the ground”.
“We know the cost of living has gone up and that people are struggling to meet some of these costs,” she said.
Fine Gael TD Fergus O'Dowd said many families are making a choice between "buying food or buying fuel" due to rising inflation, adding "that's the absolute reality".
The Louth TD said if a supplementary budget was needed to either increase household benefits or reduce qualification for them, "I think we would all support you in this House because that is the right and proper thing to do in a modern democracy faced with the economic challenges we are facing nationally".