William Hay (DUP)
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak shall have five minutes.
Alex Maskey (Sinn Féin)
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Social Development on fuel poverty; and calls on the Minister for Social Development to implement its recommendations to ensure a strategic, cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach is adopted to reduce and prevent fuel poverty.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Today’s motion fits, coincidentally, with a Fuel Poverty Coalition event that is under way in the Long Gallery. Therefore, I propose to introduce and speak to the motion and then Mickey Brady, the Deputy Chair, will make the winding-up speech on behalf of the Committee. I thank him for doing that.
I thank all the Committee members for the work that they engaged in to arrive at this report. I have a very special word of gratitude for the officials, Kevin Pelan and others, who worked very hard to have the report prepared; the Department; the Minister; the other Departments; the stakeholders and all those who contributed to the work involved, particularly the fuel poverty event that we held in the Long Gallery some time ago, which enabled us to produce this comprehensive report. Those Members who have had a chance to look at it, or will do so after the debate, will understand that it is an accurate reflection of the discussions that were held between the Department and the stakeholders. We are trying to move it forward to the next stage, which will, obviously, be action-driven and -orientated.
Simply put, the definition of fuel poverty is any household that spends more than 10% of its income on fuel to maintain an adequate level of warmth in the home. In 2011, the Department brought out the report, ‘Defining Fuel Poverty in Northern Ireland’, which produced a different method for considering fuel poverty rates based on households spending roughly twice the median, in other words, 20% of their household income on fuel as opposed to 10%. However, the report also concluded that the 10% threshold would continue to be used and that the 20% threshold could be used to identify those in severe fuel poverty. Therefore, for the purposes of this report and the work of the Committee, we will retain the use of the original definition of fuel poverty at the rate of 10% of a household’s income.
Members will be aware that the Committee’s report is based on a fuel poverty event hosted by the Social Development Committee and supported, I am glad to say, by the Chairs of all the other relevant Committees. Eight Committees in the Assembly have some scrutiny role in respect of their governing Departments. All of the Departments represented on the then interdepartmental group on fuel poverty also attended, as did over 30 stakeholders from the public and private sectors. We all recognised that it was a truly collaborative event with a focus on identifying solutions to fuel poverty.
I hope that Members and the Minister will recognise that that spirit of collaboration is maintained in the report and the recommendations therein. Indeed, with the support of the Committee, I met the permanent secretary of the Department several months ago to discuss some of the key recommendations of the report and to consider a positive and co-operative way forward.
The report is not about confronting the Department for Social Development or any other Department about the shortcomings, perceived or real, in the approach to fuel poverty; the issue is too big to attempt any point scoring. Rather, it is about making recommendations to complement the Department’s approach. I will deal with some of the detail of that in due course.
I think that it would be worthwhile to set the problem in context. The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s ‘Annual report on Fuel Poverty Statistics 2011’ states that in the year of estimate, which was 2009, England, Wales, Scotland and the North had fuel poverty rates of 18%, 26%, 33% and 44% respectively. Although a different methodology is used to calculate the rate in the rest of Ireland, the figure there is around 19%. Thirteen per cent of households in the North are also in severe fuel poverty. That equates to some 75,000 households that are spending at least 20% of their income on energy bills. So, regrettably, we are at the top of the fuel poverty league on these islands. That is not something we can tolerate or be proud of.
We asked why the problem is so bad here. As the Committee report notes, fuel poverty is caused by the interaction of high fuel prices, low income and poor energy efficiency in homes. The Office of Fair Trading report ‘Off-Grid Energy’, which was published some time ago, noted that the markets in England, Scotland and Wales are very similar, with between 12% and 25% of households off-grid — in other words, not connected to the mains gas grid — and with heating oil and electricity being the main fuels used. However, here in the North, 80% of people are off-grid and around 80% of them are using home heating oil. Over the past number of years, all of us have seen the price of gas, oil and electricity increase quite dramatically. Indeed, around 90% of the variation in the price of heating oil over time is explained by movements in the price of crude oil. At the same time, we all know that there has been no comparable increase in wages or benefits. So, it is inevitable that fuel costs will increasingly put a considerable strain on household budgets.
The cost of heating a home accounts for a far bigger proportion of total income for those on benefits or low wages. In an era of wage cuts or freezes, and with benefits likely to come under pressure as a result of welfare reform, together with increasing fuel prices, it is self-evident that affordability will increasingly become a greater issue for those affected. As we have often heard before, that can often leave people having to decide between eating and heating. The Department’s plans for tackling poverty, in association with other Departments, are extremely important in that regard. Ultimately, providing opportunities for employment is key to lifting people out of poverty as a whole.
The final element is poor energy efficiency in homes. That is largely due to an older housing stock in the North. I recognise the work that the Housing Executive and the Department are doing to address that, through the warm homes scheme, the insulation of 9,000 homes a year for the next three years and the target of providing double glazing for all Housing Executive homes, all of which is very welcome. The recently announced £12 million allocation to the boiler replacement scheme to improve energy efficiency in 16,000 homes is also very welcome. Although the causes of fuel poverty are, at one level, simple to understand, I think we all realise that there are no simple or quick-fix solutions. Technical solutions are, of course, one — but only one — part of the answer. That is also at the heart of the Committee’s report: recognition that the interaction of those three key causes results in a complex problem requiring a strategic, cross-sectoral and cross-departmental approach.
The nature of the report may come as a bit of a surprise to some people, because it does not demand that the Minister set any specific targets to reduce fuel poverty. The reliance on oil, coupled with the vagaries of global oil prices, may make such targets meaningless or at least difficult to achieve. Nor does the report call on the Minister to implement specific actions in order to implement the solutions that were proposed by stakeholders at the event we held and that are listed in our report. In many respects, it would have been easy for the Committee to produce a report that did precisely that: a populist report that is warmly welcomed — no pun intended — easily understood and, of course, just as easily forgotten. The Committee agrees that, because of the nature of the problem, that type of report would add little to the argument and certainly would not provide many solutions.
Furthermore, there was a considerable debate at the event over the solutions that needed to be implemented and how they should be implemented. Calling on the Minister to implement certain proposed solutions was, to our thinking, not necessarily an appropriate next step.
We feel that there was much more work to be done to analyse what was a priority, what was achievable and what would eventually be value for money. The Committee focused on the mechanisms by which stakeholders could further engage formally with the relevant Departments to objectively consider which of the solutions that have been identified are practicable, cost-effective and, indeed, a priority. In many ways, the report therefore lays down as big a challenge to stakeholders as to the Departments. It does not let anyone off the hook on the issue.
The main purpose of the report is to do two things. First, it is to continue to highlight the need for radical action to tackle fuel poverty as it affects those who we represent, but it also provides a mechanism for doing that, and I want to deal with that in a moment or two. Although the report is not prescriptive about what it wants the Department to do, we are very conscious in the first instance that the Department and the Minister for Social Development have a lead responsibility within the Executive.
The mandate from 2007 states:
“DSD has the lead responsibility for tackling fuel poverty, a role which involves the coordination of information, engagement with departments and other organisations that influence the factors which contribute to fuel poverty and more directly, through the provision of funding for and oversight of the Warm Homes Scheme.”
That has recently been updated with the fuel poverty strategy:
“other departments also have a significant role to play in the eradication of fuel poverty. There are clear links to other government strategies including the Northern Ireland Strategic Energy Framework, the Green New Deal, the Sustainable Energy Initiative, and the forthcoming new Child Poverty Strategy. Closer working, not only between government departments, but between government and the private and voluntary sectors is vital. There is a strong body of evidence that partnership working is the best way to tackle fuel poverty. We will work with other government departments, the voluntary sector, the energy sector and others who are committed to alleviating fuel poverty.”
That is the mandate that our Department works under, and our role as a Committee is to ensure that we are holding the Department to account for that, but also working collaboratively with the Department to develop those policies within the Department’s bailiwick, but also, crucially, with all the other relevant Departments. As I said earlier, there are eight Departments here that have some contributory role to play in tackling fuel poverty. What we are trying to do is to work with the Department for Social Development and the Minister, building on their commitment and their responsibilities in the Programme for Government, but also, crucially, to work with all the other Departments to make sure that we get it right in a timely fashion.
A central idea in our report is the establishment of what we call thematic action groups, or TAGS, as they have been referred to. Those are groups that are based on the themes identified as a result of the discussion at the fuel poverty event, and convened under the umbrella of the relevant Departments. Those groups would discuss or tease out specific proposed solutions, as outlined in the report. They would determine which are achievable based on evidence, and make recommendations to the recently established cross-sectoral fuel poverty partnership on initiatives that they recommend for implementation. The work of those thematic groups would be time-bound and would not exceed six months.
I acknowledge that the cross-sectoral fuel poverty partnership has only recently been established, and met on only a few occasions. In recognition of that, the report recommends that the Department revisit the partnership to bring senior decision-makers into its membership, to include the chairs of the proposed thematic action groups, and perhaps to be chaired by the Minister for Social Development himself.
A number of the stakeholders favoured the establishment of a ministerial task force, as they had concerns that the then interdepartmental group on fuel poverty, despite the best intentions, had perhaps been ineffective. That is what was said by others who were involved in that work previously. There are lingering concerns among stakeholders that the current partnership is perhaps a rebranding of that previous group. To address that, the Committee’s proposals add to that mechanism by being more inclusive, favouring the bottom-up approach that puts the onus on stakeholders and officials to work together, and which challenges their own views on the way forward. Importantly, the work of the thematic action groups is also time-bound.
I would also like to allay any fears that the work of the thematic groups or the cross-sectoral fuel poverty partnership will be a duplication of some sort. Rather, the Committee sees the work of the partnership as co-ordinating a strategic approach to the implementation of initiatives arising from the work of the thematic groups and monitoring progress on that implementation. As I said earlier, the work of those groups also lays a challenge to the potential production of a wish list.
We cannot waste any more time talking. We need to take strong action to determine practical solutions to the problems that we all face as a result of fuel poverty. I say that not to criticise the wide range of solutions that were proposed to the Committee but to acknowledge that it is clear that further scrutiny is required on the basis of evidence to distil these proposals into what can be achieved. That will also challenge preconceived ideas and even prejudices, but ultimately, I believe that it will help to bring clarity and objectivity to the way forward and will underpin the work of those whose aim is to end fuel poverty.
I would like to say a few words about the importance of a cross-sectoral, cross-departmental approach. Numerous times in this Chamber, and, I am sure, in each of the Statutory Committees, we have heard calls for more joined-up government. We have also heard questions asking why there is not more cross-departmental working and whether the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. We have made those sorts of comments ourselves, and, to a large extent, they are justified. However, we in the Statutory Committees run the risk of being the pot that calls the kettle black.
The Committee’s fuel poverty event in some ways highlighted that Committees can work more directly together. Eight Statutory Committees were represented on the evening, and the Chairs of all those Committees took an active part by hosting a table of stakeholders and by chairing discussions. That sent out a very important message about building political momentum to address fuel poverty across all parties and Departments. It also sent a more general message about being open to new ways of cross-Committee working to harness that political weight to address other issues of concern.
In other words, the Assembly has to take its responsibility firmly. It is not enough for us to say that Departments need to work together; the Assembly also has that responsibility. Each scrutiny Committee has the very important role of scrutinising its Department, but they also have a responsibility to work together co-operatively. I think that that will prove beneficial to all of us in the end.
It is easy to say that, given that DSD takes the lead, fuel poverty is its problem. I am sure that the Minister will agree that pressure must be put on each of the other relevant Departments via our respective Committees to ensure that strategic and co-ordinated action is taken on fuel poverty.
The Committee’s report is not an end point —
Alex Maskey (Sinn Féin)
I will, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This report is not an end point in the debate on fuel poverty; quite the opposite. It marks the beginning of a different approach in the Assembly, one that I believe will ultimately converge with the Department’s.
Paula Bradley (DUP)
I also praise all those who are responsible for producing the report. Fuel poverty is not just a case of people being a little bit cold in the depths of winter. Certainly, the recent warm weather means that it can be difficult to think just how the many people in Northern Ireland who live in fuel poverty might feel, but fuel poverty is a reality in this country.
Fuel poverty means that some of the most vulnerable members of our community, such as those on a fixed or low income, the very old and the very young, are living in cold, damp environments. We know that those are the conditions that encourage certain bacteria to grow and multiply. The Surgeon General has already indicated the scale of the problem by highlighting that, in the past decade, over 1,000 deaths have occurred as a direct consequence of people living in fuel poverty. For me, one death caused by fuel poverty is one too many; therefore, not addressing this issue, as highlighted in the report, is not an option. It is important to identify why cross-departmental working is vital in the development of an effective strategy for addressing fuel poverty.
At a basic level, we cannot afford to have people living in conditions that can have many outcomes. At a higher level, we know that fuel poverty impacts on many areas of people’s lives, from health to education to the ability to work. For example, living in such conditions is known to cause illness, which in turn means that financial resources in our National Health Service are utilised to treat such conditions in the community and in our hospitals. If we tackled fuel poverty effectively, that money could be diverted into other areas of the NHS.
We ask people daily to take responsibility for their health. Therefore, we have a duty to ensure that we are maximising every opportunity that we have to reduce the impact of fuel poverty on the most vulnerable. Fuel poverty can also impact on educational outcomes. At a basic level, children may be unable to attend school because of ill health caused by living in cold, damp conditions. It may be difficult to wash and dry uniforms. The money that a family needs to spend on heat, light and fuel will impact on the money that is available for that child to access a good diet, as well as extra-curricular activities. Finally, fuel poverty has most impact in the dark, cold winter months, when there might not be money in households to have light and heat. That could, of course, lead to low educational attainment.
As the Chair said, no one Department can address the many complex issues that contribute to 44% of our households experiencing some form of fuel poverty. Indeed, some issues may be outside the scope and remit of any Department. I welcome the work that the Minister has already done in ensuring maximum benefit uptake through the use of publicity in local media and the availability of services, such as the benefit checker, which people can access and which can go some way to addressing fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.
Working together, we can hopefully ensure that no person should have to choose between heat and food and that we protect the most vulnerable in our society. I support the motion.
Michael Copeland (UUP)
I, too, support the motion. Looking at the weather outside and thinking back to the cold of last winter, it is almost impossible to conceive that we are living in the same climate. It is not easy, in the glow of summer, to remember those who are, in many cases, less fortunate and for whom the winter brings a complex and different set of difficulties.
I believe, and am justified in believing, that the Social Development Committee displayed a good deal of courage in seeking opinions from those who know about this particular difficulty in the format in which it did in the Great Hall. Bringing people with an agenda, which many of them had, to a room and asking them what they think and how their thoughts can be applied to the solution of a problem sometimes does not lead to anything that could be described as a good outcome. I was present at the event; I have been present at, I think, all the Social Development Committee meetings at which this has been discussed. It has been a worthwhile exercise. The result of that exercise has been what can only be described as a well-researched, well-conducted report. I join the Chair of the Committee in paying tribute to, initially, the Members of the Committee, and, in particular, the Assembly staff who service the Committee. This represents something that I am personally very keen on: an outcome. Outcomes are something that processes do not always result in, but this particular process has.
We are all in agreement about the effects of fuel poverty. We all concur that they can be devastating, and disproportionately devastating to those on low incomes, particularly the old. Last Wednesday, with junior Minister Bell and Mickey Brady — I got it right on this occasion — I attended the Pensioners Parliament. I have been in some bear pits and some cockpits in my life, but let me tell you this: the pensioners of this Province are not to be trifled with. They have opinions; their opinions are well founded and based on life experiences. Woe betide anybody who thinks they are going to bluff them. One of their repeated concerns was the inordinately high cost and very serious difficulties of matching, on a fixed income, energy prices that are accelerating at the speed at which they are. A study from Age UK revealed that 2 million elderly people in the United Kingdom are so desperately cold in the depths of winter that they are going to bed when they are not tired. I can only assume that Northern Ireland will have a disproportionately large share of those 2 million people. A similar number, another 2 million people, have moved into one room in an attempt to keep their energy bills down.
It is clear to the Committee that, to deal with this complex issue, a gap must be bridged between the solution, formulation and implementation of a long-term strategy.
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
I will just take the Member back to the point he raised about the Pensioners Parliament. I note with some interest that, in comments he made following that, he said that what we need is more regulation of the home heating oil industry. Will the Member clarify whether his party position has changed once again and he now supports some regulation of the home heating oil industry?
Michael Copeland (UUP)
Thank you very much, Sir. I rather suspect that, on this occasion, I will not need the extra minute, but we will see.
Elements of the home heating oil industry require a degree of examination. I have run out of oil on a number of occasions, and I have gone to my local garage and purchased the blue barrels, which seem to be inordinately expensive. Trying to regulate an industry that has so many distributors is tantamount to impossible. I have never been one for taking on the impossible; the difficult I do practically every day, but the impossible takes a little bit longer. I imagine that we would have difficulty in doing it, but I take the Member’s point and thank him for the 26 seconds that I gained through the venture.
I struggle sometimes with what we say in here and what happens outside. It could be the fact that I was not here for four years. On occasions, we dedicate ourselves to a debate or topic, and we speak on it and think that we do a good job. Then you go back to your constituency, and somebody who really knows something pokes you in the chest and says, “Aye, that’s all right, but what are you going to do about it?” There are so many times when we can do nothing. Northern Ireland cannot control the world price of oil. We cannot reduce overnight the number of households that are dependent on fuel oil as a method of heating. We cannot tackle the cartels that control the price of energy, because they are bigger than most Governments. On this occasion, we have at least taken a step in conjunction with one another. I believe —
I, too, support the motion. I welcome the publication of the report on fuel poverty and thank the officials who have worked diligently on its compilation. A lot of the detail in the report would already be known to many of us as public representatives. Fuel poverty is one of the single biggest issues affecting our constituents. However, it is positive that the information has been compiled and crystallised in the report that we see today. It provides us with a good springboard from which to move forward and try to bring about real, tangible benefits to the people of Northern Ireland.
The strength of the document lies in its cross-departmental and cross-cutting nature. I have said before in the Chamber that the depressingly high rate of fuel poverty here — 44% of households was the figure that the Chair used earlier — is compounded by the fact that our approach to tackling it has, to date, been quite fragmented. Steps are being taken to address that, and that is to be commended. I am quite heartened by the fact that there are targets set around the timelines for the establishment of the thematic action groups and their work. The key word in that regard is “action”. We will be judged on our actions, so it is imperative that the guidelines are adhered to and that various Departments are held to their commitments in the report.
I fear that, with continued cuts to benefits and limited employment opportunities, fuel poverty will affect more people this year than ever before. Last week, we debated underoccupancy, which will lead to social housing tenants losing, on average, £690 a year. The impact of that is certain to be felt come the winter. We need to look at fuel poverty in the context of welfare reform, and I speculate that we should provide for bigger numbers as a result.
I acknowledge that maximising benefit uptake is an issue for consideration by the thematic action groups. That should be encouraged and supported. Another area for consideration is whether winter fuel payments could be credited to household bills rather than paid in cash. We would certainly be supportive of such an initiative. We should also support oil saving-stamps and innovative credit union initiatives as well as encouraging energy brokerage schemes.
Those are simple measures that are well within our gift to implement and we can get quick wins here, to the benefit of our citizens. Improving the energy efficiency of our homes is the most sustainable means of reducing and tackling fuel poverty, and we want the social investment fund to be targeted towards that. I support the motion and look forward to the outworking of the report.
Judith Cochrane (Alliance)
I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion today. As a member of the Social Development Committee, I am pleased that our report on fuel poverty has now been published, and I believe that the recommendations should be implemented.
Northern Ireland has the highest rate of fuel poverty in northern Europe; therefore, DSD really needs to take the lead and work in collaboration with other Departments to tackle fuel poverty here once and for all. Fuel poverty has been on the increase in Northern Ireland since 2006, with 61% of older people and 83% of lone older people living in fuel poverty here. The sub-zero temperatures in 2010 brought the issue to the forefront, when we saw how the health of our most vulnerable was at risk when many had to choose between heating and eating. With welfare reform on the way, we must seriously consider the likely changes to household incomes that could push more people into fuel poverty.
Members have already mentioned many of the recommendations in the report, and I will highlight some in particular. Recommendation 35 states that a discussion needs to take place as to whether the winter fuel payment should be paid as a credit to a household’s electricity, gas or oil supplier as opposed to being paid as a cash sum. Like my colleague Mr Durkan, I recommend that that be considered, as pressure can often be felt, particularly by older people, around Christmas time when they may instead use the payment for gifts when, really, they need to take care of themselves and keep their house warm.
The report also recognises that the eradication of fuel poverty is unlikely to be achieved without the adoption of a long-term strategy. Given the likelihood that fuel prices will continue to rise, we must seek to protect those with the lowest incomes by promoting benefit checks, encouraging energy efficiency in the home and helping people to budget for their fuel payments. Recommendation 36 relates to those issues and states that the advice sector has a significant role to play, not only to educate and encourage people to make their homes more energy efficient or to have their boiler serviced regularly but to work with the various energy suppliers to ensure that the advice given to consumers is accurate and consistent and is not just marketing for a particular supplier.
Of the half a million homes using oil, around 400,000 have old, inefficient boilers, and while I am glad that money has been awarded to the Housing Executive to improve energy efficiency through the boiler replacement scheme, I am disappointed that it appears that that money has been taken from funds that were earmarked for the green new deal. That decision locks us into a reliance on fossil fuels, and that needs to be addressed. With global energy prices continuing to rise, we need to enable people to use less energy through energy efficiency measures as well as moving to sustainable energy sources such as those proposed in the green new deal.
How can we help people to pay for their fuel? It is clear that many households using oil have no option but to buy it in small amounts, resulting in them paying substantially more per litre than those who can afford to fill their tank in one go. I recently went to see Carillion’s pilot pay-as-you-go oil scheme in action, and I encourage the Minister to establish a procurement process for a contract to deliver a similar pay-as-you-go oil scheme to assist those who simply cannot afford to pay large lump sums for oil in one go.
In conclusion, while I believe that DSD has the main role, all other Departments have a supportive role, as demonstrated in the departmental responses in the report. I support the establishment of the thematic action groups, which can take forward the various themes and focus on how other Departments can take practical steps to reduce and remove fuel poverty. I support the motion and look forward to the implementation of the fuel poverty report’s recommendations.
Alex Easton (DUP)
Fuel poverty is an issue that has long been known about in our society. It occurs when a household needs to spend more than 10% of its disposable income to gain adequate warmth. That warmth is not just important for the inhabitants but also to ensure that other conditions, such as damp, are not allowed to take hold.
It is noted that 44% of households are experiencing fuel poverty, which is almost half of households in Northern Ireland. A core group of about 13% of households are in extreme fuel poverty, and that is approximately 75,000 households.
Fuel poverty is not just a matter of heating. Not having enough heat can impact negatively on health outcomes, especially for already vulnerable groups of people who have underlying health problems. The Surgeon General’s report indicates that 1,890 winter deaths over the past decade are directly attributed to people living in damp and cold conditions. In particular, our older generations are at risk. They often have static income sources with low interest rates that do not give them high enough returns on their savings, which means that as fuel prices rise, they have to spend more of their disposable income on it. It is important to remember, as well, that we are not just talking about heating a home but about fuel for cooking. This can restrict diets, which, again, can have negative impacts on health outcomes. The importance of diet has long been known in relation to positive educational outcomes for younger generations.
Tackling fuel poverty is an extremely complex issue that cannot be addressed by sticking plasters or quick fixes. Those who are directly involved in working to reduce fuel poverty long lamented the lack of a joined-up approach. There are three broad areas that can be seen to be at the root of fuel poverty, the first being the cost of fuel to the household. We are extremely constrained in what we can do about this issue, as prices are set on global markets. However, we have the potential to explore ways in which we can help people to manage their resources and budget for the cost of heating.
Secondly, low income contributes to fuel poverty. This has the potential to become a more influencing factor as the welfare reforms come into place. I welcome the measures that the Minister has already introduced to ensure that everyone is getting the correct benefits at the correct rate and the availability of a simple-to-use online benefit checker that everyone can access and use to ensure that they get their full entitlement.
Finally, energy efficiency is vital. We should encourage households to ensure that their heat remains in their homes. The benefits of house insulation programmes are best seen through the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s (DARD) rural antipoverty and social inclusion programme, which, over a three-year period, provided insulation or the installation of central heating systems in rural communities. Indeed, the Minister for Social Development recently announced the boiler replacement scheme, which is to be welcomed.
We have to be conscious that certain groups of people are more at risk of fuel poverty, and we must strive, through the strategy, to use innovative ways to reach these people. Rural dwellers, for example, have their own unique vulnerabilities when it comes to the rising cost of fuel, and they are often extremely limited in their choice of fuel and do not have access to cheaper alternatives. They also tend to be very reliant on their vehicles, in which they may put fuel rather than heat their home. DARD’s programme has gone some way to address this, but we need a cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach so that we can effectively address issues around fuel poverty and help to prevent households from entering the fuel poverty trap.
In conclusion, I thank the Clerk of the Committee for Social Development and his staff for their hard work on the report. Hopefully, it will go a long way towards helping the most vulnerable in society to get away from the fuel poverty trap.
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I pay tribute to the members of the Committee for Social Development for the work that they have done to bring the report forward. I am not a member of the Committee, but, as my party’s energy spokesperson, I take a keen interest in it.
The long-term solution to fuel poverty, and one which fulfils the aims of reducing carbon emissions, is to increase significantly the energy efficiency of fuel-poor households. We need to take a three-pronged approach to this issue. First, we need to improve the energy performance of domestic properties. Secondly, we need to encourage behavioural change that requires education on issues of consumption patterns and transparent building formats. Thirdly, we need to provide the most vulnerable households with energy-related benefits.
Fuel poverty in the North of Ireland is at record levels, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable people in our society. Any energy policy that we introduce must seek to make provision and place protections for consumers in such a situation. It is clear that the Department for Social Development needs to play a key role in the fight against fuel poverty. However, with energy policy currently sitting with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which also has a role in growing the economy and in supporting our business community, it is hard to merely accept that fuel poverty is given the urgent priority that it requires if we are to eliminate it from our society.
Fuel-poor households must be given the resources to reduce their energy demand through increased energy efficiency measures. Home heating must be achievable at an affordable cost. It is, therefore, very difficult to understand how the scrapping of the green new deal scheme and moving ahead with a boiler replacement scheme fits in with that aim. Although the boiler replacement scheme will improve the efficiency of many boilers and can be used as a method of moving people from oil to gas, the potential success of the green new deal has been set aside, primarily because it appeared to be too radical for the Mistier and some of his civil servants.
The eradication of fuel poverty can be achieved if the key stakeholders involved engage effectively together. This is not an either/or situation, and it is within the ability of the energy regulator, government, consumer advocacy groups and the energy companies to deliver on that aim together.
Delivering affordable warmth through investment in heating and insulation programmes meets environmental and social objectives. As energy prices continue to rise, fuel poverty can only be tackled by increasing our focus on the energy efficiency and the energy costs of those in fuel poverty, especially low-income, vulnerable householders. The long-term solution to fuel poverty and one that supports the objective of reducing carbon emissions is to increase dramatically the energy efficiency of fuel-poor households.
Although the current sustainable energy interdepartmental working group is a good start, progress to date has been slow. What we need is closer working between the Department of the Environment, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Department for Regional Development to deliver the needed energy infrastructure that will protect domestic and commercial consumers. Furthermore, departmental working needs to be evident in the delivery of zero-carbon public housing and government buildings. The Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the Department for Social Development need to work together to deliver that. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is heavily affected by the decisions taken on energy policy, so it is critical that its voice is heard. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is responsible for tackling poverty, and the link between energy prices and levels of poverty is easily made.
The current arrangements are not working. Inefficient and delayed decision-making has resulted in higher prices for consumers and businesses and higher operating costs. It has also led to increased proportions of people living in fuel poverty.
Dealing with our energy challenge cannot be done with different Departments acting in isolation. All Departments need to work together with the ultimate objective of one Department taking responsibility for all energy-related matters. Tacaím leis an rún. I support the motion.
Pam Lewis (DUP)
I will speak on the report as a member of the Social Development Committee. First and foremost, I very much welcome the report and want to put on record my thanks to the Committee Clerk and staff, who assisted the Committee in its drafting and completion of the report.
Fuel poverty is even more pressing today than it was five years ago. The price of energy, such as oil, gas, coal and electricity, is the highest it has been for some time. Therefore, that means that more and more people are at risk of falling into fuel poverty, where they cut back and suffer in the cold because they just cannot afford to heat their homes and keep warm. Although fuel poverty is more likely to affect older people, it is also affecting far too many families across Northern Ireland.
The fuel poverty strategy, which was launched in March 2011, identified that 44% of people in Northern Ireland live in fuel poverty. That figure is truly stark and most concerning. To date, the Department for Social Development has taken a lead role in tackling fuel poverty. However, as identified in the report, there is a need for a more collaborative, cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach to address fuel poverty.
Despite fuel poverty having been talked about for some time, the situation is not being resolved, and more and more people are being affected by it. Any solution will not eradicate fuel poverty in a short time, and eradication is the ultimate objective. Therefore, the report calls for a long-term strategic policy approach.
It was for those reasons that the Committee proposed the establishment of thematic action groups, based on themes identified in the evidence-gathering exercise undertaken for the report. Each thematic action group will have a particular theme attached to its brief, and will seek to find realistic rather than idealistic solutions to reduce and prevent fuel poverty. Each group will be responsible for developing a work plan, which will contain various actions. That will avoid any danger of the groups turning into talking shops. Those plans should also be published regularly. Each thematic action group will report to the Social Development Committee on its progress and an overarching cross-departmental group will be established to monitor progress of the implementation of the agreed initiatives. That overarching group has already been established, which demonstrates the commitment of the Committee, the Minister and the Department to see fuel poverty tackled and prevented. The group, which is called the cross-sectoral fuel poverty partnership, will be made up of the chairs of each thematic action group and permanent secretaries of each relevant Department, with the Minister for Social Development acting as chair.
The report’s proposals provide a joined-up way forward to tackle and prevent fuel poverty. I know of many people in my constituency of South Antrim who are struggling. Lone parents, pensioners, the sick and even working families are all faced with soaring heating costs on top of the other pressures of life. Heating your home and keeping your family warm is surely a basic human need. Heat is not a luxury but a requirement and not having it has major implications for one’s health and leads to avoidable healthcare demands and the costs associated with that. Therefore, we need to do more for those who are in need, and the report’s proposals offer a means of making things better. I support the motion.
Steven Agnew (Green)
I welcome the Committee report and the focus that it gives to fuel poverty. Many before me outlined the severity of the issue. I welcome the overall recommendation to ensure a strategic cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach to reducing and preventing fuel poverty. If I am honest, I would have welcomed more specific recommendations from the Committee on the three key areas that have been highlighted: low incomes; rising energy costs; and tackling the energy inefficiency of our housing stock. However, I appreciate the outcomes that have been mentioned around the working groups that are to be established, hopefully, as a result of the report.
On low incomes, we need to ensure that we speak with one voice from the Chamber. Often, when debating the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy, we bemoan the high public sector wages and benefits that, apparently, are strangling our private sector. However, I do note and agree with the Finance Minister’s recent comments on regional pay, when he stated that we should not seek to drive down pay in the public sector but should seek to drive up pay in the private sector. We should remember this debate when we talk about the economy.
Government can do very little about the spiralling price rises in oil and gas. As fossil fuels diminish, demand for them increases and, inevitably, costs go up. What we can do is drive towards renewables and to alternatives to fossil fuels. Indeed, as the report mentions, in the shorter term, brokering initiatives can be developed. As chair of the all-party group on co-operatives and mutuals, I welcome the fact that, on the back of a meeting that we held on energy, we could see Northern Ireland’s first energy co-operative. That could help to tackle some of our immediate energy issues.
Energy efficiency is, perhaps, the area where the Assembly can do most. There are more deaths from winter-related illnesses in Northern Ireland than in Finland, which is a much colder country. We have to ask why that is and what it is that we are getting wrong. I have no doubt that the inefficiency of the housing stock is a big factor. In Finland, the figures show that levels of cavity wall insulation, roof insulation, floor insulation and double-glazing are at 100% in every case. I do not have the figures for Northern Ireland, but, in the UK, cavity wall insulation is at 25% and floor insulation is at 4%. It is clear to see why we, as part of the UK, are falling down substantially in how we tackle fuel poverty.
We need an area-based approach to improving the energy efficiency of our housing stock, such as that which is proposed by the green new deal group. The motion talks about a cross-sectoral approach. That is a cross-body group in that it contains groups such as Friends of the Earth, the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the CBI and the Institute of Directors, amongst others. Such an approach has also been recommended by Lord Whitty in his recent report for the Consumer Council, ‘Energising Northern Ireland’. Indeed, numerous groups that provided submissions to inform the Committee’s report such as the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, NICVA, the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations and Save the Children have called for an area-based approach. So, there have been many calls, not just from the Green Party but from various sectors and various stakeholders with an interest in fuel poverty.
Those proposals offered the Minister the opportunity to move to a co-ordinated and coherent approach to fuel poverty; an approach that would have created genuine efficiencies, that is, the opportunity to provide more effective help to more households with the same amount of money. That differs from the usual government definition of efficiency, which usually just translates as cuts. The green new deal proposals provided the opportunity to unlock up to £80 million from a £12 million government spend.
Steven Agnew (Green)
Lord Whitty categorised our current approach. He stated: “There are a range of schemes, therefore, all of which have relatively small resources and little overall coherence. The range of schemes and the different methods of delivery cause both sub optimal efficiency and confusion.”
The green new deal could have tackled that. The Minister’s decision on that issue was a disgrace.
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
I thank Mr Kennedy for his helpful advice. [Laughter.]
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate and thank the Members who have contributed to it. I also welcome the Social Development Committee’s report on fuel poverty. I have listened carefully to the comments expressed by Members. If my response fails to address any specific points, I will, of course, write to Members separately.
The motion calls on me to implement the Committee’s recommendations to ensure that a strategic, cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach is adopted to reduce and prevent fuel poverty. I welcome this opportunity to update Members on the range of activities my Department is undertaking to tackle fuel poverty, in particular the amalgamation of the interdepartmental group on fuel poverty and the fuel poverty advisory group into the new cross-sectoral fuel poverty partnership.
The report from the Social Development Committee was the product of an event held in November last year, at which representatives from Statutory Committees, Departments, the private sector and non-governmental organisations discussed practical solutions to fuel poverty. I have spoken many times of my commitment to tackling fuel poverty, and it continues to be one of my top priorities. However, we are all too aware of the extent of the problem in Northern Ireland and of the fact that just talking about it will not resolve it.
The definition of fuel poverty has been explored in depth by Professor Christine Liddell from the University of Ulster and John Hills in Great Britain. That work is very welcome, and emphasises that fuel poverty is a real problem in Northern Ireland. The time has come to concentrate on practical solutions that will make a real difference to the thousands of householders in Northern Ireland who are struggling to pay their energy bills. I want to take a few minutes to remind Members of what we are doing to tackle fuel poverty.
My Department’s fuel poverty strategy document, ‘Warmer Healthier Homes’, was published in April 2011 and set out our vision for the future as:
“a society in which people live in a warm, comfortable home and need not worry about the effect of the cold on their health.”
I remain committed to that vision, and I want to back it up with practical measures that help people in fuel poverty. In addition to continuing to deliver mainstream schemes such as the Warm Homes Scheme, the Housing Executive’s heating replacement scheme, a benefits uptake campaign and winter fuel and cold weather payments, my Department is also working on a number of new and exciting pilots.
The recent boiler replacement scheme entitled eligible householders to a grant of £1,500 towards the cost of installing a new boiler. That pilot was hugely successful, and almost 1,700 inefficient boilers have been replaced, helping many low-income households that had not previously been eligible for government assistance. In addition, over 640 local installers got work from the scheme, providing a much-needed boost to the local construction industry.
Last week, I announced a new boiler replacement scheme, which will build on the success of the pilot.
An amount of £12 million has been set aside for the scheme over the next three years. In the period between the pilot ending and the announcement being made last week, many letters came into the Department calling for the scheme to be continued. It is an immensely popular scheme and has been extremely successful.
In the coming weeks, I hope to announce additional funding for the scheme, which will be part-financed by the European regional development fund under the European Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland. That could see an additional 16,000 people benefit from the grant available.
In regard to the boiler replacement scheme, I visited the home of senior citizens who were saving on an entire oil fill in the year by the installation of the new boiler. That is very significant. The installation of the boiler enabled them to reduce the cost of heating oil over the course of the year by one third. That is significant, important and a good example of real delivery.
In addition, my colleague Minister Foster last week announced the renewable heat incentive, offering grants to householders to install renewable technology to improve their energy efficiency. This represents a significant investment in the improvement of domestic energy efficiency and is an important step in preventing fuel poverty. It will also sustain jobs, create investment and improve health. I will be announcing further details of the boiler replacement scheme in the coming days.
Members will be aware of the pay-as-you-go oil pilot, which my officials have been working on with representatives from Kingspan Renewables and Carillion Energy Services to deliver. This innovative approach is aimed at discouraging people from purchasing emergency oil drums. The pilot was to run for three months and will be coming to an end in the next few weeks. It will be subject to a full evaluation to see whether this is something we can bring into future domestic energy efficiency improvement schemes. Early feedback is that the pilot has worked really well, so I look forward to that evaluation. An example brought to my attention was of a low-income family with a disabled child who are now able to use their oil heating system to heat their home properly. They were not able to do that previously. Those are the sorts of differences that the schemes that we are introducing really make — differences to the family with the disabled child and to the senior citizens.
In addition, officials from my Department are working with the University of Ulster and district councils to pilot an area-based approach to tackling fuel poverty. Working in partnership with the University of Ulster, Departments such as OFMDFM and DARD, and local councils, we will target areas most affected by fuel poverty and provide appropriate solutions to improve the energy efficiency of homes in the area. The pilot will start later this year, and the outcome will inform our approach to tackling fuel poverty.
The fuel poverty strategy places significant emphasis on the partnership approach required to tackle fuel poverty and the cross-departmental nature of the whole area of fuel poverty. This is very relevant in relation to the motion, which calls for:
“a strategic, cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach … to reduce and prevent fuel poverty.”
That is what we are delivering at present. The report by the Social Development Committee recommends the establishment of thematic action groups whose key role will be to identify and prioritise agreed, workable and realistic solutions to fuel poverty and not simply develop wish lists. I am a firm believer in collaborative working to provide realistic solutions to difficult issues, so I welcome the report in that respect.
We said in our fuel poverty strategy that we would review the support structures for the strategy, namely the interdepartmental group on fuel poverty and the fuel poverty advisory group. This review resulted in the amalgamation of those groups to form the cross-sectoral fuel poverty partnership. The key recommendations from the report are, therefore, very much in line with the thematic approach that my Department is developing.
The cross-sectoral fuel poverty partnership has agreed terms of reference:
“to identify measures to reduce fuel poverty and propose implementation mechanisms within the wider strategic policy context”.
I chaired the first meeting of the partnership. At that meeting, it was agreed that the members would nominate themselves on to thematic subgroups. Those thematic subgroups are: achieving affordable warmth; prevention, targeting and opportunities; synergies; and risks. Members can sit on one or a number of groups. I will be chairing the next meeting of the cross-sectoral fuel poverty partnership on 7 June. At that meeting, Professor Christine Liddell from the University of Ulster will present her findings, which are about informing my Department’s area-based approach pilot. I am pleased that that arrangement reflects the Committee’s recommendations, and I expect that the thematic subgroups will examine in detail all the recommendations in the report.
I will touch on some of the issues that we heard about from Members. Mr Durkan, who is not with us now, said that something needed to be done on energy-brokering schemes. In fact, I have recently approved an energy-brokering scheme, which the Housing Executive is now working on to implement for its tenants. So, we are moving ahead on that.
I noticed a number of comments from Mr Flanagan, who has also moved on to other things. He said that the green new deal was the key to all this. Indeed, Mr Agnew took up that point. The green new deal was subject to a full economic appraisal. The proposal was fundamentally flawed. A significant slice of the available funding for part of the green new deal proposal went on administration costs. Administration does not heat a home. I want as much of the available money as possible to go directly to the people who are in need. The Department of Finance and Personnel raised significant concerns about the proposals, including a concern about the lack of private funding security. It is all very well to talk about how much money you are going to bring in from other sources, but if there is no security with that, it is very dangerous ground on which to move forward. I suggest that Members reflect on those points when they espouse the cause of the green new deal as much as they do.
We are putting the £12 million into a scheme that is tried, tested and proven to deliver, and that is the boiler replacement scheme. I believe that that was the right decision to take, and, in spite of Mr Agnew’s comments, it is one that will stand the test of time. Mr Agnew also said that thematic action groups would “hopefully” be formed. I already said that people were asked to nominate to them at our meeting in January, so that work is under way.
I will turn now to another couple of things that Mr Flanagan said. He said that progress has been slow, that there was inefficiency and delayed decision-making across Departments, and that Departments were working in isolation. From this and from the approach that we have adopted, it is clear that we have all the relevant Departments working on this together. All the key stakeholders are there as well. In other words, we agree entirely with what is in the report in that regard. It is absolutely right, and that is the way that we are moving forward.
I have to disagree with what he said about delayed decision-making. The pilot scheme and the other measures that we brought forward, and on which we are working at the moment, have not been delayed. This issue has been around for many years. In the past year, since I have been in the Department, we have moved forward very quickly on the issues. That is why we have the pilot for the pay-as-you-go scheme and the vast improvement in the energy efficiency of homes. That has been achieved through not only the boiler replacement scheme but the focus on double glazing in Housing Executive properties, the delivery of which, when I arrived in the Department, we were told would take a decade. Now, we are delivering it in the term of this Executive. We are keen to move forward with improving the energy efficiency of homes.
We also have our ongoing work, through our benefit uptake campaigns and so forth, on raising the amount of money that people have to spend on heating their homes and on fuel.
I thank Members for their contributions today, and I reaffirm my total commitment to finding practical solutions to tackling fuel poverty. When I came to the Department, I believed that the time had come to move away from talking about tackling fuel poverty to implementing practical solutions that would make a real difference to householders across Northern Ireland. I thank the Committee for its work, and I look forward to working with it as we take this forward.
Mickey Brady (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, thank all those who participated in today’s debate, all the members of the Committee and, indeed, the Committee staff who have put so much work into the preparation of this report.
It is clear from the debate that there is a consensus on the need to work together to effectively address fuel poverty. Political commitment and momentum is key to driving the agenda forward. That, in essence, is the key message of the report. It has a focus on cross-sectoral and cross-departmental collaboration, and almost all the Members who spoke referred to the need for that. The report suggests an approach that, in my opinion, could underpin the Department’s current approach.
I will deal now with the comments of Members who contributed to the debate. Paula Bradley talked about the most vulnerable members of society being affected by fuel poverty. She said that it was important to identify cross-departmental working and stressed its importance. She also talked about the health implications that put pressure on other services and said that no one Department is responsible for solving the problem.
Michael Copeland talked about the Committee having shown courage in holding the event that produced the report. He talked about all of us being in agreement on the effects of fuel poverty, particularly on the old. He talked about pensioners having real concerns about fuel prices and taking drastic actions to keep warm. He said that some elements of the oil industry need to be considered for regulation, but he was not specific on that.
Mark Durkan talked about the report providing a good springboard to move forward. He said that the approach to date has been fragmented but acknowledged that some work has been done to redress that. He is concerned about the impact of welfare reform on fuel poverty rates, as we all are. He said that innovative approaches need to be implemented and current ones expanded. He mentioned oil saving stamps. The Minister also mentioned some of the issues that Mark Durkan alluded to.
Judith Cochrane highlighted the impact on the most vulnerable in society and said that we must seek to protect the most vulnerable. She referred to the key role of the advice sector, one example being the maximising of benefit uptake and energy efficiency. She feared the role of pay-as-you-go oil schemes.
Alex Easton referred to the impact on health and the number of deaths connected to fuel poverty. He also talked about the impact on educational opportunities. He highlighted the causes of fuel poverty, including low incomes, energy efficiency and high fuel costs. He acknowledged that departmental initiatives are helping to address fuel poverty and noted the impact on rural fuel poverty in particular.
Phil Flanagan focused on energy-efficient programmes and action to maximise benefits. He is concerned about scrapping the green new deal proposal in favour of boiler replacement. Environmental and social objectives can be met by increasing the efficiency of fuel-poor households. He said that zero-carbon public buildings must be part of the solution and that current arrangements are not working.
Pam Brown said that fuel poverty is likely to get worse and that the report calls for a long-term strategic approach. Thematic action groups will be time-bound to avoid them becoming talking shops; the proposals represent a joined-up approach that is strategic. There is a need to do more for those in need, and the report can help to achieve that.
Steven Agnew welcomed the report but would have liked to have seen more specific recommendations. He recognised, however, that the TAGs would make those recommendations. He said that there is very little that government can do about fossil fuel prices but that there should be greater focus on renewables. He talked about energy efficiency being an area in which we can do most. He noted that we have more fuel poverty-related deaths than Finland, which is a colder country. He said that an area-based approach is required, such as the green new deal.
The Minister welcomed the report and provided an update on the action that he and his Department have taken. He talked about fuel poverty being one of the top priorities and a real problem here in the North. He talked about the fuel poverty strategy being published in 2011 and is committed to that strategy. He referred to new and exciting initiatives to address fuel poverty, such as the new boiler replacement scheme, and said that the European regional development fund may provide an additional source of funding to support boiler replacement.
He talked about how renewable heat incentives can help with domestic fuel efficiency and said that the oil pay-as-you-go pilot was coming to an end in the next few weeks, that a full evaluation would follow in due course but that indications were that it has proved successful.
The Minister also talked about how the Department is now working on an area-based approach to fuel poverty. He stated that he is a firm believer in collaboration. He talked about key recommendations of the thematic action groups being similar to the Department’s approach and was happy that their approach converges with that of the Department.
He said that the proposed green new deal is fundamentally flawed. Had it been a different colour, such as blue, orange or pink, I wonder whether he might have had a different view of it, but that is merely a personal observation. [Interruption.] On that note, I will move on.
Some Members referred to the fact that fuel poverty is about poverty in general and that the requirement to increase incomes is easier said than done in the best of times but even more difficult in the current economic climate. Providing employment opportunities will not be easy, but Departments must work together to ensure that they maximise what opportunities they can.
As I said when commenting on some of the contributions, Members spoke of the need to maximise benefit uptake. To that end, I am sure that the Minister will give close consideration to the recent Public Accounts Committee report on the uptake of benefits by pensioners, as well as to the forthcoming report from Bryson Energy on its approach to providing benefit checks to maximise benefit uptake.
The Committee’s report is not an end point on fuel poverty; in fact, it is quite the opposite. It marks the beginning of a different approach but one that I believe ultimately converges with the Department’s own.
A Fuel Poverty Coalition event is currently taking place in the Long Gallery. Events focusing on solutions and collaborative ways forward can contribute to positively impacting on fuel poverty. The Committee does not want to contribute to a talking-shop approach to fuel poverty. We know that we run the risk of having those accusations levelled at us, but the approach outlined in the report is practical, pragmatic and has inbuilt flexibility.
The Committee also acknowledges that the report is not the final article. The expertise to address the detail lies with stakeholders and departmental officials, and the report will require further discussion. The report challenges all stakeholders, including the relevant Departments, to produce outcomes within a set time frame. It is necessary to talk further, but there must be an end point at which strategic action must be taken. I commend the report to the House and ask Members to support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Social Development on fuel poverty; and calls on the Minister for Social Development to implement its recommendations to ensure a strategic, cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach is adopted to reduce and prevent fuel poverty.