Warm Homes Scheme

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 30 September 2002.

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Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP 3:30, 30 September 2002

6. asked the Minister for Social Development to give an update on the uptake of the warm homes scheme.

(AQO 211/02)

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:45, 30 September 2002

The warm homes scheme is demand-led. Since it began in July 2001, more than 12,000 referrals from eligible applicants across Northern Ireland have been processed, and more than 8,300 clients have received energy efficiency or heating measures. To date, spending on the warm homes scheme exceeds £9·6 million, and we are on course to assist 6,250 households this year.

Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP

Does the Minister agree that more than 170,000 households are classed as living with fuel poverty, and that the warm homes scheme, although a positive initiative, will not go far enough to eradicate fuel poverty?

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

I agree that the warm homes scheme, on its own, will not eradicate fuel poverty. However, it is a major leap forward from where we were two or three years ago, and I am sure the Member will agree with that.

Since it began operation on 2 July 2001, over 6,500 insulations have been fitted, over 1,700 heating systems have been installed, and £9·5 million has been spent. The allocation of funds for this year is £7·98 million, and that will be supported by a contribution from the NIE customer levy. Therefore, much is being done on that front, which is very welcome. The Member will know, as I do from dealing with constituents, the valuable and important improvement it makes to people’s lives.

The recent study in Beechmount, which was one of the pilot areas selected by my Department, the Housing Executive and others, showed that people are saving an average of £10 a week as a result of those measures. If we were to eradicate fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, it would save the Health Service £30 million a year — and that is year on year. We talk about dealing with the crux of the problems; that shows the importance of putting money into that scheme, as it will solve a range of problems.

We are also funding an extensive programme of heating upgrades by the Housing Executive and registered housing associations. Through the social security system, a winter fuel payment of £200 a year is made available to pensioners, and a cold weather payment is also available in severe conditions. Housing unfitness, which is a major contributory factor, is being tackled through a regime of grants. We are dealing with that in the Housing Bill by introducing a more flexible regime and targeting the areas most in need, particularly rural areas where there is much unfit housing in the private sector.

I agree that fuel poverty is a multifaceted problem. It requires a cross-departmental approach, and that is why I intend to issue a fuel poverty strategy for consultation by the end of the year.

Photo of Mrs Annie Courtney Mrs Annie Courtney Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister has pre-empted my question. During the Committee for Social Development’s energy inquiry, we discussed fuel poverty, and I understand that the Minister’s Department is setting up a fuel poverty task force. I wanted to ask when that would begin, and when the result is likely to come out.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

I know of the Member’s interest in that area. As I have said, we intend to issue the fuel poverty strategy for consultation by the end of the year. I mentioned the benefits of dealing with the issue comprehensively, and the tremendous benefits that accrue for householders lifted out of fuel poverty and for the general budget, due to the knock-on effects in health, education and other areas. I intend to move on that as speedily as possible.

I will ensure that there is proper consultation with everyone who is interested, not least the Members and Committees, who have a relevant input in the Assembly. I will continue to press the Eaga Partnership in delivering that on the ground, although they have done an impressive job. We will continue to closely monitor where the uptake is coming from. As it is demand-led, there is a need to ensure that those areas that may not be making full use of the scheme make as much use of it as they can. That must be done through publicity and highlighting the benefits of the scheme. Given the benefits that I have outlined, it is important that we continue to make progress, and the strategy to which the Member referred is an important aspect of that.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

Does the Department have any further plans to enhance public awareness of the warm homes scheme? The scheme has been greatly appreciated across the Province. However, not everyone is aware of it.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

The demand-led nature of the scheme means that there will be variations in uptake from one area to the next. As I have said, the Eaga Partnership has developed an effective promotional campaign, which involves general local media advertising and the use of mailshots in co-operation with the Housing Executive and the Rate Collection Agency.

It also involves the employment of a network liaison manager to develop referral mechanisms, which includes the constituency offices of Assembly Members. I am aware that Members from all sides come across the problem when dealing with constituents on a daily basis. It is important that they have a point of reference through which to channel enquiries and get them dealt with as quickly as possible.

Those mechanisms are in place. However, Eaga and the Department continue to monitor the situation closely so that marketing activities are targeted at areas where people are in need. By and large, the uptake across the Province is good. Some areas could certainly benefit from greater uptake; others are above average. However, every part of the Province is benefiting.