The economic turmoil that is driving up the local cost of living is a global phenomenon. We have a small, open economy and cannot remain immune from global economic events. Short-term business and consumer confidence are undermined by a combination of restricted access to credit, falling property prices, increasing inflation and rising food and energy prices. Those factors seriously impact on the well-being of local people.
The First Minister and I are keen to get the direct views of local stakeholders on the impacts of the economic slowdown. We plan to meet local interest groups in order to discuss the scale and types of problems that are faced, as well as what steps might be taken to mitigate the economic impact.
To date, we have met representatives from the banking and construction sectors, the Institute of Directors, the Utility Regulator and the energy companies. We also plan to meet representatives of the voluntary and community sector, the trade unions, and champions for the consumer and for business. Those meetings have helped us to identify core problems and potentially mitigating actions.
Recent expert analyses have suggested that the local economy is well placed to weather the economic storm, which is good news, although the First Minister and I are acutely conscious that in many local households with severely stretched budgets it is difficult to recognise that. Cost of living pressures threaten people’s well-being, and there must be an appropriate social welfare response. I have set out in correspondence with the First Minister a series of measures that might be considered. There will also be detailed discussion on the option of deferring water charges.
At that meeting, I suggested several initiatives that would offset the hardship faced by many in our communities. Those proposals included the indefinite deferral of domestic contributions towards water and sewerage services and the establishment of an emergency fund to address fuel poverty, paid for by increased VAT returns as a result of fuel-cost increases. That initiative would involve giving every fuel-poor household a one-off payment of at least £200 at a minimum cost of £45 million.
Ways of paying for such an emergency fund might include redirecting the British Treasury windfall of £15 million on home heating oil and £25 million on petrol and diesel revenues from here over the past 12 months. Contributions might also be negotiated from the energy industry’s non-regulated finances, which include the electricity generators and supply companies. I also raised again with the Prime Minister the issue of gifting of former military sites.
Will the deputy First Minister confirm that the matter under discussion is cross-cutting and requires the agreement of various Ministers? Therefore, an Executive meeting must be held in order to move the issue forward. Will he confirm that an Executive meeting will take place on Thursday at which the cost of living issue will be dealt with?
I am working in order to ensure that a meeting of the Executive takes place on Thursday. It is also important to note that the Executive have the power, through urgent written procedures, to make decisions that may alleviate the difficulties that people are facing.
Because there has been a bit of verbal sniping, I remind the Ulster Unionist Party that a previous Executive failed to meet for 15 months — from June 1998 until the winter of 1999.
As we advance, we will give serious consideration to the economic situation that we face and will be cautious about progressing in a way that could place further burdens on people, particularly those on low incomes. The Executive as a whole must decide their strategy for combating the worsening global economic situation.