I am already on record as stating that any move to introduce social or affordability tariffs in the energy sector would be extremely complex and unlikely to solve the hardships caused by fuel poverty, not least because such tariffs have to be paid for by other customers. There is an immediate potential impact on wider economic competitiveness and employment, potential impacts on competition in the energy market and additional burdens on households, some of which could be pushed into fuel poverty themselves as a result of having to subsidise others.
In 2010, the regulator’s office carried out a consultation, ‘Assisting with Affordability Concerns for Vulnerable Energy Consumers’. Feedback indicated that, although there was broad agreement that affordability assistance should address affordable warmth and not just help with electricity bills, there was no consensus on who should receive assistance, what mechanism could be used to identify and assist them and how much any assistance should amount to. That in itself sends us a message.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s comprehensive response. We have just come out of another cold snap, and I welcome the winter fuel payment and, indeed, the extension of the fuel payment being paid to cancer patients. The Executive have accepted that there is a need to provide that. Are there other ways to help low-income families and the most vulnerable? On the one hand, the Executive provide assistance through winter fuel payments, and, on the other hand, we cannot tackle the issue of the increase in electricity prices.
I accept what the Member says: there continue to be issues, particularly with fuel poverty. It is difficult to achieve what she wants to achieve through a social tariff. There needs to be a conversation about how we can help those families. As the Member will know, I am bound to say that it is a matter for the Department for Social Development, and it is leading on all those issues for the Executive. That does not mean that we do not work across Departments, and, indeed, I have been working with Nelson McCausland, on energy efficiency in particular, to find ways in which that can make a difference to bills that are going out to low-income and vulnerable families.
It is important to have our interconnector in place. As the Member probably realises, huge costs are passed on to consumers in Northern Ireland by dint of the fact that the interconnector is not up and running at present. As I understand it, the issue is to be addressed by the Planning Appeals Commission in the very near future, and we hope that there will be an outcome. It is not for me to talk about where the line should go or about any of the planning issues surrounding it. All I know as energy Minister is that we need that second interconnector, and we need it very soon.
Given that small businesses consistently identify electricity as their most widely used energy source and the Carbon Trust as the most widely recognised source of information on energy-saving advice for homes and businesses, what impact has the fact that the Carbon Trust no longer delivers Invest Northern Ireland’s sustainable energy programme?
As the Member is probably aware, a new programme was developed that not only covered electricity but gave advice on other areas with which businesses have difficulties, particularly in the area of water. That matter is still ongoing, and I am happy to update the Member when it is concluded.
I am pleased to say that the Member and I are both great supporters of SmartGridIreland. There are huge opportunities in respect of SmartGridIreland.
I have been down with the promoters on occasions to learn of their progress. The Member will know that they have to work with the Utility Regulator to ensure that they can progress. However, I urge all sides to be as creative and innovative in respect of SmartGridIreland as they can, because it can help not only with fuel poverty but with energy efficiency as well.