I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the rising cost of energy; expresses concern at the effect these rising costs are having on those on low incomes; acknowledges that the increased cost of living combined with the financial pressures arising from the end of furlough and the removal of the £20 universal credit (UC) weekly uplift will leave many potentially unable to heat their homes this winter; and calls on the Minister of Finance, the Minister for the Economy and the Minister for Communities to work together to create a means-tested winter energy emergency fund to help those in need.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up the debate. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
We are all mindful of the very real and the palpable fear that many of our most vulnerable, as well as many who, until recently, thought that they were just about managing with the challenges of emerging from COVID, are feeling about the rising costs of energy. Whether it is gas prices, electricity or the escalating cost of heating oil, there is likely to be very little respite from the impact of the global hike in energy. That some local electricity companies have raised their prices four times this year alone gives far too many people the hard choice of whether to heat their home or feed their family.
For those who are at risk, there are also the equally worrying concerns about going in to unsustainable debt, seeking credit from whatever source they can. The impact on health, social well-being, children's welfare and education of a third or more of our population makes this a cross-cutting issue for the whole of the Northern Ireland Executive, but, in particular, it is an issue for the Finance, Communities and Economy Ministers. It is a crisis that was well foretold, coupled with the failure to address the existing challenges of fuel and energy poverty. I thank many of our Ulster Unionist Party council colleagues for raising these issues in council chambers throughout Northern Ireland.
The combination of gas realpolitik from Russia, a prolonged period of diminished wind energy, the restart of the Chinese manufacturing economy, and, more locally, the inadequacies of our energy sector, including its lack of robustness and resilience, has created an energy storm. That is without doubt. It is a storm that stretches across the Western world and Europe in particular, where gas and electricity prices have risen inexorably. Despite the United Kingdom having the lowest gas per therm price, there is a shortage of supply of gas and electricity. The 100% rise in gas prices, with electricity prices escalating by a third this autumn, even before the winter hits, should have caused alarm bells to go off across the Executive. That our Utility Regulator, as early as the summer, highlighted the upwards trend in gas futures shows that the information was available. It just, unfortunately, was not acted on.
That Northern Ireland is the part of these islands most affected by fuel poverty is well recognised. With a fuel poverty rate that is above that of the rest of our nation, a greater reliance on oil for heating, a very limited choice of electricity providers, and, at best, an intemperate climate, we have a real problem. We have to deal with the immediate problem, and, in the longer term, we need to look at how we deal with the situation. We need to take action now. It cannot be put off.
Yesterday, the Finance Minister outlined the October monitoring round. Quite rightly, there was an emphasis on healthcare. We also had what I can term only as an unseemly spat between several parties around universal credit and bringing forward schemes to fill that gap. There is, obviously, a disconnect between what is said in the privacy of the Executive and what is said in public, but there can be no disconnect in dealing with fuel and energy poverty. We know from research that cold kills. Three years ago, it was reported that 1,500 excess winter deaths in Northern Ireland were directly attributable to living in cold, damp homes. Add on the tangential impact of COVID, the greater energy costs, and the social dislocation and disruption caused by the pandemic, and that figure may, regrettably, be much higher this year.
Furthermore, the knock-on effect on our A&Es and heavily pressurised hospitals and on the well-being of many of our elderly and young people means that the impact will be hard felt across all of society. We can and must do better.
We are asking the Assembly to support us in a two-pronged approach that deals with the immediate challenge and, then, sets in place a properly thought-through future fuel poverty action plan. We may have to provide support to 180,000 to 200,000 households this winter. I will say that again: we may have to provide support to 180,000 to 200,000 households this winter. If we accept that a winter fuel allowance of around £200 is needed, that means that our Executive would have to find around £40 million. Looking at our latest monitoring round, we have not identified that yet. We recognise that this is a problem across all our nations. However, we need to make a provision for that funding in Northern Ireland by making clear that we will accept a future pressure into 2022-23, coupled with the rigorous removal of less important programmes. We should have the flex in our budgets to do that. If we are serious about supporting our most vulnerable, we should do it.
The maths are clear: with our baseline Budget of £12 billion, the approximately £40 million that is needed to provide an emergency energy fund represents around 0·4% of our annual spending. Surely, with some joined-up thinking, that could be allocated. The Finance, Economy and Communities Ministers could and should work together to create a means-tested winter energy emergency fund to help those who are in need. We ask all parties in the Executive to critically examine the real pressures and make some grown-up choices. It will cause pain to some Departments, but what is more important? It would help to deal with the immediate challenge and show to a very sceptical population that our Executive are capable of working together cooperatively, doing what is best for our most vulnerable people.
In the longer term, we have to accept that, as we transition away from fossil fuels, Northern Ireland's housing stock is not fit for purpose. We need to closely examine how we can prevent continuing fuel poverty. We need the Finance Minister to change the building regulations to stipulate housing improvements. We also need to look at incentives to promote microgeneration and encourage the change away from the monopolistic stranglehold that the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) and Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) — aka EirGrid and the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) — have on our grid.
The Economy Minister must focus efforts on the future of our energy supplies and on security, continuity, affordability and access. Part of that discussion must be about whether our current set-up can be made fit for purpose. By any objective assessment, it is not. We also need the Communities Minister to properly identify those who are at risk, allocate future funding for continued energy relief and work cooperatively with the other Departments to create a sustainable future programme. We are approaching another election. When we eventually emerge from that, we must ensure that addressing fuel poverty is a key part of any Programme for Government: it must be in the PFG.
We look forward to hearing from contributors to the debate. I commend our motion to the House.
I support the intent of the motion, and we will vote for it. Listening to Dr Aiken, however, I cannot help but feel that he is either deliberately ignoring the scale of the problem or that he has no realisation of it. I suspect that he does realise the scale of the problem. If he understands it, surely he and his colleagues have to understand that it is beyond the financial capacity of the Executive to deal with the looming energy crisis that is coming down the track and, indeed, that is here. Most observers in the field believe that it will continue right up until spring 2022.
Dr Aiken has given us a figure of £40 million that the Executive need to find. When we are looking to fund something, we have got into the habit of referring to the amount of money that the Executive have, taking the smallest decimal point that we can find and saying, "That is 0·4%". Last week, another party was looking for 0·5%. Next week, another will be looking for 1%. I do not care whether the Finance Minister is from the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP or the SDLP or is Jim Allister. I do not care who it is. They can no longer subsidise Tory austerity and deal with events on a global scale such as the energy crisis.
While the intent of the motion is honourable and good, it does not recognise the scale of the problem. The scale of the energy cost rises impacts not only on those who have lost universal credit, whether they were working or not, but on families with two incomes. Whether both parents or however many in a home work, they will be hit by energy cost rises that they never thought possible.
It has been estimated that it costs £600 a year to heat an average family home using gas. It is now estimated that, with the increases, it will be over £1,000 a year. That does not take into account rising food costs, the rising cost of putting diesel, petrol or whatever it may be into your car, putting clothes on your children's backs or putting food on the table. All those things are coming down the track at families. I suspect that many families believe that they may be cushioned against that because they are working. You would have to be on a good wage to be able to say, "Right, my energy cost's going up by 100%. I'll be able to absorb that". It is impossible.
When we talk about tackling this, I do not think that £40 million does it. Last year, through COVID funding, the Executive received around £200 million to tackle fuel poverty as a result of COVID and other things. That is the scale that we are talking about. It is not 0·4% of the Budget. It is much, much more.
Today, the Assembly, with the Welsh Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, should send a clear message to Westminster that this is on a scale that none of the devolved institutions can deal with. This is not Tory bashing. I do Tory bash, but this is not Tory bashing. No devolved institution can deal with this issue. This is a central government problem. It is a Westminster issue. It has been caused by rising fuel prices, but there is a serious question as to whether the fuel to heat homes and keep people well should be sold on stock markets in the first place. It should never be a commodity that people invest in and make huge profits out of, and some may lose out. Somebody is making lots money out of this, you can be assured of that.
I thank the Members who brought the motion. The Member who moved it knows that I am passionate about energy. Some would say — he might say — that I am an anorak when it comes to energy.
Why am I so passionate about energy? It is simply because energy policy is a life or death policy. There are very few policies that we would grapple with in the Assembly that are so fundamentally serious. I agree with John O'Dowd when he says that this will affect every person in this country. I also agree with John O'Dowd on the financial scale of the problem. Where I part from his belief is that the Assembly cannot just shirk its responsibility and say, "This problem has to be solved by our sovereign Government".
There is a short-term issue here, but there is also a long-term policy issue, which we have failed to grapple with for many, many years. We have hundreds of excess winter deaths every single year. That is why it is life and death, and it is incumbent on the Assembly, the Executive and the Communities Minister, whose remit includes fuel poverty, to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society survive this winter. That is how stark the problem is.
It is a global problem, geopolitically driven by Russia and China for various reasons, and the shortage of stock and gas, which has led to a rise in prices, affects us disproportionately because of our mix with regard to generating energy. It is a local problem, and the fact is that our neighbours, whom we live beside every day, may not survive the winter. It is as stark as that. If we cannot do something here in the short term, as we did last year with COVID, we will fail those people and their families.
The Member talks about the importance of our doing something. Can he clarify his understanding of what happened at the Executive meeting? The Communities Minister put in a bid for an uplift in universal credit, which has obviously been taken away by the Tories. We have to play our part here and care for the people who need that support the most — the most vulnerable people in our society, as the Member mentioned. Can the Member clarify his understanding of what happened at the Executive meeting? Who supported that bid and who was opposed to it?
I am loath to get into the very ugly debate that has been going on between those two parties around who is to blame for universal credit, but let me tell you this: both parties are playing politics on this. We know from the Committee meeting that, even if the £55 million had been granted, there was no ability to draw that money down. There had to be a further bid in January. Both those parties are playing politics with the most vulnerable people's lives, and it is ugly and wrong. You need to catch a grip of yourselves.
Yes, that is my point, and I thank the Member for making it. Stop playing politics with the most vulnerable people's lives and let us get to the matter at hand, which is rising energy costs that will affect people's lives and will kill people this winter. This is a very serious issue in the short term because people will die, so we need something to be parachuted in. It could be a very blunt instrument, and I suspect that it will be given the short-termism that we need to effect this change. We need to get people the support and the money — it is a financial necessity — that they will require to pay for fuel to heat their homes this winter.
There is also a long-term aspect. It might not only be rising costs that kill people. It might be blackouts or no electricity at all, and the fault and blame for that lie squarely and fully at the door of EirGrid, which has not planned appropriately, with all its knowledge and capacity, for the generation of electricity this winter, next winter, the winter after that and the winter after that again. People will die because of rising costs. People will potentially die because of blackouts. That is unforgivable.
I support of the motion. I recognise that rising energy costs is a global issue.
In the context of the COVID pandemic and its economic fallout, those are, indeed, unprecedented challenges that are outside any Administration's control. However, the weakened and significantly disadvantaged position in which we find ourselves is not.
According to the latest data from the living costs and food survey, 11% of all weekly household expenditure in the North is on energy. That equates to an average household energy spend of £58 per week, the highest anywhere on these islands, and, of course, we know that many low-income households spend way more than 11% on energy. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that the North has among the highest levels of fuel poverty in all of Europe.
Those issues pre-existed the current crisis, yet the efforts to address them have not gone far enough. Instead, citizens here have been set at an even further disadvantage compared with their counterparts elsewhere. This is the only region without a warm home discount scheme, which offers a £140 discount on gas or electricity bills for eligible claimants, and that money is paid directly to suppliers. Fuel poverty experts have described that as a lifeline, but it is a lifeline that households here have been left without. For an area with the lowest disposable income, battling high costs is a recipe for disaster. Households here have now been hit with the double whammy of the end of furlough and the cruel cut to universal credit. The inability of the Executive to mitigate that economic reality serves only to deepen rates of poverty.
As the Fuel Poverty Coalition put it, the increases in energy costs, on top of those challenges, will lead to "the 'perfect storm' this winter". I agree with that assessment. People here were already feeling the brunt of Tory austerity, and the removal of the £20 universal credit uplift, which just about allowed families to keep their heads above water in recent months, has left low-income households worse off at their time of greatest need. Those are the same people who will be most adversely impacted by the heavy energy price increases.
Customers are still adjusting to the previous hike in gas prices that was announced in October, so it is beyond me how they are expected to meet the cost of a 50% increase in gas prices by December, never mind the 20% increase in electricity prices that is predicted for January. The price of energy continues to rise, and the situation shows no signs of slowing down. The forecasted rises will leave hundreds of thousands of people struggling to heat their homes, access hot water and keep the lights on. The rises are completely unsustainable, and they will be the breaking point for so many.
I cannot comprehend the fact that, in 2021, MLAs are in the Chamber begging Ministers to take action so that families are not forced to choose between putting food on their table and heating their homes in the run-up to Christmas. Jeekers, Christmas is not even worth thinking about at this stage. We need a long-term strategy from the Economy Minister to address those issues. I ask him to set his sights on incentivising and increasing the use of renewable energies.
The development of any future energy strategy must have —
I thank the Member for giving way. He is quite right that we have to look at the energy strategy. That is the long-term plan. However, we need more than wind power. When the wind stops blowing, as it did in the summer, it puts our generation mix into very dire straits. Therefore, when we talk about renewable energy, it has to be about more than just wind.
I thank the Member for his intervention, and I concur with what he said.
The development of any future energy strategy must have net zero emissions targets at its core. While slashing the planet's carbon emissions, we can also slash prices and pass cost savings on to consumers. However, in the here and now, Ministers must work together to establish protections for the most vulnerable this winter.
I appreciate that the focus of the motion is limited to assisting low-income households. As Mr O'Dowd said, many more are affected —
I am sorry, Mr Allen. I have limited time.
I would like the Economy Minister to explore the potential inclusion of small businesses in any emergency energy proposals. They, too, bore the brunt of the pandemic's economic fallout and have been hit hard by the impact of rising energy costs. Although household energy costs here are, believe it or not, capped, businesses are not afforded any safeguards. We cannot afford to see local businesses that have weathered the storm of COVID being forced to shut up shop as a result of soaring energy prices. Businesses going bust means jobs being lost, thus contributing to the ongoing poverty cycle. We can and must do better than that.
I implore the Communities Minister to work alongside her Executive colleagues to establish a winter energy emergency fund for struggling households in order to mitigate the rising cost of living. I understand that a bid has already been made for a fuel support package, and discussions about it have begun with the Utility Regulator, but we need to see the matter progressed urgently, not held out as a carrot to be taken away at the eleventh hour. Too many opportunities have been lost.
The timing of the debate could not be more urgent. Our energy crisis has emphasised the need for real, meaningful and permanent change. As others said, the record high prices will sadly plunge thousands of households into fuel poverty this winter, with costs increasing at incredible rates in many areas.
The crisis has been sparked by a number of factors, but it is ultimately down to rising global demand for unsustainable energy. Prices have skyrocketed after the pandemic, as demand rebounded more quickly than expected. The rise in energy prices that we are seeing now will happen time and time again while we continue to rely on fossil fuels as our dominant energy system. In effect, we are in a perfect storm that has been brewing for some time.
People are desperate. They face rising energy prices, cuts to welfare and a long, cold winter. Even before the pandemic, over 160,000 households in Northern Ireland were living in fuel poverty. With no end to high prices in sight, we need to address the issue now. We must deal with it.
The removal of the universal credit uplift, which others mentioned, could not have come at a more critical time. Reports by citizens' organisations have demonstrated that some of poorest households in Northern Ireland could lose up to £40 a week. Over 300,000 people in Northern Ireland already live on the breadline. The Northern Ireland poverty bulletin reported that one child in four lives in poverty. Taking away the universal credit uplift will only plunge another 11,000 children into poverty and misery.
We cannot just pay lip service to fuel poverty, food poverty, clothing poverty and period poverty. We need to address all those issues on behalf of our constituents who can no longer afford the bare essentials. No one should be forced to choose between eating and heating. That choice represents an absolute failure of government policy, whether at Westminster or here, and it entrenches pre-existing inequalities. Some of our most disadvantaged are suffering in silence. Children from cold homes are twice as likely to suffer from respiratory problems as those living in warm homes.
We need urgent action in order to maintain and support people who are living in vulnerable circumstances, but we also need long-term solutions. We need to fund energy programmes fully, insulate and retrofit homes to make them energy-efficient, and change the energy price framework, which currently charges the highest rates to those who use the least energy.
We have to make progress on tackling fuel poverty. We have not done enough. Unprecedented price rises threaten to wipe out all the good that has been done and put pressure on vulnerable households. Funding has to be put aside to ensure that people can heat their home. We need to invest in greener energy and sustainable, insulated housing. Our most disadvantaged live in poorly insulated homes. People will suffer from the rising costs of energy. Cold homes cost £50 more a month to heat, and many people are at breaking point. That is why my party's green new deal focuses on sustainable energy and ending fuel poverty, while recognising that we have to build a secure and thriving green economy that delivers for everyone.
The decisions that we take now will determine whether this is a crisis in which we support vulnerable households or a catastrophe into which we let them fall. We have an opportunity to reimagine our communities, but that must involve all-encompassing, cross-departmental schemes. An example of that is being showcased in London with the release of the Future Neighbourhoods 2030 plan that puts long-term emphasis on the restructuring of the economy, ending inequalities through a green new deal and focusing on disadvantaged residents who have been disproportionately affected by fuel poverty. Departments here need to grasp practical examples such as that.
The effects of unemployment and the COVID pandemic will be seen hard and long through the winter. An emergency fund would go some way to reducing fuel poverty but would be a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. It is time to put long-term emphasis on restructuring our economy, ending dependency on unreliable and climate-destroying fossil fuels.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is quite interesting, with some Members talking about how we are living in unprecedented times. I know that Mr Frew is passionate about energy and knows the subject inside out. I will not profess to know about that issue, but what I will say is: I agree with my colleague John O'Dowd. When he spoke about where some of the answers for all of this lie, I saw the proposer of the motion nod his head. He talked about the £40 million. That £40 million is not going to wash here, folks. The interventions that we need to address these issues lie outside this place.
The first words that Mr Durkan used were "unprecedented times", and he then proceeded to go after the Executive. I have no doubt that the Executive will do their bit as best they can, but —
I thank the Member for giving way. I am not sure how closely he was listening. In my introductory remarks, I recognised that rising energy costs are a global issue and an unprecedented challenge that is outside any Administration's control. I am sure that the Member will accept that the Executive can and must do more to tackle this crisis through joint working.
I appreciate what the Member says. We all know that this is a global crisis. The pandemic has not been to the fore of any of the contributions to the motion from the Floor, but it should be. If you read any of the statements, they are always about unforeseen energy rises. Talk to the other industries right across the economic sector or to the building trade: prices are rising no matter, whether it is wood or cement. No matter what it is in the construction industry, those costs are growing. This is a global crisis across the board, but I believe that some of the answers lie, and the onus lies, with Westminster. Other Governments across Europe and the world are tackling the crisis. They are engaging with energy companies and trying their best, so the responsibility lies with Westminster as well.
I will support the motion. A lot of people have been on, and we know that people have suffered and continue to suffer. They face many challenges arising from the pandemic. We all recognise the hardships that COVID has visited on our people. The reality is that we have plodded our way through COVID on the road to some form of normality, but we have to see what that normality may be. We have seen costs rise across the economic sector. We have all seen energy prices skyrocket over the course of the year, but this issue is not specific to the North. Energy costs have risen across the world, and that is due, in part, to our over-reliance on fossil fuels, weather conditions that make it harder to generate renewable energy and, of course, the demand for energy as we recover from the pandemic. Local suppliers have raised their wholesale energy prices as a result of worldwide demand for energy. In the North, wholesale gas prices rose by 150% between August and October. All local suppliers have raised their prices. Budget Energy has hiked electricity costs by 18%. Firmus Energy increased gas prices by 35% in the ten towns network. SSE Airtricity has increased prices by 21·8%.
Click Energy has increased its prices by 16%. Further price rises are expected to continue into the winter, and it is likely to be spring of 2022 when those prices will stabilise.
While this is a global problem that affects people right across the world, the increased costs come at the same time as the Tory Government's decision to cut £20 from universal credit and tax credits and raise National Insurance contributions. The combination of all of these factors will not only increase the number of people experiencing fuel poverty, as highlighted by the motion, but the number of people falling into poverty overall.
Workers and families in the North have the lowest earnings and disposable incomes across these islands and are, therefore, more vulnerable to further rising costs. The Consumer Council says that families in the North are more exposed to fuel poverty than those elsewhere due to our population having these lower wages and disposable incomes. As many have said, the scale of the energy crisis is unprecedented, and an energy fund alone would not be enough to help workers and families on low and middle incomes who will all be affected by these rising costs.
As I said, Governments across the world have taken measures and steps. The scale of the energy crisis cannot be resolved by funding from the block grant alone. I believe that the onus lies with the British Government. There are certainly measures that the Executive can take, and, by supporting the motion, I hope that we can come to —
It is clear that we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Ordinary families and workers are struggling to make ends meet, and, as Members across the House have said, energy costs have skyrocketed over the course of this year. When you add that to the rising cost of food, increased costs at the petrol pumps, inflation and the costs of unsubsidised childcare, you see that families right across the board are struggling to get by. Despite this, the British Chancellor delivered a Budget last week that offered no direct support for families facing these Bills.
Last week, the Tory Government demonstrated once again that they are wedded to the rich, with cuts to taxes for the banks. Meanwhile, ordinary workers and families will pay more National Insurance, and families here who are most in need have had their universal credit cut by the British Government. It is unfair, and it will potentially leave many families unable to heat their home this winter.
I am Sinn Féin's spokesperson on children and young people, so I want to look at how this could potentially affect children and young people. The likely consequences and impacts of unaffordable energy costs on children and young people are really concerning. According to research, for those living in insufficiently heated homes, there is a 30% greater risk of hospital admission for infants, and for children there is a significantly greater risk of health problems, particularly respiratory illness. For adolescents, there is an increased risk of mental health problems. Obviously, these risks are hugely concerning and that is why we need the British Government to step up and face up to their responsibilities, just as Governments across Europe have done. We are asking them to introduce significant measures to tackle rising energy prices.
I have listened to the Member and obviously she has raised a valid issue about insulation. Maybe she should have a word with her colleagues and ask them why, over the past number of years, her party has persistently resisted any changes to the Housing Executive. We are waiting on this new dawn for the Housing Executive from the current Minister, but that was denied by previous Sinn Féin representatives. That, ultimately, has led to a housing crisis for which she and her colleagues are responsible.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I thank the Member for his intervention. Today, we are discussing rising energy costs and how that is affecting everyone throughout the North. My point was about children and young people specifically. I will leave it to the Minister to respond to that.
Meaningful solutions to a crisis of this scale require intervention at the highest level. As has been said already, the Assembly has limited powers and a restricted Budget, both of which are determined by Westminster. Westminster has the power and resources to deliver solutions on the scale that is required to meet the crisis. That is why we put forward an amendment that focused on meaningful financial interventions that the British Government should deliver, rather than talking about the already overstretched departmental budgets here.
The motion recognises the role that the British Government, and the adoption of their policies, have played in driving the crisis. As was mentioned, the end of furlough and the removal of the £20-a-week universal credit uplift have impacted on some of our most vulnerable households and struggling businesses. However, the motion does not call upon the British Government to reverse those decisions, which they should. I support the motion, but it could have gone further to call for more support from the British Government.
I have listened intently to comments from Members around the House. Some pointed out that it is beyond our capacity within our budget to address the issues: the cost of living issues that have been rightly pointed out; the cost of living issues that are squeezing families right across all our constituencies; and the cost of living issues that, as my Committee colleague pointed out, are a matter of life and death. I am sure that his colleagues in the DUP are the poorer for him not being in the Department for the Economy and bringing forward his passion about the energy crisis that we face. I have listened to the Member intently in our Committee, and it is clear that he has vast knowledge in that area. I am sure that he is feeding that to his current Minister.
Yes, the fund that is proposed in the motion is a short-term solution. It is similar to the short-term solution that the COVID heating fund provided in the context of the COVID pandemic. It is short term, and we need long-term meaningful solutions to address the issue that is facing all our constituents right across Northern Ireland. That is why we, as a party, have called repeatedly for the establishment of a fuel poverty task force.
I am sure that people will listen to that and say, "Not another task force. Not another body. Not another quango", but what would that task force do? I have spoken to and liaised with many of our subject matter experts in the fuel industry and in charities, which, day and daily, have to top up our constituents' gas and electric meters. Charities are having to provide financial and welfare support to those people because they cannot afford to heat their homes and they have to choose between heating and eating. That fuel poverty task force would support the Department for Communities to develop solutions to support those constituents who are facing fuel poverty. However, importantly, it would also help to develop long-term solutions to help to prevent many more individuals and families right across Northern Ireland from falling into fuel poverty.
We have heard remarks about the Housing Executive. We have had various reports, such as the cavity wall report, but where is the long-term meaningful outcome in respect of that? The Minister might be able to update the House today on the long-term action plan to properly insulate our Housing Executive homes.
The Minister might also be able to provide an update on her departmental proposals to utilise the £14 million fund. I know that it is only a drop in the ocean in comparison to what we need, but there is a £14 million fund derived from the UK for vulnerable households. Will the Minister bid to her colleague the Finance Minister for the entirety of that £14 million? What will those proposals look like? Will they be one-off payments? How will those one-off payments be measured against the impact on individuals on the ground? I will leave my remarks there.
This is not an unexpected rise in fuel costs. I have to admit that, 30-plus years ago, when I sat in my geography class in Queen's University, Dr Nick Betts predicted that, around this time in this century, we would see an increase in the cost of energy because we would have to move away from fossil fuels. That man should be given an award for predictions.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the motion. I thank the Members for bringing it to the Floor of the House. The rising cost of energy is not going to impact every household; it is impacting every household. The cost of home-heating oil, gas, electric and, let us not forget, car fuel, is rising. Predictions are that those costs will only continue to rise before the end of this calendar year, which is months away. As we know, this is happening at the same time as the wider cost of living costs are increasing. What a way to come out of the pandemic. Because of the Spend Local cards, the impact of the loss of the uplift to universal credit of £20 per week has not yet been fully felt in many households. Many of my constituents have used the £100 on their Spend Local card to pay to heat their home and top up their electricity meter as much as they can in advance of winter. That means that, for many families, the money on the Spend Local cards has masked the impact of the removal of the COVID uplift. For most of them, November will be the month when energy costs hit worst.
What can we do? Of course, the motion calls for joint departmental working by asking the Finance, Economy and Communities Ministers to work together to create a means-tested winter energy emergency fund to help people in need. We should never allow any citizen to sit in a cold home. Older people, children, people with disabilities, and all others should never, in a First World society, sit freezing or foundered in their homes.
The increasing cost of energy also impacts on public services. Schools and hospitals will pay more for energy. We must do something about that. The Minister is here to respond to the motion. I will be honest: we have just had the October monitoring round, and no money has been allocated for a winter emergency fund, so what can we do? People who are cold want solutions, not finger-pointing. What can we do in the short term? Of course, we should write to the UK Government and ask them for financial support. We should also challenge the regulator and energy providers more. However —
Does the Member agree that the regulator is probably underfunded and lacks capacity and should be given more support to regulate the people and organisations that are to blame for some of those issues and could well be the cause of blackouts this winter?
Thank you. A stronger regulator would certainly do that. I agree with the Member.
Let us address the short-term impact of energy cost increases. Bryson Charitable Group has won the fuel bank research tender. However, I assume that that will not be delivered on for this winter. National Energy Action NI and Advice NI have put in a bid for emergency energy support for people across Northern Ireland who have no resources to pay for home heating, so that, if, for instance, someone approached their MLA for a food bank voucher, they might also be offered a home-heating voucher. I do not know what is happening with that bid. The bid could provide the solution to a means-tested winter energy fund. People are already on the ground and ready to help us. As Mr Allen from the Ulster Unionists said, perhaps the Minister could clarify what is happening with that £14 million. Will there be a fuel poverty funding pot? I would love to hear what will happen with that. I will, of course, support the Minister if she puts forward a bid for that total amount.
In the short term, if we are to deal with fuel poverty that is caused by rising energy costs, the solution is money. We have to be honest about that. We all know that it is in tight supply at the moment. We need money now. In the medium term, we need more consideration to be given in the three-year Budget plan to things like insulation, retrofitting and investment in alternative, sustainable fuels. We need to look at energy options such as solar and wind. We need public education. We know that already in the year 2020-21, 45% of our energy was generated from renewables. Therefore, we have the opportunity to do that. We also need to improve the planning process so that solar and wind farms get through the system quicker.
In the long term — I appreciate what Mr Frew said earlier — it is not all down to wind energy. Where do we live? We live on an island. We could have tidal energy. We are not investing in that at all. In the long term, we need to invest in offshore energy, because that is where the solutions are: they are in wind and tidal offshore energy and energy storage. In the week that we are in, while COP is happening, we must not keep navel-gazing and taking knee-jerk reactions to rising fuel prices and fuel poverty. We need to plan and take actions to deal with poverty and fuel poverty.
How about this: New Decade, New Approach? We had a citizens' assembly. Why do we not give the citizens' assembly the ability to come up with an energy strategy? It could be our task force. They could be the people to bring that forward and say, "This is how we need to pull ourselves out of constantly rising fuel costs and energy crises".
I support the motion. For those in our society who are on the lowest incomes, struggling to make their budget stretch and provide for their family, the coming winter is shaping up to be like no other. Unprecedented gas price hikes announced last month coincided with increases in the cost of home-heating oil that have been incremental but significant. The Utility Regulator has warned that gas bills could jump by another 50% in December, and, with the cost of electricity also set to rise considerably, we face further price rises next year. When is it going to end?
We can talk about a worldwide squeeze on gas and energy supplies and various factors such as the cold winter in Europe last year, increased demand from China and the impact of the pandemic, but that will not bring comfort or solace to those who will have to choose, yet again, between heating and eating or making more sacrifices for the sake of their family.
Our people need action from government, and the Executive can and must introduce measures to ease the pressure on those with very limited incomes, but we should never have reached this point. For over 10 years, the Green Party has called for a green new deal for Northern Ireland that would involve a radical overhaul of our energy system and mass retrofitting to improve the energy efficiency of homes. We need to address energy insecurity at international and local levels. We have warned against reliance on fossil fuels, and we identified the recovery period from the pandemic as a once in a lifetime opportunity to change and build back better.
Those calls have not been met with meaningful action by the Executive. I repeat the questions, as others have. Where is the energy strategy that we were promised last year? Where is the fuel poverty strategy that we have been waiting on for nearly a decade? When will we implement passive house standards as a minimum in building regulations, so that all new homes require less energy and retain more heat? Where is the extensive retrofitting programme for older houses, so that we can stop people pumping money into heating their street rather than themselves? When will we see the huge investment in home-heating transition from oil and gas boilers to electricity from ground source and air source heat pumps? It needs to be joined up, however. Putting a heat pump in a poorly insulated home is like using a teapot with cracks in it, as my colleague said a couple of —
I thank the Member for giving way. She raises valid points about the way forward with heat pumps and other things, but everything that seems to be a solution at this point will increase electricity demand — heat pumps, electric vehicles and everything that goes with them — so we need to get the generation mix correct. Does the Member agree that wind will not cut it on its own, so we are on the island philosophy that a colleague across the way referred to of tidal and hydro probably being the way to go?
I thank the Member for his intervention. I completely agree. We also need to look at the contracts for difference (CfD) scheme and at how pricing is set and whether it is set for Northern Ireland or within the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. I would certainly welcome information from the Executive on where they are with that, or, indeed, from the Member's party colleague the Economy Minister on the energy strategy that we await. I completely agree, but there needs to be a coherent approach.
I thank the Member for giving way. She talks about a coherent approach. A colleague and I have four projects on the north coast that are gone because of opposition to wind or tidal from people who believed that the environment was going to be damaged. How do we get a balance? In the debate, one says, "Wind, tidal; great, wonderful", but, when we go to produce them, we find that four companies on the north coast are out of business.
I thank the Member for his intervention. He is correct that a balance is needed, but we cannot just keep destroying the environment for the sake of projects that could be placed elsewhere. Mr Frew made the point that we need to invest in offshore, tidal and hydro as a mix.
National Energy Action (NEA) NI pointed out that, every winter, thousands of people are faced with living in properties that are dangerous or unfit for colder seasons and that 22% of households in Northern Ireland still live in fuel poverty. They live below the poverty line and have much higher bills owing to a poor level of energy efficiency. An analysis suggests that, during winter months, families in cold, leaky homes face bills that are different by, on average, £50 from those of families in well-insulated homes. The 'UK Fuel Poverty Monitor 2019-20' found that the pandemic had created difficult conditions for fuel-poor households, driven by:
"An increase in energy use, due to more people spending more time at home" and
"A reduction in income, as many jobs were either lost or placed on furlough".
Therefore, it is time for the Executive to step up and tackle those issues head-on. It is not OK simply to say that we are at the mercy of the market. We leave it to the market only if we choose to do so. If regulation is required, Ministers should instruct their Departments to develop legislative proposals. The Executive must set the standard and the example through implementing the required changes in, for example, our social housing stock; not in ten years' time but now.
I support the motion. First, the increases are an absolute disgrace. I am very concerned about how they will impact on people in my constituency and beyond, such as pensioners; people in work; those who face further pay freezes; people on benefits, including legacy benefits; and people who will be affected by the withdrawal of the universal credit uplift. The increases will have a real, negative impact on those people's lives.
This year, people are paying £1,000 more for energy than last year. The cost of heating a home and being able to wash has shot up dramatically, but pay and benefits have not; they have gone in the opposite direction. I am extremely worried about how people will get by this winter. This is an unprecedented increase and crisis, and fuel poverty already impacts on 42% of households. That figure will shoot up again even further.
As a bare minimum, the Executive need to ensure that people are protected this winter. They need to ensure that a protective financial blanket is put around people to make sure that they are not thrown to the wolves. People may ask, "How should that be paid for?". That is a fair question. However, to be honest, organisations that have made huge profits on the back of people should not be subsidised. The profits of those organisations should be tackled and the money used to introduce a payment scheme. I have already asked what powers Stormont has to do that, and some may say that they are limited. However, Stormont has power over welfare, so protection payments need to be put in place.
If the Executive cannot implement protection to prevent people being cold this winter, most people will quite rightly ask, "What are their priorities? What are they at?". A rapid and widespread winter fuel poverty scheme needs to be implemented urgently. Where is the emergency meeting of the Executive on that issue? Where is the fuel poverty strategy? There has been some talk about global causes, but there are some measures that the Executive can implement to protect people, such as a price cap.
The Utility Regulator and the Department for the Economy need to enforce a stop on unregulated energy companies profiting on the back of these price hikes, especially during such an unprecedented period. We simply cannot expect rising energy costs to be passed on to the public at a time of widespread hardship while energy companies are set to make millions in profits. Those with the deepest pockets should pay.
An emergency fuel poverty fund should be implemented. Unregulated energy companies need to commit to donating profits to an emergency fuel poverty fund, as suggested by some here, the Fuel Poverty Coalition and the Utility Regulator. Emergency financial support needs to be implemented, and additional funding needs to be directed towards increasing the winter fuel payment, the cold weather payment, the warm homes scheme and so on, as suggested by NEA and the Nevin Economic Research Institute.
A windfall tax needs to be implemented. Stormont needs to call on Westminster to implement a windfall tax on the profits made by energy companies this year and put that towards developing a green economy and a just transition.
Global causes can be used as an excuse, but the latest increase shows, once again, how unreliable the market is. In recent years, there has been an idea that more competition needs to be injected into the market. However, in the present crisis, the UK Government's preferred option is to let smaller energy companies fail and to persuade larger energy companies to take on the customers of their former rivals with the help of state-backed loans. In practice, that proves that competition is built on fantasy. Therefore, in the short term, we need to see those companies taken into public ownership to ensure that profiteering does not occur and that people are not subject to the whims and decisions of shareholders, chief executives and profiteers.
Does the Member agree that countries such as Russia also need to be looked at? I believe that Russia is a communist state that rides on the back of the benefits of capitalism. Maybe it is time that Russia decided to look at its economics and at how it can help the rest of the world.
The Member wants a Russian history lesson. Russia is certainly not communist or socialist. It is a capitalist country, just like Britain and all those others. The DUP has a weird obsession with Russia and China, but I do not have time to dissect that today. Russia is very much a capitalist country. Capitalism is still your party's philosophy, which is strange, given that it cannot even protect people during a pandemic, never mind when prices shoot up.
I do not know what the Member is shouting, but let me finish.
We need to have a just transition away from those types of energy resources. Fossil fuels burn the planet, and we know that they also burn a hole in people's pockets.
I thank all the contributors to the debate and am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the motion. The longer-term strategy for the wider crisis rests not just with me. It is an issue that the Executive as a whole have to address. All the issues were discussed at the most recent Executive meeting, and we will have to have an urgent, dedicated discussion going forward.
I am acutely aware of the impact that recent and ongoing announcements on energy price rises will have on low-income households. The price rises will impact on every family and every household across the North, coinciding as they do with the end of the furlough scheme and the cut to universal credit by the British Government. As some say, it really is a perfect storm, but the situation is imperfect for those on whom all those factors will have an impact.
This is correctly described as a fuel crisis, and it is a crisis that requires an urgent response. I recognise the urgency of the situation and the need for us, as an Executive, to act quickly to support vulnerable households, many of which had concerns about how to pay their bills long before the current situation came about.
My Department offers a range of supports to assist households that are in fuel poverty. Supports include schemes to help improve the energy efficiency of homes. We work with the Housing Executive and councils to offer the affordable warmth scheme to low-income owner-occupiers and households in the private rented sector with an income of under £23,000. Until a few months ago, that was the lower income threshold. We have increased the threshold to allow more families into the scheme. The scheme also includes multiple measures: cavity wall insulation; the installation of gas or oil; boiler replacement; and the replacement of windows. There is also the boiler replacement scheme, which provides a grant of up to £1,000 towards the cost of replacing an inefficient boiler that is over 15 years old. That scheme is open to owner-occupiers with a household income of less than £40,000.
As well as seeking to reduce fuel consumption through having energy-efficient homes, my Department offers vital financial support to vulnerable households through the social security system. The winter fuel payment scheme was introduced in January 1998 to help alleviate fuel poverty by providing financial help towards winter fuel bills, specifically for older people. Most winter fuel payments will be paid automatically to qualifying claimants during November and December, with all payments being made by 14 January 2022. The winter fuel payment ranges from £100 to £300, depending on the claimant's individual circumstances. Last year, 283,537 winter fuel payments were made here, to a total value of £50·6 million. The additional winter fuel payment was made last year, totalling £44·6 million, to an additional 223,000 households. The social fund cold weather payment provides a one-off payment of £25 in periods of severe weather to the elderly, the disabled and those with children under the age of five. The payment is automatically triggered once the relevant temperature criteria are met.
People who find themselves in crisis situations such as being unable to pay fuel bills due to increasing costs may be able to apply for short-term help through my Department's discretionary support scheme. A person does not have to be claiming benefits to qualify for help, and, if they meet the eligibility criteria, they can apply for an interest-free loan or non-repayable grant. Anyone who thinks that they might qualify can refer to the nidirect website for information. Many Members will know that I recently appointed an independent group to look at the discretionary support scheme and how we can enhance it. It will make recommendations to me soon. Any changes will need legislation, and I hope that I can progress that as soon as possible.
Since 2017, my Department has been running the social supermarket pilot programme at five sites across the North — Derry, Strabane, Coleraine, Lisburn and west Belfast. They operate on a membership basis and provide members who experience food poverty with access to food, alongside tailored wrap-around support to address the causes of poverty. The wrap-around support includes fuel poverty support where it is needed. Work is under way to design the roll-out of social supermarket models in all council areas through a co-design process. We are engaging with local government on that initiative.
With regard to the current crisis, my Department is developing a fuel poverty strategy, as many Members mentioned. Obviously, it has to be in line with the energy strategy and the green growth strategy. It will also form part of the anti-poverty strategy to address the long-term issues around fuel poverty and around poverty and inequality more broadly. It will sit alongside the other inclusion strategies around disability, LGBTQI and young people that will be included in the anti-poverty strategy and, of course, the gender strategy. Members will know that I will bring forward those strategies for implementation before the end of the mandate.
I acknowledge that an immediate response is needed to support those in need now, but that will not solve the issue in the medium to long term. Many Members have reflected that today. The Executive must find a sustainable solution to increasingly high energy prices that aligns with our fuel poverty, energy and climate change strategies and balances it with the potential impact on the efforts to reduce carbon and switch from fossil fuels to renewables. With regard to the current crisis, I have asked my officials to consider what my Department can do to contribute to the Executive's response to those in immediate and serious need. They have had early engagement with the Utility Regulator, along with officials from the Department for the Economy and the Consumer Council, to understand and consider what can be done in the current climate.
There were some questions asked about the Barnett consequentials. We got confirmation of that only last week in the spending review. It will be £13·7 million. I have already said publicly that I am in the process of making a formal bid to the Department of Finance for that full amount of £13·7 million. Of course, more money will be needed, because, when you look at the additional winter fuel payment that we gave last year, you see that it was over £44 million. The £13·7 million will do some things, but it will do very little. There are therefore serious questions around where that finance can come from.
I thank the Minister for her remarks so far. Is there any way in which the Minister can look through her Department and look at quantifying — I heard what her colleague from Upper Bann stated — the level that we should be looking at? There is an indication that there are additional moneys there, and we will be aware of some of the extra moneys that are likely to come over the next three years that we are going to get an indication of. Can she look at what the quantum is likely to be and put in a combined bid for that?
The combined bid will be determined by whether the money is there. Are Departments willing to give over money? As was stated, it is OK to say that it is only 0·4% of the Budget, but that could mean millions of pounds. The Department of Finance does not have a money tree. The money that it reallocates comes from other Departments that maybe cannot spend it in this financial year. Therefore I have to rely on other Ministers, if the money is available. Obviously, I will have to look within my Department as well.
Depending on the money, the support could be scalable. It could be £13·7 million, or we could scale it up to around £44 million, as we did with a similar scheme last year. Over £50 million will go out in the next month or two for the winter fuel payment. The support is in addition to those payments. My officials are working at pace to scope out the options that are available to provide support to citizens who may struggle to heat their home or pay their energy bills over the coming months. As I said, any intervention will be subject to the necessary budget requirements, and I am looking to bring forward a scheme as soon as possible. I will make a bid for the full £13·7 million, and, again, whether I can scale up a scheme will depend on the money that comes forward and what other Departments can potentially surrender.
Recently, I have also given out an additional £3 million payment to councils through the community support programme. We are engaging with local government. I know that many councils are looking at fuel support schemes and using that vital money to support people with their energy costs, as they did during the pandemic. The winter fuel payment will soon start to be paid out to 283,000 people. Over £50 million is being invested in that.
I acknowledge the contributions to the debate. It is an issue that is clearly recognised across the House. I fully support the need for collective action on the part of central and local government and all our partners in the community and voluntary sector in the hope that energy companies respond to the crisis. We can make an intervention, and it is right that we do so. I will continue to push the Executive to do that. I am developing a scheme, and I will bring it forward as quickly as I can. Fundamentally, however, we need to challenge the economic system that creates inequality and injustice and enables the fuel crisis, the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis. All those crises are not happening by chance: the global economic system is weighted to create crises and injustice. We can try to shield our citizens from the worst effects, but we cannot eradicate it on our own. That is why we need to stand up, articulate that and demand a different type of economic system that does not work for the minority. As many Members have said, somebody is making a profit out of it. A minority of people are making a profit. We need to turn that around and ensure that the majority of people feel the benefits and that those profits do not go into the pockets of a minority at the top of our global system.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I hear what she says about systems. Does she recognise that, in the Republic of Ireland, householders and domestic customers supplement, if you like, the bills of large energy users, whereas, in the UK, it is the other way round, and, in Northern Ireland, the arrangements are unbiased?
The reality is that the global economic system is not working. It works for a few at the top and not for the many. That needs to change. It is not by chance that we are in a global climate crisis, a global cost of living crisis and a fuel crisis, but people are making billions of pounds in profit. That is abhorrent, and it needs to change. On issues like that, we need to stand collectively with all Governments to say, "Enough is enough".
We can do things locally. I completely agree with the motion's intent and that we should do something. I am trying to work at pace to bring something forward. Over the next period, the House and all parties can prioritise the anti-poverty and social inclusion strategies that I am bringing forward. They are being designed by the sectors involved, such as our community and voluntary sector, our LGBT community, our women's movement, our disability community, our charities and others. I ask that those strategies are endorsed when they come to the Executive and the Chamber.
I ask the House and all parties to agree to a stand-alone outcome on housing in the Programme for Government. We need to deal with the housing crisis, and all housing campaigners and those working in the field have called for that. Again, will all the parties in the Chamber endorse my proposal at the Executive to have a stand-alone outcome in the Programme for Government?
Does the Minister agree that, given that we are discussing the impact of the cost of living on many people across Northern Ireland, it is incredible that her Department had to return £2 million in the October monitoring round in respect of the closure of loopholes under the welfare mitigations? Will she call on the parties to remove the blockade on that and, in order to do so, consider an initial 10-year period for the mitigations, with the ability to extend where necessary?
— the right to a real living wage and an end to zero-hours contracts. We also need to implement the welfare mitigations and get those across the line. One party is blocking the mitigations from being put on the Executive table. This Thursday, I will again call for a decision, not discussion, on that.
I begin by thanking the Minister for making herself available to listen to the contributions and for responding with a highly factual set of remarks. As for her call to support a specific housing outcome in a Programme for Government, I will not do policy on the hoof. We have heard calls for specific outcomes for young people and older people. Given the way in which the draft Programme for Government for this mandate was drafted, to go down that route would be a reasonably radical change, so it needs some thought.
I also thank all the contributors to the debate. Before I touch on the themes, I would like to step back 10 years to when I first got elected here to "Château Despair". I was asked to serve on the Economy Committee, and one of the first things that surprised me was the fact that there was no energy strategy. How could you have a devolved Administration without an energy strategy? That point, of course, has been made by many Members, including Mr Dickson and, perhaps most significantly, Mr Frew, who said that it is a "life and death" strategy. I have to say to Mr Frew that I got very excited, in a platonic way, when he became the Minister for the Economy, because I thought, "Here's a man who really understands. Here is a Member who's going to do great things in terms of our economy strategy", which we still await.
I acknowledge Kellie Armstrong saying that that is the sort of thing that you might put to a citizens' assembly. In principle, I agree, because we, naturally enough, work in the here and now of a five-year mandate, whereas energy and transport are issues that we need to look at over a 20-, 25- or even 50-year period. A citizens' assembly would not necessarily be second-guessing what we do in here; it would be doing something different and potentially very helpful.
We need an energy policy, and I know that we are promised one before the end of the calendar year. That is one leg of the three-legged stool approach. You need policy; appropriate, effective planning; and a good grid for transmission and distribution. In fact, it is more than a grid, is it not? If we go for the likes of hydrogen energy, we need storage, and we need battery storage for wind and tidal power. Those things go together. You need battery storage and a grid for transmission and distribution, as well as planning and policy.
Before I arrived up here, something else surprised me on my first canvass to get elected. I was in Newtownards. I will not say where, but let us say that there was a small group of detached homes with two cars in each drive. As I walked into that area, I did not think that I would encounter vulnerable people as such. However, a woman who opened her door was highly distressed. She had just given up work to look after her husband, who had gone through a serious operation for cancer. What she had to do that really worried her was to heat the home two or three degrees more than normal, because he needed that additional heat to recover from the operation.
That had never crossed my mind, and she was desperately worried that she could not afford it. We would describe her as being middle class and not vulnerable, but, because of her husband's medical condition, she was incredibly vulnerable. That happened in normal times for energy prices when an increase might have been 2% or 3%.
A few weeks ago, the Utility Regulator came to the Economy Committee and said that things were dire. At the beginning of October, Firmus Energy, which does the ten towns, got a 35% increase in its tariff. It wants another 40% on top of that before the end of the calendar year. Since then, the Utility Regulator has revised that predicted increase to 50% and the one for Power NI customers from 16% to 20%.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree with him, I think that the Utility Regulator agrees with him, and it is also a point made by other Members, including Rachel Woods. The Utility Regulator is looking to us but is also suggesting to those in fuel poverty that there are other agencies, including Advice NI, Christians Against Poverty, the Money and Pensions Service, to turn to, no doubt in desperation, when looking for help.
When I look at some of the main themes, the biggest one was probably that horrible dilemma of whether you heat or eat. Mr Aiken mentioned that in opening the debate, as did Mr Durkan, who backed it up with some decent statistics on fuel poverty. Mr Durkan also referenced the lack here of the £140 warm home discount scheme that applies in England, Scotland and Wales. Stewart Dickson said that no one should be forced to choose between heating and eating, and Cathal Boylan mentioned low-income families.
Nicola Brogan talked about childcare and the increase in National Insurance as being part of a perfect — or, as the Minister described it, imperfect — storm in which energy costs, the loss of the £20 a week uplift in universal credit, the end of furlough and the prospect of a particularly cold winter are impacting on people. A perfect — or, as Ms Hargey said, imperfect — storm is coming our way.
Other impacts were referenced by Members. Nicola Brogan, speaking as her party's spokesperson on children and young people, said that under-heated homes impact negatively on the physical health of young people to the point at which they have to engage with the National Health Service. The National Health Service, which we acknowledge daily in the Chamber, is strained to near breaking point. Nicola Brogan and Andy Allen mentioned insulation, and the Minister has confirmed that she will bid for the £14 million fund that Andy Allen mentioned. Rachel Woods also talked about the need to bring forward a passive homes scheme.
The impact is not just on homes; there will an impact on our public services, as Kellie Armstrong mentioned. Schools need to be heated and hospitals need energy, and the costs will go up for them as much as they will for everybody else. We talked about renewable energy and wind power, and Mr Frew was one of the Members who made the point that the wind did not blow as hard as we wanted it to blow this calendar year. We do not have tidal energy, but Kellie Armstrong will agree with me, as a Member for Strangford, that SeaGen was a global first in generating tidal energy, and it generated a lot more than predicted with none of the downsides. Why does it seem that we have come to a full stop on tidal energy? Mr Storey made the point that sometimes environmentalists object when we bring forward green energy schemes.
We have called for the Minister for the Economy, the Minister for Communities and the Minister of Finance to work together. I acknowledge that the Minister, without saying that she would work toward the means-tested winter energy emergency fund that we are calling for, has said that she wants to work with colleagues in the Executive and beyond, including councils and community and voluntary sector groups, and I very much welcome that.
Mr Carroll said that the figure of 42% of households in fuel poverty will rise, and he launched the expected attack on the profits of the energy companies, but here is a question that we have not addressed in the debate: what if one of those energy companies goes bust? What happens to people who rely on an energy company to heat their home? That has happened in GB. Do we have the resilience to look after them if it happens here?
We also had a very short debate about whether Russia is communist or capitalist. In my last 30 seconds, I could start a debate about whether Sinn Féin is Ourselves Alone any more, given that it wants Westminster to intervene. Mr Boylan and Mr O'Dowd said that Westminster has to intervene and that it is down to Westminster. Whatever you do, Mr O'Dowd, do not take your seat and make that point in the House of Commons.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly recognises the rising cost of energy; expresses concern at the effect these rising costs are having on those on low incomes; acknowledges that the increased cost of living combined with the financial pressures arising from the end of furlough and the removal of the £20 universal credit (UC) weekly uplift will leave many potentially unable to heat their homes this winter; and calls on the Minister of Finance, the Minister for the Economy and the Minister for Communities to work together to create a means-tested winter energy emergency fund to help those in need.
As the Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm today, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be questions to the Minister of Justice.
The sitting was suspended at 12.51 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —