Winter Support

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 30 November 2021.

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Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP 2:00, 30 November 2021

1. Mrs Barton asked the Minister for Communities what measures will be put in place to ensure that people who are entitled to the winter fuel payment will receive it by the end of 2021. (AQO 2822/17-22)

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

8. Mr McGlone asked the Minister for Communities what plans she has to implement an emergency winter support package to assist struggling households. (AQO 2829/17-22)

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

9. Mr Allen asked the Minister for Communities for an update on proposals to provide support to people facing fuel poverty as a result of rises in the cost of living. (AQO 2830/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I intend to answer questions 1, 8 and 9, which are on similar issues, together.

The global fuel crisis is undoubtedly having a major impact on people, particularly those who are already struggling financially. My Department continues to offer a range of support to assist families who are struggling to keep up with soaring energy costs. That includes schemes to help to improve the energy efficiency of homes, as well as cold weather and winter fuel payments and discretionary support. The winter fuel payment is a payment of between £100 and £300 to help with heating costs. This year’s payments have already started and will continue through to January. To date, 289,762 payments, with a total value of £51·6 million, have been issued to people here.

My officials have also been engaging with the Utility Regulator, the Consumer Council and other stakeholders to scope out the options that are available to provide support to people who may struggle to heat their home or pay their energy bills over the coming months. Those include an energy payment support scheme, which will provide a one-off payment to help individuals in receipt of specified benefits with energy costs this winter. Such a scheme will require the support of my Executive colleagues to ensure that there is sufficient funding for it to deliver an appropriate level of support. New legislation and the support of other key stakeholders will also be required for the scheme to be delivered. I have written to the Minister of Finance to request that the £13·8 million of Barnett consequential funding for supporting households over the winter is allocated to my Department to progress an energy payment support scheme. To provide the necessary support to families who will need it over the winter period, an even greater amount will be required. I welcome the Finance Minister’s request to other Executive colleagues for additional funding to support that scheme.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, thank you for your answer. I understand that you have the power to increase the amount paid through the winter fuel payment. Can you advise whether you have considered that alongside the other measures to support those who are adversely impacted by the rising costs of living?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The winter fuel payment rates were last reviewed by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2010-11. Any increase to the winter fuel payment rates would require a change in legislation, and the Executive would have to approve such a move. My Department continues to offer a range of supports to households given the increased energy prices, including the affordable warmth scheme, the boiler replacement scheme, the cold weather payment and discretionary support. I am looking at introducing a scheme this year to deal with the fuel crisis, similar to a scheme that was introduced last year in response to the COVID pandemic. We continue to keep all the supports under review. The money for any increase to the current winter fuel payment would need to come from the Executive, and that would need a legislative change.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagraí go dtí seo. Last night, I was contacted about a small town in the constituency of Mid Ulster where St Vincent de Paul has identified 40 families who cannot heat their homes and cannot feed their kids. I welcome the principle of the energy payment support scheme. Minister, can you give us more details of that, please: the amounts payable and when it is projected to take effect?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I cannot give the details of the scheme yet because it has to go to the Executive for approval, and the amounts paid will be dependent on the budget that we can secure. The COVID payment scheme that was rolled out last year needed £45 million to go out to over 220,000 households. We are looking at payments of up to £200 on average. The Barnett consequential is not even £14 million. That is why the Finance Minister has asked other Departments to come forward with funding. I am hopeful that we will have an agreement about the money over the next week or two, and I will then be able to give more detail about the scheme.

I want to target individuals and those who are on the lowest incomes, but I am also looking at a scheme to target families. We are working up the details of that, and I want to launch it before Christmas, announcing what those schemes will be. Once we have the details and the finance is in place, I will come back and give more information.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I welcome the Minister's confirmation that she has written to her colleague the Finance Minister in relation to the Barnett consequential derived from the UK vulnerable household scheme.

Minister, the rising cost of living will be with us for a very long time. With that in mind, can you advise whether you have engaged with sectoral colleagues and those in the sector with expertise and knowledge in this area to develop a fuel poverty task force to support your Department to bring forward solutions in the long term?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I met stakeholders over the past couple of weeks. My officials continue to liaise with the Utility Regulator and the Consumer Council to look at the issues. We have ongoing engagement with the community and voluntary sector, charities and NGOs. We also engage with councils, into which we recently put an additional £3 million as part of the community support programme. We are looking at all avenues. All those stakeholders say that a fuel payment needs to be looked at as a response to this crisis. We are also trying to deal with the utility companies. The Department for the Economy, which has responsibility for that area, is also keen to engage. We are keen to keep that engagement going. As we go forward, I want to meet stakeholders again about the longer-term issues, but the immediate priority is to respond to this crisis. I am hopeful that I can come forward with this fuel support scheme as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

The Welsh Government have announced that they are making £51 million available to provide support for families who are facing the cost of living crisis that Mr Allen brought up.

Advice NI and National Energy Action (NEA) have put in a bid for fuel payments for very vulnerable people. Can you give us an update as to whether that bid will be considered as part of your plans?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I am not aware of a bid. I met NEA and Advice NI. I think that all would concur that an emergency payment needs to be made. I am working on that scheme to target those who are most financially vulnerable. I have responsibility for those who are on means-tested benefits. I have bid for money for that in the Barnett consequentials.

As I said, if we want to do this at scale, £13·8 million will not cut it. In the region of £45 million, and potentially up to £55 million, will be needed. Part of the Finance Minister's exercise is talking to other Departments about what underspends there may be. I am hopeful that this can be agreed and signed off at an Executive meeting as soon as possible.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

Minister, many families are facing a difficult time this winter with the cost of living spiralling due to issues such as Brexit, the pandemic and the cumulative effects of years of brutal Tory austerity cuts. Thousands of households are looking anxiously towards the future. Although we appreciate that these institutions can only do so much in the face of events that are largely outside our control, the Minister has consistently demonstrated her determination to protect the most vulnerable.

Can I ask for an overall update on your proposals for supporting, along with other Departments, people who are facing fuel poverty this winter as a result of the rising cost of living?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

This issue, obviously, does not sit with just my Department, albeit I am trying to bring forward a scheme that will get money into people's pockets over the next period. As I said, over £51 million is currently paid out to households across the North through the winter fuel payment.

There have been ongoing discussions. The Department for the Economy is involved as part of our meetings with the Consumer Council. It is looking at that by way of its remit on the crisis in relation to utility companies. I raised that with the Executive, as I know other Ministers did. There was an agreement that we should raise it with the British Government, because it is an international crisis, and a response on the same level as that of the Treasury to COVID needs to be looked at for the fuel crisis, for as long as it continues. We therefore need to increase the support that comes forward.

I know that the Executive are keen. They will hold a discussion dedicated to looking at the cost of living more generally and at what needs to be done on by the Executive and across all Departments. We are waiting for that meeting to be arranged.