Energy Payment Support Scheme

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 1st March 2022.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:00 pm, 1st March 2022

The Speaker has received notice from the Minister for Communities that she wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I thank the House for the opportunity to make the statement to the Assembly — a statement in which I intend to announce the payment date for the energy payment support scheme and to provide an update to Members on how my Department is providing vital support to help those most vulnerable to the cost-of-living and energy price increases. The rising cost of living and soaring increases in energy bills continue to have a major impact on people who are finding it harder to cope. Many are struggling to afford essentials, such as heating their homes and paying for electricity. My top priority has always been to support people, and I will continue to do all that I can. That is why I recently announced that I am freezing Housing Executive rent levels for 2022-23 so as not to place any further financial burden on individuals and families who are striving relentlessly each day to make ends meet.

My Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Bill, which will complete its Final Stage this afternoon, will bin the bedroom tax by removing the cliff edge that many people are facing. It will provide financial support to people and protect them against the cruel tax of the welfare reforms that were introduced. I have secured the extension of the other welfare mitigation schemes until 2025 and ensured the closure of the loopholes in the benefit cap and bedroom tax mitigations. I have given a commitment to keep welfare mitigations under review, so that I can continue to provide support where it is most needed. A review of the current mitigations is ongoing. I am due to receive that report soon.

I first wrote to the Finance Minister about the energy crisis on 9 November 2021 asking for the immediate consideration of funding for an energy payment support scheme. The Finance Minister quickly wrote to Executive colleagues asking them to identify underspends, in advance of the January monitoring round, which could increase the resource available for the scheme. On receipt of responses, the Finance Minister wrote, again, to Executive colleagues to seek agreement for the immediate allocation of the £13·8 million Barnett consequential funding and, given the scale of the crisis, for additional funding to be allocated for this scheme. Despite that urgent request from the Finance Minister and attempts by me to secure the funding last year, it was blocked from getting on to the Executive agenda to be discussed or agreed. I eventually secured support from the Executive on 13 January 2022 to deliver a £55 million payment support scheme to provide vital support to around 280,000 individuals across a wide range of benefits.

The agreed scheme is targeted at individuals on low incomes who are in receipt of means-tested benefits administered by my Department, and it will provide a one-off £200 payment to help with their energy costs. I asked my officials to explore whether tax credits could also be included within the eligibility criteria for the scheme. My officials engaged with Revenue and Customs, which has responsibility for administering tax credits. Obviously, those are reserved matters. Revenue and Customs stated that it did not have the legal powers to make a payment, and a workable solution could not be found.

Despite the delay in securing Executive approval for the scheme until 13 January 2022, a delay that was caused by not allowing it on to the agenda for decision in November of the previous year, I asked for payments to be made as quickly and practically as possible. I can now announce that the payment date has been brought forward as much as possible, and we will see payments begin to reach people’s bank accounts next week, on 10 March 2022, with most of the payments being paid on 10 and 11 March.

My Department continues to offer a range of supports, including such schemes as the affordable warmth scheme and the boiler replacement scheme, to help improve the energy efficiency of homes, as well as cold weather payments, discretionary support and the winter fuel payment, which has already paid out £51 million this winter to more than 290,000 older people.

My Department also provided a £2 million contribution to an emergency fuel payment scheme operated by Bryson Care to deliver targeted support to families who present as being in fuel crisis or who have a temporary inability to meet their fuel costs.

The crisis will not end soon. As we know, in many cases, the issues lie beyond the Assembly. We need to do all that we can, however, to protect people and families. We need a functioning Executive to take decisions. We also need to support people. Everyone has a responsibility to do all in their power to do that. I will continue to provide support, and I hope that others will continue to support me in doing so in the time ahead.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

Thank you, Minister. I welcome the fact that the energy support scheme payment is set to commence on 10 March. I am sure that all of us will agree that constituents have been contacting our offices because they are keen to know the date. Today's announcement will give them reassurance.

Will the Minister confirm that she also sought to broaden the scheme further in order to include those on working tax credit?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Yes. We looked at that. As I said in my statement, tax credits fall under Revenue and Customs; they are a reserved matter and are not within my Department's power, so I do not hold the data.

When we contacted HMRC, it said that primary legislation would be needed for it to be able to make payments. We were willing to pay the money to those in receipt of tax credits, but HMRC said that it was not able to do so. We then asked whether we could have the payment details so that we could make the payments ourselves, and we were told that, because of data-sharing issues, primary legislation would be needed to allow that to happen. We have exhausted all avenues.

We know that around 45% of those in receipt of means-tested benefits also receive tax credits. Some people on tax credits, therefore, will be able to avail themselves of the payment through the existing scheme. In the remainder of this mandate, however, without that primary legislation, there is no way to include people who are on tax credits. That is really unfortunate, but we exhausted all avenues.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Minister, your announcement is very welcome. We had an idea that the payment was going to be made to people in mid-March, and you have delivered on that.

With the Bryson scheme, oil companies, in particular, are charging beneficiaries £20 on top of their fuel costs just for a delivery. That will also happen with the energy payment scheme. Can you do anything to address that misuse of public money?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

We have tried to engage. The Department has had regular meetings with the Utility Regulator and the Consumer Council about trying to have an engagement with energy companies about their social responsibilities. Energy companies contributed to the administrative costs of the Bryson scheme, which meant that the £2 million that came from the Department went directly to households and people who needed it.

I can continually raise the delivery charge with the Utility Regulator. All that money should be spent on meeting people's needs in relation to fuel prices. I will take that away and come back to you.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Given the moves that have been made in GB, particularly in England, to provide rate relief so that more people can be caught in schemes and given support, has the Minister had any discussions with the Finance Minister about giving rate relief for energy costs?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

We looked at a number of other schemes. The energy support scheme that was brought forward last November was based on the people on the lowest incomes: those in receipt of means-tested benefits. The difficulty with extending the scheme now is having the money to do it and having an Executive to approve any change to the scheme. Luckily, I was able to get the scheme signed off before the Executive fell — in fact, at the last minute, on the day that the Assembly came down. There are limitations on what else we can do without a functioning Executive. The scheme, as it stands, is for those who are in receipt of the means-tested benefits that have been listed.

There is other help through the Bryson Care scheme. That is still in operation and will be in operation until the end of this month. The resource is still there. There were issues at the start of that scheme, but it has started to become embedded, and there is a 24-hour turnaround between people approaching it and receiving direct assistance. If anyone is in financial crisis or at the point of being disconnected, I encourage them to contact Bryson Care.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement, although it is pretty underwhelming. In fact, worse than that, it is hugely disappointing. It tells us only what the Minister had told us in a written statement on 13 January, after she had told the media, and people still have not seen a penny. The benefit of the payment to households has been greatly reduced by a subsequent price hike. Of course, we welcome the fact that the payments are finally going out, but have the Minister and her ministerial colleagues given any consideration to how working families or those who are not on benefits can be protected? We know how much you care about protecting people, Minister, but the situation is so bad that everyone needs protection.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I do not think that there is anything underwhelming about £55 million going out to over 280,000 individuals. There were queries about when the payments were coming, and it was important for me to set out the date for when they will hit people's bank accounts, which will be next Thursday and Friday. That will be good news for those who are waiting for the payments. We are in the midst of a global fuel and cost-of-living crisis. Obviously, the situation in and around Ukraine and Russia adds further instability, which will, no doubt, have a knock-on effect on people's cost of living and fuel costs.

I have stepped in with this scheme. I wanted the scheme to hit people's pockets earlier, but the failure to have it put on the Executive agenda for two months meant that we are getting the money out to people only now, rather than in January, which is when I would have liked it to have been given out. On top of that, we are doing the £2 million Bryson Care scheme, which has been working really well. Over 11,000 people receive support from that. Of course, that is on top of all the other schemes that the Department is working on. The affordable warmth scheme, the cold weather payment scheme, the boiler replacement scheme, the winter fuel payment scheme that I touched on, the Bryson Care scheme and discretionary support are all services and supports that the Department runs.

There is a responsibility on other Departments. I do not hold responsibility for energy, and, obviously, the Department for the Economy has to address issues there as well. That said, my Department has met the Utility Regulator regularly, and we continue to see what we can do to address those problems. The Finance Minister has written to Westminster about VAT costs on energy bills and calling for a windfall tax. More moves are needed there.

The reality is that, if any additional moneys come, we need a functioning Executive in order to make decisions and allocate those resources. In the absence of that, I do not know where that leaves us when it comes to any additional resource that may come. How will that money be allocated? There is a concern there. I can do all that I can in the Department, but I need others working with me and a functioning Executive up and running again. I am hopeful that that can happen sooner rather than later.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

Rightly, the Minister pointed out that the cost-of-living crisis will not end any time soon. It is apparent from the Minister's remarks and from the fact that individuals have been excluded from the energy support scheme and the emergency fuel payment scheme that many households in Northern Ireland will be pushed beyond the brink.

I implore the Minister to do all that she can, working with her officials, to bring forward a scheme to support the people who are excluded.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin 4:15 pm, 1st March 2022

There would need to be a change in the legislation for there to be an additional scheme and to make emergency payments, and that takes a functioning Executive. I continue to exhaust all avenues to see how I can support people on the ground. There are limitations, as I have said, around tax credits, for example. I recognise that in-work poorer people just do not have enough income to sustain their outgoings. Unfortunately, there were legal barriers. HMRC said that it needed primary legislation in order to progress.

We do not have the three-year Budget that we wanted. We cannot get a Budget signed off. We need a functioning Executive, so that, if any additional money becomes available, we can allocate it to the cost-of-living crisis. I implore everyone around the Chamber to focus on getting the Executive up and running again so that we can start to deal with the challenges collectively.

There is also a push for Westminster to look at the issue in a serious way, just as we approached the pandemic. The energy and the cost-of-living crises will not go away. They are huge crises, and they are growing across all our communities. Therefore, there need to be solutions at the level at which tax powers and other powers are held. Westminster needs to make an intervention. Before the Executive folded, the Finance Minister wrote on their behalf about those interventions, but we are still waiting for them to come across. I will continue to do all that I can to represent communities on the ground, but we need a functioning Executive in order to allocate any additional resources that come forward.

Photo of Aisling Reilly Aisling Reilly Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. I thank the Minister for her statement this afternoon. Minister, given that British Government policies, such as Brexit and years of austerity cuts, have contributed massively to the cost-of-living crisis, which, we know, will not go away any time soon, do you agree that the British Government need to step up to the plate and act to take pressure off struggling families and workers on low incomes?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Definitely. As I have just said, the Executive, through the Finance Minister, wrote about reducing VAT costs on household energy bills or removing the VAT. We also looked at the windfall tax and other measures that could be put in place. We wait to hear a response from them about measures that they were going to introduce. I attended the British-Irish Council meeting recently on energy, at which Minister Lyons was the lead Minister. The cost of living and rising energy bills were not on the agenda, so I asked for a discussion about it. I used that as an opportunity to raise serious concerns and to say that those matters needed to be elevated to Westminster level. I am hopeful that, even through those engagements, we will start to see things.

The payments for this scheme, for example, are made under the Financial Assistance Act 2009, and we need the signature of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Again, if any new additional resource or funding comes forward, we will need a functioning Executive to allocate the money and to sign off on the regulations to allow the money to get to the people who need it. That is where the focus needs to be.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

The payment date is 10 March, which is 10 days before the official start of spring. It is disappointing that winter will almost have passed before payments will be in bank accounts. What more will the Minister do to support working families to meet the rising costs of energy? What engagement has she had with the Housing Executive to improve energy-efficiency measures?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Unfortunately, my proposal was held up in the Executive for two months. We could have seen the payment in January, not March. That was out of my control. It was not allowed on the agenda for discussion until January, when it was finally approved at the Executive, even though the Finance Minister had written to the Executive in November last year. That was unfortunate.

The scheme is not responding to the winter fuel pressures — we have already paid out over £51 million over the last couple of months — it is responding to the cost-of-living crisis and the global fuel crisis that we face and will probably face for the foreseeable future. I am glad that payments will go out directly to all of those households. Next Thursday and Friday, the bulk of the payments will be made to 280,000 individuals across the North. I continue to keep options open to see what more we can do, but, without a Budget for next year being agreed, we have to look at our baseline budgets and can only function on a three-month basis. To do anything of scale, we need a functioning Executive.

There is a big focus on the revitalisation of the Housing Executive to get it on to a firm financial footing and look at the cavity wall insulation issues. The Housing Executive has action plans for that. Over the past year, we have put additional moneys into the reserves of the Housing Executive to allow it to do more works. It will come forward with additional measures and schemes to address some of the challenges.

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

Minister, in the statement and in an answer to a Member across the way, you mentioned the difficulty that you had in getting this on to the Executive agenda. Can you confirm that the delay in getting the desperately needed support to families facing the cost-of-living crisis was because of the DUP's refusal to agree the necessary allocation of funding?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

From the Chancellor's announcement last year, £13·8 million was to come forward as a Barnett consequential. When that money was announced last year, I indicated that I would like it to go towards a fuel support scheme, but I also recognised that £13·8 million would never be enough. When I wrote to the Finance Minister last November, I requested the £13·8 million and for him to see what other resources were available. Right away and automatically, he contacted other Ministers asking for projections of any in-year underspends in advance of the January monitoring round and saying that those would go towards a fuel support scheme. He got an announcement.

The Finance Minister then wrote to the Executive in November, suggesting that the £55 million be allocated. The proposal in his paper did not make it on to the Executive agenda until January of this year. That two-month delay in the decision being made meant a two-month delay in getting the scheme up and running. Members will know that, for an item to get on to the Executive agenda, it takes the two Ministers in the Executive Office to sign off on it. Unfortunately, we could not get sign-off until January of this year, yet the proposal was ready and put to the Executive in November of last year.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement to the House. Are households that are on contribution-based employment and support allowance (ESA) included in the scheme?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Those who will receive the payments directly are those in receipt of income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment allowance, universal credit, pension credit or income support.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, thank you for your statement. I seek some clarity. You explained that you wanted to extend the scheme to working tax credits and put on record the barriers that were in place to prevent you doing that. Had you costed extending the scheme to working tax credits? If you had, have you secured that money? If not, where is it?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

We could have used the £55 million to spread the scheme across all. There are about 55,000 people in receipt of tax credits. We take 45% off that number for those on tax credits who would get the payment because they are on one of the other means-tested benefits. We were told that primary legislation would be needed and therefore that HMRC could not move on that in this mandate. We were willing to make the payment and to use HMRC's payment details, but it said that, because of data-sharing limitations, it was not able to provide them.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

That ends questions to the Minister for Communities on her statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.